What job should I beg for?

questionmarkA friend of mine is a writer whose work has been lucky/funny enough to make it to the big screen. The sequel has been greenlit and he just shot me an email letting me know that he’s signed on as the director! I am an aspiring screenwriter and I understand how valuable it is to be on set and get a bird’s eye view of the process. So my question is this:

What job should I beg him for? I’ve got no on-set experience and I’m not sure how much staffing power the director has, or in what areas he has it. I don’t want to ask for something completely unrealistic and appear foolish. I am, however, eager, ambitious and a very hard worker. I’ll carry their luggage, haul equipment or simply make sure the toilet paper is properly stocked — if I can just get a peak at the process, write during my down time and make friends/connections. I’d kill for this opportunity. I just need to know…um…. what opportunity exactly, I’m killing for.

— J.R.

If the budget allows him to have an assistant, that’s the job you want. By shadowing him, you’ll get the broadest perspective of preproduction, production and post.

Maybe he already has an assistant, or the budget won’t allow him to have one. Then it gets a little harder to figure out the right spot for you.

Assuming you can drive a car, answer a phone and work long hours, you can be an office PA. You’ll learn a lot about the logistical side of filmmaking, but won’t have a ton of on set exposure — you’re running back and forth from the office a lot. You’ll be taking orders from a production coordinator, who will generally send you for a pickup in Santa Monica when you just got back from Venice. On the plus side, you’ll get to know your LA geography a lot better, and become familiar with the various vendors and production houses.

While an office PA can learn on the job, an on-set PA actually needs to know what he’s doing. There’s a useful guide you can download, but a large part of the job is simply anticipating what’s going to happen next, and that only comes with experience. But everyone has to start somewhere, so if you can convince the first and second AD’s (who oversee the PA’s) that you’re a quick learner, they might bring you on. But always keep in mind that you’re working for them, not your buddy the director.

If you’re competent with a videocamera, another possibility is to shoot the behind-the-scenes footage. That certainly gives you access. Just make sure not to step on the toes of the actual filmmakers.

If it’s not possible to get a real job on the movie, it’s absolutely worth asking your friend if you can visit set a few times during production. Just make sure that when you do, you make yourself a ghost. The best set visitors aren’t just invisible — they’re almost immaterial, and never in the way when you turn the set around. The safest place to hover is generally near craft service; they pick that location to be close to the set but never in the way.

Update:

Alex Epstein answered the identical question, with almost the same advice. Which just goes to show we’re both geniuses.


Austin Film Festival schedule

In case any readers want to see how much less articulate I am in person, I’ll be speaking on three panels at the upcoming Austin Film Festival. Here are the descriptions the organizers sent out:

The Art of the Pitch
SFA Hotel, Assembly Room
Oct. 19th, 2:45 p.m. – 4 p.m.

Pitching yourself is as important as pitching your script, and it often happens at parties, in elevators, and, of course, at festivals and conferences. Come learn how to hard pitch in a meeting and soft pitch in a casual setting and make sure your pitch leaves people wanting to get their hands on your script.

  • John August
  • Jessica Bendinger
  • Maggie Biggar
  • Alex Smith – moderator

Getting a Writing Job
Driskill Hotel, Maximilian Room
Oct. 20th, 10:45 a.m. – 12 p.m.

Inspired by John August’s Web site, this is the panel formerly known as Breaking Into the Business. Why did we change the name? Because what most writers really want to know is, “How can I get paid for my writing? How do I become a professional writer?” It’s important to know there isn’t just one path to success.

  • John August
  • Brendan McDonald
  • Gregg Rounds
  • Greg Beal – moderator

Tell Your Story
Driskill Hotel, Chisolm Trail Room
Oct. 20th, 3:15 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.

Come and meet John August, writer of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride, Big Fish, Charlie’s Angels, Go, and others, in a relaxed and intimate setting. Get here early and join the casual conversation on the couch.


Macworld review of Montage

Macworld has a review of Mariner Software’s Montage, which is pretty much right on the money. They give it two out of five mice, admiring its interface while pointing out that it doesn’t do nearly as much as it should: page locking, scene numbering and many other standard features are still on the drawing board. Which is fine for a beta, but not a shipping product.

I like the Montage folks, and have been in e-mail contact with them about an even more fundamental issue for me — the way it handles dialogue across page breaks. They’ve been responsive, and seem to genuinely want to make a great application. Version 2 — or even 1.5 — might be terrific. Right now, Montage is a program that looks finished but isn’t.

I’ve moved beyond hoping for a Final Draft killer — the next version of Screenwriter should do that, assuming it ever ships. But competition breeds innovation, so I’ll always be watching Montage, Celtx and the other upstarts. One of them might just change the game.


