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Old 12-30-2004, 02:05 AM   #1
Taotropics310
 
Posts: n/a
Default LESSONS FOR PROS

I've been thinking for a while about a post directed toward fellow pros with an eye toward talking through some of the challenges we face. It also seemed like a good way to articulate those challenges to others who intend to become pros.

So.

You've sold the script. You've signed with the Big 5 agent. Your work is known to the point where people you don't know tell you they are "fans". You are in the first sweet wave of heat where you are comparatively cheap (around 100 or 150K per script) and people want to be in business with you.

How many do we know who have hit that level and then stagnated, and why? Let's assume for the sake of discussion that we are past the "desperate first foot in the door" job, which many must take at the beginning just to pay bills and establish some kind of credibility. This is more like the first formal decision about the newly blossoming career. This is the moment where careers are made or broken.

CHOOSING ASSIGNMENTS

The most important task an emerging pro faces is the task of choosing your first assignment. Note I use the word "choose" because too often we land in the middle of something and we find our assignments choosing us instead of us choosing them.

I know a F.O.B. Pro (Boog will like that term - and in fact, he IS one I believe) who wanted to talk to me about his recent successes. He had sold a pitch to an A list director and was very popular. He signed with an agent and then decided he wanted to turn his novel into a television show. I could hear the frothing excitement in his voice. That familiar grandiosity. I heard it in my own voice when the world first started paying attention to me.

The phenomenon of becoming the Flavor of the Month in Hollywood is so intoxicating that it is impossible to remember that it is a FAD that fades with time - now matter WHO you are. As time passes, familiarity can breed contempt. There will always be the fascination with the new, young writer and they are always coming like Kamikaze planes from the sky.

BEING THE LED INSTEAD OF THE LEADER

As with anything, if you let circumstances, convenience and flattery dictate your decisions, you will wind up rudderless, floating along making money with a career that has no direction, no guiding mission. When the first wave of heat hits, it might be a big sale, it might be a small movie that goes into production, it might be a festifval movie that gets some attention. Well and good. But be sure before sitting down with these peole whose affirmation you have craved for many years that you know what you want from them - because if you aren't clear on it, they will rush to fill that gap with their own strong personalities and agendas. If you don't develop a plan and stay with it, you will encounter major problems down the road.

Typically what happens is the first offer comes. A producer with a deal has a book they'd love you to adapt; a mediocre director (let's say - pure example - Gary Fleder) is interested in directing your script; a slightly out of vogue actor wants to play the lead (let's say - again, example - David Duchovny or Michael Keaton) - your first instinct is: Oh my God! These people are...famous! They want to have coffee with me! They want to work with me! The simple shock of it is enough to just roll with whatever agenda comes at you. But step back for a moment.

Maybe Fleder and Duchovny were just the first to surface. Maybe this producer and this book are not the most prestigious, artistically attractive project you could get. As my agent says "it's great to be the belle of the ball, but it hurts when you get knocked up".

Because once you make that first commitment, in a sense, your heat begins to wane. Hollywood is most fanatically interested in projects or people in flux. The longer you wait to commit to your first project, the more heat will build. The more players YOU pass on (meaning that you tactfully inform Duchovny's people through your agent that you are at the beginning stages of your process and can't commit right now), the more interest builds. This process should be milked AS LONG AS POSSIBLE. On the other hand, if you are abrasive and playing the role of the prima donna, that will get old fast as well.

Watch the Troy Duffy documentary "Overnight" for an object lesson in what NOT to do when you catch the first wave of heat. He overexposed and overextended himself and alienated everybody else. The first rule of Hollywood is: civility is a virtue. Treat every person you meet with respect. The assistant getting you a water today could be the executive with the book you want tomorrow. Billy Friedkin treated Michael Eisner and Barry Diller like absolute @#%$ when they were lower level execs and paid a stiff price for it later. Civil, but assertive.

