Wednesday, May 30, 2012

12-Step Screenwriting: Week One - Idea, Concept and Story

I'm pleased to introduce the first regular episode of the Bitter Script Reader YouTube series!

This is the first chapter of a 12-part series designed to guide and motivate a writer to complete a screenplay within three months.  Recognizing that I had an opportunity to reach a new audience via YouTube, I decided to start with the basics.

This week's video covers the difference between idea, concept and story.  You wouldn't believe how those simple distinctions seem to elude many new writers.  You shouldn't start writing a script until you can say that what you're working on is a story.

As you can see, this is back-to-basics information, but hopefully some of you will take up the challenge of completing a screenplay alongside the weekly lessons in this series.  I've done my best to minimize the jargon here.  So later on we'll be talking things like Act Breaks and Climaxes, but I won't ask you to commit things like "Fun & Games" to memory.

I also won't pull the Writers Boot Camp stunt of introducing a lot of vocabulary that isn't common to the business.  The good news is that since I'm not charging for any of this, I don't have to go to ridiculous lengths to make it seem like the basics of screenwriting can only be understood by unlocking a Sphinx-like riddle.

As always, it really helps me out to see some engagement with these videos, so please click through to the YouTube page, Subscribe and leave a few comments there.  Feel free to embed these on your blogs, and if you find the tips useful, tweet about them or put the videos on your Facebook page.

I hope that in three months time, a lot of you will be reporting back with completed screenplays.

Friday, May 25, 2012

My review of Hughes the Force

After a week of interview clips promoting Hughes the Force, it seemed only fair that I weigh in with a proper review.

Like I said earlier this week, a good film cannot exist without a strong concept.  That holds true of both short and feature-length films.  Fortunately Hughes the Force has a rather novel concept that should appeal to anyone who grew up with the films of the 80s. Two high school geeks, Henry (Justin Okin) and Simon (Nathaniel Weiss) are determined to go to the big end-of-the-year party.  Simon in particular has a major crush on Jennifer, but in order to get into the party, they need a hot girl.  To that end, the guys decide to make their own hot girl, Weird Science-style and bring a Slave Leia action figure to life (Taylor Treadwell).

The idea of a John Hughes/George Lucas mash-up is so clever, I'm rather surprised it hasn't been done before.  As a geek for the works of both filmmakers, I found it to be an irresistible hook.  Naturally, that's what director J.C. Reifenberg and his team are banking on.

But the filmmakers are just riding on a strong premise - they bring some production savvy to the mix as well.  By soliciting the services of a local Star Wars costuming guild, Reifenberg and his producers populated the film with costumes and characters that couldn't have appeared more authentic if they were stolen right off of Skywalker Ranch.  So much of what you'll find on YouTube seems to be hastily-shot, cheaply-produced garbage.  From a visual standpoint, Hughes the Force can stand with the better of the fanfilms in release.

The value added elevates the film and really helps sell the magic used by the Leia genie, coming in a scene where she transforms the patrons into a Barney's Beanery into beings one might expect to find at the Mos Eisley cantina and Jabba's Palace.  Among the crowd are pool-playing stormtroopers, a Boba Fett, Darth Vader and even a mostly-naked green Twi'lek dancer. (For the layperson, that's the first character to meet her end at the hands of the Rancor in Return of the Jedi.)

Another bonus: the bar scene features cameos from a couple of Star Wars-affiliated actors.  The performer behind the Chad Vader videos lends his voice, while Star Wars: The Clone Wars actors Catherine Taber and James Arnold Taylor appear in costumes as characters they've only played in voice - Padme and Obi-Wan Kenobi.  The later straight-up steals the film, playing Obi-Wan with a relish that would make one think he'd just signed a contract for an entire trilogy of movies in that part.  Brief though his appearance is, I found myself wishing he could come along for the rest of the adventure.  Kevin Smith also makes a fun cameo that probably is even funnier if the viewer is unspoiled.  (Ooops... sorry about that.)

So did Hughes the Force reach the heights of my gold-standard, George Lucas in Love?  Not quite.  At over 30 minutes, the pacing is a bit of an issue.  Even though Reifenberg explained his rationale in our interview, I did still find myself yearning for a brisker pace at times.  I suspect it's less of an issue when watching this film with a group of like-minded Star Wars fans.  So if possible, gather your friends and watch this as a group.

