birth of a genre? cowboys and aliens

graphic novel cover
graphic novel cover

Cowboys and Aliens” to mix the sci-fi and western genres

Cowboys and Aliens is a film concept that’s been booted around the industry for a decade or more (since 1997 to be precise), and finally looks to be on the way to production with Robert Downey Jr. in front of the camera, and Ironman director John Favreau behind.

Why so long for what seems like a no-brainer idea that sells itself based on its title alone? For one thing, just a general inability to find a good story in the concept. Variety has a great chart illustrating the time line of this project. Continue reading birth of a genre? cowboys and aliens

Faeries at Shriekfest Film Festival

chip-at-raleigh-studios

Shriekfest Screenplay Competition finalists include "Faeries" by Chip Street and Sean Meehan.

Let’s get the news out of the way right off the bat: Faeries did not bring home an award in the screenplay competition. But the good news is, the grapevine tells us that we were a very close runner up, and an unofficial judge ‘s favorite for commercial appeal and shootability. Moreover, we walked away with two producers interested in reading the script, and one well-respected studio reader itching to rep it to a few prodcos. So we’re still chuggin’ along.

shriekfest-posters

But we did make it to Hollywood for the Shriekfest Festival, and win or lose, what a gas! Founder and fest director Denise Gossett, her most excellent husband and a bevy of dedicated volunteers put on a really fun, intimate, quality fest on the grounds of Raleigh Studios. Denise is a certified Scream Queen in her own right whose next project, the horror comedy Crustacean, is already in post-production. Continue reading Faeries at Shriekfest Film Festival

Paranormal Activity: the review

paranormal-activity-movie-poster1Paranormal Activity horror film review

“Once every five years, a guy makes a movie for a nickel that can cross over to a broad audience,” says “Paranormal Activity” producer Jason Blum, who, as a senior executive at Miramax Films, had a producing credit on “The Reader” and acquired the supernatural thriller “The Others.” “And there are about 3,000 of these movies made every year, so this film is about one in 15,000.”

THE BUZZ

You’ve heard the buzz. Paranormal Activity, “the little indie horror film that could” about a couple who videotapes a demon haunting them in their home, made in a week for $11,000 by a guy with no filmmaking experience (Oren Peli, a video game programmer) gets seen at a horror fest (Screamfest), scares Spielberg so bad he won’t keep the DVD in his house (marketing hype, anyone?), and gets picked up by DreamWorks for the full court press. (LATimes story here) Continue reading Paranormal Activity: the review

Grave Dawn: WWII indie movie

gravedawn

Charlie Hofheimer (Father’s Day, Black Hawk Down, The Village, Blur) co-producing WWII indie film based on a true story.

A few years ago I worked on a film project titled “BLUR“. It was a challenging experience, but through it I met a lot of people, many of whom I still work with when I can, and some of whom continue to work in the field in LA or elsewhere.

Among those are Charlie Hofhemier, R. Alan Shoef and D.J. Turner. Along with their colleague Shannon Lucio they’ve continued their creative collaboration, and are hard at work on a WWII project titled “Grave Dawn” under the banner of the start-up independent production company Filament Features, in association with Kindest Cut, LLC.

They’ve started with a 25 minute short, shot on the RED at 4K (making a high quality film-out possible). They’re seeking finishing funds for the short, and hope to use that to raise capital for the feature-length version. Smart business people that they are, they’ve shot it in such a way that all the footage used in the short can be integrated into the feature, so they only need to shoot another 65 minutes or so to complete the full length version. And, they’ve left room for as-yet-unshot significant roles that will interest a “name” performer to add to the distribution value.

I had a chance to catch up with Alan and find out more about the project.

CS – So tell me, what brought you guys together on this film?

RAS – We all met up during production on BLUR. We got along well and decided to work together on projects that mattered to us and demonstrated our skill at producing projects on time and within budget.

CS – And this is a project that matters. What’s the story behind it?

RAS – It’s based on the true story of a German Soldier in WWII, who is over-heard by his commanders making defeatist remarks about the German war effort in 1945. The soldier, named Erwin Bucholtz, is then re-located to the Eastern Front of Austria so that he may die at the hands of the Russians. Only when he arrives at his new camp does he realize his incredible luck, for he just missed the German offensive in Vienna. Erwin is instead put on guard duty of a group of starving and injured Russian POW’s. It’s at this moment he has a revelation in this story about karma and humanity in the middle of horror.

