Saturday, December 18, 2010

Friday, December 17, 2010

Will Oscars and A-list Stars carry a film

Will Oscars and A-list Stars carry a film ?
Consider 'The Hurt Locker" last years  Oscar winner for best picture. 
Blowing past the Avatar juggernaut six wins to three.
According to BoxofficeMojo,  world wide gross on Hurt locker is $48.6M,
Roughly half of the theatrical gross is what the distributor can expect receive (excluding taxes, currency exchange, possible profit participation, etc.), ballpark figure the distributor receives about $24M.
Marketing costs;
 Widest release was 535 screens. With A very conservative $10M marketing budget, including approx. $750k in prints (535 * $1400), with distribution fees of maybe $8M (approx. 35% of $24M), sales agency fees of about $3.6M ( 15% of $24M) you’re left with about $2.4M (which I think is still generous).
The budget was $15M, but with the financing required it was probably closer to $20M and interest continues to accrue.
Given this positive scenario (which again is more than unlikely), the production is still in the red for $17.6M.
Calculate distribution fees and expenses, sales agency commission and guild residuals for the DVD sales and the production is still very much in the red.
If you are counting on A-list Stars to carry your film across the the finish line. You may also be out of luck there.
Case in point;
 Consider the film " What Just Happened"  starring  Robert De Niro. ( a film I really like) 
with a budget of  $27,000,000 
  Yet it only returned a world wide gross of $2,412,123  A  loss of almost $25 M.
 Consider the film "The Open Road;"
 A  2009 release.  Starring  Jeff Bridges,  Justin Timberlake,  Mary Steenburgen, along with a great supporting cast.
This film returned a whopping $19,760 in total  domestic gross receipts.
So  if you can't rely on wining Oscars or A-list stars to carry a film. What can you rely on?
Is it Story?  The Hurt Locker won best picture. One would think that would bode well for story.
The other independent film (I use the term independent loosely) that did well at the Oscars "Crazy Hart"
(Jeff Bridges, best actor and best song) Crazy Harts production budget  was 7M with a worldwide gross of 47M.  I have a feeling this film is in the same boat.
I am very curious to see how the Coen brother remake of "True Grit" will fair when it opens next week.
It has a budget estimated between $45 to $70 M with about $ 55 to $60 M  seeming  correct.
Traditionally  Westerns do not do well internationally.  If this is the case here, Paramount will need to Recoup  the lions share of profits from domestic sales.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Dramatic Television Series Cost of Production

The answer varies. It can run from the low hundreds of thousands (minimum of about $500,000 to produce a Pilot for a drama series) to the $13 Million PER EPISODE NBC paid Warner Bros. to produce  the hit show ER (network average is $1.5 to $2 Million per episode for a television series). This fee covers everything associated with producing one episode from salaries to paper clips (there are on average 22 - 26 episode on "free" broadcast television such as NBC, ABC, CBS, etc. and 13 episode on cable broadcast stations such as HBO, TNT, FX, etc.). 

The cost of producing television shows (on free broadcast stations) is subsidized through the sale of advertising to sponsors. Corporations pay substantial fees to air their commercials during a specific show. Higher rated shows bring with them a higher cost to advertise on their time slot. But on the flip side, this fee exposes a company's product or message to a large potential customer base. This is what advertisers pay for. 

But what about HBO - it does not have any advertising during its shows. A cable network like HBO makes its money in large part through its share of cable and satellite subscriptions as well a product placement fees (a good deal for advertisers who would otherwise expect to pay upwards of $287,000 for a 30-second commercial to obtain the kind of exposure afforded through product placement on a cable show like "The Sopranos"). For a more in-depth discussion check out my post on "Cable Channel Strategy's"

A cable network's audience base is smaller and it normally costs less to produce a show aired on HBO. But proportionally the difference in expenditure is minimal when considering the rate of advertising versus that of subscriptions and the fact that cable "seasons" are about half that of free broadcast television seasons.
"The Wire," for example, is one of HBO's most critically acclaimed and successful shows. It costs approximately $1.5 Million to produce a single episode of that show. Another HBO show - "Deadwood" - costs about $5 Million per episode of that show to produce. And the price is steeper for an astronomically successful show like "The Sopranos." Given such considerations, you begin to understand what a challenge it is for a new show to attract the necessary resources to produce and air. 

