Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Emperor Screenplay Available

A few readers asked if I could post the Emperor of Mars screenplay. You can find it now under Materials towards the bottom left of the page. Like it or hate it, let me know.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Emperor gets roughed up

Picking up from the last blog wherein I had two options for Emperor of Mars and neither materialized, my agent had shown the screenplay to Chance Dubbin, who was head of Fox Family Entertainment. Dubbin loved it, wanted to make it, couldn't say enough about it.  Dubbin dressed in black and looked like a Vegas entertainer. He also kept a huge cutout of Elvis in his office as well as some Elvis souvenirs. 

Are you suspicious yet? 

Well, it turned out he was pretty worked up about Emperor and did want to make it. A deal was made, and it went "into development".

There's an old joke in Hollywood about scripts; "this script is brilliant, every word is fabulous. Now who can we get to rewrite it?"

Well, somehow I managed to avoid being rewritten for almost all my career, I think maybe a episodes of TV series and one movie called Maiden Voyage where the development exec called in a close friend to rewrite my story of a cruise ship being robbed. But I have rewritten others, many others, most made, some not.

Well, so far on Emperor, Fox was pretty nice. I got my option fee, usually 10% of the purchase price of the screenplay, the full price is paid on the first day of principal photography. The Guilds insist that the full price is paid or they can threaten to close down the movie although I've never seen that happen.

Then came Ellie Berg.

I had heard about Ellie from a friend of mine who directed a movie for her and Dubbin. Ellie was barbed wire in his side throughout the whole shooting schedule. She hated everything. Even after everyone was pleased, she took my friend aside and said that even though everyone liked it, she didn't.

Most development executives are easy to work with, a lot of them don't know what they're doing, some manage and a few, and I mean a few, are brilliant and can save a screenplay. I worked with a woman who had been let go by most of the studios in town, probably because she drank more than her share and cursed like a trucker.

We met like two cats in a small room circling each other, ready to pounce and I was pretty arrogant about my script her company wanted to make. She didn't give a damn either and then proceeded to give me notes.

I got the notes and couldn't believe it. She was right in tune with the story, an oddball script about Siamese Twins and 1950's gangsters. Arguably one of my weirdest screenplays, inspired by my director friend Paul Lynch.

Her notes were helpful, critical and inspiring. And I've rarely had notes like that before, or since. She knew what she was doing and I became a fan of hers to this very day.

Ellie was not like that.

Ellie liked to start off by saying Emperor was okay but not great. And her notes often mimicked what Dubbin said. His notes were usually pretty easy to handle but she would add obstacles to them.

So it was good cop (Dubbin) and bad cop (Ellie).

I made changes, she didn't like them, I was trying my best to figure out what she really wanted, her mood was almost always confrontational and I did my best to not strike back. Riding down on an elevator with a secretary, she mentioned I was working with Ellie, tow which I responded, "the Anti-Christ"? The employee laughed and nodded her head. So I wasn't the only one who had problems with Ellie.

I did another draft, still not to her liking and finally said I want to talk to Dubbin. I got a meeting and he said it was going well, that Ellie loved the script and Fox had high hopes for Emperor. Ellie came into the meeting and went on about how great everything was going.

I kept looking for that guy who knifes you in the back.

But he never showed.

As it happens in Hollywood, all good things come to an end for me, Ellie and Dubbin as Fox Entertainment went into one of those acquisition deals where everything gets thrown into a laundry dryer and tossed out to be picked through. Ellie and Dubbin were gone.

One of those tossed aside was Emperor as it was a project that Dubbin championed and since he was gone, his favored projects were the first to be sacrificed.

Emperor was dead in the ground again.

Or in "turnaround", a euphemism for a project that was dumped. Turnaround means that a project  is not dead; it's just giving others an opportunity to become involved in it.

Whatever it was, that was the end of Fox Entertainment's participation. Emperor had been optioned now three times and was nowhere near being made. I would get calls every six months or so asking about it,  but no takers.

