Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Wall



Not the Pink Floyd movie directed by the great Alan Parker (which I need to add to my DVD addiction) but that one you hit when the brain says “No more, reached your limit, time to take a nap.” Yesterday I hit it.

It’s been a long time since I hit the wall, and I’m wondering if that’s a bad thing. Maybe I should be pushing myself even harder than I already do? Maybe I should frequently test the limits?

But I’m more of the tortoise than the hare - I know that I can easily write 5 “good” pages a day... and get that up to 10 a day if required by some crazy deadline. And 5 pages a day gets me a first draft in a month and usually allows me relax time. It’s like working a real job - you put in the hours, and you have time for a beer afterwards.

The last time I hit the wall was a couple of decades ago when I wrote 27 pages in one day... and then my brain just shut down... for a couple of days! That was an experiment in seeing how many pages I could write in one day. Not nonsense pages that hit the trash can the next day, but pages that would part of the script until *this* day.

But I’m not sure I could write 27 pages now. I’m not as young as I was... and I find myself having to think of things more than I used to. A large part of that is that I think I am a better writer, now, and if I were to re-read those 27 pages I would say, “This is complete shit!” and do a page one rewrite on that script. I say that about most of my old scripts, anyway. Now I really consider every line when I write it - and often every word. Even in the first draft. I think more about the characters, the subtext, the situations. I know what is likely to make an impact on screen and what will probably just sit there like a carp. So I’ve lost some speed and gained some accuracy.... and I can still easily do 5 pages a day (so I’m not one of those “it took my seven years to write my masterpiece screenplay” guys - and when you read their script, “master” is not the word you use with the word “piece” usually). I can still crank it out - it’s just better sausage, now.

Though this hasn’t been tested by an insane deadline in about a decade, I’m pretty sure I can still do 10 pages a day and whip out a script in 2 weeks. I wrote GATORBABY over the Christmas holiday a couple of years ago - it was about 12 days of writing... but with extra days off for those pesky holiday events. It wasn’t a *sustained* 10 pages a day. I had lots of time to recharge the mental batteries.

So, I’m home for the holidays (and one of my nieces getting hitched) now, with no deadlines and no deadlines on the horizon. Nothing to do but work on specs, new tips, finally rewrite the action book, and record and edit some new audio classes. No picketing going on in my home town, so I’m not on the line. I’m almost done with a new spec (SLEEPER AGENT - some of you read along as I was writing it) and set that script aside for Expo and a handful of other responsibilities. Now I’ve pulled it out to finish it... and I can’t remember what the hell I was doing with it. I also set it aside at the exact wrong point - at the end of a scene... in fact, the end of a “chapter” in the story. Now I have to start the ball rolling again after a complete stop and I’m not even sure which is the best way to push it. So I’ve been struggling with that spec - making no progress - and I decided to work on something else... an old script that needs a page one rewrite. It had been on the long list of old gold scripts - the ones that need lots of work, but have been out of circulation for so long - when I do the rewrite they are like new scripts - no one has read them in *decades*. I have a huge stack of these scripts - kind of a hidden stockpile of salable material. All I have to do is apply nose to grindstone and rewrite them.

So I started on this rewrite - and one of the things I decided to do was completely change the characters from almost-cliches to what’s probably a different kind of cliche, but one that I can flesh out better and make more original and individual. The other big change was location - from New York (never been there) to Oakland, CA (was there two days ago... and lived a few miles away for most of my life). I think it’s interesting that when I wrote this script (and many others) I always tried to drop the story into some sophisticated setting to make *me* look worldly and sophisticated.... but now I just want to stick around the house and use places that are “home” and situations that are “home” in my scripts...

Oh, wait, SLEEPER takes place from Turkey to Paris - places I’ve never been - and deals with spies and terrorists. So maybe I’m still doing some armchair adventure.

Anyway, I was *ripping* through this rewrite, and then I realized something. The whole script is leading up to one big juicy scene... that’s not in the script. The events after than scene are in the script and the events leading up to it - but not the scene. Now, I wrote this script so long ago that I may have thought it was *clever* not to show that scene - I don’t remember. Today, I think the audience would try to find me and kill me if I left that scene out. My friend John and I went to see NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, and both of us were pissed off that they didn’t show a pivotal scene - just the aftermath. It’s like MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 3 - the whole story is about how impossible it is to break into this place and steal this thing - a million alarms and guards - and Tom Cruise gets in and out... and we don’t see any of the details, They left the impossible mission part off screen! I felt cheated. And I didn’t want anyone to feel cheated by *my* script, no matter how clever it made me feel. So I’d have to write that scene.

Now, if this were a screenplay, I would have hit the wall writing that scene. But this is real life. It’s messy. It makes no sense - and doesn’t have to make sense. So I *avoided* writing that scene by writing something else.

No, not the last scenes of SLEEPER... this is messy real life.

I worked on a completely dead project. One I hadn’t even thought about. And found my new wall seems to be 18 pages. Completely from scratch pages. And I finished those 18 pages at about 8pm last night... then went into a walking coma. My brain shut down. I could not tell you what 2 plus 2 equals. I could not tell you my name... let alone could I tell you anything about the Ipcress File. I was a zombie.

I thought if I walked to the local Starbucks and drank some peppermint hot chocolate and went online I might be able to get my brain going again. No luck. I basically just sat there, drooling. I was Randall McMurphy at the end of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST. So, that’s the new wall number - 18. If I ever need to crank out 18 pages on a script to meet some deadline, I can do that... then, probably sit there and drool for the next couple of days. I’m writing this, just to make sure I didn’t do permanent brain damage. I can report - but it may take a day or two before I’m up and creating.

