Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Low Budget Losers

From 2007...

For some reason, I know a bunch of stuntmen and special effects guys. My friend Rick’s friend Chuck rolled down the stairs at the end of THE EXORCIST and then, the next day, fell off the top of the Space Needle in PARALLAX VIEW. He’s an interesting guy - he’s worked on almost every Clint Eastwood movie and is still working now... even though he is no longer a young man. I’ll bet I know at least one stuntman on every U.S. movie that hits the big screen... and DVD. For this little story. I’m going to either change the names or leave them out... since these stuntmen want to keep working.

There is this low budget company that began by making low-end direct to video horror films. The company began as a distributor - and that’s really what studios like Paramount and Warner Brothers and Universal are - they distribute films. This company is way way way down the list from those studios. They “buy” a completed low budget film from an indie filmmaker (usually horror), then take it to American Film Market and sell foreign territories for as much as they can get... then release the film on DVD in the USA. They probably began with a boiler room, with out of work actors on the phone selling the movies to mom & pop video stores. Doing a hard sell, because these films have no stars in the cast, and probably no one who can even act in the cast. Plus, they were made on a shoe string and probably look like crap.

The problem these companies have is that they are dependent on the indie producers to make a film they can sell. As you know from my Trilogy Of Terror blog entries, most indie producers don’t have a clue... and end up making horror movies without any horror. I have no idea why they do this. But these really low end distribs have to wade through all of those movies, trying to find a horror film with some horror in it... at least enough to cut together a trailer. Eventually they find some indie filmmakers that have a clue, and they work with those guys - often telling them what sort of horror movie they would buy, so that the indie filmmaker can make that film. But people who have a clue tend to move on to bigger and better distribs... so eventually these low end companies decide it would be much easier to just make the films themselves.

And they start doing “in house” - making their own films.

Now, the creative force behind these films... are salesmen. The guys who sell the films at AFM or have graduated from the boiler room to VP Sales. They are not writers. They are not directors. They are not even producers. They are SALESMEN. They know what sells (boobs, blood) but know absolutely nothing about story or making movies.

They do know that if they are going to make a lot of money on these films, they have to be made for pocket change. So this company makes movies for $100k maximum and pays $1k for the screenplay. They started out paying $2k, but discovered the writer who would take $2k would take $1k. So why not pay the writer less and pocket the difference?

Now, here’s where it gets really good. At the company in this story, after they pay the writer $1k for the script, one of the salesmen does a rewrite. They don’t hire a writer to do the rewrite, because writers don’t know *what sells* the way a salesman does. This company makes over a dozen films a year - and has a deal with Blockbuster video. I have no idea how much Blockbuster pays them per film, but they make them for $100k. SAG signatory (extreme low budget deal) so they can get some names in the cast.

YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR

So one of my stunman friends gets hired to work on a film from this company. The company has decided horror movies are oversaturated, so they’ve decided to make an action flick. Hey, and they are going to spend a little more (because they have to). My friend is a stuntman who wants to become a stunt coordinator (a step up) and they hire him in that position. He reads the script, and it’s not great, but it’s okay.

He goes to the first production meeting and discovers there is very little money in the stunt budget, but a whole lotta action in the script. My friend doesn’t want to be stunt coordinator on a film with very few stunts, how would that look on his resume? He wants to get a bunch of great clips for his reel out of this film, so that he never has to work for a company this low on the totem pole ever again. That means he’s going to have to pull favors.

He realizes the best way to get good clips on *his* reel is to find other stuntmen friends who want good clips on their reels. So he asks all of his buddies what stunts they have always wanted to do... stunts they would do just to have them on their reel (so that other companies will hire them at top dollar to do the same stunts in much better films). My friend goes back to the “producers” with a list of “stunts at cost” and they work them into the script. This is easier than you might think, since action films tend to have the same basic stunts. There are car chases and a high fall and fist fights and things like that.

