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Archive for October, 2010

“If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.”
Wise old saying

Yesterday, I mentioned the danger of financing your feature film using personal credit cards. (The Angry Filmmaker & Four Eyed Monsters.) If your film doesn’t sell, it’s a risk that could leave you broke at best and heavily in debt  (or bankrupt) at worst. But there is even a more dangerous way to finance your film—commiting fraud. An audit was released earlier this week here in Iowa that stated that 80% of the Iowa film tax credits were flawed.

You don’t have to read all of the 277 page report (or even agree with some of its findings) to see there were a gross abuses of tax payers money. Auditor of State David S. Vaudt released a special investigation that “identified $25,576,300.50 of tax credit certificates which were improperly issued for the 22 projects.” (If you got lost in the commas, that’s more than 25 million dollars.)

The Des Moines Register article by Lee Rood stated, “Following release of the audit, Attorney General Tom Miller announced he had filed a new civil lawsuit in Polk County against five business partners and four companies involved in producing or pursuing 15 movie projects.”

The layers of fraud appear to be deep and quite commonplace. (And consistent with rumors that began kicking around the Iowa production community in ’08.) And for a dramatic twist, in the report there is a letter of concern from an Minnesota resident who wrote a letter in June of ’09 to the Iowa Film Commission stating, “I am writing because I discovered what I think to be fraud perpetrated on the tax payers of Iowa.” He goes on to detail how the head of a production company in L.A. told him (in his words), “She puts in millions of dollars in phony deferments with people she knows then gets tax credits to cover it.”

Needless to say, the Iowa Auditor is not the only one angry. Everyone from Iowa politicians (on all sides) to Iowa residents are angry. I doubt if the State of Iowa will be able to recoup much of the money that it says its owed. But I image there are some filmmakers, producers, and “tax certificate brokers” that are getting a little less sleep these days. Perhaps some houses and Hummers will be sold and perhaps some people will go to jail. (Lawyer fees alone for those being investigated will be ridiculous.)  Time will tell. But the moral of the story is don’t commit fraud to get your film made. (Heck, let’s just go out on a limb and say it’s never a good idea to commit any kind of fraud.)  And if you just see yourself as a big picture artistic person, be careful of whose advice you follow.

And  it’s not like these people were even stealing to make good films. You know, you at least have a little sympathy for the unemployed, down on his luck fellow who steals a loaf of bread to feed his family. But we’re talking about pure greed to produce crap. Just another scam to make money.

And from a pure filmmaker’s perspective it’s sickening to see the inflated fees that were paid to crews on the taxerspayers’ dime. I noticed more than one line item for inexperienced production people  who were paid more for a few weeks work than the total film cost of Edward Burns’ new film , Nice Guy Johnny. (Reportedly made with a three person crew for $25,000.) It was released on iTunes this week and as I type this it is currently #7 in iTunes rentals. If you want a true independent filmmaker to look up to and who’s leading the alternative distribution way, Burns is a great choice to follow.

Scott W. Smith

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Have you ever seen a one-legged dog making its way down the street?
If you’ve ever seen a one-legged dog then you’ve seen me
Then you’ve seen me, I come and stand at every door
Then you’ve seen me, I always leave with less than I had before
Bruce Springsteen
The Wrestler

“Credit card debt is a major problem in America.”
Dave Ramsey
The Truth About Credit Card Debt


Americans love a good success story. We love good myths as well.  And the model of financing your film via credit cards has given us some wonderful success stories and a myth as well.  The truth is most credit card  filmmakers (99% would be a good guess) are like the one-legged dog that Springsteen sings about in The Wrestler—they leave with less than they had before. And the one thing worse than being broke, is being in debt.

The problem is we usually only hear the success stories. Robert Townsend was the first person I ever heard about who financed a feature film using credit cards. Back in 1987 Hollywood Shuffle was released and it launched his career.