Forgoing big name stars and employing relatively unknown actors is a consideration that may help keep overall costs down but the minimum costs for services they render are still set by the collective bargaining process of trade unions such as the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America. Let's take a closer look...

How much do actors get paid? Again, this varies. While James Gandolfini can command a salary of more than $800,000 for one episode of "The Sopranos" and the cast of "Friends" can each demand a cool $1 Million for a single episode, 
Variety  Reported that Charlie Sheen will receive 1.9 Million per episode for acting and executive producing on "Two and a Half Men" most actors do not command such exorbitant fees.
According to one established talent manager with Executive Producer credits, an unknown actor can expect - with the help of an agent or manager worth their commission - a fee of about $50,000 (minimum) to film a Pilot episode for a one-hour drama - and that is if they are considered a "star" on the show. After the Pilot, the salary for that same actor on that same show can drop to about $17,500 (or more) per episode. That is still a lot of money considering that a series can enter into a deal to produce 13 episodes on cable networks (e.g. $17,500 x 13) and 22-26 on free broadcast networks ($17,500 x 22 - 26). And these are rock bottom prices for unknown talent. If a show becomes successful, that same actor will have the power to request higher fees for services rendered. Note: all figures are hypothetical, can vary and do not extend to all categories of actors.

And if you wonder why a salary is higher for a Pilot (foundation episode for the series) it is because an actor must be retained for an extended period of time to ensure availability once the Pilot is picked up and produced into a series. In other words, you pay an actor more so that he doesn't take on any more work for a set period of time. 

Generally speaking, on a cost-conscious television series, salaries (for actors) can range from a minimum of (please consult the screen actors guild ba
sic agreement for latest information): 
$130 per day for "background actors"
$759 per day for "day performers" (single line of dialogue or speech - single day of work)
$1,920 for three day performers
$3,158 - $4,188 for weekly performers

$2,828 per week for stunt coordinator (flat rate)
The main players or "stars" of the show may be paid at higher rates than those quoted here.

This is a far cry from the $50 per day many independent productions offer as compensation (if you get a paid at all). These features operate outside the scope of the collective bargaining process and thus are not bound by the SAG and WGA minimum standard agreements. But such productions are valuable to the actor in that they offer practical experience and credits on a resume. 

Keep in mind that these are simply guidelines. You can earn much more but you cannot earn any less. These are for television programs - not commercials. Also consider that these salary figures are specific for acting. There are different scales for writers and other personnel.

In addition to salary expenses, Producers of a television show must consider everything from catering, per
diems, transportation, lodging and even the cost of flight insurance. There are a lot of different categories of expenditures associated with the production of a television series - not all have been mentioned here.

For more information on compensation and the minimum standard agreements, please visit the Screen Actors Guild ( and 

Writers Guild of America (West) for those west of the Mississippi River ( or

Writers Guild of America East if you live east of the Mississippi River ( 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

double click images for full size

Shot on R1-MX with Carl Zeiss Olympia Jena 180mm f/2.8 @ f/16, ISO 800, Shutter 1/50, 25 fps.

Shot on R1-MX with Carl Zeiss Olympia Jena 180mm f/2.8 @ f/16, ISO 800, Shutter 1/50, 25 fps.

Red Mysterium v Mysterium X Shoot-out

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Paul Schrader on Screenwriting

Paul Schrader crystallized the screenwriting development process like no one before or since in a great interview from the ‘70s when Taxi Driver debuted. Below are excerpted comments from that interview.

