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)

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