Wednesday, February 27, 2013

ALICE OF OZ is doing well on The Black List

Remember a few weeks ago when I plugged ALICE OF OZ, the script my friend Matt Bolish placed on The Black List 3.0 website?  Well, Matt got his review back this week and it was a fairly glowing report:

Premise: 9/10
Plot: 7/10
Characters: 8/10
Dialogue: 8/10
Overall: 8/10

With an overall of 8, the script qualifies to be scouted in the weekly email and it's been popping in and out of the bottom of the Top Uploaded list all week.  As his other script, ABERRANT INTELLIGENCE, is still in the middle of the list, Matt has actually had two scripts charting at the same time!

The Black List reader found a lot to like in the script, saying, "This story is an absolute pleasure to read. It matches the fantastic and whimsical tone of the source material very well. Furthermore, the characters are reminiscent of their previous incarnations, and yet interesting in their own new ways. Especially compelling is the story arc of Alice; this version of her is the best selling point of this script. The adventure kicks off right away, and it does a good job of servicing multiple storylines across several different settings."

So again, to those of you with Black List access who haven't checked ALICE OF OZ out yet, I invite you to do so here.

While I'm plugging Black List-related material, those of you attending the Austin Film Festival may wish to check out the panel. “Launching Your Writing Career.” It's presented by The Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting and The Black List in partnership with The Los Angeles Film School.

"This special discussion will include Greg Beal, Nicholl Fellowship Director; Franklin Leonard, Founder of The Black List; and AFF’s Screenplay Competition Director Matt Dy. Moderating the discussion will be AFF panelist alum and former WGAW President Daniel Petrie, Jr. 

"Discussion will include success stories from AFF, The Nicholl, and The Black List; what readers and judges look for when evaluating scripts, advice on how to take your script to the next level, and the role The Black List now plays with emerging writers. 

"Launching Your Writing Career will be held at the Los Angeles Film School Theater at 6363 Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood, CA, 90028 from 1:00 PM to 2:30 PM."

Admission is $10, which is only to cover the cost of the venue.  You can purchase tickets here.

Also, the Black List is hiring an assistant. Details here.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Tuesday Talkback: How can Australian producers get scripts?

This is another email I got where I don't feel like my answer is terribly useful, so I'm opening the floor up to you guys.

Michael writes:

Been following you on twitter for a while now, love getting your updates. I'm a young-ish producer based in Australia, and I've been working with my creative team for roughly the last five years. In the last three we've launched and grown our production company working mostly in advertising and corporates, all whilst doing the odd short to hone our narrative skills with the look out to some day doing a feature. 

Finally we've gotten to that point where we are saying 'lets pick a project' and we'd love to option a script preferably written by a writer outside Australia - with the location of the story no real concern to us, and genre being something we don't feel we are defined by - with good writing, and developed characters being I guess just two of the many other factors we'd be looking for. 

Anyway the reason for this email is to ask your advice on the best process to getting our eyes on scripts. Should we be making ourselves known to literary agents based in LA, contacting writers directly, trying to get our own agents -- or some other course?! Would love it if you can share some insight on this!

Honestly, I think that your best bet is to reach out to literary agents, but if you don't have any produced works to your name it might be a bit of an effort to get their cooperation.  You'd probably have a better bet with some of the smaller agencies and management firms.

Having said that, I'm not sure I understand why you're looking for a writer outside Australia.  It seems to me that it might be a lot easier to find someone close to home, make a name for yourself producing a low-to-medium budget film, and use that cache to open some doors in LA.

But what do you guys think.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Reader question: Loglines, ratings and assessments on Black List 3.0

Okay, so this is an old email from October that I neglected, in part because it was too long to respond to quickly (take that as a lesson - the more succinct emails are likely to get replies faster.)

Hilary writes:

Aloha Zuul! I actually wrote you an email or two before I headed out to LA a couple of months ago, and if you answered, it got lost in cyberspace. 

[Sidebar: I've checked my email folders and I can't find this earlier email, which makes me worried that the Spam folder might have eaten some legit emails]

In the meantime, I am very glad that the Blacklist has gone live because I uploaded the three screenplays I am networking. And the first review is in, for AETERNITAS. 9/10!

And the reason I am telling you this is not to gloat, but it is in response to your call for the as-yet-unrated Blacklist uploads. Which, unfortunately for me, just closed yesterday.

