Monday, November 05, 2007

Talent Shortage Part 2: The Revenge

Lots of response on the last entry, here are some more answers and thoughts.

So many of these bad AFM films were written-produced-directed by the same person, who might have been able to do *one* of those jobs right - but they were not looking to hire anyone else (or even get advice from anyone else).

I was in the lobby for a while yesterday, and talked to a few writers. One had financing from private sources and had written a script... and he was looking for a distrib and a director and someone to physically produce the film. This guy told me every producer or director who has read the script so far had the exact same problems with it... but he was sure he'd find someone who shared his vision.

I think this guy did an amazing thing in finding the money to make a film... but he either needs to fix the script or find someone to rewrite it. He isn't interested in doing either.

So many of the companies at AFM are clones of the company I talked about in a previous entry (about the stunt guys) - and they don't know what is a good script and even if they find one someone at the company rewrites it into crap. They don't have talent and they don't care... and they're in charge.

The main thing at market is still that the middle has fallen out - I was talking to a couple of producers who said the only films that can make a profit are extreme low budgets ($10-15k) and movies made for $2 million with stars working below their rate in the cast... or big stars in big budget movies that the studio will buy.

Oh, and those rare really great films.

The $15k and below movies - writers don't get paid.

The $2 million movies with stars - well, those deals usually begin with someone who has access to a star who will work below below their rate... the guy with access has a script, and no matter how bad that script is, that's the one that gets made.

The studio style films work just like any other studio film... and often they begin with star access. When I talk to these guys, the thing I hear over and over again is - who is attached?

One of the producers I talked with is a guy I know who made a $100k film that distribs are offering him the kind of money on that only makes sense if the film had cost $15k. He found his script on Craig's List (why even look there?) and I read it. The script had lots and lots of problems, not the least of which was that it could not be made on $100k. I gave him notes and told him he needed to create a small role and hire a name to play it. He passed my notes on to the writer... who ignored them. The problem is, the producer didn't have any money in his budget to pay the writer for rewrites or hire another writer... and the writer didn't want to lift a finger to improve his script. So it was filmed as is, without the role written for a name, and now it's a crappy film without even a single name in the cast. Hard to sell one of those.

Now, my first question is why not start with a good script? But obviously there aren't enough out there. Well, not enough out there that this guy could afford. But why not wait until you find a good script before making the film? Why just grab the first script that comes along? I would really worry if there wasn't a better script than this one... even on Craig's List.

Those middle movies that start with a script - very few of those are made these days. The focus is so much on the stars, that the scripts are an afterthought. Big mistake! When you're cruising the aisles at Blockbuster and you see some new movie you've never heard of with some big name star - that may be one of these suckfests.

I had 2 films come out on DVD this year, and both ended up completely screwed up because there isn't enough talent (or people who care) in the other creative departments. What pissed me off most is that in one case they had a script that everyone thought was really good... so they changed it. People who didn't know anything about screenwriting made changes that turned it into crap. But these people were in charge - they paid me - so they must know more than me, right? Okay... this is headed into sour grapes territory, so I'm going to get back on topic: There is a big talent shortage - and even if they buy a good script, it doesn't end up good by the time it hits the screen.

For me the frustrating part is that we could have better movies, producers could make more money, and good writing could be rewarded... if they just put quality first. The guy with the great star connection and the not-so-great script? You know, maybe it would be a better film with someone else's script? The guy with the great money connection and the not-so-great script? Wouldn't the investors be more happy with him if he found a great script that would bring a greater financial return? Shouldn't the focus be on making a good film?

Maybe the stars and producers and directors should learn the difference between a good script and a script that makes *them* look good? You know, they would make more money in the long run, and actually look better in the long run. You have to put the film first.

Look, if someone offered me a bus-load of money to write a rom-com, I'm not going to take it. I'm the wrong writer for that job. I know my limitations. This project would be better off with some other writer.

I think the quality of the project has to come before ego. Has to come before everything... or we'll just end up with more bad films.

NOT MY JOB



I think this is the real problem: no one wants to do their job. Agents don't want to search for new talent, so they only read scripts that are referred to them. Producers don't want to search for scripts, they want agents to find them... and they would rather someone just hand them a script that already has Tom Cruise attached - saves them finding a star.

The result of all of this are films like BATTLEFIELD EARTH - John Travolta attached to a script, and he'll work for below his quote.

And speaking of Tom Cruise, I haven't seen LIONS FOR LAMBS, but it's not getting good reviews. The reason why it got made? Well, Tom Cruise's company and Redford's company wanted to make it.

Problem is - I don't see a major change in the way business is done any time in the future. Writers are the least important part of the equasion. So many companies at AFM believe that a script is a script. If they want to make good movies, movies with a shelf life, they need to start with a good script... then make sure every other element in the film is good.

