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Posts Tagged ‘Max Adams’

“A logline conveys the dramatic story of a screenplay in the most abbreviated manner possible.”
Christopher Lockhart
The Construction of a Logline (Get this free PDF.)

“A good logline usually covers three bases. It gives us the main character, the main character’s goal, and the central conflict in the story (what’s preventing them from getting that goal).”
ScriptShadow Special – How To Craft A Damn Good Logline

Recently I was listening to Adam Levenberg’s podcast Official Screenwriting and he hit on the ever popular topic of writing loglines. Levenberg is the author of The Starter Screenplay and in the communications I’ve had with him he’s always come across as a guy who understands what makes movies and screenplays work. I recommend you give his podcast a listen.

“I really like this [logline] for JAWS:

‘A police chief, with a phobia for open water, battles a gigantic shark with an appetite for swimmers and boat captains, in spite of a greedy town council who demands that the beach stay open .’

I think this is the perfect logline, but it’s also for a nearly perfect movie. Look at how it does these things; A police chief, so we have our hero, we know whose eyes we’re seeing the movie from. And I think that’s key. You want to identify who’s our hero and tell the logline from their point of view just like you’re telling the movie from their point of view….The second thing, ‘with a phobia for open water.’ That’s great because we’re going to be putting him in the water. Why? Because he’s battling a gigantic shark….I like the way it identifies the goal—which is to stop the shark—it identifies the problem which is the shark. It identifies the opponent which is the shark. And it identifies the life and death stakes.”
Adam Levenberg
Podcast Writing Great Loglines (Check out the full podcast as Levenberg goes on to talk about the importance of turning the main character’s world upside down.)

Levenberg goes on to quote Jeffrey Schechter (My Story Can Beat Up Your Story) who passes on four key questions he learned from Michael Roberts when he tried to pitch an idea to the Disney Executive:

Who is your main character?

What are they trying to accomplish?

Who is trying to stop them?

What happens if they fail?

Levenberg doesn’t mention where he found that JAWS logline, but when I Googled it took me to the blog post Writing Good Log Lines written by Stanley D. Williams. (That article also references Schechter.) Williams is the author of the excellent book The Moral Premise.

One additional thing that the above JAWS logline has is irony. A police chief with a phobia for open water must go into the water to do battle.

“The loglines that read the best are the ones with some sort of irony in them, where the character and the situation are at odds with one another. A lawyer who can’t lie (Liar Liar). A king who can’t speak to his people (The King’s Speech). A Detroit cop investigating a case in Beverly Hills (Beverly Hills Cop). A time manager stuck on an island with all the time in the world (Cast Away). An alcoholic superhero (Hancock). These loglines will always catch a reader’s attention, so you’ll have a huge advantage if your concept contains irony.”
ScriptShadow Special —How To Craft A Damn Good Logline

A final tip on writing loglines comes from a post by Don Bledsoe on Script Nurse  stating that the Three C’s of loglines are “Clear, Concise & Conflict.”

“Most story ideas fail at the level of concept. Sad, but true. I’ve learned this the hard way.”
Producer/Writer Erik Bork
Loglines and SAVE THE CAT

These days I’m a big fan of nailing down your concept and logline (they’re related, but not the same) before you invest six months, a year, two years or more writing your script. Before you jump into your next script read Article-GSU! by Carson Reeves (on the importance of goal, stakes, urgency), It’s the Concept, Stupid by Max Adams, and Christopher Lockhart’s I Wrote a 120 Page Script But Can’t Write a Logline: The Construction of a Logline.

Related Posts:
Christopher Lockhart Q&A (Part 1)
“The Inside Pitch”
Script Consultant Adam Levenberg
What’s at Stake?

Related Link:
The “A” List  (Advice from someone who’s read 30,000 scripts. Yes, 30,000.)

