Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Monday, February 22, 2010

Writer Tip #4: Make The Changes

You've written your masterpiece.

You've sold it.  Yay!  Your vision will finally be realized.  Or so you thought.

Now come the changes.  And, trust me, there will always be changes.

Some are completely unavoidable.  Many of them are made for strictly for budgetary considerations.   You set your tale in rural Alabama, but you have to change it to Michigan because the producers want to take advantage of some local tax incentives.  Or, say, your protagonist has five high school buddies he pals around with.   The producer tells you to combine them into three friends to cut some speaking parts.  Or he tells you to cut some locations.  Things like that happen.  It's hard to avoid.  If they can't afford something, they can't afford something.  You can't squeeze blood from a stone.

Then there's the actors.  If you get a name actor, he or she will probably want some changes.  In my experience, those changes usually aren't bad.  Actors usually have a pretty good idea of who they are and what they can do.  They want to look good and you want them to look good.  Make it happen.  I can tell you that I have often been the beneficiary of some good ad-libs thrown in by actors.  More power to them.

However, there are changes which are harder to deal with.  Say you've written a role with Bruce Willis in mind and the producer calls and excitedly tells you that he got Cher for the role.  It'll just mean a few little changes here and there....

So what do you?

You make the changes.  Why?

Because if you don't, they will hire someone else to do it.  And they will.  Or, worse yet, they will simply rewrite it themselves.

If you stay with the project you will at least have the opportunity to mitigate the damage.  You might find a way to keep these changes consistent with your original vision.  Who knows?  You might even be able to talk the producers into nixing some of the worst changes.  But that isn't going to happen if you quit.   Once you're off, you're off.

A director once gave me a backhanded compliment about my ability to compromise my vision.  He admired that I could do it even if he couldn't.

Perhaps it is easy for me because I have worked for so long as a film editor.  As an editor, I have had tremendous influence over the final product, but, in the end, I could always be overruled by the director or the producers.  I was  just a craftsman.  The movie belonged to them.

It's the same when you're a screenwriter.

When you sell your script or write one on assignment, it belongs to the person who paid for it.  They can, and will, do whatever they want with it.  The best you can hope is that they hired you because they respected you, and that they will give your opinion value when it comes time to make the changes.

Sometimes they will, sometimes they won't.

And, you know what, everyone once and a while the changes aren't bad.  In "Hidden Secrets," one of the characters was an intellectual, Jewish atheist.  The producers cast blonde-hair, blue-eyed John Schneider of "The Dukes of Hazard" in the role.  Not exactly what we had in mind.  But you know what?  He's the best thing in the film.  It sings when he's around.  He had some great ad-libs too.  I look forward to working with him again.  And again!

A friend of mine once worked for a well-known director that was so respectful of the screenplay that he called the screenwriter to discuss the fact that he had to use a different kind of car in a scene than the one specified in the script.

That's perhaps giving us writers more respect than we need, but I appreciate it.

I should pitch him something.

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.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Producer Reps

You've finished your film.  You've gotten into a few film festivals.  The world hasn't beaten a path to your door.  So maybe it's time to hire a producer's rep.


If your producer rep works for CAA or William Morris Endeavor or ICM.  Go for it.  If not, think twice.

I would love to name some names and tell some producer rep stories, but, since they tend to be lawyers, I will be discreet.  All I can say is look before you leap.

First you have to ask yourself what you expect from a producers rep.  Usually the answer is access to distributors.  But guess what?  Subscribe to the Hollywood Creative Directory and you have access to most distributors.  Granted, you will probably not be able to successfully toss your film over the transom into one of the major studios without a truly connected agent, rep or big buzz from the festival circuit.  However, I have discovered that most of the smaller distributors will be happy to look at your film if you have a good trailer, nice art and a little persistence.  (They will be very happy to look at your film if you have a well-known actor in it.  If you want decent distribution, make sure you have a name in your film.)

On one of the films I worked on, we had the opportunity to hire the famous Jeff Dowd as a rep.  We approached him when it looked like we were going to premiere at the prestigious Mill Valley Film Festival.  He told us he would be able to leverage that possible premiere into acceptance at Sundance.  And he knew what he was talking about.  He is quite a notorious character in the world of independent film.  Apparently the Jeff Bridges character in "The Big Lebowski" was based on Dowd.  His terms:  $5000 a month to rep the film, plus additionally money for his PR people.  Needless to say, being young and naive, we didn't include that kind of promotional money into the budget of the film.  We said no.

Instead we went with an entertainment lawyer who had made a name for himself quite a few years ago.  His price:  $5000 retainer, plus a percentage of the deal.  This lawyer came recommended by another filmmaker who was using him.  So how did it work out?  Let me tell you.

He immediately sent us a list of twenty distributors where he wanted to send the film.  We sent him the copies, and he did so.  However, there were a number of other companies we were interested in approaching.  We said we would approach them, and, if they were interested, he would send the DVDs.  He agreed.

A number of the companies we approached wanted to see the film.  These companies included good, high profile distributors like Image and DEJ (Blockbuster's inhouse production company and distributor.)   We sent the info along to our rep, who said he sent the DVDs out.  Then he started pressuring us to accept a deal with a smaller company.  We said we wanted to wait until we heard from Image and DEJ.  He said they had both rejected the film.  Oh, heartbreak!  Then, I get an email from the guy at DEJ asking when were we going to send the film.  Our rep never sent it!   Which, of course, meant neither company had rejected it.  He was lying to us.

