Thursday, June 30, 2011

Movie Industry Agent Wanted

I got sent this a while ago from a reader named Clint:

Movie Industry Agent Wanted (Mesa)

Date: 2011-06-10, 10:53AM MST
Reply to: [Errors when replying to ads?]

Reputable, experienced agent wanted to sell screenwriter's scripts to producers, directors or film companies. Four are done, ready for pre-production or option, all of feature length and are registered with the Writers Guild. This is not a job for the beginner. It requires someone who has the insider connections with Hollywood and a proven record of successful sales within that industry. Screenwriter has agreement with an author to do his other five books as scripts and books are already published and solely owned by said author.

Of those done, two are of historical and factual content and never been done on film in their entireity. Another is a western done as a sequel to a successful movie in the 70's which starred the late John Wayne (no copyright violation) and the last one is based upon myth about a haunted lighthouse in Oregon. Two of the four can be filmed almost entirely in Arizona. Budgets would vary from low to high.

Compensation is just what the industry standard is. A flat 10% of what a script sells for after it is sold. There are no up front fees paid, again per industry standard.

For futher information make contact with an outline of your background and proven success.

I don't even know where to begin with this, except to say that even putting aside the foolishness of seeking an agent on Craigslist, this is a classic example of how NOT to write a query.

Let's treat this like those Highlights games and see if you can spot all the things this posting does wrong.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Reader question - How much feedback should I get before I know I'm ready?

Becka asks me:

How much and what kind of feedback and coverage should I get for my scripts before I try to get an agent?

So far I've just been in a local class, entered a small contest where they give you a summary of 20 readers' notes, and I am soon getting some extended coverage on another script. I can only afford a couple more basic coverage services and a contest or two over the next few months- how should I get the most for my money and start rackin' up the feedback on my first few scripts and treatments?

Well, there's quantity of coverage and then there's quality of coverage. 50 reviews from amateurs not much more experienced than you is worth less than two or three reviews from experienced writers and readers.

Let's take this piece-by-piece. The contest - how professional is it? Who are these "20 readers?" What are their credentials? Are the people running the contest employed in Hollywood or is this one of those regional film festival screenplay competitions?

I don't mean to say that someone not currently inside the system can't give cogent notes, but on average, you're going to get more effective feedback from someone close to "the show." It's quite possible that this festival recruited its readers via postings on Craigslist or They could be interns at small management companies, fresh off the bus.

I don't know if I put a lot of faith in contest feedback. I've covered the topic of coverage services a few times, but this is probably a good time to reiterate the basics.

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.

When I covered this topic before, I got some good responses endorsing Scott The Reader including this from a reader named Christina:

"[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.

I've also gotten some strong feedback on Script Shark. It's worth pointing out that Script Shark is a little more expensive than Scott the Reader, starting at $175 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 $95 for one page of notes and $119 for studio style coverage. I've never used him, but his customers seem to be satisfied, if the Done Deal feedback is anything to go on.

Also, I once traded scripts with Amanda the Aspiring Writer and was very pleased with the results. She knows her stuff, having been an agency assistant, where part of the job was to do coverage regularly. She charges $110 for feature coverage.

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, especially when all of those readers seem to be above board.

How much feedback you need to get probably depends on the reaction to your first few submissions. Do people seem to feel that you're ready? Are they captivated by your concept, drawn in by your characters? Do they think that this is an idea that people want to see? If you get a couple middling reactions, I'd take that as a sign to do some significant reworking before I sent it out to anyone else.

I wouldn't query any agents until you start getting very enthusiastic responses from people who know what they're talking about. It's not enough to get polite encouragement. You should be getting reactions on the order of "This is a VERY strong sample! I couldn't put it down. I tried to find things wrong with it and I came up empty!" Reactions like "This isn't really my thing, but I'm sure someone will like it" aren't what you should be looking for.

I'll make the following predictions - someone will pop in to suggest as an option. Someone else will pop in to offer the opinion that Triggerstreet is a cesspool of amateurs and that most of what you'll find there amounts to the blind leading the blind. Then someone will take offense to that and defend it as a good screenwriting community that can help beginners develop their skills.

Pretty much all of those are right.

Not having read your script, I can't tell you when you're ready. All I can say is that patience is a virtue. Don't be overeager to query. Agents get a lot of queries each week and it's very easy to ignore a query that doesn't grab them right away. It's even easier to pass on a middling or so-so script. Don't query with anything less than a script that's going to knock their socks off.

If you've got the informed opinion of industry pros that this script is ready, then go to it. If all the feedback advises caution and redevelopment, I'd pump the brakes.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

"The Oscar Goes to...." and "Gimmie my money back!"

We're halfway through the year in movies, so let's do a little experiment.

Oscar voters are often accused of having short memories, as, let's face it, it's a lot harder to remember back 12 months than it is six months. True, many studios play to this by putting their mostly likely contenders at the end of the year. Still, there are always a few worthy contenders that somehow sneak in among the blockbusters, rom-coms and Kevin James movies destined for a long run on your local Southwest Airlines jets.

So what films from the first six months of 2011 deserve not to be forgotten when Harvey Weinstein starts purchasing Oscar buzz as if it were frozen orange futures in Trading Places?

Related to that... let's be honest, there's a lot of crap that gets shoveled into the local multiplexes in the first half of the year. I've heard there are some stars who have refunded money to disgruntled viewers. George Clooney has supposed given several fans their money back for Batman & Robin. George, I'll let you be on that one. Batman & Robin was a gift from the comedy gods. But you're not off the hook for Ocean's Twelve.

