Archive for January 2011

Making Movies: D.I.Y.

January 25, 2011

For the record, I had nothing to do with Amazon Studios linking to my posts on this blog or my Honolulu Star-Advertiser “Career Changers” blog when I wrote about why I entered their contest, and dealing with the disappointment of not being one of the six finalists after making the semifinals cut. But I appreciate the bump in new blog readers it gave me, and hope my musings have helped encourage some of you to continue pursuing your goals, whatever that may be. If you’re a writer, then write. Want to be in the movie or TV biz? Then go make movies and TV shows.

D.I.Y. in other words. Do It Yourself. Sure, you can focus on writing screenplays and learning all you can about the craft. However, nothing can replace the actual experience of working on a film or TV project from start to finish. You begin to learn the difference between putting words on paper, and creating a story that will be filmed and viewed by actual audiences. All those witty asides and stylistic flourishes in your script narrative? Not gonna be on the screen. Your big speech scene with the beautiful phrasing spilling off the page? Watch as the actor stumbles over your carefully constructed sentences that are hard to read out loud.

If I had a do-over in life, I would have started making short movies or producing video projects much sooner. Not just for creative purposes, but for financial income as well. That’s really why I created the Career Changers TV show for local channel OC16 here in Hawaii. For you mainland readers, Oceanic Time Warner is the largest cable services provider in the state, with about 350,000 subscribers. A few years ago they launched Oceanic Cable Channel 16 to broadcast high school sports (very big in Hawaii since we have no pro teams) and homegrown programming. Initially, it was mostly shows about surfing and ocean activities, along with some island style comedy for younger viewers. Over the years, it’s grown to include shows that cover everything from the local entertainment scene to cooking, fitness, retail products, Hawaiian crafts, spirituality, tech stuff, and real estate.

However, no one was producing a show that addressed the current economic downturn and need to provide resources for people who were looking for work, or thinking of starting a new career. I saw it as an opportunity to fill a niche — and make money since none of my scripts were selling. Fortunately, I had started doing more local networking with like-minded creative types about two years ago. I signed up for playwriting classes to meet more writers and actors. Took a free producers course given by Olelo, Hawaii’s public access television station, which taught me the basics of using professional video cameras and Final Cut Pro editing software. At social events, I met people who were producing documentaries and producing TV shows for OC16.

I don’t know if you have similar channels (commercial, not public access) where you live, but unlike most network or cable stations, OC16 doesn’t charge the producers a fee to air our programs. Once they accept your proposal and screen your pilot, if you get a regular slot in their schedule, you keep whatever revenue you generate from sponsors or advertisers. In return, I just have to give OC16 one minute and thirty seconds to air their commercials during my 30 minute show (each CCTV episode airs daily at different times for a month). Time Warner has been sending executives to Hawaii to study the OC16 concept and will possibly expand the model to other cities, so keep your eyes open for similar opportunities to create your own TV show for a localized market.

But thanks to the internet, YouTube and things like Amazon Studios, you already have venues to create media content for, which could be a stepping stone to bigger, better things. What’s intriguing about the Amazon Studios concept is the idea that filmmakers in search of commercial material could take your script or mine, make a rough “test” movie of it and put it out there for others to see, review, critique… yet it doesn’t seem like many people are taking advantage of the opportunity. Meanwhile, lots of filmmakers are trying to produce micro-budget movies on their own, while ignoring the big money Amazon is giving away in its monthly contests.

Recently, I received an email that was sent to American Film Institute alumni. Although I’m not an AFI grad, I’m on the list because I won a scholarship to attend the AFI Television Workshop program they used to run each summer. As you may know, the AFI is a pretty prestigious school, and many alumni have gone on to achieve success in the TV and film industry. Anyhow, the email was a reminder to alumni that Amazon’s contest could be a good chance for them to earn a substantial amount of money while showcasing their talents and skill.

