Wednesday, December 21, 2011


This week, published its list of the Best Undistributed Films in their year end critics poll. More than 160 critics voted. Altogether, around 275 films made the list. Granted, some of these films have gotten distribution deals that have not yet been announced but, according to the site, the top five films, those that were mentioned the most, do not, at this time, have deals for theatrical distribution.

During the spring, summer and fall of 1988, I worked on two feature films, a low-budget indie (around 1.5 million dollars) and a moderately budgeted (around 20 million dollars) studio film. Both films were released in theaters, have played on TV and gotten home video releases.

Maybe it really was a simpler time or maybe I am just naive but today, even with all the avenues for film distribution -- VOD, online, theatrical, cable and on and on -- it seems like it’s harder to get a film out there. Maybe the movies are just not that good.

Everywhere I turn, I hear about an actress or actor friend shooting this film or that film and everyone seems to be a director or a producer promoting their new film as they are shooting it --- sometimes even long before they start shooting. I understand that marketing buzz, building brand awareness and consumer interest is the name of the game but it sometimes seem like that is the only thing happening. I hear about all these films in the pre-production, then production stage and then what, they’re gone.

So many of these film just seem to disappear without getting much, if any kind of “proper” release -- much less a theatrical run.

Maybe I am old school in thinking that having a movie shown in a movie theater is the ultimate goal. However, film is a public art, it succeeds when people see it and I am not just talking about having a screening at a bar for friends and family. Now, much as I love to see a movie on the big screen, I have to admit that I don’t go to movie theaters as much --- honestly, the picture and sound quality on my TV or computer is better.

Still, for me, a theatrical screening -- even if it is just at a film festival or two -- is the gold standard. Maybe I am small minded in thinking like this but, if I bust my butt and break the bank to make a film, it means more to me to have people make an effort to go see it in a theater than it does to know that they are clicking a button on their computer and watching it while they are checking their e-mail.

For some people, having a screening of their film -maybe renting out a screen at the local art house theater - for friends and family is as good as it will ever get. For some people, the gold standard is breaking even, maybe even having something to hand over to their investors.

If you really want to know what my feelings on the matter, I want to make a film that does “well enough” critically and/or commercially to inspire someone to back me on another film and the film after that one and the film after that one and so on.

I have never been a big fan of writer-director Edward Burns’ work but I have always been interested in his career --- from the legendary “pay the rent or enter ‘Brothers McMullen’ in Sundance?” story to his more recent forays into micro-filmmaking (his new film "Newlyweds" was shot for $9000.00) and promoting VOD as the saving grace for indie filmmakers.

I have been watching the business of indie films and how they get to their audience almost as long as I have been watching indie films. In the “anyone can make a film” era, saying that you are making a film does not carry much weight with me. Telling me that your film screened at a reputable festival, got picked up by distributor with muscle or even, yes, that it’s been downloaded/whatevered 500 times is going to impress me.

So, whether or not my thinking is stuck in the past is less of an issue for me. The Hollywood Economist Blogspot estimates that, worldwide, there are 4000 - 5000 independent features made each year and, of that number, only 2% will be purchased for distribution. Making a film is half of the battle, maybe not even half. Getting people to see your film is the real trick.

Of course, I will still look through the behind-the-scenes photos that you post on facebook and wish you the best.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Tale Of Three Indies

It might sound as if I have this indie bias, this Hollywood = Bad, Independent Film = Good. I get that and I realize that there are just as many, if not far more, really, really bad independent films out there.

Orson Welles once said that the difference between filmmakers and all other artists is that, for the most part, other artists can afford to make their art.

With today's technology, however, anyone can make a movie and, from my perspective, far too many people are making movies and, not that I am a math whiz by any stretch or into odds and probabilities, it just seems that, the more movies that are out there, the more chances for more of these movies to be bad increases. Some people see the glass half full, I see a little crack in the glass where stuff is slowly leaking out.

I recently saw the 2011 Sundance hit “Bellflower,” which I had been eagerly looking forward to seeing. I can’t even remember what, exactly, I had heard about it beforehand but it had been long on my radar and I thought it looked cool.

Remember, movies are about creating images, making people think that they are seeing something that they are not really seeing. When we see rockets whooshing across space, we are not seeing rockets, we are seeing something that is supposed to make us think that we are seeing a rocket. And so it goes for movie marketing, very often for indie movie marketing. It is all about getting people to see a movie that appears to be about one thing when, at least some of the time, it is about something else.

