Thursday, June 16, 2016

Empty Theatre Seats

 Empty Theatre Seats

From the 2nd Floor #12

Filmmakers and screenwriters enjoy a visit to the big screen. When was the last time you took in a film and found the theatre more than half empty?

Ever ask why so few are coming to the theatre? Stand out front and listen. It’s amazing to watch a family of four or five walk to the ticket window, hesitate when reading the prices, and slowly shrink back and make a beeline to the parking lot.

I overheard one man say, “Fifty bucks plus the concession stand and then add the babysitter? Are you kidding? Let’s rent a movie and have a backyard picnic.”

I’m just like every filmmaker in the business. Most don’t have an “E” ticket into the studios or have an “A” agent pushing to get your project through the door. Without major help, the chances of a brilliant film or screenplay being read or getting a green light for production are in the same category as finding a diamond ring at the dump under twenty tons of miscellaneous trash.

I don’t want to sound negative, but sometimes a reality check floats to the surface and filmmakers must recognize truth and facts before the project can search for a lifeline.

Many years ago I attended a Theatre Owner’s convention. A friend of mine owned a small chain and invited me to keep him company. I had this crazy idea then and still have it. I discussed with a group of owners why more theatres didn’t use their “down time” or if you will “Empty Seat Time” to increase opportunities of making more money?

My friend and his colleagues laughed at my idea. Many of them are no longer in business. I’ll bet my conception of improving customer relations back then would work even better in today markets.

Stop laughing. Hotel chains have empty rooms, airline companies vacant seats, retailers overstocked with product find ways to unload un-purchased goods by wholesaling inventory off to smaller retailers, so why can’t theatres chains use empty seats to attract a new audience? Why not learn the art of bartering between theatre owner and filmmaker so everyone can make money? How many great Indy films have been made but can’t find distribution or theatres to show them?

It’s tough when a producer can’t bring his or her product to market and this festering situation creates a catastrophic death sentence for many brilliantly entertaining motion pictures? In most cases these films may find a release via DVD rental or a minor TV or cable sale, but miss hitting even a single at the ballpark. 

Everyone who enjoys films has rented an unknown production with no stars or famous filmmakers and is truly entertained. Most wonder what happened and why did such a great film never surface? How did this brilliantly produced film get skipped over by all the studios, distributors and theatres?  The answer is simple, no stars, no famous director or worse no best-selling novel to pre-build an audience. The production is “just another film.”

Take “ROOM” for example. This is a great film, fabulous acting and a simple story. This film could have easily slipped through the cracks and disappeared. Instead it got lucky, found a home, found an entity willing to take a chance on a film with no known stars, no named director, hell the film wasn’t even made in America – and yet became a huge hit.

There are many films like this and it’s a shame. It’s hard enough for independent filmmakers to raise money and produce a film. Every investor wants a distributor, gold up front and profit before making the final cut because financiers know the odds are against making money without all the pieces being in the right place before the start of production. Very few independent films can get a guarantee, a distributor’s cash advance, a negative pickup, or even an agreement showing a guarantee of distribution. The Indy distributors need help too.

Wait a minute. What if, ah, don’t you love those three little words? What if you find a small distributor willing to run with your film and maybe a group of theatres are willing to screen the film without all the guarantees of advertising and TV commercials?

Impossible? No way. Let’s not forget social media. We have creative minds making films and raising money so there must be a way to ask the theatre chains why not use downtime, that curse of “empty seat syndrome” for better use? Start showing the lesser known films at particular times of the day – maybe even offer a price break at the ticket box – and see if any of the new products on the block can grow legs?

What if the filmmakers help the theatres with social media? Using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms or even create their own infomercials to create a buzz about their film? I believe that would do the trick. Amazing how fast social media responds to something good. If a filmmaker can made a good commercial film he or she can build a social media platforms and infomercials.

Every major and minor theatre owner has empty seat syndrome. Why they haven’t figured out a way to cure this by now is the mystery. What are they waiting for – to go out of business? Ticket prices are too high but they too have to meet the studio minimum or they don’t get the big films. They suffer if the big film is a turkey and then end up with … empty seats. Forget overhead or lack of snack bar sales, if the big films take a dump so does the revenue stream.

