Wednesday, September 30, 2009


I continue to email the handful of possible producers and I made another call that could be interesting.  My attorney early on had said that I should investigate the Canadian angle, finding a producer in Canada who could access the tax credits.

But before I did that, I had called a friend of mine, a screenwriter who suddenly was offered a job as a development executive for a Canadian pay channel, much like Showtime.  We had known each other for around 8 years and I respected her ability to survive in a writer's world.  When she asked me what I was up to, I said Travel Day.  She asked to read it so I emailed it to her.
Now, to distribution.  One major element of putting together a film is the distributor. I've been holding off on this for awhile because getting a distributor is,  in some ways, essential, and in other ways impossible.  There's an old saying in Hollywood, you don't look for a distributor who won't screw you, you look for the one who will screw you the least. 

My first adventures with the species was on Ghostkeeper, we had a foreign sales agent, Alex Massis of ICM,  International Cinema Marketing, whom my producer found somewhere.  He was a New York sales agent and my distributor for Ghostkeeper, that little suspense thriller I made in 1980.  Alex was a typical fast-talking  salesman who took our film to Europe and made sales to New World in the US. 

It had "brisk" sales as they like to say and Alex took his 35% and of course, "expenses".  The problem with expenses is that you never really know the truth, did he claim expenses against my film and possibly not even show it to some buyers.  All I had was his word.  And there were other expenses as well, some legitimate and some not.  By the time the net sales came back to me, I was getting about 40% of the gross. Which went right to the investors, rightfully so. In the end I made a little less than $10,000.

For everything. 

Writing, directing and owning the company, Badland Pictures.  But like a lot of writers I really didn't care as long as it sold and made money for the investors, because that meant I could make another film.  Okay, I was young and idealistic.

The question here is why didn't I have a distributor in place before?  Ghostkeeper came about quickly during the tax shelter days and we had the money in place within a month and rushed into production.  Halfway through, the money began to run out due to some questionable practices by the hired producer and I had a choice, shut down the movie or speed up and compromise the action scenes we had. 

There was only one choice, we move on.  

Basically I could not film the scenes that I had written,   so with John Holbrook, my DP,  we went on set every morning and asked what we  had in the way of actors and sets that day and figured out something that we could film.  We filmed the entire movie in a closed-down hotel so at least we didn't have to make big moves. The crew stuck with me and we finished it and my editor Stan Cole, performed miracles with the footage.  Stan edited A Christmas Story, that classic comedy that plays on Turner for 24 hours during Christmas. 

Afterwards, I was talked into using Massis by my producer and we had to make a quick decision as AFM (American Film Market, held in L.A) was happening and we had to get the feature there.  Distribution is tricky, few distributors would have given us a deal as I was a first-time director and we had no real stars. 

And any deal would probably have been worse that the one from Massis.  At least his overhead, a small office in NYC with one secretary, would be less expensive than a distributor like MGM (who considered it for a moment) and the others.  Their bite would have been much bigger.  The thing is, the less known you are, the less a distributor would give you.  Sort of like when Colonel Tom Parker signed Elvis. 

And today, it's even worse, as star-driven movies don't get distributors.  The most paid at Toronto was around $2.5 million and there were very few sales. Sandra Bullock's last movie, All About Steve was sitting on the shelf unreleased until her previous movie, The Proposal, made a respectable debut, so the earlier movie was immediately thrown into the ring. 

Ultimately this is the conundrum;  First, there is little chance of getting a distributor even if you have a star in it as stars aren't worth the value they used to be.  Second, if you do get a distrib, the deal will probably be as much to their advantage as possible.  (Note: I have a film contract software in which you can write a distrib contract to your advantage, or to the distrib's advantage). 

Or do you want to risk no distributor until the film is made where, if it's good, you can make a better deal.  And often a better deal is maybe $10,000 rather than $1500.  I've seen those deals.  The days of high price acquisitions have faded.

Then there's the presale. 

This is a whole other animal and unfortunately not as big as it used to be.  You could get hundreds of thousands of dollars in foreign presales of your movie and use that to make up the budget. 

But a glut of films and poor sales makes it a lot harder to get now, and not that much if you do.  For these you have to have recognizable actors and very often, the buyers get to pick the star from a list.  So you may not get the actor you want, but you get the money desperately needed to make the movie.  Sometimes you can get your way, sometimes not.  It depends on how much you want to make the movie.  

To date, we haven't spoken to distributors but have been in contact with Hank (see finding money Pt 2)  who actually still does presales to a few European countries.  I kept thinking that there just might be something there, I just needed something more in our package than what we have now.  Nothing new has been added to the snowball and it seems to be slowing down.

All of which isn't where I want it to be, considering that AFM is coming up,  where every distributor in the world will be hawking their product in Santa Monica hoping to uplift their weakening market.  It's a mix of American movies and international films, many of the high concept suspense/horror/action genre with actors you've never heard of, or actors you haven't heard from for years.  And every other movie has Michael Madsen in it.

And I will be dragged kicking and screaming by my friend who insists I have to be there to see what the market is like and if there's a slot for Travel Day. 

We need one more thing for Travel Day to make it prettier.

NOTE: Click on Deadline  shown in My Blog List on left side of posts.  A great speech you should read from Bill Mechanic.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Slow day

Nothing happening today. No calls and it's overcast.

As of 5pm PST, these are my accomplishments today:

  • 12:00pm Had bowl of chili with Shirley at Chili John's. Her first time, she had vegetarian.
  • 02:00     No calls.
  • 02:00     Cleaned living room windows.  
  • 03:00      Mailed letter to WGA.
  • 03:30     Had passionfruit ice tea at Starbucks even though there's too many people there who look like me. 
  • 04:00     Went to Goodwill store up the street in Sherman Oaks and scored a designer shirt for $2.99. 
  • 04:30    No calls.
  • 04:30    Looked at my Mac where I have a documentary I'm supposed to edit and decided I wasn't in the creative mood today. 
  • 05.00   Time to relax and watch political talk shows till dinner. Not sure what I want for dinner either.
  • 05:11   No calls or emails

    Monday, September 28, 2009

    Where do you find the money Pt 2

    First, it's fairly important that you have read Part 1 of this post on 9/25/09. It will make this post a little easier to understand.  This is where I get into exactly what I do every day except for week-ends where I reward myself with doing nothing more than hanging around and riding 12 miles on my mountain bike with friends at Venice Beach.

