Writer/Director Joseph F. Alexandre
One thing I’ve learned on this journey as a filmmaker is really quite simple, but yet very important: No two stories are the same! If you study the paths of some of your favorite directors’ you see very divergent treks. Guys like Oliver Stone, Michael Mann, and Dario Argento started as screenwriters. Stanley Kubrick and William Friedkin made documentaries, Martin Scorsese and Hal Ashby were editors, Alan Pakula a producer. David Fincher and Ridley Scott came from the ad world and as you’d imagine the list is endless. The same goes with films, what worked for The Blair Witch Project won’t work for American Movie and what worked for Ink not likely to work for Baghead. But, there are some general takeaways I’ve discovered over time and hopefully this piece will be helpful to someone.
I’m going to focus in primarily on my newest film, Warriors of the Discotheque which is about a night club in Dallas,TX that was legendary designer Philippe Starck’s first major design in America as well as being ground zero for the entire Rave/ecstasy scene. MDMA aka ecstasy was legal and The Starck Club was where it exploded as a popular club drug. I know this story personally ’cause as a kid just out of high school I hung out at this club in the mid 80’s and believe me have never come across anything quite as unique again. What makes this a great subject is that it’s recognizable to most folks (even if one hasn’t been to a rave per se they certainly know what it is) but yet not too familiar. Peter Jennings did a piece for ABC years ago called Ecstasy Rising that had a brief segment on the Starck Club in Dallas, but for the most part even the most dedicated Philippe Starck fan is unaware of the Club. It was also a pretty big magnet for celebrities passing through town including everyone from Tom Cruise to Prince to Madonna yet the beauty of it is virtually no one outside of Dallas (even then not so much) know anything about the club. Yet, there is a very avid fan base of Starckers (patrons and employees of the Club) for whom Starck Club was a life changing experience and who make up a core foundation of fans who could give the film a great launch, (more on this later.) Seemingly, it’s the best of both worlds.
Now, I’ll say the idea of branding in Hollywood has gotten a little out of hand: Legos-the movie, Monopoly-the movie, Magic Eight ball- the movie, etc. But, it’s a huge upside to have a film that has some sort of recognizable elements. In my case, not only the aforementioned Starck film but also my first doc Back Home Years Ago: The Real Casino which is, as you’d guess, about the real people who were the basis for the Scorsese mob epic. This was huge in terms of getting some production coin and distribution, and both came from Producer John Pierson who had a show on IFC called Split Screen which was not a bad launching pad for people to first see your film. (His show spawned the aforementioned Blair Witch Project and American Movie.) This opportunity lead me to connect w/ Joe Carnahan whose first film Blood, Guts, Bullets, and Octane was also financed by IFC. Years later, I’d go on write a script for Joe while he was making Smokin’ Aces that was never made, but ended up paying for the feature version of The Starck film.
Obviously, this isn’t a situation every filmmaker is going to fall into, but certainly every filmmaker can control how their project first hits the light of day. Paying special attention to how and where your film premieres is vital to launching a successful campaign. Obviously, every filmmaker wants to preem at a Sundance, Toronto, or Cannes but sometimes a regional Fest can hit the spot quite nicely. In my case, it was the USA Film Fest in Dallas which is one of the oldest in the US and is Academy accredited (this means it’s one of various fests that are designated by AMPAS to help determine the shorts Oscar nominations, if your short film wins one of these festivals it automatically qualifies for consideration for best short film but you still have to send in 100 copies to AMPAS, etc.) The Starck feature doc screened at the most recent 41st annual USA FF and the short bowed at the 39th annual fest in 2009. The short version actually coincided with the Club’s 25th anniversary as it opened May 12, 1984. I did the short primarily as an extended trailer in order to try and raise funds fo the feature doc and Taylor Wigton was vital in providing a camera and shooting, Paul Forte did a great job cutting both the trailer and the short. And while it did garner a significant amount of press, (originally front page Dallas Morning News) and there were many who demonstrated an interest in the film, it came out as we were right in the midst of the financial meltdown. And even though I was in some million dollar mansions at USA FF after party’s, no one was coming up with money.
I’d like to take a little time to discuss festival strategy as well. In my case, since my film is about a club in Dallas, it’s pretty much a no brainer, a film festival in Dallas. But, I’d like to make a case for the mid major festival versus the huge Sundance, Toronto, fill in the blank huge festival. Even though these huge fests are really well funded the fact of matter is they are screening anywhere between 150-300 films in a 7-10 day period or so. That means they simpy can’t fly in and put up every filmmaker. However, a fest like USA Dallas can and will if you’re a feature filmmaker. They not only put me up in a nice hotel in downtown Big D, but also covered airfare and as if that wasn’t enough they covered my transfer to Digibeta gratis. (This came in huge because I have a newer, better cut that didn’t make it in time for the fest so it saved my big money transferring to a screening format I wasn’t going to use again.) And, I got to meet an Icon in the form of the brilliant actor Malcolm McDowell! He was accepting a lifetime achievement tribute as well as promoting an Indie he’d just done called Pound of Flesh directed by Tamar Hoffs, (the Mom of Bangles singer Susanah Hoffs and her son in law is Jay Roach.) It was great to rub elbows and get to chat with such a brilliant actor. He’s not only a great talent but a pretty cool dude too. In addition, the fact that it was in Dallas, a lower key event where people aren’t all going crazy on the red carpet such as they are at major market festivals. Of course, not every fest can afford to do this but many of those mid level well funded festivals like St. Louis Int, Cleveland, Miami Int. FF, Chicago Int, Seattle IFF, probably can. Don’t just get stuck on the big boys, think about what makes the most sense for your film and go for it!
