FEAST OF FUN podcast interview

I was recently interviewed on the hit podcast FEAST OF FUN (you can subscribe on iTunes).  It was a great visit with Marc and Fausto, and at the time of this writing more than 24,000 people listened to the interview!

We talked about my friend the great actress Karen Black, filming EL GANZO in Mexico, digging up bodies on alleyways, punk rock royalty Pleasant Gehman, and the other current film I have on the festival circuit: HELL TOWN.  They also got me to talk about being betrayed by my ex the sociopath, but unfortunately the last half of our interview (which had to do primarily with commentary from the guys on the Rachel Dolezal crisis, during which I basically said nothing for 10 minutes) was cut when ProTools stopped recording without the guys being notified.

You can listen to the podcast HERE or at this link: http://feastoffun.com/podcast/2015/06/18/fof-2180-hell-yes-to-hell-town/

Enjoy!  I really loved my visit with FEAST OF FUN and am excited to share it with those of you who haven’t heard it yet.

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

RECYCLING CRITICS by Jim Meskimen

Many moons ago I read this great article written by an actor friend from Los Angeles, and posted it to my website.  I rediscovered it recently, and would like to share.  Enjoy!

RECYCLING CRITICS
by Jim Meskimen

I’m not much of a fan of critics, especially these days when there are such an abundance of them on the payrolls of every newspaper, e-zine, cable TV show, news program and magazine. I think when professional critics start to outnumber working artists, something is terribly wrong. Even one critic to ten artists is a bit uneven. Critics will disagree with me, but to listen to some of them, one artist per field of art would be ample.

It’s not the individual critics I hate, mind you, it’s the whole impulse. I even hate it in me, and consider it one of my projects to evaporate any desire towards criticism of other well-intentioned people that I can detect in myself. It’s just not a handsome attribute.

So here’s my idea, and I’m almost serious about it, too. Today we have recourse to digital tools that have revolutionized the arts. You can paint, compose music, edit films, design buildings, all on your laptop while chewing a Krispy Kreme donut, if you choose. Basically, there is no excuse anymore for anyone who claims to be interested in the arts to not be very productive. It’s just too easy.

So we as a society should demand that anyone who wants to call themselves a professional critic, should make available on a website for all the world to see, an example of their efforts in the very field they intend to be an authority on. Music critics- let’s hear your songs and symphonies. Theatre critics- where is the play you wrote on the subway to Times Square? Art critics- let’s see the images you made on your laptop in Soho. Film critics – you hordes of imitation butter-flavor fingered typists, tell us where to view your short film please. We’ll patiently wait for the download.

This will make honest men and women out of the few really devoted critics who take on the challenge, and it will thin the herd considerably. With every critic activated as a productive artist, we will have more works to view and listen to, and less carping and complaining. Many will probably quit of their own accord, since artistic creation is so much more rewarding than casual, random destruction.

The real dividend for the culture will be the conversion of critics into artists. We always need more of the one, and seldom have a hunger for the other.

YOU DON’T NEED TO YELL

I was on a film shoot recently where I wasn’t producing or directing, so I was able to be a fly on the wall.  It was really a great experience to observe the daily dynamics of a film set that wasn’t my own.  I highly encourage everyone who is interested in making movies to visit someone else’s set.  Whether you are an actor, director, DP, Make-up artist, costumer, writer, etc.  It’s an incredibly educational experience.  No matter if you’re a Pro or a total Newbie.  And it doesn’t matter what kind of a movie it is.

The first film set I visited which wasn’t my own was Sean Penn’s THE CROSSING GUARD starring Jack Nicholson.  The second film set I visited was an amateurish indie shoot.  Each was on the farthest end on either side of the filmmaking spectrum.  One had over 100 crew people, endless trucks lining the street, a buffet of craft service that rivaled the best restaurants, while the other had none of that and just a handful of aspiring Production Assistants.  It didn’t matter though, because both had interesting dynamics to study and learn from.  So I suggest getting on any film set, anywhere, and just take it all in.  Compare how different directors work and how different types of actors work.  And do it as many times as you can.  It’ll help you better define how you’d like to operate your own film set.

Throughout all the differences, there was one thing I remembered that I’d totally forgotten about.  I forgot because I haven’t used one in years.  The traditional AD (either a First or Second Assistant Director).

Because I schedule everything ahead of time and manage all the administrative aspects of my shoots, I haven’t needed one.  But, I do realize that not everyone is as OCD as me, so you might need an AD or two.  And when you interview them, my advice is to keep an eye/ear open to how they communicate.