I have a couple of questions for you, since I do feel that I am behind the learning curve here of shopping projects here in LA and I am not particularly good with loglines. I think mine are serviceable enough, yet the logline that the reviewer wrote isn't quite standard either. I wrote a big beautiful story that I think is mid-budget, but the reviewer states it is a blockbuster that needs more dialogue in order to appeal to large audiences (? I thought the bigger action, sci-fi, fantasies are obviously minimal with their dialogue?). And then there's a bit of confusion between low dialogue/narrow audience, OR right director/large international audiences.

So, how important is their logline at this point? And is the low-dialogue/high-risk assessment an actual turn off for you professional Blacklist members?

Lastly, I'm already hearing from my network, "Congrats! But I've already told you I am busy with projects for the next few years..." So, I really need new people to come forward. Producers and directors who are available and looking. What's the timeline that you have seen with this?

Okay, there's a lot to reply to here:

- As far as the Black List logline, I'd say it's somewhat important, but the logline that I end up reading nine times out of ten is the one that you set as your logline.  That's also the logline that goes out in the email, so that's the most important one.  I looked up your script, and I have to admit, your logline doesn't really tell me much about the story.  It's more like the tagline that one might see on a poster.

The Black List's logline is a little better, but it tells me nothing about the characters who inhabit your world. I don't know anything about the characters who I'm supposed to invest in.  As the pro reviewer struggled with that, it makes me worried that the idea might be TOO epic.  (If I read for people who made epics, that'd be less of an issue, but there's a narrower market for those scripts.)

- The note about the script needing more dialogue puzzles me. I don't often see reviews that go out of their way to point out a dearth of dialogue, so it's telling that it bugged the reviewer.  However, I should point out that the full "Weaknesses" assessment reads:

"The script has the potential to alienate a large audience due to its highly convoluted premise and lack of much dialogue. It is a script for a very specific and narrow audience."

The words "alienate a large audience" and "high convoluted premise" concern me FAR more than a lack of dialogue.  This is especially true when the Prospects section says the script is "big budget, high risk." Maybe there are some people checking out the Black List who will be looking for that kind of material to develop.   My feeling is that most people will take that as a warning to stay away.

On the final points, I get the sense that the waiting period varies for every script.  Now, as this reply is coming months later, it's probably safe to assume that whatever heat you got from the 9 rating has dissipated.  I'd say that the odds of a connection being made go down after the first four weeks of being highlighted in either the emails or the Top Scripts lists.  That's more than enough time for people to download the script, get around to reading it and make their call.

Sure if further reviews and ratings come in, that could help extend the shelf life, but my sense is that most of the people who have been signed weren't waiting around for much more than two months, if that much.

Friday, February 22, 2013

NBC, WTF?! Can the 5th place network be saved?

As much as I detest linking to the blog Deadline Hollywood, they ran a piece yesterday that merits some mention.  In it, they pointed out that for the first time in history, NBC is set to finish 5th place in the ratings for sweeps - below Univision! Who would have thought the day would come when NBC was clamoring for 4th place?

Knowing this was sure to spark off a few dozen "how to save NBC" pieces from bloggers, I mused over how I'd get a piece of that action.  Frankly, I don't have much of a clue.  If I was an executive, I wouldn't know where to begin and if I was a writer, I'd struggle to figure out what kind of show would thrive there. 

In order to fix the problem, you have to first understand how NBC ended up here. Jeff Zucker's "management" is often pinpointed as the cause, with many analysts blaming his colossally-stupid strategy of giving the 10pm slot to The Jay Leno Show five nights a week.  To some extent, they're right.  That is the blow that NBC still hasn't recovered from.  You don't dump five hours of programming and not suffer the consequences for it, even if the issue was redressed midseason.  It played havoc on their line-up, led them to go light on developing new shows that season and most of all - gave their competition an open playing field to get a foothold.

When you get AIDS, you don't actually die of AIDS itself.  The virus takes out your immune system, leaving you vulnerable for something ELSE (like pneumonia) to finish the job.  The Jay Leno Show wasn't AIDS, it was pneumonia.  The AIDS was a decade or so of bad decisions that allowed the Leno blunder to carry the impact it did.

