Monday, March 25, 2013

How the internet changed screenwriting

As many of you have read, I'm more of a filmmaker than a writer although most of my efforts go towards selling my screenplays or trying to get them financed. In fact this blog which began in August 2009 was about my efforts to make Travel Day, a feature that unfortunately fell apart. 

But I have done almost every job there is on a movie, from being a P.A. who drives actors around or carries out the trash right up to director and producer. But again, most of my earnings came from writing.

There was a good article in the LA Times a few days ago which described the heady years of "spec scripts". I was thrown into that world around 1992 wherein my agent would "auction" my latest spec. Translated it means he would offer my speculative screenplay to whomever would buy it first. 

This all sounds good and it was at a time when spec scripts were auctioned as the agents would announce that the script is up for sale on Monday and will close on Friday so if a producer wanted it, they had to make up their minds.

My auctions weren't really ever bought, but I did get meetings which would give me work later on. The big stars of this bidding war were mainly two guys, Shane Black and Joe Eszterhas and a handful of others. Joe wrote Flashdance and Basic Instinct among others and Shane wrote the Lethal Weapon movies with rising star Mel Gibson. These guys made millions on their spec scripts.

Up till then screenplays were either based on books or ideas from studios or producers but the spec business went overboard. I did sell two specs but nowhere near the money those two guys got. Actually The Town That Christmas Forgot was a spec as well but I got WGC scale fees.

This spec function depended on different producers or studios bidding for the screenplay and since it was passed by courier (email still hadn't arrived fully yet) there was a gradual buildup of energy to see who would get what and for how much. Joe is believed to have written down a story on a napkin in a restaurant and sold it for somewhere between $2-$4 million.

But that all changed after the internet came up and made the process more democratic and less expensive. I still remember sending screenplays to producers and my agents couriering them to studios but when email and attachments arrived, it was faster.

So fast that when a spec was put up for auction everyone knew instantly about it and also who was interested and who wasn't.  This changed the rules in favor of the buyer. Gone were the days when it took a week to decide and not know what your enemy was considering to pay. Now everyone knew it as Deadline Hollywood began to print daily information, often refreshing the information as well

Now, it's very rare to get a spec sale in the millions, in fact the writer of the LA Times said a spec can bring around $100 thousand and even that's not always the case. Who wins - probably the studios and producers and since stars now don't really get as much as they used to either, prices are falling in Hollywood. 

The actor's story is interesting also, we're now in a situation where, as my friend Paul Lynch puts it, there are no more real stars that guarantee big money for studios and producers.

But that's the next blog.

Today I start my new spec screenplay just to test the water.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Week-ender... "Tonight show"

There's been some talk this week in L.A. that NBC is going to take the Tonight Show with Jay Leno back to New York. For those of you who didn't know, the Tonight Show is the longest running entertainment show in history, starting around 1950.

Steve Allan was the first host in New York, Allen had a great sense of humor and was accomplished as a comedian, host, song writer and almost anything else. He left the show and Jack Paar took over. 

Paar was more intellectual than Allen and often would make fun of sponsors, Timex watches in particular. To show how strong the watches were he took a hammer and smashed the watch to pieces. Needless to say Timex was not happy. Again, the show was broadcast from NYC.

Then came Johnny Carson who held onto the show for 30 years, a record in TV. Other talk show hosts tried but nobody could match him in the ratings. Eventually the network decided to move to Los Angeles where there were many more celebrities. The show moved and after Carson retired Jay Leno got the show in a bit of backstabbing Letterman. Carson wanted Letterman to host but Leno got it.

Other late-night shows came, Leno was replaced by Conan O'Brian, who lasted a short time until Leno wanted back. Then came the Jimmys, Kimmel & Fallon and a few more, some who failed and some like Craig Ferguson stayed on.

But NBC isn't happy and wants bigger ratings so they are considering going back to New York. Remember why the show moved to L.A.? 

Because there are more celebrities here.

NBC is in a bad position, worst ratings of the big 4, CBS, ABC and Fox are all doing better. 

Personally I think the Tonight show format, originally started by Steve Allen, has too many competitors and frankly, a little boring with the often lame monologue, followed by guests plugging movies and a band at the end. It's pretty much all the same and what is needed is a new way to do these shows.

But I don't really know how it could be done.

