Friday, July 30, 2010


Well, seems like moving my mother has taken a somewhat difficult turn. It seems her health is failing rapidly, she has had 2 heart attacks last year and diabetes and kidney failure and walked away from that.

But now, anemia has snuck in and she is losing blood and they really can't find out where it's going, although a tumor is possible. Regardless, the weakness caused by the loss of oxygen and blood makes it difficult for her to do anything.  She's 87, still has a sister in Michigan who's 96 but I fear she won't last as long.

It's not really unexpected though. I'm here in the town I was born in a hundred years ago, it seems, a different life in a little village of 550 residents, and far away from Hollywood. My first experience with movies was when my mom and dad (he passed away in 2000) took me to see Disney's Living Desert movie.

And once the screen revealed a giant rattlesnake I screamed like hell. So much that mom took me up to the projectionist, Leonard Kominski, who kept me through the rest of the movie. I watched the projector humming and clicking as film ran thru it and was totally fascinated.

And that's where it all began.

From the age of 8 or so I would see every movie that came to the little town, and if it were adult, I would sit by the exit door at the back of the theater and listen to the sound of people talking.

And I knew that someday I would be in Hollywood. 

We moved to Windsor and Detroit in the 60's and I went from a town of 550 to nearly 5 million and soaked it up like a sponge. I could actually buy a copy of Variety at a Detroit newsstand and even though I didn't quite understand it, I knew it was about the movies.

And now I'm back at the beginning again, the old theater is still there, and shows 2 movies a week. But this time, I'm not here to celebrate but to compromise in that life isn't beginning, rather it's ending for my mother who reminded me the other day about that night I got scared.

And somehow, it was comforting, and now it is my turn to comfort her.

I'll be posting more later.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

On the road

I'm traveling to Manitoba to assist my mother in her move to a senior's home, and will be somewhat inconsistent in my blogs for a day or two. I only have access to internet at the local library.

Above is Interstate 15 inUtah.

Oh, and I think I sold a screenplay. More on that later.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Film festival friends

Today something different, I want to acknowledge some of the great people who are friends of mine. There are three, all of whom have had their films accepted by film festivals. Two are former students and one is my partner in Travel Day.

Maggie Franks is a mom and surfer in San Clemente as well as taking a few semesters of my UCLA course. She got together a bunch of young filmmakers and her son and made a documentary short called The Board Meeting,  described as "two old guys reflect on their past, their future and everything in between at their weekly board meetings". The film was selected by Action on Film International Film Festival in Pasadena CA.

Randy Gifford is another ex-student who made two feature-length movies for $10,000. Yes, 2 movies for ten grand. Talk about low budget. He shot them both in 30 days, using the same actors. Cafe Co-Existence won an award at the Illinois Indie Fest and was also accepted the International Film Festival in Pasadena. 

His other film, The Best Sex, was also accepted at Action on Film International Film Festival and also a nomination for Best Actress as well as IndieFest Film Festival in Illinois. And if you want to know how he did it, go to his website  It's also on this blog on the left side, under Materials.

Then there's Shirley Petchprapa, who began this blog with me over a year ago. Shirley will direct Travel Day, which is the reason this blog exists. She made two short films this year that have been accepted internationally.

Roxy has been officially accepted at Marabella International Film Festival in Spain, 63 Degree Fest in Locarno Switzerland and Santa Monica International Film festival.

Tuesday has won for Best Soundscape and is an Official Selection at Indie Spirit Film Festival in Colorado Springs, Frameline 34 Film Festival in San Francisco as well as United San Francisco Film Festival.

Shirley has trailers for both films. Tuesday can be seen at and Roxy can be seen at

We've had a hard year with Travel Day, the ups and downs can break a partnership but ultimately we both respect what we do and I look forward to producing a feature film with Shirley this year.

Good luck to all.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Ups and Downs

So then the Alberta boys, Sean and Rick, will try to get Emperor of Mars made. For awhile I didn't hear anything, then they called and said someone from Telefilm (the Canadian federal film financing entity) is going to read the script.

