Monday, December 26, 2011

Back to the beginning

 My real feature film career really began in oil-rich Alberta and specifically in Calgary, which when I was there had almost 300,000 people, and now has over 1 million. One of the remaining icons was the Husky Tower, above, which in its day was the highest structure in the city.

Today it's crowded in between towering buildings that for the most part, deal with oil. Think Houston set near the Rocky Mountains and you have Calgary. A dozen or more major oil companies from the US and Britain and even Canada play their oil and gas games here.

In the US, Obama has to deal with the pipeline which would stretch from oil sands northeast of Calgary and extend all the way to Texas. This issue is coming up in 2012 and the problem deals with the usual suspects; those who want oil and those who want to preserve pristine land. 

But this isn't about pipelines. It's about movies.

Before Calgary I worked in television all across the country, starting in Windsor and Detroit and then to Vancouver and Regina. And then Calgary where I worked as a "writer/producer" for commercials. After 2 years of commercials I wanted out and I wanted to make a movie.

Another writer/producer, Harry, left before me and we got together to make a movie he wanted to produce. But that fell through and Harry had a handful of investors who were still excited about financing a movie. It would be a shame to see them go away.

So I came up with an idea with my friend Doug who did government educational films. Doug knew the owners of the Deer Lodge Hotel in the heart of the Rockies and a little over 100 miles from Calgary.

The hotel was a perfect place with a 1920's feel to it, but also incredibly creepy. It was a natural. 

Back in Calgary, Harry talked 6 investors, most from oil money, who wrote 6 checks for around $650,000 (around $1.6 million in today's dollars). As this was 100% tax shelter money (meaning investors could write off 100% of their investment), we had to hurry as that money had to be invested before the end of the year.

I wrote a screenplay, my first real one, with some help from Doug and my brother and we rushed into production, starting around Dec 3, 1980. It was a full union shoot with IATSE (grips, gaffers,make-up, etc), ACTRA (actors) and Harry, me, Doug and a few others.

We shot it in 15 days, with a great help being that it was set in one building and the surrounding snow which gave it an isolated feeling even though a major ski resort was a couple of miles away.

We stayed at one of the ski resort motels as the hotel was closed for the winter and had no heat. As we began filming, I began to notice that the actors seemed to be living their parts, and not always aware of it. And the crew gradually began to feel it as well, they acted like there really were ghosts there.

At the end of a day, nobody wanted to hang around to clean up unless they had someone else around. The dark halls and the constant cold was not particularly cuddly. And I began to realize that of the six characters in the movie, there were two other ones, two that nobody really paid attention to --

The -25 degree weather and, of course, the hotel.

And they were just as real as the flesh and blood that walked down the creaky hallways. While filming, we used torpedo-like construction heaters that blasted heat down the hallways that gave us about 15 minutes as we had to turn off the heaters to film with sound. Then the cold began to  creep upon us again.

One critic said this of the ambience of the movie; paraphrased "you had a choice, either say in the hotel with a crazy old woman or go outside into the freezing cold".

(Wed: feuds, snow and the money running out)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The true north...

It's 6 degrees in Canada. Well, not actually all of Canada, but in Calgary which is a short distance from the incredible Rocky Mountains, already snow-capped and camera ready. I stepped out of my dad's old Sable (which was the source of a week of blogs back in 2009 as I traveled across the prairies while waiting for the car to break down in minus 40 degrees) to see a great evening sky.

The 6 degrees is in celsius not fahrenheit. For Americans 6C translates to about 42F. Cold for SoCal and Arizona but pretty warm for anyone living along the US/Canada border. It's warm enough to wear a sweater.

I'm sort of home for the holidays, with my brother who's a copy editor at the big newspaper in town. It's also the place where I made my first feature film, Ghostkeeper way back in 1980.

I've already had breakfast with Doug Macleod, who got his first feature credit as well, he was the production manager and went on to become an excellent producer. Doug was also credited as co-writer. 

Then there's Murray Ord, one of the film's stars and also a good friend for over 30 years. Murray and I will visit Georgie Collins who played the "old woman" in the movie. Georgie is 86 and as bright and sharp as she was at 56.

Then there's others, crewmembers and actors and friends so it's going to be a great time. We're also going out to the Deer Lodge hotel where we filmed Ghostkeeper. The hotel is still open and the management has already been in line for the DVD, which will be released in February.

The hotel also wants to sell copies, which is great, seeing that it's a horror film, although more of psychological horror than explicit.

So it is Christmas mixed with the Ghostkeeper movie theme, so....

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow....

Friday, December 16, 2011

Politics of Low Budget filmmaking

Recapping Monday's blog, I discovered a new way to make Ghostkeeper 2, the sequel to my 1980 film Ghostkeeper. #2 was budgeted at just under $2 million, and at that, was difficult to finance.

What broke the budget barrier was the use of a Canon SLR that shoots HD video was well as it's primary purpose, that of a single lens reflex camera meant to shoot still photography. And it's small and extremely portable, meaning that you can film more in less time. 

To put it simply; I can cut down a budget of $2 million to just under $500,000. Maybe even less. And come out with a product just as good, maybe even better.

But there are issues, as some would suggest. 

The camera package would be far less than for a 35mm shoot or even the popular "RED" digital camera. For one thing, John (the DP) prefers to use a Nikon similar to the Canon 5D. With the Nikon he can use older Nikkor lenses, many of which are damn good lenses. And you can pick them up at really good prices.

Add to that the camera body, less than $2000, add the accessories and it's about a third of the price of a regular movie camera package. You could even add a spare body at that price. 

But the issue is this;

While the technical advantage works for the camera package, as well as editing on Final Cut Pro (of which I can use), the "other" part of making the movie is labor. And the unions. 

While we can cut the price of cameras, cutting weekly and day rates is another story. There's two ways to do this; first you just grab a dozen people and head out to the mountains and just shoot it. Fast and quiet, don't bring attention to  yourself.

Second is a little harder; you talk to the unions and hope they give you a break. 

