Saturday, July 29, 2006

Chronicles 30 - The Early Years - Part 2

Autumn 1999 - Hitting Hollywood

2 years after Cannes '97 where we pitched the VP at Columbia Tri Star along with execs at Fox, USA films and other prod. co's our script was ready. It had taken us some time to actually create a draft we felt was 'market ready'. This was for a number of reasons:

Very soon after Cannes '97 my friend, who at that time was struggling to get work even in non-salaried fringe theatre productions, suddenly got transported into another world. He was selected in the lead role of a VERY highly rated and popular UK TV series. Suddenly he was having back to back interviews and getting featured in Hello magazine. He was also under a very heavy filming schedule so he had to juggle working on the script with preparing his lines for the next day's shoot. I was also doing a lot of research on the script at the time as well as working on a couple of theatre projects. One was the rewrite of my first full length play and the other was a Theatre in Education play which was staged in a couple of schools. So, all in all, things slowed down somewhat on the script writing front.

Progress Report 1994-1999

Five years after my initial impulse to write a novel and get 'creative' I had:

1) Staged a short play
2) Staged a public reading of my full length play
3) Staged a full length children's play
4) Co-written a screenplay
5) Written a few short plays that didn't get anywhere
6) Not finished my novel. Actually I hadn't even started. I still only have 6 pages!

What is 'success'?

Mmmh...I wasn't exactly going to go down in history as one of the more prolific writers of my time and so-called 'success' as a writer was looking elusive.

How does one define success? Well, we all have different definitions of success but for me I would say that success is the full realization of a project, whether it be a play, a film or a novel, which is then met with a positive response from an audience - where they laugh, they cry, they are moved, engaged, entertained, drawn in, where they feel and fear for the characters and experience directly the resulting dramatic catharsis. Of course the side-effect of this may be awards, fame, fortune, houses in Malibu, wall-to-wall Plasma TV's but these are the spoils - the success, for me, is getting the damned thing produced in the first place - and that, as I was beginning to learn, was no mean feat. Sure, I had experienced some success, according to my own definition of the word, in theatre, but film, phew, that was a tough one.

Get me an agent - Now!

I was about to enter into the belly of the beast - Hollywood. But, before that, we sent the script out 'wide' to a whole host of UK agents in the hope that they would approach Hollywood on our behalf. I'm not sure how many agents in the UK have strong Hollywood connections. I suspect not that many. Still, we must have sent out about 20 scripts and we were met with a few positive responses and one invitation to a meeting. We went along to the meeting and the agent seemed like a nice chap but he didn't really commit to anything. I think he gave us a few notes and later passed. A couple of other agents expressed interest in the script/story but no-one committed.

It was time to go it alone. It was time to approach Hollywood directly. Now, having sold life insurance where you have to make hundreds of cold calls and knock on many doors to secure a sale I was used to the concept of 'the numbers game'. It was a good training ground for rejection.

How to break into Hollywood

A life insurance salesman told me that you should thank each 'No' that you get because statistically you need the 'No' to get the 'Yes' and therefore since you need X number of 'No's' to get a 'Yes' each 'No' actually has monetary value. You will not get your commission fee without enduring a number of 'No's'. The 'No's' are part of the deal. It's simple maths and statistics. My approach to Hollywood would be no different.

I was used to cold calling so I ordered the Hollywood Agent Directory and the Hollywood Creative directory. The former is a directory of Hollywood agents/managers and the latter is a directory of Hollywood production companies.

My strategy was to start my phone campaign around 11 o'clock on a Friday evening. This was about three in the afternoon in Hollywood and I figured everyone would be in a good mood getting ready for the weekend. This worked well in many cases but my initial experience phoning Hollywood agents was very frustrating. The receptionists and assistants were well versed in their standard response to un-repped, newbie writers i.e. "We do not accept unsolicited submissions". A line I would hear again and again.

In the beginning I really didn't have a clue. I would phone companies like ICM and ask to be put through a literary agent. No name. Nothing. Still, knowing their names didn't make much difference. I was just put through to the second gatekeeper, the assistant, and was met with the same response, "No unsolicited submissions, referral only". Mmmh, this wasn't working very well.

At the time I was working in a big advertising agency in London and one day I noticed that the security guard was reading a book on screenwriting. We struck up a conversation and it turned out that he was also a screenwriter and a good one to boot. We became good friends and ended up shooting the breeze about films and 'the biz' almost every day. One day we were talking about breaking into Hollywood and the well known Catch-22 scenario where you need an agent to submit your script to a production company but you can't get an agent unless you have a referral from a production company.

Having got nowhere approaching the agencies directly I knew that I needed to get me one of these 'referrals' or get a deal directly with a production company. My screenwriter friend then gave me a great tip. He said that production companies will also accept script submissions from entertainment lawyers and he gave me a list of UK law firms. I approached a media lawyer at one of these companies and surprisingly she agreed to represent me, on a speculative basis! That meant I would deliver the scripts to her office and whenever a Hollywood exec would request a script she would send them the script, and for this I would not be charged! This was amazing!

