Archive for August, 2011

Box Office Failure

“Any filmmaker who tells you s/he ‘doesn’t read reviews’ just doesn’t want to admit how much they sting.”
Screenwriter Sean Hood

Yesterday, I wrote about Spectacular Failures in general—today we’ll look at what happens when a screenwriter has a box office failure.  The $90 million Conan the Barbarian movie was released earlier this month and stumbled out of the gate the opening night and after two weeks as only had a domestic box office gross of less than $20 million. One of the screenwriters on the movie was Sean Hood and he’s written an article called What’s it like to have your film flop at the box office?  

It’s a good read, but my favorite part is when Hood talks about his musician father:

“My father is a retired trumpet player. I remember, when I was a boy, watching him spend months preparing for an audition with a famous philharmonic. Trumpet positions in major orchestras only become available once every few years. Hundreds of world class players will fly in to try out for these positions from all over the world. I remember my dad coming home from this competition, one that he desperately wanted to win, one that he desperately needed to win because work was so hard to come by. Out of hundreds of candidates and days of auditions and callbacks, my father came in….second.

It was devastating for him. He looked completely numb. To come that close and lose tore out his heart. But the next morning, at 6:00 AM, the same way he had done every morning since the age of 12, he did his mouthpiece drills. He did his warm ups. He practiced his usual routines, the same ones he tells his students they need to play every single day. He didn’t take the morning off. He just went on. He was and is a trumpet player and that’s what trumpet players do, come success or failure.”

His father’s story has a happy ending, and I imagine Hood is back at work today working on a new script and hoping for a more fulfilling box office success the next time around.

BTW—Sean Hood has a lot of traits that keep coming up on this blog. Midwest roots (born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin), an Ivy League undergraduate education (Brown), an MFA in production from USC, that lead him to success in Hollywood. He blogs at Genre Hacks. And his brother Brendan Hood is also a screenwriter.


Scott W. Smith

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Spectacular Failures

“If you aren’t prepared to fail, you’ll never do anything creative. So you have to put yourself in a position to go outside of what you know, and when you’re there you’ll fail, and when you fail you’ll learn, and then you’ll become a better artist. And then you can even fail harder the next time. And then you continue to push the boundaries by failing and failing and failing.”
Photographer Mark Wallace

“I just want to know what I can do in the air and what I can’t, that’s all. I just want to know”
Jonathan Livingston Seagull(written by Richard Bach)

First Airplane Fatality—1908

Orville & Wilber Wright made history in 1903 (after four years of experimenting and failures) when they designed and flew the first powered airplane. Lesser known is that in 1908 Orville was the pilot when the first airplane fatality occurred. The history of flight is full of spectacular failures. Fortunately, when most of us fail it is not followed by smoke and flames.

Now is a good time to look at the importance of spectacular failures. This past weekend I caught part of photographer Mark Wallace’s excellent creativeLive workshop online Anatomy of a Photo Shoot. Wallace covered a lot of ground in just the small percentage that I was able to watch of the three-day workshop. But what really stood out to me was his openness to failure. From his perspective failure is not something to avoid, but something he encourages people to do on purpose. To “have a strategy for failure.”

This is the core of his message: Work hard outside of what you know. Push yourself to go to the next level of incompetence. If you only work in your comfort level you’re not growing. You need to push yourself where you think, “I don’t know if this is going to work.” Come to grips that everything you’re going to do in life won’t succeed. Release yourself from the expectation of success. Sometimes you’ll fall on your face. Most successful people have had catastrophic failures.

Wallace also credited his views on failure to Sir Ken Robinson (TED speaker and author of The Element:How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything). If you’re a creative person who failed, or didn’t do well in school, you’ll get a kick out of the following video featuring Robinson:

A quick look on You Tube also uncovered Richard Branson  (Virgin Atlantic Airways founder) and Michael Eisner (Former CEO The Walt Disney Company) covering the topic of failure.

Failing forward is another phrase that’s kicked around. In the case of my Kickstarter campaign several people from behind the scenes have contacted me about some alternatives  ways of getting my book published. Opportunities that wouldn’t be options if I hadn’t at least taken steps to try something new.

Waking up this morning knowing that I had fallen short of my goal wasn’t dreadful. You have to take this kind of thing in stride—and in perspective. Falling short at Kickstarter is not hard. Hard is my friend Loyd (one of the most creative people I’ve ever met) waking up today for his 71st day in the hospital following a stroke. Hard is the news that three days ago an eight year old died in Florida after a six-year battle with leukemia.

