BIZ TIP TUESDAY:
END USER AGREEMENT
At least a decade ago it was seven thirty in the evening and I was about two hours away from finishing this major rewrite on my KILLING ANGLE script. I'd been working on the script for weeks - writing night and day. Sometimes I thought I'd never get it finished, and here I was only two hours from hitting the print button - I could race down to Kinkos and have a stack of warm by copies ready to mail by 10pm! That was back in the days when producers wanted hard copies, before PDFs took over as the norm. Now I don't have to pay Kinkos (FedExKinkos) outrageous copy prices, I can just convert to PDF and hit "send".
But back then, the phone rings - my friend Kris asks if I want to go to the movies. I tell him:
"I don't have time... what's playing?"
"Well, there's this weird action flick at the Dances With Film Festival in Santa Monica."
"I really can't go."
"It's about a CIA babe who gets shot in the line of duty and becomes the spy version of Ironside - it's a wheelchair action movie."
"A wheelchair action movie?"
"Yeah, it's called READY, WILLING & ABLE."
"I really have way too much to do."
"It starts at 9:00."
"Okay - see you there."
Films are like heroin to me. I just can't live without them. Writing is the same way. Most of the time I'm a strung out junkie, on that painful edge of withdrawal... But sometimes I write a scene that has me high as a damned kite. I think I've built up a tolerance, too. I used to get high more often - now I write just to maintain. But sometimes I just get blasted - it's the best feeling I've ever had.
I know that I have said "you have to love writing" before, but what I really meant was "you have to be addicted to writing". If you can live without writing - you're better off not getting into it - you may end up broke on a street corner with a shopping cart full of scripts trying to get enough money to score a ream of paper or a toner cartridge. Writing is a lot of hard work, often for no money. I have stacks of unsold spec scripts. I've done hundreds of meetings that didn't result in a writing job. I've sacrificed relationships because they got in the way of my writing. I've got a screenplay on my back!
I may have mentioned this before: Fresh out of high school I took a full time job at Safeway Grocery stores. A guy named Eric was hired the same day as I was, and we went through training at the same time and were assigned to the same store. I quit Safeway when I sold NINJA BUSTERS, later took a warehouse job for ten years, quit that when I sold COURTING DEATH and moved to Los Angeles. Eric stayed at Safeway... he's now a big shot regional manager earning a few hundred thousand a year. He makes more than I do. You have to work your butt off to earn a living as a screenwriter, and if you worked that hard in any other career you'd probably make an equal amount of money. No sane person would work that hard at anything unless they loved it... or were addicted to it.
I am also addicted to movies.
A few years ago I had a meeting with a producer who was giving me the usual story notes and I just casually shot back a half dozen film examples that did it my way, and he asked me if I was a movie addict or something and I answered:
"Movies are my job."
I thought they were supposed to be *his* job as well. But I've learned a strange thing bouncing around Hollywood: there are people here who are completely out of touch with the audience. They don't watch movies, they don't really care that much about movies, and they are *making movies* for a living! This confuses me. But as the suits in Hollywood become "suitier", many are just businessmen who see no difference between making shoes and making movies and making sausage! (There once was a shoe company CEO who became a studio CEO!) Business is business, right?
A couple of years before that I had a meeting on the 20th Century Fox lot with a VP of Development I had never met before. She had a wall of book shelves behind her desk and I looked over the spines to try and figure out what her interests were so I could figure out small talk before we got down to business (usually small talk is about sports, but I was unsure of talking about the Lakers with a female executive... plus, I am not a sports guy, so I had no idea what was up with the Lakers). There, on her bookshelf, was the published script version of one of my favorite films! A famous film made by Fox. (Note: they don't usually publish the scripts to films no one has ever heard of). And I knew all kinds of backstory stuff about the making of the film, which would give me some interesting small talk and make me look smart and in the know! So I began talking about the film, and she gave me this blank look as if I were speaking Martian. I kept going, hoping that the blank look was just how she looked when she was interested. I mean, I'd mentioned the title of the film and the stars and all kinds of other things... and the movie was made by *her studio* and the published copy of the script was on *her book shelf* right behind her desk. But after a few minutes she stopped me to say she had no idea what the hell I was talking about. When I pointed out the published copy of the script on her book shelf, she told me she had just ordered shelves of books for her office, and they were just decoration.
We have all clicked "yes" on too many End User Agreements online to even begin to count, but almost everything in life has some sort of agreement between the manufacturer and the end user. In screenwriting *we* manufacture the stories and the ticket buyers are the "end users". It's easy to forget that on the other side of our computer screens there is an audience watching a movie screen... and they are really the ones who pay us. Sure, that money goes through a lot of hands between the ticket buyers and us, but they are the end users. The producer and or studio who buys our screenplay is going to find financing (which is usually borrowed money) and make the movie and they need those ticket buyers in order to pay back that loan from the studio.
