Monday, January 31, 2011

The Chad, Matt & Rob Interview: Part I - Breaking out on the web

There’s been a lot of talk about how the web is the new frontier for filmmakers. It could be not only the future of distribution, but also, a great way for developing talent to be noticed. Many aspiring talents have attempted this to varying degrees success, but likely many aspiring actors and filmmakers would envy comedy group “Chad, Matt & Rob.”

Performers Chad Villella, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, and Rob Polonsky have been making comedy shorts together since 2007, but really made their mark on the web in a big way in March 2008 with their viral hit “Roommate Alien Prank Goes Bad.” To date, the video has gotten a stunning 21 million views on YouTube. It was featured on Attack of the Show and was a selection at the 2008 San Diego Comic-Con International Film Festival.

Many of their other videos have view counts in the high hundreds of thousands, giving their entire portfolio over 44 million views on YouTube, with over 100,000 dedicated subscribers

Recent projects have seen the trio joined by co-director Tyler Gillett (Bettinelli-Olpin is the other co-director) and Justin Martinez, who serves as camera operator and the visual effects wizard.

On the eve of the release of their latest Interactive Adventure “The Treasure Hunt,” Chad, Matt, Rob and Tyler sat down with the Bitter Script Reader about their origins, their writing and production process, and how you could follow in their footsteps.

TBSR: So let’s dive right in – how did you three guys get together and decide you were gonna make stuff for the internet?

Rob: I met Chad at Groundings and Chad knew Matt from their acting class—

Matt: A place called “Actor’s Play Pen.”

Rob: And then there was the matter of saying “Hey, let’s do something and not talk about [doing] something so we did it.

TBSR: And that was “Good Roommates?”

Chad: We started with one before that called “A Terrible Place” that was---

Rob: Awful. It was a terrible video.

Chad: It was a terrible video!

Matt: We released it. It was actually on the front page of Funny or Die for a while.

Chad: Yeah, had about 4000 views on Funny or Die and were like [excited scream].

Tyler: Was it like a 13% or something?

Matt: It was kind of exciting for, like, a minute because that was three and a half years ago, so everything wasn’t a million views off the bat for anybody so it was like “4000 views?! That’s awesome! And then after a week we were like that [short] just sucks!”

Chad: “Let’s take it down.”

Tyler: I still haven’t seen this. I’ve requested to see this multiple times.

Rob: It’s the wrong aspect ratio—

Matt: I think it’s just bad. Has nothing to do with the aspect ratio.

Rob: If anything it was a good learning experience.

Matt: Then we made “Good Roommates” right after that.

TBSR: And was that one scripted or was that one you kind of had just the concept down and ran with it in front of the camera?

Matt: That was probably the most scripted [of our shorts] until “The Teleporter.”

(Laughs all around… for those not in the know, “The Teleporter” was the most recently shot – but not the most recently-released – project.)

TBSR: Do you prefer working that way? Starting with the broad idea and letting the dialogue come out of improvisation, letting the characters develop from your natural interaction?

Tyler: I would say that that has probably changed. The Birthday Party” was a different story because the scenes weren’t that narratively complex. We could get away with that improvised style a little more. With “The Treasure Hunt” there’s much more of a high-concept story being told and much more of an arc and the edit has kinda been challenging. Because of the lack of scripting that we did, the edit has been more of a challenge. We actually had to take a step back and look at what the footage was telling us and not what we wanted the story to be. And it’s great that the “homegrown” feel is in the footage, but I’d never work like this again. This has been more of a lesson in editing than anything else. We could edit any project after cutting “The Treasure Hunt.”

TBSR: But before that, was the concept solid when you start, or do you often come to set and are still changing it around?

Matt: Like now?

TBSR: Like in the early days. Let’s go back to the time of “Good Roommates.”

Rob: Lots of emails, because we all had day jobs. So it’d be a constant email chain and from there we’d beat out an outline of what we saw doing

Matt: It’s funny, because actually I think “Good Roommates” was scripted, and then the next one that had a script was “Prison Break” because Tyler [Tuione, who plays a prison inmate] wanted one. So basically when we have an [outside] actor in it, it’s like “Where’s the script?” and we write a script for them.

Chad: Yeah, just for that part.

Matt: Up until “Treasure Hunt.” We wrote a script for Alfonso [Arau, who plays the villain] ---

Tyler: Which was super-essential. That’s why he got involved.

Matt: And we only scripted his scenes. And [the rest] was little slugs [that told the rest of the story.] Then as soon as we got to editing, we were like “Fucking A, we’re scripting everything from now on.” So for “The Teleporter,” we wrote the entire script. It was so much easier to shoot and to edit.

TBSR: And it only took three years to get there!

Rob: We learned!

TBSR: Did not having a script help you guys develop the characters on the early ones, because you weren’t locked into something and were able to discover the characters in the moment?

Tyler: I think that’s actually a great take on that.

Rob: And action! Instead of [the characters] just talking, we’re a big believer in doing, like starting with action.

Tyler: It activates things in a new way when it’s not just a staged, blocked situation. I think there’s an natural interpretation of how to move. It also shoots fast. It shoots - with the two cameras we’ve been using since “The Birthday Party” – really quick. We know right away when we’ve covered everything comedically. The edits are harder, but we shoot pretty fast.

TBSR: Because you guys must come in with a lot of footage.

Tyler: Tons and tons of footage.

Matt: And as far as the characters go, in terms of long-term not having scripts and stuff, if you watch our stuff from way back, you’ll see our characters forming. Like it wasn’t always the “Rob” character, the “Chad” character, the “Matt” character.

TBSR: At the time you started doing these shorts, it seemed like you were doing them ever two months or so---

Matt: About one every month and a half.

TBSR: And what was your goal then? Just to get something out on the internet? What was your game plan?

Matt & Rob: No idea! (all laugh)

Chad: The way we approach it – that’s why my character’s a little different from everyone – is that I wanted to use [the shorts] in a demo reel instead of having an actor’s demo reel… which I’ve never done! (all laugh)

Tyler: You guys were releasing that stuff before YouTube was even monotized. So I don’t think anybody but the people who worked at YouTube had any sense of what the future of that [medium] was gonna be. You guys were creating viral content before anyone was considering signing a web creator to a TV or movie deal. This was years before those dialogues.

TBSR: So this was not your bid to “We’re gonna put this out here, this is gonna get us discovered and this is gonna get us meetings?”

Matt: And I think part of it was we were at the point – I know Chad and I were – of “this could be our reel,” which is na├»ve in hindsight, but quickly that fell off. I’ve never made a reel.

TBSR: And at what point was it clear that this was getting you a solid following outside your circle of friends?

Rob: The Alien video [“Chad Hates Aliens” aka “Roommate Alien Prank Goes Bad.”]

Matt: For me it was “Good Roommates.” It got featured on MySpace, got like 10,000 views…

Rob: “Yeah! This is the best day ever! I’m famous!”

Chad: The first three or four videos were just on MySpace [at the time.]

Rob: We didn’t put anything on YouTube until after the Alien video got its first million hits on Break.com.

TBSR: And I do want to talk about “Chad Hates Aliens.” How long did that take you guys to shoot?

Matt: Two hours.

TBSR: And how long to come up with the idea?

Matt: Two days.

Rob: And it changed. It was originally something really stupid, like we were going to wake Chad up, “Hey Chad, we’re going to DisneyLand,” and then he gets out of bed and we hit him.