The odds are pretty good that eventually all of us will have our health fail and we’ll die. (I think it was Mark Twain who said the odds were 1:1 on the later.) That should take some of the sting of failure away. Help you take a few risks in your life to do the things you feel compelled to do while your hearts still pumping.

P.S. Special thanks Patricia Lytle for her last minute backing—just before my Kickstarter plane went down.

Scott W. Smith

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Yesterday I mentioned that one of the 100 plus writing credits for screenwriter Jules Furthman (1888—1966) was To Have and Have Not. There were a few hands in that pot; The novel was written by Ernest Hemingway, Howard Hawk directed the movie that starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and novelist William Faulkner is credited alongside Furthman on the screenplay, and IMDB lists Cleve F. Adams and Whitman Chambers as doing uncredited work on the script. But regardless of who gets the credit, the following scene from that movie goes down as one of Hollywood’s greatest:

AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movie Quotes has Bacall’s line, “You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together and blow,” as #34. Right after, “I’ll have what she’s having” (from When Harry Met Sally) and right before the line in JAWS, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

Kickstarter Update: Later tonight is the end of my Kickstarter campaign to attempt to raise money to get Screenwriting from Iowa turned into a book with your help. Your help is appreciated, and I’m not saying the goal can’t be met, but I am already working on my post for tomorrow called, “Spectacular Failures.” If you’d like to participate in the greatest comeback victory since the Dillon Panthers won the state title in the first season of Friday Night Lights click here.

Scott W. Smith

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“There should be no sorrow at this funeral because The Great Santini lived life at full throttle, moved always in the fast lanes, gunned every engine, teetered on every edge, seized every moment and shook it like a terrier shaking a rat.”
Pat Conroy
A Fighter Pilot’s Eulogy
(The book & movie The Great Santini was based on Pat Conroy’s Marine jet fighter pilot dad)

Thunder in the Valley 2011

Today the Air Force Thunderbirds were in Waterloo, Iowa. Since we only have two commercial flights that go in and out of the area on most days, the air space was a little more crowded that usual. I had never been to an air show, but since my father and my wife’s father were both pilots in the Air Force we decided to go see the jet pilots do their thing. Being a Thunderbird is harder than being a screenwriter because there are fewer than a dozen spots. For my post today, I couldn’t find anyone who was a jet pilot and a screenwriter so I settled for the screenwriter of the movie Jet Pilot. 

I could have taken the easy way out and written something about Top Gun, but there’s a lot written on that film—besides that’s the Navy Jet Pilot came out in 1958 and starred John Wayne plays an Air Force Colonel. Jet Pilot was written by Jules Furthman who racked up over 100 IMDB writing credits. He was born in 1888 in Chicago and Jet Pilot was his second to last film and was followed by another John Wayne film he wrote, Rio Bravo.

His lone Oscar nomination was for the 1935 film Mutiny in the Bounty (shared with Talbot Jennings and Carey Wilson). He also wrote The Big Sleep and To Have and Have Not (based on Hemingway’s novel). Some of his credits are under the name Stephen Fox because after World War 1 several sources point out it was thought that the name Furthman was too German sounding—which was a negative association at  that time.

The New York Times wrote that Furthman was a grad of Northwestern University (which comes up from time to time on my posts) and got his start writing for newspapers. Many of his screenplays were for silent film which have not survived. He wrote eight films each for directors Josef von Sternberg and Howard Hawks. Film Reference points out that Furthman wrote the screenplay Only Angles Have Wings which, “was based loosely on Hawks experience  flying experience in South America” and starred Cary Grant.

I have not seen many of Furthman’s movies but the one I am most interested in seeing is The Docks of New York (1928) because there appear to be traces of influence on the classic On the Waterfront (1954), its sets were designed by Hans Dreier known for his work on Sunset Boulevard, and the cinematography was by Harold Rosson who also shot The Wizard of Oz. That’s a lot of talent on one film. (You can see a clip from The Docks of New York at The Criterion Collection website.) 

Jules Furthman is not a name kicked around with the great screenwriters of all time, but he was one prolific writer who worked on some great films with some legendary Hollywood talent. He died in 1966.

P.S. For those of you in South Carolina, many of Furthman’s writings are archived at the University of South Carolina.

Kickstarter update–Tomorrow (Monday, August 29, 2011) is the last day to participate in the Kickstarter campaign for Screenwriting from Iowa. It will take a major come from behind push to make the goal so I’d appreciate any help you can give it. Check it out here. Special thanks to Matt Cowley, Denise Kawaii, and Eric Damin Walters for their help in the last day for their support in helping Screenwriitng from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places become a book.

