Sunday, April 01, 2012

Kicking My Blog Back Into Life...

Yes, you got that right. My last post here was almost two years ago! In the meantime I've been focusing more on prose and after meeting someone with a fascinating life story I became motivated to write a book where I will, essentially -- based on a series of interviews -- write a memoir in the subject's voice. (I did also create a non-anonymous web site in the meantime which no doubt contributed to the less-than-regular updates to this blog).

As opposed to novels, non-fiction projects can be submitted initially as book proposals with overviews, summaries and sample chapters i.e. you don't have to write the whole book. So, I wrote the proposal, sent out query 'letters' and was offered representation by a NYC-based literary agent.

The agent wanted me to write an additional sample chapter but -- apart from some minor corrections and restructuring -- she said it was essentially ready to go out. The subject was featured in one televised documentary and is now being featured in another forthcoming theatrical documentary and he has recently published two magazine interviews so I'm hoping it is enough 'platform' to entice a publisher. 'Platform' is a really big deal in the non-fiction realm.

Right now, while trying not to wait for responses from editors (as opposed to film agents and producers -- a new and interesting twist in the waiting game), I've been researching my novel and have pretty much switched off any activity in the film-o-sphere.

So, it was with some surprise that I received an email yesterday from the director of my short film that the film has been selected by and will be screened at a UK film festival this year. It's rather ironic since it is set in London and was completed 5 years ago but, so far, it had only been accepted by US film festivals. A UK film festival selection had always eluded us and -- bearing in mind the 2007 completion date -- we only just managed to slip in.

Of course, it should be noted that the central actor in the short film has, since 2007, appeared in major films and an award-winning TV series AND now has a significant role in a film directed by a legendary film director. Mmmh... I can't help but think that this wasn't exactly a hindrance to the selection process. ;-)

Since the same actor is also attached to our feature film we're hoping that the omens might be good for a slight acceleration of the glacial pace at which the indie-black-comedy has been progressing. On the other hand, I've fallen for those 'omens' before (we parted with our 2nd producer last year and we are now with our 3rd producer who is, effectively, our 1st producer -- LONG story!) So I'm going to avoid future projections and bury my head back in the sand and focus on my long, long, gestating novel. :-)

Signing off...


Sunday, May 02, 2010

Chronicles 72 - Heat Death and other musings

It's been a while and actually I hadn't planned to blog but I find myself on a train (with WI-FI access) having just returned from a class reunion where all of us present were, how should I put it? Of a certain age?

It was a great night - but - having not met anyone there for over 30 years, I couldn't help thinking: What the ...?! Where did all those years go?! And go they did - pretty damn quickly!

Now it might seem like a ridiculous quantum leap to go from a class reunion where we played catch up, reminisced and boogied-on-down to Abba and MJ to a quasi-philosophical rumination on the nature of time itself but maybe that is the side effect of these blast-from-the-past events.

Current theory and observations suggest that the universe came into being 13.75 billion years ago, and that, one day, in a dim and distant future the sun itself will transform into a white dwarf and undergo a slow, lingering death that could last one hundred trillion years.

By the time the universe is 1 trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion years old, all that will be left of the cosmos will be black holes and they will themselves disintegrate into stray particles, which, eventually will decay, leaving a featureless, infinitely large void - and that, ladies and gentleman, will be that - Basta, Feuerabend, Aus. Or will it? There is also a theory that, post this heat death scenario, the universe will implode into an infinitesimal singularity that will trigger yet another big bang and the whole cycle of creation will continue once again.

Now, somewhere in the middle of all this 'alpha to omega' stuff, we incarnate as (to quote Bob Dylan): 'spirits in suitcases of skin'. For a relatively infinitesimally tiny blip of time we are handed: a body, a brain, a bundle of desires, ambitions, wants and loggings - and then - if we survive our average 3 score years and ten, we (perhaps grudgingly) hand back the suitcase.

What we are not told in the beginning is that the ageing process is an exponential curve i.e. the older you get, the faster, in some quasi-Einsteinien way, time seems to fly by which creates the perception of being on an accelerating train with images speeding by at an increasingly faster rate. Simply put: A year as a child is an eternity, a year in your 40's, 50's is a bunch of appointments in your Outlook calendar. (What?! It's Christmas?! Again?)

Lord Byron once said that after all the buttoning and the unbuttoning is done with what we are left with is the summer of a church mouse.

Of course all this is a myopic view as it is focused on the one single life whereas in Hindu philosophy it is said that we re-incarnate time and time again and that the spirit itself or 'Atma' is imperishable and eternal. So if you think a trillion years is long, try eternity. Eternity is long and then some!

So, what's all this got to do with the creative process? Not much, or, perhaps, a lot. Ultimately, if the heat death theory is true whatever man has created whether it be the Pyramids of Cheops, Mozart's Piano Concerto Number 23, Michelangelo's David, the complete works of William Shakspeare and so on, all those great works will, one day, be destroyed and cease to exist. What this means is that all the 'stuff' associated with creativity: validation, celebrity, 'success', fame, acclaim, 'legacy' is nothing more than a transient blip on the cosmic screen. There is no 'legacy' as even the known universe itself will cease to exist one day! The creative process itself is the gift, the moment - everything else is baggage.

Life is brief and, as William Blake writes in his poem The Fly, one day, "some blind hand shall brush my wing". Until such time, enjoy the moment.

The Fly

Little Fly,
Thy summer's play
My thoughtless hand
Has brushed away.
Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink, and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength and breath
And the want
Of thought is death;

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.

Live long and prosper

Friday, September 11, 2009

Chronicles 71 - It's a Marathon...

In the realm of creativity life is fluid, unpredictable, messy. Conversations and activities often seemingly lead to--well--nothing. It is a veritable flux of instincts and intuition. Creativity involves people, and people are fickle, moody, capricious. Sometimes all it takes is a phone call, a face to face, some choice words, a different perspective to turn things around. In an earlier post I talked about my LONG journey in finding a UK producer to partner up with my US producer on my black comedy and FINALLY (hail the sound of trumpets!), a couple of months back, after a meeting with my director, one producer said YES albeit with reservations: he felt (rightly as it turns out) that the script needed more work.

