At dinner the other night, the conversation got around to the old days and I was asked if I thought I could parlay my $400 original loan to start my film business into a worldwide motion picture company today. That set me to thinking.
With the current state of government intervention in small businesses, I still think with enough drive and a good product a person could do it with 16-hour work days, and the desire, six days-a-week selling a good idea. However, it would be much more difficult these days because of the massive amount of government paperwork involved. Since I personally narrated my film in every state north of Denver and east of San Diego to Portland, Maine, it would’ve taken an extra bookkeeper employed to just to fill out paperwork for the government. Today, I might be charged income tax in many of those states that I appeared in.
Then there would be the problem of minimum wages paid to everyone who worked for me in any way and calculating the taxes on everyone from the man who delivered and picked up the rental films from the post office to somebody jumping off a cornice would’ve been a monumental financial undertaking. What about a show in Seattle with a minimum wage for everybody involved at the theater at $15 per hour instead of the national minimum average of whatever it is this week?
When I showed my first film in the fall of 1950, there was still a 10 percent entertainment tax on any ticket that cost more than $1 so for the first three or four years a dollar was all ski clubs could charge for tickets because of all the extra paperwork.
For the first 20 years of filming, the only problem I had with the government was with the local forest rangers. Some of them wanted me to pay a daily rate of between $200 and $300 to take movies on government property that was under lease to the ski resort.
In the early days, I used to stay at a friends’ houses, in dorms somewhere or in the really early days of filming, I slept in my 1950 Chevy, panel delivery truck behind the trees in the parking lot. As a result of staying way under the radar, I usually got my filming job done in a day or two and was on the road to the next resort before Smokey the Bear even knew I was filming on what he thought was his land.
The profit margins in those early days were very slim but since I continued to keep a daytime job as a carpenter, framing houses during the first 3 1/2 years in the daytime I could live hand-to-mouth. Working on my film business at night was all done on overtime. The financial ends usually came together by the end of the personal appearance lecture season.
At least 10 percent of my shows with the latest film were done on a last-minute notice when I was filming a ski resort. The revenue came from “passing the hat.” The income ranged from a low of $8 and a national ski patrol pin for a show in Port Angeles, Wash., in 1950 to a high end of the “pass the hat for the revenue” in places such as the Golden Horn in Aspen, or in the employees cafeteria in the basement of the Lodge at Vail the first year they were open.
Looking back over those first 12 rough and tumble years before I even hired an accountant, it is slightly remarkable that I didn’t get busted by the federal or local governments.
The company that owns my original film company today sells the admission tickets for as much as $28.50, though the film is the same length and width as the ones I first made 65 years ago. In today’s market I’m sure they have control over all of these things that I didn’t have to pay any attention to with a much larger staff, hence the higher ticket prices.
There are several college courses I should have taken and never did, such as a basic bookkeeping course because I knew I would never make enough money to have to keep track of it. Nor did I take a single business course because I thought I would never have a business to run. The third course I never took was any one that had anything to do with the filmmaking.
It was not until 1946 when I got mustered out of the Navy that I first owned an 8-millimetet motion picture camera and started taking surfing movies at Malibu. At that time, I sometimes had to cut a hole in the wire fence just to get to the ocean and quite often, I would be the only one there.
Fortunately, the films that I produced were of sufficient quality and quantity that I could raise my three children, put them through college and send them on their way to their own chosen professions.
In the 1960s, when I got involved in racing catamarans, I had lunch one day with my accountant and he said, “Warren, why don’t you put your catamaran in your feature film and I think that we could write it off as a legitimate tax deduction.” That was when you could buy a 20-foot-long, 8-foot-wide fiberglass Pacific catamaran complete with everything including the trailer for $2,500. It would be two years before Hobie came on the scene with his revolutionary 14-foot catamaran for approximately $800. The entry fee for my catamaran racing at the yacht club was as high as $5 an event, but just as today, every deduction you can take is money in your pocket.
Most of the money that was taken in the “pass the hat shows” was squirreled away until I could afford a new piece of camera equipment or office stuff to spend it on, a natural, grass-roots way of growing a business and a practice still applicable today.
Of course, mine is not the only business that started out in the same manner with not very much sleep, or capital, but really liking what you are doing. I don’t think it really matters whether you like to bake cookies, repair automobile engines, mow lawns or make movies. You just have to work harder to make your product better than the guy down the street makes his. Then, when people have a choice of your product or your competitor’s product they will be choosing yours because it is better, more dependable, and they know that your heart is in part of the purchase price.
Everyone making the same product is subject to the same government intervention.
If you want to start up your own business, then keep in mind that everyone that does this, regardless of their product, will have the same government overhead that you have to pay. Be sure to keep that in mind and set the money aside to protect your business.
Good luck on whatever new business venture you undertake (the French word for undertaker is entrepreneur!) and be sure to set your alarm clock for very early every morning.
Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to over 50 publications. For more of Miller’s stories and stuff, log onto WarrenMiller.net. For information about his foundation, The Warren Miller Freedom Foundation, go to www.warrenmiller.org.