The Future Is Ours If We Seize Today

Today's guest post is from filmmaker Amos Poe.

“If you’re an American filmmaker, you’re a Hollywood filmmaker.” – Martin Scorsese

There’s been much talk lately about the current state of “independent” filmmaking which includes all aspects of fundraising, production, post-production and distribution. This is my perspective based on 40 years of experience and a modicum of hope.

In 1969 when I got my first Super 8 camera and started making films - needless to say, I had no idea there was such a thing as a “film school” -  I picked up a book called “The Moguls”. As I recall (I’ve long since misplaced the book) it had a number of chapters, each dealing with a different man responsible for inventing and building Hollywood. All were immigrants - Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, Adolph Zukor, Schenck etc. One chapter, I think it was Adolph Zukor, a German immigrant, went something like this.

Zukor was in the haberdashery business on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. He sold shirts, ties, suits… to men. One day a guy walks in and looks around, sees that there’s empty space in the entryway. Zukor walks up to him, “Good morgen. Can I help you?” The guy says, “I wanna help you. Since this space is empty, how would you like to make some money from it?” “What do you have in mind?”, Zukor asks. “How would you like to put a few Nickelodeon machines here?’ “Vat’s that?” Zukor had no idea what these machines were, he’d never seen a nickelodeon machine, or a film for that matter. So the man walks outside, there’s a truck full of machines parked at the curb. He whistles to his assistant, “Bring one down here!”. They unload a machine and bring it in. “Here’s how it works. We put a sign outside your store advertising this week’s film. People come in, throw a nickel (hence the name) and watch. Here. Look!” So the man throws in a nickel, Zukor cranks it and sees his first motion picture. He’s awed naturally, but skeptical. “Yes, very nice, but vy vould anyone spend a nickel on that? Who vould be so foolish” The salesman realizes that Adolf is a man who needs proof, “OK. Look, I’ll leave 5 machines here for the week, put the sign out front. For the first week, you keep all the money. If you like it, we’ll keep the machines here, and from then on we’ll split the money %50-50. If you don’t  like I’ll take the machines out. How’s that?” Zukor thinks this over for 30 seconds, looks at the nickelodeon, realizes he has nothing to lose, and agrees. So there’s five machines and all week long people are streaming inside, dropping nickels in the machine. Some of them watch four times. By the end of the week, the salesman comes back, they empty the machines and Zukor’s got $97 in nickels. Over the next few months, Zukor adds more and more machines, until the whole place is full of nickelodeons. He rents the space next door, fills that up with nickelodeons. Every week the salesman comes in with another film, takes the old one back, puts a new sign out front. Business booms!

“So, in a few months I got out of the haberdashery business and vas full time in the film business. You see, in the haberdashery business it’s difficult. In those days, a man comes in, vants a shoit. It’s 25 cents for the shoit. But I have to stock different sizes, different colors, and in those days the collars and cuffs vere separate, so you have to stock them as vell, oy, it’s a pain in the tuches. You see in the haberdashery, a man valks in spends twenty-five cents and valks out vit a shoit… in the film business he valks in spends a nickel and valks out vit nothin’. That’s vhy I love the film business!”

Zukor eventually wanted the whole %100, not just to exhibit but also to produce and distribute… and that’s how Hollywood was born. As an immigrant myself, I love that story, it was funny, and made so much sense.

My first Super 8 film, was a series of shorts made to the Beatles “White” album. I loved that record and came up with short stories or ideas for each song. My friends helped and “acted” in these films. With ”Rocky Racoon” I did single-frame animation, for “Dear Prudence”, I managed to convince the most beautiful girl in Buffalo – who wouldn’t otherwise have given me the time of day, let alone come out to play - to jump naked out of an abandoned hay-loft on a deserted farm and run through an oat field in slow-motion. I then spliced all these bits together onto a 400 foot reel – there were two, because it’s a double-album - and had a premiere at a bar across the street from my house on Main and Ferry. For sound, my Nizo Super 8 was silent, I had to time the drop of the needle on the record at exactly the right moment as I hit the switch on the projector – otherwise I’d lose “synch”! Ha !  We passed the hat around, and as I recall, I came away with $47.50, not bad. Paid for a third of the film’s cost in one night.

