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Filmmaking Baby Steps

“All my career–from television to today–I’ve always felt on the brink of getting something right. Anything. Thirty odd films later I look back and it’s all baby steps. One foot in front of the other. And all that’s kept me going is the feeling that as long as I was improving….”
Mystery director

Before I tell you who said that let’s all read that together outloud:
“All my career–from television to today–I’ve always felt on the brink of getting something right. Anything. Thirty odd films later I look back and it’s all baby steps. One foot in front of the other. And all that’s kept me going is the feeling that as long as I was improving….” 
Sidney Lumet
As quoted in a blog post by Doug Richardson
(
Richardson was one of the screenwriters on Bad Boys and early in his career sold his script Hell Bent…And Back in a $1-million deal with Disney. Read about it the New York Magazine article, Million-Dollar Babies.)

 

As in five time Oscar-nominated writer/director  Sidney Lumet (The Verdict, Prince of the City, Network, Dog Day Afternoon, 12 Angry Men). Baby steps.

It’s all baby steps. One foot in front of the other.”

 

Related posts:

Sideny Lumet (1924-2011)
Sideny Lumet on Theme
Show Don’t Tell (Tip #46) Example from The Verdict

Scott W. Smith

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A nice segue from my recent Rod Serling posts (and even my golf/movie related posts from a couple of weeks ago) is the following quote by Oscar-winner screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. Serling was born in Syracuse, New York and Sorkin went to Syracuse University.

“I have a lot of experience with failure, and I hate it. It’s going to happen again, but it’s like electroshock therapy. So combined with the pressure that you put on yourself, that’s pretty much the jet fuel for writing. You know when you’re not [writing well], when you’re slogging through it and it’s all coming like molasses, you know something’s wrong. But when you’re writing well, there’s nothing like it. It’s like the golfer who hacks his way around a golf course all day long, but then for some reason, you don’t know why, just hits a beautiful shot. That’s the reason they keep coming back to the golf course.”
Aaron Sorkin (West Wing creator)
Emmys Roundtable—The Hollywood Reporter 

Bonus failure quote from the same article:

“When I’m being really honest with myself, the only thing I ever learn from is failure. Because Breaking Bad is the rare success I’ve had in my career.”
Vince Gilligan

Related posts:

J.K. Rowling on the Benefits of Failure
Commitment in the Face of Failure
Spectacular Failures
Rod Serling on Rejection
Winning. Losing and Little Miss Sunshine “From my perspective, the difference between success and failure was razor-thin…”—Oscar-winning Screenwriter Michael Arndt
Orson Welles at USC in 1981 (Part 3) “Anybody who goes into film has to be a little crazy. And has to be ready for every kind of disappointment and defeat.”—Welles

Scott W. Smith

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Dina Gachman: What advice would you give to writers who are trying to break in?

Brooklyn Weaver (CEO Energy Entertainment):Mickey Fisher, for example, had written about 10 scripts and a slew of plays prior to sending Extant. He finally had a script that he’d worked really hard on and that he felt was the best representation of him. Brad Ingelsby had written a dozen scripts prior to The Low Dweller. It’s about being attuned to who you are as writer and a voice and knowing what your strike zone is.”

Read the entire interview at Studio System News A-List Spotlight. You can find Weaver on Twitter @BrooklynWeaver. The Tv show he referenced, Extant,  stars Halle Berry and premieres on CBS in July 2014. One of the executive producers is Weaver…another is Steven Spielberg.

Related post:

The Myth of ‘Breaking In’ (Tip #58)
Write 2 or 3 Scripts This Year (Tip #87)
Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours
The 99% Focus Rule (Tip #70)
Commitment in the Face of Failure
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously)

 

Scott W. Smith

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“It’s a difficult time in the [film] industry at the moment. There’s a lot of changing over that’s happening, and there are a lot of very bright young people who want to get into it.”
Director John Schlesinger in 1969
Same year Midnight Cowboy was released for which Schlesinger won an Oscar for Best Director
Quote from the video below titled The Secrets of Legendary Film Directors (includes Kurosawa, Bergman and Fellini)

Remember that 1969 is the same year that Easy Rider hit movie theaters.

Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (and the Kenneth Bower doc of the same name) recounts how many of those very bright young people (including Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Peter Bogdanovich, Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, and Francis Ford Coppola) changed the film industry–and makes the case for them saving the industry.

