Tough Reader, Good Advice
The PAGE International
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Journey of a Screenwriter
Thursday, December 31, 2009
The subject will be getting repped.
So in preparation for that chat I have to lay out the easiest way to get an agent/manager; move to LA and get a job in the entertainment industry.
No. Seriously. The EASIEST way to get an agent or manager is to uproot your life and move however far away it is to the City of Angels. Once there you scour the adds and job boards until you find a job, any job at a production company, a studio, an agency or a management company (FX houses are also good.) You’ll probably end up working in the mail room or more than likely an unpaid internship (best to have a roommate or a fat bank account in that case.) Sounds easy right? No? Well correct. It’s not easy. In fact it’s freakin’ hard. But we’re talking in relative terms. And next to every other available method, the move and work your butt off approach is the one with the highest success rate. If you take a survey of the working screen and TV writers in the business today nearly all of them took this approach or something similar. They either fetched somebody their coffee, did coverage for somebody or at the very least they hung out with or were friends with people in the business.
Why is this? The simple truth is that the key to success in any endeavor is to be opportunistic. And because LA remains THE hub of the North American film and television industry that specific geographic location is where the opportunities are most plentiful. Writers outside LA are in the short story/novel writing paradigm. Write something, send a query letter to an editor, sit back and wait, repeat. In LA you adopt more of a salesman approach. It’s all about finding leads and developing contacts. And it’s easy there. The buyers aren’t some strange entity at the other end of the country, they’re people you can just bump into. The guy you chat up at a coffee shop or meet at a temp job may be working at a major studio six months down the road. It’s no longer a mysterious process. In many cases it’s just a case of connecting the dots.
It still happens all the time that somebody from Oklahoma, Michigan, Georgia, San Diego gets the attention of Hollywood and they’re so awesomely talented that they’re flown in on gilded wings. But that really puts the pressure on you the writer to be better than good; to be so amazing that you’re impossible to ignore.
The choice is up to you, depending on your individual situation and disposition. But if you want the “easy” way, the “surefire” way, the “path of least resistance” well if it exists at all it goes right through Fairfax and 3rd in Los Angeles.
Monday, December 21, 2009
If you’re a writer you should plenty of notes and feedback on every one of your projects. At least the ones you’re serious about. You should be handing your stuff off to friends, family members, Twitter buddies, anyone you trust to get a first impression of the story, the characters, even to catch typos. Chances are, unless your friends and family are uncommonly brutal they’ll give you a slightly inflated assessment. If it’s just okay, they’ll call it good. If it’s merely good they’ll call it great. If it has just a trace element of excellence they’ll declare it revolutionary. So don’t get too excited just yet
But keep your ears peeled for anything they didn’t like or had trouble with. There was an episode of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares where Gordon Ramsay said he didn’t want to hear about the compliments customers where giving them, he wanted to hear the negatives because that’s what he had to work on. The same thing goes for writing. You want to know where you came up short so you can work on those areas.
But friends and family only take you so far (unless those friends and family actually work in the industry.) You have to venture out into the scary, scary world of assistants and readers (or editors and slush piles if you’re writing a novel or short story.) At this point you need to get a professional perspective on your story. And I’m just saying that for my own benefit. If I’m going to send something to a professional, I want a professional opinion. I know what I think of my story, but will it stand out to somebody who sees a hundred similar scripts every month? This is why you should consider hiring a reader. (Or moving out to LA or NYC where you can make contact with readers and executives and hopefully get that feedback for free! Or get representation in which case they also give you your feedback for free!)
When you receive your coverage (or its nicer cousin feedback) you’ll probably be in for a shock. Unless you managed to just knock one out of the park, there will be copious notes on what you did wrong. Worse yet, this obvious philistine will suggest changes to your masterpiece. You need to stop and take a breath. Here’s where the quantum physics come in. In quantum physics there is something called the uncertainty principle. Simply put particles are in a flux state until they are actually observed. An electron can have an upwards spin or a downwards spin, but until you actually look at the particular electron it is 50% up and 50% down. (I went to a school specializing in engineering. I had to learn that as part of Philosophy requirement believe it or not.) So your story at this point is in a state of flux whether you want to admit it or note. Until it actually gets produced or published it’s just a mass of possibilities, some of them you might not have considered yet. I had a revelation while reading the synopsis of my screenplay (not all coverage includes a synopsis.) The reader had inferred something I had not intended in the story. I’m now working on integrating that element into the screenplay.
You have to develop a very open mind when dealing with notes, because eventually you’ll be dealing with gatekeeper notes. Gatekeepers are readers who work for either agencies or production companies. You want to take their notes very seriously. You want to read everything very carefully, the pros, the cons, even the synopsis. Take the suggestions seriously. You want to put pressure on these people to give you an unconditional RECOMMEND so you get fast tracked to the top of the heap. Will the final product be what you originally intended? Hell no. But just remember that’s a good thing. George Lucas, famously had to make a million changes to Star Wars and it turned out to be a classic. Years later, when no one could possibly tell him “no”, he produced The Phantom Menace.
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
So how do you produce a great logline? That’s a question I’ve asked myself several times. In earlier posts I suggested one method. Blake Snyder has his own method detailed in his great book, Save the Cat! There are a dozen other methods or recommendations for how to generate a logline. But it was a tweet by jmiewald that really summed up what loglines are all about. To paraphrase, loglines are supposed to help you focus your story when writing and then help you sell your story. So with that in mind I now say it doesn’t really matter HOW you come up with your logline, as long as it answers two very important questions:
What is your story about?
No, seriously, WHAT are you writing about? Who are the characters? What happens to them? Where does it take place? What’s the theme? What’s the style? There are nearly a million little questions to answer when you set out to tell a story. But it all starts with one super, overarching question. What are you writing about? This is the first big idea that we pull out of the ether, sometimes before we even have any characters. What is your story about? You have to have a solid answer if you want to proceed. That’s because the more solid and concrete an answer, the easier it is to find answers for all the other questions that crop up while writing. That’s how you should first judge a potential logline. Do these first few sentences give you enough to create your story? Do they suggest a story arc? Characters? Situations? Dialogue? Do you know right away how dark to make it, how light? Do you stare at your logline and wonder what next? Then it’s not working. Or at least it’s not working for you. Toss it and try writing another one. Keep trying till something really sticks. Try and find those few sentences that will give you an entire 120 page script. Can you see the beginning? Can you see the middle? Can you envision the end? That’s the kicker. If you can see a great ending for your unwritten story, then you’re on to something.
How are you going to sell your script?
This is the part that drives people up the wall. Most writers still hate taking their scripts to market. It conjures up images of the fast talking agent who wouldn’t know a good script if it came up and bit him, the producer who uses yesterday’s buzz words. I’ve learned to love it. Sure writing is a passion, a craft, and an art form. But after I type THE END it becomes a business. I didn’t spend all that time and effort to not get paid. If I want to get paid then I have to sell. To sell you have to know who is buying and what they are looking for. That’s why I’m a big advocate of living in LA at least for a few years just so writers can talk and more importantly listen to the people in the industry. You need to hear how they really talk about scripts and the industry. Hopefully you’ll make friends with a few of them so you can get feedback on your work. If you’re real lucky they’ll let you email them some sample loglines so you can see what they jump on and what they ignore. It’s worth taking the effort because finding a logline that will excite Hollywood as much as it excites you is the key to breaking in. If you love your logline but Hollywood execs find it boring or not very commercial, your story may be great but it probably won’t be read. If Hollywood thinks your logline is innovative and marketable but you can’t stand it, you won’t be able to deliver the goods. Find where you and the industry line up perfectly. There has to be a spot or you wouldn’t be interested in films at all!
Loglines promise to only become more important as time goes on. As the catalog of old stories and movies continues to grow, the screenwriter of today has a difficult job of staying just a little bit ahead of the curve. The logline promises to be an even more important tool for screenwriting as we try valiantly to stand out from every larger and more complex pack.
Friday, December 11, 2009
Recently I worked a contest where I had to focus on the script’s inciting incident. Afterwards I looked back at some of my old scripts and was embarrassed to admit that the inciting incident had been a weak spot in my writing.
(As a side note, why can’t we be more like football players or basketball players when it comes to evaluating our “game?” Why do we have to get so personal or worse, conflate “artistic vision” with problems of technique? If a athlete is holding the ball the wrong way or pivoting with the wrong foot, it’s nothing personal, that’s just bad technique and it needs to be corrected. Granted I never coached so maybe football players DO take it personal when you tell them they’re not rotating their hips, but they can’t possibly be as snippy as writers get when you tell them something critical.)
In terms of my “game” I was big on the second and third acts but my firsts were what was killing me. In particular I made the typical mistake and often delayed my inciting incident until the first act break. My first screenwriting teacher was Syd Field. But you can take away the wrong conclusions from even the best teachers. The mistake I made early on was treating the first act like a long introduction. I’d pile on background info and exposition secure in the knowledge that I had until page 30 to really start the fireworks. WRONG! In retrospect it was a miracle that I even made the finals at the Disney Fellowship with that kind of technique in my mind.