Until then, I watch Letterman simply because he's a lot more comfortable in his job, the old pro who is so much better as an interviewer than any of the others. Then there's Ferguson who's slightly crazy, and you never know what he's gonna do.

You can find great clips on YouTube with Steve Allen, Jack Paar and of course... "here's Johnny".

 Anyways, have a good week-end. I get my book proof next Wednesday...  excited.

Monday, March 18, 2013

How to get the public to pay for a movie

I've talked about crowd-funding in the past but something interesting happened that could change the way movies are made. Or at least some movies.

Several years ago there was a TV series called Veronica Mars. It was about a young girl and her father, who was a cop in a small California beach town. It starred Kristen Bell. The show ran on what was then called UPN and is now called CW. It's the channel that has all the young and beautiful people. But that's another story.

Anyways, the show was cancelled after three years and was gone. But there remained a pretty good fan base who would watch and rewatch the show wherever they could find the old episodes. 

Apparently there were a lot of fans.

The show's creator, Rob Thomas, came up with an idea. What if the fans paid for a movie based on the TV show. But, as we all know, it costs money. And Warner Brothers owned the rights. And they weren't about to pay for a movie on a TV show that was cancelled, dead and gone.

So Thomas went to

What is that, you might ask? I'm sure a lot of you know already.

Kickstarter and IndieGoGo are just two crowd-funders and there are dozens more. And what they do is raise the money for you. But not from themselves.

They get it from people like me and you and your uncle and anyone else, and in this case, the fans who continued to like Veronica Mars.

How it works is simple; you put your idea for a movie on either of the above websites and then they open it to the public. In short, the crowd and the funding.

Does it work?

It does work but it is up to the "crowd", meaning anyone who goes to those websites. There is a time limit, 30 days or 40 or whatever the deadline is. People "donate" $10 or more, there is no real limit. One Canadian businessman put in $10,000. 

While each "crowd-funder" is different, they all keep the donations until either the amount is raised or the time limit ends. And not all applicants get their money. Many of them don't make it to the amount they need.

Many of the applicants are asking for as little as $5000 to make their movie, others like Paul Schrader, writer of Taxi Driver (in the 1970's) raised around $400,000 to make his movies. 

So what does the donator/investor get for putting in their $10 or $10,000?

They can get a copy of the screenplay, or a t-shirt, or have a small part in the movie, or whatever the producer can think of. But they don't get their money back.

Still, they can say they helped finance a movie.

And they're not all movies; there are short films and artistic efforts. In fact crowdfunding can be for anything. And Obama even made it bigger for small business and anyone who wants to startup a business.

And yes, I have considered crowd-funding for the last 4 years or so but can't find the right project. Yet.

So how much money did the Veronica Mars site bring in? Well Thomas was asking for $2 million. He got it by the end of the first day.

So far he's exceeded that amount to a total of $3.5 million. And his deadline is still open.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The week-end blog - Slides and carousels

I finally dragged out my stack of 12 "carousels" or slide holders and am gently saying goodbye. I often wonder how digital photos swept over all of us and I admit, I do like the point 'n shoot versions.  I put my Nikon into storage years ago and know that some day I will have to say goodbye to it as well.

I must have at least a thousand or more slides (those tiny photos with the white holder for those who don't know) and will have to pick and choose amongst those. Not looking forward to it. Memories, you know... 

There is an argument for film, mostly in saving movies for archives. Librarians have long said that video was no good for storage and they are still out on digital. The thing is that digital has not been tested for endurance and we know that film, when properly stored, can last at least 100 years and more. We won't know about digital until it passes the hundred year test and by then film will have survived 200 years.

But I won't be around anyways.

The last days of slides for me were shot on Fuji Velvia stock with an ASA of 50 meaning that you really needed a tripod in order to shoot photos that were brilliantly colorful. Before that I used the classic Kodachrome (Like Paul Simon sings) film which had an ASA of 25 and you couldn't believe how rich the colors were. 

I have slides going back 40 years, that when taken out now, are just as brilliant as the day they were shot. Try that on video. I used it also in my 8mm Bolex camera for movies, and they are just as bright.

Digital cameras now ensure that most people take photos easily but the difference between them and the pros is composition and knowing which lens and filter to use. That won't ever change for pros, even if the cameras now can do the technical work.

But they still can't give you a nicely composed photo, that's where the "pro" comes in.