Now 45 years later Lucas and Spielberg are the old guard and just last year spoke publicly to film students at USC about the difficult and changing times of the film industry.  Lucas said, “The pathway to get into theaters is really getting smaller and smaller.” And Spielberg went as far as saying there could be an “implosion” or “meltdown” in the film business due to megabudget movies failing at the box-office simultaneously. Steven Soderbergh in his State of Cinema Talk last year added that cinema was under “assault” by studios (with the support of audiences).

In the late ’20 with the advent of sync sound in movies, along with the depression, there was a lot of concern in the movie industry about the changing times and technology. In the late ’40s and early ’50s with the spreading growth of television in homes there was much concern in the film industry about the changing times and technology. In the ’80s it was cable TV and VHS tapes that people feared would keep people away from movie theaters.  Most recently concerns have shifted to the Internet, videos games, and pirating. Changing times have a way of, well, changing. Constantly.

So here we are back to the future—difficult and changing times. And yet, you can still copy and paste Schlesinger’s 1969 words—”there are a lot of very bright young people who want to get into it”—and drop them in 2014.

And Soderbergh understands that some new young filmmakers (and new visions of old filmmakers) are going to emerge and find an audience.

“So whenever I despair I think, OK, somebody out there somewhere, while we’re sitting right here, somebody out there somewhere is making something cool that we’re going to love, and that keeps me going.”
Steven Soderbergh
Keynote address at the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival

At that moment somewhere in Teaxs someone was working on something cool. As Soderbergh was giving that talk Richard Linklater was editing his newest film Boyhood that premiered at Sundance Film Festival last week.  Indiewire called the film ‘groundbreaking” and making “cinematic history” because the movie was shot with the same young actors 3 or 4 days a year—over the course of 12 years.

And winning the Grand Jury Prize, Dramatic and the Dramatic Audience Award at Sundance this year was the personal film  Whiplash written and directed by Damien Chazelle. A film that explores dedication to one’s art.  Whiplash’s executive producer Jason Reitman called it,  “Shine meets Full Metal Jacket.”

Whiplash—the word, as in severe head jerk—is a good metaphor for the difficult and changes times following the digital revolution. Changes that have transformed the film industry (if I can still use the word “film” ), but changes that have also brought new opportunities.

Scott W. Smith

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The other day I flipped through MovieMaker magazine and came across the article Perfect Pitch by Ken Rotocop that had this interesting insight:

I’ve been the creative head of four studios, so I know what happens when a studio gets a synopsis: One quick glance and it goes right into the wastebasket.

A synopsis cannot help you—it can only kill you.

So what should you do if a producer has shown interest in your idea? 
Send him the first ten pages of the script—and send it with the following letter:
photo-41
In my screenwriting workshops, my students have been sending out the first 10 pages of their screenplays for the last four years—and the response from producers and executives they’ve submitted their work to has been 100 percent positive!…So now that you know the secret, don’t screw it up—make sure those first 10 pages are dynamite!
In those 10 pages, we better darn well learn:
* Who the protagonist is
* What he (or she) wants
* Who or what is stopping him or her from getting it!
Ken Rotocop
MovieMaker Issue No. 65, Volume 13, Page 42
P.S. Now 100% sounds like hyperbole, but any writers out there had success with doing this? Any producers/executives like this technique?

Related posts:
Starting Your Screenplay (Tip #6)/ “As long as the protagonist wants something, the audience will want something.”— David Mamet
“The Inside Pitch”
The Perfect Logline
The 99% Focus Rule (Tip #70) Here Michael Arndt gives the real secret to reaching producers.

Scott W. Smith

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“There was absolutely no pressure on me because I was just sitting in Minnesota writing for my own edification.”
Diablo Cody on writing Juno

Happy 35th birthday Diablo Cody.

If you’re fairly new to this blog you may not know that a huge impetus for starting this blog back in 2008 was reading and hearing interviews with a then unknown Cody just as her first film Juno hit the theaters.