When a project is dumped, it almost acquires a bad smell. If it didn't get made, it obviously wasn't all that good. At least that was the easiest way to figure out why it hadn't been made. And really, nobody cares about movies that don't get made.

Years later I had lunch with a producer who knew Ellie, he said her luck had ran out and she ended up without a job around 2004, when Survivor aired and single-handedly changed television forever. All of a sudden the TV movie was dead and reality TV reared it's ugly head, cheaper to make and... well, cheaper to make.

Trouble was, my friend said, Ellie had made too many enemies over the short time span of her career and now was finding out that those people you meet on the way up are the same ones you meet on your way down. That's why it's always smart to be nice, you never know who can help you.

I'm not above suggesting chocolates, the real ones.

Nothing much happened to Emperor besides the frequent questions about it and I kept looking for someone else.

After 2 years, someone else did appear. And this time it was a man who had won a gold statuette.

(Thurs: The Emperor Strikes Back)

Friday, June 25, 2010

No Post Friday

I'm going to cut back on my blogs, I've done blogs 3 times a week for nearly a year now and am going to publish 2 times a week starting Monday.

I also have a deal pending that could be quite good.

See you Monday.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Emperor's First Option

Last blog offered the interest in Emperor of Mars, and the lack of commitment to making it. Finally after a year or so someone liked it enough to want to make it.

Danny Mazure was a director I had met through mutual friends. Danny was not a major player but had strong intentions in being one. He also raved about Emperor, and desperately wanted to make it. He had contacts in high places.

Since nobody else was calling, I decided to give him an option.

But he had no money. 

So I gave him the minimum, a 90 day option for free in which he had 3 months to find the money.

Welcome to the side of movie business that you don't read about in the magazines and trades. If the film business were an iceberg, the big deals and big money you hear about is the 10% above water. The rest that's underwater is the reality.

This wasn't the first time, not would it be the last time someone wanted to make one of my screenplays but had no money to option or buy it. I stopped counting after 30.

But after 90 days, Danny couldn't find anything. So I took my screenplay back.
And waited. 

The odd thing was that I would get calls every 6 months or so asking about Emperor, "was it still available", "is anything happening with it" and other queries. Yet nobody came forward. Not for 2 years.

Rainfall Films was a small company, two women with strong feelings about what they wanted to make. One of them even had an eye-patch, so cool. They liked the screenplay and wanted to find funding to make it.

Except they didn't have a lot of money.

Sound familiar?

You can say no. Or you can think, well, nobody else wants to try to make it so why not them. They want to make it. And this time, unlike Danny they had made other movies so they were a viable entity. They even had some companies they could go to for funding. And I liked them.

So we made a deal, they could option the script for a small bit of money that would give them
the rights to the screenplay for 3 months. Usually a real deal is an option fee (10% of the purchase price) for 1 year.

Then I sat and waited. Well, not really, I had other work to do and I was also working on a new spec script. I was always prolific when it came to writing and even now have 34 spec screenplays unsold.

But after 3 months, the girls weren't able to get the money. They reluctantly gave me back the rights but said they would continue to look for funding.

Now it was back to square one. A screenplay everyone "loved" but nobody wanted to make.

I got notes from Disney who said they might consider it if I set it in present day. The story I wrote is set in the 1950's. But nothing more happened on Disney's end.

I should add that my agent was constantly sending Emperor out to the studios and production companies. Development execs change jobs frequently and my agent would press each new d-girl or d-boy to re-read Emperor.

And it worked.

About 2 months after Rainfall lost the option, ABC Family, owned by Disney, wanted to make it. And they would pay the full option price for it. Real money and a real company who didn't have to go to someone else to fund it.

And I actually believed that Emperor was going to get made.

(Fri: Not so easy)

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Emperor gets around

I've talked about what Emperor of Mars is, a story about a young boy, a disillusioned soldier and a voice that calls itself The Emperor of Mars.

In the last blog I said I had little success with my first agent, a one-person operation that was known for a few middle of the food chain writers and directors. He could call any studio or production entity in town; but that didn't mean they would return his call. 

