Tough Reader, Good Advice

"Mike has a superb knowledge, love and understanding of film. He does his work with integrity and passion."

Kristin Overn
Executive Director
The PAGE International
Screenwriting Awards

"To be honest, the money I have spent on these reports ($50 for each one) has been some of the best money I have ever spent. "

Mina Zaher
Journey of a Screenwriter

"Michael Lee is the most knowledgable, thorough and professional screenplay analyst in the business!"

John Vincent
Executive Director
Hollywood Screenplay Contest

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Teaser Trailer for Raymond Did It

A few months ago I interviewed Travis Legge about his upcoming horror project Raymond Did It. Well he's wrapped and here is the teaser trailer.

I love slashers. They're a guilty pleasure of mine. This looks like a good one!

Congratulations, Travis.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Machiavelli’s The Prince and Screenwriting Part 1

Machiavelli’s The Prince is the classic book on strategy and skullduggery. For centuries it’s been used as a guide for leaders, politicians and businessmen. But can it help a screenwriter navigate the sharks in Hollywood?

Yes, if you make a few allowances.

1 The Various Kinds of Government and the Ways by Which They Are Established.

All states and dominions which hold or have held sway over mankind are either republics or monarchies.

Machiavelli says in his next chapter that he’ll only be talking about how monarchies operate. This is good because when a screenwriter negotiates with a producer, a star or a director he is essentially talking to a king or a queen. Businesses are essentially monarchies. There a boss and what he says goes. He might be restrained by corporate bylaws but that’s nothing compared to the constant haggling a democratically elected official has to engage in. The good news is that as soon as you sell your screenplay you’ve joined the aristocracy. There are four pillars that make up a movie, the producer, the director, the star, and the screenwriter. Editors and DP’s might be hugely important but they rarely if ever get a seat at the big table. The bad news is that out of the four pillars, the screenwriter is the most junior and the most replaceable. Writers are replaced at the drop of a hat. Going in you have to be aware that yours is the weakest hand.

2. Of Hereditary Monarchies

…the difficulty in maintaining hereditary states accustomed to a reigning family is far less than in new monarchies; for it is sufficient not to transgress ancestral usages, and to adapt oneself to unforeseen circumstances…
No your kids won’t actually inherit your position as screenwriter, though they’ll have an easier time breaking in. But a year is a lifetime in Hollywood. After just a few sales you will have become known for a particular kind of writing. Therefore anyone who has that kind of a project is going to look to you first. Usually after just one sale your reps will be inundated with offers. You’ll be offered Chainsaw Sorority Part IV because you wrote Lifeguard Massacre III. As Mackey says, these gigs are easy to maintain as long as you meet expectations. The problem arises when you want to break out of your niche. William Peter Blatty is a prime example. Blatty started out as a comedy writer. He wrote A Shot in the Dark which essentially created the whole Pink Panther franchise. But by the late sixties he was tired of comedy and wanted to write a horror story. Studio execs wouldn’t even look at his horror writing so in frustration he turned to print publishing. He wrote The Exorcist which became a bestseller. Ironically he then tried to go back to comedy only to then find himself trapped in the horror niche.

3. Of Mixed Monarchies

But it is in the new monarchy that difficulties really exist.
And here’s where we start to get into the nitty gritty. The real meat of how to begin your career and lay the proper foundations.

Thus you find enemies in all those whom you have injured by occupying that dominion, and you cannot maintain the friendship of those who have helped you to obtain this possession, as you will not be able to fulfill their expectations, nor can you use strong measures with them, being under an obligation to them;…

You have enemies. Get used to the idea. The second somebody said “yes” to your project it meant saying “no” to a dozen others. Those projects had their own champions inside the company and, if they’re any good at all, they won’t miss a chance to advance their project at the expense of yours and your reputation. And you can’t expect your own champions to leap to your defense. They’ve already done you a huge favor getting you this far. So what do you do?

…you will always need the favor of the inhabitants to take possession of a province.
Get your name out there and start building your following. This is a real problem for most screenwriters. Novelists understand this much better and are better equipped for it. But before the ink dries on your first contract you should be out there and putting a human face to your words. Whatever your story is, there’s already a huge fanbase out there (otherwise you wouldn’t have made a deal) start giving interviews. Look for fan sites more than screenwriting sites. People who read screenwriting sites are your competition. People who read fan sites are your potential customers. Yeah the whole world is skeptical of social media’s influence. They point to many cases where internet interest didn’t match real interest. Maybe but even if they are skeptical of praise, they’re still terrified of criticism. The Wonder Woman movie essentially bit the dust the moment Joss Whedon was removed from the project. The producers may well have had a script they loved but the Whedonites would have torched it nonstop from the start.

But when dominions are acquired in a province differing in language, laws, and customs, the difficulties to be overcome are great, and it requires good fortune as well as great industry to retain them; one of the best and most certain means of doing so would be for the new ruler to take up residence there.

Once you get the money, move to LA. Yeah it’s expensive but even a first time feature contract is worth a LOT of money. It’ll probably be a few years before you can afford that house in Beverly Hills, but get your behind over to Los Angeles pronto. The language and laws of movieland are unlike anything else that exists. Often the difference between staying on a projecting and being replaced is a few words at a party. Yeah in the past there guys who wrote from Michigan or Wisconsin, but where are they now? The guy who wrote Top Gun never set foot in California and look at the result. Nearly everyone else involved is a household name, Tom Cruise, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, Tony Scott. Where’s the screenwriter? Did he get screwed or did he screw himself?

