I recently had the opportunity to speak with Eric Schumacher from Zhon: The Alien Interviews, a web series I reviewed last month (it’s excellent, definitely check it out!). Eric is highly involved in the indie film community out in Arizona and had a lot to share about the entertainment industry and his projects. Read on to learn more!
* * *
ML: It seems you work in a variety of roles when it comes to entertainment, from actor to director to producer. Which of these roles is your favorite to take on and why?
ES: Well, my first love is acting. I was born to a family of actors and I’ve been in Love with that art for as long as I can remember. The others have their merits. As a director I help others to find that sweet spot in a performance and guide a crew in recording it. As a producer, I’m involved in a project from the very beginning, often in the conceptual stage and I get to see it become a real “boy or girl” so to speak. If I had my druthers however, I’d spend the majority of my time acting. I Love to become someone else for awhile and really understanding what makes them tick and sharing that experience with fans. I believe as performers and actually artists of all kinds, it’s our honor to give an audience an experience that inspires or makes them question themselves or helps us all to grow through ideas and emotions. It can be very hard work but it’s worth every second of it. Of course there’s merit to just plain making people laugh a bit too and I’m proud to be a part of that as an actor too.
ML: While you had been acting for awhile previously, it seems that things really took off for you with your role in the critically-acclaimed comedy web series “Crewing Up”. Tell us about that experience. What did you learn from working on that web series and how did it affect your experiences after that?
ES: Crewing up was a great experience. I worked with some wonderful actors and the scripts written by Melissa Banczak were brilliant. This was just about when the concept of the web series was starting to gel (not that long ago really but things move fast in the internet world). I auditioned for a couple of roles but I really wanted to play Frank and fortunately Melissa, (who also directed the series) asked me to audition with me in mind for that very role. The other role they were considering me for, Will sort of the male lead (played beautifully by my buddy Jonathan Northover) was a great role, but not the kind that sticks out like a sore thumb like Frank. I knew both that Frank was the kind of character that people love to hate and the kind that they secretly route for. He’s actually fairly complex for a guy who’s none too bright. I found him to be meaty and comedic and sad and well-meaning but just not smart enough to make it by doing the right thing. In fact he often didn’t realize that he wasn’t doing the right thing. I knew fans would dig him, and I’d have the most fun playing him. Although the series was short lived and didn’t get nearly the play I had hoped it would, I still get people coming to me saying, “Hey you’re Frank Mann”. Every once in awhile someone even says that they have a Frank Mann mug (if you haven’t seen the show, Frank carried a mug with his face on it everywhere he went and they merchandised replicas of the mug for awhile. The show helped me to develop a very small (and now growing) and very wonderful fan base all over the world. During that series I watched what the producers did very carefully and learned a lot about what to do and about what not to do as they tried to navigate this new thing called the web series. That helped me to develop some of the plans that are being used right now as we work on Zhon and plan the next several series. I’m grateful to that cast and crew for what I learned from it. They were experimenting while they went and it saved me some time. In fact I think that show helped me to really realize that Web shows are the new frontier and should not be ignored.
ML: You’ve trained in several business philosophies. Which philosophies have you studied and why did you decided to go that route?
ES: I’ve studied the Franklin Covey 7 Habits of Highly Effective People system, the FISH system and devoted a good amount of time to studying personality types and emotional intelligence. A few other systems that just didn’t have much of an impact on me so I won’t mention. I’ve also been mentored by a few wonderful people, who taught me things about business that you just can’t learn in a book or from a class. Many of these systems came my way through the very progressive thinking of some companies I’ve worked for outside of the entertainment business over the years who made sure that they gave folks the opportunity to study these things. While this is a little different, I also studied martial arts from some unusually great teachers for many years. The system I studied was focused on improving yourself at every level and working hard towards becoming the best human being you could be and applying the tools of the martial arts to become a strong person. I’ve been gifted with some wonderful opportunities to learn how to do things the right way and since I am in a position where I need to focus on the business side of things in the entertainment world, and I have a leadership position in in one of the most difficult arts in the world (filmmaking), I’ve continued to study best business practices so that I can apply them to our work. I really try to be the best I can possibly be in every endeavor and many of these business and life philosophies are all about doing just that. I think my favorite business system so far is the 7 habits; it’s incredibly balanced and really all about living a positive life and doing business with the same morality that you ought to live your life in general.
