Road to Death House Part 2

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“Death House” First Day Group Photo

I’ve attended a lot of Hollywood meetings. Creative. Business. Social. In every one of these, ideas and projects get thrown around. People get excited. Plans are made. I usually wait until the very end to ask the most important question. If it is not mentioned up front, you kind of have your answer, but it’s a game in the end to see if you’re as smart as you think you are.

That question is: Is the financing in place?

You get either leaden silence as if you committed some grave social faux pas, or you get the “well, we are talking to so and so…”

Translated: there is no money.

Don’t believe the Hollywood fables of making a film for $15,000 and making $400 million. With all legends there is a grain of truth, but like an oyster makes a pearl, it’s slathered with layers of mucus and shit. No, your $7000 movie is not going to make a million. I promise you. If you are telling investors that it will, you are misleading them at best.

Finding the money is the toughest part of making a movie. Making the actual film is easy in comparison. See my previous Cynema articles on this subject. The bottom line is: show me the money and then spend it wisely.

The filmmakers out there making these 20K and under films who promising their backers they will make millions are ruining it for the real filmmakers. If you think yet another $5000 zombie film is the path to riches…get ready to be disappointed. I knew someone who cobbled together about 25K from various people willing to take a shot on his zombie film. I told him to not make a zombie film. The market was flooded and you won’t make one that will make that money back. He even had the idea of casting some D list porn star for name value. I told him that wouldn’t work either.

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He went ahead and did it anyway. The film ended up somewhere online for free. It was never bought and he should have just taken that 25K and lit it on fire. So what’s the fallout? Those people who invested will never do it again and will be sure to tell anyone else ever thinking about putting money into film to avoid it. It’s like dropping a rock in a pond. The ripples keep going out further and further.

The filmmakers out there making th3ese 20K and under films who promising their backers they will make millions are ruining it for the real filmmakers. If you think yet another $5000 zombie film is the path to riches…get ready to be disappointed.

“Death House” had a number of people come forward promising to put in funds. Some came through. I spent an entire summer courting one major financier who was vetted, showed proof of funds and in the end wasted our time and everyone’s associated with the project.

You may find people out there who have the money. The issue is, will they give it to you? They string you along…why? Maybe so they can tell their friends they are making a movie and this person, that person are in it. Maybe it’s just a game to them for power or manipulation.

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Me (c) with Entertainment Factory producers Rick Finkelstein (r) and Steven Chase (l). These two men worked tirelessly to get the funding in place.

I had one prospective financier say clearly, “I could give you the million dollars you need and never miss it. But I am not going to.” Maybe this person was pushed down one too many times on the playground or didn’t get to go to the prom…who knows? However it was clear that their unhappiness was going to affect my project. It was a power trip and nothing more from someone presented their self as a generous person and magnanimous. Disingenuous is more like it. On the flip side, it IS THEIR money and they can do whatever they want with it. Including not giving it to me to make a movie. But don’t lead me on.

This was not the case with Entertainment Factory producers Rick Finkelstein and Steven Chase. They brought me to the project over a year ago and while they ran defense on not just securing funds but ensuring all departments had what they needed…they made the making of this film a pleasure. This kind of hustle and flow from producers trickles down to the rest of the set and allows for a  positive working atmosphere. Supportive producers make all the difference and they saw this as a team effort from day one.

I take issue with celebrities shilling to crowd fund their movies. Some of them made enough money on previous dog movies to finance a slew of indie projects. Going to their fans for money is a middle finger and nothing short of a friendly shakedown by taking advantage of ignorant fan idolatry.

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Final funds for “Death House” locked January 2016 with a group that saw the potential of this film. The intent is to get the money back for every investor in this film. The biggest issue in that respect is distribution. The distributor is supposed to provide statements, does the accounting and you pray they do their jobs. Any indie filmmaker will tell you horror stories they’ve had with distribution. Some films are bought and never released. You get some up front monies and then that’s all you ever see.

Others are badly marketed . While you receive proper outlets, little advertising is done to highlight the film’s presence in those outlets. So while Best Buy may have your DVD, if it’s not featured in their circulars and hand outs, then how does anyone know it’s there? You may get the Wal Mart deal, but what good is it if they stock the shelves with only five copies of your film?

There are those who think they have built a better distribution mouse trap. They think they have some new streaming platform that will best what is already in place. The lure of self distribution is sometimes a siren song…it can lure you right to the rocks if not careful.

darksideThe goal for filmmakers is getting what they deserve. The stories are too many to repeat when it comes filmmakers who have submitted good product, sold it for a few percentage points above their costs and then see nothing even when the studio makes millions off a successful run.

Finding the money to make the movie is tough, but to getting it out there is an equally daunting task.

You have to pay for more than celebrity talent and their agent fees. You have producers, writers, art departments, sound, wardrobe, props, catering, insurances, stunts, locations, permits, fees, taxes, payroll services, union fees like SAG/AFTRA, security deposits, makeup and hair, special effects, visual effects, editors, camera crew, and then allot contingency monies for any damages, replacements or whatever after the film wraps.

And that’s not everything. So when they say making a film is akin to a minor miracle, they aren’t kidding.

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I shot all four of my films in The Poconos of PA. I had a solid infrastructure up there. I had people to donate property, vendors to provide discounted services, and to use the pun, I knew where all the bodies were buried. That’s why I could make high quality product on the budgets I had.

