How to Ride an Alligator and Not Get Eaten

One of my screenwriting clients recently expressed the concern that although he’s wildly enthusiastic about creating movies, he’s worried that his work will never be taken seriously because he wasn’t able to go to college and get a formal degree. As can be said of almost any field of endeavor, having a piece of parchment is no more a guarantee of overnight success than lacking one is automatically a fast-track to failure. What gets anyone from Point A to Point B – regardless of the real or perceived obstacles – is the passion, the discipline and the confidence to know that your dream is something you want to do more than anything in the world. To that end, I instructed him to run, not walk, to his nearest bookstore and buy a copy of Pen Densham’s new book, Riding the Alligator: Strategies for a Career in Screenplay Writing (and not getting eaten).

If there’s anything this iconic writer, director, producer, USC adjunct professor, and genuinely nice guy hasn’t done to bring his visions of cinema magic to the rest of us, we’d be hard-pressed to know what it is. A school dropout at age 15, Densham was sent by his father to an interview at an electric blanket factory that he might learn a useful trade to support himself. “Luckily, the owner saw through my feigned interest in thermal bedding,” he writes in the book’s introduction, “and told me he was doing me a favor by passing on me (and probably saving a few people from electrocution).” It’s this crackling wit that not only prevails throughout the chapters but also comes through in an insightful interview that attests to his generosity in helping new screenwriters find their way through sometimes treacherous waters.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: When did you first know that writing and producing movies was in your blood and something that you absolutely had to pursue?

A: As a small child, my folks made 35mm theatrical short films and used me riding a live alligator in one of them –

Q: Excuse me, but did you just say a live alligator?

A: Uh-huh. I tell people it was “my first job in show business” and came to be the title of my book.

Q: Okay, this begs an obvious question about what your mother and father must have been thinking to endanger a toddler.

A: My parents both worked in the British film industry, making short 35mm movies for the British theaters, documentaries on strange sports or, in this case, on people who owned weird pets.  The alligator was owned by a woman in Chelsea who kept crocodiles and alligators in her apartment.  I was filmed at the age of four riding one of these creatures, a seven-foot female alligator named “Peter”, strangely.  I jokingly say that my mother could not have been present that day!

Q: When and where did you get your first big break?

A: My partner John Watson and I ran an independent TV specials and short films company in Canada which won many awards including Oscar nominations.  But my real big break was when I wrote and directed my first drama called If Wishes Were Horses, which caused Norman Jewison and the Canadian government to fund him mentoring me in Hollywood.  This high-level introduction led to us carving a great career in the years that followed creating features and TV series. 

Q: Tell us about the first film you ever wrote or produced. Looking back on it, what do you know now that you didn’t know then and how might this knowledge have changed your approach to the project?

Having never written a drama script – and only working on documentaries when I created If Wishes Were Horses – I used the team that I was familiar with which was all my documentary crew, etc.  I was literally trying to invent how to shoot a drama, how to work with actors, how to edit drama…and I barely survived the experience.  I can assure you that there are reasons why the people in our industry have the jobs they have! 

Q: For you, what defines a film’s success – its box office return, its legacy or the appreciation of its audience?

A: At the end of “Riding the Alligator”, I have a small commentary called “Was it Worth It?”.  My belief is that the best material I write comes from the heart and these scripts get made more frequently.  I have found that my passion for them pushes me to take more risks and face more rejections etc.  But no matter what, you cannot please everybody and even my most treasured movies received one or two scathing reviews.  This is inevitable, but the real question is, did you make the best effort you could to translate your words to the screen, can you live with the result, and would you do it all over again?

Q: There’s no question that technology has improved the “look” of films but has an excess of CGI and special effects diminished the quality or strength of the stories themselves?

A: I think the new technologies are liberating the imagination.  A film like Inception would be unthinkable 10 years ago.  At the other end of the scale, it’s possible to shoot a feature-quality movie on a consumer Canon still camera, edit it for free, and possibly see it released theatrically.  No matter what – there will be no audience for either end of this cost spectrum if the stories themselves do not communicate with the human beings in their audience. 

Q: Where do you see today’s writers having the greatest creative freedom?

A: Ed Burns recently released a movie he made for $25,000 and is working on his next feature at this level.  Once you are able to find a business model that actually returns the cost of your production, you have true freedom to express yourself.  And as film vanishes and digital technology lowers the production costs, we are probably going to see some truly liberated and amazing creations.

Q: Tell us about your book and what inspired you to write it.

A: In the way Norman Jewison helped me at the beginning, I feel it is important to follow his example and give back.  A few years ago one of my ex-staff made an effort to convince me to write a book and more recently I was asked to teach an MFA class at USC. I decided to share essays with my students on topics I could not find in other books and asked them literally to grade my work.  I assembled these chapters along with essays by 12 other major Hollywood writers into the kind of heart-felt, supportive, encouraging delivery that I would have wanted when I was starting out.

Q: What do you want readers to take away from its content?

A: The thesis of my book is that the most powerful thing you can do is write from an inner conviction and not try and guess what others want.  I have seen more scripts made of mine that I was impassioned to write – by far – than projects that the studios paid me to write.  It seems something special happens when you pursue your voice.  If my book helps others create movies that would have not existed then I will consider my efforts well worthwhile.

Q: Technology is shrinking the globe. Do you believe it is inversely expanding the opportunities for new screenwriters or making it even more competitive to break in?

A: The unique thing about screenplay writing – like painting and composing – is that these art forms are free to practice.  Unlike plumbing or being a doctor, there are no criteria that one must pass in order to be accepted.  As the world grows and changes as Joseph Campbell said “so do the myths that mankind needs”.  Those new, exciting myths will not come out of studios trying to clone the third remake of a comic book character – as entertaining as those might be – but as new technology frees the distribution up so that anyone can access it. Like YouTube, it will open a giant, human landscape for storytelling. 

