My Story - (Long & Occasionally Painful)
I have been a filmmaker since the 3rd grade (1967), but I got a little sidetracked about 20 years ago.
I graduated from Film School in 1981 from Columbia College in Chicago. After a few memorable months as a pizza delivery man in Indianapolis, I moved back to Chicago and then on to Los Angeles. I worked in the movie industry for the next 6 years as a Grip, Production Staff (filled my share of coolers), an Educational and Industrial Film script writer (educational classics like "Lands And Waters Of Our Earth" and films for retail stores, i.e. Sears leaf blowers - they blow and they suck), and as part of a camera crew for CNN Chicago Bureau ($5 bucks an hour, but a lot of fun).
I joined the now defunct NABET union and made good money freelancing. I had half the year off and the people I worked with were wonderful, but I wanted to be a script writer. Over that 5 year period, I wrote 12 feature length screenplays. An executive at 20th Century Fox gave me a call after a cold submission and told me they liked one of my scripts and wanted to develop it.
I thought I was going to make $350,000 and begin my real career. Or so I thought. After about a year of "development" and rewrites (on spec), it finally sputtered and died.
I said, "enough of this garbage," (but not in those exact words) and decided that I would make enough money to make my own damn movie. I was sitting on the dolly during a break one day talking to the Assistant Cameraman. He told me his house had gone up in value $75k that year - that was more than both of us made all year. I thought that real estate might be the way to get rich and promptly bought a house in Lancaster.
I didn't know what the heck I was doing.
I bought brand new construction and didn’t know what I was going to do with it. I didn’t know if I was going to rent it or sell it.
I did know that I didn’t want to live in it. It was too far away from where I worked.
I was in the movie industry at the time and was making $60k a year - good money by most people’s standards in the mid-80s. I only worked about 100 days a year, had lots of time off and got to work on sets and do lighting.
A month after I bought the Lancaster, CA house, the value had gone up 20%. I was in the right place at the right time.
I turned around and immediately sold that new house and made a nice chunk of money with almost no work.
I didn’t realize at the time that markets don’t jump like that very often and when they do, they are hard to predict. My good fortune started me on a road to start buying properties like crazy. I started doing rehabs after that first success. I fixed them up, waited a month or two for the values to rise, and then sold them for another big chunk of cash.
While all this was happening, I fell in love and married Nancy. It was the smartest thing I've ever done.
In three years I bought over $17 MILLION dollars worth of property and a big wad of that was equity. Everything I had was buried in these properties - I was leveraged to the hilt and constantly looking for more property to buy.
My fall to earth was rapidly approaching.
Then, 1991 came along and the market dropped by 30%.
The construction lenders that I had borrowed from, came to me and said, "We’re going to stop the loans." I said, "But I just finished the foundation, a $300,000 foundation - it’s in the ground - concrete, steel. You can’t get it out."
They said, "We’re very sorry. We can’t continue giving you more money. We have to cut our losses. You’ll have to stop building." They stopped me and everything fell apart. I could no longer make any of the payments on my infrastructure.
I Lost Everything.
I lost my house. I lost my cars. I lost my dump truck, my bulldozer, my bobcat, my concrete forms.
I had people coming to my house in the middle of the night pounding on the door wanting money. I had people serving me legal papers. I got served with lots of lawsuits for unpaid bills because when you’re doing construction, there is a lot of stuff going on.
It was a hard lesson.
When it all played out, I knew that I had to leave my house. I was walking up in the Hollywood Hills (I lived in Laurel Canyon) with my dog Jessie and I remember looking out over L.A. (it’s really beautiful at night, you can see the whole city from up there). But that night, as I looked out over the city, it was in flames. On top of everything else, the L.A. Rodney King riots where in full swing.
The riots were going, my business was in the tank, Nancy was 6-months pregnant with Alex, our 1st child, we had no place to live, no place to go - but I had family in Indiana and they still loved me.
Ex-Millionaire Eats Humble Pie
So there I was - 32 years old, driving back to the Midwest in a big rented moving truck to move in with my parents. Talk about eating humble pie. I’m sure a lot of you have been in tough financial situations before. I know a lot of people have gone through this sort of thing, but it didn't make it any less difficult. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
We had to start over. I didn’t have any money to work with and my credit was trashed, but my Mom and Dad gave us a place to stay and my brother Dan gave us an old car - lifesavers.
I knew a lot about real estate. I became a real estate agent and started selling property. I needed money quickly.
At this point, becoming a filmmaker was a dead dream.
Eventually, I came out of the haze of humiliation, self pity and self loathing and started to open my eyes again. I realized, "I can buy property if I do things a little differently."
Here was the equation I was using before the crash.
I would get a conventional loan, I would put money down and I would use creative financing to help leverage the deal. That is how I built the business so big, so fast.
With my new situation (no money and terrible credit), I knew I was not going to be able to take out any conventional loans. I had to pull out of that system altogether. I had to learn to invest without any money because I didn’t have any money.