Matt: I don’t even remember that. But it was really quick. We didn’t really know what it was when we were shooting it. [We called our friend Jon Peele at the last moment] to hold the camera.

Chad: And Jessica did the blood make-up and held the spotlight out the window [to simulate the alien ship.]

Rob: And Jake held the alien.

Matt: That is… if it isn’t real.

Tyler: The cat’s out of the bag!

TBSR: So you put this up on Break.com and it took off extremely quickly.

Rob: It was featured on the front page and it got like a million views in one day.

TBSR: How does something end up on the front page of Break? Is there like a metric of how many views you get…?

Matt: No idea.

Rob: I think someone who works at Break monitors incoming videos and they saw “oh this is good,” and then they put it up on the front page.

Tyler: And that was a lot easier for people to do back then. There was less content to filter. Now they have departments focused on finding the next viral thing.

Rob: Now there’s what, 60 hours every minute being uploaded?

TBSR: And Break is where you picked up the bulk of your audience. And I remember it “Roommate Alien Prank Goes Bad” being covered on Attack of the Show within a few days of it being posted. What kind of reaction were you getting from it?

Rob: [Mostly] “Is that alien real?” emails. We’d get like 30 a day and still do.

Matt: Yeah, we still get ten [of those] a day.

TBSR: Is that the appeal of this one, that it looks like it could be real, and everyone passes it along because of that?

Tyler: I think that’s absolutely it. It’s the blend of comedy and horror too.

TBSR: And it’s very short. It’s like two and a half minutes.

Matt: It fits the internet window and the two emails we get more than anything ever are: “Oh, that’s so funny when they hit him in the head with the ironing board” and “Oh my god, is that real?” So it’s exactly that, people who think it’s funny that Chad gets hit in the face, or that it’s scary.

Tyler: It’s also so self-contained that the narrative doesn’t need to exist outside of what is shown. It’s so digestible, it’s like this little nugget of fun. That’s what viral videos were – these little self-contained pieces of entertainment that were between three and four minutes long.

Matt: As far as that video changing anything, I don’t think it did---

Chad: It did a little bit. Because we did get the one meeting with UTA, who suggested we come up with a webseries.

Matt: I think what changed for us then was we were like, “Let’s stop doing sketchy stuff and let’s start doing stories.” For us, once we did “Cops and Robbers” and “Danger Zone” they felt more like little stories, not so much like sketch comedy stuff. Which is where we’ve evolved. From “Birthday Party” and “Treasure Hunt” we’ve been like, push the story, push the story, push the story.”

Rob: That’s what we want to do. We want to tell a good story. We want to develop these awesome characters. We don’t want to do sketch comedy.

Tyler: And part of what sketch comedy is, is people playing different characters and what’s become great about this brand is that you guys are the characters and we now follow “Chad,” “Matt,” and “Rob” the characters through all these different adventures. So it feels like a series of stories.

TBSR: Like kind of a modern day Three Stooges in a way.

Tyler: Sure.

TBSR: Because one week the Stooges might be cops, another week they might be orderlies, but the characterizations would be consistent.

Matt: And that’s one thing we’ve started sticking with now.

Tyler: And how those characters specifically service the story. Who Matt is and what Matt does is absolutely essential for the scene going in this direction.

Matt: And that might be going against Rob’s character [who has a different agenda.]

Tyler: Rob is the instigator who starts shit. Rob is the plot.

TBSR: He always seems to be the catalyst. Have you broken it down into ID, EGO and SUPEREGO? because Rob is definitely ID.

(all laugh)



Part II - The Interactive Adventures
Part III - Producing web shorts

Friday, January 28, 2011

Friday Free-For-All - Chad, Matt & Rob's "The Treasure Hunt"

My friends Chad, Matt & Rob have launched their latest interactive adventure, "The Treasure Hunt" and it's their best yet. Consider this homework for next week, as I'll be running a multi-part interview with them about their portfolio, how one develops short ideas for the internet, and how you too can produce short new media content and attract a following.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Black Swan - Script vs. the film - Part IV: The Natalie Portman/Mila Kunis sex scene

Part I: Lily
Part II: Nina
Part III: Beth

Now let's get to what Natalie Portman herself admitted might have been the marketing masterstroke of Black Swan - the scene where Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis have sex.

(Oops! Surely I meant "Where Nina and Lily have sex." I wouldn't have made a typo like that purely for the purpose of attempting to goose the Google hits to my site. Trust me.)

I'll be honest, this is one of those scenes where the writing confused the hell out of me on a first read. I just couldn't see how they were going to commit this to film and not have it come out like a chaotic mess.

The scene starts off with the two of them pawing each other and Lily throwing Nina onto the bed and straddling her. Lily takes off her top and kisses Nina and when Nina opens her eyes "Lily now looks identical. Her DOUBLE. (She goes in and out of looking like her double and like Lily as they continue to make love.)"

Then we're told "Nina flips Lily over, becomes the dominant one (though who is whom becomes very confused.)" After a few agressive moves, there's a brief moment where Nina is alone in bed, masturbating. Then suddenly, Lily is back. Nina climaxes and then two kiss lying side by side, "almost like Nina is kissing a mirror" the script says.

Recall what I said on Monday about Lily's entrance into the film. If you start with the earlier indicators that Lily might be just an aspect of Nina, and then add in the fact that Lily not only turns into Nina in this scene, but then briefly disappears as we see that Nina is merely gratifying herself, you likely draw some conclusions about this scene. Namely, that Lily isn't real at all.

It plays out slightly more simply in the finished film. Nina and Lily go back to the bedroom, but the film restrains itself to just one moment where Lily looks exactly like Nina. I think that's a better shock/scare than if they were constantly switching back and forth, which could be a little too visually busy. Also, removing the jump cut of Nina alone in bed was also likely a wise move. With so much going on in that sequence already, the audience might have trouble processing it, even if it was shot in a way that eased the transition.

The way it plays on screen now, we're left with the impression that Nina might be hallucinating from the drugs that Lily gave her earlier. The brief instant where Lily looks like Nina could just be an expression of her fear that Lily will replace her. It's not until later that it's suggested that the entire sex scene itself was an hallucination, and that feels like better pacing for the clues that Nina isn't all there.

Interestingly the masturbation scene that's in the film isn't in this draft. I have my own theories about why they made it a sequence on its own, but I'd like to see what you guys think. Did you think that scene was gratuitous? Did you think the girl/girl sex scene was gratuitous?

My own summation of the differences between this draft of the script and the finished film would be: "Minor changes, major impact."

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Black Swan - Script vs. the film - Part III: Beth

Part I: Lily
Part II: Nina

The character of Beth, played by Winona Ryder, is a minor but pivotal character in the film. She's the previous Swan Queen, and as we learn, the now-former paramour of the sleazy director. In the film, she's portrayed as bitter and frequently drunk after being replaced as the star of the ballet.

In the film, there's a sequence where the director presents Nina to the ballet's patrons, while attempting to make it appear that Beth is retiring gracefully. During this gathering, a drunken Beth confronts Nina outside, flat-out accusing her of sleeping with the director to get the part. (As we've already discussed, Nina doesn't sleep with the director to get the part, but she does sleep with him after getting it. She loses a little of the high ground there.) It's after this heated scene that Nina and the director go back to his place and he starts asking her about her sex life. (He claims it's important for the role.) The next morning, Nina is with the other dancers when the company gets the news that Beth was struck by a car and is hospitalized. The director thinks she did it on purpose.

