Seven years in the making writer/director Steven Bernstein’s feature film starring Helen Hunt and Samantha Morton, Decoding Annie Parker, based on the true story of breast cancer survivor Annie Parker premiered at the Palm Beach International Film Festival on April 4, 2013. With the launch of the film on the festival circuit, Bernstein and his team announced it would also be showing at special benefit screenings with half the revenue going to charities in support of the cause.
The film follows the life of Annie Parker as she watches first her mother, and then her sister lose their battles with breast cancer, only to later be diagnosed with the disease herself at the age of 29. Juxtaposed with Parker’s remarkable story of resistance is that of Mary-Claire King, the resilient scientist whose research efforts led to the discovery of BRCA1, commonly referred to as the “breast cancer gene,” and changed the lives of millions of men and women who, like Parker, were affected by this genetic form of cancer.
For Bernstein, telling Parker’s story has truly been a labor of love – a project that cost him not just time, but his car, his house, and even his own health – and he felt the film deserved more than just potential commercial success.
“It’s based not only on Annie Parker’s story, but on a great many women I got to know over the years,” says Bernstein. “As I did research and met more and more women, it became important to me that the film did something besides making back the investors money, but that it would also increase awareness.”
The idea of partnering with charities during a six-month period Bernstein refers to as the film’s “altruistic window” is something that had never been done before, and was initially met with resistance from financial partners who feared the film would be unable to reach a large enough audience to make it work, but with the help of people like philanthropist’s Johnathan Brownlee and Laurie Rex, Keith Kjarval, who brought in the debt finance company Media House, investment and asset manager Stuart W. Ross, and Dallas lawyer Sidney Powell, Bernstein’s model of philanthropic filmmaking, entitled “Filmanthropy,” took shape.
“We’ve had far more interest than we could even respond to, and we’ve had all the screenings we were physically capable of…so it does work,” says Bernstein who plans to implement the same model on future film projects, including his next feature, currently in the works.
“It’s gotten to the point now where I don’t think I want to do a film that doesn’t do something significant,” says Bernstein, who has received positive feedback from not only breast cancer survivors and patients, but also the research geneticists working with BRCA1. “When important geneticists are telling me I’m making a difference, then I feel like maybe I’ve done something profound, and that makes it worth the very hard seven years it took to make this film.”
On top of raising what Bernstein estimate’s to be around half a million dollars to date in support of charities promoting BRCA1 awareness, various hospitals and hospice centers, and individual research grants, the film has also been well received by audiences, winning both the Best Actress Award for Samantha Morton and the Golden Space Needle Audience Award at the Seattle International Film Festival, and the Alfred P. Stone Film Prize for directing at the Hampton’s International Film Festival, thereby proving doubters wrong about the lack of audience support.
“We’re currently in negotiations with distributors and it seems we’re going to have a very large distribution next year, so everybody benefits – the investors get their money back, we change the world a little bit, and we make some money for charity. Not a bad result for seven years of my life,” says Bernstein.
October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, also marks the end of the film’s six-month window of benefit screenings, making it their busiest month yet. Bernstein, who hopes to keep this momentum going, has requested the film’s principal distributor allow the charity screenings to continue up to the film’s theatrical release next year.
“In addition to the commercial release, I’m also hoping to have fundraising associated with that release where they’ll be a text to donate at the end of the screening, so we’re working on all of these things.” says Bernstein. “The difficult part for me is if a film is too virtuous it tends to drive people away – they think, oh it’s a film about cancer so it can’t be good – but the remarkable thing is we wouldn’t be selling out screenings or winning the Seattle Film Festival if it wasn’t good, so if I can convince people the film is both good and doing something good, then I’ll be in great shape.”