EL GANZO sneak preview Sunday

EL GANZO will have a special screening on Sunday (28 June) at 1pm as part of the Free State Festival in Lawrence, Kansas.  I will be there with Susan Traylor and some of the cast/crew to do a Q&A after the film.

The day prior (Saturday 27 June), at 10:30 AM, I’ll be giving an introduction to my process used in the Maverick Filmmaking Workshop for the festival which is FREE to attend.

Both the EL GANZO screening and the Maverick Filmmaking Workshop will happen at the Lawrence Arts Center.  For directions, visit the FREE STATE FESTIVAL website at that link.

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MEDIA DETOUR reviews EL GANZO

El Ganzo Review by Tyler Selig, MEDIA DETOUR

An emotional story of two strangers in Mexico. No, it doesn’t involve crime. Damn it stereotypes, go away.

Lizzy is a woman with an unknown past who makes her way to the Hotel El Ganzo in Mexico. There she meets an artist named Guy who is trying really hard to find the inspiration for his big breakthrough. The newest film by experimental auteur Steve Balderson relies on the relationship that forms between the two main characters; two lost souls/travelers who find each other and form an organic, and spiritual, bond with one another.

We don’t need to know a lot about where they come from, but we learn a little. I won’t spoil any of it, but the heart of the film is in the now — not the past and not the future. It is the kind of film that places the viewer as a fly on the wall, as we watch these strangers awkwardly meet but then grow into much more.

In a movie like this, the actors fueling the action need to be at the top of their game. Luckily, both Susan Traylor and Anslem Richardson dive head first into their roles and truly bring Lizzy and Guy to life. They are an unlikely duo, each with their own anchors preventing them from moving forward, until they find the appropriate reasons to do so. They are both charming and have a tremendous amount of chemistry so watching them perform is a good example of how powerful cinema can be.

It doesn’t even require constant drama in order to be affective. Many movies would have some massive quarrel appear between the two leads in an attempt to cheaply create admiration for both them and the audience. No such attempt exists here, and there’s actually very little hostility on display. Yet the movie doesn’t suffer for it because while Lizzy and Guy are not exciting per se, they are real. And that’s infinitely more important.

I have a very miniscule problem with the way it is edited on occasion as it comes off as a little disjointed and jarring. Moments when the characters are sitting there silently only to be quickly moved in the next frame can be a little disrupting. At the same time, there are periods where the director has chosen to splice dialogue over a scene where the actors are doing something that isn’t necessarily related to what is being said. That is a fascinating approach to advancing the narrative while presenting something a little off-the-cuff.

Balderson has used many different techniques in his movies which is why he’s such an exciting director. Here he brings the area to life with wide, lingering shots, often photographing Mexico in a way we rarely see. Instead of coming off as some seedy escape (as it often does in mainstream movies), it is shown as the beautiful place that it is. I can’t actually recall the last time I saw it showcased so wonderfully.

Layered on top of his imagery is a soundtrack that is minimal but potent. There are only a few different songs throughout the course of the hour and a half, ranging from droning ambient music to moving piano to more traditional Mexican folk music, but it adds a motif to the whole experience and drives the point home.

While this will undoubtedly be mentioned in every review, I feel it is necessary to point out. Everything you see in this movie is now destroyed because Hurricane Odile hit Los Cabos shortly after filming was finished. It’s a true tragedy for obvious reasons but it does paint a different portrait now, with this being one of the last documented accounts of Hotel El Ganzo. It’s hard not to get a little more emotional watching it when one is aware of this fact.

El Ganzo is a great film; slow but never boring, it’s meticulously crafted with gentleness and love. It’s proof that you can tell a simple tale of two people, without forced burdens that they need to overcome, and have it resonate with the audience.

Summary: FOUR STARS
El Ganzo is overflowing with heart and beauty. An unlikely relationship blooms between a slightly odd, yet endearing, woman and a struggling artist… and it is a pleasure to watch.

More on EL GANZO @ DIKENGA.com

MJ SIMPSON reviews EL GANZO

Check out this awesome review by UK Film Critic MJ Simpson, for my next movie EL GANZO:

EL GANZO review
By MJ Simpson

Here is how to make an El Ganzo cocktail. Take one measure of Jodorowsky, one measure of Bunuel. Pour over crushed Balderson. Serve with a slice of Kubrick. And a paper umbrella.

