From Blockbusters to City Block Films

| August 22, 2012 4:00 AM

Lucy Frend, on sidewalk, was part of cast and crew of "Abkraken," a film set on Park Ave., between 97th and 98th Streets, that also cast two local business owners. Image courtesy of Spencer Gordon at On My Block Films.

New York City’s dignified skyscrapers, glaring neon lights, gritty streets and lavish interiors play a memorable role opposite stars in some of the most iconic films of all time, from Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” to Martin Scorcese’s “Taxi Driver” and Francis Coppola’s “The Godfather.” Some filmmakers, by necessity or choice,  have begun to omit the frills of blockbuster-name actors and special effects let lesser known actors  and vibrant, but unadorned New York neighborhoods be heard and seen. Take the example of legendary director Spike Lee, whose newly released drama, “Red Hook Summer” is set in the largest public housing project in Brooklyn. While “Red Hook Summer” and other movies like Wayne Wang’s 1995 hit, “Smoke,” which takes place in a  tobacco shop in Park Slope, Brooklyn, are not documentaries, they reveal a core element that resonates with people: raw human experience in the most humble surroundings.

Local filmmakers Ryan O’Hara Theisen and Mary Crosse are taking city settings even more local with their open competition to highlight the five boroughs’ eclectic neighborhoods and its eight million diverse characters, block by block. On My Block (OMB)  invites ordinary New Yorkers to form teams with their neighbors to create one- to five-minute films using their residential block as the setting. Though it is a filmmaking competition, OMB’s primary mission is to provide an opportunity for neighbors to introduce themselves, join together, and build lasting relationships through the filmmaking process.

“I have lived in four neighborhoods within six years, both in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and within those six years, I realized that I didn’t have any real relationships with any of my neighbors,” Theisen said.

People do want a closer community and that surprised me.
—Ryan O'Hara Theisen

Theisen and Crosse made it their goal to change this common circumstance by building community through the camera. “As a filmmaker, I have seen these really tight bonds formed on film-sets in really short amounts of time and I was curious as to what would happen if we created a challenge where neighbors were asked to create a film on just their block using the neighbors as the cast and crew,” Theisen said.

While teams are given tremendous creative license  to make films in any style and genre, OMB does have some specific parameters. For starters, OMB defines “block” as a street, not the entire quadrant and each filmmaking team (cast and crew) needs to be comprised of at least four people from the block, though two non-block residents can also participate. The team, which is responsible for supplying its own equipment, can make their short film using any video recording device, even an iPhone. Finished films can be submitted to the OMB site, through which the public votes for their favorites by liking them on Vimeo. The top-rated 15 films will be screened at a private OMB film festival in November.

OMB is designed to be a challenge on a shoestring, or a pizza budget, in Theisen’s case. “I can tell you that on my block, we made our film for the price of pizza, so 60 bucks for all of us and we all chipped in,” he said.

The whole competition is on a tight, self-funded budget, so when an OMB volunteer made her thirtieth call in search of a printing house that could donate services to help spread the word through printed material, she hit the jackpot in Fine Print NYC owner Joseph Gornail, a fourth-generation print craftsman whose family has lived on the same block in SoHo for 95 years.

“He just fell in love with this idea and he printed 20,0000 postcards for us, which is amazing,” said Crosse, who said OMB has been distributing them around the city.

To further reach an audience of true amateur filmmakers, the site offers a detailed education section to guide people through the process.  “We’re trying to make this approachable for anyone regardless of their background. But it’s really more about how you tell a story and how you use the things and people around you to tell it. That’s really the emphasis of this,” Crosse explained. “If you’re telling a good story, the Hollywood setup isn’t really necessary,” she said.

For Theisen and Crosse, OMB acts as an intriguing social experiment on communities and capturing genuine, urban moments. “Here we are doing these mini time capsules on blocks,” said Theisen. “Not only are [New Yorkers] shooting in these environments, [but] the streets become the backgrounds and the clothes we’re all wearing is like this moment in time being captured. Some people might go the documentary route and tell us a story based purely on their block,” he said.

Ryan O'Hara Theisen leads an OMB kickoff meeting at his apartment in Carroll Gardens. Image courtesy of Spencer Gordon at On My Block Films.

Theisen’s team shot the film “Free Camera” on their Carroll Gardens block, on Union Street, between Henry and Clinton Streets.

Recalling his team’s first meeting, Theisen recalled, “I was blown away by the fact that I had  to keep on pulling more chairs in my apartment and then I had 15 people in my living room.  And I was just like, wow, we sort of tapped into something. People do want a closer community and that surprised me,” he said.

If approaching the strangers-neighbors on your block seems daunting, turn to the OMB website, which offers tips on how to make connections and spread the word.

Theisen and Crosse and the 25 OMB volunteers are eager to see what rolls in in the months ahead. “I’m like a kid the night before Christmas from now until November  1 when we see what the whole pile is,” Theisen said.

But the real reward will come in the form of what OMB hopes to initiate and create for New York City: friendship and connection amongst strangers from the same city block. “I just think that knowing the people around you and not feeling like you are in this anonymous place is a better thing for the city overall,” Crosse said.

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