Friday, August 24, 2012

Why write a movie?

Greetings from Chicago where I’m on the road with the Mariners. Calling tonight’s game on 710 ESPN in Seattle, the M's Radio Network, and MLB.COM. But before that, how about some Friday Questions Chicago Style (even though I have no idea what that means)?

To start off, here’s Paul in Chicago:

Writers Ed Solomon & Chris Matheson, who have written some big feature films, are writing the 3rd Bill & Ted movie...apparently on spec. My question for you: is it the economy that creates a situation where established writers will write a full movie screenplay on spec?

Would YOU, Mr. Established Writer, write a movie script on spec?

I have written several movies on spec. Sold two. I never consider myself too established or important that I can’t write something on spec.

Writing screenplays on speculation has its advantages. You have the freedom to write what you want. You’re not forced to take studio or producer notes. That’s a BIG advantage. And you can make a lot more money if you sell your spec, especially if several studios are interested and a bidding war results. That’s when there are articles about you in the LA TIMES Calendar section and young writers justifiably despise you.

Writing on spec is becoming more and more prevalent because studios are developing fewer scripts in house. It’s much harder to sell a pitch these days. And the only writers who are invited to pitch are on the A list or Lena Dunham.

Pitching itself has become an ordeal. It used to be you could come in with a premise, maybe a rough idea of where it goes, a few jokes and you were in. My partner and I sold a movie pitch about a TV comedy writer who becomes a minor league baseball announcer (know anyone like that?). This was the pitch: BULL DURHAM meets GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM. Sold! Just like that. Today you have to have the whole film outlined, and if it’s a comedy you need to present three or four set comedy pieces. You also are advised to have the one-sheet poster worked out and even a tagline for the movie. Again, that’s if you’re one of the lucky few who is even permitted to pitch.

Now the downside to writing screenplays on spec: If you don’t sell it (and most don’t), you’ve put in a lot of work and probably invested six months or more and for your trouble and passion you get back exactly squat.

And nowadays your agent goes out with the script and if it doesn’t sell in like three days it’s DEAD. That’s not how it used to be. There were more producers and it’s the old story – you just have to sell it to one. So even if 40 producers passed, if one said yes you were off to the races. But now info travels almost instantly around town. So if a producer at Warners passes, five minutes later a hundred other producers get that information. A few of those come in and producers figure “if they didn’t respond to it then I’m sure neither will I.” They either don’t bother reading or read with an expectation that it’s not very good.  And agents are reluctant to send out material that has been exposed.

In a sense, one influential producer who doesn’t respond to your script can kill it for the whole town. One guy.

So clearly, you write as your own risk. But like I said, most screenwriters no longer have a choice these days.

Kevin has a two-part question:

What would it take to get you to write for or show run a sitcom again?

An idea I was burning to do, or a Brinks truck pulling up to my house. I’ve eaten too much take out Chinese food.

Follow up question: Have you ever thought of writing on a Hour long drama say "Justified"?

Would love to if it’s the right show. JUSTIFIED is one of my favorite shows but ironically I don’t think I could write for it. I don’t really know those redneck hillbilly assholes. I love that the show takes me into a world I’d never enter, but as a writer I would have no command of that world. Same with ONCE UPON A TIME. I dig the show but I would need to spend some time in Fairy Tale Land – y’know, just walking around the Queen’s castle, hanging with Little Red Riding Hood and some of the dwarfs, maybe mixing up some magic potions – really get a lay of the land. I’m sure all the ONCE UPON A TIME writers all did that, but I just don’t have the time.

If someone were willing to help me with the legalese I would love to write a GOOD WIFE or SUITS. And MY SO CALLED LIFE isn’t still on the air, is it? I could sooo write that show.

From Mike:

Would Fawlty Towers have stood any chance whatsoever of being made by US TV? Either back in 1974 or today?

It was adapted in the U.S. Several times. One with John Larroquette and the other with (wait for it…) Bea Arthur. Both attempts bombed horribly.

I think the key to FAWLTY TOWERS was John Cleese. Without John, you have well-crafted scripts but no real show. Also, that British sensitivity, the constant civility even in the most trying times. Americans don’t react that way. We should. We’d be funnier.

And finally, we go to Washington D.C. and Robert’s question:

Was there any particular reason that all the barflies in cheers, i.e. had their real name as their characters first name?

It was easier, plain and simple. We only gave them a line or two and never had to worry who played who. Unless the actor’s real name was Sam or Norm or Cliff, in which case he was assigned a different name.

Thanks for the great questions.  What's yours? Leave it in the comments section.


Unknown said...

Hi Ken! Looking forward to finally hearing some of your play-by-play against my Sox.

Are you familiar with James Lileks, and his blog The Bleat? Seems like you two would hit it off. Old-time radio/movies/etc. He's covering the Minnesota State Fair. You guys should get in touch! You could be best friends. And it could all be my fault.

Roy Perkins, impartial dogcatcher said...

This is the nittiest of picks, but: As has been noted here before, there were actually THREE attempts at an American "Fawlty Towers." The first was entitled "Snavely," and starred Harvey Korman, Betty White, and Jack Dodson. This was an unsold pilot that got an unpublicized airing on ABC one summer in the late '70s. It was primarily an adaptation of the FT episode ""The Hotel Inspectors," with some bits of "The Germans" sewed on.

willieb said...

