Monday, January 29, 2007

Chronicles 39 - Small Heat, Big Heat

This is a strange business. It is very much about perception. Ultimately progress comes down to association - who is "attached" to you or your script. The actual script is what it is, but the perception of that script, or the "project" as we like to self-importantly call it, changes according to its associations.

Any type of heat can make promoting your "project" easier by several orders of magnitude.

My director partner and I are in post-production on a short film which features an actor who although not a household name is known in the independent film circles, especially at festivals, and regularly appears as a character actor in big Hollywood movies. Of course since he's known by agents and managers then mentioning his name creates "Small Heat". Ears perk up.

I mentioned this short film to a top Hollywood manager who has sold a ton of specs and who had, so far, never ever responded to my queries and for the first time ever he wrote back requesting to see the short (when complete) and was also interested in other projects I was setting up.

The small heat on the short shot up a few more degrees when the editor of a recent huge box-office comedy hit came down to look at the footage. The director had got to him via one of the actors on the short so it was a case of, "Okay, I'll take a look". When he saw the footage he was really impressed and thought it was fantastic. He loved the direction, the cinematography and the black humour. He then committed to editing the project which was a great boost for "the project".

Now when I mention that the editor of this major international hit is attached to our short then ears prick up even more. A Hollywood agent that I'm in contact with who passed on my other scripts emailed me back and was curious to know more about the short. Just a little heat can grease the wheels and move things along.

My success with agents has been very mixed to say the least. I had a one-man-band agent in London for a while who really believed in my work but was not really connected enough to set anything up. Another one-(wo)man-band agent was interested in repping my rom-com but she wasn't a fan of my animation projects so I went with the other guy.

In the US a manager was interested in developing projects with me but I didn't feel that he got my work. He liked the sharpness in my writing but he didn't "get" the concepts so I just felt that we wouldn't click on the development front. I didn't click with him as a person either so I backed off. Development on a long term basis is a very intimate relationship and I wanted someone I was comfortable with.

I had a similar situation with an LA boutique agency agent who wanted to represent me. I was really excited when he offered to "go out" with my family comedy script but in the time period between getting the call and meeting him several people in the industry told me that a) I could do better b) this person had no industry clout c) the agency had no talent to package.

Also at the time I had a champion at a big 3 agency who loved the rom-com script and had just sent it out to one of their big female stars. She was a powerful talent agent and it looked like she was going to set me up with a literary agent at this same agency. All this interest pumped up my ego and I somehow got whipped up into a frenzy of excitement and was convinced the female star would attach herself to my rom-com which would trigger finance and we would go into production etc etc.

I also had a legendary casting director interested in casting the film so I thought success was assured. Predictably, it all faded into nothing and having not gone with this smaller, lacking-in-industry-clout-agent I was again left agent-less.

Was not going with this US agent hubris or good instincts on my part? I'll never know. Since I tried to sell that same script on my own via an entertainment lawyer with no success I think that, looking back, if I would have known that I was heading for a big lull I would have at least given him a chance, after all I could always have fired him later, but since other industry people were advising against me going with him then I can see logically why I blew him off. Oh well, what's done is done and 20/20 hindsight is a great thing as they say.

Anyway, after various unsuccessful attempts at getting a good US/UK agent/manager I'm adopting a strategy of chasing the heat rather than the rep. By that I mean I'm focusing on setting up projects myself either by producing or contacting producers directly/via film festivals. Funnily enough this still means that I deal with agents but as a producer attaching talent.

The goal here obviously is to create the "Big Heat" and attract agent/manager attention rather than seek it. Right now, this could happen in a number of ways e.g. the short could go down well in a film festival, an A lister could sign up for my rom-com which would trigger finance and move it into production, the assignment I'm working on with a UK producer could get made etc etc. Of course NONE of this is guaranteed but at least this strategy is more enjoyable than the soul destroying query/rejection email route. At least I feel a sense of control and that SOMETHING is happening.

Right now, at least, things look positive. The air is full of potential. Now that Sundance is over my US casting director will be approaching the big Hollywood agencies and will be championing my script to try and attach an A list name. The box-office comedy hit editor is off to LA to finish off some editing on the big movie, for DVD I guess, and will come back in March to edit the short.

Last week the UK producer counter-signed the assignment contract and I'll start writing that this week. Once I'm done with that I have a UK producer ready to raise finance on the feature script, which I've yet to write, which the short film will promote. The short is a complete story in itself but sets the tone, directorial style, look, and black humour for the eventual feature.

So we'll see if all this activity will end up as a lot of hot air or real industry "Big Heat". Watch this space.

Ciao for now.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Chronicles 38 - The First Time I Will Actually Get Paid For It

If there is any truth in Samuel Johnson's maxim that, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money", then I must have reached the very zenith of 'blockheadedness' since, having started writing, (well, not screenwriting) but 'creative writing', just over 11 years ago I haven't been paid a single farthing for my 'lovingly crafted' words. Maybe I should take it as a badge of honour, proof that I've earned my stripes as a "struggling scrivener in the garret", or to paraphrase Little Britain's, "I'm a lady" - "I'm an artist, darling".

Still, considering I started writing a novel, which I abandoned after about 6 pages and then went on to write fringe/arts festival/theatre in education plays it's not surprising I didn't bring in any bacon. Or is it? In the UK, production company D-girls and boys trawl the fringe theatres looking for hot new writing talent and agents scour the same source for potential fodder to churn out the never ending stream of soaps, cop/doctor dramas.

