Sunday, April 2, 2017

Is it done? (Posted Fall of 2015)

Is It Done?

It is done!

What was conceived in July 2013 as a promotional trailer for a feature length comedy became a finished short film by summer's end 2015. 

But this adventure really began in the Spring of 2011. This blog will document what happened when someone without a clue decided to write a screenplay and transform it into a movie.

It was interesting, fun and highly educational. Especially that last thing: educational. 

No better way to learn than by doing!

The wrap party took place at the end of July 2015 and the final version (hopefully) of the master was finished in early September. We now are submitting to film festivals.

If you wish to view the press kit, still pictures and a brief trailer for this film, "Don Circles the Drain" (originally titled "The Weather Report"), please check out my co-producer and director's blog at:

Below is a posting of Film Festival results followed by an ongoing series of blog entries describing what it is like to make an independent film.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Our Film Won as Best Comedy!

Don Circles the Drain

Best Comedy at 2016 Wildwood Film Festival

The film being described in this blog won the award of Best Comedy at the 2016 Wildwood Film Festival, Appleton, Wisconsin. We were competing against five other very funny comedies which makes the win all the sweeter.

Those other comedies, all worth seeing if you get the chance, are: 

Just God
Hi, Neighbor
The Life and Times of Thomas Thumb, Jr.
Split Ends

I believe our film "Don Circles the Drain" beat out the competition mostly due to the amazing craftsmanship of our editor and director, Robert Lughai. Besides being funny (always a good idea when entering a film in the comedy category) the editing was sharp and tight and there were awesome special effects.

Thank you Robert!

Later at the 2016 Driftless Film Festival, "Don Circles the Drain" was unofficially dubbed a one-beer film meaning the judges needed only one beer to get through the film (other film submissions required many, many beers followed by hangovers). Two of the judges raved it was their favorite movie. In December 2016, "Don Circles the Drain" was singled out for a special preview showing by the Critical Edge Film Festival.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

#1 Somebody Oughta Make a Movie About This Place

#1 - In the Beginning

“Somebody oughta make a movie about this place!”

How many times have you heard that when things get crazy? Especially at work.

I heard it all the time from staff, producers and volunteers at our community television station until it reached a crescendo in the spring of 2011. That’s the year we lost all funding and laid off all staff. Several board members and volunteers walked, never looked back, never returned.

“I’ve been here before,” one retreating board member loudly called over his shoulder. “You can’t run a television station with all volunteers. We tried it. I’ll never do that again!”

About a half dozen volunteers decided we could do it. We were naive. We were idealistic. Mostly we were angry. More than angry. We were pissed!

Giant corporations were furiously competing for the nation’s telecommunications infrastructure, rewriting state laws to improve their bottom lines and market shares, enacting those laws with the help of bought-and-paid-for politicians. Public Access, Educational and Governmental (PEG) channels were collateral damage. They lost funding and other long-standing protections. In our state and others, many went dark. Never to return.

We vowed to keep the lights on, but it was hard. Very hard. We had money problems, transmission problems, fund raising problems, aging equipment failures all over the place.

I gave up producing my two monthly television programs to run the business side of things. In all this chaos, I kept hearing:

“Somebody oughta make a movie about this place!”

Finally, after five months on this sinking ship with volunteers furiously bailing, I thought:

“Why not? I could write a movie about this place!”

For the first time in decades, I began writing. I had writing in my past: as a reporter for a state-wide newspaper chain, as a technical writer for a Fortune-100 company, some amateur attempts at plays and short stories.   

I learned a lot at the newspaper job. For example, I learned I should have taken typing in high school. These were the days of typewriters. Do-overs required retyping the entire story on tight deadlines. 

I learned a lot as a technical writer. I learned one could make a lot of money writing  obscure technical manuals for engineers and fellow technical writers. 

There were a few glorious, very low-income years of writing short stories and collecting rejection slips. I joined a touring children’s theater company and co-authored a few children’s plays. We performed our original “The Hungry Cyclops,” a musical, some fifty times.

Etc., etc., etc. 

Writing a screenplay? Child’s play. After all, I was a lifelong movie buff. How hard could this be?

Having prepared myself mentally by reviewing these awesome credentials I began. I downloaded some free screenplay software, did minimal research about how to format a screenplay and was off and writing. In three months I cranked out 250+ pages of black comedy. 