We planned “Death House” for The Poconos as well. However the two sites we examined were in such disrepair, they were safety hazards. That meant moving the film to Philadelphia. That meant new territory and a lot of other unknowns I hadn’t dealt with to that point.

How can I make this film for the promised budget in Philly? There were some advantages: most of my crew comes from that area, so we could cut down on lodging and travel expenses. That would be a help. But what about the other unknowns? There are city permits, new caterers to vet, insurance changes, new crew members and lodging everyone. Again, all of these factors were knowns in The Poconos.

We locked our location at Holmesburg Prison. They were wonderful and welcoming to us. I like to think they actually miss us now that we are gone. I know we missed them. The guards, the administration and the entire Philadelphia Police Department were supportive, helpful and enthusiastic. So the first hurdle: location, was an easy one.

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Assembling the crew…that was an easier task. I’ve worked with Carrier Lighting and Sound since “6 Degrees of Hell” and its owner, Wes Carrier is a “yeah, we can do that” kind of guy. Positive, energetic and most of all, owner of a great sense of humor, Wes was a problem solver. Whenever I come to Wes for something it’s never “Oh no…that can’t be done.” Instead it’s “Let’s see what we can do to make that happen.” It’s a major factor on a film set.

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Wes Carrier (l) leads the grip and electric crew on set with a positive “whatever you need, we will figure it out” attitude.

Camera crew and DP (Director of Photography) were easy locks. Matt Klammer was our “Death House” DP as he was the Second Camera on “Zombie Killers.” Again, Matt has a “Let’s give it a whack” attitude. He knows film, already envisioned a look for the film and when we discussed that look; found we were on the same exact page. His crew has been with me since “6 Degrees” so there were few unknown factors here. Matt also moves fast, his expertise is with hand held work and he gets the shot quickly. He knows his lighting and his idea to have the last half of the film lit with flashlights was inspired.

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Director of Photography, Matt Klammer with the “Death House” camera crew.

The unsung heroes of the set are the sound folks. Sound takes a lot of shit on a movie set. As Eric Roberts once said, “Everyone shits on sound.” Ben Wong worked with me since “Camp Dread.” I’ve often said that Ben can hear a mouse fart. He seems able to pick up planes way ahead of time before they fly right overhead to interrupt a scene. When Ben says the area is clear for sound, then you know it is. His work dovetails with sound designer John Avarese.

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Ben Wong leads his sound team with Richard Mach and Richard Hamilton.

Sound design and original score….the soul of the film. John Avarese scored my first film, “The Fields” and has been with me ever since. He’s the John Williams to my poor man’s Spielberg. John uses original foley sound, not canned library stuff and goes above and beyond to make sure the films sound good. It’s his reputation as well. Most of all, John knows what distributors want, and his sound separations for delivery save a lot of time and back and forth with the labs once the film is sold. He gives me what I want. When I say I want a score to evoke this feeling or this type of tine, he knows it. He asks all the right questions ahead of time. He reads the script. He makes notes. He asks questions.

Imagine that?

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Sound Designer and Composer, John Avarese

For a film like this you need damned good practical special effects. With the mostly justified backlash against green screen and CGI saturation, this movie needed excellent practical effects. SOTA FX under the leadership of Roy Knyrim fit the bill. I met Roy through “Camp Dread” and we’ve been eager to collaborate for some time. When “Death House” locked I knew he would be the guy. His crew manufactured things that were nothing short of amazing. I don’t use “amazing” often because like “awkward, inappropriate” and other meaningless buzzwords, they mean nothing. They’ve just become filler words, just to say. However I can say this, there is one practical effect in this film that rivals the chest burster scene in the original “Alien.” That’s a ballsy statement, and I said it. And I stand by it. Roy’s work will speak for itself and his crew are some of the nicest people in the business. His one contractor, George, is like a “McGuyver.” This guy can build anything. Had he not gone into special effects, he’d have a parallel universe life working for DARPA.

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The SOTA FX crew led by Roy Knyrim (Top left) and giving a nice plug to “Scream Magazine.”

There is just part of your core on a film set. Additionally, they are a major chunk of your budget, so you need to spend that money wisely. You also need people that are going to work with you, and not just for themselves. Beware the contractors and artists who look to line their own pockets. I know this sounds like common sense, however this is just one of the things some of these kind of people pull:

When a contractor or artist asks what your budget is, you have to be careful of what you say. Stick to what you have budgeted for their department only. Because some folks hear the overall film budget and instantly no other department is as important as theirs. Suddenly their “yeah! we can do that!” attitude turns into “I don’t know…this isn’t going to be easy…” They subscribe to the 10% belief, that their department should have 10% of the budget no matter what the size.

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The team effort by all departments and prison guards unloading set and props.

Now that sounds good in theory, but when you are on a lower budget and you have a large array of celebrity names to gather into one film, the pieces of the pie become smaller. This one size fits all mentality doesn’t work and it creates a major issue for filmmakers. Designing a budget takes innovation and fairness. Sometimes it means a sacrifice for the very people who put the film together, secured the money and set it all up.

You do what you have to do to get this movie made. It’s not all fair and often hard work is not proportionally compensated.

In Part 3 we will look at the other aspects of this film and where some crew made major sacrifices to be part of “Death House” and constantly saw the film as their focus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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