I also felt that the characters showed the strains of carrying such a long short.  Had there been greater contrasts between Simon and Henry's characterizations, this could have been alleviated somewhat.  After a while, I couldn't escape the feeling that the characters were rather similar in a way that may have inhibited some comedic chemistry.

As for Leia herself, while I can't deny the logic of Reifenberg's explanation in our interview that this Leia isn't really Leia, but just "the embodiment of their perfect woman put into a plastic action figure," I would have liked to have seen Leia written with a little more of her trademark spitfire.  Treadwell plays the character with a bit of a flirtatious side, but a little more sass and spunk could have enlivened things even more.

Still, Hughes the Force is worth checking out.  It's clearly a labor of love for everyone both in front of and behind the camera.  There's little doubt that this was made by talented people passionate about what they were doing.

From the filmmakers press release:

Hughes the Force is available for download at and on SiT - SModCast Internet Television.

The film will be freely available to all for download in a number of digital formats for both PC and Mac, as well as mobile versions for Android and iPhone. 

Also available are Blu-ray and DVD files complete with menus and bonus content for burning to your own discs. 

A galactic number of bonus features, including: 

· The Making of Hughes the Force featurette – behind-the-scenes footage from the set and interview clips with the Director J.C. Reifenberg, Producer Ruark Dreher and actor, James Arnold Taylor. 

· Commentary Tracks – multiple tracks featuring the lead actors and the production staff covering a range of topics including the writing, cinematography, production work, and acting. 

· Pop-Up Video Track – behind-the-scenes trivia throughout the film.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

"The best thing I could have done for my career from a networking perspective."

Part I -
Part II - Stalking Kevin Smith: Getting celebrities to make a cameo in your film
Part III - How long should a short film be?

In this final segment of the interview, director J.C. Reifenberg talks about his goals for Hughes the Force.  Then he takes a few notes from The Bitter Script Reader, discussing a few character and thematic issues.  J.C. also talks about how this film "was the best thing I could have done for my career from a networking perspective.  It's already paid off three time what I invested into it."

Readers, if you'd like to see more web interviews and more of the puppet, it's very important that you go to YouTube, leave comments, subscribe to the channel and "Like" the videos.  That kind of engagement really helps us out.

More videos will be coming over the next several weeks.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

How long should a short film be?

Part I -
Part II - Stalking Kevin Smith: Getting celebrities to make a cameo in your film

"Student films come in three lengths," one of my film professors once told me.  "Long.  Too long.  And entirely too long."

When working on my own short films, I've done my best to adhere to that mantra.  When I'm making something meant to be shown on the internet, my goal has always been to be even more merciless and efficient.  I have several friends who are also students of that school of thought, and as someone who's known a festival programmer or two, I'm also aware that a longer film faces greater obstacles in getting selected, as it eats up time that could go to two or three shorter films.

Does that mean that shorter is always better?  I don't know.  It's usually my preference.  Then again, there are people I've talked to like Joshua Caldwell, Director of Digital Media over at Anthony E. Zuiker's Dare to Pass, who very firmly believe that the paradigm is shifting and people are becoming more accustomed to consuming longer content on the web.

In this segment of my interview with Hughes the Force director J.C. Reifenberg, we discuss length.  When I started watching the film, I didn't know what the running time was.  I figured it would be about 10-15 minutes.  Very quickly, I noticed the pacing of the individual scenes was slower, closer to what one would find in a TV show or a movie than in a typical short film.  As it turns out, the film is a little over 30 minutes in length.

That wasn't J.C.'s intention when he started.  In fact, he was determined to make it under ten minutes at first.  How did things evolve and why did he decide that longer was better for this particular story?  Watch below.

Part IV - "The best thing I could have done for my career from a networking perspective."

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Stalking Kevin Smith: Getting celebrities to make a cameo appearance in your film

Part 1

When you're making a short film, one tactic you can use to get people interested in watching it is by having a celebrity or two appear in your film.  Even a small cameo can be useful in getting some buzz generated, as that star's fanbase will follow them.

When it comes to Star Wars fandom, there are few more famous superfans than Kevin Smith.  In this part of our interview with Hughes the Force director J.C. Reifenberg, J.C. discusses the... we'll call them... "determined" tactics he used to get Smith to do his movie.

The film also features cameos from Star Wars: The Clone Wars voice actors James Arnold Taylor and Catherine Taber, appearing as their characters of Obi-Wan and Padme for the first time in live action.

