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Monday, March 22, 2010

10 Things Before Submitting A Screenplay courtesy of Ted Hope

Came across this excellent post by producer Ted Hope. He makes some great points.

1) Cut at least another 10% of the script. Even when you think you are finished, there’s always another 10% that can come out.
VERY True. Brevity is the soul of wit. Can you get your point across clearly and quickly. That's the thing I'm always noticing on my rewrites, any excess word-adge. Any fat that can be trimmed.

2) Clarify what you feel the themes are and how they evolve during the course of the narrative.
Your screenplay is never just about what it's about. Even if you're writing an idiot action thriller you're still working some kind of a theme, even if it's something as simple as "good triumphs over evil in the end." Embrace it. Own it. Use the hell out of it.

3) Figure out some of the ways that the story can be expanded onto other platforms.
Okay I admit I'm not 100% clear on what he means but I'm 90% certain he means think beyond your screenplay and movie. Can you see this thing as a novel (easiest translation) or something else. George Lucas when he filmed the first Star Wars movie, he wasn't sure the movie would be a hit but he was positive they could make budget back on the toy tie ins. Obviously you can't think that way for ALL projects at least not beyond the novel presentation but if your genre and subject matter trends into those areas (sci-fi, fantasy, action) then once again embrace, own, use.

4) Know what the historical precedents are for your story and how you differ from them in how you have chosen to tell it.
Which is a fancy way of saying "This is X meets Y" Hard truth, operating completely outside all known film history is probably going to get you a bunch of blank stares. The execs speak one language, recent hit movies. It's like Esperanto for producers.

5) Review the script from each characters’ point of view and make sure that their dialogue and actions remain emotionally true for each of them in their different situations.
You should have done this BEFORE writing really. This should have been part of your outlining/planning stage. This is the only way you can be certain that your characters really come across as unique and don't all sound alike. Also make sure that they're just doing things for convenience sake (DR EVIL: No, I'm just going to leave the room and assume they're dead.)

6) Recognize what some of the mysteries contained within both the characters and story are that you are committed to protecting — as not everything should be explained.
Maybe not, but you'd better HAVE an explanation in your bag of tricks in case someone important asks or, if upon further review, it turns out you DO need to answer that particular mystery. Anyway how are you going to maintain the emotional integrity of the scene if you don't know, deep down what that emotion is or should be.

7) Understand why you are truly prepared to tell this story at this time – or not.
Again this is more something you should ask before you start writing not before you're ready to pitch, but better late than never. You have to feel it. It has to be alive inside of you. If it's not alive and kicking it's going to die on the page and die in the pitch.

8) Make the world that the characters inhabit truly authentic; don’t just give them jobs or apartments or hip music to listen to.
Research, research, research. Don't be making stuff up all the time. Know it. Even if its the daily routine of a bike messenger. Authenticity sells. Authority sells. 90% of first novels are "insiders view into FILL IN BLANK"

9) Make it somehow provocative, intriguing, audacious, or thought provoking — something that will make it stand out.
Like I've always said, you have to make sure it stands out in a pile of 20 to 100. And it has to stand out in all forms, as a logline, as a 1 page synopsis, as a pitch, as a quick 10 10 10 read, and as a full read.

10) Make sure it is more than just a good story told well. Be truly ambitious. Take us somewhere new, or take us there in a new way.
This is what separates the A's from the A+'s. This is what separates the contest winners from the finalists and semi finalists. This is what separates the "I'll stick my neck out and recommend your script to my boss," from "Great but not really for us, try us with something else."

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The 8 Steps to Becoming a Screenwriter

So how do you go from total I-Never-Even-Knew-Movies-Had-Screenplays to thanking the Academy? It’s easy (grins ominously) No seriously it is. The biggest obstacles are the ones inside you and they can be overcome.

