A Businessman’s Book of Black Gold

BlackBookv1About 20 years ago I met a unique businessman. He was very tall and built like a linebacker. To compensate for his size, he spoke in a soft voice and always carried a smile. I had never seen such a sight, so I crossed the waiting area at our gate to introduce myself before our flight boarded. I’ll refer to him in this post as Mike.

I was working for a Fortune 50 company at the time and always on the lookout to learn from the best. It didn’t take a lot of observation skills to ascertain that Mike was a successful executive, wearing the latest Armani suit with highly polished wingtip shoes. His uniqueness was evident in how he responded to my approach.

He immediately sat up and leaned forward to give me his undivided attention. His word choice suggested that he could hold his own in the country or on a farm, while his dialect and presentation was clearly Park Ave. He was approachable, knowledgeable, and filled with wisdom—knowing exactly how to alter his conversation on the fly to match the other person’s.

His face reflected a fascination with my questions, which allowed me to continue asking questions that most businessmen would find exhausting. At one point he stopped our conversation and cut to the chase, asking me outright if I wanted to know the core reason for his business success. I said, “Yes.”

After pulling a small, black notebook from his pocket, he said that all of his business secrets were in the book. He then asked if I’d like to read through it while we waited. I took the book and sat down to read his handwritten notes. I was amazed at the business techniques that were captured on each page. I had found “black gold,” Texas tea, business oil, that is. The stuff that could catapult a man toward success.

He saw my hunger for the information as I absorbed page after page. He quietly borrowed my ticket and went up to the gate, while I continued to memorize the information. He returned after exchanging my economy ticket for the first class seat next to his so I could continue reading.

At 35,000 feet, I turned to Mike and asked him for clarification. One of the business statements didn’t read in a way that was easily understood from a business context. Proverbs 8:20 read: “A king who sits on the throne of justice, sifts all evil with his eyes.” He told me that understanding the translation sometimes required a deeper dive into the word choices selected by the translator who converted the info to English.

Mike said that a “king” represented him as a business owner reigning over his small business empire. He was to do it “justly,” always making sure he was fair to himself, his employees, and his clients. His greatest task during the transaction was to “sift” through all “evil,” or one-sided choices, by carefully observing his team and the clients, making sure to purge or get rid of anyone who was not conducting business on the up and up.

Mike then told me about a man who was trying to leverage an additional 3% margin out of the customer to make himself look good. He immediately remembered the proverb and fired the man. Five years later he heard how the man finagled business at his next job to the point where his boss got fired and he took over the position—not the kind of man anyone would want on their team. Two years later the business was scrutinized by the FBI, ending with the man being jailed 11 months later for embezzling.

I admired how Mike’s experience proved the black book’s notes to be effective and accurate. I wanted more, and Mike saw it in my eyes. As we disembarked, Mike handed the book back to me as a parting gift with the hope that I’d always mold my business according to its biblical principles. I thanked him for the first class seat and the chance to learn from one of the best. He suggested the best way to return the favor was to share my story about the black book with others. And so I have, again.

Copyright © 2018 by CJ Powers
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Timing is Important, but Story is King

LIVING IN THE

The motion picture industry understands how to time the release of a feature film. Studios block out release dates years in advance to make sure their blockbusters have little competition. Even independent films attempt to release during down screen times to minimize the competition. But there seems to be a group of filmmakers that are more concerned about the actual dates than the competition.

Faith-based filmmakers compete for release dates around Easter, convinced their audiences want to see a religious picture during the highly celebrated season. While that might be the case, past surveys consistently reflected that those who enjoy the faith-based genre are only willing to see 1.5 movies in a given month.

That means the first faith-based film released, with some level of fanfare during the Easter season, will take the audience out of the equation for other faith-based films. This year I Can Only Imagine released first and drew in $80MM, Paul, Apostle of Christ released second and drew in $17MM, and God’s Not Dead 3 drew in $5MM.