I’ve never been in a “How To Be An AD” class, but something about how most of them behave suggests they have learned to be stern, mean, loud, and generally irritable or irritating.  But it’s so totally counterproductive to behave that way in a job like that.

I understand it’s important to stay on schedule.  But there’s no reason to yell about it and to push people like a drill sergeant.  All that does is make people disrespect you.  Getting what you want is the goal, right?  There are two ways to accomplish that: the nice way and the mean way.

Try this exercise.  If you ask someone in a softer voice, “could you pass the ketchup,” the other person is likely to not think twice, and pass it.  Now, try it on another person and use a firm drill sergeant voice demand, “Give that to me.  Come on!”  You might end up getting the ketchup but that person won’t like the act of passing it to you.  And afterwards, they will likely hold some resentment for being treated like an inferior person.  And if they are continued to be treated that way, those tiny resentments will build up until they become so big that person will leave the set each night and never want to work with you again.

ADs who have been programmed to behave like Nazis will disagree with me, of course.  But never mind them.  The easiest way to get what you want is to figure out how to avoid conflicts from the beginning.  If you schedule correctly BEFORE you start shooting, you won’t need to worry about staying on schedule.  If you communicate with your make-up artist clearly, you’ll already know how much time each person will take, and you can plan for it.

If you use archaic ways of scheduling a shoot, just because everybody else does, or “that’s the way it’s always been done” you’ll have an outcome just like everyone else: over budget, behind schedule, etc.

But if you really take everything into consideration from the get-go, you can plan for it all.  Then, I suppose, you won’t need a professional AD.  You could just use an intern who knows how to communicate with people in a clear and respectful way.

MARKETING: YOU VS. THE BIG BOYS

For a single Hollywood studio movie, that studio will spend millions and millions of dollars on advertising and marketing campaigns to make sure that everyone everywhere knows about their movie.  It might seem outrageous, but really, they have to spend that much in order to have a chance to recoup the massive and absurd costs of making said movie.

But for anyone spending less than a million dollars on their movie, there’s hardly any money to make a dent in the world of studio-sized marketing campaigns.  You might be able to afford some kinds of ads, or some spots on TV or radio or on the web, but still you will be faced with a huge goliath standing in your way.  Without tens of millions, you will be relegated to marketing your movie in a certain niche.

Those of us who make movies for a fraction of that have even less.  So what can we do to compete with the big boys?  How can we get our movies talked about?  How can we get people to see our movies?  You don’t need stars or money, you just need promotion.  After all, people aren’t going to watch your movie if they don’t know it’s an option.

But how can you do promotion with little or no money?  By thinking outside the box!

Some of you know my dad, Clark Balderson, who appeared in the WAMEGO documentary trilogy on DIY filmmaking providing viewers with great business advice.  He runs a construction equipment attachments manufacturing business called Dymax.  To illustrate an example of how you can compete with the big boys, let’s explore what Dymax achieved at MINExpo 2004.

In the world of construction equipment attachments, Caterpillar and Komatsu reign like movie studios Sony and Time Warner.  For MINExpo, Caterpillar and Komatsu each spent millions of dollars on their exhibits, which were huge…  maybe 10,000 square feet or more.  Dymax had only $10,000 to spend.  And their booth was maybe about 200 square feet.

So Clark asked himself, “What can we do to stand out from the crowd?  What can we do differently?”  MINExpo was taking place in Las Vegas… What about something involving showmanship and an over-the-top spectacle?  But, MINExpo is for miners.  Rough and tumble customers.

After thinking outside the box, Clark created a Dymax Sideshow, featuring The Enigma who swallowed swords, breathed fire and stuck nails into his skull; Selene Luna performed strip tease; and Pleasant Gehman (Princess Farhana) did bellydance and burlesque.

The Dymax Sideshow put on shows every couple hours with the entertainers.  The Enigma, Selene and Plez walked around the exhibition floor so people saw them.  And then everyone who saw them HAD to come see them perform.

Dymax had a steady stream of people stopping by to have their pictures taken with the performers.  And most of all, they enjoyed the performances.

And when it was all over, Clark discovered that the MINExpo management had awarded Dymax two prizes for Best Marketing.  Out of a total of seven prizes handed out to the entire Expo.  And it was done for a sliver of what the big boys spent.

