Archive for December, 2011

“Look, you’ve been married for 18 years…if it ended today you could probably call it a success, right?”
Newlyweds (written by Edward Burns)

“I need to know two people can stay together forever.”
(written by Diablo Cody)

Edward Burns and Diablo Cody have a lot in common. That’s my take away from seeing both Newlyweds and Young Adult this month.

Both Burns and Cody are screenwriters of character driven stories full of witty dialogue, and they mix the sacred with the profane in a way that is unique to Catholic raised writers.

Last night I downloaded and watched Newlyweds (written and directed by Burns) via iTunes and then I turned around and watched it again this morning while I worked out. (Both times watching on my iPhone for those tracking trends.) I don’t know what the film will look like in theaters in its limited theatrical run next month but on my iPhone my first thought was “this film looks great.” My second thought was this is no $9,000. film.

So let’s deconstruct that for a second. An old marketing thought is you want to make the most expensive movie ever made or the cheapest film ever made because that gets extra press. On the high end it didn’t hurt Avatar, and while not the cheapest feature ever made Newlyweds has gotten a lot of press for being shot for $9,000. The key word there is “shot.”  This is what Burns wrote via his Twitter feed:

“5K for actors, 2k insurance, 2k food and drink. 9K in the can.”

From there the $9,000. took a life of its own. So after seeing the film I did a little checking and here are the numbers a little more fleshed out:

I will clarify: it cost $9K to get the film in the can. So that doesn’t include any editing or post-production. That, all in, probably cost us $120K, because those are the things you can’t barter for or get for free.

So the $9K is to get the film in the can. Things that aren’t in the budget of $9K are anything that we own, as far as equipment; I wasn’t going to charge myself a rental fee for the camera or the sound equipment. So the $9K went like this: $2K for insurance, $2K for the actors’ fees—which is part of the SAG low-budget agreement, I think it’s called—and then $5K for food, transportation, miscellaneous costs.”
Edward Burns
TribecaFilm.com article by Kristin McCraken 

What was the equipment owned? The Canon 5D camera, lens, audio gear, hand-held rig, etc. But heck, even if it was $200,000 it still looks like a million dollars. Dare I say that overall it stands toe to toe with the $12 million Young Adult written by Cody and directed by Jason Reitman? I think it does. Both are well written and have an excellent cast. And a subplot in Newlyweds is basically the plot of Young Adult—An attractive (yet troubled) blonde comes to town in hopes of reconnecting with an old flame now married.

Much has been written of Charlize Theron’s unapologeticly wicked character in Young Adult, but I think drink for drink—bed for bed—and dysfunction for dysfunction—Kerry Bishe in Newlyweds could be her younger evil sister. She tells her ex-boyfriend, “You’ve only been married a few weeks—it’s not even real yet.” Caitlin Fitzgerald who plays Burns’ wife in the film says of Bishe’s character, “She’s taken slutiness to a who ‘nother level…Your sister is the devil.”

I’m sure she didn’t, but if you told me that Cody did a pass on the script of Newlyweds I would believe it. And if Burns would have taken a pass on Young Adult I imagine it would have been a better film. Maybe Burns and Cody will get together and make a film some day and see how their talents mesh.

As an independent film, Newlyweds is interesting to look at on paper. Young Adult has been out for three weeks and is limping just to make back its production costs. (Not including prints and advertising). Newlyweds obviously, has a much smaller mountain to climb, though is hampered by being available primarily on Video on Demand and iTunes rental. Burns has said that if the film brings in $800,000. everyone will do real well.

