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Howard Suber

to Y O U N G
LE T TERS

Fil m m a k ers
CREATIVITY & GETTING YOUR FILMS MADE

M I C H A E L W I E S E P R O D U C T I O N S
Con† ent s
Dedication �����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������v
Contents�������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������vii
Acknowledgements ��������������������������������������������������������������������������ix
Foreword ����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� xi
Introduction����������������������������������������������������������������������������������� xiii
Becoming a Filmmaker������������������������������������������������������������������xiv
Becoming a Professional Filmmaker �������������������������������������������xvii
The Contents of This Book����������������������������������������������������������xix
The Letters���������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 1
Fate vs. Destiny �������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 3
War�������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 5
It’s Who You Know �������������������������������������������������������������������������� 9
“Born Creative”? ���������������������������������������������������������������������������� 11
The Principal Principle of Creativity�������������������������������������������������� 13
Inspiration�������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 17
Originality�������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 20
Ideas���������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 24
Pitching ���������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 26
What’s It About? ���������������������������������������������������������������������������� 29
If The Screenplay Is So Important, How Come Screenwriters
Are So Often Treated Like Shit? �������������������������������������������������� 31
Emotional Storyboards�������������������������������������������������������������������� 35
Write What You Know?�������������������������������������������������������������������� 37
Creating Recognizable Characters ���������������������������������������������������� 41
Developing Your Writing������������������������������������������������������������������ 43
The Audience���������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 45
What Audiences Want���������������������������������������������������������������������� 47
Strategy and Artistic Freedom ���������������������������������������������������������� 49
Logistics���������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 51
Prioritizing ������������������������������������������������������������������������������������ 53
Hollywood ������������������������������������������������������������������������������������ 57
What Movie Are You Living Now?���������������������������������������������������� 59
Decisions���������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 61

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L e t t e r s t o You ng F i l m m a k e r s • S u be r

Active vs. Effective�������������������������������������������������������������������������� 64


Negotiating ���������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 66
Aggression�������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 68
Motivations vs. Goals ���������������������������������������������������������������������� 71
Rules vs. Principles�������������������������������������������������������������������������� 73
What’s Most Important?������������������������������������������������������������������ 75
Treatments ������������������������������������������������������������������������������������ 77
Readers and Coverage���������������������������������������������������������������������� 79
Development ���������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 82
Options������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������ 87
Marketplace Value of First Time Screenplays �������������������������������������� 89
Credits ������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������ 91
Writers vs. Producers������������������������������������������������������������������������ 94
Producers vs. Everyone Else�������������������������������������������������������������� 97
Conflict���������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 100
Partnerships �������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 103
Mentors and Models �������������������������������������������������������������������� 107
Sharing Your Passion�����������������������������������������������������������������������110
How Much Does A Film Cost? ������������������������������������������������������ 112
What Happened To The Studios? ���������������������������������������������������114
The Golden Age of Independent Film �������������������������������������������� 117
Making an Independent Film���������������������������������������������������������� 120
Agents������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������ 123
Managers ������������������������������������������������������������������������������������ 126
Hip-Pocketing ����������������������������������������������������������������������������� 128
Getting Started as a Director�����������������������������������������������������������131
Getting Started as a Producer �������������������������������������������������������� 134
Doing Things for The Good of the Film������������������������������������������ 136
Exhibition and Distribution������������������������������������������������������������ 139
Marketing ������������������������������������������������������������������������������������ 142
Minorities and Women in the Industry�������������������������������������������� 144
Ageism and Youthism�������������������������������������������������������������������� 147
Copy and Other Rights������������������������������������������������������������������ 150
Life Rights and Roman à Clef �������������������������������������������������������� 160
Being Screwed������������������������������������������������������������������������������ 164
Other Opportunities ���������������������������������������������������������������������167
The End of the Industry���������������������������������������������������������������� 169
What Determines Success?�������������������������������������������������������������� 171
Why Try?�������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 175
Index���������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 185
About the Author �������������������������������������������������������������������������191