ML: How have these business philosophies come into practice in your work in the entertainment industry?
ES: Every part of the implementation of every project I produce or direct is constructed with these business and life philosophies in mind. When I start on a project, I begin with the end in mind (Covey quote) we consider what we want to ultimately accomplish and build everything around achieving that goal. We carefully build a positive “Set Culture” for each project. We look out for each other and create a family-like environment. Hierarchy is strictly respected but NO ONE is disrespected. That flows from the top. If I’m producing or directing, or even if I’m a leading actor on a project, it’s my responsibility to do my best to set an example for exemplary behavior. I don’t think you can ask others to give an extraordinary effort if you’re not willing to do so yourself and I make sure that everyone sees it. Of course you’ve got to admit your mistakes too. I want everyone who’s worked with me before and has given their best to really look forward to doing it again and to be VERY proud of what we accomplished together. We also try to keep things fun on the set (FISH). Each of our projects is designed with an eye on its greater impact the community in which we produce it and on the world in general. The long story short is that leading people, whether on a movie set or in a corporate board room or a hike in the wilderness, are essentially the same. You don’t get a quality product unless everyone believes in what they’re doing. It’s a lot easier to get a quality product when everyone is looking out for each other too. That’s got to begin with the producing team.
ML: In 2011, you formed Picture Arizona, LLC with series Co-Director Alan Williams and design and build entrepreneur Randel Jacob. Picture Arizona uses a unique and innovative business model designed to create jobs in the film industry in Arizona, and create new business for existing entertainment and non-entertainment businesses. Can you tell us more about this business model?
ES: Picture Arizona is the next step in a greater strategy that started with “Zhon: the Alien Interviews”. Alan and Randy and I have exactly the same vision about how to run a media business. Picture Arizona is a strategic partnership for profitable media. The short version is that we are creating an independent film studio. Using a lot of the most effective practices of the studio system but reconfiguring them for a smaller market like Arizona, we have created a system that will allow us to produce multiple, high quality, highly marketable feature film and series projects, produced one after the other as a package, greatly reducing the cost of each individual project and making sure that everyone is compensated appropriately. We minimize the risk and create a lower profit threshold making a better deal for the investor and create a mechanism whereby content creators, (filmmakers) can get the funding they need to make a project and a top notch team to produce and market that project. Our model is very specific, which is why it works. We’ve rejected a lot of scripts, mostly because they just weren’t a good fit for the model. We’ve been reviewing scripts from all over the world. Our method keeps most of the money within our local economy, creating consistent film industry jobs and driving revenue to local businesses to supply multiple productions. It’s as much an economic development model as a highly profitable business concept. We have completed vetting our first slate of films and are working on slate number two. As of the date of this interview we are about two weeks away from opening the door for prospective investors to get into slate number one. Well-known actors from Hollywood are already committing to some key roles in several projects and many of our vendors are in place. The marketing plan is something most producers would drool over. You might even spot a Picture Arizona baseball cap or a mug on certain big sets in Hollywood here and there. Of course we have some proprietary techniques that make it all work which I can’t share here, but the gist of it is that we’re creating an industry and giving a lot of people opportunities and making some great films and web shows.
ML: You seem to be very passionate about independent film and creativity and artists uniting. How do you think Hollywood and mainstream media affect society and how do you think they make or break creativity in up and coming artists?
ES: Film, music, theater, etc. are all arts. They are also businesses and it is critical to keep the creative side in balance with the professional side if you want to have a happy, balanced career. Clearly, Hollywood does sometimes tip on the side of business and create products purely based on projected sales in the interest of the all mighty dollar and that can mean that you get cookie cutter sequels and projects with incredibly predictable plot-lines and musicians who aren’t allowed to sign their real song. Even some folks with no discernible talent who are edited or auto-tuned into a facsimile of a performance as an actor or a singer. Big studios do sometimes break the mold and create projects of great value to society too and support the careers of some amazing singers and actors and filmmakers and let them truly ply their art. Hollywood executives have a lot to protect of course, so they are less likely to take risks on a venture that is innovate but isn’t any investor also going to look for the best opportunity to make their money back even in the indie world? The big studios have an incredible amount of money to make their projects and to market them. The big studios own 90% of the over-all film industry but by volume they simply can’t make as many projects as the collected indies of the world. That means that there are just a few spots at the top. Many, many great innovators in indie film and many great actors and musicians etc., have HUGE competition to get noticed for just a few spots in the big studio system and may never get in. So it falls to indies to market themselves and gain their own audiences so that their works aren’t just lost in the noise created by the big studios. There are so many brilliant artists and filmmakers out there that it would be a true loss if many of them were never heard by their audiences. There’s just amazing stuff out there.
Indies have the most to gain and the least to lose by innovating and in fact MUST innovate if they are going to get noticed by audiences and investors and others who can give them the resources they need to succeed so that they can stand a chance of having a career. We as indies need to learn from the studios where possible and get creative with both our projects and how we market and fund them. There are still billions of dollars of profit to be had in the indie world and if one should get an offer from a studio, all well and good but that’s not the right path for everyone. What the general public may not realize is that making a film of quality or creating an album, if you’re a musician or living as an actor is really difficult. Film is unbelievably difficult to get right and if you’re working with nearly no budget, it’s close to impossible. The life of an indie musician, actor or filmmaker is full of incredible challenges, between putting food on the table and having the time necessary to do the incredibly difficult work of making the products that move and bring joy to audiences. And what would we do without that art. Even the studio system, fearful of a failure that will blow an 80 million dollar budget are looking to indies to take the initial risks and show them what might be successful before they invest large sums of on something that breaks the mold. So the key is this: really dedicated indies need to work together to help each other to get ahead and I truly hope fans will spend a little time looking for some good indie films and music etc. Since indies just don’t have the kind of budget to spend 40milliion dollars on national tv ads, their projects may be just a little harder to find, but a quick web-search is guaranteed to yield some projects you will be glad you didn’t miss and will really enrich your life. Check sites like Rogue Cinema for reviews on indie projects too. That’s a pretty wonderful place to start.
ML: You’re currently working in and on “Zhon: The Alien Interviews” (which I am personally a big fan of as it’s hilarious and fun!). How did the idea come about?
ES: First off thanks for the kind words. Misty, we’re really glad that you like it. We appreciate that very much.
So, my brother from another mother Robert Linden and I met several years ago at the premiere of a film that he was a fight coordinator for. Shortly thereafter I was cast as the lead in a short superhero film, and Rob was the fight coordinator. We had a 6 Hour drive to the set and became fast friends. On the way back Rob suggested that we should write a film together and we started to. Realizing that the film we were writing was simply too big for us to pull off at that point (which sounds funny when you consider that we made Zhon instead) we started brainstorming other ideas. First, we determined which target market to go for and unanimously decided that it would be the sci-fi/fantasy marketplace. Primarily because we are both huge sci-fi and fantasy fans ourselves and could make a reasonable determination that if we loved it, those who tended to like the same kinds of fiction we do would Love our work too. We brainstormed ideas and, after we had about 42 ideas on the table, most of which were good, Rob got this funny look in his eye, which I have come to recognize as the "he’s got a bloody brilliant idea so I better stop whatever I’m doing and listen up" look, and he said "hey, what if we did something like this" and the basic idea for Zhon: The Alien Interviews was born. The original concept was actually based on Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner’s classic comedy routine the 2000-year-old man. But as we developed it, it got bigger and bigger and we ended up with this sweeping storyline.
Then we spoke to my buddy Marty Ketola and his business partner Clif Campbell of Pondo Enterprises who co-wrote a really beautiful, extremely micro-budget film I costarred in a few years ago called "Writing Fren-zee". I should add that I got the Writing Fren-Zee in part because they were fans of crewing up and you may notice Jonathan Northover from crewing up on the DVD poster too and Nate Campbell who later did fantastic guest spots in Zhon. Writing frenzy was a heartwarming little film with a lot of quirky comedy and great character moments in it. I knew that Marty and Cliff could take our concept and give us some really clever dialogue, and help us to put all the pieces of the storyline Rob and I developed into script form. We then pulled some of the best folks we had worked with in the past together and carefully interviewed others to create a terrific crew. We held careful auditions spent about a year in pre-production, spent about a year in production, and are now at about the year and a half Mark in post-production. Of course, you can visit our website to learn more about most of our cast and crew. Some of our folks are still filtering information to us so check back often to see more profiles. I’m really proud of this production which was made on a shoestring budget and was 100% self-funded, yes, on credit cards. We had some brilliant people like director of photography Thomas Castillo, co-directors Alan Williams and Tyrel good, the amazing Gabrielle Andres and Tina Huerta as associate producers, Chris Valentine who probably uses some kind of magic rituals to do the amazing stuff he does in post-production, brilliant composer Peter Gorritz wrote our theme song and scores the entire series. We had a terrific cast who worked really hard with us to create lovable characters. Everyone believed very strongly in this project and poured a lot of love into it, from the cast and crew (many of whom I haven mentioned here) down to Bill Ackerley and Alex Ramirez who are completing our behind the scenes stuff. Even our graphic design and web design by Kaleb badger is at very high level for a project with such a minimal budget. A lot of other people in the community came together to support us as well providing locations at no cost, and offering absolutely critical resources when we were in a bind. It all comes down to that basic vision. We were all looking out for each other and we all believe very strongly in this project and its potential for success and the good we can do with it. Not to mention of course, we all loved the story.
