Friday, December 26, 2014

Interview with Simshar Writer/Director Rebecca Cremona

Shortly after I started teaching at Art Center College, a young woman from Malta named Rebecca Cremona developed a screenplay in my Screenwriting 1 class called Simshar. She went on to direct the film and this year it was Malta's official selection for the foreign film Academy Award. It's a terrific, moving tale about a maritime disaster against the backdrop of debate over immigration issues in Europe, and how the "little guy" is often caught up in political issues beyond his or her control. Rebecca kindly agreed to answer a few questions about the writing and making of Simshar for my blog.

Q: Simshar is based on a true story. It’s obviously dramatic, but what in particular drew you to this material?

Rebecca Cremona: I am very interested in how large political issues actually influence mundane life, so this fundamental link, which is intrinsic to the story, taps into a dimension I believe is very relevant in life. The story is also a manifestation of tension between tradition and change/progress - and in an increasingly globalized world and hailing from a very particular island, I find this theme too to be of great interest.

Q: What were some of the challenges of adapting a true story and how did you deal with them?

RC: There were many challenges but I would say the three main ones were: being respectful to characters based on real people who have been through extreme circumstances while simultaneously ensuring they are well rounded characters with flaws and all; sometimes fact is stranger than fiction and is just not believable, also sometimes amazing facts do not serve your story, character or themes and discipline is difficult but necessary; last but not least, when dealing with complex situations in little known parts of the world, a balance of giving enough context and not bogging down the story with too many details or too much exposition is essential.

Q: You’re credited as co-writer with David Grech. Tell me about that working relationship.

RC:Writing is such a personal, almost intimate process, so such collaborations are very delicate and can only be successful if people are on the same wavelength. After I had been writing for a couple of years I showed the screenplay to David and his feedback was so pertinent and really towards where I wanted to take the story, so we started a process where we would meet and discuss for hours and then after that I would revisit the script.

Q: This is an ambitious film for a first time feature director – you have refugee camps, a helicopter, multiple boats, a large cast including children, and of course it’s notoriously difficult to shoot on water. Did you have to make changes to the screenplay for practical or budgetary reasons?

RC: We tried very hard not to let those factors affect the story. However, as you say, it was very ambitious and, although together with the help of the team, the Maltese community and the expertise of our line producer we really maximized our resources almost beyond belief, there were times we had to compromise. For the longest time the opening scene was completely different and I wish we were able to keep it as it was intended originally as I feel it was much more effective. I think learning what and how to compromise is a big part of filmmaking, especially independent filmmaking.

Q: I love the complex thematic elements related to the refugees and how you manage to really justify everyone’s point of view and show how so many people are caught in no-win situations. Also, you aren’t heavy handed, letting the story drive the movie and using the immigration issues as a backdrop. How tough was it to keep that balance?

RC: I am so glad you felt that way. We put a lot of effort into that - lots of research not only in terms of reading up about the various issues and incidents but also by means of meeting the various groups of people - fishermen, refugees, soldiers...keeping the people in mind and prioritizing them over the issues was a good guiding principle to avoid being heavy handed.

Q: What did you learn about screenwriting from the experience of directing? Will you approach your next screenplay differently at all?

RC: Because of the emotional intensity and sometimes even the community specific jargon (for instance that of the fishing community) we sometimes derived the actual dialogue from selects drawn from a series of improvisations in rehearsals led by outlines dictated by the script. I'm particularly happy with those scenes and would love to work more along those lines in the future. Of course it depends on what the style of the story is and what access one has to the actors and prep time available...

Q: How has the awards season experience been?

RC: Incredible. Although we didn't make it to the shortlist it was wonderful to screen the film to the academy members and to be considered serious contenders together with some legendary filmmakers and really amazing films. Moreover, it was great to put Malta on the map as it was the first time the country participated. It also led to me getting representation with Management 360 which I am very excited about. So all in all a fantastic first time and I hope there will be others.

Q: What’s next for you?

RC: I have another story I am particularly passionate about and am working on the script for together with an American writer. I certainly don't discount working on films based on other people's scripts whilst the development for that is underway though. And although I am drawn to my country and the wonderful cultural specificity there, I believe that good stories are everywhere and I am happy to go where they are.

Thanks Rebecca! And for my readers, you can find out more about Simshar on the film's Facebook page and by following it on Twitter.