Part III - How long should a short film be?
Part IV - "The best thing I could have done for my career from a networking perspective."

Monday, May 21, 2012

Webshow is back! Interview with "Hughes the Force" Director J.C. Reifenberg - Part 1

Yes!  After months of waiting, The Bitter Script Reader webshow is back with a new video, this one the first of a four-part interview with J.C. Reifenberg, the director of a Star Wars fan-film called Hughes the Force.

As someone who's made several short films and assisted on many others, I can attest that it's never easy.  A short filmmaker is almost always going to be struggling against not having enough time, money and resources to complete their vision.  But even before that, the filmmaker needs to have a solid concept worth producing - and sometimes it's harder thinking of a short idea than it is a feature.

Then once the film is done, the already exhausted filmmaker has to figure out some way to get his short in front of people.  With sites like YouTube, the process of distribution is simplified, but at the tradeoff of needing to stand out from the pack.

I first heard about Reifenberg's film last year around the time of San Diego Comic-Con.  It had what I considered an irresistible hook: a mash-up of Star Wars and John Hughes's Weird Science.  Better still, Reifenberg came up with some savvy ways to add production value such as costumes and some sly cameos from the Star Wars Universe.

Long time readers of this blog will recall my spotlighting other Star Wars fan films Troops and George Lucas in Love, two productions that stand as A+ examples of short films/fan films in my estimation.  Seeing the potential in Hughes the Force, I contacted the filmmakers through their publicist, and after arranging a viewing of the film, director and co-writer J.C. Reifenberg was good enough to sit down with me.

So watch the interview below to find out more about the premise, how J.C. got such great costumes and props, and why getting an actress to perform mostly naked and in green body paint was actually one of the easiest tasks the filmmaker accomplished.

Hughes the Force will be released this Friday, May 25, on both the Hughes the Force website and Kevin Smith's YouTube Channel, S.I.T. - SModCo Internet Television.

Part II - Stalking Kevin Smith: Getting celebrities to make a cameo appearance in your short film
Part III - How long should a short film be?
Part IV - "The best thing I could have done for my career from a networking perspective."

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Why Scott Myers's "The Quest" might be the best thing to happen to aspiring writers in a long time

I've written this blog for over three years now and one of the more frequent email questions I get is: "What are your rates?" On one hand I appreciate that by-and-large, people recognize that my time is valuable and I'm not interested in reading their scripts purely out of the goodness of my heart.

But on the other hand, it makes me aware of how eager people are to plunk down cash for the opinion of a self-proclaimed (and at least in my case, anonymous) expert. Though that's seemed odd to me, I know that some other readers out there are quite reputable people. I always refer those willing to pay for notes to Amanda Pendolino, for example. I've gotten notes from Amanda, and have corresponded with her enough that I have no reservations about her motives and professionalism.

Unfortunately, not everyone is like Amanda. The web is full of unscrupulous consultants and services. I don't have time to check up on all of them. I can offer a few rules of thumb to avoid the most unsavory of the bunch.

If someone charges you $75 to "evaluate" your logline and/or query, they're probably taking advantage of you.

If' you're stupid enough to pay good money - say $75 - for a "brainstorming session," you might lack the hardware necessary for such an interface.

And if you are being asked to pay $500 or more for a few pages of notes, you're wasting your money. I don't care who this person is or what connections they claim to have - NO ONE'S notes are worth that much. High rates like that are indefensible to the point of taking advantage of a writer's desperation and naivete.

Services like this stay in business because it's hard breaking into the industry. Usually, the more expensive the service, the more they're taking advantage of you. Many of you reading this blog are so far outside the industry that it might seem like a good deal to plunk down a few weeks pay on the slim hope you can penetrate the Fort Knox that is Hollywood. That saddens me because I wish there was more I was in a position to do to help. Instead, all I can say is "If it seems too good to be true, it probably is."

With one exception.

Scott Myers has been wrestling with some of the same questions I've faced. The difference between us is that he did something about it. For a while now, he's offered Screenwriting Master Class, a series of classes that range in cost from $95 to $495. For some of you, that might be a lot of money to part with.

Yesterday, his blog carried this announcement.

