Friday, February 28, 2014

The Plausability Clause

Some of you already know my take on reader's reports, they're the reports that will judge my or your screenplays as to whether it goes upstairs or down to the trash bin. The job carries a tremendous amount of power, the reader judges your screenplay based on his/her own standards, likes and dislikes. 

Going back to my screenplay The President's Heart, I had this readers report;

The premise of a presidential heart transplant is strong and commercial. It takes a personal need with a ticking clock, and transforms into a global crisis with a journey at its center. It's a smart base for an affordable political thriller which still has worldwide stakes. Making the protagonist a doctor was an intelligent decision, and introduces a fish out of water element that always plays well in a thriller. The setting - a chase from Paris to Luxembourg - is perfectly commercial.

Well, that sounds good. Who wouldn't want this review.

But... he/she added some criticism as well --

 Too much of the plot is under-explained or outright implausible. The signing of the papers to pass the presidency is not established as necessary, and is a false drama - its failure has no consequences. Additionally, it's not realistic that the speaker is taking the presidency. It's not possible through the means suggested (impeachment doesn't remove a person from office, is exceptionally slow, and is only an accusation of a crime). The lack of believable usurpation seriously undermines the stakes. There are many small plausibility issues. E.g.: why would a random doctor be drafted for such a critical mission, why would the terrorists have a satellite link to the heart. NOTE: The terrorists weren't terrorists, the word is never used, and they do not have a link to the President's heart, so much for the reader's attention span) how could world governments be totally incapable of securing the heart, and why wouldn't Ulani kill Doc and Judy.

And while the reader makes some okay points, but then goes a little bit further as in "the lack of believable usurpation seriously undermines the stakes. There are many small plausability issues, why would a doctor be drafted for such a critical mission, etc." 
Why? Because I wrote it that way.

I could have written it as a cop, an accountant, a CIA operative and many other jobs. But I chose a doctor, and for a reason. Plausability is a tough issue, I like apple pie, you like blueberry pie. I happen to think there is believable usurpation and after all it's my story and I'll usurp as much as I want to. 

Is the reader right or wrong? There are several other errors in the reader's notes that suggest the reader hasn't really read the screenplay twice and missed critical areas.

And as for plausability, how about this, can Superman really fly? How does James Bond always get away from the bad guys in ways no human could possibly do. Is that plausible. Is there really a hobbit, can the cars in Fast And Furious really drive like that? 

When you write a screenplay you probably will use something that someone else will say it's implausible. Take this for instance.

Liam Neeson's new movie opens today and will do great business, it's called Non-Stop and is about someone who's going to kill one person on the jetliner in twenty minutes.

Is that plausible?

 Here's two reviews today, one from the LA Weekly and the other from LA Times. I'll just give an edited version that's relative.

LA Weekly said this:  "if this were a real-life flight it would incite instant panic among the passengers" and "By the end of Non-Stop, we've been asked to buy wholesale about 2000 things that could never, ever happen in the world the filmmakers and we actually live in" and this; "this atrocity of a screenplay is credited to (three writers)."

LA Times said this: "effectively directed by Jaume Collet-Sera, is a crisp, efficient thriller that benefits greatly from the intangibles Neeson can be counted on to supply," and how about this; "As cannily put together by screenwriters (3 writers) Non-Stop's plot combines two classic mystery devices."

And finally my favorite line; Obviously those seeking iron-clad plausability should look elsewhere."

Sound familiar?

Have a great weekend, it's raining like hell in Sherman Oaks.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Jay and Dave and those other guys

Right off the top I don't particularly like Jimmy Fallon even if his first name is the same as mine. My name was supposed to be James but the hospital made a mistake and it became Jimmy, although I go by Jim. Whenever I go to a doctor's office, they assume I'm 8 years old.

And I don't like the other Jimmy, Kimmel. I can't stand Chelsea Handler or Seth Meyer. I don't mind Conan and can take at least 15 minutes of Craig Ferguson who, in my mind, is probably the most original of any late-night talk show, but can be intense for the viewer who expects the usual soft ball jokes. Ferguson seems slightly dangerous.

