Friday, May 23, 2014

Three ways to write a screenplay

I've talked about the three projects that were optioned by three different groups. Two screenplays were optioned by an American group and a French group. The third screenplay was actually written for very little money as it will probably be done for less than $200,000.

What's interesting here is how each of those three partners work.

The oldest option was done almost two years ago by two French filmmakers who read the screenplay about five or six years ago. Both of them were very nice and paid a small option fee to show their interest. Then the director translated the screenplay into French and worked on the screenplay a bit towards what he would like. 

I didn't really mind it because once any of my screenplays are optioned, I let it go unless they want me to give them some ideas. I did this a few times with the French people and then waited for when they would make it. They would make this movie for maybe around $500,00.

The second screenplay was written specifically for a group and I took a very small fee as this feature would cost less as mentioned before ($200k). Since they didn't really have any money they solicited on a crowdfunding website to help pay for my services. 

There was a little bit of misunderstanding as they thought I was doing the entire screenplay for free but we managed to straighten things out and I got a second payment. This movie probably has the best chances to get made this year.

Then there's the third screenplay. This one was optioned for $10 which is not unusual and more often than not, the buyers are friends or acquaintances of the writer, in this case, me. However we had a little bit of conflict over how much I should get when the movie gets made.

Finally we worked out something that was good for me rather than getting an unfair deal. 

An issue here is about how much low budgets can spare for the writer. There are three different low budget areas in WGA and they are based on film budgets such as:

1. Below $200,000
2. $200,000 - $499,999
3. $500,000 - $1,200,000

Got it?

These rates are for the entire production from screenplay to shooting to editing and finishing.

So how much does the writer get?

Normal minimum for screenplays is $45,556.

But because the low budget for under $200k is $11,389 and the rest is "deferred".  Deferred is what the business calls monkey points, in that I am not taking 75% of my fee and hoping that I get some money after the costs of the movie and other items have been done.

In other words I probably won't get a penny.

You can add up the other two categories to see how this works, I could ask for more but the producers have to pay actors, gear, editing facilities,etc so it is impossible to pay me my normal minimum.

I make a little more in the $200-$499k category, half of the $45k. That's $22,778 and a little better.

And the big category of up to $1.2 million can give me the entire $45,556 but I will defer a bit of that in order too make the deal.

What you see in the American deal is the need to argue some of the money due a writer, it's almost  necessary to show the writer who's boss.

But now, the French movie.

The director of the French screenplay has to register it with the government and since there were the two of us he suggested I get 75% of any royalties and he get $25%. I thought since they were so nice I suggested 50/50. But the director said he couldn't because it would look like he was taking advantage of me. I finally encouraged him to take 40% and he was quite happy.

A note here; in most civilized countries, screenplays always belong to the writer forever. But in USA, the buyer can buy the rights and partake of royalties. 

All of this probably sounds impossible to understand, and I'm still not sure what it all means. So why take so little money with not great chances to recover some of it?

Because a credit on IMDB is sometimes more important than the money. My latest credit was 2010 and now in 2014 I better have something up there on IMDB or I'm considered old stuff.

Nice business, eh?

Monday, May 19, 2014

Stealing ideas

First of all, I really did a lame blog last Friday, it just wasn't really that good. But it's gone and today's a new day.

When I taught UCLA classes a lot of students were worried about someone stealing their ideas. I have to say I've never really worried about that because it isn't as realistic as most aspiring writers think.

For one thing, whenever I consider a new idea I write this down;

Two people have the same idea.
One person is writing it.
Two others are shopping it
One is coming out next week.

Does that mean everyone has the same idea?

Well, there's only so many ideas out there and it's really hard to find something completely new. For example, look at Gravity. Is it a new idea? Not really, we've seen lots of space movies and not even mentioned Kubrick's 2001 Space Odyssey.

But the difference was technology here and a little different story; only two people rather than lots of people in Kubrick's movie as well as other movies. What made the difference was the incredible CGI that made it look real.

So an old idea can become a new idea as did Gravity.

The Greeks really figured out story long ago and performed stories about sex, betrayal, love, hate and a few other things. Shakespeare had Romeo and Juliet, of which at least a few dozen movies have used that same theme and plot.

So there's no real ideas; just different takes on them.

Back to stealing.

As I said, I've never really had an idea stolen, well, just once on a MacGyver episode where one of the writers I knew actually copied the storyline of Ghostkeeper, the horror film I made in 1980.

But I didn't mind at all, my movie wasn't that big of a deal.

I know a writer who conceals his ideas and scripts very carefully and doesn't show them to anybody without practically swearing on a bible. And I guess that gives him some security. However if he wants to sell the screenplay he's going to have to show it to someone.

On the other hand I will show any screenplay of mine to anyone who wants to see it, you never know what can happen.

I met a cameraman on Linkedin who asked me if I had any screenplays. I gave him one to read and he forgot about it for a few years. Then this spring he read it again and called up another friend and I signed an option deal a few months ago, with the hope they'll make it this year.