CS – The trailer looks fantastic. High production values, great performances, good sound… Where’d you shoot? What was the production like?

RAS – Grave Dawn was shot in Petaluma, California in the beginning of April 2009. This was because the equipment we wanted to use was based there, plus it turned out that the location stood in well for Austria in the Spring. Production lasted 5 days starting on a Wednesday on through Sunday. We shot the project on 2 RED One cameras. And used Jack Morocco Pyrotechnics for our explosions.

CS – And not just explosions, but you’ve got tanks, and artillery, and piles of guns. That’s serious shit.

RAS – Some of the equipment we used on this project was a German 88 — one of less than half a dozen in North America — a Russian T-38 battle tank, all kinds of other German artillery pieces, authentic 1930’s truck, Willie’s Jeep, too many rifles and machine guns to really keep track of… besides the MG-42. That thing shot something like 1500 rounds per minute! I’m proud to say that we were fully insured – thanks to the hard work of Charlie. It ended up being just over a 5th of our total budget – which wasn’t much to start with!! However it was well worth it. Most of our valuable resources wouldn’t even work with us with out it.

CS – It’s all in German, with English subtitles. Why is that?

RAS – We shot the project in German and Russian as we thought our markets would be larger in Europe.

CS – I hope that works out… and it shouldn’t exclude domestic distribution. The recent success of Inglourious Basterds shows that movie goers have an appetite for both WWII flicks and extensive subtitles [as further discussed at JohnAugust.com]. So it’s in the can, you’re well into post. What’s the status? What’s next?

RAS – At this point we’re finishing up Post Production, having just finished our first official trailer. It runs at 2 minutes and looks killer – IMO. Couldn’t be happier with it. We’re going to post it to our official site in the next couple of weeks. (www.filamentfeatures.com). We’re currently looking for After Effects artists for a few elements that we want to add in. Looking to finish the full short project by November 2009. Our goal is to use it to attract distributers and other financing elements to a feature length version.

CS – Well, I’m impressed. I’ve worked with you guys, and you’re a bunch of tireless, dedicated sons of bitches with that hard-to-find balance of commitment to creative integrity and business acumen… I know you’ll finish what you start. I’d work with you again in a heartbeat, and if anybody out there has the resources to help see this sucker to completion, they should want to jump in with both feet. Good luck! Pass my regards on to DJ and Charlie.

RAS – Much Thanks!!

paying to pitch

There are lots of sites and services that charge writers or filmmakers for the opportunity to “pitch” their projects. And there are just as many filmmakers and writers who decry the practice as an outright scam focused on simply taking the money of starry-eyed newbies with no intention of ever really making their movie (see the recent Nehst Studios post).

Sometimes those same writers and filmmakers pay for pitch sessions as adjuncts to seminars, festivals and etc, like the Great American Pitchfest. Unknown writers put out hundreds of dollars, maybe a couple thousand when you include travel lodging and food, to go to the Pitchfest in LA. They get to pitch their unknown project(s) to a bunch of “producers”, some of whom are legit, some of whom possibly are not, none of whom have ever heard of said writer, or have ever shown any interest in his work. They only agree to hear his pitch because he PAID. And many such writers seem to think this is a great opportunity, completely legitimate, money well spent, an investment in their careers, etc.

I still don’t understand why some folks insist that a Pitchfest makes sense, but when ONE producer or website makes the same offer, it’s a scam. It may be a scam, if that particular producer is a thief. But why is it by definition a “scam”, when a Pitchfest is a legitimate “opportunity”?

I’d love to hear examples and experiences about Pitchfest-esque events, individual producers/agents/managers who charge for pitch sessions, and online sites that charge to connect you with pitching opportunities.

And I’ll be writing a comparative blog soon on sites like VirtualPitchFest.com, GreenWriter.org, InkTip.com and ScriptStork.com, who charge (or not) to host your projects in the hopes of connecting you with a legitimate producer.

