Producer/Writer Agreement Update

Yesterday marked the end of several months of negotiation between a writer and myself.  Today, I’m happy to say, I placed the hard copies of the agreement and the COA (Certificate of Authorship) into the mail for her signature.  It’s almost finished.

What a long, drawn out process it has proven to be.  I can’t believe that we started this back in June, and here we are in October just finishing up.  I never expected negotiations to go on for so long.  I figured it would take two to three weeks at the most and then we’d be done and able to meet to my original deadline.  Now I need to contact the cast and let them know that they won’t be receiving the treatments this month after all.  Instead, it looks like they will have to wait until January to get them.  

So, you may be wondering, do negotiations for producer/writer agreements normally take this long?  For studio deals, yes.  But not in the independent world, according to my lawyer.  This was highly unusual.  Part of the reason for the delay was because the writer’s lawyer had jury duty and then promptly left on vacation, leaving us hanging for a while.  The rest of the time was spent going back and forth with emails and having our lawyers advise and review each step of the way. 

I’m a fairly patient person, but I have to admit that even my patience was tested with the length of this negotiation.  Fortunately, I had my entertainment attorney to guide me every step of the way.  I had recently changed lawyers from one in the LA area to one that is closer to me (San Francisco) and this was our first time working together.  What sold me on him was his experience working with independent filmmakers.  I had heard him give a couple of talks about legal issues for filmmakers and I was impressed with how in tune he was to the needs of independent filmmakers.  He knows that independents don’t have the deep pockets that the studios have and his advice reflected that knowledge.  So far I have to say that I’ve felt that he has truly had my best interests at heart; and that’s one of the most important qualities, next to competence, that is needed in a good lawyer.  The fact that, before coming to the Bay Area, he worked in LA and has done the big studio deals really makes him well-rounded and a good fit for my needs.  If things continue going this well, I’ll definitely keep using his services.

Now that this negotiation is coming to a close, I really need to turn my attention to the other story submissions I’ve received.  If I don’t get things moving with those stories, they won’t be ready by January.  So I spent some time today giving long overdue feedback.  One story looks promising and two others could be, but they need to be fleshed out more.

Hopefully all this work will pay off and I’ll have several good treatments to present to the cast in January.  If they like one of them, we’ll be able to go to the next step and start writing the screenplay!

Coming Up for Air

Well, folks, I apologize for being away so long.  My screenwriting class sucked up all my time and I was forced to put my nose to the grindstone to catch up and get my homework and outline done.  The good news is that I now have a complete first draft of my outline done!  I also got an A in the class.

In addition to the outline, I have the first 15 pages written.  The teacher had us outline one act of the story and then write a few pages of the script each week (starting with week four).  So an unexpected bonus is to have a first draft of the first 15 pages done.  I found that alternating between writing the outline and the script is a great way to develop a story.  They feed off each other and it really helps the process.  And the cool thing is that if this is the story we end up developing, I can just hand over the pages I’ve already written to the writer and she can take it from there.

I was interested to see what kind of reactions I would get from people who had no idea that I was writing for a specific cast and project.  Nope, I didn’t divulge that info to them.  I just went in as a student with a story I wanted to get outlined.  I wanted to see if the story would stand on its own terms.  The story is still a bit rough, but the overall response I got was good.  One classmate in particular was very enthusiastic about it.

So I’m feeling pretty good about the story.  However, it’s only the first draft.  I need to continue working on it, but I’m going to take a break from it for now and tend to other pressing matters. 

I’m still negotiating an agreement with the writer.  Yep, still.  We would have been finished with it by now if her lawyer hadn’t been called to jury duty and then immediately following that took off on vacation.  But we’re back working on it and it looks like we’re getting close to wrapping it up.  In addition, I have unanswered emails that are piling up.  If you’re reading this and I haven’t answered your email yet, I apologize.  I’m working my way through them and hope to get caught up soon.  I also have story submissions from two other writers that I really need to give feedback on.  And now I can finally get back to blogging regularly.  I’ve got a bunch of news that is piling up.