Scott W. Smith

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“Most screenwriters are unemployed, chronically unemployed.”
Screenwriter Tom Lazarus (Stigmata)
Secrets of Film Writing

“It’s either very lucrative and exciting, or nothing.”
Screenwriter Anthony Peckham (Invictus) on screenwriting

(Note: Though this post is now several year old it continues to get solid hits because it’s such a primal question. I’ve chosen not to update the NFL references because that’s a continually moving target. Just exchange the names for the current hot players of what ever year you’re reading this post.)

When people think of how much professional football players make they tend to focus on the big numbers. Brett Favre’s $20 million dollar one year contract with the Minnesota Vikings. Payton Manning’s $99.2 million seven year contract with the Indianapolis Colts. But the truth is most rookies in the NFL earn around $300,000 per year. Deduct taxes, agent fees, a down payment on a house, and an expensive sports car or two and there’s not that much left. (Relatively speaking, of course.)

Then factor in that most pro football careers last less than four years (NFL=Not For Long) and you can see why the majority of players who play in the NFL really have under a million dollars to their name when they retire.  And when you factor in a history of NFL players making bad investment decisions it’s not hard to understand why so many end up filing for bankruptcy when their short careers are over.

Often when people think of Hollywood writers they tend to once again think of the multi-million dollar deals. (Like Basic Instinct banking Joe Eszterhas $3 million—back in the early 90s.) But the truth is most writers (factoring both union and non-union) won’t make any money this year from their writings. (According to the Writer’s Guide of America-West (WGAW) recent report, of the 8,129 union members in 2007 3,775 were unemployed.) Depending on different sources working WGAw members seem to average between $40,000-$110,000. per year. (Key word there is “working” WGAw members.) Factor in the cost of living where most writers live (New York & L.A.) and  that’s probably about the earning power of (just a wild guess) $20,000-65,000. in much of the country.

On the film side a good rule of thumb is scripts can make up between 2-5% of the total budget. So on a $50 million dollar film that could be as much as $2.5 million.(The highest paid spec script to date I believe  is $5 million to M. Night Shyamalan for Unbreakable, though that may have included his directing fee.)  But it also means on a $200,000 indie film could mean the screenwriter was paid $4,000. (And independent films make up the majority of the 500 or so feature films made per year. ) On the TV side writers can be paid per script or as a staff writer. The highest paid are the ones who create a hit network show and stay on as producer/writers. If that show stays on the air for five years and goes into syndication then they can afford to buy a small tropical island.  A good gig if you can land it, but that doesn’t describe most TV writers.

“On balance, television writers today are the highest-paid practitioners of the literary profession in history. But mark the phrase on balance. If you can sell two one-hour scripts per year, which is a pretty good average for a freelance writer, that’s about $40,000 per year, before taxes. That figure is comparable to or less than the yearly average of elementary school teachers and considerably less than plumbers. The majority of working writers fall into this financial category. It’s only when you get the top 5 to 10 percent that you find writers and hyphenates who routinely earn six figures a year or more.”
J. Michael Stracznski, writer/producer
(Babylon 5, Changeling)
The Complete Book of Screenwriting

Granted that book was published in 1996 (and I think the minimum range for a 90 minute or less story & teleplay these days is around $30,000.*) but in a world of reality TV programing there is less scripted work being produced. (I know there are a lot fewer soap operas being produced than in 1996.)

“In 24 hours, NBC has just three hours of dramas and comedies. And, on some nights those make way for Dateline or Deal No Deal.”
Charles B. Solcum
Written By, August/September 2009
page 19

I have a writer friend with network credits in L.A. who was recently offered a job on a cable TV program that would pay her just a little more than her unemployment benefits. When you live in a land where rent is $1,500-3000. per month these are trying times. One more reason to live outside L.A., right? (Heck, for $3,000. I think you can still pick up a house in Detroit.)