Yes, we’re off down Mexico way for the latest feature from the indefatigable Steve Balderson, the best thing to come out of Kansas since Dorothy’s farmhouse. I actually got sent a screener of this three months ago, and normally I watch Steve’s films the moment they arrive in my in-box, bypassing whatever is in my TBW pile. On this occasion however, Steve sent me two screeners – Hell Town and El Ganzo – with a recommendation that I leave a gap twixt the two, as they are very different films. I followed that wise advice – and then a whole load of other things came along and filled the gap, leaving El Ganzo atypically unwatched.

Well, I’ve watched it now and, just like most of Steve B’s films, I absolutely Larry loved it.

It’s sort of an archetypal Balderson picture, partly in that it’s nothing at all like the previous one. But it also addresses themes which permeate much of Steve’s oeuvre: themes of identity and discovery, a journey undertaken by an individual, couple or group to find out who they are.

In this case we have Lizzy (Susan Traylor, previously in Firecracker, Stuck! and The Casserole Club), who journeys to the El Ganzo hotel, walking the last few miles after the minibus taxi she was in breaks down. At the hotel, she meets travel photographer Guy (Anslem Richardson, who was a cop in The Amazing Spider-Man 2) and the two pal up, not least because they’re the only two Americans around (apart from bellhop Billy, played by Mark Booker who also composed the wonderful score). Guy seems a normal, well-adjusted fellow, He has a boyfriend back home and constant travels have put a strain on the relationship, but on the whole he’s a personable, friendly chap.

Lizzy, on the other hand, is a bit … well, kooky. Not in an attractively eccentric sort of way, but in a distractingly not-quite-with-it sort of way. Why does she keep asking Billy to look for her suitcase when she turned up at the hotel with no luggage? Why does her claim to be a writer for the same travel magazines that guys takes snaps for seem so inauthentic? Something’s not right here

How not right, and in what way not right, is something that you will discover as the movie progresses. I found myself considering all sorts of theories. Was this a Carnival of Souls gig? Was it a Sixth Sense thing – had Guy actually interacted with any other characters? Or was I letting my imagination run away with me? Would the answer be more prosaic?

Well, nothing’s ever prosaic in a Steve Balderson film. I’ll say no more than that.

What matters is not the offbeatness of the story which, like much of Steve’s work, is a quarter-twist from ‘reality’ – no, it’s the characters. El Ganzo is a two-hander and it’s no exaggeration to say that both actors are absolutely superb, completely inhabiting their characters. Without any crass infodumps, but also without being gratuitously enigmatic, Steve B and his cast present us with two very, very real people that we feel we know (as much as they know each other) but about whom we will discover much more.

Watching Traylor and Richardson is a master class in screen acting. Look, I do the odd bit of acting but in all honesty it’s not much more than larking about in front of a camera for mates. I won’t be winning a BAFTA any time soon. Watching this film really hammered home to me how much skill is involved in acting: skill that is often in short supply in the sort of films I watch, or is present but overshadowed by more exploitable elements like blood, boobs and explosions. Real acting has a subtlety to it that can’t be put into words.

There’s one particular scene in El Ganzo which has stuck in my head. Lizzy is sitting in an empty church. Guy comes in and sits in the pew in front of her. Anslem Richardson delivers a monologue, Guy addressing Lizzy without turning round. While he speaks, Susan Traylor silently trails her finger back and forth along his arm, resting on the back of the pew, that one tiny movement telling us reams about how Lizzy is feeling, about herself and about Guy. And, it just occurred to me, Richardson’s non-acknowledgement of her touch, which Guy can surely feel – he doesn’t flinch, he doesn’t glance back – tells us reams about Guy and his thoughts towards Lizzy. In its own small, subtle way, this is a magical scene, a microcosm of the film overall.

Steve, Susan and Anselm are jointly credited with the script, indicating a considerable amount of improvisation, or at least workshopping. Steve’s direction of the film is immaculate, assisted not only by magnificent performances but also the terrific cinematography of Daniel G Stephens (The Far Flung Star, Occupying Ed, Hell Town).  Of particular note is the use of the hotel itself; it’s simple, geometric architecture adroitly used to frame many of the shots. The local environs are also photographed to impressive effect: little shops and cafes; a sculpture garden of giant abstract heads; beautiful, deserted, sandy beaches.

When Steve moves away from the setting to concentrate on scenes which, in lesser hands, would be static and talky, he breaks up the sequence of events with fineky judged editing, so that sometimes we see one part of a conversation while hearing a different bit. This only adds to the otherworldliness of the film. Wrapping up all the visuals is Mark Booker’s music, much of which has a sparse minimalism that put me in mind of The Blue Nile, but which also occasionally breaks into festively abrasive Mexican trumpets. It complements the imagery and the story and perfectly.

Don’t imagine for one moment, however, that El Ganzo is style over substance. Not a bit of it. This is style supporting substance. It’s just a difficult substance to sumarise and describe. This isn’t a simple boy-meets-girl story, it’s not even really a romance, it’s just a beautiful, wistful, warm, sincere tale of two people who, in finding out about each other, discover a little about themselves.

Wistful: that’s the adjective that keeps coming back to me, that I knew I would need to use in this review somewhere. This is a wistful film. It’s absolutely full of wist, Bags and bags of the stuff.

In other words, it’s about what has been, what could have been and what might be, as well as what is. And really, aren’t all our lives a bit like that? But it takes an artist of Steve Balderson’s calibre to make us think wistfully about our own lives like this, and for each of us to find out that bit more about who we are.

One final note, and then I’ll let you get on. The Hotel El Ganzo is a real place. It’s a fabulous hotel by the look of it, with a strong artistic feel running throughout both the building and the experience of staying there. I can quite see why it would appeal to young Mr Balderson. But, just a few weeks after this film was shot, a hurricane ripped through the place. The hotel is currently closed for repairs, and much of the surrounding area has been ripped up, knocked down or otherwise changed. Steve’s film captures the location as it was and preserves it, a level of wistfulness that no-one could ever have expected.

My rating of his film is almost superfluous, but once again I hold off from an A+ only because I don’t want to believe that Steve Balderson’s career has peaked.

MJS rating: A

* * *

More on EL GANZO @ DIKENGA.com

MEDIA DETOUR reviews HELL TOWN

HELL TOWN review by MEDIA DETOUR

High school can be a difficult time. Hell Town tackles the issues that present themselves when the teenagers aren’t studying, doing work or playing sports; it is about the drama that occurs outside of the classroom, when they are left to their own devices. It is about the relationships that form, both sexual and romantic, and the way that they interact with one another as friends. They deal with the problems that arise when there is a girl who seemingly sleeps with everybody in school, or how it would be for a homosexual jock who is wrestling with the fact he is gay. A goth kid is misunderstood and ignored by mostly everybody while another girl tries to make ends meet by working a minimum wage job.

There is also a killer, nicknamed by the media as the “Letter Jacket Killer”, running amok.

Hell Town is an exercise in genre mashing that luckily doesn’t lose sight of its goal. We witness three episodes of the titular fictional melodramatic soap opera, only the twist is that the film makers inform us that seasons 1 and 3 have been lost in a fire and these episodes are remastered versions. We get dropped into what is most likely the middle of a season, and we get the typical prelude which tells us what happened previously. We essentially have a movie where the actors are playing actors who are playing characters on a television show.

Which means that what unfolds on screen is hammy. Incredibly and intentionally so. The actors are given cheesy lines that they deliver with true conviction because they are in a soap opera. Anybody who has ever watched one knows that they have a deliberate pulpy charm but are rarely known for any form of excellence. Some of the worst lines ever committed to film are said here, and watching Owen Lawless, as Jesse Manly, excellently declare “I don’t want to be gay” is a sight to be seen. It’s funny and that’s what counts. None of the actors are giving award-winning performances but to expect that from this movie is missing the point.

Sometimes I struggle with reviewing films that are purposely bad, just like I don’t know what to score a movie like The Room which is unintentionally terrible. Any schmuck can make a bad movie but not crossing the line between good parody and excessive, unoriginal crap can be a challenge. Soap operas are ripe for the picking so this could have been well have been just another bland mockery of something that is easy to make fun of, but it’s so much more than that.

In an attempt to switch things up, directors Steve Balderson and Elizabeth Spear have also embraced another genre with conventions so silly that it would take a brain dead idiot not to notice them: the slasher flick. Interestingly enough, the slasher has gotten a little bit of recognition — at least in my eyes — over the past two years, because of the fantastic film The Guest. The concept remains the same but like the soap opera aspect of the film, it is self-aware. There is blood and guts, but it’s not over-indulgent.

Incorporating this brand of horror into the movie only heightens the experience and adds more substance. It makes Hell Town more original than it would have been had they merely stuck to the soaps. While it is very easy to enjoy the absurdity of the characters on that level alone, there is also the mystery of who is going around terrorizing them.

It’s over-the-top and the people are vulgar. Since it is a low-budget, independent feature, it has to work within certain constraints that bigger pictures don’t have to. While it strives to be nothing more than an entertaining time, the nature of it hides talented film making. While it may get lost among the main talking point (how silly it is), the cinematography here is excellent. The angles, the lighting; all of it brilliantly mimics soap opera conventions.

