Some of you may have heard of George Lucas. He’s the guy who wrote and directed the first Indiana Jones and Star Wars movies. He’s one of the few writers, directors, or filmmakers full stop who makes it to the Forbes list.
Well, his breakthrough film was a little “coming of age” film called American Graffiti. In that, the actors joke that there was no budget for chairs. Joke? Maybe there really was no budget for chairs. According to the editor, most of the sound budget, pretty much the entire sound budget, went to songs. According to some internet sources, the cost of licensing the songs cost 90k, out of a 777k budget. That’s more than 10 percent of the total budget.
For his next film, Star Wars, the music cost a little more, but it was a much smaller percentage of the overall budget. According to Den of Geek, the score for the first Star Wars film cost about 100k, or less than one percent of the total budget. Continue reading Percentage budgeting is idiotic
There’s a common misconception that writers get paid per word. But if you look carefully, only amateur writers, bloggers and diploma mills quote how much a writers should be paid “per word.” But we’ll get back to that later.
“Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous.” – L Ron Hubbard, sci fi writer, 1948.
L Ron Hubbard supposedly bemoaned the low pay of science fiction writers in a conference in 1948, but he was quoted in an LA newspaper thirty years later. So, even back in 1948, a penny a word was considered low pay for a writer. Well, the average salary in 1948 was about 1/20 of what it is now. So, perhaps today he would have said, “writing for 20 cents a word is ridiculous.”
Science fiction was one of the lowest paying genres in 1948, and it still is today. But, L Ron Hubbard was misleading when he suggested that sci fi writers get paid per word. They actually get paid by rights, and those rights are only occasionally priced per word.
I know what some of you are saying to the above, especially those who dream of writing sci-fi “this or that sci-fi magazine pays per word.” Well, they don’t tend to commission per word, they buy a set of rights such as “first serial rights” or “first American/British serial rights.” And then, they pay per word for those rights.
How is that different? As a writer, you’re not writing what they ask you to write, they don’t give you a theme, and the stories aren’t time bound. You write according to your own initiative, and therefore if the first magazine doesn’t want it, it’s still marketable elsewhere. Even if the first magazines does pay for it, they only get the rights to publish it in one issue of their magazine. You can still get royalties for your work by publishing it in an anthology, or by selling secondary serial rights or rights in other countries.
Okay, so you’ve sold the first American serial rights to your favourite sci fi (or should I say favorite, as it’s North American?) Well, the story is still yours to put in an anthology, adapt into a play or a screenplay, or expand into a novel. When you’re writing novels and anthologies, you often get paid royalties. In physical books, where the publisher does the marketing, print and distribution, the author often gets 10 to 15 percent of the cover price or sales price. So, the more people who buy your book, the more you get.
If you’re working on non-fiction, or are a well known author, or your story is so great that the publisher has confidence in it (and is afraid of losing you to the competition), then you’ll get an advance on these royalties. In other words, you’ll get paid a certain amount up front, and get royalties in addition if the book sells better than expected.
This is a risk to the publisher, but the publisher is taking a risk printing and distributing your book anyway. Advances used to be standard practice, it’s the amount of the advance that differs.
In screenplays, many works are commissioned. That means the writer doesn’t write a word until hired. The commission might be to write an outline, treatment and two drafts. The writer is still working generally as a freelancer, and has sold many of the rights, depending upon the contract. (If you’re adapting Wuthering Heights, good luck on negotiating the book rights.)
Even with commission, writers normally keep a few points in standard contracts. However, when commissioned, the writer might not be the originator of the story, and in some cases may even lose copyright.
Mean annual wage for writer or author (or average wage): $72,120. Median annual wage (or wage for the average writer): $61,820 (Source, the US Bureau of labour and statistics.)
Instead of being commissioned to write a certain amount of stories, or selling the rights to certain territories, or getting royalties depending upon how popular your book is, many journalists are paid for their time. They are employees.
These writers are the ones who churn out the most stuff, because they don’t have to spend time researching markets, only the storylines. So, an in house journalist may write multiple stories per day. However, the quality of these stories is generally lower, not only because they are churned out so quickly, but because they merely reiterate facts that are fed to them.
Writers who are paid by time may only write an occasional story, and spend most of their salaried time interviewing or researching (if they are working in a journalistic capacity), or even negotiating on behalf of the company (if, for instance, they are working for an ad company.) Some writers have a weekly column that they work all week on.
Most salaried writers are paid an annual salary rather than an hourly one. In fact, I never seen a proper writing job that pays for a unit of time as small as an hour, it’s always been by year or at least by month. I don’t think salaried actually clock in and out like I used to at directory enquiries, and when they are writing those big pieces, their hours probably increase closer to the deadline.
With recent scandals, we normally suspect a movie made in the director’s home. When the director is alone, it doesn’t matter whether the audition is in an office, an auditorium, or a hotel room, but hotel room usually seems suspect.
Let’s return to a more innocent time, when many directors didn’t have bad intentions, they just didn’t have large enough bank balances to rent a location.
1. The Brothers McMullen : Edward Burns (1995)
A few microbudget films really start the director’s career. You might say Brother’s McMullen was one of them, it shot Ed Burns through to the stratosphere as an actor.
Reportedly made for 40,000 in the director’s home, it was liked by Ebert, and one of the darlings of the microbudget scene in the 1990s.
