Tuesday, March 31, 2009

ER Week - Day 2

Now that we’ve dealt with the larger arcs in the pilot episode of ER, let’s take a look at several scenes that manage to reveal a lot about their characters in interesting ways.

A standout scene midway through the pilot is a moment between Dr. Lewis and a patient played by Miguel Ferrer. In the first scene, the patient mentions he’s smoked two or three packs a day since he was 14. Lewis goes out into the hall to call her boyfriend and while she’s on the phone, she receives the patient’s chest x-ray. What she sees is clearly not good, provoking a spontaneous “Damn” in mid-conversation. She ends the call, saying, “I have to tell a patient something” and that “something" is clearly not good news.

When she returns to the patient, her mood is decidedly formal. Clinically, she tells him “There’s something abnormal in the structure of your lung.” He asks what it could be and she responds:

LEWIS: Well, it could be any number of things, an infiltrate, a dense area of tissue from an old infection, it could be an inhaled foreign body, it could be a granuloma [note: I’m not at all sure that’s spelled right] of some sort. It could be a lot of things.

(It’s unclear if this blocking was in the script, but at this point, Lewis moves away from the x-ray and goes to the chart, which means she’s got her back to the patient.)

PATIENT: What do you think it is?

LEWIS: There’s no way to know. You’ll have to undergo a bronchospy and possibly exploratory surgery before we know for sure.

PATIENT: I understand. But… what do you think in the meantime. Just—

LEWIS: I think in the meantime, you should consider it a potentially serious finding.

PATIENT: So you’re saying I got cancer.

LEWIS: I’m not saying that. I’m saying we don’t know anything for sure.

PATIENT: Doctor, let me just explain something to you, okay? I’m 40 years old. I have a wife. I have three children. I have a house that isn’t paid for. I have a mother who has a house that isn’t paid for. I have a lot of responsibilities, so I need to know, I need to know what you think.

LEWIS: I think you should regard your condition as very serious, but should await a final determination.

PATIENT: I don’t understand the problem. Is it so hard? Are you afraid to tell me the truth?

LEWIS: Your history of coughing blood, weight loss, and this X-ray is suggestive of cancer, but the diagnosis has not been confirmed and it may very well be something else and none of us should jump to any conclusions until we know. That’s what I think.

PATIENT: How long do I have?

Lewis looks at the x-ray, considers it a moment.

LEWIS: Six months to a year.

PATIENT: Do I have six months for sure?

LEWIS: No, not for sure.

There’s a little more to the scene after that, but that’s the important part. Notice the conflict in this scene – the Patient wants a straight answer that Lewis can’t provide. Lewis, with her experience, knows what the x-ray is telling her, even as she knows that there are other procedures that can be done to confirm the cancer diagnosis beyond a reasonable doubt. Are there other explanations for the mass in the x-ray? Yes, but clearly from Lewis’s reaction, she’s pretty damn sure of the cancer diagnosis from the start. The subtext is that she doesn’t want to deliver the bad news, and she’s urging him to get other tests done not just to rule out the less likely causes, but also so someone else will have to deliver the bad news.

Essentially, Lewis’s conflict is that she has information she doesn’t want to share, and her medical ethics seem to be giving her an out. There’s justification for telling the patient to have further testing done, so she pushes that. She avoids giving a straight answer. Notice how carefully she chooses her words when she gives the initial diagnosis. She’s trying not to alarm the patient with a cancer diagnosis, and yet, it’s having the exact opposite effect. Generally, the more carefully a person phrases their speech, the more likely it is that they are trying very hard NOT to say something. The patient keeps pressing, calling her out on this until she has no choice but to deliver the bad news.

In my opinion, this scene isn’t just an example of great writing, but great acting. Check it out if you can. And for those actors out there, it might make for an interesting scene to perform in an acting class or an actors workshop.