Part of what you want your agent to do for you is help you honestly gauge where the town is on you. A good agent will be honest about when to strike and when to lay off. If your agent is encouraging you to jump at the first offer you get - you have the wrong agent. Agents should be impressed by nothing. If Spielberg calls, their first thought should be: "this project and this circumstance and this price have to be right for my client or we are passing" instead of "I need to shove my client into this job that was a thirty second thought of Spielberg's to make myself better known to him". So keep your criteria simple. Your first CHOSEN job or commitment should meet the following criteria:

1. You know you can do a good job
2. You have a gut good feeling about the material or the collaborators; hopefully both
3. You are being paid a fair price (this should be determined by your agent and lawyer)

Firstly: you must KNOW you can do a good job. Proving yourself is a never ending process in Hollywood. The "three and out" syndrome is very common. A writer catches heat, books three jobs, is late and bad on each of them, word gets around, and they are permanently unemployable. There are very few second chances in Hollywood. Protect the career you have. Don't kill the goose.

The best way of knowing this is through your own take on the material. If your version of the movie thrills and moves you, then that's your gig. Even if it's LESS SEXY than something else on the table. When you find yourself saying "I really SHOULD take this other baseball job with George Clooney attached...but I'm not interested in baseball" then you MUST PASS. The day will come after the deal when it is going to be just you and the baseball material every day for six months. George Clooney will be nowhere in sight. If you can't make magic with that material, he will never materialize. Whereas if you are offered an offbeat graphic novel at a young but hungry production company that is dying to be in business with you, and you are CERTAIN you can make a killer script with it - that's the moment to jump.

NEGOTIATING

Nothing can be more nerve wracking than a negotiation. You are put into radio-free zone with your agent while they argue with the business affairs department of a studio. The hardest part about negotiating is that your negotiating partner KNOWS intuitively your bottom line. They can sense it, it's their special skill and talent. So if you are not truly, no @#%$, prepared to walk away if you don't get your price - you will never get that price. Whereas often if you ARE willing to lose the job - you will wind up getting the price you want. This formula does not always work. You and your agent must understand what your leverage is. If you have lucked into something that is "over your head" and are crazy about the long term prospects for the material or the collaborator, then there is a time to let the price be damned and make the deal happen quickly.

But as you start the gradual process of getting your price up (increasing your quote, the fee you are paid to write a script) you must make peace with the fatalistic quality of negotiating. You must pick a number that you and your agent think is aggressive but fair, know how far you are willing to come off of it, and stick to your guns. The other side will masterfully convince you that they will drop you if you persist in your demands. Occasionally they aren't bluffing. But often they are - and they do buckle.

You have the most leverage if you are challenged by a talent element the studio respects: a famous actor or director. Then you can fight for your deal and get a bump. What is a bump?

GETTING A BUMP

A "bump" is an increase in your standard fee, usually in increments of 25K to 50K per deal. That then becomes your new precedent and your new price. Bumps are vital to making financial progress in your career.

As a beginning writer, your first "writer for hire" deal will net you anywhere from Guild Minimum plus ten percent (about sixty grand) to 100 or even 150K. It all depends on your "heat".

Price is established by precedent. If you have talked someone into paying you 200K to write a script, then your agent will have a much easier time talking the next empoyer into paying you that amount. This paper trail is your value in the marketplace. That's why early decisions are important.

Business affairs people can be pressured into giving bumps under the following circumstances:

1. There is time pressure to do the deal: a project has internal momentum (motivated by above usually) and the executive desperately needs a writer. You are the one they want that's available. They'll pay a little extra to make it happen fast.

2. You have had some kind of career changing event in the interim such as: getting a script "set up" (not bought, set up - there's a difference). Between today and your previous precedent you landed a major actor and director who actually signed deals to make your film. This is a good argument for a significant bump. Good agents will milk this to get a bump on pre-production of a movie, a bump during production, a bump after production (all on different jobs of course) and a HUGE bump if the film is a success.

