Friday, October 30, 2009

It's about the work.

I was asked how I got my first big break in Los Angeles, and  how I managed to survive long after my career should have been over. I've mentioned this before, that the "career" of a writer or director or actor is realistically about 3 years. This is the average and while the exceptions are obvious, there are people who last forever, William Goldman is still writing, Robert Altman directed until his mid-80's (and even then he only stopped because he died) and Ernest Borgnine is still acting into his 90's.

Those are the anomolies. Consider that there are around 8000 writers in the WGA and of those, only about 1500 work regularly and there must be at least 120,000 actors in SAG but you can name the stars who lasted on two hands.

Yes, the odds are against you in this business.

What I mean by 3 years, is presuming you have received some attention. And to get that you have maybe 2 years to establish yourself, after that, if you haven't, you might as well go back home. But 2 years is a long time.

My first break I guess was getting a job in a small city TV station at 22.  From that day on, I always looked for the next job in this business, moving from TV station to TV station. My next break was going independent and making a suspense movie called Ghostkeeper, in which my partner believed totally in me and we found $650,000 oil money to make it with.

After that I didn't have a real job for almost 8 years. The tax shelters died and the business was in a slump in Canada. I did two forgettable movies in which I was paid about $5000 each. Nobody wanted to hire me, Canadian film is a small industry and I was nothing in Toronto or Vancouver.  I got a job for a month with McGyver, the series but was let go.

Then I got a green card.

Then I met Paul Lynch at a party in Toronto. Paul is one of the legendary directors in Canada, his first big feature was Prom Night, which had several sequels. He had heard about me from a friend on McGyver and asked to read a script. I mailed him one and he said he liked it enough to get me his agent, BarryPerelman in Hollywood. I had a Hollywood agent.

Good? No.

Barry got me maybe 3 or 4 meetings with 2nd and 3rd level producers, most of whom had less money in their bank accounts than I did. I stayed with Barry for 2 years then left and found an agent who really swept me into the majors.  I was over 40 at this point, and by all rules, should have been ridden out of town.

His name was Charles Lenhoff.

Charles was the first agent I had who really liked me. It was about the work. He actually thought I was a good writer. And I had written a screenplay called Emperor of Mars that he was absolutely crazy about. Barry had thought very little of it, and most producers in Canada didn't think much of it. But that little script was a ticket to this business that was just beginning because, as I said before, it's about the work.

Then I met Chris Haddock.

A friend of mine was working locations on a series in Vancouver, run by writer/producer Chris Haddock, a smart and talented guy. My friend told him about me, and Chris asked me for a script. I sent Emperor of Mars. A few weeks later he hired me to work as a writer and story editor on his series. At the same time Charles had been circulating Emperor around Hollywood and in the next year I met virtually every A-level producer and production company from Dustin Hoffman's company to Dreamworks and everyone in between. 

Again, it's about the work.

But nobody wanted to make it. They all "loved" it, but all they wanted is "so what else do you have".  Over the course of 2 years, I got lots of meetings but no work.

Then I met Frank Balkin.

Frank was a junior agent with Charles, but we got along great. When he left for a larger agency I went with him and stayed with him for well over 10 years. He was and still is a friend of mine and I'm actually having lunch with him Tuesday.

Then Frank set up a meeting with Steve White.

He had read Emperor and wanted me to write a movie for Paramount as he had a deal for 6 movies. It turned into two movies and also a job doing rewrites on the other four.  At the same time I was hired to rewrite 3 movies for another producer at Paramount.  These jobs led to others and I had a good run from around 1992 to 2004, well into my 50's.  So how did I last that long?

Three words.  Emperor of Mars. 

I doubt I would have got any work at all, Emperor was my calling card.  They didn't want to make it, but they hired me because of it. They say that if you don't get work in LA, it's due to two reasons; either you're not very good or you're hard to work with. I have to add a 3rd... have a script that everyone likes. That was a combination of me writing a story that I knew well, my life in a small town, and luck.

Also shamelessly showing my scripts to anyone who would read them, getting a green card, meeting people constantly, finding two agents who liked my work and leaving 4 other agents in the process and a lot of luck. 

It began to slow down around 2004 as Survivor became a hit series on TV.  Things began to change as reality shows started to take over the networks schedules, they cost less than movies and series and got great ratings.  We had a writer's strike which further crippled the industry and there was a glut of movies which further reduced the opportunities.But at least I had a taste of the old TV industry and a good run for much longer than the majority of my peers. Not as good as the big guys like Bochco and David Kelly and a handful of others, but good enough to last as long as I did.

And I'm still at it.  First Travel Day.  Then, after 5 failed attempts,  which included an Oscar-winning director, I am going to finally make Emperor of Mars, and with luck and determination, I might actually film it where I grew up.

How cool is that?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

I guess I flaked.

I heard this from Frank, my old agent. We have been figuring out a dinner together for the last few weeks and between his busy schedule and my lack of one, we rescheduled three times.  The last time he said, jokingly, "I flaked"(as in corn flakes).  I learned that this is the new answer when you postpone or miss a meeting or lunch or don't call someone back. 

Frank meant it as a joke, but I realized it applies to a lot of people today.  Like Dane, the Manitoba producer, I've called him several times and each time he had to go but promised to call back, but did not.  I mentioned it to the sultry Rachel from Eh Channel, who said he does it to her too, and I spoke to another producer who's dealing with him and... yes, he says Dane is a little slow on answering.

My friend Paul Lynch says it's basically that they really don't need you for anything at the moment, and when they do, they'll call back. This is basically a GenY thing, or a blend of Gen X and whomever is 22 now. And I always wonder why they bother having phones and texting and tweets and what comes next if they don't return calls. 

