How the Creators of “My Friend Dahmer” Turned a Graphic Novel Into an Indie Film Success Story
Jody Girgenti in conversation with Liz Manashil
Our department at Sundance Institute, the Creative Distribution Initiative, is always excited to publish educational editorial content for both emerging and established independent storytellers — as long as the pieces are data driven.
After following along with the success of the 2017 biographical drama My Friend Dahmer, I reached out to the filmmakers and asked them if they’d be down for an informal email interview about their release. We’re publishing a conversation with producer Jody Girgenti below, slightly edited and condensed for clarity. If you’re interested in more informal evaluations of indie content that share budget, revenue, and release strategies, check out our previous conversation with the creators of The North Pole.
Feel free to reach out to us directly with comments: firstname.lastname@example.org
Let’s start from the very beginning. Why this movie? How’d it come together?
Jody Girgenti: Back in 2011 or so, my partner Marc Meyers and I had arrived at the idea of developing a movie that was the portrait of a serial killer as a young boy. We also separately became interested in the world of naturalistic (as opposed to more fantasy-based) graphic novels as source material for the types of stories we were interested in telling. Then, Marc went to NY Comic-Con and Abrams ComicArts gave him an advance copy of the graphic novel My Friend Dahmer. Immediately, we knew we had to make this movie. It was exactly what we were looking to develop, only this is a true story in an existing graphic novel. Marc personally reached out to the author, Derf Backderf, and after a courting process, he agreed to let us option the book for Marc to adapt and ultimately direct. It was great timing, too, as the book went on to great success that next year when it was published in 2012, landing on Time magazine’s Best Non-Fiction Books list and other highlights.
After we optioned the book, we brought it to our good friend Adam Goldworm to partner with us on developing and producing the project. Adam has a robust horror background and great story sensibility that we knew would be great for this project. The three of us developed the script over the next year or so. Michael Merlob then reached out to me and Marc, as he had learned we had the option on this amazing graphic novel that he was interested in as a development executive at a well-known Hollywood production company. By that time we had a draft of the script we were generally very happy with, and we shared that with Merlob. Though the company he worked for at the time, like so many others, ultimately passed on the movie, Merlob just knew he needed to be involved, and came on individually to try to help us get the film made. The script continued to circulate, and gladly, it landed on the 2014 Black List. This gave the project some extra juice, and is also what led Marc to sign with UTA as a writer/director. It also bought us time and further credibility with extending the initial option on the book!
We’re into 2015 at this point, and after failing to get film financiers or high profile production companies to hop on board, we went full steam ahead into trying to piece together private equity for the film. We had this ticking clock on the option on the book. Derf’s agent Matthew Carnicelli would occasionally check in with me, reminding me of the various film companies sniffing around, so we felt real pressure to make this movie in the period of time we had been granted. Marc and I spent a lot of time meeting with potential investors over the course of a couple of years, sharing the business plan I drafted and pursuing financing leads, etc. Merlob really became the nexus of the financing relationships that came to fruition in the year before we filmed, as he was the reason we met the rest of the producer/investor team. This included Giorgio Angelini, who also raised private equity for us and introduced us to Milan Chakraborty. Milan came forward at a critical moment to bring in the last remaining piece of significant funding from our EP Mike Novogratz, which allowed us to barrel forward without pause and make this movie!
How did you know how much you needed to raise, and at what stage did you bring all teammates on board? Talk about that process.
My Friend Dahmer was made for more than $1.5M and less than $2M, right in that range. We tried to keep the budget at one point closer to $1M, but given the 70s period elements, large cast, locations, union crew in Ohio, etc., that proved difficult. Marc and I brought in a line producer friend back in 2015 to do a pass of a $1.5M budget. Then we did a pass of a $2.5M budget in March 2016. We didn’t bring in our Ohio line producer until June 2016 to nail down a budget when we were looking to truck ahead into formal prep.
There was never a time when we thought we could or would do this particular movie for less than $1M. Marc and I made our previous film, How He Fell in Love, for $150K and just knew that wouldn’t work here.
We always knew a portion of the budget would come via tax credit financing, but that still meant we needed to and did raise over $1M in equity.
Many of the key creative collaborators were new on this movie. We thankfully connected with Ohio-based producer Bob Ruggeri who made some valuable introductions in the area, including to production designer Jen Klide and costume designer Carla Shivener. With Jen and Carla we were just hopeful all the pieces would come together for our summer 2016 shoot before they would need to hop on other films. We met our DP Dan Katz very late in the process. Marc and I were literally willing this movie into existence at times, as indie filmmakers must, and though it would have been nice to have more time to hire crew, it just wasn’t feasible given how late the final financing came in, and how imperative it was that we shoot when we did that summer (August 2016). Our line producer Bill Baker, along with Carla and Jen, were key in connecting us with the rest of the great crew in the Cleveland/Akron area. Marc and I brought on editor Jamie Kirkpatrick, who we had collaborated with on our last movie. He in turn introduced us to the beautiful work of Coll Anderson who mixed the movie. Milan introduced us to music supervisor Jonathan Leahy. And Marc and I met composer Andy Hollander once we were in edit in NYC where we live.
