“Haven’t you read the Bullshit Artist’s Handbook?” My boyfriend laughed at me. Stephen Folker’s Overdue was a horror story in every way. Well, ok, no one died a horrible bloody death but the promise of a fun, feature horror film experience surely got macheted. To be honest, the red flags dotted the playing field like battleship pieces. But I filed those away because 1) I am an actor who wants to work and 2) Backstage was for professionals, right? It’s not like I found this opportunity surfing Craigslist.
It all began with a post on Backstage- an online resource for movie industry professionals. A guy named Stephen Folker was casting for kids for his drama script. After three Skype meetings and umpteen lengthy phone conversations he chose my daughter Sage, then 9 (she’s 10 now), for his lead. I read the script he wrote and thought it was terrific and the perfect opportunity to showcase her talent. There would be no pay unless he raised more money. The film never got made.
But during that year Folker talked to me about another script he wrote and which he also posted on Backstage. It was a horror comedy called Overdue about a serial killer who takes it personally when you don’t return your library books. Apparently someone gave Folker money to do this one and he was hunting for a cast and shoot date.
He went on and on about the potential for Overdue and how great he wanted to make it. He said he already had an actress cast but she “wasn’t very good” and she knew nothing about making a character real or taking direction. He had seen my work, read my resume, watched me over the year and played into my actor’s psyche- he recognized my talent. In an instant I was in and she was out. You bet I was flattered. Are you seeing the red flag yet? In the back of my mind I thought, “Once a cheater, always a cheater.” In other words, if he could do that to her, he could also do it to me.
Stephen Folker’s Overdue Payment
Overdue, according to Folker, also had a pea-sized budget. Right off the bat I told him I would only head to Iowa (from Utah) if it wouldn’t cost me anything. I was willing to take a chance on deferred pay but he needed to cover my expenses. “That sounds reasonable. We are all in this together and there’s no money for anyone,” he confided. I secretly wondered why, then, was he posting on Backstage- an international online resource for the movie industry. If you can’t afford to bring talent in, you should be posting on Facebook and Craigslist not a forum where actors across the country will be wanting to audition. I kept my mouth shut.
I’m all for helping friends with passion projects but we’re talking me driving halfway across the country for someone I didn’t know and who liked to talk sh*t about everyone he’s ever worked with and fire when they’ve challenged him. He ranted about one actor who came to film his first horror flick (for free) because the actor didn’t want to go into the woods until they made sure the site was clear of poison ivy. “I’ll never work with him again. Can you believe that?” he said in shock. Uh, yeah. You don’t have a set medic, you don’t have workers comp and your actor is out of state so there’s no health insurance coverage. I would want the set checked for poison ivy, snakes and dumbasses too. I kept my mouth shut.
Folker had a script, he had already reimbursed me for my Iowa AirBnB so I did believe this project was going to happen. I had even purchased the scariest wardrobe for Overdue I had ever seen. Which he also promised to reimburse. I was ready to drive. A lead in a horror film would be a blast to produce even if it sucked beans. But my instincts told me a handshake (or some promises over the phone) wasn’t enough.
The word exploitation came to mind. A horror film sells- even really bad ones. And Folker had sold his last one and was also posting a low budget webseries. With now a track record, a decent enough script and actors who might know what they were doing this time he could even score a cult hit (an actor can dream after all). Folker needed to share if he was going to continue to make money off his talent.
Points off the Backend
“If the $100/day is an issue, how about “points off the backend”?” I suggested. I wasn’t really sure what backend points meant other than that’s what some actors do when they want to do a project and the producer doesn’t have the budget…. which is itself odd. He has the money to pay the crew, the sound, the post but no money for the actors? Well, ok, but I wasn’t going to literally work for nothing and I told him that. If his other actors wanted to work for free, God bless ‘em. But for me to travel all that way, I personally wanted a stake in the project. “I was going to suggest that,” he said. “If it were me, I’d do points over deferred too.” I set about doing my research.
Leo DiCaprio did a backend deal with Inception and made his biggest payday ever. Jonah Hill too; for The Wolf Of Wall Street. But no one’s going to f&^k with Jonah or Leo. “You never ever get backend,” a producer friend advised. “Doesn’t matter what the wording says. In 100 movies, we’ve never had to pay our back ends. There’s always a way to calculate against it.” Sigh.
I was pretty sure that with either deferred or points, I wasn’t going to see a dime. However, having it negotiated and in writing still made it feel legit and professional. Plus, it might net me something down the line in case it pulled a Blair Witch. We’re all aware of stories of indie hits like Spinal Tap, where investors and producers make money and the actors make squat. Don’t get me wrong. I will and have totally worked for craft services and credit but we agreed on deferred or points. Free was never on the table for Overdue.
Full Steam Ahead For Overdue?
Time came to drive, I sent the deal memo with exactly what we had talked about over the past month. “I’m not giving you 2 percent and no f&#king way will you have access to my accounting,” he said when he read it. “My other actors are thrilled for this exposure I’m giving them. None of us are professionals here. We’re just making our sh*tty little movies hoping that one day our hobby might become something more. That memo is great for a real production but not this.” Whaaaat?
All of a sudden I felt the tug of manipulation- one of my all-time biggest buttons. “You’re the only one who wants an agreement in writing; I take care of my people and I wouldn’t screw anyone over; I fired my New York actor so you could have this shot; what if I made you pay me $1000 every time you used a clip from my movie to market yourself? That’s the value you’re getting; I’m starting to get a headache and this feels like drama; don’t you think you’re being extreme?” The message was clear- back off or I’ll replace you too.
But here’s where his calculations erred. 1) I could care less about his ‘exposure’. I was doing this for the adventure and challenge. 2) I don’t trust anyone who says I’m a good guy, you can trust me. 3) If I want to make free movies I don’t have to drive 17 hours. Utah’s a hotbed for them. 4) I’m a really mellow person but when you treat me like I’m difficult just because I’m a woman standing up for what’s right, I want to punch you in the face.
I calmly replied, “No I’m not being extreme. I just want in writing what we already agreed to.” I read his counter offer memo: 2% Of Netted Foreign Sales garnered from Sales Agent from initial sale. Payment will be made after Producer receives payment and recoups expenses for territory or territories in regard to deliverables / out of pocket foreign marketing expenses. This deal is limited to foreign sales only and will not include domestic (US & Canada), theatrical, Cable, VOD, DVD or Web Related Sales. The language was clear- you’re working for free. And it begged the question, “If you’re making a sh*tty little horror film that will never sell what the hell are you hiding?
I sent him a message- “let’s just go back to deferred and forget about the points. That’s obviously an issue.” Long story, short-er. He replaced me in less than 24 hours to film a feature that started in two days. I can only guess that the actor is a local, doing it for free and Folker doesn’t have to pay her expenses or have anything in writing other than his own, one-sided talent release. He got what he wanted for his “sh*tty little movie”. Why he wasted both our time remains a mystery.
I dodged a bullet but I can’t help feeling jaded. Sites like Backstage, Actors Access, Casting Networks etc. can’t weed out every predator and protect eager actors, and often we overlook the obvious for the opportunity to perform. Maybe it’s time we all go back and re-read that Handbook.