And to help Newlyweds be profitable Burns set the tone early by using his Twitter base to keep in contact with his followers:
“When I sat down to flesh out my next script idea (which eventually became my movie, “Newlyweds”), I immediately put it out on Twitter, to gauge the interest of my followers. Given the positive response, I then asked them a number of questions during the writing process. I asked for suggestions of character’s names, and funny or interesting scenarios that happened in the first couple of months of marriage. We asked them to write one of the last lines of dialogue in the film. While I didn’t end up using any specific line, their ideas shaped the final scene.”
Edward Burns
(Twitter followers even get a shout out on the credits.)
Newlyweds is not rated but there is no question it would be R-rated. It’s not a film everyone will enjoy, but those that know and like Burns’ work won’t be disappointed. 
Lastly, from a production stand point be inspired that Newlyweds was shot with a three person crew using a HDSLR, with cinematographer William Rexer using mostly available lights and a handheld style, and that the actors did their own makeup and wardrobe—but never lose sight that Burns has been on a long journey to get to this point in his career. His did the work getting his pages written before he had any success. The following quote is about his time before he won that Sundance prize back in 1995 for The Brothers McMullen. 
“I knew I wanted to make films. I had written about seven screenplays, sending them out. Getting rejection letter after rejection letter….Does it hurt to be rejected? Hell yeah, it stings. I actually have all of my rejection letters –”
Edward Burns 
One of the ways that filmamkers like John Ford got so skilled at making films is they cranked out so many an era where films where routinely shot in three weeks because the demand was so great. (Ford directed over 140 movies.) In the heyday of Roger Corman a whole new breed of filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola were given an opportunity to hone their craft cranking out exploitation films. And today in this digital production and distribution era there is a whole new wave of filmmakers coming up making films.
Most of these ultra-low budget productions won’t be as good as Newlywed’s, but what a great proving ground to learn.
Scott W. Smith

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“But this is the future, I suppose– movie theaters aren’t going anywhere, I’m sure, but the way we watch our movies is definitely diversifying.”
Edward Burns speaking back in 2007 about digital distribution for films

Edward Burns isn’t just an actor and filmmaker, he’s a symbol—a symbol of the future of independent filmmaking.

His latest film, Newlyweds, is now available on iTunes. After watching five Hollywood Christmas blockbuster spectacles in the last week the best thing I can say about them as a group is the more than one billion dollars spent on then in production and marketing provided a lot of jobs and helped the economy. But I’m starving for a simple human story. The kind where actors and a script drive the story rather than over the top special effects.

So for $6.99 I look forward to seeing Newlyweds tonight which Burns is reported to have shot for $9,000 using a Canon 5D camera and a small crew. Some grips, gaffers, make-up artists, production designers, etc. aren’t excited about this trend because utlra-low budget independent filmmakers often don’t have any of those on productions. And if they do they sure aren’t making the day rate they’d make on a traditional feature.

But for writers and directors Burns represents freedom and an opportunity to not only have a vision, but to see it come to fruition. Something that’s not easy to do moving up the production food chain in Los Angeles.

“When I did Purple Violets, 50 percent of the journalists I talked to said, ‘Are you crazy? No one is going to watch a movie on their computer, much less a phone!’ That was 2007. Who know where we’ll be two years from now?”
Edward Burns
November 2011, Sarasota, FL
Talk to students at Riggling College of Art & Design via Carrie Seidman, Herald-Tribune

So as we get ready to start the year 2012 it is indeed exciting to think about what the world of production and distribution will look like in 2014, but I hope that many of you are seeing your work come to light in ways that you never dreamed possible. Think of renting Newlyweds this weekend as a hat tip to Edward Burns and his gang. Sure would be fun to see a little film with little marketing dollars dip into the top ten list on iTunes rentals.

Related posts:

Content Creators=Distributors
Telling Smaller Stories
Writing for Low Budget Films
How to Shoot a Feature in 10 Days (The methods Burns used on Nice Guy Johnny)
The 10 Film Commandements of Edward Burns

Scott W. Smith


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Iowa Caucuses 2012

Jay Leno once said that the word caucus is an Indian word meaning, “the one day every four years when America pays attention to Iowa.” And now that we’re less than a week away from the 2012 Iowa caucuses there is more media attention than normal here in the state.

It’s nowhere near the attention the state got four years ago when both Democrats and Republicans had candidates crisscrossing the states for well over a year, and I got to see 12 candidates on both sides speak including the future President of the United States Barack Obama.

