Frequently, young filmmakers want to sit down and have coffee with me to chat about the business and gain any insight I have. While I’m nowhere near where I want to be in this industry and do not consider myself Yoda, I can at least share some of my war stories and experience. Ten years ago, I wanted nothing more than to spend a few minutes with a seasoned professional and find out how they did it… so I always have a soft spot for these connections (and I am a sucker for free lattes). I also do various panels and Q & A’s, and they inevitably filter down to one question from a young, unproven, unrepresented writer:
“Will you read one of my scripts?”
Unless we are old friends, the answer is usually no. This is not because I am a jerk, but because it rarely leads to a comfortable situation. If the script is GOOD, I now have some kind of responsibility to give specific notes and forward it on to an agent if I know one. I also run the risk of reading something similar to material I am working on myself, which puts me at risk legally. And if it is BAD, well… that’s when I find out how much this person wants to be in the business. If a less-than-good writer can take some major criticism (and I try to be gentle), they are stepping into a long road of notes and criticism for the rest of their life. That’s what all writers have to accept. If that writer has grown up with loving people around them telling them that everything they do is fantastic, then they will not like or accept what I have to say. This makes the ending of our brief mentorship very awkward and painful. They walk away thinking I am some kind of tyrant and I walk away never wanting to return their calls or help them anymore.
But the lesson remains, so heed it well: DON’T BE PRECIOUS. Your work always needs work. Mine does, yours does. As a matter of fact, if you are a good writer at all, you should look forward to rewriting. If you are a good writer at all, you rarely look at your work as “finished” or “perfect.” If you tell me your script is “amazing” and that “I’ll love it,” I already know we’ve got problems.
I wanted to talk this out a little because I have one of these dust-ups at least once a year. That’s my penance to pay for being open to new writers, I guess. But this applies to any art form. Two of my biggest moments of friction were with artists from other disciplines.
One promising high schooler sent me a link to his page of THIRTY SHORT FILMS, each of them shot by him in an afternoon. They all showed promise, but were also very crappy. When your kung-fu fighters are squaring off in a public park and haven’t even bothered to put on costumes, take a moment. Go prep. Spend time. I challenged this filmmaker to try a new tactic: Make ONE film, take six months to do it and make it the best thing he’s ever put on screen. Use crew and costumes and even effects. I proposed that if he put everything he had into ONE GOOD THING, he would be surprised how far it would take him as a calling card. He didn’t like that. It was easier to slap something together in an hour and post a caption with the clip that read, “I did this with no time and no money, imagine what I can do with more!”
I don’t want to imagine. And neither does a producer or investor. Show them — not only how you truly execute, but how you can follow through on a long-term project while being responsible with resources. But this young filmmaker was too precious with what he did and how he did it. We ended our long, long, long email exchange with an “agree to disagree” stance, since I just didn’t understand the fast-and-furious nature of his work. Good luck, my friend. Let’s see who does.
My other case study was a painter who wanted to get into concept art for feature films — so badly that he contacted me and offered to do some work for free. I had a big pitch coming up so I thought, “Why not?” The guy’s gallery was very good. But after one roughed-out pass on a piece, I asked if he could move a character to the foreground and add some other details to the landscape. I cited some other works for comparison. He did not like that. In a long email exchange, this painter reminded me that he has put on gallery shows — gallery shows! — of his work. He said that he should not have to take art notes from me, that he needs to show me what he can do apart from my meddling. We parted ways. Not used to notes? Good luck spending ONE MINUTE in this business, I told him.
The final case study is such an entertaining train wreck, it prompted this whole blog. Recently a producer got swept up in an email exchange with an unproven writer who was so entitled and full of himself, his responses border on mentally imbalanced. It is also a great example of how to NEVER get work in this town, no matter how talented you are. You can read the train wreck HERE. (Thanks Chris Jones.)
When you enter this business at even the lowest level, you may have to offer free work or demos or spec scripts. But apart from the art you are showing someone, you are also putting yourself on display. Can you take notes? Can you be directed to make changes and be open to collaboration, even if it goes against your original idea? Can you see your art as ever-changing? Or are you precious? Is it “perfect” the way it is?