If theatres learned to bring in new blood, or I guess I should say new films from the Indy world, the audiences would come out of curiosity. Everyone likes to go to the theatre and see a film on the “BIG” screen. What everyone doesn’t like to do is pay $25 up to $50 dollars per couple to see a film or a $100 for a family of four. If a bad film is watched they may not come back to the theatre for months.

What if theatres found a way to bring in a constant flow of new product in this digital world we live in, and offer unhappy customers a reduction or a discount ticket to see another great film with lesser stars or an unknown filmmaker?

What if theatres could deal with a smaller less greedy or over-taxed distributor without guarantees or advances and still get quality first run films? They could make simple deals and split the box office with a number that would make both sides happy?

Gee, maybe, just maybe small films might start making money for the investors, the red box and Netflix would have more product, more films would then have a theatrical run so foreign sales would increase in size and … AND the theatres would start making extra revenue from all those empty seats that are … well empty.

Keep in mind this could work. Every single move made by corporate America begins with an idea. This particular one has been floating around for a long time. Who knows? Maybe the major theatre owners and studios will get together and agree on something new?

So, when I’m not running around trying to raise money to make another independent film as I perennially endure 24/7, I take time to put words together for another novel or screenplay, aid my fellow filmmakers and writers any way I can, and do my best to stir up the kettle. Drop me a line, I have an opinion on everything.

William Byron Hillman © 2016

Visit my revised web site
Now offering Script Consultation

Recently Completed Screenplays
Quigley 2
The Legend of El Doblo

Recently Published Novels
Over A Cup of Caramelized Chocolate
Within an Inch of the Moon
Let’s Sue ‘Em
Quigley’s Christmas Adventure


Tuesday, February 16, 2016

From the Second Floor #11

The Backstory

From the 2nd Floor #11

We write words. We hope that pile of nonsense can be organized into an order others will enjoy reading and watching.

Writers have goals, albeit a novel, short story or screenplay. I’ll leave theatre plays and other media out of the conversation for the time being.

We finish the work. It’s re-read, polished, examined by friends and agreed upon to be the final draft. It’s done.

But is all that work really done? Is it commercial? Did you create a backstory? Is there one character that will be loved, hated or admired? In other words, is it complete?

Let’s assume the ultimate goal is to write a screenplay designed for studio production and of course make money for everyone and win an Academy Award.

Your goal is aggressive, but can it be reached? Of course it can. In the motion picture industry everything is possible. Even the impossible can be flipped into the positive.

Can you learn to write from a book? Yes and no. Yes, you can learn sentence structure and the proper way to organize written work. Will the book teach you how to create story in depth? Some will argue, but in my opinion the answer is a resounding no. The written word comes from the heart not a book. If you tell a great story you can write one.

As a studio reader, you receive hundreds of submissions. How many can you read in a day or week? How do you grab the attention of the reader? You hook them and you do it in the first 5 to 10 pages. If you wait too long, the chances of your project getting covered are reduced to ashes.

So, the catch is to create this great story. How do you write it for submission? What does a great story need? The entire story must be one that can be told to others in two minutes. A story that is so entertaining you can reduce it to a one-page, compelling synopsis. A manuscript or screenplay, so ridiculously written the reader wants to flip the page. That’s your magic bullet.

Writing an agent or publisher a query letter for your manuscript is no different than verbally pitching a story or TV series idea. To hook the reader, you get anywhere from seconds to hours to secure interest from your audience. Decisions come quickly and sometimes they’re not always fair. Time is truly a commodity with limited boundaries. If your story is great, time is taken, reading schedules set aside and time becomes your pal. If the story is slow out the starting gate and you lose the attention of your audience, it can mean a certain death to the project. People want to turn pages. They want to know what’s happening with the story, the characters and those briefly mentioned in your backstory. The audience is demanding, short on temper and patience. They need to be entertained albeit that comes in many different formations. The audience is powerful and can’t be fooled or sweet-talked with nonsense.