It's easy to forget those ticket buyers are out there and only see the producer or studio, since they are the ones who hand you the check (yeah, it's really more complicated than that, but you know what I mean). One of the weird parts of this business is that only about one in ten *purchased* or *commissioned* scripts makes it to the screen and those ticket buyers, so it's easy to forget they are paying for everything. Yes, even for the scripts that *don't* get made. Where else is that money coming from?
But some writers and producers forget the audience is out there. They end up in their own little bubbles and violate the End User Agreement.
Terry Rossio over on Wordplay has this thing he calls the Hollywood Brain Cloud, which is what happens when you start thinking that some crappy prefab MUTANT NINJA TURTLES meets HANGOVER idea is brilliant. You've been breathing the air in Hollywood for so long it turns your brain to mush, and you start coming up with ideas and characters and scripts that those businessmen will love... but the audience will probably hate. You are out of touch with the end users! You no longer care about telling a story or seeing a movie and just want to make a deal. You surround yourself with other people in the business, either other pro writers or other folks in the biz, and completely lose touch with the end users who *really* pay you. The audience is not inside your bubble, they are outside. So you write the script your pals would love or the producers will love.
Often writers who have been in the biz for a while see going to the movies as "work" and stop being part of the audience they are writing for. They see their boss as the producer or studio, who are in reality only the middle man... the studio is just the "Payroll Office" who hands them the envelope with their check. But they don't work for the Payroll Office, they work for the customers who buy the product. Often this goes as far as a *hatred* for the audience that they are no longer a member of. They hate the boss! How perfectly normal! So sometimes, consciously or subconsciously, they do things to piss off the boss. All of this comes from being in your own little bubble instead of out in the real world.
You see an interesting variation of this on The Black List (the real one: that list of Best Probably Sold But Not Yet Produced Screenplays they publish every year). The Development execs who make the list are so tired of looking for a great rom com or action or horror screenplay for their company to produce, that they select some weird non genre screenplay like TONIGHT HE COMES (an over written, totally dark, tragic story about a depressed superhero) and when it sells due to being on the list, they realize there is no way in hell more than a hundred people would pay to see this... so they rewrite it into a comedy called HANCOCK... which still doesn't make much money. Here's my question: if those development executives woke up 17 Again (but not as Zac Efron), would they and their pals want to see TONIGHT HE COMES? Would they stand in line to see that film the way they stood in line to see TERMINATOR 2 or JURASSIC PARK? Would they be part of the audience for their own film? It's kind of reactionary hacking. An over correction after too many years in the trenches.
And often writers who make that over correction are the ones who broke in thinking they'd be creating art, then realized the job was writing pop entertainment and begin to hate their job because they are unable to figure out how to create art *within* pop entertainment. Back in his JAWS days, someone said that Spielberg was successful because when he makes movies from the heart... JAWS is the result. He's a guy who lives for pop entertainment. Though he's changed over the years, I think his heart is still more in films like MINORITY REPORT than LINCOLN. Which one seems like Spielberg really enjoyed himself making?
No matter which *you* think it is, Spielberg has not lost track of the End Users Agreement. He alternates between movies for the critics and movies for the ticket buyers. He *knows* who pays his salary! And I see nothing at all wrong with the one for me one for them theory. Eastwood did that for a while and made some great films (many that straddled both camps like UNFORGIVEN). There are other writers and directors who explore issues and characters through stories that are of interest to the ticket buyers. Christopher Nolan is a good example. Personally I think a great film has a foot in each camp: it is exciting and interesting enough to attract a mass audience and assure that many people will be thinking about it and talking about it for years to come; plus it gives that audience something to think about. I've said before that one of my favorite films is the pirate swashbuckler CAPTAIN BLOOD which is *also* a story that deals with social issues. I think that first stab at SPIDER MAN did a great job of exploring "with great power comes great responsibility"... and all of the Pixar movies that are not about CARS or PLANES do a great job of entertaining people of all ages while offering ideas you can chew on later. Superheroes, science fiction, and animation are great ways to explore social and political questions about the world we live in today - was there a more *political* film made last year than ZOOTOPIA? Whenever anyone on a message board asks if a screenplay should be A or B my answer is always "Both"! A movie that is *only* entertaining is just as bad as a movie that is *only* looking at a social issue.
WHO ARE THE END USERS?
