Tag Archives: Hallmark Channel

Yep. The dreaded “M” word. The word that splits the writers who consider themselves artists from the ones they see as sellout commercial screenwriters.


Now, let me get something straight right from the start, screenwriters who write commercial scripts are not sellouts in any way shape or form in my humble opinion. You can come up with a great commercial idea for a film and feel the same passion for it as a writer as you can any script you write. In fact, you need to if you want it resonate with an audience.

This all comes from a post on a screenwriting board where a writer decried the fact the money going to into superhero films was ruining the film business. That commercial films were making it hard for serious “message” films to get made. Films that raised awareness and educated and allowed a writer expression. Not so surprisingly, films like the ones he writes.

There’s a whole group of people who think all film should be art. To improve mankind and to inform and educate. That pure entertainment for entertainment’s sake in film is a waste. Superhero films, remakes, TV adaptations, sequels, best seller adaptations... all these things are ruining the film business and shouldn’t happen. Film as art. And that’s what the studios should be making.

I know it’s not a black or white thing. I love film as art as much as anyone. But I’ve seen some great commercial films I thought were art. And... I’ve seen “art” films that were so pretentious and full of themselves there was really no art to be found. No one person or group can define it for another. And that’s the problem. There are writers that would like to define it for everyone.

Would I love to see studios taking a flier on some real spec scripts and make something different? You bet. Name me a writer who wouldn’t. But reality says that’s not going to happen. Maybe ever again.

Studios and even some of the bigger Production Companies these days are so risk averse they don’t want to take a chance on losing any money on anything that they don’t think already has a built in audience.


It’s an ugly word that some of these writers think should be low on the list of why films get made. Well, except when it comes to what they expect to be paid. But that’s a whole other blog.

A world they live in where money, other people’s money, not theirs, shouldn’t matter to the artistic filmmaking process. That the reason they haven’t sold their art is based purely on the stupidity of the studios and big Production Companies and what they think are the purposefully dumbed down audiences. Audiences who would be so much smarter if they just watched their films. That all these studio people think about is Money, not art.

And you know what? They're right. That's what studios think about. So do independent producers. So do production companies. And the sooner you as a writer who wants to see your work made and on screens for the public someplace recognize this truth the more it will make you think about what you write. And that’s a good thing.

I’m not saying you need to chase trends. I’m completely against that. I’m also not saying that you shouldn’t write something that moves you. More than a few writers have written films strictly as writing samples. Something out of the box and exciting or controversial or completely different for a genre, just to get noticed. The difference is that they knew the films probably wouldn’t get made, but might get them an agent or manager or writing assignments. It’s worked for quite a few of my friends, and actually, me.

But there’s a big difference between writing something as a sample and writing something with no commercial appeal and getting angry no one wants to buy and produce it because people are too stupid to realize that it’s art that needs to be seen.

If you want to sell a script and make money, you need to think about the audience you’re writing for. And the wider that audience, the more chance you have. My first real chance at a produced film was writing a Christmas Film for Hallmark. Did I worry it was Hallmark and what people would think? Nope. I took that opportunity and gave it everything I had as a writer, heart and soul...

And it’s a film I’m really proud of. I didn’t particularly make a lot of money for it either, but boy did it open doors. And it definitely wasn’t art. But it made people laugh for the right reasons and got incredible ratings. Good enough for me.

I love what I do. I love it every day. I get paid to tell stories. Something I would have to do even if I wasn’t getting paid. If I was a caveman, I’d be the one painting the buffalo pictures on the cave walls. I love creating story. I love the challenge. It’s what I dreamed about doing. Do I feel blessed that I’ve been able to get paid for it? You bet your ass.

So... do I think about money when I write?


I think, “Is this a script that somebody would invest in?” before I write anything. I think, “Is there a wide enough audience for this?” at the same time. Why? Because I understand any money I might make as a writer depends on my honest answers to these questions. It’s a fact of trying to do this for a living because the word “art” is not a word producers think about when reading your script.

They’re thinking about money. If they like it, they’re thinking about what it will cost them to option or buy it. How much it will cost to make. Where they can go to get the money to make it.

The M word.

