Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Picky Producers

From 2009...

Just read an advert from a producer who is still looking for a script, and doesn't want to read any of the previously submitted scripts again - he is looking for *different* scripts that fit his criteria. If you have already read all of the scripts submitted the first time, how many new scripts are there that fit your criteria a few months later?

A couple of years ago a screenwriter friend of mine had a movie stall out, and took a job on the other side of the desk as a development executive for a new company. Because he’s a good guy, the very first thing he did was call up all of his screenwriter friends and see if any of them had scripts that would fit the needs of his new employers. This was great, because we now had a friend “on the inside” who would really push our work to the company. My first question was, “What are they looking for?” If they were looking for rom-coms, I was out. If they were looking for family films, I had a treatment but not a screenplay - and that treatment is not high concept at all, so would probably not be in the running. If they were looking for a comedy, um... that’s also not me.

My friend got back to me (and everyone else) with the company’s needs... The good news was that they were looking for a thriller or horror screenplay. Hey, I have those! But that was not the end of it... They were also looking for scripts that can be made for $1m (hey, I got those), that were film festival quality (hey, I got those), that used an untraditional structure, like MEMENTO or RUN LOLA RUN (okay, now I’m in trouble) that was high concept (hey, I got those), that would not just be selected for the film festival, but would win a bunch because that was part of the distribution plan (um, I have no idea how I can guarantee a win), and would not require a star to be successful at the box office, oh - and would appeal to 15-25 year olds in the mainstream audience.

Okay, that’s a lot of different conditions for one screenplay... and a screenplay you are going to make for only $1 million. The company supposedly had access to $1m per film - probably some sort of revolving credit deal - so they were for real and could actually make several movies, one at a time. Now, $1 million may sound like a lot to you - it is what the average American will make over a lifetime of work - but it’s nothing in the movie world where the average studio film costs $106.7 million by the time it hits your screen. Making a film for $1m is difficult, and you really need a script designed for the budget. Limited cast, limited locations, limited night scenes, limited to no crowd scenes, etc. It is not easy to write a script that can be made for $1m. The biggest expense in a studio film are stars - and just because your film costs less than 1% of theirs doesn’t mean you can don’t need stars... you need a script that is set up for “confined cameos” where you can spend a chunk of money on one day of a name of some sort (or two) and try to get the biggest name you can for the least money. And you want *someone* in that lead role - a B level star or some TV person. All of this means the script for a $1 million movie is more difficult to write than one for a $106 million movie, because you must limit the cast and locations without looking like you are limiting the cast and locations. You can’t rely on amazing car chases or CGI or even fantastic locations or acting - the script has to be clever enough to work without those things. So, the $1m thing is already a tough thing to find in a screenplay.

But I have some scripts that were written for that budget.



The big problem seemed to be the elements that contradicted each other. A film that appeals to the 15-25 year old mainstream audience is not likely to have an untraditional structure or end up winning a film festival. If you look at the films that get *bought* out of film festivals, they tend to be the midnight genre films showing out of competition - like my friend Jonathan King’s horror comedy BLACK SHEEP. Now, BLACK SHEEP is a great movie and got some great reviews when it was released, but it is not the type of film to win a festival. It’s *fun*. It’s about killer sheep. It’s not some drama about an issue with a bunch of big speeches. And even BLACK SHEEP wasn’t a hit with the mainstream 15-25 year old audience - I think that demo prefers their horror without laughs and clever dialogue. They just want blood and guts and boobs.

It seemed to me that there were two factions at this company, and each wanted to make a different kind of movie... so they were looking for a script that would please both sides. One faction wanted an art house movie that would win at film festivals and the other wanted a movie that would make money with a mainstream audience. It is difficult for me to imagine the script that pleases both factions - and I am a fan of quality genre movies. THE DARK KNIGHT was a crowd pleaser *and* a critical success (though it was not nominated for Best Picture). But DARK KNIGHT had a traditional structure - wasn’t told backwards or sideways or any other strange way.

The problem for me was that I had clever genre scripts that could be made for $1m, but they were traditionally told and were not the type of scripts to win any film fests... though they might play midnight shows. I also had a couple of scripts that were not traditionally told (like LAST STAND), but these were aimed at an older audience and were too expensive to produce on a $1m budget. I had nothing that fit all of the criteria.

I thought my best chance was a thriller of mine, THE COMPLEX, which has almost been made three times, and whenever people pass on it they always say it’s “too art house”. Of course, it wasn’t art house enough for the company my friend was working for.

I talked to my friend, and he suggested I artificially break up the chronology of one of my scripts so that it fit that criteria - and that would get me through the door. Except I thought that would ruin the script. Here is where my ego gets in my way - because I should have just done it...