“There was nothing I couldn’t get with a credit card. And what I couldn’t pay for with credit card I would get a cash advance on the credit card. I couldn’t pay people but I said, ‘I could put gas in your car.’ So I said, ‘All of you follow me to the gas station. I would tell the dealer, ‘See those 20 cars out there? Put it on my American Express.”
Robert Townsend
Jet magazine Jun 1, 1987

Kevin Smith’s Clerks is another film said to be funded on credit cards. Again, it launched a career. The documentary Spellbound was not only nominated for an Academy Award  but grossed over six million dollars and was funded by credit cards.

“We hit the road, using our credit cards to fund the project. Then we’d come home between shooting the film, pay down some of the debt and resume shooting,”
Spellbound producer Sean Welch in a Money magazine article.

So there you have three examples of success stories that solidify the myth of credit card filmmaking. But the truth is best summed up in a Charles Lyons 2005 article in The New York Times called Join a Revolution. Make Movies. Go Broke. Seriously, every filmmaker needs to read that article. Arin Crumley and Susan Buice were filmmaking darlings five years ago as their film Four Eyes Monsters was well received at film festivals and garnered lots of press. But the film did not find a distributor and left Crumley and Buice with $55,000.+ in credit card debt.

“It’s not O.K. for our film to have been mildly successful on the festival circuit. But otherwise, it was just a jaunt into the abyss and now we have financial hell to pay.”
Susan Buice (2005)

Filmmakers using credit cards to self-finance their films is another reason why Kelley Baker is The Angry Filmmaker;

“Too many people finance their films on credit cards, and they go broke! Their films end up not getting a distributor and they’re left paying 30% interest on a film that no one wants. Heed the words of noted financial consultant and former NBA player Charles Barkley, ‘Credit cards exist to keep poor people poor.’

DON’T USE YOUR DAMN CREDIT CARDS FOR ANYTHING!!!”
Kelley Baker
The Angry Filmmaker Survival Guide

With that said, Four Eyed Monsters filmmakers Crumley and Buice got creative and kept finding ways to get people to see their film. One of them was in 2007 when their film became the first feature length film to be shown on You Tube. As I write this on October 29, 2010 there have been 1,256,401 views. They also made a plea on You Tube for people to join spout.com and that company would give Crumley and Brice $1 for each person who joins up to $100,000. Fast forward a few years and I read on the blog Distribution 2.0 that Crumley and Buice got $50,000. from the You Tube/Spout deal, and that exposure not only added DVD sales, but the online attention got them a $100,000 broadcast and rental deal. Does that add to the credit card myth or fall under the category of a crazy success story?

The entire film is linked below. (As a quirky side note, A few years ago I did a documentary shoot in Russia with DP Jon Fordham who was a cameraman on Four Eyed Monsters.)

Scott W. Smith


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The Angry Filmmaker (Part 2)

Kelley Baker on anger take one:
“A lot of people ask me why I’m angry. I am the Angry Filmmaker after all. What makes me angry is the state of INDEPENDENT films. The independent film industry is no longer even remotely independent. It’s been mainstreamed by Hollywood and is now simply another over-hyped product. Like commercial radio, pop music and Starbucks coffee, the industry gas become a homogenized mess of conglomerates owned by a handful of extremely powerful corporations. It begs the question Independent from what? We need to take the word ‘Independent’ back!”

Kelley Baker on anger take two:
“I was visiting my alma mater (USC Cinema) a few years ago, and after touring the place, it seemed like a whole different world to me. When I was there, the school was full of outsiders, people who didn’t fit in anywhere else. People were artists, or at least trying to be. Now the school looks like a giant fraternity/sorority party. I know there were outsiders somewhere, I just didn’t see any. I was asking one of my old professors if they ever let the ‘riff-raff’ into the program any more. The people who don’t fit in. He said, sadly, ‘No.’ A lot of the people in the program now were kids of Hollywood people. “

Kelley Baker on anger take three:
“Think of all the people who’ve entered those (screenwriting) contests for years and got nothing. You have as much chance of winning one of those contests and having your movie made as I do having monkeys fly out of my butt! Your only choice is to make the damn thing yourself.”

Taken from Baker’s book The Angry Filmmaker Survival Guide.

Scott W. Smith

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Over the years I’ve learned to wear quite a few hats; producer, director, writer, cameraman, editor, etc.—but one thing I have little experience in is sound design. Thanks to The Angry Filmmaker, Kelley Baker, I know a lot more today than before I met him two days ago.

Years ago, I had one class is film school where the teacher showed us the George Stevens’ classic A Place in the Sun. When it was over he asked us questions like, “What sounds do you associate with the Elizabeth Taylor character?” and “What is going on in the background noise for Shelly Winters’ character?” None of us had a clue. We talked about sound design and then watched parts of the film again and I began to understand the details that went into a well crafted film. Though it’s been a big gap, what I learned from Baker took up right where that film professor left off.

Baker stopped into my office Monday as a quick pit stop on his way from Wisconsin to St. Louis. He watched a short video I’m on the tail end of production on and offered some wisdom on sound design and added that I should cut it the whole thing by a minute. A minute? It’s only four minutes long. A minute is 25% of the almost finished video. Later that night (just before midnight) 51 seconds had been painfully edited out and it’s a better project for it.

Baker is a USC film school grad, an independent feature filmmaker, and was sound designer on several high profile features including Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester, and My Own Private Idaho. That’s a pretty good resume.  These days he spends a lot of time doing film seminars and passing on what he’s learned over the years to other filmmakers. (I’ll get into why he’s the Angry Filmmaker in later posts.)

But today I want to touch on one scene Barker sound designed for Good Will Hunting. It’s the scene where Will (Matt Damon) gets into a fight. Watch the linked clip and then read Baker’s comments below. (If you really want to dip your toes in sound design, first watch the clip without sound and then ask yourself how you would design the scene, Then listen to it with sound before you read Baker’s comments below.)

Baker told me that he asked director Gus Van Sant what he wanted for the fight scene thinking he might want big punches like those found in Raging Bull. Van Sant simply told him, “I want Revolution Number 9.” That’s the Beatles song off their White Album and what Van Sant was saying was he wanted chaos.

Baker goes into more detail on his educational DVD Sound Design For Independent Films saying;

“We already agreed that the fight would be from Matt’s point of view—all the audio for the fight…You’re going to hear church bells, you’re going to hear birds, happy little birds, and you’re going to hear kind of a choir…There’s a lot more going on, but those three kind of stand out. And you have to think, “This is a fight, what am I hearing happy birds for? Why am I hearing church bells? What’s the whole deal with the choir? It’s easy. As a young man Will Hunting was beat up and knocked around and dumped on by all these foster parents and he talks about it in the movie.

The only time he’s ever happy and at peace with himself is when he’s fighting. When he’s beating the crap out of somebody. So to him to some extent—and this is only in my logic perhaps—it’s the happiest time for him when he’s invloved in a fight and he’s winning. That’s why you get happy birds, that’s why you get these religious type sound effects because he is at one. He is at peace when he’s in the middle of a fight.

Is anybody in the middle of watching the movie going to say, ‘Listen there’s a choir, he’s at one with himself because of his horrible childhood”? No, nobody’s going to say that. Are they going to pick up on it psychologically? I hope so. That’s the idea. I’m trying to tell you more about characters through sound and sound effects.”

Now watch the clip of the Good Will Hunting clip again. You may be a writer, not a sound designer, but look at the detail that professionals (including directors, actors,  editors, directors of photography, wardrobe, set designers, sound designers, etc.) are looking for clues on how to best bring your story to life.

And just for good measure listen to the Beatles Revolution Number 9 to see Van Sant’s original reference point for the fight scene sound.