This may happen because of the policy shift at Blockbuster - starting in January they are remodeling stores to focus on DVD sales instead of rentals. You may rent a DVD because of good box art, but you aren't going to spend $25 to *buy* a DVD unless it's a movie that you plan on seeing more than once - and that means it has to be a good movie... and good movies start wih good scripts.

Of course, this shake up will take *years* for producers to figure out. If they ever do.

- Bill

19 comments:

svatopia said...

Speaking of jobs, seems like everyone wants to do the writer's job too. Directors want to write, actors want to write, agents want to tell writers what to write. Someone at the Expo said the screenplay has become the new Great American Novel -- the thing that everyone now wants to write.

So tens of thousands of scripts get written, and since no one actually reads except 20 year old film student interns who just skim, I'm not sure a good screenplay could be recognized in the muck anymore!

I think for an aspiring director, maybe there's a certain impetus to write your own script despite access to better ones because as long as you're going to break your back doing everything else on the movie you at least want it to be your script. I guess that may feel good during production, but it's gotta be lame when AFM comes around and your movie is unsold.

Christian M. Howell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James said...

"I think this is the real problem: no one wants to do their job. Agents don't want to search for new talent, so they only read scripts that are referred to them. Producers don't want to search for scripts, they want agents to find them... and they would rather someone just hand them a script that already has Tom Cruise attached - saves them finding a star."

My thoughts exactly.

Nancy said...

Yet another fantastic blog post. Thanks for sharing your insights!

Martin B said...

This post and the previous post were very thought-provoking.

Bill Cunningham said...

What you're talking about Bill, is not a talent shortage, but a shortage of professionalism.

Tell your guy to suck it up and rewrite his script.

Tell the director to keep his hands off your script - if anyone is going to rewrite it, it's you. Even if you aren't getting paid extra. Why?

Because it doesn't do you much good if they rape your script in production does it?

Guard your child.

Bill can tell you of the time I sunk an attachment with a name director for a project because he wanted to change the whole tone of Bill's script. If I had given in, we would have had a completed film.

But it would have sucked.

If the situation were happening today I wouldn't change a thing - I would still have told the director no deal.

Christian - when you say they want it bigger, I take that to mean the stakes - the consequences for the characters - need to be bigger.

But of course, that's Just My Opinion (JMO)...

Andrew Bellware said...

So, ah... what kind of money was it that the producer with the $100K movie was being offered? ;-) Was this for a horror film?

wcmartell said...

Seriously - Disc/ontent Bill jumped on a grenade for me. I owe him big time (for a project we both lost out on).

Yes, it was a horror film.

And Bill also nails it on "not bog enough" - raise the stakes. Even if a movie is 5 people in a room (which is really a stage play) it needs to be the *biggest event in their lives* - the one that is even bigger than their eventual death. The event that alters them forever.

And think about how you can raise the emotional content by raising the stakes... and raise the stakes by placing people in *intense* situations.

Okay, I've been plugging this movie for a while and I'm about to do an interview with the writer for the website - ALTERED is about 5 guys who live through a *terrible* experience and 15 years later it still haunts them and controls their lives. One died, one went to prison, one is a drunk, one is isolated from society, one lives in constant fear. Okay - this is like DELIVERANCE 2 in a way. The 4 survivors end up in the isolated guy's garage talking about the event together for the first time. Dealing with the pain and the shame. And trying to figure out how to get on with their lives. It's a male-issues drama. One big meaty scene after another. You know, they really don't make movies about men's issues - we usually just get explosions or boobs. The reason why I compare it to DELIVERANCE is - how many other movies are really *about* men?

Okay, sounds like the 5 people in a room story - and it is (isolated guy has a GF who knows nothing about the event 15 years ago). But what makes this a Universal release even though it was made for pocket change is...

The event 15 years ago? They were kidnapped and probed by aliens. And no one in town believes them.

Oh, and 3 of the guys thought the best way to get over the event would be to get revenge - so they've spent a decade trying to trap and capture an alien... and the movie starts with them doing this, then taking the thing to the isolated guy's house... where it prompts big dramatic scenes.

Could have been raped by hillbillies while white water rafting - that created some amazing dramatic scenes in DELIVERANCE. But both movies really build the drama by having the event be the most afwul frightening thing possible. Worse than death.

- Bill

Bill Cunningham said...

Bill,

we only lose out if we make their movie and not our movie...and I still haven't given up yet.

Bill Cunningham said...

Oh, btw I ran into Don over at Gorilla who had many complimentary things to say about you.

The Moviequill said...

We as writers are told to NEVER send out our scripts until they are flawless and absolutely perfect... so somebody is fudging the rules... a lot of somebodys

"we could have better movies, producers could make more money, and good writing could be rewarded... if they just put quality first."

