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Posts Tagged ‘Sketches of Frank Gehry’

“Every artist confronts a series of issues that are constraints.”
Frank Gehry

Please allow me to run with this architectural theme for a few days. Architect Frank Gehry is perhaps best known for his buildings the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain and the Walt Disney Concert Hall* in Los Angeles. I’ll never forget in 1999 when I saw my first building designed by Gehry—”Dancing Building” in Prague. The last design of his I’ve seen is the Weisman Art Museum on the campus at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Disney Concert Hall (Photo by Kwong Yee Cheng)

Disney Concert Hall (Photo by Kwong Yee Cheng/CC)

“I think creativity… I guess (Henry) James wrote that it was like poking around in a deep well with a big stick, and every once in a while you would pull this stick out and something was there. These ideas are not easy to describe. They’re easy to rationalize after the fact, like the sense of movement is easy to rationalize, or certain materials, or certain constructs, and shapes, and forms. But basically, I am trying to make buildings and spaces that will inspire people, that will move people, that will get a reaction. Not just to get a reaction, but to get a positive reaction, hopefully, a place that they like to be in. My greatest thrill is to still be friends with the clients and people that helped me make these buildings.”
Frank Gehry
Academy of Achievement

That’s not too hard to draw parallels to your screenwriting and filmmaking. If you haven’t seen the documentary Sketches of Frank Gehry I recommend it.It also happens to be the last film made by director Sydney Pollack (Out of Africa, Tootsie).

*An interesting side note that is not commonly known about the Walt Disney Concert Hall in the above photography is the limestone is from Iowa. The Weber Stone Company hauled nearly 800 ton of Anamosa Limestone to Los Angeles.

Scott W. Smith

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“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”
Norma Desmond
Sunset Blvd.

“Film will only become art when its materials are as inexpensive as pencil and paper.”
Jean Cocteau

“The future of filmmaking is changing and mobile-generated art is fast becoming the next medium for film. In five years, I believe we will be watching films in movie theaters that have been shot on a mobile phone.”
Spike Lee
(April 2008)

I stopped laughing years ago.

Back in 1995 I had a friend tell me she was getting married to someone she had met on the Internet. That was uncharted territory back then and fodder for many jokes.

Four years later when the creative team behind The Blair Witch Project stunned Hollywood with the use of their unusual marketing on the Internet it got everyone’s attention.

Now almost ten years later it seems as if the whole world has jumped on the Internet bandwagon. Video for the web is exploding and it’s hard to be surprised by the technological breakthrough of the month.

There is a new cinema coming and for the screenwriter that means new opportunities. So in two parts I’ll attempt to give a sweeping overview of this new world.

In May of 2005, I was on a shoot in Cape Town, South Africa when I read an article about a director in the United States who was making a national commercial with a cell phone. That’s when I thought to myself, “Someday, someone’s going to make a feature film with a cell phone.” In December of 2005 in Johannesburg, South African filmmaker Aryan Kaganof, shot the first dramatic feature film, SMS Sugar Man, entirely with a cell phone. A cell phone.

Kaganof, an accomplished filmmaker, told Ryan Fortune of Johannesburg’s Sunday Times’, “We are re-writing the book on cinema here…things will never be the same…from now onwards, all you’ll need (to make a film) is a good idea, a cellphone, a laptop and you’re off. It opens up a whole world of possibilities….” Fortune commented that the film is a perfect example of leap-frogging meaning a technological leap had occurred much like it had ten years previously with the advent of DV cameras and non-linear editing systems.

But also in 2005, the first feature documentary shot entirely with a cell phone was being shot. Italian directors Marcelo Mencarini and Barbara Seghezzi co-directed the 93-minute film, New Love Meetings. “With the widespread availability of cell phones equipped with cameras, anybody could do this,’’ Mencarini said, “If you want to say something nowadays, thanks to the new media, you can.”

Within a year of the cell phone feature breakthroughs, cell phone film festivals began popping up around the world. For the naysayers out there who question the quality of the equipment or films being made need to view the first copyrighted film, Fred Ott’s Sneeze. It was made in 1894 and features, well, Fred Ott sneezing. Yes, I paid a lot of money in film school to learn that, but you can see it free on You Tube.

In fact, you can see quite a lot on You Tube. Not just silly videos of teenagers lip-syncing pop songs, but there’s a mini film school hidden in there. Classic clips from Charlie Chaplin films, the opening tracking shot in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, and the shower scene from Hitchcock’s Psycho are available for you to study.

And you have to admit Judson Laipply’s The Evolution of Dance is original and funny. You have to take notice of a video that gets viewed 10 million times in its first two weeks and a year later as I write this is still the number one all-time viewed video on You Tube with more than 83 million views.

Things have evolved very quickly in digital filmmaking and distribution. I don’t know if there are more people making money in the digital world but there is a heck of lot more content. And that is a start and gives us a taste of what is to come. We know that the Internet is shaking up the industry as more and more people spend time on the Internet and less time watching TV programs and going to movies.