    Rewarding yourself is very important to a freelancer, even if it's a bowl of chili at Chili John's in Burbank with a couple of my friends, we've been going there for almost 18 years.  Animators hang out there also and a few actors.

    A little story; when I was in high school, I told my guidance counselor I wanted to make movies.  He smiled and said "that's nice, but movies are for special people".  Meaning it was not me.  And I now looked forward to a job working in an office cubicle somewhere. But I lucked into a job at the local TV station and from there was introduced to the world of show business and realized that Hollywood was not for "special people".

    It was there for anyone who wanted it.  And I wanted it.  And there might be some of you who want the same thing.  And maybe this blog will help.  Because you can make it if you really want in the words of Jimmy Cliff.

    Having said that you might be saying, sure Jim, but you have one big advantage. Namely 20 years of contacts in Los Angeles and 10 in Canada.  Lots of contacts, Right?

    So it's gotta be easier for you then.

    I haven't had a screenplay made in nearly 5 years. 

    I might as well be dead.  

    Some probably think I am dead, if they remember me at all.  People in this town forget you faster than who won the Oscars last year.  The rule is you get 3 years in this town once you get a movie made.  I got 15 years so I'm not mad.  After all my mom almost died twice this spring, but she came back.  So, keeping with the times, this is my "reinvention",  this is my return to what I should be doing.  I might even get a life coach.

     Unless they don't want me back.  No, that's Lindsay Lohan.

    After finishing the proposal with Shirley, I developed my "pitch". I never liked that word, probably because I am the worst pitcher in history.  But my pitch was this; 
    1. I had a good screenplay. My basis of this was that 10 people read it and 8 liked it. 
    2. I had two Academy nominated actresses who would play the part. Notice whenever I say anything about actors I use "Academy nominated..".  People listen closer.
    3. I had a very talented director and I'm a guy who rarely uses that word. I think I used it four times in my whole life.
    4. I had a complete detailed budget down to the muffins.  Since I know how to use movie budgeting software, this didn't cost me anything but time.  It can cost up to$1200 unless you know someone who has the software.
    5. I had the proposal that Shirley helped me with.
    Based on these 5 points, I could tell people exactly what the film was about, who would be in it (for now anyways, it can change later), who would direct, how much it would cost and finally a proposal to explain every aspect of the production from this moment to completion and sales.  After a few days, I began getting responses, mostly negative.  Some never answered at all.  Others asked to look at the proposal.  I also had a few meetings, but mostly phone calls. They all broke down into these types:

    • Some liked it right away, couldn't wait to read the proposal and the script. Translation: Don't count on them, too much enthusiasm will lead to the opposite, disappointment. 
    • Some just said to send the proposal. Translation:  These are the "maybees", they could be interested, but not going to show too much enthusiasm.
    • Some said they'd look at it and if they couldn't help, could refer me to others.  Translation: These have excellent potential.  
    • Some were just looking to correct me and tell me what is wrong with my presentation. Translation: Don't bother with them or as Donald Sutherland says in Kelly's Heroes, "always with the negative waves".  
    Most of my day is spent waiting for answers, and that's why I post other aspects of the development process.  As of now, we still have the preliminary commitment of half the budget but with no real progress on that hard-to-get second half.  And I don't count the money until it's in the bank.  A few small amounts have been offered and I keep them informed but other than that it's a waiting game.  

    As I wait I come up with ideas, some of them wacky, but some of them good; like this blog. One of my ideas involved Craigslist, which if there are any of you who don't know what that is, it's a world-wide want-ad list for everything that has virtually destroyed newspaper classified ads.   I took some time to write an ad to post, it had to be simple, to the point and serious. Here's the ad:

    Producer Partner Wanted
    Established WGA writer/director and co-producer with 16 movie credits and 30 hours of episodic looking to partner with producer capable of funding/co-funding up to 4 feature lenght screenplays of mine. All have received excellent reviews from real industry people and my reputation is solid.

    I have had several attempts with indie producers who were almost there then messed up the deals. I know it's harder than ever out there, but movies are still being made regardless of the naysayers. I'd like to partner with someone who's ready for the passion, the rejection and the reality that these projects will make some money but will likely not get you beachfront in Malibu. 

    Who are you?  Age is no obstacle, you may have made a $40 million movie or a $40,000 or you've never made a movie - but you have the discipline and drive to help bring funding in for budgets from half a million to $5 million.  Besides being known for character-driven stories, I bring in considerable experience in creating proposals, budgets and schedules. I have some of my own investors as well as potential Canadian tax credits where applicable and access to gap/supergap financing.  Projects are family, action and drama.

    It cost $25 to post this, and I put my ad up on Monday, figuring it to be the most obvious way to start.  Within hours, I began to get answers.  By the end of the week I had almost 50 people replying to my ad. 

    Where they all real? 

    Replies continued into the next week as well. After sorting through them and replying to each one individually ( I always believe that individual attention is worth the effort, even in rejection), I came out with about 8 who seemed serious.  There were a lot of crew people just looking for work and one particularly beautiful Latina actress who apologized for applying but just wanted to anyway.  In hindsight I should not have opened it up to people with no experience, as I got at least 25% of replies with them.  And they really didn't have experience.

    There was also a film editor interested in working on it. He was also an angel. A few weeks ago he introduced me to a man I'll call Hank, whom he worked for, figured we'd get on well. Turns out we did, and while Hank was involved in several movies about the same budget and the same size. This is why people who can refer you can come out of thin air sometimes and you need to recognize them. That's why I'm always nice to everyone. 

