Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Thick Skin Project

There's a particular phrase in job postings that never fails to make my blood boil, "Thick skin required." I don't know if this sort of language is common in other industries, but it turns up a lot in Hollywood.

Let me translate for you, "You will be working for an asshole who is so convinced of his own self-importance that he doesn't deem those under him worthy of common courtesy. When he has a bad day, he will take it out on you. You are the flesh-and-blood stress ball. You will be yelled at, degraded, humiliated, unjustly chewed out and called names." Yet somehow all of this is okay because they specify "Thick skin required."

At what point does one's ego trump the simple human decency of treating others - even those under them - with simple respect? Most of these job postings are for assistant positions with long hours and low pay. I've gone on a few of these interviews, and you could tell just by talking to the current assistant that the boss was a real asshole. The worst is that those bosses are surrounded by people who kiss their asses so much that they've completely forgotten the manners their mother taught them.

You know what would make me happy? For all the job-seekers in Hollywood to get together and send out a standard response to any idiot in HR who thinks this kind of bullshit is acceptable. You know, come up with a standard template that reads something like this:

"You must be a total asshole to need to specify your employees should have thick skin. At what point were you elevated to being above simple manners? If you are a rude prick who can't speak to your underlings in a civil tone, that's YOUR problem, not your employees. Don't make your failings as a human into a "weakness" you blame on those who break their back for you. If you have to warn those around you to have thick-skin, that's a pretty good sign no one loves you."

If every tool who posted this got a few hundred emails, it might embarrass him into being nice for an hour.

I'm aware that most of those emails are screened by assistants, and as such, there's a good chance these hypothetical emails would never reach their target. Still, it would be great if those assistants printed those out and "accidentally" left them behind for the boss to find after said assistant has moved on to their new job. Would I feel bad about flooding the assistants' emails? No, not really. They know they work for a jerk, so they'll probably get a kick out of it.

For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking, you can find the UTA Joblist posted HERE and see examples of what I'm referring to. The version that's active as I write this has no fewer that three jobs specifying "thick skin required." The UTA list used to be a closely guarded list that was passed in the shadowy corners of back alleys, but it's been pretty accessible for a while now, and thus, useless as an "exclusive" job list.

Anyway, if this joblist quirk annoys you as much as it does me, feel free to send out a link to this page, Twitter about it, put it on your Facebook page, or blog about it. Other bloggers, you're welcome to repost any of this, or even come up with funnier versions of my retort. (And if anyone does have even more clever retorts, please post away in the comment section. You're all creative people - what's the most biting way you'd respond to a "thick skin only" post.)

Viva La Resistance!

Tuesday Talkback: When you lost the patient.

Jumping off of yesterday's topic - here's today's Tuesday Talkback discussion topic - when did you know you lost the patient?

Is there any script or concept that you've developed, written, rewritten, and rewritten again until there came a time where you eventually had to accept that you'd done everything you could with it and there was no saving it? How long did it take? How many drafts did you go through? How many people did you show it to? Did you try radical rewrites to salvage the idea?

Most of all - did you learn something? In all of those rewrites, did you stumble across an idea that you later put to use in another script? Did seeing why this story wasn't working teach you anything about how to make future stories work?

I can understand people not wanting to give out too many details of story concepts they've worked on, but please feel free to share the experience of writing.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Sometimes you're gonna lose the patient

It's a scene we've seen countless times on an equally countless number of medical dramas. A critical patient goes south on the operating table. Blood pressure drops, they're bleeding out, their heart stops. Our heroic doctors do whatever they can. They autotransfuse, they pull out the shock paddles, perform CPR and when all else fails, they do what us ER viewers know is always the last resort - they crack the chest and start shocking and massaging the heart manually.

But for all their efforts, for as much as those doctors try to practically force the patient back to life, there's often nothing that can be done. Some days, that's what it's like writing a spec script. I've seen it from both sides. There are plenty of times where I've dealt with the same writer who has come back to me again and again for notes and guidance. Sometimes they take my input and the story gets better; sometimes they don't take my specific suggestions, but my critiques encourage them to rethink some areas and come back with better ideas... and sometimes there's just no saving the idea.

Those are sometimes the hardest critiques I've had to give, and a great example of why a lot of readers find it easier to write coverage for companies and agencies than to accept business directly from writers. (Or for that matter, offer notes to friends and colleagues.) After reading many drafts and becoming familiar with a writer's abilities, I feel like I'm able to tell if the depth of the changes need is within their abilities. It doesn't necessarily mean that they're a bad writer, but it could mean they're not the right writer for this script. Or maybe they were at one point, but they've lost the passion for the idea, and now they're just flogging this dying screenplay, trying to salvage all the time they've invested in it.

Not every idea is able to be saved. There are some scripts that can't be fixed no matter what changes you make. Maybe there's a germ of an idea worth saving there, but if you've sent five, six or seven drafts around to the same people, and not only do they still have problems with it, but all these people keep having the SAME problems, you need to consider that the issue is probably one of two things:

1) These aren't the right readers for this script. Maybe they're burned out on it after seeing several drafts or maybe it's not their cup of tea. That's certainly fair. However, if readers with very different tastes - and those who haven't all read the script multiple times - keep coming back with the same issues as other readers, it might be time to give the script a rest.

