The Joys of Stock Footage

I was channel-surfing last night and stumbled on SUBMERGED,  a schlocky Fred Olen Ray movie from 2000 about a hijacked plane that crashes into the ocean, and the attempts to rescue the passengers. If the plot sounds identical to Universal’s cheesy AIRPORT  ’77, that’s not surprising. SUBMERGED was built entirely around AIRPORT ’77 stock footage. There’s nothing illegal about it… Fred simply bought/licensed the footage from Universal. What’s surprising is that Universal sees so little value now in their AIRPORT franchise that they’d allow a virtual remake to be made by another studio using their footage.

Stock footage is a wonderful thing, especially if you’re working on a tight budget.  I’ve certainly used my share of stock footage over the years, particularly on a  low-budget  syndicated action series called COBRA, starring Michael Dudikoff, that we wrote & produced for Steve Cannell up in Canada. We had virtually no money… so we relied on stock footage from the vast Cannell library to make our show look bigger than it was.  For example, we took an action sequence from the WISEGUY episode…used the same Vancouver location, matched the cars and the wardrobe, and crafted a new sequence using the same footage.  To make our scene a bit fresher, we used alternate takes not used in the WISEGUY episode.  The new footage and the stock matched perfectly.  The trickery was unnoticeable to the untrained eye, or someone unfamiliar with the WISEGUY episode.

For another episode, our hero’s car was trashed…so he drove a Corvette Stingray…which allowed us to use lift several action sequences from Cannell’s series STINGRAY.  That was probably our least creative use of stock…on the same level as SUBMERGED. But we saved a huge amount of money and it made us heroes around the Cannell building.

In still another COBRA  episode, we used stock footage from an action sequence in RIPTIDE, which used stock footage from an episode of HARDCASTLE AND MCCORMICK, which used stock footage from a STINGRAY. So our sequence was created from footage patched together from three other series.  I remember Steve Cannell watching the sequence in the screening room with a huge grin on his face… he’d never seen stock footage used so well. We looked at it as a challenge…and had a wonderful time.

My favorite use of stock footage was for a two-hour sweeps episode of  DIAGNOSIS MURDER about a plane crash in a corn field. We used stock footage of a plane crash, and sweeping, overhead shots of the wreckage, from the movie FEARLESS. We then bought out a cornfield in Oxnard, set it aflame, and  filled it with scorched airplane wreckage.  We also put our actors in the cornfield.  Our original footage matched seamlessly with the stock.  It gave our episode a scope we never could have managed on our tight budget…and I doubt the average viewer was the least bit aware of our trickery, even if they were among the few who’d seen FEARLESS.

I see stock footage used all the time in feature films and TV shows…mainly because the best stock (mostly explosions, battle sequences, car chases, establishing shots, etc.) gets used over and over again.  When it’s used well, the viewer rarely notices. When it’s used badly, it makes whatever you’re watching look like hack work… which, of course, it probably is or they wouldn’t have needed the stock footage in the first place!

Still More on Publish America

On Ed Gorman’s wonderful blog, novelist Richard Wheeler mentioned that he had dusted off an old, unpublished novel entitled BIG APPLE, and that it was being published by Publish America.

This intrigued me. Why? Because Wheeler is a very successful author, with dozens of well-respected, Spur-Award-winning westerns from major publishers to his credit. And he’s got several new hardcovers coming from St. Martin’s/Forge as well as another series of paperbacks from Pinnacle Books. 

He certainly doesn’t fit the profile of a typical Publish America customer/author. So, given the recent controversy surrounding the company, I asked him about his experiences with the  company. Here is what he said:

I was attracted to PublishAmerica because there is no initial fee and they even offer a one-dollar advance, thus providing some semblance of a trade publisher.

It was a grave mistake. They make their profit not by marketing the books but by gouging the authors. The shallow 20 percent discount, plus inflated shipping charges (around $5 per book), meant that I paid more than the list price of the novel unless I ordered very large quantities. Ditto retailers. A twenty percent discount for retailers, plus inflated shipping meant that no bookseller would stock the book. (That is why you find on-line retailers adding a surcharge.)

They are not in business to sell books to the public; they sell printing services and books to the amateur authors who come to them, and can make their entire profit from the author, without selling a copy to the public. The disincentives are deliberate. They don’t want to bother with booksellers and make it hard for a bookseller to order from them. They also don’t really care whether an author can earn anything from his books. Because of inflated shipping costs I could have ordered my books cheaper from a retailer than from PublishAmerica.