To be fair, Dane is in preproduction on a movie and is busy so I give him a little slack.  But some years ago I was writing a script for Phil Borsos, who also failed Banff School of Fine Arts film school, and who went on to a major career until he passed away at 41. Phil was making Bethune, a movie about a Canadian doctor in China in the 30's when Mao was just becoming the big guy. The movie, starring Donald Sutherland was, by all accounts, a horrible film shoot. 

The Chinese promised everything, crews, studios and camera gear but when they got there very little ever appeared. Even the food was bad. The majority of the crew came from Canada and at one point, actually were ready to walk off and go back to Canada unless caterers came in for real food. They won and it cost overages in the budget.

But back to Phil. He would call me at least once, sometimes twice, from China to Toronto to discuss the screenplay and tell me horror stories. This while he was in the middle of the difficult production.  And if this is the generation of multi-tasking, they sure aren't champions of it.

Multi-tasking isn't really all that hard anyways, and according to research on the subject, we really don't multi-task at all. What we do is coordinate our actions, one following the other, not actually at the same time.  Real multi-tasking is doing two or three things at the same time. 

Those of you old enough remember that old bit where you rub your tummy one direction and rub your head in the opposite direction at the same time. Try it, it's not easy and that's only two things at the same time. That's real multi-tasking, so when you're working on your computer and someone calls and you answer and work on the computer at the same time, that's not really multi-tasking, unless you're talking and typing an important document at exactly the same time. What happens is basically one job defers to the other one, you talk and stop typing, listen and type.
Where does this take us?

Is Paul right?

Do people not return our calls because we're not important enough at that time and space? And if that is so, what does that make them? I return every call I get, every email, I don't tweet or Facebook, although I allegedly have a Facebook page but never try to find it. But that probably comes from my early career in TV news, where I learned  how to compartmentalize my jobs, 10 minutes for this, 5 minutes for that, 2 hours for something else.

I read that Bill Clinton would do that also, although compartmentalizing world peace, the wrath of Republicans, his... ah... private life, and creating a budget surplus is a little more important than me Tivo'ing Letterman while watching Charley Rose and eating popcorn.

I know the calls will start coming back. 

Any day now.

Monday, October 26, 2009

What they want.

To begin with, Paranormal Activity, that no-budget ghost movie I told you about last week, opened wide this week and now has made $62 million and on it's way to $100 million. The horror sequel Saw 6 made $14 million, an indication audiences are getting tired of the torture horror genre.

Back to TD (we love initials rather than whole words, began with T2 (Terminator 2) or thereabouts.  Andway we've been at this now for just about six months, considering we really didn't get going until August and I feel we've gone pretty far in the last 3 months, while the first 3 were more organizing than soliciting. At this point, we've had a lot of rejections, some possibilities and some actual commitments. 

But it's still a long way to the finish line, and anything can go wrong, or right at a minute's notice. There remains a strong possibility that one of our biggest funders will drop out for reasons that don't really involve us, rather the general investment tone going on in the country and perhaps some losses he didn't expect. 

My meeting with the presales person went very well with some potential in the future. He has a smart business plan in which he finances his movies by preselling the rights to Lifetime, Italy and France and finally Canada.  But his presales also dictate a certain kind of story, that being the classic women in jeopardy thriller genre, for Lifetime TV.

I feel as he that Travel Day could be the right movie for Lifetime, but difficult to sell as it's not really what their mandate dictates.  But I have always believed that "they" whomever it is, Lifetime or CBS, or Paramount or any buyer, really doesn't know for sure what they want. To quote famous screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, All the President's Men), "nobody knows anything."

Take for example, this lesson I learned years ago.  I had done a page 1 rewrite (meaning basically rewriting the entire script page by page) on a script called Greenmail for David Bixler who worked for a company called Promark, now out of business.  In the credits I am given an "and" between my name and the previous writers.  Because they worked together on the script their credit came first and also had "&" rather than the full word. This is standard credit positions as per WGA.

I enjoyed a good relationship with the owner of the company as well as a producer named David Bixler, who now works for major studio 20th Century Fox. David was one of those producers who really understood what he was doing and he was great to work with, allowing me a lot of leeway in the rewrites and backing whatever I did.

Late afternoon 0ne Friday, David called and asked if I had any "reality-based" science fiction screenplays. This meant sci-fi stories that didn't have huge special effects. Meaning more like Twilight Zone than Star Wars. I didn't have anything close in my shelf of about 20 screenplays that I had written that never sold.

We talked for a while and suddenly I remembered that I had just finished a screenplay called Field of Fire, about two snipers stalking each other in Central Park in NYC. The title comes from a sniper term used to describe where they are targeting a kill. It was a straight ahead action story, not anything close to science fiction.

I decided to tell him about it. What did I have to lose?

A moment passed, David thought about it then said "sounds interesting, why don't you email a copy".  Just like that.  After hanging up I emailed the script.  It was Friday afternoon.

Monday morning he called and optioned it.

The film was eventually made under the title Target, with Stephen Baldwin (that's another story) and I was sole writer and co-producer on it. Unfortunately David left Promark and another company made it, not really well done as I would have liked to see.

Regardless, my lesson here was simply this; he had called for a sci-fi script, I sold him a completely different genre, action film. If I hadn't mentioned it, it would never have been made.  So now, anytime anyone tells me that a company is looking for a very specific film, and if I don't have what they want, I will pitch them at least 2 or 3 other ideas. 

That's the beauty of this business.

You never know. 

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Soupy's gone

Mortality hit me hard (again) yesterday when I learned Soupy had died. I was one of the lucky ones, hundreds of kids from 8 to 18 to have watched Soupy Sales on local Detroit TV long before he became really famous. 

Back in the early 60's, Soupy was on during lunch and we would rush home to "have lunch with Soupy". He was a slapstick comic from another generation and while his show was for kids, the references he made and suggested were anything but that. 