Fortunately I’d been picking up the pace of my first acts over the years. I’d been talking with other writers and exchanging screenplays. But it’s only been in recent times that I’ve focused laser-like on the inciting incident, that little nugget that occurs between page 10 and 15. The real start of your story.
Things really shorten up when you consider that you have to place the inciting incident in the first 15 pages. You still have to establish your characters and your setting, but now all that has to be done on the run. Even if you think you started the story at page one, you still need an inciting incident at page 15. Say it’s a murder investigation and it opens with the detective arriving on the scene. That’s the inciting incident, right? Wrong. This is the homicide cop’s routine. He EXPECTS to find a dead body. Something else needs to happen, say around page 15 that changes things, that makes this not your average murder investigation.
It’s real easy to spot the writers who have the inciting incident zeroed in their sites versus those who don’t. There’s an urgency and a quickness to their scripts. A good inciting incident will power the reader through the first act. I’m convinced this is the secret to getting out of the rejection heap. Second and third acts are important but even bad writers know how to deliver those. That’s because we all start out really looking at the middle and ends of movies. We attracted to the big fights or jokes or dramatic scenes that live in the later stages of the story. When we first start writing we have visions of those big scenes. When you set out to write the next Die Hard, you probably aren’t thinking of the first fifteen minutes, you’re thinking of running barefoot across broken glass or jumping off a roof before it explodes. The trick is not writing the big action scene or the big joke. The trick is to write a first act that propels the reader to that big action scene or joke. And proper usage of the inciting incident will set you up for success.
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
One of them was of course reading contests and I came across this one that I have to share with you all.
The I won’t go into the story details, both to preserve the anonymity of the writer and the contest and because it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter one bit what the story was about, what genre it was, what the characters were like. None of that matters.
Because it was 227 pages long.
The formula for a properly formatted screenplay is: 1 page equals 1 minute of screen time. That means this little (pun) gem runs nearly four hours. Unless your name is Terrence Mallick, there is no way you should even consider writing a 4 hour screenplay.
What was this guy thinking? Did he think his writing was so brilliant that it would be a crime to give us just 2 hours when he could give us 4? I can tell you it wasn’t. Not that it would have made a difference. The writing could have been Charles Dickens combined with Chuck Palahniuk and the script would still have been a non starter.
Imagine if you were a reader and you tried taking this project to your boss.
“Boss I’ve got this really great script. It’s 227 pages long and-“
Did he think his story was just too big? That there was no way to cut it down into a proper length? Well get a clue, Jack. A huge part of being a writer is knowing what to throw away. The old saying about having to “kill your darlings” does NOT mean you go all Joss Whedon on your characters. It means knowing that you have to toss scenes and characters when they’re not working, or if the story is just too bloated. There’s a term the guy should look up, “bloated.”
This all goes back to knowing the format. The first thing you have to learn as a screenwriter is the format. And that’s not just proper font, size, spacing, scene headings and transitions. It’s also about length. You can’t turn in something that’s 50 pages long and call it a feature. You can’t write something over 180 pages long and expect people to take you seriously. Format is the first thing a reader notices. Or rather if he does notice it you’re in trouble. A reader should, at first glance, say “Hmm, a script.” And not, “Hmm, the font’s wrong on this thing.” We’re looking for writers who not only have talent, but who will actually make an effort to learn this business. If a writer is too lazy to even learn the format, why bother with him? If he can’t even invest in a copy of FinalDraft, how much care is he going to give his story? (And yes, FinalDraft. It is the industry standard. You want to send an electronic file? There’s a good chance they’re going to want an FDR.) If you can’t be bothered to learn the basics of the business why should the business take an interest in you?
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
In those months we’ve had Zombieland and Paranormal Activity. Zombieland had been on radar screens for months. It was the third big original horror to come down the pipe this year (after Drag Me to Hell and Jennifer’s Body). If Z-land had bombed like the previous two then Horror would have been deader than dead. But Zombieland didn’t bomb and so the genre remained viable.
Then along came Paranormal Activity. It’s strange to call something that’s only made 8 million so far a hit. But it only cost 10 Grand to make and it’s really just getting started.
But business aside what can screenwriters take away from the successes and failures of ’09? (Besides the obvious but joyful news that we can write horror once again!) Well I think it’s pretty obvious, when it comes to modern horror, girls rule. Even before this summer we were bombarded with news that the horror audience was now 60% female. I can personally attest that the packed crowd that was at the Paranormal Activity screening I attended was evenly split between X and Y chromosomes. As writers we should take a reverse baseball mentality and try to hit ‘em where they are and try to write horror projects that will attract the audience.
But wait, you might be thinking to yourself, didn’t Drag Me to Hell and Jennifer’s Body have female lead characters? Weren’t they geared to the female audience? Well, no, not really. A closer examination of all four films will reveal there differences. (SPOILERS AHEAD!!!! READ NO FURTHER IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THESE PICS!!!)
Just because a film has females as lead characters doesn’t mean it’s geared to the female audience. Brokeback Mountain featured two male leads but it wasn’t geared to Frat boys. It’s what happens to the characters and what they do that makes it audience friendly.
Drag Me To Hell has a female lead but she’s put into Looney Tunes gone horribly wrong while her cute boyfriend stands off to the side and doesn’t get involved. Really Drag Me To Hell and Paranormal Activity have basically the same plot. The difference is that PA has the couple working together AS a couple. Furthermore while in PA is a definite horror movie, with plenty of creeps. DMTH is a whacked out cartoon. It’s really aimed at people who want to see Alison Lohman get slimed, not going for that female demographic.
The campaign for Jennifer’s Body has already been savaged by others. It featured a lot of Megan Fox’s body and a lesbian kiss. Somebody was still working the 1980’s playbook trying to get the Frat boy audience. And really you can’t fault them when the title of the pic is Jennifer’s Body. But the story was really about high school frenemies taken to the extreme. The result pleased no one.
Zombieland might have the text book female audience character in Emma Stone’s Wichita. She’s smart, funny, tough and thoroughly in control. She starts out by conning the Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson characters not once but twice. But she has a soft side. Her one mistake is brought about because she desperately wants to give her little sister one last taste of childhood. That act puts them both in peril but even that allows Jesse Eisenberg to dramatically risk all to save them providing a nice romantic touch. It turns out she’s still a little bit girly underneath that tough exterior (and she ends up back in control of things at the end!)
Not to stereotype but there were also a bit of romance between the two characters in Paranormal Activity whereas there were almost none in Drag Me To Hell and Jennifer’s Body and I think that has something to do with the success of the one and the failure of the other two. There actually is a very close relationship between horror and romance. Horror fiction grew out of the Gothic Romances of the 1700’s. The first horror classics were overflowing with romantic imagery; Dracula hovering over the sleeping damsel, Frankenstein’s Monster carrying the girl off in the moonlight. Of course you only have to look at Twilight to see the modern romance/horror fusion story.
So rejoice horror writers, the demand for your werewolves and zombie stories is about to sky rocket. Just remember to add a little female empowerment and a dose of romance along the way.
Monday, September 28, 2009
...it was obvious this writer had come here for very different reasons to the first one.
She had not come to listen to straightforward comments and ruthless questions about her work. She had come for a pat on the back, maybe some validation. The first writer hadn’t required validation. He wanted frank thoughts and got just what he needed.
It was ironic because just a few days ago I had learned much to my disappointment that I had cost myself a good chunk of change by being too frank. Let me back up, in the screenwriting world there is feedback and then there is "feedback." There's feedback for people who want to know the straight truth as ugly as that truth may be. Mostly this is the kind that you write for agencies or production companies. They want the worse case scenario. If I pay money for this guy's script, am I out of job? That's rather vital to know. Some writers seek out this kind of bluntness. They're the ones who are dead serious about their chosen profession. They want to play in the NFL and they want to see if they can take an NFL hit. These are the people who, even if they aren't pros yet have adopted a pro mentality. They don't get too emotionally attached to any one story or story element. They fully embrace that successful writing involves killing your darlings.
Then there is the other set. The ones who live in a perpetual state of denial. The ones who want praise and who are willing to pay total strangers for it. They consider themselves very serious. They spend money. Lots of it. They enter contests, they attend pitchfests and seminars. But it never sinks in. They do everything except make the change that is necessary in themselves. A friend of mine described them as the hopeless wrecks washed up at the gates of Hollywood. And it's this pile of bodies that have spawned a secondary industry. As long as they're willing to pay money for a little bit of hope, even if it is false hope, there will be people willing to give it to them. Some will try and pack real criticism inside their praise, others will just fill in the blanks of a feel-good form letter and send it off.