I passed it to a local, independent film maker who, after reading it, offered this comment:

“Jesus Christ! When I agreed to read your script I didn’t know you were going to hand me War and Peace!”

Apparently my script was longish. Screenplays, especially comedies, are supposed to run about ninety pages. Oops!

I had managed to vent all of my frustrations about our television station, saving the expense of a therapist. And I was bitten by the bug. I really enjoyed the writing and I really liked my screenplay. I  wanted to see it made into a movie.

What comes next falls into the category of “a learning experience.”

If you want to write screenplays, you may find this of some interest.

The community television station? Still going. The complaints average a few per week, down from an initial 20 per day. Our signal only needs re-booting a few times per month instead of  daily. Financially we are sustainable although our footprint has shrunk. 

We volunteers still are believers. We keep the lights on.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

#2: Editing The First Draft

#2 Editing The First Draft

My first screenplay, “The Weather Report,” took three months to write and was 250+ pages. I knew it was too long even before I was told it was too long. I had so much material I couldn’t help myself. I let it all spill out. I would edit it down later. Easier to subtract than to add. Right? 

Actually, wrong!

When I worked in “Pubs” (an IBM technical writing department) we loved getting corporate memos. Those were the days before email and the internet. Hell, we were barely beyond punch cards. That’s how long ago this was. Important memos were printed on paper (gasp) and then passed around the department with a routing slip stapled to the front. You got the memo, read it, placed a check mark next to your name and passed it to the next person on the routing slip.

Pubs was where corporate memos went to be tortured. We didn’t just read them. We edited  them. With ferocity and sarcasm. Each of us took his or her turn, trying to outdo the previous reader’s efforts. When a memo cleared this gauntlet, if it survived at all, it was corrected, condensed, stripped of verbiage and obfuscations and errors. Corrections of grammatical errors were especially fun as they were accompanied by sarcastic explanatory scribblings.

Memos that began as hundreds of words long and spanning multiple pages were reduced to a handful of simple sentences, sometimes to a single phrase, without loss of meaning. Such fun!  

We were an arrogant bunch. We had our “Plato” who wrote deep philosophical phrases on bathroom walls and our published author who published mostly soft porn, populating his stories with thinly disguised co-workers. Talk about guaranteeing at least a few dozen book sales! 

One of our technical writers dressed like a old-west sheriff and rode a horse to work. Rumor was that he slept with his horse,  ignoring his wife. Another writer wore army fatigues and marched the halls singing anti-war songs. Our company did not let us out to interact with the public.

Thus (non sequitur) I believed I knew how to edit. But my screenplay was not 250 pages long due to rambling. It just had lots of really good scenes and characters. Editing it down to ninety some pages meant throwing out lots of “good” stuff. “Killing your babies” as it is sometimes described.

In addition to the problem of length, my first draft was horribly, stylistically wrong! I had no experience writing a screenplay but I assumed it would be similar to writing a stage play. I had  some acting experience. Nothing important, but some. I felt that I knew my way around dialogue and blocking.

The first two readers of my screenplay (one friend, one family) generally liked it and found a few typos and spelling/grammar errors, but that was about it. Nothing to help in cutting a whale down to the size of a tuna. The friend reviewer urged me to join a local screenwriter’s forum. For only $50 (one year’s membership) I could meet with fellow screenwriters once a month and have access to some cool stuff such as the IMDbPro and TrackingB web sites and Variety and Academy Award nominated screenplays.

Best money ever spent! Each meeting featured a discussion about some aspect of writing or editing a screenplay: basic formatting, screenwriting software, scene descriptions, character development, plotting, heroes, villains and character arcs. There were many discussions about what NOT to put into a screenplay, such as all those editing and camera directions I had included in my first draft. After each monthly meeting I raced back to my screenplay and applied what I had just learned.

We studied screenplays that actually had been made into movies and screenplays written by members of our forum. We did screenplay readings and critiques. 

Forum members recommended books on screenwriting. Many, many books written by Hollywood insiders, often successful (or semi-successful) screenwriters. I checked them out from the library, put them on my gift wish lists and bought the ones I was unable to acquire otherwise. I read them. All of them!

After about six months of editing and rewriting, My screenplay for “The Weather Report” had been trimmed to ninety-five pages. I had thrown out all those directions to actors, directors and editors and other such things that are NOT supposed to be in a screenplay. I killed off characters and scenes. 