I remember reading somewhere that "Fawlty Towers" was the inspiration for making Bob Newhart the proprietor of a hotel in his second series. I have no way of knowing if that's true, but after hearing several stories from Ken about TV pitches,it might be ("Bob Newhart meets Fawlty Towers!").

Dave said...

I have another Cheers/Frasier question - in the final season of Cheers, Frasier and Lilith separate (if I recall correctly the reason was Bebe Neuwirth wasn't going to be available most of the year) but reconsile before the season/series finale.

If "Frasier" was already in the works, why bother bringing them back together only to have to explain they divorced in the "Frasier" premiere?

Mike said...

You think you need legal expertise to write for Suits? That show, you have to suspend all sense of reality when the law part happens. You could write whatever you wanted.

You're going to jail for the rest of your life, based on the word of a lying eyewitness, unless you can find the dead guy's body in 24 hours.

MikeN said...

I think James Lileks would be mocking Ken Levine for his fixation on Sarah Palin.

Daniel said...

"Chicago Style" obviously means that you formatted this post using the official guidelines of the Chicago Manual of Style.

Tom said...

Hey Ken -

Been watching M*A*S*H on TV Land lately. They schedule it weirdly in roughly 40 minute blocks - sometimes a little over, sometimes a little under.
Do you know if they're running the uncut episodes, or the syndicated cuts packed with EVEN MORE commercials? Some of the commercial breaks are north of 6 minutes, which is really testing my commitment to watch the show. (I know... DVR...)

tb said...

Watching old reruns of Dragnet and Adam 12 got me wondering: What ever happened to the half-hour drama?

DJ said...

You also get a rare weekend where both the White Sox and Cubs are in town at the same time (last weekend, both were on the road with the Air and Water Show over the lakefront). Tomorrow, you could pop over to Wrigley to see the Cubs and Rockies at noon (yes, I know it's not really Major League Baseball, but seeing two games in two parks in one city in one day is a rare thing).

Greg said...

Link to Ken's appearance on WGN News today in Chicago:,0,2022135.story

Jamie said...

Don't know about MASH, but I've seen THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW on TVLand lately scheduled in those same 35 to 40 minute blocks, and I hoped at first that this meant they were running the shows uncut. (Years ago TVLand did that with I LOVE LUCY, running it uncut in a 35 minute timeslot.) Alas, no, with THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW and, I suspect, MASH, you're seeing the same old 22 minute syndication edits, only with five to ten minutes more commercials jammed in. Which inspired me to go ahead and pick DICK VAN DYKE on DVD.

Jason said...

Oh god, I tried to sit through M*A*S*H on TVLand recently, shown in one of those expanded forty minute timeslots, and yeah, they're the same old chopped up syndication edits, only with an additional ten minutes of advertising packed in. What the hell TVLand thinks they accomplish with this little stunt is beyond me. The commericals go on and on and on and on and on. I couldn't stand it and gave up. It's difficult for me to believe they're not alienating viewers with this idiocy, unless there are a lot of people out there who are way more tolerant of advertising than I am.

Rogue said...

Hi ken, I was wondering if u have any Wings outtakes or know where a Wings fan may be able to find them. The timing on that show was usually so exact that I've always felt it would be funny to see them cut up on occasion.

Anonymous said...

For Friday Questions: A couple years ago, Parks and Recreation was running promos welcoming Rob Lowe to the cast at the same time that Brothers and Sisters was running promos about the season finale in which "someone" was going to die. Obviously that someone was Rob Lowe's character since he was already a regular on another TV show. Is there no clause or at least professional courtesy that would prevent one show from announcing a new series regular before that actor's character on another show has been written off?

Mark said...


Were there any episodes of Frasier that you contributed to that were inspired by something that had happened to you when you worked in radio?

VP81955 said...

Ken, today is Elvis Costello's birthday (he's 57, six days younger than me). Did you work on the "Frasier" episode he appeared in?

(I can only imagine what the reaction of the snarly 1980 Costello -- remember his appearance on Tom Snyder's "Tomorrow" show? -- would be to his 2012 self. Well, that's what exposure to Burt Bacharach and Diana Krall will do.)

Virginia Jennings said...

Ken, I wanted to send you this in a message but I could not find a contact form for you... I just wanted to thank you-
Your blog has been one of the few that I have enjoyed coming back to often, as such I would like to thank you for all of your hard work. Thank you for keeping me inspired!

In the tradition of social media, I have just nominated you as next in line for the “Inspiring Blog Award” and “One Lovely Blog Award.” As such customs prevail,and should you choose to do so, you can pass this honor on by following these steps.

1. Link back to the person who nominated you ( )

2. Post the award image to your page

3. Tell seven facts about yourself

4. Nominate 15 other blogs

5. Let them know they are nominated

Here is the post nominating your blog. ( )

Once again... I apologize but I could not find a more direct route to message you.

cadavra said...

I recently watched an episode I'd recorded of FUTURAMA. at one point, I kept fast-forwarding through commercials for such a long time that I finally stopped, went back to the act break, started again, but watching the timer: six minutes and ten seconds! That's as much as a full hour back in the old days. And needless to say, even though I routinely tack an extra five minutes onto the end, the episode still wasn't over when it stopped.