Monday, February 19, 2018

Are spec scripts dead?

There was a recent article in the LA TIMES proclaiming that spec screenplays are now dead. For quite some time studios would buy these scripts written on speculation for goodly amounts and even ungodly amounts. Some specs were going for over a million dollars.

For the studios, it was a chance to buy a script already written. They knew what they had (or what they had to assign to other writers to rewrite). In the “old” days studios would hire writers to write screenplays. They’d come in and pitch, make a sale, and go to work. And often times the studios were burned with disappointing drafts. A spec eliminated throwing all that good money after bad.

But there was trouble in paradise. Some of these big sale specs bombed at the boxoffice. DVD rentals and sales dried up and there wasn’t as much cash available to spend on specs. The film industry became more global and specs tended to be America-centered. So existing franchises and superheroes took center stage. Small, original, personal specs went out of favor. Anything that doesn’t have twelve explosions, people who can fly, or spaceships is now considered an “art film.” And studios are phasing out “art films.”

Screenwriters used to look down their noses at television. When David and I wanted to move into features in the ‘80s studios wouldn’t consider us until we had a spec screenplay. The fact that we wrote MASH for four years meant nothing. That was “television.” Now screenwriters are fleeing to television.

I wrote a number of spec screenplays and played that game. I was fortunate in that I sold a few. And a few I didn’t sell. I’d work for six months crafting an original screenplay, the agent would send it out over a weekend and on Monday morning either there was an offer or two and celebration or the project was dead. And by dead I meant DEAD. Unless I was willing to shell out the ten million required to make it the script would go in a drawer never to be seen again. At the end of the day, for all my hard work, maybe twenty people actually read it.

That’s one of the reasons I got into playwriting. No, you can’t make nearly the money you can in features. In fact, you generally lose money writing plays. But, if they’re not exorbitant to produce, you can actually stage them and invite audiences and see your work come to life. It’s been my experience that people will go to a theatre, but they won’t sit home and read your failed screenplay. The only problem with playwriting vs. screenwriting is that playwrights starve.

Will spec screenplays come back? I’m sure, to a certain extent, just not nearly as many (and for not nearly as much). Aaron Sorkin can sell a spec. Whoever wins an Oscar has probably a two-year window. And just as people win state lotteries, a teacher in Kalamazoo or bus driver in Walla Walla can still land a million dollar sale. But I wouldn’t quit my day job just yet.

The loss of spec sales is just another indication the movie industry is eroding and will slowly go away. They’re making way fewer movies, these franchise sequels and comic book flicks performed way under expectations last year, and audiences (not just screenwriters) are gravitating to television where the writing is better, there’s more variety, home screens and sound systems are awesome, and strangers don’t talk and text while you’re enjoying a show.

What’s missing is the shared experience in a theatre and the hope that some new thing hitches a ride on the zeitgeist and one of my unsold specs can now get sold. But I’m not quitting my day job either (and I don’t even have one).

Sunday, February 18, 2018


Oh sure Ron Howard is a major Oscar winning director now. He works on prestigious projects like the new STAR WARS (SOLO) and does big budget racing movies like RUSH. But once upon a time Mr. Howard directed a much more modest effort – 1977’s GRAND THEFT AUTO. The producer was Roger Corman. Not exactly Brian Grazer but with better hair.

And Mr. Howard was not content to just direct. He also starred and co-wrote the screenplay with his father, Rance. Mr. Corman admired and encouraged auteurs – he had great respect for any artist who would do three jobs for one salary.

The plot is deceptively simple: Sam (Opie) and Paula (Nancy Morgan) need to elope because her rich parents are vehemently opposed to this union. So they steal her daddy’s Rolls Royce and flee to Vegas. Daddy gets wind of this and offers a reward to anyone who can stop them. This sets off wild car chases that results in multiple crashes, collisions, explosions, and clarity.

One can see from the playful byplay between Sam and Paula as rednecks try to force them off the road a foreshadowing of the relationship between Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly in A BEAUTIFUL MIND. And when Paula’s rich jilted doofus beau, Collins Hedgeworth calls TenQ radio and alerts disc jockey Curly Q. Brown of the reward, the scene between actors Paul Linke and the Real Don Steele was pretty much duplicated by Tom Hanks and Ian MacKellem in THE DA VINCI CODE.

The Real Don Steele, by the way, gave perhaps his finest screen performance in this film – a tip of the cap to Mr. Howard’s ability to work with actors.

The action sequences are spectacular and obviously gave Mr. Howard the experience and confidence he needed to pull off some of those intricate stunts in COCOON.

And who can watch the damaged space capsule in APOLLO 13 and not think immediately of the smashed up Rolls Royce in GRAND THEFT AUTO?

The media circus surrounding the chase undoubtedly was the inspiration for not only THE PAPER but FROST/NIXON, BEAUTIFUL MIND, and maybe even THE GRINCH WHO STOLE CHRISTMAS.

