Monday, November 8, 2010

Writing direct-to-DVD movies

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.

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Anand Rathore said...

Hi Amanda , really useful post.. thanks

Unknown said...

Do SciFi originals go straight to DVD or straight to TV? I might as well have taken a class in how to write SciFi channel movies. By the end of college I could accurately predict every one of them (including what happens to each individual character and when).

My favorite was Mega Snake.

Dan Williams said...

This was really interesting. I really like Peter's can-do attitude. Lately, our grocery store has been stocking direct-to-DVD movies. Some cost just $3. At this price, I'll willing to take a chance on just about anything. It seems that the stigma that used to exist for direct-to-video has worn away, and for refreshing new plots these DVD's are getting a new lease on life.

Pete said...


Direct-to-DVD movies are successful if they are directly targeted at a specific audience and knows how to connect with that audience.

Thankfully the company I wrote for already had an audience built.


I'm sure there are Syfy originals, this company (I'm sure you've heard of their 'Mockbusters') also makes a bunch of movies direct-to-DVD and straight-to-Syfy

I think it's funny that a company that produces MILF and Gacy House, etc, has a Faith Films division. No judgment though, we all gotta eat.

Dan Williams said...

Pete, if you were to write and produce your own DVD, how would you go about building or connecting with an audience?

Pete said...


That is a great question that I don't know the exact answer to.

In fact I am in the middle of working on a web series right now that I'm having this exact issue with, how do you find an audience? So far we've used social networking to try and build word of mouth, grassroots style because it's a no-budget series.

One way is to get a known actor on board, that will bring that actor's audience to your project.

Another is to put it right in the production company name like Black Christian Movies did, if you're African American and religious and you see a movie with that name on there you might be more apt to buy the movie without having heard of it.

The best way though I think is to produce a quality project and submit it to the big festivals, if it gets into Sundance for example, you're not only going to get cred but you'll get press.

I am currently writing a script that I hope to produce with my manager's production company so I'm sure we'll run into that issue again down the line and I'll blog about what I learn.

Dan Williams said...

Thanks for the nice answer, Pete, Amanda has good guests on her blog.

I don't know if this idea will help, but I heard of it a while ago and it made some sense to me.

It's possible to buy the mailing list of some magazines. Let's say the magazine's title is something like, "Car Driver." Then if the DVD or web series features great cars, or whatever, a flyer or email can be sent to those on the mailing list, inviting them to order the DVD or watch the web series. This is what mail order businesses often do. They also place small ads in these type of magazines, with a product offer.

Anyway, it's just a thought.