Monday, September 29, 2014

Guess who's working -- and who's not!

 There's been some interesting changes in the world of screenwriting. 

"According to the WGA's annual report since 2008, writers ages 41 to 50 have replaced writers ages 31 to 40 as the group enjoying the largest share of employment in the movie business" LA TIMES.

 So what does that mean to anybody?

Well it means that the baby boomers are once again walking all over the younger writers.  The article also said that work for writers has gone down 24%. This is due to the fact that studios are cutting back on more screenplays of substance and more on the big box office hits that are often 4 or 5 times as expensive. 

It also means that studios are making international movies for everybody, meaning China for one reason. There's a lotta people over there who like American movies.

Ironically the "down home" movies like Annie Hall, Jerry Maguire or any movie with Jack Nicholson are history. There's no real answer why; unless it has to do with the current audience which sees the creature/superhero movies. The last thing they want is a human story about life.

My feeling is that they don't really want to face life because it doesn't look very good to them, fewer 20-somethings are looking for work, the others are going back home to mom and dad. And now, they're at the bottom of the list for writing gigs.

Where does that put me?

Definitely a boomer of course, at the far end, but still working mostly because, in Billy Joel's words; "Retire to what?" I couldn't imagine playing golf or going on vacations or any of that. I write. 

Another question though, is this; why are older writers getting more jobs than younger writers?

Simple. Because they know more.

Does that mean they're better?

No, but they know more. They've done great work and bad work and they know the difference.

But mostly because they are more of a guarantee for a TV series or even movies. As the old saying goes; "They've been to the party before."

What about the hundreds of kids coming out of film school?

Good luck.

What they'll face is that the really good writers will get work, but with an emphasis "really good." I know about that; I taught classes at UCLA extension back in 2003 and after a few years came to realize the truth.

That not everyone is gifted.

In fact there are very few who are gifted.

I wasn't gifted, I just worked hard to learn how to write reasonably good screenplays, enough that I got 20 movies shot (although half were Page 1 rewrites of another writer's script but it still counts in credits).

And I was lucky as I got in before the whole country began having film courses.

But consider this;

You're not an actor... 

 The actor for The Flash, soon to be on TV, has had his face done over in CGI for scenes that would be harder if he had to do them.

My take on it is this; How long will it be before all actors are CGI'd? First the face, next the body. Avatar was the beginning of this and now it won't be long before we see a real Yul Brynner (a famous actor for those who don't know him).

And a realistic Marilyn Monroe.

It's coming.

More this week.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The cost of movies then and now.

A bunch of my friends and I have breakfast on Venice Beach every Sunday since 1994 and our conversation goes from politics to movies to world news. But mostly movies and TV.

There's a lot of things that have changed since 1994 (I chose this year because it started a lot of business for me) and among the biggest was the cost of the average TV movie or MOW as we used to call it.

I worked for Paramount, ABC-TV, Hallmark, Lifetime and a dozen independent films some of which were features and some MOW's. The average budget then was around $3 million dollars and going up to around $8 million.

Around 2005 the MOW was slowly dying, reality TV took over, much cheaper and still good ratings. Survivor killed the MOW in out minds. In fact we (writers and producers) even had two parties at the Roosevelt Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard, famous for hosting the first Academy Awards in 1929. 

We, meaning about a hundred or so, named these parties "The End Of The TV Movie" and we joked and laughed although we all knew it was the death of a lot of our careers. There were no more parties after the second one.

The only producers who were still making movies was Hallmark and Lifetime and, to some extent, ABC Family. And everyone of us were knocking on their doors. But nobody was making movies for $3 million anymore. And the networks could tell us how much they would pay for a movie, take it or leave it.

Then something else began to happen.


New rules were beginning to appear in the form of digital video. VHS was always bad and DVDs were pretty good but basically producers found out that they could make movies for far less with all the new toys. Need a storm in an ocean? Go to CGI.

My last movie was in 2010 for Hallmark and it beat any cost that I had expected before. 