Do screenwriters get a chunk of foreign TV money?

questionmarkDo writers ever get a percentage of the substantial profits from the studios’ licensing their films to international TV networks?

— Marilyn Mallory
via imdb

Writers do get a portion of the revenue, in the form of residuals. These payments are roughly analogous to the royalties songwriters and novelists receive, but with some important distinctions. (For clarity, I’m only going to talk about residuals for movies, because residuals for TV shows work a little differently.)

For starters, you don’t get residuals on theatrical release. Whether your movie makes one dollar or one billion at the box office, you don’t get residuals on that. It’s only when the movie shows up in subsequent markets, like home video or television, that you start getting more money.

The formulas for how much money the writer is supposed to get are complicated and contentious, and are often a big issue in negotiations between the WGA (which collects residuals) and the studios (who pay residuals). Even a fraction of a percentage can translate into thousands of dollars for a screenwriter. For example, I’ve made far more money from the residuals on Go than I did for writing and producing it.

Residuals are paid quarterly, and arrive in big green envelopes. It’s always a guessing game how big the checks are going to be: sometimes just a few dollars, sometimes well into six-figures. But it’s always exciting to get money you weren’t quite expecting.

It’s important to explain what residuals aren’t. They’re not “a piece of the back end” in the way that a big movie star gets gross points. Residuals have nothing to how profitable the movie is: you get paid the same per DVD or run on HBO whether the movie is a giant success or a dismal failure. (Of course, a hit movie should sell more DVDs and play more often on television, so in the long run, you’ll come up ahead.)


Two thoughts on the future of video

This morning’s paper had two interesting articles about home video.

Warners will be releasing Superman Returns on DVD in China today, two months ahead of the rest of the world, priced almost as low as the ubiquitous counterfeit versions.

How do you make money selling a DVD for 14 yuan ($1.75)? Well, the counterfeiters do. From Warner’s perspective, they’ve already sunk hundreds of millions into the film. As long as they can sell a DVD for a penny more than it cost to manufacture, it’s probably worth it. I’ve long thought that the only way to beat bootlegging in markets like China and Russia is to take away the price difference. I’ll be curious to see if the experiment pays off.

The second article looks at a possible deal between Wal-Mart and Apple. Not to sell iPods or Macintoshes, but movies. Which is weird, because neither Apple nor Wal-Mart makes movies.

Apparently, several studios were on board to sell downloadable movies through iTunes, but backed off because of pressure from Wal-Mart, which is by far the biggest distributor of DVDs in North America. Disney held its ground and went with iTunes, but there was the possibility that Wal-Mart would cut its orders of Disney’s movies as punishment.

Now Apple is in talks with Wal-Mart to give the giant retailer a cut of the action on downloads, in exchange for letting the other studios sell movies through iTunes.

Fuck Wal-Mart, seriously.

Their near-monopolist control of physical products is bad enough. I don’t think we should be giving them control over bits and bytes.

I think I’m going to download High School Musical just to spite them.


How to Revisit Fried Worms

worms script Ten years ago, I got my first paid screenwriting job, adapting Thomas Rockwell’s How to Eat Fried Worms into a script for Ron Howard and Universal. I went through four paid drafts over more than a year, and loved it.

Thomas Schlamme signed on to direct it. At the time, he was a mid-level TV director. Now, he’s a super-powered TV director. We went through a few drafts, but never really clicked.

Ultimately, Bob Dolman was brought in to rewrite my script. I was devastated, but fortunately had found other projects to keep my rent paid. I kept my eye on Worms over the years, as…

  • Schlamme fell off
  • Universal put it into turnaround
  • Nickelodeon picked it up
  • Nickelodeon let it go

I assumed it was finally, really gone when one day I was reading Mike Curtis’s blog, in which he noted that a movie called HOW TO EAT FRIED WORMS was shooting behind his house in Austin.

It turned out that Bob Dolman was directing from the script he (re-)wrote. Walden Media was financing it, which seemed smart, because they’d had great success adapting kid’s lit into movies. When filming was finished, I had the opportunity per WGA rules to seek screenwriting credit, but I passed. A quick look at the script showed that it didn’t much resemble what I had written. Which is no veiled slam at Dolman — he just did his own thing.

The movie came out last month, and fared poorly. I didn’t see it, but what little I read about it didn’t have me rushing to the theatre.

Now that it’s out and has done its thing, I feel better adding my original script to the Downloads section. This is the fourth of the four drafts I held onto. At 120 pages, it seems long to me, but that was probably a factor of its lengthy development. I originally wrote it in Microsoft Word; this version has been converted to Final Draft and then exported as a .pdf.

So, if you’re interested, you can find it here.