Working outside the studio system and normal conventions has defined the career of entrepreneur, screenwriter, producer, and director Curt Hahn. Curt is well-known to many in Nashville as the founder of Film House, Inc. (Film House), which at one point was one of the largest producers of television commercials in the country. His lengthy list of clients has included Coca-Cola, Vanderbilt University, Habitat for Humanity, the American Red Cross, and the American Cancer Society. In creating television advertisements, he’s worked with the likes of Taylor Swift, Teri Garr, Snoop Dogg, Candice Bergen, Shaquille O’Neal, Shania Twain, Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, and Reba McEntire. But as the name implies, Film House has expanded its horizons well beyond commercials, across a wide range of motion picture projects integrating both creative and entrepreneurial innovation.
The Disney School (of Thought)
Raised in New England, Curt went to Washington University in St. Louis in 1968.
“I went to school to study architecture for a few years,” he tells FilmNashville Foundation. “Halfway through that experience, I decided I wanted to switch to film.”
He attended the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1970 for a summer. Realizing that film was for him, he discovered a brand new school that was about to open: The California Institute of the Arts (CalArts).
According to the Institute’s website, CalArts was initially conceived by Walt Disney and his brother Roy in 1961. It was founded for the purpose of “nurturing future generations of creative talent.” This was done through a multidisciplinary approach that bucked the conventional learning model based on how working artists—and not simply teachers—would teach a new generation of creators.
This novel method of teaching attracted some incredible talent to CalArts. The founding dean of the Institute’s film school happened to be Alexander (Sandy) Mackendrick, who is considered one of Britain’s greatest film directors, and known for his Ealing Studios films like “The Ladykillers.” He’d come to CalArts to escape the frustrating demands of Hollywood studios.
Curt recognized the dean for his 1957 noir drama “Sweet Smell of Success,” a film that found its recognition with critics and cinephiles decades later after its theatrical release. “The first time I met Sandy was when I went to interview for CalArts. We chatted for about 45 minutes and at the end of the conversation, he said ‘Well, you’re the kind of chap we’re looking for. Welcome to CalArts!’” Curt says.
Curt was elated. However, his family was unwilling to pay for film school instead of studying architecture. He explained this to Mackendrick, who replied “That’s all right. We’ll give you a full scholarship.”
“In the space of five minutes, Sandy totally changed the trajectory of my life,” Curt says. “I went from being a penniless architecture school dropout to a film school student studying at a prestigious institute. And they were actually paying me because they gave each film student a budget to make films!”
After joining CalArts, Curt befriended Mackendrick and created a weekly independent study with Mackendrick for one-on-one discussions about the craft of filmmaking. “One of the sessions that I remember best was when the two of us had a private screening of ‘Sweet Smell of Success.’ I sat at the controls of the moviola playing the film, and every so often I would pause the film to ask Sandy a question. Talk about a masterclass!”
Learning How to Hustle
Curt graduated from CalArts in 1972 and immediately found work with what is now PBS Charlotte, working as a cinematographer and director. But he was soon wooed away by an innovative Charlotte-based production company. He recalls, “They produced films for major clients around the country. It was fascinating because the founder was an ad exec who was really good at selling. Clients never called him. Instead, he would call them to pitch spec projects. His strategy was explaining the project as if it was something that was already commissioned, and he’d do this to find talent and financing for the whole thing.”
Only there for a year, Curt says that his time with this production company was invaluable. “The biggest takeaway from being there was that you can wait for someone to call you, or you can go out and create the business yourself,” he says.
In 1975 Curt moved to Nashville, attracted by the creative energy he found, which contrasted favorably with the phoniness he encountered during his time in L.A. He started Film House with no capital, working out of his home, and doing whatever he could to generate work including working as a freelance cinematographer.
Eventually, interesting work would come. One of Film House’s first major clients was the National Dairy Council, commissioning a series of health-oriented films. Later, bigger clients like Texas Instruments would hire Film House to produce a documentary on using calculators in the classroom.
