Wednesday, March 20, 2019

EP115: Meet Dennis Palumbo, writer/therapist


Dennis Palumbo is a licensed therapist and also co-wrote the comedy classic, MY FAVORITE YEAR.  He talks about common problems writers face and offers invaluable advice.  Also he discusses his fascinating career.  From TV (WELCOME BACK KOTTER), to screenplays, to mystery novels – Dennis Palumbo has done it all.  And still has time to see patients.


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

The WGA vs. ATA (agents)

Lots of you have asked my opinion on the recent struggle between the WGA and talent agencies over “package deals.” It’s about to come to a head and writers might soon have to fire their agents en mass if their agency engages in the practice of package deals. What we’re really talking about here is the big four: CAA, WME, ICM, and UTA.

Package deals are when agencies get a piece of ownership for ostensibly putting the “package” together, lining up their acting, writing, and directing clients. The idea is you have a much better chance of selling something if you have key pieces already in place.

But agencies now package every show, even if it’s just the creator/showrunner. And they make a large profit as a result.

Agencies are also essentially producing their own shows. This leads to conflict-of-interest problems. How can your agent negotiate the best deal for you with the studio if they’re also the studio looking to keep costs down? Back in the 1960’s a company called MCA was doing that. Then-attorney general, Robert Kennedy said they had to choose – studio or agency? They chose studio and morphed into Universal. Through some loopholes agencies are getting around that now.

I think you can see why writers are upset.

But it’s a complicated issue. With all the studio and network consolidation and writers getting fewer development deals, agencies have had to search for alternative ways to make money. Just taking 10% in a shrinking marketplace won’t cut it. They feel they need package deals and creative producing arrangements to survive in this new mega-marketplace. Realistically, I don’t see them giving any of that up without a serious fight.

A further complication: Yes, there are many instances of agents screwing writers. I’ve been the victim of this myself. I’ve fired agents over the years who I felt shafted me. But other agents I’ve had have truly worked on my behalf. They genuinely care about my welfare. It’s one thing to go to war against studios and networks because you KNOW they’re the enemy. You KNOW they’re out to screw you. They take pride in it. But if you have a good agent, he’s working FOR you. You have a real relationship with him. A good agent is your friend, not enemy. So it’s hard to fire your friend. I feel that way about my representation.

Oh, and there’s this additional wrinkle: You can fire your TV writing agent but still be represented by the agency in other areas – say directing or acting, or theatre. So you’re picketing one office but entering another down the hall. Confused yet?

So what’s the upshot? The WGA feels this course will be the most effective. The WGA has been a Godsend to writers. Our fees, pensions, health & welfare, residuals, and various other protections have only come from WGA struggles. I stand by the WGA as I have through numerous work stoppages. And I’m a huge fan of the current WGA president, David Goodman.

My fervent hope is that something can be worked out before April 6 to avoid any upheaval. But this is a tough one. There’s no RFK to step in.

All of this is uncharted territory. Oh well, Hollywood always loves a cliffhanger.

P.S.  There's an article going around by writer David Simon.  You can find it here.  In it he references a sleazy CAA agent, Jeff Jacobs, who he ultimately fired.  It's the same Jeff Jacobs that I once fired.  

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Talk about greedy bastards...

Talk about chutzpah!

One way for playwrights to get their plays produced is to enter festivals. Numerous theatres around the world stage festivals and invite playwrights to enter their work. Often, if your play is selected you’re required to waive your license fee. These are non-profit theatres, in many cases we’re talking ten-minute plays so the fees are not substantial, and it’s an opportunity to have your work produced and establish a relationship with that theatre, which might come in handy for future work. Another downside is that you’re generally competing with 300 other writers for eight or ten slots so you better brace yourself for rejections.

But clearly the playwright doesn’t make much money, if any. In fact, entering these competitions can cost them money. Some theatres require a submission fee. They usually range from $10-$20 and are sometimes waived if you’re a Dramatists Guild member or college student. That doesn’t seem like a lot of money, but still – you’re charging people who aren’t exactly raking it in, and if you enter a bunch of contests those submission fees add up.

This is the same scam where casting directors charge actors to enter showcases. Struggling actors can least afford it, and if you’re a casting director it’s your JOB to watch showcases and discover new actors.