The root problem is that NBC did a poor job of growing new hits.  It spent much of the early 2000s coasting on past glories and squandering its lead.  2004 saw the retirement of Friends and Frasier, both of which had been strong performers for the lineup for ten years or more.  ER retired in 2009 after 15 years on the job and the first Law & Order enjoyed 20 years on NBC before being dumped in 2010.  Those were the tentpoles that helped carry NBC through the rougher days, and frankly, I think they might have been around long enough that NBC took them for granted.  They assumed it would be easy to maintain their audience levels.

And yet, few new long-term hits were launched. I lay at least part of the fault at NBC's greed.  See, in the 90s it became possible for networks to own the shows they broadcast.  I'm going to give an incredibly simplified explanation here, but networks pay license fees to the studios of the shows they broadcast.  Usually, this fee isn't enough to fully cover the cost of the show, which is why syndication dollars are so vital.  Through selling the show into syndication, the studio is able to recoup the losses it takes in the course of producing the show.  (The network makes its money in the ad dollars it sells.)

For example, Friends was produced by Warner Bros. Television and aired on NBC.  NBC got the high ad dollars that came from having one of the top-rated shows on TV, but it also paid out a lot in the license fee that kept that show going.  And it was WBTV who got the windfall that came from selling Friends into syndication, ensuring you can find an episode on TV at just about any hour of the day.  NBC had a good deal... but looking at this equation, I bet you can see how it could have been even better.

If the studio producing the show and the network distributing the show are both owned by the same corporation, that parent company gets the benefit of the ad dollars from the first-run AND the payday that comes from the syndication second run.  Which means that in looking at the numbers, a hypothetical NBC executive might be more invested in keeping a show going that originated from their corporate sibling instead of a show that emerged from a competitor.

This is the scenario that Scrubs found itself in.  In another era, the funny, appealing show might have been given a more stable time slot and in time, grown to be a hit that could be used to launch further hits.  Alas, it was produced by Touchstone, which is a division of ABC.  Thus, it was the red-headed stepchild of the NBC lineup.  Good enough to keep going, but never given preferential treatment.  The show's creator, Bill Lawrence, spoke of this frustration often, as the show bounced from slot-to-slot during its seven years on NBC.

Remember Coupling? That was an NBC Studios show.  Watching Ellie? NBC Studios. The Weber Show? Titans? Emeril? Working? Union Square?  (To be fair, they were also responsible for the longer-running Will & Grace and Crossing Jordan.)  And that's just addressing the shows before NBC and Universal merged.  NBCUniversal Television was responsible for The Bionic Woman remake and Raines, among others, though it did manage some wins with the L&O shows and Heroes.  The arrangement probably also helped keep 30 Rock and Friday Night Lights on the air well past the time when another network might have dropped them.

But I've drifted. My point is that NBC adopted a short-sighted strategy that made launching new hits harder.  Thus, when their tentpoles retired, nothing was on the bench.  Other networks make the same choices for the same reasons - don't get me wrong.  The difference is that no other network in as dire straits as NBC has made a strategic error like the Leno blunder.

All of this means that NBC is going into next season deep in the hole.  More shows are retiring this year and they're even less able to launch new hits than before.  This isn't a hiccup that can be course-corrected in a season.  Even if this year had been great for NBC, they'd still be at the start of a long rebuilding process.

So there's no simple checklist of "how to fix NBC."  Not immediately.  Next season will be a win if they just manage to stop the bleeding.  Despite all hopes, I don't know if Michael J. Fox's return to television is enough to turn that tide.  It's gonna take more than good shows - and more than one season.

With nothing to lose, here's what I'd try:

Shorter seasons, fewer breaks - As The Following has shown on Fox, big name stars will come to network TV when the time commitment is less than a full 22 episodes.  Also, the long breaks for reruns are murder on habit TV  It's worked for cable dramas, as has running all the new episodes in one unbroken stretch.  The trick is that this probably isn't a viable strategy for all their shows and it would require scheduling in a way that would put all the half-season shows on the same night so they can build off of each other.  (An alternative would be to schedule them as the lead-outs from their 2-hour length reality shows.)

Forget high concept, focus on character - Cheers, ER, Law & Order, The Office, Friends, Seinfeld: what do they all have in common? They're less about high concept and more about the people who inhabit the settings of the show. And those settings are fairly common locations: a bar, a hospital, a coffee shop.  Different genres, different approaches to storytelling, but memorable characters.  There's no high concept twist like "A bar on Mars!" Or "An emergency room staffed by aliens and OCD patients who have to work together to cure Space-AIDS!"