Monday, March 30, 2009

ER Week - Day 1

Because 90% of what I read are film scripts, I don’t often address writing for TV. However, I’m a huge TV junkie, and while I’m not the best person to go to for advice on how to sell your pilot, I’m certainly knowledgeable enough to point out good writing in the medium. This week, one of my longtime favorite shows, ER, is finally going off the air. The show has had some weak seasons over the years, but during its first season it was one of the first one-hour dramas I really got into. That same year, I also became a junkie for Homicide: Life on the Street and Law & Order. This pretty much cemented my interest in dramas over sitcoms and made me much more interested in writing for TV. Given all of that, I can’t let the show go off the air without paying proper tribute, so I figure, why not educate you in the process? Welcome to “ER Week with the Bitter Script Reader.”

Today’s lecture is on the two-hour pilot episode, “24 Hours.” If you haven’t seen it, it’s easily available in at least two ways – Netflix and iTunes. For a mere $1.99 on iTunes, you can get the full episode, which isn’t a bad deal. Also, considering that this week’s two-hour finale is likely to have many, many callbacks to the pilot, anyone planning on watching the last episode should refresh their memories of “how it all began.”

I recently rewatched the pilot for the first time in several years and several things struck me. First, at the time it premiered, I remember all the hype about how ER moved too fast, the camera never slowed down, the editing was too quick and MTV-like. It just goes to show you how things change in 15 years of TV because the pace was a bit more leisurely than on most ER episodes today, and the moving camera wasn’t nearly the breakneck pace it was made out to be. The lighting was also more diffused and “natural,” along with a more muted color palate. It’s as if they were making an effort to be “real.” If I wanted to be glib, I’d say that the current incarnation of the show is like the TV-version of the original series.

But never mind much of that because we’re here to talk about writing. There are five regular characters introduced in the pilot: Doctors Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards), Doug Ross (George Clooney), Susan Lewis (Sherry Stringfield), med student John Carter (Noah Wyle) and surgeon Peter Benton (Eriq la Salle). (Nurse Hathaway is in the pilot as well, but at the time of production she was not intended as a regular character and was in fact, supposed to be killed off in the episode, but more on that later this week.) The premise is simple – we’re a fly-on-the-wall for 24 hours in the life of Chicago’s Cook County General emergency room.

Despite the restricted time frame, Michael Crichton’s script manages to give almost all of these main characters their own arcs. There’s a lot of strong writing in how those arcs are handled. Take note of how certain character exposition comes out, as well as how the characters’ dialogue reveals a lot about them:

Greene interviews with a lucrative private practice at the insistence of his wife, but finds in the end that he’s much more stimulated by work in the ER. For him, it’s not about the money. An early scene establishes his current salary as $23,739 before taxes, and when he tours with the private practice, his starting salary there is promised to be nearly $100,000 more than that.

(Note how subtly this detail is handled. The ER salary is actually slipped seamlessly into a rant from Dr. Benton, and the private practice salary is tossed into the middle of the tour. Crichton is smart enough to trust the audience to compare and contrast on their own. He doesn’t resort to Greene saying, “I’d make $100,000 more a year there!”)

Despite the money, Greene is clearly uninterested in the job. The answers he gives his prospective boss are halting and nearly monosyllabic. In a later scene he complains that working there wouldn’t “feel like real medicine.” By the end of the episode, he concludes “I can’t give this up.” In truth, both of those lines of dialogue are unnecessary. We’ve seen enough of Greene before his tour to know that that’s not his kind of medicine, and his reactions to the tour only reinforce that. He already knows what he loves and what he wants to do. This day just reaffirms that.

Ross is introduced as a drunken ladies man, who seems incapable of not trying to charm every woman who crosses his path, only to be shaken when his ex, Nurse Hathaway, attempts suicide. Many of Ross’s early scenes revolve around his handsome features and roguish charm. There’s a moment where he instinctively hits on a new med student, only to play innocent when she calls him out on it. However, one of the sharper bits of writing comes when a patient remarks to Nurse Haleh that “he’s very handsome.” Dryly, Haleh says, “He knows.” It’s a funny insight into not only how Ross acts, but how the people around him every day perceive him.

