Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Big Tiny Dream

If you're hoping to start producing your own movies, you should check out, a quite interesting experiment in patronage.

After checking out kickstarter and reading for several hours about the state of the indie film business, I had a long conversation with my wife about what I think of as my Backup Plan.

My actual plan is to keep writing screenplays until someone decides to pay me for doing it. I will then write a bunch of gun-for-hire stuff, save up all my dollars, pay off all our debt and the mortgage, and be financially liberated to continue pursuing my goal of making movies.

Since you can't in any sense guarantee a dream like that, I also have the following dream. It comes in multiple steps:

1. Return to Winona Lake, IN.
2. Somehow raise $5000, through kickstarter or some other group of schmucks.
3. Trick some people into spending a week of their vacation helping me make a single-location movie for free.
4. Self-distribute said movie.
5. Profit.
6. Repeat, with slightly more money.

I think anyone can see that the major logical gap is in steps 4-5.

There are several variations of how to accomplish self-distribution. Here is my current favorite, again with steps (steps are easy to read).

1. Don't go over budget.
2. Pre-market your film with blogging, social networking, target-marketing, teasers and ancillary media, and pavement-pounding.
3. Persuade everyone in your town to come to the movie by virtue of its being home-grown and featuring people and places they all know.
4. Profit-split with the theatre or your other venue of choice.
5. Hit the small local film festival circuit hard, making sure to sell DVDs and other swag at every showing.
6. Having (hopefully) built up a lot of excitement in other cities, take your movie on the road, four-walling or profit-sharing with exhibitors.
7. Leverage this success to find investors for your next film.

Once again, there are lots of gaps in this process, but you hopefully get the idea.

Since editing the movie about which I recently blogged, I have been thinking quite a bit about truly independent filmmaking and self-distribution, and I think this may be the route I eventually end up spending the rest of my life taking.

The indie producer who makes a small movie and thereby breaks into mainstream Hollywood seems to be disappearing in favor of the "blue-collar" regional filmmaker who makes a living producing films but never gets rich.

Anyone planning to take the independent route would do well to rethink all her assumptions.

I know I am.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Don't Work for Thanks

In my last episode (at the dawn of time), I related my misadventures working for $50 a day. Feeling now much better about everything after earning a real rate for a while, I'll relate why it is (on the whole) preferable to avoid working these cheap-to-free jobs, no matter how starving you may be.

An illustration is in order. When I first moved to LA, optimism flowing buoyantly across my synapses, I worked an unpaid weekend short film. I blithely thought that this would net me some connections that would prove valuable in the future, possibly even extending to a real job for the same producers.

This is an example of the first snare laid for you by the offerers of unpaid work: their gratitude. Witness the conversation I had on set with the producer:

ME: I'm super-psyched to be working this free gig for you!
PRODUCER: You're welcome. And we'll totally hire you next time for real money, too.
ME: Really?!
PRODUCER: Oh, totally. DIRECTOR and I are line producers for music videos. We'll hire you for the next one we do.
ME: Awesome!

This three-day shoot included some of the longest hours I have ever worked on any job before or since. First day: 12 hours. Fine. Second day: 18 hours. Third day: 20 hours.

No doubt this was related to the fact that these people worked in the music video world, which is notorious for its abusively long hours. Regardless, this illustrates the second snare of unpaid work: mistreatment.

See, although you'd think people would be so grateful that you're working for them for free that they would treat you as your enthusiasm deserves, in reality, your willingness to accept their thanks as payment instead of money just signals to them that you are WORTHLESS.

When someone pays $200 a day for PAs, they know they need good PAs, which means they damn well better treat you right, or you won't work for them again. And while PAs are a dime a dozen, GOOD PAs are much more like brilliant TV executives*

But the final snare, the third reason not to keep working for free, is that it DOESN'T WORK.

Recall PRODUCER'S promise to hire me on her next shoot. Then CUT TO: Three months later. I get a phone call on a Saturday night:

PRODUCER: Hey Ryan, it's me, PRODUCER.
ME: Oh yeah ... wonderful to hear your voice.
PRODUCER: You know it. Anyway, I was hoping you could do me a favor. I need another PA on a job tomorrow. It'd pay a little more than last time.
ME: Yeah?
PRODUCER: Yeah ... how does $50 sound to you?
ME: Well, it sounds terrible. But the wife and I are pretty hungry right about now ... so okay!

