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From Reel to Deal
By Dov S-S Simens
Warner BooksCopyright © 2003 Dov S-S Simens
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMEET YOUR TEACHER
To a first-timer, Hollywood is confusing. It's a glamorous puzzle filled with vagaries. It's a web that entraps wannabes armed with hopes of fame and fortune but no knowledge of the rules. Anyone wanting to be a player, a mover and shaker, in Hollywood needs a mentor, a guide. Someone to take your hand and lead you through the maze called Tinseltown. In the film industry, I'm that person. I have the information you've been looking for-with an ability to explain it, in a way that you can understand. I'm your mentor and this book is your road map.
The Spielbergs, Lucases, Coppolas, and Tarantinos might be great filmmakers, but they are rotten teachers. On the other hand, I am not a great filmmaker, but I am a great teacher-and that is what you want. I've made films. I've produced. I've directed. I've written checks. I've made mistakes. I did not succeed initially in Hollywood. Then out of necessity I stumbled into teaching. I became a film instructor with facts from my own experiences, learned to communicate them, and became known as "Hollywood's Greatest Independent Film Instructor."
By 1980 I had a degree in economics, had spent four years in the army (first lieutenant, Green Berets, Vietnam, 1968-69), had backpacked through Europe, retired to quaint Carmel, California, where I owned a successful bookstore for 10 years. My life was full. Then the big four-zero hit: 40!-I sold my store, sold my house, packed my bags, took my cash, and went to Hollywood in quest of fame and fortune.
The first project I created was a TV series called Auto Test Point, a 30-minute newsmagazine show featuring half a dozen segments with in-studio host wraparounds, focusing solely on the automobile. I tried to option the rights to Car & Driver or Road & Track magazines, but they wanted too much money.
Undaunted, I shot a pilot (with my own money-stupid me) and wrote 13 episodes, assuming it would air on weekend mornings instead of those boring hunting, fishing, and gardening shows. I also assumed hundreds of auto industry advertisers would want in on the show. I took the pilot to syndicators (TV salesmen), and although they said it had excellent production values (a "kiss of death" line), they passed. My show, they said-since it would air on weekend mornings-would barely get a 1.0 rating and have no rerun life.
I came away with one piece of practical information that lands in your lap only after you've failed. The advice was to produce a "strip show," a program that airs Monday through Friday between 3:00 and 5:00 p.m., or after the a.m. or p.m. news. This show would get a 3.0 to 6.0 rating five times per week, totaling 15-30 weekly rating points, with revenues 2,000 percent greater than my Auto Test Point show.
Undaunted, I put my thinking cap on and came up with Soap Opera Update, a 30-minute newsmag series about the daily soaps. It was to be presented as a news show in which the anchors report, with two-minute clips, treated as hard news, what dramatically occurred that day on each soap. This time I didn't produce a pilot (I was now almost broke) but merely wrote an episode, outlined 13 additional shows, and went back to the syndicators. They all thanked me and passed on the idea. Three months later, at the NATPE (National Association of Television Program Executives) convention, where TV shows are sold to individual stations, I saw three of the syndicators that I had pitched Soap Opera Update to, who had passed, pitching their own versions! Another hard lesson from the school of hard knocks.
Back to the drawing board. I created A Woman's POV, another 30-minute newsmag show, this time for cable, with segments about sex, sensuality, and eroticism from the female perspective, featuring voluptuous women in bikinis and negligees. This program would easily attract male viewers. But I needed to secure the 25- to 40-year-old female viewer that advertisers love. I brainstormed and came up with the "hook"-everyone connected with the program, in front of the camera and behind it (executives, talent, crew, etc.), would all be women. Not a single male would come near the show. Voilà! Women on women.
I wrote, registered, and copyrighted the show, then partnered with someone in the inner circles of the cable industry, who pitched it. After rejections at HBO, Showtime, SelecTV, and Playboy we gave up. Three years later I received a late-night phone call from a hostile woman shouting, "You son of a bitch! You scum-sucking pig!" Turns out she was the woman I was going to use as the production manager for A Woman's POV, claiming she'd just seen the show on cable (with a slightly changed title) and demanding to know why I hadn't used her.