John Carter is a na├»ve med student on his first day assigned to the ER as Benton’s student. When he arrives he has yet to start an IV, as he’s only worked in dermatology and psychiatry. (“The well-dressed specialties,” Dr. Benton notes, with no small amount of distain.) Though he’s clearly overwhelmed at first, by the end of the day he’s delivered a baby, started an IV, sutured, and learned an important lesson from Dr. Greene about how doctors handle their feelings in difficult cases. Carter’s job in this episode is to be the wide-eyed innocent, reacting to everything with fresh eyes. It’s the sort of part that could have been ruined by a lesser actor, but Wyle’s comic timing sells every non-verbal reaction, every shocked reaction, every nerve. Carter has relatively few lines compared to his cast mates, particularly considering his screentime. It wouldn’t surprise me if on the page, Carter felt like one-dimensional comic relief, the nervous guy who bumbles his first day on the job and nearly faints at the site of a stab wound. Still, the script gives the actor enough to work with that he’s able to make Carter endearing.

Dr. Benton, a surgeon and third-year resident, finally gets to prove himself. We’re not even eight minutes into the pilot when Benton expresses interest in helping on a difficult surgery. He’s dismissively told, “You’re years away from a case like this.” Later, Dr. Benton’s status in the hospital is reinforced when an x-ray tech sarcastically refers to him as “a man of many talents – all of them unproven.” Yet, Benton finally gets his moment to shine when a man comes in with a ruptured aneurysm and there are no surgeons available to work on him. Knowing that the man could bleed out internally and die at any time, Benton makes the call to start surgery – a case that is established as way beyond his experience. Fortunately the gutsy move works and Benton keeps him alive long enough for the Chief of the ER to arrive and save the patient. This leads to the famous moment of an ecstatic Benton giving the karate-punch that lived on for eight years in the opening credits.

Susan Lewis is the only one of the five leads not to get a true arc in the pilot. She’s established as Greene’s close friend and as a more than competent doctor, but in these episodes, she’s clearly a supporting character. However, that’s to be expected. Pilots can’t always give every character a large arc, and at least the character herself is pretty well-established.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out another interesting bit of character writing with regards to the Carter/Benton dynamic. It’s interesting to see the range in Benton’s character. When he’s with Carter, he’s a hard-nosed mentor, rattling off instructions faster than Carter can write them down. But don’t take my word for it – here’s their first meeting:

Is it any wonder Carter was intimidated as hell? Benton is written and played like that college instructor whom none of us could ever get an A from no matter how hard we tried. It would have been easy to write Benton as a hard-nosed, no nonsense mentor and leave it at that, but Crichton is wise to show us the teacher as the student by giving Benton a mentor who is as difficult for Benton to impress as it is for Carter to impress Benton. It fleshes out Benton to show him interacting differently with different people. He’s dismissive of many of the nurses, sarcastic and hostile to the x-ray techs, tough on his student, and intimidated and eager around his superiors. I’d argue that at least in the pilot, Benton is the best-developed character. Take note of that in developing your own characters.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

More on queries

Just an addendum to Thursday's post... Amanda the Aspiring TV Writer has a post today on her blog about queries that's worth checking out. For what it's worth, she's probably got more direct contact with the process than I do, so give it a look.

Next week... ER Week!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Ways to get read

Last week I got a question from a reader named Ian:

Simply put, how does a script come into your, or any other reader's, hand? What is the route it takes? I feel it would be valuable for aspiring writers such as myself to know how to get to the gatekeeper in the first place. :)

Generally, it varies with the job. When I work for a production company, the vast majority of the material I read comes in through agents. At agencies and management companies, most of the time, those scripts are coming in through agents as well.

