CRITICS: USE THEM OR LOSE THEM


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Maybe I had it good going to CalArts, because when it came time for a critique of any work (whether it was a script, or a film, or a photograph), we were educated in a way to look at the work that is totally NOT what most people learn.  In addition to style, form, and technique, we were taught to explore the intent of the creator, and to base our critique on how we felt that intent was communicated.  Did the work communicate the intent clearly?  Or was it confusing?

Most people grow up learning that to critique something means to only draw out the negative aspects of something.  Or to talk about what’s missing.  No one is ever taught to look at what’s actually there and critique what they see.  Instead, most people use critique to talk about what they don’t see.  This has spread to our entire culture.  When someone says, “Sorry I’m being critical,” they mean they’re sorry because they are being negative.  If you’re doing it correctly, critique isn’t something to apologize for.  It can become very helpful and beneficial.  But most often, people are bad critics.

Most people—professionals and amateur—have been taught that the best way to critique something is to discuss what is WRONG or what is MISSING.  Or, in most cases, how they’d have done it better.  That kind of criticism is useless because the truth is that if we look at anything long enough we can find what is wrong with it, and what is missing.

Let’s take Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, now listed by The British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound magazine as the greatest film of all time (replacing Citizen Kane.  Someone could say that the sequences in the museum, or when Jimmy Stewart is following around Kim Novak, are boring and need work because there’s no dialogue.  But to focus on the fact that there isn’t dialogue, and wrong, that critic fails to see what is there, and he misses the whole point.

The critique in that case might be a bit melodramatic, but I mean it to only illustrate a point.  I’m sure there are people out there who watch VERTIGO and feel the exact same thing (it’s boring, it’s too quiet, there’s no talking; so it must be BAD), even though they are watching what is now considered the greatest film ever made.

When I get a review from a critic, I like to learn about how they SEE what I’ve shown them.  I don’t particularly have an interest in what I haven’t shown them.  If I made a heavy, dark character-study, I’d like to learn more about how they were impacted by that, or what was their insight into how I portrayed those elements.  If I read a review that says it’s a bad movie because it’s not campy or funny, that doesn’t help me at all.  Sure, it relays the message that particular individual is only interested in campy, funny movies, and if I want him to like something it should be campy and funny.  But it doesn’t help me learn about multiple perspectives of the heavy, depressing, character-study.

Now, say my intent was to make a heavy, dark character-study and it ended up campy and funny, and the critic thought it was hilarious, well that would indicate that my execution was done poorly.  And, in that case, the criticism would be very educational and helpful.  But, helpful critique is very rare.

Another thing to remember about criticism is that it’s only about that person’s singular viewpoint and their tastes.  If a critic doesn’t like westerns, he’s not going to like your western no matter how brilliant it is.  Or, if he only likes westerns, he’s not going to be a fan of your Upper West Side romantic comedy.  So when you read a review from a critic, remember that there will always be someone, somewhere, who’s experience watching it was the opposite.

I love reading reviews of my movies that are totally contradictory of each other.  Take my film, THE CASSEROLE CLUB, which is out now on DVD/VOD.  Some critics call it a “masterpiece,” an “emotional tour de force,” and we’ve even won awards for it: Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor (for Backstreet Boys crooner Kevin Richardson in his debut role) and Best Actress (for Susan Traylor).  And then there are the reviews that say the acting is “horrible” and the movie a “waste of time.”  And after reading the negative reviews, I received the news that the US Library of Congress selected THE CASSEROLE CLUB for their permanent collection.

It’s so fascinating to me to learn how differently people see the very same thing.  I love stuff like that.

As you proceed in your filmmaking path, whether as a director, producer, writer or actor, you’ll find this truth across the board in all aspects of The Industry.  One person will always love something another person hates.  Yin/Yang.  So enjoy it.  If nothing else, it will teach you who are the intelligent people to surround yourself with, and who are the dumb shits to avoid.

CASTING: JUST LIKE COOKING


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Casting and crewing a movie is the most challenging aspect of making a movie, and one that many directors and producers should reevaluate.  By casting and crewing your movie correctly, you can avoid having conflicts on the set, maintain a healthy atmosphere, and construct a positive environment in which everyone can thrive.

