Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Buyers Market

I caught a TV movie a few nights ago directed by a friend of mine starring an actress who was a teen idol in the 80's. She was great as a troubled teen but now pushing late 40's. The movie was one of those made by a local producer who specializes in cheap movies for TV which are becoming the norm.

This movie cost about $750,000 and looked it, shot on a 20 day schedule in which everyone, the actors, the crew and the director worked for basic rates. One director I know had a job that paid $25,000 which sounds like a lot, but consider that 20 years ago he would have been paid $75-$100,000. 

That was when TV movies were made for $2.5 million to $3.5 million. But those days are gone. I attended a party around 2005 at the Roosevelt Hotel across from Mann's Chinese theater which was referred to as "The Death of TV Movies" party.

Almost all my credits were TV movies, a genre that began in the late 60's and I caught the end of them around 2005. Survivor, the reality TV happened, cheaper to make and it got ratings. What was left was Hallmark, Lifetime, ABC Family and Sci-Fi Channel.

They discovered that it was truly a buyer's market and it wasn't long before budgets dropped and fewer writers worked. My last movie, the Christmas story, was made for under $1 million and shot in 12 days. In an odd way, the price reflected the episodic series of the late 1950's in which half-hour episodes were made for even less than now and in 5 days.

Screenplays now are pretty much up for grabs, if you go to InkTip, Mandy or even Craigslist, you get producers looking for completed screenplays with themes like the following:

A Christmas story with a dog
Limited horror location stories
A script with elements of Fargo, Psycho, American Horror and Lars and the Real Girl
High concept script with characters that don't get killed off in unique ways.
Serial killer scripts
Feature length Christmas story for a budget of $300,000.
Scripts with fairies as the main characters
Horror creature story set in the old west 
Female martial arts
Scripts with good coverage

Some of those scripts offer a deferred salary or payments of $1500 and more if  the movie gets made. And if you think these ads are by small-time producers, one of them is from Universal Studios.

And these guys get hundreds of screenplays to read, most of which aren't very good and made with actors who were supporting actors in series 20 years ago because that's all the producers can afford on the budgets that the companies I mentioned earlier are demanding.

And they really are demanding, paying as little as $500,000 for a TV movie. And that's why many end up in Canada or Louisiana where tax credits can supply another $250,000 or more and maybe a sale to Canada and Great Britain. Most European countries don't buy American TV movies as much anymore, they make their own.

But what bothers me most about those themes/genres above is that all these producers want is something like the latest hit movie in whatever genre. Nobody's asking writers for a story that they wrote with all their heart or even a story they had to tell. Granted, that might not make money, but yet, that's what writing is about. Spec scripts should be anything that a writer has passion for (yeah, that over-used expression) because passion is what a good script is about.  

It's not about copying the latest $100 million movie that some producer thinks he can match on a budget of $300,00. And I'm not dumping on genre films, write what you want to write and hopefully what you need to write. I've got a stack of spec scripts that have never been made and probably won't get made, but that doesn't stop me from writing a new one because I truly love writing.

Ironically the tale of screenwriters seems to be following the economy, wherein at least 27 million Americans are out of work with no real hope of finding work. And remember, I'm talking about the TV movie, not episodic nor tentpole blockbuster movies made from comic books. Those genres have their own problems, the least of which is originality and freshness.

And the baby-boomers have no great need to let go of their hold of this country, around 70 million, meaning that it is harder for the younger ones to grasp a piece of the pie are who are left trying to find their piece, be it movies, airline pilots, business or whatever. As a boomer, I plan on hanging around because I happen to like writing and making documentaries.

What does work?

A good story, of course. And how do you get a good story? You write and write and write. Like I always say, writers don't need a job to write, they just need an idea. And there's lots of ideas around. It should be about something, not just a copy of a film you liked.  Remember that William Faulkner wrote all his books in his little town in the south, remarking that every story there was, was in his home town. You don't have to travel to Paris to write a screenplay, you just have to look around.

You might even have a Chinese action-driven script ready.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The real writer's world.

Hopefully some of you have stuck around. I was gone on a bit of a holiday and had little access to emails. Regardless of that, I'm finally back in LA.