We know that in a few years video stores will probably revert back to the small mom and pop stores that sprang up in the 80′s with the demand for video rental. Stores like Blockbuster will have to diversify what they do to survive. I don’t think the need for people renting movies will ever totally go away, they’ll just become more like those funky retro record stores. (Heck, people still collect 8-track tapes.)

One of the good things that may come out of this is the rebirth of the filmmaker as artist. Because of the high costs of making films, filmmakers have always had an uneasy agreement with commerce. Only certain type of films could be made. Ones that could find a large audience. The goal was a high return on investment.

With the rise of the super blockbuster it was once believed that the studios would then make more smaller, less sensational films. That didn’t happen. Once studios got a taste of 100 million dollar box offices then that became the goal for every film. Bruce the shark in Jaws killed more than people.

Over the years I’ve read article after article where actors, directors, writers, and cinematographers lament over not making the kind of films they really want to make. Part of the problem is they too are caught up in the machine. But every once in a while a flower breaks through the concrete and gets made for the joy of it. Because the writer and or director have a vision beyond simply the box office. The real exciting part is when those films make money.

Not all digital films will turn out as well as Sketches of Frank Gehry, but that is part of the process. Remember, before Francis Ford Coppola made The Godfather he cut his teeth on Roger Corman films. Ditto that for Titanic writer/director James Cameron and many other filmmakers. Let’s look back and how far we’ve come in a short time.

I remember in the late 90′s when a filmmaker from New York told an audience at the Florida Film Festival, “I am a filmmaker, I make films with film—I’m not interested in video.” Many film festivals didn’t even allow films shot on video. Looking back it reminds me of the days when snow boarding was outlawed at ski resorts in Colorado. (Snow boarding now represents more than half the revenue at some resorts.) Things change. And these days they change rapidly.

When I was in film school in the early 80’s there was a line drawn between the film and video world. The film students looked down on the video and TV students,  just as did film actors looked down on TV work.

As the 80’s progressed both the VHS videotape market and cable TV opened new opportunities for filmmakers and the lines between film and video became blurred. The year 1994 was the year that I gave up being a film snob. That was the year that Hoop Dreams was released.

I didn’t care what it was shot on it was simply a great film—even if it was shot on video.

Film critic Rodger Ebert would later call it the best film of the 1990’s.  Up until that point there had been a lot of dabbling with video in Hollywood. Jerry Lewis was the first to use video assist on a film for his directorial debut The Bellboy. The first feature film shot on video was 200 Motels, co-directed by Frank Zappa in 1971. Coppola explored with video on The Outsiders back in 1982 mostly for a reference point while working with young actors.

This is a good place to end part one of New Cinema Screenwriting. My last post touched on David Lynch shooting Island Empire on DV and swearing not to return to shooting film. Whether that is another one of Lynch’s bizarre dreams or in fact reality time will tell.

“I think there’s a slight trend toward embracing new cinema, non-Hollywood blockbuster cinema. It’s not erupting, but because of the Internet, I think people have more of a chance to get buzz going on alternative cinema, so I think it’s hopeful out there.”
David Lynch

Granted this is all in the beginning stages which reminds me of an interview I saw last year with the founder of the Geek Squad who said, “What people don’t realize is the internet has not yet started.” Keep in mind that it wasn’t too long ago when Bill Gates dismissed the power and future of the Internet.

There is nothing wrong with having Big Budget Technicolor Hollywood Dreams but keep in mind that today in little towns and villages all over the world there are people experimenting with little digital cameras (even cell phones) and making movies. Writing words and making movies. And tomorrow we’re going to be watching some of those films.

It’s kind of like the golden age of Hollywood when they cranked out film after film to hungry audiences in a pre-television era. Films were sometimes made start to finish in a couple weeks. That’s how some directors directed over 100 films.   Most of those films are forgotten but the ones that survived shine brightly.

The first John Ford film that most people have heard of and perhaps even seen is Stagecoach which he made in 1939. (Though he did win acclaim for Arrowsmith and The Informer in ’31 & ’35)  Before he directed Stagecoach Ford had made 94 films in 22 years. (Think about the learning that went into the simple process of making that many films.)  There is a reason that Orson Welles’ is reported to have watched Stagecoach 40 times before he directed Citizen Kane.

He was in his 40′s when his career got rolling and making the films that we remember him for making. And he directed into his 80′s. There are some great older directors and screenwriters out there that the Hollywood system has forgotten even though they have some films still in them. Maybe if they pick up a digital camera they can make their best films yet.

Speaking of 1939, has there ever been a single better year for movies than 1939?

Maybe this new cinema is a return back to the future.

“I’m ready for my close-up now, Mr. DeMille.”
Norma Desmond
Sunset Blvd.

New Cinema Screenwriting (part 2)

Copyright 2008 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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