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Archive for March, 2020

“Whenever there is that struggle for power, of who is going to be the leader, that is pure Shakespeare.”
Sam Wanamker (Nicholas Hammond)
Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (Blu-ray extra scene)

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The other day a friend of mine watched Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood for the first time and really enjoyed it. I told him I’d written several blog posts about that movie, and he said to send him some links. When I did a search on my blog I actually discovered some blog posts I’d written with that title back in 2009.

That’s a full ten years before Quentin Tarantino released his Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood title, that I wrote ten blog posts called Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. …. The only difference was the placement of the ellipses. (My Once Upon were kind of a sweeping overview of some of the changes throughout film history.)

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood… (Part 1) 
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood … (Part 2) 
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood … (Part 3) 
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood … (Part 4) 
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood … (Part 5) 
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood … (Part 6) 
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood … (Part 7) 
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood … (Part 8) 
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood … (Part 9) 
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood … (Part 10)

I’m not saying that Tarantino lifted the title from my blog (or even knows it exist), but I did write and publish that title long before his even started writing his script. I don’t recall ever seeing the title Once Upon a Time in Hollywood used before my posts, but it’s possible someone will say that used that title ten years before I did. Or someone else did in 1940-something.

There is a book titled Once Upon a Time in Hollywood  (no ellipsis by Juliette Michaud, but it wasn’t published until 2013.

There’s nothing new under the sun folks.

Here’s a few of the links I sent my friend:

The Unofficial ‘Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood’ Film School
Once Upon a Time … in Van Nuys
Once Upon a Time in Modesto (and the American Graffiti influence on Tarantino) 
‘Once Upon a Time …’ Once Again 
Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood —in 1987 (How Robert Townsend’s ‘Hollywood Shuffle’ Influenced Tarantino
Once Upon a Time … in Burbank

P.S. After seeing Once Upon nine times in the theaters, I now have the Blu-Ray and will see if the movie holds up as well at home.

Scott W. Smith

 

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“I gotta keep breathing. Because tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring.”
Chuck Nolan (Tom Hanks)
Cast Away

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Tom Hanks in Cast Away (who in real life is recovering from the Coronavirus)

On March 1, I flew back to Orlando from Boston after attending a documentary filmmaking workshop and started reading on the plane In the Heart of the Sea; The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex.By the end of the first chapter, author Nataniel Philbrick lays out how the small island of Nantucket in the 1800s was one of the wealthiest places in the country thanks to the whaling industry. But changes came that put an end to a 100 year tradition as demand for whaling oil diminished and eventually died.

It reminded me of my grandfather who worked for more than 30 years at Youngstown Sheet & Tube in Ohio before the steel industry greatly shut down production. Business guru Tom Peters once said, “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance less.” In the past few weeks, we’ve seen a world of change. (From a record stock market high to record unemployement.)

While I heard this week someone in the grocery business say that their business has doubled in the last week, I know more who are like my freelance production friends who have had their work in the past week to 10 days totally disappear. It’s normal to have a shoot here and there be canceled or pushed back, but the fear here is what does the new normal look like.

How long will this Coronavirus shutdown last? And obviously, it’s not just the production world that’s impacted by this. Here in Orlando, the ripple effects of Disney World and Universal Studios being closed financially impacts people working in theme parks, hotels, conventions, restaurants and bars, airlines, etc.

This may seem like a bad time to bring up the concept of an emergency fund, but I’ve found in my own life that hard times are ideal times to hit the reset button. And in case, you don’t feel like reading further, let me point you to Dave Ramsey’s website where tonight (March 27, 2020) he and some of his team will be streaming a free message of hope starting at 8 PM. It’s billed as “Answers to your top questions on money, career and life during this time of uncertainty.”

Ramsey is known for his popular radio program and podcast The Dave Ramsey Show where he gives financial advice and encourages people to get out of debt and create wealth. While he has his share of critics, he also has millions of people who are success stories. I’m one of them.

I was already aware of Ramsey and some of his teachings—yeah, he’s the cut up your credit card guy—when my financial planner gave me his book The Total Money Makeover the year it came out in 2003. I wish I could tell you that I was a quick learner, but some lessons take years to learn. (I’d made plenty of my share of financial mistakes along the way, so I was open to Ramsey’s core teachings.)