As some of you know, this blog started in August of 2009, which begat a whole lot of blogs, starting with 3 new blogs every week and now only two.  I've repeated myself a few times, have had a few disagreements with some of you and find myself still here.

You've also seen at least 3 projects I've started in the last 2 years and two of them failed to start up. The first was Travel Day, which the entire blog is titled. It fell apart after major financing fell through in Canada. Shirley, whom you remember is still active and we are still talking about making a film together.

Then came the TV series which caused a few disagreements between myself and a mystery person who seemed to have their life goal to see me discredited. Believe me, there are better things to do with their spare time. I have exceeded all expectations that anyone had of me so I have little to worry about when someone wants to prove me wrong.

Nobody knows anything anyway, as William Goldman once said.

That followed by the reading of Casualties of Love, the no-budget film I hoped to make last year. However, after filming the reading, I found I didn't like the screenplay and set it aside until such time I would address it again and hopefully discover what is wrong with it.

And finally Ghostkeeper re-appeared in my life. After 31 years, my first feature film, both written and directed by myself, reared it's head and found a new life. I've finished the "extras" including a great interview with 86-year old Georgie Collins and the DVD release will happen in early January.

Even as the DVD market is slowly giving way to streaming video.

And then there was Ghostkeeper 2, which I wrote in the hopes that I could finance it to film this November. As of now, it seems it might be late winter 2012.

So what is this re-assessment all about? 

I've given you a really good look at a writer's life from every angle, and always honest and truthful. Maybe I mixed up some dates but at my age, that's allowed. What you've read is what most writers go through for their entire lives.

It's all about continuing no matter what and the truth is that you never really get to make all the movies you want. I have a list of around 35 screenplays on the "shelf" as they say. In other words 35 screenplays that have never been made. Some were close, some were never even considered.

So when a new writer comes to me with their first screenplay, expecting that it should be made, it's hard for me to offer suggestions. Especially if the screenplay isn't very good.

What's good and what isn't?

It is subjective to an extent, you can always find someone to agree or disagree with your choices. But ultimately there is something else and the only way I could describe it is "street creds" as the gangbangers say.

Until you have actually had a screenplay made and shown somewhere, theaters, TV, wherever, you aren't a writer. Same goes for jet pilots, bakers, whomever. Once you see your words said and your scenes work, you really don't know anything. And all you can do, or should do -- is to continue to write. And write.

Rejections are plenty in this business, only actors are rejected more than writers, and you learn to live with that. And as you can see in my part of this world, that sometimes I get a film made, and most of the time I don't.

But the ideas continue to flow and the projects continue to emerge. Besides what else could I do.

So it's back to the grind after my little Parisian moments and forward and onward.

Hope you stick around. 

Friday, September 23, 2011

Still out of the loop

Back on Monday, did some travel.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Out of town

I'm out of town for a week more, doing some business with Ghostkeeper which I'll elaborate once it's clear, all good.  Will try to post over the wk-end.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Canadian eh?

I grew up with a great generation of Canadian actors,all of whom achieved success in the US. How about these names for a start:

Donald Sutherland
Keifer Sutherland
Raymond Burr (Perry Mason series)
Raymond Massey (who portrayed Lincoln)
Leslie Nielson
William Shatner
Keanu Reeves
John Candy
Michael J. Fox
Christopher Plummer
Jim Carrey

Then there's also movie mogul Jack Warner who started Warner Brothers,  and Mack Sennett who did silents and Norman Jewison who directed Fiddler on the Roof among a dozen other great movies. And director David Cronenberg also.

And even the gorilla in the room; James Cameron.

All of the performers were solid actors, okay maybe Keanu doesn't do Shakespeare, but he has presence.

So who does the new generation have?

Ryan Reynolds and Ryan Gosling.

Generally acknowledged as nowhere near the abilities nor the presence of the actors named before them. But what they do reflect is the fickleness of the audience. Reynolds is the Canadian Ben Affleck, or as my director friend says, "a hold in the screen". Like Ben, whose acting career careened after several flops, Reynolds is now facing the same fate, his 2 big box movies this year failed and he's only a star when he's in a movie with Sandra Bullock.

