Friday, July 30, 2010

Friday Free-for-All: Ryan Reynolds makes some kid's day at Comic-Con

This has been making its way around the internet this week, but in case you didn't see it here's Ryan Reynolds making a kid's day at Comic-Con. While on the Green Lantern panel, Ryan is asked by a young fan what it feels like to say the Green Lantern oath.

Interesting side note: when I went looking for this video last weekend, the search terms "Green Lantern Comic Con" returned one instance of this clip and four separate videos of Blake Lively's appearance on the panel with titles that indicated there was some sort of wardrobe malfunction. (I didn't watch the videos to confirm.) This proves that as much as comic book geeks will go crazy for the Green Lantern oath, boobs always win in the end.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Calling all pro writers and bloggers - an update on the collaborative writing project

At present, I have 18 people ready to go for the collaborative writing project discussed in this entry. That's enough for two teams, though if I get an influx of people in the next few days, I'll expand that to three.

A couple people have written in with suggestions that they'd like to see an "all-star" team made up of screenwriting bloggers. I haven't asked any other bloggers directly, but I absolutely would welcome their contributions. I might even send some emails to my counterparts and see if there's any interest.

Perhaps this idea is too ambitious for the first go-round of this experiment, but I'd love to get a true all-star team made up of working screenwriters. I know there are a few who read this blog regularly, and if you fit that criteria we'd love to have you. If anyone has a direct line to any pro writers, please email or tweet them this blog post.

In brief, here's the idea and the rules:

- the product is a screenplay written round-robin style 10 pages at a time.

- there will be no treatment or plot breakdown. Each writer picks up where the previous one leaves off and is free to send the story in any direction they wish.

- "Yes, and..?" style of improv is suggested. In other words, a writer cannot unfairly "deny" or undo details that have been established by previous writers. Shocking twists that redefine those earlier details are, of course, encouraged.

- I will write the first ten pages. From there, each writer will have a week to produce ten pages when their turn in the rotation comes up.

- Each writer takes only one turn.

- Multiple teams may be working at the same time. The only common element is the first ten pages. Otherwise there is no creative overlap among the scripts or the writers.

- Have fun and be creative.

Pros, I recognize many of you are extremely busy. I'm hoping that you'll find this a fun and freeing exercise, and perhaps one that other writers might find educational. We've seen what writers can do when they have a plan - now let's see how they handle being written into a corner.

You can reach me at

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Reader mail: Public domain and Is there still a place for romantic comedies?

Jordan asks:

I recently came across a public domain superhero that has not been used in mainstream media for quite some time that I would be interested in reviving in some form. Before I start on the script, though, I would like to ask if any good can come from pitching a public domain story. I don't have to pay any options and neither does a studio. If the studio wanted, they could take a look at the project, decide to pursue it, and then then dump me in favor of another writer. I know you talked about how writing a parody script is essentially useless, so could the same be said for a public domain property?

I am also working on a spec at the moment, so could it be beneficial to show them original material if they are interested in the project?

I tend to think there's nothing wrong with mining the public domain, so long as you keep a few things in mind. In the case of a superhero, it's probably most useful if the character in question is familiar enough to audiences to have some branding value. If it's EXTREMELY obscure, there might be a benefit to writing it up as a completely original spec rather than a public domain adaptation. (On the other hand, adaptations have been hot for a while - but mostly in cases when there's some name recognition value.)

The most important thing: make absolutely sure that the character you're dealing with is in the public domain. There have been so many copyright extensions over the years that there's always a chance that character is still owned by someone. Disney has been very good about lobbying to extend copyright protection because they NEED to maintain ownership of Mickey Mouse, who first appeared in the 1920s. Superman didn't come along until 1938, and as he hasn't fallen into the public domain yet, I'm unsure if any other superheroes have. (Though I suppose it's possible assuming the owner had no interest in maintaining their rights.)

As a friend reminded me in this post, the public domain isn't always cut and dried.

As for the studio stealing your idea, well... that's the risk of working with characters you don't own. However, if they were blown away by your take, it's going to be a hell of a lot easier to just buy your script and put you to work instead of hiring another writer to come in and do it on assignment. (Think about it, as a newbie, you're going to be cheaper, even if they eventually boot you off the project and hire another writer for rewrites.)

As for original material, I'd say it can't hurt you, so long as it's as solid as your adapted material. Heck, my strategy might be to use the adaptation to get the meeting and the contacts, then see if there's anyway to capitalize on that to sell your original script. Don't go into any such meetings pushing both scripts, but be on the lookout to mention that you're wrapping up a new script. If they express interest in anything else you've written, don't be shy about mentioning the new one.

