Thursday, December 31, 2009

Travel Day



I will be traveling on my own Travel Day Friday and might not be online again for awhile. It's - 30C here in Manitoba and so cold that ice forms on the windows of the car in less than 2 minutes. I hope to be in Calgary Friday evening and then Los Angeles again on January 4th, where I'll resume my blog more faithfully.

And tonight, my friend Gordon and I will spend our traditional one hour in the town's worst, scungiest bar aptly called "The Valley Hotel". This tradition started years ago when both of us were going through particularly bad times and we figured by ending the year in the dumpiest bar we could find could only mean that January 1st would only be better.


Most of the time, it worked like we wanted.

Monday, December 28, 2009

A short history.

I'm finally settling into life in a small northern town, although it' s not really the true north which is at least 200 miles away. But it is the last real "civilized" community in that the Swan Valley represents the last real agricultural land in the province. Once you drive ten miles north you get into the Boreal forest which consists of stunted pine trees, moss and bogs and thousands of lakes.

Our family even has a lake named after a distant uncle who died on the beaches of Normandy in WWII. Canada has a policy of naming lakes after their war dead and considering there are probably hundreds of thousands of lakes, we still have lots of unnamed lakes.


The north also consists of the Precambrian Shield, which features some of the oldest rock formations in the entire world.  It stretches pretty much through Manitoba's north thru Ontario and Quebec and has a wealth of minerals and precious metals, including a recent find of diamonds that rivals anywhere in the world.


Manitoba is roughly the size of California and Oregon and twice the size of Great Britain. Most interesting is that well over 2/3rds of this is remote wilderness. There are only two highways that wind their way north, and even they end just past the halfway mark.

Historically, Manitoba was the main fur route of the Hudson's Bay Company in the 1700's and still has trappers that work remote wilderness.


My people, the Ukrainians, first migrated here in a period from 1895 to 1911, at 140,000, the largest single migration in Canada's history. Being farmers and peasants, they were welcomed by the Canadian government who wanted the western provinces populated.

But unfortunately, they were victims of discrimination by the British, the Swedes and other WASPS. It wasn't as severe as the American's discrimination of minorities but certainly enough to be noticed. Many Ukrainians who sought work often had to change their names so as to be hired and one Prime Minister said that Canada should "send back the vomit to the country that threw it up".

Nice words, huh.


Being raised in the 50's, I was very much aware of this, and was often embarrassed to say my last name as it was obviously not English. My uncle Fred, a feisty light Communist who sold potato chips and was a hockey scout for the Detroit Red Wings often referred to them as "anglo-saxon bastards".  He lived to be 103. 

And when I was back in Winnipeg in 1998 working on my two movies for Paramount,  Roswell and Dream House, I noticed a strange feeling. 

Everything had changed with regards to Ukrainians. My generation, the first of the previous two generations which included the original settlers and my parent's generation, were baby boomers and many of us were the first to finish high school, go to college and become doctors, lawyers, politicians and even... filmmakers.


Yet I was uncomfortable. The crew excitedly asked me if they could take me to Alicia's, a Ukrainian restaurant in the city. I declined, mostly because I had my share of perogies and cabbage rolls.  I felt it was like an African American being asked to go to a rib joint.

I felt it was condescending.

Yes, things had changed here, things were better for my people, but I found the need of those "anglos" to go overboard in their somewhat well-intended but clumsy attempts to say they liked me. And I felt even more paranoid.

I mentioned this to my producer Steve White, who was Jewish, and we both shared a history of discrimination even though Ukrainians were well-known to discriminate against Jews in the Ukraine and even here.

But I think the only thing I accomplished was making both him and I paranoid.

Maybe it was wrong to think these Anglos were condescending, they seemed sincere, yet it still nagged at me,  maybe it was my problem, some of them told me. We even joked about it, one of my best friends  bought me a Ukrainian style coffee cup signed from "your Anglo-Saxon bastard friend". Yet when I returned to Swan River last Christmas my mother's English neighbor insisted Ukrainians and Jews were never discriminated against.

So now, when I go to restaurants and cafes, and see Ukrainian food on the menu, when 40 years ago, the WASPS wouldn't even consider eating that food, I guess it is better. I just wish they wouldn't continue to tell me how much they love those perogies. Which I've even seen at a Chinese buffet with the incredible name of "Foody Goody".

I lost a lot of my insecurities when I moved to Windsor, across the river from Detroit, going from a small town of 500 people to a metropolitan area of just over 3 million. And I went to school with Italians and French Canadians who were anything but insecure about their heritage. It rubbed off on me and I soon became proud of what I was. Of course the great joke in Canada is that the only thing that unites the country is that everybody hates the WASPS.


Someone once told me Ukrainians and Irish are the same, they forgive but they don't forget.


Old wounds don't disappear.




Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas from Whitefish Lake



Best wishes to my friends, my "followers" and to everyone who's glanced at my blog, even if only for a second. I'm having Christmas where I was born and raised and am lucky enough to have a few aunts, cousins and friends from long, long ago...

Two nights ago my cousin's daughter's two kids helped decorate the tree I cut down on Whitefish Lake and the 6-year old twins hummed and sang  Deck the Halls, bringing memories of past Christmases for us oldies...