I almost got an agent on the back of the first short play I staged, but it never happened, I almost got this same play aired on the radio, never happened, later on the back of my first script I almost got an assignment (in 2002), and almost got a TV agent in 2005 but didn't (they liked my writing but not my location!).

Since I've always had a pretty decent day job, (eliminating any romantic notions of Dostoevskyian poverty), then it just didn't seem to be the 'way of the Tao' for me to make a swift segue-way into earning my daily crust from pounding the keys. I did get an Arts grant for one of my plays which we sank into the production budget for my recently shot short film but I didn't get paid as a writer as such.

Still, I'm not complaining, my theatre experiences have been incredibly satisfying, to go from writing words on a page to a reading with professional actors, to rehearsal to curtains up, and then to get a great response from the audience is an experience worth its weight in gold and an invaluable foundation for screenwriting.

Talking of which, the first feature script I co-wrote went out to market in 1999, see Chronicles 30 - The Early Years - Part 2, and resulted in a free lunch with Robert Redford's development executive and a few other meetings in LA. That was it. No sale. No option. Zilch.

I started screenwriting in 1997 and my second script, a rom-com, (multiple drafts later) now has a director, top US casting director and finance (cast contingent) attached to it along with a credited co-producer. Nothing I can pay the mortgage with but progress nevertheless.

The third script got me about 15 meetings in Hollywood and almost an assignment from a Warner Brothers producer. There's that 'almost' word again. Still, it gave me the chance to pitch my fourth script, a first draft of which is currently languishing in the 'work in progress' drawer.

Anyway, I've digressed. Back to Samuel Johnson. Yesterday I finally signed off on the work-for-hire biographical drama contract and will send it off in the post today. This will be my 5th feature script and even though I'm not getting a full WGUK fee, (it's a partial fee against a principal photography payment), it's a bit of cash I can invest into promoting my other projects, Cannes 2007, maybe a trip to LA etc. So, who knows, maybe my 'blockhead' days are over!

This assignment resulted out of a meeting in Cannes. One of those hotel-lobby, half-rushed, pitch meetings that may or may not amount to something. I sent off the rom-com script and 2 months later I got a call that the UK prod. co. wanted to hire me for a character/dialogue polish which has now evolved into a page one rewrite.

It's a fascinating true life story and has involved a lot of research into late 18th century ('a time of genius and madness' as the protagonist in 'Russian Ark' says) and early 19th century period. So, for the last few months my head has been buried in historical books, interviews and on-line libraries. Now I'm at the point where I'm going over the source material and all the highlighted research and I'm starting to map out the outline which will then lead to the treatment and the screenplay.

I'll then move on to writing my 6th script and use the short film to promote it. The short film is essentially one story thread in the feature and we'll use the script and short to attach talent and raise financing. We have the editor of a recent major box office hit comedy coming in next week to look at editing the short and hopefully he'll help us out with a rough cut before he flies off back to LA. It's taken some time to sync up the sound and download the footage. In the meantime we've done some cast/director interviews for the EPK and we're working on finishing the web page.

It's also taken some time just to get the rom-com director hooked up with the casting director. The casting director was meant to start going out to talent in December then she got sick, then she recovered and wanted to first touch base re. the casting list with the director and then she got sick. Now I finally hope to get them talking to each other next week for the first time. This Sisyphus on Largactol, wading-through-treacle, grindingly slow pace of the indie-producing world is a constant reminder why I haven't given up the day job!

I guess if I'd really wanted to earn a living out of writing I could have focused all my energy into TV writing. That's where the bread and butter is in the UK but it seems that it takes just as much time and energy to get onto a soap series than it does to set up feature projects.

A friend of mine recommended me to a UK soap prod. co. They got back to me about 10 months later asking me to write a spec. I sat down and watched the soap and, to be honest, I found it akin to pulling teeth. It was so badly written and badly executed, a constant litany of unfunny jokes and unsympathetic (but not in a good way!) characters that I really had to convince myself that this was something I could do for a living.

Anyway, I started writing the spec and actually found myself enjoying the process and thought it was a great improvement on the garbage that I'd seen on screen. My TV writer friends thought that I'd done a good job and even a writer on the series thought they would love the humour I'd put into the script and also gave it the thumbs up.

Months later the prod. co. passed saying that I hadn't nailed the characters but I could have another crack at the whip. Because I'd been travelling a lot I hadn't had that much time to get to know the series and even though over time, I'm sure I could have cracked it, I just thought to myself, "Nah, life's too short, sod it, my heart's not in this", and I gave up on the idea.

My attitude to TV writing was, "Yeah, sure, if it flows and it's easy, sure, I can 'knock out' a soap ep, why not?" Basically what I learnt is that you have to apply the same amount of emotional energy, in the beginning at least (write TV spec, wait, get rejected, write another TV spec, do meetings, more waiting, get commission, rewrite etc) to break into TV writing as you have to with theatre and film, so, for the time being, I'm focusing on the latter.

Of course the other point here is that I watch theatre and film on a regular basis and NEVER, EVER watch UK soaps, one hour TV dramas, cop/hospital shows so TV writing isn't something I really think of on a daily basis. In fact the only TV drama I watch is Lost, Prison Break, 24, Sleeper Cell etc - and only on DVD. I don't watch any UK TV drama, not even on DVD. Period.

Now, if everything went south with the day job and I managed to get an agent, who knows, it could happen but apart from the kudos of being able to tell people that I'm a professional TV writer, I would be, for the soaps at least, essentially be doing it for the money. No doubt Samuel Johnson would be pleased. :-)

Ciow for now