[I have considered] How to create an alternate route into Hollywood for aspiring screenwriters, especially those of you who are outsiders [no industry connections]. I was a complete outsider to the movie business when I broke in, so my sensitivity to this issue is real and longstanding. Moreover it seems like every day I interface with someone who, lacking connections in Hollywood, expresses frustration about not knowing how to go about getting their foot in the door.

I have kicked around a lot of ideas over the last year, then a few months ago, I hit on something that struck me as being either brilliant — or totally nuts.

I did due diligence and consulted with many people inside the industry as well as writers who have taken classes with me, and every single one of them thought it was a great idea.

So next Monday, I will be announcing Go Into The Story: The Quest.

Bottom line: I will be looking to work with up to four writers in a 24-week Screenwriting Master Class intensive in which they will learn my comprehensive theoretical approach to the craft, then put that knowledge to use prepping and writing a full-length screenplay.

The cost? Nothing.

That’s right, a 6-month deep immersion in screenwriting theory and scriptwriting workshop where you end up with an original screenplay with me as your mentor for the entire process, and you don’t have to spend even a dime.

And if at the end of the process you have written a great script… you will have direct access to industry insiders.

I think this is brilliant. This is Scott putting his money where his mouth is. He believes in his method so much that he'll put it out there for free to four people. It's the antithesis of a lot of the scammers out there - total transparency AND generosity.

This is a great opportunity - in fact, it might be the best opportunity for amateurs that I've seen in a long time. In a worst case scenario, you emerge from this with a very comprehensive education in screenwriting. The connections are merely a bonus. This is your chance to work with one of the best mentors in the business and have motivation to finish a screenplay.

Usually, I make it a point not to strongly endorse any product or service I wouldn't use myself. Because of that, my conscience is clear when I say that anyone reading this blog who's serious about being a writer should submit themselves for consideration as one of Scott's Fortunate Four. If I wasn't personally acquainted with Scott, I'd be spending the next several days getting my submission ready.

I hate the word "guru." I hate gurus who are in it either for self-aggrandizement, or who come up with bizarre and cockamamie theories of writing solely to sell you on a writing seminar or book. I wince when (well-meaning) people call me a "guru."

Scott's not a guru - he's a mentor. And a damn good one at that. He's long been a great supporter of this blog and I consider him one of the most decent people I've "met" during my time in L.A. (And Scott, the next time you're in town, we WILL have to meet face-to-face finally.) He created these programs not for himself - but for you. The altruism and commitment he's shown towards aspiring writers has no equal.

Even if you can't get his services for free, maybe you can consider taking that money you were ready to throw at me (or the opportunists I lambasted earlier) and make an investment in your education and screenwriting future by enrolling in Screenwriting Master Class.

But for now, work on making a kickass case for why you should be the one to get all that at no charge.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

What is a "Producer In Name Only" and how do they get paid for getting nothing?

On Monday I dropped a term that some of you may have been unfamiliar with: Producer In Name Only.

As it turns out, one of my readers WAS familiar with that term and offered up an assessment even blunter than my usual candor:

I am quite familiar with the reputation of the PINO from first hand experiences, but never realized there was a name for it! 

Better know as the parasites who burrow their way into the credits of a project and then use those credits to go get more work (under false pretenses) and they continue to fail upward while sabotaging one project at a time. 

The PINO becomes a self fueling cycle of inept undeserved saboteurs running around with over inflated credits.

A lot of PINOs are managers who attach themselves to scripts as producers or executive producers. Do you know what that means? Not a heck of a lot. In most of those cases, the person in question pockets a check and gets included on a lot of email chains, but they have no creative role on the project at all. Often, they might not even have a voice on the business side of things either.

You're not dealing with Brian Grazer or J.J. Abrams here. I'll give you an example of such a PINO. Buffy fans, have you ever watched the credits on the TV show and seen the "Executive Producer" credits for Fran Rubel Kuzui and Kaz Kuzui? Do you know what they contributed to the TV show? Nothing.

 "At least two of the executive producers have never seen the set of Angel. A business deal signed at the outset of the Buffy film gave them a financial stake in all things Buffy. They've received credit and sizable checks for the duration of Buffy and Angel for doing absolutely nothing. (Names furnished upon request)" - Dan Kearns, crew member on Angel, wrote in the essay, "Angel by the Numbers" from Five Seasons of Angel (2004), p25.

