Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Writer Tip #2: Write For Actors



Wanna be a screenwriter?

Then write roles actors want to play.

Okay, okay. I know what you're thinking. Actors want to work. Therefore, they are happy to play any role anyone offers them. True. But there will come the time when you need someone special, and, when that day comes, you're only going to get them if you give them a role they want to play.

Now, granted, Clint Howard isn't Brad Pitt, but he is a fine comic actor who took the time out of his busy schedule to come out and appear in our little comedy. Why? Because he liked the role. As he said in the clip above, he said he liked to pick roles where he knows "he can come in and throw strikes." Tim Ratajczak and I gave him that role. He knew he could have fun with it. So he came out. So did Fred Willard -- one of the best comic character actors of our time. When Fred got onto the set, one of the first things he did was ask to meet the screenwriters. He wanted to tell us how much he enjoyed the writing. What a compliment from someone who had made me laugh so many times!

The Fred Willard part, by the way, was completely rewritten a few times. We knew we wanted a "name" in that role and we altered the script to fit the personality of each different actor before we sent it to them. For example, we put some subtle Star Wars references into the script before we gave it to Mark Hamil. (Word to the wise: Don't send Mark Hamil a script with Star Wars jokes.) I was so delighted that we got Fred Willard. I can't imagine anyone being better.

This all seems obvious, doesn't it? But it's not.

When I was an unproduced screenwriter, I aimed for a sense of naturalism in my writing. I hated those big, showy, Hollywoody actory moments. I pointedly avoided writing them. I wanted my characters to talk like real people, and their conversations to be as honest as ones you would hear on a bus stop. What an idiot! People don't pay ten dollars a ticket to listen to people talk on a bus stop! Back in those days I had a real agent and genuine interest in my scripts. But none of them sold. Now, looking back, I wonder if they didn't sell because I deliberately held back from giving the audience, in that case, agents and producers, the emotion and release they wanted.

(Or maybe the scripts simply weren't good enough.)

One of the best books I reading on writing "star" parts was Adventures In The Screen Trade by William Goldman. However, his illustrations were so etched in sarcasm that I ignored them. The light didn't go off over my head until I was editing a movie for horrormeister Mark Redfield. We were about to cut a speech a supporting character gave for length purposes. Mark wasn't happy about it. Not because we were cutting the script he wrote, but, instead, because we were cutting the other actor's big moment. Being an actor himself, Mark writes with an actor's mindset. He wants to give every actor in the film the kind of moment that he, as an actor, would like to have himself.

What I learned from Mark Redfield was amplified in my work with the mighty actor/producer/director David A.R. White. David has hired Tim and myself to write many movies, and his analysis of the scripts has given me great insight in the mind of the actor. In fact, David once hired us to write a Christmas movie. Before we started, David pointedly told us that he wasn't interested in playing the leading role. Tim and I took that as a challenge. We decided we were going to write the leading role in such a way that he couldn't resist it. By the end of the first draft, David told us he wanted to play it himself. (But he obviously didn't want to produce it, since it is the only commissioned script Tim and I worked on which hasn't been produced or isn't in active pre-production.)

There's an old Hollywood story that when Liz Taylor got a script, she would only read her lines into a mirror to see how she looked saying them. I believe it.

That is not just ego.

Actors know themselves and what they can do. They want to do what they think they do best.

As a screenwriter, your job is to help them do exactly that.

Sean & Tim with Freaking Fred Willard




Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Writer Tip #1: The First Act

The first act is most important one in any movie. If you don't hook your audience, you won't have an audience for long.

I've had the mixed pleasure and anxiety of watching films I've either edited or written play in front of theater audiences. In that situation, you can't help but study the audience -- living or dying with every reaction. Audiences are fascinating things. They tend to be self selected. They have deliberately chosen to spend their time and money with you. Therefore, they tend to be predisposed to like your film. However, that predisposition doesn't last forever. You have to prove to them that your film is worth watching. You've got to suck them into the story.

I have seen this time and time again. The audience sits there watching you introduce your characters. You try to dazzle them with your banter. So far so good. Then you notice something. The audience is starting to get restless. They want to know where you're planning to take them. If don't tell them soon enough, you'll lose them.

As a feature editor, I can say that I spend most of my time struggling to bring the audience to the point that they know what the film is about as quickly as possible. Even in character studies. Even in documentaries. Often times we, the director and myself, will find ourselves throwing out pages of the script. Why? Because the audience wants a story. Get on with it. Writers, myself included, tend to load up the first act with all sorts of character development. That's good. But you have to be succinct.

According to the bulk of the screenwriting books I have read, a script is broken down into three acts. The setup, the complication, and the climax. So far so good. Most of the authors recommend that a screenplay be between 110-120 pages with the first act ending at page 30, the second act ending at page 90, and the third act filling out the rest. I disagree with the equation on two levels.

First off, only Big Hollywood wants 120 page scripts. By Big Hollywood, I mean the majors and the mini-majors that make the bulk of the theatrical features. Little Hollywood, the straight-to-DVD and cable world, doesn't want scripts that long. They prefer them to be 90-to-100 pages in length -- preferably closer to 90. I have found this true in various genres. Why? The reason is simple. Every page means money production money spent. And they know they aren't going to make more money with a two-hour movie than they would with a eighty-seven minute movie. So why spend the money? And, obviously, if you're writing a ninety-page script, which most of the ones I have been commissioned to write tend to be, you can't spend thirty pages on your first act.

Now I try to get to the end of Act One within twenty pages or twenty minutes. That seems to be about how long it takes before the audience starts to get restless. Look at the classic films of Hollywood. Man, those first acts moved. I love what they managed to do in so little time!