Use this example as a lesson on how to stand out, create your own “buzz” and how to succeed by being creative within your limits.  Sometimes people are limited by money, by location, by weather, by you-name-it.  But, I see limitations as a blessing.  Once you identify your limitation, you don’t have to think about it anymore.  Instead of thinking about what you don’t have, try asking yourself how you can achieve the desired results with what you DO have!

* * *
Click here to see some photos of the Dymax MINExpo.

THE OBSERVER EFFECT

Until I directed “Occupying Ed” I had a rule: never let the screenwriter on set during filming.  Why?  Because I knew—even though I’m very confident when it comes to staying focused while directing a movie—the presence of that extra set of eyes would sneak in and prevent me from being able to focus 100%.

Even if that screenwriter promised to stand in the corner and keep still, silent as can be, I would be aware of their presence.  Even if it were a small number, there would still be some kind of percentage of my focus wondering if they liked what they saw, liked what they heard, and so forth.  And, it would be doubly difficult to rewrite something in the middle of the scene if certain words just weren’t flowing as well verbally as they did on paper.

I like the freedom to rewrite a scene while we’re filming, and having the ability to feel the natural flow of what comes from letting the scene organically change when needed.  Having the screenwriter present can sometimes cause a challenge in that process.

What I’m talking about is The Observer Effect.  Which, I just learned, is an actual thing!

According to Wikipedia, The Observer Effect (also called the experimenter-expectancy effect, expectancy bias, or experimenter effect) is a form of reactivity in which a researcher’s cognitive bias causes them to unconsciously influence the participants of an experiment.  It is a significant threat to a study’s internal validity, and is therefore typically controlled using a double-blind experimental design.

An example of The Observer Effect is demonstrated in music backmasking, in which hidden verbal messages are said to be audible when a recording is played backwards.  Some people expect to hear hidden messages when reversing songs, and therefore hear the messages, but to others it sounds like nothing more than random sounds.  Often when a song is played backwards, a listener will fail to notice the “hidden” lyrics until they are explicitly pointed out, after which they are obvious.

On a film set, observers have a great influence on the process regardless whether they are screenwriters, production assistants, other actors, or camera crew.  It is because of this my new rule is: keep the sets closed at all times.  From everyone.  No one should be there on set but me.

Okay, I’m kidding.  I won’t go that far.  But I do think it’s a wise move to limit the numbers of eyes on a film set.  Actors are delicate creatures (cough) that need to feel safe in their environment so they can do what they do.  Same goes for directors, cinematographers and sound people.

Really there shouldn’t be anyone else on set that doesn’t need to be there.  On occasion for a tricky move, it’s important to have assistance and various crew people on hand.

Sometimes, of course, The Observer Effect is so minimal it’s as if there is no effect.  When we filmed “Occupying Ed” the screenwriter Jim Lair Beard and his wife, Christine, were extras during some scenes.  And you know what, it was an absolute pleasure to have them on set and to share in the experience.  I never once felt like my focus as director was in any way compromised.

That experience was so lovely that it changed my mind about The Observer Effect.  But, it’s still true: You can never purely observe anything because the presence of the observer changes the thing.  Keep that in mind.

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.

HOW DISTRIBUTION CHANGED FILM: Part 3 of 4

Click here to read PARTS ONE and TWO.

We began doing research on the best equipment to invest in, best sound package, and best HD camera (we judged each camera based on the level of color captured, best sound captured, and overall user experience).  Months later, we had the whole set up.

I was ready to make my next narrative feature.  And I wouldn’t need so much money after all.  By owning my own equipment, omitting unnecessary personnel and expenses, and keeping costs as low as possible, it would be possible to make a feature film for little more than the price of a used Toyota.

This also appealed to investors.  Distribution has changed significantly since the glory days of the million-dollar buys at Film Festivals.  That simply wasn’t happening any more.  A top sales rep told me, “no company is buying low-budget independently made films for more than $50,000 up front.  And if you get that much you’d be one of the lucky ones.”

The first project to test if my new renegade style of filmmaking would even work or not, was an adaptation of Joseph Suglia’s dazzling novel WATCH OUT.  Could I really make a feature-length movie using only two people on my crew, with me doing all the camerawork, and still make it high-quality art?

The answer was a big loud YES.

WATCH OUT, which became my third feature film, was shot in two weeks.  Our working days were incredibly light.  We’d start shooting at 9 AM and on a few days we were done by 4 PM.  It felt like summer camp and everyone had a ball.

