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Well she was an American girl
Raised on promises
She couldn’t help thinkin’ that there
Was a little more to life
Tom Petty/ American Girl

You’ll probably never watch a double feature one night of Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) and Silence of the Lambs (1991), but one thing that connects those movies together is the Tom Petty song American Girl.

And for good measure here’s Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers playing the song during the NFL Super Bowl half-time show in 2008.

Scott W. Smith

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“The most powerful and essential documentary on race, class, and gender, in America in years.”
Anne Helen Petersen
BuzzFeed article on O.J.: Made in America

“The Juice is loose” was a phrase used back in O.J. Simpson’s pro football days when the running back would break into the open field on the way to another touchdown. It’s a phrase you’ll undoubtedly hear and read a lot in the coming days since Simpson was freed from prison in the middle of the night.

He’s been incarcerated since 2008 and has expressed a desire to return to the state of Florida. If he does, he could just end up another Florida Man (@_FloridaMan).

Screen Shot 2017-10-01 at 6.33.59 AM.png

But because this is a screenwriting/filmmaking centered blog—this is a good time to spotlight the ESPN produced documentary O.J.: Made in America, a film by Ezra Edelman. The film won an Academy Award Award for Best Documentary Film earlier this year.

There’s at least a final chapter to be written on the life of O.J. Simpson. Various reports have said Simpson led a Bible study in prison and even has hope of becoming an evangelist.

“If you’re really reformed and rehabilitated, if you’re really remorseful, if you’re really a born-again Christian, then let’s move this discussion forward. Admit your sins.”
Chris Darden, former prosecutor in O.J. Simpson murder trial
Today, June 17, 2017

Way back in 1989 Chuck Swindoll wrote a book called Living Above the Level of Mediocrity in which  he dedicated one of the chapters  to retelling the story of a man who’d overcome poverty, Rickets, and gang life to become a “fine and refined gentleman…[who] lives in the exclusive Brentwood district of Los Angeles, drives a luxurious car, and has his elegant office in an elite bank building. He is now a busy executive with his own production company. ” That man was O.J. Simpson.

In the movie The Natural when asked “what happened?” the baseball player Roy Hobbs says, “Life didn’t turn out like I expected.”  To that I’m sure Simpson–the former football great, Hollywood celebrity— would say “Amen.” We’ll see if Simpson’s last chapter—some how, some way—is a redemptive one.

Related posts:
The People v. O.J. Simpson
An Earthquake of Interests

Scott W. Smith

 

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Then smokestacks reachin’ like the arms of God
Into a beautiful sky of soot and clay
Bruce Springsteen/Youngstown

Do you have an idea bank? A file or notebook full of articles and ideas that you’d like to explore and develop further? I have several notebooks and one of them I stumbled upon yesterday happens to tie in directly with the last couple posts on Youngstown, Ohio.

It was an article on a guy named Reece.  He’s an Ohio legend. He rushed for over 4,000 yards and scored 52 touchdowns playing high school football. His senior year he was named Ohio’s Mr. Football and USA Today’s national offensive player of the year.

He received a scholarship to Ohio St. University where he helped the team to an undefeated season and scored the winning touchdown in a national championship game to give Ohio State its first title in 35 years.

Reece gave a little pride to a part of the Rust Belt that has struggled for years. According to Nancy Armour in an AP article back in ’06 Reece, “grew up in gritty Youngstown, in a neighborhood on the hard and unforgiving south side. The steel mills and factories that once provided jobs for generations of families are long gone, and little good has replaced them.”

The area sounded like a lot of inner cities in the United States. By the time Reece graduated from high school he had already been to 10 funerals of his classmates. There are reports that he avoid the gangs, didn’t go to parties, and didn’t drink or do drugs. He had a gift and he was protecting it from the elements of the streets.

But Reece had no sooner finished celebrating being part of a national championship team when he fell off the mountaintop. Reece dreamed of playing in the NFL and at one time it looked like a sure bet, but as of this writing he sits in a prison in Ohio for a string of crimes.

