A Virus Ate My Movie!

Alden Olmsted
14 min readMay 19, 2024

Chapter 13 of my Indie-Film Journal A Virus Ate My Movie!

If anyone says they predicted this pandemic, I demand proof. Send it to alden.olmsted@gmail.com and I’ll send you your choice of a signed book or an “I Survived Covid–19” T–Shirt, most sizes available.

I mean really, how could this be? I was signing up movie theatres like timeshares in Punta Cana before this Wuhan thing went viral.

You just can’t make this s*** up.

And if that wasn’t the mantra of 2020, I don’t know what is.

This is why — even though I never would have thought it would show itself this way — the making of each movie really is its own unique journey.

As if it were an actual child. With unique fingerprints, hair color, eyes, freckles, and that chin… ohh that chin.

Your last movie went off without a hitch? Great, get ready for a bear. Your last movie almost destroyed your marriage and your finances? Next one’s gonna be a breeze.

The point is still true — that as sure as the day is long — you better want this thing and want it bad. Because the bumps? They’re not moving. They’re just waiting for you — you, you unsuspecting optimist you.

30 Bikes: The Story of Homestead Bicycles — outsold Frozen II on its opening night.

December 2019 — The big time!

It was a rainy Wednesday in December but I’ll take it. In all seriousness we had a fantastic time. We really did outsell Disney, so they bumped us to the larger theatre and we were 75% full. If not for the rain maybe we would have hit 95%.

Film festivals are an animal I haven’t figured out yet.

Let me clarify, my films have shown at festivals — to be sure — but it just hasn’t come easy.

My first documentary, about taking care of my conservationist dad when he was given six months to live, was rejected by dad’s own towns’ film festival just months after his death.

Look, I knew the film was raw and unpolished but to pass on a John Olmsted doc? In the county where he saved two state parks? Right after he died?

In my best Joe Biden voice thought, “c’mon man?!” when I heard the shocking news.

Fortunately, someone leaked it to the local paper and the little mountain town of Nevada City found out about it and all hell broke loose. Donors threatened to pull their funding, longtime supporters of the non-profit that runs the festival called the office, outraged, and then I got the frantic phone call from the director of the film festival.

“Say, Alden, can we um — I think we need to talk.”

“Sure,” I answered.

And the film screened.

At the screening was a packed house, with people standing two-deep in the back and even in the back doorway. When I stood up to answer questions afterwards, I received a four-minute-long standing ovation.

At one point, I saw the director of the festival, the one who’d had to call me to beg for a second chance — and he just said, “Hey, great film Alden. Glad we are able to screen it, sorry about the miscommunication.”

“Thanks,” I said, biting my tongue so hard it almost fell off.

At the time I simply thought, why did it have to be this hard?

My follow up documentary, The Story of Jug Handle, was also rejected by a close entity — this time by the very town where the film takes place — Mendocino, California.

Furthermore, I’d hired a high-quality cinematographer and upped my game as far as production value; the slow panning shots of the forest and redwoods my dad saved really look great.

After the festival came and went, I received a semi-apology letter that stated they hadn’t noticed it when it came through as a submission, and could they screen it next year?

“Uh, thanks,” I said.

Then I showed it on my own at the local history museum.

Then, I got it aired on television.

I say all this to share with you this fact: film festivals are tough.

They watch hundreds, sometimes thousands of films, and so far mine have been crazy low-budget, which unless there’s a realistic killing or maybe I come out of the closet during the film while also revealing I’m not from this planet, a film has to really stand out or have at least one bonafide star in it.

Despite my background drama with festivals, 30 Bikes was different though, right? And I said I was going in all the way, so I did. I sucked it up and entered about 20 festivals initially (they’re not expensive but at $50– $100 each it starts to add up), and pushed on with in-person screenings.

I lined up an artsy movie house in Tennessee in June so Joe and his family could see it, I had two breweries lined up, one in NorCal and one down south — in fact, the one down south even made me a batch of my own beer, “30 Bikes India Pale Ale,” to sell at the screening.

I was narrowing down a location in the Santa Cruz area with a local bike shop to show it for the people in the film from that area — Nate, Shane, Ken, Logan, and Amber, whose families I knew would come out to support.

But the big one was the Laemmle Art House movie chain in Los Angeles. I’d convinced the booking agent from the theatre in Santa Rosa to write me a letter of recommendation based on how well that first night’s screening in December went. (Actually, he didn’t have time so I wrote it for him.)

Yes, I wrote my own recommendation letter about my own film and about how great it was dealing with me, got it signed by a booking agent who scanned it and then gave me the go-ahead to use his name and letterhead.

What does Jack Nicholson say to young Matt Damon in The Departed? “No one’s gonna give it to you kid.”

I sent his letter of recommendation — the one I’d written — to theatre chains in towns where I had friends or where we’d shot parts of the film — L.A. San Diego, Sacramento, San Jose — and received a response from Greg Laemmle himself, grandson of founder Max Laemmle and now president of the art house Laemmle theatre chain that was started in the 1930’s.

Greg understood the BMX significance — especially in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, and said they’d be honored to show it.

