A Totally Awesome Script for Jessica Alba

Apparently a lot of screenwriters are offending by something an actress said. The actress is Jessica Alba and if you have ever asked the question, “Is she more than just a pretty face?” You might now conclusively have your answer.  I am not actually going to re-look up the  comments, but they essentially claimed that great actors never use the script as written.  They are so talented they don’t need to.  I have no idea if she actually said what was reported, or if the quotes were taken out of context.  Let’s just assume for my own amusement she did.

It takes me a long time to write even a bad script.  It is a painful process followed by a long recovery of rewrite after rewrite.  Yet, her comments did not really offend me.  In fact, I choose to take those lemons and make the sweetest lemonade from it, mixing it up with a healthy pour of Jim Beam Rye Whiskey.

So, it is with great thanks to Jessica Alba that I give the world the fastest, greatest script I will ever write.

TITLE: THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER MADE

FADE IN:

INT. WHERE EVER JESSICA ALBA THINKS IT SHOULD BE — WHEN IT SUITS JESSICA ALBA

Jessica Alba is going to do something awesome.  Totally fucking awesome.  She is going to do it with some of the most talented actor friends in Hollywood.

JESSICA ALBA’S CHARACTER: [Alba says something witty, that reveals character and possibly sets up parts of the plot without relying too heavily on exposition.  Her character never hits a false note and if she did it wouldn’t matter, the superb acting can cover that up.]

TALENTED ACTOR FRIEND’S CHARACTER: [The actor provides dialogue that is realistic, yet entertaining enough so that the audience doesn’t get bored. It also give Alba’s character lots to work with. Everything the actor says helps create a fully-realized, original character, one that the audience reacts to appropriately]

Some very compelling things happen, all the time leading the character on an awesome  journey – either internal or external or maybe both.  Challenges are overcomed and the most perfect resolution ever is realised, possibly with a twist.

THE END

Script done in ten minutes.  (Now I have plenty of time to re-watch Barton Fink.)  Next I am looking forward to Jessica Alba’s parenting advice, because I’m sure that is much easier than I am making it too.

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Long Live the Movie Theater

Yesterday marked somewhat of an unusual landmark for me.  It was the first time since the birth of my son that I have seen a film in the theater for three straight weeks in a row (it will be four if I make it to next week’s Film Courage Interactive).   This is significant in that ever since I could drive I have seen at least one film a week in a movie theater.  I love going to the movies and the reasons I no longer make it out as frequently are not because I spend too much time on the internet, playing video games or that the theatrical experience is bad (which it is), it’s simply because at this stage in my life it isn’t as convenient.  I still go as often as possible, I just have to be more selective.

During these recent trips something occurred to me as I watched the previews, all ten thousand of them that preceded each film.   Of all those films I had to look forward to, there was only one that aroused my interest enough to make me think:  “I have to see that yesterday!”  That film was the first part of the final films in the Harry Potter angst-ridden boy wizard series.   I have seen only two of the prior films in theaters.  I enjoyed the books but find them utterly forgettable, yet my desire to see this film is high.  Feel free to speculate as to why this is, but what interested me most is all the other films previewed.   As I watched one after the other I mentally cataloged each: 1) Must See 2) Rental 3) Seriously, do they really think people want to see this shit?  Going to the theater is as much of a choice about content as it is about experience.

The future and viability of the theatrical window is always the subject of morbid speculation.  How long does it have left?  How many more gimmicks like 3D can they attach to its dying body to keep it alive longer?  The fact is that the theatrical window will see a decline but not because people aren’t willing to go to the theaters.  Do you know how expensive it is to take a family to the movies?  It’s about as much as my bar tab*.  Even faced with this expense families pile into theaters every time a kid-friendly film arrives.  And just like I did, those kids will fall in love with the experience and they will return again and again.   As long as there is something that compels them to.

