Friday, November 21, 2014

The Hollywood Economist

I just finished reading the 2nd edition of the book, The Hollywood Economist by Edward Jay Epstein. It discusses the economics of the movie business – how studios finance and distribute films, how movie theaters make money, how revenue is divided and disbursed, why almost no movie ever hits profit on paper, and so on. Today I’d like to offer a combination book review and musings on some of the issues raised.

You may be wondering whether a book like this is worth a screenwriter’s time. After all, we’re not involved in things like financing and distribution. However, we are independent contractors, and I believe it behooves us to understand the industry in which we work. Moreover, the feature film business is in a period of radical change that will likely have a big impact on what kind of movies get made in the future. The Hollywood Economist is the perfect business-of-Hollywood book for a screenwriter because it discusses the economics in the language of lay people. (It also explains why you’ll never see any income from those net points in your contract.)

There are some problems with the book, however. First, it has a few unsettling errors, such as when it’s discussing the box office for Gone in Sixty Seconds. The movie grossed $242 million, which the book then refers to repeatedly as “almost half a billion dollars” when in fact it’s less than a quarter billion. This may seem minor, but when the subject is economics, you want the author to be a little more detail oriented!

The other problem, which is unavoidable, is the information becomes quickly dated. The first edition of the book was published in 2010; the second was published in 2012. Many of the examples and illustrations are from movies at least five years old. Much of the data ends at 2007 because it comes from reports published by the MPAA that were stopped at that point (more on this in a minute). That means that today much of the information is over seven years old.

Another example of the problem: updates for the second edition included Netflix and their move into streaming. But the book didn’t anticipate Netflix’s move into original programming, or that television would quickly overtake features in Netflix’s streaming business. What does this mean for feature film streaming sales? Even just two years later this book is too old to offer help. All of this is part of the fast-changing nature of the business right now, and any book will quickly become dated. How I wish there was an up-to-the-minute version of this information!

Still, you can learn a lot about the movie business from The Hollywood Economist. For example, you’ll learn that theatrical box office is a very small part of studio revenue these days. In 1980, theatrical accounted for 55% of a movie’s revenue, while in 2007 it had dropped to 20.4% of revenue. Meanwhile, Video/DVD rose from 2.2% in 1980 to a peak of 22.8% in 2004, only to drop to 17.9% in 2007.

This is one of those areas where the numbers stop in 2007 because the source was MPAA reporting that ended that year. I think it is very likely the MPAA stopped revealing this data because of the dramatic drop in home video revenue. The MPAA is in the business of promoting the movie business. This means they like to report the good news and avoid reporting bad news.

2007 was seven years ago. What’s happened since? A few clues come later in the book. At one point, Epstein notes that MGM’s net receipts from DVDs fell from $140 million in 2007 to just $30.4 million in 2010. Later he mentions that Time Warner’s home video revenue dropped 30% between 2007 and 2010. That’s not a good sign, particularly considering the book makes very clear how home video was the underpinning of feature film financing for the last two and a half decades.

Add in reduced income from pay TV as channels like HBO, Showtime and Starz focus more on original programming than features. The book notes that pay TV channels were buying half as many movies in 2009 as they were in 2005. Considering all this, we may start to understand why studios have cut back production so much in the last few years, and why the mid-budget movie has largely vanished.

The book traces the historically changes in the industry. Much of this you might be familiar with – how movies exploded in the twenties. How by 1948 two thirds of the U.S. population went to the movies at least once a week. How television destroyed that business model.

Here’s where Epstein makes an interesting point. After television upended the industry, studios found they had to create an audience for each movie. They did this through advertising. And that’s how teen boys became the primary movie audience. They were the easiest to reach because they clustered around a handful of TV programs. But today that has shifted – teen boys have become the most difficult audience to reach with advertising. And, I would say, the industry has been slow to react by changing its product to target different audiences.

