Tuesday, August 26, 2014

5 years of writing

August 24th finished the 5th year of this blog, which was noted in 2010 as one of the top film blogs of that year by MovieMaker magazine. It started with a film project called Travel Day and my efforts along with director Shirley Petchprapa to make the movie.

The 2009 project fell through when a producer dropped out of sight and the project ended. At that point I had a choice of dropping the blog or keep going. Since I've been in this business well over thirty years I figured I had enough stories to last a year or two. 

I had Ghostkeeper, my first feature in 1980 and became forgotten and then resurrected as a DVD Anniversary, and other features of mine that fell through or are optioned to this day. There are stories that are personal, some are positive and some negative. But they were always interesting.

It turned out to be five years of stories.

During those five years, I gave readers a real insight into the business, both good and bad. One particular series of blogs was my TV series experience on a really bad show and with two producers and two other writers who gave me probably the worse experience I've ever had. But I survived that. You can find this beginning on March 15, 2010.

Looking through the blog I've done 500 posts and had approximately 50,000 page views and looking through them I've repeated myself now and then and saw projects come up and fall down, which is more common to writers than new writers think. A lot of us have projects that we started years ago, Emperor of Mars goes back at least 22 years and still not made.

When you look at a writer's credits you are not seeing all the projects that fell through because of money usually and it happens far more than getting movies made.

Still I think I've given you readers a real look into the business that I know well enough to talk about and my other sources are friends who are agents, directors and yes, a few writers. I talk about the WGA Christmas parties and my own travels as well as every aspect of this business from the writer's view.

So now, I'm going into my 6th year and hope you stay with me from time to time.

Friends not in the business ask me when I'll retire; my answer is always "When my face drops on my laptop keyboard."

And then I tell them that I want my laptop buried with me. When they ask why, I say "In case I get a good idea."

Writers work forever.

Saturday, August 23, 2014


Agent I know called me to say a producer is looking for movies for Lifetime type genre, in other words, women in jeopardy. I had a few scripts and was a little bit excited, maybe one of them might work.

But by the end of the day, producer was interested in only one, as he was now doing "women in danger", I figured that's also jeopardy but I guess producers can change genres as too what is "hot" lately.

The only thing I know is that old saying from William Goldman, in which he says something like "Nobody knows anything". And my addition is this; "and have one script hiding, waiting to get out".

What I mean is this; and I'm repeating it. One Friday, a studio exec I know called me some years ago to ask if I had anything that was "realistic sci-fi" which translates to sci-fi with no expensive CGI effects. I said I didn't have anything like that but just as I said no, I remembered a new screenplay I wrote about two snipers stalking each other in Central Park. I told him about it.

And guess what?

He asked me to email a copy of the screenplay.

And on Monday, the screenplay was optioned. 

It was made 2 years later.

So much for "what they want". They don't know what they want.

All for now except that Sunday is the 5th anniversary of my blog, it began 2009. More on that Monday.


Monday, August 18, 2014

Friday's post

I was going to do another post today, Monday, but decided to leave on my Friday Post (It's Friday, Friday) because it really is a good look at how screenwriters get paid, at least the majority of us. 

I think it's worth leaving the blog up for a few days as it's worth the time to read it. 

I'll be back Friday with a new blog as always.

Friday, August 15, 2014

It's Friday, Friday...

Well, this is one week I don't mind forgetting; I didn't do much this week except finish the 2nd draft for the actor and director. I was bummed out with two greats passing, Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall. Both different but both iconic, one 63 and one 89. Nobody like them.

On the lower end I got stuck on the screenplay I am writing for the Actor and Director. Unfortunately the hook here became WGA, short for Writer's Guild of America. I say unfortunately for them as my guild (actually a union) is going to require that the producer (probably the actor along with a seasoned producer) will have to do two things;

Pay me for what I've done up to now. And more importantly, they have to become signatory to WGA. Basically they have to sign a contract in which WGA has all the benefits. All.

This means that if there is any dispute between me and the producers, I win. Simple.

An example?

What if the producer or actor wants to say they want credit on the screenplay, i.e. Written by JM and Other Name.  Here, other name would have to actually written at least half of the screenplay. Otherwise the credit remains By JM. (abbreviations, of course).

And then there's the money.

WGA has recently come up with a low budget agreement, this being that a lot of movies now are very low budget, consider writer/director Ed Burns, who made Newlyweds for $9000! If you haven't see it, you should. It's a damn good movie.

Alot of people thin us writers make hundreds of thousands of dollars for screenplays and there are a handful who do, maybe two handfuls. But most of us stick to what's officially called "Minimum fees".

What are these minimum fees?

There are variations with such confusing things as spec script, first draft, 2nd draft, fork-for-hire etc. But to make it simple, here's a typical deal;

Basic screenplay minimum is $45,556. Notice the word minimum. You can ask for more but those days have gone by, as the studios and networks are tightening their belts.

Now let's go to Low Budget Agreement (LBA), which gives us minimums for 3 different budgets;

$200,000 and under min fee is $11,389.  (25% of the above $45,556)
$200,000 to $499,999 min fee is: $22,778  (50% of same)
$500,000 to $1,200,000 min fee is:  $45,556 (100% of same)

There is one unusual exception here and that is a deferment. What is a deferment?

Well, it's where the writer gets screwed.

For example, if I were on the $200,000 category the lowest the producer could pay me is the $11,389 fee. And a deferment. So what is a deferment?