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In† ro∂uct ion
Becoming a Filmmaker
During the course of having lunch with a friend who had
recently been the C.E.O. of a major studio, I lamented all the
creative people on planet Earth who might be just as talented
as the people currently working in the industry and how they
would never get a chance to make their films. He fixed my eyes
and said: “Howard, I think all the really talented people are
making films.”
His response reflected what I already knew about his
Darwinian worldview. I thought of arguing the point but
decided it would be fruitless, because you cannot prove a nega-
tive. That exchange echoed in my head for years, and in some
way provided the genesis for this book.
Is it true that those who “make it” are the most talented
people practicing the art of film and therefore deserve to succeed?
Or do other factors play an equally important role?
A loaded question. Of course luck and other factors outside
one’s own control have a lot to do with who “makes it” and
who doesn’t. Yet I also believe that knowing the realities of how
films come to be made also plays a large role in determining who
succeeds. Or maybe I should put it the other way around: igno-
rance of those realities plays a large role in determining who will
not succeed.
What realities? At the top of the list is this: whether you are a
writer, director, producer or other creative person, to a very large
extent you do not make a film, you have to get the film made.
You may call yourself a filmmaker, but no matter how great
your creative abilities or how strong the force of your will and
willingness of other people to let you exert it, you cannot make
a feature film that large numbers of people want to see by your-
self. You need dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of others to

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I n t r oduc t ion

work with you. You need large sums of money to make a film,
and whether you make Hollywood features or small budget
independent films, almost invariably it is far greater than you can
personally afford. You need distribution to get your film seen by
enough people to pay back the costs. You need marketing funds
that often equal or exceed the cost of making the film. And you
need large numbers of people to see your film, ranging from
hundreds of thousands to millions.
Whatever your creative role you do not make a film; you make
a contribution to a film. Without the contributions of others, the
film won’t come into existence and won’t reach an audience.
When I say it’s not enough to know how to make a film, you
need to know how to get a film made, I mean to emphasize, as I
do throughout the letters in this book, that others are as respon-
sible for your film as you are. I’m not just calling for humility,
I’m asking you to learn and understand what all those people
you have to work with contribute to the process of film.
When I was a young film professor, I thought I could tell who
among my students would “make it.” As the decades passed and
I watched what actually happened to the constant passing parade
of students, I gained more humility. People I thought surely had
“the right stuff” often disappeared without a trace, while people
I scarcely noticed while they were students went on to fame and
glory. It took years to conclude that I’m not prescient. Today, I
believe that no one can tell at an early stage whether someone
will be successful in film, television, and related media.
Doctors, lawyers, physicists, and other professionals are not
“born”; they go through many stages of testing and examina-
tions. If they pass the boards, bar, doctoral exams, or other
screening devices set up by their own disciplines (which are often
licensed by the state) they are allowed to practice.
I don’t believe anyone is “born” to become a filmmaker, nor
do I think filmmaking will or should ever be licensed by the
state. Considering how cheap and widely available the tech-
nology is, anybody can make a film. This is a blessing as well as

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a curse, because there’s no way to know until after a film has


been made and shown to others whether the filmmaker has even
the most basic competence, let alone artistic ability. Even if the
artistic ability is in full display, there is little assurance that the
individual will become a professional filmmaker, which I define
as someone who makes a career and a living from the process of
filmmaking.
The film industry, or perhaps the press that covers the
industry, has always mythologized early success – the person
apparently “born” to make films. Orson Welles made Citizen
Kane (1941) at the age of 25. In the long run his early success
was as much a curse as a blessing, since forever afterwards there
were people who said he never lived up to his early promise.
Precocity is something journalists love to write about simply
because it is a rare phenomenon, and therefore always “news.”
Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers: The Story of Success,
summarizes research that shows it takes about 10,000 hours of
hard, intensive work – approximately a decade – for anyone to
produce work that experts in the field will regard as substantive.
When we’re young, of course, we don’t want to hear this. Ten
years? An inconceivable and intolerable amount of time. People
who want to become professional filmmakers sometimes find it
difficult to believe that the process is not all that different from
becoming a doctor, lawyer, physicist, or other kind of highly
skilled professional: it requires a huge amount of effort and
commitment.

