Friday, January 29, 2010

Winners & Losers pt2

 Some of my friends always wonder about one of my more eccentric thoughts which occur mostly when I drive somewhere in L.A. It revolves around the premise that everytime I see a homeless person I put myself into their mindset as I look around for a reasonably safe place to spend the night with my shopping cart and some cardboard box.

The thought lasts for a moment or two and then gets lost as I continue my drive.

I thought I was the only one who does this but you'd be surprised at how many of us in the film business do think of that. It can be attributed to a greater sense of empathy that writers and actors have especially, that we are fascinated with an alternative lifestyle that we don't live.

Or maybe it's the constant rejection we get for our services.

This leads back to the topic of winners and losers. You've heard actors often say they were very lucky to have the success they now enjoy. You hear less about writers but that's because they are rarely interviewed.

How can you become successful in Hollywood?

Here's my take on it. 

Have a relative in the business. Same as any other job. There's Kate Hudson (Goldie's daughter), Jason Reitman (dad Ivan made Ghostbusters) Colin Hanks (Tom's kid), Jake Scott (Tony "Alien" Scott's son), Nic Cage (Coppola's nephew), Angelina Joli (John Voigt's girl),Josh Brolin (James' son), Michael Douglas (Kirk's), and so on.

They will say that they had the doors open to them, but that doesn't always get the job. Yeah, sure. Most actors don't get a chance to even see the "doors". Interestingly enough few writer's kids get into the business of writing.

So what if you have no family connections?Then you make sure that you really have some personality that is noticeable (Brad Pitt) or some good acting chops (Paul Giamatti), be strikingly beautiful always helps, but talent will usually win. Meryl Streep isn't Megan Fox in looks, but Meg won't last as long.

And making the industry connections ensures that when luck is on the horizon, it's been prepared for. Most actors with no connections get noticed in small acting classes or showcases where they do 5 minute scenes in front of casting directors and producers.

I used to attend them now and then, usually in a small storefront theater where they'd place a numbered amount of their head shots on a table in the hopes that the audience of tough talent searchers would take them. I always wondered how the actor who counts what's left of his head shots and  finds that nobody took any would feel.  

Well, okay, I didn't wonder... I felt sorry for them. 

For writers, it's basically the same except that they rarely have family members in the business. When I taught an extension class in UCLA (and that's a whole other blog) I always recommended showing your script to anyone who'd read it. I mean even to standing on the street corner and shilling them.  You never know where someone likes your writing and a break could happen. 

But the one advantage writers have over directors and actors is that we don't really need to have a job in order to write.

Why don't we need a job like everyone else? Because as we wait for a job we can write spec scripts in the hope that either someone will like our writing enough to want to meet us, or we can actually sell our script to someone although if you're on the edge of the industry and your only contact is craigslist, it might not earn you much money. Most of the people on craigslist offer very little or nothing, preferring to pay actors and crew before the writer. Some of them are liars and scum. Some are just cheap. Very few are real.

For directors, family connections seem to help a lot. Many writers often graduate to directing and most of the good ones were writers. John Huston, Preston Sturges, Joe Mankiewicz, Paul Mazursky, Mel Brooks. Several actors are also good, Kevin Costner and Warren Beatty are arguably the best.

Otherwise most new directors make shorts that get noticed. Some of them even get jobs from a YouTube short.

But how do actors, writers and directors become successful?

Again, they need to make connections and that depends entirely how much they want it. Short and sweet. Nobody asked them to come into the business and nobody is going to really care if they leave.

And what's the alternative?

Well there are a large number of writers, actors and directors who, after a few gigs that were mostly unremarkable, continue to believe that they will be famous some day. Some get very bitter, understandably, when they see someone else higher up on the food chain experience the rush of success that they were supposed to get.

One writer I know had a screenplay produced 25 years ago and since then has written a dozen or more scripts but none have sold. Yet he hangs on to the dream because "you can't win the lottery if you don't buy a ticket".

The Dream.

 And that's the thing of it, the dream. No matter how down you get, no matter how everyone tells you you're finished, that damn dream continues to dance in your head, creating illusions, rehearsing that Oscar speech, even if all you're doing is being an apartment manager. There are a lot of actors especially who seem to be apartment managers.

Another actor I know keeps his dream of becoming famous, and tells me of his dealings with the CIA, and how he's going to partner with an underwater scientist to find riches beneath the sea. He also changes stories around as need be, including one where I told a story about a friend of mine who looked so dangerous (even though he wasn't) that a taxi driver refused to allow him in the cab.

My actor friend not only changed the story to make him me, but on another occasion said both he and I were in the cab waiting for the dangerous friend.  All of these versions right in front of me.

But I don't blame him, all he has left are his dreams and why take someone's hopes away. 

Serena emailed me the next day and wanted to buy me coffee or lunch. I said ok, coffee would be fine.

I never heard from her again.

We're a bunch of crazies, both the successful ones and the failures. But I like to think nobody really fails as I recall someone once said of a down and out director:  He's a has-been but look where he has been.