Christmas truly is for children.


And those who have a little bit of kid in us.


 

Monday, December 21, 2009

catching up

Since I've been traveling for a few days and finally settled into the little town of Swan River, here's what has happened with Travel Day.

I met Dane the Canadian producer in Winnipeg along with his partner Jeff and over a great Sechuan meal we discussed Travel Day and Dane's methods of financing. He has a unique way of bringing in funding which includes the tax credits that Manitoba has to offer as well as a TV sale and some other equity.

The way it works is like this; Manitoba has currently a tax credit (which will change shortly to compete more with Ontario and Quebec's systems) which is based on labor and can be as much as 65%. This means a crewmember earning $1000 a week can bring our company $650. As you can imagine this could help our financing to nearly 40% of the budget.

What Dane does is present his estimate of tax credits to a Canadian bank and they discount it and offer us a loan of maybe 3/4 of that total. Then Dane will have the items I need to convince my American investors and that includes:

  • An LOI (Letter of Intent) from Dane and his company to me, and indicates his commitment to make the movie.
  • An LOI from the Canadian bank that also indicates it's commitment.
  • An ROI (Return of Investment) directed at the investors that indicates how and when they will begin receiving revenue.
These are what we would refer to as "first in", in that this is the first real indication that the movie is being financed. The initial tax credits are still an estimate and the money will be paid to the production company after a full audit to ensure the amounts, usually within 60-90 days.

Now, since this is the holiday season nothing much will happen till it's over and since I'm out of LA I will wait until I get the letters before I tell the U.S. investors as they will want to see the forms.

Then I will spend 30-60 days to begin to collect the U.S. funding, which even at this point is not certain as investor interest is up and down in the recession mentality in the U.S.

Miles to go before I sleep.

I was also sad to hear that Rachel will be leaving her position at Eh Channel, due to financial problems of the broadcaster that has caused them to close several of their development offices, including hers.  I will miss her participation in Travel Day as she was important in the Canadian angle and Dane's participation.

But we had a great dinner and she has several great opportunities so I look forward to her future work.

Also had dinner with Nicole, whose blog is listed on the sidebar as a favorite. Nic's had a good year with her blog and her book on Internet Dating, which is a lot deeper than it's title indicates, a terrific read and recommended highly by me.

Nic has found a good Toronto agency that will begin contacting publishers in January and I expect it will sell very well.



So for now, I hang out at my friend Glenn's place to use the internet, go to Tim Horton's for coffee, cut down a tree in the "bush" as they call it, and prepare for Christmas with my 86-year old mom.

I will continue to post blogs now and then for the next week until I'm back to the normal Monday/Wed/Thurs schedule.



Happy holidays to all of you and hopes for a great 2010.



 

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Risk & the results

Which would you rather have; warm weather and snow or extreme cold and sunshine?

56% of Winnipegers voted for warm and 43% voted for cold. I should point out that warm referred to maybe -5.


I continue my long journey to fund Travel Day literally as I travel from Los Angeles to Calgary and now to Winnipeg, known for a major downtown intersection  of two streets,  Portage and Main, the stuff of legends. In the 30's and 40's and possibly even later, the policemen wore buffalo coats to ward off the bone-chilling temperatures, often around 30 below.

I travel in my dad's last car, a Mercury Sable, sister to the Taurus. And as I drive the long ribbons of highway that cross the great Canadian prairies, something curious comes to mind.

Risk.


You see, the Sable is 14 years old and while that's not much in California, it is hell on a car in Manitoba. Between the salt they pour on the streets to melt ice and the Arctic temperatures, a car gets old quick. In fact, the weather is hell on everything.

I've learned the Sable has it's share of wounds, repairs and aging metal. It has several eccentricities including: 
  • The engine light comes on now and then and you ignore it.
  • Sometimes it won't start, you have to jiggle the key just right.
  • It has lost it's ABS brake ability.
  • The speed control works most of the time. Sometimes it doesn't.
  • It's exhaust system is near end of days.
  • Sometimes the door locks won't lock.
  • The gas cap and cover has disappeared so I bought a bright red plastic one to replace it.
  • The radio scans on it's own, and you can't really pick a radio station.

But the tires are good and the heater works. Which brings me back to risk.

Some friends tell me I'm crazy to take a chance driving the Sable across 833 miles of frozen prairie where sometimes, you don't see another car for 30 minutes or more. At night,  with few small towns. My brother's newspaper co-workers considered a pool to see how far I got before the car broke down. I called in every 150 miles and made it without any problems.

I've always taken chances and risks.  Skiing, mountain climbing, working alone in grizzly country and many others. Some worked out, most didn't. But I would do each of them again if given the chance.

And that includes making movies.

Is that something you need to make movies?  Probably not, but it helps. Because sometimes you just don't know what can happen unless you try, regardless of the risk. And producing is about trying.

And risk. You risk your time, you risk your money, your relationships, your credibility and you risk your reputation every time out. And when you need it most, there's likely to be nobody to help you, mostly because they think you were crazy to do it in the first place.

What happens if I don't find the money?

Some people will care, Shirley,  some friends, maybe a few others. And of course, there's the ones that secretly are happy you didn't succeed. 