I won’t give away the ending. Suffice it to say it’s far and away better than FAR AND AWAY.

GRAND THEFT AUTO. Download it. Study it.  Delete it .

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Squeezing TV credits

You know me.  I love a good rant.  Here is David Mitchell bitching about all those TV credits that are now squeezed into the corner of your screen. 

Friday, February 16, 2018

Friday Questions

Coming up on president’s day weekend when we honor presidents deserving of our respect. Let’s kick off the festivities with Friday Questions.

Graham UK asks:

How do sitcoms filmed in front of a live studio audience ahead of broadcast stop spoilers of upcoming plotlines, character arrivals/ departures etc.

Sometimes they will just block and shoot those episodes without a studio audience. Other times, they’ll film a false ending and then shoot the real ending after the audience has left.

Occasionally, the warm-up guy will just lie and say the last scene hasn’t been written yet, there’s still a lot of debate, etc.

The other problem with trying to keep key story points a secret is that copies of the script get out. Scripts are normally distributed to many departments (wardrobe, props, studio execs, etc.). One of those can easily fall into the wrong hands or wrong internet.

Some tabloids used to pay for heavily-classified scripts. So an extra could make $500 by selling a script to one of these tabloids.

Keeping a lid on anything is hard these days.

From VincentS:

Have you gotten a good writing idea from a dream?

Yes. Good ideas for shows, scenes, and even entire plots.

On the other hand, there have been times I’ve woken up with what I thought was a spectacular idea, written it down in my half haze, gone back to sleep, and when I got up in the morning I realized it was a TERRIBLE idea.

Liggie wonders:

Are there any strictly dramatic actors that would be good in a comic role, and vice versa?

I’ve always felt that a good interesting dramatic villain can play comedy. When I first saw Kurtwood Smith in ROBO COP I said, “I wanna work with that guy some day.” Happily, I did on BIG WAVE DAVE’S.

I saw Alan Rickman in a Noel Coward play on Broadway and he was hilarious. No surprise after his villainous performance in DIE HARD.

Nick Collasanto – the Coach from CHEERS – often played heavies (including one in RAGING BULL) as did Ed Asner who went on to become Lou Grant in THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW.

I could give you a long list of dramatic actors who can play comedy but in the interest of time I’m just to name my favorite – Gene Hackman.

As for the other side, if you can do comedy you can usually do drama.  

Edward wants to know this:

Ken - In a post about Natalie Wood a few months ago, you indicated that she wore jewelry to cover a scar. Gary Burgoff has a deformed left hand. Do you recall writing a script a certain way or altering a draft script to make sure that Radar would not have to use his left hand or have it show up on screen?

No, we never did. We obviously didn’t do anything like having him signal “eight” with his fingers, but Gary pretty much made everything work. And there was always the understanding that if somehow he couldn’t we’d change the script to accommodate him.

Finally, from Chris G:

Did an actor ever fall down the stairs that led to the bar's front door while you were filming Cheers?

Not that I know of. I almost did once.

Be safe and sane this weekend.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Jerry Howarth is retiring

One of my favorite baseball announcers just announced his retirement. Jerry Howarth is stepping down as the radio voice of the Toronto Blue Jays after 36 years, citing health reasons. A major league baseball season is a grind. Especially for someone in Toronto because you have to go through customs every time you go in and out of Canada.

I’ve known Jerry since my first year broadcasting baseball, 1988. I was one of the announcers for Toronto’s Triple-A affiliate, Syracuse. Midseason I got the chance to fill in one game for the Blue Jays, sitting alongside their iconic (booming) lead voice, Tom Cheek and number two play-by-play man, Jerry Howarth. Needless to say I was nervous. Both made me feel so comfortable and Jerry in particular, took me under his wing. From that day forward Jerry became one of my mentors. And I can't thank him enough.

Even when I got to the big leagues I would send Jerry tapes and he would critique them. He was always very meticulous and descriptive and would really hold my feet to the fire. Adding the right word in a situation could eliminate any confusion, providing a note of strategy could enhance the listener’s appreciation of what was happening on the field, giving the damn score once in a while was nice too.

Jerry had a very conversational style. And he communicated his passion for the game. One thing I loved about him is that he sounded quite unconventional. In an age where announcers all had to have deep authoritative voices, Jerry was more like Wally Cox calling a game. He has a very pleasant voice but it’s distinctive. And very refreshing. Today the trend is to hire generic young guys with interchangeable decent voices who offer nothing but nuts and bolts and statistics. Take away their computers and they’re paralyzed.

With Jerry you knew you were listening to a real person. There was heart in his presentation. His preparation was second-to-none so he knew stories about each player, he knew what the manager was thinking before the manager did, he saw both the overview and the minutia. And yet he conveyed it all in a friendly inviting manner.

With satellite radio and MLB.COM I was able to listen to his broadcasts quite frequently in Los Angeles. Every one was a master class in the craft and art of broadcasting baseball.

Like all Blue Jays fans I will miss his nightly visits. But I think of his retirement as just “the post season.” It’s what you look forward to. And in Jerry’s case it’s that much sweeter because he knows going in he’s won the championship. See ya at Disney World, Jerry.  Or at the very least, Cooperstown. 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

EP59: Talking Dogs, Invisible Alien Babies, & Other TV Pilots

With pilot season in full-swing, Ken shares a story of one of his pilots that didn’t get on the air (get ready for a lot of fights with the studio) and introduces you to some of the most bizarre jaw-dropping pilots that never got on the air. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Thank you for liking me on my Birthday

Happy Valentine’s Day.

As longtime readers of this blog know, it’s also my birthday. I’m getting closer and closer to 40.

But having your birthday on Valentine’s Day has its drawbacks. You can’t go out to dinner because everyone is going out to dinner. And restaurants jack up the prices. Or they have special menus AND jack up the prices. Four course gourmet dinner at Applebee’s, that sort of thing.

And you share your birthday with a holiday. I remember in the second grade when we had to give out Valentines to everyone in class, I didn’t get one from Charlene Uranga. Not only did it bum me out because I had a big crush on her, but it’s distressing when the pattern for your love life becomes quite apparent at six.

So I’ve never really loved my birthday. A few years ago I went to a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED SWUIMSUIT party and one of the chefs came down with Hepatitis. So we all had to get emergency immune globulin shots from a needle they use on horses.

And then there was this happy celebration one year.

But now, thanks to social media, my spirits have been lifted. Like (I’m assuming) most people on Facebook, I’ve been receiving lovely birthday greetings from friends and family members far and wide. Even people I don’t know are wishing me Happy Birthday.

One year I wrote back individual notes. That ate up 90% of my birthday. Now I just write one status update thanking everyone who remembered me on this anniversary of the day a bunch of Al Capone’s gangsters mowed down other gangsters in a Chicago garage.

But I sort of feel guilty because I don’t check Facebook every day and as a result very rarely reciprocate when someone wishes me a Happy Birthday. I know it's horrible, but it’s nothing personal. I love each and every one of you and wish you all the happiest of birthdays, but Jesus, you people have birthdays EVERY SINGLE DAY. This would be so much easier if, like racehorses, everyone just aged another year on January 1st.

So again, to all of you – thank you and Happy Birthday either in advance or belatedly. And I mean that.

And I already wished you a Happy Valentine’s Day. Charlene Uranga, if you’re out there, it’s not too late.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

THE SHAPE OF WATER -- my review

Okay, I’ll admit it. I was not excited to see THE SHAPE OF WATER. I’ve had the screener for several months. I had heard mixed reviews. When the first thing people say is that it is “visually stunning” that is generally code for boring, pretentious, no story, three hours. But since THE SHAPE OF WATER was nominated for so many awards and I plan on reviewing the awards for my podcast, I decided to see it. And I figured, to really give it the fairest shot, I’d see it on a big screen (even if that meant paying). Plus, I always enjoy going to the Landmark in West LA because I’m still the youngest person in the theatre by 30 years.

Happy to report I was very pleasantly surprised by THE SHAPE OF WATER. It had a good story, was well-acted, very original, ambitious… oh, and it was visually stunning.

Essentially THE SHAPE OF WATER is BEAUTY AND THE BEAST meets SPLASH. Sally Hawkins is Belle who can breathe underwater. Michael Shannon is Gaston. Shannon is becoming the new Robert Shaw – the villain in every movie. And is it just me, but he always reminds me of “Jaws” in those James Bond flicks? Richard Jenkins plays a version of the kindly older man “Belle” is looking after.

Sally Hawkins was quite wonderful. I hope she wins the Oscar, but her performance was very subtle and quiet (VERY quiet, her character was a mute) and Oscars tend to go to more “showy” parts or Meryl Streep for showing up.

Richard Jenkins, a venerable character actor, also deserves a statuette. On the other hand, Octavia Spencer is nominated for best supporting actress and her competition is way more deserving. I’m sorry but Spencer plays the same part in every movie she’s in.

Doug Jones, who played the creature was snubbed. Diversity still doesn’t recognize monsters I suppose. For my money, he was way better than the guy who played the Gimp in PULP FICTION.

Oh, and I also loved Michael Stulberg, who is the new Stanley Tucci. He morphs into whatever role he plays and he’s always excellent.

But the real gold goes to Guillermo del Toro for both his inventive screenplay (co-written by Vanessa Taylor) and dazzling directing. If the Academy wants to give Greta Gerwig an Oscar (and I think to be politically correct they do), they better give her screenplay because her directing wasn’t in del Toro’s league (under the sea). Sorry, I had just to get that pun in. I mean, it was just sitting there.

In a very weak year for movies – when a derivative coming-of-age teen movie is up for picture of the year – my vote for 2018 would be THE SHAPE OF WATER. It’s a lovely homage to old Hollywood films with romance, tension, social commentary… and visually, wow, it’s just STUNNING. Glad I finally saw it.