Today, I chat with one of the founders, Ben Fuller, about his career in film, starting up Channel 801 and the first few shows, thoughts on the film community and a few other topics. (All pictures courtesy of Fuller and Channel 801.)
Gavin: Hey, Ben. First thing, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Ben: I am half-Chinese, my mom is from Taiwan and my dad is from Oklahoma – growing up we would have sweet & sour opossum. I actually didn't write that joke, my friend Nate Peck did for me when I used to do stand-up. I wrote all of the other jokes myself, but according to audiences, that was apparently the funniest bit in the whole set. I am actually a marketing guy – my background is a weird mix of film and video production and technology sales and marketing. I am currently the strategy and client-services guy at a little digital services agency in Kaysville called mediaRif.
Gavin: When did you first take an interest in film, and what were some early influences on you?
Ben: In middle school and high school, I was the a/v nerd. I would run the projector and be in charge of recording MASH to play on the TVs during lunch in the library. I was also a drama geek and worked on the stage crew for play productions. Growing up in Sunset, my mom would take us on base -- Hill AFB -- when they would show kung fu movies. One time, she took us to see Seven Blows of the Dragon, also known as The Water Margin, and movies entered my consciousness in a whole new way. I often tell people that I was more influenced by that movie than Star Wars. In high school, my friends and I had access to all of the school video equipment so we just started making things. I was heavily influenced by Woody Allen, Monty Python, SCTV, kung fu movies and the early emergence of blockbuster filmmaking – ET, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blade Runner; all the usual suspects, except The Usual Suspects, which I didn't care for.
Gavin: You studied at the University of South Florida. What made you choose its program over a local college, and what was your time like down there?
Ben: I actually went to BYU for a couple of years and was working on getting into the film program right before and right after my mission for the LDS Church. Then I got married and we moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, to be closer to her family. I studied visual communications while at USF and freelanced film and video production, I also worked local crew on shows like Rescue 911 and I Witness Video, as well as commercial stuff. I additionally worked for Time Warner cable for several years as a coordinator on their community-access channel, which involved teaching the basics of live-to-tape three-camera television production and ENG -- electronic news gathering -- as well as overseeing day-to-day production of the community programming. It was probably the most pure-fun job I have ever had -- you have not lived until you have a production day that includes a show for a white-supremacist group, followed by a show for a black-activist group, topped off by a show for a local Jewish anti-defamation organization that all share production people and equipment -- but it paid next to nothing.
Gavin: You spent a few years in the South but eventually moved back to Utah. What brought you back and how is it for you working with mediaRif?
Ben: I actually came back to Utah shortly after my divorce – my ex was looking at possible employment opportunities outside of Florida and I felt I needed to break away as well and reset my life and be a grown up. So, I moved back to Utah and got into business-to-business technology sales with the goal of moving back into the creative side and melding my production background back into my life as opportunity arose. That happened when I was able to shift from focusing on sales to focusing on marketing. Other than a couple of short out-of-the-state forays, I have been stuck here in Utah since. mediaRif has, so far, been the most fulfilling professional experience of my life. I was actually living in San Francisco working for UK-based Loyalty Marketing Agency when the recession hit and I was laid off. I was good friends with the gang at mediaRif through the Gangrene Film Festival, which they produce. We had often discussed the possibility of me joining them, and when I was unemployed and new prospects in SF were looking dismal, I reached out and said that there was a fire sale on me. We worked it out and I think they are happy with what I bring to the mix. We are a unique little agency in that we really enjoy reveling in our quirks. We prefer working more with people than with brands, and we laugh an awful lot. We think of ourselves as a digital creative agency – we like to partner creatively with quality people and companies. We specialize in web/software development, video and film production, and 2-D/3-D animation. We also have a growing portfolio of personal nonclient-based projects, which include the Gangrene Film Festival of comedy shorts, which your paper has written positively about in the past for which we are very grateful; SLC Nerd, our new, hopefully, annual geek-centric community-type festival; and bands that we skin as needed for different in-house and client /convention needs:Pirate band, Bigfoot band, Funk, Biker, Outerspace.
Gavin: When did you first meet Jamie Maxfield, and how did you both become friends?
Ben: Jamie and I have been friends a long time. We met while we were both working the computer department at Future Shop in Murray back in the late '90s after I moved back to Utah. He was one of my first real friends I made when I came back. We both moved from Future Shop to Connecting Point together, which was a technology VAR -- value added reseller -- with an office in downtown SLC. We spent a lot of time sharing ideas and plans and dreams; sales-floor bonding rituals and the like. I had always wanted to do a documentary short to follow the process of becoming a stand-up comedian – the joke writing, the rehearsing, the open mics, etc. I was telling Jamie about it and he got really enthused by the idea and tracked down the Wiseguys Open Mic at their West Valley location. We made some goals together and started going. Jamie was really enthused by the whole thing and really took to it. I was put off by the frat-boy approach and format -- three minutes of stage time, favoritism for the popular kids, derision for the struggling ones -- so my interest waned, and then I moved to San Francisco for a year and got re-enthused about it after seeing that open mics could be different and more accommodating to beginner comics. The documentary never happened, but Jamie has continued on to become one of the more well-known, local, Utah-based stand-up comedians, while I started producing my own shows. He hates the lack of traditional Catskills-setup-punch structure to my stand-up routine and I try to help him rewrite his jokes so that they are actually funny.
