Monday, June 29, 2015

Who wants your screenplay part 3

I think this is the first 3-part blog I've done, with the exception of the TV series that took about a dozen or more posts. It's a good read by the way. 

So, who wants what kind of scripts are "they" looking for these days. I've already told you how impossible it is to get a screenplay but those of you who don't listen will probably find a way.

One of the biggest obstacles is that nobody knows you (at least most of you) and while that wasn't a deterrent in the "old days", it sure the hell is for today. Unless you just won the Oscar or the Nichol's Award, you are nothing in an agent's eye. It's really unfair but now they want hot writers rather than unknowns. 

In other words, they want you to be already famous.

This is the market for what I see as what you should be writing for and if you have no agent. And I repeat again, try to find a partner, either a writing partner or someone who wants to be a director or better, wants to be a producer.

1. An indie film screenplay with no name actors. It should be a small film in many ways, we're talking four people in a car or four people in a house. If there's action, make it really small i.e. he hits his fist on his car. How about four people locked in a school. Lots of story there.

2. An indie film with a semi-name that will sell the movie. This brings you a budget as low as $500,000. Maybe even lower. The semi-name could be an actor who's not as big as he/she used to be. You can get pretty good names for $1000/day. Write the semi-name character in for 2 days and you've got a star and a screenplay and it's a go.

3. A Hallmark movie. I've talked a lot about this because it's the biggest market for movies under $1 million although the can go higher but that comes from name writers or writers they know. Hallmark is best explained like this; if you're writing a screenplay it should have this element; A person could walk into a living room when a Hallmark movie is on and they won't feel embarrassed or awkward. 

Yeah, I know it ain't Tarentino. But you're not him either. You can get away with a good script if you watch a few Hallmarks. Naturally the big gorilla is Christmas movies, I think there's probably a thousand or more Christmas movies. But they keep coming.

There's also Lifetime which is like Hallmark in terms of melodrama and very big on bad things happening to teens and women. 

4. Writing a script like The Theory of Everything would get you into the big dramatic feature film and it's possible, highly unlikely but possible. You also have to be a hell of a good writer and most likely English. I have a screenplay called Secrets of The Salmon, a heavy drama that Jody Foster's company liked and was late optioned by ABC. The title refers to a woman coming back to her home town and the family she ran away from.

And you really have to know someone big in the industry.

5. TV series. This is an up and down job. Right now everyone from HBO to NBC to Netflix are looking for the next Orange is The New Black, and so they are looking for anyone who has been a showrunner on any past series. In other words they don't want to look at or listen to anyone who's never done series. 

TV especially is built for partners. Remember my last blog? You can get by without a partner in film but in TV you need someone who's really got more experience than you. 

6. The Big Movies; Those are pretty much taken up by studio regulars and if a neophyte gets in it's either they have a friend in the business or they have photos of an executive doing something horrible. And this is the place where more than one writer gets a job, I've heard of one screenplay that was re-written by 23 writers. 

Yes, 23 writers.

And of course, WGA permits only three names on a credit.

And if you can't get your script to anyone of these... go back to #1, your Canon 5D and some friends.  

Remember The Blair Witch Project. And if you've never heard of this movie -- see it.  Or you can get a job as a p/a and listen and make friends. I actually did that at the age of 33 and a year later I wrote and directed Ghostkeeper, my first feature. 

The list above is mostly for U.S.A. and Canada, also Great Britain, but the business is the same when it comes to screenplays and if you can't get anyone to read your screenplay, find someone who can push it.

Like my friend says, "All you need is a guy with a rolodex and a pocket full of quarters." It's dated but it's meaning still comes through.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Who wants your screenplay part 2

  Here's how it used to work back in the "old days" meaning 2005. That was the year that killed movies for TV because of that monster Survival. It got better ratings and a lot cheaper to make. The "stars" were ordinary people who didn't demand million dollar raises.

But let's look at your chances of selling a screenplay.

The odds are enormous against you. 

The odds are still bad against me.

