The Business of Screenwriting: Everything you wanted to know about specs [Part 4]

April 16th, 2015 by

Spec scripts, that is. I’m guessing that perhaps 90% of the people who follow this blog at some point in their lives will write a spec script. And the other 10% are involved in buying and selling them. In light of that fact, last year I interviewed a top manager and some Hollywood screenwriters about the ins and outs of what is involved in bringing a spec script to market. I’ve been waiting for the right opportunity to do something with that inside information, so when Vanity Fair recently came out with this article — When the Spec Script was King — a decent piece, but pretty surface level, I figured this is as good a time as any to dig into the subject in a comprehensive fashion.

Three weeks ago in Part 1, we looked at the genesis of the spec script in Hollywood from 1900-1942.

Two weeks in Part 2, we covered the emergence of the spec script market from 1942-1990.

Last week in Part 3, we analyzed the boom, bust, and back again of 1990-2012.

Part 4: The Buyers — Studios and Financiers

We may tend to think of Hollywood buyers as the movie studios: Disney, Paramount, Sony, Twentieth Century Fox, Universal, Warner Bros. For those with advanced math skills, that translates into a whopping total of 6. There are subsidiary divisions such as Fox 2000 and Fox Searchlight (Twentieth Century Fox), Focus Features (Universal),  and New Line (Warner Bros.), but those acquisition dollars are presumably part of the overall studio’s pot. We can add Lionsgate to the mix, a so-called mini-major, so let’s say 7. And DreamWorks as long as they have funding which at present they do. Last year Millennium Films acquired 6 spec scripts, more than Twentieth Century Fox, Disney and Lionsgate, so perhaps we throw them into the mix.

So… we’re talking 9 buyers? That’s it?

No, that’s not it. Fortunately for screenwriters and the film community as a whole, there are financing entities like IM Global, Content Film, Between the Eyes, Bold Films, perhaps 50-75 in number who are actively buying, developing and producing movies.

I spoke with manager Chris Fenton, literary manager and producer of H2F Entertainment about the spec market and he gave his thoughts on the state of things with regard to buyers:

The business model is going to continue to change and as it changes, I don’t expect the [spec script] market to get worse than it is now. I would like to believe that it gets a little better, but we’re never going back to the over-development days of the mid-to-late 90s. Not so fortunate for those trying to sell original material, but better in the long run for the health of the major studios.

But there are all these financiers and financier-driven projects we’re having a lot of luck with outside of the studios. Last year, we sold a relatively good amount of projects to the major studios, but then we also sold a lot of stuff to the financiers. And while the financiers don’t necessarily pay a lot of upfront money when they purchase or option a piece of material, they don’t develop a lot either.

So if you actually get one of those companies on board with a script, chances are it gets made, and the deals you can make with these type of financiers are such that if the movie does get produced, sometimes you can actually get a production bonus that might be greater than one at a studio.

In that respect, writers are actually in a strong scenario. They’re setting up a project, and while they’re not making a lot up front, when the movie gets made, they might actually be making more and on top of it, they’re more likely to get a produced film.

And by the way, if you look at it as a business model, you don’t make any money as a studio or as a financier developing material. Where you make the money is actually making the movie and distributing it and getting it out there. That’s what everybody’s goal is now.

What type of projects are these ‘financiers’ buying? It varies from company to company, but I think it’s safe to say there are two commonalities across the board: (1) They are interested in genre films such as Action, Action-Thriller, Thriller, Horror, Horror-Thriller. (2) They tend to focus on lower budget movies as compared to the major studios. By lower budget, think $5-25M. Some may partner up with other financiers to stretch budgets above $30M, even $40M, but those projects have to have major talent attached, super strong marketing potential, and so on.

As you track spec script sales here on GITS, make sure to note the buyers. As I’ve said before many times, the easiest way to sell a spec script is to write what they’re buying. Your understanding of that marketplace can help you assess story concepts you generate so you make smart use of your time as you develop and write your next original screenplay.

Next week, we start looking into the actual process of bringing a spec script to market.

[Originally posted February 28, 2013]

The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

The Business of Screenwriting: Everything you wanted to know about specs [Part 3]

April 9th, 2015 by

Spec scripts, that is. I’m guessing that perhaps 90% of the people who follow this blog at some point in their lives will write a spec script. And the other 10% are involved in buying and selling them. In light of that fact, last year I interviewed a top manager and some Hollywood screenwriters about the ins and outs of what is involved in bringing a spec script to market. I’ve been waiting for the right opportunity to do something with that inside information, so when Vanity Fair recently came out with this article — When the Spec Script was King — a decent piece, but pretty surface level, I figured this is as good a time as any to dig into the subject in a comprehensive fashion.

Two weeks ago in Part 1, we looked at the genesis of the spec script in Hollywood from 1900-1942.

Last week in Part 2, we covered the emergence of the spec script market from 1942-1990.

Part 3: Boom, Bust, and Back Again [1990-2012]

Check out the sales year-to-year from 1990 to 2012:

1991: 28
1992: 40
1993: 89
1994: 101
1995: 173
1996: 155
1997: 141
1998: 110
1999: 83
2000: 92
2001: 101
2002: 114
2003: 89
2004: 75
2005: 58
2006: 60
2007: 64
2008: 87
2009: 67
2010: 55
2011: 110
2012: 99

If we throw out the totals from 1991 and 1992, artificially low numbers due to limited coverage of spec script sales at the time, we see some trendlines:

* There was a boom from 1994-1998 with a total of 680 deals, an average of 136 per year.