    To date, some of the producers I chose to meet with are still interested,  one is very interested in terms of sitting down and seeing if we can work out a deal, another is waiting for responses from his people.  Still a long ways to go, but each one of these are actually making films, not hoping to. 

    So days go by, weeks go by and fall has come to Southern California in spite of 106F temperatures.  Since our film is a winter shoot, we have a bit of leverage in the time frame, which could extend into early 2010.  And I am pushing a little harder now and don't want to lose the momentum.  A project can overstay it's welcome if nothing new happens.  We need to add something to the mix, an actor, even a DP or an editor.  

    Something to show them that the snowball continues to roll down the mountain, getting bigger all the time. 

    I have a few ideas...

    (Next: Distributors and some new angles)

    Friday, September 25, 2009

    Where do you find money?

    One of the questions asked most, is "where do you look for money?". 

    The easiest answer is "find someone who has lots".

    The harder answer is to look everywhere you possibly can. 

    This post is probably the most frustrating and yet necessary topic.  Finding money.  It's so tough that it will spill over into two posts as it's pretty much how anyone can find money for their movie. When I say anyone, I mean anyone who's determined to spend weeks and months doing this, compiling lists, emailing dozens of people (I am ever so thankful for email and cut/paste which makes this job so much easier than calling by phone or writing individual letters. 

    While I use mostly real names in my posts, probably 95% are actual names, I won't do it when it comes to my investors as I respect their privacy as would you.  But I will tell you what they are, and what they do, because that is not really anything new.  They can be the people next door, or relatives, or the local guy who owns 2 Subway franchises, or your accountant. 

    All of them could surprise you when you say you're looking for money for a movie.  Our movie is budgeted at $902,000 and generally these types of investors tend to be more uncommon in that many are from outside the film industry.  But they are there, regardless.

    I start with 10 questions;
    1. Who has money they want to invest?
    2. Who wants to invest in a movie?
    3.  Who do I know that has money?
    4.  Who do I know who can refer me to somebody who has money?
    5.  Who else has money they want to invest... into a movie?
    6. How can I get to them?
    7.  Can they refer me to their friends who have money?
    8.  What tax credits and incentives are available.
    9.  What do I need to get people to want to give me money?
    10. At what point do I start sounding like a maniac?
    Now let's look at each of these a little closer.

    Who has money to invest? Well, people who have a lot of it. You're saying, yeah, but I don't know a lot of rich people.  

    The easiest money to get, of course, is family money.  Many of the indie films made for less than $2 million are funded by mom and dad and uncle and grandfather.  Yes, $2 million movies have been funded by family. Not my family, that's for sure.  My mom offered $500 but I couldn't take it. 

    Then there's private investors, usually businessmen, like accountants, lawyers, dentists, doctors, restaurant owners, shopping mall magnates, car dealers,  churches, political groups,  oilmen and women, and just about anybody else.  One woman read every magazine she could find where there were stories of successful women. Then she wrote to each one of them, more than a hundred or so.  And she found $600,000 to make her movie.

    Now even I wouldn't have thought of that.  And don't laugh, all of the people I mention above have invested in movies. 

    But why?

    This is where it gets interesting.  Financing a movie outside the studio system is harder then hell, but at the same time, is a lot easier in some ways.  Mainly that these investors pretty much let you do what you want with the artistic side of the movie. You even get the much obsessed "final cut".  In fact you probably will get to edit your movie how you see it.  Because they don't really know how to edit films and also they have given you their trust and faith in that you will make the movie you pitched to them.

    That still doesn't answer the question why they would invest in your movie - or mine.  When I made my little horror film Ghostkeeper in 1980, I had 6 investors, mostly oilmen and all individuals whose abilities to make money were outstanding. They each wrote a check for around $100,000, giving us about $650,000 in 1980 money (maybe about $1.2 mil today). And the checks were just like mine, pictures of bears or mountains or lakes on them. 

    Okay, the big deal here is that they had a 100% tax shelter credit, meaning that they could write it off their taxes.  But there were better investments and besides, if the movie made money, they still had to pay taxes on that.  So why did they invest?

    Because they wanted to be part of a movie. 

    They could tell their friends they had put money into a movie.  In fact, one of them even joined the crew and drove vehicles,  shoveled snow and played poker.  And he was a millionaire.  There is something there that I never quite understood, maybe it's as simple as being part of a movie, "like those Hollywood guys" one told me.  

    I even told them that most movies never make money, that their chance of making money was remote at best. They didn't care, this was a movie, and it would always be around. Movies stay forever, you still see movies from 1910 on TV.  And I'm not being hard on them, or certainly not mocking them.  They know perfectly well that's why they invest in movies. And they're happy with it. And Ghostkeeper made money in spite of bad reviews.  But recently 3 reviews have shown up on IMDB, regarding it as "a lost gem". 

    See. If you wait long enough, someone will say something nice about you.

    There's other kinds of investors as well.

    These are the professional investors, these include bankers, stock brokers and investment counselors.  Hedge funds were a boon to the movie industry and hundreds of features, even big ones with budgets of $50-100 million were done with hedge money.  Mostly it was a bunch of clever producers who made dozens of $5-10 million dollar movies with big stars like Kevin Costner, Kurt Russell, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino and many others.  

    Why would they make a $10 million movie when that was usually their salary on bigger ones?  Because they would take a few million, the money guys would take their share and there would be maybe $5 million left to make the movie.  The screenplays were usually action movies which sold well in the rest of the world and the producers presold them on the big names.  In fact many of those movies bombed in the US, but made profits overseas.

    Bankers of course are the hardest, unless its for derivatives,  you know, those bets they made with your money and then lost it all and nearly caused America to fall apart financially. They have loaned money, but it is primarily for people who already have the money. Stockbrokers are there as well, Keith Gordon, a former actor and now director has a project with Ethan Hawke in which they are selling stocks to raise the funding. But this requires a public offering which can cost a lot of money, their budget is around $8 million so they can afford it. 

