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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year

I’m really jazzed about hosting the upcoming #scriptchat this Sunday, January 3rd. I hope you’ll all attend.

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

Notes from the Underbelly

I’ve just received a set of notes on one of my scripts and it made me think. How is screenwriting like quantum physics? I’ll answer that question in a little bit but first I’m going to go over notes, coverage and feedback.

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

Loglines: WHAT are you doing?

This post is a follow up to the excellent Twitter #scriptchat a few nights ago on loglines. It underscored just how important the logline is to the modern screenwriter. Take a look at the top eleven unproduced screenplays from Franklin Leonard’s Black List. Notice how strong the loglines are. Some like Prisoners make me want to run out and see the film right away!

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:

#1

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.

#2

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

The Inciting Incident

The great thing about being a script judge and reader is that you really are being paid to learn screenwriting. Sure, you already know screenwriting, but being a writer is about being a permanent student. You can never know everything about writing, you can only con yourself into thinking you do.

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

227 Pages or less....

Dear readers, sorry I’ve been away for so long. Been busy with a lot of things.

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-“

“You’re fired!”

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?

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