Soup had several companions,  all very basic puppets, not your Jim Henson type, rather whatever the prop guy could find in the back room of WXYZ-TV. Pookie was a little lion hand puppet, ragged and torn, and the singer of the family. 

White Fang, "the meanest dog in all of Detroit" was simply a furry arm with claws at the end, who spoke in ruff ruffs waving his arm to emphasize things. And of course the lovely Black Tooth, the "sweetest dog in all of Detroit", another furry arm. 

Then there was Peaches, actually Soupy in drag, with a hairy chest.  And all this for kids. Soup had a Friday late night show for awhile, and it was pretty mature and wild. But he was always there for us, made sure we had good lunches, usually cheese or baloney sandwiches and always, always a bowl of Jell-O.  You can see Soupy on Youtube, just type in Soupy Sales.

Soup (you were in the "in crowd" if you called him Soup), would always get a pie in the face. When asked why he could take a hit so well, he said "it's in the crust". Later on when his show went nationwide and in LA, Sinatra came on to get a pie hit, then Dean Martin and soon it became the trend to get "pie'd" by Soupy. 

He was part of my growing up, and as a friend joked, was the strongest influence on us towards anarchy. As we left high school, Soupy became famous all over the U.S. and somehow we lost interest, maybe because we had already seen the best of him and didn't want to share him with America.  And so we drifted into our adult lives with ideas of jobs, marriage, children and a future that seemed damn exciting.

Soup always had his "words of wisdom", an example was "Soupy says be true to your teeth and they'll never be false to you".

Hope you got the biggest pie there is, Soup, you taught us patience, honesty, regard for others, tolerance, and how to throw a pie. The Ukrainian boys who hung out at Schoolfield every night miss you already.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Why me?

We've reached the point where those of you who know the business are saying, "ok, this is not very exciting at all, we though producer's lives are filled with parties at the Ivy and movie stars and expense accounts and cocaine".  And those of you who are not in the business are saying the same thing. 

This is the reality of producing a movie, if you've followed me since the beginning, you know what it really is like.  Boring as hell, phone calls unanswered, email forgotten, and cheap lunches at Chili John's or Carney's. Well, Chili John's is worth any lunch at the Ivy. Welcome to the life of a producer. Granted I'm not one of the big guys but you know what?

It's the same thing for him or her. 

You're trying to sell a dream to someone who doesn't want to dream, or to finance a dream. Unless it's a brand or a sequel or something based on toys.

One of my favorite stories is told by Paul Lynch, my director friend. He recounts going onto the set of the remake version of the classic film The Lost Horizon, the one where a lost explorer happens on Shangri-la, the perfect mountain paradise where nobody gets old. Ross Hunter was the producer of the remake in the 60's. He was known for the Doris Day/Rock Hudson romcoms (romantic comedies) and I'm sure I've lost at least half of you who don't know who I'm talking about. 

Regardless, Hunter was producing Lost Horizon.  Lynch had an invitation to come on set at the studio so he did and met the director and some actors.  As he stood around, someone suddenly appeared in front of him, Hunter.  This is something that happens on any film that you might drop into, the director or producer will suddenly appear in front of you.  I had this happen on a Robert Altman film once, a somewhat relaxed set with Cissy Spacek, and having directed, I know the feeling. You know immediately when someone new is on set and you feel obliged to find out who they are.  Altman liked me and I hung around drinking beer all day.

But Lynch was surprised to see the legendary Hollywood producer introduce himself. Lynch introduced himself, they exchanged "pleasantries" and Hunter learned Lynch was from Canada and said wonderful things about the country and then snapped his fingers and said "camera!" And immediately, a photographer appeared from out of nowhere and took 2 photos of Lynch and Hunter. Then Hunter was gone. Two weeks later Lynch received an 8x10 of him and Hunter with a signed autograph. 

So what's the  big deal? Those were the big producers, bigger than life. Everything was an event, it was magic, it was Hollywood. 

Those days are gone. Now it's just business. About as exciting as watching two bankers having lunch. There's no more romaticism, no excitement. Why? Because corporations have taken over the industry. Beancounters. The biggest excitement I get is taking Shirley to lunch.  Everything else happens from my little home office with phone calls and email. Mostly email. And besides the fact that I am making no money, rather spending it, there's one thing that travels through my mind every day.

Most odds are against me.

A large portion of the Writer's Guild are against me. My own people.  Of 8000 members I have around 28 who drop by now and then to read. 


Maybe they don't like me. But 95% don't even know me. 

The one thing I know is that many writers just hate it when someone else gets a job. Hell, I even hate it. And now I'm even trying to PRODUCE a movie. That's usually left for fast-talking carpet salesmen, not writers. After all we are pure and honorable. And everyone knows producers are conmen and thieves. We are an odd lot, miscreants no doubt, dreamers and hopefuls. I only have a handful of friends who are writers, and we are very supportive of each other. And I'm sure that's the case for many others.

But producing is not a stretch for writers. If you watch series TV like the CSI franchise and the NCIS franchise and Law and Order, and sitcoms like Two and a half Men, you will notice anywhere from 5 to 15 credits for producers at the beginning of the shows. These are not producers in the larger sense, they are writers.

Why writers?

Because in TV, writers learned early that in episodic, you need a new episode every week. And while a movie script can take years to develop to filming, TV episodes gotta be there every week. So in the 70's, writers figured out to ask for producer credit. It's not like what I'm doing, trying to find money for one movie, in fact most writer-producers know very little about producing. They just write and rewrite the episodes.  

There's usually one or two real producers but all the rest of those 10 or so producer credits are basically gifts to writers. And  it comes with having a say in most matters.

But movies are different, and I will be the producer as well as the writer, but will be joined by other producers mainly due to the fact that it's not my money that I'll be using, and other producers or agents who bring in money will be getting producer credit. Or Executive Producer, or maybe co-producer. 