I quickly got a tape of the show. I wanted to cry. It was mine! Of course, I sued, spent eight years in the courts, collected a small check, and wasted a lot of energy. During the litigation, I entered AA (as of this writing I have 22 years clean and sober) and took night courses at UCLA Extension and the AFI (American Film Institute) with titles like "Financing and Distributing Independent Features," "Creative Means to Financing Films," "Writing Commercial Scripts," "International Co-productions and Hollywood," "Securing High Quality with Low Budgets," etc. I learned some buzzwords and transferred my attention from the small screen to the large one.
I called studio heads and development executives. I pitched remakes of English novels, bloodcurdling horror stories, unique fish-out-of-water plots, modernized Shakespearean plays, vampire tales with a twist, updated 3-D stories, etc. I pitched and pitched and pitched. Everyone said they'd get back to me (another kiss-of-death line), but no one ever did. Then I sank to pitching projects to the low-budget distributors who sell schlock to non-English speaking nations (they don't want great stories). I came up with projects with words like "Blood," "Zombie," "Nightmare," "Slime," "Massacre," or "Fatal" in the titles and budgets that were always "under $1 million." Still nothing happened! No one would give me development money! Then, almost broke, I had a moment of clarity. Instead of hiring a writer, I'd write it myself. After a few screenwriting classes with the "structure gurus" (Syd Field, Bob McKee, Michael Hauge, David Freeman, Linda Seger, John Truby, Jeff Kichen), I wrote three scripts. Naturally, I thought they were great. In reality, they were only good, and sadly, good is not good enough for first-timers in Hollywood.
Then I got hit with a bolt of lightning-"Hey, kid, keep it simple"-from a low-budget executive who was 17 years my junior, and calling me "kid." What he meant was, when producing your first low-budget film, write a script with very few locations. I quickly penned two scripts: Boobs, the story of five teens in search of the Perfect American Bosom (five boys, one beach blanket; they never got off the blanket as 65 38DDDs saunter by) and 9 Lives of Rufus Johnson, the story of a house and a cat (a kitten lives in a suburban house, and over 10 years as house buys and sells four times and four families come and go). It is shot from the satirical cat's POV (point of view) of American society. Each script could be shot in one location in one week. The scripts were imaginative, cheap to make, and still no one would fund me to make them.
Three years in Hollywood and I ran out of money. Luckily, one of my roommates, a cinematographer, had a job shooting a feature film for a soap actor who wanted to pull a Rocky (Stallone) or a Sling Blade (Billy Bob). He wrote, produced, directed, and starred in it. His script was horrible, but he had $30,000! He hired my roomie, who hired me (two weeks at $200 a week) to be the production manager. Nice, but I didn't really know how to make a film. Suddenly, I had to get a crew, buy film stock, find a film lab, rent cameras, create a shooting schedule, etc. God was on my side, and the film got made.
In the film industry, just like any other, one job done well leads to another. In the next two years, I worked as a production manager and line producer on seven low-budget features. As the line producer, I was in charge of the checkbook. By writing the checks, I learned not what those expensive theory-laden film schools say things cost but what they really cost. I should know-I wrote the checks.
Simultaneously, I supplemented my line-producing income (not enough to pay rent) by working as a reader for small film companies. For $25 to $35 each, I read more than 800 scripts and did "coverage" (two-page script book reports) during those two years. It was during this period that I got a call from a work associate who landed a great-paying line-producing gig and had to find a replacement for himself as a panelist at a UCLA seminar on "High Quality with Low Budgets," the same class I'd taken as a student four years earlier. I accepted the honor-lecture at UCLA! Standing in front of 150 attendees for 30 minutes, I was extremely nervous, I talked super fast, petrified that someone might find out I was a phony. However, people approached me after the seminar and thanked me! So did the dean of UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television, who invited me to give a class at UCLA. I jumped at the opportunity and gave a one-day seminar.
The seminar, "Producing Ultra-Low-Budget Features," drew over 200 enrollees at $125 each. It grossed $25,000 (I was paid $250) and was a success. I presented it several more times at UCLA. Then USC, a competing university, paid me $2,000 to teach it, and the following year I presented it several times at NYU, another competing university, for $5,000, along with flight, hotel, and per diem. I had stumbled into a career. It was now 1989 and I took my act on the road. I said good-bye to UCLA, USC, and NYU and founded HFI, the Hollywood Film Institute (in Santa Monica, California), with an intensive crash course (one weekend) that became the 2-Day Film School[TM]. I partnered with film societies, film commissions, and film festivals in smaller cities (Cincinnati, Seattle, Denver, Dallas, Minneapolis) and brought Hollywood know-how to middle America.