So how does one get a script to a reader when they don't have an agent? Probably the most common way would be through a personal connection. If you're in L.A., network; make friends with other writers, with agent and producer assistants. Once you're on good terms with them, ask if they'd read your script and give you their reaction. If they think it's good, maybe they'll pass it up the ladder to people they work for. I tend to favor asking the contact for notes first rather than just saying, "Hey can you show this to your boss?" In that case, you're basically asking them flat-out to cash in one of their favors, and few people in that situation would be inclined to do that without vetting the material first to make sure it's not a waste of their boss's time. Plus, your friend might have good notes, or maybe he'll like it enough off the bat to ask, "Hey, you mind if I show this to a few people at work?"

Contests can also be a way up to the Gatekeepers. Several of my previous employers have requested the top ten finalists from many competitions like the Nichols Fellowship. Strangely, despite the reputation those contests and many others have, rarely are those submissions as strong as the professionally-submitted ones. If you've got confidence in your writing, it might not hurt to pick a contest or two and see how you do. Just make sure it's one with a good reputation. It can cost $50 or more to enter some of these competitions, which is why I don't suggest going crazy with those submissions.

I hasten to point out that even winning a competition doesn't necessarily mean much. The odds of a contest-winning script getting sold and produced are still pretty low. I come at it from the view that doing well in a contest at least gives you something to put in a query letter to an agent or manager. At the very least, it shows that someone with some experience in script reading has vetted the script and found good things in the material. It's a foot in the door - but be aware, query letters don't always have a very high success rate. If you get one response from every ten or fifteen you send out, that's pretty good.

Depressing, ain't it? Does anyone out there have any suggestions for other ways to get read?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Who’s the casting director here?

I can’t count how many times I’ve seen scripts where the writer has decided to “help” out the reader’s imagining by suggesting who can play the lead roles. In some cases it’s as innocuous as the character description in the text being “a Clint Eastwood type.” In others, it’s as obtrusive as creating an entire dramatis personae after the title page, suggesting the reader’s ideal cast. One of the strangest suggestions I ever saw in a script had a writer proposing that Michael Phelps would be an ideal choice to play an NFL quarterback. Suggesting actors is dicey enough, but it does the writer no favors to seriously propose non-actors for major roles, no matter what marketing viability they feel can come from their idea.

To put it gently, casting is something that is not the responsibility of the writer. That’s a complicated process that’s hashed out between the director, the producers and the studio, not to mention the casting director. The writer’s job is to create the parts, not to interpret them. You can certainly write your roles in a way that would make particular actors logical casting choices, and there’s nothing wrong with having your own personal “fantasy cast” for when you write. It’s when you include a note saying, “What about Gene Hackman for the part of the lawyer?” that you’ve crossed that invisible line. (For one thing, Gene has retired more or less, so making that suggestion only results in you appearing out of touch.)

Generally speaking, it’s best to just keep your mouth shut about casting unless specifically asked. And never, EVER, belittle the suggestions of the director or the producer. In the unlikely event they come in with the brilliant idea of casting a vapid “actress” from The Hills in your movie, say something like, “It’s funny it reads like that… I kept seeing her as a Katherine Heigl-type.”

Monday, March 23, 2009

How not to use music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Misogynistic violence against women

This is one of those things that is hard to describe, but you definitely know it when you see it. My “best” example of such a scene was one scene where a woman met her end by being sliced in half lengthwise, starting at her genitals. If it wouldn’t get me sued, I’d describe that whole sequence in detail just to put in context how truly nasty some scenes can be. Rape scenes are also walking a fine line. It’s possible to handle them tastefully, but I’ve read a few where it’s felt like the rapist is standing in for the writer’s own fantasies – the kind of scene that after you read, you need to take a shower to wash the dirt away.