Stay tuned.

Writing and Financing Updates

Sorry for being so quiet lately.  When I got back from Comic-Con I was really looking forward to getting caught up with blogging, among other stuff.  Instead, a nasty virus caught up with me and had me down for the better part of a week.  This put me so far behind with everything else that I’ve been scrambling to catch up ever since.

So let’s talk about the film project, shall we?  I’m way overdue on giving you all an update.

Back in January I mentioned that two treatments were being worked on.  One by the writer I’m working with and one by me.  So how are they coming along?  Well, slowly.  The writer has the first revision of her treatment finished and ready to send to me.  I just haven’t seen it yet because we are busy negotiating a producer/writer agreement right now.  It’s a bit of a time consuming process and, ideally, it’s something that should have been done right at the outset of our working relationship.  But once we get the agreement hammered out and fully executed, she’ll be sending me the next revision.  I’m looking forward to seeing what she has done with it.

My version of the treatment is coming along much more slowly.  Instead of writing, I got sidetracked with financial matters, namely, my own.  Now I’m not one to talk about my personal finances on a public blog, but in this case my own finances are very much a factor in this project because all of the money that is keeping this project moving forward right now is coming out of my own pocket.  I need to get this project to the point where it is packaged so that I can pitch it to investors and get presales.  If I get lucky, maybe I can find an angel investor who is willing to come aboard the project early and help out with seed money.  But, in the meantime, I’ve had to get creative and find ways to stretch my own money.  While I make an okay living, I’m not by any means a wealthy person, so this has been a challenge. 

A couple of years ago I had refinanced the second on my tiny condo.  Then, at the beginning of this year, as I watched real estate prices plummet and people lose their homes, it didn’t make sense to hang on to my riskier loans any longer so I decided to refinance both my first and second into one fixed-rate loan.  Fortunately for me, I was in a position to refinance.  There are a lot of unfortunate people in this country who got into risky loans and didn’t have a clue what they were getting into.  I really feel for them.  But having a little bit of a background in real estate, together with my propensity to do my homework and make sure I understand what I’m getting myself into, really gave me an advantage.  So I’m not in any danger of losing my condo even though it’s not worth much anymore and I have virtually no equity to speak of.  But I have a roof over my head and that’s the important thing!

Refinancing allowed me to get my monthly payments lowered a bit and pay off my car.  It’s not a huge amount, but it’s freed up enough money to allow me to keep the project moving forward.  For now.  Eventually, in the not too distant future, I’ll come to the point where I’ll need equity and/or debt money.  So even though the writing got put on the back burner for a while, I’ve been moving the project forward by taking care of some necessary financial matters.  And speaking of financing, I’ve met a few investors over the last few months who have shown some interest, so maybe something will come of that…we’ll see.

Getting back to the writing has been a challenge for me.  When developing a movie there always seems to be a ton of other things that need to get done and are demanding my time, so I found a way to basically force myself to focus on the writing:  I signed up for a screenwriting class.  The goal of this particular screenwriting class is to have an outline or beat sheet of one’s story finished by the end of the semester.  This is exactly what I needed because once the outline is done, writing a treatment from it should be a snap. 

Getting the feedback of my classmates and especially my teacher is a real help.  My teacher has worked in the industry for years as a writer, story analyst, studio executive, and executive producer; and has been involved in the making of such movies as Silence of the Lambs, Platoon, and Bull Durham.

Each week we are required to write a three-page scene.  Rather than try to come up with a random story idea each week, I decided to take the story I’m going to outline and use the characters and setting to fit the scene.  Most likely none of the scenes will actually be used in the story because I had to change some things to fit the homework requirements, but it does give me a chance to explore the characters and the story and really makes me think about where I want the story to go.