STEP 1 Read the Books and Get the Software: The first obstacle you have to get by is your own ignorance. Don’t be offended. Nobody is born knowing how to do this stuff. And it’s so easy to correct. All the info is out there. First thing you need to do is learn the format. Format. Format. Format. Please people there’s no more excuse for improperly formatted screenplays. Syd Field books have been around since the 80’s. You can get old copies for pennies on eBay. Final Draft is out there. Can’t afford Final Draft? There’s Celtx for free. These programs do 90% of the work for you. You just have to know how to use them correctly. Above all grab some free scripts from sites like Simply Scripts. Read those thoroughly. Read a lot of them so the format really sinks in. Read and study. That is a life long habit you should form if you are serious about becoming a screenwriter. Correct formatting is the first of many tests and it is mandatory that you ace it. D+ will not be enough. C or B will get you bounced.

STEP 2 Learn the Structure: This will make things so much easier. It’s not that hard really. It’s nothing more than counting pages. You have to know what the three act structure is and how it’s used. Again read more scripts and see if you can identify when the second act break occurs, what happens in the midpoint etc. Learn how to outline a screenplay. Outlines make writing a screenplay so much easier. They break down 120 pages into smaller bite sized pieces making the whole thing easier to tackle.

STEP 3 Write Screenplays: Get off your butt and write! Get on the computer and start typing. Set aside certain hours of the day. What you have time to read this blog but you don’t have time to write? Bulls*t! Get to work! Outline your story and start getting your money’s worth out of that screenwriting software. What do you write? At this stage it doesn’t matter, (as you’ll see in a minute) so write what you really want to write. Write what you love. Write what you want to see. Anything. The next Star Trek. An adaptation of the Blondie comic strip. In college I actually started (though I did not finish) a sequel to the George Lucas/Ron Howard film Willow and an entry in the Nightmare on Elm Street series. My first two finished screenplays were a John Woo shoot ‘em up and a Lovecraft horror story with Baywatch babes. Whatever gets you over the finish line. You’re never going to write a screenplay if you never write a screenplay. Seems like a duh moment but people just can’t appreciate what an effort it really takes to see something like this through from start to finish.

STEP 4 Get Tough: Okay you finished a masterpiece right? Wrong. Unless you are a total prodigy, what you wrote was complete crap. If you submit it to a contest you’ll be bounced immediately. You get feedback it will probably be devastating. If you send it to an agent that will be the last you hear of it. You suck. You’re worthless. You wasted months of your life. Knock it off! You did not waste anything, least of all your time. The fact is you completed a script. That’s something most people can’t do. What you did was extraordinary. Now it’s time to do it again. Now is the time to be even more extraordinary. You poured your heart out into that last script. Refill your heart. You’re exhausted? Shake it off. You think this hurts? Wait until you actually get good. Wait until you actually have expectations. Wait until you actually have some distance to fall. Think it smarts getting bounced in the first round? Try making it all the way to the finals. See your life about to change then hear you didn’t make it. That happened to me. I was a finalist in the Disney Fellowship. I was this close to getting 30K for an entire year to just sit back and write. I was the final person cut. Crash! I didn’t go to work the next day. A week later I was writing again. Now the stuff I put out now is miles better than that screenplay that almost but didn’t quite make it.

STEP 5 Study the Craft: There’s probably a million reasons why your first screenplay sucked from bad dialogue, to bad plot to the fact that it’s about Captain America. Whatever. You’ve proven to yourself that you can write a script, now it’s time to show you write a good one. Back to reading and studying and, here’s the fun part, going to the movies. Go to as many movies as you can. If you can afford it try to see one every week. See the good, the bad, and the lousy. You can learn more from a bad movie than you can from a good one. A bad movie you can watch and think, what would I do different. And study study study. Read books, read more screenplays, get feedback on your latest script and join a writer’s group. This will tell you what you need to focus on. Dialogue needs a lift? Bone up on dialogue. Plots going awry? Study plotting. Study your subject. You probably haven’t done any research since college (maybe you didn’t even do it IN college) Fix that. They say write what you know. Well the more you know, the more you can write about. About this time you should be figuring out it’s more a marathon than a sprint. Then you’re ready for the final step.