I used to think I'd never call a turd a truffle. I used to pride myself about how hard I could smack a screenplay. But now I'm not so sure. If I were in the screenwriting guru business, that poor lost writer Karen describes, she'd be my bread and butter. She has almost no chance of breaking through. But if I really told her that it'd be the last I'd see of her, or her money.
Friday, September 11, 2009
Have to say even though I’m with Olson on this one, I understand where the guy was coming from. That’s because there is such a dearth of real roadmaps to navigating Hollywood. Sure you can find a dozen or so books on screenwriting but very few offering actual practical advice on how to achieve your goal. The world of the movies can seem so very far away at times and people sometimes just grasp at the first straw they see. If they have contact with someone who’s actually in the business then they tend to lose all sense of proportion and just go all in. And end up going bust.
Here’s what the young man should have done and what everyone else should do if they somehow land face time with a real screenwriter, actor or producer:
A) Don’t treat them as an employment office. No only do they resent the hell out of it, most of them can’t help you anyway. Despite what you may think people like Josh Olson can’t make or even start a career with the snap of their fingers. There are only a handful of people in Hollywood who can do that, Spielberg, Pitt, those people. Even if Olson actually liked the script or even loved it, there probably wouldn’t be anything he could do shy of maybe, and just maybe giving him a recommendation to an agent.
B) Take care of your career on your own. Take classes an UCLA or USC, get an internship or a job in the mail room. Start out as a PA or even an extra. That way you’ll make connections all by yourself and won’t have to beg semi acquaintances for them. Also guys like Olson will respect you more because they’ve all been there. That’s how they got started. Look at Olson’s IMDB page and the first credits you see are crew credits in the art department back in the 80’s. He’s a guy who worked his way up the ladder. He’d appreciate it if the guy talked to him about working the mail room or crewing for a low budget indie. That might have lead to a longer conversation and an actual friendship because…
C) You do want to cultivate your relationships with the Josh Olson’s of the world even if they can’t help you at least not in the way you may want or crave. Every contact is important and can lead to more contacts. Plus you can never have too many friends. But be or at least try to be a friend not a parasite. People in the business already talk about the business non stop because they have to. They’re usually dying to talk about something else for a change, football, their favorite BBQ sauce, torte reform, anything. A producer I know once called it “doing the human thing.” Be a real human being with them first and forget that it’s your life long dream to sell a screenplay as hard as it may be.
Think about it this way. You wouldn’t go up to the head of Toyota right off the street and ask to design their next car. You wouldn’t approach the Governator and offer to write the new State Legislation for State Parks. Yet people seem to think they’re eminently qualified to jump right to the top of the screenwriting world from no where. That’s what Olson found so distasteful, that people don’t really treat this as a business. And that’s why they fail.
Friday, September 4, 2009
No I’m not contradicting myself. I’ve started reading for another contest and here as with PAGE one of the things that really sets off the alarm bells is a story about a screenplay or a screenwriter. They’re almost all the self indulgent or just wrong. They fall into either the wish fulfillment or revenge/therapy categories. Please for the love of Syd Field, stop writing them.
I’m not sure why this is a trend in contests. One person told me it was because of Adaptation and The Player. People should remember who was behind those pictures.
Writing about screenwriting or the entertainment business in general is always full of hazards because the writer is damned if he gets the screenwriting world right and he’s damned if he gets it wrong. The real business of movie making is boring and slow. Right now it’s really slow and boring because nothing is actually being greenlit. They say an overnight success takes ten years to make. It’s probably gone up to twenty. And success usually means becoming the sixth writer on GI Joe 2: Electric Bugaloo.
Even worse is when a writer tries to tell an “inside Hollywood” story and gets things wrong. For instance one script I read was supposed to be a warts and all look at the television industry. Unfortunately it broke a cardinal rule right off the bat and made use of a well known song, even naming the script after the tune. Any “insider” knows you never count on being able to secure the rights for a particular song because you might not get them. Another big myth is that once the producers say yes it’s a clear route to easy street. I’ve a friend who got his script packaged and ready to lens years ago. He’s still waiting for his payday.
Before any writer wants to spend months on such a script he or she should take a trip down to the nearest Borders and look at movie section. There are rows of inside stories about the movie business and the creative written by famous actors, writers and directors. None of those are being seriously pursued as film material.
What chance does an unknown outsider have?
Monday, August 31, 2009
You want it to be produced by a major studio: Good luck! Studios are optioning fewer and fewer specs, almost none are getting produced. So what if you have a really great commercial story and your sure audiences will flock to it? You have two options. The easier of the two is to transform your project into a novel or graphic novel, get that turned into a bestseller and have Hollywood come calling to you. The second way is to get your script into the hands of a celebrity filmmaker or actor and get him to attach himself to the project so it can be sold as a package. Keep in mind, A-Listers will never get a script by an unknown. They have a legion of assistants to prevent that very thing. And most B and C-Listers won’t attach themselves unless there’s money involved or if they just fall in love with the story. But in all cases you have to make sure it has a great high concept and mass market appeal. It should also have great roles for actors. You want to show that you know what the audience really wants.
You want to produce a great low budget indie: Even more difficult. Unless you’re writing a low budget horror, chances are your project will lose money. You need to find investors or an indie producer with his own financing. Obviously you need ayour script to be budget friendly. You have to be able to make this with the loose change from your couch. Again you can help your cause by getting name actors attached to the roles. The whole point is to show off your talent here even with a low budget horror. It should be “festival friendly” so it can be easily entered and wow audiences who see it. Many festival darlings never get distribution but they get recognition for the people who made them.
You want to get attention: There’s a subset of scripts which are actually never ever meant to be produced. I know that sounds crazy but they are meant to get people talking (usually laughing) and getting the writer some good buzz. These have outrageous premises, Idi Amin as your next door neighbor, Bewitched as a lesbian porno, they’re designed to jump out of a very full inbox and grab attention. The thing is, once you have their attention you have to deliver the goods. A number of these “shock and awe” scripts I’ve read have good premises but often fall back into cliché. Some have only catchy titles but are otherwise unreadable. That’s kind of like jumping up and down yelling “look at me!” and then just doing some armpit farts. If your going to go this route you still have to deliver a top notch well written script.
You just want to tell this story: Good for you. Every now and then a writer has to just take a flier on his artistic instincts and see what he comes up with. It’s important to know that you’re more than just loglines and market research. But don’t expect millions to result from this. The truth is we have lots of instincts. Some of them really aren’t worth following, some are worth it but only on a personal level. Years ago I got an itch to write a samurai with a mid life crisis film. I finished it and sent it off to a trusted reader. She wrote me back “Well now that you’ve gotten that out of your system, time to write something you can sell.” There is a chance that your personal vision will result in a record breaking hit, but be honest, if your deep instincts were that in tune with the mass audience you’d already be a huge success.
There are no restrictions on what you can write or imagine. There is a limit to what you can sell or produce. Think about you want your script to do. Don’t be expecting your deeply personal musings to deliver you that six figure deal. Don’t write a low budget indie as if you have Bruckheimer’s pocket book. Think about what you want to get out of your script, then work on delivering the goods.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
The career path to becoming a Working Writer is long and hard. You have to come out to LA. No debate about it. Being a Working Writer means learning The Biz and the Biz is in Los Angeles. Ideally, a writer comes out to LA with plenty of money in bank. You find an internship at a studio, an agency, or a production company. That’s right an internship, an unpaid internship. I know I said “Never Give It Away” but this is very different. As a producer explained to me, interns are paid in knowledge. When you’re not being paid you can ask questions. If you’re being paid you’d better have the answers. And most internships are only for a few months anyway. If you’re moving to LA you had better have at least that much socked away in the bank account or already have another job lined up. Most internships only require a few days work a week anyway, perfect for a bartender/waiter. Once you’ve completed your internship you move on to an assistant position which is pretty much like being hazed in a fraternity though some are genuinely good gigs to have. The best assistant ship by far is Writer’s Assistant at a TV show. That almost guarantees you’ll be writing for that show in a matter of months. All of this is designed for you to learn the business and make the appropriate contacts. You see what’s selling and what decision makers are looking for. You get those impossible to get otherwise industry recommendations that will get you a good agent and manager.
Alternatively you can do coverage for whoever is willing to hire you. This can take a little bit longer but it’s a great way to secure an agent or manager or start a relationship with a production company. Again you may end up doing some coverage for free for some companies, but hopefully that will secure you paid work with others.
