Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Wrong Way is - Wrong

"What you resist persists and what you allow to be disappears"
-Dan Pallotta, Stop Thinking Outside the Box. Harvard Business Review*

The author of the above quote claims it is a zen saying, but while I did a little research, I could not find an original attribution, and found it on more self-help sites that anywhere near a Buddhist site. However, as a longtime practitioner, it is certainly true.**

What inspired this search about not thinking outside the box was an article I read in a blog on Linkedin. I won't link the article here, or give its author, as I neither wish to promote it or get into an online feud with the author, who I imagine - or at least hope - thinks he is giving good advice.

What he is actually doing is encouraging the worst instincts in emerging filmmakers who want to hear that they can make their script into a movie regardless of how difficult the script or how little they are able to raise.

Below is the article in its entirely (I didn't want to be accused of taking him out of context), with identification and links removed:

Budgeting the correct way. There is obviously only one method to use for budgeting once you have your screenplay and are preparing a budget for your script to be made into a feature film “the right way”.
“The right way”, “Can you prepare a budget for me… the right way”, “I want to do it right”, “What is it going to cost to make this movie”… These are the most common statements I heard 30 years ago when I was hustling gigs as a Production Manager, Assistant Director or, hopefully, a Line Producer from first-time Producers or Directors…even Screenwriters.
“The right way”!
“The right way”?
I know how to do a budget. I worked for Roger Corman (King of the Bs), a producer/distributor who has made almost 700 feature films that have all allegedly made profits. I know what things cost.
  • Renting Cameras.
  • Hiring Crew.
  • Renting Locations.
  • Building Sets.
  • Securing Film Permits.
  • Paying for Insurance.
  • Casting Actors.
  • Renting a Grip Truck.
  • Paying a Gaffer.
  • Feeding a Crew.
  • Buying Props & Wardrobe.
Forms, contracts, agreements, deals… I did it, I did it, I did it…
I wrote the checks. I made the deals and not by theory but by actually doing. I asked for “rates”, I haggled, I negotiated, I never paid retail, I begged, I made the deals.
I would listen to a vendor, an equipment supplier, an actor, a crew person tell me what they charged; then I would say “Cash?”
I truly know what things cost when making a low-budget or independent feature film and I discovered that budgeting the “right way” is really, in reality, the “wrong way”. Now allow me present the proper approach to budgeting.
Back-to-basics: There are two ways of doing a budget. The first is the “right way” and the second is the “wrong way”. What I discovered from the school of hard knocks is the “right way” doesn’t work.
Permit me to explain. The “right way” is you go to the Writers Store website and buy a movie-budget software (Movie Magic, Guerilla, Easy or ShowBiz) or even try a freeware (celtx).
Load it onto your computer then fill in every line item “The Right Way”. Doing this the “right way”, and filling-in every single line item as if it is an “absolute must”, which it probably is if making your movie the “right way” and you will inherently come up with a budget that is between $2 Million to $200 Million.
You print it out, all 40-70 pages, with a proper Title Page and Top Sheet and you now have almost 130-200 pages (your script at 90-120 and the budget at 40-60) of typing. Combine this with some actor head-shots and agreements, some CV resumes of key crew personnel, a couple of storyboard panels, a poster, a festival plan and a business plan and you have one-hell of a package….which is totally useless!
Get real.
Who the heck is going to give you, a first-timer, $2-$200 Million? Who? Come on, answer. Get real. Who?
Answer: No one.
So the “right way”, which can be called the “Studio Method”, the method taught at those $200,000 4-year film schools, USC or NYU, gets you stuck in a deadend and nowhere.
Now, let’s prepare a budget the “wrong way”, which can be called the “Independent Method”, is the method that will actually work for you, the first-timer, for your first feature film.
This is the method used by Roger Corman when he hires someone, a Line Producer or Co-Producer, to make a movie. He simply says, “You’ll get $150,000. Can you make it for that?” Your answer better be instantly, no hesitating allowed, “Absolutely, Mr Corman”
So what is the “wrong way” to prepare a budget?
The “wrong way” is first pick a number, a dollar amount, in the above example from Mr Corman the number was $150,000. Ergo, you know your budget instantly. Now lets figure out how to allocate that money over cast, crew, equipment, locations, food, etc to get this movie made… “the best way possible” but made.
Simple. Just pick a number, a dollar amount that you truly believe you have access too independently, but not by deal making, but by your savings account, or what a group of friends & relatives might give you, or what a crowd fund group might offer with proper donations.
So the “wrong way”, or the “Independent Method”, of prepping a budget is to actually pick the DOLLAR AMOUNT first. Then back into it.
Thus, if you want to Budget with a method that Guarantees you will make the movie you first pick the dollar amount that you will have access to…and that’s the budget.
I know it’s the “wrong way” but it works… Guaranteed!

