Monday, November 27, 2006

American Film Market...
Let's Sneak Upstairs!

The lobby rats don’t have badges, so they are trapped downstairs for the entire market, but I’ve got a badge, so let’s sneak upstairs and I’ll show you all of the treasures available at the American Film Market...

My first film market badge was issued in 1988 and sports a smiling photo of the 1988 version of me - thinner, and a lot hungrier. I was still working in the warehouse at the time, still trying to break in. I had first attended AFM two years before with my buddy Van Tassell - and no actual badge. We were lobby rats most of the time, but for a couple of hours I was Transferable, James Transferable. A couple of distribs who we had some tenuous connection to had allowed us to roam the hallways with their spare badge when it wasn’t being used (GFD - who distribbed NINJA BUSTERS and Reel Movies who had some Paul Kyriazi movie that Van shot). The next year, I convinced a local newspaper reporter I knew to cover AFM for my hometown paper... and give me his badge when his weekend at the market was over. In 1987 I had a badge... with someone else’s name on it. And someone else’s photo. It’s a lot like that fake ID you took to the liquor store in High School - the old driver’s license you found in the trash that used to belong to someone named Wong Chen. I had to figure out someway to doctor the photo to look more like me. I had a moustache in 1987... same one I have now. The reporter didn’t have a moustache, and looked different than me but had dark hair, so I thought the moustache would be enough to pass a quick glance by the security guards.

Every year for AFM they hire a legion of security guards and set up check points throughout the hotel. You can climb the circular stairs to the 5th floor, but then you run into checkpoints where they want to see your badge. If you go to the stairs, you’ll find a checkpoint there, too... and one at each set of elevators. Then, on every floor there are guards at every elevator bank and in the stairwells checking badges. Also, roaming guards on every floor. It’s easier to break into Fort Knox!

But in 1987, I have a badge. Someone else’s picture on it, and a magic marker moustache drawn on. Most of the time, the guards do a quick look at your badge - and if you hold it up for them, *you* control what they see. It also makes you look like you are cooperating, which makes you less likely to be scamming your way in with a fake badge. But every year, someone gets caught trying to scam their way in... and security cracks down for a day or two.

So after a couple of days of smooth sailing with that fake moustache, I’m suddenly stopped by a Security Guard in the hallway who asks to see my badge. Seems that Lloyd Kauffman from Troma had been flaunting the fact that he had been using an old badge with the wrong date and color since the market began... and security had decided to crack down and show Lloyd who’s boss. So al of us suffer... including those of us with fake moustaches drawn on their badges.

I try to hold it up for the Security Guard - controlling it - but he grabs it for a closer look. He compares the doctored photo to me - and beads of sweat start to break out on my forehead. I’m screwed. Maybe I should have anticipated this, and drawn on beads of sweat? He squints at the photo. I’m really screwed. I’m wondering if he’ll make me walk down the stairs in hand cuffs. If he makes me wear leg irons, too, I won’t be able to handle the stairs.... or the stares.

Finally, he hands it back, thanking the name of the guy on the badge... But when he hands it back, his thumb presses against the magic markered photo... and the moustache comes off on his thumb. Now there’s this huge smudge where the moustache once was... and a huge black smear on his thumb.

The badge swings back on its lanyard, and I’m praying it lands *backwards* around my neck so that he can’t see the photo. No such luck. If the Security Guard looks down at the badge, he’ll see that other guy’s face... with a smear of black under the nose. But he doesn’t look down at the badge. He scratches his nose, smearing some black ink on his face, and moves on to the next person in the hallway. I’m free! Until the next checkpoint. But I have the magic marker in my pocket...

The following year, I made a deal with the hometown reporter to cover AFM for them. And some year later, I began covering it for Scr(i)pt Magazine (and others). So now I have a badge with my own photo on it. When I get to the 5th floor security checkpoint, I show the guard my badge and they wave me through.

THE MOVIES

The first thing you notice once you’re upstairs are the posters. Outside every room is a poster for their hottest film mounted on the wall, and there’s also usually an easel with some other poster mounted on cardboard. If the company wants people to think they have class, they don’t have actual posters - they have this very serious looking list of the movies they are offering with the cast and directors names. Everybody else has your standard posters - only more-so. Because these posters are there to SELL the movie - and beauty has nothing to do with it. In the old days, the posters were all art work - but a drawing could lie... it might show a giant creature or an amazing stunt... that wasn’t in the movie. So now all of the posters are photos.

One of the fun things to do at AFM is to try to figure out the “theme” for this year. One year every single photo had an exploding helicopter in the upper left hand corner. The film might be a rom-com, and it would have that exploding helicopter. Though, finding a rom-com at AFM is not an easy task. AFM films are all about what sells - and that’s usually testosterone instead of estrogen. Things are usually exploding on AFM posters. Again - things are distilled to their base elements - tits & explosions. I’m sure someone once tried exploding tots, but that didn’t sell... This year we had maniacs with glittering knives - hundreds of them. It’s almost as if they all have the same photoshop elements and just place them in a slightly different location on the posters. The backgrounds tend to be red or green. A few of the companies got a picture of a spooky house that the other guys didn’t get - so their posters are slightly different... but the same as each other. Horror movies are still hot - both with the big budget guys and the low budget guys.

In the old days (maybe 3 years ago) AFM was segregated. The companies on floors 5-8 made bigger budget films - often for cable nets like HBO or Lifetime or Showtime. That was the domestic deal, and they were at AFM to sell foreign. Plus, there were companies like Franchise and NuImage that made star-driven theatricals. Add in the upscale indies like New Line and Miramax and the Studio indie branches. Though some of these companies had low end movies, they all had some big expensive film as a “market flagship”. Those were the featured posters mounted on the wall outside the doors. If you went down to the 4th floor, you’d find low budget companies and low end foreign companies. The further down you went, the lower the budgets - the third floor had all of the real crap, and the 2nd floor? Stuff shot on consumer camcorders! Basically, of you stayed on the 5th-8th floors you might see posters for bad movies - but they were *expensive* bad movies... like BATTLEFIELD EARTH.

A couple of years ago, the guys in the basement began climbing... the segregation was over and really crappy low budget films can now be found on *every* floor. In fact, across the hall from The Weinstein Company’s high end art house stuff you’ll find ALIEN RACE INVASION and THE STORY OF O: UNTOLD PLEASURES. Everything is mixed up, now! When the middle fell out of the market, the really low budget guys moved up... and now sleaze and cheese are on every floor. Every other doorway has an easel with a bad photoshop poster of a second rate topless babe and a dude in a crappy mask with a knife. Just inside the doorway is a TV monitor showing never-ending clips of topless babes being chased by dudes with knives. This stuff looks like it was shot on my parent’s home movie camera... with about the same bad lighting - maybe camera mounted floodlights. The sound was recorded with a tin can and kite string... and you don’t want to think about the acting or dialogue in these films. You can never be sure if it’s the completely awful OTN dialogue or the monotone and slightly brain dead delivery that is at fault.

For me, one of the funny things about the crappy posters are the names above the title. Every poster has about 3 names above the title - but nobody you’ve ever heard of. Most of these folks are non-union actors from Wisconsin (where the film was made). You don’t know their names or faces - and after the film was over they went back to their day jobs... and you’ll never see them again. Many of these films are shot on weekends, and nobody gets paid. The funny part is - the films at AFM are the *best* of these home made movies. You can’t even imagine how bad the worst are.

PEOPLE I WANT TO KILL

Walking the hallways upstairs are foreign buyers and small distribs and out of work actors hoping that someone will hire them. This year, Pauley Shore bumped into me as he and his manager made the rounds looking for work. There are Playboy girls and faded stars and people who should probably be in rehab. I think drug habits fuel more AFM films than anything else - some actor needs to buy his heroin, so he has to make a dozen films a year. That’s another poster game to play at AFM - who is in the most movies this year? There are years where someone like Michael Madsen is in half the films... or Gary Busy. Sometimes it’s people you don’t expect to see in a dozen AFM films - like Bokeem Woodbine. Man, what happened to his career? This year, there was a noticeable shortage of films starring Casper Van Dien... what’s up with that?

I bumped into a fellow screenwriter upstairs, who has a new really low budget film about a werewolf boy band. Haven’t we seen this story before (even if we haven’t - it sounds like we have). He told me it was the producer’s idea - he just scripted it. Having worked with several producers at AFM, I can tell you that most of them don’t have very good ideas (but they think they do). If they do have a great idea, it’s because they stole it from some other writer. One of the producers I worked with takes credit for every single idea in every script of mine they made - even though most were specs that had been sitting on my shelf for years before I even met the guy. The pisser of this is that other producers believe him... and so do some directors.

There’s a producer I’ve worked with *once* that I want to kill. He screwed me over - he’s screwed over almost everyone I know. And he’s *proud* of screwing people over. When my lawyer threatened him with legal action, he told him to go ahead and sue - if he lost, he’d just close that company and open a new one. I’d never see a cent. So, if I see this guy standing next to the 8th floor railing at AFM, I have to be restrained... or else I’ll push him over. I’m not the only one - I know a half dozen people who really want to kill this guy. He’s at AFM every year.

I also bumped into a DP friend who wants to kill another producer-director. This guy makes films dirt cheap, with cast & crew working on deferral (they get paid when the film sells). One problem - the producer-director says the films aren’t selling for enough to pay anybody. So my DP friend went to AFM to check out the sales... and discovered these films are making a ton of money. The producer-director has a new luxury car and just bought and expensive home... and my DP friend had to take a part time job because he worked with this guy on 3 films (expecting an eventual check on all 3). So, he’s waiting to see that producer-director standing near the 8th floor railing. Just a little push...

My big plan for AFM was to find a distrib... and maybe funding... for STEEL CHAMELEONS. I talk to a bunch of people, get some interest in *other* projects, but nobody bites on my sci-fi project. I end up with a huge stack of cards, though - people to contact after market. Maybe one of them will be interested in my sci-fi action movie?

I check out the sales on SOFT TARGET, and bump into the star - the first words out of his mouth are about how he and the director made all those improvements on my script - so I should thank him. This makes me wish we were standing near the 8th floor balcony railing. Then he tells me the good news - after a year, the film finally has a domestic distrib... Lions Gate. The film comes out in February. They’ve changed the title to CROOKED (and when I go to Lions Gate and look at their DVD box art - the star is nowhere to be seen! After listening to all of his bullshit about having to make the changes because his fans wouldn’t accept him as *potentially* crooked, it seems he doesn’t even have enough fans to make it on the front of the DVD! Instead, the co-star is shown firing two guns). Anyway, then he shows me the trailer for his new movie - and it’s got real stars and lots of production value and... well, as the director told me in the lobby, he learned his lesson on SOFT TARGET and didn’t screw up the new movie. *I* got screwed big time.

Then he tells me that he may have a 10 picture deal and will need some new scripts. He has a better chance of winning an Oscar than getting another script from me.

SCREENINGS

Back in the old days when AFM was in Beverly Hills, they would take over *every screen* at the Beverly Center - 14 or 16, I can’t remember - and screen all kinds of movies. I could spend a whole day cinema-hopping from one explosion-filled action flick to the next. Now, they have a couple of screens on 3rd street in Santa Monica. My online friend Jonathan King has a new comedy-horror film (picked up by Weinsteins in the USA) about killer sheep. It was playing at AFM, so I talked my way into a screening pass and went to see BLACK SHEEP. It was great! Funny and gross - about some genetic experiments on sheep in New Zealand that go wrong - and there are hundreds of sheep for every human in that country. So - now it’s killer sheep versus humans. Plus, there are "weresheep" and some zombies - everything you need in an AFM movie!