Another interesting topic the book looks at from a unique perspective: the battle over day-and-date releasing. Epstein explains how, for a variety of reasons, it is in the best interest of the studios to release movies on pay-per-view and streaming at the same time they’re released in the theaters. This will, of course, hurt theatrical attendance, but that would be a small price to pay for the studios.

It would not, however be a small price to pay for the theaters. Epstein explains that theaters are really in the business of selling popcorn and sodas. He quotes a studio executive estimating that a 10% drop in attendance would cause two thirds of American theaters to go out of business.

A chilling thought for those of us who love seeing movies in theaters.

The book is an interesting read and a useful primer on how revenue flows into studios (and doesn’t flow to production companies and talent). Unfortunately, it only starts to address the issues of importance to the feature film business. We’ll all have to stay tuned to see how this plays out.



--
 Next week I plan to do a "mail bag" post where I answer reader questions. If you have a question for me, leave it in the comments!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

How to Survive a Notes Session

Before you become a working professional screenwriter, you are the master of your screenplay. You can – and should – solicit feedback, but you are not obligated to take any suggestions. Once you become a professional, however, that is no longer true. Professionals have to do notes sessions.

A notes session happens after a screenwriter turns in a draft of their screenplay.* After the various producers and executives involved in the project have read the screenplay – which will take much longer than it really should – you will either be asked to come to a meeting or participate in a conference call to get notes. All of the producers, executives, and in some cases possibly a director or even a movie star will then bombard you with ways you ought to change the screenplay.

These sessions can be brutal, and not just because a whole bunch of people are ripping apart your work. The truth is, many of the notes will be very smart and help your screenplay. However you will inevitably also get notes that do not fit your vision of the movie. Worse, you will frequently get ridiculous or contradictory notes. Also, producers and executives may have different visions of the movie from each other, and you’ll be stuck in the middle. Here are some tips for surviving a note session:

Accept the process. Film is a collaborative art form. Get used to it. If you won’t make the changes, they will replace you with someone who will. Do not expect your screenplay to be used exactly as you wrote it in the first draft. Commit yourself mentally to collaboration.

Be prepared. Bring a pencil and notepad or notebook to take notes on the feedback. Not taking notes can appear unprofessional. Taking notes will also make people hesitant to improvise new feedback, which is often what leads to the most bizarre suggestions. Also bring a copy of the script so you can refer to specific scenes or lines.

Remember the goal. Everyone wants two things: A good movie and a successful movie. But if a studio or producer is forced to choose between good and successful, they’ll pick success. That means you have to consider the business requirements and fit your art into those.

Don’t defend. It’s best not to respond to a note in the moment. Simply record the suggestions. This will give you time to process the feedback objectively. Something that seems stupid at first glance may actually be brilliant once you wrap your head around it. Or if not, there may be an underlying thought that is really valuable. The exception to keeping your mouth shut is if you don’t understand something – you should then definitely ask for clarification.

Never embarrass anyone. Most meetings are political for the people in the room. If someone makes a bonehead mistake – suggesting something that’s actually already in the script for example (it happens surprisingly often) – don’t call them out on it. You will make an instant enemy. If you challenge a bad idea, you force the person who said it to defend it. There are often ways to skip a bad note, but if you start a public ego contest with the person who gave it, you will end up forced to make the change. Which brings me to…

You don’t actually have to take every note. If you do most of the notes, you can reject a few. Say you tried it and it didn’t work and explain why. This shows that you did seriously consider it (and you should actually have considered it). Most producers and executives don’t expect you to follow every note literally, they actually expect you to take the notes and improve upon them! You ultimately may still have to do a specific note that you disagree with if the executive really believes it’s right.

If you get a note that doesn't work, try spinning it into something better. Remove what they objected to, but replace it with your idea instead of theirs. Then you’ve addressed the note, but not weakened the script. Always credit the note-giver for the inspiration. Again, most producers and execs will be happier if you find a better way to address a note than just taking their suggestion verbatim – that’s why they’re hiring you! (If you are particularly skilled, you might be able to pull off this redirection in the room.)