Further, the ruler of a foreign province as described, should make himself the leader and defender of his less powerful neighbors, and endeavor to weaken his stronger ones,…
As I said earlier the writer is in the weakest position at the start of a project. Of all the principal members he’s the one who can be replaced without making any fuss unless he or she has worked to establish a fan following. Nevertheless the writer has made a tremendous gain. He has conquered his own little kingdom and Machiavelli’s advice comes into play. A writer should strive to make himself the friend of the smaller fish in the pond. First there are the fans. Then there the assistants and secretaries that make up a huge part of any production company. These people will one day be producers and execs themselves and believe me, they love it when you buy a round at the bar. Then there are the other members of the production, the DP, the editor, the Unit Production Manager, the Casting Director, the Assistant Director, the other actors. It’s really important to get to know these people. Even if a dozen other writers are called on to the project, make sure you get a set pass and use it. Why? You want to learn everything about the business for one. You want to be able to talk the lingo and have a few stories of your own to tell. Secondly you want to learn how to make a movie. That’s because there’s only one way to weaken a director and that is to become one yourself. The same goes for the producer. In fact you’ll probably add “producer” to your business card right away. Nearly all writers form companies so they don’t get reamed by the IRS. But a real canny writer will use his company for more than just a shelter. He’ll actually learn the ropes of producing and distributing. It’s a lot harder to disentangle an agreement between two companies than to just replace a writer. Above all the writer should be looking to direct his or her feature debut as soon as possible. While you’re at it, make sure to give yourself at least a one line cameo in the film. The smartest thing Tarantino ever did was get in front of the camera, thereby putting a face to his writing and his directing. You come in as a credible producer and director and maybe even as a credible actor you monopolize the project.

Next Week Part 2

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Final Word on the Robin Hood Debacle

Feels strange calling a film that’s made over $100 million worldwide a debacle, but there it is. The $250 million epic might not break even and there’s certainly not going to be any Oscar love for this Russell Crowe/Ridley Scott project. And while I think Gladiator is one of the most overrated Oscar winners of all time (it’s 200 AD, people drop dead from disease all the time, but Commodus can’t poison Maximus and be done with it?) but what’s really getting all the attention, at least in film blogging circles, is the screenplay and how that was butchered.

Claude Brodesser-Akner has excellent piece in the NY Times Magazine detailing all the changes of fortune. To sum up Cyrus Voris and Ethan Reif, creators of Sleeper Cell, came up with a script called Nottingham which was Robin Hood from the perspective of the Sheriff of Nottingham. It combined the costume swashbuckler with elements of crime procedurals, CSI: Middle Ages.

I’ll just go over some of the most important points from the article:

Most studios and producers immediately passed on the Nottingham script when it hit their in-boxes in January 2007. It was set in the twelfth century (expensive!), it wasn’t based on a toy, board game, or action figure (Robin who?), and so far, it had no big-name talent interested.

This fits with everything I’ve heard about the spec market. Budget matters to the big guys. If you’re a new writer or even an established pair like Voris and Reif, they’re still looking for a reason to say “no.” If your story needs castles, costumes and hundreds of extras, that a pretty big reason to say “no.”

But four days after the spec script went out — an eternity in Hollywood development — it caught fire:

Here’s where Voris and Reif’s world differs from mine. Four days isn’t that long for a new writer. Four WEEKS isn’t that long. I can’t imagine how many screenwriters read that article and became paranoid that they didn’t get the phone call 24 hours later. If they called back faster than that I’d be wondering if they actually read the damn thing.

By the next Monday, Crowe had read the Nottingham script and attached himself as the Sheriff.

This reveals the big truth in Hollywood. Stars and directors are where the power lies. Never forget that writers. You’re not safe unless an A-Lister has your back, and even then it’s not a sure thing. Crash got made because Don Cheadle loved the script and got his friends to sign on. If you’re really interested in protecting the material, get an actor or director on your side.

Interviewed in the Sunday Times of London in April of this year, Scott told a reporter that the original premise was “fucking ridiculous” and that “you’d end up spending 80% of the publicity budget explaining why it was Nottingham and not just Robin Hood.”

Scott’s going to get a lot of hate from writers for this one and rightfully so. I’m going to go slightly against the grain and say he’s not entirely wrong. I have a hard time picturing Nottingham as a HUGE tentpole picture. It strikes me a smaller more modest budget effort where the production values aren’t going to drown out the nuance. The higher the budget goes, usually the more simple the script becomes. See Avatar as example A.

So again, for those keeping score: As the cameras rolled, Stoppard was rewriting Helgeland's rewrite of Webb's rewrite of Helgeland's rewrite of Voris and Reif's original script, which started out with the complete inverse of the present concept.

Now let’s be clear, this situation ISN’T new. And if we’re being honest the screenwriters of Hollywood aren’t against it. The established screenwriters encourage this kind of behavior. Helgeland probably could have stopped everything and saved everyone a lot of dough by saying “This is a great story. You’d be nuts to not want to shoot it.” But that would have meant passing up his own big paycheck. Certainly the Guild isn’t going to object to a system that results in paydays for FIVE different writers. The career goal of most writers now is to be the Helgeland, the Webb or the Stoppard. To be the guy called in to “clean up the mess.”

Finally don’t feel too bad for Voris and Reif. They got their payday. They have story by credit on a summer blockbuster. And the way things work, they’re next deal will be north of 1.5 million. If they really want to see their story in the big screen, better turn it into a novel and hope it becomes a bestseller.

Recommended Reading and Tools

Script Reading Services Available

Basic - 5 to 7 pages of detailed analysis going over a script's concept, structure, characters, dialogue, plot and marketability

Page Notes - 10 pages or more of in depth analysis from the first page to the end.


The StoryPros