“The trailer looks great, Alden.

What about three consecutive nights — Santa Monica, North Hollywood, and Pasadena?” said Greg.
“Uh, YESSSS!!!”

Thankfully the ‘valley girl’ teenager tone didn’t quite come through in the email I wrote back.

“That would be great Greg — thank you.” Yeah, that was closer to what I wrote.

In my gut, though, was the harsh reality of what we hadn’t talked about.

$

Renting out a movie theatre can be pretty pricey. The Rooftop Cinemas chain for example wanted $8000 to show it. That’s like $1,000 per bike, I thought, given the eight we’d found. Pretty expensive reveals.

So, how much would the three-night run cost me? Would I have to rent the theatre or guarantee X amount of concession sales?

Nope.

Not only would I not have to pay to rent the Laemmle Theatres, I would be given a box office split — not quite 50/50, but I negotiated pretty close.

Talk about rolling.

In case you’re counting, that means I was up to seven screenings so far and we were still in February. My sales background was paying off.

Hellooo 2020!

Next up, Alosta Brewery in Los Angeles. Covina, actually. Byron at Alosta offered to not only do an outdoor screening but to also make a custom IPA for the film.

!!!

I was shocked. But I wasn’t questioning anymore, I was just rolling with it. And now I can add to my portfolio: I’ve designed a beer label.

Because why not.

Courtesy Alosta Brewery — Thanks Byron!

In early March of 2020, less than a week before you-know-what descended, I did a fundraising screening at a brewery in Livermore to benefit a new BMX track and worked with a cool local bike shop called Superfly Wheels.

This was gonna be interesting because although I felt good about the opening night showing, it was heavily filled with my own friends and family. So this would be a good test — plus it was a bike-friendly crowd who I thought would love the BMX history and the 80’s connections. They did.

After the screening I had a new experience.

Signing autographs.

Strange to sell an HB hat to a kid and then scribble my name on the bill with a sharpie.

I guess I’d have to get used to it. I brought extra posters and kids ended up wanting those too.

With my John Hancock. This was all new, and it turned out to be a great night and a ton of fun.

That was March 9th. A Monday.

2020.

Next up: Sacramento.

After a rainy Wednesday screening in December and a Monday night screening at the brewery in March, I’d found a cool bike shop in Sacramento to host a screening on a Saturday night.

They were gonna clear out the bikes and put up a screen — and with their vintage hardwood floors and neon signs it was gonna be really cool. The shop is just south of hipsterville, (aka Midtown Sacramento) in a cool neighborhood called Land Park. California bungalow-style houses, wide streets, and rusty VWs that somehow still run. You know the place.

Old School rules in Sac

Brad, who welded the unpainted prototype, would be there. Mark and DJ, both in the film, would be there as well as Chris who wrote the song that appears in the ending credits. And the big one — the reveal that Chris Kelly of Kelly Bikes in Nevada City would be welding the new batch of 20 — and therefore the public announcement that I’d be resurrecting Homestead.

A pretty big deal.

Schedule?

Saturday, March 15th, 2020.

I think it was Thursday when I saw a post that Tom Hanks and his wife Rita had contracted some kind of virus.

In Australia.

Then the NBA said something about postponing or cancelling games. But does anyone watch the NBA mid-season anyway?

The screen for our showing had been dropped off by a bike rep from Giant who was at the Monday night showing just five days before.

Audio was confirmed.

A taco truck was coming — artisan of course (remember the hipster neighborhood) — we were looking good.

Just 24 hours before our screening, I heard some rumbling on the radio about gatherings. That our governor was putting the ky-bosh on any crowds over 50 gathering.

I was expecting about 60. You can guess my thinking perhaps: ask for permission or forgiveness?

Surely we’d squeak by, right? A documentary film at a small vintage bike shop in Sacramento with 50 people-ish?

And we almost did. But this news of groups and meetings was spreading faster than the actual virus, and at just after six a.m. the day of — one of the partners of the bike shop made the call and sent out the email:

“Hey Alden, I’m sure you’ve seen the news. We’re pulling the plug. We gotta be sure. We’ll just do it in April — once this blows past.”

Riiight. *Insert OK emoji here* I thought. Sure.

Premonition? Don’t know, I just felt something in my gut. It doesn’t happen too often, but it’s one area of my psyche I’ve learned to trust.

I won’t bore you with the details and timelines because unless you were on a Space-X mission for Elon for most of 2020 you were binge watching Netflix shows and ordering take out along with the rest of ‘Merica — and the world for that matter — and you know what it was like.

March became April. April became May.

May became June.

In June I took off on a month-long road trip to escape. I even showed 30 Bikes at a cool drive-in theatre in the middle of nowhere Wyoming, a truly odd and awesome experience.

American Dream Drive-In.. A Pandemic showing

July became August.

I emailed the director of my hometown theatre asking about possibly showing the film to a limited audience, a ‘socially distanced’ audience, in Sonoma.

But the Empire — uh, the virus — struck back:

“Alden, we’re gonna have to hold off,” the email read. “They’re shutting down restaurants again and we have no idea when we’ll be allowed to have indoor showings.”