I also found out that one of the horror films I’ve mentioned here was going to screen, and grabbed a pass for that. Remember the writer with the PR firm? He made that horror movie with *one* zombie? Well, it was actually showing! Now, they had a pretty good budget on that film - many times more than we had to make BLOOD PREDATOR. They went through their agency (WMA) and got a real cast of actual movie stars to work for less than their quote as a favor. Once the film was finished, he had all kinds of trouble finding a distrib - and he was going to put his PR firm on it. Well, the PR firm also had no luck finding a distrib... but eventually he found a foreign sales company - one of those basement companies - who took on the film because of the cast. They could throw those names on the DVD box and some unsuspecting people would rent it.

So I go to see the film with low expectations... and the thing is playing at something called the Fairmont 5. I thought I knew every single cinema in Los Angeles - but I’ve never heard of the Fairmont 5. I walk to the address... and it’s the Fairmont Hotel in Santa Monica. Okay, now I’m confused - they have a movie theater in the hotel? No - but they have taken 5 rooms and put in DVD projectors and folding chairs. This is where all of the low rent movies are screening.

A handful of us end up on the folding chairs... including horror director Rolfe and a couple of other horror filmmakers. We have pre-screening conversation about the general state of low budget horror... and I keep waiting for the Greatest Writer In The World to come in and take a seat - this is his movie’s big screening. Every time any of my movies screened at AFM, I was always there. It’s kind of cool to see how the movie plays to an audience... and whether the buyers get excited. I remember at the CRASH DIVE screening, this distrib from - maybe Poland, my memory is hazy - saw my badge, realized I was the writer, and was all over me. He bought the film for top dollar and asked if I had written any other films at the market (and he bought those). He had me pose for a picture with him later. That guy was a fan. I figure if I’m at the screening, I can help promote the film - even if all I do is laugh at my jokes when they show up on screen. At least ONE person will be laughing, right?

But this guy was a no-show for his big night.

When they started the film, I couldn’t blame him. Basically, the movie is MY DINNER WITH ZOMBIE - a 90 minute, 2 person conversation. Boooooring! No horror at all. And shot like crap - not a single interesting shot in the whole film. Flat story and flat lighting and flat shots. But it was funny to watch the distribs... kind of like a game of survival. Who can make it through five minutes of the movie? Not that guy - he snuck out. How about ten minutes? Not those three - they left at about seven minutes. By the 15 minute mark, not a single distrib was left in the cinema! They showed the rest of the film to Me and Rolfe and Paul (BLOOD PREDATOR director) and the two horror film makers. And we laughed and groaned and made comments outloud. Afterwards, we all agreed it was one of the worst films we have ever seen - a horror movie with no horror!

There was one scene early on where one of the *big names* tells the hero that they’ve narrowed down the places this zombie might be to 12 locations... and every time he goes into one of those locations he has a 1 in 12 chance of being killed by the zombie. Okay - that’s a pretty good set up for 12 suspense scenes, right? Except, we get a montage with a shot of the hero just walking in each of the 11 locations until we get to location #12... where he discovers the zombie just standing there waiting to be captured. A second later, the zombie is in his cage and the movie is a non-stop talkfest. This director *ignored* the chance for suspense! Booooring!

I have no idea how many territories this film sold - but all of those distribs walking out - well, *bolting* out, makes me think it was not the big hit of the market. Meanwhile, good news on BLOOD PREDATOR - the film sold a handful of countries - including Japan for top dollar. Though we don’t know the exact number, it looks like Japan may have paid close to the production cost... and the foreign sales company is excited by the feedback they’ve been getting. They plan on making a deal with Sci-Fi Channel for domestic. If that happens, we all celebrate!

PARTIES

Speaking of celebration, one of the cool things at AFM are the parties. In the old days, companies tried to out-do each other by throwing the biggest, greatest party... now, fewer parties and most are small. No more renting out some huge restaurant and buying everyone a free meal, these days they tend to rent out some room in a bar and provide some crackers - you have to buy your own drinks. Last year I went to the party for some low budget horror movie where you have to buy your own drinks... and they showed the movie on all of the TVs in the bar. Problem was - the movie stunk. Really stunk. So once the food was gone, so were the people. With the middle range companies gone, and the low end companies not throwing any parties... that left the handful of big companies. And those guys have suddenly become picky about who they let in. They only want to buy drinks for potential buyers - not party crashers like me.

Since the parties are by invitation only, and they don’t advertize them anywhere - you need someone who is good at overhearing to tell you where to go. The go-to-guy is a lobby rat who knows where every single AFM party is and always crashes them. This guy is a character - he has the worst toupee I have ever seen in my life... and dandruff. He is always dressed in a worn blue leisure suit from the 70s. But it’s that toupee - the thing looks like it’s made from nylon thread. It looks nothing like human hair... and sometimes it’s a little askew - at a rakish angle. I know that dandruff is from the scalp, not the hair, but there’s just something weird about a heavy dusting of snow on the shoulders of that worn blue leisure suit that just seems out of place on a guy wearing such an obvious toupee. Anyway - if you had an invitation to the Miramax or New Line parties, you saw this guy there - because he crashed them. He crashes every party. I spot him in the lobby and ask where the big parties are - and he rattles off the information like Mr. Memory in THE 39 STEPS... and all are by invitation only, and nothing I can really see myself crashing. I’m hanging out with Paul from BLOOD PREDATOR and we could use some free food and free drinks.

We decide to wander over to the hotel next door, which has the overflow companies. Only a few companies, but maybe one of them is having a party we can easily crash? No sign of a party - no group of people getting ready to go somewhere. So we decide to just grab a beer in the hotel bar. We had a drink with the DP guy there last night. As we’re looking for a free table, I happen to look *down* to the hotel’s courtyard...

And there’s a party down there. Paul and I wander down the stairs, to where there is a guard standing in front of a sign announcing the French Film Commission is having an AFM party. Our badges say Press - and that’s the kiss of death of you’re trying to get into a party. Everybody knows all the Press ever do is mooch. I show the Guard my badge, expecting to get turned away... and he waves us in!

Free booze. Free French bread. Free cheese. Posters for all of the French films at market. We eat and drink until they start taking away the food. There’s nothing in life better than free beer. By the time they close everything down and kick us out, we have lived up tp our press badges. Tomorrow is the second to last day of market - when they begin packing everything up. Market is pretty much over. I’ve given out a bunch of cards, and talked to a bunch of companies. Now all I have to do is remember to get back in touch with them after market - often tricky because of Thanksgiving... then the rest of the holidays... then Sundance. “After market” usually ends up the end of January... and by that time I’ve usually forgotten all about it and am waist deep in some spec script. But at least for me the market ended on an up-note... the French Party.

- Bill

American Film Market...
The Lobby Rats
(it's part 2)

The big convention of All The Losers In Hollywood takes place in the Loew’s lobby. You see, it takes a badge to get upstairs to the dealing rooms... and that costs money. But Sir Isaac Newton taught us that everyone who goes upstairs must come downstairs... and if you wait in the lobby with your movie posters or headshots or screenplays, you may be able to ambush one of those big shot distributors when they wander down for lunch. At least, that’s the plan of the Lobby Rats.

THE LAYOUT

First, how about some geography? To get into the Loew’s Hotel, you’ll have to go through a security checkpoint where they will search your bag for bombs and handguns. You might think this is all about terrorism, but I suspect what it’s really about are those disreputable distributors upstairs who owe producers money. Every year there is at least one raid by the Sheriff’s Office due to some legal action taken against a distributor. It’s kind of exciting - a bunch of Deputies with guns storm into the market and march up to one of the suites... then serve papers and often close down the distrib for the rest of the market. I know a producer who sold his film for $5k and a high % of the back-end... except there wasn’t any back-end. After his contract was up, he pulled the film... but the distrib kept selling it! So checking for weapons is a good idea - more on this in part 3.

Once you get passed the guards, you go through the revolving door and are ambushed by people trying to give you Hollywood Reporter and Variety and the foreign Trades (Screen International, Film Business, etc). They practically assault you. I hate taking the magazines when I arrive, because that means I’ll have to carry them with me for the rest of the day - and they get heavy. Most of the people handing you magazines are actors picking up some spare change. Up until a few years ago, they were mostly hot actresses. Hollywood Reporter had this “uniform” of black shorts and tight white T shirts. They “cast” every really hot actress in town. I remember one, Alicia, who may have started out handing out Hollywood Reporter when AFM was in Beverly Hills... and eventually became the head of development for an AFM company.

Once you get past the trade-hawkers, to the left are the restrooms, where you may find yourself standing at a urinal next to the guy who played Billy Bear in 48 HOURS or maybe one of the more mutant Baldwin Brothers. To the right is a hallway leading to the 4th floors and the AFM Info desk and the wide circular staircase overlooking the pool which leads up to the restricted floors. Past the stairs is something they added a couple of years ago - a cart where you can buy coffee at prices that make Starbucks look cheap. If you look straight up, you can see the balcony-hallways of every floor, and all of those distribs and sales agents and buyers who can afford a badge looking down. Maybe even spitting. You won’t be able to see much of them, though, because couple of years ago they started plastering the balconies with banners. Huge ads for the movies upstairs. Last year and the year before there were ads for movies I wrote - but not this year. If you’ve ever wondered, “What’s Ed Azner doing these days?” All you have to do is look up at the banners and see a couple of new movies he’s in.

The lobby is cut in half by a bank of hanging TV monitors, showing trailers for the films upstairs. One thing you notice about AFM is that the movies are *concentrated*. There used to be this section in Blockbuster called “Super Action” - that’s where some of my movies ended up. All of the movies at AFM are “Super Action” or “Super Horror” or “Super T&A Comedy” or some other “Super”. Makes me laugh when I’ve watched a rotation of car explosion and chainsaw trailers... then there’s an epic drama trailer from Korea complete with sweeping vistas and a million costumes... oh, and swordfights.

On the other side of the monitor bank is the half of the lobby with the bar. Just past the bar are the doors leading out to the pool - where the really cool lobby rats hang out. I always hope to go out there and see Uma Thurman swimming laps in a bikini, but it’s usually some fat, hairy German guy in a speedo. Up until a few years ago, a group of folks from upstairs would come down to watch the sunset every night. It’s really beautiful, and a great way to get your priorities straight after a day of haggling over Lithuanian rights to BLOOD OF THE NAKED MUTILATORS. I haven’t seen those people for a couple of years - more proof that the business is changing.

Opposite the doors to the pool there is a restaurant that is sometimes used for meetings and used to be used for big parties. I remember a few years back South Korea had this big Godzilla-like monster movie, and they held party there... complete with a huge ice sculpture of the monster attacking a building. This year, there weren’t any parties there... and least, none that anyone told me about.

