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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Townsend’

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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Orson Welles? Sunset Boulevard? Diablo Cody? None of those posts have done what quoting Kevin Smith has done–basically double my number of views. Maybe there are other factors at play but I’m staying on the Kevin Smith gravy train for a couple more days. I should point the way to Stephen Lowenstein’s book My First Movie; 20 Directors Talk about Their First Film as the source of the quotes I’ve pulled from Smith.

So far Kevin Smith’s magic formula starting out is:

1) Watch Slacker and decide to make movie
2) Write a script

There are basically just three major pieces of the puzzle left. Fundraising, production & editing, and distribution. So how did Smith raise the money to make Clerks? First he did a little research and learned Robert Rodriguez had done medical experimentations to raise funds for El Mariachi, and that Sam Raimi went to dentists and doctors to raise money for The Evil Dead, and that Robert Townsend had made Hollywood Shuffle using credit cards.

Smith went the credit card route and sold his comic book collection for $2,000. in credit which he in turn sold the credit to a friend which helped to make the minimum payments on his credit  cards. He also had a little cash from FEMA after a flood destroyed some old beat-up Volkeswagons he had. He was living with his parents and did have jobs at a convenience store and a video store.

“The option was to continue working at the convenience store for the rest of my life, until I got fired. And if not that convenience store, some other convenience store. And I was just no good at labour. I was just a very lazy, lazy person, and still am to a large degree. But when it came to this, I never felt lazy because it didn’t feel like work. It’s my passion; it’s what I want to do. So I guess it was a gamble and when I told my parents, I think they figured, this’ll get it out of his system. Now he’ll settle down and get a good job like his bothers. But they were very supportive.”
Kevin Smith
My First Movie
page 78

Now it’s worth pointing out that probably 99.9% of all filmmakers who make a film using credit cards never see a return on their investment and at best take years to pay it off and at worse end up filing for bankruptcy. We only hear about those who succeed going the Robert Townsend way because it makes for good press. But I imagine one could make a compelling documentary about failed movie makers who leveraged credit cards to make a movie.

Smith made Clerks in 1993 shooting film on an Arri SR camera which ended up being a large percentage of budget. Certainly these days you can find people with a digital camera, lights, an audio package and a Final Cut Pro editing system that will join you on your quest to make a film and spare you the risk of leveraging your personal credit.

The key thing to learn from Smith is it was not his credit cards that made the film it was his passion. His passion is what made him write the script. His passion is what allowed him to make a film using unpaid actors and an unpaid crew. His passion is what kept everyone going when shooting at 2 in the morning. His passion is what made him work his day jobs and edit his film at night.

Passion–that stuff is contagious.

Speaking of passion…check out a video I did a couple years ago on an aerosol artist who spray painted his version of the Sistine Chapel on a ceiling here in Iowa. This video ended up making front page news on Yahoo back in 2006. Watch the video at pacorosic.com.

And keep in mind when Paco came to America about ten years ago he was an 18-year old Bosnian who had no money and didn’t even speak English yet. Today he owns a restaurant, sells his artwork around the country, has appeared on the TV program Rachel Ray, and has a 60 piece showing coming up at an art gallery in St. Louis.

Scott W. Smith

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