Q: In recent years, a proliferation of indie studios has emerged. In your view, is the dog (major studios) still wagging the tail or is the tail now wagging the dog?

A: We are hopeful that there will be more independent distribution systems coming online soon.  At this present time the studios are still the key business channels and their distribution is eagerly sought by private financiers in order to justify their risk.  But this process is changing and within 5 years there could be a giant revolution, whether it’s iTunes, VOD, or screens the size of your wallet. 

Q: With so many filmmakers turning to 3D, what’s your prediction for where moviemaking will go next?

A:The concept of 3D needs some technical innovations to truly capture the market.  Wearing glasses that cut down the amount of light and interfere with your freedom of viewing is an inhibition to 3D.  I have seen demonstration models of televisions that require no glasses and technology is quite remarkable, and I believe we are highly likely to see that widely used on our computers and TVs in the near future.  The true use of 3D, however, is not to shove things into the audience’s faces but to create a deeper sense and involvement in the story.  When done with creativity and subtlety – and with no eye-strain –  3D will not seem anymore unusual than stereo sound or the move from black and white to color. 

Q: Given the volume of sequels, prequels, remakes and adaptations, do you think there’s a lack of fresh ideas in Hollywood?

A: It’s very hard for corporate employees to justify the vast expenditures of the very large tent-pole movies.  In the old days, film companies were owned by eccentric individuals who charismatically gambled on their gut about which stories to tell the audience.  With the bean-counters always looking for justification for expenditure, the need for pre-existing elements like books, graphic novels, TV series made into features and remakes of features becomes a way of justifying the investment.  But our discussions with the studios’ marketing analysis department is that the audience is always seeking the novel and the fresh as the most stimulating way to be entertained. 

Q: Which classic film would you most like to remake and who would you cast in the lead roles?

A: I actually had the privilege of making the movie that, as a child, truly excited me. It was Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood, and I was lucky to work with my partner John Watson to make our revisionist version starring Kevin Costner, Alan Rickman,  Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and Morgan Freeman,  and see it succeed. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Two of my current favorite projects are quite diametrically opposed – one is an Oscar caliber drama called Land of Enchantment about a cop with a tragedy in his past investigating the murder of a Navajo artist.  The other is a 1700’s steam-punk historical swashbuckler called Rogue, with all the fun and energy of Robin Hood. 

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: Send money. 😉   And thank you for your interest in ‘Riding the Alligator’!

 

Filmmaking For Change

We often think of movies as escapist fare, the only purpose of which is to entertain us. There are many films, however, that have not only brought  social, political and environmental issues into sharper focus but have also influenced public opinion and created a call for action. The transformative power of this visual medium and how today’s screenwriters and producers are using it to change the world is the subject of Jon Fitzgerald’s new book, Filmmaking for Change.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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 Let’s start with some background on when, where and how it was that you first knew you wanted to be in the film business.

This answer is probably longer than you have space for in this interview…but here is the short answer:  I had just finished my sophomore year of college at UCSB and had yet to choose a major. That summer, I went through a family trauma and after seeing a therapist, she said, “That would make a great movie!”  Then she proceeded to tell me about how structured screenplays were and that I should read a book on it. Probably as therapy more than anything else, but I thought it sounded interesting, so I spent that summer writing a screenplay. My working title was The Summer’s Edge. Then I went back to school in the Fall, took an intro film class and was hooked!  I declared Film Studies as my major and that was the beginning…
 
Who were your mentors in the early years and what was some of the best advice they gave you about being a filmmaker?

I had a bunch! It started with my first film professor, Janet Walker. She was very inspirational and supportive. And then there was my screenwriting professor Paul Lazarus. He really taught me how to write. Then a number of film execs on movies I worked on. And once I fell into festival directing – when my movie didn’t get into Sundance and we started Slamdance – I had the pleasure of meeting Steven Soderbergh who gave us some films, became a friend and mentor and eventually invested in my first real movie company and movie The Back Nine. They all taught me to follow my heart and my passion to try to tell stories I knew something about, rather than trying to fit a Hollywood formula.

In turn, what’s the best advice that you give others who are seeking to follow a similar path?

In terms of advice I give filmmakers, it would have to be to find a subject they care about and have a keen sense of understanding for that genre. You have to write what you know, or are passionate about. And in a genre you understand. Someone who wants to write a thriller should know that space. Someone who has a sense of comedy and timing is better off exploring that, rather than trying to direct a thriller because they are easier to sell. Sure, you can crossover later, but work in a genre you care about and study the history and talents in that space.
 
Did you watch a lot of movies when you were growing up and, if so, which ones still linger as the most memorable and/or life-changing for you?

As I mention in the book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer had an impact, and then To Kill a Mockingbird. Twelve Angry Men. All as a youth. All were entertaining, yet had messages.
 
What’s the last movie or documentary you watched that took your breath away?

Probably have to list a few. The Welcome was one of most powerful films recently. A film about war veterans, that I since have screened as a CineCause Spotlight film. Truly powerful about the experience these heroes face. It has been rewarding to see the audience response. And I’ve seen The Cove a few times and a great film with similar messages called Minds in the Water and One Day on Earth, which was groundbreaking in showing footage all shot on the same day, from every country in the world.
 
Tell us about the first film you ever directed.