So what 2011 movie do you want your money back for, and what star do you fantasize about accosting on the street or in a restaurant in order to get back your $12?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Transformers - The Dark of the Industry

It comes this week - the latest Transformers film. You know it's going to suck. I know it's going to suck, and yet I can't shake the feeling that in a moment of weakness, even the most cynical viewer is going to rationalize, "Well, if I'm going to see it, I might as well see it on a big screen. And they're really pushing the 3D hard on this, claiming it's nothing like we've ever seen before. I mean, James Cameron is hyping this and that guy's ego is so huge he almost never hypes a project he isn't directly connected to.'

"And hey, AMC has half-price showings before noon. What could it hurt?"

I beg you, don't listen to that voice. I hear it too. There's a part of me that keeps thinking, "Well, I'm probably going to tear this thing a new one, so it would only be responsible journalism to be informed about it. But I'd better see it in 3D just so I'm coming from an informed place if I put the lie to Bay's hype."

And then I remember the $6 (half-price screening, remember) I spent on the previous Transformers film and how halfway through the film, I couldn't remember a less pleasant experience in the theater since a forced viewing of WR's Mysteries of the Organism in film school. And THAT film featured a nearly-ten minute sequence of an artist making a plaster cast of a well-endowed man's erect member. At one point, the scene cuts from an excruciatingly long medium shot of the process to an extreme close-up with an angle that could have only been taken from between the prone subject's knees. The gentleman's urologist likely has never gone in as close for an inspection as this camera did.

And even then, the experience of enduring that sequence was only slightly less uncomfortable than Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. At least it was over in ten minutes or so. (Though other parts of this film were still excruciating to get through.)

So as you're tempted to catch a few hours of air conditioning this week, do yourself a favor and remember just how bad the previous Transformers movies were. If you keep going to the theatre, it'll only encourage them to make more.

If you're so motivated, post in the comments your reasons for attending or skipping Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Friday Free-For-All: Bruce Campbell on how bad movies happen

Many thanks to The Auditors of the Amazon for posting a video clip yesterday that I've been looking for for quite some time now. I'd heard a while back on a Bruce Campbell speech he's often uses where he "tricks" his fans into greenlighting a bomb of a film.

Special bonus:

As I was composing this blog entry, Wil Wheaton posted this video to his Tumblr. Children of the 80s, I defy you not to watch this and laugh yourselves silly.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Ideas are cheap

Tuesday I participated in this massive discussion on Go Into The Story, during which I opined, "Ideas are cheap." Perhaps some of you saw this talk, but for those who didn't, here's what I meant by that.

In both interviews and in person, I've heard many a working writer roll their eyes at that notion, usually citing an incident that follows as such:

Said writer mentions his profession at a party. A fellow unknown to that writer says, "Hey, I've got a great idea for a movie! How about I give it to you, you write it up and we'll split it 50-50?" This story usually ends with the working writer straining not to be incredibly insulted at the proposal.

Perhaps even some of you have been on the receiving end of this. I'm always a little put off by the attitude of the pitcher. The implicit message seems to be that coming up with an idea and developing an idea take an equal amount of effort. Quite simply, anyone who believes that has not sweated over multiple drafts of a script.

For example, these are ideas:

4 teenage guys make a pact to get laid before prom.

Two teens experience trouble getting beer to a high school party so they can impress girls.

A case of mistaken identity has a couple on a date night hunted by cops and crooks.

Those are ideas, but are they story? Do they trump the work that goes into the structure and execution of said ideas? As someone who's had a couple really, really good ideas that resulted in a script or two that didn't live up to their promise, I can say yes. A thousand people could have come up with those ideas, but only a few could have executed them as successful films.

How often have you watched TV or seen a movie trailer for an idea that you could have sworn you had first? I don't know a writer who's hasn't had that experience.

THAT is what I'm trying to express when I say ideas are cheap. It takes more than a good idea to make a good script.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Is mediocre the New "Good?"

Go Into The Story's Scott Myers and I exchanged a few tweets Friday night, which was motivated by my assessment of Green Lantern, which was "Not as good as I hoped, but not nearly as bad as I feared."

Scott replied: "Rinse, repeat for all comic book movies / sequels? Mediocrity = The New Good?"

I have to admit, I'm wondering if that's the case. I've seen a lot of movies this year that have been "just okay." Almost six months in, I can't think of a single release that's blown me away. I've been entertained, certainly, by movies like Thor, Paul, X-Men: First Class, and Super 8 among others, but I've yet to come across a film that really made me saw "WOW! Why can't I make that?"

In other words, it seems like Hollywood is doing a good job of getting on base even hitting a few triples, but no one's hit a home run yet - let alone a grand slam. Yet every now and then it seems that film fans try so hard to praise a particular film as not just good, but as the second coming of film. I'm not naming names, but there's been a recent release or two that seems to have gotten more credit than they're due.

For instance, something that's an original idea in a sea of remakes seems to get an A grade just by virtue of the fact that it's not a rehash. Yet if the film were held to a more objective standard. It might be more of a B.

So is this how we rate movies now? "A for effort?" All flaws are forgiven so long as the filmmakers had pure motives?

Which brings me to a couple tweets from screenwriter Justin Marks (Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li.)

First he said, "Go find me a bad Hollywood movie, then find me the director who says he wasn't trying to do something special with it. Doesn't exist."

