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)

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.

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

Tale of the Emerald Digger

“What gorgeous gem did you bring me?” Asks the Jeweler.

“It’s exquisite,” says the digger, “It’s the most beautiful stone in the world.  You’ll never stop thinking about it.  You’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Oh, let me see it! I can’t wait!”

“Here it is,” he says as he unwraps the emerald from a cloth.

“Oh.  It’s…. It’s…. GREEN.”

“Well, yes, it’s an emerald.”

“But nobody has an emerald!  Nobody wants an emerald.  People love diamonds.  They’re used to seeing diamonds.  They’ve never seen this before.”

“Yes, that’s what I said – You’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Well… I can’t take it.  Nobody will buy this from me.”

“Why not?”

“Well it’s cut different.  It’s square.  It’s green.  It’s obviously not finished.”

“How would it be perfect for you?”

“Well, it’d be perfect if it’s round, or marquee shaped, and cut this way, and, well, clear…”

“Oh, you mean – like a diamond?”

“Yes.”

The man with the most exquisite emerald has a choice: Sell the emerald to the diamond buyer for next to nothing – or go to the emerald specialty house.

The digger goes across town to the Jeweler who specializes in emeralds.

“What gorgeous gem did you bring me?” Asks the Jeweler.

“It’s exquisite,” says the digger, “It’s the most beautiful stone in the world.  You’ll never stop thinking about it.  You’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Oh, let me see it!  I can’t wait!”

“Here it is,” he says, unwrapping the emerald from a cloth.

“Oh.  It’s…. It’s…. TOO BIG.”

“Well, yes, it’s the largest emerald on earth.  It would make a great necklace.”

“But nobody has an emerald this big!  Nobody wants an emerald necklace.  People love really small and short emeralds.  They love emerald earrings.  They’ve never seen this before.”

“Yes that’s what I said – You’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Well… I can’t take it.  Nobody will buy this from me.”

“Why not?”

“Well it’s too big, and too heavy.  It’s obviously not finished.”

“How would it be perfect for you?”

“Well, it’d be perfect if it was small, tiny even, and cut this way, and, well, not so large…”

“Oh, you mean – like earrings?”

“Yes.”

So the digger takes a good look at his emerald.  It probably once belonged to the Pharaohs of Egypt.  It is the largest most amazing emerald the world has ever seen – or will ever see.  But he’s grown tired of walking all over town.  He’s getting hungry and worn-out.  He needs the money to pay for dinner.  So he goes home to think it over.

Late that night, the distraught digger goes deep into the middle of town to have a secret meeting with an old jewelry cutter.  The digger has one last look at the emerald, admiring its magnificence.  And he hands it over.  The emerald is cut in half, and half again, ending up in dozens of smaller, tiny pieces – cut exactly like the jeweler mentioned.

The next day, the digger returns to the emerald specialty Jeweler.

“What gorgeous gem did you bring me?” Asks the Jeweler.

“It’s exquisite,” says the digger, “It’s exactly what you want.  You’ve seen this every day. There’s nothing shocking here.  It’s usual, typical.  Traditional.”

“Oh, let me see it!  I can’t wait!”

“Here it is,” he says as he unwraps the cloth and dozens and dozens of tiny emeralds spill out into a lovely green pile.

“Oh.  They’re… They’re so small… No, this isn’t at all what I had in mind.”

“Well, but you said people want earrings.  You said people want short and small emeralds.”

“Yes, but we’re going out of business.  The diamond jeweler down the street has been taking all our clients.  Everyone wants a diamond.  So we’re getting rid of our inventory and stocking up on diamonds.  Do you have any diamonds to sell me?”

“No.  I’m an emerald digger.  I hunt for emeralds.”

“Well… I can’t take it.  Nobody will buy this from me.”

“I see.”

“Come back to see me when you’ve got a diamond.  Or better yet – where is that huge emerald you brought in the other day?”

“Well, I cut it up, to make it perfect for you, so you’d buy it.”