One additional piece of advice about first acts: Don't put a bad performance in act one.

If you're making an independent film, you will probably suffer from the occasional sketchy performance now and then. People are willing to overlook that once they've been hooked. However, if your bad performance is in the first act -- particularly the first five minutes -- forget about it.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Rebecca St. James on Fox & Friends



Amazing. Who'd think a little film like SARAH'S CHOICE would be featured on a national morning show. It is nothing short of a miracle.

So I thank God.

And Rebecca St. James too.

Rebecca has been absolutely delightful in all of my dealings with her. Normally, Tim Ratajczak, my co-writer, and I make an appearance in Los Angeles during the shoot of our films. However, our schedules didn't allow us to attend this time. Oh well. I don't think we would have made much of a difference. Knowing the traditional, time honored status of the screenwriter in Hollywood, we usually limit ourselves to a few visits to the set to get pictures with the stars for our FaceBook pages before we turn to more important pursuits like going to the Nixon Presidential Library. (I think I did my impersonation of Nixon saying "No one will ever write a book about my mother" to every member of the staff. And then, to say, "I was born in the house my father built," in the house his father built. Man. They were probably very happy to see me go.)

While following the progress of the shoot via pictures other folks were putting on their FaceBook pages, I got a call from Rebecca. She was full of kind words about the script, and told me about her experiences on the set -- including a report about her big crying scene which was surprisingly shot on the second day. She wanted to know how long it took Tim and I to write the script. I think she thought we were kidding when I said, "Two weeks." By the time I hung up the phone, I was certain our character Sarah was in good and thoughtful hands.

And I was right. Rebecca gave a wonderfully naturalistic performance in the film. I was given the opportunity to do a polish edit of the film and was truly impressed with her work. I particularly liked her reaction shots. You'd be surprised how many actors can read the lines, but can't do a natural reaction shot!

I managed to meet Rebecca during the location shoot in Ohio. I must admit I am always a little worried when I meet Christians with public ministries. I don't find out that they are hypocrites, or that they are only in it for the money. Fortunately, I didn't have to worry about Rebecca. Rebecca is the real deal. She is a committed believer with a genuine concern for people. I was particularly impressed with her concern about women in crisis pregnancies. We all attended a CareNet event in my hometown of Baltimore and, after the screening of the film, she must've talked with or had a picture taken with everyone in the room. It wasn't an obligation to her. It was something she wanted to do. A more relaxed gathering at a film festival my opinion.

She's a class act.

And a tireless worker.

Google "Sarah's Choice" and "Rebecca St. James." See how many hits you get. She is out doing everything in her power to get the word out about the film and about the cause.

She doesn't have to do it.

She has concerts to perform. Songs to write. Other acting jobs. Other causes to espouse.

But she's promoting this film every way she can.

She's committed.

And I admire that.

Thanks.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Rejected!

Wow. Three days ago one of my films hit the shelves. The critics proclaimed that it was "heartfelt and genuine" and "a perfect little film." (Okay, both quotes were from the same critic, but you get the point.)

I was starting to get a little carried away. Fortunately, my sense of perspective was restored by my old friend:

REJECTION.

I have been blogging about the my recent pitch. I have sent my new script out to various production companies. I have received my first response today.

The director of development didn't like it. He thought the script was well thought out but they felt they had seen all of the characters before and that the ending was oh so predictable.

He passed.

I suppose I should be devastated. This company actually made some real movies. Ones that actually played in the theaters. I would have been delighted if they wanted to make it, but they didn't. I should be sad, but I'm not. Why? Because rejection is part of the business. If you can't handle it, you should consider another line of work.

I actually respected the fact that the guy bothered to write back and say what he didn't like about the script. Most of the time you just never hear from them, and, six or seven years later, you assume they weren't interested.

I can handle rejection. I got quite a bit of it back when I was dating.

Time to send out more pitches.

Somebody else might like it.

It's happened before.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Sarah's Choice: Humble Tears



Today, "Sarah's Choice" is being released on DVD.

One day perhaps I will write about how the film came into being but not today.

Today is simply a day to enjoy.

It's a faith-based film. Therefore, some people will love it. Other people will hate it. I expect that.

Personally, I am very proud of this little film. I think it will prove to be one of the best and most effective independent films in the genre. I believe the actors were able to find the characters behind the words. Too many faith-based films are simply message-driven polemics, but I think we managed to deliver some genuine human moment here and there.

I have seen this film with live theater audiences in Baltimore, Boston and Pittsburgh. The people seemed genuinely moved by it. People cried. Men and Women.

That's very humbling.

As a filmmaker, your goal is to get a reaction out of an audience. You want to sweep them out of their seats and take them on a journey. My first feature film, "21 Eyes," was a mystery, and a rather esoteric one at that. It was hard to tell exactly how deeply engaged the audience was in the mystery. The only way we could tell for sure how involved they were was by their laughter. The director Lee Bonner and I gauged the success of each festival screening by where they laughed. Some of the jokes were so subtle and woven into the narrative that they would be missed by someone who wasn't keenly involved in the story. Every time they laughed we knew we had gotten through to them.

If all I ever managed to do was make an audience laugh that would have been enough. Who could set out to make someone cry? That seems rather arrogant. And unattainable.

The first thing I wrote that made people cry was a still unproduced horror screenplay called "A Call of Love." Two of my test readers told me they cried while reading that dark tragedy. I was shocked. And no one cried again until "Hidden Secrets." People were sobbing at a screening in Pittsburgh.