Becoming an Auteur is just as hard work. The good news is you don’t have to move. The bad news, success is far from guaranteed. On the plus side, the career rewards are much larger. An exciting new writer/director is the king of Hollywood. A bestselling author or comic book writer has studios coming to him. How do you get this royal treatment? Basically you set out to tell one perfect story and get it out there to the wider world. You could turn your screenplay into a movie by producing and directing it yourself but that’s no where near as easy as many seem to think it is. Being director (a good one at least) means knowing as much about photography as your DP, as much about physical production as your UPM and as much about editing as the Editor as well knowing enough about acting to get good performances out of your stars. Producing has its own set of hurdles. As a friend of mine said, it requires meticulous preparation combined with the ability to improvise at a moment’s notice. Above all the jobs of producer and director require an extroverted nature that many writers just lack. So be honest with yourself. If you can’t bring yourself to ask your rich next door neighbor or relative to back your movie, then this isn’t for you. Once you have a movie then you have to get it seen. It has to be entered in as many festivals as possible. DVD distribution should be worked out ahead of time if possible.
Alternatively you can turn your story into a novel or graphic novel. A Graphic obviously requires the services of an artist if you yourself can’t draw. A novel may seem easier but remember it’s a lot more writing. Novels begin at around 50,000 words and can go well over 100,000. Many screenwriters are so used to describing sight and sound they forget a novel has to make use of the other senses. More than that, a novel has to peak inside the minds and emotions of the characters. Even once it’s done, that isn’t the end of it. A novel or graphic novel has to be sold to a publisher. I would strongly argue against self publishing for novels at least. If somebody isn’t willing to pay you the relatively small advance for a first time novel or graphic novel, most people are going to conclude it wasn’t that good to begin with. But assuming you are awesome and your work gets published, you then have to sell it. You can’t rely on the publisher. He’s probably already invested as much as he’s going to by giving you an advance. It’s up to you to hit the internet fan sites, go on book tours, do interviews with whoever wants to talk with you.
That is the entire road map for writers in Hollywood. Those are really the only two options open. I sincerely wish somebody had laid it out to me in those terms all those years ago. I might not have listened, but at least I would have been informed.
Friday, August 14, 2009
This idea began because I noticed something while judging the PAGE Awards. Some of the best scripts I read this year were finalists from the previous year. Some of them had been submitted multiple times. While I appreciate the dedication it just struck me as the wrong career move. Sure the newly resubmitted script could win the award and that would be a lot of money and prestige. But winning an award is not the same as getting a movie made (at least not usually though there are exceptions.) Anyone who's serious about becoming a working writer needs more than one script in his portfolio. Agents and Managers don't want a one trick pony even if that one trick is amazing.
I've more to say on the subject. I'll pick up part 2 of this thread later. Right now, have to get back to work.
There is a huge difference between selling "A" story and selling "THE" Story. This is the biggest lesson beginners have to learn. Too many of them become fixated on turning this one vision into a movie. Getting work as a writer in this town is hard enough, trying to sell one particular story is near impossible. A quote from the Bill Pullman/Ben Stiller movie Zero Effect sums it up best:
Now, a few words on looking for things. When you go looking for something specific, your chances of finding it are very bad. Because of all the things in the world, you're only looking for one of them. When you go looking for anything at all, your chances of finding it are very good. Because of all the things in the world, you're sure to find some of them.
The same idea behind being working writer (though success is by no means assured.) If you're out there just wanting to get any work, Reese Witherspoon's new Rom-Com, Kevin James' followup to Paul Blart, a low budget direct to DVD horror, an episode of iCarly, your chances, while not a sure thing, are better than if you try to get one script sold to Paramount. A successful writer will, after placing in a contest begin contacting agents and managers to try and get signed. He then works with his reps to fashion a script that will sell.
But say that one story is what really drives the writer. Say they don't have another story in them or that they can't bear to let this one special story go. Then it might be time to consider the DIY route. That's when I started reaching out to people with indie projects to see what it was like. I'll sum it up by saying it is difficult. Writing is tough enough, adding director and producer caps just makes it tougher.
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
A few years ago I was struggling to make any headway at all in my career. A friend suggested I read Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. He called it the best screenwriting book he'd ever read. I decided one more screenwriting book in the library wouldn't hurt so I bought it. The first thing I noticed was that Blake had actually written a movie I'd heard of, Blank Check. This was advice from somebody who had navigated the labyrinth of Hollywood and had come up with a million dollar sale. I read everything in the book, did all the exercises, came up with a few loglines. Somehow I got his email address (I think my friend gave it to me or I looked it up online) and sent him my loglines. I was shocked when he responded in just a few days. And it wasn't a standard boilerplate criticism about how I needed to study the craft more (and should probably attend his next seminar for a low reduced rate!) No, he just came out and told me what he honestly thought. He even gave me his cell number so we could discuss it some more! I called and I found him warm and supportive and eager to discuss my not so brilliant career. Then he gave me the best piece of advice I ever received about screenwriting. He asked me what my best script was. I tried to explain it to him but it didn't fit neatly into a logline. He asked me, "Are you writing for yourself or are you writing to sell?" That was the light bulb finally going on in my head. After that I was laser focused on creating projects that could sell. A few months after that conversation I got my representation. My reps took one of my scripts to the Disney Channel (passed because it was too much like a previous movie), they had me turn another of my scripts into a novel which is making the rounds, and I've more projects in the wings. I may not have crossed that finish line but I'm no longer stalled and wondering what the hell I should do. And in a very real sense I owe so much of it to Blake.
I'm sorry I'll never get to thank him properly. I'm sorry for people who are just now discovering his book. They won't have the opportunity to talk and communicate with the witty and generous man behind the beat sheet.
I just exchanged emails with him two weeks ago. Our exchange ended like this:
BLAKE: Really appreciate your support! You da man!!
ME: No. You da man!
BLAKE: :) Ha! Thanks!!
Robert McKee never called me da man.
I will miss Blake Tremendously.
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
How I Became a Famous Novelist, or at least bought the book rights as my next movie
My first impression was, “Wha?” The title sounded like one of the hundreds of books that line the shelves at The Writer’s Store giving advice and encouragement to would be scribes. What was the writer of Corpse Bride and Big Fish up to? When I clicked I found out. How I Became a Famous Novelist is a fiction novel (apparently a knee slapping hilarious one at that) written by Steve Hely, now a writer on 30 Rock. According to a press release it’s about:
The book tells the story of Pete Tarslaw, an ambitiously underachieving college grad who writes a shamelessly maudlin and derivative Great American Novel for the sole purpose of upstaging his ex-girlfriend’s wedding. When the book becomes a bestseller, he finds himself sucked into a strange coterie of mega-authors and their attendants.
Immediately I started chuckling at the thought. I tweeted back to John August that I thought it was a great logline. That got me thinking why it works so well. The answer was in the first sentence, “…for the sole purpose of upstaging his ex-girlfriend’s wedding.” That’s when the story became funny to me. It may seem that it makes the hero Pete Tarslaw less sympathetic and it does. Deliberately disrupting a girl’s wedding is pretty low. And it may only be a minor part of the overall story. But it made Pete a real person. It gave him a relationship, albeit a messed up one, with another human being. You can tell he at least cares about what his friends think of him in relation to his ex and maybe still harbors feelings deep down inside for her. Those feelings may be leading him to do bad things, but we can understand why he would go down that path. Imagine for a moment the logline without that touch of flawed humanity.
An ambitiously underachieving college grad writes a shamelessly maudlin and derivative Great American Novel. When the book becomes a bestseller, he finds himself sucked into a strange coterie of mega-authors and their attendants.
It’s much colder and drier now. It reads more like a critique of the literary world disguised as a story. It’s all intellect and no heart. Without that one little detail, Pete Tarslaw goes from a real human to a metaphor walking around dealing with a bunch of weird characters. That one unflattering little detail sketches in so much of Pete Tarslaw’s character that he becomes real to the reader in just those few sentences. It gives him some personal stakes in the story.
It’s just a few words but beginning writers leave them out of their loglines and completed scripts all the time. When asked to up the personal stakes, beginners complain about having to put in “standard Hollywood drivel” into their scripts. Admittedly in lesser hands these can be as “maudlin and derivative” as Tarslaw’s novel. A hack might turn Pete’s ex-girlfriend into a harpy who deserves to have the happiest day of her life wrecked or go the other way and have her be the idealized gal pal who’s about to marry an ogre. The audience would be wondering either why does Pete care or why did they break up in the first place. But John August isn’t going to let that happen with this material. He’ll take that little detail and spin a complicated and very human relationship between Pete and his ex-girlfriend. That’s how all screenwriters should approach such material.
The difference between success and failure, between a sale and a “see ya later,” can come down to just a few choice words. Writers should look at the above example and what those 9 words mean to How I Became a Famous Novelist. They should remember to give their own characters similar personal stakes in the story, even if it makes them sound a little less than perfect.
Thursday, July 30, 2009
Most writers usually start a project with no clear idea of how they will start it. What attracted them to the idea in the first place was the drama and conflict slated for the middle and end sections. They have the dramatic confrontations, desperate escapes, the thrilling duels all clearly envisioned. But how does one turn that the first blank page into the doorway to those fantastic moments?