A few words about financing films in Canada by Canadians and for Canadians primarily although the Telefilm bureaucrats like to think the films are made for a world-wide audience. There are two separate schools of film in Canada, the English and the French. English Canada which is the majority make English films and rarely anybody in Canada sees them.

 Most of the time they don't want to see them. I remember leaving a screening in Calgary of Montenegro, a European film from the 80's. Two men were walking out disappointed, one says to the other "we should have known it would be bad, it was Canadian".

Now the irony was that it wasn't Canadian, it was made by Europeans in Europe. But, at the beginning of the film a credit showed the Canadian film distributor, Pan-Canadian Films. But they were only the distributor. And it was in subtitles!

But I learned what Canadians think of Canadian films. Sure, there is a film community and they all like to think there's a vibrant film industry. But again, Canadian films rarely get seen by anybody except sales to pay-TV outlets. And very few if any make money. One movie about a famous battle in World War I called Paschendale cost $20 million and made back about $5 million and was declared a box office winner and financial success. 

I think they're at least $15 million short of even breaking even.

But it was one of the biggest money-makers for English Canada in years. Incidentally the biggest one was probably Porky's, a teen hip, sexy comedy that made over $100 million. But that was made with tax shelter money years ago and Telefilm doesn't like exploitation films. 

The French Canadian industry is exactly the opposite. They make excellent films, one even won an Oscar a few years ago as best foreign picture. They have local TV series in Quebec that get bigger ratings then CSI-Miami does.

The reason for this difference is often debated; but here's mine. English Canada tends to make poor copies of American or British films and Quebec makes films from their own identity and there are around 10 million Quebecois who will watch. Simple.

So when the Alberta boys said they were giving it to Telefilm I felt that it would never be accepted. Emperor of Mars was turned down everywhere in Canada and yet it got so much attention in the US not to mention writing jobs on other screenplays.  Go figure. 

I never heard from them for a few more months. Once in a while, Sean the smooth one would call and say there was "movement", and the tax credits were almost in place. Then no word, until finally the option expired. But they wanted to renew the option for a second year.

Since they had the right to do so, I said ok. But this time the option fee, which was supposed to be $10,000 but down to $2000 the first time, this time was down to $1000. This was after Sean told me he was buying a farm in northern Alberta. Maybe that's where the missing $9000 went.

And again, nobody was offering anything and $1000 is better than nothing. So I said okay again. And again for a whole year the same scenario; someone is gonna read it at Telefilm or someone is going to read it at CBC (our national TV network). Add a few phone calls that it is still "moving" in circles. 

Ultimately movement ended in February 2010.

They never called to say good-bye. It's July now and still  no call. No renewal, no Sean, no Mike. It was like they were wiped off the face of the planet.

And I have Emperor of Mars back in my hands.  So I decided I might as well try to get the project going by myself.  I went back through all the executives and producers and readers and friends who had ever read it.

And I began calling them, many had left their jobs, some were higher up on the food chain and others simply gone.  Two of them were very interested,  an exec at Paramount and an exec at Fox Home Entertainment. Two giant companies.

And this week, a producer who is interested is meeting a distribution company who was very interested in 1997 and while it was the father, the son is going to take a meeting as they say.

What do I think?  I think it's best summed up by reggae singer Jimmy Cliff's classic song; 

"You can get it if you really want, but you must try, try and try. Try and try."

(Thurs:  ex-student successes)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Promises & Lies and deception

A little story about my Alberta producers, Sean and Rick. About 15 years ago, I was introduced to them by an exec who worked at Porchlight Entertainment. Porchlight specialized in family entertainment. 

An agent had set up a meeting for me with Sean and Rick and apparently we were going in to pitch a project that Sean and Rick had.  Great, I thought. We met with Joe, the exec, in the boardroom and talked about the story, a family that gets lost in the woods, and it looked like we had a deal.

I stepped out for a coffee and as I stood in their little lunchroom I heard Joe talking to someone on the phone in his office, he was alone. He was talking about the movie we just pitched and then said these words; 

"And we're getting a Canadian writer to write it for free." 


