In the following article, “How To Make Money Selling Drugs” co-producer
Bert Marcus explains how he crafted his film about the War on Drugs.
The film is available now, in theaters and on demand, after a day-and-date release from Tribeca
In my early twenties, I experienced a disheartening,
drug-related loss when a close family member was not lucky enough to
beat a battle with addiction. As a result, I reached out to friends and
family for support, leaning on those closest to me. I realized that I
was in the majority, that most people I spoke with had a link. Almost
every person in some way or another has personally, or through a
relationship, experienced a drug-related episode that has drawn him or
her into the industry to play some role in what has been called “the war
The more conversations and stories that were
sparked by friends and family, the more I began to think that with
numbers can come change. I studied, researched and began to try to
understand how this was possible. In doing so, I learned about our drug
laws and policies and the economic and racial impact that comes with
them. The statistics are staggering. If this affects almost all
Americans, there must be something that we can do to help.
After producing “Teenage Paparazzo,” I realized that we were once again
presented with the chance to take a topic that has been explored
hundreds of times and engage the viewer in ways that previous films on
the topic never have. Our focus was to find a unique voice and critical
angle towards improving the discussion around drugs. And How to Make
Money Selling Drugs was conceived in theory. Like the film, I am going
to give you an easy guide to how this movie was made, although this one
is only 5 steps.
1. The Mood, the Pace, the Feel
a filmmaker, I knew that I had a unique opportunity to be heard and to
impact people’s lives in a meaningful way. I was in my mid-to-late 20’s
when we started the project and, as mentioned, I could not stand the
idea of making just another film on the war on drugs. I watched film
after film on the subject – what is the connecting factor besides the
topic? The mood, the pace, the feel…in sum, the demographic.
the youngest filmmaker involved in the production, it was especially
important to me to engage a younger generation who had not had the
over-exposure with films on the drug war. Why, I thought, was there no
film that speaks to the demographic where many of these problems begin
in the first place, where many first time criminals enter prison and
where many people make their most important life decisions? This wasn’t
going to be a movie just for those that have already experienced their
most challenging moments in life, it was going to be a film targeting
those just beginning to experience them. The goal was now to engage a
new viewer and, in doing so, bridge the gap between generations.
2. Channeling the Audience . . . The Target
than lecture, to capture a younger demographic we felt that through
entertainment and a tongue-in-cheek, if not risqué, approach, we would
absolve the judgment and tension around the war on drugs. This, in
turn, would deliver a broader message across that what the U.S.
government and drug policy and enforcement agencies are doing from a
policy and social standpoint clearly has not, and is not, working. A
fast-pace and high-energy tone, especially through the use of music,
where I began in entertainment as a teen, were the first steps in
opening a young audience’s mind and making it easier to listen.
as we immersed ourselves in research, interviews and discussion, the
natural backbone and structure of the film presented itself: a video
game. The drug war, like a video game, consists of various levels. As a
street dealer you start at the bottom with very little and attempt to
build an empire level by level. How different is that than my days of
Super Mario Bros.?
The video game structure was also meant to
educate, as many Americans don’t appreciate the reality that the drug
trade is truly a global powerhouse business, not just casual trading on a
corner or at a party. Through an interactive game, the audience can
appreciate the magnitude and intricacy of perpetuating this massive,
intertwined industry while still being engaged. In this way, the form
could mirror the function whereby the video game action, violence and
entertainment value reflects the same inherent nature of the pervasive
3. Draw People In . . . The Hook
necessity to draw in the masses extends past basic elements of
entertainment in the film. Why not enlist an army of popular
advocates? I think that often times the speaker is more important than
the subject matter. Think about school – was your favorite class based
on the topic or the teacher?
I was overwhelmed by the support
that we received when approaching high profile individuals, even those
that are notoriously hard to persuade to participate in interviews. If
someone were to tell me that there was a film with Eminem, 50 Cent,
Susan Sarandon, Russell Simmons and Woody Harrelson, I certainly would
not think it was a documentary, I would think that a studio paid
millions to get this kind of talent.
People always ask how we
were able to get so many celebrities in the film and the answer will
likely surprise you. Some were reluctant at first, but after explaining
our film’s unique approach and style, we began to gain traction with
celebrities that are truly passionate about ending the drug war. From
here, we organically received captivating content and willing
participation, as well as names to lure people in to hear the messages
we wanted to convey.
These individuals are role models and
inspirational icons to our society and to hear about the topic through
their words and passion can hopefully motivate each viewer to do their
part in joining the conversation about changing the approach to drugs in
America. For example, Russell Simmons, Susan Sarandon and Woody
Harrelson have been adamant advocates against the war on drugs,
particularly as it relates to the repeal of the infamous New York
Rockefeller Drug Laws. Russell has notably written a letter to
President Obama and championed a cyber march in April to end the war,
amongst other outreach.
4. The Right Cast . . . The Talent
a slate of zealous celebrity advocates was only one portion of how we
wanted to round out the cast. Through filming, we realized more and
more that the war on drugs reaches from inside our homes, inside our
wallets, inside our prisons and out on to our streets, so we wanted to
make a film that captured every element of the war on drugs and from all
perspectives. We wanted to show that this is not a black and white
issue, there are multiple viewpoints and they all deserve recognition.
that answers the “why,” like the celebrities, some also ask how did we
get drug dealers? What is involved in drug raids?
come in various forms. You may interact with one every day and you
don’t even know it. Case in point was during editing, there was a man
painting the outside of the editing hallway. He poked in to see what we
were working on and we explained what the film was about. In a matter
of seconds he was delving into his life story – how he had once been a
drug dealer working for one of Mexico’s largest cartels and how he had
made hundreds of thousands of dollars climbing the ranks. Happy as
could be, he explained that after going to prison for five years, he had
plenty of money left over and he is now a humble painter. He would do
it all over again, he said, without hesitation. Why not? What may seem
like an extraordinary journey to some was a matter-of-fact tale of
daily life for Pepe. We knew that we had to get this on tape.
on the other side, my company was granted unprecedented access to
high-ranking government officials and drug raids. Sitting next to an
agent while they are about to pull thousands upon thousands of dollars
of drugs off of someone was unlike anything I have experienced. And
like our celebrity advocates, after understanding our point of view in
breaking down and humanizing such a daunting topic, they were thrilled
to be a part of the film and share their voices with the world.
are just a few examples among many, but this is the reason why we
wanted celebrities, drug dealers, recovering addicts, attorneys and
high-ranking government officials to each tell their stories. There are
so many willing participants from every angle that will make you think
twice about how you once thought of the drug war. By seeing every side
of the drug war, seeing the scope of the parties affected and realizing
that there are no winners and losers, no villains or heroes, the true
complexity of the web created by drugs in this nation can be better
brought to the light. We set out to humanize those that we deem as both
“bad” and place on a pedestal. These are just people, human beings
born of their own experiences and subsequently affected like you and
5. Getting Down to Business … The Hard Truth
were compiling a film with entertainment, celebrity and voices from
every facet of the drug war, but the last crucial puzzle piece was the
stunning information we wanted to relay in the film. To start, I
mentioned the information that I learned while beginning my studies on
this topic; the money expended, the lives lost, the failed laws and the
blatant racial inequity.
The drug war is a $400-$500 billion
global industry, including drug production, smuggling and distribution
worldwide. Think about that. Our country alone has spent over $1
trillion on the drug war since 1971. And for what?
States leads the world in illegal drug use, particularly marijuana and
cocaine. Further, it has been reported that Americans are four times as
likely to use cocaine in their lifetime than the #2 country on the
And look at our jails. The incentives around
criminalization of drugs that began in the Nixon era have compounded
rather than alleviated the problems percolating from the drug trade.
Today, because of the drug laws, one in every fifteen African-American
men is in prison. Even further, 90% of those convicted on drug charges
under the Rockefeller Drug Laws in New York are African American and
Latino. The United States is also the world’s leading jailer housing
more inmates than the top 35 European countries combined. The money
that we spend on this expense is astounding. In fact, we spend
six times more money on prisons than education and almost half of our
incarcerated population is in federal prison for non-violent crimes.
Beyond that, prisons have become profitable business investments. Hedge
funds, banking firms and financial companies now have a stake in
prisons, striking deals to ensure that occupancy quotas are fulfilled
This information has to be conveyed, and most importantly, digested.
is a huge problem that has been coined as, and is, the biggest public
policy failure to date in the United States. The public deserves to
hear the information in a way that is digestible, refreshing, real and
told from all angles and that is what we set out to do with this film.
My hope is that you join the conversation and that the plea for reform
will grow so strong that the members at the top of our government will
no longer be able to drown out the noise. From discussions come
solutions, solutions that focus on decriminalization to ensure that the
billions of dollars spent on the drug war are now spent on productive
causes. The money wasted can be spun into our prolific gain. We must
take our citizenship seriously in exchange for the liberties afforded to
us as Americans. I hope that you enjoy the film.