While a substantial consideration, it’s not always the release dates that make the difference. The above films happened to be released in order from best to worst story. Regardless, an overabundance of a genre’s films during a specific timeframe can quickly saturate a niche market.

Plus, the average moviegoer only watches four films a year. That means the person who watched I Can Only Imagine and probably watched Black Panther only has two more films left to watch. The faith-based film attender might hold off on another genre film to consider a summer blockbuster that their peers will discuss at the water cooler, and a Christmastime film for the entire family to enjoy.

When I’ve talked to producers of faith-based films, they’ve made it clear that they never consider secular competition. This is a peculiar situation since avoidance of thought never reduces the number of actual competitors vying for box office dollars. And, everyone in the industry knows that PG-13 films, which are typically aimed at some form of family, are watched by members of all faith groups.

Movieguide’s annual report to the industry points out how family-friendly films, with elements of faith and patriotism, always bring in more box office dollars than the competition. This has been consistently true since I’ve tracked it over the past 20 years. In fact, when the audiences of successful blockbusters are looked at closely, people who live by faith are the ones that make a significant uprise in the box office.

One could surmise, yet no one has taken that bold step to publish a thesis on the topic to date, that those who live by faith are the determining factor in a film’s box office success. If that is the case, then faith-based filmmakers should become masters of the craft in order to drive their films’ successes. And, those who live by faith must be educated in how their ticket purchase determines what films succeed.

Now, I’m not talking about forcing change by purchasing up tickets for bad faith-based films to spur on the genre. I’m talking about faith-based filmmakers learning how to tell great story. The audience will always promote a film with great story. Consider Black Panther as a perfect example of a great story that took off.

Some might say it was the black community that came out in droves to support the film, but I say that’s foolishness. Anyone tracking Tyler Perry’s career knows that he regularly draws the niche black audience, which doesn’t look anything like the audience watching the Black Panther. The story was great and therefore pulled in a great audience.

I’ve heard that there are 12 faith-based films attempting to position their release for next Easter. The one that will win the box office is the first best story released. The others will have dismal results. This begs a new question—Why aren’t the 12 faith-based films releasing one a month throughout the year?

The answer suggested to me last month by a faith-based producer went like this… “Faith-based films preach; they don’t tell story, so none of them can stand on their own without the churches pushing people to attend.”

While the producer sounded cynical, I’m pretty sure his comment has some merit. Film is a story-based, emotional medium that does not handle preaching well. Radio, on the other hand, is an ideal medium for preaching. Finding the right medium for the right message is crucial to reaching an audience.

Independent horror films use similar production processes as faith-based films. Instead of focusing on preaching, horror films focus on generating screams or startlement. Both typically generate about the same expense to box office ratio and few of either genre put story first.

A Quiet Place is a horror film with a message on parenting that is driven by story, not scream gimmicks. Because of its focus on story, the film should soon cross the $150MM box office mark. The key to the film’s success wasn’t being timed for Halloween, since it was released this spring, but the fact is the story was king, focusing on parenting children in a hostile world.

Release dates are important to avoid too much competition, but without story being the key focus, timing won’t matter.

Copyright © 2018 by CJ Powers

The Left-Handed Monkey Wrench

LH_Monkey_WrenchBack when I was a rookie, I was asked to chase down a left-handed monkey wrench. The AD said it was critical for the next scene and I had to find one at all cost. He was adamant about it and made it clear that he trusted me to get the job done. He told me not to bother coming back if I couldn’t get one into the hands of the Gaffer within the hour.

I hustled toward the car with several perplexing thoughts. My dad was left-handed and he never used a left-handed wrench of any kind. In fact, every wrench he owned could be used in either hand. I became suspicious in that moment and wondered if I was being targeted with a test.

Taking a left before I got to the parking lot, I snuck around to the generator and asked the Best Boy if he had ever heard about a left-handed monkey wrench. He chuckled and asked if I had overheard someone being initiated. I told him a couple people were talking about it and I knew no such tool existed, but I wanted to make sure. He said, “It’s an initiation, which means we’ll have a light day. If I were you, I’d change departments for the rest of the day and find someone to serve.”

