Fifth Street

September 3, 2020

In this issue: Mahal Brothers | Make It Work | Media Sommelier | Black Camaro

WITH THEIR MAHAL EMPIRE production company, brothers Michael and Sonny Mahal have become the Las Vegas equivalent of Roger Corman, producing low-budget, high-craziness genre movies like Bus Party to Hell and Art of the Dead that reliably get wide distribution on video-on-demand. Their film formula is matched by a machine-like business formula: They combine local talent with recognizable B-movie stars like Richard Grieco and Tara Reid, and they raise hundreds of thousands of dollars via crowdfunding campaigns to attract the attention of larger investors.

Starring Grieco, alien invasion thriller Attack of the Unknown (pictured) was released August 28 on VOD, and there are three more Mahal Empire movies (all directed by local filmmaker Michael Su) in various stages of production. In between shooting days on horror movie Death Count, Michael Mahal talked to Fifth Street about the brothers’ winning formula in an age when COVID has put the traditional Hollywood movie model on hold.

Has the pandemic slowed you down at all?
No, actually I think in terms of producing movies, we’re getting more aggressive. The reason is because right now all these distributors desperately need content. Now that productions have basically come to a halt for like the last six months now, because of the pandemic, places like Netflix or Starz or Showtime, all these VOD platforms and cable companies and satellite, they need content because there’s no new movies that have been made. So right now is a great time to make movies. It’s a pandemic—you have to be safe. We use a medic on set and take everybody’s temperatures and do all the PPE, make sure everything’s sanitized and take all the proper precautions.

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How much of your budgets come from crowdfunding versus equity investment?
Generally I would say it’s about half and half. IndieGoGo’s like our video Rolodex, and it gets people interested and it gets the ball rolling to get these bigger investors to put in equity investments. I think once they see the success of IndieGoGo, that’s when they all want to come in.

Is it important for you to nurture local talent like Michael Su?
Honestly, there’s a lot of talent in Vegas, crew-wise. It’s on the level of L.A. and Hollywood. I think there’s also some fantastic actors in town. The problem is, the Nevada government really needs to change the film (tax) incentives to help filmmakers more, that are actually giving cast and crew opportunities here in Vegas. They’re giving millions of dollars away to these companies in L.A. that just come in, hire a couple of (production assistants) and bring in all outside people, and they’re the ones getting all of the Nevada dollars. I’m the one who's bringing in people from all over the world, and I’m not reaping the rewards of any incentives.

Is making movies a full-time job for you and Sonny?
Yeah, we’ve been doing it now full-time probably for two and a half, maybe three years, professionally with no other job. Honestly, I could make a killing off of doing it, with the amount of money that we’re raising off the crowdfunding stuff. But with the money we’re raising, it’s barely enough to put out a quality product that I think can compete with Hollywood. The thing is, four of our best movies haven’t even been released yet. Once these few movies get released, then I think our fan base will increase, and then the amount of money that we raise will increase with it. When that happens, then we’ll be making a lot more money.

What’s your strategy for recruiting bigger-name actors?
I think a lot of these celebrities pay for themselves. When I’m running a crowdfunding campaign and I have Tara Reid attached to it, people will pay thousands of dollars just to get a line with Tara Reid. I think it’s important for us to secure them, not only to make the project marketable so distributors want it, but also so we can raise the money that we need. For every 10 grand I’m paying Tara Reid, she’s probably bringing us in 20 or 30 grand.

What’s the long-term goal for Mahal Empire?
Eventually, we want to get to the studio level and start working with $5, $10 million budgets or higher. To get to that point, you have to pay your dues. Hollywood’s not going to give you a $30 or $40 million movie deal unless you have at least 10 or 15 movies under your belt. It would just be too much of a risk for them. I think a lot of big players are watching us now. Right now I think we’re pretty much at the max we can take for our formula without having too many people in the movie and it just being too long. There has to be a point where you have to cut off the funding of the movie. We’ve had to do that on Bloodthirst and Attack of the Unknown. We’re like, we can’t take any more money, campaign’s over.