I hit the phones and contacted production company development executives directly. This time it worked. I got through, again calling late on Friday afternoons when people were in a good mood and very soon I was getting script requests from major production companies such as Robert Redford's Wildwood, Alec Baldwin's El Dorado productions, Wendy Finerman productions and many others.

The passes started coming in but I did start getting voice mail messages from a number of dev. execs. Robert Redford's development executive left a message that I should call him. He said that the script was a great story and even though it was too political for Redford at the time he would try and help set it up. Nothing ever came of this, still it was encouraging.

I tried to get through to the exec that we'd pitched at Columbia Tri Star 2 years earlier in Cannes '97 but I couldn't get past his assistant. It took some convincing to actually get him to read the script and after asking me a number of questions regarding 'the package' he finally realised what was going on and said, "What, you're JUST the writer?" as if my evolutionary status was somewhere between a single-celled protozoa and a cockroach. He then said grudgingly, "Okay, I'll read your script". A few weeks later I phoned him and he said, "No studio will ever make this movie", (because of the political subject matter) and that he "just didn't like it". Another dream crushing moment. After the enthusiastic response from the VP we thought we were onto a winner at Columbia. Welcome to Hollywood.

Another producer phoned me up, she had some notes and said that if we re-wrote the script she would reconsider it. Some of the other responses were also positive. An exec from Wendy Finerman's company called saying, "Well done on the script" but, again, that it was a "tough sell". On the positive side, it looked like I could get some meetings out of this baby.

LA - The first time - November 1999

I decided to fly to LA. I told the few production companies that had responded positively to my script that I was flying into town and they said they were happy to meet me. With this interest in my writing I managed to get a few agents on the phone and to read my script. I flew into town and had about 5 meetings with various dev. execs and heads of production. There was a good response to the writing so I pitched some other ideas but at that time I didn't really have anything fleshed out. It was more a bouncing around of ideas rather than a pitch. I didn't really know how things worked back then. Maybe I had some vague idea that they would hire me as a writer but that wasn't going to happen.

One producer invited me to her home and I actually spent three hours with her in the Hollywood Hills talking about film, politics, life. It was great. We got on well. She liked the script but she wanted a major rewrite and with no commitment such as an option from her side I just didn't feel enthusiastic about spending another 6 months on the project for nothing. My friend was very busy working on the TV series so the rewrite would have taken some time and I just felt that the project, instead of being the slam dunk sell that we thought it was, was in fact a tough sell and I ran out of steam. It was a great experience and I had learnt a lot about screenwriting (and life!) and had made a few Hollywood contacts but it was time to move on. The producer gave me one of those precious agency "referrals" but nothing came of it. The agent passed.

I managed to get the script to some other agents and the following year, one agent agreed to meet with me for breakfast. He told me that selling a spec script is very difficult. He said that the script was "very well written and well structured" but since it was a mix of drama, fantasy and politics it was a very tough sell in Hollywood. He said he liked my style and my approach to Hollywood but that he couldn't represent me. He gave me a few tips on how to break in to Hollywood, paid for my breakfast and left.

Somehow, things had come full circle and the tips he gave me inspired me to set up a production company which I started in 2002. I tried to set up the script elsewhere but there was no interest. It was slowly turning into a writing sample and in the summer of 2000 I had the idea for my rom-com. That was the beginning of another journey from writer to writer-producer. For all the gory details please read Chronicles 1 onwards :-)

Ciao for now.

See Chronicles 29 (or 0)

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Chronicles 29 - The Early Years - Part 1

This blog starts out with Chronicles 1, the moment of conception of my rom-com in the year 2000, however, my adventures in the 'screen trade' and writing 'career', (don't laugh), started in 1994 with the first 6 pages of my great unfinished novel, (still unfinished - eat your heart out Prof. Grady Tripp!), then a short story, an unfinished play (it sucked), a full length play (unproduced), 2 short plays (one produced), a radio play (unproduced), a couple of other short plays (they sucked too), and, hail the trumpets! - my first screenplay (co-written). So, here is Part 1 of Chronicles 29 (or 0), the 'Early Years'.

The Early, Early Years

I was not born with a raging desire to be a screenwriter or novelist. In fact, when I was young I didn't really see that many movies in the cinema and I didn't read many books. That all started later when I went to college.

What I did do when I was younger was (periodically) draw, paint and write poetry. Some people thought that I had some talent with a quill and a brush but I ended up studying the sciences instead - another story.

The early 90's - My First Publishing Deal!

In my early 90's I spent some time in Europe and ended up writing my first magazine article for a respected Desktop Publishing magazine. I remember the buzz I felt when I went to the news stand and saw my name in print for the first time. I was famous! Well, not quite.