“Bellflower” is about two scruffy 20-something guys who drink straight from the bottle, smoke a lot and, apparently, do not value clean laundry. They are obsessed with “Mad Max”, building flamethrowers and fixing up an muscle car so that it, too, shoots flames --- in the event of an apocalypse. For some reason, I was under the impression that “Bellflower” was some kind of post-apocalyptic zombie movie. Maybe I really am an idiot, maybe I was duped by the marketing campaign.

If you do not want to know what “Bellflower” is really about, skip the next paragraph and continue reading after it, skip ahead.

“Bellflower” is about two scruffy 20-something guys who drink straight from the bottle, smoke a lot and, apparently, do not value clean laundry. They are obsessed with “Mad Max”, building flamethrowers and fixing up an muscle car so that it, too, shoots flames. One of the guys meets a really cute but also sort of scruffy girl who can smoke and drink like the best of them. Of course, they fall madly in love, have a sort of “let’s hit the road in my vintage automobile and have a distinctly American 20-something experience” road trip. Once back home, things settle down, he catches her cheating on him, loses it and has all kinds bloody, fire-y, depression, drug and alcohol fueled visions that blur reality (for the audience) --- what is really happening and what is not happening. Boy meets girl, girl cheats on boy, boy loses it for awhile but, in the end, he still has his best friend --- that’s what “Bellflower” is about.

You can start reading here.

“Bellflower” was made by two scruffy 20-something guys who look like they drink straight from the bottle, smoke a lot and, apparently, do not value clean laundry. They are obsessed with “Mad Max”, building flamethrowers and fixing up an muscle car so that it, too, shoots flames. They have a handful of similar friends and they all got together to make this film for about $17,000. I liked the look of the film. It looks like it was shot on one of those Hipstamatic cameras that were all the rage for about five minutes. These guys build their own cameras. I found the whole thing tedious, pretentious and empty. Maybe if I had not seen the marketing campaign or if I was still a hip urbane, scruffy 20-something (okay, I never was but I sort of wanted to be) experiencing first love, it would have resonated with me. “Bellflower” got mostly good reviews but, I am happy to say, there are others out there like me who, well, you get the idea.

That said, I do think that the female lead, Jessie Wiseman, really has star potential.

After watching “Bellflower” over the weekend, I showed the 2002 Sundance hit “Pieces Of April” to my students. I quite like this film and I always show it to classes right before Thanksgiving because that is what, among other things, the film is about. It is my favorite Thanksgiving film. “Pieces Of April” is a low-budget indie-style film. I say “indie-style” because, even though it is, technically, an independent film, it is deliberately, maybe even self-consciously lo-fi, shot on really bad digital video with marginal production values. It does, however, boast a great (well-known) cast -- Patricia Clarkson (in an Oscar-nominated performance), Oliver Platt and Katie Holmes (in her bid for artistic credibility by playing against type) and Derek Luke -- at the top of their game and, most importantly, it well-written and directed by Peter Hedges. I show it to illustrate the point that, if there is a good screenplay in place, it almost doesn’t matter how the film is shot. So many people throw so much time and money up on the screen without truly understanding and respecting the importance of having a good screenplay.

Later that week, I got another indie that I had been eager to see, “Putty Hill.”

I first heard about the film when IndieWire reported that there was an issue surrounding the distribution of the film because they had used a song by the Rolling Stones without clearing the rights. I thought to myself, “What kind of idiots take a copyrighted song by a well-known band, put it in their film without paying for the rights and expect to get it distributed?”

On day one or two of my screenwriting classes, I always tell my students to never specify copyrighted music in their screenplays but, the vast bulk of the time, doing so will add thousands dollars to the budget of the film --- and make the screenwriter look like an idiot.

So, I had to find out what this “Putty Hill” film was and what kind of losers would be so careless about the music. The film, it turns out, is a micro-budget indie about young people dealing with the aftermath of a tragic event. The film was shot on lower-end video in just a few days and largely improvised with a cast of non-professional actors.

Hmmm, sounds familiar. Anyone who knows me and what I have been up to for the past few years, knows about my long, sort-of-in-the-works project “Aftermath” --- which is about young people dealing with the aftermath of a tragic event and which was designed to be shot in a few days, without name talent for no money.