But there are some thefts in Hollywood but mostly by shifty producers whom you wouldn't want to work with at any rate.

And I do have one I'm protecting, The President's Heart, which I only show to producers who I know have the ability to make it.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Screenplay markets pt 2

Last Monday I talked about the many places writers can go to in order to show their stuff. Mostly places that charge money and which, if someone doesn't like you, you can lose a lot of hope.

I don't mean someone trashing you, but if you go to places like The Black List (not the TV show) and pay $50 for a reader's report, he/she just might say your screenplay isn't great. And that means the several thousand people who do read screenplays for possible development will basically drop you dead.

But there are other places; namely Amazon where you can send your screenplay there for no money. Amazon is serious and they have a deal with Warner Bros studios for "First Look" deals.  First Look refers to the deal wherein Amazon might take a screenplay and develop it and will show the screenplay to Warner's first.

And you could get your screenplay or TV series sold for WGA fees that give you a $5000 option fee and should it actually get made, you could make as much as $500,000.

Sounds good, and it is free.  So what's the problem, it's free and everything...

Well, you have to have a screenplay that a majority of the readers in Amazon prefer. And they're not really studio readers, in fact most are people just like you who vote on different screenplays, TV and features. 

What Amazon is doing in a way is "crowd testing", which studios do when they have a new movie coming out. They show it to a crowd, maybe in a theater or maybe in one of those little theaters where each person in the audience has a button to push to signify good or bad or in the middle. These are mostly used for TV series.

It sounds okay but the catch is, of course, people have to like your screenplay. And your competition includes some of the real pros.

And then there's Amazon's contracts; a lot of bloggers are whining about them but every contract from the big guys is going to screw you; after all this is the country that took away copyrights from artists, including screenwriters. All of Europe and Canada still hold that the author/artist/etc always owns the copyright, but not the good old USA. But that's another blog.

So where's the hope?

Not easy to find but that's what this business is about. 

You can go to InkTip or Black List and pay money with the possibility that someone will like your screenplay, and sometimes it works. 

What the point is here, is that it's hard as hell to get a screenplay sold, even for the pros, it's a wide open house for anyone who has screenplay software.

So what's the hope supposed to be, Jim?

The hope is that you keep writing. Anyone who writes one screenplay and gives up wasn't meant for writing. And that's probably 80% of the students who go to film schools. It's the ones who don't give up that will most likely sell something.

I've often told you I will show my screenplays to anyone. I have a casual friend who worries about his first screenplay because someone will steal it. He even has a time limit as to how long you can keep his screenplay.

I will stand on the corner of Hollywood and Vine if it meant screenplay sales. That's why I have three  projects optioned as of now.

But more about the fear of stealing and other paranoia on Monday.

Have a good week-end, it's hotter than hell here in L.A.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Writer's Market

"In the 1940's a handful of writers would come to Hollywood every week to be famous. Today there's a hundred writers who come off the jetplane or their car to become famous writers."

                    -- Studio Executive

I'm not sure if some of you have never heard of Mandy or The Blacklist or a few other names that refer to screenwriters. These are the new places to be discovered or exploited for aspiring screenwriters. I use the term aspiring because until you sell a screenplay, you are still considered "aspiring". Live with it.

Most of the writers in WGA are probably over the age of 40, or maybe even 50. And they were the kind that wrote stories in high school or maybe college. The next generation, probably Gen X took advantage of the handful of universities to take actual screenwriting classes.

But now, everyone with Screenwriter or Final Draft or a free software is a screenwriter. And if you don't know how to write you can go to a website where you can find almost every kind of screenplay you can ever dream of.

I met a director recently who had never written anything but wanted to write his screenplay. So he found his favorite screenplay online and basically rewrote the script to suit the story he had in his mind.

But it takes more than rewriting a famous screenplay. And it takes more to become a writer than buying the software. When I taught extension classes at UCLA I had, over a period of 2 years, about 250 students and of them, about five maybe could become working writers. Not a great average, huh.A

So what happens to all these people who dream of making million dollar screenplay sales.

They end up on Mandy looking for jobs that offer a little money or promised money (once the screenplay is sold), which rarely happens. The ads are amazingly tough, and more than often it's someone who thinks their life will make a great movie and that the writer can write the screenplay for no money and maybe get something when the movie is a smash hit.

The odds of being hit by a snowball in Florida are higher than a screenplay getting made from Mandy. I know, I even tried it once.

And if you want "professional comments" you can go to The Black List which will allow your screenplay to be read or shown by "professionals". All it costs is something around $50 or $60 for a period of a few months. And you can even "hire" a professional reader for $50 to read your precious screenplay.

But beware that they might completely trash it.

And so you have a screenplay that you paid to put into the Black List but now it's been trashed by one of their readers and everyone can see it.

There's also InkTip, another money-making scam for both aspiring writers and real writers who haven't worked for years. There is around 10,000 screenwriters or so who are in WGA and at any time 15% of them are working.

15% of them working.

Which means 85% or 8,500 are out of work.

