Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Q&A: Breaking into movies

"Hollywood Hopeful" writes:

Mr. Big, I got a lucrative offer from an unnamed studio to do special effects for, and star in, some of their upcoming science fiction movies! They are promising to work with me to obtain amnesty for previous villainy. Is this legit, and should I take it?

This is not the first time I've heard something like this. While I can say that some such offers are legitimate, I can't say that most are, and certainly not whether this one is.

Is it a good deal for the studio?

I did some research on this, because I was curious. The VFX budget for a film these days can be something like 20 to 50 million dollars, and double that for an effects-intensive film (like some scifi). This money goes to building a rendering pipeline, hiring about 150-250 people for six to twelve months, software costs, training, HR and other overhead, and so on. If you're hiring an established effects house, they'll have soaked some of this cost themselves thanks to earlier productions, but they might also not be available when you come knocking. Either way, you're talking about 10 to 100 million dollars.

Top-drawer law firms are billing at $1000 an hour these days. A supervillain who recently went through this process with his legal team told me that they estimated about 200 hours of billable work for preparation of a case, and another 200 hours in the courtroom (about 25 nonconsecutive days). The whole process was going to take 1 to 2 years of calendar time, but most of that is the court's schedule being busy, and the lawyers would go about their other business during that time. Since the law firm probably averages 2000 billable hours a year, handling 10 cases a year, this sounds about right to me.

The studio - if it is serious - will see $400,000 as a line item expense, compared to their overall budget for a single film. If they expect to have you under contract, and I expect they will, they'll amortize this cost over several pictures. If your powers are good enough to replicate even 10% of the visual effects they want, and you're able to work as quickly as they want, it's totally worth it to them.

Is it a good deal for you?

Former villains get a tremendous range of responses from the public. For some, a villain will always be a villain, screw that guy. Even if your interest in reformation is genuine, some people will simply never accept you. If many such people are on the crew of the films you'll be working on, it will be a painful, miserable process, and you will have the Feds up your ass at every moment of the production, waiting for you to make a single slip-up. That's the biggest risk.

If you're looking at a movie career strictly from an economic perspective, it's not that great compared to professional villainy. By hours worked, you can make 5-10 times as a villain what you'll be making on this gig, even if they pay you what they'd budget for VFX. They won't - the point of hiring you is to save all that money, so they'll probably try to negotiate an hourly with you, along with penalties for late delivery of the effects.

If you're looking at it from a quality of life perspective, it's up to you. Maybe villainy wasn't your thing, and that's totally okay. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise - you should do what you feel is best for your life.

Is the offer legit?

This is the biggie, isn't it. There's ways to find this out, though. Don't take any of this as legal advice. My information may be out of date, so talk to a lawyer.

Did you see "Argo"? The CIA smuggled a guy into Iran by setting up a fake film, and a lot of money was spent making all of that happen. Be sure you aren't worth a similar amount of investment.

Get a contract. Even if you're under indictment, you still have rights. You can sign a legal contract with the studio, and have them pony up some money. Not to you - any assets under your name can be seized by the Feds to cover your crimes. Instead, you want to establish a LLC - limited liability company - that will be paid to deliver the effects work, and you'll be hired by the LLC for this work. If the studio pays out an advance to the LLC, it was worth it to them to appear genuine.

Get specifics on who's handling your amnesty case. Call them up and get confirmation. Once you have an actual court date for the pre-hearing, the US government is in the process, and most judges don't like to be dicked around by the Feds. If it's gone this far, it's probably legit.

Conclusion

This sounds like it could be a good thing for you, if you're interested in the job. To recap, expect to be in this for the long haul; expect that it could be a scam and find out for sure; and make the legal system work for you for a change.

Good luck!