Another disaster, another lesson.

It is a fascinating business we’re a part of and perhaps one of the most intriguing parts is the vast diversity among the players involved.  People of every conceivable type seem to be drawn to this business for a plethora of reasons (the main ones being money and sex…oh, yeah, and “desire for creative expression”…all three certainly interest me, but I’m pleading the 5th on the order!).   And due to the vast disparity among this motley crew, there is likewise a set of completely varying thoughts, beliefs, opinions and preconceived notions….all of which is a nice way of saying plenty of these people have their heads up their asses.

And this is the point…no scratch that, as usual I have no  point….this is the TOPIC of today’s ramblings.

I’m not sure why, but today I recalled a filmmaker I met more than 10 years ago who wanted some help with his film.  I remembered it being an odd story and felt it was worth sharing because, as is often the case, there is a lessen to be learned.

This story took place around 2000.  I know the call I received was precipitated by a showing of my first film “Impact” of which there were two Vegas showings around this time.  A local man had attended a screening of “Impact” and had a movie of his own that he wanted help with.  We talked for a bit and he invited me by.  Since these were the days before Craig’s List and I was still green and naive, it never crossed my mind that this man may have had ulterior motives like having seen me at the screening, his beautiful daughter had immediately fallen in love with me and convinced her father to kidnap and drug me until I consented to marry her and take over their estate in the South or France.   Fortunately, that was not the case and the guy was actually a filmmaker.

I can’t recall his name and only spoke to him a few times all those years ago, so we’ll call him Gary.  Gary was probably in his 50s and a couple of years earlier decided he wanted to make a movie.  He had no background in this and, is often the case, his love of movies and a degree of confidence/arrogance, let him fool himself into believing that he could do better than most.  What started out as a $100k project quickly swelled into an $800,000 debacle.  Shot, as I recall, in California and Mexico, the producers he brought on board were interested in lining their pockets more than making a good, or even marketable, film.  They flew first class, paid themselves, collectively a couple hundred grand, stayed at the nicest hotels and had a healthy expense account (i.e. per diem).  The money went to “stars” who, at best, were B-level fading TV stars or C-level feature names.  This is another area my mind fails me as I recall two of the leads were familiar, but WAY below the standard you should get for an $800k film…or even half that budget for that matter.  The closest comparison I could make would be making an $800k film today with Lorenzo Lamas and Morgan Fairchild (not to impugn either of these notable legends).

The film was about, again if memory serves me, a soap company in Mexico that finds out their soaps, due to the “magical” nature of where the raw materials are pulled from, create a type of “love potion” for those who scrub down with it.  Surprisingly, this mind-blowing concept did not result in a great film.  If it weren’t for bad acting, a bad script, bad directing, and a bad everything-else, it might have been….actually, never mind, it was destined to suck no matter what.  What troubled me most and evoked a degree of sympathy from my otherwise black, cold lifeless heart, was the fact that Gary ended up selling pretty much everything he owned to finish the film.  When I met with him, he was living with his daughter here in Las Vegas as he ended up selling his house in L.A. to finish the project.  When you hear a story like this, you do appreciate the commitment and you really want to like the film; you really do root for the guy and hope he made a winner.  It was terrible.

The original title he had for the film was “Suds”, a play on the soap theme of the story.  I sat painfully with him and watched the whole film there in the living room of his daughter’s home while she was off at work.  There was nothing redeeming at all about it and this guy had put his life savings into it.  There was no chance of selling this film.  Perhaps, maybe, he could have made a deal with a distributor to get it out somewhere on DVD, but he was never going to see a dollar out of this project and I knew it.

The cluelessness of Gary continued when he told me his marketing plan.  Gary, you see, had had a stroke during this process, no doubt brought on by the stress of the movie and losing everything he owned as a result of it.  He had recovered except for the fact that he now had a noticeable stutter.  His master plan, as expressed to me, was that if he could raise a little more money, he would add a prologue, epilogue and some narration of an old man who was to be the male lead “looking back on this time in his life as soapmaker in Mexico”.  The biggest and best part, was that the narrator, the male lead, now an old man, would have a stutter…brought on by a recent stroke.  How and why does this have anything to do with the story or even have a place in a comedy?  He didn’t seem to have an answer for that, but his logic for this, at least in his mind, was without reproach – “3 million people in the country stutter and if even 10% watch my film, we’ll have a hit!”  If you don’t see the insanely flawed thinking in this statement, please leave this site immediately, unbookmark this page, and make a vow, right now, to never, ever even considering going into ANY business, let alone filmmaking.