Whether his intentions were the best or to simply drive more work his way, the result is the same. He is encouraging the worst instincts in filmmakers; namely, that if there's a will there's a way, and regardless of the difficulty of the script or how little they can raise, the result will be everything they seek.

Only, it won't be.

I have first-hand seen the wreckage of the thinking advocated here, and it's never pretty. What he describes is not only the "wrong way" but what I call the Wish Budget, and it always ends up with trouble.

So, why won't his "wrong way" work? Let me bring in some of the sound advice from a business perspective in the article linked in the title from Harvard Business Review.

In that article, Pallotta says:

Thinking outside the box without understanding the box is a petulant exercise in resistance — every idea that comes from the process has the box written all over it. It’s a reaction to the box. It’s fighting the box. It’s a child of the box

Mr. "Wrong Way" has the box wrong to begin with, so he can never conquer it.

He starts with the assumption that the only alternative to reckless, no-budget filmmaking is the Studio System, where every film needs to be "$2 to $200 million," and he mocks actually breaking down the script and budgeting it first, which I find odd from someone who, at least according to his bio, has been a line producer (his IMDB says differently).***

Sadly, he starts with a truth and comes to the wrong conclusion.

He sounds convincing. After all, he says:

I know how to do a budget. I worked for Roger Corman (King of the Bs), a producer/distributor who has made almost 700 feature films that have all allegedly made profits. I know what things cost.

When he says this, he leaves out a lot of information. First, Corman had a distribution outlet - New Concorde. He knew that even if the film was horrible - as many of this guy's films are - it had a guaranteed way to make money.

The Corman motto varied on "Blood, Breasts and Beasts." "Bombs" were sometimes mixed in there. As such, if your script does not fit that format, then Mr. Wrong Way's formula doesn't work.

Furthermore, even with his own distribution network, it is an outdated formula. The last film that met this formula for Corman was in 2006 - Cry the Winged Serpent. That was nine years ago - and did you ever see that film? Neither did I. Neither did most people in the United States - or anywhere else.

To be kind, Mr Wrong Way's entire premise is a lie.

When I get a script, the first thing I ask the person is how much they think they can raise. As most of these are independent and will be looking for financing, most will fall somewhere in the SAG INDIE world, anywhere from $200K to $2M.  It would, as he suggests, be fruitless for me to give them a budget based on all union rate books and salaries for A-List talent.

However, once I get that number, we get to the reality of the situation, namely, what is the script?

Yes, last summer, I produced a film for under $100K - all the director had raised. However, almost all of it took place in one location, a nightclub he managed, and there was no location fee. He was also very flexible on the shooting style, allowing us to move much faster than we normally would have done.

By contrast, a few months ago, a director brought me a very good script about Haitian refugees. It included the aftermath of an earthquake, shooting in three countries (Haiti, the Bahamas and the US) and a good deal of time at sea with the refugees in a rickety boat on a turbulent sea. He thought the maximum he could raise was $300K or so.

I told him I doubted that could work, but I would try to put something together at that number. As you might imagine, that budget would have slashed his idea to pieces, shot in one country, cheated much of the filming on the water, and it still came in a little high. The lowest realistic number we could come up with was $625K, which still kept him under the SAG Modified Low Agreement. As we wanted to work with some US actors, we needed to be a SAG film.

Even at that number, he was going to have to make certain concessions. As we talked, those concessions would mean a movie that had none of the force or even the message of his script. He didn't want to make that film.

This was not just the case of being a stubborn artist. As Stan, who actually was a Corman producer, often said, "First, you have to make the movie."

What you really have to decide is whether you are making the movie just to see your name in the credits, as a vanity, or whether there is a vision you want to bring to the screen, because neither the $300K nor the $625K version of this film would have had much of a chance of making their money back. As such, you would just be bilking your investors so you could say you made a movie, and have very little chance of ever making a second one.

Neither an ethical choice nor a good career move.

I recently had another gentleman who wanted to do a period piece from the 1960s with a lot of young teens, who, of course, are minors and subject to child labor laws that restrict their hours. It also had a lot of baseball.  He, too, asked about $300K.

I read the script. There was likely a way to make it, but with big concessions. It would not work as a period piece; he would have to make it more contemporary. Fewer players. Fewer locations.

That would be possible, but the script would lose much of its charm.