* There a bust from 2003-2010 with a total of 610 deals, an average of 76 per year.

* Now we appear to be back again — partially — in 2011-2012 with a total 209 deals, an average of 105 per year which sits precisely in the middle between the high and low averages for the last 20+ years.

What explanation for the boom? Lots of reasons, but we can’t overlook the fact that money was flowing freely in Hollywood then, an era of “stupid money” as some call it. More buyers, an irrational exuberance about spec scripts, and a willingness to acquire scripts that may not have been completely baked as long as the underlying story concept was seen to be especially marketable.

What explanation for the bust? Again lots of reasons, but a big one is the belt-tightening that happened industry wide as corporate overlords clamped down on spending. Part of that was also consolidation — fewer studios and mini-majors. Part of that was an attempt to make the R&D aspect of the movie production process (i.e., acquiring and developing scripted projects) more efficient.

What explanation for back again? Once again lots of reasons. Hollywood’s fear that moviegoers are suffering from ‘sequelitis’. The emergence of new money, smaller independent and typically foreign-based financing / production entities back-filling script acquisition and development as the major movie studios scale back film production. But I also want to posit this: Writers are crafting better screenplays.

I’ve heard this in the many interviews with screenwriters I’ve been conducting of late, a consistent opinion that there are some great new writers making their mark. That confirms a theory I’ve been playing around with for some time now and that is this:

In the 80s came the growth of screenwriting gurus coinciding with the emergence of the spec script market. That drew the attention of a multitude of screenwriter wannabes with dreams of knocking out The Great American Screenplay, cashing in for seven figures, and the start of the good life in Hollywood. To be sure some strong writers did distinguish themselves, but into the 90s there were perhaps more Shane Black, Joe Eszterhas and Quentin Tarantino clones than original voices.

But something has happened. Two generations of writers have come and gone since Syd Field first published “Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting” in 1982 and I believe the overall level of knowledge and understanding about the craft has settled in among writers. This current crop is smarter, more well-read, has more writing tools and overall savvy than ever before.

Remember that group of filmmakers in the 70s? Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, Scorcese, DePalma, and many others, a group that had immersed themselves in cinema, and discovered a way to tell stories that were both compelling and commercial.

I wonder if what we are seeing nowadays is something similar with screenwriters emerging onto the scene… writers who have immersed themselves in the craft of screenwriting, building on the theories, ideas and writing of the last several decades, inspired by the very idea of Storytelling, and infused with a more complete and deeper understanding of what it takes to write a solid, commercial movie.

Whatever it is, let’s all hope it continues: More and better original screenplays… because that can only lead to more and better movies.

Next week, we shift to the present day and start an in-depth exploration of how reps handle the process of rolling out a spec script to the marketplace with observations from a top Hollywood manager and some professional screenwriters.

[Originally posted February 28, 2013]

UPDATE: So what happened in terms of spec script deals in 2013 and 2014? Here are the numbers:

2013: 100
2014: 62

So 2013 capped off a decent three-year run, but there was definitely a fall-off last year. But historical perspective based on the numbers from 1991 to present reveals there are always ups and downs in the spec script market.

The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

The Business of Screenwriting: Everything you wanted to know about specs [Part 2]

April 2nd, 2015 by

Spec scripts, that is. I’m guessing that perhaps 90% of the people who follow this blog at some point in their lives will write a spec script. And the other 10% are involved in buying and selling them. In light of that fact, last year I interviewed a top manager and some Hollywood screenwriters about the ins and outs of what is involved in bringing a spec script to market. I’ve been waiting for the right opportunity to do something with that inside information, so when Vanity Fair recently came out with this article — When the Spec Script was King — a decent piece, but pretty surface level, I figured this is as good a time as any to dig into the subject in a comprehensive fashion.

Last week in Part 1, we looked at the genesis of the spec script in Hollywood from 1900-1942.

Part 2: The Emergence of the Spec Script Market [1942-1990]

The sale in 1942 of the spec script “Woman of the Year” was unusual in that most Hollywood screenwriters worked under contract for the studios. Receiving a regular paycheck, writers had almost no motivation or inclination to spend their time pounding out a screenplay speculating they could sell it on the open market.

However the 50s and 60s marked significant changes in the film business. After the Supreme Court ruled against the monopolistic practice of vertical integration, by 1948 Hollywood studios were forced to sell their ownership of movie theaters. At that same time, television began to grow in popularity with the emergence of four TV networks and sales of TV sets running into the millions. Combined with a drop in movie box office after the post-World War II boom, studios simply did not have the revenue to support the old ‘studio system’ and shed most of their writer contracts. Cut loose from the security of a studio deal, screenwriters discovered the risks and benefits of becoming independent contractors.

One of the first to cash in was William Goldman who in 1967 sold the original screenplay “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” to 20th Century Fox for a reported $400,000. For all intents and purposes, this sale marks the beginning of the modern spec script era.