Sling Blade producer Larry Meistrich sued for fraud

Larry Meistrich
Larry Meistrich

In 1991 Producer Larry Meistrich launched The Shooting Gallery on the momentum of Laws Of Gravity, stumbled along for the next few years with a slate of art house films, caught lightning in a bottle with Sling Blade… and then the train ground to a painful stop in 2001.

From 2001 The Village Voice:

On the seventh floor of 609 Greenwich Street in Manhattan, a movie poster of You Can Count On Me lies on the floor. Chairs, desks, and office supplies are strewn about as if a hurricane had blown through the building. Two guys in jeans and T-shirts edge through the clutter, wheeling a cabinet toward the elevator. When asked if they’re working for the Shooting Gallery, the 10-year-old entertainment production company that operated here until late June, one of them replies, “We’re not getting paid; we’re just picking some stuff up for Larry.” (…more)

More recently, Meistrich has launched his new Nehst Studios (pronounces “Next”). The studio was announcing back in 2007 on various filmmaking boards that it had funding for a slate of new films ranging from 2MM to 50MM “to shoot within the next two years”. In addition they spun off two other services, PitchNehst.com (where you can pay $10 to pitch to Larry) and Screentest.biz, where actors can pay to upload photos and videos in the hopes of being cast in a project. Screentest.biz assures it will only allow funded, greenlit projects to access actors’ profiles. (Interestingly, the only TV project listed is Nehst’s own Dribble Kick Throw, which it first announced casting for in 2007. On Screentest.biz, the project lists a 2008 release date.)

The only two projects listed to date on the Nehst site are 2008’s Running The Sahara and the upcoming Article 32, both quiet documentaries. Not exactly the slate of multi-million dollar blockbusters Nehst seemed to be promising.

Larry and Nehst have been met with rabid cynicism from many indie and wannabe filmmakers, who view the charging of fees for the opportunity to pitch as simple scammism. Larry’s been called a “friggen parasite … [who is] not into making movies, but instead … into getting the money out of everyone’s wallet” by filmmakers who resent the pay to pitch concept.

I have been more tempered in my response, saying that to me he seems like a guy who’s using some admittedly kind of crass methods to develop his studio, but whose pedigree is legitimate… and that I’d rather find ways to work with people who are in a position to be valuable to me than call them names and question their ethics. Although I’ve never paid to pitch myself, I wonder why some pay-to-pitch formats are acceptable and some are not. [more on that here]

Recently, Nehst has been reamed by bloggers for their questionable methods and motives in pursuing tax incentives, grants and a convention center in Ohio. Says James Renner of ClevelandIndependent.com:

It sure sounded cool, didn’t it?

Last year, the Plain Dealer trumpeted the arrival of “Nehst Studios” to Cleveland. Star-struck North-Coasters wondered when we might begin seeing Tom Hanks strolling through Public Square. Nehst Studios. You know, like Paramount Studios. Warner Bros. Studios.

They promised jobs. They promised to bring in $125 million a year in new business; show business. In a region where $5 and a sandwich buys you a home these days, that sounded swell. We wanted to believe.

But we knew it couldn’t be true, didn’t we? We’re from NE Ohio, after all. Disappointment is our reliable friend.

Well, yeah, turns out our hunch was right.

Nehst is as much a studio as my dick is a muffin. Their CEO is a renowned swindler. Their principal investor? Bernie Madoff’s family. Yes. That Bernie Madoff. Their good friend: Al Ratner. Yes. That Al Ratner.

And when they tried to swindle $300,000 from Ohio taxpayers, the only public servant asking questions was handed a pink slip.

What’s going on? And why did Frank Jackson just give them the Convention Center?

Let me explain: (…more)

So Nehst’s principle investor is Andrew Madoff, the son of Bernard Madoff, who is serving a 150-year prison sentence after pleading guilty in a $65 billion Ponzi scheme. Not exactly the pedigree one looks for in a startup business ostensibly managing tens of millions of dollars.

Now, Meistrich, Nehst Studios and Madoff are being sued by Dana Offenbach, former President of Production at Nehst Studios, for fraud, for a minimum of $300,000 in damages plus $5 million in punitive damages.

You’ll notice that Dana Offenbach is the same person who in 2007 was posting on filmmaking boards on behalf of Nehst.