Follow me on Twitter. @bobsnz

Been an interesting week. No word from either pitch. But no one has passed yet either. Doesn’t mean they won’t, just means more patience is needed. Something all writers have to get used to.

My wife had a serious health scare this week, too. A condition she had previously that she was assured was something that didn’t reoccur did. And she ended up in the hospital for 5 days. She’s home now and doing well, but damn. She’s one tough cookie and healing and doing exactly what the doctors told her to, so that the non-reoccurring disease doesn’t reoccur again. Thank God it’s over and she’s ok.

Then...  I found out that my opinions and knowledge about writing don’t count because I write “crappy TV movies”. Now, I’m going to say that the person who wrote this on a public board wasn’t commenting on my personal films (I don't think) as much as much he (yes, it was a he) was commenting on TV films as a whole, saying that anyone who scrapes the bottom of the barrel (like me) and writes for Hallmark or Pixl or ABC Family or Lifetime or any number of Cable outlets are hacks who don’t deserve the time of day. Real writers write for lofty arenas like Movie Studios and Major Production Companies. (Major production companies produce TV movies too, but why mess up this guy’s thesis with facts.) But he pointed the answer at me. I laughed.

Don’t misunderstand. At first I got a little steamed, but then I calmed. I’ve seen this before. An unproduced writer who will only let who he deems the best touch his vaunted work. I wish him success. He’s got a much tougher road because of that attitude though.

I posted my OPINION on a public board in answer to a question about the viability of Big Budget scripts. I answered that I thought Big Budget scripts can be a good sample, but if you want to sell something, the future of original scripts is in Cable, VOD, Online with Netflix types, and whatever pops up in that arena in the future. These are the only people who are buying and producing original work in any significant way. Studios are too scared to take a chance on it. For the kinds of money they risk, they need audience pre-approved goods. Marvel, DC, sequels, best selling book adaptations, remakes of old films and TV shows....etc... You know the drill. You see what’s in the theaters every week. I said, and I do believe it, that if you write an amazing script with a reasonable budget you will generate all kinds of heat. Look at the people who wrote and made SAW.

He took exception to my answer. He said, in so many words, you only make it to the top if you aim for the top. Big Budget Studio Films. You can’t listen to people like me who write cheap crap. I guess aiming for the top can only happen from the outside. I thought you could start anywhere and use that experience to aim for the top. My bad.

Not really. Not settling for anything but the top is a recipe for keeping your day job 99% of the time.

Yes, every year there are maybe a couple of writers that write some big budget epic that wins universal praise and lands them a deal to write a Marvel film. Their film doesn’t get made, but they're in the game. So yes, if you’re burning with the desire to unleash your Big Budget Epic, by all means, write it. I never said don’t write one. I think the guy who dissed me would be surprised that I have two of them ready to go and one in the middle of being written. And as I work my way up from “crappy” cable films, which by the way have actually paid all my bills and more the last two+ years, I have three theatrical films moving forward. Now, they all may end up on VOD, but hey, they’re moving toward production with a writing credit for me and actual money paid. Why limit yourself by looking down your nose at any kind of screenwriting?

Both of my pitches the last couple of weeks came DIRECTLY from my TV experience. Both production companies asked to see me because of my TV resume. One for a limited series and the other is another crappy TV movie, that’s not crappy (it’s a great idea). And out of that pitch meeting may come another unrelated write for hire job on top of it. For another TV movie. That pays. Well.

You, as a writer, need to be open to any number of avenues for experience. I started in this business writing corporate videos and radio commercials. I wrote for anyone who would pay me. Local directors who needed a polish on their tiny indy film that had no chance of going anywhere. I wrote short films for hire, rewrote short films for directors. I wrote and directed cheap cable commercials for local businesses. Anywhere to get my foot in any door, to get my work out there and seen. I’m not too proud. It’s experience. It’s education.

You owe it to yourself as a writer to explore every path you can to getting out there. Look at any writing job as an opportunity.  Explore the good writing contests. The Blacklist. The Query. Networking. And look seriously at writing a great small budget film.

I wrote one called “Extracurricular Activities”. It has been responsible in some way for every door that has opened for me and every option on another script or write for hire job I've ever gotten. Every opportunity. Even got me my manager. It is way too dark and twisted to be a cable film for Hallmark, but the writing ability on a budget got me my first meeting with them. If it had been a big budget extravaganza they wouldn’t have given me the time of day, because they want people who know how to write well, small.

Everyone has to start someplace. It’s easier to start on a bottom rung of a ladder and work your way up than it is to wait and wait to be dropped at the top.

It’s been more than a couple of weeks since I’ve last blogged. Not that there weren’t things to write about, but it’s been deadline-mania around here lately. The last one went in Monday and I find myself truly unemployed for the first time since January. During that time it’s been a cornucopia of rewrite work for Production Companies, Producers, Development Execs, and Directors. Work on five different films, four of which are my original spec scripts (one written with the wonderful Jeff Willis). Two of them for cable networks and two that are theatrical.

The other was a hired page one rewrite job on someone else’s script for a production company which I may or may not get screen credit for. (However, the checks cleared). And it looks like maybe three of them are heading for production this year, one starting July 30, for sure. The other two of the five put off until 2015. Or not made at all. That’s what’s so hard about this business.

And as I look forward to a little time off, I also worry about where the next job will come from and when it will come. That’s the lot of anyone who works as an independent contractor, like most film writers do. I may not work again this year. I hope so, but there’s nothing on the horizon right now. So I’ll be writing more specs, reworking my pilot, and rewriting older specs in the meantime. Use it or lose it.

As I have said before, all of my produced/credited films have been for Cable Networks, mostly for the Hallmark Channel, which has been interesting because my natural proclivity is toward darker material. All of my optioned feature specs… hell… my entire two foot tall stack of specs are all kind of dark and/or twisted, including the comedies. So having to NOT write like that for Production Companies and Networks with a narrow brand has been good for me, expanding my abilities to keep my own voice yet walk those lines drawn that you cannot color over.

Where is this going? To talk about what happens to YOUR original when you option it to a Production Company or Network who wants it to fit their brand. Which is all of them.

Jeff Willis, who is a VP at a very well known and large Production Entity, is also my sometimes writing partner. We met on an Internet Board years ago and a real life friendship came out of it. And out of that, and I can’t remember which of us said it, came, “Hey. Let’s write a script together.”

We proceeded to write three over a couple of years. A dark funny anti-romantic comedy, “The Right Girl” where the two people don’t get together at the end. A Monster Movie, “The Ogre”, with a great original premise, that’s sly, violent, very funny, and gruesome. And a big grand Action/Adventure Spy Movie, “Family Bonds”, with a killer premise. Two of them are still available, by the way. The anti-romantic comedy is going into production July 30. Only… it’s no longer an anti-romantic comedy. The two people do get together and love wins. How did that happen? Not by accident.

A production company optioned The Right Girl about a year and a half ago. In that time Jeff and I have done six (6) paid full rewrites of the script for them, taking it from the snarky anti-romantic comedy it was to the still kind of snarky in places fun true romantic comedy it has become. More than a few different people from the company and the network have given us notes over the last 18 months at different times. Our main Protagonist, a woman who travels from narcissist to empowered woman (with or without a man) has basically stayed put. (She was the reason they bought it to begin with and I’m glad they kept her journey reasonably the same). She’s a lot less profane and all of the overly sharp edges have been ground down, but her personal journey to redemption still isn’t powered by her growing love for a man. The real love happens between them because she’s changed on her own.

But beyond that… if you read our original optioned draft and the production draft I sent in yesterday, you’d barely recognize it as the same script. Our major original premise point is gone, replaced by a different one they wanted instead. Our antagonist doesn’t even exist anymore. Characters and their arcs we loved are gone. Gone. Replaced by other new and different characters that fit the new paradigm. Characters retained have different agendas and needs. Some have changed sex. Some have changed age.

Don’t get me wrong. Jeff and I were given fairly free reign to make these new characters and their story arcs our own, as long as we stayed inside the lines. We skirted the edge and got away a lot of it, but we always stuck to the spirit of their notes, which is what you do when you want to keep doing this.