In the script, the same plot points occur, but they are arranged differently. After a few scenes that make it clear that Beth's "retirement" is not by choice, Nina and the others get word of Beth's accident. The gala for the patrons is just a few scenes after that, and for the most part, it serves the same purpose as the scene in the film.

But the scene is much more engaging in the movie. Putting Beth in that scene adds an additional level of tension. Will she make a scene? Will she confront Nina and the director in public? Also, in the film, Nina is clearly very nervous at the gala. If an aggressive Beth comes after her there, will she be too fragile to keep it together. The confrontation itself also brings back the issue of what a sleaze the director is when it comes to his leading ladies, a fact that will become relevant in the very next scene.

Most of all, since we see just how distraught Beth is that night, it lends greater credence to the theory that she stepped into traffic on purpose. In the script, Beth's accident comes completely without warning, while the movie gets us thinking that this won't end well for Beth certainly by the time we see her come apart at the gala.

Another detail that might be of interest is that the creepy hospital scene where Beth appears to stab herself isn't in this draft of the script either. I don't think it affects the plot much one way or another - certainly not as much as the previous change - but it does make for a haunting image. In that respect, it's probably a change for the better.

From this, we can learn that even scenes that seem to be working fine can be improved, and how small changes can give them greater impact without making sweeping changes in the story.

Part IV: The Natalie Portman/Mila Kunis Sex Scene

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Black Swan - Script vs. the film - Part II: Nina

Part I: Lily

Continuing with our look at the differences between the June 2009 draft of Black Swan and the completed feature film, let's take a look at how Nina herself is handled differently.

One of the earliest differences concerns Nina's audition. I've already mentioned how in the feature, Lily interrupts Nina's audition for the Swan Queen part, causing Nina to stumble. In the script, Lily hasn't shown up then, and the audition ends with the director expressing frustration that she's not passionate enough.

In the script, she goes home and dances in her room until she completes the difficult coda, eventually beaming with satisfaction when she nails it. The next morning, she dolls herself up and reports her accomplishment to the director. He's unimpressed and then forces a kiss on her. It's her aggressive reaction to that which convinces him she's got what it takes to be the Swan Queen.

If you've seen the film, you'll know that all of that is pretty much how it plays out on-screen - with one crucial difference. In the movie, Nina doesn't complete the coda, but lies that she did. Again, I think this is a more interesting character choice. It's an even better example of how fragile and desperate she is for the part - it's the first sign of just how she'll sell out her integrity to get the part. In the script, she's coming from the perspective that she earned it and is capable of it. In the movie, she's more like a student begging their teacher to change their B to an A because they have to have an A! It gives Nina an interesting flaw.

Another change: In the script, Nina sleeps with the director after she gets the part. It happens on p. 41 at the climax of a rehearsal. In the movie, it's VERY strongly suggested that Nina is a virgin, and that she lies at one point when the director asks about the men she's slept with. The scene in the film where the director asks her if she's had sex is not in the script. There also isn't a scene when he gives her an assignment to go home and touch herself.

Adding those scenes to the film, and removing the consummation scene casts the Nina/Director relationship in a different light. It makes him creepier for going after a girl who's somewhat sexually naive. Continuing that, playing up her virginity seems more in line with how her Odette (White Swan) is impeccable, but she struggles with her Black Swan.

In some ways, it's a small change to imply that Nina is a virgin, but it's one that adds a completely different subtext to any moments involving sexuality. Comment below: what's your take - good change or bad change?

Part III: Beth
Part IV: The Natalie Portman/Mila Kunis Sex Scene

Monday, January 24, 2011

Black Swan - Script vs. the film - Part I: Lily

Oscar nominations are coming out later this week, and as it happens I long ago had to read a draft of Black Swan. It was about a year-and-a-half between reading the script and getting to see the finished film, and though I thought there were interesting aspects to the script, there were other elements that I wasn't convinced would work on screen. After seeing the movie, I was struck by how certain details translated to the screen, and how even small changes had a big impact on the meaning of the film.

The draft I read is credited only to Mark Heyman and it's dated June 2009. The final screen credits are: "story by Andres Heins, screenplay by Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin." That's per IMDB, but I'm pretty sure Heyman was listed second on-screen, which suggests the first draft was written by Heinz (which the "story by" credit also supports), with Heyman rewriting him, and McLaughlin rewriting Heyman.

(Don't email me asking for it. For one thing, it's a hard copy and not a PDF that I'm in possession of, and secondly, I don't need the heat that comes with openly trading scripts. Don't link to any script PDFs in the comments either, please.)

How a character is introduced can have a major impact on how they are received, but when a character is introduced can also be of crucial import. If you've seen the film, you'll know that dancer Nina (Natalie Portman) meets her rival Lily (Mila Kunis) very early in the film, probably in the first ten minutes. Lily is "the new girl" and she makes a memorable appearance by coming to dance class late, disrupting Nina's audition for the Black Swan.

But that's not how she turns up in Heyman's draft. There, she doesn't arrive until p. 33 - arriving after Nina got the role of the Swan Queen. There she turns up in mid-rehearsal, and Nina is momentarily taken aback because - as the description notes - "she looks EXACTLY like Nina." Then moments later, it's noted "she no longer looks exactly like Nina" but then Nina herself remarks, "She looks a lot like me."

There's a couple of points I want to make here. The first is that the script is very heavy-handed with the resemblance between the two. There are several scenes where the reader is shown again and again that they look exactly alike. Part of this is that the script is describing something that will be more elegantly seen than read, but it also feels like there was an attempt in the final film to simplify the doubling moments.

Clearly, we can understand why the script would play up that subtext. After all, this is about a dancer who has to play essentially two roles in Swan Lake, so the duality theme is already an organic part of the story. The problem sets in when the script doesn't know when to quit. It bludgeons the reader with the symbolism to such an extent that I recall wondering if the same actress was going to play both roles. After all, the writing makes the distinction only between "looks exactly like Nina" and "looks a lot like Nina" so it seemed like they could have gone with casting Portman in both parts and merely giving her a slightly edgier look for Lily - except when she had to be EXACTLY the same as Nina.

Why did I think Portman might play both parts? Because this draft has moments that strongly imply that Lily might not be real at all - that she's just a figment of Nina's imagination. We see Lily interact with other characters, simultaneous to Nina being there, but those who've seen Fight Club know that isn't always a guarantee that both characters are real.

Also in this draft, Lily doesn't show up until after Nina's gotten the part and AFTER she's been told she need to find her Black Swan. Interesting how after she's given that directive, someone shows up who personifies exactly what Nina needs to find in herself. Could it be that she doesn't exist until Nina's mind creates her? Between this and the resemblance being hammered home in a lot of scenes, I wouldn't have blamed many readers if they assumed that was the interpretation the writer was going for.

It was a problem for me. I wasn't sure if Lily was supposed to be real or an aspect of Nina's imagination. Since the script put that possibility out there so firmly, I was expecting a climax that would provide a definitive answer - or at the very least, provide some ambiguity with a possible summation (along the lines of not knowing if the top will fall in Inception.) But we'll discuss the ending in a later part.

In the film, the physical resemblance between the two seems limited to hair color and (sort of) body type. That seems to be a wise decision, and bringing in Lily earlier makes it more apparent that she's real. There's still the possibility that Nina imagines some of her interactions with the girl - but the film itself seems to demonstrate that there is a physical Lily. I think that works better for the movie.

