Thursday, January 12, 2017

Essential new blog: Jeff Willis's All Writes Reserved

You can find a lot of opinionated blowhards like me telling you how to write your script, but there aren't many resources for people who need answers for the more business-oriented questions. I'm talking about the legal details of option rights and how spec sales actually work. Well, worry no more. Friend-of-the-blog Jeff Willis has started a new blog devoted to these topics called All Writes Reserved.

If Jeff's name sounds familiar, you've probably seen some of his tweetstorms, some of which I've archived elsewhere on this site, such as Creative Rights Advice for Screenwriters.

His most recent post this week covers the topic of "Sterile Scripts" - drafts written while under contract to a particular entity.

What happens to those drafts written while the work was under option?

Remember that the script is legally not owned by the writer during an option period; it’s owned and under the control of the company. If writing services are included in the deal, those services are most likely in your contract as a work for hire, meaning that in exchange for the money you’re being paid, the results and proceeds of your writing are owned by the company that’s paying you (i.e., you don’t own that draft the way you own a script you wrote on spec).

Think of it like an artist who’s commissioned to do a family portrait. The money is what the artist receives in exchange for the work. He doesn’t then also get to keep the portrait after he’s done; the portrait belongs to the family that paid him to create it.

The same is true of drafts and rewrites and polishes that the company is paying a writer to perform. Even if the rights to the original script are returned to you, those drafts you wrote for the company aren’t. Those drafts then become sterile scripts… a draft of a script that the company owns but cannot produce because they don’t own the rights to the underlying material (your original script).

Among other topics he's covered are:

Power dynamics in negotiations
Submission Releases
Conditions Precedent
Non-guild Deals
Script Sale Breakdown
Intellectual property

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

My Top 10 Films of 2016

You can find 11-20 here. These are my Top 10 Films of 2016

1. Arrival - I first read Eric Heisserer's script ARRIVAL about three years ago and found it to be a remarkable piece of writing that broke so many "rules" but was far and away better than anything else I'd read that year. I also felt like translating that script to film was going to be an incredible challenge, particularly in the execution of the film's big twist. Damn if the result doesn't look effortless and the result is an ending that lands on you like an emotional haymaker.

Through this first contact with aliens story, we explore how humanity deals with the unknown, through our worst impulses and best. I've heard this described as "competency porn" and I agree. After a Presidential campaign where educated people were dismissed as "elite" by masses who championed their own ignorance, it was good to see a film that championed science and problem-solving. And for all that to be legerdemain while the REAL question of the film snuck up on you? Masterful. I'm hoping I'll have time to write a longer piece on ARRIVAL, but this was the best film of the year.

2. OJ: Made in America - I've previously reflected on my fascination with the O.J. Simpson case, but director Ezra Edelman comes at it from an angle I'd not seen before. O.J.'s rise to football fame is juxtaposed with rising tensions between the L.A. black community and the police. Airing across five nights in two-hour blocks, so much groundwork is laid that it took until Night 3 to reach the murders. That gives the trial a context it's never had before, particularly after seeing O.J. work hard to separate himself from the black community, and then turn around and play the race card in pursuit of an acquittal.

In the same year that saw The People vs. O.J. Simpson, it was difficult to imagine the trial exploration feeling fresh, but every moment is captivating, particularly the recollections of former jurors. The final segment of the documentary covers O.J.'s post-acquittal downfall in jaw-dropping detail, with more footage and stories you're unlikely to have seen. It's 467 minutes that leaves its mark on you and never drags.

3. Swiss Army Man - "The farting corpse movie" is probably how you've heard of this film, but it's so much more than that. A suicidal man trapped on a desert island comes upon a corpse that has surprising utility for the stranded man. That's only the start of the weirdness, and soon the corpse is talking to him, asking him questions about life and love. Writer/directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan have crafted one of the more bizarre films of the year. I'll be honest - this is often the kind of shit I mock, but the Dans (as they are called) succeed where many other fail because the emotions of the story are real. We find ourselves relating to this lost soul who seems to be animating this corpse in his mind. Because of that empathy, a late-film twist really pulls the rug out from under the audience.

