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Fargo man proud of film

BISMARCK - "Wooly Boys" was not a flop; its distribution was, says Ken Promersberger, the Fargo man who gave birth to the film shot in the North Dakota badlands in October 2000.

BISMARCK - "Wooly Boys" was not a flop; its distribution was, says Ken Promersberger, the Fargo man who gave birth to the film shot in the North Dakota badlands in October 2000.

The film made news this month when the state-owned Bank of North Dakota disclosed that, two years ago, it wrote off $1.6 million of the $3.9 million it loaned to producers, deciding it was probably uncollectible. Two members of the bank's board of directors - Gov. John Hoeven and Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson - said they still believe the film was a worthwhile gamble.

Promersberger, longtime owner of a Fargo advertising firm, was executive producer of "Wooly Boys." He and 12 others invested their own money in addition to funds granted by the bank, to form Wooly Boys Productions. With DVD sales going on now, he said last week, Wooly Boys Productions may still be able to pay the bank its $1.6 million.

And he remains proud of the movie.

"I must say that we turned out a very good product," he said. "The film worked. In the theaters we got to, people loved it.


It's frustrating "how close we came to major success," he said last week.

The Peter Fonda-Kris Kristofferson comedic drama about crusty old sheep ranchers packed theaters in the two markets - North Dakota and Idaho - in which it was released.

Using a film business measurement called "per-screen average," "Wooly Boys' " January 2004 opening weekend in North Dakota rang up a $9,875 per-screen average, second highest in the nation out of 106 films then in theaters. Its opening weekend in Idaho had a $5,198 per-screen average. Movie business people told Promersberger $3,000-$5,000 was considered successful.

"Wooly Boys" ran in Bismarck theaters 15 weeks (No. 1 for six straight weekends) and Fargo theaters 11 weeks. It also got a warm welcome in Grand Forks (seven weeks), Minot (six weeks) and Dickinson (five weeks).

But in film marketing, Promersberger found, "you don't have control over everything."

At one point the release was delayed while a similar movie about feisty old-timers that was finished well after "Wooly Boys" - "Secondhand Lions" - hit the theaters. So when "Wooly Boys" came out, it was seen as a knockoff of "Lions."

But worse, during much of 2004, "Wooly Boys" distributor MAC Releasing was shriveling up and going out of business when it was supposed to be marketing Promersberger's film. At the same time, Promersberger was struggling to buy back the rights. Nothing more was done after the Idaho release, he said.

A few months later, a tantalizingly close call with fortune arose when a high-profile distributor of independent films, Bob Berney ("My Big Fat Greek Wedding," "The Passion of the Christ," "Whale Rider," "Monster"), saw "Wooly Boys."


Promersberger and Berney had a mutual entertainment business lawyer who sent Berney a copy of the film.

"Love the film. Great cast. Who's got the rights?" Berney asked the attorney.

But within days of presenting a business deal to Berney, Time Warner announced it had bought Berney's Newmarket films and that Berney would run the new company, Picturehouse. That was early 2005.

"We were a hair's breath away, in my mind, of having a highly successful film," Promersberger says.

Berney told Promersberger, "I've just got too many things going on."

By then, the national DVD-VHS release date - controlled by Lions Gate - was just weeks away.

Cable, video rental and DVD sales customers seem appreciative. Typical customer reviews on Web sites: "Not to be missed." "Very heartwarming." "Good for the family." On Friday, Amazon.com reported its sales ranked No. 8,601 (out of 90,500 DVDs).

Though the North Dakota Industrial Commission approved the loan because of its potential for showcasing the state, the unsuccessful marketing meant that didn't happen, either.


Mark Zimmerman of the state Tourism Division handles calls from out-of-state producers looking for locations to shoot commercials or films. No one has ever told him they called because they had seen "Wooly Boys."

"More people would mention (the film) 'Fargo'," he said.

In a story on Variety.com last September, Berney made a fitting, though generic, observation about the unpredictable world of film distribution.

"So much of distribution is the real palpable magic of when events line up," he told the interviewer.

For Promersberger and "Wooly Boys," that palpable magic slipped away.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Janell Cole at (701) 224-0830

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