Wednesday, June 05, 2019

ATLIH: Eyes Bigger Than Their Budget


A few years I got a call out of the blue from a director I had never worked with (and never heard of) who said I came highly recommended as a screenwriter... but never told me who recommended me. We met in a coffee shop across from the DGA. He was this charismatic guy, almost as tall as I am, and was wearing a formal vest - which is unusual for Los Angeles. He was interested in my available scripts. He told me he was in post production on his first indie feature and it was already getting all klnds of great buzz around town and he was sure that a studio would set him up with a big feature deal... but while that was being negociated, he had an investor lined up with $1.2 million to do a genre film, what did I have? I pitched him a couple of stories, he gave me his fancy silvery business card with his e-mail address and I told him I’d send him some synopsis.

Okay, I have to admit that I’m not so much looking at the $1.2 million film as that big feature deal. The $1.2 million deal is less than half of the budget of the films I’m used to working on, but a bird in the hand pays the rent. So I go home, look through the script inventory, select the ones that can be made on this budget... and there are a couple of really good ones that can be made for that, including one of my favorite scripts of mine - DANGEROUS CURVES. It works as a showcase for a male actor, and has a bunch of cool plot twists - kind of a cross between Hitchcock and BLOOD SIMPLE with a hint of strange Roman Polanski. And the personal thing - it’s about an architect whose clients keep wanting him to change his plans in ways that can not work... while his dead wife haunts him and a corrupt cop blackmails him. I’ve always wanted to see this one on screen, and it could be a director’s showcase, too. There were a few other scripts on the list, too, some other really good ones that could be made on his budget - and I included the URL for all of my other available scripts.

Okay, I have to admit, the reason why I sent that URL wasn’t for the $1.2 million project, but for that big studio project. I wanted him to find the script for the studio film on my website, and bring that into the studio when they make his deal.

A week or two goes by, then I get a call from the director - he wants to read a script, could I meet him at that coffee shop across from the DGA on Thursday. And then he tells me what script he wants me to bring... DANGEROUS CURVES? No. One of the others on my list of scripts you can make for $1.2 million? No. This guy wants to read one of my big budget studio scripts. One that I really like. One that got me a few studio meetings and I was kind of saving for later - it’s kind of a dream script. Bur maybe this director is either planning ahead to his big studio deal... or maybe he’s skipping the $1.2 million project because something has happened with his indie film already? What if this is the big deal... and he wants my script?

So I make up a couple of copies and drive over Laurel Canyon to the coffee shop. I hand him the script, ask him how his film is going... and he tells me great, but it’s still in post. I ask if there’s been any studio interest, yet, and he says there is a lot of great buzz, and everyone thinks he’s a genius and the next big thing, and after this film he’ll really be hot. After this film? Well, he has to read the script, first. Of course....

As I’m zooming back over Laurel Canyon, passing the house that rolled down the hill, I wondered what the hell was going on. It seemed like he was thinking this *huge* budget foreign location chase script he was looking at for his $1.2 million budget... and that wasn’t going to work. But, he’d figure that out once he read it, right? And then he’d look at the other scripts and pick one that fits the amount of money he has, right?

Wrong. A few days later he calls to tell me he just loves this script. And he has some ideas on how he might be able to make it for $1.2 million. And I want to scream, but instead I calmly say that I don’t think this film can successfully be made for that budget. I mean, even if there is no star in the film, he’d have to have some sort of great connections - like a facility deal - to pull this off at that budget. Plus, you’d have to scale down the action, which, I guess is possible, but.... He tells me he thinks he has it all figured out, and he wants to meet me to talk about my next draft.

I politely say that maybe he should write up his ideas and e-mail them to me before we meet, so that I can have some time to think about them. He doesn’t seem to want to do any typing, just talking, but he agrees to do this. Over a week later I get his suggestions for “the next draft” and I almost smash my computer monitor in anger. First - he has a facilities deal... here in the USA, in a Southern state, that means completely changing the concept of the script - no longer will it be about a guy in a foreign land on the run with no one to turn to, and language issues... unless it’s maybe a guy from California who can’t understand thick Southern accents. And the action scenes get mostly cut out completely - so it’s a chase film with almost no chase. There were a couple of scenes where the hero found places to hide - kind of like the THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR scenes with Faye Dunnaway - and he wants to make that the main part of the story. So instead of a chase film, it’s a hide film... which is a completely different movie. Basically this big script gets hacked down to nothing - and loses everything that was cool about it. And the “machine that drives the story” - the MacGuffin - doesn’t work if this story takes place in the American South at all. I’d have to come up with something else that drives the story.

