Wednesday, January 08, 2020

California Scheming

From 10 years ago...

I’m sitting in a fast food place writing this, and there’s a funny slogan on the soda cup. Somebody wrote that.

Mystery writer Ron Goulart wrote a private eye series in the 70s and 80s and also wrote just about anything else that would help pay the rent - you’ve probably read some of his work because he wrote puzzles and games and stories for the back of cereal boxes. He also wrote the best non-fiction study of the golden age of the pulp magazines.

As writers, we often only see the markets we want to see - and disregard the rest... to paraphrase Simon & Garfunkle. We often miss the niche markets... and even overlook some non-niche markets that may not have any obvious appeal to us. “Who wants to write ____?”

Well, a friend of mine is in a meeting right now with a producer, involving a scheme that I am a part of, and if everything goes okay he will sell his first screenplay and I will eventually tell you all about it. There are also some lessons to be learned about working in under-served genres and ideas that you may think are dumb and opening your eyes to possibilities that are so obvious that you do not see them.

My friend was looking for producers to sell his scripts to and happened upon a producer who was not interested in his wheelhouse genres... and did a very smart thing. He asked what they were interested in. Now, most people don’t do this - I don’t do this. I take the rejection and move on. But my friend asked a simple question. And got an interesting answer. He discovered this producer was looking for a specific niche genre that is popular but no one seems to want to write it. This is kind of strange, but not unheard of. On message boards there are often people who are excited by some cool, sexy genre, but don’t even consider some fairly popular niche genre because it sounds boring. People who want to write some popular genre always go for the cool ones... and often don’t care much about the “meat and potatoes” genres. Well, this producer makes some of those boring genre films, and is looking for scripts.

My friend had never considered this genre. It had never crossed his mind. Now, this is where most writers who ask that “Well, what *are* you looking for?” question get the answer and think, “Well, I don’t write that” and walk away. But my friend thought about the genre - it’s not porn, it’s nothing with some major stigma... it’s just kind of dull. This is not the genre that people sell million dollar scripts in. This is not the genre that wins Oscars. And this particular producer is making direct to DVD movies (for budgets in the millions with actual names in the cast) so it’s not going to play film fests and win you awards. It’s a pay check on a film that will be on the shelves at Blockbusters (well, until they close them all down). Meat and potatoes stuff. He could write that - and sell the script to this producer - and get his first credit - and use it as a stepping stone to some other work. My friend came up with a great story, wrote up a treatment, and set up a meeting with this producer - using his script in his favorite genre to get the door open.

Well, my friend called me yesterday, and told me about his scheme. The scheme on top of writing the film not his his favorite genre. See, this producer makes a handful of films a year in this genre, and my friend plans on pitching them not just his story... but one of mine... and our writing services for future projects. The producer needs a half dozen scripts a year, why not provide 4 of them between the two of us? Would I be interetsed in this? I thought about it, and said "Why not?" Hey, I can quit at any time, and though I currently have work - well, that's the best time to look for more work. This is a business with no visible means of support - sell a script, do the rewrites... and you are now unemployed! The weird thing is, even though I have never considered this niche genre, I instantly came up with some ideas for stories I would want to write. If someone says: "Lesbian Love Story" to me, my mind instantly comes up with lesbian love story ideas. Hey, how about a lesbian version of STRANGERS ON A TRAIN with a strong love story element? Anyway, it's not lesbian love stories...

So far, none of this seems very schemish, right? But here’s where his idea rocks... He is pitching them on the idea of developing some film franchises - and producers love franchises because when one hits, they can just keep making them... with the last film as the advertisement for the next film. Hey, maybe we even put them in numbered DVD boxes? The films all have non-number titles, but the packaging encourages consumers to collect them all. The great thing about franchises from a writer's perspective is that you are creating future work for yourself (though this did not work for me on INVISIBLE MOM as my sequel idea was for top secret gov't scientist dad to invent a time machine and the kid plays with it and gets sent back to the 1860s Wild West, and mom has to go back and rescue him - GUNSLINGER MOM - but the producer wanted mom to just be invisible again... so they hired some other writer... and I didn't write *any* of the 4 sequels!).

Now, the next element of his scheme is also genius - one of the problems with this niche genre is that it is kind of old fashioned - it has been around forever in print fiction. Old fashioned is often thought of as a bad thing, especially if you are writing something cool. But old fashioned also means the genre has a long history... and that means public domain. Expired copyrights. My friend has found some public domain material in this genre with “brand name characters” - famous fictional characters. You’ve heard of them. The problem every low budget film company has is how to publicize their films - how do you make sure that people pick up YOUR DVD rather than the other company’s DVD when in that soon-to-be-closing Blockbuster? Well, a familiar title or famous character name is a great way to do that. Once those Blockbusters are closed and it’s all NetFlix, brand names may become even more important. But what amazed me is that no one else had exploited these characters, whose names you would instantly recognize. Maybe someone has written a script about them and I don’t know about it... but I doubt there are many floating around... and most are probably written as big budget projects. Though this is a popular niche, it’s not popular enough for some huge Hollywood tentpole. It’s a *niche*. So using this public domain material is a great idea, only if you look at the size of the audience for a film like this.