I tend to weigh whether the fee is worth it for each specific festival. Is it a prestigious theatre? Is it in a major theatre city? Do they have a good reputation? A great acting company?  Certain festivals I’ll pay to enter and others I won't. 

And now comes along “The Neil Simon Festival” held in Cedar City, Utah. Registration is now closed but they wanted – are you ready? -- $150 to enter your full-length script.

$150.  

FUCK THEM.

Here’s what you get for your $150. NO money if your play is accepted. The winner receives a six-day staged reading and the following year a full production of three whole performances. Whoo hoo!  Who knows the quality of actors in Cedar City, Utah, not to mention directors? They do pay for your transportation and housing when you’re there for the festival. (That could be a Greyhound bus and they’ll “leave the light on for ya.”) Oh, and all writers get a critique of their play. Who knows how good the readers are in Cedar City, Utah?

Needless to say, they don’t get 300 entries. They’ve gotten 30. The festival organizer says that high fee has helped weed out the bad scripts. Uh… no. I would think it’s quite the opposite. Anyone who believes in their work isn’t going to waste their money with these idiots. But the desperate playwright who’s been rejected a gazillion times might enter because with so few others in competition he might finally score a win.

Clearly, the goal is not to mount the best play; it’s to make as much money as they can from struggling playwright.

So again I say: FUCK YOU.

This festival has been going for about ten year, but this new insulting submission fee is new. Gee, I wonder whether they would have done it while Neil Simon was still alive. I’m guessing no because I’m also guessing that Neil Simon’s response to this would be…

FUCK YOU.

I did not enter a play in this festival. Nor will I ever. The only way I’d ever allow this organization to stage one of my plays is if they pay me $150… for every performance. And even then I might just say…

FUCK YOU.

Monday, March 18, 2019

CAPTAIN MARVEL

SPOILER ALERT – not that you will actually learn any plot points because, well… because of the following meeting:

… where the CAPTAIN MARVEL writers had to pitch their story to studio executives.

SCREENWRITERS: Okay, first off it’s an origin story. Captain Marvel or Vers or Carol is on some planet somewhere in the desert and then she’s in a futuristic city and someone is teaching her to be a warrior and we learn there are good aliens and bad aliens and the bad aliens want to do something bad but need some fabrazabber to do it, whatever it is – take over the galaxy and shit. Yeah, they want to take over the galaxy. And they can change into anything they want so they’re hard to find.

Oh wait, her teacher/Yoda/Liam Neeson type guy tells her her one flaw is she lets her emotions get in the way. How fresh is that? We haven’t seen that character beat since at least 2016, maybe earlier.

And here’s the thing: Captain Marvel has all these fragments of memories that are all completely random and confusing but cool and maybe we find out what they are but for now we forget about that and send her on a mission to do something somewhere and it doesn’t go well for some reason and she winds up in a rocket pod that lands on earth in 1995. We do a scene where she lands in a Blockbuster Video, which is maybe the greatest idea ever in the history of movies. Can you imagine? Aren’t you just hysterical thinking about it? She walks down an aisle and picks up THE RIGHT STUFF. The audience will laugh for twenty minutes.

Okay, so now she’s on earth trying to get to a secret Air Force base because she used to be in the Air Force but doesn’t know why or when, which is fine because we do a big car chase for no reason and have an action sequence on a Metro train where she’s chasing people she thinks are bad but they get away but we meet Nick Fury so we forget that the Metro sequence was superfluous. But cool.

Nick helps her. Oh yeah, she’s trying to find out some stuff about someone and he helps her. But it’s not easy because a bunch of bad guys show up and there’s a big obligatory fight scene. Oh oh oh… forgot to mention – we introduce a cat. Real cute. And we’ll find a way to make it important and cool.

Now the good and bad aliens land on earth. We show a bunch of flashbacks, and Captain Marvel is still looking for answers so she goes to the best friend she remembers she has when he need her to remember that. The friend will be African American because Captain Marvel is not. Oh, and she has a daughter that will peg the cute meter. She and Captain Marvel will bond of course. Except she's not Captain Marvel yet.  She's still Carol or Vers. 

Now comes a few plot twists that you’ve never seen before… in this franchise.

Oh, along the way there will be funny ironic lines – at least one every fifteen minutes. Can’t be cool without funny ironic lines.