One major note here; I'm talking about shooting in Canada, in the mountains. Shooting in LA is far easier, I could pick up a non-union crew at bargain-basement rates, maybe even a union person who needs a job for a few weeks.

The advantage here is that there's so many crew members in the L.A. area, that nobody is really going to bother with you, there's too much going on. 

But Canada is a smaller crew base and it's harder to pull off. Union people have been known to protest non-union shoots to the point where they either hire union or leave.

Another point here for anyone who thinks we're taking advantage of people; our pay rates would be probably half of what union pays, but this goes for "above-the-line" also, meaning I get the same cut, in fact my cut would be lower than anyone else on the crew, and I would be doing three jobs, writing, directing and co-producing. 

What would I get: Probably around $5000 for the whole thing, meaning months of working on the project, doing the budget on MMB, writing, directing and signing checks. But there's a catch here dictated by WGA. I will eventually get paid.

This matters if and when the movie is sold. Once it's sold, I have to be paid my minimum WGA writer's fee. But only if the film is sold. And only if it makes  enough money for me to get some. 

And this goes for the crew, who would also share in a portion of any sale, in accordance to what they were paid on the shoot. And they would have worked maybe 4 weeks at most.

Another factor also exists; some provinces in Canada are not getting as much movie production as a few years ago when the Canadian dollar was almost 65 cents. So now any movie that comes in is welcome and compromises can be had.

Unions can help, but you always have to be straight up with them, you can't pay the stars $100,000 and the gaffers $500 a week. But that makes sense.

I'll be up in the mountains next week and try to figure out how best too do this; there's other issues, even at a low budget. One big one is accomodation, food and per diems, which can kill a low budget production, 4 weeks on a shoot would easily take 25% of the budget.

To deal with this I would go back to the Hollywood of the 1940's and 50's wherein the studio would go on location for 2 weeks, shoot every exterior they could, then go back to the studio and built sets to shoot for 4, 5, 6 or more weeks. Thus I would spend maybe 5 days on location with a full crew, and pick-up shots with a minimum crew of 3 or 4.

While all this sounds like a lot of work, I really enjoy it, figuring out how to do the technical and logistical side while also remaining faithful to the story and the tone of the movie.

And there's the potential of working with the original 4 actors, one of which is 86 now, as well as the DP, John and a few others. All this after 32 years, it would be completing a circle.

But we'll see where this goes for 2012.


Monday, December 12, 2011

A new idea for Ghostkeeper 2?

Edward Burns came into the film world by making a feature film called The Brothers McMullen, for $30,000. The film was successful and it led to several other features with real budgets and famous actors. In between he acted in some movies, including Saving Private Ryan.

Like many directors, he found that making his movies became harder and harder. So after making multi-million dollar movies, his newest movie was made for far less.

How about $9000.

He used the now common Canon 5D SLR. For those who don't know what this is; here's a little history.

Digital movies changed in a major way in the last few years. Where you had your "camcorder" you could also take video still photos as well. Not great. But then Canon came out with a brand new still camera series which included the 5D,  but with a remarkable twist.

The Single Lens Reflex camera has been around for at least 60 years, it's the one your parents had until digital cameras came along. What makes the Canon not just a picture-taking camera, it can also shoot video.

So what's the big deal? Your camera shoots video too. My point and shoot Nikon shoots video.

Well, the Canon 5D not only shoots video, it also shoots 4K. Yeah, another abbreviation to deal with.

But it's simple, 4K stands for the size of the chip in the camera. Whereas your regular HD cameras have chips 1/4 of the size or so, the Canon has a chip that is the identical size of a frame of 35mm film.

For camera guys, and remember I started as a news cameraman, this was ground-breaking. One of the weaknesses in digital was always depth-of-field, meaning that everything was always in focus.

Film, on the other hand, had a great advantage (and still has) by reducing depth of field when you needed it to. You know those shots in movies where the background is out of focus but the actor is clearly sharp. That's depth-of-field. Every movie uses this, everyone ever made. At least on film. It's a little more complex but it's enough for this purpose.

Now, HD is even closer to film and the best part is that you can buy a Canon D5 with lenses for under $10,000. Compare that with the price of a Panavision 35mm which costs around $120,000 (nobody really knows because they're only for rent). And even the Red camera being touted will cost around $40,000 with accessories.

The Canon 5D is now practically essential on all movies being made, even if it's just a secondary camera to grab shots that would take a big rig an hour to take. You just lift it up and shoot. It's used in tandom  with big 35mm & digital camera units, especially for action scenes where you can see as many as 10 of the Canons covering every aspect of the action.

But how does this deal with Ghostkeeper 2?

Well, besides being a fraction of the cost of a camera rental from a renting house, it's easy to use, light and portable and can give you an image equal to any movie shot today. And now Nikon's got into the act as well.

And it represents a new shot for Ghostkeeper 2 as I can cut the budget to less than a quarter of the original $2 million budget.

But it's not that easy, the camera deal is attractive, but there's more than that to deal with.

(Thurs: The politics of low budget filmmaking)

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Canadian Irony

"In Canada when I did strange things, people looked at me. In the U.S. when I did the same, they paid me."
                         - Michael J. Fox

That quote from Michael J. Fox has more to it than one would really think. While the true north, strong and free remains my home country it also presents some contradictions in the world of writers in particular.

In the 1980's, I was at the early stages of what now is a booming business in Canada which got it's big push when Americans began to come to Canada during the booming tax shelter days. Money was everywhere, and so were lawyers and accountants with schemes that would find ways to hide money in a 100% tax shelter. Eventually the government caught on and ended it.

But the Canadian crews had learned from the U.S. crews and it wasn't long before writers emerged on a whole pile of series the likes of which had never been seen before. With new networks, Canadian series took off. And not just the kid shows.

Like the U.S., the industry was primarily centered in Toronto and Montreal, and after a few years, in Vancouver. And that was about the time I left the country.

I had made a movie in Calgary, Ghostkeeper, and finding work in Calgary was hard. There was none. I didn't want to move to Toronto or Montreal. So I got a Green Card through a lottery way back in 1989 from the U.S. government.