Take baby steps to get to your position. If you have a radical difference with a producer or executive on a story element, it may take time for them to come around to your point of view. Rather than fight to get your way right now – a fight you will probably lose – try moving them gradually to your idea. Give them time to get comfortable with it.

Remember, this is a business of personality. You have to figure out how the people you’re working for like to work. Some are happy to debate, some want you to do every note exactly as they say.

In the film business, the writer is the employee. That’s why you get paid! Like any job, you are under some obligation to tailor your work to what your employer wants. If you don’t, they can fire you and hire someone who will. But if you are a team player, they will come to trust you. And when they trust you, you will have more ability to shape the material the way you see it.

And not for nothing, you will also be happier if you embrace the collaborative nature of the filmmaking process.


*Note, even though it is not contractually required, screenwriters are generally expected to turn the script in to the producer first, get his or her notes, and then do an unpaid revision (a “producer’s pass”) before officially turning in the draft. This is good in the sense that you get some valuable feedback that can help you succeed with the draft. It is bad in that many producers have started abusing this process to get multiple free rewrites out of poor writers.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Let’s Schmooze Field Guide to the LA Screenwriter

This week I’m going to have a little fun. I have categorized the ten types of screenwriters I’ve met in Los Angeles. I’ve even been a few of them. Which one are you? (Don’t get insulted… if you’re going to survive in this business, you need a thick skin and a sense of humor!)

1. The Talented Temp – A rare form of screenwriter, skilled and talented who has yet to sell anything and typically supports him or herself by temping. Often the reason they have yet to sell a script is they insist on writing non-commercial stories or they have no interest in or knowledge of the business side of screenwriting. They are unaware of this failing.

2. The Un-Talented Temp – A common form of screenwriter, unskilled and untalented who has yet to sell anything and typically supports him or herself by temping. Sadly, they believe they are Talented Temps.

3. The Someday Screenwriter – Someone who plans to be a writer someday, when they have the time. Since they will never have the time, they will remain writers in their own mind. Someday Screenwriters often work in development, convinced they could do better than the writers whose scripts they read… if they only had the time.

4. The One-Idea Wonder – This screenwriter has been working on their first screenplay for over a decade. It is typically an epic passion project or coming-of-age story. They will be working on it for the rest of their lives. It will never become a movie because they will never finish.

5. The Imposter – This is an aspiring actor or director writing a screenplay for themselves to star in or direct, respectively. They mistakenly believe writing a screenplay is easier than acting or directing. Typically they write an incoherent first draft filled with spelling, grammar and format errors and immediately send it around to producers and executives. They are amazed when it doesn’t sell.

6. The Studio Hack – A regularly employed screenwriter with excellent craft skills who will execute any development note to the letter. They are typically the middle writer in a long chain of re-writers. They often wonder why they never get to work on better projects.

7. The Indie Writer-Director – an award-winning hyphenate writer and director of art house films. They actually make their living re-writing studio scripts under a pseudonym.

8. Charlie Kaufman – a brilliant, idiosyncratic artist who can break all the rules and still get his work produced. The industry allows one of these to exist per generation. If you’re name’s not Charlie Kaufman, it’s not you.

9. The A-Lister – The writer of one monster big-budget hit movie. They will then be continuously employed no matter how many bombs they write as long as they always book their next project before their current project is released.

10. The Has-Been – A once regularly employed screenwriter who has not had a job in over a decade. Typically working on a noncommercial, mid-budget drama spec about the Holocaust, the McCarthy era blacklist, or marital infidelity. Spends their non-writing time teaching screenwriting and bitching about ageism.


--
Doug Eboch wrote the original script for Sweet Home Alabama and is the co-author of The Hollywood Pitching Bible. He also teaches screenwriting. Yeah.


Check out the Kickstarter campaign for the short film Microbe.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Daily Habits of Successful Screenwriters

A couple months ago, I asked for suggestions for blog topics. Since then, I’ve been working my way through them (in between writing about other topics that come up.) If you have something you’d like me to discuss, feel free to let me know in the comments of this post or via Twitter.