I did not charge him for that advice, and told him that anyone who told him that he could do it for that amount was misleading him just to charge him for a budget. Mind you, while he doesn't do budgets, he has been "in the business" for a long time.

A few days later these was an ad for someone to do a budget.

He will find someone like Mr. Wrong Way who will convince him that he can do it. Then he will sink his life-savings into it - he already told me he was willing to do that - and, if he was like another filmmaker I worked with, mortgage his home.

All of that sounds very romantic. In the movies, a guy like that would win in the end, despite what skeptics like me think.

In the real world, he would find himself broke with a film that only friends and family would get to see.

In reality, the time to "pick a number" is before you type fade-in. I have many creative and talented friends in the horror and sci-fi worlds who do amazing things with the slimmest of budgets, some of whom can be found in the blog links to the right of this post. From years of plying their craft, they know what they can and cannot afford to do, and so they stick to those parameters when writing their scripts.

"Simple. Pick a budget...." Mr Wrong Way suggests. Do I even have to explain why this is a bad idea? Why it won't work?

What angers me is that in giving this advice, he is preying on the vulnerable, those who desperately want to make their movie. They want someone who tells them not to listen to the "experts" who tell them it can't be done.

This is how snake oil salesmen used to work, preying on the weak and the sick. This is the fortune teller who tells you that Mr. Right is just around the corner. After all, who is going back to a fortune teller who tells you that there are no princes waiting for you, just real people who may make you happy or may break your heart. That is real life.

Mr Wrong Way says:

So the “right way”, which can be called the “Studio Method”, the method taught at those $200,000 4-year film schools, USC or NYU, gets you stuck in a deadend and nowhere.

Again, our friend from the Harvard Business Review has an explanation.

"The box thrives on your impatience with it."

Making a low-budget independent film requires a lot of hard work, along with a leap of faith. No amount of planning will guarantee success, and even doing it the right way almost always means doing it with less than you would like to have. It's neither comfortable nor easy. It does require sacrifice, and being willing to make concessions.

All of that after raising the right amount of money.  That is the independent method, not:

So the “wrong way”, or the “Independent Method”, of prepping a budget is to actually pick the DOLLAR AMOUNT first. Then back into it.

But Mr. Wrong Way insists it works. What does he say?

Thus, if you want to Budget with a method that Guarantees you will make the movie you first pick the dollar amount that you will have access to…and that’s the budget.
I know it’s the “wrong way” but it works… Guaranteed!
Guaranteed?  Perhaps the only industry as risky as film is opening a restaurant. The number of independent films that make a profit - or even break even - is low. The number varies, but numbers I've seen over the past few years are about 5-10%. In his book Hope for Film, Ted Hope, who has been a successful independent producer with a variety of types of truly indie films, has says that most independent films can't make money with the current distribution model, and that many of the films that made money for him in the 1990s would not even break even today.

This is not to discourage people from making movies and taking that risk. That is why we are all in this business. But, they should do so with eyes wide open.

So, who is doing the guaranteeing here? Is Mr. Wrong Way going to give you and your investors back the rest of your/their money if the film, like most, does not break even? Hmm, he must have left that part out.

Pallotta has a great example of what truly defeats the box in describing a campaign his company put together for National Breast Cancer Coalition.

In the breast cancer fundraising field, it’s all about who can out-hope the competition. Hope, hope, hope is the mantra everywhere. So our campaign for the National Breast Cancer Coalition became: “We’re giving up hope.” The message was that hope is not what overcomes great obstacles. Deadlines and commitment do. And the organization has committed itself to an end to breast cancer in 10 years.

It's like my mantra when first hired to line produce. There will be times I am going to have to present you with tough choices. That doesn't make me popular, but if you had a deadly disease, would you want a doctor who told you only the best-case scenario or one who clearly tells you what you are up against, but will be there to fight with you?

If you want good news hire family, I tell them. It's their job to comfort you. It's my job to get you well and keep you well.

A producer friend of mine recently suggested that she gets tired of working with people who think they are working "outside the box," but who are just ignoring it.

Sometimes thinking outside the box is really just fitting a square peg in a round hole. If it's not Apollo 13, that probably won't work.

Outside the box. Square peg round hole. A guy I have the pleasure of working with now has a better solution, based on yet another tired axiom.

"I don't want to reinvent the wheel," he says. "I just want to make it go faster."

*It's a great article regardless of your profession. I highly recommend you read it.

**The instruction when following your breath in meditation is that when a thought comes up, acknowledge it, then let it go. What we all know is that if you try to force it out of your mind, to fight it, it just becomes stronger.  More details here.