And a funny thing happened when I moved to the U.S.

I got more jobs in Canada.

Now this could be defined in a few ways, but mostly, it was the identification of being in "L.A." and actually living there. The same people in Canada who wouldn't hire me because I wasn't from Toronto, suddenly took interest in me.

With the premise that because I lived in L.A., I must be good. Of course, that's ridiculous, but a job is a job.

I'm not the only one who thought this, I have a half dozen writers and directors who agree with the idea that having an LA address ironically made us more employable in Canada. In one year alone I wrote 2 screenplays and rewrote 4 screenplays of other Canadian writers, which took me too Luxembourg, Winnipeg and Mexico. My best year.

But it did not sit well with Canadian writers living in Canada.

I belong to two guilds, Writer's Guild of Canada and Writer's Guild of America, commonly referred to as WGC and WGA. They have mutual agreements so that Canadians living in the US can still work in Canada and vice versa. It's got some complicated wording but essentially all is happy within the two guilds.

But some writers in Canada began to complain. "Why should he/she take away Canadian jobs when they live in LA".

The answer was, to my mind (and others) because I am Canadian. In the first years,70% of my work was done for  Canadian productions from 1990 to 2000 while living in LA. In that time I worked on 4 Canadian series in Canada and 1Canadian/French show (Highlander) in the U.S.

Then I got into a little dispute with the head of WGC when he wrote an editorial in the WGC magazine about the carpetbaggers stealing Canadian jobs. It wasn't in exactly those words, but the intent was there.

I wrote him a letter saying that I'm just as employable as anyone else.  But I'm leaving out some crucial details. His answer was that I and any other Canadian writers who betrayed our country, should not be let back in.

One big reason I and other Canadians in the US got work was particularly upsetting to the head of WGC.

The big advantage we had was that US Companies doing movies and series in Canada received tax credits for having Canadians on the crew. And tax credits meant they got more money.

In a weird formula, the federal government said any company who wished Canadian financing must have this; 6 out of 10 points in "above the line".

There were 2 points for the following; Producer, director, writer, star, and 1 point for editor, production designer, cameraperson.  So a company could have a U.S. star and then mix the above labels to at least 6 points.

And to make it more confusing, not only did the feds ask for this, so did the provinces. If you wanted to make a movie in Vancouver, you had to go by the same formula, more or less, except everyone had to be from British Columbia. Same as Ontario and Montreal.

It then became harder for people like me to get work in Canada because of my LA address. But it also became harder for a Canadian in Ontario to work anywhere else in Canada too.

In my letter to the WGC head, I said I have as much right as anyone in Canada to work there and not only is the system unfair to me, it's unfair to every writer in Canada.

Eventually the system was altered but by then I was working on US productions so it wasn't as important. My last movie in 2010 was with WGC and I  never left L.A. even though it was filmed in Ontario.

But I don't deny that it gives Canadians living in the U.S. a bit of an edge on both U.S. and Canadian writers working and living in Canada.

And if you can understand all of this in one reading, I have the greatest admiration. Like this business, it's all a little crazy.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Rambling Monday

Bunch of things as I begin to wind down to Christmas in the Rockies, still hope for a meeting or two, roll out a winter parka and get that damn book out this week. I had to make some changes which caused some reformatting but I should get the 3rd proof tomorrow, if it's clean, then it's good to go.

WGA party was as always, crowded with lots of people I don't know. In fact there was nobody I knew, fortunately we both are starters and thus met a handful of writers, everyone from a soap opera writer to a game-show question writer and some hopeful aspiring writers who somehow got into WGA (you have to get a WGA signatory company contract in order to join the Guild).

This time they rented a club in the heart of Hollywood and as usual, the first drink was free and anything after that was around $13 but for some reason tickets seemed to be available. It was loud and noisy and the average age was probably around 35, maybe less.

What's always interesting about writers, at least the WGA members is their look. It's very generational in that there's the old writers like me, and the older ones and then the middle aged ones and the young ones.

All in all you wouldn't think this bunch of people had anything in common.

And to make it more challenging, there are no real rules, an old guy can wear jeans and t-shirt, a young kid can wear an expensive sport coat, girls can come in red dresses or black jeans or anything. We're tall, short, thin, fat, a typical cross section of America (and Canada) and thus the variety of costumes and behaviors.

The younger ones think they know everything, the older ones think they don't know enough and somewhere between there's the ones who don't care.

And then there's the working ones. Ah, the lucky ones who are getting a paycheck. It's also the divider often in conversations; the working ones tend to stay with other working ones and the unemployed stay with other unemployed.Of course there's crossovers all the time.

And then there's the usual 2nd or 3rd question after "Hi, I'm......

"So... what are you working on now?"

This question solicits the following answers:

Not much
I'm developing a project
We're working on a spec
I'm working on some ideas
I got a deal with Hallmark and Levinson
We're going to pitch NBC.
I'm a guest of a WGA writer
I know the doorman

And many, many more. I remember the first time I attended a union meeting in the early 1990's at the Sheraton Universal. There were about a thousand writers there, filling two huge auditoriums.

My first reaction was that most of the writers looked like me. Meaning white, European and eastern European heritage. There were women and Asians and African Americans, but the majority was the proverbial white anglo-saxon look.

There's more diversity now, 20 years later, but not as much as there could be. I think probably the least represented if you count population, were the Hispanics. I might be wrong, but how many Hispanics do you see on TV shows and movies with respect to their portion of the American dream?

There was also something else I wondered about. Since the WGA has allegedly around 10,000 members, most of which live in Los Angeles, the turn-out for the party was maybe 200 or so "give or take".

Where are the others?
Maybe they just stay home.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Taking jobs away

One of the topics our little group discuss over Sunday breakfasts at the Figtree restaurant on the beach in Venice, is the subject of jobs. Not necessarily for us but for the country.

Having grown up across from Detroit and with lots of relatives in Detroit, I know all too well how hard hit Detroit is, their unemployment rate is around 15% while the reality is closer to 35% if you discount the suburbs.