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FOR HER ZOOM INTERVIEW, Make It Work Nevada Executive Director Erika Washington sits on her bed, occasionally sipping orange juice through a straw. She’s in the first few weeks of a half-year recovery from foot surgery, which she underlines by turning her laptop to show the tassel-festooned scooter she now uses to get around. We wistfully imagine a post-COVID world in which certain newly adopted conventions — like doing interviews from your bedroom (in a T-shirt and no makeup, for my part) — will be permanent. In that world, you won’t have to explain that it’s necessary because you have to elevate your leg. People just won’t judge. They’ll give women — particularly Black women — the benefit of the doubt.

“With the stuff going on with my foot,” Washington says, “I feel like, if I wasn’t such a good advocate for myself, I might not have gotten treatment. In the beginning, they made me feel like a crackhead begging for pain medication. And then after my surgery, my surgeon was like, ‘Wow! There was a lot of scar tissue in there. You must have been in a lot of pain.’” (Shakes her head.)

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That Black women’s problems are routinely discounted or disregarded was Make It Work’s reason for being. The advocacy organization started as a national campaign in 2015, based on the idea that women of color talk to each other about their struggles with things like childcare, housing, and equal pay, but are largely ignored by those in power. The plan was to facilitate kitchen-table conversations as a starting point for activism, building grassroots support for political allies and cultivating spokespeople, who could take their message to the news media and legislators.

“So, here we are, after the 2016 election,” Washington recalls. “It was only supposed to be a three-year campaign. We knew that the things we were working for weren’t going to happen with the current (U.S. presidential) administration, so we realized it was time to sunset the national campaign. And they asked me if I wanted to continue, because Nevada was the shining star of all the states. We organized the most people, had the most kitchen-table conversations, the most contact with our legislators. So, they basically handed it off to me.”

Washington retooled Make It Work Nevada to focus on three overarching causes: reproductive, racial, and economic justice. Within them are specific issues, such as paid family leave and criminal justice reform. Key to the group’s approach is its ambassadors, women whose lives have been affected by systemic oppression and who share their stories in public testimony for or against laws.

Tameka Henry is one these women. Her life changed when her husband starting suffering from debilitating intestinal pain in 2006. His employer fired him after having to call an ambulance to take him from work to the hospital. It took multiple trips to see doctors in California before he had a proper diagnosis, and six years before he’d start receiving the disability payments he was owed. During that time, Henry took a lot of time off work, unpaid, to care for him — on top of figuring out childcare and finding time to be a mom.

“I didn’t even realize there was such a thing as paid family leave or paid medical leave,” she says. “I knew FMLA (the Family Medical and Leave Act) would hold your job, but I didn’t know you could get paid.”

Henry had gotten help from Head Start, though, and as a result of that experience, was doing community outreach for the local office, focusing on early childhood education. That activity got her invited to one of Washington’s first “kitchen-table” conversations (actually, in a living room). 

“Make It Work really educated me not only about what I could do to better help my family, but also what I could do to help other families,” Henry says. “It showed me I was not the only one going through this – being the breadwinner and also the caretaker of the whole household. … When a loved one has medical issues, you shouldn’t have to choose between taking time off to care for them and going to work because that’s the only way you can pay the bills. Of course, we all know that now, because of COVID.”

She has since shared her story in the Nevada Legislature, U.S. Congress and lots of places in between. She was on the Make It Work Nevada team spearheading a paid sick leave bill that passed in the 2019 state legislative session.

It’s an example of Make It Work’s success. But Washington stresses that no individual law can have a lasting impact without systemic change.

“One thing I’ve learned from doing this work is, you can’t change anyone’s life unless you fix multiple issues at the same time,” she says. “The years I’ve been in politics, people want to focus on one thing. But if you lower the rates of childcare, it doesn’t help if we don’t also raise the minimum wage to a living wage and change the number of sick days to something that actually accommodates a serious illness.”

And although the organization puts Black women and women of color front and center, Washington notes that any progress they make means progress for everyone: “It’s not just Black folks who are poor and struggling or brown folks with immigration issues,” she says. “There’s a lot of times we don’t get asked (to talk to the press), or if we do, we only get asked the Black questions. I’m proudly Black, and I’m happy to front for it, but when we fought for paid sick leave and got it, we didn’t get paid sick leave for Black women. We got it for everybody.”

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2. What do you call it when the world steals your brilliant idea before you have a chance to get it published? You call it, ”Here Comes the Past Again,” Wendy Wimmer’s recent essay for the Believer. Her experience, both heartbreaking and validating, includes the bonuses of a car-ride conversation with Margaret Atwood about migratory fowl and a timely observation about zombies in a pandemic.