At this point we reach the third act. They get the fabrazabber. Captain Marvel becomes Captain Marvel. The little girl makes her a role model. Captain Marvel kicks serious ass and we do a giant cluster fuck of a sequence that takes place in outer space, on earth, in other galaxies, space ships, dimensions – the beauty is we make it so full of special effects that nobody cares where they are or what purpose any of this is serving other than seeing Captain Marvel beat the shit out of everyone. Which she does. 

Of course we do a dogfight like every STAR WARS movie, video game type laser fights, mega explosions, and ‘90s pop hits because that worked so well in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY.

Needless to say we’ll have a lot to wrap up so we figure the film will end five times, maybe six. And it goes without saying we’ll set up a bunch of sequels.

Whattaya think?

STUDIO HEAD: That sounds like you merely stitched together every trope from every superhero and space adventure movie and thrown them together in a blender. You’ve jammed in every cliché and there’s not a moment that is remotely original. And it will probably cost upwards of 150 million dollars.

SCREENWRITERS: Brie Larson wants to do it.

STUDIO HEAD: You have a greenlit movie.

Hey, I went to see it.  

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Weekend Post

A couple of months ago I had the pleasure and privilege of seeing Elaine May on Broadway starring in THE WAVERLY GALLERY. She was phenomenal. You'll see her on the Tony's in June picking up her award. Maybe several. She was so good they may give her the "Best Choreography in a Musical" Tony as well just because.

Elaine May has always been an idol of mine. From her days teaming with Mike Nichols to her directing (A NEW LEAF and HEARTBREAK KID are two of my all-time favorite movies) to the many screenplays and stage plays she's written, Elaine May is a Comedy God.

Recently I came upon this clip from the AFI special saluting Mike Nichols. This is Elaine's speech. You may not know who Elaine May is but after watching this I guarantee you too will love her.

Enjoy.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Friday Questions

Beware the Ides of Friday Questions.

Unknown has the first FQ:

I just came across the movie Critical Condition on television. I checked the credits, thinking it was directed by Sidney Lumet. I was surprised when I saw David's and your name listed as co-screenwriters with John and Denis Hamill. I don't recall your mentioning this film on the blog. Was your work here similar to Jewel and the Nile? Were you ever on the set? 

It was directed by Michael Apted, who did the 7-Up films, Coal Miner's Daughter and Continental Divide-my favorite John Belushi movie. Do you have any positive memories of working on it?

I have no fond memories of it because David and I had nothing to do with that movie ever. As much as we all want to believe if it’s on the internet it’s true, in this case it’s not. Nor was I once the “Dialogue Coach” for FLIPPER (true story – IMDB has since removed it).

I mention this because when you are sick and go to the internet to see what you have and are told it’s some horrible terminal disease that will kill you within a week, you don’t have to believe them. It’s probably an allergy to your neighbor’s cat.

Boomska316 is next.

Ken, I was wondering what you think of this trend of streaming services artificially stretching out the aspect ratios of older shows to make them full screen? I can only assume that someone complained about the black bars on the sides of the screen, but I find it off putting.

I hate anything done to alter a show’s original presentation whether it’s visual or speeding it up. I understand that older shows were not produced with the wider dimensions in mind, but so what? Let’s enjoy them the way they were meant to be shown. It’s not such a hardship to watch something with black bars on the side of the screen, is it? More disconcerting is everybody looking like Shrek.

Here's a question from Peter:

David Mamet has tried to defend the indefensible by saying college admissions procedures are a joke and his friends Felicity Huffman and William H Macy should be forgiven. What do you think about Mamet basically trying to excuse exam fraud just because his friends are involved? 

I think it's inexcusable.  First off, worthy students are being denied slots because of this.  And secondly, great values to be teaching your kids. 

We live in an age of entitlement.  Partly because people are willing to just look the other way.  

Felicity Huffman KNEW she was doing something wrong and something illegal.  I'm glad she got caught.  And as for David Mamet, it's people like him that have put us in this horrible political situation we're in right now.  Forget justice, ignore facts, reward greed and dishonesty.   Would it surprise you to learn David Mamet is a big Trump supporter?   I could care less what David Mamet says or thinks about anything.

From Jen from Jersey:

When you and Isaacs wrote sitcoms, did you have Assistant writers too? If not, how were you able to write the dialogue so quickly for 20+ episodes?