It all comes down to the story and the backstory that accompanies your work. Take a look at all the fabulous screenplays considered for the Writers Guild of America and the Academy Awards this year. Boil it down to the finalist list and then pick the best original and the best adaptation. Spotlight had all the right elements and started with a bare-bones concept of what the Catholic Church had done. Spotlight was written as a story built by brilliant kids playing building blocks. They had backstory, story and history all going in the same direction. The story had a group of wonderful characters that knew how to interplay, mystery was created, and boredom eliminated.

Writing Spotlight took time and hard work. It paid off for Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy at the Writers Guild – now we wait to see if they win the Academy Award.

When you examine the other top 4 films, Bridge of Spies, Written by Matt Charman, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen; Sicario, Written by Taylor Sheridan; Straight Out of Compton Screenplay by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff; Story by S. Leigh Savidge, Alan Wenkus and Andrea Berlott; and Trainwreck, Written by Amy Schumer – you realize each had a great backstory, entertaining characters from all walks of life, unique story content, and perfectly developed beginnings, middles and endings.

Examining the best Adapted Screenplay crawls into a different bag of tricks. Here they have the story, backstory and a list of characters a mile long. The locations are set, and who and where everyone came from has all ready been exposed. So what’s the big deal? Ah, an adaptation is the gift of learning how to take a 500-page book and transpose the breathtaking manuscript into a 125-page screenplay. It sounds easy until you check the works, read the books or biography and realize there is so much wonderful stuff in each novel - your script can’t live without including all of it. On the second or third read you find ways to trim. The writer’s bag of tricks includes ways to remove words, restructure the intent, and still keep the authenticity and integrity of the original work.

Out of all the wonderful material available, the list dwindled down to the 5 best. The peers of those who write the words create the list – so the audience is not only picky but also demanding. They don’t want to make mistakes and usually don’t. They read, watch films and vote.

The narrowed list for best adaptation screenplays at the Writers Guild of America included: The Big Short, Screenplay by Charles Randolph and Adam McKay; Based on the Book by Michael Lewis; Carol, Screenplay by Phyllis Nagy; Based on the Novel “The Price of Salt” by Patricia Highsmith; The Martian, Screenplay by Drew Goddard; Based on the Novel by Andy Weir; Steve Jobs, Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin; Based on the Book by Walter Isaacson; and Trumbo, Written by John McNamara; Based on the Biography by Bruce Cook.

After many hours of watching films and reading screenplays, my writer colleagues and I voted again. The list was exciting and all those words hung in the balance. We’re a picky bunch. It took time to get the list to 5 – and then reduced to what we all thought was the best. The Big Short was chosen. The script started with a bang, the dialogue flew against the walls, the characters roared, laughed and behaved as expected, and the story dazzled. The writers made it look easy. They had the material. All they had to do was create magic and that’s what they did.

The key to most great written works is the backstory. This is where you mold the characters and give them a personality. If you scrimp on this through development your story will suffer.

An idea for an original story is your seedling. You plant it in your computer and water it by giving it a name. It percolates like a whispering coffeemaker. A few characters are added. Who are these people? Where did they come from? Do you have a family, husband, wife, kids, parents or other relatives? What about a dog, cat or bird? The story is in California, but is that where the characters were born? What about traveling the world or beginning life out of the country? What about friends or drinking partners? Are they sexually active? Do they have a dark past? This all falls into the backstory category. Without it, there is no body for the work to build from.

Have you written an idea and now it sits there as a lost child in need of direction? It happens to all writers and it’s not exactly writers block – it’s a story that jumped tracks and is going in a different direction than first started. Frustration stops you and kills the story. It goes into the filing cabinet or story folder on an external drive. You may visit it from time to time or forget it was ever written. You move on.

Wait a minute! What if that simple idea is a great one? What if the underbelly of the story not only grows muscular legs – it can run the mile faster than anyone else?  If you don’t go back for a second or tenth look, you’ll never know.

If I’m not goofing around in front or behind the camera or writing another work, I spend time helping others locate the ground beneath their dancing fingers. If I can help you, let me know.

William Byron Hillman © 2016

Visit my revised web site
Now offering Script Consultation

Recently Completed Screenplays
Quigley’s Christmas Adventure
The Legend of El Doblo
His Name is Joey

Recently Published Novels