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Confessions of a Working Director - 5/19/2009

I've been working with Trevor Williams and Jim Wayer on the soon-to-be-unveiled RATLINE website.  Jim designed the site and Trevor shot some interviews that we're editing together to function as something of an introduction to RATLINE. 

The publicity photos we've put out there, the plot as we've described it, and even the strange title have left RATLINE something of an enigma to even those who know the most about the project.  So Trevor's interviews and the RATLINE website in general should give you a somewhat clearer picture as to what you're in store for when RATLINE is unleashed.  I'll let you know, here in this blog, when the site goes live, and of course we'll announce it on wickedpixel.com.  But the first place you'll hear about it is on Twitter, so if you ain't following me yet, go here to do so.

Wicked Pixel Cinema operates out of a building that I own in St. Louis.  The second floor is all Wicked Pixel Cinema offices, computer stations, and an edit suite.  Downstairs is an apartment that we rent out to help cover the mortgage payments.  Until recently, Brandi Nelson and David Moore lived down there.  Both were crew members on DEADWOOD PARK, where they met.  Soon they were all mushy and lovey-dovey with each other.  Then they got married.  Now, Brandi and David have made that all important big step as a young married couple: they bought a house.

Now, Jim Wayer and Jason Christ are going to be rooming together on the first floor, below Wicked Pixel Cinema.  Problem is, it is only a one-bedroom apartment down there.  So, in addition to re-painting, ripping out carpet, refinishing the hardwood floors, and cleaning a truckload of cat hair out of the vents and drains (yuck), we are building a wall to cut the living room in half and create a second bedroom.  Jason and Jim are doing the bulk of this work themselves - in addition to keeping up with their nearly-daily RATLINE and Wicked Pixel Cinema work.  So I know they are getting exhausted. 

Adding to everyone's stress are the financial aspects of these improvements on the first floor - financial aspects that we are rather unprepared to handle.  The workload and money-stress is a lot for us all to be dealing with.  Thankfully, this Saturday is the official RATLINE wrap party, where all of us are going to blow off a LOT of steam!

RATLINE post-production is currently what absorbs most of my time right now, and this will likely be the case for many months to come.  We only raised half of our production and post-production budget, so in addition to the post-production of the movie, I'm sweating the financial aspects of this project.  Speaking of which, there is still room for those of you who would like to take part in this.

Sadly, the more time I spend on putting out financial fires around here, the slower RATLINE post-production goes.  It is frustrating, but it's the reality of the situation.  Some of the Wicked Pixel Cinema team are working on opening up some funding options for us.  Trevor is planning out a fundraiser.  Bob Nealon has a deal he's working on.  I hope one of these guys, or anybody on the team, can bust open some cash flow soon.  I know everyone is feeling spent from the production of the movie, but this is a bad time to take a rest.  RATLINE, Wicked Pixel Cinema, and this company's full time workers are slowly strangling on the financial problems.

Maybe you are wondering why a production company that seems to work non-stop and be exceptionally productive is so broke.  There are many factors, including the current slumping economy.  But here is the biggest reason for our financial doom and gloom: our distributors.  I've worked with a lot of guys in the distribution arena.  Many are great people, so I don’t wish to indicate here that all distributors are evil.  However, even the distributors who send us checks regularly don't do their jobs completely.  And yes, some distributors really are evil and they completely and enthusiastically fuck you over in a life-ruining way.

Think about this:  When a movie takes years to complete (from pre-production through release of the finished film) it only takes one disastrous distribution deal, for that one movie, to punch a gigantic hole in our income.  Those years spent on producing a feature essentially amount to years wasted.

What do the distributors get out of fucking over the indie filmmaker?  They make a few thousand bucks.  That's it.  They stomp down on the careers of the many people who are involved in the making of a film, just to bag a few grand.  The most infuriating aspect of this is that distributors would actually make a LOT more money by working with, instead of against, the filmmakers.  So I have to believe that the bad behavior of such distributors has more to do with laziness and incompetence than anything else.   

We are learning from our mistakes and slowly figuring out what the red flags are when it comes to choosing a distributor.  (If we see enough red flags around RATLINE, we'll try self-distribution for the first time in my career.)  And we are confident that with this education, and a great new product called RATLINE, we'll be doing better financially in the future.  But these days, it is tough to keep going.

I had a good conversation with filmmaker Fred Vogel the other day, and the topic of distribution came up.  Vogel has always self-distributed his movies, and his income is better for it.  Much better.  He told me that he's been talking with a lot of other filmmakers about the failings of the distribution system, and a lot of indie producers out there are fed up.  It seems the ticket to success is self-distribution and relentless promotion.  While I still intend to evaluate all of my options for distribution of RATLINE, I can certainly understand the wide-spread fury amongst indie filmmakers. 

Here is my advice, if you are new to this game and you have a film you've just completed.  Do NOT sign a deal with any of the small distribution companies out there.  Unless you are close buds with someone at a distribution company, and you completely trust them, and you can work a deal that seems optimal for your current situation, it is safer to not sign on the dotted line.  If you sign the deal, there is a good chance of you getting raped. 

Try using this equation:  Count up the total number of people who contributed in a major way to your movie - basically, you, your main cast, your department heads, and crew guys who worked most or all of your shoot.  If this number is greater than the total staff at the distribution company offering you a deal, you should probably pass.  That distribution company is really too small to do you any good.  You'll end up doing their job for them, and they'll take a huge cut (usually 50%) of your movie's profits, even though you're doing 98% of the work.

If a major distributor - and I'm talking a multi-million dollar, established distributor with a positive track record and a proper staff - offers you a deal, you should consider taking it.  But that ain't gonna happen unless you managed to score a major star actor in your flick, or if you, as a filmmaker, have a substantial fan base, or if you pay a very persuasive sales agent to broker the deal.  Keep in mind, even a high-dollar major distributor can become a problem for you, just like a small distributor can.  Also, be aware that signing with a small company who is attached to a major company ain't the same thing as signing with the major company - and it is just as likely to land you in that same ol' ass-raped situation.

Disclaimer:  Just to serve ya up the entire, ugly reality of this game, your movie may not make any money because your distributor is fucking you... on the other hand, your movie may not make any money because your own marketing efforts fall way short - or perhaps your movie is really bad and nobody wants to buy it.  And please note that my negative comments about distributors are based solely on my personal experience.  Other filmmaker/distributor relationships out there may not parallel the problems I've had at all.  And, again, the damage done to my company has been caused by a few - not all - of the distribution people I've worked with over the years.  End of disclaimer.

I often wonder about myself and this whole team.  Why do we keep pushing forward when most of the last fifteen years has been about sacrifice, poverty, and the agony of a constant uphill battle?  Maybe I really am optimistic that we'll turn this thing around and not have to shut Wicked Pixel Cinema down and walk away from it.  Maybe I'm optimistic that my work ethic and the quality of our product will attract a partnership with another company that will give us the momentum we need.  Or maybe I'm just so passionate about what I do that I'm willing to kill myself for fifteen years to get us to this point - where maybe RATLINE can push us up to the next level.  But I do know the payoff for the last fifteen to twenty years of sacrifice and hard work better come soon, because I simply can't keep going like this much longer.

Well, you can't change the past - you can only learn from it.  And you can't predict the future.  So I'll just focus on the present, and keep working as hard as I can.

Thanks for reading.

Eric Stanze

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