Saturday, September 13, 2003

HBO boosts 'Shaker Heights'

Viewers watched as directors, writer clashed on film

By Thomas J. Sheeran
The Associated Press

SHAKER HEIGHTS, Ohio - It was like a magical Hollywood script.

An attractive woman trying to start a writing career gets discovered and makes it to the big time. Even before her film hits the silver screen, she's on cable TV, where viewers could tune in weekly to see her butting heads with the villainous directors.

"That's part of the buzz," said creative-writing professor Michelle Herman, marveling at the warp speed that sent Erica Beeney's career into orbit.

One day last January, Beeney was a graduate student at The Ohio State University. The next day she was explaining to Herman that she had to miss class to head to the Sundance Film Festival to land the backing of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck to make her film, The Battle of Shaker Heights.

It all added up to a lot of valuable buzz - the water-cooler talk and Internet chat that gets people thinking about a movie and lining up at the box office.

Shaker Heights was the second film produced under Project Greenlight, a contest for aspiring filmmakers that was created by the actors who vaulted to fame with Oscar wins for the script of 1997's Good Will Hunting. Miramax Films put up the $1 million cost plus promotion expenses.

There were more than 7,000 entries this year.

This year's contest divided the screenwriting/directing competition, setting up inevitable writer/director conflicts as an HBO crew followed the cast and crew to produce a summer reality-type TV series. The documentary series wrapped up Aug. 22, the day the movie opened in New York and Los Angeles.

The first Project Greenlight film, last year's Stolen Summer, got bad reviews. The story focused on a Roman Catholic boy who tries to convert a young Jewish friend who has leukemia.

"The Battle of Shaker Heights" grossed $112,882 its opening weekend. Since the Aug. 22 release to a limited number of theaters, the film has nearly tripled that number. Box office action could lead to a wider distribution.

The plot involves the emotional conflicts in the life of 17-year-old Kelly Ernswiler, played by Shia LaBeouf, who re-enacts World War II combat scenes. Ernswiler displays bravery on the mock battlefields but is bullied by a smaller classmate in the real-life school yard.

The Associated Press gave Shaker Heights three stars out of four and called it "fresh, lively and funny."

Film critic Joanna Connors with the Cleveland Plain Dealer said Shaker Heights was a natural next step for fans who got hooked by the HBO series and watched each week to see "how the raw and seemingly arrogant young directors, Kyle Rankin and Efram Potelle, would thoroughly tick off Beeney and the rest of the crew that week."

Not even Rankin and Potelle liked the way they came off in the HBO series. The 30-year-olds stopped watching the series, which they said portrayed them negatively, but said it was worth the chance to direct.

There were some bad reviews for Shaker Heights, too.

Newsday called it a "mild, inoffensive, cliche-ridden comedy," and the Akron Beacon Journal said it was "no more interesting than a run-of-the-mill teen angst movie."

Reviews aside, there is plenty of buzz in the Cleveland area, where the suburb that lent its name to the title stands as a symbol of $1 million Tudor-style brick homes, wide boulevards and the smell of money.

So what if the movie was shot in Pasadena, Calif., and got its title because Beeney had Ohio State classmates from Shaker Heights and liked the name?

"Anything with a local angle can be exploited for more publicity," said John Ewing, director of the artsy Cleveland Cinematheque movie house at the Cleveland Institute of Art.

"That title alone would have a lot of resonance for Clevelanders. It actually made me think I want to see it," he said.

The city tried to land the filming gig.

Shaker Heights didn't make the final casting call, in part because of the unpredictable Lake Erie weather.

Still, there was a bit of hometown pride when the movie opened locally, even if Shaker Heights hasn't had a theater since the 1960s.

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