And I’m still learning. I was listening to his podcast two days ago on a walk, and I heard that they were giving free access to people for 14 days to their Financial Peace University ($129 after that). These are high-quality videos that walk you through their nine steps of financial freedom. If you’re out of work at the moment with major concerns about paying your bills, watch the first three videos today (about a three-hour investment) and then cancel before your credit card/debt card gets dinged. (Binge watch them all if you’re ambitious.)

Since I’d never gone through a Ramsey class or video series, I signed up yesterday for the free  14-day trial offer and watched those first three messages and here’s a recap. (And it’s important to point out that Ramsey learned these lessons after he was overextended on some real estate dealings and filed for bankruptcy at age 28.)

“You’re never going to win with money as long as you’re paying payments.”
—Dave Ramsey

—80% of people in the US live paycheck to paycheck.
—The average new car payment is over $500.
—Money problems are the number reason for divorce.
—Having a good credit score only means you’re a good borrower.
—There are plenty of well-dressed people, driving nice cars, who are broke.
—Run from debt like a gazelle runs from a cheetah.
—The goal is to have an emergency fund, pay off debt, and build wealth & give.
—How? One step at a time. (It’s like working out. One pound at a time.)
—Baby step one: Set aside $1,000 for an emergency fund.
—Baby step two: Pay off debt with the debt snowball. Sell that car you really can’t afford. Pay off the smallest debt first, regardless of the interest rate. You need small victories and to gain momentum to pay off larger debts. Most people can do this in 24 months if they’re focused. Get a second job if you have to.
—Baby step three: Build up a 3-6 month emergency fund.  This covers all your expenses for 3 to 6 months.  Why? Because emergencies  happen. (The fallout from the Coronavirus is just the latest reminder. And the more unstable your field, the longer you emergency fund should be. I think having an emergency fund is like a superpower that is attainable.)

Some of Ramsey’s steps seem radical. (If you have credit card debt, you shouldn’t see the inside of a restaurant. The paid off house, not the BMW, is the new status symbol.)  But radical steps are often needed. He jokes that you should try it his way and get out of debt— if you don’t like it you can go back to being in debt.

His more advanced steps are saving for your kid’s college, building up your retirement fund, paying off your house, and being at a place where you can live and give like no one else.

And if you’re looking for a job, Dave Ramsey is hiring, and they’re located in Nashville/Franklin, TN—one of my favorite parts of the country. Amazon is looking for 100,000 full and part time people to hire to meet their increased demand. The University of Texas in Austin just posted a job for a multimedia producer.(A lot of schools are going to be looking for multimedia producers.)

Working in any creative field is always an uphill and competitive battle.  And if you live in New York or L.A. it’s extra hard because the cost of living in so high.  I feel for you. And if I can offer any solace, it’s that I’ve been there. There will be brighter days.

In 1984, I graduated from film school in Los Angeles and worked as a photographer for a couple of years before landing a job as a 16mm camera operator and editor in 1987. My first big shoot was going to Aspen, Colorado to shoot footage of a national downhill ski competition. I was going on the Warner Bros, Disney, and Paramount studio lots. I was 26 years old and living the dream.

On October 19, 1987 the stock market crashed. Long story short, in December ‘87 I moved back to Florida. Thought I’d get on the ground floor of what was called “Hollywood East.” That transition didn’t go well and though I shot a few weddings and bar mitzvah’s, my main source of income was delivering Domino’s Pizza. (Note: Domino’s Pizza and many food delivery places are also looking for drivers.) Remembering my grandfather worked in a steel mill for 30 years gave me a little perspective on my “hard times.”

I did that for a few months and was soon working back in production. The silver lining there was Domino’s did a star search and I sent in an old acting headshot and was one of eight people chosen to fly to Ann Arbor, Michigan to meet the Domino’s founder Tom Monaghan, and shoot a Domino’s Pizza commercial.  All those acting workshops in L.A. finally paid off with a gig that paid. Thanks Mr. Monaghan.

Fast forward to shortly after September 11, 2001. I left a group I’d been producing and directing videos and a radio show for over a decade to go out on my own. There was a group in Chicago that wanted to hire me as a producer on their TV program as soon as a hiring freeze was lifted, but could offer me steady freelance work. One of my production friends told me, “You know, the middle of a recession isn’t the best time to hang out your shingle.”

The first few months were incredibly busy and I lined up some other ongoing projects. I even did a video shoots in London and Berlin. Living the dream 2.0.

