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Beverly Hills Film Festival: One Filmmaker's Diary

by Matthew Perry

Last fall, dOc launched the official website for Heartbeat, a 28-minute short film by M. Hollingsworth Perry. Since then, the film has played at several film festivals, and recently was selected as the Opening Film for the first Beverly Hills Film Festival. What follows is a "filmmaker's diary" of Mr. Perry's trip deep into the (dark) heart of Hollywood.

After spending an entire day face down on my pillow with a cold, I dragged myself out of bed at 6 a.m. the day of the screening for the drive from Sacramento to Los Angeles. Since my film was opening the Beverly Hills Film Festival at 6:00 p.m. I wanted to get there around noon to avoid any rush hour madness.

The Clarity Theater is in the heart of Beverly Hills on Wilshire Boulevard and turned out to be an intimate 115-seat locale that was more like a plush screening room than a theater—very nice, with velvet seats and two arm rests to each chair!

All of the festival films were paired with other films (shorts with a feature), so Heartbeat played to a crowd of a number of my friends as well as cast & crew from the second film—the festival's award-winning comedy It's All About You. After I was introduced with that film's director, I proceeded to make an unintentionally bad joke by introducing myself this way: "Hi, I'm Matt Perry, the one who's NOT in rehab." I was, of course, referring to Matthew Perry from Friends but the audience reacted with actual horror since they THOUGHT I was referring to the other director! Yikes. My first Hollywood faux pas.

I then told them I was very honored to be the first film at the very first Beverly Hills Film Festival, and we both screened our films. The reception to Heartbeat was very good, although not as strong as the screening in Sacramento, perhaps because this was indeed a glitzy "Hollywood" crowd and my film is black-and-white, funky, offbeat. All of my L.A. friends, however, loved the film.

Afterwards our entourage went to the festival's "after party" at a glitzy restaurant called "Earth"—open bar and all. We got word that the film currently playing at the festival featured Neve Campbell, who was in attendance along with John Cusack and Karen Black, none of whom we met. This party was probably the biggest "scene" at the festival, because everyone who walked past me was looking at my suit (ah, filmmaker) and doing double takes to see if I was indeed somebody they knew. Or should know. Very funny. Very Hollywood.

The next night (Friday) I got my picture taken with Harry Shearer (the bass player "Derek Smalls" in This Is Spinal Tap—one of the all-time great comedies), who was screening his new film Teddy Bears' Picnic. Shearer of course is a comic genius who also does a lot of voices for The Simpsons. I told Shearer how much I loved Spinal Tap and he called it—in a Ned Flanders-style voice—"lightning in a bottle." Paired with Shearer's film was a short by Barry Strugatz, who co-wrote Married to the Mob. His film, The Transformation was really, really funny—about a milquetoast company mail clerk who has a sudden transformation into manliness while watching Steve McQueen in The Great Escape. He takes on the characteristics of Steve—standing up for himself, being cool, getting the girl, etc. Marvelously directed, acted, shot and edited. I spoke with Barry briefly and he is a very congenial fellow who is now trying to cast and raise money for a feature.

On Saturday I spent the day with former New York girlfriend Sue, who told me many Hollywood stories that gave me quite a reality check. She said, in Hollywood, everyone feels they are one notch below where they should be and that the city seems to be in perpetual panic. My favorite story was when she told me about the husband-wife writing team for Charlie's Angels. At the World Premiere for the movie, with all the lights and limos and Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz, the writers got out of the car and looked at one another, not thinking "We love Hollywood" but "We have no money in our bank account." It is often so long between jobs that writers struggle often just to make the rent.

Let me step back a day. On Friday I also "took a meeting" with a former film school acquaintance who is now a manager for an entertainment firm headed by a successful Hollywood producer. For the uninitiated, managers are similar to agents except they can produce. And they claim higher percentages. During our two-hour meeting my film school buddy—we'll call him Chad—gave me the inside dope on how incredibly difficult it is to get a film made there—that only the confluence of stars, financing, distribution, etc. can make things happen, and it is sheer madness. During our two-hour meeting Chad took three phone calls, during which he proceeded to act exactly like one of those agents from Altman's The Player: "She's WHAT??? I can't believe that bitch is doing that to him! It's her own HUSBAND for Christ's sake and she's selling him down the river!" You get the picture. My mind flashed on the day another Hollywood acquaintance (formerly of Wolfgang Petersen's Radiant Productions) described The Player as "not fiction at all—it's a documentary."

Chad showed me a 7-minute film that he described as exactly what the studios and networks are looking for from a young director. It tells the story of an 8-year-old kid at a talent show whose father is embarrassed because "He just acts like a circus side show freak!" When the boy finally comes on stage after much parental anguish, he plucks his guitar for a few harmless chords, then launches into this very funny, very raucous scream while whirling furiously. Then the boy leans back, howls, and vomits 20 feet in the air. Then recaptures the vomit and swallows. My friends says, "When they see this at festivals the crowd goes completely berserk." The filmmaker is now developing a series for Disney.

So, what did I learn from my trip?

First, that there are different kinds of film festivals. There are festivals put on by communities to promote "the arts" in their city. The second kind of festival—which Beverly Hills clearly fits into—is put on by promoters to make money. They do these around the country and make their cash from film submissions ($50 apiece) and sponsorships (Johnnie Walker, Mercedes-Benz, etc.).

Second, that Hollywood is a town of hope, glory and hype. The truth behind the glitz is not nearly as pretty as Entertainment Tonight. It is indeed a Dream Factory, manufacturing dreams. It's as tough as a fading steel town.

Third, I learned that Hollywood is about making money first, with filmmaking a distant second. At least most of it. One agent who saw an advance copy of my film called me back and told me they would "pass" on the film. When I asked him if he had any advice for me the next time he said, "Matt, if you're gonna make a film, make sure it will sell. We see your kind of film at film festivals all the time—small, personal films. They're nice but they just blur together. Next time make a little action adventure film, or a karate film." This was good advice, but a KARATE FILM? Would he have said this before Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was such a huge success? Of course not. He's responding to trends, not thinking of great original stories, not thinking of "new trends." Or as Chad had told me, "This town runs on fear—if you say 'No' you keep your job. If you say 'Yes' you risk losing it."

I guess I learned that Hollwood is tough and fickle. It takes a lot to succeed. And even when you do there's no guarantee it will last. A screenwriter friend of mine who was quite successful for his first four years down there now has a part-time job, and may soon have to get a full-time job. The city—she is a harsh mistress. L.A. Confidential.

I didn't feel deflated by the trip, just checked into reality. Dreams can come true. Just getting into the festival proves that.

Finally, I learned that if you're going to be a writer or filmmaker, it MUST be the work that sustains you. That's all, and that's enough. You must believe in yourself. And believe that the joy of creation keeps you going, because there is no guarantee that anything else will come of it.