But it always was like that. That's just how this business works. Here's a good example of how I sold a screenplay. I wrote a nice Christmas story and showed it around. Hallmark liked it but didn't want to make it.

And they didn't want anyone else to make it either.  It stayed in their vault for three years and then a lady read it and said "let's make it."

Why did she make it?

Because one of the characters in the script reminded her of her daughter.

Okay, the script was good, but if that woman didn't connect with a character in my story, that script would still be on the shelf. In other words it's a lottery.

So begin with that on your voyage to sell your script. 

There's a writer's guild website exclusively for WGA writers. It's not part of WGA, but it's a website where we WGA members can argue and whine. One time, I read a post from a writer who wasn't really anything, I think he wrote a kid's show or not even that.

He wanted to get anybody's take on showing his newest screenplay and had doubts about a producer who wanted to read it. A few others discussed this which really was a waste of time. The truth is this; the writer wanted to show everyone that someone was interested in his script, that's all. "See, someone likes me."

This is what I believe in.

I will show my script to anyone. Because that's how you get a better chance at selling your script. Not showing it to anyone but a major studio is stupid. I know writers who refuse to show their script to anyone except a major studio.

They still haven't sold their script.

The ugly truth is that there are too many writers out there. And most of them aren't very good. When I taught UCLA screenwriting classes I got questions about the chances of those taking the course. The reality was, for me, out of around 250 students, maybe 4.

4 students might be able to sell their scripts.

One way is to get attention in all the script contests. Personally I think it's only a scam for someone to make some money off hungry amateur writers. But sometimes it helps.

The best thing I know is to have a partner. That's how I started my career, sort of. I was working at a TV station as an editor but I wanted to write. I found a friend who wanted to direct and we made that short film, Cooperage, which I mention often. It got us a finalist position in the Academy Awards in 1976.

What it did was get me a job as a producer for cheap commercials. I did that for two years and then wrote my first real screenplay. Then I joined up with a friend at the TV station and we both quit. He was a hustler, I wasn't. He found money, I didn't. 

But it was the perfect match for Ghostkeeper, my first real feature.

This is why I suggest finding a partner. And someone smarter than you. That other person might be smarter at finding money, but you're smarter in writing the screenplay. It works a lot better than trying to break into the business by yourself. 

In fact, I don't know anybody who made it themselves.

Right now I have four producers who have four screenplays and are trying to find the money. Hell, I couldn't find a dime if it was in front of me. 

But they need me too, because they can't write. And my favorite line is this; 

The best thing about writers is that they don't have to have a job in order to write. 

You see everyone else needs to be hired; the cameraman, the audio guy, the assistant director and even the actors. They need to be hired first.

But when you write your screenplay all by yourself in your dark room, you are working. And if someone wants to read it, give it to them. And if they want to make it, say yes.

And you just might get it made.
Next: Monday - more about what to write and who to write for.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Who wants your screenplay?

 I often get someone who wants to know where they can send their screenplays. The movie world is divided in three, TV movies, indie movies like The Theory of Everything and feature movies that are divided by blockbuster movies like Star Trek and Marvel heroes.

What I'm going to talk about first are the TV movies.

Right now I'm working on a handful of ideas for a producer who deals with Hallmark. Hallmark for at least 80% of you, probably means nothing as you live in different countries.

Unless you mail or get greeting cards. Happy Birthday, Merry Christmas, Father's Day, etc.

Hallmark is the biggest greeting company in the world. At least I think so. A long time ago they also got into the movie business with a handful of movies that were somewhere between an indie movie and a feature film. It was on a Sunday night and was called "The Hallmark Hall of Fame."

The movies were pretty good, lots of money spent on them. I used to attend their premieres where they held a screening for industry people and afterwards a fantastic meal which often was in the tone of the movie. A southern movie would have southern food to go with the movie. They had an appropriate musical band and a spread of food that was great.

But around 2005, they began to cut back as people began to send email cards. Some writers and producers started a "Death of the TV Movie" parties of which we attended for two years. Of these TV movies, Hallmark still managed to make their movies.