…when you’re writing films, you’re dealing with a kind of nascent, primitive force that’s alive and often unformed; you can’t be analytical about it, you have to let it develop.
One of the mistakes most young screenwriters make is, they go to the movies and say “I can write as well as that,” and go home and do write that well. Of course they can, because most movies are so shabbily written that anybody can write them as well. What they don’t understand is that nobody in the studio system would hire a fledgling Stirling Silliphant when he can get the pro—and he knows that Silliphant will do the job and come in with the product. He’ll gladly pay extra for that security.
You never try to beat the old pros at their game; they know it backward and forward. What you have to do is say, “What do I have that is so unique to me that if I write it, no one will be able to copy it, and if they want to buy it, they’ll have to come to me?” And  in order to do that, you must come to terms with yourself in a very brutal way. If you want to see a woman cut off a man’s hand and eat it, then you have to say, “Gee, I like seeing that in a movie, it was interesting.” You have to accept that fact and deal with it in your own work. But it has to be a personal reaction.
He described a friend who wrote a 300 page script on Charles Guiteau, the man who killed President James A. Garfield, a long and boring script about an obscure historical figure; when Schrader described the story back to him, the friend admitted that it would not be a movie he’d want to see.

That is a problem about writers: they write movies for the wrong reasons. They write them for their professors, their parents, the critics, studio executives, or to sell; and those are all the wrong reasons to write movies. Granted, some people do succeed writing movies for those purposes. The other reasons they write movies are to get laid and to get famous.
My advice is to reach deep into yourself, pull out something unique and meaningful to you, then try to take that raw piece of meat and see it in the context of commercial film: how can I transform this raw meat into something a million people want to see? As a painter, you deal with a very small number of people, a dozen or so buyers of your work. As a novelist, you could break even if ten thousand people will pay for your work. In movies, you’re dealing with a minimum base of a million people. It entirely changes your conception of how and what you’re doing. You have to find something that at once means something to you and yet has a broad base.
As you get an idea, start telling it to people. Maybe it starts at five minutes, and grows each time it’s told. As you tell it, you see feedback from the person you’re telling it to. The important thing is not to listen to anything they say; because they’ll always tell you it’s good or has possibilities; and if you’re insecure, you’ll believe what they say and it’ll fuck up your work. Watch their eyes and body movements; if you don’t have their attention, you’re losing the story—do anything to get their attention back. [Raymond]Chandler once said that if you’re losing their interest in a story, have a guy walk in with a gun. Nobody will ask how he got there, they’ll just be grateful he did, explain it later. As your narrative grows longer through retellings, you learn what it takes to hold an audience. When it hits an hour, I know it’ll work as a script.
This is a method I find doesn’t work for me. It may be different once you’ve become Paul Schrader, but mere mortals may fare worse. I find that the story in its nascent form is too fragile, my energy for it, too vulnerable, to put it out for reaction before it has reached some sort of proto-feature-length. This is because while I see the end result as it might become, the listener knows only what has been described, a far cry from that produced film. But, once the story can standup to being told, it might be able to stay up. 

Screenwriting is not akin to fiction writing at all. It’s like campfire storytelling, and that’s how you should think of it. Words are not your primary tools. Dialogue is essentially a function of hearing. Most dialogue is just picking up the argot of the situation. I don’t think a movie should have too many good lines—at most five great lines and ten good ones—and the rest should be absolutely ordinary and banal. Too many great lines make it top-heavy and unrealistic. This doesn’t apply to comedy, of course. I think one of the problems with Terry Malick’s writing is that it has too many good lines; you begin to listen to all the good lines—Tom McGuane has the same problem—and it breaks the dramatic narrative thread of the movie. You must learn to use good lines as spice.
I find this applies to Aaron Sorkin’s writing, particularly in television series work such as The West Wing and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.
If your structure is proper, if you get two characters together at the right place and time, it doesn’t really matter what they say. Preferably, you should get them there about a minute before the audience expects them to be there, so you’ve got the element of surprise. If you have a man and a woman, once married, and then having undergone separate episodes, and they are to meet again, which the audience expects them to do in front of a fountain, but you have them meet in a supermarket, you’ve absolutely got the audience. They go back to her place, it doesn’t matter what they say at this point, because you’ve got them. He can say, “I never realized your coffee was so good,” or “Your coffee doesn’t seem as good as it used to be,” or “I think your coffee is getting better,” or “Did you change coffees?” Every single one of those lines has (sub-textual) meaning because the context is so strong that, no matter what they say, it has reverberations; you’ve put the audience exactly where you want them. That kind of structure (setting up a scene laden with sub-textual meaning) is much more important than dialogue (in which the entire meaning is spoken or explicitly stated in dialogue). In fact, you can kill that scene by having them say something right on the nose—uttering a (so-called) great line at that point.
Once the subtext becomes the text, once the intent of the character(s) is stated directly, the tension implied in the scene (and the meaning inferred by the audience) is dissipated, lost. The scene, now “on-the-nose,” is effectively “killed.”