Screenwriter John August recently wrote an excellent post What’s wrong with the business where he addressed some of these issues. I’ve quoted from that article before, but this is worth repeating because the industry is changing and the young, creative people coming up are going to embrace the changes;

“To become one of those inventors of industry, you need to surround yourself with similarly ambitious people. Film school is a good choice, but so is living and working in the right neighborhood in Silverlake or Brooklyn or Austin — or more likely, a place I wouldn’t even realize is a hotbed.”
Screenwriter John August
(Big Fish, Corpse Bride)

Could that hotbed be a place like Des Moines, Iowa? Steven Spielberg thinks so. He told Katie Couric on the NBC Today Show back in 1999, “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.”

Wait a minute, didn’t John August go to Drake University in Des Moines? That Spielberg is a genius, you know? And didn’t Diablo Cody go to school in Iowa City? If John August and Diablo Cody ever move back to Iowa then you know that this blog will at least be assured a small footnote in the history of screenwriting.

I wouldn’t bet on that anytime soon, but I would bet that within ten years places now known more for football like Minnesota & Indianapolis (as well as Detroit, Austin, Atlanta, Memphis…and, of course, Cedar Falls) will see writers and filmmakers rise up (and stay put) as they embrace the digital revolution and the opportunities it brings.

Related Post: Investing in Screenwriting. (I have a quote in there by Max Adams who explains how a $500,000. feature script option can really translate to a mere $3,500. per year for the writer who worked on that script.)

* To see current Writers Guild of America’s Theatrical and Television Basic Agreement visit the WGA-West website.

Update 12/09: Since this is a popular post as far as views I will update it from time to time and welcome your input on correcting any numbers. While reading over the WGAw report I made another connection between screenwriting & the NFL. On the film side there were 1,553 male writers employed in the last year of the report. That’s about 150 less writers than players in the NFL any given year. If you’re a female writer it just gets harder as they make up just 24% of all members in the guild. I don’t write these stats to discourage you but to help you know how solid your writing has to be to make a living doing this. And to also encourage you to keep your eyes open for alternative ways to earn a living in film, TV, and the Internet.

Update 3/12/10: Just read on Scott Myers’ blog Go Into The Story that the average production worker salary in the motion picture and tv industry is $74,400 a year.

Update 5/14/10: Residuals are another way film and TV writers get paid. I once worked with an actress who had worked on a popular TV show back in the day who told me she made $40,000 a year in residuals. A nice base. Check out the post Question: Do screenwriters get a percentage on the back end? by Scott Myers.

Update 10/24/10: Though it’s a few years old (2007) I just found this post by screenwriter Craig Mazin The Economics of Screenwriting.

Update 11/08/10: Interesting article about football player (Keith Fitzhugh) who turns down NFL offer to keep his train conductor job.

Update 1/15/11:  “Let’s talk money, because no one ever does. A top tier screenplay deal these days might be for a million dollars or more. Most are far, far less, but let’s work with those crazy high numbers, in fact let’s say 2 million dollars, though nobody is paying that any more. Wow that’s a lot of money. But consider. With a writing partner, that gets cut down to $1,000,000., and after taxes, lawyers, agents, managers, and the WGA, let’s hope you get to keep $400,000.

That’s still a truckload of money, life changing, but they don’t give you that all at once. It might take six months to a year just to get the contract done, and the deal is contingent on the film going into production, and if it does that might take a year or three or five, and also the WGA has to grant full credit at the end of it all, which often doesn’t happen. But let’s say it all goes well, which means the ‘highest paid screenwriter in history’ is actually taking home around $200,000. a year, at least on that one deal. Which is good money, real good money, more than I ever imagined making, and let me tell you I do own a dream home in the hills … but it’s not in the fly-a-Learjet-to-your-own-private-island-in-the-Caribbean category.”
Screenwriter Terry Rossio (Shrek & Pirates of the Caribbean)
Interview with John Robert Marlow 

Update 2/11/11 “For every writer I know that lives high on the hog I know twenty who buy their bacon at Costco.”
Josh Friedman (War of the Worlds)

And this from the book Power Screenwriting:
“The truth is, the odds of writing and selling a screenplay are probably just as great as winning the state lottery or the next Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes. Yet, with the emphasis directed towards the big bucks sale, the aspiring screenwriter may be deprived of one of the greatest transformational processes known to man: spinning a well-told story.”
Michael Chase Walker

Update 3/24/11: “Most writers never sell scripts. Why should you be any different?”
Christopher Lockhart who is the Story Editor for WME
From the post The Right Stuff on his blog THE INSIDE PITCH.  