*** While he claims:

These are the most common statements I heard 30 years ago when I was hustling gigs as a Production Manager, Assistant Director or, hopefully, a Line Producer from first-time Producers or Directors…even Screenwriters.
his IMDB has NO First AD credits, NO line producer credits, and NO UPM credits. It has ONE producer credit - from 1988 - for a movie with no name talent that I doubt anyone here has seen. To be fair, I know from working with Stan that many Corman-produced films (as opposed to films he directed) are not on IMDB, which is only further proof of what an anomaly they are.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Girl in the Holograph - Part 3 - The Girl Can't Help It

"Tim, let me tell you about my life in the Big Apple. I have Hamlet's ghost on the phone for an hour every evening after rehearsal complaining that Polonius is sucking sourballs through his speeches. Claudius is off every afternoon doing a soap, and Gertrude is off the entire week doing a commercial for Gallo wine. Hamlet himself, would you believe, has come down with a psychological problem. Then, last night, Brooke rings me to say that she's very unhappy here and she's got herself a doctor's certificate for nervous exhaustion. I haven't got the time to find and rehearse a new Vicky. I have just one afternoon, while Hamlet sees his shrink and Ophelia starts divorce proceedings, to cure Brooke of her nervous exhaustion with no medical aids, except a little whiskey - you've got the whiskey - a few flowers - you've got money for the flowers - and a certain fading bedside manner. So, I haven't come to the theater to hear about other people's probelms. I've come to be taken out of myself, and, preferably, not put back again."
Lloyd (the director) - Noises Off

Life is easy. Producing is hard.

As you make your way through this post, beware. Tropes abound.

Noises Off is filled with moments like the quote above, making use of the trope that the performing arts are filled with neurotic,  dysfunctional people who can be dangerous to themselves and others,  but still quite entertaining.

They're called actors.

Tootsie. 8 1/2. The Producers. Black Swan. It's a long list.

Another trope about actors is the place of traveling companies,  like in Noises Off, or Summer Stock.  It's a place for romance, both literally,  as the ingenues often hook up, and figuratively,  in terms of the romance of the purity of theater done for the sake of art.

If the movie has a young Judy Garland,  a young Mickey Rooney,  or, in many cases, both, it's almost certain to offer the wistfulness that comes amid the barns and the trees and summer stock (including the movie of the same name)

When Phil, our director, found Abbie, she had never done a feature film - ever. Not a small role. Not a line. Now, he was given  her a chance to play the lead in one. There was only one problem - summer stock.

Yes, summer stock.

Every year for the previous few years, she had done summer stock with the same company. In three weeks there, what she would make in one week on our film, Again, playing the lead.

When she first brought it up, I didn't give it much thought. As someone who came from a theater background, who had gotten into the arts because of my love for theater, I certainly appreciated the allure of good theater.

This was not a new Sam Shepard  play, or thought-provoking Off- Broadway. This was not Shakespeare. This were some silly musicals or comedies that had been done a million times before, light fare for a pleasant August evening after a day at the beach.

First, she asked if the shoot could be pushed back so that she could do both. When we explained that was not possible, she started to ask that we compensate her for the money she would lose not doing the play.

This was ridiculous and insulting. In this business, we constantly find ourselves having to choose between gigs. I have sometimes taken a lower paying gig only to be offered a better one right after I started. Professionalism demands that I stay with the first gig. Talented actors often get a handful of offers for work at  the same time. They understand that they need to choose.

When her own whining did not move me, she had her agent call. I explained to her agent that I did not want to hear it, that she was being unprofessional, and that paying for money she "lost" would take away from money we needed to make the movie that would ultimately make her look better. She didn't care.

Neither did I.

Often, as line producer, I have to be the bad guy, and sometimes it's hard. This was not one of those times. I was incensed on a moral level that she would be so selfish. I told Phil that he was not to do this just to make her happy. I told him I would call the agent's bluff - if she wanted to do summer stock so badly, I would recast the movie. After all, with  all the legal hassles to getting the money, nowhere did it actually stipulate that we had to use her.

Phil got worried. He had a good deal of trouble finding someone he felt had the right qualities for The Girl, and he thought she just might ruin the movie.

These are rough times for a producer. There are a number of things that take up time in making a movie, and much of it is necessary and unavoidable. It is that much more enervating when something puerile and petty becomes one of those things.

Phil gave in, and we paid her part of the money she requested. It was ridiculous and set a bad example for the movie. At moments like these, I can often not be at my best. When informing her that we would pay it, I also informed her of exactly what I thought of her.