I headed over to the props truck and told them that I heard they needed help. “Yes,” shouted the Property Master. “Today’s a light day, which will allow us to catch up and organize the truck for the next few heavy days we’re about to hit.” I dove in and worked hard.

Later that afternoon I bumped into the AD. He switched his smile to a firm, piercing look. “I told you not to come back unless you found a left-handed monkey wrench.”

“On my way to the parking lot I bumped into the Property Master. She was struggling to organize the truck for fear of not keeping up with weekly schedule. Knowing that your success is critical to this picture, I volunteered to help make sure the props department would meet with your requirements. I knew your success was more important than finding a left-handed monkey wrench, especially since our Gaffer is capable of getting the job done with just about any wrench.”

The AD smiled at me and nodded his approval. “I’ll see you back on my team tomorrow,” he shouted as he strolled away.

My initiation was over and I wouldn’t be tested for the remainder of the picture. Unfortunately several people walked off of the film because they feared being controlled like a child controls a toy or plaything. They didn’t understand the difference between a one time test to see what a person is made of versus a controlling personality that continually chokes life out of a project.

Since most people’s next meal ticket is based on the strength of their last picture, it’s important for all members of the production team to develop good boundaries so they do not succumb to a real controller. Unfortunately the person with the control problem is sometimes a department head, an investor-producer that doesn’t understand the filmmaking process, or worse yet, a rookie director who never learned how the creative process works.

What Real Controllers Want

The controller wants what you have because he or she lacks those valuable qualities. The most sought after quality is being able to feel good about yourself without having to receive a pat on the back from someone else. Controllers also hunt down those who are secure in their skin, accomplishments, and overall position in life.

And, if your attention makes others feel good, the controller will be all over you. In fact, if you can feel good about other people and aren’t intimidated by their successes, you’ll have a control target placed on your back.

Controllers find it easier to put others down in order to feel good about who they are. The higher the position held by a controller, the more likely he or she will carry fear, having been promoted to the level of incompetence or the unknown.

The only way to alleviate a disaster during a film production is to set healthy boundaries and use the established hierarchy protocols that allow all departments to function properly.

What Not To Sacrifice

All too often we let go of things that are important to us in order to survive the constant attacks from a controller. This forces us out of the life we were meant to lead and we slowly become something that no longer looks like us. It therefore becomes critical that we set healthy boundaries to protect our hearts and our future. And yes, that might require you walking away from or avoiding certain people while on set.

Some elements worth protecting include the understanding that your ideas and contributions matter. Another consideration to keep yourself strong is to stop others from pushing your buttons, belittling your accomplishments, or talking down to you. But most importantly it’s prudent to make sure you never become a doormat by allowing others to push your needs below theirs.

Oh, it’s okay for you to choose to put others above yourself, but it’s not okay to allow others to force you down to make sure their needs are met. Choosing to serve others from your heart works very differently than having someone guilt you or coerce you into meeting their needs.

The controller must not be allowed to manipulate you and put your career at stake. You must fight to maintain who you are regardless of what they do. It’s not easy, especially when the controller gets others to “help” prepare you for your next level. Those well-meaning people buy into the controller’s manipulation and do his or her dirty work to take you down a few notches in the name of preparing or strengthening you.

Unfortunately you might have to walk away from the well-meaning people to protect your heart and career. Once they realize that their help actually hindered or hurt you, they will try to appeal to your good graces, but it might not be prudent to allow them back into your life—a difficult decision that only you can make.

The next time someone asks you for help that pulls you from your path in life, make a mental note that they might be a controller or a controller’s enabler. Set your boundaries and make sure your valuable, creative assets are well protected. Then get on being the best you that you can be, while having a lot of fun in life.