"Sarah's Choice" is a film fraught with emotion. Tim Ratajczak and I hoped it would engage people on an emotional level, but, we didn't try to manipulate. I remember seeing a film about a dog in the theaters a few years ago. It brought some tears to my eyes, but I truly resented it because I felt the filmmakers were throwing everything but the kitchen sink at me to get that response. I don't think we did that with "Hidden Secrets" or "Sarah's Choice." We didn't try to manipulate. We simply tried to tell the tale the best we could.

People cried.

But were we responsible? No. I don't think so.

Film audiences are self-selective. People tend to know what a film is about before they see it. And, if they cry, it isn't necessarily the skill of the writers, producers, actors or director. It is usually because of something inside the person who cries. The film simply reawakens something that already existed inside of them. I know this because I talked to a number of people after each screening, and they all seemed to have a tale to tell which was just as moving as the film.

That said, I am still very thankful to everyone involved in the film from all the folks at PureFlix, executive producer John Molli, director Chad Kapper, and all the actors including Rebecca St. James, Julian Bailey, Andrea Logan White, Brad Stine, Staci Keanan, Autumn Paul and Sean Sedgwick.

And let's not forget Master Ethan White.

Thanks everyone.

(Photo: My wife, Deborah Murphy, my star Rebecca St. James, and America's favorite Fat Man.)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Distributors

Welcome to what will hopefully be my most discreet blog because if I wrote what I really wanted to say, and named names, I could be sued and I would also alienate filmmaker friends and colleagues who have been kind enough to share the details of their miserable deals with me.

Let me sum it up like this: Distributors are people who want to make money from your film, but don't necessarily feel the need to see you do the same.

That is no exaggeration.

I was a participant in a question and answer session with a major indie distributor. A filmmaker was asking the distributor about recouping the his costs to his investor. The distributor just laughed. He said he didn't care whether the filmmaker's investors made money. The only thing that he was concerned about recouping was his prints and advertising costs.

That about sums it up.

The distributor is not your friend.

I have worked with and met a lot of people in various capacities in the film business. I have heard one horror story after another concerning distribution deals. I have run across very few success stories. The producer of one of the first features I edited got a very nice upfront advance for North American video that covered his production costs. He was a rarity. Most of the time you will receive no advance and no royalties for your movie. All you will get receive is an entry on the internet movie database, and, hopefully, good enough reviews to help get you another movie.

I am not saying most distributors are dishonest. I'm sure most of them live up to the terms of their contracts. The problem is that the terms of the contracts are weighted so heavily in favor of the distributors that the filmmaker is virtually guaranteed not to make a cent. A couple of companies expressed interest in "21 Eyes," so I handled quite a few contacts. (And heard about many more second hand.) Most of what you read is boilerplate. The main points of contention, which vary from company to company, involve percentages and billable costs. The percentages usually don't sound too bad. Generally, they will take twenty-to-thirty percent of the profits, leaving you with eighty-to-seventy percent. Sounds great, doesn't it? Well, don't buy the Jag yet. Now come the fees which include artwork, advertising, manufacturing, travel to festivals and markets, office expenses, long distance phone calls. You get the picture. The costs will continue to pile up and you're never going to get to that twenty/eighty split. Some distributors, who claim to be more honest, will eschew costs in return for a one time flat fee of, say, if you are going straight to video, fifty-to-seventy thousand dollars. That's no deal. Most films released by these small companies will take years, if ever, to recoup that fee.

Why do filmmakers tolerate this? Because we're desperate. After a year or two of kicking around, filmmakers are willing to practically give their films away for free just to get them out. That's why you can't expect to get a decent advance for horror movie. Why would a distributor give you an advance? Next month he's going get another fifty films in the mail from desperate filmmakers who will let him have them for nothing. Why should he pay you? It's simple economics.

I used to do some work with an old school negative film cutter, the late, great Donny Bono, who told me that back in the 'seventies and early 'eighties that ANY finished film found a distributor. Why? Because it was so expensive to make a film in film that few independents dared. The distributors were starved for product. Now, thanks to the video and HD revolution, the market is flooded with films. Supply has far outstripped demand.

Do I feel we were ripped off with "21 Eyes?" No. Vanguard Cinema did give us an advance. We liked their artwork. And they have been giving us the proscribed sales reports. Everything seems to be on the up and up. The problem came with promotion and advertising. There was none. They sent out a press release, and emailed their mailing list. That seems to be it. They seemed to have little reach into the world of brick and mortar retail other than Tower Records, which essentially collapsed right before our film was released. Fortunately, the film is readily available for rental and instant streaming at Netflix, and available for sale online practically everywhere.

(Pssst. Wanna know a secret? We're actually making more money from downloads on various sites than on DVD sales. Some folks in Hollywood say it's the way of the future.)

I have two pieces of advice:

Filmmaker Mark Redfield taught me a valuable lesson: Make sure the distributor is really a distributor.

Too often, people sign with so-called distributors who are essentially sub-distributors who simply license the films they sign to real distributors. Here's how it works. You sign with Joe Distributor. He calls you a couple months later to tell you that MiniMajor picked up your movie. Wow! You immediately think you've died and gone to dog heaven. You see your film on the shelves at Blockbuster. On the aisles in Best Buy. You read in the trades that your film is raking up dollars. Now you wait for the check. And wait. And wait. It never comes. Why? Because now there are too many hands in the pot. Let's say you made a 20/80 percentage deal with a flat $50,000 fee for costs with Joe Distributor. Well, guess what, Joe's gone off and made a 30/70 percentage deal with a flat $70,000 fee with MiniMajor. The difference is that, unlike you, Joe got a $20,000 advance from MiniMajor that he doesn't have to share with you since he hasn't recouped his $50,000 fee yet. It doesn't matter him whether he sees a percentage from MiniMajor. He got a film from you for free and put $20,000 in his pocket. Next month, there will be another fifty new movies in his mailbox for him to choose from. Everybody's happy. Everybody's made money. Except you.