In that same sense, I also got a Lynchian vibe from the whole ordeal. It lacks the surrealism of Twin Peaks, but there’s a menacing cloud hanging over the town at all times, where even someone running track seems more sinister than it should. While it is filmed differently than Blue Velvet, there’s still a similar tone; the town is more evil underneath its plastic and normal exterior than an outsider may perceive.

When it ended by telling me what is going to happen next time on Hell Town, I came to my own realization: I wanted this show to exist. I’d watch the shit out of it.

Get HELL TOWN @ DIKENGA.com

FANBOYTV reviews HELL TOWN

HELL TOWN review by FANBOYTV

You never know what you’re in for when you sit down to watch a movie made with a smaller budget, with no famous actors, and that is self-distributed. Sometimes you can have a good result from somebody who knows what they’re doing, and knows how take what they have at their disposal, and make it work. Sometimes you have an unfortunate result, where it seems like the idea of “let’s make a movie” was the whole pitch and “knowing how to make a movie” was of secondary concern. HELL TOWN was, pleasantly, an example of the former. HELL TOWN knows exactly what it is, what it’s doing, and how to communicate that to the viewer.

HELL TOWN presents itself as a television show, pulled out of some long forgotten studio vault. We are told right away that we are watching episodes 7, 8, and 9 from season two of HELL TOWN the series, and also informs us that seasons 1 and 3 have been lost in a fire. While there is no actual HELL TOWN the series, the movie invites the audience to be a passive participant in its own nested mythos.

We’re introduced, quickly, to our cast of characters. The hunky shirtless jock, the Marsha Brady on the outside/Betty Page on the inside teen princess, the jealous and barely-holding it together sister, the scheming nurse, the aging millionaire father, the acerbic friend, the ostracized gay brother, the middle class adoptee with a chip on her shoulder. In any other film, this use of tired archetype characters going through the motions on stories that have long ago been beaten to death, because HELL TOWN is a play on these types, they work very well. What’s more is that HELL TOWN toes the line of parody without becoming overly referential and dipping into Jason Freidberg and Aaron Seltzer “bad parody” territory.

Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our character’s lives. Trish wants to sleep with Blaze. Blaze is sleeping with Trish’s best friend. Butch lusts after Trish. Laura lusts after Butch. Jesse lusts after Bobby, and Bobby is totally into it, but Jesse is struggling with admitting his homosexuality. B.J. is waiting around every corner to watch everything fall apart and Chanel is coping with her comatose adopted mother, and the fact that her sworn enemy is trying to sleep with Blaze. Most of this wild setup unfolds in the first ten minutes of the film. All of it would be very effective satire of the soap opera genre, but to keep things fresh, bloody, and interesting; one of these characters is picking the others off one-by-one, under the moniker “The Letter Jacket Killer.” This shadowy serial murderer seems to have an agenda, and collects the varsity letters from the blood soaked coats of the victims.

Both genres that are on the chopping block in this movie, over-the-top melodrama and over-the-top slasher horror, lend themselves well to parody, and HELL TOWN finds a nice comfortable nest to hunker down in. Here, it can deftly straddle a line between the two, and still keep things fresh and funny. Between bloody castration and violently deadly fellatio, we also have a soap-opera mid-season replacement of an actress. The part of Laura Gable is played by two separate actresses, with little explanation given and, if one is a practitioner of soap operas, there’s probably no explanation needed.

With that we have the cornerstone of what sets HELL TOWN apart from most other parodies: the idea that in setting up this nested mythos, we have the actors playing their parts on two different levels. On one level we have the characters as presented in the narrative. On another level we have actors playing actors playing the characters as presented in the narrative. So one actually finds that while the characters on the narrative level aren’t giving a natural-feeling performance, they aren’t meant to. They’re actually playing actors, giving very boisterous and over the top performances in a ridiculous story, and those performances serve the over-all film very well. Butch may have a few ham-fisted lines, but Ben Windholz is giving a very sincere performance, of an actor playing a character who’s had ham-fisted lines written for him.

Taken separately, I think the idea of yet another horror parody or another soap opera parody might have worn thin. However, HELL TOWN manages to blend the two very nicely. It’s a creamy mixture of the ridiculously melodramatic with the violently macabre.

GET HELL TOWN @ DIKENGA.com

EDDIE ROTTEN reviews HELL TOWN

Sometimes when you walk into a theater, your attention is drawn to the floor, where thousands of pop corn pieces crunch below your feet. And the seat you find has plenty of room, but the screaming child next to you, convinces you that his desire is to annoy you and prevent you from watching what was supposed to be “The best thing since Friday the 13th”. Well, watching a movie at Austins Lakeline, Alamo Drafthouse was nothing at all like that. PROPS to having a clean, kick ass place to watch bad ass movies! The food was killer, the seats were to die for, and there was more beer on tap than I can ever remember…. Seriously, there were lots of original beer.