Any reason you could give me why people won’t go to the theaters will more than likely be valid, but the fact is that people do go to the theater and they must like it because they do have other options to see a film.  Many people are willing to wait.  The thing is, nobody ever says – “Damn, are you telling me I have to go to the theater to see that? Oh well, I guess since there is no other way to see this film in my lifetime I will have to make this tremendous sacrifice.”  People aren’t stupid.  Well, that stupid. People still pay to see Katherine Heigl movies and she has scientifically been proven to be awful.

Granted, theaters must improve the experience if they want to extend their life expectancy.  They need to  keep the prices reasonable (Hey AMC – charging $3 extra for an “E” ticket to a film in a theater with good projection and sound is truly awful marketing.  Shouldn’t that be ALL of your theaters?) and accept that short windows are the new reality.  Distributors need to better leverage marketing costs, choose carefully what needs to go to theaters and not make decisions too hastily that could unnecessarily kill their theatrical markets.  Independent filmmakers have always had a tough fight to get their films into the theatrical arena, and maybe it just isn’t right for most films from an economic standpoint, but if the audience for your film is there, they will see it in a theater.  You are just going to have to work your ass off to get them there.

Seeing a film in the theater can be a special thing.  Viewing our film “The Waterhole” at the high-end Arclight in Hollywood was one of my proudest moments.  I suspect that when the Harry Potter finale reaches theaters it will be a tremendous success, maybe even breaking records.  There are many things I dislike about going to the theater, but if you create a story I really want to see, you can bet I will be there and I will not be alone.

*Alas, in reality I never get to go to bars anymore either.

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Become a Successful Filmmaker in One Difficult Step

Every day I read dozens of new articles, blogs and tweets piling on to the mountain of advice on how to build a career as a filmmaker.  Some of these posts have proven very valuable, some have spawn heated debates in the comment section, and others seem to beg the question as to why they were written at all.  It’s a lot to sift through.

Given all this information on film making I think it is helpful to remind those that aspire to make a film, are currently making films or even those that have successfully made films to the point where driving their Bentleys off a Malibu cliff side is a weekly occurrence of one simple fact.  You need to make the best film you can.  Duh, right?  I guess another way to put it is if you have an idea that you would like to spend years of your life getting made into a movie, you had better be clear with yourself as to the story you want to tell and how you want to tell it.  This must be the driving force behind everything you do to subsequently get the film before audiences.

If you cannot do this you are setting yourself up for failure.  Anyone can make a film, the trick is to make a good one.  If you have a good project that you have a complete vision for it will help you tremendously in making the decisions to get it made.  It will also help draw those who can help you get it made and made well into your fray.  I truly believe that talent rises.  Your work will be your best advocate, your best marketing tool.  Never forget that.

Nobody wants to make bad movies and yet so many bad films get made.  Hollywood tries to second-guess audiences or re-heats past successes but even after decades of experience they still make more flops than hits.  As indie filmmakers we are just as susceptible to these trappings.   If you think of all the greatest independent films what was the one thing they have in common?  They are made by artists that were true to their vision.  Artists that saw something new and exciting and fought for it.  This is why independent film found an audience to embrace it and this is what me must continue to do.

There is no “right” way to make a film.  When I was lucky enough to chat with filmmaker Gary King he shared the same sentiment and I instantly liked him for it.   I love this philosophy, a more constructive take on William Goldman’s famous statement about Hollywood that “Nobody knows anything.”  It is true.  The final product is the only thing that matters and the only tool you truly have to get to that point is your idea and the will to do whatever you can to see it through to the finish.  Depending on how you eventually decide to make your film, you will have to wear many hats.  If you get too bogged down with all the other things that can occupy your time it is easy to lose sight of the original goal.  If you spend too much time obsessing about technology or money or marketing or audience – although they are all important factors – the film will suffer.

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Twitter and the Independent Filmmaker

Filmmakers, how many times have you either been asked or asked yourself this question: do I need to move to Los Angeles (or New York etc.)?  My smart ass response is always “No, there are already too many people here.”  There are lots of great reasons for a filmmaker to live in L.A., but the reason I would answer “yes” is that in order to be able to fully accomplish your filmmaking goals you will need to know the right people.  People with special skills, people that can teach you, people that can give you support or even money, or people that can get you in touch with these people.  The saying “it’s all who you know” is never more true than in the business of making a film, but it is getting easier every day to know the right people without committing to a life of traffic, earthquakes and punching paparazzi.