The budgets were smaller and they rarely made their own movies, rather they would get someone else to make them, like Hallmark who just licenced them. They would pay $500,000 for a movie that cost $1.5 million. 

You can see the math immediately. Where does the outside producer get their $1 million? That's when they needed sales from any possible buyer, be it in USA or Canada or anywhere that they could sell an English-speaking movie.

That's where one particular producer figured out how to make a movie cheap. His name was Larry Levinson and he made movies just around $1 million and after Hallmark's sale, he could sell it to a number of other foreign countries.

And then Canada entered. They could make Hallmark movies even cheaper. My Christmas movie, The Town Christmas Forgot was made for under $1 million. My director friend Paul Lynch made a Christmas movie last year for $750,000.

So why did the old movies cost so much?

Basically, film was slower and more expensive. Digital filming took over because it was faster and easier. You can have a main street with period cars for nothing, CGI can create it for far less than having to find real cars. 

My Christmas movie was set in winter with snow-capped mountains. But it was filmed outside of Toronto in August. Lots fake snow made it look real.

So this is how it works for TV in terms of movies. There are a handful of buyers now, cable networks like Lifetime (My second feature, Betrayal of Silence, was sold to Lifetime back around 1988). 

Then when the trending became the coolest thing, and Netflex changed the industry, there suddenly is a huge market for Hallmark-style movies. Recently a former Gospel cable network joined in as UPTV. Sci-Fi Channel also kicked in a batch of TV movies.

And so the TV market seemed to come back after around 10 years and with new markets increasing all the time.

Right now I have three ideas hanging around the Hallmark office, taken to them by a producer who's done about 40 of them. I also have two new ideas that I want to take to other producers.

I can say it would be easier for me to get their attention, but not always. For the movie stories I mentioned earlier, I know several producers who like my work. But right now, as I wait for Hallmark's decision, they could kill all three ideas.

But there is UPTV but the gospel hasn't left them, your story has to be "Uplifting." But new companies are being created all the time and they need content and movies fill in that niche, with documentaries a solid favorite.

So this is a basic look at one aspect of movies. Lifetime usually does movies based on books and is a little tougher, they have murders and stories about women in jeopardy. Netflix will take almost anything, I still don't understand their buying methods.

Some people look down on Hallmark movies, as they're pretty tame and no real violence although they're having a mystery series where you almost see a dead body. Almost. But a movie is a movie, doesn't matter who made it or why, someone will see it and like it and someone won't like it.

And if it's Writers Guild it's even better.

But in this new low budget approach a new writer like yourself can probably get your screenplay made if you work non-union. There's a lot of producers who don't or won't pay WGA or WGC fees which can be as much as $44,000 for a million dollar movie. 

So you may not get union rates, but you get a movie made and recognition on and it'll be a little easier next time. That time when you hear a producer's words :

"So what else do ya got."

More Friday

Monday, June 15, 2015

It started in 1989...

I got a phone call from a producer who, besides not knowing how to text, calls me from time to time about a screenplay I wrote that he likes a lot but has not been able to put it together with money. Close though, and he still hunts for a buyer.

But this time he surprised me with a bit of news about

Emperor of Mars, of which I wrote the screenplay in 1989 and I wrote and published the book in 2013. It seemed that a former executive from Disney was shopping around for a nice little family story and he had read it some years ago.

The next thing he said was "Has Jim sold it yet."

To which my producer said, "Not yet."

The next thing he said was "Why don't we make it?"

That was a good phone call but naturally I'm not getting excited about it. Because it's not the first time.

Let's go way back... 1989, some of you weren't even born yet.

As most writers, I always wanted to write my life story. The problem was that my life story wasn't special. I grew up in a little town of 539 people and at age12 moved to a big city. So where's the great story?

This is what I had; the small town environment, a 12-year old girl who I idolized. But the biggest thing was my Grade 6 teacher, Miss Mazure. She was barely out of teacher's college and I fell madly in love with her. I was 12 she was around 19.