Later when I was at a big agency, Paradigm, my agent there got return calls quickly.

After 2 years of nothing, I left Agent 1 and went to another single agent operation. But this one was a hell of a worker. He began to call studios and sent them Emperor to read. The last agent never sent it out. 

Within a month or two, the script began to circulate and got positive response from everyone. I had left to Vancouver to work on a series for 4 months and my agent called to see if I could come down for one day.

He had made 8 meetings for that single day.

 I flew into LA, rented a car as mine was still in Vancouver and drove to Paramount for 4 meetings, then to Columbia (now Sony) and then to MGM which was across the street.  These were all production companies with deals at the studio.

These meetings were basically a "meet and greet", they liked my script but wanted to see who I was and what else I had. A basic list of meetings with development executives that first year included the following production companies that belonged to producers and sometimes actors.  Companies that belonged to people listed below;

John Badham
Marty Bregman
Jody Foster
Roland Emmerich
Jim Henson
Danny DiVito
Roland Jaffe
Ridley Scott
Meg Ryan
Dustin Hoffman
Joel Silver
Barry Sonnefeld
Warner Bros
Arron Spelling
David Geffen

And that was just in one year.  You can check them out on IMDB. Steve Tisch, producer of Forrest Gump said it was one of his favorite scripts. The years that followed introduced me to even more producers. All because of Emperor.

Except there was one thing wrong. 

Nobody wanted to buy it. 

And nobody could tell me why.

One of the reasons thrown forward was that it had no role for a star. It's central character was a 12-year old boy. Another was that it was too soft. And the one question I got at all the meetings was this; "What else do you have?"

It took me a long time just to figure out what that meant. I don't mean that I didn't have other ideas, but what kind of ideas were the ones they wanted to hear. That's one of the secrets of Hollywood.

And it translates into screenwriter William Goldman's famous line; "Nobody knows anything."

I would add to it; "they want more of the same".

The same being the latest hit or latest critic's favorite. Once when I asked a development executive what he was looking for he gave me the best answer I'd heard till then;

"A $30 million opening".

What's a $30 million opening?

This is where it gets tricky, It could be a comedy, a drama, an action film, anything, as long as it makes at least $30 million over the first week-end. This was some years ago so you can adjust the figures.

That's what they want.

And Emperor of Mars wasn't that. But yet I could call them with ideas and while I thought this was just another way of saying "get lost", most of them did take my calls afterwards. There is some honor in the system, at least in the studio system. In fact I maintained good contacts with many of the execs throughout the years and still talk with some of them, the ones who didn't leave the business anyways.

But none of my ideas caught on with them. I was too fresh to realize what I just said above. I didn't have a $30 million opener in any of my ideas. I might never have.

Then someone said about Emperor; this could be the next Stand By Me, that huge hit about 4 boys looking for a dead body and a huge success. And no stars in it either.

That's when someone decided to option it.

(Wed: The development process)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Emperor of Mars

I've mentioned my screenplay Emperor of Mars several times in this blog and since it's part of my "3 film package" as they say in Hollywoodland, which includes Travel Day and Casualties of Love,  both of which were explained in the previous three blogs, I would like to explain it a little more in detail.

Emperor of Mars, or (EOM as the trend is now to abbreviate your movie title which might have originated with T2 (Terminator 2)) was the screenplay that got me into virtually every studio and production company in town when I moved here in 1990.

Emperor was written in 1989 with the financial assistance from Superchannel, a Pay-TV channel in Canada. Networks in Canada have funds mandated by the Feds to assist screenwriters by offering a loan, repayable only if the film is made, to help writers pay the rent. I got $13,000, again repayable only if the film is made.

The story is based almost totally on my childhood in a small town of 500 people in Manitoba. As with most writers or even people who want to write, I wanted to tell my particular story of growing up in a prairie town. 

Except that my story was pretty boring.

Really boring.

Until I found the Emperor.

I had waited over 10 years to write my story because I realized I needed more than the day-to-day events of my life at 12 years of age. I had written Ghostkeeper, a suspense-thriller that I directed and had done a few other cheapie movies.

But writing about your life is harder because while one thinks their story is distinctive, heart-warming and inspirational, chances are it's the same as most of the population.

In 1956, someone calling himself The Emperor of Mars left a tape recording at a Los Angeles radio station proclaiming he would be coming to Earth to tell us all the secrets of the universe as well as the lies our governments were telling us.

This recording spread through-out both the US and Canada,  mostly in the western parts of each country. For the next 2 weeks there were hundreds of flying saucer reports that accompanied stories of this nature, and most if not all were probably nothing.

I had discovered this incident in an old copy of a newspaper in Calgary and upon checking other newspapers, found that it was quite a big story at the time. The only problem was that the Emperor never came to Earth and was never heard from again. 

But now I had a story.

It wasn't just about a kid on the prairies and his friends. It became about a kid who hears the broadcast on his radio at night and believes the recording and fears for the life of his mother and him and the entire town of 500 people.

And then I created another character, a somewhat enigmatic figure of a man who had gone to war and returned a damaged veteran. And he was the first to notice crop circles outside of town and when other odd signs began to show he believed too that the Emperor was coming to the little town.

Now I had what was lacking in my attempts to write the story before. I had a narrative, or through-line, or spine or whatever term you want to call it. Now my characters had goals and obstacles, something lacking from my previous attempts.

I screened Stand By Me, that great movie about kids about the same age. While the narrative was about the 4 boys looking for a dead body, the story was more about the kids themselves, their lives, their demons and their fears.

Emperor of Mars translated into the exact same storyline. I wrote it in 2 months and turned it into Superchannel for their opinion and the last half of my loan. The woman in charge was Tara Twigg and she loved the story except that she didn't like the title which was originally called Incident at Elm Creek.

Tara said "why don't you call it Emperor of Mars"? 

I did.

The next year I moved to Los Angeles and had an agent set up to start me in Hollywood. Except he never really did. I got a few meetings with second-rate producers who looked more broke than I was. When my 2-year contract was up, I left and got another agent.

That's when things really kicked in.

(Fri: Emperor makes the rounds)

Monday, June 14, 2010

Making a Short script long

One of the things one learns about writing along the way is that, in the words of Confucius, change is inevitable.

And when it comes to writing, you will be asked to change your story from the sensible to the illogical and sometimes from the illogical back to sensible. It is often said that a writer's best version of their script is the first draft. That making changes only satisfy the producer or production executive or actor only muddy the story up.

Clint Eastwood, in a recent interview said he went through a few versions of the screenplay Unforgiven, written by David Webb Peoples. Finally he realized one thing; that the best version of the screenplay was the original one that Peoples wrote.

This shows two things; that Eastwood had the sense that the original was better and that Peoples had written a good screenplay.

Unfortunately that's rarely the case.

I wrote a spec screenplay around 2003 called Field of Fire, a story about two military snipers stalking each other in Central Park. It was picked up by a company called Promark, now no longer in business.  Eventually it made the rounds and ended up with a producer I know who would direct.

But first I had to change it from Central Park in New York to Griffith Park in Los Angeles. And I had to change almost every location as well as much of the script. But a job is a job and it wasn't my best screenplay, nor even my favorite.

And once it was being filmed, it became clear that very little of the screenplay was being shot due to budget restraints and general lack of planning. It became a run and shoot production, rushing and grabbing shots anywhere they could.

When it was finished the rough cut was around 66 minutes.

Usually a rough cut is maybe 2 or 3 hours and for some it can go for many hours. This is the first version of the movie and the one where they throw in everything they can. Then the editor gets to cut it shorter to a reasonable viewing time. A feature length movie must be at least 75 minutes and it can be as long as it needs be with maybe a maximum of 3 hours these days.

For our movie, there was nothing to cut. The editor had used all the useable footage. All the cutting of scenes from the screenplay resulted in a feature that wasn't a feature yet. It needed at least 10 more minutes of good footage which translates maybe to about 20 minutes of shooting as there can be multiple takes and mistakes and camera errors and so on. And that's for the minimum requirement.