This remark clearly ruffled some feathers and I saw one reply Justin wrote, saying to a person arguing with him, "I refuse to accept your premise that there are people who intentionally set out to spend 2 yrs making a bad movie!"

No, of course no one sets out to make a bad movie, but that doesn't mean there aren't cynical reasons for making a movie - reasons that perhaps lead creators to cut corners creatively. There's also the fact that these movies are a product with a release date, and sometimes, creators have to make sacrifices to meet their deadline.

Let's put it this way - when you were in school and had a 20 page paper due, I'm sure you didn't set out to get a D grade. However, the circumstances under which you approached completing that assignment might not have been the most conducive to an A grade. You don't necessarily have to be lazy to be incapable of putting the best effort possible. Maybe the material was beyond your grasp, maybe you completely misunderstood the assignment, maybe you completely lost sight of the goal.

Whatever the reason, when the teacher handed you back your work, explained all the ways in which you failed the assignment, I'm willing to be you didn't offer a defensive "I tried!" and expect that to wipe the slate clean.

Filmmakers made bad decisions for reasons other than laziness - and just saying "Well, they tried" isn't good enough. That doesn't mean that an utter failure like G.I. Joe or Wolverine gets a walk. True, perhaps some criticisms of those films step too far into personal attacks, and I suspect that's what Mr. Marks is reacting to.

But when we start arguing that motive and effort are on an equal par with quality - that's what leads to what Scott was talking about - the day that medicore is the new good.

What do you think?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The "Act Two problems" of Green Lantern: Part II - Hal's arc

Part I

We continue with our look at the Act II problems of Green Lantern.

The next problem: Hal's internal arc. When we meet him, he's a cocky test pilot, seemingly driven by ego and a lot of false bravado. Before long, we learn he's haunted by the death of his test pilot father in a plane crash years earlier. Some of this works - I can buy that Hal is haunted and being fired from his job might send him towards rock bottom. But the script whisks him off to Oa for training, where he retains his cocky personality until Corps member Sinestro basically says he doesn't deserve to wear that uniform, saying he brings shame to it.

Somehow, these words from someone Hal's known for all of three minutes cut him so deeply that he decides he needs to quit the Corps. Thus, Hal spends the entire second act moping that he can't be part of the Corps because he's afraid, and that his fear makes him weak and he'll never be as good as the other Lanterns, and so on and so on.

Having a character mope during the entire second act is always a dangerous move. Your hero sets the tone. The reason people loved Iron Man had less to do with any affection for comic book heroes and more to do with the fact that Robert Downey Jr. was a helluva lot of fun to watch in the role. I absolutely believe that Reynolds could have been just as much fun as Green Lantern, but he's stranded by a script that doesn't give his character much sense of fun. There's no motivation for Hal to really be hurt by the fact that Sinestro doesn't respect him and so the whole arc feels false. It's just there to give him self-doubt that he can "heroically" overcome by the end of the film.

The thing is, there was a better way to get to this. While Hal's sent back to Earth, Sinestro leads a squadron of Corps members against Parallax, who makes shortwork of them by tapping into their fears to make them vulnerable before he finishes them off.

My solution: when Sinestro tells Hal, "You suck, I can tell after 30 seconds you haven't got what it takes. Hal retorts, "Screw you. I'm as good as any of you." Play up that arrogance and insecurity that we've already seen and then send him on the initial mission to confront Parallax. Here's where Hal finds out he's in over his head because he experiences first hand the menance and what he'll need to overcome it. When the Corps attack, Hal should fall in battle pretty quickly, overwhelmed by the fears that Parallax brings to the fore. Perhaps with Sinestro's help, Hal is one of the few to escape alive, only to flee back to Earth.

Here's where we would hit the "Dark Night of the Soul." Hal wouldn't mope for an entire act - but maybe just ten minutes or so. Then he gets forced into action by Hector's plots. He doesn't have time to think about it - he has to be a hero. And then it gets worse. Maybe Sinestro and the rest of the Corps have fallen back to hold the line at Oa. There's just one problem - Parallax isn't headed there. Having become aware of Earth through Hector, he's now heading there to power up before going to Oa for the main dish.

In the film right now, there's not a particularly good reason given for why the Guardians don't send the Corps to defend Earth. Yeah, it gives Hal a good scene where he stands up to the Guardians and accuses them of being afraid. In the end, it feels like a clunky way to set up Hal as the only one to take on Parallax.

For what it's worth, I enjoyed Green Lantern, even if it wasn't as airtight as I would have liked. It's a shame that the box office fell short this weekend, because I would have loved to have seen this universe explored in a sequel or two. WB and DC Entertainment really needed this one to be a hit and I can't imagine they're thrilled with the box office results. It's a shame because I'd say it's a mostly decent comic book movie.

In terms of this summer's offerings, I think it's better than Thor, but perhaps short of X-Men: First Class. The difference is that even while Thor was held back by some of the cheesy stuff in Asgard, Chris Hemmsworth really anchored that film and was allowed to give a fun performance. Reynolds isn't given the same freedom from his screenplay, and unfortunately, I think that's what led critics to attack the film.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The "Act Two problems" of Green Lantern

An unfortunately-not-uncommon term among screenwriters and critics is "Act Two problems." Even if you don't know exactly what this means, likely you've observed them. If you're a writer, chances are at some point in your creative efforts, you've birthed them.