There are pillars with ferns or something every so many feet on the edges of the lobby, and tall tables are set up - this is where the lobby rats congregate. A handful of them at each table, or leaning against a pillar, or with a briefcase set up on a potted fern. They read the trades or talk business or pretend to talk on cell-phones. Or they just pose. The big days for the Lobby Rats are Saturday and Sunday (when they aren’t working at their day jobs) you’ll find a bunch of them down there every day during AFM. They come in all shapes and sizes, but the main categories are:

STARVING ACTORS

Though you won’t find Dennis Woodruff in the lobby, you’ll find almost every other out of work actor in town. Both wannabes and has-beens. Unknowns and the once famous crowd the little tables, hoping that someone from upstairs will walk past and hire them to be in BLOOD OF THE NAKED MUTILATORS 2: FULL FRONTAL BLOOD FRENZY. Holding court at a center table is Fred “The Hammer” Williamson - star of one of my favorite films, THREE THE HARD WAY. Last year Fred was promoting both my awful 18th film and BLACK KISSINGER from the crazy guys who made JESUS CHRIST: VAMPIRE HUNTER. This year, he’s just trolling for work - and signing autographs and posing for cell-phone pictures with lobby-rat fans. Fred is the King of the lobby - the most famous guy who just hangs out there every day. Though you may see someone like Andy Garcia breeze through, Fred hangs out there.

A table away from Fred are the Action Guys. You probably don’t know their names, but if you watch ROAD HOUSE, they play all of the other bouncers in that movie. They also pop up in all kinds of action films - if Ah-nuld has a team of commandos, these are the guys who aren’t Bill Duke or Carl Weathers or Jessie Ventura. You know, Commando #4 and #5. The first guys to die. They also pop up as bad guys. They’re big muscular guys, often with Martial Arts training. They buy each other beers and slap each other on the back and hope that someone will cast them inj the lead of a low budget film. That actually happens often enough to keep them coming back to the lobby every year. You ever heard of Sam J. Jones? I know some of these guys, and will nod to them. Last year I talked to Olivier Gruner about a project (STEEL CHAMELEONS) but missed him this year. He was down there while I was upstairs, but had left by the time I came down.

Scattered around the other tables are the Babes. Hot wanna-be actresses in various stages of decomposition. All of them wearing as little as legally possible. For the past couple of years there has been the same hot 20 something gal who wears backless white sun dresses that you can see through. Yes, see through. Yes, see that she’s not wearing undergarments of any kind. She flutters through the lobby, going from table to table and positioning herself in front of the elevator banks to snag any producer who comes down. I actually saw her on the arm of a couple of guys this year. Often the hot actresses will align themselves with a journalist with an all-access badge so that they can get into parties and maybe even sneak upstairs for an afternoon late in the market. Smile at any of them and you’ll get a head shot. Some even have lingerie photos - if you have business cards that say you’re a producer. Many have websites where you can see even more of them... for a price. There are dozens of these young Babes fluttering around the hotel lobby looking for a big juicy part in your low budget horror flick...

And also some older ones. You know that great bit in KISS KISS BANG BANG where Michelle Monaghan rags on the other actress for being 35 - over the hill - when she’s still got a chance at 34? Nothing is more frightening than the over-the-hill starlets in the lobby. You get to see the whole deterioration process - like a museum display. There are those Babes in their 20s, then the ones fighting to hang on in their 30s. Now, I have nothing against 30 year old women... but there’s this thing that happens with these starlets as they grow older - they wear fewer clothes. You’d think this would be a good thing, but it’s really sad and a little frightening. I’ve been going to AFM for 20 years, now, and have seen some of those hot 20 something babes turn into 40 something women wearing almost no clothes at all - and enough make up to spackle a house. They are still trying for the 20 year old babe roles when they are probably someone’s grandmother.

And life has been hard on some of these women - one actress I know who wears almost no clothes these days, DeeDee, claims she’s in her early 30s... but anyone looking at her would guess mid-40s. She has a website and fan club and lingerie photos and with a credit card you can see photos of her on the website with no clothes at all. She’s been in a few really low budget horror movies - you know, the kind shot on a consumer camera in somebody’s back yard. She’s *starred* in those films. I don’t know if she lies about her age, or if she really looks haggard after beating her face against the big wall of Hollywood for so long. Doesn’t matter either way. If I were her, I’d say I was 50 and let everyone tell me how good I looked...

And there are 50 year olds there in clothes revealing every sag and wrinkle. Yikes! You just want to tell them to *act* their age. One actress in particular who I see every year. She tries to out-do the sundress girl, and it backfires. You have to turn away. It’s like seeing grandma working at a strip club.

Which is probably where some of these “starlets” work when they aren’t trolling for work in the lobby of Leows. The saddest part about many of the female lobby rats is that they are the “after” picture in those dreams about hopping a Greyhound bus for Hollywood to become a star.

Though there are probably some actors who don’t fit either the action guy category or the babe category, they are the minority. That always surprises me, because there really are producers who wander downstairs and an actor armed with headshots might be able to hand one to that producer who is trying to get one of the action guys for their next flick. Sure, it’s a long shot, but this is a tough business.

FLY-BY-NIGHT DISTRIBUTORS

Okay, it costs thousands of dollars for a suite at AFM, and some of the smaller distribs even share suites. So what happens if you are so small you can’t even afford to share a suite? You hang out in the lobby. Because it’s not just the distributors who must come down, it’s the buyers, too. Hundreds of buyers fly in from every country in the world to attend AFM, and when they wander down, you can be there with your portfolio of films and maybe make deal. There were so many fly-by-night distribs, that a year ago they made a rule that you could not have a portable DVD devices or show films on a computer in the lobby. That doesn’t mean no one does it, but now it’s kind of like a bad movie version of a drug deal - some guy asks if you’re interested in horror movies, and if you say “yes” they lead you to a corner where they whip out a 7" DVD player and show you some clips. One day while passing through the lobby I saw a security guard close down a guy’s DVD player and ask him to leave.

There used to be this Asian guy named Joe who had a portfolio of movie posters and would try to sell his movies to everyone who walked past him. Dozens of posters - all completed films for sale. He had a whole library of films! I must have a dozen of his business cards from past AFMs - but didn’t see him this year.

FLY-BY-NIGHT PRODUCERS

Some of those portfolios of posters are for “proposed films” - do you know anyone with money to invest? Would you like to invest money? You know, for a small investment, you can get an Executive Producer credit on a real feature film! There are two kinds of producers in the lobby at Loew’s: the wannabes and the has-beens. The wanna-bes are eager to thrust their mock up poster into your hands. They scatter them all over the tables, hoping that someone important will see them. They tend to hang out in the bar, often having meetings there. Often having *pretend* meetings there with people they know who pretend to be someone important. There’s one guy I know who made *one* film back in the 70s and has been trying to make his second film ever since. He hangs out in the bar with all of his schedules and budgets for whatever his new project is - always something that just sounds awful. Really bad horror or really bad T&A or really bad genre-of-the-month. Often he has some of the 20 something starlets hanging around - he’s promised them roles. This guy has one of those “true-artist-beards” that shows he’s a creative guy rather than a suit. And he dresses like a cowboy. But that beard (along with whatever hair he has left on his head) has gone gray... so he dyes it. Dark brown. It looks so fake, it’s difficult to look at him without laughing. He’s trying to look hip, but ends up looking just as ridiculous as those 40-50 something babes in see-through clothing.

One of the other “producers” is a guy I see once a year at AFM - and he’s always trying to put together a film. He’s been trying for at least a dozen years. One year he grabbed me and told me he had a completed film that he was unable to sell, would I take a look at him and tell him how he could do *1* day of reshoots and sell the sucker? Because I have a problem saying “no” I ended up taking a screener video home with me. The poorly shot movie was about a producer who was having problems on his low budget film - the actors were screwing up lines and wasting film and the director kept going over budget. The acting was awful. There was actually a top-pop scene (nudity) but nothing else that you could put in a trailer to play on that bank of monitors over the lobby. It was the worst kind of vanity film - all about the filmmaker. So I told him my advice was to scrap the film and find something more like that stuff playing on the monitors. He didn’t like that advice, and continued trying to find a buyer for a couple of years... now he’s trying to find some money to make another film. A dozen years, and he has no finished film to show for it!

The other kind of producer you find in the lobby are the disgraced. About fifteen years ago, my friend Jim and I were looking for money for our Russian Project, and Jim stumbled on this guy with an office on Sunset Blvd named David. He was a typical producer - that is, he had a business selling cell phones to movie stars and that gave him the contacts required to make some movies with either stars on their way up or stars on their way down. I think at the time he’d just made a film with Burt Reynolds that you’ve never heard of. Anyway, he was interested in the Russian Project until he read my RIPTIDES script - then he wanted us to put that together... with his fallen-star connections in the leads. Eventually the whole thing crashed an burned - when he had trouble finding the money. But anyone with Frank Stallone’s cell phone number can still make movies in this town... and eventually David had a production and distribution company at AFM making all kinds of crappy films. For a while he was after me to write some of his crappy films, but he couldn’t afford me. My quote at the time was at lest five times what he was offering. Then, one year, he was the guy being ransacked by Sheriff’s Department deputies. They closed him down for not paying any of the producers who distributed through him. For a couple of years after that, he had disappeared... but he shows up this year with a new company. Just not a company upstairs. He’s wandering around the lobby looking to sell films and acquire films. He invites me to his big party one night... but it’s miles away from AFM and I’m just not in the mood to drive out there for one free drink... and a chance to be raided by the Sheriff’s Department.

STARVING WRITERS & DIRECTORS

The KING of all lobby rats is this guy named Mel - he wears a hat. He dresses sharp. He claims to be a writer-director. He’s there every year at AFM, trolling the lobby. For me, the highlight of this year’s AFM was watching David Carradine trying to break free of Mel as he tried to cross the lobby to a meeting. Carradine was like the gazelle on the Discover Channel who gets attacked by the lion. It’s only a matter of time before that lion is going to wear him down and bring him to the ground. Mel was just all over him. Carradine tried every single Kung Fu move to pull himself out of Mel’s iron grip... but had yet to extract himself when he left the lobby.

After a few years of AFMs, Mel showed me one page of his amazing script. The script that was so great, it would win all the Oscars and break every Box Office record. This was screenwriting gold, and Mel is armed with NDCs so that no one can steal his ideas. I think no one with an NDC ever has a single idea worth stealing... and Mel’s script was just plain awful. The format was screwed up. I mean, they have computer programs that make sure your format is right... and this thing was all wrong. I tried to read an entire page, but I could feel the brain cells dying with every word. This was mind-killing bad. Everything about it was awful. I told Mel it could use a quick rewrite... and he snatched it from my hands and insisted it was fine. They’d change everything when they made it, anyway, right? So what did a few typos matter? And the dialogue was brilliant, no matter what I thought. Anyway - David Carradine probably had to sign the NDC and read a page or two this year. I’m sure it caused more brain damage than all of his past drug use combined.

Not all of the writers and directors in the lobby are losers. I was there... okay, maybe they are all losers. Anyway, some of the Thursday Night Gang showed up, and I spent some time talking to them. My friend Jeff was there for a meeting about a couple of horror movie sequels. He brought along my friend Duane, who was in PULP FICTION and FEAST. Even though Duane has been in one of the most well known indie films of all time, he’s constantly out of work. Why? Well, we’re in the lobby talking while Jeff’s at one of his meetings, and some people are recognizing him... but Duane has no headshots or cards to give them. He didn’t forget them, he just doesn’t want to look like a guy who is looking for work - didn’t want to be part of that whole lobby rat zoo. Okay, I understand that... sort of. But luck favors the prepared man. He should have had a stack of headshots for when people asked... and he should have figured out how to get upstairs and distribute headshots to every producer he could find. One good day at AFM and Duane could make a years worth of deals. People know who he is.