The first week’s scene assignment was to have one character follow another, so I had the protagonist follow the antogonist in an interesting setting.  My teacher liked it so much that he posted a note on the bulletin board and told the whole class to go read my “very instructive scene in the vein of I AM LEGEND.”  He also said I “include(d) so much action and suspense and communicate(d) the flow of action with some real clarity.”  I’ve never seen I Am Legend, but from the trailers I’ve seen of the movie, I can see where he would get that comparison even though that’s not really the tone I was shooting for.  Now, mind you, this scene was far from perfect.  The formatting was too “Old Hollywood,” but considering that we had just read an old Hitchcock script, that’s what I was using as a guide.  Also, the ending fell short.  Nevertheless, I’ll take the compliment, especially coming from someone with his experience in the industry, and considering that, so far, I’m the only one in class that has been singled out for praise.

Going on my trip and then getting sick afterward has really put me behind in this class, so if you’re wondering why I’ve been so quiet lately, it’s because I’m scrambling to get caught up on homework.  There are only about four weeks left before the semester ends and I’m determined to get the most out of this class, not just in terms of getting the outline finished but, also, in terms of learning as much as I can about screenwriting, which will make me a better producer.

In the producer/writer agreement that I’m currently negotiating, we’re setting deadlines and right now we have asked for a completion date for the treatment of October 31.  However, since the negotiations are currently eating into our writing time, I’m pushing to move the date back to November 30.  This means that all treatments, both hers and mine, need to be in final form by that date.  In addition, I’ve been accepting story submissions from another writer and if I feel that one of them is worth developing, I’ll have my attorney draw up an agreement with that writer also with the same timeline.  The goal is to get all the treatments done at the same time so they can be submitted to the cast at the same time.  After that it will be the decision of the cast as to whether they like any of them.  If they do, then we’re looking at a six-month timeline to get the script completed.  If they don’t, I start all over again looking for more stories.

So that’s where we are right now.  If things go well, we are looking at having a finished script by next fall, hopefully sooner.  I know that seems like quite a ways off, but getting the script right is absolutely vital.  According to Dov S-S Simens, you don’t just need a good script, you need a great script.  Yes, the standards need to be that high because the competition is intense.  Nothing less than great will do.  Hollywood may be able to get away with mediocre scripts, but independent filmmakers can’t.      

Using Stock Footage for a Bigger Budget Effect

Here’s a great tip from William Martell’s blog on how to give a low-budget film a big-budget feel:  Use stock footage. 

In his blog, Martell writes about a writing gig, that ended up going bust, in which the producer was supposedly looking for a script to fit a facilities deal he had.  What’s a facilities deal?  According to Martell, “a facilities deal is a studio that will give you equipment, studio space, standing sets, and often crew in exchange for a cut of the film.  Most of these deals are outside the USA, many in ex-Soviet countries (including Russia) and places like the Philippines and Mexico.  Anywhere where the film biz was booming at one time and now it is not.”   

Martell goes on to explain how he tries to make the most of the sets and  props that the facility has.  He writes:  “One of the issues with any facility deal is that to best use what they have, you need to stretch it. Just like any other backlot, they may have some street sets and some buildings, and then all kinds of cool standing sets on the soundstages. But you need that bit of stock footage of New York to sell that New York Street Set. You need some Paris stock footage to sell the European Street Set. And if you do a little bit of re-dressing and use a piece of Rome stock footage, your story can do a little globe trotting without any real cost.”

So how does using stock footage make a low-budget film look bigger?  Martell explains how he incorporates stock footage into his scripts:  “When you are writing scripts on a budget, you start to look for things that can stretch that budget – so that you can write a script that looks like a big studio film that can still be made on the producer’s budget…You didn’t want the audience to think your $3 million film cost $3 million. You want them to think it cost $100 million. So you learn to keep your eye out for anything that adds production value. I see a film with ‘harvestable’ stock footage, and I remember it. In this case, I was looking for stock footage that had been used at least once before in an inexpensive film – that way I know it’s cheap.” 

Where do you find stock footage?  Martell says that “you want to find great footage from a film that completely flopped. George Lucas isn’t going to sell you footage from STAR WARS (starring Mark Hammill) but you might be able to buy some of that great sci-fi footage from SLIPSTREAM (starring Mark Hammill). The bigger the film flopped, the more likely the producers want to make a buck or two selling someone stock footage…The biggest mistake you can make when thinking of stock footage is to consider material from a film that made money. You need to *only* look at big flops.”