Stunned? Yes, I was never told this by Sean or Rick. So what do I do?

I waited as our meeting was pretty much over anyways and then as we walked back to our cars, I confronted them. To add insult to injury they said, yes it was for free. But I wasn't told this, otherwise I wouldn't have even taken the meeting.

They both acted hurt, said they got me a job and I didn't want it and that all they were doing was trying to help. Let me say this about that; I wouldn't be able to count the number of times someone has asked me to write for free. Dozens. No, hundreds. Really.

I think producers often think writing a script is like writing a get well card. I left them uncertain and went home.

Later, I thought about it and figured this; it was an easy script to write, I could do it in a few weeks if I had to; and it was almost Christmas and the town would be closed for at least 3 weeks. I also had another card to play.

I wrote the script in 3 weeks and sent it to them. They loved it. No doubt because it didn't cost them anything. They flew down in the new year and we met Joe again. Joe was happy too. But not for long.

Then I asked them to option it. They stared at each other, uncertain and then Sean the smooth one said they couldn't possibly do that, they had no money.

To which I replied that it's all right.

I'll just keep the script and hand it over to my agent who would shop it around to someone who could option it. Family scripts aren't hard to sell.

They stared again. But how could I do that? Wasn't it their script?


Sean and Rick had sent me a contract over Christmas but I never signed it.

The script was mine. Totally for sure, eh?

Two weeks later I got a new contract and an option fee of $2500. The film was eventually never made but I at least squeezed some money from them.

And now they held the option to Emperor of Mars and I couldn't help wondering if they still had some resentment towards me. But I did include them in the commercial pilot's attempt to do Emperor albeit a failure, I still gave them a shot to make a pile of money. I'm a good guy, I wanted to share.

And besides, once again, nobody else was offering a dime. I learned a long time ago that holding out never worked for me, others seem to do it effortlessly, but not me. I say no and they never come back.

Except when I really don't want to do something. I've had a few offers to rewrite screenplays that were awful and I just didn't want to do it because I knew it would be a stressful and horrible experience comparable to that TV series I blogged about a few months ago. And that cost me hand surgery and 3 back surgeries.

My only concern was that I wasn't sure they could raise $5 million in spite of Sean's enthusiasm, the only film they totally financed was about $1.5 million, the other movies they made were almost totally financed by American networks and/or studios.

Someone once said that if we just worked with people we liked, nobody would ever make a movie again.

So let the games begin.

(Mon: Up/Down)

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Emperor gets yet another chance

Now that the airline pilot/producer wasn't able to fund Emperor because of winter and some unknown reason about the funders, which he told me was one word, "greedy" which I took to mean some of the several producers might have wanted more money.

When you get a handful of money people in the room, it's like two cats in a file box, there's gonna be trouble. And this was only 5 producers (I'm including all categories of producer title  including Executive Producers and Co-producers as well.)

But how about 20 Producers?

20? Twenty?

There once was a very fine British movie called The Wicker Man with Edward Woodward, a great Brit actor.  The story is about a policeman who goes to a strange island off the coast of England to find a missing girl. But once on the island he cannot leave. It was produced by Peter  Snell.

Then in 2006 an American company  remade it as the industry now seems to lean towards comic books, sequels and remakes for their movie ideas. It starred Nicholas Cage, an ok actor but no Edward Woodward. But he can carry a movie, so I'll give Nic that.

This new version of Wicker Man had 20 producers. That means each one of them must have been getting some money. 

Was it better because it had 20 producers? What do you think? It was awful, they even changed the ending to a "Happy ending" that we all know audiences prefer. But Nic needs the money and the cost of the movie itself was probably less than his and the producers salaries.

I didn't know it yet, but very soon I would have 2 producers, not 5 and not 20. Two.

About a week after the pilot and I had our rift, Sean, the producer from Alberta called me and said they wanted to make Emperor of Mars. Sean loved it, could see it made in the golden wheatfields of Saskatchewan in the summer. This was December.