4. 10 Cloverfield Lane - And now we go from a film I never could have conceived to the kind of film I really, really want to make some day. I'm a sucker for limited location thrillers where the claustrophobia is like a pressure cooker for intense acting among a small cast. I've seen and read a lot of "captive woman in a basement" thrillers, so I know all the pitfalls here. The script by Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle manages to avoid every exploitation trap and cheap scare.

John Goodman gives one of his best layered performances as a guy who keeps us off balance the entire film. Is he dangerous? Is he a decent man who's gone a little off kilter due to PTSD? Is he lying to keep Mary Elizabeth Winstead's character captive or is he telling the truth about the attack that's forced them into his bomb shelter? Goodman walks a difficult tightrope through the entire film until he's forced to show his hand. Director Dan Trachtenberg's next smart move was casting Winstead, who's able to hold her own against Goodman and make her role more than the victim that the situation could cast her as. Some people really don't like the ending, but I think it's the perfect payoff to all the suspense Goodman's claims generate. This is a genre premise done exceptionally well.

5. 13th - Ava DuVerney's comprehensive documentary is an incredible piece of work that draws a straight line from how the Reconstruction Era's 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery, paved the way for mass incarceration of African-Americans. Following that path, we trace the entire history of racial inequity in America. The film's most powerful moment comes during a montage where Republican candidate Donald Trump's rally speech about longing for "the good old days" when protestors would be beaten is juxtoposed with police assaulting civil rights protestors in the 60s.

6. Moonlight - Most of my list is made up of high-concept films, issue-oriented movies, or stories that are so unusual and bizarre that they can't help but make an impression. And then there's MOONLIGHT, which isn't quite any of those, but instead is a rather moving story about a young fatherless African-American boy who has the odds piled against him. His mother's a junkie, the guy who becomes a surrogate father to him is a dealer, he's bullied at school, and he's dealing with the fact he's gay. There are a hundred ways to write this wrong. It's almost literally one cancer diagnosis from "cloying indie movie awards bait BINGO." And yet... there's honest emotion to this. We're drawn into Little's story in a way that makes him a person and not just a martyr to whom bad things happen. Writer/director Barry Jenkins sticks a difficult landing here.

7. The Jungle Book - I hate 3D. It's more often just a way to jack-up ticket prices and almost never enhances the storytelling in any meaningful way. There are only three films where I believe it truly added value: Avatar, Gravity... and The Jungle Book. It was a constant mind-blowing experience to watch this film and remind myself that just about everything on screen but the boy was created in a computer. Everything in this movie looks photo-real, and director Jon Favreau stages everything in a way that only further convinces us that this jungle is a real place that exists.

When I was a kid, The Jungle Book was one of my favorite Disney cartoons. Looking back, that seems odd. The story's pretty slight and the musical numbers have a couple good entries, but are less frequent than other films. Justin Marks's script brings a little more structure and weight to the film than the source material, but the real secret weapon here is young Neel Sethi as Mowgli. There are veteran actors who are thrown by the process of acting against a green screen, but the way Neel interacts believable with CGI animals, you'd never guess this was his first feature role. (Read my interview with screenwriter Justin Marks here.)

8. The Shallows - A lot of what I said in the 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE review applies here. This is the ultimate "chase your protagonist up a tree, then throw rocks at her" movie. Blake Lively plays a surfer who gets stranded on a reef far from shore... and in the path of a great white shark. Writer Anthony Jaswinski provides the survival techniques that are a staple of this genre. (Think THE GREY, but with a warmer climate and a female lead.) Director Jaume Collet-Serra makes the most of the beautiful scenery and the entire film is quite gorgeous. Better still, he wrings every last drop of tension out of Lively's struggle to outwit the shark. I wish we got more of these low-to-mid-budget thrillers like this and 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE.

9. The Edge of Seventeen - Sign me up for whatever writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig does next. This is another film that puts character first and doesn't give a damn if we find them unlikable. Hailee Steinfeld plays Nadine, a troubled and often abrasive teen who's rendered with so much empathy that most viewers will likely see some of their own teenage selves in her. Even as she's pushing away and alienating the people closest to her, we understand why she's doing it and we find ourselves rooting for everyone else to just back off and cut her some slack. It feels raw and honest to the point where it can stand with the best of the John Hughes catalog. This is another one that's not a high concept story, but its three-dimensional characters linger with you long after the movie has ended.