This, I had to see, a film that raised so many red flags for me. How could it be any good?

I really liked it.

“Putty Hill” is shot on slightly lower-end cameras. It does not have a slick, pristine look technically but there are some really well-composed shots and the final image has stayed with me. The story and execution are simple; the style, mood and atmosphere are rich, I could go on and on but, the bottom-line, the takeaway, is that, financial or technical short-comings do not have to be a handicap. Filmmakers need to know what they have to work with and focus on crafting strong, cinematic narratives first and practical, technical execution that will serve the story shortly thereafter.

Know what you want to do. Know what you are able to do.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Something To Be Thankful For

Last week I was asked to speak at my old high school. Their scheduled speaker canceled at the last minute so they got in touch with me and asked if I could come in. I had less than 24 hours to organize my thoughts, come up with something to say and slap together a power-point presentation. If all of that sounds like a lot to ask of person, it’s not, if that person is me and the people asking are hoping that I can say something about movies.

I had a blast and I have a feeling that I might be going back to my old school on a regular basis, maybe as a film teacher.

The opportunity to come in and discuss what I have been doing gave me a chance to sit down and access the past year. I prepared my discussion, tallied up my gigs for the year and found that I have written seven feature film screenplays, written two documentaries, shot and/or edited three short documentary/promo films about with children with special needs, wrote a pilot for an animated Japanese sitcom, presented two workshops on screenwriting and I had two acting small gigs -- the first acting I have done in years. I also made a short film --- producing, shooting, directing and editing for the first time in years.

Of all things, I went to bed the night before the presentation with a sense of pride and accomplishment. No, as anyone who has read my blog or taken a class with me knows, I make very, very little -if any- money as a screenwriter but money, while certainly important, is not everything.

Yes, sometimes I want to give up and get a real job. Sometimes I think I am fooling myself by thinking that I am any good at writing. Sometimes I think I will be exposed as a fraud. Maybe that comes with the territory.

I woke up the next morning and remembered that I had forgotten about another screenplay that I wrote this year.

I have actually written eight feature length screenplays this year.

This week, two people have asked me if I am available to write screenplays for them.

So, I don’t get paid much to write screenplays at this point.

I like to think that people want me to write for them because they like my work, not because it’s a bargain.

I like to think that I have something to offer the world; it’s one of the things that keeps me going and, for that, for my family, for my health, for having a roof over my head and for sometimes feeling that I am good at something, I am thankful.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

"Blog? I ain't got time to blog" -- Predator (paraphrased)

Okay, it's been six or seven weeks since I last blogged. Sue me. If I was Catholic, I would probably be confessing. If I was Catholic, I probably would have gone out with a Catholic school girl once or twice.

Why haven't I written? Because, um, I have been writing! On Saturday, I finally finished the comedy mentioned in my 8/21 post, turned it into the director, who was meeting with a producer that day and.... haven't heard a word about it since. Prior to finishing the comedy, I finished a steamy political thriller ("Three Days of the Condor" meets "Blue Valentine") for a producer who asked me start a new screenplay even before I finished the one that I was working on.

On top of that, I am back to school, teaching two sections of my course on Writing The Short Film and scheduled to give two workshops in October --- one on shorts, one on pitching.

AND I still need to find a job that supplements the nickles and dimes that I make from teaching and freelancing. Indeed, it IS "a hard-knock life." Here I was thinking "It IS a small world, after all."

So, I about to start writing a micro-budget thriller, "The Apparitions", which, I hear, is already scheduled to start shooting in November. Let's hope I finish the screenplay by then. I have been doctoring an action film for a California producer and director/star and, several drafts later, the distributor continues to say that it still needs work ---- and it really does!

Yesterday, as if I wasn't stretched to the limit as it was, I went out and actually got messy and dirty by directing and shooting a short screenplay of mine, "Love, Park." As I write this, my footage in rendering or something and I need to have a cut ready to for a 5:oo Friday festival submission deadline.

I'm probably leaving something out. And you wonder why I haven't been blogging.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Tangible Goal

I am struggling with a screenplay.

