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Confessions of a Working Director - 1/30/2009

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Easily, our biggest hurdle to jump in making RATLINE has been obtaining the budget.  I've heard of numerous indie movies that were slated to start shooting in '08 that were bumped to '09 (or abandoned altogether) due to the slumping economy.  However, it was important to us that we start our next movie in '08 to best capitalize on the momentum we'd gained throughout '07.

In 2007, my team launched ambitious grass-roots marketing efforts, mostly through horror movie conventions, and they were successful in expanding that marketing (of my name and the Wicked Pixel Cinema name and logo) into other areas, like radio interviews, podcast interviews, expanded exposure on horror movie websites, expanded magazine coverage, and MySpace.  The start of 2007 was the first time anyone had put a concentrated effort into marketing our movies.  Up until then, we naively thought our distributors would handle such tasks. 

To not start a new project in 2008 seemed like throwing all that momentum, effort, money, and progress out the window.  Furthermore, in researching how other companies were successfully weathering the dismal economy, it seemed like the worst thing to do was freeze up and wait.  Instead, we should just push forward - and theoretically enjoy the benefits of a less-saturated marketplace upon our new movie's release.

So, we were successful in starting RATLINE's shoot last October.  The only problem with launching a major project in a slumping economy was that investment money was slow to come in.  Not that we've ever had piles of money thrown at us - raising financing has always been difficult, on every movie - but collecting each buck to make RATLINE was like trying to squeeze integrity out of a televangelist. 

As a result, we raised less than half of our production budget.  We are still raising money, a bit at a time, but we are nearly finished shooting.  That means, during the shoot, not only did we have to do without when the money just wasn't there, but we were also racking up a sizable debt, which we are now paying interest on.

After principal cinematography wrapped, one of my crew told me that they overheard an odd comment on set.  We were shooting interiors at a very nice lakeside home - which we were able to use for free.  A companion of one of the actresses looked around at the nice house and said, in reference to Wicked Pixel Cinema, "these guys ain't hurting for money."

As this comment was (innocently) uttered, the house was filled with cast and crew who were either working on deferred payment (if the movie tanks, they make nothing) or working as unpaid interns.  Even I did not pull a salary on RATLINE, in the interest of doing my part to make this thing happen.  I can only imagine the glares this individual received, after making such a comment, from crew members within ear shot who were working 17 hour days, exhausted and unpaid!

I am overjoyed that we function like top professionals and create a product that would indicate great financial success.  Unfortunately, the industry has not been very kind to us when it comes to the ol' greenbacks.

So let's set the record straight.  Yes, we are serious about our craft.  Yes, we are committed to creating movies that look like their budgets are much higher than they really are.  Yes, when you do business with us, you are dealing with industry professionals, not a bunch of pals who make movies as their hobby.  If we do our jobs correctly - and we generally do - I can see why "outsiders" might think we are not so impoverished, by the way we operate and by the look of our movies.  But in reality, the bank account often has less than ten bucks in it and we are in a constant struggle to keep the lights on.

Not every distributor I've dealt with is incompetent and / or dishonest.  But unfortunately, there are enough incompetent / dishonest people in the business of distributing and wholesaling our movies to take a nearly-deadly financial toll on Wicked Pixel Cinema.  In addition to everything else we do in producing and marketing movies, we have been learning exactly how our money vanishes when our product enters the distribution phase.  These are difficult lessons to learn, but now (after making movies professionally for nearly two decades) my eyes are more open.  There are good, honest, competent guys working in the distribution field.  I'm just learning to better avoid the guys who ain't.

There is actually something more important than learning how to not get screwed by distributor ignorance or maliciousness.  It is more important to learn about yourself, and why one would do something like this as their career.  I spent three years in production and post-production on DEADWOOD PARK.  I watched DEADWOOD PARK see a successful release, but to date, fifteen months after the movie came out, we have not received a penny from the distributor.

I have heard that some people think I actually enjoy being a "starving artist" because it makes me feel cool or it gives me street cred or something.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I'm sick of struggling to pay bills.  I'm sick of not having health insurance.  I'm sick of working 70 or 80 hours a week and still being too broke to go see a movie or buy new socks.  Being a "starving artist" doesn't make me feel cool.  It just makes me feel really fucking broke!

Why would I continue to do this?  I could be making a decent living, maybe earning somewhere between $50 thousand and $100 thousand a year by now, if I had taken one of the many corporate production / post-production job offers I turned down over the years to be a filmmaker instead.  In the late 90's, I was offered a job in LA as an editor at Full Moon Pictures and I often wonder how different my life, career, and financial situation would be today if I hadn't turned down Full Moon in favor of building my own production company.  Full Moon eventually collapsed, but where would that job have led me, living in LA and being networked into a whole different crowd of industry professionals? 

So, why not ditch this filmmaking thing, get a normal job, and start treating myself to some luxuries, like a new Toyota Yaris or some health insurance?

Simply put, I do what I do because I love it.  I can't leave filmmaking behind now, because it is too much in my blood.  Learning how to make money at this, and not get screwed by distributors, has been a top priority.  As is not giving up the amazing life experience I get out of making movies.  Being broke isn't fun, but I don't feel like a victim.  Instead, I feel very lucky because I am doing what I love to do - and at least surviving while doing it.  Not many people can make that claim.

Furthermore, I have a very optimistic feeling about 2009.  DEADWOOD PARK got me a lot of attention from industry peers, and I believe that is starting to pay off.  Wicked Pixel Cinema's positive reputation is growing and our very cool fans are spreading the word.  My team has evolved into the best bunch I've ever had working with me.  When it comes to getting screwed by distributors, I can now see the red flags a mile away (instead of seeing them only after getting beaten over the head with them).  In addition to launching our own projects, I'd be happy if Wicked Pixel Cinema were hired by outside producers to make movies for them, and I can see opportunities like this developing on the horizon.  As a result of all this combined, I can finally see a near future where I'm making a decent living doing what I love to do.  I've felt optimistic in past years... but this year I am completely fired up about where Wicked Pixel Cinema is headed.

There is another layer to all this.  It involves you... 

I genuinely love the horror genre (though, as Jason Christ has stated many times, comedy and horror are the two most difficult genres to work in).  I'm not here to crank out crappy b-movies for a quick buck.  I'm a fan like you.  I want to contribute something special to this genre - not rape and pillage it to snag your hard earned cash. 

I did my time cranking out ultra-fast, no-budget quickies for other production companies who were racing to fill shelf space when DVD first took off - and while it was profitable, I could only do it for so long.  Now, it is my goal to take my time and do the best job I can do on every movie I make.  Because that is what makes me feel whole as a human being.  Though we are constantly under-funded here, you won't catch me or my team using that as an excuse to half-ass the production of this movie. 

I have respect for you, the horror fan.  If you choose my movie to spend your hard-earned cash on, I want you to not feel cheated.  It is your dollar that keeps me in business (well, at least the small portion of your dollar the distributors don't eat up).  Even as the credit card companies bust through my door to break my legs, my team and I are committed to not letting financial hardship negatively impact RATLINE. 

You simply won't see our financial struggles show up in the finished product.  We are too dedicated to our craft for that.

Thanks for reading.

Eric Stanze

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