HELL TOWN and OCCUPYING ED headline NCGLFF this weekend

HELL TOWN and OCCUPYING ED are opening night selections at the North Carolina Gay & Lesbian Film Festival this weekend.  The screening times are as follows.  Actors Owen Lawless and BeckiJo Neill will be there with me to present the film and do a Q&A.

HELL TOWN
AUG 14 @ 11 PM
AUG 15 @ 11:20 PM
AUG 19 @ 9:20 PM

OCCUPYING ED
AUG 14 @ 6:45 PM
AUG 16 @ 10:50 AM
AUG 19 @ 7:10 PM

THE CAROLINA THEATRE OF DURHAM
309 WEST MORGAN ST / DURHAM, NC 27701

ZombieLife talks to HELL TOWN cast/crew

This radio interview with Eddie Rotten and ZombieLife Podcast was one of the coolest experiences I’ve had.  I was joined on the night of the HELL TOWN premiere (presented by the Austin Horror Society at the Alamo Drafthouse) with Elizabeth Spear, Owen Lawless, BeckiJo Neill, Kyle Eno and Sarah Napier.  Listen to our interview HERE or by clicking the logo below.

ZombieLife logo 2

Next HELL TOWN screening is in Charleston, SC at Crimson Screen Horror Film Fest on May 16.  Details at www.DIKENGA.com

 

HELL TOWN: Review by UK film critic MJ Simpson

HELL TOWN
Review by UK film critic MJ SImpson

For those of us who have been following Steve Balderson’s career, Hell Town is exactly what we have come to expect, in that it is completely unexpected. For starters, it’s a horror film. A black comedy, certainly, but revolving around a serial killer, and some of the deaths are quite unpleasant and gruesome (in a blackly comic sort of way).

Steve’s work has bordered on horror before: Pep Squad was a tale of high school psychopathic murder dark enough to play at genre festivals like Fantasporto (where I saw it, and first met Steve’s producer father Clark). His sophomore work (and magnum opus), the stunning Firecracker certainly contained some disturbingly horrific elements, not least its Browning-ian use of real sideshow freaks. And before Pep Squad Steve even made an amateur, feature-length vampire film. But this is his first full-bodied horror flick.

It’s also a soap opera. Not figuratively or metaphorically but literally. Taking the concept of the three-act structure to its logical conclusion, Steve and co-director Elizabeth Spear have fashioned the story as three consecutive mid-season episodes of a fictitious TV serial, including opening and closing credits (inspired partly by the modern habit of watching TV episodes back to back in a ‘box set’). The acting is deliberately mannered (as is the direction) but not over-the-top or played for laughs. We’re not watching Acorn Antiques here.

The story concerns two families: the Manlys and the Gables. Trish Gable (Krysten Day, a regular at Wamego’s Columbian Theatre) is the perky, peppy blonde prom queen looking to give away her “other virginity” to the right guy. Her bitter, jealous sister Laura is played by BeckiJo Neill in ‘episode 7’ and then recast without explanation from ‘episode 8’ onwards in the person of Jennifer Grace (Marybelle in The Casserole Club), who looks almost nothing at all like her predecessor. Bobby (Blake Cordell) is their slender, effete brother who is not entirely out. Moody emo BJ (Sarah Napier) and their father (Jeff Montague) complete the family. (Montague is missing from the IMDB cast list, possibly because of… well, you can google the guy.)

The Manly boys do their best to live up to their name by wandering around shirtless for much of the film. There’s Blaze Manly (Matt Weight, also co-producer: Ian in Occupying Ed), his brothers Butch (Ben Windholz) and Jesse (Owen Lawless) plus sister Chanel (Amanda Deibert, standing out among a strong cast). Deibert was Tiffany in The Far Flung Star and Lucy in Occupying Ed; she has horror previous including Andrew Muto’s Blood Runs Black and was even in a Creep Creepersin movie! Chanel is Trish Gable’s nemesis and, in a running gag, works in every dining/retail establishment in town. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Steve Balderson joint without a role for Pleasant Gehman and here you get two Plezes for the price of one. She is ‘Mother Manly’, lying comatose on a bed throughout, and also the scheming nurse who cares for her.

Among all the unrequited crushes, backstabbing bitchiness, repressed sexuality, sibling rivalry and general small-town angst, there is the little matter of the ‘Letter Jacket Killer’ who is offing local youngsters in a variety of sadistic ways. Well, I say ‘youngsters’ but in the grand tradition of American movies, all these ‘high school students’ are clearly in their mid-twenties. And within the artificiality of the soap opera conceit, that is exactly as it should be.

The two-headed directorial beast that is Steve and Liz manages proceedings with an acute awareness of both soaps and slashers, never missing a trick for a camera cliché, a hackneyed line of dialogue or an overwrought bit of plotting. It’s a truism that you have to be very good at something in order to effectively lampoon a bad version of that thing without yourself appearing bad, and that’s certainly the case here (the sine qua non of this principle is, in my humble opinion, the Bonzos track ‘Jazz, Delicious Hot, Disgusting Cold’ – what do you mean, you’ve never heard it?). Anyway, Steve is of course a hugely talented and experienced film-maker whose career I have been following for the best part of two decades. Elizabeth Spear is a new name to me.