And if you ever need it, there's a great location to hide out when you're broke and down,  between the off-ramp at Sunset and the 405. I've noticed it often.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Winners & Losers & why

All the gold in California
Is in a bank in Beverly Hills 
In somebody else's name
So if you're dreaming about California
It don't matter at all where you played before
California's a brand new game
                    -Gatlin Brothers

It seems that most movies about Hollywood tend to show the down side of the movie business. You've got A Star Is Born (1937, 1954 & 1976) about a famous actor who mentors a rising star only to see her eclipse his fame, or Sunset Boulevard (1950 ) about a screenwriter who becomes a "companion" to a faded silent movie star and pays the ultimate price. There even was a movie called "The Oscar" and a dozen more, including the Robert Altman film, The Player, about a producer who kills a screenwriter.

Ironically, the best book and movie on the business to my liking was Nathaniel West's classic Day of the Locust (1979), a brilliant study of those who come seeking fame who end up with nothing. While the book was written in 1939 the only difference between then and 2010 is that the cars are better and we have iPhones.

My "crowd" is mixed, a few wildly successful people, some successful, some less so and some at the bottom of the ladder. Then there's those who border on complete delusion as a means to validate that they too are successful. Needless to say those categories above don't always end up at the same table. It's almost as though success fears failure in others as it might be catching like a virus.

Something else that hasn't changed is the amount of people who still come to Hollywood to become stars. While in the 20's to the 70's, it was mostly actors and singers, now it includes screenwriters and directors. And they all are still consumed by the knowledge that they have what it takes.

Take the blonde girl, mid 20's who looked across the room at the party, it was still early and guests were just arriving. Then she spotted two older men standing near the bar talking. It took her a second to decide to move and she approached them, smiling.

"Hi, I'm Serena".

The two men were myself and my director friend Paul. It didn't take much to figure out why she selected us. The other guests were either around her age so early in the evening or were couples talking to each other. Serena was an actress, and that was not really her name.

The party was a party  given by a studio owner whom I had known since my Calgary days. His Hollywood Hills home, "just a short drive from Jack Nicholson's place", overlooked the entire valley and as I stood at a glass bar the size of my kitchen, a bartender poured drinks as we watched the fires in the San Bernadino mountains 20 miles away. For a moment, I felt guilty, knowing that not far away firefighters were desperately trying to save hillsides.

"Beautiful house, isn't it," she said.

Whatever Serena didn't have, she did have confidence, the kind that always amazes me as I never really had that when I began. I probably still don't have it that much. I see that confidence so often with the young actors and writers and directors but also know that confidence in itself isn't all that important.

Actors are the biggest casualties in this city of dreams. There are more of them for one, approximately 200,000 according to SAG, and they're not counting the actors who still haven't gained admission to the powerful union.  The WGA has about 8000 writers and at any given time, less than 2000 are working.  DGA has around 2500 - 3000 directors, most of whom are not working.

So you can see the odds against even getting a job let alone hanging onto it.

Think of it this way, every day I look for a new job. Same for the actors and directors and crew. Those on a series have a little job security... at least until the show is cancelled. And some shows get canceled after the 2nd episode is aired. Job security is a word we've never considered. 

And when we find a potential job, 90% of the time we get rejected. 

Why do some people win and the majority lose? Hard question to answer. There is the talent factor, no doubt a leading contender for the big time. But as the studio exec told me, craft and discipline are more important. And then there's the main two reasons why someone doesn't work.

Either they're not very good or they're hard to work with.

Who loses? Everybody else. 

But it's how you lose that counts. 

A lot of them give it a good shot and if, after a few years it doesn't work out, they drop out and find a regular job and forget about it. While a steady working actor can earn up to $50,000 a year, the majority make around $8000. A year.

Higher up in the foodchain, you have the character actors who, with a hit series and maybe a movie or two a year enjoy a somewhat full career and they can even buy a home. And of course, we can't forget the stars who make as much as $20 million a picture. Like Sandra Bullock.

Sandra recently dropped her fee to $10 million to show how much she loved the script to The Blind Side. Now that's showing real bravado.  And it will end up getting her an Oscar nomination and I predict, a win. Meryl Street is nominated twice and that will cancel her out. Besides she has enough Oscars.

But there are those others; the desperate ones who don't know when to give up. And they tend to be those who really aren't that good at what they do. Not that you have to be good; look at the cast of Friends, not particularly talented, except maybe for Courtney Cox, and look at them -- a hit series and they're millionaires.

But they won the lottery in the same sense that you or I would if we bought a ticket. Really. For some reason they had "chemistry" as they say, something worked, their chemistry, the world was just ready for that show, and it was well crafted by the writers and directors.

But that's lightning in a bottle, as executives like to say. It rarely happens twice.

But back to Serena. After 10 minutes of the usual party talk she looked at us in the eye and said, "so what do you do?" We told her. She moved closer. She also focused more on Paul than me; writers don't hire actors, directors do. I saw my host and excused myself as Paul listened to her story about the last movie she was in.

After all, writers don't hire actors. Writers don't hire anybody and nobody even sees them sometimes, our work is done before the crew and actors are hired. And I've learned not to bring business cards anywhere because I have the bad habit of handing them out. 

And those people do call you.

After 20 years I have met many Serenas at parties or functions or even in coffee houses and once crossing a street. As I crossed a young woman was crossing beside me and when a car screeched she commented on the crazy drivers. I agreed, told her to watch all around. It took her almost at the curb when she said; "so, are you in the business"?

