Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Creative Process - Part 2

Emperor of Mars is considered one of my best screenplays and has been on the desk of virtually every studio executive in Hollywood. It got me meetings with every company from Amblin Entertainment (Spielberg's company) to Zucker Brothers (who made the Airplane movies) and everyone in between.

Yet it was never made.

At least so far (he says cautiously).

So what happened?

One of the most common subjects that come up when I'm at a party or visiting regular folks (not show biz types) is this; They all have the greatest story anyone can imagine and are sure it would be a great movie.

It's their life story. 

And if I would write it they would be happy to share the money. And the awards.

We all want to write our story, and why not, everyone else is doing it. Look at that movie Sandra Bullock will win an oscar for, that's a real story. There isn't a week that goes by that there isn't some true-life story.

So why not yours. Or mine?

There's a saying that goes "Show me the boy at & and I'll show  you the man". In fact it was the basis for a remarkable series of documentaries in England that followed 15 boys and girls at 7 and revisited them every 7 years. I think they're now in their late 50's.

What it suggests is that the person you are at 7 is the person you'll be as an adult. And if you don't believe this is possible, you have to rent one of the above docs to believe it. The first one was called 7 UP, the second 14 UP, and so on. The last one I saw was 49 UP.

I grew up in a tiny town called Benito in a lush green valley of Manitoba up to the age of 12 and like other writers, always wanted to write a tale of my youth. But being an experienced writer I knew there had to be a better story than going to school and playing with my friends. That was not a movie.

I had the characters and the time frame but I had no story. Nothing really happened to me that was big or traumatic or even interesting.

Until I found the Emperor of Mars.

I was well into my late 30's when I discovered a newspaper story about a recording that was played on radio back in the 1950's from someone who called himself The Emperor of Mars. It was a real broadcast on radio stations from Los Angeles all the way to the Canadian prairies. The "Martian" was coming to Earth and would tell us all the secrets of the Universe as well as how corrupt our governments were.


What followed, and I have headlines in several newspapers, was a lot of UFO sightings. Remember this was in the 50's and we had no CNN or Twitter. And finally on the fateful day... the Emperor never showed up.

But in 1989 I had my story.

It would be about a 12 year old boy, based on me, and how he came to believe the Emperor was coming to his little town. To make it more interesting, I created a character named Nicodemus, who was a soldier who had returned from the war and lived a solitary life. Both of them would believe the Emperor was coming. And as the time comes near, we see how the town reacts, good and bad.

I applied for funding from a development source and got around $8000 to write it from a wondeful woman named Tara Twigg.  Her real name. In fact she suggested the title. I wrote the script in about 4 weeks and began showing it in Los Angeles.

The reaction was immediate. Everyone wanted to meet me, everyone loved the script. One time I had 8 meetings in one day, all at studios. And the first thing they asked was: 

So what else do you have? 

My first big lesson in Hollywood. They may love your writing but that doesn't mean they love your story.

Through the last 20 years, the script has been optioned at least 7 times, once with an Academy Award winning director, once with a major studio, and three times with independent production companies.

The last option ended two weeks ago.

Now that it's mine again, I'm going to try to get it made this year. Just like Travel Day. Except I would direct and my great friend John Holbrook, would film it.

So why wouldn't they make it?

Nobody really knows, except that one comment seems to center on the fact that there's no "movie star" role in it. It's about a bunch of kids. It needs a star.

Who was the star in Stand By Me? I bet most of you can't name the cast at all.

But that's being picky of me, someone once said.

Last year I wrote a novelization of the screenplay with the hopes of publishing a book. At present I have my friend Chris Sullivan, whose blog is in my favorites, doing an excellent narration track that you have to listen to. Once I figure out how to get it on my Facebook page.

As to how this ties into Travel Day is becoming interesting. I started the blog in August 09 strictly for Travel Day and the hopes that I could do a blog on how to make a movie. It continues to get a good response, and I realize now, it reveals to many the day-to-day workings of a guy trying to get a movie made.

You've shared the ups and downs, the excitement and the depression, and now you're seeing how a filmmaker survives in this business and in this town.

And how it can change from Travel Day to Chaser to Emperor of Mars, and yet they are all here and shuffling for position which changes day to day and month to month.

And it's not over yet.

(next: Rachel's back)

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Creative process

I've mentioned this before but I have worked on at least 70 screenplays, most of which were never made. These include rewrites and polishes for producers, networks, studios and even myself. One of the readers asked how writers write so since we're in a bit of limbo this week awaiting some news of Travel Day, as well as toying with Chaser and Emperor of Mars, I figured I might talk about how I do it.