“The internet is a miraculous things. Just share as much as you can, self-publish, blog, podcast whatever you need to do. Just make sure you are not withholding your gifts from the world. Because you have so many opportunities now….We’re in a new frontier.”
Diablo Cody

Knowing that she went to school in Iowa and wrote Juno while living in Minneapolis and said various versions of the above quote propelled me to launch this blog on January 22, 2008 after I saw Juno in a theater in Cedar Falls, Iowa. That year she walked away with an Oscar in Hollywood for her script and I walked away with a Regional Emmy (Advanced Media) in Minneapolis for my blog.

I thought of Cody this week when I watched a video of screenwriter Shane Black (Lethal Weapon) and heard this comment:

“If you want to write or direct you kinda have to go to Los Angeles, I don’t really know anybody who’s done it from here.”
Shane Black giving a talk to students in Minneapolis

Now I love this whole Shane Black revival going on and think I’ll pull some quotes from him next week. But what’s ironic about that quote is it appears that talk was given around 2005 after his released of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. (The video was just uploaded last month but there is no mention of Iron Man 3.) Juno was released in 2007, meaning that around the time Black was making his comment Cody was sitting at a Starbucks in Crystal, Minnesota writing her first script.

A script that would not only get sold, get produced, make $230 million at the box office, but bring her an Oscar.

“I don’t know when I’ve heard a standing ovation so long, loud and warm.”
Roger Ebert writing about Juno after its screening at the 2007 Toronto Film Festival

Diablo Cody is a Cinderella screenwriting story if there ever was one. And, yes, she did move to Los Angeles and just finished directing her first feature Paradise. But I think it’s important to point out that she did it after establishing herself as a writer. As I’ve pointed out before, she had been writing poems, short stories and such everyday since she was 12, got her degree in Media Studies at the University of Iowa, started a blog, wrote for City Pages, and had a book published. That Oscar Award was earned on the back of 15 years worth of writing.

And Minneapolis wasn’t a one shot wonder. The next year Nick Schenk had a script he wrote in a bar called Gran Torino become Clint Eastwood’s biggest box office success. Also, in 2005, screenwriter Bill True from Minneapolis had his first feature produced.) All of this led Ken Levine to (a little tongue in cheek) write in 2008:

“Aspiring screenwriters always ask what’s the best way to break into the Hollywood? I say move to Minnesota.”
Writer Ken Levine (Frasier, MASH, Cheers)
How to sell a screenplay by drinking in a bar

So there were a few changes between 2005 and 2008. And now 2005 seems like a 100 years ago. Steven Spielberg made a prediction this week that the movie industry was ready for an ‘“implosion.” Who knows what that all means? But this blog celebrates not only where various writers come from, but what filmmakers around the world are doing today in a fast changing business. If the film business as we know it does implode, something else will rise up out of that rubble. (Just like Tony Stark and Shane Black both did in Iron Man 3.)

“I think that the Internet is going to effect the most profound change on the entertainment industries combined. And we’re all gonna be tuning into the most popular Internet show in the world, which will be coming from some place in Des Moines. We’re all gonna be on the Internet trying to find an audience.”
(Steven Spielberg in interview with Katie Couric on the NBC Today Show in 1999/ From the post Screenwriting Outside L.A. 101)

My guess is ten years from now there will still be a place called Hollywood that makes movies. Big movies. But there will also be a lot more people following the likes of Jeff Nichols in Austin, Tyler Perry in Atlanta, Billy Corben in Miami, and Edward Burns in New York—finding their own niche markets and telling stories they want to tell.

And ten years from now Shane Black and Diablo Cody will still be telling stories. They are proven talent and both proven resilient. (Both have received their share of criticism.) Think of Black as Iron Man and Cody as the Woman of Steel.

Related Posts:

Screenwriting’s Biggest Flirt
Beatles, Cody & 10,000 Hours
Screenwriting Quote #10 (Nick Schenk)
Juno Has Another Baby (Emmy)
Screenwriting Quote #65 (Shane Black)

Scott W. Smith

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“A few months ago I was on this Jet Blue flight going from New York to Burbank…I’m getting comfortable in my seat—You know, I spent the 60 bucks to get the extra the legroom— so I’m starting to get a little comfortable and we make altitude. And there’s a guy who is in the other side of the aisle in front of me and he pulls out his iPad— he’s about to start watching stuff. I’m curious to see what he’s going to watch—he’s a white guy in his mid thirties— and I begin to realize that what he’s done is he’s loaded in half a dozen sort of action extravaganzas and he’s watching each of the action sequences. He’s skipping over all the dialogue and the narrative. So this guy’s flight is going to be five and a half hours of just like mayhem porn. And I get this wave of —not panic,  it’s not like my heart started fluttering—but I had this sense of ‘Am I going insane?’ or ‘Is the world going insane?’ Or both?
Writer/director Steven Soderbergh
State of Cinema 2013 talk at the San Francisco Film Society

