Monday, November 29, 2010

Rome Wasn't Built In A Day

I spoke to one of my clients this past week. I'd written a bible for him and was following up to see what had come of it. Apparently his financial partner hadn't seen the immediate sale and financial return they'd been expecting and has shelved the project. To be honest, I don't know if they ever completed the visuals for the bible - I was just involved with the writing part - or if they'd ever pitched it to a broadcaster or production company. They just stopped working on it.

There's an old saying, "No one ever fails in Show Biz - They just give up before they succeed."

Freaky Stories took about 8 years to reach the TV screen. There were so many years when everyone thought I was crazy. But I kept at it and while today the show is ancient history - it's well regarded ancient history - and I'm fine with that.

At the same time, my latest project BRAIN EATIN' ZOMBIE BABIES hasn't taken the world by storm -- yet. But it's young, we're learning and pushing it in new directions. We're about to re-jig the format a bit. We're planning a community event (so all you Toronto Zombie Fans stay tuned) and 2011 may be BEZB's breakout year. Remember none of the big YouTube sites went big from Day One. Like the subject line says, "Rome Wasn't Built In A Day".

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Two-Page Pitch Document

The growing trend has been to create a Two-Page pitch document. The Two-Pager is brought to the meeting and used/referred to, during the pitch. The complete pitch bible is used as a 'leave behind', so that the broadcast or development executive can report on the meeting to their bosses.

Here are some thoughts, having recently completed a few Pitch Bibles and Two-Pagers:

If it's a high concept project - SNAKES ON A PLANE!!! - they're either going to buy into it, or they won't - the Two-Pager isn't necessary. They'll either get it or not. And if they don't get the concept - the Two-Pager ain't gonna help.

Write the Two-Pager LAST. Refine your concept. Make the Bible as perfect as you possibly can. Then extract the essence - the core of it, into your Two-Pager.

A "Two-Pager" means exactly that. Two Pages. And a cover - which technically makes 'three pages'. That is, unless the two pager needs and extra half-page (and the cover) which means FOUR pages. But never, ever let your Two-Pager exceed four pages - because then you're into a mini-bible. Are we confused yet?

What did William Goldman say about 'nobody knowing anything?'

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Don't Fall In Love With Your Project - Business Models

Someone asked recently what I thought of some new Zombie movie. "I dunno", I said. "I don't watch Zombie movies. I'm not really into Zombie stuff". The person was dumbfounded. "But you do BRAIN EATIN' ZOMBIE BABIES. You were in the Toronto Zombie Walk... How can you NOT be interested in Zombies?"

It's just business. It's not that I don't like Zombies. I actually find the Zombie stuff that I do, to be a lot of fun. But would I go to every Zombie movie that comes out? Nope. I saw I AM LEGEND (but liked Richard Matheson's novel more). I love AMC's THE WALKING DEAD - but its more of a people story - a broader canvas, like The Sopranos, Mad Men, House. (I do find Haitian Zombies horrifying and fascinating, but there are very few - read: almost none, zippo - movies about Haitian Zombies.)

So then, why did I choose Zombies as the theme for my YouTube show?

I was looking for something that was inexpensive to produce - something spooky, creepy (that always sells) that was popular - that I could re-imagine and recreate as my own unique expression. Young Frankenstein - Been Done (thanks Mel!) Young Dracula (Been and being done 1000 times as we speak). Young Creature from the Black Lagoon? (This is Canada - it would have to be Creature from the Heated Pool - too expensive.) Likewise Kong was out and the Mummy, I dunno.

So I decided on Zombies and did a 'Muppet Babies' makeover on them -- Cute Zombies! Voila - my theme!

BRAIN EATIN' ZOMBIE BABIES are fun to make and I'm really proud of what we've done. We're about to do a major overhaul on the creative to reach a wider audience - which brings me to my point. I don't love the BRAIN EATIN' ZOMBIE BABIES. They're just business.

That means, that my major interest in the project is to make it popular. If I change the format a little - and it helps, I'll do that. If I have to revise the puppets - I'll do that too.