So that was my story. Not enough to fill out a handfull of pages. By this time I had worked on several TV stations and was looking to find a story to write. That story.

I needed something else.

Then, just by accident (as they say) I found something out of the blue.

I read newspapers and magazines all the time and this time I noticed a story about a radio broadcast that had played a mysterious voice supposedly from Mars. And he was coming to Earth in two weeks. This was almost in the 1960's.

And I realized that this was my story, my "macguffin." This expression comes from legendary director Alfred Hitchcock, who explained what the audience would know. The idea.

My idea was the small town, the girl and the teacher and... the Emperor of Mars. In short I took that news story and it became the heart of the story. Now I could expand my ideas, there would be the boy (who was me), my school friends, the 12-yr old girl and the teacher.

By the way, this blog and the following one is a great way to see how you can write your story. 

Now here's how I used the Emperor.

One night something strange happened in the small town. The boy heard it on the radio and someone else saw strange lights in a wheatfield. This person became part of the story also.

I wrote the screenplay in about 6 weeks and didn't have a title. Then an executive at a  pay channel who had gotten me some money to write the screenplay suggested the obvious title.

Emperor of Mars.

But nobody in Canada wanted to make it.

This changed when I moved to L.A. in 1990 and my agent there started to pass the script around. It quickly became a favorite and with it I had meetings with every studio and production company in town. They all liked it. 

But they also didn't want to make it. They said they loved it and then asked what else did I have. Here's a short list of the big one, all major players (some gone now) as they say. And there's at least forty or more smaller "players" of which you'll see this Friday.

Dreamworks                 FX Network                        Castle Rock
Universal                      Columbia                              Sarabande
Touchstone                  Imagine Entertainment      Nuefeld-Rehme
Paramount                   Morgan Creek                      Tri-Star
Warner Bros                 David Geffen                        Wizan-Black 
Zucker Bros                 Linda Obst                             Hollywood Pictures
Jerry Bruckheimer     Interscope                             Steve Tisch
New Line Films           Lorimar                                  Fogwood
Chestnut Hill                Harry Gittes                         Pathe

And more.

But I still didn't get a buyer. But they liked me, as Sally Field said, they really liked me.

Or did they?

Friday - my life really changes because of the Emperor of Mars

Friday, June 12, 2015

Part 2 of Now what do I do?


 Okay, here we go again. So why are you guys going to have a hard time getting into the business? 

Well, I'm talking mostly about screenwriting. There are two reasons why it's going to be harder and harder for you. There are two answers;

The easiest is too many graduating screenwriters in a smaller work force, there's only so many jobs writing for movies and TV. Naturally about 80% will slowly drop off and go back to mom and dad's warm home. Only the strong survive, as the song goes.

The second reason is what corporate America is doing to all kinds of jobs; trimming the numbers of writers and agents. Yes, and agents are disappearing too. This began to happen when the big agencies like Paradigm, William Morris, CAA and a few others.

What they did is to buy out the dozens and dozens of smaller agencies and then toss out the talent (writers, directors, actors) that wasn't making enough money. And this time, they also kicked out lots of agents who didn't have actors like Ryan Gosling, etc.

Very similar to the stock market. Except they're even more horrible.

I've mentioned this before, but will repeat it. When I came here in 1990 this is how a writer gets work. I had a movie I wrote and directed behind me and a screenplay that was made and best of all, a friend who referred me to an agent. 

Okay, so I had a better shot.

But already there were dozens and dozens of graduating film writers and directors from UCLA, USC and a handful of others. Remember that, "a handful". It started like I said in last Monday's post - the Movie Brats, Coppola and Lucas and the others.

I built up a bunch of credits, all good and had a good reputation. In 2001 I took a job at UCLA for their extension screenwriting courses. I found it a lot of fun and I learned a lot as well. My book on screenwriting talks about that.

 But I wasn't expecting the volume of people who wanted to write screenplays. The goldrush was going crazy, everyone was writing a screenplay.

I had an online class which I found to be much better than taking an on-site course. In a on-site course at UCLA an instructor shows up for a few hours. He or she talks for an hour then a student reads some of his/her wonderful screenplay and the others try to tear it apart.