Odds are pretty good that that guy Steven Soderbergh mentioned seeing on that Jet Blue flight was in the audience this weekend for Fast & Furious 6 as it hauled in over $300 millon worldwide in just four days.

Fast & Furious 6 was written by Chris Morgan and directed by Justin Lin and though film number six in the franchise even some critics had some favorable things to say about the action packed film:

‘Fast and Furious 6′ is the fastest, funniest and most outlandishly entertaining chapter yet. I’m not kidding, I kinda loved this insanely stupid movie.”
Richard Roeper

“True, the movie doesn’t know when or how to put the brakes on. It does, however, understand precisely what it is.”
Betsy Sharkey
Los Angeles Times

The odds are also pretty good that Steven Soderbergh didn’t spend his money this past weekend on Fast & Furious 6.  It’s safe to say that Soderbergh is not in the intended demographics of the movie. But Soderbergh does understand the economics of why Universal Studios would shell out $160 million to produce that film and who knows how many tens of millions advertising the film.

“Well, how does a studio decide what movies get made? One thing they take into consideration is the foreign market, obviously. It’s become very big. So that means, you know, things that travel best are going to be action-adventure, science fiction, fantasy, spectacle, some animation thrown in there. Obviously the bigger the budget, the more people this thing is going to have to appeal to—the more homogenized it’s got to be, the more simplified it’s got to be. So things like cultural specificity and narrative complexity, and, god forbid, ambiguity, those become real obstacles to the success of the film here and abroad.”
Steven Soderbergh
State of Cinema

The middle-class of filmmaking is not just shrinking, it’s disappearing. As Soderbergh points out in his State of Cinema talk, the real problem for many filmmakers today is a $30 million film needs $30 million in advertising, and since the movie theaters take 50% of the gross that $30 million dollar film has to make $120 million just to break even. So the studios will focus on tentpole movies and many screenwriters and filmmakers will focus on opportunities in the indie world of no-budget to $10 million—or cable television.

The reports of Soderbergh retiring are greatly exaggerated. But, like Kevin Smith, you will more than likely see his name popping up on projects less and less in movie theaters. His Behind the Candelabra airs on HBO Sunday and there is talk that he is executive producing a ten-episode drama with Cinemax.

Scott W. Smith

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“Hopefully you enjoy what you’re doing [writing screenplays]. I’d written nine scripts and nothing had happened with them. I’m sitting down to write my tenth script—and I’ll confess it’s a silent slapstick comedy—and I’m like, ‘Why the hell am I doing this? This is completely insane to do this.’ But it’s just like— ‘Well, the story is in my head and I want to write it.’ You have to be doing it just for the pleasure of doing it.  And in terms of any sort of perceived payoff just be realistic that probably the best case scenario is a 80 to 90 percent failure rate. And that’s the best case scenario. And then you can be happy because you’re not expecting every script that you write to be produced. That’s just not realistic.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3)
2007 talk at Cody’s Books 

Related Post:

Commitment in the Face of Failure

How to Be a Successful Screenwriter (Tip #41) Michael Arndt’s personal journey

Scott W. Smith

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“I made this commitment to myself that I was going to be a writer. I figured, ‘Well I’m going to be a writer for the rest of my life.’ I had a book I got just out of film school that was a writer’s guide and it was interesting because they listed the produced credits of a writer but they also listed all the unproduced scripts the writers had written. So you’d get this many produced credits (indicates a small number) and this many unproduced credits (indicates a larger number). So you see even top writers write way more scripts then ever get made, and these are people who get paid a million bucks a script. So I just thought realistically film is a capital intensive medium. It cost now $50—100 million to make a movie. It’s  a little like architecture. Even someone like Frank Gehry will design 10 buildings and maybe one or two of them will get made. I think as a screenwriter you just have to assume that there’s going to be a 90% failure rate. As so I just thought, ‘Well, okay, I’m a screenwriter—I’m going to write one screenplay a year for the next 50 years so I’ll write 50 scripts. And if I assume a 90% failure maybe five of those scripts will get made and maybe two of them will be good movies.’ That’s just realistic. That’s not being overly pessimistic, that’s just what everyone else goes through. I wrote five scripts, then I wrote Little Miss Sunshine and then I wrote four more before I finally sold Little Miss Sunshine. It’s an endurance race.” 
Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt 
2007 talk at Cody’s Books (at the 38:00 mark of the FORA.tv video)

