Monday, October 08, 2007

Dear Barbara Letters

Periodically, I like to share queries from my email bag, as well as my responses to the same in the hope that it will be generally instructive for those who are about to send me - or some other citizen of Hollywood - a similar query. I promise that each of what follows are prototypical of scores of inquiries I get every year. (And especially this week, as EWTN is airing a show I taped at Franciscan University this past spring.)

I added a little to my replies here just because I got in the groove...


Dear Barbara,

I heard you on the radio with Teresa Tomeo doing movie reviews.
You talked about the need for Good people in Hollywood, in media.

I am not a writer, but I have a great idea for a story and I have been praying for help to get it out.


I don't know where to begin.
I felt led to write you.

K. in Illinois

Dear K. -

Thanks for your message and for telling me a little about your grandmother's story.

I am not sure what kind of help I could give you. Perhaps you could find someone who is a writer to tell the story, possibly in a format for a magazine article. Then, see what happens.

There isn't any easy structure set up for a person who is a non-writer to get their story to print or to the screen. If you are willing to put some money into it, you could hire a writer to co-write a book with you, or write a screenplay for you. However, then, you would have to be willing to shop the book around to publishers or agents, or the screenplay to production companies.

People are always approaching me with "great ideas" for movies, and I never know what to say to them. Most of the ideas are not really "great" by real narrative standards. A story is more than just a cool thing that happened to somebody in your family. Still, if I ever really do hear what sounds like a great idea, I never know if I should say, "Cool, that is a great idea. Mind if I just take it and run from here?" Few people are really willing to just see their idea launched without getting some kind of money or credit. And the truth is, trying to keep someone attached who knows nothing about the process is rarely worth the trouble.

But anyway, maybe your grandmother's story is mainly for you to tell your children and then for them to tell theirs. And you should, as it is part of your family's "salvation history." Not everything needs to be for the mass audience.

Thanks again for sharing it with me. God bless -

Barbara R. Nicolosi

P.S. If this advice has been helpful to you - or I suppose even if it hasn't but just because I tried - please send a donation to Act One. It was founded so that you would have somebody here to give this kind of advice, and it could really use the support just now.

The follow-up email....

Dear Barbara,

I thought YOU were a writer.


K. in Illinois

The follow-up response....

Dear K.,

I am a writer. You need to find one who wants to do this job.

God bless -



Dear Ms. Nicolosi,

A group of us here in [INSERT NAME OF TOWN INCREDIBLY FAR OFF SUNSET BLVD] are working on making a movie based on [INSERT NAME OF INCREDIBLY ESOTERIC CHRISTIAN NOVEL]. We already have the script, the director, the cast, the crew. We’re seeking funding, but we do have a lead on that in an investor who is interested. But he does not believe it can be made for the budget we are proposing. He wants us to look into getting a real producer, a professional who has been involved in movie production before, to either advise or even takeover the production chores. It’s a low budget movie, so it has to be a low-budget producer.

Any suggestions?

D. in Town Incredibly Far Off Sunset

Dear D. -

Well, you asked....

I have very strong feelings on this question, as I have watched too many good people waste too much money and time in ill-conceived efforts in movie-making. In the end, the process breaks up friendships (I've even seen it lead former friends into court), and generally results in eminently forgettable, unwatchable projects. The subtext of what follows is that movie-making is a highly complex, demanding art-form that takes years to master, and then requires the cooperation of some people in Hollywood who control theater and television screens for the world. Making a movie is like building a building. You better know what you are doing or it will be condemned...

Your investor is asking all the right questions. Have him call me if you want me to say any version of what follows so as to prevent loss of his investment.

I don't understand how you can not have a producer. A producer is the one who launches the whole enterprise of making a movie. The producer picks up the script and attaches the director. Technically, you don't find a producer. A producer finds everyone else. So maybe what you mean is that you need to find a line-producer? A line-producer is responsible to do the budget breakdown and to hire all the below the line talent.

I don't know what you mean by a "low-budget" producer. Do you mean someone who will not be fairly compensated for their work? Because making a movie is always an all-consuming, demanding task whether it is an indie project or a studio tent-pole. I am always leery of projects that are going off for much lower than the minimums established by the industry guilds. Go to the PGA website to find out what the guild minimums are for a producer.

