How To Produce Hit Television Shows Like Charlie Day

As a filmmaker, getting a project off the ground is often easier said than done. From day one, you are faced with a seemingly never ending barrage of challenges like how to get money, how to actually finish what you start, and importantly, how to sell your project…

Faced with this level of uncertainty, it’s not surprising why many would-be filmmakers and producers give up before they get started. But thankfully there are some creative types who face these challenges, go the distance and come out on top.

Today we are going to focus on one such story. It’s a true story about a group of friends who had a great idea, limited resources and no budget. (Sound familiar?) But what these friends lacked in cash did not in any way hinder their creativity. And thankfully so.

Charlie Day

Charlie Day at the premiere for Horrible Bosses in August 2011

How To Produce Hits Like Charlie Day

The television show they created is called Always Sunny in Philadelphia and it has become one of the biggest hits on American television.

Charlie Day is an actor, writer and executive producer of the hit series, and he took a few minutes to stop by Filmmaking Stuff to chat about the show and share a little filmmaker inspiration.

Jason Brubaker
Hi Charlie. Thanks for stopping by today to share some thoughts.

Charlie Day
Sure. No problem.

Jason Brubaker
Can you tell us how you shot the pilot? Is it true that you guys came up with a few ideas, grabbed a camera and did it all for $200.

Charlie Day
The only cost was the cost of video tape really.

Jason Brubaker
Did you have a script?

Charlie Day
There was a script. We did improv off of the script.

Jason Brubaker
Originally Always Sunny revolved around a bunch of out-of-work actors trying to break into the industry. But if I understand correctly, the network made some tweaks and set the story in Philadelphia.

Charlie Day
Well let’s get one thing straight. We are the producers so we changed it. However it was the Network’s suggestion that we do so and I think it was a good one. There were already too many shows about the entertainment industry at that time.

Jason Brubaker
Was the initial story idea autobiographical?

Charlie Day
Ours was not really autobiographical at all. Maybe we used our real names or referenced a show that we were on but outside of that it was all fiction.

Jason Brubaker
Once you had a cut, did you shop the show to other networks before the eventual deal with FX?

Charlie Day
I think we went to Comedy Central, HBO, NBC, VH1 and Fox as well.

Jason Brubaker
Then once things got rolling with FX, you guys ended up with over a million viewers in your first season! Were you surprised by the positive audience reaction?

Charlie Day
We were always proud of our show and expected people to like it. So surprised, no. Pleased yes.

Jason Brubaker
So to put this in perspective, you guys had an idea, grabbed a camera, created a hit TV show… And then one day Danny DeVito decides to join the cast.

Charlie Day
Well it was not a hit when Danny joined the cast. We were looking to boost ratings and get a press story by adding a well known cast member. We got lucky with Danny.

Jason Brubaker
With the addition of Danny and the added exposure that he brought, there had to be some question of what would happen next. Did you feel like your life was about to change?

Charlie Day
I didn’t feel like my life was going to change. If anything I was hoping it wouldn’t ruin the show. We didn’t know what Danny would be like as a person. It turned out he is as great an actor as he is a person. Like I said, we got lucky with Danny.

Jason Brubaker
With over 100 episodes,  the story remains entertaining, funny and totally off-the-wall. How are you guys able keep the story fresh and interesting?

Charlie Day
There’s just a lot of things that make us laugh. And the more we get to know the characters the more fun it is to write for them. It also helps that we are working with some other talented writers.

Jason Brubaker
Would you say the creative process has evolved a lot since the pilot?

Charlie Day
Well since the pilot, yes. It takes a lot more work to do 60+ episodes.

Jason Brubaker
Some people now describe the show as a cult hit. Is there an initiation ritual to join?

Charlie Day
Just watch the show and join the cult!

Jason Brubaker
What advice do you have for filmmakers and other would-be producers who still think they need a gazillion dollars to garner success on their projects?

