Category Archives: The Business

Question from a student… Is low budget filmmaking worth it?

Low budget does not have to mean bad. Just in the way that high budget does not necessarily mean good.

Everything is based on an idea, an emotion, and finally, a superb screenplay. If you don’t have a killer script, you have nothing. Beginning filmmakers get a draft done and think they are finished. Or ten drafts. You are never finished until you reach the day when you have to give the script to the actors to memorize. That’s when you’re done.

When you’re working on a low budget script, you have all the time in the world and your time is free. You can use that time to improve the script. Once you give the script to someone and it gets covered, especially in Hollywood, you can’t change it and you can’t improve it and you can’t fix its reputation.

To specifically answer your question, yes you can make money with a low budget movie but you have to have a good script and then you have to be careful with everything. You also have to have a sales plan built in from the get-go. A lot of beginning filmmakers finish their movie, have a DVD, and then say, “Gosharootie, how do I sell this thing?” If you don’t think about it long, long, long before the end of the production process, you are lost.

The more you learn about the market. The more you learn about finance. The more you will understand about how to get a movie made.

If you don’t make money, you don’t stay in business.

Even with no money, if you’re fun and professional, you can get a good crew. You can get a good script. It does not take an enormous amount of money to rent gear. Someone may own the gear. You can pare down expenses to basically these two: sound and food. On a low budget movie, you still have to pay the location sound recordist and the caterer. The caterer is for your crew to be happy. The sound is so you won’t have crappy sound and have to spend a fortune in post fixing the mess you made. I tell this to students and they don’t listen.

Sound is the most difficult aspect of the low-budget film. Perhaps because it is invisible. I don’t know.

As Kelley Baker says, you need three things to make a good low-budget film. Good script. Good sound. Good actors. If you don’t have all three of those, there is no point in proceeding with the production.

If you do, you have a shot at making money.

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Filed under Good Writing, Screenwriting, The Business, Writing Process

Gonna Be At The Story Expo?

Howdy, howdy!!

I’m giving two talks next Saturday at the Los Angeles Story Expo.


Everybody in the screenwriting world will be there, including me.

I’ll be pontificating about: Beating Writer’s Block. Working on that lecture now, and, to my surprise, I have a LOT to say on the subject.

I’ll also give a talk from Your Screenplay STILL Sucks! Greatest hits from my upcoming book. Well, it’s upcoming if I can finish writing it.

So, hope to see you next weekend in Los Angeles.


Filed under Screenwriting, The Business, Uncategorized, Writing Process

Don’t be a jerk! Do not jerk the rug from under your audience!

The Nashville Film Festival has slid into the past. GREAT festival. Wonderful people. Wonderful food. Wonderful movies. It’s one of the oldest festivals in the country and one of the best. It’s VERY tough to get into, by the way. About three times more entries than the Tokyo festival. Cool, hunh?

I recently saw a film that committed a cardinal sin, a sin so deep in my DNA and so rare that I’ve never written about it.

Chances are, none of you will ever do this. Chances are.

But, if you are ever contemplating it, let me warn you now. Do not. Do this.

A movie, that shall remain nameless because I’m sure they are nice people and are trying to sell it, started in one direction and then changed tone. In this case, brutally.

I HATE massive tone shifts. Some may love ’em. Pas moi.

I loathe paying for one movie and getting another one. I become grumpy after watching a trailer for a light, romantic comedy and then going to the theater and getting a 2×4 in the face. I love surprises but I do not love great big huge awful nasty over-the-top surprises.

BURNT BY THE SUN is an example of a massive tone shift. A lovely Russian family enjoying witty family drama and eating outdoors in the sunshine and cute grandchildren running here and there in the sunlight in their cute dresses and adoring Grandfather presiding over his bickering, loving, fascinating family… and ALL OF A SUDDEN the secret police come and KAPOW he is in the damn gulag. WHAT THE HELL? I didn’t want that movie. Sure, it’s like real life and in real life ghastly things happen to nice professorial types with quirky families. But, If I’d wanted that movie, I’d have gone to that movie. Gulag movies have their rightful place in the cinema pantheon, but not when I sign up for SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE. Damn.

This movie was worse.