After more than five years as a reader, I now know far too many ways to mutilate, subjugate and sexually degrade a woman. I’m by no means a feminist, and there are plenty of instances where I’ve read an act of violence committed upon a female character and haven’t raised an eyebrow at it. Don’t misunderstand me – I’m not saying you should never hurt, injure or kill your female characters. That would be equally sexist. The problem sets in when it feels like the victimizer in the scene is a stand-in for the writer’s own sick desires.

This is one of those subliminal things that’s hard to point out without using specific examples, and unfortunately, to show the worst/best examples of such writing would likely get me sued. As blurry as the line gets, it most frequently gets crossed when some sort of sexual element is added to it. A scene where a woman is stabbed and her throat is slashed probably wouldn’t set of any alarms – but a scene where a woman is stabbed, then raped as the attacker takes obvious glee in her pain is going to be more repulsive.

Any creative attacks upon the vagina are also likely to trigger this response. Rape is a hot button for a lot of people, and doubtlessly there will be stories where such an act will serve the plot. (The Accused and A Time To Kill immediately spring to mind.) If you’re just trying to write a “fun” slasher film, I’d be careful about adding rape in there. If you’re writing torture porn, then you’re just a sick son of a bitch and there’s probably no saving you.

Yeah, I said it. I get the impression that torture porn gets bought less on the strength of its script and more on the cynical view of, “Well, this can probably make money in this market.” It seems like that genre is on its way out, and I for one couldn’t be happier. I don’t recommend writing it, but I don’t think too many readers like those scripts either, so you really don’t have anything to lose.

And don’t take it personally if agents, producers and managers who read the script think that there’s something strange about it. Readers often fancy themselves dimestore analysts, and we tend to think that a sick script is the product of a sick mind.

Monday, March 16, 2009

“She bends over, exposing her ample cleavage.”

I see that line, or some variation thereof, FAR too often in the first fifteen pages of scripts I read – a completely gratuitous cleavage shot. There are a lot of aspiring screenwriters out there in need of cold showers. Sex and sexy girls aren’t bad – just make sure there’s a reason you’re getting your hot-bodied police detective to parade around in her Victoria’s Secrets.

Ironically, I get the sense that a lot of writers put scenes like this in as a way of claiming they’re writing strong female characters. If a woman uses her assets cunningly to distract and manipulate a man, she’s got to be smart, right?

Wrong. We see right through that, and usually the actress will too. In fact, it might even appear degrading to the characters – both the one doing the flashing and the one being flashed. Sometimes that’s exactly what the scene needs and if it serves a function, go for it.

But if your only thought here is “BOOBIES!” your reader is just going to roll his eyes and call that a clean strike.

And in case you’re putting this in there to make sure that your lead actress is stunning, ask yourself this: when was the last time Hollywood ever cast an ugly girl in the lead?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Exclamation points

"A fellow jaded script reader" sent me an email last week, asking me to "Please do a blog about the obnoxious overuse of exclamation points, underlining, bold, or italics in DP. How many times have you seen: "That's right, Steve has a twin!" Just because a writer uses an exclamation point, it doesn't make their lame plot twist surprising. Uggghhhh."

For the most part, I agree with "Jaded," though he's really talking about two annoying things - exclamation points and asides to the reader. This happens to be one of those times where I'm reluctant to make a blanket statement against them. I agree, it's annoying as all heck most of the time. The real problem is that the writers who use these kinds of asides use them a lot.

And yet, I can see instances where this sort of aside might be helpful, particularly when the implications it underlines are going to be more clear when performed than when written. In other words, if "Steve has a twin!" is a reveal that comes out visually (say through a character looking at pictures, or a scene that shows Steve with his twin without having them speak or confirm their relationship), without dialogue that explains it to the audience, it might not be a bad idea to include that note. Every now and then I read a script where those clues are essential to understanding the twist. Of course, those scripts are also often so badly written - and overwritten - that a reader needs that explanation to make sense of it.