But the only real producers who do budgets, hire crew and actors and work constantly on the film, will be myself and most likely the Manitoba producer who is the gateway to the tax credit and a sizeable part of the financing.

So as the week-end begins, I am only too glad to see a boring week go by and I focus on next week and the emails I know are lurking, waiting to send me good things.

At least the weather is nice.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Why we fight.

There are always stories in the trades and even newspapers and of course on the thousand TV entertainment shows  about problems on movies.  Lawsuits because someone stole an idea, scandals, Lindsay Lohan stealing my friend's son's SUV with him in it. (that's a whole story by itself).  Then there's "creative differences".  

A nice term for two egos going against each other.  

It is usually actor against director but also writer against director, and producer against director.  And in the scheme of things, it's not very important at all.  This business has some of the largest egos around, imagine that everyone around you tells you that you are the best, the smartest, the richest and the most talented.  It can get to anybody.  You start feeling like God.  Better than God.

They say there are two reasons why someone doesn't get work in Hollywood; either they're not that good or they're too hard to work with.

I've learned that it's best when you work with someone better than you.  It's the old tennis rule, you just seem to play better.  And when you work with someone not as good, it can be hell, because they are trying to kill you every chance you get.  And it's not only the movie business, it's everywhere.  It's just that the movie business seems to get more attention, and can be pretty dark.

Joke in Hollywood is that the best way to get ahead is to have pictures of someone in power, either with a dead girl or live boy. How's that for a shot.

I have had my share of battles, always over scripts, and mostly with people not as good as me.  Sometimes I was wrong, but sometimes I was right.  And while it isn't anything big to most people, it can be hell, it can and has sent people into deep depression, heart conditions and almost anything else that can harm you. Because many of these lesser talents sometimes tend to be psychotic and will do anything they can to harm and destroy you.

I think part of it is the fact that we are dealing with a product that actually isn't there. It's just pictures and words and everyone has an opinion on that.  Remember this:

It is always the writer's story, no matter who takes it over.  Always.

The problem comes when someone has no real ability to do anything but get a job in management and then sets about to destroy anyone in their way.  Everyone thinks they can write, after all they write birthday cards and grocery lists, so what's the difference. There's a saying among writers,  most people want to "have written", the hard part of that is having to write.

Some years ago I was working in Luxembourg on a Paramount TV movie called Riddler's Moon.  It was written by someone else and I had been hired to rewrite it.

Riddler's Moon was a good script but with one major problem.  It called for a drought in the midwest. We were in Luxembourg with beautiful yellow canola fields and rich green forests. Not a drought, not even close.  Since it was a science fiction story with a spaceship landing at the end, I figured we can make our own rules.  So it became a land with crops, but they were tainted by some unknown force.

Okay it's a stretch, but this is sci-fi.  

I was also sent there by the request of John Levoff, who was head of drama at Paramount TV, he wanted someone he could trust as  he was a 10 hour flight away in Los Angeles and didn't quite trust the Europeans or the Canadian producers. The screenplay went through massive changes, so much that the script supervisor asked why the original writer's name was on it. It was the deal I had, I would come in and fix scripts and be credited as "Creative Consultant". Had my own office and a white sheet of paper on the door that read my title.  I was continually being asked what exactly what my job was.  I often said "I think".

We all got along well, Don McBreaty the director was great to work with and the movie started filming with no real problems.  Until a new exec producer entered.  He was from Los Angeles, known by Levitt and was one of those guys who you never quite figured out how he got into the business, but he was smooth.  Let's call him Dan Eureka. Eureka assured me that now that he was there, all would be just great.  But that wasn't the case at all. He would start meddling with almost every department, the producer and secretaries, always insisting that he was the boss here.  In short time, everyone began to wish he would go home.

I didn't react well to his script notes  as they were very poor and showing a lack of real ideas, it was just his need to show how powerful he was.  And again, he assured me that it was okay with Levoff.  Of course I would call Levoff normally every other day and Levoff assured me that Eureka was not king.  I didn't like being in the middle, but continued working with the director.

Then, the big showdown. I had written a pivotal scene for the lead, Kate Mulgrew, who you would remember from the Paramount Star Trek series Voyager. Kate was enjoying her popularity from the series and her relative power as a TV star. And she was great to work with, we'd have dinner now and then and talk about the character and being in television, Kate knew and respected writers.

She and I worked on a long 8-page scene in which a confrontation happens.  This was Kate's big scene, and it took us a few days to make it work well enough for her.  During this time, Eureka continued to meddle, often changing the scenes I wrote and arguing with me about them.  On the day of the big scene I was walking through the hotel when Kate rushed up, demanding to know why I changed her scenes.  She showed me the mysterious 2 pages.  

They were not mine. 

What was worse, they were Kate's big scene.  Actors don't like it when you take away 6 pages of them acting.

Everyone on the crew had the new pages.  It seemed Eureka had re-written Kate's 8 page scene down to 2.  Not a good idea for an actor with power.  The assistant director approached, angry as the pages were not labeled correctly and it could mess up the schedule.  Again I said it wasn't me.  We all knew who it was.  Kate glared at the pages and said simply, "we do Jim's pages".  That was it.  I won the battle, but what about the war?

After that, Eureka and I had frequent arguments, it bugged the hell out of him that he really couldn't fire me as Levoff was the only one who could do that. But I was getting tired of dealing with him.  The production wanted me to stay but I was looking for a way out. It's not fun going to work every day ready for a major battle over words. Not to mention whatever other schemes he was attempting. 

Finally another producer doing Paramount movies wanted me to go to Canada for my screenplays and I decided it was time to go.  Several of the crew wanted me to stay and the idea of living on expenses in Europe was hard to decline, but I just didn't want to spend every day fighting with someone who was, in my mind, a sociopathic liar. So I left. 