But just in the last two days both GOP candidates Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich made a stop at The Chocolate Season in Algona, Iowa. Earlier this year I was field producer on behalf of Magnet Media for a Google video featuring The Chocolate Season.

It is a small world after all.

Scott W. Smith

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Gillian Mohney writing for Elle magazine wrote this about Edward Burns’ ultra low-budget film Newlyweds;

“One unexpected benefit for Burns in making these independent films is his ability to redefine what a film schedule can look like. While most directors are forced by budgetary constraints to adhere to a rigorous blocked out shooting calendar, by using hand held cameras and skeleton crew Burns has been able to keep his shooting schedule open ended. Rather than blocking out weeks of time, Burns simply uses his actors and his sets when he can, meaning 12 days of shooting is stretched out over three months. For Newlyweds, after shooting a few scenes, Burns retreated to the editing bay to see what he had to work with and figure out how to progress from there.

‘I keep equating it to the painter that throws up those first couple of coats and then he sits in his studio and stares at it. He can take a month deciding, what’s next?’ said Burns. ‘This wasn’t a strategy, we kind of fell into [it] just because you’re asking actors to work for nothing and you’re begging favors from everyone you know.'”

Newlyweds is available now on VOD and on iTunes December 30. You can find more information about the film at EdwardBurns.net.

Scott W. Smith

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Edward Burns, like a lot of people, is making movies on the side—outside of his day job. Of course, his job as an actor pays more than working at Starbucks. But he’s still leading the way in this newest version of independent filmmaking. His latest film, Newlyweds, was shot for $9,000 (deferred).

“You’re not gonna become a millionaire doing this, but that was never the point. And I think a lot of people in the indie film business kind of took their eye off of that. Everyone got disappointed if their movie didn’t do 10 to 20 million. You know, we’re the equivalent of the indie band. We’re not supposed to sell out Madison Square Garden. You’re supposed to see us at Bowery Ballroom and say, Oh, that was a killer, great small show. And so for an indie film that has zero marketing dollars, our film Nice Guy Johnny got to No. 6 on the iTunes charts last year.
Edward Burns
Esquire magazine article by Matt Sullivan 

Burns is not phased about making films that go straight to DVD, digital downloads, or Video On Demand—he seems concerned with making the kind of films he wants to make and that his audiences want to see. I thought Terrance Malick’s The Tree of Life was one of the most interesting films I’ve seen in the last decade, but most of us won’t get $30 million dollars (or attract Brad Pitt) to make a fully personal & contemplative film.

But $9,000— that’s a realistic goal, right? (Even then I’m not sure I’d make a fully personal & contemplative film.)

Edward Burns is running in his lane and I hope that inspires you to run in your lane. I can’t count how many conversations about art and commerce I’ve had since I was 19-years-old (but the number’s pretty high) and perhaps it’s healthy that we dance back and forth over that line. Most of us live in the world between the starving artist and the bloated sellout. How do you stay sane? Perhaps these words from screenwriter Charlie Kaufman  (with an assist from poet e. e. Cummings) will help:

“Say who you are, really say it in your life and in your work. Tell someone out there who is lost, someone not yet born, someone who won’t be born for 500 years. Your writing will be a record of your time. It can’t help but be that. But more importantly, if you’re honest about who you are, you’ll help that person be less lonely in their world because that person will recognise him or herself in you and that will give them hope. It’s done so for me and I have to keep rediscovering it. It has profound importance in my life. Give that to the world, rather than selling something to the world. Don’t allow yourself to be tricked into thinking that the way things are is the way the world must work and that in the end selling is what everyone must do. Try not to.

This is from E. E. Cummings: ‘To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best night and day to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting.’ The world needs you. It doesn’t need you at a party having read a book about how to appear smart at parties – these books exist, and they’re tempting – but resist falling into that trap. The world needs you at the party starting real conversations, saying, ‘I don’t know,’ and being kind.”