P.S. It’s worth nothing that it not only took Arndt ten screenplays before he sold one, it took that screenplay more than five years to get made and release into theaters. If you like these post I’d appreciate it if you’d “like” the Facebook page—Screenwriting from Iowa & Other Unlikely Places— I finally set up this week. Seeing faces helps inspire me to keep digging these kinds of quotes up.

Related posts:

How Much Do Screenwriters Make? (This is the most viewed post of everything I’ve written on this blog. Some have said what I wrote there was pessimistic, but in light of Arndt’s quote—and the other produced screenwriters I quoted—I do think it’s realistic.)
How to Be a Successful Screenwriter (Tip #41) “When you’re starting out, it’s hard to imagine how you’ll ever ‘succeed.’”—Michael Arndt
Frank Gehry on Creativity “Every artist confronts a series of issues that are constraints.”—Frank Gehry

Scott W. Smith

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“Here it is. Our one shot to see a Veronica Mars movie happen. Kristen is in. I’m in. Let’s do it!”
Rob Thomas on Kickstarter launch of The Veronica Mars Project

What do you do if you can’t get your film project off the ground. Well, to borrow a Tina Fey quote from yesterday’s post  you, “Make your own opportunities.” That’s what Rob Thomas did after failed attempts to get funding for a film version of his TV program Veronica Mars. The series starring Kristen Bell originally ran for a total of three seasons on UPN and CW. And while no new shows had been shot since 2007 Veronica Mars had a strong fan base.

So Thomas launched a Kickstarter campaign in hopes of raising $2 million in one month. He not only raised that amount, but he did it in one day. TWO MILLION DOLLARS IN ONE DAY. How cool is that? As of this writing (day 2)The Veronica Mars Movie Project has 45,683 backers pledging $2,754,365. If you don’t know how Kickstarter works, these aren’t investors in the traditional sense. This money is essentially donated to Thomas in hopes that he makes his film. He doesn’t have to pay anybody back. Technically I don’t think he even needs to make the film.

But the odds are good that he’ll make the film. Why wouldn’t he? He can pay the actors and crew and work on a deal for prints and advertising and be looking at I imagine an even bigger payoff when the film is released in the summer of 2014. And how many of those 45,683 backers will go see the movie in the theater. That’s right, all of them. (Well, at least all of them who are alive. Statistically speaking a few won’t make it to the summer of 2014.) Apparently, Warner Bros. still has ownership of Veronica Mars and I’m sure upon seeing the fan-based support they will give this film a wide release.

“I was marveling about Kickstarter with another buddy of mine who said off-handedly, ‘You should use Kickstarter to raise the money to make the Veronica Mars movie.’ I chuckled. That seemed like a silly idea in the moment. We’d need millions. But for the next few weeks, the notion was never far from my mind. I started doing the proverbial back-of-a-cocktail-napkin math. The average pledge on Kickstarter is $71. Hell, if we could get 30,000 people to give the average donation, we could finance the movie, particularly if the cast and I were willing to work cheap. The most common donation amount on Kickstarter is $25. Surely, 80,000 of our three million viewers would find that price-point viable!”
Rob Thomas

I’ve heard and read plenty of skepticism in Hollywood about filmmakers using You Tube, Kickstarter and the like. But the foundation is shifting, and nobody at the top likes to admit that’s happening because they have the furthest to fall.

I think this modern trend of doing things in an unorthodox way began in 1997 with small group of filmmakers from Orlando who made a little film called The Blair Witch Project and showed Hollywood how to market a film via the Internet. Kickstarter was founded in 2009, but mark March 2013 when it really started to turn some heads on how films were financed.

Best wishes on finding funding for your projects.

Scott W. Smith

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