BACK IN THE MID-'80S an aspiring screenwriter friend of mine confided her get-rich-quick scheme to me, a plan to exploit what she described as an enormous, ripe and underutilized market for American screenwriters: the need for scripts overseas. Citing the example of Indus astonishingly prolific film industry, she assured me that while the overseas money might be less than Hollywood pays, the opportunities were there.
I thought of my friend when MM asked me to explore the opportunities that might exist for writers willing to look beyond our shores, and realized that, to date, I don't believe she's made a sale yet, though she eventually did find gainful employment as a production assistant. My initial scan of the Internet certainly didn't reveal any bustling offshore trade in American scripts either, though I did come up with one success story almost immediately, in a one-page Hollywood P.O.V. piece that opened with words very reminiscent of my PA friend's:
"As the world's hunger for film and television grows, producers everywhere are desperate for product that will transcend international borders. Screenwriters can develop a successful career specializing in developing stories to feed the global entertainment machine. One writer who has is Neill D. Hicks."
The piece went on to cite several of Neill's international credits, which span a variety of countries, and include jobs as high-profile is creative consultant on two Jackie Chan features which were being positioned to boost Chan's standing in the American market. All of this sounded very auspicious, but when I went straight to the horse's mouth, I quickly realized that there are also some potential obstacles for any writer looking to make his or her mark beyond the Borders of their own country. As Hicks himself explained: while :here is work to be had in the international marketplace, finding it -an be hit or miss. The field is something of a terra incognita.
LEFT To RIGHT: Producer Roberta Chow, Neill D. Hicks, actress Michelle Yue and director Stanley Tong on the set of Rumble in the Bronx.
Neill D. Hicks is an accomplished screenwriter, the author of the screenwriter's bible, Screenwriting 101 and the just-published Writing the Action-Adventure Film (both, Michael Wiese Productions). A former instructor as well as a successful lecturer, Hicks concentrates his efforts of late on consulting with the studios, )particularly in the analysis and rewriting of scripts. Over the years, ie has successfully written or rewritten work for productions in Australia, Scandinavia, India and Hong Kong, among other places. When I asked him how others might duplicate these feats, he laughed and wondered aloud if many writers would even want to go that route.
This is not to imply that the experiences weren't good for Neill, but, he stressed, these opportunities were a result of luck and networking, and nothing he'd deliberately sought. "There are a variety of problems that an aspiring screenwriter would come up against," Neill explains, citing the scarcity of centralized means to connect with outfits that need the work. He also mentioned the employment requirements sometimes attached to the funding of international productions and, of course, the cultural differences few American writers would likely anticipate.
"I'll give you a few examples," Neill offered. "If you're going to get involved with India, be prepared for a lot of red tape. An Indian friend of mine, an attorney here, says simply, `Life is too short to do business in India.' Doing business in Israel is a little tricky, too. I did
a film in Israel, and it never occurred to me that my per diem, my hotel and food and whatnot, would be paid in shekels. The shekel is worthless! You get paid there and you've got to haul it out in a crate; you can't spend it! Sounds funny afterwards-at the time, it's not.
"There's that, and getting trapped in an old Arab village where I got stoned, and I don't mean high, I mean stoned I had visions of spending the rest of my life in a basement over there!" And while Neill very much enjoyed his work with Golden Harvest, he allowed that he had to tread cautiously working with Asian moviemakers, because, he says, "the issue of saving face for them is very real, and you have to be careful. You can offend someone and not even realize it."
As for my friend's fantasy of writing for Bollywood, Neill laughed. "There are two very different kinds of filmmaking in India. There are European-style Indian films, and there's Bollywood. No American could possibly write a real Bollywood film, simply because they're so totally alien to what we're used to seeing. I mean, they make these three-hour musical extravaganzas that would make no sense to us. There is a circuit of major Indian stars, and they'll show up on the set of one film, come in and do a song that has nothing to do with anything, and then they're off to the set of another film to do the same thing!"
While much of Neill's foreign work has taken him abroad, he was quick to assure me that that is not necessarily the norm. "Usually, the budgets are so small that they're not going to make the writers come around. The budget on an overseas film may often not be more than a million dollars at most."