Okay, bird in the hand that pays the rent, right?

Wrong. I e-mal him back and say that I really don’t think this script can possible work at this budget. He still wants to meet and talk about these changes and “the next draft”.

I meet him at that Coffee Bean across from the DGA and he’s talking a mile a minute about how this could be a great film with all of these changes and will guarantee his big studio deal. This guy is a great talker... and almost convinces me. I wish I had that gift - that charisma and ability to make complete nonsense sound great. But I’m good on the page, not that good in the room. My scripts can get places that I can’t. The other side of this is that when people do all of this big talk, I can usually see through it. I can smell the BS through the charm. So I wait until he’s done and say that I still don’t think this script can be done on this budget without completely ruining it. I ask him what he likes about the script, and after he mentions a few things, I note that those things will either not exist in “the next draft” or will be changed so much they may not be and interesting. Of course, he says there’s no way to know until after I finish that “next draft” and he reads it. He tells me to go home and think about it, this could be a great film.

I drive past that tumbled down house on Laurel Canyon... It was once a multi-million dollar view home, then the slides tumbled it down the hill until it came to rest on the edge of Laurel Canyon - a broken mess. Imagine being the owner of that home. You have this great house, everyone loves it and wishes it was theirs, then one day it rolls down the hill and turns into a bunch of junk waiting to be demolished and hauled away. And everyone who drives over Laurel Canyon gets to see what’s left of your luxury home and snicker. Oh, how the mighty have fallen! Fallen right down the hill and smashing on the side of the road.

Did I want my script to be that house?

I looked over the notes again when I got home, and decided that it couldn’t be made on $1.2 million without trashing it. But what made this director pass up scripts that *could* be made on his budget - and *good scripts*, not trash - and select something that didn’t have a chance at surviving the budget rewrite surgery? Couldn’t he look down the line and see how his notes would change the script? Why didn’t he want to make a script that could actually be made for his budget? What is the motivation there? Is it that I said it couldn’t be done, so he had to do it?

I e-mailed the director, saying I didn’t think this script would work in the cut down version - that many of the things *he* liked about the script would be removed, so it wouldn’t even be the same script. So if he wants to do *this* script, maybe he should consider doing it when he gets his big deal, rather than try to make it fit his budget and kill it in the process. And I re-sent the list of loglines for the scripts that *could* be made on his $1.2 budget. I figured this was the end of it - no more bird in the hand, and I’d have to find some other deal somewhere. But instead, he requested another script. Not DANGEROUS CURVES, but one that has almost been made at least 3 times. I sent him the script - instead of meeting him at the coffee shop - and thought this might all still work out, right?

A couple of weeks he e-mailed me notes on the script. Everything that was “wrong” with the script. I read over the notes, and instantly wanted to e-mail the director with the rebuttal. You know, we all want to do that. In this case, it would have been easy, because everything on his list of problems was not a problem at all. Most of the “problems” were things that seemed due to skimming the script - I could have just listed the page numbers of where these things were set up, but he seemed to have missed them. This script had almost been made three times - and all of those people read the set ups and didn’t find any problems. Oh, sure, they had notes - but all of the past notes had made sense or been practical issues. I think he was *looking* for reasons to dislike this script, because...

The end of his e-mail of what was wrong with this script that could actually be made for $1.2 million was that he still thought the big script could be successfully trimmed down, and I should reconsider doing that “next draft”. He *still* didn’t want to make the one he could afford to make, he wanted to make the one he couldn’t.

And he’s not the only one. Every year or two some big talk director or big talk producer - and they always seem to be new - looks over the list of scripts they can afford and would rather do the script that they could never afford to make on their budget. And chop out everything that they like about it so that they can afford to make it on the money they have - which turns it into crap. There’s no way this can work. I know it. A director or producer who does a movie a year knows that biting off more than you can chew usually results in a movie that is one big problem after another to shoot - all compromises and doesn’t work when you cut it all together. Hey, maybe some freakin’ genius director at the top of his game might be able to make this work on that budget, but that’s a lot of stars aligning in ways they have never aligned before. That’s a big chance to take with someone else’s $1.2 million. Why not take the script that’s a slam-dunk at $1.2 and use the easy schedule to spend more time being creative? Give the films some style? Use a dolly and crane? Design some amazing shots? Why would you want the script that will be living hell just to get on screen at $1.2 with master shots and a couple of close ups?

What makes these people pick the script they can’t pull off? Are they trying to set themselves up for failure? Do they want the project to crash and burn before it ever happens? Are they trying to prove something (and if so, to who)? Was their first film a miracle and they’re hoping that lightening strikes twice? Why set out to do something that can’t be done?