H/T to Scott Myers at Go Into the Story for the transcription of Charlie Kaufman’s 2011 BAFTA talk.

Scott W. Smith

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“People say ‘It’s all about the story’…When you’re making tentpole films, bulls*%t.”
Andy Hendrickson, Chief Technical Officer
Walt Disney Animation Studios

“I have no interest in ever directing anything like a traditional blockbuster. Sci-fi movie. Superhero movie. Not really my thing.”
Edward Burns
Moviefone article by Christopher Rosen 

Edward Burns isn’t making tentpole movies—he’s making movies for what a circus tent pole costs. And if Andy Hendrickson at Disney is right that tentpole movies are all about spectacle, then Burns is the antithesis of a tentpole filmmaker. Don’t look for Burns to be making a $150 million dollar film in which another $100 million is spent on marketing.  He’s the anti-tentpole filmmaker. His newest film released today, Newlyweds, cost a reported $9,000. to shoot.

I’ll find as many quotes as I can find this week to reveal how he pulled off this ultra-low budget feat.. (And if I can score an interview with him that will be a bonus.)

P.S. The video is available today on VOD and on iTunes Dec. 30.

Scott W. Smith

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Merry Chirstmas 2011

Here’s a little Christmas video I did for the web gang Spinutech that I work closely with on various projects.

For the technical minded, this was shot with the Panasonic AF 100 and a Nikon 50 1.4 lens (that’s probably 20 years old). Except for an intern that helped with the set (black backdrop, tree branches and Christmas lights) it was produced as a one-man band gig where I shot, directed, and edited the video so it was pretty cheap to do. 

In fact, the only costs were a used Elvis mic (Shure 55) and some Christmas lights so the total hard costs were around $150. Gives you a glimpse of how Edward Burns made the feature Newlyweds for $9,000—which we’ll look at tomorrow.

Merry Christmas and peace be with you—

Scott W. Smith

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“With a screenplay you’re creating a world; consider everything, every character, every room, every juxtaposition, every increment of time as an embodiment of that world. Look at all of this through that filter and make sure it is all consistent.”
Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman

“No hero is ever ready for the journey.”
Adam Levenberg

Yesterday I had the single best script critique I’ve ever had. It was also the longest phone conversation I’ve ever had.

My 2 hours and 54 minute conversation with Adam Levenberg was longer than the movie Gone with the Wind. Not that my script is as epic, but Adam wanted to show me what he does as a script consultant. I was impressed and will talk about the experience more in detail in January. But if you’re looking for a gift for that screenwriter in your life who has everything but a produced script—or you want to indulge yourself as a writer—contact Adam.

And while the service was offered free to me, I will warn you that his fee is in the iPad range.  Seriously, writing this blog has brought me into contact with some interesting producers, directors, and screenwriters in Los Angeles and talking with Adam yesterday was a great way to round out the year.

Adam doesn’t guarantee that your script will get made, sell, or that you’ll even get an agent— his goal is to make you a better writer. Over the years I’ve taken plenty of screenwriting classes and workeshops, but having Adam go through my entire script and question choices I made was a whole different level of understanding that you can’t get in a class. You can’t hide. (For instance, while my hero’s backstory was in my head—Adam pointed out that it wasn’t in the script.)

Earlier this year I finished the script Shadows in the Dark (with Scott Cawelti) which while my first collaboration, was actually my ninth feature script completed. (In a conversation with My Cousin Vinny screenwriter Dale Launer this year he told me I had one more script to write before I sold one because it took him ten scripts before his first sale.) Anyway, I was fortunate to have several writer friends around the country read my script and offer lengthy and detail notes on various versions of the script.

So the script that Adam read was probably the sixth draft and he still had enough notes for an almost 3 hour conversation. (Actually, it was probably a solid 2 hours of notes because he let me ramble on talking about movies and such.)

I know there is a mini—debate surrounding script consultants, but I was impressed with Adam’s knowledge and thoroughness. And he’s just a heck of a lot fun to talk to on the phone. Adam’s background includes a degree from USC School of Cinematic Arts and time as a development executive at One Race Films—Vin Diesel’s company. And he’s been featured as a guest blogger on WME Story Editor Christopher Lockhart’s blog.