But you continue to take that risk. 

Because sometimes it works out right.

Even if your friends tell you you're crazy.

After all, you're putting everything on the line to make a movie, of all things. Not a cure for cancer, not even a faster chip for your computer or a new smartphone design.

Just a movie.

But then, someone once said that all we really need are farmers to feed our stomachs and poets to feed our dreams.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Traveling



I've been on the road for the last 4 days, having flown to Calgary Friday, spending the week-end with my brother and readying for the long trip, 833 miles, across the frozen prairies of western Canada in my dad's faithful 95 Sable, which, like my mother, continues to amaze us with it's resilience.

Calgary was hit with -38C the day I arrived, and Edmonton, it's comparable city 150 miles north was declared the coldest spot in the world.

In the world!!


Colder than the Arctic and Antarctic. 

Since weather determines whether you tackle the great Trans Canada Highway or not, I waited an extra day then filled myself with Tim Horton Coffee and headed east. The weather was still -25, but the roads were bare (good) and very few cars (good if nothing happens to the Sable... more on that later).

Along the way, in Regina, I passed the little TV station where I worked as a writer/producer doing commercials for local car dealers and pizza joints and documentaries of the province itself. Made a lot of long-time friends there, and it even spawned a TV series Pilot I wrote last year called "Welcome to Television City" which I hope will get picked up.

Wednesday I meet Dane in Winnipeg to discuss Travel Day and also have some meetings with some old friends who also are interested in one of my other projects. Also squeezed in a few more meetings so it looks like it'll be a good 2 days even if the weather is -30 with windchill.

But the good news is it's dropping to -10 by the week-end.





Friday, December 11, 2009

What do you do when you're waiting? And waiting?



Shirley brought up something the other day that warrants mentioning. What exactly do we do while we wait for answers from the investors, potential investors and everybody else I have contacted who take their time getting back to me.

It's an awkward time as some days, in fact most, I really don't have much to do as there's only so much to do at this stage. My investors are waiting to see who puts first money in, and that seems to be coming from the Canadian side with tax credits discounted at a major Canadian bank.

This is one of the most important lessons I've learned in the film business and it's simply this:

Don't ever count on one thing.

You're always waiting in this business, and the more you need it, the longer it seems to take. You wait for someone to read your screenplay, you wait for the notes, you wait for the contract and you wait for the money.

So what do I do?

For one thing I have at 4 other projects with serious interest. They are:

  • Emperor of Mars which I've told you about often and is with Nomadic Entertainment, a production company in Calgary.
  • Ghosts of Odessa is a submarine action-suspense screenplay optioned by Groundstar Entertainment with David Winning as director.
  • Chaser is another project with Shirley as director and we hope to get this going in 2010. To begin this, we plan to film a 4 minute short to send to potential investors in January.
  • Beacon is a screenplay I wrote and will direct with a former UCLA student who will direct his feature back-to-back with me in an experimental situation whereby we both use the same crew and sets.
 And I still have at least 20 screenplays I wrote that remain on my shelf, unproduced, waiting for someone. 


Sounds like a lot, right? Some writers I know, even experienced ones have one screenplay. And they are totally depending on that one script to make them a career.

It could happen. Maybe.

But the one consistent lesson I learned is to never count on just one thing.  Because sure as hell, your project is going to fall through and there you are... lost and adrift. There's nothing worse than pinning your hopes on that one big thing and then it falls through.

This has happened to me more than I care to remember, probably 75% of the time. I've done 16 movies but have seen at least 50 projects fall through in the last 30 years, probably more. Everything from small no-budget movies to bigger ones and TV series and documentaries. And as my friend Paul Lynch says, I'm in the top 10% of writers who have had projects made. Some get lucky with one movie and then struggle to get another one and never get another shot.

So even as I work on Travel Day, I have a handful of other projects that I show around, like the four I mentioned above and a few others. Shirley just finished a film that she's entering in festivals and has offers to direct other movies, pending the financing. I also have that distributor interested in my Ghostkeeper film, made in 1980 and now somewhat of a European cult film.

I guess if you wait long enough, someone will say something nice about you.

A lot of writers don't have an interest in every element of filmmaking, they're happy with writing the script and taking the money and leave. I started in TV news and went on to work in every aspect of the business and thus often surprise myself at what I know.

And of course at what I don't know.

In spite of what anyone might think, the business hasn't changed that much since it started way back in the 1900's. Kids still come to Hollywood to be stars, dreams are realized and dreams are lost. There hasn't been a year that's gone by when someone hasn't said  "this is the worst year ever".

And while I have several projects turning around in mid-air I realize the difference between writers and everyone else.

They all have to wait to get a job.

I don't. 

Why? Because I can always write a screenplay.  In fact well over 50 if you count the TV pilots and animation and episodic shows.  Everyone else, actors, directors, crew, caterers, teamsters, everyone has to be hired before they can work.

And that's the beauty of writing. Writers can produce a product without anyone else helping, there's no factory, no tools to buy (well, a computer but everyone has that), no licences, no displays.  No employees. Not even travel time to work. It takes me a dozen steps to go to work.

But not all writers are like that.

