Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Anatomy Of A Deal...

After I returned from the holidays and the strike came to a close, I mentioned that it looked like I had one and a half deals. The half deal ended up dying a slow, lingering death... and now that it’s completely dead, I’ll tell you what happened....

So I get this call from a director I know. He had a meeting with a producer and when he mentioned my name, the producer went crazy... No, not in a bad way... this producer loved my work and wanted to meet with me on this project. I ask what the project is, and it’s an action movie in a subgenre I’ve worked in before. Right up my alley. Or down my alley, I get mixed up when it comes to metaphoric directions. Anyway, my director friend briefs me and then says he’ll call me back with a meeting time and date. I go back to whatever I was doing - working on a spec - and the phone rings a half hour later - tomorrow at 11am. And I available? Well, yes... but I haven’t even had time to think about the potential project. That’s okay, my director friend tells me, the producer will give me all of the details.

Well, the good news is that the producer’s office is close to my place, so I won’t have to add an hour or two for traffic. I putter around on the spec, but mostly I’m thinking about this potential deal. This producer must really want to work with me if he’s clearing his schedule to meet with me the next day... in the morning.

I show up at the meeting - nice office - turn down the water because I still have a Starbucks in hand, and wait... then the director shows, and both of us are waiting. This is okay, because I haven’t seen the guy in a while so we catch up... and then wait some more... and then, just when I think the game will be cancelled for lunch, we are brought into the office. Hands are shaken. Walls are covered with two kinds of movie posters - major Hollywood films and films that look low end that I’ve never heard of (but one stars Gary Busey). Okay, that makes sense - my office only has my movie posters, but my living room is filled with posters from some of my favorite films - mostly stuff from the 1940s like THE DARK CORNER and CALL NORTHSIDE 777.

The producer tells me a little about his company - but seems to be playing it ultra cool. If he’s excited about the possibility of working with me, or if he’s a fan of some of my films, he sure isn’t showing it. But that’s good dealsmanship - you don’t want the other guy to think he has all the cards. And that even comes up - the, um, quote factor. The producer tells me they are a new company and don’t have deep pockets (in a nice office) and really can’t afford to pay a screenwriter top dollar. I want to say that I’m not Steve Zaillian, but instead I say that I’m more interested in getting films on screen than getting paid a truck load of money (which is true, and explains why I don’t have truckloads of money). With this out of the way, the director and producer tag-team what kind of thing they are looking for. I have a spec that kind of fits, but they shoot that down due to a specific need they have for the project (a location where the producer has a facilities deal). They want to hire me to write something for them. Okay, I can do that. Along the way, the producer says something insulting to me.

Now, I could get pissed off at the insult, but I’m trying to land a deal, here. I needed a deal before the strike... and now I *really* need a deal. So I just smile through the insult. Maybe that’s part of his dealsmanship, too. If he acts like he really foes want to work with me, I have the advantage. If he acts like a dick, maybe I’ll compromise more to land the deal... and it’s kind of working. I mean, this guy knows the strike turned this into a buyer’s market. I need a deal... so I smile through the insult, and a couple of others that pop up. Just this guy showing me he has the cards - even though every time he makes one of these little remarks I become less interested in working with him. But, you know, I’ve worked with *many* difficult people n the past... though most of them wait until after I’ve signed a contract or delivered a script before they act like dicks. That’s just good business - when you get what you need, then you can be an asshole - but not before. You don’t want to screw up the deal before it happens.

But I smile through the insults and tell them how I work - that I’d be happy to either bounce around ideas with them or submit a few concepts and let the producer pick one (or use that as a springboard to bounce around ideas). Some producers have no ideas at all - they are business guys - and if you provide them with some raw material they will either find something that matches what they want or it will give them something to talk about. I have dealt with producers who seemed to be idea-less, so when they come up with something I’m sure it’s from the guy who pitched them before me and I try to lead them away from that idea... and to something of mine that I’ve always wanted to be paid to write.

This producer wanted to see some ideas, and also wanted to read one of my scripts. You know, I frequently bump into total strangers in this biz who have read several of my scripts... that’s kind of the way things work - people first know you by your words on the page and then meet you face to face. I thought that’s what this situation was, but maybe the producer only knew me from my films... and he still wanted to meet with me? I’ve seen my films, I wouldn’t want to meet with me.

Anyway, meeting ends, we all go to our separate lunches, and I have to come up with 5 action movie ideas that fit his facilities deal.