Not to add pressure but I participated in a recent Facebook discussion with Larry N. Stouffer with some other readers about how important the first page is. We all agreed that the first page or first ten pages was vital to the writer. Many readers will just read the first ten pages, ten pages in the middle, and ten pages at the end to decide whether or not to pass on a script. Some readers never get past the first ten.
So how does a writer conquer those difficult to write but oh so important first pages? After reading so many scripts, I’ve seen a number of ways to open a script. Some have worked better than others.
(Note: A really killer logline can buy a writer a grace period. If the concept really excites an executive he may overlook a dull opening.)
Exposition: Probably the worst way to open a script yet I see it all the time, especially in fantasy stories. Mountains of imagined history are recapped by solemn narrators and re-enacted by characters who don’t appear in the main story. Yes Lord of the Rings pulled it off but so many others have failed trying to duplicate that sequence. Just once I’d like to see a fantasy spec begin with a typical day in Cymeria and leave the back story for us to discover later on. There are some instances, like a historical drama for example, that we do need a point of reference. The writer should always treat these the way they would remove a band-aid; quick, short and fast.
Furious Action: Some writers attack the beginning by throwing us right into the heart of an action scene. This opening takes its cue from the classic James Bond films. The writer sets out to thrill the audience from the beginning. Elaborate scenes featuring Wire Fu, Gun Fu, Car crashes or whatever is hot at the moment fill the page. Sounds like a can’t miss strategy? Actually it backfires more often than not. The problem is these scenes are description heavy. Seeing it on the screen and reading it on the page are often two different animals. It takes real skill to keep a reader interested through so much physical action. Some writers even turn it into 5 straight pages of unbroken descriptions. Instead of thrilling the audience, the writer has bored the reader to tears. Secondly this is the first time we’re meeting the main characters. The reader hasn’t established a rapport with them yet so placing them in jeopardy right away isn’t as exciting. Worst of all, these scenes almost never have any impact on the story that follows. They are often a Bond-like teaser, exciting maybe but utterly disposable in terms of the story. So yes, a writer can create an opening as exciting as Raiders of the Lost Ark, but he runs the risk of boring the reader with a scene that’s not even that important.
Flashforward: A common trick is to flashforward to a scene near the climax of the film where the hero is desperate and on the brink of losing everything. Then the story starts and we wonder how the hero got from his quiet dull life to having a gun shoved up against his face. At least that’s the idea. The truth is this technique has been used so many times that experienced readers tend to ignore it. It really doesn’t take any great skill to write a scene where a man is begging for his life and then cut to a scene “24 hours ago” of him sitting in his cubicle looking bored with life. Yes it’s a contrast, but we’ve seen it already. And writers sometimes mistake jeopardy for sympathy. A jerk with a gun to his temple is still a jerk.
Someplace New: What does get my attention is when I’m taken someplace I haven’t been before. A unique setting can be a great way to open a story. But if a writer is going to open with an exotic location, he has to demonstrate real knowledge. If the writer is getting his info from a travel guide it’s going to show. The writer needs to do some real research (or have actually lived there) to make the setting truly come alive. At the same time he has to keep the story flowing naturally. He shouldn’t be giving the grand tour right away, this isn’t Nat Geo. The writer should strike a nice balance between information and storytelling.
Get the Story Started: I always appreciate it when the writer gets the story in motion right away. It doesn’t have to be a big fight, but if the main conflict is sketched out or hinted at, I’m a happy reader. A thief watches as a well armed security detail gets into an armored limousine, I start to wonder how he’s going to get the loot. An Indian student walks into an all white classroom, even if everyone is polite and civil I know there’s a culture clash coming. Mystery, Thriller, Comedy and Rom Com writers have huge advantages in this area. Thriller writers begin with a puzzle to be solved. How was this man stabbed to death without using a knife? How did this woman drown in the middle of the desert? The writer knows to start at the crime scene with the examiner telling the detectives the news. Comedy writers start with a comedic situation either everyday or extraordinary; the boss is making us work late or the boss is an evil werewolf. The writer knows to start at work with the boss telling the hero he’s working late tonight. Rom Com writers start with opposites who are in love but don’t know it yet. The writer knows to start with his two soon to be lovers enjoying their seemingly incompatible lifestyles. Sometimes a writer just needs to go back to his logline, find the main conflict and open with that. There are far worse ways to begin.
Character: For me the best way for a writer to begin is with the main character. This has so many advantages. It usually means lots of dialogue in the beginning. Good dialogue moves quick. Those first ten pages go by fast if they feature a lot of dialogue. It also tells the reader two very important things about the writer. A) Can he write good dialogue and B) Can he create interesting characters I want to follow. Next to the logline these two might be the most important traits for a writer to master. Look at the screenwriters who garner the most acclaim. Nearly all of them write great dialogue and create unforgettable characters. If a writer creates an interesting character in those first few pages, I’m eager to find out what happens to him even if I’m on my 30th script of the day. That is exactly what a writer wants out of his first ten pages.
Saturday, July 25, 2009
Step 1 – Find that “Chocolate and Peanut Butter” Combination. Firs come up with a concept. Concept is the idea of the story. It’s sometimes mistaken for the logline but it is separate. This is where the cliché of the Hollywood screenwriter throwing together titles of popular movies comes from; “It’s Top Gun meets The Little Rascals!” This is because studios are looking for two things in a concept, familiarity and uniqueness. They want something audiences around the world will recognize but at the same time something they haven’t seen before. Beginning writers make the mistake of thinking this is the be all and end all of a logline; that if they can just put two mega hit movies together they have the perfect logline. Otherwise they’ll just throw as many pop culture terms together in hopes of finding something that sticks. But a logline is more than just an idea or a set-up. Anyone can put two film titles together. A computer can do it. A writer needs an idea he can turn into a story. Here’s where beginning writer’s fail. By playing a word matching games they come up with ideas they can’t even turn into complete sentences, let alone entire screenplays.
So how does one find a good concept? There’s no one answer. With experience they start to come naturally. A beginning writer is to look for two contrasting things and then put them together. An old screenwriting text gave an example “A man who’s afraid of everything meets a woman who’s afraid of nothing.” Contrast means there will be drama. But despite their contrast they have to be somewhat harmonious. A reader has to be able to easily see how these two elements might combine. So while Crocodiles and Accountants may be contrasting, it’s not the most harmonious of combinations. This is why it’s sometimes called “That Chocolate and Peanut Butter” combination. Not to infringe on anyone but a writer is looking for “Two great tastes” that is two ideas that could stand independent of each other, that have been the basis for stories on their own. And these two ideas have to “Taste Great Together” or that an outside observer can easily see these two together. If a concept needs a ten minute discourse to explain itself then it wasn’t that good. This method can lead a writer back to putting movie titles and pop culture references together (or not in the case sited above) but the writer will have an actual criteria for putting combinations together instead of just randomly tossing the word salad.
Step 2 – Settle on a Main Character. Once a writer has a concept he then needs to put it in motion. Ideas without motion just sit on the page. Even the most explosive idea in the history of Hollywood will only get a writer to “So what happens?” Before the writer answers “What?” he first must answer “Who?” Stories aren’t about events or objects, they’re about characters. Movies are based on roles. The difference between greenlighting and turnaround is often who you can get to star in it. Once the writer has his idea, the next important step is to humanize that idea by creating his main character or characters. In the example above, who is the man who fears everything? Is he a harried insurance adjuster who knows obsessed with accident statistics? A hypochondriac who scans the internet for the latest viral outbreaks? Someone who was mugged as a child? Who is the woman who’s afraid of nothing? A reckless bike messenger? A beautiful, but sloppy and accident prone personal chef? A Dirty Harriet cop? In each case the writer should remember to keep the characters contrasting yet somehow compatible.
Step 3 – What happens? This is the big one. There are so many possibilities it may seem daunting to just narrow it down. But if a writer keeps to his two contrasting characters he’s really down to just four choices. In our example if the Man Who Fears Everything is A and Woman Who Fears Nothing is B, then the storyline is down to one of the four:
1. A can go to B
2. B can go to A
3. A can go to B in the first half, then B can go A in the second.
4. A disaster throw A and B together in a neutral location.
So for example, the Paranoid Insurance Adjuster falls in love with the Reckless Bike Messenger and tries to win her over by joining her on dangerous bike trails and races (A goes to B)
The Man Who was Attacked as Child witnesses a mob hit and the Fearless Lady Detective is assigned to watch over him. (B goes to A)
Our Hypochondriac hires the Sloppy Personal Chef, gets her fired, then to make it up to her tries to help her win a big open air Chili Cook Off (B goes to A then A goes to B)
Or Aliens could kidnap any of the three couples and put them together in a zoo (Thrown together in a neutral location)
Option 4 has a long history. Anytime you see a shipwreck or a plane crash or some other disaster throwing different people together, then you’re seeing option 4. It’s popular because it doesn’t require as much research and it helps the budget by limiting the number of locations. But it has one severe drawback.