After working on a number of films, constantly revising the script until I was ready, I directed Self Portrait (the same script I started years ago as The Summer’s Edge). I feel like it was a decent movie but, ultimately, with very little money and a fairly conservative storyline, it was hard to stand out. Coming of Age is a tough genre, particularly when you are trying to break in. While I still believe you have to write what you know, or study a certain genre or tone that speaks to you, it’s so hard to break in as a director, I think it helps to have a visual style, or brilliant screenplay, to attract attention and get a shot at your next film. And the biggest problem with most emerging filmmakers is they think the script is ready when it usually isn’t. Get help from friends and professionals to get a great story on the page, and have a great screenplay.

At what point did you decide to transition from being a filmmaker to becoming a film festival director?

For me, it came by accident. When my film (and two others) didn’t get into Sundance, we started Slamdance, so I learned how to be fest director on the job. What I learned fairly quickly is that this role has a lot of similarities to a film producer. And it certainly helps to have a good understanding of film history, in terms of studying the masters.
 
You’ve now jumped back into full-time filmmaking. What were the influences behind that decision?

I knew I would eventually step back into filmmaking. When I started Right Angle Studios to consult to film fests and filmmakers, I knew I would eventually launch Right Angle Pictures. It was just a question of having the time to raise the money and find the right project, which I did with The Back Nine. I felt like this story, and its inspirational theme, would connect to people who always had a dream they never had the opportunity to chase. One of our tag lines was “It’s never too late to become what you wanted to be.” and making a film about golf – one of my greatest passions – made sense. And, of course, with over 50 million golfers in North America, I felt there was an audience!
 
Films regarding socially relevant causes are an admirable passion of yours. How did this lead to the formation of CineCause and what, exactly, does CineCause do in terms of connecting films to topical issues?

Without even knowing it, I realized that the films that spoke to me, even as a youth, were films that had something to say. And when I saw what Participant did with An Inconvenient Truth and The Cove, and how they inspired people to take action – and provided the links and background information – I knew this was the right path. I just felt there was a wider platform than simply providing “causes” for one company’s films. With my experience at iFilm, I knew there was room to be a filter, a portal, to these types of films. So CineCause was created to help audiences discover socially relevant films, and provide them with related causes so they could “act” on the inspiration provided by the films.
 
What filmmakers do you most admire who are as passionate as you are about delivering an informative or enlightening message through the medium of entertainment?

That’s a long list!  A lot of filmmakers over the years have covered many genres but also created films with a greater purpose. From John Ford and How Green Was My Valley to Robert Wise and The Sound of Music, to Spielberg with Schindler’s List and Soderbergh with Erin Brockovich. In documentary, Errol Morris and The Thin Blue Line to Steve James with Hoop Dreams. These are just a few examples of master storytellers who have managed to enlighten through entertainment.
  
Should today’s aspiring filmmakers be taught social responsibility as part of their academic curriculum?

I feel like film and media is the most powerful tool to affect positive change, and film schools should share in the responsibility to embrace and support the idea of training emerging filmmakers to explore using this medium to do more than just make money. Yes, it’s a business, but why not leverage this position and put it to good use? As these examples demonstrate, you can develop entertaining, profitable movies that can help make a difference in the world.
 
In a related vein, should filmmakers be held accountable if their productions trigger negative consequences?

Yes, they have to know that they influence their viewers, for better or for worse. They have to accept this responsibility once they put on the filmmaker’s hat. It’s their choice if they want to make horror films or social issue entertainment, and each has a price and a result.
 
So tell us how your idea for Filmmaking For Change came about and who you see as your readership for it.

I felt like it was time to create a text that could support the notion of developing movies with a social purpose in mind. And most film schools have not had such a direct platform. By putting some familiar films in such a context, giving examples of history and the power of film, hopefully, this can become part of future film school programs. And, as outlined in the book with the case study for Forks Over Knives, people with a message or issue to share can procure filmmakers to help realize a vision, and bring their message to the screen. And they don’t have to be trained filmmakers to develop the concepts.
 
Was your role as a writer harder or easier than that of being a filmmaker or film festival director?

In a way, this was an exercise in sharing what I have learned. Yes, I had to do some research to support the history, but otherwise, the book is divided into basic sections of Development, Production and Distribution. Over the years, I have had the pleasure not only to develop and produce such films, but to market through festivals and provide consulting in the distribution space.
 
How did you go about developing the exercises at the end of the chapters?

I just wanted to get readers to think about the categories and put them into context, so they could really apply the basic information to actual experiences they have had, or could consider. To develop any skill, it helps to see examples, to be able to model what has worked in the past.
 
What do you see as the takeaway value of the book?

It proves that anyone with a passion for an issue can develop an idea and put together a team to bring it to the screen…and have an opportunity to affect positive change.
 
Do you one day envision yourself using the book in a classroom?

Absolutely!  I have taught film classes before and whether I am the instructor, or other professors embrace this tool, I hope to be part of that movement.
 
What’s next on your plate?

In addition to developing CineCause, I am working with a team of producers and will direct a film about the importance of breastfeeding. America has one of the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the world, and American culture has accepted the brainwashing of formula companies. We want to help close the gap, showing the value of this natural practice…We want to “change the formula.”

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To learn more, readers are invited to visit www.filmmakingforchange.com. Filmmaking for Change is available on Amazon as well as at Michael Wiese Productions (www.mwp.com).

Dark Light

Hollywood routinely delivers no shortage of scary imagery – malevolent aliens, mutant monsters, brain chomping zombies. Of all the worst nightmares that can be unleashed in the imagination of a parent, however, is the heart-stopping fear that s/he might one day be unable to do anything for a beloved child with a life-threatening illness. For families such as these, there is perhaps no better godsend on the planet than a place like Ronald McDonald House.

From its Philadelphia origins in 1974, the collaborative efforts of RMH’s medical staff, social workers and volunteers have enabled this iconic charity to evolve into a multifaceted international platform that serves the needs of over 2,000 families per year. Passionate collaboration is also at the heart of Dark Light, a new anthology that not only made its debut this summer but will also be donating proceeds to ensure that the work of this organization can continue to deliver miracles.