This commitment took about one year to nail down after having had ca. 50 producers read and pass on my script along with a whole bunch of meetings (of the 'close but no cigar' variety) and one other producer who committed and then a few days later, well, uncommitted. However this activity did expand my network and I met producers who liked my writing and are interested in future projects of mine and one producer wants me to rewrite a script (albeit when he gets his development funding through). So 'always look on the bright side of life' as the song goes.

I rewrote the black comedy script in 3 days, and got an email back a week later with a thumbs up--he liked the revision. Actually, it's a good thing he pushed for it as the director and I feel the script is in great shape now. The protag's arc and narrative spine is a lot clearer so now I'm waiting to set up the follow up call to take things to the next step.

The ebb and flow of the various projects I have on the go is quite interesting. Sometimes it seems that all the projects are pushing forward and I think to myself, Okay, one of these is bound to go soon, but then all of a sudden EVERYTHING goes dormant. Everything. Simultaneously! It's weird.

I delivered the revison on the book adaptation 3 weeks ago and the UK producer still hasn't found a window in his schedule to read it and even though the other UK producer sent a short email nearly 2 weeks ago with a quick congrats on my black comedy revision I'm still waiting for his call so we can move forward to the next stage. Also, on my rom-com, we decided that we needed to focus on getting a sales agent on board so my LA producer has been pursuing that, but, again, radio silence on that front. It is strange how everything moves in waves. Then again, since the day job has also been relatively quiet I've been grateful for the downtime.

Back to the rom-com. The casting director has gone out to some quiet big names but we've had no bites so we decided to switch strategy. One has to be very careful in attaching names to a project. The danger is that you attract an actor or group of actors that will not generate the necessary amount of sales estimates in order to recoup on the budget. Having a sales agent on board first, although not easy, can not only help in targeting the right talent but it can also give you an idea if your budget level is realistic. My director met with my line producer a few weeks ago and they both are comforable with working to a smaller budget on a tighter schedule if necessary. So, right now I'm waiting back to see if my LA producer can leverage some of his personal contacts to get a sales agent on board.

The LA producer also approached me with a true-life story, a sort of 60's crime caper, that I was very enthusiastic about adapting but securing all the rights might be a bit tricky because of other family members, a book not controlled by the subject who has had a legal conflict with the author etc. I'm leaving it to the LA producer to work out. If he pulls off the rights acquisition all well and good, if not, well...whatever. That jaded (or is it realistic) vein in me gets deeper and wider as the years go on and the concept of the imminent deal where a project, in white heat-like frenzy gets propelled from script to screen, in lightning time, is rapidly becoming a tale told by tooth fairies.

I know some projects do get fast tracked into production but I don't personally know anyone who has had this experience, although I do have a friend who sold a spec recently which landed in the trades (after years of hard work knocking out script after script and after going through a number of Hollywood managers).

I do have friends who are experiencing progress such as landing US representation along with producers who are packaging their scripts with talent and some are up for assignments etc, but, so far, from my POV, it's looking like a marathon. I personally don't know anyone (including myself!) who has attached a major star to a project. Progress yes, but nothing is moving into production. Also the word from the trenches is that no-one is buying, studio output has been slashed and is mainly restricted to comic book tent poles etc...

Still, I'm pushing on, although I'm not really planning on writing another spec script next year. I pushed back on yet another comission offer as well, too much workload, so my aim is to deliver on all my commissioned assignments (revisions, completion of drafts) which is three projects in total. That will mean that I will have 5 projects in development with 4 producers (2 in the UK and 2 in the US) and unless something else turns up on the script front (e.g. an interesting assignment from another source) I would rather execute the spec idea as a novel rather than a script. I'd also like to write a bunch of short stories. It's all part of a stronger urge to write prose rather than constantly chipping away at the screenwriting seam, a new play would be nice too...let's see. Whatever it may be, experience shows that it's miles not meters...

Ciao for now

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Chronicles 70 - Roll with the punches

Yes, I know, it's been a while. Months, I believe. Well, you know, I'm starting to see this as a bit of a 'boutique' blog. A bi-monthly/quarterly output to a small, very select clientele. ;-)

Truth be told, I am trying to stick to the M.O. of the blog which is to chronicle my 'tales from the trenches' experiences as a writer/producer BUT I'm caught between not wanting to blog about every insignificant quotidian event and, on the other hand, not wanting to jinx opportunities by talking all the energy out of them. Mmhh, guess I should have thought about that before starting the blog, right?

Stll, I think I have made enough faux-progress in recent months to merit a blog post. Warning: this may be a LONG post and may include some self-therapeutic ramblings on my part. It's been quie a ride recently.

First things first: casting directors. Let's start with LA first. Back in Jan/Feb I set up a meeting with an LA casting director and my LA producer regarding my romantic comedy. The conclusion of the meeting from the producer's POV was 'let's move on'. It seemed that the casting director had made it clear that she wanted a fully financed film and a fat fee up front. That looked like the end of that, except, no, wait...

A week or two later she wrote an email to the producer wondering why she hadn't heard anything back from him. The producer wrote back a curt reply along the lines of 'you're looking for a fully financed film, we're not that'. I picked up on the email. I sensed that the casting director was interested, she mentioned that she loved the script, and that maybe she was open to negotiation so I wrote back and gave her an overview as to how we would put the project together and that we could offer her an advance on her fee. She responded positively and told me to get in touch with her agent. Yes, in Hollywood even casting directors have agents!

Now the fun starts. I call the agent and suddenly the fee triples! WTF! It's no longer the advance fee against a deferred casting fee, it's the adavnced fee PER principal lead of which there are three, AND, the agent asks me: 'Can we cap it at two months?'. So now we are looking at three times the fee and her services would only be available for two months. Naturellment, we said 'No expletive way!', well, to each other at least.

We counter offered with the original advance fee PLUS a co-producer credit and some back end points and after much to'ing and fro'ing we signed the deal memo. So far so good.

The casting director has gone out to three 'names' so far. We were forewarned with the two first names that this type of project was probably not what the clients were looking for right now which is agent-speak for 'we want to make money out of these actors and we're pushing them to do studio movies'. That, coupled with the reality that once some UK actors are on a certain trajectory they become obsessed with making it 'big in Hollywood' and therefore chase studio movies.