According to the IMDB (and with all the caveats such a phrase implies) she has made seven previous features since 2003, including dramas, comedies, a documentary, a war film; some of them co-directed with other people. It would seem from Hell Town that she meshes well with Steve B. But then a real TV soap would have different directors for different episodes anyway.

I’m no soap-watcher but I do like a nice slice of horror and Hell Town works admirably as a pastiche of the slasher genre, benefitting (I believe) from having been made by somebody who normally works well outside said genre. Far too many ‘slasher comedies’ are lamentably unfunny and self-indulgent: of interest only to obsessive slasher fans, the sort who don’t care about character, only about deaths. By presenting the tale of the Letter Jacket Killer as a slice of soap opera, Steve and Liz foreground the characters. And although some of the minor ones outside of the two main families have little time to register before becoming bloody corpses, we can infer that we would have known them a whole lot better if we had seen Season One and the preceding six episodes of Season Two. (There is an opening caption explaining that the entire first and third seasons on Hell Town have been lost, and I really hope that Steve makes a lot more of this fictitious ‘real story’ behind the series when he starts publicising Hell Town, mainly because there’s so much fun to be had there.)

Jake Jackson supplied the excellent special effects make-up for the various kills. This is his second film gig following a thriller called Erasure; he has also worked on stage productions of Shrek, Young Frankenstein and The Tempest. Nancy Cox provided the regular hair and make-up.

Several of the supporting cast were also in Occupying Ed and The Far Flung Star. Michael Page, Connor Lloyd Crews and Chris Pudlo all receive ‘additional writing’ credits. Cinematographer Daniel G Stephens, who has previously worked with both directors, credited here with ‘special photographic effects’, lights every scene with a TV sensibility that doesn’t detract from the movie experience. And an extra special treat for long-time Balderfans is the return to the fold of the legend that is Betty O, for the first time since Stuck!, here appearing as a TV news reporter.

Hell Town is a hoot to watch and gives every impression of having been a hoot to make, which I think is characteristic of Steve’s films in this  part of his career. It’s not quite up there with the wonderful Occupying Ed, partly because the soap opera conceit necessarily robs the film of a layer of sincerity. On the other hand, I much preferred it to Steve’s two lightweight international capers The Far Flung Star and Culture Shock. It’s a real treat to see Steve working within the horror genre and bringing that unique Wamego touch to the tired tropes and corny clichés that we all know and love.

MJS rating: A-

# # #

On April 23, 2015, The Austin Horror Society will present the world premiere of HELL TOWN in Austin Texas at the Alamo Drafthouse.  For details visit the website: 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.

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)

YOU CAN’T PLEASE EVERYONE

No matter what you do, it is impossible to please everybody.  There will always be a percentage of people who hate what you create, no matter what it is.  There’s nothing you can do about it.  However, once you realize this is a true statement, you can best position your work to exist in an environment where the majority of the people will like it.

My first film PEP SQUAD is a satirical comedy about school violence.  It’s in the same vein as John Waters’ SERIAL MOM or that movie HEATHERS from the 80s.  When Hollywood Video wanted to release the movie, they decided to market it as a horror film.  I thought this was a terrible idea, because there’s nothing about the movie that remotely resembles a horror film.  And, I knew that if an unsuspecting viewer, who was out to find a horror film, rented or purchased PEP SQUAD, he or she would be totally disappointed because it didn’t meet their expectations.  That kind of marketing is the most stupid because, I would think, the whole point is to make as much money as possible from the release of a movie.  Instead, by marketing it to the wrong audience, they shot themselves in the foot.

Same thing happened with my film FIRECRACKER.  The distributors wanted to put artwork on the cover featuring a Ferris Wheel and carnival with blood dripping off the letters.  I was like, “Really?! Are you serious?”  After a lengthy email educating the distributors about good design and bad design, they agreed to use the artwork I’d originally created for the film.  There were elements in FIRECRACKER that were horrific, but it was a sort of Gothic Horror, or a classic Shakespearean Tragedy.  Again, it wasn’t a horror film.  I wondered what the obsession is with every distribution company trying to market their movies as horror films.  Yes, horror films sell really well.  So buy a horror film.  Don’t try to pretend the film is horror even if it isn’t.

A similar thing nearly happened to my film CASSEROLE CLUB.  It’s a film about the disintegration of married life.  Although there are sex scenes, and situations, there is nothing “sexy” about it.  Yet the distributors wanted to change the title to SWING PARTY ’69 because they were certain it would show up sooner on the Video On Demand channels.  I put my foot down, as did some of the actors in the film, and just wouldn’t let them change the title.  Any viewer expecting a sexy romp wouldn’t like it a bit once it turned serious and emotionally heavy.  The only people who dislike that film are precisely the ones who put it on thinking they’re about to watch some kind of soft-core porn.  Like the distributors obsessed with marketing every movie as a horror film, if you market every movie as a sexy soft-core number, you’ll alienate people and you won’t live up to meeting the expectations of your viewers.