After failing to raise funds in Dallas, I initiated a crowd funding campaign on Indie GoGo that was not too successful. Despite the fact that many Starckers are in prime earning age they’re not the prime demographic for crowd funding which skews much younger. I tried, but couldn’t tap into that deadmau5 crowd, the younger scoobie snacking ravers at electric daisyland etc. But, in trying to raise funds I did certainly raise the profile of the film and in addition raised the sales of the film. I put the short online via createspace and Amazon VOD and much to my surprise I ended up making some money on my investment in the short. It was very clear that this was a significant fan base to continually grow and foster. I was also able to screen at great fests like Holly Shorts and as far away as Byron Bay, Australia.
Finally, I got a big break that lead to the funding for the feature. This could be a whole ‘nother story but I got another significant chunk of money that came from the script I’d written for Carnahan in the form of a bank lien. The company that hired me hadn’t paid me full WGA rates and owed quite a bit more on the script, low six figures actually, and we got a chunk of that money. It turned into a lengthy process involving arbitrations and Federal judges but before ya know it in November of 2010 I was on my way to Dallas and to finish this bad boy up. The shoot itself went pretty well as I’d used a local cameraman named Alex Wagner who shot with the 7D and brought with him extraordinary lighting man Benjamin Tubb. When I got back to LA I worked extensively with editor Scott Simerly who did an awesome job with a tight cut as did Nathan Anderson at Shotgun Digital with the sound mix and fine tuning.
Luckily for me, Ann Alexander and the USA FF staff were eager to screen the feature. Then the real work started. Like I stated earlier, the short film actually made some money, but I knew if I’d shown up to the short preem with T-Shirts, sound track CD, and DVD’s I’d have had some very eager customers. And sure enough I did. Adrian Ursu did an amazing job of the artwork that I used for all the aforementioned elements. In addition, there was a whole lot of press again here, here, or here, and an even more intense melee to see the film. It was sold out with a long waiting list and many people trying to sneak in to see the film. The crowd reaction was… even more enthusiastic than any filmmaker could ever hope for. We sold out of DVD’s, mini Posters, and CD’s but still brought some shirts home. (I’m selling all these online and they’re going at a nice clip.) But, the real highlight was getting an email from Mark Cuban, requesting a copy of the film, ’cause he’d heard so much positive buzz. (Many of you Laker fans know Cuban as owner of the Dallas Mav’s but you may not know he also owns Magnolia Films, 2929 Ent., Landmark Theaters, and HDnet. Not a bad guy to have interested in your film.) Of course, my fingers are crossed, but the beauty is I don’t need a traditional distributor to help make this a successful endeavor. Because the budget is in a reasonable range and through the generous support of the fan base I’m on my way to recouping my investment.
Truthfully, I don’t know if these things will work for other filmmakers. In certain cases I’m sure they won’t. For me, holding off and trying to get into a major festival like Sundance didn’t really make sense because even though I want to appeal to a larger audience, I have a avid one ready and willing to go now. Strike while the iron is hot. Of course, if mine was a mumble core type drama that wouldn’t quite work as well. The other simple fact is if the short film didn’t generate the interest it did I’m not sure I would’ve gone on to the feature. (The truth is I’m also working on developing this project into a scripted episodic.) I try to be as cold and calculating as I can when it comes to assessing the prospects of a perspective project. If the best I can muster is the Peoria Weenie Roast film festival or a preview screening in the basement of the Hawthorne community center then maybe I need to rethink what my expectations are for my film. The same could be said of Warriors… it may turn out there’s not much of an audience outside of Dallas and it’s back to the drawing board. But, like Hyman Roth said, “This is the business we have chosen!” And, if you don’t know who Hyman Roth is you might wanna rethink your interest in this thing of ours, or watch a few more movies.
Please feel free to get shirt or DVD here or just check out trailer here.
Joseph F. Alexandre was born in Manhasset, NY and currently lives in Los Angeles. He is a graduate of Marquette University, with a BA majoring in Political Science. Joe has directed several shorts and no-budget features: “Psychotropic Overload”, “In Hock and Staying There”, and the short “Shadow Play”, which stars noted stage actor and screenwriter (co-wrote Bronson film “The Evil That Men Do”) John Crowther, son of legendary New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther. “In Hock…”, got indie guru John Pierson’s attention and prompted Mr. Pierson to commission, “The Real Casino”, for his now defunct show Split Screen for IFC/ Bravo, where “The Blair Witch Project” and “American Movie” originated. The full- length version “Back Home Years Ago: The Real Casino” aired on Image Union, WTTW Channel 11, the Chicago PBS affiliate. It has screened in some 25 festivals worldwide and is included on the TF 1 Collector’s Edition 3 disc DVD of “Casino” in France and all French speaking territories. It was released in the U.S. on DVD with several versions, deleted scenes, and extra interview footage and is available from SRS Cinema at amazon, netflix, and Blockbuster.com. Mr. Alexandre’s work has appeared on IFC, Bravo, PBS, Time-Warner cable, Moviola cable in Canada, as well as being licensed by French media giant TF 1, Delta Airlines, and Air Canada. Alexandre just signed a deal with UK based Shorts International for inclusion of “The Real Casino” to appear on itunes.
In addition to his Independent film work, he has worked on larger budgeted films like the BMW Film series, The Hire, specifically, “Ticker”, which was directed by Joe Carnahan and starred Don Cheadle, Ray Liotta, and Clive Owen. Also, Alexandre was commissioned by Film Engine (“Butterfly Effect” and “Lucky Number Slevin”) to write a script for Carnahan to direct that is now in turnaround.
Alexandre is repped by Michael Lewis & Associates and is a member of the WGA west.