Can you talk about casting Ross Lynch? How did his experience with Disney affect that choice, and how did you put the rest of the cast together?
Marc and I worked with Casting Director Stephanie Holbrook on our two previous films, and there was no question about working with her on My Friend Dahmer. Steph is a trusted collaborator, and we began the casting process in May 2015. Marc began meeting individually with actors, for a coffee or via Skype, and had these rolling meetings throughout the year. It was at this time that Marc met Ross Lynch. Marc zeroed in on the idea of Ross as Jeff immediately. He saw how perfect Ross could be for the part, not only the likeness, but also the physicality, versatility, and emotional ability as an actor. Honestly, I needed to be convinced, as it was hard for me to see from the beginning how Austin Moon would become Jeffrey Dahmer. We did formal auditions at the start of 2016. Marc, Adam, and Steph did a taped session in LA, and Marc, Steph, and I did a taped session in NYC, auditioning a ton of great guys who could be young Dahmer, young Derf, and the rest of the “Dahmer fan club.” Ross couldn’t make it to the sessions, as he was on tour with his band, but he self-taped, and that showed it was possible we may have found our lead. Then, in February 2016, Ross and his band played Beacon Theater in NYC, and Marc and I saw Ross at the show and also did a taped session with him on the Sunday he was in town after his concert. We wanted to make sure Ross could go where we would need him to go for this role, and Marc wanted to make sure as an actor Ross could pivot and adjust based on specific direction he gave. Ross definitely delivered, and we knew coming out of that weekend that we had our titular actor.
The rest of the Dahmer Fan Club kids came out of our auditioning process, including Alex Wolff who plays Derf, Tommy Nelson and Harry Holzer. The tertiary supporting roles were cast locally via the wonderful Angela Boehm in Cleveland, Ohio.
The adult leads — Anne Heche and Dallas Roberts — came to fruition in different ways. Both Adam and Stephanie suggested Anne for the role of Joyce Dahmer, and we eventually offered her the role after Marc met her at the start of 2016. Marc met Dallas a year before filming, and creatively, he and I always knew he was the right choice for the role of Lionel Dahmer. We did go down a circuitous road of trying to attach a big name with sales value, but ultimately circled back to Dallas in the eleventh hour. Thankfully, he was available! And we also cast Vinny Kartheiser as Dr. Matthews (the jogger) as we were setting up to film in Ohio.
Production / Marketing
When did you start marketing the film? If before production, how did you build audiences without having any footage? Did you do a concept reel? Website? Social accounts? When did those come into play? Did you have a distribution and marketing budget or just get together enough money for production and then fundraised once you wrapped?
We opened social media accounts for the film on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook before we started filming, and started posting for followers during production. It helped that Ross has millions of loyal fans who early on supported the film online. Our followers began to grow organically also after the Tribeca FF world premiere, but more so when our first teaser for the film was released in July 2016 out of Comic-Con International: San Diego and went viral (our movie was a Top 10 trending search on Google and Top 20 trending video on YouTube that month). Filmrise had came on board as our North American distributor after Tribeca and helped start to fan the flames on social media that summer leading to our fall theatrical release (see below distribution section). We had several meaningful strands of support that helped feed the building buzz of the film leading up to its release and beyond. Ross Lynch fanatics. True Crime fanatics. Loyal fans of the graphic novel. Also, some of the LGBTQ community showed up for the movie, too. We didn’t have a distribution and marketing budget, no. Marc, Adam, and I directly managed social media until Filmrise came on board. There was a festival budget for PR and other hard costs associated with talent, etc., for the world premiere at Tribeca (see below related section), but no additional allocated funds from our budget for marketing. That would have been nice, but all of our budget dollars were tightly allocated! Any contingency we had went to the 21st day of filming, and eventually to music!
Could you talk about shooting in Ohio? Did you have contacts there?
The story, which is based on real events and people, is set in Akron, Ohio. Plus, Jeffrey Dahmer’s actual childhood home was available for us to film in, and so it was very important we made Ohio work for the production. It helped that Ohio is a 30% tax credit state.
