By Julie E. Washington
Cleveland Plain Dealer

Writer-director Laura Paglin has found that getting her locally produced film "Nightowls of Coventry" shot was half the battle.

The war's not over until you get the film into theaters.

Five years after "Nightowls" finished shooting, it's getting a hometown theatrical run. "Nightowls of Coventry" opened Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre in Cleveland Heights.

It will be there for a week; a longer run depends on attendance, said theater owner Jonathan Forman.

"About time!" said local actress Annie Kitral, who plays a waitress in the film.

"Nightowls of Coventry" is a slice-of-life comic drama set in Cleveland Heights' bohemian Coventry neighborhood during the 1970s. At its center is Marv's, a neighborhood deli where an assortment of neighbors and hippies mingle.

Paglin shot "Nightowls" with a cast of local and regional actors in 2000. When the cameras were turned off, the next steps were raising money for post-production and finding an editor. Unfortunately, Paglin gave her rough footage to an editor who turned out to be a scam artist targeting small indie-film projects.

"I realized he had done nothing," said Paglin, 38, who lives in Cleveland Heights. She and her husband drove to New York to retrieve the footage and equipment they had given the editor.

The project was back on track by 2001 with a new editor who lived in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Paglin sent a rough cut to film distributors and held test screenings. Feedback indicated a better introduction was needed for the film's setting.

She created a voice-over narration by Susan (Donna Casey), a new waitress at Marv's.

Paglin began working with composer Mark Suozzo in 2002. It was too expensive to buy rights to 1970s pop hits, so they chose a mix of klezmer music and pseudo '70s music.

But by the following year, Paglin still was not satisfied with the way "Nightowls" was shaping up. She picked a new narrator, Bennie (Allan Pinsker), one of the elderly regulars at Marv's.

Paglin was eager to have "Nightowls" make its festival debut. A rough cut screened at the 2003 Cleveland International Film Festival.

"I suppose, in retrospect, that was not the strategic way to do it," Paglin said. Most major film festivals want to have premieres. "Nightowls" later played festivals in San Jose and Rhode Island.

Paglin hoped the festival exposure would lead to a distribution deal. Distribution companies are the pipeline that places films in theaters across the globe, across the country or regionally.

But no offers came. The main criticism was the movie was "too small," meaning it lacked recognizable stars.

How did she handle that bleak assessment?

"The first few times are pretty devastating," Paglin said. "You wake up the next morning and go on to Plan B."

Positive reaction from audiences buoyed her spirits. "Somewhere in the middle I realized people were enjoying it," Paglin said.

"Nightowls" opens in Canadian theaters Friday, Oct. 28, after a screening at the Calgary International Film Festival. Paglin's U.S. sales agent is working to get the film a DVD or theatrical distribution deal here.

Paglin applied what she learned on "Nightowls" to new projects, such as a documentary feature on three coffee entrepreneurs that she's working on now. She also teaches at Cleveland State University and produces public-relations videos.

Right now, she's focused on getting audiences to the Cedar Lee for "Nightowls." She didn't have professional photographs to use on a poster, so she asked "American Splendor" comic book artist Gary Dumm to create a poster using drawings of Harvey Pekar and "Nightowls" characters.

Paglin admits the poster is misleading. Pekar isn't in "Nightowls."

"It does grab people's attention, which right now is the most important thing," Paglin said.