It means I would be deferring the rest of the $45,556. Simply said, it means I get 25% of the full budget and the rest would be recovered by the profits of the movie. 

That sounds okay except for one thing; writers or anyone else who's taking a deferment will more than likely not see a dime. Why?

Because most movies don't make profits and also there's another shaving the producers do; the writer doesn't get the Gross Profits (money that comes in from the distributor to producer) but rather after all the bills that have to be paid and then the writer might see some money. It happens, but very rarely.

So what does it all mean?

I probably won't get much more than the minimum fee. But at least I'll get that and sole screenplay credit (unless they hire someone else who would write at least 50% and that probably won't happen).

And if I wasn't in WGA, I would be lucky if I got anything.

I know what you're saying, why would anyone allow this to happen? 

Well, let's say the fee was $11,389. Considering that the budget would be under $200,000 then the writer would probably get the most money of anyone else on the movie. 

WGA figures that it's better for a writer to get a little bit of money from a little bit of the full budget than writers sneaking around WGA.

Welcome to show business.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Failure vs Success

By now, those of you who have followed me for some time know how projects get optioned, then not, then optioned and then never get made or get made every six years or more. You've already seen that in this last year with me and Ghostkeeper 2 which fell apart when Telefilm, Canada's movie funding organization, passed on us.

Getting passed on is pretty normal in this business. My last produced movie was The Town Christmas Forgot in 2010 and presently I have 3 "real" optioned screenplays. Here's a little bio on them;

Chase - is a screenplay about a man who begins to follow another vehicle whom he thinks a woman was kidnapped in. It's been optioned for almost 3 years and will be made as a French movie entitled "La Poursette" and I stay in contact with the director who hopes to make it soon.

Travel Day - is the movie I began this blog with, back in 2009 (more on Friday). It was to be a road movie based on a true story that happened when an actor friend, a movie driver and a famous actress drove to a distant location in Canada. It's a bit of comedy and drama and was to be made in 2009 but that nevere happened. It was optioned this spring 2014 by two new producers. There was an initial rush but now has slowed down a bit and the producers are making progress.

Miller - is actually a screenplay I was assigned to about an actor who wants to get revenge on his agent in a rather unusual way. I know it sounds like that movie with Kevin Spacey (The Swimming With Sharks?) but it isn't. This was an assignment and it might get made this fall. 

That's were I am today. 

I'm still working on Ghostkeeper, except considering a lower budget that could be made in L.A. with some scenes filmed at the actual hotel in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. 

And just recently I talked to a producer friend who's looking for a Christmas story for Hallmark's vast amount of Christmas movies already. After all, we still need more Christmas stories.

A note here; a lot of people laugh at the Hallmark movies (mostly men) but women are drawn to them and I have had good luck with that, so I don't mind friends taking shots at a Hallmark movie.

A movie is a movie. As long as it gets an audience (my Christmas movie had an audience of around 3.5 million viewers) I've done my job.

Alot of people think that writers get movie after movie but the truth is that an average screenwriter might get a movie made maybe once in a couple of years. Town That Christmas Forgot took 6 years.

Some writers only get one movie made in their whole career. They may have done rewrites on other movies or like me, optioned screenplays but I know a few writers who made only one or two movies. It's a tough business and sometimes I don't understand how I got to have 20 movies made/produced.

 And finally, I've finished a short book entitled "How To Not Get Beat-Up In A Smalltown Bar". How's that for a title.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

My Colorado Adventure

A film student friend of mine asked me to shoot some video for a documentary film based on a small town in Colorado   I haven't really shot anything for a long time and was anxious to use my Canon DSLR camera which was mostly stuck in my closet since I bought it last September.

Since the audio on DSLR cameras is not great, I got a shotgun mic and a "sungun", basically a square light you mount on the camera to give some light when doing interviews in dark conditions. I also bought a camera handle, a nifty job that lets me mount the camera and both the light and the shotgun mic.

While I've been in Colorado years ago, I haven't been there for at least 10 years and was happy to see the Colorado Rockies again, being the southern chain of the massive Rocky Mountains.

Once we hit the ground, we began shooting video on the subject, mainly being a small town called Lyons, which had a disaster last year when a river flooded causing massive destruction and a death. 

 We began shooting the 21st of July and covered much of the remaining homes and wrecked homes. This all went well and we then moved to another part of the doc which consisted of a 42-year old blue-grass festival which would be the last half of the shoot.

For those who follow me from several other countries, I might need to explain bluegrass. First of all it's not really about grass, but rather a music festival of American country music sort of in the line of Johnny Cash but with a difference.

Bluegrass music originally came from Irish settlers in America back in the 1800's, who brought a style of very basic music, using gospel as well as old Irish songs that are probably forgotten now. The performers use traditional guitars, banjo's, mandolins, fiddles and big stand-up basses. 

 We had passes to film much of the festivals and I really got a workout on several very hot days as well as one with rain. The crowd totaled around 3000 people or at least close to that and has been going strong until last year's flood. Most of the park was underwater and it took a long time to fix and open.

I shot a lot of different crowd shots, kids, girls, couples, dancers and we did some interviews with locals and also had chances to talk to some of the performers. One of them, an all-girl group called Della Mae were amazing, having had received a Grammy, the music equivilent of an Oscar.

The festival went 3 days and included with a band called the Steep Canyon Rangers, which comedian/actor Steve Martin plays with now and then.

All in all a great trip where I met a lot of people and after the Ghostkeeper application went down in flames, I needed some fun and sure got it.

Now onwards to another project.