Starting on CHEERS we dictated scripts so yes, we indeed had a writers’ assistant in the room. Note: "Writers Assistant" is the new, more PC way of saying "Secretary."  And since this was before computers became the norm our assistants would take shorthand.

It took a special person to get everything down in shorthand and then accurately type it up. Throughout our career we had some nutty writers’ assistants but also some sensational ones. We could not have written our scripts so quickly were it not for Sue Herring, Lana Lewis, Ruth Horne, Nancy Koppang, Barry Zajac, Katy Pentland, Sherry Falk, and Linda Silverthorn (who was mentioned extensively in Ronan Farrow’s second NEW YORKER expose on Les Moonves).

And finally, Marka wonders:

Did they film the Eddy tricks before the filming, without anyone on the set, in case the tricks didn't work out during the live run?

Occasionally but most of the time we did them with the audience present. We usually asked Eddie’s trainer, Mathilda DeCagny beforehand if the trick we proposed was easily done. Mathilda, by the way, was the most loving animal trainer I’ve ever met. All tricks were learned by positive reinforcement.

And one final note on Eddie, his real name was Moose.

What’s your Friday Question? Leave it in the comments section. As always, thanks so much for your FQ’s.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

EP114: My Writing Process


Ken talks about his writing steps, from germ of an idea to finished script or stage play. It’s an in-depth look into the creative process from an Emmy winning writer.


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

"Who is a good replacement?"

Here’s an FQ that became an entire post.

PolyWogg has a question about replacing announcers… and a game show host.

Did you hear Trebek suggested some "unusual" names to replace him on Jeopardy when he retires? An announcer for, I think, baseball games and I've already forgotten who the woman was.

As an announcer, do you have people to suggest to replace Nantz for football / all of MNF people / Trebek?

 First of all, how tragic that Alex has Stage 4 Pancreatic cancer.  I wish, as originally intended, this was just speculation for three years from now.   Sadly, I think a decision will have to be made sooner.  I sure hope I'm wrong.

The woman baseball announcer is Jessica Mendoza. Not sure why she’d be a good candidate to host JEOPARDY (or evaluate players for the New York Mets --that's insane).  

Replacing Alex Trebek is like replacing Vin Scully. He’s truly masterful at hosting that show. I’ve watched tapings of JEOPARDY and it’s amazing how smooth he is and how easy he makes it look when in fact there are a lot of moving parts, tricky complicated answers, following the scoring, and handling unforeseen events. So who could replace him?

If I had to choose a woman I might think Rachel Maddow. You’ve got to be smart, able to read those hard-to-pronounce names and places in the answers, and have a personality. Another possibility: NBC Chief White House Correspondent Hallie Jackson (pictured above). Whip smart, takes no shit from Sarah Sanders, and very charming when filling in on THE TODAY SHOW.

For guys, Bob Costas is a New York minute. And I know the haters will be outraged, but Joe Buck would be awesome. He’s got a sense of humor and can handle all the mechanics. I think even some of the haters might be swayed.

Replacing Jim Nantz? First off, where is he going? I see Jim Nantz in that role as number one sportscaster for CBS for many years to come. That said, I would pick Ian Eagle. Calls a great game, is fun to listen to, works well with partners, and is very versatile.

Future stars in my opinion: Kevin Burkhardt of Fox and Jason Benetti of ESPN.

Who could replace the MNF crew? Anybody. Three guys off the street. Siri.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

RIP Hal Blaine

You may not know the name, but you've sure heard his work.  Hal Blaine was a studio drummer.  He was part of the "Wrecking Crew" -- a collection of the finest studio musicians in Los Angeles.  They backed up most of the hits you heard in the '60s and '70s.   Even groups that played their own instruments bowed to the artistry of these ladies and gentlemen when they got in the recording studio.  Dennis Wilson didn't play drums on Beach Boy records; Hal Blaine did.   Michael Clark didn't play drums on Byrds records; Hal Blaine did.

Hal played on 150 top ten hits.  40 number one songs, 8 Grammy records of the year.  And countless other hits.   Thanks to reader Arlen Peters I found this great YouTube video that features a montage of just some of the hit songs Hal played on.

He passed away this weekend.  Hal Blaine was 90.  The beat goes on... at least on records.  Quite simply, Hal Blaine was the best.  See for yourself.