The Wamego Trilogy

To celebrate the 10-year anniversary of its initial release, I am making the WAMEGO TRILOGY available for FREE on Vimeo.  Spread the word and share these documentaries with every filmmaker (aspiring or professional) you know.

“Dreams are made of this stuff… Missing here are power-lunches and power-trips. Which is a breath of that fresh Kansas air.” – AFTERTASTE MAGAZINE

“Perfect! If you’re an aspiring filmmaker, you’d be a complete fool not to watch all the docs in this trilogy… There’s a lesson to be learned from the Baldersons.”
FILM THREAT

“Hollywood should be jealous.” – ICON MAGAZINE

“Literally thousands of miles away from the world of red carpets, cocaine nose-jobs and botoxed to the bone, anorexic 40-year-old women pretending to be 21, Wamego is a world full of cinematic dreams and devoid of pretension.”
HOFSTRA CHRONICLE

“Steve Balderson’s approach to his work is not just a breath of fresh air – it is a gale-force wind that just may huff and puff and blow that famous Hollywood sign down right before the film industry’s eyes.”
OREGON DAILY EMERALD

“A constant reminder to never give up or give in…”
ALL ABOUT TOWN MAGAZINE

“WAMEGO is a testament to the hard work ethic of the Midwest. It proves that with determination, anything is possible – even making a feature film by yourself, in the middle of nowhere!”
LAWRENCE JOURNAL-WORLD

“What was ‘Lost in La Mancha’ could easily be ‘Found in Wamego’ … A warmfelt, honest lesson how to realize your dream without sharing a bed with the devil.”
PLANB MAGAZINE, NORWAY

“Balderson serves a fat slice of humble pie to his Hollywood peers. A reality-check to inspire indie artists worldwide!”
THE BLACKSMOKE ORGANISATION, UK

“Those who have filmmaking ambitions of their own will get a little more…”
MICRO-FILM MAGAZINE

“WAMEGO will have a league of moviemakers clicking their heels to be transported to the Kansan, Do-It-Yourself state of mind.”
BRAD JEWELL

“It’s fascinating, entertaining, inspiring.”
PLAYLOUDER, UK

“The documentary, more than any other movie-in-process film, actually demonstrates how to make a movie. It’s not a tedious and silly art school exercise, but a deep look into the thinking, perspective and determination that a filmmaker has to have in order to get a vision on the screen. Wamego is good story telling… A rich tale with fully developed characters, a well-developed plot and layers of conflict… Wamego is recommended viewing… Shows those professionals from LA how things should be done.”
DISCOVERY PUBLICATIONS

DISTRIBUTION: SALES AGENTS

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 Sales Agent.

Sales Agents are people who represent dozens, if not hundreds, of movie titles.  They take these films to markets such as Cannes, Berlin, and Toronto.  (Film Markets are not to be confused with Film Festivals, which sometimes happen simultaneously and in conjunction to Film Markets).  While attending these markets, they rent a booth or a space (such as a hotel room), and invite buyers from different distribution companies from all over the world, to stop by their booth and check out their titles.  Sometimes the Sales Agent will aggressively track down certain buyers from different countries with promotional flyers about your film.

The Asylum was the first Sales Agent I worked with and they were downright brilliant.  They are incredibly nice people, they paid their bills, they were actively in touch with us, and sharing with us ways they were selling PEP SQUAD.  They managed to sell my movie all over the globe: Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Scandinavia, South Africa, South Korea, the UK, China, Greece, the Baltic States, Indonesia, the Middle East, Portugal, Thailand, and Turkey.  Oh, and even Canada.  I can’t tell you how sad (okay, devastated) I was the day I learned The Asylum wouldn’t be actively selling other people’s movies anymore.

Finding a new Sales Agent to replace The Asylum was a bit like being dumped by the love of your life and having to quickly find a new soul mate or risk perishing into the depths of hell forever.  I think I’ve found a nice replacement, but to date they haven’t made as many sales as The Asylum did for us, so I’m waiting to decide if it’s true love or just fond admiration.

In the process of finding the good guys, I worked with a variety of scumbag Sales Agents selling several of my movies.  And I’ve encountered many that were so full of themselves, and so rude, that I ended up not hiring them.