Author/editor Carl Hose took time from his busy schedule to share some background on how this particular story collection came about and why RMH is a cause that’s close to his heart.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Let’s start out with some background about you, your career path, and what your inspiration was to pursue the writing life.

I started writing when I was about thirteen. When I reached high school, I’d actually skip out of school not to run around, but to sit at home with my typewriter and create stories. A lot of what I wrote back then were my own stories based on a cop show character called Baretta. When I tired of that, I started writing original stuff, none of which was very good. I started submitting to magazines and basement press publications way before my work was ready for print, so there were plenty of rejections. I hung on to those rejections for inspiration. I figured rejection slips were a sign I was at least trying! The more I submitted, the more acceptances I got, and the more acceptances I got, the more my work was purchased and published. Eventually, the rejections became less than the acceptances. Writing is something that needs to be pursued with vigor if you want to succeed, and believe me, I have been vigorous!

Do you recall some of the books and authors that influenced your perspectives about the world and your place in it?

Some of my early writing was shaped by the Execution paperbacks by Don Pendleton and all the pulp Doc Savage books that Bantam published way back when I was a kid. I was also inspired by the TV police dramas like Baretta, Starsky and Hutch, Kojak—that sort of thing. Earlier, though, my dad and stepmom took me to see movies like The Exorcist, Last House on the Left, and the classic Don’t Look in the Basement. Seeing those on a big screen at the drive-in really had a huge impact on my writing. Mark Twain is always an inspiration, and as I got older, I discovered Stephen King, Graham Masterton, and Robert McCammon. Nowadays, with the explosion in indie publishing, I am discovering many writers who inspire me.

Tell us a little about your anthology and what inspired you to make it your priority project.

It all began when my wife and I had a baby girl named Ireland on January 27th. She was premature and had to spend time in NICU. The hospital was quite far from our house and we wanted to spend every minute with her. We were going to sleep in her room, but the hospital set us up with the Ronald McDonald House.

At the time I was marginally familiar with what they do, but had never really paid a lot of attention to the organization. It’s amazing! They gave us a place to stay that basically amounted to a pretty nice hotel room. They cooked three meals a day and we had access to the kitchen at all hours of the night. The organization is run primarily on volunteers. We were in there on Valentine’s Day and they even provided cards so none of the guests had to worry about it. It was all about making it convenient, leaving nothing for guests to do except concentrate on their children in the hospital. They do this around the clock, twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year.

All my wife and I did was walk back and forth between the Ronald McDonald House and the hospital for three weeks, feeding our baby, holding her, giving her the love and attention we were sure she needed to develop and survive. One night as we were taking a breather in our room, I told my wife I wanted to find a way to repay RMH. I came up with the idea for the anthology. The title came pretty quickly. Dark Light signifies horror writers writing for a good cause. My wife Marcee loved the idea, so I literally contacted writers through Facebook and asked if they would participate. Almost none of the writers I contacted said no. Dark Markets jumped in and listed the call for submissions and I got a couple of stories that way, too. In total, there are 42 writers and 44 stories in the book. A couple of the writers contributed double. Nearly 600 pages and 168,130 words. That’s a lot of heart!

Not to mention a lot of work!

I wanted to keep it simple. I basically asked writers to submit a horror story, any length, any theme, new or reprinted. On my walks to and from the hospital, I would check my Facebook and feel so excited and touched each time one of these amazing authors responded that he or she would participate. I can literally remember where I was and what I was doing when I received messages from these authors saying they’d be happy to participate. I actually pitched this idea to the staff at RMH before I even left. I was afraid they might not like the idea of taking money from a book by a bunch of horror writers, but they thought the idea was a good one and were excited about the project.

I started contacting writers in early February. For a June release date, that’s an extremely fast time span to have pulled together this many authors, edit the stories, get contracts signed, bios gathered—they didn’t play around. They all responded quickly and did what they could do to help me move the project along. My wife did the cover, three of us read and edited the book, and the final touches are being put on right now.

Where will readers be able to get a copy?

The book will be available digitally at Amazon for Kindle, Barnes and Noble for the Nook, the Apple store for iPad, and also for the Sony Reader. It will be available in print at Amazon and in as many brick and mortar stores and online bookstores as I can get it in. I’ve got a pretty wide distribution set up in place. I’m publishing it through my MARLvision Publishing imprint.

Here’s what some of the writers had to say about contributing to the anthology:

“When Carl asked me to contribute a story for Dark Light, I felt that ‘When Shadows Come Back’ was a perfect fit for both the title and the idea.  It’s an honor to have my story reprinted in an anthology that is for a good cause, and also one that is close to the heart of the editor”—Nancy Kilpatrick (When Shadows Come Back)

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“When someone you love has a serious medical condition, it can literally feel like the world is crumbling around you. It’s like this personal apocalypse where fear and uncertainty hold sway. But the Ronald McDonald House provides in the real world what the characters in my stories need so badly: a ray of hope in the face of adversity and safe harbor in trying times”—William Todd Rose (Hunters)

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“I decided to get involved with Dark Light for two reasons. On a general level, I wanted to help the Ronald McDonald House. Growing up, my family was poor, the kind of poor where you’re wearing coats that don’t quite fit in the winter and each new school term comes with a new place to live, sometimes yours, sometimes a friend’s or a relative’s, and sometimes neither. Any organization that helps people who need it and especially one that helps families stay together is, I think, necessary and deserving of whatever any of us can give or do. On a more specific level, I wanted to help because one of my best friends stayed at a Ronald McDonald House as a young teen. Without them, she would have been separated from her family when she needed them most. This is my way of thanking her for all she’s done for me. Dark Light is a great anthology, and I’m very proud to have had the opportunity to contribute to such a deserving cause”—Chris Shearer (The Long Wait)

