THE BILLING BLOCK

The Industry’s unhealthy obsession with The Billing Block I may never fully understand, but I’m happy to discuss it with you today.

The Billing Block refers to the collection of names and credits that are positioned at the bottom of movie posters and advertisements.  Usually they are composed on fonts with tall and very narrow, vertical lines.  So small and tall and narrow that most everyone can’t read them at all.  In fact, it’s safe to say that probably no one ever reads them except the people who are in The Billing Block.

I agree, without The Billing Block, your movie poster looks unfinished or under-designed.  Just like all those laurel wreaths from awards or film festivals.  No one stops to read the text inside each laurel wreath.  People might see the words OFFICIAL SELECTION or something of the sort, but hardly anyone can see the tiny words underneath that read: Billy Joe’s Steakhouse BBQ Film Festival.  It doesn’t matter.  Having the ability to put laurel wreaths on your movie poster, or in advertisements, makes it look to the consumer that your movie is THE movie they should see.  The Billing Block has this same worthless effect.

To make a Billing Block, one should start with the name of a production company like: “Paramount Presents” and then have a little space, and follow with “a Steve Balderson film” or whomever.  Then, you’ll list your top actors who have, in their contracts, agreed to be in your movie so long as their names appear BEFORE the main title, on individual title cards (these are moments in the movie when no one else’s name appears on the screen at the same time).  Following them, you’ll type in THE TITLE of the movie.  And then a short selection of supporting stars (or other actors who have agreed to be in your film so long as they get their own title cards).  Following them will be a list of crew people: editor, writers, art direction, the cinematographer, and maybe someone else, or a producer, and ending with the director.  And repeating the same words that were the start of your Billing Block.

But, who reads them?  Who can even see them?  Nobody.  Well, nobody except the people who have their name in The Billing Block.  And god forbid someone who expects their name to be in The Billing Block and can’t find their name.  O, the unjust insanity.

Placement is an integral part of The Billing Block.  Some actors specify in their contracts they must have the THIRD placement.  Or, the FIRST.  Or the SECOND.  I’ve never heard of anyone asking for the fourth onward.  Sometimes people will negotiate that they want their name listed first, and will gladly take second position but only if on the same title card as the first person.  Even if their name will appear second on The Billing Block.

Size of the font is also a big deal.  If the star is at a 12 point font size, typically the supporting cast will be at a 10 or a 9 or 8 font size.  Usually this is because the main star gets their own title card, whereas the supporting cards are sharing their card with other names.  So their font size should be smaller to keep room for multiple names.  There are some actors who specify in their contracts their name must be written in the same font size as the main star.

Once (or twice) I’ve relished the idea of making my name (as director) one or two font sizes larger than everyone else in the movie just to prove a point.  In a joking way.  I’m not one to flatter myself with endless on-screen credits.  Even if I did the costumes, make-up, set design, cinematography, writing, and editing, and whatever else, I think it’s tacky to make a movie that has my name repeatedly credited.  So usually I just stick with “produced and directed by” and leave it at that.

But there are people out there who want EVERY credit they can get.  And that’s fine.  I say, might as well give it to them.  It’ll shut them up so you don’t have to deal with them, or listen to them.  And at the end of the day, nobody cares or knows.  I mean, right now, think about it.  Which name is listed first on The Billing Block for BASIC INSTINCT?  Which name is listed second on the credits for SPIDERMAN 2?

One last bit of advice: if you’re ever negotiating with an actor who wants the first title card, but you’ve promised it to someone else, simply offer them a credit like “AND” or “WITH” at the very end f the opening credits on their own title card.  This is what Joan Collins got on DYNASTY.  They feel special, and unique, and it works every time.

CONTINUITY

Face it.  The only people who care about continuity are people who care about continuity.  The majority of people watching a movie don’t think about it at all.  Instead, they’re watching the movie.  People who care about continuity aren’t watching the movie—they’re watching props and costumes.

It’s okay to encourage people making the movie to be aware of continuity, but there’s no reason to be obsessive over it.  Your actors usually look the same in the morning as they do a couple hours later, do they not?  Unless you’re shooting a scene that will take three days to film, it really shouldn’t be that big of a deal.