Derf was initially our only contact in the Cleveland/Akron area. Early on, he introduced us to the current owner of the real Dahmer home (ever heard of the band the Waitresses?), so those wheels were set in motion very early on in terms of this primary location. In the pursuit of authenticity, Marc was steadfast in his desire and commitment to shoot at the actual childhood home of Jeffrey Dahmer and in the surrounding area. The house still existed and was available, so this became the anchor for where the production would take place. We only finalized the rest of our locations once formal prep began; we had a location manager on board starting the month before filming started. We were solidifying locations until the last hour, including our school, which was the most difficult location to nail down, and this was after the actual high school in the book turned us down (they even had a board meeting about it; too controversial given the history!).
What type of festivals did you target and how did you decide which to submit to? Who joined you on the festival tour?
We weren’t ready for the Sundance Film Festival submission in fall of 2016, as Marc had only really just started in the edit room, and so our focus became spring 2017 festivals for our world premiere. Tribeca invited us early on, and we accepted and had our world premiere there. Fantastic experience.
We were invited to share our film for consideration at a lot of festivals thereafter, and we didn’t have to do the cold submission process which was nice. We went on to play several domestic and international festivals (LA Film Fest, Frameline, Official Competition at Deauville American FF, BFI London FF, Best Feature Prize at Fantastic Fest, Official Competition at Sitges, Fantasia in Montreal, Rome FF, Melbourne FF, NZFF, Audi Dublin Intl FF, etc). We played a nice mix of prestige, genre, and LGBTQ fests; that wasn’t a surprise since we knew we had these clear and distinct audiences, but still it was gratifying to be invited to and play well at all these different types of fests.
We coordinated with Filmrise on domestic fests for the six months or so from Tribeca until our theatrical release, and also with our international sales agent Altitude Film Sales and our UK distributor Altitude on a handful of international and UK festivals. Marc was invited to and attended a lot of festivals, Ross too, with all expenses covered by the fests (or if there was a gap, Filmrise or Altitude would jump in to cover). In terms of international, Adam and I also were invited to our European Premiere at Deauville, along with Ross. The entire team and most of the primary cast was at our World Premiere at Tribeca FF.
How did you promote your film on the festival circuit? Did you do any promotional events or partner with local organizations?
We primarily used social media to spread word of the fests. Fortunately, there was a palpable interest in and hunger for our movie, and our screenings generally sold out or were well-attended.
Did you hire a publicist and did you find it was vital to your festival experience? Did you also work with the festival press offices?
We brought on our good friend Sara Serlen and her team at ID PR as the festival publicists for our world premiere at Tribeca; the PR strategy and resulting positive press were vital for the film. This was a piece of the overall budget I made sure existed early on as a line item and was protected, as I knew we needed a great PR team at that critical stage. ID PR worked with the festival press office at Tribeca, but everything was tightly controlled in terms of press screenings, etc. I also worked to make sure Sara and ID PR were ultimately hired by our distributor, and am thankful to Filmrise for stepping up and increasing the PR budget to bring them on, because we were able to build on that positive relationship, and I think that continuity with Sara and ID was essential. In terms of other festival press offices, in North America, we were not angling for additional regional reviews until our release. In terms of international, our UK distributor Altitude used BFI London and Marc’s attendance there to bank some interviews for the UK release, which is upcoming June 1; and by the time we attended Deauville, we had signed on with our French distributor eCinema (a new premium subscription VOD platform) and eCinema used our attendance there to bank some press interviews with Marc and Ross, and film some content with all of us to support the release.
How about a sales agent? When did you approach and secure one?
Yes, UTA was the sales agent on the film. Initially, they were trying to help us get the movie financed, but ultimately came in to help field offers after our premiere and manage subsequent sales screenings and direct distributor communication. We liked that both Marc and Ross were also repped at UTA; it felt like we were keeping it in the agency family. We definitely learned a lot about the importance of a strong, passionate sales agent through this film.
At what stage did distribution come into play and how did you decide on a distributor?
Distribution came into play with our world premiere at Tribeca. We had high hopes for the film, and knew that in the hands of the right distributor, we could have a real success story on our hands. We knew there was something special about the story and that we had made a great film. The fact that we were not only trending on YouTube and Google search after our teaser was released with our panel at Comic-Con (the only indie, mind you), but that we were trending also on Facebook during post-production, trending on Twitter for a beat around Tribeca, we just knew there was something to this movie. Derf also let us know early on that we would see there’s something special about this story that sparks with people.
All of that said, it’s tough outside of the Sundance market frenzy to get the extremely high, seven figure MG offers filmmakers and investors dream about. We had a low offer ($150K) from a reputable prestige distributor, and real interest from a few other established companies, but in the end, Filmrise came forward with a very significant offer and a passion for the film that was meaningful and unmatched. They were new to theatrical distribution, but I also knew its heads, Danny and Jack Fisher, from doing business together in TV over ten years ago, and I knew they were good people who were also going to allow us to collaborate on the release in a substantial way. Plus they are a funded company, and their offer indicated the seriousness of the acquisition. They also understood implicitly that true crime is a pop cultural phenom, and were clear from the start that this true crime component together with the quality of the film, the existing graphic novel, and Ross himself, would help drive the business for the film. All of this proved true, as we knew and hoped would be the case.
