Thursday, January 15, 2015

"The Encounter," Part 2, The Writing

Early Artwork Mock-Up
"The Encounter" began on the Firday,  November 5, 2009.

I received a phone call from producer/director/star and all around hyphenate David A.R. White.  He wanted Tim and I to read a treatment.  He said it was about some people having an appointment to talk with Jesus in person --just like the film "The Perfect Stranger."  Yikes.

"The Perfect Stranger" was based on the book "Dinner with the Perfect Stranger" by David Gregory.  I had never seen the movie or read the book, but I was familiar with the basic plot.  Jesus sends a person an invitation to dinner at restaurant and then they talk.  I initially found this project somewhat unappealing.   At the time, PureFlix specialized in making "Christian" versions of successful "secular" films.  Essentially, David would see a movie he wished he could have starred in and then made his own version of it dressed up with some Christianity.  Timothy Ratajczak and I didn't like that.  We preferred working on original ideas rather than reworking other people's ideas.  And we certainly didn't want to get into the business of writing "Christian" versions of "Christian" films.  I remember reading something in the Bible along the lines of Thou Shall Not Steal.

Still, I read the treatment by Steve Taylor (not the singer), Jason Cusick and producer Michael Scott.  Michael Scott is, along with David, one of the owners of PureFlix Entertainment.  He apparently developed the concept with Steve and Jason.  I never met Steve or Jason.  However, if I remember correctly, Steve was involved somehow with the episode of the John Hagee show I wrote involving the PureFlix film "In the Blink of an Eye."

I skimmed the highly-detailed sixteen-page treatment.  I don't believe Tim ever did.  It was oddly structured.  It was like an outline with all of the characters, their backstories, symbolic items and actions for each of the people involved, and Bible quotes to be used to solve their problems.  But, strangely, it wasn't told like a story.  The intended film went like this:  Person A receives an mysterious invitation.  He/She goes to the address.  He/She meets Jesus.  They talk.  Jesus answers his/her questions and solves his/her problems.  Person leaves.  Next Person B gets an invitation.  Then Person C.  Then Person D.

I immediately called David and said the premise was unworkable structurally.  Films, generally, work on a three act structure.  It was impossible to give these characters an emotional arc over the course of the entire film when they all only appear in their own segments.  In fact, we would have to throw out the traditional three act structure entirely.  David knew we were right.  He asked us what we would do.  We said we would have Jesus interact with all of the characters at once.  We would structure it more like a "Twilight Zone" episode.  A bunch of strangers end up stranded at a mysterious diner only to be confronted by a man claiming to be Jesus.

David liked the new concept and the original treatment was completely discarded.  The main question was whether Tim was up to the challenge.  Tim had recently been diagnosed with leukemia and was battling for his life.  His fate was uncertain, but not his determination.  He wanted to write the movie, so we took the assignment.  We submitted the original treatment to David A.R. White a few days later on Sunday, November 7, 2009.  Wanna read it?  Here it is:

THE ENCOUNTER

ACT ONE:

This film takes place on a dark stormy night.  Torrential rain is pouring.  Four cars are moving down an obscure side road far from the interstate.  Matthew Padden, 53, a high-powered real estate tycoon, needs to get across the desert to close an important deal.  His entire empire hangs on the result of the deal.  Hank and Catherine Miller, an unhappily-married couple, are driving home after dropping their son off at college.  Hank wants to save their marriage, but Catherine wants to end it now that their son is gone.  Melissa Lewald, 34, a single woman obsessed with getting a husband, drives with a hitchhiker she found on the road, Kayla Huettner, 17, who is fleeing an abusive home environment.  While they are driving through the wasteland, Melissa spots an inviting diner on the side of the road, but she continues driving.

All four of the cars soon find themselves stopped at an unmanned roadblock.  The bridge around the bend up ahead has been flooded out.   Everyone is frustrated, particularly Matthew.  He needs to go forward.  The only other way around is a two hundred mile detour.  Melissa recommends that they go back to the diner she passed.  Everyone is surprised by her suggestion because none of them saw the diner.  Still, they follow her.  What else are they going to do?

The folks arrive at the small diner.  The staff consists of a single man with the name Jesus on his nameplate, who welcomes them and makes them feel comfortable.  The diner phone is out, which frustrates everyone since they are all out of cell phone range.  Jesus takes their orders and starts cooking them their food.  There is something odd about Jesus.  He lets out little comments about the people that he could not possibly know.  Matthew is the most suspicious.  He wants to know how Jesus knows all these things.  Jesus explains that it is because he is The Jesus.

ACT TWO:

The people react to Jesus' revelation with varying degrees of suspicion and amusement.  Throughout the second act, Jesus and the customers talk.  They are trying to disprove his claims, but in the process, the customers reveal more and more about themselves and Jesus presents solutions.  It eventually becomes clear that Hank and Melissa are Christians.  They begin to respond to his words.  Matthew grows increasingly hostile to Jesus, and he seems to find an ally in Catherine.  Kayla find herself drawn to his message despite her hurts.  She comes to the Lord.

ACT THREE:

Matthew has had enough.  He rejects Jesus.  He wants to leave and take a chance on the bridge.  He's willing to take anybody with him.  Now it comes down to Catherine.  Will she stay with Jesus and her husband or leave with Matthew.  In the end, she decides to stay and accept Jesus.  Matthew leaves in disgust alone.

Morning.  Hank, Catherine, Melissa and Kayla wake up to find Jesus gone.  The rain has stopped.  The sky is sunny.  They're not completely sure that everything that had happened was real.  They get into their cars and leave.  They reach the road block.  It is still up, but now there are some state troopers on the scene.  The troopers tell them that the bridge was no longer flooded, but they had to clean up the wreck of a car that tried to get through it last night.  The driver was dead.  It was Matthew. 

The others are happy they spent the night at the diner.  "What diner?" The trooper asks.  The one about three miles back. The Trooper says there's no diner back there.  The customers go back to see that the trooper was correct.  They find their tire tracks where they left the road, but there is no diner.  Just a few items that Jesus had associated with them.

The End

David's response to the treatment was a single word, followed by a few exclamation points:  "Awesome!!!"  Tim and I started working immediately -- even before we had a signed contract.  That was not uncommon.  Tim and I trusted PureFlix completely.  Why wouldn't we?  After all, we were all Christians with a common goal, and we considered David to be a personal friend.   What could possibly go wrong?  (Nothing on this film.)

Still, writing "The Encounter" would  prove to be a daunting task on two levels.  First, we were essentially writing a one location film which places great limitations on the action.  The film would more resemble a stage play than a traditional movie.  This was unavoidable considering both the storyline and the budget.  This film would be the lowest budget feature film Tim and I had written, both individually and collectively.  David told me the shooting budget was sixty-thousand dollars, and the post couldn't have possibly cost half that amount, even if you included the cost of the trailer in the production budget rather than the marketing budget.  (Strangely, however, when we got our first profit participation statement, it reported that the budget of film was now $200,000.)

Our main location

The other, much more daunting, task was putting words in Jesus' mouth.  There was one thing for certain, we weren't going to have him quoting the Bible all the time.  Somehow, I can't imagine meeting Jesus walking the streets of gold in Heaven and him starting each sentence with "As I once said in Matthew Eighteen, verse six....."  Jesus doesn't need to quote the Bible to give his words authority.  He is the authority.  We wanted a conversational Jesus dealing with people and their problems where they lived.  Just like he did in Biblical times.  We didn't want a marble Jesus, we wanted a flesh-and-blood Jesus with heart and a sense of humor.

Tim and I dug quickly into the script.  Once we started writing, it flowed very easily.  Tim and I are both students of apologetics and the work was spiritually and intellectually fulfilling.   Normally, I would hammer out the structure of the scenes during the week and we would get together and work out the dialogue during the weekends.  We usually worked at my house, where my wife would always prepare us a nice dinner.  This time, she provided one of my favorite jokes in the movie, too.  Jesus' line when someone compliments him on the water served in the diner:  "It's my own recipe.  Two molecules of hydrogen and one of oxygen."   However, I remember us doing some of the later revisions at Tim's house for his convenience as a result of his health situation.

Annoyed by the deliberate actions of some of the investors to remove any subtle references to Catholicism in "Sarah's Choice," Tim tried again.  We referred to the minister who helped our runaway as "Father," but his title was changed by the producers to "Pastor."  However, catching the small reference, they missed a much bigger one.  Tim worked to make the meal Jesus prepared for the guests highly symbolic of communion.  That managed to slip through.  I was happy.  The us versus them of Protestants versus Catholics, as well as between different Protestant denominations and traditions make a mockery of God's grace.  I'm sick of it.

We finished the first draft of the script on December 19, 2009.  Forty-two days after the submission of the treatment.  That was twenty-eight days more than it took us to finish the first draft of "Sarah's Choice."  But please don't think we were slacking.  During that same time we were finishing up David's new one man show "Prodigal," honing the treatment for "Marriage Retreat," and working on the original concept for "Brother White."  All while Tim was still battling cancer.

Hyphenate David A.R. White on the set
When we finished the first draft, David asked us to change our arrogant businessman to an athlete, preferably a football player.  I wasn't happy about that change.  I had a (step)-son-in-law who played for the Kansas City Chiefs and I didn't want anyone in the family to think I was making a comment about him.  Still, we made the changes and the script was done.

Almost.

We were also instructed to beef up the role of the State Trooper.  We added him to the beginning and turned him into the devil.  However, there is one thing we didn't do:  We didn't name him Officer Deville in our draft.  That was way too obvious for us.  I cringe when I hear it in the film, especially when Kayla spells it out at the end.  Please.  That's just insulting the intelligence of the audience. It's saying they couldn't figure it out themselves....

Oh well.

Now it was time to cast and shoot the movie.

To be continued....

Previous segments:
"The Encounter," Part 1, Proof God's Not Dead

Read about the making of my previous features:

21 Eyes
Hidden Secrets
Holyman Undercover
Sarah's Choice

Be sure to check out my book The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God.  It is available in paperback and on Kindle courtesy of TouchPoint Press.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

"The Encounter," Part 1, Proof God's Not Dead


In July 2009, Timothy Ratajczak and I were both pretty happy with our budding career in the faith-based films.  We were very happy with our drama "Hidden Secrets."  We were very happy with the original edit of our comedy "Holyman Undercover," although we were both displeased with the later edits which attempted to remove any objectionable humor from the film.  Fortunately, we felt we rebounded with our pro-life drama "Sarah's Choice."  The question was:  What's next?  Quite a bit actually.

The next ten months would be a tremendous blur of work while the country suffered under the effects of the recession.  The films "The Encounter," "Run On," "Marriage Retreat" and "Brother White" would all be developed and written, somewhat simultaneously, but at a heavy cost and much travail.  One of us would nearly die.  (The other one of us would die later.)  One of us would become disillusioned and walk temporarily away from the Christian movie business.  (It would take a lot more to disillusion the other one, but in time....)

The first project Tim and I were offered after finishing "Sarah's Choice" was an adaptation of television evangelist John Hagee's book "Jerusalem Countdown."  PureFlix bought the rights to the non-fiction book and intended to use it as a basis for a fictional End Times thriller.  It was a good business decision.   Independent faith-based films, without a sizable advertising and marketing budget, live or die on the recommendations and support of national ministries.  Hagee was known for his end times teaching and was very supportive of the PureFlix film "In The Blink of an Eye."  He bought a large number of copies to give to his audience in return for donations.  Additionally, Hagee devoted an entire program to promoting the movie.  (I even wrote that program.)  That said, we were not going to write "Jerusalem Countdown."  Why?  Tim and I were both raised Catholic, and Tim still went to the Catholic Church.   He despised Hagee's outspoken and sometimes irrational anti-Catholic bigotry.  He flat out refused, and I stood by him.  (We almost did a rewrite on the disastrous first draft of the script out of friendship to the producer David A.R. White, but politics with the director and original writer happily prevented us from doing so.  From the final film, however, I could tell that they acted on some of our notes.)

On July 19th, Tim and I received an email from David A.R. White.  It contained a six-page treatment for a film called Proof.  The treatment was written by Brad Stine and John Sullivan.   We knew and liked the comedian Brad Stine.  He gave us a great performance in "Sarah's Choice," and we had already talked about writing a movie with him away from the umbrella of PureFlix.  We didn't know John Sullivan personally, but we were familiar with a theatrically released documentary film he had produced starring Ben Stein called "Expelled:  No Intelligence Allowed."  He would later hit pay dirt with "2016:  Obama's America."

God's Comic:  Brad Stine
We read the treatment.  It was about a Christian college professor, Marcus Daniels. who must endure hostile students and faculty in defense of his faith.  Tim and I liked the treatment, but we made some changes.  We shifted the persecution from the professor to a mild-mannered student, Josh Langum, Daniels was mentoring who received a failing grade in a science class because he made a reference to intelligent design in a paper.  Eventually Daniels debates the atheist science professor about the existence of God.

Starting to sound like another movie?  The biggest difference between Proof and the main plot of "God's Not Dead" was who did the debating.   Narratively speaking, it would be ideal for the persecuted student Josh (same name in both stories) to do the debating himself, but since the film was intelligently designed as a starring vehicle for Brad Stine, the professor had to defend the student.

Tim and I submitted a revised treatment to David a couple weeks later on August 4th.  It was approved by PureFlix and Brad.  Contracts were written up and dutifully signed.  The project seemed greenlit.  PureFlix rarely spent money on scripts they didn't intend to produce.  Tim and I went to work.  We were quite excited about the project.  It was right in our wheelhouse.  Tim and I both enjoyed apologetics and comedy.  This film would have plenty of both.

We began writing it.  Then tragedy struck about halfway through -- the same week "Sarah's Choice" was released.  Tim was diagnosed with leukemia.  This was serious business and Tim soon found himself in the hospital battling for his life while writing projects began to pile up.  In addition to Proof, we were already discussing "Marriage Retreat," "Brother White" and putting the finishing touches on David White's new one-man-show "Prodigal" -- which would be the basis for his segment of the film "Run On."

Tim was very sick.  I was concerned that the burden of the work would be too much for him, but he wanted to continue and we did when he got out of the hospital.  By that time, David had sent us the original treatment for "The Encounter."  That film was now the one with the heat.  David wanted us to put Proof aside and start immediately on "The Encounter."  We objected.  We were already halfway through Proof.  We thought it was very promising and we wanted to finish it.  However, David was insistent.  We moved over to "The Encounter."  We did, after we completed the first draft of that script, we went back and finished Proof.

Tim and I quickly finished the second half of the script.  There was one interesting change from our original conception which was written prior to Tim's illness.  In the treatment, our atheist professor had a wife who died a result of cancer.  (As opposed to God's Not Dead, where the atheist's mother died.)  In this first draft, written after Tim's illness, the wife miraculously survives.  Tim wanted it that way, and I couldn't argue against it.

We sent the script to David.  He had no real notes on it.  He said Brad would walk us through a rewrite after we finished up with the other films.  We got some initial notes from Brad and found ourselves in agreement with them, but the rewrites never happened.  The project went from green to red without any explanation.   We were too busy to worry about it.

Then I started hearing rumors about "God's Not Dead."  I heard that it had the same central plot as Proof.  Brad and John heard the same thing, and they were understandably concerned.  I later heard that PureFlix never even purchased their original treatment.  That was insane to me.  Why would they pay Tim and I to write a screenplay based on a property they didn't even own?  And now they were making another film on the same subject....

It couldn't be a coincidence.  PureFlix isn't a massive multinational corporation moving in twenty directions at once.   It only has four principal partners, David A.R. White, Michael Scott, Russell Wolfe and Elizabeth Travis.  (Back then, Byron Jones was also a partner.)  They all know about the projects in development.  David obviously knew about it.  So did Russ.  He was copied on some of our emails.  I was hearing so much whispering that I decided to investigate myself.  I knew and respected Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman, the screenwriters of "God's Not Dead."  I know them to be men of Christian integrity and they were genuinely surprised to hear about Proof.   They assured me they had never read the script and explained how they had worked out the plot lines in conjunction with Hunter Dennis.  I believed them and offered my opinion on the subject to anyone who asked.

Honestly, it wouldn't have mattered to Tim or I whether Cary and Chuck saw our script or not.  We obviously wanted to see our movie made but it ultimately wasn't our idea.  Our property.  It was a work for hire.  Tim and I did our work and got paid.  Although, one could argue, we were cheated out of our contracted points when they dumped this film for the other one. But at least we got something.   I do feel bad for Brad and John.  They weren't paid for their original treatment and now, because of its remarkable similarity to "God's Not Dead," they can't exploit it elsewhere without being derided as copycats.

Oh well.  That's Hollywood.

And Tim and I had more movies to write!

"The Encounter," Part 2, The Writing

Read about the making of my previous features:

21 Eyes
Hidden Secrets
Holyman Undercover
Sarah's Choice

Be sure to check out my book The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God.  It is available in paperback and on Kindle courtesy of TouchPoint Press.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

RIP Carolyn Jacobi

Carolyn Jacobi
I must sadly report the passing of Carolyn Jacobi.

Carolyn Jacobi was the CEO of Eternal Justice.  She relentlessly battled the death care industry -- particularly cemeteries --  to guarantee that people found the rest they deserved.  Her battle began at  Mount Auburn Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland, where her father was buried.  Appalled by the conditions at the cemetery, she led the fight to establish an Office of  Cemetery Oversight in the State of Maryland -- at one point pushing a wheelbarrow full of human remains found above the ground at Mount Auburn into the State House in Annapolis and dumping them on the floor.  She was a woman who would stop at nothing to fight injustice.  She later became a national advocate for cemetery reform throughout the United States and Canada.

I met Carolyn during the making of the film "Sacred Ground:  The Battle For Mount Auburn Cemetery."  The film follows the struggles of family activist Lu Moorman, as she battles Sharp Street Memorial Church and the Baltimore Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church for control of the historic but desecrated African American landmark.  Carolyn was one of Lu's mentors and advisors and I met with her many times during the shooting of the film.

Carolyn was a strong, opinionated and principled woman who always proceeded in her own time and in her own way.  She did not suffer fools gladly.  Initially, I believe Carolyn was a little suspicious of director David Butler and myself.  As documentarians, we always endeavored to get the perspectives of all of the people involved, and she didn't particularly like us interviewing and talking with the leadership of Sharp Street Church and the Baltimore Washington Conference on our own.  I, for my part, thought she was unnecessarily cynical when the Conference offered to meet with Lu and her team.  However, Carolyn had been down that road before and her cynicism proved to be justified in the end.

I think we finally won Carolyn's respect when we discovered a casket mangled by a backhoe hidden in the weeds in the back of the cemetery.  It was obvious evidence of grave recycling, and it led to a very public fight on Fox45 news between Lu and Carolyn and Reverend Dell Hinton, the pastor of Sharp Street Memorial Church.   She was happy that David and I had discovered and photographed a century old document that proved, despite the church's often repeated claims to the contrary, that a fund was established to maintain the cemetery.  It gave her ammunition in her arguments that the church had mismanaged the cemetery financially.

In the end, I believe Carolyn came to respect our commitment to helping Mount Auburn Cemetery.  We spoke on the phone when events at the cemetery warranted discussion.  I am not sure if she saw the final, completed film, but I know she was quite happy with the trailer.  When I last spoke with her, she wanted arrange a screening of the film for the new head of the Maryland Office of Cemetery Oversight.  We were happy to comply.  Sadly, it never happened.  It is a pity, I'm sure she would have enjoyed the film and it certainly would have reiterated the points she wanted to make about the cemetery.

Below is a little tribute I put together from an interview with Carolyn about her history and accomplishments shot at Mount Auburn.  Some of the footage in found in the feature.  Some can only be seen here:



Here is trailer to the film, which will soon be available to the public.



Rest in peace, Carolyn.  You will be missed, and, hopefully, our film will carry on your legacy.

Be sure to check out my book The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God.  It is available in paperback and on Kindle courtesy of TouchPoint Press.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

INKTIP



InkTip is an online site where screenwriters can upload their scripts and producers, managers and agents can look at them.  It costs $65 to list your script on InkTip for six months.  During those six months, producers have the option of viewing your logline, synposis, resume or the script itself.  Is it worth it?

I first became aware of InkTip about three years ago.  A fellow filmmaker, Steven Gillilan, turned me onto the website.  I didn't list any scripts at first, but I signed up for the free weekly newsletter.  The newsletter  lists a few scripts being sought by producers.  Here is an example of a listing:




1) Contribution films - Seeking Family Friendly Scripts

We are looking for completed, feature-length, family-friendly scripts. Stories must either be set in the greater Los Angeles area or in non-specific locations so they can be shot in L.A. We also prefer family-friendly material that involves a pet, so if yours does, please state as much when pitching. Ideally we'd like to find two scripts for this mandate. 

Budget for the first one will be between $300K to $700K. Budget for the second will be around $1 million. WGA and non-WGA writers may submit. 

Our Credits include "Solitary" among others.

To submit to this lead, please go to:

Enter your email address.

Copy/Paste this code: s5j8xmh83q

NOTE: Please only submit your work if it fits what the lead is looking for exactly. If you aren't sure if your script fits, please ask InkTip first.   


The free newsletter lists two requests and hints at other scripts sought by other producers.  If you subscribe to the preferred newsletter, you get about eight full requests a week.  The price of preferred newsletter is regularly $60 for 4 months, but $40 for 4 months, if you have a script listed on the website.

Intrigued by newsletters, I considered putting one of my older scripts, which I was no longer marketing myself, on the website.  I did a little research on writer groups about whether the website was worthwhile.  Someone wrote somewhere that he was willing to make a fifty dollar investment in his career.  I decided that I would, too.

Did I sell the script?  No.  A number of production companies expressed interest in my Kairos Prize winning screenplay "I, John," but negotiations always seemed to fall apart when it came time to talk about money.  Interestingly, one day I pitched a script to a manager who turned me down, only to have him approach me about the same script on InkTip a week later.  (He backed off when I pointed out that he had just rejected me.)  That said, I did get a nice, paid writing assignment through InkTip as a direct result of their matchmaking.  That more than compensated me for the expense of signing up.

What's my final impression?  It's a good site.  Should you get on?  That probably depends on your script.  It seems like most of the production companies that use it are somewhat smallish.  So you might not have find a buyer for your script about the Battle of Stalingrad.   The most sought after scripts tend to be genre films with few characters and only a handful of locations.  If you have a script like that, this is might be the place for you.

If your writing career is worth a $65 investment....

(Mine is.)

Be sure to check out my book The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God.  It is available in paperback and on Kindle courtesy of TouchPoint Press.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Writer Tip #12: Who's In it?



Every writer who reads this blog will object to the following statement, but it is true:  Who's in your film is more important than the quality of your script to the financial success of the film.

How can I say that?  Easy.  If you don't have a "name" in your film, no one is going to see it.  Period.  It doesn't matter how good your script is.  Or how compelling the drama.  Or how thrilling the action.  Or how witty the dialogue.  It's like the old question:  If a tree falls in the forest and there's no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?  The answer, when it comes to movies, is no.

What about "Napoleon Dynamite?  What about "The Blair Witch Project?"  What about this?  What about that?  Sure, there are exceptions, but they are extremely few and far between.  And all of those exceptions had something your film will almost certainly not have:  Millions of dollars in advertising support.

Take your film to the American Film Market.  Trust me, none of the distributors are going to ask who wrote it.  Or even who directed it.  All they want to know is who stars in it and the genre.  They don't even care about the plot.  They only need to know the genre.   When a friend of mine took his fine but name free indie version of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" out to Hollywood, a distributor watched the trailer appreciatively, then said, "Looks good.  You should do an Eric Roberts film next."

Exactly.

I remember a conversation one of my producers had with a foreign film marketer, who is now a major Hollywood producer, about a film we were trying to put together in the late-1990s.  He listened patiently to our pitch, then said, "Get Jeff Goldblum and you have a movie."  "How do we get Jeff Goldblum?" my producer asked.  "Just give him a million dollars," replied the wise man.  "Then you have a movie."  And we would have.

When we made my first movie, "21 Eyes," we made the classic freshman mistake.  We thought we had a story so intriguing and unique that the film would garner an audience without the benefit of a name.  The sad thing is that we could have had the names.  Since our script was genuinely interesting and unique, we were offered some big names.  Also, since the leads were all voice over roles, the talent was very affordable.  We could have gotten our dream cast, which would have included a movie star from the eighties and nineties and the star of a hit new series for about fifteen-thousand-dollars.  If we could go back in time we would definitely do it.  We did, however, hire some recognizable character actors.  We also hired an actress that was deemed an up-and-comer, and she did rise to television success but too late to help our film.  We should have gone with the names.

Now you have to ask yourself:  Who is a name?  It's complicated.  The fact that an actor has appeared in a number of real movies and television shows doesn't make him or her a name.  Appearing in fifteen episodes of "Law & Order" or seven episodes of "Seinfeld" doesn't make you a sell-able box name.  Here's the rule of thumb:  If you mention the name to someone outside of the business and you need to mention more than one credit to identify them, they are not a "name."  If you're making a small independent film in most genres, you should aim for someone who won or was nominated for an Academy Award fifteen-to-twenty-years ago, or starred -- not just appeared -- in a hit television series ten-to-fifteen-years ago.  You will be surprised how inexpensively you can get actors of that sort.  If your budget is in the low-to-middle six figures, you can definitely afford one.  If your budget isn't at least in that range, maybe you shouldn't make the movie.

I have to give David A.R. White a lot of credit.  He has starred in over thirty faith-based films, most of which he produced himself.  However, David realizes that, outside of the faith-based genre, no one knows recognizes him.  That's why he always wisely surrounds himself well-known "secular" actors like John Schneider, Kevin Sorbo, Ray Wise, Stephen Baldwin, and, of course, Eric Roberts.  It makes the films much more marketable.

For example, let's take a look at my most recently released film: "The Black Rider:  Revelation Road," starring, of course, David A.R. White.  The film was produced and distributed by PureFlix, who seem to have spent very little money promoting the film.  The only mentions I saw of the film were on PureFlix's various associated Twitter and Facebook accounts.  I didn't see any internet banner ads.  No ads on Christian radio stations.  No ads at all, in fact.  Worse yet, it doesn't even look like they even bothered to send review copies out to interested bloggers to get some buzz going.  There were no reviews anywhere at the time of its release.  It looked like a total disaster, but, fortunately, we had a name:  James Denton, former star of "Desperate Housewives" and former Sexiest Man Alive according to People Magazine.  On the strength of his own fame and popularity, James was able to get on a number of network morning news shows to discuss the movie and his life.  Without him, the film would have utterly sank without a trace, and, with it, the hard work of all the people involved.



You need a James Denton.

And if you can get Kevin Sorbo with him, all the better.

I credit the success of my films as much to casting director Billy DaMota, who gets us gets us the best possible casts at our budgets, as anyone else in the process.

I know guys who earn a living making films without any names.  However, they have to be more than filmmakers.  They have to be full-time marketers.  They have to pick up their little film and carry it for years -- finding new ways to exploit it all of the time.  And that usually isn't what we envisioned when we decided to become filmmakers.  We became filmmakers to make films, not to market them.

"So what does this have to do with me?" you may ask.  "I'm the writer, not the producer.  I don't make those decisions."

Not so.

You decide whether or not to sell your script to a producer.  Don't be afraid to ask who they see in the roles.   Don't be afraid to ask about their intended budget.  If you don't like the answers, don't sell them the script.  I've been put in that position and that's exactly what I did.

I know it's hard to say no, especially if you never made a film before.  Just keep in mind that your first film may be your last one.   Especially if no one sees it.  If you have confidence in your script, wait and do it right.

And that's why it never pays to work for a producer for free.  If a producer can't afford to pay you for your work, he won't spend the money to get the cast necessary to get your film seen.

The longer you are in the business, the more you will realize that making the movie is the easiest part of the equation.  Nowadays, it is relatively easy to get a film released by a distributor.  There's lots of bottom feeders who will take your film for nothing to put into their catalog.  The hardest thing is finding a distributor who will invest sufficient marketing and advertising money to bring eyes to your film.

And nobody is going to do that unless you have "names" in it.

Other Tips:

Monday, December 29, 2014

My Ten Most Popular Blogs


I've been writing this blog for quite a few years.  I decided to take a look and see what people were actually reading.  Here's the ten most popular entries, in terms of views:

1).  "Hidden Secrets" Revealed, Part 4, Production
2).  "Betrayed," or, I Was A Screenwriter For The FBI
3).  "Holyman Undercover," Part 1, Pre-Production
4),  "21 Eyes" - Now About That Nude Scene....
5).  "21 Eyes," a History, Part 1
6).  "The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God" released
7).  "Sarah's Choice," Part One, "In The Blink Of An Eye"
8),  "The Encounter: Paradise Lost" trailer
9).  RIP Darren Rydstrom
10).  "The Company Man" premieres

From the list, it is easy to see that my blogs about the making of my movies remain the most popular ones.  I still have plenty of movies to write about.  I have already begun writing the blogs about the making of "The Encounter," which is perhaps the most popular film I have worked on.  I plan to be as truthful as possible, as always, letting the chips fall where they may.

Right now, my "Hidden Secrets" blog remains the most popular, but the much more recent blog about my film "Betrayed" is quickly gaining on it.  Of late, my blogs concerning the films I wrote for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Counter Intelligence Division, tend to be getting the most hits.  I was surprised that my blogs about "Holyman Undercover" and "21 Eyes" got more hits than the blogs about "Sarah's Choice," since "Sarah's Choice" is a much more popular film by any standard.   I was also surprised to see that my recent blog about the release of my book ranking so highly.  I was also particularly happy to see that my blog about the late cinematographer Darren Rydstrom is getting a lot of hits.  He was a great guy who deserves to be remembered -- even if my words fail to do him justice.

Be sure to check out my book The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God.  It is available in paperback and on Kindle courtesy of TouchPoint Press.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

RIP Director Joseph Sargent



Director Joseph Sargent died.  Sadly, he's never been counted among the greats.  They don't talk about him in film school, but he was a solid but underrated professional who directed one of my favorite heist films of all time:  "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three."  I can't tell you how many times I have watched that film.  Why it is so much better than the remake would be a great blog in and of itself.

The great screenwriter William Goldman once wrote a fabulous book called "Adventures in the Screen Trade."  If I were writing a book about my experiences in the film business, I would call it "Near Adventures in the Screen Trade."  And Joseph Sargent would figure in it.  I nearly had an adventure with him.

Back in the 1990s, a Washington D.C.-based producer friend named Carol Flaisher read my script "Then The Judgement."  She wanted to make it.  She sent it to another producer, whose name sadly eludes me at the moment, who had recently been the head of production for Morgan Creek back when they were really hot.  I don't if he ever wanted to make "Then The Judgement," but the script made him want to talk to me.  I met with him in Hollywood at Raleigh Studios where he offered me the opportunity to write a girl and her dog movie built around a seeing eye dog charity he supported.  It was my first writing assignment.  Sadly, I would have to do it for spec, i.e., no upfront money.  Now, at the time, I actually had an agent, but I never told him about the assignment because I didn't think he would let me do it for free and I didn't want to take the chance on losing the opportunity.  (Sucker!)

The producer dangled another enticement in front of me to get me to write the dog movie.  He said he was developing a series for Showtime about the stories behind various items left at the Vietnam Memorial.  He said it was going to be a writer showcase.  If I wrote the dog movie, I could write one of the episodes of the Showtime series.  Once again, however, I would have the write the episode on spec.  (Yeah, I know what you're thinking:  He was dangling a free job in front of me to get me to write another free job!)

Being young and inexperienced, I immediately jumped at the opportunity.   I was really quite pleased with both of the scripts.  If I had clear rights to the girl and her dog script, I bet I could easily sell it today.  I was also quite proud of the Vietnam script.  I interviewed a number of Vietnam veterans, including my late uncle Doug Sartor, about their experiences.  I wanted to know not only how they felt about being in combat in Vietnam, but I also wanted to know the sights, sounds, smells and tastes -- the entire visceral experience.

The producer never seemed really happy with the dog script and didn't pursue it.  The Showtime series never happened.   However, Showtime did produce an omnibus film on the subject called "The Wall" directed by the late Joseph Sargent.  They didn't use my segment, but I wasn't the only one left out in the cold.  They didn't use some of the other scripts I had read either.  (One of them was written by a writer also represented by my agent.  Don't work for free!)    Not only that, neither of the producers I worked with got credit on the project either....

That's Hollywood.

Had the series happened and my episode was produced, my career and life would have been totally different.  Since I am happy with my life as it turned out, I glad it didn't happen!  Still, I would have liked to have worked with Joseph Sargent.

Rest in Peace.

Be sure to check out my book The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God.  It is available in paperback and on Kindle courtesy of TouchPoint Press.