Deals of this sort were still few and far between. The next major sale occurred in 1972 when Warner Bros. purchased “The Yakuza,” written by Leonard Schrader and Paul Schrader for between $325-350,000. As far as I know, this was the first ‘bidding war,’ where multiple studios made offers for the script which boosted its eventual sales price.

It wasn’t until the 80s the spec script market really took hold. Here is a list of some notable spec sales during that decade:

1984: Lethal Weapon, written by Shane Black. It sold for $250,000 to Warner Bros.

1985: The Highlander, written by Gregory Widen. It sold for $500,000 to Universal.

1987: K-9, written by Steven Siegel & Scott Myers. It sold for $750,000 to Universal.

1989: “Gale Force”, written by David Chappe. It sold for $500,000 to Carolco.

1989: Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, written by Blake Snyder. It sold for $500,000 to Universal.

But the year that cemented the importance of the spec script in the field of acquisition and development, and indeed in pop culture was 1990. Here are some of the big ticket sales from that year:

Title: Basic Instinct Logline: A police detective is in charge of the investigation of a brutal murder, in which a beautiful and seductive woman could be involved. Writer: Joe Eszterhas Genre: Crime Thriller Agency: CAA Buyer: Carolco Date: June 1990 Note: Purchase price $3M

Title: The Cheese Stands Alone Logline: An off-beat romantic comedy about a superstitious Hungarian hunk who blames his loss of sex drive on a hex put on him by a jilted girlfriend. Writer: Kathy McWorter Genre: Romantic Comedy Agency: Preferred Artists Buyer: Paramount Date: October 1990 Note: Purchase price $1,000,000

Title: City of Darkness Logline: Two young boys bring a comic-book villain and a comic-book hero into the real world. Writers: Patrick Cirillo and Joe Gayton Genre: Action Comedy Agency: N/A Buyer: Columbia Date: 1990 Note: Purchase price $750,000

Title: Cold As Ice Logline: A down-at-the-heels private detective and a young widow team up to solve a diamond robbery. Writer: Mark Allen Smith Genre: Thriller Agency: N/A Buyer: Columbia Note: Purchase price $350,000

Title: Flatliners Logline: Medical students bring themselves near death; their experiment begins to go awry. Writer: Peter Filardi Genre: Drama Sci-Fi Agency: N/A Buyer: Columbia Note: Purchase price $400,000

Title: Hell Bent… And Back! Logline: WWII action comedy Writers: Doug Richardson and Rick Jaffa Genre: Action Comedy: Agency: N/A Buyer: Disney Date: N/A Note: Purchase price $1,000,000

Title: The Last Boy Scout Logline: A down and out cynical detective teams up with a down and out ex-quarterback to try and solve a murder case involving a pro football team and a politician. Writer: Shane Black Genre: Action Agency: N/A Buyer: Geffen Film Company Date: April 1990 Note: Purchase price $1.75M

Title: Prince of Thieves Logline: When Robin Hood and his Moorish companion come to England and the tyranny of the Sheriff of Nottingham, he decides to fight back as an outlaw. Writers: Pen Densham and John Watson Genre: Action Adventure Agency: N/A Buyer: Morgan Creek Date: 1990 Note: Purchase price $1.2M

Title: Radio Flyer Logline: A father recounts a dark period of his childhood when he and his little brother lived in the suburbs. Writer: David Mickey Evans Genre: Drama Agency: N/A Buyer: Columbia Note: Purchase price $1.25M

Title: The Rest of Daniel Logline: A 1939 test pilot asks his best friend to use him as a guinea pig for a cryogenics experiment so he doesn’t have to watch his love lying in a coma. The next thing Daniel knows is that he’s awakened in 1992. Writer: J.J. Abrams Genre: Drama Agency: ICM Buyer: Warner Bros. Note: Purchase price $2M

Title: Stay Tuned Logline: A husband and wife are sucked into a hellish TV and have to survive a gauntlet of twisted versions of TV shows they find themselves in. Writers: Tom S. Parker and Jim Jennewein Genre: Comedy Fantasy Agency: N/A Buyer: Morgan Creek Note: Purchase price $750,000

Title: Texas Lead and Gold Logline: Set in the 1880s, the plot follows a Texas Ranger teamed with a black attorney-turned-thief on the trail of a criminal, who in turn is searching for a lost cache of gold. Writers: Michael Beckner and Jim Gorman Genre: Western Agency: Bauer Benedek Buyer: Largo Date: May 1990 Note: Purchase price $1,000,000

Title: The Ticking Man Logline: Nuclear-armed robot Writers: Brian Helgeland and Manny Coto Genre: Action Thriller Agency: N/A Buyer: Largo Pictures Date: N/A Note: $1,000,000

Title: The Ultimatum Logline: Nuclear terrorist techno-thriller Writers: Laurence Dworet and Robert Roy Pool Genre: Action Thriller Agency: N/A Buyer: Disney Date: N/A Note: Purchase price $1,000,000

With multiple seven-figure deals in 1990, spec scripts became sexy and screenwriters hot commodities. During the next two decades, there was a boom, a settling in, a retraction, then a reemergence of the spec script market. That will be the subject of next week’s Business of Screenwriting post.