What a great tip for us independent filmmakers who are looking to stretch our budgets! 

Attention Bay Area Screenwriters

I’ve been reading William Martell’s daily script tips for quite some time now and always find them very worthwhile.  I really would like to take one of his screenwriting classes. But in order to get him to come to the Bay Area to give one of his classes, a minimum of 20 people is needed.  So I thought I’d ask around and see if there are any local screenwriters, aspiring screenwriters, or anyone else interested in screenwriting that might be interested in attending.

If you’re not familiar with William Martell, you can check out his bio at  The class he teaches is a two-day class called Character First.  You can check out the content at  The price is $199.

If you’re interested, please contact Mr. Martell via his website or myself and I’ll pass the info on to him.  I’m hoping that there will be enough interest to make this happen.

How to Neuter a Pig

Last week found me making the jaunt across the Bay to San Francisco twice.  Once was for a filmmakers/financing meeting and the other was for a screenwriting class with screenwriter/teacher Lew Hunter.  Lew is a very pleasant elderly gentleman who loves to rattle on about screenwriting.  It’s quite obvious that he loves to teach.

The class was only three hours long and was geared more for absolute beginners.  After taking the semester-long course in script development and story analysis last year, this felt like more of a review to me.  One little tidbit that I did find useful dealt with character development.  Lew suggested writing a half-page description of each of the main characters in our stories in the first person.  He read us a sample characterization and I can see how this could be quite helpful in finding the voice of our characters, as well as fleshing them out.  I’m going to have to give this a try.

The first part of the class was a lecture, then we had a short break.  After the break was a question and answer session.  So everyone was raising their hands to ask their questions and, one by one, Lew answered them.  One of the attendees, who came in quite late, wanted to read a couple of paragraphs of something he had written.  Lew was kind enough to indulge him.  But shortly after he started reading, I wondered if this might be a mistake.  The subject matter was…you guessed it…about his experience neutering a pig.

I would liken listening to this story as akin to driving past an auto accident.  It’s horrible to look at but, somehow, you just can’t seem to take your eyes away from it.  So I sat there listening to how this poor pig is forced onto its back with its legs forced apart and….well, I’ll spare you the gruesome details. 

The story seemed to go on and on and on.  What was supposed to be only a couple of paragraphs turned out to be a little over a page long and, thankfully, Lew called him on it.  But the guy was just about to the end, so he was allowed to finish.  So what was his question about what he had written?  He didn’t have one.  He just wanted to read what he had wrote.  By that time I was figuratively pulling out my hair.  I felt cheated.  Some of our valuable time with Lew had been spent listening to a story that had nothing to do with writing screenplays.  What in the class description gave this guy the idea that this was a writing circle?

After the class, I purchased Lew’s book entitled Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 434 and since I had the author right there, I just couldn’t resist getting my copy autographed.  I’m looking forward to getting started reading it. 

Treatment Update

Back in October I told you about the screenplay treatment that the writer had turned in.  So you might be wondering what’s happening with that.  Well, it got put on hold for a while.  Why?  Because I got sucked into the homework cyclone and it wouldn’t let go.  That Story Analysis and Screenplay Development for Film and Television class I was taking ended up eating just about every free moment I had and then some for the past few months.  While I regret that it slowed down the project, I think the benefits outweighed the negatives.

For the past three months I’ve been completely immersed in learning to analyze the basic elements of a story:  premise, plot, structure, character, and dialog.  Our teacher would assign a script for us to read and then we would have to write a log line, a synopsis, and an analysis of the script covering each of the basic elements.  We would have to comment on what works and doesn’t work and then give an explanation why.  Then we would give our recommendation as to whether the script should be considered for development or not.  This is the exact same process a reader goes through for each script he or she analyzes for a producer or studio.  For someone who loves to read stories and then pick them apart, it’s a good job.  The downside is that you end up having to read a lot of stories that may not be to your liking.  It can be quite a challenge to put your personal taste aside and try to look at a story objectively.

