A Story Too Dangerous to Tell

In mid-1991, The Moneytree premiered at the Mill Valley Film Festival and was sold out in ten minutes. The film enjoyed great critical reviews, and film-maker Alan Dienstag and his son, Christopher Dienstag (who produced and played the central character), were invited to screen The Moneytree for Warner Bros and Paramount Pictures. Paramount had just finished distributing Cheech & Chong’s Up in Smoke, but Warner Brothers had yet to jump into the marijuana movie market. New Line, the company that had gotten their start in distribution with Reefer Madness, also saw the film.

All three passed on distributing the film.

Warner Brothers was particularly hesitant. But while on the lot, a young WB executive pulled me aside and told me in confidence that “[the film was] way too controversial, we don’t know what the legal blowback might be.” It may sound unbelievable by today’s standards but in 1991 - he was right.

Since he was being so candid I thought I’d ask him another question. “Why does everybody in this town want me to kiss their ass?” He responded, “Oh that’s easy, if you make it big then we’re kissing your ass, but in the back of our mind we know you kissed our ass first. Welcome to Hollywood.
— Christopher Dienstag, Producer

Undaunted, the Dienstags learned how to 'four-wall' the film - meaning that they literally rented the four walls of each theater and paid for all the advertising and promotion themselves. On September 13, 1991, The Moneytree opened in three Bay Area theaters with an advertising budget of just $4500. That’s nothing for a major market, but it was all the money they had left between them. Luckily, Nik Martin, who plays Chad in the film, had a contact at ABC-TV and that same day, Chris and his father had their first TV interview with correspondent Frank Kracher of KGO Channel 7 News.

The interview - along with a great review in the SF Chronicle - brought plenty of people to the theaters. The film became the third highest per screen average nationally in it's opening week! It was the beginning of the (first) national tour. And well, the rest is history....