And to be fair to Mark Heyman, a story as complex as this is going to need a few drafts to work out the kinks and to make the writer's intent crystal clear. I don't want this to read like I'm bashing his draft because there's no way to know if I'm off-base in this interpretation or if he was getting his marching orders from someone who specifically ordered these changes. This wasn't the first draft of the script, so it very well could have been a draft that was attempting eventually aborted concepts.

Was Lily meant to be real in the June 2009 draft? I don't know, but I do recall thinking that the script's ambiguity about her very existence could make the film too confusing for casual viewers.

Part II: Nina
Part III: Beth
Part IV: The Natalie Portman/Mila Kunis Sex Scene

Friday, January 21, 2011

Friday Free-For-All: Summer, Highland Falls

Billy Joel is my favorite musical artist, and odds are most people haven't heard of one of my favorite songs of his. It's not "We Didn't Start the Fire" (though I've completed the song many times at karaoke night without glancing at the lyrics once), it's not "Uptown Girl" or "Just the Way You Are." It's a song that Billy himself often describes as "manic-depressive" - "Summer, Highland Falls."

Thursday, January 20, 2011

You've gotta have friends

I often give the advice that if you're serious about pursuing a career in screenwriting you should move to Los Angeles. I don't often mention that if you can, it's best to move there with people you know.

When I came to L.A., pretty much the only people I knew were two girls who had graduated college with me. They got settled a few months before I did and when I came out here, I was lucky enough to get an apartment just a few minute-walk from theirs. A one-bedroom apartment. Frankly, despite the expense, I kind of preferred it this way. If you live alone, you can't get screwed if one of your roommates decides to move out. You're in control of your own destiny.

I should probably explain that while I wasn't exactly a "loner," I wasn't too keen on roommates. I'd had a single room for most of my time in college, and while I had a lot of friends, in looking back I see that I treated most of those relationships as one might work-related acquaintances. There were a few close friends, but when distance severed many of those ties, it was more akin to removing a layer of clothing than amputating a limb.

So I didn't expect it to be much of an issue that I only knew a few people in LA during my first several months. But it was. Life is boring when you have no one to talk to. My friends' jobs meant they were often up very early - meaning they weren't much for staying up late. Plus, we were all poor, so it's not like we'd go out often. When I didn't have a job, there were weeks where I'd only see them once or twice, and then pretty much spend most of the time in my own "Fortress of Solitude" - which was just about as barren as its namesake.

Even when I got a job and made a few friends there, I still wasn't terribly social - and this would continue through much of my first year in L.A. But things eventually changed. Another friend of mine,had moved out the previous summer with two guys from school, and upon his return to L.A. after the New Year, his roommates informed him that they were breaking the lease, leaving him homeless.

This friend hadn't yet set L.A. on fire, and it was at this point where he could have easily turned tail and run back home too. I surely expected this, which is why when it was suggested I could move into his apartment and take over the lease with him, I balked. First, I hated where his apartment was, and second, I figured in six months he'd be retreating back East and I'd be the one stuck either moving out or finding a new roommate. Sure, he was a friend, but we still weren't extremely close.

So it was decided he'd move into my apartment and crash on the couch while he weighed his options. I wasn't terribly keen on this either - the place wasn't huge and I'd not had a roommate in a long time. But like I said, I had a strong feeling he was planning a move back home, so I reasoned it wouldn't be terribly long. And hey, he was a good guy and a funny guy, so at least it wasn't like I was opening the door to a creep.

My most vivid memory of those first few weeks is that my new roommate was in the midst of losing his part-time job and was spending a lot of time at home. In fact, when he became fully unemployed, he happened upon my collection of Buffy and Angel DVDs and did a massive watch of about 7 seasons in three weeks. I also remember discovering that (*gasp*) I liked having someone around in the evenings and on the weekends. He and I had always gotten along, but we really clicked as roommates. We both had aspirations to write and would spend hours bouncing ideas off each other, punctuated by long discussions of comic book geekery and the like.

All told, we were roommates for over five years, across three apartments. In that time, we had three additional roommates come and go. (There were two insane months where we had four people living in our two-bedroom apartment when several friends found themselves apartmentless. We swore we'd never repeat THAT mistake!) I remember lots of Margarita Mondays, a great many late night trips to the Snake Pit, Canter's and Swingers, far too many nights watching bad movies and discussing our own ideas or pop culture until 3am.

Somewhere along the way, this transient who once spent all day lying on my couch in his bathrobe while he binged on the oeuvre of Joss Whedon became one of my best friends. And without him, I would not have befriended many of the people I consider my best friends today. The people he met through his next job proved to be a cool group of young adults who quickly became close friends and creative collaborators.

As the first few friends from school left L.A., he and I evolved this running joke, wherein we were characters on a TV show and all of our departing friends were merely supporting players who were being written out as the writers either decided their characters had run their course, or were being sent off to anchor a spinoff.

So in that sense, it was through him that my "cast" finally gelled and became stable. I know my ensemble today because of him, not only because it's through him that I met those people, but because being his roommate broke me out of my shell. If it wasn't for him, I might still be in that one bedroom apartment, maintaining little more than business-like relationships with those I know.

Check that. Without that support - without the emotional and creative support of those I've known over the last several years, I might very well have given up on LA.

That's why this past week has put me in a reflective mood, for my friend is leaving for at least a year to take a job on the other side of the country. It's a great opportunity for him, and I wish him well, but he will be missed. He's the Denny Crane to my Alan Shore. Or the Alan Shore to my Denny Crane. Some days I'm not sure which of us is which.

So if you make the trip out to L.A. to make it in this business, I hope you're as lucky as I was to have someone like that.

And to my former roommate: I want you know that this departure will NOT be because you're setting up your own East Coast spinoff! Sure, we know a lot of people who left because their plots had run their course, but you've got plenty of stories to tell here. You've been dropped to "recurring" not fired as a "regular." You'll be back on the main show for cameos, and this is just a brief "write-out" while the actor playing you does a movie or tours with his band. You'll be back, even if we have to head east and drag you back.

Good luck, my friend. And know there will always be room for you on my couch.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Tuesday Talkback - Unsolicited submissions

Today's Tuesday Talkback question comes from a reader named Kevin:

A couple years ago, it seems there were a lot more companies taking unsolicited queries. Companies like Benderspink for example. And although the query would go to an intern, at least there was a shot. Recently, it seems like that market is drying up.

Other than Underground Management and Madhouse Entertainment, I'm kind of hard pressed to find companies I've heard of still taking unsolicited. Do you know of any?

Well, a good query letter can always get around that, but as far as the wide-open door that Benderspink had until recently, I'm unaware of any. What do you guys say?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Amazon Studios - How desperate do you have to be to take a bad deal?

This weekend, I commented on a post regarding Amazon Studios over at Scott Myers' excellent blog Go Into The Story. It was an open call for questions to one of their representatives, and I, taking the tone of a hostile cross-examining attorney, posted several pointed questions that more or less jumped off from my own issues with Amazon.

Very quickly I was attacked by another poster who made incredibly off-base statements and misrepresented in my position in what appears to be an effort to hop onto an anti-Hollywood soapbox and use this tirade to attack the Hollywood establishment, at the same time presenting my view as saying that since I was against Amazon Studios, I was apparently against everything BUT the traditional method. He accused me of telling him to "shut up and let the pros do it."

Most comically of all, this poster then proceeded to validate my central thesis, stating "Yes, the Amazon deal is bad. But if you're in Podunk without a shot, it's A deal!"