3. You are supported by a powerful presence, an actor or director the studio is anxious not to offend. Ridley Scott wants you hired quickly. He hears there are "problems with the writer's deal". If Ridley wants you, he will be annoyed that the studio is being cheap and time will play to your advantage. The studio will cave.

4. You are selling a pitch and you simply name a price and stick to your guns. Even if you don't have another offer on the table, if you have the strength to walk away, you can probably get another fifty thousand out of them just by being firm. Studios expect to pay extra for an original pitch, even if they are the only bidder. You should get a bump here.

5. If someone with money gets a deep, hard crush on you - if you are the only, only person they can imagine writing it, or if your take is so amazing they can't get it out of their heads - and you and your agent are smart enough to pick up on this -you can often get a significant bump.

The paradox of the bump is that the less you like the material, the more likely you are to get a bump on it. Because you are WILLING TO WALK AWAY.

I had an experience where a set of producers decided that I was literally their dream candidate for a project. I liked it but wasn't crazy about it. Initially we passed. But they knew I had expressed some interest. the guy called my agent and asked "what is it going to take to get this guy to do this?" At that point my agent checked with me: was I willing to let it go? did I like it enough to do it? the answer was that it was a Goldilocks deal: I liked the material enough to do the job, but was just detached enough that I was willing to walk away if the price wasn't right. My agent got me a 50K bump on that deal.

Another bump I got because a difficult to please actor picked me after being very finicky and the studio wanted to act quickly to please him.

Another bump I got was from selling an original pitch.

Yet another was from selling an original pitch with an A-list director attached and another A-list director attached to produce. That was a beautiful meeting. I could have told the studio president I wanted to do a nine hour incest movie and I still would have gotten the bump.

The most interesting bump I got was a four month negotiation where the producers were so furious at my agent and lawyer that they almost strangled each other. They were at an impasse over a small amount of money but I was told forcefully that because my movie was in pre-production, that it was not industry standard to pay me less than what they were asking on my behalf. And the producer just wouldn't budge saying that his deal didn't allow him "discretion". It so happened my lawyer knew the head of production at the studio in question. he asked him casually while discussing another matter if the producer DID have discretion over his funds to which the head of production replied "of course".

My lawyer then quoted the head of production, thus destroying the producer's negotiating position. The producer screamed at the head of production, who in his embarrassment agreed to have the studio cover the difference between what the we wanted and what the producer wanted to pay. There are many ways to skin a cat.

But be prepared to get punched in the gut. On occasion we have staked out positions and then had studios drop us like a bag of garbage. Know your leverage.

WALKING DOWN THE GARDEN PATH

When free lance writers book jobs, very often they have to chase/consider three, four or five jobs at a time to land the one they want. I have twice been in the position of chasing three jobs with the expectation of getting one, and then getting offered all three in one week. The problem here is that if you have gone into the studio on all three, and don't want to double book, you are going to leave some very hurt feelings in your wake.

Your agent must help you space and stall the meetings in order of your preference of gigs and your likelihood of getting them. It's like applying to college - you have your dream school your likely school and your safe school. The safe school people should be so hungry to be in business with you that they will tolerate your tentative decision making process. You go in on your dream job, pitch your heart out and hope. You then go into your likely job, the one that is the best fit - you'll probably get it and you like the material and collaborators enough. The trick then is to be just honest enough to have a reasonable "out" - which most often is "the other people made an offer first". This can also help (only if the other interest is real) in forcing an offer from a slow-moving employer. They will put the gears in motion just "not to lose" you.

The hoped for outcome are multiple suitors, one of whom you commit to, and the others whom you leave wanting more. I always call in person to pass on a job. People appreciate the call and they will be likely to carry that good feeling with them when the next project comes up. Also - it makes producers crazed with lust to hear the word "NO". Only makes them want you more next time, as long as you don't really @#%$ them or leave them hanging (for example, bailing on a deal after a verbal agreement has been negotiated but the contract not yet signed). That can leave a bad taste.