But everything changed in 1981 when Film House produced its first TV commercial to promote a radio station. The business plan was to create and produce a national quality TV commercial, shot on 35mm film, that could be customized to promote similar radio stations in markets across the country. Film House would shoot the commercial once and hopefully sell it multiple times at a price a local radio station could afford. “The key was Film House created the ad and owned the copyright,” explains Curt. “We would then license the rights to the commercial to one radio station per market. Much like the music industry, if we had a hit TV commercial that many radio stations wanted to use to promote themselves we could make a good profit, much better than simply making a one-off work for hire.”
The demand was indeed there, and Film House was able to sell slightly edited versions of their first TV commercial to promote a radio station to 23 separate radio stations across the country. Through these different sales, Film House generated over $100K for an ad that took the company one day to shoot.
“It was great for us, and it was great for them! They got a national quality commercial at a price they could afford and we were able to make a great profit if we produced a hit commercial,” Curt says.
This model of “shoot once, edit for each client” was the model of success that Film House adopted, and the company would ultimately create over 20,000 commercials for local radio stations around the world, as they quickly became the recognized leader in the esoteric category of creating and producing TV commercials that got radio stations more listeners. “We helped radio stations like Gerry’s House’s WSIX achieve the highest ratings in Nashville history, and we did the same for radio stations from Sydney to San Francisco, from New York City to Toronto, from Los Angeles to London, England.”
This was the company’s core business all throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. Over forty years later, Film House still produces the occasional radio station TV commercial today, but Curt shares that business for this format has slowed considerably due to radio consolidation.
“The success of those commercials and owning our own intellectual property is what paid for our beautiful studio and office building,” he says, referring to the 40,000-square-foot space Curt designed for Film House with help from noted Nashville firm ESa. “That was a perfect full-circle moment, getting to combine my passion for architecture with my love of filmmaking.”
There was one other formative experience during this period. In 1989 Film House created a concept for a TV show that would feature some of the talented radio personalities they had been working with as clients. Having no connections in Hollywood, they decided their best bet was to approach Dick Clark to see if he would partner with them.
“Dick Clark was an absolute gem, the antithesis of the shallow Hollywood types that had turned me off about L.A.,” says Curt. “We pitched him the idea and he immediately agreed to partner with us. Within days we were in Bob Iger’s office shaking hands on a deal for a pilot for ABC with the largest budget we’d ever seen.”
But things went downhill from there. “Everyone—the network, the entire team at Dick Clark Productions—they all said they loved our idea because it was fresh and different. And I think they truly meant it,” says Curt. “But there are a million large and small decisions on a pilot, and every time it just seemed that the immense Hollywood gravitational pull of playing it safe, of sticking with the conventional, trumped the originality of our concept. It just kept getting diluted until we barely recognized it. By the time it aired to only decent ratings, I was actually relieved that we didn’t get picked up to go to series, because making it was such a disappointing experience.”
In 1999, as radio consolidation was increasing and the TV commercial work was beginning to taper off, Film House would find work in its biggest client to date.
“We were awarded the largest continuing contract the U.S. government has ever awarded for film production. Between 1999 and 2016, we produced TV and radio spots for the American Forces Network (AFN). This network broadcasts content in over 100 countries wherever we have troops overseas,” Curt says.
Literally all of the ads were created by Film House. Most of these were public service-like announcements (PSAs) that provided helpful information for military personnel.
But there was much more to come. In 2000, Film House launched Ascendant Media, an internet marketing company, and quickly raised $6.4 million, eventually selling it a few years later.
And in 2003, Curt decided that it was finally time to make his first feature film. This would be the romantic drama “No Regrets.”
“I drafted the screenplay for ‘No Regrets’ in the ‘80s,” Curt says. “I didn’t make it then because I couldn’t figure out a business model for making an independent film that made financial sense.”
As a fan of Ingmar Bergman who would one day make the pilgrimage to Bergman’s home and studio on the remote Swedish island of Fårö, Curt is drawn to small, intimate, powerful stories.
