Friday, November 28, 2014

Oscar talk

Just a short piece today. Looks like the Turing movie, The Imitation Game, odd title but it refers to code-breaking during WW11 and The Theory of Everything, about Stephen Hawking, whose brilliance in science is legendary, are two definite Oscar contenders.

But each might cancel the other one out, leaving the best movie to another one.

Michael Keaton's Birdman might get in if just for how it was filmed, one single shot (not really one shot but filmed to think it is, pretty clever.

I think the Bill Murray movie, St. Vincent will disappear as will Reese Witherspoon's Wild.

Boyhood seems to be getting attention here in LA but it hasn't been seen by very many people.

I'm hoping for The Homesman, a western with Tommy Lee Jones and Hillary Swank (winner of 2 oscars already). But it's a western and nobody wants to see them anymore. But I will, just as soon as the theaters let us see it for free with guild cards (WGA, SAG, DGA etc).

But there's still a few more coming up, and one that could be a winner, and that's Angelina Joli's movie  Unbroken (she directed) about a WW11 Olympic athlete who was captured by the Japanese. There's a lot of "buzz" about this movie. Interestingly enough, there will be two WW11 movies at the oscars for sure. Friends who have seen it say it's an incredible movie.

So, that's where I sit for now.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Screenplay vs synopsis vs logline

There was a world a long, long time ago when screenwriters would write a spec screenplay and the agent would call the producer on Friday and tell the producer the writer has a new "spec" screenplay. Then the agent would courier the screenplay to the producer who would read the screenplay over the week-end.

Then on Monday the agent would get calls from the producer, or producers, to tell him the screenplay was a pass or an option.


The idea of spec screenplays came about the late 70's and really into the 80's. Spec screenplays were being sold for up to $4 million. You read right, $4 million to Joe Eszterhas and it wasn't even a screenplay yet, just a few notes on a napkin.

The point here is that producers used to read screenplays, and if they didn't one of their lower end interns would read it.

But as the years went by, and more screenwriters appeared, coming from film schools who saw a way to make money from all these wannabees by offering classes in screenwriting. Of course there were some good writers, but most of the schooled writers would never really sell a script.

And with this growth, producers began to get lazy and would ask for a 1-page synopsis. And this is where the problem began and still remains.

They would now read the synopsis, one single page that would tell them how great the screenplay would be.

The problem with this was that the 1 page synopsis gave the reader a very limited view of what the story was. And the problem with this is that the screenplay could be completely different.

One thing I noticed is that those who could write "dynamite" 1-pagers often didn't write good screenplays. As for myself, I despise 1-pagers, it's sort of like when your friend tells someone your story in front of a stranger, he may give some highlights, but not the feeling that you did when you said it.

But just to make it even worse, something else came to be.

The "Logline."

This is the single line that explains the entire movie. It comes from TV and newspapers, wherein they give the title of a TV show and a little piece of information as in:"

State of Affairs: A CIA operative who's aboard a Russian submarine is Charlie's best hope of recovering a wealth of stolen U.S. information.

That is a logline. A real one from the LA Times on last Monday.

And now, producers just want a logline to get them excited about your 100-page screenplay. In other words you have to create a fantastic idea in one page.

Not a hell of a lot room there to tell you 100 pages, at this point, the 1-pager is almost a novel compared to the logline.

And that's where we are today.

So what's next?  Two words to describe your 100-page screenplay?

Monday, November 17, 2014

Why you need a partner

While writing my book on screenwriting last year I came upon the realization that it "wasn't about me." What I mean is that I didn't get this far by myself. And yes, that's my book cover above, call me shameless. And no, you don't have to buy one. But I got a deal for you.

But back to what I started to talk about. 

First of all, writing can be a damn lonely job, sitting over a laptop or whatever you use, a friend of mine still writes longhand and has someone type it for him. And secondly, writers aren't always best friends for obvious reasons; you might get their job.

As I wrote my book I discovered how I went from a TV station mailroom to a reasonably successful TV movie writer as well as having done episodic TV as well. Not as well as Aaron Sorkin or David Chase but still get people calling me.

My first job in TV was in the mailroom. From there I jumped across the country working at different TV stations. It was where I became a producer of sorts, for local TV commercials. But after three years of that I began to want to make movies. But I have one liability; I couldn't raise a dollar if I tried.
And that's when Harry Cole entered my life, both of us were making commercials for Kentucky Fried Chicken and Bill's Cadillac dealerships. Harry left to work in the commercial world outside and I remained there until I finally got tired and left.