Anyway, it seems the script did go out to the names and within a month the two UK actors had officially passed. The casting director then approached another bigger name but we were immediately told by the agents that 'this wasn't the type of project he was looking for right now' (the usual 'cut and paste' response) BUT the agency, or rather what I assume is the talent co-ordinator at the agency (at one of the 'Big Four' outfits) offered up a list of alternative names for the lead role in my little ol' film.

There were some serious names on that list, so when we get back to them and say, 'him please' it will be interesting to see whether the script ACTUALLY goes out to said actor. The casting director has also received talent suggestions from other 'Big Four' agencies. We'll have a conference call this week where I am hoping to get a better idea of what's going on i.e. whether the script was well received, whether the producer-director team/project is being taken seriously etc, because, at the end of the day, we are not fully financed. We are in the standard indie Catch 22 situation i.e. need cast to get finance and need finance to get cast.

One positive piece of news came from the US manager of an actor I really like, albeit for the supporting role. The manager requested the script after receiving a breakdown on the project and according to the casting director she loved it, which can only be good. All fuel for the fire to propel the casting director moving forward. After all, it's her reputation that is on the line. In a way, at this point she's functioning as a quasi-agent, representing the project. So, we'll see, moving forward, if she is able to deliver the goods.

That was LA, now onto the UK. In March the director and I met a UK casting director that was really gung-ho for my black comedy. He LOVED it. Thought 'we had a hit on our hands' etc. I explained that we were still looking for a UK co-producer but that we were very interested. All good stuff. He then met my US producer and she loved him and she said that we should nail things down when she comes over to the UK which was meant to be last week. Unfortunately her finance fell through on another film and she had to fly to LA instead. She suggested that we all, instead, arrange a conference call, so, I drop the casting director an email to try and set it up.

The next thing I get a call from him. I think to myself: 'Great, this will be a nice friendly chat and we'll discuss setting up the conference call'. No siree, instead I get ambushed by this guy, going off on some bi-polar rant. WTF! He seemed totally offended at the suggestion of a conference call, insisted that he wanted to deal with me only (ironic, considering that I'm the WRITER!--although I am also the executive-producer) and he said I should call or email him with an offer. I tried to explain that the US producer was the LEAD producer and that the conference call was intended to do just that i.e. that since we could no longer all meet in person we would arrange a call to officially attach him, discuss terms etc. He wasn't having any of it. He insisted on only hearing from me, so, I emailed him with an offer. He passed saying other projects had now come in and he was too busy. 'nout so queer as folk' as they say in Yorkshire.

This incident felt like a double blow since I had received some disappointing news a week earlier regarding a UK co-producer.

My 'Foot in the door' post, chronicles my search, since October, for a UK co-producer. This has not been a walk in the park, to say the least. The tally so far is 49 passes. Yes that's four-ty ni-ne. Now, to put things in perspective: It wasn't and so far, isn't, all negative, in fact, there are still some opportunities that may result out of this campaign. Here is what happened:

Nine production companies were interested in the project, in one form or other i.e. the project or me/my writing. We/I met with all nine either in London or Cannes with the following result:
a) One UK producer was very interested, in fact, he, my US producer and myself all met in Cannes and he attached himself to the project. Great! Then, a few days before my US producer was due in town (which she had to cancel) he emailed me and said that his other projects which included a film fund were moving forward and he would have to 'un-attach' himself from the project. Now, considering all the time, effort and money I had expended in getting to this point I was not a happy bunny.
2) We met a second producer in Cannes who is still in the running. He seems to want to do a lot of development work on the script which I'm not too enthusiastic about. I'm hoping that, if he comes on board and we have a reading of the script combined with him meeting the director we will find a common consensus regarding development. We meet him again next week.
3) We met a third producer in the UK and Cannes who is more of an executive producer. He is setting up what seems like quite a complex and questionable funding structure. If I would get a dollar for every person who told me they were setting up a film get my drift. To cut a long story short: I won't be counting these chickens.
4) We met a fourth company. The development execs seemed to really like the project. We all met, got on well and they said they would pitch it higher up the chain. The 'higher ups' passed.
5) We met a major UK production company. The director of acquisitions told me that his 'trusted reader' had given a very positive report on the script and he said he would read it over the weekend. Cut to 3 months later. We met again and a week later we got the final decision: a pass.
6) We meet another production team who all seemingly love the writing BUT the other partner wasn't at the meeting AND hadn't read the script...oh. So, yes, you guessed it. A week later, I got an email: It's a pass.
7) In March, we meet another production team. The script had been positively evaluated in house. They met us but yet, again, the other partner, who we met with, had not read the script. A week later I get an email saying that, on consideration, they realized that they didn't have the time or resources to work on other projects.
8) I met with the head of production of a major UK company that had liked the writing in my black comedy and wanted to meet to see what else I was working on. No complaints there...all good stuff. It never hurts to build up a fan base.
9) Another UK company loved the writing in the black comedy and we met in Cannes. The offshoot of this meeting is that they are interested in commissioning me to rewrite a script. I read the script last week, gave my honest 'take' on it and we will meet next week when I, once again (!) will fly to the UK hoping to nail things down.

In addition to all this we have a very well respected sales agent interested in selling the project but the US producer, who they love and want to work with, doesn't want to nail them down until we find a UK co-producer. Another Catch 22, since having this sales agent formally attached would definitely be a big help in bagging a UK co-producer.

Essentially I've been spinning plates for about 9 months! It's been quite a rocky ride, one moment we had a very interested casting director and UK co-producer 'on-board' who both seemed perfect for the project then WHAM, the next thing, within a week or so it all went belly up.

I was listening to this clip of Tony Robbins the other day. He said when you encounter a problem (which in Latin means: to throw forth) you face it and you expand and grow from it. Yeah, right, thanks Tony. Still, he has a point. I always find the serenity prayer--accept the things you cannot change, have the courage to change the things you can--a great solace in times where you find yourself sliding down more snakes than climbing up ladders. Of course the epithet: 'Shit happens' sums it up pretty nicely too. ;-)

Still, there is a ray of light on the horizon: the black comedy was sent to the US manager of a UK actor, he liked the writing and passed it to the actor who is now reading. The sales agent is still interested and we are meeting the other potential UK co-producer next week and I will meet with the other team for yet another possible assignment. At least, so far, there are still a few pies in the oven.

On the representation front, which I am not actively pusuing, I had an interesting experience. In Cannes my US producer introduced me to a manager at a big LA management company regarding possible representation. The US producer was raving to the manager about my writing. I sent the manager my script. Since then? Nada, nichts, zilcho. Go figure?