A lot of them couldn't write a spec screenplay without being hired. Mostly TV writers, but some feature writers also. I was always surprised by this, but alot of them have to wait with the other crew to be hired.

What's the difference?

Motivation. Some writers are motivated more than others. That goes for everyone, not just film people. I'm motivated most of the time,  I get at least 2 or 3 ideas a day, ideas that usually fade by evening. Some of them stick around.

So now I'm being a producer for Travel Day, also have some notes for script changes, and doing a trailer script for Shirley and I to film in early 2010 as mentioned above, and also pitching a few ideas for TV series.

So what's the catch? 

I haven't made a dollar from any of the above.

So I can write, but I might not sell my idea or script. In fact I can almost guarantee I won't sell it. But someone might just get interested. It happened with Travel Day, it can happen with something else.

Today, I'm off to Canada, going to Calgary for a few days to see my brother who's an editor at the newspaper and talk to Nomadic Entertainment about the new possibilities for Emperor of Mars. Then off to Winnipeg to see Dane and the progress he's making on Travel Day.

Then to a small town 300 miles north of Winnipeg where I will spend Christmas.

And maybe good news for New Year's.

(next post from the snow and ice of northern Manitoba)




Wednesday, December 9, 2009

DVDs and why they don't make as much money anymore


Responding to a comment from Shauna, I decided to give a longer answer to her question about whether some movies make money from DVD sales after their theatrical run. It's actually a very controversial subject at the moment with producers, studios and distributors.

DVD sales have slowly been falling for the last couple of years and there have been countless studies as to why this is happening. Experts suggest that the market is simply saturated and that there is so much more entertainment out there in our computers and smart phones and gaming. There's also a strong indication that doesn't surprise me and most likely most of you.

There's not a lot of good movies out there.

That's one of the reasons.

In general, and this number is debatable, the studio who made the movie gets about 40% of theatrical revenues, 30% for video including DVDs and 30% for pay TV and on-line pay-to-view and anything else.

To get an idea of money spent, consider that the average American studio picture costs $50 million. And that's romantic comedies and dramas. When you're talking superheroes and CGI effects, up that to $100 million plus. Word is that Jim Cameron's AVATAR cost upwards of $300 million, undoubtedly the highest budget ever for a movie since TITANIC, interestingly also made by that same Canadian writer/director.

Add to that advertising costs upwards of $30 million for the average studio movie which may have cost about the same. Now you have to earn back $70 million for a $40 million movie. And don't forget that the studio gets only 40% of earnings, I can't even imagine what Avatar's ad budget is going to be since they started a few weeks ago and it opens December 17.

Before 2005 DVD sales accounted easily for half a movie's cost. But today the economy is depressed and the video rental options have really changed everything. And I'm not talking Blockbuster or Hollywood Video. They are dinosaurs soon to be extinct.


I joined Netflix several years ago and never looked back. Netflix is a mail DVD rental house (actually several warehouses through-out the U.S.) whereby you pay a monthly fee anywhere from $9.99 up to $24.99. For $15 I get 3 movies that come by mail within a day or two. I watch the first one, return it in a prepaid envelope, watch the second one, return it and by the time I watch the third one, I get a new one from my queue on their website. I usually have chosen 20 or so DVDs so once one is returned, they simply send me the next in line.

It averages around 96 cents for each movie. 

Compared with $4 at Blockbuster.  Hello? 


Then there's the Redbox.  About the size of a standard refrigerator. And a true David ready to fight Goliath. These vending machines sit in supermarkets near the doors and rent movies for $1. You'd think that would make studios happy.

Well, they're attempting to sue and or block Redbox.

Because Redbox doesn't want to wait for 6 months when the movie has finished it's theater run and then goes for sale first. They want it within 30 days of the release of the movie. They would like to have it after the first week of a theatrical run. And studios are running scared, releasing a movie to DVD while the theatrical version is still in theaters could spell disaster for studios.

Redbox and Netflix are killing the big guys like Best Buy whose DVD shelves are getting smaller every week.

And then there's Blu-ray. I never liked the idea of it, as the quality difference is almost non-existent to the average viewer in spite of the hype. What it has is more space and thus more features like games and other non-related material. There is a confusion between many consumers on this matter, do you buy The Godfather on regular dvd for $9.99 or do you spend $39.99 for it on Blu-ray?

Or do you rent it for $1, watch it and then slip it into the mailbox or into the Redbox at your local supermarket? 

Or do you sit and wait for the next big thing upon which blu-ray and dvds become obsolete? And we already know that, it's streaming right to your TV set from your computer and even now new TV's are being equipped with receivers to tie into your internet.

So that's where we stand.  DVDs do earn money for theatrical movies, but today it's becoming less and less as the system to deliver them continues to change.

And the only thing that'll never change is the idea.

And that's where the writer comes in. And that's me. At least until they find a way to get avatars to write screenplays.

And they'd probably work for less than scale.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Why's it taking so long?

Shirley and I have now been "in development" as they say on Travel Day since June of 2009 so it's been a little over six months since we put out our proposal for financing. We began with a bang, one investor came forward and said that if I could find half the financing he would probably be able to come forward with the second half.

