Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Writer Tip #9: Nobody Wants To See Your Crappy Little Movie....

I have to be one of the most accessible filmmakers around.  I am very active on social media.   If you catch me when I'm not busy, I am usually happy to talk about the industry.  I have made a nice living working freelance in the film business for over twenty years.  I have written fourteen produced features.  I've had real agents.  I've signed real contracts.  And what I haven't learned on my own, I have gleaned from the experiences of other people who are further down the road than me.

I feel I have valuable advice to offer.  Sadly, most people who seek me out ignore it or say that I'm wrong.  Why?  Because I've been around too long to be starry-eyed about the dream anymore.  This business chews up dreamers and spits them out.  I have become a realist, and realism is the last thing dreamers want to encounter.

At least once a month I am approached by someone who has just written a great screenplay.  Or so they say.  Usually I refrain from reading the screenplays unless the request comes from a real friend, or I deem the writer to be sufficiently serious.  How am I able to tell if they're serious?  Easy.  If they tell me the script is soooo good that they're going to run out and shoot it for pocket change with a couple of their friends, I know they aren't serious about their craft.

I'm different than a lot of filmmakers.  I tend to put the well-being of the project ahead of my ego needs.  That's why, although I am certain I'd be a better director than some of the directors I have worked with, I never submit a script with the caveat that I must direct it.  Why?  Because I have also worked with directors who are much better than me, and, if I put the success of the project first, I want the best possible director working on it.  I also want the best production values, as well as a strong, bankable cast.  If I really believed in my script, why would settle for any less?  (Unless, deep down, I don't really believe in my script and I'm afraid to compete with the pros.)

Other people feel differently.  It comes down to your goals.  I always ask filmmakers two questions:  What are your goals?  Where do you expect this script to take you?

If your goal is to become a professional screenwriter, shooting the film yourself with a couple of pals will do less to forward your goal than having Paramount produce the film for seventy-million dollars with George Clooney in the leading role.  If your goal is to simply say "Hey, look, I made a movie," then go out and shoot it with your friends.  Sadly, your friends will probably be the only ones who end up seeing it.  Trust me, no one in Hollywood wants to, or will, spent ninety-seven minutes watching your crappy little movie.  They will never be dazzled by your witty dialogue or awed by your plot twist.  They will never see it.  Career-wise, it will be like it never existed.  Unless you get a serious distribution deal -- which is highly unlikely.

The odds have always been against the independent filmmaker, and they are getting much worse rather than better.  Back when movies were shot on film, it was expensive to make a movie and, as a result, demand actually exceeded supply.  The situation has become reversed.  Since the advent of the video/HD revolution, supply far exceeds demand.  Distributors, from the majors down to the bottom feeders, can afford to be very picky.  And, because filmmakers are so desperate to get their films out, they don't see the need to pay fair advances anymore.  Especially if you don't have any names in it. 

Think about it.  People make thousands of films a year.  More people apply to the Sundance Film Festival than to Harvard Law School -- and a lot of films that Sundance selects will never get real distribution.  So imagine the odds against the films that aren't good enough for Sundance. I wouldn't say that it is impossible, but I would honesty put the odds that you can make a film that will forward your career on a microbudget at about 2000 to 1.  And, frankly, that's being generous.

Your writing career could be better served by sending your script out to Hollywood, where it will probably be rejected, than making the film yourself.  The people with the power are much more willing to read an interesting script than watch an amateurish execution.  Scripts are vehicles of promise.  If someone gets caught up in your script, they will envision it unlimited by budget and featuring the most charismatic possible cast imaginable.  When they watch your micro-budgeted film, you will not be evaluated by your promise, but rather by the limitations of your production.  It's unavoidable.  Sorry.

That's not to say there aren't success stories.  I can point to my colleague Mike Flanagan.  He made a number of intriguing micro-budgeted films before he found someone willing to give him a real budget.  The result:  The hit horror film "Oculus" that has so far netted more than twenty-five million dollars at the domestic box office.  I also see myself as a success story, albeit on a more modest level.  My career certainly benefited from my little indie film "21 Eyes."  While we did not get a big name for the DVD box, we did spend money to hire some well-known character actors, and our delightful discovery Rebecca Mader become a regular on the TV series "Lost" right after the release of the film.  The festival success of the film, and the positive reviews, definitely enhanced my credibility.  However, I don't think I would have gotten half the mileage from the film had I not already paid my dues by getting an agent and getting good reads.  That's what really got me into "the club" -- not my indie movie.

Directors need to shoot something as a calling card to prove they can direct.  Actors need film as a calling card to prove they can act.  Writers don't.  Your script is your calling card.  You don't need a finished production to prove you can write.  If your script itself doesn't prove you can write -- no movie version of it is going to help you!

People often think I am being negative when I advise them not to make their films.  The reverse is true.  I am appealing to their self-confidence.  I am encouraging them to reach for the brass ring.  It is a lot easier on the fragile ego to make your own film in a safe, little echo chamber where all of your friends pat you on the back and say you're a genius.  Forget that.  Get out and take a real chance.  Be willing to compete with William Goldman, Shane Black, Tony Kushner, Mark Boal and Terence Winter.  That's what takes guts.

In all honesty, I think it is more beneficial for your career to get your script read, and declined, by the right thirty people in Hollywood than going for the immediate ego-satisfaction of making it into a movie that no one who can further your career will ever see.  Those rejections could lead to an assignment.  Plus, if your script truly is worth making, someone will eventually recognize its value.  I believe that.  Hollywood is always looking for the next great story.   Talent will out -- if you give it a chance.  Too many people don't.  They often feel like time is slipping away and they have to do something NOW. 

They do.  They have to keep writing.

And keep pitching, too.

That's what I do.

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.

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