Anyway, I can't sit around waiting for the Blackberry to buzz (although I do!). I had a notes meeting on the book adaptation commission yesterday and I need to move ahead with that. If truth be told the best therapy when you've landed some punches is writing. Just keep writing. It's hard because you want to be in a positive frame of mind when you sit down and write but when you are feeling down, uninspired it's hard to face the page. Lying in bed in the foetal position seems more of an option. LOL. Still, I forced myself, delivered some pages to the producer and felt better because ultimately in this business, the words on the page are the ONLY thing you have any control of, AND, the truth is: the more projects you have out there, the more chance there is that at least one of them gets made. Well, one would hope so and hope does spring eternal...

Ciao for now
SWU - swunderwoods[at]yahoo[dot]co[uk]

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Chronicles 69 - Foot in the Door

The previous post chronicled my last (failed) campaign to find and attach a UK producer to one of my projects. I sent out a whole bunch of emails and everyone passed except a major UK distributor who seems interested--his reader loved the script and we're hooked up for another meeting.

I have another round of meetings in London next week on the back of a new email/phone campaign. This time I have a number of producers interested in getting involved with the project and also have some major UK producers that want to meet me. Why? The numbers game, that's why--something I learnt a long time ago when selling life insurance/advertising space.

I know I have a good product, it doesn't scream 'commercial', but it is of a certain genre--British, urban, gritty--it's solid, original and the voice is strong--it just needs to find its home--so I decided to keep on plugging away--hence the numbers game.

In the numbers game there is one absolute fact: if you make no calls then you'll get no sales AND if you make a LOT of calls you will get a LOT of rejections (the majority actually) BUT with persistence you will get a YES.

In life insurance we used to do all our cold calling on Friday night--about 60-100 calls. If you worked the system this would give you 4 appointments on Monday, 4 on Tuesday and 2 on Wednesday--then--on Tuesday you would cold call again with the aim of filling up the rest of the week i.e. 4 face-to-face meetings per day.

Statistically salesman would then close 1 out of 4 of these meetings with a signed deal. I was never organised or together enough to really work the system on a daily basis, choosing to spend most of my nights blowing my commission cheque in the local pub, HOWEVER, when I did work the system I did discover that--it bloody well worked! The numbers game is a universal law, as is the persistence required to work this game.

Of course we would never directly tell people that we were 'selling life insurance'. We would buffer the hard sell with soft, fluffy euphemisms such as: 'financial consultancy'. Sounds more palatable doesn't it? We also had various scripted presentations and sales techniques for the face-to-face meetings aimed at creating the impression that we were sophisticated financial experts, (there to help, to advise) rather than coming across as the foot-in-the-door brush/encyclopedia salesmen of yore.

However, despite all the smoke and mirrors, a veteran of the insurance industry gave us budding salesmen a very interesting pep talk one day. He said, "Even if you give the worst cold call presentation ever i.e. if you were to go and knock on people's doors and say, 'I sell life insurance, would you like to buy some?', then, statistically 1 in 57 people will say yes". This, my friends, is one of the most valuable pieces of information I have ever been given. It has stuck in my brain ever since--AND--many years later (I only worked in life insurance for about 9 months) I found myself in a position where I had to apply these principles. I found myself, alone, with my first (or rather our--it was co-written) screenplay in my hands along with a phone and a copy of the Hollywood Creative/Agents Directory by my side and I was wondering how I was going to sell our first script to Hollywood.

Applying the life insurance principle I hit the phone. I got a LOT of rejections of the 'referral only' variety BUT to cut a long story short, after many phone calls and after finding a London-based entertainment lawyer I managed to get my script out to about 25 contacts--most of them were production companies but some were also agents and managers.

Many of these production companies called me back, to pass, but still there was an interest there in the writing which led to a number of meetings on my first trip to LA. One producer invited me to her home and even referred me to an agent, who passed. Nothing concrete or tangible came out of that campaign and that first screenplay is now gathering dust on my shelf, still, I discovered for myself that those same numbers game principles coupled with a pre-prepared, strategic phone presentation that I had applied earlier to life insurance also worked with Hollywood.

Flashforward to a few weeks ago. After my first campaign targeting UK producers hadn't produced any tangible results I knew that it wasn't the product as such--I just hadn't hit my stats yet. So, this time I upped the numbers, got hold of a number of on-line databases and went out a lot wider.

I never solely rely on email. Email is great because it allows you to present a project in a concise, lucid and comprehensive way BUT not everyone responds to unsolicited emails, so, I create a special folder for non-responders and follow up with a telephone call. This creates more responses, it puts a voice to a name or you may find that you've used the wrong email address, that person was on vacation, travelling or even sick. Of course, with the follow-up call you might not reach the person and then you have to leave messages with assistants and leave voice mails and even then a number of people still don't respond. In this case I usually let another week go by and call again. Eventually, you reach a point where you catch most of the people on your list.

Apart from the UK campaign I am currently pursuing US casting directors for the romantic comedy project as a conduit to agents and bankable talent. Charles Dickens said of the French Revolution: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times". I would say that this statement has ALWAYS applied to the film industry. It has always been the worst time and the best time to make a film. All recessions and depressions create opportunity as well as misfortune. Currently things are slow in Los Angeles--the SAG situation, the economy etc. The upside in the indie space is that the market will be less glutted with competing product AND people, such as casting directors, actors, directors etc. who in a fecund economy would normally not be available or would be too expensive, suddenly become more accessible.

I have a number of things developing at the moment on various projects--how many of these things will manifest into actual celluloid I have no idea, it could all be a mirage (it often is) and God knows I've been here before, many a time, but anyway in the spirit of self-chronicling here is a litany of the possibilities du jour.

The underlying material which I based my first true-life-story script commission on is now a book that is currently being promoted by a major publisher with serializations appearing in newspapers as we speak. The producer is hoping that this interest will attract directors to the film project and thus MY screenplay. The book is already out to a number of directors.

The second assignment script is going out to directors and I'm having a notes meeting next week on my 3rd assignment--a family comedy. The producer loves what I have done so far so that's good. The only downside is that after this notes meeting I will have to actually go back and write. Yikes!

