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American Cannibal Opens in LA

Los Angeles- Audiences probably often wonder when the reality genre is finally going to eat itself. “American Cannibal” stands ready for that moment with a bib and vinegar.

The filmmakers swear up and down this is a bona fide documentary, albeit a clearly manipulated one (a la the reality shows it concerns), that follows two writers as they try to pitch their way into television careers. They find themselves allied with a “porn PR man” [Kevin Blatt]who agrees to fund something they meant as a joke — an unscripted series in which contestants are placed on an island and starved, then led to believe they’ve been abandoned.

The show is intended to parade the contestants’ desperate descent into savagery, but the documentary is really about the writers’ fall. In one sense, it’s about how an artist becomes a pornographer — in this case, the reality-TV porn of schadenfreude.

It’s meta-meta theater; it’s directed reality about the reality of the biz behind reality shows. Television figures such as “The Daily Show” co-creator Lizz Winstead are interviewed: “If the lowest common denominator was a muscle, it could kick the … out of everything else.”

The real savagery is in the satire, coldly measuring the lengths to which contestants might go and the depths to which the protagonists sink.

“American Cannibal.” MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle’s Grande, 345 S. Figueroa St., L.A. (213) 617-0268.

Back Story: [NY Press]-n 2004, Perry Grebin and Michael Nigro [pictured] set out to make a documentary that would examine the process of how a TV show gets conceived and brought to term, with extra emphasis placed on the all-important initial pitch meeting. Grebin and Nigro figured that over the span of three months, they’d follow TV writers as they trekked into producers’ offices and tried to convince power players that “Big Brother”-meets-Backdraft, or whatever, was the next big thing.
No one had filmed and dissected the pitch process, and the duo wanted to lift the shroud on the frequently ludicrous and demeaning process. But then a celebrity porn-tape broker and celebutard Paris Hilton shoved their sticky fingers into the project, and the focus of the film, American Cannibal (currently showing at Cinema Village), shifted.

Three months turned into three years, and the doc morphed. It became an examination of the insatiable need for American citizens to snatch their 15 minutes of fame, an audit of the concept of what passes for “reality” on TV and a study in how two writers who simply wanted to churn out some original, amusing fare got sucked into the reality-TV vortex that had spread like a virulent strain of toxic mold.

Grebin, 39, and Nigro, 40, started a production company almost 10 years ago, and labored mightily (when able to sneak away from their primary jobs) to get their film projects off the ground.

They worked in TV (Grebin in Atlanta at CNN, then later transferring to NYC for ABC and CBS, Nigro in New York for “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire”) to pile up some paychecks to pay the rent while they waited until some higher-ups with a sense of taste and a deep well of artistic integrity saw their commitment to quality and truth in their craft. But, as they waited for that tall order to be filled, rent didn’t wait.

In 2003, they both took gigs on an MTV show called “Boiling Points,” a hidden camera prank show that was a meaner, methed-up “Candid Camera.”

Grebin’s first day on the job, he was slated to segment-produce a “prank” that was set in the computer fix-it store Tekserve on West 23rd in Chelsea. “Boiling Points” actors were directed to tell unsuspecting customers that they’d had to erase their hard drives to fix the unit. MTV cameras caught all the incredulous reactions and understandable ire as the marks reacted to the stunt, and lost it.

Grebin would hand out $100 to the mark after they signed a consent form to allow their image to be used in any way, shape or form MTV wanted. Grebin was struck, he said, by how cruel and exploitative the program was, but also by how readily some people, especially the Gen Y set, signed the release.

“People were just psyched they were going to be on MTV,” Grebin says. “They didn’t care how they’d be portrayed. And my conscience kicked in, and I realized that my job is to make people feel horrible.”

Nigro was also a segment producer for “Boiling Points,” and he and Grebin, while plotting their imminent auto-ejections from the horrific experiment in self-degradation, discussed how the presence of the camera changed people. They saw the phenomena in the pranked persons who simmered down after boiling over, as they were placated by a forthcoming appearance on a TV show and $100. They also saw it when they took their camera into pitch meetings to document that ambition/desperation-fueled dog and pony show. Grebin and Nigro parted ways with “Boiling Points” in July 2004, so the filmmakers fully immersed themselves in their reality doc.

The Entertainment of Reality
The filmmaking duo quickly decided to fixate on two comedy writers, Gil Ripley and Dave Roberts, who’d produced pilots for Comedy Central. But the pilots didn’t fly, and Gil and Dave became a wee bit impatient. Understandably so, since they also had mouths to feed and that pesky rent to pay. Their agent knew that everything scripted was being shunted for “reality” fare, which was the broadcast equivalent of Lean Cuisine: quick, cheap, acceptably tasty if your standards are low.