And we did a good enough job that they didn’t bring in any other writers to rewrite us. We wrote every version from the original to the production script. The Production Exec told us that’s never happened with them before. They always bring on other writers. So we’re feeling pretty damn good about that.

But if we had been so married to our original that we couldn’t or wouldn’t have made the huge wholesale changes that have been made to it to get it where they’re actually spending millions to makes it, we would have been replaced faster than you can imagine. And the new writer or writers may have gotten writing credit for the film with us.

Your original script, no matter how much you love it, cherish it, and do not want to see it changed, is only a suggested starting point if you want to see it get made. Unless YOU put the money up yourself, it is going to get changed and probably changed as much as ours was. As a screenwriter you have to learn to live with that or have a very very short career.

Do we like the new version? The one THAT’S GOING TO GET MADE and play on Cable for years and years to come? Yes. We do. It’s not the film we originally wrote, but it’s a damn good script. The notes we got work for what the Network and Production Company need. Did we get notes we thought were wonky at times? You bet. But we fought for what we wanted, still understanding our limitations, and most of the time prevailed. It’s going to be a cute funny film and better than a whole lot in the same category, I think. The Production Company thinks so, too. They’ve told us as much.

They are building the sets on soundstages right now. Offers are out to stars. Casting is in full swing. A director I like a lot and have worked with before has been hired. And we’re been invited to set anytime we want to go. We’ll be taking them up on it.


I’m constantly amazed by attempts at what they think is networking by writers trying to break into the film or TV business.

A few Sundays ago at about Nine PM (at night!) my cell phone rang with an LA area code. Now, on Sunday night I do have a tendency to not answer my phone if it’s somebody or a number I don’t know. But this time… I answered it.

On the other end was a female voice that said, “Hi Bob, I’m sure you don’t remember me.”, then proceeded to give her name. She was right. “You acted in a film with my son about ten years ago.” She then named the film. That didn’t help either. I remember the film (I just got a 4 cent residual check from it), just not her or her son.

My answer of “Uh. Ok.” didn’t faze her in the least. She plowed ahead.

“Well anyway, we were watching a Hallmark Christmas film last night. You know, the one with the Elf.” (Yes, I know it.) “And we saw your name on the credits. Are you the Bob Saenz who wrote it?”

This then became one of those moments where you can say, “Nope. Must be another Bob Saenz. Sorry.” and hang up the phone and go back to watching Punch Drunk Love on cable with your wife.

OR… you can say, “How the hell did you get my number? It’s Sunday Night. SUNDAY NIGHT!”

OR… you can say, like I did, “Yes, that was me.” and open a Pandora’s Box of requests from the owner of the phone on the other end.

That night’s requests from a woman I do not know:

1. Can you please give me your complete list of contacts/producers that I can send my script to? (Uh… no.)

2. Who could I possibly get to read my script and then get it to people who would buy it, make it, and cast it with the actors I have in mind, and pay me a million dollars, all immediately? (ok.. this wasn’t exactly what she asked, but this is the subtext version)

3. Why aren’t you jumping at the chance to help attain my dreams? (again, subtext)

4. Help me Obiwan Kenobe you’re my only hope. (begging is so ugly)

I was polite, firm, and because my wife was sitting in the room, understanding. I told the woman about the Black List, InkTip, Trigger Street, and Zoetrope. Places to post her script and get feedback, if she wanted to pay or trade reads. Again, she didn’t understand. Why wouldn’t I just give her my contacts or read her script?

I excused myself, thanked her for calling, and hung up knowing it wouldn’t be the last call, tweet, or email on the subject and she wouldn’t be the last one to try this. She wasn’t the first either.

There’s an art to networking. Well, not so much an art as an integrity. Only if you want to do it right. And doing it right is the only way it works.

Networking is all about building honest relationships with people. Yes, they are people in the business you wish to be in. Yes, they may have some influence (unlike me who at this point in my career, have little). Yes, if you have something of value to offer they may take a chance and help you. But this all happens after they LIKE you. And getting people to like you isn’t something that instantly happens.

It’s about developing friendships and relationships that are meaningful to all concerned. It doesn’t mean you have to hang and party and name your children after them. It can purely be on a professional level, but it does mean the person you are trying to network with doesn’t think you’re trying to USE them to get what YOU want. A one way street that only you go down.