The official website for the film provides its synopsis: “Cheryl (Janine Turner) and Alex Wheeler (Robert Merrill) are seemingly happily married, with two beautiful daughters. But when Alex decides to look up his college sweetheart Suzanne Kennerly (Lari White), he has no idea that his actions will lead to Cheryl also being reunited with her college sweetheart, Phil Welch (Brad Johnson).
In fact, we soon discover that these four are actually actors making a film. The real Alex Wheeler (Edward Albert) is a filmmaker directing a movie about his complex relationships with the real Suzanne (Kate Jackson) and the real Cheryl (Jennifer Hetrick). Through the multiple layers of the film-within-the-film, the characters explore their most important relationships and confront their deepest questions.”
Thanks to his success in creating TV commercials to promote radio stations, Curt came to the production of “No Regrets” with a strong understanding of demographics and how to craft a script targeting a particular audience, as well as the confidence to make what he deemed a good movie. Making the film specifically designed to appeal to the Lifetime channel’s audience, it was cast with performers that Lifetime fans would recognize.
“I was never interested in making films that had a lot of gunplay in them. I was always more interested in relationships, specifically love stories. That’s what ‘No Regrets’ represents for me. It’s the culmination of twenty years worth of thinking about how to tell an intimate story that audiences would like,” Curt says.
Made on his terms “No Regrets” was created by Curt’s understanding—and not a network executive’s perception—of what Lifetime viewers would want to see. He’s proud to say that the story, casting, and other creative decisions were his alone, and made without the meddling of studio higher-ups. “At the end of the day, I was able to say I made exactly the movie I wanted to make. That’s something very few filmmakers get to say.”
“Everything was designed to appeal to Lifetime’s audience. When the film was finished, Lifetime immediately picked it up and paid us twice what we spent making it. And that was just for North America! We licensed it around the world, on HBO in Europe, The Hallmark Channel in the U.K., even in China!”
Adjusting to Programmatic Changes
Lifetime loved the film, and it proved to be a huge success with its viewership, with over 35 million people seeing the film on Lifetime and The Lifetime Movie Network over the next seven years. Lifetime saw Curt and Film House as a potential production partner and proposed a generous offer with a larger budget to make more projects like “No Regrets,” but with the condition that they be in ultimate control of all the creative decisions like scripting and casting. Tempting though it was, Curt would turn this offer down because he didn’t want to relinquish creative control. “The final straw was that they would require I write the script with the standard TV movie seven-act structure,” says Curt. “I said, ‘But you said you wanted more movies like “No Regrets”, which has a classic three-act structure.’ They didn’t have an answer to that, but I knew we would never see eye to eye.” He didn’t want to suffer the same fate as his mentor Alexander Mackendrick and become another victim of Hollywood’s formulaic model of production.
This wasn’t creativity at all, but a paint-by-numbers approach to movies. “It’s the exact same reason I didn’t stay in L.A. after film school, or why we never went back to pitching to the TV networks. It just would not have worked, and it would have been the most frustrating experience possible,” he says. Curt admired the success of mavericks like Ingmar Bergman, François Truffaut, and Walt Disney, each man carving out their own unique future in motion pictures.
In 2005 while working on the international release of “No Regrets,” Curt’s friend Steve Stockman was working on his own passion project: “Two Weeks.”
Starring Sally Field, Ben Chaplin, Tom Cavanagh, Julianne Nicholson, Glenn Howerton, and Clea DuVall, “Two Weeks” is a drama about a dying mother who entraps her four estranged children in the same house together so that they can reconcile their differences.
“Steve had seen ‘No Regrets’, and he reached out to me because he was trying to get ‘Two Weeks’ off the ground,” Curt says. Steve had raised more than half the money for “Two Weeks” and had already secured Sally Field, for what was her first independent feature. “Steve asked, ‘If we brought the film to Nashville, could we make the production as high quality as ‘No Regrets’ while also saving money on production?”
After convening with the rest of the Film House team, Curt agreed to help Steve make “Two Weeks” come to life. Produced out of Film House and shot in Nashville, the film would get picked up by MGM for select theatrical release and later got picked up by both Showtime and Lifetime.