"Jaded" does have a point, though, and if you're finding that your readers require a note like this to understand your plot twists, it might be worth going back and making sure that you've set up these twists properly. Then, if you do include such a note, be conservative with the italics, exclamations and underlining. Use no more than one of those at a time. Also, since these kinds of notes are often seen as a crutch, limit them. My gut feeling is that three of these are the most that should be in any script. Don't leave your audience feeling you have such little regard for their intelligence that they need every twist spoon-fed to them.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Haven’t I Read This Before?

Ripping off another film – particularly a widely-seen one - is another sure way to end up in the PASS pile. Here’s the thing about readers – we watch movies too. Amusingly enough, it wouldn’t have taken someone very well-read in film history to pick out the most egregious rip-offs I’ve seen over the years.

I once got stuck reading a Star Wars rip-off where the only deviations from Lucas’s script might have been to use find and replace to rename the characters. I think the writer thought he was writing a parody, but he seemed to forget that parodies are supposed to have humor. Despite what the Scary Movies, Disaster Movies, and Date Movies of the world have shown us, a parody should generally be more than a beat-for-beat reenactment of a better film, with only a fart joke or random pop culture reference thrown in to shake things up.

It’s only natural that a hit movie is going to spawn a number of imitators. I’ve certainly read my fair share of Tarantino wannabes over the years, and none of them have really impressed me. There’s more to a movie like Reservoir Dogs than a 70s soundtrack, intense violence, and repeated use of the word “motherfucker.” I don’t see anything wrong with paying homage to your heroes, but make sure that that’s the garnish on the meal you’re serving – not the main course.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Cliches I'm tired of seeing - Part Two - "To Be Continued"

At last we’re going to get to discuss one of my biggest pet peeves as a reader. I’ve mentioned before that readers invariably will flip to the back page once they get a script so they can see how long it is. What I didn’t mention is that a page number above 120 is only the second worst thing they could hope to see there.

The worst: three little words at the bottom – “To Be Continued.”

A sure way to get a pass is to hold off resolving the central question of your story in the script, but crafting a final scene that promises all will be revealed in the sequel. Never, EVER, do this. It’s certainly fair to leave a few minor things unresolved at the end of the movie, plot points that could be expounded upon in future films – but if the whole movie is building up to something it’s idiotic to slap a cliffhanger on the film and push the resolution into the next movie. When you’re trying to sell your first script, make sure your story stands on its own with a beginning, middle and end. No one pays $14 a ticket to see just a beginning and a middle.

Look at Star Wars. Despite the fact that it spawned five sequels and a host of spin-offs and tie-ins, the first movie works as a standalone film on its own. In 1977, the only really loose thread at the end is Darth Vader spinning off into nowhere – and the central question of Star Wars isn’t Darth Vader’s fate. Had the movie stopped just as the X-Wings moved in to attack the Death Star and George Lucas flashed text saying “To Be Continued in The Empire Strikes Back” I doubt the film would have been even a fraction as successful.

Who am I kidding? Had Lucas done that in the screenplay, it never would have been made. Look at the first films in any franchise and you’ll see that all of them work as standalone films and none of them have To Be Continueds that leave major story points unresolved.

It’s not that I don’t understand the motivation here. If there’s one thing that Hollywood seems to be hungry for more than anything else, it’s a franchise that they can strip mine to death until everyone wonders what they ever liked about the original film in the first place. So I can certainly see how a writer might think that it’s a great selling point to their script if they come in with a trilogy. “You get to make three movies about these characters! Isn’t that great?” says the desperate writer.

