If you see only one beaver movie this year...
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If you see only one beaver movie this year...
People dressed as beavers (and a bunny) interact with a moviegoer at a New York screening of “Hundreds of Beavers,” at the IFC Center, on Feb. 28, 2024. (Amir Hamja/The New York Times)

by Erik Piepenburg

NEW YORK, NY.- The makers of “Hundreds of Beavers,” a mostly wordless indie comedy, have been touring the country and holding energetic screenings, complete with appearances by the star species.

Last week, a bonkers low-budget movie that was shot in black and white and has no Hollywood stars packed a 200-seat theater on a one-night engagement at the IFC Center in Manhattan. Additional screenings were added.

Mike Cheslik, the film’s director, and Ryland Brickson Cole Tews, its leading man, don’t have Hollywood connections or sacks of cash. What the two 33-year-old friends do have that helped their film make a splash with its New York debut is a secret weapon that would make a shrewd old-school movie pitchman like William Castle tingle with envy.

We’re talking beavers. Big ones.

Two beavers, actually — plus a horse, all played by humans — who took selfies with passersby on the sidewalk and high-fived audience members in their seats before a screening of Cheslik’s frolicsome farce “Hundreds of Beavers.”

At a time when Hollywood and scrappy filmmakers alike are stressing over how to get butts into seats, Cheslik and Tews are counting on a live make-believe beaver fight — a marketing gimmick dressed like a vaudeville act — to sell their movie.

Their gamble is paying off. A recent multicity tour of 14 theaters in Great Lakes states was almost entirely sold out, thanks in part to the movie’s robust, beaver-heavy social media presence.

“The thing about the Midwest is that these are people that like to go out in droves when they hear that the circus is in town, and that’s what we brought to them,” Tews said in a recent video interview where he was joined by Cheslik.

The film’s other special something is Tews, who stars as a hunky fur trapper named Jean Kayak who wins over a woman by selling beaver pelts to her overprotective father. Local beavers — and there are indeed hundreds of them — put up a fight.

After the film ended at the IFC Center, Tews — in a cute yellow crop top and oversized raccoon hat — hopped onto a platform in front of the screen, slung one of the costumed beavers over his shoulders and spun around like a WWE superstar as the Gen Z-leaning crowd cheered.

Nearly dialogue-free, “Hundreds of Beavers” is a madcap genre-hopper, mixing silent film performance styles with hand-drawn animation, slapstick comedy, Looney Tunes-like sound effects and stop-motion graphics. Like a Super Mario Brothers video game, its action unfolds in vignettes, with Jean outwitting whimsically disproportionate beavers and responding to fatal interactions with unlimited resurrections.

“Hundreds of Beavers” might sound like what two Wisconsin 13-year-olds would make if they raided grandpa’s closet and mom’s crafting basket. But behind the phantasmagorical comedy lies a cineaste’s discernment.

Adam D. Jameson, who teaches writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago, was one of the more than 600 people who saw the film at Chicago’s Music Box Theater. He called it “one of the most raucous screenings” he’s ever attended.

“They’re selling it with this rowdy Midwestern ironic element,” he said, but it’s “actually a very sophisticated film.”

Cheslik, who studied filmmaking and television production at NYU, said that as a kid he fell in love with silent-era comedy masters like Buster Keaton, and with Abbott and Costello comedies that he watched with his Minnesotan grandfather. Cheslik said the look of “Hundreds of Beavers” was inspired partly by Ernst Lubitsch’s 1921 silent comedy “The Wildcat,” with Pola Negri.

Tews said he looked to Jackie Chan as inspiration for his almost nonstop on-screen assortment of tumbles, leaps and somersaults. The 1925 silent film “Seven Chances,” in which Keaton is pursued by hordes of angry women, gets a nod in “Hundreds of Beavers” when Jean is chased by, well, you guessed it.

Tews also called on his athletic prowess, honed from playing football from a young age.

“You get that physicality and you learn how to fall and take a hit and tackle and get up,” he said.

Cheslik and Tews met at Whitefish Bay High School in Wisconsin, and since then have collaborated on several projects, including the 2018 horror-comedy “Lake Michigan Monster,” which was directed by Tews. Both men said Midwestern comedy sensibilities course through “Hundreds of Beavers.”

“It’s a very blue-collar kind of humor,” said Tews. “Everyone can relate to people falling down and getting hurt. Everyone thinks that’s funny. Everyone thinks mascots are funny. It’s not lowbrow humor. It’s more simple.”

Most of “Hundreds of Beavers” was filmed outdoors during the winter in ice-cold Wisconsin, in rural towns such as Pembine and Superior. Even green screen content was shot outside, on a green tarp “against someone’s minivan,” Cheslik said.

The film may be Wisconsin in its sensibilities, but Cheslik said its themes were much broader.

“We tried to pick something that’s universal — man versus cold, man wants food, man wants love — that will function no matter where you are,” he said.

Kurt Ravenwood, one of the film’s producers, said he had a tough time persuading a distributor to give the movie a theatrical run, but independent theaters were quick to agree to show it. It’s one reason producers decided to spend money — he wouldn’t say how much — to tour the film, driving a 1988 Toyota LiteAce van.

Ravenwood said that it cost about $150,000 to make the film, and to date it has netted about $60,000: enough to hire a press person and a theater booker, and to buy social media ads.

“Hundreds of Beavers” will be back at the IFC Center for a one-week run, beginning Friday; will roll out in additional markets in the coming weeks; and is set to be released on demand in early April. Matt DeTurck, the artistic director of the Little Theater in Rochester, New York, where the film sold out all 278 seats last month, said he would program it again since it’s best seen big.

“I can’t think of another film that’s had this exact energy and chaos,” he said.

Daniel Marra, 29, an audience member at the IFC Center, thought so, too. Standing in the lobby after the film ended, Marra said watching “Hundreds of Beavers” felt like an antidote to “bloated, huge-budget movies.”

“It shows you don’t need all that money to make something great,” he said. “It felt like a movie where there’s a lot of love.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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