Film producer Nelson on road to Sundance

“When I first decided to invest in making the movie,” says Gary Nelson, of the feature film “First Girl I Loved,” “my wife said, ‘Gary, you know what investing in films is like. You might as well take that money and put it on a street corner for someone to stumble over, somebody who’ll end up getting a lot more out of it than you will.’”

Laughing, Nelson adds, “But I was very impressed with these young filmmakers, so I went ahead and said yes. And I think I made the right decision. Even if I don’t get my investment back, I’m just happy to have helped out some very talented and deserving artists.”

Less than a year later, Nelson’s hunch appears to have been a very good one.

The film, shot last summer in Los Angeles by budding writer-director Kerem Sanga (“The Young Kieslowski”), will be screened at this month’s 38th Sundance Film Festival, a highly competitive annual event held in Park City, Utah, seen worldwide as a launching pad for young filmmakers. Since its inception in 1978, Sundance has kicked off the careers of such notable filmmakers as Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Steven Soderbergh and David O. Russell.

“It’s really very exciting,” says Nelson, founder of the Sonoma-based Nelson Family of Companies, and also an investor in Sonoma Media Investments, which owns the Index-Tribune. Nelson and his wife, Marcia, plan to attend the film’s opening night at Sundance, then spend several days catching films and perhaps attending some of the festival’s legendary after-parties.

“I’m thinking of getting a T-shirt that says ‘Producer’ on it,” Nelson laughs, “and I keep telling my wife I’ll probably be surrounded by starlets for the rest of the festival.

“Of course, then she always says, ‘In your dreams, Gary.’ My wife is very good at keeping me grounded.”

Nelson’s film producing adventure began just under two years ago, when he caught a screening of Sanga’s breakout film, “The Young Kieslowski,” at the 2014 Sonoma International Film Festival, where the offbeat romantic comedy won the award for Best American Independent Feature Film. After the screening, Nelson introduced himself to Sanga and the film’s producer Seth Caplan.

“I was very impressed by them both,” says Nelson. “They are both USC film graduates in their 30s, they’ve made a number of films now, and I wanted to let them know that, as someone who likes to support talented individuals, I might be interested in helping out with whatever they did next.”

In April of 2015, Nelson met with up them again, and they outlined their plans for a new film Sanga had written. Titled “First Girl I Loved,” the screenplay described a kind of modern day high school love triangle between Anne (Dylan Gelula), an awkward in-the-closet teenage girl; Sasha (Brianna Hildebrand), the popular girl Anne’s suddenly fallen in love with; and Clifton (Mateo Arias, of “Despicable Me 2” and Disney Channel’s “Kickin’ It”), Anne’s best friend, whose been secretly harboring a crush on her for years.

The budget for the project was not large, but large enough that the filmmakers approached Nelson to ask if he’d consider coming on board as an investor and producer.

Nelson describes his producer’s role as, “making a small investment in the film.”

When the film was about 90 percent complete, Nelson received a call from Sanga letting him know that, based on a rough-cut, “First Girl I Loved” had landed a spot at 2016 Sundance, appearing as part of the festival’s high-profile “Next” program of films, described in festival literature as, “pure, bold works distinguished by an innovative, forward-thinking approach to storytelling. The films in this section will shape a greater next wave in American cinema.”

Nelson, who has not seen the completed film yet, points out that “First Girl I Loved” is one of just 65 films selected for the festival.

“That’s 65 films, out of thousands submitted each year,” he says. Of course, for filmmakers exhibiting their work at Sundance, getting accepted is just the first step toward the real goal: landing a distribution deal with a major studio. To that end, “First Girl I Loved” has an additional advantage – Creative Artists Agency, one of Hollywood’s leading talent agencies, will be representing the film, making contacts and, hopefully, fielding offers after the film’s screening at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 24.

“Even if it doesn’t get picked up,” Nelson says, “I think the fact that they’ve gone as far as they have is amazing. That’s reason enough to celebrate, so I plan to host a dinner to congratulate everyone involved.”

Once back in California, Nelson hopes to host a screening here in Sonoma, as a further celebration of having taken a dream so far.

Asked if he thinks this might just be the beginning for his own career as a film producer, Nelson affirms that he’d definitely consider investing in other film projects in the future.

“And it’s primarily going to be films being made by people I know and trust,” he says. “I love the talents and passion that filmmakers bring to the party so, yes, I am definitely interested in helping make more movies in the future. It all depends on how much I believe in that filmmaker, as a person and as an artist who has what it takes to succeed.”

Email David at david.temple

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