One fine day at work I was writing out a 'user guide' for the graphic designers and I thought to myself, "Hey, I could use this material to write a book!". I saw a gap in the market, knew which publisher I should target, went along to an international book fair (which happened to be in town) and went to pitch him. God, I wish the film business was this easy, or even a tenth as easy! Read on:

I trotted off to the fair with my magazine articles in hand (I had written several at that point). I found the publisher's stand, showed him my articles and pitched him the idea. He just said, "Yeah, sounds great, go and write it and we'll send you the contract". That was it! Deal!

Okay, I didn't get an advance, it was 'on spec' but they sent the contract a week later. It took me 6 months to write the book and 6 months later it was in print and royalty cheques started coming in the post. The royalties began to dwindle after a while because the publisher had been 'acquired' and my book didn't really fall into the new company's remit, still, as one publisher said to me, "It's good to have an ISBN number".

The book actually attracted a couple of good reviews in a computer magazine, and one bad one ;-) - so, all in all a fairly rounded experience.

Now, I think I could be forgiven for the false sense of optimism that was instilled in me by this experience. One idea, one publisher, one pitch, one publishing contract! No query letters, no waiting and no rejection!

This is like falling off a log, right? If it works like this in the linear, cause-and-effect binary computer world then it must work like this in the creative field, right? Wrong. Oh, how wrong I was. See Chronicles 1 onwards ;-).

Now, I mention the words 'linear' and 'cause-and-effect'. What I mean by that is that in the non-creative field, in my experience, any work or study that you apply yourself to has a reasonably short 'return on investment' period. I went into Desktop Publishing with zero experience. I didn't have a clue. I self-studied. I read a lot - books, magazines, on-line sources etc - I spent hours on the computer learning the software and before long, voila! I was offered a full-time job. From zero to hero in a matter of months.

That experience continued for me. Every time I trained myself up in a new area of IT technology the universe seemed to reward me with more prospects and more money, and fairly damn quickly. I was, of course, and am, very grateful to the universe for blessing me with those rewards.

So, what am I getting at here? Well, it seemed that I had this quid pro quo thing going on, where, whenever I applied myself to some new area in the IT space, very shortly afterwards there would be a tangible and substantial pay-off. So, again, I could be forgiven for thinking that things would work similarly in the creative field, right? Mmmh...

After writing several magazine articles and writing a door-stop-sized computer book I realized that I had the self-discipline to stick myself away in a darkened room for hours and 'scribe' away. So, when I moved back to the UK in 1994 whatever inner impulses that had led me to write poetry or draw/paint in my younger years re-awakened and I had this urge to write a novel.

Having, in a rather 'colourful' period in my twenties, 'experimented with life' (euphemisms used to protect the innocent ;-)), I felt an urge to, yes I know it's a cliche, write a novel 'based on the author's autobiographical experiences'.

Autumn 1994 - What I Really Want To Do Is Write

At this point in time I was paving the way in the UK and settling into my new job while my family stayed back in Europe. I was living with friends and had borrowed this archaic PC laptop from my mother-in-law and, on evenings and weekends, I began writing my 'masterpiece'.

I wrote about 6 pages and at some point my wife suggested that I start with short stories, that way I could get used to writing complete stories with a beginning, middle and end. Good idea. I did that, got good feedback from 'mums and chums' on the short story and I went back to the novel. I didn't get very far. Whilst writing the novel I had this image in my head, a bunch of guys in a room, and it wasn't a novel, it was a play. Goodbye novel, hello play.

Autumn 1995 - The Play is the Thing

I ended up writing and completing this full-length play. The only book I read on structure at this time was The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lagos Egri. I gave the play to an actor friend of mine who had done some directing. He had never read anything of mine before, well, what was there to read?

He got back to me later and said he really liked it. He organised a reading with a number of his professional actor friends. One of them is now a very big name in the UK. All the actors loved the writing. That was a big buzz, seeing my work read out by experienced actors and watching the text come to life. One of the actors was playing in the Bush Theatre at the time, a very well known off-West End theatre that has kick-started many a career. I saw Kate Beckinsale there once before her Pearl Harbour days. The actor offered to hand the play to the literary manager for me.

So, little ol' me with my false optimism naturally thought that my writing career was about to launch and in a few weeks my play would go into production and my name would be in lights. Quid pro quo remember? I've put in the effort now the creative world will reciprocate. It didn't. They passed and so did MANY other London theatres. Reality 101.

However, one uneventful evening I was sitting at home and I got a call from a literary manager at another fringe theatre in North London, not as popular as The Bush but definitely not an insignificant venue. He liked the play. He was interested in putting it on but we had to pay for the production. I guess that was kind of great, wasn't it? We actually managed to get some lottery funding but never quite managed to get enough to put the play on. Still, I was getting good feedback on my writing from certain quarters. That was positive.

