Monday, December 30, 2013

Year's end

Another year has passed and with it the usual promises and hopes that either didn't happen or didn't even have a chance of happening. But a few things did happen in my little world that made it all worth it.

Screenwriters live a different life than most people, even actors and directors and crews aren't the same as us. For one reason that I often quote to aspiring writers and to anyone else who will listen is that we are the only ones in the film business that don't have to have a job in order to write. You might include producers but let's not.

What I mean is this; we have the chance of getting hired by a producer to write a completely new screenplay or get hired to do rewrites on someone else's screenplay. 

But there's another shot at getting a movie made.

And it's free.

Writers are the only ones who can write a "spec" screenplay (or script, same thing) on their own. Why write something without getting paid? Well, half of my original screenplays that were produced were spec scripts. In other words I wrote them by myself without getting a penny for them but then managed to sell them and get made. A few were bought but never made however.

I've got a stack of these specs that I wrote that number around 30 and I know very few other writers who have that many. There are probably more, but I don't know them. 

Why do I take that chance of writing a script that maybe nobody will want?

For one thing I get to write it exactly how I want without a producer poking their nose into my story and telling me too change something on this page or that page. Of course when they buy it they will tell me to change stuff but at least that first draft is mine.

You never know.

And besides, what else should I be doing when I'm waiting for someone to buy another one of my scripts? One of my past agents said that he loved telling producers that "Jim is one of the few writers who likes to write."

I'm not exactly sure that I like to write, but more like I have to write. The alternative is to sit and wait for the phone to ring or watch a lot of Netflix movies that someone else wrote.

I do other things than write, however, I'm working on that doc you probably read a few months ago, the 90-year old pilot from WW11 in the Pacific campaign. My experience with cameras and editing also allows me to do shorts as well as around 40 youtube videos. Not to mention a few hundred commercials I wrote, produced and directed. And three movies I wrote and directed.

In that sense, I'm more a filmmaker than a screenwriter.

Then there's credits.

Probably all of you know about, the British service that has become the equal of the NSA in that they know way too much about all of us writers and actors and directors.  Over a period of ten years or so imdb has become the source to find out about anything in the film business.  And that includes your age, which, if you're over 40 (some say 30) you stand a chance to lose a job.

And one thing in particular that can praise you or kill you.

And that is credits. Credits are gold. They can get you a job or lose it.

For those few who don't know what credits are, it's simple; Your name on a movie or TV show and how new it is or how old it is.

My example; my last credit was 2010 for The Town That Christmas Forgot. Now, nearly 2014, I am just at the end of my shot as a working writer unless I get a new credit. Fast. Credits are God, the more the better and the more recent the better. 

And if you haven't had any in 3 or 4 years, everyone is going to think you're finished. Even if you have a few screenplays optioned as I have. And all they have to do is go to imdb and check on me. 

Imdb has made a few mistakes in my credits and I have attempted several times to have it corrected but they're like Google, they don't bother. Ever try to get an answer from them?

So, what's left is the fact that we still can work, even if nobody's hired us. I converted my Emperor of Mars screenplay into a book and finished a book on screenwriting this year, while finishing a screenplay for an actor and director.

So I'm not complaining.

But a lot of other people are; and that's the thousands of film crews who are losing jobs to tax credits given out by other states and Canada. But that's another blog.

For now, let's hope we all get our wishes for the new year.


Friday, December 27, 2013

Free money for writers -- sort of...

The photo above is one page of 8 more pages which indicate foreign viewing among a few dozen countries. And I just received a nice little check for foreign use of several of my movies and TV series.  The statements above are for a specific period of time, usually one year. This comes from foreign countries who get money from their various media, in this case those same movies and TV shows.

The foreign countries call it levies, while the U.S. counts it as residuals. Basically it's the same thing and I get these checks regularly throughout the year, some as low as 84 cents and others a lot more. If you click the photo you can see that some payments are 1 cent for Heathcliff (a cartoon series), another is $91.00 for a movie called Rough Air. Both of these are at least 10 years old.

I like to call it "free money".