Now, at this budget, the most impressive “stunt at cost” he can get is a car doing a multiple roll and exploding. My friend knows a stuntman who has always wanted a big car roll on his reel. If you’ve seen THE KINGDOM, you know that a good car roll can be really impressive. The SUV chase and explosion in that film is just amazing. There’s a behind the scenes on HBO that shows how they did it - and *that* is amazing. Back in the 70s when John Wayne was losing popularity, he made a film called McQ where he played a Dirty Harry type cop - and to sell the film, they did a record breaking car roll. The only reason why I own that film on DVD - the car roll.

Now, the car roll stuntman has never done one of these before, so he pulls all of *his* favors - and gets five top stunt guys in Hollywood to help him with his first car roll (and be there to watch... so they might hire him or recommend him later). They buy a car, build a roll cage, do all of the prep stuff. These expenses come out of pocket, now - the stuntguy will be paid for after the stunt. The stuntguy gets a pyrotech friend of his to explode a second car for cost. They will need an ambulance and a water truck on set for this... but the “producers” argue that they can do without both. The producers are thinking they can save money... and pocket it. What’s more, the ambulance and water truck and Fire Marshal don’t show up on film, so why pay for them? If it’s not on screen, it’s not important.

Well, the law says differently, so the producers are forced to comply. The producers will take care of the water truck and ambulance and Fire Marshal... because they are afraid if my friend the stunt coordinator does it, he won’t get the best price.

A week before the film goes into production, one of the two salesmen who own the company does his script rewrite... and now the script is much much worse than when my friend signed on. Now it’s crap. But the two salesmen turned “producers” who own the company think it’s brilliant. They think they know what they are doing, and what is good... and they are wrong.

But my friend thinks that maybe all of the cool stunts will make up for the (now) really bad screenplay....

THE CAR ROLL AND EXPLOSION

The call time is 9am. The stunt guys show up at 9am with the vehicles.... and no one else is there.

No one.

They wait around, and people start trickling in.

The pyro guy wants to run a test - explode the second car with a quarter of the pyro stuff... but there is no fire marshal on set. He asks when the fire marshal is supposed to show, and the Assistant Director says call time was 9am (even though he didn't show until after 10am himself). But he assured the pyro guy that there was a permit to explode stuff.

Well, the pyro guy *knows* the fire marshal who would be assigned to this film, and calls him. Guess what? There was never a permit. No one ever applied for a permit. This makes the pyro guy angry, but he’s already out here and set up... so he talks to the fire marshal. Smooths things over. Finds a way to make it work. The fire marshal will come out on set and they can fill out the paperwork and get a permit when he arrives. He will allow them to do the explosions (if they have a water truck on site) as soon as he arrives. By the way - this is a huge favor the pyro guy is pulling - he's getting a fire marshal to show up and do a permit on site... and it was the guy's day off.

The fire marshal gives them even a bigger break - he allows the pyro guy to do a test before he arrives.

My friend the stunt coordinator realizes that the test may provide an additional angle of the explosion (this is a low budget film - they have *one* camera to film the explosion) and tells the camera crew he needs a camera set up in 30 minutes. The camera crew seems to be working at their own pace, but assures him that the camera will be ready in half an hour.

Fifteen minutes later, my friend checks in with the camera crew, and they don’t seem to be working very fast. Part of this may be that my friend is the stunt coordinator, not the director... but it’s not like the camera crew is doing anything else. Today is a stunt day - it’s all about the stunt. The director, who is somewhere at the location on his cell phone talking to someone about something that has nothing to do with the movie. Seems not to care. I have no idea what they pay the directors on these films, but if the writer’s fee is any indicator, the director is probably making minimum wage. Now. I have this belief that what you are getting paid should have nothing to do with the amount of energy and enthusiasm you give a project. If you decide to do a crappy job because you are being paid crap... you won’t ever be offered a better job. Anyway, neither the director nor the camera guys seemed to give a damn.

This stunt man is going to risk his life by the end of the day, doing a dangerous car roll for peanuts, and the camera guys and director don’t care.

Half an hour later, the car is ready to explode... the camera is not ready to shoot. Now, my friend thinks the test explosion is pretty important on a low budget film... so he begs the pryo guy to give them another half hour to get the camera set up. Then he tells the camera crew that they have a half hour to get the camera set up and pointed at the car that is going to explode. If they aren’t ready in half an hour, they will explode the car anyway.

