’ve been an actor for nearly 20 years now, and since the release and success of Bomb City, I have been inundated with questions from my actor friends asking how I did it. They want to know, as a first-time producer, how I produced such a high-quality film. The short answer: In lieu of restaurant or bartender jobs, I had always done sales jobs along the way to support my acting habit. So, stepping into the shoes of “producer” for the first time came rather easy.
There’s more to it, obviously. Here are 12 things I would like to share with anyone who is tired of waiting on the phone to ring and is considering producing their own content. Not everything on this list is film-specific, but everything in it is applicable in some way to making movies.
1. Be an overcomer: In 2010, I had to leave New York City for Dallas. I was going through a bad divorce, a custody battle, and was dealing with a ton of intense personal problems. At first glance, the easiest option would have been to throw in the towel. Not just on acting, but on everything. Instead, I dug my feet in, decided to keep a good attitude and realized that “this, too, shall pass.” In fact, if I had not relocated to Dallas to raise my son, Bomb City might not have been made.
When we think that things are not going our way, we need to take on an overcomer spirit and realize that everything is part of our story. If plan A gets messed up, you have to stay positive and look for plan B. When we stay positive, things have a way of working themselves out, and plan B is often better for us anyway. When something lights us up inside and there’s passion, then the whole universe will conspire to give it to us. Had I stayed in a larger market, like NYC, I might have just stuck with acting and not gotten this new revelation. Texas has proven to be a great market for me as both an actor and producer. Be an overcomer!
2. Never forget your value: I’ve always supported my acting habit through sales. While in NYC, I ran my own sales office (Chris Pratt had one like mine, too), and we would be tasked daily with “motivating the troops” by giving a little speech before our reps went out for the day to sell our coupons. I recall a moment where I compared some of the reps to a $100 bill. We all start off strong, but somewhere along the way it’s possible to get knocked off the tracks. Whether by circumstance or from taking negative criticisms to heart, it can happen to the best of us. I held up the $100 bill, and I asked, “who wants this?” Every single hand went up. I then wadded it up and repeated the same question. Again, every hand went up. I then rubbed it in dirt from a nearby plant, stomped on it and repeated the question. Again, every single hand went up. The moral of the story: The $100 bill never stops being a $100 bill no matter what happens to it. Sometimes life wads us up, stomps on us, and kicks us in the dirt, but we must never forget how much we are truly worth!
3. Don’t let yesterday’s failures shape your today: We’ve all fallen short a time or two. Be careful about conditioning yourself through past failures to expect a “less than” result. This can even take place in your subconscious. To avoid this, you must consider carefully every thought and word you speak over yourself. Instead of saying, “I never book at Beth Sepko Casting,” it can be as simple as changing it to “I haven’t booked at Beth Sepko Casting yet.” Just by adding that small word “yet” to the phrase adds an element of hope. And we must never lose that. A good friend and mentor of mine, Glenn Morshower, who plays attorney Cameron Wilson in Bomb City, once told a story about some grasshoppers that had been placed in a jar. After several days of jumping and banging their heads on the lid, the lid could then be removed without worry of the grasshoppers escaping. They were conditioned to fail, only being able to jump so high, completely forgetting they were once able to jump several feet higher.
4. Have a vision: And commit it to paper … or a giant dry-erase board in your bedroom, so you can stare at it as soon as you wake up each day. If you can see it in your mind, you can hold it in your hand. Manifestation is real and thoughts are powerful, but even more powerful is committing it all to paper. When Bomb City was just an idea, the first thing I did was buy a giant dry-erase board. I knew we’d need it when we eventually got into pre-production, but in the meantime, it was a perfect blank slate for me to start filling in. As soon as I brought it home, I took a red marker and wrote “Bomb City” real big at the top. That’s how it all started for me. Our amazing director, Jameson Brooks, was quick to assemble a look book as well with sample images that showed the look and style of the film — his “vision” made visible — and as soon as I received that, I plastered those pages on my bedroom walls as well. There are many distractions in life and having a vision board nearby serves as a constant reminder of what you want most.