The thing of it is that yes, it is flattering to have a good-looking woman talk to me and sometimes it's quite sincere and I have been known to help writers who are starting out. But after many years I have learned to stick to writers whom I may be able to help or at least read their work.

But my best story about meeting on a street was when I took a bad fall on my mountain bike at an intersection and several people came to help. My wrist was totally broken, in an "S" shape. Two people helped me, the girl taking her leather jacket off so I could lay my head on it. The other person was an older man, maybe 70's and he asked my name and what I did as a job to see if I was fully conscious. I told him I was a writer. He smiled and said so was he. And the girl said she was a special effects person for the movies.

I take a spill on my bike on Ventura Boulevard and the two people who come to help me are in the film industry. Small world.

And the old guy? He was Marty Krofft, who created a ton of kid series for CBS in the 1960s and 70's. Anyone over 40 would know his name.

He gave me his card and said, "call me when you're better".

I did call him months later. He never returned the call.

(Coming Friday : Part 2 of winners and losers)

Monday, January 25, 2010

Limbo & something new.

                        Sitting here in Limbo                           
Waiting for the dice to roll.
Yeah, now, sitting here in Limbo,
Still got some time to search my soul.

                                                                            - Jimmy Cliff 

That's just the feeling I'm getting this week. Last week none of my calls or emails were returned and with time working against us, it's not the easiest way to wake up Monday morning. There are some mornings I wake up and wish it would all just go away, the calls, the budgets, the waiting. 

"You go from 200 calls to 10 and mostly if I didn't initiate a call, there wouldn't be one coming back to me."
                                             - Dawn Steel

I take comfort from Dawn. After all when she was at Paramount as chief she okayed movies like Flashdance, Top Gun, Fatal Attraction, the Untouchables and later When Harry Met Sally.  How's that for a record.

And once she was gone, as most executives have a shelf life of several years at best, nobody called her unless she called them first.

So I'm sitting here in L.A, the rains have subsided for the moment and the sun is shining again although it's still cool, I can't help but feel optimistic.

But maybe that's just the sun.

One has to get used to waiting in this game, or at least knowing when to "remind" the decision-makers that you are still here, eager and ready to give them any information you know. Some people are of the "hey, where's our money" school, in which they call the studio head or investors and simply lay it out in front of them; "give us the money."  NOW.

Well, needless to say that doesn't work. Because they know you don't have your half yet and until they feel absolutley sure your side has dipped their feet in the water first, they sure the hell aren't gonna dip theirs.

That's why it's a game of who's first.

How does it work for us?

I am waiting for the Manitoba partners to come  up with their LOI's, Letters of Interest from both the producer, the tax credit appraisal and the bank who will discount the tax credit in the form of a loan.

The private investors, mostly in the U.S. are waiting to see these papers because it's some solid proof from someone else besides me, someone who's showing some confidence that Shirley and I can pull this off.

Is it a guarantee that the private investors will invest.


But with those papers, and more calls, it sure will get me interest from others. There's just one other element that nobody is talking about.

What about the story?

You know, the screenplay, what got 2 Academy award nominees interest and what brought Shirley into the project as director and what got the attention of Rachael at Eh Channel, which led to the Canadian producer Dane.

Doesn't story count to investors?

What do you think? 

The answer is like everything else in this business. Maybe, maybe not. There are definitely investors who are taken with the story, but more than likely they just want to be involved in a movie. And some are interested in only making money.

So who are those guys in the middle who just want to get involved?

They are usually nice people who have done well in their lives, doctors, dentists, shopping mall owners, oilmen, enough to want to "spend" a little money on being part of a movie. Really. I know this for a fact with some of the investors of past films I've done.

Why? It's kind of cool, it's being part of Hollywood for a moment, it's something to tell their friends and maybe get their daughter in for a small part (sometimes a big part), and a hundred other reasons.

They are considered good investors. They don't really care about the details, they just want to show up, have a picture taken with the stars and watch the process until they realize that watching a movie being made is boring as hell.

So here we are.

(Coming next: Something new)


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Things I shouldn't have done

In response to a comment on relationships in the film business, someone asked about my burning bridges with good companies, rather than the less respectable parties I mention in that blog.

Generally I try to not burn bridges with companies who are fair and treat me well, but sometimes my ego can get in the way, as with these examples.

I did 2 movies for Granada, a major British production company, the second of which I supplied the story and screenplay, while the first was only for the screenplay. I was owed payment for the story and they refused to pay, so I sent the WGA on them. With pressure on them, they paid and then turned around and hired another writer to rewrite the screenplay.

They never used me again, but I was owed the money, so this example is a conflicted one; should I have not asked for what I was owed and maybe get a job, or should I get paid for what I did.

Writers are always asked to write or rewrite for free, always. They'll pay for the script but then discretely ask for polishes and rewrites, all of which have to be paid for as per their being signatory to WGA guidelines. But that doesn't stop them from asking. And if you refuse to work for free, they just might hire another writer, probably a friend of the producer, to do the rewrites for money. And you lose the money and probably more work up the road.

Who said producers had to be fair?

Then there was a Universal TV series I was up for, it was a "re-imagination" of the Three Musketeers. I love that term re-imagination, obviously created by a board meeting of executives.  I arrived at the studio, having read the script, which was, to my feeling, not very good

But a job is a job.