So say goodbye to the carousels and their little slots where you'd insert slides into and then show them on the wall to your friends and family. I will miss them, along with the hum of a slide projector and the heat that came from the powerful bulb.

Life goes on.      

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Searchers

For those of you who have stuck around since 2009, the beginning, I am grateful. However I know you probably drop by less, who wouldn't after almost four years. Four in August.

And you probably know that my favorite movie of all time is The Searchers. For those who have never seen or it heard of it, it is arguably one of the best films in American film history. I never really knew this when I watched it in my little town in Canada, population 560.

All I knew is that I liked it and that it had layers (alth0ugh I didn't know what "layers" meant at the age of 12). There was just something about that movie that I could not forget. And it wasn't until VHS came out that I saw it again. And again. Sometimes I caught it on TMC halfway through and watched to the end.

And I found out that other people liked it, people like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, who are far more successful than I, but share that movie, we're all around the same age. 

So what is "The Searchers"?   

First of all, it's a western. But not just a western, it is the best ever made.

I know I'm making it almost impossible for alot of you just from my raves. But it is.

The story is this; A soldier from the Civil War returns home in Texas and shortly afterwards his brother and his wife are brutally killed by Comanches, taking two young daughters with them. For the next seven years the soldier and a half-breed attempt to find the girls but not to save them, rather to kill them after they've been handled by Indians. 

Nice plot, huh.

And it's actually true, based on an real life story in the mid 1800's. It became a mythical story for many years and finally a book in the early 1950's. Then it became a movie directed by a winner of 6 Academy Awards for directing. John Ford. Nobody has every beat him at the Oscars.

Ford wasn't a nice guy, in fact he was an alcoholic and very nasty to everyone. But he made great movies.

And he made several changes in the story, with the main one moving from Texas (even though it was supposed to be Texas) too Monument Valley, which if you've never seen it, is one of the most incredible places in this country.

Ford hired legendary John Wayne to play the lead, a sociopathic cowboy whose racism is pretty clear and dry. This was not the usual movie in 1950's America, racism was not talked about. Ford didn't give a damn, he wanted to show a dark side of America and did it well enough to make the best western ever.

But westerns were considered as not as good as the real movies and The Searchers came and went.  But when it began to play on TV and with the attention from the famous directors above, people began to rediscover it. 

There are several books on John Ford but a new book, just released a week or so ago, covers  both the history of the real story as well as the book and finally, the making of the movie. In fact it's playing tonight at a special screening in Santa Monica.

See it on DVD if you can... you might not like it after all I said, but it is worth the time. And you really need to watch it more than once to catch all the nuances and subtleties

And tell me what you thought.   

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Week-ender - An index

I'm going to start a week-ender blog, just a short bit of information for the week-end.

I have spent the last week building an index for my screenplay book. It's that catalog of words at the end of a non-fiction book. I've never done one before and since I can't really pay for someone else to do it, I did it myself.

There are apparently some software ways to do this; even MS Word has a selection button where you click on it and it automatically puts a certain word you select, like Screenwriting or Paul Newman or anything that someone might want to find in the index.

But MS Word was a lot more confusing than I thought and my format guy said the best way to do it is manually. It was a good idea because it was easier, at least for me.

What I did is pick a word or phrase, say William Goldman, and then I write it down as Goldman, William 46 (the 46 is the page where Goldman can be found). If he's in another place it would read Goldman, William 46, 120.

If you're wondering how you go about finding another page for William I simply did a search and there it was. Some words like "conflict" was used 20 times, sometimes more than one on a page.

The work is not exciting, it reminded me of working on the line at the Chrysler plant one summer when I was earning money for college.

I also had to separate words; a title would be in bold, like SCREENWRITING. A movie would be in italics like Zero Black Thirty.

I didn't find any books on the subject, in fact I didn't want to. I just grabbed several film books I already had and copied what they do. In fact each book is often different in the way they make their index so I wasn't too worried.

It took me 4 days to do it right. I missed some and misplaced other words and even forgot some of the headings but I think I got it right.

One step closer to publishing, which I hope will be in 2 weeks.

And then I focus on Emperor of Mars once again. After 28 years, it's going to get another shot.

Oh, the shoe? Believe it or not I tossed my shoes off yesterday and went to bed and when I got up they were like this. Just a coincidence, but what are the odds of the shoes being arranged like someone did it on purpose.

Have a good week-end. Regular blog on Monday as always.