* * *

Ronald McDonald House provides much needed services to families of critically ill children, allowing them to be close in times of need. This organization has helped families all over the world and giving a story to help benefit them is the least I can do to help give back to this wonderful charity—Joseph Mulak (Cognitive)

* * *

“I was touched by Carl’s personal experience at the Ronald McDonald House, and I didn’t want to pass up the chance of having my work appear in the company of some of the best and brightest in the horror biz. And the darkest”—Randy Chandler (3:33 and Death Comes Calling)

* * *

“As a parent of a child with special needs, I understand the necessity of a support system such as the national network of Ronald McDonald houses. As a writer, submitting to Dark Light was a way for me to provide not only an entertaining story for an awesome anthology, but a heartfelt contribution to a charity that gives so much to families when they feel as if they have so little. In Dark Light, MARLvision Publishing pulls from the crème de la crème of the horror industry, joining together to shine light into the darkness of childhood illnesses through the donation of the anthology proceeds”—Angeline Hawkes (Shattered Mirrors and Smokeless Flames)

* * *

How do you think this book will resonate with readers?

Well, I certainly want readers to be entertained, and I believe they will. There are so many fans of each of these writers, and to have all of these fans mingling together and discovering other writers they might enjoy as well, that’s a really cool thing. What I’d like readers to take away from the reading experience, besides having been entertained, is that while the world may be a dark place, there is always light at the end of the tunnel. That sort of goes along with the title. I’d also like them to keep in mind the project was accomplished by the sheer generosity of people who didn’t need to get involved but did so because they cared to pause a moment and help me give back. And these are horror writers. We don’t always have the best reputations.

What’s next on your plate?

I’m working on my novel Evil Resurrection, a novel with William Todd Rose called Black Rain, and an as-yet-untitled novella with Walt Hicks. William Todd Rose and Walt Hicks have stories in the Dark Light anthology as well.

Anything else you’d like readers to know about you or about the book?

I’m just a writer who adores my family and appreciates what life brings me. Anyone who is interested can find me on Facebook, along with more info on Dark Light, or at http://www.carlhose.net.

The Complete Filmmaker’s Guide to Film Festivals

So many festivals, so little time!

If you’re an aspiring indie filmmaker looking to shop your production ideas to industry movers and shakers, participation in a film festival may be just the ticket. The question is, though, how do you find them, which ones should you attend and what do you do once you get there? Co-authors Rona Edwards and Monika Skerbelis not only address these issues and more in their latest release, The Complete Filmmaker’s Guide to Film Festivals, but also took the time to share their mutual passion for movies in the following feature interview.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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CH: Let’s start out with your respective backgrounds, when/how you decided you were attracted to a career in film, and how the two of you met.

MS: I’ve always wanted to work in entertainment and started out as an assistant in the Paramount Pictures Story Department and worked my up through the studio system. After Paramount I went to 20th Century Fox where I was promoted to a Story Editor and then Universal Pictures as an Executive Story Editor promoted to Vice President of Creative. While working at Universal, a mutual friend suggested Rona and I meet.  We ended up doing a guest speaking gig together for a screenwriting conference in Colorado that lead to us teaching and working together.  

RE: I started as an actor/singer – I can’t remember when I wasn’t acting or singing. I graduated from California Institute of the Arts with a degree in theatre.  After graduating, I did some acting gigs when a friend of mine asked if I would help do some location scouting for this Saturday children’s special – in actuality they had the locations, they just wanted me to get releases signed by the neighborhood. I had ulterior motives – thinking I would hang around the set and the producers would cast me. Instead, they liked what I had to say and asked me to come on board as a development exec at their company.  I told them I was an actor and they said, “You can still act!” Well those were the famous last words as everyone knows, a development exec has no life except reading scripts.  From there I wrote a script that was optioned and not produced before working for John Larroquette’s company at Warner Bros. We made a film together, One Special Victory.  When I left John, I wrote another script that was optioned and not produced before landing at Oscar winner Michael Phillips’ company where I straddled the fence developing both feature and television projects for him.  After that I say I was dragged kicking and screaming into the world of independent producing and have produced 10 films mostly for TV while having countless others in development for both feature and television.

CH: Who were your mentors in the early years and what do you know now that you didn’t know when you started?

MS: I started as a “temporary” employee at various entertainment-related companies until I landed at Paramount Pictures where I met Lora Lee who ran the story department and she became a fantastic mentor.  When I moved to Universal Pictures, Cari-Esta Albert helped guide me along my career path. In retrospect, I would be less shy about meeting people and really stay connected to everyone I met. You never know where your friends will end up and hire you for a project.

RE:  I would say my mentor was Fern Field, the first development job I had was with her company, Brookfield Productions. I blame her! Haha! She is still my mentor today and is very well respected for her good taste, the fact that she’s a helluva producer and also very kind and considerate.  However, I think if there was one thing I didn’t know then and what I certainly know now is that it takes forever to get something made in this town!  As Laura Ziskin once said, “Movies aren’t made, they’re forced into existence.”  And to be a good producer, you can never take “no” as an answer – I always say, if something is good, it’s just “no” for now.

CH: What were your favorite movies before you started making movies yourselves?

MS: I am fond of classic films like Citizen Kane and Casablanca. However, I was a big fan of John Hughes films and romantic comedies.