This is a huge change from my working attitude on FREAKY STORIES. Freaky was my baby. I loved that show - still do. But it was my baby and it was personal. EVERYTHING was personal. I took personal offense if someone proposed the smallest change. I admit, it was very hard for people to work with me - but the show was successful, so maybe the ends justified the means. Or maybe not.

But that isn't the way to go about making a show. It's all about the business. Your show, your project, your pitch is a business - or a business-to-be. It can never be about LOVE. Always think about the bottom line. How can you make your project more successful?

"Make it better", you say? What is "better"? Better is a subjective intangible. Popular is objectively tangible. You might say that popularity breeds mediocrity. True, but the reality is, "You had a million hits on YouTube this week? Step right into my office..."

So let's look at "Love" and business.

Does Penn like Teller? Yes. Of course. They're friends - but business partners first. The business of PENN & TELLER comes ahead of Penn and Teller's personal interests or feelings. Check out the video. It's very enlightening.

Hiam Saban the creator of MIGHTY MORPHING POWER RANGERS, when asked about the show that had made him a billionaire remarked, "Five retards in spandex". Is he proud of his shows? Yes. Does he love them? No.

So, no. I don't love Zombie Movies. But I'm very proud of BRAIN EATIN' ZOMBIE BABIES - and I'll continue to push it towards popularity and business success.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Magic School Bus & Spaceship One

There was an anonymous response to the September 29th post, "So Lemme Ask Ya" that has stuck with me. Here's the post:

Anonymous said...

I'll be honest Steve and say that this is something that just can't be 'made' to happen and it seems to me

attempting to make it happen will only make it more difficult. It kind of feels like attempting to "invent" spontaneity, like when someone stages a funny (supposedly un-orchestrated) scenario to get a shot on America's Funniest Home Videos or some such. I'll be honest and say that the entire Zombie babies concept feels contrived and a little weak to my sensibilities. It feels as though it's going for a cutting-edge shock thing but in my opinion (only my opinion) is about as cutting edge as my Grandpa's record collection. Maybe I'm missing the point, and please don't think I'm trolling for trouble here, I've been following your blog for a while with interest and wish no ill to you or your brainchild. In my opinion the entire concept is, dare I say it... corny, and attempting to create a viral sensation out of sheer hustle and will, without much in the way of compelling content, will likely result in failure. It's easy for one like me to armchair QB from the sidelines. I commend you very much for actually producing something (even if I don't see a ton of redeeming value in it ultimately). I'm sure you don't hesitate to give honest feedback to those who request it and I hope you'll take this feedback in the spirit it's

intended. Best of luck

I was the Producer on the first season of Magic School Bus. Up until the show came out, it was a book property for Scholastic. Admittedly, it was a well known book series - but MSB didn't have the ubiquitous status that now enjoys.

The show premiere coincided with the launch of a line of McDonalds Happy Meal MSB Toys.

My family went to McDonalds on the Saturday the show premiered. We wore our MSB crew shirts and my son had a denim jacket with a huge MSB logo embroidered on the back. (It's now a family heirloom.)

Nobody know what Magic School Bus was. They'd never seen it - but the ads were everywhere. WE were swamped - there were people asking questions, wanting to know What was Magic School Bus? We had a blast and the only way I can describe it is like dropping a pebble into a wishing well and instead of a splash - getting a tsunami in return. Anyhow, the show was a huge hit - and ran for many seasons.

I was also part of the Atomic Betty team (Executive Story Editor) and privy to the negotiations with another hamburger chain for similar Atomic Betty-themed toys.

Getting back to Mr. Anonymous' note - the successes of Atomic Betty and MSB were created by hype. They were created by corporate media machines. This was before viral vi

deos and social networking when it was actually HARDER and MORE EXPENSIVE to do this.

Is BRAIN EATIN' ZOMBIE BABIES the best show ever? Of course not. (FREAKY STORIES was the best show ever.) But it's cool, people like it (for the most part) and it's mine.