One of the people that knows who Duane is and stops by to say hello is the director of Don “The Dragon” Wilson’s latest film. I introduce myself, and he tells me how completely unlucky I am. You see, on my film Don pushed his weight around and ended up with a yes-man director (who this director said was “supremely untalented”) and Don didn’t want anyone more famous than he is in the film (so he turned down all of the actors I sent him - the very least known of which was Duane who was *starring* in FEAST at the time) and thought he had some better ideas for the story and dialogue and even the concept! Result is a movie that really sucks big time... and had some trouble selling. The director tells me that Don learned a lesson on my film, so was much easier to work with on his film. This new film has some real names in the cast, Don didn’t mess with the script, and Don followed directions on set. Don kept telling me that his fans didn’t care about that theme stuff or dialogue or character - they just wanted to see him kick ass. Well, on the new film he’s much more of a team player... and uses a gun more than his feet. I’ve seen footage from it... and it really pissed me off. It’s so much better than the piece of crap that SOFT TARGET turned into. And SOFT TARGET was one of those scripts that had almost been made a couple of times for much much bigger budgets (the month it was finished I optioned it to a studio producer who was attaching cast when his money fell through)... and a script that a couple of my pro writer friends (who make a lot more than I do) thought was really good. Don turned it into shit... and I can’t sell it again.

I also bump into a couple of other Thursday nighters in the lobby, Rolfe (horror director I’ve mentioned before... he seems to keep remaking the same awful kids-in-a-cabin-get-hacked-up movie over and over again... and it’s not getting any better) and Ron The International Man Of Mystery. Rolfe is walking on air - he’s just discovered that an old script of his is getting made... with Pamela Anderson in the lead. When DUMB & DUMBER came out, Rolfe had written a T&A version called BLONDE & BLONDER. Basically a cut&paste version of D&D with boobies. (REPLACE: He with She). Story is just about the same - road trip, bla-bla-bla. This thing had sat on some producer’s shelf for a decade... then someone had pulled it out and cast Anderson and the ex-Mrs. Charlie Sheen in the leads. Filming in Canada for pocket change... but this is the biggest thing that’s ever happened to Rolfe. He’s gonna use the buzz to put together financing on a couple more films.

Ron The International Man Of Mystery is... well, I’m not really sure what he is. I used to call him the center of the Hollywood universe, because everyone I asked knew him. Everyone. My guess is that if you asked Mel Gibson, he’d know him. If you asked Paul Newman, he’d know Ron. Everybody does. Ron is everywhere. When I talk to Ron, he tells me about some screenwriting deal he was involved in ten years ago. One Thursday night a musician friend was talking to Ron, and I overheard Ron talking about his band. Ron talks about his film editing career to editors, his directing career with directors, his acting career with actors. Ron is all things to all people. I can’t really figure him out - famous people know who he is, but he’s not famous. You look him up on IMDB and don’t get much. Ron is like that joke, where the punchline is “I don’t know who the guy in the backseat is, but he’s gotta be important because the Pope is his chauffeur!”

THE TOXIC AVENGER

I’m sure if you were to ask The Toxic Avenger, he’d know Ron. You may be wondering who The Toxic Avenger is, or where you might find him to ask such a question... but Toxie and the rest of the Troma Characters and other publicity stunt people can also be found in the lobby. Troma is Lloyd Kauffman’s company - they distribute schlock. Classic Oscar-bait like STUFF STEPHANIE IN THE INCINERATOR and SGT. KABUKIMAN, NYPD and TROMEO & JULIET and DIE YOU ZOMBIE BASTARDS and his new classic POULTRYGEIST (about a KFC-like chain with zombie chicken problems). They are proud of how junky their films are. Every year, for the entire danged market, they hire actors to walk around in the costumes of their characters. Here’s the strange part: sometimes the actors in the costumes are the actors who were wearing that costume in the actual movie! Hey, it’s a paycheck. These characters come up and bother you, handing out fliers for the films. They also pose for photos.

Aside from the Troma characters, there are other publicity stunt folks wandering the lobby. Zombies, astronauts, lots of pretty girls in movie T shirts, and this year we had some dopey looking guys in hats and bomber jackets with their film’s logo. Sometimes they have a party for their film, and it might be worth going for free food and drinks. Last year I went to some horror movie party where the food was free and the drinks cost... and the movie was playing on the bar’s TV. It was poorly shot and the gore effects were laugh-out-loud bad. The free food wasn’t worth it, and I split. But mostly these publicity stunt people just hand you a one pager for the film and try to talk you into going upstairs to see a trailer (if you have a badge). If you don’t have a badge, they may leave you alone or they may just sing and dance around you and make a scene. That’s their job.

The Toxic Avenger will actually grab your arm and escort you upstairs to the Troma suite, if you let him. Though the lobby rats don’t have badges and are trapped downstairs for the entire market, next post we’ll sneak upstairs with Toxie and I’ll show you all of the treasures available at the American Film Market.

- Bill

Monday, November 13, 2006

American Film Market... All The Losers In Hollywood

One night, sitting in Residuals Bar in Studio City (where the DRAGONHEART script was conceived) and drinking a Guiness, I was telling one of the stories that usually end up on this blog - a story about some poor misguided person in the film biz, and one of my friends said: “Where do you find these people?” I replied, “I bet I know every loser in Hollywood”.... and they said that should be the title of my autobiography. (or this blog)

Well, the annual convention of All The Losers In Hollywood took place in early November. Losers from all over Hollywood, and losers from the film biz in other countries all descend on the Leow’s Santa Monica Hotel for a week of fun and games otherwise known as the America Film Market. You’ve never seen so many losers under one roof! I always wonder why Springer doesn’t do a special show about AFM... he even had a movie here, once.

WHAT IS AMERICA FILM MARKET?

Movies are a global business. The same Tom Hanks movie you saw at the mall multiplex last week is going to play in every country in the world - and is *designed* to play in every country in the world. The average American film makes 60%-70% of it’s income outside the United States & Canada... in countries like Japan and Germany and Spain and South Korea. When they are making a movie, they don’t ask “Will it play in Peoria?” anymore, they ask: “Will it play in Pakistan? Paris? Phnom Pen?”

Now, chances are that Tom Hanks movie was made by a big studio like Universal or Paramount or Fox or Sony or Disney or Warner Bros. The big guys control their own distribution overseas (because that’s where the money is) - they either have distribution deals in place or distribute the film themselves in Phnom Pen. But an Indie film doesn’t have distribution in place... that’s because most indie films are made... independently. Outside the system. Someone in Nebraska says, “Hey! I’ve got a barn, let’s put on a show!” If you don’t get the Andy Hardy reference* (shame on you), basically Indie films are made with private resources - someone writes a script, finds some money and some actors and some locations and props and they make a movie outside the system. Indie films are do-it-yourselfers. Once this film is finished, they hunt for a distributor so that people will be able to see the movie (and so that they can repay their private investors - often themselves - many people finance movies with second mortgages).

At VSDA this year, a panel of indie distribs said there are 27,000 indie films made every year... and only a little over 1% of those find any sort of distribution. ANY sort. That includes DVD and TV distribution. Most indie films are never seen. Never.

Okay, there’s self distribution. The ultimate Hollywood loser is this guy named Dennis Woodruff - you’ve seen his car in that Tommy Lee Jones Volcano-In-LA movie. Dennis is this *old* wanna-be actor who cruises around town in this beat up old car hand painted with advertisements for his amazing acting skills. Oh, and he sells VHS tapes of his new movie... co-starring Jack Nicholson! So, Dennis will pull into a Denny’s parking lot and then go from table to table inside trying to sell his VHS tapes. If you spend the $20 to buy the tape, you’ll see an amazing scene where Dennis ambushes Jack Nicholson outside a restaurant somewhere and starts a rambling and half-crazy conversation with him... and that’s the star power in Woodruff’s film. He’s become so famous, that they put his *car* in movies, now. (They still don’t seem to be hiring brilliant master thespian Dennis to be in movies, so it’s good that his car earns a living). So, that’s self-distribution, if you’re interested.

Unless you’re Dennis Woodruff, you probably want a distrib from your indie film, and the two places to find distribs are Film Festivals and Film markets. Both venues revolve around the idea of competition to assign value. So, you’ve got this little indie film that you’ve made yourself, and you enter it into a bunch of festivals where distribs hang out in hopes that one of the distribs will want to buy it. Actually, you hope that a few distribs will want to buy it and you end up with a bidding war - raising the price. This year at the Toronto Film Festival, there were films like VENUS and COPYING BEETHOVEN and TEN ITEMS OR LESS in competition, but the big bidding war was over a horror movie playing at one of the midnight shows, ALL THE BOYS LOVE MANDY LANE. The Weinsteins won the bidding war, paying $3.5 million to distribute the film. They also paid top dollar to pick up the other horror movie playing midnight shows, BLACK SHEEP. Okay, I have to admit that I know the guys who made both of those movies.

You may be wondering what happened to all of those serious dramas playing in competition... well, most of them probably didn’t get picked up at all! I guess that means horror movies are still hot (and dramas are still a hard sell - even to art house distribs like the Weinsteins).

I know, you’re wondering what this has to do with AFM... well, the next step is for these distribs to sell the films to all of those other countries. So they show up at Loew’s Hotel and take a suite (the rooms are all converted into offices for the event) and then engage in the second part of the bidding war - getting distribs within a country (or territory) to fight over the rights to show a film in their country... thereby raising the price. If Poland has 4 major distribs, you want them to all be fighting over your movie so that they pay the best price. Add up all the territories and you can make a lot of money on the right film...

But you can make some pretty good money on the right film that never played in any festival and wasn’t part of some huge bidding war. A distrib or foreign sales company might pick up some indie film like BLOOD OF THE NAKED MUTILATORS and use the competition between Poland’s distribs to raise the price. Sometimes these films get theatrical in Poland, but in the case of BLOOD OF THE NAKED MUTILATORS it will probably be direct to DVD... hey, Poland needs schlock, too! Right now, there are drunk Polish frat boys longing to see a movie where a hot blonde girl takes off her top and is then killed by the maniac. The goal at AFM is to sell to all of the countries for a reasonable price and make a profit. Often the deals with distribs and foreign sales agents are set up so that you split the money after expenses - and they have all kinds of expenses to tack on! Sometimes your film can make the distrib or foreign sales agent wealthy while you see almost nothing. Welcome to Hollywood, baby! There’s a reason why they lump in Motion Picture Distribution with Global Terrorism in KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE. These guys are crooks! But they aren’t the *losers* in Hollywood... you’ll find them below the dealing floors in the lobby.

The big convention of All The Losers In Hollywood takes place in the Loew’s lobby. You see, it takes a badge to get upstairs to the dealing rooms... and that costs money. But Sir Isaac Newton taught us that everyone who goes upstairs must come downstairs... and if you wait in the lobby with your movie posters or headshots or screenplays, you may be able to ambush one of those big shot distributors when they wander down for lunch. In the next blog entry, we’ll wander downstairs and I’ll introduce you to All The Losers In Hollywood....

- Bill

* Actually, not an ANDY HARDY movie! It's from BABES IN ARMS, starring almost the enire cast of all of those Andy Hardy movies.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Screenwriter's Expo A Go-Go!

I just spent a couple of weeks at a film festival, a day flying home, I’m jet-lagged beyond belief, I spent yesterday doing laundry... what I really *need* to do today is sleep...

But it’s the first day of the Screenwriter’s Expo in Los Angeles.