The key is to cut out this sub-distributor. How can you tell the difference? The real distributor is the one who manufactures the disks and puts them in the stores. Now this isn't to say that a quote/unquote real distributor won't rip you off. He might. But at least he'll be the only one doing it.

Here's the second piece of advice:

Do all the research you can. Talk to other filmmakers who they have distributed. If they made money, you might too.

Here's a great filmmaker survey about distributors on Entertainment Attorney Mark Litwak's webpage. Definitely check it out:

Filmmakers Clearing House

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Film Festivals, or, The Agony and The Ecstasy



I've been to a lot of film festivals throughout the country, and, to one degree or another, I have enjoyed them all.

And why not?

You're going to a place that appreciates you. A place that selected your film out of hundreds, if not thousands, of entries. And, if you're lucky, they might even provide you a free hotel room! (That's the most a writer, producer or director can expect. The rule of thumb at festivals seems to be that they will consider paying for the travel of actors -- provided they have a big enough name to bring people to the festival. How big a name they need to be depends on the size and location of the festival.) At the very least you should get a meal at the gala opening and closing of the festival.

Then there's screening. An auditorium full of people who actually paid real, honest-to-God, money to see a film that you made actually made yourself. Afterwards you get to stand up, answer some questions and enjoy some kudos. Then there's what you can learn from other filmmakers who are further along down the line than you. I will always remember Greg Pak, writer/director of "Robot Stories." He was on his second year on the festival circuit and had parlayed his success in the festivals, and the relationships he developed with the theater owners, to put his film into limited theatrical release. Trust me, there is much to learn at festivals if you take the time to listen.

So where does the agony come in?

The first thing you might notice is the quality of some of the other films in the festival. Some of them are very good. Maybe even better than yours. Then you notice that they've been on the festival circuit for a year or so and they still haven't found a distributor. Yikes. Then you start talking with the people who made films you admired, and, if you can get beyond the normal filmmaking ego BS, you can hear all of the horror stories about the terrible deals, if any, they have been offered. How their investors are worried, if not angry. There's a lot of desperation behind the smiles in the filmmakers' lounge. And heaven forbid if a genuine distributor enters the room. Everyone pounces on him like wolves. Me included.

Are festivals worth it?

Don't fool yourself. Festivals are expensive. Forget the travel. The submission fees themselves tend to run about thirty to fifty dollars a piece, and you will probably be entering quite a few of them. A year on the festival circuit could cost you thousands of dollars, and I'm betting you didn't include that money in the budget of your film.

We, director Lee Bonner, producer David Butler and myself, were actually quite lucky with "21 Eyes" which began its festival life as "Replay." We had about a 33% acceptance rate from festivals. We were also able to use the festival audiences as a laboratory. "21 Eyes" has an unusual narrative style and we constantly tinkered with the opening to make it as easy as possible for the audience to understand. Three different versions of the film played at the various festivals, each one an improvement on the previous ones. I am thankful for that. However, I am not thankful that we hurried the post-production in order to make the Sundance submission deadline.

Don't rush your film to make Sundance.

Why?

Because you're not going to get into it anyway.

I say this despite the fact that I work with filmmakers whose films were screened and sold out of Sundance. Trust me. They are anomalies, particularly at today's Sundance where the average budget of the films hovers around $30 million. The odds are against you. You have a better chance of getting accepted into Harvard Law School.

That said, out of the thousands of films festivals around the world, Sundance is one of the few that can actually help your film. The other few include Toronto and Cannes. No distributors are going to be lining up outside of your door because your film played at Milwaukee International Film Festival -- which, by the way, was a great film festival. The people of Milwaukee love their independent films!

So why go to the others?

Let quantity make up for quality.

I know it for a fact that many distributors expressed interest in "21 Eyes" because it had appeared in so many film festivals. It didn't matter that most of them were little ones. The sheer number was enough. There is a certain herd mentality in the film business, and distributors are more willing to take a chance on films that other people had already taken a chance on. The programmers of all of those festivals can't be wrong....

I'll tell what's fun though.

Going to a film festival with a film that already has a distributor! That's the way it's been with my faith-based films. The distributors just send them to festivals to build a little word of mouth. No worries. (Hopefully.)

One final word of advice. Think twice before submitting your homegrown independent film to the local film festival as a premiere. Chances are you are going to sell out the theater with your cast and crew and all their friends and relatives. Why give that audience to festival which isn't going to share the box office with you? Rent a theater instead and have a cast and crew screening. It will help you recoup your budget.

Nothing wrong with that.

(Photo: Sean Paul Murphy, Lee Bonner and David Butler at a screening of Replay/21 Eyes at the AFI Theater in Washington DC. Sorry about the flash!)

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Art of the Pitch, Part Two, Or, The Database

The pitch for my new script "Judy" continues and I am enjoying it quite a bit.

You need two things for a good pitch: A good pitch letter and a good database.

I am very proud of my database.

I bought a fabulous address program for my PC by Parsons Technology back in 2002 and I started adding information about production companies. My main source of information were the absolutely essential Hollywood Creative Directory guides. Unfortunately, in the old days, I was somewhat simple minded and bought the hard copies of the guides which meant I had to type in all the contact information for the various production companies, distributors and agents that interested me. Now, I subscribe online to the Hollywood Creative directory and simply copy and pasted the information into program. The subscription is a tad expensive, but it is well worth it. It's so much easier.