Well, that second half seems to have disappeared as we are very close to the first half, coming from a small investor and the tax credits and equity from a Manitoba producer. I will be going to Manitoba next week to see Dane and discuss the completion of his end, which includes an LOI which is simply put, a letter of intent that he will commit to his side with the inclusion of a Canadian bank's LOI to loan money on the tax credit amount.


While six months seems like a long time, in the world of independent financing, it's barely a start. I had a meeting years ago with Dustin Hoffman's production company and his development exec told me Hoffman had a project to film in Ireland that he had been trying to fund for at least 10 years.

10 years. Dustin Hoffman who is a major star and legend.

And he can't get the money for his movie.


There's a movie out now called Up in The Air with George Clooney. It took writer/director Jason Reitman six years to get it made. And he has a famous dad, Ivan Reitman who did Ghostbusters among other films.

There are hundreds of stories like this; some projects linger for years before they are "discovered" by someone who will finance them. My own screenplay Emperor of Mars which I wrote in 1989 was optioned to be made at least 6 times as far as I can remember and as of last Wednesday, is still in the running to get made in summer of 2010 with me directing.

If the producers find the money. It's their third shot at it, having failed to get the money in 2008 and 2009.

Why does it take so long?

First of all let's define indie movies. In short, it's a movie that is made without studio financing. No Warner Bros, No Paramount or Universal, etc. There's only a guy looking for money from distributors or financiers or shopping mall owners or dentists, thus "independent" shortened to "indie". And why does it take so long? There are a hundred reasons, maybe more but mostly it has to do with the film being a "difficult sell".

What does that mean?


It means it doesn't have huge special effects,  or superheroes or Will Smith. Smith is arguably the biggest consistent box office star in the world. His movies never lose money.  Never. I  like his movies too. But even he can't be in every movie made although many studio executives look at any script and say "is there a part for Will Smith in this?"

Now the irony here is that the obvious answer is no. But studio executives these days somehow believe Will can be in every movie. And it's also a great excuse to say no to a project and save their job. If Will can't make it, then it won't make money and they won't have to explain to their bosses why their last $100 million movie flopped.

For Example:

  • Eddie Murphy's "IMAGINE THAT" cost $55 million and made $16 million.
  • Adam Sandler's "FUNNY PEOPLE" cost $75 million and made $52 million.
  • Land of the Lost cost over $100 million and made $48 million

Add in $20-40 million for prints and ads and the loss is even greater.

Another ironic factor that occurs in many indie films that take so long to get made is that they end up being very good movies that make a lot of money and win awards, even the big gold statue itself. How many times have you heard some actor or director winning an award and saying how many years it too to get made. Let me answer; very often.

Juno was turned down by studios and had financing problems until finally getting financed over a period of a few years and went on to make $100 million dollars, all on a budget of around $6 million and filmed in Canada.

Little Miss Sunshine was looking for money for 5 years before they found it. And of course, every studio turned it down.

And for what reasons? Well, no special effects or big stars or a remake. Studios today are terrified, and I repeat TERRIFIED of movies like the ones I just mentioned. And it's because they are character-driven stories and one can argue that since studio execs have no character, it's easy to see why they won't finance it.

When one or two men ran studios, guys like Warner and Fox and Cohen and the others, it was easier to get a good movie made. They went by their gut rather than research. Look at 1939 and tell me how many of these movies would never get made today:


They include Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Mice and Men, The Women, Beau Geste, Dark Victory, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Drums Along the Mohawk, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Ninotchka, Love Affair and Young Mr. Lincoln.

All released in 1939. And there were at least 200 more movies made in the same year!

Can you name that many great movies in 2009? Classic movies.

I can't.

Studios now are competing like hell for viewers and they are afraid to take chances on anything that doesn't lower itself to the lowest common denominator. More people buy Big Macs than gourmet burgers. That's why the studios are always on the look for a "franchise" which means a movie that can have sequels. X-Men, Batman, Spiderman, Pirates of the Carribbean.  You notice something there?

BIG. Big means big money.

Unless you make an indie film for $15,000 (yes 15 thousand dollars) called Paranormal Activity and has made to date over $100 million. And Paramount bought it 2 years ago and KEPT IT ON THE SHELF because they wanted to make a big Hollywood remake first. But finally someone noticed that college students liked it and finally when they made it, it made a fortune.

Why would anyone want to tackle this system and try to make a movie. All I can say is that there's nothing else I can do and nothing else I want to do, hell, even someone beat me to the moon. 

It all comes out to screenwriter William Goldman's famous saying about the entire movie industry. 

Nobody knows anything.


Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Good, the Bad and the simply Annoying

Lots of new stuff, and as in the title above, "interesting" as some would say. Welcome to the ever-changing world of movie-making.

First the bad, very little interest from distributors at AFM, I was expecting more and it still isn't over, as I've heard from only 2 distribs. Secondly, one of my champions is leaving her company. This was Rachel, the development executive at Eh Channel.She was responsible for my getting attention in Manitoba and now her cable channel is downsizing dramatically in order to survive and thus closing several of their national offices.

But the good part about that is that Rach is smart and wise and will continue to be a driving force. There might even be a chance for her and I to work together on a future project.

