Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Mommy, Where Do B Movie Ideas Come From?

From 2008...

Last month I asked for some screenwriting questions that would give me some grist for future magazine articles and Script Tips. Originally I wasn’t going to answer them here - but, um, demands were made by *you*, gentle readers. So some of the answers will become blog subjects, too - sometimes with some industry back stories thrown in just for fun.

Question: Are B movie scripts producer-driven? (i.e., producer says "here's the idea, write what I tell you") Or, are a lot of B-movies made from spec scripts? Or is there a lot of both?

Answer: Most B movies are producer driven. Though I've sold a fair number of specs that got made, and almost everything else was from my pitch (based on their needs), most of these films start out with some producer's lame idea. There are a couple of companies I've met with that want to hire me to script their ideas - and the ideas are usually dopey and don't makes sense. I usually end up scratching my head and politely saying no.

I have no idea why some producers prefer their really bad ideas over a spec with a really good idea. There are many B movie producers who really should stick with what they are good at - the money and making of the movie - and let the writers do the creative job. I have worked with many producers who could turn a script that might have sold for $500k into a movie that distribs think are work $500k... for the completed film! I’m amazed when some script that accidentally got me a meeting with Silver Pictures or the company that made THE FUGITIVE or some other studio based producer either gets no interest at all in the B movie world (usually the place it was written for in the first place - the big guys never notice that it has limited locations and limited cast) or is bought and goes through the meat grinder - coming out as crap. The producer’s notes always begin with the elements that the studio guys *loved* - basically removing what made it a good script and turning it into typical B movie crap. I talked to a writer I know at AFM a couple of years ago about this - the B producers seem to have no idea that they are reading the same script that just got us a meeting at the studios... and if they buy the script, they turn it into crap. So why don’t they just leave well enough alone? I have no idea. Why would they rather use their trite, often silly idea than buy a completed spec with a great idea? I have no idea. Some B movie producer could try this and see what happens... it’s not like there’s a shortage of specs out there. Though, there is always a shortage of good ones.

And, let me tack on a story about one of the places producers get their ideas that I told off the record to a journalist... names changed to protect the *very* guilty...

One of the reason why B movie producers ideas are often not as good as spec scripts, is because they aren’t their own ideas... they are stolen from other writers. So you end up with a version of that kid game “telephone” (known as “Chinese whispers” in the UK) - or maybe like a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox - some writer with a spec with a great idea pitches it to a B producer. The B producer doesn’t realize that the basic idea is tied to everything else in a spec script and lifts the concept... then adds some of their own elements - things that don’t fit and undercuts the concept. Plus, that concept filters through the B movie producers mind, often getting dumbed down or having the most interesting elements removed... and then whatever’s left from that original writer’s idea is assigned to some poor writer to script.

I have been that original writer several times.

As a result of making STEEL SHARKS with the Navy, I accidentally ended up with a Department Of Defense memo about Iran buying "shipkiller" missiles from China. They xeroxed a bunch of stuff for me, and this memo got stuck in the pile by mistake. So I came up with a story that was designed as another Navy cooperation film, and pitched it to a B producer, who liked it, made up posters for AFM and presold the heck out of it...

I began writing the script. But after handing in the treatment, the producer told me they would not be making it with Navy co-op (I think they screwed up that deal), and it would have to be made in Canada instead. In order to get maximum tax credits - I could not write the film, a Canadian would both write and direct. They made up new posters reflecting this, with the new Canadian writer-director and *not* me. I said, "Fine, but my story is my story" and I bought back the treatment. The producer said they'd have to do a completely different story anyway, since they didn't have Navy co-op anymore and the writer-director would want to do his own thing... and use whatever was available to him in Canada.

This ended up being the last time I ever worked with this producer - enough is enough!

So, I wrote the script as a huge budget project called SHOW OF FORCE. I'd had all kinds of meetings with studios on other stuff by accident, I thought I'd *try* to get some studio meetings on purpose. This was one of 3 scripts my ex manager sent out wide (50 scripts)... and it landed me 48 studio meetings! Everyone who read it, loved it... but also said it was Tom Clancy stuff without Tom Clancy's name attached. And Tom Clancy's name sells the film. I even got a meeting with the guys who make the Clancy films, but it was when Harrison Ford was dropping out and they didn't know what they were going to do next. Even if there had been a Tom Clancy adaptation assignment, I'm not sure my ex manager would have wanted me to take it - he wanted me to focus on writing big high concept specs. Anyway - no one bought it...