Long story short, that job in Chicago never panned out as they stopped the show they were producing altogether (meaning no more freelance work from them).

For cash flow, I took a sales job that I wasn’t particularly good at. But I did learn about sales, and I met a fellow named Marc Reifenrath who was great at sales and had an up and coming  (now well-established) web marketing and design company named Spinutech. Marc threw some production work my way and before I knew it I was off to shoots in Russia, Jamaica, and South Africa. Meeting Marc was the beginning of one of the most fruitful and fun decades of my career. And it all started taking a three month non-production job I needed for cashflow.

Marc was also the person that introduced me to blogging. That led to this Screenwriting from Iowa blog—which led to winning my first Emmy. That blog that I started in 2008 is finally becoming a book in 2020. Step by step.

And a third time of personal transition followed a health bump in the road in 2014 that put and end to being out on my own. In 2015, I landed a job as a multimedia producer at a college doing mostly educational videos. There’s perhaps no such thing as job security in production, but working in the online educational world is currently a hot field, as the trend for all schools at all levels to be at least online friendly is probably a new reality.

I hope something in this post encourages you in this time of transition. If you’re in high school, let this be a lesson to avoid any student loans you can. If you’re a new or recent college graduate, there will be new opportunities that flow out of this current situations as companies look for cheaper ways of doing things.

And if you’re further along in your career and facing a bleak future, do what you can to stay positive and know sometimes you just have to do what you have to do to pay the bills.

Watch that Ramsey free seminar tonight because it’s about career as well as financial advice. Ramsey’s hope is rooted in his Christian faith, which may not be your thing, but listen to what screenwriter Brian Koppelman (Billions, Rounders) had to say about Ramsey when he had him on his podcast:

“I am a Jewish, atheist, screenwriter, New York liberal and you’re like one of my three favorite things to listen to. Because at the core, it’s clear how much you care about people. … What you’re saying to people, especially these young people listening, is develop a habit of thinking about your future and protecting yourself for your future. And take these steps that will help you be able to not make the mistakes that so many of us made along the way.” 
—Brian Koppelman
The Moment with Brian Koppelman, “Best of: Dave Ramsey”

There’s an old saying that we buy things we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people who don’t care. This is a good time to reconsider how we’re living our lives.

P.S. The only movie poster I own is from the 2003 movie Seabiscuit.

That Great Depression-era story of three broken people (and one broken horse) coming together to mend each other touched me during one of the harder transitions of my life.

“You don’t just throw a whole life away just because it’s banged up a little.”
—Tom Smith (Chris Cooper)
Seabiscuit’s trainer

“This is not a movie about victory, but about struggle.”
Seabiscuit screenwriter/director Gary Ross,

And to come full circle, Cast Away (2000) is also a movie not about victory, but struggle.

Related post:
Revisiting Seabiscuit in 2008 (With a photo of the poster in my then office)

Scott W. Smith  

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No smart person ever went into the theatre to get rich. Writing for TV you can make a lot of money – a job as a writer on a big hit show, those people get paid a lot of money. But then you belong in L.A. But anyone who said, ‘I want to be a playwright and be rich like Neil Simon,’ that would be an idiot. A stupid person. I think Neil Simon is probably more surprised at his success than anyone.

When we made the movie of Frankie and Johnny, Garry Marshall, who directed it, had three of the top 10-rated shows on TV, on at the same year, and he said, ‘You had my career.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘All I wanted was to be a playwright in New York. Then we started having kids, and suddenly I had three kids. I said, I have to go to Hollywood and get a job.’ And at the end of his life, he wrote three or four plays. He built a theatre in the Toluca Lake area. They renamed it the Garry Marshall [Theatre]. It was called the Falcon, I think. They opened it with Master Class. I was very flattered. But he said, ‘I really wanted your career, to be on Broadway.’ And then he brought a play to New York, called – the worst title – Wrong Turn at Lungfish Cove. That’s really a bad … It had George C. Scott in it – I think the greatest American actor of my lifetime. It wasn’t very good, but Garry fulfilled [his dream], he got to do it. Better late than never. I believe that.”
—Tony winning playwright Terrence McNally (1938-2020)
Austin Chronicle 

Related posts:
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (From a playwright turned screenwriter)
‘Who said art had to cost money?’–Francis Ford Coppola
Garry Marshall (1934-2016) 

Scott W. Smith

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My love of travel is rooted in not traveling. I didn’t really start traveling until I was 21-years-old.  (And it light of the Coronavirus, this post is to encourage you that better days are coming.  A time when we’ll be able again to travel behind our front door.)

