DISTRIBUTION: SALES AGENTS

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

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.

MAKE IT REWARDING

There are only two reasons an actor will want to work for deferred pay.  One is about whom they’re working with—who are their co-stars, who is directing, or maybe who is creating the costumes or effects make-up.  The second reason is the type of role—is it a character that would showcase their talent or range, or is it a challenging type of role they’ve never tried before.

When I’m asking someone to work for deferred, I know what I’m asking.  I put myself in their shoes and ask, “Would I want to do this project under these circumstances?”  I have to be able to answer YES to that question, and if I can’t, I won’t ask it of someone else.

For $1,000 a day I can tolerate crappy food, miserable conditions, so I know most everyone else can, too.  But, what if there isn’t any money?  If we can’t afford to pay people, how else can we shape the experience to be worth it?  What kinds of things would I need in exchange for money?  How can I make it enjoyable, with good food, and a good working environment?  These are the kinds of special cares I think about when putting a movie together.

So, in addition to making sure my cast connects, and giving each juicy roles to showcase their talent, I make the entire experience a cross between a vacation and summer camp.  If you can make it so they never want to leave, it’s possible that when the opportunity comes up again, they’d pay you for the privilege to experience it all over again.

It doesn’t have to be the ideal vacation spot like Hawaii.  It could be an adventure in other ways.  My film CULTURE SHOCK, which was shot in London, had a day-trip to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower.  Filming a movie in London was more than enough, but that added day trip to Paris for a scene that only took an hour to film, was the cherry on top.

You don’t have to take your cast and crew to Hong Kong (like I did), or Italy (I’m working on that one), or Hawaii (wouldn’t that be lovely?), but please take the time to think about what kinds of things can be added to boost the whole experience during working hours—and after.

Even if I’m shooting in my backyard in Kansas (which is exotic for people on the coasts who don’t know what it’s like being in full-on, down-home “Americana”), the experience must be rewarding.  I must create something special.

The days must be light and enjoyable.  People must be allowed to get plenty of sleep.  There cannot be anyone negative on the set.  All actors and crew people are carefully hand picked based on more than their abilities (their personality and behavior is also considered).  The meals must be delicious, activities enjoyable and camaraderie wonderful.

If you can deliver these kinds of things, and make your film shoots a totally rewarding experience for everyone involved, you’ll have no problems finding people to work for next to nothing.  And you’ll probably have them coming back for more.

FINDING YOUR PERCEPTION

No two people see the same thing the same way. It’s a fact.  No two sets of eyes share the exact same perspective – even when we’re looking at the exact same thing.  Everyone on earth has an individual overall perception of everything that resides past the tips of his nose.  Many people dislike looking past the tips of their noses – in either direction – but that doesn’t change the fact that no two people see the same thing the same way.  There is no singular perspective.  No overall point of view.  Even when thousands of people are gathered in a convention center looking at the man at a podium – no two people in the room will have the same point of view.  One man watches from this angle – another man watches from millimeters away.  No matter how hard you try – it will be impossible to see out another person’s eyes.  It’s just not going to happen while you’re alive.

The first thing I learned attending film school at CalArts was… and they actually said this… “You don’t need a degree to be a filmmaker – you just need to be a filmmaker.”  The second thing I learned was the concept of individual perception.  Upon hearing the word, the first thing I wondered was, “What is perception? Is it something to be found in a textbook?  Certainly, I’ll have to buy all the books and required reading.  I mustn’t miss a single class – just in case they pass out samples.  Maybe after next year’s tuition payment they’ll tell me what it is.  Must be exciting, this ‘perception’ business, because it’s certainly costly.  I mean, one could purchase a Mercedes for the same price. It must be something rather extraordinary.”

Well, it was.  When I understood the notion of individual ‘perception,’ it was as if an entirely new world had opened up for me.  It was, in fact, better than a Mercedes.  It’s one of the most exciting, most rewarding ideas I have ever pursued.  Having a core – a self – wherein *I* am in charge of what I see – changed my life.