2) You lost the patient. Maybe rewrites to fix other weaknesses have wound up muddling the core concept. Maybe your protagonists and their internal arcs are all wrong for the themes you're working in. Maybe you're playing in entirely the wrong genre. Or maybe you're just not a good enough writer for your script yet.

The hardest thing to do is walk away, and yet, some writers would benefit greatly from that. At least to the audience, it's always clear when our TV doctors aren't going to save the day - even if it takes those characters longer to realize it. The "heroic measures" become less considered and more often resemble a Hail Mary, or the doctor gets emotionally overinvolved in the case, to the point it blinds him to the truth that there is no happy ending. The next time you're buried in rewrites, take a step back and ask, "Is that me?"

I tend to outline everything to death, and I rarely start a script without having a good sense of what the structure is. However, there are at least two scripts where I feel like I lost the patient. Certainly, there are a lot of scripts I've written where I end up saying, "Okay, I've done everything I can with this one. I'm happy with it and I can show this to people without being embarrassed by it." Are any of those perfect? Probably not, but I'm comfortable using them as representations of my writing abilities.

But the two I abandoned were especially painful. Coincidentally both of those were projects with writing partners, though they fell apart for very different reasons. The first was actually only the second feature screenplay I'd ever written. It was a case where I think we were too quick to jump to the script stage. We had a decent concept and some killer set-pieces, but a lot of our character arcs and connective tissue were weak. There was simply no depth to it and yet, to get to our coveted set-pieces, we'd locked ourselves into a particular plot progression. The story just didn't hold together, and the only way we might have saved it was by scrapping everything and go back to square one with a willingness to throw out every idea and start over. At that point, neither of us had the energy for that.

The second one was harder in a lot of ways, because this partner and I spent probably about three years working on it, off and on. It wasn't the only thing I wrote in that time, but it was a story that both of us cared a great deal about. Without making this a much longer story, let's just say that there were at least eight massive rewrites on the whole thing and as difficult as it was to get each draft done, spending that much time on the script only made us more entrenched in getting it done right. Eventually it was clear that both of us had lost the passion for the story and our energies might be better served in developing new ideas.

There are some scripts you'll write that ultimately aren't meant to be shown to anyone else. Some screenplays are more valuable just for the experience of having written them. There are things about writing that no teacher, book, executive or reader can help you learn - you can only learn by doing. Now, if you're lucky, sometimes those "learning experience" scripts might be salvageable. However, since they were often forged out of inexperience, they might have structural deficiencies that make it more difficult to rewrite easily than something you've developed since learning "on the job."

My rule is that I never go a year without starting at least one new screenplay. At any time I've got an idea file of at least a dozen or two concepts. Sometimes I get as far as a treatment with those and decide I don't want to spend a couple months working on a first draft and then a few more months committing to a rewrite. Sometimes I get to the end of Act One and I'm still not feeling it - but I always make sure that every year there is at least one screenplay I commit to and take all the way. That ensures that even if I do get bogged down with a "critical patient" I don't let it consume me.

But never be afraid to walk away from your own writing. You'll learn something from it, and chances are it can make you a better writer.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Friday Free-for-All: David Duchovny

Californication is returning to Showtime this Sunday, so for Friday Free-for-All, I thought I'd take a look back at some of star David Duchovny's wackier moments.

A true rarity - David Duchovny performing with the Barenaked Ladies on The Tonight Show in 1999:

Duchovny doing "In the Year 2000" on Conan:

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Where do these terrible scripts come from?

Josh sent me a question via email last week:

Please help reconcile these two thoughts, seemingly at odds:

1. You (and all script readers) frequently gripe about the horrible shit you've had to read set in non-Courier fonts, riddled with typos, and bogged down by trite cliches, exclamation points, song playlists, lengthy descriptions of the ingenue's cleavage, and so many other red flags.

2. It's virtually impossible to get an unrepresented script onto your desk.

Therefore, by law of modus tollens, are these affronts to screenwriting being delivered by managers and agents? How and why does this happen? How does my screenplay, unrepresented but otherwise respectable, land on a gatekeeper's desk?

First, good question, Josh. When I first started working as a reader, I had plenty of days where I thought to myself, "How did this manage to squeak through the system to the point where I have to read this drek?" I'll try to explain the most common reasons a really amateurish spec can get to someone reading for an agency or production company.

Favors. Yeah, you knew this was coming. The Development VP's college roommate's kid just wrote an "awesome" sci-fi adventure; or maybe that junior agent at International Creative Artists Agents for the Performing Arts has a friend who persuaded him to submit his script. Either way, you're the one stuck reading it. I'd probably guess that 3 out of 5 times, when a reader complains about bad formatting in a spec, this is the cause.

Queries. It's rare, but it happens every now and then that a query from a newbie might find the right executive or agent at the right moment. Maybe the writer knew how to pitch the script but not to write it - and if you're the poor bastard reading for agent or executive, you'll find that out really fast.

I'd also group the Slush Pile in with these, as there may be some smaller agents and managers who will accept anything so long as it comes with a release form. (Whether those managers are at all useful to one's career is another matter.) The Slush Pile is a curious entity. At times it's unclear just where all these scripts came from, or why we're wasting resources on reading them. My own theory is that bad scripts often mate and spawn in there.