So that big scene in the rewrite and the end of SLEEPER will have to wait.

- Bill


IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Character Creation, using GHOSTBUSTERS as an example.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Chicken Ceasar salad at La Scala in Walnut Creek.

Movies: Saw NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, and as mentioned - the “obligatory scene” isn’t in the film... but then, The Dude didn’t get a replacement for his peed on rug at the end of LEBOWSKI, either... and that rug tied the room together. That’s one of those terms nobody uses anymore - “obligatory scene”. Hey, it’s obligatory for a reason!

DVDs: Watched all kinds of stuff on disk over the past few days - some early Hitchcock like THE 39 STEPS... still holds up. One thing that is amazing about this film are the “gags” - there is a density to films from the 1930s that we seem to have lost. Little details that are obviously the work of the writer.


Here’s an example - our hero is on the run for murdering a woman who was actually a spy.... he is captured by two men who claim to be police, but are really bad guys.... and escapes handcuffed to the woman who helped capture him. She is the leading lady - but at this point she thinks he’s an escaped killer. They check in to a B&B for the night... and there must be a dozen gags with those handcuffs. To hide the cuffs, our hero places his hand in her coat pocket. He can’t sign the register, so she has to. He can’t take the keys. He can’t shake hands. He has to use his other hand to eat and drink with (and can’t do both at once) and the topper - the one everyone remembers - when the girl takes off her stockings, his hand has to rub against her legs! But there are probably 5 or 6 more gags having to do with those handcuffs - they have to sleep next to each other in the same bed, and neither can roll over without pulling the other one, etc.

And while all of this is going on - there are about a dozen gags with the innkeeper and his wife playing out downstairs about the “runaway couple” and how in love they are... and keeping the register from the bad guys when they show up looking and kicking them out because they can’t serve drinks after hours - basically, a bunch of gags about running a B&B are going on downstairs while the leg-feeling is going on upstairs. The *density* of this scene is amazing.


DVDs: Hitchcock silent film THE RING... also holds up. Almost no “dialogue cards” in this film - visual storytelling. Story is about a boxer at a carnival, “One Round Jack” who will fight anyone in the audience for a price... and if they win, they win some huge amount of money. The girl selling ticket’s is Jack’s fiancé. We see a bunch of guys get knocked down by Jack within moments of entering the ring. The “Round 1" card is dirty, torn up. Then a Big Guy starts flirting with Jack’s fiancé. Jack is jealous, goads him into paying to fight him. The Big Guy gets in the ring... and puts up a fight! After the first round, they put up the “Round 2" card and it’s brand new - never been used before!


Now you see the fiance at the ticket window and a big roll of tickets... which spins into a very small roll as a crowd buys tickets to see the fight. When the Big Guy knocks Jack down and wins the fight, the carnival guy doesn’t have the promised winner’s money - this has never happened before! He has to go around collecting money from other carnies.

The Big Guy uses his winnings to buy a piece of jewelry for the fiancé - a gold band that goes around her upper arm. He flirts with her and gives her his card... he’s a professional boxer. Jack sees the way his fiancé looks at the Big Guy - so he proposed to her.

They get married - and we have a different kind of ring. It’s a funny wedding - a *carnival* wedding - so we get a dozen gags just in the scene where the guests are being seated, ending with the topper: Siamese Twins, one wants to sit on the groom side, one wants to sit on the bride side.

After the wedding, Jack just isn’t his old self in the boxing ring. You can figure out the symbolism of that on your own.

And you remember that gold arm band the Big Guy gave the fiancé? It keeps sliding down her arm and covering the wedding ring. There have got to be a half dozen different scenes with that gold band *showing* us the fight between Jack and the Big Guy for his fiance’s heart - two pieces of jewelry fighting it out.

Failed fighter Jack quits the carnival... and ends up becoming the sparring partner for the Big Guy as he makes the Big Guy run at champion. Jack’s job is now to get beaten up on a regular basis by the guy who made passes at his fiancé... now wife.

Well, kind of now wife - because she is less interested in Jack The Loser and much more interested in Big Guy The Winner... and starts an affair with the Big Guy! Now Jack is beat up by the Big Guy every day and goes home to an empty bed. You can see why they didn’t need many “dialogue cards” - this story is told through the actions and situations.

And I’ll bet you can tell where this story is going... Jack is going to have to get into the ring again, and work his way up to fighting the Big Guy (who will be champion by this time) in order to win back his wife. This was in the days before Viagra, you had to fight your way back.

There’s a great visual for Jack’s rise from nothing to contender - outside the big boxing arena there’s a huge wall-sized sign listing the weekend’s bouts. Jack begins at the very bottom of the sign in letters so small you can barely see them... then with every fight we see, his name moves up on the sign and the lettering becomes larger, until he is on the line just below the Big Guy in lettering almost as big. Again - this is a way to *show* his progress and *show* what these fights we see mean. No one has to say, “Hey, if you win one more fight you’ll be a contender for champion” - we can see it on the sign outside the boxing arena.