In Manitoba I worked again with Steve White, a really good producer and a smart man.  It was a pleasure to work with Steve and we got along well.  In the end, does it really matter if writers and producers and directors and actors fight over the words of a story that will be lost to the ages in a hundred years.  Of course not. Does anybody care that writers fight for what they think is right?  Probably not either. But for that moment, the little bit of time in which we can matter, we will fight for what we think is better for the audience.

What happened to Eureka? Last I heard he was on the board of directors of a small university.

They always survive.         

Monday, October 19, 2009

Waiting and what to do when there's nothing to do

Okay, this is going to be a challenge. Nothing is going on today on Travel Day.  Shirley is busy with editing on her San Francisco film that she shot a few weeks ago, and I'm waiting for Initial Investor to reply to my last email a few weeks ago and Dane from Winnipeg to continue to contact me with details on the Manitoba deal.  So what does one do when there's nothing to do. Well, there's always something to do but I've vacuumed and carried out trash and even re-arranged the refrigerator. 

And I stare a lot. 

Mostly at my computer. 

It's just sitting there daring me to use it. Because, of course, there is a lot to do. But I don't want to do it.  Here's a list:

  • Contact distributors to find a potential distribution deal. 
  • Contact new investors who might be able to come in for some of the US investment in the event Initial Investor backs out. 
  • I do have a meeting today with a presales company interested in talking about potential presales. He's the one I met through an editor who had put his name in 3 months ago for an editing job.  This at least has been set up last week.
  • Begin to contact some Casting Directors in the event that they could take TD to one of the other actresses we're considering, including Faye Dunaway, Catherine Deneuve and maybe Jacqueline Bisset. I have no idea if these people are even remotely interested but then again, you gotta try. All they can say is no. 
Waiting is part of this business, and it comes with the classic "nobody's in a hurry except you".  One of the big changes I've noticed during the last few years is that more and more, people are returning calls and/or emails less and less. 

My director friend Paul Lynch says it because they really don't have anything to say or have other things to do. I suppose it makes sense with the GenX population who carry cell phones around with them, yet you can never reach them and when you do they never call back.

Regardless you wait, when someone is reading your screenplay, when someone might invest in your movie, when someone might consider hiring you for a writing job. It used to be a lot faster. Fifteen years ago, when my agent sent out my screenplay to 20 people at the studios, they would read the script over that weekend and call back Monday. 

Less than72 hours. 

Nowadays they don't even want to look at spec scripts. In fact, a number of studios have said they are not looking for new scripts at least until early 2010.  They don't even want to talk about them till then. That has never happened in this town, but the recession is affecting everyone.  I've had scripts sent to several parties months ago and they never responded. Even when I emailed them. 

And I'm not alone.

I've talked to several writers, directors and producers and they all say the same thing. Nobody is doing anything. But that doesn't seem to agree when you look at the production charts. It seems there are lots of movies going on, lots of them. So who's making them?

Many are studio pictures, but far more are guys like me. Maybe a lot more successful, but there are hundreds of movies being made, either with borrowed money, credit cards, or looking for investors like I am. When I started Travel Day with Shirley, a lot of people I know just smiled, and said I picked a pretty bad time to look for money. 

I had to agree with that but I also knew that as long as I've been in this business, there hasn't been a year when someone didn't say "this is the worst year to try to make a movie".  It's never an "easy year" for filmmakers, there is never a good time or a bad time, it's always hard.  I think I must have had maybe 50 projects in the last 20 years that started promising and ended up dead. 

I met with a Dreamworks executive once at Spielberg's offices then at the Universal lot. His offices consisted of a Mexican hacienda, with an enlaid antique brick parking lot. The main building housed maybe 100 people with offices and meeting rooms.  I had a great idea for a remake,  it was an old movie, Death Takes a Holiday, a fantasy type story that had "Death" take human form to study human beings, and in doing so, nobody in the world died that day. It was a classic 30's movie and very well done. 

To my surprise, Todd, the exec liked it. Liked it so much that he was going to start on a deal immediatly.  I left feeliing like I had won the lottery. 

Until I got home. 

A message was waiting on my machine (pre-email and cell phones). Martin Brest, a well-known director had optioned the story one week ago. It hadn't had time to hit the trade magazines yet. One week. I missed getting a studio job by one week.  Brest made his remake, it was called Meet Joe Black and starred Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins. It was long and drawn out and had nowhere the impact the original film did. 

So at least I felt a little bit better.

And I do have a meeting today.  So far.  If he doesn't cancel. 

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Week-end blog: The "Secret" Part 2

A young film school student approached my friend Tom Davidson ( yellow t-shirt) some years ago. I had worked with Tom years ago at a TV station in Saskatchewan when he was working as a film cameraman. Tom went on to shoot and direct commercials and television series. The student asked Tom a very simple question; "How do I get to be you"? 

Without missing a beat, Tom said, "It's easy, just start at a small prairie television station and work for 25 years." 

Maybe not the answer the student wanted, but it was the right answer.

Continuing on the question posed in an email to me,  regarding "the secret" to having a career in writing or any aspect of the creative end of filmmaking,  I continue to examine that premise, that there is a secret, or maybe there isn't. Or maybe it's meant to be. I posted "The Secret" last week as an ongoing examination of why some people become successful and some don't.  One would suggest talent, education, drive, family money, all of those things.  

Or just pure accidental luck.

I guess I could say my first "big break" was getting a job at a TV station in my second home town, Windsor, across the river from Detroit. But it didn't really start out to be that, or at least that's what I think. I just wanted a summer job, having worked on a Chrysler assembly line the year before and needing money for college.  There was a listing at the local government job office for a mailroom applicant at the TV station. There were other jobs that paid more, this was $53.50 a week.  I chose to apply for the mailroom. And the hiring officer told me it was a permanent job, not summer only. 

