Dave's debut: Red Fern to premiere at Tribeca

Amid continuing litigation, the fledgling movie career of Dave Matthews will emerge next month after three years trapped in film cans. The two screenings of Where the Red Fern Grows, set for May 3 and 4 at the Tribeca Film Festival, represent the first public viewings of the highly anticipated screen debut of the musical superstar.

"Red Fern to Dave Matthews fans means three years of disappointment and waiting," says Waldo Jaquith, an authority on the home-grown band. "Lucky for the producers of this film," Jaquith says, "Dave Matthews Band has only become more popular."

Indeed. Rolling Stone says 1.5 million people bought tickets to see DMB in 2002. "More people saw the Dave Matthews Band last year than any other band in the world," says Jaquith, the public face of nancies.org, the most popular DMB fan site.

Matthews, who divides his time between Seattle and Keene, chose a supporting role in this remake of a children's classic as his film debut. Based on the novel by Wilson Rawls, Red Fern is a tear-jerking story of a poor boy and his hunting dogs.

It must also be a tear-jerker to Lyman Dayton, the writer/producer/director who lost control of the film last year. Dayton, based in St. George, Utah, directed the original 1974 film, which, like the novel, has become a staple of middle school curricula. But he ran out of cash during the 1999 filming in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and the Screen Actors Guild effectively shut down the project by ordering the unpaid crew off the set.

At one point, Matthews himself made a six-figure secured loan to the production. But it wasn't enough.

A year ago, Crusader, a California-based firm specializing in family fare, bought the unfinished film out of bankruptcy for $975,000 and then proceeded to spend over $3 million finishing it under the direction of Sam Pillsbury (Fifteen and Pregnant; Free Willy 3: The Rescue).

"We think it's better than the first film, so we're very high on it," says William J. Immerman, Crusader's chief operating officer.

Crusader sent a technician up to Seattle to visit Dave for "looping," the process of re-taping unclear dialogue. "He likes the film," says Immerman of the bi-coastal musician. "We're hoping Dave can come to the world premiere, but he's in the studio mixing his album."

While the film has yet to secure a distributor, Immerman hopes for a wide national release along the lines of 2000's My Dog Skip.

 The Tribeca Film Festival was launched last year as a salve for the funky neighborhood of converted warehouses near the site of the demolished World Trade Center. Co-founded by Tribeca resident Robert De Niro, the Festival was the site of last year's world premieres for About A Boy, Insomnia, and the most recent installment of Star Wars.

 Since last summer's Hook cover story [September 19, 2002: "Dave's debut: Disasters stymie Matthews' move into movies"], bankrupt director Dayton has sued the film's new owners in California Superior Court, but Immerman says the suit eventually wound up before the original bankruptcy judge in Utah, who dismissed it. Dayton's appeal is pending.

"We're not taking it very seriously at this point," says Immerman. "When you buy a movie out of bankruptcy, you know there are going to be certain lingering problems. There are always going to be one or more disgruntled creditors. But we analyzed the situation and felt we had a pretty good case. We're going forward."

But Dayton's attorney doesn't see it that way. He says Immerman and others Dayton had recruited to finish the project colluded to limit the bidding in the bankruptcy auction.

"They went behind his back and bought it from an unwitting judge," says the lawyer, Russell S. Walker. "The creditors really got ripped off."

While he says his client considers the finished production "sub-standard," Walker admits that securing a settlement, rather than winning back control of the film, is the new objective.

Does Immerman feel bad that Dayton lost his labor of love? "We recognize his creative input," says Immerman. "At least there's a film out with his name on it– instead of sitting in a laboratory somewhere."

Has Immerman heard from Dayton? "Other than the lawsuit, no," Immerman says, adding that veteran actors Kris Kristofferson and Dabney Coleman will join the film's teenage star, Joseph Ashton, at the Tribeca premiere.

"It looks like I'm gonna be there," confirms Ashton. An eighth grader when filming began in 1999, Ashton is now a high school junior enjoying "the best grades I've had in a long time."

Perhaps he can thank Red Fern's limbo. While the Anaheim area 16-year-old has become a popular cartoon voice, including the lead role of Otto on the Nickelodeon series Rocket Powered, his last starring role was 1997's The Education of Little Tree.

 "I still do get fans who email me from Little Tree," says Ashton. Still, he concedes, "I'd like to build up a name for myself."


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