I met the 2 writers and it was almost immediate dislike on both sides. They weren't very good writers and I wondered how they got this series. They began by saying they didn't really like my writing sample, Emperor of Mars, which got me more work than any other script I wrote.

Okay, I can deal with that. They don't have to like one particular script of mine, I have 20 others on the shelf. But the meeting was going downhill, whatever I tried to come up with, they didn't like and I knew then that even if I got the job, it would be hell because we were simply not on the same level. I learned long ago that if you work with people not as good as you, you will be sorry.

Then one of the pair asked if I liked the rapping. 

The rapping? 

He then went on to explain how one of the Musketeers "rapped" his dialog rather than speak normally.  Like P-Diddy and 50 Cent and all those other guys. These 17th Century Musketeers were hip and cool apparently.

I was speechless. It was at that moment I realized this was going nowhere for me and them. I just stood up, thanked them for the meeting and walked out. I wasn't hired and they did 7 episodes and it went off the air in 2 episodes. And I never got a call from that department of Universal again. I lost out on money but also the stress and frustration.

But the biggest one was one I truly regretted. It was with Amblin' Entertainment. You might know it's boss -- Steven Spielberg.

I had written a screenplay called Rage, about road rage when it was in the news every other day and featured a male cop and a female traffic helicopter reporter. My agent Frank set up the meeting saying they liked it. Amblin' then was on the lot at Universal and was a rambling Spanish-style hacienda on a chunk of land near the studios. I always liked going there, it had a good feeling, the people seemed reasonably happy and it reflected the informal ambience of it's boss.

I met with two people, can't remember their names but we sat down and they talked about how they liked the script. I felt pretty good, already seeing the movie being made and meeting Steven himself maybe. 

Then they asked about one of the characters and suggested he be dropped.

 I said he should stay there, he was vital to the story. They didn't think so. I was quite adamant about it. Then they said they'd like more of a Men In Black feel to the story and wondered if I'd like to rework it.

I still can't believe what I said.

I said I didn't really like Men In Black, and that my story was very different and couldn't imagine how I could possibly change it.

Once again, they suggested I might want to try.

I said I wasn't sure. We chatted a little more, exchanged some jokes, I finished my coffee and they looked at each other, the meeting was over.  I left thinking this deal would be already happening with my agent. When  I got home I called Frank, ready to hear the great things they had to say about my work.

Frank said they decided to pass. Because they thought it would be too difficult to work with me on the script. I didn't believe it, how could I have misunderstood them. Then I replayed the meeting by stepping outside of myself.

And I realized how I must have sounded.  Contrary, argumentative and difficult. Much of that arrogance came from the response to Emperor of Mars, the screenplay that every exec in town had at one time,  and the complements heaped on it, Steve Tisch, producer of Forest Gump, said it was one of his favorite scripts. I got meetings with Paramount, Universal, Warner's, with Ridley Scott's company, Dustin Hoffman's, and virtually every name that was anybody.  No wonder I felt so good about myself.

And then I remembered that saying; there are two reasons people don't work in this town... either they aren't very good (I was reasonably good, they did like the script) or they are difficult to work with.

Difficult to work with. That was me.

I learned the lesson that day, and still haven't had a meeting at Amblin or Dreamworks yet. But ultimately it really doesn't matter if you burn bridges as most development executives one meets usually are gone with 2 years and replaced by new ones who don't know you.

That's the great strength for writers and directors; you last longer than the d-girls and boys who turn you down. Of course the ones who buy your scripts are gone too.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Nobody knows anything redux

As we wait for the Canadian producer produce his letters of commitment, I toss in my 5 cents (Cdn) on the Leno/O'Brien mess.  And again, screenwriter William Goldman's now famous slogan above, says it all. 

Jeff Zucker is coming off as the bad boy in this comedy of errors, he's the head of NBC/Universal and has been considered "teflon" through the 10 years he's been top dog, in the sense that nothing bad sticks to him. It's argued that most of his successes were from shows that were on TV already and all he did was renew them. Okay, he was also responsible for the "re-imagining" of that great classic Knightrider. The new show lasted a few episodes.

But somewhere in time, he decided that Jay Leno should "retire" at some point to let Conan take over the Tonight show, as Leno was getting older and his audience would want a hipper and cooler host like Conan. Even then I said it was a mistake. Most people in Hollywood said it was a mistake.

Why? Because they chose to dump Leno at the height of Leno's popularity, his show was #1 in late night. Conan took over and guess what -- they lost half the audience. 50% went to Kimmel and Letterman.

So where are we now?

Conan's out, possibly with a $40 million severance check (NBC says $25 million but other estimates by industry people are higher). And Zucker is mad as hell, mostly because almost everyone is blaming him. And they should. Even Leno is getting negative attention following the theory that when someone wins (Leno) and someone loses (Conan) and sympathy falls to the loser, the winner is seen in a bad light, greedy and selfish. Right now that's where it is.

Now let's go to Sandra Bullock. And a great article in today's LA Times. Her movie, The Blind Side is a hit movie, grossing $220 million and oscar nomination possibilities. It's the big hit she's needed for few years of flops. But it almost wasn't made.

First actor to read it was Julia Roberts, the Golden Girl, who turned it down. Executives then said if Julia turns it down, then we change the story to a man mentoring a football player. Otherwise nobody will go see it.