Burns wrote, directed, acted in, and co-produced this film. Others who share his surname were also involved. Hey, when the budget is this low, you’ve got to save money somehow.
2. Smiling Fish and Goat on Fire (1999)
A similar budget to Brother’s McMullen, if not as famous. Roger Ebert liked this film, even if you might not have heard of it. He says that it received a standing ovation at the Toronto film festival, and gives it praise. (He’s not normally a fan of films this low budget, or shot in the director’s home.)
The director co-wrote this film with the two stars, perhaps giving them credit for improvisation.
3. Going Shopping: Henry Jaglom (2005)
This film seems to have heavily influenced “He’s not That Into You”, with the interview style of non-characters and extras talking about shopping predating the other film’s interview style of non-characters speaking about relationships. And, Going Shopping must have sold well on DVD, because it’s fairly easy to find second hand.
Okay, so this film doesn’t appear to be set in a house, when you have a mansion like this, you can make your shed look like a clothing store, and your garden look like a park. But, watch the making of if you don’t believe me, this is all based on the director’s property.
The director co-wrote this film with the star.
4. Paranormal Activity: Oren Peli (2007)
One of the most famous microbudget films made by a nobody, this horror film inspires millennials to make their own movies.
The Oren Pei wrote, produced, directed, edited, and shot this film. He’s uncredited with set design, because hey, I guess he decorates his own room.
5. Much Ado About Nothing: Joss Whedon (2012)
The same year that Joss Whedon directed “Avengers Assemble”, he adapted Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. He said that the budget was so low, that it had to be shot in black and white. This critically acclaimed, microbudget Shakespeare movie was shot in his house, and starred his friends and neighbours. Of course, he has a huge house, and has some pretty experienced friends and neighbours.
Should the director get a screenplay credit? Well, he gets one, because he adapted Shakespeare’s original script for the screen.
Lesser known films
The films above seem to have been written by the director, or by the director and the stars, or the director wrote and starred in the film. We don’t have as much information about these other films, but they seem to be similarly low-budget, with writer-directors. Here are some lower profile films that seem to be shot in the director’s house.
Multiple Maniacs (1970)
Is it in John Water’s apartment? I’m not sure. – weird movie though. This guy went on to create Hairspray, but most of his films were for a cult (meaning small but loyal) audience.
Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996)
Not entirely shot in the director’s house, but partly there. A strange film from a Palestinian perspective.
Short film, shot in the director’s house. The director’s names is Lud Mônaco
Four Twenty (2012)
The entire film was shot in the director’s house. Or, so claims the IMDB page. I’m not sure if you can see this film anywhere.
Rita Dove: An American Poet (2014)
Partially filmed at the director’s house. The readings at the end readings were recorded at the director’s house.
Dara Says (2014)
Most of this film was shot in the director’s and producer’s living room, in the course of a month. A half day in the kitchen, and a couple of days in the dining room. They played two of the film’s three characters and edited it along with the crew of two. A stunt director arrived for a day and a half so the director could do his own stunts.
The entire house is probably smaller than one room of the other films, but oh well. The budget of the crowdfunded feature film was tiny too, with the crew’s salaries paid for by a Jobs Growth Wales scheme.
Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of this film, we might not have heard of it either if we didn’t create it ourselves.
Reading the trades, I discovered that only about 1100 writers worked on films in Hollywood last year. Sure, more than that worked on TV, but most elite members of the WGA only work about one year in three (if at all). And, when they do find work, their pay is still less than many less glamorous roles.
You may have heard of Beaumarchais. He was a watchmaker, publisher of Voltaire’s works, gun runner for the rebels in the American Revolution, but most notably a playwright of works such as The Barber of Seville (which Mozart adapted into an opera.)
In Beaumarchais’s time, writers were not well paid. The theatres of Paris held a kind of monopoly, or cartel. They colluded together to keep writers fees down.
The Barber of Seville was one of the hits of 1775, and continued bringing in audiences after that. But, despite the money that the theatres got from Beaumarchais’s popular play, his remuneration wasn’t very high.
So, in 1777, Beaumarchais led the other French writers in a strike. If they didn’t get paid more for their successful plays, they wouldn’t write at all.
This led to a scarcity of plays, and forced theatre owners into negotiations.
Theatre owners now paid royalties, instead of just a flat fee for plays.
A Special Purpose Vehicle, or Single purpose vehicle, is a company that is created for a single project.
Single Purpose Vehicles are used in construction, public works and many other ventures. While they are becoming less popular for other ventures, SPVs have become increasingly popular in film production.
Now, in the old days, film companies shied away from Special Purpose vehicles. When film producers also owned the cinemas and actors were on contract, it made little sense to create more paperwork for each film.
But today, with changes in the way a film is financed and sold, a special purpose vehicle can be extremely useful.
Films can carry with them many long term obligations, from credits and percentage points for the actors to content agreements and more. As most production companies don’t distribute their own films, it often makes little sense for them to continue dealing with a film after it’s made.
The “vehicle” keeps the film separate from the production company’s other activities. When the film is finished, the SPV can be sold to a distribution company, allowing the production company to focus on the next project. It also allows investors to benefit from tax breaks.
There’s a mention on the British Film Commission’s website.
There are many great films about entrepreneurship, and the importance of a great team. Two of my favourite are the first Ghostbusters (1984) and the first Cool Runnings (1993). I haven’t seen the remake of Ghostbusters, I’m not a real fan of remakes.