But neither Harry nor I could make it work. That is until I said I wrote a screenplay called Ghostkeeper. Then something else happened. The federal government was giving investors a 100% tax write-offs on movies. This was meant to stimulate movie-making in Canada.

Then we realized we were living in an oil-rich province and oilmen love investing in movies so they could walk on set and take a selfie with a reasonably famous actor.

And then it came down to "how to get the money". As I said, I couldn't raise a dime, but Harry was a born salesman. So between my script and his sales expertise we raised around $650,000 (about $1.6 million today).

But then we split up and no more movies.

But then I forgot to mention I did a short film with another friend some time before. He was really talented, while I was more stubborn and able to write and shoot film. Together we were a great team. So good that our short film was a finalist in the 1976 Academy Awards. You know -- the Oscars.

Again, my life changed. That little 13-minute film changed our lives. And again because of a partner who wasn't like me, and it worked well. But eventually it didn't last. However that short film got me some great jobs.

Then, after not being able to make another feature, I ran into Paul Lynch at a party. Paul is one of Canada's more successful directors, he did the original Prom Night and hundreds of American TV series and movies.

A friend of his told him about me and within a week or so, Paul got me his agent in Los Angeles.

Again, someone was partially responsible for another move up. We were a team and even to today.

And then, someone else entered my life; I left Paul's agent because he never did anything for me and I jumped around several agencies and at one, met Frank Balkin. Frank and I got along just perfectly and I followed him to Paradigm, one of the big talent agencies in LA.

And once again, with the help of someone completely different from me.

So my lesson here is, don't try to do it yourself, find someone else who will push and prod you to keep going. Nobody makes it to a reasonable position in life without help. Even Spielberg had a person who "championed" him, of course that was the head of the studio.

But look around, find someone who's the opposite of you and someone more talented. It's okay to do that. 

Okay -- my book. If anyone wants a copy of my book, I will do this; it costs me $5 a copy and with media rate in the U.S. around $3, that's $8 for a $13 book. I even carry it to the post office for free. 


Friday, November 14, 2014

Let the awards begin...

Well, it's time for the pre-pre-pre film awards and it's called The Hollywood Film Awards. It started with a guy named Carlos de Abreu. In case you don't know who he is (I didn't), he's married to Janice Pennington. 

And if you don't know her, she was one of those models on The Price Is Right. She was "let go" for younger girls and filed a lawsuit. 

Anyways, they had the Hollywood Film Awards in a hall for awhile but this year, they gained some recognition because CBS is showing their awards show tonight, Friday, November 14. And it's also called "The Official Launch of the Awards Season".

In other words, we're going to see the Golden Globes (foreign entertainment reporters) and the actors guild (SAG), the writer's Guild (WGA) and numerous other little parties with awards leading up to the Oscars next February.

In fact, this year some of the Oscars were already given. They're the ones that get awards for camera mounts or special achievements.  You know, the ones where every TV viewer uses to go to the bathroom. 

According to the LA Times, the awards selection committee remains confidential. Awards consultants fiture it's Abreu and maybe his wife, Janice.  One interesting moment was an award for Quentin Tarentino's Django, which wasn't even released for several weeks.

But most of the actors in movies that might be oscar contenders are going to show up 
 anyways. As my director friend says of himself, "I'll show up for a supermarket opening".

So give it a watch, nothing else on and you'll get to see the stars wrestle for interviews.

Monday, November 10, 2014

AFM and more oscar contenders

I dropped by the AFM, aka American Film Market and the first thing I noticed in it's banners is that they've added a few new words. It is now the American Film "and Television" market.

This is a big thing, TV was the poor cousin to AFM, like I said in the last blog, AFM was a big deal where Americans could sell their product to almost every country in the world. 

But things changed, as you all know. Netflix, for example, is changing the film and TV market in a huge way. The Writer's Guild of America says now that TV writers now make more money than feature film writers.

I think that it's due to the fact that there are now two different types of films; one is big blockbusters that cost anywhere from $150 million to $300 million, and the other is mostly small independent films that play for a week so that the producers can say it had a "theatrical run." Most of these are either financed by family or friends and are usually about going back home to see that girl/guy you remember.

And the movies in between are a few romcoms that don't last long in theatrical either. There are exceptions like the two "Taken" films with Liam Neeson, you know, the movies where his daughter is taken in one, and he's taken in the other. And they're pretty good movies.