Right now I have two producers reading scripts they can’t afford on their budgets. If either one wants to me chop it down to what he can afford - ruining it in the process - I’m just going to say no. I have enough *really good* scripts that can work on these guy’s budgets - why would I want to ruin a script that won’t? That doesn’t make any sense at all.

I never heard back from the director with that indie film who wanted to turn my big chase thriller into a small hide film, so I decided to look him up on IMDB. They demolished that house that was on the side of Laurel Canyon and taken away the debris a couple of years ago - now it’s hard to even remember that it was there. Last year I had 2 films released on the same day - both ended up in the top 10 DVD rentals in the USA - neither of those deals had even been made when I was meeting this director at the Coffee Bean across from the DGA. So, I wonder what he’s been up to? I wonder what his big studio film is?

Well, according to IMDB he has that one indie film... and nothing else in the works at all. And according to IMDB his indie film has yet to be released... Anywhere. There are no consumer reviews - no one has seen it at a festival and posted a review or anything.

Now, IMDB is not always accurate - so maybe it was released somewhere, and maybe it played festivals somewhere and maybe people liked the film... but this big talking director seems to have nothing going right now (and I read deals in the trades, and haven’t seen his name). My guess is that he had a window to do something for $1.2 before his film was finished... and that window has closed. That’s kind of a business tip, by the way - the time when you want to seal a deal is *before* your film is released. You may think your film might become a huge hit and studios will be fighting over you... but what if it flops? Lots of films everyone thought were going to be hits just didn’t click with the audience for some reason. Though you can predict which films have a better chance of becoming hits, there’s no “hit formula” where you can be sure a film will work. So you want to make a deal while there is still hope that your film is a hit. If it *is* a hit, you’ll get other offers. Hey, you may have to make that $1.2 million film before you make the studio’s $120 million film, but if you’re hot, the studio will still want you. But if your film flops? Well, if you have that $1.2 million film already in production or preproduction, it’s like a second chance at the big studio project! Not to mention - income.

Heck, that’s why I was willing to sell a script to a guy with less that half the budget I’m used to - income (my bills must be paid whether it’s *the* project or not) and as a writer you never know if this is going to be the combination of director and cast and perfect timing that makes this film the next SAW - some low budget genre film that gets picked up for theatrical release and ends up becoming a huge hit. I can’t plan on any of the scripts I have circling at studios to ever land.

If this guy had just taken the *good* script he could afford to make at the time, he’d have *two* films on his IMDB listing... and probably would have been released by a major label (Sony, LionsGate, etc)... and if I liked the way it came out I’d try to get it shown at some film fest that I’ll be speaking at... and try to get coverage in one of the magazines that I write for or have written for in the past. Basically, by promoting a good film version of my script I also promote the director, production company, cast members. And who knows? Maybe that $1.2 million film could have been the new SAW? We will never know.

If I had a limited amount of money, I would want the *best script* I could find which could easily be made on that budget... then I would pull out all of the stops to design interesting shots and do some great casting and make it the best film version of that best script.

And then sign a deal on the next project while this one was in post.

- Bill

Yesterday’s Dinner: Something.

MOVIES: KUNG FU PANDA - Okay, here’s what I know is absolutely true: Pixar movies make me cry and really make me feel, Dreamworks movies are surface comedies that take my $11 and I get a laugh or two. Both studios make animated films that look good. The art in KFP is amazing - and the opening and closing titles in 2D animation are so amazingly drawn you kind of wish there was a traditionally animated version of this film. Nothing wrong with the 3D animation, though - great backgrounds and fantastic detail. Technically both studios are tied - but Dreamworks just doesn’t seem to want to go for the emotions. They’d rather go for the laughs.