When I’m casting or crewing a movie, I think of it like cooking.  The movie is the dish we’re about to make, and each element that goes into making that dish becomes an ingredient.  Different locations, props, costumes, and people, each have their own unique color, flavor, energy, and thus each has a unique ingredient.  Like saffron, ginger, or cucumber.

I think it’s very important to make sure that all the ingredients work well together, both on screen and off.  If everyone enjoys being around each other, the atmosphere will be free of conflict.  And if any conflict arises, people who enjoy each other tend to handle conflict in a healthy, mature way.

So, think of people like food.  Try it.  Go on.

Pick someone you know and imagine what kind of ingredient would they be.  Are they volatile, or spicy, like, say, cayenne?  Are they sweet and rounded, and ordinary, like, say, a Granny Smith apple?  Would you pair them up together in the same recipe?  And if so, how would you do it?  Or, what other ingredients would be needed in order for the right balance to happen?  Or, if you picked the Granny Smith apple person, is there another contender who embodies an ingredient that might work better?

Sometimes this is very difficult to explain to other producers, actors, and directors.  Especially those who have been programmed into doing it the traditional way.  But, I’m telling you, this works.  It’s about understanding chemistry and really understanding a person.  It’s possible even to understand it, and use this information, without ever being in the same room with the person.  It’s also very handy tool to use when casting people together that need certain chemistry.

Some people use astrology in a similar way.  I understand that for the most part, people might not like this because it’s stereotyping.  Fitting everyone else into a box.  But, so long as it keeps working, I don’t care.  The goal is to cast and crew a movie, and to end up with a group of people who get along and shine on screen.

Even if a person is the best in their field, or the greatest performer, they might not be right for the particular dish we’re assembling.  It’s incredibly important to select the right combination of people to create the ideal environment off screen as much as on screen.  When people are living together in such close proximity to each other, and work and play morph together, it is imperative that each personality work well together—like creating the perfect recipe—each ingredient matters or could throw off the whole thing.

Would you rather be working for three weeks with a bunch of talented people who hate each other, or a bunch of talented people who enjoy each other?

In addition to taking a look at someone’s skills and talent, it’s also a good idea to look at how they see the world; interact with others, and how their unique ingredient might give flavor to the ultimate dish.

Ponder your own combinations.

Figs go well on their own, with fresh crisp foods, and even meat but I wouldn’t eat a bulb of garlic at the same time.  Some might, though.  That’s fine.

Got a fresh peach, or a plum, and a bossy steak?  Try them together, the fruit works surprisingly well on top of the steak.

Roasted beets taste like sweet corn, which is also great with arugula.  But I’d avoid pairing them up with gummy worms.

BE STRATEGIC, PATIENT


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I know that when you’re filming your movie, you’re excited and want to share that excitement with your friends on various social networking sites.  But think twice about posting photos too soon.  Movies take a long time to complete, and in this world of “now, now, now” you might be shooting yourself in the foot by posting things prematurely.

Think of it backwards.  When your movie is about to premiere at a festival, you’ll want to publicize it and get people to go see it.  So, naturally, you’ll want a website and a press kit, photos and such, and a trailer for people to see.  This will get them excited about the film and hopefully they’ll want to see it.  So, I’d suggest launching the trailer for your movie about a month prior to that first screening.

Backing up from there, a month or so before that trailer launch, you’ll want some kind of web presence to showcase some photos and information for festivals.  Maybe you’ll already have a trailer, but my advice is to keep it hidden from the general public.  A password protected Vimeo or unlisted YouTube page work well.

But, before you can submit your movie to festivals, buyers and critics, you’ll have to complete the final sound mix, score it, and do the color timing.  All of those things take time.  Some of those can be done quicker than others if you’re paying top dollar.  But if you’re paying less, it might take four to five months to complete post-production.

Think of it from the audience’s point of view.  When you see a trailer for a movie, and it says “coming soon” at the end, do you expect that to be in a few weeks, a few months, or a couple years?  Ask yourself if it’s a year later, will you still be interested in seeing that movie?  Will you even remember it?

It’s very important to tell your actors, crew, and friends, that when you’re filming your project, it might be the best idea to WAIT and not post any photos or news about the film until after it’s totally complete.

That first premiere screening very well might be—at the earliest—an entire calendar year away.  And most likely the release of that project will be the following year.

