QUESTION: I recently came across a short video clip of Dov Simens saying (if I understood him correctly) that the final selling price of a writer’s first feature film script — i.e. a draft and two rewrites? (presumably to a WGA-rules signatory) is limited to the MINIMUM allowed by the WGA, ca. $60,000 as I recall for a feature film. If this is the case, those of us who are working on big canvas stories should not submit them till we’ve sold a “smaller” indie-type story. Can you “smarten us up” on this issue?
ANSWER: I’m a bit confused by your question. Instead of attempting to answer it and screwing up, I’d like to YOU a couple of questions to help me help you. OK?
1. Is this clip someplace on the Internet where I can view it? I’d like to get the exact wording down, because I don’t quite understand it.
2. Assuming I do eventually understand what Mr. Simens is saying, please take me through your logic. Why, if this is the case, should you sell a smaller story before you sell a bigger story? What’s the advantage to that, exactly?
QUESTION: Link to Simens: http://vimeo.com/96389 . This is sort of a promo for his course, I guess. The rhetorical point is, the money is in t.v. But to get to his point he talks about the WGA rules.
My logic is (if Dov is correct): Why would I want to sell a big-canvas, epic historical work I’ve been working on for years for the lowest possible amount I could ever get for it (from a WGA signatory). Why wouldn’t I prefer to first try to sell a “smaller story” that I’m sure is not worth the same kind of money as the former (and in which I don’t have so much invested) — and then start shopping the “bigger” story.
Answer: As far as I was able to tell, the link you supplied connected to me to a brief trailer of young persons performing skateboarding stunts. I did a separate search on Dov, but came up with too many hits to narrow it down to the video in question. I will say based on my viewing of Dov’s videos that he probably earns his profit based on volume. He’s the loudest film instructor I’ve ever heard.
So I’ll try and consider your question in the absence of the primary source.
I understand your reasoning, but to me it smacks a bit of speciousness. Here’s my reasoning.
I don’t know that there’s really a direct relationship between the “size” of a story and the size of its worth TO YOU. On one hand, big budget movies tend to be more commercial and executives “get” them a little better because they tend to be high concept. And a big budget movie might tend to carry a higher price tag for everyone, including the screenwriter. But there are plenty of exceptions to these truths. A screenwriter’s first sale is often a low-budget horror script, because these are easily marketable around the world, cost less, not more, and don’t require star casting. In addition, comedies are sometimes big box office despite their relatively low budget, assuming the comedy is high concept and funny enough.
Far outweighing this rationale, however, is the fact that none of this really matters. People like Dov make their living based on the seemingly logical premise that there’s a “business” to show business, with its rules and do’s and don’ts and so on. And to a certain extent, this is also true. However, it only goes so far.
Do you think that if there were a gold-plated set of rules describing a path to profitable movie-making that everyone wouldn’t be following it by now? Why do brilliantly commercial and fantastically successful producers like Jerry Bruckheimer make fortunes on franchises like “Pirates of the Carribbean” and then lose a small fortune on a movie like “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice?” It’s because for every rule there are six hundred exceptions and an infinite number of combinations of rules. And here’s another rule: it’s the exceptions that change the business. There used to be a rule that science fiction movies don’t sell. Then George Lucas, after making “American Graffitti,” made “Star Wars: A New Hope.” And of course all of show business crowded onto his bandwagon until the axles broke. There used to a be rule that comedies can’t compete in the box office arena with special-effects driven films. Then someone made “The Hangover.”
It happens over and over again. I ask my agent what “they’re” looking for, and she says, “big budget father-son rites of passage with special effects.” Then the Coen Brothers make a Western. It’s got to have a “gettable” title. Until someone makes “The China Syndrome.” Big stars are the best guarantee of box office success. Until they’re not. And on and on and on.
It’s tough enough to succeed in the canned soup business, where every goddamned can is exactly the same size and shape. How can anyone create rules for an industry in which each product is a different length, a different cost, appealing to a different audience, in dozens or hundreds of different countries?
I don’t know the answer. If I did, of course, I’d be very rich. I do believe the ones who are the most consistently successful have some kind of a gut that’s connected to the ever changing tastes of the public, and a good head for numbers. But I’m a writer (and TV producer). I don’t want to spend my time trying to get rich, because I’ll probably fail. I want to spend my time writing those things about which I’m most passionate, if at all possible. And that passion, if it’s even vaguely commercial, is as good a barometer of what might sell as any other measure. And if I fail, at least I won’t be kicking myself for spending ALL my time working on something I didn’t like, but thought would make me money.
Write the screenplay you want to write. Pray to God that it will sell. Don’t make a ten-year plan for financial success. Have as much fun as you can, and try to put some of that fun on the page. Your enthusiasm will be contagious.
Hope this helps. Feel free to follow up.