Screenwriters’ Clubhouse Launched!

There are hundreds of different screenwriting competitions across the globe. From prestigious international academy fellowships that give out tens of thousands of dollars in prizes, to online competitions that simply reward writers with notoriety, contests for film writers are everywhere.

At ZoomTilt, we wanted to create something original that could be focused on the writer and their growth as a writer above all else. We wanted it to be accessible to everyone, of all skill levels, across the entire country.

That is why we created the Screenwriters’ Clubhouse.

The Screenwriters’ Clubhouse offers fun writing “workouts” with two week deadlines. The Clubhouse could be called a “gym” for screenwriters, encouraging writers to “exercise” regularly by writing short concepts and scripts based on new ideas. These workouts are only 5 pages long, and they serve as potential first episodes for your own creative screenplay.

While other screenwriting competitions often ask for $50-$100 for submissions, we only ask you donate $5 toward the Clubhouse in order to be eligible to win cash prizes and recognition.  Our Clubhouse is a community, so you put in $5 that goes into the Kitty (meow!); you and other screenwriters vote on your favorite script; then the winners get paid out of the Kitty.  You can even participate without paying the donation, but then you can’t win awards or cash prizes.  

We want to make the Screenwriters’ Clubhouse a friendly creative community where writers can bounce ideas off one another, give feedback on one another’s work, and be inspired to enjoy the writing process. To help foster this environment, we are offering live writing events to help writers join forces and finish their workouts in person.

The first live event will be at University of Massachusetts Boston, in the Point Lounge on August 29th.

Stop by for free pizza and an awesome writing community!

To sign up for the Screenwriters’ Clubhouse, simply visit http://www.ZoomTilt.com and click sign up. It is quick and easy. Also be sure to check out ZoomTilt on Facebook and YouTube for new updates and awesome videos.

Filmmaker Highlight: John Rhode

John Rhode has seen it all.  He modeled, acted in the theatre, shot the Buckeye’s football film as well as PSA’s for the state of Ohio, had a film critic show in Columbus and received an MFA in Cinema from Ohio State University.  Destined to come to LA, he later studied at USC cinema and got into tons of music videos.

Then he worked as a camera operator and had the opportunity to work with Academy Award winners like John Seale (Harry Potter films), Vilmos Zsigmond (The Deer Hunter), and Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now).  John has won Telly and Eagle Awards for his own cinematography, and has now turned to directing when he’s not shooting, having directed three movies as well as commercials with Southwest Airlines and videos for Google.  His list of credits is impressive.

John Rhode

I got to know John’s work from an excellent short he worked on with Frank Chindamo for one of our branded competitions.  Their short, “Quit Your Day Job”, included YouTube stars in a hilarious comedy about two lazy husbands who try to make millions by filming their own reality shows.  Their wives are not amused, but our viewers were!  I asked John about what he thinks is happening with web video.

“I’m definitely looking to do a lot more, and we’re pitching different companies,” he began.  “Amazon, Yahoo, YouTube, even Craigslist all have their own webisodes. I think the YouTube experiment is over…I heard the subscribers to their webisodes — the ones they spent $100M on one year and another $200M the next — didn’t amount to the subscribers compared to their existing wacky YouTube celebrities.

“But everyone is still trying to find their way.  I’m looking to shoot more narrative material including webisodes or even commercial-tainments.  Some webisodes have been very successful, and some networks are picking them up for TV shows.”  For some examples, read this recent article from IndieWire or this one from The National.

In addition to his efforts on the web, John is still inspired to work on his own features.  “I’m developing screenplays with several writers, looking to develop features for under $5M as well as mega-budgets.  We have several scripts in development, from family to thriller genres.”

JR Filming

Filmmaker Highlight: Eric Won

I’m not that into social media, but once in a while Twitter really comes through.  It has been recommending filmmakers with web series for me to follow, and so I often go and watch a pilot episode.  I watched the pilot of The Division and was completely floored — this thing looks like prime time tv.  So I sought out the filmmaker in LA — Eric Won.

Eric Won on set

I expected Eric to be a veteran who had worked in Hollywood on some well-known shows.  Instead, he told me this humble origin story.

Eric attended the LA film school and majored in directing.  He directed his first short while in school and sent it to the film festival circuit for a year.  He hoped to get an agent or a feature deal, but nothing happened.  “It was terrible,” he says.  “I was at a loss for a couple of years.  What can I do?  I gotta do something….  I really wanted to do a feature film, that’s what people say gives you notoriety, but I didn’t have the money.”