It's an interesting situation. I was originally asked to write a short screenplay but it wound up being forty pages long --- too long for a short and too short for a feature. The director-producer and I were really happy with it and, after letting it stew for a few months, we decided to expand it into a feature.

Easy, right? Wrong. I was once in contact with a director whose film I had just given a bad review. I worked up my nerve and told him that it seemed like he had taken a five minute short and tried to expand it into a feature. He told me that he had taken a five minute short and tried to expand it into a feature.

Short films can play by their own rules and, among those rules is not necessarily adhering to the rules of structure that most feature length films tend to follow.

So, it's been a challenge to take this screenplay that was structured one way and rewrite it so that it is structured another way --- without changing the story.

I e-mailed the director last night:
I am really throwing up bricks when it comes to fixing the story. If you have any ideas, feel free to run them by me.
Here are some issues to consider---
_____ needs some flaws, a shortcoming that we recognize when we see him for the first time.

The end of the film should reflect the beginning of the film ie. in the beginning of "The King's Speech" he second in line to the throne, not expected to ever be kind and is afraid to give a speech because of his stuttering. At the end of the film he has become king, overcome his stutter and now has the confidence to give a speech to his subjects.

Brian has to have a tangible goal, something that he is trying to achieve --- not just the respect of his parents. He might or might not get that goal and get something more important in the end but there has to be this thing that he is chasing --- ie. Peter Parker in "Spiderman." He's chasing after Mary-Jane and, in the end, realizes that his destiny as a hero is more important than his personal life.

He got back to me:
I actually think we already have his tangible goal. I think his tangible goal is respect....

Sure, we all want respect but, in terms of plot points, act breaks and character arc it still wasn't working for me so I put the question to my screenwriter's group on Facebook:

QUESTION: is respect a valid goal for the protagonist? My director says "yes" but I think the character needs a more tangible goal. Think "Rocky" in which the protagonist wants respect but he has the title bout to shoot for, the thing that will earn him respect. Any thoughts?

And I got some responses:

Yes, David. You need to make this goal more tangible, respect has to be symbolized by something specific, otherwise, how do we know that it is achieved?

and also:

Yes, you're right. Rocky had an inner goal and an outer goal. Outer goal was to win the title, the inner goal was to gain respect. What is the outer goal your protagonist is after? In Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman's outer need is to become a working actor so he can earn enough money to direct his friends play . His inner need is to become less selfish and in so doing, become a better man.

I shared those responses with the director and he responded:

I agree with both responses, but I feel like we already have that in the script and they are both the same thing. His inner goal is to be taken seriously, his outer goal is to ____ that doesn’t require him to ____, to be appreciated for his ability and not _____.

To me those goal are pretty clear. As the writer, I wouldn’t focus on changing those goal, I’d focus on making more a distinction about those goal.

Once again, I am reminded of the loneliness of the writer, how it really is all on me but I am encouraged to know that I can always reach out and get help when I need it.

The goal: finish the screenplay.
The obstacle: the plot doesn't fit into the structure.
The solution: realize that even, though I am the only writer on this project, I don't have to do it alone.

So, I finished a screenplay today, turned it and, tomorrow, I get back to work on the second draft of the screenplay mentioned above.

I think I can do it.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Hollywood Creative Directory

A former student of mine messaged me the other day and wanted to know if I think that the Hollywood Creative Directory is a scam.

No, it's not a scam, it's pretty legit and I think I even bought the hard copy way back in the day. What it is, however, is just a list of people and places you can contact with no guarantee of ever getting a response. I have heard stories (legends?) of writers getting their script to the "right person" via the HCD but they are far and few between.

While on the subject of "back in the day", back during the indie film boom of the late 80's-early 90's, I really studied the "path to success" that many films/filmmakers had taken -- Spike Lee (won the student Academy Award with his grad. school thesis film, opened some doors, not many but he raised the $175,000 to make "She's Gotta..."), Steven Soderbergh (nominated for a Grammy for a music video, which opened the doors that led to "Sex, Lies & Videotape") and so on, many stories like that, filmmakers who seem to come out of nowhere but really do have some industry credibility behind them. Of course, things are a lot different today.

The (rocky, hard to follow) path that I have been taking has been something like "put yourself 'out there' as a screenwriter, write anything for anyone for anything, even nothing, hope that it gets made, distributed, successful and brings you some industry attention."

