Category: Guest Writers & Artists
Write Vault welcomes back Kris Hulbert of Gratwick Films.
Today, Kris continues to take us on his personal journey to becoming a filmmaker. We find our passion on a different travels throughout the world, but as artists, we can all see the road is very familiar when we hear another’s tale. To read Part One, [click here]. Kris concludes sharing his journey with us on November 14th for Part Three.
My ‘Art’ Has Hurt A Lot Of People
by Kris Hulbert
When my partner and I returned to Los Angeles the real trouble started immediately. In our absence, our fellow “producers”, who were so self-focused they were easily misled, had started talking to a sleazy sales agent duo who promised they had a direct connection to Lionsgate and they would get us a big distribution deal with upfront pay. I figured them for bullshitters from the get go, but my philosophy is that you always give people like that one chance to prove it with no promises from us. A free lottery ticket of sorts. Once we had a video lock, we realized pretty quickly that we had something special. But the sleazy duo claimed that in order for our film to be accepted by their guy at Lionsgate it needed full blown professional post production Digital Imaging, CGI, a revamp of the entire sound design, the works. Estimates came in around 100k and up.
I laughed. We had already tapped (or so we thought) every friend, family member and favor we ever had just to get the film shot and edited. On top of that, once we finished the film in July of 2010, I promised my hometown that I would return on October 21, 2010 with a finished film to preview. We booked the theater before we left so it would be set it in stone, making sure the film didn’t succomb to an endless post production process.
I made it clear I was happy with what we had. The film exceeded our wildest expectations, was a huge step in the right direction, and even though I had no idea how to make money with a movie, at a total debt of 45k to that point, if worse came to worse I could make that back selling DVDs out of the trunk of a car. We told the duo that unless they could come up with the 100k and find someone to complete the work in time for the October premiere, we were going to go in another direction. It was put up or shut up time for them. My thinking, as a first time filmmaker, was if you can come up with 100k and want to give it to me for my post, I’m happy to take it. It was a decision made out of inexperience.
Funny thing happened. They came up with it, no questions asked. Eventually I would come to learn they lied and manipulated a bunch of their friends and family into believing my film was a ‘quick turnaround’. They told them they would be in and out within 3 months and would double, if not triple, their money. I was never allowed to meet these people or show them the 60 page business plan that every other investor had reviewed before writing checks, despite my persistent demands to the contrary. Because of what these good, blue collar people were led to believe, they borrowed from their 401ks, wedding funds, and other lending sources to give money they didn’t have. The sleazy agents literally begged, borrowed, and weaseled 100k out of people in the name of my film.
Then the trouble started with the post production house. Turns out the post house made a deal behind our back with the duo to derail our premiere by stalling the completion of the cgi, spfx, and imaging for as long as necessary. The reason? They couldn’t deliver on their Lionsgate promise so they scurried all over town setting up meetings, based on my work, in the hope to use our film as bait to land a big fish, then double back and deliver on the false promises. They didn’t count on my integrity, tenacity, or determination to keep my word.
The more I pushed to hold the post house accountable to their contractual schedule that was prepaid, the more they gradually became exposed. The unspoken power struggle was so great that we had to legally force the post house to give us a ‘final’ cut of the film at 6 a.m. on our way to the airport to fly to Buffalo the day before the October premiere.
The first time we saw most of the special effects in our film was in a theater full of friends and family, many who were investors as well. Compared to what was thrown up on screen just two years earlier, the audience was thoroughly impressed. The most common response was ‘Wow, it was like a real movie this time.’ However, for the producers in attendance, the absurdly unfinished or polished special effects work was infuriating and humiliating. Ultimately, the post house’s effects were less than 60% complete.
To make matters worse, one of the sleazy agents insisted on coming to Buffalo with the actual film creators for the premiere as part of the deal for securing the post money. First, he got up on stage and told a crowd of no BS, we don’t believe anything, Buffalonians that he ‘just got off the phone with Robert Downey Jr’s wife and a bidding war has started for the film.’ We have this on tape! We might even have my head whipping around in utter disbelief at that exact moment. I knew my goose was cooked in Buffalo. I was guilty by association with this fraud, and for bringing him back there. To make matters worse, at the after party, he followed that up with a defining moment that would prove just how despicable of a human he was. He manipulated and took advantage of a drunk naive Buffalo girl, convincing her to give him a handy in my mother’s living room. Icing on the cake, she just so happened to be one of my best crew guy’s girlfriend.