My name is Eddie Rotten. I’m host of the Zombie Life Podcast. And myself and crew (Red Rum, Lisa Deadly, & Eric the Producer) were invited to watch the World Premier of HELL TOWN. Our podcast is a humble one, but our goal is to have fun, with fun people. And there could be no other perfect group of humans than the directors and cast of HELL TOWN!!!

We were fortunate enough to interview the award-winning directors Steve Balderson and Elizabeth Spear, along with cast members Kyle Eno, Owen Lawless, Sarah Napier, and BeckiJo Neill. And right from the very start, it was a party!

After about 2 minutes of quick talk, I threw my notes away completely, and decided to have an unscripted conversation with some incredibly talented, and funny people. The energy this cast had was contagious. I giggled… a lot! Director Steve Balderson has a presence that anyone would want to cling to and learn from, and it shows in how close his cast is. They all were in love with the story when they first read it and decided to jump in head first, make a small life sacrifice, and make this awesome film.

Lets talk about the film.

Hell Town takes place around a small group of friends, and a football team by the name of, the HELLIONS. Tell me that’s not bad ass! A plot develops, including jealousy, questionable sexuality, people turn up missing, no one knows who to blame, and bingo! You have the most original and bizarre horror comedy ever created. Elizabeth Spear and Steve Balderson guide their story through some of the most uncomfortably hilarious moments I have ever seen on the silver screen. The packed movie house was littered with screams, laughing, clapping, OH MY GOD bursts, and even a couple dry heaves by our wonderful Producer Eric.

To the very end of Hell Town, there is no prediction on what will happen. The movie is filmed as a Soap Opera. But much, much better. If Days of Our Lives was half this good the world would be a better place. Inside our interview, we were told by Steve Balderson, that a fire had destroyed a large part of their film, and we would see 3 episodes of Hell Town. In my humble opinion, I can dream upon dreams that there will be more Hell Town in the future, but I was so pleased at what I saw. It could stand alone as its own film, with no follow up, and still kick ass! Everything from the music production, to make up and lighting was stunning. Never did I once feel that it was a lower budget film, and that is testament to the power and creativity of Steve Balderson and Elizabeth Spear’s direction superiority.

Hell Town is a refreshing film. It’s a fun film. It’s a film that you want to take someone to, then drop them off and go back to watch it again. It’s not over saturated with character building, yet leaves you feeling oddly close to a character when they die a bloody, violent, hatchet swinging death…. just playing. That didn’t happen. No spoilers here, but seriously, you leave feeling satisfied, but ready for more. And when you get to watch it with the people that made it? Well, hell… there’s not many things cooler than that now is there?!

Austin Horror Society did a Q and A with the directors and cast of Hell Town after the film was over. The cast was open to questions and honest with their answers.What an incredible evening!

In the end, if Steve Balderson and Elizabeth Spear decide to continue the legacy of HELL TOWN, I for one will be first in line, with my HELLIONS Letterman Jacket on. I want to thank them and the cast for making movies fun to go to again, and doing it with bloody elegance, and seemingly effortless direction. Two thumbs way, way up.

Your Hellion for life
EDDIE ROTTEN
ZOMBIE LIFE PODCAST

*HELL TOWN screens this Saturday 16 May at 7 PM in Charleston, SC where it is nominated for 6 Crimson Screen Horror Awards.  For details visit www.DIKENGA.com

HELL TOWN: Review by Andrew Shearer for VOLUME ATHENS

HELL TOWN
Review by Andrew Shearer for VOLUME ATHENS

You can’t just run around making comedies about high school murder and mayhem anymore. It’s far too serious a subject, and even now, revisiting a classic like “Heathers” (1988) feels a little wrong. There’s a reason why Hollywood opted for adapting “The Hunger Games” rather than doing an English-language remake of “Battle Royale.” If you’re going to make a movie where kids are killing one another in the hallways, you’d better be doing so with a straight face.

Unless you’re Steve Balderson.

When I saw his first film, “Pep Squad”, (2000) I couldn’t believe anyone would have the audacity to release such a film (it was actually made in 1998). Centered around a girl named Cherry who goes on a violent rampage after not being nominated for homecoming queen, Balderson’s world was about as far from reality as you could get. To call it irresponsible film making would be a compliment, as there was no attempt made at holding up a mirror to the potentially disastrous consequences of teenage angst in American society. It was gross, it was hilarious, and it was necessary.