In ancient times, it did take the studios three full days to shoot a single scene.  So it was important to make sure the costumes and hairdos looked the same, since in the final movie the scene might only be 90 seconds long.  And if there were drastic changes in such short timeframe, it would be visually jarring to the audience.  But those days are long gone.  Now it just takes a few hours to shoot a scene.

But there are still people who obsess over continuity.  I’m here to tell you that unless it’s a really stupid mistake, it doesn’t matter.  The viewer will still watch, and continue watching, until they have to get up and go to the loo.

Imagine a scene where a woman is wearing red as she climbs into a car.  The car speeds away.  In the next shot, the car stops, she gets out, and is wearing blue.

People obsessed over continuity will go on and on about that being a horrible mistake.  Whereas any normal person can see she’s obviously changed clothes, so it must be a different time or different day.  Often times in movies directors, or costumers, will use a change of clothes as an unconscious suggestion that time has passed.  So there is no continuity error there.  Just an error in the eyes of the person obsessed with continuity.

Now, of course, if the scene that follows is a luncheon, and the woman wearing blue sits down and miraculously, without getting up, she’s suddenly wearing purple, well, that would be a stupid continuity mistake.

Sometimes I like to dress my actors in the same costume throughout the entire movie.  Have a look at CULTURE SHOCK.  With the exception of a few scenes, all the actors are wearing the same things throughout.  I used the children’s cartoon SCOOBY DOO as the aesthetic template.  Daphne, for example, always wears that purple dress and lime-green scarf.  Velma is always in that hideous Orange sweater.  Shaggy is always in that green shirt.  Yet, has any person watching the show ever stopped and said, “Wait a minute.  She was wearing that yesterday.  Obviously must have been out all night.  What a slut.”  No.  No one says that.

Aside from being a fun artistic choice to dress your actors in the same costume for the entire film, it eliminates the need for a costume person.  The actors can just take care of their clothes themselves!  If you decide to do that, be sure to bring enough Fabreeze, or buy two identical outfits, because you will stink after five days wearing the same clothes on a movie set.

LIMITING DECISIONS

When asked about the secret of his success and long career, actor Michael Caine answered: “I have a policy.  I never listen to anyone explain why they can’t do something.  I don’t want to be convinced by them.”

How often do you encounter people with such negativity that it influences you?  Have you ever been driving with someone who said, “We’ll never find a parking spot”?  Next time that happens, turn to them and ask, “How do you know?”  Sometimes people decide things that limit them without even thinking.  And in that limiting decision, they have created a negative energy that surrounds them—and you.

On a movie set, when someone shouts “it’ll never work” or “we don’t have enough time” just tell them to leave the room.  There’s no reason to be in that kind of environment.  I like to think, “there’s always a way to make anything work” and “there’s plenty of time.”  One just needs to be creative.  And it’s super difficult to be creative when you’re making a limiting decision about something.

I taught one of my consulting clients about how he could make a short film.  Months later, I learned that he had indeed made his short, and that the film was accepted to screen at the Cannes Film Festival.  Isn’t that wonderful!  I’m fairly certain he didn’t make any limiting decisions along the way.

If you’re a worry wart and are often creating difficult situations even more difficult, it might be hard to grasp this idea.  But, it would be really beneficial to never operate with any limiting decisions.  Try removing the following words from your daily dialogue: can’t, won’t, never, don’t.  It’s a really fun exercise.  My favorite was going a whole week without saying the word DON’T.  Instead of telling someone what you don’t want, you’ll find it is always easier to tell someone what you DO want.

The subconscious mind cannot process negatives.  Don’t picture a blue tree.

What did you picture?  A blue tree!  And even if you immediately changed the color of the tree, you pictured a blue tree even when I told you not to.  Don’t imagine a baby crying.  Don’t imagine a birthday cake.  Don’t imagine an orange rose.  More of the same.  Whoever decided the billboard should say “Don’t drink and drive” is an idiot.  It should read “Find a sober driver.”

Anyway, when it comes to communication—whether on a film set, within the binds of a screenplay, or in ordinary day-to-day life—think about what you’re saying.  Are you telling people what you WANT?  Or are you telling them what you don’t want?