Now the good, but not particularly Travel Day in mind. I received a call from my Alberta producers who have had Emperor of Mars, my "big screenplay" for two years and they think there is a strong chance they will be able to fund it with me directing in summer of 2010. In addition there are some new sources interested in working with me in the forseeable future.

So where's TD right now?

We are considering getting some cast names, the ones I mentioned a few posts ago, Sarandon, Bisset, Deneuve, Dunaway and a few more. A lot of you mentioned Helen Mirren and she would be great but she has at least 4 movies coming up and I don't think she would even have time to read our script, even if we could get it to her.

The politics of this business are odd to most people; reflecting money, ego and expectations. As I've mentioned before, the normal way to get actors is to call their agents. But it's not the best way because agents are only interested in one thing: 10%. And the great thing is, they're not really ashamed of it and I guess I respect that part, they are honest in their intention. And of course, not all agents are like that, most are, but there are some real respected agents who deal more honestly and are often more successful for being that way. I was lucky to have one of them, of whom I mention often, Frank Balkin at Paradigm.


There's a joke that goes around about agents; a writer returns to his home to find his house burned down. Police stand outside as he's horrified and asks what happened. Police say his wife was attacked, kids kidnapped, dog killed, house burned down and... his agent called.

Writer listens quietly and the turns to cops and says,  "My agent called?"

So when you call an agent, the first thing he thinks of, and probably the only thing is: How much do I make out of this deal? Which means he asks for top dollar. Take into consideration this; one of our suggested actress's agent was asking for $300,000 for 4 weeks of work.

Yet I found out through my moles that she recently worked on a TV series for scale, around $858 a day or around a flat of $2000 wk. And for our budget of under $2 million, scale is around $1800 wk. These are basic figures, but you get the idea. Her rate for us should be around $8000 for 4 wks rather than $300,000.

Why should this matter?

Because actors normally get the same or more based on the last job they had. And since her last job netted her around $2600 for 3 days, it would seem that was her last job and payment should reflect that.

It all depends on how much you want that actor. And how long the agent will hold out. I had an agent once who was asking $500,000 for a screenplay of mine, and the company was offering scale, around $70,000. I was happy with the smaller fee as I knew the company simply could not pay that much. But my agent said he was insulted and wouldn't compromise and I lost the deal.

When you hear big name actors saying they "worked for nothing", that's not really true. SAG won't allow them to work for nothing. What they mean is minimum scale which again is around $2200 wk. Which is nothing for million-dollar actors.

So that's where we stand with actors right now. The best way is to get the script to the actor through subversive means; finding someone who knows them, throwing the script onto their lawn (believe me, this happens more than you think), or any other way.

I have my work cut out for me. And Christmas is coming up and you know that around December 15th, Hollywood shuts down.



Monday, November 30, 2009

Running out of time

December puts me into panic-mode. It's probably the end of year thing, there's a finality to it. We haven't found all the money that we need and the year is rushing towards the finish line. Well, not really, we decided a few months ago that February-March would be much more realistic and given that it's a winter shoot, I'm not worried that the Manitoba winter will suddenly turn into San Diego weather. We could probably shoot winter well into April.

But there is a stronger sense of urgency, compounded by the beginning of a new year. In a way, it has the potential of a new beginning and investors are likely to look at our project with fresh eyes.Then there's Dane, the Manitoba partner who's bringing in the tax credits and some equity. I will be traveling to Winnipeg December 11 to meet with him as well as Rachel, the Eh Channel executive and some other companies as well.

The trip also allows me to visit my 86-year old mother who lives in the town I was born in many decades ago. It will be a white Christmas most certainly for me, and a rush of nostalgia from my childhood which continues to inspire and motivate me, nearly 2000 miles away in California.

They say that the person you are at seven is the person you become. At seven, I was going to movies with my parents as often as I could. Not that there was much of a choice, we had one movie theater in town, a rebuilt church hall. By 8 I was going alone. So I am the person I was at seven and I think that's a good thing.

But what about Travel Day?


While it was Black Friday for America last week, the whole week was pretty bleak for me. The Thanksgiving holiday really started the week-end before and it was pretty much impossible to talk to anyone about our movie. Even the Europeans I had pitched didn't reply and, apart from friends, I had literally no contact with the movie industry.

Christmas is the same, it begins here around December 15 and doesn't start up until the 2nd week of January.

This week I have a few calls to make and at least one meeting and possibly more. The major event of the month will be my meeting with Dane in Winnipeg as this is where we  outline our separate entities, meaning what each of us brings to the table. The contradiction there is that Dane will bring the tax credits and a letter from a bank that indicates they will be able to advance us a loan of perhaps 90% of around $300,000 of tax credits on Manitoba labor. This money is in effect, first in, as they say.

By doing this, other investors get a stronger sense of security in Travel Day. Investors notoriously dislike being the first one in and this money even comes from a major bank so it's even more solid than the investors themselves.

My duty is to offer what I can in the way of confidence by having several elements in place at roughly the same time, these being;

  • A "star" name actor
  • At least half my side of the budget (around $200k)
  • Names of several of key creative crew (DP, Editor)
  • Distributor Interest

All of these will help, but the name actor and distributor are the hardest to get. I have my work cut out. It's times like this I wonder why the hell am I even trying, now being 8 months without any pay whatsover, spending my money and time, and Shirley offering her expertise in graphics, art, conversation and just being there.