As I took him to task for misrepresenting me, than attacking me personally based on those misrepresentations, it occurred to me that this screed wasn't about me at all - he was just looking for a fight with someone who was anti-Amazon. However, in doing so, he gave me a window into the mindset of someone who might be tempted by Amazon's magic beans - so let's dispense with those arguments one-by-one, shall we?

"A bad deal is still A deal, so why shouldn't I sign? If Amazon is screwing writers, then let them sue or go public with the injustice" - Let me tell you a story about musician Billy Joel. In the early 70s, Billy signed a deal with label owner Artie Ripp. This was a ten-record deal, but among its stipulations was that Ripp made a huge chunk of the money, while Billy himself got very little money from the sales of his albums.

I'm sure at the time, Billy's attitude was, "Hey, I've got nothing. This is all hypothetical money anyway, so why not sign? At least it's a deal."

In an unbelievable error, Ripp's people accidentally mastered Billy's first album at the wrong speed, making Billy sound like the lead singer of Alvin and the Chipmunks. Outraged, Billy refused to work for Ripp but couldn't get out of his contract. So he fled to L.A. and played in piano bars for six months until he was fortunate enough to get Columbia Records to buy out his contract with Ripp... except that Ripp would get 25-cent royalty per album on all of Joel's first ten albums. Ripp made millions for doing very little than releasing a sub-par album and getting lucky enough to sign a desperate artist to a very bad deal.

When The Stranger became one of Columbia Records best-selling albums, that deal meant that Billy himself didn't become a millionaire off of it, while a lot of people around him did. But hey, at least he got A deal, right?

It's one thing to use a lawsuit to seek legal redress when you didn't know any better, but is it really smart to drop your own pants, bend over and lube up for your violator under the certainty you'll be able to make him pay later?

"It's time Hollywood did something different from franchise pics, superhero movies and all high-concept all the time. We need fresh ideas!" - And opening the door to outsiders via Amazon fixes this how? The decision makers at the top are still the same people. No one from Podunk is going to get to play studio executive and that's where the real power lies in setting the slate. We see these genre pics, superhero films and high-concept scripts because that is what the studios are buying. That is where they are making their investments. It's not like there are a lot of writers out here with a passion to go from Transformers V to GoBots: Resurrection to Battleship. These newbie screenwriters are going to have to deal with the same marching orders from executive.

If Amazon is irrelevant why is everyone making such a fuss about it? All the pros speaking out against Amazon seem to be "protesting too much?" I think they're running scared because it's a threat to the system. They know they'll lose their jobs to all of these writers from the outside. - If you honestly think that any professional screenwriter is legitimately terrified that their jobs are in jeopardy from ventures like Amazon Studios, then you are deluding yourself. I've spent years reading scripts from the sorts of writers submitting to Amazon Studios and while stating this is going to piss off some readers, it's the truth:

Most of them aren't that good.

Everything I've railed about in this blog, I've seen time and again from newbie writers. I bet that if I went over to Amazon Studios and read several scripts, I'd come away with enough material to validate two-dozen posts and produce an additional dozen new ones.

Did American Idol send Mariah, Christina, and Bono quaking in their boots about how these "discoveries" would nab all the record deals? If the Eagles held open tryouts next season, would Michael Vick spend one moment thinking that an outside discovery would steal his spot on the team?

It strikes me that aspiring screenwriters are far more adversarial to professional screenwriters than actual working screenwriters are towards other working pros - and those people are their direct competition!

Outsiders act as if any idiot could write a screenplay and these "morons" getting paid millions for putting words to paper are just lucky enough to know someone on the inside. That's all it takes. A good connection and the writers are set for life. True, I've spoken many times before on the benefits of networking. The right connection can put you in the right place to advance your career, but here's the catch - you have to have the goods.

Kurtzman & Orci have the goods. John August has the goods. Mike Dougherty has the goods. Eric Heisserer has the goods. Josh Klausner has the goods. The Nolan brothers have the goods. Aaron Sorkin has the goods. I could go on and on, but I think you get the point.

And yes, I'm sure there are plenty of writers outside L.A. who are learning their craft and may have the goods too. But they are statistically insignificant if you really expect a revolution that will sweep out the current titans and usher in entirely fresh blood.

And hey, after all this, if you're still inclined to upload to Amazon Studios, clearly nothing I say will change your mind. Don't look down on those writers trying to tell you that this is a bad deal in terms of what a writer should make. In your paranoia, don't mistake their "voice of experience" for jealousy or fear.

If you decide that your creative output is worth no more than the table scraps that Amazon lets fall, then you not only denigrate your own value as an artist, you denigrate artists everywhere.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Friday Free-for-All: Jay Mohr's Action on media violence

Back in 1999, there was a short-lived TV series on Fox called Action, which followed the exploits of Hollywood action producer Peter Dragon, played by Jay Mohr. It's often remembered as brilliant, and though that might be a slightly-too-generous recollection, it was frequently funny and had some sharp Hollywood satire that hadn't yet been beaten into the ground. Alas, it was a series probably better suited for HBO and it lasted barely half a season. It's probably not too much of an exaggeration to say that it paved the way for series like Entourage.

This is perhaps my favorite scene from the series, where Peter Dragon is hauled before a Senate hearing on media violence - perhaps the only location in the country where the oily producer might find himself out-sleazed by his company. When a politician tries to score some easy points against him, Peter fights back by saying what any creative person in Hollywood wishes they could say to these scumbag grandstanders who are more concerned about the damage inflicted by fake guns than real guns.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Capitalizing: How much is too much?

Liz writes in to ask:

I have a question concerning action lines and the caps lock key. I get that you want to use all caps when introducing a new character. That one's a no-brainer, but I've noticed that a lot of screenwriters use all caps to emphasize objects, actions and sounds. Are there any good rules of thumb to know about this practice? For example, if you use all caps for sounds, don't use it on action words.

The rule of thumb I always suggest is: "Make sure there aren't so many words in all-caps that the script is hard on the eyes."

I've read plenty of scripts where the writers tried so hard to make important actions stand out, that seemingly every third sentence on the page was either in all-caps, underlined, italicized or bolded. If you make the page that "busy" it tends to be cluttered and a lot harder to skim.

At the stage where most of you are, you're writing for the reader - in other words, don't make it hard for them to get though your script.

Sometimes you might want to put a sentence in all-caps to make sure that it stands out, something like:

as he glances into the room, he sees a wedding photo... with Wanda and Joe.

WANDA IS JOE'S WIFE! THEY'VE BEEN WORKING TOGETHER ALL ALONG!

or

While Jeff is preoccupied preparing the missile launch, Graham surreptitiously PRESSES A BUTTON ON HIS BELT. A light next to the button FLASHES off and on. A countdown.

The trick is to not overdo this. If you have a fair number of words in a paragraph all in caps and you find yourself putting a lot of words in all-caps, you might be inching up to the point where the reader's eyes are going to be weary.

There's also an older style of screenwriting where everything needed to be supplied by production (such as a prop or a sound effect) was in all-caps. That style is generally no longer used, so keep that in mind if you're learning screenwriting from older works like Casablanca.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Building Yourself as a Filmmaker from the Ground Up

A while back I did an email interview with Ben Racicot for an article on his blog called "Build Yourself as a Filmmaker from the Ground Up." He recently published my answers and as I'm a long-winded sort, there was plenty that hit the cutting room floor. Even if you read this post, please go over to Ben's site and check out the whole article, as he interviewed a few other people for this piece.