Contests. If you're reading for a smaller agency or management company, it's possible that your bosses will either sponsor a screenplay contest, or at least work out a deal where they read the Top 10 scripts from said contest. A lot of these contests, quite frankly, aren't that good. The quality of submission is often as poor as anything you'll find on the slush pile.

Now, you might be thinking "Yeah, but aren't the readers supposed to weed out the bad ones?" It doesn't always work that way. My first internship was with such a company and they had the INTERNS doing the reading. People almost as inexperienced as the writers were making the call as to what made it to the final rounds. You'll also often see internet ads seeking contest readers, and often, their criteria for those readers might be lax. Usually, the less they pay, the worse you can count on the readers to be. I've seen some places advertise that they pay the readers $20-$30 a script for coverage. That's close to slave wages for readers - and so a lot of good readers don't apply. Thus, you're left with people who might not know what to look for. The same thing goes for peer review contests, like the late, lamented Project Greenlight.

Also, when I read for Big Deal Agency, they requested the Top Ten Finalists from a competition that I'd describe as a mid-level contest. I read at least four of those and a lot of them were as weakly written as material I'd seen back in screenwriting classes, and they included a generous helping of Our Favorite Mistakes.

Readers working for script consulting companies, like the ones mentioned here, probably see a lot of scripts that treat script formatting like Ned Beatty in Deliverance. (Too old a reference? Then assume I said, "like Zed treats Ving Rhames in Pulp Fiction." If that's not clear enough, then I can't help you.)

And though it's rare to find major formatting issues in scripts sent out by agents and managers, I've seen it happen. There are a lot of bottom-of-the-barrel agencies out there, and if my experience when reading for a producer who loved horror is anything to go by, they lack a critical eye towards the material and sometimes the formatting of said material. You might not find mechanical formatting errors in these scripts, but you'll find damn near everything else - including long descriptions of cleavage, song selections, and all our other favorite red flags. Sad as it is to say, there are some agents who just don't care.

I hope this answers your question, Josh.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Tuesday Talkback: Landing that first job

Eddie Manna wrote in last week with this question:

I'm about to finally make the move to LA and had a question about finding a job with a writing staff. I've finished a few mediocre screenplays (they have their strengths but I can admit are not exceptional at this point) and am wrapping another which I believe to be by far my best work. All my readers (and I personally) can tell I am getting better with each attempt and I believe that ultimately I can write professional quality work. I also have an MBA and spent the last few years working a Wall Street job.

My question is do you have any advice to aspiring writers seeking entry level staff writing jobs? Of course landing a spec sale is what every screenwriter dreams of, and I will continue to develop my spec ideas along the way, but it seems clear aiming for a more humble entree into the writing world is a more realisitic goal. When I get to LA I will of course attempt to network like crazy via writing/acting classes and seminars but any additional advice would me greatly appreciated.

I'm tempted to go for the easy joke about the only job market less stable than Wall Street these days is the entertainment industry, but I'll let that one slide.

If you're coming out here with no agent, no connections and nothing but a spec, expecting to land a staff writing job on a TV show right away is probably unrealistic. The uber-simplified version of what you need to do is:

1) get your script in the hands of an agent.
2) have that agent fall in love with it.
3) have that agent find showrunners who also fall in love with him
4) impress the hell out of showrunners when you go in for a meeting.

None of those steps are easy, and everyone's story is different. For one such example, check out this part of my interview with Dan Callahan about how he sold his first script. Dan was luckier than most. His one connection at a big agency happened to love his spec and went out with it more or less immediately.

The other route to go is to get hired as a production assistant on a series, work your way up to writer's assistant, and eventually that can lead to writing episodes of the show. I recall that one of David E. Kelly's assistants had written a spec for Boston Legal and gave it to him for notes. He liked it so much that he decided they were going to produce it as an actual episode. Every now and then things like this happen - but remember, most of those lucky writers spent a lot of time "paying their dues" by getting coffee and rolling calls.

Which leads my to my Tuesday Talkback question: for those of you who live or have lived in LA, how did you "play your dues" when you first came out here? Any career strategy advice for Eddie?

Monday, September 21, 2009

More on networking

meansheets commented on one of my posts last week:

interesting moral dilemma...so what's worse? dropping your script on a successful writer you don't know at a party OR "cultivating" a relationship with a successful writer you don't know at a party and then dropping the script on him/her a few months/years down the road after you're "friends"? i think the second option could be even more manipulative than the first, depending on the intent.

I think you're reading a sinister intent in my advice that isn't there. Is it mainpulative to go to a singles bar hoping to meet someone for sex, striking up a conversation with an attractive person, getting to know them, going out on several dates, getting married and so on? Would you say that the marriage is based on a "manipulative" motive?

All I'm saying is that if you're in a social situation and you're presented with an opportunity to get better acquainted with someone who works in the business, take it! But have some social graces when you do it. I don't think anyone is tenacious enough to maintain a false veneer long enough to get to the point where asking a favor like reading a script. If that's really ALL you care about, the person you're attempting to "exploit" will see through this. If you're genuine, don't worry about being seen as manipulative. People can always tell when you're out to use them.

