Since quarantine began, various entities in Hollywood have tried to capture the experience of enduring it. Shows such as CBS’ “All Rise,” NBC’s “This Is Us” and ABC’s “The Conners” have all incorporated pandemic plotlines. But it turns out an independently financed movie that appeared at the Sundance Film Festival had already described all of it. The Sundance Film Festival took place last January.
The film, titled “Save Yourselves!,” is a humanist dark comedy about a thirtysomething couple that isolates in a cabin in upstate New York. They’re hoping for a recharge, but a deadly invasion of foreign beings strike while they’re sequestered, forcing them into a difficult role now widely familiar: surviving physically and psychologically.
Are the people who made it prophets? Sinister forces? Or just really lucky?
"We wanted to capture something that’s been going on for a lot of us a long time — figuring out how to survive when the world is falling apart,” said Alex Huston Fischer, one of the film’s two writer-directors. “It just happens to be timely now.”
That’s exactly what a sinister prophet would say.
“We really don’t know how this happened,” said his girlfriend, Eleanor Wilson, the other writer-director.
On Friday, the distributor that bought the movie at Sundance, the New York-based Bleecker Street, will attempt a feat as difficult as elementary-school remote learning: they’ll release “Save Yourselves!” in theaters, putting the movie on 350 screens at a moment when the very lockdown it foretold could prevent people from seeing it.
The experiment could be described as peak 2020: a content company is trying to entice people not only to leave their house to come to a movie theater, but to see their last six months rendered (with gentle comedy) on-screen.
Several years ago Fischer and Wilson were contemplating what would happen if people turned off their devices for an extended time when a spectacular tragedy like an alien apocalypse struck.
They decided to write a story of young Brooklyn couple Jack and Su who, feeling overwhelmed by bad news and disconnected from themselves, decide to retreat for a week to a technology-free cabin. There, in a tableaux possibly a little familiar to some people in 2020, they engage in intense bonding time, board games, bickering and drinking. And sourdough starter.
But odd events soon begin unfolding around them, slowly puncturing their cloud of obliviousness. Mysterious alien “pouffes” — basically, round furry ottomans — have invaded, wreaking havoc on the world. Once they realize what’s happened, Jack and Su really need to figure out how to make it in isolation.
Wilson and Fischer hired a pair of well-known Millennial actors, John Reynolds and Sunita Mani, attracted financing from Keshet Studios, the company behind the recent acclaimed HBO drama “Our Boys," and shot the movie last year.
Watching the finished product in late 2019, Sundance programmers loved what they saw and gave it a prime slot. Executives from Bleecker Street did, too . They paid an undisclosed sum for the rights and planned for a July release.
“It felt like a movie people could escape to and have fun with,” said Bleecker Street chief executive Andrew Karpen, “a great piece of summer entertainment.”
Then the summer decided to look like the movie.
As the coronavirus struck the U.S. in March, the movie’s SXSW premiere was scrapped (along with the rest of the festival). The catastrophe grew in April and May, as did concerns about releasing it. Executives kept watching “Tenet” and “Mulan” bob around the calendar and began to get cold feet: Is July really a good time to bring out this film?
Meanwhile, Fischer and Wilson, holed up in their Los Angeles apartment, were getting something else: messages of wonderment.
“It was a little strange,” Wilson said. “People sent us the coronavirus images saying they look like pouffes [they do] or links to that story of Jared Leto emerging ignorantly from his retreat [right out of their script] or asking us how we knew [still unclear].”
Karpen remains sure — well, pretty sure — it was all just a weird coincidence.
“They didn’t know a pandemic was coming,” he said, then paused. “If they did, I have some questions I’d like to ask them.”
When they weren’t advising friends on what stocks to dump, the directors were huddling with Bleecker Street on a release date. After a lot of back and forth, the group decided on early October. It was before the election would dominate too much airtime but when lockdowns would hopefully have subsided. (The New York and Los Angeles markets remain closed; Chicago and Houston are open. The movie is playing at nine theaters in the greater D.C. area, though many are farther from the city, including the Alamo Drafthouse in Winchester, Va., or the Warehouse Cinema in Frederick, Md.)
“Save Yourselves!” will also go to digital after a very short theatrical window. Where Bleecker Street normally allows movies to play the full 75 days in theaters, they will put it on-demand next week, just five days after the theatrical release. Some theaters are resistant as a result. Others are simply reducing hours faster than Bleecker Street can keep track of.
“You just roll with the punches,” said Jack Foley, a longtime distribution veteran who runs that unit for Bleecker Street. "We’ve never seen anything like this. We’re in about 119 markets, which feels like a great accomplishment.
Bleecker Street executives also believe the digital platform can attract consumers. “A large portion of the target audience consumes content at home,” said Karpen of the Millennial demographic.
Whether audiences will want to see their lives refracted on a movie screen is unclear. Karpen said he believes the chance to watch a relevant story through a fun-house mirror will be compelling.
Still, profit could be tricky. The digital price is $5.99 for a rental and $14.99 for a purchase — more attractive than the $30 Disney recently charged for “Mulan,” yet also generating less revenue.
But principals say that the point of the release is larger than that. It’s to keep new content flowing to theaters — and to help Americans make sense of what they’ve been going through. Just the act of watching the film now compared to viewing it in a pre-pandemic moment can be eye-opening.
“A lot of movies, they change when you re-watch them later — you see a movie very differently as an adult than you did as a kid," said Fischer.
Added Wilson: “This is just 2020, so it’s really sped up."