Monday, December 28, 2015

Hollywood 101

Hey everyone. So I thought about this for some time, and I've spent a good amount of time compiling this list. My goal has been to formulate essentially an extensive list of things I want to remember about becoming a producer. Not the BS lists you see, but something that is culled from real experience. Most information I've read and or heard about producing has been so surface level that it's basically public knowledge. "real" producers don't share their knowledge too deeply or share anecdotes - it gives away too much about the inner workings of Hollywood. From time to time, I'll write about things that have happened in my journey, good bad or otherwise and really - I hope it illuminates things for someone. If you find this following list or anything I say on this blog useful, please message me and let me know!

So without further adieu, here it is - the most "un-Hollywood" reality check list of what a producer needs to know. Notice that 95% of it is relationally based. there is a reason for that. More discussion about that in future posts. This list is 'in progress' and may be added to from time to time.

  1. Desperation Kills
  2. Networking is king. You will succeed or fail based on your networking skills.
  3. You don’t know everything. Get help.
  4. The greatest story in the world does you no good unless you can sell it..
  5. Call/email your contact list regularly. Even if you feel like you're being a pest.
  6. make back ups of your phone book. multiples in different formats.
  7. Know where your project is going before you shoot it
  8. Don’t ever make a film with unknown actors. Have at least one well recognized name.
  9. Technicality is not everything, but professional sound is a must.
  10. Everyone thinks they have good projects. Everyone thinks they’re a genius. Not true.
  11. Avoid politics. Avoid pride. Both of these will kill your career.
  12. Strive to be underestimated.
  13. everyone does things for their own reasons, not someone elses.
  14. unfortunately, people are selfish. Appeal to their selfishness and you’ll get what you need. And related -
  15. do your best to be as unselfish as you can by helping other people. The people you help succeed will remember and by and large help you when they get there.
  16. Network with “the old dogs” in the business who have been cast aside because of changes in the industry. They are invaluable assets.
  17. Take everyone who shows some smarts and determination seriously. You never know.
  18. If you want to succeed, get into distribution.
  19. always return phone calls and emails. I hate it when people don't respond.
  20. this is a business first,- not an art form That is the sad truth. it costs too much money to do to 'risk it all' on anything less than brilliance. the only way Forrest Gump got made was because some enormous figures in Hollywood were willing to stake thier reputations on the art. Terry Gilliam, Marty Scorcese, and George Clooney are slight exceptions. But then again, they are uber famous and carry a lot of wieght.
  21. be willing to "risk it all" for the art. If you have something that is brilliant - be a bulldog about it and learn how to mitigate the risk. It can be done.
  22. Surround yourself with critical people you can trust who are willing to tell you the truth. Even the Bible says “the wounds of a friend are faithful, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful”
  23. Never ever ever be arrogant.
  24. There is always someone bigger.
  25. a producer is someone who knows how to hire better people than him/herself. A director is just a person who knows what he/she wants.
  26. Be friendly to people.
  27. never ever be a screamer or throw around attitude. It just makes you look like an ass and people will dislike you and talk about you behind thier backs.
  28. don't use people.
  29. Pay attention for good opportunities when they present themselves. Don’t be so hung up on your own thing that you can’t see it. Don’t be too proud to work on other people’s stuff.
  30. learn about acting, gripping, set dressing and all of the trades you can. Gain an appreciation and understanding of their needs.
  31. read “Hello, He Lied” by Lynda Obst. Classic.
  32. Today’s PA is tommorow’s producer. They will remember. (including me)
  33. crews will work long and hard for someone they feel respects them and has a vision.
  34. the more money you have, the more security you can buy
  35. Producer teams work the best. One is good at the business stuff, one is good with the creative stuff.
  36. Be prepared for the 3 – 5 year turnaround it takes to make a film. If you have something that could become a classic, be prepared to wait longer.
  37. Carefully choose your battles.
  38. Know your limits.
  39. drivers and PA’s are your friends.
  40. Compare your project to classic films you love. Does it measure up? If not, kill it.
  41. Hire well known crew people when possible.
  42. Learn about ancillary markets and multiple revenue streams.
  43. Make friends in the music industry.
  44. Don’t ever quit or you will never make it.
  45. a great soundtrack can save an otherwise bland project.