It’s a familiar story. From King David, to Macbeth, to Bernie Madoff the story looks the same. The rise and fall of the powerful never fails to grab our imaginations.

If the name Reece doesn’t ring a bell maybe his given name does—Maurice Clarett.

The best thing about Clarett’s story is he’s still young.  He’s working on his college degree in prison. He’s only 26 so the story hasn’t ended yet. I’m pulling for him because I love stories of redemption. When I look at my favorite films the majority have redemptive themes.

In fact, Clarett is imprisoned in Toledo, Ohio just about 100 miles away from the Mansfield, Ohio prison used in the movie The Shawshank Redemption. “Hope is a dangerous thing.”

And I also have a sentimental tie-in to Clarett in that my mom and dad met at Ohio State, and I have an uncle who played football there back in the day. I grew up watching Woody Hayes coached teams. And I have a soft spot in my heart for Youngstown because it’s where my father grew-up.

I want to see some films set in Youngstown.  From the historic rise of the steel mills to their bitter closing, to the rebuilding process and the thriving arts community, there are stories to be told from there. Any town that’s lived through an unemployment rate of almost 25% has learned lessons that could help the rest of America at this time.

Any town that has had the influence of English, German, Irish, Scottish, Welch, Polish, Italian, Hungarians, etc. has to have some gripping stories. I’ve read that Youngstown was called the “melting pot that never melted,” and that it was common for steel mills to be divided into ethnic groups. There are stories to tell.

Youngstown is a fascinating town that at one time or another was known for pawnshops, a mafia presence, and a breeding ground for some of the greatest coaches in college football. (Florida’s Urban Myers, Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, and OSU’s Jim Tressel are just a few from in and around the area.)  It’s an area surrounded by beautiful gentle rolling hills that at one time in the 90s was called the “murder capital of America” with the highest per capita rate in the country.

Conflict is one of the main ingredients of drama and Youngstown is no stranger to conflict.

My grandfather earned a Zippo lighter for spending 30 years working at Youngstown Sheet and Tube before he died of a heart attack. I’m sure there are a lot of Zippo lighters floating around Youngstown. What I’ve never seen is a movie that captures that era.

So the time is ripe for a son of a son of a steelworker (or a daughter) to rise up and write some screenplays and make some documentaries on the area. Watch Gran Tornio (about Michigan in transition) and Country (about the farm crisis here in Iowa in the 80s) and start adding notes into your idea bank.

That’s what regional screenwriting is all about and there is still some magic to tap into down by Yellow Creek…there in Youngstown.

Clarett’s a WordPress blogger whose account from prison is called The Mind of Maurice Clarett (though it’s been a few months since his last post).  Reece, I hope you write your own story and that it has a happy ending.

Scott W. Smith

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“Most screenwriters are unemployed, chronically unemployed.”
Screenwriter Tom Lazarus (Stigmata)
Secrets of Film Writing

“It’s either very lucrative and exciting, or nothing.”
Screenwriter Anthony Peckham (Invictus) on screenwriting

(Note: Though this post is now several years old it continues to get solid hits because it’s such a basic question. I’ve chosen not to update the NFL references because that’s a continually moving target. Just exchange the names for the current hot players of whatever year you’re reading this post.)

When people think of how much professional football players make they tend to focus on the big numbers. Brett Favre’s $20 million dollar one year contract with the Minnesota Vikings. Payton Manning’s $99.2 million seven year contract with the Indianapolis Colts. But the truth is most rookies in the NFL earn around $300,000 per year. Deduct taxes, agent fees, a down payment on a house, and an expensive sports car or two and there’s not that much left. (Relatively speaking, of course.)

Then factor in that most pro football careers last less than four years (NFL=Not For Long) and you can see why the majority of players who play in the NFL really have under a million dollars to their name when they retire.  And when you factor in a history of NFL players making bad investment decisions it’s not hard to understand why so many end up filing for bankruptcy when their short careers are over.