Almost a year later, we were still battling with the post house to properly finish their work. Even though they had been paid in full ($45k+) upfront, they spent months treating us and the film like an inconvenient side project they didn’t have time to focus on. During this time, tensions continued to escalate between me and the sleazier agent. I was convinced he was behind the delays, but I lacked the proof until I was in the car with him one day. We were having a heated discussion when he admitted he was making no effort to sell the film because ‘he couldn’t even afford stamps to mail out copies’. Fortuitously, before I could even ask why he needed to mail out copies when he claimed all along to have a direct path to Lionsgate, we were interrupted by a phone call from his attorney, the alleged direct connection to Lionsgate. He left the call on speaker, presumably hoping the attorney would save his sizzling ass, but before he could warn the attorney I was in the car, the attorney volunteered that he had no intention of doing anything with our film and he didn’t even like horror let alone understand its value. He wrapped it up with a clear assertion that he still expected to get his 10% finder’s fee. I was livid. Even after that, the duo and the attorney tried to insist that he should still get a fee and percentage specifically for facilitating his connection, even though he never intended to do so. It was crystal clear these guys had to go.
While I did whatever needed to be done to find a way to get rid of these guys, they dug in. Sleazier Agent used our mistake of cc’ing all our investors in update emails, as opposed to bcc’ing, to go behind my back and attempt to convince all of the film’s investors (my personal friends and family) to sue me for control of my film. He tried to convince most of them that my ego and selfishness was going to screw them out of their ‘big payday’. Even the credit only producers, our ‘L.A. friends’, and the hanger-ons treated us like we were mishandling their big break. Even though everyone knew exactly what type of people this duo was, they wanted so badly to believe what was said was true that they ignored all rational thought and turned on the one person who wouldn’t let go of the ugly truth. At a particularly ugly point during their exit, the mostly absent partner, who coincidentally was a former Marine Sniper and current Personal Security Specialist, threatened to assassinate me. Ironically, it was his family and friends that the sleazier agent had preyed on for unnecessary post production funds, so if he wasn’t in the scam then he should have been thanking me. Unfortunately, those damn dollar signs had him seeing red like everyone else. I, eventually, forced the Sleazy Agent and his unstable partner off the project. Sleazy went on to leech off others, as I feared he would, but for us the damage had been done.
I was relieved to be free of them, but I wasn’t happy. All along I had been educating and preparing myself for independent distribution. By this point, I had read so many horror stories about distribution that my head was spinning. Even though our film was never supposed to be this big, I still foolishly went into it with the belief that as long as we made something worth selling the rest would take care of itself. With an extra 100k of debt over my head, I was taking a crash course in how to sell/exploit a film. When you have a solid indie and only owe $50,000, you can grind that kind of money back in the streets and convention circuit, but when you triple that to $150,000, you are dropped squarely in the deep end.
Adding to the stress, the investors who had been misled by Sleazy, who until now I had only heard from once when they rattled pitchforks at me on his behalf, had just started to realize what kind of person he truly was. One by one, they got in touch with us and, for the first time, it was becoming clear to us what had happened to them. Some didn’t want to believe it. It was easier to blame the mysterious person they didn’t know (me) opposed to a family member or friend who had either willingly taken advantage of them or ignorantly allowed them to be tricked. Quite quickly I realized that I was risking my own career by fighting for an army of people who wanted to hate and blame me for doing everything I could to protect them and make things right.
Kris Hulbert is an independent filmmaker and storyteller with a compulsive obsession with the truth. In 2007, I founded Gratwick Films, a company committed to our model of Social Filmmaking. Social Filmmaking uses total transparency to create socially interactive entertainment that is also socially responsible and accountable. To accomplish this we surround every film we make with real time reality style content documenting the making of the film. We then use our entertainment to raise money and awareness for causes that benefit society.
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