Romantic at Heart asks:

With the foul stench of Bromance in the air, is there even a place for traditional male/female romantic comedy anymore? And if you do take the time to write one, does it have to be jaded and sarcasm laden, or is there still room for a "Sweet Home Alabama?"

A manager I used to know once referred to romantic comedies as "perennials." At least, in this manager's estimation, romantic comedies would never go completely out of style. I'd like to think there's still room for a rom-com that isn't jaded and sarcastic. A rom-com with a great concept and enjoyable characters will always sell.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Tuesday Talkback: Collaborative writing project

I've been toying with a little writing experiment that would involve contributions from my readers and I'm curious to see if there's any support for this. Back in school, did any of you ever do a "round robin" writing exercise? The way it works is that one person starts writing a story, and then hands it off to the next person in their group after a predetermined limit is met (either a paragraph, a page or a chapter.) Then that person picks up and sends the story in whatever direction they like before passing it on to the next person. Collaborative

My idea is to try something like this with a screenplay. I'd write the first ten pages, doing my best to toss enough balls in the air that the following writers would have plenty of material to work with. Then, each writer after me would pick up, adding ten pages to the total and advancing the story as appropriate. There'd be no master plan, no treatment, no previously agreed-upon plot. This would work best if each writer tried their best to work within a three-act structure and be mindful of how the story usually "needs" to advance at the point they're dealing with within the three-act structure.

Aside from that, there'll also be a "non-denial" rule in place. This is common in improv. What it means is that you can't deliberately contradict something that's been put into play. In improv, if a character says, "Boy, life is great here on the moon," another character cannot say, "You're wrong, this is Alabama." Also, there will be no revisions allowed to previous pages. Each writer is bound by what has come before.

Ideally, I'd have at least eight people willing to participate, and each writer would have a week to turn in their ten pages. If I get a lot more than eight, then I might start two groups going at the same time with the initial ten pages. If so, that could lead to some interesting results, as we'd see how two groups starting with the same initial premise could end up with completely different results by the end.

If the results are interesting enough, perhaps we'll even toss the script up on a peer review site that's unaware of the screenplay's lineage. It'll be an interesting experiment in seeing if those reviewers detect any odd blips in story construction and characterization.

If you're interested in being a writer in this little game, shoot me an email at Tell me a little bit about yourself and the movies you like too. If we have more than one group going, I might try to mix up the writer's roster a bit.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Reader mail: Family friendly franchise movie

Hank asks:

I just finished the 1st draft of a family-friendly action script. It takes place @ disneyworld, incorporates all their theme parks, and features a seldom seen character owned by Marvel/disney.

1. Is this bad? Limiting the possible buyers...but creating something that cross markets both marvel and disney? (shoot...have I asked this before?

In short, yeah, you've pretty much limited your buyers to one, and to top it off, this sort of cross-promotional deal is something that most often is developed in-house.

2. My characters are a bunch of uber intelligent 15 and 16 year olds. I feel like I'm writing them "just this side of adult" is this a feel thing or is there a rule-of-thumb when writing younger characters?

I ask because I have a friend who wrote a tween-targeted piece and it ead (to me) like a "saved by the bell" episode. Now, I love the Zack attack as much as the next guy....but....y'know?

I totally follow where you're coming from, but if you're going after tweens rather than teens, the Saved by the Bell model is probably where you're going to want to aim. In that case, even though your characters are older, your audience is going to be in elementary and middle school, so the tone has to be appropriate for them. After ala fifteen year-old on 90210 is probably going to sound a lot different from a fifteen year-old on Hannah Montana.

It sounds like you're writing it family-friendly but also want to appeal to teenagers. The trick with teenagers is that if you write them sounding too young, you get the Saved By the Bell problem, but if you make their dialogue too mature, it sounds equally silly in the manner of early Dawson's Creek.

The older your audience, the "closer to adult" you'll want to write the teens. In other words, if you're aiming for the elementary and middle school audience that saw High School Musical you'll want to keep them pretty innocent and un-nuanced. If you're going after that teen viewer, you'll probably have to give them a little more edge and maturity.

"Just this side of adult" sounds like the safest way to play it. Just don't neglect how your story's tone and especially the maturity of your viewer can determine this.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Friday Free-For-All: House of Secrets - the best damn comic shop in LA

With Comic-Con this weekend, I figured it was time for an appropriately-themed post. I ask you, why is Wednesday different from all other days?

If you're a comic geek like me, you know that Wednesday is "New Comic Book" Day. Each week, you'll find comic book stores filled with regular customers on that afternoon, particularly during the lunch hour. You'll marvel (see what I did there?) at the guy ahead of you in line who has a stack of comics as thick as a phone book and a tab well over $150. You might even ask him if it's been a few months since he was last there, only to have him say, "Well, I missed coming in last week, but other than that I've been in every Wednesday for a while."