I've always said that many jobs have simply disappeared, never to return no matter who's President.

Take my book, Emperor, it took 2 people to get it published. There was one formatting expert who will cost me around $150 and a graphic artist who has cost me $250. She did the front and back covers I posted a week ago.

And that's it.

My director friend Malcom has a background in publishing and graphics and he figured that I just took jobs away from around 20 people. Now this would be pre-computer era. All those people, typesetters, readers and more.

So 18 jobs have disappeared. Never to come back.

And how about this; I'm doing a favor for a friend in a week or two. She has written books on directors and wants to interview a handful of older actors who worked with the director in question.

Since my background is camerawork, mostly film but lots of still photography also, I said I could help her out. I would film the interviews and then edit them into whatever she needed.

Here's who was left out:

An assistant cameraperson
A soundperson
A lighting person
The processing lab
The counterperson at the lab
An editor
A colorist
An effects person (titles, fades, dissolves, etc.)

How's that. 8 jobs lost.

I can do all of those jobs now with digital cameras (I will rent one for about $150/day) as well as a wireless microphone ($35/day), a reflector and maybe a light ($50), tape/memory card ($50) and lunch.

When I finish, I will take the video to my iMac where I  have Final Cut Pro, used by many feature and TV editors who prefer it to Avid, the industry standard. I learned FCP when I had comp courses at UCLA when I taught screenwriting extension classes.

In short, I can do it all.

Of course, the argument is; is this a good thing? If you're an editor looking for work, it probably isn't. Or a cameraperson.

And of course, there's the often repeated saying; "the good news is that everyone can make a movie, the bad news is that everyone can make a movie".

If this is what's going on in the film business, if I can literally make a movie for free, what does it speak for every job in the country.

Fresh & Easy, a British food store has locations in L.A. and they don't have cashiers at all, it's all scanners. Ralph's has 6 scanners in Sherman Oaks. Robots are making cars and work more efficiently and better than humans.

Where are these jobs Republicans are claiming to have if they're elected? Trickle down does not work as we've seen, and they're mostly delusional. Or just lying.  A politician lying?

The American worker hit his/her peak in 1973, meaning that was the moment when the average worker made the most money, say when a dollar was worth a dollar. It went downhill from then.

And American industry peaked in 1979. That was when America had it's highest level of industry, everyone was working. And that went downhill steadily too. A lot of experts say that industry is no longer driving America, now it's consumers.

Neither of these ever came back, there were spikes now and then but as of 2010 it was 65 cents.

So how can consumers drive the economy if there's so much unemployment (average is just around 9% but doesn't include those who stopped looking, and that's more like 15%)?

I think that as population increased, there are simply more people who can buy things. Go by Fashion Square here in Sherman  Oaks, yesterday there was a half a block of traffic going into the Mall and Macy's in particular.

Go figure? Who are these people? While unemployment is high, I can only think that there are enough people (and sales) that they continue to drive the economy.

And of course, I told you often that of the alleged 10,000 writers in WGA that only 1500 or so are actually working.

So don't complain to me.

And there's always "The Singularity". You know, when computers take over completely. Just like Terminator.

Monday, November 28, 2011

What did and didn't happen in 2011

Well, it wasn't a great year for me, I didn't make much money, about $2200 in residuals but I didn't sell a spec script in spite of having a fresh credit for 2010. Fresh credits are important to the creative people in the film business, notably being writers, directors and actors.

Anyone whose credits are 3-5 years old will find jobs hard to get. Anything after 5 years and you might as well be dead. 

And I mean that in the nicest way.

Any of the above-the-line people, aka "creative" want to keep their credits current. That means you're working and it's easier to find a job if you have a job. In the same way as it's easier to find an agent when you have one.

The other way to find a job is to know someone who's working.

What didn't happen? I didn't get Casualties of Love made like I thought I would. I did the reading with actors but afterwards something didn't feel right about the script. One could consider this a "writer's block", maybe it is. But it just doesn't feel real.

Emperor of Mars didn't get made as a film, however the book is almost ready to go, I'm getting the 2nd proof version Tuesday and if it looks good, my first book will step out into the real world.

I didn't get much further with my Ghostkeeper sequel and the re-release of Ghostkeeper 1980 will happen in February. It's actually making the rounds of potential buyers but the DVD itself will "drop" February. I've already got a handful of inquiries so I know we'll sell at least 5 or 6 DVDs.

Would be nicer if it was 500-600, but who knows.

I did get a serious offer on another screenplay of mine and at the moment it's being looked at. And given that the town is winding down, I expect to know more by the middle of January. And I still have a few meetings before I leave for Canada so that's a positive.

My Christmas Carole movie didn't catch on in 2011, but oddly enough I have 3 solid production companies in town who all like it. It would be nice if they optioned it, but in this current climate, nobody wants to put out money if they don't have to. One of the companies has asked to take it to two networks so again, I'll probably hear about it next year.

But the Christmas script has also gotten me interest from 2 new agents, which is always nice. However the catch is that since the company above has taken it to 2 networks, the new agents are in a holding pattern.

So all in all, it's been a productive year, especially for the book, but also for a list of a dozen new ideas for 2012, of which I've already started one.

It's a funny thing about ideas. I heard Sting (of Police fame) say that as he's reaching the age of 60 (yes, 60!) he is getting more ideas than he's ever had. I know the feeling.

I come up with at least one new idea or concept every day, sometimes 2 or 3 ideas. Not that all of them are good, of course. Most of the time the ideas fade after one night. But a few of them hang on. I've got a great idea for another Christmas script, you could say "it's out of this world", as the 60's slang went. My idea is literally out of this world.

It's so different that I'm going to register it with WGA and WGC in the next 2 weeks. More on this later.

Also another book; on screenwriting.

Yes... another book on that subject to join the list of around 250 books on screenwriting. But it'll be a little different. For one thing; it'll be written by a real writer with credits (and a recent one too!),  not writing teachers who've never sold a screenplay nor seen a screenplay of theirs make it to the screen.