And then there’s the problem of too many good scenes:

I just had a meeting with Warren Beatty and [John]Milius in which Warren told John something I’ve been telling him too: “You [peak] too soon and you [peak]too often.” I think that’s one of his problems: he’s so full of juice he just can’t stop [peak]ing, rather than holding back and tightening the situation and building characters. That releasing diffuses the energy, the characters are too broad because they never have time to build up the inner strength.
All peaks and no valleys leave one flat. This is perhaps the source of the difficulty I have always had with Milius’s scripts for The Wind and the Lion and even The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean

Schrader goes on to offer his take (at the time) on films’ stories vs. their visuals:
I don’t want to make films whose sole function is to be looked at compositionally. I see directing as an extension of storytelling, which itself is an extension of thematic explorations. So the work I would do would be strictly at that level: as a thinker and as a dramatist. That’s how I see movies. Whatever work I directed I would not be directing as a painter. Maybe after a number of years, I would graduate to that.
I see the image in…pragmatic terms, as a way to get information across. The visual language is different from the verbal language; I see it very functionally. If a shot does not convey certain information, no matter how beautiful, it doesn’t belong in the movie. The primary reason for a movie is to tell a story…
There are those who don’t agree, who see film as first a visual medium, second a storytelling medium. Some directors conceive of movies first as shots, and that’s why you need scripts—you need a very clear demarcation between the writer and the director. You have situations where the writer has conceived a movie in terms of scenes and characters, and the director has done so in terms of visual rhythms—and then they meet. Some directors, thinking in terms of shots, composition, pans, and tracks, listen to your story and think, “Yeah, that’s good, I can put my visual stamp on it.” Well, I’m a writer; my first interest is in the story. I say, “I have to have a scene in that bed which conveys impotence or exhilaration, or whatever; how can I shoot it to convey that?” Whereas the director may say, “I have a certain image in mind, now how can I lay that on the scene?” There’s a little of that in Marty [Scorsese, director of Schrader’s Taxi Driver], because he’s not by nature a writer. He had certain shots, visual things, he wanted to do in Taxi Driver which had to be fitted into the movie. He’d tell me, “I want to do this shot. There isn’t a place for it now. Write a spot for it into the movie.”
But 32 years later, in 2008, Schrader has evolved. Concerning his transition from writer to writer/director, he commented:
It’s on-the-job training. It’s not that hard to direct a movie. That’s one of the myths of filmmaking. All you have to do, is surround yourself with an experienced team. So many cinematographers and assistant directors ghost direct movies. We know their names. They get paid to do that. I can take anyone here, put them with that team, and an efficient, workable movie will result. So what you are bringing to the dance is not experience, but a kind of vision and originality. “I would like to tell this story. It hasn’t been told before, I don’t think. But I don’t quite know how to tell it. Help me out.” I did two films where I didn’t know how to direct: Blue Collar and Hardcore. Somewhere duringAmerican Gigolo I figured out what directing was, which was primarily because of a production designer named Ferdinando Scarfiotti, who got me to start thinking in visual terms instead of literary terms. They’re different thought processes. By the time I didGigolo, I was starting to think as a picture maker much more than as a storyteller. But it takes a while. During the first and second film in particular, you’re just trying to keep your goddamned head above water.
But in the earlier interview, he described how he generates his movies:

I think there are three steps to writing a script. First, you have to have a theme, something you want to say. It doesn’t have to be a particularly great thing, but you have to have something that’s bothering you. In the case of Taxi Driver, the theme was loneliness. Then you find a metaphor for that theme, one that expresses it. In Taxi Driver, that was the cabbie, the perfect expression of urban loneliness. Then you have to find a plot, which is the easiest part of the process. All plots have been done; they’re fairly easy, you just work through all the permutations until the plot accurately reflects the theme and the metaphor. You push the theme through the metaphor and you should come out with the plot [our italics].
Elsewhere in the interview he revealed how he arrived at his plot forTaxi driver:

…two things happened which tied the project [Taxi Driver] together: a Harry Chapin song called “Taxi,” in which an old girlfriend gets into a guy’s cab; and[Arthur] Bremer shot [Presidential Candidate and Alabama Governor, George] Wallace. That was the thread which led to the script. Maybe I shouldn’t admit to this, but why not be honest? After all, there’s really nothing new on the face of the earth.