For the record, my pull account stands at roughly a half-dozen books a month.

Some cities and towns are so small that the customers have no choice. They have to go to the solitary shop in the region. More fortunate customers have multiple stores in their area, which means they have a choice to make - which one do they patronize?

Choosing a comic shop is like choosing a regular bar or a barber; it's not something to be taken lightly. It's a somewhat personal choice arrived at by weighing a variety of factors. The store I went to back home was considered one of the best in the country at the time I moved to L.A., and I almost considered it irreplaceable. For a few years, I switched to mail order. The service I used had such huge discounts that as long as I was buying a dozen or so issues a month, I was saving a lot of money even with having to pay for shipping.

Alas, a few years back I dropped a lot of titles and it was no longer cost efficient to order them. That meant I had to pick one of my local stores, and between the Hollywood and Valley areas, I had plenty of options.

After checking out five stores in the area, I settled on House of Secrets in Burbank. Don't believe what anyone tells you about any other stores in the L.A. area - this is the best. No one can match them for customer service and discounts. As a regular buyer who might not always be able to make it to the store on New Comic Day, a pull account is very important to me. For those not in the know, it basically means that your shop will set aside a copy of whatever's on your list, be it Batman, Spider-Man or Red Sonja.

Plenty of people will tell you that the Golden Apple on Melrose is the greatest shop in LA, and I admit, it's a nice sized store with a lot of inventory and some great people - but they don't do pull accounts. Meltdown Comics on Sunset is another well designed store with a lot of space. When I asked the guy behind the counter if they offered pulls, he kind of sneered at me and said, "Only if you're buying 15 titles a month."

I checked out Legacy Comics in Glendale, but didn't even get to ask my question because the douche working that day was engrossed in a game on the other side of the shop and looked put out every time he had to move over to the cash register to actually help a customer check out. Yeah. I really was motivated to go back there. Frankly, Legacy is one of the worst comic shops I've ever had the misfortune to enter.

House of Secrets not only had a no-minimum pull, but there was a massive discount if you got one. If you just tell them, "Pull every issue of Justice League and Avengers," or whatever titles you want, you get 20% off. If you're willing to go to the extra trouble of making a list from the Previews catalog each month - including the order number for each specific issue you want that month - you get 25% off.

This store has one of the best staffs I've seen. Paul, the owner, is a really friendly guy and extremely helpful to new customers. Most days you're likely to find him and Eric behind the counter and these guys are about as far from the Comic Book Guy stereotype as you can expect. It's clear they love their jobs and enjoy interacting with their customers.

But what really sets the store apart is that they're welcoming to (*gasp*) girls. I've heard plenty of horror stories about girls being looked down upon by other comic shops when they come in and start asking "ignorant" questions about Iron Man or Elektra. It seems like the result of stores developing into their own communities - but having gone so far that it's like wandering into a small Internet BBS and asking a newbie question. Instead of help and encouragement, the newbie is met with mockery, eye-rolling and attitudes so severe, they just get the hell out and don't come back.

Well, House of Secrets has at least one woman on staff, and let me tell you, Amy is probably more knowledgeable about comics than several of the geeks I know. I admit, my tastes are pretty mainstream as comics go (superheroes, mostly). From conversations I've overheard while in the store, she's pretty well-versed in a lot of the more complex and respected works. A major geek who accompanied me to the shop once remarked, "She really knows her stuff!"

So newbies and women, you have nothing to fear from the gang at House of Secrets. If you're looking to get into comics or are just trying to find a new store to patronize regularly, head on over to 1930 W. Olive Avenue in Burbank. It's on the corner of Olive and Lamer.

And in case you're curious, they didn't ask me to write this. In fact, not only do they not know about this post, they don't even know me as The Bitter Script Reader.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Reader mail: What's in a name?

Beth asks:

I'm writing a screenplay in which a character is thought to be called one name for the first act, after which it's revealed that his name is actually something else. For the dialogue tags and descriptions, is it appropriate to change the name used at this point, thus potentially confusing the reader, or should I keep the same name throughout, thus cluing the reader in to the twist before the other characters (and audience) know?

I actually had a slightly more complicated version of this problem in one of my specs, so here's how I dealt with it:

Let's say the name we know him by in the first act is "Greg." Just call him "Greg" in the start. I got even trickier with my naming and introduced the character as "MAN" until someone called him by the name "Rick." Then, in the next dialogue header, I referred to him as "MAN/RICK," and "RICK" in every subsequent instance until it was revealed that his name wasn't Rick, it was "Steve." At that point, I had the next header call him "RICK/STEVE" and then wrote "Note: from this point on, the character we have referred to as Rick will now be called Steve."