RE:  So many!  I love Gone with the Wind – the big epic love story but I was also deeply affected (should I admit this) by Mary Poppins and The Wizard of Oz!  I think I wanted Julie Andrews to be MY nanny!  A Streetcar Named Desire, Susan Hayward films, Bette Davis, Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Cary Grant, Montgomery Clift, Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, Judy Garland, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Julie Christie – I was very affected by strong women characters – I think I wanted to be Susan Hayward when I grew up – sexy, strong – what a great walk she had. I was also a big fan of the original, The Women, Wuthering Heights, and I love musicals and David Lean films like Doctor Zhivago  and Ryan’s Daughter. Almost any Billy Wilder film.  Of course there are the prerequisite classics, which I have a great appreciation for, so it’s hard to just nail down a few movies – I love all genres and love to be taken on a journey! 

CH: What’s the latest movie you’ve seen that made you say “Wow!”

MS: So far this year, Beasts of the Southern Wild.  From last year, Midnight in Paris, The Help and Hugo.

RE:  To be honest, not much has made me go “wow.” There were some good movies but none that have bowled me over much. I liked The Hunger Games very much as I did The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel so far.  Last year, The Artist was a big risk that paid off – beautifully done, unique and innovative considering it was a silent film.  And, I laughed like crazy at Bridesmaids. I think television is offering more “wow” moments lately than feature films.

CH: For Rona, what did being an actor teach you about being a producer?

RE: Everything!  I approach everything from the sensibility of an actor.  When I teach my students screenwriting, I always ask them who they think the writer has the most affinity with on the set, and inevitably they answer, “the director.” Wrong!  It’s the writer.  The writer approaches writing the material much like the actor approaches the material.  A scene is set up in which the character has an objective (a goal) and will do anything they can to achieve it.  So the writer and the actor will ask, what does my character want? What does he or she do to get it? And what’s in the way of getting it?  That’s the basic questions of conflict and drama – and both artists ask those same questions – therefore, in my humble opinion, the writer and the actor have the closest relationship. The director will bring the writer’s vision to life (and hopefully make the actor look good) but they are concerned with the camera and what the audience sees not just the minutiae of each scene and overall objectives of each character.  That’s not to say some directors will work as closely with the script as a writer or actor does but suffice it to say they may not approach it the same way. So when I look at a script as a producer, I look for characters who have strong objectives, have great obstacles in their way (a formidable villain or opponent) and make choices that may dig them deeper into the hole before they can pull themselves up by the bootstraps and become true heroes.  I look at characters that are flawed and have to overcome or use those flaws to help them get where they need to go.  Good writing is all about the character driving the action rather than the premise driving the character. And as an actor, you always approach it from character (again this doesn’t mean you don’t look at the overall picture but in order to create a fully developed character, you need to dig deep into the choices, the background and baggage of the character and use it throughout the story).

CH: For Monika, tell us about ESE Film Workshops Online and why the distance learning concept is appealing to aspiring filmmakers.

MS: ESE Film Workshops Online provide an opportunity for emerging and seasoned filmmakers and students to learn what they may not have been taught in college. Colleges teach nuts and bolts but don’t necessarily prepare students for the real world. We fill that gap by teaching about the Hollywood development process. Students learn how to write development notes and coverage and have a deeper understanding of why and how the players fit together in what is commonly called “development hell.”  That’s the basis of our first book, I Liked It, Didn’t Love It (Screenplay Development From the Inside Out).  We offer several courses “Screenplay Development from the Inside Out”; “Creating a Production Company” which highlights the necessary tools needed to kickstart a production company; “Finding & Developing New Ideas” helps writers develop stories, with different exercises for them to think outside the box and “Maneuvering Film Festivals” takes the filmmakers through a step-by-step process on how to prepare for the film festival circuit. In this day and age, we live in a global highly digital environment – distance learning offers everyone, worldwide, an opportunity to learn from wherever they are – they only need to “click, type, download and read.”  Plus our workshops are offered in 4-6 week increments making it affordable time-wise and our students get us as their mentors during that period, where they can ask us anything and we hand hold them through the process – we’ve had great success stories from our students applying what they’ve learned from ESE Film Workshops Online in the real world of filmmaking, film festivals and screenwriting. 

CH: What was the inspiration behind your new book?

MS: We’ve been teaching “Maneuvering Film Festivals” online for the past five years as well as providing film consultations for filmmakers on how to prep and target the right festivals for their films, so the natural progression was to write a textbook to help filmmakers understand that there are more festivals out there besides Cannes and Sundance.

RE: In addition, we felt it was important that filmmakers realized they may think the hard work is done when the film is in the can but such is not the case. The real work begins after it’s in the can.  You need a strategy, goals, and you need to understand it’s not just about the film you have in the festival, it’s about your future as a filmmaker.  You need to be part filmmaker, part marketing guru, part advertising director and promoter.  With both our books, we found there was a lack of understanding and in both cases felt that if only we had had these books when we were starting out, life would have been so much easier – and we’re now hearing that from the students and filmmakers who have bought the books and those that have taken our courses.  It’s very gratifying.

CH: As co-authors, what was your writing process for putting it all together?

MS: We would target what we wanted to say in each chapter and then write chapters and edit each other.  I’ve spent many years on the festival circuit attending film festivals and programming films so I would impart first-hand experience that we would work into the chapters.

RE: We outlined each chapter – in the case of this book, I was in Singapore most of the time –so we had to work via email and Skype. Basically there would be what I call a throw up draft – which we would then hone and hone till we were satisfied.  This book took a lot of research – and we kept having to research until the publishing date to make sure all the information was up-to-date and accurate.  We did interviews in person together with sales reps, distributors and filmmakers. Monika is a great researcher and very organized. I would oftentimes write the chapters, instilling a throughline; trying to bring in a conversational and sometimes a humorous voice to what could be “dry” material rather than just a laundry list of criteria.  Being a journalist helped in asking questions, the kind of questions we thought filmmakers would want to know the answers to, and ultimately, we would then go back and forth via email for each other’s comments.  Also, like our first book, we wanted a cartoon to start every chapter that would set a fun tone.  We were lucky to have Steve Tatham (who works at Disney) sketch out our ideas.  We had the quotations and subtitles already, told him the kind of cartoon we envisioned and he did a great job translating it into the graphics that are in the book.

