Archive for September, 2010

“Many careers have been launched by new media that was discovered on the web.”
Shelly Mellott
Editor in Chief, Script magazine

Were you one of the first people to get rid of your landline in favor of just having a cell phone? If so then you may have already cut your cable TV cord in favor of getting your traditional television entertainment not on a television, but via the Internet.  “Is television dead?” ask Robert Gustafson & Alec McNayer in an article in Script magazine (Sept./Oct. 2010) titled The Branding of Online Entertainment.

But it’s not only that you can watch your favorite TV shows on the Internet with sponsors  putting a tag and the beginning and end of the show, now sponsors are creating their own shows. The brand produces the entertainment, hence the phrase branding entertainment.  If you aren’t familiar with what that looks like check out the Ikea sponsored show Easy to Assemble.

“(Branding Entertainment) has to become about the actual experience with the brand. It’s not about trying to sell a product, it’s about making the audience feel good about the brand and its message.”
Dominik Rauch
Producer, Easy to Assemble

I’m not sure when this all started but in its modern form I’d point to the Superman webisodes that Jerry Seinfeld did for American Express in 2004-2005 that were directed by Barry Levinson (Rain Man, The Natural).

Of course, if actors, writers and filmmakers are uncomfortable with product placement they sure aren’t going to like branding entertainment. But it is a trend that is going to grow and provide a lot of creative opportunities for actors, writers and filmmakers. And since the majority of actors, writers and filmmakers are unemployed at any given time it seems like a positive thing. Sure it’s a dance between art and commerce, but what isn’t?

Two weeks ago I shot my first project that I would call branding entertainment. It’s for an economic development group and has been a great opportunity to work on the project as a producer, director, cameraman, editor as well as write the script and work with the actors. Even if the idea of branding entertainment doesn’t thrill you think of the experience you can gain. Writing words one week, and seeing actors say those words the next week, and people watching them  online soon afterwards has its own benefits in a field where you can go years without seeing any fruit to your work.

“Like with television, we’re always looking for strong writers with a point of view and fresh concepts that offer some sort of ‘wow’ factor.”
Ryan Noggle
Supervising producer, NBC’s In Gayle We Trust (sponsored by American Family Trust)

In the article by Gusafson and McNayer they point out a Orbit gum sponsored online show called “Orbit Dirty Shoes” featuring Jason Bateman; “The writing is superb, the acting is excellent, and the gum itself was successfully incorporated in the story.”

Not every writer’s cup of tea, but as I think of all the businesses and groups out there and the potential for branding entertainment— for the first time in my life I can honestly say I don’t think there are enough qualified producers and writers to handle all the work that I see coming down the pike.

Scott W. Smith

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“Re the spec script market. Yes, it sucks right now. We’re on track for perhaps 50-60 sales this year, maybe even less.”
Scott Myers
Go Into The Story
April 30, 2010

“Being one of the 33 (spec scripts) that was purchased this year is probably akin to winning Powerball.”
Amy Butler
I Write with Pictures

A question being asked a lot these days in screenwriting circles is, “Is the spec market dead?” That is writing a screenplay on the speculation that someone will buy it in hopes that it will get produced. Depending on your source, there are estimated to be between 50,000-100,000 screenplays written every year. And over 99% of those are written on spec.

If you include all the studio and independent feature films made every year in the United States you come up in the 500 film range. Most of those don’t make it to a theater near you nor would you recognize the titles if you heard them. And if Scott Myers’ estimate is correct, in the year 2010 there will only be 50 or 60 spec script sales. Not very good odds for those 50,000-100,000 scripts being written every year.

So if all your hopes are on selling a spec script the only real question is—Is it wiser to write a spec script or play the lottery? Of course, you can always do both. Spread the odds around a little. But if you factor in the work involved in writing a screenplay, the long road the script must still take to get produced, and the low odds that anyone will see it if it is produced you may just want to go crawl into a hole. (Or move to the Midwest— which some would say is the same thing.)

Amy Butler on her blog mentioned that she went to hear Daniel Pipski speak and one of the points she came away with is, in fact, “The Spec Market is Dead.”  And she wisely writes, “At this point, I was had to ask–if the spec market is dead and art movies are vanishing, how do you make a career as a writer.”

The answer is get creative. Throughout history most artists have just plied their trade and just eked out a living. Sure a few rock stars popped up here and there and made some serious coin, but the norm is pretty modest. (There is a reason the words “starving” and “artists” are often seen together.)   Even in Hollywood it has been said that, “screenwriters drive Camerys.”

But believe it or not I’m here to give a little hope. If you are going to write screenplays from Iowa or some other unlikely place, the chances are good that you already have an unorthodox view of things. If you’ve followed this blog at all over the years you know that on the road to writing the great script you may have to write two or three bad and mediocre scripts and then two or three good and very good scripts before you write that great scripts. (Not uncommon for Oscar-winning screenwriters to say it took 10-12 scripts before they sold one.)

It’s a process and it’s hard work. In the meantime, you pay the bills by doing what creative people have always done—you get a job. And if you’re fortunate it’s a job somewhat related to what you want to do. One of the most successful artists I know started by painting vans. (And if it’s not related, think of it as research as if you were wriitng the next Office Space or The Office.) Everywhere in this country there are creative people who are producing and directing local commercials, industrial and corporate videos, documentaries, web videos and short films. Connect with those people because many of them would also love to make feature films. The odds are much better in those circles than in the spec world.

Screenwriter John August recently wrote a post on his blog titled Advice for Canadian criminals; “Remember that specs are not a screenwriter’s bread-and-butter. Landing assignments and setting up pitches requires meetings. It would be hard to develop an ongoing screenwriting career without being able to meet face-to-face. Screenwriters are ultimately part of a larger filmmaking community, and if you can’t live in Los Angeles, you would be well-served getting involved with the French-Canadian productions shooting near you.

Filmmaker Philip Bloom recently echoed that sentiment on his blog basically saying not worrying about going to film school (or about never having been), “I say to kids who email me asking about film school “have you considered getting together with a couple of mates, buying a T2i and a lens or two and shooting a movie every weekend?’. Best way to learn in my opinion.” (The camera he is talking about the Canon  55oD/T2i costs less than $1,000.)

So pull your lottery money together and invest in yourself. Start a film club—whatever it takes. Why not hit a few singles, before swinging for the fences?

But most importantly—keep writing. The cameras and editing gear keep getting better and more affordable. Good stories are what is needed to complete the digital revolution.

P.S. Tomorrow I’ll write about an emerging market for screenwriters and filmmakers.

Scott W. Smith

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“I wanted my first film to be special… but I had no idea how difficult it was going to be to get made.”
Aaron Schneider, director of Get Low

A part of the 10 year journey of Get Low getting made is the writing of Aaron Schneider. He wasn’t the writer of the script, but the director of the movie. But Schneider did take a few days to craft a letter to actor Bill Murray to persuade him to join the cast. In an article by Danielle Hatch, Schneider said, “I decided to write a letter to let (Murray) know the movie was on its way and we wanted him on board. I put my heart on the page. You sit down and you write ‘Dear Bill,’ but that’s too casual. You write ‘Dear Mr. Murray,’ and that’s too formal. And in the business, Bill Murray is known for his bull-(expletive) meter. Not that I was trying to sell him a used car, but you get the sense from watching him and his work that the only way you can approach him is by being yourself and hoping that’s enough.”

Especially in this digital age never underestimate the power of a personal letter.  Murray signed on to be in the film which is in theaters now.

And while Get Low is Schneider’s feature film directorial debut he has actually two decades of cinematography credits, joined the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) in 1999, and won an Oscar for a short film he made in 2003 (Two Soldiers). According to the Chicago Tribune Schneider, now 40, was “born in Springfield and raised primarily in Peoria, Ill.” And Illinois plays a part in one of the more interesting twists and turns of Get Low getting made, as it has links to where a chunk of money came from to get the film produced.

Where do you think Schneider found a key investor— a German management company? “We found them through my high school prom date,” Schneider told Michael Phillips at the Tribune. “She found out I was trying to raise money for this movie. By this time she was in the financial world in New York and knew somebody who was interested in headhunting money for a movie.”

Think I can top that? Well, where do you think Scheider went to college? Yep, right here in Iowa. (Almost three years after starting this blog after discovering Diablo Cody graduated from the University of Iowa I’ve come to expect odd connections to Iowa.) Schneider studied engineering at Iowa State in Ames, but a chance meeting with Billy Crystal on a vacation in Florida led Schneider to go to film school at USC. Phillips points out that when Schneider won the Oscar for his short film, the host of the Oscars that year was Billy Crystal.

Don’t you love happy endings?

Scott W. Smith

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Get Low starring Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek received an 85% from the top critics on Rotten Tomatoes. Sharing the screenwriting credit are Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell.

“If you ‘know’ it write it, if you write it, write it well, defend it; if you defend it, pick your battles; if you lose, stay strong because you may win the war. Lo and behold you win the war, the phone just might ring with someone asking if you’d like to do it all over again. If that happens, say yes. It may take 10 years, as Get Low did, but it’s worth every minute.”
Chris Provenzano
Screenwriter, Get Low
Script m
agazine Sept./Oct. 2010
page 44

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SCRIPTGIRL was asked how to make a “script irresistible to a director” and she differed to the director of Bone Dry to answer;

“First off, I have to read it in one go. If I can’t, or I find reasons not to, I assume it’s not right for me (or visa versa) and push it aside. Beyond that, the search for a script involves questions of both art and commerce. Is this something I’m willing to comment to (like a marriage) until the vision comes to life? Is the script commercial enough to return the investment? Can my ‘voice’ add something to what the writer has on the page? Am I passionate enough about the story to face all the hurdles of the filmmaking process? Will this script translate into a film that will resonate with audiences? Will it be remembered?
When the answer to all of the above is ‘hell  yes,’ I might be on to something that could potentially be my next movie.”