The numbers show the course's success: 3 percent of 2-Day Film School[TM] graduates either produce, write, or direct a feature film within six months. Three percent might sound low, but considering that not a single graduate of all the two- to four-year film schools in America makes a feature film for at least five years after graduating, if ever, 3 percent is extremely high. Alumni of the 2-Day Film School[TM] include Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction), Matthew Vaughn (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels), Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine), Mark Archer (In the Company of Men), Philippa Braithwaite (Sliding Doors), Guy Ritchie (Snatch), Chris Nolan (Memento); numerous Sundance, Cannes, and Toronto festival winners' writers; and cinematographers of films like Blade, Mortal Kombat, and X-Men. Other alumni include musicians like Michael Jackson, Queen Latifah, and Roland Best who wanted to cross over into film, and actors like Sinbad, Valerie Bertinelli, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, and Will Smith who wanted to take control of their careers.
Orson Welles once said, "Everything you need to know about filmmaking can be learned in two to three days." I believe that Mr. Welles was correct, and I developed a way to teach "everything you need to know" by giving birth to the 2-Day Film School [TM] upon which this book is based. This book is geared to any adult who wants to produce, write, or direct a feature film but doesn't want to waste four years and $70,000-$100,000 at film school (UCLA, USC, NYU, etc.) that preach and coddle. This book, like my weekend class, can't teach talent. No one can and no book can. Either you have it or you don't. But, if you have talent and a great idea, and want to launch a career in the film industry, this book will give you absolutely all the information you need.
Before proceeding you must understand that this book is based on the fact that filmmaking is a business. It is not an art form. In Hollywood, as in any industry, everything costs something. You write checks. And when making a feature film you negotiate and write approximately 38 bank checks. I present these 38 bank checks as "the 38 Steps of Filmmaking[TM]."
Contrary to what I just wrote, yes, I do agree that filmmaking is an art form. But I cannot teach art. I cannot teach talent. It can't be taught. You either have it or you don't. What I can teach is the business of making the art (how to write those 38 bank checks cheaply) and then the business of selling the art.
Another concept to understand is that Hollywood is not a filmmaking industry-it is a film-marketing industry. Studios are corporations that must make profits. They do this by creating values, i.e., when a film is in theaters, there are newspaper ads, and when you, the consumer, see the ads you believe the film has a $10 (theater ticket price) value. Nineteen out of twenty consumers don't see the film in a theater. However, 17 of the 19 who don't go to the cinema think, "I'll rent it." Renting isn't free!
Blockbuster, Hollywood Video, or any video store charges $3-$4, so, in essence, the $10 film was put on sale at a 60 to 70 percent discount-now the consumer pays to see it. No ads, no video store rentals. It's that simple.
Hollywood is a marketing industry. Distributors would love to split $10 with theater owners-they try every time for a "box office" winner-but if they don't get it, they'll gladly split $3-$4 with video store owners and add to the profits with lucrative pay-cable and broadcast sales. And this is only North America.
Don't get me wrong. It's not that Hollywood has no desire to make excellent films. It tries to make the best film possible every time. But four out of five films the studios make are poor to mediocre. Do they quit? No, they market the duds. They place ads, create a value, cash in, and make profits even with mediocre-to-rotten films because Hollywood is a business. It is a marketing machine.
Once again, I acknowledge that filmmaking is art and art takes talent. But talent can't be taught. You either have it or you don't. What can be taught is the nuts and bolts, which, once learned, frees up your talent to be utilized in the best way possible. From Reel to Deal does not teach art. However, it does teach the mechanics of making the art and the business of selling that art.
From Reel to Deal is written with 51 easy-to-follow chapters mirroring the actual stages of filmmaking (pre-production, production, post-production, and marketing) as you produce, write, direct, and distribute your first feature film-literally a producing-by-the-numbers. IMPORTANT POINT Don't skip around. I beg you. Please read the chapters in the order presented.
Excerpted from From Reel to Deal by Dov S-S Simens Copyright © 2003 by Dov S-S Simens
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.