Wednesday, March 05, 2014

5 The Hard Way!

From 2010...

There are five ways your writing can end up on screen...

There is this fellow on the Done Deal message boards whose question is: “When looking for an Agent or Manager, should I tell them I write purely for artistic expression and am completely disinterested in making money from my work.”

Aside from there being a major contradiction in that sentence which leads me to believe it may be, um, disingenuous... it opened up the usual discussion of art vs. commerce that dogs all screenwriting message boards. But let’s ignore the art and commerce debate and just look at getting your words on screen. I believe there are 5 ways your words can end up on screen (and now that I have said that, someone will come up with a couple more that I have not thought of - post them in the comments section). So here are the five (not easy) ways to get your screenwriting on the actual screen...

1) Sell A Screenplay. This is the most common way and the most common method that screenwriters think of. You sell your screenplay to a producer who will then make it into a film. The producer buys the screenplay as an *investment* - they hope to turn that script into a movie that makes money, which allows them to continue buying screenplays and making them into movies. The producer is a professional. They make movies for a living. Because of this, they are looking for movies with some commercial appeal. Now, that commercial appeal is *usually* mainstream stories because there is a better chance of a film in a popular genre making enough money to pay for itself... and keep the producer’s bank accounts full so that he or she can keep buying screenplays. It just makes sense to try to make a movie that the majority of ticket buyers will want to see - you sell more tickets that way. But there are some *unusual* commercial films - there are a couple of companies that make Gay and Lesbian films... in popular genres. Lots of horror and sci-fi and disaster movies and action films. There are also ethnic films that feature minority characters in mainstream genres. These producers and production companies are still professionals who invest in screenplays to turn them into movies that will make a profit. I have worked with producers who see movies as “product” and don’t give a damn if they are any good or not... and I have heard of producers who actually want to make great films (that also make money so that they can continue to make great films). Just because a script is in a popular genre does not mean it is bad. Pretty much every movie made before 1970 was made for commercial reasons... and many of them are classics and great films. For me, the target is the smart commercial screenplay. Something that audiences will want to see, but is also a good movie that they will want to see again and again... and decades from now people will see the film for the first time and love it. A film with shelf life.

2) Use The Script To Land A Writing Assignment. Those same commercial oriented producers read your screenplay and invest in *you the writer* to script a story in another medium: novel, comic book, true story, video game, Hasbro toy. In this scenario, you are telling someone else’s story - hired to write a screenplay based on your writing skills. Now, I can not make a blanket statement, but from looking at who lands these assignments, if your screenplays are all Elizabethan dramas you will probably not land the job scripting the AIRWOLF movie or the film version of the CRASHMOBILE car toy. Hey, they tried an experiment with Ang Lee and THE HULK, and it didn’t work out so well. Usually they try to match the writer’s skills from their spec scripts to the material - so I have no idea how that Elizabethan drama writer is going to land a gig like this. Again, these producers are *investing* in the writing, and hope to make a movie that makes enough money so that they can continue making movies for a living.

3) The Indie Route - DIY. Instead of selling the screenplay, you find the money and make the film yourself. With cameras and equipment becoming less expensive and online outlets and DVD becoming easier to access, many people are doing that indie thing. No one can tell you “no”. You can make whatever you want to make without stupid studio notes... because *you* are the boss. An indie film is made *outside* the system. There are a couple of ways an indie film can be made - the most common method for first films is self-produced. From Robert Townsend putting it on his Visa Card to Ed Burns spending $24k of his own money and borrowing equipment from his day job to Spike Lee borrowing equipment from NYU to Kevin Smith selling his comic book collection to Robert Rodriguez selling his body to medical experiments - you find the money to make it yourself. The other indie finance method is someone else’s money - you find investors who put up their money. You make the film yourself, outside the system... as an *Independent*. There are three ways an indie film can go - you can sell your finished film to a distributor (in the distributor believes investing in the film will return a profit), you can play your film in festivals (maybe it sells to a ditrib, maybe it does not - but you get some exposure and an audience), or you can self distribute (sell DVDs online or some form of streaming). Selling an indie film is not easy - the Los Angeles Times says about 2% of the films made find any form of distribution (including DVD), but you can always self distribute.