He goes on to say that iUniverse is "the gold standard in the POD field."

Through the Authors Guild back-in-print program I have put nine reverted titles back into print at iUniverse, and have seven more in process. They have done an excellent job with these. But always remember that all these POD publishers regard the author himself as their primary source of income.

At least iUniverse, unlike Publish America, is upfront about it.

It should be noted that the Authors Guild Back-In-Print program is free to authors of previously published, out-of-print, work (and are members of the Guild). Otherwise, iUniverse charges a stiff fee to publish original manuscripts, which is, presumably, what would have happened if Wheeler went to them with BIG APPLE, a book he wrote in the 80s but wasn’t able to sell.

Publish America doesn’t charge that stiff fee, they just get it out of you in other ways…

The Guards

For the last few months, I’ve read all over the web how amazing Ken Bruen’s books are. I was lucky enough to meet him at Bouchercon and thought he was a hell of a nice guy. So I bought a few of his books and set them aside to read on a rainy day.

That day came yesterday. And at the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I don’t get what all the excitement is about. I read THE GUARDS, about an alcoholic ex-cop investigating the suicide of a young girl. While the book was definitely well-written, with a sharp, economical style, I can’t tell you how tired I am of alcoholic cops, alcoholic ex-cops, and alcoholic private eye heroes whose lives are spiraling out of control because they can’t stop drinking.

While he didn’t write with cliches, the lead character himself was certainly one. Jack Taylor is a self-destructive cop thrown off the force for being a drunk. And he’s caught in an endless spiral of drinking and self-destruction he seems powerless to stop. Yadda Yadda Yadda. Enough. I’m not reading any more books about alcoholic cops, ex-cops and PIs. I’ve had my fill.

Bruen’s cliched, alcoholic loner hero might have been easier to take if the mystery was the least bit compelling…but it wasn’t. The mystery wasn’t a mystery. It was hardly even a story. The hero "solved" the crime by being passed out most of the time. Peripheral characters literally walked right up to him and volunteered information he needed. I couldn’t have cared less about the hero…or the resolution of the story.

While I liked much of Bruen’s prose, I felt he overindulged in pointless gramatical tricks that actually diminished the impact of his work. The self-conscious formatting tricks started on page one:

It’s almost impossible to be thrown out of the Garda Siochana. You have to really put your mind to it. Unless you’ve become a public disgrace, they’ll tolerate most anything.

I’d been to the wire. Numerous



Last chances


And I still didn’t shape up. Or rather sober up.

Bruen also over-indulges using quotes from other mystery novels, not just as heading to his chapters, but within the prose itself. There’s no doubt he’s a great writer… I just wish I liked his characters and his storytelling as much as his way with words.

Can You Make a Living as a Writer?

I’m starting to get more mail, and more questions, than the Playboy Advisor. I  received this email yesterday:

Dear Mr. Goldberg,
I’m a young, unpublished writer who’s been fortunate enough to get the
attention of a couple of agents.  Since I might one day find myself published
(it does seem so far off, though), I have a few questions for a tried and true
veteran of the industry.
First, how likely is it to make a living as a writer?  I understand how
broad and poorly concieved this question is, so let my add a little more to the
question.  I write literary fiction.  I feel I am somewhat talented and I work
hard.  I’m curious as to the possibility of living as a writer or teaching
writing as a direct result of my writing and not spending $60k and two
irreplacable years of my life to get some MFA that will teach me nothing.  How
much can a literary novelist really make?  It seems stupid to assume I’ll never
make any money just because I write books that read a little too artsy for mass
consumption (but then who is to predict such things).
Second, and possibly more immediate, I’m going into the Army for the next
three and a half years or so.  Is this something that will impede my getting
published?  As I have already stated, I have agents looking at my work now and
they have no idea of my plans.
Thanks for reading my questions.  I hope I haven’t asked anything too


Since I didn’t have the answers to any of his questions, I turned to my brother Tod, a literary novelist who, presumably, is earning a living at it. Here’s what Tod told the guy who wrote me:


My brother Lee Goldberg forwarded your question on to me, since I was in a
similar situation as you (save for the military) a few years ago.