Despite the movie’s stellar cast and powerful storyline, Curt shares the sad fact that reality TV had so come to dominate television programming by 2008 that networks were cutting back on the number of independent films they acquired, and paying less for the ones they did.
“Together, the amount of money Showtime and Lifetime were willing to pay for ‘Two Weeks’ four years after Lifetime picked up ‘No Regrets’ was less than what Lifetime alone had paid us for ‘No Regrets’! That’s how fast the ground had shifted, and how fast reality television was exploding. It was sad to watch because many of the deals that brought great content to consumers were going away,” he says.
Curt regards reality show programming as both parasitic for the harm it’s brought to original programming slates and as “largely lacking value.” He adds, “Not all of it is evil, but much of it is pretty revolting. Because it can be produced so cheaply and because there are so many people willing to make fools of themselves on television for the celebrity, it’s not going away.”
Adapting for the Next Project
In 2012, Curt moved back into the director’s chair. This was for the Eric Roberts feature “Deadline,” which has been Curt’s most popular feature to date. The film focuses on two journalists unraveling a cold case murder. The script for“Deadline” was written by Mark Ethridge—a third-generation reporter and former managing editor of the Charlotte Observer—after adapting it from his thriller novel “Grievances.”
Ethridge and Curt had known each other from their days at prep school, Phillips Exeter Academy. Curt says, “Mark had called me for advice on selling his novel to some people in Hollywood who were interested in optioning it for a movie. I got the novel, read it, and said, ‘This is good, Mark! But I’ve got to tell you: If you option it to one of these companies, it’s likely it will never get made into a movie. Plus, if you give them an option, that’ll be the end of your involvement with the project. They’ll hire a screenwriter to adapt it and you won’t even recognize the final version.”
Instead, Curt convinced Mark to work with Film House on the project so that Mark could be part of the movie’s creation. “I told Mark it was his story and he should write the screenplay, and that I would act as his screenwriting coach.” So throughout 2010, Curt and Mark worked together on the screenplay for “Deadline.” Once the script was complete, Curt raised the money for the film and Film House began production on it in 2011.
“Deadline” was released in 2012 with an avant-garde promotional strategy. Since the movie showcased the importance of strong local journalism, Film House was able to convince dozens of newspapers like the Miami Herald, The Tennessean, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Detroit Free Press, The Denver Post, the Houston Chronicle, and of course the Charlotte Observer to host “Deadline” red carpet premieres in their cities benefiting a local non-profit. Then, Curt got a tour bus wrapped in “Deadline” movie poster art, and the film’s team including many of the movie’s stars started a national tour of 46 cities, in much the same way bands tour to promote the release of a new album. The promotion of these screenings was valued at $750K worth of free advertising, all courtesy of the sponsoring newspapers!
The Future of Film House
At the time of this writing, Film House is working on a full docket of projects.
Film House has also broken into the world of immersive theatrical experiences, having produced a World War I exhibit for the National Museum of the United States Army. The film they created surrounds viewers on a 180-degree screen in a specially constructed theater complete with trenches lined with sandbags, barbed wire, troops, and WWI artillery.
Their second venture into this realm is “Apokalupsis: An Uncovering,” which is a collaboration with poetic realist artist Joseph H. Sulkowski. This exhibit will debut in Manhattan in 2025 before its tour across the U.S. to different museums.
Curt says, “For those unfamiliar, it’s something like the Immersive Van Gogh Experience… It focuses on human connectedness, and it’s a dream project. Apokalupsis includes references to the Seven Deadly Sins, the Five Senses, the Four Elements, and the Three Graces, all leading to the one—the OM—the realization that all of life is connected, that All is One.”
And regarding the cinematic experience, Curt continues, “When you’re in the theater watching this film, you’ll smell the scents associated with what you’re seeing on the screen at a given time because we’ll have an aromatic system under the seats in the theater. When the wind’s blowing on the screen, the wind will blow on your face. When it’s appropriate, it will even snow in the theater. It’s like something you’d see at Epcot.”
Film House also played matchmaker on “Scouting for Diamonds: The Invisible Heroes of Baseball.”
