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 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)

MEETING RUTGER HAUER: Part 1 of 2

I accepted an invitation to be a Jury member at the 2013 Victoria (Texas) International Film Festival, not knowing what I was getting myself into.  My friend Jane Wiedlin would also be on the Jury and I was looking forward to spending some quality time with her.  Then I learned Rutger Hauer had a film in the festival and would be there, too.  Doubly excited.

After the festival purchased my airfare, I asked them if there were any movies I needed to watch and judge before hand, or how that would all work.  They replied, “Oh, we don’t need you on the Jury anymore, we have plenty of people already.”  Oh, okay, that’s all right.  But then why am I coming?  Should I do any seminars or workshops or anything?  No.  None of my services were required.  They decided to screen my film CULTURE SHOCK, so I was thankful I could participate somehow.

The first day of the festival it was simply gorgeous weather.  65F with sun that warmed the soul.  I sat riverside all afternoon sipping champagne and working on a screenplay, meeting new filmmaker friends and talking all things show business.  After six-hours of leisure, I decided it was time to visit the VIP room at the festival for free wine and to meet more friends.

The next morning I woke up and was surprised to find that my face was as red as a lobster.  Yes, I’d totally failed to realize the two-hour drive south from Houston was SOUTH of Houston, near Corpus Christi.  Me, fresh out of the Kansas winter, with no sunscreen, in bright southern sunshine for six solid hours.  Oops.

Some people recognized me, and knew who I was, and those who didn’t now knew me as That Sunburned Filmmaker.  I didn’t mind the attention, because it was so comical, but little did I know it was only the beginning.

A few weeks prior to the festival, a fan of mine sent me an email on Facebook asking to meet me.  I looked him up, thought he seemed nice, and agreed.  We exchanged numbers and the texts began, trying to find a time to meet.  I tried calling him, but he didn’t answer, and finally a text came telling me he’d been in a tragic accident the week prior and that his jaw was wired shut.  He could get around fine, and kind-of talk, but not for long periods of time.  His pain medication would fizzle out and he’d need to take more, and then sleep.

I shared this with my new filmmaker friends (most of whom were actually on the Jury and hadn’t been kicked off, like me), and they made some fun jokes at my expense, which I thought were pretty funny.  “I have a fan…” and before I could finish the sentence someone chimed in, “Only one?”  To which I agreed, “Yes, just the one.”  And I explained that he was coming to meet me in public, with all of them present (you never know, some fans can be insane, see), and that his jaw had been wired shut so to not freak out.  Then came their questions, “How do you even know he’s your fan if you can’t understand a thing he’s saying?”

Another filmmaker, Elizabeth Spear (director of ROUNDBALL) had a hilarious idea to make a short film, an SNL-like comedy skit, about me meeting my fan with the wired jaw.  Only the fan would be trying to ask me for Mike Patton’s email address and I keep misunderstanding him, thinking he’s asking for my autograph.  In real life My Fan is also a fan of Mike Patton’s from Mr. Bungle and Faith No More days, and learned about me when my film FIRECRACKER came out, starring Mike.  So it was basically real to life, except that My Fan was also a fan of mine!  Really!  Elizabeth told us it would be shot improv-style and in about an hour.  My Fan showed up, was totally game, and we did it.  It’s called FANS ARE PEOPLE TOO.  Here’s a link to the skit:

FANS R PPL 2 was edited in mere minutes it seemed, and then would screen before the festival’s closing night ceremony.  I thought it was fun to make fun of myself by playing an exaggerated Myself, and My Fan seemed to have fun with it, too.  Mike Patton emailed me, he also thought it was hysterical.

After the skit aired at the closing ceremony, My Fan’s jaw started to hurt (from laughing so hard all afternoon), so he called his mom to come fetch him.  (Side note: My Fan is 30 years old and wouldn’t normally need his mom to come pick him up.  Just clarifying).  So I went outside with him to have a smoke and thank him for being such a good sport.

A while later the door burst open and a woman, crying, screaming, “Where are you!?”  I turn, mortified, and she tells me that the festival director, Anthony Pedone, a longtime friend of mine, just gave a 10-minute speech about me that moved people to tears and that I was winning an honorary Maverick Filmmaker Award of some kind, and that when he finished his moving speech and called me down to accept my award, I wasn’t there!  OMG.

Click here for Part 2.

NEED STARS?

A question a lot of aspiring filmmakers face is whether or not to cast movie stars.  Do movie stars help your film get funding?  Do stars mean you’ll get a solid distribution deal?  Does it mean your film will be successful?  I’m here today to tell you that it’s all a myth, and it doesn’t matter a bit.  Nope.  Not at all.

Certain people in the Industry will tell you that it’s totally necessary to have a movie star in your movie.  If it’s a distributor telling you, chances are their motivation truly stems from laziness.  If there’s a star in your movie, they don’t have to work hard to sell your movie.  In fact, it won’t matter what your movie is about, because they’ll just pitch it to buyers as a “so-and-so” picture.

If it’s an Industry executive looking to produce your movie, they’ll say it’s important because it looks good on their resume if they worked with “so-and-so” instead of someone they’ve never heard of.  Aspiring actors will do the same.  Some actors will even showcase that famous person in their reels in hopes to appear more qualified than they actually are.  Tricking directors into thinking “Wow, she starred with Julia Roberts, she MUST be important.”

Truth is, it doesn’t matter whether there are stars in your film or not.

My first film PEP SQUAD has no stars in it.  Yet, it was acclaimed, and then sold and released in nearly every country on Planet Earth.  In fact, there was a 10-year anniversary re-release on Blu-ray in 2011.

When searching for investors on my second film, one of the actors cast was Dennis Hopper.  Surprisingly, even with Dennis Hopper attached, we couldn’t find funding in order to make it.  I ended up replacing him with the musician Mike Patton (Faith No More, Mr. Bungle), and suddenly we had funding.

My film WATCH OUT had a few people in it that were in recognizable projects (Peter Stickles from Shortbus, for example), but none of them were “stars” per se, and when that film came out, it debuted at number 27 on Amazon.com’s Top 100.

And then there’s Mink Stole, Karen Black, Pleasant Gehman and Jane Wiedlin in a women in prison movie—together!  (My film STUCK!)  I mean, one would think that would be an easy sell, right?  Well, it didn’t sell as well as PEP SQUAD or WATCH OUT.  But it was a B&W film with homage to 1950s style filmmaking, and some people didn’t get it on a commercial level.

So, you see, it doesn’t matter who’s in your movie.  What matters is that your movie is well made with a captivating story and solid performers.  We’ve all seen movies we love with a cast of no one we recognize.

Remember that when casting your next film.  Stars don’t always bring in money.  But they can sometimes cost a lot of it.