[Originally posted February 21, 2013]

The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

The Business of Screenwriting: Everything you wanted to know about specs [Part 1]

March 26th, 2015 by

Spec scripts, that is. I’m guessing that perhaps 90% of the people who follow this blog at some point in their lives will write a spec script. And the other 10% are involved in buying and selling them. In light of that fact, last year I interviewed a top manager and some Hollywood screenwriters about the ins and outs of what is involved in bringing a spec script to market. I’ve been waiting for the right opportunity to do something with that inside information, so when Vanity Fair recently came out with this article — When the Spec Script was King — a decent piece, but pretty surface level, I figured this is as good a time as any to dig into the subject in a comprehensive fashion. To wit:

What exactly is a spec script? How did they come into being in the first place? What are some of the things that can happen with a spec script? How are managers, agents, producers, talent and buyers involved in the process of acquiring a spec script? What is the state of the current spec script market? What are trends in what studios and production companies are buying in the way of spec scripts? In this special TBOS series, “Everything you wanted to know about specs,” I’m going to do my best to cover these questions and any others you might have.

Caveat: I don’t claim to be anything other than who I am. A screenwriter who broke into the business in 1987 by selling a spec script. I’ve pretty much tracked the spec script market since then, informally at first, but on a systematic basis since the early 90s. That’s why with the support of the Black List and in association with Done Deal Pro, we put together The Definitive Spec Script Sales List, listing every spec script deal I could find and verify from 1991-2012. That said, I’m sure there are things I don’t know, so I hope this is a participatory process and welcome both questions from aspiring writers and insight from established industry insiders.

As long as we’re here, I thought we should start with some historical context, drawing upon a university level course I teach called History of American Screenwriting.

First a definition of spec script. “Spec” is short for speculative, meaning a writer pens a script without initial compensation with the intent of selling the completed screenplay on the open market. As we shall see in this series, there are all sorts of variations on this theme, but let’s start with this basic take on what a spec script is.

Part 1: The Genesis of the Spec Script [1900-1942]

From the earliest days of nickelodeons and as one-reelers evolved into longer films, the insatiable desire by consumers for new movies put original and adapted stories at a premium. Thus in a sense, the reality of ‘spec scripts’ has been in place since the very beginning of the film industry. Writers from inside or even outside the movie industry would present story ideas, primarily in treatment or synopsis form, with the hope that a production company or studio would buy it.

Thus the speculative part was there from the beginning. The script part took some time to evolve. With filmmakers churning out movie shorts over the course of a few days, what passed for a ‘script’ in first decade of the 20th century was often nothing more than a shot list folded into the back pocket of a director.

It’s not until the next decade when Thomas Ince created the first extensive studio facility known as Inceville [in Santa Monica] that scripts began to become formalized per Ince’s specifications. Here is an excerpt from a script for the Ince 1914 western Hells Hinges:

SCENE L: Close-Up on the Bar in Western Saloon

A group of Western types of the early period are drinking and talking idly – much good fellowship prevails and every man feels at ease with his neighbor – one of them glances off the picture and the smile fades from his face to be replaced by the strained look of worry – the others notice the change and follow his gaze — their faces reflect his own emotions – be sure to get over a good contrast between the easy good nature that had prevailed and the unnatural, strained silence that follows – as they look, cut.

Even here we can see the rudimentary elements of what we know today as screenplay form.

In the late teens and early 20s, writers churned out thousands of scenarios and photoplays. Interestingly it’s estimated that women comprised over 50% of the writers working in Hollywood primarily because at the time they were on the whole better educated than men and they could better write stories for the female target audience — melodramas, romance and adventure movies. Indeed female writers like Anita Loos and Frances Marion were under contract to studios for $50,000 or more per year.

But the first official spec script didn’t arrive on the scene until 1933. Screenwriter Preston Sturges first made his way to Hollywood in 1932. After cutting his teeth with a writing stint at Universal, the following year Sturges wrote an original screenplay on his own dime called “The Power and the Glory.” Sturges’ son Sandy reports this fact on a website he manages about his father noting: “Sells original screenplay, The Power and the Glory, to Fox.” Per Wikipedia:

He [Sturges] also sold his original screenplay for The Power and the Glory (1933) to Fox, where it was filmed as a vehicle for Spencer Tracy. The film told the story of a self-involved financier via a series of flashbacks and flashforwards, and was an acknowledged source of inspiration for the screenwriters of Citizen Kane. Fox producer Jesse Lasky paid Sturges $17,500 plus a percentage of the profits, a then-unprecedented deal for a screenwriter, which instantly elevated Sturges’ reputation in Hollywood – although the lucrative deal irritated as many as it impressed. Sturges later recalled, “The film made a lot of enemies. Writers at that time worked in teams, like piano movers. And my first solo script was considered a distinct menace to the profession.”

And right here we see something associated with spec scripts — at least potentially: A great spec script gives the writer power. Why? Because if one or more buyers wants it, that puts the writer in a position where s/he can negotiate a deal on their own terms.

Yet it appears virtually every other writer in Hollywood at the time did not follow in Sturges’ footsteps, preferring the security of working within the studio system, deals ranging from weekly and monthly contracts, or if the writer was particularly good, multiyear arrangements.

Sturges continued to write original screenplays including “The Great McGinty” which in 1939 he sold to Paramount for $1 in order to be able to direct it, his attempt at controlling what happened to his scripts. Sturges went on to write and direct many notable movies based on his original screenplays including Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story, and The Miracle at Morgan’s Creek.