There’s a scene in the film that really choked me up - amazing how a scene from a movie made in 1927 can do that to a viewer in 2007. Jack wins the fight that bumps him up to the same line as the Big Guy and celebrates with his entourage. The entourage is an interesting bunch - they are the same guys who were part of the carnival boxing crew, and Jack has brought them along on his rise to contender. So we’ve had a whole movie to get to know them. By now, they are *our friends* as well as Jack’s. So Jack invites them back to his apartment to celebrate, and can’t find his wife. She’s not in the kitchen when he gets the champagne and glasses, so he searches the bedroom... she’s not there either. Well, not in *his* bedroom. So there’s a big embarrassing scene where Jack looks at his watch waiting for his wife to return before they drink the champagne... and his friends wait... and they *know* his wife is somewhere with the Big Guy... and the champagne in the glasses goes flat - we *see* it go flat. Then it gets late and the friends all have to leave - flat champagne untouched in the glasses. It’s a heart-breaker. Your tear-ducts get a work out. But it also primes you for the championship bout with the Big Guy.

And I’m going to give away the end - after that big championship bout, the Big Guy’s trainer finds the gold arm band discarded ringside - just thrown away - and gives it to the Big Guy. Okay, what has that shown us?

Pages: 18 big ones, baby!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Surreal Conversation

So, I’m talking to a friend of mine, guy I’ve known for almost ten years, telling him that I’m on my way out of town for the holidays because there’s Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Years and in the middle of it all one of my nieces is getting married - so I might as well stay the whole danged month, and he asks...

“Where you going to stay?” he asks.

“At my parent’s house - in my old room,” I answer.

“Your real parents?”

“Well, yeah.” (?)

“So, you know who they are?”

“I’m not understanding what you’re saying,” is he implying my parents are fake?

“You know who your biological parents are - and you’re going to stay with them. Does that bother your other parents?”

“What other parents?” (One set of parents is enough... sometimes more than enough.)

“You know, the people who raised you.”

“My parents raised me.”

“But not your biological parents...”

“What are you talking about?”

“You know, the people who adopted you...”

“I'm not adopted.”

“Sure you are. You told me you were adopted.”

“Um, I’m not adopted and I don’t ever remember telling you that I was. If I did, I was just joking.”

“No. You were serious. You *are* adopted.”

“Look, I would know if I’m adopted or not, and I’m not.”

“Yes you are.”

“No. I am not adopted.”

“But you told me that you were. You are adopted.”

“Okay, somewhere along the line I must have made some sort of joke and you –“

“No. You weren’t joking. You were serious. And you *are* adopted.”

“But, I’m not.”

“Whatever... I *know* you’re adopted, I don’t know why you’re lying to me about it...”

Okay, I don’t understand conversations like this, because it seems he wants to convince me that I’m adopted. I don’t even remember joking about it. I’m thinking he has me mixed up with somebody else... but once I’ve said I’m not adopted, why doesn’t he believe me? Why would he even consider that he knows me better than I know me? Does he think he can persuade me that he’s right about me and I’m wrong?

People can be strange.

- Bill

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Writers Get No Respect On News

So, on Friday, while I was having lunch with a friend that couldn’t be cancelled or rescheduled, there was a massive rally at 20th Century Fox. Somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 writers in a great show of solidarity... and a great call for the studios to come back to the bargaining table so we can hammer out a contract and ends this thing.

Because I couldn’t be there, I got the play-by-play online... and watched it broadcast on the evening news. Great helicopter shots of a mob of screenwriters. Ground level shots of the massive crowd of screenwriters. And interviews with about four...

Actors.

Kelsey Grammar and three other name actors were interviewed about the strike on the news, but not a single screenwriter was interviewed. I mean, even when they had a clip of the Governor talking about how he hopes the strike will end soon, well, he’s an actor, too!

So, even when the story is *about writers* they only pay attention to the actors.

That’s just screwed.

THE PETITION

If you wish to support screenwriters, take a minute and sign this petition, and pass it along to everyone you know:

http://www.petitiononline.com/WGA/petition.html

STRIKE COVERAGE

Since 99% of screenwriter's blogs are now devoted entirely to the strike, I've decided this blog will be like that TV station that had regular programming during Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 and the California Fires. So this will be the last strike post, unless something really noteworthy happens or I find something to say about the strike that all of the other screenwriter blogs haven't yet said. Please support the WGA.

- Bill

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

WGA Strike Stuff
For Writers Trying To Break In

Lately I’ve been answering a whole bunch of strike related questions on message boards, so I thought I’d set down my picket sign and put together a blog entry on the subject. I did a script tip on the strike a few weeks back (before there was a strike) and this will probably repeat some of that information.

WHAT IS THE WGA?

Some of you may have heard the Writers Guild Of America is on strike. The WGA is a labor union, just like the United Auto Workers. Basically, once you sell a script to a union signatory company, you have to join the union. And that’s a good thing - the union is designed to protect the writer from being exploited. So they set up a minimum wage for writers and workplace rules to protect us, and a pension fund and health plan. The union is really just all of the members - if a studio tries to exploit one writer, all of the other writers (the union) back that writer up. A union of writers all looking out for each other. Every 3 years they get together with the studios and hammer out a new contract. Just like the United Auto Workers, they try to get raises and keep the studios from slashing heath & pension funds... unlike the UAW, there are often creative issues involved in the contracts. You know, until a couple of contracts back, writers were not allowed on the sets of their own movies, not were they invited to the premieres of their films. The WGA fought for those things and won them.

WHY STRIKE?

The contract was up on October 31st, and despite negotiations before that date, both the WGA and studios were far from agreeing on the key issue: Residuals.

Residuals are the royalty writers make when their films are shown on TV, sold on DVD, etc. Actors get royalties, directors get royalties. When a studio makes extra money from some source outside of theatrical, we all get a share. Not a big share.

Way back when VHS was brand new the writers, directors & actors asked for residuals from home video. The studios said that video was new and who knew if it would catch on? Plus, those danged video tapes are expensive to manufacture.That was back when VHS tapes came in huge clamshell boxes and sold only to rental stores - at about $100 each. No one *bought* VHS tapes. The studios wanted to wait and see what happened before giving everyone a share of the profits. Well, eventually the three creative unions managed to get the studios to budge a little, and they agreed on a small royalty on this new VHS technology.

And nothing has changed since then.

Even though DVD has replaced the expensive VHS tapes. And everyone *buys* DVDs.

Though the residual formula is kind of complicated, it averages out to about 4 cents per disk. That’s not 4 cents for every dollars they make, it’s 4 cents on every disk they sell for $20 (or more). And this home video thing seems to have caught on. Do you know anybody who doesn’t have a DVD player in their home? I know people who have two or three DVD players... and I personally am addicted to DVDs and probably own over 500 of the things. I don’t think I’m the only one with a collection.

DVDs are cheap to manufacture - most studios have theirs made in Mexico. I just googled “DVD manufacture cost” and found a place that will burn my DVDs, do the labels and box and shrink wrap the whole thing... for 38 cents each.

http://www.copycatsmedia.com

You know, I’ll bet the studios get a better price. This guy says studios pay around 25 cents for a ready to sell DVD, and that seems about right. So cost to make the DVD is 25 cents, cost to the customer is $20-$30 retail, after the store takes its cut the studio ends up with about $17.26... of which the writer gets around 4 cents. (source) When you add up the SAG, DGA and WGA residuals, you end up with around 50-60 cents (there are lots of actors in movies). So the *total cost* to studios for a DVD is around 75 cents (including residuals) and they make $17.26... so, what does that make the profit going into the studio’s pocket? $16.50 per DVD? Okay, that iffy home video market is now a $16 billion (with a b) business... and writers are still getting 4 cents a disk. Not a good deal. One that the WGA is trying to renegotiate (and SAG and the DGA will deal with early next year). It’s obvious there is money to share, here... and the studios aren’t sharing.

NOTE: "profit" here refers to the DVD disk, not the the movie. A big budget flop like SUPERMAN RETURNS may require all kinds of revenue streams before it makes a profit. * - see below. (thanks to Fun Joel.)

WHY SHOULD THEY?

Well, that’s a very good question, Frank. I mean, writers are rich enough already, right?

According to the stats, the median income for a *working* WGA member last year was $106.756.00. Not millions. Not even the $200k that gets bounced around in the media. Just over $100k. Now, that may not sound too bad...

But that’s for *working* screenwriters. And last year, only 57% of screenwriters made any money writing scripts. What about the other 43%? Well, they were living off savings and residuals. This is a business where you may go a couple of years without *any* income from writing.

And here’s what sucks - writers are independent contractors (who, oddly, write on work for hire contracts so that the studios can keep copyright) - so we aren’t eligible for Unemployment. Actors are, we aren’t. So when we have no writing income, the only thing we have to live on is our residuals. Oh, and as you know from reading this blog - just because you aren’t earning any money doesn’t mean you aren’t *working*. Writers are constantly creating new spec scripts... which usually don’t sell. They go to endless meetings where they try to set up some project. Producers are always giving us books to read and magazine articles, so that we can come back and pitch our take on the story - hundreds of us do this, an *one* gets the job. For the rest of us, we read the book and developed the story for *no income*. I have gone 3 years without any sales or assignments... but that entire time I was doing *constant* meetings trying to set something up. No pay for that. So when a writer *isn’t* earning any money, they are usually working ten times harder than when they are earning something... and we need our residuals to survive.

One of those other stats - the average WGA writer writes 9 screenplays before making a cent. Name some other business where you do that much work for nothing. And even after you make that sale, not every script you write sells - most don’t. But you need to write a new script so that you have something to send out to producers so that they can have you come in and pitch your tale on some novel or magazine article... on the slim chance that they may actually hire you to write a script. Lots of work without pay. I like to think of residuals as the money that covers the time spent spinning your wheels on things that never happen.

WAIT, THERE’S MORE!

Hey, there’s a *second* residual issue involved, too! “Internet and new media”. Right now, when you go to Amazon or Netflix or some other site and download a movie... the writer gets *nothing*. No residuals at all.

The studios are saying the same thing they said about Home Video - internet is a new media and who knows if it will catch on? We should just wait and see what happens before we start handing out money. This is an rerun of the Home Video thing, and my guess is that people will like the idea of instantly downloading a movie... and that may take the place of rentals in the not so distant future. Technology doesn’t get worse, it gets *better*. This isn’t some thing that is happening in the future, you can download a movie on Amazon and Netflix *right now*...

And there are no residuals for that. All of the money goes to the studios. All of it. And the manufacturing costs? There aren’t any! No disk, no box, no shrink wrap! It’s 100% profit!

Um, why should *all* of that money go to the studios? Can’t we get a fair share?

CAN I SELL A SCRIPT?

The biggest question people ask is if the strike will open any doors for new writers. The answer is... no.

Today some of the studios told employees in development that pink slips are on their way. The strike has pretty much closed down every aspect of the biz that has to do with scripts. I have a couple of friends who are readers - and they are not being given anything to read. Now the studio employees involved in buying scripts and developing them are being laid off. The script part of Hollywood is closed until the strike is over.

There was a huge rush to get scripts for projects already greenlit polished and ready to shoot (even over the weekend before the strike). They will be busy making those films over the next *year* - and not be thinking much about new scripts. TV sows have been shooting back-to-back episodes, and most shows have a majority of the season shot. No real need for new scripts there (with a few exceptions like 24). With the holidays only a couple of weeks away, the development folks who aren’t being laid off are either closing up early or just hanging out on the clock for a couple of weeks before closing shop... until the strike is resolved.

So there is no one to read your scripts.

And no reason why they will read your script.

(NOTE: Fun Joel says he's reading novels for producers... so now may the time for you novelists to make your big Hollywood deals.)

By the way, one of the side effects of the strike is that lots of producers on studio lots are being kicked off. If they aren’t making movies right now, the studios are using this as a good excuse to end their contracts. Clearing out the dead wood.

From Hollywood Reporter: "20th Century Fox TV became the latest TV studio to send out suspension letters to writers with overall deals, joining CBS Paramount Network TV, ABC Studios and Universal Media Studios.

"20th TV also began notifying writers assistants Wednesday that they are being laid off effective immediately, but the studio will pay their health benefits through the end of the year, sources said."


Everyone in Hollywood is being sent home... no one to read scripts, let alone buy them.

And one of the things that happened with those stockpiled scripts - well, writers who had been given 3 script deals... but the studio never liked their scripts? Well, the studios went ahead and commissioned those scripts, but now that there’s a strike the scripts are shelved *forever* after only paying the first draft fee. Again, cleaning out the dead wood.

The strike really doesn't open any doors for non-WGA writers. Sig producers aren't scrambling for scripts - they have plenty. TV has already been stockpiling episodes. The main problem will be the topical shows like SNL and Tonight Show and Daily Show... and those shows are just closing down. Jay Leno was handing out donuts on the picket line yesterday - his writers are *his* writers. He hired them. Probably took him *years* to find those writers. They make him funny. He's not going to just hire some writer off the street to fill in. Hey, he's not in his office anyway - so even if you tried to get a job, there'd be no one there to hire you.

A studio isn't going to hire someone off the street to replace Steve Zaillian. If you are as good as Zaillian you have the same chance of breaking in during the strike as you had before (and as you'll have after). Actually - a worse chance during the strike, because they aren't looking for scripts. It's still about the talent. If you have it, you're going to break in... if you don't, the strike isn't going to help you.

The thing with TV shows is that they are writer driven - in other words, the producer of most TV shows is the head writer. They can't keep making shows because the *producer* is on strike. We’ve had a bunch of TV shows close down - they aren’t looking for writers because the guy who would be looking is carrying a picket sign. TV show stars are showing up on picket lines, too.

The strike has not created any openings for non-WGA writers. No one is hiring. No one is reading scripts.

My guess is that Agents and Managers will also be taking an early holiday vacation - since they can't really sell any of their client's scripts. Not a great time to seek representation.

SILVER LINING?

But a non-WGA writer can do one thing that a WGA writer can not do... sell a script to a non-signatory producer. They could always do this. There are companies who are not signatory, most are foreign or low budget companies. They’re still making films - even during the strike - and still buying scripts. I do not have a list of non-sig companies, but they will be the only ones looking for scripts until the strike ends.

Here's a list of *signatory* companies - so if it's not on this list, a non-WGA writer may be able to sell to them: Signatory companies WGA is striking against.

Another door that is open to non-WGA members... "Negative pick ups". That isn't just a description of my love life, it's a loophole studios often use to bypass unions by making deals with an Independent non-sig producer. How it works: the studio buys a completed film... that hasn't even started shooting. The studio isn't *making* the movie, they are just buying a piece of property - a movie someone else has made. But they pay up front - basically funding the film. The rules say the studio can not give notes or be involved in the production of the film... even though it's their money. I think they probably get past that by "making suggestions" to the indie producer who then passes them on to the writer as notes. But the end result is a film made by a non-sig that is distributed by a big studio.

And these deals may be springing up more if the strike continues. Some forward-thinking indies may already be gearing up to do them right now. So, that's the silver lining for you guys trying to break in! Good luck!

My basic advice for strike time - write some great specs. That way you'll be prepared for when the strike ends... and everybody needs scripts.

- Bill

THE FINE PRINT

* A couple of things about "profit" - studio accounting usually makes sure no film is ever in profit. The famous COMING TO AMERICA case exposed that film made $300 million domestic alone... yet was still deep in the red. Studios have all kinds of overhead charges they tack on movies... and also tack overhead costs onto budgets.

I was talking about the strike with a producer at AFM (which may have been technically against the rules, but I wasn't selling him a script) about the profit issues. Some films really end up in the red, and need all the money they can get to get in the black. Couldn't we just make a deal to take our cut *after* the film gets in the black? That was what the studios offered up front, and I think that would be a fair deal... if the studios didn't use that creative book keeping that keeps every film in the red. If they were honest and had open books and didn't throw in all of those fake overhead charges, then didn't do those deals where one division (say Paramount) sells the movie to Showtime (which they own) then sells it to CBS (which they own) then sells it to... the problem is that the big congloms own everything and are able to hide money by shuffling a film from division to division. If there was an honest and open accounting, I think it might be fair to take a % from actual profits. But even Peter Jackson is suing for his % of the LORD OF THE RINGS movies because, you know, those films didn't make any money.