That latter is rare. There is an old expression my Sicilian grandmother used to use. You don't bite your nose to spite your face. The American version is cut off your nose, but I prefer the former, which better captures the brutal desire to do harm, even if it is to yourself.

Over the years, I have smiled and been polite when furious with people, grinned and beared it, discretion often being the better part of valor. Telling someone off here will only sour a relationship. It serves no useful purpose.

But, it sure as hell made me feel better.

I knew I would never work with this woman again. She and Phil, as actor and director, had to have a good relationship. As producer, I did not. She and I would have little to say to each other for the duration of the shoot.

As of today, she has done only one other feature film, and that was a day player role in a film no one saw. It seems she now has ample time to do summer stock.

Next, the rest of the casting.

Below, a little Little Richard, which inspired the title of this post. Just because Little Richard always makes me happy.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Sci-Fi - Emphasis on the 'Fi' - Ex-Machina

"Darling, you remain as aesthetically pleasing as the first day we met. I believe I am the most fortunate sentient in this sector of the galaxy. " - Commander Data, Star Trek: TNG

N.B. SPOILER ALERT! While I have no intention of making this into a movie review blog, indie or otherwise, occasionally the stars align and something we discuss here happens in the movies, as with Birdman recently, and now Ex Machina. I find even experienced reviewers sometimes will ruin a movie for me, so, even though I'm going to try here to get my point across without completely blowing the story, I make no promises. If you intend to see this movie, I highly recommend you bookmark this and come back and read it later. There. My guilt is assuaged.

It seems like just a week ago I was writing about a low budget indie film I line produced that had science fiction elements that were too complex. Oh, right, it was.

This past Friday, I wanted to see a movie, and, as often happens, I settled on one that I knew nothing about until I saw that it was playing across the street from the coffee house in NYC where I often pass my time. There's something great about seeing a movie that you know nothing about and letting it surprise you.

The movie was Ex Machina. Caleb works at Blue Book, the world's largest internet search engine (gee, I wonder what company - or companies -  they are referencing), and the film opens with him winning a lottery at that company to spend a week with it's creator, Nathan. It seems Blue Book is not all he has created, and the real reason he brought Caleb out here was to run a Turing test on his latest invention, an "AI" (Artificial Intelligent Being) named Ava. 

A Turing Test is where someone has to determine from a series of answers whether the entity being tested is a human or a machine, whether it can convince a human that it is human, or, more broadly, whether that entity is experiencing emotions or simulating them. If you didn't know that before you saw The Imitation Game, that's just fine. 

Ava is wonderfully cast with Alicia Vikander, who not only has a soft, subtle, simple beauty but also a background as a ballerina that make her movements anything but the wooden walk we would have expected from some a bundle of parts. She also passes another test for roles like this, which is that she was not widely known at the time of this movie, so she doesn't have an immediate image in audiences' minds that a star might.

For a film with AI at the center, the science of the film is surprisingly simple. Ava has gotten most of  her information on how humans think by just reversing the data out there on his search engine, which informs not only her consciousness (if she has one) but everything down to her facial expressions. While this might have been a shocking and sinister revelation to readers of George Orwell's 1984, it's pretty ho-hum stuff for movie goers who see ads for the exact product they just Googled appear on their Facebook page.

The body parts seem like your regular sci-fi mechanics, with the possible exception of Nathan having given Ava working sexual organs that will, he assures Caleb, deliver her pleasure if used. As for her brain, he has used organic material rather than circuits - no big revelation or shock there. Access to the various parts of the house is controlled by a keycard that is programmed by scanning a person's eyes; again, no new technology there.

Whether intentional or not, writer/director Alex Garland has kept the technology relatively simple, which leaves us free to explore what science fiction explores as its best, the big moral dilemmas Man has faced from the time he realized he had sentience. In this way, Ex Machina is pretty old-school Sci-Fi.

Does Man have the right to play God? Mary Shelley was dealing with that one as far back as Frankenstein. If machines/computers were given all of our knowledge, could they have human emotions? Star Trek: The Next Generation spent an inordinate amount of time on that one with android Data. If we give machines enough knowledge, will they turn on us? I'm sorry, Dave, but HAL can't let you do that.

Over the course of the film, Caleb wonders about how we need to treat AIs, and the story actually explores another famous experiment, that Millgram Experiment, named for the Yale researcher Stanley Millgram. In 1961, under the guise of doing memory experiments, Millgram, as experimenter, would have volunteers, called 'teachers,' read a string of words to a partner, or 'learner,' on the other side of a partition. These everyday people were then instructed to give electric shocks to the learner when they made mistakes, right up until seemingly painful and possibly lethal levels. It was not until later that the volunteers learned that there was no person being shocked on the other end, and up to 65 percent of the people agreed to do so.

