Last night, I was talking with my screenwriting class, and the topics of low/no-budget filmmaking and digital distribution came up. It was in the context of my Vegas Project, to which I answered I didn’t think those avenues were appropriate for realizing that particular story (I’d like some Hollywood gloss and a tripod, please). But with the staggering drop in start-up costs for a filmmaker, combined with the radical ramp-up in entry-level technological quality, the next few years are likely to be interesting as people find different configurations for telling cinematic stories and getting them to an audience. A filmmaker I know who has written and directed studio-level features shot a film last year in his own house on a $100K budget; and Joss Whedon blew a few million minds this week when he announced that, during time off from writing/directing the quarter-billion-dollar Avengers feature for next year, he also shot an ultra-low-budget adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, in a house in Santa Monica, in 12 days.
And while I do the ritual railing about how so many executives in Hollywood don’t know how to read, here is a development along those lines that I actually consider to be a positive. Here is a teaser trailer, not for a movie, but for a screenplay. It was sent out this week with a spec script called Grim Night, and the script was then purchased by Universal late last evening after a robust auction. Spec auctions are a more rare bird these days, so it’s worth looking at what got buyers so excited.
Now, I don’t think you’d say this is a release-quality piece of work, but that wasn’t their goal and I don’t imagine the buyers were expecting that. The point is to examine the goals of the producers who invested in this on behalf of their project, and I would say they are: to communicate the premise and tone of the story, and demonstrate that it could translate from the page to the screen. “Proof of concept” is the appropriate term. It’s basically the classic 60-second “elevator pitch”, only delivered via YouTube instead of by a nervous writer in an actual elevator (been there, played both roles).
And on that level, I think this is an excellent piece of work – you know the backdrop of the story but not the whole saga; your appetite is, as with those free samples at the food court, whetted.
There are other industry stories like this, like the 9-minute short (since-dubbed Saw 0.5) that filmmakers used in 2003 to raise the funds for the first Saw picture. As with many developments in film, the horror and thriller-makers are out on the forefront.
Back in my development days I often helped put together presentations that would help sell the idea of the movie, whether we had script for it or not. I once re-wrote the “Director’s Statement” for a documentary without telling him, and helped get him the funds to finish his movie. But we never invested the resources to do something like this. I would make a Powerpoint or a 5-6 page summary with pictures and a colorful cover page. From one point of view, this is just a natural evolution of that same idea, and one that gives the guy with a camera a distinct advantage over me and my cruddy Powerpoint slides.
If you look at it from the buyer’s perspective, it makes sense. Since the majority of projects now either come pre-packaged or as adaptations of pre-sold titles (now in development, Candy-Land: The Movie!*), when the time comes to weigh their decision of WHAT to buy, they are used to looking at more than a stack of script pages. A screenplay, remember, is in part a technical document whose format evolved to cater to the needs of the people who will film it. But when it comes to communicating whether or not the movie which will spring from it is a worthy investment, it is, if we can muster the courage to admit it, a flawed tool.
Are these teasers the right tool? I would say they’re a very valid part of the approach. A lot of writers might resist it, and I think part of the problem is that writing is goddamned hard enough without also having to teach yourself how to be an effective DIY filmmaker. There aren’t many of those. And this approach removes one of the subtly-compelling advantages of blank paper: it is the ultimate democratic medium. On the blank page, it doesn’t matter if you’re rich, poor, or have the right friends. It’s why we would like to believe that the page should be enough. If we’re going to go entirely over to who can make the best trailer – as with thesis projects at the best film schools, as with the freedom to live in LA while working an unpaid internship for six months – people with money to throw around are going to get an obscene head-start; and really, don’t they get enough of those everywhere else in life?
But this is where that gyrating price point comes back into play. I can tell you that I would be very shocked if that Grim Night teaser cost more than a few grand and a little ingenuity and sweat equity to make. So, okay, we don’t all have a few grand to spare for this; but back up for a minute and think about it as an hourly investment. How long does it take you to write a feature screenplay – I mean really do it, soup to nuts? Four months? Six months? How much money could you have made in the hours you spent on it? The answer is probably – several grand.
So what if you made this deal with yourself – that on top of the hours you set aside for yourself to write, you would use some of those same hours to generate money; money that would ONLY be used to create proof-of-concept materials that you could deliver with your script. It wouldn’t even need to be this elaborate. Hire an artist friend to draw some really great storyboards. Put together a mix tape soundtrack like Zach Braff did for Garden State. Embrace that you are going to deliver MORE than a script, and that this MORE is worth the investment of your time. Could you do that? Could you take a part-time job just to raise seed money? If not, then what are you doing here?
This could be good for you. It could let YOU be the first person to test whether your idea can really work as a movie. You’ll learn a few things, won’t you? Might even make your script better (yeah, I said it, your script’s not perfect right now.)
Does that mean more investment and risk from you up-front? I’m afraid it does. But back in the day, Hollywood would pay out $4 million if Shane Black sneezed on a napkin and called it a screenplay. The pendulum swung. This is where it is now. It can be good for you if you’ll just see how.
*Not a joke.
You are a writer in LA. You are probably poor, so you’re looking for ways to save money. You do not aspire to murder anyone, so you’re looking for ways to reduce your time in the car.
A vital part of building your routine in LA will involve finding sanctuary places – places where you can kill time between meetings and hopefully access your three lifelines – free-or-cheap parking, electricity, and Wi-Fi.
Coffee shops come to mind. Many will validate, and unless they are trendy they won’t kick you out after a half-hour. But all those Chai smoothies add up – in a month you could end up spending the equivalent of two tanks of gas.
Going to the movies is an option – you are a writer, so seeing a movie is ALWAYS an option. But once you factor in travel time, parking, and the show itself, it’s likely to eat up three hours. Sometimes that’s too big a block – your next meeting might be before that, or maybe you’re just trying to wait out rush hour.
Now the Beverly Hills Public Library – that’s a Sanctuary spot to always keep in mind. It’s close to West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and Westwood, which is a pretty healthy concentration of potential meeting sites. They have a large, rarely-full parking deck that provides two hours of absolutely free parking during the day. Since you are a normal human being who doesn’t carry four dollars in quarters in your pocket, this is a great alternative – I’ve had to duck out of meetings to feed parking meters before. It does not make a good impression. I had to borrow change from a manager before – that made an even worse impression.
Their study room has plenty of outlets, the Wi-Fi is free, and the atmosphere of quiet is enforced by the most ardent shaming glares. You will seriously feel self-conscious if your mouse button is loud.
If you arrive after 5pm, the parking is free – you could keep your car there all night if you need to. If you’ve got a dinner or drinks meeting in the 90210, that takes care of one of your biggest headaches right there. The library may close at 6, but there’s a Coffee Bean seven minutes’ walk down the street – again, free Wi-Fi.
These are the pieces of knowledge that will help you navigate here – knowing that you can park along northbound San Vicente just below Melrose for two hours during the day; knowing that the north-south streets north of Sunset near LaBrea are permit-only at night, but there’s an east-west street that is free. This town can nickel-and-dime you to death before you’ve even had your first $9 cocktail. You’ve got to find ways to save your brain for bigger problems.