We were days away from our world premiere at the Newport Beach Film Festival when I started using Twitter.  My brother-in-law suggested that it might be helpful in getting the word out about our screening.   The only advice he gave me was that everyone in the world could read it, so not to write anything I didn’t want everyone to be able to see.   I started my account and began sending out short messages into the void of cyberspace, not sure if anyone was reading them.   Actually, pretty sure no one was reading them.  I made a few contacts with other filmmakers that were going to be in the festival, but nothing significant, and at the end of the day I wasn’t really sure it was worth the effort.

I stuck with it.  At first following anyone and everyone but slowly starting to get a sense of those out there that I found interesting, as well as those interested in what we were doing.  It took a long time and a lot of feeling around in the dark, but eventually I could see a community taking shape.  I found a tremendous amount of filmmakers and film supporters that were engaged in an open forum discussion addressing all the issues I had been dealing with practically alone.   What at first I thought was just a platform to promote the film turned out to be something much more valuable.  This was social networking at it purest.

Yet my experience on Twitter has not just been confined to a computer interface.  Two of our non-festival screenings (Film Courage Interactive in Los Angeles and The Pretentious Film Society in Annapolis) would not have occurred had I not started that account.  Three of our most positive reviews came from bloggers (Film Snobbery, Movie Cynics, and Rogue Cinema) that I met or read about from other filmmakers.  Plus, there all the great filmmakers I have had the privilege to meet in person, see their films and pick their brains.

Although there are folks out there that are much better adept at Twitter (looking at you @kingisafink) I thought I would share some tidbits of advice.  Take ’em or leave ’em.

1. Be interesting –  This isn’t easy.  Try and share thoughts, ideas and information that are pertinent to the people following you.  Converse with people, don’t just promote.  In fact, your best promotion is to make sure people want to read your tweets so try and make each one count.  Your comments will be available for anyone to read, but you don’t want to be so cautious that you become bland. Your personality must come through.  My personal guideline is never make statements unrelated to our film or the film industry.  Everything within that realm is fair game.  Find your voice and stick to it, be respectful, and if you can, be very fucking funny.

2. Don’t feel like you have to follow everyone –  Try to follow people that you would want to talk to in real life.  There are thousands of filmmakers and film writers out there and they alone will give you more tweets than you can keep up with.  If someone follows you it is a courtesy to follow them back, but not mandatory.  If they seem like someone you are interested in knowing more about or if you think they may be a fan follow back for sure, if their description seems like an odd fit, it probably is, don’t fill your feed with stuff you won’t read.

3. Don’t feel like you need everyone to follow you – Think quality over quantity.  Don’t waste time chasing new followers.  If you follow advice #1 and are patient they will come to you.  Having five million followers is meaningless if they don’t care about what you tweet or pay to see your movie.  [Editor’s Note: weak Ashton Kutcher joke was removed here.]

3. Engage and Re-Tweet – I am shy in real life.  I hate talking to people I don’t know.  Twitter makes it easy.  If someone says something you find interesting or have a comment about, let them know, or share it by re-tweeting it. Re-tweeting is simply re-posting what another user has already written.  When you re-tweet, try and add your own thoughts, always have a voice associated with anything you send out.  Be gracious when someone re-tweets your tweet, they are helping you by getting your name out there to their followers, so thank them.

4. Do not use Twitter.com – There are many wonderful and free desktop applications you can download (I use tweetdeck) that allow you keep different columns, which you can tailor to meet your needs.  For instance, my first column is all tweets from my list of film people am most interested in.  The next are my “mentions” – every tweet where my user name gets mentioned.  You can also set up columns for particular searches or “hash tags.” (hash tags are a way of marking certain topics  with a “#” sign.  For instance, two good ones to keep an eye on are #scriptchat and #infdist.)  Do whatever you can to help manage the time you spend on Twitter, because once you get sucked in it can quickly take over.  I’ve check twitter 50 time writing this.