It means that sometimes when you communicate with people you’re networking with it has nothing at all to do with you.  You call to ask how they are. You ask about their family. Their accomplishments. You read something about them or hear something about them and send a congratulatory Email, because you are GENUINELY happy for them and expect nothing in return.

When I was acting, I met all kinds of people on set. All kinds of sets. Film. TV. Commercials. Industrials. I developed relationships through friendship before the topic of my writing ever came up and sometimes waited until they asked ME if they could read my work. Or asked me to pitch my scripts (which, thank you most always led to reads). And yes, of course I asked people to read or asked to pitch, but only after it was clear there was no one way street.

I’ve met all kinds of people online. Directors, other writers, editors, DPs, Producers… at IMDb, DoneDealPro, Twitter, even on Facebook… and developed real lasting friendships. Real honest friendships.

Have these friendships led to successful work relationships? Yep. Some have. Some have been amazing (I won’t name any names Jeff Willis) And in some cases, I have tried to help people I've networked with because I WANT TO. Something friends do for each other.

Networking takes time. It takes being genuine in your efforts. It takes patience. It takes not being selfish.

I have true meaningful relationships with people in the film business that started with networking and grew to be so important to me that if I never had any business relationships with them, I would still want them to be my friends. You all know who you are.

OH… one more thing. If your scripts aren’t GREAT, networking doesn’t work no matter how well you do it.

Writing Outside of LA, My Interview with Bob Saenz

Screen shot 2I had the pleasure of discussing screenwriting with Bob Saenz, a Bay Area local, actor, screenwriter, and all around great guy. In my quest to capture the screenwriting activities of folks in the Bay Area and prove that it can be done without living in Los Angeles, I interviewed Bob about his experience and advice for those of us trying to make our first sell. I am sure you will find his comments useful!
Justin: You have proven that you don’t have to live in Los Angeles to write screenplays. Do you feel this can be attributed to any one aspect of your career/one choice?
Bob: Yes. I don’t want to live there. Easy as that. I love the Bay Area. It’s my home and with skype and email and conference calls and Southwest Airlines at my beck and call, I’ve never had anyone blink twice that I live here instead of LA. Doesn’t mean it will always be that way, but so far so good. I’ve only had to be in LA the next day once and I made the meeting. Oh… I also wrote good scripts that people wanted and where I lived didn’t matter as long as I had those. 

Justin: That is great you have been able to make it work. Like you said, the good script is key! I understand you have acted as well. How much do you feel your acting has helped with your craft as a writer? How much has it helped with the networking to establish yourself as a writer? Did you act only in the Bay area, or did you live in Los Angeles at some point?

Bob: Yes, I started out as an actor. I’m a 20 year SAG/Aftra member. Being on sets has helped me as a writer more than being an actor (I’m not that great an actor anyway), and I’ve been lucky to have been on sets, both film and TV,  with some iconic

directors and actors and kept my mouth shut, for the most part, and my eyes open and gotten an amazing education on how film and TV operate. And yes, the networking I did on set was crucial to my writing getting seen by the right people. I’ve been fortunate to have never sent a query letter to anyone. Most of my acting jobs were here in the Bay Area, but I have been hired to act in LA films and gone there to do it. Fortunately, for the viewing public, I’m not acting much anymore. Too busy with writing jobs, thank you God.

Justin: Haha, I am sure the viewing public misses you! But as someone who has acted and now writes, I completely agree that sometimes writing can be more fulfilling. I understand you have adapted fiction and non-fiction works for the screen. What is the biggest challenge of doing this? I have considered approaching one of my published friends about such an endeavor. Would you advise aspiring writers try this as another way to get their foot in the door?

Bob: It’s a fabulous experience and one that any writer hoping to do this should try at some point. I’ve adapted a non-fiction book, working with the author to make sure I did it justice and adapted a novel without the author’s help. Both times I had to learn to combine events and plot points and characters, add scenes and characters, delete subplots, you name it…. all to make a book fit a two hour viewing window and try to not lose the original material. And if you have the rights to a great book and can turn out a great script based on it, YES… it can be another way through the door. I just optioned the rights to a story that was in the newspapers all over the world last year.


