How I Became A Movie Mogul

“”Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.”” – Ernest Hemingway

At the risk of humiliating myself and losing your attention entirely, I am going to tell you about a new venture I’ve gotten into. In my recounting, I will illustrate some of the business principles and success secrets I’ve been talking about – including those I have adhered to and those I have ignored.

For about 30 years I’ve been fantasizing about making a movie. This January – as one of my yearly goals – I made up my mind to do so. As I write this message some months later, a production crew is setting up lights and cameras outside my office. Hopeful actors have lined up. My sons are waiting to do whatever grips and gofers do on movie sets. And I’m excited.

I won’t tell you what the movie is about. The idea is just too odd. Every attempt I’ve made to explain it has cast doubt on my judgment. Suffice it to say that should it ever be nominated for an Academy Award, I will be happy to provide title, credits, and fan club information.

In some ways, wanting to make your own movie is like wanting to write a novel or wanting to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band:

1. You secretly want to do it. (Admit it.)

2. You haven’t done it so far.

3. You are beginning to suspect you never will.

How I Got Off My Duff After 30 Years Of Daydreaming

So how did I get my fantasy going?

It began with ETR. When I took it upon myself to tell others how to achieve their lifetime goals, I recognized that I needed to start taking regular doses of my own motivational medicine. And so I gave my movie project a pretty high priority on my year’s to-do list. When it comes to human ignition systems, there are two kinds of people. Those who start themselves and those who need a push-start. I am – it may surprise you to know – of the latter kind. I have trouble taking the first step. Once I’m set in motion – even a little shove is enough – I can generate a lot of momentum. But it’s that first little step that always stops me.

Recognizing this weakness, I knew I needed a partner – someone who came supplied with his own starter motor – to get the movie off the ground. I thought about everyone I knew and realized I had a natural partner in PL, my dance instructor and Jiu Jitsu buddy.

Like me, PL was writing screenplays (on the side) and hoping to do his own movie one day. Unlike me, PL is self-starting. What he lacked was a workable idea and the capital. It was, as they say, a marriage made in heaven. We agreed on an idea in about five minutes and I offered to put up the cash if he did all the initial legwork.

If You Lack An Essential Component Of Your Start-Up Enterprise, Become A Partner With Someone Who Has What You Are Missing.

Of course, ignition wasn’t the only thing my longtime fantasy goal was missing. Common sense and experience were equally absent. Those we acquired (or so we thought) by hiring a professional production company, complete with equipment, industry contacts, and a 10-year history of low-budget movie making to its credit.

The people we’re working with – LA and JB – pose no immediate threat to Miramax. Yet, they are enthusiastic about the project and willing to let us run the show – so long as we don’t completely mess everything up.

First Mistake: Haste Makes Waste

We have already made one mistake that will surely come back to haunt us. We agreed to pay AL/JB in total before the film is “in the can.” We agreed to this payment arrangement because (a) they were working “for practically nothing” and (b) we didn’t have time to go out and find another production team.

The rule on paying vendors is this: Hold their profit until the very end. Breaking this rule means that PL and I are vulnerable to all sorts of last-minute manipulations. (“Give us an extra $$$ or we’ll leave the tape on the shelf.”)

Time Is Money . . . Especially When You Are Making Movies.

One thing we did right was to negotiate a single fee for the entire production. Since neither PL nor I had any significant experience in working with video production, agreeing to some sort of daily or hourly rate (which AL/JB recommended) would have been a big mistake. The last time I was so foolish – agreeing to enlarge and renovate my home on a cost-plus basis – it cost me a fortune.

By negotiating a fixed fee, we made AL/JB our partners on the expense side. They want – as much as we do – to keep expenditures down and maintain the aggressive production schedule we’ve set. If we can hold to the budget we’ve set, we have a decent shot at recuperating our investment – so long as the movie is not absolute rubbish.

When you hire someone to do something you don’t know how to do yourself, negotiate a comprehensive fee. It may seem more expensive at first, but it will save you buckets of money in the long run.

Another thing we did right – since PL and I didn’t have a lot of time to devote to the project, and since I didn’t want to lose an embarrassingly large amount of money on it – was to put a strict time limit on the project. Since I didn’t have much time to put in anyway, and since time is indeed money, we decided to do the entire thing – to plan, cast, stage, and film the entire movie – in an eight-week period. (Editing will come later.)

To set ourselves a hard deadline, we applied to enter our as yet unfinished movie into a variety of local film festivals. If we fail to show, we’ll lose credibility. Needless to say, this has put a lot of pressure on everyone. But it seems to be working. We’ve completed half of what is called the “B” footage (the not-so-important stuff that you can edit in later to fill out the movie). And starting tomorrow, we’ll be doing the “A” scenes.

Cheap Help Is Always Welcome.

Here’s one nice thing about low-budget movie making: You can get a lot of reasonably talented people to work dirt-cheap. Offer them a credit or a few points (a percentage of the nothing you’ll eventually make), and they will perform wonders. For the two lead parts we budgeted $300 each.

You might think few would be interested. Well, we put out the word locally and more than 50 people tried out. We called 10 back for a second casting. All 10 came. When I gave them each $20 to cover gas and lunch, they almost fell over with gratitude.

In two subsequent messages, I will tell you about the shooting itself and the editing process. I’ll name at least 12 movie jobs I don’t ever want and the one that’s better than all the others. (I think you’ll be surprised at what it is.) I’ll tell you more business rules I followed and broke, some of the funny things that happened, and my final conclusion about following up on lifelong fantasies.

For now, let’s review what we’ve covered so far:

1. If you want to start an important project and you lack ignition, find someone who wants the same thing and make him your partner. If you have time and initiative but lack financing, look for someone who wants to do what you want to do, and offer him the chance to do it without spending his valuable time.

2. When you contract with someone to do something you can’t do yourself, never agree to pay on a time-and-materials basis.

3. Hold off your subcontractors’ profits until the job is done and you’re completely satisfied.

4. Have an agreed-upon start-and-end schedule. And make it serious.

5. As with all new ventures, test the basic idea as cheaply as you possibly can (without sacrificing necessities).

6. If you can get free help, provide tips and thank-yous.