You could probably simplify that a little bit, or vary the method, but I found that to be effective. I wouldn't use his "real" name until it's identified as such to the characters, though.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Tuesday Talkback: Comic-Con

Quick one today - Who's going to Comic-Con? Do I have any readers who are actually appearing on any Comic Con panels?

And if you have a Comic-Con-related project, plug away in the comments.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Reader mail - Should my script have its own website?

Ron asks:

What do you think of those personal web sites a writer creates to market their screenplay? Does it scream "amateur"? I know a writer has to do all they can to get their work read, but do you think that it might have a negative connotation in a producer's (or whoever's) mind? That the thinking might be the writing should be good enough to stand on its own, that it shouldn't need a slick web site to get attention?

I'm not aware of any rule about this, or even industry conventional wisdom - but I tend to think it's cheesy and screams "amateur" at the top of its lungs. I've seen, well, a LOT of these sites and not once have I ever been impressed. Not once have I ever felt it ever does anything to cast the writer or his work in a good light.

With short films and webseries, I totally get why they merit websites of their own. That's content. They're brief 1-5 minute bits of entertainment that have a shot at going viral and being discovered by "average Joes." If your short or webseries gets a big enough following, maybe you'll be lucky enough to attract the attention of some development folk or managers and get a meeting. It's happened quite a few times before.

Maybe these screenwriters with websites think that this is their way to land on some producer or agents radar. After all, if it works for web shorts, why not for scripts? I'll tell you why - scripts will never go viral. You're not going to get a massive following of people downloading your script, reading all 120 pages, and then passing it around to all their friends. With viral videos, it's just as much about your following as it is your content. That's how managers and development execs weed out the material that's worth their time. They don't blindly troll the internet and check out just any site - they look for the sites and the videos with the largest audiences.

The other drawback of these sites is that they give WAY too much information about the writer. If a writer has an interesting background - say he spent 100 days as a hostage in the Iraq War - then maybe your bio is relevant. But I don't need to know you grew up in Altuna, that you met your wife in third grade, that you have two lovely kids, one of which is your beloved dog. That tells me nothing about why you are a writer worth paying attention to.

And then there are some guys who list anywhere from a half-dozen to a dozen completed screenplays on their website. That's a huge red flag. There's a reason why when you query you really only should push one project at a time. If you say you have ten scripts, most agents will immediately wonder "If this guy's so good, and all of these scripts are strong, why have NONE of them found representation yet?" Some agents also say that pushing multiple projects can show that you can't distinguish your strongest writing from your weakest writing.

Don't try to sell an agent on all your scripts - sell him on the right script.

The way I see it, a website for your screenplay offers no benefits and only drawbacks. No agent is going to troll the web looking for new clients. Any agent that looks up your website is probably doing so only after looking at your query letter. At that point, your victory is getting him interested via your query. Your website can only give him a reason not to request the script.

I'd love to hear from people with contrary views, if you feel there's something obvious that I haven't considered.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Friday Free-for-All: CSI: Miami one-liner montage

Some of my writing group friends turned me on to these hilarious montages. First up is a compilation of many moments from CSI: Miami teasers that always end with David Caruso putting on his sunglasses and saying some cheesy one-liner. The best part of this clip is that the editor put in the opening scream from the main title theme "Won't Get Fooled Again." It gets funnier with each repetition.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Thursday Throwback: Playing with someone else's toys

This rerun post is from February 20, 2009 and deals with a subject that comes up a lot - writing for characters that you don't own.

When I was 10, my parents bought a video camera and, knowing my interest in film, they encouraged me to play with it and perhaps make a movie or two. Naturally, I did what any aspiring filmmaker my age would have done – I shot a fan-film for a movie series I loved, casting my friends in the iconic parts of that franchise. The plot was thin, and basically an assembly of some of my favorite moments and lines of dialogue from that series and there were maybe about two ounces of originality to it – my own mistakes.

So it’s not that I don’t understand the compulsion to remake a favorite movie, or to make a sequel to a favorite film. And I’m hardly alone in my urges. When he was 14, Len Wiseman apparently shot a backyard version of Die Hard. The thing is, that kind of fan fiction has a time and a place. When you’re ten, it’s no big deal to invest your time in writing and/or shooting your own James Bond or Star Wars sequel. But if you’re trying to break into the business, writing a sequel or a remake really isn’t the way to go about it.

When you’re writing a screenplay, presumably you want to sell it, and logically that means that you want to have as many potential buyers as possible. Just by way of example, an action-comedy with original characters is the sort of script you can take to any producer and any studio in town. But what if you decide you want to write the next Star Trek movie. Do you know how many potential buyers do you have in that case? One – the studio that owns the rights to the series, which in this case would be Paramount. And do you know what you are if Paramount reads and feels they’d like to “go in a different direction?” Screwed.

