The Ticking Meter

If you’re thinking about making a short film forget it.

Make three.

One is happenstance. Two is a remake. Three is a statement of intent.

The advice comes from Alexander Salkind, who made his fortune with the Superman franchise after a mass of movies good and bad spanning a career of forty years.

Salkind started out with shorts and told me how he got into the business at the premiere of The Rainbow Thief, a whimsical fantasy written by Berta Dominguez, Salkind’s Mexican wife, directed by Alexandro Jodorowsky and pairing Peter O’Toole with Omar Sharif for the first time since Lawrence of Arabia.

We were in the loo after the a screening.

“What do you think?”

“Rubbish,” I said with English charm.

“Yeah, maybe we’ll get some money back with the video.”

He was in no mood for champagne and let me buy him a whisky soda when we strolled back to the bar. I mentioned I was looking for the money to make a short film; was he feeling generous? It was unlikely: Salkind had given Roberta the million bucks to make her movie to keep her off the set while he was shooting the last episode of Superman and was still trying to pin down the video deal.

What he did tell me was how he got his start in film. Alexander Salkind had arrived in France from Russia in 1945. Paris was tense, as broke as Salkind after Nazi occupation, and he was taking a train to Lyon where he thought he might have more luck finding work.

In the carriage, he met a man who owned three shoe shops. Alex told him a story he wanted to turn into a short film. By the time they arrived at their destination, the shoe shop owner was so intrigued by the pitch, he decided to sell one of his shops and fund the movie.

Financially, it was a disaster. Salkind was depressed, but it was his first film and the shoe shop guy considered the experience so valuable, he sold a second shop to finance the next film. That, too, was a flop, but the shoe man had started out on a course from which he saw no return: he sold the last of his shops to fund one more film and lost everything.

Alex Salkind had to go elsewhere for funding, but he now had a showreel and was on his way. As for the shoe shop proprietor, he’d left the footwear business behind forever. He’d caught the film bug, worked as Salkind’s assistant and had a long career as a cinematographer.

What Salkind had learned making three short films was three essential lessons:

  1. How to inspire potential finance.
  2. How to manage a budget.
  3. How to tell a good story.

With these skills he went on to make an enormous variety of movies, from Kafka’s impenetrable The Trial (1962) to The Three Musketeers (1973) to the Superman movies where, due to deft negotiations and deceptive scheduling, his name is lent to what lawyers call the Salkind Clause: that an actor must be told how many movies he’s making. When he filmed Christopher Reeve in the first Superman in 1977, the out-takes contained much of the footage used in Superman II.

Salkind by then was a powerful figure, ‘a Russian producer who moves somewhat mysteriously in international circles,’ according to writer John Walker, but he had learned as a penniless émigré the value of a penny and never took his eye off the ticking meter.

His lessons are just as relevant to the short film-maker today. Most filmmakers get their start by getting their hands on the equipment and short films allow experimentation and development. Salkind said three films are a statement of intent. He could just as easily have said a career, because from that point onwards, as the shoe shop guy realised, you’re hooked: you’re in the movies.

The Salkind anecdote is an excerpt from Making Short Films: The Complete Guide From Script To Screen.

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