John Lee Hancock, the director, insisted that since the true story was with a woman mentor, it wouldn't be a good idea to cast a man instead. But since the studio guys can only focus on 16-year old boys going to their movies, they all passed.

And that's when a small practically unknown company thought they could finance it. And they did. And it has made $220 million dollars.

When Clint Eastwood wanted to make a movie about a trucker and an orangutan, the studio heads rejected it totally, as Clint's audience wants him to be the mysterious stranger who comes to town to kill the bad guys. In spite of their rejection Clint made it, Every Which Way But Loose, and it and the sequel were two of his highest grossing films ever.

So, getting back to nobody knows anything, how is it that studio execs are wrong more times than you'd think so?

What I think is this, the greatest movies in America were made in the 1930's to the mid 1970's and that was when studios were run on gut instincts by the guys who started and ran the companies. No research -- just instinct. You'd go into Jack Warner, say you got Bogart and Bacall, a good story and a budget and Jack would look at them and say "OK".

When they died off, college boys with business degrees took over. And they all came with the benefits of an MBA: research, studies, grosses, patterns and a whole busload of words and expressions. You know, like the banks and stock market guys.

And as a result we get sequels and remakes, movies that are made for $200 million but which draw a huge audience. What worked the first time will work again. No risk. And many times that's true.

Spiderman was a good movie, as was Ironman and a few others. And of course, Avatar is a huge success, but that was due to James Cameron, who had to show Fox a short demo of his effects before they committed. And this is the guy who made Titanic. He still had to show them a promotional short film.

Are there still good studio executives? Well,  logistics suggest there has to be, and I'm sure they are there, but big business has taken over the movie business like almost everything else and there is less and less risk and quality.

Same thing goes for TV. One of the guys who developed the "100-Channel package" for cable and satellite said that when they started, they figured it would be great, that there would be special interest channels for everyone as well as popular ones, that everyone would produce new and exciting programming.

But he now realizes that all that was accomplished was mediocrity, reruns show up on every channel rather than "new and innovative programming". They'd rather run Friends and Seinfeld and MASH, not that they're bad shows, but on 20 channels?  Sometimes at the same time.

Sometimes I wonder how I grew up on first 1 channel and as a teen in Windsor/Detroit, 5 channels.  Researchers say the average person watches about 17 channels of the 110 to 200 channels available on cable or satellite.

And ironically, with all those channels, it's harder to get a dramatic series on then it ever was. Why take a risk when Mash and Seinfeld is guaranteed an audience and costs way less.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Who do you love?

I got a tombstone hand and a graveyard mind,
I lived long enough and I ain't scared of dying.
Who do you love...
                       - Bo Diddley

Relationships. What we all fall into at one time or another. It's what makes us and what breaks us. And in the film industry it's as essential as water is to earth. 

Simply put, you won't get anywhere in the film business without relationships, it just don't work that way. I have accumulated dozens of relationships, some of which last the duration of a movie shoot ("we must stay in touch"), some that lasted 40 years and some that dissipate when my services are no longer required. Meaning that either they've got a shooting script or I've been replaced by another writer eager to show how much better he or she is than I was.

I've been lucky, I've only been rewritten once by another writer. But on the other hand I've rewritten a half dozen or more scripts, called in by producers to polish or fix up or change a script that was written by someone else. Sometimes I got credit, sometimes I didn't. But it was always about a relationship.

In 1998 I wrote two screenplays that were produced by Paramount and rewritten 4 others, in most cases from Page 1, which essentially means a whole new script while keeping the story. If that sounds contradictory, it really isn't, keeping the story but changing 70% of the dialog or action is still possible.

And it all came about through relationships. It started with Steve White, a producer who read one screenplay of mine and wanted to do a movie with me. We got along well, he was accomplished enough that he didn't have any insecurities nor fears, and we got along just great.  I pitched an idea, a remake of a movie I did in Canada years ago but different enough that it didn't conflict and he gave me the go-ahead.

Then he and John Levoff weren't satisfied with a screenplay written by someone else on Roswell, the New Mexico town where aliens supposedly crashed in 1947. Well, it happened that I had been to Roswell with my brother and examined the alien mythology quite well.  So Steve asked me to write a completely new screenplay.


This led to meeting with Levoff, then head of drama for UPN network, a network arm of Paramount. That led to me going to Luxembourg to rewrite two screenplays of other writers in the dubious capacity of "creative consultant". But I was there for more than just writing. I've laid out this story in a previous blog but will repeat the basics; Levoff wanted me to be his eyes and ears to an extent as he was an ocean and continent away and knew he could trust me.

Once I finished the job, I returned to L.A. to find that Steve now had set up my two movies and another one in Winnipeg and I immediately went there to rewrite my own scripts and the other one.

Again, relationships. One thing leads to another. No stranger has ever hired me, only people who were introduced to me or knew me. Relationships lead to referrals and possible jobs. And on that note, relationships won't necessarily get you a job if for some reason nobody wants to hire you.

And there's usually two reasons for a writer, actor or director not getting work.

Either they're not very good or they're hard to work with.

Publicists come up with a lot of reasons when an actor or writer or director suddenly leaves the project, often before it starts. They will usually say "creative differences" which means that the two parties differ on some aspect of the movie, script, actor, etc.  How do they decide who leaves?

