IT'S MY FIRST TIME, BE GENTLE
by William C. Martell
PRODUCER SEEKS SCRIPTSHogtied Ent., an established independent production company, is in search of an experienced feature film writer interested in rewriting an international psychological thriller presently in development, compensation upon beginning of production in early summer 1998.
In last week's article I examined the above solicitation and showed why it was probably from a first time film producer. Many of the solicitations for scripts in Variety and Hollywood Reporter are from film school students and others who are trying to make their first film. Some of these people might even have connections to financing, and all they need is a good script. But should it be YOUR script?
We all had our first sexual experience for one of two reasons: Love or Experience (if you did it for Money, I'd rather not know about it). We were either deeply in love with our first partner, or had that fear/curiosity which made us want to get some experience and get all of our fumbles and mistakes out of the way before we met someone we were deeply in love with. It's nice to know if you can get both shoes off before you've completed the act.
Your first script sale should either be for Love or Experience, too... Chances are Money won't be a major factor in any deal like the above solicitation. You should get paid (real money, enough to cover your time in advance) but you probably won't be paid well. Certainly not enough to put up with all of the hassles of a typical first script sale.
Chances are you aren't going to find Love from an online solicitation or an ad in Variety or Hollywood Reporter, so let's talk about Experience.
NOBODY KNEW NOTHING
Turning 110 pages of typing into a motion picture is a fairly complicated task. It becomes more complicated when you are working on a limited budget. Every location, every speaking role, everyTHING costs money. Developing a script so that it can be made for the allotted budget and still make sense takes a certain amount of experience. When I was writing low budget scripts I was well paid, often more than the director, because I could write a script that could actually be filmed on the allotted budget. I've called this "juggling chainsaws" before - you not only have to tell a good story with compelling characters and interesting dialogue - you have to juggle all of those budgetary chainsaws at the same time. A difficult task for an experienced writer, dangerous for a first timer.
A couple of years ago I talked with three different first time producers, and was amazed by the simple things they didn't know. One producer (previous experience in industrial films) wanted to shoot his low budget films on an eight week shooting schedule... almost three times the amount of time it takes to shoot the average MOW! In industrials, he had averaged 2 pages a day, and figured it would take 45 days to shoot a 90 page feature script. Problem was, he couldn't figure out how to shoot six weeks on his budget. I told him the average low budget crew films 5-8 pages a day, and films for 18 days or 12 days. The type of script this producer was looking for couldn't be shot in 18 or 12 days (too many different locations, lots of large scale stunts, and weather). His concept was bigger than his budget. This guy wasn't dumb, just inexperienced in the feature film world and about to learn everything the hard way. He didn't understand about centralized locations... and ended up buying a script that wasn't filmable on his budget.
Another producer didn't understand the need for a star in her film. She thought her story was so great that people would see it even with a cast of unknowns. Problem is, to know how great the story is, you have to have already seen the film! The reason for stars in your cast is to get people to see the film to begin with. She had an epic story that would take so much money to make that there would be nothing left over for "stars". She could make her film on her allotted budget, but without "stars" should couldn't find anyone to give her the money to make the film in the first place. Funding for a film is based on how much the finished film can make: theatrical, on cable, on home video, in foreign territories, and TV sales. A film without "stars" will have trouble finding an audience. The first thing people always ask me about my films is "Who's in it?" - if the answer is "nobody you've ever heard of" they often lose interest. When you're walking through Blockbuster and you see a film you've never heard of, having a familiar face from TV or movies on the video box might make you consider renting the film. Many low budget films will set aside as much as 50% of their funding for cast - a producer who doesn't know this may end up learning it the hard way. There are also tricks to making the most of your cast budget, like "confined cameos" - but none of these tricks had been built into her script.
The third producer is a friend of mine who just made his first film, but he hasn't found a distributor. The film has a "star" and was shot on a reasonable budget... but the movie is very slow paced. There are dozens of other completed films that distributors can buy that are exciting and entertaining and also have "stars". Why buy a slow paced film? The film often seems like thirty minutes of story stretched over ninety minutes of film. In my "Dog Juice" article (which ran during the Greenlight Contest) I explained the ways a low budget film have to be "juicy" in order to find an audience in the crowded marketplace. His film isn't the least bit juicy. It's not a bad film, but it's also not a very entertaining film. The screenplay he bought needed more "juice", but he didn't know that when he bought it. He knows that now.
A PRO WILL KNOW
In "Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace" Yoda says that there are always two Siths, a Master and a Pupil. For your first time, you want your partner (producer) to know the tricks of the trade, and pass them on to you. That way your first time can be a real education. You can learn from THEIR experience.
Someone needs to know the tricks of the trade. When I began writing I learned a great deal from the experienced producers I was working for. I had on the job training in writing inexpensive films. I also found my own imaginative solutions to common problems facing low budget film producers. Eventually I gained a reputation as the guy to call if you needed a script for a film that LOOKED like a big budget picture but could be made for peanuts. The writer on a limited budget film needs to know the tricks of the trade if the film is going to be a success. If you don't know them, you need an experienced producer who does, so that you can learn.
The more inexperienced you are, the more experienced you want your partner to be. You'll have more to learn, and that requires a partner with more knowledge to share. On the surface it may seem like a beginning producer and a beginning screenwriter would be the perfect match, but that's two pupils and no masters. You can't learn from somebody who doesn't know!
And vice-versa. First time producers should hire experienced low budget screenwriters, because it will save them money in the long run plus give them a salable film. I could have sold the three above producers scripts that could be made on their allotted budgets, with 50% of the budget set aside for "stars" and plenty of "juice". I know tricks that can stretch the budget, increase the production value, and make the film VERY profitable. One of my films has made five times its production cost in PROFIT. Though I may cost a first time producer more than a first time writer, my tricks will save the producer money on the rest of the production and result in a film that will make more money due to increased production values. I learned many of these tricks from working with experienced producers when I was starting out.
Think of it as a chain of knowledge. As a first time writer you will learn tricks from an experienced producer that you can pass on to a first time producer. Everybody wins!
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