HOW TO MOVE FORWARD WHEN EVERYTHING AROUND YOU IS STILL

The key to getting to the A-list as defined by my agent is by getting a film made with your name on it that is EITHER a critical or commercial success. Then you enter the world of super-fees and production rewrites. But how to make that leap?

One of the biggest problems I've encountered is the incredible tightrope one must walk, the hurdles one must jump to get a film actually made in this town. Executives get fired, producers lose interest, actors and directors fall in love then bail to do something with a fatter paycheck: the disappointments are many and varied. There is a great problem in trying to get a presitge film made (my genre) whose basic costs are high because it is a period piece. I was a co-producer on the one film I did get produced, and take active roles in pushing my others. Proactivity is a must for a writer, and you'd be surprised how much you can help push a process along if you really set your mind to it.

1. Know what someone else doesn't

Contrary to popular opinion, Hollywood is NOT an all knowing UniMind. Often a simple piece of information: "Ed Norton is looking for a WWII project"..."Tom Cruise read my last script, liked it and knows my name - it's worth trying him"..."My friend's agent is on Adam Sandler's team, and apparently he is dying to work with our director"

My agent is on an A-list director's team. She got him very interested in a script of mine, but we had no actor. The producer had raised the money, but was a very busy ADD guy, and was more interested in his money makers than in my little film. I found out from a former colleague of his that an A-list actor had read my script and said he'd do it with the right director. My agent didn't know this. Once I told her, she informed the director, found out he liked the actor, and put them together. Now we may have a package. You must be the one keeping tabs on the "little strands", little leads that come and go with a script. Keep your agent and producer informed. They have a lot of things going on. With the best intentions, they can fail to put two and two together. It's your job to keep the information and momentum flowing.

NEXT: the current star based system of financing; who's considered a star and who isn't; and why to push your contemporary script over your sci-fi or period piece...
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Old 12-31-2004, 01:13 AM   #2
Taotropics310
 
Posts: n/a
Default Re: writing about writing

No, this is not from a pre-prepared document. This is the writing I do on my downtime. I'll leave the books to others better qualified.

THE MYTH OF THE GREEN LIGHT

There is no such thing as a "green light" for a studio picture - ie: a clear decision by a studio to make a movie come hell or high water. The only exception to this would be proposals to film properties like Marvel comics or very successful children's books, and sequels to massively successful franchises.

Every other kind of movie: action, fantasy, prestige, comedy and especially dramas are dependent completely on the organic coming together of a package, without help from a studio. Which is like getting nine wet cats into one bag. The green light, meaning, a final binding decision to make the movie can be considered made once a production is three weeks into principal photography. Every day before that (and on occasion days after) is filled with saber-rattling and brinksmanship that at any time could fatally destroy the project. And most often after the "announcement" of a studio's intention to make a film, the film winds up falling apart.

From my limited experience, it seems a miracle that anything gets made at all.

Consider the following variables:

Individual players, both actors and directors, do not like to be "attached" to material. They prefer to be "interested". Ironically though, since "interest" is easier to throw around than "attachment", other parties regard it with skepticism and sometimes will not read simply on that basis. See, even movie stars and star directors don't completely trust their own judgement. They prefer to see definitive judgements from other parties first. Further, it weakens them to "attach" to something, because if that project gets passed on by the town, it is perceived as a referendum on that player's power. Players prefer to avoid those kind of public referendums.

Which means even if a script is held in very high regard, directors want the star to commit first. And the star wants the director to commit first. And the studio wants the director and star to commit before it will render a verdict on the package. The studio keeps saying "if" until the day a movie hits the screens.

Post "green light" any of the following can happen:

-the executive that championed the project is fired
-the star atttached has a bomb and is no longer viable
-the director or stars drop out over disagreements over script, budget, location, deals, perks, back-end agreements, co-stars, with each other and/or the studio
-the project becomes less appropriate to the cultural climate (a terrorism film after 9/11 for example)
-late discovery of legal problems, rights issues, chain of title, discovery of unsconscious creative similarities to previously existing movies (honest to God) render the film not viable
-a film like it beats it to the starting gate
-a film like it bombs
-a no explanation decision is made to stop

etc.

