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.

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.