Later, when I came to New York (1972) I got a job in film distribution. My first job was working as a print inspector and shipper at a small company on University Place and 13th Street called, New Line Cinema. My boss was a guy named Bob Shaye, we had ten films and 30 prints. I screened my Super 8 and later 16mm experimental films at a little joint on 4th Street, called The Millenium. I paid for these early films myself by taking on a superintendent’s job on 15th street; I got a free apartment and $250 a month, plus a %10 commission on every apartment I rented. Eventually, as NewLine grew with the success of “Reefer Madness” and “Pink Flamingoes” I had to hire an assistant, so I hired a musician named Ivan Kral. Ivan was also into film and we soon started shooting bands around town. It never seemed to bother us that we were shooting bands silently. We knew sound and image didn’t need to be in synch.

We made two 16mm films on my Bolex, NIGHT LUNCH (with David Bowie, Queen, Roxy Music etc.) and THE BLANK GENERATION (with THE RAMONES, BLONDIE, TALKING HEADS, TELEVISION, RICHARD HELL, WAYNE COUNTY… etc.), Ivan was now in this little poetry band called PATTI SMITH GROUP. We premiered THE BLANK GENERATION at a seedy club on the Bowery called, CBGB. You may have heard of it. The film cost us $1546 to make and in the first 6 shows we pulled in $1635 from the door. I felt we’d finally crossed over and could now be considered “professional” as we’d recouped the cost of the film in one weekend.

Meanwhile, I became fascinated with the many repertoire film houses in NYC, and went every day to see something; especially the French New Wave films. The key here was that these filmmakers basically re-invented for themselves, cinema. I got fascinated by Andy Warhol and his artistic and economic methods, then John Cassavettes! It all seemed possible if I could re-invent cinema. How were these home-made films ever going to compete with the Hollywood machine and big-time American culture? It then occurred to me that maybe what I should do is re-invent the New Wave, I mean after all, wasn’t that the nature of waves? They went from one shore to the next, back and forth? Godard, Chabrol, Truffaut had watched American films at the Cinematheque in Paris and went out to “re-make” those and had come up with something completely new. What if I were to re-make “Breathless” let’s say, and was able to start a new film movement? It never occurred to me that I was dreaming. I had $3000 in the bank and that seemed to be enough to make a 16mm reversal B&W film called UNMADE BEDS. I got lucky, I made it. The first screening however, only 17 people showed up. It was a flop. I was devastated. I sent it to Cannes in ’77, but they rejected it. More devastation. However, the good folks from the Deauville film festival accepted it. Meanwhile while I was waiting Eric Mitchell and I decided to make another film, THE FOREIGNER. I got lucky again when a bank on Canal Street loaned me $5000 to buy a car. So we made that film… and No Wave cinema was born.

That was then, this is now. What I’m getting at is that every generation has an opportunity to re-invent cinema. In fact, that’s what its all about, ain’t it? In the ‘90’s when indie films became all the rage, it was interesting, but I think now is even better. We’re done with all the mannerist filmmaking aesthetics. We must re-invent ourselves as our empire collapses all around us, with the tools of a new world. We must think of ourselves as artist-warriors, capturing the fall of the Roman Empire, in some beautiful new way, like Picasso and Braque did with painting at the turn of the last century. Like Adolf Zukor and his cohorts did. Like the French New Wave, Warhol, Cassavetes, the Italian neo-realists did.

This is what I’m thinking as I make my new film “La Commedia”, I’m going back to try and understand what we mean by “motion” in a motion picture, mush as Edward Muybridge discovered in 1876 with his “Horse in Motion” series, and much as Dante Alighieri re-invented poetry in a new language, a lingua vulgare, a sweet new style!

For fundraising we’re trying For production I used a consumer Olympus camera that could shoot underwater. For post-prodution, Final Cut Pro, Protools, Photoshop etc. All I know is that it will premiere in Venice this September, the rest is as yet unknown. The future is ours if we seize today.

If you’d like to help, please go to

-- Amos Poe  (May 2010)