I know that the anonymous post came from a Canadian. There's a huge difference in attitudes between Canadians and Americans. While I'm proud to wave the Maple Leaf, there's something lacking in the Canadian spirit - it's that "Can Do" attitude that you find in the U.S.

Take a look at the photo of Spaceship One. For me, personally - whenever I see anything that comes out of Scaled Composites (the company that built it) I remember as a boy at an airshow, how Burt Rutan (Spaceship One's Creator) let me sit in the cockpit of one of his early experimental aircraft. He was so damned proud of that thing. He'd started small as an independent aircraft designer (building homebuilt planes) and years later - is the cutting edge in space travel.

THAT'S THE AMERICAN WAY, people. They have dreams. BIG dreams. They go for it.

Up here. Well, we wait for our government grants. We wait for someone in authority to 'approve' our dreams... We have a lot to learn from our pals just over the border.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The More Things Change...

Jim Henshaw in his always brilliant The Legion of Decency blog has written about the nature of creativity and how it relates to new and emerging media. Jim has graciously given permission for me to reprint his recent entry, "The More Things Change". I recommend that you bookmark Jim's blog for essential reading:


My first Christmas hiatus on "Friday the 13th: The Series", one of the Executive Producers presented me with an arcane little book containing the collected memos of Jack Warner, compiled during his tenure as head of Warner Brothers Studios.

My Exec said he didn't want me to go without the pleasure of reading studio notes over the holidays.

The book turned out to be a fascinating read. It not only covered a niche never mentioned in the other Hollywood histories I had devoured since childhood, but it made me realize that almost nothing had changed between Jack Warner's era of production and my own.

Oh, sure, the tools were all state of the art in my world, but the people using them and they way they did their jobs were identical to those who lived in his. Somebody will always invent a better android, but the human soul is eternal.

With a simple "Search and Replace" of actor names or show titles, the notes I was getting via Fedex or fax became perfect copies of the ones Warner was dispatching on monogrammed stationery or courtesy of Western Union.

"Take that hat with the feather off (Errol) Flynn! It makes him look like a fag!"

"I love that we cast Bogart, but who's gonna give a shit about a goddamn bird statue? Can't we find something better?"

Or words to that effect. Likewise, the mantras of the gatekeepers and the rainmakers are unchanging.

Warner's memos made me realize that for all that changes in the film business from the coming of sound to Technicolor, from THX to 3D and digital distribution, at its heart the job of creativity hardly changes at all.

And that's worth considering in the face of the technological sea change rolling in on us now.

You can't open your email box these days without finding another invitation to a conference or workshop designed to prepare you for all the new media markets.

And I won't knock any of them because any forum that collects people with a particular goal is going to end up sharing a lot of valuable tips and insight.

But at the same time, I see a culture evolving that appears to believe we need to find or construct an entirely different way of telling stories.


A screenwriting guru I once met claimed we all spend too much time analyzing how each new technical improvement or societal trend might impact the stories we write. He insisted it was just another of the ways we use to avoid the risk of actually making something.

And it's not just screenwriters who get caught in that trap. I once wrote 8 different drafts of the same script for a major studio to fit the physique or perceived range of each new leading man they were certain they could interest in the role. For each of those leading men was predicted, as development dragged on, to be about to embody the popular zeitgeist.

By the time they finally settled on the right guy, somebody else had gone to camera with an almost identical story and the project was shelved.

I got paid, while those who had spent so much time chasing the next wave got themselves played.

The moment of true certainty in any venture never arrives.

Anyway, in my Guru's estimation, the work of the story teller is unchanging. He deals in the human condition and the conflicts and comedies which result.

Ever since the nights we all sat around a roasting Mastodon haunch, that's all anybody else in the tribe has been interested in hearing. In fact, all that has ever changed in our continuously evolving and modernizing society is context not content.

To illustrate that, he'd line up a bunch of different sized or shaped glasses to represent the various eras, pointing out that while a shot glass, brandy snifter or beer stein might appear to require a major alteration of craft to utilize, they were really just different containers.

And the bulk of your audience only cared about what was inside them. The content.

The crafts of the vintner, the distiller or the brewer do not change because there has been a revolution in glass blowing.

