Hollywood Reporter February 17, 2005

'Cashback' hits the jackpot

Sean Ellis

It wouldn't be the first time the Oscars got it wrong.

Film fans willing to dole out $1.99 continue to prefer "Cashback" among the nominees for best live action short. Today it's the eighth most-downloaded video at iTunes, one notch ahead of Oscar champ "Six Shooter" and far above all episodes of "Desperate Housewives" and music videos by Beyoncé and Madonna. It was the first of the Academy Award nominees to crack the top 10, peaking at No. 2 the day after the Oscarcast, and its reign continues.

"Wow!" gasps mystified producer Lene Bausager. "It's all very exciting, yes, but we don't know what it means. How many downloads? We haven't found out yet and I'm having trouble finding someone who can tell me."

The biggest thing at the Oscars this year — bigger even than that "Crash" jawdropper at the end of the ceremony — was the exploding popularity of the nominated shorts when iTunes offered them for download. Suddenly, there was a revolution in media distribution and "Cashback" led the troops. New technology made an old film art form profitable after a century of neglect and accumulative financial losses that probably could've produced dozens of best picture winners.

Photo: Witness to the revolution — "Cashback" filmmaker Sean Ellis says, "If this new trend of downloading becomes big, then it means that we filmmakers have a better chance to pay our investors back and to get our future films made."

Think about what this means in terms of the future of filmmaking. No longer do movies have to be two hours long and nab elusive distribution deals with Hollywood studios to be hits. Combine that with how inexpensive digital film cameras and editing software have spawned legions of fledgling new filmmakers worldwide, and it's easy to see the showbiz sun setting some day soon on America's West Coast dream factory, which still rules international pop culture like Detroit ruled autos.

"It used to be the only place where you could see shorts was at film festivals," says "Cashback" director-writer Sean Ellis. "You used them as personal calling cards. That's all they were. If you got lucky, somebody important would see them and they'd let you shoot a feature."

Ellis was one of Britain's top fashion and celebrity photographers when he decided to become a filmmaker, at first shooting music videos and commercials. He teamed up with Bausager in 2002 to form Left Turn Films, named after his first short, "Left Turn," a psychologically twisted horror tale produced through Ridley Scott's RSA Films.

For his next short, the 19-minute "Cashback," Ellis cast British heartthrob Sean Biggerstaff (Oliver Wood in "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets") as a supermarket worker whose frisky imagination conjures up naked gals and other excitements while working the overnight shift. Produced for only $60,000, it soon paid off big time in terms of international recognition, winning prizes at a dozen film festivals, including Tribeca and Chicago.

"I don't do this for the money," Ellis adds. "If I was interested in money, I would've been a broker. I do it for the love of film and I do it for the artistry of it."

"Cashback's" early success as a short led to Ellis getting a shot at turning it into a feature when socialite Daphne Guinness decided to invest. Once completed, French distributor Gaumont snatched up international distribution rights outside the U.K. and U.S. The company now plans to debut the expanded "Cashback" in October in France. A U.S. distribution deal is expected soon.

"We completed shooting it in December," says Bausager. "Sean wanted to keep the original footage. There was nothing he wanted to change, so he decided just to add to what we already had. We brought the whole cast back for a reading of the new full script when it was ready. We were a bit nervous because it had been two years since we shot the short and we hoped the actors all looked the same. They did pretty much. So we went ahead, intercutting the short film into the new footage."