I lied and said ok. 

I started early Monday and arrived before the studio was going. And it was that instant for me, that I realized this was my life and I never turned back. I felt I had won the lottery, I still remember the dark studio with big RCA video cameras on dollies, hanging down like dinosaurs sleeping. Was it luck?

The only thing I know is that movies and TV were my life, I was buying Variety at a downtown Detroit newsstand when I was 15, when other kids were buying Teenbeat. I had always been curious about movies, watched the credits, learning the names and recognizing actors and directors and writers, even at the age of 8.  I still think it goes back to the time my mother carried me up to the projectionist's booth when I was around 4 to calm me down after I was so terrified of the big rattlesnake on the screen below. 

The clicking of film as it ran through the projector and the warmth of the powerful lamp were all comforting to me.  So maybe that choice of the mailroom job was not an accident, but then that calls in different theories, most of which contradict each other. 

Why do we choose what we want to do? 

Or do we choose at all? Is it chosen for us by other forces?

Whatever the reason, the facts are that I did love movies and TV, well beyond what most kids liked.  You couldn't pull me away from a TV set or a movie. But lots of kids do have the same interest so it can't be as simple as a love for movies.

I loved my first job, even staying after work to talk to the directors and the audio men and the engineers, sometimes staying around until midnight.  I could never get enough of that place.

I also was bodyguard to Bozo the Clown.

That was a hard job, you couldn't get that job.  I and another mailroom friend, Ted Lindsay were responsible to get our local Bozo to toy store openings and other events, usually in Detroit.  When we were once stopped by Detroit police for not having proper tail lights on "the Fun Hut" trailer, kids gathered around and chastized the police for arresting Bozo. 

They let us go.

I stayed in the mailroom for 6 months, then went on to film editing, after that a stint at the radio station in the same building and finally into the photography department where I got to play with real 16mm cameras. 

I was the luckiest 22-year old I knew. Or was it fate? Years later, my Grade 6 teacher met me and said she wasn't surprised I was working in television.  So maybe there was an innate compass within my brain that directed me towards anything that resembled movies or television. But I wonder about that day I went to the job center and found that job listed.

I think that most of us fall into jobs, whatever our level of education is. Windsor, a satellite of Detroit with car assembly plants, seemed to  have two kinds of jobs; working on the line for incredibly good wages, or becoming a teacher. Both my closest friends were teachers and, upon retiring recently, both were glad to get out of teaching. 

Some of us, though, get lucky and choose the job we want.

I mean, hanging with the "Boze", what more could you ask in life!


Friday, October 16, 2009

Still interested

So far - so good.  The potential Manitoba producer, Dane, and I have spoken.  He does exist, he is real. He has a relatively new company in Manitoba and has several movies to his credit, some are Canadian and as such, rarely ever seen beyond a domestic release and a few service jobs by which a lot of Canadian producers survive by. 

These are similar to what TD could be, but more emphasis on the service as usually the movies, primarily American, have their full budget going in. Unlike me, who will have partial funding with my side bringing in 50% or so, maybe a little more and Dane coming in with 40% which includes tax credits and equity, as explained in the October 15th post.  

We had a good conversation and I reminded him that I was born and raised till the age of 12 in Manitoba and spend a lot of time there now, knowing Winnipeg quite well, having friends and cousins. 

I also wrote and worked on three movies there in 1998 with producer Steve White, one of the best producers I've ever worked with. Two of the scripts were mine, the Roswell Project (later named Roswell- Aliens Attack,( definitely not my title) and a remake of a movie I had made 12 years before which was dreadfully bad, but the new one was a little better, called Dream House, a science fiction thriller.

Dane sent me a preliminary budget, much more basic than mine (which you can see by viewing our proposal available under the Materials box) and included the potential tax credits. Out of a $1.1 cdn budget.  It's tied to the exchange rate and at present, the US dollar is taking a slam, resulting in the Canadian budget lowering.

I'm hoping that the the US dollar picks up after the first of the year and that the Canadian dollar lowers to a respectable 10-12% rate. This exchange rate can make it easier or harder for us to make our movie in Winnipeg. I offer my thoughts and then email his budget back and we decide to talk again in a week. 

Things here in LA however, seem to be less stable than before. my initial Investor who would commit the 2nd half of the budget once I found the first half, does not answer my emails. This isn't the first time as those of you who follow this blog know. He could be waiting for the actual finalization of Dane's commitment. This is normal in these partnership investments. Basically, nobody wants to dive into the pool first.  And everyone wants to see just what I can do on my own. 

It's a test.

So what do I did I do on my own?

I reached out to at least 100 different people and companies. Most of course passed, about 15 were interested and of them, 5 were interested enough to consider doing business. But I am not stopping there. While it looks good at the moment, I don't like surprises, as Initial Investor deciding on not carrying through his earlier investment. And not because of the project, but maybe he's stretched himself too far on other projects or a hundred other reasons, none of which I know. 

And all of this work is basically for free, as I am not taking a producer fee, probably a "deferred" fee, or as we in the film business call it "nothing".  Deferments are common in the film industry where the budget is so low that taking a fee would hurt the production. And since I am taking a Writer's Guild Minimum fee for low budget films, approximatly $42,000, I am one of the top money earners on our low budget of $900k US. 

So just when I think we have a good chance at getting all the money, one of our pieces seems to be falling out and I continue to search for investors. Do I know this for sure? No, but that's no reason to sit back and wait.  

AFM (American Film Market) is approaching,  1st week of November in Santa Monica. It's where distributors who buy and sell meet at a hotel on the beach and wine and dine and every room is taken up by companies as big as Paramount and Universal taking huge suites down to tiny foreign distributors in single rooms plastered with horror films and copies of American action films with Michael Madsen in them. 