It's clear to see that TV is the big elephant in the room now, although it is just beginning to change with Netflix and Hulu and all the others. 

But besides that there isn't much... except -

The Academy award movies that are starting to show their faces finally. I mentioned a few blogs ago Jake Gyllenhaal is getting attention with Nightcrawler, and it seems to be growing. 

Besides Jake, there are the obligatory Brit movies, one with Benedict Cumberbatch who should get an award just to say his name. He's doing The Imitation Game (a bad title?) based on a brilliant British code breaker during WW2, Allan Turing, who broke the German Enigma code machine and eventually committed suicide.

And of course, I should mention Reese Witherspoon who is fighting for an Oscar with a movie about a woman who hiked a thousand miles after re-hab. She's putting Legally Blonde behind and going for a second Oscar in which she uses drugs and love scenes.

But let's see how this name game goes until I can come up with something more interesting.

We have now;

Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler)
Benedict Cumberbatch
Reese Witherspoon (Wild)
Michael Keaton (Birdman)

Friday, November 7, 2014

American Film Market

This is the week of the American Film Market, which is a huge event held in Santa Monica at a huge hotel, Loews Santa Monica Beach hotel wherein buyers and sellers meet to buy and sell movies. But there's one difference between the product.

For the most part, the big studio movies don't really come here, they use film festivals for that, places like Toronto, Sundance and of course, Cannes.

For the most part, AFM is about movies you've never heard of, most with actors that you've forgotten. Eric Roberts, Tom Sizemore and others. And also a lot of foreign movies from Southeast Asia as well as a lot of movies filmed in eastern Europe.

In other words, the meat and potatoes movies.

I usually take a walk through the lobby of the hotel where anyone can walk in and look

around at the buyers and sellers, both of whom pay a lot of money for a hotel room where they put up posters. A lot of these movies go to places like Netflix and other similar buyers but a lot of them never get sold.

In fact, the market is getting more expensive and fewer movies are being bought. I know of two distributors who don't rent out a hotel room because it's too damn expensive. 

The lobby is where people can meet and not have to pay, although apparently the pool area now is only for those who pay to go to the pool area. Up until this year, the pool area was open for anyone too make deals or to hang around.

But there's still pretty girls and muscle guys walking around the lobby.

But basically, it's a pretty unlikeable market where you really see what the business part is and it's much the same as a meat market. It's pretty sleezy, actually, at least for those of us who make the movies.

And, like the meat market, it's going through a rough time basically because these second rate movies are really bad. And you have to wonder how long AFM is going to continue. I was at an early AFM way back in 1981 with my little horror film Ghostkeeper. It was a lot of fun then, much smaller and less expensive. 

But now it's just a bunch of foreign distributors who are trying to sell films with actors like the above who, like most of us, take any job we can get.

I'll have a little more Monday.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Money, money

 This last week was a big one for me, first getting a nice fat residual check from that great big bear called Gentle Ben, whose DVD and showings continue to give me a nice little present in the $1000-plus range. Love those residuals.

Just for those who aren't quite sure how residuals (or royalties, same thing) work. This happens only in US, Canada has a different system. What it is, in the US system is a percentage of income that the producer has to pay on a regular schedule. I've outlined this before but there are new people, so you others can ignore the blog.

These royalties can be as low as 0.00 and upwards of thousands of dollars for big movies that make a lot of money. I'm at that lower level, almost all TV movies and they pay enough if they're shown. In Gentle Ben, there's two sources, showings and sales and I've had a nice flow since 2005.

Eventually, the amounts get smaller, I have royalties of .83 cents on other shows. In Canada the producer has to pay a reasonable amount right at the time the movie is made rather than waiting for sales and showings.

But so much for that.

I also have interest in a couple of producers who are considering a screenplay or idea. I never say they're buying it until the money is in the bank and the check has cleared. Here's the potential;

One producer wants several ideas for Hallmark movies. Sounds great but I have to find something that they feel they can sell. And that's almost impossible for one big reason: Famous screenwriter William Goldman's classic saying about Hollywood is: "Nobody knows anything."

And believe me, it's proved true more often than not.

Another producer has some money but not all of it, and this is for a written screenplay that has been optioned a few times but never made.

Another producer is trying to get interest in some producers who have money.

And yet another wants one of my best screenplays, although he doesn't want to pay for it until he has money.

And then a few other people who are considering talking to me.

And of course, because I write all this, all of the above will be gone by Friday. Lost and forgotten.

Ah, the life of a screenwriter.