MUSICIANS ARE FAMOUS, TOO

The film business is one of the most illogical businesses in the world.  Or, rather, the people who operate inside The Industry (executives, let’s say) make some of the most illogical decisions.  If they were working in another business, they’d be fired or out of a job pretty quickly.

And, well, actually, the turnover rate for Industry executives is steadily climbing.  Remember your contact at that company?  Yah, he only worked there for six months, and then he was canned.  Now he works at that other company.  No, wait, that company folded, he’s working as a Producer’s Rep now.

Anyway, when I’m casting a movie, I’ve found that sometimes it makes more sense to cast famous musicians in roles, instead of famous actors.

Famous musicians have global followings and fans who buy whatever they churn out.  I figure tapping into that market place makes sense if my purpose is to have exposure.  To get the movies I make out there, to be seen by an audience.  I don’t make movies so they can sit on the shelves in a dark closet.

Did you know that a musician can have as many, and in some cases, MORE fans than a famous actor?  Famous actors are used to being in movies.  So when I’m putting together a guerrilla style shoot, the chances of attracting someone like Kevin Spacey to that project is pretty slim.  But, famous musicians don’t get approached for movies very often, so for them it’s a fun adventure.

Danny DeVito can attest that Mike Patton has as many fans as he does.  Ask him!  But, most Industry executives don’t know who Mike Patton is.  And, those who do know probably don’t think he has a fan base as big as Danny Devito.  So when you have a film starring Mike Patton, Industry executives won’t be as interested as they would if it starred Danny Devito.

I learned that lesson when peddling my film FIRECRACKER.  I was just stunned by the film Industry’s total disregard for famous musicians.  I was reminded by this while peddling my film THE CASSEROLE CLUB.  It stars Backstreet Boy Kevin Richardson in his acting debut.

The Backstreet Boys are the best-selling boy bands of all time.  They sold over 170 million albums.  They have a global following that is larger than that of Mike Patton.  Which means, Kevin Richardson has more fans than Danny Devito.  It’s almost the equivalent of having someone like George Clooney in the movie.  The tens of millions of Backstreet Boy fans spend money to buy a DVD just as easily as they do a CD.

Yet most film businesses can’t wrap their heads around this idea.

But that’s okay.  You don’t particularly need anyone in the film business to help you market directly to a musician’s fan base.  You can do it on your own.

Filmmakers: think about why you’re making a movie.  Do you want people to see it?  Are you only interested in working with famous actors?  Have you thought about casting a famous musician?  Did you know that there are famous musicians you’ve never heard of who have more fans than Brad Pitt?

Maybe one day the film Industry will recognize the music industry exists, and take advantage of cross-market promotion.  But until they figure it out, my advice is to take advantage it, and be thankful they don’t!

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)

CRITICS: USE THEM OR LOSE THEM

Maybe I had it good going to CalArts, because when it came time for a critique of any work (whether it was a script, or a film, or a photograph), we were educated in a way to look at the work that is totally NOT what most people learn.  In addition to style, form, and technique, we were taught to explore the intent of the creator, and to base our critique on how we felt that intent was communicated.  Did the work communicate the intent clearly?  Or was it confusing?

Most people grow up learning that to critique something means to only draw out the negative aspects of something.  Or to talk about what’s missing.  No one is ever taught to look at what’s actually there and critique what they see.  Instead, most people use critique to talk about what they don’t see.  This has spread to our entire culture.  When someone says, “Sorry I’m being critical,” they mean they’re sorry because they are being negative.  If you’re doing it correctly, critique isn’t something to apologize for.  It can become very helpful and beneficial.  But most often, people are bad critics.

Most people—professionals and amateur—have been taught that the best way to critique something is to discuss what is WRONG or what is MISSING.  Or, in most cases, how they’d have done it better.  That kind of criticism is useless because the truth is that if we look at anything long enough we can find what is wrong with it, and what is missing.

Let’s take Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, now listed by The British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound magazine as the greatest film of all time (replacing Citizen Kane.  Someone could say that the sequences in the museum, or when Jimmy Stewart is following around Kim Novak, are boring and need work because there’s no dialogue.  But to focus on the fact that there isn’t dialogue, and wrong, that critic fails to see what is there, and he misses the whole point.

The critique in that case might be a bit melodramatic, but I mean it to only illustrate a point.  I’m sure there are people out there who watch VERTIGO and feel the exact same thing (it’s boring, it’s too quiet, there’s no talking; so it must be BAD), even though they are watching what is now considered the greatest film ever made.

When I get a review from a critic, I like to learn about how they SEE what I’ve shown them.  I don’t particularly have an interest in what I haven’t shown them.  If I made a heavy, dark character-study, I’d like to learn more about how they were impacted by that, or what was their insight into how I portrayed those elements.  If I read a review that says it’s a bad movie because it’s not campy or funny, that doesn’t help me at all.  Sure, it relays the message that particular individual is only interested in campy, funny movies, and if I want him to like something it should be campy and funny.  But it doesn’t help me learn about multiple perspectives of the heavy, depressing, character-study.

Now, say my intent was to make a heavy, dark character-study and it ended up campy and funny, and the critic thought it was hilarious, well that would indicate that my execution was done poorly.  And, in that case, the criticism would be very educational and helpful.  But, helpful critique is very rare.

Another thing to remember about criticism is that it’s only about that person’s singular viewpoint and their tastes.  If a critic doesn’t like westerns, he’s not going to like your western no matter how brilliant it is.  Or, if he only likes westerns, he’s not going to be a fan of your Upper West Side romantic comedy.  So when you read a review from a critic, remember that there will always be someone, somewhere, who’s experience watching it was the opposite.

I love reading reviews of my movies that are totally contradictory of each other.  Take my film, THE CASSEROLE CLUB, which is out now on DVD/VOD.  Some critics call it a “masterpiece,” an “emotional tour de force,” and we’ve even won awards for it: Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor (for Backstreet Boys crooner Kevin Richardson in his debut role) and Best Actress (for Susan Traylor).  And then there are the reviews that say the acting is “horrible” and the movie a “waste of time.”  And after reading the negative reviews, I received the news that the US Library of Congress selected THE CASSEROLE CLUB for their permanent collection.

It’s so fascinating to me to learn how differently people see the very same thing.  I love stuff like that.

As you proceed in your filmmaking path, whether as a director, producer, writer or actor, you’ll find this truth across the board in all aspects of The Industry.  One person will always love something another person hates.  Yin/Yang.  So enjoy it.  If nothing else, it will teach you who are the intelligent people to surround yourself with, and who are the dumb shits to avoid.