Every time I see or hear about an interesting film along the lines of something I am working on, or in a genre that I plan to work in, I add the production companies to my database. Before long, I had well over a thousand companies divided into many categories based on the type of films they made. Chick flicks. Horror. Thrillers. Low budget. High budget. Independent. Cable. Of course, it is very difficult keeping the list updated, but, if you wanted to do something easy, you wouldn't be trying to make a living in the movie business. Still, the tools are readily available now. The Hollywood Creative Directory, coupled with the IMDB, will definitely help you fine tune the people who need to see you script. (Also, don't forget anyonewhoisanyone.com. That is a great source for industry email addresses!)

What do I do? Mainly email query letters -- despite the fact that email queries are probably the least likely to get through to the intended targets. Generally, about twenty-or-thirty percent of the email addresses turn out to be invalid. And God only knows how many of the queries that don't bounce back to me end up in spam folders. If I get one get one request for a read out of thirty emails, I feel like I'm doing pretty good. The "Judy" pitch is doing great. I believe I am averaging one request for every ten valid email addresses I hit. If I was sitting at my PC, I could give you the exact percentage. I have arranged my database to supply me with that information. With a couple clicks of the mouse I can see who I approached with each of my scripts, and who requested it, and who didn't.

In a sense, whenever I pitch a new script, I get an overview of my pitch history. It's amazing. There are a couple companies that I have pitched three or four scripts since 2002 without receiving any response whatsoever, only to get requests this time. Persistence pays off! Someone with a lower threshold for rejection than me would have given up on them years ago.

Of course, not everyone can be reached via email. I usually send those folks faxes. It's funny. When I started it out, it was almost cheaper to send out a query letter via the mail than a fax, but, with today's long distance rates and the rising costs of stamps, it is much cheaper for me to send faxes. Right now, with "Judy," I am still in the email stage. Hopefully, it will not be necessary to resort to faxes.

I am currently not seeking an agent, but, if I were, I would mail out old-fashioned query letters. In my experience, agents are more likely to respond to them. It's tradition.

Of course, not everyone responds to my over the transom approach. I have had no luck whatsoever getting any response from the major broadcast networks, the seven major studios, or the uppermost tier of A-list production companies.

Oh well. You can't win 'em all.

Who reads? Practically everyone else. Including people who put out big, theatrical features.

BTW, I want to give a shout out to producer and computer whiz Matt Richards. My old PC failed a couple of months ago taking my program and database with it. I, of course, fell into a deep depression. Thankfully, Matt was able to restore the program and the data.

Yay!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Art of the Pitch, Part One, Or, Batting For Singles

I'm pitching a script again -- and enjoying every minute of it.

I am currently pitching a script called "Judy," written with director Lee Bonner, to production companies. Will it sell? Who knows? But people are reading it, and that's a good first step.

But, you say, I thought production companies didn't read scripts unless they arrived via an agent or lawyer. That's not entirely true. If your goal is make a $150,000,000 star vehicle, then you're right. The people who make those films will probably not read your script unless it comes to them from CAA, but, if you're like me, and your goals are less lofty then you will get some reads if people like your pitch.

I would love it if someone wanted to spend $150,000,000 making "Judy," but, even if I were William Goldman, I don't think it would happen. I know this is not the kind of tentpole film studios want to produce. When you subtract the remakes, sequels, and films based on books, you'll see that there is little opportunity at the majors for spec scripts by unknowns, or near unknowns. (Except for comedy.)

Back in the olden days, when I was represented by the late, great Stu Robinson, first at Robinson Weintraub and Gross and then later at Paradigm, I always felt I had a shot at the brass ring with the type of scripts I was writing: dramas with a strong, but understated, sense of humor. Stu was very supportive. He got me great rejection letters from Hollywood notables, like Barry Levinson and Richard Zanuck. (Lee Bonner knows Barry Levinson, and, when I got the rejection letter from him, Lee verified that it was indeed Levinson's signature.) A number of people in Hollywood enjoyed my script "The Long Drive," and I came extremely close to selling my next script "The Fourth Mrs. Jones." Then Stu died, leaving me an orphan, representation-wise.

I have made half-hearted attempts to get an agent since then, however, I have been reasonably content sending pitches around myself because of my new strategy of batting for singles. Real Hollywood, the majors, only make a few films a year, but tons of movies are made each year by smaller production companies and cable networks. Those are the people I am trying to reach. Lifetime. Hallmark. SyFy. They all make movies. Lots of them. They don't pay a million dollars per script, but they do pay. And I think they should be paying me.

The rest of you screenwriters out there can swing for the fences. I'm just aiming for a few infield hits.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

20 Movies, or, Confessions of a Misspent Youth


(The Arcade Theater located in the northeast Baltimore neighborhood
of Hamilton. It has been converted into a church.*)

This is not my list of the twenty best or greatest films ever made. Who needs to see another list of films topped by Citizen Kane, Casablanca, The Godfather or 2001: A Space Odyssey? Consider this list instead a film-going biography. It is a collection of films that helped inspire my interest in motion pictures in one way or another. Not all of the films are great, some aren't even good, but they all had an impact on me.

1). LAUGHING GAS (1914) d. Charlie Chaplin. Before there was DVD there was video, but, before video, if you wanted to be a film collector you actually had to collect film itself. My family took Super 8mm home movies, so we had a projector. The next step was simply to start buying the films. I believe this Mack Sennett produced short was the first film I bought at the E.J. Korvettes store in Towson. It was a terrible 50 foot Atlas Films print, but it was cheap and introduced me to the world of film collecting and the great silent comics who are too little seen today. As for the film itself, this early Mack Sennett short can't compare to the great shorts Chaplin would be making for Mutual two years later, like EASY STREET and THE IMMIGRANT, or the features he would make in the twenties and thirties, but it started him on the path toward them.