Believe it or not, there is a difference. When I taught at UCLA extension, most of my students took my class because I was a working writer. I've said this before, Frank, my favorite agent at Paradigm, said to never mention I was doing part-time teaching. Why?

It's the kiss of death.

It means you're finished in the business. You know, those who write, write. Those who can't teach.

Now of course, to be fair, that's not always the truth. But coming from an agent is enough to make you worry about it.

But that's going to be another blog.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Hollywood closes down?

"The town is closing down", my agent friend said after I told him I'm behind on two 1-page outlines for two Hallmark-type screenplays yet to write. It took me a beat to figure  out what he meant.

Already?  It's too early.

But, just like the fake Christmas trees at Target, the holiday season is on us. Thanksgiving is on Thursday and even Black Friday was early, a week early. I guess you could call it a "prequel". For those of you who don't know about BF, it's the week-end after Thanksgiving when retailers all across America pray for huge sales as Americans begin the Christmas money spending time.

Because if they do, they are "in the black" after a year of so-so sales.

And just like Black Friday, the movie and TV industry begins to slowly shut down their doors. Projects that have begun are finished or in the process of wrapping up. Executives and million dollar actors prepare to go to Aspen or Sun Valley or New York, Santa Fe and even Taos.

Studio labor begins to wonder if they'll be called back next year and for writers, new projects are shelved until the new year begins. Typically around the last half of January.

So my Christmas Carole script will be on somebody's desk for the next two months even if it's on the top of the stack. And nobody calls back.

I have two meetings set for the next few weeks which is quite nice and I'm glad to have them. With people who like me, too. 

Not that anything will happen. No deals will be made, just a "meet 'n greet" as they say.

Hollywood closes down often during the year, any holiday will do, Valentine Day starts a few days before, as do Father's and Mother's Days. Thanksgiving begins two weeks before as pumpkins are dumped onto empty lots and sold.

Christmas trees from Oregon will replace the pumpkin by Friday this week as well.

All in all, there's a lot of holidays in the movie and TV business. I learned through my TiVo that David Letterman takes a lot of time off. My TiVo records only first run shows and when a week goes by with old shows, my TiVo doesn't record them.

"Everybody's gone" my director friend Malcom says at least a dozen times a year. You wonder how movies get made.

And me, I'm off to Calgary December 18 to visit my brother and a number of friends from the time I worked there in 1979. We'll go to the Deer Lodge Hotel in the heart of the Rockies, where Ghostkeeper was filmed and have a great dinner at the Post Hotel where we got kicked out after Riva, the lead actress threw wine at me after the DP cameraman teased her.

Yeah, me. Not the DP.

But that taught me a lesson; and that is that actors need to know someone likes them, they're like kids who need to be praised and encouraged. There was a lot of trouble between her and the crew and I was the only one she could complain to. And that led to the wine toss, I was the only one she could trust.

Chris is gonna nail me for this, just watch. But he's one of the few who isn't like that.

So, it seems the industry is wrapping up for 2011 and once again we all reflect on what we accomplished or didn't. But I'll save my complaining for later.

And besides, the WGA party is coming up, December 4th, wherein WGA rents out the kind of hipster nightclub that no respectable writer would ever go to on their own, let alone afford.  It's an evening where we get one free drink and funny little morsels of food carried by aspiring actors who know writers can't get you a job.

It's kind of like construction workers finding themselves at Donald Trump's Christmas Party.

Last year my second drink, a Manhattan, cost me $16. Which gives me even more reason to never go there on my own.

So Hollywood has begun shutting down and for most of the industry, it's a shutting down that they really don't need, or like. And those who are not major execs or stars will courageously drive their giant leased Lincoln Navigators and Escalades and BMW 700's to Palm Springs or Santa Barbara.

Most of my friends will be going to shopping malls in the valley and maybe a day trip to Santa Monica 9 miles away. 

I gotta find richer friends.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Book is done

Just wrapped up the final items for the Emperor of Mars book. Above is the final cover with a few changes from the previous one a few days ago. The process of formatting and uploading a Word document into the CreateSpace website is not as easy as Amazon makes it out to be.

It drove me crazy for a week and a half after which I was directed by a friend of mine to Greg, a whiz at these things. The final artwork cover, both front and back, was finished by Katie, a graphic artist. Both of them were remarkable in their dedication to making the book cover and the text inside as good as it could be.

 So now I await a proof copy of the novel which should take 3-5 days. Once I get it in my hands, I'll go over every aspect, the cover art, page numbers, dedication, chapter numbers and a handful of other checks to make sure it's ready to go on the market.

As you know, I've never written a novel before and while that was not too  hard, being that it was based on my screenplay, the publishing side was a whole new beast.Normally, a publisher would take care of all of this but since I wasn't able to find a publisher who would even read it, I decided to go the Amazon way.

Why didn't any publisher want it? Well, to be truthful, I only wrote about 20 publishers, all of whom passed. Publishing books, it turns out, is just like the movies; they're looking for a proven novelist, rather than take on a new writer. And even though I've been a screenwriter for 31 years, it apparently didn't count.

The only other alternative was what they used to call "vanity press". This was where a writer can't find a publisher and decides to spend their own money by hiring a printing company who would print their books and novels.  Thus the term "vanity" meaning you're doing it on your own.

Most, if not all of the books were not very good, being a blend of bad novels, conspiracy books from wackos and a lot of self help books, oddly enough. A vanity press book was considered not very good and usually only friends bought them.

Until Amazon came into the game.

With Amazon a writer could publish his/her own book and automatically have it for sale on Amazon along with Stephen King and Al Gore. In short, you're automatically in with every author in the world. Unlike vanity press, where you had to haul your books around to book stores hoping they'd put them on their shelf, or using mail order although the internet has made that easier, you are now with the pros.

And it doesn't cost anything like the vanity presses charged, for that you had to order a minimum, maybe 100 books or more. Amazon only prints a book when it's ordered. They get orders from 20 people, they print 20 copies.