However, I think there's some good advice buried in there, so I now present some of the uncut answers:

How do you build yourself as a writer from the ground up and getting first gigs etc. A no name, with no industry connections does what to attain produced work?

A no-name with no industry connections isn’t likely to get produced work. Step 1 – move to L.A. Step 2 – meet people. Make friends in the industry. Yeah, you can try cold queries to try to get your material past the gatekeepers, but it’s a helluva lot easier to get a guy on the inside and use them to put your material in the hands of the right people.

Look, if you were trying to break into Fort Knox, do you think it would be a lot easier to have the help of someone on the inside? Perhaps someone with know-how who can point out security weaknesses, or a guard who can be trusted to see that a certain security breach will go unreported?

This leads to Step 3 – have a damn good piece of material to show off when you do get in. People on the inside have no shortage of people trying to get them to look at scripts, each of them with the claim that their work is worth the time. I’ve read many of those scripts – few of them are worth the time it takes to summarize them. You might not get a second chance, so make sure that your work is impressive on its own.


Would you say that screenwriting and actually getting behind the camera is THE best method to fulfill a project?

I don’t think it’s THE best method. It’s certainly an effective method, and one that has worked well for many struggling directors who made their name on their first film. It’s hard to imagine Kevin Smith having any success had Clerks remained a spec script rather than an indie film that practically invented a whole subgenre.

As with writing, though, the director in question actually needs to have the required level of talent. There are some writers who probably wouldn’t know what to do if you put them behind a camera. A lot of writers are introverts, some perhaps lacking the communication skills and the authority necessary to deal with actors and department heads.

Is there a list of mistakes un-produced writers make with a budding career?

I’ve probably covered a hundred or so mistakes on my blog, but I think perhaps the worst mistake they make is sending material out before it’s ready. Don’t be in such a big hurry to start your career that you end up neglecting your craft. I’ve spoken to a lot of writers who’s spent years trying to break in, and if there’s one thing they’ve all said in common, it was some variation of, “Man, five years ago I met an agent and pushed my first script on him. It was shit and I didn’t realize it at the time. Now I’ve burned that contact and have no way to get him my new script, which is ten times better.”

Patience is a virtue.

Oh, and be nice to the assistants you meet along the way. Today’s assistant is tomorrow’s development executive, and today’s development executive is tomorrow’s studio head.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tuesday Talkback: What the hell is Brenda Hampton doing right?

Folks, we have been visited by a major sign of the apocalypse this week. No, I'm not talking about that rash of unexplained bird deaths in Arizona, the 2 million fish found dead in Maryland, or the fact that Glee is planning a Justin Bieber episode. No, the specific calamity I refer to is the fact that Brenda "Seriously, who hired me?" Hampton's abominable ABC Family series The Secret Life of the American Teenager got picked up for a fourth season.

I get that TV appeals to a multitude of audiences and as such, there are plenty of shows that just aren't my cup of tea. Most of the time, even if a show doesn't appeal to me, I can still accept that there is a target audience whose needs are being met. Heck, even when I took a few swings at One Tree Hill and its showrunner, I couldn't help but salute the man for his savvyness in doing whatever it takes to keep his show on the air. I might question the quality of that writing and take a few cheap shots at its skeeviness, but at the end of the day, I'd want to work under a head writer THAT determined to keep his people employed.

Secret Life is a different story. It is an absolute failure on every level. I've written about this before, so I'll spare you the long sermon again. On every level, from writing to directing to acting to editing and post-production music choices, it resembles a bargain-basement production. It's like something the Comm department at Iowa State would throw together in their spare time. And this isn't something that TV snobs can blame on it being an ABC Family series. My wife watches ALL of those series, and none of the other shows even approach the mediocrity that is Secret Life.

I get why Pretty Little Liars, Make or Break It and Greek are hits with their target demos. I can see how the stories might resonate with those viewers even if I've long since outgrown them. Most of all, I can feel the writers and the production team giving their damndest for a quality product. Sure, sometimes the acting might not be the greatest, and sometimes the writing might take an ill-advised turn. But you feel actual effort behind the show. So if someone at ABC Family comes across this, don't think I'm taking a cheap shot at your whole line-up. The rest of your shows are doing exactly what they were designed to do and you can be proud of what you've accomplished in original programming.

Stacking Secret Life against the shows on that network is like comparing community theatre to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre Company. There is no comparison. It's a bizarre series written and performed entirely by pod people. It's only virtue is that it's so inept that it becomes surreal, almost surreal enough to gain the appeal one might find in watching badly dubbed and translated Japanese films. I don't understand how any teen could relate to these characters, or find them entertaining or admirable.

(And you know what, I don't entirely blame the actors either, as there is evidence that an actor on a Brenda Hampton show is capable of a strong performance elsewhere. Exhibit A being Stephen Collins in any performance NOT on Hampton's 7th Heaven.)

Yet this show got a fourth season, and the network recently ponied up to get Brenda Hampton to develop another new show for them.

So my Tuesday Talkback question this week is: what the hell is Brenda Hampton doing right?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Reader question: What is a 2nd draft?

Carlos sent in this question:

This probably sounds like a silly question, but something you might want to answer on your blog (unless you can link me to a similar topic and answer?): I have trouble really understanding how a writer writes a 2nd Draft.


I've heard/read things like: "Never let someone read your first draft. It's a first draft. Let it sit for a bit, reread it and then work on the 2nd Draft." But, what is a 2nd Draft? Is it just changing some dialogue around? Is it rewriting the script from page one to page 100?

I understand a 2nd Draft in the studio sense. "We like it, but rewrite this character, make it a comedy, change the theme, etc." And if you add a new writer, yea, suddenly you're talking an obvious new draft of a story. But, if you are the original writer and you've written what you felt is the story you want to tell, and no one is going to look at the first draft, what the heck am I changing and why?

I suspect different writers have different definitions of a second draft. There are some writers who are wordsmiths with dialogue who can turn out 180 page first drafts that are strong on dialogue but weak on structure. For them, the second draft is probably all about finding the structure and condensing the script accordingly. Other writers might have a "bare bones" first draft at 90 pages, and find that they need to add subtlety and dimension to a script that's on the nose. Maybe the structure is perfect, but the execution needs refining.

It feels like your question presumes that the writer's first pass at a script is always a perfect representation of what he wants to write. That's rarely the case. There's an old line that "Writing is rewriting." I can assure you that even when a writer is able to proceed without any interference from a studio, director, actor or whomever, it would be naive to assume that they get it exactly right the first time.

Here's my process:

I finish a first draft. I lock it up for a day, maybe even a week. I don't want to look at it then. I just want to bask in the accomplishment and get some distance from the writing. Then I take it out, and I wince every few pages at some overwritten dialogue, under-explained actions, or scenes that beat into the ground a point that might have been better expressed in another scene.

Expecting the first draft of anything to be good enough to show people is like expecting the first cut of a film to be ready for public exhibition - and any editor will tell you that's never the case.

So I make some tweaks. I rewrite dialogue. Where necessary I move around scenes, add new ones, cut some entirely, condense characters. Then I take this polished first draft to my writing group.

A week later, six people tell me what works and what doesn't. If I'm lucky, they'll all agree in lockstep. If I'm unlucky, there'll be divided opinions on some scenes. But here's the thing - I always come out of these meetings with new ideas. One way or another I get new ideas from this.

