It wasn’t until producer Sev Ohanian was pulled away from a Sundance after-party to participate in an all-night bidding war among studios wanting to buy his computer-screen-based thriller, “Searching,” that it hit him: People really like the film.
“The entire time during the screening, I was convinced the film wasn’t working, and the audience wasn’t feeling it.” said Glendale-raised Ohanian of the film slated for wide release on Friday. “When the movie ended, we started to realize people felt like we had made something special.”
The crime drama that stars John Cho (“Star Trek,” “Columbus”) and plays out entirely through Facetime, Instagram posts, home videos, texts, livestream footage and other screen-based media took home three awards at Sundance. Sony Pictures ended up buying the film in the early morning after the premiere. Ohanian and the film’s director and co-writer Aneesh Chaganty already have another studio-backed project underway.
Shock at his own success has been a running theme in Ohanian’s career.
As a new college graduate, Ohanian, now 31, made an $800 movie on his dad’s video camera parodying the cultural experience of growing up Armenian American.
One month after self-releasing “My Big Fat Armenian Family” at Glendale High School, selling tickets and DVDs, Ohanian had made enough money to afford to go to USC, where he attended grad school for film.
“It blew my mind,” Ohanian said. “It was never my intention to pursue filmmaking as a career path, but the support of my community empowered me.”
It was at USC that Ohanian connected with Chaganty, who was an undergrad in a class in which Ohanian was a teaching assistant. The two eventually collaborated on a commercial shot using the now-defunct Google Glass device.
What was supposed to be a music video turned into a heartfelt short about a young man who travels to a remote part of the world to deliver a special message to his mom. The two-minute clip garnered more than a million views in two days. Following the video, Chaganty accepted a job making commercials at Google, Ohanian landed a spot on The Wrap’s 2014 list of Hollywood innovators, and the two have been in close collaboration ever since.
Even Ohanian’s first film, a documentary for his AP Environmental Science class at Hoover High ended up a success.
His teacher, who teared up at the film about a trash problem at Hoover that Ohanian made, pledged to screen it every year.
Cho also coincidentally grew up in Glendale and attended Hoover. While that didn’t have anything to do with the decision to cast Cho, Ohanian said they did end up bonding over their connection to the Jewel City during production.
In “Searching,” San Jose widower David (Cho) is keeping up with his teenage daughter, Margot (Michelle La), through video calls and texts — until she suddenly stops responding. When it becomes apparent Margot is missing, David begins to scour her digital stomping grounds, prompting him to acknowledge to the lead investigator on the case (Debra Messing) that he didn’t know his daughter as well as he thought.
Beyond the screen- and tech-centric technique employed by the creators, the film has been hailed for casting a Korean American as the lead in a film where ethnicity is incidental.
“Why not?” is Ohanian’s response to queries about why they chose to center the story on an Asian family.
“I do think there needs to be films about diversity, about representation, and I’ve made a couple of those movies — this isn’t one of them,” Ohanian said. “Our hope, as a team, is that in the future, people can look back on ‘Searching’ and not realize what the big deal was.”