Thursday, May 5, 2011

Writing Tips | Dennis Lehane

Writing tips from novelist and TV writer ("The Wire") Dennis Lehane:

START WITH CHARACTERS: "The plot is just the vehicle by which the characters are revealed. You create a bunch of characters and let them start bouncing into one another. That's how a good story happens."

KEEP 'EM MOVING: "My agents has a great line: 'Alice was down the rabbit hole at the end of page one.' A story is about movement. If you've got more than one page with a character sitting in a room, get him out.

FORGET THE PAST: "What your characters did before today is irrelevant. Flashbacks tend to be an alarm bell that your story isn't working. If you want to see a great example of character in action, go rent THE VERDICT with Paul Newman. You know almost nothing about his character's past."

MAKE EVERYTHING COUNT: "Every scene needs to have a point. As David Mamet says, 'A scene ends when a character gets what he wants or doesn't get what he wants.' Everything else is extraneous."

HIDE, DON'T SHOW: "Suspense tends to be best delivered offstage – it's delivered by withholding information rather than showing it. The specter of what
could happen is far more interesting than what actually does happen."

GET TO THE END: "A professor said to me once, 'Just finish the damn book.' If you never complete a draft, you'll never know how to do it."

REWRITE, REWRITE, REWRITE: "That first draft is just spaghetti on the wall. I rewrote my first book eight times in two years – that's where you make yourself a genius."
Go Into The Story: Writing Tips: Dennis Lehane


As a finance person, I spend a lot of time cleaning up after producers, which makes it easy to opine on their shortcomings and how they can better themselves.  But I also spend just as much time cleaning up after investors who've jumped ship.

The contractions in the foreign pre-sale market, coupled with increasingly conservative gap lending, are putting considerably more pressure on the amount of equity required to get a film financed.  Unless a project outperforms pre-sale expectations, most producers should expect cash/equity to comprise 45%-50% of their budgets.  That's what it takes to get film financings closed these days. It might appear to only be 35%-40% when you're first going into your loan closing, but that's where it's going to end up, six weeks later – and it's during those six weeks that most investors leave their producers standing at the alter.

Investors have all sorts of reasons for abandoning ship: market shifts, divorce, investigations, misinformation, epiphanies, moral issues with the plot, something better comes along, they never had money to begin with, and so on.  Divorce is probably the leading cause of investor flight, but sometimes it's something reasonable, like they couldn't come to terms with the lenders or co-investors.

Nevertheless, raising 50% of a film's budget, in cash, is a heavy burden.  Very few people can cut a check for half of a budget, so it usually ends being multiple investors – and with each investor comes an additional point of vulnerability in your finance structure.  Producers can mitigate the risk of structural collapse by insisting that their potential investors are transparent and accountable.

Understandably, most producers are terrified of offending or "losing their investor", but it's important to remember that nobody is an investor until the money is in the bank.  Until that time, they're just a person that you may or may not do a deal with.

Therefore, transparency is the only insurance policy against wasted time and money.  Proof of funds must be obtained straightaway.  If they can't show you where the money is, then it doesn't exist.  If they stall, move on.  If it takes more than 30 seconds to explain how they'll fund, forget it.  Anybody who's acquired wealth sufficient to invest in movies won't have a problem putting you in touch with their banker, lawyer, accountant, or business manager.  By the same token, knowing who their lawyer will be for the closing is also very helpful; you can tell a lot about a person by the lawyer and firm they use.

Sometimes, just putting pen to paper can be sufficient to clear away the shysters.  Unfortunately, Letters of Intent (LOI's) are so mired in funding conditions that they're almost pointless.  Instead, having your investors sign meatier, short form, financing agreements that have strong representations and warranties can give producers some legal remedies, like detrimental reliance.  Generally, it's cost prohibitive to pursue a claim, but it might give you enough ammo for a settlement, or at least keep them from wasting any more of your time and money.  In either case, your short form should clearly spell-out the conditions for escrowing and releasing funds.  If you're still skeptical, include a meaningful kill-fee (or make them liable for your legal expenses) after the producer has satisfied certain conditions.

Bottom line, it takes money to raise money, but it's money well spent.  Investors who don't have money will do whatever it takes to avoid spending any, and that's what you need to look out for.

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