Charlie Day
If you can get it, great. If not find another way. There’s no one way to make a hit.

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If you like this filmmaking stuff, you’ll love the filmmaker checklist.

Screenwriting Tips – Hope for shy screenwriters

Your Writing Coach by Jurgen Wolff

Cover via Amazon

Shy and awkward is how screenwriter Seth Lochead describes himself. When he was starting out he felt he had to choose between building his career by socializing or by writing a great script.

He decided to try to do the latter.

The result is “Hanna,” co-written by David Farr, starring Kate Blanchett as the daughter of a rogue ex-CIA agent. He told the Vancouver Sun: ““I was going for the absurd mixed with action influences that are seemingly familiar, and then something that twists you a bit. You want to keep people intrigued and on the edge of their seat where they’re mentally having to keep up.”

It’s not clear from the article but I get the sense that Farr was brought in to do rewrites, but Lochead was flown to Berlin to do production rewrites for three months, which was a great education.

It’s a story that can give up to the other shy and awkward screenwriters (hey, isn’t that most of us?)

Beyond that, the internet gives us shy types another way to make connections. Here are three suggestions:

* Write intelligent fan letter (via email) to people whose work you admire–directors, producers, actors. I stress “intelligent” because most fan letters are of the “I think you’re really great!” variety. In yours, mention specifics about their work. It’s a long shot, but some working relationships have started out that way.

* If you’re looking for an agent, read the trades online to see which agents have recently opened their own agency or moved–that’s the time they’re most open to new people. (I know trade subscriptions can be expensive–why not split the cost with two or three other aspiring screenwriters?)

* Write and produce short films and make it easy to find them on the web, as samples of your work. If you’re not into the “making” side of films, team up with some aspiring directors who don’t want to (or can’t) write their own scripts.

Jurgen Wolff has written more than 100 episodes of television, the mini-series “Midnight Man,” starring Rob Lowe, the feature film “The Real Howard Spitz,” starring Kelsey Grammer, and as been a script doctor on projects starring Eddie Murphy, Michale Caine, Kim Catrall and others. His books include “Your Writing Coach” (Nicholas Brealey Publishing) and “Creativity Now!” (Pearson Publishing). For more tips from Jurgen Wolff, also see www.ScreenwritingSuccess.com


Writing a screenplay-hold that template!

Today’s Filmmaking Stuff guest article comes from veteran screenwriter Jurgen Wolff. I find Jurgen’s approach to movie script writing to be very useful. In the following article, he expresses his thoughts on The Hero’s Journey and other screenwriting templates.

Writing a screenplay-hold that template!

I had an email from someone asking whether I’m really against the use of templates and formulas for writing a screenplay and, if so, how can I explain the fact that most screenplay stories do fall into a three-act structure?

Just to be clear, my belief is that templates and structures are better tools of analysis than of creation. During the rewriting phase, we often realize that what we’ve written is kind of chaotic, that we have things happening later in the story that we need to set up earlier, that a secondary character takes up too much space in the story or would add more to the story if we have her more space, and so on.

That’s a good time to use some of the traditional structures for clues as to where we could change things to make them work better. For instance, the hero’s journey includes the appearance of a mentor. If I realize that my protagonist would be clearer to the reader or viewer if he had somebody to talk to, a mentor kind of figure is one option. (This is more important in films than in novels, since generally in a movie you don’t get to hear the character’s thoughts.)

Or it may be that in the middle of my script things drag along too slowly–a common problem of first drafts. In that case, reminding myself that the traditional story model calls for escalating conflict can lead to better consideration of how I can add incidents that ramp up the tension and drama.

You can already do this assessment and repair work during the outline stage. That will save a lot of revision later. Some people like to write brief outlines, some write outlines so extensive that turning them into a novel or script is not a huge step. You have to experiment to see what works best for you.

What I’m against is relying on these formulas too soon–before you’ve decided what story you really want to tell.