I have to continually remind myself of this. Even when I’ve spent a lot of time on something, a new perspective will come along. I cannot be precious. I have to be willing to break the thing apart again, shake it up, even add a cute sidekick, for pete’s sake! Being a “genius” and actually getting something made are two very different things. The second takes a willingness to manage people, expectations and resources. And if someone else is paying for it, then show them you are listening to them. You don’t have to take every note or chase every trend… but lose the preciousness.
I’m currently directing a very cool feature that I can’t talk about yet, but I will soon. The most astounding thing about it is that it is an ORIGINAL STORY. Not based on anything. The movie will be the primary defining source material. It’s from an idea that two writers just came up with, or pulled “out of the air,” as I like to say.
As everyone knows in this business, a purely original project is a very rare thing and very difficult to get made. To have a brand to lean on, to have a “pre-awareness” of a property, seems to be a key component to any major genre film these days. I get it, these things cost a lot of money and you’ve got to minimize risks. Make no mistake, I don’t fault anyone for wanting to go see the next “Captain America” or the next “Transformers.” I enjoy big popcorn entertainment, even the kind based on stuff I already love. But I also constantly hear from common moviegoers that they would buy a ticket to something completely new — they just aren’t given the option very often.
It’s not like the creative community is lacking in original content — thousands of creators have well-developed stuff they are just waiting to make. They’re ready! It’s not the fault of the ticket buyers either — people have shown time and again that if a new, unproven film is good, they will go see it. The lack of original content and an obsession with brands rests with the studios and investors — also known as “the buyers.”
Buyers: I get it. You’re running a business here. But brands are not even “sure things” to base decisions on, as we have all seen time and again. Marketing and brand awareness may win you the first weekend, but a good movie wins the second, third and fourth weekend. The exponential effect of “buzz” or word-of-mouth trumps millions of dollars in marketing, every time. At the end of the day, “a good movie” is the only genre that works.
My only hope is that the buyers out there will run out of old brands and finally risk money on something unusual and unproven. There’s a lot of talk right now about the unstoppable, generation-crossing power of a brand like “Star Wars,” but people keep forgetting that a guy named George Lucas pulled that movie out of the air. Out of the air! It was a joke to most of Twentieth Century Fox. Only one exec there, Alan Ladd Jr., risked his reputation to greenlight and defend the $12M film. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is one of the biggest brands in the land. But it was a super-weird idea that two guys just pulled out of the air. It was so strange that Eastman & Laird had to self-publish the comic for years. Sponge Bob, Batman, Kermit the Frog, Mickey Mouse. All of them came from some guy’s head. They just made them up one day. Out of thin air.
That is the place we have to pull from! That mysterious, thin-air place of new ideas.
I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said, but it bears repeating. It’s easy to talk about the big sturdy, franchise-making brands we have today, but they all came from that unknown, unpredictable place. The movies that are extraordinary and game-changing are the ones that scared most people at first… or confused them… or seemed like a big risk. Somewhere out there, some studio executives need to start rolling the dice again.
I know, I know… it’s not my money. But I wish it were. I see so much potential out there to be mined. Studios, we’re ready. We’ve got stuff. Make a new commitment this year: risk at least two out of the ten movies on your slate. Help us pull something out of the air.
There are so many things I am working on that I’d love to tell you about here… but I can’t yet. One is a major announcement that I’ll post soon. Until then, why not complain about Comic Con?
The San Diego Comic Con is a beast. We all know that. Ever since I was a teenager in Ohio, I heard about this wonderful utopia where a hundred thousand nerds got together with movie stars and filmmakers and celebrated every toy and comic and movie I’d ever obsessed over. Since moving to Los Angeles, I’ve gone every year for eight years. I love it. Even with the increased crowds, sensory overload and long lines, I just embrace the crazy for four straight days. I’m the guy making final purchases on the exhibit floor on Sunday when they close the place down. So when I criticize or analyze what it has become, I’m doing it because I love it.
