Thursday, July 23, 2009

TALA Master Class - Day 2



Today, we all marched over to the Cinamateque - one of the main Israeli film schools (I think). As we walked in we saw a HUGE billboard announcing the Master Class. After today, many of the sessions will be open - sometimes to the general public, sometimes to alums of the master class.

First up, Nina. She spent an hour narrating a fictional, "typical" story of what happens when a new writer gets a pitch picked up by a network. She dubbed the new writer "Sabrina" (in honor of one of our participants - a young CBS Current exec). And...well, there wasn't much new info for me in said narrative, but it's a stark reminder of a harrowing tale nonetheless.

I don't have the time to relate it all here, but for now, let's just say that even when it all goes relatively well, it can be a tremendous struggle at best. And it can be a Cold War replete with espionage, secret agents and coups at worst. Twice now, the following advice has been invoked: "You have to be able to say 'I don't know.'" First off, new writer includes those who've worked on a show or two as a staff writer or story editor. So essentially, when you're a "new" writer who's show is going to series, you have to be OK with coming up with the idea, then having the network throw a shorwrunner on who may try to take credit for everything (and they sometimes succeed). Then that showrunner (in Nina's story) may try to exclude you from meetings, and who expects when you have the privilege of meeting with the network with them (even by phone) that you say NOTHING. Yup. New writers - even the creator of CSI is expected to be a freakin' Geisha. Why they think this is the best way to do this is bizarre to me.

In fact, the inciting incident in Nina's story is when the network attaches the showrunner. Someone asked in the Q&A, why attach a showrunner right after the pitch. It comes down to the network wanting to have someone they "Trust." Yes, the conflict in Nina's story ALL related to the showrunner and the creator not getting along. (calling her like tqo squabbling kids, etc.) Why doesn't it work out? Better question. If they know it's the source of the problems, why keep doing it?I can answer that partially. What Nina said was that the job of running a show is overwhelming. TRUE. That for someone who's never done it before it can destroy them. You won't sleep, won't eat. Your relatinoships will fall apart because you're just not there for anything else. And if you've never done it before there are a host of minefields you won't know how to navigate from politics, to simply learning what to put your energy to when so you don't fall behind. And when you fall behind everything else goes to hell, because broadcast TV is about REAL hard deadlines. When the show goes out on the air, it goes out. Period. And a network 12 episode order + pilot is $40 MILLION minimum. So the network wants someone there they trust. And ideally someone who's done the job before.That's a sound and reasonable philosophy and business practice.

What makes no fucking sense, is attaching a showrunner right after the pitch when...THEY'RE NOT RUNNING A SHOW. Instead they're struggling with the creator. Over what? Over how to make something the network likes enough to order a pilot. And those are BIG stakes. You get a pilot ordered that's $5 million. And people get crazy around that money, because they know that if the pilot's picked up, it's $40m after that.
BUT why attach the showrunner after the pitch? Why not let the freakin' writer write? Let him write up the story areas. Let her write and outline. Give them notes every step of the way and then let them write the pilot. THEN bring in the showrunner.

You should bring them in then, because now we're talking about getting down to the brass tacks of thinking about the script in terms of not just what's dramatic or comedic, but what works for a show in the real world...and will work for the next number of years. But the network's fear is so overwhelming, they're throw in a showrunner WAY early? Why? (and this paragraph is MY opinion, not Nina's) It's because they don't trust. It's partially understandable because there's so much money on the line. (and also some say because they're afraid if they make one bad decision they'll be fired, but I doubt that's the case for Nina.) Since so much is on the line, the network wants someone in there who is beholden to them. Not the creator and not the studio, because once they pick up a show to series, they're a buit out of the loop. They're the principal. They're not the teacher in the room. They get to give notes on drafts and edits. They aren't really allowed to be fully hands on (though they've been getting more and more so year after year through their execs.) Now, who's the best person to have in their court? The guy in charge. And even better, someone who they own. You see, sometimes that showrunner has a deal with them - Meaning they are contractually obligated to work on whatever the network (or studio) tells them to work on for the duration of their contract. These people are VERY well compensated for their service. These days generally $1,000,000 a year minimum for a showrunner with a deal as I understand it. And when you get paid that kinda cash, you are in some way beholden to the people who gave you that deal. That's one way they try to create "loyalty". But then that showrunner, wants control of the property, because the few people who still have deals these days only last a year or two and the deal's so sweet, they want to get another deal. And that sets up the showrunner to be in direct conflict with the new writer creator.

It's just so frustrating to see networks become their own worst enemy in making good work.
OK. Moving on...

The other most common invocation in this workshop is the following statement (in contradiction to the last) "This is a collaborative form, if you want control over your stuff, do a one-man show you direct yourself in a black box theatre."

