Monday, July 30, 2012

Uhhhh... actors.

And then there's actors.

First of all I feel for actors as they get judged by how they look, how they talk and generally if they can bring audiences to laughter or tears. Writers just have to give someone a screenplay and then they get paid. Much easier on the ego.

I'm gonna get a comment from Chris on this but I'm coming from my own experiences with actors.

You may have heard about the Modern Family cast above went into the new season and then promptly pulled a strike of sorts. They obviously planned this and made sure everyone was in solidarity. The show was successful,  the network was making plenty of money and besides, the Friends cast was getting $1 million per episode each!

The Modern Family cast was making around $60,000 according to LA Times, nobody knows for sure but they wanted a bigger piece of the pie as they feel that they are responsible for the success of the show.

You're reading this from a writer who's worked in episodic. What do I think?

First of all, they're nowhere near the Friends phenom, nor even close to Seinfield and there really isn't a breakout star from the show except for Ed O'Neil. He made his rep in the sitcom Married With Children and is probably paid more than the others as he has the street credits. He's paid his dues.

The other cast members are good but are basically character actors, none of them have the presence of Ed O'Niell or Bryan Cranston from Breaking Bad, or James Gandolfini from Sopranos.

Whatever the asking price was it seems it'll be around $170,000 to $180,000 each episode with some increases if they stay for 9 years. I guarantee it won't be around for 9 years. Why? Because it's a novelty show, a 1-note premise that will eventually tire.

Maybe this sounds like I don't like actors. I like some and not others. A veteran director friend of mine said once that if you want a good actor, they're gonna be "good". Not exciting particularly, nor outstanding, but they'll say the lines and stand where you want them to.

But if you want a great actor, well, these people are a little crazy and that's why they're great. Classic example is Brando, there's Robert Duval, Al Pacino, Gene Hackman and a handful of actors. These guys give classic performances like some actors dream of.

A lot of actors are really insecure and I think it comes from a business where you're judged on your looks more than anything else. While actors who know their craft are usually easy to work with, those who aren't all that good can be hell. And if they somehow become stars it's super hell.

There's an old actor joke where the director tells one actor that the scene is all about him and then the director tells the other actor the same thing.  The joke infers that they will go at each other, in words and action, to overpower the other. I've seen it with actors and with comedians and it isn't pretty.

But one thing is missing in the demands.

What about the writers?

This may come as a surprise to some of you but actors don't make up their lines. After 40 years in the business, I still get asked this when I tell them I'm a writer. Their answer is always "I thought they make up the lines".

There's a great quote from Norman Jewison, who directed Cher in Moonstruck where she won an Oscar. She thanked her hairdresser.

Jewison was known to have said: "Well at least she didn't do it all by herself".

So how much does the actor bring to the table. To their credit they must figure out what or who they are on screen and it's not easy. I've been to some actor schools and watched and would never be able to reveal myself the way actors have to. I do appreciate the abilities and craft and when it works, it works great.

So does this ensemble cast deserve more money? Ask someone in Kansas that question and you'll know what to expect. But here in Hollywood; they do deserve it because their helping to make the show a success and you can bet the writers are making far more than they are. And once the run is over, they're out on the street again more often than not carrying the brief bit of fame that they had.

Bottom line is "who's more important - the actor who's hired to play his/her part or the writer who created the show and it's characters?"

And by the way when I say actors, I mean that in the British term, male and female, the term actress comes from a French word, actrice. But come Emmy or Oscar time, they even  occasionally mention the writer who gave them the words.

Because without us, they wouldn't know what to say.

(Thurs: Actors Pt 2 - good actor/bad actor)

Friday, July 27, 2012


I still remember the first time I saw Variety.  It was at a newsstand in downtown Detroit, just off Woodward Avenue. I was a kid from a town of 500 people in northern Canada and my father moved us to Windsor, across the river from 5 million people in the Detroit area.

I think it was 50 cents and I wasn't even sure what it was but I bought it. I took it home and begin to read it even though I couldn't understand terms like box office boffo, exec ankles, backdoor pilot, biopic and ozoner. Translation is 1) movie makes lots of money, 2) executive leaves studio, 3)  TV movie becomes series, 4) biography picture and 5) drive-in movies which sometimes were called "passion pits".