Simple, the one who has the best relationship with the studio or producer. They also call it clout, but it remains the same thing.

On a movie I rewrote called Lost in the Bermuda Triangle which was filmed in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, I had a falling out with the director. To be honest, I do not suffer fools easily, I know what I can do and what I can't, or won't do.

The director, Mario from NYC told me to make some changes in the script that the producer and network had signed off on. The script was ready to shoot. I I asked "what kind of changes"? His answer; "you know, changes".  No I didn't know, and I asked him to be more specific. His answer; "you're the writer, write anything". To which I answered that he was the director and if he wanted a change, he had to tell me what to change and why and to clear it with the producer.

It led to a shouting match and I left to go to the bar and find the dirtiest tequila they had. The director called the producer requesting I be fired, the producer said no. Jim stays.

Was that just because I was being bratty or high maintenance? No, the script was ready to go, sure there were minor dialog changes as he filmed, but otherwise, unless he came up with specific ideas, I wasn't going to do anything. But that's not why I wasn't fired.

Why? Because Bob, the producer, whom everybody on the crew hated (and I still think some of the Mexican drivers would easily have dropped him off in the jungle), liked me.  And I thought he was tough, but good and knew his job. I left before the film was finished, after nearly 6 months of travel I wanted to go home and they really didn't need me anymore. Last time I spoke to Bob which was about a year ago, he said Mario messed up the movie anyways.


Lesson here is if you work on a film crew, on any job, writer, grip, driver, anyone, make relationships. Most will fade 20 minutes after the wrap party, but at least for the filming schedule, you can be a little more secure in your job.

When I worked on a series in Vancouver, I made friends with the teamster drivers. I usually make friends with everyone I can, you get more rumors and gossip that way if they trust you. I had let it be known that I had difficulty finding a new fender for my 1977 Camaro. One day a slightly used fender showed up in the parking lot. The driver walked by and said simply, "Hey Jim, someone left that for you." No questions asked.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

F.U. money

Show business is high school with money
- Martin Mull

On a recent LA talk show Avatar director and producer James Cameron was being interviewed and said that after Titanic, he finally had F.U. money. The host snickered and they exchanged a laugh. I don't know if that term applies to every type of work, but it certainly is used in the film industry.

Writers and actors and directors dream of it, hope for it and work for it. But few get that dream fulfilled. Describing it in a polite way it simply means that you have enough money that you can tell the studios and the networks to... well, you know.  You won the lottery, you never have to bend to their demands ever again. You can finance your own movie.

Which means I don't have it.

Why this vindictive stance; because those entities do everything they can to keep every dime they make and to take advantage of every artist in the business. Obviously, the big stars and writers and directors have their F.U. money but 90% have to always get what they can and hope for residuals.

When I taught UCLA extension classes a few years ago one of the common questions was "how much do writers get"? Their estimates were usually $250,000 - $500,000 based on websites that had recent payments to writers for screenplays.

Wouldn't that be nice?

Truth is, most writers get far less. Scale for a low budget movie under $5 million is around $45,000 and scale for higher budgets is around $80,000. That's way below half a million. And you might think it's still a lot of money. It is, if it were consistent. Most writers make one sale every few years and once you spread that out, it's barely over poverty  level.

The average actor in Hollywood makes less than $8,000 a year. Try to live on that.

Director's salaries are similar to writers, a little more but not that far apart.

I never really complain about this though, because I always realize one truth that makes those of us who choose an artistic life accept the consequences of our decisions to be in that end of the business.

That truth is this; we chose this business.

I believe that most people fall into their jobs; you graduate from high school or college and hunt around for a job that will afford you as many of the luxuries this country can offer and the ability to have a family if you choose. And if you're lucky and you don't end up in a dead-end job, you manage somehow to make it through the day, maybe even enjoy it but some will wonder what they missed, what they could have been.

We chose a line of work where the odds of success are so incredibly against us that it makes Vegas slots look like easy money. And for what? To tell our little stories and hopefully earn enough to make the mortgage or rent payment and maybe manage a vacation once a year. But we have one thing most people don't -  we're living our lives on our terms. We decide our fate and our lives.

So why should we complain?

I don't. The most I made on a screenplay was about $80,000 and when I realized they paid me that much to write 120 pages of screenplay, I couldn't believe it. And being Canadian I felt guilty, they were so good to me and they even said they like me. They really like me.

But my agent eased my guilt when he suggested that the companies like me less and hire me more.

My deceased friend Phil Borsos said that once you make some good money in Hollywood, you have three years to establish yourself because after that you become just another writer or director or actor sliding on their way down. And to a point he's true, I lasted longer than that for some reason, and in fact, am still in the game. Not everybody returns my calls, but enough do.

I remember a quote from Dawn Steel who was a studio head for awhile and when she left she said this; "you go from 200 calls to 10, and mostly if I didn't initiate the call there wouldn't be one coming back to me".

I have that quote under her picture on my office wall because there are days like that. Way too many days.

I was talking with  a woman who had shared her life with me for several years and recently she told me that I was one of the few people she knew who was living his dream. Can't get much better than that... well, maybe the pretty blonde actress on a series I worked on when she ran up to me with the new script and said "it's so Jim".

I want that on my gravestone. 

Even without F.U. money.