Scott W. Smith

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Yesterday I was fortunate to have lunch with The Angry Filmmaker (Kelley Baker ) and  Jon Gann, founder of the D.C. Film Alliance, as they journeyed from doing a film workshop in Madison, Wisconsin to meeting with filmmakers in St. Louis. I’ll write more about what I learned about filmmaking over yesterday’s lunch (and it was a lot) later this week, but for today let me sum it all up in one word—”Stagecoach.”

Kelley and Jon noticed as they pulled into Cedar Falls fresh from a morning stop at the Field of Dreams in Dyersville) that the 1939 John Wayne/John Ford film “Stagecoach” was on the marquee at the Oster-Regent Theatre on Main Street. No, movies don’t take that long to get to Iowa (though many good ones never get here), but it was part of the theater’s 100 year celebration.

On Sunday afternoon I gave a short introduction to the classic western film and that info I learned meshed very well with Kelley’s own views on filmmaking and that is simply that filmmaking is a process that is best learned by doing. If you’ve read this blog much you’ve heard illustration after illustration of writers and filmmakers who simply learned their craft by writing script after script and making film after film.

And the same was true for John Wayne and John Ford. While Stagecoach is #63 of AFI’s list of the greatest American films ever made and #9 on their list of top ten westerns. The film was nominated for seven Oscars and won two. It did not win for best picture  because 1939 was one of the greatest years for films in the history of cinema.

Stagecoach joined Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Wuthering Heights, Ninotchka and The Wizard of Oz in losing the best picture Oscar to Gone with the Wind. Victor Fleming also won best director for Gone with the Wind.

But Stagecoach was the go to film for Orson Welles before he made Citizen Kane (1941). In fact, Welles not only watched the film 40 times, but when once asked who his favorite three film directors where said, “John Ford, John Ford, John Ford.” For what it’s worth, both Citizen Kane and Stagecoach did mediocre business at the box office when released.

But the more fascinating thing to me about Stagecoach from this blog’s perspective is that for both John Ford and John Wayne it was about the 90th film each had made. Of the 180 films between the two made before 1939  most people today wouldn’t recognize but one or two films. (John Wayne called his pre-Stagecoach films “poverty westerns.”) A good deal of those films where two-reelers that were 20-50 minutes in length. Though the popularity of these shorter films that played along side feature films died out in the mid to late 1930s, they proved to be a great training ground for actors and filmmakers since the beginning of film history in the late 1800s.

And if the 10,000 hour rule is true then the greatest benefit for actors and filmmakers today in working on short films is the learning process.  What does the Angry Filmmaker have to say about short films?

“If you make a feature without having made a short film, you’re an idiot. Filmmaking is as much a craft as it is an art form and a business. First and for most you have to learn your craft.”
Kelley Baker
The Angry Filmmaker Survival Guide

These days it really doesn’t take much time and money to get some friends and some equipment together and make one to seven minute films. And there are plenty of film festivals to enter so you can collect some awards and this little thing called the internet for your films to perhaps find an audience and make a name for yourself.

If John Wayne can go from being born in little Winterset, Iowa to becoming one of the greatest on-screen legends via doing 13 years of  “poverty westerns”— just maybe there is some magic in just in the process of doing little things well until greater opportunities come your way.

P.S. And just because I delight in making odd connections, The Angry Filmmaker (who’s really a gentle soul from what I can tell) is from Portland which happens to be where writer Ernest Haycox was born and died. Haycox wrote 300 short stories and 12 novels and  of who Ernest Hemingway once said, “I read The Saturday Evening Post whenever it has a serial by Ernest Haycox.” Haycox’s short story Stage to Lordsborg was what screenwriter Dudley Nichols based based his script Stagecoach.

P.P.S. The movie Stagecoach was also John Ford’s first film to be shot in Monument Valley. Though I’ve been all over the county that area is one place I’ve missed and is in my top five place I want to see. I dream of staying at The View Hotel on the Arizona/Utah border someday. As John Ford found out, there is some beautiful land out there in flyover county.

Scott W. Smith


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Here is one more quote to add to the stack about growing up in a place somewhat disconnected. In a 1966 interview Bob Dylan spoke about growing up in Hibbing, Minnesota* (located in northern Minnesota).

