Professional Production Value: why does it matter?

Couldn’t I just make my proof-of-concept short for “no money”?
More than one person has asked me that. Sadly, the answer is no. Here’s why:

1. Agents, producers and distributors are all used to seeing high-quality, polished products. If my project looks flat, or has less than stellar acting, the professionals evaluating my material may mistake my cash limitations for an inability to see flaws in my work. I must demonstrate that I can be trusted to create something viable.

2. The tools available mean anyone can make a great piece. If mine is missing necessary elements to make it look professional, it’ll be noticed and considered sub-par, no matter how good the writing is.

3. Film and television is more competitive than ever. Anyone can create a high-quality production. Anyone can find great actors. There is no shortage of people writing great scripts. To stand apart from the mass of people trying to break in, I must bring all three elements to the table (story, performances, production) to have a shot at consideration for distribution or other directing or writing jobs.

Technology and software have made it far more affordable to create exciting and compelling stories. And somewhere, someone will grab their friends and make a movie on their iPhone that will get a lot of buzz, and perhaps a sale. But that’s analogous to being discovered as an actor in a mall; it can happen, but shouldn’t be your strategy to become an actor. People around the world make thousands of films a year for various festivals, and distributors. I can’t shoot myself in the foot making something that looks cheap. I can’t let anyone think I believe cheap looking work is acceptable.

Proof-of-concept

For the next year, or so, I will be producing a proof-of-concept short for my television series, “Utopia, TX.” Here on this blog, I will attempt to document that process in the hopes that it helps other creatives out there to be able to do the same.

My goal is to produce a professional and cinematic short film, ten to twelve minutes in length, that demonstrates the comedy, and compelling story and characters of my series. I want to do this with as cheaply as possible, without sacrificing quality; which means it will take time. Time is the asset I have however, so I will aim to do it right.

In the past I successfully directed and produced a feature, as well as produced and directed over thirty professional theater productions. I’ve directed several shorts for other producers, and written numerous projects, one of which is a drama in development right now, but this project is thematically the most ambitious piece I’ve ever undertaken, and the need for proof-of-concept was determined after several industry folks (agents, producers, executives) all praised the writing, but weren’t sure how the series would “work.” What they meant to say is, “the show is incredibly political, and has thriller elements mixed with satire, so we’re not sure if it will all gels together.” To be honest, I’m not sure it will, but in my mind it does, so there’s nothing left to do but to prove it. And that’s what a proof-of-concept short should do: prove your material is compelling and works visually. Most projects don’t need a proof-of-concept because the conceit is clear. But my piece is a hybrid, which I feel most audiences are sophisticated enough to handle, but the script doesn’t fit neatly into the old classifications television uses. Drama is 60 minutes, comedy is 30 minutes. The series started as a 60 minute comedy, like “Orange is the New Black”, but the producer of my other series suggested making it 30 minutes to help readers get into the comic mind set, and recently OITNB was told by the Emmy’s they could no longer call themselves a comedy. I would prefer my series be a 60 minute program, and perhaps after the proof-of-concept is finished, others will see it that way too. But that’s the best part—after it’s finished others will be able to SEE it.

It’s a long and complicated process I’m undertaking along with my co-producer, Brenna Palughi. Join us. It will be exciting no matter what comes of it.

Nowhere to go but up—a new direction for this blog

If you look through the old posts you’ll notice a large vacancy between my last post and the one before it. What happened in that little black hole called 2013-2014? I became a television writer. It’s more complicated than that, but that’s all that matters in the end. It was new, and challenging and I didn’t have the courage to write about that while I was transitioning from playwright. It seemed a dream I couldn’t possibly achieve. And while I still haven’t actually achieved it—I am much closer. And I find myself giving this blog a new purpose. I’m going to share some of my writing journey with you, in the hope that it can help you with yours. I will try to be transparent, and I will answer questions, but I cannot risk any professional relationships and my projects success, so forgive me if sometimes I must be vague, or omit some details.

Where things stand now: I have two series I created last year. The first draft of the comedy was in the fall of 2013. The first draft of the drama was in March of 2014. The plan was simple. The comedy was going to be submitted to contests. The drama was to be pitched, in meetings earned from having some heat from the contests. Bold, right? Well, it worked.

The comedy achieved semi-finalist status in a number of places, notably Page and Tracking Board and a few others. With those minor feathers I was able to leverage that information with the logline of my drama into actual pitch meetings. The summer of 2014 I took 24 meetings about my drama. I got 19 script requests, and when asked to see something else, I sent over the comedy. In September, 1 script request lead to another meeting with a producer. And then another meeting, with that producer’s partner, and now we are actively developing the drama. Meanwhile, I’ve decided to take the fate of my comedy into my own hands. Now, I’m developing it for production this Summer, with the goal of submitting it to festivals like NYTVF, and Austin, as well as Amazon and any other network that will consider it.

So the drama proceeds in a traditional way, while the comedy proceeds down the independent path. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I’m taking them both.

I’ll discuss each series in more detail soon. More to come.

#HBOaccess

Watching the panic, frustration and anger fill my timeline today was rough. So many of us, i.e. minorities, women, or just broke — those who don’t feel our voice is felt in Hollywood, dream of having a series, or even just a job with HBO. I’m not going to get into what happened, or why, or offer solutions to something I don’t full understand. But I didn’t apply because I have two television series moving forward with different producers in different ways. And I didn’t have a fellowship. I didn’t have access — at least not that kind.