Millgram's Experiment was meant to see how people react to authority, aimed to prove that most people are capable of quite a lot when instructed by an authority figure. During the course of Ex Machina, you wonder just how far young programmer Caleb will go to make a scientific breakthrough for Nathan.

"Are you a good person?" Ava asks Caleb at one point. It's certainly a question Nathan has considered in choosing Caleb. It's a question that can be asked of all three major parties in Ex Machina - Nathan, Caleb and Ava. There is a good deal of manipulation going on, but, like in a good spy novel, the question is who is manipulating whom.

Before you think I've breached some protocol here, the synopsis on the film's own website concludes that Ava's "emotional intelligence proves more sophisticated - and more deceptive - than the two men could have imagined." 

Of course, there is one more element of this test, and that involves Ava's use of sexuality to appeal to Caleb for help. Here, we're in the territory not of science-fiction, but of noir, and the femme fatale, using her charms to save herself from some evil man - or is she the evil one?

My point? Ex Machina had quite enough going on to engage the viewer without having to test his or her aptitude in math or science. While I'm certain some of my sci-fi fans, and even creators who follow this column, might disagree with me, I ultimately believe it's more important that science fiction be good fiction than good science, though I will admit the two need not be mutually-exclusive. 

Which brings us back to The Girl in the Holograph - Part 3 - The Girl Can't Help It -  coming later this week. 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Girl in the Holograph - Part 2 - The Mistress Episode

"Look at Roosevelt. Look at Churchill. Look at that old fella whats-his-name in The African Queen."
Schatze Page (played by Lauren Bacall) in How To Marry A Millionaire*

People often ask producers how low-budget indie films get funded. The answers are as diverse as the movies themselves.

A movie I did that won Slamdance was truly funded by friends and family of the co-producers. A horror film I did was funded by a couple of deli owners. Town Diary was funded by PSA's my partners and I did for the American Dental Association.

Dentists have been a joke answer to that question for years. I don't know why dentists would have a specific attraction to the film industry, other than maybe they are attracted to anything other than the boredom of being dentists.

Stan has a great story, which I have told before but is worth telling here. A dentist had put together enough money from his practice to fund his dream of directing a movie, which was shot on location. Stan had a full crew in the last week of prep when the dentist walked up to him and told him this:

"Last night, Jack Nicholson came to me in a dream and said, 'You're not a director. You're a dentist.' He was right. Pay everyone out. I'm going home." And that is what Stan did - a movie ended by a vision of Jack Nicholson.

The Mistress

There is another old cliche that is sometimes true. Stan, again, tells of a mob guy who funded a movie for his girlfriend. When she hooked up with the lead actor, he had one of his guys get on a boat with the negative of the film and dump it in the ocean.

This cliche is the premise of a movie that I think is under-rated called Mistress, where Eli Wallach, Danny Aiello and Robert DeNiro are men who invest in a movie by Robert Wuhl - as long as their girlfriends are in it. Stan and I watched the movie together, and he loved a moment when producer Martin Landau meets a potential investor in a meat locker. "I met an investor in a meat locker!" he blurted out, leading to some strange looks from the people around us.

One of my favorite moments was Wuhl and Landau chasing Ernest Borgnine (playing himself) around a parking lot to try to get him to do the movie. It was the perfect metaphor for the way producers and directors sometimes chase name actors.

Having struck out with that attempt, as Landau and Wuhl do with Borgnine, we hit unexpected paydirt** with the main premise of the movie.

Director Phil had been looking for the perfect person to play the Girl, and he found an unknown who he felt had exactly the quality he wanted. We will call her Abbie***, and as it happens, Abbie, in her early twenties, had an older friend, Mark.***

This is the point at which I should be clear that we never discovered that Abbie was Mark's lover; in fact, both characterized the relationship as a caring "older uncle," though they were not blood relatives. Our suspicions went in a more salacious direction, but those suspicions were never proven true nor proved false. This would also be the point where I make clear Mark was not a mobster.

I forgot the amount of money I had budgeted for the film earlier, but the top end that Mark, and more importantly, his lawyers, were willing to invest was around $300k. That was certainly less than our mark, but Phil and Donna were not about to walk away from a chance to make the movie. Once again, we were working with the budget we had, and not the budget I thought was needed to complete the film.