    But most of us are pretty much stuck to the first method so I'm going to focus more on that for the next post Monday.

    Have a good weekend and the next time you're at your dentist's, ask them if they've ever invested in a movie, or if they know anyone who has.

    Or if they want to now.  You never know.

    (Next: Where do you find the money Pt 2)

    Thursday, September 24, 2009

    Sometimes we disagree

    First of all, a progress report on the blog.  We now have readers in 7 states, 4 provinces and 3 readers in India.  Amazing.  Shirley and I are both pleased with the reception and it encourages us as much as the response we have had by investors.  It's not all there yet, and there's no guarantee, but your interest helps us keep moving forward.

    When I decided on doing this blog, I went to fellow WGA writers and asked their advice.  One thing stood out.  They all said the it had to be honest, because if it wasn't,  it wouldn't be true and wouldn't work. Having said that, I have received some comments disagreeing with me from time to time and I welcome them. Not everybody is going to like what I say about this business, about crews or agents or any aspect of making the movie.  This is natural and I look forward to defending my position.

    I started in a mailroom of my local TV station and worked up from there, all the way across the country, ended up directing commercials for good money.  But I was tired of them and at age 34,  decided to go into features and started by being a production assistant, carrying out empty beer bottles for teamsters and crew members. You learn a lot at the bottom if you watch what happens all around you.  I was there for 4 weeks, then left to make my own movie a year later. 

    Ghostkeeper wasn't much of a success but it got shown and made a few bucks.  My union crew was great, I knew everyone as it was pretty much the only real crew in Calgary at that time .  But after work many of them stayed up all night playing poker and all that goes with that.  And sometimes they were pretty tired working the next day.  Since then I have worked in 5 countries with crews who spoke English, Dutch, French, German, Icelandic and Spanish.  And they were all different in many ways, but the same in other ways.

    My attitude can be taken as cynical, but it really isn't,  it's more the reality of this business. When I taught UCLA screenwriting my students liked the reality I gave them, that it wasn't as easy as they thought, that you weren't a writer just because you had the software.  I told them I could show them how to write, but I couldn't show them how to write good. That comes from inside, and either you have it or you don't.  

    But the one thing I do not change is my love for this business,  which I fell for at the age of 4, when my parents took me to see Disney's The Living Desert at the Crescent Theater in a small town called Swan River.  Well, all was okay until I looked up and saw a giant rattlesnake crawling across a 60 foot-by-20 foot screen.  I went ballistic and my mom carried me to the projection booth above the seats where they left me with a projectionist.  I sat there and calmed down as the film spun through the projector, it's sound was like riding a train, warm and comfortable.  

    I never forgot it.  

    This  business has it's heartbreaks, like everything in life,  my problems are no better or worse than anyone else's.  You might think I'm rough on some things, but it's only because I live for this business and all the great people I've met through it, writers, actors, directors, and yes, even crew. I'm living my dream.  Just don't show me The Living Desert.

    Stick with us, you encourage us, get angry, disagree, question and even enjoy what we're trying to do here.  We might not agree, but we're all here for the same reason:

    We love the movies.

    Wednesday, September 23, 2009

    Key crew - The DP

    A friend of mine once said you really only need 3 people to make a movie.  A writer, a camera operator and an actor. And he's right. Those are the ones who really make the movie, everyone else is just helping out.  You can make a movie without a grip, or a production designer or just about anyone. But you need a story, a camera and an actor.  But then what would those other 40 - 200 people do?

    And that guy to my left filming on the mean streets of Detroit looks awfully familiar.  Was I ever that young?

    After choosing the director, the next choice is the Director of Photography, or DP as they're called.  The director may have their preference, or the producer may have theirs, either way it's the producer who does the hiring, as they do for every position on the film.  

    When asked how I hire people for a film, I say that first, I hire the the most talented person I can afford, secondly the most talented friend I have. That's how it works. I have two favorite DPs, John Holbrook is undeniably one of the best cameramen around and John Bartley equally good, he was responsible for the look of X-Files.  They have been friends of mine for over 30 years and you will find that most producers and directors tend to work with the same people when they can. 

    A good DP is gold, because they will not only shoot a great-looking film, but they will also save your butt when it needs saving. There are times when I didn't know how the hell to block a complicated scene, and John H. stepped up,  made his suggestions, and we shot it.

    That's what a good DP can be.  

    A bad DP, and there are a lot of those, are the arrogant ones, the ones who think you really don't deserve to be the director, that really, they are the ones who should be directing the film.  I've worked with DP's who would just stand there and look at you and ask "so what's the next shot".  One cameraman who also covered hockey games and I really got into it after I suggested we put a hockey puck on the actor's forehead so he'd stay in focus.

    You know it's gonna be a long day.  

    A good DP will collaborate with the director,  a bad one will argue every little thing.  And it happens more frequently than you know. For this post, I'm going to talk about my own experiences with DPs and in the coming days, Shirley will post her ideas on her ideal DP.

    My background was in film and I worked on a TV news crew covering Windsor and Detroit.  At one point I was involved in a shooting at a UAW union hall and we actually had the shooting on 16mm film.  One frame was blown up on the cover of the New York times in 1973 I think, very grainy but still quite moving. The victim recovered. 

    After that I worked in Toronto as a news cameraman, and finally to Vancouver, where I filmed and co-produced a short with Phil Borsos, a director who I had met in my brief film school career, both Phil and I failed and the instructor told us to give up film.  Needless to say, we were the only ones who had a career in film.  At one point, our company was so poor we had both of our names on business cards.

    Phil passed away at the age of 41 and was considered one of the best Canadian directors in both Canada and the U.S.  And our short film, Cooperage, about a barrel factory won awards at Chicago, Venice and even being a finalist in the 1976 Academy awards, not to mention earning well over $29,000 back in 1976.  We did two other shorts that won awards as well.  His son has come to visit me ever since Phil died and at age 12, I showed him how to shoot video.  He is now an accomplished filmmaker in his own right.