You're never going to get favors from people you don't know, and asking someone to read a script and give you notes can be an imposition. However, just to give an example of networking via blogging, if Carson over at Scriptshadow, or Amanda the Aspiring TV Writer, or Scott over at Go Into The Story were ever to ask me if I'd look at their latest spec and give notes, I'd only be too happy to do it. (Not that I think any of them ever would, and I'm sure that they have plenty of people to read their material.) Why? Because I respect them as fellow bloggers, and from reading their own writing I can tell they'd have some insight into how to make my own scripts better if I were to reciprocate with my specs. Beyond that, they've all been pretty complimentary of the blog and in the cases of Scott and Amanda, even did me a great favor in the early days of this blog by promoting some of my content. They certainly helped me draw new readers to the blog and I've learned a lot from their blogs. .

And these are people I haven't even met! So the next time you're out at karaoke night and find yourself in conversation with an agent's assistant, take advantage of it

Now, a lot of people on the outside are heard to whine about how "it's all nepotism. You have to know somebody to get anywhere in this town." Most of the time, the people you hear using this aren't talented enough to sell a script if they were Steven Spielberg's son and protegee. It's their excuse for why someone hasn't yet recognised the "brilliance" in their latest spec about a killer Scarecrow.

However there is a little bit of truth to this in the sense that people on the inside can be of help to you. They're the first ones to hear about job vacancies at their companies. They can pass on that resume along with a personal recommendation. That friend who's a junior development exec at New Line might hear what the brain trusts over there are looking for in terms of projects and know that you just wrote a spec that fits what they're looking for to a T.

Networking helps build careers. Meeting people can help you in the long run and it's no different than going to a freshman mixer your first week of college and getting to know other people.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Friday Free-for-All: Seinfeld

This Friday's Free-For-All theme is in honor of the new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, premiering this Sunday on HBO. As you may have heard, the entire cast of Seinfeld is reuniting this season as part of a plotline that has Larry David producing a Seinfeld-reunion show. In honor of that, I decided to post some of my favorite Seinfeld moments:

The infamous JFK-parody:

One of my favorite speeches on the series - George recounting his effort to help a beached whale while pretending to be a marine biologist:

The Soup Nazi:

And as a bonus, one of my favorite moments from Curb where Larry and Ben Stiller get into a fight about Larry sitting in the back seat of Ben's car.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Links and other bloggers

I wrote two long posts earlier this week, so today is mostly going to be an odds-and-ends post.

First, Amanda the Aspiring TV Writer was kind enough to answer my question about writing TV pilots. Click on over to her site to see how she responds to my query about if you should write a spec pilot that starts with Episode 1, or do Episode 2 so that it better represents a "typical" entry in your series rather than spending the whole story establishing your premise.

And speaking of queries, regular reader and commenter Kgmadman has been running a funny series in his own blog about sending out fake query letters. The first two he's posted are pretty funny. Wander over there and check them out.

Finally, last week I became aware of the new blog Cine-a-Craze. The writer, Camden Carr, describes himself as "a overpaid and glorified babysitter." He says he "work[s] for a major studio in Hollywood, and my bosses, some of the biggest execs in the industry, are the biggest babies of them all." Thus, the focus of the blog is insider stories revolving around such things as the egos involved in the studio rewrite process and the time he got to stab his boss.

I will say this - at this point I'm still not sure if Mr. Carr really is indeed a real studio exec or just a very creative writer. However, the blog is quite entertaining and probably right up the alley of most of my readers. If nothing else, it's worth a look. I don't know Mr. Carr personally (at least, I don't think I do - one of the perils of both of us writing anonymous blogs) so don't look to me for clues as to who he is and where he works.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Tuesday Talkback: Networking screw-ups and Ron Moore

Yesterday, I chastised overeager writers who jump the gun in pushing their script on someone, while failing to be more strategic in cultivating their relationships before asking such a favor. Today, I'm going to teach by example through an instance where I failed to do just that myself.

Back in school, I had long wanted to be a screenwriter and a director, but hadn't given much thought to TV writing. All of that changed when I - being a fan of Deep Space Nine - came across a bulletin board one of the show's co-executive producers/writers, Ronald D. Moore, frequented. He regularly answered questions submitted by fans, often dealing with the production process and the evolution of storylines and character development. It was my first real in-depth look inside the process of creating a television show. I learned a lot about writing just by reading his posts.

These days, Moore is probably best known for being the executive producer of the new Battlestar Galactica series, which I am currently catching up on via long DVD marathons. (That's my brief plea for no BSG spoilers.)

After Ron left the Trek franchise, he also gave a very interesting five-part interview on his time working on those series. This interview is notable because he talks often of finding the "truth" in writing, and how a writer has to respect his audience. Interestingly, a lot of the criticisms he lobs at Star Trek: Voyager presage creative decisions he would later make in the Battlestar Galactica reboot. You can find the interview here:

Part I Part II Part III Part IV Part V Part VI

I was in college at the time of this interview and roughly a year later, I found myself with the opportunity to create a TV show for a student-run cable network that we were attempting to get off the ground. I immediately latched on the idea of doing a teen-drama type series set on a college campus, and soon went mad with delusions of writing episodes with the same character complexity and compelling stories as on my favorite shows Homicide and Buffy, among others.