I made this mistake when promoting my film FIRECRACKER.  We filmed it in 2003 and couldn’t find distribution for a long time.  I had to invent a way to keep hooking the audience that was already generated, to keep them interested until it came out.  So, first I made a behind-the-scenes documentary (WAMEGO: Making Movies Anywhere).  I released that and used it as a promotional tool for the film, without giving anything about the movie away.

FIRECRACKER was based on a true story, so I gathered up all my research and figured out a way to showcase bits of information on a monthly basis via a “True Story Investigation” section of the website.  This would help pacify the fans who were there already, and would hook new ones.  Without those monthly updates, we likely would’ve started to lose our audience, as they slowly lost interest before the film was eventually released.

It was fun to do all that, but it was a full-time job.  It’s much easier to be strategic with your marketing and wait until the movie will be ready for people to see.  If you tell them about it too soon, you might lose them by the time it’s released.

So take all the photos you want, and make all the behind the scenes clips you can!  But, just be careful about making them public too soon.  Because coming up with a really great idea to maintain awareness of your project to last the next two years can be tough.

TRUTH ABOUT THE IMDB


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Comrades, did you know Amazon owns the Internet Movie Database (imdb)?  Did you know that anyone, anywhere, can add inaccurate information to a cast or crew list, and no one can do anything about it?  Did you know that the “star meter” ranking system has nothing to do with you, but rather the count for the films you have starred in?

Look at the full credits list for my film FIRECRACKER.  There are half dozen people on that list that I’ve never heard of.  None of those strangers actually worked on the film.  But there they are.  Clear as day for anyone who uses the imdb as a resource.

The imdb is not like Wikipedia, in that there are no officers patrolling the incoming data.

Try it.  Add yourself as the 2nd grip for a Sharon Stone movie.  Chances are it’ll be added.  Then take a screen shot to “prove” you worked on a Sharon Stone movie.  Now people will hire you.  I wonder how long it’ll take someone from the Sharon Stone movie to notice that inaccurate credit and ask for its removal.  Maybe never.  And if they do request it, will someone at imdb or Amazon really care?  Probably not.

Yet the Industry uses the imdb as if it were the end-all be-all of factual data—even if they change that data to suit themselves.

Then explore the “message boards” with comments from anonymous posters.  It’s like a bathroom wall in an urban high school.  Thank god for sites like imdb parent Amazon for making message board posters use their real name or screen name, and keeping track of lunatics.  The imdb doesn’t do this.  So you can sign in as a fake name and write something to praise or spoil your competition, or ex boyfriend, or ex boss, and no one can do anything about it.

Did you know that?

The imdb is a great resource for finding out the name of that movie so-and-so starred in; that you know you’ve seen or heard about, but just can’t remember what it was.  It’s also a great resource for discovering new movies featuring actors you like to watch.  Maybe you’re an aspiring filmmaker who has recently discovered an actor who inspires you, and now you want to watch all their movies.  The imdb is a great place to start.

STOP WITH THE PROSE, ALREADY


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Fairly frequently I’m given an unsolicited screenplay to read, to consider directing, or to give my two–cents on.  I try my hardest to not read any of them.  But every now and again, curiosity takes hold, and I’ll open one up.  Sometimes the scripts are filled with spelling errors, stilted dialogue, boring scenes, you name it, but there is one mistake I see most often across the board: too much ink on the page and not enough white space.

Screenplays aren’t novels.

The purpose of a screenplay is entirely different than that of a novel.  I could go as far as to say screenplays aren’t even meant to be read.  I know that might sound weird.  But, think about it.  What is the purpose of a screenplay?  Screenplays are meant to be spoken, heard and watched.

Screenplays are a map.

They should be made up of great dialogue, with brief descriptions of specific actions that happen when nothing is being spoken.

I agree that scripts should include some prose to set the tone and hint at the atmosphere, but my advice is to keep it light.  We do not need to know the year, make and model of a car, or learn about the squeaky door, or the broken windshield wipers.  We just need to know it’s an old, shitty car.  Allow the reader to imagine whatever they want.  Even then, their imagination will hinder how they interpret your story.  No one will totally “get it” until they SEE it.

In Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, he writes:

CUT TO:
Young Alvy at the food-stand concession watching three military men representing the Army, the Navy and the Marines arm in arm with a blond woman in a skirted bathing suit.  They all turn and run toward the foreground.  The girl stops before the camera to lean over and throw a kiss.  The sign over the concession reads “Steve’s Famous Clam Bar.  Ice Cold Beer,” and the roller coaster is moving in full gear in the background.

That would be much easier to read if it looked like this:

EXT. STEVE’S FAMOUS CLAM BAR – DAY
Young Alvy watches three military men arm in arm with a woman in a bathing suit.
They run towards us.
The girl stops to lean over and –
throw us a kiss.
The roller coaster is moving in the background.

By adding more white to the page, we’re able to move through the description faster, getting back to the dialogue.  Some might argue that Woody Allen’s prose adds a different kind of atmosphere than mine does.  I say that in either case, no one watching the film will ever know how it was written.  And not everyone making the film is going to imagine that shot exactly as the director will see it and film it, so it doesn’t matter.

When you’re watching a movie you can’t read what the script says.  So why not keep the paper light, effortless and easy to use?

If there is something visually specific in your screenplay that you’d like to communicate to the reader, my advice is to attach a visual design book to accompany the script.  Sometimes I’ll include storyboards, costume designs, even hairstyles.  For my film FIRECRACKER, I even incorporated images into the screenplay and provided music to listen to while reading it.

Most people in the Industry will tell you never to do that.  But don’t listen to them.  They’re just stuck in a box.  Do what YOU want.  I did it, and it worked.  Shortly after sending my FIRECRACKER script to him, Dennis Hopper called me up personally and invited me to his house.  When I was there Dennis told me he wanted to be in the film and added, “This is one of the best screenplays I’ve ever read.”

I’ve read dreadful screenplays that made spectacular, dazzling, poetic movies, and I’ve read brilliant screenplays that have made terribly uninteresting movies.  At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is the illustration of the vision, the poetry of the dialogue and performers who can nail it.

The Wamego Trilogy


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To celebrate the 10-year anniversary of its initial release, I am making the WAMEGO TRILOGY available for FREE on Vimeo.  Spread the word and share these documentaries with every filmmaker (aspiring or professional) you know.

“Dreams are made of this stuff… Missing here are power-lunches and power-trips. Which is a breath of that fresh Kansas air.” – AFTERTASTE MAGAZINE

“Perfect! If you’re an aspiring filmmaker, you’d be a complete fool not to watch all the docs in this trilogy… There’s a lesson to be learned from the Baldersons.”
FILM THREAT

“Hollywood should be jealous.” – ICON MAGAZINE

“Literally thousands of miles away from the world of red carpets, cocaine nose-jobs and botoxed to the bone, anorexic 40-year-old women pretending to be 21, Wamego is a world full of cinematic dreams and devoid of pretension.”
HOFSTRA CHRONICLE

“Steve Balderson’s approach to his work is not just a breath of fresh air – it is a gale-force wind that just may huff and puff and blow that famous Hollywood sign down right before the film industry’s eyes.”
OREGON DAILY EMERALD

“A constant reminder to never give up or give in…”
ALL ABOUT TOWN MAGAZINE

“WAMEGO is a testament to the hard work ethic of the Midwest. It proves that with determination, anything is possible – even making a feature film by yourself, in the middle of nowhere!”
LAWRENCE JOURNAL-WORLD

“What was ‘Lost in La Mancha’ could easily be ‘Found in Wamego’ … A warmfelt, honest lesson how to realize your dream without sharing a bed with the devil.”
PLANB MAGAZINE, NORWAY

“Balderson serves a fat slice of humble pie to his Hollywood peers. A reality-check to inspire indie artists worldwide!”
THE BLACKSMOKE ORGANISATION, UK

“Those who have filmmaking ambitions of their own will get a little more…”
MICRO-FILM MAGAZINE

“WAMEGO will have a league of moviemakers clicking their heels to be transported to the Kansan, Do-It-Yourself state of mind.”
BRAD JEWELL

“It’s fascinating, entertaining, inspiring.”
PLAYLOUDER, UK

“The documentary, more than any other movie-in-process film, actually demonstrates how to make a movie. It’s not a tedious and silly art school exercise, but a deep look into the thinking, perspective and determination that a filmmaker has to have in order to get a vision on the screen. Wamego is good story telling… A rich tale with fully developed characters, a well-developed plot and layers of conflict… Wamego is recommended viewing… Shows those professionals from LA how things should be done.”
DISCOVERY PUBLICATIONS

TOP OR BOTTOM?


