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“Anxiety, nightmares and a nervous breakdown, there’s only so many traumas a person can withstand until they take to the streets and start screaming.”
Jasmine (Cate Blachett) in Blue Jasmine
Written by Woody Allen
Nominated for 3 Oscars

“The art of survival is a story that never ends. ”
Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) in American Hustle
Written by Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell
Nominated for 10 Oscars

“I don’t want to survive. I want to live.”
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in 12 Years a Slave
Written by John Ridley
Nominated for 9 Oscars

I was looking for an Oscar-nominated song this year to add an exclamation to the above quotes and decided to settle for a now formerly nominated Oscar song. The song Alone But Not Alone was disqualified a couple of days ago by the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Science—but if you read related backlash articles in the LA TimesDeadline, and The Hollywood Reporter  on the song’s historic rejection you’ll know it’s a survivor.

The indie film hasn’t even been released and the song seems to have a life of its own. The producers of the Alone Yet Not Alone movie have to look at the controversy and be thinking—like Bill Murray in Scrooged— “You can’t buy this kind of publicity!”

The perfect Hollywood ending would be during the Super Bowl half-time show tomorrow that Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers were joined by quadriplegic Joni Eareckson Tada (carried on stage, of course, by Tim Tebow) as they all sing Alone But Not Alone. The crowd joins in like a version of We Are the World. Cut to close up of Payton Manning crying just before completing his own personal neck injury comeback by winning the game’s MVP. Followed by world peace.

P.S. Gravity, Captain Philips, and Dallas Buyers Club add at least 22 more survival-related movies to this year’s Oscar nominations.

Update: 2/1/14: “I owe quite a debt to Capt. Richard Phillips, who survived something I know would have killed me.” Screenwriter Billy Ray accepting the WGA award for writing Captain Philips.

Related posts:

What’s at Stake? (Tip #9)
Goal. Stake. Urgency. (Tip #60)
“Unbroken” One great true story of survival that will be released as a movie this year.

Scott W. Smith

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This blog is not really about Iowa or the Midwest. It’s focus is on screenwriting. But I do put an emphasis on Iowa and the Midwest as it is a fitting metaphor to discuss the process of growing your creative career from unlikely places. Filmmaking in general, and screenwriting specifically, are both usually thought of in terms of L.A. and New York City.

That’s because that is where the honey is stored. It’s the end of the rainbow. It’s the climax found somewhere in the third act. Perhaps it’s best to think of Screenwriting from Iowa…or wherever you live outside L.A. as a good look at Act 1. The set-up of the story. How writers (and sometimes others) prepare for their moment in the spotlight. (Though I do think that new opportunities are popping all over the place outside of traditional Hollywood circles.)

Which leads me to Super Bowl XLIV. The Indianapolis Colts verses the New Orléans Saints.  The obvious Midwest angle to the 2010 game is quarterback Payton Manning and entire Indianapolis Colts team are from the Midwest. A little less know is Colts tight end Dallas Clark (who had seven catches in the game) is from Livermore, Iowa. (pop. 431 ). But those aren’t my focus.

The key three people in this year’s Super Bowl with a Midwest connection are Saints quarterback Drew Brees, Saints defensive back Tracy Porter , and the Saints coach Sean Payton.

Drew Brees— After Brees finished his high school career in Austin, Texas undefeated as starting quarterback, he chose to attend Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. I’m not sure why he ended up in Indiana, but I imagine it had something to do with him being relatively short (six-foot) and known for not having the strongest arm. But he left Purdue with several Big Ten passing records and was twice a Heisman Trophy finalist.  Two days ago he lead the Saints in their first Super Bowl victory and was named the Super Bowl MVP.

Tracy Porter–Late in the fourth quarter, with Peyton Manning appearing to lead a game tying drive, Porter intercepted Manning and ran it back for a touchdown sealing the victory for the Saints. (Just happens to be the same guy who intercepted Brett Favre in the NFC title game just a couple weeks ago that sealed that victory.) Porter played college ball at Indiana University.  How did a kid from Louisiana end up playing for a college not known as a football powerhouse? Probably because he was undersized and just started playing football in his junior year in high school. But his time in Indiana served him well. The school in Bloomington is less than an hours drive to Indianapolis. Porter said after the game, “I’ve been watching (Manning) since my time at Indiana put up points on the scoreboard.”

Sean Peyton— Payton was born in California but raised in Naperville, Illinois (just outside Chicago) and played quarterback at Naperville Central High School and Eastern Illinois University in  Charleston, IL. When his playing days were over he began assistant coaching and gained experience at various schools including Indiana State, Miami University (in Ohio), and at the University of Illinois. He eventually made his way to become an NFL head coach in 2005 with the New Orleans Saints. The team was long known as the “aints” and in the year before he took over had a record of 3-13. In his first season the Saints were 10-6 and first in the NFC South and Payton was voted NFL Coach of the Year by AP. This season the Saints finished 13-3 and are now Super Bowl champs for the first time.

So there you have it, three men originally from outside the Midwest, who were shaped by their experiences in the Midwest and who would all go on to achieved the highest level of success in the biggest game of their chosen field.

Be faithful in the little things.

Related Post: Beatles, Cody King & 10,000 Hours

Sex, Lies & Mr. Bill (Screenwriting from Louisiana)

P.S. You may never have heard of Eastern Illinois University, but it has more than one tie to the NFL as Brad Childress, head coach of Minnesota Vikings, Mike Shanahan, head coach of Washington Redskins (and who just happened to be the head coach when John Elway and the Denver Broncos won back to back Super Bowls), and Dallas Cowboy quarterback Tony Romo are all alumni of the school. Hollywood? Actor (and Juno producer) John Malkovich attended Eastern Illinois before transferring to Illinois State and going on to help found the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago.

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. (Hence, the ESPN documentary Broke.)

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. )

“When you’re not in the [WGA] you’re just grateful for anything that’ll you give you a month of rent or a couple months of rent. My first couple of jobs were New York independent things…of course, there wasn’t a lot of money for an untested writer. So if somebody had read some things you’d written, or a play you’d written, or a script you’d written on spec then sometimes you’d get paid 5,000 bucks, if you’re lucky, on a good day maybe 10,000 bucks.
Screenwriter Chris Terrio (Argo) taking about getting his start on DP/30

Of course, what screenwriters make globally will vary greatly. In Nigeria—Nollywood— they are making a lot of movies, but most budgets are sub-$100,000. And even in Hollywood what screenwriters make will vary. At the top of the Hollywood feature film food chain are working WGA writers who generate writing income several ways. Nailing down those exact numbers is hard, but this is how the top screenwriters can make $100,000 or $200,000 a week and millions over the course of the year:

—Writing assignment (developing new script from book, article, or an idea)
—Punch-up a script (take an existing script and add action and make it more dynamic, tweak the dialogue, and/or add humor to make funnier)
—One to three week polish of a script 
—Page one re-write. Take an existing screenplay that has promise, but needs a lot of work, and make it a script worth producing.
—Residuals (DVD/Blu-Ray/digital sales, Tv and foreign rights)
—Speaking (college and corporate work)
—Spec work (selling a screenplay without a deal from a producer or studio)
—Story meetings (A gathering of writers to kick around story concepts. Seen by some as a negative direction for the industry, as it’s the equivalent of kicking tires.)

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.  (Largely based on the success of the TV show Seinfeld, Jerry Seinfeld’s net worth is in the hundreds of millions—and maybe over a billion dollars by the time you read this.)  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?

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 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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