4) Government Arts Funding. If you live in any country *except* the United States, odds are there is an arts program that funds films. Some of these come from a ticket tax, others are straight taxes, and some are from a Lottery fund. The government funds films as part of a cultural program. Usually these films must have cultural story elements. Almost always the script must be written by a citizen of the country funding the film (or a partner country). The United States doesn’t really have anything like this - we’re all about commerce, here. The closest we might get is some art film grant from the NEA to make a short or documentary... and you know how well loved the NEA is! Every year the cut even more funding, so most of the grants tend to go to established theater companies or galleries. But outside the USA - you have a chance!

5) Sell To An Indie Producer. This one is last because it is becoming less common. There was a time when an indie distrib like Miramax not only bought completed films from festivals (etc), they also made their own films - and some of those films were not commercial driven, but art house or awards driven.. And there were a handful of other companies like Miramax, plus all of the studios had “indie” divisions that made non-mainstream movies for art houses and Your Oscar Consideration. Around these big companies were smaller companies who may have deals or connections with the big guys, and bought and made art house films and more interesting and unusual films. They would take chances on something that had a niche audience or was for more intelligent viewers... like an Elizabethan drama. But the indie bubble burst a few years ago, and now Miramax is gone... along with all of the studio “indie” labels. Because there are no big distribs for art house and indie material anymore, most of the smaller companies have also disappeared. There are still a few scrappy ones left, but there are *many* more scripts than there could ever be slots to make them... and many of those slots go to some producer or star who has a pet project. Yes, there's still a chance for *your* screenplay at one of the survivors, but you need to take into consideration that smaller indie market means smaller budgets. An epic Elizabethan drama is going to be a hard sell, but a Sundance style script has a chance. Though this was never an easy route, it is now even more difficult. But a writer's gotta do what a writer's gotta do.

So, those are the five ways your screenwriting can end up on screen. Yes, there are combinations of these 5 ways that sometimes work - like an international co-production of an indie film, or a film made independently that is bought to be remade, or some other “combine two of the five” method. But for the most part your script will either sell to someone who sees it as an investment that will become a profitable (commercial) film, or you will make the film yourself. The exception being if you live in some other country than the USA, and then you have an arts program possibility. The problem with not caring whether your script makes money or not is that the average USA studio film costs $106.7 million by the time it reaches the screen, and the studio would kind of like to make that money back if they can. Even the indie guys would like to keep making indie movies - and that means making a film at a reasonable budget that will interest a large enough audience to make a profit. No matter how much focus they have on art, they still need to pay back the investors...

So the people who *buy* your screenplay (or hire you to write) care about the money. That doesn’t mean they *only* care about the money, but it is part of their equation so it needs to be part of *your* equation as well.

If you really do not care about the money and are just writing for self expression, may I suggest a blog? Trust me when I say, there is no money in it.

- Bill

Click here for more info!


We all know that Alfred Hitchcock was the Master Of Suspense, but did you know he was the most *experimental* filmmaker in history?

Contained Thrillers like “Buried”? Serial Protagonists like “Place Beyond The Pines”? Multiple Connecting Stories like “Pulp Fiction”? Same Story Multiple Times like “Run, Lola, Run”? This book focuses on 18 of Hitchcock’s 53 films with wild cinema and story experiments which paved the way for modern films. Almost one hundred different experiments that you may think are recent cinema or story inventions... but some date back to Hitchcock’s *silent* films! We’ll examine these experiments and how they work. Great for film makers, screenwriters, film fans, producers and directors.

Films Examined: “Rear Window”, “Psycho”, “Family Plot”, “Topaz”, “Rope”, “The Wrong Man”, “Easy Virtue”, “Lifeboat”, “Bon Voyage”, “Aventure Malgache”, “Elstree Calling”, “Dial M for Murder”, “Stage Fright”, “Champagne”, “Spellbound”, “I Confess”, and “The Trouble with Harry”, with glances at “Vertigo” and several others.

Professional screenwriter William C. Martell takes you into the world of The Master Of Suspense and shows you the daring experiments that changed cinema. Over 77,000 words.

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Siladitya said...
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