It was like reading a whole new language and I took every bit of it in. It took me a year or so to figure out all the terms they used, a writer would "pen" a movie meaning a deal was made for a writer to write a movie. 

I kept buying Variety for years after that and also discovered Hollywood Reporter. Both of them were essentially newspapers for  the entertainment industry mainly in Los Angeles and New York. They were daily newspapers and had week-end newspapers which were the ones I was able to get. The dailies didn't get as far as Detroit.

And I wondered who else would buy this specialist newspaper; where there that many people in Detroit who were in the entertainment industry. Later on I realized that the entertainment industry in Detroit, mostly radio and TV, had both papers mailed directly to them. Remember mail?

In the scheme of things, it was another step towards me falling into the movie and TV industry and I often wonder if it was an accident or intended to be. I really like being a writer and a director and a filmmaker in general and am lucky to have a hand in each of the Big 3.

When I went out on my own as writer and director I continued to get Variety, but being in Canada, I was only able to get the week-end ones, but a week late. It didn't matter, I devoured the material, mostly about how much movies made, who was making them and what was in the works.

I learned terms like "above the line" which refers to the "talent" in a movie, the writer, the director, the producer and the stars". Crew was relegated to "below the line". DJ, for radio announcers was termed by Variety. A documentary film as a "doc".

Variety excelled at headlines as you see above, the line "stix nix hix pics" refers to the fact that rural movies didn't do well in rural communities.  One of the best was "Wall Street Lays An Egg", which refers to the crash of 1929. 

Variety started 107 years ago and covered the entertainment scene since then, with broadway plays, silent movies and onward up till now.

And now, it's in danger of disappearing altogether. As with all newspapers and magazines, Variety is struggling to keep going. They and Hollywood Reporter have internet versions but the daily papers are losing to instant internet news. Variety is the only remaining daily print publication exclusively covering movies, theater and TV.

It's sad to see it go, but I catch my entertainment news for free as do most people in this business with the exception of IMDB-Pro and it's just too easy to do that than to walk over to a newsstand and buy a copy.

Still it's like losing an old friend and the thrill and excitement this kid had when he read about the business that someday he would be part of.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The book

I'm putting back the Variety posting, will do it Thursday.

I'm now about 46 pages into the book on screenwriting and finding it relatively easy. Of course it's based on my 2 1/2 years of teaching extension classes at UCLA, which ended around 2003.

It was a toss-up between writing that or doing a novelization of another screenplay I wrote that got great responses and was even optioned by ABC, until the exec who optioned it was laid off. In cases like that the network or studio kills his babies. Not a very nice term but very real.

I've been a little wary of writing a book on screenwriting, given that there are at least 100 or more books out there. In other words who wants a new book?

I gave those 46 pages to a handful of friends who I can trust will be honest and asked them if I had anything.  A couple have emailed back, one spoke to me on Sunday. They all said it was "compelling" and informative.

Those words could mean a lot of things but they added that due to one factor, the book should do well.

That factor is -- that I actually had movies made. 18 of them. Half were rewrites, where I was hired to rewrite entire screenplays, mostly on location. Those were in Luxembourg, Canada, Mexico and here in Los Angeles.

So what's the difference between me and those other 100 books?

Most of those books were written by people who never had a movie made.  And of the ones who did, there were only a few who had one or a couple made.

Would you want to fly with a pilot who's flown once, or 18 times? And then there's the 30 hours of episodic too.

But before I get too "Mr. Highshot", as my Manitoba friend says, I have another element I'm adding to the book. Essentially it's a take-off of this blog.

I've written this blog for almost 3 years, 3 blogs a week at first, for a year or long and now 2 blogs a week. That's a hell of a lot of posts and some repeated in that time. The blog was in the Top 50 film blogs of 2010 by Movie Maker magazine.

Since then, both screenwriting magazines, Creative Screenwriting & Screenwriter, have disappeared. There might be alternatives on the internet but I couldn't find any.