It’s not until 1942 that the next notable spec script deal occurred: “Woman of the Year” written by Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin. From the New York Times:

”Katharine Hepburn was our agent. We had her in mind when we wrote the story. She loved it. She took our names off the script and sold it to M-G-M. We were making $300 a week. The studio would never have paid a lot for a script by us, and she knew that M-G-M would not make the kind of picture she wanted unless they paid an enormous amount of money.”

The script sold for $100,000. One would think that staggering amount of money would have opened the floodgates for spec scripts. However that did not happen until four decades later. Next week we’ll look at how the breakdown of the ‘studio system’ and emergence of screenwriters as independent contractors led to the evolution of the spec script market in the 80s, leading to the pivotal year of 1990.

[Originally posted February 14, 2013]

The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

The Business of Screenwriting: The Birth, Life and Death of a Movie (Part 3)

March 12th, 2015 by

In Part 1, we went from an emotional high to low in setting up a remake of the 1955 comedy The Court Jester, going from a done deal to no deal due to rights issues.

In Part 2, we experienced joy as the project was resurrected at MGM, then landing none other Mike Myers as the star of the movie who at the time was an incredibly hot actor.

I suspect you know where this sad saga is headed. Hell, I gave it away with the title of the series:

Part 1: Birth.

Part 2: Life.

Part 3: Death.

How did the project die? Let’s go back in time, shall we, to relive that obituarial moment in the present tense.

I am in my home office, grinding away on another project. Frankly, I haven’t even been thinking of The Court Jester all that much, simply basking the warm background glow of a go project with an A-list movie star who has publicly declared the movie to be his father’s second favorite film.

I mean, this is one movie that is destined to get produced, right?

Rrrrring.

Hello?

It’s CAA calling.

Uh, so… Jester? It’s dead. Again.
What? Why?
The studio read the new draft… and they didn’t connect with it.

“Didn’t connect with it” is Hollywood-speak for “hated it”.

Evidently Mike and his guy took the story in a whole other direction. They passed on his take. So he walked. Project goes from A-list actor to zero attachments like that.

Why don’t they just go back to our draft?
Scott, you know how it is…

Indeed I do. When a PLAYER walks away from a project, no matter the reason, the heat the project previously had immediately vanishes, replaced by a big black cloud perpetually hanging over it. It’s hard to get any movie made. When a project has negative associations… virtually impossible.

Hence… Death. The Court Jester just one more slain project, the script a PDF corpse piled upon a tower of other felled projects reaching toward the heavens… or perhaps more aptly, down toward Development Hell.

What’s a writer’s takeaway from this story of woe? Two things.

First, you can never expect a go project to actually go. You get a green light, that means absolutely nothing until the first day of principle photography.

Second, this kind of shit happens all the time. If you cannot handle extremes highs and lows arising from a business where the decision-makers desperately want to say No to save their ass from potential failure, but sometimes have to say Yes… to create product… to generate revenue… to pay the bills, do yourself a favor: Become a novelist.

If you love movies and TV with a kind of mad obsession, fine. But be forewarned: Someday you will have a project that is born, lives and dies before a single frame of film gets shot. Many more movie projects don’t get produced than do get made.

As that sage observer of the movie business Bruce Hornsby wrote, “That’s just the way it is.”

The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones.  Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here. 

The Business of Screenwriting: The Birth, Life and Death of a Movie (Part 2)

February 19th, 2015 by

When we last left this intrepid screenwriter, I was stuck in 1997, left holding a phone, speechless after learning that a supposed done deal with Paramount to remake the 1955 comedy The Court Jester had just gone south after suits in various offices from Hollywood to Beverly Hills had determined that in fact, Paramount did not own the rights to said movie. [You may read all about it in Part 1].

Which has led to the improbable meeting between the screenwriting team of which I am a part and John Williams. No, not this John Williams.

This John Williams, a movie producer and founder of Vanguard Films/Vanguard Animation. Later he went on to produce a little movie franchise you may have heard of:

As we sit with John in a sprawling house in the Hollywood hills, he explains to us how he discovered the rights to The Court Jester were owned by the estate of Danny Kaye, who had starred in the original. Furthermore he had secured those rights, then struck a deal with MGM to make the movie.

In essence, we are here to do a pseudo-pitch, not the story per se, but our take on how we would adapt The Court Jester. So we chit and we chat, we swap ideas and share some laughs. All in all, a mellow affair.

John kept making a point: “We must respect the original.” In other words, we could come up with new material and update the humor, but not stray much from the tone and spirit of the original. Fine by us because that was our intent as well.

As we depart the premises, I fully expect we’ll have to go in to pitch MGM, so imagine my surprise when out of the blue, I get a call from CAA: “We’re a go at MGM!” Evidently whatever magic John had in relation to The Court Jester extends not only to the Danny Kaye family, but also to a Hollywood studio.

So off we go to write the script, which we do in short order, having already broken the story when we were ostensibly under hire by Paramount.

We submit the draft. John Williams loves it. MGM loves it. Our agents love it. My bank account loves it. Some weeks roll by when one morning, I crack open Variety to read: “Mike Myers Attached to ‘Court Jester’ Remake at MGM.” Yes, that Mike Myers, coming off the huge success of Wayne’s World, Wayne’s World 2, and the recently released Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.