We all have knowledge gaps and have much to learn, which is why even Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) says he’s still a student. If you’re a working writer in Hollywood you have plenty of working relationships to hone your skills. Diablo Cody recently said she sent the first draft of Young Adult to Jason Reitman and he said it wasn’t quite there and kept sending her notes until it eventually became the movie Young Adult. (And even after all of that talent, when I saw Young Adult in the theater just as the credits began to roll a lady behind me said out loud, “That’s it?”)

Most of us can’t slide Jason Reitman a script and expect him to give us notes. So if you’re in say, Iowa—or some other unlikely place in the world to be writing screenplays–you have to be resourceful.  As a small business owner (River Run Productions) I’m all for the entrepreneurial spirit and free market enterprise. So if you have the funds and what to be a better writer I’m all for any classes, workshops, books, and scripts consultants you can afford within your budget to accomplish your goal. But remember the basic solid economic principle— “Make every purchase and investment.”

I do believe that in many cases that experienced script readers, producers, and studio executives can give better script notes than working screenwriters. For instance, you’ll learn more from Carson Reeves’ Script Shadow blog than you will from most blogs by working screenwriters.

I’m sure that there are script consultant scams out there so be careful.  While I don’t really know Adam, I will say that my experience with him was positive. The only way Adam could have given me as detailed notes is spending time going over my script. He typically invests at least two days going through a script.  His notes went quite in depth and covered some key flaws. I know I’ve never able to give as detailed notes to friends scripts I’ve covered, because I simply can’t spend that much time on it. Plus it’s not something I enjoy doing.

Will Adam’s notes get my script sold or produced?  Again, no one’s making that claim. (And if anyone guarantees they’ll get your script sold or even get you an agent is a good sign to run.) But I do believe Adam’s notes will make my Shadows in the Dark script better as well as overall making me a better writer. If you’d like a lower budget version of Adam’s film industry knowledge check out his book The Starter Screenplay.

You can also check out his website HireAHollywoodExec.com and judge for yourself.

P.S. And I offer as a totally free gift to you this Holiday Season, a link to quite an interesting talk Charlie Kaufman gave earlier this year for the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA).  (A link I first found at the always informative Go Into the Story blog where Scott Myers has posted transcripts of that talk as an eight part series.)

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A Pleasant Haunt by Dickens

This is the original preface to A Christmas Carol, A Ghost Story of Christmas (which you can find the total text online at The Project Gutenberg ):

“I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.”
Their faithful Friend and Servant,
C.D. (Charles Dickens)

December, 1843

The total word count for A Christmas Carol is just over 29,000 words making it more of a novella. But there are few books that have had the lasting impact than that one. First published over 165 years ago it has been translated into more than 100 different versions for  film, TV radio, stage plays and musicals. 

A Christmas Carol has a great bad guy in Scrooge, a story full of emotional and meaningful conflict, strong on visuals (ghosts and such), and an enduring redemptive theme—is there any question this story will be popular for another 165+ years?

From a screenwriting perspective, watch the below clip around the 30 second mark and see how many words it takes to communicate part of Scrooge’s character:

Scott W. Smith


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“I’m writing more to a theme rather than to story…if the scene thematically represents what I wanted the picture to say then I feel I’ve been successful…When you discover what you think it’s about—like I would say to you, ‘I think Forrest Gump is about loneliness’ and then you may say, ‘I don’t see that in the movie’ but that’s what it means to me.  Every scene I write is about a guy who’s trying to confront loneliness and not feel like an outsider. Or find a home in a sense…I think a lot of my movies are about loneliness.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Eric Roth 
(Forrest GumpThe Insider, Munich, Ali, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close)
“Conversations with…” interview at USC Film School

Related posts:
Writing from Theme (Tip #20) 
40 Days of Emotions

Scott W. Smith

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