Sunday, July 26, 2009

TALA Master Class - Day 3 (part 2)


Day 3 (part 2)


Lunch

There was much confusion over lunch. Eventually, we went for some lousy schwarma. I'd have been happier with just a falafel in a pita. Still haven't had one this trip. Nor have I put my toe in the Mediterranean! I just fix that and soon! And while I bitch RE: lunch, I should also add, we are being treated to all our meals while we're here and I am most grateful for that and all the work our organizers have put into this..


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Afternoon Class #1

After lunch we had Danny Sussman moderated a talk with Nina talk about how cutbacks are effecting the TV biz. They said the financial crisis is effecting everyone and everyone has to sacrifice and get paid less. All extravagancies are being cut out.


She began by saying that when you write the slug line, EXT. Desert or EXT. Amusement Park, she freaks out and knows that's going to be a LOT more money. And while that's true, because of unions, etc. even if CBS did “In Treatment” with 1 set and two actors, it'd still cost 2 million. She estimated their cheapest show is 2.7 mil and episode and I'd heard Swingtown ran around $3.3. So in truth, the big savings doesn't come from cutting out the extravagant scenes -even car explosions (though certainly saving _ a million on a show adds up over time. The point is, if I produced a 90 minute indie feature with two actors and a one room set as I'm planning to, I can do a kick-ass production for $200,000 (yes, through SAG) and with everyone getting paid $100/day with most favored nation status.)


Now I was on a show 1-1/2 years ago, where a writer asked me to get him some Vitamin Water. I got some. The next day the UPM (the Unit Production Manager - who watches every dime spent) called me into his office and said, I can't get Vitamin Water where I did because it cost $1.10. Instead, I should drive an extra mile out of my way to buy it for $1.00. Now that's an extra $.54 cents for my mileage, but I guess he wasn't really thinking. Point is, there's a lack of understanding about where the real money is being wasted and where things need to be cut back.


Now Nina did talk for a long time about how showrunners won't be getting $40 million dollar multi-year deals anymore. Well, duh. Fox was crazy to pay David E. Kelly that kinda cash for a 5 year deal. How do you recoup that with such a huge cost and small profit margin? But none of us are in that position. In fact, there are maybe a dozen folks with deals anywhere in that $8/mil a year price tag. And frankly, Nina still has a stable of showrunners on deals (though less than before the strike) who're only making, I'd bet at least a million a year. Certainly cheaper than David E. Kelly, but look at my last blog for all the trouble that comes with hiring a show runner to work with a “baby” writer and the business (wo)man in you might wonder how great a move that is. Granted, this is somewhat analogous to the insane overpaying of CEOs in the corporate world, but haven't we learned that's usually a terrible waste of money as well?


Regardless, Nina is feeling the pinch. She's getting directives from Leslie Moonves and above that they need to trim. And because of this desire for cutbacks, the bottom line Nina sees, is that everyone's looking for new, young, cheap writers. It's our time. This is good news. Great news!


But, I wanted to ask how can that be, when then last two shows I worked on had one staff writer (the cheapest) and the 7 other writers were all senior writers, producer and higher. In fact, Swingtown had 3 Exec Producers and HawthoRNe had 4 (though one was a star and one was Jamie Tarsus a non-writing EP). If they want to save money, hire ME. I'd be a staff writer and I'd be cheap. Reece who's in the master class and works at Brillstein (a top management co.) told me that everything shifted in Feb/March and HawthoRNe staffed up Jan 28. I find it strange that the shift should right happen then and so abruptly. I certainly haven't experienced it, nor heard about it, nor seen my compatriots suddenly start breaking in, but I'm not in the thick of all these deals the way Reece is, so hopefully she's right and they will want more low lever writers ASAP.