So what's the catch? Nothing. Amazon takes almost half and the writer gets the other half. It's actually a good deal. And if you pay $39, you get more than half and the book is put on lists for libraries, other countries and more. 

And there's no stigma like vanity presses presented. As I mentioned a week ago, Penny Marshall sold her autobiography to Amazon for $600,000. Book publishers saw this as a warning shot across the bow, as they say. And it's scaring the hell out of them.

Emperor of Mars will be listed (after I proof it) as "Young adult - ages 10 and up" and the genre is Sci-Fi, fantasy, adventure, fiction.

You get a lot of help from CreateSpace, the Amazon website for book publishing, there are forums where you talk to other writers and lots of advice on how to market and sell your book.

So let's see where this goes. I'll be happy if I sell 10 books, a hundred would be even better, but I learned long ago as a writer, to not get too full of one's self as it can all fall flat.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Difference between original ideas and copycats

Last week a new series premiered on AMC, home of Mad Men, among other series called Hell On Wheels. If you're wondering if that title suggests car racing, you're wrong. It's a town. But don't feel bad if you guessed wrong, a lot of people have.

But it's sort of a town. Actually it's a railroad camp set back in the late 1800's and is about the building of the railway. The plot line is somewhat simple, a Confederate solider travels there after the war to get revenge on some bad guys who killed his wife. 

And chaos ensues.

But it's not Deadwood by far. Whereas Deadwood gave us unique and rich characters set in a dirty, greedy gold mining town, HOW is filled with cliches and flat characters with little presence. And the ones that aren't flat are over the top, like Colm Meany, the English actor who is quite over the top, but all he succeeds in is that the other performers aren't up to his level.

And it's not doing well in the ratings.

This is about how most if not all great shows on TV are driven by passion and need. Deadwood was created by David Milch of NYPD Blue and a writer driven by those ghosts of creativity that only one person can have. And it was evident in the writing, even though there were other writers.  It was always guided by Milch's hand. It was his idea, his baby and his lift for the time the show was on.

Same as Sopranos, David Chase, the creator and writer paid his dues in shows like Rockford Files, where you can see his use of gangsters and eccentric characters. Finally he got his chance to write what he always wanted to do. And the rest is history.

Even sitcoms have this;  while Charlie Sheen took all the credit, it was obviously Chuck Lorre's baby all the way, as evidenced in the new series w/o Sheeb. Again, a writer who knew what to write and when to write it.

Back to HOW is a disjointed and often confusing series of scenes you've seen everywhere but yet it's lacking any true feelings.

In other words, you don't really fall in with the characters, nor the plot. Because you've seen it before. And Better. AMC had Broken Trails in 2006 with Robert Duvall, and it won awards and was a good western. But it was guided by Duvall who would not compromise. It was his story.

HOW seems to me to be a work by committee in which AMC decided to do a western without any specific reason or vision. And that's where it falls apart. Committees rarely come up with something good. Take a look at Congress.

To make something distinctive, interesting and believeable you need two things; a good story and a good cast.  Duvall's Broken Trails wasn't bad, but Lonesome Dove was better. First of all it was based on a Larry McMurtry novel and secondly it had Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Angelica Huston, Chris Cooper and Robert Urich and other great actors in it. 

Ultimately, everything starts with a good story.

Having worked on several series, I know all to well how, if not guided by a strong idea from a strong writer, you rarely get a good show. I only had a good show once, driven by a writer who lived his premise and took from his life. On the other hand I worked with psychopaths who only lived to drag a show down with their lack of human interest and passion.

You can see this attitude in websites like InkTip and others where producers list what they're looking for. It's usually something that is a copy of something out there that had minor success. Good example is Paranormal Activity, shot supposedly for less than $15,000 and earned well over $1 million.

So there's always listings for a "paranormal activity type script" or a fast car script or whatever was hot last week-end.

I even fall into that crowd with my Christmas movie in 2010 and now am being asked to write something for thanksgiving, Mother's Day and everything else. I've already mentioned this but it bears repeating. 

So how do I deal with copying something? I try, I really try to make it mine, and most of the time it works. After all these years, I have developed a "style" that one actress, when she read my script said "It's so Jim".

Yeah, I know, mushy crap, right. 

But hey, it keeps me honest.


Thursday, November 10, 2011

End of the week

Nothing really of any significant happenings in Sherman Oaks. I'm refining the cover of Emperor of Mars book, hope to have it in early next week. Met one of the handful of producers who still maintain contact with me, he  had a meeting with someone who thought the Emperor screenplay could be a great vehicle for Will Smith's boy Jaden, who did Karate Kid 4, I think.

But I wasn't sure of 2 things, that the source really knows Smith's agent, and that I'm never sure of what the producer says. But as my director friend Paul says, "you never know what these guys can come up with."

I would say about 2/3rds of the producers I know aren't really capable of putting a movie together, the other third just barely and not in a short time period. But you never know who can unexpectedly do something for you so I keep all doors open.

This producer also reached out to Lions Gate with a screenplay I wrote called Deadhead, about a jetliner that suddenly veers off into the northern Pacific. It's actually not a very expensive movie, as I discussed CGI (or VFX as they say now) effects for the jetliner and discovered that the airplane effects would cost around $20,000. Cheap as borscht.

All in all it could be done for under $1 million. That's the key word now for a low budget movie, although $15,000 seems to be common too, where everyone works for free and you use a Canon 5D SLR to shoot it.

He said he had a director who just finished a horror film for that much, called Live Animals, wherein people are put in cages. This is what you deal with when you deal with some producers. All they usually see is money, not story.

But do I care? No.

I have screenplays that were written to sell, and screenplays that are my little pets and you know which ones sell faster. Oddly enough its the pets. Never figured that out.

So as of now, I'm editing a trailer for the Ghostkeeper release and re-reading a screenplay I wrote called Mojave for possible no-budget filming with that 5D.

But the big thing right now for tv movies is holiday movies; and not necessarily Christmas, but any holiday. I've been asked to write a thanksgiving script, a Valentine's Day script and a Mother's Day script.

What's the catch?

It doesn't mean that they'll make it.

Five years ago a writer could get a meeting and pitch an idea and then told to go home and write a few pages, upon which a deal is made, you get some initial funding and you go away and write it.

Today you have to have the competed screenplay. No pitch, no money up front. There are deals made now and then, but whereas it was standard practice, it's now rare. Fortunately for me, I do write a lot of specs, it comes easy to me, after all these years.

And besides what else would I be waiting for?

Writers Guild does not like this nor encourage it, but they don't have to pay my bills.

So I write.

Now, which one; Valentine's is coming up in February so it's probably too late to write one now as it would be finished in December, too close to the holiday to get it made. So maybe Mother's Day and afterwards Thanksgiving.

Better than waiting for that big call from Spielberg.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Here goes nothing...

Well, the book cover is finally finished. It will go to Amazon publishing in the next few days. There's a few little things yet to be done on the cover above; make the radio smaller (the space to the right of the radio is for the barcode).

I'm also going to edit the synopsis and my credits and drop the "He lives in Los Angeles", someone suggested that always goes in novels but I figure it really doesn't have to be there. I have a thing about too many credits.

Publishing your own book used to be called the "Vanity Press", mostly because the books were often so bad that nobody wanted to publish them. That and the "wacko" fringe who wrote books that were for marginal readers.

Amazon, of course, changed all that. A few weeks ago Penny Marshall sold her autobiography to Amazon for $600,000. That's not chump change, as they say. It also indicates where publishing is going.

Like movie scripts, books are getting harder and harder to publish. And you have to already be famous (or infamous) to even get a publishing company to consider your book. I spent 8 months writing to publishers without a bite.

But you can bet that publishing houses did not greet the Amazon deal with Marshall with enthusiasm. Book stores are closing, look at Border's. There's a big empty 2-story building here in Sherman Oaks that was built for a Border's store and now it's locked and empty.

A friend of mine has a crime novel on Amazon that has earned him around $14,000 for the last 3 years and averages around $3000 a year. Not like Penny Marshall, but nice enough for a totally unknown writer.

And then there's audio books and that's an increasing market. Amazon is coming out with 3 new Kindle e-book readers with prices starting at $79, $99 and $199 for a souped up reader with iPad features and screen.

The last model, the $199 is going to change the iPad market. While Apple will still be the leader, they and other companies like Samsung, Sony, Acer and all the others will have to drop their prices as they now sell for anywhere from $400 to $700.

As some of you know, Emperor of Mars is based on a screenplay I wrote in 1989 and have had it nearly made 5 times. "Nearly" doesn't count of course so I spent some time writing it as a novel, which I had never done before

Novels are a different animal, while a screenplay is in present tense (as in "he reaches for the door"), novels are written in the past tense (he reached for the door). Simple as it sounds, it changes the whole dynamic of writing.

Another thing is that you can extend your character's history by going into their head or into your head. Again, the screenplay would read: "He reaches for the door". In a novel you can say "he reached for the door, remembering the last time he stood there and wondering if this was the right time"

While a screenplay scene could be one line, a novel could stretch that single line into a full page.

Is there money to be made by using Amazon? That depends on a lot of other things; you have to design your campaign by yourself, they suggest a Twitter account, a website, a Facebook page, copies to reviewers and a whole lot of other things.


Friday, November 4, 2011

Never say never, eh?

Or... how Hollywood wins and I lose.

As you know, my last blog was about possessory titles, as in "A Film By Whomever"  or "A (fill in name) Film) and how I resisted that kind of credit on a film screen because I was above it all, or at least not wishing to join the rank of hack directors who do take the credit. 

As I said, "A Film by..." should be for accomplished directors who have a track record of great movies and maybe even an oscar thrown in here and there. But certainly not a director who made a rather obscure film called Ghostkeeper that for some reason has a small but faithful following, enough to re-release the film in January 2012.

But there it was, the DVD cover and at the top it read... "A Jim Makichuk Film". My eastern-European guilt and insecurities went into the words of my father, who, when any attention was potentially bestowed on any member of our family including him,  said this;  

Don't show off. 

Don't buy the convertible, don't get a bigger TV set than your neighbor and don't ever think you're better than anyone else. One out of three ain't bad I guess.

I emailed the distributor and asked him to make it "A Badland Picture" instead. After all it was my company so it's almost the same thing. Just less bragging.

He called me and said it should stay as a "Jim....etc" film. And that's when he also gave me a lesson I had forgotten over the past few years. Jerry Lewis had a famous saying that went like this;

"I don't care what you write about me, just make sure you spell my name right." 

"But," I said, "nobody knows who I am or cares". And it's a movie that's quite obscure.

He reminded me that most of Hollywood isn't that smart anyways, they just released a Justin Timberlake movie in LA without a single ad in the LA Times.  Well, he must feel a lot worse than me, I guess. Not a single ad?

The distrib's point was this; put your name wherever you can, it won't hurt. As they say, this is the business in the term show business. You're not here to be humble, save that for speeches. You're here to find work.

And besides, it's gone to the printers.

So.... that's Makichuk, not Mackinchuck and with two K's.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Possessory credit

One of things I dislike most about making films is what is called "The Possessory Credit". And while it's hardly worth noticing for most people, it certainly bothers screenwriters. 

What it is is this;  a title at the beginning (or the end which is becoming more fashionable) which reads: A Film By Harvey Glick". And who is Harvey Glick? Well, I made up that name but this credit is becoming more and more common. And it is always taken by the director.

There's others too, A Film by Martin Scorceses, A Spike Lee Joint, A John Ford Production, A Steven Spielberg Film and many others.

And what the credit suggests, is that the director is totally responsible for every element of the movie. So why does this bother writers so much?

Well, for one thing the director is rarely there when the writer spends days, months and longer to write the screenplay, especially if it's a spec, than have the hired director enter and say it's all his idea.

But then, there's also another factor to take in.

