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Stories from a seasoned screenwriter. Take heart! Your creative source is infinite and un-ending. Sometimes Hollywood just rips up the roadmap back to it. The bottom line is that Hollywood is not at all as bad as it sounds. Additionally, it's worse than you can imagine. Remember to pack a sense of humor.


I am a screenwriter living in Southern California. I've written screenplays for most of the Hollywood studios over the past 20 years. One of the uncredited writers of FANTASTIC FOUR, I wrote FIRE DOWN BELOW starring Steven Seagal, and the TV Movie 12:01 PM starring Martin Landau and MANEATER with Gary Busey. I have directed short films. I have written on numerous Hollywood studio assignments, some for big shot actors, some for small shot nobodies.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

TV pilot vs. TV spec

I just finished a draft of a tv pilot. Cable. Half hour. It made me think about the art of TV writing, and how efficient you have to be at creating the gem of a scene. 'Enter late and leave early' is the old writers adage about scene writing to remind us not to waste space. It's even truer on the small screen where time is clocked so precisely. Your script needs to be a string of gems, essentially. You don't have time to waste.

This made me think on the value of writing a pilot as part of the writers arsenal. Not just a selling tool for the series, the pilot is a great reading sample to prove yet another skill set.

And when you're trying to get a staff job on a tv show, what's the best writing sample? Is it better to write a spec episode of a popular show or a spec pilot?

Hands down it's the pilot. If you're trying to figure out a new episode of Breaking Bad, or Awake or dare I say, House, don't. I know one of the writers on House. And they're very clear when they're looking at new writers that the spec episodes of popular shows are no longer the way in. "It feels stale...we want to hear new voices," is the best paraphrasing of our discussion. "Write something new."

So if you're going to the trouble of creating a spec script to begin with, make sure you're writing the right kind.

Want to write for One Tree Hill? Walking Dead? Desparate Housewives? Look at the format, hour or half hour? Look to the genre, teen drama, thriller, dark comedy? And think of a new world in that drama.

There's multiple upsides - you're not just creating a writing sample, but a potential shot of your own.

Do you need an A list actor in an independent film?

The short answer, No. But it comes with several qualifiers.

a) is the film $400,000 and under? Then you can make a genre film and probably guarantee a $500,000 return on horror/violence from a Distributor, thereby convincing a financeer, but not more. So if you stay in that framework you don't need bankable stars.

b) you do it for even less than $400K and crowdfund or have angels back you and cross your fingers when you go to sell it.

After that you're looking at bankable talent to pre-sell and finance an independent film. The new 'micro budget' films of $400,000 and under are the result of desperation. A temporary framework that is holding because so many people are out of work, and can grab a few days or weeks at low pay on one of these - so that they can survive to the next one.

I just wrote one of them, and had an amazing cast and crew, so I know by experience.

The next level of budget jumps farther and has bankable talent. $1.5 M and up need stars, and even non A list stars, but say stars of a cable franchise or HBO series could generate the kind of budget as Distributors feel confident of that return.

I know this too as a friend secured a star of a cable series for a film of her's last summer, and raised $1.5 million off of his name - and they made the film - and it turned out great.

The time has never been better for independent films in terms of cast and crew that you attract. So do all you can to generate a script that will magnetize what you need.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Independent Movie Making

With the studios hiring fewer people for fewer films, the independent movie making world is suddenly flush with incredibly talented people on both sides of the camera who are ready to work. It's been true for the past few years, but now benefits from that precedent. We all benefit because it's become less theory and more practice. Producers and Distributors know that talent 'x' can raise budget 'y' because it happened last summer.

I wrote a film that was funded and shot last fall starring John Michael Higgens (one of Chris Guest's ensemble regulars) and a fantastic actor. Michael has an amazingly long resume of performances (and is enough of a chameleon that he played Letterman in 'Late Night Wars') and has the skill to make any scene funny. That he can then repeat the performance perfectly for those in the editing room and get a laugh every time is a bit mind blowing. He's one of those guys.

The fact that he's also considerate, creative and incredibly giving as an actor just ruins everything.

One of the hallmarks of independent movie making is how carefully you design the budget. There's about 5% worked in for overtime and errors. The fact that we had two rain days killed us. We had to jam more than we expected to the other remaining days. Chasing the daylight every day can become a bit waring.

But when you have to collapse scenes and re-write on the set because you're losing the light - and make it all work by the end of the day it's a bit of an intellectual (and somewhat stressful) challenge. Michael has some kind of on-board pattern recognition system. He can see the entire shape of a scene, and isolate the important moments. He was invaluable when we had to trim moments, or shorten scenes and brought very creative suggestions about how to keep what was essential and lose the extra fat.