Former Canadian ice hockey pro Martin Yewchuk moved to Laguna Beach from Calgary to fulfill his self-described goal of becoming “a famous Hollywood producer who makes films that change how people view the world.”
Little did he know that his first film subject would literally greet him at the proverbial door.
Laguna’s current greeter, Michael Minutoli, welcomed Yewchuk and his wife Tabatha when they arrived in 2013. “We felt that was unique and out of the ordinary,” said Yewchuk, adding that they assumed it was a one-time thing. But they soon discovered that Minutoli made a daily appearance.
“I picked up the camera with the intent to just interview him and find out what he was doing,” Yewchuk said. He had no particular project in mind, but as he talked to Minutoli and began interviewing other people, the newcomer learned about a procession of characters who assumed the role, including Laguna’s most famous greeter, Eiler Larsen. And he discovered that this year marks the 125th anniversary of greeting in Laguna Beach.
Two years later, Yewchuk has compiled an 85-minute film, “The Greeter,” and launched a Kickstarter campaign on March 1 in the hope of raising $111,000 to pay for promoting and distributing the independent documentary.
Yewchuk’s choice of crowd funding could prove auspicious. This was the fifth year in a row that a Kickstarter-backed documentary film vied for an Academy Award. Though this year’s critically acclaimed and Kickstarter-funded “Finding Vivian Maier” didn’t snag the Oscar, another Kickstarter-backed documentary, “Inocente,” did in 2013.
Having finished the movie on his own dime, “now the question is how to get it out to the world,” said Yewchuk. Eventually, he’d like to rent theaters around the country for showings and produce a DVD, but first he’s trying to get his film into eight upcoming film festivals, beginning with the week-long Newport Beach Film Festival, opening April 23.
“Distribution is always tricky when it comes to indie films, especially documentaries,” said Laguna native and film industry veteran Rob Hedden. “Film festivals are a great way to get exposure, especially local events like the Newport Beach Film Festival. With a positive home-grown subject such as this, there will be built-in interest.”
Filmmakers learn if their entries to the Newport festival make the cut around mid-March.
In the meantime, Yewchuk busies himself building momentum for his fundraiser, hosting a Kickstarter party at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, March 13, at Hotel Laguna, fittingly featuring The Greeter’s Ale and where Larsen lived in his final years. Before the April 1 deadline, he plans to celebrate Larsen’s birthday and 125 years of greeting in Laguna Beach on Main Beach at noon on Friday, March 27.
Filmmaking is a new venture for Yewchuk, 47. Having played professional ice hockey for four seasons and another two as an inline hockey player, including a stint with the Anaheim Bullfrogs, Yewchuck said his new aim is breaking into Hollywood film production. “At some point, you have to go for it,” he said of the seemingly abrupt career change. “Right now this is what I’m dedicating my time to and we’ll see where it goes from here.”
Yewchuk and his wife, who is a spiritual guide, are now partners in Laguna-based Elestial Productions, which, according to their website, has a mission “to utilize stage, screen and print to highlight the human aspects of our spiritual walk here on planet Earth, while illuminating our connection to the Divine.”
They chose Laguna because it’s a small seaside town with an artist vibe.
After Minutoli’s welcome, in front of Eiler Larsen’s statue at the corner of Brooks Street and Coast Highway, things just started to fall into place. The couple met Eric Rankin, host of the popular Awakening Code radio show on KX 93.5, who had known Eiler Larsen. Yewchuk also interviewed local artist Doug Miller, who agreed to share photos from his personal archive documenting Laguna with the first-time filmmaker. “I was just going to shoot something small,” he said. And then “every person I connected with just led me to the next person.”
By the time he finished, he’d interviewed about 30 people, ranging from well-known locals including award-winning filmmaker Greg MacGillivray, artist Wyland and political activist Arnold Hano to random tourists. “The thing that really came through is that Laguna is a unique place and that having a greeter is something that most people appreciate,” said Yewchuk, who recognized that the sentiments associated with the greeter revolve around peace, love, joy and acceptance. “That’s what they were about,” Yewchuk said he concluded of Laguna’s four documented greeters, starting with Old Joe Lucas in 1890. “And that became the theme of the movie,” he said.
“A documentary about the history of Laguna greeters is a wonderful idea, especially in the larger context of all the goodwill it generates,” said Hedden. “Every town should be as lucky as ours to have experienced a classic welcome from Eiler Larsen and now Michael Minutoli.”
Michael Minutoli, who is homeless, has animatedly played the role of town greeter since 2011.