The Drawdown

Once that lawyer got involved, actually getting Mark's investment became much more difficult. They insisted on doing a drawdown, which, to be fair, is not unusual in film financing, even on bigger budgets. People who finance films rarely want to put all the money up front. so they will want to work out a schedule of when they deliver the money, which means the line producer (me) has to come up with a cash flow.

In preparing a cash flow, it is essential that you always have the money in the bank before it needs to be spent. For example, I should have the payroll for any given week in the bank before the beginning of that week, not waiting on it when checks come due.

Financiers want to pay it as late as possible. Filmmakers want the money as soon as possible. One of the things you have to explain to first-time investors is that low-budget films are very front-loaded.

Let me explain.

Pay Me. Pay Me Now

Studios and large production companies keep accounts with major vendors, from grip and lighting to trucks to camera gear, and alike. A purchase order, which is basically a promise to pay, is enough to get equipment on set.

While low-budget films also use Purchase Orders to keep track of spending, the nature of working with start up LLC's - or other corporate entities - means they have not established credit, so everything will be COD - Cash on Delivery. Locations should be secured before shooting, and, again, payment usually goes along with a location agreement. Similarly, the costume designer has bought the wardrobe during prep, and art department will spend the largest portion of their budget before principle photography.

There are many analogies between armies and movies - feeding the crew, moving the crew and equipment - etc. Another one is that most of the money is spent before a single shot, such as it were, is fired.

First, We Kill All The Lawyers

Once we got the Mark's lawyer involved, convincing him of all this got messy. His lawyer and financial advisor was not from the film world, and was skeptical. Given the ways films are financed and the way investors see their money back, I can't say that I blame him. See Coming To America.****

When the Money Finally Comes

There were certainly moments where it seemed the movie might not get done, with a good deal of the negotiations centering on if and whether the investor, Mark, could actually take the movie from Phil and Donna, who could approve - or turn-down - a distribution deal, and, to a lesser extent, whether the investor had any creative control. Without getting into details, all of these eventually were settled to the satisfaction of both parties.

Phil and Donna were happy. The investor was happy. I was, well, satisfied. Sorry, I'm just not a glass-half-full guy. Too many years in this business

Surely, the Girl was happy. Afterall, she was going to be a lead in the first feature film she had ever done. Isn't that an actor's dream? She must have been thrilled, and, most of all, appreciative of the opportunity she was getting, and appreciative both to her 'uncle' and the producers, and certainly would not have wanted to do anything to disappoint them.

So you would think. That, however, is for The Girl in the Holograph - Part 3 - The Girl Can't Help It.

* Obviously, a bit of an in-joke that an audience would have been in on, as Bacall had hooked up with a married Humphrey Bogart (the 'old fella' she refers to) on To Have and Have Not, when she was 19 and he was 44. Photo above includes Bacall's How to Marry a Millionaire co-star, Marilyn Monroe.

** My apology for mixing my sports metaphors, using a baseball and football reference in the same sentence. Mea culpa.

*** - You know the drill. Protect people by using aliases, and all that.

**** Coming To America is probably one of the most famous cases of a movie that made hundreds of millions at the box office and showed a loss. Yes, I said one of.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Girl in the Holograph - Part 1 - A Quarky Script

"How can you do both physics and poetry? In physics we try to explain in simple terms something that nobody knew before. In poetry it is the exact opposite."
Paul Dirac, Nobel Prize-winning physicist, to Robert Oppenheimer, physicist often referred to as 'the father of the atomic bomb'

"Pitched as a crypo-scientific yet sentimental satire about perception and reality, it's really just an unfunny, jumbled, Charlie-Kaufman-esque rip-off." Robert Abele, Los Angeles Times.

"Ultimately, it is a movie about big ideas that is simply too constrained by its theatrical staging necessitated by an apparently small budget." Chad Greene, Boxoffice magazine

This is going to be like one of those movies where you they show you the end first and then a title card comes up that says "One year earlier " and they show you how they got there.

Above are two  reviews of a movie I'm calling The Girl in the Holograph*, the latter of which I think is fairer, as the filmmakers were trying to rip-off nothing and no one.  The script was co-authored by the same people who wrote Paper Blood, and deals with a young woman in her twenties, the disappearance of her grandfather and David Bohm's theory later revision of his theory of a holographic universe.

That much I can tell you. After that, the script gets a little obtuse.

Perhaps because of my fascination with zen, I have always had an interest in connection between zen and quantum theory. Trying to sum up quantum theory in a line or two is difficult, but it is basically a theory on how matter and energy work as both particles and waves, and, in the simplest of layman's terms, a theory that challenges our perception of time and space. Yes. Yes. I know it is much, much more than that, but I'll save the science lessons for others more qualified. I'll spare you the thousands of links (though some are offered here) and just say that there is ample information out there if you are interested.