Shirley and I are preparing some material to hand out to these people although I really don't like going there, it's like being at a meat convention, with movies reduced to their lowest common denominator.

But they also can help fund our movie.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

"I am interested..."

It was an email that read simply:      

"I am interested and I would estimate we can provide through the Manitoba tax credits, and equity programs, approx 40% plus of the budget.  If you like, we can talk early next week and go the details. "

Short and sweet as they say.  Seconds before the email appeared I saw the sender's name and realized it was one of the Canadian producers who might be considering working with us.  My first feeling was that it was good. But my skepticism crept in. 

He's passing.

But something told me different.  Most companies don't bother to tell you they're passing on your project these days, they just stop communicating.  Maybe he was one of the nice ones who still has some class and wanted to tell you in person that he is passing.  I clicked on the email and as it opened I scanned the sentences for one good word, it took all of 2 seconds. 

"I am interested."

 That's all I needed, and I reread it to get the entire message.  Then I read it a third time.  We did it.  Shirley and I did it. 

We have a movie. 

With Manitoba's minimum of 40% and our initial investor's 50% it suddenly became a reality. I waited for awhile before I would tell Shirley, I wanted to be absolutely certain of what he was saying.  I remembered that Rachel the movie channel exec (Eh Channel)  had asked the producer to look at my screenplay.  I sent a package of both the proposal and the screenplay as I have done to at least 50 other people of whom some never responded and some liked it but weren't interested and some just weren't interested.  Now we had someone who was. 

I knew what he would be doing, using tax credits in Manitoba which can be as high as 65% tax credit on labor from Manitoba.  For every crewmember, actor, driver, caterer, virtually everyone  except Shirley and an American actor, we got back 65 cents on the dollar. 

I think I must have read that message a half dozen times, putting different interpretations ton it, stepping away and walking outside my place, then back again. I knew where he would get his equity, it would come from one or more of those various private and government funding agencies that abound in Canada.  I took an early lunch at Carney's, a railroad car where I would celebrate minor victories with a split &  grilled red hot and a side of chili fries, best in the valley. 

Remember one of my rules;  reward yourself often.

This changed everything. We now, in theory, had the budget for Travel Day.  And if the exchange rate favored the U.S., it could conceivably mean our American money would be worth maybe 14 cents more on the dollar.  Which meant that $400,000 US would be worth $464,000, almost half a million if the U.S. dollar doesn't fall anymore.  

If we still had that $400k.

After my excitement died down I began to analyze exactly where we were.  On paper it looked damn good.  But I had emailed my $400k man a few weeks ago and he had not returned our email. My friend who knows him said he sometimes does that.  Privately it worried me.  I never told Shirley or anyone.  I fell into that mode of "better no news than bad news" when it came to the $400k man.   I re-read his email, particularly one phrase;  "I can probably find the rest"

What did that imply; will he do it? 
Will he consider it? Is he going to DO IT??

You're probably wondering why I so quickly left behind the good news to dwell more on the possibility of bad news.  Well, I'm not one to play with pop psychology and thinking positive or visualizing my goals, I'm a realist mixed in with a dreamer and an eternal optimist, although sometimes I use pessimism as a cover for optimism. Expect the worst and you won't be disappointed.

I majored in Psychology (encouraged by the lovely Crystal, a grad student four years older than me)  at Henry Ford College and was set to transfer to U. of Detroit.  But I dropped out and into the world of television but always joked that I knew enough about psychology to tell everyone else what their problem was.  So while everything sounded spectacular, there was just one hitch...

One word: experience. 

This is almost exactly what happened with my producer on Emperor of Mars after nearly one year of waiting to fund that movie for $5 million.  Since I was writer and director I was not directly involved in the financing of Emperor.  Like Shirley is now, I was the one who waited for the good news that we have our funding.  We had a similar deal, the majority would come from the U.S. and the balance would come from tax incentives in Alberta (Alberta is the only province to call it's credits "incentives" as it's the most American of provinces and refuses to use the word "tax" anything.)

And the funding came close until, and this is something I can only speculate on, the U.S money fell out.  And the previous year Emperor was nearly funded when the financing fell through again. In fact, Emperor had been the victim of 4 attempts;  one with an Academy winning director and three times with me.  And none of those had any involvement in the funding stage from me.  That's one of the reasons why I am producing Travel Day. 

Because I want to know everything that happens on this movie. 

Every detail from the proposal on to the release.  Now I was somewhat in the same position, except this time I was the producer,  I was the one who knew what was going on, hopefully to do what needed to be done and finally, to get this movie made.  Sensing a backup plan, I had already contacted several other potential investors and Hank, the presales producer who could presell to Italy and France, which could make up the difference. 

But at the end of the day, I was going to relax in the comfort of acceptance.  And I would definitely call Manitoba next week.  I called Shirley to tell her rather than email it.  She was totally excited and said she had a feeling we would be doing this in Canada.  And it took us less than 3 months to get here. But I didn't feel we were there yet,  that there is still a lot of work to make everything go right and that there will be bumps ahead. Big ones.

Regardless, it was a good day for us.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Blog progress

Myfilmproject09 has gone beyond my expectations. We now have readers in 19 states, 5 provinces, London, Paris and four cities in India. Highest number of readers is in California, followed by New York, then Winnipeg and Vancouver. Number of hits for last month was 600 and moderately increasing.

Hope you stick around, let me know what you think by email or comment.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Holidays & the Secret

Seeing as there are two holidays today, I'm planning to celebrate both. Here it's Columbus Day, a somewhat disputed holiday, certainly by native Americans and others and it's Thanksgiving in Canada. 

