Arts preview: Indie book publishers Two Dollar Radio launch micro-budget film venture that could change filmmaking

  • Photo by Meghan Ralston
    Two Dollar Radio is, from left, Eliza Wood-Obenauf, Eric Obenauf, Lorian Long and Mike Shiflet.
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From the October 24, 2013 edition

Eric Obenauf’s sitting on his couch in Clintonville telling a story his wife, Eliza Wood-Obenauf, says perfectly encapsulates him and Two Dollar Radio, the alternative publishing company they’ve run since 2005.

In the story, Eric’s in Granville, managing a custard shop, when a reporter from the Wall Street Journal calls to set up an interview with author Rudy Wurlitzer, whose novel “Drop Edge of Yonder,” had just been published by Two Dollar. Wurlitzer was the screenwriter for “Two-Lane Blacktop” and “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,” and this was to be his first novel in 24 years.

So basically, this new novel, which originated as a screenplay and had directors Sam Peckinpah, Hal Ashby and Jim Jarmusch attached at various points, being published by a previously little-known book publishing company in Granville, Ohio, was kind of a big deal.

“I had to put [the reporter] on hold to scoop custard for a customer,” Eric said, laughing.

While the couple’s since moved to Clintonville, they still hold day jobs — he bartends and she works for a school publishing company. In the interim, Two Dollar’s firmly established itself as a respected small-press book publisher. Seven of their last 15 books have been reviewed in the New York Times, and one title (the excellent “The Orange Eats Creeps”) was honored by the National Book Foundation among many outlets.

All of which means it’s time for Two Dollar Radio to try something new and maybe a little terrifying (“I don’t really feel comfortable unless I’m in over my head,” Eric said).

This move consists of a micro-budget filmmaking venture. And while the company’s planned for this expansion since its inception (Eric graduated from NYU’s School of the Arts, where he received an award for screenwriting), it was inspired in part by Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color,” a micro-budget film released earlier this year to widespread critical acclaim.

The launching of Two Dollar’s film division’s already generating national buzz, too. The Tribeca Film Festival called the move “a real watershed moment for film,” and suggested the implications were “extremely significant.”

“[W]hy wouldn't more purveyors of high-quality content get into the micro-budget cinema game?” the film festival asked in an Oct. 15 blog post. “It's cheap to make such a film, doesn't require a significant level of technical expertise, and if you run a small publishing press or magazine or radio station or some other such entity, you already have access (hopefully!) to that most desired of movie-world assets: a high-quality story.”

Two Dollar’s approach will be to focus on authors the company already has relationships with, in part because the company wants the films to come from strong voices with unique visions — traits they also look for in the books they publish.

“We look for the opposite of Jonathan Franzen,” Eric said. “We want the singular nervy voices and spark that have something as individuals rather than the bland.”

The first project released will be Eric’s film, “I’m Not Patrick,” which will be shot in Columbus this coming spring and summer. By starting with Eric’s film first, the company will have a test case to figure out what works for film distribution (they took a similar approach with Eric’s book, “Can You Hear Me Screaming?”).

Two other films are coming soon, and trailers for those are already out. One of those projects is “The Removals,” which will also be shot in Columbus. It’s described on Two Dollar’s website as “part-thriller, part-nightmarish examination of the widening gap between originality and technology.” The screenplay was written by Nicholas Rombes and will be directed by Grace Krilanovich, author of “The Orange Eats Creeps.” 

The third film is “The Greenbrier Ghost,” which is co-written by Scott McClanahan and Chris Oxley. The pair plans to co-direct the feature as well. McClanahan wrote “Crapalachia,” (another excellent read) for Two Dollar Radio, and in the novel the story of the Greenbrier Ghost is mentioned. The West Virginia tale tells of a ghost who helped convict a murderer. 

To finance these projects, the company has launched an IndieGoGo compaign that features several unique gifts in exchange for donations ($5 results in good karma, $250 gets you a credit on the film). They took a similar approach with their books by offering free books for life to anyone who tattooed the company’s logo on their body (they later had to cap it at 25, and the deal’s shifted to include any 10 titles).

Just Say No to Hollywood, a local fundraiser, is coming this Friday, Oct. 25 at It Looks Like It’s Open Gallery in Clintonville. This event will feature book readings, performance pieces and booze, among other radities.

It all adds up, Eric said, to the start of an exciting year.

“If we fail, at least we’ll do so ambitiously,” Eric said.

“I don’t think there’s really any room to fail though because there’s no definition of what failure is,” Eliza said. “We’re not under [financial] constraints like Hollywood [studios are].”