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Pulp Diction from SONNYBOO

Film Flams & Scams

by Peter John Ross


One of the most common stories in Indie Filmmaking, especially in the feature length genre, is that of the “Promise of funding that turns out to be a dead end” scenario. How many of us have been approached by someone that claims to have access to investors and capital that will fund your movie, and after months of working, for free I might add, that it all turns out to not be true? Or worse, someone has a unique way of raising money, that you come to find out is either illegal, immoral or at the least unethical.

Where to begin? In 3 years I’ve dealt with all kinds of delusions, lies, and cheats: Let’s begin with the annoying old man with delusions of grandeur. I won’t use real names because it’s rude and it doesn’t help that it’s also legally liable. These are all true stories, but I won’t be giving up the names anytime soon.


I got a call one day, shortly after a small film festival screening, from an older man who saw my name in the paper and called me up. He said he had a business proposition for me. So I met this gentleman in his mid 60’s at the Tim Horton’s donut place on the corner where he proceeded to tell me about this new revolution – Digital Video. He tells me that unlike shooting on film, DV is cheap and affordable. Phase two of his amazing insight was all about the new emerging digital projection market. I guess deductive reasoning wasn’t his strong suit because he got my name & phone number from an article on a film festival where several of my DV movies just played on a digital projector.

Phase three of his plan is where things were starting to go awry. He wanted to setup up digital video theatres all over the state and sell tickets to these Digital Video features. He assures me that they will sell out 75-100 tickets every show at over 50 theatres and starts to show me his figures.

Now for phase four, which is where the van with rubber walls, a sweater with really, really long arms, and two guys in white outfits and a net are needed. He wants to build a studio, as in full breakaway sets, soundstages, and houses and condos for the actors and crews to live. Somehow, doing the math, I don’t see the homemade movie theatres and these screenings of DV features adding up to the costs of building and running a real studio, and especially one with everyone living there rent free.

At this point, I ask him a crucial question. What does he want from me? He has already told me that his son is the director. He replies that he needs a right hand man, someone with technical knowledge who can guide them and work with the team. Well, I’ve already spent at this time over 3 hours listening to this old man talk, and I didn’t even get a free bagel out of it, so I ask how much the job is paying. The response is that it’s about the art, and shouldn’t be about the money, which as you read on will be a recurring theme for people who want something for free.

Working for Free?

Now, I believe in working for free for art’s sake. I’ve done Indie film shoots in every capacity known to man, whether it be PA, coffee getter (which is aka Production Assistant too), lighting, grip, boom operator, cameraman, producer, and everything else – all for free, for the sake of art. I don’t mind. These same people have done the jobs for me too, so it works out. That’s the balance, or you find other ways to balance the scales, at least you should. We’ve all seen the guys that ask people to work for them, and they never return the favor. Pretty soon, no one wants to work with them.

That being said, why in the hell do I want to work full time for free for years on a project that has little or no chance of being a reality? I got the impression that he was less interested in me and more interested in just having someone to talk to, as if the old folks home just wasn’t exciting enough to hold his interest. I thanked the old man for his time, and said that if he can get me a salary, that I would consider working with him on this studio of his dreams. I still get epic phone calls regurgitating this idea once every six months. I literally have to screen calls because of this old man.


There was a local group here in town that met once a month. At the meetings, we’d do a meet & greet and introduce ourselves. It was clearly stated, say your name, and what you do, IE actor, writer, or director. When we got to the guy that wore shades at 9:PM and had a hat that said “director”, he droned on for over 20 minutes about his life, his passions, the love he lost and how it inspired him to fulfill his dream of making a feature film. I guess the sunglasses blocked his vision of everyone twitching in their seats, sighing, and generally being bored. We were off to a bad start for this guy holding people’s attention in a storytelling medium.
He was a full time wedding videographer that was going to make the movie of the decade utilizing wedding videography equipment to make feature films. He then handed out a stack of business cards (wedding videography) saying he is looking for actors and that he already had distribution and funding, which turned a lot of heads, my own included. Already having any distribution and funding impresses people because it’s hard to get.

Let’s call him WEDDINGMAN.

After the meeting, I was talking to a few people, and WEDDINGMAN rudely just interrupts someone else speaking mid-sentence and says, “I need to talk to you.” I stare at him, and then say, “Then you’ll have to wait your turn, someone else is talking.” An hour or so later, when most of the meeting is just a handful of people chatting and being purely social, I get to talk to WEDDINGMAN, who’s eyes must really be sensitive because he’s still wearing sunglasses at 9:30PM.

He opened with, “I’ve got the best script you’re ever gonna hear about…”, which in some variation or other, I’ve heard from virtually everyone who’s ever contemplated writing a script. Much to my dismay, he told he could not tell me about the story because it’s that good. I tried to say that I didn’t want to hear it but he cut me off and said he would tell me anyway because he had a sense that he could trust me.

His story revolved around a wedding videographer who’s a single parent. It’s a horror story about a haunted house, because around Halloween there are a bunch of haunted houses that operate. But the uniqueness is that this house is actually haunted. He went on and on, but by that time I was replaying “Dazed & Confused” in my head and I got all the way to the hazing scene when he finished his story. What I do vaguely remember is that he is the writer/director/producer AND the Star. There is a name for this kind of movie – a “Vanity piece”.

Here’s the capper – the “Financing” and “Distribution” of which he spoke to everyone before is the true genius [his words] of the plan. He plans on charging all of the actors to be in the movie, even the extras. And the “distribution” is that each person signs a contract that says that they are required to buy from him DVD copies of the movie, and then they can sell them for a profit, or keep them as a souvenir. As he described this to me, I guess my look of shock didn’t register.

As will always be the case, I asked what he wanted from me. He said he needed a right hand man, someone with experience to be his co-pilot on this highly profitable and exciting adventure. It’s so exciting because there is, of course, no pay. Again, I ain’t about the money, but gouging amatuer actors and raping people’s dreams doesn’t sound like something I really wanted to do.

He then said I could be a cameraman if I didn’t want to be an assistant director. I told him I didn’t have much experience as a camera operator, and he said experience really didn’t matter. So, good camera work doesn’t matter, but getting aspiring actors to pay for a movie he’s writing about himself, directing, and starring in IS important. I politely declined.

Later I did some research on the topic. It IS illegal to charge actors to be in your movie, on two counts. First off, acting, thanks to unions like SAG, and even if you’re not a SAG actor, is considered a profession. So paying for an acting job is considered bribery and therefore illegal. This happened in LA and the District Attorney took it on to protect the actors, as researched by our Film Commissioner. Secondly, it’s illegal because the wording in the contract that one of the actors gave me stated that the money you spent on the role was actually an investment in the production of the movie. By calling it an investment broke several Federal Trade laws and it’s highly serious offense. If any of those actors ever turned him in, WEDDINGMAN could go to jail and be forced to make videos of a very different kind.

(FYI – that was Nov 2000, and as of Feb 2004, his feature is still incomplete)


I had done some music video and commercial work for a guy who worked with a lot of local rappers. He was the impressario of his little record company empire. We got along okay and he had always paid up front and was a good businessman. I’ll give him a Dances With Wolves name like HIM WHO TALKS IN 3RD PERSON, because he would always talk about himself in the manner of someone else talking about him. It was a quirk, and far funnier in person.

HIM WHO TALKS IN 3RD PERSON had made a connection with a movie and invested (since thus far, he’s the only one I’ve known who ever actually HAD money). He got an “executive producer” title, which he was excited about and got to work on a straight to video feature film shot on film. From there he met several people in the industry from LA.

So now he gets it in his head to try to something good for the community. We’re going to put on an event for music, TV, models, and movies. HIM WHO TALKS IN 3RD PERSON got some sales people to help sell booths at the event and then convinced me work on the TV commercial.

I agreed to do this at a heavy discount because the star attraction to this event is an “Agent from A BIG TIME Talent Agency”. I get promised an hour alone with this agent from A BIG TIME Agency to pitch myself, and any projects. In exchange, I do the commercial for a fraction of cost. I get promised that movies I want to make are going to be a reality because of this, and blah blah blah. I want to believe.

