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Monday, August 31, 2009

Why are you writing a screenplay?

Before you put down one word ask yourself what you expect to get out of this story. Why are you writing it? What do you hope to get out of it? What are your ultimate goals for this story? Knowing where you want to go is essential if you want to get there.

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" Story Versus "A" Story Part 2

So the difference between telling A story and telling THE story really comes down to a choice of career paths. It’s amazing how many books and publications are out there about screenwriting yet almost none of them talk about this fundamental choice. You can either strive to be a Working Writer or you can set out to become an Auteur.

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

"THE" Story Versus "A" Story Part 1

I'm back after a brief hiatus. I've been working on an interview piece on independent filmmaking. Hope to tell you where to find it soon. It came about originally because I wanted to do something for this blog about indie filmmaking and it just expanded to a full on article.

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

RIP Blake Snyder

Very sad day. Yesterday Blake Snyder author of Save the Cat passed away. Blake was the best screenwriting guru/coach/author I ever knew. I'd read Syd Field and Robert McKee but nobody got me closer to my goals than Blake Snyder. But more than that he was so accessible. I never talked to Field or McKee and to do so usually involves putting down a great deal of money. But Blake was there ready to give advice via email or over the phone completely gratis because he enjoyed helping other writers. I will miss him.

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

John August and the Bleeding Human Heart of a Story

This morning screenwriter John August tweeted

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.

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