December 1995 - New Writer's Season

I sent the play in to another London fringe theatre and I received a letter out of the blue saying that I had been selected for their new writer's season and that I would be commissioned to write a 20 minute play.

I sat down to write a light comedy and I was about a week or so into submitting the play when I sat down with my actor friend who would direct the piece. He said to me, in so many words, "Forget this play, this is not you, it's not your voice, write something which says this is you." Wow. I didn't expect that. Still, he was right, and I'm glad he told me that otherwise I wouldn't have gone home and written the play which became the basis for my short film, (shooting in October) which has a fairly well known 'indie actor' attached.

As we were talking in the cafe and then later on the way home I thought about a number of situations I had been in - certain characters I had met who had stuck in my mind. I was alone that weekend, it was just before Christmas, and I wrote the whole play over the weekend. It turned out to be a very powerful, cathartic writing experience. Lots of emotions came up when I wrote it. It kind of poured out.

The director loved it and we tweaked it a bit, had a reading with 3 actors and then did some more tweaking. I then had to tell the theatre that the play that I had written and workshopped was not the play we were going to put on! Luckily they accepted the new play and we went into rehearsal.

February 1996 - (Almost) got my first agent

The short play, a black comedy, was staged to great feedback. Some of my friends were a bit shocked by it. It was kind of dark and disturbing, but funny in a Fargo-esque way. They were probably wondering what the hell was going on in my head! A publisher friend of mine thought it was a very professional piece and he recommended me to a BBC Radio 4 producer. The producer read the play and loved it and wanted to put it on BBC Radio as a play. He invited me down to the BBC studios and I watched him put a play together. He even gave me a walk on role! I re-wrote the play for radio but the commissioning committee rejected it. Maybe it was a bit to disturbing for middle England. ;-)

Soon afterwards my publisher friend recommended me to a literary agent at quite a big London agency. The agent loved the script. We met and she offered to represent me. Great! Then things went weird. She was miffed that I hadn't mentioned that I'd met another more senior agent at the same agency a few months previously. I'd asked my friend whether I should mention this but he didn't see that it was relevant, so I didn't.

Anyway, she was pissed. We met. We made up. Then she started backtracking again. I got the feeling she had no power to take me on as a client and was instructed by the senior agent to hang on until I had more material. I felt that she had gone back on her word and a few heated email exchanges later she dumped me, although theoretically I was never un-dumped to be dumped, if you get my drift.

I was pretty devastated at the time. I thought I'd blown my 'big chance'. The reality was that I had too many expectations. I was too ambitious. I don't think she had that much of a plan for me except to send my play into The Bill - a UK TV series. I'm not saying that this is a bad thing and I would have no doubt given it a crack but I think I had unrealistic expectations that this junior agent in London was going to get my script read by Hollywood production companies, (I was co-writing my first screenplay at the time). The reality was that the only person who was going to get my work read in Hollywood was me. I found out years later that she had left the business altogether. Next!

May 1996 - The Screen Trade 101

I was sitting in Milan airport with another actor friend and we were bouncing ideas around. We both wanted to write a Hollywood movie. I had just attended a weekend screenwriting course and it had inspired me write for the big screen. By the time our flight had landed in London we had our high-concept idea written down on an Al Italia napkin. The rest is history - literally!

Now, since this screenplay involved American history and politics we had to do a massive amount of research. By May 1997 we had a very rough first draft of Act 1 and a treatment. Of course we believed passionately in our project and fuelled with zest and enthusiasm that the "Americans will love it!" we set off to what was to be my first Cannes film festival.

May 1997 - How not to do Cannes

Armed with our treatments and presentation packs we set off for Cannes and headed to our luxurious beach side residence - the local camping ground. We were producers damn it, and we were going to do Cannes in style!

We arrived early. We hadn't made any appointments with anyone. No-one. We didn't have a clue how Cannes worked. I didn't know a sales agent from a travel agent. I thought a "package" was something you signed for in the Post Office. We would go into these meetings and people would ask us, "What's the package? Is this a Kevin Costner movie?". We would just say, "Uhh...yes". This 'package' word kept on coming up so at one point we said, "Whatever it is, we've got to get us one of those".

The festival hadn't really got going when we arrived. We headed for The Majestic, looked up the list of companies exhibiting there and saw Columbia Tri Star. Yep, heard of them. They'll do. So in we strolled all dressed up in suit and ties, which was kind of ridiculous, the only people wearing suits during the day in Cannes were the security personnel!

Anyway, we strolled in and surprisingly we got a meeting with the VP. He loved our pitch, was really excited by it and told us to Fed Ex him the script. Well, uhh, slight problem there, there was no script! Just a crappy first draft of Act 1 and a treatment. We probably told him the script needed tweaking and we would get it to him in a few weeks. We got it to him 2 years later.

