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from the Archives

So You Want To Be A Screenwriter
Allen Gibson
...maybe it’s time to cash a reality cheque
writer at work

So, you’ve got a GREAT film or television script?
And you just KNOW that every word is perfect, and you won’t have to change a thing. People are gonna love it! Hollywood is going to call with a half million dollar offer.
Well, maybe it’s time to cash a reality cheque.

For one thing, Hollywood is not in Canada, in case geography isn’t your strong subject, and the financial realities south of the border are far different. In other words, even if you do get your work produced in Canada, the money isn’t going to pour in.

Photo Allen Gibson Actor/PR

Peter Wintonick, after the huge success of his documentary "Manufacturing Consent" figured he earned about a buck an hour for his years of effort.
Milo Addica, who’s first screenplay became the hit "Monster’s Ball," was reduced to living on cat food at times during the six years he spent trying to get it made.
"Don’t expect your first job in TV is going to be as a writer", says Kenny Lenhart. A staff writer for "Boston Public", speaking at the Vancouver Film Festival’s Trade Forum, Lenhart says he took a big pay cut to work as a production assistant - his job included washing the series producer’s car - on a TV series but he was "in," and his writing had a chance of being read.
And that perfect script?
"Writing is re-writing," says Lenhart, "So if you don’t like re-writing, don’t work in TV! It took me three years to really feel like I was getting David E.Kelly’s ‘voice’ on the show. Oh, look - he kept a whole paragraph! I’m getting it!" Allan Hopkins sold his first television piece after he:
a:got a degree at SFU with a minor in film,
b: spent ten years hanging around the biz, making films for free with a bunch of friends, taking whatever 2-day paying jobs he could get and doing landscaping to pay the bills,
c: took an 8 week course at Video Inn to learn how to operate a camera
d: got a commission from a Native artist to produce his video and managed to accidentally-on-purpose meet the executive producer of CTV’s "First Story" to pitch him on the piece.
e: Re-shoot some interviews and scenes at the producer’s suggestion to make the piece "more professional".
His reward for all that effort? Under a thousand dollars.

But, as is common in "the Biz", that first sale led to more work. "First Story" kept hiring him; as a freelance researcher and assistant.
"I was the only one of 5 or 8 freelancers who worked there who actually met my deadlines. And that’s why I got a job as a full-time producer."

Sean Diamond is 31. He spent years doing temp labor and various film jobs while trying to break in to "the Biz," eventually writing a comedy based on his experiences called "Temp TV."

The script was good enough to get $10,000 from Canada’s Comedy Network to develop a show. After shooting a pilot the normal way - which means lots of friends worked on it for free- the network didn’t want it. So far, neither does anyone else.

Was it a failure? Not necessarily. Like Alan, his first project led to more work. Sean is currently directing a documentary about porno entrepreneurs in Canada - and still looking for a buyer for "Temp TV."

In Canada, most productions are made with the help of grants from various government agencies. Randall Cole’s first grant for a short came in 1996 from the Canada Council.
His debut feature, "19 Months," got positive reviews from its premiere at Vancouver’s Film Festival. One paper went so far as to call it "the funniest film of the year." The film’s quarter million dollar budget was raised by the Canadian Film Centre, so Cole didn’t have to worry about finding money.
So did he have a smooth road to his current success?
"My parents didn’t find the road all that smooth," he notes wryly. "And I did graduate eleven years ago."

Twenty-eight year old John Pyper is representative of an emerging breed of Vancouver filmmaker. John is determined to be independent of government support, which, he feels, "takes a lot of time and energy away from the creative process." He says it is easier to shoot a digital movie where everyone is working for free than going through the complex government applications.

John’s short, "Viewfinder," created a buzz at the recent Toronto Online Film Festival, where the head of Canadian channel Moviola, Romen Podzyhun, called it "a powerful and satisfying short film. John’s direction and storytelling should be mandatory viewing for some feature film directors." But how is John going to make money? His answer to that is less clear.
"You gotta be looking at the States. I want to make projects that are commercially viable, and that’s the model in the U.S."
How much would he get if The Sundance Channel in the States, for example, thinks "Viewfinder" is "commercially viable"?
Likely around $2,000 - Canadian.

Movieola might air the film for between $600 to $1,400. Podzyhun says ‘the Indie filmmaker, will need more than ten paying venues to break even."
John’s response? "This business isn’t run on logic. All I care about right now are the number of eyeballs.
My goal is to do something that is successful enough to let me do the next one."
Such is the logic of the dream factory.
Still want to be a screenwriter?

© Allen Gibson October 2002
email: starmediaca at

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