Production, unzipped: supporting a love note to Coney Island

Amy Nicholson laughs before she responds to my first question. “I worked!”

I’d asked Nicholson how she and her husband, Tim Schadt, who is also sitting with us, financed their documentary ZIPPER: Coney Island’s Last Wild Ride. The film has played to solid reviews at festivals around the country, and I’m curious how the pair handled its promotion – and how they intend to recoup their investment.

Nicholson and Schadt.

Nicholson and Schadt.

Part of the expense came from an expansion of her focus. “The original point of the film was to capture the closing of the Zipper,” Nicholson says. But she couldn’t abandon a nagging question: why did it close?

Nearly six years have passed since the ride was packed up and carted off to Honduras. So what took the film so long? Interviews with the characters needed to paint a complete picture: Joe Sitt, Amanda Burden, Dominic Recchia, Seth Pinsky. More B-roll footage, which Nicholson captured on a single day in 2010. A trip to Honduras for a reunion with the late-of-Brooklyn Zipper.

With each came a need for additional money. “I applied to any kind of funding I could find,” Nicholson, who works in advertising, tells me. “We got none. Zero. Zilch.”

When talking about her strategy for festivals, Nicholson is clear on one thing. “We wanted a New York premiere,” she says. “We wanted to be in New York City. We thought it was very important to premiere here.” And so the film did, at last November’s DOC NYC, one of the top documentary-festivals in the country.

Part of this stemmed from a desire to have an in-the-know audience. “The film is really complicated – and it’s really New York,” says Nicholson. And indeed, she and Schadt both feel the film was shortchanged by critics elsewhere who didn’t see the real story. On a poor review in LA Weekly, Schadt pulls no punches: “Here’s a paid critic who completely misses the point of the film,” he says. “Why is he reviewing what he wants it to be instead of examining what it is?”

Nicholson and Schadt would have loved to show at one of the “elite” festivals like Sundance or SXSW, but they think this complexity made it a tough sell. “When it’s so competitive, you have to have a consensus” on the selection committee, she says. “90% of the programmers thought it was amazing, and then you’ve got that one person who is like, ‘Meh’.”

She takes a sip of her coffee after laughing at her impression of an ambivalent panelist. “You always try to get it as high as you can possibly get it,” she continues. “DOC NYC was it.” Connections made there helped her land a screening at February’s Stranger than Fiction, followed by an August run at IFC Center, which was twice extended to a total of three weeks.

“We had a very specific plan to cover the country,” Nicholson says. So she and Schadt have been zigzagging their way across the continent, supporting the film at festivals like Big Sky in Montana, Sidewalk in Alabama, Tallgrass in Kansas. The film had a run over Labor Day weekend at Laemmle Music Hall in Los Angeles. After tonight’s special screening at the Nitehawk in Williamsburg, they’ll head to Tennessee for Indie Memphis.

I ask if the Q&A sessions have been helpful in understanding the various reactions to the film. In addition to posing questions about post-Sandy recovery, many viewers express concern both at the way the area has changed – and at the change’s underhanded nature she had worked to illuminate. “Sometimes people just start testifying. They’re not asking a question – they just want to be heard,” she tells me. “Things like, ‘Wow I had no idea.’ ‘I used to go there when I was little – it’s a shame.’ ‘This happened in my neighborhood.’”

“I’m interested to see how younger people feel,” she adds. “They’ve come to a New York that’s completely different. They’ve seen the end of Bleecker Bob’s and CBGB.”

Schadt chimes in. “I remember that when I came here back in the early ’90s, the landscape outside of New York was really becoming the same ten stores,” he says. And with their own sweat and resources, he and Nicholson have raised awareness that the vibrant areas of New York City might follow suit.

ZIPPER: Coney Island’s Last Wild Ride returns to New York for one night only, tonight at the Nitehawk in Williamsburg. It’s also available on iTunes.

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