    So I know of what I speak when it comes to camerawork. 

    And you can see why Shirley impressed me so much right off the top, she could shoot as good as anyone else and better than a lot.  And like me, she has good knowledge of the entire process, not just camera or directing.  I have worked as a soundman, cameraman, editor, location manager, co-producer, producer and director and that separates me from most writers.  It also makes me a little more hard to get along with when it comes to discussing film.

    What makes a DP good? Talent of course, but also a sense of visuals and a willingness to try out different things, to find the right look for a film. Does it matter to an audience?  Not on the surface, most audiences think that good shooting consists of pretty shots of mountains or sunsets but those are easy. 

    What a good DP brings to the table is reality enhanced. 

    They will light a set, say an interior of a house, to suit the mood of the scene, something the audience will not really notice, but they will respond emotionally to it.  Such is the power of color. Most of us are smiling on a sunny day, but we also are more subdued on a grey cool day.  Different colors mean different things, colors like red and yellow suggest warmth, you know like cabin interiors or a romantic sunset or that ever popular nostalgic look. 

    Colors like blue and green are cooler, they suggest a different mood in stories, suspense or drama.  Think CSI and Law and Order. No warm fuzzy colors there. These colors can be in the sets and locations and they can also be in the clothes actors wear.  Warm clothes against a cold background for instance.  This is all planned ahead of time, before the movie even has started shooting.

    Interestingly the only rules for colors are that there are no rules. Someone is always breaking a rule, others stick with them, although if you want to break the rules you have to know them first.  And any oldtimer will tell you there hasn't been a shot done that hasn't been done before.  I watch a lot of silent films and am constantly surprised at the sophistication in those files that are equal to anything we can do today.  Even with CGI.

    Another aspect of DP work is the framing of the shot. It's argued that the director chooses the angle and the lens, but I find again, that a collaborative effort is best. I don't know everything and I follow my golden rule of wanting to work with the best, because they make me better.  Any director who tells you they know exactly what they're doing is someone I avoid.

    A DP can make you or break you and so we look forward to getting the best one we can.

    Here's me shooting CADILLAC, I'm on the dolly, Phil's crouched down in front.  Cadillac won several awards as well.

    (Next: The other creative keys)

    Monday, September 21, 2009

    The Crew; And how they work

    Part of the time spent at this point of the project besides making calls to investors and waiting for calls from investors (or anybody) is to begin to look at the film crew, the 30-40 people who will be working for us (and sometimes against us) for at least 5 weeks, and some like the editing department will be with us for 4 months.

    This "crew shot", taken on one of the last days of Season 2 was for a TV series I worked on years ago, if you click on the pic, you can see me top right just above my name (left of glasses guy)and Chris Haddock on the left top.  It was allegedly a family show, but Chris, who created and produced the show, and I would write heavier film noir themes and plots, where there wasn't necessarily a happy ending.  Chris and I worked well together, even through some great heated discussions that usually ended in going to lunch together.

    We got away with it on Season 2, but ultimately the network wised to us and it was canceled.  You'll also notice Stuart Margolin just below the middle, with the series star on his lap. Stuart is a legendary character actor and his resume reads like the history of movies.  He also taught me a lot about working with actors.

    One of the things you notice is that we're scattered pretty much all over the room, except for the customary principal actors around Stuart, a boy and girl, an African-Canadian woman and the blonde lead on his lap.  In fact Chris and I were the ones who wrote all the episodes and guided the show through the season, and we're way at the back.  I guess it's sort of Canadian to not hog the camera. It's a pretty eclectic crew, all ages and sizes. 

    These are the people who made the shows, one director is visible here, Anne, and the electricians, the grips, the gaffers, the production designers, the carpenters, the secretaries, the production manager, location manager, camera department, sound department, props, editors, teamsters and lots more. 

    But now I'd like to go a little deeper into this seemingly happy little family. I once worked with an exploitation producer named Maurice who, when I was fussing about the people I wanted to hire on the crew, smiled at me and said, simply, "don't worry about crew, crew is shit." 

    Okay... that's his opinion, plain and simple,  I thought. 

    But it wasn't the first time I dealt with crew, and I knew perfectly well that the crew would often give their all to the director and producer, they would stand outside at night in the rain for one of my episodes and not complain, and they would work 16 hours, go home and sleep and then be up again at 5am.  But they could also shut you down at 6pm when you needed that one last shot that would make the day perfect.  Or they would ask for triple time. So crew is a conundrum. They can help you and they can kill you. 

    There are at least two kinds of crew; union and non-union.  Union is obviously the most expensive, gaffers (electricians) can make upwards of $3000 wk, camerapeople can make $7-10,000 a week with O/T and other bonuses.  Non-union gaffers make usually $500-1000 wk and camera people maybe $1500 wk. Some make even less if the budget is low. Most crews are union, here and in Canada, but there are non-union crews as well. 

    Crews are made up of departments, the art department handles building any sets, the camera department can have 10 people in it, but mostly 3 or 4.  Sound department is one soundman and a boomman, make-up department can be several people, hair is another, as is props, grips and gaffers and so it goes.  There is a peculiar work ethic that pervades each department. They usually stick together, have lunch together and go to parties together. 

    Roddy McDowell, who starred in Planet of the Apes, once said that during the filming, the great apes ate separately from the gorillas (all humans in costume), so maybe this is a bonding thing. 

    One of the worst places for the "above the line" creatives is what is known as the production meeting, and this is where politics begins to run rampant. It's all about being recognized for your special services. I think it comes from the actors (sometimes denegrated to being called "meat" as in "bring the meat in"), who come in and do their job and leave till they're needed again. That's what departments do.  But they all want you to know how important they are to making this movie.