xvi
Becoming a Professional Filmmaker
Professionals in all fields have a way of looking at the world, a
set of values and procedures that tells them what they need to
pay attention to and what they can ignore, those things that are
either relevant or irrelevant to their goal and method of work.
So, too, do filmmakers.
“Anyone can make a movie,” is true in the same sense that
anyone can play baseball or write a sonnet, but few become a
Babe Ruth or a William Shakespeare. Becoming a professional
requires not only a higher degree of skill than most people
obtain; it also requires a mindset about the profession that
is quite different from that of the weekend golfer, open mike
comedian, or summer filmmaker.
Many books try to help you appreciate and understand how
films work. (I’ve written one myself, The Power of Film.) A slew
of others tell you how to write screenplays or master the tech-
nical aspects of filmmaking. This book is not about these things.
It is about the process of becoming a professional filmmaker.
Professional filmmaking involves (1) the creative process,
and (2) the process that makes creation possible. Novelists,
painters, or poets can wake up every morning, immediately
begin creating and continue doing so all day long. If they have
the inner resources and will, they can do this every day of their
lives. They don’t need anybody else’s permission or support to
begin working, and they can complete their creative works all by
themselves.
Professional filmmakers are not so fortunate. While screen-
writers can write “on spec” to their heart’s content (although
few do, and even fewer do so for very long), directors, actors,
producers, cinematographers, editors, etc. can’t begin to work
until all of the many elements required to complete the film have

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been provided, especially, the large sums of money and large


numbers of people who are required to make a feature film. As a
result, most filmmakers spend only a fraction of their lives actu-
ally creating films and spend far more time trying to get their
films made.
This book is based on the idea that the combination of
creativity and an understanding of the realities of how films get
made are what makes one a professional filmmaker.

x v iii
The Contents of this Book
For more than 20 years at UCLA’s film school, I taught the
history and analysis of film. Then I became head of UCLA’s
Film and Television Producers Program, where I have taught
for the last 26 years. During my days as head of the program,
I recruited heads of studios, agencies, distribution companies,
lawyers, and other industry pros to teach Producers Program
courses. I worked closely with several of them and team-taught
for two decades with two prominent executives. So, my own
teaching career has been split between analyzing great films and
dealing with the realities of the film and television businesses
that produced them.
In 1996, when UCLA started providing free email service
to students, I became the first faculty member to require all
my students to be accessible by email, and I’ve urged students
to communicate with me through email exchanges ever since.
Many have done so, not only while they were students but
for years afterwards. This book consists of a carefully chosen
portion of the more than 5,000 exchanges I’ve had with screen-
writers, directors, producers, animators and scholars who were
once my students. Certain kinds of questions or problems come
up with each generation, and I have used some of the most
common ones as the basis for the exchanges that follow.
I have deleted all information that was either personal or
related to the specific situation that caused the writers to contact
me. For fun, I have given each writer the name of a central char-
acter in a classic film. I have attached an appendix at the end
of the book containing the character I was thinking of at the
moment I assigned that name during the editing of this book,
but my whimsical substation of names is like a word associa-
tion test. There may or may not be some logical connection,

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but one should not make too much of any instance. In editing
the exchanges, I have often combined what were originally
several different exchanges on the same general topic into one
longer response.

xx
† he
LET TERS
Fa† e
vs.
Des†iny

Howard,
You talk a lot about the importance of strategic thinking. How
in God’s creation can I control my future or my career? I don’t
control squat! Things just happen to me and I react — that’s it.

Dear Rick,
You express a common feeling and attitude. There are two
primary forces in our lives, one of which I call “Fate” and
other I call “Destiny.” While some dictionaries treat them as
synonyms, we use the terms differently in our lives. If someone
is killed in an accident, we refer to it as a “fatal accident,” not
a “destined accident.” In American history, the famous phrase,
“Manifest Destiny,” was used to justify the country’s expansion
from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans. No one called it “Mani-
fest Fate.”
You seek your destiny; you succumb to your fate. Fate is the
force that lies beyond individual will and control; it pushes you

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L e t t e r s t o You ng F i l m m a k e r s • S u be r

from behind. Destiny is the attracting force in front of you that


acts like a magnet and that you choose to acquire.
Your looks, weight, height, race, gender, and usually your
social class, religion, and education are part of your fate because
you had little or nothing to do with them. They were given to
you in large part by genetics or by the circumstances into which
you were born. No one is born a writer, director, or a producer;
you become one.
Luck, by definition, is synonymous with fate because it is a
force outside you, something you do not control. We should
never underestimate the power of luck in life; but then neither
should we underestimate the power of will, determination, and
long, hard work.
Fate — where you came from — may determine how you got
to where you are, but Destiny determines where you will go.
People need to seize their destiny.
For many creative people, the closest they can get to a
strategy can be summed up by the famous line from the film
Field of Dreams (1989): “If you build it, they will come.” It’s
such a famous line because it conveys what many young film-
makers wish were true: that huge numbers of people will
somehow spontaneously recognize how wondrous a thing you’ve
created and will bestow upon you the adulation, respect, and
wealth you crave.
The plain truth is, though, that “If you build it, they will
come,” is really about wish fulfillment, not strategy. Yes, many
things “just happen,” but creative success is seldom one of them.