The film was highly praised by critics as “One of the great cult films of all time, (MJ Simpson).”  WATCH OUT also premiered at the Raindance Film Festival in London to sold-out crowds, where it was nominated for Best International Feature.

A review in Film Threat wrote, “(Balderson) makes movies that are so gorgeous that it’s not unreasonable to say that, cinematographically at least; he’s the equal of an Argento or Kubrick in their prime. Some people have perfect vocal pitch, Steve has perfect visual composition.”

I repeated the road-show tour concept we did for FIRECRACKER and released WATCH OUT theatrically in 2008 to sold-out audiences in the “Stop Turning Me On” world tour, to promote the self-distributed DVD release several months later, where it debuted at #24 on Amazon.com’s Top 100.

The third and final installment of the WAMEGO TRILOGY on DIY Filmmaking (WAMEGO: ULTIMATUM) chronicles how we did it.

Once I knew we could do it, I decided to raise the bar a bit more and experiment with a cast of all well-known actors.  The production would cost and be the same = the film would be shot in my new renegade style, without permits and in a secretive manner.  There would be no equipment trucks lining the street, no craft service table, no excessive lighting or camera gear, no substantial crews, or anything to attract attention.  The cast and crew would resemble tourists, which would give the production the freedom to do whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted.

With no make-up or costume person the cast would be required to do their own make-up, take care of their own costumes.  We’d all be staying in people’s homes, not hotels, and would have to accept there would be no cash per diem.

I approached several stars, some I’d worked with before, and others I hadn’t, and to my astonishment, they all agreed.

That project, my fourth film, became STUCK!

When I called SAG to ask them if they had special deals for projects under $50,000 they laughed at me and said, “It’s impossible to make a feature-length film for less than $50,000.”  They also said I “needed to seek professional help.”  Actual words.

But, they were wrong.  I had just proven it was possible with WATCH OUT.  I thought about telling them, but decided that they were just like those insecure filmmakers who needed all that phony “stuff” for passers-by.  Trying to educate SAG on the reality of the world was going to be a waste of time.

(To be continued next week)

HOW DISTRIBUTION CHANGED FILM: Part 2 of 4

Click here to read PART ONE.

By that point the industry had changed so dramatically I wasn’t sure what was happening.  HD Cameras were becoming technically more advanced.  They were finally beginning to have the look and feel of celluloid.  Shooting on actual film was becoming obsolete.

Then I got an idea to do a documentary on the life of my friend—Los Angeles icon, writer/poet, and punk rock royalty Pleasant Gehman (aka universally celebrated belly dance star Princess Farhana).  Traveling with her, and filming her for a year, really helped put my career path in perspective.  Why was I making movies to begin with?

I didn’t need to have fancy equipment trucks lining the streets so it would “look” like I was making a movie to passers by.  I didn’t want the phony photograph with hoards of crew people posed behind me while I stood nose-to-the-sky next to the 35mm Arriflex (or today’s version: The RED).  I know those kinds of filmmakers and that isn’t the kind I aspire to be.  My desire is about what’s on screen.  What is there for the viewer, regardless of the format.

When a person is watching a movie they can’t see what kinds of snacks are on the craft service table, or if any of the actors had personal make-up trailers.  So why should I waste the money on frivolous stuff that doesn’t enhance the image?  Why worry about it?

I realize that many aspiring filmmakers out there try to mask the fact they don’t know what they’re doing by “playing the part” of Director.  To passers by, so long as they “look like” a director, they will feel like a director.  And the equipment, crew, cash, and drama of the “production” become props in their disguise.  And without those props they would feel amateurish and worthless.  And they will often talk down to the ones who don’t follow in their footsteps.

During this time, I learned David Lynch was planning to downsize from celluloid to video with a project called INLAND EMPIRE.  Getting rid of all the “production” associated with film and moving to digital has tremendous cost savings.  By omitting shooting on celluloid, we filmmakers would omit having to house and feed 42 people.  We also omit the excessive equipment rental costs and several hundred thousand dollars of unneeded expenses associated with a project shot on film.

I started thinking really seriously about the way Kubrick shot his movies.  And the way Cassevetes liked to work.

They preferred a kind of intimate production.  One where the crew was made up of just a few people: they did their own camera work, had just one or two people on the crew (sound, lighting) and a few actors.  Why, it would be no different than a few friends shooting in their backyards like we all did in film school.  It would appear to passers by to be exactly the same.  Amateurish.  Except that each person in that small group would be respecting their craft.  I realized that so long as there is a respect for what you’re doing, the appearance to passers by is totally irrelevant.

