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Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Power of the Public Domain

Having trouble coming up with an idea for your next project? Try the public domain. Stories and content in public domain are available for anyone to use. Sounds like a great resource, doesn't it? Public domain material won the Academy Award for Best Picture this year. 12 Years a Slave was based on a public domain memoir of the same name by Solomon Northrup. Anyone could have used it for movie source material. The Bible is in the public domain. This week a big screen version of Noah is opening, starring Russel Crowe. Son of God, based on the public domain New Testament, is still raking in bucks at the box office. All of Shakespeare's works are in the public domain. Perhaps you didn't like Joss Whedon's version of Much Ado About Nothing and want to film your own. Go right ahead. Walt Whitman's poems are in the public domain. You can take "Song of Myself" and create a web series of two minute videos until you've put the whole poem on line. Want to adapt any of Mark Twain's works for the stage or television? Start typing today. The public domain is full of time tested content that's been popular for centuries and can still work today. In general, any work published before 1923 are in the public domain in the U.S. That's a lot of content. Someworks published after 1923 may be in the public domain if their copyright wasn't renewed. Some works created long after 1923 are in the public domain -- for example the 1968 version of Night of Living Dead is in the public domain. So is His Girl Friday, starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. However, for works published after 1923 in particular be careful before you use it. Check with the U.S. copyright office to be sure. Here's their web address: It's important to make sure that the material using is actually in the public domain before you use it. It is possible to copyright a particular version of public domain material. 12 Years a Slave, the book, is in the public domain, but the screenplay and the film adaptation are copywritten. If you print a version of Shakespeare's Hamlet with your specific notes about the script, that version of the play can have a copyright. If you compile all the poems of Walt Whitman into one book, that book can have a copyright, even if the individual poems don't have one. That being said, if you want to quote from Whitman's poem "Oh Captain My Captain," as Robin Williams did so memorably in Dead Poet's Society, you don't need permission to put those quotes in your screenplay. The works I mentioned only scratch the surface of what's available in the public domain. Other content available includes all of Greek and Roman drama and poetry, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Moliere's plays, Nathaniel Hawthorne's novels and stories, and the songs of Stephen Foster. Think of the public domain as a vast source of free ideas that you can adapt for your own content. If you have questions about what can and can't be used, it's best to consult an entertainment or copyright attorney. There's power in the public domain. It contains content hundreds or even thousands of years old that continues to thrill audiences to this day. It can be a great source for your work if you use it wisely.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Low Budget Films Win Acting Academy Awards

All of the Academy Award acting winners this year acted in films whose production budget was $20 million or less. $20 million might seem like a lot of money, but these are in fact small budgets to most major media companies. In 2013, for example, Disney spent a reported $250 million to make The Lone Ranger, with Johnny Depp. Last week Mathew McConaughey and Jared Leto won Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively, for Dallas Buyer's Club, a film budgeted at $5 million. Best Actress winner Cate Blanchett appeared in Blue Jasmine, budgeted at $18 million, and Lupita Nyongo, the Best Supporting Actress winner for her work in 12 Years a Slave, was in the biggest budget picture of all. Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave cost a reported $20 million. How did a low budget project like Dallas Buyer's Club capture a star like Mathew McConaughey? He supposedly turned down $15 million to star in the screen version of Magnum, PI to take $200,000 (plus backend considerations) for Dallas Buyers Club. Would you turn down $15 million for a $200,000 fee? You might if you were an actor. McConaughey had already made millions from a series of big budget films that didn't provide great acting challenges or do very well at the box office. McConaughey wanted to work on projects that provided both. Years from now, people may not remember that he starred in Sahara, but they will remember Dallas Buyers Club. Actors want to act. Most big budget action films don't require a lot of emotional depth, or offer actors a chance to play characters that can help them win awards. Many actors would find a good script that offers them a chance to show their talent and range very compelling. That's particularly true if the subject matter is compelling history, like the early history of AIDS or the savagery of slavery. Therefore, the key to capturing a great actor for your independent production is to write a great script. Make the lead roles attractive to actors by offering them opportunities to create memorable behavior within a compelling story. Give them a chance to win an Academy Award. However, a great script with great parts isn't always enough. It's important to make sure you have the business side of your project in order. Try to partner with a company that has a record of getting distribution for their projects, such as Fox Searchlight, which distributed 12 Years a Slave. Actors may be attracted by your great script, but if they're going to work at a reduced rate they want to know that their work will be seen. Even a talented newcomer like Lupita Nyongo will be hard to cast in your film if she doesn't think it will be distributed. I'll discuss more about what the success of these films mean for the industry in a future post. For now, I hope those of you creating content understand the lesson from these success stories. Make your script and your story as good as you can every time. Who knows, you just may get an Academy Award winner to star in your project.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Disappointment of 'Inside Llewyn Davis'