And that doesn't include the thousands (yes, thousands) of aspiring writers out there who are not in WGA and probably won't be.

And you have to ask yourself how many agents are there to handle so many people. Agencies have become smaller now than larger, mostly because some agencies were picked up by bigger ones.

So, is this a downer?

A year ago I edited a trailer for a documentary. I actually shot the interviews and then edited them, adding music I created as well as titles and everything else the trailer needed. A director friend was amazed and asked me how I could do all that. I didn't even think about it, I just learned how to do it.

Then he said something very significant.

"Do you realize you've taken away work from at least five other people?"

I laughed but then realized what he meant.

I was taking work away because I had the software. 

Now multiply that five times, then ten times and maybe even a hundred times or a thousand.

That's what you're facing if you want to work in movies, writing, directing shooting, editing, and a hundred other jobs. So you better be good. Real good.

But there's hope. 

I'll tell you about that Friday.


Friday, May 9, 2014

Always needed

I'm rushing into writing a new outline that's needed by the actor/producer that is needed for next week to get an idea of the budget for the film... means I'm working over the week-end and doing a rush job. It's not a big thing, I've done rush jobs in movies and episodic, but mostly paid. 

Things are changing in this idie film world, although writers almost always end up doing a lot more work than agreed on. 

Grumble, grumble.

Have a nice week-end,  I'll be back Monday.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Rewrite

Most of what you read about screenwriting and how to write that first screenplay and how to sell it and how to get the money and then they make the movie. But selling the screenplay is just the beginning.

As you've probably seen that when I sell a screenplay, or option it, it's all over. Take the check and go to Paris. Or Disneyland.

But in many cases, it's just the beginning of a lot of waiting and hanging around and disappointments. That screenplay that you optioned or sold that they said they loved, suddenly became a screenplay with "problems." And they have notes.

And this means that you will be given the choice to see if you can create what they had in their minds. And if it works or if it doesn't. So that idea that you loved so much and was sure it would be a hit movie because someone in a screenwriting book said it would be if you followed their sure-hit formula... didn't work.

There's also the issue of money.

If you deal with a studio or production company that has made movies, they will give you exactly what they promised, they may have lots of notes or maybe just a few. And they will give it to you at the right time.

But if you're working with friends or people who don't have money, it's a little different game. And this is where friends unfriend other friends.

Everyone thinks writing is the easiest job in the world, and if someone watched me for a full day they would confirm that. I spend maybe 2 hours writing my screenplay or at least five pages or so. I'm a fast writer, some writers are slow and some slower. In the end, they all finish at some point.

Then I contact people for other projects and have lunch and then a nap and then work a little more on future projects. But what the watcher can't see is this; I am always thinking about the screenplay I'm working; from the time I wake to the time I go to bed.

I have notebooks and pens and pencils in every room of my home and in black, blue, red and green. And each have meanings.

So now that I've optioned two screenplay one of them is already funding the movie. In this case the two partners didn't want me to do any rewrites and the option fee was $10, "because they don't have a lot of money" and that is true. The writer/director even called to ask me if he could make changes.

In this case, I didn't really mind, and signed a low budget WGA contract with them.

My other screenplay was written and finished in January for two people who also had no money. And again I had to ask for something, usually referred to by writers as their "house nut", meaning money to at least pay the rent and food for one month.

So now they have notes for THE rewrite. I have a policy about rewrites to myself... look it over quickly and put it away for a day or two. After that their notes either make sense or they don't. And since I am still on the "payroll" of deferring costs and their notes are actually interesting and workable, I'm okay with trying to translate their visions.

The thing here, is this; everyone on a feature believes that the writer is a mysterious figure who they rarely see and who seems to want to get paid before everyone else. And since the writer does his/hers work alone mostly and way before the movie often is financed, then why should they get paid first.

Nobody seems to like paying writers and for good reason; the writer's first draft is pretty much finished when the screenplay is sold. But remember this; just because it's finished doesn't mean it's going to be made. I've optioned about 25 or more screenplays that never were made. Of course in that case, the property comes back to me, but I'd rather it be made.

I've done a lot of rewrites on other people's scripts and have had a few other writers rewrote, mostly episodic TV where it's common for the showrunners and staff do a lot of rewriting.

Movies are different and when the screenplay is still in play like the second one above, so far I'm doing the next rewrite, at least I think I am. Insecurity is always a few feet away when attempting to rewrite the vision that they first had and the vision I had over that their first vision.

As with always, good producers and directors are pretty easy to work with, they hired you because they know you can do it. Producers who are uneasy and unsure are the ones that might just make it a living hell.

Lots of visions, eh?

Wish me luck. Or a reasonable facsimile thereof.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Way too hot

Haven't had a chance for my usual week-end blog but it's hot as hell in L.A., the high 90's and it's not even summer yet. Back Monday with a blog about critics. 

FYI here's who reads this blog in order of readers:

United Kingdom

Thanks everybody, have a nice week-end and to my brother in Bangkok.