A good guide to identifying PINOs is to listen to a writer's commentary and see if there's any "Producer" or "Executive Producer" credit that they snicker at.  These crop up often on the Seinfeld DVDs, when Jerry Seinfeld's manager's "Executive Producer" credit pops up.  The name "Bernie Brillstein" often provokes this response.

This is a good example of how the title "Producer" is probably the most abused in Hollywood.  Not all producers are created equal.

That's why you want to take extra care when attaching a "producer" to your script.  Remember the tale of Anthony E. Zuiker, who sold his script to a producer who soon became a hinderance to getting a major studio to sell it. 

Sometimes the PINO might just be out for credit and some money.  If that's all they're after, you might be lucky.  And in fairness, not all PINOs are bad.  I had one script where I told a friend of mine to attach themselves as "Executive Producer" if they made use of their favors to get the script in front of someone who might be interested in it.  In that case, I believed in the script but I knew that this person could get it in front of people who were inaccessible to me. 

With that arrangement, we both would have benefitted from the script getting made.  As friends, we were only too happy to help each other.  The worst-case scenario for something like this is where you get stuck with a parasite.  This is where your writing is doing all the heavy lifting of getting people interested and the PINO is little more than a parasite looking to gloom onto your success.

Beware this arrangement, particularly if after you do the hard work of getting "real" producers attached, they have delusions of being actively involved as a producer.  A bad PINO can screw you over by being a pain-in-the-ass that the real creatives get sick of accommodating.  Zuiker's story the other day might be a less common one, but stuff like that definitely happens.

You can't always predict how someone attached to your script might try to exploit you.  So take care when allowing someone to tie themselves to your success. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Tuesday Talkback - Agent Coulson and Boba Fett: Inexplicably popular characters

Spoilers for The Avengers below:

I don't get it.  What's with all the love for Agent Coulson?

I'm inclined to attribute this to his being martyred in The Avengers.  (And I'll give Joss this, he gave Coulson a few nice moments that were designed to make his death sting a little more.)  But I saw the Cult of Agent Coulson springing to life in the weeks leading up to release, and I just don't get it.  The guy's barely a plot device - he's basically just there to be some connective tissue between a few Marvel films.  We barely know anything about him, and until The Avengers, he really didn't get to do anything cool.

(Even the impact of his death was blunted by the fact I saw it coming almost from the instant we met Maria Hill, who bore all the telltale signs of being groomed to be Coulson's "replacement" as the Marvel Corporation's Synergy Player.)

While I'm sure his portrayer, actor Clark Gregg, is a nice guy I never feel like he has any presence.  He's got a milquetoast voice and delivery that often threatens to send me off to Dreamland no matter what he's saying or doing.

So what do you all like about him?

This is probably a good time for me to go all-in and confess that I never got the fan obsession with Boba Fett either.  For those not in the know, Boba Fett is the "badass" bounty hunter in The Empire Strikes Back who tracks Han Solo to Cloud City, then rats him out to Vader and lets the Empire do all the heavylifting of capturing him.

I've never watched Dog the Bounty Hunter, so tell me, is it normal for these "fearsome bounty hunters" to follow at a safe distance and then call the police to make the actual arrest?

When next we see him in Return of the Jedi, this fearsome bounty hunter is hanging out in Jabba the Hutt's palace.  Because nothing says "tough guy" like hanging out in a gentleman's club, hitting on the dancers.

Yet for some reason, Fett made such an impression on Star Wars fans that they've complained since 1983 about Fett going out "like a punk."  During a battle on the Sail Barge, a blind Han Solo accidentally triggers Fett's jet pack, which results in him falling into the Sarlaac Pit to be digested over a thousand years.

Of all the minor characters to get elevated to demi-god status by the fans, why Fett?  You might as well start a fan club for Sy Snootles or Salacious Crumb!

So are any of you fellow "non-it-getters?"  Or are there perhaps other film or TV characters whose popularity astounds you?

Anthony E. Zuiker's "The Runner" - a business lesson in bad deals and attachments

I'm not able to delve into the business end of screenwriting as much as I'd like, largely because I either lack the personal experience OR could only offer examples that are so specific as to instantly earn the wrath of a former employer or two.  Sure, I could offer examples in the abstract, but I find that stories like this are more effective when specific examples are used.