And that's the first big thing. How I do it isn't necessarily how any other of the 8000 screenwriters in WGA do it. Nobody creates the same way. It's as individual as a fingerprint or better still, DNA.

If there was one thing that I could think of that seems to guide and push me forward in this screenwriter life, it is this; 


I want to know everything. 

Right now, I have five books;  Parallel Worlds by Michio Kaku on quantum physics,  Woody Allen on Woody AllenIn Search of the Old Ones by David Roberts on the Anasazi tribe in the southwest, Where I'm Calling From, a collection of Raymond Carver short stories and Tear Down this Myth by William Bunch on Ronald Reagan.

I have them in different places, living room, bedroom, office and of course the best place, the bathroom. Reagan's book is there.

I read the LA Times thoroughly every day and get a few magazines although I have to admit Consumer's Reports is my favorite, I've had a subscription for years and years.

You can learn alot about stuff in CS.

And you might have noticed one common factor. 

They're all non-fiction. 

I don't read a lot of fiction. It's work. Whenever I start a fiction book, I began analyzing it, breaking it down,  noting the scenes and the structure. I'm working. I do read Stephen King as  his writing is continuous, fast, well done and he gets into character so much better than most writers.

Ironically that's why many movies made from his books don't work. Because producers often take out the character and just depend on the idea, which, in itself isn't enough.

I love any non-fiction book on almost any subject because I'm learning. And that's the difference.  But I know screenwriters who do read fiction. But I know more who don't.

Years ago I was one of the first people to get the Sony cassette Walkman (yeah, I know, that's so analog, Jim as a teen told me once). I  had it on for about 2 days and realized I didn't want to block myself off from the real world, I want to hear traffic and people fighting and music blaring. To me, it's life. I do have an iPod but only for music played through my cassette deck in my SUV.


I was in a little town in Montana called Forsyth early one morning, that's the main street in the photo above. One cafe open, one cowboy, one waitress and one Jim.  I have a gift of getting people to talk. It's not really hard, just ask them about themselves.

So after the waitress told me how she moved from Nebraska and a bad boyfriend, I noticed a little note near the cash register. It read simply; "If Mary B. comes in make sure she pays for her meal before she gets it." 

I had to know what Mary B. had done to deserve this memo. It turned out that Mary B. often showed up for breakfast after a night of drinking and carousing, and would order and eat breakfast and leave without paying. She wasn't running away, she just forgot to pay.

My first question was: "Will Mary B. be coming this morning?"  I wanted to see her.

Some would say that sounds like a condescending remark, turning her into a joke. It wasn't. I was serious. I wanted to see that character, how she walked and talked and ate. And I know at some point, that would go into a screenplay.

You wouldn't believe how many screenplays have started with a character like that. What got me about the story was not the drinking, but how the cafe handled it. They didn't call the police, they just put a note up. And it reflected a value I found interesting.

But it took me years to get to that point where I could smell something possibly good, a gem that might turn out to be gold.

Most of my stories are based in truth, and the others have characters based in truth. Because I could never create something as good or bad as what people say and do.

There was another time I was stuck in Casper, Wyoming in a storm. Hungry, I found a small steakhouse attached to a Holiday Inn and went in. Just as I got my steak the power went out. There were 6 customers and 2 waitresses and a cook and me. Nobody knew what to do.

I suggested they bring candles, every restaurant must have candles. The waitresses did and we all lit candles around a few tables and as the storm raged, we ate and enjoyed the company of strangers for one of the most memorable meals I've ever had.

The interesting thing is that I just described very ordinary things. Things that happen every day to everybody. The difference with me is that I can see a story in some of those things, not all of them, but some of them.

There's an odd thing that happens to me now; I have a separate "hard drive" in my brain that now automatically locates and stores these little stories in different files. Sometimes I'm not even aware I'm doing it. My friends can mention a town, or a place, or a person, and my little hard drive hums up a few stories.

Learning to write good was hard for me. I take some consolation in that Paul Newman said the same thing about acting. It did not come easy to him. I have always said that I have little real talent, but my greatest talent is my stubborness. I refuse to give up. Those who followed this blog since the beginning know that.

And that takes me back to the 24 or so screenplays I have that were never made. I happen to think they are all makeable, even now as some are 20 years old. Just change the dial phone to a cell and it's ready to go.

My first screenplay was awful. Really awful. About a kid who goes to a fine arts school in the Rockies, based on my summer in Banff with my now ex-wife. It was just plain bad.

Except for one scene. A scene where the kid confronts his father about values. It was good. But one good scene doesn't make a movie. I think it took me 2 years to really write something that I thought was not bad. And I made it in 1980, Ghostkeeper, a suspense-thriller similar to The Shining. 

