Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Writers and Producers Together, The Sequel

Writers, being writers, are excellent observers. Not always pragmatic, they watch every nuance, listen to every phrase to glean an idea how their story may take root with a producer.  Most of the writers who attended the writer’s and producer’s night were not WGA guild writers. Many do not have the coveted screen credits nor the backing of the cinecrats nor a powerful organization to make sure they get paid well for their ideas in either television or film. WGA status puts writers at the head of the long, long lines.

Many writers who attended that night had probably written dozens of drafts of scripts on spec. Of those, few scripts have seen the light of day. A very lucky few perhaps had a producer who may be very interested in ‘developing’ a script and asked to see it.

 A handful of writers among the nearly 400 may have had an actual screen credit on a major Canadian or American cable or television network. In any event, they were there because they believed they were already ‘fresh, original and unique’. Young and old, these writers have learned over time to live in equanimity with their battle scars. But the awful truth is that these writers know that even with talent, a dazzling script and a good work ethic they are a long shot in getting anything produced. 

They were here to observe the current crop of BC production companies,  a feral breed in the best of times. Some had moved back here from LA or Toronto, the source of the “great sucking sound”, which takes most of the available quality content for its maw.

BC is kept in the game because by day producers work for the Americans as below the line talent and by night they dream up deals that will allow them to make a film that will get them a shot at the big time. These producers depend on deals they put together with distributors, co-production partners, exhibitors, private equity funding groups from large international investors, and government agencies who broker tax credits, anything to cut costs and earn them a credit. Producers constantly look for ways to hire staff, keep the lights on and find enough money to pay below the line commitments until a pending deal goes green. But in fact most deals are always in some form of stasis. This is their job. 

Producers here have a chance to find a niche and they do this by asking for a script…well, any writer’s story….with the idea that it will be re-written many times. If a script is optioned or goes into development, every word will be altered to make the deal happen. The structure will be changed, along with locations. Male characters will become female and all side characters may be either animated or turned into friendly dragons. A story that was once historical fiction fantasy will become a sit com.  An original idea for a television drama will be turned into a docu-drama aimed at the non-scripted (reality) market. So much for original. And as for unique, well, in this context, any writer will tell you that the term is redundant.  

Then there is the new breed, the writers-for-hire-writers. They are young and able to live on peanut butter and nachos while writing to get a screen credit for about $5k. These writers will get a credit they can put on the IMDB database, where they can then get their other scripts up a notch. That is, if these writers can survive long enough to prove themselves in a genre by writing back to back scripts on very tight deadlines for a foreign cable series. 

 In the meantime, producers dream of a producer’s credit on a big series and must grind out direct-to-video for small foreign distributors or international cable. They want to produce a film in which everyone whispers “Oscars” while they sort through hundreds of horror, thriller scripts crossing their desks. Producers will tell the press they are working on a drama but are really cranking out documentaries. Like writers, producers will keep doing what they do until a lucky star shines on them.  

Lurking somewhere in the boxes where the writers put their script ideas may be a story that will break through the clutter for both the writer and a producer. It will survive countless re-writes and development hell and a heart breaking collaborative process in which the original writer has long since been replaced, along with a producer or two. The story will survive the marketing people who want to make it a thriller when it was originally a family drama. The story may actually be featured on the big screen and become enshrined as a classic.

Or, more likely, the work will be made into a reality play on the shoppers channel, just like the investor wanted all along.

NOTE: Since the night I put my scripts into the boxes I have heard from two production companies who said they are not interested in my material… I also received a curious phone call from a woman who took the time to tell me over the phone they weren’t interested in my work… I have heard from two more producers who said that they would be back in touch when they caught up with their mail…Finally, I was able to get a historical drama  with Canadian content into the hands of a producer who read the material and liked the story with compliments, as had two directors who read the script earlier…What the story needs now is an international distributor so that the script can be funded so that the script can be developed and talent (actors, directors) can be hired. Stay tuned.

My Available Stories

Bio: I have written seven feature film spec scripts (historical romance, thriller, family and drama) with one script being a quarter-finalist in The Austin screenplay Festival (historical romance). I have also written six short scripts, with three stories being selected for Vancouver’s cold reading series with professional actors.


La Demoiselle / Marguerite’s Isle
A historical drama set in early Canada follows a young French woman who is taken to New France against her will and abandoned on a remote island where she must learn the ways of the indigenous peoples in order to survive the oncoming winter.

Hot Potato
In this sci-fi / action set in a post-apocalyptic world, an AWOL commando captured by a female war droid must persuade her to help him kill an evil warlord with plans to destroy the world. 

In Search of the Ancients
In a coming-of-age tale set in medieval times, a lowly squire with magic abilities must reluctantly unveil his powers to fight dark forces threatening the world.