“You idiot!  You idiot!  You didn’t cut up that big emerald to make these smaller stones!  Did you?  We just got a call from the finest museum in the world.  They want to pay big bucks for an emerald like that one.  Because emeralds are going extinct!  It was one of the last remaining on earth!  What with all this diamond craze happening, it would’ve been the finest emerald anybody ever saw!  Oh, that’s too bad.  What a pity.  We really could have made a splash with that one.”

The End.

WHAT WILL PEOPLE THINK? (Part 2 of 2)

Opinions of your film will run all over the place.  You’ll see.  It is important to remember that a person’s opinion isn’t actually communicating to you about your movie, but rather, that person is sharing something about their personal inner self.

If the acting in your film is fantastic, and someone tells you that the acting is horrible, what they’re really telling you is why they didn’t connect to it, or that there’s something about their lives which kept them from liking it.  Maybe it hit too close to home?  Maybe they have a similar history to those characters and those old emotions, buried so deep they can’t even see them anymore, are coming to the surface subconsciously and preventing them from letting those feelings escape.  So they hate the acting.

One person will say they hate the music while another will say they love it.  One person will say the flow of the movie is trance like, while another will say it’s jarring.  One person will say that the writing seems forced, while others will say it feels genuine.

There will be sales agents who say these things too.  It’s pretty common for Hollywood in general to always find something about your movie they hate.  You’ll see.  There will be distribution companies, reps, film festivals, anybody and everybody, who will insist their ideas and opinions are fact—and the funny thing is—they will all contradict each other.

That happens every time I get ready to sell a film or promote it at festivals.  Every time.  And it will likely happen every time for you, too.  So my advice is to somehow learn how to let it bounce off of you.  Keep going.  There will be someone, somewhere, who loves it.  Prepare yourself for an endless barrage of rejection one after the next.  Eventually it’ll all work out.  Keep going until the movie is shared publicly with as many people as possible.

You’ll learn that after gathering everyone’s opinions, you’ll be surprised to see that every element in the entire film will be loved at least once, and also, hated at least once.  For every person who likes this, there will be another who hates the same thing and loves something else, which was hated by the other guy.  This is just how life works.

Learning all that has helped me identify when a project becomes true to my vision and perfect for me.  And that is all I can do.  That’s all anyone can do.

When I share rough cuts of my films with professional editors in Los Angeles and NYC, and other filmmakers, and well-known actors who have worked with some of the greatest directors of our time, their opinions don’t change my own perspective.  I share it with them out of curiosity.  Some people need to hear other people’s points of views in order to help define their own.  I’m not like that.  It could be because I’m more visual, instead of verbal or auditory.  I’m pretty sure it’s all about how the brain works and how each person processes information.

The people who need to hear what other people think so they know what to think are usually the types who hear something negative and try to “fix” it.  But, if they did that every time a new opinion came in, there would be nothing left.  It would be a big black void with some credits playing.  Although, even that could end up gone if someone else didn’t like the font.

Of course, I’m always fascinated in hearing other people’s perspectives of any movie I make.  I’m so proud of a film when I complete it, of course it feels good to feel the pats on the back.  It’s exactly like being a parent.  When your kid makes a good grade or wins a contest, it feels good.  And, likewise, when that kid is bullied, it hurts.  But bullies are out there, and there’s nothing we can do about it as parents.

I’m also aware that, like food, some people may not like the way it tastes.  That’s okay.  Critiques don’t teach me how to be truer to my vision.  They only teach me how to better appeal to the critic.  If I’ve made a risotto with white truffles, and the person eating it doesn’t like Italian food, there’s no way I’ll win them over.  If my objective is to win that person over, I’ll have to make what they like.

If my objective is to have the best Italian restaurant on the block, I need to focus on making the best Italian I can and be true to my vision, instead of worrying about the people who don’t like Italian and would rather eat Chinese.  And, likewise, if my intention is to create a New Wave Italian, classic Italian purists might not like it.

Be true to your own perspective.  And, keep going.