Some of the most interesting assignments we were given involved reading a script that had been produced and then watching the finished movie.  We then had to write a comparison/contrast where we identified what had changed from the script to the screen and how that had affected the movie, for good or for bad.  It’s amazing how much some movies changed, while others stayed fairly true to the script.  Films are such a collaborative medium with so many people having an input that it can sometimes be hard to discern where the changes are coming from.  Sometimes it can be due to decisions the director makes.  Other times it’s due to decisions made in editing.  Sometimes the acting isn’t there.  And sometimes it’s a combination of various factors.  But whatever factors influence the final product, I found it to be disappointing to read a promising script and then watch it get poorly executed on film. 

So these past few months have been extremely busy and educational for me.  I’m happy to say I got an A in the class.  I’m not going to claim to be an expert, but I do think I’ve got a decent grasp of the basics.  So would I ever want to become a reader/script analyst?  In one word, no.  The reason that I say this is because whether you enjoy the story or not, as a reader you still have to read and give feedback on it.  Producers don’t have to do that.  Sure, they will get stories that don’t interest them, but they aren’t required to read them.  Usually, reading a short synopsis, treatment, or the first few pages of a script is all they need to do to know whether or not it is a story they should invest some time in.  Of all the stories I read in the class there was only one that I would have been interested in producing.

As a producer I would much rather spend my time looking for that special story that I can get excited about or else working on one that has the possibility to be really good.  This brings me back to the treatment.  About three week’s ago, I was finally able to sit down and start writing development notes.  Development notes, for those of you who may not know, is feedback that producers give to screenwriters to help guide them in developing the story.  In the notes, the producer points out areas that work, areas that need work, and can even offer suggestions and ideas that the screenwriter can use or get inspired from.

In my enthusiasm for this project, I offered a ton of ideas and suggestions.  At that point, the writer suggested that we write two treatments.  It’s an idea that makes a lot of sense.  As I have said before, I’m not the only one who decides which story we do.  The decision also belongs to the cast.  I have to like the story, but so do they.  So writing two treatments gives us twice the odds that at least one of them will be something they are interested in doing.  What happens if they don’t like either story?  Well, then it’s my job to start all over and look for another story.  I keep looking until I find the right story.

Because the writer is busy working on the original treatment, I’m taking on the job of writing the second treatment, which will be a co-authored venture.  The treatments are basically two different versions of the same story.  The goal is to get both versions in tip-top shape before the cast reads them.  After they have gone through as many rewrites as needed to get them in great shape, I will then be getting at least a couple of outside opinions on them from experienced, professional writers/analysts.  Getting feedback from pros in the field is absolutely vital and I wouldn’t even think of submitting anything to the cast that hasn’t been thoroughly looked over. 

So stay tuned and as we make progress on the stories, I’ll keep you posted.  

Story Analysis and Script Development for Film and Television

That rather long title is the name of a course that I just started taking.  The class started Friday and for the next twelve weeks I’m going to be immersed in watching films; reading scripts, books, and articles; and writing coverage and development notes for the assigned reading material.  Fun! 

Coverage, for those of you not familiar with the term, is the process of reading and analyzing a story and then writing a summary and critique of it.  Story analysts or “readers” are employed by production companies to do this job, and some independent producers also hire readers.  They are usually the first person to read the scripts sent to production companies and their opinion counts.  If they don’t think a script is any good, it usually doesn’t get passed on to the producer for consideration. 

But for independent producers who don’t have the luxury of having a reader, having the ability to analyze a story and assess its potential both artistically and financially is an extremely important skill (and, really, all producers need this skill).  Contrary to what some people believe, producing isn’t just about business.  It also has a creative side.

The timing for this course couldn’t be better for me.  I’ve been giving notes and comments about the story in progress to the writer for a few months now, but I’m really looking forward to this class to sharpen up my skills and help the writer make the story the best it can possibly be before I submit it to the cast for consideration.

If I thought my life was busy before, it’s now going to be absolutely insane.  But this beats being bored any day.