I had a rather astonishing experience that illustrates some of these difficulties. I'm going to use initials instead of names. You will get the drift of just how precisely pieces need to fall into place for anything but a franchise property to hit the screen. I go over all this not to discourage you, but to inspire you to take your destiny in your own hands by either making your films independently or concentrating on excellence in your writing, since that's all you can really control.

I found that out the hard way. The below actually makes for good comic reading with all the initials. But it tells a pretty compelling story about the dangers of looking ahead any further than your next page.

I was hired by the production company of RZ (Oscar winning director) to adapt a non-fiction book about two thieves. An actor was attached, JC (a "grifter") who was hands-on, committed to the material and closely supervised my writing process.

I handed in my revised draft to JC. He loved it. It was then read over the weekend by RZ. He loved it more. On Monday, RZ called his close friend and DreamWorks studio head, SS (most successful director in history of cinema). On Tuesday night SS read the script. Wednesday he called RZ raving to "green light" the film.

First wrinkle: the studio wanted to make the "smaller version" of the movie (translation: they didn't want to pay the players their full salaries). JC resisted this approach since the material was, in some ways a genre comedy, and he felt it should be "full freight" (the term for a film where all players get full salaries).

The project went out to directors. Nine or ten prominent directors immediately signalled their interest. Some met with the producers, some met with me. All were rejected by JC.

SS persisted, asking monthly about the status of the project. SS signalled that under the right circumstances he would approve the film at "full freight". This re-energized the search. It emerged that an iconic director, TG (former python), was interested in directing. He was flown in from London to discuss it. After meeting, JC approved the choice and the project went from hot to white hot.

A budget north of 50 million was approved. Only three actors were approached for the role of the older friend, all legends. The first two passed. The third, DH (a graduate), signalled his definitive interest. The package was complete. An Oscar winning, blockbuster-creating producer, and three semi-legendary talent elements. And the personal support of the single most powerful creative person in Hollywood.

Second wrinkle: budget negotiations ensued. The studio's business team began objecting to the budget they had previously approved, saying the actors we wound up with were not "openers" that could limit the studio's risk. The studio lowered the budget to 25 million.
This was rejected by all creative elements. It would make it impossible to shoot key scenes in NY, which was part of the attraction of the piece. It also meant that all the money would go to production and the players themselves would be left with nearly nothing in upfront fees.

The players all agreed to take one fifth their usual fees. This lowered the budget to 39 million. But the studio wouldn't budge. Finally RZ called SS and asked for him to personally intervene.

SS raised the ante to 33 million. RZ insisted that he needed 39. One of the parties even offered 3 million of their own money as a "matching challenge" to the studio. SS brought the number up to 35 million over the strenuous objections of his own business advisors.

The budget was agreed upon.

At which point bitter negotiations ensued on "back-end deals" for the producers. Producersl felt the studio was not generous enough in the "upside" contingencies. Film almost fell apart. Last minute agreement was reached.

Now RZ led charge to tie down all talent parties. Back-end deals were offered to all talent elements that were similarly ungenerous. RZ threatened to "pull the funding" in an effort to compel talent decisions and commence pre-production. The talent elements conferred and considered.

(Tao monitored this over a year and a half period with 10 phone calls a week by the way)

One element finally signed on. The others were expected to follow. Final quote by other producer, my good friend: "I think I'm going to be on a plane Monday scouting locations."

On Monday afternoon the other two elements passed on the back-end deals, destroying the package and derailing the project completely.

After all that, it was just dead - done. Tao was one depressed puppy.

What was my role in all of this? the answer is as you would expect: I was a breathless spectator. I followed each hiccup, each phone call, each minor victory, each offer, each pass, each new cryptic studio comment. And when all was said and done I realized that this is the most difficult part of being a screenwriter. Ultimately, in the studio system, we have almost no control over anything that will happen. And any time spent being a hopeful spectator is time wasted. It will happen with or without your interest or help. And nothing - witness above - no circumstance you can dream of will guarantee your movie will happen.

