Saturday, September 23, 2006

Hey Joe

Short of enrolling in an MFA screenwriting program, books on the trade are some of an aspiring screenwriter's best friends. There is no single bible on screenplay format or one how-to book that is going to explain exactly how to write the perfect script. For me, a basic style manual, collection of advice from working screenwriters on the aspects of craft and industry, and some war stories from a veteran of the business were enough to get me started. Once you have a firm grasp on the basics, then it's just a matter of applying what you've gleaned to the page (or monitor, I suppose these days) and coming up with the work product.

One new book that I do plan on picking up sooner or later is the modestly-titled The Devil's Guide to Hollywood: The Screenwriter as God, by Joe Esterhaz. Before there was Charlie Kaufman, there was Joe. The closest thing to rock star or celebrity that screenwriting could come up with in the 80s, Esterhaz penned adult-oriented popcorn fare such as Flashdance, Jagged Edge, and Basic Instinct. His seven-figure spec paydays and mansion in Malibu kick-started the idea of making the One Big Sale that would propel a screenwriter into the upper echelon of Hollywood.

After the debacle that was Showgirls, a battle with throat cancer, and settling down with his family, Joe left L.A. behind and returned to his native Ohio, where he currently resides. He and his wife have an interview over at MSNBC in promotion of the book's release. Although there are apparently plenty of tales from the trenches contained within, Esterhaz has also written "Devil's Guide" as, well, a guide for aspiring screenwriters. Maybe he'll never work in this town again, and we probably won't be returning to the days of $4 million spec sales any time soon. But it sounds like it will make for interesting and, hopefully, insightful reading nonetheless.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Back in the game

Being sans t.v. for about five months now, I don't particularly miss it much. Summer is still mostly rerun season and, having foregone while I was in law school, it's nothing new. The lone exception at this point, however, is The Wire, HBO's crime drama set in Baltimore. Even more than creator David Simon's previous Mobtown series (The Corner and Homicide: Life on the Street, which were damn fine in their own right), The Wire perfectly captures the despair, futility, and insanity of the drug war. And the war's effect on all its players, from the top of City Hall to the boarded-up rowhouses down on W. Franklin Street.

The fourth season has just begun, with new episodes premiering Sunday nights at 10p. In addition to the continuing story of the special police unit's efforts to dismantle the city's main heroin distribution ring, the show will also train its sharp eye on Baltimore's dysfunctional education system and the pull of "the game" on its students. I'll have to wait for the DVDs but if you are wired for HBO and have never watched, I highly encourage doing so. The series has already been picked up for a fifth -- and as Simon has planned it, final -- season, so get while the getting's good. I don't know if The Wire is the "best TV show ever broadcast in America" but it certainly is the best thing on right now.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

7 ups and downs

Although Labor Day signals the traditional end of the summer box-office season, things have been quiet on that front for a few weeks now. Revenues are up this year by about 7% to date but beneath the surface, all the news is not necessarily rosy for the industry. My take on who made out like a bandit and who was left holding the bag:


1. Disney

The Mouse House ruled the waters this summer with Pirates of the Caribbean 2, Cars, and the profitable Step Up. "Pirates" just passed the $1 billion mark in its worldwide take, "Cars" continued Pixar's track record of b.o. success, and "Step Up" has grossed $50 million (double the $24 million budget set by Touchstone Pictures).

2. Sony

Close behind Disney was Sony, with a $200+ million performance from The Da Vinci Code and $100+ million from comedies Click and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Not quite as big a splash as Disney but good enough to get Amy Pascal named co-chair at the studio.

3. Little Miss Sunshine

In addition to the big studio comedy successes like Sony's, Fox Searchlight scored the summer's sleeper hit with its Sundance pickup of Little Miss Sunshine. The dysfunctional family road trip has slowly rolled its way into theaters over the past month and into the top five on the box office list, with $36 million in the bank to date. With a budget of only $8 million, "Sunshine" has proved the drawing power not only of smart writing but also good word of mouth.

4. Paramount

Although Mission: Impossible III underperformed here in the United States, in comparison to past installments of the franchise, it hass done well worldwide ($261 million outside the U.S.) and Paramount was able to attribute the shortfall to the negative publicity surrounding Tom Cruise during its promotion and get the studio out from under the star's costly production deal. Other summer performances ranged from respectable (Nacho Libre to below-average (World Trade Center).

5. Al Gore

Maybe it was the fact that the entire United States felt like it spent the summer inside an Ez-Bake Oven. Maybe it was the fact that people were taking out second mortgages to pay for gasoline. Maybe recent events simply made audiences nostalgiac for the days of geeky policy wonks with 90 minutes of Keynote slides on the scientific minutae of climate change. Whatever the reason, it was good enough to pull in over $20 million for An Inconvenient Truth, making it the #3 grossing documentary of all time. That's hot.