    I always referred to it as "crapping on the script". Since departments are mostly technical, they have little regard (and respect) for those "creative types" who always manage to be a constant thorn in their sides. They will object and protest to having to make a change in a set due to a sudden script rewrite that needs Ikea furniture rather than Craftsman, or that they don't have enough time to set up lights, and on and on, but somehow, at the end of the meeting, to show you how brilliant they really are -- they figure out how to do that impossible job. Always.

    I usually get along with crew, and spend time talking to them, but one pet peeve I have, however, is their use of cell phones for calls, texts and twits and ask that they take personal calls during lunch or after work. 

    At least I try. 

    One group I always respect, are the teamsters, who are the rough and tough guys on the crew. They get up before everyone and go to bed later than everyone. They drive the vehicles, trucks, cars, whatever is required.  And they can mysteriously show up with a 1977 Camaro fender when you put the word out.  

    Within one week.

    Of course one teamster offered me my choice of illegal assault rifles he kept in the trunk of his car.  I cautiously declined.

    But the crew, like all employees, is as good as the chief, and that's the producer.  The producer is the one who sets the pace and the mood,  he or she hires everybody, even the director most of the time.  And the crew is a reflection of the boss like every other job in the world.  If the producer is nice, the crew will be nice. 

    (Next: The key creative jobs; breaking them down)

    Saturday, September 19, 2009

    Weekend blog: Agents and why they are needed

    Someone asked about agents in Hollywood and why they were needed at all?  Is it just an ego thing?  Well, agents are both a good thing and a bad thing.  First of all they are necessary here and while they are primarily for above the line people including actors, writers and directors, they have branched out to represent DPs (Director of Photography)  line producers and even some technical people. 

    First, a quick definition of "Above the Line" and "Below the Line". 

    Above are the creative people, writers, directors and actors and to an extent producers although they don't usually have representation.  Below the line is basically everyone else. A joke line in a Woody Allan movie has a secretary telling a studio head that a director wants to marry a makeup person, to which she adds, "Is that legal?" 

    So where do agents come in?

    First of all there are around 8000 writers in the Writer's Guild (WGA), add to that around 120,000 actors in Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and around 3000 directors (or so).  And we're not even counting the actors, writers and directors who aren't in any of the above guilds (actually unions, but guild sounds so much nicer).  I am in the Writers Guild of America and Writer's Guild of Canada.  

    So imagine if anyone could call a studio head, or a network head, or anyone lower in status. The phone lines would be burning up with the thousands, or tens of thousands of calls every day. This is where agents come in. They separate the wheat from the chaff, to quote an expression from my Manitoba farm days as a kid.  Agents represent people who have professional experience (getting paid for what they do), thus separating them from the amateurs, the wannabes and the crazies.  And they get 10% of whatever you make.  

    Do they always get you work?

    Reality? No.  Remember that one agent can represent 10 writers, or 30 actors, etc. What they do is promote you to the studio head or producer.  And if the producer doesn't want you, they immediately go to the next writer on the list, and so on.  And you can't really blame them, they have to feed their kids too.  My first agent, Barry, got me maybe 2 or 3 meetings in 2 years.  My second agent got me more meetings but few jobs. 

    Finally I had Charles, who was probably the most aggressive agent I had,  he got me dozens of meetings with every studio and network in town.  But his biggest problem was closing the deal, which he seemed to always mess up.  But he got me into the big time and it served me well later.  My best agent, Frank, worked for Paradigm, one of the major agencies in L.A. and Frank was a dream to work with.  Most agents can't talk about anything else but 10%, Frank was a regular guy in that he could talk about anything. In fact we still talk to each other and have lunch once or twice a year.  Frank was considered by producers a very gentleman type person.

    But getting back to why an agent is important. 

    Agents update their information on the needs of studios, networks and producers every day, maybe five times every day.  Most big agencies have a daily update that circulates through the agency and is guarded like Fort Knox, they don't want other agencies knowing what they know, about which producer needs a specific type of writer, etc.  But being Hollywood, every agency's update is soon copied all over town.

    Agents also have relationships with certain producers and this can lead to work as well.  It would be virtually impossible for me to have that much knowledge about possible assignments. And now, one final reason for agents.  I've said this before, but a lot of creative types don't know business dealings very well, or just don't care.  I'm somewhere in the middle. 

    Agents will ask for the most they can whereas I or other writers, or actors or directors, will almost willingly do it for nothing, or almost nothing.  

    Agents are our musclemen or women,  they have that car salesman mentality that just won't quit.  As Frank once said, "I would like for producers to like you less and pay you more." 

    Enough said.  Back to raising money. Well, it is a week-end... and I have to make chicken wings for a charming 10-year old, her BFF and her dad.

    Friday, September 18, 2009

    Dog Days - a lesson in movie history

    Okay, here's where I sink low and resort to a dog picture.  Looking for money is not always exciting. Most of my time now is spent sitting at my desk in my little home office, surfing the web, looking for potential investors, emailing people I've emailed several times,  telling them I have someone who's ready to match my funds,  if  I can find them. 

    Then I stare at nothing and wonder why I'm even trying.  It's sometimes boring as hell as I wait for people to get back to me and mostly say no. So I decided to give you a history lesson on independent movies. Or "indies" as they're called in the industry. 

    The definition of indies is somewhat vague, but mainly it means movies made outside of the bigtime movie industry. This means that Paramount, Warners, and all the others are not involved in indie movies.  In fact, the money they pay for catering lunch is probably more than most indie movies cost.  Indies are the labors of love for most people, the stories that a general audience wouldn't really care to see as they don't have car crashes, super heroes or incredible effects. 

    But once in a while, an indie sneaks through and experiences huge success.  The rules for indies are quite clear, but they have been getting muddy in the last few years.  Take movies like Blair Witch Project, made for well under $25,000, but made well over $100,000, 000.  Yes, one hundred million dollars.  Or take Juno, a hybrid indie, which caught on and made money and an Academy award for the screenwriter.

    But these are anomolies, or "non-recurring phenomenons" as the studios like to call them. In other words, they don't really know why those movies succeeded and don't know how to copy them.