For that reason, Neill is skeptical that an agent would be particularly helpful in finding writers work abroad. "Agents are probably not trying to push that market unless there's a very specific reason to exploit it, because there simply isn't sufficient money. Besides, while an agent is a necessary evil in the business, you can say you've got an agent and it doesn't necessarily mean anything, you know? `Oh, you've got an agent; so what! You've got a nickel in your pocket,"' he laughed. "Having an agent," he says, "is not without meaning, but it's not the same thing as being able to sell your writing, particularly when you're looking at international markets."
So how, then, would one even find potential international buyers? "My experience isn't very typical, or very helpful, I'm afraid. It just happened. I made friends with people who are overseas. They were my friends, and at some point in their careers, they needed me." Neill did have one firm piece of advice for the writer intent on exploring the possibility of international sales. "The American Film Market. Anyone with a finished script would do well to be there, and it gives you the chance to meet potential buyers from here and abroad, face to face."
Neill was quick to say that writing in English is not necessarily an impediment to making a foreign sale. If the plan calls for shooting in a foreign tongue, translation does not present a prohibitive expense. There is also a growing trend of shooting films for the international market, in English.
NORWEGIAN-BORN MOVIEMAKER AND SCREENWRITER Amund Lie offered further insight into the realities of the European film market. Lie, too, sees a growing interest in Europe in producing films with an international (read: Americanized) feel, though he cited some significant differences in the traditional European style of moviemaking and a more American approach. Noting that traditionally, European film is more character-driven than American film, he observes that "many European filmmakers do not expect their films to make a profit, and don't have to answer for it when the film fails to sell. Thanks to governmental support systems that favor `important' films, scripts and their subsequent films are made out of artistic regard and not for their likelihood of financial returns.
"In light of this, it may seem that the European market would be very difficult to tap into for North American writers. Question is, would they want to? The pay is definitely less significant and their ideas may not necessarily go down that well with European directors and producers. Then again, the situation could actually be the opposite. Since scriptwriting is an undeveloped profession in Europe, my guess is that professional American writers would stand as fair a chance as anyone else, especially now that European filmmakers are fast becoming more audience/market-oriented and focused on English-language productions."
Christopher Wehner of Screenwriters Utopia
Lie continues: "A good example is of course Zentropa Films in Denmark, which currently produces several films in English with American, Australian, French and German actors, shot in Sweden posing as the U.S. (Dancer In The Dark, for example). It seems to work alright, and the idea is likely to spread to other countries. More and more young producers and directors realize the potential for films with international appeal, and they see it as a must to shoot in English. These filmmakers will need accomplished scriptwriters."
Aside from the American Film Market, though, what means exist for the writer who wants to find work internationally? Enter the Internet.
INTERESTINGLY, Christopher Wehner, the man who literally wrote the book on Screenwriting and the Internet: Researching, Writing and Selling your Script on the Web (Michael Wiese Productions) is somewhat cautious in speculating on the prospects of U.S. writers internationally. It's not that he thinks it can't be done, but he does see potential stumbling blocks. "You might have, say, a Canadian production company or an American company with German money behind them. A lot of times, according to their financing requirements, they have to find a Canadian writer, or a German writer, which is where you can run into problems."
Wehner continues: "There certainly are American writers who have found work, mainly I think with a lot of British and Australian companies. Canada, too, seems to be one of the areas with the most `back and forth,' but even there, they do often look to grow their own talent." Those cautions notwithstanding, though, Wehner, with his focus on helping writers to help themselves via the Internet, has helped to promote an online environment that may ultimately make it easier for writers to find work globally.
Since 1995, Wehner has maintained ScreenwritersUtopia.com, a site that began as his homepage and which has grown to include a wealth of information, links and articles. As of October, 2001, Chris' site is now home to his latest creation, the Global Literary Market for Screenwriters.
The Global Literary Market allows writers to submit their log lines free. For a reasonable $15 per six months, they can also gain access to a buyers' board, articles, writing tips, a list of agents, companies and their e-mails and a growing database of producers, with each producer's specific guidelines on what to submit and how to do so. While the vast majority of listings are American producers, a quick scan through the listings turns up numerous foreign concerns as well.