Cut to over a decade and thirteen features later, Balderson makes a return of sorts to his roots with “Hell Town”, a wildly original exercise in what John Waters once called “the theatre of the ridiculous”. Presented as three episodes of a non-existent television series, Balderson and co-director Elizabeth Spear (“Roundball”) throw out traditional story structure by placing the viewer in the middle of an already established set of characters up to their eyeballs in high drama. Trish (Krysten Day) is a Marsha Brady clone making a list of potential prom dates, Bobby (Blake Cordell) is secretly in love with track star Jesse (Owen Lawless), Mother Manly (Pleasant Gehman) is in a coma, and that’s just a small piece of it.

Also, there’s a serial killer that’s bumping everyone off, one by one. Fans of “Friday The 13th” will enjoy the creative spin on the famous arrow kill and will delight in the unbelievable “death by donuts” scene, but there’s something for the “Twin Peaks” crowd as well: Gehman also plays a dual role as the attending nurse (sharing nearly ever scene with a comatose version of herself) and one character is replaced with another actor between episodes. It’s surreal, it’s disgusting, it’s high camp, and yet there are still moments of quiet, understated artistry that speak of film makers with more on their minds than just spilling blood and making jokes.

Despite its blatant disregard for anything resembling political correctness, there is more going on with “Hell Town” than your typical indie shocker. Balderson and Spear never go for the cheap laugh, the obvious gag or the tried-and-true high school genre stereotype. Nothing happens the way you expect it to, no one behaves quite the way their appearance would suggest, and the silliness has a razor sharp edge that pokes you any time you’ve started to get too comfortable. Best of all, “Hell Town” exposes most television series for what they are: a glorified soap opera hidden under a higher concept, making you wait far too long to see anything happen.

# # #

Next week April 23, 2015, the Austin Horror Society presents the world premiere of HELL TOWN in Austin, TX at the Alamo Drafthouse.  Open to the public.  Cast & crew in attendance.
Tickets and details: www.DIKENGA.com

WHEN CAN WE SEE IT

The production of a motion picture is complex. The release of a motion picture may be even moreso! We’ve received numerous emails asking questions like: “Will the movie be in theatres?” “When can we buy the DVD?” “Will it show in my town (or country)?” and the most often-asked, “When will it be on Netflix?” And these emails have come from Europe, Australia, Africa, South America, North America, Asia. Everywhere!

The motion picture industry has as many layers and middle men as any other. Perhaps more. Regardless, these people and organizations are a part of the distribution of a film. Each of them represents a tiny segment of the distribution of a film. So unless a film is allied with one of the really large distributors (and we know who they are!) there are a great many hoops to jump through, and people to work with, to begin the process of getting a film on the big screen, iTunes, Amazon, Hulu or Netflix.

Most of us are familiar with the blockbusters that open on 3,000+ screens on the same weekend. By the end of several months, the films have shown in every country of the world and the Netflix debut is eagerly awaited. In between those two platforms the films appear on airplanes, make a buck on an archaic DVD release, then cable channels and satellite feeds. These are all unique channels of distribution. Unfortunately, the world of independent cinema doesn’t follow such an all-encompassing path, unless, of course, you are Angelina Jolie with your directorial debut.

In traditional (read: archaic) sequential order, the distribution of a film might follow these steps: 1) theatrical release, 2) pay-TV release, i.e. cable and satellite, 2) travel networks such as airplanes and cruise ships, 3) commercial television, 4) DVD, then 5) Online streaming such as Netflix or Hulu. This can happen in each and every country in the world, either simultaneously (like that seen by the blockbusters) or one at a time over the course of a number of years. Naturally, the commercial goals of any filmmaker might likely include widespread release.

In addition to being a great art form, filmmaking is also a business. Most of us have never stopped to consider exactly how a movie is released and all the possible ways that it can happen. I know I didn’t. Furthermore, I never stopped to think about how it might not even be the same exact film in each different country. Oh, it will be mostly the same, but poster art changes, sometimes the title of the film is changed and there may well be editing within the film, depending upon customs and standards in a given country.

My first film, PEP SQUAD, was a satire on American school violence. The script was written in 1995 – long before any of the school violence had occurred – and actually predicted what was to come. We were in negotiations with a major distributor to release the film the very day that Columbine erupted onto the nation’s conscious. The company called us immediately and said, “Sorry, we can’t touch this now with a ten-foot pole.” All of a sudden, poking fun at the American culture and confronting the causes of school violence – the causes that no one wants to talk about such as parents, bullies, and the society at large – wasn’t commercially viable, especially in a comedy! PEP SQUAD had a message that the “society at large” didn’t want to hear.