Hire veteran showrunners and give them a long leash - It didn't work out so well when neophyte showrunner Theresa Rebeck was given ample opportunity to run Smash into the ground.  Go after people who've been in the trenches before and make NBC a safe place for them to nurture their passion projects.

Hire new voices - particularly women and minorities - and give them room to develop - but don't be afraid to tighten the reigns if things aren't working.  There's still got to be room to take risks, but let's try to have fewer Next Callers, okay?

Honestly, I don't envy the people at the helm there.  Making those strategies work would be hard enough if the network was doing just below decently.  With where the numbers are now, the degree of difficulty is immense.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Reader question: how to deal with too long a script

Dan writes in with a question:

I've been reading your blog and over the weeks, I've found precious information there. I really hope you can help me with my problem: 

I've written an original horror movie script. The problem is: it's 165 pages long. Of course, I know it's waaaay too long. I should cut out a lot of scenes, bring it to a max of 120 pages. 

So here's what i thought: make 3 different scripts: 
1. a slim, 110-120 page version of the script 
2. a 170 page "Part 1 & 2" script 
3. a 5 episode TV show script 

My questions to you: Would this make sense? Is it a good idea to hint at the end of the script at the other 2 versions? I suppose I'll have to register all 3 scripts separately? 

And there's one more: I live in Europe, so selling a script in the US is probably damn near impossible. Let's say I'm very stubborn and i still want to try it. What advice can you give me?

My advice - the only option that makes sense is #1.  I don't see how you can break a long story conceived as one unit into two pieces and have either one make sense on their own.   That would take some drastic rewrites and then you still have a major problem in that you're now trying to sell two scripts.  Longtime readers may remember how I feel about the words "To Be Continued..."

I don't see any value in writing a 5-episode script.  When you sell a show in the U.S., there needs to be enough narrative engine to allow that series to continue for up to a hundred episodes, should the network see fit.  True, every now and then a show makes it on the air with a premise that makes one skeptical it can last more than one season.  As hard as it may be to believe, usually the network has worked with the writer and gotten at least some assurance that the writer sees several years worth of stories.

Can you get 5 years worth of story out of an idea that started as a slightly over-long horror film?  I tend to doubt it.  I say bite the bullet and start cutting your darlings.

As to the final question, that's a little outside my realm of experience.  Rather than talk out of my ass, I'll invite my readers to comment if they have any insight.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

You are not Tarantino

Vanity Fair has a great article on the making of Pulp Fiction.  As exhaustive as it is, I'm sure most film fans are well-acquainted with the ins-and-outs of the rise of Quentin Tarantino.  In fact, I know most of them are because "Tarantino" is the rallying cry for any aspiring writer who chafes at being told to color within the lines.

I'm sure you're familiar with this.  Some insider like me tells writers that typos on the first page are a tipoff that the writer doesn't know what they're talking about, and inevitably someone in the comments will spout off that Tarantino can't spell for shit, so why does one need to worry about a bunch of arbitrary rules?

Well, because you're not Tarantino.

And even Tarantino wasn't always Tarantino.  Note this excerpt from the article:

Iin 1986, Tarantino was a 23-year-old part-time actor and high-school dropout, broke, without an apartment of his own, showering rarely. With no agent, he sent out scripts that never got past low-level readers. “Too vile, too vulgar, too violent” was the usual reaction, he later said. According to Quentin Tarantino, by Wensley Clarkson, his constant use of the f-word in his script True Romance caused one studio rep to write to Cathryn Jaymes, his early manager: 

Dear Fucking Cathryn, How dare you send me this fucking piece of shit. You must be out of your fucking mind. You want to know how I feel about it? Here’s your fucking piece of shit back. Fuck you.

Okay, so history would seem to exonerate Quentin and prove those guys to be wrong, right?  But here's the thing, violence and vulgarity are not what make Quentin's scripts great.  Profanity alone doesn't take a PASS to a CONSIDER.  But what is it that makes a Tarantino script better than 99% of the scripts by people who use him as an excuse to skirt the "rules?"

“Every major studio passed,” says Lawrence Bender. 

Then, says [producer Danny] DeVito, “I gave it to the king, Harvey Weinstein.” It went through Richard Gladstein, who was now at Miramax. Weinstein, who had recently merged Miramax with Disney in an $80 million deal, was walking out of his L.A. office on his way to catch a plane for a vacation on Martha’s Vineyard when Gladstein handed him the script. “What is this, the fucking telephone book?,” Weinstein asked him when he saw that it was 159 pages, the normal being 115. He lugged the script to the plane, however.