Hollywood 102

What I've found is that most people have these hackneyed ideas of what it take to make a successful movie - including people who have been in the industry for awhile. They think they are going to "make it" by "beating the odds" and "staying true to their vision" when the reality is they are too ignorant or lazy to learn the business side of the business. It's unfortunately a very money oriented business, but in some ways, I feel better about that. To explain: I am a songwriter, and to me, songwriting is a very personal expression of who I am and how God made me. until very recently, the idea of selling a song simply for commercial purposes was anathema to me. But in the movie business, art and commerce aren't separated at all - they are one and the same. It costs an enormous amount of money to properly make a film - even on the very low end - and practical business considerations happen right away. The entire point of making a movie is that people will spend money to watch it, recognize you for your artistic merits, and make you rich, right? So how do you expect to receive allof these glorious benefits without doing the job right? Sure, some miracles squeak through the cracks in the door - Clerks, The Brothers McMullin, Memento, Pieces of Amy, Army of Darkness Blair Witch, etc - but those are absolute anomalies. Even the very experienced in the business will be at a loss to explain why those projects were successful. They struck a nerve with the public and became popular. Other projects, on the other hand, are really well thought out calculated risks with serious artistic merits - such as Eternal Sunshine, the aforementioned Forrest Gump, Fight Club, name any Terry Gilliam or Coen Brothers film and on the smaller end of the spectrum The Second Chance (an excellent first film by Christian music maverick Steve Taylor), Saved!, Big Fat greek Wedding (special circumstances did apply however) and others. The thing all of these movies had in common was that they were all really artistic or social statements that would have probably never been made unless there was some element to them that made either a studio or a bunch of investors get together and fund them. Let's face reality, The Matrix, which was a brilliant concept, would have never seen the light of day without the aid of an already established famous person to step in and get the ball rolling. They had a bunch of very large name actors in the film - thats what I mean by mitigating the risk - no matter what the final film turned out like, they knew a certian number of people were going to watch a film with Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne in it and backed by a major studio. Put Tom Cruise in any movie - any movie - and the projected return will be 300%. No movie he has ever been associated with has lost money. Not even Stephen Spielberg can say that! My point here is that when you make a film, you are creating a piece of commerce and you have to treat it that way. Here are ways to mitigate risk that I've found - these are pretty specific to low budget independent pics, but most of the rules apply to any budget picture. Remember - the more money you have, the more security you can buy.

  1. The Letter of Intent, or LOI, is your friend. it allows you to get a good faith agreement with people (producer/director/actor) that will satisfy most investor types and it proves you know what you're doing. it's one of the major tools in an indie producers toolbox for mitigating risk.
  2. have a big name person attached. No matter how small the project - find one big name - the producer, the director, an actor - anyone. This will help you sell it and get it distributed. it will also ease the pressure on you artistically.
  3. get an LOI distribution deal in place - again - these are deals that may go away in the end, and they should be an non-exclusive agreement and usually will be. If the distributor is not putting up any cash, it should be non-exclusive. This will allow you to say to investors that the film will be distributed no matter what. that is a major selling point.
  4. package the film with great music. Do not underestimate the power of a good soundtrack. even unsigned unknown bands can be helpful. This is why relationships in the music industry are so helpful - even major labels want to promote their new up-n-coming bands - there are windows of opportunities for both parties.
  5. raise some first-in money - it hardly matters how much - just so you can say the first-in has been raised. This helps investors feel like they aren't the only ones taking the risk.
  6. make friends in the festival circuit. create buzz for your project while you are shooting.
  7. if you can find even one or two theaters to screen your film then arrange it. This is another way to make potential investors feel safe.
  8. as a long term strategy - only do projects that you are reasonably sure will make their money back. break even is fine - you get to fight another day.
  9. Don't go out to make your epic right away - even if you succeed, you may never raise that much money again if the film fails to generate income.
  10. read rule #2
So that gives you some general idea of how it is an indie producer can lower the risk factor.
Instead of focusing single-mindedly on what you think is a great project that everyone will want to see because it's such a compelling story it doesn't matter if you have any distribution or well known actors in it - learn the reality of the business. You might get a project or two made, but you'll eventually hit the wall unless you get lucky or have an "in".

Of course, every rule or list I come up with is trumped by Hollywood Rule 1 - "it's not what you know, but who you know" Thats how some no name 'never done anything' loser like myself will come screaming down the highway in a career on fire someday - because rather than focus on just making a bunch of crap projects, I took the time to learn what makes project good first, both artistically and business-wise, and I networked my rear end off. that, at the end of the day, is what will make my (and your) career happen.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

My Top 21

Scott McLain’s

All Time Top 21

1 .Life is Beautiful
2. Seven Samurai
3. Citizen Kane
4. Schindler’s List
5. BladeRunner
6. It’s a Wonderful Life
7. The Great Dictator
8. 2001:a Space Odyssey
9. The Passion of the Christ
10. Brazil
11. Star Wars:Empire Strikes Back
12. The Godfather
13. Once Upon a Time in the West
14. Psycho
15. The Deer Hunter
16. Pulp Fiction
17. Hunger*
18. Goodfellas
19. Taxi Driver
20. Toy Story
21. Groundhog Day

* Hunger recently displaced Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind from #21.