I removed the musical fantasy number. That one still hurts. When I am feeling sad I play it in my imagination and I laugh. People glance at me with concern.    

So now what? How in the world was I going to get this incredibly funny, original screenplay made into a movie? I couldn’t just keep reading and reading it over and over, tweaking it a bit each time and sighing and imagining that it would someday would be a real movie.

Our screenwriter’s forum announced a series of monthly meetings about marketing one’s screenplay. Joy.

Next: The horrible truth of selling a on-spec screenplay.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

#3 The Horrible Truth About Selling A Spec Script

“You have a better chance of winning a million dollars in the California lottery than you do of selling a spec script to a Hollywood studio.”

I began hearing this as soon as I joined the screenwriter’s forum. Successful authors, former Hollywood insiders and books on screenwriting all seemed to agree: it was nearly impossible to sell a spec script.

But what did that mean? Really?

Wikipedia, source of all knowledge (these days) defines a spec script this way: 

A spec script, also known as a speculative screenplay, is a non-commissioned unsolicited screenplay… usually written by a screenwriter who hopes to have the script optioned and eventually purchased by a producer, production company, or studio.

Is that what all these people and books were talking about? Yes. Yes, it was.

Even worse, those few successfully optioned spec scripts, which actually become successful movies, don’t make you truly rich. And isn’t that what we authors dream about? To write a script that is made into a wildly successful movie from which we earn millions and retire for life?

Well, that may be the screenwriter’s fantasy but it sure isn’t reality. Even the most successful spec scripts rarely earn the original author more than $500,000. This may seem like a lot but once you factor out costs of promoting and marketing your script, agent and manager and lawyer fees and taxes on such a windfall, while it’s still a nice chunk of change it’s not the imagined fortune.

The number of California lottery players who won $500,000 or more in 2014 was about 70 and half of those won more than a million. Often much more than  a million. One lucky player won more than $425 million. Your not going to reach that pay scale for a original screen play.

And how many spec scripts were picked up by Hollywood in 2014? A hard number to nail down. Lots of scripts get “optioned” which doesn’t mean they are made into a movie. It’s just a fee paid to own the script for a short period of time, such as one year,  while the studio works on getting it produced or - more likely - thinks about it. Most optioned scripts never get made so all the writer receives is the option fee which may be as little as a few thousand dollars.

One estimate of the number of high earning spec scripts sold in a single year was 3. Lately, trade publications report a surge with the numbers running to over 100 in a single year, but these probably include simple “optioning.”

Here’s another way of thinking about it. The odds of selling a spec script are believed to be 1 in 5,000. The odds of winning the California lottery are 1 in 13 million. So selling a spec screenplay actually does have better odds than winning the California lottery, but is it worth the price? Consider, it takes 30 seconds to buy a lottery ticket and could take a year or more to produce a screenplay.  

Even if you decide to “go for it,” you will need to invest a huge amount of time and effort into the process: researching studios, production companies, agents and actors; scouring the trade magazines to spot trends; creating your “pitch” and shopping it around, etc. These are all going to take time and effort away from writing.

Suppose you hit the mother load, such as being invited to pitch your script to a studio executive or a producer. Even if they like what you are trying to sell, you know what they most likely will want? To see other things you have written or for you to rewrite the screenplay in a different way or to just go away and never return.

Even then, if they pick up your script, where’s the “beef?” How do you profit financially from having run this gauntlet? By being offered a job rewriting the spec script into a shooting script, or by being offered a low-level gig as a scriptwriter for the studio. 

Fact is, Hollywood doesn’t care about spec scripts, what they really are looking for is writers. And should your spec script be good enough that you are hired as a staff writer, you are not going to be a millionaire and you are not going to be allowed to write what you want to write. You will write what they tell you to write. And the job security sucks.

The more I learned about all this, the more depressing it seemed. Hey, I’m old. I don’t want a job as a low-level grunt playing script doctor to an arrogant studio boss for crap wages. I’ve just got this nice comedy I wrote and would like to see it as a movie. After all, I lived this story and I want to share.

What do I do now?

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

#4 Contests & Such

Despite the discouragement described in Blog entry # 3, I began to pursue some of the recommended activities for selling a spec script.

The most important thing I did was to write more screenplays. I knew that should I actually get lucky enough to convince someone important to look at my writing, I’d better have more than one piece of writing to look at. Besides, I had found writing to be not only psychologically therapeutic but more importantly it was great fun. I loved writing.

