"Is this really happening?" Nicholas McCarthy asked as he stepped carefully along an icy sidewalk toward the theater.
An evening full of red carpets and party people was fading. It was almost midnight on the first Friday at the Sundance Film Festival. His moment had come at last. After more than a decade of pursuing his Hollywood dream, McCarthy, 41, was on his way to the premiere of his first feature film, "The Pact."
His wife, Alexandra, walked beside him. He held her hand.
A year ago, an 11-minute version of "The Pact" played at Sundance. It caught the eye of only one movie executive, but that was enough. For the next six weeks, McCarthy retreated to Kaldi Coffee & Tea, a tiny Atwater Village haven for little-known filmmakers and actors, and worked to create a full-length version. The script won financing and the film was shot last August, edited in October — 89 minutes long now — and, again, picked for Sundance.
"What a crazy journey," he said.
McCarthy knew the stakes.
If his creation, a low-budget, haunted house thriller with a brassy heroine, generated good buzz at Sundance, then the movie's distribution rights would probably sell for a tidy profit and his work would reach a worldwide audience. McCarthy would get just a small slice of the earnings, but studios would know he was a filmmaker who delivers, and that would be like gold.
On Main Street, a long line had formed outside the venerable Egyptian Theater — despite the cold.
"Dead man walking," he said, heading to the front door. It was typical of the movie-mad McCarthy, referring to an Oscar-winning film to allay his anxiety.
"Dead. Man. Walking."
Dressed in a navy corduroy jacket and a pink shirt, McCarthy found a seat in a back row. He fidgeted with his black-framed glasses. To his right sat Alexandra — always supportive, though they had sparred over his obsession. To his left sat his older sister, Ann, who had taken him to see "Jaws," his first thriller, when he was 8.
Now, though, crowd expectations were high. "The Pact" was getting a lot of Sundance press. A rumor spread through the 266-seat Egyptian that Hollywood mogul and Miramax co-founder Bob Weinstein would be there. McCarthy shook his head in delighted disbelief.
The lights dimmed, and McCarthy's plot unspooled slowly at first. But then it surged in a sudden, searing moment, and all at once the audience seemed to rise a few inches off the cushioned seats. Minutes later, "The Pact" delivered another shock. Women shrieked. McCarthy's sister covered her eyes. A man shouted: "Oh, God! Oh, God!"
McCarthy slid back in his chair.
He had nursed margaritas at dinner, trying to stay calm. But seeing how his film caught the audience by surprise did what no amount of drinking could do.
"After that," he said, "no matter what happened, I was OK. I had really scared people. It felt like my ability as a storyteller was assured."
The film ended and the crowd gave it an ovation. Before McCarthy stood to take the stage and answer questions, he looked at his wife and saw tears.
He felt as if he had arrived.
But film critics, mostly on the Internet, weren't so sure.
Within hours, reviews flew through cyberspace.
Some were enthusiastic. "For me (and, I'd have to say, a sizable percentage of the public screening midnight crowd with whom I saw it), The Pact delivers plenty of chills, jumps and squeal-worthy moments," wrote one.
Others savaged McCarthy's work with hyperbolic bites: "The Pact stands as, perhaps, the worst film I've seen at Sundance in 12 years … an unholy muddle."
After reading the first takedown, he vowed to close his laptop and avoid reviews for the rest of the festival. But Sundance lasts more than a week, and as the days wore on, he heard what was being said.
"Look, lots of people don't like the film," he said. "But lots really do. And that's fine, because every one of my favorite films had exactly that quality, and all of the people who inspired me to make horror films, people like David Cronenberg, their work is debated and hated and loved. That's what they aspire to do — be debated and hated and loved — and if it's good enough for them then it's good enough for me too."
It helped that each day brought something new. First, "The Pact's" producers and financiers told McCarthy they wanted to make more of his films. They asked him to start writing as soon as he got back to Los Angeles and said they want a script by early summer.
Then there was the buoyant, Hollywood-hipster, pedal-to-the-metal Park City scene that defines Sundance almost as much as its movies: The TV interviews and photo ops; the late-night, hangover-inducing soirees; the dinners of black cod confit and sea urchin ceviche with caper salt; the lunches with studio executives and "cult classic" directors he'd admired for decades; the moments when McCarthy was approached by his fans — yes, actual fans of Nicholas McCarthy. It was hard to believe.
After the premiere, "The Pact" played two more times in Park City. McCarthy eyed the crowd and watched spasms of fear send arms flying and people jolting around in their seats as if they were on a roller-coaster ride.
Any leftover sting McCarthy felt from the critics disappeared five days after the premiere with this text from producer Ross Dinerstein: "We closed the deal at 2 a.m.!!!!!"
North American rights to "The Pact" had been sold to IFC Midnight, which planned to make the film available through video on demand and a theatrical release in several major U.S. cities. None of the executives involved would say how much money was involved, but an informed guess was in the high six figures. McCarthy would not get all of it, of course, but even a bit would help. Before "The Pact," he had made about $30,000 for all of his film work combined.
"We did what we went there to do," he said. "We sold the film, and maybe more important than anything, the film played great in the room. We actually scared people. That's a big deal."
Last Sunday, McCarthy came home. On Monday morning, he returned to Kaldi Coffee & Tea. When he walked through the door, he saw Clay Tarver, one of the regulars. Tarver's screenwriting credits included "Joy Ride," a thriller co-written with J.J. Abrams, creator of the television series "Lost," and he is viewed with admiration at Kaldi. McCarthy had leaned on him for so much advice that he had included Tarver in the credits for "The Pact."
"So, we've been waiting," Tarver said. "How'd it go?"
The week, McCarthy told him, still seemed "not quite real." But he said his schedule was now packed with nearly two dozen meetings at talent agencies and movie studios.
McCarthy sat at a wooden table and took a slow sip of coffee from a ceramic cup. "Sundance was transformative, of course," he said. "Things are different for me now. But then again, here I am again. I'm still facing the great unknown."
He pulled a Moleskine notebook from a leather pouch and began sketching ideas for his next screenplay.