Still, we were buzzing! We had pitched a major Hollywood player and he had loved our pitch! We were rocking! The next days were spent darting in and out of hotel suites trying to get meetings with studio players. At one point we secured a meeting with Largo Entertainment. The meeting was about three in the afternoon. We decided we needed to hone our pitch before the meeting. CUT TO:

The Palais underground car park. I'm not sure how we ended up there but it was a good a place as any to practice our pitch. It was a 2-hander. My friend would start the pitch then he would hand it over to me and I would hand it back to him. My friend used some acting techniques to get it 'pitch perfect'. It worked. It was good, and, uninterrupted it was about three minutes long.

We went into the Largo meeting, exchanged small talk and then asked the executive if we could give him the three minute uninterrupted pitch. He gave the okay and we launched into it. He looked at us and said, "That's the best pitch I've ever heard". Great! Unfortunately they were not in a position to make the sort of big budget movie that we were pitching.

We had other pitch meetings with USA films and Fox which went well. It's funny, when I look back at it all now. I was so convinced we would get a deal. If not there and then in Cannes then definitely later when the script was done. I had no idea how the business worked or what was to come.

Our worst experience was pitching a big UK production company. Again, we launched into our pitch and the guy thought the whole pitch was some kind of practical joke! At the time Empire magazine were running these joke pitches and he thought that we had driven all the way to Cannes just to pitch on-the-spot joke movie concepts! What the...? Weird. He really took some convincing that we were serious. I guess he didn't 'get it'.

The rest of Cannes was spent unsuccessfuly trying to see people like Warner Brothers and Miramax and gleaning visiting cards from a number of dubious, straight-to-video outfits. We got into a few parties but after a while it was clear that for the sort of big budget Harrison Ford vehicle we were writing we'd pretty much targeted all the major players.

So, armed with a stack of visiting cards we packed up our tent and headed for the highway, safe in the knowledge that on completion of our masterpiece all that was required was a quick call to all of these contacts and the ensuing bidding war would begin. Oh, how wrong we were.

Check in next week for Chronicles 30 (or 0), The Early Years - Part 2 and what happened when, eventually, 2 years later, we finished the script, started approaching our Hollywood 'contacts' and I got on the plane to take my first meetings in La-La Land.

See Chronicles 28

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Chronicles 28 - Perfect Pitch, Perfect Silence

So, today is July 15th and I flew back from Cannes on May 26th. I had about 50 meetings in Cannes and sent out many copies of my script after the festival. Now, some of these meetings have already developed into something reasonably concrete, well, let's just say it's still in the mixer. I found a producer for my short film who actually committed to the project and has met with the director and the DP. He's already arranged a meeting with a special effects house for one particular scene. That project seems to be moving forward so that's all good stuff.

I pitched a producer who liked one of my animation ideas. We met in London and I'm writing a treatment up now that she will pitch to a big production company. Well, she's already pitched the idea and the big prod. co. is interested so I need to take it to the next level with the treatment. If the big prod. co. doesn't work out we've discussed other possibilities, so, some progress there.

I also met with a producer friend of mine and we swopped notes. We discussed my rom-com project and she suggested that I send my project to a European financier who would be able to invest 20% of the budget. I sent in the project details and they came back and said the script had received good coverage and that they would be interested in taking it to the next step when I have cast attached. Again, all good stuff. Another plate I can spin along with the others.

I also had a whole bunch of other meetings related to my rom-com with financiers, sales agents, distributors and other producers. Now at this point in the game where I have no cast attached these meetings are more in the "meet and greet" category. I don't expect a GAAP financier or a bank that offers gap finance to read my script. It's not really relevant at this point.

With sales agents and distributors it's just good to touch base and get their feeling on the project, the cast wish list, which names are sellable etc. Of course they will request the script, which doesn't mean that much since it's a convenient way to conclude the meeting ;-), still, if gets good coverage then you know you have an open door to walk into when your return with cast attachments. Unless you have a marquee director attached it is unlikely that they will commit to the script alone.

If you are pitching a potential co-producer then they need to commit to the script itself, irrespective of cast attachments. A producer is not going to produce unless he believes in the project. Independent producing takes so long and is so friggin' hard that you would have to be certifiably insane to take on a project you do not believe in.

Of course if I'm pitching I don't increase or decrease my enthusiasm level depending on the pitch-ee. A pitch is a pitch and if you are passionate about your project it doesn't matter if you're pitching to your dog or a major producer, you give it your all.

Every meeting will start with some small talk, or not, as the case may be. I walked into a meeting at Dream Works Animation and the exec. just said, "Hi, you've got 15 minutes". In this case you just get down to business. However, on the whole there will be some small talk so if it's Cannes it will be, "When did you fly in? When do you fly back?" or if it's LA it will be "When did you fly in? When do you fly back?". You get the picture. At a certain point in the conversation there will be a "So, what have you got? Tell me about your project", which is your cue to launch into the pitch.