Friday, December 19, 2014

8 Truths for Building a Screenwriting Career

News flash: it’s very hard to break in to the screenwriting business. It’s equally hard to stay in it. There are many more talented people who want to write movies and television than will get the chance. The difficulty level can lead to mindsets that harm your chances of success. Here are eight truths that will help you avoid mental traps:

1. There is no “wall” between you and the industry, no secret password to break in.
For new writers it can seem like Hollywood is surrounded by a big wall, and they need to find some secret door to get past it. This can lead them to stalk industry insiders, or to try embarrassing gimmicks to get attention, or to fall prey to promises of, “if you just buy my product or seminar, you will be able to break in.” But in fact Hollywood is always on the lookout for fantastic new writers. Yes, you have to network. Yes, contests and pitch fests can help get you noticed. Yes, it will take time, determination, and a lot of rejection. But most people fail not because they lack access but because their material really is not yet as great as they think it is or because they don’t put in the required effort. So focus on creating better material and then getting it read, and stop looking for the “secret” way into the business.

2. It is always hard.

Two stories: After Sweet Home Alabama came out I was looking for a new agent via my manager. We were having difficulty getting agents to even read my new spec. I said to my manager, “Wow, I thought this would get easier.” She replied, “Oh no. It’s never easy. Get that out of your head.”

Second story: I got to have dinner with David Seidler (writer of The King’s Speech) at a WGA event. I asked him if winning the Oscar changed anything. He told me a story about going to a meeting (after the Oscar) where he thought he was being offered a writing job. It turned out he was competing against five other writers for the gig – four of whom also had Oscars. He said, “All that changes is you move to a higher level of competition.”

3. You need luck, but it will do you no good if you are not prepared.

Ask any writer how they broke into the business and their story will inevitably contain a moment where they got very lucky. It can make you think success is random. But here’s the thing – everyone who makes the effort gets those lucky breaks. And if you stick with it, you will continue to get even more breaks. The writers who succeed are those who are prepared when the opportunity comes – prepared with good material and professional work habits.

4. Stop blaming outside forces for your lack of success. Even if it’s true, it won’t help you.

You hear a lot about ageism, sexism, racism, etc. in the business. Statistics back up the claim that it is harder for non-white, non-male, non-young writers to succeed. But if this applies to you, you can’t use it as an excuse. Whining won’t change things. And it can be a trap – I’ve seen writers refuse to accept that their material needs work because they blame outside forces for their failure. As a result, they never improve. If the playing field is tilted against you, you really have only two choices: give up or work harder. (The same applies if you have dyslexia, a family to support, or any other reason you blame for your failures other than the quality of your material.) The reality is that it’s hard for everyone, even young white males.

5. It is a business. If you want to be a pro, you have to learn the business side.

If you want to write screenplays as a hobby, you can write whatever you want and not bother to learn about the business. But unless you are independently wealthy, your screenplays will then be doomed to remain unmade. If you want to earn a living at writing, and you want studios or independent financiers to pay for production of your movies, you need to take the business side seriously. You have to follow the trades, network, learn to pitch, learn to incorporate studio notes, etc.

6. Nobody owes you. You have to earn it.

Nobody cares how badly you want to be a screenwriter. They only care how good your material is and how professional you are. Fortunately, passion can help you become a better writer. But only if you don’t feel entitled to a career. Focus on proving that you deserve a career. Be humble, work hard, and be willing to learn.

7. Being selfish holds you back. Being nice, generous, and cooperative opens doors.

Ask not what your industry contacts can do for you, ask what you can do for them. You will need help to start and maintain a career in Hollywood. People like to help people that they like. So remember the golden rule and treat people as you would like to be treated.

8. Watch your back.

Despite the above, be aware that there are many people who will try to take advantage of you, including some straight up con men that prey on desperation. Don’t let that make you overly cynical or suspicious – that will hurt you as well. But do your homework on people. Make sure they’re who they say they are. And seek legal advice when dealing with contract issues. Don’t be afraid to say no if something feels creepy or unfair. It can be better for your career long term to turn down the wrong offer. 

Keep these truths in mind as you climb that difficult mountain that we call a career in screenwriting.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Mailbag: How Much Do Screenwriters Make?

Today I’m going to address a couple of questions that have been asked by blog readers.

Marilyn Thomas asked about the financials of a normal script sale (as opposed to a huge million dollar type of sale).

This is a tough question because there really isn’t such a thing as a “normal” script sale, especially these days. For the purposes of this question, we’ll assume it’s a WGA covered deal (an independent, non-union deal could be for as little as nothing up front in return for a vague back-end payment). We’ll also assume we’re talking about a studio film (i.e. high budget), and that we’re talking about a straight up spec sale.