Scott W. Smith

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A Soldier & His Dog

The photograph from Rockford, Iowa taken this week of the black lab Hawkeye lying by the casket of his owner, fallen Navy SEAL Jon Tunilson, is one touching photograph. Tumilson was one of 30 American troops killed earlier in the month in Afghanistan. The photograph was taken by Lisa Pembleton, Tumilson’s cousin, during the funeral service that had 1,500 in attendance. 

In that case, a picture is worth a lot more than a 1,000 words.

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Apple, Steve Jobs & Dying

For the past 15 years virtually every video project and short film I’ve produced has been edited on an Apple computer, and 99% of every Screenwriting from Iowa post has been written on an Apple. Yes, I think the Apple iPhone is one great useful invention. And I’m sure someday I’ll even warm up to Final Cut Pro X, because I remember how I thought Apple was making a big mistake when back in the day they started making computers without floppy disks. So with great interest I’ve followed the career and innovations of Steve Jobs, and it saddened me to hear just a few days ago that he was stepping down from his CEO position at Apple.

But when Jobs was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer several years ago I’m not sure he even thought he’d be around in the year 2011. 

“When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: ‘If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.’ It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
Steve Jobs
Stanford University Commencement Address June 12, 2005

Related Posts:
Don’t Waste Your Life
Don’t Waste Yoru Life (Part 2)

Scott W. Smith 

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“When you’re young, you look at television and think, There’s a conspiracy. The networks have conspired to dumb us down. But when you get a little older, you realize that’s not true. The networks are in business to give people exactly what they want. That’s a far more depressing thought. Conspiracy is optimistic! You can shoot the bastards! We can have a revolution! But the networks are really in business to give people what they want. It’s the truth.”
Steve Jobs (Former CEO of Apple)
Wired magazine (1996)
Steve Jobs: The Next Insanely Great Thing
 by Gary Wolf

Kickstarter campaign update: Only four days to go for you to help Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other UnlikelyPlacesbecome a book.

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“I think what’s interesting about The Help and why it’s become the phenomenon that it is is it’s so truthful. And it’s in a period where truthful stories aren’t being told that much… And people grabbed on to this book and I think it was—’Finally, this is being written.’ This isn’t about vampires or adultery or whatever salsy subject matter is covered, and people just people want to hear a story of truth and change. And the story’s modern because people still struggle with these same issues.”
Tate Taylor, writer/director The Help

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Yeah, I know, you have to live in LA to be taken seriously as a screenwriter. But don’t tell screenwriter Tate Taylor that because after kicking around New York and LA as an actor and filmmaker for 15 years, last year he bought a home in Church Hill, Mississippi. How’s it working out for him? Right now, the movie he wrote and directed is number one at the box office—The Help.

And he has plans for his Mississippi house to be used in part to teach and inspire writers and filmmakers in the south. That plan might make more sense in a place like Oxford, Mississippi where William Faulkner and John Grisham once lived and wrote, but Church Hill?  The truth is it’s not just a house—it’s a 70 acre plantation. The main building was built in 1833. And judging from the photos I found online when it was listed for sale back in 2010, Wyolah Plantation is a pretty nice spread with plenty of rooms and buildings for workshops—once you find it. It’s located just north of Natchez. The lack of cell phone service in the area may help your concentration and output of pages.

And I know LA is the best place in the world to network in the film industry, but guess where Talyor made a key connection in his career? At a church in Mississippi. According to an article in Garden & Gun written by Vanessa Gregory, Taylor and Kathryn Stockett (novelist of The Help), “have been friends since they were kindergartners at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Jackson.”

Gregory writes. “When The Help became a best seller, Stockett decided her friend should write and direct the movie. ‘I really wanted a Mississippian to tell the story, to translate it to the screen.'” That old kindergarten connection paid off big time. As in Steven Spielberg producing.(Another report said that Taylor got the rights to the story even before it was published in hopes of making it as an independent film, and that it became a studio film once the book became a best seller.)

And it’s not as if Taylor had a solid proven track record to jump on the DreamWorks train. He’s not unlike a lot of talented people in LA. He’d done a lot of this and that over the years. Early on in his career he worked as a PA on A Time to Kill, was a part of the improv group the Groundlings, and worked on commercials. According to IMDB, over the past fifteen years he averaged about a role a year as an actor in a TV show, a short film, or a feature. But 2010 was his breakout year as he had a role in Winter’s Bone and had the opportunity to direct The Help based on the script he wrote.