A page of screenplay is usually considered about 1 minute. Thus a 90 page screenplay comes out around 90 minutes.  It's not an exact science. Action moves faster than dialog for example. A 1 page action scene can come out at maybe 30 seconds.

They turned to me to figure out how to stretch it out.  Since I had been on the production as a co-producer, I knew early on that this would be a problem movie. When the script supervisor whispered to me that "they" were destroying my script, I was pretty much helpless at that point and decided to find something positive in this experience.

Now they needed me to fix the mess they created. I could walk away or I could do what I could. I wish I could have come up with something new but the only way to do it was to simply write a 30 page scene in one room with the principal actor.

Because we didn't have the money for anything else.

And that's where the flashback comes in.

I wrote a scene where the principal actor tells the entire story of the movie in flashbacks. This solution is not rocket science. In fact it's used often. I added two actors who were questioning him and they shot about 15 pages of the 30 I wrote. And Again, they rushed and cut short the dramatic scene I had written and effectively making it senseless.

And the movie reached a length of 84 minutes with tail credits. You can add a minute or so to the tail credits by slowing them down.

And it was awful. 

But I knew it from the beginning. My first draft of the screenplay was smart and tense with good characters. What came out of this one was cut-out characters and lame action scenes.

And what good thing did I get out of it? My scale WGA fee and H&P (health and pension). Sometimes that's enough.

So don't shoot the writer. You don't always know what they had to go through.

But right now I have to add pages to Casualties of Love, my micro-budget script because it was never intended as a feature film. And oddly enough, it comes back to one room and a bunch of guys and this time, a girl too.

(Wed:  The Emperor)

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Casualties of Love

While Travel Day has a budget of almost $1 million, I have a smaller project under the category of "micro-budget" which is less than what a good DP would cost on Travel Day, which is already low budget.

Casualties of Love is budgeted at less than $100,000, a lot less.

A friend of mine, and a former student at my UCLA class, made 2 movies for $10,000. That's right, 2 feature-length movies for the sum total of $10,000. And both have been accepted at several film festivals. 

How did he do this? 

First of all, the locations for both movies were studio sets. Yes, he even got a studio and had people build the sets. Both sets were similar,  coffee shops. Thus he could recycle props and set decoration. This type of filmmaking is usually called "2 actors in a room" filmmaking.

Because that's about all you can afford on this kind of budget.

My friend had a cast of around 10 actors. The leads in one movie would be supporting cast in the second movie. He also had a crew of around 7-10 people.

And everyone worked for free. What money there was was used for a camera, sound equipment, food, gas and anything else they couldn't get for free. And if you don't believe this, you can go to his website on my Blog page under Materials.

So where does this go for me?

I wrote a play some years ago about three men in their late 30's who decide to kidnap an aging formerly famous rock star so that they can persuade him not to sell out his music for TV commercials. They had a teen band when they were young called The Casualties of Love. Now approaching 40, they are reflecting on their lives and where they ended up.

The play never got made beyond a reading, and I drifted to another project and forgot about it. But my ex-student and friend didn't. In fact he remembered Casualties of Love as well as another screenplay I had called Airwaves, about a DJ broadcasting out of a lonely gas station in Nebraska. This was long before Art Bell made that format famous.

Both screenplays had something in common. One location. In Airwaves it was a tiny radio station on the second floor of an isolated gas station. In Casualties, it was a cabin on an island where they keep the rocker captive.

He kept after me, saying we both could do back-t0-back movies, I could direct one of mine and he could direct one of his. Same as the formula he had already perfected. The sets would change a little bit, but that wouldn't be a problem.

I decided on Casualties Of Love, because I felt that the Airwaves screenplay was bigger and could cost more. Remember we're talking about under $100,000 for both of my screenplays.

There was one problem with Casualties though.

It was only 60 pages long.