IT’S ALL WHO YOU KNOW

Everybody knows show business has less to do with talent and more to do with the connections you make and the ones you can use to your advantage.  However, when I suggest that it’s all about who you know, I mean—when it comes to life in general.  Who you know, and who you surround yourself with, will effect the quality of your life and your work.

If you surround yourself with people who are chaotic, angry, shallow and unpleasant, you will live a life that is chaotic, angry, shallow and unpleasant.  If you surround yourself with people who are centered, mature, and full of inspiration, you will live a life that is centered, mature, and full of inspiration.

After leaving CalArts, I surrounded myself with people who were very dramatic, very catty, and sometimes incredibly bitchy and shallow.  I also had friends who were centered, calm, and interested in visiting about the bigger picture.  I didn’t know it at the time, but what was happening was this: when I was around those creative artists, I too felt inspired to create.  And when I went out to dinner with the shallow and superficial person, I experienced the world as she saw it.  It was a miserable friendship and I didn’t even know it!

The great actor Michael Caine once said, when asked about the secret of his success and long career, he answered: “I have a policy.  I never listen to anyone explain why they can’t do something.  I don’t want to be convinced by them.”

It is true that other people’s beliefs and behaviors impact each of us.  How many people are in your life that drive you crazy?  Do you have people in your life that inspire you?  Who are they?  How often do you seek to be around people who enrich your life, instead of take away from it?

Sure, some troubled people might be “going through a phase.”  That’s fine.  But ask yourself: how does their “phase” influence you?  Is it better to remove yourself from their sphere, so you can live your life on YOUR terms, or is it better to live your life in theirs?  Sure, some troubled people are good people deep down, and with the help of therapy and deep introspection on their part, they might be able to grow out of it.  But, ask yourself: how many days and years of your life will you waste being swallowed up by their troubles?

It’s taken me years to figure this out, but now I have a great group of friends.  We support each other emotionally and inspire each other creatively.  There is no room in my life for the shallow, the superficial, or the melodrama created by people who are insecure, catty or generally troubled.  So when I come into contact with those types of people, I remember to get them out before it’s too late.

Why am I successful?  Why am I inspired to create?  Why am I stress free?  Why are my movie sets organized and calm?  Why is life and work full of joy and freedom?  Do you want the same kind of life?  If so, the secret is out: it’s all who you know.

HOW TO BUILD A PRESS KIT

I think it’s fun to google press kits online.  It’s easy to find some for your favorite movies, TV shows, or product launches.  Making your own isn’t really that difficult, but it will take some time.

There are no rules to crafting a good press kit.  I’ve seen incredibly complicated press kits, three-dimensional designs, and short and concise press kits.  In ancient times, press kits were usually a package (or folder) with papers inside, photographs, and other bulky things used to promote the product.

These days, press kits are usually entirely online or easily shared via email.  Some might consist of audio/visual treats and be shared on a flash drive.  But, most everyone agrees that there’s no reason to spend money on something when you can achieve the same result for nothing.  So, I say, go with a simple PDF.  You don’t need to send a DVD or CD anymore.  A link to Vimeo works just great.

You’ll want to write a well-formed synopsis.  It’s often a good idea to include a medium-length synopsis and an even shorter one.  Keep in mind that you should make it sound exciting, as if you were writing a review.  Most often, journalists want to simply copy-n-paste what you’ve written so they don’t have to work so hard.  And in the process, when the Boston Globe (or whomever) writes that your movie is a “fast-paced gem” you can easily lift that quote from their article, quote the Boston Globe, and use it for promoting your movie.  Even though you were the one who wrote it.  So remember that.

Write biographies for your key cast and crew.  If you aren’t working with anyone notable in show business, write their bios full of excitement and wonder about the world those people live in.  If your lead actress was a former beauty queen, or if your DP was an escaped felon, or if your supporting actor was a hot dog eating champion—share that info!  Weird stories make for great media coverage.

You might want to consider incorporating a mock interview with yourself and other key players in your project.  Sometimes this acts as a showcase for the type of interesting interview you can do.  I like to make up a game of 20 Questions and keep them light and simple, and sometimes juicy and controversial.

You’ll want to include some stills from your film.  Some should be glossy shots of the actors that might be considered a scene from the film, or a portrait.  Other shots should be from behind-the-scenes, showing the camera and lighting set-ups, or certain “filming” moments.

You’ll definitely want to include a link to the trailer, and maybe even some clips from the film.  Some people with online or broadcast capabilities could run clips of your movie during their news segment.  (For an example, check out the opening 10-15 minutes of “WAMEGO: Making Movies Anywhere” which shows news stories about my movie PEP SQUAD as featured on television.)

Consider including other reviews or other third-party blurbs.  The world is incredibly lazy when it comes to independent thought.  By sharing that a dozen (hopefully influential) people love your movie, it sends the signal your movie is great.  “Why, if so-and-so loved it, it must be good!”

Keep in mind that at the end of the day, of course you want your project to speak for itself.  But, sometimes if you don’t tell people in the media what they’re looking at, they won’t know what to think.  So even if it sounds a little creepy, or pretentious, you’d better do it.  Or you might risk getting lost in the shuffle of all the people who are.

PAPARAZZI

A few years back I was staying at the Bowery Hotel in New York City, having dinner outside the restaurant there.  It was a lovely, quiet night in NYC and the food and wine were great.  At some point during my meal I noticed a group of men with large cameras congregating nearby on the sidewalk.  I didn’t think they were there for me, but I was curious why they kept staring at me.  Perhaps they thought I was someone else.

Behind me, inside the restaurant, carefully hidden behind the wall, practically sitting in the corner (it had to be uncomfortable) was Cameron Diaz.  I took a moment to realize that the experience I was having was far more enjoyable than the one she was having.  Imagine it.  Cameron Diaz can’t sit outside on the street and enjoy a nice dinner in the open air.  Unless she wants to be bombarded by paparazzi and mobs of tourists and fans.  How sad that must be, to always be cooped up inside places, shoved into the corner so no one can see her.  What a limiting life.

A while later, one of my movies was having a premiere at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.  I received a call from a PR (Public Relations) person, who asked if their client could be added to the guest list.  Sure, I said.  The PR person added that the paparazzi would be alerted, to get good photo ops.  That surprised me.  And, suddenly the world of celebrity became crystal clear.  Most of these people were famous for no reason.  They were famous because their PR people arranged for it to appear as though they are famous.

Cameron Diaz, obviously, has a reason to be famous.  She’s appeared in many movies that have been seen by billions of people.  There’s a reason she’s recognized.  But, there are a lot of people out there who have no reason at all to be stalked by paparazzi.

Once at LAX, I saw a black suburban drive up and stop.  A famous got out and walked across the sidewalk to the special entrance of American Airlines.  Just before the actor got out of the car, a paparazzi had arrived and was waiting for him.  I wondered: how did the paparazzi know the actor would arrive at precisely 9:26 a.m. for a quick 30-second walk across the pavement?  What are the chances?  We all know there is no such thing as coincidence.  I’m pretty sure the actor’s PR person had called someone to insure that his or her client would be photographed at LAX.

It’s true: Hollywood is an illusion.  Both on screen and off.  Of course, the general public, or Sheeple, have no idea how fabricated it really is.  So you can either use it to your benefit, or expose it.  But, my advice is, if you have something to sell or share with the world… might as well use it.

LOVE THE HATERS

If someone hates your movie, it’s a blessing.  Here’s how to tell.

If you love it or hate it, you have a strong emotion.  Most people believe they exist on opposite ends of the spectrum, in a line like this:

love-hate_1

But the truth is, that the emotions for LOVE and HATE exist very close together.  It takes very similar amount of effort to feel one or the other.  The complete opposite of that feeling is indifference.  Nothingness.  So, the reality is, this is what the spectrum looks like:

love-hate_2

So the next time you get a review and someone’s bashing your movie because they absolutely HATE it, give yourself a pat on the back.  Because that person has no idea how much emotion you caused them to feel, and how that alone is an accomplishment.

Embrace the haters.  Because you know that the only real bad review is when someone has no emotion at all.

EDIT WHILE YOU WORK

An effective way to save time and money during your production is to be aware of editing during each process.

The first time I’m aware of editing comes at the beginning, when I’m doing a shot list, or storyboards for the film.  I can see in my mind how the scene will be cut together, and how the rhythm of the shots will affect the pace of the movie.  Of course some of these ideas will change during the actual filming process.  But, overall, I get a really clear sense about what the viewer will experience at this early stage.

If I get the sense that the scene will end on this shot, or that shot, or in a certain moment, I will make a note in the screenplay.  Sometimes this means crossing out entire sequences.  The screenwriters I’ve worked with in my career are usually fine with this, but I can understand how sometimes screenwriters might react in a negative way.  My advice: just don’t tell them.  Or, have an agreement in place to begin with that you have creative control.

If I know I’m not going to use a particular shot in the final movie, why bother wasting the time or money on the set by filming it?

Perhaps not every person who considers himself or herself a director can see this, or know this ahead of time.  I’d suggest that if you can’t foresee what the viewer will be going through, you aren’t equipped to be a director.  Cause I really believe that’s the whole point.  In that case, perhaps you should turn your attention to working in another aspect of filmmaking, or perhaps take up film criticism professionally.

Being involved in the editing process is the easiest way to get the hang of rhythm, timing and pacing.  Every director should be his or her own film editor at least during one phase of the editing process.  It’s okay to have help on technical matters, and to bring in additional editors for multiple points of view, but the director should know when to stop the scene, where to make the cut.  Having that knowledge will help shape the way you write and film your movies.

Back to the set.  There was a scene in my film OCCUPYING ED where Holly Hinton and Christopher Sams are lying on the floor playing chess.  There’s a great subtle dolly move inching closer and closer to them throughout the scene.  When the dolly stops, she calls out checkmate, and that’s where the scene ends.

However, in the screenplay the scene continued.  There was another page of dialogue and a couple of jokes.  I didn’t think the jokes were funny, even though everyone else on set disagreed with me.  I thought about filming the rest of the scene in order to test this later (had each test viewer thought the jokes were funny, maybe I’d keep them in even if I didn’t).  But, I decided to not film them, and to just end the scene at checkmate.  It just felt right.  I knew that even had we filmed the rest of the scene as it was written, I’d be cutting it out in the editing room.  It made no sense to waste the next 45 minutes shooting the rest of the scene when I knew it wouldn’t make it into the film.  I decided it was best to just go on to the next shot, the next scene.

If you’ve only made a couple of movies, and aren’t confident yet you can do this, my advice is to go ahead and shoot the scene as it’s written, and decide later.  After you’ve made more than a dozen or two movies it’ll become second nature, and you’ll feel great about saving the time and money on set.

FILM WEATHER

Unless I’m on a beach wading in perfectly clear seawater, the ideal temperature for me to exist in is 65 degrees F (that’s 18C for everyone else on the planet except the USA).  I keep interior temps at 65F all year long.  I sleep better, think better, and create better.  But, there are times when I can’t control the climate.  So before scheduling a movie shoot, it’s always best to consider where you’re going to shoot and what the temperature will be.

Dennis Hopper once told me it’s better to shoot in sweltering heat than it is to shoot in bitterly cold.  He was right.  It wasn’t until my first winter shoot that I realized how debilitating it is to shoot a movie in cold weather.

When the temps get cold enough, and the wind chill kicks in, it can be beyond miserable.  In addition it can be dangerous.  Frostbite is a concern.  It’s really hard to operate cameras and things with huge padded gloves.  Imagine being an actor, trying to compose yourself and stay in character when your body starts involuntarily shaking.  Or what about the blood draining from your face and leaving your nose bright red and cheeks pale?  These are problems that one must deal with when shooting in the cold.

There are some dangers when shooting a movie in the heat.  People are at risk for heat stroke and the sort.  But, tolerating the temperature impact on your body is manageable.  It’s easier to provide water to people, make sure everyone stays in the shade whenever possible, and avoid heat exhaustion.  Sometimes it happens, of course, and usually when the heat index is higher than normal (this is like a wind chill but reverse).

I’ve filmed many movies in warm temps.  My first film PEP SQUAD was produced in the humid Kansas July and August.  It was disgusting.  Actors make-up sliding down faces, and several people on the crew just smelled bad.

STUCK! was even worse.  Filmed during early summer in Macon, Georgia, where the humidity is so thick you can cut it and put it on a piece of toast.  The place we filmed the jail cells was on the second floor of a building with no air conditioning.  The owners refused to open the windows at night to cool it down for us.  So we had to work in miserable conditions.  Visually it looked great: everyone a little shiny with sweat and the contrast in B&W worked out in our favor.

During CASSEROLE CLUB we filmed in Palm Springs, and I made sure the air conditioning ran throughout the shoot.  Some people have the belief you should shut all the appliances off, or turn off the AC when you shoot.  That makes no sense to me, because you’ll just add room noise back in later.  It’s super easy to match the frequency of the room noise and air nowadays.  Maybe back in the day this was harder.  Anyway, I’ve never worried about shutting off the AC or Heat.  Or unplugging the fridge.

Likewise, think about other factors such as: is it hurricane season?  Tornado season?  Rainy season?  Dry season?  Allergy season?  How many hours of daylight versus night will you have?  In real life, it would always be ideal to live and work in an environment steady at 65F.  So think about that when you get ready to shoot your next movie.

VANITY ON THE CLOCK

If you’ve worked on a film set, you know how important it is to remain on schedule.  The art of scheduling a movie accurately is really one of the most important parts of the filmmaking process.

In order to schedule a movie, clear communication needs to take place between the crew and cast who will shape it.  Some DP’s will want to spend hours lighting “that shot” while some actors want another hour to prep for the scene – and soon you’re behind schedule.

The first thing I do is limit the DP set up time.  If he or she has truly given it some thought, there will be an easy way to light nearly any scene in less than 15-30 minutes.  On any given budget.  But, it takes the self-discipline to be able to sit down and plan it.  If you wait to decide what to do until you show up on the set, you won’t know what you’re doing until you get there.  In that case, you will not be prepared and it could take a long time before the camera team is ready to get the shot.

Another thing I do is tell my actors to show up Make-Up and Hair ready.  In some cases I have hired a hair and make-up person, but I tell them to be in charge of their own schedule.  And if Hillary needs to be camera ready at 3pm, she should be on set at 3pm.  It’s the responsibility of the make-up artist and Hillary to make sure this happens.

Preferably there won’t be any make-up or hair person, and each actor can just be responsible for doing it themselves.  If my actor isn’t comfortable doing it on their own,  they can hire their own make-up artist.  I’m happy to give the artist credit in the movie, but they most likely won’t be a part of our overall schedule and planning process.

I understand that everyone wants to look his or her best whether it’s in front of or behind the camera.  The DP wants the best lighting, the actors want to look their best, the props, costumes, all of it.  Each person wants to achieve their best.  And I think that’s great!  When I’m directing something, I want it to be the best possible experience for the viewer.  So I totally get everyone wanting to be and do his or her best.

What I don’t understand is how few people are really willing to take responsibility for themselves to make sure they achieve their goals.  I sketch storyboards before showing up on the set.  There’s no reason the DP can’t look at them and design his lighting plan in advance.  There’s no reason the actors can’t look at them and know which side of their face will be seen.

I made my storyboards available to the cast and crew of FIRECRACKER and I believe only about four people (out of 42) looked at them.  Karen Black was one of them.  There was only one moment Karen didn’t like where I was putting the camera.  But, I told her that now wasn’t the time for that discussion.  The time for conversation was all those weeks earlier when we went through each storyboard together.

Since I filmed FIRECRACKER, I’ve never had an unorganized shooting day.  And I’ve never been behind schedule.  Even if I’ve experienced a scene running over the pre-planned time, I average about an hour ahead of the scheduled wrap time each day.

Yes, it is possible to make a feature film wherein you don’t have to work 12-14 hours a day.  The trick is to check vanity at the door, really communicate with clarity and focus, and work with people who love taking responsibility for managing themselves realistically.