So I sent a follow up email to the AFI list pitching one of my Amazon scripts, INUGAMI, as a test movie project to anyone who was interested. A couple of days later, I heard back from a talented cinematographer with a MFA from the American Film Institute, who said he would love to be involved. But we need a director and producer, and my contacts in L.A. are limited… so I don’t know if that will happen or not. My next option is to DIY here in Hawaii. Can I pull it off? I dunno. Then again, I’ve managed to create and produce a little TV show that’s been airing daily for over a year now and is making money, and in the process I’ve gotten to meet some very talented people and successful entrepreneurs, who are doing their own thing in a variety of fields.

Writing is a tough way to make a living. If you love it though, be willing to write for other mediums and think video/cable/YouTube. Increasingly, we live in a video-driven world. The printed word will never die… but writers have to adapt to survive. Hell, I’m working on an infomercial style video right now for a life-saving device created by a Hawaii inventor that could roll out nationally in a few months. Do I feel like a whore? No, because I’m going to use every trick I’ve learned from screenwriting and making my own TV show. It may not be the Hollywood movie I dreamed of writing, but my stuff is being watched on TV every day — and I get to blog about my experiences too.

Got a DYI story you’d like to share? Post it here in the comments. And if you don’t have one yet, go make it happen!

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Amazon Studios, InkTip Updates

January 12, 2011

When it comes to waiting for script competition results, I’m a bit superstitious. I’ll try not to visit those websites or screenwriting message boards until I’ve gotten an email or call from the contest administrator. I even visualize myself receiving the “Congratulations!” message we all want to see in our inbox. So when I didn’t get any personal emails from Amazon Studios today in regards to the top 50 semifinalists selections, I presumed I didn’t make the cut.

But I had a smidgen of hope and thought perhaps they were a little behind in sending out individual notifications. I decided to check their site, scrolled down the page and spotted my LEGENDS OF THE MENEHUNE script among the 50 that are still in the running. I’m sure there were many good screenplays that were passed over or just missed, and it stings to see stuff listed that may not appeal to your tastes. Hey, it sucks… 50 people are happy (correction: 45, since one guy had five scripts make it; another had two), while over 2,000 writers are disappointed or downright pissed.

Truth be told, I thought my INUGAMI script had the better chance of advancing. However, MENEHUNE is a big budget studio type project, which is why I entered it. Agents and managers rarely will go out with that kind of spec from an unproduced writer, and when I saw that Warner Bros. was involved with the Amazon Studios venture, I figured it was worth a shot. Next week I’ll learn whether I’m one of the six finalists for the first two $20,000 screenwriting awards they’ll be handing out. Visualize, visualize

The “congrats” email arrived about a half hour later. As a semifinalist, I get my choice of an Amazon Studios t-shirt, cap or coffee mug. Of course, I’d rather be offered representation or a personal intro to a development exec at Warner Bros., but I’ll take what I can get for now. Here’s the link to the Amazon Studios home page and the Top 50 list.

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In my last blog entry, I wrote about my positive experiences with InkTip, where you can list your scripts for the consideration of industry professionals at a cost of $60 for six months. You post a logline, synopsis, upload your script, check off categories and budget ranges, which are then read by producers, agents and managers (if they’re interested, that is). As I said before, I think it’s a good venue for indie or lower budget projects — especially if you’re not having much luck with querying producers or managers directly. (Click here for InkTip link.)

One thing I do is Google anyone who shows up on my activity log as having read the synopsis or downloaded the script. Normally, I won’t contact them directly to follow-up, because they’ll call or email you if they like your stuff. Sometimes though I’ll read their IMDB credits or see they’re doing certain type films, and if I think they’d be a really good fit for a script of mine, I’ll send them an email. That’s how I found out a producer actually loved my script — but felt it was out of their budget range, so they hadn’t contacted me. Had I not followed up, that would have been the end of it.