When I graduated from high school in Florida, I’d only been to three states in my life—if you include the Atlanta airport on the way to visit my grandmother in Dayton, Ohio. My lack of travel opportunities caused me in my late teens to make one of my goals that I wanted to visit all fifty states in the U.S. by the time I was fifty.

I made it with a few years to spare, and I was also able to backpack around Europe and do video shoots in South America and South Africa all before I turned 50. I thought I was doing pretty well until my wife began following Kara and Nate on YouTube a couple of years ago.  This married couple from Tennessee had an ambitious goal to take a year off starting in 2016 “before life got serious” and travel. That turned into a goal to visit 100 counties by 2020.

They not only hit their 100th country last month (just before the Coronavirus changed global travel for a while), they videotaped their adventures and built a very profitable following via YouTube. It was like a honeymoon that just kept going and turned into a dream job. (Here’s a sample of their work from a trip they took to Peru,  followed by the extended video they made after completing their goal that gives insights into their journey and how they built a YouTube following of 1 million subscribers.)

I was working on my master’s degree in 2017-2018, which occupied most of my nights after work. From time to time, my wife would show me some of her favorite trips that Kara and Nate took. Having worked in production since graduating from film school back in 1984, I marveled at how they were able to turn around engaging videos so quickly.

They weren’t as polished and produced as Anthony Bourdain’s travel around the world videos, but they captured something special. And they did it as a two-person team which amazed me. Nate took the lead shooting (including drone and underwater shooting), and Kara edited the programs. They both shared hosting the videos as well.

Nate also brought some business expertise to the table, and they were open at sharing  how much money they were making. I became enthralled by what they were doing and decided to breakdown what I think has made them successful.

  1. Focused — They had a clear goal. At first, it was to travel a year, and that turned into a goal of traveling to 100 countries.
  2. Adventurous — Part of traveling globally is embracing not always knowing what’s around the corner. Delayed flight plans, inadequate housing, and bad food may not be fun, but it’s the tradeoff for the really cool experiences. And the bad parts often make the best videos.
  3. Likable—Likability is a vital part of getting hired. People want to like someone there going to be spending a lot of time with. Likability is essential for getting a YouTube following. And not everyone is going to like you, so get used to that as best you can.
  4. Talented — Nate and Kara are not only the co-hosts of there videos, but the tour guys, the camera operators, the post-production team, and the business side as well.  That’s a lot of hats to wear, and you can only do that with a lot of talent. I don’t believe either has a production background. Kara shot and edited a wedding video for a friend and is basically self-taught. (Not sure it that goes under talent, or #5 hardworking.)
  5. Hardworking—If you’ve every had the equivalent of visiting Disney World in the daytime and even through you’re exhausted from a fun day you have to turn around and edit a video that night. They’ve done that kind of thing over and over again for over 500 videos. I’m sure some of their videos took longer to edit, but the turn around time is usually fast.
  6. Smart —They’re college graduates and have to juggle a lot of behind the scene planning, scheduling, and financing behind the scenes.
  7. Savvy—You can be smart without being savvy. You can be smart and lucky. But you have to be smart and savvy to build on what started as an adventure to do until their money ran out. (If I recall correctly, they started with a savings of $25,000.) But you have to make a series of savvy choices to keep that ball in the air for years. To not just ration your nest egg, but to grow it and multiply it greatly.
  8. Ambitious—It’s one thing to have an extended honeymoon, it’s another thing to make travel a business. And you can have a business thrive without having ambition. They’ve tried different things to connect with their audience, and learned what does and doesn’t work. I don’t know what their current cashflow is like, but I know at one point they were generating $30,000 a month. Granted that’s not Kim Kardashian money, but it’s enough for those who thought they were crazy of them to give up their dreams, to now say they’d be crazy to stop.
  9. Young—When they started this, they were both in their mid-20s (I believe) , and I think that’s a great age for YouTubers. They have an exuberance to them that is often lacking in older people who can have a little bit of “been there done that” attitude.  You can connect with teenagers and college kids who dream of living that adventure, people their age who see them as their friends, and a wide variety of older folks who, for various reasons, love to see what they’re going to see and do next.
  10. Variety—Twenty years ago, Rick Steves was one of the best sources of travel information, and his advice was crucial to my wife and I traveling throughout Europe in 1999.. (And the mention of his name alone got us out of a jam in Vienna.) But I clearly remember one morning in Germany when one of the pensions we were staying at had the majority of  people staring at their Rick Steves guide book.  We were all taking different versions of the same trip. Fast forward 20 years, and most people have seen their share of footage shot at German Beer gardens, countless museums, and must see sights (“Look kids, the Eiffel Tower.”). Kara and Nate have bounced around the world and showed many unlikely places where you go, “How did I not know that place existed?” For instance, there was that time they landed on the world’s shortest commercial runway on the island of Saba:

I have two primary travel goals on my bucket list. One is to literally fly around the world making various stops, including Australia (so I can visit my sixth continent), and then make a trip to Antarctica for the seven and final continent. Of course, Kara and Nate just pulled off visiting Antarctica.)

When people asked me how I hit two of my major travel goals I tell them that both goals were more than 20 years in the making. I wanted to do them while I was in good health because I’d heard that one of the main regrets of older people toward the end of their lives is they wished they’d taken more risks. As you get older, it’s natural to have more physical limitations and more concerns about your safety.

I always said that if the world went to “hell in a handbag”—are we there yet?— that I didn’t want to regret not taking more risks. Global travel—and the global economy— may be funky for the next year or two. Or five or ten. We don’t know yet what will be the fallout from the Coronavirus that’s currently impacting the world in significant ways.

But congrats to Kara and Nate on their crazy and venture and thanks for sharing it with the world.

P.S. One of the ways Kara and Nate have generated income is doing a tutorial called How to Edit a BlogIt’s $97 and even though I’ve been editing for longer than Kara has been alive, I wanted to support them—and also learn (and unlearn) some things from her. Since I sometimes work on logging videos for two weeks before I even start editing, I wanted to see how she edited an entire video in a few hours. Here’s the one thing I learned that made the course worth it for me. She edits chronologically. Simple, right? They start filming in the day and stop. And then she’s goes through the footage in the order that they shot it. Huge time saver. There is no logging footage in that system. It’s turn and burn. Find the best shots, sound bites, moments and move on. I believe Aaron Sorkin says something to the effect that most of his movies move forward chronologically. (Not a lot of cuts back and forth in the story.) And movies are rarely shot in chronological order because it does not maximize the shooting schedule. But it happens. Peter Weir chose to shoot  Dead Poets Society in chronological order so his young actors could experience the arc of the story.

Congrats to Nate and Kara on completing their 100 countries and visiting seven continents. It’ll be interesting to see what they do next in a post-Cornavirus world. And remember, the word for the day is chronological.

Scott W. Smith 

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“Overnight, we went from an industry that makes $15 billion a year — $11 billion in ticket sales and $4 billion in concessions — to one that is not going to make a penny for three or four months,”
—John Fithian, president and CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO).
Variety, March 21, 2020

Two weekends ago,  I was in Mt. Dora, Florida (just outside of Orlando) and I heard  that a group had plans in nearby Eustis to build the largest drive-in theater in the world. My first thought was it was a joke. But it wasn’t, and now the idea seems at least plausible.

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The proposed Lighthouse 5. — a five theater drive-in

Two weeks ago life was relatively normal in the United States as the Coronavirus was spreading around the world. Now restaurants and bars are closed. Both the NBA and MLB has suspended their seasons. Both New York and California on lock down as efforts are made to stop the spread of this pandemic. So, of course, movie theaters in the entire country are mostly closed. (Deadline reported that drive-ins did the most business.)

Since this is a screenwriting/filmmaking blog the question is not when when movie theaters open, but will they open? First there’s the billion dollar of box office revenue already lost, and the billions they will continue to lose as it appears that this virus will impact the world for months rather than days or weeks.

Movie theaters were already on shaky ground before this unprecedented in my lifetime occurred. Back in 1952, when the polio epidemic closed movie theaters,  going to a movie in a theater was still a thing. Not only was that long before the internet, it was a time when most people didn’t even have televisions.

Today video games are a bigger business than the movie industry, the internet (Facebook, YouTube, googling) occupy plenty of people’s free time, and cheap streaming services (Amazon, Netflix, Disney+, etc.) allow people to watch movies and TV shows on large screen TVs in their home.