I can’t find the article in Variety online, but I did find an L.A. Times article online dated October 25, 1997 that has this snippet:

MGM is remaking Billy Wilder’s biting 1966 comedy “The Fortune Cookie,” substituting Candice Bergen and Bette Midler for the original stars, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. The studio also is developing a remake of “The Court Jester” for comedian Mike Myers [emphasis added].

See, I’m not making this up. I remember the article quotes Myers [no relation] as saying that The Court Jester was his father’s second favorite movie so it was a thrill to be involved in the project.

Incredible news, right? From a go project… to a no project… to a go project: the sequel… to a commitment from one of the hottest comedy stars at the time.

All is well in the universe! Huzzah, huzzah, huzzah!

Then I read this line from the Variety article: “Myers and his writing partner are going to take a quick pass at the script before shooting the movie.”

Come back next week to see what happened.

The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

The Business of Screenwriting: The Birth, Life and Death of a Movie (Part 1)

February 5th, 2015 by

It’s 1997. My writing partner and I are seated in a screening room on the Paramount lot. We are there with a handful of studio execs watching a movie: The 1955 comedy The Court Jester starring Danny Kaye.

Poster Court Jester

In an earlier meeting, we have pitched the studios a basic take on a remake of The Court Jester. Now as we watch the movie unspool, we are cackling along with Kaye and co-stars Glynis Johns and Basil Rathbone as they circumnavigate a fun plot written by Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, who also acted as co-directors. Here is just one of the classic bits from the movie:

Great stuff, right? How fun to take the basic story and provide a contemporary spin on it. As the movie flashes “The End” and the lights come up, the Paramount execs seem to be wholeheartedly in agreement. We toss around ideas right there in the screening room, each one topping the other. Perhaps the single best meeting I’ve ever taken in Hollywood.

Sure enough, within a few days, we get a call from CAA: “We are good to go on The Court Jester“. The studio has agreed to our deal and they’ve kicked contract details to business affairs. Meanwhile pumped up to have the opportunity to adapt one of our favorite comedies, we leap into brainstorming, exploring ways to expand the story while honoring the fast-paced wit of the original.

Things are going along swimmingly. Indeed, I’m thinking to myself, sometimes life as a Hollywood screenwriter is a wondrous thing.

Then another phone call from CAA.

Agents: Uh, guys. Bad news. When business affairs dug into it, turns out… [dramatic pause]… Paramount doesn’t own the rights to the movie.

What?! One of the very first images in the movie is the Paramount logo. We have a copy of the original script. Same thing: Paramount Pictures. Look at the poster. Right up top, it says, “Paramount Presents”.

Agents: Sorry. They don’t own it. [click]

You know how sometimes, a dial tone can be a really irritating sound? This is one of those times.

As I stand in my kitchen, mouth agape, the current soundtrack of my life the annoying ‘errrgggh’ of my phone, bastard deliverer of bad news that it is, one question seeps into my consciousness and across my lips.

“If Paramount doesn’t own the movie rights to The Court Jester… who the hell does?”

This is Part 1 in a three-part series on the Birth, Life and Death of a Movie. Come back next week to read about some real-life plot twists worthy of the movie we were trying to adapt.

The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

The Business of Screenwriting: They will pigeonhole you (and why this can be a good thing)

November 28th, 2014 by

The co-star of K-9 was a dog named Jerry Lee:

A few years later, we landed an assignment in which the key characters were superhero mutant frogs.

Not long after that, another assignment in which the hero was a pig.

That’s right: Dogs. Frogs. Hogs.

This did not happen by chance. As soon as K-9 sold, my name went on a variety of writing lists. Evidently one of them was “Animals.”

Believe it or not, I have been offered even other animal projects: whales, kangaroos, monkeys.

That is a microcosm of how Hollywood operates: They pigeonhole you [animal pun intended].

If you get known as a writer who does sports dramas, you will get offered lots of sports dramas.

If you become known as a writer who does broad physical comedies, you will get offered a lot of broad physical comedies.

If your reputation is as a writer who does turgid period pieces about bipolar quadrasexual polar bears who speak in Norwegian subtitles… well, you’re probably not working in Hollywood. But you get my point.

Hollywood is a busy damn place and people there tend to operate in shorthand. “That writer is good with dialogue… She’s great with character-oriented projects… That duo really gets frustration comedies.”

There are several reasons why this state of affairs exists. First and foremost, a predominant way studio executives look at writers is that we are problem-solvers. The exec has a project that needs a rewrite, a fresh take, a new set of eyes. So if the project is, let’s say, an R-rated adolescent romp in the vein of American Pie, the exec will more than likely be looking for a writer who has a track record in that area. This is only natural. If the studio is going to commit dollars to a writer, that writer has to hit the studio’s comfort level. Think about it. Who would they be more comfortable with? A writer with an established set of writing credits in the specific genre of the project in question or a writer with background in some other area?