A facilities deal is a studio that will give you equipment, studio space, standing sets, and often crew in exchange for a cut of the film. Most of these deals are outside the USA, many in ex-Soviet countries (including Russia) and places like the Philippines and Mexico. Anywhere where the film biz was booming at one time and now it is not. I worked with a producer once who wanted the script to change every time he found a better facilities deal. The first draft of the script was in Australia, the second draft was in Mexico (where a US TV show shooting at a studio had just been cancelled around the same time a movie pulled out), then I did a draft in Portugal (I guess a studio there was cheaper), then the best draft of the script which was in an Eastern European country where many big Hollywood films had been made... until *another* Eastern European country became less expensive, and the last draft before I quit was in South Africa. You know, I think I may have left out a couple of places, but you get the idea - if there is a studio with a better deal, that producer was going to go there... and I was going to have to match the script to whatever climate and locations and standing sets the new studio had. Oh, and these were free rewrites. So a studio in, let’s say Bulgaria, has all of the equipment you’d find in any US studio, plus maybe a full fleet of old army tanks and other military vehicles, plus a standing set of The Vatican left over from some other film, and a handful of other sets and backlot locations. They will give a production all of this stuff, and maybe even a crew (but if they don’t a Bulgarian crew works much cheaper than an American crew - and probably worked on some film nominated for an Oscar that was made in Europe... in this same Bulgarian studio) - and the US producer just has to show up with film and stars and expense money. Some of these studios even have their own hotels! When the film is finished, the Bulgarian studio owns some territories - let’s say Eastern Europe and Russia... or on a big movie they may want Western Europe, too... and the US producer owns everything else. This is a low-risk deal because if the film flops, a large part of the production cost is taken care of... and that “flop money” may be enough to cover the rest of the costs... and maybe even make a small profit.

There are also modified facilities deals where the foreign studio just offers a discount on their services and the US producer keeps all of the territories. This is what most US studios do, they don’t want to lose the potential profits if the film is a hit in Bulgaria.

So part of the “fun” of coming up with the 5 ideas is that they have to use the production value elements at this foreign studio. I love a challenge, and start jotting down ideas for my 5 ideas. I want to come up with a bunch of ideas, so that I can pick the five best. No money has changed hands, and I'm already working...

Would any of the 5 ideas I pitch him be good enough? Will I land this gig, or be out looking for some other producer who needs a script?

Tomorrow - part 2.

- Bill

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Points Of Indentification and APOCALYPTO.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Burger at the Arclight in Sherman Oaks.

Movies: THE STRANGERS - The last time I was this scared at a movie was THE DESCENT, a film I knew nothing about. STRANGERS is a very simple film - 6 actors grand total, one house with a barm. That's it. That's all it takes. The big problem with bad horror movies is that they never take *talent* into consideration. They think they can just take HALLOWEEN and remake it, and it will be just as scary as the original. Well, that might work if Rob Zombie was as talented as John Carpenter - but Rob Zombie doesn't *understand* directing. Film direction is selecting the correct angle, the correct composition, the correct camera move, the correct juxtaposition of images... and doing all of these things at once for every single shot. The talent for a director isn't rewriting the screenplay, it's knowing how to shoot the screenplay for maximum impact. That takes knowledge of techniques - and talent. The guy who made THE STRANGERS has both. The movie opens slow - but he manages to use some of the Polanski techniques of keeping the shots just off kilter enough to keep us on edge. The film is all hand held - but not shakey. Just not smooth. They make us figure out the problem the Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman character are having, instead of just dump it on us. This is great, because we have to play story catch up (which keeps us busy before the bad things happen) and puts us on edge - we don't know what is happening.

Eventually, the bad things happen. And sound is a huge part of this film. Again - any movie can have someone knock on a door, here it scares the crap out of you.

A great example of creating suspense through technique is a scene where Tyler is in a closet/pantry with a slatted door and a bad person is just outside. This is similar to a scene in the original HALLOWEEN. We get shots of Tyler alternating with shots *through the slats* of the bad guy outside. And the bad guy doesn't just stand there - he's searching for her. Several times he comes toward the door, but doesn't open it. This builds the suspense. You know that eventually he will find her... but by alternating the shots it stretches out to an eternity of terror. I don't know if the director counted the frames and made each shot shorter than the one before - that's a suspense technique that increases tension - but I'll bet he did.

The film is just relentless. After a while you're winded, and I think because the story doesn't give us a possibility for escape, we eventually just get wrung out. The end is also kind of a let down, but the ride is so spectacular that I could forgive a weak ending. If you want to just have the crap scared out of you in a film that doesn't rely on blood and gore - just film techniques - don't miss this one.

You just know that some low budget idiot (or even a studio idiot) will look at this film and think they can replicate it with 6 actors and a house... without realizing that you need someone with actual skills and talent to pull it off.

- Bill


ObiDonWan said...

I must be kind of unique in this way: I can't stand horror movies. Yeah I've had some horrible moments in my life, but (at least as of now) can't write about them. So I don't see any way to write a horror script.

Eleanor said...

I loved The Descent, first scary film I'd seen in a long time, and I watch a lot of horror.

I'll keep an eye out for The Strangers when it comes out in the UK.

Thanks for the heads-up. :)

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