Screenwriter Peter Harmon emailed me and I thought everyone might be interested in his experiences writing direct-to-DVD movies. Maybe that's not your ultimate goal, but it's Getting Paid to Write - and I know that's a short-term goal for a lot of us. Here's what Peter had to say:
My last year of college I heard of a program where I could get the last of my credits in LA in a semester program where I would take a couple classes, have an internship, and make short films. I re-wrote and directed a short called Jasper featuring Justin Grant Wade (aka Steve Holt! from Arrested Development.) Jasper premiered at a showcase for the shorts, it was well-received. A producer from a small production company approached me, gave me her information, and said that we should set up a meeting soon. I assumed that nothing would come of it, but she called me when I got back home to Maryland and asked when we could meet. I said something like, "uh, I'm in Maryland." She asked if I was working on a project, I said, "kind of" (I was packing). I told her I'd call her when I got back to LA.
A few days after I got to LA, I met with the producer and she offered me the job to write a feature screenplay for their company. Thus began my relationship with Black Christian Movies and Nu-Lite Entertainment. They specialize in religious African American movies, urban movies, etc. The movies I've written have been very low-budget (the budgets have increased as we've gone along though, and I'm excited for the next two which are coming out in early 2011) and I didn't make enough money to quit my day job. However, they led to me to my manager, who is actually a parent of one of my wife's students (she works at an elementary school).
Writing direct-to-DVD is kind of the wild west right now. If you have a good relationship with a distributor you have a lot of freedom with what you can release. The company I wrote for had a solid religious African American audience that it catered to, the kind of audience that was more forgiving of low production value and a lack of big stars if there was a certain message in the story. The company turns out movies very quickly; I wrote one in the summer of 2008 that was on the shelves in time for Christmas. The movies I've written have gotten better in quality, but since I am non-union the pay is low and there is no backend deal whatsoever. But writing for them led to finding a manager so I think it has been a worthwhile experience.
A question I get asked often is how, as a white guy, I wrote for Black Christian movies. It honestly never came up in the meetings. Thankfully I come from a diverse area on the east coast so it wasn't difficult for me, also I used to attend a church in DC that was similar to one I depicted in the Pastor Jones movie I wrote. We all have the same emotions and I wrote the stories based on simple family dynamics that were universal. I usually write more low key, quirky dark comedies when up to my own devices, but for these movies I went a little bigger and broader while still maintaining my voice and I definitely put in some really weird jokes that were funny to me that I'm surprised made the final cut.
Working for the particular company I have was an interesting experience, since all the movies I've written for them have been sequels. I never thought I would ever write a sequel - how can you think of a new story for characters who already had a whole movie devoted to them? The company would send me a DVD and I would watch them and outline a new story based on the characters, or a main character in the Pastor Jones series' case, or a theme in the Walk By Faith series.
I have pitched my own ideas to them and they seemed receptive so I think int he future if I write for them I could sell them a spec, but they've always had other scripts for me to write instead. If nothing else, working for Nu-Lite/ BCM has taught me so much about meeting with producers, pitching, outlining, writing on assignment, and now rewriting. This is going to sound very cliche, but it's literally been like a master's class in screenwriting.
You can read more from Peter on his blog.