April 1, 2007

In My Own Defense: How Documentary Filmmaking Drove Me Insane, Part Two


One-sheet of The Girl Next Door. Courtesy of Christine Fugate

Editor's Note: When we last left off, Christine Fugate, having sunk her savings and soul into producing, directing and filming The Girl Next Door, a feature documentary that followed Stacy Baker's journey from Oklahoma housewife to international porn star, was on the brink of breaking out with the film. With a splashy debut at the Slamdance Film Festival, things seemed promising. Then she entered the Kafkaesque world of distribution, and the porn industry that she had documented was beginning to look a lot more virtuous. Her shaggy dog tale continues here.

Post-Festival Blues

I returned home from Park City broke, jobless and without a car, having totaled it on the way to the final sound mix. Back in Los Angeles, my ex-boyfriend, the doctor, helped me find an old BMW on eBay. I bought the car with a credit card check, and I kissed my not-ready-to-commit ex-boyfriend good-bye. I was going to start a new life in my new house, and I needed to find a job and a boyfriend and get over the past year of living in an editing room with footage of naked porn stars.

Through an IDA connection, I got a job working for an online educational company and was able to start paying off the enormous credit card debt I had accrued during post-production. My girlfriend Judy introduced me to a Tom Cruise look-alike, who wined and dined me into a new state of happiness. Life was looking up. Our Big Hollywood Lawyer was negotiating our domestic distribution contract, and one of his underlings was working on an offer for foreign distribution from a Canadian company. The foreign offer included an advance, which would pay for the film's E&O insurance and website design.

Even though our domestic distribution contract wasn't finalized, the company organized a screening at the NuWilshire Theater in Los Angeles. This would be the first time my new boyfriend would see the film and meet my partners. When we arrived, the line was around the block and "Tom Cruise" began to act strangely. After the screening, we had dinner with an agent and exec from Fox, who were interested in making a television show from the film. "Cruise' didn't say a word throughout the meal and I realized that my wine-and-dine days were nearing the end. He was uncomfortable with my dedication to film and said, "I don't know if you will be a good mother to kids." Not a good thing to say to someone who has wanted kids since she was 12.

Closing the Deal

As my relationship began to disintegrate, so did my distribution deals. The foreign distribution contract was signed, but the advance check never arrived. Our domestic deal fell apart as neither Big Hollywood Lawyer nor my producing partner Adam could make it work. I called the domestic distributor's office and asked the president to meet me for dinner. Over plantains and roasted chicken, we worked out the problems and finalized the deal.

While cleaning my house, I came across clothes from my ex-boyfriend, the doctor. I packed them up and headed out to Brentwood, where he lived. What was meant to be a drop-off moment turned into a four-hour lunch in Malibu. Before I knew it, my not-ready-to-commit ex-boyfriend proposed, and we were engaged and living together. As for the movie, deals started moving forward again. The foreign distributor's advance check arrived and New Regency, a division of Fox, hired writers to work on a pilot script loosely based on The Girl Next Door and the porn business.

In the spring, the movie opened at the Screening Room in New York to rave reviews and strong box office numbers. Everyone was in attendance for the big night--Stacy, my producers, my fiancé and his New York-based family. My future in-laws accepted that I had made a movie about a porn star's life. I think they were more shocked by the news that followed after I spent a night in the hospital due to stomach cramps: I was pregnant. Our September wedding was moved up to July. I came home, put on my producer's hat and planned a fabulous wedding, porn stars and all.

Pregnant Pauses

As my stomach grew bigger, so did the television script that was being written for New Regency. The Girl Next Door was now a one-hour drama called Skin, with a large cast of characters. A couple of months before giving birth, New Regency execs decided it was best suited for FX. The writers made the changes, getting paid for their work; we producers would get paid when the pilot went into production.

Money was tight in our household, since I had stopped working and my fiancé was finishing up his surgical fellowship. I had worked for VH1 filming the legendary rock band KISS, but the show was over and I still had a ton of credit card debt. When the phone call came that FX would begin casting on Monday, I was thrilled. I was organizing my professional maternity wardrobe when I got the other phone call on Sunday night: FX decided to put a script called The Shield into production instead of Skin.

After that disappointment, The Girl Next Door continued on a downward spiral, with no money in sight. Our foreign distributor was selling a lot of territories--so many, it seemed, they no time to send us a report. After a barrage of phone calls, we met with the president, an ex-football star, who used his charm to calm us down with stories of his new investor, who had "very deep pockets." As soon as the audit was done, the money would be transferred into their accounts and, he promised, "We would all be golden."

The Bankruptcies Begin

I gave birth to my beautiful daughter and realized that popping out a baby was not nearly as hard as getting someone to pay me for my film's sales. Soon after coming home from the hospital, I learned that our foreign distributor's "golden" was actually a code word for bankruptcy. Mr. Deep Pockets had not invested and the company had folded. When we asked for our monies, the bankruptcy trustee told us to get into line behind Sony and Miramax. Our legal contract was practically useless except for the fact that it stipulated that all monies related to The Girl Next Door had to be placed in a joint signature account. Since this had not happened, we believed that the president was guilty of fraud.

Around the same time, our domestic distributor informed us that the main theater chain that had released our film had declared bankruptcy, and we would not get paid for our successful theatrical run. Of course, the theaters had not shut their doors; they had just used the system to wash out some debt and start over again. My distributor, who had spent thousands releasing the film, hoped to negotiate a few cents on the dollar, but prospects were bleak.

Just months after giving birth, I was pregnant again. VH1 wanted me to fly back east to interview Michael Jackson, but I was so stressed with a new baby and film in distribution limbo that a big shoot with Michael would send me over the edge. I became depressed. I wondered if I would ever make another film again. Even working three jobs, I had not been able to pay off the credit card debt.

The Ratings Board Fiasco

During my second pregnancy, the contract for our domestic video and cable rights was being negotiated. I read drafts but couldn't think straight due to the lack of blood flow to my brain. If I had read them closely, I would have vetoed the stipulation that The Girl Next Door needed to get an R rating. Why anyone thought that a movie about a female porn star and her naked friends could get an R rating is beyond me. My second daughter was born, and my life was full of babies and teaching film at USC. The video/cable deal closed, and I received a small check after the expenses and lawyers were paid.

The movie went before the ratings board, which, of course, gave it an NC-17. Supposedly, Stacy's frank talk about sex and her scenes with naked people offended the soccer mom panelist. The ratings board moderator asked, "Is there was any way we could show more of her parents and less of her film work?" I laughed out loud before I burst into tears. Without an R rating, Blockbuster would not carry the film. Our domestic video/cable distributor refused to pay us the remainder of the advance. My domestic distributor, who had sub-contracted the video/cable distribution out, refused to allow the sub-distributor access to the materials for a re-edit. Neither party would budge or agree on a mediation judge. The film sat on the shelf with no release date in sight.

On the international front, my husband and I traveled to Canada and met with a lawyer about pressing charges of fraud against the president of our foreign distributor. The case would be expensive and lengthy. I visited a video store in downtown Montreal and saw The Girl Next Door next to The Godfather. I felt exhilarated at first, thrilled to see my movie available to the public. Then I crashed, realizing that it may never be released in my own country.

Descent into Insanity

At this point, I became a lunatic. I wanted to be a woman of action, but that meant paying more lawyers more money to sue people who didn't have money. I stalked the president of our now-bankrupt foreign distributor, screamed at my domestic distributor and begged the lawyer of the sub-distributor to have compassion and release the film. Nothing happened. In act of rage, I smashed all of the VHS tape dubs and ripped up materials. How could it be that my movie could make over a million dollars, foreign and domestic, and I would receive only $3,000 from it?

I started seeing a therapist. "It's only a movie," I told myself. "Get over it." But that was impossible. I kept getting phone calls about another film called The Girl Next Door, a feature film about a porn star that was being released by New Regency, the company we had worked with on Skin. Considering our contract with them, it wasn't clear whether or not we had a strong case. An obvious conflict to the press, Adam and I appeared on CNN's Celebrity Justice pleading our case. In the end, no lawyer or law firm was willing to go up against Fox without a large retainer, which we couldn't afford to pay.