Step 4 – Why does He or She Do it? Personal stakes. The “disaster scenario” removes most of the personal stakes because it removes choice from the characters. They didn’t choose to be marooned or trapped or whatever. The only stakes for the characters become elemental, survival or freedom. That may sound like enough stakes to some, but producers want more. They want to see more from first time writers to see if they can give them more. Years ago I pitched a horror idea to a producer, it was about a group of people trapped in a farmhouse with a horrible monster outside trying to get in. One of the producers I was pitching to asked me what were the personal stakes. I couldn’t answer because I thought I had enough at stake for the characters. I was wrong. I didn’t make the sale. A friend of mine once talked to a producer about adapting a comic strip. The original strip was about two characters trying various jobs and failing. The producer wanted to add some personal stakes, like they had to get money to keep the bank from foreclosing. My friend stuck to the original spirit of the strip and as a consequence didn’t get the job. So a writer should always give personal stakes to his characters. It’s what producers are looking for.
To take one example from above, say the Hypochondriac had an old nurse who used to care for him as a child. Her dying wish was that he try and help out her granddaughter, the klutzy chef. So when he gets her fired, he isn’t just letting down her but her dead grandmother as well.
Step 5 – What’s the Major Complication. A good logline encapsulates the story. So how much of the story does a writer need to encapsulate? Surprisingly quite a bit. A good logline should take the reader right up to the first major complication in the hero’s endeavors if not right up to the “fight or flight” moment near the end. A producer needs to be able to envision up to two thirds of the script especially from the beginning writer. This can be a real problem for writers who like to throw twists in the middle of a screenplay, it leaves them with not enough of a logline. A savvy producer, given the concept and the main characters can picture the first act, given the main action he fill in half of the second act, given the main complication and he can picture the screenplay up till the beginning of the third act. In other words the logline has successfully encapsulated the story for the producer and he can make a decision whether to read or reject right then and there.
So going back to Hypochondriac/Klutzy Chef Romance, our Hypochondriac has followed our chef to the big Chili Cook Off only there’s a problem. The main competition is someone who used to bully the Hypochondriac as a boy and still knows how to push our hero’s buttons. The Bully was even the reason our hero developed his condition in the first place (back to personal stakes!)
So there is the construction of a logline from concept to major complication. A logline is more than a game of Movie Title Jumble. It’s not pick a bunch of buzzwords out of a hat. It’s a serious exercise in structured writing and should serve as the basis for a writer’s first treatment or outline. It’s also the best selling tool a writer can have.
Thursday, July 23, 2009
The first thing to realize is that genre counts. Harry Potter may be setting box office records. Lord of The Rings may have swept the Oscars, but that doesn’t mean Hollywood is screaming for epic science fiction and fantasy specs. Quite the opposite. Those films take almost as much money to produce as they take in at the box office. I say this quite sadly because I have read some really good fantasy specs recently and they would be great films. But I know what the response from producers will be. “No!” The epic fantasy and big budget science fiction world right now is exclusively reserved for screenwriters with proven track records or bestselling novels. So if a writer has a perfect Harry Potter-style fantasy spec, he or she should immediately turn it into a novel. This goes for Historical Dramas as well. Period sets and costumes cost a lot of money. Even if a Historical Drama spec is exceptionally well written, the cost of producing it will be a hurdle.
With all rules there are always exceptions. Low budget fantasy and science fiction are still viable for unknowns. Producers are always on the lookout for the next Terminator or Aliens, a low to mid budget thriller that can spin into a multi sequel franchise. As for Historicals, producers may not be interested in biographies of Susan B. Anthony so much as they are looking for the next 300. Stylized action is in at the moment so a Historical Action spec has a chance (just don’t make it about Susan B. Anthony.)
So what are the genres that aren’t expensive? The same genres that pop up with regularity on the “What’s hot in the spec market” list. Comedies, Romantic Comedies, Family Films, Horror, Thriller, Action. Things set in the here and now and can produced with a minimum of cost. And most of them like Comedies and Thrillers usually have very cast-able lead roles. But even in these “bargain” genres a writer can still do things that will blow the budget.
1. Water – The robot shark in Jaws sank. Kate Winslet nearly drowned making Titanic. And there’s the well known story of Waterworld. The moral of the story; water is expensive. Shooting either on water or underwater requires loads of additional safety features. So if a rom-com writer puts his star crossed lovers adrift in a life raft, or if a horror writer has his serial killer drag his victims down into the deep, he or she has added a good deal to the film’s budget. If the story is set mostly in an aquatic setting, like an undersea wreck or on a yacht in the middle of the Pacific, then the budget has skyrocketed.
2. Night Time isn’t always the Right Time – Often a writer has to set exterior scenes at night. But the writer should keep in mind that night shoots require additional lighting (unless the director is going for a pseudo documentary look using mostly available light.) Those lights need to be set up. That’s additional labor and time. Labor and time equals money.
3. Location, Location, Location – One of the first things Quentin Tarantino learned when he was making Reservoir Dogs was the fewer the locations, the lower the budget. It goes the other way as well. Increase the number of locations, the budget will correspondingly climb. Some writers may want to give their comedy or action film a globe spanning scope, but all those foreign locales add up.
Special mention should be given to the use of historic landmarks. Ever since Hitchcock had Martin Landau chase Carey Grant and Eva Marie Saint over Mt. Rushmore, writers of all stripes want to use the Eiffel Tower or the Empire State Building as a setting for the big moments in their stories. Writers should remember that shutting down those famous landmarks for filming costs money. Having two guys fight to the death on top of Saint Peter’s in Rome may sound cool, but try getting the permits for that, or building a convincing replica.
4. A Cast of Thousands – Writers should remember that every speaking role means money, and a good chunk of it. The Screen Actor’s Guild has set minimums for speaking roles. Beginning writers will sometimes create whole casts of characters just for one segment of the screenplay then completely jettison them after the main characters move on. That’s wasteful. Any speaking roles should either be brief or vitally important to the story.
5. Unnecessary Scenes – This goes to basic writing, but every scene in the screenplay should be vitally important to the story. Anything that isn’t necessary should be pruned from the final screenplay. I was told of a Lewis and Clarke Historical spec which contained an elaborate scene. It was huge Indian camp with dozens of extras. The purpose of this scene? To have Lewis and Clarke comment on how much they like roasted buffalo.
The writer should be no means approach every project from a penny pinching mindset. A lot of writers challenge themselves to write thrillers set in one single location with just two characters. It sounds nice in theory but the results more often than not are boring. Hollywood wants movie scripts, not stage plays. But the writer just needs to be aware and be on guard against unintentionally raising the film’s cost. On the page there is total freedom. But in reality there are limits. Making movies will always be expensive, but the writer should try and control just how expensive.
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
…some kind of crass Hollywood thing: like "It's Rain Man – With Time Travel! It's 28 Days Later meets 9 1/2 Weeks!"
She then goes on to text book description of a logline:
But really, the "elevator pitch" just summarizes what your story is about. And if you can't explain what your story is about in a couple sentences, maybe that's actually a bad sign.
Yes it is a bad sign if you can’t summarize your own story. A very bad sign. I’ve tried to make that point several times in this blog (here, here and here.) I’ve stated over and over again that loglines are what get executives and producers to read screenplays. Anders takes it a step further by including the audience into the equation:
…when you describe your book in a few pithy sentences, you're making a promise to your potential readers, about what they'll get if they invest time and money in your book. You warrant that you'll deliver a story about a guy who gets migraines that let him rewrite the past. Or a dragon who disguises herself as a racehorse so she can take part in the Kentucky Derby. If the reader buys your book based on that pitch, you'd better deliver on it.
Perfect sentiments. Although I will say if a writer promises a Dragon/Racehorse story and deliver an Elf/Motorcross story, the producer/publisher will probably notice long before that story gets a chance to disappoint an audience.
It’s fascinating that Anders should choose the logline for her first advice post. It just underscores the close relationship between the storytelling arts though there are still huge differences between a screenplay and a novel. I wouldn’t use Syd Field to plot out a short story. Another important difference is length. Anders encourages side developments in the course of writing a fantasy novel.
These subplots, and digressions, and possibly philosophical lines of inquiry, are marvelous and should absolutely be in your novel. It's part of the joy of speculative fiction that you can draw such a broad canvas.
A screenwriter who indulges himself thusly will quickly run out of real estate. 120 pages of properly formatted screenplay goes by remarkably fast. Space for subplots is severely limited.
In another bit of irony, some time ago I posted about how really good loglines can act as “human computer viruses” or “Nam Shabs” like the kind described in Neal Stephenson’s Sci-Fi classic Snow Crash. One of the reason loglines or elevator pitches are so important is that broken down it’s easy to see how “catchy” they are. How quickly they can spread just by word of mouth. You see this all the time in the publishing world where previously unknown writers suddenly jump into the bestseller ranks. It’s because their “elevator pitch” was extremely “viral.”