This endeavor was a total grass roots effort. There was a dedicated group of students trying to make this work, but the school administration wasn't exactly behind us and none of the media-related departments wanted to get saddled with us either. That meant that all of our work ended up being done on our own time and we were responsible for finding our own equipment - including cameras and editing facilities, and all of this had to be done on our own time. This was no mean feat, as DV was just on the verge of breaking through AND Final Cut Pro was still a relatively new and expensive program that wasn't yet owned by every wannabe filmmaker. Had we been working on this three years later, it would have been twice as easy. At the time, we were shooting on VHS and sneaking into editing labs during late nights and weekends. In one semester, we shot and edited about ten half-hour episodes of our little college drama. Considering the restrictions on our time and the limitations we had, that was pretty impressive.

I say all of this mainly so you can appreciate how unusual this was at the time. This preceded YouTube by at least three years, so we were nowhere near the time where every aspiring filmmaker essentially had his own laptop studio, with easy distribution via video sites like Break.com, YouTube or Funny Or Die. Had I done this three years later, it probably would have been a lot easier, but also would have been much less impressive to anyone "in the biz." However, I'd have made that trade in an instant. I'd have killed for greater access to Final Cut and it would be nice to watch the episodes and not cringe at the shity VHS quality. (Yes, I said VHS. Feel free to shudder.)

As long as I'm on this tangent, I might as well say that while some of my writing in that show was of questionable quality, the experience was invaluable. I learned a lot about staging scenes, shooting coverage efficently and writing tighter dialogue. When you're forced to hear poor dialogue many, many takes in a row and realize that it's not poor acting, but your overwritten verbiage that's causing the problem, you're motivated to overcome your weaknesses.

So feeling proud of myself, I finally got up the nerve to write Ron Moore a letter telling him all about what I was doing in college and how I had learned more about character writing and TV production from him than I had from any professor. (This wasn't smoke - many times that season I found myself drawing inspiration from his writings and interviews.) Eight weeks later I had nearly forgotten all about this letter - until I returned home one summer afternoon to find a message from Ron's assistant on Roswell, where he worked at the time. She said that Ron had been very touched by my letter and asked me to call her back so that he might thank me himself.

Considering I hadn't included my phone number in the letter, I was rather impressed that this message had found its way to me. I assumed that this assistant had spent the morning tracking me down. Thanks to a journal I kept at the time, I have a pretty detailed account of how this went. In all its embarassing glory.

So after I pick my jaw up from the floor, I dial the number and get transferred to Ron. He actually sounded excited to be talking to me! "I wanted to thank you for the very nice letter you sent," he said. I reply with something like "well, I have been a big admirer of your work for a long time."

Then he says to me, "So tell me about this show you're doing. I want to hear all about it." (My mind at this point is screaming "My idol just asked me to tell him about *my show!* This has got to be a dream!")

So I give him a Cliff Notes version of what we're doing, how many eps, and all that wonderful stuff. He sounds genuinely impressed. "Wow, I've never heard of anyone doing anything like that!" he finally says.

Then he says, "Hey, I'd love to see an episode sometime if it wouldn't be too much trouble for you to send a tape." Excitedly, I assure him that there'll be a package arriving at his office soon. (I sent it priority mail on Saturday. I sent him a copy of episodes 5 through 9, with the tape cued to ep 9. In an enclosed letter, I told him that ep 5 is the place to start if he is more interested in following the story, but ep 9 is the one he should look at to get an idea of the level of acting and production values we achieved in the end, and what we hope to maintain next season.)

All told, we chat for about 15-20 minutes. As the phone call concludes, he tells me "Stay in touch."

For an embarrassing insight into my naivete, take a look at this excerpt from an email I sent to my fellow writers about this phone call:

How cool is this? A Hollywood producer has a copy of our show! Now, the likelihood is that he'll probably watch it and maybe be entertained. But imagine if he's impressed...either by the acting or the writing or the directing. What if he shows it to other Hollywood types and they like something in it? Sure, it's unlikely, but this could be how we get our foot in the door in LA. Think about that for a few minutes.

Yeah, to use the analogy I coined yesterday, I totally thought I was gonna get to fuck the bar hottie 30 minutes after meeting her.

I should also mention that Ron's very friendly assistant had also sent me an email that same day, and I spoke to her again after talking to Ron so that I could get a more efficient mailing address, sending the tape directly to their production offices on the lot as opposed to the general network address. And this, dear readers is where in retrospect, I totally dropped the ball.

A few weeks go by. No word from Ron. But I figure he's a busy guy and he probably hasn't had time to watch the tape yet. After about three months, I'm starting to wonder if he saw it and he didn't like it. Or maybe I dropped the ball by not following up with him sooner. What if he's completely forgotten me? I didn't want to be the kind of pest who bugged him a week after sending it, but he did say to "stay in touch." Eventually, I start trying to figure out a non-desperate-sounding pretense for contacting him again.

Fortune smiles upon me when a throwaway mention in an early episode that season seems like it could have been a shout-out to my show. I decide to send him another letter. Within a week, I have my answer, an email from his assistant:

"I just wanted to write and let you know that we received your letter, and the tape you sent earlier of your campus television show. Ron has been unable to view the tape, at this point... (due to the CRAZY hectic producing schedule I keep him on-- balancing his time between writing, story-developing, and post-production.) As you know with making a television show, it can be quite busy!