Last week the director of my rom-com got the script to a bankable actor's representation and the reps (agent and manager) have recommended said actor that "this is something he should do" and "that it would be a good project for him". Encouraging, and it's great that people at that level are reading my work but I try not to get too excited or emotionally attached since I've been here before. Actors at this level are fickle and it's a fickle game. What I am happy about is that we managed to get the gate keepers on our side. That's a plus.

Apart from that I'm waiting back from 4 top US casting directors and have a bunch of meetings set up in London--a mix of distributors, sales agents and potential co-production partners. The numbers game continues--a mass mail out email campaign with follow-up calls has manifested into a number of meetings and also a number of other producers are currently reading the script. The foot is firmly in the door, all that is left now is the hard part, closing one part of a long series of deals. In truth, selling life insurance is easier. :-)

Ciao for now

Friday, December 26, 2008

Chronicles 68 - So guys, what's happening?

Bonjour! Well, another year ticked off--another year of ups and downs, near misses, false hopes and faux-opportunities. No surprises there, right? (Show) business as usual.

The good news is that I managed to overcome my bouts of pathological procrastination and serve up another 35 pages on the family comedy commission.

I wasn't so convinced about this project in the beginning, I couldn't quite see the market, and wasn't sure how this 1950's Enid Blyton-like story would adapt to screen--neither did the producer it seems.

The producer said the treatment felt TV-like. I agreed--but--we talked it out and came to the conclusion that even though the period setting should remain, the teenage characters needed to be more contemporary; that doesn't mean that they should all speak in today's idiom (Oh my God! I was kinda, like, awesome!) but they need to be feistier, sharper; a certain snap, crackle and pop in the dialogue.

I modified the main protagonist--an animated character--and suddenly the piece came alive and the humour bounced off the page; if you don't laugh out loud when you re-read your writing--and it is supposed to be a comedy--then, in my mind, you are in trouble.

Anyway, after I delivered the pages, actually the first screenplay pages (as opposed to treatment pages) the producer called me and was very happy with the results. I'm hoping to get a 1st draft done by the end of '08.

This is my 3rd commission for this producer; he has offered me two more--both historical projects. All good stuff, can't grumble, but I do get concerned that I might end up in assignment hell; not exactly the lowest layers of hell, in fact, technically speaking, maybe more of a limbo--a state of suspension, where, at any time, one can ascend to greenlight heaven.

The problem with working for one producer (i.e. for the assignment work) is that I am relying on him, one individual, to set up these projects whereas I may have a better chance if I were writing 5 assignments for 5 different producers, but, then again, who knows, right?

It's been a tough year for indie-film, or what the studios call 'speciality-film', with the closure of Warner Independent et al. I was close to signing a production finance deal in July but 2 big investors pulled out. It looked like the fund was dead but new investors came on board--then--as the credit crunch really kicked in with a vengeance, that particular fund went on hold again; God only knows if it will ever deliver the goods.

Still, there is light at the end of the rabbit hole--the same project is in a US fund and the UK financier is presenting it to investors as part of another scheme. We dare to dream...

It's been an odd year, a lot of which has had to do with the current market conditions; however, a lot of it is also the nature of this business itself and the--if you get my drift--un-business-like nature of the film business, especially the people who work in it!

We have a US producer 'on board'--the quotes are intentional--for a black comedy drama which doesn't exactly scream 'commercial'. We garnered this particular producer, a veteran of indie-film, after handing her a short film (which is one story thread within the feature).

She was very excited, but then sent the script out to contacts who I believe were the wrong people: US financiers(??) who didn't get it, plus: some Hollywood agents, who also didn't get it (surprise, surprise).

The result of that activity coupled with the fact that we have a first time director led to her going cold, well, let's say lukewarm, on the project--so we agreed that I would find a UK partner.

I've been busy querying UK companies and we've got some nibbles. One guy, a director of acquisitions at a well known European production and distribution outfit said he really liked the short and that his trusted reader was very positive about the script. Trouble is, he said he would read the script that weekend and I'm still waiting for a response--weeks later.

Another producer promised to read it over Christmas. Anyway, after feeding these details back to the US producer she gets 'excited' again and tells her assistant to arrange a phone meeting. The first time she postpones the call, then the next day she postpones and then: cancels--a regular occurrence that I have, since now, tolerated. Not any more. I was piqued to say the least and wrote her a gentle but clear note that we had 'communication issues'. Since then? Radio silence.

Strange but not as strange as the meeting the director and I had with a UK production company, one with major credits, who wanted to see us after viewing the short and (I guess) reading the script.

I was half-buzzed i.e. half of me thought, 'if this works out then we will have hit a home run' and the other half of me was thinking: 'I'm sure this will just be one of those useless meet and greet meetings'. How right I was. The first red flag came via email--the actual producer who I queried wouldn't be available to meet us--so we would meet 'the partner'.

After waiting in a corridor, standing not sitting, we were led to the sanctum sanctorium: a small cramped office where a bubbly, diminutive man greeted us with, what we later surmised, was a rhetorical question: 'So guys, what's happening?'

The director and I looked at each other. WTF? We had to diplomatically convey to our bubbly, bouncy, pumped-up-with-self-worth little man that it was in fact he, or they, or more precisely they, through their assistant, that had emailed us to invite us for a meeting. A meeting? Oh no, this was a pep talk on how (after mentioning that our film did not fall into their remit) impossible it would be for us to set up this film in this present market, unless, we were to attach a certain actor who was ridiculously inappropriate for the role but hugely capable of driving DVD sales.

This sage advice was peppered with various asides, thrown out here and there with characteristic faux-modesty regarding his years of experience and the number of films and subsequent millions of dollars of raw budget finance he had greenlighted; all this with a view to what? To convey what? Well, the sub-text was clear: He was great and, alas, we were not. It seemed as if a spontaneous prostration at the feet of the 'great-one' with the obeisance: 'We're not worthy, we're not worthy' would have been appropriate. The meeting transpired as I had half-predicted so, woe betide the words: 'So guys, what's happening?' AFTER the producer/exec has already read/viewed your material.

To cap that I had a strange incident on Christmas day of all days. A friend of mine referred me to a producer who is looking for a writer to write what on the surface appears to be an indie project with an obscure subject and questionable market.

