Posts Tagged ‘Susan Bullington Katz’

Pearl Harbor is a two-hour movie squeezed into three hours, about how on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese staged a surprise attack on an American love triangle.”
Roger Ebert
Chicago Sun-Times

“I’ve always said that you should have different critics like in the music press – you don’t have an expert on opera reviewing Kid Rock.”
Jerry Bruckheimer
Producer, Pearl Harbor (domestic gross $198 million)

What is it about Jerry Bruckheimer that has allowed him to tap into films and TV programs that people want to see? Here’s just a partial list of some of the films that he has produced:

Beverly Hills Cop
Top Gun
Crimson Tide
Bad Boys
Black Hawk Down
National Treasure
Pirates of the Caribbean
(All of them)

And just this past weekend Bruckheimer’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time opened with $37.8 milion. (And his soon to be released The Sorcerer’s Apprentice will probably make a dollar or two this summer.)

Which means he’s been able to work with some of the biggest names in Hollywood; Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Eddie Murphy, Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Sean Connery, and Johnny Depp. And for good measure he produces for TV as well. (CSI, CSI Miami, Cold Case, The Amazing Race)

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s box office secret is really no secret at all, he simply says, “I just make movies I want to see.” Simple, right?

CSI creator Anthony Zuiker says Bruckeimer is “ferociously commercial.” He makes the kinds of films that a large group of people want to see on any given Friday and Saturday night. Of course, it’s his ferociously commercial spirit that brings more than a few critics to his work. But he is called Mr. Blockbuster not Mr. Small Contemplative Art House Producer.

“If I made films for the critics, or for someone else, I’d probably be living in some small Hollywood studio apartment.”
Jerry Bruckheimer

And here are two more quotes that some would scoff at if Bruckheimer himself would have said them.

“No artist—notably no film or television writer—need apologize for entertaining an assembled mass of people.”
Richard Walter (UCLA screenwriting professor)
Screenwriting, page 12

“I like (audiences) to enjoy the film. It’s an arcade amusement; it’s not penicillin. It’s an arcade amuesment—take people’s minds off their troubles and give’em a little bit of fun. And sell some popcorn.”
David Mamet
Conversations with Screenwriters
Interview with Susan Bullington Katz, page 200

And while Bruckheimer’s films have allowed him to own nice digs (slightly nicer than a studio apartment) in Los Angeles and Ojai, California, as well as a horse ranch in Kentucky, he grew up in humble circumstances with Jewish-German immigrant parents in Detroit, Michigan. At a young age Bruckheimer developed a love for photography and movies.

“I’m a big fan of David Lean. Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Doctor Zhivago are movies that were seminal films for me when I was growing up. I admire the filmmaking and the storytelling ability of Lean and [screenwriter] Robert Bolt, so that’s what I look toward for inspiration.”
Jerry Bruckheimer
Barnes & Noble Interview

Many people also overlook that Bruckheimer has also produced the more down-to-earth and inspirational films Glory Road, Remember the Titans, and Dangerous Minds.

He went to college at the University of Arizona where he didn’t major in film but psychology. He returned to Detroit where he began making automotive commercials. He did that well enough to take his talents to New York while still in his early and mid-twenties, but left the lucrative world of commercial work to try to make his mark in Hollywood.

And for the last 30 years that’s what Bruckheimer has done. To the tune of four billion plus box office dollars. (Yes, $4 billion.) An average $110 million per picture on over 40 films. A couple of weeks ago Bruckheimer got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and Tom Cruise was on hand to add his sentiments:

“We’re here to celebrate the greatest producer in modern history. He certainly stands very tall in the pantheon of producers in Hollywood. He’s not only a hard-working, dedicated filmmaker but he’s a loyal friend to everyone within our industry and to all the fans around the world.”

And even though Bruckheimer is as connected to Hollywood as you can get, he’s still connected to the world outside of Hollywood.

Bruckheimer’s wife Linda (who is a novelist and producer) has bought and restored several buildings in her hometown of Bloomfield, Kentucky where she and her husband own a house. Last year Jerry & Linda gave the commencement address to Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. Jerry told the class, “God has given everybody a gift, and your task is to find yours, develop it, and dream beyond your ability. Look to your past and preserve what’s most valuable for your future…just as the next generation will look to you for guidance.”

Tomorrow I’ll look at two screenwriters also from Detroit that Bruckheimer has recently worked with.

PS. Interesting Kentucky connection—Johnny Depp (who Bruckheimer has made a film or two with) is from Owensboro, Kentucky. Tom Cruise, who moved a lot as a youth, lived (and was a paperboy) in Louisville, Kentucky for a short time, not far from Bloomfield. (Toss in that George Clooney was born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky and it’s fun to think that at one time in the late sixties or early seventies Depp, Cruise, and Clooney all lived— at the same time— in the state of Kentucky.)

Related post: Screenwriting from Michigan

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“I don’t know anything about the writing process…It seems to be something I can do once in a while, but I don’t have very much either to say about it or I don’t understand anything very much about the process…Writing and reading. That’s all that there is. There’s nothing else.”
David Mamet (Pulitzer Prize/ Tony-winner, two-time Oscar-nominated writer)
Conversations with Screenwriters
page 103
Susan Bullington Katz

Of course, that book came out ten years ago so apparently in light of the David Mamet memo he can now pass on a few things about the writing process. But Mamet’s quote brought to mind two longer posts I’ve written; Can Screenwriting be Taught? and Screenwriting, Infomercials & Gurus. The last having one of my favorite quotes on the subject—“So many gurus and so few good writers. Where are all these lessons going?”
Larry Gelbart (

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.”
Emily Dickinson

So last week I was sitting down at the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas waiting for the Los Angeles Final Cut Pro User Group (LAFCPUG) to start their Super Meet and started a conversation with a man next to me who turned out to be a Hemingway-like character.