But it wasn't all that good either.

Back to the drawing boards. I spent a few more years just writing. All the time. Some scripts lasted 120 pages, some only 20 pages. Then came the breakthrough screenplay. 

It was Emperor of Mars. 

And it was all about me. Sort of.  Stay tuned. 

Oh, and I waited and waited for Mary B. but she never showed up that morning.

Friday, February 19, 2010

A Martian wouldn't say that

For those of you who have been around since I started back in August and for anyone new you've probably noticed how often I focus on incompetent executives or directors and producers. There are a lot of them, to be sure.

But I also mention the good ones, which, unfortunately are fewer than the others. More often than not, those who are not particularly welcomed are the ones who know it all. They know all about filmmaking, distributing and generally anything else.

Some years ago I submitted a screenplay to a producer. I hadn't heard from him for months until I saw him at a party. I asked if he had read the screenplay, he said yes and then mentioned it was a lot like the French film Alphaville. 

That seemed odd as it was nothing like Alphaville, an offbeat futuristic movie. So I asked him if he had ever seen Alphaville. His answer was; "no but a friend told me about it."

So how would you rate that comment on your script? Or your pasta?

So I decided to share other writer experiences with studio and network executives and let you be the judge.

These come from a book called "A Martian Wouldn't Say That", mostly a collection of memos from TV execs. The title refers to a note given to a writer on My Favorite Martian, a sitcom of the 60's,  and referred to dialog written for the actor playing the Martian.  Of course the logical comment would be "how would you know that?"

Here's several real notes from execs:

"We cast a black actor as our lead but the way you've written the dialog, we can't tell that."
  That's what we intended.
"Then how will the audience know he's black?" 

"Considering today's sensibilities, when you discuss euthanasia, be sure you do so in a positive light".

"We have run the sequence of the barmaid serving drinks over and over. There is too much cleavage."

"Please consider eliminating the child abuse and homosexual references, they are no longer popular with audiences." 

"In this script, Beverly is described as "on top of everything". Please define "everything."

"This is the best script of Addams Family we've read in a year. Attached are the notes for the rewrite".

"I think you're making a mistake having so many French involved in the production of Les Miserables." 

"In response to your list of suggested writers for your upcoming pilot; who is Truman Capote?" 

Sent to Joseph Wambaugh, ex LAPD officer & screenwriter: "Regarding scene on page 38, we don't think cops really talk that way. Please correct. 

"I'm really excited by your new script, those who read it tell me it's exceptionally good."

And this is what we deal with at least half the time, sometimes more. Who was it who said movies are high school with money.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Chasing money.

Well, it has come to this. The Tiki God of Money now sits on my desk.

When all else fails, go spiritual as my favorite Catholic nun, Sister Mary, used to say. 

But she was the one who would dance down the hallway singing "the hills are alive with music."

She lasted five years, last I heard she was a development executive.

Okay, just kidding about that last part. But she did leave the convent under murky circumstances.

But you never know who you know who might know someone important. I was going to a psychologist about 10 years ago for some counseling, trying to figure out a relationship with a woman who was "complicated".

Since I majored in psychology (but dropped out after getting a job in TV) I always like to say I learned just enough to tell everyone else what their problem is. Needless to say the therapy lasted a month, made easy by pouring a full shot of whiskey into my Starbucks coffee at an Italian restaurant below the office before I met the psychologist.

One time, as I began to feel I was ready to move on, I told her I also was without an agent and that also caused stress in this town, sort of like being without feet. You can't get around much. Then I had a thought and said this; "I assume that this being Hollywood, you could probably help me with that matter more than the "woman".

Without a pause, she said, dead serious : "Do you want me to make some calls?" 

I said, no, I really had some contacts but if it didn't work out (the agent not the woman), I'd be back. The woman worked out fine. We're still friends.

Back to Tiki, the god of Money. Brings success and good fortune.

Shirley got it for me on her recent trip to Hawaii. I think it was a not-too-subtle message to find the %*#@ money for Travel Day. Which looks a little harder every day that the plains of Manitoba get warmer.

Travel Day is still the primary goal as we still can shoot it as late as April in some parts of Manitoba, although a good hard snowfall is unlikely. I offer the word "late fall" as a possibility. Travel Day has been around for eight months and is losing it's freshness with investors coupled with the Manitoba guy, Dane, who isn't coming up with his end.

Enter Chaser.

Chaser is another screenplay I've been playing with. It falls into the genre that's hard to describe, sort of a little bit of Blair Witch Project, Open Water, Paranormal Activity and a few others, movies that really defy a true genre.

And movies that were made for anywhere from $15,000 to $250,000.