2). MA AND PA KETTLE (1949) d. Charles Lamont. Sunday morning was a good time for comedy in Baltimore during the late-60's. WBAL, Channel 11, ran an eclectic list of films including the Ma & Pa Kettle series, the MGM Laurel & Hardy features, and the Paramount W.C. Fields and Joe E. Brown films. WJZ, Channel 13, ran comedies that included the Blondie and Francis The Talking Mule series. The bulk of the comedies they ran were more or less low-brow studio programmers than classics, but it was nonetheless a good comic education. My hat's off to the programmers at those stations! (And let's not forget The Three Stooges shorts that WBFF, Channel 45, used to run before school every morning.)

3). THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) d. James Whales. If Sunday morning was the time for comedy, Friday and Saturday nights were the time for horror. I grew up during the classic period of horror hosts. In the Baltimore Washington area we had Sir Graves Ghastly, Count Gore DeVore and Chiller. There was nothing like staying up late and watching an old B&W horror movie. The first time I saw THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, I was spending the night in my grandmother's house sleeping in the room my great-grandfather had recently died in. Talk about getting into the mood! I loved this film: Karloff's performance, the gothic sets, the photography. I still enjoy it. It was on these Friday and Saturday nights that I first began to notice the difference between studios and production companies. I knew if I saw the Universal logo before a film that it would be good, and that if I saw the American International logo before a film it probably wouldn't be as good. I was confused about the Universal films that I watch that had the Universal International logo. I thought it was a combination of the two companies.

4). THE GOLD RUSH (1925) d. Charlie Chaplin. I first saw Chaplin's classic tale of the tramp during the Alaskan gold rush on WBAL. (They used to run a silent film from the Paul Killiam collection once a month.) I must've missed Bambi in the theaters because this film, not that Disney classic, was the first film to make me cry when the Tramp is stood up by Georgia Hale on New Years Eve. This film remains my sentimental favorite of Chaplin's features, though CITY LIGHTS might be a better film. I would also like to commend PBS for another silent film series called The Silent Comedy Film Festival, hosted by Herb Graff. It was a great introduction to the lesser known comics like Lloyd Hamilton. In the afternoons, PBS also ran great old films like....

5). M (1931) d. Fritz Lang. Watching foreign films in their native language? In Baltimore? Cool beans. I was really riveted by Peter Lorre's performance as a child murderer being hunted by police and the underworld in this German classic. It is still an influence on me. Thank you Channel 26 for introducing me to so many classic foreign films.

6). TWO TARS (1928) d. James Parrott. Laurel and Hardy had a long career in the talkies, but, amongst aficionados, their late Hal Roach produced silent shorts show them at their best. This is one of their symphonies of slow-boiling mass destruction as motorists in a traffic jam take out their frustrations on their fellow motorists and their vehicles. I bought my print of this film mail order from Blackhawk Films. I waited anxiously each month for their catalog. The three films on the front pages were usually on sale for half price. This was one of them. This was around the time I began to toy with the concept of getting into the movie business. I was inspired by the books I read about the atmosphere of the Hall Roach studios which produced shorts by Laurel & Hardy, The Little Rascals and Charley Chase, among others. I thought it would be cool to recreate that environment.

7). THE JUNGLE BOOK (1967) d. Wolfgang Reitherman. This was the first Disney animated feature I remember seeing in a theater and it remains a favorite today. I saw the film at the Northway Theater at the corner of Harford Road and Northern Parkway. The theater later scandalized the neighborhood by becoming the first X-rated movie house in the area. I must confess that I tried, with no success, to sneak inside through the back door.

8). FIVE CARD STUD (1968) d. Henry Hathaway. With this film let me begin my praise of my local neighborhood theater: The Arcade. If I am a filmmaker today it is because of all the Saturday afternoons I spent in that theater. Nowadays, I can look back and see that it was a second-run house. It seemed to change films every week, and frequently had double features. (Once, they played six movies back-to-back, including the MST3K favorite RING OF TERROR.) Looking back, I think my parents started letting me go to the movies alone, or with my siblings, when I was quite young. Back in the late 60's, they played a lot of westerns like this one featuring Dean Martin or BANDOLERO featuring Dean Martin again (and Jimmy Stewart) and the late John Wayne features.

9). DESTROY ALL MONSTER (1968) d. Ishiro Honda. I wasn't a gigantic fan of the Japanese monster movies, but this monster free for all will always hold a special place in my heart. For a number of years, the Arcade would have a free Halloween matinee screening of this film. The place would be filled to the brim. Kids filled the seats and the aisles. (Talk about a safety hazard!) Trust me, there was more action in the aisles than on the screen.)

10). 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) d. Stanley Kubrick. Although the Arcade was a second run house, our local drive-in, The Timonium, was a first run theater. When my parents wanted to see a film (with the kids) we saw it there accompanied by grocery bags full of homemade popcorn. I remember seeing this movie and being fascinated by it, although I doubt I understood it. I do remember my mother saying of my computer programming father: "Only you would like a film about a computer." I would see this film in revival many times in the future; often on the giant screen of the Senator Theater.

11). LO CHIAMAVANO TRINITA aka THEY CALL ME TRINITY (1970). d. Enzo Barboni. It seemed like this spaghetti Western comedy about two brothers, one a slacker and one an outlaw, played at the Arcade a couple times a year and that was fine with me. I really enjoyed this film and its sequel a great deal. It made me wish me and my older brother could wander around the West righting wrongs. Sadly, if my brother saw it, the film didn't have the same impact on him. Plus, we didn't have any guns, and we lived a long way from the West. So much for righting wrongs. Still, this is a film I would love to remake.