10. Hell or High Water - I have a theory that Chris Pine is not so much a Leading Man, but more of a "Michael Keaton in a Tom Cruise body." HOHW finds a way to make that work for this story of two brothers pulling off a spree of bank robberies to save the family farm. The writing lesson for this one? Have smart protagonists and face them off against smart antagonists who seem capable of beating them. I'm not usually one for westerns, but this one had my attention from the start and knew just how to pace itself.

Monday, January 9, 2017

My Top 20 Films of 2016 - Part 1

As is my tradition, I've compiled my Top 20 Films of the past year, which I will be unveiling today and tomorrow. I won't claim to have seen every big movie of 2016, but I've seen enough that I feel comfortable putting this list out there. Among the ones I haven't seen - Silence, Hacksaw Ridge, Lion and 20th Century Woman.

I've also actively avoided Manchester By the Sea and Birth of a Nation for fairly parallel reasons. Maybe I'll check one of both out when they come to streaming, but with so much else I'd rather make a priority, spending money and time on either of those films wasn't something that appealed to me.

And it probably shouldn't need to be said, but the rankings shouldn't be taken as absolute. I kept shuffling titles around each other even as I was writing these posts. There's a lot of "apples to oranges" in comparing these films, so on a different day, you might see some films easily exchanging places with other films in their immediate vicinity.

I saw over 70 films released in the last year and in ranking ALL of them, I was glad that a decent percentage of those were films I enjoyed to one degree or another. They were also a diverse bunch of releases, and so I maintain that anyone wanting to call 2016 "a bad year for film" simply wasn't looking hard enough for the good ones. They were out there.

I can't dispute that it was equally clear that 2016 was responsible for a large number of bad movies that were exceptional in their putridness. I'm not doing a "Worst of" list for many reasons, chief among them being that I'm certain that there were worse movies than what I saw, and that includes some pretty terrible films. (Just to give you an idea of how bad it all was, Independence Day: Resurgence couldn't quite crack the bottom 10.)

But why focus on the negative? It's more fun to celebrate the good, starting today with...

11. The Invitation - Another limited location film built around tension within the group. This achieves that with a much larger cast, though that fact also raises a few issues for me. More specifically, there comes a point in the film where I'm convinced more than one person would be sane enough to get the hell out of that situation. I've heard plenty of theories as to why the confession offered by John Carrol Lynch's character doesn't and more of the dinner party to the exit, but I don't buy any of them. What does work is the incredibly unsettlng atmosphere and a final shot that doesn't give an easy release from the intense finale.

12. Captain America: Civil War - I keep debating if it should be held against this film that it cannot stand alone. More than any other Marvel film, this is the culmination of multiple entries, and yet, you don't feel the strains of that as much as you could have. At the end of the day, this is a really strong entry in the Marvel canon that builds off of a well-justified conflict between Iron Man and Captain America. Along the way, the ground is seeded for upcoming films starring Spider-Man and Black Panther, but the clever work of screenwriters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely keeps these cameos from feeling like mere advertisements for future spinoffs. (To see how all of this could have gone much more out of control, check out Batman v. Superman.) After a second viewing, I still find myself on Team Iron Man.

13. The Nice Guys - Ten years after Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, we finally get a worthy follow-up from writer/director Shane Black, who shares scripting duties here with Anthony Bagarozzi. This tale of two '70s era private eyes on the case of a missing teenage girl didn't quite blow me away as much as the former film, but it remains a fun romp full of everything you'd expect in a Shane Black film. Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling are as good as you'd expect, but I feel like the real find here is Angourie Rice, who was 14 at the time of shooting. She handles the Black tone and dialogue like she was grown in a lab specifically to wield it.

14. Rogue One - The first non-episodic Star Wars feature is a solid film, if one that lacks the emotional punch that The Force Awakens delivered so powerfully. The first half could stand to be faster moving, and I wish that the main characters had more depth to them... but once the mission actually gets going, the last hour or so is an awesome ride. This movie is the perfect example of how a story that ends strong can redeem earlier missteps. (That said, I do still have misgivings about how tiny the Star Wars Universe is becoming.)