5. Small goals met add up: Knowing what you want and how you’re going to set out to achieve it is great, but of equal importance is breaking it down into small goals. Reaching several small goals will add up to the big goal. Rome wasn’t built overnight and putting a feature film together can be even more daunting. That big dry-erase board in my bedroom also helped me map things out and break them down. One of my responsibilities as the producer was to raise the money to make the movie. Once all the paperwork was done and the bank account was in place, I made a big list on the board of anyone I had ever known or currently knew who I thought had money and could contact. Give yourself specific dates to achieve things and when you meet that small goal, celebrate! That feeling of success is contagious and your whole being will be propelled into the next task with gratitude, making the next goal that much more attainable. Once the first money is in, the rest just grows like yeast. By the way, the first money in is always the hardest for most people. That’s because they don’t fully believe they can do it yet or might not even fully believe in their story or their team, which leads me to my next point.
6. Believe in your story. Believe in your team. Make sure your team believes in your story: Or find new ones. Everything stems from here. If you don’t have to fake your passion, you’ll be able to survive the 18-hour days on set, the slogs where you’re the first one to get in and the last one to go home. Money people know a fake when they see one, too. They didn’t become wealthy by not knowing how to read people. Don’t set out to make a movie just to say you made a movie or to add another credit to your IMDb page. That will not sustain you or fulfill you. Also, choosing a story with substance and a message attached to it will also attract the best actors (as we all know) and the best crew. Lord knows, we’ve all had to work on enough crap at times just to pay the bills. If the actors and the crew believe they are a part of something greater, they will always bring their “A” game. They won’t moan on the days when you need overtime, and they won’t complain if you have to shoot 30 minutes into lunch.
7. Know your pitfalls: And know them from the very beginning. I used to teach my sales reps to cover the objections before the buyer ever had time to think of them. It’s sort of like stealing the thunder. People tend to perceive things the way you initially pitch it. In the movie business, the two most common objections are “unknown director” and “no A-List actor.” As I stated above, I believed our story was the star and it did not require an A-Lister to be told. So I really focused on the story and the impact of it being based on a true story (that of Brian Deneke) when pitching, instead of the people attached to it. I also was an unknown producer, so it was realistic for me to understand that I might not be making my first feature with Brad Pitt and millions of dollars. Since I believed in Jameson’s ability with all my heart, it was easy for me to put my name and reputation on the line with investors. He may have been an “unknown director” to everyone else, but to me he was the furthest thing from it. Jameson, Sheldon Chick, and I had already made several commercials together as well as our 2014 award winning short, Behold the Noose, so I already knew how talented our team was. When I would pitch Jameson, I would tell potential investors that no big Hollywood director would be able to come in and direct this story like him: “He’s from Amarillo where the story took place, he was a teenager when it happened, and he lived through it.” I would really focus on his insider perspective. In other words, I would take what might set off a red flag, and I would spin it as a positive. I focused on his strengths. It was also nice to mention that we would get more “bang for our buck.” Since he was an unknown, he would be directing and editing the film for much less than a big-name director.
8. Know who your audience is: Then figure out who in that audience has money. Go after them. Chances are if you hate golf then you probably aren’t going to be making a golf movie. It’s the same thing with investors. If you’re making a wrestling movie and you know that rich, successful, self-made dude in your hometown wrestled in college, he might be a good person to talk to. Look to build authentic commonality. If you, too, wrestled in college, then that might be a good conversation starter. Like attracts like. At first glance, Bomb City sounds like a punk-rock movie, which could be a niche audience, but it’s actually a gritty crime drama with punk rockers in it. Since I’m not a punk rocker, nor did I know too many before making Bomb City, I really homed in on the true crime drama aspect of the film. Not only am I a true crime enthusiast, but I also have first-hand experience on how immoral the justice system can be. This made Brian’s story easy to pitch with passion. Throw into the mix the fact that I’m a father, and before I ever pitched the first investor, I had already met and bonded with Brian’s father, Mike. These were all the ingredients necessary to turn me into a man on a mission. Any loving parent has trouble fathoming what it would be like to lose a child. I know I do. Knowing that Mike and Betty lost theirs and that they wanted Brian’s story told gave me all the extra fuel I needed to find my audience in order to get Bomb City to its audience. And boy, did we ever.