In terms of international, we’re working with Altitude Film Sales. Altitude UK is releasing the movie in theaters and on VOD on June 1. Madman in Australia & NZ is releasing the movie theatrically May 31. The film is currently available on eCinema in France, via Nonstop in Scandinavia, to be released in China and the Middle East, with sales pending in LatAm, Japan, and some other European territories.
How much input did you have with your distributor?
We had input during every phase of the release. We had several fruitful meetings and conversations about strategy, contributed feedback on all key marketing materials, etc. It was important to us the marketing didn’t exploit the Dahmer name, and that we were never being flippant or insensitive given the real victims and their families. We felt it was important that the marketing wasn’t straight up horror, which would’ve been misleading, as it’s not a gore film; it’s the story before that story, with only hints of what’s to come. Filmrise thankfully shared our vision and crafted a campaign with all of this in mind.
We opened November 3 in NY and LA, which of course is a very busy and competitive time. We opened in four theaters: one in NYC (City Cinemas Village East) and three in LA (Laemmles in Santa Monica, North Hollywood, and Pasadena), and held over everywhere. We held at City Cinemas for over two months. Marc and I especially were glad not to have to wait on releasing the movie until the following spring (though there was much discussion about that with our partners). The crowded fall calendar definitely affected bookings at least initially. We opened in NY at City Cinemas Village East, with the possibility of being upgraded to sister cinema the Angelika — based on screen availability closer to the release date. But then Lady Bird moved up a week and opened on Nov 3, and took two screens at the Angelika. Also, Filmrise was a relative newbie and didn’t yet have the clout established prestige distributors have with certain theaters, and that was likely a handicap initially. However, Filmrise also knew the crossover potential of the movie; we started playing at Regals and AMCs, and did quite well at a nice portion of these multiplexes. By week 2, we expanded to almost 50 screens around the country. At our peak in early December, we were on over 100 screens, and had hit all major cities. Even though our theatrical release was quite limited, we’ve grossed an impressive $1.4M to date. Our transactional VOD release was February 6th, and we’ve done amazingly well across iTunes, Amazon, cable on demand, etc. We debuted as a Top 10 overall movie on iTunes, and were the #1 trending new release on Amazon and Google Play. We continue to chart on these platforms, now three months later. It’s really exciting. And our HBO deal was just announced too, so we’ll be on HBO starting next month.
Tell us all about the marketing of your title in the theatrical and the VOD window. Did your distributor share with you what worked and what didn’t?
Filmrise worked with Jumpcut Creative on the teaser, trailer and poster, and shared rounds with me, Marc, and Adam for review and notes. We nailed down the trailer quicker than we were able to arrive at the design direction for the poster, but ultimately, we were happy with the result.
There was a small digital ad buy for the initial theatrical release across IMDB, MTV, and YouTube. There was paid / boosted posts on social media across Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. And there was a small TV buy for cable on demand. Filmrise had a smart, efficient plan to support the release across the various windows/platforms.
I think the place where we would have loved a shot was with an awards campaign for Ross and the film. Hello, Spirit Awards. Lots of dollars and politics involved there, though!
Why do you feel you were successful? What are the most vital spends you made to promote and release the film?
Everyone involved should get credit for where we’re at with this little movie that could. Filmmaking in all its facets and phases is a definite team effort. It nice too that Joss Whedon, Judd Apatow, and Brett Easton Ellis all tweeted about the movie recently! Or that Derf himself loves the film and supported the release to his fans. Ultimately, we’ve been successful because of all the passion and work and care, but also in spite of the various challenges we had to overcome.
Every step of the way, we’ve had hurdles where others didn’t see what we saw, what we knew to be true for the potential of this movie. Our 7 year journey with it shows the importance of perseverance and the power of taking bold risks, cause these too are a great part of the equation here.
Bottom line, this true story is a fascinating one, and we delivered on making a great film — special mention goes to our writer/director Marc Meyers of course. The film is quite loyal to the source material except where necessary dramatic license comes in for the sake of entertainment. We also were quite cognizant of always being respectful in the storytelling and in communication about the movie given there are real victims and families forever affected by the monster Jeffrey Dahmer became. Filmrise, ID PR, the critics (Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes), Ross and the cast, the producer and investor team, and importantly, the fans and audiences who keep showing up … everyone helped make this a success story.
Finally how can people see the film today and where should we direct people to?
My Friend Dahmer is currently available for purchase or rent on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, OnDemand and other cable carriers, as well as on DVD / BluRay, available online at Amazon, etc. and in big box stores like Walmart and Target. And coming soon to HBO! @MyFriendDahmer across Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.