They would even option it and pay me, "whatever I wanted" was Sean's words. And I could direct it too. And they would fund it themselves and he went into a financing scheme that they just did by incorporating two provinces and two tax credits. But it was for a $1.5 million movie. Mine was $5 million.  Sean said the classic words., "this will be the only project we do this year, Jim".

I said OK, sounds good.

Then his partner, Rick, the quiet one sent me the first draft of the contract. They would option it for 2 years and an option fee of $2000.

An option fee with the guilds, either WGA or WGC, is 10% of the purchase price. The purchase price was $100,000.

And $2000 isn't 10% of $100,000 no matter how you look at it or how much you pay the lawyer. I called Rick and asked if it was a typo? Well, Rick said, they'd had a hard year and inbetween the vacations to Hawaii and Vegas and the property Sean was buying and the hundred bottles of expensive wine he bragged to me about...

They just didn't have the money.

Seems like old times. I was right  back to almost the free options again.  But right now nobody was offering anything more and they had made 40 movies, albeit financed 80% by US money and the rest was basically tax credits, not equity on their part.,

But nobody else was calling.

So I said OK. Again.

I signed the contract, got my $2000 and then did what writers do when they make a deal.

I waited. And waited.

(Thurs:  Promises & Lies)

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Easy come, easy go

This is the proposal that Phil came up with, including artwork and detailed information. This is what would be passed to private investors, everything from a poster we created to budget, estimated gross income, schedule and everything else assoicated with mounting a project budgeted at $5 million.

The cost of making this proposal could be in hundreds of dollars, but since we did it ourselves, mostly Phil and his partners, it cost only printing and binding.

Phil even autographed mine, the one you see.

I felt confident that the money could be found, Phil was not comfortable with the Alberta boys, Rick and Sean, but they had around 40 movies completed in the last 10 years, almost all of them with American partners. I couldn't really understand Phil's apprehension as they had almost 40 times as many movies as he had made.

Surely this should prove something; that they can make a movie and that they can work with Americans. But Phil resisted.

Part of it was probably the cost of these two Alberta producers, they would supply the crew, the editing and almost everything else except for the above the line costs, producer, writer, director and stars.

One of the things that happens on these privately financed movies is that the producers usually take a huge fee for themselves, and Phil already had several partners on this project, each wanting a piece of the pie. In fact the budget for above the line was almost $1 million dollars. This is 25% of the budget.

But a new budget made by the Alberta guys took the above the line to $1.7 million, adding more for a lead actor and for their salaries. And yet, keeping it to $5 million. And we would now have 6 producers. Except that the Alberta guys could come in with tax credits that would amount to almost $1 million alone.

This is best explained by saying that at the end of filming, the government of Alberta writes us a check for almost $1 million. And that could go to the investors (usually) or to the producers.

Phil was bent on doing it his way, getting the full budget from an investment group in the U.S. I still felt that the Canadian way was better, mostly because it was essentially a Canadian story; based on my childhood.

An essential part of the film was wheatfields; and as I knew, wheatfields are usually harvested in late summer, sometimes early September. And it was now June. In order to film golden fields of wheat we needed to start production now.

The hardest part of this for me was waiting. Phil would call from Rome or Paris as he was still flying across the world, his real job. He would say they were close, so close and to get ready. Since I couldn't really do anything to help them, I waited.

In July I left for Canada for a regular summer holiday in my hometown, spending time with my mother. I stopped in Montana and had the state film office take me to various locations in case we filmed in Montana, which I knew very well and would enjoy filming it there.

But as the days passed, Phil continued to have problems with his investors, there seemed to be disagreements over who got how much and how it would be divided. Since I was never part of that association, I just heard that it was up or down, or up or maybe down.

Finally, it was August and now, no real chance of the wheatfields being what we needed. In desperation, I called film offices in South America, Australia and even South Africa to see if they had wheatfields in December. And indeed, some did.

Then I got the big call. It was off. The investors, for some reason, couldn't come to an agreement. I wanted to know more but it turned into a bit of a shouting match over telephones with Phil and I.

It was over.