The first few times I went to the American Film Market I noticed something weird in the screenings: after the first ten minutes, all of the buyers just got up and left. They had seen enough to make a decision whether to buy the film or not. This lead to companies like PM Entertainment spending most of the budget on the first ten minutes of their films. School buses crash into cars and explode, helicopters explode, buildings explode! They spent a ton of money on those first ten minutes knowing that the buyers would make their decisions and leave... and the rest of the movie would be Don "The Dragon" Wilson fighting guys dressed in black garbage bags in a warehouse (see RING OF FIRE 2). They get the buyers to fork over big money based on those first ten minutes... but the problem is the End Users who bought the tickets (or rented the movie in this case) didn't leave after the first ten minutes. They also watched the last 80 to 90 minutes. If you spend all of your money on school bus crashes in the first ten minutes, and the rest of the film is guys wearing garbage bags kickboxing? There's a good chance those End Users are going to feel ripped off. Eventually PM went out of business.
That doesn't stop current producers from making the same mistake. These days at AFM films are seldom screened, the buyers just watch trailers. So there are many films that have amazing trailers... but the films stink. Hey, you know about this practice from watching big budget Hollywood movies! How many big Hollywood movies have you bought tickets for based on the trailer only to discover all of the good parts of the film were in those two and a half minutes? If they pull that crap on big budget movies, you *know* they pull it on low budget flicks. Either way, the result is the same: an unsatisfied End User. Do that enough times and they know the trailer is a lie and stop buying tickets. It's a short term strategy because the folks who buy films at AFM may be fooled but the End Users won't be fooled again. I know a producer who is scrambling now because every year he gets less money than the previous year for his Great Trailer But Crappy Movies, and he recently complained to me about a distrib who refused to pay him for a movie after he delivered it. He didn't tell me why, but I'm guessing the trailer promised a movie that the actual film did not deliver on. Just like those screenwriters who are writing for their producers and studios and have lost sight of the End Users who buy the tickets!
You know who suffers? We do! We buy our tickets based on the trailer and the film stinks!
DON'T BREAK THE CONTRACT!
The solution is not to lose track of who is really funding the films we write: the audience. If you love movies and want to write movies, you are part of the audience, right? One of the things I often say is to write the kind of movies you regularly pay to see in the cinema... those movies that you would stand in line to see.
Hey, think about those movies you stood in line to see: what were they? What was it that made you stand in line? I first saw ALIENS on opening night, stood in a huge line for a couple of hours... and after seeing the movie my friends and I got right back in line to see the midnight show! I saw JURASSIC PARK with my friend Kris and a bunch of other friends at the Avco Cinema in Westwood... and we stood in a line that wrapped around the block and down Westwood Blvd. People in line were ordering pizzas! We sent members of our group to a restaurant and they came back with food. In fact, that's usually how it works: Some people hold the place in line while others go for food. Sometimes the lines have been so long two shifts can get a sit down meal! I think that's what happened with the group I saw TERMINATOR 2 with...
and that may have also been one that after seeing the film where we got right back in line for the midnight show. James Cameron films tends to do that to me.
So, um, I am an addict. There are movies that I can not wait to see. Yeah, there are others that I'll wait until they hit the dollar cinema in North Hollywood. I stood in massive lines to see all three PIRATES movies... with the writers! Terry and Ted from the Wordplay website! Though it was a rush for me, imagine being them! They got to stand in a massive line at Newport Beach Fashion Island Cinemas (where they watched movies when they were kids) and then see their films in a packed cinema. People laughing and sitting on the edges of their seats and swooning at the romance and screaming at the scary parts of what *they had written*. How cool was that? They got to be on *both sides* of the screen: the computer screen writing it and the movie screen watching it!
That's what we all want: that amazing experience of standing in line to see our own film in a packed cinema that laughs at every joke and screams at the scary parts and sits on the edge of their seats in suspense and swoons when the couple kisses at the end. They key is not to lose sight of that. Not to get so far inside the bubble or the business that you forget why you wanted to write movies in the first place. Not to become so full of yourself that you think you are above the audience. Not to become jaded or lose that childlike joy of watching an amazing movie.
I couldn't wait to see ROGUE ONE at the my hometown cinema over the holidays... assigned seats, bought online... so no real physical line to stand in except to get my ticket torn. I am still an End User, and if I break the agreement and forget that I am writing movies for those ticket buyers... I am breaking an agreement with myself.
I can't wait to get back to work on my new spec script. You know that feeling when a scene just comes alive as you're writing it? It's like you're taking dictation - channeling the characters. Even with that outline, the characters are saying and doing surprising things. You aren't thinking of these things - THEY are. Man, that's a rush!
That wheelchair action movie was awesome!
I'm an addict.
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