There was a class at CalArts called Scene Analysis (or something of the sort).  We watched films and took them apart shot by shot, scene by scene – inspected, from an overview floor plan (like an architectural blue print), where the camera was positioned for each shot.  We also studied where the actors were standing and where the lights were positioned.

Here’s what I learned.

Hitchcock, Lynch, Fellini, Huston, Kubrick, and the other so-called masters, weren’t putting the camera in the *best* place.  They weren’t putting the lighting in the *best* place.  They weren’t using the world’s *best* stories.  So I began to wonder: “Why on earth are they so admired?  What’s all the fuss about?  I’ve seen their work.  I’ve inspected each frame down to the millisecond.  What’s so special about them and not other filmmakers?  What do they have that others don’t?  Most everyone has seen a Lynch film.  Nine out of ten people think they make no sense, have no purpose, and look at the story and don’t ‘get it,’ so what’s the big deal?”

Well – the biggest deal is: Perception.  That’s what they’ve got that no one else seems to understand.  They have an individual perception.  Special emphasis should be placed on the word INDIVIDUAL.  These artists don’t look at their families, friends and neighbors to answer how they ought to see something.  They don’t look to their schools, churches or governments for definitions on how to be or think.  They simply look inward and ask themselves, “How do *I* see this?”  And once they answer the question – on their own – they respond with, “If I see it like this, I shall put the camera here.”  They do not have other people telling them where to put the camera or how to light the scene.  They answer to no one but themselves.  Their eyes tell the tale – not the eyes of the D.P., Key Grip, Focus Puller, leading actor or Editor.

These filmmakers are masters because they are simply putting the image together as they see it.  Seems easy enough.  So why aren’t most people doing the same thing?  Why is our entire culture doing the total opposite?

I suspect that there is a reason why the notion of individual “perception” isn’t taught in schools.  Clearly there is a reason why the concept of individual viewpoint is not encouraged at church.  Why?  First and foremost, the concept of individual perception is very dangerous to those who maintain their power through prescribing what is accepted and what is not, and “persuading” the populace, whether it is the marketplace for movies or the voters of a nation, to a single, externally defined criteria for a group perception.  Never mind that the term “group perception” is an oxymoron.

If an instructor at a university actually understood the concept of individual perception, it would make grading the work of students much more difficult.  Beginning with an admission that the professor’s view was not the “right and only way,” it would force enormous change upon institutions of higher learning, not to mention calling their very existence into question.  If society actually embraced the idea that no two people see the same thing the same way, it would revolutionize interpersonal communication.  We can only imagine what would happen to movie reviews, at least as we know them.  Instead of Mr. Critic proclaiming for the world what a film is about or what it means, he would actually leave it to the viewer to derive his own perception from the work.  After all, it was the *viewer’s perception* not his.  They had it.  He didn’t.  Their eyes are their eyes.  His eyes are his.  Just a thought: this will never occur in our lifetimes.  The power structure will see to it that the concept of individual perception is squashed wherever it seems to blossom.  Governments, religious institutions, big business, education… you name it… have a vested interest in promulgating the notion that “one size fits all.”

On my street, one size does NOT fit all.  I’m a little over six-foot-four.  *Normal* chairs don’t have the right height.  I can’t sit at a *normal* desk without ramming my knees into the low desktop.  And it doesn’t end there…  *Normal* counter-tops are too low.  The *normal* clothing sizes located at the mall simply don’t fit me.  I wear size thirteen shoes.  No one carries them.  It was like pulling teeth to get the plumber to install a shower head at the correct height.  He said, “But this is where they put shower heads.  No one puts them that high.”

“I understand this, but I’d like the shower head to pour down on my face.  I really don’t want it to be at my chest-level.  I’m not five-foot-eight and I shouldn’t have to pretend I am just so you feel better about it.”

It then occurred to me that the plumber was, in fact, my size.  How could he live his life never questioning this.  Has he never noticed his own shower head?  Has he never noticed the height of his bathroom sink?  Probably not.  He probably has spent a lifetime defining his expectations and beliefs because *THAT’S HOW IT’S ALWAYS BEEN DONE*.