Today I’m going to address a suggestion from Michelle Hall (hopefully she's still reading my blog): “As a newbie wanting to pursue screenwriting full time, what tasks to pursue on daily basis?”

One of the problems, of course, for most “newbies” is that they often can’t really pursue screenwriting full time because they have to hold down a full time job to support themselves while they write. But they are also in competition with established pros whose only job is screenwriting, with way more experience and resources. It’s a challenge. The next challenge comes when you actually are able to pursue screenwriting full time. I’ll get to that in a minute, but let’s start with what you do when you have a limited amount of time.

The first thing that you have to do on a daily basis, naturally, is write. You can’t become a professional screenwriter if you don’t write! You need to learn your craft and generate a body of work to demonstrate your skill and potential employability. And I highly recommend writing on a daily basis – as in writing every day – to achieve this body of work. At some point you may be able to take weekends off – though the movie business is pretty 24-7 – but when you are stealing time around a job and other commitments, you can’t really afford to give up any possible writing time.

I think the best approach is to set a goal of daily writing time, as opposed to a certain number of pages or something. So you might say that you are going to write for an hour a day. It doesn’t matter if you write one line of dialogue or six pages, sit in front of your computer (or legal pad or whatever) and do nothing but write or think about your story. No email, no texting, no surfing the web. It may not seem like you’re accomplishing much in each session, but you’ll be surprised how much you get done in a month. Those hours add up.

You also gain momentum from writing on a daily basis. Your mind stays in your story. You’ll be working out problems as you commute or do laundry or take a shower. Take too many days off and your mind moves on. You’ll find it hard to get started when you sit back down to work on your screenplay.

Probably the next most important thing is to make time to watch movies and read screenplays. This serves several purposes. First, you learn by observing what works and doesn’t work. As you read screenplays, the style and form will become instinctive. And you will gain an understanding of the market. If you want to succeed in the movie business, you need to have seen the latest hit movies – and at least a few of the latest flops – particularly in your genre. You won’t necessarily watch a movie or read a screenplay every day, but each should be at least a weekly habit.

There is a third thing that you should be incorporating into your daily schedule, but what that thing is depends on where you are in your career preparation.

If you’re just starting to write (i.e. you’ve completed fewer than four screenplays), you should be learning writing techniques. Read screenwriting books and/or take classes. Not every book or class is equally good – and some are actually quite bad. Also, not every writer responds to the same approach. But there is valuable insight to be had. Try to get a variety of perspectives and use what seems to work best for you.

If you feel you’re starting to get the hang of screenwriting and you’ve built up a body of work, you’ll want to start plotting the move to “full time screenwriter.” This is going to mean earning a living from writing. And if writing is going to be a source of income (as opposed to a hobby), then you have to treat it like a business. That means market research becomes a part of your day. You’ll move from reading books on screenwriting to checking industry news daily. Deadline.com is a good source of free info, but if you want to be a pro, it’s probably worth subscribing to The Hollywood Reporter or Variety and getting their daily email editions.

(Learning how to pitch will also be a useful skill – might I humbly recommend The Hollywood Pitching Bible as a source of good information?)

And at some point you have to translate that market research into action. You need to get your screenplay read by people in the business. At the most basic level, the way to break in is to write great screenplays and show them to anyone who will read them. Get involved in industry organizations, go to film festivals, participate in online message boards – whatever you can do to meet and befriend people who are connected to the business. Once they like you, ask them to read your work. Entering the top contests or taking classes or going to pitch fests are other ways to get your work in front of industry connected people. You won’t necessarily reach agents, managers or buyers right off the bat, but if your work is great – and I mean really great – people will be happy to recommend it to the agents, managers or buyers they know. (See this post on “How to Get an Agent.”)

Now, what happens when you find yourself in the position of having all day to dedicate to your screenwriting career? The danger here is that it’s easy to fill up your day with non-job activities. The gym is less crowded in the middle of the day, as is the grocery store… Flexibility is one of the advantages of the profession, but you have to maintain self-discipline. Most of the time you’re the only one who will be making sure you’re doing what you need to do to keep earning.