And screenplays are usually 95-105 pages. I say "usually" because there's nothing than gets a writer's blood going than defining how long a screenplay should be. But that's another topic.

In the meantime, I had to figure out how to stretch the screenplay and keep it mico-budget.

(Mon: Casualties stretches)

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Back from San Clemente and San Diego, had a great tour of the USS Midway aircraft carrier and got to talk with pilots, learned how they land and take-off, amazing stuff.

And now back to the projects at hand.

I get asked often what I'm doing and like most writers say that I have a few things "in development". Which mostly means I am not earning money at this time. Real development  means someone is paying me to do a rewrite or a polish on either my screenplay or someone else's.

I just finished a rewrite for someone else, a romantic comedy that I didn't think I could do as I don't think I'm all that romantic nor comedic. The interesting thing about it was that once I started,  my life experience hard drive kicked in and I had no problem writing a genre I thought I couldn't.

And it was because I realized quickly that romantic comedies aren't really comedies, at least not in the style of Mike Meyers or Jim Carrey. Mostly "rom-coms" as they're called are about people falling in and out of love with a few funny bits but mostly about the formula.

One of the oldest explanations of "the formula" is simply this; boy meets girl - boy gets girl - boy loses girl - boy and girl come together. That's the basic formula for every rom-com ever made. And of course that includes girl meets boy or girl meets girl or boy meets boy or dog meets cat, whatever you want.

But right now, I'm trying to put together 3 feature-length films, as you may have read in the previous blog. Here's the progress of each as of today.

Travel Day (TD) was supposed to film January of this year but a Canadian tax deal fell through due to a Cdn producer who didn't deliver. As a result I pushed TD back to winter 2010 and am, at present, dealing with a producer who is taking the script to several name actresses who might consider the role.

Like who? Well, I have 2 Academy nominees now interested but the producer wants to get better names, meaning more recognizable actresses. The role is the main lead of the story and is supposed to be a famous name actress now at the age of 60 who isn't getting the parts she used to.

This opens us to a large number of women in Hollywood or Europe, and the greatest obstacle is finding one who doesn't mind playing her age. It's still true that women, after the age of 40, begin losing lead roles and start playing the mother and/or grandmother.

There's always Meryl Streep, who at 60 is the exception. Maybe Julia Roberts too. Even Cameron Diaz is beginning to show her age.

Regardless, I feel that a lot of women from mid 50's to early 60's would want to play this role as it's a good part and a lead role. Lead roles are usually preferred than supporting roles. Once a star, always always a star.

The major obstacle here is the budget. I want to do this for under $1 million, which means the salaries would be SAG scale, around $2,000 a week. For 4 wks. $8,000 for the whole movie. Plus benefits and some overtime.

Most star salaries are in the millions of dollars and even faded stars can get hundreds of thousands of dollars.

So why do this little movie that Shirley and I want to make?

Once again, it's a lead part and a good part for whomever wants to do it. It's all about credits on IMDB (Internet Movie Data Base), that monster website that details careers of actors, writers, directors and anyone else associated with movies.

You're only as good as your credits. 

And that means the older your last role was, the less anyone wants you. I haven't had a movie made in 5 years which makes me about as desireable as last years iPhone. But the one thing writers can do is go into "development" on their own project. I don't often do this, but I do have on development project on IMDB which at least suggests I'm not dead.

But if you're an actor with your last credit 2 or 3 years ago, you're almost considered washed up. There are some who manage to keep working, take Betty White and Cloris Leachman, they always work. But again, they're the exception.

So this is where we are on TD; letting another producer take a run at getting a bigger name actress who wants a lead role and wants to work for less money than her make-up person would usually make and who will be willing to not expect 1st class hotel suites and airfares and other perqs.

We're talking about the Jacqueline Bissets, the Faye Dunaways, Diane Keatons.

Some of my friends tell me we'd never get women that high up on the food chain. Maybe we're looking too high for such a small movie. But you never know who might just say ok.

After all, as William Goldman said about the movie business; "Nobody knows anything."