Update 5/29/11: This is the WGA’s current minimum basic agreement (MBA) for a screenplay purchase:
Between $500,000 & $1.2 million budget: $42,930
Between $1.2 million and $5 million: $42,930
Between $5 million or more: $87,879

Keep in mind those are union numbers—and minimun numbers at that. (Top writers making much, much more than scale.) But if a non-union company buys your script expect less. If you wrote the screenplay with another writer cut those numbers in half, and of course, deduct for taxes, lawyers, agents, etc.

Update 7/6/11: This post is by far the most viewed post of all time on this blog and you may enjoy this post today from Scott Myers on his blog Go Into The Story: Reader Question: How much does a top screenwriter get paid for a rewrite?

Update 11/08/11: “Most writers are middle class; 46% did not even work last year. Of those who do work, one quarter make less than $37,700 a year and 50% make less than $105,000 a year. Over a five year period of employment and unemployment, a writer’s average income is $62,000 per year.” Writers Guild of America, West

Update 2/22/12: Bureau of Labor Statistics in May of 2010 listed the mean annual wage for writers (including screenwriters) and authors at $65,960 (with $109,440 being in the 9o percentile).

Update 2/28/13: Link to screenwriting quote where Oscar-winning screenwriter Chris Terrio (Argo) talks about writing scripts for $5,000 and $10,000 coming up in the New York indie world.

Update 12/11/13: Even though this post is now four years old it continues to get steady hits and is by far the most viewed post I’ve ever written. But I’d like you to take the time to jump over to the post and read what Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arendt has to say about what I call The 99% Focus Rule. And a postive thing  that’s happened since I originally posted this is quality cable TV has exploded —as well as groups like Netflix producing their own programs— opening up new opportunites and a broader income stream for writers.

Closing thought: “There’s more to life than a little money, you know?…Don’t you know that?”
Sheriff Marge Gunderson in Fargo
Written by Ethan Coen & Joel Coen

Scott W. Smith

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“Remember this rule: For every quarter you spend in Hollywood, you need to earn a dollar.”                                                                                                                                                                                  Max Adams

“And everywhere you turn
vultures and thieves at your back…”

Sarah McLachlan’s song, Angel 

It’s April 15. You know how writers love a deadline.

It’s that time of year when the local news stations and newspapers send out their camera people to cover the constant stream of people rushing to mail off their tax returns by the cut off time.

It’s a fitting time to not only look at taxes but how you are managing your creative career. The first place you should go for advice is your accountant or a trusted financial advisor or friend.

But I hope to stimulate some thoughts you may haven’t considered.

If you are even attempting a screenwriting career you’re in business. And you need to think like a business person. Think in terms of ROI (return on investment). You don’t have to be making a profit, you just have to be attempting to make a profit. (This also goes for musicians, photographers, etc.) There is a point where the IRS will start thinking it’s a scam if after x-amount of years you only show a loss.

But plenty of businesses don’t make a profit so that is not the basis of being considered a business. If you are writing scripts, sending them out, making phone calls, taking meetings, attending workshops, buying screenwriting books then in the eyes of the IRS you are a screenwriter.

So your deductions for the year should include all equipment and hard costs related  to marketing your screenplays. This may include (again check with your accountant):

Computer & software

Printers

Scanners

FAX

Desk/Chair

Lamp

Percentage of office space used if working out of home

Percentage of phone (cell and/or land line) and utilities

Printing, postage, envelopes

Writing workshops, seminars, books, magazines & CDs

Mileage and other car expenses

Travel (Air, Hotel, car rental & part of food)

Headshot

Organizations

Business cards & thank you notes

Research

Movies

Website and other marketing materials

And the list goes on…

It’s best if you can separate as much of this stuff as you can for accounting purposes. A separate credit card can help keep track of expenses.