See, if you've got a good hook for a script, writing the set-up is often pretty easy. When you're really lucky, the first act writes itself. If you're really sharp, you've come up with an exciting climax and a strong ending that perfectly suits your concept and set-up. In other words, you know where your plot and characters start and have a good idea of where they end up.

Here, I'll give you a good example of this kind of pitch. This is from The Player. The story itself starts at about a minute in. Tim Robbins plays a studio exec who's getting a pitch from two writers. (One of whom has an arrogance and pretension that eventually comes across as off-putting and, frankly, naive.)

In a later scene, Robbins' character remarks that among the story's other deficiencies, "It's got no second act." It's a problem a lot of writers face - how do you get from A to C?

Green Lantern is - much to my great disappointment - a pretty good example of Act Two problems. As I discussed last week, I'd been anticipating this film like no other and was very concerned when I saw so many negative reviews. When I finally saw the film, I spent the first 40 or 45 minutes pleasantly surprised. The mythology of the Green Lanterns was introduced as effectively as film allowed, Ryan Reynolds' Hal Jordan got an exciting introduction that summed up his character well, and the big scene where he received the ring from the dying Abin Sur had all the weight and power I expected it to carry.

The film doesn't really run into trouble until partway through the second act. While Hal is whisked away to the planet Oa for training, an Earth-bound threat emerges in the form of scientist Hector Hammond, who becomes infected with energy from galactic threat Parallax.

The Green Lantern Corps need to mount an attack on Parallax, which is winging its way through space and is bound for Oa. The problem: there's still an hour left in the movie, so the film has to find some way of stalling that climactic battle.

Thus we get our first major Act Two problem: The Hector Hammond subplot. Peter Sarsgaard performs the role well, and under the right circumstances, Hector can be one creepy SOB. Here, he feels like a placeholder - a way to motivate some action to happen on Earth. Since the movie wants to set up Hal's earthbound life for future chapters, there needs to be some kind of subplot set-up Earthside, preferably one that puts Blake Lively's Carol Ferris into some kind of damsel-in-distress situation.

Hector is supposedly an old friend of Hal and Carol's, but this fact isn't mined for anything beyond perfunctory "I had the hots for her too, Hal" tension. When it comes down to the final battle between the two, there's none of the depth or heartbreak that X-Men: First Class was able to tap when Xavier found himself on the opposite side of the situation from Erik and Mystique.

There's also the fact that superhero film conventions demand that Hal flex some muscles on Earth and have a public debut of sorts as Green Lantern. Hector's first public stunt provides this, but then the film makes one of it's most baffling misteps: Hal's public debut barely feels public. The helicopter rescue gives him a chance to show off some of his ring constructs, but then we only get the barest hint of a public reaction to the new superhero in their midst.

I get that a lot of Superhero movies - particularly Superman - have covered this ground, and there's the risk of being derivative. Still, it's something that would have made the world feel realer, and given a stronger sense of Green Lantern's powers and responsibilities. From what we see - the world reacts with a shrug more than a "Holy shit! This guy can fly and his ring does anything!" If no one in-story is reacting to amazing things with any sense of wonder, it often weakens the impact for the audience.

(I had a similar problem with the Smallville finale last month, where Clark's public debut as Superman was practically non-existent and we saw none of the reaction to "The Blur" finally showing his face after years of being little more than an urban legend to the people of Metropolis.)

That's a lot for one day, so we'll save another major Act Two issue for tomorrow's post, where we focus on Hal Jordan's personal arc.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Please don't let Green Lantern suck

I've been a casual fan of Green Lantern for many years. I picked the title up off and on throughout the nineties and since Geoff Johns took over the book with Green Lantern: Rebirth in 2004, I've been a regular buyer. In fact, I can't give Johns enough credit for revitalizing the entire Green Lantern mythology and in the process, crafting a long run that builds on itself in a really satisfying way. I'd say that some of the best mainstream comics from the last 15 years come from this run.

So when Warner/DC Entertainment got around to doing the movie, they seemed to make some smart moves. The writers apparently drew heavily from Geoff Johns run, down to some of the storylines and character design - and they even put Johns on the film as an executive producer. They cast Ryan Reynolds, who should fit the role of a cocky test pilot like a glove, and they gave the director's chair to Martin Campbell - a man who TWICE revitalized the James Bond series.

I've been amped about this film for well over a year. I really liked the trailers too. Much like how the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter geeks lost their minds at how "everything looks how it's supposed to look" I went nuts for the glimpses of Oa, Kilowog and Parallax in the trailers.

And as I type this, Green Lantern sits on Rotten Tomatoes at 23%.

To put that in perspective - the so-so Thor has a 77% and even Mr. Poppers Penguins is at 45%

For now, trying to build up denial by rationalizing that a lot of reviews have buyers remorse about praising comic book films like Watchmen - which was visually powerful, but a bit too uneven and didn't hold up to repeated viewings - or Iron Man 2, which was a mess once the afterglow of Downey's performance wore off. Director Favreau did his best, but the film was too busy tying into future Marvel films to tell an interesting subject on its own. And there's the possibility that with Green Lantern being the third comic book movie this year, the market is just over-saturated.

All good rationalizations.... but 23%? Maybe Parallax is creeping into my subconscious, but I'm definitely feeling some fear. (That one was for the Green Lantern geeks!)

Wait! 82% of the audience liked it - compared to Thor's 80%! Is there a Blue Lantern Corps ring in the area or am I feeling some hope? (Again, that was also for the GL geeks... possibly that one was too arcane.)

Warner Brothers, you need this thing to fly. Please don't let it suck.

