Saturday, October 10, 2009

An Oldie But A Goodie

Gazing out at the landscape of script sales this fall things do appear bleak. Unless you have a thriller with a unique hook or a horror script you might be looking at a marketplace that has no interest in you.

What to do? Do you write away from what interests you with an eye on a sale only? If you can pull off such a move without appearing inauthentic, by all means go for it. But what if horror/thriller is not in your wheelhouse? What do you do then?

After spending a year working on a period piece that has limited prospects in the current marketplace, Joe and I were determined to not go back in time--to make a pun out of it. Since horror/thriller is not generally what we do, we took a look at some of our other scripts and dusted off a true crime screenplay we had written a few years back titled "Perspective."

"Perspective" (we know we need to change the title) is an account of the infamous theft of paintings from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner museum. Unsolved to date, the crime was the biggest score of art, in terms of dollars, in US History, and our take on this story is about as close as we can get to thriller.

Art theft stories are also traditionally hard sells, but we sent it to a reputable Hollywood production company who liked the concept very much. The catch...? They think it needs work, but don't have the capacity to take it on formally. However, they told us, they would surely look at a rewrite.

It's the old conundrum of do you do rewrite work for one source in the hopes something will come of it. Given that it's hard to sell anything these days and this is a script we have great fondness for --and we do believe it needs work-- we might be willing to take that risk.

As the old saying goes, follow your bliss. Well, we have passion for this oldie and we are determined to make it even more of a goodie than it already was.

We'll provide updates on our progress and look forward to hearing your thoughts on this as well as your fall projects.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Of 'Genius' Phones and Cecil B. DeMille

In the waning days of summer as I gear up for teaching next semester at Northeastern, I find myself with a lot of time on my hands. So much so that today, I watched Cecil B. DeMille's THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. Cecil B. DeMille is one of the most successful filmmakers of all time and THE TEN COMMANDMENTS is thought to be his piece de resistance. The first glimmer that I was in for a rare treat was when the director, in a rare on-screen appearance, comes out at the beginning of the movie and tells us, the viewers, just how long and epic a movie it will be - 3 hours and 39 minutes long to be exact. "You will be walking in Moses' footsteps from some 3,000 years ago," he says without a hint of modesty.

But, if for the pageantry and spectacle if nothing else, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS - the 1956 remake of his 1923 THE TEN COMMANDMENTS...this time in technicolor - is spellbinding. Filmed in Egypt and Sinai on some of the biggest movie sets ever, the likes of Charlton Heston, as Moses, and Yul Brynner, as Pharoaoh's once-favored son, light up the screen. Even on my modestly sized television set, they were larger-than-life. It also amazed me how, in the CGI era, the scenes thought to be ahead of their times in terms of special effects seemed positively cartoonish: the burning bush, the parting of the Red Sea. Don't get me wrong: the scope and grandeur of those scenes were awesome, but the special effects were laughable by today's standards.

I read that a 73-yr-old Cecil DeMille had a near fatal heart attack during the filming of the 1956 remake because he was trying to scale the top of the massive Per Rameses set. The completion of the film was his life's crowning glory and it certainly is a pleasure to watch it unfold on the screen. In a funny way, it got me to thinking about how much easier filmmaking has become in some ways. Francis Ford Coppola's apt comment about how today even "a fat farm girl from Iowa" can get her hands on a digital camera and start directing films. And now with smart phones, I'd take it a step further and say that today's smart phones should more properly be called genius phones: On a recent vacation to Niagara Falls, I was simply stunned by the quality of the videos of the majestic falls streaming out of my phone! It was a far cry from the parting of the Red Sea, but that little thing takes a great video...

Indeed, Randy tells me that people are now making cell phone movies and that there was a course offered on it last year at BU. Ah, so we writers are going to have to adapt as well, I thought. There again Randy had me: he pointed out that he'd attended a conference last year where a paper was given on "writing for the postage stamp screen." So maybe my Blackberry video of Niagara Falls is not so far from DeMille's parting of the Red Sea after all!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Practicing What I Preach...

Today, I sat on a panel at the Rhode Island International Film Festival's sidebar "Scriptbiz." Scriptbiz is a workshop that helps aspiring writers learn to perfect their craft as well as to navigate the minefield that is marketing completed screenplays to the industry.

The final question put to the panel was "what is the biggest mistake new screenwriters make when marketing their material?" What I told the audience was something I had not been doing as vigorously lately, and I wanted them to learn from my (The Script Sages) complacency.