We got to talking about the possibility of them partnering with one of the other prodcos that had shown interest in the same script, and when I contacted those producers, a funny thing happened: now that one producer was serious about ponying up at least $600K, three other small companies have said they might want to partner on the movie. Which created an unexpected problem. The first prodco isn’t so sure they want to bring in another partner since they might have to give up control of the project. I’m waiting to hear from the $600K producer/director, who has lots of TV/movie experience, to see if he thinks they really can do it solo. I’d have to rewrite the script though to lower the budget, so that would be another hurdle to clear.

Meanwhile, I’m going to visualize myself getting the “Congratulations, You’re a Finalist!” email from Amazon next Monday, and imagine a happy outcome for the DOLL project. I’d like to be one of the InkTip success stories you hear about… as a matter of fact, I know a writer who got his big break through InkTip, and I’ll share more on that in the future.

So, do any of you “visualize” success when it comes to your writing projects? Any superstitions regarding writing or contests?

InkTip: Waste or Worth It?

January 6, 2011

Recently I responded to a question on a screenwriting message board asking if InkTip.com was worth trying to promote your script. For $60 you get a six-month listing on the site, where your logline, synopsis and script can be read by industry professionals. I’ve used it before and gotten positive results, which I mentioned in my reply. The next writer posted: “InkTip is a complete waste of time and money.” Maybe for him… and maybe for you, depending on the type of script you have or whether your pitch is any good.

My philosophy for marketing scripts is simple: whatever works. The only way to find out though is by doing your research, then trying different approaches and venues. I’ve heard people say mass e-queries are stupid… and then you hear about someone who landed an agent or got a deal using one of those services (myself included). The same is true of InkTip. Granted, you’re not likely to have studio level execs or big agencies reading your stuff. What’s more likely is you will have smaller management companies or indie type prodcos looking at your logline and budget range info (your listing includes lots of categories to help producers search for projects that fit what they’re searching for).

If you have a “smaller,” more personal type script that’s a drama, quirky comedy, low budget horror or thriller, then InkTip might be a good fit for you. At $60 for six months, it’s not much more than entering a contest — and how many reads are you going to get from entering a competition? Possibly one and you’re done. Make it to the later rounds or finals of a contest, and you might get read by half a dozen judges who may or may not have some clout. Moreover, if your logline and synopsis isn’t getting many views on InkTip, that may tell you something needs tweaking in your pitch or requires a major overhaul of the concept.

As I said, I’ve made some good connections through InkTip. A few years ago, I listed my INUGAMI script and got a request from Ben Rock. Turned out he was one of the core BLAIR WITCH guys (he was credited as set designer) and was looking for horror projects to direct. BTW, he directed THE BURKETTSVILLE 7 companion piece documentary for cable, which I think is actually better than BLAIR WITCH. Stylistically, it reminded me of a creepy old real documentary called TITICUT FOLLIES about deplorable conditions in an insane asylum, crossed with Errol Morris documentaries (Ben said I “nailed it” when I told him that).

Ben liked INUGAMI a lot, and forwarded it to his manager… who then sent it to some of his studio contacts without telling me. They passed, but I remained in touch with that manager. Although I didn’t sign with him, he’ll still read my stuff, but he’s looking for very specific type scripts that he feels he can sell. In fact, he did sell a spec for a million bucks a couple of years ago and the movie got made by A-list people. Unfortunately, it bombed — and I wasn’t surprised because the manager had sent me the script before it was produced, and I felt it was a lame rip-off of other hitmen/hired assassin movies I had seen. Of course, I didn’t tell him that.

I’ve made contact with other producers as well through InkTip. Most recently, I listed my award-winning low budget script, THE DOLL… and yesterday I spent an hour on the phone with an upcoming actress and veteran director, who have formed their own prodco, and are very interested in producing my script. So is InkTip a waste of time and money? Not for me.

I’ll fill you in on more details about THE DOLL project and what’s happening in my next post. Wish me luck! And don’t listen to anyone who tells you what will or won’t work for you. Because the truth is many people know a few things about how to make it in the biz, but there are no set and dried rules for success. Try. Fail. Try again. Repeat as necessary.