A Virus Ate My Movie. It really did.

Yes the great Damian (Radical Rick) doodling the cover at a pizza joint in El Segundo
Pizza and BMX memories
Success!

Streaming, it would have to be.

Before you can upload your movie to Amazon or Hulu or whatevs, you gotta ask yourself — do you really own everything in your film?

“Well, do ya punk?”

If you’ve got a big budget or even just a $2M indie film you have a person or staff making sure you have the right to use everything in the movie. Obviously the actors have all signed, but then you’ve got to remember things like “did I use any images or songs?” Especially in a doc this is common. Did I have a newscaster or old clip I forgot about?

Fortunately, I’d been down this road before, my first movie Dill, California (2007) went way overboard on the music. As my friend said once, “Dude you walk into a party, find the hottest girl there, with the most drama and say ‘yeah, that’s who I’m going after.’”

I can’t argue.

CD Baby was the management arm of the only song I needed. “Ride” by Ty Tabor. If you remember, it’s the great rocking song that opens the film and sets the tone. Ty was part of an obscure heavy rock band called King’s X. None of their songs really fit for this film, but their music was all around me when I started Homestead. Ty’s song is perfect.

The standard for music purchasing has typically been 5% of the total films’ budget. So if you’re making Armageddon for $100 Million just know Aerosmith’s getting the lions’ share of that $5 mil.

I got off pretty easy — after all when your total budget is anything under $50K there’s not much more a music publisher can ask for except their minimum. If for some reason the film gets picked up by a distributor they’ll renegotiate based on the reach of the distribution — just like how it’s cheaper to advertise in your local paper than the New York Times, it’s based on eyeballs.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t try for sync rights (the term for using a song), but once again the better advice would be to find a cool band or composer and let them do the entire soundtrack. It’s just easier.*

Course Alden wouldn’t necessarily listen to the easiest advice, would he? Even his own?

*Truthfully I did have one song success from Dill, California — I scored a Creedence Clearwater Revival song for the opening of my first film for the low low price of $400.

And truth be told I never actually paid for it. (Snap!) But I don’t want to get your hopes up.

Hey, the movie cost me $10K and only made it into one film festival, and I had to work the festival in exchange, so don’t be too hard on me Fantasy Records

̄\_(ツ)_/̄

After the song cleared, I needed a logo for my production company “Drive Fast, Take Chances Productions.” I wanted something Smokey and The Bandit-ish, and this is what I came up with:

You can see it if you visit me on Vimeo: www.vimeo.com/drivefastalden/

These little details add up to a big deal. For both you and your audience, and your future contacts. It can be a bit overwhelming if you think of all of them at once, which is why “it takes a village” rings more and more true with every step you take deeper into filmmaking.

Here is a starter list — and remember no matter what I say you’ll gravitate towards the ones you already know how to do or think are easiest to figure out.

My challenge to you? Find someone or someone(s) to take over all of them. It will free you up more than you know.

  • Create a production company (don’t feel bad if you’re doing this despite having only your current film to your credit)
  • Production co. mailing address and/or business card*
  • Movie Poster
  • Movie stills and production images
  • Film website and social media
  • IMDbpage
  • YouTube Channel
  • YouTube Playlist — you can utilize this later for behind-the-scenes clips or a live Q&A from your premiere.
  • Cast and Crew t-shirts — it might seem a little frivolous but you can find a screen printer to do just two or three dozen, and cast and crew will love to have one and those who didn’t help will wish they’d said “yes” when you asked for volunteers.
  • Local radio station or podcast contact — again, this is PR, but you’ll be surprised how stoked some people will be about “your little film” they may become followers of yours for life.

That’s it!

Look, I know it’s not an exhaustive list but what is? You’ll always want to do more but the best you can do, first and foremost, is make a good movie.

Heck, make a great one.

Go all in and people will line up to help you with these details. I’m not bragging, just saying — I’ve made two films on my own and two now with help. If the story is good, you won’t have to beg.

It happened to me. It can happen to you.

Lesson #13: Whether a virus or a common cold, money woes or an actor walking off set, something will come to derail your movie. If not this one the next. Decide before it happens that a finished movie is the only outcome you’ll accept.

*If you don’t want to pay for business cards or don’t think anyone uses business cards anymore that’s cool — do a single page blog.

Even if you hate blogs or hate Wordpress (like I do!) a one-page blog is easy and FREEE so there’s no excuse. It’s up, it’s live, it’s got some contact info on it, and it’s searchable. It’s got a mission statement or a phrase on the types of films you envision making.

Make a standard “contact@youremail.com” that forwards to your gmail or yahoo or hotmail or whatever account. I can’t stress this enough.

Are these little things any sort of golden ticket to future projects or Hollywood contacts? Of course not. But you’ll be leaping over so many hurdles it’s better to practice on the little hurdles first, and it might as well be on ones that will help you look more professional

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Alden Olmsted

I was born in a small town in Northern California just another latch-key kid obsessed with BMX and Tom Petty. Now I make films and travel and write when I can.