Thus my second attempt was another dark comedy about a neighbor of mine, now long deceased, who had been the source of endless gossip. She was supremely annoying and outrageous. Her husband’s death and funeral were beyond belief. Unfortunately, my endless stories about her were not so endless, especially when crammed into a coherent whole. The script came up a bit short: 65 pages. 

Then a friend said something that intrigued me. He pointed out there was no science fiction movie or novel that made a believable argument for why any civilization would mount an interstellar expedition. Faster-than-light travel is a critical component of space operas but in the real universe it is impossible. Thus any such expedition would be highly improbable due to the required investments of time, money, resources, etc. Also, payback for such a Quixotic quest would take hundreds if not thousands of years.

So I wrote a screenplay that overcame all the arguments against mounting an interstellar expedition at sub-light speeds. Written from the point of view (POV) of the Earthlings being invaded by aliens. While I was at it, I populated it with five strong female leads: a theoretical physicist, a police woman, a writer (got to have a writer), a bar tender and an alien who appears as a human woman.  

Then, just for the heck of it, I wrote a second screenplay telling the same story from the point of view (POV) of the aliens. While the first screenplay had been pretty much straight up science fiction with some adventure and a love affair thrown in, the second was a science fiction comedy. It was meant to be more of a writing exercise than anything, but it turned out well and taught me a lot.

Now armed with multiple screenplays, I began researching the usual channels for getting a script made into a movie: entering contests, finding a movie star willing to sponsor it, pitching to a producer or agent, rewriting my stories as plays or novels, self-publishing and self-funding (the uncertain world of independent film making.)

Contests: There are many, many contests for original screenplays. However, they have their downsides. 

First, almost all contests charge a fee for submitting your screenplay for their consideration. I had difficulty overcoming my sense that they should be paying me for the privilege of reading my script.

Second, the prizes pretty much suck. The best may award a few thousand dollars to the winners and some of the prestigious ones advertise that the winners will get to pitch their screenplay to a major Hollywood producer (or, in many cases, a relatively unknown but overhyped movie producer from who knows where). 

Third, while many contests promise feedback from the judges, such feedback tends to be cursory. My brilliant SF script about an alien invasion got a one-line feedback comment “The character Amadeus was interesting.” That was it!

Fourth, in the contests with attractive prizes, you will be competing with hundreds if not thousands of entrants.

Finally, once they have your contact info, they generate an incredible amount of email to your account (can you say “spam?”) Why? Most contests are a thinly disguised strategy for raising money for the sponsoring organization which may run multiple contests per year, offer workshops and other events.

Find a movie star to sponsor your screenplay: This is mostly an exercise in prurient wish fulfillment. Who wouldn’t want Scarlett Johansson or Jodie Foster as the lead in their SF movie? Actually, given some of the SF movies Scarlett Johansson has done recently (“Under the Skin” comes to mind), starring in my movie would be a big step up for her.

Here’s the thinking on this as I understand it from all those books on screenplays and conventional wisdom(?). Movie stars (and directors) are now businesses onto themselves, more than just actors or personas. Aspiring writers scour their home pages where are listed not only PR stuff but also the structure of their businesses. They have managers, agents and even, sometimes, people to whom one can send scripts for consideration. 

The fantasy is that movie stars now wield so much power and money and influence that they can be an effective advocate for your screenplay. (Really? Advocate for someone they never heard of?) That is, if they like your screenplay and want to appear in a movie made from it. Dream on. 

There is one advantage to imagining a particular star being in your movie: it helps you focus on the character’s looks, traits, etc. It’s fun and sometimes helpful to do that, but I am more and more discovering that my characters like to define themselves. Once you get them going, they often will take over for you and write themselves.

About now you may think I am crazy or at a minimum delusional. Yes, yes I am. Aren’t all writers?

Next week: Pitching a script to a Producer

Saturday, October 1, 2016

#5 Pitching a Script

#5 Pitching a Script

Our local screenwriters group brought a producer to town for a select few of us (first come, first served) to practice pitching our scripts.

We had read about and discussed pitching a script to a Hollywood producer. It seemed like an exercise in masochism. Reports of producers rudely doing other work, taking phone calls, interrupting with irrelevant comments or hogging the allotted appointment time with their own ideas were all too common. 

One should not expect the producer’s attention or even interest.

A successful pitch is supposed to end with the producer asking you to rewrite your screenplay or asking you what else you have written.