Take note - the first thing Weinstein commented on was the length. Before he even reads it, he's making a derisive remark about how thick the script is.  And that's because he knows that 99.999% of a time, a tell-tale sign like that marks a loser.

“He called me two hours later and said, ‘The first scene is fucking brilliant. Does it stay this good?’ ” remembers Gladstein. He called again an hour later, having read to the point where the main character, the hit man Vincent Vega, is shot and killed. “Are you guys crazy?” he yelled. “You just killed off the main character in the middle of the movie!” 

“Just keep reading,” said Gladstein. “And Harvey says, ‘Start negotiating!’ So I did, and he called back shortly thereafter and said, ‘Are you closed yet?’ I said, ‘I’m into it.’ Harvey said, ‘Hurry up! We’re making this movie.’ ”

THAT is when you can break the rules - when the writing is not just good, but "fucking brilliant." When you do things that has a studio head thinking you're crazy, but still intrigued enough to see how you proceed from there.

Okay, but what of the matter of the people who passed? Of the other pros who thought Quentin's rep was out of her mind for sending out that garbage?

[At Cannes,] it didn’t win anything until the very last award, the Palme d’Or, for the best of the 22 feature-film entries. When that year’s jury president, Clint Eastwood, announced that the winner, by what turned out to be a unanimous vote, was Pulp Fiction, the audience went wild. After Tarantino and the cast rushed onstage, one woman screamed, “Pulp Fiction is shit!” Tarantino shot her the finger and then said why the prize was unexpected: “I don’t make movies that bring people together. I make movies that split people apart.”

That is why.  If you want to be Tarantino, if you want to break all the rules as he did and assemble them your own way, then you need to make peace with something - not everyone will love you.  In fact, those that hate your work, probably will do so passionately.

So get used to the fact that not everyone is going to bow down and recognize your brilliance.  If you're truly talented, eventually your work will speak to the people it's made for.  But the people who don't get it, won't ever get it.  And no amount of shouting "Tarantino does it!" will change that.  It just makes you look whiny and petulant.

Take your criticisms with grace. If there was an accurate and absolute way to measure the merits of every creative work, then Rotten Tomatoes would be out of business because every film would score only 0% or 100%.  Tarantino needed to alienate a lot of people before he found his champion, and when he did, that guy went to the matt for the work because it spoke directly to him. Take THAT as the lesson of his rise to glory.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Read ALICE OF OZ on The Black List

I always like being able to support my friends' work and use whatever readership my blog has to bring extra attention to their work.  However, when it comes to endeavors like submissions to the Black List 3.0, I set a ground rule early on - I wouldn't plug a script on here unless it met my own personal standards.  In other words, if I'm not willing to back up a "Go read this" by giving the script a high rating myself, I'm not going to mention it here.  I want to support my friends, but I also don't want to waste anyone's time.

This is why you can trust me when I say that my friend Matt Bolish has a great script that he's just uploaded to The Black List 3.0.  I've actually been trying to push him to upload it pretty much since the site launched.

The script is called ALICE OF OZ, and as that title might suggest, it deals with the worlds of Oz and Wonderland colliding.  More accurately, Wonderland has invaded Oz.  The Queen of Hearts has declared all-out and her minions have overrun our favorite land over the rainbow.  In a desperate act, the heroes of Oz bring back a now-adult Dorothy Gale in the hopes of turning the tide, but it may already be too late.

I know what you're thinking - another Oz project? Yes, I know that the public domain fairy tales have been exploited to all hell over the last few years.  I haven't seen the forthcoming Oz: The Great and Powerful, but from what I know about it, I feel pretty safe in assuring you that ALICE OF OZ is quite different from it.  I've also regularly watched Once Upon A Time and though that series also enjoys the conceit of different fairy tales intermingling, Matt takes a different approach.

This is a big budget action-adventure story.  It's got epic battles and a lot of fun interaction among the more popular characters of the two stories.  It also features not one, but two epic cat fights: the Cowardly Lion vs. the Cheshire Cat, and Dorothy vs. Alice!