Finally, a date was set for the mediation between my domestic distributor and the sub-distributor who held the video/cable rights. A paltry settlement was agreed upon and, of course, paid to the lawyers. The domestic distributor got back the home video rights and began shopping for a company to release the film, five years after it had been in theaters. Adam and I negotiated a small settlement with the president of the now-bankrupt foreign distributor, and used the money to pay our corporate taxes and Web fees.

Back to the Beginning

Deals were winding down. I came to understand that the financial life of The Girl Next Door was over: There would be no money from the theatrical run, the foreign rights, the domestic cable rights, the television show or the feature film. From various producing gigs, I had paid off my credit card debt from the film. As a ritualistic farewell, I burned my credit card statements with a balance of zero. The time had arrived to move on with my creative life and devote myself to a new film.

Which brings me to the beginning of my story: my attendance at the Independent Producer's Conference at the Sundance Institute (see February 2007 Documentary). I had started working on a series of videos based on the work of poet Donna Hilbert, and I wanted to take it to the conference. After arriving, I learned that one of those responsible for keeping my film out of video stores was speaking on the documentary distribution panel. While I listened to him talk about how much money documentaries could make in the distribution market, I wanted to stand up and scream, "Maybe for you, but not for the filmmaker." But I kept my mouth shut...until dinner.

After a few glasses of wine and some cajoling from fellow filmmakers, I approached Mr. Distributor in the dining hall and asked why he had not released my film. He feigned ignorance, but he knew why: He had held onto the film until it had made its maximum amount on pay-per-view. Then he mediated, retained the cable rights and dumped the home video. How dare he blather on at Sundance in light of his company's actions?

Last year, a home video company owned by Tower Records released the movie. Everyone I know bought copies. My husband and I celebrated for a week with pitchers of margaritas and champagne. But you can guess what happened: Tower Records went bankrupt. We are still waiting to see if we will receive a small sum--that is, after the lawyers get paid.

Our Anniversary

Ten years ago, I picked up a camera and started filming a young girl from Oklahoma who wanted to be a porn star. Making the movie was an exciting period in my life in which I was able to experience cinema vérité. I penetrated a male-dominated industry and filmed without restriction. I was accepted into the inner circles of the sub-culture of porn, and I will never forget the compassion they demonstrated towards each other. Mostly, I treasure my experiences with Stacy. Over the three years we spent together, I learned so much about being a woman--the paradoxical power of beauty, the economics of sex and the importance of intimacy.

I did, however, become temporarily insane during the distribution process. After hearing my story, can you blame me? When I have those regretful insane moments I try to comfort myself with what Micah Green, formerly of Cinetic Media, told me at the Sundance Conference, "The Girl Next Door was before its time in regards to distribution." Suffice to say, I am a much better businesswoman than I was ten years ago. On my new project, I don't have investors, only donors. I have a partner, but we agreed I have the final say in all distribution decisions.

So what's the moral of this story? If you want to make money in film, become a lawyer. If you are like me, then make your movies with passion, but know that when it comes to distribution, think like a porn star and trust no one. Stacy taught me this long ago, but I didn't realize it would apply to those of outside the porn business too. When you finish your film, think outside of the system and self-distribute. If a distributor lures you in with a siren song, be sure to get a large check up front. Anything else you get is pure luck.

I know you think this won't happen to you--you're too smart, too savvy. I thought the same thing.

Oh, and by the way, please read my disclaimer:

This work, Parts I and II, is a recollection of events that took place during the filming and distribution of The Girl Next Door. Names of some of the persons have been changed, as have exact dates and locations. Negative comments expressed in this work are merely the opinion of the author and do not reflect the opinion of the International Documentary Association and its members.

 

Christine Fugate is a writer and director of award-winning films including The Girl Next Door and Tobacco Blues and has worked for VH1, Discovery and A&E. She has appeared on MSNBC, Extra, Celebrity Justice and her personal favorite, Hard Copy. She writes Mothering Heights, a column on her relentless pursuit for sanity as a wife, mother and sex object for motheringheights.net and several weekly papers. motheringheights.net

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