Back to the post; I am utilizing two elements in the book, first using my lectures from UCLA and updating them as well as combining stories that are similar to the blog. In short I'm attempting to show people how I write (as compared to how to write) . This worked for UCLA and will work again in book form.

I've also woven in stories of the film business, gathered over 40 years, which should provide insight into the world of writers, not just diagrams and catchy phrases that some people use.

It's another re-invention of sorts, my last movie was 2010 and I have a 3 projects being looked at but I've been around the block enough to know that it means nothing. Writing books thru Amazon at least offers the chance to sell a book or two and keeps my mind fresh.

The book on screenwriting should be finished in August and then I'll see what it's future will be like. And at the same time, I'll start writing a new screenplay on a totally different subject.

(Thurs: Death of Variety)

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Long not so lonely road...

My last blog was about s handful of old TV shows from the 60's and the theme they all seemed to have as compared to the present. A lot of my friends in their 50's and 60's complain about how bad the shows are now and  in some ways, they are bad.

I seem to be inbetween in that discussion, there certainly were bad TV shows (My Mother the Car?) but there was a middle ground of discovery that seems to be lost now. Of course we didn't have dvds or internet where we could watch and rewatch and rewatch TV series or movies on out TV or iPhone.

For us every episode was a 1-of as they say in TV language, meaning that episode you would watch one night would be gone forever, it might replay once but that was it. That episode was gone.

But something else changed, not for the better particularly.

Most of the TV shows even up to the 70's had one story editor and a producer and most of the scripts were assigned to freelance writers, with exceptions like Rod Serling who wrote many Twilight Zone scripts  himself. Sterling Silliphant wrote a lot of Route 66 scripts as well. There were a few others also.

But it changed in the late 70's when writing staffs became more popular. There were writing staffs on sitcoms even in the 50's, but maybe two or three. Variety shows like Sid Caesar's Show of Shows had a bigger staff including Woody Allen and  Mel Brooks.  Those shows needed a lot of laughs and so had big staffs.

By the late 80's dramatic TV shows began to get larger staffs and today you can see head credits, wherein you see a dozen or more names with titles like producer, executive producer, co-executive producer, co-producer and a few more names.

But they're all writers, with the exception of a real producer, the guy who actually makes up a budget, hires crew and cast and worries about over-spending. Some drama shows have 10 to 15 writers.

So what's my problem?

I worked on several TV series where there were, at the most, 4 writers but the best show I worked on had 2 and 1/2. Let me explain, there was the showrunner, myself and an assistant director who was being tested as a potential writer. It was a good show because the show runner was good. I've been on series where the showrunner isn't good and it becomes a contest over who has power over who.

On that one show, we did 13 episodes, I had 2, the showrunner had 4 and 1 for the new guy. We also farmed out a handful of episodes to freelance writers. 

If you wonder what 3 writers, or for that matter 15 writers, do in the writing room? Mostly argue. But with 3 we settle it quickly, with 15 I can't imagine anything getting settled. It's like having 15 opinions on a movie, with lots of yelling. It isn't all yelling but there is a lot of ego, depending on who has more history and awards.

What often happens is tha the loudest people get heard more, although the politics after the meetings can usurp previous agreements wherein the star actors can access the showrunner, who often is the creator of the show, to fix their lines of dialog without having to deal with other actors. And their egos are even bigger.

So you can have a dozen writers and a handful of actors who all think they're right. And the question is; is the show better for it?

I think no. One of the executives who helped create 100 TV channels (now more than 400) said that when they created all those channels they envisioned bold new dramas and other shows for every niche audience there is.

But he admitted, what they created was mediocrity.  

A few shows work with a large writing staff, shows like Breaking Bad, Madmen and a few others but today the Emmy Awards were announced and none of the major networks were up for best shows. Even with all those writers they have.

What's that old expression? Too many cooks spoil the soup? 

(Mon: The death of Variety?)

Monday, July 16, 2012

The long lonely road...

Lately I discovered a new channel on my satellite called MeTV, and it seems directed to baby boomers with shows like Mash, Rockford Files and even more obscure ones like The Rebel, Route 66 and the always funny Car 54, Where Are You.