Director Brent Hart
Script magazine Sept./ Oct 2010

Scott W. Smith

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“There comes a time when each of us must make a choice between what is right and what is easy.”
Dumbledore (Harry Potter’s headmaster)

When I wrote the post on J.K. Rowling yesterday I did not know that I would end up today at the Harry Potter ride at Universal Orlando Resort in Florida. But these things happen.

And so not having read any of the Henry Potter books or seen any of the movies I was transported into a new world this afternoon in a breathtaking ride in the 15 story castle. Growing up in Florida I’m not sure there was a building that was 15 stories so that alone was interesting to see on the Central Florida skyline.

There has been talk that the Harry Potter and the Hidden Journey centerpiece which opened this year has helped revive a sagging tourist economy in Florida. Judging by the lines today they are doing okay. And certainly the $250 million that it cost to build over a five-year period provided a job or two for some construction workers in a down economy.

All the results of a story that one writer told. And here is the seed of an idea that turned into an estimated $15 billion empire;

“I had been writing almost continuously since the age of six but I had never been so excited about an idea before. I simply sat and thought, for four (delayed train) hours, and all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who did not know he was a wizard became more and more real to me.”
J.K. Rowlings
Biography on The official J.K. Rowlings website
May all of your travel delays result in such fruitful work.

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“A mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.

Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea then how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”
J.K. Rowling*
The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination
Harvard University Commencement
June 5, 2008

*Rowling has sold over 400 million copies of her Harry Potter books and today has an estimated net worth around one billion dollars.

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“Everything I do I just assume I’m going to fail. All seems impossible but I’m very scared of failure –you know, everyone is –and that sence of the impossibility gets me to crank up the turbines. Everything mentally and physically at my disposal I pour into a project.”
Sebastian Junger (Author of The Perfect Storm and War)
Outside mag Sept 2010
Article: The path of most resistance
Page 74

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I don’t know where New York copywriter Jon Kallus got the idea for the Russian millionaire (billionaire?) and the mini-giraffe but that Direct-TV spot is one compelling commercial. Every once in a while a spot comes around that captures people’s imaginations and goes viral on the Internet. The spot “Opulence” featuring Timothy Murphy complete with lots of gold, a Van Gogh painting, and dogs playing poker is one such commercial.

The ending where Murphy leans over and kissing a miniature giraffe is the surprise that we love to see in commercials and movies but so rarely find.

Jon Kallus’s works at the advertising group  Grey and his personal website states before that, “he was an agent trainee at CAA. Then, in a fit of moral fervor, he decided to swap the frothy excesses of Hollywood for the stoic austerity of advertising. At Grey, he’s worked on campaigns for DirecTV, E*Trade, Crown Royal and the NFL.”

And for a surprise ending, Kallus has a B.A. in Economics from Vasser College in Poughkeepsie, New York. (I bet he has at least one screenplay in the works on his computer.)

For what it’s worth, I also have  mini-giraffe at my house. His/her name is Matty and she/he’s named after Orlando writer/director Matthew Porter who was kind enough to take me to South Africa years ago to help him shoot a documentary. That’s where I picked up Matty—my two foot tall wooden giraffe. Not as cool as the one that the Russian dude has but easier to clean up after.

Scott W. Smith

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I missed the premier yesterday of the new Hawaii Five-O. In general I don’t go out of my way to watch much TV at all. But the remix of Hawaii Five-O bugs me and not because I think the original show is sacred—but because several years ago I wrote a coming-of-age screenplay the opens with 10 year-old-boys riding bikes and jumping curbs on their bikes all to the theme song from Hawaii Five-O. In my head I’ve played the opening scene out hundreds of times. It was alive with action and the pulsing of the music. And I thought it would a fresh way to introduce a new group of people to the theme song created by Morton Stevens.

Of course, because of my script and the movie that was supposed to be a hit movie, a new TV version of Hawaii Five-O would be produced with hot young actors and I would be a hero in Hawaii for helping stimulate the economy there.

Oh well, best wishes to the writers, actors, producers, etc. of the new show.

It’s disappointing but I’ll live. Speaking of disappointing did you happen to catch David Bianculli’s review of the new TV line-up on NPR yesterday?  Of course, if you’re a writer you may or may not be encouraged by this review of this year’s new TV show line-up:

“This year, more than in any year I can remember, the new shows are positively underwhelming. Every year at this time, the question I’m asked most often is, “Which new series do I have to watch?” And most years, there’s at least one easy answer. Glee and Modern Family. Lost and Desperate Housewives. 30 Rock. Even Buffy the Vampire Slayer, though few people believed me at the time.

This year, the easy answer is Boardwalk Empire, which premiered last night on HBO. But if you restrict the question to broadcast TV — to ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC and the CW — I have a different answer.

Nothing. Nada. And I’m not just being cranky. As a TV critic, I’ve evaluated the new fall season output for 35 years now, and never before — not once — have the broadcast networks come up completely empty.”
David Bianculli
This Fall, Shows You Know Are The Only Must-See TV

Apparently, there is room for some improvement. Bianculli is also the founder/editor of the website TV Worth Watching.

Scott W. Smith

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