12). VANISHING POINT (1971) d. Richard C. Sarafian. I also saw this desert car chase flick at the Tinomium Drive-In. It was the second film of a double feature. I think my parents must've thought we were all asleep in the backseat, or hoped so. It was an R-rated film. (Actually, back then it was probably rated M for Mature Audiences.) It was my first "adult" film and it had a scene with a topless girl riding a motorcycle. I don't remember much more of the movie than that, but I do remember that.

13). THE NIGHT STALKER (1971) d. John Llewellyn Moxey. Yes, a made-for-TV movie. They made quite a few good ones back in the early-70's, including Steven Spielberg's feature debut DUEL. I really loved this movie and considered it one of the best vampire movies ever. I still see shadows of this film, and HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS, in some of my horror stories and scripts. (BTW, if you're like me and watched Dark Shadows when you were a little kid do yourself a favor: Don't get the recently-released DVDs. The show doesn't hold up. Not at all.)


14). THE DOBERMAN GANG (1972) d. Byron Chudnow. What can I say? This is the best film ever made about dogs trained to rob a bank. This film helped usher in a decade of B-movie schlock at the Arcade. Enjoyable schlock. They seemed to play this film all the time as part of double features, often with its own sequels. Years later I managed to get a 16mm print and most of my backyard film festivals start with the last reel of this film -- the robbery. To me, one of the sad things about the movie business is that they keep remaking great films that you don't want to see remade. What they should do is remake films like this one that could be really great with a little honing and some better acting. If I had the power, I would do it. Hard to believe, but this film hasn't even been released on DVD yet.

15). THE LADY VANISHES (1938) d. Alfred Hitchcock. By the time I saw a 16mm print of this film at an Enoch Pratt Library off Sinclair Lane, I had already seen most of Alfred Hitchcock's American films on television, but I was ignorant of his British films. This one blew me away, and it remains my favorite of his British films. I sw this film with a friend Bob Kuzyk. As soon as it was over, his father picked us up and rushed us home because he didn't want us to miss something historic that was about to happen. The date: August 8, 1974. The event: The resignation of President Richard Nixon. (Note: Bob Kuzyk told me that he thinks we might've seen Buster Keaton's THE GENERAL that say instead. All I can say for sure was that Gerald Ford was President later that day.)

16). ANIMAL CRACKERS (1930) d. Victor Heerman. I was already a gigantic Marx Brothers fan by the time I saw this film. In fact, this was the last of their films I saw. It ha some kind of copyright problem and it was out of circulation for years. When it was reissued in 1974, it had a limited theatrical run and I saw it was the Towson theater. It was a beautiful print and a wonderful experience seeing it for the first time in a theater with a large audience. The experience was further enhanced by the fact that they showed a beautiful 35mm print of Laurel & Hardy's HELPMATES before it. That was great too. Actually, my early childhood fascination with the Marx Brothers taught me something I had never expected. I always assumed the actors mde up the stuff they were saying, but when I read some books about the team, I learned that their lines were written by other people. Frankly, I was a little disillusioned, but I quickly got over it. My first attempt at screenwriting was trying to combine a number of Marx Brothers routines into a new film.

17). JESUS OF NAZARETH (1977) d. Franco Zeffirelli. Sorry, Mel, but this TV mini-series remains the best depiction of the life of Christ -- although Mel can certainly stage an impressive crucifixion. This film became my favorite Easter perennial on TV, replacing THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, which we used to watch every Easter for as long as I could remember. (How long did we watch it? I seem to remember watching it before we even had a color TV. Color helped.) Ah, the perennial film... You always counted on the yearly showing of THE WIZARD OF OZ, and the seasonal Charlie Brown specials. Locally, WBFF, Channel 45, was the king of the perennial film. They always played THE LONGEST DAY every day during the whole week of June 6th. They would also always play A NIGHT TO REMEMBER on the April 14th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Cool.

18). STAR WARS (1977) d. George Lucas. Here it is, God help us, the CITIZEN KANE of my generation. It played in Washington at least a week before it came to Baltimore. I remember seeing the ads on the DC television stations and I was dying to see it. I still remember waiting in an impossibly long line at The Towson. And, I must confess, I loved it. But, nostalgia notwithstanding, I do draw the line at Jar-Jar Binks.

19). NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) d. George Romero. This zombie masterpiece was totally off my radar screen until my friend Bob Kuzyk lent me a Super 8mm print of it in 1979. I found it stunningly effective with its once state of the art gore and gritty documentary feel. I still think the first reel is one of the best and tightest I've seen in any film. Stong enough to make you forgive some of the bad acting that followed. This was also the first film i watched with a girl who would soon be my first girlfriend, who was a friend of my sister. She later said she was disappointed that I didn't walk her home that night after showing her this scary film. I did, however, ask her out soon afterwards to see the sequel DAWN OF THE DEAD. I believe that was May 8, 1979 at the Golden Ring Theater. It was, perhaps, not a fortuitous choice for a first date. Years later, I had better luck with the DVD of LA CONFIDENTIAL. I ended up marrying that girl.

20). APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) d. Francis Ford Coppola. In the fall of my first semester at Towson State University, I saw Coppola's heady Vietnam masterpiece. This film, more than any other I had sen up to that time, demonstrated the raw power of film. Now I started studying the classics, but the joys of my B-movie youth never quite left me. As a friend Jim Proimos once said, "CITIZEN KANE is a great film, but if I had my choice I'd rather be watching HORSEFEATHERS." Amen, my brother.

*Interestingly, just as the movie house of my youth found religion, I, too, have been making my mark in faith-based films.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Calling Doctor Script

I had an interesting experience, although professional discretion prevents me from giving you all of the details.

I recently went to Blockbuster and took out a western I had been hired to do a rewrite on. We, Tim Ratajczak and I, were contacted by the prospective distributor of the film. The distributor thought the story had potential, but that the script shot itself in the foot. Tim and I were interested if only because the production company apparently had a former James Bond on board to play the villain. (He ultimately wasn't in the film.)

They sent Tim and I the script via Final Draft. (If you're a screenwriter and you're not using Final Draft, you're not serious about your craft.) I read it first, and, frankly, I thought the writing was really terrific. It was succinct and visual. It really put you in the action. Frankly, the writing itself was as a good as I had read in scripts by pros like Joe Eszterhas and Paul Attanasio. I read about twenty-five pages and called my contact and asked why am I reading this? He asked me what page I was on. I told him twenty-five. He said keep reading.

Two or three pages later, the story went completely haywire. It was way too dark and violent for their intended audience. Additionally, characters no longer behaved like rational human beings. There was indeed a great deal of work which needed to be done.

Tim and I were initially contracted to read the script and offer solutions to the problems. We came up with a detailed list of ten problems and their solution. This lead to a conference call which revealed that the production company was not excited to have us involved in the process. I felt bad. No writer likes to be rewritten, but, on the other hand, I felt we had real solutions to real problems. In the end, the production company said they would let us rewrite the script if we could rewrite it within the next seven days. Our schedules did not permit that, so they took our notes and went their way and we went our way. The distributor and the production company soon parted ways as well.

The film came out straight to video a little while ago. It was picked up by a good distributor. The reviews were very mixed, and seemed to point to some of the problems Tim and I had with the script. I took the film out not knowing what to expect, and I was happy to see that it wasn't bad. From the credits, it appears as if the director had rewritten the script and fixed the most glaring and damaging problems along the same lines that Tim and I had suggested. That was good to see. It showed our work wasn't in vain and that somewhere, somehow, we had helped the film.

Monday, October 12, 2009

F**k The F**ks

This might be an odd post after singing the praises of the delightfully vulgar "Black Dynamite," but I would advise aspiring screenwriters and filmmakers to watch their f**king language.

The simple truth of the matter is that a constant barrage of vulgarity will only limit your options. If the language in your film warrants a hard-R or an NC-17 rating, your chances of profitability will fall dramatically. You will never get any over-the-air broadcast, or even any basic cable if every other word in your film is f**k. Sure, the premium channels will run films like that, but, unless you have a major distributor backing you, you're not going to be on HBO anyway! Additionally, and more importantly, although WalMart will carry the major studio releases regardless of the language, trust me, they will not carry your little independent film if it is filled with vulgarity. I know what you're thinking: F**k WalMart. Well, just remember that 30% of the DVDs in this country are sold by WalMart. You may want to check with your investors first before you decide whether you need Walmart or not.

The first feature film I edited was called "Charm City." It was a slacker/college romp along the lines of "Clerks," and, true to the genre, it was exceedingly vulgar. The producers and director took it to LA. A few months later I heard back from them. They wanted to know if there was anything we could do about the language. It scared some distributors off. In fact, the film never found a distributor. This is not an isolated case. I am aware of other films limited or damaged by their vulgarity.

Yeah, but what about Kevin Smith? What about Martin Scorsese?

You're not Kevin Smith.

You're not Martin Scorsese.

Watch TCM (Turner Classic Movies.) The writers and directors of those films managed to convey the whole gamut of human emotions without the F-word.

It might behoove you to do the same.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Black Dynamite


Last night I attended the New York Premiere of the upcoming blaxploitation spoof Black Dynamite along with my lovely wife Deborah and my writing partner Tim Ratajczak. The three of us were the guests of the mighty Matt Richards who was one of the producers of Black Dynamite. Matt had also the producer of Holyman Undercover, which Tim and I co-wrote along with star/director David A.R. White.

There's the trailer:



I found the film very funny, and I believe it will be a sleeper hit of the fall when it hits the theaters next week. As I watched the cast and crew enjoy this special moment, I couldn't help but think how the success of this film could change the lives of the people involved. Every movie, no matter how good or bad, that gets made is a miracle in its own right. It takes so many of the right people to say yes at the right moment to make a film happen. And the odds against a little independent film like Black Dynamite getting a genuine theatrical release are astronomical.

This film was such a labor of love for everyone involved, particularly for writer/star Michael Jai White and writer/director Scott Sanders. I hope this film takes everyone, including the mighty Matt Richards, to the next level.

I'm just glad I got to go to the party.

Right on.

(Photo: Deborah Murphy, Michael Jai White, Sean Paul Murphy, Matt Richards.)


Why Blog?

It seems absurd to blog. Be honest. It does.

If you're like me and you work in a relatively public business eventually you will say something that will alienate someone you work with or someone you would like to work with. Especially if you are as careless with your words and opinions as I am.

Once upon a time, when I was but a boy screenwriter, a DC-based location manager/production supervisor/producer Carol Flaisher asked me what I thought of a particular film. I told her I thought it sucked. She then informed me that the producer of said sucko film wanted to read one of my scripts. Obviously, that information led to me to reevaluate said producer's work. Now it was plain to see that he was a genius. And I was grateful I didn't have a blog gleefully attacking his movie.

Therefore, expect this to be an exceptionally boring blog.

I will not be attacking people.

I will not be controversial.

I will not be political.

I will not be religious.

I will not be worth reading.

(BTW, the producer discreetly unnamed above didn't like my script. So, yes, once again I can admit that his work sucks. At least for now.)