Sweet Crime
A thriller set in today’s world of corporate espionage a female hacker with a price on her head goes to a former adversary for his help on one last job.

Harmonica Blues
An ex-con turned musician struggles to make it in the rough and tumble music business but must fight against being pulled back into a life of crime when a former gang member returns to town. (Now being prepped for shooting in Dublin.)

Nite & Day
In this quirky supernatural drama, a single dad and his adopted teenage goth girl strive for a normal life during the day but must yield to their true natures that come out only at night, especially when the moon is full.  (TV Series Concept).

The Duke and His Duchess:
Based on a true story and an award-winning biography, a prince being pressured to marry a royal woman for political reasons defies his family to marry for love and picks a feisty debutant from America. (Quarter-finalist, Austin Film Festival) Based on source material, an international award winning biography. (TV Mini-Series Concept)

Shiva Burns
Set against the Himalayas of Nepal, this action adventure follows a man who discovers he has a price on his head and must turn the tables on a powerful business mogul to clear his name. (Based on a completed novel.)

Men In Action:
In current day America, this story is about six retired military friends who are targeted as terrorists by a rogue paramilitary police force and decide to fight back in a battle to the death in the Southern California desert. (Based on a completed novel.)

Friday, February 3, 2012

Writers and Producers Together?

FADE IN on sheep dogs trying to corral a herd of cats.

Called the “Writers and Producers Together” an event was held in a 400-seat theatre in the posh SFU\Woodward's building in downtown Vancouver Wednesday night December 7th,  2011.  

To anyone outside the screenwriting community this event lacked the expected spark for such a glamorous business. But it was historic. Rarely do two such disparate types ever meet. I was there out of curiosity, like a lot of other writers. Throughout the evening I kept wondering “why?”

The producers ranged from small quaint indies on the Gulf Islands to fully staffed production offices who have major American network and distribution deals.  One producer brazenly established how high the bar was  by saying that they were only looking for writers with top credits in A-list films or television shows. It was enough to eliminate most writers in the room. Other producers talked about their slate and then told the crowd they were looking for writers but only if their work was “fresh, original and unique”, a bromide that was oft repeated throughout the night.

The subtext of the event is that any one of the writers would give up their first born to take any job to get their script made or get a screen credit. That’s why they were there and the producers knew it.

It was a rare evening for producers as well. By stepping out on the stage the producers finally gave writers a face to their names. The producers stood in the key light at the podium and looked out at a mass of hopeful expectations. It was like speed pitching, only it was a crowd.

That this was a first time event illustrated what a strange business filmmaking is in Vancouver. Neither writers nor producers get together much.  At core it is an unbalanced and often dysfunctional relationship. Writers need producers. Producers hire gatekeepers to keep writers in harness.  On rare occasions producers will court writers, especially if the writers have credits, have their script with "top talent" or who own "source material".  It is a one-sided relationship of unrequited romance. Producers always have the last word,  “I’m just not that into your story.”

Also it was evident that most of the producers were not prepared for so many writers to show up. More than one producer told the audience that they expected 30 or 40 writers. This alone should put to rest the idea that the two worlds are somehow in synch.

In fact, nearly every seat in the theatre was filled with a writer. It was the first gathering to my knowledge where writers as a group were actually invited to meet producers without having to pay an amount equal to a month's rent for the privilege.  This speaks volumes.

In sharp contrast to producers, writers toil in ignominy on quiet back streets for years until they have a draft. Producers, even with direct-to-video credits or cable reality shows, are sometimes seen in the limelight promoting their latest film at festivals and having their photos taken on red carpets beaming with bright winning smiles and wearing the latest fashions.  It’s not difficult to understand why writers are drawn to producers like moths to a flame. 

At the Writers and Producers event, the producers gave their talk and invited writers to put a one-sheet into a small inbox. This single sheet of paper could list their story ideas or their completed scripts with loglines, along with any credits. This would be about as close as writers would get to a producer during the evening.

Without much of an opportunity to pitch a producer face to face those fragile pieces of paper held more than loglines and pitches. They held the unrealistic hope that keeps writers writing stories they hope will one day make the big screen, but so rarely do.

Since the event in December, some production companies have been sorting through the one-pagers. For most writers they can expect to receive the inevitable email.

Thanks for your submission, but your project does not appear to be suitable for our needs at this time.  Best of luck and continued success with your writing.

This will lead writers to ask the inevitable question: “What exactly are your needs?”

Again, the refrain, “Something fresh, original and unique.”

Even for producers who are in control of the process, theirs is a fickle world. Neither party has guidelines or a paint-by-numbers plan how to succeed in such a subjective business. But somehow they were there, together. For the first time.

To be continued….