Copyright © 2018 by CJ Powers

 

Facing the Light

Sunset

The man’s eyes struggled to focus. He cocked his head to compensate for his blurred, bottle induced vision. His breath reeked of whiskey and his slurred speech revealed that his alcohol levels were near toxic. The security officer slowly finagled the man’s car keys from his clenched hand.

The drunk relinquished the keys with little effort when he noticed the boss’s wife. He was on a mission and became a prowling tiger. He stepped behind the table, inside of the festival booth, and opened his arms to welcome Jennifer with a hug. His stubbled face slipped to her side, as he planted a moist, dripping kiss on her neck.

He held the hug long enough for Jennifer to push back, turning her head away from the fumes escaping his mouth. Her eyes filled with fear and gave me a look, a visual cue for help. My hand clenched into a fist and I stepped toward the man who hovered a good four inches above me.

“Derrick,” Jennifer said with a mix of slurred words. “You remember my close friend of the family, Carl.”

Carl closed his eyes, lightly shook his head, and turned toward me. His eyelids opened revealing his veiny eyes, half glossed over. “Good to see you again, Derrick.”
He extended his hand.

I glanced at Jennifer who leaned into her friend and wrapped her arms around his lanky, yet oversized bicep. They looked like lovers who had just finished a quarl and were considering if there was time for make-up sex.

I cringed at the thought and reached my hand forward to shake his. The squeeze around my hand suggested he had turned wrenches thousands of times before his retirement. His arm slipped around Jennifer and she leaned into his chest. Their eyes revealed matching desires to get a room, while mine closed in disgust.

The moment of chivalrous thought quickly turned to sorrow as I considered that the boss had been cheated on by his friend and wife. My demeanor shifted with a repugnant taste creeping into my soul from the experience. I looked above for hope and saw a setting sun tossing out beautiful orange and purple colors.

Turning back to preparing the booth for the eminent crowd, I scanned my memory for anything that might be of cheer. Helen Keller’s noted words rose to the forefront of my thoughts. “Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadows.” The simple words brought a sense of hope back into my life.

Her phrase was naturally accurate and held a spiritual truth worth remembering. I needed to keep my focus on the good in life and live as an example for anyone in need of hope. My choice to follow the light might even draw others into a warmth worth embracing. A smile stretched across my face as the festival guests entered the park.

I noticed the security officer walking Carl toward the medical tent, as Jennifer stepped next to me. “You know, I hate having to pretend I’m something that I’m not around him,” she said. “I hate having to pretend we’re close because he’s my husband’s friend.”

“I don’t understand. Why would you need to pretend at all?”

“Listen, you don’t know what it’s like living with my husband,” she said. “I’d be punished for days if I snubbed one of his friends.”

“I’m sorry you have to indulge in his antics to keep your relationship at home intact.”

“Thank you. You’re the first person who understands.” Jennifer turned and set up the brochures.

The topic was finally over, but I was trapped in my head wondering what it was that I supposedly understood. I shook it off, turned toward the sunset and pondered how the difficulties of life’s shadows disappear when we look to the light.

It was going to be a good evening.

© 2018 by CJ Powers

Beirut — Review

BER_156_M2_0V3_1_rgb“Thinking films” are far and few between, mostly because a small percentage of people take in a movie to be mentally challenged. However, those who kept their mind active during Dunkirk were well rewarded. And, with a bit less effort, many enjoyed Gary Oldman’s brilliant Oscar winning performance in The Darkest Hour.

The next installment of thinking films has arrived for this weekend in the movie Beirut. It’s a fascinating historical picture about several different countries and factions leveraging people and circumstances. They all share common goals of leaning the outcome of the war in their favor, not for justice or humanitarian ideals, but for selfish reasons that include revenge and the control of power.

The simple event is so entangled in the quagmire of jargon and hard-to-follow gibberish that the story seems far more complex than it is. If you’re able to follow the key plot points, you’ll realize that there wasn’t much of a story worth telling. On the other hand, if you were not able to sort through the bad accents and the dingy sets that all looked alike, the picture would seem far more complex.

The compelling situations that brought shock and awe to the American public during the Reagan years were not well captured in the film. The political intrigue was also left out, with the exception of a couple of interesting scenes suggesting how allies might have taken advantage of each other for their own gain.

But the interesting chess-like battle for information between the Palestinians, Israelis, and Americans was not handled well. Nor did the film reference or make use of additional political intrigue surrounding the multinational troops from France and Italy.

beirut_02415_r_rgb.jpgThe story focuses on a former U.S. diplomat (Jon Hamm of Mad Men and Baby Driver) being sucked in by CIA operatives (Rosamund Pike of Gone Girl and Hostiles, and Dean Norris of Breaking Bad and Under the Dome) to return to Beirut and negotiate for the life of a friend he left behind.

The quasi-historical story was written by Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Identity, Michael Clayton). “At the time, Beirut was a hot topic because Tom Friedman’s book From Beirut to Jerusalem had just come out,” said Gilroy. “We wanted to put a negotiator in a historical setting where it could feel true to life without actually being a true story.”

Most of Gilroy’s fictional script was built around the 1984 kidnapping of CIA Station Chief William Buckley. “For me, that was very much the model for what would happen if a high-level CIA officer were kidnapped,” Gilroy said. “Buckley’s body actually turned up just as I was finishing the script, and there was a lot of reporting about that case that I drew on. It was all very garish and gothic and horrifying and dramatic.”

Unfortunately, Director Brad Anderson (The Machinist, Transsiberian) didn’t understand the realities of the horrifying, dramatic historical events, and it shows. “I was very taken by the world of Tony’s story. I frankly didn’t know very much about Beirut, so for me it was more the character elements that drew me in,” Anderson said. “I was fascinated with Mason (Jon Hamm) as this tortured soul who’s trying to redeem himself by saving his friend.”

beirut_03881_r_crop_rgb.jpgNot all veteran indie film writer-directors are able to express reality-based stories in a way that helps the audience experience or relive the historical moments. Anderson failed miserably at visualizing Gilroy’s fictional account, boring the veteran sitting one row in front of me. He actually pulled out his cell phone and engaged in 5-10 minutes of texting.

As for being spellbound by the characters that Anderson suggested drove the film, I found Hamm’s character to be flat and one dimensional. While Pike gave a great performance, her character was also limited, mostly by too little screen time.

For those who love political intrigue and deep thinking films, this one is a pass in my book. Even with thin character development, Hamm and Pike fans will not be disappointed in their performances, but they’ll have to keep in mind that the script and director tied their hands.

Copyright © 2018 by CJ powers

 

Launching a Story With an Inciting Incident

Most stories open with an attention-getting beat that reveals something likeable about the main character or the evil of the uber bad guy that he’ll face. This is followed by a series of scenes that demonstrate what the main character’s normal life is like. But audiences won’t hang on too long when it comes to emotionally flat experiences, so within a short time the storyteller must launch the main story using an inciting incident.

The inciting incident is a dynamic event or fully developed moment that radically upsets the main character’s status quo. The clear and obvious trigger throws the main character’s life out of balance. This action-based circumstance can either happen to the main character or be an unexpected ramification of a decision he makes.

princessholo-e1523289223415.jpeg
The inciting incident can be simple like receiving a letter, diagnosis, pink slip, or phone call. In Star Wars, the inciting incident was a hologram of Princess Leia asking Obi-Wan for help. Luke Skywalker was intrigued by her plea and decided that he was going to help her.

A successful inciting incident, not one that is stagnant or vague, drives the main character to make a decision that will change his life forever. The specific event places him on a story path of obstacles that turns his weakness into a strength. The event also raises the central question of the movie for the first time. In the case of Star Wars, the question is, “Will Luke help or save the princess?”

The single event must also cause the main character to clearly see that his life is now out of balance for better or worse. He must not only react to this positive or negative change, but he must respond as well. In other words, the incident must arouse a desire in him to restore the balance in his life, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual—or all three.