The Sages have chronicled our on-going work with a management company about an epic, period screenplay concerning Irish revolutionary Thomas Meagher. The managers felt that, even with a solid screenplay, there was not much they could do with it. Joe and I had spent a year working the script, honing it, and counting on the management team to go wild with it when complete. We got a little lax in contacting other agents, managers, and producers. We counted too heavily on the management team taking out the script that we forgot to continue to market ourselves to other folks and outlets.

It's not the fault of the managers. They have to eat too, and if it's too hard a sell then what can they do. But what could The Sages have done better? The answer is the teachable moment: don't ever relax in the script game. What seems promising one week, can fall apart the next. It is so very difficult to get a script optioned, bought, and/or made that one should never think something is a done deal until the check is in the bank or the end credits roll.

So even if you have a manager, agent, or producer interested in your material or reading something of yours, don't sit back and wait on him or her to take your script to the next level. Always be cultivating new contacts. Always have a new project going. If you have to, juggle three, four, or five projects at a time. Odds are one or all of them will fall through, and if you have no back up plan then your a** is in the breeze.

As the advice flowed forth from me, I realized I had not been practicing what I was preaching (at least to a certain extent) and that it's easy to go soft when you think someone is going to swoop in and do the work for you. I hope it was a lesson taken to heart by the audience at Scriptbiz because it was lesson for me and The Sages on getting too comfortable in the script game.


Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Ultimate Love Letter to Boston

I've seen FEVER PITCH three times now since it came out in 2005, the year after the Red Sox won their first World Championship in 86 years. As a Bostonian, it is the one movie that I feel is absolutely and quintessentially Boston. There would have to be a movie made about clam chowder to come closer to the Bostonian's real lived experience. Every time I see it, I am more certain in my belief that it is the ultimate love letter to Boston. While many movies have captured the feel of Boston - think THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE or MYSTIC RIVER or GOOD WILL HUNTING - everyone knows that Boston follows its beloved baseball team more passionately than just about anything else: the Farrelly brothers captured a piece of our soul in their depiction of Ben Wreitman's love affair with the Red Sox.

From the opening narration when Al Waterman - he of Waterman Sponge fame - tells about the first time Ben's Uncle Carl took him to Fenway, we know we are in for a special treat. I can remember, in vivid technicolors, my first trip to Fenway with my late grandfather, Joe Murray. Pop was an executive at the American Tobacco Company and, as part of his sales territory, would sometimes hand out cigarette samples out on Landsdowne Street outside of Fenway (my own son was conceived during the 2004 World Series and born nine months later in a spike of "Red Sox babies" reported at local hospitals). In the film, the loyalty goes beyond the team to the almost mystical attachment to the ballpark itself and the ethos of the team. "Careful kid," Waterman tells Ben (Jimmy Fallon) at that first game, "they'll break your heart."

When Ben meets Lindsey Weeks (Drew Barrymore), it's clear that his obsession with the Sox is not something immediately understandable to those outside of "the Tribe"... She falls in love with him in wintertime, but when summer rolls around...well, he's a different animal. He lives and breathes Sox, agonizes over the team's every move, whips himself into a frenzy when they're playing the Yankees. "Ben," Lindsey says at about this point in the season, "I didn't realize how big the Red Sox thing was for you..."

Well, they are that big a deal. And, when Ben mans up enough to sell his season tickets to keep his relationship alive, it suddenly dawns on Lindsey how much he loves her (ah, happy endings!).

The Sox are in 2nd place now -- two games behind the dreaded Yanks. Since 2004, the new generation of Sox fans coming up only knows a championship team. For those of us whose formative years were spent following a Greek tragedy called the Boston Red Sox, we will always have FEVER PITCH, the ultimate love letter to the team and its fans.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Handling Dissapointment

The title of this post may seem a little strange. After all, screenwriting is a rejection-oriented business. Writers will get turned down 99% of the time. Even if an option on a script is secured, the odds of the film getting produced are low. So how does one handle the constant disappointment of projects that don't work out? There's no easy answer, but one must keep one's head up and keep going.

The Sages have written about our period, epic screenplay about the 19th century Irish revolutionary Thomas Francis Meagher. We have been working with an LA-based management company on the script for the past year. We were introduced to these managers about two years ago after a trip to LA. Over the the first year, they read some of our material and concluded that a large, epic script with commercial appeal would be something we should pursue. The story of Meagher is akin to "Braveheart" and something we had long had interest in so off we went to do research and write a treatment. Over the last year, The Sages, working with the managers, wrote three drafts of the script--each one getting better and tighter. The managers were consistent in that they told us it would be a tough sell and hooking a big name actor would be the key to getting the project sold.