It amazes me that people seem to PREFER just going along and letting the world define who they are and what they ought to believe.  I recently got a call from a storyboard artist.  He offered to sketch my storyboards for my next movie.  I thought, how strange… Why would I want to shoot a film from his perspective?  Wouldn’t I rather use my own?  My eyes are not his eyes.  I mean, it’s an interesting concept, to photograph someone else’s vision.  For me, it goes against what I define for myself as a filmmaker.  If I’m not using my own perception of the material – what the hell am I doing?  Lounging by the fucking pool?

Beware the people who pay lip service to the notion that there are 6 billion viewpoints in the world.  Even as they say that, they attempt to categorize entire nations into a single descriptive group.  Muslim, Jew, Christian.  All Muslims are terrorists.  All Jews are rich.  All Christians are good.  Well, it just isn’t true.  In fact, we’ve got a few Christians in Kansas that…  Well, there’s no reason to mention their hateful Baptist church out loud.

The next time that some politician tells you to vote for him because he shares your values, ask him how he knows what your values are and what is so special about him that he can see the world through your eyes.  The next time some “know-it-all” tells you that your script isn’t traditional enough, or your short story doesn’t follow the accepted structure, look deep inside and see if it fits your requirements and definitions.  If it does, tell them to mind their own business.

Everyone would benefit by having an individual perception.  Yet…  Most people fight it.  Most people do NOT want to have their own perceptions.  They avoid developing their own unique, individualized viewpoints.

Why would anyone NOT want to have his or her own perception?  Could it be…  Is it maybe…  Just maybe…  People want to avoid taking responsibility for themselves?  Consider this: It’s so much easier to blame someone else.  Somehow the world has defined responsibility as ‘fault’ – and fault as something demeaning or negative.  But the truth is – everything that happens in YOUR life is YOUR fault.  YOU are responsible for your actions and reactions.  YOU are responsible for YOU.  Not your neighbors, churches, schools or governments.

People who don’t like hearing things like that will always find an excuse to justify their behavior.  Commonly, people use money as their primary excuse: “Oh, I don’t have enough money to make a film…” or “Oh, I’d love to move away and be an actor but I don’t have the money…”  Another one is, “I’d love to work outside with my hands but I can’t afford to give up my present job.”  Well, then, why not figure out how to make it, be it or do it?  There are ways to find investors, or a job to pay your expenses or a different and affordable lifestyle.

The second set of excuses usually deals with blaming other people. “But I can’t leave my spouse and do what I want to do…” or “If I do what I want people will think I’m crazy!”  Okay.  Maybe so.  But who is driving your car?  Be aware there *are* choices.

Finally, people unwilling to take responsibility for their own behavior will use horror or abuse.  “9/11 wasn’t my fault!  So there!  You’re wrong!”  No, chances are, the horrific terrorist acts of 9/11 were not your fault.  But ask yourself: Who forced you to stop working until 9/15?  Who made you sit in front of the television?  Did the terrorists?  Or did you choose to do that all on your own?  “I’m abused on a daily basis.  It’s not my fault he beats me.”  You are correct, it isn’t your fault if you have been beaten.  At least not the actual hitting.  But do you make the choice to remain in that environment?  Do you seek help or escape?

Everything that happens in your life is your fault.  Another way of saying it is that you are responsible for determining what you do, how you do it and what your attitude toward life is.  Environmental things will occur.  Storms will come.  Accidents will happen.  Disasters will occur.  But what you do, how you respond, is up to you.  It’s one of the first hurdles to overcome in developing your own perception.  If you make the choice to not find investors, then you probably won’t have any.  If you make the choice to not create a business plan, you won’t have one.  If you make the choice to not find a job you enjoy, chances are, you will probably work at a job you hate.  If you make the choice to let society define who you are, you won’t be the one defining you.  Is this what you want?  Are these your choices?  If not, remember the old saying, “People who dislike having their feet sliced open should avoid walking on shards of glass.”

If you want to make films, or tell a story, or work in a forest, or sit on a mountain…  Well, get your shit together first.  Develop YOU and YOUR point of view.  Are you going to define your story by what it says in the “How to Write a Script” book?  Will you define your perspective by the rules in the “Filmmaking for Dummies” manual?