If you don’t hold the rights to what you’re writing about, don’t bother. Amazingly, I’ve seen several scripts over the years where wannabe writers have ignored that advice. Possibly the most ridiculous violation of this rule I saw was a script that was a misguided attempt to continue a 30 year-old action franchise by crossing it over with another 40 year old film! One of those films featured an actor long dead, and the other featured an actor who likely would never return to this signature role. Out of respect for the writer, I won’t post the specifics, but it was sort of like crossing over The French Connection with the original Gone in 60 Seconds. It would have been difficult enough to do a sequel to just one of those films, but with a crossover, this writer was putting himself in a situation where he couldn’t make a sale unless two completely different sets of producers and rights-holders signed off on the concept. This would have been a legal nightmare even if someone like Steven Spielberg or J.J. Abrams was determined to make it.

And let’s be realistic here – in the case of franchise films like those, the studio never is going to buy the latest sequel as a spec. Those kinds of tentpoles already have specific producers attached, and they’ll have considerable say in the hiring of a writer. Even if you manage to query the producers, it’s extremely unlikely that they’d be receptive to a script from an unproven outsider, and again, there’s still only one guy you can take that script to. As a writer, the franchise film isn’t something you can really go after until you’re inside the club. Then, either your agent will lobby to get you onto, say, the next Superman. Or the producers or studio behind said movie will come to you and say, “How’d you like a crack at Superman?”

If you don’t have any script sales to your name, you’re essentially an unproven writer and no one hands a franchise movie to those guys. It’s like writing for the school paper and then expecting to get hired as the main political writer at The New York Times. It just doesn’t happen.

So consider all that before you invest six months of your life writing a live-action adaptation of the 80s cartoon Jem and the Holograms or GoBots. In the end, you’re going to need your own idea and your own characters in order to break into this business.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Reader mail - Do you look for profit potential when reading?

"..." asks:

When you're reading, does potential for profit play a factor in your analysis?

(I know, ostensibly, the best ideas/concepts/screenplays should make the most at the box office, but that's not reality.)

Hell, yes. The people I work for aren't exactly the sort looking to throw money away without so much as a care of making that money back.

When I'm reading for a producer, two big questions I have to consider are "is this the sort of film that this producer is interested in making?" and "Can I make a case for this being a good investment both creatively and financially?"

When I'm reading for an agent or manager, my thoughts are: "Is this writing strong enough to cut it in the market place" and "Is this guy writing the sort of material that is capable of justifying its cost?"

I'm sure someone will pop up with the old chesnut about how Star Wars was passed on by everyone in town because it was so different and no one had any kind of track record they could point to and say, "This is a hit." And yeah, it happens every now and then that producers and studios miss out on a long-shot that really connects with audiences.

But if you honestly think you can build a career with a spec that no one can figure out the audience for, you're living in a dream world. I don't care how much you're dying to tell your story about the WWII platoon that pulls together against impossible odds - no one's going to see those period pieces these days. If you're Clint Eastwood or Steven Spielberg then you've got enough clout that the studio won't say no.

But look at the figures for something like Flags of Our Fathers. It cost $90 million to make, made only $33 million domestically and another $32 million abroad. Letters from Iwo Jima only made a little more than that, but at least its much smaller budget of $19 million put that film in the black. Granted, that was over three years ago, but can you think of a WWII era hit since then?

I've already discussed why you shouldn't write about the Iraq War in this post. I'd say that the Western is nearly dead too. If I gave a Consider to any period piece, Iraq War film, Western or drama, I'd better be damn prepared to make a case for why it would be able to find an audience.

I know there are writers who throw fits when guys like me taint their "art" by bringing up the commercialism of "marketability" but the fact is if someone is going to spend tens of millions of dollars on your passion project, you'd better be able to show that someone other than you and your mom are going to go see it.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Tuesday Talkback: I will not see your fucking blockbuster

It occurred to me the other day that I really haven't gone out of my way to see many movies in the theatre this year, particularly this summer. It's the result of the fast-turnaround for movies on DVD, and my near-apathy for most of the summer releases. I bashed last summer pretty hard and I still stand by my statements that G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine are among some of the worst summer movies ever made, at least as far as "A" pictures go.

This summer might be worse because I just. Don't. Care. So I'm wondering, is it just me, or are many of you feeling the same sort of malaise towards the big releases? What were you REALLY excited to see this summer?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Reader mail: Exposition - how much is too much?