Another shot for the Emperor, and another downed attempt. 

(Mon: Never say it's over)

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Emperor gets another shot

Catching up, the Emperor of Mars screenplay has now gone through 4 different producers with two of them being quite legitimate; ABC/Disney and an Academy winning Director. Now it was out on the street again, and while there were a few calls in the year that followed, nothing really happened.

Then the pilot entered the picture. 

Phil Williams actually was a student of mine; he had taken a few semesters of my screenwriting extension classes at UCLA. I had taught various screenwriting courses on a part-time basis for a little over two years and finally got tired of offering false hope to a lot of people who simply didn't know how to write, nor would they ever learn. And the university cared mostly about them taking more courses.

Not that it was a bad thing; for one thing I realized I knew a lot about this business, having been it almost every aspect of it for more years than I care to expand on. I knew this as I was able to deal with any question asked of me and better still, could offer sound advice as well as interesting and insipring lectures.

My class was on-line, which I think is way better than classroom methods, where the instructor lectures for half the class then someone reads a bit of their screenplay for the rest of the time. In an online class, I and the students were always writing, reading, commenting and writing. You learn a lot more that way.

And as it happened, Phil was in at least one class, maybe two. His was one of the dozen or so screenplays that actually worked and told a dramatic story. We got along but after he left we didn't keep in touch that much. He was a pilot for a major American airline and had actually produced a family movie.

So when he called me and I had told him about Emperor's failed attempts he came back with an offer to fund it.

So Emperor could get another shot at it. 

I thought about it for a week or so and then decided why not; what would I lose, nothing really and he had just made a movie so he must know what he's talking about.

Phil was a mover, he started the process by creating a proposal complete with an artist's conception of a poster which I posted here again. And for the first time, I would direct it. But when he had all the contracts printed up, it wasn't what I would have liked.

He wanted a free option.

Meaning he didn't want to pay the 10% downpayment on the script which is carved in stone in the WGA independent agreement. One thing I've learned about this business, is that if someone really wants to make a movie, they are going to offer some money. Of the 5 options so far, only ABC/Disney (aka ABC Family) paid the full amount.

The moment was tense, Phil actually got angry at the thought that I should get money as he was doing all the work and I wasn't. It's always an awkward moment because two things can happen in these things; neither of us would trust each other completely.

But since nobody else was knocking on Emperor's door, I said ok, no option fee. But only one year and if the project failed I would get it back before that year was up. Phil agreed.

Over the months the project pushed forward, there were money people interested, we talked about filming in the U.S. or Canada and I knew all the tax credit formulas for the western Canadian provinces. I contacted two producers I knew in Calgary who had completed well over 40 movies for American companies and we met them near LAX once for a face-to-face meeting. Let's call them Rick and Sean.

Phil had a friend, one of those people who was a player of sorts, someone who'd been around the film business but never quite made it. Jackie was a hustler of sorts, very different from Phil who was one of the top pilots at his airline and a man very confident and smart.

Sean from Calgary was a hustler type as well and it wasn't long before he and Jackie were sparring, each trying to catch the other in an exaggeration or straight-out lie. I really didn't care for this b.s. and it gave me a sour feeling on both of those two. With Phil it was straight and with Rick from Calgary it was straight, but the other two were intent on showing how hip they were.

The goal of this was to get the Calgary boys to come in for at least 40% of the budget of $5 million. They could get around 24% from Alberta's incentive program but that still left around 25% to come from another Canadian source. They felt this could come from a presale to Canadian TV and maybe a few other sources.

But Phil wasn't comfortable with the Canadian end, he'd never really done a co-production with Canada and, living in Orange County  near San Diego, wasn't really sure about Canada in the first place.

(Thurs: Flying Pt 2)

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The man with a gold statuette

So far, three failed attempts at making Emperor of Mars. About a year or so later after the ABC Family channel dumped the project, I got a call from an agent friend, Jack Scott that someone had read my script and loved it. People in LA always love things; scripts, films, lunch at the Ivy and many other things. 