He looked through his old notes on script ideas, hoping for something along the lines of 24 or lost — a sci-fi or action with cliffhangers and character development.  He found a seed there for what would become The Division.

Now is the time when I have to ask if you, dear reader, have watched The Division.  Have you?  No?  If you haven’t, you should go watch it right now.  www.WhatIsTheDivision.com.  No really, I’ll wait.

At this point in our interview, Eric hadn’t yet mentioned all the big projects he’d worked on, so I asked him point blank.  How did you get the experience and connections to make a web series this good?

“The division is my third or fourth short film, though I also produced a couple of shorts [for others].  And I’m just working with people I know.  For example, I met a DP at a party and checked out his website.  Then I hired him for a short film, and thought, I gotta work with this guy again.  He ended up becoming my best friend, and he’s my DP for The Division.”  For the rest of the crew, he says he gets a lot of referrals.

My next question was about budgets.  A series like this has to cost money — the production values are too high to do it on favors alone.  And Eric was very up-front with the numbers.  The episodes cost on average about $7,000 each — less for the earlier episodes and more for the later ones.  About 70% of the funding is from Eric, and 30% from Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and some ad revenue.  They have a Monster Vault product placement in one episode — you can see the details on their website http://whatisthedivision.com/participate.

I asked Eric for a set story — because every film shoot has crazy things happen.

“We got kicked out of one of our locations — it was the parking lot of my apartment. After ½ way through the shoot, someone from the management company came out and asked if this was a student short film.  At that point we had only shot about half of the scene, we had an entire action sequence left.  They wanted us to leave, so I had to change the script on the spot.  I had to get rid of everything…I was walking to the management office and I started thinking o f how I could change the script so we could finish our shoot in less than 60 seconds.  And I thought of a way to finish it.

“’Start wrapping up,’ I called out to the crew, ‘we have to shoot right now.’  My DP wanted to change lenses, but I said ‘No no no! We have to shoot NOW!’  And we got the take.

“You can see it at the end of episode one — notice the jumpy cuts?  I had to go that route because I didn’t have enough footage.  There was a whole fight sequence we never got to shoot.  The Secretary of Defense was supposed to be in the van, the actor was there but we couldn’t shoot him.”  Visit this link to see the scene Eric is describing: https://vimeo.com/84082139.

Ah, filming.  Everyone has a story like that — to be a director you have to be able to think on the fly, change your story, and make it work.

I asked Eric about releasing the series.

“I wrote the first three three scripts for The Division and shot one episode without knowing if I’d shoot more or not.  But I released the first episode as if I had all ten.  It’s all about presentation, how you present it visually, tell it differently.  You wrap it like a really nice gift for the viewer.”

For more of Eric’s work, see his website: Ericwonfilms.com

EricWon2_MG_8269

Filmmaker Highlight: Alexandra Liss

This is the amazing story of how one filmmaker financed, shot, and got distribution for her feature-length documentary.

Alexandra Liss loved hosting guests in her house via the site Couchsurfing.com. She believes in the “sharing economy,” where instead of hotels and car rentals, people travel the world and live their lives by sharing what they have with others, often complete strangers. In 2007, she decided that a movie about this “needed to exist.”

Alexandra Liss Couchsurfing

A friend told her about crowd funding, and she raised $8,000 on Kickstarter to create her film, One Couch at a Time. “The most beautiful thing about crowd funding,” Alexandra says, “was that couchsurfers really wanted this film to exist.”

At the time, Couchsurfing.com had less than one million members, and some had tried to create a film or web series, but it’s hard to bring a crew with you when you couch surf. “Then DSLRs happened, and we had cheap cameras that made beautiful footage and weren’t very intrusive.”

Alexandra decided to go to wherever the crowd had responded to her request — wherever couchsurfers had volunteered to be part of her film. She traveled to Bankok, Vietnam, Cambodia, Brazil, Africa….

About three months into the trip she was in Zimbabwe. She had spent the $8,000 from Kickstarter, and she had spent the $6,000 in her own bank account. She was prepared to finish the film by going into credit card debt. But just then she got an email from a stranger…Dan “Danger” Derbinsky, a member of Couchsurfing.com from Sacramento who said that couch surfing had changed his life, and that he wanted to help fund her film. He gave her another $8,000 so that she could continue on her travels and finish the film.

“At the end of the day,” Alexandra says, I probably had $90,000 in donations to the making of this film — $22,000 in capital and the rest in other donations — sound mixing, animations, creating the website, etc.”