According to the 2001 CIA World Factbook, men in the USA, on average, live to 72, while women live to 79.  For the sake of making this less confusing, let’s say the average span of a human life is 75.  About 35% of it is lost in sleep.  And another 30% of that is lost to the vicissitudes of youth, while 10% is probably spent being old and/or ill.  That leaves about 25% of those 75 years to be all we can be, to do all we can do, and to live life as though it is as precious as it actually is.  We have 18 or 19 years during which we can make choices that enrich our lives, put meaning into our relationships and advance the causes we believe in.

Just eighteen years.  That isn’t a very long time.  Every day we are given choices. Every time we look at something we are given the opportunity to either learn – or not; to do – or don’t.  What will YOU choose?

On my street we praise the individual for striving.  It isn’t about quantitative success.  After all, whose definition of success are we using?  We have some simple questions on my street.  “Are you happy?  Are you fulfilled?  Do you have a sense of reward at the end of the day?  Are you meeting YOUR expectations (as opposed to those of someone else)?”  And when the answers are “no” which they sometimes are, we ask these questions: “What could you do differently that would get you what you want?  Is there another path to pursue that might yield different results?  Are there people in the world that might help you?  Have you fully defined what you want?”  These questions keep me, and others on my street, focused on being responsible for our own results, not thinking wishfully about what could have been or how unfair life is.  Next time you start to blame somebody else for your less than desired situation, try a couple of those questions on for size.

(originally published in “Balderson Blvd” for Aftertaste Magazine, 2001)

EXPOSURE AND MONEY

They aren’t one and the same.  Sometimes they go together and sometimes they don’t.

Because of my interest in eating well, I’ve known many restaurant owners.  Once, I asked a maverick restaurateur why her bottles of wine were priced less than other fine dining establishments.  She confided in me that her main objective was to move more product.  Her goal was to sell twice as many bottles of wine than her competition.  So she priced them affordably.  Usually the markup is ridiculous.  A good $12 bottle of wine in a liquor store usually costs $24-36 at a restaurant.  But, at her establishment, it might only cost $22-26.

I used to struggle with this idea until I started realizing what my preferences were when it came to releasing movies.  Often times, people will ask me which of my films has been the most successful.  It’s a really hard question to answer.  First, I have to ask them what they define as success.  Everyone has an entirely different definition.  Some people define success as the amount of money a movie makes, while others might define success based on the critical acclaim, awards, exposure, or in what countries your movie is released.

My film FIRECRACKER was released in almost every country on the planet, won numerous awards, pre-eminent film critic Roger Ebert gave it a special Jury Prize on his list of that year’s best films, yet the investors never made a decent return on their investment and in the USA it was basically shelved by the stupid distributor and is currently only available for streaming at Vimeo On Demand HERE: www.Vimeo.com/ondemand/firecracker

WELLSPRING was a really cool distribution company who wanted to distribute FIRECRACKER.  The company is now long defunct, but at the time they were the coolest boutique place to be.  They were distributing Todd Solondz’ movies.  WELLSPRING offered a decent advance, but only wanted to print 10,000 dvds.  While another distributor, FIRST LOOK STUDIOS, was offering a little less money but planned to release 50,000+ dvds on the initial run.  We decided to go with the FIRST LOOK.

For me, at that time in my career, it was more important to have the volume and exposure, even if I was setting myself up for less financial reward.

When it comes time to release a film, I always ask myself, in the event I’m unable to strike a deal for global exposure AND financial reward, which is better: to release the film globally, in as many countries as possible, for potentially less return?  Or is it better to have a smaller release in a just a few countries and make more money?  Each movie has a different set of criteria and a different set of questions and answers.

Of course we all want as many people as possible to have the chance to see our work.  And we also hope for great financial return so we can continue to make more movies.  This is why it’s important for me to keep costs as low as possible.  That way, I have a greater chance of financial reward.

Some of you might not know that exhibitors take 50% of any ticket sales at the movie theatre.  So if a studio movie cost $50million to produce and market, they will need to have box office returns that exceed $100million before they’ll ever see a cent of profit.  If you’ve sold your movie to a distributor, the distribution company will take even more, so the likelihood is you’ll need a box office figure closer to $150million before you’re living the Sinatra “good life.”

If your independent movie has a chance to make about $250,000 worldwide over the course of a lifetime, it might behoove you to keep the budget for that particular project about a third of that or lower.  The Movie Business is a business, albeit an idiotic and incredibly limiting one, which I’ll explain more in another article.  But it can be incredibly rewarding and successful on many levels.  Just depends on what you define as success.  And how you’d like to share your work with the world.

HONOR AT THE CINEMATHEQUE

One of the most special nights (thus far) of my film career came when The American Cinematheque honored my film STUCK! with a special event premiere at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.  The theatre itself is a glorious complex just down the block from the famous Chinese Theatre, which is another spectacular (albeit touristy) place for Hollywood premieres.

STUCK! is an homage to black and white women in prison films, and was filmed in the noir style as if it had been made in the 1950s or 60s.  It stars the late great Karen Black, John Waters muse Mink Stole, my muse Susan Traylor, Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s, punk rock royalty Pleasant Gehman, CalArts alum and friend Stacy Cunningham, and newcomer Starina Johnson in the title role as the girl sent to Death Row.

Starina Johnson stars as "Daisy" in STUCK!
Starina Johnson stars as “Daisy” in STUCK!

I knew the American Cinematheque hosted events for Hollywood big-wigs and all the cinematic greats.  It was a total honor and pleasure to be included in that group, and be experiencing the event inside that very space and air.

I went to the Egyptian on the day before the premiere to set up a police line-up type of display (so fans could take their mugshots in front of it as if they’d just been “booked”).  I also taped posters to the entrance way.  Outstanding portraits of all the leading ladies on Death Row photographed by celebrity photographer Austin Young.

As an aside, the posters were printed at www.ShortrunPosters.com which is a top-secret place to get awesome posters made for $2 each.  The best part is that there is no minimum amount you can print.  You can just print 6 or 20 if you like.  You don’t have to print 1,000 (I have posters from the theatrical run of FIRECRACKER that I’m unlikely to ever get rid of).

I was asked if I wanted a full on red carpet type event, or something a little more casual.  I voted casual.  There’s something about a red carpet that’s fine and all, but I didn’t think hoards of fans and media would be turning up like they do for Brad Pitt.  I was mostly right, but surprised that when I arrived at the Egyptian the night of the premiere, there was a line of movie-goers stretching down the entire length of the Egyptian colonnade, out onto Hollywood Boulevard, around the corner and down the block.  There were so many people trying to get in that the guys at the Cinematheque told me we’d start the screening 30 mins later than planned so as to accommodate all these people.  It was wild.

In order to pass the time and keep people occupied, I was asked to go down in front and speak for a bit.  I froze.  What!?  I didn’t know what else to do than to take the microphone and walk out there.  When I saw the vastness of the theatre I was overwhelmed.  There had to be almost a thousand people in there.  I walked up in front, made eye contact with Karen Black and the rest of my cast sitting together in the front middle section.  I pretended they were the only ones I was speaking to.

I told the story about meeting screenwriter Frankie Krainz, the genius who created STUCK!  When Frankie and I met, I told him I’d love to make a women-in-prison film.  He said, “Oh, let me write it for you.”  I said, sure, and we went about the rest of our meeting.  Several weeks later Frankie called and said, “I’m done!”  And I replied, “With what?”  (I had no idea what he was talking about).  He sent me the script and I was floored.  It was so moving, poetic, and like a combination of Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote, only more to the point.  Reading it was hypnotizing.  And then I made it into a movie.

After the screening, which was a huge success—both technically (there were no audio/projection mishaps) and critically (everyone loved it), we went across the street for the VIP after-party and dinner at legendary Musso & Frank.  The owner of Musso’s had printed special menus for us, and Pleasant Gehman and Iris Berry (another punk rock royal) gave me a cake.  When I cut into it, the knife hit something hard.  I dug into it and discovered there was a huge file inside—perfect for use in escaping from prison!