Loglines have been around Hollywood for decades now, going back to the beginning of High Concept in the 80's. From Anders' article it appears as if the publishing world is implementing it's own version. That's great news for screenwriters who want to write novels and for novelists who want to write screenplays.
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
J - Just saw script co-writing ad, noting that "The writer would recieve [sic] a copy of the film". Christ, he'll be inundated. What an offer!
J - I love all these "Write a script for us - for free!" ads. There's no money, but you'll get a copy of the film and a full credit. Wowee.
When they asked who would agree to such terms, SoFluid replied:
Me - Some of us have to start somewhere, & if that means writing for free...
That is correct, we all have to start somewhere but a writer has to keep in mind what constitutes a “start.” There are a lot of problems with the kind of set up described above. It pays to know a little something about how the world of independent film finance actually works.
(Note- This excludes student films and shorts which almost never pay. They can be good for your resume.)
If an independent producer is looking to raise money through investors he has to present them with a business plan, including a production budget. If an investor looks over the budget and sees a “0” underneath the “Screenwriter” expense column he’s going to ask the producer a lot of uncomfortable questions.
Do you not have a screenplay? Are all rights secured? How good can it be if you got it for nothing?
If the producer puts a dollar amount in the “Screenwriter” category he’s then obligated to pay the writer that amount. Otherwise the producer could be guilty of fraud.
Another thing to remember is the Writer’s Guild. It should be every screenwriter’s goal to gain membership to the Guild and secure the necessary Guild credits. Although the Guild has made recent efforts to accommodate the independent world, they take a very dim view of writers working for no money whatsoever. They just went through a lengthy strike to secure their rights in New Media. They don’t have a sense of humor about things like this.
That doesn’t mean the writer has to get money up front every time. The “No Money” option is a common practice in the industry. Basically the producer agrees to pay the writer’s fee once certain pre-production milestones are met; usually once the project is fully funded and ready to begin shooting or as soon as the project begins shooting.
The other thing to consider is the reverse of the credit/no money deal. The money/no credit deal. Uncredited rewrites, ghostwriting, and work-for-hire jobs can found everywhere. It can be a little hard to advertise such services since confidentiality is a must. But word does spread and a writer can soon find herself with plenty of such work.
It can be tempting to at least take a chance on a write-for-free offer. It is nice for a writer to have a DVD with actors speaking the lines she wrote, but there’s no guarantee that the resulting product would be anything the writer want her name attached to. For all the bother, a writer is better off producing her own short. That way she can be sure the finished product is indeed a worthy calling card.
Monday, July 20, 2009
But the business is also full of people who wrote their Master’s Thesis on William Faulkner, who have seen all the works of Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa, and who collect Miles Davis records. There are executives who appreciate deeper and more thoughtful screenplays, even if they are about killer robots.
A screenplay that is deep and thoughtful has a theme; larger, universal ideas that underscore the main story. And even the profit hungry mercenaries in the business see the value of a good theme in a screenplay. Themes that are universal by definition have wide appeal with the global audience. That is why you’ll almost always see a family or a love story as the “B” story in an FX blockbuster. Studios want a universal theme to play alongside the explosions and CGI. They want the hero not only to beat the evil alien but to reconcile his conflict with his wife or his lover or his father or his dog.
The “insert family drama here” method is definitely a valid at least from a commercial perspective. It certainly didn’t hurt the box office receipts of Die Hard. But there is a better way. By looking at the screenplay’s concept or logline and its characters a writer can come up with a theme that flows naturally from the story.
The concept and logline encapsulate what happens in the story. The writer should ask how his characters feel about what’s happening. How does it affect them personally? Look at the two versions of The Fly. The original was just a standard monster movie about a man turning into a fly. There was no deep thought about the implications to the character. The David Cronenberg remake however asked what it would be like for someone to undergo this horrific change to their body. It became more than a monster movie, it became a theme and a powerful one for the AIDS aware 80’s. With the remake of Battelstar Galactica, the creators looked deeper into the idea of an attack by unrelenting robots and came up with a theme that echoed post 9/11 paranoia. The list goes on and on. Attention to theme is what separates a Judd Apatow comedy from Paul Blart: Mall Cop.
But writers should never forget that characters are the important second half of the equation. A theme posited by a writer is no good unless it is lived by the characters in the story. Often I’ll have beginning writer’s tell me what their theme is but I look back at their screenplays I find nothing of the sort. Sometimes I find the characters drifted in a completely different direction. They’ll say their story is about staying true to their hearts, but I’ll find that their characters are made miserable by following their passions. The writer should really have a “heart to heart” with his own characters. Really good characters take own a life of their own and can’t be shoehorned to fit the writer’s every whim, at least not without breaking believability. Ask truthfully what personal significance does the story have for the character. Therein the writer will find his theme.
A final word about the difference between theme and politics. They are separate. Politics, though it may not seem like it, are temporary. They are also highly impersonal and tend to treat people as broad categories. Politically motivated screenplays are usually the worst written and worst reviewed screenplays. Not only are they commercially unviable (studios spend millions trying to get the whole country, not to mention the rest of the world, to love their movies) but they usually are poorly written. Writers of either stripe who make overtly political pieces tend to use the same ham fisted approach to every other part of the screenplay. Universal themes on the other hand have been with us for generations and go straight to a person’s core. These core values transcend Blue State or Red State and even transcend national borders. Those are the real themes Hollywood is after.
Writers usually create a theme for their story without even realizing it. Just by choosing what to write about and how their characters react, they’ve already started down the road to creating a theme. All that needs to be done is to take that theme and give it a nice polish.
Sunday, July 19, 2009
A typical conservation:
“How’s that Stuffed Animal Crime Noir script I gave you?”
“Got potential but there’s problems in the first act.”
“What’s the inciting incident?”
“It’s the first jewelry store robbery but that doesn’t occur until page 40.”
“Hmmm. Writer has problems with structure.”
Except for the details that little snippet gets repeating a thousand times a day every day in Hollywood.
The biggest reason for this is that while so much of judging writing is subjective, how the bones of a screenplay are laid out, how it is structured, is completely objective. You can argue whether or not an action scene is stylish and exciting or trite and clichéd. What you cannot argue is when it occurs in the screenplay. That’s all structure is really, where the events of the story take place. Take away a movie’s heart stopping stuntwork, amazing special effects, and crackling dialogue and it’s really, as Lemony Snicket would say just a series of events.
Broken down to its “blueprint” even an assistant who has two weeks on the job can see problems. They can see where a writer is spinning his wheels when he should be surging forward or where he’s sprinting ahead when he should be laying down foundations for later. Looking at how the screenplay is structured it’s easy to see if it is properly built.
But what’s the proper way to build a story? There are a lot of people who have dedicated their lives to studying that. They’ve developed what are called “beat sheets” a standard pattern for when important events should be taking place in the story. One of the best available is from Blake Snyder and his book Save the Cat.
It may seem daunting at first to beginners but they should remember what we all learned in High School English; every story has a Beginning, Middle, and an End. So is the same with screenplays. Beat Sheets tell you what should be happening in the Beginning, Middle, and End and how long each of these sections should be. After you’ve read and used a few of them you’ll begin seeing “the beats” in movies you watch and in other screenplays you read.
Inevitably some people do take it too far. Readers complain all the time about scripts that adhere too mechanically to a beat sheet and stifle all spontaneity out of their stories. But on balance readers prefer to see a script that is too tight and slightly mechanical as opposed to a screenplay that’s a mess structure-wise. The one that's a complete mess has almost no chance. The one that's too tight, that one can still be a sale if the concept is strong enough.
It’s a very gratifying thing to be able to go to a movie and see the beats. It makes you feel like more of a professional. And it gives you an in to talk with other professionals in the business. Learn structure, because everyone else already has.
Thursday, July 16, 2009
It's a a powerful word. Every year hundreds take time out of their busy schedules and fly all the way to Los Angeles to attend one. I was at the very first Screenwriting Expo Pitchfest. I stood in line with hundreds of others waiting for my chance to pitch to actual Hollywood professionals. After I was done I was sure I was just weeks away from signing that big contract.
It didn't happen that way. And no one else should really expect instant fame and fortune either. But there are ways to make sure you get the most out of your pitchfest experience.
1. Have Fun
Enjoy yourself. Enjoy the city. Los Angeles is a great place. You'll meet all sorts of people, some who may be become your friends some who are just characters you'll want to write home about. It's easy to let the stress and anxiety overwhelm you. Don't let it.
2. Practice Your Logline and Concepts
I've said this a lot but it can't be over emphasized. The logline and the concept are what get people interested in your screenplay in the first place. Plenty of people can write, the ones who succeed are the ones who understand how to craft a compelling logline. Demonstrate you know how to come up with a truly high concept and the people at the pitchfest will take notice.
3. Target Managers and Agents
Production companies are always good but Agents and Managers are the people who work with writers day in and day out. They are the people who can help you not with just one script but with your entire career. Try to get in to see as many of them as possible. Hint: These individuals fill up the quickest so make sure you're the first in line.