Why? Because I really didn't do anything for it. I was paid my script fees before the movie or tv production started. Residuals come from usage of the products, something that began in the late 1930's when radio actors would do two performances on the radio for different time zones. This also happened in the 1950's with some TV programs that originated in New York would later be broadcast on the west coast time zone. Remember this was before satellites.

The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) fought for residuals for movies shown on TV and in 1960 won that right. Movies produced before 1960 weren't eligible. Eventually this was followed by WGA, the Writers Guild of America.

So, okay, we writers get checks for showing our product. I mentioned my Gentle Ben movie that was made in 2002 and still continues to send me residuals as well as several others. This certainly indicates that my movies and tv series episodes are running somewhere in the world.

But it's not actually all mine.

That's where greed takes over. When I sell a movie I don't get all of what's due to me. That's because the production company takes my copyright to a particular screenplay and keeps it for themselves.

Copyright is the issue, almost every civilized country says that copyright goes to the creator who in this case is me - and thousands of other writers. But not in the U.S. The big guys want to own it for themselves. And if you want to see your screenplay sold, you have to give up your rights to the buyer.

Thus, the foreign levies I mention above are for my copyright payments, which are sort of residuals but based on the fact I own it. 

Canada has another way of payment, rather than pay residuals after the product has been shown, the producers pay ahead. The Writers Guild of Canada has a "Production Fee", which is basically residuals but they are paid upon completion of the movie rather than years later as the U.S. system and foreign levies do.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter that much. And as for "free money", it really is as nobody else except writers, actors and directors get this money after the product has been shown. And why is it free -- at least to me?

Because I didn't do a single thing to get it. Your plumber doesn't get residuals on his work, nor your mechanic or the customer service person at your bank. Do they get payments at the end of each day or month?

I'm certainly not going to give my residuals away, but at the same time realize that it is free money that I really didn't earn. Most writers will probably argue this, but that's my take on it.

And if you happen to be in town sometime and I get a residual check, there is a regular practice among my friends and I to take you out for lunch.  

For free.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Christmas movies forever...

By now you have probably been swamped by Christmas movies, mostly from Hallmark who have at least a hundred Christmas movies to show each year. And too make sure there's room for all of them they have three different channels.

There's the original Hallmark Hall of Fame channel, which usually is a major network like CBS. Then there's the Hallmark Channel which they own and which carries regular episodic TV series as well as Christmas movies in the evening. They also have other family and holiday movies during the rest of the year.  And now they have the Hallmark Movie Channel also.

How many Christmas movies do we need?

Well, more. 

Lifetime Channel has a few Christmas movies as does ABC Disney and I'm sure there are other movies about Christmas for the other 500 channels.

And then there's all the Christmas movies that go back to the1940's, movies like Miracle on 34th Street (1947( and of course It's a Wonderful Life (1946). And you can't forget the annual marathon for A Christmas Story (1983) that plays for 24 hours on TBS, beginning Christmas Eve.

Where does it say that man and woman should have so many Christmas movies?

Christmas, or at least what we call Christmas is a mix of Christian, pre-Christian and secular holidays, including honoring the southern solstice and is celebrated by a few billion people.

And I had my little piece of Christmas also. If you follow this blog you'll remember when my movie, The Town That Christmas Forgot, played it's first run in 2010. After that it continues to play at Christmas time along with all the others.

I also have a connection to Christmas Story, mentioned above, as the editor, Stan Cole, edited my first feature, Ghostkeeper. Needless to say the only comparison to my movie was the presence of a lot of snow. Tons of it.

My personal favorites (besides mine, of course) are 3 those mentioned above as well as White Christmas. I'll have watched all 4 sometimes in the next two days. My Christmas movie, like other Hallmark movies, played and replayed as early as November but I like to wait till today. After all there's only so much Christmas viewing.

My story was actually based on three separate events in my life, two of which had to do with Christmas. Ironically the screenplay turned out to be 3 consecutive acts of the classic 3-Act story.

The first act involved a family whose car breaks down, leading to spending 2 days in a small town in Oregon. This actually happened. 