Directed by Nashville producer, writer, and activist Molly Secours, Scouting for Diamonds focuses on those baseball scouts responsible for bringing A-list talent to America’s pastime. “This is Molly’s project,” Curt says. “We recommended her to the right people to get it started.”
Co-produced and narrated by iconic comedy brothers and baseball fans Bill Murray and Brian Doyle Murray, the film features interviews with dozens of legendary players like Willie Mays, George Brett, and Wade Boggs and the unsung scouts who discovered them.
Curt has also written “Jubilee,” a feature-length screenplay that tells the remarkable story of Ella Sheppard and the original Fisk Jubilee Singers as they introduce the Negro spirituals to the world right after the Civil War. Dr. Linda Seger—script consultant on over 2,000 scripts and the author of “Making a Good Script Great”—says of the project, “Jubilee is a very special script and will be a very special film. Film House has taken an important story and made it cinematic, tender, rich with emotions, and filled with strong characters that we truly care about.”
And then there’s “Lead Belly, The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll.” This is Film House’s definitive documentary about one of America’s most influential musical figures. The doc features interviews with B.B. King, Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez, Odetta, Pete Seeger, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Arlo Guthrie, Janis Joplin, and others discussing Lead Belly’s profound cultural impact.
“So far, this is the most important film we’ve made at Film House. It’s just such an amazing story, and nobody knows the half of it. It’s an honor to introduce Lead Belly to a whole new generation of music lovers and show how he influenced so many different genres,” Curt says.
The world theatrical premiere of Lead Belly will be September 30. It will be part of the programming for the 2023 International Black Film Festival Nashville (IBFF), held at Belmont University. Red carpet arrivals begin at 5:15 and members of Lead Belly’s family will be on-site to participate in a Q&A following the screening. Tickets are available here.
Curt is also aiming to make Film House a connector for other filmmakers’ passion projects. He’s teamed up with Chip Murray, a former investment banker and venture capitalist to help attract more film and TV projects to Tennessee.
Curt says, “We got to know each other many years ago, and Chip started The Panda Fund, which is a play on ‘Prints and Advertising.’ The Panda Fund was involved with the theatrical release of ‘Deadline.’ Now Chip and I have started a Private Equity Film & TV Investment Fund to finance exciting projects. We’ll be the last money invested in a project that’s close to fully funded. We want to ensure that films get properly released via an output deal with a streamer or studio.”
As a longtime cornerstone of the Nashville film community, it was no surprise that Curt was honored with FilmNashville’s Nashy Award in 2015 for outstanding contributions to the growth of the Nashville film and television industry and community. Three years later he was given the highest honor awarded by the International Quorum of Motion Picture Producers, a select organization of leading production company owners from around the world for which Curt served as president from 1999 to 2002. Curt was also one of the few people in the film industry to be selected to participate in Leadership Nashville, as part of the Class of 2011. He was recently elected to the Leadership Nashville Alumni Association Board.
Over the decades, Film House has created a wide spectrum of projects, with many of its films earning awards from festivals the world over. Since its founding in Curt Hahn’s spare bedroom in 1976, Film House has brought hundreds of millions of dollars of film production work to Nashville—98% of it from out of state. That revenue has translated into tens of thousands of jobs for Tennesseans. Film House movies have been released theatrically across the U.S. by studios like MGM, shown around the world on outlets like HBO, Prime, Apple TV, Netflix, Showtime, Sky TV, Lifetime, and Hallmark, and translated into dozens of languages, even Mandarin for showing in China.
Curt’s entire career was made possible by the generosity of a man who experienced the pain of an artist not fitting into a formulaic creative system. In reversing the way things are typically done in Hollywood, Curt wants to share the creative freedom that should have been enjoyed by his mentor Sandy Mackendrick, passing on the opportunity Sandy granted to him early in his career. Curt believes that the life of a filmmaker is far too short to work under the constraints imposed by the studio system and that the most original work is usually done independently.
“I’m at a point in my career where if it’s a really cool project, Film House is all over it. And if it’s not, then someone else can do it. I’m only interested in projects that truly move people—that speak to the heart.”