I’m still not drawing any premature conclusions, as I’m a firm supporter of Due Process (and I’m sure to be vilified by one or two Meistrich hating filmmakers who will conclude I want Larry to steal their money because of it). Nobody’s been found guilty of anything, disgruntled employees sue their ex-bosses all the time, pay-to-pitch hasn’t been proven to be a “scam”, lots of websites charge actors to post their pictures, and movies/tv shows/web series all can take years and years to get through production if they make it through at all. And lots of people get funding, lose funding, and get it back again. That’s Hollywood.

But I find this whole slow spiral fascinating, having lived through the dotcom bubble (which The Shooting Gallery certainly emulated), being a fan of Meistrich’s best credit (Sling Blade) and doing my level best to understand what’s legitimate and what’s not as I try so desperately to trip over the threshold of the secret door into Hollywood myself.

Maybe Nehst Studios (and its subsidiaries) are a scam designed to milk wannabe filmmakers, actors and writers, as well as taxpayers, out of their hard earned money by selling pie-in-the-sky Hollywood dreams. Or maybe they’re just really shitty business people who’ve chosen two bad historical moments (the crashes of 01 and 08/9) to try to launch one of the hardest kinds of businesses there is to launch, and are misunderstood by bitter Hollywood-hating uber-indies and average Joe’s who don’t understand how volatile (financially and professionally) the industry is.

Maybe.

We should all watch this one closely.

LINKS OF INTEREST:

A pdf of the complaint can be found here. [PDF]

And if that link stops working, go to the NY state courts website here, and run a search on Larry Meistrich. The court docs can be found there.

Here’s a Fox Searchlight Searchlab video with Larry talking about making movies.

the rise of the unsuperhero.

greatest american heroSure, superheroes are all over the silver screen. And that’s great for the comics publishers (who get to license the rights to their IP) and great for producers and studios (cuz it’s easier to sell a movie that’s based on an existing brand). But it sucks for the spec screenwriter who doesn’t have said rights (and thus would be wasting his/her time writing an adaptation of, say, The Tick) and still wants to write a superhero movie.

So what’s a spec screenwriter who wants to put their stamp on the superhero genre to do?

Is there room for a nonbranded, unknown superhero at the box office? Well sure. There’s a legacy of unknown heroes, from Cannell’s Greatest American Hero TV series to Wayans’ Blankman, from the borderline brilliant Unbreakable through the very cute Sky High, from the wonderful The Incredibles to the watchable but forgettable My Super Ex-Girlfriend and lastly the simply unwatchable Zoom (somebody needs to apologize for this movie). And need we even mention TV’s Heroes? Continue reading the rise of the unsuperhero.

i will not read your fucking script but if i read your fucking script appreciate my fucking feedback

A History of Violence screenwriter Josh Olson seems kinda pissed.

Apparently he gets asked to read a lot of scripts.

Apparently most of them are crap.

And apparently nobody really wants his honest feedback.

So he wrote a scathing essay over at The Village Voice, outlining just how much this all sucks. Continue reading i will not read your fucking script but if i read your fucking script appreciate my fucking feedback

Faeries is a finalist at Shriekfest

faeries-posterWell, I told you just days ago that our horror screenplay Faeries had made it to the semi-finals of the 2009 Shriekfest screenplay competition.

The news just got better.

Faeries has now advanced to the finals, baby! Looks like we’ll be heading down to Hollywood again next month, to attend the fest. We will, of course, keep you all posted on the final results, about the trip, and about the fest itself.

Sony's Samuel Dickerman, New Deal Studios and Filmworks/FX

I had a hell of a birthday last month… it’s been nearly three weeks, and now I’m finally getting around to writing about it.

filmworksfx logoMarvin Acuna of The Business of Show Institute (BOSI) invited myself and 9 other screenwriters down to Hollywood to sit in on a discussion with Sony V.P. Samuel Dickerman (Marvin’s BOSI is an amazing resource… this is my second event with them).  The event was held on the lot at Filmworks/FX studios.

Sam flew in from the set of Battle: Los Angeles to chat with Marvin about the current state of the film business, how it’s affecting screenwriters, and what he looks for in a project. Here are my notes on the conversation.