What’s been happening to SDCC is what happened to Sundance: it’s gotten so popular — and now wields so much promotional power for the industry’s following year — that it has become too big to be enjoyable for most. The fans feel like they are paying too much for panels they can’t get into and exclusives that disappear too quickly. The pros feel like they can’t even do any business or see any fellow professionals on panels because they can’t compete with 50,000 fans who are willing to sleep on the sidewalk to get into the same event. And even with professionals being comped a pass, many pros can’t even get online fast enough to secure a badge. That’s what’s amazing: a working comic book artist, screenwriter or even a major producer might miss out getting in. The feeding frenzy has gotten ridiculous and the pro badges sold out in 24 hours this year. I’ve heard that some disgruntled professionals have sworn off Comic Con and just won’t go anymore. The hurdles have begun to outweigh the benefits.
I was one of the lucky ones who got a badge… but I literally sat at my computer at 10:00 am on the pro registration day, in the exact same way the dweebs on “Big Bang Theory” did. I was counting down just like Sheldon Cooper, pouncing on the “enter” button like a trained squirrel.
So if the FANS aren’t happy and the PROS aren’t happy and they BOTH want to get more out of this event, I have a solution. It’s just a stab in the dark, and I am completely uninformed on the inner-workings of organizing something like this. So keep in mind, this is just one man’s uneducated opinion… but a thought that might change this madness:
What if Comic Con became TWO SEPARATE CONS? One for fans, one for pros?
They might be on two separate weekends, or just stretch the convention time into a whole week… then split the thing right down the middle. It would give everyone some breathing room, vendors would make tons more money, and so would the city. And heck, you might even be able to get a hotel within ten miles of the convention center! The panels could repeat themselves or be tailored slightly for fans vs. pros. In this era of niche marketing and narrow-casting, why is SDCC still trying to be all things to all people? Both fans and pros are feeling the friction… why not give them both what they want? I’m both a fan AND a pro, and it seems to placate a lot of concerns and complaints I hear from both perspectives.
And for those of you who might say the studios wouldn’t parade out as many stars and surprises for the pros as they would for the fans, I think they would. Look at ShoWest — put on exclusively for theater distributors. They bring out Johnny Depp, Hugh Jackman and loads of exclusive clips, etc. What about NAB? Isn’t that just for broadcast professionals?
Why fail at serving both demos when you can spread out your reach and serve both demos in a much better way?
Two Comic Cons. That’s right. I said it. Maybe my idea isn’t sound, or it has logistical and financial problems I can’t see yet. Like I said, I’m no event planner. But unless Comic Con makes some kind of crazy, game-changing move, a lot of people are simply going to stop attending, and possibly start up conventions of their own.
Don’t bloat ’til you burst, Comic Con! I love you too much to see you explode and die.
I was recently a keynote speaker at The Big Picture Con in Atlanta, a gathering of both industry professionals and aspiring filmmakers. It was a great time to meet people and hear stories of what people are up to in film, especially in Georgia. The place is exploding with production — I had no idea! I also did an interview through Google’s new Hangout function with a radio station there. You can check out the replay below or the link HERE.
Howdy, Buckeroos. I’ve been speaking at a number of different events lately, offering any help or war stories I can to people trying to “make it happen” in this business. I just left a great Q & A at CBS Radford Studios tonight, hosted by The Greenhouse. I tried to say everything I could to offer equal parts inspiration and caution. I hope I said enough. There’s no one path and it can be daunting. It’s hard to help every young filmmaker know what to do in his or her unique situation. Every one of them wants to know how to gain a reputation in this town, or get an agent or raise funds for their project, or protect their idea or they ask about loads of business issues that are ever-changing. Every career has its unique set of circumstances and every person will find their path in their own way. So how can I really give any helpful answers?
Then it hit me on the way home — something I should have said tonight so I’ll say it here. If you’re wondering how to get through this business, I don’t need to complicate it for you. I think it just comes down to one simple thing:
This works if you’re a writer, director, actor, shooter, editor, set designer or puppet builder. It works if you’re a pastry chef.
If you are a creative person and you want a career creating, then just make stuff. Do what you do as much as possible. Do it at any level you can, big or small. Because if you make stuff and do it a lot, pretty soon you’ll be making GOOD stuff… And once you make GOOD stuff, people will NOTICE it… And once that happens, getting an agent gets a lot easier… And once you get an agent, that agent will be able to answer the 200 other questions you have, like how to get paid, what the town is looking for, how to retain ownership of your work, how to find funding or set meetings or pitch ideas, etc.
All of that comes from making stuff.
