We all enter the business of TV & film with certain aspirations. Harrison Ford, voted the "Top Star of the 20th Century," just wanted to be a working actor. I just wanted to work in the business because, after a small taste, I thought it was likely the most exciting business I'd ever found, or would find. And it didn't matter, at one point, what I did. I've worked on some very good movies... and I've worked on some real schlock. There's a time when you're bound to do what pays the bills. Back in Atlanta, where I started out, the bread and butter of the actors there has always been the commercial and corporate production markets. And make no mistake about it, the commercial/corporate/industrial arena is probably where the majority of quality working opportunities still exist. As far as films and TV shows were concerned, being a location shooting hub, usually only supporting roles were cast there, so the actors picked up crumbs and morsels where they could. However, if a talent or crew member worked diligently, networked and built a positive rep over time, they could likely carve out a nice career in a market like that. Many do.
So what do I mean about "settling for the short money?" This deals with Indie film-makers, writers, and actors primarily, but could also include those involved in TV projects. If you battle in the trenches long enough, as a film or TV professional or talent, this will inevitably happen. You'll be faced with an option, to be involved with a total and complete piece of crap. But, as an aspiring director, writer, actor, DP, AD... a credit is a credit, is a credit. Right? Maybe not.
I had the great fortune of working with several of the top producers of stage and screen, as well as with three top talent management companies. The bar was set amazingly high for quality of the productions and/or talent these producers and managers would take on and develop, and their track records proved their vision and standards were irrefutable. For me, it was an extraordinary learning environment. I'll come back to this shortly.
Recently, while doing some online research on Indie film-making, I came across a "Making of..." video that was shot behind the scenes of a low budget schlock feature done a few years ago to universal critical panning, rightfully so. The director, filled with a lot of ego but little ability, allowed herself to be taped delivering a low class, mindless rant of expletives. I was sadly shocked that the director would think this was going to somehow help build her career. It might have been momentarily self-amusing; but, now it's out there for all to see, and it lacks class and good taste.
The truth is that the "class acts" of the motion picture and TV industry are exactly that - class acts. Had the picture gotten great reviews, maybe the newbie director could have gotten away with it. But when the reviews slam the director's ability and competence, combined with the trashy image she chose to put out there for the world to see (again, lots of ego - but not very bright), she's going to have a very hard time ever getting past that. And, maybe she doesn't care. Maybe she's going to carve out her career her way, on her own terms... Good luck with that.
There was a time, where I was nearing a crossroads, and wasn't feeling very good about the ol' career path. Yes, I was in Hollywood. Not only was I working in the business, but I was working with some of the best in the business. But I didn't feel that sense of idealistic optimism I'd started out with. So one night, I had been invited to a DGA screening of Sir Richard Attenborough's new film "Cry Freedom," and decided it would be good for me to go. A complimentary buffet sealed the deal. My girlfriend and I watched the film attentively and, of course, I studied everything about the production quality since Sir Richard had long been one of my film-making idols. After the end credits, as the crowd exited to the reception area, my girfriend and I found ourselves bringing up the rear, walking up the aisle with Sir Richard Attenborough himself ("Ghandi," "Shadowlands," "Chaplin," "A Chorus Line," "A Bridge Too Far,") and his good pal, director John Boorman, ("Deliverance," "Excalibur," "Hope and Glory,")also one of my favorites. There we were, the four of us, walking up the aisle, meeting one another for the first time, and talking about the film we'd just viewed, discussing its elements with its director. I must tell you, it was an intoxicating experience. And, as I left the DGA theatre that night, I left with a renewed feeling about what the film industry was all about. That, at its highest levels, the motion picture tells a story that, if done well, can actually impact the world for the better, and to leave us better for the experience.
Not every film will be a "Ghandi." There's isn't a need for every film to mimic that impact - it would be impossible. But there should be in every film-maker of any merit, a commitment to excellence. Excellence is a challenge, especially on highly limited budgets. But a film requires so much labor, so much creative collaboration, so much passion, why not require excellence in the effort?
Steven Spielberg once said "If it isn't on the page, it won't be on the screen." And so, it begins with a story. There are two ways to write; and, sadly, most will take the easy path. The easy path is to write about what one thinks the market is buying. The success of "Silence of the Lambs" created a deluge of serial killer stories that hasn't stopped since, and has even spawned a few successful TV series. But, for every serial killer story that has made it into development, thousands have hit the circular file, unoriginal and completely derivative, and some just done in sickeningly bad taste. Same thing for cop buddy stories. Sexy, low budget suspense thrillers have been assumed to be readily salable commodities in the world market, and bad ones are made every year with the aim of a quick buck and nothing more. But when the Cohen brothers produced "Blood Simple," with a low budget, its uniqueness set it apart immediately. Other films by the Cohen brothers, "Fargo," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," "Raising Arizona," "The Big Lebowski," "No Country for Old Men, and the remake of "True Grit," all reflect very unique and clearly engaging characters and original storylines. So while the low budget Zombie movie, (The "Night of the Living Dead" film series made George Romero a hero among low budget indies), or a cheap vampire flick can still draw, and a suspense thriller with sex scenes can still "sell," (somewhere), quality standards should not be compromised, beginning with the written script. And, creatively speaking, one should apply the same critical standards that any quality film-maker would, if they want their career to gain traction in the motion picture industry. "Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer" was one of the most frightening films of that genre, made for about $100,000, and helped launch Michael Rooker's successful acting career. A lot of that film's success not only had to do with it's story and direction, but also had a lot to do with a young DP by the name of Charlie Lieberman, from Chicago, who then made a name for himself quickly in Hollywood. Quality gets noticed.