No, genius, because someone has to SEE the first movie first – and there has to be enough of a return on the initial investment to justify the expense of making another one. No one sets out to make a bomb, but you can never predict what films will get accepted and what will get rejected by the marketplace. After Speed Racer tanked last summer, I guarantee that the Wachowski brothers are glad they didn’t sink a lot of capital into shooting two movies at once. And I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for the sequel to The Golden Compass either.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

How to become a reader

I got an email this weekend from a reader named David:

Thanks for blogging and imparting knowledge on us aspirings. Every one of your entries has been extremely helpful. However, you've stuck to giving advice to writers and their scripts, what about your advice on how you become a reader? As I've learned about the job through you and others, it's been something I would love to do and feel I could really be good at. How does one become a reader? Do you start as an unpaid intern and make yourself valuable and get paid work from there? What would be your advice for someone considering being a reader as a long-term career? I would love to get your input! I'm moving out to LA in July and becoming a reader is the path I want to take.

As with every job in L.A., there are about a hundred different paths to getting to be a reader. My personal road was as follows: I came out to L.A. with few connections, but eventually got a hold of the UTA Job List through an alumni connection. (Nowadays, you can get it through Temp X at http://tempdiaries.com.) Through there I got an internship with a boutique management agency. Basically, I spent two days a week hanging out in the office answering phones and reading from the slush pile. These were looooong days because the job was incredibly boring. The phone seemed to rarely ring and the slush submissions were generally pretty weak. "Coverage" consisted of a grid, and four blank lines where we were expected to handwrite our opinion of the script in question. Most of what I read was pretty weak, and while my analytical skills weren't stretched, it at least got me used to the idea that 90% of the scripts out there are crap. Plus, I made a friend there, but more on that later...

After that, I did another internship while I continued to look for a paying job. This was with a much more prestigious production company responsible for several notable films in the '90s. However, at the time I was there, they only had one project in post production, and haven't released a film since. I mention this because at least at the time, interning at a production company was a great way to make connections and perhaps get hired on as a real employee at the end of your time there. Anyway, this was another two months of reading scripts, getting coffee and manning the reception desk.

After that, I finally got my first paying job... as a runner at yet another production company. I made sure to get to know the Development staff, and sure enough, it paid off just about a month into my time there. The VP of Development came down to the PA room one afternoon with a 500 page novel he needed coverage on. I jumped at the opportunity, spent the rest of my afternoon reading the script, went home, read for another two hours or so, wrote up my coverage that evening, and made sure that I got to the office before he did so the script and the coverage waiting for him.

Suffice to say, after that he started bringing scripts to me regularly. About six months later, they decided to make me a permanent Development Assistant. A little over a year later, a friend of mine who worked at an agency let me know they were looking for experienced readers, and my sample coverage got me hired. That job led to another freelance gig that has paid off well for me.

So basically, the best advice I can offer is to do whatever you can to get close to the people who work in development. It might take a while, so make sure you're prepared when the time comes to take advantage of that connection. It might suck to endure an internship or two, but often it makes it a lot easier to job hunt when you've got something like that on your resume - especially if you're straight out of college. Also, internships are great for making long-term connections. A guy I met at my first internship is a guy who four years later got me hired reading for the company where he was now assistant to the Chairman of a production company that I've served for almost two and a half years.

In fact, virtually every job I've gotten in L.A. has come as the result of some kind of personal connection, whether it's a friend, an alumni contact, or someone I met through a previous job. Don't neglect that.

Also, if you're coming out to L.A., be advised that this job economy is terrible at the moment. I've got friends with five years of experience as assistants who have been out of work for six months or more. It's probably best to have enough savings to keep yourself afloat for six to eight months. (It took me about six months to land my first paying job.)

Be advised there are different levels of readers. A union reader is the plum job to have because they're paid better and their workload is consistent and regulated. (In other words, you won't have to read 15 scripts a week to make ends meet.) A staff reader often will be on salary rather than being paid per script. Both of these are preferable to being a freelance or part-time reader, which might allow for a more flexible personal schedule, but with a trade-off of lower pay and an income dependant on reading as many scripts as possible in a given week.

I hope this answers your question, David. Thanks for reading!