When law student Anthony Desiato decided to spend his summer making a documentary, his friends didn't expect a lot.
"When I told people I was going to do this, everyone was very supportive, but I don't think they really knew what to expect," Desiato said. "And to be fair, neither did I.
"But I think I rather exceeded people's low expectations," the filmmaker said with a laugh. "They were pleasantly surprised by what I was able to accomplish with so little."
They aren't the only ones who have been pleasantly surprised. My Comic Shop DocumentARy, Desiato's film about the strong sense of community in a small comic book store where he works, has been getting the attention of film festivals around the country.
"I can't even put into words how gratifying it's been for the movie to have been selected for, now, three film festivals," Desiato said. "It's more than I could have hoped for, and it gives me a tremendous sense of validation."
It's quite an accomplishment, considering Desiato's lack of filmmaking experience. The 24-year-old law student has been working at the "Alternate Realities" comic shop since he was in high school, but he's always thought there was a potential story to be told about the unlikely community that has developed in the store.
"What always stood out to me about this store, and what I think sets the store apart from other stores and what made me think it would be a good movie, is really the sense of community and camaraderie at the store. And that's really the central theme of the movie and what drove the idea to make the film," he said, adding that the capital "AR" in his movie's title pays homage to the store's name.
The idea of a documentary about a comic book store isn't a new one. But Desiato said he thinks his film has tapped into a rare combination that few others have: a mixture of humor and heart that only a comic shop insider could understand.
"This wasn't a case of some outsider coming in and saying, you know, let me put these comic book people under a microscope," he said. "I've been reading comics since I was five, and I've worked at this comic book shop for a decade, so I love comic books. I love the people at the store. I love comic book fans in general.
"I didn't set out to expose but rather to celebrate a group that is so often relegated to stereotypes in popular culture," he said. "Do some people in the film fit that stereotype? Sure. And most of the people I interviewed are certainly colorful and quirky. But these same people come from a variety of walks of life, have wives and girlfriends, and don't just talk about comic books all the time."The movie itself is divided into vignettes, but the dramatic through-line that connects everything in the film is the story of the store's owner, Steve Oto, who was a lawyer before he opened the Scarsdale, N.Y., store in 1992.
By highlighting both Oto's accomplishments and disappointments since opening the store — as well as some oddball sayings he calls "Otoisms" — the movie establishes narrative thread as it exposes the colorful world that's emerged within the store. "It's really his arc that carries the viewer through the movie, and his complicated relationship with the store," Desiato said.
"I think the best way to describe [Oto] is that he's a man of contradictions," Desiato said. "Certainly, the lawyer-turned-comic book retailer is one side of it. But even more than that, he's gregarious, yet misanthropic. He enjoys a friendly rapport with the customers, but at the same time, if they don't come in and pick up their books, he declares them 'dead.' He's always saying that the store is his dream that became a nightmare. And he's constantly threatening to sell it. But I truly believe that he does derive pleasure from the store and never would sell it."
Within the chapters of the film, viewers get to know a cast of quirky customers and comic-obsessed employees. The film explores everything from their "man caves" to the customers' more extreme rants about costumes and characters."One of the things that was very important to me in making this movie, and that I think sets it apart from other documentaries, is its humor," the law student-turned-filmmaker said. "It moves quickly and has a lot of laughs. But it's all driven by this theme about how this place has given people a sense of belonging, something that everyone desires."
Desiato said there's a moment in the movie that perfectly illustrates the way My Comic Shop DocumentARy mixes humor with heart. "One of the store's regular customers goes on what can only be described as a rant about Captain America's costume in the movie," Desiato said. "He was quite upset that Captain America wasn't going to have the wings on his helmet, and every time I show the movie, that scene has gotten a lot of laughs.
"But the reason that it's in there isn't to say, 'Hey, look at this fanboy.' It's in there to show that, here's this guy who tends to be on the quiet, reserved side, and yet he feels comfortable at Alternate Realities to express himself in this way, in front of everyone," Desiato said. "And that's part of the sense of community that people feel in the store."
The budget for the film was what Desiato calls "tiny" because it was self-funded by the law student. "I wrote, shot and edited the entire thing between my first and second years of law school, over that summer," he said, adding that he's always had an interest in writing, and this seemed like the ideal creative outlet. "It was a very intense experience, and it was a real trial by fire. But I loved it, and I fell in love with the process. And I learned as I went along."
The movie hasn't found a distributor yet, but Desiato is hoping to find a way to get the film circulated beyond film festivals, even if it's a back-up extra in a feature film.
"My primary goal right now is securing distribution for the film," Desiato said. "Getting distribution for any independent movie, let alone a do-it-yourself documentary about a comic book shop, is no easy feat. And I recognize that."But I do think there's an audience for it," he said. "I've seen it play for enough audiences now that I see that it plays well. It gets laughs, and it gets the message across in a unique way. So I'm trying to get it out there and raise awareness that it exists."
Desiato said he hopes comic book fans get a chance to watch the movie, because the film is really about them.
"Even if there's an instance where the movie pokes fun at 'us,' and I include myself in that, everything comes from a place of love," he said.
"My depiction [of comic book fans] led to one of the most rewarding reactions to the film: After the screening at Comic-Con, a gentleman came up to me and told me he owns a comic book shop in the South," Desiato said, "and he was grateful that the film showed a different side of fans."
For more information on My Comic Shop DocumentARy and its showing this weekend at the St. Louis Film Festival, visit the movie's Facebook page.Got a comment? There's lots of conversation on Newsarama's FACEBOOK and TWITTER!