Those still with me after that onslaught of 60's and 70's TV will consider those titles with maybe some interest or just plain nostalgia. In an era of instant tweets and a need for something new and hip every 60 seconds, these shows are definitely a throw-back to a different era.

For one thing, any guy over 18  and coming from a middle-class home that couldn't afford to pay off someone in government (like Dick Cheney and GWG) would probably be drafted and sent over to Vietnam and 50,000 of them would never come home again. Compare that to the "war" in Iraq.

But back to meTV, it was available on my old 13" antenna TV and I realized last week that it was also on DirecTV. Most of those shows are forgettable to me, watching one episode was enough that I didn't need to repeat it, but others stuck with me.

Those would be:

 Combat (still an excellent WW11 show with Vic Morrow. The episodes have strong moral lessons and the black & white episodes gave you a feel of war.

Route 66 one of my favorites, 2 guys hit the road and travel across America in a Corvette which was actually filmed in different cities and towns across the country. 

The Fugitive - about a guy wrongly convicted of murdering his wife, who escapes and wanders the country looking for the one-armed man he saw at his home at the murder. A great show that had one of the biggest audiences ever for the last episode.

The Rebel - about a Confederate cowboy who roams the west after the Civil War trying to make sense of the horrors of war and coming into situations that would put him in jeopardy.

If you see a common thread here, it's pretty obvious, all the series above were about moving around the country, although Combat is a bit of a stretch. Hey, it's Europe. I loved road movies and TV and still do although there aren't any shows like that. There was also the theme running through them a county being lost in it's own identity and uncertainty, painted by Vietnam and African-American riots in the cities as well as equal rights struggles and 3 assassinations.

There were other shows as well, Then Came Bronson, which I particularly liked, much like Route 66 except that it was one man on a motorcycle whose brother was murdered and he set across the country to try to figure out what was going on.

The Bronson show also filmed throughout the US, something that would be prohibitively impossible to do now, given the cost of transporting cast and crew to distant locations from LA or NYC.

All in all, these shows were "about something", and was reflective of that generation I grew up in, restless, distrustful of anyone over 30, dreams of great changes that never came about. The truth of it was, not an image of hippies, Woodstock and campaigning for Bobby Kennedy like I did. Rather the majority were relatively conservative but adapted in a weird way, the questioning of values and morals of hippies and turned it into "it's all about me".

There was something else about these shows, something that in hindsight, was quite amazing. For one thing they had one or two writers with outside writers getting assignments for one or more episodes. 

That's changed dramatically and, in a world of Millennials, a generation who looks back 2 years at the most, the 60's dramas and everything before or after is simply boring, so "analog".  According to the LA Times, they see movies as fashion, which includes iPhones, spike heels and video games.

Forseries writers, it changed dramatically.

(Thurs: The producers, executive producers, associate producers and God knows who else producers!)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The amateur and the pro -- part 2

So why do studios and networks and small prodco's even entertain the thought of working with amateurs rather than pros?

Well, first of all, most studios don't even consider aspiring screenwriters, they spend too much money to take a chance on untested talent. True, some new writers with screenwriting awards from major competitions like the Nichols competition and fellowship and a few others but the few dozen or so other competitions are mostly scams wherein aspiring writers pay $50 or more to enter. There are thousands of these aspiring writers so at $50 a pop, a competition in some little city can make some money for the sponsors.

A little history here now; why and when did all these aspiring screenwriters come from? It probably started back in the 1980's when new writers like Shane Black and Joe Eszterhas  sold spec screenplays for half a million and more. This was new to Hollywood, experienced screenwriters who did specs for big action thrillers like Lethal Weapon and others.

Suddenly specs got heat, as they say and every writer who could write a spec did one. It lasted into the early 90's and slowly disappeared after a number of specs were bought for huge amounts. Eszterhas supposedly was paid $4 million for a story he wrote on a napkin! The movie that was made from that spec died at the box office.

So studios returned to the old ways, taking time to figure out if a screenplay was do-able.

But it became a gold rush for Generation X, many of whom went to film school or took a few classes. Specs became the new gold.

But it was already too late as studios and networks settled in with writers they knew and trusted.