It cost under $1 million.

And it looked great. Just as good as the MOW's I did in the 90's.

So now we had Hallmark and Lifetime to sell to but it got even better for the networks because they wanted movies even less expensive.  A friend of mine just finished a movie for one of the networks for $750,000.

What should the movie cost, using 1994 figures?

How about $4,814,817.00

So what you're saying is "then how do you make them for $750k?

Two things; first digital allows you to use CGI to put in a whole street for a fraction of the cost doing it in real life. My friend created Rockefeller Center with CGI and didn't have to actually go there with a crew and parking and all that.

The other thing is controversial; Unions and non-union.

Unions are still used by the networks and studios but if someone makes a non-union movie with non-union crews (or union people who need the money) the networks are only too happy to buy it.

As for screenplays, we writers still get union wages although we're giving lower fees to lower budget movies as are directors. 

So right now the markets for TV movies is almost the same as 2010, Hallmark, Lifetime, SyFy and occasional other markets.

So here we are, years later and lots more writers and directors flowing from universities with hopes of movies or tv movies or anything.

But the problem is that there's fewer jobs.

And there's going to be even less jobs the way digital is going. And more film students looking for jobs anywhere.

At least I can continue to play with my software and make little docs that give me something to do between screenplay gigs.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Here come the Oscars

The official unofficial Academy Award season has sort of begun. It comes into being after the Toronto International Film Festival that just wrapped. This is when the studios begin to spend money on their movies, which could be anything from Gravity to Fargo, for example.

Except for one thing; there doesn't seem to be any of the movies, so far, that has really struck anybody as being special. One of them, The Imitation Game seems to be the front runner as of Toronto. FYI it's about Alan Turing who was part of the British decoding attempts during WW11.

I know a little about Touring, who was gay in a time when gay was illegal in England. But more important is that Touring was one of the earliest people to figure out those 1's and o's that led to computers.

He was one of the people who gave us laptops.

And what did England do for him; they arrested him for being gay and pretty much
destroyed his career. There's been a TV movie about Touring but the film version has a great cast with actor Benedict Cumberbatch who was the bad guy in Star Trek Into Darkness.

Sounds like a possible winner right there.

Then there's The Judge with Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duval and it deals with father and son and a criminal case.

So far that's it. At least for serious movies.

There's Reese Witherspon who hefts a giant backpack on a story about a woman trying to find herself in the wilderness based on a true story and called Wild. Here's a photo of Reese
for the ads and the backpack looks three times as big as her and I doubt she could carry even a daypack.

Another movie, Calvary, is an Irish indie film about a priest and someone who wants too kill him. And Kristine Whiig has a movie called Welcome To Me.  And Bill Murray's St. Vincent could bring him closes to the Oscar but he's tried it before.

The trouble with this is that there really isn't a great movie in them, the closest is the The Imitation Game, which seems to be the favorite of a mediocre list of these movies. I can't see a big blockbuster like Guardians of the Galaxy but if there's no big movie out from now to Christmas, it might take a position.

But it's early and anything can happen. I will want to see the Turing movie because it's a pretty good story and after all; Turing did give us the internet. And there might be surprises, Paul Dana and John Cusak are playing different years of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. 

And there's Jennifer Aniston.

But seriously, there's also Richard Gere who plays a homeless guy. And I don't think he'll win but I bet he's nominated.

But lets see how it goes.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

How much does a writer earn?

Over the last ten years, maybe longer, I have seen the price of screenplays going down and down... and down. 

With the advent of websites advertising jobs for screenwriters like Mandy and InkTip and others probably being created as I write, writers will do anything to get a job. What's interesting about this is that the people advertising for writers often will not pay a dime.

What this translates is that "You should be happy to get a credit.

What this credit probably isn't anything because the movie they write might never get shown anywhere except the producer's living room.

Mandy, for example, has maybe a half dozen writing jobs offering anywhere from nothing to maybe $1500. Or money paid after the film is made. Sometimes. For a full screenplay either a spec of a writing job.