And there's a new movie out with Ryan Reynolds called Buried. The entire movie is filmed in a box where Reynolds is held as a hostage by some Middle eastern bad guys and we're right in there for the whole movie, apparently. Movie in a box.

Chaser was a story I had about memory, what we remember and what we think we remember and what we really remember. It comes from a word called Palimpsest which goes back to the Greeks use of papers made of various materials. One particular type was written on and then the words were erased or faded,allowing it to be used again.

This is what memory is to me; not necessarily remembering an event itself, but rather the memory of the event.

Imagine you're coming home one late afternoon after a hard day's work and you stop at a light and you watch people and cars and then notice a girl, 19, who is suddenly taken by a stranger and thrown into a van and it drives away.

What do you do? You can call the police, or follow him.

Or drive away.

Well, that's the premise of Chaser. It's about a man who has had a particularly hard day, someone who is beaten down by modern life, the recession, his relationships. And how he decides to do one good thing in his life.

But as he follows the van, his memory changes when he plays the abduction over in his mind. Was she abducted, or were they just playing, or was it something else.

Chaser can be made for very little money and it will find a market in people who like offbeat stories like that. And I know the perfect person for it.


Look at her demo reel in my material area and you'll see it's the perfect story for her.

So how do we find money for Chaser if I can't find all of it, so far, for Travel Day?

We make a trailer.

We get a few people together, some friends, and we film a 2-minute trailer in 2 or 3 days. For those who aren't sure, a trailer is a preview of a movie. Like the ones you see at the theater before the main show.

This isn't unique at all. Lots of people do this. In fact Jim Cameron made a 17 minute trailer for the Fox executives to show them what he wanted to do. So even he had to convince the investor that he could do it. Of course his trailer cost more than all the money I've earned the last few years.

But we can do ours for a lot less. A lot.

And hey, I just made $485 selling my buddy's wristwatch on ebay. 

The Tiki guy is working already.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Change of plans

Travel Day is being restructured as our winter window is getting tighter. TD is intended to film in snow conditions and as of now, with one of our investment partners seeming to drop out, I've begun working another way to fund the film while keeping with our original intent. I've been working on the funding since last July and sometimes a project can get stale if nothing  happens in a length of time.

So what I have to do is to "re-invent" the project and this means changing some of the elements, adding another actor or two and re-visiting the budget. And as I have noted in past blogs, I have two other projects that are hanging around, waiting for attention. 

Emperor of Mars has been in development of sorts for nearly 20 years, having almost been made at least 5 times with several more times when it was just optioned for a year or so. For those who don't know options, basically a producer interested in the script will pay an option fee (usually 10% of the sale price) of the screenplay in exchange for an exclusive right to the screenplay.

Meaning he sort of owns it until such time he finds the full budget for the movie and can then pay me the full price, plus any additional work I might do (rewrites, polishes, washing his car).

Emperor was optioned to an Alberta company for the last 2 years but they haven't been able to fund it for $5 million, and the option ends Tuesday, Feb 15th. This time I will try to get it made through my own connections.

You may ask why I would attempt that since my last 8 months haven't been entirely successful for TD.

A funny thing about that, one of the problems for funding Travel Day came with it's relatively low budget. A few of the investors I spoke to preferred a higher budget as they, as money-finders, would get bigger commissions.

In short funders make more money from a high budget than a low budget.

Now all we're talking about here are two low budgets if you compare them to Avatar. And then there's Tom Cruise who's cutting his fee to $25 million for the next Mission Impossible.

But I'm in the world known as "under $10 million", which is where most independent films fall.

So I'm going to pass Emperor around and see what happens.

Then there's Chaser.

Chaser is a screenplay I wrote a few years ago almost on a bet. I bet a friend that I could write a screenplay that takes place entirely in a car.

My agent and friend Frank wasn't enthusiastic, and others said it would never get made. But after I finished it, Frank read it and liked it. And so did others. It was hanging around Sam Rami's Ghosthouse, the producers who made the Spiderman movies.

Chaser is a story about memory and what we remember -- or don't remember. And it's fast pace and constant twists were perfect for Shirley.

We decided to make a trailer, a 2 minute long video preview of Chaser with selected scenes to show investors what it could become.

The only question is "how"?

(More on Chaser Wednesday)

Friday, February 12, 2010

A change of plans

Looks like our Canadian partner isn't living up to expectations. I've had one conversation with a casting director in L.A. who seems to suggest that working with Manitoba companies is frustrating and slow. She was casting a film there that took so long for the Manitoba contingent to put together their end of the deal that the film was shut down until re-financing could be found.

Not a good sign.