In other words, people are never going to give you real money if they know you'll work for thanks. Don't let them keep taking advantage of you. And you're unlikely to get any real connections out of it, so only do it if it's good experience (when you're starting out, any experience is good experience).

To sum up: it may be okay to work an unpaid gig for someone one time, but if that person calls you back for another shitty-paying gig ... RUN AWAY.

*Just my bitterness talking. TV executives have to be brilliant, otherwise how could TV keep making all that money?

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

SAG May be Getting its Contract On

This is good news even for lowly-PA-non-actors like me, and here's why.

Regular PA work on a film or TV set usually gets you between $150 and $250 a day. Some gigs are lower, but this is pretty standard.

Right now, work is really scarce, because the Screen Actors Guild don't have their shit together (blame whomever you will). So the other week I get a call from a guy I'll call PRODUCER. It goes like this:

PRODUCER: Hey Ryan. You don't know me, but do you want to work my crappy little short film this weekend? It's pretty low-paying, but it's work.
ME: How low-paying is low-paying?
PRODUCER: Well, it's ... ummm ... it's low ... like, low ....
RYAN: How low? Low?
PRODUCER: Yeah, it's low.
PRODUCER: $150 for three days.
RYAN: $50 a day, eh? That's shitty low. I'll take it.

In my defense, it was really one pickup half-day, one return half-day, and one shoot day that he said was going to be a half day but was really 10 hours, which makes it a full day.

But still, $50 a day for a whole weekend is nasty low.

The reason people like me (who are still relatively new in town) are so desperate for work that we'll take $50/day jobs for yahoos is that the de facto actor strike has so brought the town to its knees that this is the only way we can keep the money coming in. And I have a wife. She likes things like eating and paying rent. Me, I can do without those things. She's the picky one.

So the SAG stupidity is keeping the studios from starting new shows, which means the old, experienced PAs are only working 12 days a month instead of 20, the less experienced PAs are working 3 days instead of 12, and forget breaking in right now unless a UPM or AD slept with your mother about nine months before you were born.

It's a great time, I tell ya.

Next time I'll tell you why you DON'T want to work these $50/day jobs.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Being My Own Hack

So after AGENT decided to send out SCREWBALL SCRIPT, he told me I should write another comedy. Here's the catch about that: all my other, most-beloved ideas were action-thrillers.

I don't think of myself as a funny person. I didn't have any ideas for comedies.

But it's stupid to ignore your agent's advice.

So I came up with a bunch of comedy ideas and ran them all by AGENT. He said, "Write COLLEGE IDEA."

Now the thing about COLLEGE IDEA is that it's a dumb, schlocky, slapsticky idea. Sure, I can give it my own overtones of gender-conflict and try to avoid stereotypes, but it's ultimately never going to be a smart-people movie. It's to laugh at and enjoy but not to stay in your brain for the next two days like some other movies that never cease to amaze you.

But I'll whore myself out artistically even if I won't do it morally, so I wrote my outline and entire first act.

And then I spent two weeks pounding out the rough cut of that SURPRISE FEATURE I mentioned awhile back. I finished that earlier today, by the way; thanks for asking.

So now it's time to go back to writing and FINISH THE DAMN SCRIPT so AGENT won't forget I exist.

And now I sort of hate the idea.

Not the idea. The idea still makes me giggle like a toddler holding her mother's car keys. It's more that I hate myself for writing it. Even more accurately, my friends have made me hate myself for writing it.

So what am I going to do?

Do it anyway.

Alex Epstein has a post up comparing screenwriting to founding a startup, and he says the following:

On a micro level, every script sucks at some point. Syd Field has his Turning Points. I have the Sucky Point. Most scripts suck when you're about 40% into them. This is also true of outlines and pitch ideas. You've lost your initial enthusiasm, but you're not over the hump yet.

I make a point of finishing everything I start, whether I like it or not. I don't take every idea to script, of course. But if I start writing an outline, I finish the outline. If I start writing a first draft, I finish the first draft. I only let myself stop when I've finished that particular step, and I can evaluate whether it's worth going on to the next step.