The coming week will be full of predictions about who will win the Academy Awards on March 2. One film that won't figure in the Oscar race, despite great reviews from many critics, is "Inside Llewyn Davis." I'm a big fan of the Coen Brothers' films. I loved "Fargo" and "Miller's Crossing," and still quote lines from "The Big Lebowski." I am also a fan of folk music and the early 1960s Greenwich Village scene. So when I heard that the Coen Brothers' next movie was set during the 1960s folk revival, I went to see it as soon as it opened in Orlando. 'Art' films generally open here a couple of weeks after their New York and Los Angeles debuts, so you can imagine how much I anticipated seeing "Inside Llewyn Davis" after so many critics chose the film as one of the top movies of 2013. I can't remember the last time a film disappointed me this much. I wanted so much to like it. It's taken me a few weeks to write about it because I was trying desperately to salvage something from the experience that could provide useful insight to my readers. I think I've finally figured out where it went wrong, which I can pass on so you can avoid the same mistakes. Briefly, the film tells the story of a few days in the life of folk singer Llewyn Davis, a talented, if unfocused, folk singer. The film essentially relates a series of incidents where nice people (friends, family, and even strangers) try to provide opportunities for Llewyn, and he messes up every single one. Over the course of a few days Davis moves from couch to couch throughout the city, deals with the possibility that he may have gotten a friend's wife pregnant, loses a friend's cat, gets a few gigs, gets drunk, and gets beaten up. Unlike other, more successful Coen films, there's not a lot at stake for Llewyn Davis. He doesn't solve a murder, like Marge in "Fargo" or the Dude in "The Big Lebowski." He isn't trying to save his marriage and reunite with his family, like George Clooney's character in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" Llewyn Davis runs away from his family and his responsibilities -- he doesn't go see his son in Akron when he has the chance and he insults friends who give him free places to sleep, but he won't compromise his art to make more commercial records. That may make him a hero to the Coen Brothers and the critics who loved the film. The average audience member, myself included, doesn't understand what's wrong with some commercial success. Bob Dylan, who makes a brief appearance at the end of the film, sold a lot of records, but that doesn't make him a sell-out. Llewyn Davis doesn't do anything to try to save himself, despite the huge number of lifelines thrown him throughout the film. It's very difficult to make the audience care, if the protagonist doesn't. When you're working on your content, make the stakes as high as possible. Give your protagonist a clear objective to pursue, and have him or her pursue it strongly. It's all right to give the audience someone they can root for and identify with. We want our audience to be engaged and follow the story. Communication with the audience can only happen if they find the story and lead characters compelling. If you can make the story and lead characters compelling enough, you, too, can achieve success.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Why Did ABC Cancel "The Assets" while F/X Renews "The Americans?

