Alumnus Produces Hit Indie Film

Olivia Wilde in DRINKING BUDDIES, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Olivia Wilde in DRINKING BUDDIES, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

If you’ve heard the buzz surrounding the film “Drinking Buddies” (starring Olivia Wilde, Anna Kendrick, Jake Johnson and Ron Livingston), you know the film has earned rave reviews and other accolades. But you may not know that the indie comedy was made by a GW alum.

Sam Slater, CCAS BA ’06, and Paul Bernon are the producers of “Drinking Buddies,” a film that has quickly grabbed the industry’s attention.  Last year, the Boston-based duo founded their production company, Burn Later Productions, after discovering they shared a mutual dream of becoming filmmakers.

“Drinking Buddies,” which Slater describes as a “grass is always greener” story, is currently the number one independent film on iTunes, and the fifth most popular movie on iTunes overall, thanks to its pre-theatrical release.

Shot in shot in 22 days, the film features not only an A-list cast, but seasoned independent film director and editor Joe Swanberg.  “Drinking Buddies” is an improvisational film, meaning the actors didn’t follow a script, but rather a vision for the direction each scene would take.

“Our actors immediately responded to the story,” says Slater. “We really worked with them and allowed them freedom within their roles and ownership of their characters.”

Photo courtesy Sam Slater
Sam Slater, CCAS BA ’06 (courtesy Sam Slater)

And it worked. Slater and Bernon premiered the film at the popular South by Southwest (SXSW) festival, and within 24 hours had received several offers from distributors.  Magnolia Pictures soon purchased the domestic rights, with Sony picking up international and airline rights. With “Drinking Buddies” hitting theaters later this month, the film’s buzz continues to grow.

“It’s been fantastic—we’re all so excited!” says Slater, of the cast and crew.

Though filmmaking has come naturally to Slater, his choice to pursue it may seem unlikely.  Slater, who majored in history at GW, is a real estate developer, who owns and operates multi-family and commercial properties, as well as an agricultural portfolio in the U.S. and Canada.  He is also a director at the Slater Foundation and a Board Member of the state agency, The Massachusetts Cultural Council.

So how does a successful developer transition to successful filmmaker?  Slater credits his entrepreneurial background.

“Film is really all about collaboration, especially as a producer,” he says. “It requires you to be a good manager and to be really aware of everything that’s going on around you. There are huge similarities in being an entrepreneur and being a filmmaker.”

Slater also says GW helped to bring him where he is today.  “I chose to take a variety of classes and open myself to almost everything,” he explains. “I realized I had broad interests and was capable of doing many things at once—before GW, I never thought that widely.  Now, it just continues.”

This can-do attitude allowed Slater to dive into the world of filmmaking without a formal arts background—and it’s paid off.  With his first film enjoying high praise, Slater is excited to take on more projects, and to nurture the film scene in his native Boston.

We’re not looking to move to L.A.,” he says.  “We want to bring film here—every project we consider, we ask, ‘How can we bring this to Boston?’ If we can make it work here, we’re going to do that.”

Something else Slater would love to see?  GW students and alumni in theaters when “Drinking Buddies” has its DC release on Aug. 30, starting at Landmark’s E Street Cinema (555 11th St NW, Washington, DC).

It would be so rewarding to have a GW crowd see the film—I can’t tell you how exciting it is that it’s going to be in DC” he says, adding, “We need more of the arts to come from GW.  Maybe some students will see this as an example, and they’ll try it—and maybe it’ll work!”

If you’re one of those who wants to try independent filmmaking, Slater says the key is a combination of not being afraid to try and not being afraid to fail.  “The truth is, you just need to go for it and not be ashamed if it doesn’t work out—and just keep trying,” he says. “If you have the desire, you will end up being successful.”

Drinking Buddies will be opening at theatres throughout the country starting on Aug. 15. To see when it’s is playing near you, visit Magnolia’s website and the Drinking Buddies Facebook page, and be sure to follow Sam Slater on Twitter for news and updates!  


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