Nowhere was it mentioned that a pitch might end with the producer saying something like “Great! I’ll buy it!”

What I really found depressing was that some writers with connections or a referral…

(I have a friend of a friend who knows a producer who is looking for a script that sounds vaguely like your idea!)

…don’t even have a script going in. They just pitch an idea. I’ll give them credit for audacity and apparently they have about the same chance of being successful as someone with a completed screenplay. Of course, to get away with this kind of pitch, one does need some evidence of being able to actually write.

So, we got to pitch to an actual producer. I looked this producer up on the IMDbPro web site, source of all knowledge (supposedly) for aspiring actors, writers, etc. The producer had a pretty thin resume but had produced or co-produce a movie or two although they were movies unknown to me. Not that that means anything. The producer’s web site also mentioned a little directing, a little acting and a lot of classes, workshops and lectures on screen writing, producing and such.

As a former teacher, an old saw about those who teach came to mind.

The “day of the pitch” (possible movie title?) arrived. The ten or so of us chosen ones gathered in an hotel lobby at the appointed time and waited. And waited. And waited. The producer was late. We talked nervously about our scripts and what kind of abuse we might be in for. There was some posturing, not unlike what actors do during a cattle call (audition).

Finally the producer arrived all in a tizzy. Held up by plane connections, bad taxi service, etc., etc. Mostly the producer was starving. Hadn’t eaten all day. Busy schedule. Rush, rush, rush! Food was ordered. The place for the pitches was deemed inadequate and another room was found. 

Finally, the first victim was invited to face the producer. The door closed. The rest of us waited nervously.

“Sometimes they’ll just cut you off after thirty seconds and throw you out,” one of us said.

More nervous silence.

After six minutes, someone said: “Aren’t people only supposed to get five minutes each?”

More silence.

After fifteen minutes, the first writer emerged with a big smile on her face.

“The producer loved my script!” she told us. “We talked and talked all about it.”

I was number 9 in the queue. If each pitch took fifteen minutes it would be almost two hours before it was my turn. We already had waited an hour and a half.

The second person was out in about ten minutes.

“I was interrupted every few sentences but got lots of ideas for rewriting my script. Instead of a horror story it needs to be a romance,” he said proudly.

The third victim went in. We remaining victims talked about the problems of publishing short stories and novels. Several of us had done self publishing on the internet. Results and tactics were compared. It didn’t sound very profitable to me.

The third person came out looking dejected.

“I only got two sentences into my pitch and then the producer interrupted me and told me all the rest of my plot in great detail. I guess it’s been heard before.”

The event organizer consulted with the producer and then told us we were taking up too much time. The producer was tired and wanted to go to bed. We were asked if any of us was willing to drop out. No one volunteered.

“We’ll shorten the pitches to three minutes, but if the producer wants to quit early, I guess we will just have to live with it,” said the event organizer.

Really? Three plus hours of waiting for nothing? 

Eventually it was my turn. By now the producer was exhausted and thoroughly pissed. This was not what the producer had expected. 


I sat across a table from the producer who was noisily slurping up some soup.

“I actually wrote a pair of screenplays,” I began.

“No! Only one screenplay! You don’t get to do two!”

“I am only pitching one screenplay,” I replied, “but while it is a science fiction romance…”

“I hate science fiction!” said the producer.

“Well, that’s what I came to pitch, so…”

I laid out my romantic SF plot as succinctly as I could. I had practiced this pitch on others for a year so it was a pretty good pitch. The producer worked at the bowl of soup while glaring at me over the soup spoon. Not one interruption after the comment: “I hate science fiction.” I wondered what that meant.

I actually wrapped up within my allotted three  minutes. The producer put down the soup spoon and leaned back.

“I’ve never heard that plot before,” the producer admitted. “It’s pretty good but you’ll never sell it. No one buys original science fiction screenplays on spec. You need to turn it into a novel. Get it published. Get a fan following. Then you can sell it as a screenplay.”

Great! Two plus years figuring out how to write screenplays when I should have been writing novels? I had been considering rewriting the comedy about community television as a play. Why not try writing the science fiction screenplay as a novel? Obviously, my screenplays weren’t going anywhere in their current form unless I won the lottery. 

Hmmm, the lottery! No! Bad idea. Stay focused!

(To see what happens next, click on "older posts" below right. I know, this makes no sense as it takes you to subsequent posts in this series)