  • 320 screenplays “hit the market” to date in 2009 (spec screenplays repped at the studio level). Of those, 16% were purchased.
  • Writers must be prepared to do much more than simply write. They need to be prepared to act like producers, to be proactive about getting attachments, to be creative about their pitches, to go the extra mile. It’s not just about writing any more.
    • The director who won the job for Battle: Los Angeles beat out the studio’s short list of 3 preferred directors by holing up in his basement studio, shooting footage, cobbling together some CGI, and presenting exactly what he envisioned the film looking like. Much more than the simple “look book” of old movie stills and sketches provided by the average director.
    • The writer who won the job of scribing the new Baywatch movie (Jeremy Garelick – The Breakup and The Hangover [uncredited]) landed the job by volunteering to write fully a third of the script on spec… and this is a guy who’s a working pro who doesn’t have to do that.
  • You must have two great samples that demonstrate voice, structure and character.
  • You must be prepared to explain how you’re going to help pull the production together… how you are a creative asset to the team beyond simply writing a professional script. Or, have such incredible kick-ass concepts that you can spit on a napkin and have it be brilliant. Guess which one you probably are?
  • Know how to read between the feedback lines… producers aren’t writers, and they’re sometimes obtuse about communicating what they’re looking for. When they say “That’s great, but can we add aliens somewhere?” they don’t literally mean “add aliens”… but they mean they’re looking for something spectacular and unexpected, and it’s your job to understand that and to creatively provide it.
  • You cannot submit to the studios without representation… agency, management or minimally a connected entertainment attorney.
  • The last blacklist – the mythical list of amazing spec scripts making the rounds that all the execs are talking about but will never make because they’re not commercial enough – was largely drama. Which tells you that your drama script might be a good calling card (writing sample), but it ain’t gonna get bought or made.

Above all, you must have these three things:

  • A passion for movies
  • Perseverance
  • An ability to take criticism – Listen, Hear, Process

newdeal logoAfter the talk, we were given a tour of the facility by President/Director Ken Locsmandi. What a great place… a fully functional end-to-end soup-to-nuts facility, that has been providing fx work to the larger studios for years (City of Ember, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, Juno, Apocalypto). They’re right next door to, and partnered closely with, New Deal Studios (The Dark Knight, X-Men: The Last Stand, Live Free or Die Hard, Spiderman 3), which we also got to tour.

We had to sign NDA’s, so if I say too much I’ll have to kill you, but we did get to see the bad guy’s dump truck from The Dark Knight, the VTOL fighter jet from Live Free or Die Hard (not an actual existing style of jet, we learned, but an amalgam of several different jets), a number of space ships from projects not yet released, and lots of other simply way cool stuff that we all felt very privileged to see. Shelves and shelves of amazing miniatures, recognizable vehicles and creatures and landscapes… like stumbling into Santa’s workshop.

And then lastly, we all retired to a great little ocean side Italian eatery for lunch, where we sat around and talked movies, writing and networking ideas. I got to see some folks I’ve met before and have been staying in touch with online, and some new friends, all of whom are forming the base of my growing community of contacts.

Lots of what I heard at the event is stuff that’s beginning to sound familiar… the bullet points above didn’t come as a big surprise. But what’s valuable about trips like these is that it’s an opportunity to hear these points again, to have it made clear that yes, everyone from the writers to the agents to the producers to the execs are telling a consistent story: Hollywood is knowable, and crackable, if you know what to bring to the table.

That’s the great service Marvin and his crew at BOSI, and all the players that he makes accessible are doing… showing us aspiring writers that Hollywood is a small town, and  that although it’s tough to break into, it is knowable. It’s not a mystery. Marvin, Sam, Ken and all the folks at the studios were so friendly, accessible and accommodating… they clearly all love what they do, love to share it, and are truly supportive of newbies like us. You can tell that they want everyone to succeed. It’s just that it’s a very small pond, with room for a very few writers (relatively speaking), and so the ones that make it are going to be those who bring a lot more to the table than just stories. They’ll be bringing a collaborative spirit, a professional demeanor, and a personality that other people are going to want to spend time around for the next 18-24 months – or more.

I know that’s me. Is it you?