Justin: I look forward to discussing this further, as I have some ideas in mind for books I would like to option from an author I know. It certainly seems a smart way to go. IMDB shows your movie “Help for the Holidays” came out in 2012 and “Extracurricular Activities” is in production. That is very exciting! How many scripts did you write to get to this point? Are you willing to share any particularly interesting adventures you have had along the way?

Bob: Help for the Holidays was a Hallmark Channel Christmas film in 2012. It was the number one rated original film on Hallmark in 2012 and the number 10 rated Hallmark film of all time. It did help that Summer Glau starred in it, but it was an unqualified hit for them. And didn’t hurt me much with them either.

And I just got a director’s cut last week of Cupid’s Bed & Breakfast, the next film I wrote for them. A romantic comedy/drama that’s not as cutesy as the title might make you think. It’s not even on IMDb yet, but will be soon. I am unbelievably happy with the way the film turned out.

I sold them another original script, “The Right Girl”, a romantic comedy that I wrote with my good friend (and great writer) Jeff Willis. We’re doing paid rewrites on it as we speak. It will shoot sometime in the fall. And Extracurricular Activities is scheduled to shoot about the same time. It’s a theatrical film. One that will be released to theaters. Hopefully, a lot of theaters. I’m really happy with the well-known (Oscar nominated) actors involved but can’t say anything public yet about it. It’s being packaged by CAA.

All I can say is that it wasn’t an overnight thing. It’s taken close to 20 years. Lots of rejection and lots of incredible heartbreaking moments when something almost got made but didn’t and lots of fakes and charlatans along the way who prey on new writers (luckily I got good really fast at spotting them),  and through it all I never gave up. I have a couple of dozen scripts and four original pilots all ready to go and ideas on my white board for many more scripts, including two true stories.

And this week, signed a contract to write an episode of a new hour long cable network series for the fall… can’t tell you what it is yet, but will be able to in the near future I think. And… a couple of really good and successful directors who say they have ideas for me when I come up for air.

Justin: That is wonderful! You have accomplished a great amount and I can’t wait to hear more about this cable network series. Congrats! You seem to have a talent for writing movies that are contained, meaning there are no alien’s blowing up the world or massive car chases. Is this part of your strategy? Do you have any words of wisdom to share with aspiring screenwriters regarding this?

Bob: There’s a very good reason for this. Big movies can only be sold to four or five people in the industry. Small films can be sold to a whole lot more. I’ve chosen to go after the better opportunity. I always have a budget in mind before I even start a script, so I know I have to write a great script within those numbers.  It works for me.  Producers can always make something bigger as they develop a script. I’ve found they don’t buy something with the idea of cutting it back. It’s easier to sell a lower budget film. It’s a fact. Oh… I do have a very funny massive car chase in one of my scripts, but then it’s one where I said, “To hell with the budget”. But it’s the only one of my originals with that kind of budget…. all the other ones are a lot smaller.

Justin: Finally, do you have any other advice to other screenwriters in the Bay are that want to get established here without relocating?

Bob: Keep at it. Write. Write. Write. Read good scripts and see how it’s done. Read awful scripts and see how it’s not done. Write. Write. And write. Don’t give up. And when you think you have that one great script… get a manager. Query them with it. My manager, who I got on a referral from a director, has made a world of difference to my career. And it all came from one script I wrote that everyone loves in Hollywood, “Extracurricular Activities”. And I never told people I lived in Northern California before they read it. They never asked and I never told them. Afterward, it didn’t matter. Oh and you need to have money to get back and forth to LA. I go every other month or so for a week at a time. It can be expensive.SONY DSC

There you have it, words of wisdom we can all learn from. I plan on meeting up with Bob in the near future and getting to know him better. He seems like a great guy and even plays in a band called The BSides – check them out if you get a chance, and watch some of his films! It is comforting to know we have folks working outside of Los Angeles.


This interview appeared word for word on Justin’s site, http://www.bayareascreenwriters.org/writing-outside-of-la-my-interview-with-bob-saenz/