So I'm gonna have a turkey dinner and drive out to the Mojave to explore a little bit. My Ford Explorer will stand in for the Nina, or was it the Santa Maria?  I never knew why Canada celebrated Thanksgiving in October and the U.S. at the end of November until I was 50. 

And the reason is so simple, 

I would never have thought of it until my farmer friend said "our harvest seasons are different." What he meant was that Canada's harvest comes a lot earlier because we're further north.  Simple as that. 

Moving on. ..

I received an email from my friend Nic and with her own blog listed in my Blog List, she was curious about "the Secret".  She  explained what she meant; how did I manage to succeed (to an extent) in such a tough business and at such a late age ( I came to LA at 43 when many writer careers are over at 40)?  First of all, we Canadians have an incredible inferiority complex, no matter what some might argue.  Success is not a word many of us would ever use because, as my dad said, "don't show off".  He also said "never think your boss is your friend", but that's another story. 

You've heard the joke... how do you get 20 noisy Canadians out of the pool? 

You ask them.

Okay, you still don't believe me.  Maybe ten years ago or so I met Keanu Reeves at a movie theater and we talked about being Canadian.  I suggested he must feel pretty good being such a success.  He smiled that Canadian smile, sort of apologetic and said that he felt sort of, kind of successful but wouldn't dare say it out loud.  So it wasn't just me.  Maybe it's changed a little, but I doubt it.  Someone suggested I write a book about my experiences in Hollywood and my first reaction was to call it "Making My Way to the Middle".

So what is the secret?

This I know. I have had an amazing career for a Ukrainian boy from a tiny village (546 people) in Northern Canada who stuttered and had little encouragement if any from parents or teachers or mentors.  But as I got older I realized what I wanted was beyond their understanding so I really didn't fault them.

I do remember one teacher, Grade 6, a beautiful girl of 18 who had her first job at my little school. I adored her and followed her everywhere and became her "teacher's pet" willingly.  And she gave me attention, and laughed and and encouraged me when I said I wanted to make movies some day. I met her again in 2005 and she said she wasn't surprised what I was doing. 

So what's the secret?

I still don't know, I'll have to think about it.  I know it has to do with incredible stubborness and perseverence. You have to really want it.  More than anything.

Mostly it's hope.

Naturally I use two lines from movies to explain this.  I think it was Robert Duval who said in Tender Mercies; "Hope ain't nothin' more than having something to look forward to in the morning." 

And Mr. Spock from Star Trek said this: "Each of us have our own private purgatories, mine is no better or worse than anyone else's."

Works for me.

Maybe I'll find out more about this secret, but not too much, I'm already awkward about talking about me. In the meantime, have a good holiday and those of you in England, France and India, have a good day too.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Week-end blog: The non-recurring phenomenon

I've mentioned that expression, non-recurring phenomenon before and there is an excellent example coming soon to your movie theater. That term is what is used to describe a movie that comes out of nowhere, sometimes costs very little and wipes up at the box office.  


Blair Witch Project is one of those, it cost somewhere around $25,000 (estimates vary) and ended up making $280 million.

 Another one was Open Water, the story about a scuba diving couple who were accidentally left behind in the ocean and were never rescued.  It also made a ton of money, around $53 million. It cost around $125,000 to make but they added more money when it was bought.

There is a new one coming, called Paranormal Activity, which is expected to do very well, not as much as Blair, but after two weeks of exclusive showings at a group of  university campuses it already has made over $535,000 far more than it cost.

It cost $16,000.  

Right, sixteen thousand dollars.

And it won't really open until next week when they will drop it into hundreds of theaters. The buzz word on this had been growing as their website now shows one million people who want tickets. 

What is it about? 

I saw a copy a few days ago and it's gonna be one of those movies where some love it and some hate it.  I have to admit it had some incredibly tense scenes and I even felt chills through some of it. And it can scare the hell out of some people.

What happens in the movie? 

Well, nothing really. 

Then why is it being touted as one of the scariest movies ever?  Because you don't see anything.  No torture scenes, no gruesome bodies, no special effects (well, just one, a door swings shut), no big movie stars and no monsters, vampires, zombies or psychotic killers. Just six people in the whole movie. 

Okay, I'm enjoying stretching it out. Here's what the movie is about. 

It's about a young couple who move into a new house.  But the soon-to-be wife keeps complaining about bumps and sounds in the night.  It turns out that she's been haunted by weird things all her life.  One of those things that should probably be mentioned to your about-to-be husband, you think?

So the soon-to-be husband decides to put a video camera in their bedroom and let it run all night.  Then the next day they look at the video and begin to see strange things. Like the door closing by itself.  By lights turning off and on in the hallway.  And by one particularly giant thump that even scared the hell out of me. 

But then we begin to see a slow progression as the bumps and lights seem to be building towards something that won't be very nice. 

I mentioned 6 people, One is a friend of the woman's,  there are two policemen who have a very small role, and a paranormal expert who visits them then returns to handle whatever is happening. But when he enters the house the second time wants to leave immediately as something in the house warns him that it is not safe for him to be in.  He exits hastily and leaves the couple.  Now the big question of course is: 


Because there wouldn't be a movie if they left.  What happens afterwards is pretty damn scary but again, you really don't see anything, you just hear it, except for the final scene. 

That's the movie. 

It was made in the director's house in San Diego. The actors are not anyone you'd recognize but they are actually pretty good in portraying upscale 30-somethings, they look like normal people and act like them. And the entire movie is the camera view whether it's on a tripod in the bedroom or being carried by the husband.  

Paramount had it for nearly a year and wasn't sure how to release it until internet demand began to build.  Apparently Steven Spielberg watched it in his bedroom and got spooked when the bedroom door mysteriously got locked from the outside.  So judge for yourself when it comes out. 

It is worth seeing if only to see how you can scare people without resorting to monsters and CGI. You can see a trailer on the Internet,  just google it.