And Jay wasn't my favorite either, he was totally softball and had a needy feeling about him, that sort of "please like me" attitude. 

Then there's Dave who arguably is the best of all of them -- with some reservation. Dave is a true interviewer, he knows how to make the guest the star of the show in the
manner of Johnny Carson of whom few of you have ever heard of. The names above except Letterman don't really interview guests, rather they try to find something funny about them.

So what?

Well, a couple of things.

Let's go back to Steve Allan.  Who?

Steve Allan was a lot of things; he was a brilliant musician and a funny guy. And he was the inventor of the late-night show with NBC's "Tonight" of which
Fallon recently inherited. Allan was amazingly clever, he interviewed people and had mostly show business guests and a handful of comedians who would show up more often than not. 

Every late-night show you watch today is a copy of Steve's.

But Steve got tired or just bored and he turned it over to a guy called Jack Paar, who was probably the most intellectual host of that show and any others except for Charlie Rose who
is in a class of his own. Paar brought a certain intelligence to the show and he pushed the boundaries whenever he could. He would even make fun of his sponsors, I once watched him smash a Timex watch to see if it survived. 

But then came Johnny, undoubtedly the best host of Tonite. He
knew, like Steve, that the guest should be who everyone is looking at, unlike the Kimmels and whatevers who want to show how funny they are. He was our in to the movie stars and he, like Paar, bought in other people, scientists, race car drivers and almost every type of person there is.

Then came the Dave vs Jay conflict when Johnny retired. It's been told that Johnny wanted Dave to take over but it led to some knife-in-the back tactics by Jay which resulted in him winning over Dave. 

That's why Dave always made jokes about Jay. He stole Dave's show.

Jay had better ratings than Dave but for some stupid reason NBC decided to kick Jay out and replace him with Conan.

By now you all know about Conan, he lasted a short time and then was replaced by Jay and was transferred to network Siberia. Or as some call it TBS.

But NBC gave Jay a couple of years and he retired (again) a few weeks ago. Now it became Fallon's show. And he humbly accepted, in fact he reminded us every day how lucky he was and how humble he will be.

So what happens now?

Well, I think NBC put Fallon in for two reasons; he's cheaper than Jay and the whole "late-night show" format has gone to the dogs. There's simply too many shows, Arsenio has his foot in the door also. I don't really count the Daily Show or Colbert because they're more scripted faux news shows.

And there's another point; the audience for these shows are mostly over 40 as they always were. In fact they were often considered "adult" shows and to be shown late at night after the kids have gone to bed. They were more risque than the afternoon talk shows.

They still are that, but as I argue, with a bunch of comedians trying to be funny all the time.

The only real talk show host is Dave, and he's showing a lot of grey hair and I think he'll finally retire within five years - maybe. 

And how about those oscars?


A friend of mine said that the oscars should have Tina Fey and Melissa McCarthy. 

Now that would be a great show.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Film Schools Part 2

Last blog I talked about how Ed Burns made a very nice little movie. All for $9000.

And why you should go out and make a movie.

Because you can do it for even less.

Burns gave his actors what probably was low budget scale for the Screen Actors Guild. SAG doesn't want to have actors unemployed and the union would rather have actors get paid even a little.

Even if it's less than $100 day.

And for $75 day.

The question is why choose SAG actors, you can put an ad in Craig's list for actors and get a few dozen the same day. But I'd rather go with SAG if simply they have done movies or TV or commercials and are better trained than non-SAG. You might find a good cast that aren't union, but since you're a first-timer, why not use actors who've already done something, it's enough that you don't know what you're doing, why have to work with actors who've never done anything.

If you go with Sag's "Limited Exhibition Agreement"Naturally you have to get contracts and will be limited in where it's sold, which probably would be maybe your parent's home. Truth is that most of these low, low budget films never go anywhere.

But it's a major accomplishment to do it. Most people "want" to make a movie, but few rarely do. I know it seems like there's hundreds of movies being made every day, especially now with cheap cameras that give a reasonable quality.