The main character is therefore compelled to pursue his new goal of rebalancing his life. This stimulation becomes both a conscious and a subconscious desire. The subconscious driving force comes naturally for a complex character and shows up in the form of him suffering from an intense internal battle, especially if his conscious desire is in direct opposition or conflict with his subconscious desire.

Some writers refer to this internal battle as reflecting the character’s wants versus his needs. Many times the human condition causes us to chase after our wants, only to learn that we got what we needed instead. This righting of the unbalanced internal desire presents itself in a plot twist on screen—allowing for a realistic ending, while still pleasing the audience.

The key to developing an inciting incident is to make sure it launches a compelling character goal that will hold the audience’s attention and drive the story. The goal must be something that the main character can’t discard, because if he does, lots of innocent people will suffer—developing empathy within the hearts of the audience.

The trigger must do more than make the main character care. He must take action. If he merely cares, the story will fail to cause the audience to care, hindering the film’s box office results. This makes the inciting incident an important factor in developing a feature length story. Unfortunately many independent filmmakers treat inciting incidents as an insignificant piece of the story and wonder why their film doesn’t keep the audience’s attention for its duration.

© Copyright 2018 by CJ Powers

Finding Your Voice

After spending a few minutes with me you’ll find that I tell a lot of stories. I come by it naturally, as my dad told stories every night at the dinner table. His daily adventures as a cop were thrilling, hilarious, or absurd. And yes, he did get shot in the line of duty and lived to tell the incredible story.

Even in his death, dying in a mysterious plane crash during a freak storm, he guided me with clues into a life of storytelling. I found myself hunting down every unanswered and mysterious story behind his death. My curiosity grew, as I delved deeper into the 100 out-of-place coincidences that I discovered.

5357__ROlJiMzo6Later in life I’d hear Hannah Brencher share about how our voice, as a writer or filmmaker, is birthed in our experiences and emotions. Brencher said, “Live and then write it down.” It’s such a simple activity that develops our voice, yet it’s all too often overlooked.

The process solidifies our experiential and emotional patterns rising from our soul to our consciousness—the very thing that determines our life passions. Once we see these patterns outside of ourselves, our minds are capable of standing firm in our beliefs and perspectives. The repetitive nature of the process also strengthens our resolve and gives us the tools to help others.

But our value is of little worth to those we inspire, unless it’s coupled with the elements that can seed their life for great results. To bring a sense of fulfillment to our followers, we must find a way to teach, rather than just inspire them. We must transcend the typical story by salting in life elements that can be embraced by those we serve with our words and films.

Brencher shared how she went camping with no more than the idea of camping on her mind. She wasn’t prepared, and had no idea how to build a campfire useful for warmth and cooking. Thankfully a guy one site over lended a hand and built her campfire. He also replenished it later that evening and fueled it again to cook breakfast.

That afternoon he broke camp to continue his travels. She too left, even though she paid for two nights, because she still didn’t know how to make a fire. In that moment she realized that inspiring people is nice, but teaching them how to inspire themselves is better. The experience raised a new passion in her that would permanently alter her voice. She learned that as a writer she needed to give everything she had, not just the inspirational pieces.

Give everything you have “in the moment you are asked to give it all,” became Brencher’s new moto. It’s a moto for those with little to share and those with a lot. The size and strength of our voice is not what’s important, but the value we bring to others.

Brencher’s voice was uniquely hers and couldn’t be copied by anyone else, except through plagiarism. No one is able to create a similar voice that can stand the test of time. It’s only when we dig deep within our personal experiences and emotions will our voice rise and be like none other.

Spending a couple decades listening to my dad share true-life stories, coupled with a rise in my curiosity from the 100 bizarre coincidences associated with his death, sent me on a journey of countless experiences and emotions that forged my voice…. A voice that was like none other. A voice that hopefully inspires and teaches.

Maybe it’s time for you to consider journaling to bring your needed voice to the forefront.

© Copyright 2018 by CJ Powers