At this point I will launch into a teaser pitch which encapsulates the premise of the story. I don't just pitch a log-line although I may start the pitch with the log-line or I may just start with the setting, the characters, the title, the genre and essentially the inciting incident or the turning point 1 moment followed by the basic premise. What I don't do is launch into a long pitch because I want to allow them to ask me questions. I want to gauge their interest early on.

Since I write comedy I need to first see if they get the comedic premise. If they respond in a positive way then I'll pitch some key comedic scenes and get them laughing, the more they respond, the more I can feed them but if I sense that they are not interested in hearing more and they say something like, "Can I read the script?" then I end the pitch there. After all I just want to get them motivated enough to read the script. Also when you are pitching as a writer-producer other conversations will come into play such as director, cast, finance etc.

A pitch is a two-way interaction. You throw out the bait first and see if they bite. A pitch is di-alogue not mono-louge. The more they participate, even by throwing in their own ideas the more chance you have of them remembering your project when they fly back home, (as in the case of Cannes), with a suitcase full of synopses and treatments from a whole bunch of people like me. If it's a comedy, make 'em laugh, if it's a thriller, thrill them, if it's a horror, scare them!

Of course when you are pitching you are totally enthusiastic, focused, and passionate about your project. Tony Robbins talks about the power of certainty, that it is the person with the most certainty that will get the deal at the end of the day. When you are pitching to industry savvy people who may know the market much better than you do then it is very easy to have holes poked into your "certainty aura". At this point it is best to stay focused on why you are certain about your project and convince them otherwise, after all you may not have given them the full picture. They may just need to gauge your commitment to the project. Of course, your certainty has to be based on reality, a general consensus that you have a viable project.

Now an intensive pitch fest such as Cannes or a meeting-packed week in LA can be quite deceptive if you get great responses to your pitch(es). It can lull you into a false sense of security where you can become convinced that:

a) They will read the script quickly - invariably they won't.
b) They will respond positively to the script - definitely no guarantee here - a genuine, passionate, highly positive response to a pitch does not guarantee an equally enthusiastic response to the script.
c) That they are an established company - they may be out of business a few months later. Happened to me. I pitched a dev. exec. who was very interested in moving ahead with one of my projects. A few weeks later the company went into liquidation.
d) The person going ape over your pitch will still be working for that company a few weeks later. They might not. Again, that happened to me. A dev. exec. was very excited about a project I pitched her at Cannes. 2 weeks later she left the company.

The danger of believing a, b, c and d is that you can easily buy into this 'legend-in-your-own-head' fantasy and that, in a few weeks, you will be fending off buyers in some kind of bidding war situation. This is unlikely. The likelihood is that you will perhaps find one champion for your project and spend some time building this relationship while you re-write the script. My first champion actually took months to get back to me post-Cannes.

This year I met with some producer/financiers that would no doubt be in a position to partly or fully bank roll my projects. The pitch went very well, I had the execs. laughing, they were engaging in the pitch, asking questions, taking ownership and saying things like, "This is a perfect project for us". Well, this one exec who was totally enthusiastic in our meeting and promised to read the script in 2 weeks - 2 months later? Nada. I've sent a couple of follow up emails. Nothing. Of course this could be for a number of reasons I'm not aware of.

Film funds come and go. This particular one was announced in the trades at Cannes so I seized the day, phoned the head office, asked if they had an exec in Cannes and touched based with the dev. exec. Now just because something is announced in the trades it doesn't make it a slam dunk. I received a letter of intent from a financier whose film fund has now, in the meantime, gone dormant because of difficulties with the local government's tax office. So who knows what is happening in the background. She might have even left the company - see a,b,c,d above.

The business is in a constant state of flux and as an independent producer you work on different fronts in the hope that when that day finally comes and your project is catalysed by a bankable name a kind of domino effect will kick in where all the elements that you've set up over the years will finally come into play, gel together and by some strange and mysterious alchemy manifest into 90 minutes of celluloid.

Until that day comes, it's perfect pitch followed by perfect silence ;-)

See Chronicles 27

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Chronicles 27 - Passion v. Procrastination

I've met a number of screenwriters either in person or on-line who have told me that they "love writing", are "passionate" about writing etc., who's very idea of an ideal day is to be stuck in a room for 8 hours doing their 'scrivener thang'.

I always feel a pang of inadequacy, insecurity and guilt when I hear this. Why? Because more and more as time goes by I feel that writing is the LAST thing I want to do when I get up in the morning. By writing I mean 'down and dirty' screenwriting of course, not blogging which for me is just another excuse to avoid the hard work of plotting, structuring etc.

Whenever I hear these words from other writers I have to ask myself, well, "are you passionate about writing?". I think the answer to that is, yes, when I'm actually able to overcome my ever increasing resistance to sit down and write, when I'm in the flow, when I'm in 'the space' and a witness to the 'creative flow', then yes, I am passionate about writing.