It was an oddball story about a woman and her problems. She had oddball problems and did her best to solve them, only getting herself deeper in trouble. That was fine. I liked the writing, the story, the character, her friends and opponents. All was well done. The tone was set. We are comfortably in it for the entire story. The filmmakers stayed on task, maintaining a slightly-strange woman-in-trouble-but-dealing tone. It was funny. Not stupid-silly. Dramatic, but not scary. A light at the end of the story that, if she could get to it, she’d be okay.

And, by dint of her own efforts, she gets to it. Hooray!

And then the real ending came. After all your yearning for her victory, it was like walking into a dark room and, as you reach for the light switch, someone in the dark jerks a bag over your head and shoves you down four flights of stairs.

Suddenly, out of the clear blue sky, the sweet dealing-with-her-problems heroine is kidnapped and murdered. End of movie.

SUPER GIGANTIC TONE SHIFT. I felt like I’d been beaten up.

I was upset for hours after seeing this fucking movie. I’m sure the producers would say, “Hey, great, we showed that life can have bad surprises.” Well, this was a MOVIE, not life. I got the hell out of the theater as fast as I could and felt so bad, I wanted to take a shower. Yeah, sure, they got a reaction, but not one that will sell tickets.

First and foremost, this is a business. If you enrage your viewer, he will tell his buddies to avoid the same pain he went through.

So, do not have a gigantic course change once you’ve got the audience on track and in the groove you established.

Do not.


Filed under Bad Writing, Screenwriting, The Business, Writing Process

My client moves ahead in the Academy Nicholl Fellowships competition!

If you will recall, this is the client who gave me the bottle of Dom Perignon to celebrate her finishing her script. As you will recall, I applaud that sort of behavior!

She just emailed me this… I am so proud of the amazing work she’s done and happy to have played a small part by giving her notes.

Nice email to get.


Congratulations!  You have advanced into the Semifinal Round of the 2013 Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting.  Your script is one of only 149 entries to advance from the Quarterfinal Round.
During the Semifinals, four Academy members, drawn from a variety of branches, will read your script. Over the past half dozen years about ten Semifinalists have progressed into the Finals; the number will be similar this year.

Pretty amazing.


Filed under Good Writing, Rewriting, Screenwriting, The Business

A thought on pitching…

Not that it’s easy to get in the room where you actually pitch.

Even if you don’t, you still will have to tell your story over and over and over. Not a real pitch, but you, telling your story and making it clear and simple. To your readers, investors, actors, crew people. It never ends.

And this is how I do it.

Get the pitch as succinct as possible. Ten minutes, tops. Even for a detailed pitch.

When you get your details pared down, character descriptions pared down, and in the right order, etc… and you’re going to tell it… you have three choices.

Read from the pages. Boring = death.
Memorize it. Fraught with peril.
Do it off bullet points.

If you pare down the pitch and read it over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over to yourself…

And to other people. Crucial. You have to have someone to say it to. “The Observer Effect” changes the nature of your approach to the material, and a warm body will freak you out. Better to freak out now than when you tell your story For Real.

And out loud.

Slowly you will come close to memorizing it.

Once you’ve kinda got it, take the document, bold face or highlight a phrase for each important thought… and you have a roadmap to get through the event. Because you’ve got it more or less memorized, you’re looking at the people and telling them a story. But it’s not totally memorized, as you check your road map to make sure you’re on track as you walk through the highlighted pages.

You’ll say what you want to say.
You’ll maintain eye contact.
It will be a conversation, as you won’t be buried in your pages.

And you’ll be relaxed because the highlighted pages become Dumbo’s Magic Feather… keeping you in the air. And the person you’re telling it to will get a sense of your personality as well as the story. Success!

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Filed under Screenwriting, The Business, Writing Process

How To Get An Agent

Just got an Email from a screenwriting website. “How To Get An Agent.”

How monumentally depressing. I didn’t read the email. I’ve got a great agent. I’m lucky. I’ve got stuff he thinks he can sell.

I’ve had eleven agents in my career. I’m lucky. Eleven people have agreed to represent my work. And I have gotten every single agent the same way, which is the only way I know of to get an agent:

Have someone tell the agent that you’re a great writer.

That’s it.
Simple, isn’t it?!

Now you know the secret, you don’t have to take any classes in how to get an agent!
Not that it’s generally possible to get an agent that way.
So maybe take a class.
If you do, and you learn something useful, please tell us about it.