Plus, if the film costs too much to make any money, how is that the writer's fault? When you run down the list of costs on a film, writers are not at the top... actually, nowhere near the top. We are the worst paid key creative people on the film. Let John Travolta fly commercial... don't pay for Travolta's plane. Get rid of the star perks - let them pay for that crap out of their salaries. By the way, that's not anti-SAG - most SAG members are like writers. We work our butts off to earn a living while stars get $25 million and $10 million in perks per film.

TWO PRODUCTION MODELS

Since I was just at AFM, let's look at the difference between the studio spending model and the indpendent spending model. Studios often seem to either be gambling or deficit spending (making a movie too expensive for theatrical to cover and hoping to make the money on DVD, etc). That's just crazy. The AFM model is to never make a movie for more than it can return... in fact, to make the movie at a price that guarentees a profit.

How do they do that? Well, let's use my film BLACK THUNDER as an example.

Based on hard numbers from previous films in the same genre with the same star, they can guess what the film should make. There are actually consulting companies that will take script, cast, director and analyze them using past films and give you the number the film can expect to make. I linked one of these companies to a script tip after attending a presentation - they are amazing accurate - films they have done analysis on have made almost exactly what they predicted. Studios never use these guys - I have no idea why. Probably because they don't really want to hear the results - better to gamble.

So they have a basic budget number for the film, and then they do something strange... They remove the risk (and remove any possible gambling wins). An AFM company will typically sell off rights to the movie before the film is even made! Often they will hold on to some rights to "gamble" with... but they cover the actual production cost before making the film. So a $2 million film like BLACK THUNDER was in the black before they made the film. No risk.

Speaking of Travolta, this production model was used on BATTLEFIELD EARTH... and the film was deep in the black before it was ever released. It could not lose money. It was a major flop for Warner Bros... and that was the "gambling" element. Had the film done okay, that would have been all profit (actual profit) for the producer. Gravy. Now, the "risk" here is, if the film becomes a huge hit... all of those rights you sold won't make you any more money. They make money for the guy you sold them to. But these deals are attractive to AFM companies (indies) because if the film tanks, they won't go bankrupt. They live to film another day. It's a "safe bet" - you don't win as much, but you can't really lose. You know, BATTLEFIELD EARTH made enough money (using this method) that they were thinking about making 2 sequels!

On BLACK THUNDER, the film did so well that it kind of backfired for me. They sold off *all* their rights for top dollar - and were so deep in black they *cut the budget*. They had already made as much as they were going to make, why spend that much on the actual film? Though this is a great way to burn your bridges ahead of you as a producer, it happens all the time.

A studio could play it safe on films, but I think they like the idea of holding on to all the rights and scoring big. I personally think if that's the path you pick, you're stuck with the destination... and it's not my fault.

- Bill

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

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Talent Shortage

So, I’ve been wandering the halls of the American Film Market for the past couple of days, and it seems that there are more films than there are talented people who can make films.

If you don’t know, the American Film Market is a trade show for independent films held every year at the Leow’s Hotel in Santa Monica. It used to be in Beverly Hills, and it used to be in February. For the past few years it seems to get smaller as it gets larger. Now it’s in 2 hotels, but not nearly as crowded as it used to be.

Though Miramax and Focus Films show up, most of the companies at AFM fall under the classic definition of “Indie” - films made outside the studio system. That includes everything from future Oscar nominees (I think more Oscar winners come from AFM than anywhere else) to schlock genre films you find on the bottom shelf at Blockbuster... and everything in between. Hundreds and hundreds of movies - and most of them aren’t very good. Even the prestige films - the ones that they hope will be nominated for Oscars - often suck. They make a bunch of prestige films, and not all end up making it to the big screen... and only 5 of those get nominated. The schlock genre films? Well...

No one sets out to make a bad movie. Even the schlock genre films are trying to be great genre films. Budget really has nothing to do with whether a film is good or not - we’ve all seen a huge Hollywood summer film that stinks. But money can often hide the stink behind special effects or movie stars. Of course, none of that seemed to help EVAN ALMIGHTY. A low budget film is just stinky, not much you can do.

We’ve also seen great low budget films. I remember when I first saw EL MARIACHI, the $7k action flick with more cool action and more humor and more just wild stuff than most $100 million Hollywood action flicks. Did you see the mind-bender sci-fi flick PRIMER? Also made for pocket change.

Usually when I see a film that sucks, the most sucky part is usually the script. I can’t figure that out, because the one part you can work on until it’s close to perfect without spending a whole lot of money is the script. Sure, you have to pay a writer to do some rewrites... but the only other cost is *paper*. On sale at Fry’s Electronics - 500 sheets for 99 cents. And if you only buy good scripts, it’s up to the *writer* to do the rewrites before you buy it.

Bad writers are part of the talent shortage - readers say most of the scripts they read are crap... and you’ve read scripts on Zoetrope or some other site that stinks. You know there are bad scripts out there... in fact, statistically, some of you reading this are probably responsible for some of those bad scripts. You probably don’t know it. But *somebody* is writing all of those bad scripts. There is a shortage of good scripts, and it seems like there are many more films than there are good scripts.

Now, I know first hand that a good script can be turned into crap on the way to the screen. I was talking to an actor who was in one of my films about the director who completely ruined the film... and that’s part of the talent shortage. One you have a good script, there are a lot of people involved in making a film, and any of them can screw it up.