And like Ben, who realized he could change a career by directing films and being tight with Harvey Weinstein, Ryan now is directing.

Both Ryans are TV actors at best, one Ryan got an Academy Award nomination which defies all logic. One of the best performances ever was Donald Sutherland in Redford's Ordinary People, in which the two other stars got nominations for "chewing the scenery" as the saying goes.

There are also at least a dozen young Canadian actors who seem to populate WB shows and of course, Ellen Page, also nominated, and actually a good actress.  But her biggest problem is that she looks 14. Think Patty Duke.

But the situation with American actors is pretty much the same, take for example the remake of Hawaii 5-0, where the entire cast walks over the lead actor, who has the presence of a wet rag.

So where are the great actors? Where are the new Cary Grants (maybe Clooney, but he's in the older category now), or the Robert Mitchums, John Waynes, Gary Coopers, Jimmy Stewarts, Jack Nicholsons, Warren Beattys, and so many others.

A feminist writer once referred to the new actors like Depp, Edward Norton, Toby MacGuire and others as "little lesbians" in that they were cute boys that seemed to be more feminine than masculine. And I still seem to think Leonardo is dressed in his dad's clothes.

Of course, competing with old stars like Mitchum and Wayne was no contest, they screamed masculinity, not that it's all that great either. But all of the older actors came out of hard times and wars, Steve McQueen and James Dean had difficult periods of growing up as did many more.

And I'm not even talking about Brando, there is nobody like him at all, or Montgomery Clift,who influenced an era of actors.

But like all things; the times change and in a time of mediocrity (see last week's blogs) it creates mediocre actors. Little lesbians and all.

At least this lack of presence and great talent seems to not be restricted to Canadians. I look forward to the new Sutherlands, or Massey's or even Carrey's.
Even Mary Pickford, a Canadian, was a star in her day. Because she had "it".

Where are the actors out there who "have it"?  Judging from TV shows, it seems the leader of many shows (CSI etc) is usually an aging baby boomer for the boomer audience, and one who has some presence (Mark Harmon, Ted Danson, Tom Selleck) but the rest of the cast seems interchangeable with any actor on another series,  you  can't tell them apart.

But then I do like Jennifer Garner and Jessica Biel.

And they're not even Canadian, eh?

Monday, September 5, 2011

My Other Job

I never really wanted to do anything in life. 

At least that's what I think. On the first day of school in my little village of 500 people, my mom dropped me off at school and walked home. Shortly afterwards she heard me playing with my toys outside. I told her that I had tried school for awhile and didn't really want to do that.

But I managed to make my way through school, even getting a few jobs along the line that made me feel even stronger against doing work... of any kind. I failed Grade 10 because I didn't "apply myself" as the report card stated. No kidding.

But I was a natural for 2 subjects; History and English. Of those two I could not get enough. And one other thing; movies and TV. I list them as one as they were both equal partners. As I've said before in this blog, I could watch TV and see movies any day, any time.

I also worked on "the line" at Chysler, assembling Plymouth cars. My job was to jump in the car as it moved along the assembly line and hammer in trim around the ceiling. It took me 5 minutes to learn the job. Later I stepped in for workers taking their breaks. None of these jobs required serious training.

One job I stepped in for was done by a man who had worked there for nearly 20 years. It was at that point that I said I would never work in a factory again. But in a factory town, summer jobs were essentially factory jobs.

And then a miracle happened. At least it seemed like that. 

I got a job at the local TV station and never looked back. July 9, 1969.

But this blog is about the "other job" isn't it. There is another job which I would be happy at if it's all I ever did. It matches the intensity of movies and TV and isn't related to them, sort of.

I am one of the best tour guides you'll ever meet. My tours are as simple as my home town and as complicated as driving 1200 miles in 4 days. And everything in between.

I've taken friends on my LA tours, based on what I think they would like to see and what I think they would never have discovered on their own. And if they want to go to Universal Tours or Disneyland I'll be happy to drop them off and pick them up at the end of the day.

I have ethnic tours of LA, tours where celebrities or gangsters died, tours of Pacific Coast Hwy and Malibu that you'd never discover yourself, including a Catholic retreat that has the best view of Malibu ever.