Okay, to be honest there are some who will offer more, even at WGA  rates, but very rarely.
I don't really know how many aspiring writers there are out there but estimating the amounts of film school graduates, I would say at least 500 screenplay graduates, my friends say more like 1000.

And each of them are hungrier than hell and would take a job that they would have to pay for to get. It's crazy.

What about WGA? 

WGA (Writer's Guild of America) demands payment for anything, the rate for an average movie is around $44,000 for one screenplay. It can change with high budget or low budget allowances. Lowest payment is around $11,000 for budgets $299,999.00 (otherwise known as $200k)

WGA doesn't like low budgets but they are finding that there's more screenplays out there dying to be made either by Kickstarter or Uncle Fred or a few doctors putting in the money as long as their daughters get cast.

But finally, WGA came up with a low budget agreement just so some writers can get work. A statistic I saw once suggested that of the 8000 WGA writers (nobody knows the real amount so I'll use the $8 G's) about 15% of that number is actually working.

Meaning that 85% are unemployed.

I've used the low budget agreements a few weeks ago and should be on this blog pace.

But the bigger question is; if it's not WGA low budget writers who get the job, who does get the job?  Or shall I say "the opportunity to get a credit" for a movie that won't probably ever be seen.

I can only see this getting bigger and bigger, less money for more jobs for movies that nobody will see. Okay, maybe some of them, but at lest 80% won't ever be seen.

And the writer will be waiting for the money the producer promised but it was probably after profits, if any. And we all know what that means. 

Some of these producers in those websites are probably honest, but those who want writers to write for nothing or for $500 or whatever, there'll always be writers who will take the job.

Because there's lots of writers and they will work for free.

But you have to wonder what kind of writers these producers get? Good ones, bad ones, losers, winners? I'm curious, never really heard from anyone who got a gig from the web.

This seems to be the future as more and more low budget movies push each other aside as big studio movies still can't figure out how to make bigger movies different rather than the same as the last big movie. 

How many Spidermen can you take?

I don't know what's going to happen, some people say it won't be long before the studios can CGI an actor and then maybe a screenplay.

Then we're all out of business.

Friday, September 5, 2014

When do you write?

A lot of aspiring writers ask me when I write and for how long. I'm best from around 8:30 in the morning to around 11:30 am. However I know writers who write at night and others who write all day.

Writing is different for almost every writer and in any place or circumstance.

For me, I need an office or something like that. Since I work at home I like to have a room that's only for writing (and for the occasional guest). I have a great desk that a friend made for me as well as a bookshelf with only film books. My other books mostly non-fiction, are in my living room bookshelves.

I have a very specific time frame, based on breakfast, lunch and dinner and I rarely write after 12 noon unless I need to finish something. I have two laptops, both Dells, one is an aging XP and the other is a lightweight 13-inch for travel.  I also have two Mac's, one is a very old G4 which I can't bear tossing out, and an iMac which I use mainly for Final Cut Pro editing.

I do editing when I shoot documentaries and since I started in this business by working in television news, I am a pretty good cameraman and still enjoy shooting small docs here and there. 

One thing I can't do is write in a cafe or a Starbucks and that's because I'm more interested in what's going on around me but I see writers doing just that and don't know how they can be that attentive. There's a joke about writers who write in cafes that writers are banned from Starbucks because none of their screenplays ever get made.

But if it works for them, that's all that matters.

Then there's the issue of how a writer writes.

I have a friend who might write two pages in a day, another can write ten pages in a day. I settle for around four to five pages, maybe six on a good day.  

Right now I'm writing a travel book and am almost finished. I mentioned this before and should be done by today, then a week of editing. The book, as I've mentioned before, is a series of short stories I remember from traveling through the western part of the U.S. and Canada.

This is my third book, having Emperor of Mars and The Working Writer's Screenplay, each of them very different. You can find more information on Emperor in previous blogs in June 2011 blogs. You can also read the screenplay under Materials on the left of this page.

