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.
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