Regardless of how this virus plays out, any business that’s dependent on large indoor crowds is going to have to rethink their business plan.  How long can concert promoters, sporting teams, and convention planners stay in business without business? I take a middle ground approach between hysteria (the sky is falling) and those that think this is overblown. It will forever change the way we do somethings. At least we have history on our side that we can bounce back.

But people have already been laid off, business are closing, and bankruptcies will follow. If the country heads into a recession, Florida can face a depression because it’s so dependent on tourism.  And like The Great Depression, some business will thrive. I’m sure Amazon, Walmart and most grocery stores have seen a boost in business. Domino’s pizza’s stock has gone up in this crisis and they’ve announcement that are hiring 10,000 people.  A FedEx guy told me Saturday that it was busier than Christmas for them.

But what’s going to happen to movie theaters? For those wondering how they’re going to pay their mortgage or rent, that question isn’t even on their radar?

“When this crisis passes, the need for collective human engagement, the need to live and love and laugh and cry together, will be more powerful than ever.”
—Director Chris Nolan

I’ve been a regular movie attender ever since I got my driver’s license at age 16. But I know 16-year-olds today who are not only in no hurry to get a driver’s license, but rarely got to movie theaters.

Are drive in movie theaters going to make a comeback. I wouldn’t bet my money it will. I haven’t been to a drive-in theater in 20 or 30 years. Occasionally, when I drive by one now and then I get nostalgic. But I don’t see it ever being a regular part of my life again.

As a novelty, the theater in Eustis could work. They work a deal out to get the land discounted with the promise that it will be good for the town’s economy. In Florida, you can operate a drive-in year around. It’s not far from Disney World. I could see it work as a glorified RV park, with shopping and restaurants, and  a safe and fun place for people to hangout. And, of course, to watch a movie in the comfort of their own car.

But it’s not going to be the future of theatrical distribution. My hope is that when the dust settles from this virus—and the economic fallout—that there is a still a thing as a wide theatrical distribution.

P.S. Back in the early ’80s, I lived in an apartment complex just a couple of blocks from the Pickwick Drive-In theater in Burbank, California. It was famous for being where the shot part of Greece. It was torn down in 1989. That may have been the last drive-in theater where I watched a movie. According to this website there are still over 300 operating drive-ins in the United States.

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Scott W. Smith 

 

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Since this is a blog on screenwriting and filmmaking, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the coronavirus in my posts. But it looks like it’s going to be with us a while—and potentially alter our lives into a new normal—so I’m going to roll with it as best I can.

If you have some extended time off from your regular job—or worse, were laid off— and want to finally tackle writing that play or screenplay you always dreamed about, here’s some good advice that worked for a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright (You Can’t Take It With You) and screenwriter (A Star Is Born—the 1934 version with Judy Garland):

“I do not believe that play-writing can be taught any more than acting can be taught, and I am quite certain that I did not consciously think of play-writing seriously in relation to myself, for all during that time it never occurred to me to read a book on how plays are written. I simply read the plays themselves, I read the published version of plays that I had seen and then plays that I had never seen, sitting there day after day like a bacteriologist trying to isolate a strange germ under the beam of a new more powerful microscope. . . . I began to perceive and place proper perspective the distinction between plot and character, the difference between tricks of the trade and honest craftsmanship, and though I was hardly aware of it, I began to discern the gradual steps by which a play is built and, in the really good plays, the wonderful economy with which each salient point is made and not a moment on the stage is wasted.”
—Moss Hart
Act One, page 125

P.S. And if you’ve bought every other book on screenwriting, attended screenwriting workshops, taken college writing classes, listened to a zillion podcasts on screenwriting, and even written a couple of screenplays—Hart’s advice is one way to hit the reset button. Maybe start with King Lear—since it’s believed Shakespeare wrote that while quarantined from the plague of 1606. It’s actually possible he wrote Macbeth and two or three additional plays during that time.

Scott W. Smith

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“The first Mickey Mouse was made by twelve people.”
Walt Disney
(It is debated whether Disney or Ub Iwerks drew the first Mickey)

“According to market research, Mickey Mouse has a 97% name recognition in the United States, which is even higher than Santa Claus.”
Elizabeth Segran
Fast Company article 4.01.19

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“The original Mickey was rattier and leaner. He also had clawed feet.”        — Garry Apger

As original a thinker as Walt Disney was, he didn’t create things out of thin air. And the creation of Mickey Mouse was no exception. The inception was probably somewhere between Aesop’s Fables (that Disney enjoyed reading)  that often featured mice and real life mice that were around the Hyperion Studios where Disney and his team created their short animations, and  drawings of a character named Johnny Mouse drawn by Clifton Meek.