So, I have a couple of original screenplays sitting around and I scour the classified ads (craigslist Philly, NYC and L.A.; to see if anyone is looking for anything resembling something that I have. Just last week, I answered an ad and they got back to me, interested in an almost 20 year old screenplay.

I think I have given up on sending things out to companies unless I know that they are looking for something --- that what I have is what they are looking for. Also, most of my work these days is "for hire", someone asking me to write a screenplay about XYZ for them. I haven't written an original feature length screenplay based on my own idea since 2005 -- not that I haven't wanted to.

That's not to say that I do not contribute to the story on most of the screenplays that I get asked to write. Much of the time, a producer and/or director will give me a shopping list of elements that they want to see in their film ---
"it has to have a sequence in China, organized crime and a chase with a helicopter."
"it's an Indian guy and an American woman, they're both living lies, caught up in intrigue, on the run from people but the emphasis is on the relationship, not the specifics of what they are on the run from -- an action film with only a little action."
"it takes place in Austin, Texas in 1987"

--- and then, I take it from there.

I know that I'm not in Hollywood but maybe I should be in the Hollywood Creative Directory.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Summer Of Spec

I finished the first draft of a screenplay last night and sent it to the producer/director. To tell the truth, I don’t even know if I am getting paid for this job. It’s like that sometimes.

By the end of this summer, I will have written and/doctored thirty screenplays -- give or take. Of those thirty screenplays, two feature length scripts and few short films are based on original ideas of mine, something that popped into my head and developed into a story. In the case of all of the other projects, someone has said “can you write a screenplay about x,y,z where a,b,c happens?” or “can you take this screenplay and make it work?”

I don’t know why exactly but I rarely say “no” when someone asks me to write a screenplay and, sadly, this answer often extends to deferred pay or “spec” projects --- jobs where I only get paid if the film gets made or if, once it does get made, it makes a profit.

While it might seem as if I just say indiscriminately “yes” to everything that comes my way, I actually do have things that I look for when I am approached with a project:

Does it pay and, if so, does it pay well, is there any money upfront?

Who else is involved with the project, either in front of or behind the camera? Am I working for seasoned professionals or wide-eyed amateurs?

Does the project have the potential to advance my career, will it be seen by anyone who might want to hire me in the future?

Is the subject matter, the setting, the genre, milieu, story at all inspiring to me, something that I can work with and craft into something interesting?

If the answer is “yes” to one, if not more, of these questions, I will consider the project.
Honestly, I’m usually flattered that someone might want me to write a screenplay for them and will often agree to do it just for the ego boost, on “spec.”

A “spec” (short for speculative) screenplay is one that is written without any guarantee of getting paid, of it getting produced, of it ever going anywhere. It’s rolling the dice, taking a chance and, it is the way many screenwriters break into the business --- though having industry connections, an award-winning film or book or play etc. doesn’t hurt.

Some people sell the first spec script that they write. Some people sell the thirtieth spec script that they write. Most people never sell anything.

So, I finished a screenplay last night and today, it’s back to work:

I committed to doctoring a screenplay for an L.A. producer. It doesn’t pay but, if I do a good job -- and I am doing a good job --- they will remember me next time.

Last year, a director I know asked me to write a short comedy. The script came out so well that he asked me to expand it into a feature and I am working a second draft. I might get paid on this one and I might not get paid but it was a story that I had to write, something that struck me creatively and gave me the opportunity to sink my teeth into characters and situations that I am close to.

A director friend in Texas, for whom I wrote an artsy anti-horror horror screenplay last year asked me if I could write something else for him, again something I just had to write, a time, place and genre that I just couldn’t ignore.

Last week, I finished a teenage vampire screenplay that someone asked me to write.

I’m still not sure why I wrote that one.

It’s like that sometimes.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

This Is The Week That Will Be The Week That Was

Tuesday, 3:00 A.M., the phone rings. Getting a phone call in the middle of the night is usually not a good thing --- in general, sleep is interrupted and, usually the call brings bad news. “I’m a producer in L.A., got your name from an online database, went to your website, was impressed and wanted to talk to you about a screenplay” said the voice on the other end of the line.

I am basically out of work, haven’t had a steady job since December, won’t have one until September and, while, sure, I am grateful for the handful of writing jobs and the brief return to acting that have paid some bills this year but I still need a job or, at least, a way to generate some income. In my most “awake” voice I said “I’m on the east coast, would it be possible to call you back later today?”