Dirck Halstead started his career in photojournalism at the age of 17. He was the youngest combat photographer for LIFE magazine, a roving photographer in the U.S. Army, spent 15 years as photographer for UPI covering stories around the world including winning the Robert Capa Gold Medal for his images of  the fall of Saigon during the Vietnam War. And I’m just getting warmed up.

Let me just defer to an online bio: “Halstead accepted an independent contract with TIME magazine in 1972. Covering the White House for the next 29 years, he was one of only six photographers asked to accompany Richard Nixon on his historic trip to China in that same year. His photographs have appeared on 47 TIME covers. During this period he was also a “Special Photographer” on many films, producing ad material used by major Hollywood studios.”

Have you ever heard the song The Last Mango in Paris by Jimmy Buffett?

                    He said I ate the last mango in Paris
Took the last plane out of Saigon
I took the first fast boat to China
And Jimmy there’s still so much to be done 

Halstead is that kind of guy (if not literally that guy). And after his adventures with LIFE, UPI, and TIME there was still so much to be done. Back in the early 90s he was a pioneer in helping still photojournalist make the transition into shooting video. Now in his 70s Halstead is the editor and publisher for The Digital Journalist  and a senior fellow in photojournalism at The Center for American History at the University of Texas in Austin. In 2007 he was honored by The University of Missouri with the Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism.

And I bet he’d still say, “There’s still so much to be done.”

All that to say there is power in the bump in factor. While I was at NAB Show last week I also bumped into a producer friend from Michigan, a cameraman from Des Moines who owns a RED camera, and a editor friend from Orlando. How does this all apply to screenwriting?

Your talent and skill will keep you in the room once you get there but sometimes you need a little help from the bump in factor to open the door. I once landed a gig writing 12 radio dramas because I was editing a project at a post house and bumped into a producer who had an immediate need for a writer. Here’s what Melissa Mathison (who was once married to Harrison Ford) told Susan Bullington Katz in Conversations with Screenwriters:

“I was with Harrison on Raiders of the Lost Ark, and halfway through the shoot, we were all in Tunisia, and Steven Spielberg asked me if I would be interested in writing a children’s movie about a man from outer space. And I thought that sounded like a really wonderful idea.”

The screenplay she wrote was E.T.:The Extra-Terrestrial.

Granted being married to Harrison Ford improves the prospects of who you can bump into but you never know who’s next to you while you wait in line. Which leads me back to Halstead. If you’re interested in improving you visual storytelling Halstead is hosting The Platypus Workshops this year in Oregon and Maine.

Related Post: The Bump In Factor (Take 2)

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

Maybe I should have said “How to increase your odds of winning an Academy Award.” But who wants to read an article on that? Regardless, I think I have the secret to winning an Academy Award. (Not that I would know first hand—though I did win an Addy Award last week for a commercial I shot and produced.) This is not even really a secret, it’s more basic number crunching.

Simply pick a best-selling book. Or perhaps just a book you like. In fact, of the 81 Oscars, Slumdog Millionaire became the 44th film based on a book to win best picture. That’s more than 50%. Interesting, huh?

According to Tim Dirks over at filmsite only one film based on a TV show (Marty)  and only one film based on an article (On the Waterfront) have ever won best picture. Original screenplays make up 22 of the Academy Award best pictures which, of course, is a 50% drop from those based on a book.

So how do you go about optioning a book? You get the rights to a book you like or you find one in the public domain. If you want to use a Charles Dickens book, knock yourself out—it’s free. If you want the rights to a John Grisham novel —stand in line. But in between those in public domain and best-selling authors there are an estimated 300,000+ books published every year worldwide.

Certainly, the majority of the millions of books published over the last few years have not been optioned for film. So there are opportunities out there if you’d like to pursue them. Talk to a lawyer or search the web for more information on how to draw up a bidding contract and then approach the author. All they can say is no, and they may be flattered enough that you believe enough in their book to invest time in a screenplay that you get the rights fairly cheap, with more coming if the screenplay is sold.

Stephen King used to have a $1 option deal that worked something like that. You’re creative, so be creative in finding a way to option a book you like. And persistence pays off in this regard as well. Follow the journey that Frank Darabont took to get the rights to The Shawshank Redemption which he first read in novella form in 1982 (That’s 22-years before the movie’s release).

First he started doing various jobs on low-budget films and in 1983 made a short film called The Women in the Room based on a Stephen King short story. Least you think he was rich at that time, Darabont has said that he made about $7,000 the year he made that short and he spent most of it on the film. The Woman in the Room made the short list for the semi-final nomination for Academy Award consideration in 1983. 

That opened other doors and eventually lead to him securing the rights to what would become The Shawshank Redemption. 

“So I got  the rights and didn’t do anything with them for five years, for a number of reasons…I think on a certain level I was waiting for my abilities as a writer to catch up with my ambitions for the script. I don’t think I could have written it nearly as well when I first optioned it. But the day came when I felt like I was ready to try it. So I sat down and wrote it in eight weeks, and two weeks later we had a deal with Castle Rock.”
                                                                Frank Darabont
                                                                Conversations with Screenwriters
                                                                by Susan Bullington Katz 

Granted Darabont didn’t win an Oscar for all his efforts but he did get an nomination (the film had a total of seven nominations) and the film is one of the best loved films in cinematic history.

Related post: Screenwriters Work Ethic (tip #3)

Scott W. Smith



Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: