Thursday, October 16, 2014

Crack The Sky: Mr. President


Over the course of my career as an editor, I have had the pleasure to work on a number of rock videos.  The highest profile artist I worked with was rapper Big Pun at the height of his career, but my favorites were recording artists with ties to my native State of Maryland.  During college I had some peripheral involvement with Timothy Ratajczak's videos for The Ravyns and Growing Up Different.  Later I had the good fortune to work with Greg Kihn, who had a couple of Top 5 hits in the 80s, and Nils Lofgren, who is now a member of the E Street Band.  However, I started at the top.  My first real video was for Baltimore's biggest rock heroes:  Crack The Sky.

I grew up musically ignorant.  I was obsessed with the movies, but my musical taste was very limited.  It ran from BA - the Bach keyboard pieces I learned on the piano - to BE - The Beatles.  Still, I definitely knew who Crack The Sky were.  The rock stations played their music incessantly.  My sisters had some of their albums, too.  What I didn't realize was that the band was essentially a regional phenomenon despite the fact that their first album was declared the debut of the year by Rolling Stone magazine.  It would be no exaggeration to say that in Baltimore, Crack The Sky was as popular as The Rolling Stones.

I first got to know John Palumbo, the chief singer and songwriter of Crack The Sky, when he opened a recording studio in Baltimore.  My friend Victor Giordano started working there as an engineer and, in my capacity as a broadcast producer for Smith Burke & Azzam, I started doing some radio spots there.  I must admit I was a little nervous when I first met John.  To a Baltimorean, it was like meeting Mick Jagger.

We got to know each other pretty well.  He called me his "mortgage payment."  I hung out quite a bit at his studio flirting endlessly with Terri, his sexy secretary.  One boring afternoon at the advertising agency, I edited a video to The Beatles' song "The End" which illustrated the story of America's involvement in Vietnam in two minutes.  John was one of the first people to see the video.  He immediately hired me to edit a video for a local band he was producing.  It was my first step on a career that has enriched and sustained me for over twenty years.

When I first met John, the Crack The Sky had just released "From The Greenhouse," an album that got some pretty good airplay all around the country.  I remember when I went one of my winding, driving vacations that summer, I dutifully made note of every place and every time I heard the title song on the radio.  When it came time to release the follow-up album, "Dog City," my friend David Butler was slated to direct the video and I was slated to edit it.  Here it is:



It was a great experience.  It is always great working with David Butler, and we were fortunate to work with one of my favorite cinematographers, the late Tom Loizeaux.  I was also delighted to get my niece Natalie in the video, and Joel, the son of my friends David and Teresa Miller.

I only have one regret when I think about my work with John Palumbo and Crack The Sky, and it has nothing to do with the video.  When I did that first video for John Palumbo, I asked him how much he charged to produce a song.  He asked why.  I said I wanted to record a song with my band The Atomic Enema.  He immediately volunteered to do it for free.  Then the strangest thing happened.  I got cold feet, which was odd, because I was always willing to play my songs for anyone -- especially the darker, more sarcastic ones.  (Like this one.)  I offered up an excuse.  I said, "I don't know, my band is so out of practice.  We haven't played in a while."  John said, "That's okay.  We'll play all the instruments ourselves."  Here it was.  What I always wanted:  To have one of my songs played by a real recording artist that I respected.  But I chickened out*....

Oh well.

At least I got to work with all the local musical heroes of my youth.

Except Face Dancer.....

*Interestingly, although I was afraid to play my songs for John, we ended up playing on the same stage at a party.  John was scheduled to close the show -- backed up by some members of Bootcamp, another popular local band.  I was supposed to do my Elvis impersonation right before him.  However, after John saw me in my custom-made jumpsuit, he suggested that we change places.  And we did.  So, technically-speaking, John opened for me. (Big Al Anderson, of NRBQ, also "opened" for me that night.)

Check out my book:  The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

James Denton talks Black Rider on Fox & Friends

James Denton seems to be doing the circuit to support my new film "The Black Rider:  Revelation Road 3."  Thanks, James!  I appreciate it.   Here he is on Fox & Friends:  James Denton talks faith, dark new film.



Check out my book:  The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God

James Denton talks Black Rider on the Today Show

Here's James Denton, one-time sexiest man alive, on the NBC's Today Show talking with Kathi Lee & Hoda about my film "The Black Rider:  Revelation Road 3."  Thanks for getting the press, James!  Now I wish I went out to the set and met you!


Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy


The film is now available on DVD at Walmart and fine Christian Bookstores everywhere.    Speaking of bookstores, you should check out my book.  Here's the link to Amazon:  The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

James Denton talks Black Rider on Access Hollywood

James Denton discussed his dark turn on my new film "The Black Rider:  Revelation Road 3" on Access Hollywood.  The film will be available on Blu Ray and DVD on October 6th.




Check out my book:  "The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God"

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Death of an Amway God

Bill Britt - June 1980
Bill Britt is dead.

So what?  Who was he?

Bill Britt was the leader of a vast distributor empire that sold Amway products.  Some people called him a businessman.  Some people called him a role model.  Some people called him a leader.  But to people in his organization, he was much more than that.  He was a god.

I should know.  I was a member of his organization.  His word was law.  He wasn't just an authority on the Amway business.  He was an authority on all things:  economics, politics, relationships and religion.  More than that, he was also a liar, a charlatan and a cult leader.

I don't mean to say that Amway itself, or Amway Global, or Quixtar, or whatever it is calling itself nowadays, is a cult.  It is just a company that produces and distributes a wide variety of products.  If you become a distributor and practice the business as taught in the various manuals that come with your official starting kit, you would probably make a little money.  However, you would not achieve the riches that Bill Britt and his ilk promised you that way.  They preached a different gospel within Amway, and Amway, to its shame, never reigned them in.   I understand why they didn’t. At the time, my leaders (idols), Bill Britt and Dexter Yeager, boasted that a third of Amway’s sales came through their organizations. If Amway got tough with them, they would simply start selling another product line. Amway would be crippled. As a result, Amway turned a blind eye to their excesses.

Before I go any further, let me give you my definition of a cult, which I culled from a number of books and resources. Here are the characteristics: A). A group sharing an all-encompassing “truth” outside of, and hostile to, mainstream thought. B). Strong, charismatic, unquestionable leadership. C). Isolation from outsiders. D). Use of mind control tactics to manipulate the followers. I believe Britt Worldwide met all of those characteristics.

The cultic mind control tactics began immediately. First was the love bombardment. When you joined, everybody wanted to shake your hand or hug you. They wanted to know your story. Your dreams. They were always willing to give you a ride to a function or help you out any way they could. They were your friends. They needed you, and, soon enough, you needed them, too. Why? Because as soon as your old friends found out you were in Amway, they’d run in the opposite direction!

“Murphy,” one of my friends warned me early on. “If the first word out of your mouth isn’t poker when you call, I’m hanging up on you!”

That reaction was not uncommon.

Then the isolation began. Your friends and family members who didn’t want to get in the business were declared negative or losers.   “Why on Earth would you want to hang with negative people who were trying to steal your dream?” our leaders would ask.

They’d say where you would be in five years depended on whom you associated yourself with now. If you wanted to be a successful Amway distributor, you needed to hang around with successful Amway distributors. They’re the ones who wanted to help you achieve your dreams. Keep away from the others. Even your family. They’d come around later, begging to get into the business, when you were rich.

Our leaders also used sleep deprivation. We were told the best information came out at informal sessions around four in the morning. Your goal at the massive weekend functions was to get yourself invited back to the hotel room of an Amway guru and discuss the business until dawn. My friends and I would find ourselves sitting cross-legged on the floor of cramped hotel room with twenty other people listening to a high-ranking distributor until we barely had enough time to get a shower and breakfast before the morning function. We prided ourselves on how little sleep we got.

They even tried to control the information we received. Amway seemed to be in the news quite a bit at the time. The big shots usually got a heads-up if there was going to be a negative story in a major newspaper, magazine or television program. We would be warned not to watch or read it. The stories were all lies.

When it came to isolating yourself, I got off pretty easy.  My friends Jim and Mike often found themselves in fierce arguments with their family and friends. Relationships were definitely damaged. I was much more low key. I wasn’t willing to sacrifice friends for the business.

One of the biggest accusations against Amway was that it was a pyramid scheme.   The online Free Dictionary define a pyramid scheme as "a fraudulent moneymaking scheme in which people are recruited to make payments to others above them in a hierarchy while expecting to receive payments from people recruited below them.  Eventually the number of new recruits fails to sustain the payment structure and the scheme collapses with most people losing the money they paid in."  I always rejected that claim.  After all, we distributors bought products wholesale and sold them to customers retail.  What I didn't take into account was the sideline that made Bill Britt and his henchmen their fortunes.