9. You already possess the skills: You have no salesmanship, you say? As actors, on the most basic level, we learn how to pursue an objective in a scene. That’s all it really is in pitching a project as well. Your tactics in a scene change based on what you’re getting off the other person or persons. It’s the same thing here. Am I winning my objective or losing? That’s something a smart actor is always aware of in a scene. If I am losing, I change up my tactics. It’s that simple. But you must be an active listener. Listen to understand, not to reply. Some money people like the allure of red carpets and rubbing elbows with actors, while others could care less. As a general note, I never pitch off failure. Mentioning a tax incentive right off the bat is an example of that. I’ve seen a lot of aspiring producers do this. Yes, a tax incentive is nice to have, but it should be one of the last things you mention. People buy passion and good stories first. They look at the numbers last. If you’re pitching with passion and have found a great story to tell, you’ll probably close the deal anyway even if Uncle Frank told them to never invest in a movie because they would surely lose their money.
10. Grab the bull by the horns: And keep going. Don’t sit and wait on the phone to ring. You’ve gotta be relentless in this pursuit. Wake up daily and tell yourself first thing that it is inevitable that you will succeed. I don’t mean this figuratively: Actually look in the mirror and say it out loud. Understand that things will try and get in your way and distractions will pop up, but you’ve gotta keep a laser focus. This might even mean occasionally turning down some acting work. You should be picky anyway. If you know committing yourself to someone else’s mediocre ultra-low-budget film is going to sap your time and possibly make you miss an important luncheon where an opportunity to pitch could have occurred, then say no! You don’t need a bunch of IMDb credits. You just need a few good ones. Having the opportunity to act at all is great, but doing it and making your own movie will feel even better. It’s not about what you want. It’s about what you want most.
Remember, there really aren’t any excuses anymore. We all walk around with an HD camera in our pocket. Movies shot on iPhone are playing at Sundance and some of them are even winning awards. Tell your story, dream often, and dream BIG. Nothing is impossible if you want it bad enough!
11. Celebrate others’ success: If I had to pick one thing out of these 12 tips to ensure that you would have your own success, this would be it. Being jealous of someone else’s success actually poisons your mind and pushes your own success that much further away. Don’t fall victim to comparison. Actors love to do this, and they need to quit it. The only person you are truly in competition with is yourself. Are you better today than you were yesterday? That’s all that matters. When things go wrong for you or you “fail,” you never count it as a loss unless you didn’t gain the lesson. If you’re learning and getting better every day then you’re getting that much closer to your own goals. The only battlefield is the one going on between your left and right ear. Fill your mind with thoughts that are pure, noble and lovely, and watch how much faster your manifestations occur.
12. To whom much is given, much is required: My high school wrestling coach wrote in my senior year memory book, “Major, don’t ever stop giving of yourself. It’s the one thing you’ll never run out of.” He was right. Look for opportunities to give back. Heck, that’s the main reason I’m writing this article. I feel blessed, and I want to share it. Not only is there a lot of satisfaction in helping others, but it also builds relationship capital. Relationship capital is more valuable than rubies or gold. When I go on set, I engage the production assistants and background the same way I do my co-stars. Who knows, that PA might be a director or producer one day who can hire you. An empowered ego knows no one is above them, but a healthy ego also knows no one is below them. Energy is powerful. You need people rooting for you. Give, give, give, and watch your star rise! I know you can do it.