I've been reading C.S.I creator/producer Anthony E. Zuiker's memoir Mr. C.S.I., and in it he discusses the complications he ran into while selling his first screenplay The Runner.  He wrote it back in the late 90s and having few other connections, managed to get hooked up with Mike Marvin.  Marvin's greatest claim to fame was as producer of a low budget teen comedy called Hot Dog... The Movie.  Marvin liked the script so much, he said wanted to direct it and he offered the struggling writer $35,000 for the screenplay.

In his book, Zuiker looks back on that offer with wiser persepective.

"That was huge money... But what sounded like a fortune would turn out to be a terrible business decision.  What did I know?  What did any of us know?  We were as inexperienced as we had been told.  Yet when I said we had a deal, not only did Ron [Moler, Marvin's financial partner] shake my hand, he had me sit at his computer and write out a simple straightforward deal memo.

"'Just say we have a deal,' he said.  'Write that you are selling me The Runner for thirty-five thousand dollars.'"

How did this come back to bite Zuiker?  I'm glad you asked.  Time passed, and The Runner was a strong enough sample to get representation at CAA.  That's when things got complicated.

Sony Pictures is so over the moon for the script that they offer Zuiker a two-picture deal - six figures for The Runner and six figures for a subsequent script to be written later.  That's basically the dream, right?

Take it from here, Tony...

"But then Ron refused to relinquish his right to direct.  He reminded everyone he had a signed contract.  He owned the project.  I saw my million-dollar fantasy disappear."

A couple lessons here:

First, don't sign anything without consulting a professional who's looking out for your interests.

Second, beware of attachments that hinder your film rather than help it.  With a director committed to the picture, the big studios had no interest in funding the film because they had no enthusiasm for working with Ron Moler.  Look at his credits - he had no directing experience before The Runner and his producing credits aren't terribly distinguished either.  An attachment like that is less a selling point and more of an anchor, dragging down your film.

Less notable talent can be a stumbling block for a sale.  If you're trying to sell a Bruckheimer-level project and somehow you got a Troma-level producer attached, that guy becomes a pain-in-the-ass whom the buyer might have to accommodate.   Even if a director on Hannah Montana might be your neighbor and your only industry contact, it might not be wise to let him attach himself as director to your erotic thriller - even if he says he can get it to the big boys at CAA.

What might have worked - and possibly may have been tried in this case - would have been to buy out Ron Moler's stake in the film.  Basically, they could have paid him NOT to direct.  That scenario would require two things:

(1) Ron's willingness to part with the film - if he was really determined to make his directorial debut with this script, it would probably cost quite a bit to meet his price.

(2)The Studio would have to be enamored enough with the script that it would be worth it for them to pay extra.

But since that series of events didn't come to pass, Zuiker's dreams of Hollywood glory ended up being deferred temporarily.  He got lucky - a second shot eventually came around.  A lot of naive writers might not have gotten that second chance.  Don't let your desire to have your script produced let you make bad snap decisions about who to get into bed with on a project.

Ideally, the Studio could have bought Ron off with an extra sum, perhaps with a producer credit.  Notice I said "credit."  When this sort of deal goes through, guys like Ron often become what we call a "PINO."  That's "Producer In Name Only."

What's a PINO?  Why don't we explore that on Wednesday.

If they were lucky

Friday, May 11, 2012

Friday Free-For-All: Spielberg watches the 1976 Oscar nominations

A friend of mine sent me this clip this week.  Supposedly, he thinks that Spielberg's mannerisms remind him of me.  I don't know if I totally see it, but I'll take it.

My parents totally used to have a chair just like the ones Steven is sitting in.

Rather interesting to see how confidant he must have been in order to invite the TV crews there.  I also have to salute his blunt candor.  If you've already shown the hubris of letting the crew film it, you might as well go all the way.  Today, I imagine most people would be more political in their reaction.  This might come as a shock, but I like people unafraid to tell it how it is.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Why not put failed pilots on iTunes?

If you follow entertainment news, you'll have noticed this week that the networks have started to announce which pilots are being ordered for next season.  Next week, each network will take its turn announcing their fall schedule.

It's an exciting couple of weeks if your show gets ordered, and an agonizing one if they've passed on you.  Some networks might pick up fewer than half of the pilots they produced.  The ones that don't make the schedule often disappear for good.  At best, they might surface around town as screeners, passed from executive to executive curious to check out a particular actor, or interested in seeing how a high-concept idea came together.