The problem is, Gary truly thought his logic made sense.  And I’ve heard variations on this argument before – “My film is about cancer and there are X million people in the country with cancer,” “Do you know how many people love their dog?  If even 1% of those people buy a movie ticket we can’t lose!” and “Men love tits!  You throw some tits in there and you have a winner!” (actually, this one’s not entirely untrue….)

Gary even wanted to change the name to reflect the stuttering element.  And his new title?  Wait for it…

Wait for it….

Wait…

Trust me, it’s worth it…

“S-S-Suds, t-t-too!”  I really want to laugh and if there weren’t tragedy in the tale I probably would.  Since you don’t know this man, dear readers, you have my permission to laugh, but since I know and remember him, I just can’t.  If he’d been some clueless millionaire who had blown a small chunk of his wealth on this project, I would laug.  I probably would have laughed right in his face.  I would have laughed in his daughter’s face when she told me I had to marry her, but I digress…  The chasm that is indy filmmaker sucked him and he’d pay the price the rest of his life.  Obviously, the film was never released, Gary new made back a dime…and I have no idea what ever happened to him.

Now, there are plenty of lessons in this story and I’m sure anyone sitting here reading this is probably saying, “God, that’s so stupid, what was he thinking!” and they’re right to do so.  The thing is, 90% of those same people, when they go out to make their first movie, can and will have exactly the same thing said about them.  “Of course he failed!  Who would think people would want to see a movie about stuttering!  My movie is about ferrets and everyone loves ferrets!”….(sigh)

My advise, and it’s going to  be another variation of probably a dozen previous posts – if you haven’t worked in the film business for a few years already and want to make a movie, the first thing you have to admit is that you know nothing about.  So you either need to learn and/or surround yourself with people who do.  Find a producer, director, writer who made a cheap little film that you liked and/or made money or at least got out there into the market.  If he got his film in Redbox or Netflix or the video stores, he did something right.  If you’ve never been on a set, don’t try to be the director.  If you’ve never produced, don’t be producer or at least don’t produce alone.

There is a saying that holds true in every business in the world and moreso in film – “If you want to succeed, surround yourself with people smarter than yourself.”  That has always been my motto…the problem is, being the smartest person I know, I’m still looking!

4 thoughts on “Another disaster, another lesson.

  1. I do hate hearing these stories…but the reality is, I don’t know anyone who has even gotten their money back on an investment. I know more than a dozen guys who have made movies around here. Probably five are still not finished years later. Maybe another 5 are terrible. Two were okay, one of which got distribution FOUR YEARS ago and the filmmaker hasn’t seen a dime, yet.

  2. Phil, sorry it took a while to respond to this. You’re right. The biggest of many dirty secrets in the film business is distribution. Virtually every distribution company out there is screwing over the filmmaker. I’m surprised at how many filmmaker never make a single call to verify the reputation of the company they place their film with. On my first deal, I called every filmmaker I could find that worked with the same company. Not a single one had seen a penny beyond the minimum guarantee. Not good to hear, but again, I know that’s the norm. Aware of this harsh reality, I demanded a larger minimum guarantee. Fortunately, I’m pretty good in the area of negotiations as I’ve been doing it for a decade with my domaining business and over a few weeks I was able to get my MG up to more than 4x times the original offer…knowing this would be the only money I would see (and it was) and that it (slightly) more than covered the cost of the production. I was in the black even without seeing any of the other back end money I knew would never come.

    I’d encourage anyone shopping a film to reach out to us and even contact any of our filmmakers. We haven’t had great success with every film we rep, but there won’t be a single filmmaker we work with who would even hit at any dishonestly or shady dealings on our end.

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