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.