So I go back and do a round of rewriting. After I finish that pass, I give it to fresh eyes I trust - my wife. She gives candid notes, usually gives sharp suggestions, and based on the severity of those changes, I either do a polish, or I send it out to four of my trusted readers who are not in my writing group.

After as long as a month or two, I'll have heard from all four of those people and embark on my latest draft, based on their reactions to what works and what doesn't. The draft that emerges from that goes back to the writing group, or to another group of trusted readers.

As a writer, I know I'm often too close to my material to be completely objective. I don't take every note I'm given, but the reactions of those going into the material fresh is always as a good gauge as to how successful I've been at translating my intent to the page. Every now and then a reader draws an unintended conclusion from some moments, or finds a subtext I never intended and need to squash quickly.

So how do I write a second draft? By finding people articulate enough to express what they took from the script, and then assessing what I need to do to make that match up with the movie in my head.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Friday Free-For-All: Troops, a Star Wars fan film

In honor of yesterday's announcement of the complete Star Wars Saga coming to Blu-Ray this fall in a massive 9-disc set loaded with goodies and brand-new special features (next winter's holiday shoppers take note), here is the first fan film I ever saw. It's a parody of Star Wars and COPS called "Troops." Basically, it's what would happen if a camera crew from COPS was following around the Stormtroopers who land on Tatooine in Episode IV: A New Hope.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

A look at what we should learn from the yearly box office results

If you'll recall, last year I ran a post taking a look at that top twenty-grossing films of 2009 and extrapolated some lessons that writers might take from knowing what's popular with audiences. Well, with 2010 behind us, we can now take a look at the trends of the past year. Here's a look at the top domestic grosses for 2010.

1) Toy Story 3 - $415 million
2) Alice in Wonderland - $334 million
3) Iron Man 2 - $312 million
4) The Twilight Saga: Eclipse - $300 million
5) Inception - $292 million
6) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I - $284 million
7) Despicable Me - $251 million
8) Shrek Forever After -$238 million
9) How To Train Your Dragon - $217 million
10) The Karate Kid - $176 million
11) Tangled - $169 million
12) The Clash of the Titans - $163 million
13) Grown Ups - $162 million
14) Megamind - $144 million
15) Tron: Legacy - $135 million
16) The Last Airbender - $131 million
17) Shutter Island - $128 million
18) The Other Guys - $119 million
19) Salt - $118 million
20) Jackass 3-D - $117 million

First off, there are fully seven films that are part of a franchise (Toy Story 3, Iron Man 2, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, Harry Potter, Shrek Forever After, Tron: Legacy, Jackass 3D). Five of those are in the top ten!

Two other entries are remakes of older movies: The Karate Kid, Clash of the Titans

On top of that, five films are adapted or based from other mediums: Alice and Wonderland, How To Train Your Dragon, Tangled, The Last Airbender, Shutter Island (not counting the sequels already listed in the franchise category.)

Number of animated films: 6

So if you're planning your new spec script, obviously you can't count on writing a franchise, remake or adaptation. That right there takes out fourteen of the top 20 films as something YOU could have written.

Animated specs are long shots as well. There are only three serious animation houses in the feature business and you'll find that stories tend to be developed in-house at those studios. So let's take those off the table.

Number of original spec scripts in the top ten: 1 (Inception.)

What are we left with when we remove franchises, adaptations, and animation from the Top 20? Inception, Grown-Ups, The Other Guys and Salt.

That's basically two high concept comedies and two high concept action-thrillers. If you're writing for the market, comedy, action and thriller would be where I'd concentrate my efforts.

Do you know how far down the list I had to go to find a drama? The Social Network at 29. And after that it took until Eat, Pray, Love and Dear John at 37 and 38 respectively. And guess what? Both of those were based on novels. Spec dramas did not finish well on the yearly chart at all.

Straight-up dramas are a longshot. True, they can often be low budget, meaning that a failure to appear in the top 50 films doesn't necessarily mean they weren't profitable. But you won't need the entirety of one hand to count all the original drama specs in the top 100 films of the year!

But what do a lot of first-time writers write? Drama.

Yes, The Social Network is brilliant - but that came from one of the mediums strongest writers - Aaron Sorkin, and a director who's able to make even the most unlikely material compelling, David Fincher. (Could anyone else have made the nearly three-hour Zodiac as engrossing?)

Consider yourselves warned.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Chick flicks

Imogen writes in with a question:

While browsing this year's specs in the Black List (blcklst.com/) and the Hit List (tracking-board.com/the-hit-list-2010/), I couldn't help but notice that most are action films or thrillers. Comedy tended to feature towards the bottom of the lists, and even then, there were few to begin with. Chick flicks? Hah! Maybe 2 or 3 max.

Awesome. I'm writing a chick flick.


Is it harder to get a chick flick made, compared to other genres?
Are there more male script readers than female? And if yes, do you think this would make a difference anyway? Or does the lack of comedy and girly films just reflect current tastes in the market?

Some good questions here, so let's start with the easy one:

"Is it harder to get a chick flick made?" That depends - is it a drama, comedy or melodrama?

Melodrama = Beaches
Drama = The Notebook, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, For Colored Girls,
Comedy = Maid of Honor, The Ugly Truth, What Women Want

There are also Dramadies like The Devil Wears Prada, which really sort of straddle the line. I'd probably push it as a comedy if I was trying to sell it, given the conventional wisdom that drama is less commercially successful.

Of the three sub-genres, Comedy is probably the easiest of the three to sell. Comedy tends to have broader commercial appeal and it you'll find a high concept female-driven comedy more often than a high-concept female-driven drama. In fact, it's possible that those will be seen as "high concept comedies" rather than "chick flicks."

The advantage of a chick-flick is that they cost a helluva lot less than your average Bruckheimer or Bay film. So you might not have a mega-hit like Transformers on your hands, but you also don't NEED to recoup a $150 million dollar budget. (Unless you've made the mistake of hiring Jim Brooks to direct.)

Also, women tend to be an under-served portion of the viewing audience. And people seem to forget about this until a Sex & The City opens big and for a week, publications both online and print run feature articles with the subtext, "Golly gee! Dem dere's womenfolk who can buy tickets too!"

The important thing is to have a "star role." Make sure it's something that Reese or Anne could play if you're dealing with younger characters. If you're dealing with older, think Julia or Meryl, and even older you want Diane Keaton. Maybe I'm wrong in this thinking, a healthy portion of the chick flicks out there seem star-driven. (Which makes sense, there aren't an abundance of high-concept chick-flicks that have REALLY worked. The Wedding Date, anyone?)

I'll plead guilty here - I've not worked for many companies in the business of making these movies frequently, so my "insider" knowledge here is less useful than if we were talking about genre pics. Is a chick flick likely to be THE hot spec? No, probably not... because it's less likely to be the big phenomenon of the summer.

Given that the Black List usually tends to spotlight either high-concept scripts or quirky comedies, I wouldn't read too much into the lack of scripts on that list.

Having said that, if you're writing a tear-jerking melodrama, you might want to rethink it. Those haven't been big lately and they tend to be tricky scripts to get readers excited about.

As for if there are more male readers than female, I can say with any certainty that there's a significant imbalance in the gender ratio. My personal experience is that I've encountered more male readers than female. As to if it makes a difference if you have a male or a female reader on your chick flick, it shouldn't. If the reader is any good, the main thing that will stand in your way is who they're reading for.

