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

1 comment:

Spanish Prisoner said...

Great post. Liked it very much!

I went to imdb to check out on Soft Target and cracked when I saw your comment.

I downloaded the script and will read it soon. The only thing I have to do is to wait for the DVD-release.

Tom

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