Fun, huh?

With online, I handed out assignments that every one of the 15 students had to write and everyone else had to make comments. But here's the catch, rather than students standing up in class and trying to not cry, my classes had to read each other's work and comment on it. If they didn't like it, they had to offer suggestions rather than rip it apart.

I had students from all over the world and about half and half in terms of UCLA students and people who just wanted to take a course in screenwriting.

But after almost three years, I got tired of lying. And what I mean was that I had to face students and try to tell them that they still have to work harder but that much of this business is luck. Pure luck.

And luck has to do with meeting someone who can do things that you can't. You can't do it alone. If you're a writer, find a producer or director, a pro or a guy who's a little smarter than you are.

And while you're looking for a break, get a job as a P.A. (Production assistant) where you meet people and sometimes you tell them you wrote a script. Honest. It worked a few times to me.

 But don't go it alone.

Look at the teams around now,  people like Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg who were childhood friends. That's what I mean. Doesn't mean that it has to be a friend, either, just someone who can do things you can't.

And someone who needs you because he/she can't do what you can.

But again, there are more and more people coming out of film schools and there are more universities and faux film schools that charge thousands of dollars. Then there's also the screenwriting competitions; you don't need to go to school, just write a great script. 

And I'm not kidding. I've seen enough screenplays from supposedly talented students but I've also seen people who never went to college. They just learned how to write scripts.

Just like me.

Okay, I was working in TV for a few years but this is how I learned to write a full 120 page screenplay (scripts now are much shorter, average 95 pages). I got a copy of The Deerhunter which won an oscar. I then took my IBM selectric typewriter and began to rewrite this famous screenplay. I would write maybe as much as 5 pages just rewriting the real script. It took me a month or more but when I finished, I figured I learned everything I needed to in just re-writing The Deerhunter.

Sounds dumb, but it works. And saves you money.

I can save you some money. Come to L.A. and get a job as a P.A. Best way to learn about movies and you're close to everyone on set. It's amazing about the people you meet.

There's a common joke about students who have graduated from film schools. Almost all of them start as a P.A. anyways and are often made jokes. I knew a girl who graduated from U. of Montana and was so excited to get a job on a movie. She got a P.A. job and everyone called her "College" as in "Hey, college, bring us some muffins."

So that's it for now... I might continue on this line for a while, but I've got many more blogs to go. Just for the books, I have around 64,000 page views. Pretty darn good.


Monday, June 8, 2015

Now what do I do?

I get some emails from people I know or people who think I might help them find a job in the movie business. And some of them are parents, friends of mine, who ask me if I can do anything to get them in "the Business."

Since I taught screenwriting at UCLA extension classes tend to ask me "I finished film school so what now?"

What now.

I can use a line from Robert De Niro who was addressing the graduating students at NYU with two words; "You're f--cked."

Two simple words, Bob. But you're right.

And if you follow my blog way back, you'll know I took a film course and failed. And my best friend failed the same course. And you know what happened.

My friend and I made a short film that was a finalist in the 1976 Academy Awards. The other students never really had the "passion" that we had for movies. 

So much for film school.

If some of you out there are students or wanting to write or direct or whatever, this will be invaluable.

In the beginning, as the tv bible says; there was movies and for the most part it was a learning industry, silent movies got longer and then sound came and then 4K came which already is being passed by 6K.

It's a little joke, refers to the quality of digital images. Every year the industry seems to create an even sharper image on the screen or your TV.

Back to the old days. 

Way back in the 1920's and 30's, a wannabe writer or wannabe director had a chance at getting a job. There was no film schools, you would get a job carrying water or something and move up the ladder.

As the industry grew, crew people would bring in their sons and daughters, and there were a lot of women screenwriters then too. I'm talking 1920-1940. But very few of the early writers rarely brought in family. And it's kind of the same even now.

Then WW2 came and a lot of soldiers who survived found the GI Bill which entitled writers to get some schooling. But they also found that they had stories from the horrors of war and thus you got great movies made from stories that were real. But again, there were no film schools.