What followed was interesting. All of the domestic distributors were afraid to put PEP SQUAD out there. Some made their own watered-down versions. But the international marketplace was hungry for the film, especially one that detailed and gave insight to what was happening in the US. PEP SQUAD was released theatrically in a number of countries and still continues to show in places such as France and Germany. It has appeared twice on French satellite television, and 7 years after its production in 1997 it was released in Germany.  In 2011 when the rights came back to me, I gifted them to Lloyd Kaufman (Troma) as a Christmas gift.  And today, 18 years after it’s initial debut, PEP SQUAD is still being released globally.

But in North America it sat on the shelf. Finally, when enough time seemed to have lapsed after Columbine, PEP SQUAD was released direct to video after several small theatrical engagements in Los Angeles and other cities. Alas, it was marketed as a horror film, even though it was obviously a comedy. Why? Because the distributor believed that its commercial viability was still threatened if taken as comedic commentary on the social problem of school violence. While I disagree with this approach, I do understand how they came to that conclusion. As we all know, art is often defined and categorized because of the culture that surrounds it. In society after society around the world, PEP SQUAD is seen as a hilarious commentary on the absurdity of America, but in America it can only be tolerated if it is an otherworldly horror film.

Explaining the business of distribution is complicated and difficult. To summarize, a film can be released theatrically in New York, but not Los Angeles; in Ohio but not Florida. Films can be seen on airplanes; on cable; on Netflx; on DVD; in classrooms; at colleges; in small fine arts theatres; on the internet; throughout many continents – but not necessarily every country; and even if seen in every way possible, films may not be shown in all of those venues all at once. The average lifespan of a film is around ten years, but just turn on the television and films from 20 and 30 years ago are routinely showing. Even though you’ve seen a film in the theatre, or watched it on DVD, it might be many years before it’s available on Netflix. Just recently TWIN PEAKS hit Netflix, 20 years after it first aired.

Distribution is probably the single most misunderstood aspect of the movie business. HELL TOWN will be unveiled soon.  The Austin Horror Society is presenting the world premiere in Austin, Texas on April 23 (at the Alamo Lakeline).  Then, in May it screens at a film festival in Charleston, SC.  Currently being scheduled are screenings in Chicago and other places.  We have all the information available on www.DIKENGA.com so check the website for updates. Remember, even after HELL TOWN is released in theatres and at film festivals, there will still be dozens of opportunities for you to see it. Anyplace. In any form.

GOING GLOBAL

I grew up in a small Kansas town, and when I returned home from film school it seemed the most logical place to begin making films.  Of course, people on the coasts thought I was nuts, but where else can you close down an entire street without having to worry about the police or any passers-by bothering you?

My first three features were filmed in Kansas.  It was only when I traveled to Macon, Georgia, for a film festival there, that I felt so comfortable in the town, I could see how easily it would be to make a film there.  So I did.  It felt like I’d graduated to the next level somehow.

After shooting in Macon, I decided to venture even further from the roost and shoot something in Palm Springs.  It was an exhilarating shoot.  Partly because it’s allegedly against the law to film anything inside Palm Springs city limits without having permission from the Powers That Be, permits, insurance, and all that.  So we just didn’t tell anyone, and made our movie anyway.

The next year, when we were headed to the Raindance Film Festival in London, I thought, well, if we’re all going to be there we might as well make a movie at the same time.  It was an absolute thrill.  Much like with the California shoot, London is beyond strict when it comes to permits, insurance, and permission from the Powers That Be, and so forth.  And, like our prior escapade, I decided to do it stealth and not say a word to anyone.  We got away with it.

I don’t do drugs.  And the rush that came with filming guerrilla style, essentially illegally, became so addictive I couldn’t stop!  After stealing London and Paris (for a quick scene at the Eiffel Tower), I set my sights on Hong Kong.  We filmed a week in LA and then flew to Hong Kong where we filmed an additional three weeks.  Hong Kong was more relaxed, and filmmaker-friendly than all the other cities, but it was still under-the-radar and more than once we filmed someplace we weren’t supposed to be.

How does one accomplish these things?  Well, it’s pretty easy, actually.  Google Earth and Google Maps makes it possible to “walk around” the streets and find locations, restaurants to eat in for lunch, alleyways to hold a staging area, and directions for subway travel times and so forth.  We didn’t need to hire any location scout or send someone to take pictures.  Google had already done all that for us!

It was pretty easy to post casting calls in both the UK and in Hong Kong, and all auditions were held via Skype, or on password protected YouTube or Vimeo pages.