It's a good study in the kind of Zen detachment we would do well to manifest in other areas of our lives. In the end I think I was made stronger by the experience, because since then I've only monitored at a distance the various ups and downs of my other scripts journey toward the screen. I hope one of them will go sometime soon. But my life isn't on hold in the meantime.

Now, a contrasting hopeful story

Peter Hedges, a talented novelist and screenwriter wrote a script called "Pieces of April". He intended it to be his directorial debut. Five years ago he attracted the interest of an impressive cast including Katie Holmes and Frances McDormand.

Three times the project came together at a particular studio in the 3-6 million range. Three times, at the very last minute, the studio changed course and pulled the funding.

Peter was approached by a company called IndiGent Films. They offered him a business model that he laughed at at first. They said they would fund the movie, with one catch: they would only give him 170 thousand dollars.

Peter nearly laughed in their faces. He had four major actors, one an unqualified star. He had a script that took place in Manhattan. How in the name of God could he make the movie for that price?

Well, it turned out the actors commitment, including Katie Holmes was true and deep. they agreed to work for deferred scale up front in exchange for being equity participants in the film. All the crew members were also equity participants. No one got paid up front (except maybe the caterers). The film was shot on DV in 18 days.

In 2003, Pieces of April was the toast of Sundance. It sold for north of 4 million dollars. Pretty much everyone got a taste of the action. It went on to a decent, well reviewed run in theaters. It was also a universally praised artistic experience for all participants.

The financial mechanics of films have never been more unforgiving. But every year great films are made and we are bettered by them.

Charlie Kaufman's solution has been to write films so insanely original and brilliant that they practically leaped from the page to the screen, knocking all obstacles out of their way, leaving actors, directors and studios slipping like Keystone Cops trying to get their hands on them.

That is my new plan and I recommend it to you. Make the script so good it can cut diamonds. It's the best hedge you've got.

tao
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Old 12-31-2004, 10:27 PM   #3
Queen Uhuru
 
Posts: n/a
Default

Quote:
I don't want the scrutiny of a magazine on my anecdotes
Do you think they would try to influence content? Censor it? Or would they just be too antsy about even using initials if you were talking about real people? People are hooked on that kind of gossip and since that's just the window dressing to your real content, it doesn't seem like it should present a "show biz" type publication with too many problems.

If you were going to beat up celebrities or industry pros with the bitchy stick, you wouldn't be the first. But I just get a sense of fun from your references (like "D.H." - the graduate, heh heh, I'm actually old enough to remember seeing that in the theater).

There must be a whole bunch of writer and filmmaker media sources that would just wet their corporate panties to get ahold of somebody like you.
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Old 01-01-2005, 03:25 AM   #4
Taotropics310
 
Posts: n/a
Default Re: mag

It's just a tricky area, because in a slightly more enclosed community you can be a little more free in the stories you tell and info you dispense (stories I found very useful starting out)...when you get into actual publications there's more a risk of hurting someone's feelings (many of these people are very touchy about their private business dealings or personas becoming public domain - which is stupid because its my life too, and i'm allowed to talk about my own life) - nonetheless - I prefer to hurt feelings when I have to not when its optional.
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Old 01-03-2005, 07:44 AM   #5
PipeWriter
 
Posts: n/a
Default

Tao, I remember this story as it unraveled. I have to say, the way you've told it here is very bland and linear. Which is unfortunate because you do yourself a disservice to use it, as written, as an example how a project can look so great and fall apart so easily.

Consider the way a few of us saw this story unfold. Over the course of several months, it looked like this: SS read the script and called me at home. Oh my god that's cool. Guess what, TG wants to direct. Oh my god! Oh now what, DH read the script, he wants to do it! OH MY GOD! Now mix in the rollercoaster ride of financial woes. Dude, I cried at the end of Old Yeller.

