Film Schooling: Insider Insights Into Indy Filmmaking – Production And Politics

By Chris Hood

(This is Part Eighteen of an ongoing series to help educate aspiring filmmaker on the process of making their first film. Previous articles in this series can be found at BleedingCool.com and MovieIndustry.com)

Parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17

Politics has staked a notable claim in the film business. Prepare yourself for that. Don't plan on fighting it, but instead learn to play the game. In most cases you'd rather not and, frankly, creative people are generally not terribly good at it. And no matter how big you get, how much power or money or influence you wield, politics will always be a part of the equation to some extent (but more on that later in this article). It's part of the overall process and if you want to be a good filmmaker, you'll need to be good at all of the different tasks which that entails.

What I'm referring to as "politics," in it's simplest form, is deal making outside the box. More specifically, deal making above and beyond what the standard, expected terms of a deal would or should be. The origin of the term should be obvious and totally fits when you consider the nature of traditional politics which goes back thousands of years. When a new bill is presented to Congress which should take a dozen pages and runs three hundred instead because of all the earmarks, you have an idea as to how far this can go. In the case of Washington, this kind of thing has gotten so common as to be the norm. You would think a reasonable bill proposing money to repair a bridge in Washington D.C. would pass the House and Senate easily.

Unfortunately, the more power a person has, the more likely they are to misuse it. That's why, no matter how reasonable and/or necessary a bill might be, there are those that will game the system and make demands. The fact is, the party in power can deny passing a bill unless they get something (or usually 'something else') out of it for themselves – "Sure, I'll approve that bridge, but let's add a little something in the bill for tax breaks on a dildo factory in my district…and my colleague wants scholarships for people who eat Cheez Whiz…and…."  You get the idea. When people have power, they often misuse it to the fullest.

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If a producer gives a writer $100k for a script and the writer agrees, that's a straight forward deal; no politics involved. If the writer "requests" that his mom be the "Little Old Lady" in the pizzeria scene, then politics has just made its first appearance. It can be inconsequential or massive. It can be easy or difficult. It can benefit, strain or even ruin a production, so it must be handled smartly.

As I said in the introduction to this piece, politics plays a bigger role than most folks are aware. The most common thing you'll likely experience is someone trying to get someone else a job on your film. I've had investors and stars request roles or crew positions for friends and family members. Usually, these are small and easy to accommodate. It's so commonplace that actors who are on set resulting from this type of horse trading or favormongering are even referred to as "politicals."  I like to do favors and show my appreciation, but sometimes the requests aren't so easy. I had an investor one time offer to put up a large some of money for a project on the condition that I could guarantee sexual favors in return. I couldn't (and wouldn't) make that promise. That project never happened.

I've had people want a friend's music or poem to be used in the film. One guy asked if we could feature his car as he thought he could get more when it came time to sell it. On more than one occasion I've had people request that their businesses be featured in a film. Some people just want to see their name or business in the credits. Some of these things are easy. Some you wish you could accommodate but can't for one reason or another. Some are simply terrible ideas. You have to juggle and evaluate every one. It's all part of the game.

And these games are played at all levels of this business. Everyone plays them. Everyone. George Clooney, Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise to name just a few. Clooney regularly discusses his business model for choosing projects. Although he doesn't use the word "politics," that's exactly the game he's playing and he plays it well. He calls it the "one for me, one for them" model. It allows him to make the movies he wants to make while still providing the studios with lower risk, more profitable content. "Let me make Confession of a Dangerous Mind and I'll do Ocean's 12." "I'll do Ocean's 13, but I want to make Syriana first." In cases like this, the studios often are in a tough spot. If they don't accommodate their big stars, directors and writers, one of their competitors might. Plus, just because a project may not seem marketable, surprises do happen. Syriana and The Descendents probably didn't have the studio suits excited, but they ended up doing very well. Leathernecks and Good Night And Good Luck – not so much.  But the Ocean's 11 series made enough money to fund a number of disappointing, smaller pet projects for Clooney and some of them are big enough hits so that it's still a safe bet for whomever puts up the money.

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Perhaps my favorite example of this type if politics was with Steven Spielberg. Universal Studios had the rights to the Schindler's List novel which they had picked up ten years earlier. Spielberg had been circling it for a while and decided it was time to pull the trigger. The idea of making a Holocaust film was not terribly appealing to the studio and the idea of shooting it in black and white was perceived to be a death sentence. But when the most successful director in the world ask you for something like that, it's hard to say "no." So Sid Sheinberg at Universal made Spielberg a deal – they would throw away $20m on Spielberg's little pet project if he agreed to the do the film adaptation of the best selling adventure book Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. Spielberg agreed. No one was surprised that Jurassic Park was a monster hit (pun intended). Everyone was surprised by Schindler's List. Aside from over $300 million in worldwide box office receipts, it went on to win seven Academy Awards including Best Picture. If Spielberg hadn't had the clout to make that deal, Schindler's List would probably never have been made on its own. Politics.

Of course, there are smaller examples that take place every day in this business, but those stories usually aren't as exciting. We've all seen people in films that seem terribly miscast and wonder how that happens. That answer is usually politics. I remember seeing Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back and seeing four hot women traveling across country….the problem was, however, that one of them wasn't hot. I was immediately asking myself – "How did SHE get cast?" It took just a few minutes to get my answer – she was Kevin Smith's wife. Politics. This is one of these examples where it hurt the film (not that the movie didn't have plenty of other issues besides that).  How much damage, we'll never know, but tragically bad casting, no matter what the reason, is always a detriment.

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One of my favorite stories, and by favorite I mean most irritating, is Tom Cruise on the set of War of the Worlds. One of his conditions for doing the movie was insisting that a Scientology tent be set up on location while filming and manned by volunteers of his 'religion' to pass out literature and try to recruit new members from the cast and crew. Weird? Absolutely. Unreasonable? Yep. Unusual? Not when reduced to the simple factor that people with power, in this business, will often make demands that have nothing to do with the deal being discussed. I'm guessing a combination of the bad press this little stunt evoked as well and the likelihood that few to zero new members actually resulted from the effort is the only reason you don't see Cruise insisting on a Scientology tent on every one of his films. Having read Dianetics, I do think they're better served by having people telling prospective recruits about Scientology, because if you actually read their source text you might realize what an absurd 'religion' it actually is…

So prepare yourself for anything. All manner of requests may find their way to you as a producer and/or director. Give those requests whatever degree of consideration they're due (which in some cases is nothing more than refraining from laughing) and make a decision. If you manage to break through to the big time (or even medium time) some day, you'll see more of the same with the only thing changing being the scope and the influence of the players involved and level of the "favors" being asked. You won't be able to please them all so you'd better learn to be Dale Carnegie or David Copperfield.

Chris Hood is a writer, producer and director of such films as "Counterpunch" starring Danny Trejo (a Lionsgate release) and "Dirty Dealing 3D" with Michael Madsen and C. Thomas Howell. He and Jon Schultz  own Robin Hood Films, a Las Vegas-based distribution company representing English language films around the world and operates a film blog at MovieIndustry.com.  He's also dead sexy.  (Mr. Hood denies any involvement in the creation of this mini-bio.)

About Hannah Means Shannon

Editor-in-Chief at Bleeding Cool. Independent comics scholar and former English Professor. Writing books on magic in the works of Alan Moore and the early works of Neil Gaiman.