Thanks. Done it. Ten times. And I'll do it again. Just put the next one on the schedule...but for now, it's time to pay the rent. But I'd prefer not to have to watch my baby get chopped up by a network and showrunner as has been suggested I do, should I be so honored to have a series picked up. Tell me, in what way is that collaborative? That's rolling over. That's bending over.

On the other hand, if they just want us to consider this a job for which we don't fight for ideas passionately. Fine. I'll leave my passion for the theatre. And they get more of the pabulum they want so badly. If we listened to Jerry Levine later in the day, it would be clear this is a JOB. You want art, passion or something you care about, you're in the wrong biz. You want to make money? Well, you can't make the sick money you used to, those days are gone everyone is telling us at this master class, but you can still make a living. (a rare thing int he theatre). So just set your expectations for compromise and the start climbing the ladder.

What do I want? Let me make a living from my creative endeavors so I don't have to be a 21st C. Charles Ives. If you've never heard of Ives, nor heard his music, first be ashamed, and then go to wiki and read about his life how he was one of the first great American artists in any genre and he was completely ignored until his death. As a composer, he supported his family as an insurance executive in Hartford, CT and only heard a few of his symphonies when HE hired an entire orchestra with his own money. Then listen to his genius The Unanswered Question (listen while doing nothing else - when was the last time you did that? No phone. No email. No snacks. Just close your eyes and listen, goddamnit. It's IVES. (wow, I sound like Danny Sussman when I write my blog - that's just for the master class folks)

Back to Nina. It was a lively telling of this horror story, but I wish she spent more on the prologue and I would have liked to talk with her more about the inciting incident.

By prologue I mean "The Pitch". I wish she had defined from her perspective what was the perfect Pitch. I've worked on shows and have seen the politics up close, but I've never been in the room for a pitch. And Nina kept saying, "Of course, there's a formula for a pitch. And you can follow that. And it works. So, let's say I say, 'great pitch', now what's next?" That's how she started her hourlong narrative.

I wanted to say, "wait wait wait. What formula? I want to know what YOU think the formula is. I've read books. Couldn't care less. I'm not pitching to a "how to" a book, I'm pitching to an Exec. Perhaps you. I don't care what a book or what I think should be in a pitch, I want to know what YOU think." Perhaps I'll ask her tomorrow.

OK. I HAVE to move on.
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Jerry Levine spoke after Nina. Jerry is Nina's husband. Must be a lively home. Jerry said they don't talk about work at home, but I bet it's hard to avoid sometimes and he's even mentioned exceptions to that rule. He's an actor (mostly former actor these days it sounds)...and a hoot. He knows how to give a lively performance for sure. He "took off the gloves" as he said, and announced he was going to talk about how things really went down. And in some ways he did. My favorite was when he described his "arguments" with his wife (that's the prez of CBS 'member). He's the artist, she's the politician, as he put it. He clearly, truly loves and respects her, but he also wants to let us in on a little secret. She doesn't get artists. And she meddles. He then re-enacted scenes with her. They're lying in bed. Nina's watching dailies. He whispers "Why are you watching that? What are you really going to do? Are you going to reshoot it?" (she doesn't even bother shaking her head no) "Then put the pencil down." Finally, Jerry takes the pencil out of her hand. (laughter...and scene!)

I have to hand it to him. Jerry is a true entertainer. People enjoyed his conversation. He also fulfilled the image of what a Hollywood TV director was without even trying. He just IS that.

He also had a confession that when he started in TV, he was an actor and was a prima donna about things. But he explained his transformation to responsibility in relating that when he started working as a director and then went back to acting, his attitude now became "You want me where? When? Done." He learned about just getting it done and figuring it out. I think that's Nina's favorite phrase. She'd say things like. "When I was a younger exec I'd listen to people’s problems and try to help them, now I'm just like 'Figure it out!'" And I get it. There's a lot of stupid bitching in this biz (and many others) and at a certain point, talking has to stop and you just have to do it. That was the philosophy at RIPFest. That and "Sleep is for Suckers."

Jerry himself lives by the mantra "Why Here? Why now? Why this story?" whenever approaching a new piece. And I'll say while I don't live by this saying, I can totally get behind that. I have that perspective a little more in Theatre than TV though, to tell you the truth.

I wish I had time to relate more about Jerry, but that's it for the moment.

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After a lovely lunch of sushi and dim sum at "Giraffe", Darren Star was up. Darren played the pilot for "Sex and The City" and essentially provided a live audio commentary track. I was hoping for something a little MORE behind the scenes. Things you WOULDN'T hear about on the DVD commentary, but it was still great to watch it again. Even though the first 8 minutes are a bit odd* the rest of the pilot is pure delight.

* The odd part is that the direct address (actors looking into the camera and talking) by everyone include a large number of guys who were never seen from again.

I've watched all of the first 4 seasons (which even today earns me the "You sure you're not gay?" from fellow participant Allison) and I truly enjoyed the show. But I also had an ulterior motive to watch that much. I'd watched maybe a dozen episodes and liked it, but my motive was a Broadway show. See, after doing mostly experimental music theatre and opera for a decade, I got the attention of an exec at ClearChannel. This Clearchannel was the former SFX Theatricals and one of the largest Broadway Producer conglomerates the world had ever seen. (Oddly, my dad got me the contact through his work as a pharmaceutical attorney. LONG story.)

So I was meeting every month or so with this exec Jennifer Costello. A super-smart avant-hip woman from the downtown theatre who'd fallen into this job and couldn't give it up. Paid too well. She really liked my stuff, but told me it'd never be done on Broadway - certainly not by them. She told me what they needed - a recognizable property. Basically I could make a show about a famous person (Lincoln! The Musical! or make it a jukebox musical ("Love is a Battlefield": The songs of Pat Benetar), OR base it on a popular film "The Princess Bride" (Goldman only wanted to give Sondheim the rights, but he'd done Into the Woods and wasn't interested...in the end Adam Guettal got the rights and it should be going up sometime soon unless things got tied up in legal again).

I had no presidential shows in mind, jukebox musicals have no place for a composer and all the good movie rights had been taken. So I pitched her..."What about "Sex and The City: The Musical!" We could get the original cast, they're all theatre ladies. Most are singers."

She was interested in the idea, but, I found it impossible to come up with a 2-1/2 hour complete narrative. Beginning Middle and End. The movie struggled with that as well in my opinion. It worked wonderfully in the 1/2 hour long form it was created in. And eventually I gave up.

But there's one thing for sure, Darren knows how to tap into the Zeitgeist. Sometimes he rides the wave, other times, he leads it.

Once his session was over, we each got to meet with one of four of the master artists. I got Darren.

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We went to a place across the street "Bar 4" and waited to go down in to the dungeon lower bar.

I went VERY last. Hilla, the lovely cocktail waitress, kept offering me more free wine (on Federation's tab. Thanks Federation!). I kept accepting.

As I waited I talked to Israeli participant, 60 year old, Iris about Kibbutz life. She was raised on one and wants to do a movie about it. Could be great.

3 glasses later, I went down to meet with Darren.

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I had 10 minutes. What do you say in that time? I let him know I knew two other people who were repped by his old agent at William Morris and then I told a story about that agent and him and me.

See, I've only really met with two agents in TV. Both were almost 5 years ago - on the very same day. I saw Mickey Berman at Broder (now merged with ICM) and then Aaron Kaplan at the old WM.

Aaron was already the head TV lit agent at WM and my cousin had set me up with him. When I sat down with him I said, "Thanks for meeting with me. I'm glad you liked my "Six Feet Under", but listen, I'd love you to be my agent AND I know you represent big guys like Darren Star. The creator of Sex and the Fucking City for Godssakes. I can't compete with that."

Darren seemed amused by the story. I felt it was surreal talking to the TV legend I'd invoked 5 years earlier. But in that meeting back in 2004 I didn't mention to Darren that the meeting continued like this. I said to Aaron:

"So I know it takes a lot of work to break in a new writer and there's little money in it comparatively for a long time, so you don't need to be polite. I don't want to waste your time. If you think you're interested in taking on a new writer, awesome. But if you liked my stuff and know the time to break me isn't worth it, pass it along to some junior agent with whom I'm on the same level and I'd be thrilled."

He said, no. New writers were the lifeblood of his business. I wrote a solid spec, but he wanted to see something original. Things were just changing then and agents were beginning to say they wanted something original. But they didn't mean ORIGINAL. Aaron would not dig my crazy "operas", so he suggested I write a screenplay.

And he said "Move to LA ASAP. You can't do anything til you're here."

So I went back to NY and started writing. The next month (Sept) I was told they were demolishing the building I was living in. Perfect. The Universe was telling me to get out of there. In October I negotiated my settlement. November 21 I left for Israel for the first time and I spent a month wandering around.

In January, I moved to LA. In February, I sent off a pilot "The Weekly Mirror" (to Mickey Berman with whom I'd had an almost identical meeting, but wanted a pilot) and I sent Aaron my screenplay "Release Technique".

But Aaron never got back to me when I followed up again and again (the slow fade) and Mickey eventually did call back months later to say "pass".

Successful writers, agents, producers...everyone says "Just keep writing". Well, I've got 3 screenplays, 3 pilots, and 6 specs. I write. I just can't find the right people to read them, so 5 years later I still have no rep.

I think it's time for a change.

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