ABC announced the cancellation this week of their Cold War spy era series "The Assets" after just two episodes. They planned for the series to be "limited" and complete the story arc in 8 episodes. I'm sure they didn't think the "limit" would be two episodes, however. The series was a fictionalized version of how the CIA searched for and caught one of the most destructive, traitorous turncoats in its history, Aldrich Ames, played by Paul Rhys. It takes place during the mid-80s when Ames was a respected CIA counterintelligence operative, and details the CIA's efforts to find the mole in their system. I am in the small minority of viewers that saw both episodes of "The Assets." I say small because the first episode received a .7 rating and the second a .6. No broadcast network can allow a show with ratings like that on the air, so despite my desire to find out what happened in the series, ABC made the decision to cancel. Why didn't the series work? After all, F/X's "The Americans," which stars Keri Russell as one of two deep cover Russian spies working in the US during the 80s, is a big hit. I can envision the pitch for the series and the development meetings that made "The Assets" a 'go' project. The producers probably pointed out the success of "The Americans" and said "The Assets" would be like a spy reality series, with the added hook of being based on "actual events." "The Assets" came with a major, built-in problem that probably sank the series before it began: U.S. traitor Aldrich Ames was a major character, and they wanted us to feel sympathy for him. That's a tall order for US audiences. Imagine the difficulties that a series set during the Revolutionary War would have if the producers wanted the audience to identify with Benedict Arnold There are some things that Americans just don't want to see. Of course, "The Assets" also featured Jodie Whittaker playing Sarah Grimes, the blonde CIA agent who would eventually track the traitor down. But oddly, the two episodes I saw concentrated on Aldrich as much as the intrepid woman trying to catch him. Why did one 1980s spy thriller fail and one (The Americans) succeed? Star Power is part of the answer -- Keri Russell has a television following from her days playing "Felicity". Better execution of concept is another reason. "The Americans" features great writing, sharp direction and great acting. "The Assets" writing and directing were OK, but not particularly memorable. Finally, "The Americans" doesn't feature traitors. The Russian spies masquerading as a typical American family aren't traitors -- they're patriots fighting for their country. They also give viewers an American family that viewers can root for. While "The Assets" gave Sarah Grimes a home life, the scenes didn't depict a loving home, but instead a troubled home caused by her devotion to the CIA. Her husband was understanding, but her teenage daughter was rebellious and everyone resented the time she spent on her job. In the end, an idea is only as good as its execution. "The Americans" is well executed and thrilling. "The Assets," despite the efforts of a talented group of people, was not. That's why "The Americans" will stay on F/X, and I'll be hunting Hulu for the last few episodes of "The Assets."

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Set Your Creative Goals

Today's the eleventh day of 2014! Have you set your creative goals? What's that you say? You don't know what your goals are yet? Well get to work. I know, you were partying on New Year's and needed the next few days to recover. Then you spent last week catching up on work. Then there are all the bowl games, snow in the Northeast, and your last opportunity to binge watch all of "Breaking Bad." I'm not saying all of those aren't worthy or important activities. However, if you want to become a content creator, the first step is to actually create content. Write a poem, or a chapter of your novel. Finish that screenplay scene, or create a video. Grab that canvas out of the closet and start painting! Of course you can choose what content you like to create. But unless you're creating or writing or the time, you're not an artist -- you're someone who hopes someday to be an artist. This year, resolve to create specific times in your schedule to create. Drop an appointment in your schedule, just like you would for a meeting at work, doctor, or dentist. Don't take calls during that time, or check Facebook and e-mail. Make it your time to create. Even if nothing happens the first few times, keep that appointment on your schedule. Eventually, it will become your most productive time. Finally, set a creative goal for the year. Decide to finish your screenplay, novel, book of short stories or poems. Give yourself a date to finish by. Then break the overall task into segments. If you just finish a chapter for your book each month, by the end of the year you'll have a 12 chapter book to sell. Creators create. That's our job. Make sure in 2014 you give yourself time to create and a goal to achieve. You'll be amazed at the results. Write and tell me how it's going, and what you accomplished.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