This article isn’t intended to be about marketing, but I illustrate those two examples as a means to explain the following.  Your project—whatever it may be—is what it is.  No matter what you do, 75% of the people will like it, and 25% won’t.  If you try and disguise the project to please everyone, and gain the respect of the people who don’t like it, you will alienate some of the people who would’ve liked it.  Always leaving you with a percentage of people who hate what you’re doing.

Instead of paying any attention to the people who dislike what you’re doing, my advice is to focus on the 75% who do.  Market to that group and embrace those people.  Ignore the rest.  There will always be a negative review, a group of people who hate it.  There’s nothing you can do about them.  They’re stuck that way forever.  Instead, focus your attention on meeting the expectations of the people who do like what you’re doing.  If your latest movie is loved by kids 14-19 year olds, who cares what the 35 year old thinks.  Market the movie to kids!  That is one of the recipes for success.

DISTRIBUTION: THE PRODUCER’S REP

This article is part of an ongoing series of articles solely about distribution.  A lot of filmmakers are confused about the realities of distribution, and rightly so.  I’ve been making and selling movies internationally for over a decade, and I’m still learning about all the secrets and tricks The Industry hides from us.  Part of the problem is that no one shares this information with each other, both the good and bad, so I’m making it my mission to do so.  Openly, honestly, and hopefully clearly.

When your film is ready for release, there are a variety of ways to get it out into the world.  There are aggregators and sales reps, producer’s reps and distributors, foreign sales agents and a variety of “middle men” who can help you.

Today we’re going to talk about just one of those ways.  The Producer’s Rep.

A Producer’s Rep is a person who acts as a negotiator for your film and his or her sole purpose is to get your film sold to a Sales Agent, Aggregator, or Distributor.  They will hold private screenings (you’ll pay for it, naturally), they’ll send out post cards or other materials (you’ll pay for those too), and they’ll do a bunch of other stuff (some useless) you’ll need to reimburse them for as well.  Sometimes they’ll do things that don’t require reimbursement, such as talk to people on the telephone.  Eventually, when they make a sale, they will take a percentage of that sale as commission.

There are many people out there who call themselves Producer’s Reps.  Some of them are failed Industry executives.  Some are failed filmmakers.  A few are attorneys and only a couple actually know what they’re doing.  All of them claim to know everyone in the business, and most of them will require a retainer before actively taking on your film.  Those are the kinds of Producer’s Reps to avoid.  Instead, find one who works solely on commission.  Those kinds of Producer’s Reps are very rare, but they will try harder to actually sell your movie.  Producer’s Reps that have already been paid a retainer of, say, $5,000, don’t really have an ambition to make a good sale since they’ve already made some money.

The first Producer’s Rep we hired was a disaster.  We’d stupidly paid him a retainer (not knowing we could otherwise have found someone who would take commission), and he just didn’t have the ambition to get the job done.  The longer he didn’t sell the film, and the longer we paid him, the more reason he had to NOT sell it.  We believed everything he told us, which was naïve, I know, but he had been a former VP of Acquisitions at a major studio.  So why wouldn’t we believe him?

The thing about Producer’s Reps is that they aren’t willing to do anything that rocks their boat.  If they were too aggressive, their relationship with Harvey Weinstein, or whomever, would be damaged, so they aren’t going to be an aggressive salesman.  They’ll pussyfoot around delicately so they can always look good in the eyes of the buyers they have relationships with.

Like most people in The Industry, Producer’s Reps will act as though you work for them.  They will somehow totally deny the fact they are, in reality, working for you.  Once I asked our Producer’s Rep to share with me his contact list (mailing addresses, etc) of buyers at each company.  This information is publicly available.  It isn’t secret.  You can make a telephone call to every distributor and ask the front desk, “who is the name of the Acquisitions personnel,” and they will tell you.  It’s easy.  But it takes time to call them all.  Maybe not days and days, but I wanted to save time, so I just asked our Producer’s Rep for his list.

He was flabbergasted.  He flew through the roof.  How dare I ask him such a thing!  He said, “It’s my livelihood, I can’t share that with you.”  I informed him that anyone can make that list, that it was just going to save me some time.  But, he was the wise and experienced one, and I was some filmmaker from Kansas, what did I know?  Of course he didn’t take me seriously and share his list.

So, I did the research on my own.  It took a couple days, but in the end, I’d gathering the data and had the list I’d asked him for.  When I told him I had my own list, he actually asked me to share it with him so he could make sure his was up to date.  Was he kidding?

I think that was the last time I spoke with him.  A few weeks later we sold the film.  Perhaps he helped.  Or, perhaps it was my list and the marketing strategies I did on my own (without his help) that ended up selling our film.  Who knows.

I haven’t used a Producer’s Rep since that first experience, and I continue to sell movies without using one, so I’m not sure there’s any reason to hire one.  But if you do, be aware.  And beware.