But I know this; most Canadian film production companies would prefer to just get a check from the U.S. or foreign producer for the full amount. In other words, they are "service companies" willing to spend the money you raised but slow and even reluctant to find their share.

To be honest, finding their share can be a complicated mess of forms and applications to one or more of a dozen Canadian funders, including the grand-daddy of them all, Telefilm. Telefilm is a government run corporation that funds at the most, 50% of any project. And if you think Hollywood doesn't know anything, Telefilm knows even less.

Often headed by bureaucrats and civil servants akin to postal workers, they determine who should get money by a process that can only be described as unintelligible. In fact, their mandate is to promote the Canadian film industry and the joke is that if you have a script about a midget/female/transgender/anarchist/hunchback living on Prince Edward Island, then you have a hit movie.

Okay, so I'm hitting hard at the funding process in Canada, but now and then some good movies escape, although they are usually from Quebec. In last week's Playback, the Canadian "Variety", 8 out of the 10 top Canadian earners were from Quebec. Which represents maybe 25% of the population.

Why? I think because they have a strong identity. Some Quebecois movies earn more than U.S. movies in the province. And I think that Canadian filmmakers still can't quite decide if they're British or American. There are some good English-Canadian filmmakers, Cronenberg for example and my deceased friend Phil Borsos, but most of the best ones are in L.A.

Think Ivan Reitman, James Cameron, Norman Jewison (mostly retired) and a dozen others as well as a lot who do U.S. TV. I discount Atom Agoyan who is the darling of pretentious Toronto based filmmakers who my friend discounts as "intellectually incestuous". Watching an Agoyan film is similar to watching paint dry. I met him years ago and found his arrogance to be almost unbearable.


So back to the process of funding. I once got approval from Telefilm for a movie I wrote only to be told 2 weeks later that they had run out of money and I should apply the next year again.

So I can understand why the Canadian producers are slow and even reluctant to deal with these types of agencies. But our guy Dane came on board in October as some of you might remember, and he still hasn't provided a realistic budget and plan for Travel Day.

And it's already mid-February and since this is a winter story, our window of opportunity is going fast. Top that with a sense of loss of interest from the U.S. investors and it's beginning to look a little weak.

But I've been in the business too long to let anything go, because even when it looks completely bleak, an angel appears from the least-expected source.

And besides, we have another option that will take us to a totally new direction. I'll know more Monday.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

There ain't money till there's money

One of my favorite possessions is Robert Bateman's Snow Leopard above. That poor guy standing out on the ledge in a raging snowstorm inspires me everytime I look at it. Because I am like him, alone and on a ledge with nobody to help. Okay, it's not that bad, but when you're trying to make a movie, it's sure close to it.

First lesson about producing is producer does not get money until they get money. Second lesson about producing is that nobody wants to see the producer on set and coincidentally same as the writer. Why? Because in their mind, the writer and the producer's work has already been done. One wrote the script and the other found the money. So why would they want to hang around.

My answer is simple; without me none of them would have a job. And there is much work to do, as a writer script changes and as a producer, making sure the movie runs smoothly and within the budget.

So how do you survive in the meantime? I'm talking bills; food, gas, phone bills, wine, beer, printing costs, travel, all that stuff. Remember one thing; I am not getting paid for one damn thing in my search for money. It all comes from my bank account.

And remember, some producers take years (yes, years) to get their movie going. And they must support themselves by whatever means they can. Sure, the big guys like Scott Rudin and Todd Black and others manage; they're the ones that get offices and staff on the studio lots, all covered by the studios. Of course when they make their movies, and they can do several a year, the studio gets back the rent and staff salaries from the budget.

Then there's the indie producers who, if they've had a reasonably successful film, have managed to save some bucks to carry them over until they get another film.

So how do producers make money?

Your average producer can start off by taking a salary which often is nothing until the budget is raised. Or they can get "seed money" which is basically development money. This can come from a studio or investor to allow the producer to begin setting up the potential movie. The costs covered would be for budgets, artwork, casting director, contacting potential crew, maybe some money for the director to get on board, production offices, secretary, lunch money and a modest sum for the producer to exist on. 

So where do I fall in? 

At the bottom. No seed money, no "housekeeping deal", a term that refers to producers who are given an office on the studio lot and for which they will pay from the budget when they get the budget.

If you're wondering how a studio can loan an office to a producer and then charge it off on the budget, it is a somewhat complicated thing since the studio usually gives the producer the money. So aren't they just charging themselves? 

Yes they are. It's just another way for the studio to make money from themselves and has to do with write-offs and accounting.

I started this project with Shirley last June and still haven't earned a penny from anything on this. You might ask; "how long can Jim do this?"

Simple. Until I get the money.

In the meantime I pay the bills on the homefront and any other expenses that come with developing Travel Day. I manage with a small home office which is comfortable and from where I plan the day. This mostly includes printing, although email has made sending proposals out a lot easier. Then there's lunches with Shirley and other people who might provide needed information and leads to other money.

And as I've said in a past blog, Travel Day is not my only project. The person who works on only one project at a time is steering towards a disaster if the project goes down.

And most indie films go down.

The odds against Travel Day getting made are too big to even mention, not that I'm superstitious. It's just the reality of this  business.

So why do I think we can make it?

Because I've done it before, and I have enough contacts to keep going, and I have a talented director and at least two Academy nominated actors and still the potential of getting Canadian tax shelters from people who also want to make it.

Combine that with a stubbornness to prove detractors wrong (and some of my best friends are) and a shake of the fist at that great God of Film whose job it is to constantly throw obstacles in my way.

Sort of like the Greek gods, they loved to mess up guys like Ulysses.

And again, rewarding myself is vital, it helps to make me feel like I deserve success in spite of what my id thinks, what does it know, it surrenders to any passing hypnotist. One such reward was having my friend Nicole visit and show her southern California in a way few people get to see.

Rewarding is a basic law of writers, you work in a lonely room by yourself for weeks sometime with little human contact except your close family and a friend or two. After a day or two of writing I am ready to get rewarded, even if it's myself who determines that.

It keeps us going.

Producing, like writing, is a lonely job in that you have to do it before anyone else is attached, when the movie is still 100 pages of paper and when nobody gives a damn if you get to make your movie or not.

The old producers from the beginning of movies until the late 70's were marvelous characters who would essentially beat up the studio heads, demand that their movies be made and often lie through their teeth to get a movie set up.

Of course they didn't have market testing and consultants and more co-executives than you can shake a stick at. They went by gut instincts. Put Bogart in a good script and it'll make a few bucks.

Last year, James Cameron showed the movie theater convention in Las Vegas a short 3D version of Avatar. The theater owners smiled and said it was nice, but nobody cares about 3D.

Today they're rushing as fast as they can to build and/or adapt theaters to house 3D equipment.

Once again, screenwriter William Goldman's quote comes up; "nobody knows anything".

Another note; producers don't have a union like writers, directors and actors. If you're in any of the their guilds, WGA, DGA, SAG, then you can't work for free. Producers have an organization but it's not a union. And that means you work for free until such time that you get money for the production and then you take your fee.


I have seen producers lose some if not all their pay due to cost overruns. After spending months or years trying to raise the funds, a producer can get a bite taken from his or her fee if the production goes overbudget. This happens... I have seen two producers walk away at the end of production without a dime.

It doesn't happen often, but it does happen. And it won't happen to me, because I am getting paid for the screeenplay as per WGA rules. And I'm not taking a producer fee at this level of budget, rather a "deferred" fee which means I get paid some of the profit.

It's known as "monkey points". Translated, it means you have a snowball's chance of surviving hell in getting even one dollar from the distributor or studio. Big stars get gross points and everyone else gets monkey points.

And what if the studio or investor stiffs the producer? He has recourse in court but that can cost money, lots of it if it's a big studio. Hundreds of thousands of dollars. Writers, directors and actors have their guilds (really unions but they like the softer term) wherein the guild goes after the money. And they really go after it with their own lawyers, all of whom are paid by guild dues.

One WGA contract specialist I talked to said they go after producers or studios with a vengeance to which he added "like it was my own money". They are so powerful that they can virtually shut down a company if it has to lead to that.

I know what you're thinking.

Why the hell would I want this job, if you even want to call it a job. It sounds more like punishment.

It's kind of like why I once witnessed a man have a seizure while a handful of people either walked away or just stared and I raced to him, called 911 and followed instructions as to how to keep him from choking until the paramedics arrived.

Somebody's gotta do it.

(Coming next: A new direction)

Monday, February 8, 2010

First timers

The issue of first time directors offers a look into the fears, anxieties and insecurities of many distributors and studios towards those damn "creative people" without whom they would not have a job. My first experience with that term came when I was doing commercials, used by salesmen at a TV station. It was a "them vs us" sort of thing as in "you creative people are different than the rest of us". Sometimes it was a compliment, sometimes not.

By creative, I'm referring only to directors for now as this job is the source of all those fears and doubts by the above mentioned people.

Nobody wants a first-time feature-film director. 

But every director was a first-timer once.

 I got my first chance at directing a movie after working as a writer, producer and director of more than 500 commercials and maybe 20 documentaries and corporate films. It happened after I had left a TV station in Calgary to "go on my own". Frankly I was tired of commercials and ad agencies. I wanted to do serious stuff. Movies.

My friend Doug MacLeod and I decided to do a movie when he mentioned a family friend of his owned an old hotel in Lake Louise in the heart of the Rockies. We drove out and walked through it and then went back and hammered out a script in a few weeks. We called it Ghostkeeper, and it was about a woman who kept a creature in the proverbial "basement" of the hotel, which was called Deer Lodge. It still stands today by the more regal Chateau Lake Louise, which many of you must know of.

As luck would have it, Harry, another friend and co-worker left his job at the TV station as well. We got together and decided we'd make the movie. These were heady times for the film industry in Canada with 100% tax shelters and we raised about $650,000 (1980 money) within five months. Those tax shelter days now are gone due to too much money-grabbing by lawyers and accountants.

Then it came to the director job. I had tons of experience in commercials and had always planned I would direct. And since Harry and Doug didn't want to, I was the director. Simple as that. During production, there was only one person who felt I wasn't competent enough to direct traffic. He was the 1st AD, (first Assistant Director)the one person just below director category.  His job is to move the production forward, make sure no time is wasted.

He felt he should have the job as he had done many features. But not as director. He would write down things on the time sheets like "director took 15 minutes to make decision" or "10 minutes lost to director indecision". And all his time sheets would come to me as my own company, Badland Pictures, was producing the film. So I simple ignored them.

I was lucky that way, both Doug and Harry had confidence in me, and I had considerable experience to back it up. We finished on time and on budget.

One big item I left out is the distributor. We didn't have one. We were sure we could find one when the movie was completed and better, we raised all the money ourselves from oilmen in Alberta.

Distributors change the scenario.

Once the distributor enters the picture, he or she begins making demands. Things like "a name actor" and "a name director".  You mention 1st time director and they visibly begin shaking and sweating. And since they probably have put in some of their own money, they don't want to take a chance on a first-timer getting behind schedule, being unable to handle actors or generally making a bad movie.

Not that name directors don't make bad movies. Ever hear of Ishtar? (Read Vanity Fair's article on Elaine May this month)

Shirley will be a first-time director in the world of feature films. She has made a lot of short films and other work as well as working in Art direction and graphic design and a large volume of work in photography. All of which is closely related to making a film. In other words, she is one of those "creative people". Like me. Like other directors. Ridley Scott came from the same world, as did countless other directors.

So how does one get to become a first time director if they haven't done a feature? Either they fund the movie themselves or they have a producer who believes that they can do it. I have worked with enough directors to know Shirley is perfectly capable of doing a feature and most likely better than some of the directors I worked with.

One thing I learned from my first feature was that, while I often worked with a3-6 person crew on commercials, I had 42 people on Ghostkeeper and surprisingly that made it a lot easier rather than harder.

There are other things that make it easier to approve a first-timer, an Academy-award winning short film, a YouTube video that gets a million views, having a father like Ivan Reitman (whose son Jason made Juno), or doing A-list commercials.

Another thing essential is surrounding the first-timer with a solid and experienced feature crew with an emphasis on the DP and the editor. My preferences for Travel Day are people with at least 3 feature films behind them.

Is it fair? No. But nothing is fair in the film business world. So you start from that and work forwards. Shirley will direct her first feature as every other director has and will go on to her second and third and so on.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

I'm back.

No, I haven't been swallowed up by a big studio or even a small network. I was being a tour guide for the always lovely Nicole who left frigid temperatures in Manitoba for the mildly warm climes of Southern California.

Besides my famous "off the beaten path" tours of Los Angeles which included such landmarks as Chili John's, Philippe's and MacArthur Park. as well as Serra Retreat in Malibu and of course biking on Venice Beach, a road trip took us to Paso Robles where we sampled wine, sushi and a spectacular drive to Cambria. Luckily the weather held till today, Saturday.

It's interesting to watch someone who's seeing some of the sights we take for granted for the first time, and I envy that first look at places like Serra Retreat and the lush green hills and valleys of the Central Coast.

It always reminds me of the other side of Los Angeles, not the crowded 405 freeway or the smugness of Beverly Hills, but the land itself, there truly is every type of land mass one can find here from empty ocean beaches near Cambria to the mountains of the grapevine and the carnival that is Venice Beach which offers sunsets off the Santa Monica Pier that are truly amazing.

I needed a break from the duties and frustrations of looking for money and now, as the rains are subsiding and Nicole has gone back to the frozen north, I feel refreshed, appreciative of this little part of the world and the things it offers and ready to do battle.