On the day of this event, a few people actually pay the $25 per person to show up. There are all kinds of booths, some of which have nothing to do with anything. And it turns into a great deal of promotion for HIM WHO TALKS IN 3RD PERSON’s record company. I meet the “agent from the BIG TIME Talent Agency”, who says she hasn’t worked there in a while. Let’s just say I am surprised to say the least, since I just handed her a stack of my screenplays.

After the event, I spoke with several other people who were upset that the promised agent was a “former” agent from BIG TIME Agency, not a current one. Then came the email of interest from one of the actors who paid to go. It had the phone number for the BIG TIME Agency and said to call human resources and inquire about her. So I did. It turned out that not only was she was never an agent, she had only worked there for barely a year, and she was an administrative assistant.

We all got lied to. Then HIM WHO TALKS IN 3RD PERSON got mad that people felt ripped off and complained. Of course, I’m in the fray for calling the BIG TIME Agency. He assures me she was an agent, even after the BIG TIME Agency’s Human Resources said she wasn’t.

I try to explain to him that I had submitted to her several of my screenplays and samples of my work. An agent with BIG TIME Agency is an accredited agent, meaning they can lose their license in California if they screw someone over. Giving my work to someone who just works there (or USED to work there as was the case) changes the type of material I’d give, and I’d want to get to know them better before putting myself in a position to get stolen from. There is an assurance that comes with working with an actual agent from BIG TIME Talent Agency, that a former employee just won’t have.

HIM WHO TALKS IN 3RD PERSON assures me that I am now blacklisted by the BIG TIME Talent Agency. He said that the former “agent” took him on a tour there and that everyone loves her, and that when he was there, my name was on a dry erase board. No one in Hollywood will ever work with me.

When I heard this, I had to hit the mute button to laugh out loud because I’m trying to picture this office on Wilshire Blvd with people who make million dollar deals by the minute doing something as obtuse as writing “Peter John Ross” on a dry erase board on a list of people they’d blacklist from the industry.

Let’s see if I can put this succinctly…

If someone claims it will be easy to raise $100,000, but can’t afford to fix their own car – WARNING!

If someone wants you to work for free, but claims they can get money for a $1 million feature – WARNING!

If all you have are verbal promises & handshakes, but you never see anything in writing or hear from an attorney – WARNING!

I have several more war stories but they all have recurring themes. They generally revolve around someone claiming to have money, or access to money, yet do not show any evidence of it. My opinion is that there are a lot of lonely people out there that will talk big, just because they want to talk to someone. I’ve seen where someone wants to tell you they can make your dreams come true, but what they really want to do is pretend to be a big shot, which they aren’t. Other people are out to make a buck on your sweat and hard work, while they play middleman.

Here’s a few things you can do to protest yourself.
#1. Get contracts, see it in writing. If this alleged producer or investor can’t afford an attorney – they ain’t got money.
#2. If you’re ever in a situation where someone is talking a lot, and it feels like you are incidental – grow the courage to interrupt and ask what they want from you.
#3. Ask for references. If they get mad, then they probably don’t have any financial references or people that will say they can do what they are promising.
#4. Never believe anything until you see it. No story is true, and no money is real until you see it with your own eyes. It’s cynical, I know, but 99% of people promising you the moon, can’t get to the second floor, so how are they gonna get you where you need to go?

By staying realistic, you can have these incidents and broken promises, yet still have a good attitude towards trying. We need to keep trying, and find those diamonds in the rough. Share your war stories and know that it really is about the art of storytelling, but it remember, moviemaking is a business, a business with sharks swimming in the kiddie pool.


About award winning filmmaker Peter John Ross & Sonnyboo Productions – Founded in 1999, Sonnyboo short films have played on 3 continents and at over 50 film festivals world wide. Projects directed by Peter John Ross have appeared on Tech TV, National Lampoon Networks, Movieola the short film channel, The “U” Network, and Vegas Indies TV. Sonnyboo films have been noted in such publications as RES Magazine, Ain’t It Cool News, Camcorder & Computer Video magazine, Film & Video Magazine, LA Weekly, Film Threat, the Village Voice, & Internet Video Magazine.


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