4
War

Howard,
I’m working for a guy who put a copy of Sun Tzu’s The Art
of War on my desk last week. He told me to read it. “It’s the
Bible,” he said, and walked away without explaining why. He’s
my boss, so I have to read it. Is it really and truly the bible of
the film industry?

Dear Willard,
Some people think so. I trace this phenomenon back to Mike
Ovitz, who, in the last few decades of the 20th Century, was
frequently referred to in print and throughout the film and tele-
vision industry as “The Most Powerful Man in Hollywood.”
CAA, which he helped start, was also often referred to as “The
Most Powerful Company in Hollywood.” Ovitz required his
employees to read Sun Tzu’s three thousand year old text, so
maybe your boss once worked for him. Unquestionably, The Art
of War provided Ovitz and CAA at the time with its model of
the world.

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L e t t e r s t o You ng F i l m m a k e r s • S u be r

Ovitz made a bad career move and accepted the position of


president at Disney. The problem was that Disney already had a
boss, his old friend Michael Eisner, the C.E.O. who’d given him
the job. Perhaps predictably, it wasn’t very long before Eisner
forced Ovitz out. After a couple of years, Ovitz’s name disap-
peared from the pages of Variety and The New York Times, and
few people knew or cared what he was doing.
Did Eisner stab his friend in the back and take his power away
from him? Not necessarily, although Ovitz said so in the inevi-
table lawsuit. As we see in Citizen Kane (1941), The Godfather:
Part II (1974), Oedipus Rex, Macbeth, King Lear, and in many of
the world’s most memorable stories, the fall of powerful people
often comes, not at the hands of others, but because of what the
individual did to himself.
There have always been people in the film industry and
everywhere else who take war as their strategic model. This is
not surprising. If you compile a list of books with the word
“strategy” in the title, 90% of them will be about war or busi-
ness, where the idea is so well entrenched that the best way for
you to prosper is if your competition is diminished or defeated.
War may be an appropriate model for an agent, lawyer, or
studio head, because all of them are engaged in a “zero-sum
game,” which means that one side tries to capture everything it
considers valuable and leaves the other side with nothing. The
logic of war is very simple: In order for you to succeed, others
must fail.
But I question whether warfare is an appropriate — by which
I mean useful — strategic model for creative people. In war,
you kill your enemies or render them impotent. How can a
creative person accomplish this goal? Who would the enemy
be? Certainly not, in any direct sense, other artists. Do creative
people ever have the power to convince potential buyers to pick
their screenplay, hire them as a director or actor or give them
money to make their film by weakening or defeating other
creative people?

6
Wa r

The real enemy of creative people is indifference. Creative


people compete with other creative people for attention. If you
are a creator, you want people to pay attention to you rather
than to someone else. No manual on war is going to be of much
use to you in accomplishing that goal.
Three prime tools of warfare are lies, deception, and betrayal.
You try never to let others see why or what you are really trying
to accomplish. War justifies betrayal as a necessary act of self-
survival. When people who use war as their model are caught in
their lies, deceptions and betrayals, their consciences are clear.
They will tell you, like Marlon Brando’s character, Terry Malloy,
does in On the Waterfront (1954):
“You want to know my philosophy? Do it to them before they
do it to you.”
If you plan a career in filmmaking, you can’t say you won’t
deal with people like that — you need to be able to deal with
them. But this does not mean their behavior is a model for
how you should act. Thinking like a filmmaker, which is to say
thinking strategically, requires that you get out of your own
head and into the heads of others long enough to figure out how
they see the world and how you fit into it — or don’t.
Warfare seeks to have power over other people. For creative
people, however, the most important power is the power of your
work.

Howard,
Come on, now! As I see it, everybody in this business is trying
to get as much power as they possibly can.