4. Find Out Where to Submit To
You'll probably get a lot of people handing you their cards. Always find out where you're supposed to send your screenplay and to whose attention. Sometimes companies even have two or more offices at different locations. A perfect pitch is wasted if you end up sending your script to the wrong individual at the wrong location.
5. Follow Up But Don't Pester
You need to give people a reasonable amount of time to review your script. Wait at least a month before your first follow up call if you don't hear anything. Be polite. Don't let your emotions get the better of you. Expect a rejection. Don't beg or get emotional when you hear, "no." Remember...
6. The Ultimate Goal Is Not a Sale, But the Start of a Relationship
It's not a spring but a marathon. It takes a lot of steps to make a success. A good pitchfest is just one of them. That is biggest lesson beginners should learn. The lottery ticket, jackpot winner is the rarity. The best you can hope for is someone who is willing to let you email them new material, maybe give you some freelance writing jobs. If you're real lucky he or she will let you send them loglines and story ideas for criticism and feedback. When that happens then you're real close to getting repped.
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
It's very hard for people outside of Los Angeles to break in. As I stated earlier, so many of the decisions are made here. But writers who are outside of the US (and outside of Los Angeles) do have avenues open to them. Here are tips to finding those paths and making the most out of them.
1. Be Fluent in EnglishThis may seem like a no brainer but the lure of Hollywood can often override common sense. I recently read a screenplay written by someone for whom English was a second language and it was pretty rough sledding. I honestly could not say whether the fault was his English skills or a storytelling skills. Did he write such flat dialogue because he has no ear or because could not fully express himself in English? If a writer's English is at a fifth grade level than the script will look like it was written by a fifth grader. And believe it or not there are plenty of scripts in the submissions pile that look like they were written by fifth graders. No writer wants to be lumped with that group.
2. Find a Good International ContestSeveral of the biggest screenplay contests around, in particular the PAGE Awards, welcome foreign submissions with open arms. This is a great way to get an introduction to the film business in Hollywood. If a foreign writer shows real promise, a contest like the PAGE awards will work to get that writer exposure. If a writer wins or places in the contest he or she has an excellent calling card.
3. Use Where You Are and Who You AreForeign writers have a lot of handicaps but they do have several big advantages. First and foremost they are foreign. Hollywood wants new and exotic. To somebody in LA, what they eat for breakfast in Mumbai is as exotic as the latest sci fi novel. Too often foreign writers ignore what's right outside their own door. A foreign setting can add spice to any genre be it horror, rom com, science fiction, thriller, action adventure. The best way to gain somebody's attention, producers and agents included is to tell them something they didn't already know.
But Remember to Provide Easy Access to American ReadersHollywood has gotten better at casting more diverse actors in leading roles but at the end of the day they are still looking at American audiences first. So yes, foreign writers still need to write their stories for an American lead. This isn't necessarily a roadblock to authenticity. And a writer doesn't have to resort to the Ugly American Tourist. In this modern globalize economy, many Americans now work abroad for a variety of companies. And the world is full of American ex-pats who have completely absorbed the culture of their host country. The writer needs to remember that if Brad Pitt is the lead, the movie is as good as made.
Connections Are There to Be MadeEvery writer needs representation or help. Foreign writers need as much help as they can get. But where to find it when one lives thousands of miles from Los Angeles? Fortunately Hollywood isn't as far away as it used to be. All the major studios have offices around the globe to handle distribution. Often the only requirement for working at one of those offices is to be fluent in English. Now these offices have nothing to do with production and do not have any direct communication with the decision makers, but they are a conduit back to Los Angeles or New York. People move in and out of these companies all the time, often to join management companies or to form companies themselves. One can never know what casual acquaintances can lead to. Writers should remember that writing relationships are exactly like other business relationships. They require trust, comfort, and compatibility. There are hard to find. One has to be willing to spend a lot of time and energy to find the right one for them.
Don't Forget the Local Movie SceneHollywood isn't the only place to make movies. Before a foreign writer knocks himself out trying to impress somebody in Los Angeles, he should at least consider looking at the movies being produced in his own backyard. Hollywood loves foreign films. They especially love to remake them. The rules for breaking into the local movie scene is the same as those for breaking into the Hollywood scene. One has to form good relationships with people one can work with. This can be invaluable experience. A writer who has three IMDB credits, even if they are foreign, is worth more than some hotshot just out of film school.
Writers outside the US have a tougher hill to climb than those who live and work in Los Angeles. But it can be scaled. Foreign talent is constantly finding a new home in LA. No one knows where the next big thing is going to come from.
Monday, July 13, 2009
1. The Logline doesn't Match the Story
This is a surprisingly common occurrence. That is because writers are often new to the idea of loglines. They make the mistake thinking that it's something they can get to after they've finished writing their script. So what happens is they follow their hearts and their inspirations and write long complex stories. Then they get to the end and try to shoehorn their stories into 25 words or less and find themselves at a loss. So what they end up doing is come up with a 25 word description that they think producers want to hear that vaguely covers their story. It won't work. If a reader really wants to stick his neck out and recommend your script, the first thing they're going to ask him for is a logline. Professionals work on their loglines first, then write their screenplays. It's easy to spot when you try to do the reverse.
2. Typos and Spelling Errors
Proofread. Proofread it a second time. Then get somebody else to proofread it a third. Screenwriters are allowed a certain number of mistakes as long as the story is good. But if every other sentence has a typo it looks like the writer just didn't care.
3. Formatting Errors
Is FinalDraft worth the $200 price tag? Yes if you're serious about becoming a screenwriter. Screenplay format is very important. It determines how long the actual movie will run. A properly formatted page will equal one minute of screen time. Readers see a lot of people trying to sneak by underwritten scripts with a number of tricks, extra spaces between scenes, double spacing, dialogue squeezed into a thin bar. At worst a poorly formatted script will be half as long in screen time so a 110 page "feature" is actually just a 55 page TV pilot.
4. Poor Dialogue
Readers zero in on the dialogue, sometimes they don't even read the action or scene descriptions. They want to see if the writer has an ear, if he knows how people talk. That he can be witty yet not babble for pages on end without getting to the point. People have to able to not just read a script, but speak it and perform it.
5. Too Much Description
Sometimes a reader gets a script that looks like a novel manuscript. Just row after row of ultra detailed description. Pros almost never pack their descriptions into one long block. Most of the time they break it up into several short paragraphs, each dedicated to only the most important elements of the scene. A writer should give telling and important details about the action, but should leave the actual directing to the directors. Writers shouldn't be describing very camera pan and zoom unless they're going to direct themselves.
6. Low or Middle Concept
A lot of stories have already been told. The sad fact of the matter is that a something that's just a coming of age story or a chase movie has no shot in Hollywood anymore. There have already been too many of those. The new writer will study the classics from 50 years ago and try to emulate those stories. Studios today want something more complex than that. They want High Concept, not Low or Middle Concept. They don't want just a coming of age story, they want a coming of age story about a boy who makes friends with a mafia boss in 1950's Las Vegas.
7. Budget Busters
Everything costs money. Even if the story is good it still his be practical. Some scenes are just too important to skimp on. But it's surprising how many first time writers blow the budget without even realizing it. They'll write in locations and add dozens of speaking characters in one part of the script, then discard them after the hero moves on. Those sets have to be built. Those actors have to be paid. A writer has to make sure the producer is getting his money's worth out of those expenses.
Beginners are easy to spot because they often include popular songs in their scripts. Songs are a tricky business. Artists sometimes charge an arm and a leg for every use. And there's always a chance that the artist and the producer don't like each other, meaning the song choice is a complete non starter. Pros get around this very simply. They always say "like INSERT SONG NAME HERE." This is usually an easy fix so one instance won't doom a script. But if a writer has an entire soundtrack mapped out, it'll cause people to take pause.
9. The Ending Makes No Sense
Or it was a downer ending. Beginning writers often attack the fortresses of Hollywood full of artistic vigor. They've studied Altman and Sartre and they don't believe in happy endings or endings that wrap everything up in nice neat packages. That's not wrong, but it's not something Warner Brothers or Dreamsworks is going to be interested in. Studios are very up front about why they are in this business. They want to make money. A story that ends with a question mark or with the hero getting disemboweled (unless it's a horror movie) probably isn't going to make the $100 million grossing list.
10. It Just Wasn't That Good In the First Place
Sometimes a writer just has to suck it up and admit that his script wasn't the masterpiece he thought it was. This is a very subjective business. What one person thinks is brilliant another can think is worthless. A writer is lucky if only a handful of people really love his story. The works of undeniable genius are few and far between and if they were easy they wouldn't be that special or worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. This is where the real writers get separated from the wannabes. The wannabes pout and complain and try to argue their story past the wall. The pros just shrug and get started on the next big project.
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