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There are two ways to budget your movie.  The first, which is known as the traditional manner in which all movies are budgeted, is Bottom Up budgeting.  It’s the least effective way to budget a movie, but most everyone does it.

Bottom Up budgeting is where you start from ground zero with no idea what your movie is going to cost.  Then you identify all the people, jobs, things you think you need, and at the end you’ll have the amount that will cost.  There is software out there, which can help you down this path.  See this example of a traditional budget Top Sheet.

When using this software, you’ll scour an endless list of job titles, finding out there are jobs you never knew about, but that you must need, now that you’re thinking of them.  Yes, a Script Supervisor would be great.  $100 per day is a bit much so you plop in $20 per day.  Then you’ll go to the next job, plop in a new amount, and so on.  At the end of the list, the software will tally up all the jobs and expenses you typed in, and voila: you see the budget for you movie.  In this case, your movie will cost over $240,000.

But then you’re faced with the reality of trying to raise a quarter of a million dollars.  Which, if you can do it, great, by all means, have at it!  But, chances are in this economy it simply isn’t going to happen.  You might raise half that, or even less… but a quarter million?

I prefer to budget a movie using a Top Down approach.  This is where you start with an amount and deduct items you know you can afford, and do away with the items you can’t or don’t need.

Let’s say we believe we can raise $60,000 to produce the movie.  Or, let’s say we have already raised $60,000 and we’re not sure that’s enough.  I’m here to tell you it’s more than enough, and here’s how you’ll do it.

First, identify the items you must have.  Not things you think you need.  You don’t need a Script Supervisor.  Anybody on your crew can do it – since the job is required only when cameras are rolling.  If you’re making a horror film that requires visual effects, or special effects make-up, those items are mandatory.  So, write those down and subtract their cost (let’s say $7,500).  Now you only have $52,500 remaining in your budget.

Next up, fifteen people on the cast and crew.  Let’s say you’ll shoot for two weeks and pay everyone $50 per day.  Subtract $10,500.  Now you only have $42,000 remaining.  Can you get those people to work for deferred?  If so, you can add $10,500 back into your budget.  Need to fly them to the set?  Subtract those costs, or see if you can use airline miles and add those costs back in.

Hopefully you get where I’m going with this.  I’m thinking about expenses as if I were using a debit card.  Not a credit card.

I understand the general public would rather use a credit card instead of a debit card.  The traps of “buy now, figure out how to pay for it later” are easy to fall into.  But those people are usually in debt.

By handling your budget in the Top Down approach; you’ll know exactly how much money you have and can make realistic decisions on what you can afford.  And what you can’t.  Which will keep your movie on budget, and you won’t waste a cent.

CUT OUT THE FAT


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If you have a backer with unlimited financial resources like, say, a pharmaceutical company, then this doesn’t apply to you (i.e. Studios).  But for the rest of the filmmaking world, think about this.  People cost time and money.  Even people working for free.

Every single person on your crew will cost a certain amount of money.  That amount varies, of course, because maybe you’re housing people at neighbors and friends.  But if you aren’t, you’re going to have to house them someplace.  Cheap motels aren’t free.  Some people have the ability to fly or drive to you, feed themselves, and bring their own bottled water to the set.  But will everybody?  Probably not.

The easiest way to save time and money is to cut out unnecessary crew members.  If you operate your own camera, you don’t need a camera person.  If you know about lighting, you won’t need a DP.  You don’t need a Gaffer, because anybody can hold the reflector or turn on the light.  Go for an intern.  If you have a DP or camera person it usually means you’ll add another dozen or so people automatically.  Most DPs and camera people can’t manage to hold the camera and also pull focus, change lenses, memory cards, download cards, etc., and they will usually request an additional person for each of those simple activities.  And all of those people will have NOTHING to do but stand there and wait for their specific duty.

By having the actors manage their own costumes and props, you omit the need for a props person, props assistant, costumer, seamstress, and whomever else those people “need” to assist them in order to do their jobs.  Of course, if you use a costume person, consider another area on the crew you can omit a person.  Can that costume person also manage being on Script during the takes (since they’d otherwise be doing nothing)?