Elaborating on his method at one point, he explains:

One of the problems with screenwriters is that they think first in terms of plot or in terms of metaphor, and they’re going the reverse way; it’s awfully hard to do. Once you have a plot, it’s hard to infuse a theme into it, because it’s not an indigenous expression of the plot; that’s why you must start with the theme and not the plot.
Metaphor is extremely important to a movie. A perfect example is Deliverance, where you have point A and point B, and four men going from A to B—the first time [theme] for the men, the last time [metaphor] for the river. On the strength of that metaphor, you could put the Marx Brothers in that boat and something would happen. When somebody walks up to you and says, “I’ve got a great idea for a Western and this is the twist,” you know right off the bat that they’re in trouble, because they’re coming at it the wrong way. Maybe they’ll be able to write a novel that sells, make a lot of money, and live in Beverly Hills; but it’s not interesting to me; not something I really care about.
As Pipeliner [his first script and an effort to finance it]was falling through, I got hit with two other blows to the body at the same time: my marriage fell through, and the affair that caused the marriage to fall through fell through, all within the same four or five months. I fell into a state of manic depression. I was living with someone at the time, and she got so fed up with me that she split. I was staying in her apartment waiting for the cupboard to run out of food.
I got to wandering around at night; I couldn’t sleep because I was so depressed. I’d stay in bed till four or five P.M. then I’d say, “Well, I can get a drink now.” I’d get up and get a drink and take my bottle with me and start wandering around the streets in my car at night. After the bars closed, I’d go to pornography. I’d do this all night, till morning, and I did it for about three or four weeks, a very destructive syndrome, until I was saved from it by an ulcer; I had not been eating, just drinking.
When I got out of the hospital I realized I had to change my life because I would die and everything; I decided to leave L.A. That was when the metaphor hit me for Taxi Driver, and I realized that was the metaphor I had been looking for: the man who will take anybody any place for money; the man who moves through the city like a rat through the sewer; the man who is constantly surrounded by people, yet has no friends. The absolute symbol of urban loneliness. That’s the thing I’d been living; that was my symbol, my metaphor. The film is about a car as the symbol of urban loneliness, a metal coffin.
I wrote the script very quickly, in something like fifteen days. The script just jumped from my mind almost intact.

…when you’re writing films, you’re dealing with a kind of nascent, primitive force that’s alive…

He goes on…

Before I sat down to write Taxi Driver, I re-read [Jean-Paul] Sartre’s Nausea, because I saw the script as an attempt to take the European existential hero, that is, the man from The Stranger, Notes From The Underground, Nausea, Pickpocket, Le Feu Follet, andA Man Escaped, and put him in an American context. In so doing, you find that he becomes more ignorant, ignorant of the nature of his problem. Travis’s problem is the same as the existential hero’s, that is, “should I exist?” But Travis doesn’t understand that this is his problem, so he focuses it elsewhere, and I think that is a mark of the immaturity and the youngness of our country. We don’t properly understand the nature of the problem, so the self-destructive impulse, instead of being inner-directed, as it is in Japan, Europe, any of the older cultures, becomes outer-directed. The man who feels the time has come to die will go out and kill other people rather than kill himself. There’s a line in [The] Yakuza which says, “When a Japanese cracks up, he’ll close the window and kill himself; when an American cracks up, he’ll open the window and kill somebody else.” That’s essentially how the existential hero changes when he becomes American. There is not enough intellectual tradition in this country, and not enough history; and Travis is just not smart enough to understand his problem. He should be killing himself instead of these other people. At the end, when he shoots himself in a playful way, that’s what he’s been trying to do all along.

Screenwriting according to Schrader:

Theme by way of metaphor yields plot.   The only things left out are story and talent. 

You push the theme through the metaphor and you should come out with the plot
---Paul Schrader