The travel book, entitled How Not to Get Beat-Up In A Smalltown Bar, is a collection of the many highways and truckstops I've been to, almost a half million miles since 1969. Some of the short stories are funny, some are sad and some just very interesting. It should be out for Christmas.

Right now I'm also working on another screenplay idea but not quite sure how to begin it. This is how it is for most of my writing, I need to find that one thing that suddenly starts me up and there's no way I can explain where and when. It just happens.

Anyways, fall is here in California and the air is just a little bit cool but enough to notice.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Where do you get ideas for a movie?

Finally back on the blog, week-end holiday messed up a lot of work for me, and I took off a day or so.

Having said that, I get a lot of people who ask me where my ideas come from so here goes.

In the beginning, as they say, I had really bad ideas. My first screenplay was about a guy going to a film school and having conflicts with his father. This was pretty much based on my summer at the Banff School of Fine Arts in the magnificent Canadian Rockies way back in 1972. 

It was a really bad script.

I still have it and take it out now and then to see how far I've gone, although some might say not very far. Anyways, I have managed to do a fair amount of work, that being 20 feature-length movies of which half were my originals and the other half were rewrites.

Let me explain the rewrites; it's where I came into a project almost ready to film but for some reason didn't want to use the original writer. This is quite common and in most of the rewrite jobs, it was a "Page One", meaning that I basically rewrote the complete screenplay. One screenplay called Riddler's Moon went through about 25 rewrites, some minor, some huge. 

The huge rewrite was due to the fact that the movie was set in Nebraska, I think, and we were filming in Luxembourg in Europe. We had a town with barren fields but when we came to Luxembourg, the fields were green and yellow and flourishing. What did I do? The only thing that I could think of is to make the lush green fields poison. Sounds simple but it worked.

But back to my ideas; I have written a few movies based on old movies I saw as a kid, changing characters and ideas. Once I wrote a screenplay called Dream House which was based on another movie I wrote years before called The Tower

Both movies used the same idea; a computer that ran an office tower and went berserk and a house computer went berserk. Nobody noticed.

Early in my writing I used a formula found in screenwriting books wherein you "create the characters" by inventing them using age, type, etc. But these never really felt real. 

This changed when I wrote a script called Secrets of the Salmon and based it on a real character I knew, an executive who had drug and alcohol problems. I added some of my characteristics (not drugs or alcohol) as well as a few other people I knew.
From then on I would look for real people and base the character I would write loosely on them and it worked. Salmon worked so well that Jody Foster's company, Smart Egg, wanted to meet me because they didn't believe a man wrote it. It was later optioned by ABC.

I used this formula from then until now and I still use it. Creating a character may work for some writers but I'd rather steal characteristics than make them up, they're always better because they're real.

This worked well especially for women characters and I'm not the only one who works this way. 

What other ideas?

I read a lot of magazines and newspapers and find good ideas; some of them that I have on file include:

- A true story about a small town where women decided to close the town down from men and have a "night without men". 

- A baseball star who won the world series but died in combat before he got recognized.

- Mars - I have been trying to do a story on Mars and just haven't found the right thing yet. It'll probably be a copy of a classic book or old movie... or maybe original.

I have little notebooks in every room and always carry a notebook with me because I know that if I don't I probably won't ever remember the idea I lost.

So, if you are looking for an idea here's a few things to consider and don't get all wrapped up about stealing an idea; every idea has been made and I always say that each time I come up with a great idea, 4 other writers have also, two thinking of writing, one has it written and one is in post-production. So don't worry if you have a similar idea:

Funny thing is, for me at that certain age where nobody wants you, it seems I get more ideas than I ever did. And I think it's just from reading books and newspapers and almost everything. 

And I also watch people, I'm not a writer who tries to write in Starbucks, I watch people and what they do. Real people will give you more than whatever you can create.

It always brings back that common expression when you hear someone describe an event or meet a strange thing that happens, someone will always say these words; 

"A writer couldn't have written that".

Actually, writers could have written that and probably more than once.