For who don't know, here's the list of Writer's Guild TV writing titles in the US:

TV WRITING TITLES (US)

1. Staff Writer (lowest)

2. Story Editor

3. Executive Story Editor

4. Co-Producer

5. Producer

6. Co-Executive Producer

7. Executive Producer

8. Executive Producer/Show Runner (highest)


I've never been on a show with people in slots 2-4. And Staff Writers start at (approx) $5,000/wk that increases to Producers who get (depending on their deal) around $10,000/week on a network drama. Half- hour (comedies) pay a chunk less. And Cable pays less yet again. So a comedy writer on basic cable, might get around $3,000/wk. I know that sounds like a lot, but many shows are now only making 13 episodes a year which means 20 weeks of work, which equals $60,000. And that's before agents (10%) and taxes (30%). Leaving you with $40,000 made over 12 months unless you can land a second gig in a year. And some contracts forbid that as a staff writer. Moreover, staff writers don't get paid for their individual scripts. So while Story Editors and up get a bump of $13K (basic cable comedy) to $30K (network drama) per script, staff writers get nada.


The only real difference when you become a producer is that you often get to more fully supervise the episode you write both in pre-production (Casting, Tone and Concept meetings), production (on the set) and sometimes in post (depending on the showrunner). Otherwise, if you're sitting in the Writer's Room, it's hard to tell who's the staff writer and who's the Co-EP. And let's be really clear, TV producers are NOTHING like film producers - esp. indie film producers. The latter have to hustle and have know how actual film production works, how to get a film from concept to distribution, following the money the entire way. TV producers never have to deal with this. Showrunner/EPs are another story. (No one's really been explaining this to our Israeli counterparts, so I thought it was worth mentioning, but enough of my giving a master class.


Back to Nina.


She and Danny also disagreed/contradicted themselves a bit at one point saying actors don't deserve $200,000 an episode like some get on ABC's “Brothers & Sisters”. Why? Because it's too expensive and people don't watch that show because of Calista Flockhart, Sally Field, etc. Then she went on to say she had to have LL Cool J in the new NCIS: LA spinoff/clone because his name would make the whole show work. And you know they're paying him the big bucks. So…Which is it guys? How are you going to save money?


She talked about Canadian productions and that they just stared to license shows that are being made there like Flashpoint (last season - a flop )and their fall show The Bridge (looks nearly offensive - about cops being treated badly in the press). If I understand correctly, they'll broadcast The Bridge simultaneously and have a little input in it's creation, but basically someone else is making the show for them on the cheap. Why couldn't they have done that with a GREAT Canadian show like Slings & Arrows? This lovely little show takes place in a theatre and a bar. Two sets for 90% of the show. Talk about cheap. And actors? The US loves Canadian actors. 4 of the top 7 actors on HawthoRNe were Canadian. And they were GREAT. Slings& Arrows is eve starring Paul Gross who's staring in the Jack Nickleson/devil part in the new ABC “Eastwick” this fall. Let's remake that for the US. No wait, they won't touch it. It's about a struggling Shakespeare festival and they think no one in the US would watch. Certainly not on CBS.


At the end of her talk about how they want CHEAP stuff. I asked her about "We Need Girlfriends" the show Darren JUST talked about in the previous session (see last blog). I said “How you get that out of development hell and over to Showtime?” She said she passed The Tudors over to Showtime (and didn't quite mention that she had essentially TAKEN “Swingtown” FROM Showtime two years ago), but there's no mutually beneficial relationship to CBS or Showtime even through they're all part of the Viacom family. The Tudors flipped over just because Nina's friends with Roger Greenblatt who runs Showtime. Interesting. I thought the Viacom link was more vital. From what she was saying, CBS has nothing to gain by getting "We Need Girlfriends" to the premium cable channel where it would have a much better chance of getting made. So WHY oh WHY did they buy a show about 20 something losers knowing their meat and potatoes are conservative 55+ year olds who like watching cops catch the perps who mutilate beautiful girls??? (And just to spread the blame, why did the creators agree to it? Sure, the money, and they don't know better cause they're 23, but they've got to be miserable now.)


And that was the end of the talk.


Sadly, I never got a chance to ask her about the pitch "formula". It shall just be a mystery what she believes the perfect pitch to be. Until I pitch her “The 40-Year Old Assistant” in LA when I get back from Africa in September.



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