Contributing to the state of affairs is the attitude of most managers and agents. Whereas execs look at writers as problem-solvers, reps tend to operate on a line of least resistance approach toward their clients. Being both smart and busy, agents and managers tend to slot the writer into projects that are the easiest, most likely deals to make happen. If your claim to fame is aggressive action movies with lots of spilled blood, chances are you’re going to have an uphill slog landing that OWA on an adaptation of the YA title “Summer Camp Puppy Love.”

Here is an excerpt from an interview Tom Benedek did with manager-producer Adam Kolbrenner, founder of Madhouse Entertainment, for a recent Screenwriting Master Class course.

The real true evaluation of a manager comes down to the ability to help you navigate and ultimately not waste time on scripts and ideas you shouldn’t be writing… What’s your voice, what are the stories you want to tell, and how are we going to get there together… If a writer comes to me and they’re a great thriller writer, an action writer, and they pitch me an interesting comedy idea, okay great. Don’t write that.

Don’t write that. Your rep is thinking not only about your next writing gig, but also your career. While there are some writers who write multiple genres, most focus in one area. That becomes your best path to continued employment as a writer in Hollywood.

Of course, writers contribute to the pigeonhole effect, too. After all, no one is forcing you to say yes to the projects you’re offered. And frankly, if a writer nails a project in one specific subgenre, proving that’s in their wheelhouse, they will likely have more confidence writing a similar project… and another similar project… and so on.

Thus the reality is by and large, Hollywood pigeonholes writers.

Here are two things to consider in that regard.

First make sure what you choose to write as a spec script is a genre for which you have passion. Part of that is about your energy coming through on the page. But a big part of it is when you sell that script, Hollywood will perceive that genre or even subgenre as being who you are about. That becomes the association. “Oh, yeah, the K-9 guy.” If you choose a genre you don’t particularly care about, then sell a spec in that genre, you are going to be confronted by the daunting prospect of writing a bunch of projects you don’t much like.

Second while writers are pigeonholed, it is not necessarily a permanent situation. You can break out of the stereotype. That is one of the values of a spec script to an established writer, something I wrote about here.

The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

The Business of Screenwriting: The crazed life of a studio executive

September 24th, 2014 by

Here’s one thing you have to realize about movie studio executives: Their lives are crazed. Hectic, pressurized, nonstop. Those of you who live outside L.A. may have an image of it as a laid back town. Not true. People in Hollywood work their asses off, perhaps nobody more so than studio execs.

Two anecdotes to illustrate the point, each told to me by executive assistants:

Story #1: Assistant, who has worked all weekend reading scripts, turns in coverage to exec on Monday morning. Exec is just about to go to a meeting to review the weekend read. He’s frantically pawing coverage trying to get a sense of one particular script. Unable to grasp the plot and with no time to spare, he finally blurts out to the assistant, “Can you cover the coverage?”

Story #2: Harried exec fulminating about all the “shit on my plate” starts to fling scripts around on his desk. “I mean what the hell is all this stuff,” he asks scooping up a random script. The assistant takes the script. “That’s one of your projects.” Exec blankly stares at the offensive item. “It is?”

The thing is both of these execs are really smart, one as I recall Ivy League educated. It’s not the execs per se. It’s the effect of their jobs.

As a studio exec, your day begins early. Let’s say, at the gym and even there while working out, you’re networking, handling emails, texts, and so on.

There are breakfast meetings, lunch meetings, dinner meetings, and meetings for drinks.

There is a succession of meetings in your office during the day — pitches, talent, production, script notes.

In between you roll calls, dozens of 1-2 minute high-speed conversations — schmooze, get to the point, then “later” and onto your next call.

You are involved overseeing multiple movie projects, each in a different stage of development, pre-production, production or post, each requiring your attention, a blizzard of responsibilities.

There are screenings and premieres. You think these would be fun. Try having to do these week after week where – again – you network, handle texts, phone calls.

There is the never-ending reading of the tea leaves at your company — who’s up, who’s down in the daily power play — amidst a corporate attitude that if you don’t go into work on Sunday, don’t bother coming in on Saturday. Even if you’re not working your ass off, you have to give the appearance you are.

And always the pursuit of the next hot project, great script, new writer in a town where everybody else is competing with you to find the next hot project, great script, new writer…

Finally when you roll home at night about midnight, there it is — your stack of scripts to read.

Set aside whether you can sympathize with studio execs or not. Yes, they may make a lot of money. They may chill with celebs and power players. They may work in the movie business, fer cryin’ out loud. You may very well think, “How bad can it be?”

That is entirely beside the point. For a screenwriter, the only point of this post is to bring you to that moment when the exec slumps into their place and lays their bloodshot eyes on that stack of scripts.

Imagine this: What are they feeling when they see those scripts? You think after their frenetic day, they’re excited to sit down and read a screenplay?

Uh, no.

In fact, you can pretty much assume reading a script is the very last thing they want to do.

And that, my friend, is the awareness you need to keep in mind with every last word you write. Because when that exec flops into a chair or at their desk or onto their bed, then opens up your script to read, your words need to pull them out of their normative state of exhausted cynicism and into your story universe.

For these people who can literally change your life with the utterance of one word — “Yes!” — you better damn well make sure your story sings, that your plot, your dialogue, your characters make them forget their weariness and remember one of the reasons why they got into the business in the first place…

To read a great story.

