The Path of Two Chows

I love my dogs, especially their individuality. I feared dogs and vowed never to own a dog – that is, until I came home one day in 2001 to discover Goldie, a chow chow my wife brought into the house against my wishes. I promptly threw a fit, and then proceeded to fall in love with Goldie. The next thing I knew, I was in a dog club, going to dog shows in the desert, and even stepping into the ring to show Goldie as a Veteran – she came in Second Place! Out of 2!

So, when Sensation became available through a window of opportunity (the window unfortunately was created by a shotgun to the previous owner’s head – really too sad to face without some dark humor), we jumped to care for this most adorable boy chow chow. Boy was he different. Where Goldie was stern and sometimes anxious, he simply chose to be sleeping. For walks, their differences amplified to a confounding level. Goldie goes straight down the block, following the sidewalk like it’s a tight rope with a squirrel waiting at the end. She gets to her favorite strip of grass, and takes care of business. And she’s ready to go home. But Sensation prefers to explore, wander, and generally follow a pattern that can only be defined by mathematical formulas still being perfected in the studies of chaos theory.

For the longest time, I tried to force Sensation to learn Goldie’s path, or any path for that matter that can be repeated without boarding a time machine. Unfortunately, if I attempt to encourage a particular route, he pulls, stand firm with his paws digging into the ground, and refuses to move. Then, he turns to go the opposite way, no matter which way I decided to go. And forget creating a specific spot for his business. I usually have to follow his crazy pattern for at least ten minutes while he looks for a new spot every time (with poor Goldie following the both of us). However, when I take him off the leash, he wanders a bit and does within 30 seconds.

I finally realized, this boy just wants his freedom. So, I’ve started to dream about buying a big house with a back yard for his wandering. I think Jackie might enjoy a big house as well. In fact, it would be dreamy for me, as I would have a home office, with a brand new MAC to write, and a Plasma TV for checking out the latest cut of my film, and a swanky couch for writing and producing partners to eat pizza, and of course, a fancy espresso machine fueled by Coffee Bean or Caribou Coffee. It’s possible. I’ve seen many similar layouts in the houses of my former bosses.

But, how to get there?

After 9 years in Los Angeles, I continue to get closer to success, and yet I find myself with an internal debate that could be subconsciously influencing my hesitation as opportunities present themselves. This debate matches many of the filmmaking blogs and symposium discussions. Which path is the best path for a filmmaker?

Most of my life, I saw Hollywood as the dream path. They love your script so much, a bidding war ensues, and before you know it, Target is selling your complete DVD set as part of its Great American Filmmakers series. However, I’ve had enough time, and heard enough war stories from all levels of the system from the pimply intern to the Vegas posse of a TV star that gave me a more realistic view of Hollywood.

They call it the film business for a reason. That’s how Warner Bros can lay off 500 workers in a down economy at the same time that they are making record billion dollar profits. I’m not blaming Warner Bros, as the company is only acting in its’ best interest. That’s how companies succeed – not by being Mr. Nice Guy. Once I realized that the dreamy studio system consisted of a few corporate conglomerates, my instincts began to whisper insanity-making ideas into my head, such as “Hey, buddy. Don’t you realize that corporate power places serious limitations on true creative potential of American filmmaking.”

After all, it’s the corporate system that I blamed for letting my dad go when his company went bankrupt (how could they do that to me when I was about to go to college?). And, even though I made the choice to work at Andersen Consulting after college, I blamed them for keeping me chained up in their corporate structure for five years, that is, until I realized that I could just quit and do I what I wanted.

Working for a corporation seems so counter-intuitive to the open flow of creating the material as an independent filmmaker. The studios know the economy is tough, so they want to create films that they can pack in an audience for 3 days, and make all their money back. Films generally don’t do well via word of mouth any more, so they rely on the excitement of marketing to load the box office before anyone can realize it’s a piece of crap. Luckily, I work for a theatre (The Landmark), and we do have good films from time to time. They may not receive a budget for advertising, but they do get to stay a little bit longer to allow for that word of mouth – an approach that would never work for SPIDERMAN VII or RETURN OF THE FINAL DESTINATION FOR THE LAST TIME PREQUEL.

On the other hand, it is possible for someone like Todd Phillips to make HANGOVER at the studio, and even though he didn’t have big stars, the film succeeded big time because the story was so strong. Apparently, Warner Bros was so against Todd hiring those “no-name” actors, that they seriously lowered his budget from the initial offering. He agreed, provided that they increase his percentage of the profit. The executives thought “Whatever, it’s your funeral.” So, he got his percentage. And the rest is history. The studio has forgotten how important a good story should be, that they gave away a huge reward on that film, so they could make something like CATS AND DOGS. Ironically, Todd’s next film DUE DATE opens in November – it is the cross-country version of BABY TIME. (I swear that I wrote the initial short for the web series in 1998, so no law suits, please!)

Given all the realities of Hollywood, should I choose the other more “noble” path of the independent filmmaker?

The indie filmmaker is a lot like a small-business owner. He builds a startup business plan for each special little film project, raises money from investors, and struggles, struggle, struggles, until the film has been bled through all the pores of his skin. At that point, he finds an audience online, builds a specialty following, and event with the multitude of distribution options (theatrical / VOD / DVD / internet streaming) pulls in a sum of money that comes out to less than Chinese slave wages if you divide it by the hours worked. However, the filmmaker owns and controls his film.

I guess it all comes down to self-empowerment. The corporate studio system is not built around self-empowerment. It’s built around the old factory system – with the built-in cost of business of paying workers and managers just enough of a salary to keep them fed, clothed, sheltered, and mostly quiet – and maximizing the profits to grow the company and keep those at the top disgustingly wealthy, with the only indie alternative feeling like climbing Everest with a needle and a spool of thread.

And yet, despite all that, the dream stays alive. Aside from all rejection stories, all of the script-sold but then script-ruined stories, and all of the movie-made-millions-but-studio-still-in-the-red stories… Even in spite of all that, I would still love a shot to sit in the back of a theatre and listen to the audience laugh, gasp, and cry as my words are translated into action. Here’s a short I wrote recently that makes that desire even more acute. It was screened in the Pan American LA Film Festival in May, and I had that exact pleasure of sharing the viewing with an audience of 100 people – a true joyful memory.

I find myself feeling a bit like a special chow chow, clawing my way out of my self-made leash, dying to chomp my way to freedom – to explore, create films and sleep with my paws in the air. I want to take ownership of my films, and watch through the window of my swanky home office with delight as Sensation pounces around in the back yard in the most wonderfully chaotic pattern.