When my friends and I showed "The Plan" back in the early-eighties, our numbers showed that a "Diamond" distributor, an individual with six "Direct Distributors" in his organization under him, made $36,000 a year.  Then came the "nod-nod-wink-wink" part.  We were always told that Diamonds in the Britt organization made at least three times that amount of money.  However, they never really explained how.  I learned later it was through their "tool" business.

Our leaders were fond of saying that tools were needed for every occupation.  A carpenter needed saws and hammers.  A barber needed scissors.  A pilot needed a plane.  You get it.  What tools did a successful Amway distributor need?  Motivational materials:  Books, tapes, seminars and rallies.  The books were typical positive thinking books that you could find in any bookstore (but you always bought them from your direct distributor.)  However, the Britt organization produced their own motivational tapes and held countless seminars and rallies.  That's why the Britt "Diamonds" made so much more money than the normal Amway "Diamonds."  They made vastly much more money selling their books and tapes and staging their rallies than selling Amway products. 

And that's why it was a pyramid scheme.

At a rally in Virginia
The average Amway distributor could sell the official products he bought from his Direct Distributor to his retail customers.  That was the purpose.  However, educational materials that Britt Worldwide produced themselves have zero value outside of the organization.  They told you needed to buy the tapes and attend the seminars.  That it was impossible to succeed in the business without doing so.  They used every psychological tool in their arsenal to coerce, pressure or shame you into buying the tools.  Granted, in theory, you could return them if you quit, but I never knew anyone who did.  People who left the business were losers.  Most of the people who quit were so afraid of being stigmatized as losers that they simply slinked away out of the business with hundreds or thousands of dollars of tapes sitting in boxes in their basements.  (That's what my friends and I did.)  Those few people I know who tried to get refunds for the tapes were so stonewalled that they eventually gave up.

And to make matters worse.  They lied about it.

The direct distributors from Bill Britt on down swore left and right that no one made any money on the tools.  They were providing them at cost as a service.  But it was a lie.  Granted, low level people like myself perpetrated the lie unknowingly.  Britt Worldwide didn't initiate the chosen into the truth until they reached the level of direct distributor.  By then, they were generally too invested in the system, and too greedy, to complain or turn down a healthy stream of income.  I didn't start believing the rumors about people making money until an incident in our group.  A young woman joined and became an overnight success.  She reached the level of direct distributor, building an impressive organization, in just three months.  Then she abruptly quit.  When I asked why someone told me that when higher-ups told her about the books and tapes, she became disillusioned and quit.  Around that time, my higher-ups began a "Tape of the Week" policy.  They pressured everyone in the organization into buying a certain tape every week so that we would all "be on the same page mentally."  Now I recognized it for what it was:  A shameless attempt to milk their people for more money.  I wasn't surprised when the "Tape of the Week" was a more expensive double tape set.   Why sear the sheep for $3.50 when you could get $7.00.

Liars.

If you think I am being unfair to Bill Britt and Amway, read the details of a recent class action suit from California.   Here's the complaint:  Pokornmy vs Quixtar.  Here's an explanation:  Pokorny Amway Settlement Explained

To make matters worse they cloaked their lies and greed under the veneer of Christianity.  Bill Britt and his crew of henchmen weren't content to be business leaders.  Their weekend rallies were held in sporting arenas that held 15,000-to-20,000 people and they all ended with a big church service on Sunday morning.  Who did the preaching?  The leaders like Bill Britt, of course.  After all, material success was all the proof you needed of God's blessing, so obviously the richest people in the room were most qualified to preach.   In Matthew 6:24, Jesus says:  "No one can serve two masters.  Either you will hate one and love the other, or you will be devoted to one and despise the other.  You cannot serve both God and money."  Not so!  In Amway, we combined God and Money together in the person of Bill Britt.

I will save my detailed analysis of the Prosperity Gospel for another day, but I will say that the thousands of dollars I wasted on the tool business were insignificant compared to that damage that the Prosperity Gospel did to my faith.  I came into the business with a strong relationship with God built on child-like faith, prayer and obedience.  The Amway gospel was different.  According to them, God had established immutable spiritual laws that gave us to have and do anything we wanted provided we used the right words when we made our claims and had sufficient faith.  Essentially, it took God out of the drivers' seat.  They taught you that seeking God's will was a cop-out for losers.  Our will was God's will.  They reduced God to a spiritual force to be used to achieve our desires.  I knew this was wrong.  And I resisted it.  However, constant exposure to these teachings and philosophy, through the required books, tapes and educational seminars, eventually took their toll on me.  Instead of serving God, I expected God to serve me.  Instead of me being obedient to Him, I expected Him to be obedient to me.  That didn't work out too well for me, and it took me years to exorcise this heresy from my thought processes.