But first time film company with odd criteria seemed like a long shot to me.

Another friend had a script that was close enough (I think he may have jumbled the chronology in a rewrite to get through the door) and they had some meetings with him, but eventually did not think his script had all of the criteria. This writer is produced, and I believe he eventually sold that script (for much more money than this company would have paid) to a producer with plans to make a much bigger film. I’ve said this before on the blog, most low budget producers never even consider that the script they read for their $2m film still has fingerprints on it from a couple of studio based producers who were interested in buying it as one of those $106m films. They think the scripts are on the same level as they are, and are usually unable to tell a good script from a bad script.

Well, actually a “great” script from a “good” script - it’s like wine: An average person can tell a good glass of wine from a bad glass of wine. But the more you know about wine, the more refined your palate, the better you are at telling a great glass of wine from a good one. Suddenly that table full of wine bottles the average person thinks are good can be grouped into better and great and best and just downright amazing. The low budget producers usually just know what tastes good, and can’t tell which of those is great... and often are more interested in “bland good” than “interesting great.” So the company my friend worked for missed a chance at a script that sold for a bundle to others. They probably couldn’t see past their conditions.

If you are investing money in a script and film, you want it to be the very best you can afford. A producer is going to be stuck with that project through pre-production and production and post-production and selling the film and distribution and exhibition and DVD sales and cable sales and TV sales and then paperwork for the rest of their lives. They need to love the project. Making a film is like getting married, and you don’t want to chose some random person as your spouse. So I understand the need to be picky - in fact, I think I have a career *because* producers are picky. They want the best script they can afford, not just a bunch of action scenes connected by a flimsy plot and 2D characters. They want something good - and that’s what I want to provide for them. And I also understand that a movie, even a low budget movie, is an investment and the producer would like a return. That means the script has to be something that can be made into a movie that paying customers will want to see.



I know a director who makes genre films for a living, and when he finds financing for his own film, ends up making an “anti-genre film” - a boring drama of some sort. (may have blogged this before.) He has talked to me about writing one of these a few times, and I usually say no, because I’d like to write a film that will be seen and distributed (his previous arty films were not). I think the problem with this director and many picky producers is that they see all genre films as the same, and either do not look for or can not see the “art” in some commercial films. My theory has always been to write commercial genre films that are also about something - so that people will be talking about them 50 years from now... the way we're still talking about INVASION OF THE BODYSNATCHERS and CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON and other films that were made for commercial reasons but have stuck around because they are "commercial plus".

With the indie world drying up right now, there may not be financing available for non-mainstream films, so producers are going to have to make the kinds of films that are popular with a wider audience... but make *great* ones instead of dopey ones. Make genre films that will get good reviews. If you watch PARANORMAL ACTIVITY and any Uli Lommel film on a double bill, you’ll see what I’m talking about. We need more really great genre films!

Now, all of this sounds like I’m happy that this company my friend worked for was picky as hell... but I’m not. The whole unusual structure thing is obvious indie stuff, and it seems like they were looking for a mainstream genre script that was also an unconventional niche market art house script. They were *not* considering making a really good mainstream genre film. Maybe they were unable to see how a mainstream genre film could be good, or maybe the money faction wanted one thing and the creative faction wanted the opposite. They continued to look for that one amazing script that did everything.

Though I am the first person to point out that there are probably close to a million scripts in circulation at any one time, most of those scripts stink. The ones that are good? Well, I’m not really sure there were any that fit all of the company’s criteria. You would think there might be that one in a million script out there, and maybe there was... but the longer you spend looking for the perfect script, the more time your money people have to wake up and realize that making movies is high risk... and back out. There comes a time when it makes more sense to buy the best script you can find and make the best movie you can make, rather than waiting around for that one perfect script to cross your desk. There comes a time to settle for the best available.



Because there are only so many scripts available - and once you’ve read through them and not found *exactly* what you are looking for, waiting around for someone to write it just doesn’t make sense. When you’ve read through all of the submissions and none fit the criteria, asking for submissions again will just get you the same stack. Makes more sense to select the best script from the stack and make it, even if it is not *exactly* what you were looking for.

I suspect part of the reason they wanted that *perfect* script is that they were thinking that everything was riding on this first film. They wanted to begin with the perfect film which would rocket them to fame and fortune and make their company instant players. Though that happens once in a blue moon, usually it’s a bunch of baby steps. How many films did Miramax distribute *before* PULP FICTION? Probably hundreds! You can’t plan on perfection out of the gate, you have to build up to it. If you wait for the perfect script to surface, you will be waiting forever and get nothing done. Better to make movies while you are waiting for that perfect script... and if you are constantly making movies I think you have a better chance of finding that perfect script - you are a player and people want to play with you. If you aren’t making movies, you are not even in the game.