Often when people think of Hollywood writers they tend to once again think of the multi-million dollar deals. (Like Basic Instinct banking Joe Eszterhas $3 million—back in the early 90s.) But the truth is most writers (factoring both union and non-union) won’t make any money this year from their writings. (According to the Writer’s Guide of America-West (WGAW) recent report, of the 8,129 union members in 2007 3,775 were unemployed.) Depending on different sources working WGAw members seem to average between $40,000-$110,000. per year. (Key word there is “working” WGAw members.) Factor in the cost of living where most writers live (New York & L.A.) and  that’s probably about the earning power of (just a wild guess) $20,000-65,000. in much of the country.

On the film side a good rule of thumb is scripts can make up between 2-5% of the total budget. So on a $50 million dollar film that could be as much as $2.5 million.(The highest paid spec script to date I believe  is $5 million to M. Night Shyamalan for Unbreakable, though that may have included his directing fee.)  But it also means on a $200,000 indie film could mean the screenwriter was paid $4,000. (And independent films make up the majority of the 500 or so feature films made per year. ) On the TV side writers can be paid per script or as a staff writer. The highest paid are the ones who create a hit network show and stay on as producer/writers. If that show stays on the air for five years and goes into syndication then they can afford to buy a small tropical island.  A good gig if you can land it, but that doesn’t describe most TV writers.

“On balance, television writers today are the highest-paid practitioners of the literary profession in history. But mark the phrase on balance. If you can sell two one-hour scripts per year, which is a pretty good average for a freelance writer, that’s about $40,000 per year, before taxes. That figure is comparable to or less than the yearly average of elementary school teachers and considerably less than plumbers. The majority of working writers fall into this financial category. It’s only when you get the top 5 to 10 percent that you find writers and hyphenates who routinely earn six figures a year or more.”
J. Michael Stracznski, writer/producer
(Babylon 5, Changeling)
The Complete Book of Screenwriting

Granted that book was published in 1996 (and I think the minimum range for a 90 minute or less story & teleplay these days is around $30,000.*) but in a world of reality TV programing there is less scripted work being produced. (I know there are a lot fewer soap operas being produced than in 1996.)

“In 24 hours, NBC has just three hours of dramas and comedies. And, on some nights those make way for Dateline or Deal No Deal.”
Charles B. Solcum
Written By, August/September 2009
page 19

I have a writer friend with network credits in L.A. who was recently offered a job on a cable TV program that would pay her just a little more than her unemployment benefits. When you live in a land where rent is $1,500-3000. per month these are trying times. One more reason to live outside L.A., right? (Heck, for $3,000. I think you can still pick up a house in Detroit.)

Screenwriter John August recently wrote an excellent post What’s wrong with the business where he addressed some of these issues. I’ve quoted from that article before, but this is worth repeating because the industry is changing and the young, creative people coming up are going to embrace the changes;

“To become one of those inventors of industry, you need to surround yourself with similarly ambitious people. Film school is a good choice, but so is living and working in the right neighborhood in Silverlake or Brooklyn or Austin — or more likely, a place I wouldn’t even realize is a hotbed.”
Screenwriter John August
(Big Fish, Corpse Bride)

Could that hotbed be a place like Des Moines, Iowa? Steven Spielberg thinks so. He told Katie Couric on the NBC Today Show back in 1999, “I think that the Internet is going to effect the most profound change on the entertainment industries combined. And we’re all gonna be tuning into the most popular Internet show in the world, which will be coming from some place in Des Moines.”

Wait a minute, didn’t John August go to Drake University in Des Moines? That Spielberg is a genius, you know? And didn’t Diablo Cody go to school in Iowa City? If John August and Diablo Cody ever move back to Iowa then you know that this blog will at least be assured a small footnote in the history of screenwriting.

I wouldn’t bet on that anytime soon, but I would bet that within ten years places now known more for football like Minnesota & Indianapolis (as well as Detroit, Austin, Atlanta, Memphis…and, of course, Cedar Falls) will see writers and filmmakers rise up (and stay put) as they embrace the digital revolution and the opportunities it brings.