It works the other direction too: Look at any successful creator and reverse engineer their success. You can’t have a successful career without being well connected. You can’t be connected without getting good representation. You can’t get repped until you’re one of the best. And of course, you can’t be really good at anything until you do it lots and lots and lots.
What if you have no money or no contacts? You can still make stuff, even if it’s at the smallest level. A web series leads to a short film which leads to a feature. Writing one page leads to 100 pages. Raising 100 dollars leads to raising 10,000 dollars. Each step leads to the next level. But nothing happens until you take the very first, smallest step.
That’s the plan. Make something, repeat. Do this for ten years and things WILL happen for you. If you simply keep creating, you’ll get better at it and the answers to all the other details will follow.
Boom. Now my Q & A’s will probably get a lot shorter.
The massive, slow gears of film development take forever to turn. So sometimes it’s best to find other creative outlets. In between screenwriting gigs, I’ve been stealing a little time here and there to work in another medium and write a book. And now, after six years of tinkering on and off, I’ve finished it. Very exciting to have something new to talk about.
And by “talk about” I mean “tell you what I can.” I love sharing stuff here, but there’s an advantage to launching many creative endeavors using the element of surprise. If I don’t share everything right now, it’s because I’m using mystery to leverage some buzz and create the most successful situation for the material. What I can tell you is that this is a Young Adult adventure novel, it’s seventeen chapters, and it was loads of fun to write. For years this book was my “recreational writing,” but slowly the story evolved into something I’m very proud of and am very eager to share with the world. If you are a 10-14 year old kid (or you think like one), I think you’ll love this book. It’s an old-fashioned, swashbuckling pulp adventure story with lots of gadgets, humor and ridiculous cliffhangers.
As Dignan from “Bottle Rocket” might say, here are just some of the ingredients: A zeppelin, a frozen Russian sub, volcano sacrifice, a yak-powered riverboat, magnetic gloves, parachutes that go up, smell-vision goggles, a flying pocket watch & a lot of Mongolian mercenaries. The central character is an eccentric, brilliant and very unpredictable man named Dr. Henry Harrison Clockwise. He’s British, fussy, silly and addicted to mischief. I like to say he’s a combo of Doctor Who, Willy Wonka and Mary Poppins. This story is the first in what I hope will be a series of books with this character. In each book, he takes a variety of companions on globe-trotting treasure hunts around the globe and each book is narrated from the point of view of one of the companions. In this story, our narrator is a 13 year-old girl.
The extras and spinoffs for this book are exciting to think about, from an almanac of gadgets to an electronic version of the book that accesses new backstory content through your tablet. But it all depends on how the market receives the book. It’s in that “just hatched” stage right now where I am going out to publishers and studios to see if anyone bites. But the great thing about a book in this day and age is that I KNOW I will eventually be able to offer it to readers in some form, somehow.
Stay tuned and keep your telescopes trained. Dr. Clockwise is anything but predictable.
I’m extremely proud of my brother’s recent work and you need to see it. It’s time for STRATOSPHERIC, the new video from STORY OF THE RUNNING WOLF!
Let’s just say it’s been a long time since both Jareth from “Labyrinth” and Falcor the Luck Dragon were in the same video. Okay, like never. I’ve loved this band for a while now and they are one of the few groups boldly bringing electronic dance music back. This is more than just images put to music. This is a full-on short film, the kind that Michael Jackson used to do for a song (remember those days?). The video was completely conceived and produced by Director Todd Edwards and Producers Katie Hooten and Tim Hooten for Hardy Howl Films.
Another reason I love this video so much (apart from knowing a lot of people in it) is that it does something that music videos rarely do nowadays: it tells a story. Not only that, the story and the images perfectly fit the lyrics and the mood of the song. And the story beats change with the changes in the music. It’s not easy to do that.
Funny, touching, groovy, ironic, epic and full of nostalgia. And you’ll never look at cats or space-time portals the same way again.
Hey youse guys. Lots of stuff going on in my world but I must wait to announce some things. Rest assured that this blog is going to get a lot more interesting soon.
Until then, I can tell you that part of my job is to take MEETINGS. Lots and lots of meetings! Meetings where people tell me that they are “interested” in working with me. Meetings where studio execs just want to “reach out” and “catch up” and “connect” with what I’m up to. I take at least 50 meetings a year, I’d say. Sadly, very few of these meetings are the kind where someone says “We’ll buy it!” or “You’re hired!” and immediately write a check.