First, remember that you are hiring a Sales Agent.  They aren’t hiring you.  Their egos are sometimes a problem.  To keep their egos well fed, they will often treat you badly so you think you need them, when in all honesty, to keep in business, they need you.  If they don’t have your film on their roster, they’ll have to find someone else’s film.  They cannot afford to remain in business if they aren’t selling as many movies as they can.  So if you took your film to the next sales agent, they’ll be the ones in a loss.

The second lesson is to BEWARE of Sales Agents’ so-called “marketing expenses.”  I’ve been to the Cannes.  I know for a fact it doesn’t cost several hundred thousand dollars to be there.

Most Sales Agents will pad their “marketing expenses” so they can fly First Class, put themselves up at the Carlton, or Hotel du Cap (well over $1,000 a night) and dine at the “in” places, with tasting menus featuring 20 courses, wine pairings, and more.  Yes.  That’s what they spend their money on.  Or, your money, rather.  They don’t use it to sell your movie.  They think they should be treated like Sharon Stone.  Or Madonna.  And somehow they will try and convince you they should be.

Sales Agents will sometimes pay you an advance when they acquire your movie, but then as they sell it to different buyers, they keep all the money that comes in until they recoup their “marketing expenses.”  Unless you’ve read the fine print and capped their expenses, you may never see another cent beyond the advance.

I prefer not getting an advance in exchange for the Sales Agent taking a commission on all sales, and giving me my shares from the first dollars in.  When you’re signing an agreement with a Sales Agent, be sure to discuss this aspect openly.

LLOYD KAUFMAN

The first time I met Lloyd Kaufman, it was in his Troma Tower on Ninth Avenue in New York City.  It was before the premiere of my film PEP SQUAD at the Cannes Film Festival, where I would later get to know him better.

I first learned who Lloyd Kaufman was during the shooting of my first film PEP SQUAD.  My CalArts mentor and confidant Eric Sherman introduced me to the world of Troma.  Eric had been Lloyd’s college roommate at Yale, and spoke highly of him.  When I first saw the brochure for Troma movies and merchandise, I couldn’t believe what I was looking at.  I was getting my first taste of truly independent filmmaking, and I didn’t know what to make of it.  Was there a market for movies like this?  I had no idea how important and groundbreaking Lloyd’s empire was.

I agreed that Troma would announce my film at the Cannes Film Festival in the south of France in 1998.  My team (well, my father, sister, and best friend) flew to NYC to seal the deal.  We met at the Troma headquarters and I was overwhelmed.  It was reminiscent of what I imagined the New York Times reporting room to be like.  Desks of reporters lined wall to wall, and smoke rising to the ceilings while they banged on typewriters and answered rotary dial phones.  I can’t recall what it was really like, but that’s my romantic memory.

Lloyd has a mammoth energy.  It felt like I was meeting royalty.  And indeed, Lloyd remains, a King among men.  He sat behind his big leather desk.  I imagined Madonna and other celebrities, sitting where I was, seeing the same thing.  It was humbling.  And scary!  I would learn later that Madonna had, in fact, done just that, earlier in her career.

The deal was signed and stamped.  Soon we were in the south of France.  I joined Lloyd at the Carlton Hotel.  It was a massive white cream-frosting of a place, with armed guards to keep the uninvited out.  But we had official badges, so we were allowed inside the inner sanctum (lobby).  And then up to the rooms where all the Industry (Miramax, etc) rented out make-shift offices while in town.

The next day I joined Lloyd on a panel with Roger Corman.  E! Entertainment filmed it.  It was awesome.  Later I found out that my hometown hadn’t yet subscribed to E! so no one I knew saw me.  O, the travesty.

The two weeks flew by with a snap.  And then I was back home in Kansas and no idea what had happened or what was to happen next.

It came to me nearly half a decade later.  Lloyd Kaufman was indeed a King among us.  His empire and know-how became an inspiration to me.  What he has done to shape the TRULY independent film industry is nothing more than an extraordinary accomplishment.  And beyond.  What I love most of all: he did it on his own terms.  He followed his dreams, his plan, HIS inner spirit.  And he will always remain one of the most important and influential filmmakers of all time.

A Chair is a Chair is a Chair

Have you ever heard someone comment, “My, that’s a bad chair!”?  I doubt it, for there really is no such thing as a ‘bad’ chair or a ‘good’ chair.  There are simply different levels of craftsmanship involved in making a chair, and, of course, a variety of finishing techniques and overall aesthetics.  Some chairs are spit out on an assembly line by the thousands, while other chairs are made by hand.  Some chairs have cushions, some have armrests, and others even have accessories (i.e. little cup holders, rocking abilities, foot rests, etc.).  In any case, it remains a chair.  The purpose of which is to be sat upon.