Twelve hours or so later, I call the New York area code of a guy in L.A., we do the producer-screenwriter version of dogs sniffing each other’s butts to check them out. Somehow, I usually manage to present well, sound like I know what I am talking about and, most important, appear to be enthusiastic about whatever story somebody wants me to write. I did what I could do. I might get the gig, I might not. The reality is that, under the surface, I was not that enthusiastic about the project.

I’m going on vacation this week: long walks on the beach, limited internet access, lots of reading, lots of chilling and, that’s right, lots of writing. Two years ago, on vacation in the same spot, I wrote two screenplays in four days --- of course I had spent months working on the treatments for both before I wrote the first FADE IN:

The was the same plan for this year. I am committed to three screenplays right now, have turned in first drafts of two of them and am ready to do re-writes. Yesterday, I got a message from another filmmaker I have worked with --- “Need an action screenplay, fast!” There were a few messages back and forth between us, I sent him a five year old treatment, he loved it and I told him that he could have a first draft in less than a week. I call myself a minimum-wage screenwriter and that’s not just a catchy phrase, it is really pretty accurate. Despite my continual promises to myself to never do it again, I agreed to write this screenplay on spec (“speculation”, not a firm deal), no guarantee of it being made or of me being paid anything for my efforts. I am going on faith here, I have been told that the project is for a well-known musical-figure-turned-actor and that the budget of the film will be $60,000,000. I am enthusiastic about the project.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

How Much Happy Is Too Much Happy?

I blog therefore, I am? That would seem to be the case for some people but, clearly, not for me.

I usually like to treat myself to movie in the theater when I complete and submit a screenplay, a way of closing the door on a particular phase of work. I finished a screenplay (another documentary) last week and I am going to finish one next week and I don’t anticipate going to a movie. Maybe there just isn’t anything out there that I really want to see or maybe it is something else...

Six years, countless different casts, several different crews, a Philly production company, an L.A. production company, the Philly production company once more and something like 15 drafts later, I have re-written “Aftermath” again.

As, I wrote in a previous entry, filmmaking is a team sport and the screenplay, while critically important to the success of the film, is only one element of the collaborative process. Unless I am producing and directing (and maybe even acting) in the film, it is not enough for me to be happy with the screenplay: everyone else involved with the film has to like it too.

So, this new draft is tighter, while longer, than the last draft, the six characters are a lot richer and, from the perspective of a one-time, former would be actor, each member of the cast now gets even more “spotlight” time.

Yet, throughout all of these drafts over the years, one thing has remained the same: the end. Just as I have never been completely happy with the name “Aftermath”, I have also been a little shaky about the end. The guy who wants to produce and direct it now has been on me for awhile to do something about the ending and I finally have done it, made a big, dramatic change that was, in many ways, really painful for me to write and will certainly be painful for the audience to see but, I have to say, as these things go, I think I am happy with it.

As mentioned before, it doesn’t matter how happy I am with the screenplays I write, I have to make the people who are actually shooting the film happy. If the producer-director likes the changes I made to “Aftermath”, the film is likely to be shot this summer. In that case, I would treat myself to a movie ...... “Super 8” looks good.

If that is not the case, if they don’t like it, then what? Do I continue to bend over backwards to make other people happy or do I take the whole thing back to the beginning, back to 2005, when there was an “I” in “team” and it was me and the only person I had to please was myself?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

More UPs and DOWNs

Not to be too dramatic --- well, okay, I am a screenwriter, it’s my job to be dramatic -- but I was about to pack it all in an quit the other day, give up on writing for good.

Anyone who chooses a creative path in life is asking for trouble if not a lot of ups and downs. The last time that I wrote, I discussed the inherent nature of collaboration that is part of being a screenwriter: I write something and then someone else sees something else in it and uses it as the basis for a movie.

I was cool with it then but I am less cool now. That’s about all that I can say about it for now. In 2006, I was hired to write a screenplay. By the time the film was produced, the directed had rewritten my screenplay to the point that my original work was unrecognizable. In 2009, okay, not unrecognizable as my screenplay but tweaked in a direction that I did not intend it to go in. In 2011...sigh. I don’t know, maybe I really do suck as a writer if I keep writing screenplays that people want to produce once they have removed most if not all traces of my work. Maybe I need to be making my own films.