Matt conceived this story a few years ago, just ahead of the wave of fairy tale remakes.  I still remember the dinner where he started laying out the story.  The idea of crossing over Oz and Wonderland intrigued me, and as he recounted the plot, I saw potential in several of the set pieces. As someone who was working on his own Oz story (take that lesson - avoid the public domain) I was mildly miffed that a friend was playing in the same sandbox, but even that was overtaken by my excitement at what he was planning.

Then he hit me with a plot development that left me with nothing to say but, "That's fucking brilliant!"  That was quickly followed by annoyance that I wouldn't have the experience of being blindsided by this development when I read the script for myself.  And so because of that, I won't spoil the more awesome moments in the latter parts of the story.  Instead, I'll merely implore those of you with Black List access to check it out for yourselves.

Matt has another script up on the Black List - an action-thriller called ABERRANT INTELLIGENCE.  It centers on the Information Control Officers of Aberrant Intelligence - the clean-up crew that deals with paranormal phenomena and makes it possible for the rest of us to live our lives in blissfull ignorance. When a scientific breakthrough activates an ancient power that could bring about the end of humanity, it's up to them to contain the threat, even as dark forces of a secret order threaten to exploit it.

As I write this, ABBERANT INTELLIGENCE is sitting in 6th place on the "Top Uploaded Scripts" list.  So if you're a Black List member, take some time this week and check out Matt's work.

Monday, February 11, 2013

THE FOLLOWING and the perils of too much of the same surprise

I raved about the pilot for The Following when I got an advanced peek at it last summer and it's safe to say I was eager to see what came next when the series debuted.  The hook of the show is that Kevin Bacon plays a former FBI agent called in to help with a manhunt when the serial killer he put behind bars a decade ago escapes.  Though the killer - played by James Purefoy - is captured by the end of the pilot, it's soon revealed that he's got a devoted cult of followers - all of whom are eager to do his bidding and kill in his name.

The pilot made use of the "this guy's one of THEM" shock twist at least three times, and initially, that was a great way to set the audience on edge.  We've met seemingly normal people who end up being part of a ridiculously over-coordinated plot to serve the killer's bidding, so going into future episodes, we might be wise to not trust anyone.

That's a knife that cuts both ways, though.

At this point, just three episodes in, the script has pulled that "HA HA, they're part of the cult" trick so many times that I have stopped investing in any of the characters.  There was a scene at the end of the second episode where the FBI agent played by Anna Parisse delivered a book to Purefoy, and the camera lingered an insanely long amount of time on a gaze they shared.  Blind viewers would have been able to pick up the implication, "Everybody got that? This ambiguous gaze means that... SHE COULD BE ONE OF THEM!"

The third episode featured a subplot where we meet a woman whose husband killed a critic on Purefoy's behalf. Already attuned to the fact that the first two episodes got their jollies by revealing that the person we least suspect was "in on it." I immediately guessed... well.. she was in on it.

And I was right.  The way things played out, the show wasn't banking on me guessing that ahead of time, though.

It's going to be hard watching the show going forward because if history holds, at least once an episode the show is going to try get us all to fall in the same trapdoor again. And since we all KNOW that trapdoor is there, the easy way to avoid it is not step on it, i.e., don't invest in any of the characters.

Boy, that was a tortured metaphor.  My point is, when I go to a magic show, I want to get involved in the spectacle. I don't want to see ten variations on the "saw-the-lady-in-half" gag because by the third time I'll have moved on from "pretty cool" to "ah, I think I see how this is done."  I'm hyper-aware of how the show is trying to shock me and because of that, I'm not engaged with the show.

This doesn't mean you can't or shouldn't try to surprise an audience frequently.  Williamson's other series The Vampire Diaries has done a fairly strong job of advancing the story week-to-week and providing a variety of shocking twists at a fairly frequent pace. The difference there is that there are a variety of twists.  The show doesn't just rely on the "This character isn't what they seem" reveal, and often when it has deployed that trick, it's built it up over several weeks and been layered in in such a way that that twist isn't the sum total of the character's value.

But you can't go to the same maneuver and keep the audience engaged.  (Which is not to say that Vampire Diaries is totally immune to this. The Klaus character has stuck around at least a season past his sell-by date when it would have been more powerful to off him for good last season.) It's inevitable at some point that a member of the FBI team will be revealed to be playing for Purefoy's team.  I'm just bummed that when it happens, I won't be floored by it because the show insisted on calling that shot almost from the beginning, like Babe Ruth point to the bleachers.