Your daily screenwriting-oriented activity when you’re full time is much the same as when you weren’t, except you do everything for longer periods of time. You have to keep writing. Hopefully, sometimes you’ll be working on assignments – rewrites, adaptations, turning your sold pitch into a screenplay. But if you don’t have an assignment, you should be generating spec work. Writing is your job and really should be the focus of your day.

Writers have different work habits. I personally write in short, intense bursts. I will sit down and write for an hour or two, then go do something else for a while, then come back for another session. If I try to write more than five or six hours in a day, for more than a few days in a row, I will eventually burn out. But I get a lot done in those short bursts – often I can do 3-5 pages in an hour. I think this is because I’m focused and because my mind noodles with the story between writing sessions. I also find it helpful if I work on one project in the morning and a different project in the afternoon. Somehow it keeps my creativity level higher.

This works for me, but other writers find other work habits are more successful for them. And of course I don’t always have the luxury of this system. Sometimes I’m under deadline and have to work ten hours straight on one project. Sometimes I have meetings, or have to teach my class and I can only get in a single writing session in a day (though I always try to get in at least one.)

The other daily activities are often business related: Reading Deadline.com or The Hollywood Reporter or Done Deal. Talking to my manager or attorney about a project or contract or upcoming meeting. Returning emails and phone calls from producers or development execs. Rehearsing pitches. I also practice saying my log lines for all of my current projects that I might want to mention should I run into a potential contact in a social situation.

Other things will come into your calendar on a non-daily basis, of course. As your career progresses, you’ll be doing general meetings and pitch meetings, and perhaps reading books or screenplays to prep for assignment pitches. If you should be so fortunate to have a movie coming out, you’ll have press and promotional obligations. You’ll go to networking events whenever you can.

But not matter what, write every day.

Make no mistake, it’s hard to become a full time professional screenwriter. Most people who attempt it fail. Those that succeed often struggle for years before they support themselves from writing. You have to be committed to it. You have to carve out that time every day. But if you take a strategic, disciplined approach, you will have a much better chance of success.

--

There’s still time to back my short film project on Kickstarter – if you enjoy this blog, it would be a great way to show your appreciation!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Three Techniques for Developing Complex Characters

Creating believable characters is, of course, one of the most important skills for a screenwriter to master. If the main character of your story feels like a real person, then we will care what happens to them. That will get the audience involved in the story. So how do you create characters that feel like real people?

Many writing teachers recommend creating a detailed backstory, and that can be useful. But I find it nearly impossible to determine a character’s backstory until I know who the character is now. I have the same problem with those long lists of “character questions” – you know, the ones that ask what their favorite food is and where they went to second grade. The answers feel arbitrary until I really know the person the questions are about. And if I know the character, why do I need to answer all those questions?

So here are three techniques I use to create realistic, complex characters.

1. Develop Them in Three Dimensions

From the initial story conception I’ll know some of the character's characteristics, such as maybe their job or family situation. Next, I’ll start fleshing out the character in three dimensions: physical, social and psychological.

In screenplays we generally avoid extremely detailed physical description such as hair or eye color unless for some reason it’s critical to the story (Legally Blonde, for example). This is because we want to allow some range for casting. However, there are still several aspects of physicality to consider. What is the character’s age? What is their race? How athletic are they? Are they graceful, clumsy, sexy or sickly? Naturally attractive or ugly? Do they have a high-pitched, squeaky voice or a deep soothing voice? All of these things affect the character’s attitude toward the world.

Social characteristics can be thought of as demographics. Is the character single, married, divorced? Are their parents alive and do they get along with them? Are they popular, stylish, a jock or a nerd? What religion are they? Socio-economic class? Education level? What ethnicity, and are they a minority in their environment? What social groups are they part of – friends, work groups, hobby groups? Where do they live – what city and what kind of domicile? Who do they live with?