By keeping on schedule and doing adequate planning ahead of time, you’ll also omit the need for a Second AD, and any other office-type person who would otherwise have nothing to do but sit around all day waiting to see if you’re behind schedule.

In addition to saving money, by omitting unneeded crew people, you’ll also save time.  The more people you have, the more time it takes for everyone to show up.  More people means less time in the loo (so “take 15 minutes” usually turns into “it’s been 45 minutes, we’re already behind, and not everyone has had a chance to use the toilet.”)

When an aspiring film student comes up to me and says, “I want to work on your crew, I’ll do anything, I’ll even pay my own way,” it’s very tempting to have them join the team.  But I’ve learned to draw the line.  While it’s helpful if one or two people come aboard under those circumstances, six or seven end up bogging down the set.

In addition to saving time and money, a smaller set is more enjoyable.  If you’ve never been on a film set before, you’ll come to love the days when hardly anyone is there.  Fat or thin, tall or short, the fact is, people take up space.

Add in equipment cases, bags, tripods, even at the barest minimum, it becomes crowded really quickly.  And, a crowded hallway isn’t as easy to walk down as an empty one.  Getting on and off the set, or in and out of the location is far easier when there are only a handful of people.

I know it’s exciting to have all your friends around to watch, and people willing to work for free, but please consider my advice and draw the line someplace.  If a person isn’t actually doing something useful, get rid of them.  Or select certain days on the schedule when they could be useful, and tell them to stay home on days that aren’t.

DISTRIBUTION: SALES AGENTS


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This article is part of an ongoing series of articles solely about distribution.  A lot of filmmakers are confused about the realities of distribution, and rightly so.  I’ve been making and selling movies internationally for over a decade, and I’m still learning about all the secrets and tricks The Industry hides from us.  Part of the problem is that no one shares this information with each other, both the good and bad, so I’m making it my mission to do so.  Openly, honestly, and hopefully clearly.

When your film is ready for release, there are a variety of ways to get it out into the world.  There are aggregators and sales reps, producer’s reps and distributors, foreign sales agents and a variety of “middle men” who can help you.

Today we’re going to talk about just one of those ways.  The Sales Agent.

Sales Agents are people who represent dozens, if not hundreds, of movie titles.  They take these films to markets such as Cannes, Berlin, and Toronto.  (Film Markets are not to be confused with Film Festivals, which sometimes happen simultaneously and in conjunction to Film Markets).  While attending these markets, they rent a booth or a space (such as a hotel room), and invite buyers from different distribution companies from all over the world, to stop by their booth and check out their titles.  Sometimes the Sales Agent will aggressively track down certain buyers from different countries with promotional flyers about your film.

The Asylum was the first Sales Agent I worked with and they were downright brilliant.  They are incredibly nice people, they paid their bills, they were actively in touch with us, and sharing with us ways they were selling PEP SQUAD.  They managed to sell my movie all over the globe: Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Scandinavia, South Africa, South Korea, the UK, China, Greece, the Baltic States, Indonesia, the Middle East, Portugal, Thailand, and Turkey.  Oh, and even Canada.  I can’t tell you how sad (okay, devastated) I was the day I learned The Asylum wouldn’t be actively selling other people’s movies anymore.

Finding a new Sales Agent to replace The Asylum was a bit like being dumped by the love of your life and having to quickly find a new soul mate or risk perishing into the depths of hell forever.  I think I’ve found a nice replacement, but to date they haven’t made as many sales as The Asylum did for us, so I’m waiting to decide if it’s true love or just fond admiration.

In the process of finding the good guys, I worked with a variety of scumbag Sales Agents selling several of my movies.  And I’ve encountered many that were so full of themselves, and so rude, that I ended up not hiring them.

First, remember that you are hiring a Sales Agent.  They aren’t hiring you.  Their egos are sometimes a problem.  To keep their egos well fed, they will often treat you badly so you think you need them, when in all honesty, to keep in business, they need you.  If they don’t have your film on their roster, they’ll have to find someone else’s film.  They cannot afford to remain in business if they aren’t selling as many movies as they can.  So if you took your film to the next sales agent, they’ll be the ones in a loss.