The people who sit on chairs all share the same activity.  They sit.  Sure, some people have poor posture, but in general, I can’t see how someone could be a ‘good’ sitter or a ‘bad’ sitter.  Never do people go to a dinner party and loudly complain, “Francis, look at the way you’re sitting in that chair!  It’s bad!  Just awful!”  In fact, it makes me wonder, how, exactly, could Francis be sitting badly?  His rear end is fixated on the seat!  Both feet are on the floor!  Sure, he’s got a bad back, which makes him lean a little to the left, but nevertheless, Francis *is* sitting in the chair.  The only way, from my point of view, Francis could fail in his sitting, is if he weren’t sitting at all!  It would seem to me that only when one stands is it appropriate to attack their ability or talent to sit.  “Francis, you’re NOT sitting!”  Perhaps those few people who, in their attempt to sit, miss the chair completely and plummet to the floor, are guilty of poor sitting, but the indignity of missing the chair would seem to be punishment enough, without adding insult to injury by bringing their failure to their attention.

Like the people who fail to sit in chairs, I believe it’s only acceptable to attack an actor when he or she has failed to appear in a film.  Michelle Pfieffer, for instance, is bad for failing to appear in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Likewise, so are Whoopie Goldberg, Demi Moore, Madonna, Nicole Kidman, Susan Sarandon and all the other actresses who didn’t appear in that film.  Shame on them.

Don’t get me wrong – some actors look great in any movie, while others do not.  Jodie Foster, for instance, looks equally as great sitting in a plush sofa from Eddie Bauer as she does swiveling on an Eames with black leather ottoman.  Other people, like Ned Beatty, for instance, aren’t necessarily the best looking sitters.  There are some people, without a doubt, that should avoid sitting on certain chairs.  But that is all about looks, not general sitting ability.

Movies, it can be argued, like chairs, are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – they simply have different levels of craftsmanship.  What’s the difference in how Thomasville, Broyhill, or Ethan Allen chairs are made?  Very little that I can see.  Sure, the shapes and textures differ, but they seem to be built in the same fashion.  Much like films made by committee, they seem safely appealing to most, and, I agree, manufactured with skill (read: they aren’t going to fall apart).  Ron Howard’s movies are like these.  So are Martin Scorsese’s for that matter.  There is nothing more or less exceptional about either.

Some chairs, like those sold at Pottery Barn or Crate & Barrel, are constructed with equal skill, but have aesthetics (and prices) that appeal to a different buyer.  Alexander Payne makes this kind of work.  Clint Eastwood reminds me of Eddie Bauer.  And don’t get me started on Robert Redford and his overpriced Sundance clothing line!

Marketing and selling a motion picture is just like marketing and selling furniture.  Pottery Barn needs to sell thousands, if not millions, whereas Eames is happy to sell a few hundred.  BLAIR WITCH, while poorly made, still sold millions.  That movie in particular is just like furniture sold at Wal-mart.  And in retrospect, the people who buy furniture at Wal-mart are, probably, not going to buy an Eames.  And, like an Eames, EYES WIDE SHUT, while one of the best-crafted motion pictures ever made, didn’t appeal to the masses.

Within all of these examples lies genre.  The genre of Pier 1 furniture is a very different genre than that of Broyhill.  Quentin Tarantino films, which resemble Pier 1 (read: often made with cheap components), tend to fall apart a lot sooner than, say, a Broyhill nightstand, which has the solid construction of a Francis Ford Coppola film.

You can tell what kinds of films people like by taking a look around their living room. What kinds of furniture do they have?  Do they prefer to sit upon a chair made of plastic, mesh, wood or steel?  Do they sleep on an air bed or a top of the line Sealy?  Where do they eat dinner – on the floor, on the sofa, or at a solid oak dining table?

On my street we understand movies are like pieces of furniture.  We know what separates a Horchow from an IKEA.  We acknowledge there are similarities and differences.  But whether it’s manufactured by the thousands or made one at a time, the bottom line is – it’s only a movie.

(Originally published in Aftertaste Magazine, 2004)