This producer sends me some information regarding the project and I quiz for details: his background, the status of the finance, is there any upfront money etc? It soon becomes clear that he is becoming increasingly chagrined at my request for details-- and--at one point refers to me as 'the candidate' who 'if selected' will get x% of the budget (ALL deferred!) and a screen credit. Really? You mean if I spend 2-3 months of my precious time sweating out a script, based on your idea, then one day I might actually get paid AND get a credit? Wow, Santa's really come to town this year!

I felt like writing back and saying, 'No, no--that's where you've got it all wrong. When you ask me to write for free then you, the producer, become the candidate, not me. I am the one interviewing you, not vice versa'.

Anyway, this guy was clearly piqued at having the tables turned and admonishes me for, in so many words, looking a gift horse in the mouth, and that instead of asking questions regarding finance I should have somehow embraced this 'opportunity'.

There is a difference between an opportunity and a gamble. An indie-film, on a deferred fee, by a producer with no credits, with an obscure subject and a questionable market is not an opportunity, it's a crap shoot. Still, if he had been more humble I would have been more open to the project but when he started feeding me words such as 'candidate' and 'if selected' the dude lost me.

Being a writer-producer is a bit of a schizoid state. The writer part of the hyphenate is naive and open to having smoke blown up his rear end whereas the producer part knows how hard and how long it takes an indie-project to (if ever) manifest so, he tends to be much more jaded and hard-nosed. Balancing the two is tricky because as a 'creative' one doesn't want to lose one's innocence, one's hope-springs-eternal rose-tinted view of the world but, then again, one needs to keep one eye open to the ways of the business.

Maybe I should switch to poetry, although no doubt that also has its own ups and downs. I recommend the first story in Martin Amis' 'Heavy Water' collection; a future world where poems take the place of spec screenplays, and incur bidding wars, whereas screenplays are submitted purely to be published in magazines. Very funny and on-the-ball.

Still--post rants, moans and caustic barbs--all in all it was a good year: A staged play (met with good press reviews), almost three completed screenplays (2 of them assignments), our short film is now on IMDb (viewable above my credit), I have a novel in gestation and I figured out a basic outline for my new spec; I plan to finish it by spring/summer '09.

Of course, even if the above were not the case it would still have been a good year. I am grateful and give thanks for another year of family, friends and the gift of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

I leave you with the words of an Alison Morissette song: '...may God bless you in your travels, in your conquests and queries'.

Ciao for now, see you in '09!
SWU - swunderwoods[at]yahoo[dot]co[uk]

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Chronicles 67 - Bits and pieces

Delivered some pages to the UK producer which he loved... now have to deliver more... had some meetings in London, some positive, one bizzare... still waiting for finance funds to close (will I be saying the same thing in 10 years?)... MUST do some writing (must, must, must...)... I need to deliver more pages for the comedy assignment... I have been offered yet another historical assignment project... sounds interesting, but will these films EVER get made? Ahhh...there's the rub...

I had a meeting with a major European production company and distributor. The head of acquisitions really liked our short and he said his trusted reader gave a VERY positive response on my black comedy script... he will read this week... hope springs eternal...

Been reading a lot... Tolstoy, Toni Morrision, Updike, Iriving, Nathanael West, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mailer, Michael Chabon, Vonnegut...

I loved The Great Gatsby, wonderful prose passages. Toni Morrison is a great writer - I read The Bluest Eye and look forward to reading more of her work. I much prefer Updike to Irving, enjoyed Rabbit Run but didn't particularly enjoy 'The World According to Garp', ended up speed reading my way through it at the end.

I'm in the middle of Anna Karenina. Tolstoy's great strength is an amazing psychological and philosophical insight into the human condition, the greatest passages are those where we are inside the characters' minds and souls. Having said that I find his style quite ponderous at times and dare I say it--prosaic. The language of Joyce mixed with the philosophical depth of Tolstoy, ahh, that would be something....

Ciao for now

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Chronicles 66 - That Old Chestnut

Again, I haven't blogged for about a month. I'm not the most frequent of bloggers, although, surprisingly, I do still seem to attract a small but loyal band of readers, so, gentle readers, I thank you for that!

The frequency of my blog posts tends to be linked to scenes in my life that push the writer-producer narrative forward, so, as things have been slow recently, there have only been a few uneventful, character-development scenes in the screenplay of my life.

Right now I'm working on my 3rd script assignment, a family comedy, which is currently over the deadline partly because of the hectic schedule of my day job, which has cooled down thankfully, and the producer's delay in getting back to me with notes. The latter is a situation that I am quite happy with as it gives me an excuse not to write. I know real writers are supposed to write every day but I don't and if truth be told, I don't particularly want to write every day.

Stephen King says that if you want to write you MUST read. This is something I haven't really being doing. I mean, I've been reading a lot of books either about the industry (either from a screenwriting or producing point of view) or books directly related to an assignment for research purposes (or plays) but I haven't been reading novels or short stories/articles which is mainly what Mr. King is referring to.

For novel writing it seems to be de riguer to read other novelists. As a person I tend to be quite purpose orientated, I'm not a 'casual' reader, so, whatever I read is normally linked to some purpose or 'project'.

However, lately I have been getting my teeth into a number of novels because as the years go by, the desire to finish the novel I started writing 14 years ago is getting stronger and stronger and this desire is further accentuated by the general frustration at the sine wave-like, up and down, stop-go, stop-go nature of film making.

I have a number of projects 'out there' with several producers, in various stages of financing with scripts being read by various directors. A veritable womb, pregnant with possibilities. It's not that doors don't open for me, they do, but sometimes I get the feeling that a door opens and when I step into the room it disappears, dissolving, mirage-like, in front of my eyes.

I'm engaged to write two more script assignments, which is great, it's not to be sniffed at, BUT a screenwriter's career is driven by the 'spec' and there comes a point where one says to one self, "Do I really want to write another spec that will probably take 5-10 years to manifest into cellulod - if ever?".

So, I'm thinking out loud here, but, I may very well hold off on writing another spec script, fulfill my contractual obligations on the current script assignments and just wait and see what happens to all the various film projects that I have 'out there'. That is not to say I will disown them but if I have six screenplays out there in various stages of 'being produced' this might be a good time to get back to where I left off, 14 years ago i.e. back to that old chestnut, that cliche, the, dare-I-say-it: (sound of a drum roll) semi-autobiographical first novel!