5. Have only one account – I have two.  One for the film and one for me.  One withers and the other thrives.  Sometimes I get them mixed up.  If I could do it over I would have stuck to a personal account.  More flexibility, more personal and it still could be used to promote the film.  Again, make life easy for yourself.

I recently had lunch with an old friend that had just finished principle photography on his first feature film.  I shared with him my Twitter experiences and he was interested but unconvinced.  His argument is that filmmakers need to focus on making the film, which as anyone knows takes a tremendous amount of work to accomplish, and much more energy, insight, talent and luck to do well.  I can’t really argue with him, but I can say that if you manage your time and have a smart plan of attack, the effort you put into your Twitter account will become a tremendous asset, and you just might make a few friends along the way.

You can follow my tweets @waterholemovie.  Do it now, because regardless of what I wrote above,  I really want over 1000 followers.

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Why I Will Never Crowdfund (unless I do)

A year ago if you asked someone what crowdfunding was you would probably get a puzzled look.  Today if you ask someone you will probably get asked to support their crowdfunding campaign.   As I write this there are at least four campaigns I am supporting, if not with money (I am an unemployed screenwriter after all), by at least spreading the word.   There have been four campaigns I have given money to in the past and I was very happy to support the filmmakers I gave to.  There are a lot of success stories out there, but success breeds followers and now it seems like there is no end to the filmmakers and artists out there trying to get their projects funded in this manner.  I wish them all the luck in the world, but I will never crowdfund and here’s why:

  1. Making films the way I ideally would like to is expensive. I am a firm believer in paying everyone that works on a project (except myself apparently) and making sure that people are hired to do specific jobs well.  I want to have the tools to make the film the way we want with the schedule and locations we need rather than just taking what we can get. (plus I would prefer to never have to act as the caterer again)  This may not make a movie good, but I have learned that it can greatly enhance the overall quality of the final product as well as your ability to eventually sell the film.  You simply cannot raise that kind of money by crowdfunding.  That is not to say that every film requires a big budget.  There are filmmakers that can thrive in low to no budget scenarios and for them crowdfunding might be an ideal solution.  I was happy to support Gary King’s campaign to make “How do You Write a Joe Schermann Song” and not only has he finished shooting the ambitious low-budget film, but based on his previous outings I have no doubt it will be a quality film.  At this point though, I cannot envision any of our future projects getting made to our satisfaction on a budget that could be supported by crowdfunding.
  2. Successful crowdfunding is a lot of work. Make no mistake, if you want your campaign to succeed it will have to become a full time job for weeks and weeks.  This money will not just drop into your hands from eager film fans in love with your project, it will come to you by people you connect with directly, engage with and win over.  You will have to be creative and compelling far beyond the story you hope to film.  I love what the “Tilt” team did to support their successful campaign.  Julie Keck, Jessica King and Phil Holbrook have come up with all kinds of clever ideas to get people engaged in their yet-to-be-filmed thriller, the best being to create a virtual world inhabited by the film’s supporters, giving each their own character and back story in the fictional town where the film takes place.  This was a wonderful idea that got them a lot of notice, but it also created a lot of additional work.
  3. I have a hard enough time choosing a film to watch, let alone what I would like to see get made. My Netflix DVD queue has over 80 films in it.  My streaming queue has over 60.  I have 50 hours of TV and films on my DVR.  These are all things I would like to watch at some point.  To add to that a queue of films that I would like to see get funded, get made and then hopefully watch is a little overwhelming.  Not to mention the fact that most of the films I have given money to was because I liked the people behind the projects.  I also liked the projects themselves or I would not have given money, but they would not have received the money if I did not have a connection with them on a personal level.  I simply cannot sift through all the projects needing money to find one I would love to see get made on merits of the story alone, and that is unfortunate.  My guess is this is the same for most people.
  4. I would be terrible at it. I have the wrong disposition to crowdfund.  You have to stay positive the WHOLE campaign.  You cannot get frustrated.  You cannot guilt people into giving.   I would crumble.  I know it.  At one point during Jerry’s Cavallaro’s campaign I sensed what I interpreted as despair and asked him about it.  Jerry was not having much success getting the non-sequel to his smart and funny debut “Stuck Like Chuck” past a certain level of funding.  My query to him did not come from a place of criticism, but from thinking I recognized a behavioral trap I would fall into.   He may not have met his goal, but Jerry eventually learned a lot from the experience and even gained interest in the project from other channels.  I think the tough reality of crowdfunding in this crowded climate is that most projects will not meet their goals.   Personally, I would rather play to my talents and this type of solicitation is not one of them.