Feel free to sound off about this film in the comments. I'll be seeing the movie this weekend and likely will be posting about it soon after.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

You can always cut something

If there's one mistake first-time writers make, it's over-writing. I'm not just talking about writing dialogue and speeches that go on too long. Often they'll write too many scenes to drive home a particular point. They won't just start with Joe on a train just as it pulls into the station in his hometown, they show Joe packing in his hotel room. Then they show him checking out of his hotel and asking for directions to the train station. Then we see him buy his ticket for home, then an entire scene of him getting on the train and watching the world go by, and THEN at last, we see him arrive at home and the story finally starts.

So what could have taken one scene and one page ends up consuming ten pages and ten minutes of screentime.

Guys like me often harp on the "Start a scene as late as possible, leave a scene as soon as possible" rule, but I'd also encourage writers to think hard about if a particular scene is even necessary. We don't always need to see A to B to C to D. Sometimes you can show us A, cut to D and leave B and C as points that we can fill in for ourselves.

If you've got a script that's 128 pages and you're convinced you can't cut any more, you're wrong. I just read a script this week that was 105 pages and jam-packed with story and character development. It was a fast moving plot that seemed to contain twice the twists and turns that I see in the first-timer scripts I sometimes end up reading.

It's amazing the blanks that an audience is capable of filling in. Trust them. Leave something to their imagination. See how much you can cut before they get confused. And true, you won't always know. If you watch DVD deleted scenes, you'll often see scenes that were cut for redundancy. Even the pros have trouble with this, but that doesn't mean it's not worth the effort to master.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Tuesday Talkback: What DIDN'T work in Super 8

For the most part, I enjoyed Super 8. J.J. Abrams is an excellent visual director and he did a fantastic job directing the kids. For the most part, I was pretty impressed with the young performers. In fact, I think the material with the kids was some of the strongest stuff in the film. Also, I think it's important to support original ideas in film - so long as those original ideas don't star Kevin James.


I was less enamored with large aspects of the alien monster plot. In one scene, the creature smashes up a gas station and a police car with all the care of a toddler toppling his building blocks. Then, in another scene, we're shown that all the engines on a used car lot were taken right out of their automobiles - with no damage to the shell of the car at all.

Yeah, suddenly the violent, thrashing monster decided to gingerly remove engines from the cars and then carefully closed the hood to make his crime less obvious.

Space Monster Mechanics
Sketch by Josiah Patrow

I also don't quite get why the latter stages of the story seems to push the idea that the monster is misunderstood and that we should be rooting for him to get safely home. Look, I get that part of the point was that this alien was mistreated in captivity, but... he EATS at least two people right on screen! It's a little hard to treat him like a cuddly E.T. after that.

So I'm sure a lot of you saw the movie this weekend. What didn't work for you and why?

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Tracking Numbers are soft?! Oh shit, we'd better just give away the whole film for free so they'll pay us to see it again!

Last week, one of the big stories in the entertainment business was the "tracking numbers" on Super 8. Honestly, tracking numbers are one of those insider things that really shouldn't concern movie-goers who don't work in the industry but we live in a world where the internet has made this information so accessible that it seems like even causal movie fans are chiming in on this.

I couldn't possibly explain tracking numbers better than Geekweek's Jeff Katz, formerly an exec at Fox and New Line:

If you are unfamiliar with movie tracking, these numbers are the metrics studios use to monitor their marketing strengths and weaknesses and predict their eventual box office performance. While tracking is not always perfect it has long tended to be an accurate indicator of success or failure at the box office.

Our Tracking Report monitors four key categories - Unaided Awareness. Total Awareness. Definite Interest. First Choice -- across the four key audience quads - Men -25, Men 25+, Women -25, Women 25+. The movies that track well across all quads - aka Four Quad Movies - are the ones with a clear chance at blockbuster box office performance.

This is Jeff's Tracking Report for last Friday's opening.

All last week, we kept hearing that the tracking on Super 8 was "soft." Despite the involvement of two of the hottest directors (of both the moment and all-time): Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams, audiences seemingly weren't yet sold on the film. Quickly, the blame was placed on the un-revealing ad campaign. This article on Deadline pretty much establishes the narrative that soon was being repeated on Twitter and on every film-related blog:

When JJ Abrams conceived Super 8, his intention was to replicate those Steven Spielberg films of the 70s and 80s, where he discovered the magic in a movie theater and not by watching every reveal in a commercial. When Spielberg directed or produced films like Jaws, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Poltergeist and Gremlins, finally seeing the creature was half the fun, and they were always kept secret until opening day.

[...]Paramount and Abrams have focused on character and given up little in the creature department in commercials that followed. Days from its Friday opening, rivals say that tracking numbers are soft and would be considerably stronger among young moviegoers had Abrams and the studio given up a glimpse of the creature and playing up that plot line.

Rivals say that there is nervousness at Paramount because the studio has gone so far in embracing Abrams’ now famous desire for utmost secrecy. This is a bold gamble Paramount is taking, at a time when the mission of studio marketers is to deliver the highest possible opening weekend, no matter how many plot highlights and spoilers are sacrificed in TV spots. Several marketing experts I checked were buzzing with the assertion that Par’s decision to protect the purity of the movie-going experience could put the film in an opening weekend hole it will be hard pressed to recover from.

As it turns out, Paramount blinked and on Thursday, it leaked footage that offered a glimpse at the creature.

