Monday, November 30, 2009

The Power of No

© Dana Stabenow 2009 all rights reserved

acolddayformurder.thumbnailThe first Kate Shugak novel, A COLD DAY FOR MURDER, was published in 1992, and there was immediate interest in Hollywood for the screenrights. Demi Moore and Kate Jackson among other actresses were said to be interested in playing Kate, and one producer offered me $60,000 to make an HBO film.

I was and am your typical self-employed writer, I live paycheck to paycheck and back then even more so, when I was making barely four figures a book with a 4 percent royalty rate (don’t ask). I like to eat, so it was a grave temptation to sell. The problem was it would also have meant selling out, because no one would even consider shooting the film in Alaska.

northern_exposureHere’s the thing. Every movie and television series you thought was shot in Alaska? Wasn’t. The Proposal? Massachusetts and Rhode Island, with like one exterior shot in Sitka. Northern Exposure? Central Washington State. The Edge? Alberta and British Columbia. Insomnia? You might have seen Hyder or Valdez, if you didn’t blink, but mostly you saw British Columbia. And so on.

I could go on, if it weren't so depressing. Alaska is notably lacking in films about Alaska. The reasons are as much economic (at that time no state film incentives) as weenie and ignorant (It’s too far! It’s too dark! It’s too cold! You can’t use American money there! You need a visa to travel there!). I understood this, but Alaska is as much a character in the Kate Shugak series as are Kate and Mutt, and I was determined that all three would have equal screen time in any film adaptation.

nevereatlunchI’ve read the books about business in Hollywood, FINAL CUT, ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE, INDECENT EXPOSURE. I know the story about how furious Joseph Wambaugh was over the first films made from his books and how he held on to the rights to THE ONION FIELD until he had enough power and money to get it made his way. I read how pissed off Tom Clancy was when Hollywood killed off Admiral Greer. I’ve heard Sue Grafton say that she has enjoined all her heirs and assigns from ever selling the screen rights to the Kinsey Millhone series because Sue started in screenwriting and she knows exactly what the business is like.

So I know that no writer can ever expect script approval or cast approval or location approval, or for the producer really even to pay any attention to them whatever after the producer has wooed and won the contract.

I did have one power, though. It was the power of No.

So I said “No,” repeatedly. I said “No” for years. I said “No” for nearly two decades. Once I said “Yes” to an Alaskan producer and actress, who couldn’t pull it off before the option lapsed because, again, they couldn’t find anyone with money who would back them to film in Alaska. So it was back to “No” again.

My agent wasn’t real happy with me.

evergreenUntil a guy named Mike Devlin, an ex-software mogul who wants to make movies came to Alaska and fell in love with it. He wanted to put Alaska up on the screen, too. To do so, he needed a local film industry, which he is going to have to build from the ground up, because we don’t have one. Fortuitously, at very nearly the same moment, the state of Alaska finally got it’s celluloid shit together and passed a film incentive law.

A film industry requires sound stages for interior shoots. Interested investors want to be assured that the sound stages will be in continuous use, i.e., productive of income in rent, before the investors write checks to finance them. Continuous use of sound stages requires a long term film project, ideally a drama series made for television. Mutual friends recommended the Kate Shugak series, and Mike started reading the books.

We met for the first time in May 2009. I’d never heard of him beyond a story written in the local newspaper, and my expectations were not high. I didn’t even think to bring a copy of the latest book with me so I could give it to him.

salmonsharkI walked into a post-production studio on a mountain in Anchorage equipped with technology so state of the art it reduces geeks to salt tears. Mike showed me footage of a boat with a high-def camera on an articulated arm capable of filming above and below the water. He had already premiered one film from Alaska, a documentary on salmon sharks called “Icy Killers,” for the National Geographic Channel. You have to really work at it to take a bad picture of Alaska, but he showed me a trailer of footage he’d shot over the past two years, and I’m here to tell you, he has raised Alaskan photography to an art form.

