Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Rule of Thumb

A guy wrote to me asking if I wouldn't mind looking over a contract for him.

Huh? I'm not a lawyer. I have no legal experience. Why would anyone want my opinion about a contract? I advised him to find an entertainment lawyer - a good one, and the money would be well spent.

Hire the right person to do the job. Hire a pro. Get the person who will do the job right the first time and you'll live happily ever after.


But wait. There's more...

Same guy writes, saying that some people want to get involved in his project -- they want to be in senior positions, creatively and in production. What do I think? I reviewed their credentials - and they had no related experience. They'd never produced or directed a show. Hell, they'd never even worked in TV production in any capacity.

Scratching my head, I asked they guy who wrote to me - why he'd even consider working with people who admittedly didn't know what they were doing? He said that they were good "family men". They had the same values as him.

More head scratching on my part. I wished the guy luck. He's going to need it. Lots of it.

There is a very good Rule of Thumb in screenwriting (or any kind of writing for that matter):
If a scene doesn't advance the plot or character development - cut it. Every scene should advance the story or tell us more about the character. If it doesn't, its a waste of time.

Likewise, everyone who you bring onto your project should be able to advance it in some way. Your agent should set up meetings. Partners should bring something to the table with them - money, skills, connections. Otherwise, they're not helping you - they're dragging you down - and you should ditch them.

All the good intentions in the world won't get the job done if you don't have the right people with the right skills.

Monday, June 28, 2010

WE LOVE PIXAR: The Secret Ingredients

I came across this great, very well-written article on The Big Hollywood blog archive. It's well worth a look. The things we learn from PIXAR can be applied to any of our projects.

WE LOVE PIXAR: The Secret Ingredients
by James Hudnall

Not since Walt Disney created a film studio based mostly on animation has a film company had such a string of successful family films. In fact, Pixar has had more successes in its run than Disney did in its early years. Lucky for Disney, they distribute Pixar.

Many in Hollywood may be scratching their heads trying to understand why this company has had so many winners. But the secret ingredients are the very things that Hollywood often forgets are the most important elements to any movie. It’s like baking a cake without eggs, flour or sugar. It can be done, but good luck with that.

Let’s review the simple ingredients that makes the Pixar cakes so delicious.

1. Story Fundamentals: Every story is an argument. It should have a point. The point should be made strongly and you should either learn from it or come away with more understanding than you had going in. A story is really there to put things in some kind of perspective. A protagonist is given a set of problems they have to solve in order to achieve the thing they desire. In overcoming those problems they learn about themselves and grow as a person in some way.

If the story is well told, we relate to the characters and identify with them. Pixar does that. They create stories that we can relate to, that show us a world we understand. These tales give worthwhile meaning to the lives of the characters we just went on a journey with. And because of this, they are stories we remember and want to see again. They teach you this stuff in writing school, if you had a good teacher, but many studio execs completely forget all this and go for effects and exploitation and anything else they think will fill the seats. They completely forget is that no one cares about characters they don’t like or relate to. This brings us to ingredient #2.

2. Strong Characters: Pixar creates good stories around strong characters. When I say strong, I don’t mean they can beat people up. In most cases, the Pixar characters are a threat to no one. They are like most people, easily harmed by life’s cruel ironies and twists. But they overcome these problems by being proactive. They heroically defeat their obstacles. And often, through teamwork with others who they often disagree. Through these experiences everyone learns something and the audience is satisfied. Characters in stories need to grow because there has to be a net change from the beginning of the story to the end. Or a movie can feel neutral or pointless. Again, this is a simple truth known since Aristotle’s time that so many movie-makers fail to grasp.

3. Great endings: Endings are at least 50% of what makes a movie good. If your ending is lame, predictable or doesn’t live up to the preceding parts of the film, then the whole picture is forgettable. How many movies have you seen that thrilled you until a stupid ending ruined it? The ending is the last thing an audience remembers. It isn’t called the climax for nothing. Our excitement is built up to a point and If the ending is a fizzle, there are no fireworks, kids. And you don’t want people walking away disappointed. Pixar always delivers satisfying endings. You get plenty of bang for the bucks.

4. Magnificent Art Direction and Animation: These are animated films after all. Pixar has always been one of the most cutting edge animation houses in the business. Their work is superb. It’s the icing on the cake. And the cake they make is moist and delicious.