15. Sing Street - Such a cute and nostalgic film about a young Irish boy in the 80s who starts a rock band and finds his own musical voice even as his parents relationship falls apart and he experiences his first love. I'm a major disciple of writer/director Jim Carney's previous film Begin Again, and while this one didn't hit me quite as acutely as that did, it still has some really hummable, toe-tapping tunes and just a really fun vibe.

16. Zootopia - I didn't expect a stealth lesson in prejudice and racial tolerance from this film, and the more I consider it, the more remarkable it is how seamlessly it's woven into the Pixar formula. It's a theme that sneaks up on you without compromising the usual humor and fun characters you expect to find in this film. Without being preachy, it offers strong values to a young audience that will rewatch these movies again and again and absorb the lessons young people really need to hear in this day and age.

17. Jackie - A look back at the four days from President Kennedy's assassination to his funeral, from his wife Jackie's point of view. Natalie Portman gives a powerful performance as Mrs. Kennedy, aided by a strong script that plays on her fear that her husband will become an historical footnote. I'd read long ago about how she had devised some aspects of the funeral, but never fully understood what that meant to her until this film showed me.

So why is this so low on the list? For all the wonderful choices in art direction and aesthetic, the movie feels just a bit "over-directed." Too many shots are composed so perfectly that you are AWARE of how precisely they've been staged. (It's the same feeling I've often gotten in M. Night Shyamalan's work.) It's the directing equivalent of over-acting, and there were moments that it undermined Portman's performance for me and made me too aware I was watching "acting!"

18. Hidden Figures - I did not know the story of Katherine Johnson, the African-American mathematician for NASA who worked on the Mercury and Apollo 11 launches. Nor did I know that there were other African-American women working in NASA at that time. I applaud the film for bringing to light a long-ignored aspect of much-retold history. As a friend noted, it's PG, so it can be shown in classrooms across the nation. That's an effort I very much applaud. Taraji P. Henson is perfect as Katherine Johnson, and you won't find so much as a trace of EMPIRE's Cookie in her performance. She completely disappears into the role. Much praise also for Janelle Monae, whom I did not recognize from her music career and assumed was an experienced character actress.

Alas, this felt a little too much like a "made for TV" movie in its execution. The directing is pretty unremarkable, and while I went after JACKIE for being TOO directed, at least it felt like a movie. It's workmanlike in its approach, a weakness occasionally shared by the script. It feels like a surface-level Wikipedia take rather than a full deep dive into what that time truly felt like. The other irritant is the aggressive miscasting of Jim Parsons as a NASA engineer. If you have even a passing familiarity with his BIG BANG THEORY character Sheldon Cooper, his appearances are as jarring as if Oscar the Grouch popped out of one of Denzel Washington's trashcans in Fences. There's a lot to like in Hidden Figures, but some better choices could have been made.

19. La La Land - Once this film started getting high praise at festivals, I resolved to avoid all previews, all reviews, all write-ups until I saw it. I've seen this cycle before and wanted no part of it - praise, backlash for the overpraise, the backlash to the backlash, and finally, the drawing of battle-lines. Seems like that's exactly what happened. My take: If you want to separate good directors from bad ones, given them a long-take scene and you'll spot the posers right away. Damien Chazelle proves more than once in this film that he's one of the real deals. La La Land is a very pretty-looking film, shot in a really gorgeous way. It's vivid, bright and colorful. You can pick a clip out from it almost immediately.

On the other hand, what can I say about a musical where the music is the least notable part? It goes beyond there not being a single track I needed to IMMEDIATELY run to iTunes for - ten minutes after it was over, I couldn't even hum a single melody. Gosling and Stone get by on their natural charm and chemistry, but it's hard to ignore they're playing some incredibly thin characters. I don't think it cashes the check that the hype was determined to write, but man is it a pretty way to spend two hours.

20. Lights Out - One of the creepiest horror movies I've seen in a while, and it owes a lot of that to being built around something primal - fear of the dark. It has a great atmosphere about it, and a strong cast that compliments the script well. I'm always up for a horror film that pushes itself to be inventive, and that's exactly what we get from Eric Heisserer's script and David F. Sandberg's directing.

Come back tomorrow for the Top 10!