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    Screenwriters toil on, await fame

    Steve Stavrakis and Brad Schenk have each written a script set in Tarpon Springs, where they grew up. Now the task is getting attention.

    By TERRI D. REEVES
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published July 7, 2002


    TARPON SPRINGS -- The scene goes something like this: Hotshot Hollywood producer sees your movie script and not only wants to produce it, but casts you as the lead. You fly to some exotic location where you hobnob with Tinseltown's brightest stars. The world is your oyster until, ugh, your spouse asks you to help with the dishes.

    Who hasn't fantasized about making it big in Hollywood? Well, two Tarpon Springs natives are taking their dream a step further.

    Steve Stavrakis and Brad Schenk are aspiring screenwriters. Each is married and runs a business. Each has sacrificed long hours writing a script about one man's spiritual journey, and each drew heavily upon his own upbringing in Tarpon Springs. Each believes his message is divinely inspired.

    And each is struggling to get the motion picture industry to notice his work of art.

    A film to introduce all to "beauty of the Epiphany'

    * * *

    Tarpon Springs attorney Steve Stavrakis was not about to wait for someone to read the script he wrote with his former roommate, filmmaker Gino Cabanas. Instead, he rounded up $800,000 from friends and family and executive produced his own movie in 1999.

    Originally called Stavro, and then renamed To Kill a Lawyer for broader audience appeal, the film is inspired by Tarpon Springs' annual Epiphany celebration.

    Stavrakis, a 1979 graduate of Tarpon Springs High, dived into Spring Bayou and retrieved the cross during the 1980 Epiphany celebration.

    In the semiautobiographical film, he plays Ray, a morally conflicted attorney who now dives into memories of his dead brother and past Epiphany celebrations for spiritual guidance.

    "I wanted to expose the rest of the world to the beauty of the Epiphany and Tarpon Springs and pay tribute to my friend, Peter Assimach, who died of cancer," said Stavrakis, 40.

    Stavrakis has obtained a foreign sales agent, RGH/Lions Share Pictures, and the film has been on the market for a year and a half. He also is talking to a domestic distributor, the Independent Film Channel, which recently released My Big Fat Greek Wedding. They are asking Stavrakis to front the advertising and print costs, which normally run about $200,000.

    Stavrakis remains optimistic about the picture's prospects.

    "There is a common misconception that if you don't sell it right away, you won't sell it. That's not true. Many films don't sell for two, three, or maybe 10 years. This movie is timeless."

    The film contains no nudity or violence. Sofia Milos, best known for her television appearances on The Sopranos and Caroline in City, accepted the female lead at a greatly reduced rate.

    The vision of showcasing the Epiphany and Tarpon Springs was born in the 1980s when Stavrakis and Cabanas studied theater at the University of South Florida. Later, Stavrakis redirected his ambitions toward law and Cabanas moved to Los Angeles, where he founded Speak Productions. The dream was revived in 1998 when Stavrakis moved into his law office across from a statue of an Epiphany diver at the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral.

    The two began collaborating, and about six months later had a script. Cabanas directed and co-produced the full-length motion picture, which was shot by a film crew from Los Angeles in 23 days around the Epiphany celebration.

    "We have a studio-looking film that would normally cost nine or 10 times that much," Stavrakis said.

    Although he is working on getting a broader release, Stavrakis' movie is viewable online at: www.on2.com/to_kill_a_lawyer. The Web site claims that it is the first feature-length film to be streamed over the Internet on On2's VP5 video compression technology.

    Otherwise, Stavrakis' strategy has been to enter the picture in as many film festivals as possible. Stavrakis says they've had capacity crowds at the festival screenings. The movie recently won second place at the statewide Crystal Reel Awards in Orlando, where it competed with about 130 entries for best feature film.

    "We will continue to do everything we can to bring awareness to the film and get it in front of those that can make a difference," Stavrakis said.

    Patience, persistence and an ever-changing script.

    Schenk, 32, wrote his first script for A Second Chance 10 years ago. He has rewritten it 20 times. Last year, he submitted the 120-page piece to HBO's Project Greenlight, a contest where one script was chosen for production from a sea of nearly 10,000. It was rejected.

    Not one to give up, Schenk put up a $500 billboard in Orangevale, Calif., that reads, "Hey, Ben Affleck & Matt Damon, read my movie script." He does not pay rent for the billboard; instead, he has bartered lawn services from his Florida Boy Landscaping business.

    Never mind that Orangevale, near Sacramento, is about 400 miles north of Hollywood. Schenk hopes the billboard will generate publicity and eventually grab the stars' attention. So far, his quest has been featured on local television news and in the Sacramento newspaper.

    So, has Affleck or Damon seen the sign?

    "I would have guessed no because they would have called me by now," he says. At the least, he hopes to bring a smile to the stars' faces, he says.

    Schenk grew up in Tarpon Springs, where his story opens. His mother, Marlene Schenk of Tarpon Springs, describes her youngest child as "happy-go-lucky, positive, very spiritual and kind of nutty."

    Four years ago, Schenk, his wife, Angela, and their two daughters moved from their home in Holiday to California to take care of an aging relative. Their hopes were high when a friend of a friend with connections at DreamWorks SKG offered to pass the script along. However, the response was that the company would read only scripts submitted by an agent.

    "Finding an agent is a problem," Schenk says. "I can't get any of them to read it. If they did, they would love it."

    His story opens in Tarpon Springs as 25-year-old Michael Williams witnesses the assassination of Florida's attorney general in Fred Howard Park. Colombian drug lords are backing a proposition to legalize pot for medicinal use and the attorney general was in their way.

    Williams enters the witness protection program and is relocated to Granite Bay, Calif., where he begins a new life as a high school student. He is given a second chance to accomplish the things he wished he had the first time. In the process, he learns what is important.

    "I want to start a new brand of healthy, motivational, inspirational, moral movies in Hollywood," Schenk said.

    Schenk calls himself a "big-time Christian" and feels that God is behind him and his script.

    "It's about God's will. He put me on this mission," Schenk says. He is confident that God would endorse the promarijuana message.

    "Man didn't put marijuana on this planet; God did," he says. "It's a natural substance."

    Schenk says he has a director and has arranged for several movie theaters to show the movie should it come to fruition. He recently signed with a manager in Orlando.

    And who would play the lead?

    "There are only three people who could pull it off," he says. "Matt Damon, Joey Lawrence, or myself."

    "It's going to happen," he says. "When? Only God knows. But he is teaching me patience, something I need."

    For local filmmakers, road to success is long, difficult

    About a half dozen low-budget -- that is, under $50,000 -- films are shot locally in the Tampa Bay area each year, said St. Petersburg/Clearwater film commissioner Jennifer Parramore. She guesses there are dozens of hopeful screenwriters from this area writing scripts that go nowhere.

    "The idea of writing or producing a movie is so sexy and so alluring, lots of people want to try it," she said. "They think it will be easy, but it's very hard to write a great script that is interesting and hasn't been done before.

    "There are talented writers who can never get their script in front of the right agent or attorney, and then there are those who write scripts that are formulaic, and just bad."

    She said $800,000 is a decent budget for a locally written and produced film.

    "That is still considered low budget for an independent film," she said. "A typical budget for an independent might be around $10- to $15-million."

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