All I had was my knowledge of creative financing. So my question to myself was, "how am I going to make that work?" I learned how to do it with no money.
This is where the filmmaking part comes in. While learning this lesson, I discovered that I could have done ANYTHING with no money. You just need some specific knowledge and skill to pull it off.
I started shooting short videos for my Internet Real Estate Investing business. They are not great works of craft and skill, mostly headshots and interview stuff, but they have a lot of excellent information. I've received hundreds of thousands of views on these videos over the years both on my servers and on youtube. They have built my audience. The videos educate, build relationships and sell - and they have made me millions of dollars in sales - part of which I invested in buying houses for my portfolio (using cash this time).
These crummy little short videos have been a big part of the businesses I created - businesses that have made me more money than 99% of all working filmmakers out there today.
My Grandpa Pete said, "There’s no shame in being poor, it’s just damn inconvenient."
And that's the truth, I’ve been broke and I’ve had money and I can tell you, it’s better to have money. But being broke doesn't mean you can't build the life you want.
Time has passed. I've stabilized my business and I still teach investing and have a going real estate business. We buy and sell investment houses, mostly to other investors. Almost everything is automated these days with software I've designed, websites I've created and marketing technology I've implemented. I keep reducing my workload, but it seems like my productivity keeps going up. The less I do, the more I seem to make. It's a wonderful thing.
Filmmaking - the death of a dream.
A decade ago, I remember talking with my brother, Dan, about the "death" of our dreams. He is an artist - has a Master of Fine Arts. We talked about mourning that death the same way you mourn the death of any loved one. I felt that I had done this and, at last, moved on. I love what I do in real estate and I don't plan to stop anytime soon, but these last few years, I've been getting the itch. Maybe that old dream wasn't dead after all.
I've watched the progress of DV technology and I've been buying cool camera and editing gear as I worked on my real estate videos and on the dance videos I've been shooting for my daughter.
Then my son, Alex, who was in junior high at the time, told me he'd like to make video games for a living.
I said to him, "Do you know how to become a video game designer?"
He said, "No."
I said, "You design video games."
This is how you become a filmmaker too, incidentally.
We started building a game. He created an amazing world and started building characters inside that world. We found a very talented artist to do some concept art for us (he worked cheap since he knew this was a low budget project).
We got quite a bit done on this game. but eventually we put the project aside because there were a few things we needed to learn before we could continue.
But Alex got me interested in stories again. He got me interested in building worlds and creating characters and eventually, we started brainstorming a feature project I was thinking about - by now he was in High School and thinking on a MUCH higher level than I ever did when I was his age.
Life is good.
I have a pretty comfortable life now and my motivation to start making films again is different than it was when I was an impatient young man. I don't care about the money, I don't care about recognition, I don't want to be involved in the Hollywood scene.
And it's not that I don't want these things - it's that they don't drive me any longer. I like Indiana (I'm looking out at the woods behind my home office right now and know how fortunate I am). I like my life and being with my wife and my family.
But I'm also a bit bored.
I believe that our success in life is directly related to the amount of stress we can bear without burning out. I've learned how to live with high levels of stress because of my failures and success. I want "good" stress in my life because it lets me know things are moving forward - that shit is getting done.
I also know that when you get complacent, you tend to get old. You sit on the couch and you die. For some reason, this is the vague dream of retirement that most Americans have - no job, lots of freedom, nothing to do - no purpose. I've had lots of freedom nearly all my life. I haven't had a real job since working at "Terminal Photo" in a train station in Chicago during my college years. The name of that photo store was exactly how I felt about having a job - "terminal."
But purpose is vital and when one purpose is being fulfilled, it's time to add another.
I'm not mega rich - I can't finance a multimillion dollar film. I don't want to lose the money that I've earned in my business over the years and I don't ever want to have to start from scratch again. I've done that and it wasn't fun.
I woke up one morning, not too long ago, with a scene from Citizen Kane running through my head. I don't know where it came from - I hadn't seen the movie in years.
Kane is talking to his business manager at his failing newspaper.
I can't lose a million dollars a year for sixty years like Kane, but I could lose SOME money every year for the rest of my life without impacting my lifestyle or my family very much.
What if I decided to start losing money?
What if I decided to spend what I could on something I loved?
How much could I afford to lose?
What if I revived that old dead dream?
What if I did it the way *I* choose to do it rather than following someone else's conventional wisdom?
What if I started making shit happen on a film project or two?
Who knows where it would lead?
But you know something, it doesn't really matter where it leads.
Yes, I want my projects to succeed and yes, I want them to lead to profits and if I'm going to do this, I want to be recognized as a storyteller who has something to say and who folks want to hear.
I want to viscerally impact the lives of others in ways that can potentially change their lives.
But what I want most, is to live "in" the process - experience the moment as it happens - have a good time producing value in my life, in the lives of those I work with and in those who view my work.
That's where I'm at now - that's the journey I'm on.
I'm ready for a bumpy ride.
I hope you will join me.
Joe Crump - May 2012
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