A half hour later, the camera is still not ready, and the pyro guy says he's going to do his test. The test is cool... and not on film.

When the camera finally is ready, the stunt guy gets ready to do his car roll. All of his buddies - big time stunt guys - are there to see the big event... and maybe pull him from the wreckage if things go wrong. They give him last minute advice on how to do the car roll, things to watch out for, things to remember... Then they all shake his hand. He’s about to do something very dangerous... roll a car over several times *on purpose*. Stuntmen are crazy.

The stuntguy asks when the ambulance is going to show, the Assistant Director says, “I don't know, but we're behind time, so just do it.”

The stuntguy thinks that is a very bad idea - they are *miles* from the nearest town out in the middle of nowhere. He asks how far the nearest hospital is - and the AD doesn't know. Folks, in case you don't know - the rules say they need to know where the nearest hospital is, and have directions on how to get there, even if all they are shooting is a *dialogue scene*. Usually the map to the hospital, along with all of the emergency numbers, is on the back of the call sheet. If a film is shooting a dialogue scene and someone gets hurt, has a heart attack, whatever, they need to know where the nearest hospital is.

This is a day where they are doing dangerous stunts *and* explosions and the Assistant Director has no idea where the nearest hospital is... not even the phone number!

Well, the stuntguy blows his top. The AD gets on the phone to one of the two salesmen turned film producers who run this company and explains that the stuntguy refuses to do the stunt unless they have an ambulance. The “producer” asks if an ambulance is really required? Maybe he can talk the stuntguy into doing the car roll without it, put him on the phone.

The stuntguy controls his temper as he explains how dangerous this stunt is. They have the car with the roll-cage, they have all of the safety equipment, they have a stunt team... it would be a shame to lose the stunt because they don’t have an ambulance. The “producer” tells the AD it's up to him to get an ambulance out there - free or dirt cheap.

Well, while the AD is calling ambulance companies, the fire marshal shows up - so they can blow up the second car. The fire marshal sees the water truck, and, for some reason, decides to tap the tank with his knuckles... it's empty. See, filling it with water would cost extra - somewhere between $20 and $50 - so they didn't do that. Well, the fire marshal blows up - what kind of morons are these guys? He's not going to let them do *anything* - even bullet hits - unless they get the water truck filled with water. The first AD calls HQ again, and the “producer” decides it's too much trouble to send a PA to fill the water truck, plus pay for an ambulance, etc.

So, they change the scene. They just want the car to drive up and down the dirt road, and they'll do everything else in post. They’ll superimpose some fake looking fireball on the car, and instead of the car roll, well... it just comes to a stop.

The stunt guys are all pissed off. The pyro guy is pissed off. The fire marshal is threatening an investigation.

Everyone has wasted their time, wasted their efforts, wasted their credibility... they’ve pulled all kinds of favors... for nothing. For want of a single horse a mighty empire fell... All of the cool stunts they would have had in their low budget movie for *free*? Not there.

This is why so many low budget film makers remain low budget film makers. They think it’s more important to save $20 than to make a better film. Who the hell would even *rent* a water truck and then not put water in it? These guys are low budget losers... the kind of people you never want to work for. They don't care, and they don't want to improve their work. The most important thing - the basic requirement - you have to care. You have to love what you do. You need to constantly be trying to do something better - to improve yourself and your work. Even if you are making a low budget horror flick, you need to try to make the *best* low budget horror film possible. If you don't have the money, use your imagination.

My friend and all of his stuntmen friends are never going to work for these low budget loser again, and have spread the word. No one will ever do them a favor again... no more free stunts, they'll have to pay full price. But the crappy film without stunts? On the shelves at Blockbuster.

Only in Hollywood, baby!

- Bill

12 comments:

James said...

Sorry man. I got half way through and just couldn't finish reading.

I need to live in my la-la-land and believe this isn't the way most business is done. That people are NOT fucking retarded. That they have half a clue.