Still, despite the damage the prosperity gospel did to me, when I think of Bill Britt, I primarily think of the general hatefulness that he and his henchmen instilled in me.  He divided the world into winners and losers -- and 99% of the population were losers.  Your value as a human being was entirely dependent on your net worth,or your attitude toward the Amway business.  You could be poor as dirt and still be a winner if you were in Amway. 

Pretending to be Bill Britt
Today, whenever I find myself judging a person based on the way they are dressed or the car they drive or house they live in, I see Bill Britt smiling.

Now he's dead.  When I posted the news on my Facebook page, one of my old friends who survived the business with me said that he hoped Bill was burning in hell.   I don't feel that way.  I don't wish that fate on anyone.  Even Bill Britt.

It doesn't take long to find glowing eulogies about him on the internet.  Amway distributors from all over the world praised him upon his passing.  That's not surprising. 

In the world of Amway, he was a god -- but with a small g. 

A false idol.

For more, read my book:  The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God

Friday, September 26, 2014

Trailer: "The Black Rider: Revelation Road"

The trailer for my next film, "The Black Rider:  Revelation Road" has been posted.  If you liked the first two action-packed installments in the Revelation Road series, you should enjoy this film, too.  It will be released on October 9th.



Here's the synopsis from the box:

The Rapture has come and gone, in it's wake is a famished wasteland filled with desperate scavengers and viscous bandits. Josh McManus (DAVID A. R. WHITE), a quiet drifter with a knack for fighting, finds himself in a dangerous border-town at the edge of the Wild Lands. The beleaguered local Mayor (JAMES DENTON) sends Josh on a vital mission to find the mysterious "Shepherd" (ROBERT GOSSETT). Is the Shepherd a true man of God or only a cult leader? With the aid of Sofia, a beautiful survivor (HILTY BOWEN), Josh will discover the truth in an action-packed adventure that will put his skills and his faith to the test. Also starring KEVIN SORBO as Honcho, the outlandish local lord of thieves. With special appearance by BRUCE MARCHIANO.

Be sure to check out my book "The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God."

"The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God" released!

The one sheet for the book.


My memoir, "The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God," was released July 28, 2014 by TouchPoint Press.

I can't believe I am only blogging about the event now, but a dizzying series of social, professional and familial events have kept me away from the keyboard.  In a way I am glad.  The time has given me the opportunity to absorb the events.

I have somehow successfully worked freelance in the highly competitive and somewhat ruthless film business for nearly twenty-four years.  I have edited commercials, music videos, television shows and motion pictures.   I have written fourteen produced films.  I have won a wide variety of awards.  I have hobnobbed with celebrities.  I was blessed with the opportunity to live my dream, but the publication of this book surpassed them all.

Seeing the finished book for the first time.
Screenwriting is indeed my chosen profession.  From my earliest childhood, I have always loved the movies.  That said, when I first seriously considered the prospect of becoming a writer in high school, the thought of screenwriting never entered my mind.  That goal seemed totally out of reach of a goofy kid with bad 70's hair in Northeast Baltimore, but I still wanted to write for a living.  It was something I seemed to do well.  My English teachers were always very supportive and complimentary.

I started out as a journalism major in college.   Journalists actually got paid for writing.  One even lived across the street from me, and he seemed to enjoy his work.  He was a sportswriter, and I got to go to the press box at old Memorial Stadium while one of his sons did the box scores for the AP at an Orioles game.  That was cool.  Plus, I discovered that reporters got free food and drink.  Sweet!  However, I soon became disillusioned with journalism in college and switched over to film.  Still, I never imagined that I could become a screenwriter.  I never even took a screenwriting course.   I really had no idea why I was majoring in film -- other than the fact that I loved movies.  I never pictured myself working in the film business.  I was also taking computer courses.  I always assumed I would end up as a computer programmer at the Social Security Administration after college.  But it didn't work out that way.  I ended up in advertising instead.

