One of the greatest gifts I have ever had in my filmmaking career was a dose of reality. I was about 23 years old, and I had just made my second feature film. Unlike my first film, this new movie was totally legit. It was a full on narrative with an actual budget. We hired real actors, and even had an experienced producer and actor mentoring us.
After spending thirteen months producing this film, it was ready to go to the market. My producer and I sent dozens of query letters and VHS tapes (makes me sound old) to all of the distributors at that time. After several months of waiting for responses from would-be distributors we finally got a bite. A distribution company based in LA was interested in our film!
My team and I quickly set up a meeting and drove from Las Vegas to Beverly Hills. From the start, this seemingly reputable film distributor showed us amazing hospitality and gave us encouragement. They were quick to explain how successful we would be after the movie released. They were certain that they could sell the film’s TV rights to a major studio. The only catch was, we had to sign a deal with this company, and we had to do it fast!
Not all lawyers are the same
Full of excitement, the team and I raced back to Vegas to figure things out. First thing we needed was a lawyer. Little did we know at that time, not all entertainment lawyers are good for movie agreements. We hired the lowest price lawyer we could find, which quickly gave us a thumbs up on signing the deal. Although they did a decent job at making sure we didn’t have any liability in the contract, they neglected to help us find a path to any profitability.
Despite being seemingly smart for my age, I signed one of the worst distribution contracts known to mankind. This agreement was a triple turd, wrapped in a turd-flavored tortilla! Sadly, it would take me two years to realize how bad this thing tasted. Not only had I signed a ten years with this company, the first $50,000 of earnings would go to the distributor. Even more troubling, the distributor owned all of the distribution rights to the film. This not only limited us with selling to other companies, but restricted our exhibition at film festivals and other events.
Trying to get my film back
Fast forward two years later, we hadn’t made one dime off the film. We were so buried in expenses that we couldn’t recoup enough to break our expense cap. To make matters worse, the distributor had buried our film in their catalog. They were no longer presenting our movie to buyers at the film markets, and they stopped returning our calls.
After fully realizing our folly, my producing partner and I drove back to meet with the distributor. We met with them at AFM the American Film Market. Ironically, this meeting wasn’t as hospitable as our first one. The distributor proceeded to tell us that there was nothing we could do to get the film back. They had another eight years left in their agreement and were not interested in renegotiating. They even joked that they could do nothing with the film if they chose.
We were screwed.
A gift to my filmmaking career
After the meeting, I felt totally devastated. I remember sitting out on the ocean-side deck of the Loews Hotel in Santa Monica, where AFM is hosted. As I watched the beautiful sunset over the ocean, I couldn’t help feeling like a complete failure. Not only had I let my team down, but I felt crushed by the weight of helplessness.
I wasn’t sure I could do it again. I was ready to call filmmaking quits. On the long drive back to Las Vegas, I had plenty of time to reflect in silence. I am not sure how it happened, but I suddenly remembered an origin story of Walt Disney.
Before Walt was the legend we know of him today, he was a indie filmmaker like most of us. In the 1920’s, Walt produced a popular series of cartoons with an animated character named Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. On a fateful trip to New York, he discovered that his distributor was taking the rights to the character and kicking him to the curb. Walt was devastated.
As legend has it, it was on his train ride back to Los Angeles that he came up with a new character. With the help of his lead animator Ub Iwerks and Walt’s wife Lillian, the character would later evolve into Mickey Mouse. The whole experience was a lesson that had guided him through his entire filmmaking career. His setback had prompted him a great gift.
Education is power
Inspired by this story, I quickly went back to Las Vegas and started formulating my next project. I also made a point of learning everything I could about how films were distributed and sold. I read legal books, went to seminars, and even cold called distributors asking them questions about distribution. Within a year, I had new film and was armed with powerful distribution knowledge.
It wasn’t too long after that, our distribution company was run out of Hollywood and sued multiple times. We eventually got the rights back to our film, and moved on from the experience. It was a lesson that had offered me an amazing gift – the gift of knowledge!
As I prepare to release my eighth feature film this coming year, I reflect upon my journey. I wonder how things would be today if I hadn’t had that horrible experience all those years ago. I guess the moral of this story is that, although you may be facing one of the greatest setbacks of your career, think about these things as a gift. It’s a learning experience. If you can learn from it, you can use it. It will surely make you a better filmmaker moving forward.
As we close out this year, I ask each of you to reflect. Think about the things that you have succeeded in, and those that you haven’t. Ask yourself, “Did I learn from my setbacks?“ Hopefully the answer is yes, and it can guide you through your filmmaking career.
I wish all of you have a warm and wonderful holiday season. Be safe out there. Be kind to each other. Let’s make 2023 a positive turning point for the world!
If you’re interested in discovering more tips for filmmakers, be sure to check out my books on Amazon!
Interested in more tips on filmmaking? Check out one of my past blog posts here.