I'm gonna stick with the show in the hopes that this gimmick is moderated over the course of the season.  I understand it takes some shows a while to find their voice - but I really hope that tonight's episode of The Following can surprise me without once giving a shocking reveal that... s/he's one of them!

Friday, February 8, 2013

Read Go Into The Story's fantastic screenwriter roundtable

This week Go Into The Story is running a fantastic roundtable interview with screenwriters Chris Borrelli, F. Scott Frazier, Chris McCoy, Justin Rhodes, Greg Russo, and John Swetnam.  They touch on a lot of topics like pitching, rewriting and their general process.  It's absolutely worth your time to check it out, so head on over there and give a read to all the parts that have posted so far.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Tuesday Talkback: Does an MFA in Screenwriting mean anything?

As some of you may have discovered, I've been pretty terrible about keeping up with emails the last few months.  Part of this is due to me being over-extended and part of it is the result of me putting an email aside if I don't think I have enough experience to answer it effectively.  But a few of these are good questions that I imagine others would be interested in, so for now, I think I'll feature some of these questions on Tuesday Talkback.

Today's question comes from Malcolm:

I'm a 20-something, inexperienced, aspiring writer, and I'm hoping you can shed some light on MFA screenwriting programs. Specifically, do you think there's much value in the opportunities presented by these programs, in terms of getting a "foot in the door" upon graduation? 

When someone tells you "I got my MFA in screenwriting from AFI," does that really mean anything to you or anyone you know? Any insight on the topic of film schools would be much appreciated. 

For me personally, hearing someone got an MFA in Screenwriting doesn't impress me.  There are great screenwriters who are self-taught, plenty who didn't go to grad school, and some who didn't even study writing in college.  

Having said that, I have no direct experience with MFA writing programs.  I can see the value in going to a graduate-level film school if you're looking to be a director or a producer, but I think it's less essential if you're aiming just to be a screenwriter.  I don't doubt that those programs offer some great insight into the writing process and probably offer a structure that many aspirings find valuable.  And if that works for you?  Great!

But would it be necessary?  Would the mere credential open doors for you?  My gut says no.  (Well, unless your goal is to teach screenwriting.)

But as someone who hasn't gotten his MFA, I'm willing to entertain the notion that I'm way off base here.  So if you've got something to add to the conversation, please do so.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Do pro writers try to sabotage aspiring writers?

Every now and then - usually in the darker corners of the internet - I see one belligerent jackass or another accusing pro screenwriters of trying to sabotage other aspirings.  Sometimes this is prompted by posts like one written by Geoff LaTulippe last week.  In it, Geoff lays out the long odds against one ever making it as a pro writer.  I guess that this provoked a few people into accusing Geoff of trying to discourage aspiring writers because he "doesn't want the competition."


This is one facet of an ugly attitude that I really, really despise, which is the "Fuck the pros!" retort.  I've met a lot of pro screenwriters in my time out here and I'm hard-pressed to think of any who weren't incredibly nice people.  I'm sure there are a few egotistical jackasses out there (they exist in every profession), but the vast majority of TV and film writers whom I've met have been very friendly, and often very encouraging to aspiring writers.  This is often tempered with some harsh realities, true.  But I've never met a writer who seemed driven to scare other writers away just to thin the herd of competition.

Putting aside that direct experience, there are other reasons to doubt a pro is trying to scare people away.  For one, being good enough to make it as a writer is HARD.  Let's say that maybe one percent of those who aspire to be writers are actually strong enough to be a threat to the working writer.  Is it really worth that working writer's time to set up some incredibly time-consuming resource like an advice blog, just so that a tiny fraction of those people who visit will be tripped up by disinformation?

Anyway, I bring all of this up because of a few blog comments from a recent post.  Brainman asked:

This relates a bit to the blog post by Geoff LaTulippe where he sort of offered aspiring writers some encouragement through discouragement. He was then accused of attempting to discourage writers so that he'd have less competition. Many came to his defense on twitter, and I recall F. Scott Frazier saying something like "a rising tide lifts us all".

I'm just a naive outsider, but I'm inclined to believe working screenwriters over aspiring ones. I do have trouble fully understanding how it can be true that more writers "breaking in" more often helps those writers that are already working. Could you shed some light on this for me so I can get it through my thick skull?