“Well, in the winter, everything was still, nothing moved. Eight months of that. You can put it together. You can have some amazing hallucinogenic experiences doing nothing but looking out your window. There is also the summer, when it gets hot and sticky and the air is very metallic. There is a lot of Indian spirit. The earth there is unusual, filled with ore. So there is something happening that is hard to define. There is a magnetic attraction there. Maybe thousands and thousands of years ago, some planet bumped into the land there. There is a great spiritual quality throughout the Midwest. Very subtle, very strong, and that is where I grew up.”
Bob Dylan
1966 Interview with Ron Rosenbaum

*Though Hibbing is a small town in the range of 20,000 people it also happens to be “where ‘Carl’ Wickman and Andrew ‘Bus Andy’ Anderson, started a bus line between Hibbing and Alice, Minnesota which would eventually become Greyhound Lines, the world’s largest bus company.” It’s where New York Yankee Roger Maris, who once had the Major League Baseball single season home run record, was born. And Hibbing is where the parents of Hall-of-Fame vineyard operator Robert Mondavi’s parents settled when they emigrated from Italy.

Scott W. Smith

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Highway 61 Meets A1A

It’s full circle here today at Screenwriting from Iowa. Tonight I’m going to hear Bob Dylan live for the first time. Talk abut a slow training coming. But before I remember being drawn to Dylan’s music there was another up and coming fellow named Jimmy Buffett in the mid-70s that captured the attention of this 15-year-old growing up in Florida.

Only last night did I realize there really was a connection between Dylan and Buffett. The following exchange is from an interview of Dylan by Bill Flanagan, Bob Dylan Exclusive Interview: Reveals His Favorites Songwriters.

BF: Who are some of your favorite songwriters?

BD: Buffett I guess. Lightfoot. Warren Zevon. Randy. John Prine. Guy Clark. Those kinds of writers.

BF: What songs do you like of Buffett’s?

BD: “Death of an Unpopular Poet.” There’s another one called “He Went to Paris.”

Buffett who is a five years younger than Dylan would have been in college (Auburn and Southern Mississippi) and just developing his own music styles when Dylan was having a major influence in the 60s. At that time, while  Buffett was playing little dives in Hattiesburg, Mobile, Biloxi and New Orleans he was known to play Dylan’s songs like, “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Don’t Think Twice it’s All Right (Number 9).” I’m sure he played a few off Dylan’s album Highway 61 Revisited.

Dylan recorded Blonde on Blonde in Nashville in 1966 when nobody outside of Nashville recorded there. Many make the connection between Dylan recording there with having a profound impact on the writing of Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. A few years later Buffett would land in Nashville for a spell trying to launch his musical career.

Dylan and Buffett were not only both under the influence of the bluesmen from the Mississippi Delta but by country legend Hank Williams from Mobile, Alabama. (Which happens to be Buffett’s hometown.)  In D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary Bob Dylan Don’t Look Back, Dylan breaks into a Hank Williams song and on Buffett’s Licence to Chill album he sings Williams’ classic Hey, Good Lookin.’

So while Dylan’s life started at the northern end of Highway 61 in northern Minnesota, Buffett was cutting his teeth at the southern end of the long highway 61 in New Orleans. Another road worth mentioning is State Road A1A in Florida which runs along the Atlantic Coast from Callahan, FL all the way down to Key West.  Jimmy Buffett territory. A-1-A also happens to be a 1974 Jimmy Buffett album that is considered one of his most highly regarded.

There is a song on the A-1-A album called A Pirate Looks at Forty that Dylan and Joan Baez covered at the Pasadena Peace Sunday back in 1982. So while technically Highway Highway 61 & A1A never cross in real life they do in the world of storytellers.

I know Dylan has 500 of his own songs but if he performs a Buffett song tonight I will know that at least for a few moments that all is right in the world.

Scott W. Smith



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