But making a movie is like writing a screenplay. Very few do it. I've told you before how often I get someone who wants me to write their "personal screenplay", and then when we sell it, we'll all be rich.

That's not gonna happen.

So what about those people who make short films?

I have a friend who has made a handful of short films and some have even won awards. A few were recognized at the festival by being a selection. Kind of like going to someone's home for dinner and they give you a credit for showing up.

When asked I always say "I don't have short ideas".

Okay, I'm a little harsh. But really, it takes a little more effort to do 75 minutes rather than 10 or 15 minutes. You got the camera, shoot a little more. The standard for a feature-length movie is deemed to be 75 minutes, anything less is not a feature. It's a short.

The average movie now and even in the past 80 years is around 100 minutes. But like I said, you can make one at 75 minutes. And if you're reading this blog, you already know more than the average person.

You probably know the rules, small cast, schedule of maybe 7 -12 days, small crew (look at Burn's crew, 3 people. Of course he had 5 more people for post-production but still, the goal is to finish shooting. It's much easier to find finishing money than filming money. At least there's something that an investor (dad or Uncle Harry) can see. 

Going back to film school, like I said if you have the money to go, go but you'll know more than enough by two years to make a movie. And if you aren't going to film school what I said is the same for you. 

Go out and make one.

It could be the worst movie ever made but it was made.

And you've already got a head start on those USC boys and girls.

Well, almost. Most of the UCLA/USC/AFI folks will have contacts by year 2 with agents and managers and all that stuff. 

But most of them will have left the business after a few years of looking for jobs.

But that's another story... 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Film schools - do you really need to go to one?

First of all, some of you already know what happened to my film school experience. For the newbies, I attended a 3-month summer class in film in the fantastic Rocky Mountains in Alberta Canada. 

And I failed. So did my buddy Phil Borsos. My then-wife passed her photography course though so it wasn't a total loss.

But I have to be honest; before this class I was working for nearly two years at a television station where I already had learned more than the class offered. In fact I ended up being asked to shoot for four of my classmates.

So why did I fail?

I don't know, maybe I made a bad film, or maybe the instructor didn't like me. Regardless my friend Phil and I were the only students in that class that actually had film careers. Phil passed away at a very young age but I'm still around.

A few years ago I wet a film graduate from NYC who had just graduated and was ready for a studio to hire her. But nobody called. And she owed over $50,000 in student loans. 

Not a great way to start a career.

I did take some semesters at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, but mostly because Phil and I needed camera gear to make our own shorts. And as many of you know, that resulted in a short film called Cooperage, about a small company that made whiskey barrels. And it was a finalist in the judging at the 1967 Academy Awards.

Ok, enough of that, you've probably heard me talk about it more than once.

But the question is this;

Do you need to go to film school?

Yes and no.

For example, the woman mentioned above could have made a movie for $50,000 and would have learned more than all the classes she took.

Is $50k too much?

Well, how about $9000.

For a movie. A feature length movie of around 90 minutes. (The minimum for a feature film is 70 minutes).

Ed Burns did just that. You know, he's the "Irish Woody Allan" and he makes nice small films. Several of them were in the $3-5 million dollars each. 

But with Newlyweds, his script, he decided to make it for $9000. It added up to this:
$5000 for actors
$2000 for insurance
$2000 for food and drink.

He also had a camerman who used Burn's Canon 5D. There wasn't any soundman, the actors wore "lavs", wireless microphones. And he had friends edit and finish the movie.


And it's a good movie. I saw it on Netflix and streamed it. It was a very good movie. And it looked like a movie. I didn't believe it.

But there is a catch here. For one thing Burns already knows how to make a movie so it isn't really a learning experience. 

But anyone with a few bucks can probably hire a crew to shoot his/her movie, and probably for less. 

So where does school come in?

I think, and this comes from talking to film students, that one year of film school would be enough to introduce you to the business. Maybe two years if you want. But after that, as one student told me; "you get bitter teachers who never made their movie and all they do is to tell you how hard it is".

Making a film with limited experience will show you two things, being either:

You can't make a movie.

You can make a movie.