Ron extends his best wishes to you in your television-writing ventures.
Take care."

So... the brush-off. But hey, I still think that was pretty cool of Ron to track me down in the first place and chat with me on the phone. I might not have gotten everything I hoped out of it, but it gave me a pretty cool story and left me secure in the belief that Ron Moore was a pretty cool guy. Anyway, after that last email, I took the hint and decided to leave with some of my dignity intact. Now class, can anyone tell me what I did wrong, and how I overlooked another opportunity that was right under my nose?

That's right - the assistant. I totally overlooked the opportunity to cultivate some kind of relationship there. Here's a secret about the industry - while everyone naturally resents being used, most people are only too happy to lend other up-and-comers the benefit of their experience. To put it another way - there are few people who don't enjoy talking about themselves. Use that to your advantage. If you ask the right questions, you might learn something.

So what I should have done is sent that tape, then emailed the assistant to not only thank her for making that contact possible, but also to ask her for advice. I could have said that I was considering moving out to LA in a little over a year, just after graduation, and asked if she had any advice about making that move. I could have asked about what areas are good areas to live in, how much an apartment costs, how hard it is to find a job, how she got hooked up with her job, when's the best time to move to LA, and so on.

There are probably about a hundred different things I could have asked this assistant that not only would have made her feel like an expert, but would have benefited me in the long run. As a bonus, it would have maintained that relationship. Who knows? Maybe when I moved out to LA, I could have used that to meet with her for lunch, perhaps finding a way to approach Ron eventually. Or she might have been able to submit my resume for any open PA positions on the show.

The point is, I overlooked an opportunity to ingrain myself with someone who might have been lower in the ranks than I wanted, but who still could have taught me a lot. Today's writer's assistants are tomorrow's writers - and had I thought of it like that, I'd have realized it might not be a bad idea to make friends with someone who was climbing the same ranks I wanted to.

So this leads me to my first official "Tuesday Talkback." Tell me your tails of networking successes and failures. Do any of you have stories of shame from your efforts to climb the ladder or get someone to read your script?

And if you see Ron Moore, tell him I finally get it. Tell his assistant too, for that matter.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Why he shouldn't HAVE to read your F*ing Screenplay!

I really hadn't planned on writing a response to the Josh Olson screed "I Will Not Read Your Fucking Screenplay." Considering that within a few hours of it being posted it was already being discussed on several other screenwriting sites that I read AND that it got forwarded to me via email at least twice by personal friends, I figured I would have nothing new to add to any discussion. Besides - I agreed with a helluva lot of what Josh said.

So when I saw the venom being flung at him over at Deadline Hollywood. I was a little surprised. Outside of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Keith Olberman, I have rarely seen anyone so willfully miss the point of something so that they could instead bitch about a completely different issue than the one being discussed. There are a lot of commenters over at DH agreeing with Josh, but a fair number of them are also calling him a "dick" and flinging variations of "Where would YOU be, Josh, if someone hadn't once read YOUR script?!"

Read Josh's article again, people. Pay attention to a few key phrases like, "I was recently cornered by a young man of my barest acquaintance. I doubt we've exchanged a hundred words. But he's dating someone I know, and he cornered me in the right place at the right time, and asked me to read a two-page synopsis for a script he'd been working on for the last year."

And I fully agree with what works out as his central thesis: "You are not owed a read from a professional, even if you think you have an in, and even if you think it's not a huge imposition. It's not your choice to make. This needs to be clear--when you ask a professional for their take on your material, you're not just asking them to take an hour or two out of their life, you're asking them to give you--gratis--the acquired knowledge, insight, and skill of years of work. It is no different than asking your friend the house painter to paint your living room during his off hours."

I'd argue that Scott's house painter analogy isn't entirely applicable to this situation. It's like meeting someone at a party, learning they're a house painter and asking them to come by and touch up some rough spots in your living room for free. For a close friend, maybe that's not an imposition. To ask that of someone you just met - that takes BALLS.

A lot of people invoke "networking" as a defense and say that Josh clearly had to get someone to read his script in order to get where he is. Thus, he's a hypocrite for not accepting every script handed to him in the name of paying it forward. There is an etiquette to asking a favor from someone - both in this business and in the real world. You EARN favors, you're not given them.

Think of it like this. You're at a bar and amazingly, the hottest girl in the place ends up next to you. Through an even bigger miracle, you somehow find yourself in an engaging conversation with her. She's paying attention to you and even laughing at your jokes. You can't believe your good fortune - this sort of thing never happens. So what do you do? Before you've even finished your second beer, you're asking her to go back to your place and fuck. You figure "I might never get this chance again so I might as well go for broke." Then, when she reacts badly to that and starts to give you the brush-off, you decide to take a shot at stealing first and second base because odds are you won't engage a girl this stunning again.

THAT, in essence, is essentially what you are doing when you push your script on a writer to whom you have only the barest connection. Would the hottest girl at the bar fuck you within ten minutes of meeting you? No? Well then why would Steven Spielberg want to read your script after having known you for five minutes? You have seduce the bar hottie, i.e. Steven Spielberg. Cultivate a relationship, get to know them, build up some trust and a repor.