And for actors, the same standard should apply. There's a big difference between a (then) new actress (Alexandra Paul) tastefully disrobing in the John Badham cycling classic "American Flyer," and a new actress playing a sex scene in a bad movie. In "American Flyer," the story was well directed, the dialogue engaging, and all the the acting performances were on par with what one would expect of a studio release. The "short money" is that fast cash offer to take a part, any part, in any flick, at any price (or free), because you're going to get something usable for your reel. Really? I watched one excruciating reel where what the actress did most was scream. When she wasn't screaming, she was acting about as badly as anyone could act. Helpful? That reel was more like the "kiss of death."
Look. There was once a producer who asked for my help to rescue some disjointed footage that was shot by an avant-garde director who'd had a nervous breakdown of sorts. (This begs the question: If an avant-garde director has a nervous breakdown during filming, how would you know?) I should have seen the "trouble ahead" signs. This was a wild ride. The challenge would be to fashion a film script from the crap this guy had shot (badly) and there was even stock footage of Andy Warhol spliced in, so the producer said they had an Andy Warhol double for the completion filming, since Warhol had died a few years before... and she wanted a dance movie, since there were club scenes... and oh boy, it was bad, bad, bad. The worst part, no one on the creative side was even getting paid. But we were all young and hungry and just wanted to do it for the challenge. It was awful and it had to be. No one's career advanced in any way from that association.
It was starting a project completely backwards and then attempting to apply Einsteins theory of relativity to the outcome, forgetting a preceding law of the universe: "If you start with crap, you'll get crap." Now that producer once produced a movie shooting in a hotel room over the course of one weekend, using Fuji short-ends, and did it all for $5,000. True. And the movie won an award. But, there was a good script, good performances, and a good crew. THAT ONE should been a very solid success story to build on; however, that producer was infected by a terminal case of schlock-itis. That one small critical success was a fluke. Every other film that producer made was low budget crap.
And this brings me full circle back to the guys I worked for, in my Hollywood days. In talent management, we had the responsibility to make sure the roles our talent would agree to do actually fit the long term goals we'd set, and this goes into defining one's arch-type and presenting the talent's image as one that always reflects that arch-type. We'd say no to any roles that would adversely affect the best long term direction for the talent. That is very different from the role of an agent, who's job it is to book you, and represent you in negotiations for those bookings. If you have an agent who acts like a manager, give them a hug on your next visit to the office. They're rare. Now if you are not at a level where you would have management or representation like that, you have to protect yourself. You have to gain an understanding of where you want to go, and try to land those roles that will reflect that direction. Attempt to connect with student and aspiring film-makers who are doing edgy, provocative projects. Select, when you have a choice, those roles where your arch-type is reflected and your image enhanced.
Writers, start with a unique voice, and resist falling into stereotypical characters and storylines, and writing what you think will sell. Instead, write from your gut level on that which your are passionate about, and, what you know about. It all comes down to great story telling. Fill your story with dynamic conflict and compelling characters. Take time to fully develop your scripts and be open to collaborate with your director and producer. And above all, know that if you have developed your story well, it has value and merit. I once wrote a good script that had made the rounds but had not sold. Then, one day, I received a call from someone offering me $5,000 for the script. They saw potential for a low budget film, but they wanted to do their own rewrites. I wouldn't even get a credit. I'd get the five grand, nothing more. Short money. Pass. Protect your vision.
Directors, make your film unique. Avoid the stale and predictable. Study the innovators. And, demand quality no matter what the budget is. You will get there.
On producing, be ready to go "all in" to see the project through. Years ago a colleague came to me asking for my advice. He was producing a Clint Eastwood film, a project that he had developed and had sold to Warner Brothers and Malpaso (Eastwood's company)and Warner Brothers wanted to buy him off the film for $20,000. Some rookie producers might think great! Take the money and run. I advised him to hang in there, deal with the studio politics, but keep that producer credit. In the end, he not only made more than that offer, he got his first "Producer" credit, on an A-List movie, and earned some respect in the industry. Settling for the short money would have only been a fleeting pay-day, nothing more.
So in the end, settling for the short money in the film business isn't a ticket to success. And short-selling quality and good taste for a fast buck relegates one to being a bottom feeder. There is a huge difference in the mindset and film-making perspectives of the principals involved with "Ghandi," "The Color Purple," "Au Revoir Les Enfants," "No Country for Old Men," and "Rainman" versus those who make films like "Night Shift Nurses," or "Six Sex Scenes and a Murder."
In the end, selling out for the short money won't do much to further respect in the industry, or to advance a career. Remember, if you start out with crap, what you'll get is crap. And that is true even if crap sells.
Hold yourself to a higher standard, and align yourself with those who will do likewise. You and your career in film and TV will be better for it.
Director, writer, Talent management, archtype, Movies, film, motion picture, acting, low budget, A-list, Career