Mike had nothing left to prove to me, and it’s not every day a girl gets asked to help kickstart a new industry in her home state. So, this time, I said “Yes!” and we signed the contract the week before the press conference announcing the deal.

wgawSince this is a blog primarily for writers, I’ll tell you straight out that the option payment is very small. The pickup payment isn’t half of what I get for a single novel, and I won’t get that unless and until the Kate Shugak series moves from development into production. If by some miracle the series is picked up by a network, and if by another miracle it runs for more than two years, best case scenario is I earn enough to pay off my mortgage.

This is a pretty standard screenrights contract, one that might even be considered generous, because by now my power of “No!” was pretty well known and there weren’t people exactly lining up to option the series. Okay by me, I got what I wanted.

And, at Mike’s suggestion, I’ve just ordered a copy of J. Michael Straczynski’s THE COMPLETE BOOK OF SCRIPTWRITING.

About the author:

Dana Stabenow is a native of Anchorage and raised on a 75-foot fish tender in the Gulf of Alaska. She received a B.A. in journalism from the University of Alaska in 1973 and later enrolled in UAA’s MFA program and graduated in 1985 with a goal to sell a book before she went broke. According to Stabenow, she barely made it. “Second Star was bought by Ace Science Fiction in 1990. It fell with an almighty thud on the marketplace and was never heard from again. Oh dear.”

In 1991 Stabenow was offered a three-book contract for her Kate Shugak mystery series. A Cold Day for Murder had been nominated for an Edgar award and won in 1993.

For an extended bio, please visit:


Joylene Nowell Butler said...

Bet you're glad your parents brought up such a stubborn kid. lol. Bravo for you, Dana; you're a good example of what it means to stand up and be counted for. It kills me when I watch these NYC movies that are actually filmed in Toronto. Like we wouldn't notice? Especially those of us who are from Canada.

Mystery Alaska was filmed in Canada too. So was Fringe, Dark Angel, X-Files, Supernatural, Tru Calling, Paycheck, Romeo Must Die, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Legends of the Fall, Along Came a Spider; the list goes on and on; most of these in Vancouver. My brother-in-law is a working Canadian actor, and my nephew works on various sets.

It's only been the past few years that they're actually saying the cities are in Canada and the characters are Canadian. Great TV shows like Being Erica, Flashpoint,Durham County, The Border, and Intelligence... to name a few.

I know how proud that makes me feel, so I can imagine what drove you to hold on to your dream.

Wonderfully inspiring post, Dana. Thanks Marta.

s.w. vaughn said...

I salute you, Dana! Your will is stronger than mine... there are very few reasons I'd ever say no to a film deal. I don't think I have any principles, or shame... LOL

Many congratulations on holding out, and because of your will, being able to pioneer the movie trade in Alaska. How exciting! I wish you all the best.

Cheryl said...

What an excellent story. Thanks for sharing it. I wish you great success!


Kim Smith said...

Ah- who cares about the money, right? You held out until you got what you really wanted. I salute you!

Dana Stabenow said...

@Joylene There is so much filmed in Canada because Canada has long got it together in re film incentives, plus they've got their unions under control. If I were a producer, I'd look hard at Canada, too.

@s.w., Cheryl, Kim Stubborn is right. If I had any brains I'd concentrate a little harder on survival. But noooooooo...

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Dana, thanks so much for sharing your story with us today at MB4, and great big kudos for holding out until someone with brains (and money) decided to showcase Alaska! I can't believe al those movies I "thought" were in Alaska,weren't! It's pretty disingenuous (and disappointing). Best of luck with the TV series, and I hope it goes national so we can all root for you and Kate in our livingrooms!

Anonymous said...

High fives for the stubborn blonde kid. One more book:
The Writer Got Screwed but Didn't Have To by Brooke Wharton.
Best wishes, I'm getting high hopes for you and this. And that mortgage.