STEP 6 Study the Business: It’s been a long road to get to this point. You’re probably already miles better than that guy who thumbed through Syd Field utterly mystified. You’re to the point where you can write a screenplay and the reader doesn’t hate it like poison. It’s actually kinda good. But can it sell? That’s the question. After all this talk about passion, craft and art we’ve finally come down to commerce because that is what it’s all about. You don’t just want to write a great script, you want somebody to PAY you for it. Time to put aside the writer and become the salesman. And no one ever made a sale without first knowing the market and the buyers. Time to get out from behind the computer screen (or not) and meet people. Writer’s conferences, Expos, Pitch-fests are all great ways to meet people if you don’t live in LA. If you do there’s internships, assistantships and reader positions. Then there’s always the internet and things like Twitter’s #scriptchat. It’s amazing who you can meet online. Subscribe to the trades. Make as many contacts as you can. Ultimately you want to find out three things, what is selling, what is this particular company looking for, and can you submit something to them.

STEP 7 Write Something That Will Sell: You’ve honed your craft. You’ve made your connections. Now is the time to put it altogether. Passion, craft, and business acumen. Look for that story that will do it all. Find that logline/concept that the company cannot ignore. Write with every ounce of craft you possess, don’t give them an excuse to put it down ever. And write something close to your heart. Something that really only you can write. The last thing you want to do is whet their appetites for something you really can’t deliver because your heart isn’t in it.

STEP 8 Remember to thank Screenwriting Foxhole when you accept that award.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Adaptation of a Classic

Here’s a unique problem but one that I have a lot of experience with. My best screenplay/novel happens to be a twist on a well known classic. My reps love it and I’m hoping any day now to hear those magical words “We’ve sold it!” Writing it both as a screenplay and as a novel was absolute joy. I’d grown up with this story, I’d seen it retold a million times, so when I came up with own fresh spin it felt like I was striking gold. It felt less like writing and more like unearthing.

Flash forward to today and I’m judging screenplays for a contest. One of the scripts is based on the works of a famous author. I can understand the enthusiasm the writer must have felt in taking his favorite author and putting his work on screen. It must have felt like magic to him to walk around inside this world and to be with these characters.

He’s not getting through to the next round though. Worse than that I don’t see this being the screenplay that’s really going to get this guy’s career started. It won’t be kicking open any doors or getting people’s attention.

Why?

Well for starters the writing isn’t very gripping. That’s a problem when dealing with passion projects. Your personal passion may or may not make it to the page. Another part is some writers assume that because their starting material is classic their work must be equally gripping. You know what they say about assumptions. Just because you’re working with “a timeless classic” doesn’t mean you can slack off with your craft. That’s something I struggled with myself. After I had the story I went over it time and again wondering and worrying over the tiniest details. The rules for screenplay writing still apply, knock ‘em off their seats early and keep ‘em wowed throughout, never give anyone an excuse to stop reading. The unfortunate contest script has given me ample reasons to stop reading.

But there’s a larger issue, namely that the screenwriter chose an AUTHOR who is famous, but the stories and characters he’s using on aren’t well known at all. These tales, despite being studied in English class haven’t worked their way into the pop culture landscape. (In case your curious, yes I did base my soon to be masterpiece/bestseller on a very well known work) When you go for something that isn’t as well known you’re really putting yourself behind the 8 ball. If the reader or exec hasn’t read the story before you’ve got a problem. Either he doesn’t like the story in which case you’re dead anyway or he does like it but he’s wondering how much YOU had to do with that. Are you a good writer or do you just have good taste?

Remember, as much as you may love this old time master, it’s about you as a writer. You have to demonstrate YOUR talents. Best way to do that is to take a story everyone knows so it is obvious what changes you made and how you put your stamp on it. And always be aware that it is a constant battle for the reader’s attention. Treat a classic with respect but always remember it is just a platform for your screenplay.

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