I've taken my brother to both Roswell and Area 51, have taken friends to Monument Valley and Grand Canyon, Yosemite NP, wineries in Tehachapi, Edwards Air Force Base where the shuttle would land now and then.

Tour Guide Jimmy.

I will show people Southern California as they've never seen it, deserted mining towns in the Mojave,  Joshua trees as old as 600 years, creosote at least 1000 years old and  the ugliest town in America (at least as far as I think, their football team plays on dirt, not grass).

I can take you to Canada via Montana and Utah and show you cafes and truckstops that aren't franchises or chains.

And this is where movies come in, I am still editing my documentary on Highway 50, dubbed the loneliest highway in America. That's the photo at the top of this blog. I also am going to do another doc on another "forgotten highway" as a potential pilot for a series on highways that were bypassed with interstate highways.

That and my insatiable curiosity are the best things I was given, and while I would suffocate in an office job, I am damn lucky that I was able to find a way to make money with my two interests; movies and travel.

I say this because a friend of mine, in his early 30's, is finding it difficult to chase his passion. He knows so much about cars but can't find a way to make money from it. His knowledge of this world is amazing.  And I think most people go to work without that passion, most people fall into jobs, rather than plan for one. 

But the thing that scares the hell out of me always lurks somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind. 

What if I didn't walk into that employment office on that day, at that hour and talk to that employment advisor who had 3 different jobs to offer me. You know what the last one was.

Was it luck or was it something else?

But that's another blog.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Character writers?

One of the best things about actors was always the character actors. Think of actors like Strother Martin, Dub Taylor, Walter Brennan and women like Cloris Leachman (still working), Agnes Moorehead and so many others.

These weren't the stars, they were the supporting cast. And they sure supported the stars, some of whom weren't really great actors in the first place. In short, a star was famous, a character actor was what made the movies enjoyable.

One of the best lines of dialog ever came from Strother Martin, who could forget "What we got here is a failure to communicate" from Cool Hand Luke.

There's another thing about character actors, good ones always worked. Whereas Hollywood is filled with almost stars, fallen stars and aspiring stars, those stars often dimmed. But a character actor would always find a job.

I worked once with Stuart Margolin, who played Angel on the 80's series Rockford Files. He was the co-star of a series I worked on. It was amazing how he could get the attention of the viewer simply by doing a little "business" as they say, a look, a twitch, an expression. That's all it took to get the viewer to focus on him.

Character actors never got the attention that the stars did, but they worked a lot more often.

So how does this relate to writers?

I suppose every writer has always hoped of making the big time and had dreams of climbing the stairs at Academy award time.  But few do. Remember, there are around 10,000 screenwriters in the WGA, although it's hard to really get an exact number.

But every now and then, one of the lucky ones gets to climb those stairs. And the rest of us watch and dream.

I can divide writers into 3 categories; the famous ones,  the one-hit wonders and the ones who somehow manage to work most of the time. The character actors of the writer's world. There are those who became famous; Robert Towne, William Goldman, Joe Eszterhas and Shane Black and a handful of others.

And then there's the rest of us. I always wanted to write a biography entitled "Working My Way to the Middle". Well, I never really was serious, besides I didn't have time, I was working a lot. And I still am.

I know two writers who sold one screenplay and have never sold anything else again even though they try and try. Nobody knows why, it's just the god or goddess of writers who decides and he or she isn't telling why or how.

I've had a good run with 18 movies, some of which were rewrites, all of which were "Page 1's" as the term is used. Meaning a rewrite that started at page 1, and going through the entire screenplay.  I've been rewritten twice on movies, more on series.

And now, as a aging screenwriter, I continue to write and have plans to write at least 2 specs this fall and winter as well as continue to look for funding for Ghostkeeper 2 and Emperor of Mars. I'm also considering a "crowdfunding picture", wherein funds are solicited online. It's an interesting format, I might do a blog on that whole premise.

So there it is, some writers get an assignment a couple of times in their career, others become stars, but some of us are lucky enough to find continuous work, not as highly paid as the star writers but working more often than not.