CH: In terms of advantages and disadvantages, how does participation at a film festival compare to marketing a new film through non-festival venues?

MS: Advantages of Festival participation is the networking involved, exposure for the film and filmmaker and possibly catching the eye of an agent, manager, producer or talent who may want to collaborate on a project.

RE: Well an indie film won’t have the advantage over a studio film in non-festival venues without a festival to help create the buzz.  It’s harder and harder these days for indie films to get exhibitors to showcase their films, and distributors to sell their films.  Studios can afford a P&A budget, most indie films don’t have that – so a festival offers free publicity – and helps the distributors save advertising/marketing bucks if the film is lucky enough to get great reviews and buzz.  A new filmmaker can also capitalize on the buzz their film gets at a festival.  Sometimes they come out with representation as Monika stated above, but sometimes they can come out of it with a studio deal or money for their next indie film.  That’s why we can’t articulate this enough, and we state it over and over in the book, that the filmmaker has to take advantage of all the publicity opportunities a festival may have to offer.  The disadvantage however is that if the film isn’t well-received, well, it can kill it before it gets out of the starting gate.  You have to be a realist.  But hopefully the film is good and it will find its audience and accolades.

CH: How does a prospective participant decide which film festivals are going to be the right matches and provide the best or most exposure for their work and their talents?

MS: First they need to understand what their film has to offer – does it fall into a niche theme – LGBT, Native American, Environmental, Jewish, Asian, African American, Latino, mountain activities, etc. There are many festivals that screen a specific theme or a sidebar theme that a film might be right for. If they have a short film, then they would want to target the Academy Qualifying Film Festivals first because if they win that festival, they will be in the pool of potential Oscar nominees and that will help elevate the filmmaker and their work. The list is updated yearly and can be found at oscars.org or in our book. There are five top film festivals (Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, Venice and Toronto), but 4,000+ festivals worldwide.

RE:  But it’s not just the top tier festivals – filmmakers should look at smaller festivals and who is behind that festival – who attends it?  You can check this out easily enough on their respective websites.  You want to make sure there’s an “industry” presence. Who are the jurors?  Who are on the panels (most festivals have an educational component with workshops and panels)? Will your work be seen by people who can make a difference in your career, in your film?  So, sometimes the smaller festivals can be more intimate but still have a strong industry presence – don’t discount those.  All you need is one person who sees your work, wants to represent you, or buy it!   Again, it comes down to your strategy and your goals.  Sometimes you may just want to go to a festival because it’s what we call a “destination” festival – you just want to go to that place so you use the acceptance into that festival as an excuse to visit someplace you haven’t been before. 

CH: Where does one find out where film festivals are being held?

MS: The back of our book has an intensive listing of film festivals by region and country. Also, if you go to our website www.maneuveringfilmfestivals.com you can request an updated listing of film festivals.

RE: Yes we plan to keep the list updated via our website as a freebie for anyone who wants it – it changes all the time.  Pretty much every big city has a few film festivals (some more genre specific), and more and more are cropping up every day.  But we offer a list of a thousand plus film festivals with their websites which should give filmmakers a good start!

CH: What does it typically cost to attend a festival?

MS: We have a great expense estimate form in our book that helps filmmakers break down the cost to attend a film festival.  A three day trip to Sundance Film Festival could cost the filmmaker close to $2,000 with entry fees, lodging, transportation, additional tickets, food, drinks, advertising, etc. A day trip could cost the price of gasoline, cost for drinks or snacks.

RE:  Most filmmakers make the mistake of not including film festivals/promotion in their budgets – big mistake.  As Monika stated a 3 day Sundance trip is upwards of $2,000.  So you have to be smart how you strategize, which festivals you will attend, which you will just show your film at without your presence, and also include the promotion of that film (posters, postcards, giveaways, etc).  It can really add up.  Six festivals could cost 10 grand depending on where and what you plan to do at them (as well as who you bring with you).

CH: What does the first-time visitor to a film festival need to know in order to best prepare himself/herself for the experience?

MS: Evaluate the website fully so you get an idea of the box office location, schedule of films, panels, seminars, location of where events are taking place and local lodging and restaurants. Some festivals have an app that is useful. If you are spending the night, secure your accommodations in advance. Once you arrive, pick up a film program then hit the theaters. For filmmakers with films in the festival, you will want to locate the filmmaker lounge or filmmaker hospitality suite so you can display any posters or postcards.

RE: It’s a good idea to also try and contact the local press and send them an EPK (electronic press kit) – we help you with that in the book as well as in our online course.  Try and get interviews with the local newspapers, radio and television stations a week before the festival to help promote the film.  It helps to come up earlier than your screening so you can scope out the best places to promote the film and yourself, know where things are and make sure everything runs smoothly.

CH: Economics and accessibility have made it easier than ever before to break into filmmaking. Given the amount of competition this has created, however, is it actually harder than it was, say 20 years ago?

MS: We feel it is easier today since for less than $5,000 a filmmaker can have a digital camera, editing software, etc. and make a film. However, because of this, the quality of films can be challenging to watch and festivals receive lesser quality films.