No one likes to feel like they're being used - like you see them as a mere hurdle to leap in your quest to get to the next level. I have plenty of friends who have connections with people more successful and more famous than myself. And I won't lie, when I pass those friends the latest draft of a script, it would be great if they'd come back and say, "Do you mind if I give this to Mr. Big Shot? It's just what he's looking for and I know he'll have his agent working day and night to sell this for a cool $2 million." But I'm also a realist. I know that these people are all trying to build their own careers and that they're not going to be inclined to burn a favor that might be better spent on them. I'm sure that if they thought the writing was really awesome, it wouldn't be an imposition for them to pass it up, as discovering good material might also increase their own esteem in the eyes of their colleagues.

The thing is - I ask these people for their opinions not because I see it as a rest stop on the highway to success, but because I genuinely value their insight. I have a lot of respect for every person I've ever dropped a script on. It's amazing the things that they'll find in my own writing, or the left-field suggestions that they'll come up with that inevitably improve the script.

So when you seem to get that professional "in" don't be so overeager to cash in a favor you haven't earned. Know how to build relationships that might serve you better in the long run. Several years ago, I had such an opportunity placed before me and in retrospect, I could have played my cards a lot better.

But we'll talk about that tomorrow, and we'll kick off a new segment I call: Tuesday Talkback.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Friday Free-for-All: Captains of the Enterprise

I'm introducing a new weekly segment called "Friday Free-For-All," which is mainly meant to be a treat for all of you who check my page daily even though I don't post new content every day. As the title implies, it'll be whatever I feel like posting - the only rule is that I find it either entertaining or informative.

As this week was the 43rd Anniversary of STAR TREK, I thought I'd kick things off with a few Trek Captains stretching themselves.

Warning: You will never look at Captain Picard the same way again!

And another gem from "Extras"

And just so I don't get emails about Shatner's singing career, enjoy the following:

The one that started it all:

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Have you ever paid for it? (Coverage, that is)

Jeff writes in with a question:

In his book, "Breakfast with Sharks," Michael Lent suggests getting coverage for your spec script from on of the big agencies by simply calling them up, and asking for a list of freelance readers while posing as a producer. So I did this. It didn't work. One agency said to email their story department while the rest simply said they don't give out this information. I emailed the story department and offered $75 for coverage of my script. Any thoughts on this?

Coincidentally, I recently read that book and found myself wondering if that scheme would work. I guess they're wise to that trick. I also know there are people who think it's a big scam to pay for coverage of any kind. One of the first executives I read for once gave me the advice to "Never pay anyone to read your script." Now, I'm pretty sure he meant to apply that to unscrupulous agents and managers who charge a "reading fee." That usually IS a scam.

However, there are perfectly sane reasons for paying someone to read your script, and I assume you want coverage on your spec so you can get a sense of how an industry reader would react to the material. Judging by the number of emails I get each week asking me if I offer such a service, there are a lot of aspiring writers out there who want to know what an "insider" would make of their script, as well as get any suggestions for improvement from someone in a position to pass scripts on to the next level. That makes a lot of sense to me.

For me personally, the instances where I would pay for coverage are rare, owing largely to the fact that I live in Los Angeles and there is no shortage of close friends I can ask to read my script who are either writers or work in the industry. The last spec I wrote, I vetted through about 15 people who I trusted and it didn't cost me a dime. I got a lot of useful feedback, as well as some notes I just decided I was going to ignore. Now, obviously if you live in Iowa and don't know any other screenwriters or anyone who's ever read a screenplay, then you might benefit from the services of a professional reader.

So my advice would be to be selective in choosing your reader. Check out screenwriting boards to get recommendations for readers. As with any business, I'm sure every reader and company will have some good feedback and some bad feedback. Check out their websites, decide if their prices are fair, investigate their connections and see if you can find any testimonials from previous clients. Some of the better services have very insightful and knowledgeable readers, while others might pay the readers pennies, which probably won't inspire them to read your script too carefully. So if you're going to buy coverage based solely on what's cheapest, you'll probably get what you pay for.

I put the call out on Twitter yesterday to see if anyone had purchased these services before and got a few responses. Christina emailed me with an endorcement of Scott The Reader:

"[Scott] charges $60 and will give me notes sometimes in 24 hours. He's good - his notes, years later, end up being on the right track even if i can't see it when I first get them back. What I like most about him is utter professionalism. He never dips into arrogance or snarkiness the way some readers can. (Like myself!) He just tells you what he sees with a rational, level-headed voice. He does a lot of production company coverage, I think.

I don't know him personally, but some of my LA friends know him as a real person and report he's a nice guy. I kinda like not knowing him. That way he's not biased by my sunny, outgoing personality.
(That was a joke, btw. I am outgoing but cynical.)

I've paid $200 for another lady - okay, but not so much better than the $60 guy.

I applied for Film Independent's screenwriting lab year. The fee was $75. I didn't realize I'd get exhaustive coverage back - totally worth the application fee.

Gerry wrote in to say:

"I've used Script Shark twice, once with their reaction pack coverage which has three (or four or five) readers give notes on the same draft of the script. It's interesting to see the different takes on the script. There was a fair amount of consensus on the strong points in my writing, and some dissension on the weak ones. A few readers were a little nitpickier than the others, but overall the points they made were good ones. If something got pointed out by more than one of them, I really gave that part of the script a second look and more often than not, their comments helped me figure a way to fix it.