Since the very beginning, the Expo has been held at the LA Convention Center downtown. *Thousands* of screenwriters from all over the world pack the place for three days of wall-to-wall screenwriting classes and panels and lectures by people like William Goldman. The problem with downtown is that it’s bumper-to-bumper traffic all the way, and you wouldn’t want to park your car there... plus lot parking can be expensive. There are also few places to eat, and you need sterling credit to afford a convention center hot dog.

I live a block away from the Universal City subway station... oh, you didn’t know Los Angeles even had subway? Well, after having so much smog that the EPA could literally shut down the city, they decided to appease them with some mass transit. Every other city has mass transit, why not LA? Of course, LA is the pork-belly politics capitol of the world, so instead of a less expensive elevated rail system, they decided to have a classy subway. Sure it would cost billions and screw up traffic for years... but the subway would make Los Angeles a world class city like London....

Having just come from London, where I walked across the street from where I was staying and entered a subway station, then took the subway to the airport - there are *two* subway stations right inside Heathrow! ... I can tell you that the Los Angeles subway system is a huge joke. Due to all of the politics, it doesn’t go anywhere you would want to go. It sure as hell doesn’t get anywhere near the airport. It *does* go to MacArthur Park, where the heroin addicts hang out. It also goes to the Amtrak station. Of course, it had to stop at downtown Hollywood... where the hookers and cross-dressing hookers hang out. And there are no tickets or turnstiles, it’s all on the honor system... so the heroin addicts can hop a train and go someplace else.

But the one good thing about the subway - it *almost* goes to the Convention Center. Due to some stupid planning, it doesn’t quite make it, but you can connect to another silly toy train that takes you the dozen blocks to... well, still two blocks away from the Convention Center. Still, since I live a block from the subway station, it’s a million times faster than stop-and-go rush hour traffic. So, once a year I ride the subway... to Expo.

Except this year they’ve moved the Expo to a couple of airport hotels. The only traffic worse than going downtown is going to the airport. I once drove my friend Bob to the airport at 4am... and we were in stop-and-go traffic. Where are people going at 4am?

My Expo classes began this year at 10am and 8am and 10am... It would take me half the day to get there in rush hour traffic! And I mentioned the subway gets nowhere near the airport, right? So, while I’m waiting for my flight to London 2 weeks ago, I book a room in the hotel *between* the two hotels where they are holding the Expo. I can roll out of bed and go right to my 8am class! I check in on Thursday, and bump into someone who knows me from the website - I tell them I just got back from London and they say that it takes a full day for every hour in the air to get over jet-lag. I was in the air 10-11 hours... so is that just any day, or a day where you get 8 hours sleep?

I really need to sleep, but instead I go to the opening night party.

NEW TIME, NEW CHANNEL

Expo used to be in mid-November, which gave me some time to recover from Raindance... but this year I have that one day (when I do laundry). I don’t know why they changed the dates... but now Expo happens at the exact same time as the Austin Film Festival. Coincidence? I was invited back to Austin, but had to decline due to Expo. Next year I may skip Expo and go to Austin.

The good news about Expo being at the airport hotels: Lots of places to go to lunch or dinner... and you can walk down the street without being involved in a drive by shooting. All of the hotels have restaurants and bars, and there’s a Burger King just across the street. Plus, a Denny’s if you want to walk a few blocks. This may not sound like much, but every year at Expo there was no place to go for a meal (except Original Pantry) after the Convention Center café closed. Also, no place to drink - and every party had to be catered at huge expense. Also, you *can* literally roll out of bed and go to class... which I did almost every morning. I really needed sleep, but I had a class to teach at 8am!

I end up in the hotel *between* both event hotels, which is convenient. Half my classes are at one hotel and the other half... well, I seem to never have two classes in a row at the same hotel. I’ll be doing a lot of walking... and some running. When you have a half hour between classes and you tend to run over and students tend to want to hang around afterwards and gab... you find yourself running to the next class. There’s a shuttle bus, but my timing seemed to always be off. All of the running around didn’t help the “tired factor”.

The biggest problem seemed to be very small rooms. There were big rooms... and some rooms (the California Suites) that where so small you couldn’t fit a class in them. One of my classes was in this shoe box with a Max Op of 30... and we had something like 40 people ten minutes before the class started. I was claustrophobic. Just beyond the doorway I could see the hotel’s pool and a covered area with lots of lounge chairs. I told the volunteer at the door that I was going to teach the class over there. The volunteer told me we’d need permission for that, and I replied that she could get the permission, while I took the class out to the pool. The volunteer went beyond the call of duty and actually got permission... and I had a group of people at poolside for a class! One woman rolled up her pants and put her feet in the pool. That’s California, baby!

Another problem was other events at the hotel. There was a 50th Class Reunion going on at the same time, and one night the lower lobby was packed with drunk old folks. Impossible to get around them to the up escalator - so you were trapped until they got too drunk to stand. There were also some panels on some other floor - I wanted to sit in on one, but by the time I figured out how to get there the thing was half over.

Another class was in some shoe box at the other hotel, and once we packed the room with about twice as many people as the fire marshal would allow, the place got really hot. Not enough AC for the crowd. We suffered through it... but it was not pleasant. People crowded *on the floor* with no AC. The heat was making me sleepy... I really need to get some sleep. My eyes are bloodshot, so I use those fancy designer sunglasses from the Raindance goody bag... then put them I my back pocket when I go to teach a class. Later that day I sit down... and break them. I think I wore them for half an hour.

After my last class on Sunday I wander into the Dealer Room... which seemed much smaller than the one at the Convention Center. Also, fewer dealers. The Expo sent me a bunch of letters about buying a table in the dealer room... and I tossed them. Usually I set up in the Script Magazine booth... often because Script wants me to run the danged booth for them. The first couple of years I ran the Script booth *and* taught classes. I closed the booth when I had a class. After complaining that I was the only writer for the magazine at the booth, they began scheduling others... who often didn’t show or didn’t stick around, so I ran the booth anyway. I finally said “No more!” and last year other people actually manned the booth. This year, Script wasn’t even there. They have their own event, now, and don’t need to go to Expo. Leaving me nowhere to sell my bag of CDs. I kept forgetting to mention the CDs and the website at my classes. I’m lousy at the business end of this thing - more interested in writing than money.

I really need to get some sleep... but there’s a party tonight.

REALLY EXPENSIVE BEER

Good thing about having the event at the hotel was they could have real parties - all of them were poolside. The Thursday night party had three bars (with lines) and crackers and cheese. I was standing in the long drink line, talking to one of my stalkers, Matt, and trying to stay awake... when I noticed the two hot women in really short white shorts.

Okay, all of us here are screenwriters. And I think very few of us would ever be confused with fashion models. If I ever did a Calvin Klein underwear ad, it would be banned by every civilized country... or shown to prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison as an interrogation technique they use after the waterboard fails. Screenwriters are not known for being “really hot”. If we were, we wouldn’t want to sit alone in a room for a living.

So when I saw these two really hot women, they seemed out of place. They were dressed to be noticed - and *everyone* noticed them. The woman in the drink line in front of me noticed them. They were the center of attention.

After paying a “hotel rate” for a beer, I watched the women stand in line for the cheese - there was a wheel of brie under a heat lamp that was the centerpiece of the spread. One of the hot women did something with the cheese knife that managed to *launch* the plate of brie across the poolside area, where it missed all of the screenwriters but managed to hit the walkway - shattering the plate into a zillion pieces and sending the brie wheel on a short roll that ended when the cheese wheel hit the eaten portion - kind of a flat tire. The two hot women took turns bowing - the center of attention! Then they *didn't* want to be the center of attention and zoomed to the back of the crowd... where my friend Rob latched onto them. Rob is a writer-producer who took my 2 day class once. He was laughing with them the rest of the night.

I had a couple more “hotel rate” beers, tried not to step in the brie, and retired to my room. I needed to get some sleep before my morning class.

There were parties every night, some with actual food. Pretty good food. Free food. I think that was the best thing about having the event at the hotels - free food.

HI BILL!

My picture is up there, and everyone know what I look like... so people are constantly stopping me in the halls and talking with me. Some of these people I know, some I can’t remember, others are people I have never met... but I keep thinking I’ve forgotten them from some other event. Maybe it’s the lack of sleep? I really need to sleep...

Matt, my stalker, was in the very first class I ever spoke to at Art Center Pasadena. He usually takes all my classes at Expo... following me from room to room. Since he’s this tall, long haired guy wearing what he describes as “bondage pants”, this can be kind of creepy. He has an interesting day job, selling search & rescue equipment - so he’s done all kind of search & rescue training. Matt will be spending more time pitching than following me from room to room this year.

I see these two guys who look familiar, and they “Hey Bill!” me... they were in the Arizona 2 day class. We have a couple of beers together at one of the parties.

A cute British gal introduces herself to me - she took my 2 day class at Raindance a couple of years ago. I tell her I just came from there - haven’t gotten over the jet lag, yet. In fact, have been so busy that I haven’t had any jet lag yet. I really need to sleep right now... but I probably won’t get to really sleep until this whole thing is over.

My friend Paul from NYC is there - I’ve known Paul online for over decade. He was one of the original Compuserve Screenwriting forum members. We have lunch one of the days... and I end up spilling mashed potatoes on my jeans... realizing this about halfway through my class when I look down for some reason. Swell.

I also meet Emily (White Board Markers blog) for 3 seconds. I’m standing in the never-ending-Starbucks-line and see this familiar face, but have no idea where I know her from. Since I see so many people at these events that I’ve seen from previous events, I often have that “I know you from somewhere” feeling. She’s working as a volunteer, trying to solve about a million problems at once, but races over for a second to say hello. Cool.

I meet a bunch of other people I know from online, which is always cool. As strange as this may sound, some of you folks are like family I’ve never met. Some of you folks I know from message boards and others from my site - and when I see your names on a CD order or something I “recognize” you. Always cool to meet you in person and put a face to the name.

Also in my classes are the Daws brothers (they won the contest and ended up with a Script Secrets messenger bag)... and Chris Billet, who has a brand new horror movie *UNREST* showing in Cinemas - you should all go! Here’s a website link: UNREST!

WHAT ARE THE OTHER GUYS DOING?

Last day of the Expo, and people are coming up to me in the halls and complimenting me on my classes. Most are telling me that mine were the best classes they took, and last year the student feedback put me in the “Gold Circle” or whatever they call it. This is kind of strange, because I’m so danged exhausted and in need of sleep that I think all of my classes have been challenges to stay awake. When people tell me they liked my classes, I ask “Why?” and the answers are kind of interesting. Seems that other teachers aren’t giving any actual information. Some are just plugging their classes or books for 2 hours (I keep forgetting to mention my free website, and I’m taking 98% of the CDs I brought from London to sell at Expo back home with me). Also, people are saying that I’m passionate and animated (I’m half asleep!). I think this is my most low energy Expo... so I wonder what the other guys are like. And how do you talk for 2 hours about *nothing*? That seems more difficult to me than talking about practical techniques you can use today. Easier to describe a hammer than describe a cloud.

Also, my theory is that a good class is the best plug for whatever I’m selling. If you get a lot of information out of the class, you’ll be more likely to buy a $5 Blue Book (it may have a lot of info, too). Of course, I forgot to plug my Blue Books and CDs and classes most of the time.

After Expo was over FunJoel had his annual bloggers party at the hotel’s sports bar. Though everyone in the world was invited, only a handful of folks showed up. We talked about everything under the sun. It was cool to meet people who write some of the other blogs I read. If you’ve got a blog, you need to show up next year!