I'll see you all in 75 pages.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Don't Ask Dakota

Once a month my church has a movie night. Since it's a big church with lots of Hollywood insiders, they frequently invite people connected with the movie to appear as part of a post-screening panel discussion.

I recently attended their screening of The Secret Life of Bees. Good movie; not what I thought it was going to be.

Their panel this time consisted of some USC scholar no one cared about, the writer-director of the film, and Dakota Fanning (the star).

This is not a name-dropping post.
I am not going to gush about Dakota.
I did not meet Dakota.
I did not get Dakota's autograph.

During this panel, I noticed something stupid about the way people interview actors regarding their roles. All questions seem to be some variation of:

"Your character was such a deep, complex person with so many issues and such a fascinating history. How do you inhabit a character like that, make it your own, and reveal it on-screen?"*

So poor Dakota had to spend the entire evening MAKING STUFF UP—because how do you tell a non-actor about your craft? Acting is a completely mysterious profession if you aren't an actor. I mean, if you asked a writer something like:

"How did you craft such a complex, haunted character with such a fascinating history?"

she would probably say something like:

"There's this girl I knew, who went through something just like this, and there's this other guy I know who has this character trait, and I sort of smashed them together into one uber-interesting amalgamation for your entertainment."

An actor can't say that. She can't explain how it is that she can convincingly portray someone she isn't. So she has to say things like:

"You know, I really thought she was sooo fascinating, and I really respected her character despite the choices she made, and I came to this place of understanding, so I really felt like I connected with her, flaws and all."

Which is a sentence crafted to sound incredibly artistic and sensitive while being, in fact, COMPLETELY DEVOID OF MEANING.

Just shows you how smart actors really are, that they can come up with this kind of bullshit on the fly.

*The correct answer to this question is: "Hell if I know. I'M AN ACTOR. If I could explain it to you, that would mean acting was EASY, wouldn't it?"

Monday, February 16, 2009

Shootin' in the Rain

Instead of going to see some low-quality remake last Friday, I worked an infomercial shoot. Another thing that happened that day: RAIN.

For any non-Angelinos out there, I should clarify that it never rains in LA. This is one of the things that makes it such a great place to shoot movies and TV—you can schedule your shoot whenever you want without worrying about being rained out.


So it rained all day at the shoot, which was in Agoura Hills, at the house where they shot the last season of The Bachelor. Most of the shooting was going on inside the house, so the rain didn't really hurt our schedule.

LUNCH, HOWEVER, was outside. So we lowly PAs had to set up all these tents and tables and chairs IN THE RAIN so that the crew could eat while trying to avoid having their plates fill up with leaking rainwater.

By 11 a.m., I was quite wet.

Don't shoot in the rain.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Mysterious Behavior of a Literary Agent

In November, my newly-acquired agent (henceforth known in this blog as AGENT) sent out a script of mine (SCREWBALL SCRIPT) to several production companies. He sent me a list of the companies, along with the names of the executives at those companies who were in receipt of the script.

A couple weeks later, I called him up about something else, and we had the following conversation:

AGENT: And you know that DEVELOPMENT EXECUTIVE at PROMINENT PRODUCTION COMPANY wants to meet with you, right?
ME: ..... No.
AGENT: I sent you an email about it, didn't I?
ME: (Checks email) ..... No.

He then told me that DEVELOPMENT EXECUTIVE wanted to meet with me in January, after the holidays had passed us by. So when I got back in town after New Year's, I gave his office a call.


This always happens when I call his office phone instead of his cell phone, which in my naive midwestern way, I think is more polite and should be done whenever possible.

But this time, I thought I had a good reason why he would respond, i.e., the possibility (however slim) of me getting paying work.

I think to myself: "Even though I'm not making this guy lots of money (translation: no money at all), wouldn't it still be in his best interest to CALL THIS WOMAN AND GET ME INTO HER OFFICE? What's his deal?"

But I don't like to be a pain, so I didn't call him back again right away. Three weeks later, I try again, this time on his cell phone. AND HE PICKS UP.

ME: Hey, AGENT—remember how EXECUTIVE wanted to meet with me?
AGENT: Oh, that's right. Thanks for reminding me.

See how easy that was?

And the moral of that is (said the Duchess) twofold:

1. Sometimes you have to politely bother your agent if you want him to remember everything you need him to do.

2. If you have his cell number, CALL IT, YOU IDIOT.