What everyone in Hollywood wants is your “next big thing.” They want “the best thing you have.” Or at least that’s what they say. But that’s not true. In my experience — and I’m trying not to be cynical here — what Hollywood really wants is the safest, easiest, cheapest pile of ingredients that will yield the most money. If those ingredients include me or my idea, it’s a win-win. I wish I could tell my younger self from ten years ago that nobody is waiting for my brand new, never heard-of original idea. Not all by itself. They need some “KNOWNS” to prop it up. If that means a big actor who’s interested or a comic book that’s selling or a toy line that the studio already owns, then my idea on top of that might just get the exec to nod their head “yes.”
This is all on my mind because in meeting #456 a few weeks ago, I meant with a very active animation company backed by very successful producers. They liked “Hoodwinked” and “Krogzilla” and some other scripts I’ve written and wanted to know “what I was up to next.” They are looking for movies to make. They pay for scripts. Great! I pitched a few of my ideas to them — two that I am most passionate about. Two ideas that I think would make more than just great movies — they could launch franchises. But here’s where that pesky problem of “not enough easy ingredients” comes in. They were original ideas, not based on pre-existing product. Even worse, they were about worlds that had already been explored in animation recently (i.e., no one wants to hear your caveman movie right now. No one.). I ended the meeting with my favorite topic: I asked the producers what THEY are looking for. What haven’t they seen? What genre are they hoping to work in? Maybe I can actually hit a target they have or fill a need if I KNOW WHAT IT IS. That’s when creative people are most successful in this town.
The producer running this particular company simply said, “Bring us your best. We want the best thing you’re most excited about.”
Lots of execs say this. “Bring us your best.” I’d like to tell you all that this is B—S—.
“My best?” First of all, I just pitched the guy “my best,” or at least my definition of my best. It was the thing I was most excited about. But that didn’t matter. There were not enough known, safe, easy ingredients involved. Secondly, a producer’s definition of “my best” is really what THEY like, not what I like. So in my egotistical creative mind, I have now decided that ANYTHING I do will be “my best.” Why not? Anything that I am allowed to create and get paid for is going to be the BEST version of it I can make. I will never give anything less than all of my effort to make THAT particular thing if it has the good fortune to get made. So that’s the good news. It’s ALL “my best.” Because if I worry about my precious, beloved idea getting the thumbs-up from a studio exec, I’m rarely going to get it, and I will feel defeated most of the time.
It’s all good. It’s all my best. You’ve optioned a toy that has no story? I’ll give you my best version of that story. You bought a script that has a terrible third act? I’ll make it into my best version of that script. You’ve always been obsessed with some public domain legend? I’ll give you my best take on that legend. For too long, I’ve made the mistake of hoping Hollywood would just see how wonderful my new ideas were. For most of this town, NEW IDEAS ARE SCARY. These days, my goal is to take their half-ideas and vague interests and upgrade them into something better. I’m handing them back their own thing that they were already interested in. That’s not being cynical or selling out, it’s just figuring out how to make this big dumb machine work for me.
And in time, with enough successes, perhaps the big dumb machine will even see ME as a golden ingredient… and actually listen to one of those fresh, untested ideas. So when someone tells you to “bring your best,” just nod your head and say “okay”… but inside your head, know that anything and everything you do is going to be your best. Even if it has to start as a board game or an 80’s TV show.
Last minute, but I wanted to let you know that if you are in the Los Angeles area, I’m teaching a class for NEXT FILM on directing this Saturday (3/2/13 – tomorrow morning!). It’ll be at the CBS Radford lot from 9 am – Noon. I’ll get into a lot of the details of how I work and what has worked for many successful directors in the past.
Every once in a while, you don’t have to work for press… you just wake up one morning and get a very nice surprise. ShutUp! Cartoons has become YouTube’s most profitable new channel and so VARIETY is highlighting. The pic they chose to run was one from my show. Superfantastic! Let’s hope this is one more reason for ShutUp! Cartoons to do some more with this big lug.
(You may also read under the pic that I am helping to “Serve up laughs, mostly for young men.” Creepy? Yes.)