Michael Masterson in Movie Land

After a movie has been half-shot, you can’t fire your principal actors. You must keep them because you can’t afford to re-shoot all the scenes they have been in.

Being irreplaceable (for a while, at least) can go to one’s head. One of our
actresses had been getting more difficult every day. She pouted and complained about every glitch. And with a low-budget movie, there are plenty.

One day, for example, I changed a few of her lines and she was sarcastic for the umpteenth time. I asked her, “Hasn’t this ever happened to you before in your professional career?”

She looked at me, astonished, disgusted. “Are you kidding? I’ve never been involved in anything remotely like this in any way.”

If she worked for one of my businesses, I’d have fired her on the spot. To my delight, she reformed the next day and has been great ever since. Still, bad attitudes are infectious. I can tolerate ignorance and even ineptitude in my employees, but never a bad attitude. You shouldn’t either.

You might be wondering why I am dealing with an actress in the first place.

I am in the middle of making a movie.

I’m one week into my third moviemaking venture, and I’m very happy I decided to do this. It’s much more fun than my first two productions were. And it looks like it will be more profitable too.

We are making Grim Fairy Tale, a gory, sexy comedy written and directed by the legendary “Godfather of Gore,” Herschell Gordon Lewis. Many people on the set are working at reduced rates because they are fans of his early work – schlocky but very original movies (e.g., Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs). Herschell has written, directed, and/or produced over 50 movies. But this will be the first one he has written and directed in 25 years.

We are shooting it in St. Petersburg, Florida. I came here for a week to kick off the “principal photography,” as they call it. Herschell has provided an entertaining script, and everybody has been working hard to get this done on time and under budget. The line producers, Andrew and Andy, have done a great job scouting locations, interviewing actors, and procuring support.

We have more than a hundred people involved in this so far, counting cast, crew, and extras. We have two huge cameras, elevated camera lifts, dollies, a director of photography and two assistants. We have two sound technicians, a crew of electricians with huge screens and lighting, trucks, cars, all kinds of gizmos. We have a special-effects crew, a catering crew, a costume crew, a makeup crew. It’s amazing.

Ninety percent of independently produced movies never make a nickel. (The same is true for books and records.) But this one has certain advantages I intend to make good use of:

• Herschell is an icon to horror-film fans.

• Several of the actors – Brooke McCarter and Lloyd Kaufman – are well known too.

• The budget was big enough to make a movie good enough for theatrical release, but not so big that it needs to be a hit to be profitable.

• I’m making a documentary on Herschell at the same, which I should be able to use to drum up interest in Grim Fairy Tale.

• Everybody likes movies.

In getting involved in this, I’ve broken both of my two top rules about entrepreneurship:

• Don’t get into a business you know nothing about.

• And don’t start a business unless you know how to sell the product.

Well, I did know a little about making movies because of my first two attempts. But most of that can be categorized as “what not to do again.”

One of the things I never learned was how to sell a movie. So that’s what I spend my spare time thinking about. How can I market this thing? How can I make the investors happy?

I have three strategies in mind:

1. I will run it in film festivals around the world and hope it gains some attention. I’m pretty confident I’ll be able to get it accepted because of Herschell’s reputation.

2. I will find a distributor to help me market it overseas, to the DVD market, to television, and to theaters. There are not many distributors for horror movies – but, as luck would have it, I met someone just today who, when hearing what it is about and the budget, told me he wants to buy the distribution rights. That’s a good omen.

3. I intend to market it directly to consumers using everything I know about Web-based marketing, including e-mail marketing, social media marketing, public relations, and pay-per-click advertising. In other words, I’m going to employ the strategies that MaryEllen Tribby and I covered in Changing the Channel: 12 Easy Ways to Make Millions for Your Business.

I’m most excited about my third idea, because I think that is where the big money is. Nobody I’ve met so far in the world of independent films knows anything about direct marketing via the Internet. There is great potential there. I’m convinced of it.

If you have ever thought about producing movies, here are a few tips – big and small – to speed you on your way:

• Time is always money, but it is especially true in businesses like this where you are working on a budget. Keeping on time means keeping within budget.

• When you are shooting in a building with half a dozen sets, you can always figure out where the scene is being shot by following the electric cables.

• The director of photography is probably the most important guy on the set. He is the person who makes the film work visually. (And film is primarily visual.) The director who doesn’t pay attention to his D.P. is probably a fool.

• Actors make a giant difference. A good actor can make a bad line work. A bad actor will make Shakespearean dialog sound like pulp fiction. (I first figured this out when I directed my own movie. Now I’m sure it’s true.)

• Even minor actors make a difference. I sat through eight takes of a two-line gag this afternoon. And it never worked because one of the actors – a friend of somebody’s friend – couldn’t high-five in a natural way.

• The actual shooting is 80 percent preparation (getting ready) and 20 percent filming (“firing”). Post-production is 100 percent polishing, refining, and perfecting (“aiming”). For “Ready, Fire, Aim” people like us, this can be exasperating.

• Because the process is so exasperating, it is essential to practice courtesy and good manners on the set. Rudeness creates resentment, which quickly results in wasted time.

• If you are not a genius, it pays to keep an open mind. We’ve gotten all sorts of good, specific directorial suggestions from several of the actors, but also from the electrical and sound crew, the makeup artists, and the grips.

• You don’t have to rehearse the lines as much as you think. If you give actors permission to change some of the words, they will often improve the dialog.

• Everybody on the set is distrustful of the producer. He’s the money guy, they know, so that automatically makes them think he’s insensitive to what they’re trying to do. “Actors and movie crews have artistic temperaments,” Herschell told me. “This means they are like children and need to be stroked and complimented a lot.”

That’s the first adventure of Michael Masterson in Movie Land.

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[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]
  • I’ve been following your newsletters since I took a couple of writing courses through AWAI. Congrats on your film! If you need any post production help– picture or sound editing and composing — check out our site. We’ve done the gore thing, but have also worked on studio pictures. My partner even has an Oscar nomination for working with Jerry Goldsmith on Mulan. He’s now composing himself and definitely learned a lot of tricks from the master composer.