Related Post: Investing in Screenwriting. (I have a quote in there by Max Adams who explains how a $500,000. feature script option can really translate to a mere $3,500. per year for the writer who worked on that script.)

* To see current Writers Guild of America’s Theatrical and Television Basic Agreement visit the WGA-West website.

Update 12/09: Since this is a popular post as far as views I will update it from time to time and welcome your input on correcting any numbers. While reading over the WGAw report I made another connection between screenwriting & the NFL. On the film side there were 1,553 male writers employed in the last year of the report. That’s about 150 less writers than players in the NFL any given year. If you’re a female writer it just gets harder as they make up just 24% of all members in the guild. I don’t write these stats to discourage you but to help you know how solid your writing has to be to make a living doing this. And to also encourage you to keep your eyes open for alternative ways to earn a living in film, TV, and the Internet.

Update 3/12/10: Just read on Scott Myers’ blog Go Into The Story that the average production worker salary in the motion picture and tv industry is $74,400 a year.

Update 5/14/10: Residuals are another way film and TV writers get paid. I once worked with an actress who had worked on a popular TV show back in the day who told me she made $40,000 a year in residuals. A nice base. Check out the post Question: Do screenwriters get a percentage on the back end? by Scott Myers.

Update 11/08/10: Interesting article about football player (Keith Fitzhugh) who turns down NFL offer to keep his train conductor job.

Update 1/15/11:  “Let’s talk money, because no one ever does. A top tier screenplay deal these days might be for a million dollars or more. Most are far, far less, but let’s work with those crazy high numbers, in fact let’s say 2 million dollars, though nobody is paying that any more. Wow that’s a lot of money. But consider. With a writing partner, that gets cut down to $1,000,000., and after taxes, lawyers, agents, managers, and the WGA, let’s hope you get to keep $400,000.

That’s still a truckload of money, life changing, but they don’t give you that all at once. It might take six months to a year just to get the contract done, and the deal is contingent on the film going into production, and if it does that might take a year or three or five, and also the WGA has to grant full credit at the end of it all, which often doesn’t happen. But let’s say it all goes well, which means the ‘highest paid screenwriter in history’ is actually taking home around $200,000. a year, at least on that one deal. Which is good money, real good money, more than I ever imagined making, and let me tell you I do own a dream home in the hills … but it’s not in the fly-a-Learjet-to-your-own-private-island-in-the-Caribbean category.”
Screenwriter Terry Rossio (Shrek & Pirates of the Caribbean)
Interview with John Robert Marlow 

Update 2/11/11 “For every writer I know that lives high on the hog I know twenty who buy their bacon at Costco.”
Josh Friedman (War of the Worlds)

And this from the book Power Screenwriting:
“The truth is, the odds of writing and selling a screenplay are probably just as great as winning the state lottery or the next Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes. Yet, with the emphasis directed towards the big bucks sale, the aspiring screenwriter may be deprived of one of the greatest transformational processes known to man: spinning a well-told story.”
Michael Chase Walker

Update 3/24/11: “Most writers never sell scripts. Why should you be any different?”
Christopher Lockhart who is the Story Editor for WME
From the post The Right Stuff on his blog THE INSIDE PITCH.  

Update 5/29/11: This is the WGA’s current minimum basic agreement (MBA) for a screenplay purchase:
Between $500,000 & $1.2 million budget: $42,930
Between $1.2 million and $5 million: $42,930
Between $5 million or more: $87,879

Keep in mind those are union numbers—and minimun numbers at that. (Top writers making much, much more than scale.) But if a non-union company buys your script expect less. If you wrote the screenplay with another writer cut those numbers in half, and of course, deduct for taxes, lawyers, agents, etc.

Update 7/6/11: This post is by far the most viewed post of all time on this blog and you may enjoy this post today from Scott Myers on his blog Go Into The Story: Reader Question: How much does a top screenwriter get paid for a rewrite?

Update 11/08/11: “Most writers are middle class; 46% did not even work last year. Of those who do work, one quarter make less than $37,700 a year and 50% make less than $105,000 a year. Over a five year period of employment and unemployment, a writer’s average income is $62,000 per year.” Writers Guild of America, West

Update 2/22/12: Bureau of Labor Statistics in May of 2010 listed the mean annual wage for writers (including screenwriters) and authors at $65,960 (with $109,440 being in the 9o percentile).

Update 2/28/13: Link to screenwriting quote where Oscar-winning screenwriter Chris Terrio (Argo) talks about writing scripts for $5,000 and $10,000 coming up in the New York indie world.

Update 12/11/13: Even though this post is now four years old it continues to get steady hits and is by far the most viewed post I’ve ever written. But I’d like you to take the time to jump over to the post and read what Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arendt has to say about what I call The 99% Focus Rule. And a positive thing  that’s happened since I originally posted this is quality cable TV has exploded —as well as groups like Netflix producing their own programs— opening up new opportunities and a broader income stream for writers.

Update 6/11/17: While this post was on how much screenwriters get paid in the U.S., I should at least touch on the various ways writers can get paid for their work. This seems to be the core areas:
Spec script (You don’t get paid to write unless the script sells.)
Writing assignment (A writer is asked to write the script.)
Open assignment (Where several writers are asked to come in a pitch their take on what they’d do with a concept and one of the writers is chosen.)
Rewrite/polish (Could be as short as one day, but one to three weeks seems to be common. Enough time to take a script in various stages of either pre-production, production, and post-production and work your magic. Punch up the humor, tighten the structure, round out a character—something that makes the script better. I’ve heard the numbers between $100,000-$500,000 a week tossed around so that’s great money for those who get that kind of work. (Though the WGA minimum for a polish is in the $12,000 range when I last checked.) And it could also be a page one rewrite where a studio or production company likes a basic concept of a script the bought, but it needs a complete overhaul before it goes into production.
Staff Writers on network on cable TV shows
Residuals Backend money that comes from things like DVD sales and when a feature plays on TV. Jerry Seinfeld has made hundreds of millions of dollars as the co-creator of Seinfeld which has made an estimated $3 billon in syndication. So if you really want to make a killing as a writer the gold at the end of the rainbow is having a hit TV show.

Closing thought: “There’s more to life than a little money, you know?…Don’t you know that?”
Sheriff Marge Gunderson in Fargo
Written by Ethan Coen & Joel Coen

Scott W. Smith

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If yesterday’s Super Bowl football game were a movie, the critics would have walked out because of all the sports clichés. An underdog team that started the season with two losses goes up against the undefeated powerhouse team in the championship game and in the last-minute scores the winning touchdown. They become the first NFC Wildcard team to win the Super Bowl.

Before we fade to black, the winning quarterback wins the Super Bowl MVP, the same award his older brother last year.  Their father who was an NFL quarterback but never had a winning season is redeemed by having two Super Bowl MVP sons.

An announcer called the New York Giants victory over the New England Patriots,  “One of the greatest upsets in Super Bowl History.”

The receiver who caught the winning touchdown cried on camera and the soft-spoken quarterback said, “You can’t write a better script.”

What can screenwriters can learn from Super Bowl XLII?

DRAMA: Drama is defined as exciting, tense, and gripping events and actions. This game had plenty of drama—plenty of conflict. You had no idea what was going to happen next.

A GREAT OPENING: First the New York Giants took a 3-0 lead and the New England Patriots came back and took the lead 7-3.  The scoring then cooled down until the fourth quarter.

TWISTS & TURNS: There were fumbles and interceptions that changed the ebb and flow of the game. The lead changed hands several times.

WHAT’S AT STAKE?: This wasn’t just another football game. The Patriots were vying to make history by becoming only the second team in NFL history to go undefeated, and having a better record than the 1972 Miami Dolphins they would have laid claim to being the greatest football team in history. As it turned out they weren’t even the best team of the night.