After a few beers it was time for me to head home.... and finally get some sleep.

Well, not really... because Americn Film Market begins in just over a week and Thursday is the Final Draft Big Break Screenwriting Awards party...

Was that 10-11 days to get over jet lag or 10-11 days with 8 hours sleep to get over jet lag?

- Bill

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Bill In London - Raindance Wrap Up (rest of the fest)

A film festival isn't just movies... it's an adventure!

CLOSING NIGHT

One of the fun things about Raindance is that I see the same people every time I’m at the festival. Some I have a nodding relationship with, others - like Janet - I hang out with. Janet is a regular on my website, and comes to Raindance every year. She told me that her boss automatically schedules her for half days during the festival. She sees a zillion movies over the two weeks, then goes back to her normal life for another year. We’ve bumped into each other at several screenings, and I’ve also bumped into Phil - a distrib from Spain who is a Raindance regular.

I was a little worried that I wouldn’t get into the closing night screening, because everything has been sold out (and opening and closing nights have stars in attendance - and they announce the winners). There’s a ticket shortage... and I’m hoping my badge will get me in. I walk with Janet and some other folks from the Troc Cinema to the huge cinema at Haymarket where they have the closing night movie. No one in the group has an extra ticket. At the Cinema, I look around for Elliot... limos are pulling up with actual stars. Not Ewan McGregor, but many of the other folks from SCENES OF A SEXUAL NATURE. I ask a couple of Raindance folks if they have a ticket or have seen Elliot... nope.

I also bump into Oscar who used to be with the festival and Oli who left the festival to become a film distributor... he released MAN PUSH CART. I talk with Jamie (Mr. Raindance Shorts) about the TALES OF TIMES SQUARE movie, and how much it resembles DEAD PEOPLE from 2 years ago.... Still no Elliot.

Then, moments before they wave the crowd in, Elliot shows with a ticket for me. I end up sitting next to Janet in the balcony - miles away from the screen. There’s a goody bag... I end up getting a nice woman’s watch, a woman's designer coin purse, a pair of fancy diamond studded *men’s* sunglasses (something I can use!), and a three pack of condoms. I later find out that there were men’s watches and wallets and the people in front got all kinds of other stuff like huge chocolate bars and CDs and gift cards and... well, you get screwed sitting in back.

After the movie, there’s a big party in some danged night club. Another walk... this time, imagine hundreds of people from a movie *all* walking down the same street to the same club... then trying to get past the door guys. Basically, hundreds of people crowding a street as they are let in one by one.

We get in, and it’s the normal film fest party. So, you have these intelligent people who love discussing movies, and you give them free booze, and then you crank up the disco music to levels that have been banned by the Geneva Convention. My ears are about to start bleeding when this attractive blonde woman from Idaho (or someplace) comes up to talk with me. She’s a film maker, recently divorced... and we have to move our faces *really* close to hear what each other are saying. She smells good... probably much better than I smell, since I was up early to teach my class. Some disco dan guy walks past, giving her the eye... and she moves even closer to me (if that’s even possible). I’m thinking about two things: the condoms in my goody bag and that f***ing sofa in the production office. I ask where she’s staying (hoping she has a bed) and she tells me she’s sharing a room with some other female film makers. “You know, in the old days they used to edit on tables big enough to sleep on, now it’s all done on computers.” Did I say that out loud? Yikes! She replies that she edited her short on computer. The disco dan comes by again... and she moves close to me. Within kissing distance. But I’m shy and wonder how awful my breath is after a day of mochas and Chinese food and free beer. I almost go for it, but when the disco dan guy moves away, so does she...

She tells me that she’s trying to avoid that guy. She went out to dinner with him during the festival, and he got the wrong idea (the same idea that I have) and I realize that *I’m* the condom. I’m protecting her from this disco dan guy. Swell... Bill the nice guy strikes again. She looked at me and just knew I was nice... I give off that non-threatening vibe. Just once I want to give off the dangerous bad boy vibe and maybe use the condoms in the goody bag... even if the sofa killed me in the process.

Free beers. After a couple I was really feeling it - which is strange. I'm a big guy and not a lightweight. Last year at this time I was in Austin (another fest) and we often began drinking early in the day - I have no idea how many drinks I'd have in a day, there - but *many*. So two or three beers shouldn't have had me wobbly. That's when I realized I hadn't eaten at all that day... and hadn't had much to eat the day before.

Lots of free beer (and other drinks) but trying to talk over the torture-loud disco music has made my throat raw... and I have to teach a class tomorrow. The hot divorcee asks me if I’ll walk her to the tube station - it closes in ten minutes. She’s afraid disco dan will follow her back to her hotel. Sure. We walk through the romantic London streets to the tube station, carrying our goody bags. Catch the last train. Her stop is Russell Square, like mine. We exit the tube station and nothing in the goody bag gets used that night...

Though I would have to use the sunglasses the next morning.

I entered the production office, racing to the alarm key pad and praying I could punch in the numbers before the police cars showed up, and tried to find a comfortable position on the sofa... not easy when you’re over 6 foot tall.

MONDAY

The Mystery Class. I don’t even know where it is. I have no e-mail on subjects, so I’ve brought along my ideas class. It’s a good general purpose class. I walk to the Raindance office, grabbing a Café Nero along the way (my 5th stamp - halfway to a free mocha!). Elliot walks me to the venue - a private club with a meeting room and a dining room. This is group of writers, directors, producers, and agents who have all been assigned a mentor... and are meeting for the first time. Before I do my talk, Elliot does a ten minute commercial for Raindance. Swell. I do my class, and it goes well. It’s interesting that the country responsible for some of the greatest sci-fi and some of the greatest crime films... not to mention Hitchcock... has so many creative folks who seem *amazed* by the very concept of using your imagination when coming up with stories or scenes or characters. It’s like the “brain drain” from IPCRESS FILE was administered to the entire population. These folks need an imagination kick start! They've been watching too many remakes of Jane Austen novels. Folks, you have imaginations... it's okay to use them!

A good talk... and again I forget to mention my CDs. I’m going to end up taking the whole damned bag home with me to LA.

After my class, they serve lunch. Would I care to stay? Free meal? Sure? Elliot splits. The tables are set up by occupation - which makes no sense to me. So all of the screenwriters are sitting together and all of the producers are sitting on the opposite side of the room. No interaction! One of the writers at my table is an ex journalist... who interviewed me almost a decade ago! After eating a little, I realize how dog-tired and hung over I am... and try to stay awake long for the rest of the lunch.

I wander through Leicester Square later that night, looking for a movie... but all of the show times are off. I either just missed them or they don’t start for over an hour. I end up catching a late show of some American movie I’ve already seen on Tottencourt Road and fight to stay away. I walk back to the production office, the heavenly smell of grilled onions and sausages from the carts making me hungry. At night, all of these carts pop up - catering to the drunks staggering out of the pubs. I’ve never had one of the sausages, even though I’ve been one of those drunks.

Back at the production office, I fumble with the keys and then have to race to punch in the alarm code... making it with only couple of seconds to spare.

TUESDAY

The film festival is over and it's the first day I didn't have to get up early and be someplace at a certain time to teach a class or attend a screening.

For some reason, the lack of sleep decided to catch up with me today - and I'm a zombie. That sucks, because I'm meeting some fellow screenwriters for a few pints tonight. I know a bunch of people from my website and various message boards, and when I show up in their country I always drink with them. Tonight is the Done Deal group - I’ve drank with them every year I’ve come to London. It’s a great group, and I have many fond memories of staggering through London with English Dave and EJ and Wolfy trying to find Dave’s private club after all of the pubs closed. By the time we got there, it was very late... and the guy at the door informed us that there was a dress code that Dave didn’t meet. (He was wearing shorts and Hawaiian shirt.) Anyway, word is out on message boards that if you show up at the Holbourn tube station at 7:30, you can drink with us. Anyone can.

I make an appearance at the Raindance office, then grab some lunch. I need to eat enough to absorb a whole bunch of alcohol.

Before leaving for London I made vow to eat vegetarian while I’m here. I’ve been eating all kinds of really fatty food, and I’m not getting any thinner doing that. London is filled with veggie restaurants - if you go into McDonalds they have vegetarian meals! - and there are many many Indian vegetarian restaurants. The food is good, and usually it’s a buffet. So it should be easy to go veggie for a couple of weeks, right?

Well, so far I’ve failed. The festival is close to Chinatown, and once again I’ve been mostly eating Chinese. There’s this cruddy chain of Chinese buffets called Mr. Wu’s. All you can eat for L5. But the food is kind of junky, and not much selection. The first time I went to London, I did a blog entry (on my website) about getting completely lost because I used Mr. Wu’s as a landmark... not realizing that there are a million of them in London and they all look the same. This place doesn’t look like a chain, it looks like a hole in the wall that’s about to be closed by the health department. I’ve also learned my lesson about the buffets in Chinatown that offer 17 dishes for L6 and have barkers at the doors... you end up going up stairs to some really grungy place right out of HOSTEL where they serve you things that were probably scraped from the plates in other restaurants. So, I see a buffet for around L10 with some pretty good food and very nice tables, and go in. The food is pretty good - but lots of deep fried stuff and wonton and stuff... plus some good entrees with lots of meat. I stuff myself. When the bill comes, it’s Mr. Wu’s... the upscale location! Twice the price, but much much better food. So I eat there regularly during the festival and a few times afterwards. I also eat at a sit down, waiters and waitresses Pizza Hut once. But only eat vegetarian twice - on the days I teach my two day class. I swear, I return from London fatter than I left.

I walk to the Holbourn tube station, getting slightly lost along the way due to a curved street. I ask a police officer at a *crime scene* for directions, and he points me to the tube station. I meet up with the group, we head to a pub, and serious drinking begins. Dave has great stories about a TV show he’s working on that has more drama behind the scenes than on screen, and Wolfy talks about his scripts. We all drink and drink and drink some more. And laugh. A lot. Later, Dave does a blog entry about how he’s not funny enough to write comedies - but I have to tell you, he’s funny-as-hell in real life. When they get ready to close the pub, we leave... I’m staggering. Really wobbly. I manage to make it to the tube station *seconds* before they close the gate. That’s a good thing, because I’m having trouble standing... let alone walking. I get on a packed subway car, ride it to my stop, stagger up the stairs and then have to face the frigging door and alarm system race against time.

I’ve learned a trick - the key that starts the alarm clock needs to go first. This lock is more difficult, but once it’s unlocked, the others are a breeze and the door opens. Unfortunately, this means I have less time with the alarm key pad. I take a deep breath, and start inserting and turning keys. I get the door open, stumble in, and then search my pockets for the danged alarm code - should have had that out before I started unlocking the door. Is that it? No, it’s a cinema ticket stub. How about that? Nope, blonde divorcee’s business card. How about that? Nope, Café Nero coffee card... 8 stamps (three to go!). How about that? Right... now I just have to punch in the numbers. Just like in a James Bond movie, I get the alarm de-activated with a second to spare.

THURSDAY

Whenever I’m in London I always have dinner with my friend Iain. I know him from the Wordplay boards. Iain is now a professional comic book writer - check out Event Horizon #2 - as well as a screenwriter. Raindance gives me some expense money for meals, and because I’m low maintenance, I never spend all of it. So I always buy Iain a dinner (on Raindance) - it’s tradition. One year, we went to some fancy Chinese place and I decided to order enough food so that Iain could take home a bunch of stuff and eat off Raindance for about a week. Great plan... but they don’t “doggie bag” in England. What you don’t eat gets scraped into the trash... and probably ends up at that awful upstairs buffet on tomorrow’s menu... the barker describing it as fresh and delicious.