A good example is the pilot for last year's David E. Kelley Wonder Woman.  It didn't make the schedule, but it was pretty easy to find someone who had access to a bootlegged version, to the point where it eventually leaked online.  It's easy to see why there was such interest.  It's a pre-existing property and was one of the highest profile pilots of that year.  From the moment that pictures of the Wonder Woman costume leaked online, seemingly everyone who saw it had an opinion on it.  Even if the show came out terrible, it was a enough of a curiousity that fans wanted to see how it came out.

That's why it astounds me that Warner Bros and NBC didn't make the pilot available online.  Just imagine if they'd put it up on iTunes for $1.99.  They could have recouped some of the costs, and the fans would have a legitimate copy rather than resorting to piracy.  It's not as if they can do anything else with the pilot, so why not try to build some kind of revenue stream?

Why NOT put every unordered pilot online?  People worked hard on those episodes, doesn't their hard work deserve an audience?  I think it would also be fascinating to see what didn't get ordered, sort of like playing "Fantasy Network Executive."

I suppose I can see the argument that networks wouldn't want to demystify the process that much.  Then again, look at the saga of Nobody's Watching.  The pilot was produced for the WB in 2005 and after it didn't make the schedule, someone (likely executive producer Bill Lawrence) leaked it to YouTube a year later.  The show gained such a cult audience that for a time, it looked like it might get a second chance.  Maybe some network executives who passed on the show were embarrassed when reporters began running stories about how stupid it was of them to let this show get away.

Even as a type that, the excuse seems a little thin.  How about you guys?  Does anyone else feel like this is an idea who's time has come?  Are there any pilots from this year that you'd like to see, should they not get picked up?

Monday, May 7, 2012

Avengers - making introductions and re-introductions more than just exposition

It's been a while since I've discussed the importance of introducing characters in an interesting way.  I think sometimes weak openings comes as a result of the writer's inability to put themselves in the audience's shoes and recall that THIS is the moment that makes the first impression.

After all, the writer has lived with their character for weeks or months, so in their mind, this first scene just has to get the character on-screen.

I couldn't help but think of this during the opening half-hour of The Avengers, which has the task of introducing nearly a dozen major characters who have previously appeared in other Marvel films, either as headliners and supporting characters.  But the filmmakers would be wrong to assume that everyone buying a ticket to this film would have seen all or even ANY of the other movies.

And obviously, it's to the film's financial benefit that the movie appeal to audiences beyond the core Marvel fans.  So that forces the movie to introduce these characters as if it's the first time the audience has met them - without completely boring those viewers familiar with the earlier movies.

It's harder than it sounds, but I think the script did a pretty solid job of telling us everything we need to know for the sake of this movie.

First, there's a scene at a secret S.H.I.E.L.D. research center.  Here we introduce the Tesseract (previously an element in Thor and Captain America) and showcase that it's basically a mysterious and powerful form of energy.  Sure, we could trace the whole history of this thing, but it's really not that important.  In other words, screening the prior two films is unnecessary.

Loki shows up, and it's obvious that he's the villain of the piece.  He puts a few characters under his mind control spell and blows up the base, with Nick Fury and Agent Colson among those who get out in time.

So in the first few minutes we have: Villain, MacGuffin, Heroic Mastermind, Sidekick, and Brainwashed Hero.  Do we know Loki's full history or everything that Fury's got his hands in - but we know enough and they were introduced in a context that allows the audience not to feel lost.

Director Fury decides to activate the Avenger Initiative, which necessitates a series of scenes in which each member is met in turn.

- Black Widow is given a great sequence in which she appears to be a prisoner, only to turn the tables and kick ass without breaking much of a sweat.

- Then, Black Widow tracks down Dr. Banner in India, where's he's been living below the radar.  The exposition here is more dialogue-driven than visual, but the dialogue takes a turn that's either cryptic (if you're ignorant of Banner's "Hulk" alter-ego) or foreboding (if you know what they're referring to.  Either way, a couple important points are made: Banner's being recruited for his smarts, BW is very concerned about his temper, and that concern led her to bring an entire special forces team with her.

- Captain America admittedly gets one of the more mundane introductions, in addition to one of the more dialogue-laden ones.  The exposition here is more than made up for by the time we see him in action though

- And of course, Tony "Iron Man" Stark makes his debut while finishing up some technical doo-dad that we're told will turn his tower into a source of clean energy.  A lot of points are made here, including showcasing Tony's armor, reminding the audience of his relationship with Pepper Potts, and establishing both his "billionaire genius philathropist" persona.  There's also a fair amount of Tony's cocky showboating.  And of ALL the characters, I feel he's the most firmly established via just his intro scene.