The second lesson is to BEWARE of Sales Agents’ so-called “marketing expenses.”  I’ve been to the Cannes.  I know for a fact it doesn’t cost several hundred thousand dollars to be there.

Most Sales Agents will pad their “marketing expenses” so they can fly First Class, put themselves up at the Carlton, or Hotel du Cap (well over $1,000 a night) and dine at the “in” places, with tasting menus featuring 20 courses, wine pairings, and more.  Yes.  That’s what they spend their money on.  Or, your money, rather.  They don’t use it to sell your movie.  They think they should be treated like Sharon Stone.  Or Madonna.  And somehow they will try and convince you they should be.

Sales Agents will sometimes pay you an advance when they acquire your movie, but then as they sell it to different buyers, they keep all the money that comes in until they recoup their “marketing expenses.”  Unless you’ve read the fine print and capped their expenses, you may never see another cent beyond the advance.

I prefer not getting an advance in exchange for the Sales Agent taking a commission on all sales, and giving me my shares from the first dollars in.  When you’re signing an agreement with a Sales Agent, be sure to discuss this aspect openly.

CASTING: A NEW WAY TO AUDITION


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Traditionally, when casting a movie, there are a few standard approaches to how to do it.  One is to have a cattle call, where actors come in, perform a monologue, give you their headshot and resume, and leave.  Another is a process where actors come in and read pages of the script (called “sides”), by themselves, or maybe with a second actor also reading sides.

For me, the traditional casting process is useless.

I don’t have actors audition in the traditional sense.  When I do a cattle call, I simply visit with people and take a look at their reels, or resumes, and that’s about it.  If I decide to have them audition, I will have them put themselves on tape later on.  But there is no reason to make actors do random monologues that have nothing to do with your movie.  Unless your character is exactly like Hamlet, do you really care if Actor Carl the best Hamlet in the world?

Doing cold readings from “sides” are totally unfair to the actor and also to the director.  I can’t expect an actor to walk in off the street without any previous discussion with me and nail it.  Sure, sometimes magic happens.  But, it’s unfair to ask the actor to do that.  It would be most beneficial to everyone involved if the actor and the director could speak about the character in question.  Actors act.  That’s what they do.  Most of the good ones can play any part you throw at them.

If an actor does a reading that isn’t a match with the director’s idea of the role, it is totally unfair for the director to judge that actor.  How could that actor know what the director is thinking unless the director says so?  Actors can be talented, but most are not psychic.  They need some “direction” which—oh wait—that’s why they call it a Director.

Yet, most often, bad directors hold cold reads and casting calls and will judge an actor based on their ability to perform without any direction.  Those are the directors who want actors who can direct themselves so he/she doesn’t have to do any work.

When I’m casting a movie, I like to meet performers and match their personalities with their co-stars.  If I think someone has the right energy for the part, I ask them to do a private video audition.  We visit a bit about the character, and then they record a short video in character introducing themselves to me.

They don’t work off the script, they just work off the energy inside the character and it’s totally improvisational.  I explain to each performer that there is no right or wrong way to interpret the character.  Part of the exercise is just so I can see how they look and move on screen.  Videos also convey if the actor has a deeper understanding of the character in question, or if they’ll need some additional guidance.

Sometimes I’ll ask an actor to do two videos, each with a different character.  This is a great idea if you’ve never worked with the individual before.  Because, they will show you what kind of an actor they are and you won’t have to guess.  If the actor shows you two totally different performances, it is clear they have a range and can do a variety of roles.  But, sometimes, if they perform both parts with pretty much the same style, it sends the signal they deliver one type of performance.  Which isn’t bad.

One time I had a gal do two video auditions for two roles, and she was pretty much the same in both.  Even though they were vastly different characters.  But, she was great at doing the thing she did.  So I cast her in a part totally suited for that kind of performance.  And, she nailed it.

Doing video auditions is also very valuable when you’re shooting a film across the globe.  When I shot my film CULTURE SHOCK in London and Paris, the only way for me to audition people was via Skype and video.  There was no money to fly me overseas to do the traditional casting process.

Traditionalists scoff at my concepts, but I think they work wonders and save lots of time and money.  So next time you prepare a casting or audition, think about what it is you want to achieve from it.  And do whatever you can to reach the goal.