Few artists have any security and I think it’s a step in the right direction to begin to think of yourself as business verses an employee. Perhaps form an LLC or other business entity.

Have you noticed many actors and directors have their own production companies? They are being proactive in developing their own material. In an Internet age I think you will have more and more writers developing their own material.

One of Orson Welles’ famous quotes goes something like this; It takes an army to make a film. It can. But these days it also can just take a camera and a couple creative friends. If you have a multi-talented friend like Robert Rodriguez you just need him, your script, and a couple actors.

Look what director Sydney Pollack did with a little more than a DV camera on his documentary Sketches of Frank Gehry, or Jerry Seinfeld did with a couple production friends for his stand-up comic doc Comedian. Granted we don’t all have Gehry and Seinfeld as friends but if you’re a writer on this globe the chances are good there are people nearby with a camera and editing equipment looking for someone to help them create a little magic.

Screenwriter Max Adams (Excess Baggage) has a book called The Screenwriter’s Survival Guide full of practical advice including a chapter titled “Death and Taxes.”

One of my favorite chapters her book is “What you really get paid.” There she breaks down the kind of deal you may read about in the trades of a script sold in the traditional Hollywood route. She writes:

“Let’s say someone just sold a script for $500,000. Here’s how that might look on paper.
Option $100,000.
1st Revisions: $200,000
2nd Revisions $125,000
Polish: $75,000
Sole Credit Bonus: $200,000
Shared Credit Bonus $100,000
So what you have in your pocket is actually $100,000….
(meaning the $100,000 option may be all you ever get)
Out of that you pay your agent 10 percent. You’re now at $90,000. You pay your attorney 5 percent. You’re now at $85,000. If you have a manager that’s at least 10 percent. $75,000. The Guild gets $2,500 to join, if you’re new. $72,500…Uncle Sam gets up to 55 percent. Kaching. You have $17,500 left over. That’s what you put in the bank. It’s nice but it won’t buy a Mercedes.

If you want to break it down further, count the years it took a person to perfect their craft, make contacts, and make their first sale. Say it was five years. $3,500 per year, back pay. Big bucks, huh?”

I think Max’s above numbers are a little off due to your expenses coming off the top. And your tax bracket depends on other income coming in and self-employment tax (double social security), and state tax may apply depending on where you live. Again your accountant can help you understand all of this.  But $500,000. is not $500,000. to you and even a $100,000. option is not $100,000. in your bank account.

Adams’ words are the stark reality of screenwriting. I try to encourage people to write but I think it’s dishonest to not show the whole picture like the heavy handed infomercials I’ve spoken about before. It’s fair to say that there are more people making money teaching acting, filmmaking, and writing than there are actually people making films.

If that depresses you enough to turn you away from writing that’s a good thing. Because it’s a long and difficult road even for the writers who make it. And if you don’t think the film business is full of vultures and thieves at your back, and its share of disappointments read Joe Eszterhas’s Hollywood Animal and/or The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood.

“I get no more respect now than I did when I started.”
Jeffrey Boam (Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade)

Watch Barton Fink.  Read Frank Darabont’s account of getting jilted on the new Indiana Jones movie; “It was a tremendous disappointment and a waste of a year.”

Then there are all those people that don’t make it. Word is at the UCLA extension alone 3,500 students are taking screenwriting classes. The WGA registers around 40,000 scripts a year and there are only around 200 studio films a year and 500-800 independents. The odds are better than winning the lottery – but only slightly.

To paraphrase John Steinbeck talking about bookwriting — The profession of screenwriting makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business.

The good news is films are still pretty bad so everyone is looking for a script/film that will knock our socks off. And every year films like Juno and Once pop up to everyone’s delight.

So have fun. And write because you enjoy it or because you are compelled to keep doing it.

And keep all your receipts.

Scott W. Smith

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