Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Oscar Winner Can't Sell Scripts

News Story from a month ago:

ROME - Michael Cimino, who won the 1978 Oscar for best director for The Deer Hunter but who fell from Hollywood's grace after his 1980 film Heaven's Gate became a costly flop, expressed his frustration over been shunned by his peers during a news conference at the Rome Film Festival on Thursday. "It's horrible," Cimino said after he was greeted by the assembled news writers with a standing ovation. "It's like being unable to sing." (His last film, 1996's The Sunchaser, was panned by critics when it opened in limited release and earned just $23,107.) Cimino had been invited to attend the festival as a "special guest" and is presenting a documentary that features classic dance numbers from movies. There was no indication whether it includes any scene from Footloose, which Cimino was originally hired to direct. (He parted company over "creative differences" with producer Craig Zadani, who later said, "Cimino wanted to make a darker movie. We wanted to make an entertainment.") He told the Rome news conference that he had written numerous screenplays that he was unable to sell to producers. "But I have just finished a new script and perhaps now is a good time. I believe we will shoot it soon, and I will bring it to the festival."

One of the things new writers often think is that if they can just break in, get over that massive wall around Hollywood, they'd have a career and wouldn't have to work so hard. Another thing that often comes up is that that wall around Hollywood is to make sure the professionals keep working and that the superior new writers don't steal all of the jobs. Oh, and that once you win an Oscar, everyone wants to buy everything you have - winning an Oscar is what you should aim for if you want a screenwriting career.

Well, I guess none of those things are true. Once you break in, you have to work even harder to keep your career going. I've said before - you are always breaking in, again and again. You can coast a little on a big sale - other people will want to meet with you and some of those meetings may turn into assignments. But if you don't start pedaling soon you're going to hit that hill before you're ready and will have lost any momentum.

Hey, and it seems that even professionals have to works their butts off to stay in the game, and even guys with Oscars have trouble selling a script. I had an old script tip, long since retired because the info was out of date (and it was too much trouble to research and rewrite it every time I ran it) about Oscar winning screenwriters who had scripts that did not sell or did not get made. There are lots of them. I think Robert Bolt was my poster child for guys with lots of Oscars who had lots and lots of dead scripts. There is no guarentee that what you write will sell or will get made if it does sell. I know writers who have made those big $1.2 million deals, where they get $200k for the script and a bunch of drafts and get the $1 million when they make the movie... except they never make the movie. Hollywood makes less than 10% of what they buy or develop. So that big script sale is really a lot of work writing drafts for the trash can. Remember, over half of the WGA (professional sold writers) are unemployed every year. No one buys their screenplays or hires them for an assignment. It's difficult for *name writers* to make a living in this business. Along with the 10% of *sold* screenplays that make it to the screen, there is the difficulty of selling the script in the first place... something that Cimino is struggling with now. I once did the math and estimated that there are 1,000,000 screenplays in circulation at any one time... and only about 100 of those sell every year. We've had years where only 58 scripts sold. I feel blessed that they keep buying mine or hiring me to write something every year. Next year will be 20 years in this business, always working on something. No major struggles like Cimino is dealing with (though lately, as I've worked on higher profile projects... they have been in that 90% that don't get made! Too many big variables! When a big name star or a director has a scheduling conflict and drops out, it kills the whole film. On my HBO films, we had Scott Glenn drop out of CRASH DIVE and the next week had a replacement "star" from the HBO Approved List and the movie got made!). "Nothing in life comes with a guarantee," as they say in BLOOD SIMPLE. You will always have to work your butt off in this business.

And Cimino's Oscar means that people will meet with him, but after that it depends on the project. On message boards I often rail against artsie-fartsies that want to only write "Oscar worthy material" - and that's not because I dislike those movies. Two films from this year that I really love are THE VISITOR and SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. But there is a difference between enjoying a movie and seeing that kind of movie as a logical and promising career path. THE DEER HUNTER is a great film, but Cimino has tried to model a career from that movie and films like it... and has had a lifetime of struggling. His other good film was his complete sell-out gangster action movie, YEAR OF THE DRAGON. I think Cimino would have had a better career if he just focused on bringing his brilliant artistic sensibilities to mainstream genre films. If he had continued to make action and thriller films (and stayed on time and on budget... and delivered the genre juice) he would have made a film every year and those films would be genre films we would be talking about for decades to come.

Look at Eastwood - how many years has he had *two* films released? This year we have CHANGELING and GRAN TORINO... one is a true period story about a mother's quest for her missing son, the other looks like GRUMPY OLD DEATH WISH... and *both* are getting Oscar buzz! Eastwood makes his films on a tight budget and tight schedule and even when he makes a genre movie, he makes it a good one. Eastwood has figured out what many others after him have - that you can work within the system and still have a vision. I think DARK KNIGHT is the ultimate proof - the second most successful film of all time, yet still an edgy indie flick about morality and terrorism and the darkness within all of us.