Mike says:

I recently watched Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and Goldfinger for the first time in years. All three spend a HUGE amount of time on exposition, but arguably it pays off with the impact of the thrilling conclusions. Do you think a spec with that kind of extensive, intrigue-based exposition could ever sell in today's market? More to the point and your expertise, what kind of reaction/impression/coverage would you have for such a thing, if it crossed your desk? (Supposing that formatting, grammar, and the story's internal logic were sound. It just spends a LONG time setting a LOT up.)

The sheer amount of exposition might be cause for concern, but having seen Goldfinger recently, I'd say the thing that really sets it apart more than the exposition is the pacing. Thunderball is even worse in that regard, with its sluggish underwater fights. At the end of the day, I think audiences are used to having a lot of exposition in things like the Bond series or Mission: Impossible. It's an accepted part of the genre and so long as there's a way for the viewer to understand what's going on in the broad sense it's not an issue.

When you get down to it, is Goldfinger really any more exposition-heavy than either of the two Daniel Craig Bond films?

I think the thing to remember is that most of the time, the exposition gets the story rolling, and then it largely gets out of the way. Sure, there's always a scene or two in the middle where Bond regroups, touches base with M or his CIA contact and learns something new, but that often comes at a point when the movie and the audience are ready to catch their breath. Those movies never go long without Bond doing something cool.

The thing to be on guard for is if you're writing a screenplay where every scene or every other scene has to stop and re-explain the plot for the audience. That's where you're telling the story more than showing it. In Bond, you can usually help disguise this by having fun with the characters. You know how this works - Bond tries to seduce the girl and in doing so drops a few details that move the story forward, or perhaps Bond matches wits with the villain in a way that makes the scene as much about each man marking his territory as it is about setting up the evil plot.

Basically, the trick is to not have the plot be the only interesting thing in the script. Take a story like Goldfinger or Casino Royale and fill it with bland boring characters who are only there to get the story from point A to point B and you probably have an instant pass on your hands.

What does the audience take away from Goldfinger? Well, there's a bad guy who's going to rob Fort Knox - that's not terribly hard to set up. There's a cool car with gadgets that liven the chase scenes in an unexpected way - also not hard to set up. There's a very attractive woman who has a name that likely insured she was either very popular in school or got teased mercilessly. Oh, and there's the coolest secret agent ever, who gets to drive the awesome car, bag the hot chick and thwart the bad guy, all without ever being at a loss for a cool line.

If the broad strokes of your plot are basic enough that I can reduce it to a quick summary without confusing myself, then you're probably on safe ground. If you want to see an example of an exposition story that's way to complicated for its own good, check out Southland Tales and then try to explain the plot of that story to me in three sentences or less.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Friday Free-For-All: FCU - Fact Checkers Unit & Pinkberry: The Movie

I know a lot of you have probably seen this short film that was big on the web a few years ago, but the recent Entertainment Weekly article on Bill Murray reminded me about it. It's about two fact checkers who go to extreme measures to make sure they have the right facts on Bill Murray.

It's pretty funny, despite the fact I can't stand Kristin Schaal. (If you have to ask why, you obviously never saw her on The Daily Show.)

And speaking of shorts most of you know about, I trust everyone has seen "Pinkberry: The Movie?"

I'd love to start spotlighting short films here and since Comic-Con is coming up, does anyone know of any good Comic-Con-themed shorts, or perhaps shorts that have been featured in their film festival?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Reader mail: PDFs, workload, bloggers and technology in screenplays

Jason wrote in with a lot of submission questions:

How do you deliver a script when it's requested by a manager, agent, producer, etc.? Have you used a service such as, or a local Hollywood printing shop? Or do you do all the printing/binding/sending yourself? Along those same lines, are .pdf files becoming more acceptable as submissions, and how long until they become the norm do you think? Also, when you read and do coverage on a screenplay is it more commonly in .pdf format or hardcopy?

When I've had my work requested I've always sent it via email as a PDF. I don't think I've ever submitted a hard copy. In fact, these days I get most of my submissions for coverage via PDF. Hard copies are rapidly becoming a thing of the past. I've never used any of those services, though. I don't see a need for them.

Being a reader gives you some obvious advantages in a career as a screenwriter, but what are the disadvantages? Do you find that being immersed in scripts and under constant deadlines hurts your creativity and slows your own writing? Do you think it does so more or less than a non-creative/non-writing job?

The coverage workload is absolutely a big disadvantage. Even though I usually have the freedom to set my own schedule, I often read a lot of scripts a week. Especially when I'm working on a first draft, I often have to block out several days where I'm ONLY going to work on my own writing. I find that makes the writing come a lot easier than trying to squeeze in a few hours of writing after nine or so hours of reading and doing coverage.

So it definitely slows me down, but it's hard to say if a less creative job would be any less problematic.