F. Scott Frazier gave a response that I found quite sensible.  Since I'd hate for that to be hidden and forgotten in the comments, I felt it merited being "promoted" to this post:

First off, let me say while I wish I could take credit for "a rising tide lifts all ships" unfortunately while my sentiment was the same, I said it in a much more awkward way. Someone else said the tide thing, and then I slapped myself in the forehead for not thinking of it first... 

The answer to your question / query about why working writers would ever want to help aspiring writers, and how any advice we give can be taken at face value is somewhat long, but I wanted to break it down piece by piece. In doing so, it's going to be a little over-generalized, but this is the basic idea behind why I believe what I believe. 

First off, let's say there are two ways writers build a career in the feature business: by selling specs and booking jobs. (Again, overly general, but let's start from there...) 

1) Selling specs is not a zero sum game, that is to say if I sell my spec today, you can still sell your spec tomorrow. In fact, if you look at the trends, you can see that spec sales usually come in waves. Studio A buys a hot spec, so Studio B doesn't want to be shown up and they buy one too. The more specs sell, the more other specs sell. Yes, of course, studios and buyers have budgets for each year as to what they can spend on buying scripts, but the chances of Studio C buying your script and running out money to buy my script are so infinitesimally small there's no reason in even worrying about it. 

2) On the other side of the equation, there are jobs, which unfortunately are zero sum games: if I get the job, you can't also get the job (but that doesn't account for rewrites and polishes which are a whole other can of worms). However, when jobs become available not every writer in town goes out for them. Lists are made, lists are cultivated -- winnowing down writers over everything from quote, genre, availability, desire, etc. So the idea that any professional writer would attempt to sabotage aspiring writers' careers because of the worry they might one day end up on the exact same on the exact same job is again, so infinitesimal as to worry about it... 

Anecdotally, I've never known any writer who got pissed or upset with another writer for getting a job. 

In all honesty, I personally think worrying about the veracity of advice from professional writers is akin to worrying about someone stealing your script. All it does it take time away from writing for something that, once again, is so unlikely to happen.

Friday, February 1, 2013

More writers signed and optioned thanks to The Black List 3.0

UPDATE 2/2/12 6pm PST: 

And I have one more success story to announce:  

John Geraci informs me via email that he's signed with Sean Mikael of The Mikael Group. John's script SIG is currently the #3 uploaded script on the site. The logline for the action/thriller reads: "A federal agent serves her own brand of justice on the six men who attacked her as a teenager."

PREVIOUS: Today the Black List made several more announcements regarding writers who have been signed by managers or had their work optioned as a direct result of placing it on The Black List 3.0:

Caliber Media Company has signed Callie and Ruckus Lane on the strength of their spec RATTLE THE CAGE.  The script is a thriller with the logline "Locked behind bars in a small southern town, a mysterious drifter must outwit the charismatic psychopath masquerading as deputy, before the sun sets and a deadly plan is unleashed."

Manager Sammy Montana at Anarchy Management has signed Andrew Sessions after being impressed with his spec BREATHEFilm Bridge International has optioned the screenplay, which was brought to their attention via The Black List site as well. The logline for BREATHE is: A woman on vacation must battle a gang of criminals and the harsh elements of the Costa Rican rain forest as she races the clock to save her trapped fiance from drowning in the incoming tide.

And finally, Gary Holler's horror/comedy I AIN'T GETTING KILLED has been optioned by Mark Adkins, after Mark found the script on the site.  Per Franklin Leonard, "Mark has attached a star of two films with worldwide grosses of more than $175MM to star. They are currently shopping the script."

Since the Black List website launched last October, they have facilitated representation for at least eight writers and helped two scripts get optioned.  In addition to the above annoucements, I've previously reported:

- Justin Kremer was signed by Creative Artists Agency on the strength of his spec MCCARTHY.

- Bob Ingraham has signed with Benderspink on the strength of his submission POSSUM, which his reps expect to take out wide soon.

- Richard Cordiner has signed with Verve and Kaplan/Perrone after they responded positively to his script THE SHARK IS STILL WORKING.

That leaves three as-yet unannounced signings.  Industry Entertainment manager Michael Botti has indicated that one of those three is a client he took on, and he is currently developing the material with the writer. Hopefully the managers will see fit to release more details soon, but it's understandable they'd want to make the announcement on their own terms, however they decide it benefits the material.

Still, eight signings in less than four months is pretty solid, especially from companies as well-regarded as these.  Let's hope that the success stories keep on coming!