Thursday, July 25, 2013
Giving Up or Moving On?
A dead guy I never met changed my life.
Blaze Foley was an iconic Texas blues man who's legendary persona captivated people and sometimes changed their lives. Even in death, he continues to change people's lives. He caused me to change from an engineer to a filmmaker and back into an engineer headed for Saudi Arabia.
When I began the Blaze Foley documentary, around 1998, I was an electrical engineer and computer game developer living in Austin, Texas. I was 45, single, and looking for a side project when Blaze came along. I'd never met him, but the incredible escapades told by his friends and the narrative-in-songs were compelling enough that I knew pairing his music and life story would make a powerful film.
To tackle this mammoth project, I needed training and equipment. Not just training on the equipment, but training on how to tell a story with moving pictures. And I needed the equipment to somehow pay off the credit card debt from buying all that equipment. So Mopac Media, a filmmaker equipment rental company, was born. Incidentally, Mike Nicholson was my first customer and became Director of Photography for the Blaze film.
Mopac Media grew from being in my house to being in a van to a south Austin building to the house next door to ultimately a home in east Austin. As it grew, I went from keeping track of all the rentals using a physical calendar to a web application (thanks to Kai Mantsch, who recorded sound for the Blaze film and performed many other roles for it) to a full-blown Ruby-on-Rails webapp running the business today.
Somehow, Blaze had managed to indirectly take me back to being a full fledged software developer. Things were good, with year-to-year growth averaging 20%. Then overnight, High Definition hit and cameras became more expensive to buy and there were more models in demand, meaning more debt. Then the Great Recession hit which sent growth through the floor and revenue back to 2006 levels.
Meanwhile, the Blaze Foley project had taken 9 years to complete and, since I insisted on paying people for their work, my credit card debt had reached over 90% of my available balances. Since I'd been an engineer before being a filmmaker, I had good credit with many cards and high balances on each card. Yikes.
We struggled on, June Burnum helping me run Mopac Media, shifting balances, taking out home equity loan, becoming smarter about the business and slowly digging out of debt. As I dug, the banks weren't helping with increased interest rates. I still don't understand why they wanted me to pay down my debt while increasing their finance charges. Banks are evil.
In 2009, Blaze was finally finished and set to premiere at the prestigious SXSW Film Festival -- when the projector bulb went out. With 400 people from all over the world waiting to see it. Bummer.
I took this as a sign of opportunity and spent the next two years re-editing the film -- turns out, it wasn't really ready to premiere. Maybe Blaze knew that and spilled beer on the projector. In 2011, we previewed the film in Austin to five sold out shows. Then Gurf Morlix and I took it on the road to every songwriter club we could find in the US, Canada, Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, and Norway. And it screened at festivals in the US, Spain, Brazil, and Finland. This past year, I showed it in Australia, New Zealand, and Japan.
Now I'm heading to Saudi Arabia. I've sold Mopac Media to June, sold my house (which paid off my credit card debt, thanks to insane Austin growth), my car (to Chris Ohlson, Production Coordinator for the Blaze film), and gave away most of the crap I've accumulated over the past 17 years of living in Austin. The movers came and packed up the last bits to put on a ship bound for Saudi.
I've gone full circle, back to being an electrical engineer hired by a company valued at up to $10 trillion USD. The Blaze project was great, I have absolutely no regrets but I wouldn't touch it if I had it to do over. It didn't pan out as a viable retirement plan, so not wanting to eat cat food when I'm 80, I've gone back to work until I can retire. Fortunately, it fulfills my new desire to live overseas and learn a second language. I was hoping for a location that wasn't as hot as Texas and a language that shared the same alphabet as English, but this seems a wonderful opportunity to live in a new culture and learn more about the ancient world.
As Blaze liked to sing, "You gotta move."
Oh, and I'll definitely keep making films -- it's an addiction.