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Frank Chindamo Makes a Living on Fun Little Movies

Frank Chindamo Makes a Living on Fun Little Movies

by Rebecca Sonnenshine




The short film has always struggled for an audience, not to mention
respectability. Venues are limited. Funding is practically
non-existent. In Hollywood, short films are perceived as a "calling
card" rather than an art form, an obligatory hoop for a rising filmmaker
to jump through before that big break comes. So what is Frank Chindamo
doing making a career out of short films?


Despite the odds, Chindamo has accomplished the rare feat of making over
50 short films, on spec or on commission for entities like HBO, MTV,
CBS, Comedy Central and Playboy. "Most people have done one [short
film]. Some people go on to do two and very, very few people do three
or more. I'm the only person who approaches the number 50," says
Chindamo. Along the way, he has collected an armful of awards and
admirers, becoming probably the most successful short filmmaker in the
U.S. And what exactly is the key to Chindamo's success? Comedy, plain
and simple. His films are audacious, colorful, loud. They feature
sharp performances by stand-up comics. All of them run on pure energy,
with perfectly pitched directing, editing, and writing. On Friday,
August 21, a compilation of Chindamo's shorts will be airing on PBS
affiliate WNVT at 9:30 pm, before rolling out nationally on other PBS
stations.


Actually, Chindamo stumbled into filmmaking by accident. Three years
into a psychology degree at Queens college, he took a film class --
mostly because it met only once a week and showed movies. But Chindamo
had an epiphany of sorts -- instead of helping one person at a time
through psychology, he could reach thousands of people at once through
filmmaking. He transferred to NYU and completed his B.F.A. in film,
then went down the yellow brick road of P.A. work, getting gigs on
movies like "Ghostbusters," "After Hours" and "Desperately Seeking
Susan
." By the time he'd worked his way up to assistant director work,
he was looking for a more creative outlet. He applied to Columbia
University, where he produced and co-wrote an impressive nine films, all
of which won awards.


His day job may have been film school, but his night job was producing
stand-up comedy shows, which, in the late 1980s, were at the peak of
their popularity. Taking stories that the comics told in their
routines, Chindamo adapted the jokes into a visual form and created his
own brand of short film, usually under four minutes in length. And then
came "The Jelly Donut Saga" with stand-up comic Maxine Lapiduss ("The
Jeff Foxworthy Show
," "Rosanne"). Chindamo and his producing partner
had taken a story in her act -- a hilarious bit that claimed jelly
donuts were the perfect defense against subway thugs -- and turned it
into a short film. After the director pulled out at the last minute,
Chindamo jumped in. "HBO got hold of it and said, 'This is great! What
else have you got?' And I said, 'Well, that's it. It's my thesis
film.' HBO said, 'Oh, well, call us when you have more stuff, because
we'd love to look at it.'" A director was born.


Forming his own production company, Fun Little Movies, Chindamo began
collecting assignments from Showtime, HBO, MTV, Comedy Central. He even
created a pilot for CBS with comic giant Alan King -- "a half hour show
about comedians in a comedy club." Chindamo also started a four-year
relationship with the Playboy Channel, writing and directing short films
for a series called Playboy Late Night. He taught courses about comedy
and comedy writing in New York and Los Angeles. He relocated to Los
Angeles and became a script consultant.


Eventually, as all filmmakers do, Chindamo began thinking about the
brass ring: the feature film. He wrote several feature length scripts,
two of which have been optioned -- several times -- but never made. He
is currently planning to direct his next project, "Tricks of the Trade,"
in the very near future. "It's about a group of graduate students who
accidentally start shooting their thesis film about a hooker," he says
with a smile. "Lots of sex, no violence."


Does this mean that he's giving up on short films? Not exactly. "I
would love to keep making them," he says. "But I would like to make
them in a venue that is better financed. The commercial possibilities of
a short are very limited." After making over fifty short films,
Chindamo says, "I can tell you for sure, it's a money losing
proposition. You have to do it only because of love. There is no
possibility of making your money back on that short. Sorry, there's a 1
in 5000 chance that you'll make your money back on the short." Even
having sold his films to Japanese, Canadian, British, Turkish television
-- just to name a few -- Chindamo suspects that he may be just now
breaking even. "But that's the point -- it's not about the money. It's
about learning how to write, learning how to produce, learning how to
direct. And if you are extremely talented, that will shine through, no
matter how low the budget is."


And despite the challenges, Chindamo has nothing but praise for the
process. "Short films are great. And they're especially great for
people on the way up. Filmmaking is...telling a story, knowing where to
put the camera, knowing how to talk to the actors, knowing how to
create art on screen in a way that will, I think, at it's best,
entertain and give people something to think about. Short films can
[teach you] all of those things. And you learn, in making a five minute
film, 60% of the lessons you would have learned if that five minute film
had been a 90 minute film. Because you're still working with actors,
you're still blocking shots, you're still creating art to go on the
screen. And it's less subject to commercial constraints and more
available to artistic experimentation."


Whether it's short or feature length films, however, Chindamo has no
shortage of material. "Most of the time, I'm thinking in comedy, because
comedy is something that brings joy to people's lives and it's
thought-provoking and it makes people think." With "Tricks of the
Trade," Chindamo will once again draw from his roots in stand-up comedy,
bringing in a cast of, if not-quite-household names, certainly familiar
faces in the world of comedy. "A-level comic geniuses. That's the pool
I draw from for my short films and that's who will be in my feature.
People say that stand-up comics can't act, but that's not true -- they
can, if you give them the right role and the right direction."


He will also draw support from The Filmmaker's Alliance, the second
largest group of indie filmmakers in LA, of which he is a very active
member. "We make a shitload of films...and they're all really good,"
Chindamo enthuses. "It's like a social cooperative of filmmakers. I'm
a big supporter. Through the Filmmaker's Alliance, "Tricks of the
Trade" is going to get made for a very low budget and very high screen
value." As for what lies ahead, Chindamo is anxious to continue
building upon the path that he has carved out for himself. "The kind of
feature films I really want to make [are] an extension of the short
films. Low budget, off-the-wall concepts. There's no reason why
something can't be commercial and still be totally artistic."


[Readers are encouraged to check out the Filmmaker's Alliance at
www.filmmakersalliance.com or call the hotline at 310.281.6093]


[Rebecca Sonnenshine is a freelance writer, filmmaker and cookie baker
living in Los Angeles.]

TAGS: Interviews

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