    Independent movies started back in the late 195o's when John Cassavettes, a solid actor, wasn't able to get into a prestigious acting school and decided to start his own acting school.  And the first thing he did is get all his actors together and with money he begged, borrowed from others, went out and made a movie that cost almost nothing.   

    What happened after that changed the way movies were made forever.  Cassavettes did something different, he took his camera out on the streets.  The movie, called SHADOWS,  is about a young interracial couple in 1950's Manhattan, shot on 16mm film and mostly improvised. The film surprisingly got good reviews, Leonard Maltin said it was "a watershed in the birth of American Cinema".  Remember this was the time of big studio movies like Ben Hur and My Fair Lady. 

    Shadows didn't play to big audiences but it played to enough audiences that it begat a lot of imitators.  All of a sudden, small personal movies about subjects a writer or director was passionate about, were being made.  One of my favorite movies is Cassavette's HUSBANDS, with him, Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara, as three buddies who, after a friend dies in his 40's, decide to go out on a bender.  Cassavettes would star in big Hollywood movies like ROSEMARY'S BABY and DIRTY DOZEN and then use much of his money to make more personal films.

    Independent movies.  Indies.

    And this continues to today, whenever you see a little movie, low budget, personal story, it's the product of Cassavette's work.  Recent indies include WENDY AND LUCY,  ONCE,  AWAY FROM HER, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, PIECES OF APRIL, FROZEN RIVER (the last two had Academy nominees in them).  Chances are most of you haven't seen these movies as they mostly play in bigger cities like New York, LA,  Chicago and Toronto.  But they are all released on DVD.  And cable networks like Sundance and Independent Film Channel show many of them and even more obscure ones.

    What remains unchanged since Shadows, is the financing of these movies. They are often funded by family money, credit cards, friends and sometimes studios.  The common denominator is that they usually don't cost a lot, and that they are the kind of stories that play arthouses, not usually commercial and not usually profitable unless they are made for little money.  Like TRAVEL DAY. 

    One interesting aspect of indie movies is that Hollywood has finally discovered them. Smelling money, the big boys opened their own "boutique Indie department" and started buying up every one they could. This lasted a few years until they realized that most indie movies don't make millions and millions of dollars and they closed down their "boutique" operations and stayed with IRONMAN, TRANSFORMERS and Adam Sandler comedies.

    Also, a lot of Hollywood stars began to notice the amount of Academy nominees that came out of indie movies, and pretty soon each star wanted her or his own indie film.  After all TRANSFORMERS didn't get Academy nominations, but FROZEN RIVER did. 

    So they created a "hybrid indie" in that a small personal movie was made with a "humble Hollywood star" who normally got millions of dollars for a movie but whose heart was really in movies that cost less than their Ferrari.  Since these weren't really true indie movies, and with bigger budgets, they were generally scorned by the starving filmmakers who did real independent films.  LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE was a hybrid as it cost around $8 million (ten times Travel Day's budget) and had Greg Kinear and Alan Arkin, both Hollywood stars. 

    And what changed the indie business again was something nobody saw coming.

    Digital cameras.

    Now it became possible to make complete films for barely anything.  Your neighbor is probably making one now.  Digital cameras and editing systems, all of which could cost under a thousand dollars brought movie making to everybody on this planet. Take my friend Randy, who did 2 movies for $10,000.  That alone would be the cost of lunch on a Hollywood film. 

    However,  having the equipment to make a movie isn't necessarily good.  Not everyone has a great story to tell. The saying in Hollywood is this:

    The good news is that everyone can make a movie, the bad news is that everyone can make a movie.

    Wednesday, September 16, 2009

    Blog 16: An angel appears

    Now that our proposal has been finished, the next big question is who do we show it to? In other words, who do we know who has $900,000?  I know a few people who have that much and more, but they also don't want to hand it out without good reason.  And good reason isn't my movie, or any movie for that matter.  

    So what do we do?  

    The first thing I did when we started this venture was to write down the names of every studio executive, network exec, all the development people I met, actors, friends and anyone else whose name shows up on my old contact sheets.  And after 20 years in LA, there were a lot of them.  I began by sending an individual e-mail to all of them, rather than a mass e-mail which I didn't feel was as personal.  I didn't want them to think they were just part of a group. 

    It took longer, but I felt it was worth it.  They don't owe me anything, in fact many have helped me in the past, so the least I could do is give them individual attention.  Shirley did the same with her women's directors association and other groups. Slowly we began getting a few responses here and there, some interest, but mostly nothing real.  We received good marks on the proposal, and that was nice, but not close to getting the budget. 

    There were mornings when I woke with the terrifying thought that there was no way I would be able to raise the money for this movie.  That it was even crazy for me to consider it. 

    Okay, it's not life and death.  

    But regardless,  I had told Shirley and others that we were going to get the money and we were going to make this movie. This, in spite of a recession and a general downfall of movie financing that mostly depended on hedge funds and other funding sources that were now in various stages of falling apart or just maintaining their heads above water. 

    My days were filled with emails, phone calls and surfing the net to find investment websites.  As I did this I began to notice something interesting in that there was a noticeable amount of "investment counsellors" and ads offering investment in films.  Was it going to be easier than I thought?

    Upon closer examination most of them turned out to be what I called "mini-Madoff deals".  There are a lot of ex-hedge fund and stock market hustlers out there who are becoming so desperate they are now going after filmmakers.  I should point out that some are real, but a lot of them are almost laughable. 

    What are they doing?

    First they are not investing in my movie.  Rather they are offering to invest any monies we get and promise returns that are almost outrageous. One said if I invested $100,000 that I raise, he could turn it into $900,000 within months.  Another said I had to fly to Geneva, Switzerland and pitch my project and then stay 48 hours to hear their decision.  This is real, they are out there, lurking like vampires.

