A review of Dov S-S Simens 2-day Film
School From a Screenwriter’s Perspective

Appropriate to his background as a green beret, Dov S-S Simens breaks you down before building you back up. He insults, berates, and then yells at you. He warns that his seminar doesn't have any baby talk, that it's not full of inspirational messages and empty new-ageisms. His challenge to producer wanna-be's (If you can't call yourself one, then you can't be one) is to figure out how much money you can raise, which is most likely between $5,000 and $350,000, and then make a film for that price. Don't postulate and hypothesize about what you could do with a million or two. Figure out how much you can raise, raise it, and shoot a film for that price.

He continues to gibe the audience that they can't be producers since they don't even know how to buy film stock. Learning to buy film stock is the kind of no-nonsense information that Dov presents. He even reveals the magic word which will undoubtedly result in a discount on Kodak film: "Fuji." It may seem odd that several dozen people would pay close to three hundred dollars to revel in a factoid like how much to pay a wardrobe person on a $150,000 shoot. But it's this kind of information which will be the most help to a novice producer ready to take the plunge. Because, as Dov would probably say, Dov is in the details.

A self-admitted failure at directing, Dov heralds himself the best film teacher in the universe. His credentials include serving as line producer for several of the 150-200k features which comprise the focus for this class. His paradigm is the three-week, six days-a-week, twelve hours per day shoot where you cover five to six pages (thirty-five shots) per day. He then proceeds to show you how to make a movie for $120,000, for $75,000, for $20,000, and even how to make a 35 mm feature for $5,000 without owing anybody a cent. It's not magic; it's just a practical combination of finding material of the right scope and then working within your limitations. He then demonstrates how to spend the extra money if you can raise, say, $300,000; $500,000, $700,000 or more. Dov has an intuitive understanding of the psychology of a crew. He explains that the first week of shooting is fun; everybody enjoys the camaraderie. The second week is when everybody is too tired even to complain. The third week is where the resentment and the griping begin. It gets worse from there. He explains that a crew person will likely take two to three weeks of work for less than their standard rate, but when you ask for four weeks, the situation changes. Add a week to three weeks and it suddenly becomes a month, and no one wants to be off the market for an entire month at a reduced rate. These two reasons together are why he suggests that micro-budgeted features should be a two or three week shoot.

He also helps you into the mindset of a shrewd producer, reminding you that when you write the checks, you call the shots. He reasons that if you are doing a 200k film (which of course you tell acquisition execs is a million dollar film) and you can get a DGA director to break the rules and do it outside of the guild, then you can pay him a few thousand dollars (about 100k under DGA minimums). But a non-DGA director should pay you for the opportunity. This reasoning aligns nicely with his theory that one of the most indispensable skills you will have to learn is how to say no. No to "Can we spend money for . . . ." No to "Can I retain the copyright to the music I am donating to this film?" No to "Can I have WGA minimum?"

Learning to say no is just the beginning. Like any worthy drill instructor, Dov gets meaner as he goes. He yells repeatedly at the audience, "The writer has no power. The writer has no power." I am not sure if he has a general disdain for writers or if he's doing us a favor of role-playing a brutal producer. He demonstrates how to cudgel a typist (his friendly word for unproduced writers) into selling his script for a few thousand dollars. (Note: there is a time when selling your script for two thousand dollars to get a credit is a good idea an there are times when it's not.) Woe is me to suggest that there is anything intrinsically adversarial between writers and producers, but if you happen to think there is then, for the wisdom in the adage "Know thy enemy," you may want to take this course. Dov reminds us (and contributes to) how disposable this system can make writers feel.

Ironically, after Dov reinforces the idea that writers are merely pawns in the process (Use them for a draft or two and then move onto fresh, malleable, and affordable meat), he then chimes in with the reminder that a great script is the starting point for every film. As much as it seems like his tough-love statement, "Either the script is great or it sucks. They buy it or they don't." is a revelation, it doesn't constructively contribute to the development process. Absolutely Dov's seminar will give you some of the tools and confidence you need to go out and make, in a guerrilla filmmaking fashion, the perfect script once you find it. What it doesn't do is to help you create or develop that script.

In fact, the only part of the seminar which specifically targets screenwriters is his fifteen minute crash-course on screenwriting where he reduces Aristotelian unity, plot-points, and act breaks down to uh-oh's and oh shit's. His quick overview of structure and character seems to lack an understanding of dramatic coherence. I am all for simple, non-stilted, and jargonless approaches to teaching screenwriting, but I believe it's a mistake to dismiss screenwriting structure as merely placing obstacles in front of your protagonist. To Dov's credit he does suggest some of the more extensive structure courses, and he also offers courses, books, and tapes through his Hollywood Film Institute.

The second day of his seminar is devoted to what happens after the movie is made. Dov gives an overview of the distribution process and distribution windows. This part of the class will not replace the role of lawyers and producer's reps when it gets down to the nitty-gritty of negotiations, but he gives the audience an understanding of the bigger picture of the world-wide film market. He loads you with full ammunition on how to deal with the acquisition execs. He shows you how to make sure they know about you and then how to hang up on their calls until you are ready for them to see the movie in a theater with an audience.

Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee said that this course jump-started their careers. If you can raise some money, take the course and then go make a film. But let me add one word of caution to temper your Dov-inspired ebullient confidence. Realize that one two-day class will not teach you how to do everything. Whereas graduates of the class get a certificate of completion which states that they are a certified "Line Producer," Dov still wisely reminds them that on their 200k movie budget they should still allow 5-7 thousand dollars for the services of a line producer.

More so than listening to his short screenwriting lesson, you learn as much about the complexity of character and character arc by paying close attention to Dov. He drills the audience with, what seems like one last put down, the stern warning that he is not for hire, that he will not collaborate with anyone, and that he doesn't want to work as a consultant. Then he redeems his gruff demeanor with what seems like a turning point in a marvelously scripted scene where a character's true nature is surprisingly revealed. Dov shows another side. Although he is not for hire at any price, he offers his phone number and a weekly time when he is available to graduates of the class for answering questions and for giving advice for absolutely free.

Originally published in Creative Screenwriting (Vol. 6, #3, pages 49-50)