The rest of Hollywood could learn a lot of Pixar, but hubris being what it is, they probably won’t. Noneth less, we are very happy that Pixar is with us and keeps delivering fine films.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Some Words of Wisdom from Frank Zappa

Here is the late Frank Zappa on the decline of the music industry. I'm posting this because it parallels the creative development of TV and movies at the studio and broadcast level. This is Frank Zappa's take on William Goldman's "nobody knows anything":

One thing that did happen during the 60’s was that some music of an unusual or experimental nature did get recorded and did get released. Now look at who the executives were in those companies at those times – not hip young guys. These were cigar chomping old guys who looked at the product that came in and said, “I dunno. Who knows what it is? Record it. Stick it out. If it sells, all right!”

We were better off with those guys than we are now with the supposedly hip young executives who are making the decisions about what people should see and hear in the marketplace. The young guys are more conservative and more dangerous to the artform than the old guys with the cigars ever were.

And you know how these young guys got in there? The old guy with the cigar, one day goes – “Yeah, I took a chance. It went out and we sold a few million units. All right. I dunno. I dunno what it is. But we need to do more of them. I need some advice. Let’s get a hippy in here...” So they hire a hippy. They bring in the guy with long hair. Now, they’re not going to trust him to do anything except carry coffee and bring the mail in. It starts from there. He carried the coffee four times so they figured they could trust him. “Let’s give him a real job.” He becomes and A and R man (artists and repertoire) . From there, moving up and up and up... Next thing you know, he’s got his feet on the desk and he’s saying, “Well, we can’t take a chance on this – because its simply not what the kids want – and I know.”

And they’ve all got that attitude. And the day you get rid of that attitude and get back to “Who knows? Take a chance” – that entrepreneurial spirit. Even if you don’t like or understand what the record is that’s coming in the door, the person who’s in the Executive chair may not be the final arbiter of the taste of the entire population.

So what does that have to do with pitching shows? Simply that the internet and YouTube specifically have allowed all of us to be the "cigar chomping old guys". We have toe opportunity to say, "I don't know what it is. Record it." The truth is that 99.9999999% of the stuff on the internet is shit. That's a given. But there are the occasional gems that get discovered. Pitching a show at the best of times is a risky business (but the odds are much better than playing the lottery) - that said, why not take your concept directly to the audience? If it goes viral and its a success - you're in a much better negotiating position when the big boys come knocking at your door.

Teen Sensation?

"Daisy" the Zombie Baby and Alyson Court as "Mom".

Sorry - I meant to post more often, but I've been busy. This is a still from my new project, BRAIN EATIN' ZOMBIE BABIES.

In the spirit of William Goldman's One Rule of Showbiz: NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING, I've started an online project to create a new property. In one month I went from "the idea" to full production.

The budget? Very low. I financed it myself. The return? Who knows? We shot 10 mini-episodes (under a minute each) that will be released via a YouTube channel - two new episodes per week. We plan to shoot a total of 30 mini-episodes over the course of the summer. The goal: To build a brand.

They're cute. They're disgusting. They're BRAIN EATIN' ZOMBIE BABIES! Stay tuned!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Another Satisfied Customer...

Well, we've finished yet another Pitch Bible for a very satisfied customer.

Let's see what the mailbag sez. Ivan in California writes:

Hello Steve,
Yeah! Looks like we can put this one to bed. Thanks a mil for allowing me to make payments. You were very patient.
The bible is great. I will keep you posted on any developments. I am going to act as my own agent until I can land one. If I come across any interested parties and don't understand something, may I call you for advice? I know that you are experienced in this area.
Thanks so much,

That's what I like to hear - a satisfied customer and a new friend.

Agents? Do You Need An Agent?

I'm often asked this. The answer is: It depends.

Disclaimer - I just dropped my representation this past week. My agent is a nice lady, who I like - but wasn't doing enough for me. When a project came in, she'd negotiated a better deal than I could ever imagine - but as far as setting up deals, meetings, etc. - she wasn't so good at that.

Not that I'm faulting her. I've checked with a number of associates and I always hear the same thing - agents don't do much. But they will be happy to take 10% of whatever you earn.

This makes the 4th agent in the past 15 years. And they all seem to be cut from the same cloth.