Coming Friday: Who Do You Love?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Who holds the power in Features and TV

After posting the last blog about the differences between features and TV I realized that there's still more to say -- 

Who controls their medium, how they control it and why. 

Features, as I mentioned before, are the big guys on the block. They get more money and more serious attention and go back over a hundred years. While TV was working in the mid 30's it didn't really catch on until the early 1950's. Color came in the mid 1960's.

Features are primarily a director's medium. The director is king and believe me, you get taken with that power quite easily. Anything you want or need is there in seconds, a coffee, a new chair, anything. You get driven around and your every wish, albeit realistic (although sometimes...) is taken care of.

I experienced this the first time I directed a feature, the oft-mentioned Ghostkeeper. Once when I sat by a crewmember at the bar (we were on location in the Rocky Mtns) and talked to him he said he'd never had a director who actually spoke to him in a casual situation. Since I had directed and produced hundreds of commercials, I had no illusions as to my status, I was and am an ordinary guy who lucked into extraordinary jobs.

But there was someone on the crew who wasn't a big fan. He was the 1st Assistant Director, a position that is second only to the director and his job is primarily to keep the show moving. He deals with handling the crew according to the director's wishes and pacing and schedule is everything to him.

This 1st felt he should be directing the movie as he had far more experience than me. And each day he would put down little caustic remarks in his log; "lost 15 minutes due to director indecision" etc. What he forgot is that my company was producing the movie so at the end of the day, his remarks went directly to me. This situation is rarely worked out, as egos figure into the equation and we had a few good arguments in front of the crew. Ultimately, he backed off, as I had the power to fire him.

Features also have big budgets and schedules, a big movie can shoot for 6 months while one episode of a series is done in 5-8 days.

The director has the power on a movie as he is the train engineer, he's driving, the rest of us follow. That is until he screws up. Most important is making the day, staying on schedule, followed by shooting good scenes although a good DP can cover for them. And the budget is most important, you take too long or spend too much money, you can be out and replaced faster than you know. It's not uncommon to replace the director but rarely happens.

The writer is sometimes dismissed when the studio hires another writer to replace them. Sometimes a handful of writers will take a shot at a screenplay for a feature before it's made. And more than often, a battle for credits ensues resulting in a panel of peers who have to read each draft and decide who should get the credit. It's not unusual for the original writer to just have a "story by" credit. Credits are important to writers as they determine residuals as well as provide a credit to their resume.  Often these panel decisions are met with heated arguments.

Good directors will often have the writer on set or nearby should a change be required. Insecure directors often don't want the writer around and the joke is that some directors don't like the writer on set because he/she is the only one who knows the director is faking it.

WGA rules state that a director cannot change anything in a screenplay (or script, the words are interchangeable for both TV and features) without permission from the writer. This happened to me only once, on Gentle Ben, when the company was filming in Lake Tahoe and I was 300 miles away in Los Angeles.

In some cases, the Producer is the power on the set and everywhere. These are usually huge egos and since they find the money, they are on set and watching as the director directs. I've been lucky to not have that situation in the 3 films I directed although dealt with it directing commercials.

The basic difference between features and TV is summed up like this; features are what you saw and TV is what you heard. Putting it clearer, you watch feature movies (Lawrence of Arabia, Avatar) and you listen to TV (Grey's Anatomy, CSI, etc). One medium is visual and one is talking.

Television is where the the writers rule TV. This could be dramas like Law&Order, comedies like Two and a Half Men, action shows like the CSI franchise and others.

The director is usually a paid employee who comes in, has a week of prep, does the show and then goes home. Since consistency is the heart of episodic, all directors pretty much film the episodes the same way and they are really nothing more than a traffic cop.

Having worked for months on the show, The DP and crew know how to shoot it and the director occasionally has a few ideas... pending writer approval. I always wondered how TV directors get nominated for one specific episode as compared to the others, which all look the same. I think it's more about the script for that particular episode than the way it was directed.

How did the writers get this power?

One simple thing. 

They can write.

Unlike a movie where one script is needed TV requires a new show every week, or at least 13 episodes, usually 26 in a year. And so that means 26 scripts for the same actors for the entire season. Again, consistency is needed; writers learn the strengths and weaknesses of individual actors and tune them as the show goes on.

It wasn't long  until writers realized they were the most important thing in the entire production. Nobody else could deliver a new script every week. And without a script you have a crew and director unemployed.

How many times do TV actors thank writers in speeches? Always.

How many times do they thank TV directors? Not nearly as much but often in features. Cher thanked her hair dresser for her award to which director Norman Jewison was rumoured to have said "at least she didn't do it all by herself".

Today there can be around 10 to 15 writers on some shows and they almost all use the deceiving titles of "executive producer, creative consultant, co-producer, producer, co-executive producer" and finally" written by". Ironically, there were only one or two writers in the "golden days" from the 1950's to 1970's and more freelance writers were used. 

When shooting TV series on studio lots, the writers are there on set everyday or when required and the director quietly goes about his job. It's also becoming common for a handful of directors who also share in the production and also have producer credits. Watch an episode of CSI and count the number of producers sometime.

And somewhere in the group credits is the real producer, the one who actually handles the money and makes sure each show is brought in on time and on budget. Sometimes it's one person, sometimes two or more.

Making movies and TV is an inexact science at best. The only rule is that rules change.

