Sean Covel’s film career got a big jump-start when he produced the 2004 independent hit movie “Napoleon Dynamite.” Now, instead of staying in Los Angeles, the Edgemont native has plans to make full use of his secret weapon: the Black Hills.
Covel, who has made 10 films and will share his expertise at the Black Hills Film Festival this week, is in the process of moving to the Spearfish area and plans to open an office in Deadwood.
“Deadwood is such an interesting world,” Covel, 38, said by phone from his parents’ home in Edgemont. “I’m going to snag a couple of writer friends who want to come and work with me.”
“Non-mainstream television series and films” such as those on Netflix and Hulu are one possibility, he said.
“That’s pretty much all Hollywood is talking about. Audience viewership is changing constantly and no one is sure who the industry leader will be: Netflix, Amazon, Hulu. ... Really, the only thing anybody knows is that every outlet will need content,” he said. “There are so many places to put it out. And Deadwood has such a unique imprint.”
Covel, who graduated from the University of Nebraska at Kearney, then headed to San Francisco before attending film school at the University of Southern California, admits to being less confident about his background when he was first starting out.
“I’ll be honest with you. It was something I really felt insecure about when I moved from Nebraska,” he said. “I always thought someone had a better education or a more sophisticated life experience.”
When he received his acceptance letter from USC and saw that he would have classmates from Harvard and other prestigious schools, he wondered how he could keep up.
“My stories were so much different than everybody else’s stories,” he said. “I slowly began to realize that growing up in Edgemont, and in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is kind of my superpower. Stories from growing up in the Hills drop jaws wherever I tell them. It’s one of the things I get to play with.”
After film school, Covel worked on “Think Tank” and then joined the “Napoleon Dynamite” producing team in 2003. His other producing credits include “12 Dogs of Christmas,” “Beneath” and “Concrete Blondes.” He often produces with a USC classmate, Chris “Doc” Wyatt, and teaches a film business course as an adjunct professor at USC. After he moves to Spearfish, he plans to spend about one week a month in Los Angeles.
Because his movies have been made outside of the studio system, “I can live anywhere,” he said.
This is Covel’s fifth year of being involved with the Black Hills Film Festival and his fourth year on the festival’s board.
“Sean has been very instrumental in bringing Hollywood talent out to the festival over the years,” Chris VanNess, executive director of the film festival, said in an email. “His connections to filmmakers/producers/actors in L.A. are extensive. People also enjoy his seminars and workshops. He is a very good teacher.”
Covel’s workshops at the festival include “Finance for Film” and “How Not to Make a Short Film.” Both will include advice to filmmakers based on his own experience.
“I’ve seen a number of spectacularly bad movies and made a couple of spectacularly bad movies myself,” he said. “I think one of the mistakes indie filmmakers make is not writing to their resources. I think that’s the place their idea should begin. Then you don’t have to rely on slick Hollywood techniques, because you’re just telling a story.”
Getting financing for a film can be a difficult hurdle for filmmakers, Covel said.
“Consistently, we’re seeing voices in our films that are outside of Los Angeles, outside of New York,” he said. “Because of the success of those films, we know there’s an audience for that type of story. But most independent filmmakers don’t tend to know the business outside of the creative.”
After “Napoleon Dynamite,” “we were constantly taken out to coffee and asked the same questions,” he said. To help answer them, he is writing a book called “Playing with Dynamite, Producing an Independent Film.”
One of his tips is to be passionate about the project.
“Asking someone for money is a weird thing. You do it because you have a passion. All you can do is share your passion, and if they support what you’re doing, they invest as a partner. They bring the financing and you bring the hard work,” he said.
Covel’s own projects include a “noir-ish, small-town Texas thriller” that will begin pre-production in October. Although the financing and the director are in place, “We don’t really know what movie we’re making,” he said. “We have a script, but we’re also going out to other writers. We’re actively searching for the movie we’re going to make — even though we know exactly when we’re going to shoot it.”
He and his girlfriend, Rebecca Swift, an illustrator and makeup artist at the Aleka Spa in Deadwood, also are planning to write a children’s book. And he plans to return to comedy and come back to a South Dakota picture he worked on two years ago called “Matt Epic,” about three friends who road-trip back to small-town South Dakota to subvert the wedding of Matt’s lifelong crush. The film is based on the true stories of three Elks Theatre workers.
“It was all on track,” he said. “Then we lost a lead actor and with that, we lost an ensemble. By then, it was late in the summer. You kind of get one run at it. But it’s the most personal and most important movie of my career. I won’t stop until that thing gets made. Sometimes they take a lot longer than you want. ”
Covel said he always has multiple projects in the works.
“Especially in film, you queue up as many projects as you can,” he said. “You just get ready to jump on the one that’s going to work.”
In the meantime, he’s singing the praises of the Black Hills Film Festival, which continues through Sunday, May 4. He urges those attending to consider the VIP pass at $125, which includes entry to all screenings, workshops and parties.
“The cost of that thing is what I have to spend at lunch when I’m forced to take a meeting in Beverly Hills,” he said. “The parties are fantastic. I would line them up with anything we’ve got going at Sundance.”
He said the festival attracts people who are there to celebrate film, and the connections made are invaluable.
“Everybody is just super approachable,” he said. “There’s no business agenda. Those friendships carry over. I get to really understand what the resources are in the Black Hills. Who are the hardworking filmmakers? Who has the gear? When you go to an event like the film festival and you make the friends you do, you know who can help you pull the project off.”