Honorable mentions: Baraka, Monster's Inc, Tommy Boy, Minority Report, The Bridge Over the River Kwai, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, Magnolia, The Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Abyss

Let's face reality, it's not everybody's list, and frankly I probably couldn't get anyone at a film school to agree with me, but who cares? This list is absolutely unassailable. Seven Samurai for #2? Every serious filmmaker references this film at some point and it's been copied like, a zillion times. The Passion of the Christ? Mel Gibson = tremendous risk, tremendous reward. Toy Story? First major animated feature by Pixar - started a revolution in filmmaking. Brazil at # 10? It's Terry Gilliam. Need I say more? It was either that or 12 Monkey's (a close call really) and finally, do I really think Hunger is a better film than Goodfellas and Taxi Driver? Yes but very very marginally. Groundhog Day? Humorous, well written, totally watchable and manages to tap into the deep spiritual psyche of most people. I've watched it like, 30 times. I've only seen BladeRunner more times. and that's at number 5.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

No Line on the Horizon by U2

"Choose your enemies carefully cos they will define you
Make them interesting cos in some ways they will mind you
They're not there in the beginning but when your story ends
Gonna last with you longer than your friends.

After listening to the newest offering from Uberband U2 for like, the 100th time, I felt like it was finally time to talk about it

and what exactly is.. it?

I initially found the album unsettling and not accessible. What was weird about the experience is that it made me feel exactly the same way Achtung Baby did 15 years ago. I was not really sure about what I was hearing. Having been at least a middling fan since the War record, I feel like I've got some U2 street cred. I was a fan before they were massive, and only became more enamored as the years went on. I even liked Pop. (it's a severely underrated album. deal with it.)

As for this smattering of emotion. this shotgun blast of song and technical studio craft. I can only say one thing:

it's pretty amazing.

I mean - this isn't a band that started 5 years ago and is just hitting their peak - this is a band that has been together for nearly 30 years and is hitting it's stride for.. a third.. possibly fourth time..? Is that even possible?

The Beatles invented it. U2 perfected it.

I do stand up and say that there are 2 songs I wish they would have left on the cutting room floor though. "..go crazy.." and "stand up". No matter how self effacing, tongue in cheek and smarmy Bono and the boys intend to be, there is no excuse for some of the lyrics and vocals on these two tracks. Sorry guys. All respect given but....

The rest of the album, however, is absolutely amazing. I liked the cut of the almost surely Lanois influenced "Moment of Surrender" (listen to that chorus - that is a Lanois melody if I ever heard one), the sure to be a classic "Magnificent", and the unspeakably well written "Cedars of Lebanon".

U2, and indeed popular music in the 21st century, simply do not get better, more serious, more thoughtful or more real than this. Was it the touted re-invention? Not really. Does it fall short lyrically at times? Yeah, it does. I can cop to that. But the beauty is that I think they know it. They are willing to fall down in front of all of us and enjoy the trip on the way down. At this point, they can do what they want. I'm inclined to let them do it.

If I can make one suggestion though - I think they should ditch the studio wizardry and do a record that sounds like it was barely done in a basement. Allow the songs to stand on their own without the technology. Maybe the Lilywhite and Rubin sessions will see the light of day someday. Lilywhite, while a ham fisted pop radio guy, does have a gift for finding the core of things and evoking that classic U2 thing. Rubin has a gift for finding near perfect songs. I say lets get these guys together, ditch the egos and watch the fur fly. It would be a helluva album, that's for sure. (Although let me say for the record that I'm a huge Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois fan.)

It took awhile to grow on me. Now I listen to it once a day and probably will for some time until it's worn it's path trough my soul much like The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby.

I'm not making this up. It's that good.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

who watches the watchmen?

Of course, that is the question we should all contemplate.

I went to see the iconic comic book movie Watchmen last week with a couple of friends, and I have some mixed feelings about it. I ran across a blog that rates the general morality of films, and ended up responding to the post. While I agree with the general sentiment - this film is definitely not for kids - I had to disagree with some of the points in the article. You can see it here

I liked my response to his article, so I truncated part of it and post it here. I would love to get some response from people on this subject. Also, let's get this out of the way - I do consider myself a person of faith and I take that faith seriously. That is the prism through which my response to the blog (and this posting) is filtered through. I find it difficult to discuss things that involve morality outside of the context of an established moral fabric. That is to say, if you are not a person of faith in any way, then these discussions have no merit or value to you because you have nothing to base your morality on besides what 'society as a whole' agrees with. If that is your viewpoint, then this will be a fruitless read.