But it's less expensive than $50,000 or more (one student had $100,000 loans!!)

You have a huge advantage now with regards to running out and making a movie. For one thing you didn't have to purchase film and take it to a lab to develop. You can do it on an iPhone.

With Cooperage we literally had to beg, borrow and steal. 

But then, there's something else besides making a movie.

You have to have someone who can write a screenplay.

More Friday.

Friday, February 14, 2014

One more dance

After at least 6 options and 3 legitimate tries, I'm going back to the well for the 7TH TIME!
Sorry, can't help getting mad but this time will definitely be the last. If I can't get this made I am dropping out of the business and moving to somewhere around the Salton Sea where living in a truck is seen as mid-upper class. 

I wrote Emperor of Mars in 1989 and have done minor rewrites about five times, mostly on request of producers. Of the 6 mentioned above, three were actually real, meaning that they were in the process of putting the funding together. The other three never really got it together and their options expired.

What's different about now?

Well, I have a partner, Joe Thornton, mentioned in previous drafts when we tried to get Ghostkeeper 2 going.

I know, what a pair of losers.

All I have to say is that it took Alexander Payne 9 years before he made Nebraska. And if you look around you'll find that alot of movies took a long time to make. Somehow there's this idea that once the screenplay is sold, it's made within a few months.

My Town Christmas Forgot screenplay took almost 6 years.

But Emperor - aka EOM -- is in it's 25th year, I think. Somewhere around there. It must be a record, maybe.

I made a "flashcard" of sorts, that I put into emails and send it, along with a 3-page proposal that contains story information, bios, locations, tax credits and other stuff packed into only 3 pages and in short paragraphs.

Back to the three efforts that went down;

The first attempt was around 1999 and even had an Academy Award-winning director, Xavier Koller who turned out to be a good guy. We all met at a nice little "boutique" agency in Beverly Hills and talked it over. It was dependant on getting money from Canada and I knew how that worked. And how it didn't.

The Montreal money guy seemed to think the Canada would supply all the funding. Anyone who knows how Canada's credits works knows that Canada supplies only a small percentage of funding. Needless to say, a week after I got a call that there was no money to be had in Canada that would cover the full funding.

Number 2 was the closest, we were actually almost in prep, I travelled to Montana to look at locations although we might have to film it in Alberta. But my producer Bill and the Alberta producers didn't really trust each other and then in the "final shot", Bill and his partner didn't agree with the funding people who apparently wanted a bigger take of the budget.

This is common when someone else finds the money, first they're happy to help, but when the $$$$ start appearing, they get a little hungry and ask for more, after all, they found the money.

So that went down.

And the last shot was ironically with the previous Alberta producers, one very slick and one who hardly speaks. I had business with these two previously where I actually won an option with them years ago (it's a small world) and didn't quite trust them. But not trusting a producer is like not trusting a rattlesnake.

I wasn't really sure why they wanted to make EOM and in the two years they optioned it, they didn't do a single thing. At least nothing that would indicate them wanting to make the film. That was 2009

So here we are - Joe and me -- Joe's doing a new budget of $2.6 million and I finished the cards and the mini-proposal and next week a full 10-page proposal with all that stuff that lawyers and accountants like to read.

Of which I can actually understand it too.

Shall we dance then...

Monday, February 10, 2014

Just what is it you do?


I get asked this a lot;

What is it exactly that you do?

I write.

Yeah but what does that mean?

A high school buddy of mine says I don't do anything.

I write about 4 - 6 hours a day and not only on a screenplay. Generally it works like this, starting each Monday:

Look at my "things to do sheet which I tape on a poster on the wall about 20 inches in front of me. That sheet is usually done late Friday afternoon and then I ignore it all week-end. I rarely write on week-ends, it's my own time.

But come Monday, it's looking at me, telling me it's time to get to work. It could be a screenplay or a proposal or email or go over new ideas or go over old ideas. Right now I'm not writing a screenplay so I tend to focus on a variety of things. Today's "things" are as

1. I have to finish a "flash card" for Emperor of Mars, which I'm trying to find funding for the movie version. This involves contacting producers and a casting agent and a distributor. And even completing a little bit of that is a big deal for one day.