A BAD FILM



So, a friend of mine is a distrib and sometimes producer, and he has a suite at AFM. He owns cameras and lighting equipment and a warehouse (studio) and makes his films for what you have in your checking account. The costs are digital tape, crew, cast, and food. As I’m wandering the halls he asks if I have time to see a movie. Sure, why not? I have missed the first few minutes, but the story is kind of RESERVOIR DOGS on Alcatraz with a monster. That may sound a little crazy to you, but it works - these heavily armed thieves pulling a heist on Alcatraz start double crossing each other... but when they start finding members of the team dead they blame the double crossers and don’t realize a monster is responsible. Eventually they have to take on the monster. A good little genre idea.

And the script was pretty good. Some funny lines, some good conflict among the thieves, and the characters were interesting enough and more fleshed out than many big budget Hollywood films I’ve seen. So what went wrong?

Well, three things. First - though my friend told me there was Alcatraz footage in the beginning (that I missed), the film was obviously shot in his warehouse on a jail cell set they built. A couple of cells. It really needed some “scope” and some production value. I’ve taken the Alcatraz tour a few times - it’s not very expensive, and they take you out on a boat to the prison then take you through the entire prison and even lock you up in a cell and in Solitary as part of the tour. It would have been easy to grab a Southwest flight from LA to SF ($39 each way), take the tour with a video camera and shoot all kinds of great stock footage. Hey, for a couple of bucks more, they could have either brought one of the actors and grabbed some shots of them in the actual prison. Hey, if the actor was too expensive, just someone in the actor’s *costume* - shoot them from the back or from a distance. But someone has to *think of this*.

The second big problem was production design. This film was shot in my friend’s warehouse, and the prison cells looked pretty good... but two of the sets were downright awful. They killed the film for me. Like the script, the sets are something that you can put together long before you shoot the film. No need to keep a cast and crew waiting. The two sets that were so bad they ruined the film for me were the Warden’s Office - which looked like it was furnished out of a dumpster, and the Security Room. Okay, you have this security room that is supposed to be filled with monitors so that they can watch every square inch of the prison and make sure no guards or police or park rangers are coming to get them. They post one of the thieves there - think that guy in DIE HARD who pretends to be a security guard. This is a good part of the script - makes sense in the story and shows the writer was thinking. But we don’t see the monitors - what we see are the ass ends of a half dozen computer monitors. That don’t match. Probably the result of more dumpster diving. What they *should have done* is taken 50 different photos at Alcatraz - towers, hallways, cellblocks, fences, exercise yard, etc. Something else to do on that tour. Then take 49 of those photos and make 8x8 transparencies. Build a framework - 7 photos wide, 7 photos tall. Paint it silver or black. Mount the transparencies. Back light them. Instant bank of monitors! What’s more - you have 49 shots of *real* Alcatraz on the monitors! That’s *added production value*. But someone has to *think of this*.

Third problem was flat, boring, direction. Here’s the thing - you have no money. You have a cast that are mostly not that great. You have sets that look cheap. What you need to do is use a direction style that adds energy and takes the focus away from the stuff that doesn’t work. I would have done the EL MARIACHI thing and kept the camera moving and kept the angles changing. I would have use that gonzo style they used in SHOOT ‘EM UP. The subject matter opens the door for this. Moving shots and quick cuts and different angles would have focused us on the *actor* (or whatever the subject of the shot was) and kept us from seeing all of the cheapo stuff... but instead we get lengthy unmoving shots on sticks were you have time to notice all of the production value issues. By the way, the guy who wrote that pretty good script (much much better than most films at 10 times the budget)... also directed. As the writer, he should have asked for a better director! Again - someone needs to *think of the direction*.

The problem is - more movies than people who can think.

TALENT, TIME, MONEY



Look, I know how difficult it is to make a film with no money. I should probably be saving my criticisms for the $200 million dollar Hollywood suckfests. But when you are spending the *time* and what little money is in the budget to make a film, you might as well make a film that is going to change your career... or at least be pretty good. Why waste the money?

My robot hooker from outer space flick was made in 9 days with very little money. Really nothing to brag about. But someone (probably the director) found these freak fish with arms and legs at some fish store and had an aquarium full of them in one character’s office. That was a touch that elevated this low budget film a little - one of many. When you don’t have money, talent and creativity and even just trying to make a good film matter more than ususal.

At AFM there seems to be a talent shortage. There are scripts that aren’t good. Directors that aren’t good. Actors that aren’t good. DPs that aren’t good. Set designers that aren’t good. Either that or they don’t care.

I’m kind of a weird optimist type - I believe that almost everyone can learn and improve themselves. I believe that the bad director just needs to learn about film theory and work a little harder and maybe become a better director. The director the actor and I were talking about has a *massive* ego and thinks he knows it all... when he knows next to nothing. That’s probably the biggest problem with movies of any budget - the bigger the ego the more likely the emperor has no talent. But the bigger the ego the more likely some producer believes this kid really knows something.

There are people who think they don’t need to do the 100% job on a low budget film because it’s a low budget film... when the truth is, you *must* do the 100% job on a low budget film because there is no star or FX to distract the viewer from the problems. The lower the budget, the more talent required just to make it half good!