Psychological traits are about the character’s personality. Are they outgoing or shy? Optimistic or pessimistic? Patient or short-tempered? Greedy, overly-sensitive, confident, competitive, charming, uptight, lecherous and/or kind? What are they most afraid of? What do they enjoy?

2. Give Them a Contradiction

As I said, some of the character’s traits will be suggested by your concept. If the story is about a doctor, then he’s going to be well educated. You’ll need to decide how long he’s been a doctor and how much experience he has. Think about what kind of people are doctors. They’re often smart, motivated workaholics. Usually they make a lot of money. They’re respected.

Now, look for contradictions – character aspects that separate this specific character from the norm. What if this particular doctor is actually lazy? Or maybe he’s broke… why would that be? Does he have a gambling problem? Or maybe he’s been divorced a bunch of times and spends most of his paycheck on alimony.




The hero in the excellent film Edge of Tomorrow (screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie and Jez Butterworth & John Henry Butterworth) is a soldier. We expect certain things from soldiers - bravery, toughness, discipline, maybe a little macho. We probably assume they're from working class backgrounds and have a modest education. But in this film, they made the hero a slick, fast talking PR guy for the military - and someone very afraid of going into actual combat. Those contradictions made him interesting and unique.


3. Give Them Plans

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

-John Lennon

John Lennon’s quote neatly crystallizes a valuable concept in creating characters. In order for your characters to seem like believable human beings, they can’t just be sitting around waiting for a story to happen to them. The story has to interrupt a life in progress. In other words, your characters have to have other plans.

I like to think through my characters’ short term, medium term and long term plans. Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) demonstrates this well. Richard, the main character, isn’t sitting around waiting for his daughter, Olive, to get into a beauty pageant. He has plans.

His short-term plan involves the inconvenience of taking in his brother-in-law, Frank, after Frank’s attempted suicide. In the medium term he’s trying to confirm a book deal for his “9 Steps” plan. In the long term he wants to be a motivational guru. One of the main reasons we show the characters’ plans is to establish who they are and what they want.

Let the story happen to your characters while they’re busy making other plans. After all, that’s life!





It's not unusual for me to read scripts by neophyte writers with a central character who's a loner - single, no family or friends, etc. Dedicated to their job with no outside hobbies or interests. Often they're white, middle class, mainline protestant, and in their mid-twenties - generic "movie character" demographics. Unless the story requires the character to be so one dimensional, this is usually a sign the writer is lazy. And it comes off as unrealistic - few people live like this. If you want us to care about your characters, you have to give them full, complicated lives.

--

I’m grateful for all my readers! If you find this blog useful, may I humbly suggest a way to show your appreciation: back my Kickstarter campaign and help me finish my short film, Microbe. Pledging just $10 will get you a digital download of the film. And, I’m offering a professional script analysis if you pledge $300 – that’s more than half off my usual rate.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Five Lessons from Making a Short Film

A few weeks ago I shot a short film called Microbe. It is a sci-fi/thriller story about three astronauts who struggle to survive after an alien microbe turns one of them homicidal.

I had several reasons for tackling this film. First, I want to get into directing and need a sample to show people. Second, I want to change my “brand” and start doing more science fiction. Third, I wanted to learn some of the latest film technology. I studied production in film school, but the process of filmmaking has changed greatly since then. I pushed myself with what I’m attempting. We’re using green screen, CGI, wirework stunts, and we even shot in 3D (or “stereo” as the pros call it).

We had a great time on set – I had a fantastic cast and crew – and I have learned a bunch. Now we’re moving into post-production. I thought I’d share some of the lessons I’ve learned so far about this process.

1. Make sure you actually have what you think you have before you start. I had a few problems with people offering something for the film (money, their services, free use of equipment or facilities) only to pull it back before we started. Similarly, sometimes people would say they could do something for a certain budget, only to come back later and say they needed more money – after I’d already committed to using them.