The company my friend worked for never bought a script and never made a movie, and eventually their money source went elsewhere. They closed their doors without having made any films... as do many other picky start up companies. I see the script searches with too many conditions frequently, and sometimes have meetings with companies looking for that amazing script that will guarentee them an Oscar right out of the gate. If thse companies had just selected the best script that was offered to them, made it, then continued picking best scripts and making them; they would be a company with a library and a future... and maybe along the way they might have found that one in a million script. Instead, they didn’t even leave any junky mainstream genre flicks behind.

We all want to write great scripts, but our first script(s) are not going to be perfect. They are stepping stones to better scripts. A single script is not going to be a life changing property - it’s just a script. You will write a stack of scripts, and some will be the ones that open doors and some will be the ones that do nothing at all except get you to the next script that opens some other doors. Each open door takes you a little bit farther down the path. You may write that script that opens many doors at once... but that script was the result of lessons learned from all of the scripts you wrote before. There is no one perfect life changing script - nor is there one single perfect life changing movie that makes your company an instant major player.

If a producer waits until they find that perfect script, they will never make a movie.

If a writer waits until they find that perfect concept, they will never write a script.

If a writer waits until they come up with that perfect line of dialogue, they will never finish that page!

Don’t create so many conditions that you limit yourself and create your own failure.

Just keep doing your best work.

Every step is a step closer... but if you wait to take that first step? You're going nowhere.

- Bill
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Taglines - and the complete mess that is my 18th film.
Yesterday's Dinner: Al Pastor burrito at Tortas.
Bicycle: No. This time change is killing me - it gets dark so early I don't want to ride very far.


Underpants T shirt

SCRIPT SECRETS STORE
Top 10 Films About Underpants T Shirt: SALE $9.99



Movies: BLIND SIDE - On message boards and in e-mails, people are always saying they have lead the most amazing life and someone should make a movie about it - and they would gladly pay be a third of whatever the script sells for if I write it for them. When I say that I’d be doing all of the work, they always say it was their life and they have had to live it, and once Hollywood hears their story, they will pay millions for it! Though most people don’t want to tell me about their life unless I’m onboard and have signed a NDA, the few who do share a few juicy morsels of their amazing lives... well, they don’t convince me to drop everything and write their stories. Most have lived unusual lives that would make them the center of attention at any cocktail party, but not exactly the center of attention at a multi-plex showing the latest superhero movies and disaster flicks and high concept comedies. This is the big problem with true stories on film - they seem really dull when compared with the other movies out there. Also, you are shackled by the truth - even if your story is about the survivor of an amazing event, you have to stay within the reality of that event.



BLIND SIDE is based on a true story, written as a non-fiction book by Michael Lewis, the same guy who wrote MONEYBALL - he kind of has a niche writing strange-but-true sports stories. The screenplay and direction are by John Lee Hancock, who writes and directs heartwarming true sports stories that often take place in Texas. Perfect match - this story takes place in Texas and is unabashedly feel good material.

Quinton Aaron plays Big Mike, a homeless high school kid with great sports skills. His inner city friend’s dad uses Big Mike’s athletic skills as bait to get both kids into a private Christian school in the wealthy and safe suburbs on a scholarship... then kicks Big Mike off his sofa. So Big Mike sleeps in a 24 hour laundromat and sometimes in the school gym - because he can scavenge uneaten food after the games.

One night, after a game, he’s spotted walking through the rain by Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) and her upper middle class conservative Republican Christian NRA family as they cruise past in their SUV. Leigh decides it is her Christian duty to provide shelter for this kid, and when she discovers Big Mike has no family to go home to for Thanksgiving, invites him to stay. Eventually he becomes part of the family, best friend and protector to her son SJ (Sean Junior played by scene stealer Jae Head), reluctant brother-figure to cheerleader Collins (played by Lilly Collins) and surrogate older son to dad (Tim McGraw, who provides a few tunes for the soundtrack). Oh, and later there is a college exam tutor played by always-fiesty Kathy Bates.

The problem with Big Mike’s amazing sports skills is that he needs better grades to make the team... so they set out to tutor him and give him a normal life base to work from. And he makes the team and is accepted by the other students. And folks, that’s just about it! There are some minor real-life complications that provide some drama and conflict, and a by-the-numbers lowest point in Big Mike’s new life that is a little exciting, but the world doesn’t end and Big Mike is not bitten by a radioactive spider. He just gets to play football and have a fairly normal life.