I don't know who I'm disappointed in: Paramount, for having no trust in the audience; or modern audiences, who have fostered an environment where they demand the trailer reveals every. Last. Surprise. Take a look at this "unrevealing" trailer:

Okay, so from that trailer we glean:

1) It's clearly set in late 70s/early 80s.

2) It focuses on a group of kids who are making a super-8 movie.

3) there's clearly an attraction between one of the kids and the girl

4) during filming, the kids end up witnessing a train crash and catching it on film.

5) what's more, there's a strong indication that the crash had freed something very big and very strong that was being held in the train.

6) The military begins an ominous operation in response to the crash and is being evasive towards local authorities about what was on the train (with a clear implication that something sinister got free.)

7) someone gets attacked by an unseen monster, and there are disappearances and other incidents that local police are at a loss to explain and suspect the military has answers.

8) The montage of action shots suggests - among other things - that the townspeople are headed for a confrontation with whatever was on the train.

Unrevealing, my ass.

I'd say the trailer does a pretty good job of laying out the basic premise as well as a few plot points. The only thing we don't see is the creature itself. The story itself is pretty heavily sold in that trailer. Oh, and it's from the creative minds of Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams, whom you may have heard, have a pretty good track record.

To any of you who might have been in the camp of "Paramount needs to show me more to get my $14," what would seeing the creature do for you that simply knowing the plot isn't already doing? You've already got the genre, the hook and the basic plot - how much more do you need spoon-fed? Also, I'd like to personally thank you for ruining the filmgoing experience for the rest of us. It's no longer possible to sit through a movie trailer without having every money shot, every last point point, every last surprise completely ruined.

Years ago, director Robert Zemeckis defended this practice, saying, "We know from studying the marketing of movies, people really want to know exactly every thing that they are going to see before they go see the movie. It's just one of those things. To me, being a movie lover and film student and a film scholar and a director, I don't. What I relate it to is McDonald's. The reason McDonald's is a tremendous success is that you don't have any surprises. You know exactly what it is going to taste like. Everybody knows the menu."

I tried not to believe that. I like being surprised when I see movies as much as I like being surprised when I read scripts. As someone who tries to write unexpected plot turns and twists into my own scripts, I shudder at the thought that my carefully crafted surprises will be at the mercy of a pinheaded marketing department that will leave no shock unrevealed. This makes no sense - if the most desirable element of the film is given away for free, why would anyone pay to see the rest?

An analogy about a cow and free milk comes to mind. That's the problem - marketing departments are like cheerleaders with low self-esteem. They cling to the belief that they if they put out, everyone will love them.

Then there's the other half of the problem: the entitlement in our culture. People decide they need to know everything before they lay down their money for a film. And god forbid a few seconds of film reveal something that doesn't meet with their standards, such as a superhero costume or starship that isn't designed the way they would have done it.

And the result is boring, predictable films that seem to have been designed by committee, for after creating a situation where no real risks are allowed to be taken Mr. Fickle Viewer then complains about how weak the story is in the latest Transformers sequel, or how all the big summer movies are all flash, no substance, no surprises.

It's not Hollywood's that's ruined movies - it's viewers who insist on having everything ruined for them as a precondition before plunking down their admission fares. If the only thing that would have sold you on Super 8 was seeing what the monster looked like, you deserve the entertainment you get.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Friday Free-for-All: Transformers dancing to Thriller

This has to be the most random video I've seen this week - Transformers dancing to Thriller.

I'm sure I'm not the only Generation One fan who's bitter that Hod Rod gets to lead the dance number over Optimus Prime.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Thursday Throwback - "How not to use music"

This post first appeared on Monday, March 23, 2009.

At age 18, I came up with an idea that would eventually lead to my first feature-length screenplay, and I owe it all to Phil Collins. As I was driving in the car one evening, “In the Air Tonight” came on the radio and though I’d heard the song hundreds of times before, it suddenly struck me that it would make a great soundtrack for a movie scene. The creepy foreboding chords of the beginning made for a great contrast with the famous crescendo drum beats that signal the climax of the song. Immediately, I went home and scribbled down the opening scene of a horror film beat for beat, synchronizing certain actions to the song, with the final brutal attack coming at the aforementioned beats. “Oh yes,” I thought, “This is the scene that will have everyone talking.” When I got around to writing the script, the first lines that appeared were “We hear ‘In the Air Tonight’ by Phil Collins.”

(At the time, I was unaware that Miami Vice had already used the same song in a famous sequence. What can I say, I was culturally illiterate.)

And if I could reach back in time, I’d grab that 18 year-old hack by the throat and tell him there were few dumber things he could do than that. First, the rights to licensed music costs money. A lot of it. So let’s say a producer buys a script with one or more licensed songs that have been made integral to the plot. What happens if the rights holder decides he doesn’t want that song to appear in your movie? Or what if he holds you up for a lot of money? Because of the fear of situations like this happening, it’s generally understood that screenwriter’s shouldn’t list specific songs in their scripts. Sometimes you can get around this by saying “A song like ‘My Way’” but in general, it’s best to just avoid the issue altogether and not name songs. Above all else, never name a song that is irreplaceable in the context of the film. Don’t have everything building up to your cast singing a karaoke cover of “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” as the resolution to the plot.

(The same basic principles apply to using movie and TV show clips in your script. Think long and hard before making the call that your lead character must be watching Jaws or Star Wars on camera.)