(Thurs: Casualties of Love)

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Hyphenate

I am a hyphenate. And a triple threat. And a somewhat dubious "renaissance man". What does all that mean to those readers who aren't in the industry?

It means I can do three jobs at the same time.

What three jobs you ask? Writer-Director-Producer. In other words I can write a screenplay, produce and co-produce the movie and also direct it. I have done all three only once, Ghostkeeper and I have written and co-produced one, Target.

And to make it more complicated I could shoot and edit it if it came to that. I wouldn't be Haskell Wexler or Walter Murch but then who is. This comes from starting at the bottom in the mailroom. I was a bonafide newscrew soundman (forgot that I can do sound too) and eventually a street news cameraman.

But right now I am developing (a nice word for not having the full budget raised... yet.), three projects. One is Travel Day (the original reason for this blog) which I wrote and will co-produce, the 2nd is Emperor of Mars, which I wrote and hope to direct and co-produce.

And finally there's Casualties of Love, a no-budget "dramedy" and I will not only write, produce and direct, I'll probably make lunch and a dozen other jobs.

Hyphenate is an industry saying, I think. I'm in good company, Warren Beatty is an actor/writer/director/producer. Clint Eastwood is an actor/director/producer (he doesn't write). You get the drift.

Does that mean I get paid for all those jobs?

I wish. Usually one has to be the breadwinner, usually the script. Even big timers sometimes drop a fee in order to get the movie made. Clint Eastwood allegedly directed his first feature, Play Misty for Me for no salary in order to get his first feature under his belt.

The curse of being a hyphenate is that they usually ask you to drop one of those fees, usually the producer fee as they have no union. I wrote Target and got paid WGA scale for the script and didn't take a fee for co-producer.

What does it take to do all three jobs. For me it takes 40 years of being in the business, give or take a year (I do tend to change it as it suits the occasion. Like when I'm talking to someone under 30 who has no history going back that far).

As far as writing, I think you've heard enough about that in the last few months. It's a given that: a) I know how to write, b)I had movies made, c) I got paid for what I did and d) I was reasonably good enough that most asked me back (most, but not all).

About directing; I directed Ghostkeeper and 2 straight-to-video TV movies. In addition I directed way too many TV commercials, I usually say around 500 but it was probably more. Some were done for $500, some for $125,000 and everything inbetween.

But after that many, you sort of get the hang of the job.

Producing? Again, Ghostkeeper was produced by my company, Badland Pictures and I signed all the checks. What do you have to know to be a producer? Simple. You have to know where to find the money. That's why it's the hardest job of all three. And I know this from doing all three.

As my director friend says, you need someone who's part saint, part thief, part accountant and a big risk taker. Maybe that's why I'm not great at it. But the alternative is to seek and wait for a producer who wants to find money for me. And frankly I'm not that much in demand and don't want to wait around for phone calls that never come. I raised money once for a movie, and maybe I can do it again.

Not to mention that it's pretty tough out there on the streets when looking for money. But somehow, some way, the good ones always do.

There's also the other part of producing; the nuts and bolts, making a budget, contacting the cast and crew, arranging the categories and looking for some money to develop the project. This money is usually for an office, maybe a secretary, some travel money, option money on the script and maybe some talent and a hundred other things.

You have to know complicated software like Entertainment Partners Budgeting and Scheduling. You have to know how much you can pay the actor and how much you pay the gaffer in overtime and what a camera package costs and everything else down to the donuts.

Producers in the years past knew all this but today, fewer producers are real producers, rather they are executives or actors or writers who have "honorary status" as producers. They hand the grunt work (the budgeting and scheduling) to "Line Producers" who actually are Production Managers, the Sergeants of the movie production.

And as for me, I have my home office, no secretary and just what money I can afford to spend on necessities. I bought EP Budgeting 20 years ago and have recently learned Scheduling and actually I enjoy doing that work, as tedious and complicated it is. My first budget was done on a typewriter and a calculator by my side. EP Budgeting was a miracle when I first saw it. Almost like a computer compared to an IBM Selectric, (typewriter to those under 40).