Readers are paid to filter material for their bosses. Thus, it behooves them to identify material that their bosses will find valuable. If they're reading for a company that makes dramas, they'd better know what makes a good drama. If their bosses tend to produce thrillers, then they should have an eye for thrillers - and if their bosses make chick flicks, then the readers - male and female - had better be able to recognize a good chick flick.

I hope that answers your questions.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Tuesday Talkback: Blu-Ray documentaries

I spent a fair amount of time last weekend watching some of the many intensive behind-the-scenes documentaries on the Blu-Rays for The Expendables and Kick-Ass. Both of them have fairly in-depth documentaries on the making of - a far cry from the days when a "Behind the Scenes" segment was a 20-minute EPK that consisted mostly of press junket interviews intercut with some occasional on-set B-Roll. These were deep enough to be considered documentaries in their own right.

2009's Star Trek Blu-Ray also had one of the most in-depth behind the scenes features I've ever seen for a film, as did 2006's Superman Returns. In fact, the documentary on Superman Returns runs three full hours! I'm always glad to see such care go into these features as I've heard from people in the DVD business that their figures show only 25% of the sales come from buyers looking for that sort of peek behind-the-curtain. Apparently that sort of production doesn't come cheap, and for a while it looked like the market would soon reach the point where it was no longer cost effective to produce those kinds of features for the little difference they make to the sales.

The other thing that occurred to me as I watched this is that it would be truly fascinating to have the same sort of access to classic films. Can you imagine a three-hour documentary following Orson Wells as he directed Citizen Kane? Or what about a feature-length glimpse inside Alfred Hitchcock's process on Psycho? If it were possible, what film would you like to send a documentary crew back in time to study?

For me, it would have to be either Jaws or the simultaneous production of Superman and Superman II. Both films have rather infamous tales of production woes. Both fell behind schedule drastically. On Jaws, the stories of shooting days gone wrong have passed into legend. Imagine an all-access crew being there to document every moment of it - ever trial that Spielberg faced, certain that his career was over... only to emerge with what was the biggest box office hit up to that time.

On the Superman films, I'd love to see Richard Donner working to keep everything together as he simultaneously shot two films and dealt with producers with rather dubious ethics... and then there's the whole matter of bringing on a new director for the remainder of the second film and reshooting fully half of the movie. Yes, all parties involved have had their say in interviews, but to actually see it play out before us would be very compelling.

So what behind-the-scenes documentaries do YOU wish existed?

Monday, January 3, 2011

Lost scene from Return of the Jedi - Luke's plan to save Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt

Over the Christmas holiday, I found myself watching much of the two Star Wars trilogies on Spike, and after watching some of the first act in Jabba's palace, I couldn't help but try to imagine what the planning sessions for that rescue mission must have been like. Rather than tell you what I mean, I think I'll just show you with this "lost" scene from Return of the Jedi:

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INT. LUKE'S PLANNING ROOM

Luke shuts the door. Leia, Lando, Chewie and R2-D2 are all in attendance.

LUKE: Okay, I’ve got 3PO busy talking to the binary load lifters out back. Should be safe for us to meet.

LANDO: I don’t understand why he’s not allowed to see me and Chewie. This has been going on for months since we left Cloud City.

LUKE: Because it’s important that he think you and Chewbacca never returned from Jabba’s Palace.

LANDO: But why?

LUKE: It just is. Trust me. Anyway, Lando’s managed to pass himself off as one of Jabba’s guards, so we’ve got a man on the inside.

LANDO: So what’s the plan? Wait until Jabba’s asleep, I do a little voodoo on the security and then defrost Han and sneak him out of the palace before anyone’s the wiser?

LUKE: I don’t like it. It’s too risky. You need back-up – so I’m going to give R2 and 3PO to Jabba.

R2-D2 twitters angrily at that.

R2-D2: (subtitled) WTF? Not a chance!

As 3PO isn’t there to translate, no one knows what he says. Luke mistakes it for excitement.

LUKE: That’s right, R2! You’re going to help save Han!

R2-D2: (subtitled) Who put this guy in charge? Since when is the farmboy a master tactician?

LUKE: I know you’re excited, R2, but we need to work out the plan first.

LEIA: Do we really need to send the droids in? 3PO is useless in a rescue scenario and it’s better if we’re only risking one man. Possibly less than a complete man since it’s Lando.

LANDO: I said I was sorry about that whole betrayal thing! Look, if we need another man on the inside, I still say it’d be damn easy to sell Leia to Jabba as a new dancing girl. She’d have prime access to the throne room and might come in handy as distraction.

LEIA: I would rather be the daughter of Darth Vader than be forced to wear some kind of skimpy harem get-up as that slug’s personal slave!

R2-D2: (subtitled) Uh… about that first thing, Princess… Be careful what you wish for.

LEIA: It sounds like R2 agrees with me.

LUKE: For what it’s worth, Leia, I think you could pull the slave girl outfit off.

Leia musters a disgusted chuckle. R2 chirps.

R2-D2: (subtitled) Kid, I hope the Jedi medical insurance covers therapy... because you'll be seeing a shrink for years once you do your family tree.

LUKE: Okay, so once we have the droids inside then we’ll send Leia in disguised as a bounty hunter and she’ll give Chewie to Jabba!

CHEWIE: (Subtitled) Say what?

LEIA: I’m confused. How does giving the droids to Jabba make it easier for me to turn Chewie over to Jabba?

CHEWIE: (subtitled) Better question: why do I have to be taken prisoner?

LANDO: Why do we need Chewie locked up too? That’s just one more person to save.

LUKE: The last time we listened to you, everyone got captured. I’m running this show. Anyway, once Chewie’s locked up and everyone’s gone to bed, Leia will unfreeze Han and get him out of the palace.

LANDO: Should I help her?

LUKE: It’s too risky. Might blow your cover.

LANDO: How about I disable security? Make sure Jabba’s not anywhere nearby? Create a diversion?

LUKE: No, just sit back. No matter what happens, don’t help Leia.

LEIA: What if we get caught?

LUKE: You won’t get caught.

LANDO: Ah... I get it. Because while Leia’s doing that, you’ll have 3PO, R2 and Chewie doing something to make Leia and Han’s escape possible.

LUKE: No, they do nothing.

LANDO: But why send them in at all?

LUKE: We need Leia on the inside and the only way to give her credibility as a bounty hunter is to have her bring in Chewie.

LANDO: I’m already on the inside! Why do you need the droids there too?

LEIA: Yeah, I don’t quite see how Chewie and I really add anything to this. Or 3PO for that matter.

R2-D2: (subtitled) Especially 3PO.

LANDO: And what are you doing in all this, Luke?

LUKE: Easy, I go in, negotiate with Jabba for Chewie’s release and if things get dicey, R2 will have my lightsaber.

LANDO: But what if they search R2? And how do you know Jabba won’t put him somewhere other than the throne room. And if you don’t send Chewie in in the first place, then you won’t need to go in personally to get him out!

LUKE: Oh for crying outloud. (waves his hand across Lando and Leia’s eyes) This IS a great plan.

Lando and Leia falls under the spell of the Jedi mind trick.

LANDO and LEIA: This IS a great plan!

LUKE: Absolutely nothing can go wrong.

LANDO and LEIA: Absolutely nothing can go wrong.

LUKE: Now let’s get to work on my absurdly complicated rescue mission. R2, try not to get searched or have your memory erased by Jabba’s droid minders. Otherwise, we’re screwed!