If I examine closely my motivation to write screenplays part, not all, but part of the motivation is from the outside-in, i.e. following the market or writing an assignment because it looks good on my writer's CV etc, it's all linked to the idea of a sale or to some sort of career move.

I'm not saying that the writing of a novel would be without any worldly aspirations or would be written, nose to the page, blindly oblivious to the realities of the publishing world but in screenwriting it is very hard to seperate the 'art' from the buisness. You always have one eye on the market because of the sheer amount of money involved. Even in the indie-world, unless you are very low-budget you are still talking in the range of 1-15 million dollars.

After a while all this outside-in creativity starts to feel a little 'tried', manipulated, very goal orientated, high on craft, execution but low on inspiration.

Screenwriters talk about knocking out high-concept scripts, one after the other, like an assembly line, hoping the high-concept mud will one day stick to a Hollywood studio's wall. This whole idea is increasingly becoming anathema to me and I'm beginning slowly to form an extreme dislike for that term, 'high-concept'.

The idea of sitting down and writing a spec is beginning to feel like a chore, something I have to do, almost under duress, to move forward. Maybe it's because I'm getting old, hey, call me old-fashioned, call me crazy, but isn't writing or creativity, art per se, supposed to be a joy?

Notice I use the word joy, not 'fun'. The word 'fun' seems to have been stripped of all its meaning in its current cultural usage. "It's a fun script but it's not really what we're looking for right now". Fun is a superficial piece of lingustic cellophane that can be used to wrap around any scenario, (the term 'cute' is even worse!) whereas joy is something deeper, joy comes from the soul, the spirit.

So, recently I've been asking myself what I want to do next, apart from the script commissions which I'm obliged to write. I have 3 spec ideas, a screenplay, a play and a novel, and if I'm honest with myself, and search my soul, the project - actually let's scrap that word 'project' - the inner inspiration that pulsates and resonates the strongest within me right now is the novel, so I guess I better hitch my wagon to that star.

Now, the danger here is that, being a purpose-orientated person, that I go off researching yet another platform, the book world, and end up trying to follow that market so I hope I'm able to resist that. Old habits die hard though.

Does the world need another semi-autobiographical first novel? No, I guess not. Will it be published? God only knows - it would fall into the literary fiction category so the chances are small (yes, I've read all the depressing statistics). Do I need to write it? Yup, it certainly looks like it.

Ciao for now

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Chronicles 65 - Zen and the Art of Writing

It's been a while since I blogged. I've been totally wrapped up in courseware development and training delivery on a software product I specialize on. The day job took me to New Jersey/New York for a week which was great. The weather was perfect, very warm, but not humid or stifling.

I love walking the streets of New York and taking in the architecture. I was never big on photography until this year when I bought a digital camera in New Orleans. After capturing images of the French Quarter I was hooked and found myself roaming the streets of the Big Apple snapping away at the skyscrapers.

As well as working, chilling and meeting with friends I also met with my New York producer. The meeting was kinda downbeat. Indie film is on its knees right now. To quote Peter Bart in his blog, "I must have been preoccupied because I missed the ‘thud.’ The sound, that is, of the specialty film business landing in the basement."

Mark Gill, former VP of Warner Independent, talked recently about "the sky falling" in the independent film sector. That, coupled with the fact that I have a first time director and a script that is dark, very British, very London that not everyone 'gets' (especially US financiers and agents) has led to a change of strategy.

So, this week I've been querying UK production companies to find a partner for the US producer. I sent the short film to a few production companies after Cannes and we got a good response but the feature script wasn't ready then, now it is, so I have a bit of a 'package'. A director, a short, a script and a US producer who has just shot a film with A list talent.

The encouraging news is that I've got excellent feedback on the script from peers in the US and UK. It seems that people who 'get it' REALLY 'get it'. We just need to find that guy/gal who believes in the project and will champion it through the stormy waters of buyer's markets, credit crunches and the ever increasing market trend to follow the 'names'. No 'name' equals no finance and no distribution.

I'm getting a rough budget estimate done right now but essentially we are leaning towards a low budget. I spoke to another seasoned New York producer in Cannes who was interested in hiring me as a writer on a book adaptation. He looks for edgier scripts that have challenging roles for actors. That way, he gets them cheaper based on the principle that a) for younger up-and-coming actors it is a vehicle to showcase their acting skills and b) for older actors it can revitalize their career. He told me that he was paying some of the older actresses (and these are great names albeit no longer on producer's A lists) as little as 1200 dollars a week.

The whole trick is to make the film as cheap as possible because if the recoupment is only going to be 5 million, if you make it for 3 mill that's 2 mill profit. Not to be sneezed at.

The global financial crisis of course affects the film business especially as a lot of indie gap money comes from banks. About a month and half ago I got a call from the financier on my rom-com that two of his major investors were having liquidity problems and things were not looking good. A week later he found some new investors and he was back on course, and, fortuitously another fund opened up as well. So I went from one single funding possibility to none and then to two in the space of a week or so. The end result of all this is that, IF these funds actually deliver the goods then I'm looking at being financed, on the rom-com, by the end of the year. I'm not holding my breath, although I am still seeing the glass half-full. A case of quite, reticent optimism as opposed to wild and rampant, adrenaline-fuelled excitement. Been there, done that - it kinda gets tiring.

In the meantime I'm behind on my assignments. I should have delivered a final draft by now and all I've done is delivered the first draft of the treatment! I've taken a couple of weeks off work to catch up so after posting this blog I need to drag my butt over to Starbucks and hit those keys. Yes, on assignments, payment is a good motivator but so is the fear of losing the gig! Still, the producer understands my situation and knows that things can get crazy with my job. The other two assignments are either with, or on their way, to directors. Another black hole, along with the animation companies who were so keen on our ideas in Cannes and seem to have gone into semi-permanent radio silence.

A few weeks ago I started putting a post together on the right mind set required in order to deal with the vicissitudes of what is essentially, as far as I am concerned, the independent film market, (I don't really have anything to do with the studios or studio based production companies right now). I didn't get to finish the post so now that I've got some down time I can finally put digital pen to paper.

I was putting together a goal plan for my 'writing career' and after suffering a few set backs which have, in the meantime, reversed themselves, I came to the realization that if you don't get into the right mind set it is possible to fall into a trap of being constantly frustrated in this business.

The film business is not big on instant gratification. Projects can take years to manifest and at any point on that journey you can literally be a hair's breadth away from a greenlight and in the next moment the whole thing can turn into a distant dream again. The harsh reality is that most of our scripts, if not all of our scripts may NEVER get made and you can easily spend your life chasing a mirage, an elusive parallel universe of wealth, kudos and critical acclaim. If that becomes the be all and end all then the NOW will always be incomplete, filled with pockets of dissatisfaction, disappointment and frustration. Not really the best way to live a life.

Just around the time I was musing on these thoughts I had been forcing myself to push ahead with the script assignment and I got down to writing the treatment - a family comedy. After some time, I got into the groove and the characters started to come alive, I found myself enjoying the process and chuckling to myself as the humour started to manifest. That's when I realized, this IS the goal. The goal is to enjoy the process, even though it may be difficult and requires great discipline at times, because the rest, the transformation into celluloid and any accompanying success is icing on the cake that may NEVER happen.

The purpose and enjoyment is in the actual CREATION of the screenplay, and even though a screenplay is designed to be made into an actual film, you can still enjoy the film created in your own head. That way, at the end of your life when you are asked about the scripts that you spent so many hours creating which never got made you can say that you experienced the magic and mystery of creating something out of thin air, words on a page that you forged into a dramatic, captivating form to create a story, a journey, a tale told in someone else's shoes.

Even if the film never gets made, there are still people out there who have read our scripts and have been moved, captivated, have laughed, been entertained by our writing, maybe not in celluloid form, but in their imaginations.

The dirty little secret here of course is that, if you pull off the creation bit well, very well, then your chances of taking that quantum leap from imagination to silver screen are greatly enhanced, albeit, sadly, never guaranteed.

Ciao for now

Friday, July 04, 2008

Chronicles 64 - Jumping through Hoops

Writing, or at least the manifestation of writing into some sort of form - book, film or play - is all about jumping through hoops.

The very first hoop you encounter is the 'do I actually have any talent?' hoop. After sending your work out you hopefully get the feedback that, yes, there is something there, don't give up the day job but do keep on writing.

Well, I think I can safely say that I've jumped over that hoop. I'm now working with producers, who themselves have worked with some of the biggest names in the business, who have faith in my work and who believe that it is worth investing their time and money into transforming the ink on my pages into on-screen celluloid. So, have I 'arrived'? No. I've just jumped through more hoops than the guy/gal who is now putting pen to paper with the belief that they 'have what it takes'.

In the film world, writing isn't just about writing. It's also about marketing and networking and getting your 'product' out there in a highly competetive 'space'. As chronicled in this blog I decided to go down the writer/producer route rather than pursue the 'querying agents' route after being unsuccessful with the latter. Now, whether I would have been better off just staying at home churning out spec after spec and writing emails to agents/managers instead of investing time flying to film festivals and tracking down producers and financiers I will never know. What's done is done, and anyway, sod it, as for flying to LA, NYC and Cannes, hey, it's been a blast. All about the journey, right?

Anyway, I digress, back to jumping through hoops. So I've jumped a few already, I've attached track record producers, directors and finance to my projects, and significantly, I've reached the point where I'm getting paid, alebit not that much, but I am getting paid to write screenplays. I'm a professional screenwriter, in no position to give up the day job, but, hey, progress is progress.

Sounds great, right? Well, yes it is, until one looks at the hoops on the road ahead. A lot of pieces still have to fall into place until I get to see my words on the silver screen.

I am currently negotiating various contractual hoops regarding my romantic comedy and the outcome as yet, is uncertain, even the financiers are quiet new at this, nice guys, but one hopes they can pull off what they promise. At this stage, there are no guarantees, and in any case, the finance can drop out at any time, even in the middle of production! Witness what has happened to the latest David O. Russel project, he has had to stop shooting for the second time now due to Capitol Films' cash flow problems.

My black comedy script has been signed off by the other US producer and she is currently in discussions with a UK sales/production outfit who are already working with her on another project. She's optimisitc that this is the right home for my project but there are some issues with her other project that need ironing out first, which, is short for, we, the director and I, just have to sit tight and wait. There's nothing we can do right now although we are both extremely eager to move forward. So, two projects with two accomplished producers on board but, as yet, there are still many hoops to jump through. A major one, of course, will be attaching cast. That'll be fun. Watch this space.

I hear about script writers getting excited when they bag an agent or manager and that is how it should be, it's well deserved, but, getting representation is one hoop, then the script has to find a producer/buyer and even then, if it is sold as a spec there is no guarantee that the film will actually get made. Directors can come and go and the next thing, wham, you're in development hell.

My first script assignment is out to a major director via CAA. I got an email from the producer that the agent had told him that the director would be reading it by July 4th. Guess what today's date is? Mmmh...

This producer recently had some announcements in Variety and Screen International so he seems to be jumping through some hoops himself but as far as I know although he's attached some good directors to his other projects I don't think he's attached any cast as yet. Still, in a way, his progress is my progress. The 2nd script is also out to directors and when we met in Cannes he said that one UK director was interested after reading the script BUT he's currently on 2 other films. R...i..ght, so was that good news or...? Is he going to make the movie or not? Did he say he wanted to direct the movie? Huh? Anything? Something? A morsel...please. Nope, that was it, some expression of interest to be discussed at some point in the future. Great - NOT!

The danger in this game is that you are in a perpetual state of expectation, waiting for that email to come in that says enthusiastically and without reservation YES, YES, YES! But usually it's more a case of, 'So did he actually read the script?' 'Did he/she like it?' 'Do they want to direct, invest, produce, attach?'...etc... etc...and there you are again, grasping away at invisible straws.

As for Cannes 2008, although I am waiting back on feedback on our animation projects from 3 companies and a producer who mentioned he might be interested in me adapting a book, as predicted, some of the contacts have either fizzled into radio silence and not responded at all to my follow-up emails and others have passed on my scripts. So, as yet, the world of exciting possibilities that was Cannes hasn't crystallized into anything substantial, BUT, and here speaketh the eternal optimist within, it can take 2-6 months before anything concrete manifests after the festival.

The film business rarely does quick, it's a journey and invariably a long one, there is no instant gratification so better to lay back, enjoy the ride and raise your glass to the little succeses along the way. Another day, another hoop!

Ciao for now