Why is this important? Because breaking this rule is another one of those mistakes that marks you as a clueless newbie. Once a reader has made that call about you, it’s a short hop from that to “PASS.” Remember, in this business, there’s no real risk attached to saying “no,” while there might be a slight risk at pushing for a script that your boss ends up thinking is trash. Why gift-wrap your reader a reason for saying no?

And while we’re on the subject of music in movies, I have to say I’m getting tired of seeing movies where the soundtrack seems to have determined the scenes rather than vice-versa. Guys like Cameron Crowe and Quentin Tarantino have made some really cool musical choices in their movies, but the unfortunate side effect has been a lot of upcoming screenwriters who seem to be writing scenes so they can include their favorite songs in films. Good music doesn’t make a good script, and in fact, almost seems like lazy storytelling when the songs become a crutch.

Or to put it another way – isn’t it suspicious that the first thing anyone seems to say when Garden State comes up in conversation is “What a great soundtrack!” Speaking as someone who read about fifty Garden State knockoffs, each with their own indie-emo soundtracks, all I can say is: turn off the iPod.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Avoid generic titles!

I've probably ragged on this before, but in the past few weeks I've had more than one run-in with a script with an unmemorable title. This is a silly tip, I know... but keep in mind that anyone in the business who looks at your script is probably going to read 15-20 other scripts that week. That's a lot of plots, characters, and names to commit to memory.

So does it do you any good to slap a generic title on the script? I've had a couple instances where an exec has asked me for my verbal take on a script I read just a few weeks ago - and let me tell you, when the title is something like "Life" or "The Tree" or "Moving" my recall might not be extremely sharp at matching that script to its main plotline.

But something like "Spring Break Antarctica '12" or "The Siege of Waldorf University" or "Killer Klowns from Outer Space" lodges in the memory. True, most of those sound like schlock titles, but consider these memorable titles:

Back to the Future
Pirates of the Caribbean
Hot Tub Time Machine
Four Christmases
Knocked Up
The 40 Year-Old Virgin

Those titles are memorable and they offer enough of the premise that they're likely to trigger memories of the script.

So give some thought to your titles. Anything you can do to make your writing memorable can help you in the long run.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Tuesday Talkback - Real events in popcorn movies

I saw X-Men: First Class this weekend. Spoiler alert - it's set against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, with the main characters of the film playing key roles in manipulating and resolving that conflict.

I was born well after the CMC, so to me, it's about as "real" as the fall of the Roman Empire. However, I couldn't help but ponder what someone of an older generation, someone who lived through those two weeks of tension where it looked like Russia and the United States were on a collision course that nearly lead to all-out war. Is it crass to depict a version of history where a comic-book super villain is responsible for fostering that crisis? Is it equally disrespectful to show superheroes being responsible for saving the day?

I know that if a superhero movie depicted 9/11 as part of a scheme masterminded by Dr. Doom that most audiences would be appalled by the lack of respect. (Then again, the Cuban Missile Crisis ended without incident, counter to the lives lost on 9/11.) Should our popcorn movies reduce major history to plot points for characters in tights and capes?

Monday, June 6, 2011

Message board morons and "Is Hollywood Dead?"

Journey the internet and you'll find no shortage of unqualified idiots spouting off in knowledgeable-sounding phrases about how they totally know exactly how the entertainment industry works. These know-it-alls are easily identifiable not because they offer some analysis of where the industry is, but because they almost always claim absolute certainty about where the business is going. "_______ is the future of the industry!" they say.

Nevermind that few of these people have ever even gotten coffee for someone in the business, let alone held a job in it. But why let a think like lack of first-hand knowledge stop you as long as you read US Weekly and all the comments on Deadline.

Seriously - there are people out there who not only believe that an Edsel like Amazon Studios is the future, but they're ill-informed to believe that "test movies" are the future of the industry. Right. Their line of logic is that the best way to sell a movie is to produce a cheaply-made version of the film - screen this rough draft for audiences, and then use that feedback to determine if it's worth producing the final film.

Right... the studios are going to trust the fate of a multimillion dollar property to a pre-vis feature that is some combination of storyboards, anamatics and dialogue voice-over for two hours. No finished effect, likely no big stars, and none of the polish. Wow.... sounds almost as fun for the audience as jury duty. Where do they sign up for this "honor?" Can I see the storyboard versions of Bridesmaids 2 and One Day?

If my opinion bothers you, don't worry. I'm sure right now there's some uninformed boob typing a post about how I'm only writing this post because I'm running scared from all the changes that "the great unwashed" will bring to Hollywood. That my dissent exists only as part of an elitist conspiracy to keep outsiders out, and that any moronic business practices on Amazon Studios part is less of a concern than the fact that I apparently have something against people who expect instant screenwriting careers as a result of having typed 120-some pages in semi-accurate format.

Anyway, one of my fellow bloggers, the great Bill Martell, has weighed in on the fallacy of the message board proclamations that Hollywood is dead. But instead of hyperbole, he brings facts that show that anyone readying the death certificate for Hollywood is acting prematurely.

2009 broke box office records at the cinemas, and *ticket sales* increased as well. It was a record year for cinema ticket sales - more butts in seats than in any recent previous year. Meanwhile, home entertainment (from Hollywood) took a nosedive. 2010 sold fewer tickets and made less money - but was ahead of 2009 as far as money was concerned until mid-December. The problem seemed to be there was no huge Holiday movie - TRON: LEGACY was no AVATAR... and all of the second tier films also did much less business. Hey, that was good for the Coen Brothers - TRUE GRIT is their first real hit! But that happened because there was no “mainstream” hit movie to go to. This year began slow, but box office rebounded to record levels in April. With $791 million, April of 2011 was the top-grossing April ever and was up five percent from April last year. And with 101 million tickets sold, April 2011 was the third highest-attended April in history. And it didn’t stop there - we just had the highest-grossing Memorial Day weekend of all time at $277 million... and summer has just begun!