Anyway. I still wish I had your problems.
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Old 01-03-2005, 08:32 AM   #6
creativexec
 
Posts: n/a
Default Re: Tao's story

In the ironic world of Hollywood, a similar
story played out with the project that
was competing with Tao's.


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Old 01-03-2005, 01:32 PM   #7
Taotropics310
 
Posts: n/a
Default

pipe - it's too painful to tell in anything other than a detached way. for now anyway.

CE - that is very humorous. I'd like to hear that account sometime six bullets from now. btw...i have something to discuss with you. do you have my email?
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Old 01-06-2005, 02:10 PM   #8
Taotropics310
 
Posts: n/a
Default Re: Lesson for Pros

Someone stop me, please...

STARS, FINANCING AND THE 28 YR. OLD JUNIOR EXECUTIVE WHO "ISN'T EXCITED" ABOUT MARTIN SCORSESE

It won't come as a shock to announce that we are in a frightening time of de-evolution in the making of motion pictures. In contrast to the '70's we are in a period more reminiscent of the mid '60's where big terrible period musicals crowded out any film that had as its starting point an artist's vision, as opposed to an executive's business maneuver.

Perhaps it's my own naivete, but i have been consistently stunned over and over again by the phenomenon of foppish, twentysomething studio executives, fresh out of Brown or UCLA, who have barely gotten their feet wet, rendering verdicts on cinematic legends that keep them out of the movie business. It is in fact, their contempt for any particular talent element that is not financially relevant in the past two years that can be their calling card. It's cooler to reject someone than appreciate them. It's also safer.

One of the projects I had was going out to directors and talent. It had money and heat behind it. I met with one of the VP's (whatever the @#%$ that mean, it seems like they are about five million VP's in each company, most of whom bring you water at meetings) at the studio. I mentioned the two dream talents that the actor and I wanted for the film:

Martin Scorsese to direct
Woody Allen to co-star

The executive, with the kind of blank expression normally seen in bored dogs in cars, said

"Marty Scorsese really doesn't excite me right now."

and

"Woody Allen is impossible. He means nothing."


HE MEANS NOTHING

That phrase haunts casting discussions for films. The end of the sentence is "He means nothing in the overseas markets, which is where we make our money." Therefore an actor or actress that we find mesmerizing and who is considered a major talent or box office draw here in the U.S. will often be passed over in casting lists because their films have not made as much recently overseas. Or more often, they will be cast as part of the package, but cannot serve as an "anchor" for a package.

Among other actors that can no longer serve as anchors:

Robert Redford
Warren Beatty
Dustin Hoffman
Barbara Streisand
Michelle Pfeiffer
Kevin Kline

What...you splutter...this is a list of Hollywood royalty!

Sorry the 28 year old snot nose isn't excited. No deal.

Thus, the palates of viewers in Germany and Australia are determining the actors we get to see in our movies more than we are. It also depends on the kind of movie, but let's presume we're talking about the prestige movie, which depends entirely on casting to find its way to the screen.

Let's use as an example a prestige film with three major roles. One is a "star" part (meaning the meatiest, most interesting role), the other two are good solid roles, but the star role is central. Two males, one female. The film is an epic period piece, so its infrastructure costs are higher: it will cost 30 million just in below the line costs.

Any package at this level must have an "anchor" - a star whose participation can guarantee pre-sales of a certain amount for a foreign territory. Or there is absolutely no chance of the film being made.

So let's say, from an artistic standpoint, the dream cast is:

Javier Bardem
Clive Owen
Cate Blanchett

That cast is a no-go at this level. If the film cost 12 million, it would be an instant green light, but at the 30 million dollar level, it simply won't be approved, pretty much no matter WHO is directing it (there are about ten huge name exceptions to this of course).

So what inevitably happens? The package must change. And usually it changes as a result from a haranguing interest from a Star, who we might find very inappropriate for the role, but who decides they are interested in the role to grow artistically.

