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.

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