Alexandra knows how to move a crowd — and this paid off after the film was finished. They submitted the film to SXSW, but were not accepted. She and her crew went there anyway and organized a guerilla screening. They passed out fliers and organized the local couchsurfers in Austin, TX. The couchsurfers brought their couches to a park where they showed the film, and it turned out that someone from Devolver Digital Films attended the screening. After seeing the film and the turnout, Devolver signed on to distribute One Couch at a Time.

“Creating One Couch at a Time was the smartest thing I could have done — it’s my business card. The investment was totally worth it, hard work, but it’s paying off.”

Filmmaker Highlight: First Punch Film Production

While staying with my dad for Thanksgiving, I met with some filmmakers local to St. Louis. These are both people who came from southern California but found St Louis to be a better place (for them) to pursue their career as independent filmmakers.

Carson Minow is owner and Managing Director of First Punch Films. She is from southern California, and had a strong interest in ethnomusicology. “I had a big vision but I didn’t know if I had the ability to do it, so I got a camera and went to Ethiopia.” She and a friend who did audio recorded video of the music and life there. With that footage, she made an experimental documentary on four different cultures, titled Ethiopia: Tesfay Alem.

“That experience let me see that I am capable of doing it, creating my vision.” She came to St Louis to edit the film and ended up staying and attending film school at Webster. “A running joke is that I’m the only person from southern California who moved to St Louis to pursue film. Strange as it seems, it’s a nice place to make a career in film.”

In addition to client work and helping on other film productions, First Punch Film Production has a number of TV shows they are pitching. Carson told me she is sworn to secrecy about them, but that selling one of their concepts is part of their plan. “The company does all sorts of things for work now, next is TV, and then features.”

Carson talked about their “faith-based approach” to life and work. “We’re confident in our abilities and talent, and we work hard to help others see it too.”

While I was visiting First Punch I also talked to Matt Amato from The Masses. He is currently editing his first feature, a love story called The Makings of You.

“I grew up in St Louis and returned to make this movie and fell into the vibrant filmmaking scene here.” Matt has an office in LA with his partner, Jack Richardson, the producing half of The Masses. “But when I came back in June for locations and crew, it was a constant rediscovery of where I grew up. As a storyteller, my emotional associations are deeper here — my family, my history. I’m very romantic about America, and here in St Louis I can feel the source of the stories I need to tell. With this movie in particular, all these characters have feelings about ‘the river’, its a great symbol for so many things — like love, it’s a continuum.”

Matt wrote the script for his film many years ago, based on the characters. “I did what they told me, and I’m still in service of who they are.” The film is about the nature of love, real love vs romantic love. “It’s not the kind of film that usually gets financing, there’s no sex, no violence. It’s so easy to do that, you get tempted by certain jobs and certain budgets.” But he held fast to his vision and to his principles. They shot in an astounding 50 locations in only 28 days.

There was an investor who had shown some interest in The Masses for about five years. After many discussions, this investor offered to finance the movie, and is now a large shareholder in the company. “For our next movies, we want to keep mining stories about people, about America. We might do an adaptation of an American classic.”

“Now that I’m here in this office with these beautiful filmmaker friends, I couldn’t be happier. I didn’t skip a beat moving from LA to St Louis.”

Filmmaker Highlight: Jay Kelley, DreamWelder Productions

I visited Jay Kelley in his DreamWelder Productions studio in Brentwood, MO, and immediately got an earful of great advice for filmmakers. This guy clearly has been around the block and knows his stuff.

Matt and Jay in their amazing studio

Matt and Jay in their amazing studio

“The film that got me was Star Wars. I walked out of that movie and I was a filmmaker.” Jay got his start in public access television, which cable companies funded in cities all over the country in return for their cables being placed in different municipalities. Jay and his best buddy, fellow filmmaker Wyatt Weed, were trained in how to use a camera and audio equipment, how to be a floor director, how to direct actors on set…. “Our supervisor at the old American Cable, Rich Bizan, was a task master, but you learned. That’s where Wyatt and I lived, and later on I ended up running a satellite station before I was 21 years old.”

Then Jay went to Webster University in St. Louis, MO. While it was an excellent school, His freshman skills were already so advanced he was asked to be a TA after only two weeks. He realized that schools in the Midwest were not going to build him into the filmmaker he wanted to be. Jay made a short comedy film called “The Control Room” in order to apply to California Institute for the Arts — and he was accepted. “I’d give anything to go back at my age now and redo that experience. I should have taken better advantage of that opportunity. The resources and talent there were frightening — our acting teachers were people like Patrick Stewart and Ed Harris.”