Suddenly the package looks like this:

Brad Pitt (replacing Javier Bardem in the role of a foreigner)
Hugh Grant (replacing Clive Owen in the role of a dashing soldier)
Cate Blanchett

But let's say Cate doesn't like that package as much, she'd prefer to work with different co-stars. But Brad Pitt wants that part. Then we get

Brad Pitt
Hugh Grant
Reese Witherspoon

But now, the studio is looking at the back-end. They have three huge stars that they have to make gross participation deals with (because none of them would be getting "full freight", otherwise the talent costs alone could top 55 million). Someone needs to go. Then we get.

Brad Pitt
Clive Owen
Laura Linney

But now the director has decided that he simply cannot tolerate Brad Pitt in this part. The star part must go to a more appropriate actor. So the director spins the wheel again.

Philip Seymour Hoffman
Clive Owen
Laura Linney

But uh-oh, now we don't have the star power. We're back where we started. Well, maybe if we cast up the roles around the star part we can still get our package.

Philip Seymour Hoffman
Hugh Grant
Reese Witherspoon

But now the studio is iffy on the package. With Brad Pitt they liked it much better. Reese is not a reliable moneymaker in prestige films as opposed to her traditional romantic comedies. Now maybe if Reese has a lucrative signature comedy in discussion at that studio, maybe she can muscle it through and threaten to not to the lucrative project unless she gets the prestige film. But she doesn't. Reese is out.

The director is now furious. Reese's people are furious. But the studio is whimsical and quixotic: you can think they approve something, when in reality they don't actually "consider" something until it's right in front of them, a meal to be eaten.

At this point the director takes another project. The producer hunts around for a substitute. In the interim, Hugh Grant falls out - takes another movie. Most likely, our movie is dead.

But wait! Jude Law has decided he likes the script! And Cate blanchett wants back in because she wants to work with Phil Hoffman! A directors' list is approved. A new director signs on.

But uh-oh. The studio REJECTS JUDE LAW. What? Impossible! He's one of the biggest stars around!

Phil Hoffman
Jude Law
Cate Blanchett

And the studio says no?? Correct. Jude is "overexposed" they say. He "needs to die and be reborn" another says. All point to a string of misses this year. But he was nominated for an oscar last year!

Sorry. They want Richard Gere. Phil and Cate say no.

The studio suggests hopefully: "could we make the girl part younger? maybe lindsay lohan? she's really smart and totally on fire right now. And how about Orlando Bloom for the "star part". Yeah, he's a bit wooden, ant it's a character role but whaddya say?"

The project dies.

This is an entirely fictional scenario but it's happening every single day in Hollywood.

Still want to write studio prestige movies?

Yeah, me too.
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Old 01-07-2005, 11:57 AM   #9
sc111
 
Posts: n/a
Default Re: Lesson for Pros

Thanks, Tao.

I couldn't agree more when you say: "... we are in a frightening time of de-evolution."

I watch current films that people say are "great" and I come out feeling like I'm living in an alternate universe. Great? I was thinking more along the lines of "shallow pap."

And the new crop of "stars" today are also lacking. The problem may be that they're rushed to celebrity status for one reason or another and tagged stars way before they've built their acting chops in, let's say, stage theatre as those who have gone before.

I'm also alarmed to hear that Europe sways Hollywood - - very strange considering their opinion of our lifestyle.

My question: will the cycle play itself out? Or will it get worse before it gets better?

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Old 01-07-2005, 01:22 PM   #10
Hamboogul
 
Posts: n/a
Default Re: Lesson for Pros

Tao,

FIRST, you should get back to writing. There, I'm nagging you .

SECOND, I am gonna be the one to say it but... I don't think your last post is accurately reflective of what goes on or went down (I'm not doubting your analysis per se). I think that you, as the writer, are exposed to only so much.

THIRD, just as there are pecking order of actors and directors, there are pecking order of writers, wouldn't you say? And certain writers have a higher priority, have greater fan base of actors (for example, Hugh Grant will do your movie close to his rate whereas he'll do a Richard Curtis movie for close to scale).


So while you raise many good points, I disagree with the analysis.
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