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Johnny Mouse by Clifton Meek

Looking for a character to animate, Walt drew a picture of a mouse. With Disney’s team of artist, that mouse would evolve into the character Mickey Mouse and first appear in the 1928 short Plane Crazy.

It’s impossible to watch Plane Crazy today and not see that first iteration of Mickey as devious —after all, he does try to scare Minnie into giving him a kiss. She not only refuses but jumps out of the plane that Mickey is piloting. Spoiler alert;  Fortunately, Minnie does have a parachute and lands safely.

Mickey’s second film Barn Dance was his first film that showed that Disney and annimator Ub Iwerks had hit something special as it played in more theaters.

Over the years, both Mickey’s movement—and morals—improved, and he  found a wide audience. Mickey Mouse offered cheap escapist entertainment to audiences that had just experienced the Wall Street crash of 1929, and the start of The Great Depression.) By 1930, Mickey was getting 30,000 fan mail letters a month.  But his relationship with Minnie was still complicated.

Disney did not hide his admiration for Charlie Chaplin, calling him “the greatest of them all.” In Neal Gabler’s book Walt Disney, he quotes animator Ward Kimball as saying, “Walt kept the feeling of this little droll kind of pathetic little character who was always being picked on. But cleverly coming out on top anyway.”

“We wanted something appealing, and we thought of a tiny bit of a mouse that would have something of the wistfulness of Chaplin—a little fellow trying to do the best he could.”
Walt Disney

Another influence on Mickey Mouse was the actor Douglas Fairbanks, who was known for his action movies The Thief of Bagdad, Robin Hood, and The Mark of Zorro. Disney animator Ub Iwerks  said of Fairbanks, He was the superhero of his day, always winning, gallant and swashbuckling.”

Iwerks was the one who took Disney ‘s early rough drawings of Mickey and brought him to life in the early films. Though Iwerks and Disney had worked together since their Kansas City days, and on Silly Symphonies  together, the two had a falling out and parted ways in 1930.

But Disney and Iwerks—with a little Chaplin and Fairbanks—created one of the great and most loved characters in film history.  One whose popularity that moved from silent films to talkies,  and as a brand has moved all the way into the current digital era—almost 100 years after his first film.

But every mouse has his day, and as a movie star Mickey seemed to be peak somewhere in the late—1930s. In 1935 there were 500 million paid admissions to see a Mickey Mouse movie.  (To put that in perspective, Gone with the Wind has sold more tickets than any single movie—202,286,100 .) Granted the releases over ten movies that year, but 500 million admissions is a big number. At Mickey is the character that kicked off the whole merchandising thing in Hollywood, and Walt ended up making more on shirts, dolls, toys, etc. than on Mickey movies.

Gabler points out that Mickey was the victim of his own success. As animation got more realistic, Mickey had an identity crisis. Was he more mischievous like Chaplin, or more a hero like Fairbanks? Was he man, boy, or animal? His body movement changed, as did his hands and feet change in this new style of animation. He became nicer—and more boring.  Then, like all stars sooner or later, he got upstaged by a rising star—the wacky, brash Donald Duck.

If you have Disney+ you can see in high quality how sound, color, and animation techniques transformed both Mickey Mouse and Disney Studios over the years.

Related links:
Stealing for Screenwriters (According to Paul Schrader)
Stealing from Shakespeare
Fueling Your Imagination (Jarmusch Style) “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination.”
Creating Under the Influence “Oh, I’ve stolen from the best. I mean I’ve stolen from Bergman. I’ve stolen from Groucho, I’ve stolen from Chaplin, I’ve stolen from Keaton, from Martha Graham, from Fellini. I mean I’m a shameless thief.”Woody Allen
Movie Cloning (Part 2) “I think it’s fine for young [filmmakers] to out and out rip off people who come before them because you always make it your own.” Francis Ford Coppola

P.S. I had this photo taken with Mickey about five years ago when I did a shoot at Walt Disney World. Mickey has aged better than most.

Screen Shot 2020-03-15 at 7.03.47 AM

Scott W. Smith 

 

 

 

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