In both places I had great help “on the ground” from the actors who would appear in the film.  We took advantage of shooting in areas they knew about, or perhaps places they lived.  In Hong Kong, our local producer even arranged for us to film the climactic fight sequence in a penthouse with terraces and more!

It might seem daunting at first to go to a far flung destination and shoot a movie without ever having been there before, but I’m here to say it can be done.  And, it is highly recommended.  The pure joy you’ll have coming home, knowing you made a movie in a foreign land… It’s something you can treasure forever.

HOW DISTRIBUTION CHANGED FILM: Part 4 of 4

Click here to read PARTS ONE, TWO, and THREE.

The STUCK! shoot was marvelous.

One of the best parts was the food.  See, when the cast and crew are only a handful of people it is possible to go to someone’s home for a dinner party.  You can eat superior food.  Feeding 42 people on a traditional crew likely means scraps and bulk-made meals.  And there is no intimacy about that kind of thing.  With a set like mine we eat homemade slow-cooked masterpieces every night.  We can sit around the same table.  It becomes a far more rewarding experience.

Like WATCH OUT, the STUCK! shooting days were just as efficient.  We’d work from 9 AM and wrap around 5 or 6 PM.  We worked every day with no days off.  It took less than two weeks to complete.

The reviews were amazing:  Film Threat writes, “Balderson just doesn’t make simple films, and this is no exception. It’s not in the words, or the plot or the story; but it’s in the air, it’s in the beat, it’s in the very soul of the work.” The LA Weekly said it was “Revolutionary.”  And UK Critic MJ Simpson writes, “Steve Balderson is the best-kept secret in American independent cinema. He makes his own films – which are unfailingly brilliant – and the rest of the world very, very gradually catches up with him.”

In February, 2010, the American Cinematheque hosted the LA Premiere of STUCK! at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.  The cast was there with me to present the film and do a Q&A after the screening.  One of the people in the audience mentioned that because all the actors were there, talking enthusiastically about this new way of filmmaking, it spoke volumes about the process.

I signed a deal with a sales agent who is selling STUCK! to buyers around the globe.

In the fall of 2010, I put together another top-secret film shoot and produced my film THE CASSEROLE CLUB.  A couple new stars joined the group for this shoot: namely Kevin Richardson (from the Backstreet Boys), Daniela Sea (from the L Word), and acclaimed stage actress Jennifer Grace.  We made the film in Palm Springs in exactly the same way we made STUCK! and WATCH OUT.  The entire experience is captured in director Anthony Pedone’s documentary CAMP CASSEROLE.

The shoot was a lot like summer film camp.  We rented a few vacation homes that would serve as the locations, and also would house all of us.  Staying together in the same place was magical.  Each day we’d gather to film scenes, and if any actors weren’t working, they would lounge by the pool, read a book, and basically turn their time on the set as a vacation.  This aspect of the shoot was the best.  I made sure that we’re doing the work we need to do, but it’s just as important for me to create an atmosphere that is a rewarding experience personally.

Each evening we would have a meal sponsored by one of the cast or crew, or friends and family.  Imagine being at summer camp and coming together over a meal and singing Kumbaya.  That’s exactly what it was like!  Only instead of singing Kumbaya, per se, several people would pull out their guitars and do an impromptu acoustic concert; or, there would be fun short films being made; or, night swimming and gazing up at the stars with a great conversation.

One of my favorite moments filming THE CASSEROLE CLUB came whenever we needed to do some exterior shots around the Palm Springs area.  We’d just jump in my car and drive around until we’d find the greatest place, jump out, film it, then rush back to the car and speed away as if nothing ever happened.  This is the kind of freedom I love work in.  It’s exhilarating.

THE CASSEROLE CLUB premiered at Visionfest`11 in New York City where we were nominated for 9 Independent Vision Awards and won 5: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for Kevin Richardson, Best Actress for Susan Traylor, Best Production Design.  And the most overwhelming compliment came in 2012 when the U.S. Library of Congress invited the film to be a part of its permanent collection.

Making films in today’s distribution landscape is drastically different than it was even a few years ago.  It is very important to spend as little money possible to make your films.  If your film cost $200,000 that’s fine.  But maybe you could try to find a way to make two movies for $100,000 instead of putting all your eggs in one basket.

Be realistic when you’re planning your expenses.  Regardless of the storyline, regardless of the actors, stars or location, if you think your project will make $100,000 in sales, your best bet at sustainability is to make sure that project costs less than that.

These are just some of the ways the distribution landscape has changed the way films are made.