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Movie-Making for the Millions : MAKING MOVIES The Inside Guide to Independent Movie Production by John Russo (Dell: $9.95, paper; 300 pp.)

June 11, 1989|Jack Mathews | Mathews is a Times staff writer.

"This book will tell you how to have fun and make money while making sure that your cinematic creations are seen by millions of people."

This bold promise comes early (and, we note, without a money- back guarantee) in low-budget film maker John Russo's career-day guide for "people with a consuming desire to make movies." The book will fulfill none of the author's promises, of course--not even Steven Spielberg has the blueprint for certain success--but it will tell you what a great time Russo has had.

Russo, a modestly successful writer, director and producer of low-budget films, got his start as one of George Romero's partners in the shoestring company that hit it big with the rotting-corpses classic "Night of the Living Dead." Russo helped write and finance the film and even played one of the restless stiffs ("Living Dead" buffs will remember him as the one who had his brittle skull impaled on a tire iron).

Since "Living Dead," Russo has written novels, directed or produced five independent horror pictures, and made TV commercials, documentaries and educational films. He is a small-timer by Establishment Hollywood standards, even by the standards of working independents, but he has indeed been there and in distilling his experiences in a book, he has come up with what may be a useful primer for aimless greenhorns.

"Making Movies" scoots briskly across the surface of every aspect of film making, from the kind of camera gear available to how to negotiate a distribution deal with a major studio. In between, there are tips on how to set up a budget, how to approach investors, how to hire and how much to pay casts and crews, what to call your chief electrician ("gaffer"), and how to edit and mix the sound track. At the very end, Russo will tell you how to deal with your success.

The most insightful writing in the book comes from such people as directors Oliver Stone ("Platoon") and Tobe Hooper ("Texas Chainsaw Massacre") who were enlisted by Russo to provide their experiences of breaking into the business. These first-person accounts are interesting, but the fact that each of these successful careers--like Russo's--were launched by happy accidents contradicts the book's cheerful simplicity.

Guest appearances aside, there is no appeal here to the higher cause of art, or even to quality film making. Worse, Russo seems to promote unthinkingly some of the ethical lapses that give the film industry its unique odor.

In a chapter dealing with developing a script, Russo explains how you might option a novel cheaply by tying up hungry authors with back-end deals (they'll get their money if the film is made and becomes successful) in contracts that leave them with no rights for creative consultation and cut them out of any subsequent commercialization (a sequel, for instance).

In a chapter titled "Raising the Bread," he tells you how to create a two-tiered budget so that in the event you don't raise the money you need for the "first-class level" film you plan, you may keep the money and make a "second-level film" rather than simply return the money to your backers. (Imagine the savings if you killed the cattle stampede and used mice!).

Russo hasn't written "the film school in a book" promised on the cover. This is more a course outline for incoming freshmen. But if it doesn't deliver a film career, a careful reading will give you all the vocabulary you need to hang out in Hollywood, and that's what most film makers do, anyway.

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