First, let me lay out the situation - The Watchmen is a comic book series done in the mid to late 80's by a guy named Alan Moore. He has not approved of the movie version, despite the fact that the movie is incredibly faithful to the comic. As for me, I liked the animated version of the film better (the acting is actually better believe it or not)and it covers the comic's story a lot better. In case you've been hiding under a rock, the movie version was just released. It contains some of the most realistic on screen violence I have ever seen, and it also has a gratuitous amount of general nudity and sex. It is rated R. (in the business what we call a "hard R") the film also takes the Lord's name in vain like a million times. (the word g-d damn) While I am not a stuck up moralist, I have to admit that these things ground into me a bit and I had to think hard about the subject. Just how far is too far in Hollywood? Having worked and lived in Hollywood (and quoting from a band I once knew) "too much is not enough", apparently.

I also need to tell you an unintended consequence. As a present, I bought tickets for my friends. They both happen to deal very directly with sexual addiction issues in their lives. I heard tell afterward that there was fallout from seeing the imagery in the film. I can believe it. It was extremely graphic. I have apologized for not doing more research to my friends, and I meant it. I take their sobriety in this area seriously.

I will always defend the folks in Hollywood - I am one of them. I genuinely understand the pathos, the drive and the desire to do something big. I will not, however, defend their consistent and flagrant misuse of the power to influence they wield. You can be sure that behind locked doors, there were conversations about what to include in the film and what not to include. I can virtually guarantee that there was conversation about the possibility of putting the R rated stuff into a DVD version of the film and releasing a strong PG-13 version to the theaters. You can clearly see what happened. I can tell you exactly why filmmakers in this position make the decisions they do:

1. money
2. publicity for the film
3. demographic studies (how many 40 year old church ladies do you know that read comics?)
4. to piss off people that they feel are oppressive moralists (generally speaking, Christians)

That's the truth folks. It has nothing to do with what is it right and wrong. It has everything to do with the bottom line. When you spend upwards (and over) $100 million making a film and marketing it, you want to make damn sure you're making the studios money back or you won't be working next year. When you remove morality from the situation, then it is easy to see why these things happen. The directors cut wasn't good enough for these guys - they wanted the publicity it would create. Did it create waves? Ironically, not as much as you would think. I believe we are entering a different phase of our society here in America, but that's a different article. What's telling is that the film did just fine without the pissed off Christians - who I think have finally generally figured out not to boycott things. If you boycott it, you'll make it three times larger than it would have been without the boycott. It's a fact.

On the subject of the film itself (and it's content) I can say these things: Having read the comic, I can say that the source material also included the nudity and the abbreviated rape scene. I would disagree with people who would say that these two are unnecessary to tell the story. While rape is bloody, uncomfortable and a purely evil act, it happens all too frequently in our world and too often we would turn a blind eye to that fact. Perhaps we might (very uncomfortably) find something of ourselves in the characters involved and that forces us to ponder not only the evil at hand, but our own morality. Remember that Christ said "even if you look on a woman to lust after, you have committed adultery in your heart" (my paraphrase) As for Dr. Manhattans nudity, it made me uncomfortable for sure, but then I realized why - do you recall how God called out for Adam in the garden and Adam said "I Hid and was ashamed because I was naked" and what was God's response? He said: "who told you you were naked?" Think about this. The character in the movie is supposed to be basically omniscient. Why would he care if he wore anything? that is not his natural state. Remember - we are talking about people telling a story here - filmmakers and producers who are not Christians and probably have very little moral fabric in general but they do posses a tremendous sense of how to tell a story and present it artistically.

I will, however, agree with one point than many have been making. The three minute sex scene in the middle of the film was in the comic but completely unnecessary for the film. They could have easily shoehorned this unabashedly soft porn material into a directors cut. Which brings me to my point - They could have easily done the film as a PG 13 and gained a much wider audience. Although they were faithful to the comic book, they could have saved all the sexual grittiness for an expanded directors cut and given general movie going fans (among them the tens of thousands of kids and teenagers who will obviously end up seeing this) a chance to enjoy the story such as it is without having to worry about getting bombarded by messages they don't want to/need to/shouldn't see. Of course, these are gray lines and maybe one of these producers would argue that I am censoring art. On the contrary I would say - I am allowing art to be seen by a great many more people. Although who am I kidding? sex sells. We all know this. It's just a shame. It would be nice if a few more people in Hollywood had a moral bone in their body.

My take: its an amazing movie in some ways. I love the character Rorschach. He is the one most Christians would ultimately relate to. He cares about morality at all costs. Unfortunately, life is not that simple.

At least not since the garden.