We meet at the British Museum (mummyland) and walk across town to this Italian restaurant Iain wants to try in Covent Garden (where Hitchcock’s FRENZY takes place). A small, family restaurant. We get there just before the dinner hour, and the place is almost empty - the wait-staff is actually having dinner at a table together. I tell Iain he can order anything - Raindance is paying. I also order anything - who cares about the price? I order a couple of beers and some garlic cheese bread as an appetizer. Our waiter brings us bread and a plate of olives and pickles. Delicious. The garlic cheese bread arrives... and it’s a pizza. Like a medium cheese pizza with garlic. Um, okay. I have a slice or two. The waiter takes away the olives and real bread... too bad, because those olives were tasty. Our entrees come, and the waiter takes away the pizza. The food is great - more meat and vegetables than pasta (though there is pasta). The waiter keeps trying to take away our plates while we’re eating... he’s hovering. Iain tells me about his new comic book - his creation. Sounds cool. It’s great when people I know have success - and Iain deserves it. He works hard.

The waiter hangs around, waiting for either of us to put down our forks so that he can steal our plates like he stole the pizza and olives. When we finally finish he takes the plates... and then disappears. When we’re ready to leave, we have to bill to pay. No sign of our waiter. Eventually (maybe a half hour later!) he surfaces and brings the bill. Over $100!!!!! There was a charge for the olives, and a charge just for sitting down (glass of water). Hey, that’s not a lot of money for a meal, but this was kind of a small family restaurant... not some fancy place. Doesn’t really matter - it was on Raindance.

(The stranger thing about this is that I've dropped $200 on DVDs without thinking. So maybe this is about being responsible with other people's money? I guarentee, no one else Raindance brings over thinks twice before dropping $200 on dinner.)

FRIDAY

I have a meeting with a couple of screenwriters who took my class a few years ago. We’re going to have coffee and discuss their new project. We meet in a movie theater bar (yes, you can do shooters of tequila, then see a movie in London) and talk about their script and scripts in general. I get my 9th punch on my Café Nero card on the way to the meeting - just one more coffee and I get a free large mocha absolutely free!

Tomorrow I have to teach my big 2 day class. Even with the crappy publicity, there are a bunch of sign ups. This is the first time I’ve ever done the Character First version in London, and I’ve tried to use as many British films s examples as possible. HISTORY BOYS just opened, so I’ve decided to see it - maybe there will be some good class examples. I go to a cinema in Leicester Square, where the ticket costs me L13... which is about $26 American. I also buy a soft drink and some sweet popcorn... almost $20! That great Italian meal from last night is seeming a lot less expensive.

I walk home after the movie and prepare for my class... two days of non-stop talking.

SATURDAY & SUNDAY

Walking from the production office to the class venue I pass no Café Neros. None. There’s a little coffee and sandwich shop that provides me with the drugs I need to get through the day. The class goes well, one of the students who signed up after one of my Film Fest classes is the son of the editor of the first 3 STAR WARS movies (cool) and asks all kinds of great questions. He knows about movies. He even corrects me once when I use a British example and get something wrong (haven’t seen that movie in decades - not available on DVD in the USA, but easy to find here). I break my rule and have lunch with him and some other students at a vegetarian Indian place. I try *not* to have lunch with students because I’ll just talk the whole time and I need to save my voice for the class.

Sunday, the coffee and sandwich shop is closed... I end up drinking McDonald’s coffee. Still one stamp short of a free coffee at Café Nero. Class goes well, with one exception - the DVD player is Region 2, and I have a US DVD that won’t play in it. My clips DVD is Region 0 - so that isn’t a problem, but I have a cool new class thing where we read a scene from a script, then see what it looks like in the film. Except, we can’t see what it looks like in the film. Oops.

I eat lunch alone in another Indian veggie place - my voice is really raw.

That night I see DEPARTED and hit the sofa. Next morning I get my 10th stamp at Café Nero... my next coffee (any size, any type) is free. I head to the Raindance office to collect my check... but there’s a snafu and they’ll have to mail me the check. Crap. The good news is - Raindance is good about actually paying me. But it’s always nice to have that check in my pocket when I leave.

My flight is Tuesday... and to get to Heathrow 4 hours early (international) and allow for the tube ride and waking up and... well, I’m going to have to leave early. No time to stop by Café Nero to get my free coffee. I fly home with the card with all 10 stamps in my pocket. Maybe next time...

Because we’re following the sun, it’s a really long Tuesday. I arrive at LAX, have some issues with the FlyAway airport bus that will eventually pop up in an earlier blog entry, and get home early Wednesday morning. On Thursday, I’m at the Screenwriter’s Expo back at LAX and I don’t have any clean clothes.... but I have a full bag of CDs to sell.

- Bill

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Bill In London - Raindance Wrap Up (movies)

By the time I get to Raindance, the festival is almost over. I have missed most of the films. The original plan, hatched over a year ago, was that I would come to the festival and probably be on the jury and teach my class a week after the fest. During the fest, I would do three two hour classes.... when I was on the jury in 2004, I did a couple of 2 hour classes during the festival that were sold out - standing room only. These classes were cheap (L10) but still managed to make enough money for the festival to cover the bulk (if not *all*) of my expenses...

And in 2004 I was probably pretty expensive. The festival had a deal with the Lancaster Hotel near Russell Square, and I ended up in a huge suite (more on that in the next post). They had several rooms at the hotel and were rotating guests through them - so a director might be there for 2 days while his film was screening, and then the star of another film might show up to take that room for a couple of days while their film was screening. I even did a room shift in 2004, from a standard room up to the big suite. Some huge name star had been there before me.

The three classes this year would probably completely cover the cost of flying me in and putting me up for the entire festival...

But somewhere along the way, things changed. I would only be teaching two short classes and they could only put me up for the tail end of the fest. I would arrive the final Thursday, and be there for the last weekend of the festival (including closing night). I didn’t know if I would be on the jury or not at this point - most jurors watched the films on DVD anyway... I was the only guy who ever saw every single film on the big screen.

I show up and I'm *not* on the jury - but I get to see movies with no responsibility at all... and no chance that Saffron Burrows will try to throw me out a 2nd storey window again (jury duty in 2001).

Less than four days of the festival... and jet lag. How many movies could I see?

After my nap on Thursday, I managed to make one of the special programs. Raindance was doing a special tribute to Stanley Kubrick - showing two of his films with special guests afterwards plus a documentary on the director. Kubrick is kind of an interesting director - sort of a lightning rod. You can love him *and* hate him. I do. He’s made some great films and some frustrating films. But, like Hitchcock, every one of his films has *something* in it - maybe only one great moment, but that moment may be worth the ticket price. I own some Kubrick films on DVD. My favorite Kubrick films are PATHS OF GLORY and THE KILLING (both written by Jim Thompson). The two films Raindance was screening: 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Not too shabby.

I’d missed CLOCKWORK and the doc, but 2001 was screening Thursday night, followed by Q&A with the camera operator, Kelvin Pike (also DR. STRANGELOVE and THE SHINING). I managed to use my all access pass to snag one of the last tickets and squeezed into the sold out cinema...

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY

I actually saw this film when it was first released... I was a kid. It was playing at the Century 21 Dome in Pleasant Hill, CA (a theater I would later be a projectionist at... and eventually become acting manager of). As a kid I was impressed by the special effects and the cold, frightening idea that a computer could turn against us. I didn’t understand the end at all - and later in life I was told that if you’re stoned or have just dropped acid, the whole thing makes sense.

Seeing it again, almost 40 years later (I *am* old), the ending still doesn’t make any sense. Sure, everyone has a theory about it - death and rebirth and all that - but no one is really 100% sure of their theory. It’s not like some movies that have an ambiguous end that has you debating the film with others afterwards, 2001 leaves you confused and trying to understand the end afterwards. Kubrick thought the confusing end was a great idea, leaving mystery... I think it’s the part of the film that you *must* be stoned to understand, making it more light show than story. Hey, that’s okay.... but I’m the guy who likes story. The most amazing thing about seeing it again on the big screen - those special effects are still the best I’ve ever seen. A million times better than the current crop of digital effects. You see one of the new STAR WARS movies and it’s obvious that those are effects of some sort... but 2001 is *real*. Those space ships are the real thing, not some effect. And that’s something missing in today’s CGI heavy films - the look of reality. The film is slow, “deliberately paced” as they say, but that works. It makes it seem real. By the time we get to the HAL9000 going haywire, the deliberate pacing makes the death of one crew member seem like just another event on HAL’s big checklist. Frightening because it’s so low key.

Mr. Pike spoke afterwards, and told the usual tales of Kubrick’s never-ending takes (usually with little or no difference between the first and last take) and creating everything in England. There were takes of Dr. STRANGELOVE and THE SHINING, too... but I don’t remember any actual stories (I was still zonked from over 24 hours of travel). One thing he talked about is the problem with effects back then - because they were done using combined elements of film, it was impossible to know how anything was going to turn out until *months* after you’ve shot the footage. Other things mentioned were the practical effects - the weightlessness was a challenge in a world before wire removal.

SELL OUT CROWDS

One major problem for me this year was that the festival was crowded again. When I first attended the festival, you could easily find an empty seat for any film before 7pm - most of them were empty! A couple of years ago, they moved to a new cinema and began selling out showings... even daytime shows. I was surprised to be in a crowded cinema at 2 in the afternoon to see a prison film from Poland. This year they are still at the Trocadero Cinemas, and still selling out.

But even when shows have a few available seats, the way cinemas are designed in the UK makes it impossible to get to those seats.

In the USA fire regulations requires that auditoriums are built with exits at the 4 corners and a wide aisle intersecting the room. If there's a fire, there are 4 ways out and you don't have to climb over every seat to get to an exit - you just have to get to the wide aisle. This makes it easy to get to almost any seat in the house - there are usually two entrances and an aisle that cuts across the back of the house and one in the middle.

The Troc cinemas all have *one* entry and exit and no aisle at all. So if that entry is on the right side of the house, all of the seats are packed on the right side and the empty seats will be on the left side... but there's no way to get to them (other than doing the "excuse-me, pardon-me" down a row of seats... and the seats are so close together that it's almost impossible). Once the film has begun, you're screwed. You may be able to see an empty seat on the other side of the cinema, but you can't get there. So a few times when I was a minute late due to some other screening or getting grabbed in the lobby by someone who wanted to talk, I missed a movie. Just no way to get to the seat.

Anyway - a bunch of movies I wanted to see - some I even had tickets for - I didn’t get a chance to see. Here’s what I did see....

BAL-CAN-CAN

The best feature I saw at Raindance this year was a really twisted black comedy from Macedonia, BAL-CAN-CAN, written and directed by Darko Mitrevski; about a draft dodger, his wife and mother-in-law trying to escape the country (and the civil war). When the mother-in-law is shot in the cross-fire and dies, the only way to smuggle her body across the border is to wrap her in a rug. But when the rug is stolen by black marketeers, our hero must become a man of action and find his mother-in-law’s corpse so that she can be properly buried. He calls his father’s best friend’s son, a slick Italian minor-mobster, to help him out. The two are opposites - and working together creates some funny situations.

To give you an idea of the tone of this film, there’s a scene where the husband and wife have the mother-in-law’s body in a tub full of ice, trying to figure out what to do with it. The husband reaches into the tub... and pulls out a beer! The wife grabs a beer from the tub, too, and they come up with the carpet scheme.

