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)

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