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Filed under Good Writing, The Business

Akers going to China with Viki King and Robert McKee

My book is now out in Chinese. Oddly, with Jack Black on the cover. I’ve been invited to speak in a week or so at the Beijing Screenwriting Seminar. Robert McKee, Viki King, and myself…

Should be a fascinating trip. I’ve never been west of Venice Beach…

I’ll report in from Beijing.


Filed under The Business

Nashville Writers Circle with Rodney Crowell & Jack Hurst

With John Seigenthaler, I do a quarterly event at the Nashville Public Library. This past month, I spoke to Rodney Crowell about his amazing memoir Chinaberry Sidewalks and Jack Hurst about his fabulous Born To Battle (about Forrest and Grant and the Civil War.)

The Writers Circle is for people with a serious intent to write, so the interview is ALL about writing. Very useful for those who put fingers to keys or pen to paper.

Here’s the video of the event. There’s a little ad for the library ahead of the video.

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Filed under Good Writing, Screenwriting, The Business, Writing Process

It’s not easy, this writing thing.

I did an conference call / talk yesterday for the International Screenwriters Association. Had a good time answering excellent questions. Hope everyone learned something useful. Or maybe two things.

One thing I tried to get across was how tough this business is, and how difficult it is to get your work read — or to get ALL of your screenplay read.

I got an email from a writer who’d been on the call. He had finished a script and (clever fellow) had managed to get his query letter answered by several major companies, agreeing to read his screenplay. Already, that should feel like winning the lottery. It’s UNBELIEVABLY difficult to get someone to agree to read your work.

He sent in the script. And waited.
I don’t know how long it took him to write his script, but let’s say three months. Maybe six. I’ve taken a year on a screenplay. Whatever, a major investment in blood, toil, sweat, tears and time.

The response he got from one company: “Sorry, typos.”

A two word answer after months of labor.
I am sure he’ll run his spellcheck in the future, but chances are that company has him on a list and will not read his work in the future.

Details matter.
Like running your spellcheck.
They may not matter to you, of course. But they matter to the person you are asking to read your script.

“Sorry, typos.”
It broke my heart to think about the anguish, the “coulda shoulda woulda” feeling that arced through that writer like electrocution.

“Sorry, typos.”
It’s not easy, writing.
Don’t make it any harder on yourself than you have to.


Filed under Criticism, Screenwriting, The Business, Writing Process

More on criticism… learn a lesson from sliced bread!

This is from The Writers Almanac. I get it in the email every day. I LOVE it…


It was on this date in 1928 that sliced bread went on sale for the first time. Up until then, consumers baked their own bread, or bought it in solid loaves. Otto Frederick Rohwedder, a jeweler from Davenport, Iowa, had been working for years perfecting the Rohwedder Bread Slicer. He tried to sell it to bakeries, but they told him that presliced bread would get stale and dry long before it could be eaten. He tried sticking the slices together with hatpins, but it didn’t work. Finally, he hit on the idea of wrapping the bread in waxed paper after it was sliced. Still no sale, until he took a trip to Chillicothe, Missouri, and met a baker who was willing to take a chance. Frank Bench agreed to try the five-foot-long, three-foot-high slicing and wrapping machine in his bakery. The proclamation went out to kitchens all over Chillicothe, via ads in the daily newspaper: “Announcing: The Greatest Forward Step in the Baking Industry Since Bread was Wrapped — Sliced Kleen Maid Bread.” Sales went through the roof, and now Chillicothe is claiming bragging rights as the Home of Sliced Bread, selling commemorative ornaments, tote bags, and “sliced bread” candles.


But, what the guy did, according to Pen Densham (author of Riding The Alligator, movie writer, director, producer), was “Eliminate the ‘No.'” That’s what salesmen have to do… find out why the people are saying, “No.” and then get rid of that obstacle. Then you make the sale.

He was describing this re: writers who won’t “Dig for the no.” People only want to hear that what they have written is fabulous, so they don’t dig for the criticism. His screenplay, MOLL FLANDERS, was passed on by the studio. He went to the head of the studio to hear why he’d passed. The guy gave him the reasons. Pen rewrote the script. The studio head thought it was one of the best scripts he’d ever read, and greenlit the movie.

Figure out what’s not working and fix it.

The whole world knows about sliced bread. But what about the wrapping feature that allowed the sliced bread to actually be sold?

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Filed under The Business