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.)

SANTA THE OPOSSUM

When I was a little kid, maybe four or five, I was obsessed with opossums.  I knew instinctively that the opossum was my power animal, so I was just completely obsessed with them.

At four or five years old, I was taken to visit Santa at the mall like any kid.  When Santa asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I simply said, “A possum!”  He was confused, concerned, and looked at my parents with a “What the hell am I supposed to follow that with?” look.  Imagine what my parents were thinking.

As the days crept closer to Christmas, my parents likely engaged me with ideas of practical toys and things to put on my list to Santa, but I wasn’t hearing any of it.  I was totally convinced he would bring me an opossum.

How it all happened, I’m not entirely sure.  But when I woke up on Christmas morning and went to fetch my stocking, I found that Santa did, in fact, bring me a beautiful taxidermy of an Opossum!  I named him “Clarence.”  He was divine.

Later, I learned that my parents went on a wild goose chase to have Clarence trapped and eventually stuffed.  Luckily we lived in Kansas, where opossums run around eating berries and otherwise keeping to themselves.  Opossums here are friendly and lovely.  They aren’t like big city possums, which can be rude and cranky.

Clarence lived at my mother’s house until I had a house of my own.  Now he holds court in my dining room, watching over dinner guests and keeping an eye on any mischief.

I never really had a favorite Christmas movie growing up.  By by the time I was in high school, I discovered Kubrick’s THE SHINING.  I would watch it every year on Christmas Eve.  It’s the best Christmas movie ever.  MISERY came in as a favorite Xmas Eve movie for a year or two, but it just didn’t have the special holiday punch that THE SHINING does.

I have a screenplay somewhere on the back burner based on my family.  It’s a Christmas movie caper, and will be downright hysterical whenever I decide to finally make it.  It’s pretty complicated, and will take a special combination of actors to make it work.

I love the holiday season, and especially the music.  Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, Ella & Louis, they all have incredible Christmas albums.  Even Barbra Streisand has a Christmas album (I know, right!?).

I love Christmas and I’m not even religious!  I hope you all have a wonderful time sharing it with your friends and families, regardless of your religion.  And, if you don’t have anyone to celebrate with, put on a good movie and treat yourself to something special.

ACTORS BUYING ROLES

Lately there has become a huge controversy about actors buying roles, thanks to certain perks on Kickstarter and Indiegogo.  I understand the perspective of people who are against this sort of thing, but I can also understand the perspective of people who don’t think it’s a big deal.  Like me.

As an independent filmmaker (Happy INDEPENDENCE day, btw), I need funding in order to make a movie.  The amount of funding is irrelevant.  Even if you plan to shoot a movie for no money, or you aren’t paying anyone, you’ll still have to buy hard drives to store footage, and put gasoline in your car to move from one location to the next.  So when someone comes along and says, “hey, I can give you some money, but will you put me in the movie,” my response is, “Of course!”  If I said, “No, I’m morally against that sort of thing,” chances are I won’t be able to make my movie.  Or it’ll take longer to find the funding needed, and I’ll be wasting time.

I make sense of it by thinking about it as an investment.  Even if the person giving (ie. donating) money on a crowd funding website isn’t “investing” per se, they are investing in their careers.  How it is any different to spend $2,000 on headshots and acting classes when you can skip all that and just buy a role with it?

And in that same thinking, what’s the difference between that activity and someone like Jodie Foster creating a script for herself to star in?  I can’t think of one.

I know that if Stanley Kubrick was still alive and running an Indiegogo campaign, and for a $10,000 donation, I could go and be his script supervisor for two months on his latest movie, without being paid, fed, or housed, I’d jump at the chance.  And if I couldn’t afford it, I’d encourage any other filmmaker who could, to do it.  One would learn more than the best film schools combined, and it would cost a lot less.

If that scenario were true, some would say it’s unfair because all the script supervisors are out of work because I bought the job away from them.  I don’t feel badly about it.  After all, only one of them would’ve been hired to begin with.  A production doesn’t need to hire ALL of them.  So what difference does it make?

Likewise, when an actor buys a role, all the other actors out there who could’ve auditioned are now out an opportunity for work because somebody else bought their part.

I think it was the magnificent Rosanne who said, “Success isn’t something you’re given, it’s something you take.”

Going back to the Jodie Foster scenario.  Same thing.  Was she waiting around for someone else to develop and produce, and then cast herself as, NELL?  Nope.  She took the initiative and did it herself.  There are people out there who blame her because she has “privilege” because she’s a superstar, and all that.  How is her kind of privilege any different than someone who could afford to buy a job as script supervisor, or an actor who can afford to buy a role?  None so far as I can see.  Yet, why is it okay for celebrities to develop and cast themselves in parts, and it’s not okay for an unknown person to buy one as a perk?

Is the backlash directed towards the moral integrity of the person making these crowd funded movies?  Take me, for instance.  If I did a Kickstarter campaign, and offered a perk that for $2,000 you could be my script supervisor, would you call me a villain?  Would you say I’m out to take advantage of people?  I understand I’m not Kubrick, which is why my perk would cost a donation considerably less than his.  But I can assure you that the person who bought that perk would learn more on my set than spending $2,000 on seminars, books, classes, or anything else.  So isn’t that actually fair?  They’re helping me, and I’m helping them.  It’s a mutual arrangement, and one that I think is just fine.