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]