Their readers are anonymous, but you can request specific ones and read their bios on their website. It says they make sure their readers have read for at least two major companies before working for them, so at least you know you're not getting someone right off the bus. For what it's worth, I had good experiences with DS, RD, AM, and RB. A few were a little sharper than others, but I didn't feel ripped off at all."

It's worth pointing out that Script Shark is a little more expensive than Scott the Reader, starting at $155 for standard coverage. It's also worth pointing out that at least one Shark reader (AH) hangs out over on the Done Deal Pro message boards and has gotten a lot of positive feedback from readers there. His site is The Screenplay Mechanic, and his rates start at $75 for standard coverage. I've never used him, but his customers seem to be satisfied, if the Done Deal feedback is anything to go on.

[UPDATE - I am redacting comments I made endorsing a service and an individual whom I would no longer support.  I don't like "revising" the post like this, but I'm not comfortable with someone coming across the archives for the first time and submitting to a service that no longer meets my standards.]

If I was to pay for coverage, those four places would probably be where I would start. In my web searching for reviews, I've come across a strong number of good reviews vs. any bad reviews. And in the grand scheme of things, the prices don't seem that unreasonable.

Anyone out there got any glowing endorsements or horror stories to add to the mix? And are you guys really that interested in paying for notes from me?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Cliches I'm Tired of Seeing - Part Five - Racing to the airport...

There are some tropes that are so overused that it's pretty much impossible to use them effectively unless they are intended ironically. Recently, I read a script that used one of these and immediately tripped my "HACK ALERT." In the script, the central couple had experienced rocky times, and when the last straw came, the woman decided to pursue a job opportunity in Paris, which naturally meant she was flying out that very night.

I think you can guess where this is going - her ex-boyfriend, having realized the error of his ways is forced to race to the airport at the eleventh hour. With time ticking away as the woman is about to get on the plane he has to push his way past security, buy a ticket, and then race to the gate and deliver a big speech, winning her back.


For me, this particular gimmick passed its expiration date immediately after Not Another Teen Movie so brilliantly made fun of this sort of scene. Off the top of my head, I can't come up with where I saw this sort of scene first, but I know variations of it have been used in Love, Actually, Dawson's Creek, Three Men & a Baby.... where else? (Readers, that's your cue to comment below.) Unless the point of the scene is to make a joke of how cliched the plot twist is, steer clear of this.

And if you MUST do this, for the love of William Goldman, please don't make Paris the destination! That's about as unoriginal as you can get.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Psych 101 with scripts

I'm cheating a bit here, but there was a comment that came up in the discussion of the rape scene in The Last House on the Left. I responded there, but realized that given the age of the post, it's likely to go unnoticed.

Mr. Main Event asks:

I wonder if you, Bitter, have ever encountered a script where you seriously questioned the mental capacity of the writer? Have you ever read a script and thought, "this could be the next Eric Red" (http://www.hollywoodinterrupted.com/archives/seeing_red.phtml). I recently had an experience like that reading a script about (I'm not sure what the rules are on here, so I won't say the name) a hospital for the criminally insane where the power goes out and the inmates brutalize the staff in the most grotesque ways possible. I checked the address on the cover page and was relieved to see that the writer didn't live anywhere near me . . .

Oh yes, there have been several scripts where I seriously questioned the mental capacity of the writer. One in particular sticks in my mind and it was one of the most vile, reprehensible pieces of writing I had ever been subjected to. There are plenty of times I'm reading a disturbing scene and think "This guy has issues," but this is one of the few times I legitimately felt like I was getting a glimpse into the psyche of a truly sick individual.

And when we readers get something that loathsome, do you think we Google the writer and the script? You bet your ass we do!

Imagine my shock when this script - which makes the collective works of Eli Roth look like Care Bears: The Movie and was full of so much misogyny that it made female circumcision look like a bikini wax by comparison - was a Nicholl Fellowship Quarterfinalist!

This why when someone counters a bad review of mine by saying their script was a finalist in a contest, I don't give a shit. There's a reason that few Nicholls-winning scripts have actually been produced.Now maybe the year in question happened to be a pretty weak year for Nicholls submissions... but still, this was such utter sleaze that the script deserved to be burned after the first read and the ashes returned to the writer as a warning not to put pen to paper ever again.

Am I being too harsh?

(Yeah, it might be bad form to recycle comments as a new post, but I'm sure most of you have a half day, so consider this a half-post.)

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Glee pilot tonight at 9pm on FOX

Just a public service announcement to any of you who have TVs and still watch network TV. Tonight FOX is rerunning the pilot episode of GLEE. I've seen the first two episodes and it already shows signs of being one of the best new shows of the fall and one of the most fun shows on TV, period. And if you've already seen the pilot, this is supposed to be an extended director's cut version

It also has all the earmarks of a high-quality show that will be canceled because of low viewership. Tune in now. Otherwise you have no one to blame when the CW revives "Models, Inc." next season.

And if you don't smile and tap your feet during their rendition of "Don't Stop Believin'" you clearly have no soul.