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?

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