So, the ups and downs keep coming.

A few weeks ago, I beat out 300 other writers for a playwriting job. Yes, a play. Why not? I did sign a non-disclosure agreement so I really shouldn’t be too specific about the show. I was going to be writing a one-man show based on the life of a famous American, the famous American’s famous relatives were going to be involved, an Oscar-winning actor was going to be approached about playing the role and the plan was to take it all to Broadway next year. All of the plans are still in place but I am no longer part of them. I took lunch with a well-known man-about-town here in Philly, did some research, wrote a proposal so that the show could be pitched to the famous relatives for their approval and, hopefully, financing. Unfortunately, nobody told the Tony nominated playwright/director that he would be collaborating with me and nobody knew that this guy does not collaborate with anyone. So, I’m out. Whatever. That’s a DOWN.

My “acting” “career” as detailed in my last post has returned to suspended animation. I deposited my last paycheck today. Exit Stage Left. Neither UP nor DOWN.

On Sunday, I got the word that I was chosen to write a really offbeat black comic murder mystery --- think Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” as written by Charlie Kaufman -- and I am psyched. Even though it doesn’t pay much, I really wanted this gig and was worried that I might not get it. In the end, I had a phone interview, sent in a sample screenplay and was asked to send in two more screenplays. It came down to me and another writer but I came out on top. Who cares about money, I won the contest, I’m the better writer or something like that. Call this one an UP.

So, despite losing control over a screenplay once again, I am going to say that the UPs are in the lead. I had a major creative breakthrough on a screenplay that I have been struggling with for months and, just this morning, I heard that some financiers in Miami are interested in my old, old neo-noir screenplay “Payday.”

Though it was 32 degrees this morning, spring is finally here, baseball season begins this week, stuff is getting ready to bloom, things are looking UP.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The screenwriter learns that there is no "I" in "team."

I have always said that filmmaking is a team sport; it takes a variety of people doing different things together to make it happen but, honestly, I didn't think the teamwork element applied to the screenplay.

I thought that I write the screenplay and the team makes it but I am now coming to realize that there has to be a degree of teamwork in the writing stage. I have to be open to input, questions, suggestions and different perspectives because, at this point, I am usually not the person who is making the film.

The person who is making the film either asked me to write a screenplay based on his/her ideas or saw something in one of my original screenplays that he/she wanted to produce. It becomes my job to serve the producer or director’s vision even if I was the one who came up with the idea in the first place. Ultimately, at some stage in the process, I have to sign off on the screenplay, walk away from it, let the production team do whatever they want to it --- while I cower in the shadows and hope for the best.

The L.A. producer who optioned “Aftermath” two years ago wanted me to make a number of changes to it in the six months that we worked together. The development and re-writing process in 2009 was the hardest work as a writer that I have ever been asked to do. Honestly, I have often been able to coast by on the relative strength of generally decent work but relative strength and general decency was not going to cut it in L.A. and I was really stretched and challenged. The result was a screenplay that is much deeper and richer, more solid than I could have done on my own.

While it is not official yet and I am supposed to be somewhat hush-hush about it at this point, it appears very likely that "Aftermath" will be shooting in Philly over the summer --- with a new title and, at the director's recommendation (and my willingness), a radically re-worked screenplay.

Truth be told, I just read the January 2008 and the July 2009 drafts and I have to admit, the screenplay needs some work.

Along the same lines, another production company is producing “April, Mae & Joon,” a short screenplay that I wrote. My original script was 5 pages long and largely silent. While the director sought my input on it and we volleyed several rewrites back and forth, she quickly developed her own vision of it. The screenplay has now become a 20 page, very talky piece with her stamp all over it that somehow retains my original ideas and themes.

Go team!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Why I became an "actor" when I coudn't make it as a waiter

I couldn't get a job as a waiter so I became an actor!

Seriously, in December, when I found out that I wasn't getting any teaching work this semester, I went crazy, scrambling for any job that I could reasonably apply for. In one week, maybe even the same day, I applied for a job at a restaurant around the corner from me (owned and operated by U2's former personal chef but that's another story) and I responded to an ad placed by Philly/NYC theater company.