The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

[Originally posted May 12, 2011]

The Business of Screenwriting: It’s not just about the script

September 4th, 2014 by

We spend so much time here focusing on writing a great script, as well we should because that is such a critical piece of the Hollywood screenwriting puzzle. The quality of the scripts we write, whether on spec or assignment, is hugely important. They are bottom line, career changing kind of deals.

But there are other dynamics involved in working as a professional screenwriter that have nothing to do with your actual ability at crafting a story and translating said story onto the page. Here are some of key items:

* Know how to talk to Hollywood players: Whether they are studio execs or producers, directors or actors, it behooves you to become comfortable conversing with people you will perceive to be somehow ‘bigger’ than yourself. Of course, if their name is Spielberg, Di Caprio or Bruckheimer, for all intents and purposes they are bigger than you (not existentially, but professionally). Other than conditioning your gag reflex so you do not immediately hurl on their Guccis when you are introduced, the first rule of thumb in these type of meetings is this: God gave you two ears and one mouth… for a reason. Almost every ‘powerful’ person I’ve met in Hollywood seems to have a default operating system set to chatter. They enjoy talking about themselves. Play to their comfort zone: Let them take the lead in the conversation. Combine that with the fact that by listening you can learn much more about the person with whom you are meeting and the project you’re discussing, you can almost never go wrong in going ears first, mouth second.

Note: It’s almost a lock cinch you will have to work on this as your default setting will be to nervously babble on about the first things that pop into your head — Traffic! Coffee! My cat! — in order to fill space, but trust me… don’t do that.

* Know the basics of the business: At the very least, you should have a working understanding of how the movie business works. Acquisition. Development. Production. Post. Marketing. Distribution. Where you plug in. What journey your script has lying ahead of it.

Note: You don’t have to know everything about the business, but the more you understand the world a studio exec, producer or director lives in, the innumerable hassles and issues they have to handle, the less likely you will have a script notes moment like this: “Lemme get this straight: You want to have a scene that involves boats with children, animals, snow, and helicopters?” — eyes bugged out, glaring at your for not having a clue about what it takes to produce a movie.

* Know the players: If you’re smart, you’ll be able to assign names to key development execs at the studios. Also big producers. And while you’re at it, top agents and managers. These are the people who dominate the script world. Everyone you meet with in Hollywood will know these players. If you can do more than stare blankly into space when a name is mentioned, two points for you.

Note: I know what you’re thinking. If I don’t know a name, I can just nod my head as if I do know who they are talking about. This is dangerous territory, my friend, the equivalent of Russian roulette. When a studio exec or producer meets with a writer, they are sizing you up. Would you rather get caught in a lie or simply admit, “Sorry, don’t know the name.” Opt for the latter. Your excuse? Smile sheepishly, shrug, and say, “I pretty much focus on writing stories.” As long as you convey a modicum of what The Biz is about, the “My job is to write stories” card is an ironclad defense.

* Know the deals: You probably think Hollywood is all about scripts and talent, movies and TV shows. Actually on one level what it’s really about is deals. Who bought what. Who signed with whom. Who agreed to do this with that. As confirmation of this fact, check out Variety or The Hollywood Reporter. Peruse the headlines: How many of them are deal announcements? Most of them. And if it makes the headlines in the trades, you can be sure that whoever you are meeting with knows about the litany of that day’s transactions.

Note: You don’t have to know the details of the deal, in fact in some ways it’s better if you don’t. Them: “And what about that spec deal for ‘Slinky: The Movie’”? You: “Yeah, Universal?” Them: “Universal and what were they thinking. Two hundred million on ‘Battleship,’ dump ‘Ouija Board,’ then buy ‘Slinky’? What I hear is going on is…” And off they go with their insider info. It’s one of Hollywood’s favorite dynamics: Someone who knows something someone else doesn’t, then gets to display their knowledge. Allowing them to fill in the details makes them feel good about themselves… which in turn makes them feel good about you.

* Know when to take charge: Here’s the thing: Most of them know about this much about story. You, as a writer, know THIS much about story. Despite all their bravado, intimate knowledge of the business, and ability to network, once the subject turns to the project itself, that’s when the table turns. They want you to handle the problems, they want you to be confident, they want you to know your stuff. Whether it’s a  pitch, OWA or script notes meeting, at some point it’s your baby. Everything else is just preparation for this moment. When it comes, you need to approach it like it’s in your wheelhouse. You swing with confidence and knock that fat fastball out of the ballpark. Power respects power. And if they feel like you know what you’re doing and what you’re saying makes sense to them, chances are you will their comfort level.

Note: Knowing your stuff means really knowing your stuff. In preparation for these type of meetings, you must immerse yourself into the story universe, engage your characters, and work out a coherent take on the project. There are no short-cuts here, you just need to do the hard work to break the story. This is what they are paying you for.

I suppose there’s some sort of algorithm wherein the better the writer you are, the less ancillary details like the above you need to know. If such an algorithm exists, I never figured it out. I do know this: If you consistently write great scripts, you could be a mime who dresses like Sasquatch and farts in their faces… and they would hire you again and again.

So write great scripts? Absolutely. That is the numero uno prime directive. But the way you are perceived as a writer can be heavily influenced by your understanding of The Biz and basic human psychology. In other words, it’s not just about the script.

[Originally posted October 13, 2011]

The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones.  Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.