In this day and age - an agent needs to be aggressive. There is work out there. There are opportunities out there. It's the agent's job to sell you and your project - to find the work and create the opportunities.

If you find an agent who knows how to use the phone - and can set up meetings for you - GREAT! Otherwise, you're probably better off on your own.

How do you find an agent - ask around. Get referrals. Oddly enough, most agents won't take you unless you're referred to them by one of their existing clients. But don't be "needy" - you're in charge. Find out if they're the right agent for you.

And if you find that magical agent who actually does something - let me know. I'd want to meet them.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Worst Pitches Ever!

Lunching with a friend yesterday, the topic turned to The Worst Pitches Ever. He related the story, passed along from a broadcast executive about the two guys who visited his office.

They'd hyped that they had the Greatest Show EVER!... and had to show it to him. So he cleared some time in his schedule and had a couple of assistants sit in on the meeting. I mean, if this is the Greatest Show EVER... why not?

So the two guys come in with a box. Everyone sits forward in their chairs as the two open the box and pull out a (very expensively produced - and very lifelike)...

...Human Brain standing on two Chicken Feet.

Everyone stares at the thing. "What is it?" asks the executive.

"It's a Human Brain standing on Chicken Feet" says one of the guys.

"Okay. So what's the show about?" asks one of the assistants.

"It's about a Human Brain standing on Chicken Feet" says the other guy.

(Cue sound of Crickets Chirping.) End of meeting.

Ya know? I can believe this really happened. I've done this. Everyone does this - all the time. It's human nature. You get so wrapped up in a single aspect of the pitch that you forget the Key Rule (the OTHER key rule, aside from "Nobody knows anything"): The show needs a great concept and great characters.

WHAT is it about? WHO is it about? WHAT are they trying to achieve? -- That's what they're looking for. Without that, the best pitch in the world is a waste of time.

Psst... Anyone want to buy a slightly used "Human Brain standing on Chicken Feet"?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Hee Hee Hee

My new project is a YouTube puppet series - animatronic puppets and humans.

Last night we tested one of the puppets. It was supposed to barf projectile-vomit across the backyard (Heather won't let me do this in the house). The test was a rousing success. The kids were doubled over with laughter. I felt vaguely "Dr. Frankenstein" as I surveyed the results of my efforts.

"Hmm... This will never get past Network Broadcast Standards and Practices... YES!!!"

We only used water this time. I can hardly wait until the actual shoot - when we use pea soup (with carrot chunks). Mmm Mmm GOOD!

Monday, June 7, 2010

What I Like

I found this recently on YouTube. It's odd, bizarre and I like it - a lot. It's a webshow called SALAD FINGERS. Check it out.

The thing that I especially like about this series is that its unpredictable. There's a logic to the character's thoughts and actions, but it doesn't fall in the realm of 'normal' behavior.

From a technical standpoint - it's Flash - but the Flash suits the design and movements of the characters.

Overall, it's creepy, funny - and I rarely say this - but I wish I'd done it.

ONE NOTE - With the many millions of hits this series has generated, I'm surprised that the creator hasn't found better ways to market this. With this much interest, he should have had a TV or feature deal.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Angry? Moi?

I got a comment about this blog from someone outside the industry. Just a casual reader who was directed here by a mutual friend. He said that the blog was interesting - but that I sound very angry. His take was that I feel that life (and the industry) hasn't been fair to me.


I don't think I'm angry. I'm honest. I'm blunt. It's a very tough business - make no mistake about it. Having said that, if I really didn't LOVE what I do - I'd be doing something else.

I get to be creative. I get to dream things up, see my vision become a reality - AND get paid for it. Sometimes, even in real money.

I get fan mail - at least 2 or 3 letters a week, saying how much people like my work. Do taxi drivers and barbers get fan mail? I think not.

People often tell me how my work warped and twisted their childhoods, making them the fine upstanding citizens they are today. I mean, what could be better than that?

But it is a tough biz. There are challenges all around. 90% of my projects fail - but the glorious 10% that succeeds makes it all worth while. The only problem is, I don't know which is the glorious 10%, so I have to wade through all the other stuff. But even that is worth it.

This morning as I walked through my house, I peeked into my dining room. It looks like Hannibal Lector's nursery: Little doll parts everywhere. Limbs dangle from the chandelier. Eyeless heads smile at me from the dinnerplates...

I have more fun than you do. Off to work!