2. Jule - the WW11 Pacific veteran. I'm arranging a time to interview him on camera as well as keep encouraging him to write his memoir.

3. My writer's book, The Working Writer's Screenplay, needs more pushing. I have to get copies out to universities and colleges. I already have two contacts.

4. Still trying to find a manager to get more of my screenplays out to buyers.

5. Need to write 2 outlines for two new ideas, one a movie idea, the other a TV series idea.

6. A list of very loose ideas including writing an article based on my deceased mother's calendars in which she wrote a little every day since 1971, her version of a diary.

7. Considering novelizing another screenplay.

So that's what I do, but the truth is I will probably not get all of this done through the next five days.  I didn't mention emails here, and that would take overall about an hour or so.

There's always a few people who say that it must be nice to just sit around and write. Well, I do like that, I never could work in an office but there's one thing that nobody else does that writers do...

We're always thinking about writing. Our job isn't 9 to 5, rather it's 24 hours. Even when I go out shopping I'm thinking about ideas. I have writing pads in every room and in my car. And I record any ideas on my phone if I'm out.

And I'm always looking at people wherever I go, watching something interesting or some action that people do. Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones says it perfectly in his book; that many sources of their songs came from watching other people.

So, unlike people who go to work everyday and come home to just hang out or fix the door, writers are always working. 

But my high school buddy still says "that's not really working."

He's a teacher, retired.

But now, I have to get started on the list, it's already 9:12am.

With miles to go.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Black List

This is the 2nd part to my previous blog on readers. Just to make sure everyone knows what I'm talking about, readers in the film business are more often than not the people who judge our work. Remember that the only requirement is to be able to read. Or at least able to read a little bit.

As you can tell by my mood, readers aren't the most liked people in the business. And there is some envy by some readers as some of them are writers themselves, but who haven't been able to write a good story.

Take the Black List. This was originally the work of a reader who was a little bit better than most of his fellow readers. One year some time ago he decided to put out a list of screenplays he thought should be made but never were made.

As he didn't use his name, this became a yearly thing for him and did eventually cause some good screenplays being made. It wasn't long before everyone would read the Black List, as he decided to call it.

Last year, he decided on something else. 

He should make money from this.

So he did, he started a website where screenwriters could post their screenplays for studios and producers to see and maybe read. All for some money. And I don't feel bad about that in some ways.

But it certainly takes away the system that "used to be" and that was agents who would pass around new writers and screenplays for free. Well, sort of free, they would hope to sell the screenplays.

But as the number of aspiring screenwriters grows, the less contact they get with real agents who can push them into a career. Only problem is that the agent scene is smaller than it used to be as some of the big agencies swallowed the middle and smaller ones.

So the situation is this; more and more writers and less and less agencies.

If you read about my point of view on readers in the previous blog, you know how I feel.  And yes, I had a screenplay on The Black List and paid $40 for a reader's report, knowing full well that it could not work.

I got the report, the rider loved the premise, but found some areas that weren't "plausible." That's when I hit the roof, mostly because what I wrote was plausible. But now the reader's report can work against me.

And if that happens to me; it happens to a lot of people. You're giving your screenplay to someone who might trash it on the website. In a nice way, as they say.

But there are good readers; but very few. And that's where I can even show you what a good reader is.

I wrote a screenplay based on an idea by a director friend that was pretty much as far out there as I've ever written. The premise of the story is this:

An Irish hitman in the 1950's in Buffalo is sent to take out a gay union promoter inNiagara Falls but when he gets there he falls in love with a cojoined sister. Siamese Twins as they used to call them.

I had no experience with either gay union promoters or co-joined twins but I wrote what was considered a pretty good screenplay. And I had a woman reader who I really didn't want to deal with.

Until she wrote her notes.

And they were probably the best notes I've ever had or read. And she taught me a good lesson in the fact that not all readers are bad.

I am attempting to find out how to include her notes in the Materials and am having a hell of a time trying to figure it out.

Will get back in the week hopefully on this computer bug thing.