The matter of budget can be related to how many people you want to eventually see the movie. Unless you hit a jackpot of unlikely eventualities, but I don't recommend a business plan built around the miraculous. A movie is meant to be consumed by the masses - or, at least, people in the tens and hundreds of thousands. Why else go to all the trouble? Many Christians seem to go about the process as though they were bringing together a wall mural meant to be seen by a few hundred people. Forgive me for being direct, but guerilla filmmaking that ignores all the normal expenses and procedures of the business ends up generally making movies not fit to be viewed by guerillas.

Budget for a movie is not principally determined by how much money you have in hand or can presumably collect, as in, "Hey, let's make a movie. How much money does everybody have in their pockets. I've got a quarter." The first question you ask is "How much money will be needed to serve the needs of this story as outlined in the screenplay?" It's not, "How can we make this story smaller to serve what we can afford?"

If you pay for professional talent (cinematography, directing, production design, editing, etc.), the product will be better and you will have the chance of setting yourself apart from the other 3000 indie films whose whole distribution plan is to win the lottery and be picked up at a festival. If you bring in a name actor or director, you will have a better chance of minimally getting your project pulled out of the stack at a festival or distribution office, and possibly get coverage in the broader press which will contribute to your marketing efforts further down the road. If you have a distribution partner before you start (because you want to have your movie play in actual movie theaters some day, you would be shopping the script around first to production companies who have some kind of deal or contacts at studios).

Regarding the first-timeness of the director/writer... Exactly how "first-time" is he? Has he worked in the industry as an AD or a cinematographer, or even an editor? Does he have a nice, rich reel of shorts that show that he really has the chops? Does he have real talent that stands out among other young filmmakers? Movie-making is like any other art form. Everybody's first everything is bad. Michelangelo took nine years of practice before he sold a statue.... A "first time" writer/director usually refers to somebody who has been working in the business for years in a variety of capacities. He has made a whole bunch of short projects and has written five to ten screenplays. He has been AD on several projects and so has been mentored by other more experienced directors for years. IT DOESN'T MEAN that somebody right out of film school (or, God forbid, somebody who never went to film school!) convinces you to let them get some more education learning by having you pay them to make a feature.

Here's what you should do.... Submit the screenplay to a professional script-analyst who can tell you if it is ready to go. I have no doubt that the script doctor will give you notes that will make the project better. (A good one who is also a Christian is Vicki Peterson: Have the script rewritten until the analyst gives you a thumbs up. Then, shop the script to some production companies being sure to tell them how large an investment you already have attached. I can help you at that point. (Of course, if the investment is under a milion dollars, you basically are saying that you aren't making a real movie to be seen by the masses, but rather this is an expensive hobby thing.)

There it is for what its worth. Good luck to you. God bless -

Barbara Nicolosi

P.S. If this advice has been helpful to you - or I suppose even if it hasn't but just because I tried - please send a donation to Act One. It was founded so that you would have somebody here to give this kind of advice, and it could really use the support just now.


Dear Barbara,

Your name was given to me today as one who might know a Performing Arts School that also promotes Christianity. Our 16 year old daughter is passionate about theater and movies. We would like to help her pursue this dream to see if it is her destiny and have begun looking into performing arts schools but have not found one that we feel will support her belief system. Do you have the name of those schools that will train her in her craft and also support her in the moral life style she is choosing for herself? We appreciate any help you might be able to offer.


B. in Texas

Dear B. -

Thanks for your message.

There are several Christian schools with strong theater and cinema departments. Azusa Pacific University out here in Azusa is a good one. I am an adjunct there and the people there are great. Another option to check out would be Pepperdine University. Regent University in VA has a good cinema department, I don't know about their theater department. Notre Dame has made it a priority to have a state of the art media department. Catholic University has a good theater school. There must be more on the theater side, but I really don't know much in that area.

Do encourage your daughter, however, to take some strong Liberal Arts classes during her undergrad years. She should absolutely plan on going to grad school for theater, so she should see the Liberal Arts as making her a more interesting person who will one day be a storyteller. In addition to art history classes, she should take lots of literature and history classes and maybe some psychology as all of these will help her as a storyteller. Tell her to get her spiritual act together so that she can attend one of the top secular schools for grad school. We need good kids to go through the top programs so that they can compete well in this demanding business.

You could also have your daughter check out the Act One program at and Hollywood Connect at These are both programs for Christians starting out in the arts.

God bless -

Barbara R. Nicolosi

P.S. If this advice has been helpful to you - or I suppose even if it hasn't but just because I tried - please send a donation to Act One. It was founded so that you would have somebody here to give this kind of advice, and it could really use the support just now.

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