Jurgen Wolff is a screenwriterFor instance, let’s say I’m fascinated by a character who could have saved his father from dying in a fire, but was too scared to run into the burning house. My interest is in how a person lives with that kind of guilt or “if only” thought.

If I immediately go to a standard story formula, I would ask myself what he wants. Hmm, redemption!

Maybe I opt for the hero’s journey template. What sets him off on his journey? Maybe a memorial service for the father a year after his death–my guy has buried his guilt, but now it comes out.

What’s his quest? To prove to himself that he’s not a coward. A friend accepts a job with a private security company that works in Iraq and invites my protagonist to sign up as well. He does.

During the training for this job, he begins to doubt his commitment (resist the call to action).

But a mentor appears–an old-time security guard who has been on half a dozen tours of duty over there and takes him under his wing.

And so on.

It could lead to a viable story, but I’m letting the template lead me rather than letting the character lead me.

I think it works better to live with your character for a while. No writing yet, just thinking about him and taking notes on whatever occurs to you about his life. What are his fears? His hopes? What impact does that have on his life? Maybe his marriage broke up because he was afraid that the incident with his father showed that he couldn’t protect someone he loves. Does he have kids? What does he fear they think? What do they really think? What caused the fire? Does he find out it was arson and set out to investigate?

My point is that the story could go in a hundred different directions. When you try to nail it down too quickly, the odds are that you’ll take it in a more conventional direction than you need to. It’s like any kind of brainstorming–the first ideas generally are derivative. I believe that trying to force the story into a formula or template has the same effect. Let your story be king. Let templates and formulas be the story’s servant–if needed.

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Jurgen Wolff has written more than 100 episodes of TV, several TV movies, the feature film, “The Real Howard Spitz” starring Kelsey Grammer, and has been a script doctor on films starring Eddie Murphy, Kim Catrall, Michael Caine, Walter Matthau and others. His plays have been produced in New York, London, Berlin, and Los Angeles. He is the author of 9 books including “Your Writing Coach” and “Creativity Now.” If you would like to find out more about “The Seven Things That Are Stopping You From Writing And How To Overcome Them,” check out Jurgen’s screenwriting website: www.ScreenWritingSuccess.com

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Movie Website Marketing For Filmmakers

Filmmakers: Do you have websites for your movies?

When you’re in the filmmaking process, getting a website up and running is one of those things that filmmakers oftentimes forget. Please don’t. Given the ways in which distribution is changing, having a great website for your movie is probably one of the most important aspects of your eventual movie marketing campaign.

If you’re not technical, that’s OK. The following tips will help you:

The first step in your movie marketing campaign involves reserving some domain names. For example, once you have a title for your movie, you need to go out and reserve your website address names. These addresses are called domain names. And the names you pick will be influenced by the name of your movie.

For example, our first feature was called special dead – so we reserved the domain names www.specialdead.com and www.specialdeadmovie.com. (You’ll notice the sites are very simple. There is one objective – sell the movie. Anything that doesn’t help us achieve this objective has been cut.)

You should write down some names for your movie websites.

You can get domain names through sites like UltraCheapDomains or GoDaddy. But when it comes time to set up a website, in addition to your domain names, you will also need hosting. So I prefer a one-stop-shop.

Luckily, most hosting companies also sell domain names. I use www.MovieSiteHost.com (I get a commission when filmmakers use this link.) You can get hosting for your website there. But if you do your research, you will also find a few other places as well.

The nice part about MovieSiteHost is they give you one domain name as part of your hosting package. And the prices are incredibly affordable. Then once you’re set up, you can buy additional domains there too (not additional hosting – all of your websites can be included on one hosting account).

Once you get set up with your hosting and your domain name, the next step is actually creating a website for your movie. This is still open to your creativity. Just make sure you cut all the fluff. You website should have one purpose. You need to collect the name and email address of each visitor. These people will become your fan club and your most important asset.