I’ve decided I would record this journey I’m taking and be as transparent as possible (without risking the projects or my professional relationships). I can’t promise sharing my journey will give you any ways to make your own journey shorter, but maybe you will glean what you need to keep going.

More to come soon.

The 4 kinds of actors (open wide, here comes the honesty)

“Have you ever considered teaching Acting?”

I’m asked this a lot. And, YES, I have considered it, but in it’s current academic form, I’m not for it.

DO NOT MISUNDERSTAND, I’VE NO PROBLEM WITH PEOPLE WHO TEACH ACTING.

Good thing all caps makes something clear.

I would be willing to teach acting, in an environment in which the students can already act. “That’s awfully brave of you, Kevin,” you feel like posting as a comment (but you don’t.) Allow me to explain.

There are four kinds of actors. I’ve worked with them all. There’s only four. If you’re an actor and you want to know what kind of actor you are, this won’t help you. But as my blog is interested in articulating the things I think about the things I create, and actors are my most important collaborators, I feel okay posting this here.

ACTOR TYPE #4: Non-actors.
Non actors mostly include: animals, 90% of children, professional athletes, Walmart Employees, State Farm insurance agents, musicians, famous people who aren’t famous for acting.

Mostly we see non-actors in commercials, occasionally in movies and scripted television, hardly ever in theater. A great example is Bruce Springsteen in High Fidelity. He’s a great performer, but that doesn’t make him a great actor; big difference.

Non-actors are essentially being themselves. Sure someone has done their make-up and hair, sure, maybe they memorized a line, or don’t even realize they are being filmed, but they’ve take a role from an actor because who ever is creating the project wants “real people,” or some kind of name recognition. But non-actors are just being themselves. Any actor worth their weight can be themselves. Non-actors, if they try, almost always become our next type:

ACTOR TYPE #3: Bad Actors.
Bad actors want to be actors, but they get in the way of themselves being believable. Let me say that again: a bad actor gets in the way of their own performance. That’s what makes them bad. This problem nine times out of ten cannot be cured. Bad actors make good material look and sound bad, and they make bad material so embarrassing or offensive you must turn it off or look away. A Bad Actor can have good training but it doesn’t matter, they trip themselves up with their own inability. Typical issues of bad actors that no matter what they cannot really help:

1. Their voices don’t have resonance, i.e. they sound thin, or nasal, or flat… it lacks any kind of distinction and… well, resonance.
2. Their bodies are awkward. This could be a strange shape, too big or too skinny, lack of grace, clumsy, distracting features, carrying tension in their hands or hips, unremarkable appearance… it is what it is.
3. Terrible phrasing. They phrase lines strangely, they don’t feel the rhythm or the drama of words. The give nothing they say any weight.
4. Limited emotional range. You can’t tell what they’re feeling. Everything is the same. Or the emotional note they need to hit, they can’t.
5. Intellectual incapable. A camera can tell what you’re thinking. If you aren’t thinking anything, or just thinking about your line, you come across as blank, or confused, or bored. An audience must see the life inside. Things you believe have souls.

When I hold auditions, these are the things I identify immediately. If you are free of any of the above issues AND you’re right for a part or in the realm of what I’m looking for then you probably are getting a call back.

It’s this type of actor, that makes me not be able to teach acting. Because I would ask anyone with these severe acting handicaps to give up acting. I wouldn’t make very much money if I booted all the students. Because no amount of training, can make someone who is a bad actor into our next type:

ACTOR TYPE #2: Good Actors.
A good actor mixes both intellect and instinct. The mix will range from actor to actor but the point is: to be a Good Actor there has to be some kind of instinct AND some kind of intellect for it. An Acting teacher can encourage the piece that’s lacking and sharpen the stronger side, but you have to have a good piece of steel from which to forge a blade. Now just because an actor is good, doesn’t mean they don’t get miscast, don’t choose terrible projects, don’t get picked over at auditions, so being good is in no way a ticket to success, fame and riches. But if I were to teach, I would need a room full of ambitious, curious, open-minded GOOD ACTORS who I can identify their weaknesses and help them develop that part of their range they need to work on. Sure you can teach them tools for approaching text, breaking bad habits, coach them on phrasing of lines, push them emotionally- That is the best an Acting Teacher can hope to do. That is the most an Acting Student can ask for, because no teacher can make you become our last type:

ACTOR TYPE #1: Great Actors.
Great actors are rare. We don’t think so, because we see great actors all the time, but in the population there is probably 1 great actor for every 10,000 actors. No exaggeration. If we printed a list of every actor in SAG-AFTRA and AEA, the list of great actors would probably be 1 for every 2000, but that’s just actors in the professional unions. There’s tons of good actors (and even more bad ones). But let’s make the distinction clear. The audience is willing to suspend disbelief for a Good Actor; the audience BELIEVES the Great Actor. There it is. That’s all it is. Can a Great Actor be mis-cast? Sure. Can a great actor be in a bad movie, or play? Happens all the time. Does an actor need a good script, clear direction, and A+ work from other departments? It sure helps. It’s a collaborative art. It’s not your call to say whether you’re a great actor. Time will tell. Some people grow into it. People who know an actor intimately might not think they’re a great actor, because their association with them interferes with them believing. Sometimes an actor is so famous it interferes with our ability to believe them. But that’s what the audience wants. They want to believe. They want to behold magic. They want to see someone transform, become someone else, effortlessly. And it can’t be taught.

For my play “Secondary”, to help persuade producers into getting my piece on a New York stage, I’m going to look for 5 GREAT ACTORS. Wish me luck.