Personally I don't mind the great directors taking this credit, mostly because they have proven to have a unique style unlike your average director. Can you tell the difference between a film by someone you've never heard of, and a film by, say, Robert Altman. 

There's a huge difference. Altman's style is unique and therefore he is entitled to "A Film by". So is Warren Beatty and Brian DePalma and Coppola. They have earned their strips, so to speak and have established a unique style from movie to movie.

And which writer wouldn't want a great director to make his movie, credit and all. 

But where it bothers me is when someone makes his/her first film and uses the credit there. They just don't deserve it as very few of them have any style at all, rather they are copying ideas they've seen from the great directors.

In other words, you gotta earn that "Film by" credit.

But the new directors coming up are demanding the credit even on really bad movies that nobody sees until they end up on Netflix. While usually it's the gorilla on the film (most often the director) who can negotiate the credit, it's also been give to writers (Neil Simon) and producers (David O. Selznick). And who would deny Alfred Hitchcock taking the credit?

And some directors feel that giving the credit to newbies or hacks demeans the intent of the credit. Other directors feel it discredits the writer and the crew, all of whom "made" the movie.

I even had a chance to put a possessory credit on the 3 movies I directed, but two of them were direct to video and hardly the quality of an Altman film so I said no. On Ghostkeeper, a film I wrote, directed and produced through my company, I chose to use the credit as "A Badland Picture Film" as it was truly a company film.

There's an element of me that gives away credits all the time. On Cooperage, the short film I filmed and co-produced in 1976, I had to leave production for a week and let a newcomer cameraman take my place. I gave him first standing because he needed the credit while I was more established.

You know us Canadians, we just want to be liked.

So watch for those "Film by..." credits and see if that director has done anything remarkable that gives him/her the right to take credit for the entire production.


Friday, October 28, 2011

Catching up.

I'm getting a little behind on the blogs but will pick it up Monday. Having a good week, I'm going to publish my novelization of Emperor of Mars in about a week or so,  waiting for the cover from the artist. 

Also editing a short trailer for Ghostkeeper, which will be released January 2012 as well as beginning to edit a longer video on Georgie Collins, who played the part of the "Old Woman" in Ghostkeeper. The short version can be found here on Materials and I had enough material for a half hour so am going to cut it for television in Canada. 

Georgie, now 86, is the grand dame in Alberta and I thought she'd really like the idea of leaving a legacy behind. I'll get photos and other materials as well to cut into the video.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Presence and who has it... and who might have it.

It's been told that Marilyn Monroe could go unnoticed a party but put her in front of a camera and something happened. You couldn't take your eyes off her.

Presence is one of those things that you can't really define, either it's there or it's not Cary Grant had it both on and off the screen, when he walked into a room, everyone turned around.

Last night I watched an old western with Jimmy Stewart and Dean Martin and a load of character actors that filled the screen. Stewart and Martin had presence, but so did the supporting cast including George Kennedy and regulars like Dub Taylor, Andrew Prine, Will Geer and Denver Pyle. Did I mention Raquel Welch? Even she had my attention. Forget Reese Witherspoon, give me a real woman like Raquel.

The story was a classic chase plot, but shot on great locations and with a cast like that, I didn't speed my TiVo at all. Which I do with a lot of movies now. But it wasn't the story that kept me interested. It was the actors.

You watched them.

They had presence, they looked like they had lived life, not growing up in the suburbs and hanging out at the mall.

I also watched the new Hawaii 5-0 finally, or at least 10 minutes of it. The lead actor is completely devoid of any presence at all, given that the original actor Jack Lord, just oozed presence. And he looked like a tough guy. The new version has Scott Caan, son of James Caan, who's left to offer some presence. He's not as good as his old man, but he tries his best and manages a bit of presence.

There's a lot of complaints about actors under 40, mostly that they don't seem to have much presence. One of the reasons is that the studio system has been gone for over 40 years. Studios carefully picked who would be a star, and it wasn't always because of talent. They would shoot tests of every kind until they found that actor who stood out on film.

Consider that today many actors have very little training and often none, given these reality shows. There are exceptions; Matt Damon has it, Ben Affleck doesn't. I don't get Ryan Gosling at all, and Edward Norton and a dozen others. They all look the same, "the little lesbians" as a feminist quoted a few years ago.

Now consider this; the studios are re-doing every movie older than 10 years ago in the hopes that lightning can strike again. The Fog came and went, so did Captain America and the Green Hornet, and I still didn't understand The Green Lantern with another actor, Ryan Reynolds who has the presence of a wall.

George Clooney has presence on screen and off, I saw him once briefly and you can't help but look at him. But he's 50. Johnny Depp is one of those inbetween guys,  but he still looks like a kid. And I still think Leonardo looks like he's dressed in his dad's clothes. 

So let's assume that there aren't any great actors anymore, just mediocre ones. The studios are redoing old movies so what is next?

What about putting an old face on a new body?

If you remember Brad Pitt in the movie Benjamin Button, you'd remember how he aged from baby to old man. It worked well.

So what if you could create Jimmy Stewart again, or Cary Grant or even Bogart. After all they were "stars" in the true description. What if you just added Bogart's face. Or Marilyn's?

Al Pacino starred in a movie called Simone, about a digitally created woman who rebels against her creator.

A week ago a friend of mine said that he knew an actor who was called to a studio for some tests. They were "tests" being made by two of the biggest directors in Hollywood. That's all he would say. Sort of. He couldn't say anymore except that it could change the business.

What if they created the old actors again with the amazing technology from Avatar, we could have movies again featuring a young Gene Hackman, Sean Connery, Kirk Douglas, Joan Crawford and of course... Marilyn. Maybe she gets to finish her last movie after all.  Imagine Sean Connery's young face on the next James Bond film.

Think it's crazy?

Those avatars looked pretty damn good. And that was almost 3 years ago. Imagine what they can do now. Or tomorrow?

Why do you think the Screen Actor's Guild wasn't happy with Avatar?

At least they can't create a software that can write screenplays.

Or can they?