I recently read an article about “movie jail” in Filmmaker magazine, which I remembered because today I read an article in Entertainment Weekly about “Selma” director Ava DuVernay. Among the many points made, Ms. DuVernay just wants to keep a career going. She said, “I’ve never been in this place before.” As in, a place where she has the momentum to keep making movies.
I wondered while reading the Filmmaker article if I would be considered in “movie jail.” “Movie jail” is when you direct a movie and it doesn’t do well and it impedes your future opportunities. Your “phone stops ringing,” so to speak, or I guess literally. A famous example is Elaine May. She directed four movies and the last one was “Ishtar.” She never got to direct again. Richard Shepard wrote an article about being in “movie jail” after directing “The Linguini Incident” in a 2005 article in Filmmaker. Where is Charlie Kaufman’s next movie? According to Wikipedia his most recent project fell through because “the studio was unsure about its chances for success after the financial failure of Kaufman’s last directorial effort.” It was also his first directorial effort.
What would make me a candidate for “movie jail?” I never directed a studio film. But in the heydey of 90’s indie filmmaking, I did direct a feature film – which I also wrote, produced, edited, and starred in. I never made another one. I’ve done lots of stuff since then, but I haven’t taken on the challenge of making a feature film again. And a challenge it was! This was before the age of high quality digital video and laptop editing. I was shooting on Super 16mm, getting my film processed in a lab, and editing work prints with a razor blade on a flatbed editor.
Saying I’m in “movie jail” is flattering myself because the phone wasn’t really ringing to begin with. I got the movie made through sheer dedication, hard work, and focus. And, looking back, while I do think I have talents as an writer, director, actor, and editor, what I really excelled at was being what is known in the industry as a line producer. A line producer manages the production and the budget. I have friends who could’ve made a film just like I did, and perhaps a better film, but they didn’t have the organizational skills that I have. Still, what do I do with this realization? Go to Hollywood and hold up a sign that says “Will Work As Line Producer?” I’m figuring it out.
Why didn’t I make another film? Well, I spent about two years making it, and when you are in your twenties that’s a long time. I burned myself out. I think I got frustrated that after the Behemoth-sized amount of blood, sweat, and tears (and money) that went into it, that I didn’t get the results I wanted. I wanted my movie to play in theaters. I wanted a three picture deal with Miramax. I wanted to be like Ed Burns and get to be in “Saving Private Ryan.”
Now looking back, I think that it was a success. I just needed to learn that you need to build a career. You don’t spend that much time on one single project without having another project in the mix. That’s one way you burn yourself out.
My movie was completed and I enjoyed the way it turned out. It was shown in some film festivals and screenings I organized were well-attended. It played at a film market in New York and had an amazing response. It played on a cable channel in Philadelphia. I signed with a foreign sales agent and it did some business. I think it played in Cyprus. I signed a ten-year contract with a streaming site, but the contract ended early because they weren’t focusing on indies anymore. Now it’s not available anywhere, but that was more of a run that any other indie film I was involved with after that had. I was involved with some films that were never even completed. But at the time, I think I saw it as a failure, and I had only planned for success. A lot of things I learned during that time I’ve applied since then.
I learned to keep moving forward. Keep creating. Don’t… I know this is a cliché, but here goes – don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Build a career.
Yes, I know. I am aiming to publish a new blog every Wednesday, and it’s Saturday. But it’s here!
Current reading: I am still reading “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Making Money on Wall Street.” It’s dense. An actual idiot is going to have a hard time with this.
Current movie: I haven’t seen a movie in the past two weeks, but I will recommend “Boyhood.” I walked out of that movie feeling, “Boy, life is one long slog, isn’t it?” The movie captured that.
Current TV: We are up to season three of “Sons of Anarchy.” I loved Stephen King’s cameo as Bachman. I explained to my girlfriend the significance of him having the name Bachman.
Current wisdom: Ask yourself, “What would a successful person be doing right now?”