But then, what else is there to do?


After all, I missed Stoogefest this week-end, I've attended for the last 5 years and this time didn't have the time to do my annual 3 Stooges festival with my friends. It's times like these I take comfort in a pie in the face or a poke in the eye.


Don't try this at home and wish me luck.








Friday, November 27, 2009

Writers & Actors who break the rules.

As expected, this week is a complete loss in terms of contacting anyone. Thursday, the LA freeways were empty, like a movie about the end of the world. My dinner for friends worked well, turkey, drink, football, obligatory naps, more turkey and that was it. Since there's nothing really to report on Travel Day, I thought I'd let you in on an industry secret. Not really a secret but something few people know about.


I'll start with a story about Jon Voight, the actor made famous in Midnight Cowboy with Dustin Hoffman.  A few years ago, Voight was asked by a friend to be in his low budget movie. So low that it was non-union. Voight belongs to the Screen Actor's Guild, known as SAG. As with all unions, including my own WGA and WGC (Canada) they're pretty tough on producers with good reason.

Actors and writers regularly get screwed. 

Back to Voight. He agreed to be in his friends movie as a favor. However, when SAG found out they went wild. They told Voight he could not do it, or they would kick him out of the union. This wasn't some new actor or some unknown actor, it was an Academy-nominated famous actor. But SAG was not bending.  Now, you have an Oscar winner and about 40 other nominations who has been told he cannot help his friend. It left Voight with one choice.

Financial Core.

Financial Core is a little-known and infrequently used and what it does is allow a union member, any union, SAG or UAW or United Steelworkers, any union, to take a non-union job and still retain his union status to a point.

It's a very odd law that was started by an individual in a union in the mid-west who protested against his union deductions going to support a political candidate he didn't support. Basically he wanted his share of the money going back to him and whichever candidate he wanted to donate to. In short, as long as he pays his dues and fees, he is allowed to stay in the union without having all the rules apply to him.

How did actors and writers get into it?

Somehow, it translates to SAG, WGA and even DGA in that the member who chooses Financial Core can work on non-union productions and still retain his/her membership in that guild. But they lose the right to vote and the monthly magazine and the wrath of other members who can shun him. They can't vote nor go to the parties and miss out on other neat stuff.

But they remain in the union nontheless.

And the guilds hate it. As a matter of fact, they won't even talk about it and sometimes deny it exists. And it's not just about the person who chooses to go "core". If one does it, others will do it and the union will lose money they collect from the producer and actor.


Back to John Voight. He did go Financial Core and did start his friend's movie, but it was closed down after union protesters shut it down. All was relatively quiet until 2005, when Voight was nominated for Best Actor in a TV movie by SAG voters.

But that's not the best part.

SAG refused to allow him to go to the ceremonies. This wasn't the Academy Awards, just the SAG membership who vote for whom they think had exceptional performances that year for movies and TV. And Voight wasn't allowed in. And just because he had won an Oscar and had been nominated four other times as well as a few dozen other awards, they were going to show him that he would be sorry.

No tux, no limo, no meeting his peers at the ceremony. And no after awards dinner either.


The same applies to the WGA, during the strike some writers continued to work under the table while others chose Financial Core. It's hard to pay your bills sometimes and since WGA would not even consider any breaks. After the strike, the union leaders wanted revenge on those who either lied or went core, but very little came of it except for hard feelings.

Were the writers wrong, should they be punished? It's a tough decision, and you need to realize that the writers themselves have conflicts as well. There are roughly 8000 members of WGA, and of these there are less than 2000 who are working, although it's almost impossible to get the guild administration to give an accurate number.

That's an unemployment rate of 80%. The U.S. rate of unemployment is 10% (although realistically it's more like 15-20%). The guild has writers who make $2-4 million a year and the majority wait for residual checks while earning nothing.

I know unions very well, having grown up in Windsor, Ontario, across from Motor City itself. I worked on the line at Chrysler and later covered the UAW beat both in Windsor and Detroit. I also belonged to a television union, NABET. Unions are essential, otherwise the owners would completely take advantage of employees. Can you say Walmart?

To it's credit, WGA has a low budget deal in which the writer is paid a small amount of the minimum scale rate and then, when the film is sold, the writer gets full payment.  The minimum scale is around $42,000 for a budget under $2 million and it has to be guild sanctioned. Non-union work is a no-no.

What happens if you do a non-union job?

You can get thrown out of the guild, you can get fined the full amount you earned or you can get slapped on the wrist and told not to do that.

Read Voight's letter at:

http://www.pirromount.com/voight.html

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving, the lost week & Ghostkeeper


Well, forget any business this week, it's only one day till Thanksgiving and you can't get anyone even on a twitter as Americans race to the supermarkets and shopping malls for deals. The day after Thanksgiving is known as "Black Friday", in which the retail businesses throw out every discount and sale they can think of. It's known as the biggest shopping day of the year. And it's also the premonition of Christmas sales. Needless to say the last few years were dismal but it's expected this year will actually go up by 16%.