There would be no glamorous shoot, no luxuries, nor stylists applying make-up to actors in high-back chairs with their names stenciled on them.  It would be punk rock, baby.  We’d have to do our own work.  Lift our own camera case, do our own make-up and hair, bring our own lunch to the set.  Passers by wouldn’t stop.  They’d keep right on walking, paying us no mind at all.  We would be free of onlookers.  We would also be free of actors or crew people who placed more emphasis on the appearance of the set than they did their actual craft.

That possibility excited me to no end.

(To be continued next week.)

HOW DISTRIBUTION CHANGED FILM: Part 1 of 4

In 1997, I made my first film PEP SQUAD.  It was a campy, subversive satire on America that predicted what would become a string of school violence incidents.  It was shot on 35mm and cost roughly the GDP of Barbados.  It took six weeks to shoot with 40 people on the crew and with long, tiresome fourteen-hour days.  In 2000 after the controversy surrounding American school violence had calmed down it was released on VHS.  YES!  VHS!  See, in addition to the yet-to-be universally accepted “world wide web,” DVDs were not established yet.  Can those of you under 30 even imagine?

2010 marked PEP SQUAD’s 10-year anniversary with a special Blu-ray release from Lloyd Kaufman’s Troma.  Critics have called it the best B-Movie ever made and it has become a cult classic.

In 2003, I made my second feature.  It was called FIRECRACKER, shot on Super 35mm, and also cost roughly the GDP of Barbados.  Preeminent film critic Roger Ebert gave it a special jury award on his list of 2005’s Best Films.  It was a demanding production: eight shooting weeks, six days per week, fourteen hour days, 42 people on the crew, hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on camera and lighting equipment rentals, housing and feeding people, costumes, sets, equipment trucks, cables, generators, and on and on.

When it came time for FIRECRACKER to be released, the rules of the film industry were rapidly changing.  The Internet had caught on, everyone had email, DVDs had replaced VHS, and certain companies weren’t buying movies the way they had a few years prior.  The exclusive independent film deals from Hollywood Video, etc., were nonexistent.  The top-tier film festivals were becoming “owned” by sponsors who dictated which movies they could screen (often these movies were also funded by said sponsor), industry “buyers” were offering less and less upfront payment for distribution rights, and even if you did make a sale (like we did) they would likely never pay you (fairly, or at all).

Domestic companies didn’t understand our movie.  I encouraged them to market it to Mike Patton’s fan base but they didn’t know who he was.  I showed them our website stats, where the fans were coming from, and they still didn’t get it.  It was as if they simply didn’t believe me.

So I decided to release the film in theaters on my own.

I took the film on the road in a first-ever DIY kind of deal with Landmark Cinemas.  It was the “Freak Show Tour” which I modeled after the kinds of tours a musician would take.  We screened in a dozen or so major cities across the USA, having some of the stars appear at the screenings for extra media attention.  And it was a massive success.  Not only did we sell out all of the shows, but suddenly, because of the media attention and critical acclaim, domestic distribution companies were all over us.

We struck a distribution deal with two companies: one for domestic and one for international.  Internationally, the rights for FIRECRACKER were sold to companies in Greece, Germany, Australia, Thailand, the Middle East, the UK, Scandinavia, South Africa, among other countries.  As of December 31, 2009, the foreign sales receipts added up to $97,240.

FIRECRACKER was also released in the USA.  AEC One Stop, Baker & Taylor, Blockbuster, DVD Empire, Hollywood Video, Ingram Entertainment, NetFlix, among other re-sellers.  As of March 2007 (our domestic distribution company refuses to send us additional reports) the total domestic sales receipts added up to about $159,468.

Did we ever see that money?  No.  With all their so-called “marketing” expenses—First-Class flights to festivals and markets in Milan, Cannes, Berlin, five-star hotel rooms, and other useless fees—it was clear to me that we would likely never see anything.

Then there came a story on the front page of the New York Times about the producers from the Oscar-winning film CRASH not yet receiving any money from their distributor.  Turned out we had the same distribution company.  No joke.

Could we have taken legal action?  Sure.  We probably still could.  But it would cost more money to fight them than any we’d get in a settlement.  If they are ripping off big-guy Oscar-winners, who do have access to the kinds of money to pay for legal fees, there is no way us little guys even have a chance.  And if we did fight them and win, we’d be broke in the end regardless.

So we saved our time, money and energy, and moved on.  Productively.

(To be continued next week)