Once I enter fully into that world and that mercurial process takes over it becomes a 'moment of clarity', almost a Zen-like state where you are doing and not-doing at the same time. There is no action of 'writing' taking place, the words are being written. It's passive not active. That's when you hit creative pay-dirt. When I'm in the flow then I can (and do!) happily sit in this quasi-meditative state for hours.

Okay, now that I've got 'all philosophical on your ass' and shared my Campbell-like, "follow your bliss" metaphysical experiences with you, you then may reasonably ask, "So what's your problem? Why don't you just get on your butt, pound the keys on that Underwood and churn the pages out?".

The answer is I'd love to, I do love writing but unfortunately writing invariably turns out to be not about writing, and in the case of screenwriting, even less so; it is about plotting, researching, outlining, constructing almost mathematical wave-like structures. I mean, look at McKee or Snyder for God sake, they even use the language of calculus! +, -, < and > symbols for scene dynamics. Dude, I just want to write cool dialogue! Sorry, not as easy as that.

I think people who start screenwriting don't realize how many plates you have to spin simultaneously to make this thing work. Research, character biographies, plot points, mid-points, goals, tasks, the list goes on. To the astute reader the screenplay is a very unforgiving form. If there are holes, weaknesses, 2-D characters, lack of conflict you will be found out - sooner rather than later!

The upshot of all this is that writing screenplays is hard work and a lot of that prep. work that goes into outlining, character bios, research etc is a far cry from the romantic muse-driven, writer-in-the-garret, Byron-like, let-it-just-flow-scribe image. It's just bloody hard work, and, in my case along with the usual fear-of-failure, "can I pull this one off?" the hard graft is a major cause of the inner groan when I contemplate writing a new and somewhat challenging screenplay.

Don't get me wrong, there are diamonds in the dirt, all that prep. work can also be fun too, you can make great discoveries along the way, especially in research but unless you are really writing 'what you know' based on characters that you know with a fully formed plot in your head then you are going to have to roll your sleeves up and get your hands dirty.

So, to avoid the hard work of plotting, outlining, character bios etc I have developed elaborate ways of procrastinating. Here are a few that come to mind, please feel free to suggest others. ;-)

1. Reading books about writing/screenwriting/producing - no shortage of these books these days, right?
2. Writer forums like Done Deal where you can spend hours wasting time discussing the merits of moving or not moving to LA.
3. Blogging, a GREAT method, this way you can convince yourself that you are actually exercising your writer muscles, (since you are actually writing!) and therefore not really procrastinating. Well, umm, actually - you are.
4. Updating your blog, adding links, blog maintenance etc. Has to be done right?
5. Checking the stats on your blog. Thanks NP!
6. Reading other blogs! The good news here is that I'm finding new screenwriting blogs almost every day! With a bit of luck I might never have to write another script again!
7. Tidying up the desk. An oldie but goldie. When I first started writing I prided myself on being able to just start writing, even if the room was a tip, now, increasingly and worryingly I'm getting this urge to tidy up before I get down to work. I'm becoming a cliche!
8. Writing unnecessary emails to other writers just to avoid writing and justifying it as 'networking', keeping in touch...The end result of this is that you end up writing more about what is not happening in your life than what is happening, "still waiting for so-and-so to get back to me", "so and so is interested but yet to hear back as to ...".
9. Okay, let's try and get some round numbers here. I need two more. Oh, yes. Watching films instead of working on that script because all the screenwriting gurus tell us that you can't write movies if you don't watch them, right?
10. God, I'm surprised how easy it was to write this list. So, what else? Oh, yes, of course I forgot, I'm a writer-producer! So a great way to put off actually writing is to chase people on the phone, have meetings, send scripts off, fly to film festivals etc., after all I can't do all that AND write, can I?

By now, I'm feeling nervous. I know this blog is coming to an end, it's bright sunshine outside so I can't watch a video, I've emailed everyone I know - damn, I'm going to have to get down to work here.

Guess it's time to start writing the treatment I promised a producer and continue working on my comedy-heist script, but then again, maybe I could just ...

See Chronicles 26

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Chronicles 26 - To Beg or not to Beg?

As an independent producer you are always in begging mode, even if the begging is re-packaged as a 'request to enter into a partnership' or a quid pro quo, a "you scratch my back and I will scratch yours (once the finance is released and the movie is greenlit") - a deferred scratch as it were.

In the meantime you find yourself alternating between positions of weakness and strength in this beggar/begg-ee dynamic.

I had a meeting with an established film professional over a week ago who I was referred to by a financier in Cannes. Now this person, being a working professional in the film industry has a pretty good take on who's who, who can deliver the goods (and who can't), who to work with and who not to etc. - knowledge that I will gladly absorb and exploit.

In my case the dynamic was one of: he is interested in me because if my film gets greenlit then he will get paid, by me. However, up until that point and certainly up to the point where I attach bankable cast there is no guarantee in this fickle world of film-making that my movie will EVER get made, so, in terms of power dynamics the ball is in his court.