It was such an amazing, special, incredible night.  As vivid in my memory today as if it happened last week.

Stacy Cunningham and Pleasant Gehman at the STUCK! premiere in Hollywood
Stacy Cunningham and Pleasant Gehman at the STUCK! premiere in Hollywood

ERIC SHERMAN

Eric Sherman is my mentor and consultant and guru and… well, he’s just like Yoda.  Only real.  I first met Eric when I was a student at CalArts in the mid 90s.  Eric taught Film Directing and on the first day of class, as he arrived, I handed him my business card.  My attendance was spotty, but I thoroughly enjoyed learning what he had to share.

At the end of the semester, I left CalArts for a few weeks to direct a feature version of Anne Rice’s novel THE VAMPIRE LESTAT.  See, for another class, we were given an assignment to direct something with texture (or something about composition in general).  The assignment was supposed to be a short film, but I never thought in short-storytelling format, so I instantly thought I’d adapt and direct LESTAT since I’d just finished reading the book and was really inspired.  Anyway, I had to leave CalArts in order to get back to Kansas to make the movie.

When I returned, most of my instructors asked where in the world had I been and I replied, “I was doing the assignment!”  Then I handed them a double VHS set of the finished and edited movie.  (Yes, this was before DVDs were invented and the movie was longer than 2 hours, so I had to use a second VHS tape to hold the last part).

Eric gave me an INCOMPLETE on my report card.  I didn’t know what that meant, so I went to see him.  Evidently if a student doesn’t attend the class, there’s no way for him or her to learn what is being taught in the class.  Of course he was right.  But, no matter my plea, I still received an incomplete, and was forced to re-take the class in order to pass it.  So I did.

In my memory, it’s hard to tell exactly how many times I re-took Eric’s FILM DIRECTING class.  I’m pretty sure I only repeated it once, but it might have been three times.  After my stint at CalArts, I set off to direct my debut feature film.  To understand filmmaking as both a business and creative endeavor, I hired Eric as a film consultant to help me with my business plan and pre-production management.  He taught me how important it is to be ultra-prepared.

Eric’s father was Vincent Sherman, the last of the great Golden Age Hollywood directors.  Eric himself worked with everybody, including Orson Welles.  I knew he had the knowledge I needed to learn.  I was right.  Later on, as my first film became a real project, I asked him to come on board as a co-producer.  That film is PEP SQUAD.  It would be the first film to predict the soon-to-be onslaught of American School Violence.  Furthermore, it’s is a dark comedy and a subversive satire—an entertaining combination.

At one point, I decided against casting the actor I’d auditioned to play the sleazy principal who gets killed.  Instantly I turned to Eric to see if he’d consider it.  He eventually agreed to do it, and he’s just great portraying the wonderfully demented and evil character.  On the day we were to kill off the character, I recalled getting an INCOMPLETE in his class, and I couldn’t recall if I ever did, in fact, pass it.  Clearly, at this point, I didn’t need to worry about it.

Eric and I continue to work together and today I consider him more than a mentor and friend.  He’s family.  If any of you are in need of hiring someone with Yoda-like know-how on filmmaking, or in need of a mentor, or consultant, I’d be happy to put you in touch with Eric.  He’s the best!

LLOYD KAUFMAN

The first time I met Lloyd Kaufman, it was in his Troma Tower on Ninth Avenue in New York City.  It was before the premiere of my film PEP SQUAD at the Cannes Film Festival, where I would later get to know him better.

I first learned who Lloyd Kaufman was during the shooting of my first film PEP SQUAD.  My CalArts mentor and confidant Eric Sherman introduced me to the world of Troma.  Eric had been Lloyd’s college roommate at Yale, and spoke highly of him.  When I first saw the brochure for Troma movies and merchandise, I couldn’t believe what I was looking at.  I was getting my first taste of truly independent filmmaking, and I didn’t know what to make of it.  Was there a market for movies like this?  I had no idea how important and groundbreaking Lloyd’s empire was.