Chris also recommended ScreenTalk’s online magazine, a site with excellent coverage of writer's markets and an enormous wealth of links, and also noted the remarkable successes of the Writers' Script Network. While a number of the online script services are beginning to post success stories, none of them even approach the results of the Writers' Script Network; "It's phenomenal what they're doing," says Wehner.
PERHAPS IT'S NOT SURPRISING, then, that of all the people I spoke with, Writers' Script Network founder Jerrol LeBaron was easily the most bullish on the idea of American writers looking abroad as well as at home to sell their work. When I mentioned to Jerrol that much of what I'd heard was somewhat discouraging, he replied, "When it comes to scrcenwriting, you can get bad news anywhere.
"When you look at Hollywood," LeBaron continues, "there are only about 400 movies produced each year, and then you look at the studios' contribution, in the range of 150 a year. My understanding is that only 20 percent of those come from the spec script marketplace; the other 80 percent are in-house. The studio says, `This is a great idea; let's find a writer and hire him,' which they do from their own pool of approved writers. So when it comes to selling a script, the odds are against the writer. It's like several thousand-to-one, and when we're talking about a foreign market, I don't know that the odds are any worse. I suspect they may be a little bit better."
Writers' Script Network's Jlerrol LeBaron weigh in on the prospects of selling your script overseas.
So it follows that a writer might broaden his or her chances of a sale by looking beyond North American shores? LeBaron says yes. "I think it's a smart move for a writer to pursue any avenue they can, in the U.S. and abroad. We have a project right now called Russianbride.com that was acquired by Peter Haubold. It was written by Sheri Keasler, an American. This is a project that's being pitched to German television."
As Neill Hicks suggested, the fact that the script was written in English did not seem to be an obstacle. "Definitely, it is not," says LeBaron. "Peter liked the script in English, and has already written it in German. And here's the really cool thing for the writer: I've spoken to a lot of people in Germany, England and Europe, and many of them feel that the writers in their countries don't write American style scripts as well as American writers. They look for scripts in America."
Certainly, Jerrol's Website is ideal for that purpose-indeed, for any producer or agent looking for writing talent. For a $30 fee, writers can put their scripts on Writers Script Network for six months. The WSN currently boasts 850 industry people who log onto the site, where they can anonymously sort through the multitude of scripts by 200 or so specific criteria. And they do all of this without fear of bombardment with unsolicited submissions-their contact info appears nowhere on the site. "That information is available elsewhere," says Jerrol. "They come to our site for convenience, and because they haven't found what they're looking for in the traditional marketplace."
Clearly it works. According to the figures on the site, "In the last 14 months, 18 full-length scripts and 14 screenplay shorts have F either been sold or optioned, three writers have gotten writing work and 52 writers have gained representation." Impressive results from a service that's only two years old.
I asked Jerrol if he felt the funding requirements that foster homegrown talent abroad posed much of an impediment to a writer after foreign jobs, and again, he was upbeat. `Almost every country does have machinery in effect to promote films made at home. Canada, Australia, the UK, South Africa and New Zealand all do. Obviously they want to promote native writers, so you've got to deal with that. But that doesn't change the fact that if a producer wants a movie with an American fee, they're going to want an American screenwriter.
"If you look at the requirements that these countries have, a lot of them work on a point system. That doesn't mean the writer has to come from wherever. They just have to meet certain points to qualify. In Canada, you can have a screenplay by an American writer, and have it qualify for incentives in Canada because, say, the producer and director and some of the actors are Canadian, and the film still qualifies. It's not a 'must-be' requirement."
In addition to Canada, LeBaron sees the most receptive foreign markets for American scripts right now as the UK, Germany, Australia, France, Italy and Sweden. South Africa, he adds, is also coming on strong. In addition to his own service, he also suggests that screenwriting competitions and any of the high profile film festivals are good places to come into contact with the foreign film market.
One of LeBarods most important messages for aspiring U.S. screenwriters it is to "get your script into as many hands as possible. A lot of writers are concerned with security, and you know what? If you don't take a chance and get that script into people's hands, it's not going to get made anyway.
"Plenty of times a writer has passed up a less lucrative sale to a party who would have definitely made the movie for a pricier deal which never yields a film. That's the wrong way to go. Get something produced. Then the studios will find out who you are." MM