6. Marketing

Somewhat lost in the shuffle of the big changes at Disney this summer (see below), was the installation of Oren Aviv as the head of the studio. Significant because, unlike some of his counterparts, his background is not in story or project development but from the marketing side of the business. While this move could make more sense for a company that has a supply of built-in properties, like Pirates of the Caribbean, that can be turned into high-concept event properties, it remains to be seen whether other studios follow the trend when the next round of changes at the top come.

7. Nina Jacobson

The (now former) head of production for the Buena Vista Motion Pictures Group looked every bit the smart exec when a behind-the-scenes book told the story of her doubts about the script M. Night Shyamalan delivered for Lady in the Water. Night took his bruised ego and script to Warner Brothers, where it presently became the director's first certified bomb.


1. Warner Brothers

As bad as "Lady" was for Warners ($40ish million grossed against a $75 million budget), that wasn't even the worst of it for the studio with easily the worst summer slate. The Brothers started taking on water with Poseidon in May and not much improved thereafter. Superman Returns failed to meet high opening weekend expectations and will likely finish a few million short of the $200 mark. The Ant Bully, Beerfest, The Wicker Man, the hits just kept on not coming. Better luck next year, if only because it could hardly be worse than this one.

2. Universal

Not only was the studio beat out in the DreamWorks purchase by Paramount (which also poached Universal chief Stacy Sinder to run its new acquisition), but its summer tentpole, Miami Vice, failed to connect with either the youth market or older viewers who watched the original series in the 80s. Not exactly what you hope for when remaking a show with the vaunted "built-in audience" these days. Especially when you spend $235 million(!) to produce and market and only earn $65 million in return. Nor did The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift capitalize on prior installment's successes. The lone bright spots were the Wedding Crashers, Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, whose individual efforts, You, Me and Dupree and The Break Up, did respectable (though not "Crashers"-level) business.

3. Paramount

The underperformance of "MI: III," the public breakup with Tom Cruise, and the unceremonious dumping this week of Viacom CEO, Tom Freston, raises the question of how long Brad Grey is for the Melrose lot. With Sumner Redstone making the Cruise and Freston moves conspicuously his own, some say the writing is on the wall for Grey, especially with Stacy Snider (who has the experience running a studio that Grey does not) waiting in the wings if Paramount's releases continue to come up short. In the end Snider's DreamWorks may end up being the fish that swallows the whale and the sense is that things haven't stopped shaking out on the lot just yet.

4. Disney

Flush with the success of "Pirates" and "Cars," Walt Disney Studios chairman, Dick Cook, did what any good executive in his shoes would have: fire 650 employees, oust the head of production, and cut back the number of produced films from 18-20 per year to only 8-10 (branded properties, Pixar animation, and . . . ?). This contraction back to the company's "core competencies" looks like the right move with Pirates of the Caribbean: At Worlds End and Ratatouille in the pipeline for next summer. If Disney is unable to keep the sure bets coming, however, it doesn't sound like they'll have the next "Step Up" to fall back on.

5. Stars

For the first two installments of the Mission: Impossible franchise and War of the Worlds, Tom Cruise had a lucrative production deal at Paramount that paid him a large share of the profits. Prior to MI: III, the studio renegotiated the deal to cut back Cruise's take and after the release, terminated the agreement altogether. Other high-profile projects for solid box-office performers, such as Ben Stiller and Jim Carrey, were put into turnaround when the studios balked at ballooning costs. The belt-tightening can be in part attributed to the same culture that is prevalent across corporate America (of which the studios have become a part) but the message seems just as clear that the balance of power is shifting away from the stars and back to the people who write their checks.

6. Marketing

All summer long, the Internet appeared bitten by Snakes on a Plane fever. Bloggers hyped the mere idea of a plane with snakes on it as the action-movie altar before which everyone would (or should) worship. New Line went back for reshoots to add the Sam Jackson line that all the bloggers wanted to hear, and more violence to give it a hard-R rating. Tracking predictions ranged from the 20s to the 40s for opening weekend. Result? A lot of bloggers apparently went to see it but not many others. On one hand, the $15 million opening may have been double what a standard B-movie action pic opening in late August would have grossed without all the online buzz. On the other hand, I'm sure New Line (and the other studios) were anxious to see if they had acheived the Holy Grail of marketing: being able to sell a picture without spending any money on advertising. They chose . . . poorly.

7. Nina Jacobson

Her instincts helped save Disney money and embarrassment in the case of "Lady in the Water," for which she was rewarded with a telephone call from Dick Cook letting her know that she was fired. In the hospital where, at the same time, her partner had just given birth to their next child. Congratulations!