Then there's the proposal an independent producer has to make if they are looking for money outside the studio system. Rather than tell you, you can see my work, along with Shirley's in our proposal for Travel Day, it's on the left of the screen under "Materials".

And the truth is, that once any of the projects get going, I hire the best "Line Producer" I can for the money available and give them everything because they, like the cameraperson and the editor, will make me look better than I am.

It's fun being a hyphenate although I like the term "filmmaker" better. And ultimately all that counts is finding the money regardless of what I call myself.

(Next Tues: Dividing the projects)

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

College degree to write?

There was an ad in Mandy, the website that posts jobs for film crews, including writers. A small company wants writers, but only writers with college degrees.

And they must have a degree in screenwriting.

The reaction from all 0f my close friends which includes writers, directors and actors with a DP or two thrown in for good measure, was the same.

That's idiotic.

Needless to say, only one of my friends ever came close to a degree and it was at AFI, the film school here in L.A. A director friend of mine has a list of credits 3 pages long and he dropped out of school in Grade 10. I went to college for 2 years, majored in Psych and English and dropped out when I got a job at a local TV station and never looked back.

So the question is; will a writer with a degree in screenwriting necessarily be better than one who is not?

The answer of course is maybe or maybe not. Does the degree mean anything. Same answer, maybe or maybe not.

I have some experience in that I taught screenwriting at UCLA Extension for 2 years. It was an online course where I had 15 students each semester. At the same time I was working on scripts of my own.

Out of the 200 or so students I figured that there were probably 4 who, if they moved to LA, knew some contacts, networked and were lucky, could possibly make a living writing.

Why so few?

Because not everyone is a writer.

As someone once said "most people would like to have written, rather than write."

There are too many "aspiring writers" who think that buying Screenwriter or Final Draft software which are the top softwares used by screenwriters, is all you need to call yourself a writer. They also think that Hollywood is just hungry for scripts by unknown writers.

All of that is a myth. But they refuse to believe it.

For those who don't know this, there is a small chain of bookstores called Samuel French, catering primarily to stage and theater but also to the movie industry. Simply put they are the complete source of books on film. There's two stores in LA, one in Hollywood and one in Studio City.

What always comes to mind when I drop in, are the books on screenwriting. They range from how-to to how-not-to and everything in between. There are at least a hundred books on the subject of screenwriting and I always wondered how an aspiring writer could select one.

Originally there was one. And it wasn't even on screenwriting. It's called The Art of Dramatic Writing and was written in 1946 by Lajos Egri.It was the only book I had and still recommend. You can still find it at Sam French's.

It can be argued that most writers went to college primarily so that they could get jobs teaching at colleges while they wrote their epics. Writers are mostly born, not created. This doesn't mean all of them write great books, but true writers have a curiosity almost from the day they were born.

They want to know stuff.

And the film industry was and remains to an extent, the haven for talent and those things that are undefinable. I always told my students I could show them how I write and how to write a screenplay.

But I could not show them how to write it well.

Because that changes with every one of us. Nobody writes the same, for the most part. One of my students took my class for 5 semesters and at the end, was no better than the first script he wrote. Two others really were inspired and created work far better than what they began in a semester or two.

Most of the students were very ordinary, nothing awful but nothing good either. Many took one semester and realized how hard it was to "fill in the blank page" as we say. Some quit after a few weeks. Only those four excelled.

And only two continue to write, one had a screenplay optioned. And they're still out there writing. One works at a day job and gets up at 5am to write for an hour before she goes to work.

Even I couldn't do that on a good day.

For the record, I never had formal training in writing. I learned the hard way, by writing and writing until people said it was good. I once retyped the entire screenplay of the Oscar winning film The Deerhunter. Somehow it made me feel like I had written a professional screenplay. And I retyped a few others.

It took me around 3 years to become reasonably good while I worked as director, producer and sometimes writer for commercials and corporate films. For some it comes natural, for the rest of us it takes discipline and craft.

(Fri: Projects at hand)