It starts at the script level. Don't submit shit or else shit will be made (ignoring the meddling I mean)

Christian M. Howell said...

I agree that movies need to be as "captivating" as possible, but I am in the nobody knows anything school and try to let each story play out without too much thinking about what I could do.

That's what writing is "what I could do" and it's different for everyone. Even the same genre or story will go in different directions.

I am usually a good judge of scripts and I will fight tooth and nail for my vision.

If you continually try to raise the stakes as it were, you can ofttimes end up with a hodgepodge of unrelated scenes (set pieces) that don't support the theme - not the best direction for a character-drama.

Sometimes people want to think and be entertained. Sometimes people want to laugh...sometimes they want to cheer... or cry.
Being true to your vision and being interesting is what people (audiences) will buy. Many highly praised movies right now are making no money while others are cleaning up. I mean I bet no one though The Game Plan would have done as well as it did. $80M now I believe.

I mean Clueless had virtually no plot or rising tension yet did $70M in box office.

I guess I just feel that worse come to worse, I won't make the only bad movie.

WC,
it's funny that you bring that up about the event as I find that the event will - or should - always fit the character.

Like in one script, I have a virgin. What's the worst thing that could happen? A rape. For a woman, that's like death, for a virgin it's like hell.

In another, I have a mild-mannered accountant who had to stand by and watch as his wife was murdered.

Bill Cunningham said...

Christian -

You and I are going to have to agree to disagree. Raising the stakes brings out the character, it doesn't diminish it. The higher the stakes (not necessarily physically, but emotionally as well) then the more we see how your characters tick.

You have received feedback that your movie script isn't big enough. You've deleted your previous comment, but I recall you said "several" people made this comment (correct me if I'm wrong here, guys). Quit fighting tooth and nail and realize that something is not resonating with readers of your script.

There's a difference between "protecting your vision" and writing something that works. A good writer (or producer) has the wisdom to know the difference.

Pick your battles.

In the case of Bill's and my battle (skirmish)with the director - it was a case of story logic and POV. If we had pursued the course the director wanted to take, then a whole layer of subtext would have been lost because the logic of his approach was flawed. He wanted to substitute an external cause for the conflict instead of the conflict naturally rising out of the characters and their situation. That removed a lot of the tension and violated the theme (which always arises out of character's emotions and actions).

In other words: He wanted to lower the stakes.

wcmartell said...

Chris - your two examples are exactly what I'm talking about - those are big tramatic events in the character's lives.

But, like other Bill said, if a few people give you the same note - it's a problem that needs to be addressed.

In the case of the director's notes on my script - no one else in the history of that script had ever given notes like that... and the two main ones were story killers. One removed the conflict between the characters ("Why can't they just get along?") and the other removed the main conflict - turned it into a mistake made by someone not involved in the story at all (not even a character) so there was no actual resolution possible in the story... it would just end. As if we ran out of film. Also, this would have removed the motivations for every single character in the story.

Now, there were notes on this script from *Bill* that solved some little problems - removed some verbal exposition and gave us the info visuallly. I was more than happy to make those changes - they made the script better.

When I hear the same thing about a script from more than one person, I fix it.

- Bill

Christian M. Howell said...

WC,
I'm not saying that anyone who doesn't see what I see is wrong, but at the same time they loved the script. It's a female driven drama which is a hard-sell unless it's very sexually-charged.

Bill,
I'm saying that if I don't believe in the research into the demographic, no one will. The funny thing is that no one noticed (or at least I wrote well enough to make it a non-issue) there is no sex, drugs, smoking or drinking.

The script in question was an experiment to see if I could make a boring topic exciting. It worked out as I see a trailer in this movie that will get butts in the seats. That's the end result we all want.

You can never find 10 out of 10 people who will see the value in any script so you have to believe in your research.

I did my research in dance clubs around NYC so a person who doesn't go to the club wouldn't get the significance and draw.

But as I said everyone loves the script. It got me a return query with the company in question, though that's blown out of the water with the strike.

Speaking of which, I hope we are all out there picketing. I'm in an industry without a union and I wish I wasn't.

Anonymous said...

Those who can, do; those who can't make independent films. (This is a generalisation).

wcmartell said...

Chris - forgive me for meddling... but the stakes issue mentioned may have to do with what I call the "or else factor".

The character has a problem, that problem needs to escalate... and the character needs to solve the problem or else...

Often scripts have no or else factor - nothing that drives the story.

And now, I'm going to move on... and write up a new blog entry.

- Bill

Christian M. Howell said...

It does. But I had to be careful with the issue so I made it broader with more people's lives becoming affected. You can read it if you like.

Laura Reyna said...

Great couple of posts, Bill.

The business models (& attitudes assoc w/ them) of both studio & low budget films are flawed & drive me crazy.

:-)

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