But then the mini-studio happened. Small companies who did movies for around $2 - $5 million and made primarily for international sales and dvds. They were looking for anything they could find at a price that was affordable.

How affordable? Some of them were asking writers to work for free, suggesting their script would get them attention. This happens often today. Others would pay a little bit of money and of course this includes WGA members who are not allowed to work for non-signatories.

But some of them did; one has to pay the rent and face the wrath of the WGA.

Then something else started.

Web sites that actually featured producers and companies looking for scripts. This time they upped the stakes by encouraging WGA writers as well as non-WGA writers. Websites like InkTip which charges $60 a year to receive the weekly handful of producers looking for screenplays.

The problem, often, was that they were asking for very specific screenplays like "smart sci-fi stories", or faith-based scripts, contained scripts (very few locations and actors), humans hunting humans scripts, Persian comedies, etc. etc.

Somehow the demand changed from writers writing specs to producers looking for very specific genres and even narrower subject matter.  And rules happened, you could not contact the companies by any method, only the website could contact them beyond your official reply.

But writers go to these sites, as agencies have merged with agencies thus leaving few agents to solicit for new writers, it has become a race for who can deliver a script for "fairy tale adaptations featuring dogs" (that was a a real request).

So where does it go?

One thing I've always said is that I'm glad I had my hat in the ring from 1990 to 2005 where several parties were held yearly at the Roosevelt Hotel bemoaning the "end of the TV Movie". With it came the end of an era when there was a fair amount of work for a lot of writers.

It's now become a "who gets there first" mentality for the b-movie writers (and directors), many of whom could make a fair amount of money doing episodic and dvd movies. The big guys, Paramount, Universal and the others have reduced their product to blockbusters that cost $150 million or more and writers in television make a great living.

But for most of us, it's more bleak than encouraging as different medias begin to take over and a new generation watches bits of movies on their iPhones. Consider that the WGA has an 85% unemployment ratio as compared to America's unemployment figures at around 8-15%.

Where does it go considering the odds of selling a screenplay?

I met a woman who had just graduated from NYU in writing and directing and owed $85,000 in student loans. She is starting out looking for a job in an industry that doesn't know what new media is going to hit it with a generation that likes things for free.

Ah, but is it all gone? No, reinvention is the key word. 

Got a female marital arts script?

Monday, July 9, 2012

The amateur and the pro

When I came to LA in 1990 there was a very specific method of getting a job. First you had to find an agent, which back then wasn't really very hard. I actually had an agent before I came here but that was after I had made my Ghostkeeper movie.

Still I was nobody as far as Hollywood was concerned.

And even though I had an agent, he never really found me any work. After 2 years, which was what our contract stated, I left for another agent who didn't find me work either. Both agents just weren't in the big leagues. It took me a few until I found one who was young, eager and he liked me.

As far as the getting attention, I had a screenplay, Emperor of Mars, which I talk about frequently in this blog. Turned out that it opened doors for me, a lot of doors, studios, networks and production companies. Almost all of them from Amblin to Zucker Brothers.

But nobody wanted to make it. They wanted to either see what else I had or if I would take an assignment job. Which I did with pleasure. Ironically I got most jobs from Canada, where I had been, where I couldn't get a job anywhere.

But now that I was in LA the feeling was that I must be good. The fact is that I was the same writer but I guess, everyone looks to the other side of the hill.

Getting meetings and jobs always began by a "Meet 'n Greet", wherein you meet the development executive or sometimes the boss. It was all very orderly.

Then, around 2005 or so things changed. The tv movie was dying and now only 3 players. Suddenly a whole market almost disappeared. And jobs disappeared also. This was now the era of reality TV and big budget movies.

Then something else happened.

Film schools. Dozens of them. Maybe hundreds. There always were film schools, but not many, the big guys UCLA, USC, AFI, NYU and a dozen others. But now universities and colleges saw money in teaching film.

Which produced hundreds of new screenwriters.

While that was somewhat of a nuisance, after all we pros don't really want competition from the new writers, it's bad enough that most of us in WGA are unemployed anyways. One obstacle was that they had to get into WGA, which requires that you get a WGA signatory company. It isn't as easy as it sounds.

