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)

ACTORS AND THE MEDIA

It always amuses me when actors pretend to get shy around the media.  Most of them, even if they deny it, are actors because they love and crave attention.  As children, they were the first to jump up in front of a group and “perform.”

Many actors are also pretty insecure people.  I mean, think about it.  They turn their life’s objective into avoiding their true selves in exchange for always being somebody else.  The good ones get paid for it.  Sometimes, actors find out there’s very little time left to be themselves, and some might even forget who they used to be all together.

Actors could also be called professional liars.  The good ones are so good at lying, that you actually believe what they’re saying and feeling.  Even though it’s totally fake.  I mean, it’s a movie, right!?  Someone wrote that for him or her to say.  And in some cases, this isn’t always exclusive to their performances on screen.  Sometimes the good actors can achieve amazing results in normal day-to-day life.

Anyway, if you’re a director or producer and you ever come upon an actor who is shy around the media, or afraid to do interviews with the press, you might need to pretend you understand them, and hold their hands, but know, deep down, by the time they get into the interview they’ll be all lit up, performing, doing what they do best.  And they always eat it up.  You’ll see.

Depending on the actor, it may be a good idea to give them a script to follow.  Some actors are brilliant at improvisation.  But many need a back-story, a character arc and a sheet of dialogue.  Or, at least, talking bullet points.

I like to supply my actors with a go-to bullet point list of topics to discuss about our movie.  Questions to answer in a precise way, using careful language.  Sometimes I’ll even include a list of topics to avoid, such as, giving away any plot secrets, or proprietary information.

Another idea I’ve advised other filmmakers in the past, is to be a kind of go-between with the media.  Have the interviewer send you the questions first, so you can look over them and make sure there’s nothing offensive asked, or anything that might cause the project harm.  And, likewise, maybe there’s a question asked the actor would otherwise not know how to answer—so you can tell the actor what to say.

Or, you could simply tell the interviewer you’ll pass along their email address or phone number to the actor and let the actor take it from there.  I guess it depends on which way make you more comfortable.  Some of the more famous actors don’t like having their email or number given out, so in most cases dealing with a celebrity of any kind, this will be the best avenue to take.

Actors are a funny bunch, and of course I was generalizing their personalities at the start of this article.  Not every actor acts like that, and not all of them are ruthless self-absorbed fame-hungry monsters.  Some of my greatest friends are amazing actors and their gifts and talent are greatly appreciated.  Without actors, there’s no such thing as a movie.  So we need them.  And we need to cherish them.  But, when it comes time to promote your movie, you might need to nudge them a little bit this way or that.