I was reminded of all this again Monday night when TCM debuted its magnificent documentary series "Moguls and Movie Stars: A Hollywood History".

The first of what will be a 7 part series focused on the earliest days of the movie business (titled "Peepshow Pioneers") was loaded with remarkable never-before-seen footage and incredible interviews.

But you couldn't escape the realization that everything we're struggling with today from monetizing the internet to cross-platform storytelling also faced these cinematic neophytes and is just a glass whose shape we haven't encountered before.


Just as some network exec in LA is even now trying to figure out the possible season arc of a Twitter feed, "Moguls and Movie Stars" recounts the ways artists and businessmen a century ago searched for the audience hook which might wring value from flickering images and nickelodeon machines.

They asked exactly the same questions every new media mogul asks today.

Could it all be just a passing fad? What if they all go back to Vaudeville -- or watching TV from the couch?

How often do you need to give them something new? Do I roll out a new offering every week -- once a month -- when the hits start to slip?

Will anyone pay attention for more than a 10 minute story? Do I stick with the established "one reel" or "Youtube Standard" or do I push the envelope?

Do you need a story or is the audience simply enthralled with the technology? If they're happy watching two people kiss or somebody falling off a skateboard, do I complicate the experience if I give them anything more?

Could anybody be an artist with these new tools? And if they can, how does the real Artist set himself apart?

According to Jon Wilkman, the filmmaker who spent 2 1/2 years making the TCM series,"In many ways, we are back in 1890. This whole world of the movies is being rethought and rebuilt: How are movies made? Who makes them? How are they distributed? What's the subject matter?"

Watching long forgotten movie pioneers create a business that would go from nothing to the fifth biggest industry in the America in 20 years, it becomes very clear that no matter how much we think we're on the verge of a brave new world, history is simply repeating itself.

So maybe we need to make sure we don't make some of the same mistakes those pioneers made.

Maybe we need to stop concentrating so much on how Storytelling might need to be tweaked and start looking at what is preventing a simple alteration in the manufacturing and delivery system from allowing artists to make the most of these new tools and once again build a vibrant new industry.

One thing that "Moguls" clarifies is that the major support for the new art form didn't come from the established players. Legitimate Theatres and other entertainment venues felt as threatened by the nickelodeon then as film studios and TV nets do by the Internet today.

The only way these current corporations can see Internet entertainment offerings is as either a farm system for their product or an extension of what they are already marketing.

And for the most part, most current web series creators and Youtube stars are, in turn, either hoping their creations get picked up by television, land them a studio deal or that by establishing some form of web celebrity they'll transition to more lucrative work in TV and film.

There's nothing wrong with that. But it leaves those who currently own the industry, and who, through new copyright legislation and DRM locks, want to make sure their control over both storytellers and what reaches mass audiences continues -- well, it leaves them in complete control.

In the same way that Bell and Rogers want control of bandwidth to prevent Netflix and others from staking a claim to their VOD gold field and are locking up content like NFL games for delivery to mobile devices, they see little need to find audiences for storytellers who don't want their creative work owned by someone else.

The entrepreneurs who built the original film industry, on the other hand, all came from outside it. Adolf Zukor, who founded Paramount, began his professional life as a furrier. The original Warner Brothers ran an ice cream stand and a bowling alley. Louis (MGM) Mayer bought and sold scrap metal.

Therefore, they approached the business from the point of view of making their customers and suppliers happy to keep them coming back.

That's a much different philosophy from the corporate mentalities of Shaw, Rogers or Bell, which demand that their content be amortized over as many platforms they can charge new fees to access as possible.

Their goal is not to support the storyteller or enrich the lives of their customers, but to increase their bottom lines and improve shareholder profits.

That's not an environment where new, groundbreaking or risky ventures can survive, let alone lead to the construction of a creative industry that can be more than a hobby and evolve something economically substantial for the country as a whole.

What "Moguls and Movie Stars" illustrates is that unless government money and policy backs those who create and innovate the next Hollywood will be built elsewhere and Canadians will remain consumers of cultures not our own.