How to Make a Successful Pitch

In my years working in television I heard thousands of pitches, and as head of development for production companies I made a few, too. I'm often asked, "what are executives looking for when you pitch them? In my experience they are looking for two things: 1. They want to be thrilled 2. They want to believe you can do it. Let's talk about that in detail. 1. Film studio and network executives hear hundreds if not thousands of pitches a year. They hear them in their offices, of course, but also everywhere they go. I once got pitched by a caddy at the Bel Air golf course who was also a screenwriter. Most of the time, they say 'no.' But the reason they got in the business, the reason they have their current job, is because they want to be part of creating something wonderful. Nothing excites an executive more than a great story - something that they can be a part of and that might make their reputation. They want to be thrilled by a pitch -- but they rarely are. 2. However, even a great story is not enough. As I've written in previous posts, an idea is only as good as its execution. For example, it's one thing to go into a network and pitch the idea of starring Bill Cosby in a sitcom where he plays a doctor. It's a very different meeting if, like Carsey-Werner productions, you walk in with Bill Cosby himself. (see my earlier post, turn your idea into a property). Even with Bill Cosby, the two networks at the time with the biggest audience turned down the pitch for The Cosby Show, which made NBC, the network that said yes, the #1 network during the 1980s. That's why it's important to create a track record in the entertainment business before you pitch. Unless they feel comfortable with the second point, it doesn't matter how great your idea is. If you're already a producer or can show a video of your work, that will help prove it. If you haven't produced anything, try to partner with a production company that has produced shows. Pitching and picking shows remain an art, not a science. If it were a science, no show or movie would fail. However, If you keep these two points in mind -- 1. Thrill them; 2. Prove you can do it -- you'll have a much better chance.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Hunger Games: Catching Fire -- How to Make a Blockbuster

The second film in the Hunger Games series, Hunger Games: Catching Fire, is likely to gross over $500 million worldwide by the end of the Thanksgiving weekend. That's after a record pre-Thanksgiving opening day gross and a Thanksgiving Day record box office gross. It's likely that after just it's second weekend the film will be the fourth best-grossing film in the U.S. for 2013, and there's a good chance that by the end of the year the film will be the top grossing film of 2013. Remember this is only the second film of what will be four movies in the series. I hope whoever optioned the books for Lionsgate got a well deserved promotion. It's no wonder that the only growing section in most bookstores is teen fantasy adventure. It's not just the Hunger Games -- the Harry Potter and Twilight series also made billions of dollars for their movie studios and publishers. Some of these series, like the Percy Jackson and the Olympians book series, have not been nearly as financially successful. The latest film in the series, "Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters" has grossed just under $200 million worldwide. We've now seen enough successes amongst these types of films to identify certain common principles of their creation. 1. Start with a popular book series: Harry Potter, Twilight, and the Hunger Games all sold tremendously well as books. The Potter books started the practice of having parties in bookstores the night before their release. The first two Potter films were not critical triumphs, but the series had so many built-in fans they were financial successes. 2. Cast good young actors as the leads, but not stars. Jennifer Lawrence got great critical acclaim for her role in the independent film "Winter's Bone," but she was not a star when cast as Caitness. Similarly, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson had some experience, but were just about complete unknowns when they got cast as Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Let the audience create the stars. 3. Surround the young stars with the best possible adult actors: Catching Fire added Phillip Seymour Hoffman to a cast that already included Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, and a host of other fine character actors. The adult Potter cast was a who's who of great English actors. Don't cast stars who will draw the focus from the young leads, but rather will help make the world believable. 4. Don't try to recreate the book on the screen. Aim for the essence of the book and some key plot points, but recognize that movies are a different medium. The Hunger Games films did that successfully by compressing the action that took months into a few days. 5. Include a strong heroine. Of course, Caitness fills that bill, but so does Hermione in the Potter books and Bella in Twilight. Your target audience should be first -- the target audience for the books, and second, their parents. If you can capture both the fans of the books and their families, you have a blockbuster. 6 Don't be afraid of including adult themes. The Hunger Games, for all of its love triangles and plucky heroines, is actually the story of a political revolution against tyranny. The Potter books are about the importance of self sacrifice for the greater good. Those themes make the action more compelling and help the films appeal to adults. 7. Keep the stakes high; make the antagonists strong. President Snow appears invincible at the beginning of Hunger Games; Voldemort is the most powerful evil wizard in the world. There's no challenge if the bad guys are easy to overcome. Most important, if you are the author or filmmaker, you have to care about the characters and the story. The Hunger Games series started because Suzanne Collins had a story she wanted to tell. JK Rowling hoped her first Harry Potter book would find an audience; by her own admission she didn't expect it the franchise would grow to its current size. The story and the characters kept her writing every day while she was on the dole in Great Britain. The first step to success is a burning desire to tell your story, and to make it as compelling as possible.