Gavin: How did the idea come about to start up Channel 801?
Ben: The idea for Channel 801 originally came about a couple of years ago when the very funny comedian Blake Bard and I were producing this weird but cool comedy cabaret show called Hodgepodge. It was this great mix of burlesque, stand-up, improv, short films and music. Blake has always been very interested in filmmaking and has made a lot of wonderful shorts that spotlighted other local comedians and we both wanted to try to jumpstart that scene a bit. We started talking about how cool it would be to have a monthly comedy showcase in which the films were made specifically for the show. Blake and I were both long-distance fans of Channel 101 in LA, and he came up with calling it Channel 801. We tried to kick it off, but we were met with mostly disinterest, so the idea kinda got put on the back burner while we pursued other projects separately. Since then, Blake has gotten the opportunity to move to a bigger market to pursue comedy more full time, which is a very sad thing for Utah, because the local independent-comedy scene doesn't have a bigger proponent than him. I was having lunch with Jamie and told him the idea and he got really excited about it and started pushing hard for it to happen. We have also had a lot of great help from Andrew Jensen of Toy Soup Improv fame and his production company, Red Grass Media, and Christopher Stephenson of the SLC Comedy Scene and Sketchophrenia.
Gavin: Channel 101 was started up by Dan Harmon (Community) in California. How much of the format influenced your version, and what separates 801 from 101?
Ben: Initially, our thoughts were very much along the lines of just doing an SLC branch of Channel 101, with the voting and ongoing series, etc., but we quickly realized that we just don't have a big-enough or engaged-enough community yet to pull off something like that. It is easier in L.A., where everyone has a degree in film with 24fps dreams and a screenplay in their backpack. We then started thinking about a monthly showcase with themed challenges, but you still need a big stable of regular participants for something like that to begin to make practical sense. I have been producing a free weekly comedy showcase and open mic, Comedy Roadkill, at the Complex for the last two years, and a monthly showcase, Comedy With A Complex, for the last year: special thanks to Paul Brucks and Dale Gordon at the Complex for being so supportive of local comedy. I try really hard to make those shows about the artists, and I refrain as much as possible from exerting any overt editorial control, like block out comics I don't find funny, tell them what kinds of jokes to tell, censor the acts, etc. So, I figured maybe that was the way to go here, as well. Make it about the artists and not about any set or preconceived idea of what I would rather it be. Showcase the work of local artists and make it about them. The final format is still a bit fluid, but some of the main things we are doing is we are showing all of the films back to back, rather than stopping in between. We accept films of any genre, not just comedy, like we were originally planning. We are experimenting with a short Q&A with the filmmakers after all of the films have run, and hoping that the audience takes the opportunity to corner them afterward and buy them food and drinks and find out what other projects they have on the horizon.
Gavin: With all the theaters in town, what made you decide to work with Brewvies to host it?
Ben: Man, Brewvies is like a little slice of heaven right here on earth. When I used to work downtown, I would regularly have lunch at Brewvies -- I would see the first half of a movie on one day and go back later the next day to see the other half. Plus, they just really get the idea of supporting the community; just look at all of the free screenings that they have. They have been really supportive and encouraging of what we are trying to do, and we just hope that their faith in us is rewarded by having some small, measurable amount of success in letting us do this show. And the best way to do that is for people to come out and buy awesome food and drinks and watch great short films by local filmmakers. The manager, Andy Murphy, has been purely awesome to work with. They were our first choice, and if they hadn't jumped on board I am not sure the show would have happened.
Gavin: You launched the first one back in October. What was the initial reception like, and what kind of a turnout did you have with the films?
Ben: Actually, it was pretty decent. The key is always consistency, but some well-placed media champions and influencers like you and others doesn't hurt at all. Initially, when you start these kind of ground-up efforts with no budget for marketing or anything, you just try to get the word out and hope. And then you do it again. I mean, obviously we would have liked to have had a much better turnout at the first show, but one thing I have learned about Utah is that things always take a bit to catch on, especially new things, and even more especially, awesome new things, which we think Channel 801 is. So far, we have shown zombie films, character dramas, comedies, cartoons, art films, spoofs, and more. And that is all in one evening. We like variety.
Gavin: Was there any hesitation that you might not do another, or did you know you'd be back to do a second night?
Ben: Andy at Brewvies has been on the same page with us from the beginning. We have always been very careful in not overselling things to him. We scheduled dates for the first three months back in October. After the second show at the beginning of November, we had a frank discussion to reevaluate expectations and we all agreed together that it would take a bit to build. We want this show to be here for the long run and for it to become a regular part of the Brewvies lineup. Brewvies wants to support the community and give back, and Jamie and I would like to help in that and to produce an entertaining, low-cost evening of entertainment that showcases what the Utah film community really has to offer.