Then I began to scrutinize our rep.  Yes, he had real credits once upon a time, but it looks like he hadn't sold a film we had heard of in quite a few years.  And he didn't need too.  He was repping a ton of films, and he could make a very nice living strictly off the $5000 retainers he got from each of the filmmakers.  He didn't have to worry about the percentages.

In the end, he got us a domestic deal.  The question is whether we could have gotten the same deal with the same company without him.  I believe we could have.  Paying this joker was a waste of money.

So do I say avoid Producer Reps?  Well.... No.

I met writer/director Deborah Kampmeier at the Sedona Film Festival.  She was showing her date-rape film "Virgin."  I found her film very powerful and provocative.  I foolishly told her I thought she would easily find a distributor, but, at the time, she reported that she had been turned down by every company that released films and DVDs in the United States of America.  Every single one.  She said she had made one huge mistake:  She had the opportunity to hire Jeff Dowd but she had turned him down because he was too expensive.

If you asked the producer of my film what he thought our biggest mistake was, he'd tell you that it was that we didn't hire Jeff Dowd when we had the chance.   Sometimes you have to spend money to make money.

A good producers rep is worth the money.

A bad one isn't.

Check their recent credits.  If you've heard of the films, go for it.  If you haven't, think twice.

Most distributors will look at your film if you approach them correctly.  But be persistent.  Send the aquisitions people a new email, letter or fax every time you get accepted by a new film festival, or if one of your actors get a role in a big new film.  It's their job to find films and filmmakers to exploit.  If they want to buy it, hire an entertainment lawyer on an hourly basis to go through the contract.

And, please, if you get the chance....

Hire Jeff Dowd.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Writer Tip #3: Don't Work For Free

Out in Hollywood, a script is only worth as much as someone pays for it.  If they pay nothing for it, it is worth nothing.

If you work for people for free, the scripts you write are worthless.

So just don't do it, right?

I wish it was that easy.

Trust me, there are plenty of producers out there who will be happy to "hire" you to work on one of their pet ideas for free.  This applies to both local producers who make $2000 zombie films and to Hollywood producers who actually make films you've seen in the theaters.  I remember early in my career I was given an opportunity to write a screenplay built around a charity admired by the Director of Production of a large, well-known motion picture production company.  Like any starving, boy screenwriter, I jumped at the opportunity and ended up writing a fine screenplay that was never produced.  Still, I was rewarded.  I was given the opportunity to write, once again on spec, an episode of a proposed series at Showtime.  The series never happened.  However, an omnibus feature was produced which did not include my tale.

Did I gain anything from that experience?  Yes.  It gave me my first taste of commissioned work.  It allowed me to prove to myself that I could write a story that I didn't originate.  That I could emotionally invest myself into someone else's idea.  And I got some bragging rights by "almost" being a writer on a Showtime series.  Did I lose anything?  Sure.  A little time, but that was more than balanced by the experience.  What I really lost was my work.  I believe the original script I wrote for the producer was terrific, but I can't do anything with it.  It doesn't belong to me.

Therefore, let me add a caveat to my rule:  Don't work for free unless you end up owning the material.

Some friends had an even greater dilemma.  They had moved to Hollywood and got some interest in an original script.  Somehow they got the attention of a "real" producer.   The guy had produced films starring Warren Beatty, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Kurt Russell, Alec Baldwin and Bruce Willis.  You get the picture.  Well, he took a liking to these young fellows and offered them the opportunity to adapt a book he once had an option on.  On spec.

They called me and asked what they should do.  Of course, if you're trying to break into the business your first instinct is to jump right on an opportunity like this.  But then you have to think.  This guy makes real movies.  He's used to spending money for scripts.  Why should he expect you to work for him for free?  Especially adapting a book his option has already lapsed on?  What did I advise?  I advised them to do it.  It was too good an opportunity.  But, as one would expect, it led to nothing.  Their script cost nothing, so it was worth nothing.  It didn't bring the project back to life, and the producer never offered them any pay work.

Nowadays, I wouldn't have given them the same advice.  I would at least ask for a nominal fee.  In this case, I would asked for at least $5,000-$10,000.  Pocket change in Big Hollywood, but enough money that he would probably actually read the script himself when it was done, as opposed to letting its fate rest with one of his overworked assistants.

And, by working for money, I mean more than one dollar.

Back when I was on the festival circuit, I would research the other films we were up against.  One time, I noticed we up against a film made by a production company that made tons of genre-films that ended up as filler on cable channels.  At the festival I sought out the director of the film and asked him how I could get in with the company.  He said not to bother.  They paid the writers one dollar per script.  They also paid the directors one dollar per film as well.  People were so desperate to get that first credit that writers and directors were lined up to work for them.  Homey don't play that.  Not no more.

One of the distributors who was interested in my film "21 Eyes" offered me an opportunity to write some low budget horror scripts for them.  It's offer was soooo Roger Corman that I couldn't resist.  Here's how the company worked:  They'd come up with a poster and tagline and then build films around them.  The producer sent me a link to a webpage with the posters and taglines and invited me to write a treatment on any idea that interested me.  I was supposed to write the treatments on spec.  They would pay me to write script if they liked the treatment.  The first thing I did was verify that the treatments, which were to be two-or-three paragraphs long, would not be works for hire.  That I would own them.  He agreed.  So I wrote two treatments that weekend and they loved them both.  I liked them too.  In fact, on my own authority, I would write one of the scripts on spec the next week.  The producer loved it.  Sadly, the company lost its funding and neither of my films were made.  However, I ended up with a terrific script that almost won me a very competitive screenplay competition at Slamdance.

It was good experience.

But I don't think I would do it again.

Ultimately, it doesn't pay to work for free.

(Unless you end up owning it.)

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.