So nothing is really going to happen this week for Travel Day except that I contacted a few producers who might be able to bring some needed investors. The only bright spot was a British distributor who wants to re-issue my Ghostkeeper movie in Great Britain as well as a potential sale to Netflix, the rental-by-mail DVD giant. The movie is nearly 30 years old and somehow has gotten a cult following up to the extent that a British web reviewer called me on the phone to interview me about the 29-year old movie.

It just goes to show that it's really true that if you wait long enough, someone will say something nice about you.


But my head isn't spinning too much, frankly it's not that great of a movie, we had budget problems and couldn't shoot the second half as I had written and it barely got finished. I had a great DP, John Holbrook and a legendary editor Stan Cole, both of whom made magic with it somehow.  Here's the good reviews:

  • Ghostkeeper is a pretty creepy and atmospheric horror film which will keep you guessing until the end. The acting is solid and the atmosphere of fear and total isolation is well-captured.
  • Ghostkeeper is one of those unknown horror gems that are hard to come by, but rewarding when discovered.
  • There's a very odd eeriness here that keeps it worthwhile and better production values than most other films of it's calibre makes it a film I recommend to true horror films.
  • An underrated horror gem and one of the better early 80's horrors.
  • A remarkably eerie and very atmospheric horror film... a pretty top notch 80's horror flick. 

Well, those reviews made me feel almost ready for a Manhattan on the rocks. But I'm not accepting the award yet... 

  •  "The Shining" for dummies. 
  • Ghostkeeper is not as good as others would have you believe. 
  • I simply don't know what this movie is about because there is hardly any story in this film, even at the very end you don't have a single clue to what was going on. 
  • Dull, derivative and unmemorable.

Well, you can't win everyone.

You can read these and more on www.imdb.com  and just enter Ghostkeeper in the Search box and scroll down.

Given that most of these people saw a badly aged video with poor color and, to my taste,  barely watchable. I figured the least I could do is give them a decent copy of the movie, even to the ones who steal it. More on this as it happens.

So to my American relative and friends, have a safe and happy Thanksgiving, I plan to indulge in as much food as I possibly can with my friends with a promised warm 82F day.



Monday, November 23, 2009

What a producer needs to know.

Years ago, a real estate salesman met me at a party and asked me this; what does it take to be a movie producer? Turns out he had always wanted to be a producer but didn't quite know how to go about it as he lived in a small eastern city. My answer was simple. It's easy.

Find me $2 million dollars and you automatically become a producer.

He laughed and said it couldn't be that easy. But I wasn't joking. All you really need to know to become a producer, is how to find money. Everything else you need to know you'll find out soon enough as the money comes in... or it doesn't. 

There's contracts, and budgets and schedules and casting sessions, but all of that can be learned as you go, really. A producer's prime talent is the ability to raise money and that means someone who could sell swampland to anyone. You need to be able to convince people to give you money. 


Does that sound too much like a used car salesman? Or a new car salesman?

Sure does. And yes, there are a lot of those kinds of producers around. Not as much as there used to be, but enough. Because you have to sell a product that hasn't been made yet. It's like you paying for a house that hasn't been built or a car that has only been designed on paper. And the worst part of a movie is that it might turn out bad. And you lose all your money. At least a house being built will still be a house when it's done, flaws and all. But a bad movie goes to bad movie heaven and is never seen again.


I've had my share of those kind of producers, some raised money for me, some didn't. One quality many of them had was that they were charmers.  But that doesn't necessarily mean they're the only ones. 

There's another kind of producer, someone like me. We aren't especially charmers and we hate asking for money because we're way too honest to say that our movie will be the greatest ever. These are the passionate ones. That's a word I don't always like to use because it's become a common term for producers to use. And it has become a cliche you hear on late-night talk shows. 

What it really means is that we care. We care about our story, about our cast, our crew, and especially about our investors. And that gives us a slight disadvantage over the used car salesmen. We are brutally honest. And in spite of that we still get movies made.


Some years ago, an accountant approached me and proudly stated he had taken a career test that determined what kind of job he should have. It cost $300 for him to find out that he was qualified to be a movie producer. Now he was waiting for someone to hire him. 

Hire him? 

I told him he's hired. Now go find me $2 million. 

He didn't understand, where was his huge salary and the girls and the private jet? I suggested if he find me the $2 million, I would give him a rental car for 6 months. Subcompact. Needless to say, I explained what a producer's job is, that he finds the money, not me.  He wasn't so sure about that, he'd never asked anyone for money, he assumed it just came from somewhere.


He then asked me if I'd ever taken a career test to find out what I was qualified for. I replied that the last thing I wanted to know was the job I was qualified for.  Most likely a Walmart greeter.


So you see, it's not really hard to be a producer. Sure, I joke about it, but it really is that simple. If you can sell a newspaper subscription to a mall shopper then you can find money for a movie. You can start with your own bank account, then go to your friends, your neighbors and then strangers and in a few weeks have enough to make a movie. Granted, it'll probably be a small movie. 

Like Paranormal Activities. Made for $15,000 and it has now grossed over $100 million. After watching it, I wondered where he spend the money on; it's essentially 2 actors in the director's house for nearly 2 hours. Must have had great catering.

And one more thing you need if you're the used car salesman type or the passionate type. 


Determination.

You never give up. Never.