His directing credits before The Help appear to be limited to a short called Chicken Party in 2003 and the indie feature Pretty Ugly People which played in various film festivals. Perhaps at the end of the day what Taylor had going for him mostly goes back to his roots.

“I had the upper hand because I’m a southerner. In the south, we tell stories. We tell stories if you’re in a sales position, if you’re in a retail position, you lure your customers by telling a story. You just do. If you were to bargain from a retailer, you tell a story.”
Tate Taylor

But today he wakes up knowing that his film not only cleaned up at the box office this past weekend, but that The Help (made for $25 million) is on its way to crossing the $100 million mark. What’s next for Taylor? According to an article in the Hollywood Reporter last week, Taylor is in talks to direct Piece Like a River about as “asthmatic 11-year-old named Reuben Land, who lives with his eccentric family in 1962 Minnesota.

No matter what his next project is, it will be interesting to see how his plans develop from that plantation in Church Hill.

Sure it can help your screenwriting career if you live in LA where meetings happen—but it may be better if one of your kindergarten pals becomes a best selling author and gives you the righs to write the screenplay. But the real key to be taken seriously as a screenwriter— no mattter where you live and who who know— is to write a great script. Give yourself time to do that. I’m sure that in the 15-20 year quest of Tate Taylor he got his 10,000 hours in.

And just for the record…Church Hill, Mississippi qualifies as an unlikely place to be writing screenplays.

Scott W. Smith

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“The Help” Smackdown

The Help is an old-fashioned grand yarn of a film, the sort we rarely get these days.”
Tom Long
Detroit News 

It really wasn’t a fair fight. Sure Conan the Barbarian has that big sword, but it was three against one. Conan verses Aibileen, Skeeter, and Minny. Three strong women played by Viola Davis, Emma Stone, and Octavia Spencer in The Help.

I’m not one to follow daily box-office trends, but you have to take notice when a film like The Help takes the top box-office spot over the new release of the $90 million Conan the Barbarian and last week’s box-office champ Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The Help is a $25 million film set in Jackson, Mississippi and centers around the always slamdunk Hollywood concept of black maids in the the 1960s.

While the film is anti-high concept, it’s no mystery why this film has made $70 million in its first two weeks of release—the film is based on the bestselling book of the same name written by Kathryn Stockett.  It was Stockett’s first novel and took her a year and a half to write the first version. Her first rejection letter read, “Story did not sustain my interest.” Her 40th rejection letter stated. “There’s no market for this kind of writing.”

In an article written by Stockett in MORE Magazine she said that 40th rejection letter made her cry and, “That was a hard weekend. I spent it in pajamas slothing around that racetrack of self-pity—you know the one, from sofa to chair to bed to refrigerator, starting over again on the sofa. But I couldn’t let go of The Help. Call it tenacity, call it resolve or call it what my husband calls it: stubborness.”

But her rejection wasn’t over. Her manuscript would be rejected 20 more times before she landed an agent. Three weeks later that agent, Susan Ramer, sold the book to Amy Einhorn Books. It’s since sold more than 2 million book copies, and the e-book version became the first title to sell 1 million Kindle version.

Stockett was born in Jackson, Mississippi where the story takes place and graduated from the University of Alabama with a degree in English and Creative Writing. She spent nine years in the magazine business in New York City and currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia. She was 40 years old when The Help was first published.

Now her work, after a few years and a few tears, (and with a little help from writer/director Tate Taylor and an incredible cast of characters) is the number movie in America. Want some advice from Stockett?

“I can’t tell you how to succeed. But I can tell you how not to: Give in to the shame of being rejected and put your manuscript—or painting, song, voice, dance moves, [insert passion here]— in the coffin that is your bedside drawer and close it for good. I guarantee you that it won’t take you anywhere. Or you could do what this writer did: Give in to your obsession instead.”
Kathryn Stockett  

P.S. If I was going to retire from writing the Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places blogthis would be the perfect post to end on. That’s not my intention, but after a few years you think you’ve written all that you can write about writing and you think it’s time to move on. I need stories like Stockett’s (both her book and her journey as a writer) to inspire me.

Somewhat related posts:
Screenwriting Quote #93 (John Grisham)—Ole Miss graduate
Writers Getting Older (Touches on writer Alfred Uhry who wrote Driving Miss Daisy)
Martin Luther King Jr. & Screenwriting (Tip #7) —Touches on a trip I took from Jackson to Atlanta

Scott W. Smith

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