You can look at the schedule of WGA minimum payments on the Guild website - it can be a little hard to follow, as it covers multiple time periods and budget levels. Currently the minimum (scale) for an original high budget spec sale is $93,257. Often your agent will be able to negotiate scale+10% for a new writer. To make the math easy, we’ll round off to $100,000

Typically, studios don’t purchase the script outright, they option the script (giving them the exclusive right to purchase the script for one year - if they don't you get it back and keep the option payment). A 10% option for one year with a renewal for an additional 10% is fairly standard. That means your option payment would be $10,000.

Of that, you’ll pay 10% ($1,000) to your agent, 10% ($1,000) to your manager, and 5% ($500) to your attorney, assuming you have all three. The Guild dues are 1.5% ($150). That means your revenue will be $7,500. Your tax rate will depend on a lot of other factors about your income, but let’s say it’s 25%. Fortunately the above commissions and dues are deductable, so taking 25% off $7,500, you’re left with $5,625 for the one year option.

If the studio exercises the option and purchases the script, they pay the difference between the option and the purchase price. That’s $90,000 more to you – minus $9000 to your agent, $9000 to your manager, $4500 to your attorney and $1350 to the WGA. That leaves you with $66,150, which, after taxes, comes to $49,612.50. There will probably be a few other expenses from that as well, such as for an accountant to handle your taxes.

Of course there’s lots of variables in there. Your option could be for more or less. The total price could be higher if there’s competition among buyers. But the market for specs is very weak right now. Bidding wars are rare and often producers don’t feel the need to option material because they aren’t afraid of someone else stealing it away from them, or else they option it for a token payment. Also, ideally you want to include a rewrite in your deal, which would add a minimum of $33,916 to the deal but comes with other issues.

Still, that should give you an idea of how a deal might look for a new writer working with a studio. The most important thing is to get experienced people to advise and represent you. You especially want a good entertainment attorney.

Now on to the second question:

David Bishop asked, “The usual wisdom says you should write within your wheel house to build a cohesive career. … You've blogged how Sweet Home Alabama was an outlier for you, and that created challenges when it took off. Could you talk about how overcome that challenge, or about what happened next?”

Today we refer to this as your “brand.” Successful screenwriters are typically associated with one type of film – a certain genre, and maybe budget level or style. There are big career advantages to this. You’ll build relationships with producers and execs who like that type of film. You’ll get called upon when they need someone with the skill set you’ve established. And it will be easier to keep track of the market and your competition.

One big advantage to being a screenwriter is you can change your brand simply by writing spec work of a different type. If you’re a horror writer and you decide you want to write broad comedy, just write a broad comedy spec and voila – now you’re a broad comedy writer.

However, you lose much of the clout from what you did before. Most of the producers and executives with whom you’ve built relationships writing horror won’t be interested in making a broad comedy. The few who are might read yours but they’ll be skeptical of your abilities since they only know your skills at horror. And broad comedy producers will not know you or your writing. You’ll be building your network again almost from scratch.

Furthermore, your agent or manager may not be interested in representing you for broad comedy (you should definitely discuss it with them before changing your brand). So you may have to seek out new representation. And since agents and managers generally want to see multiple scripts from a prospective client, that means you’ll need to write more than one broad comedy spec to prove your abilities - and your commitment to the new direction.

Essentially, shifting brands means starting over again almost as though you were a newbie.

After Sweet Home Alabama set records for a September opening, I got known as a romantic comedy writer with particular skills in writing female characters. It opened a lot of doors to me. I could get pitch meetings just about anywhere – as long as I was pitching romantic comedy. Most of my assignment work has been in that genre – just this year I got a gig to rewrite a romantic comedy.

But what I've always wanted to write is science fiction and adventure movies. Sweet Home Alabama was an unusual spec for me, something I did in school somewhat on a whim before I really thought about things like branding. I don’t regret it. I like being paid to write! But I decided a couple years after the movie came out that I wanted to do different things and set about changing my brand. So I wrote a new action-adventure spec. My manager at the time was very supportive, but my agents weren't. So when I finished the spec I started looking for a new agent. To my shock, about a third would not even read the action-adventure spec. "If he does a romantic comedy, we'll look at it," they'd tell my manager.

Fortunately, the agent I did sign with, Lew Weitzman, was very supportive of the new direction. With his help, I was able to do some new things. Unfortunately Lew passed away a bit over a year ago. My current manager understands what I want to do now… but he still frequently encourages me to reconsider romantic comedy. It’s just easier for him to sell me that way.

What I really need is for one of my newer scripts to get turned into a big hit movie. But that's easier said than done.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

How Original Is Your Idea?

Reader D Brian Weller recently asked me, “How can a writer know an idea hasn’t been done before?”

Of course this is of great concern to screenwriters. But the short answer is, you can’t, really. In fact, with tens of thousands of people out there writing spec screenplays, there’s a pretty good chance at least a few of them are working on very similar ideas to yours right now. Every movie that comes out inevitably gets sued by two or three people who are convinced the producers stole their script. The writers always lose those lawsuits. Always.*

I’m not saying nobody ever steals an idea in Hollywood, but in the vast, vast, vast majority of these cases, a writer simply couldn’t accept that someone else had the same idea as them. I guarantee you, no matter how original you think your idea is, at least three other screenwriters are working on something similar.

It can, of course, be pretty depressing than to be a few weeks away from finishing a spec only to read about a sale in the trades of a script with the exact same idea. Unfortunately it happens.

That said, you do need to make an effort to make sure there wasn’t a movie already made on your idea. There’s no quick way to discover this. However, you should be watching everything you can in the genre you’re writing. If you’re writing science fiction, you should be watching every science fiction movie that comes out and working your way through the catalog of science fiction movies on DVD. If you’re writing horror, you should be seeing everything horror you can. Also reading books and comic books and seeing plays in your genre. (This is one often unmentioned reasons to work in a single genre… switching around requires you to do considerably more homework and research.) I would also recommend using a source like Done Deal Pro to keep track of what has sold recently.

There have been so many movies made (and books published and plays performed, etc.) that there really are no original ideas anymore, at least not good ones. But the originality of an idea is a little overrated. You don’t want to have a logline that immediately brings to mind another movie, of course, but it’s really the development and execution of the idea that counts.

Sometimes it’s a matter of identifying what’s original in your own idea. The Hangover (written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore) is about a bachelor party gone bad, an idea that was also the basis of Bachelor Party (story by Bob Israel, screenplay by Bob & Neal Israel and Pat Proft). If you presented The Hangover as:

A raunchy comedy about a bachelor party that goes horribly awry.

It will sound derivative. What’s original is the search for the groom aspect. That’s the new element. So a better log line for The Hangover would be:

A raunchy comedy about five friends who go to Vegas for a bachelor party and lose the groom. The four groomsmen must retrace their steps and find the groom in time for the wedding.

You’ll notice that it’s the specific details that make the idea seem original. This may seem obvious when analyzing an existing high concept film, but I see many writers who don’t take the time to identify the core details that are crucial to the originality of their concept. They either make a generic log line (such as the first one above), or they overload their log line with non-core detail. But identifying the core, specific, original details of your idea will help ensure you develop your script to emphasize these elements. Spend time on this before you start writing!

Often good movies come from adding a twist to a common or even cliché idea. Alien (story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, screenplay by Dan O’Bannon) took the monster movie and set it in space. Frequently the best way to ad a fresh spin is through the main character. Bridesmaids (written by Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumolo) did the bachelor party comedy seen in movies like Bachelor Party and The Hangover, but made the main characters women. Suddenly a tired idea was fresh. Attack the Block (written by Joe Cornish) is about an alien invasion – something we’ve seen a million times – but the heroes are street thugs. How original!

In 1981, Dragonslayer (written by Hal Barwood & Matthew Robbins) made a cliché story idea of a hero rescuing a princess from a dragon fresh by making the hero the wizard’s inexperienced apprentice rather than the wizard himself. Twenty years later Shrek (screenplay by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio and Joe Stillman and Roger S.H. Schulman) told the same story but made the hero a grumpy ogre, a traditional villain in most fairy tails.

Die Hard (screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza) did both a twist on the genre and an unexpected main character. At the time, action movies were globe-trotting adventures with heavily armed, indestructible, superheroic main characters. Die Hard contained the action in a single location and gave us a hero that was unarmed, overmatched and bled when he was hurt.

But the bigger point is that Alien, Bridesmaids, Atack the Block, Dragonslayer, Shrek and Die Hard succeeded because they were good, at least in terms of what they were attempting to do. A good idea poorly executed will do nothing. So do your research, identify the original core details of your idea, and, most importantly, write well!

(If you’re interested in more on this topic, see this post on The Value of an Idea)

*You may be thinking of the Art Buchwald Coming to America lawsuit. He actually won breach-of-contract, not copyright infringement. He had a contract with Paramount that if they made a movie based on the idea, he would be compensated. Or maybe you’re thinking about The Matrix case. That’s a myth based on an inaccurate newspaper article. See: