Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

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.

That's my two cents.

Other Tips:

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, 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.


Friday, November 20, 2009


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:


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


(UPDATE: In the age of streaming, some of the details have changed, but the underlying philosophies remain the same.)

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 a 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*

*Sadly, Mark Litwak no longer publishes his survey. It was a great resource.

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.


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 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.