Once you start spending money on a film, it’s pretty hard not to keep going until it’s done. Not finishing means you lose everything invested to that point. So when the budget goes up, you have little choice but opening up your wallet. The more you can lock down everything, in as clear and firm terms as possible, before you actually hit the “go” button, the better. Of course filmmaking is a chaotic endeavor, so you should always have contingency of 10% in your budget.

2. Good collaborators are critical. Get people who know their jobs and listen to them. As I said, I had a great cast and crew. There was a point where we finished a shot, the actors and I stepped off the set, and I just watched the crew work. The art department was bringing in a set wall while the camera team laid dolly track, the gaffer set up lights and the grip set up C-stands. It should have been chaos – everyone running into everyone else – but instead it was like a beautiful choreographed ballet. I realized this was a century of Hollywood figuring out how to make films distilled into my well-trained crew.

Filmmaking is complex and you can’t know everything – especially on a shoot as complicated as mine. I had to rely on my stereographer to ensure the 3D was working, my VFX Supervisor to confirm the shots fit what he needed, and tons of other people to do their jobs so I could focus on the staging and acting. Especially valuable was my script supervisor making sure we got each piece we needed and that it would all cut together.

3. Take the big swing. It’s the only way to get noticed, and it makes people excited to get involved. Okay, I don’t know for sure yet that this will pay off. But my theory here is that there are tens of thousands of short films made every year. If you want someone to pay attention, you have to do something different, something interesting. So I took a big swing with a very ambitious project.

What I did find was that people were very excited to get involved. For some it was an opportunity for them to experiment with certain technology (particularly 3D for many of my crew). And it was just more fun than doing another short film shot in someone’s apartment. I was pleased to see people using the breaks in production to take pictures of themselves in the cool set my production designer constructed. And that kind of excitement helps get everyone through the long days.

4. Preparation is critical. Do and plan as much in advance as you can. Especially with complex effects, it was critical to have a carefully planned shot list and storyboards so we could figure out where to put the camera. We were constructing shots from multiple elements, so we needed to be sure everything fit together, and that we didn’t forget to shoot a particular element.

Production is chaotic – and things will go wrong. Preparation allows you to adapt and prioritize so you get what you need. One place I fell down in this regard was costuming. We didn’t do fittings with the cast in advance. Fortunately, the costumes fit them well, but we should have checked them with the harnesses for the wirework. The costumes didn’t cover the harnesses properly, forcing some creative nipping and tucking on set, and extra work for the visual effects guys who will have to digitally smooth the clothing. There was no need for this trouble – we could have tested all this in advance.

5. All jobs, and all parts of the process matter. The costuming issue was a good example. I didn’t think the costumes would be a big deal so I didn’t really pay attention to them. But a film is only great if no part fails. One bad performance can ruin a film. So can a bad score, or bad cinematography, or bad effects, or bad editing. To succeed you need everything to be good. That’s why making a great film is so hard. Fortunately, the costuming issues on our shoot were minor and fixable!

If you’d like to see more about Microbe, check the Facebook page and/or website.

As I said, I’m now in post-production on the film. We have created a Kickstarter campaign to help us pay for equipment, facilities, etc. that we need to finish. I hope you’ll check it out and consider backing us!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Hollywood Conventional Wisdom Fails

Much has been made about the huge failure of this summer’s Hollywood movies. The numbers are grim: Total U.S. box office was $4.02 billion, a drop of 17% from last year and the worst total since 2006. But actually, adjusted for inflation, this was the worst summer since 1997 – seventeen years ago! Moreover, the National Association of Theater Owners reports that this summer’s ticket sales (501 million) was the lowest since they started keeping seasonal records in 2002. Also of note, no film crossed the $300 million mark at the box office during the summer (Guardians of the Galaxy made it after summer ended). That’s the first time that’s happened in fourteen years.

So what does summer 2014’s box office mean for screenwriters? We are independent contractors – essentially small business owners – so the fate of the marketplace affects us. Of course, it’s risky to try to deduce trends from a single season. Movies are unique products, and variations in quality make for volatile short-term economic numbers.