After reading that I need to cry, or punch someone.

Steve Peterson said...

That's a terrific story. You ought to put together a bunch of your experiences into a book -- Hollywood from the other side. We've already got books about the big stars and big egos and the indie auteurs, so I bet a new angle like the one you're providing could be really successful.

I suspect that I've seen a fair number of this company's films. Really terrific but horribly misleading box art. That's one of my pet peeves. I don't mind low budget horror but I hate it when the box art shows me something that doesn't even appear for at least a couple frames in the movie.

mariano said...

Bill,

Great post, as usual!

You are, of course, absolutely right: being a low budget loser is nothing to do with not having money and all to do with not having a brain. Or a soul.

I recommended an actress friend of mine for a low budget job which seemed legit and potentially fun. The whole scene centered on the poor girl chewing a stick of gum and then kissing her boyfriend while passing said gum into his mouth.

She was doing this for 8 hours.

How many sticks of gum do you think the loser low budget idiots provided for this scene? One.

When asked about the possibilty of a fresh stick of gum the answer was "We have no money for that."

Sad but true.

wcmartell said...

There are lots of people trying to make the best movie they can on a limited budget. They work hard for very little money and hope their work will pay off by moving up to bigger budget productions.

One of the things that makes this a story is the contrast between the stunt guys and the "producers" and most of the other crew. The stuntguys were trying to make this the best film they could.

The real pisser is that all of those stunt guys have been burned, and are now less likely to pull favors and work for next to nothing on my film or your film or some other film made by someone who cares. These "producers" screw up the world for everyone else by not caring.

You know, even if you're working on big studio films (where there are still morons, and salesmen and lawyers are often the guys in charge) the most important thing to do is keep doing your best work - even if you are the only one. Don't become one of them - just doing it for the money.

Great box art, bad movies? Yeah, that's probably the company.

- Bill

PS: More of these stories are coming - including one about a producer who made a film about a giant cobra... without the cobra, so maybe I'll collect them all in a book eventually.

PPS: Seriously - next time you rent a movie that sucks - find the distrib's address and write them. Especially if it's a low budget film and the script sucks - these guys obviously don't care about the script.

Leslie Bates said...

I just read your tip on optioning scripts. My question of the day is what should I ask for on an option as first time screenwriter?

Bushdoctor said...

Bill,

Another spellbinding post. I feel like I should be paying an admission fee to read your stories. (But being a low-rent guy I'd have to just fade out if this were the case.) These low-budget "producers" make me think of your horror story about your first agent and his beat-up Datsun and the way he screwed you out of an opportunity with New Line Cinema. What a loser!

BTW, do you have an opinion on ScriptBlaster, which will send one's e-mail query letter to hundreds of agents and prodcos for $50. The testimonials on their website make it seem like one's success is guaranteed.

All best,
Rick

odocoileus said...

Just think. If the AMPTP had its way, all of Hollywood would work like this.

Great post.

Anonymous said...

This is such a sad story.

When I started reading the post I thought it was going to be about how someone got a million-dollar stunt for peanuts, thanks to the stunt guys having their own agenda. What a disillusioning denoument.

Martin B

Genzel said...

Great post. Always looking forward to reading more of your behind-the-scenes stories.

Does the company in question have a name that could be combined with the word "insane" ...? That's the one I suspect is behind this.

Unknown said...

Hey Bill,

Small issue, but something weird happens with the timestamps on your blog posts. This article claims to have been posted a 7:21 PM, which obviously hasn't happened yet.

It's a small issue, but it actually messes up RSS feeds a lot - making them sort wrong and making it easy to miss other posts. Could you check your date/time settings on your computer and your account to fix it? Thanks!

wcmartell said...

Unk - sorry, I forget when I'm using the time machine to fix the time stamp...

Actually, this is a rerun, and for some reason the RSS feeds don't like reruns. I believe there is a date built into the URL, which is in 2007 in this case. Same thing happens when I rerun the Hitchcock articles.

Shaik said...

Absolutely great post! this spread is amazing@ Thanks for creating and sharing...


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