He was out in LA for eight years, working and making a living in the film industry. “But there came a point where I began to realize that while I could find my way in, I wouldn’t be able to tell the stories I wanted to tell.” So he moved back to St. Louis and worked in his parents’ advertising company, making movies in his free time. He made more local contacts, made more films, and eventually moved back into doing film production full time — that was in 2000.

Since then his company, DreamWelder Productions, has done client work for hair salons, dental offices, hospitals, even the St Louis Symphony, and pursued their own storytelling work on the side. Jay also teaches filmmaking, and has a lot to share on that subject.

“I always say that beginning filmmakers have facial surgery when starting out: their ears are sewn shut and their mouths are locked permanently open. They get lock jaw in regards to their vision and find it almost impossible to change at the advice of their crew and/or mentors. Sadly I was no different. Experience teaches you to make better use of your team and to not hold on so desperately to your story. Good directors make sure they’re the dumbest guy on the set. You have to let your people make it better than you would ever have imagined.”

“Directors have two jobs: their actors and bringing their vision to the script.” But, he goes on, a lot of directors don’t understand that they are in a collaborative art. “Here’s the funny part: in the middle of all this art is the war — the war of making a movie. A movie is a war: you’ve got supply issues, weather issues, personnel issues…. There’s a beautiful time alone in your room with nothing but a computer, unencumbered, coming up with your dream. After that it’s all compromise: how much will you give up to get what you want?”

“Spielberg said, ‘there’s the movie you write, there’s the movie you shoot, and there’s the movie you get. And they are never the same thing.’ Good filmmakers make peace with what they have, not what they want. Take Jaws — Spielberg spent every day thinking he was going to be fired. The [mechanical] shark broke, it never worked. But he had to get the footage. So he handed a camera to a diver and said, just swim around it. That POV footage combined with John Williams’ music made him The director. ‘If I had gotten Jaws the way I wanted, I would not be here today.’”

Jay also has strong opinions about how to choose your story. “Hollywood only wants to make films that they already know audiences will pay to go see. That’s why you see things being remade — they already know it’s liked. A producer might want to do focus groups, understand what’s popular — that’s a business perspective.”

“But a director? They should not be concerned with what the audience wants. They should tell the story that they are most passionate about, that they want to see the most. Good, well executed movies will always find an audience sooner or later.”

Green Screen Studio

Video and Death by Demographics: SXSW

This year’s SXSWi was again amazing, despite the long lines and the lack of sleep that pervade everything. I was particularly inspired by a session I attended on Monday Morning called “Death by Demographics: Killing Off Your Ad Budgets” with Ann Zimmerman from WSJ, Joe Magnacca from Radio Shack, Todd Morris from Catalina, and Bonin Bough from Mondelez (Oreo). Bonin was the highlight of the session, making jokes that had the whole audience in stitches. But as someone immersed in the branded video realm, I couldn’t help but feel that there was a final conclusion about video that the panel didn’t get to.

The brilliant theory that was the focus of the session was the idea that demographics — the bedrock of advertisers for decades — don’t work that well anymore. A thirty-eight year old female might be a small business owner and a twenty-five year old male might be a stay-at-home dad depending on their background. Bonin called it “culture vs cluster”, explaining that the culture of the person you are marketing to is far more important than their age, gender, and other demographics.

Brand advertisers have much better data at their fingertips nowadays than they did in the heyday of demographics. Consumer chatter on social media, purchase history, and other trackable metrics can shed much better light on what individual consumers want. The job of the marketer is to use that information to create a relationship with the consumer, to create content that is relevant to the consumer.

The panel did talk about video media, and their take on it was that traditional television advertising was a necessary evil. TV ads aim at demographics, you can’t track them, you have no idea if people skipped or ignored your ad, but when you combine television advertising with more targeted marketing you can increase the overall ROI across those platforms.

The panel also talked about how well video fits the culture model. Video is inherently cultural — more cultural than any other form of marketing. And yet they are still relying on demographics in video. Why? Because that’s all they think they can get with broadcast television.

Online video provides brands the opportunity to specifically target the culture of the people who buy their product. And by the very nature of entertainment, those people are ten times more likely to share entertaining videos with other people in their culture than any other piece of marketing material. Clearly, the next step for brands that are marketing by culture instead of demographic is to use video the same way.

Some brands have already done an excellent job of creating video content that marries their brand with an emotional, cultural message that viewers flock to: BMW’s The Hire series, Degree’s The Rookie, Kmart’s First Day, Intel’s The Beauty Inside, and my favorite, Hell Pizza’s Deliver Me to Hell. I’m looking forward to the next great video stories coming, not from Hollywood, but from my soon-to-be-favorite brand.