By this time, having spent 10 years in LA, I learned what love means; it means they think your script is good but want to meet you first to see if you're a normal person or insane. And it also means they don't necessarily want to buy it, but want to assure you they're in your corner.

At least until a studio or company passes on your script. 

Then they can say they still love it even as they stop showing it around.

Okay, not always, but at least half the time.

Scott said someone named Xavier Koller was interested. More importantly Xavier had won an Academy Award for Best Director for a foreign film. The film was called Journey of Hope and was made in 1990. I quickly checked his credentials on and sure enough he was the real thing.

And he wanted to make Emperor.

We all met at the agent's office in Beverly Hills which was once the office for ICM, a major agency and where I lasted 6 months before my agent left to go on his own. But that's another story.

At the meeting was Scott and the agency head, myself, Xavier and a man I shall call Wendall. Xavier was a very modest and engaging person, no real ego and very much a straight shooter. We got along instantly as his idea of Emperor was similar to mine.

Scott took over the meeting first saying I would be paid $100,000 and that the budget would be at least $5 million. Not a huge movie, not even catering on Avatar, but for me, it was the best offer since I wrote Emperor way back in 1989.


Yes, for the record, Emperor is my one of my oldest screenplays, and now 21 years old. Old enough to get a dry Martini in California.

And it's not uncommon for movies to take this long to get made. Titanic took 12 years, Where the Wild Things Are took 36 years. Yes, 36! Avatar took 15 years, On the Road, the famous 1955 novel byJack Kerouac book is just starting preproduction and has gone through dozens of people over a span of over 50 years.

If you don't have passion for your project, then you're in the wrong business. Because only passion can help overcome those years of waiting.

Our meeting was short and to the point, money would come from the U.S., and from Canadian tax incentives and straight-out, no nonsense real INVESTORS. When the subject came to the investors I asked who they were.

Wendall smiled and said they were from Montreal. Canadian Investors.

My radar went up.

I asked if they would be investing real cash or were they expecting to include the tax incentives that we already had coming from the US investment. Wendell smiled again and said "No", they were not asking for the tax credits.

For a moment, consider this; the tax credit is basically life to Canadian investors. Depending on which province they film in, the return on their investment can be, at that time a few years ago, around 50% of labor or approximately 20% of the total budget. And no Canadian investor will put a dime in unless they get back that credit.

For Emperor that's almost $1 million in a check handed to the Canadian producers after an audit after the film is completed. That's not a bad return. And I couldn't imagine those Montreal guys not wanting that. I would.

But everyone seemed positive and I didn't want to rain on the parade. Seeing as they were mostly Americans except for myself and Xavier who is Swiss, they really didn't know the Canadian system as well as I did.

We all left feeling good, I wanted to believe Wendall so went with him on his promise to deliver clean investors. In the weeks that followed, a budget was made, Xavier and I had story meetings and it all looked good.

Then, just before I was supposed to sign the deal for the script, the deal fell apart. And for the reasons I thought. The Montreal investors wanted and needed the tax incentives as part of their deal. Otherwise no deal.

That left us with a big hole in the budget, mainly depending on the U.S. funding. In the weeks that followed all parties attempted to find the missing  part of the budget with little success. Then I noticed the parties taking longer and longer to return my calls.

It was over.

Xavier called me and we met a few times,  he was ready to bring in German and Swiss money and I do believe he honestly tried. But by now, it was late summer and too late to shoot a film before winter came.

We put it off until spring and spoke to each other now and then. Once in a while Xavier thought he had a good lead but it would fade but our calls continued and now we keep in touch from time to time. He has offered to find financing but I wasn't sure even though I felt  Xavier is a good man and I believed he would do an excellent job of directing.

After all the years I spent with other directors, I decided that, if it's this hard, I might as well be the director. Who better?  And I have directed; 3 movies and a few hundred TV commercials.

Then, just when I least expected it, after another year I got a call from someone else. A former student in the classes I taught at UCLA extension in Screenwriting.

He wanted to make Emperor and was ready to start.

Did I mention he was a commercial airline pilot too?

(Mon: Emperor flies)