American Movie

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American Movie
Promotional release poster
Directed byChris Smith
Produced bySarah Price
Chris Smith
Music byMike Schank
CinematographyChris Smith
Edited byBarry Poltermann
Jun Diaz
C-Hundred Film Corporation
Civilian Pictures
Bluemark Productions
Distributed bySony Pictures Classics
Release date
November 5, 1999
Running time
107 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$1.2 million[1]

American Movie is a 1999 documentary film directed by Chris Smith. The film chronicles the real 1996–97 making of Coven, an independent horror film directed by filmmaker Mark Borchardt. Produced for the purpose of raising capital for another film that Borchardt intends to make, the epic Northwestern, Coven suffers from numerous setbacks, including poor financing, a lack of planning, Borchardt's burgeoning alcoholism, and the ineptitude of the friends and family Borchardt hires as his production team.[2] The documentary follows Borchardt's filmmaking process from script to screen, and is interspersed with footage from both developing projects. American Movie was produced by Sarah Price and edited by Jun Diaz and Barry Poltermann.

Filming for American Movie began in September 1995 and concluded in August 1997.[3] The film was a critical success upon its debut and went on to win the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, and has since gone on to be considered a cult film.


In 1996, Mark Borchardt, a blue-collar suburbanite, dreams of being a filmmaker. However, he is also an unemployed, deeply indebted, borderline alcoholic who still lives with his parents and is estranged from his ex-girlfriend, who is threatening to revoke custody of their three children. He acknowledges his various failures but aspires to one day make more of his life.

In an attempt to jump-start his amateur film making career, Mark restarts production on Northwestern, a feature-length film Mark has been planning for most of his adult life. Initially, the project attracts some interest from the group of amateur actors with whom Mark produces radio plays, but by the fourth production meeting, almost no one shows up and Mark is forced to acknowledge that he currently lacks the resources to ever move Northwestern past the pre-production phase.

In an attempt to drum up the attention and financial resources needed to film Northwestern, Mark decides to finally complete Coven (which Borchardt mispronounces with a long 'o'), a horror short that he began shooting on 16mm film in 1994 but ultimately abandoned. Mark receives financing from his uncle Bill, a wise but increasingly senile eighty-two-year-old retiree who lives in a dilapidated trailer despite having nearly $300,000 in his bank account. Bill hesitantly agrees to invest in Coven with the goal of selling three thousand VHS tapes, which he hopes will raise enough capital to finance Northwestern.

Mark restarts production on Coven but suffers numerous mishaps. Although he is hard-working and knowledgeable about film making, he is also poor at planning ahead and inarticulate as a director. Additionally, Mark builds his production crew out of friends and neighbors, many of whom are incompetent at the tasks to which Mark assigns them. Particular attention is given to his best friend (and one of the only adept members of the crew) Mike Schank, a recovering alcoholic and drug addict who is in charge of scoring Coven. Although the two bonded over their shared alcoholism, Mike has coped with his own addictions by joining Alcoholics Anonymous and by becoming a compulsive gambler; in between work on Coven, Mike goes to the gas station to buy lottery tickets, sometimes accompanied by his AA sponsor, who then drives them both to Gamblers' Anonymous meetings. It is Mike's hope that by winning money on the lottery, he can help Mark finance his movies.

As production goes forward, Mark faces the skepticism of his family and his own burgeoning alcoholism. At Thanksgiving dinner and, later, a family party to watch Super Bowl XXXI, Mark gets drunk and becomes aggressive to his family and friends, and his girlfriend briefly leaves him. Later, a wistful Mark watches amateur footage he shot of Northwestern in 1990 and contemplates whether or not he is a failure.

Mark finally wraps production of Coven and it premieres at a local theater in 1997. Mark's family and friends are happy that the project has finally been completed. In the final scene, Mark goes to visit Uncle Bill and discusses the prospects of future fame and wealth. Bill responds by advising Mark to focus on spiritual matters and bringing happiness into other people's lives.

The closing text reveals that Bill died shortly after in 1997, and left Mark $50,000 in his will to help finance Northwestern.

Awards and reception[edit]

The film was awarded the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival.[4] In 2004, American Movie was named by The New York Times as one of the "1,000 Greatest Movies Ever Made",[5] and the International Documentary Association named it as one of the top 20 documentaries of all time.[6]

The film has an approval rating of 94% on the review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes based on 49 reviews, with a weighted average of 8.28/10. The site's consensus reads: "Well worth watching for film buffs and anyone who believes in following your dreams, American Movie is a warm, funny, and engrossing ode to creative passion".[7] Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote that the film conveys Borchardt's passion "Insightfully and stirringly, not to mention hilariously", and that "For anyone wondering where the spirit of maverick independent filmmaking has its source, you need look no further".[8] Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four possible stars, calling the film "a very funny, sometimes very sad documentary".[9]

Amy Goodman of IndieWire called the film "An inspiration for filmmakers everywhere",[10] and Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times wrote that the film "is sure to draw lots of laughs".[4] Glenn Lovell of Variety called the film an "ambitious, wildly funny chronicle" and a "madcap tribute to a beer-guzzling Midwestern filmmaker".[11]

Home media[edit]

The film was released on VHS on January 16, 2001.[12] The film was released on DVD by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment on May 23, 2000 as a "Special Edition", which includes a commentary by Chris Smith, Sarah Price, Mark Borchardt, and Mike Schank, along with the short film Coven and 22 deleted scenes.[13][14]

It was also available on the streaming channel Shudder.[15]


  1. ^ "American Movie (1999)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved October 15, 2014.
  2. ^ "Salon Arts & Entertainment "American Movie"". Nov 8, 1999. Retrieved 2009-09-15.
  3. ^ "Texas Documentary Tour, Chris Smith and American Movie". Oct 15, 1999. Retrieved 2010-10-10.
  4. ^ a b Thomas, Kevin (Nov 12, 1999). "Movie Review; 'American Movie' Turns Camera on Indie Filmmaker". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2009-09-15.
  5. ^ "1,000 Greatest Movies Ever Made". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 29 October 2009. Retrieved 2009-09-15.
  6. ^ ""Bowling for Columbine Tops Best Documentary List", 12-12-2002". Retrieved 2009-06-05.
  7. ^ "American Movie (1999)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved July 3, 2019.
  8. ^ Janet Maslin (November 5, 1999). "FILM REVIEW; Seat-of-the Pants Director: Lights! Camera! Gumption!". The New York Times. Retrieved June 20, 2017.
  9. ^ Roger Ebert (January 21, 2000). "American Movie Movie Review & Film Summary (2000)". Retrieved June 20, 2017.
  10. ^ Goodman, Amy (November 3, 1999). "INTERVIEW: "American Movie"'s Mark Borchardt, An Inspiration for Filmmakers Everywhere". IndieWire. Retrieved June 20, 2017.
  11. ^ Lovell, Glenn (January 28, 1999). "Review: 'American Movie'". Variety. Retrieved June 20, 2017.
  12. ^ American Movie [VHS]. ISBN 0767839145.
  13. ^ American Movie. ISBN 0767846869.
  14. ^ Aaron Beierle (June 3, 2000). "American Movie: Special Edition". DVD Talk. Retrieved June 20, 2017.
  15. ^ SHUDDER

External links[edit]

Preceded by
The Farm
tied with Frat House
Sundance Grand Jury Prize: Documentary
Succeeded by
Long Night's Journey Into Day