Dear Michael,
Of course everybody wants power. What happens in our lives
depends on power — our own or somebody else’s. Many creative
people cringe at this thought, perhaps because they have an

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L e t t e r s t o You ng F i l m m a k e r s • S u be r

attitude towards power that Victorians had towards sex; everyone


knows it exists and plays a crucial role in human behavior,
but nice people aren’t concerned about such things, and they
certainly don’t talk about it.
Power isn’t merely something the strong exert over the weak.
Power has two components: the ability to produce change or to
prevent it.
By definition, creative people want to produce change. They
want people to pay attention to them, to recognize, pay, and
occasionally applaud them. There are always forces at work that
can prevent change, though. Some of these forces come from
opposition, but for creative people there is a more powerful force
they must surmount.
Newton’s First Law of Motion says that things will remain
at rest or continue moving in the same direction as they were
going unless acted upon by an outside force. We call this inertia,
and it applies not only to the physical world but also to human
behavior. The greatest challenge to creative people is not that
other people will attack them, and it’s certainly not that they
will attempt to destroy them. It’s that other people will be obliv-
ious or indifferent to them.

8
I† ’s
Who You
Know

Howard,
I think I have a really cool strategy to get my film made, which
is the reason I take a mountain of horse dung from my boss,
day in, day out. To be honest, working for this powerful whack
job has given me the idea that one of these days, I’ll take on
some of his power. Don’t worry, I’m not going to turn into
another paranoid tyrant. In his insane way, my boss has been a
good teacher, and, as everyone knows, it’s a business of who you
know.

Dear Bud,
Where in life isn’t that true? If your tooth hurts and you need
a dentist, you can search the Internet and randomly pick a
stranger whose web page design you like, or you can ask your
friends whether they know of a good dentist. Of course who you
know is important.
What’s even more important, however, is that it’s not really
who you know; it’s who knows you. You may work for many of

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L e t t e r s t o You ng F i l m m a k e r s • S u be r

the most powerful people in town, go to endless Hollywood


parties, make “friends” with industry insiders, go to endless
public appearances by influential people and introduce yourself
to them afterwards, but it would be naïve think you “know”
them.
Maybe you’ll get to “know” your boss, but will he jeopar-
dize his career, his ability to buy that new Bentley, his daughter’s
junior year in Paris, his second wife’s rehab and his professional
reputation just because he “knows” you?
Working for him may enable you to meet other important
people. On the basis of that connection, you may get a fifteen-
minute meeting with big shots, but do you honestly think
they’re going to make your film because they “know” you?
Doubtful. They’re going to base their decisions on whether
they think your project will enable them to continue their own
careers.
It might be more productive if people spent less time getting
to “know” people and more time producing work that makes
people eager to know them.

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“Born
Crea† ive”?

Howard,
I keep hearing that you can’t teach someone to be a writer or
an artist. What do you think? Are you born creative or can you
learn it?

Dear Vicki,
This question has perplexed people for about 2,500 years. Are
people who win Olympic medals “born athletes”? Any coach
would tell you that you need to have to be born with certain
physical characteristics (long distance runners or basketball
players, for example). But those same coaches will tell you that
it’s what you do with what you’re given that makes a difference.
Many people, especially when they’re young, approach
creation as something that will either come to them in a
moment of inspiration or through an instruction manual. They
want the learning curve to be quick and preferably easy. But, for
most people most of the time, creativity frequently comes after

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L e t t e r s t o You ng F i l m m a k e r s • S u be r

the expenditure of a great deal of perspiration, but it seldom


precedes it.
We might distinguish between craftsmanship and creativity.
A craftsman works on something such as a piece of furniture,
knowing in advance what it is he or she is creating. An artist
often doesn’t know in advance exactly what the object will
turn out to be until he or she has finished working on it. Most
screenplays are examples of craftsmanship, especially those that
are based on familiar stories or some other pre-existing template.
Only a percentage of them display artistry.
While I agree with those who say you cannot be taught to be
creative, I think you can be taught to release and enhance the
creative potential you already have. That doesn’t make me a great
fan of “how-to” books, however. How-to manuals invariably deal
with how-it’s-been-done. And, while yielding to no one in my
belief that history is important, creativity comes from adding
something that hasn’t been done before. There is no instruction
manual that can lead you to create something new.

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The
Principal
Principle of
Crea† ivi† y

Howard,
You once mentioned that you used to teach a seminar in
creativity. I’m interested in the creative process, but when I look
up the subject on Amazon, I’m bewildered by the hundreds of
titles and don’t know where to begin. Is there a book or an idea
that you think is central?

Dear Michael,
There are tons of books that try to tell others how they can
become more creative, which is similar to telling people how to
be funny. There are others that observe how people have been
creative and others that try to figure out what has been the basis
of creativity. Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation, a very long,
dense book I read almost fifty years ago, is in the latter category.
While it’s been criticized for being reductionist, especially by
people who have another theory to offer, I’ve probably cited it
more often than any other book I’ve read.

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