I seek his knowledge and recommendations and he takes the meeting on the off-chance that I will deliver at some point. Now he knows what I'm looking for and what I have to offer which is not insubstantial, but, at the same time it's not about to blow him off his chair either i.e. he ain't going to be holding any calls for me right now.

We had a fairly long meeting and after our meeting as a reply to my thank you note he sends me an email back with a, "let me know if I can be of any help" note. Okay, great! I take this literally not realizing that what he probably meant was, "Come back and hire me when you have a movie to shoot but don't waste my precious time with dumb questions in the meantime".

I read his note as the offer of an on-going dialogue, a "Hey, whenever you have any questions shoot me off an email or pick up the phone, I've got all the time in the world" note. So, I send him an email and run some names past him for his feedback. He emails me back saying I should call him. It takes me 2 days to get through to him and when I get him on the phone I'm ready to get comfortable, put the kettle on, shoot the breeze and talk about all my financing possibilities, recent ups and downs, who/what he recommends etc.

The trouble is I'm forgetting the beggar/begg-ee dynamic that's going on here i.e. I don't have the gold yet so I'm in a weak position. As far as he's concerned I could disappear into the night, never to be seen again. He on other hand is involved in a number of real-world productions and his time is limited. The upshot of this conversation is that at a certain point his impatience kicks in and he says, "Look, I'm not sure what you want from me here", (Ohh-oh) and "this isn't really what I do ..." which is basically sub-text for, "You've out stayed your welcome my friend, now get out of my fu$%ing face".

So, not being a total brain-dead moron, I pick up on 'the vibe' here and swiftly segue my way back into my original request and he abruptly gives me a name. He then gets annoyed when I mis-pronounce the name and when I mention other names he just snaps back with a, "well, I gave you the names in my meeting". Unfortunately I had only slept 3-4 hours before that meeting and I'd forgotten to take a pen with me and hence had not jotted these names down! Of course I realized that now probably wasn't the best time to mention this. Anyway, he asks me to speak to his receptionist for any numbers and swiftly and abruptly ends the conversation.

Now, if I was in a greenlit position and I was about to hire him the dynamic would no doubt have been different. It's a tricky game that one has to play. On the one hand, you need as a producer to give the impression that you are informed and in charge, on the other hand as a first-time producer you need to tap into the experience of others, you need to know the "word on the street" and sometimes you just have to risk being a pain in the butt and ask some dumb questions.

I have often gotten on the phone with producers who have passed on my projects and asked for advice. Again you are clearly the beggar here since in that moment in time you have nothing to offer and the questions that go round in one's head are:

1) This guy has some useful info, I'd like to be able to call this guy again but how many times can I do that without coming across as some kind of sad loser-stalker-type.

2) How can I strike the balance between gleaning enough info out of this person and trying to avoid being put in the position where they end the conversation? Let's face it, you're in a weak position anyway since you are calling them for advice, so a quick, "Hey, that's great, really appreciate your help, got another call coming in, let's do lunch sometime!", lets you exit the dialogue with some semblance of dignity, whereas a, "Look, I'm really busy right now, that's all I can tell you, good luck with your project" from their end leaves you scuttling away with your tail between your legs.

This dynamic is in a state of flux and can change at any point. I'm currently pursuing US casting directors with a view to acquiring their services to attach 1 bankable and 2 semi-bankable actors for my rom-com. The fee, I've been told is generous, but, and this again puts me in a position of weakness, the fee is deferred. If I had the fee in the bank I would be in the stronger position but now I'm hoping that, based on the script and the existing package, I can lure them in and motivate them to work on spec, so, once again, I am relegated to the position of the beggar.

It is not uncommon for casting directors to have a project under their wing that they take on as 'pet projects' but it's a case of hoping that a) the casting director has strong enough relationships with the agents and b) they are excited enough about the script/package to take it on. Still, whatever the outcome, the 'song remains the same', I'm the dude pulling favours here.

This continues down the line - the financiers are in a strong position when you have an incomplete package i.e. no cast, but once you have key bankable cast then they are eager to do business with you as are sales agents, distributors etc. That power dynamic can change with one fortuitous, 'Yes' from a bankable star and instead of them hiring you, you are hiring them!

Ultimately, and ironically the real power lies with those invisible people who sit in the dark slurping Sprite and munching popcorn. The producers, the studios, the stars, the agents etc all prostrate themselves at the veritable feet of Mr. and Mrs. Joe Schmoe and their connection between the rear end of their anatomies and those chocolate stained seats in the movie theatre - because - if that connection doesn't happen, they're out of a job.

At the end of the day that's what all these power dynamics are down to, that almost alchemical ability to get 'bums on seats', and until you can prove that you've been able to glue multiple posteriors to multiple seats for 90 minutes then you better get comfortable with the phrase 'cap in hand'.

See Chronicles 25