In the second act the family becomes involved with townspeople in a dying coal mining town. That also happened when I was filming a documentary in the Canadian Rockies and spent a few evenings in the town's bar.

 And the 3rd act revolved around a Christmas Pageant which was based on the Christmas Pageants we had in my little village in Canada.

Screenplays usually don't all into place as easily as this one did, and none of it was "created", it was based on real people and real places. And it's pretty rare to find that.

Then there's  1974's Black Christmas.

Arguably the best suspense-horror film was another Canadian film that "celebrated" Christmas. The storyline was about a maniac killer (who else?) comes back to a private school and begins killing the pretty teen-age girls.

And guess what? Stan Cole also edited that movie. 

It was made again a few years ago and there are some other horror/suspense movies out there also, but not as good as Black Christmas.

And there's one more movie that inspired me to write a Christmas story and that was Susan Slept Here (1954). Never heard of it? Probably not.

I first saw it around the late 50's as a kid, and never forgot it, nor the theater I saw it in. I just loved it. A troubled teenage girl is handed over to a Hollywood screenwriter for the Christmas holidays and of course he doesn't want to be her guardian. Great movie.

It actually inspired me to write a spec screenplay which might just get made next year.

Hallmark movies tend to be family-friendly, in other words anyone should be able to enter the room and watch a movie and not feel awkward or uncomfortable. Black Christmas obviously doesn't fit, but who knows?  

There are a lot of sad Christmas movies, I remember a TV movie with Lloyd Bridges (Jeff's dad for those of you who don't know who he is). It was about two lonely people who meet at a hotel and find some friendship. It was appropriately called Silent Night, Lonely Night (1969). Great title!!

Then there's Home Alone (1980) and Polar Express (2004) and if you really get into it 1938's A Christmas Carole, still one of the best ever. And for action fan's Bruce Willis in Die Hard (1988) and Lethal Weapon (1987) with Mel.

As far as my movie, it's not as great as the classic ones mentioned here, but it did have some feeling that came close. 

So have a great Christmas and try to catch some of the more obscure Christmas movies, especially on TCM which brings me a piece of nostalgia and finding movies I had never heard of before.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Leaving Phoenix...

One day behind my usual post,  I was returning from Phoenix where I met up with an old high school buddy.

Anyways, I have to finish the screenplay I'm writing for the actor and the director. I'm almost finished, the story ends in one particular place, that being a deserted jail in the middle of Los Angeles.

I first encountered the jail when a director was filming one of my screenplays back around 2005, I think (don't want to check the exact date). The screenplay was about two snipers stalking each other in Central Park.

I mention this project a few years ago (this blog is nearing it's 5th year!!), how a producer called me asking for a sci-fi screenplay and I had none, so I pushed the sniper screenplay at him. Over the week-end, he optioned it.

But then economics happened; they were going to shoot it in Hong Kong with financing from there, around $5 million budget. So I got tour books out and found a park in Hong Kong and rewrote it primarily for locations. Dialog was the same. It's not really hard to do that for an action film.

Then it switched to Puerto Rico, so I got tour books from there and rewrote it again.

Then they changed their minds and it was all gone.

Then a director friend of mine managed to get around $650,000 or so and we shot it at McArthur Park in downtown LA and in a few other parks. Several scenes were shot in the abandoned jail when we scouted interesting locations. 

So I rewrote it again. 

The film didn't turn out too well, it had Stephen Baldwin who was nice enough, not like his brothers who fight all the time. But the camerawork wasn't very good and that reflected on the director who wasn't in top form.

But, it was made.

So now, that jail is a central character in the actor's screenplay I'm writing. At least for now and just in case -- I'm taking out my Puerto Rico and Hong Kong tour books.

And maybe Central Park?

Monday, December 9, 2013

WGA party

Last night I attended the annual Writer's Guild Christmas party which, for the second year was at a toney and high end restaurant called Beso, of which at least one celebrity whose name is attached to it, that being Eva Langoria, the actress from nowhere who became big with a little TV show that caught attention.

And of course, that show was Desperate Housewives.

