Monday, March 10, 2014

The Writer and the low budget films

The biggest budget feature I've ever written was around $10 million about fourteen years ago, most of them were around the $3.5 - $5 million range. What this meant to me was a signed contract, an option fee, the total fee "on or before principal photography" as the WGA contract stipulates.

But that was then.

Around 2005, those of us who wrote primarily TV movies began to see the end of it all. What happened is Survivors, the reality show. It changed the industry completely and it wasn't long before only a three producers emerged; Hallmark, Lifetime and ABC Family. 

My last movie for Hallmark was made for "under $1 million" as the producers like to say so that you don't expect to get more than the basic. But basic isn't bad at around $44,000 for a screenplay.

But while the older TV movies would take anywhere from 4 weeks to longer, the new TV movie takes lots less time.

How about 12 days?

The irony is that my Christmas movie, made for that much, looked pretty good. So what do you lose from shooting 12 days instead of 30?

Mostly you don't have time for "over the shoulders" shots and maybe 2 or 3 takes. But again, the movie still looks okay to an audience who doesn't know or care about "over the shoulders".

But there's another genre of films that go even lower. 

I'm involved in one project wherein I wrote a screenplay for a very low budget film, maybe around $350k or so. And that's where the money game takes a slow turn...  It's one of those deals where theycan't make all those lovely payments that companies like Paramount, Hallmark and Lifetime paid. Instead I do all the work and they promise to pay me when the movie gets made.

Writers historically get screwed, in fact there's a book entitled "The Writer Got Screwed (But Didn't Have To).  Honest.

I have a copy and also I mention the book in my Working Writer's Screenplay book.

It's sort of like "I'll paint your house and when you get some money, you'll pay me." Or how about "I'll fix your car and you pay me when you get some money".

What if you never get "some money"?

I tell myself once again, never take these jobs. 

Or at least until next time.

Now there's a new possibility, another screenplay I wrote some years ago. The people who want to make it are casual friends, and I'm always ready to make a deal of some sort because I know they don't have money to buy the screenplay. 

So here comes the WGA low budget contract, which allows a writer several options that could work for producers who don't have money. I wouldn't do this if I didn't know the people.

But it gets a little worrisome, I still have an option with a French company and hopeful they will make my movie sometime soon. 

And then there's Ed Burns, who made that $9000 movie and it looks great. 

Indie movies like his are common now with digital cameras but there's a saying going around, "the good news is that anyone can make a movie" and another saying; "the bad news is that everyone can make a movie".

So right now, I have to deal with 3 potential projects, in which I'm expected to wait until the producers have the money (and do some work as well). And you all know, or should know, that the odds of getting three movies made in one year is pretty much rare.

But all three parties are pretty good people and I know they want to make the movies as much as I want to see them made. I can use a new IMDB credit on my listing as the old one  from 2010 is becoming ancient.  

But I sure miss those days when companies paid real money.

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