I agreed that Troma would announce my film at the Cannes Film Festival in the south of France in 1998.  My team (well, my father, sister, and best friend) flew to NYC to seal the deal.  We met at the Troma headquarters and I was overwhelmed.  It was reminiscent of what I imagined the New York Times reporting room to be like.  Desks of reporters lined wall to wall, and smoke rising to the ceilings while they banged on typewriters and answered rotary dial phones.  I can’t recall what it was really like, but that’s my romantic memory.

Lloyd has a mammoth energy.  It felt like I was meeting royalty.  And indeed, Lloyd remains, a King among men.  He sat behind his big leather desk.  I imagined Madonna and other celebrities, sitting where I was, seeing the same thing.  It was humbling.  And scary!  I would learn later that Madonna had, in fact, done just that, earlier in her career.

The deal was signed and stamped.  Soon we were in the south of France.  I joined Lloyd at the Carlton Hotel.  It was a massive white cream-frosting of a place, with armed guards to keep the uninvited out.  But we had official badges, so we were allowed inside the inner sanctum (lobby).  And then up to the rooms where all the Industry (Miramax, etc) rented out make-shift offices while in town.

The next day I joined Lloyd on a panel with Roger Corman.  E! Entertainment filmed it.  It was awesome.  Later I found out that my hometown hadn’t yet subscribed to E! so no one I knew saw me.  O, the travesty.

The two weeks flew by with a snap.  And then I was back home in Kansas and no idea what had happened or what was to happen next.

It came to me nearly half a decade later.  Lloyd Kaufman was indeed a King among us.  His empire and know-how became an inspiration to me.  What he has done to shape the TRULY independent film industry is nothing more than an extraordinary accomplishment.  And beyond.  What I love most of all: he did it on his own terms.  He followed his dreams, his plan, HIS inner spirit.  And he will always remain one of the most important and influential filmmakers of all time.

O, THE IRONY

In order to have a successful career, or maybe even branch out into a new field within your industry, networking is very important.  It’s especially important when making movies.  But, it’s damn near impossible to be doing any kind of networking (whether in-person or on social media platforms) when you’re actually making a movie.

I just found out about a social media site called Slated (it’s basically LinkedIn for the movie business, with a who’s who of members—although I know several high profile celebrities, distributors and filmmakers personally who aren’t on it, so whatever that means).  Allegedly this is a site where people can meet up with other industry folk to get jobs, raise funding, and meet other likeminded filmmakers.

But I’ve never heard of it.  How do all these people know about it?  Why is Matthew Broderick on there?  Why is my sales agent Erika on there?  I even found the profile for a friend of mine on there!  Clearly there are people who have taken the time to read something I wasn’t reading.

I get frustrated in moments like this because for a brief moment I feel out of the loop.  But, then I remember, the reason why I’ve been out of the loop is because I’ve been making movies.  And when one is actually making a movie, there’s little time to be going to meetings and reading the trades by the pool.

I finished shooting a feature film about a month ago, then started to assemble the rough cut immediately so I could get it finished before I had to leave the country for another feature film shoot.  I leave the country in two days, and just got the rough cut done.  Goal accomplished.  So, I had some time to do some networking research, discovered Slated, and I decided to sign up.

Now Slated is asking me to fill out my profile, upload a photo, my bio, who should I follow, how I should connect my Facebook and LinkedIn and twitter accounts.

It’s a full time job to do shit like that.  Why can’t there be just one site?  Why do there have to be a hundred?  And why is it expected that anyone in the public eye MUST have a presence on every single one of them?  It’s exhausting to deal with.  Then, I remember… this is why I need to hire an army.

Martha Stewart doesn’t run her own Pinterest, Facebook fan page, twitter feed, Instagram, blog, website and all those other feed lots.  She has a team of people doing it for her.  It’s their full time job.

And one really does need an army to manage all the feed lots at the same time.

And I suppose when they start working, they can be the ones to set up all my profiles on each of the new feed lots they uncover.  O, what a dreamy world that will be.

Until then, I’m off to direct another feature film.

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.