At Smith Burke & Azzam, I learned the nuts and bolts of film production -- although the films tended to be a mere thirty seconds long.  It was a great apprenticeship, and my eventual position as a broadcast producer let me observe and participate in every step of the process:  From script to casting to production to post-production.  The only drawback to the advertising business were the inevitable layoffs when we'd lose accounts.  I was laid off six times in five years (and almost always hired back within a couple of weeks.)  During one of my brief semi-retirements, I wrote my first complete feature film script in less than a week.  I found it surprisingly easy.  My third script got me serious Hollywood attention.  My fifth script got me a well-known agent.

Yours truly at the book release party.
Despite the initial interest, it would be years before I finally saw my name on the big screen.  But it was worth it.  It was an amazing feeling to listen to an audience laugh at your jokes and become absorbed by your story.  In many ways my edgy first film, "21 Eyes," most accurately brought one of my scripts to the screen.  All of the principals share an enthusiasm for the concept and worked together to make it a reality.  Whether you love it or hate it, "21 Eyes" was exactly what we intended it to be.   Sadly, that would not always be the case.  While I am proud of a number of my movies, a few of them were twisted and bent out of shape simply to suit the ego needs of the principals.  Film is a collaborative endeavor, and I have certainly benefited from collaboration.  I can list many instances where actors, producers and directors have enriched the words I put on paper.  A well-known producer was once expressed interest in my script "The Long Drive" and guided me through two rewrites.  The man had great depth and insight.  Everything he suggested enhanced the script.  Sadly, those experiences are outnumbered by cases where the changes have damaged the film.  Rare is the screenwriter who doesn't cringe through the first viewing of one of his films.   After a while, it becomes a little disillusioning to have your name associated with things you didn't write up on the big screen.  It makes you wonder what it means to be a writer.

My mother with a copy of the book.  She didn't kill for
spilling all of the family secrets in the book.
I have no such misgivings about "The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God."  This was all me, and for the first time in years I felt like a real writer again.  It's one thing to engage an audience with all the bells and whistles a motion picture can employ.  When you write a book, you have to rely entirely on your own words to hold an audience.  That is the ultimate test of any writer.  Time will tell whether I ultimately succeeded, but, so far, the reaction has been great.

The fact that the book was autobiographical would have validated my writing and my life itself -- if I was interested in that kind of validation anymore.  This book was essentially the product of a near death experience that left me uninterested in any sort of external, earthly validation.  I wasn't telling my story to justify my life, but rather because I felt my experiences might help others.  But, whether I intended it or not, the book did validate me in a way.  It provided outside proof my story was worth telling, and therefore worth living.  The emotional climax of the entire experience came at the book release party held at my church.  People from every stage of my life showed up -- my family and my friends from kindergarten, grade school, high school, college and throughout my whole professional life.  It was a great summation.  And I am grateful to have experienced it.  The older I get, the more I believe what you do is less important than who you do it with, and I have been surrounded by a lot of wonderful people.

So what's next?  I think most writers work through the same deeply personal themes over and over again throughout their career.  I think that was definitely true of me.  In a sense, most of my work tried to disprove F. Scott Fitzgerald's contention that "American lives have no second acts."  Most of the scripts that won me Hollywood's attention dealt with characters beginning the second acts of their lives, living in the shadow of some momentous decision that shook their sense of self.  That was definitely true of me.  I spent many long years contemplating a decision I made in my own life that irrevocably changed my destiny.  Now that I have dealt with those demons directly in my book, I no longer feel the need to deal with them obliquely in my scripts.

With my grandmother.  I gave her a free copy,
but I told her she'd have to pay me to sign it.
I find myself in a strange place today.  In a sense, I have achieved all of my professional goals.  I wanted to make movies.  And I did.  I wanted to become an author.  And I did.  Fortunately, I do have more stories to tell.  I have started writing a follow-up to my book called "Unconditional" about my misguided attempts to find love during the 1990s.  I think it will offer some hard-earned insights into maintaining your values, integrity and self-respect while dating.  And, yes, I would also like to make some more movies, both as a writer and producer, but I am not excited about the prospect of doing anymore commissioned straight-to-DVD projects.  I am aiming a little higher now.  Time will tell if I succeed, and it really doesn't matter to me if I do or don't.  I'm content to put that entirely in the Lord's hands.  What would really like to do creatively?  I would like to write some songs that got recorded by an established artist, but that's another story....

Speaking of stories, you really should buy my book.  It's pretty good, if I have to say so myself.  (You can read the first couple chapters for free on Amazon.)

Amazon:  The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God
Barnes & Noble:  The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God
The publisher:  TouchPoint Press Bookstore

(Feel free to print a review online if you liked it.  Even if you didn't.)

With my lovely wife and two of my siblings.