ML: What’s coming up in the future for Zhon?
ES: As I write this, we have just completed the launch of season two. We are hard at work in the post production process for season three which is the final season of the series. We are also working on the behind-the-scenes videos, a special episode that will be a DVD release only and of course the DVD and digital download sets. We’ll have some other fun stuff in the not-too-distant future too. I don’t want to tell you much about season three but I will tell you that more secrets are revealed, we have more historical flashbacks, and some of our biggest ones yet like Vietnam during the American Vietnam War which is one of my favorites. We have a huge fight scene coming up which Rob choreographed and, we find out if in fact Zhon is truly an alien or something else entirely. Of course more great indie musicians. You’ll want to watch to the very last frame of the credits in the very last episode as we reveal secrets down to right AFTER the last frame. I should add that we do have a plot line for a series 2. We don’t have immediate plans to produce it as we are working on the Picture Arizona plan for some entirely different series which will play well to a similar audience and will be much bigger in scope believe it or not. Eventually we would like to circle back around and make series 2. There is more story to tell after the end of this one. We hope everyone enjoys the series as much as we passionately enjoyed making it. It damn near killed us after all and we are still glad we did it.
ML: What’s coming up in the future for yourself?
ES: Well, I’ve got my work cut out for me with Picture Arizona. I’ll be leading the marketing team and the production management team for most of our projects. Our first slate includes 4 fantastic feature films and 2 HUGE web shows. You’ll recognize some familiar faces in those series and one of them is actually designed to costar Rob and I again and some other favorites from Zhon. Through my company Snap Bang Media, LLC I do some management and marketing support directly for some other artists including a brilliant African Reggae and Afro Pop musician who’s on the rise by the name of K-Bass (www.kbassmusic.com). Of course, I perform as an actor wherever possible, teach and mentor others here and there, and there is no end to the work in promoting Zhon. A couple of projects I performed in as an actor recently will be released soon. I have agreed to play roles in a couple of films not produced by Picture Arizona that are currently looking for funding. A very cute short web series will be launched soon called "The Adventures of Silver and Brass" which is a spoof on silent movies and is targeted at gamers http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=11_CwqH6gac. The Adventures of Silver and Brass originally played at the GenCon convention this year. I played the villain Rob Steel. I’m in development on a bazillion other potential projects most of which I hope to produce through Picture Arizona (although even I have to go through the approval process). Many upcoming projects will be in collaboration with my buddies at Pulp Gamer Media, a company that specializes in reaching the tabletop and role-playing game marketplace. I’m actively looking for new roles as an actor that excite me of course. All this producing stuff is all well and good and I’m fairly good at it, but as I said before, my true love is acting and I start to go into withdrawals if I don’t get a chance to play a good meaty acting role every once in a while.
ML: And finally, is there anything else you’d like to tell us about?
ES: I want to thank everyone who’s checked out Zhon so far and all of our supporters in general. We make movies in the hopes that fans will Love them and every single positive comment means a lot to us. We Love to share our stories and our art. If you haven’t seen the show, please check it out and drop us a line and say hi. – www.whoiszhon.com
I’m easily findable on Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter and very happy to chat with fans fellow artists alike, but please forgive me if I take a long time to get back to you or occasionally drop the ball on that. As you may have figured out I’m just a little overwhelmed.
Thanks very much for the interview Misty. I think that rogue Cinema is doing something very important in its focus on independent artists and I am behind you guys 100%.