MY FILM IS GREAT



One of the things that bothers me the most when I wander the halls at AFM, watching the trailers playing on monitors, is the number of films where the script just stinks... in the 5 minute trailer! I mean, if they can’t find enough good bits of dialogue for the trailer, they’re in a heap-o-trouble! Plus the movies that have the exact same plot we’ve seen a million times before - watch for a new movie starring Daryl Hannah about a car load of teens on their way someplace whose car breaks down in some out of the way location where the locals stalk ‘em and kill ‘em one by one. Did they use carbon paper to write that script? Tracing paper? I mean, how completely unoriginal can you get? Why spend the money on a real cast (Daryl Hannah and some other names) for such a retread of a story?

When I look at the credits on most of these stinky trailers I often see that they are written and produced and directed by the same person. Now, I’m all for making your own movie... but I think a man needs to be aware of his limitations. If you are a talented director but can’t write worth beans - find someone who knows how to write. And I don’t mean find someone to type up your lame-ass kids car breaks down story, I mean find a good script with a good idea and buy the script... then don’t eff it up. If you are great at finding money but can’t direct or write, just find the money and hire talented folks to do the other stuff. I’ve seen movies that completely sucked - but the guy found the funding and keeps finding the funding for more movies that completely suck. The problem is - these folks who have one talent often think they have *all* talents. They don’t. The reason why we still talk about Orson Welles is because he was the guy who had all of the talents (except the one for making movies that made money). Hey, Welles was, like, 70 years ago! In all that time, we haven’t found some other guy to talk about... and it sure ain’t you. Most people struggle with *one* talent, don’t think you can do it all. Now, if you are making a film on pocket change that’s a different story - you can’t afford anybody else. Kevin Smith knows he’s not a visual director and knows he’s not a mainstream screenwriter - so he keeps his budgets low and does what he does. He knows his limitations. CHASING AMY cost $250k. If you’re making that credit card film, go for it. But when you get to the level of some of these guys who make one bad film after another - yet they have real budgets and real stars - maybe it’s time to figure out where your talents lie and let somebody else do the other stuff. If you aren’t a great writer find someone who is!

So many of the producers at AFM really don’t care - it’s all a product to them. That means we have to care twice as much. We have to work twice as hard. We have to call upon our hidden reserves of talent to turn some low budget genre flick into a film that really delivers the goods to the audience. The kind of film you might rent for the nice box art... but after watching it you realize you have found a real gem. You tell your friends about it. You *buy* the danged DVD so that you can see it again.

As I wander down the hallways of AFM and pass the poster for I AM OMEGA (I keep waiting for the copyright police to raid the Asylum offices), I realize there is only so much talent in Hollywood... and there’s not enough to go around.

If you have a choice... Be talented. Care about your work. Make good movies. Don’t let your ego get in the way.

Don't be part of the talent shortage - be part of the talent solution!

- Bill
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

Yesterday’s Dinner: Steak & Eggs at Norm’s in Santa Monica - kind of a low key celebration. More on that later in an entry called Seller's Remorse.
PAGES: Nada. Zip. Zilch.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Hard Deadlines

Last weekend I was at the Screenwriting Expo, teaching a pile of classes. Expo was one of three hard deadlines I had to deal with - Expo was going to happen whether I showed up ready to teach classes or not. My other two hard deadlines are American Film Market and the holidays. My niece is getting married (how can she be old enough to get married?) during the Holiday season, so I’ll be going home for Thanksgiving and sticking around for Christmas and New Years instead of returning to Los Angeles. It doesn’t look like there will be anything for me to do in LA anyway. But that means some things need to get done before I go home. The plan was to finish up the last 3 Blue Books... I have the desktop publishing program on my desktop, not my laptop... so the Blue Books have to be done before I leave my desktop behind. Now it looks like I might get 2 of the 3 finished in time, but it’s starting to look like I may only get one done, now. The materials for the other two I’ll finish up on my laptop, and they’ll be in booklet form at the beginning of the year. There are a couple of other things that I need to get done before heading home for the holidays, too.

The AFM hard deadline really snuck up on me.

The plan was to do some of the new Blue Book articles in the handful of days between Expo and AFM... but Monday I was just wiped out. I tried to get some work done... but my brain just didn’t cooperate. Ended up a day behind. Tuesday, exact same story. Hard deadline approaching! Wednesday, I decided to sleep. Then sleep some more. Wasted the day, but felt a lot better. I designed some posters for film projects in the couple of hours that I wasn’t sleeping. Thursday, I felt great. My brain was fully functional (which is rare). The plan was to stop by Pinks Copies and make up a zillion 8.5x11 “flaps” (posters on one side, one page synopsis on the other) for AFM and get a couple of scripts copies (I need to sell a script in the worst way) and then hit the post office and then actually knock out one of the Blue Book articles... I was feeling good enough to maybe knock out two.

But that was before the copy machines at Pinks began breaking down. Copy places are usually hot enough, but Pinks’ has huge windows facing the setting sun that act as magnifying glasses frying anyone standing at the counter. So, as I’m waiting for them to fix the B&W machine so they can run my scripts I’m burning alive. The machine keeps breaking down. Finally they get my copies done, and we move on to the color copies - and there are hundreds of them, and the machine keeps screwing up, and I’m burning under the hot sun and about to pass out. When all of my flaps are finished, it’s too late to go to the post office, so I head to Starbucks and drink a Venti iced tea in about 3 seconds and get a refill, then quaff the refill in a couple of minutes, then... well, not much got done.

Friday, I’m roaming the halls at AFM with my flaps, wondering if I’m going to get *any* of the Blue Books finished before the next hard deadline a couple of weeks from now.

- Bill
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