And have a look at Nicole's blog, you can click on it, The 6 Month Experiment, to the left under My Blog List. Her first book, Love on the Net is currently represented by agents and is making the rounds with publishers.

More Monday

Monday, February 1, 2010

Film School and reality

I'm still waiting for our Canadian partner to come up with the valued LOI's (letters of interest) and since I don't rush anyone, at least up to a point, we are eagerly looking forward to a conversation with them this week.

In the meantime, I've been asked recently about film schools and their value and since I'm still waiting for our Canadian partners to come up with letters of interest (LOI's) I thought I'd voice my opinions on film schools.

Several years ago I was invited to teach an extension class for UCLA film studies and it resulted in a gig that lasted about 2 1/2 yrs. I continued to work as a writer and even worked on a film but it didn't really interfere with either job.

UCLA is one of the top 4 film study programs in the U.S graduating Francis Coppola., the others are University of Southern California (USC), of famous for George Lucas, American Film Institute AFI), a highly regarded private school that turns out some great people and New York University (NYU) famous for Martin Scorceses. So I was pretty excited about actually teaching screenwriting at one of the big 4. 

Especially since I dropped out of Henry Ford College in Detroit after two years, preferring a job in a TV station mailroom. But UCLA hires working screenwriters for their extension classes and degrees don't matter. 

Remember those 3 words; degrees don't matter. 

I would teach every semester spring, summer, fall, winter. And the best part was that it was online. Not a classroom situation which meant I could (and did) teach at home or even on t he road, so it didn't interfere with regular work. I had a class, 15 students, mostly adults taking an extension course or two. And there were grad students who were taking the course for credit.

I got the hang of the software easily and began the class. I installed forums for discussion, a Chat Room where once a week they could all ask questions, and a program for whatever the course was that semester. There were courses in writing a full screenplay, writing the first act, writing good characters, and many more.

I had always wanted to help writing students if I ever got to a point of reasonable success, which I did at that time. Ironically this was because nobody ever really helped me that much, I really  had to work for whatever opportunities I got.

After several semesters I began to notice that for the most part, people were taking classes for entertainment, housewives in Ohio or factory workers and just ordinary people. There were maybe 40% of them who wanted careers, but for the rest, they were being entertained by a real, live screenwriter in Hollywood. Many would take a course of two then never come back. And for one reason.

The hardest part of writing... is writing.

And it became clear that the University wanted me to encourage them to take more courses and it finally reached a point where I became disillusioned, realizing that 95% of them would never be writers. I got tired of lying to them. Out of the 250 students, I think there were 4 who might... with a lot of luck and hard work and moving to Los Angeles might... just might get a career going. I finally left teaching and returned to the rejection of the real screenwriting world.

I also failed in the minor film school encounters I had myself. An instructor told me and my friend Phil Borsos, that we shouldn't even attempt a career in this industry. Needless to say, Phil and I were the only two of the two schools we attended... who ever went on to a career in this business.

Film schools are incredibly expensive, it can cost well over $100,000 to get a degree in film. As far as I'm concerned someone could take that money and actually make a movie and learn how to do it. Interestingly enough, a degree still doesn't really count in this business, talent, craft and discipline are more valuable than a piece of paper.

At least on the creative side.

If you want to be on the business side, lawyers, accountants, CEO's, etc, then a degree is important. There still are many students who get a degree and go on to a good career, but these also are the good ones and my feeling is that they would have made it with or without film school.

Since Movie Brats Lucas and Coppola and the others, who were the first film students to succeed in the real world, the number of film schools have multiplied by the hundreds. Before that it was people who had no film schools to attend. They worked at any jobs, fought the Great War, and were accomplished authors and writers.

What disturbs me is that all these film schools, and there are hundreds, are graduating students into a work situation that has few opportunities. You've probably read about the amount of WGA writers unemployed and directors and actors. And crews. Lots of grips and gaffers and make-up people and more are unemployed.

Yet universities and private schools churn out thousands of students each year.

How can you succeed in the light of these odds? 

You have to want it.

You have to want it badly enough that you will sell your soul to the God of Film. The one who teases you with success and just as quickly snaps it away just as you reach it. Of course it doesn't happen to all of us, just most.

So to go or not to go to film school is a difficult choice, what it does is allow you to learn and make films, but on the other hand you could spend that tuition on just making a film by yourself and making mistakes and learning right there.

One of the best schools in some ways is by a guy called Dov Simens, who teaches 2-day classes for a few hundred bucks. He has compressed his course to give you basically a 4-yr college education in 3 days. If you don't believe me, check his website. I don't even know the guy but everyone in Hollywood knows about Dov, and he has a real good list of successful students.

And you or your kids can save $100,000.