The climate for spec scripts is very tough right now. And even tougher for period pieces. So our eyes were wide open going into this, but after a year working with the managers on this script we thought they'd be a little more game to get it out there. Alas, a call with them last week revealed they were not willing to take it out to studios and actors. Too tough a climate they said.

It was difficult to hear. A year's worth of work and an unenthusiastic response. There are disappoinments and then there are blows to the stomach. This was perhaps in between. How do we handle it? How do we move on?

The small silver lining was that the management team said we should do legwork and feel free to use them if we need submissions to high level producers or studios. This may come in handy, and it has been great working with these managers. We got what we believe is a strong script and a great contact in this management team. Still, it feels like small solace.

But we can't feel sorry for ourselves. We must do what we've always done, aggressively market ourselves, make new contacts, expand our network, and keep writing. Five years ago, we would not have had the opportunity to work with a management team such as this. The screenwriting game is, more often than not, a long slow climb up a steep hill.

Where are we on the hill? Always climbing and always hoping to reach the top. If there's one thing a screenwriter must learn --and learn well-- it's how to handle disappoinment and keep going despite it...

Monday, July 6, 2009

Ode to the Capitol Theatre

When I moved to Arlington, MA, in early 2001, my wife and I chose the neighborhood based on our sense of it being a vibrant residential area close to the city of Boston. For me, personally, there was another draw: Arlington's Capitol Theatre was a short walk from my new condo in a converted two-family home. Over the next seven years, the Capitol Theater would be my secret get-away spot on a night when my wife and I had a fight or during a sweltering summer evening when I just had to escape the heat. I would use the theatre as therapy on those occasions and I came to love the place.

Since moving to the other side of Arlington, I no longer have the old theatre located conveniently across the street from my home. But, tonight I brought my son to the theatre to see SUGAR, a wonderful art house film about a Dominican ballplayer's struggle to make it pro in America. It was a spectacular independent film that broke your heart even as it entertained you. And it's the kind of film that makes its way sooner or later to the screens of the Capitol.

It's hard to explain what makes the Capitol so special. Part of it is the history that breathes in every crevice of the building. Opened in November of 1925, the Capitol Theatre's evolution parallels that of the entertainment industry of the last century. Like the Somerville Theatre just down the rode in Davis Square and owned and operated by the same family - the Locatelli family - the Capitol hosted all kinds of vaudeville shows and other live entertainment. Enormous pipe organs played on both sides of the cavernous main auditorium. It was the crown jewel of the neighborhood theatres and entertained area residents with prize nights and other attractions during the bleak days of the Depression.

In time the classic theatre had to be 'multi-plexed', but it was done in a way that completely honored the original look and feel of the single-screen theatre. It debuted in 1989 and Theatre 1, still houses the main stage and the grates where the pipe organs were located.

There are times when I miss my old neighborhood, and, in particular, I miss being able to run out and see movies like SUGAR across the street!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Peering Into Our Crystal Ball

The Sages had a nice meeting the other day with Irene Wachsler of Tobolsky & Wachsler CPAs. This firm is an independent auditor for individuals and companies seeking to expedite tax credits on qualifying film and television productions in Massachusetts.

The Sages were seeking to gain a greater understanding about the use and applications of film tax credits in the State, but a funny thing happened on the way to that forum: we realized what kind of creative economy we now have in Mass. Ten years ago, could the Sages have met with an accountant seeking to expand her business in supporting film and television productions in the Bay State?

The simple answer is no. But where do things go from here? And how far?

Will writers, actors, crew, and others be able to earn a steady living in Massachusetts and New England from working in the movies?

This area will likely never be Los Angeles, but can it be Vancouver or Toronto? That is, a medium-sized city with a strong and consistent homegrown entertainment community? Much of that probably depends on the proposed studios for Massachusetts. At last count there are five: Plymouth, Weymouth, South Boston, Lowell, and Western Massachusetts. If one or several of these entities can flourish here, the ripple effects for everyone will be visible and tangible.

Peering into our crystal ball, what do the Sages see for the future of New England and the entertainment industry? Perhaps that's the wrong question. Perhaps it should be, what do we see now? Returning to our meeting from the other day, we see men and women with jobs and aspirations long ago thought impossible in this sector of the economy in this State.

We like what we see, and we hope to see more of it going forward. We invite others to peer into their crystal balls and tell us what they see...