However this summer has offered ample evidence that much of Hollywood’s “conventional wisdom” no longer applies (if it ever really did). Whether or when Hollywood producers and executives recognize this remains to be seen.

One bit of conventional wisdom is that teenage boys drive box office. A corollary to this is that movies with male leads will be more successful.

Yet this summer female driven movies such as Maleficent (ranked #3), Lucy (#12) and The Fault in our Stars (#13) were some of the most profitable films. And this follows the success of Divergent this spring. Among the broad audience films, the ones that appealed more to women such as Guardians of the Galaxy (#1) did best. The exception was Transformers: Age of Extinction (#2 with a heavily male audience).

(FiveThirtyEight.com has an interesting article showing that films that pass the Bechdel test – two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man – are typically more profitable than those that don’t.)

The emphasis on youth also seems to be outdated. According to The Hollywood Reporter, frequent moviegoers between the ages of 12-17 plunged 15% last year (2013), while moviegoers 18-25 plunged 17%. Or perhaps, given that total box office is also dropping, what this really means is that what Hollywood thinks will appeal to young people is completely outdated. Perhaps being out of touch with the young audience is a big reason for the weak summer.

The Hollywood Reporter article compares this summer’s Amazing Spider-Man 2 to the 2007 Sam Raimi Spider-Man 3. The recent movie’s audience was 39% female compared to 46% for the former, while only 41% of the recent movie’s audience was under 25 vs. 65% of the 2007 movie’s audience. The result? This summer’s Spider-Man movie was the lowest grossing of the franchise.

In fact, the reliance on franchises and well-known properties (the safest approach according to Hollywood conventional wisdom) didn’t pay off very well this summer. While the latest X-men movie managed to nearly match the last one, the latest Transformers and Spider-Man movies were among the lowest grossing in their series.  And the reboots of Teenage Mutant Turtles ($188 million) and Godzilla ($200 million) did just okay at best. The only real exception was Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which beat its predecessor. (Maybe this indicates that the other franchises were simply played out.)

The summer’s biggest hit, Guardians of the Galaxy, was technically based on a comic book, but one almost nobody had heard of. This might indicate audience really want something fresh. Lucy, which grossed $125 million on a $40 million budget, is also a point for originality.

On the other hand, perhaps the scariest summer movie for studios and screenwriters was Edge of Tomorrow. It featured big stars in Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt, was a high-concept genre movie, was loved by critics (90% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) and well-liked by audiences (B+ Cinemascore). Yet it was a big flop, grossing just $100 million domestically on a budget of $178 million. If a high-quality, commercial movie like that can fail, what does that mean for original content?

Perhaps it means, like William Goldman said, “Nobody knows anything” when it comes to box office.

The other real question is whether domestic box office really matters anymore. International box office can completely change a movie’s fate. Though Transformers: Age of Extinction was pretty ho-hum domestically, it is the number one movie of the year worldwide, with a gross over a billion dollars. (Interestingly, the female driven Maleficent comes in at #2, and Lucy holds the #12 position for the year-to-date worldwide.)

Of course box office gross might not tell us much either. Studios typically take a much lower percentage of the box office from foreign theaters than domestic, so grossing $100 million in China is not as good as grossing $50 million in the U.S. And, gross isn’t the same as profit – why Lucy is wildly successful while Edge of Tomorrow is a bomb. Furthermore, theatrical exhibition is only a small part of the studios’ revenue stream, though box office success does tend to increase the value of secondary revenue – television and cable networks, Netflix, Hulu, etc. pay more for a hit movie than a flop. Hits can be licensed to toy and video game companies; flops seldom are.

It’s enough to make a poor writer’s head spin. My takeaways are: First, the industry should stop ignoring the female audience and avoiding female stars. Second, we desperately need some fresh franchises. Perhaps that will influence the kind of material I choose to work on going forward.

(Note: I relied on Box Office Mojo heavily for my numbers)

(UPDATE: Apparently Box Office Mojo shut down within hours after I posted this!)