RE:  If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage!  Yes it’s easier and cheaper to make films for the younger gorilla filmmaker – but you still have to be grounded in structure and have a solid understanding of how to make a film (film schools are more prevalent now then, say, 20 years ago – so hopefully there is a solid ground for this kind of education). You still have to know how to tell a story.  There will always be good films and there will always be bad films.  Though no one starts out to make a turkey.  The competition for an audience is more difficult and costly, and the same old people are making films for the studios because they are taking less chances with new people – as they want you to prove yourself first.  This opens the door for indie film but in the end it all comes down to a good story and characters you want to root for.  There is no magic bullet.  It takes a lot of hard work.  It’s always been a difficult business – however, conversely, because the equipment is easily attainable, it gives way for the real talent and cream to rise to the top.  I think it’s an advantage to cultivate talent and I am always in awe of my students’ films made on inexpensive cameras and edited in Final Cut or Avid.  They surprise me with the quality and their storytelling abilities. It’s very rewarding to see.  That doesn’t mean I don’t’ see bad films too but the majority are darn good and having less expensive equipment gives them the opportunity to experiment and try things they might not have been able to do if it cost a lot more money to do so or if someone else (i.e., a studio) was footing the bill.

CH: If a high school student came to you and said, “I don’t want to go to college because I only want to make movies,” what would your advice be?

MS: Go to college and get your degree!  You can make short films while in college and submit them to festivals. The films are a calling cards, so it is great to be able to meet industry professionals at festivals and by the time you leave college you will have networking skills and have a better understanding of how films are acquired. If your film career doesn’t take off, at least you have your degree to seek out other employment.

RE:  I would go one step further – go to graduate school, too.  Just in case!  Do it while you’re young.  Also, you get to use your college or university’s facilities. I remember my last year at CalArts, I walked the halls realizing I would no longer have these rooms to rehearse in, or film in, and it would always cost me after that – there’s a support in college – plus so many of your cohorts will end up climbing the ladder of success with you.  That’s where real relationships are forged – lasting ones.  Production Designers, Editors, DPs, meet Directors and Producers who they continue to work with long after school. You don’t realize when you’re in school all the relationships and equipment that are at your fingertips let alone the support from your fellow students (who work on your films) and faculty (who help advise and guide you) – most times you work without that kind of a net.

CH: What’s something that most people would be surprised to know about you?

MS: I am first generation American and there is no other Monika Skerbelis in the United States and possibly beyond. I love to travel and have backpacked throughout Europe, hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, went horseback riding in Patagonia, biked the Canadian Rockies Icefieds Parkway from Banff to Jasper and drove my car by myself from Los Angeles to Alaska up the Alcan Highway. I also enjoy visiting lighthouses and the serenity they evoke.

RE:  I have a great singing voice (even if I say so myself – haha). Most people in the industry when they come hear me sing usually say, “I know you said you sang…but I didn’t know you <u>sang</u>!” I play a few instruments – self taught, have done musicals to great reviews and love photography. I’m also a great cook! My colleagues here in Singapore love coming to my place for a meal – they say I view food like I do art – with a strong aesthetic in both taste and visual.  There’s probably a lot that would surprise people to know about me – that’s probably a good thing – I even surprise myself sometimes!

CH: What’s next on your plate?

MS:  ESE Film Workshops will be gearing up for more classes to teach online and we have other books in the works in the near future. At the moment, I’m finalizing the films for the Big Bear Lake International Film Festival where I’ve been programming films for 13 years, then I’ll be gearing up programming films for the American Pavilion’s Emerging Filmmaker Showcase at the Cannes Film Festival for my 5th year. I also have a short documentary and a script I’m developing.

RE: I’ve got a few movies that are slowly making it to the launch pad in both feature and television plus I’m looking to produce movies as co-productions in the Southeast Asia/Australian regions.  I’ve been developing a few ideas of my own along with a fictional novel.  It’s just finding time to write with everything else going on.  There’s always so much to keep me busy and make life interesting.  In actuality, I’d just love to find time to read a book for pleasure!

CH: Anything else you’d like to share?

MS: We will be doing a book signing at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena on January 10, 2013 and a lecture for the Scriptwriters Network in Los Angeles on June 15, 2013.  We are also working on getting more book signings in the near future.

RE: We had a book launch at Kinokinuya Bookstore in Singapore in April, followed by signings at Book Soup and Bookstar Barnes & Noble in the states.  We always give a short presentation and Q&A at these events which gives our audience something more than just buying the book.  We’re also looking to lecture at film festivals and filmmaking/screenwriting events worldwide.  It combines our love of travel and film!  Plus we love giving back, sharing our knowledge as well as helping and nurturing filmmakers and screenwriters – so it’s a win-win situation for everyone.

Hi, Readers!

For as long as I can remember I’ve been a voracious reader. I memorized the route of the neighborhood bookmobile, I always checked out the maximum number of titles at the school library, and I suspect that if a Beast had given me access to a ginormous collection of books in his castle, I’d have had no reason to ever leave. My allowance was regularly spent on the latest Nancy Drew mysteries (which I read with zeal and via penlight under the covers long after it was past my bedtime). Even as an adult, I probably have enough books to open a lovely bookstore, although I’m sure I’d develop a modicum of angst about parting with some of my favorites and sending them out the door with a total stranger.

In the 30+ years of my own career as a professional writer, I’ve always been intrigued by what inspires my fellow authors, who their mentors were, how they organize their work day, what they’re passionate about, and what they’re currently reading. Thus was born the idea of launching “You Read It Here First” – a gathering place for those who love to write and those who love to read.

If you’re an author who’d like to chat about your latest title as well as share insider tips for those who are just beginning their own journeys in fiction (any genre), nonfiction, playwriting, or screenwriting, drop me an email (authorhamlett@cs.com) and let’s get the conversation started.