Gavin: For those interested in participating, what are the rules to Channel 801, and how does the night flow?
Ben: The rules are simple: Have a finished film that we can review and submit it to us. You can send us a link to it online – there are ways to upload it to YouTube and Vimeo and Daily Motion, etc., that keeps them stashed behind a password or without being indexed into their search engines in case you don't want anyone else accessing it yet. You can direct message us on the Channel 801 Facebook page. We can't promise that we will show your film, but we will do our best to find a place for it. Since Brewvies is a 21-and-over venue, we aren't too worried about challenging content as long as it doesn't break any local laws. Cat videos and cute-kid videos will not be accepted, unless they are combined into one awesome, post-apocalyptic epic of adorable destructiveness.
Gavin: Going local, what’s your opinion of the Utah film scene, both good and bad?
Ben: Well, I think with the kind of democratization of technology and the blue collar-izing of above-the-line production roles, what was traditionally done in Hollywood due to the need for proximity has decentralized quite a bit. And Utah has a great talent and technical base. However, at this point we are still kind of a location day trip for big productions, and we will always be that until companies set up shop in Utah year 'round and generate original programming and production that have a national and worldwide audience. The YouTube model of production is starting to take a good toehold here in that direction with channels like Freakin' Rad, DevinSuperTramp/Lindsey Stirling, etc. But even then, I feel like we are still a bit parochial. We are, as a market, pretty generally content to chase the examples of other, bigger markets without adding much new to the brew. I would like to see more disruptive use of our abilities that challenges the industry to look at us as a pool of creative opportunity rather than awesome vistas and low-cost union-free production crews.
Gavin: Is there anything you think could be done to make the scene prominent?
Ben: Support each other, be bold, be original, take chances, work hard, make stuff and put it out there.
Gavin: Are there any local directors who you believe people should be checking out?
Ben: Definitely the ones who have already submitted to Channel 801 – filmmakers like Chris Adler, Sean Bagley, Pat Murphy, Conor Long, Thom Rockwell, Eric Fisher, Joshua Merrill, Boston McConnaughey, Mike Terrell, Andrew Jensen, Michael Ballif, Mary Clay and Michael Eccleston. Also, my co-worker Craig Nybo is pretty awesome; he is our creative director at mediaRif/Gangrene and directs all of our productions there. We are starting to gear up to raise some funding for a full-length feature of our own.
Gavin: What's your take on the work organizations like Utah Film Commissiom and Salt Lake Film Society are doing to promote local film?
Ben: I think they are awesome organizations. We would be a much smaller place without them – the Film Commission, of course, is tasked with bringing productions into the state so they can spend all of their beautiful money locally and give people experience on real and large productions. The Film Society champions independent film, both local and non. But we need the artists to step up and contribute if we are going to be anything more than we are now.
Gavin: Since film-fest season is approaching, do you believe the bigger fests help or hinder local filmmakers?
Ben: That is a tough question for me – I go back and forth on this, mainly because I am deeply involved with a local film festival that is practically unknown in the Utah media. The Gangrene Film Festival of comedy shorts has just completed its 13th year in existence, with films and their filmmakers attending from all over the world. We have, annually, between 700 to 800 audience members, and every year we struggle getting local submissions or coverage from any media beyond City Weekly and the Standard Examiner. It is frustrating, especially because we want to spotlight local talent. And I feel that we are overlooked because we aren't glamorous or hip enough to warrant attention. Overall, though, I think they are a net positive. Let's face it – the chances of you getting your film into Sundance are not great, but that doesn't mean that you can't get involved and volunteer and take some initiative to make connections that you wouldn't be able to otherwise. Anything more than nothing is good.
Gavin: What can we expect from you over the rest of the year and going into next?
Ben: Our second SLC Nerd festival is coming up in the spring. SLC Nerd is a celebration of all the wonderful geekery and nerdiness of Utah, with comics, cosplay, LARP, D&D, Magic: The Gathering, movies and more. We are just now starting to figure out the logistics and the shape of it. I am leaning heavily away from a traditional convention type of event and more towards a Fringe Festival format. I am not sure if we can pull it off, but I am really besotted with the concept. Next fall, I am helping Christopher Stephenson and Andrew Jensen organize the SLC Comedy Carnivale, which we hope to be a very cool indie-comedy festival that takes place in multiple venues in downtown SLC. And I want to write an original musical about Santa Claus, but I have no musical ability whatsoever – so if anyone is interested in teaming up, let's talk.
Gavin: Aside from the obvious, is there anything you’d like to promote or plug?
Ben: Free comedy every Tuesday at the Complex, except Nov. 27, when we are welcoming the Biggest Tour Ever Ever show featuring Kristine Levine of Portlandia fame, with Andrew Ouellette and Morgan Preston. They are doing 50 shows in 50 days in 50 different states – this show will be number 45. Also, be sure to check out Comedy With A Complex the first Friday of each month. Finally, check out my friend and co-worker Craig Nybo's new novel on Amazon called Allied Zombies For Peace which covers the darkest hour in undead civil-rights history.
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