For years I, like many of you, have received those offers for audio books, and I always wondered what the experience would be like. When I finally decided to try the free book, I made the unfortunate choice of Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe (which was later a brilliant Nova series on PBS) and it's explanation of, among other things, String Theory; unfortunate not because it's a bad book,  but because it is much too deep a book to take in casually. Here, we have one of the problems of The Girl in the Holograph.

Movies can challenge viewers,  and on occasion, especially with sci-fi, can take the viewer through complex theory, as long as it's not too complex.

Talented writer - director Raymond DeFelitta (Two Family House, City Island) once said to me that it's alright to be subtle in screenwriting,  as long as you're obvious about it.

The Girl in the Holograph was both too complex a script and not obvious enough in its subtlety.

There are Charlie Kaufman movies like Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and, on the very low-budget side, Darren Aronofsky's Pi and, to a lesser extent, Requiem for a Dream that handle this delicate balance successfully, but they are the exceptions.

JR was a Trekkie, and once told me that when writers on the Star Trek TV series would write a script and get to a part dealing with the science or technology, say, of the ship, other ships, "beaming down", etc, they would write the story part of the script and then insert something called 'techno babble'** Of course, quantum physics, and specifically Boem's theory of a holographic universe, was essential to Star Trek, as it's 'holodeck' and other references made the quantum leaping through space and time possible.***

The point being that the exact science was not as important as the story. In movies and television fiction, the  Prime Directive****, if you will, is not to teach, but to entertain.

Phil and Steve, the co-writer and co-producer, knew their science, and got it pretty much right, but in the process, wrote what many people considered a script that was a bit dense.

They tried to raise money for this, and another script over the years. Crowdfunding was not yet a 'thing,' and raising money for untraditional scripts was never easy, and as we moved out of the nineties and into the new century, it got even harder.

Phil and his wife and partner in film, Donna, had sold Paper Blood, but for not near the amount of money that it cost to make. Phil was director, co-producer, co-writer and editor. Donna was the producer, and the ultimate protector of Phil and his vision. Really, that is always the ultimate role of the producer - what I like to call "protector of the vision" and the director. Directors, when in the middle the challenge that is directing a film, can lose that. The producer must be there for them, even when they disagree.

Phil and Donna were my friends first, and business partners later. As previous posts suggest, working with friends can also be difficult, and it was with Phil and Donna. As line producer, I had to offer tough decisions, and that is hard when these people are intricately involved in your life, and you in theirs, as we were. We would share successes and bemoan the difficulties of the business together, and we had been through some very rough times together.

Others around us would say they were family, but their actions would say differently. At one point they tried to attach an actor who had worked on Paper Blood, who later received some fame on The Sopranos.  Phil and Donna hoped that the recognition he received on that popular HBO show would help them raise money if was" attached," something that could be proven with a letter of intent from the actor. 

As you might understand, actors, and especially their agents, were reluctant to sign such letters, as they knew it was being used to raise money for a project that was not yet funded, and why commit to something that might never happen, or interfere with something more lucrative when the time came.

That star's response?  "Donna, of course I'm on board. We're family. (Pause) Call my agent."

The last sentence was like the traditional mob kiss of death, an ironic act that usually represented love but here, meant the end was near. There was no way the agent would let the actor sign such a letter, and we knew it. It was the polite way of brushing them off.

For years before, and during, the project, those oddly juxtaposed lines -"We're family," and "Call my agent" - would become a running joke between the three of us, representing how family sometimes stops at the bottom line.

After years of attempting to attach "names," imagine our surprise when we discovered that our funding would come with casting of the girl, an actress who had never done a speaking role in a movie. 

Something like that, of course, could only happen in the alternate universe we were about to enter. Warp(ed) speed ahead.

BTW One of this blog's followers Andrew Bellware, has a great blog of his own on micro-budget sci-fi right here in NYC. Pandora Machine is now in our recommended blog list - welcome aboard.

* Followers of this blog know I often use other names to protect people. It in no way was related to or adapted from the Michael Talbot book, The Holographic Universe.

** Techno babble may not be the exact term they used, but somthing like that. I'm sure true Trekkies likely know the answer, and are welcomed to reply below or email.

***Quantum Leap, yet another old TV show that used the technology, used that science pretty much only as a jumping off point (pun fully intended) to send actor Scott Bakula into trouble in various times.

****More fun with Star Trek.