Scary Cow offers a scene from the making of 'Roy Murphy: Private Eye.'

Scary Cow Stampede Continues Apace

Michael Fox February 9, 2011

Pitch ‘em, make ‘em, show ‘em. Then pitch some more, make some more—well, you get the picture. Scary Cow Productions, the San Francisco filmmaking co-op that started in 2007 and presently has 210 members, generates a steady stream of projects moving through the various stages of production, and, seasonally, Scary Cow celebrates the culminating phase with a one-day festival, open to the public and comprised of two programs of just-completed films. The latest “show your work” program, this Sunday, February 13 at the Castro, marks the 13th in the organization’s brief history.  Clearly, founder Jager McConnell isn’t superstitious.

Scary Cow members, who pay a monthly fee, range from rank novices to trained, experienced craftspeople motivated to do something more creative in their spare time than the industrial films that pay their mortgage. As a co-op, the organization is fundamentally democratic. “We have people who have never touched a camera before,” McConnell says. “But we don’t discriminate against films. If you complete the film, we’ll screen it.” Consequently, he adds, “You’re going to see some bad films but you’re going to see some good films, too. Luckily, they’re short.”

The exhibition facet is as instructive to members as it is entertaining, in both the artistic and motivational sense. “The first time we showed at the Castro we showed no HD, no Blu-ray,” McConell recalls, “and it definitely changed our opinion that we should [make] more Blu-ray stuff. Now we pay extra to have the Blu-ray projector [at the theater]. If you want to be competitive, it definitely helps to be in HD.”

The competition element relates to the prize money awarded at each festival by a vote of the members and augmented by the limited discretion of the judges. (Sunday’s panel includes cinematographer Jacques Haitkin, who shot A Nightmare on Elm Street.) A cool ten grand will be passed out, divided between the aforementioned two programs. The 5:30 pm show consists of films made with the assistance of Scary Cow Funding, that is, small grants based on voting at quarterly pitch meetings, while the works in the 3:00 pm show were completely self-funded.

Along with developing or displaying their filmmaking chops, Scary Cow members use the process of making shorts—which generally involves a four-month cycle—to discover who they work with most smoothly and satisfyingly.  “They sort of try out filmmakers and crew to see who’s the best match,” McConnell says. “If you don’t like one lighting guy, there’s 20 more. You find your ideal crew.”

And as members bond on the set and in the editing room, their ambitions tend to grow, McConnell observes. “After they make a certain number of films in Scary Cow, they start thinking about what’s next. So we have three or four feature films in production.”

First up is producer Samantha Sullivan and w-d xuxE’s cult musical Devious, Inc., about a shoe farmer who leaves the farm and comes to the city. Peaches Christ has a part in it, so there’s a transgender angle (and perhaps a yellow brick road?) somewhere along the way. The duo made a few shorts in Scary Cow, including a trailer for this feature, and won the competition and a piece of their budget, McConnell says. .The film is slated to premiere March 24 at the Victoria.

Maria Mealla wraps production this month on Women & Cigarettes, a romance involving a photographer who supports herself as a stripper. Mealla found a DP (Samir Sinha) with a Red digital camera in Scary Cow, which is a pretty good catch, as any matchmaker will tell you. “They made a few shorts together and now they’ve run off and are making a feature,” McConnell reports. “I think of it as graduating from Scary Cow.” Asked where they shot the club scenes, McConnell replies, “I think they made their own. I think they got a theater and made it look like a strip club.”

Brian Doom (a pseudonym) is in production on I Work for Nemesis, a comedy set in the paranoid world of international espionage at the early-’60s height of the Cold War. We have bottomless respect for filmmakers who craft period pieces on infinitesimal budgets, even if they’re spoofs.

And Brian Clarke is in production on Roy Murphy: Private Eye, a black-and-white recreation of 1940s detective films. (We have bottomless respect….)  Clarke’s noirish trailer is on Sunday’s bill, leading off the Phase 2 entries at 5:30 pm.

Incidentally, McConnell says, the criterion for determining what qualifies as a Scary Cow film is pretty straightforward. “Is your crew Scary Cow? I don’t care about your cast. But in terms of the actual crew, to be a Scary Cow film it must be made with Scary Cow members.”

The next Scary Cow pitch meeting is February 20. Members will form into teams and make and deliver the film for the next exhibition event on July 2. And the hoofbeat goes on.

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