Guaranteed, one of the first questions I always get asked as a filmmaker is: “where did you get the money?”  It is a fair question, and I hate answering it.  The fact is movies require money to get made and to get seen.  You can make them smarter and cheaper but you will spend money and getting that money has been the eternal quest.  Crowdfunding provides one more option, but it is not easy money and in many cases it will be far from enough money to get your vision to the screen.

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What We Would Do Differently

Occasionally I get asked for advice on the best way make a film.  This is a tough question.  What has become my favorite non-answer is that there is no right way to make a movie.  This may sound flippant, but I assure you, it is only meant to inspire limitless possibility.  I have discussed this with other filmmakers and we all generally agree, if someone tells you you have to do something a certain way, never listen to them again.  No two films come together the same way.  Ever.  The only thing a film must do to become a film is to get moving images on a screen.  It may or may not be good, but at the end of the day “good” is just a matter of taste.  You can’t teach that.

That said, there are many things we have learned through the process of making “The Waterhole” and now that we are fortunate enough to have a distribution deal I wanted to share some things we would have done differently.  In a nutshell, we really thought that if we made a good movie the rest of the process would take care of itself.  We couldn’t have been more wrong.  Things to consider as you make your film:

1. Audience Building: I had no idea what Facebook was until after we finished shooting.  I didn’t join Twitter until the week of our world premiere.  I still am not sure what I am doing with either or what ultimate effect they have on getting the word out about the film, but I can tell you this, they help.  Help in ways I would have never imagined.  At the very least they have led me to meet many terrific filmmakers and film supporters that are eager to discuss film and share experiences.   These are not the only tools we should have been utilizing.  I will always wonder what might have happened if I had used Facebook and Twitter, in conjunction with an active and interactive website with production updates and an active blog (seriously, I started writing on this blog almost three years after pre-production). I can tell you one thing, it would not have hurt.  It takes a lot of time and energy, but if you see a film as your baby, it deserves that kind of time and energy.

2. Budget for Marketing/Distribution: This idea is becoming more common place to the point where soon it will be simply accepted fact.  You can not rely on the hope that anyone else will buy your film and sink any amount of money into getting it out to the world.  We have a very fair distribution deal, but it does not include theatrical or much marketing.   We have no money left to effectively get the film into even a limited amount of theaters which, combined with a modest amount of marketing could mean a more-than-likely increase in DVD sales and thus money back in our pockets.  Instead we are scrambling to hustle whatever interest we can in whatever manner we can.  This money need not be anything great, but something – something done right – is better than nothing.  We are unfortunately are not in a position to find out.

3. Have A Festival Strategy: If you read my first blog entry, you know I think the festival system in general is broken.  The sad fact is that our rejections had less to do with the system and more to do with us not having a strategy.  Our fault.  We really thought if we submitted our film “cold” we would have the same chance of getting accepted as anyone else.  Cue the laugh track.  You have to apply to the top five or so festivals, but any fest you apply to must be done utilizing every possible resource to make sure that the film is viewed by the people who make decisions.  This is not an easy task, but it has to be attempted and the earlier the better.  Personally, I would have started this process well before the film was finished.  With a plan like this in place I would then greatly reduce the number of festivals I would apply for.  After a certain point, it is just money down a wishing well.  If you don’t get into few good festivals early, you are better off making your own screening events with the money you would spend hopelessly applying to small regional festivals.