Jack Black plays a fat panda named Po who dreams of being a kung fu fighter, but as his father James Hong (who must be in every US film that has a Chinese character by Federal law) tells him that they are noodle people - broth flows through their veins. When the evil martial arts Panther voiced by Ian McShane breaks out of prison, only the chosen one - the Dragon Warrior - can defeat him... but who is the Dragon Warrior? Wise old turtle Oogway will select the warrior from martial arts instructor Dustin Hoffman’s star pupils - Tigress Angelina Jolie (not as hot as in BEOWOLF), Monkey Jackie Chan, Mantis Seth Rogen, Viper Lucy Lui, and Crane David Cross. Hey, noodles can be sold at this event, so Black is sent with a push cart. Due to a mistake, *he* is chosen as the Dragon Warrior... and this pisses of the “Furious Five” and causes no shortage of headaches for Dustin Hoffman, who must train him to be a great warrior before the evil Panther arrives. And hijinks ensue. We get a grab-bag-o-gags, and not much else. Okay, maybe a pretty lame message that everything you need to be special is within yourself - but no *heart*. The Pixar films are filled with heart. If you don’t cry at a Pixar film, there’s something wrong with you. I cried at THE INCREDIBLES! And even if I hadn’t welled up when Mr I told Mrs I why he’s not strong enough (hell, I’m misting up thinking about it) the film would still have great characters and characterization and scenes that cut deeper that 98% of films with real people in them. Pixar films are all about characters and emotions - that’s what makes them great... better than most Hollywood films. But KUNG FU PANDA - a couple of laughs for adults, probably fun for the kids. I wonder what happens when Dreamworks goes Bollywood?

Bicycle: Not much biking lately because it's, like, 109 degrees in the Valley (seriously) and I would die. Though Friday I took an ill-advised walk while I was in the West Valley (going to the movies in Northridge - one of the guys lives there).


Morgan McKinnon said...

A memorable little flick.
Low-budget, from what I understand.
Turned down by many actors (including Willis.)

I digress…

Quite a number of years ago I was down on my luck…but relentlessly pounding on the theatrical door. One such knock, and a DP answer.

He took a moment out of his life to talk to me. And listen to me. After listening he said…

”when you get your script done, get it to me, and I’ll shoot it for you.”


This Director of Photography knows his way around Hollywood. And he might not remember me personally…but I guarantee he will remember the moment (and those of you who went to the gutter on that one…GET OUT OF THERE!!!)


There is an actor who has done much TV, and a few movies (Red Eye) who has probably checked out IMDB and not seen me posted and is thinking…

‘see I knew it. I knew she’d never make it.’


There is no point…per se


I do remember reading a post of yours saying you had to improvise “gunshots” (hiding in the sub) because it was too expensive to shoot shooting guns…


It's kinda like hitting a baseball.
You have to step back (to 1.2 mil) and knock that pitch out of the park. IMO

ObiDonWan said...

Bill-you made Family Plot so intriguing I tried to get the DVD from Netflix...and it says the movie isn't on DVD yet. So how'd you get to see it?
This "budget" thing is remarkable on several levels--one being that you seem to meet so many losers who try to act like winners. Your B.S. detector must be one of the best in Hollywood by now.
Second level is that you categorize your scripts by cost--I wonder how many other writers have the know-how to do that? (Plz excuse the plug below)
-ObiDon See my website at and download a free novel by me!

wcmartell said...

You know how long I've been around, Don. I've kind of learned what can and can not be done at a certain budget. Some scripts *look* expensive, but I know how they can be done for less. But these folks end up being plungers - they select the biggest script I've got most of the time.

I think part of the reason for all of the losers is that I have no agent screening these people - hey, anyone who wants to buy a script from me can just e-mail me (or get my phone number from WGA). You end up getting all kinds...

- Bill

ObiDonWan said...

That's the biggest mystery--why you have no agent. I bet there are writers who haven't had the kind of success you've had with produced scripts who do have agents.

Joe S. said...


I just read your King Kong tip and I would have to disagree about the value of CGI- CGI SUCKS BALLS OUT LOUD- (and I would love you to dedicate a writer tip only on CGI)

I may be older than I was 20 years ago, but my tastes in music haven't changed much, and I really like some of the new gangsta rap and rock. So why hasn't my appreciation of movies kept pace? It's because CGI is destroying the bond between the story and audience. Seriously, is any audience besides 4 year-olds scared during movies like Van Helsing or the Mummy?

Recently the legendary Stan Winston died and I was lucky enough in 2003 to be invited into his museum/studio in the run-down industrial part of Van Nuys.

What set the stop-motion legends like Stan and Ray Harryhausen apart from the no-talent CGI mongers of today was a simple realization: A movie that resembles a video game will remind the audience that "yep, we're indeed watching a two-dimensional presentation." Stop motion, on the other hand, featured puppetry but let's face it- puppets and dolls exist in 3-dimensions and are creepy in real life in a way that flat CGI will never be.

Stop Motion/Puppetry is surrealistic, CGI is unrealistic.

If I want to see a Video game, I'll go home and play with one (I don't need to pay $11 to go watch a Video game facsimile).

Cunningham said...

When will they ever learn it's easier and better to make a simple story with style than a big story with no time for style.

Somehow, someway directors were told that simple somehow means "unsophisticated."


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