3. I admit that Eric Deggans’ Race-Baiter had been in my nightstand pile since he signed it for me at last year’s Las Vegas Book Festival. With the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd having reignited racial injustice protests, this summer seemed like a good time to crack open a book about the news media’s contribution to the problem. It was. Though Deggans focuses on TV news — and cable, in particular — the book gave me ample food for thought on the implicit bias that’s evident in how we frame stories. More than once I wondered if the author, who’s explaining systemic racism in the context of Trayvon Martin’s 2011 murder, has been banging his head against a wall lately, or if he was just glad such ideas have finally hit the mainstream.

4. Speaking of systemic racism, back-to-school is a fitting time to check out the New York Times podcast Nice White Parents. Made by the team behind Serial, it’s the same kind of deep reporting that starts with a simple question (Why is my kid’s school still segregated?) and, in answering it, opens doors on increasingly bigger, thornier questions. If you’re a white parent with school-age kids and it doesn’t make your squirm at least once, you’re probably not being honest with yourself.

5. Art, history, and museums seeming as out of reach as they are necessary at present, the L.A. Times’ recent multimedia project on the 50th anniversary of the Chicano Moratorium is especially satisfying. I’m ashamed by how much I learned from it. Ashamed, and grateful.

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HOW MAGNETICALLY STRANGE Black Camaro is. I want to know everything about them without knowing too much. The feeling is a variation, I suspect, of some occult impulse: the desire to grasp the contours of the mystery without despoiling the mystery itself. Black Camaro is a Las Vegas rock band that’s operated in what seems like contented obscurity since 2001, producing albums that range from puckish stoner keyboard operas to prodigious concept albums for imaginary films (which they then wrote and produced). Multi-instrumentalists Brian Garth and Thomas Miller are the kernel of the band. They compose and play a kind of highly disciplined, crypto-psychedelic studio pop, unstintingly lush with suntan oil and summer longing, cluttered with bongs and beaded curtains. But there’s also something like the fugitive sophistication of Steely Dan and the stretchy, elusive whimsy of Ween going on here — that spidey-sense tingle suggesting the songs are memes in a private language of personal mythologies and grand inside jokes. Those cerebral bona fides aside, Black Camaro’s fantastic music also happens to rock, bop, and soar.

I recommend their two most recent albums, 2019’s Protocol of Dreams and 2020’s Daydream Delphi. Protocol of Dreams is athletically searching, indie arena rock for navel-gazers. After the improbably frantic opener “Standing in Your Shadow” (I double-checked the speed on my record player), Protocol settles into a mode of roaming, urgent introspection. Songs such as “Out in the Rain” (“It’s 60 degrees and the rainbow grease/ In the streets like a rancid roast beef marinade”) and “1,000 Years” are restless post-rock bangers that flare with hooks and choral raves; “Waiting for Me” starts off as the kind of closing-time number you’d hear at a lonesome bar before the song achieves liftoff as a star-flecked space ballad at the saddest prom in the universe.

Black Camaro’s latest album, Daydream Delphi, enters the stage with baffling grandeur, a hash of commercial jingles and soap-opera swells. The album is framed by some wacky, home-brewed sci-fi flick outtakes — something about a secret jade mine run by intergalactic villains? — but the music in between is a gooey, echoey, glittering mass that revels in its own kooky headphone mojo (“When You’re Finally Home,” “Nightscape”) or revs into assured Pixies-style hustles (“Lynda,” “A Stranger in Delphi”). And then — exclamation point! — a rollicking doo-wop number, “Guest Star In a One Man Show.” The songs of Black Camaro are filled with all sorts of such musical punctuation — ellipses and question marks, hyphens and parentheses — that are highly intentional, but never mannered. The pandemic clearly didn’t thwart Black Camaro’s intentions with Daydream Delphi, whose songs were built by Miller and Garth passing tracks back and forth over the web. But its finishing touch embodies Black Camaro’s spirit of rummaging invention: the album’s weird dialogue interludes were created on VHS tape. Of course.

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Photos and art: Attack of the Unknown courtesy Mahal Empire; Erika Washington by Christopher Smith

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