The big change happened in the early 1970's when U. Of Southern California created their film courses. And suddenly there was Francis Coppola and George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, Brian DePalma, Martin Scorsese and John Milius and John Cassavettes as well as foreign writers and directors like Lindsay Anderson and Roman Polanski and many more.

But what was different now is that almost all of them came from newly created film schools and who knew each other. Remember that point - they knew each other.

There were books published about these new kids, The Movie Brats and The Film Director as Superstar and many other books about these new kids on the blog who never really had to fight a war.

These were my generation, and even though I didn't know any of them, (I lived two thousand miles away in a small town of 539 people), I shared one single thing with all of them.

A movie called The Searchers.

A John Wayne movie, although it was realistically a John Ford movie. Ford was a legend in the film industry, he won 6 Academy Awards, still never beaten.

For some reason, The Searchers was one of the best westerns ever made. Our sci-fi stories were more westerns and they were everywhere. But The Searchers had something else to it, there are many articles about the movie, even a remake of sorts but whatever it was, I wanted to be part of it.

I wanted to be in Hollywood.

And so did those other names up there. 

And from now on the film schools were mostly becoming writers and directors, without the war stories we watched as kids.

And it wasn't long before other universities saw the money they could make by offering film courses. Now America was spitting out new screenwriters and directors at a very fast pace.

But I didn't go the university way because I got a job at a TV station in the photo department where I learned how to shoot and process 16mm film for our newscasts. I did everything there, photographs, film, shooting rock concerts and models.

It was about this time that I went to the film school with my then-wife and I took the infamous class and she took photography. And that's where I met my friend who also failed.  But in truth, I knew more than the instructors and it was mostly for the adventure of hanging around an art school in the beautiful Rocky Mountains.

I then proceeded to work at a half dozen TV stations where I got more experienced and then finally I made Ghostkeeper, (I think you can see it on the Materials).

So I came up, like many more writers and directors, through all the stages, I was a production assistant, a location manager, a soundman and a dozen other jobs. So my way was a little different.

So much for now, don't want to make this too long to read. 

The next blog will be about the kids going to school now and what they need and what they're lacking. 

Remember Robert De Niro.

BTW I'm the bearded one who looks like Charles Manson, my fried Phil with the shaggy hair.

More of "What Do I Do now" Friday.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Back again

Had one hell of a flu-bug or whatever it was, knocked me out for a couple of days wherein I stayed inside everyday. Which is almost impossible in southern California. So I'm just going to catch up slowly this week with some news and some old news.

I'm so over the job I lost a few weeks ago and am moving on, including a new screenplay based on that international incident about a dog being left at a train station by himself, with his toys, some food and a note saying the owner couldn't keep him anymore.

I saw a movie in that immediately when it was splashed on newspapers and TV. In fact I'm sure there's at least a dozen writers who are considering the same idea. So why write it?

Well, this is the breakdown of the writers who "want" to write it. Out of 10, let's say.

1. Two are thinking about it. (Actually a few thousand writers are doing this).

2. One is going to write it next week.

3. Two are writing it.

4. Two have finished it.

5. One is in develoopment

6. One's filming as we talk.

7. One is being released in August. 

So where am I?

I started a beat sheet for the dog last week and have a pretty good outline. However I have to clean up those three Hallmark ideas for my producer Ted. I also have to work out a Kickstarter for my travel book, the one called "How To Not Get Beat-Up In A Small-Town Bar." 

I have a great pencil sketch artist who will draw pencil art at the ends of some of the stories.

So what else?

I'm going to re-do a budget for my Ghostkeeper sequel, of which I will explain either this week-end or next week. I got killed last year with very few people going onto kickstarter so this time I'm going to make it a lot more simple.

However, this is June 1st, and what that means in Southern California is that each day is overcast and doesn't show sun until around late morning. The joke is that everyone in LA has to see their psychiatrist in order to handle the grey sky.

See you Friday... or sooner