It is certainly possible to make a living writing literary fiction, though
realistically most people don’t. I’ve published two novels and have a short
story collection coming out in September and what I can tell you is that the
combined income from those books isn’t enough to live on, though the acclaim
feeds my ego, just not my stomach. I got lucky and was able to sell one of my
novels to Hollywood and have thus far received far more money from my movie
options than I ever have in publishing, enough to live on, certainly. But I also
teach at the Writers’ Program at UCLA and write a weekly column for a newspaper
and regularly contribute journalism to magazines. If I wanted to teach full time
at the University level I imagine I probably could now because of certain award
nominations, publications and experience, but without an MFA (which I don’t have
either) a full time teaching job straight out the box for a young person with a
book would be very difficult to come by without a fairly vast and accomplished
publishing history. Universities and state colleges generally want their
graduate and undergraduate professors to have advanced degrees no matter what.
How much does a literary novelist make? Anywhere from $2000 per book to
1million — there’s no real telling. Alice Sebold didn’t get a huge advance for
the Lovely Bones, but she sure earned a lot of money and her next book will
certainly garner a fat advance. I wouldn’t be too concerned about the money at
this point, just about the writing. Good writing gets rewarded, but so does bad
sometimes. I’d just focus on writing well and if you sell your novel, it’s a
dream come true no matter the numbers on the check.
As for the military, I think it probably does hamper your chances simply
because of the opportunity, or lack there of, you’ll have to write and should
you sell your book, to promote it. Of course, you could come back from your time
in the Army as the next Tim O’Brien, though I sure hope that isn’t the case on a
psychological level; talent-wise, it wouldn’t be a bad deal at all.
Just out of curiosity, who are these agents and why are they interested in
you, especially if you never been published previously?
I hope this helps. Let me know if you have more questions. And be safe out
there in the army.
Tod Goldberg


More on Publish America

I got this email today:

Hello Lee,
I am a writer wondering if I should go with Publish America. Take a look at
my website and let me know what you think.

I don’t know why  he wanted me to look at his website, or what difference it would make.  Anyway, here’s how I responded to his query:

Don’t. It’s a scam. If you are that eager to have your book in print, and have
failed to find a home with a real publisher, go to iUniverse. At least they are
honest about who they are and what they do (self-publishing)… their books look
professional (very slick and well bound)…and they pay royalties on a regular
basis (assuming you’ve earned some).

My experiences with iUniverse have been through the Authors Guild’s Back In Print program and the Mystery Writers of America. In both cases, iUniverse offered to reprint previously published, out-of-print  titles free-of-charge to the author.  I used those services to reprint my UNSOLD TELEVISION PILOTS book, which previously had only been available in a very expensive hardcover edition… and MY GUN HAS BULLETS, which never sold to paperback. In both cases, I was very pleased with my experience and I’ve been getting royalties from iUniverse on a regular, quarterly basis.  It’s not big money… but it’s money I wouldn’t have seen otherwise if I hadn’t taken advantage of the program. The Authors Guild still offers the Back In Print program, but I believe the Mystery Writers of America program has ended.

CBS Comes of Age

Back when we were doing DIAGNOSIS MURDER for CBS, their big hit dramas were TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL, WALKER TEXAS RANGER, and JUDGING AMY. They were barely competitive on  Thursday nights with DIAGNOSIS MURDER and 48 HOURS… and nothing else they put on that night could survive. Their attempts to draw a younger demographic, like CENTRAL PARK WEST, were embarrassing failures.  It seemed there was nothing CBS could to do to draw younger audiences to their network.

Then along came CSI…which changed everything.  The stunning, unexpected, overnight success of CSI was followed by WITHOUT A TRACE, COLD CASE, NAVY NCIS, and the other CSIs. Now,  CBS has accomplished something nobody thought possible… today Variety reports they’re the number one network in number of viewers and demographics.

In what Leslie Moonves called a "watershed moment" for his network, CBS has scaled to the top of Demo Mountain, sweeping November in all key ratings categories.

The Eye remains the oldest-skewing of the networks, but its big-tent strategy of delivering programs that attract viewers of all ages — and in both red and blue states — has worked to perfection so far this fall, including the four-week sweep period that will wrap tonight.

Net has been pacing well ahead of its rivals for a couple of years in total viewers, but started making a demo push last season when it eked out a victory in adults 25-54 while placing third in adults 18-49.

Now it has become the net to beat in 18-49, the demographic that most closely correlates to advertising revenue.

"Way back when I took this job (in 1995), I said there was no way CBS will ever win in 18-49," Moonves said. "It was something we didn’t even dream about."