Hollywood is giving people the movies they want, even if they may not be the movies that *you* want to see. The major mistake in the theory that good films will force out the bad is the definitions of “good” and “bad”. I have a Script Tip on the two kinds of good - there is “critical good” and “entertainment good” - and when people have been working all week and want to just escape their crappy lives for two hours, most of them are not interested in movies that are challenging and intellectual - they just want to be entertained. When some critic says that FAST FIVE is a good movie if you just check your brain at the door, they mean it is well made entertainment... and that’s what most people want to see when they buy their tickets. They just want to be transported into some fantasy world where their problems do not exist. Sure, there are some people who *do* want to be challenged and *do* want to think... but that is a small percentage of the audience - a niche. If you fill the cinemas with “more intelligent films”, more people will not be watching them.

Check out the rest of the post here.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Friday Free-For-All: The DGA's Visual History Program

The Director's Guild of America is in the process of doing something I think most of my reader's will find interesting with their Visual History Program:

Here you will find over a thousand hours of videotaped interviews with directors and director's team members discussing their careers and reflections on all aspects of the creative process in film, television and other media. Founded in 2000 to build a comprehensive, searchable, online databank on the art and craft of production, the Visual History Collection currently numbers 140 and continued to grow, with new peer-to-peer interviews conducted monthly in Los Angeles, New York, and other locations. The interviews will be posted to the DGA website on a regular basis.

At the moment, among the interviews live on the site are:

Ed Sherin - Law & Order, L.A. Law
Arthur Penn - Bonnie & Clyde, The Miracle Worker, Little Big Man
Gene Reynolds - Lou Grant, M*A*S*H (TV)
Arthur Hill - Love Story, Silver Streak
Robert Altman - M*A*S*H, The Player
Robert Wise - The Day the Earth Stood Still, Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Carl Reiner - The Dick Van Dyke Show
Penelope Spheeris - Wayne's World, Black Sheep

Many of the interviews run for at least two hours and there are many more to come in future weeks. I'm just getting into the Sherin interview, which is like crack for a L&O junkie like me. (Sherin basically originated the long one-er take that became a hallmark of not only that series, but virtually every other crime drama that followed. It's known as the "Sherin spin.")

Another cool feature of the site is that the interviews are broken into many pieces, with each piece getting a summary of what happens at particular timecodes. (And let me tell you, from glancing through the summaries, I'm dying to get to the Spheeris interview for the Wayne's World and Black Sheep material. (Yes, I'm low-brow.)

I get the sense I have a lot of college students among my readers, so these videos would be an excellent supplement to any film education you're taking. (Or alternately, if you aren't able to get an education in film, these might be an adequate substitute.) Pass the link on to your professor and impress him or her.

The only thing the site really lacks is the capacity to embed videos, so it'll have to be on you guys to go there and find the videos, but check it out... it looks like a pretty cool project they've got going there.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Reader question - What to ask a reader

Chris asks:

Hey there, I'm wondering if you have any advice or samples of questions that you would ask people that you were sending your script out to for feedback. Not like a coverage service, but to your friends/ contacts within the industry. As opposed to, 'did you like it?' , more like ' if you were on your death bed, tell me something that you normally wouldn't about this script? ' (Ripped that off from Neil Brennan in a book). I want more questions like that. My friends and agents are all top notch, any ideas?

Very good question... I've got a few ideas.

This might be apocryphal, but a friend of mine once told me they heard that Stephen King would always watch his wife read early drafts of his work. Any time she stopped, he'd ask, "Why did you put the book down there? What made you stop for a break there?" So that's always a question I try to ask - "If you didn't read the script all in one shot, where did you take a break and why?"

Other good questions:

- How did you think it was going to end?
- How far into the film did you realize [insert plot point here?]
- At what point did you decide you knew what kind of script this was?
- I'm worried a particular scene is too long. Tell me which scene you think that is.
- What notes were issues as you read it, and what notes didn't occur to you until you really started thinking about the script?
- Be honest - did you have a hard time telling the characters apart/keeping them straight?
- Where do you think the best place is for a sex scene? (trick question.)
- What was the most derivative scene in the script, in your opinion?

Do you guys have any other good questions for readers?

Update: It seems Chris also posed the same question to Amanda the Aspiring Writer, who gives her answer in this post.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Slang in a spec script?

Twitter question from @A_Marra:

Curious. What's ur feelings when reading a script with real heavy ghetto slang? Does that make u stop reading a script?

You mean stuff like this?

"Aw, man. Tru 'dat. Nigga' be trippin! Tha' muthafucka is craza!"

Done here and there just to give an urban flavor is fine, but when something like this dominates every last line of dialogue?

It annoys the hell out of me. But let's not stop at ghetto slang. I once read a script set in Scotland where the writer felt the need to phonetically write the accent into every character's dialogue. The same goes for excessive Southern accents - especially when set in Civil War era stories.

Don't overdo it on the dialects, folks. If you write that the character has a heavy accent, it's not necessary to make sure every last syllable you write contains the accent. Remember that you're writing this to be read and you don't want to make that harder by cluttering up the page with what looks like guttural sounds unless you say them outloud.