Then something else happened. Film schools began having screenplay contests. In short time other organizations also began to have screenwriting contests. They hired a few "Pro" writers to judge, made some money from the entries and paid the winner a few bucks and planned the next one.

Then other markets began to spring up, craigslist, Mandy and a dozen others of which most didn't last long. Even actors got into the act, Kevin Spacey had a website where you could post your script and read others.

Very soon there was a lot of "aspiring" writers, some of whom even called themselves writers. (I don't consider someone being a writer until they sell something, a receipe, an articlem a short story or a script, old school maybe  but I'm not alone).

And it became wide open, a war between seasoned writers with experience and amateurs of all ages who maybe took a course like the one I taught at UCLA or bought one of the many screenwriting books or even took a course with McKee.

After all that's all you really need to write your first screenplay? That and the software.

Almost overnight, competition began fiercely between the real writers and the aspiring writers. I know from my own course that less than 5 people in my total classes which amounted to around 250, were able to write something that was good, not to mention having a bit of talent and a lot of stories.

And while some WGA members worked, there was also a pool of non-WGA writers that always had found jobs. WGA has allegedly anywhere from 7000 members to 10,000. Truth is nobody knows for sure. One thing for sure is that the majority of WGA writers are not working.

While studios and networks still worked with reliable writers with considerable experience, some companies were sneaking looks at the aspiring talent pool.

But why, would you ask, would production companies even consider writers who may have won a contest or taken a single course at UCLA or USC or wherever? And what kind of production companies.

(Thurs: more on this)

Monday, July 2, 2012

Something new...

Well, I finally made a decision on my next immediate project. Last week I started writing my book on screenwriting while at the same time, beginning to try to put Ghostkeeper 2 together for a potential November 2012 shoot.

They really don't conflict each other as the book requires writing, of which I am updating my UCLA lectures from several years ago. Ghostkeeper requires a new budget to reflect a digital shoot and I've already got some artwork which I will insert into the proposal I made last year. Mornings are for writing the screenwriter book and afternoons are for Ghostkeeper 2.

So why write a book on how to write a screenplay?

Especially when there's at least 200 books?

I've had the idea for a while, encouraged by former students who kept telling me I should write it, and friends including some writers and directors. Still, there's a lot of books out there.

So what's the difference?

The major reason, and this comes from almost everyone who knows me; I actually have produced movies behind me. Credits. I have writer credits on 18 movies, half of which were my original screenplays and others were rewrites on other writer's movies.

Does those "others" count, you ask?

When it's a "page 1" rewrite it does count. That term means that I literally started revisions on page 1. Some scripts were rewritten so much that little of the original story was left. Rewriting isn't always pleasant, I got rewritten twice on my movies, mostly because of a writer friend of the producer. I also got rewritten often on episodic series but that's normal.

Going back to the "difference", most of the books out there on screenwriting have been written by either people who have never written a screenplay or those who have never sold a screenplay. Then there's a few who have some animation produced and/or 1 or 2 movies.

Does that mean that I'm better?

 Of course not. It's just that people with more credits bring more to the table. And ultimately that can offer a bigger picture of the work of the screenwriter, not only in writing the original screenplay, but also dealing with what happens when it goes into production.

 I'll also use some of the posts in this blog, actually I am thinking of including a full collection of all 368 blogs I've accumulated in almost 3 years.

My book will have a new angle; I will actually use a real screenplay I'm working on to give examples of writing, as well as using some famous screenplays as well. This might be a first, in that aspiring writers can see exactly how I find, develop and write a screenplay.

The book should take a month or so... as I have the lectures and it's a bit of cut and paste and updating. This, you know is my second book, this time not fictional. A friend suggested I'm doing some re-inventing in that my screenplays seem to be stuck in that "we love it but don't want to make it... yet" stage.

But at least they are considering my 2 screenplays out there, it took 3 years to get Hallmark to make my Town That Christmas Forgot. Actually, they also forgot to pay me! That might make a good blog, as I kept all the emails. I might have posted it 2 years ago though so I'll check. It's a great collection of emails wherein I and my lawyer attempt to get paid for a movie the company already finished shooting!!