And I have to admit, I watched every season. I liked it, I liked the writing and the characters were all cast pretty well. I was never a fan of the "star", Teri Hatcher, for some reason going back to stories about her on the Lois and Clark series, based on the Superman comics.

There are a lot of stories about a lot of actors and their behavior, Kate Jackson of the 70's show Charley's Angels was next to Satan some might say. An actor friend who worked with her on a TV movie had a lot of stories.

I don't really know the ratio of tempermental actors, men to women, but the stories I've heard are usually about women. 

I had my own experience with a hard to work with actress on a feature I wrote and directed. She was hired at the last minute by my producer and I didn't even see her until she showed up on location. 

From the very beginning she was demanding and asking for things and saying things like "I can't do that". Not a great start.

As we began filming she quickly alienated almost everyone on the crew, from the makeup person to the rest of the crew. My job in a case like this was to be nice and understanding too her.


Because we had 15 days to shoot this movie and there was no chance of getting someone else as we were filming in the Rockies, far from any major city. I was determined to make it work.

Finally, over dinner one night, it came crashing down.

There were four of us, the actress, the cameraman, the soundman and me, having dinner in the most expensive restaurant in town, actually a 4-star legendary restaurant set high up in the mountains.

Cameraman was teasing actress and actress was getting mad, lifted up her glass of wine and suggested she was going to throw it at him - but she threw it at me!

I threw a glass of wine at her and things got rowdy and we got kicked out.

So we walked back to our motel and suddenly she ran at me, cursing. I had to subdue her, she landed in a snowbank, and kept getting up until I told her that it would really be easier to not keep trying to hit me...

She got up and ran back to the motel.

I figured the movie was over.

An hour later, she appeared at my door and... apologized. 

It was then I realized I was the only one she could throw the wine at. Why? Because I was the only one who would care. Everyone else hated her so I was the only "safe" target. I needed to finish the film and if it meant I had to be nice to her, I would do that, not for her nor me, but the movie.

She did quiet down a little and her performance actually got better, mostly because of playing opposite a real pro actor who helped her.

That's my bad actress story.

And back to the WGA party; it was the same faces, a lot of wives and husbands, I met two really pretty women, sisters, who were working on a sitcom pilot. In fact, I met several women who were "working on a sit-com pilot". Seems sit-com pilots are the words you use when you don't have a job. 

Sort of like me when I'm writing a new spec.

Or writing this screenplay I am now writing for the actor, which I mentioned a few blogs ago.

Monday, December 2, 2013

A Stooge week-end --

Well, I made it to the 16th Annual Stoogefest again and had a nice evening at a great old theater filled with 3 Stooges fans of every shape, color and age group. The "Alex" was built in 1925 and played vaudeville acts as well as silent films. 

Now, it's been completely redone in it's original style and looks great.

The Stooge event begins with a host to talks about the Stooges and later, introduces several family members including Moe's daughter. Moe was the one with the crewcut for those of you who aren't stooge fans.

This year held a surprise when they announced that someone found a print of a Stooge film in Australia that had never been seen since a big fire at MGM years ago. It seemed that someone in Australia had kept a copy in his basement and finally decided to see if anyone wanted the print. It's biggest feature was that it was shot in color way back in 1933 and now, the only print of that era.

When it came to the audience, as I mentioned, every kind of person and almost every age group. There are the hardline Stooge fans who call themselves Stooge-files and there's the "Knuckleheads", who belong to the Knucklehead club of course.

There were five shots played as usual and with some comments beforehand as sometimes the shorts had what we could call "insensitive" to certain groups.

And as for me, I'm just one of the many people who like to drop by now and then to bring back memories of the little movie theater I would go to in my small town of 539 people. Our theater was a revised church hall that became my lifeline living in a small town with very little to do.

From the movies, I learned about the world and also learned about who made the movies. I would always watch the titles and credits and began to remember names of people who wrote the movies, directed the movies and everyone else whose name was on the screen from casting to make-up and everything in between...

Here's my rag-tag movie theater now gone forever as it was torn down in 1988.

As you can see, the Alex is a little more flamboyant than my old theater. But it still gave me movies to watch and with them, the 3 Stooges.