4. Hire a Music Supervisor For many independent filmmakers this may be a luxury.  For our film we needed a lot of music, a lot of music in addition to the score.  Most of the songs we got were for free, but the few we didn’t were an unbelievable pain to secure and pay for.  Music companies are much more willing to deal these days, because something is better than nothing, and you would be surprised what songs you can get relatively inexpensively.  To do this, you will need a lot of time and tenacity or someone that knows the right people and how to get the paperwork in order.   In my opinion it is worth its weight in gold to hire a person with this knowledge, and it might even save you a chunk of money in the long run.

At the end of the day we made the film we wanted.  Barely.  It was a high wire act that was constantly one mistake away from falling apart, but we got there.  The problem is, there is nothing worse than reaching your destination and not knowing what to do next.  My co-producer mentioned that there were things he might have done differently, such as hire a known star or work the script over with potential distributors in advance and I know where he is coming from, but at the end of the day we have film we are proud of.  I just wish we had been ready to for what came next.

Note: My Co-producer and our sole investor, Daniel Menahem, has agreed to share in greater detail his thoughts from an investment perspective.  Check back for his post.  In addition, I will try and update this post as I think of new things.  Questions welcome.

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If You Like Film, You Must Like “Inception”

**No real spoilers, but if you haven’t seen the film I advise going into knowing as little as possible**

I would guess that if you are a film fan the one summer movie that fired up your anticipation in a sea of otherwise tired re-makes and franchise pictures was “Inception.”  I would also guess that the bulk of this interest rested I’m sure on the fact that it is Christopher Nolan’s latest film.  The trailers and viral campaign were intriguing, but the true curiosity for many must have rested on the knowledge that, whether or not you like the final product, Nolan makes films worth seeing.  His films share a few traits: they are original, ambitious, intelligent, and above all, creative.  If that doesn’t make a person want to see a movie, I don’t know what does.

People go to the movies for a lot of reasons and many different types of films are made to try and satisfy different audiences.  No single film will be liked by everyone.  When writing our film “The Waterhole” I had to accept early on that there were going to be a lot of movie-goers that did not want to see a film about a twenty something man, unsure what to do with his life, drinking too much and acting like a jackass.  My goal in writing such a story had to be to make it as original as possible so that even if conceptually the film wasn’t interesting to a viewer,  the characters and their personal journeys might be.   I may not have succeeded on a level I would have liked to, but at our recent screening for the Pretentious Film Society of Annapolis it was very reassuring to have an elderly woman come up after the screening, shake my hand and tell how much she loved the movie.

Inception succeeds in making the material fresh in a big way.  If you take it at face value it is a essentially a one-last-heist-for-redemption story.  What the film does that is so remarkable is it turns that story upside down and then continues to twist it, creating an audacious world within, constantly raising the stakes on the audience visually, and within the narrative.   All film is illusion.  A bad film will suck you out of it and you know you are watching a movie.  A good film can grab you by the heart, play with your emotions, make you fidget in your seat or lean back in awe.  The bulk of the third act of “Inception” is so well crafted that watching it you are completely at its mercy.  It is a high wire act constructed on bold ideas and ambitious set pieces.  Yet, if I were to try and describe it to you, you would think it sounded like the dumbest thing ever.  The film becomes an experience.

There will be those that complain of plot holes or that the film is too complicated or too clinical or even that the action scenes were flat.  Fine.  If you are a person who loves film you have to appreciate all the craft that went into “Inception.”  The amazing design work, the ingenious script the clever editing… it is all there.  In an age when so many films feel stale, like they were written to mirror something that already exists, “Inception” really pushes the art form to new limits and as a film lover you have to appreciate that.  Modern filmmakers have a unique challenge to take this medium of storytelling that has been around for a century and create something fresh and  original, not to mention find an audience for it.  It is no small feat.  Even if they don’t always succeed I will always appreciate the effort by modern filmmakers such as Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson,  The Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, and Martin Scorsese to name a few.  I think Christopher Nolan fits comfortably in that esteemed company.

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