Maybe that's why I like it so much.

Coming soon:  F.U. money

Friday, January 8, 2010

Features vs TV

My friend Lynn Ival, actor and visual artist Lynn Ivall asked me about the difference between feature films and TV movies so while this might be old hat for some of you, let me offer my take on the whole thing.

First of all, feature films are those made for theatrical release and of course TV movies are made for what else... TV. And features end up on TV after their run is finished, usually a few weeks for average films, a month or two for more successful films, and of course, the Avatar audience will most likely keep it in theaters for maybe 6 months with one of those odd things like a theater in Toledo who plays it for the full year. 

Here's another point; features are the status movies, they are made by major studios like Paramount and Warner's and Universal. More money is spent on them (unless you count Paranormal Activity, but we know that as a "non-recurring phenomenon) and bigger stars and the prestige is greater, you could get nominated for an Academy Award vs the same nominations every year for the TV award Emmy.

Their poorer sibling, the TV movie began way back in the late 60's when TV networks  were starved for product and there were no HBO's or Showtimes that showed recent feature films. In the beginning, the movies were written by good writers and were actually very good, tackling controversial subjects and even action.

Steven Spielberg's first movie was a TV movie, called DUEL which became a cult feature film in Europe. If you haven't seen it you should. A car pursued by an evil truck on the highway, done in 12 days.

But it wasn't long until the TV movie fell into "disease of the week" as it became known as. You know, the woman who has to go to look after her dying mother or father, or the woman woman whose husband dies and she has to fend for herself. Or the woman with an incurable disease.

Notice something familiar. Yes, towards the end of the 70's they became female-orientated and stayed that way for the next 40 years until they became redundant as plots were redone and redone and re-imagined and re-thought. There were a few good TV movies but not many, not when you stick to the same formula for 40 years.

And yet today TV movies still exist. TV movie production by the major networks ceased in the early 2000's, and they were most of what I did with the exception of a few. Too much competition from pay-TV and videos pretty much killed that genre. But cable networks were quick to pick it up, the female-driven audience was new now, the GenXers with young families. And so the women's network Lifetime began producing and/or buying TV movies. One of my first projects, Betrayal of Silence, was aired by them. 

And Hallmark came along and went beyond their usual Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movies (they always had the best screenings with food and live music tied to the theme of the movie.). They had smaller budgeted family movies (my version of Gentle Ben) mostly. Their cost was in the $2 million range rather than the respected but incredibly slow-moving Hall of Fame movies at anywhere up to $9 million.

Then ABC launched it's ABC Family network to create product for their cable sibling. Then came Sci-Fi Channel which bought science-fiction themed movies with monsters and creatures from other worlds. 

And then the prices dropped in the late 2000's, some producers were making these movies for less than $1 million dollars. Most of my TV movies were in the $2.5 to $5 million mark. Suffice it to say these movies weren't very good at all, with B and C level talent and many done in Canada to help keep the costs low.

A friend of mine made one called Savage Planet, where giant bears populated a planet and he had only one day to shoot with a trained bear who waved his paws a few times. The result was fairly comical but it was supposed to be a sci-fi thriller.

Then something else was created.

There's yet another species of movie being made now and before. It's primarily aimed at the DVD market and just to make it confusing, is sometimes referred to as a feature film. But these films never see a big screen nor do they play on regular TV. They are simply made for DVD release and usually star Michael Madsen, Val Kilmer (who seems to have destroyed his feature career), Eric Roberts (did one for me) and a lot of other actors who have slid down the slippery slopes of mediocrity.

I recently read a casting ad for one name actor for $50,000 for one day's work. Thus his name could be put on the DVD box.  Seems the producer hired two other "name" actors, each at $50,000 a day and each in maybe 4 or 5 scenes.  The lead actors were people you never heard of.  The money's not great a once A-list actor, but everyone has bills to pay.  And these guys can get a lot of days like that.

I'm told these "straight to DVD" movies play in Europe and Asia, and this is confirmed as I get residuals from at least 2 movies that went to DVD from Great Britain and Europe with some in Asia and Russia. My best residual was from Turkey for 67 cents.

But, as I mentioned in a previous blog, things are changing. A new format will be released soon into the DVD market but it isn't a DVD, it's a memory card. Like the one in your digital point and shoot camera. Only bigger to fit the full-size video box. Some of you might have forgotten the major concern with DVDs when they came out: they would be easy to steal. So bigger boxes were created and sealed to prevent this.

And of course, the great DVD/BlueRay killer is on-demand video, which I have on Netflix. I can play movies on my computer when I want but those people with new TV sets will have internet jacks built into them and they can now watch some (not all, not yet) movies on big-screen TV straight from Netflix bypassing DVDS completely.

The memory card described above is cute, but I think it'll go the way of Video discs. Remember them?

How quickly we forget.

And what about movies. They will continue to be made for those markets described above that still exist or will manage to keep their heads above water. But budgets will be lower as more people download movies illegally. A whole generation has grown up thinking it's their right to not pay for anything, movies and music included.

People say "it's not everyone", and no, it's not, but in a world of over 6 billion, even 1% can hurt the industry.  There are 6 million people in the U.S. who download illegal movies in 3 months with 60% being porno, and the rest being TV shows and movies.

I want my 67 cents!!

Coming Monday - who holds the power in features and TV