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Jessiah Rueckert, second from left, in a scene from the 2012 film “The Art of Submission.” The film, a martial arts movie featuring MMA fighters, is part of a growing sub-genre of “fightsploitation” movies targeted at fans of MMA fighting.

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Ken Chamitoff, left, and Adam Boster are the directors of the 2012 film “The Art of Submission.”

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Breaking into movies with mixed martial arts

  • Article by: DAVID PEISNER
  • New York Times
  • January 30, 2013 - 5:09 PM

 

In the fall of 2006 Ken Chamitoff was traveling around the nation for his company, which takes photographs at martial arts studios. In Bellingham, Wash., about halfway through a three-month stint on the road, the unending days of being away from his family and living in hotel rooms got to him.

“I went a little nuts,” he said, and embarked on a shopping spree for martial arts movies, watching them over the next four or five days. “Afterwards I called my wife and said, ‘I’m going to make one.’ By Christmas I had the first draft of a script done.”

The script, “Art of Submission,” sought to combine the virtues of traditional kung fu cinema with the street-savvy sensibilities of mixed martial arts, or MMA, as it’s widely known. At the time the sport was exploding. A decade earlier Sen. John McCain had derided it as “human cockfighting,” but by 2006 it was a bigger television draw than boxing. In 2008 the sport’s premier governing body, Ultimate Fighting Championship, known as the UFC, was valued at more than $1 billion.

Today “Art of Submission,” which had its theatrical debut in San Jose, Calif., in September, is part of the growing subgenre of what might be called fightsploitation films. Occasionally marketed in conjunction with mixed martial arts events and frequently turning a modest profit, these movies usually rely on the same ingredients: an underdog protagonist navigating a world of underground fight clubs, prison or professional mixed martial arts; a cast that features the sport’s stars alongside journeyman actors; plenty of scantily clad (or occasionally unclad) young women; and at least one scene involving high-performance sports cars. As Stan Wertlieb, a partner in the Grindstone Entertainment Group, responsible for several fightsploitation releases, put it: “It’s movies targeted at guys. We tried to capture the same audience MMA were so successful with.”

Chamitoff initially planned to spend $50,000 and film near his Palmdale, Calif., home. But as he traveled for his company, martial arts school owners expressed interest in investing in “Art of Submission.” The first chipped in $20,000, and as similar checks followed, mostly from school owners, instructors or students, the budget grew to $4.5 million, and the project’s scope changed, said Chamitoff, who would eventually direct the film with Adam Boster.

The bigger budget meant being able to hire some recognizable actors, notably Ving Rhames and John Savage, as well as professional fighters like Frank Shamrock, a mixed martial arts star for more than a decade, and Gray Maynard, a contestant on Season 5 of the hit UFC reality show “The Ultimate Fighter.”

As the production proceeded in fits and starts over more than four years, the film industry was simultaneously taking note of mixed martial arts’ growth. Grindstone, which specializes in low-to-mid-budget action films and thrillers, and has a distribution deal through Lionsgate, released six mixed martial arts films in 2009 and 2010.

“We saw the opportunity to catch the wave,” said Barry Brooker, Grindstone’s president. “UFC as a brand was growing. Not only was it working domestically, but in the rest of the world MMA was catching on.”

Punching through

Hector Echavarria, a former champion kickboxer and martial artist, has been a central figure in fightsploitation since its inception. He appeared in two of the earliest movies to feature mixed martial arts fighters, “Cradle 2 the Grave” (2003) and “Confessions of a Pit Fighter” (2005). In 2009 he wrote, directed and starred in “Never Surrender,” Grindstone’s first fightsploitation venture, and cast several of the sport’s stars, including Quinton Jackson, a k a Rampage, and Georges St.-Pierre. Since then Echavarria has been the creative force behind four more titles, with another four in various stages of production.

“I thought MMA was going to be huge, so I started using fighters in the movies,” he said. “When they weren’t great actors, we’d just give them good fighting sequences.”

A few fighters have graduated to mainstream films, including Jackson, who starred in “The A-Team” in 2010, and Randy Couture, who co-starred in both installments of “The Expendables.” But so far most fightsploitation films have been aimed not at multiplexes but at the straight-to-DVD, video-on-demand and pay-per-view markets. Nonetheless, when these films are tightly budgeted, the popularity of the mixed martial arts stars alone practically guarantees a modest profit.

‘Rocky’ of MMA films

The holy grail now is a full-fledged theatrical hit, though recent history suggests that fightsploitation may have hit a commercial ceiling. David Mamet’s 2008 film, “Redbelt,” was in and out of theaters before anyone noticed. “Warrior,” the 2011 film starring Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton that is considered fightsploitation’s “Rocky,” was also a box office disappointment, earning only $23 million worldwide on a reported $25 million budget. Kevin James’ recent comedy, “Here Comes the Boom,” has done marginally better but is really a film that happens to include mixed martial arts rather than genuine fightsploitation.

Chamitoff’s goal was always theaters, and to accomplish that he’s employing a novel grass-roots release strategy that involves staging mixed martial arts bouts around the country. At each fight clips from the film are shown, and most are followed with a screening that week at a local theater. The first event in September drew 800 people, and nearly double that turned out for the second one in October.

The fights are being filmed and edited into hourlong television programs — complete with commercials for the film — that will be broadcast to a potential audience of 88 million viewers as part of a deal with cable and satellite TV providers, including AT&T U-Verse, Comcast and DirecTV. Chamitoff’s plan is to generate enough money and buzz to leverage the film into wider release. He said “Art of Submission” — which follows fightsploitation’s basic creative template but without what he sees as the more exploitive “blood and porn” aspects — had a chance to spread the gospel of mixed martial arts’ more noble virtues.

“Whatever time it takes between now and the wide theatrical release, I’m not in a rush,” he said. “My whole philosophy is: Let testosterone bring them in, then I’m going to send them out with a message.”

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