Can you give some examples of successful screenwriters who began as readers, and maybe how long they were readers before they sold a screenplay? What about reader/bloggers or just screenwriting bloggers who have gone on to sell a screenplay and/or get work screenwriting? (not including Diablo Cody who wasn't really blogging about screenwriting or people who started blogging after becoming a successful screenwriter as I assume John August and Scott Meyer did).

John August is the only one who immediately leaps to mind as a reader who became a writer, but I'm sure a lot of pro screenwriters started this way. I'm struggling to think of someone who started as a blogger and then crossed over into being a sold and produced screenwriter. I'm sure it's happened, though.

What are your thoughts on using contemporary technology in a script? For example, referencing particular website or software such as blogging or viral video sites, 3G cellphones, HD camcorders, Online video games, etc. Is it too much of a risk of becoming dated to deal with subjects like that in a spec screenplay? Is there a way to write stories involving contemporary technology that will better stand the test of time?

I don't see anything wrong with it. Odds are that you'll have to change the names of YouTube and Facebook type pages due to clearance issues so that'll likely prevent the "MySpace is so 2006, YouFace is the 'in' thing now" problem. Yeah, stuff like that might date the screenplay, but odds are it's an easy fix.

Even if you were somehow foolish enough to state that your character uses a VCR, odds are there's nothing in the script that would preclude that from being changed to a Blu-Ray player. (Now if your plot hangs on the VCR "eating" a crucial tape, then you might have problems.) I'd wager that most of the tech that you have to worry about will be incidental to the story anyway. If your lead character has a Razor instead of an iPhone, will it really make that much difference?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Tuesday Talkback: High-concept bombs

This week's Tuesday Talkback comes from fellow blogger Kristy at MSP:

Can you think of any high concept movies that exploited their high concept in trailers that bombed in the B.O.?

I know high concept is subjective but my friend and I were going over a bunch of movies with really cool concepts and that had good trailers that exploited those and they all seemed to do really well. I find that trailers now I watch them then I turn to my husband and I say "So what was that movie about?" Because they seemed to be about funny moments or explosions but not really the concept which is the reason I go see movies.

Well folks? Have at it.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Friday Free-For-All: America, F**k Yeah!

Here in the States, we'll be celebrating Independence Day this weekend (and a hearty "hi" to all my British readers.) I figure, what better way to celebrate that freedom than by honoring satire - specifically the satire of jingoism. From Team America: World Police, I give you "America, Fuck Yeah!" I searched high and low for actual scenes from the movie, but this montage is amusing enough in its own right.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Reader mail: passive protagonists, genres to avoid, and music

Jake writes in with an interesting question:

My writing partners and I have written a heist script where the protagonist's main flaw is that he's too passive. Of course, by the end of the screenplay he's arced into a much more assertive character who's driving the plot.

The problem is that in the first act he's... you've guessed it, passive.

My basic question: does passivity ever work as a character flaw, or should our protagonist be driving the action, even in Act 1?

This is another call that's hard to make just off the short description. Off the top of my head, I can think of a few films with a "passive in Act One" protagonist.

Star Wars - Yeah, you heard me. Luke spends a lot of time whining about wanting to leave, but he doesn't actively pursue that until his aunt and uncle are killed. That's, what, 45 minutes into the film? R2-D2 does all the heavy lifting of moving the story forward until that point. After all, if it wasn't for R2 going out at night, Luke would never go after him and thus never meet Obi-Wan and even then, it still takes a push to get him going.

Ferris Bueller's Day Off - As either Roger Ebert or William Goldman pointed out long ago (and I could have sworn Emily Blake discussed recently), Cameron is the real protagonist of the film. He's the only one with an arc. And guess what? He's dragged around by Ferris for the first act, until the gang finally heads downtown.

Rocky Balboa - I love this movie, but Rocky really doesn't do anything in the first act. It's all about establishing the state of his life, showing us why he eventually will need that final bout.

The 40 Year-Old Virgin - Seriously, what does Andy do to try to lose his virginity in the first 30 minutes? Does he try to change anything in his life in the first 30 minutes?

I'm sure there are more examples I could come up with if I tried. I think the key is that the film has to establish the main character's "Need" or "Goal" in the first act. Even if they're not actively working towards it, we need a firm sense of what they have to overcome in order for the story to end.

The 40 Year-Old Virgin is probably the best example for your purposes. Right off the bat we learn that Andy's "problem" is that he's never had sex. Then, he's put into situations where that fact causes conflict. We see he has trouble relating to guys during a poker game sex talk and how awkward he is with women in other situations. We don't see Andy trying to solve the problem but we absolutely are shown that the problem MUST be solved.

Since passivity is your character's flaw and you say that by the second act he's become more active, my hunch is that you're on safe ground.