    One of the people I contacted was a former student of mine from a screenwriting class at UCLA extension. Randy was one of the few students whom I felt had a good chance at being successful in the world of screenwriting.  He surprised me by making a film for basically nothing, and it won some festival awards. He followed up by making two full-length feature films for $10,000.  

    Yes,  2 movies for $10,000.  

    He even used green screen CGI.  One of his films is entered into the upcoming Beverly Hills Film Festival.  Randy had introduced me to a friend of his several years ago over dinner in Westwood, a young, quite likable man who had an interest in movies, and who followed up on his interest by investing in several bigger features with some major stars.  On the off chance Randy's friend might be interested in I asked Randy if he would email him and ask. 

    To my surprise, he said yes.  

    I emailed him a brief summary and based on that, he said if I could find the first half of the budget, that he would probably be able to fill in the second half.  Less than a month had passed since Shirley and I started this venture and we now had the potential of half the budget, around $400,000.  I couldn't believe it, things don't happen this quickly. 

    In business,  they use a term for someone who makes an investment at the very beginning of a company venture.  The term is "angel".  It comes from Broadway, when one investor, based on reasons that were usually more risky than practical, helps to get the play going.  Like an angel coming to the rescue.  Randy's friend was our angel in the sense that his confidence would lend itself to an easier shot at raising the first half.  I could use this in any discussions with potential investors. 

    Are we in a better position? 

    Well, Just slightly.  

    Oddly enough the film business is filled with "if you get half I can get half" scenarios.  Most of the time they never are fulfilled as it's sometimes harder to find the half you need.  It seems like it should be easier but it's not.  In fact there's more pressure in some ways.  But the one factor with Randy's friend is that he can indeed back up his offer, as he has proved himself by investing in those several bigger features I mentioned.

    And so we are better off than two months ago. But he also isn't going to wait forever, I know of at least one other producer who's hoping for an investment from him.  And I'm sure there are others.

    Now all I have to do is find the first half.

    I knew there was a catch.


    Tuesday, September 15, 2009

    Blog 15: Casting (or how do we get actor interest for free)

    The first question most people ask me when I say I'm trying to make a movie is "Who's in it?"  And I know what they want to hear; Julia Roberts? George Clooney, Brad, Matt etc.  So who are we going to get?  It's not an easy answer.  

    I was lucky to meet Sally Kirkland at a gathering a few years ago, I told her about my script and she asked to read it.  Sally was nominated for an Academy Award for ANNA, in which she starred.  Sally liked the script and said she'd be interested in the lead role of Katherine, a movie star now getting a little past her youth. 

    A year later my friend Ira Besserman tried unsuccessfully to get Travel Day going, and got the interest of acclaimed actress Liv Ullmann, twice nominated.  Sounds easy so far, right?  Well, no. Sally and Liv were lucky connections we had through mutual friends.  Now we are considering other cast members, some with more recognizable names which distributors always ask for.  

    Recognizable names are always preferred for the simple reason that audiences prefer going to movies to see people they know.  There are exceptions all the time, but generally the name on the video box sells the movie. Travel Day's lead role is for an older woman, an aging actress and we both knew that this would be a prized role for actresses in their late 50's or early 60's.  

    Unlike male actors, women seem to have wrapped up their lead role careers by the mid 40's.  Is it fair, no, but it is reality. So we felt that there are a lot of women out there who would love the part as opposed to playing mothers and grandmothers.  And everything we heard and read confirmed this.  Our list of potential actors, even though many of them were out of our league, were people like Faye Dunaway, Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Sally Field, Jessica Lange, Meryl Streep,  Glen Close,  Catherine Deneuve and many others.  And the reality of getting them isn't all that impossible.  

    In the last several years many older actresses including some of the above have made lower budget films, even at our level. The reason - a really well written part in a movie with some challenges for them.  And of course, a better chance at an Academy nomination. 

    Shirley suggested Faye Dunaway but we couldn't find a connection to her.  The usual approach is to call the actor's agent, but that's not all that simple either.  An agent is there to make money, not friends.  If you make a "cold call" the agent will most likely ask if the movie is fully funded, and if this is an offer.   Meaning that you have to be able to pay at least a deposit or more if you even want the actor to just read the script.  In effect you are hiring them without even talking to them. 

    You may ask; what if that actor isn't right for the part after you hear them read it?  Well, you forfeit the advance you paid and sometimes, if the actor is hot, the entire fee. 

    They walk away with the full fee and you start looking for someone else.  

    So we tried everyone that we knew that might get us a way to get Faye to read the script.  We didn't try the agent because I knew that they would probably want the demands above.  Truth is I really wasn't sure but wanted to find another way.  Like the way it worked for Sally and Liv.  We contacted casting directors,  but while some liked our screenplay, they only look for actors when they are being paid to do that.  Since we're a low budget independent film, we simply couldn't afford it.  

    Finally Ira suggested someone named Cassandra, who it turned out had been in Arnold's first big movie, Conan the Barbarian.  Cassandra is one of those Hollywood people whose jobs are hard to describe, one of the things she does, I was told, was find celebrities for functions.  You need a famous actor or two for a charity lunch, or a film festival? Cassandra and others like her find one.

    I called Cassandra and she called back, wanted to read the script first. We talked for a week or so and she seemed enthusiastic, even suggesting some other actors she knew. Then suddenly, Cassandra was gone. I tried contacting her again, she emailed that she was working out of town.  And that was the end of Cassandra, never heard from her again. 

    What happened?  I don't know, maybe she didn't like our screenplay, maybe she didn't like us.  We'll never know. We were back to square one.  In the meantime, Shirley said she could probably get a famous actor who she had met several times to play a "cameo" role, a part that usually is only one scene, but helpful to a low budget movie as the name can attract a distributor and later, an audience of dvd purchaser.  I realized I knew a few smaller recognizable names, but who would add to our package as well.

    So where are we now? We're not closer to getting scripts to Faye but we are slowly gaining ground in our money-raising which I will explain in the next blog. Things are happening, as they say in Hollywood.

    (Next:  An angel appears and we're lifted up)