A few years later a friend saw this B movie and said it was exactly like my script... only stupid and boring. I zip down to Blockbuster, read the back of the DVD box... and it's my synopsis - word for word! The producer just gave my treatment to some other writer (no Canadians were involved - and the US director who was originally going to direct managed to get back onboard!) One of many thefts by this producer, and others.

I once bumped into one of the writers who was assigned to write an idea I’d pitched, and he was completely innocent - the producer has said it was his idea. Some of you may now be worried about producers stealing your ideas - and that does happen every once in a while - but usually they just buy your script - it’s cheaper. None of these B movie guys who stole my ideas ever hired a more expensive writer to script it - they always seemed to hire new writers. So my guess is these thefts were “cost cutting” measures - expensive writer Bill comes up with the cool idea they couldn’t come up with, and they hire someone less expensive to script it. Some of them may even have been Canadians. We really need to tighten those borders!

And if you’re wondering why I didn’t sue - well, I’d be burning bridges, it would cost a bunch of lawyer money (and I might even lose), and even if I won I’d be a pariah with a couple of bucks from some cruddy B movie - no deep pockets. I probably would get my writing fee at best - and no one else would want to hire me. Plus, *I* still owned my good version of the script and can sell it (let them try to sue me!) and I have about 100 other script ideas to keep me busy.

In fact, I often wonder why some producer with cruddy ideas doesn’t just hire me to sit in a room and generate great ideas all day long. My secret studio sequel project ended up being 70 sequel ideas to films in the vault of one particular studio - and that was all about finding the movies that no one else could come up with a sequel to. Each of those sequel ideas has a cool high concept and was designed to stand on its own, so if the studio wasn’t interested I could sell it as it’s own script... after I removed the sequel elements it would still have an *original* cool high concept, plus interesting characters (the villain or antagonist characters were all created to be interesting and unique). One of the 70 I started to script because I thought I could easily sell it as a non-sequel... that was my action conversion project that crashed and burned (I’ll provide details after the statute of limitations for burning possible bridges expires).

The strange thing is that producers with terrible ideas, whose films have been knocked because they had bad ideas, whose films maybe didn’t sell very well because they had less than interesting ideas... would rather continue to use their ideas than set their egos aside and make a better movie. Why not buy more high concept spec scripts? Concentrate on the producing and let the writers do the writing! Heck, my specs made money for them. Last year I had 2 films in the top 10 DVDs for the whole US of A in the same week! One was a spec, one was *my* original pitch.

But most B movie producers will read your specs as samples, then maybe hire you to write some awful idea if theirs... and because you get paid and it gets made, you probably do it. Nobody in Hollywood actually watches movies anyway, so that big studio producer has no idea whether the film was good or bad - only that you have a credit on a film that actually got made... when they know that there are half a million scripts in circulation and only a few hundred films get made every year. Getting anything actually made is some sort of miracle.

- Bill

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Antagonists in To Kill A Mockingbird
Yesterday’s Dinner: Broccoli beef at City Wok.

Pages: Finally wrote the last scene for a page one spec rewrite I've been working on in my spare time. Now, on to the next rewrite...


Richard McNally said...

Today's SS on Echo Scenes is a valuable tip. Thank you.

wcmartell said...

Thanks. That was a new tip for the end of last year.

- Bill

Anonymous said...

yep, I concur -- I concur, the echo, the echo tip was awesome -- awesome...

MacDaffy said...

Thanks for the enlightenment on the B movie production process, but I think your advice on why a writer should consider not suing over a "stolen" idea will probably prove even more valuable. I've had "civilians" approach me about turning their "idea" into a screenplay and I give them a concept of the relative worth of an "idea" as opposed to the blood and sweat it takes to turn that "idea" into a "screenplay"--much less a movie.

That's not to lessen instances like Art Buchwald and "Coming To America," but a cold bucket of reality like yours will save at least one poor sap--and probably more--a lot of grief.

wcmartell said...

If you are as famous as Art Buchwald, you might win... and no one will ever want to hire you again. If you have a script, and that script is copyrighted or WGA regged, you can still sell that script... and let *them* sue you.

- Bill

Zane said...

Awesome insight. It seems like the B Movie market is more frustrating to write for than the Studio System. Though, it also seems that a B Movie writer could save a lot of headaches by intentionally dumbing all his scripts down - salvage the violence and nudity... and scrap the rest. Of course, by the rational, we could all be B writers.

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