By April 2005, Gil and Dave had made a measure of peace with their “reality” strategy and got a meeting with a man named Kevin Blatt. According to Blatt’s bio, he’d made some money helping broker Paris Hilton’s porno production. But he wanted to go legit.

The pitchers offered a concept that would place male virgins in a house of horniness. They’d be tempted 24/7 with lewd images. They would not, however, be allowed to release their (ahem) tension. If they did, they’d get booted. The last holdout, the last “master of his domain,” would be de-virginized by a porn princess. As an aside, Gil and Dave also pitched Blatt a throwaway concept, essentially “Ultra-Survivor”: Why not go that extra step, the pitchers said, and have a starvation contest? Blatt bit at the spiced up “Survivor.”

And The Frustrated Virgin project? “Blatt felt it was too ‘porny,’” Grebin said.

Blatt said he’d put up the dough for this extreme “Survivor” shoot, to be titled “American Cannibal,” and the pitchers, along with Grebin and Nigro, went to film in Puerto Rico. The abbreviated session was a clusterfuck from tip to top, and the sad climax came quickly. A contestant on the show, an attention-starved moron who admitted later she was hypoglycemic, passed out after several hours without food, and production was shut down.

By this point, Grebin and Nigro had shot hundreds of hours of footage that they knew they could work into a compelling doc. But money, or lack thereof, reared its ugly head. So the duo, $40,000 in the hole, began to troll for backers who’d believe that they had crafted a saleable concept and would toss them some dough to keep the enterprise afloat.

Grebin and Nigro settled on terms with a film financing outfit, who handed over $500,000. Sounds like a solid chunk, right?

“That money was supposed to pay five people,” Nigro explained. “Heads of production, PAs and travel, car rentals …”

But money woes weren’t going to dissuade the duo. They brought the doc, titled American Cannibal, to Tribeca last April, and hoped that distributors would dig it and a bidding war would ensue. It didn’t quite work that way.

Humiliation is the Name of the Game
Kevin Blatt had re-entered the picture. Two days before they were to open at Tribeca, Nigro got a call from him. He’d gotten frigid feet and was worried that he’d said too much to Grebin and Nigro’s camera. He was going to have his lawyer squash the flick, he said. Never mind that he’d signed a release to allow the filmmakers to use his likeness.
The press got wind of this scandal when it dawned on them that Blatt had a hand in the Paris smut tape. The jackals swarmed on Nigro and Grebin: Is Paris in your movie? Is she naked? Does the title refer to a Paris sex act?

Blatt backed off, though, and later, Nigro says, admitted he stirred the proverbial pot with the threat of lawyering up just to drum up publicity for the flick.

By the time of Tribeca Film Festival rolled around, the half-mill was long gone. A fat distribution deal didn’t come out of Tribeca, but a distributor agreed to place the flick in theaters. The documentary opened at Cinema Village on March 15. But a nasty Northeaster blew into town, and hampered would-be ticket buyers. That said, it was still the No. 2 indie flick in NYC over that weekend, and American Cannibal could open in other big cities soon. That depends how many people pony up in the home stretch of the Village run.

Blatt has done his part, the directors say. He’s proud of his “work” in the doc, and has purchased a few tix online to buff up the numbers so his cred will spread.

The effort has paid off. The flick will get a national rollout because the Village run was deemed a success. The buzz for the movie got an uptick with the filmmakers’ appearance, along with Blatt, on the March 27 episode of the “Dr. Phil” show. The program intended to illustrate how our citizens are preoccupied with obtaining a measure of fame, or notoriety, at any cost. The irony of delivering his message to Phil McGraw, whose show is built on people trading their dignity for their 15 minutes of “fame,” was not lost on Grebin.

“I had no complaints about the show,” he says. “We had to sign a release that basically said we agreed to let the show humiliate us, and concede that we could be ruined financially by appearing on the show. That shocked us some.”
“But Dr. Phil gave us an amazing gift,” Grebin says.

Nigro and Grebin, though poorer than they would’ve been if they’d just continued their previous career work path, have been able to luxuriate some as their film, and message, has spread.

“I do feel like I’m successful on a certain level,” explains Grebin. “But I’m not satisfied. I’m already ready for the next one.”

“It was a satisfying experience,” says Nigro. “And hopefully more people will see the movie and see that when you produce and direct and edit ‘real life’ for maximum watchability, you don’t get truth, you get entertainment.”

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