No It's Just a Spaceship (love the name) sent me this email question:

Just as theatre is currently swamped with improvised films, musicals based on the same films, zombies, and parodies of popular TV shows, I'm sure there's plenty of scripts you essentially read over and over. Would you consider sharing, say, the ten most overdone genres/topics of the moment? I'm imagining teenage vampires, conspiracy films, and Avatar rip offs are quite popular right now.

This is going to sound funny but I'm less annoyed by the same concepts than I am by unimaginative executions of those concepts. I've probably read hundreds of slasher horrors. 90% of them had to be utter crap, and yet oddly I'm not burned out on those because every now and then I come across a good one that actually is that much more impressive for the failures that surround it.

Rip-offs of The Hangover are actually more in vogue than Avatar ones, at least as far as my submission pile. And again, the problem isn't that the writers are playing in the raunchy comedy territory, it's that they really don't have a story to go with it. They think that sending four guys on a wild episodic chase through Vegas is enough to sustain a movie, particularly if there's room for an anal sex gag involving a stripper, and possibly a moment where the guys end up in a (gasp!) gay bar and somehow end up performing on stage.

But if there is an overdone genre I'm bored to death by it's the "morally conflicted hitman gets into trouble on one last job." It's usually written like it'll be a low-budget action fest and plays like a mixtape of the first draft of every scene that Tarantino ever wrote. The funny thing is that this concept is so prolific, but it's not like there's been a recent mega-hit in that genre. There hasn't been a studio-killing flop, so it's not "radioactive" either, but it's funny that so many writers are drawn to that.

At the end of the day, guys like me are going to be looking for scripts that we can take to our boss and say "This will make you money." It's not like we are only looking for films that can be easily compared to the current Variety weekly Top-Ten box office listings, but we're going to want something that has an audience. Yeah, it sucks to read yet another rom-com where the couple that's meant to be is somehow about to marry the wrong people, but it doesn't make us any less likely to recognize a good example in that strip-mined genre.

If you're a great writer, don't worry that there are 100 other guys sending out scripts dealing with similar concepts. Strong writing rises to the top, so don't let that stop you from writing that teenage vampire movie, so long as you've got something to say with it.

Having said that, here are genres I see a lot of that no one should waste their time writing. They're not necessarily the hot ones "in-town," but I see these scripts over and over again from unrepped and hip-pocket writers:

Anything Holocaust or WWII related.

Hell, anything that can be described as "period" at all.

Expensive sci-fi films, particularly those with complex mythologies.

The aforementioned hitman trope.

Any film where the comedy is based around a straight guy pretending to be gay.

Any porn-related comedy. Porn isn't as funny as you think it is, assclowns.

Political films that are a thinly-veiled criticism of Bush-era policies. (Been working on this script for three or four years, have we?)

The disaffected quarterlife reflection on how your life (oops! I surely meant to say "the main character's life") isn't what they thought it would be, and how no one will hire them, no one will sleep with them and even their friends are a font of depression. When I read a script like that, I'm often reminded of one of Dennis Miller's best lines before he went all right-wing and unfunny: "There's nothing in the world more interesting to me than my orgasm, and nothing less interesting to me than yours!"

Dylan asks:

My question is what's your take on the putting songs in a script. I'm NOT talking about songs like music in: blah blah blah, but more of things like our character would listen to. Say for example he's riding in his car singong along to his favorite song or even just listening to it. Isn't that ok because the writer is showing us another side to him whereas when you say music in you're putting music in the directors decision area (granted it's all up to the director in the end). Just wanted your take on it.

I'm going to share with you the moment I understood why 50% of the audience loved (500) Days of Summer and 50% of the audience hated it. Ten minutes into the film, there's a scene where Joseph Gordon-Levitt have their first real conversation, in an elevator. And what do they bond over? Music.

This is just my personal taste, but I hate hate hate hate scenes that are basically two twentysomethings saying "Omigod! You like [obscure band that establishes my quirky, anti-mainstream street cred]?! So do I! Let's make out and then have wild sex to a Warner Records-approved soundtrack!"

I think it's a little played out. Granted, this might have something to do with the fact that the first words out of anyone's mouth when discussing Garden State were "It has such a great soundtrack." And look, I went through my Natalie Portman phase, but if she ever told me that listening to the Shins would change my life, I'd be looking for a quick way to escape the conversation and try to find a less vapid girl to converse with.

Sorry... you hit a sore point.

Strictly speaking, there's nothing really wrong with the scenario you suggest. I'd just caution that it comes with all the other pitfalls of any pop culture related scene/discussion - it's might be too self-indulgent, too proud of its own cleverness, or feel too much like the writer shoe-horning his own tastes into the script just for its own sake.

Don't NOT do it because I said so, but don't be surprised if some grump like me reacts to it as described above.