Another scene has two factions of the civil war in close quarters fight... but when our hero and his Italian “blood brother” show up, they stop the war for dinner. Both sides sit at the same table and eat... until someone says the wrong thing and they begin shooting each other. Everybody is killed... except our pair. The film is often too dark for its own good - but when people go through hell and make you laugh about it, that’s a skill. It’s kind of Coen Brothers with a lot more blood.

ALICE

Marco Martins’ film about a father’s obsessive search for his missing little girl. In the heartbreaking film from Portugal, the protagonist’s four year old daughter disappears from her day care, and he spends every waking hour searching for her. He places dozens of video cameras on rooftops overlooking the streets of Lisbon and collects the tapes every day. Watches hours of security camera videos... looking for some sign of his child. At one point he thinks he my have spotted her... but the missing girl is never found. By the end of the film he gives up his search... Accepting that he will never find her. Ultimately unsatisfying - the film just ends. I also had some questions about how one loses a four year old - someone should have been watching this kid!

CORPORATE

A Bollywood film... but, as the director and producer pointed out to me - the *new* socially conscious Bollywood. Gritty. Realistic. With only couple of musical numbers... and only two and a half hours long! The story of a woman executive climbing the corporate ladder who thinks nothing of using anyone to get what she wants. Lots of company politics, lots of war between major soft drink corporations. When corporate espionage exposes that a rival soft drink company is about to market a *mint* flavored soft drink, our “hero company” scrambles to get their mint soft drink released first... even if it means using contaminated water and bribing a bunch of government officials. We see all kinds of back stabbing behind the scenes, and at the center of the film there’s this love story between our climbing female executive and the brother-in-law of her boss (who has the most soulful eyes of any actor I’ve ever seen... so it’s no surprise when he gets back-stabbed in the deal and spends the last half of the film crying or trying not to cry). When the secret of the contaminated water gets out, heads roll, sticks fall, and mean American investors scream into their phones.

The film was shown *without* subtitles... and it surprised me how much I could figure out without dialogue... to the point of two labor characters introduced who I knew would be comic relief... and the (mostly Indian) audience laughed at everything they said. Though it’s nice that they made a Bollywood movie that isn’t just another three-plus hour all-singing, all-dancing heroic action movie, the end result was kind of unemotional (despite the crying dude) and bland. Shot “flat” and boring. Characters we didn’t care much about. Concept that’s kind of boring. Afterwards the writer-director talked about his brilliant ability to find great concepts... but his next film is about beggers at a major intersection called TRAFFIC LIGHT. Would you pay $10 to see that?

SCENES OF A SEXUAL NATURE

Closing night film was an all star cast movie about seven couples in the same London park on the same day, all dealing with relationship issues. Ewan McGregor, Gina McKee (yum), Adrian Lester (HUSTLE), Sophie Okonedo, etc. The director won the Raindance pitchfest 2 years ago... when I was one of the judges. The film? Well, it’s all *scenes* - as in, sketches. And the “sexual nature”? Well, the closest we get is a long shot of a young woman’s underpants. The rest is just talk.

The big problem with the film is that after it’s over we have no greater understanding of relationships. The scenes don’t really connect... and none of them are resolved. The best of the lot is an older couple reluctantly sharing a park bench who, in the course of conversation, discover that they were once lovers. That’s such a great moment - so powerful and amazing - that the rest of the film suffers from blandness. And they aren’t even smart enough to end this scene with the big moment... it drags on for the rest of the film, even though there really is nothing that can top that moment. The other scenes (intercut throughout the movie) are either too short or too long - nothing is just right. Ewan McGregor is a gay guy who wants to have kids, but his boyfriend isn’t interested. They keep cutting back to their bickering, but no progress is ever made and we really don’t learn anything about the characters (other than surface stuff) even though this section goes on *forever*. Meanwhile, a husband is caught looking at that young woman’s underpants by his wife... who (after a very funny scene where she forces her husband to apologize for peeping) storms off. The husband chases after her and... we never find out what happens. I wanted *more* of this sequence. Gina McKee (CROUPIER) plays a woman on a blind date who admits to a ticking biological clock and thinks she blows the date... so she storms off. Again, not enough material here to learn anything about the characters (other than the surface) and the conflict is never resolved (or purposely unresolved) - the scene just ends. Another sketch has Adrian Lester and his wife and daughter taking a stroll as they discuss their divorce. This one was pretty good - but needed a stronger end... it just kind of meanders off. A sketch about a businessman who just *talks* to a call girl - they have a relationship that has never entered the bedroom - goes on too long then ends abruptly. It seems like the script was rough first draft that needed some serious rewriting... and didn’t get it.

SHORTS

I only saw one program of shorts this year - I usually see all of them. This selection was called Urban Scapes and was much weaker than past shorts programs. Two years ago, even the stranger selections were mostly solid little films. The worst of the lot was a thing called LIAR that was an actor saying he was a liar over-and-over again in different costumes, until you wanted to find out where this actor lived and go strangle him. 10 minutes, but seemed like hours.

The very best was TALES OF TIME SQUARE, also 10 minutes... but it just breezed by. This was a doc about a guy who lived and worked in the pre-Disney Times Square in NY. His rise and fall. The love of his life... murdered. His descent into drugs and homelessness. A quick lesson on how to find a place to sleep for the night. And the eventual death of our protagonist. Heartbreaking. And the guy is so witty and interesting - the perfect interview subject. You really get to know this guy in 10 minutes - know him better than any of the characters in SCENES OF A SEXUAL NATURE. It reminded me of a film I saw at Raindance 2 years ago (DEAD PEOPLE - about an old man who tells great stories), and I talked to Jamie (Mr. Raindance Shorts) at the closing night screening about it - but we couldn’t remember if it was the same director or not. Seems it wasn’t - Paul Stone directed TIMES and Roger Deutsch directed DEAD PEOPLE. Both have the same amazing ability to take a normal guy and get the most mazing stories out of him.

Another pretty good short was GAS - about a woman being chased by guys with *huge* Busey-like teeth. Had a funny punchline. Also, ATTACK was a good one - a MEMENTO style backwards story that completely changes our perception of the situation with every segment. Story starts out with some nice black guys fighting a skin head. By the time we get all the way back, we find out this guy *isn’t* a skin head... and everything has been the result of a misunderstanding. Great little film that makes you realize how quick we are to judge any situation (because *we* jump to conclusions again and again).

Too long at 10 minutes, but still fun was SHANTELL TOWN, and I met the writer-director Paulette James before the screening. The story of a non-fashionable black girl who gets teased by the other girls and ends up showing her inner-style and finding love... and it’s a *musical*. Would have been better at half the length, but the film is clever and has regular laughs (even if it’s just a funny hair style).

BUSKER was somewhere in the middle - but starred Dominique Pinon from DELICATESSEN as a mime who is losing business due to a guitar player... so he grabs his air guitar and wows the crowd. Only 6 minutes long... but could have been cut in half and been much better. Also somewhere between good and bad was CUBS about gang kids who go fox hunting... and our hero-kid’s first kill. There was symbolism at work, here, but the film went on too long (at 10 minutes).

On the worst list is MEAT, a film that manages to not tell a story. The story is there, the film just can’t figure out how to get the info to the audience. So you spend 13 *looooong* minutes completely confused, and eventually figure out what the movie was trying to say. PROVIDENCE was another movie that had no idea how to tell its story - you end up scratching your head. This one was about a father with a dead daughter, or maybe a daughter with a dead father. Worst of all - because it not only didn’t communicate its story, after it was over I still had no idea what the danged story even *was* was this movie about a train conductor vs. soccer hooligans. Don’t know the title, it was a replacement film for something else that didn’t show. Here’s the thing - you have a movie with all kinds of *trains* and a *train station* and lots of other expenseive stuff... and the story is so incompetent I still don’t know what it was about.

HISTORY BOYS

After the fest I saw a few movies, including some American films I’m not going to mention, plus this film which had great reviews and was written by Alan Bennet. If you don’t know who that is, he’s probably to blame for Monty Python. Bennet was a member of the comedy group known as Beyond The Fringe which kind of set the stage for the Pythons a few years later. When I was a drama-geek in high school, I did a few of Bennet’s sketches - one became my audition piece. So I had some pretty high expectations...

Which were not met. The film is the story of a group of high school kids who have good enough grades to *maybe* get into Oxford/Cambridge on history scholarships. One major problem is - they don’t care about Oxford as much as their Principal does. He thinks it would be great for the school if these kids all got in. Then we get a scattershot plot - because the whole Oxford thing gets sidetracked by a new teacher story - and the crush one of the boys has on the teacher. Oh, and then *that* story gets sidetracked by the old teacher story - Richard Griffiths (the Muggle Uncle in the Harry Potter films) plays a teacher with unorthodox methods who is being squeezed out of the system... who then touches one of the boys inappropriately... leading to him getting fired... leading to him eventually getting killed in a motorcycle wreck... leading to a big funeral where everyone wishes they would have appreciated his unique teaching style more. Actually, that may be the real pot of the story - hard to tell *what* is. There’s also this major major subplot comparing the teaching theories of the new teacher and the old teacher - and *that* may be the real plot, too. I’m leaving out a bunch of major plot threads - and that’s the problem with this film: no focus. The kids don’t care if they go to Oxford, so we really don’t care if they pass the interviews or not.. And we don’t even get to see those interviews! We getkind of a montage - but considering this thing starts out being about how hard it is to get through that interview, they spend almost no time on it. The best part of the film - Bennet is still funny as hell. The story may be all over the place, but the dialogue was funny. These kids had an arsenal of zingers.

MAN PUSH CART

Another post-fest film I saw was MAN PUSH CART written and directed by Ramin Bahrani. It was distributed by ex-Raindance guy Oliver, whose company DogWoof specializes in indie films. The film is about a Pakistani immigrant in New York City who is very close to paying off his breakfast service cart. It's a large cart, and he serves coffee and food items from *inside* the cart. This is not a motorized “roach coach”, it has a trailer hitch and is designed to be pulled behind a truck.

Except our protagonist doesn't own a truck.

Every morning he gets up at 3am, goes to the garage and pulls his cart by hand across Manhattan to his corner. The street is uneven, bad pavement. There are taxis and buses and cars honking at him the entire way. The cart is very heavy. At one point, he trips, the cart goes out of control, and he has to chase it down and catch it before it crashes. This is a huge cart - not designed for a man to pull by hand.

Once he gets the cart to his corner, he sets up shop and his work day begins. He works all day... then drags the cart back to the garage at night, fighting auto traffic and pot holes the entire way. After he puts his cart to bed in the garage, he's still carrying around the propane tank that keeps the stove going. Propane is expensive and he can't just leave the tank in the garage. So he carries it home with him on the bus every night.

The film is a real heart-breaker, and manages to keep giving us more and more information about our hero - making his story even more tragic. His wife has died. And once he pays off his cart, he can start putting away money so that he can move into a larger apartment and send for his son. Then there’s this great twist where a wealthy businessman who stops by his cart recognizes him from the old country... where he was a famous rock star who moved to America to find fame and fortune. There’s a newspaper stand girl from Spain who provides the romantic interest... but this film is ultimately very sad. You see the world through different eyes after this film.

Those were the films I saw this year (with the exception of a couple of American films) - next up - what happened at the festival.

Here’s my Raindance Diary from 2004:
Raindance 2004
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