I never heard back from the restaurant but the theater company responded quickly. We had a series of e-mails, a couple of phone calls and, a few weeks ago, a face-to-face.

They are very much about blurring the lines between theater and real life in very high tech ways -- last year hiring actors to "play" people in facebook-oriented production online, in a theater and, to some degree on facebook and recently staging a similar production in NYC.

Their newest "production" is going to be the new website for the company where subscribers, fans and the culturally aware and excited 18-30 crowd will form a community, a back and forth with the members of the company --- who are all going to be fictional characters "created" and "played" by "actors" who will blog about the progress of work on various production but also art and cool culture in general --- and interact online with their fans, supporters, benefactors etc.

So, I have been “cast” and I am now "playing" a character online, on their blog, on facebook and, who knows where else? I have created a persona and I continue to cultivate the character, interacting with the other characters, posting links to sites, articles etc. of interest or concern to who we are and what we are doing. So, is this “Second Life: The Musical” or “Catfish: The Play”? I don’t know, I am just going with it and, why not, “All the world is just a stage” and so on. We all have our online persona anyway, I might as well have another one. By the time I post this blog, the gig could be over or it could just be heating up. And, yes, I am getting paid.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Ups & Downs of David Greenberg: Confessions of a Minimum Wage Screenwriter Pt. 1

In early December, 2010, I walked into the Kimmel Center with a video camera. I got into a glass elevator, turned the camera on, pointed out the window and shot myself going up and going down. I came home, put the footage into my computer, edited it, added tons of effects, music etc. and posted the resulting minute long short film “The Ups & Downs of David Greenberg” on Vimeo, YouTube and Facebook pages.

At the time, I had no idea of how accurately “ups and downs” would wind up becoming so accurate. I just thought I was being witty because I was riding in an elevator.

It was right around this time that I found out that I was likely to be unemployed, without a teaching job this semester. My one class at University of the Arts was canceled due to low enrollment and I was not offered any classes at Drexel University.

Unemployment = DOWN.

I scrambled for work.

I responded to a post from a producer who was looking for someone to write a documentary about Bonnie and Clyde. I had two phone interviews, wrote a sample treatment, outlining the approach to the script that I would take.

I beat out 150 other writers and got the job = UP.

Next came a whirlwind of research/writing and I delivered the first draft of the the script, on time, three weeks later. I turned in a third draft earlier this week.

It paid what I would make in about 6 weeks of teaching.

However, six weeks of work was not going to cut it = DOWN

In one week, maybe even the same day, I applied for a job at a restaurant around the corner from me (owned and operated by U2's former personal chef but that's another story) and I responded to an ad placed by Philly/NYC theater company.

I had not worked in a restaurant since my early 20’s --- and, even, then, it was at my father’s place whenever he was short-handed.

As mentioned in my last blog post, I had given up on acting long ago. I think I last auditioned for something in 1985.

I never heard from the restaurant but the theater company contacted me quickly. We spoke on the phone, had a face to face and, as of this week, it looks like I will be earning a little bit of money as an actor -- sort of. Much more on on that, later.

I like to think that, when I couldn’t make it as waiter, I took a job as an actor to get me through.

Getting a chance to “perform,” to be involved with my first love: theater = UP

I banged out a good, ultra-low budget screenplay for a director friend, he liked it, didn’t love it, but planned to make anyway.

Ultimately he decided that, even with 6 characters, a handful of locations and no major special effects or set pieces, it was too big for him to mount at this time.

He still wants to make it, but he wants me to write something even smaller = UP/DOWN

A short film that I wrote, “The Audition”, played at a film festival in California = UP

But the big news was that, after two years in development at an L.A. production company, the option on my screenplay “Aftermath” expired in December.

I have retained the rights to it = UP/DOWN

The Philly production company that optioned it in 2006 has expressed an interest in it and I feel morally obligated to give them a shot if they want it because I broke my agreement with them in order to send it to L.A.

An L.A./Philly based producer who has long been familiar with it seems awfully interested in acquiring the project.

One or maybe even both of these companies could produce “Aftermath” this year = UP

Both could decide to pass on it = DOWN

The “Aftermath” story has been and continues to be an epic saga, something likely to dominate my blog posts for the indefinite future.

I am working all the time and I am still looking for a job.

These are the Confessions of a Minimum Wage Screenwriter.

To be continued...