This is the kind of movie I can recommend to my mom - she would love it. Your mom would probably love it, too. It’s one of those good old fashioned feel good movies - and managed to be the #1 movie on Thanksgiving Day. I suspect lots of families went to see it after dinner, and it was the perfect film for that.

The problem with a movie like this is that you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t - BLIND SIDE is not overly emotional, so it manages to avoid any criticism for being corny... but by avoiding all of those big over-the-top emotions, it comes off a little dull and distant. A little on the BLAND SIDE.



What saves this film is Sandra Bullock. After seeing her in nothing but silly rom-coms, it’s hard to remember that she can actually *act*. She was one of the saviors of CRASH, too - she just explodes in that film and makes you wonder why she isn’t cast in more serious films. In BLIND SIDE she is an amazing force of nature - you forget it’s Sandy Bullock. In a scene where she threatens the life of a vicious gang-banger, you fear for *his* safety! She is so fierce in this film, she practically burns a hole in the film in some scenes. This is a woman who knows what she wants and gets what she wants and *nothing* gets in her way. She’s also funny, and all of her passion comes from having a very big heart. I could imagine another actress getting the tough aspect down, but not the soft interior. Bullock manages to give a layered performance where she is tough *and* tender *and* funny all at the same time. Oh, and this may be TMI and just my personal opinion... but *hot*, too. She manages to be sexy while being tough and all of those other things. Though, that may just be wardrobe. When she goes onto the football field in a scene and man-handles the players - using them as props while explaining top Big Mike how to improve his game, you forget it’s Bullock. She just is that character.

The rest of the casting is also great - I mentioned Jae Head who plays SJ, who manages to make a work out montage funny, and a later college scouting montage laugh out loud funny. This little kid is amazing.

The film also has some great small moments, like when the cheerleader sister decides to have lunch in the cafeteria with Big Mike instead of her cheerleader friends. And when Leigh is reading the kid’s book Ferdinand The Bull to SJ and Big Mike... and cheerleader sis secretly listens from the next room. Moments of family life with this “adopted” family member.

Though the film also manages to show a conservative Republican Christian family and *use* those elements as a integral part of the story - the reason why they take in Big Mike in the first place is their faith, and the Thanksgiving prayer is another great moment - when they all take each other’s hands, and Big Mike becomes part of that circle of family. The way Leigh explains Big Mike’s job on the football field is that he is protecting his family of players. When those folks in the heartland complain that Hollywood doesn’t make movies for them, here it is. I have no idea how well it will play outside the USA, but it’s not strictly about football or religion, it’s mostly about *family*, and that may translate.



BLIND SIDE is a good movie... and probably the best movie your mom and her friends will see this year. And Sandra Bullock might even get some Oscar buzz from it.

- Bill

7 comments:

Brett said...

Funny that you ref that (ahem) picky producer, cu I was chasing that very same root vegetable while it dangled a year or so ago. Frustrating in the extreme for exactly the reasons you articulate -- "it ain't gotta be perfect -- just make it the best you can for now and keep pushing for improvement as available."

More often than not, "something" beats "nothing," as good enough is usually better than nonexistent.

Grant said...

Sounds like 75% of the requests in the InkTip newsletter. My favorites are "Sci-fi thriller like ALIENS or FIFTH ELEMENT, but with minimal locations and sfx..."

Anyway, I caught BLACK SHEEP on cable the other day. If you hadn't mentioned it a few times, I would have once again thought it was the Chris Farley/David Spade movie. Thanks for recommending it.

(And actually, I did the same thing with SERENDIPITY this weekend. Never would have watched it if you hadn't mentioned it on your tips a few times. Thanks again.)

Genzel said...

Excellent post, I absolutely agree with you. I was thinking of a short bio of Tobe Hooper which I read somewhere that stated: "When you start at the top, there's no way to go but down". If your first movie is perfect, then what do you do next? I'm glad that there'll always be something new I can learn - I think there's always room for improvement.

The Moviequill said...

"They wanted to begin with the perfect film which would rocket them to fame and fortune and make their company instant players" -- same with newbie writers spending 18 months on their first script

screenwritingfromiowa said...

Sandra Bullock was a joy to watch in "Blind Side" and carried it from beginning to end. If it wasn't a true story I don't think I could of finished watching it because the story seemed unbelievable.

Glad it's finding an audience.

I’m a big fan of stories from fly-over country and “Blind Side” is not only is a Memphis story but produced by Alcon Entertainment with Memphis roots & Fed EX head Fred Smith. (His daughter Molly was exec. producer on "Blind Side.")

They also produced "My Dog Skip." Word is they are reading 50 scripts a week so keep writing those stories in fly-over country because there's a great big audience out there in the United States.

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