"I was sick of lousy lays, bad sex," says Sarah Jacobson, director of Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore, a lively portrait of a young woman who, having experienced one ignorant man too many, takes control of her own sexual pleasure. "I want people to see what girls go through and for guys to know what girls like."
Jacobson is speaking via phone from San Francisco, where she lives in an apartment downstairs from her mother and business partner, Ruth, the film's coproducer. "In the '50s, Clark Gable looked at you and you swooned," says Ruth. "He looked at you again and you got pregnant. My generation followed a path college, marriage, kids. Sarah put things on film I never knew about."
Sarah and her sister, Lee (now a photographer), were born in Morris Plains, New Jersey, and moved to a Minneapolis suburb (Mom led tours at the Walker Art Center downtown). After a "hateful" period at Bard College, Sarah moved to San Francisco and studied with George Kuchar, whose shoot-cheap-and-show-it-yourself method permeates both her famous short, I Was a Teenage Serial Killer, and Mary Jane.
Ruth joined her daughter in 1995. "Sarah invited me out for three weeks to help her make the film. I never left." To produce Mary Jane, mother and daughter scraped together 50 grand, in part by sending postcards to complete strangers asking for money. Sadly, this gut-level indie spirit may actually have harmed the film's distribution prospects at its Sundance premiere.
"I've never felt like I hit such a brick wall in my life," says Sarah. " 'It had low production values; it would need special handling; too bad it wasn't a lesbian film; girls don't go to movies without their boyfriends.' There was no respect for cult movies. Everybody wanted Brothers McMullen." Undeterred, she took the film to festivals all over the States and Europe, from Helsinki to Amsterdam. "I came back and said, 'Mom, let's do distribution.' "
Within weeks, the Jacobsons had turned their company, Station Wagon Productions, into a simple yet sophisticated self-distribution enterprise. Ruth compiled a database of indie-friendly theaters and Sarah called journalists using phone lists coaxed from theater owners. They skipped expenses distributors usually consider necessary, like advertising and trailers. Frequent e-mail updates ("Tell all your friends in Akron!") resulted in offers of help from dozens of local volunteers who put up posters or handed out flyers and the Mary Janezines now prized by collectors. Most important, those helpers paid admission. "Nobody realized how organized we were," Ruth says. "Four hundred people would show up. That's all we needed." Now, nearly two years to the day of its Sundance snub, as Mary Janerolls into New York (it plays at Cinema Village for a week starting next Friday), the film has grossed almost exactly what it cost.
Sarah is clear-cut about her future plans. "I've got a new script, about a girl band called Sleaze. I want to make films about girls and women and have people see them. And I want institutional support, like the men get. The time exists for girls and women to have their own films and become their own audience."
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