But if Cimino didn't want to make YEAR OF THE DRAGON type movies for a career, he could have gone the other way and done his own thing in the indie world. One of the great things about Soderbergh is that he has a foot in each camp - he can make a big silly OCEAN movie, or make a small experimental film like BUBBLE, or combine both sensibilities and make OUT OF SIGHT or THE LIMEY. I think one of the big problems Cimino has with the indie world is that he wants to make big lavish films on studio budgets... that are not studio-type stories. You have to make a decision. If you want to make a film on a big studio budget, it's probably going to be the kind of film the studio wants to make... and that's something that will sell to a mass audience. If you want to make the kind of film that appeals to a niche audience or has a limited appeal, you need to make it on a limited budget. That is the decision you make. The epic indie film? Doesn't make sense with today's audience and today's economy. After MALL RATS flopped, Kevin Smith went back to making indie films on indie budgets - $250k for his next film. I believe CHOKE was made for $400k. If you want to make and edgy indie weird movie that isn't all about the mass audience, you can do that... if you find the funding yourself and make it cheap enough. A labor of love is not about the money... and that includes the cost of making the film. You're making it on love, not money... so you need a project that you can afford to make on love alone.

This is not an easy business, but people do break in every year. Script Magazine has a section in every issue devoted to first sales. And if you don't coast too long without pedaling, you can make it up most of the hills this biz throws in your path. Just don't underestimate the difficulty of those hills, and don't think you're going to get on the bike for the first time and not take a couple of spills. It's not easy, but I think it's worth it.

- Bill
Classes On CD On Sale!
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Show The Goal - huge tip using ROMANCING THE STONE and SLUMDOG as examples. Last ran in 2001 when it was only 1 paragraph.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Chicken Caesar salad at Fuddruckers.

Pages: I've been trying to make up lost pages with mixed results. 7 pages some days and the 5 page quota on others... yesterday was 8 pages.
Bicyle: Not much cycling - between the rain and holidays and a couple of days when I wasn't feeling great.

14 comments:

Good Dog said...

Both Eastwood and Soderbergh understand if they make one for the studio they can make one for themselves. And The Limey is an absolute cracker.

Although, I have to stick my head above the parapet and say that I absolutely loved Heaven's Gate.

nshumate said...

Yes, Cimino won an Oscar... but Heaven's Gate KILLED A STUDIO. The latter equals out the former, and then some.

Christina said...

I read Final Cut by Steven Bach, the book about the Heaven's Gate disaster, and you're not bringing up one pertinent detail - Cimino comes across as an arrogant dick with no common sense. Who wants to work with that?

Marty said...

Great read - now turn this into a "cracker" screenplay about "an arrogant dick with no common sense" who "KILLED A STUDIO" and you would really have something.

wcmartell said...

The "being a dick" thing is between the lines - Cimino wants the money from the system, but doesn't want to work within the system. Good Dog nails this with the "one for them, one for me" theory. And you can't disount the importance of sticking to the budget - something that does not include building an entire town, then tearing it down and rebuilding it because it just didn't look right.

And, yeah - who wants to hire the guy that destroyed the last people he worked with? But the problem seems to be he keeps trying to sell the same kind of projects that killed UA - instead of something that would make them forget about HEAVEN'S GATE.

Lots of people write flops and then write something that sells and gets them back in the game.

- Bill

The Moviequill said...

Heaven's Gate was so long ago that I am sure somewhere there is a remake being considered

Danny said...

I just read that Romancing the Stone, Arthur and They Live are being remade - maybe he should try to sell them on remaking Deer Hunter. :-)

-danny boy (teen vampires are big, so I'm off to go remake Teen Wolf)

Christina said...

Final Cut is a great read, btw. I think it should be required reading for undergrad film students - really gives insight into the financial consequences of making a high-budget movie. Have you read it?

Danny said...

I've also read Final Cut, and dig it muchly. Love the part where the studio guys are seriously considering *killing* Cimino because he's such a coked-up spendthrift.

Christian M. Howell said...

I think the problem is that you can't break in. You have to get skilled enough to be invited in for a job interview.

You don't break into the Software business or the law business.

E.C. Henry said...

Great post, Bill.

Sounds like Michael Cimino has "issues." BUT at least he had SOME success in his life. Sounds like Michael doesn't have very good people skills. BUT I'm currious to hear your opinion. Do you think Michael Cimino's currenty scripts warrant Hollywood's attention?

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

mrswing said...

Wouldn't a remake/re-imagining of Romancing The Stone be right up your alley, Bill?

Arbogast said...

Great. Now you've got me singing that goddamn theme song.

"Every night and every day/Gonna love the hurtin' away..."

wcmartell said...

One of my favorite movies... and it spawned a sequel (that sucked).

No reason to remake it... but there's no reason to remake THEY LIVE either.

They'te going to ruin ARTHUR with Russell Brand in the lead.

- Bill

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