SUBPLOTS: For the Super Bowl I would say that the subplots were all the commercials in between the game. Little dramas that offer a change of pace and something that some people look forward to more than the game.

STRONG VISUALS: Not only were there great plays on the field, but there were static visuals in the stands like the sign held up that simply read 18-1. That one shot was the game in a nutshell. Under a game ending photo of dejected New England coach Bill Belichick that caption could read, “The mighty have fallen.”

BACKSTORY: There are too many to list here, but here are some:

-Before Eli Manning became the Super Bowl MVP he endured much criticism about his soft-spoken leadership.

-Winning coach Tom Laughlin’s job was on the line last year after finishing 8-8.

-Kawika Mitchell became a free agent last year and some thought he’d sign a multi-year contract for up to $25 million. The phone was quiet for 27 days and he signed a relatively low one year deal with the Giants to prove himself. In New York he had to change positions to play. He started the Super Bowl game and had three tackles including one sack. (As a fun sidebar, the month and year Mitchell was born I was a high school football player at Lake Howell High School in Winter Park, Florida where he would become an All-Florida football player. I wore #42 because my hero was Paul Warfield of the undefeated Dolphins team. )

-Wes Welker was so short in high school he was passed up by most colleges for a scholarship, later cut by the San Diego Chargers, under used at Miami but there he was,  a 5’9″ receiver playing in the land of giants and in the biggest game in pro football. (His eleven receptions in the game tied a Super Bowl record.)

-Doug Williams handed off the winning trophy to the New York Giant owners after the game in honor of his winning the Super Bowl MVP 20 years ago. Williams endured many hard years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before taking the Washington Redskins to the Super Bowl. He was also the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl. (Fun side bar 2, when I was a 19-year-old sports reporter/photographer for the Sanford Evening Herald in Florida I interviewed Williams before a charity basketball game. I still remember his quote when I asked him how he dealt with fans booing him. “It’s not always important how the fans be when they be there, it’s that they be there.”)

FORESHADOWING: Overconfident New England quarterback Tom Brady laughed when told of a predictions that his team would lose 23-17. He said, “We’re only going to score 17?” Little did Brady know that he would be limited to one touchdown pass or that he would be sacked five times…and only score 13 points.

REDEMPTION: From the underrated NY Giants team to the individual stories there was much redemption which is at the core of many a successful movie. Redemption is one of those primal needs that screenwriter Blake Snyder is always talking about. Something every audience understands. It’s what makes us keep going back to sports movies again and again even though we often know the ending, because deep down we are looking for various kinds of redemption in our own lives. It gives us hope. And “Hope is a dangerous thing,” said Morgan Freeman’s character in “The Shawshank Redemption.”

STRUCTURE: There is a traditional beginning-middle-end to all football games just because playing time is limited. The rules of the game as well as the width and  length of the field also offer structure. Creativity comes when you embrace the limitations. Most feature scripts fall between 90-120 pages so why fight that?

THEME: This one is as basic as they get; sometimes little underrated guys win as hard work and perseverance pay off in the end. (Hoosiers, Breaking Away, The Natural, Seabiscuit, Remember the Titans, andmost recently the baseball film shot in Iowa The Final Season.) Even the Budweiser commercial featured during the Super Bowl reflected this common sports movie theme. After one of the horses doesn’t make the team he trains hard for a year with a dalmatian and makes the cut the next year.

A GREAT ENDING: Throughout the day today people will be talking about Manning’s last touchdown drive. About David Tyree’s spectacular helmet catch that helped set up the winning touchdown.  About Plaxico Burress’ game winning catch with 35 seconds left in the game. Great ending are satisfying.  And this one was for the Giants and their fans. And those that root for the underdog.

That would include the teammates of the 1972 Miami Dolphin team who probably stayed up later than the Giant players as they popped another bottle of champagne (or two) as they have been doing over the last 35 years, celebrating their place in history one more year as the only Super Bowl team to finish the year undefeated.

© Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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