My contribution - nothing major - is the idea of doing *new* sequels to famous public domain titles in this under-served genre. Hey, if we can have Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters, why can’t we take some other public domain book and give the protagonist some further adventures? I came up with some ideas and gave them to him. These were off the top of my head, and sounded like things that would be fun to write... even though they aren’t exactly in my wheelhouse, either. But I’ve always wondered what happened to that character after the famous story ended... You know, all of this stuff isn’t earthshattering - but a way to harvest some basic “mental real estate” the same way Hollywood is making TRANSFORMERS and MONOPOLY and remaking every film you ever saw in the 1980s. Taking that brand name character and finding new adventures in their lives.

Back when Spielberg had just signed to make JURASSIC PARK, I was at AFM trying to sell a producer, any producer, on making A.C. Doyle’s THE LOST WORLD - a novel in public domain with dinosaurs. I even knew a guy with some great stop-motion dinosaur footage. Every single producer said no - they had never heard of the book and one producer told me the best they could do was some sort of campy knock off of the Spielberg movie... which confused me. Why was that the best we could do? Well, all of this was before JURASSIC came out... after, many of those same producers discovered that THE LOST WORLD was in public domain and made their versions of it. We had a half dozen LOST WORLDS, plus a TV series. (More of my bad timing, I guess - should have come back *after* JURASSIC came out and pitched the same exact project.)

Though it’s probably too late by now, all of those crappy video games we played when computers first came out could probably be sold as movies these days.

I may have mentioned this in a previous blog entry - a friend of mine and I have a game where we come up with the *dumbest* idea for a movie we can think of... then count the days until someone sells a script with that same dumb idea. Do you see the problem with this game? We had the same dumb idea, but we aren’t making low-six figure against $1.2 million like the guys who wrote the scripts. We would *joke* about BATTLESHIP: THE MOTION PICTURE... and now they are making it. Hey, I’ve joked about SLINKY: THE MOTION PICTURE... maybe I should actually be developing a pitch for that? The thing is, we all have some form of tunnel vision - we see where we want to go, but don’t see all of the other cool places we *could* go. My friend asked a question, opened his eyes, and realized that there was a producer who was looking for material... and figured out the very best material to sell that producer. Any of us could have done the same thing... but we did not.

Another friend, Steve, realized that there is a minority (that he is not a part of) who are under-served by Hollywood... and the scripts out there written by the minority seem to mostly be about them struggling as a minority - not genre stuff. So Steve has decided to write some genre stuff for this minority and discovered producers are really interested. Seems the ticket buyers in this minority already know what it is like to struggle, and want to escape the struggle by seeing some cool genre movie where they get to have fun - like middle class white people in movies do. They need escapism, too - but the minority writers are all writing serious stuff. Personally, I would have never considered writing for a group that I am not a part of... and that was Steve’s genius - he found a need and filled it, even if he seems like the wrong guy to do that. They were looking for *scripts* and he’s a screenwriter.

If my friend’s scheme comes through, I may have a strange side job writing films in a niche genre that isn’t the least bit sexy or cool... but I can quit when it stops being fun, and I can those paychecks to finance some time to write more specs (where things *do* explode) that I can sell for lots-o-money or snag an agent or use as writing samples for the next next-next Tom Clancy film. Funny thing about this niche genre - for all I know it’s some big name producer’s favorite genre. By doing the thing not in my wheelhouse, I might be opening the door to sell some spec script that is in my wheelhouse. And if noting happens from all of this? Hey, both of us are back where we started... but maybe my friend sells *his* project to the producer. That would be cool.

Lesson learned - keep your eyes open for *all* possibilities. Not just the ones that seem on the direct route to your career destination. When someone is looking for something in a strange genre, don’t automatically think “I don’t write in that genre”, think “Hey, they need a script, I could write one for them!” When something sounds silly, stop and look at it again - maybe it’s a genius idea? And find some schemes for yourself - some unusual ways into the business.

What’s your scheme?

What's your *clever* plan to sell a script or two?

UPDATE: Well, it's 2015 and this didn't happen. Can I tell you what the problem was? My friend wrote a treatment that had one foot in the under served genre... and the rest of its body in his favorite genre. It was as if I were to write a family film and it was full of car chases and shoot outs and explosions... The worst thing is, when he told me what he was going to pitch I said that he needed to focus it on the genre they were looking for and he said that was exactly what he was going to do. But that's not what he did. The pisser for me is that I actually came up with stuff that *actually* fit what they were looking for. Not that this was my scheme, I didn't really care that much (and was actually a bit concerned that I might be stuck writing their whole damned slate of films when my friend found some way to screw up... that happened to me once before... which is why I don't cowrite with *anyone*). But it seemed like a missed opportunity. I think the lesson here is that once you see the possibility, commit!!!! Get both feet and the rest of your body into that genre and write the absolute best screenplay in *that genre*. Don't think of it as a scheme, but as a serious shot at something. Not something you're gonna hack out to make some money. Always do your absolute best work and make sure that you deliver the screenplay that is *better* than what they expected.

- Bill

1 comment:

Atlanta said...

Fingers and toes crossed for you and your friend! May lovely things come to pass with this gig.

My favorite story re public domain, kind of, the 2005 Lego Star Wars game. Traveller's Tale had a Lego license, easy to attain (and assumption of kid audience)... and Legos had a Star Wars line ("mental real estate" bonanza). Well, they made a kick-ass Lego Star Wars game that adults loved too, and wow did they put themselves on the map and get rich from it. Heard about this in interview with developer, not able to find story online, but this is my favorite tale re seeing a possibility where other folks hadn't.

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