Why do I say this? Because while you might argue that some dialogue given to other characters could be easily transposed to another character, there's not a single line of Tony's that could be swapped out to someone else as written.  His "voice" permeates everything he says.  If someone else would have to say something given to Tony, the rewrite would need to go further than just changing the character name above the line.

Other than Captain America, pretty much every character gets a opening scene that either conveys their function in the story, or the conflict that will define them throughout the script.  (In a few cases, we get both.)  Better still, most of those moments are entertaining scenes in their own right, either through comedy or tension.

In the wrong hands, the first half-hour could have been a bore while the viewers of previous films waited for the new audience members get caught up to speed.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Reader Question - How Will I Know If I'm a Good Writer?

I got a question from a 15 year-old reader named Valencia, who asked one of the most basic questions we each face as writers:

"How would I know if I'm a good writer?"

I struggled to find a satisfactory answer for the question, and while I did, Ken Levine gave a far better answer than I could have.  Check it out here:

How do you know if your script is any good?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Tuesday Talkback - Christopher Nolan's treatment of women

While talking about the Christopher Nolan Batman films last night on Twitter, I ended up in a long debate with a reader who asserted that "Nolan's treatment of women bothers me... just look at both Batfilms and Inception.  The women are useless devices and not characters."  This set off a long back-and-forth, during which I kept asserting that I thought Rachel was a fleshed-out character, and he asserted that she was only a plot device.

He also pointed out that she was the only [major] female character in two Bat-movies, which he equated to being a token character.  My feeling on this is that it would have been an even greater example of tokenism to make Lucius Fox or Alfred into a woman just for the sake of meeting some kind of quota.

It was also argued that Nolan "chose to write a story"  But I return to the point that Nolan's films are always incredibly focused, and like any writer, he clearly starts with the core conflict and themes and works outward from there.  In just about ALL of his films, the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist is what drives the plot.  That doesn't mean that the other characters aren't fleshed out or that they don't have significant parts to play, but they're always in concert with the larger machine of the story.

In a Nolan film, no one is there JUST for the sake of being there.  As it should be, they always have a vital service to the story, the themes or the characters.  I point this out because if you reduce Rachel's part in the story to just a plot device, then don't Alfred, Gordon and Lucius all pretty much also fall under that category?  They don't drive the story, but surely all four of those characters are fleshed out to the point where they are more than a simple plot device.

In Insomnia, the driving core is homicide cop vs. serial killer.  In The Prestige, it's two rival magicians against each other.  Batman Begins: Batman v. Ra's Al Guhl/Scarecrow/Mob.  In The Dark Knight, it's the Batman/Joker/Harvey triangle that defines the story.  In Inception, I might argue that the DiCaprio character's most important relationship is that one with his dead wife, for it's that dynamic that gives the rest of the film its emotional resonance.

It was suggested that Nolan could have brought in characters like Harley Quinn or Oracle, but I don't see what they would add to the story that he was telling about Batman's relationship to Gotham.  Nolan's Joker didn't NEED a sidekick, so he doesn't have one, nor does his Batman need an Oracle on-call to do all his detective work for him.  (Bringing in some version of Oracle might have actually undercut the story, for she might well have rendered Batman's security system obsolete.)

So what do all of you have to say about this?  Do you take issue with Nolan's treatment of women?  Or is it just a case of this being where the story has gone.  (And let's not forget that most of Nolan's works are adaptations in one form or another.)

Before we continue, I want to lay this down - as much as it's popular to whip out the Bechdel Test, I ain't having that here.  I don't subscribe to the premise that a movie is inherently bad simply because it fails the Bechdel Test. 

After all, would any of these films have been better if they DID pass the Bechdel Test? And TVTropes does a good job of addressing how this test can be misunderstood.  I also came across this article about The Problem with the Bechdel Test.

Let's talk about context - not checklists.  It would be great if we could stick to the topic of Christopher Nolan and not turn this into a discussion about the portrayal of women in Hollywood films in general. 

Believe me, I've read plenty of incredibly sexist scripts and seen plenty of sexist films - but I don't see Nolan's films as falling into that category at all.