Thursday, September 30, 2010

Thursday Throwback - Cliches I'm Tired of Seeing - Part II: "To Be Continued"

The following post first appeared on March 4, 2009.

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.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Feeding the beast

If you're like me, often the hardest thing to do when writing is actually making yourself get started. It doesn't take much to persuade me to rewrite, and I will pre-write, chart, outline, muse, card out, and do every brainstorming trick known to man.

What's my problem? Sitting down and ACTUALLY WRITING - especially when I've still have yet to get started on the script. Even though they're usually the easiest 30 pages for me to tackle once I get going, forcing myself to start on that first act. Then I usually go, "That wasn't so hard... but Act Two is going to be the killer." This means I drag my feet even more in getting through Act Two.

I gather that a lot of writers have the same problem, so I thought I'd share something I discovered working on this blog. Because I'm working on something that has to be updated daily, there is never a good excuse NOT to write. And on the rare occasion that I take a day off, I really have no excuse not to write the next day.

Yes, somehow I managed to trick myself into a regular schedule. Every weekday must have a post. Sometimes they're long, sometimes they're brief... but that beast that is my blog must always be fed. I admit, there are weekends now and then where I buckle down and write a week or two's worth of posts ahead of time, thus buying me a few days off. But no matter what, this blog is always here and it must be updated.

I need to adapt that sort of obligation to my other writing. Right now I've got at least three feature ideas and two TV pilots gathering dust. I'm getting ready to start one of them, but I need to force myself to make the time so I can finish the new projects promptly.

Writers are always told "set deadlines and stick to them" but that advice is meaningless if there are no consequences to breaking it. I know that if I take off too many days, my readers might get out of the daily habit of coming here, thus causing a dip in my daily hits.

So don't just set a schedule - get an enforcer and build in penalties if you miss your marks. Have your roommate penalize you with extra chores, have your significant other withhold sex, or make the neighbor kids force you to watch The Secret Life of the American Teenager. The specific torture isn't important - all that matters is that you suffer when you fail to produce.

Feed that beast.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Tuesday Talkback: Who's note wins?

Hypothetical scenario: You've sent your latest draft to two readers you trust and respect. These people are people who have proven their insight and intelligence to you time and again and have given you great ideas in the past.

A week or so later they come back with their notes. They're in sync on some points, but on one extremely critical point - could be a major turning point for the character's arc, it could be your turning point into Act Three - they are diametrically opposed. One loves everything about it, one totally hates it.

How do you decide which note to follow?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Subtle suspense

I've finally been about to get around to re-watching season 2 of Everwood, which as I've probably said before, is one of the greatest character-based series ever written. The series is the brain child of Greg Berlanti - who cut his teeth on Dawson's Creek, and has a new series called No Ordinary Family premiering this week on ABC. (He's also one of the writers of the forthcoming Green Lantern movie.)

The show is built around Andy Brown, a renowned brain surgeon who seems to be one of the most famous of his brethren. When his wife suddenly dies, Andy reevaluates his priorities and suddenly uproots his two children from their New York life and moves to a small town in Colorado called Everwood.

The folks in this sleepy hamlet are beside themselves with the arrival of this "celebrity" and the first episode uses their reactions to let us know just how big a deal Andy is. It's hard to imagine them more impressed if Stephen Hawking took up residence there. But none is more impressed than 15 year-old Amy Abbott. She's the most popular girl in her grade, and quickly latches on to Andy's son Ephram. Being a teenage boy, Ephram welcomes the attention - and then she reveals she's got an agenda.

See, Amy's boyfriend Colin was in an accident several months earlier. Now he's in a coma and Amy is convinced that "the great Andy Brown" is his last hope. Midway through the season, Andy is persuaded to try a risky operation in the hopes of saving Colin. In what seems to be a miracle, Colin wakes up. For a while he seems to be his old self, but soon mood swings and tremors reveal that there have indeed been complications. Andy is convinced to operate again, but it's clear that there is a very real chance that Colin won't survive this surgery. The final episode of the first season builds up to that surgery. We experience the agony of the wait of those in the waiting room, along with seeing Andy scrub in for surgery.

The final scene of the show features Andy emerging from surgery to face those in the waiting room. They give expectant looks, and Andy appears weary, exhausted. The season ends with Colin's fate ambiguous. Did he die? Did he survive with complications? Did he pull through?

The first scene of the next season opens at a pool luau and in a sneaky bit of suspense, each main character is reintroduced in the course of the scene. It's a great way to toy with the audience. We see everyone turn up, nothing is said of Colin's fate and we find ourselves waiting to see if Colin proves to be among the crowd. Then, one character bumps into someone from behind. They turn - and it's Colin.

So the audience likely exhales their tension, relieved that the story got a happy ending. Then the show kicks us in the gut again. He speaks to Amy, and then fades out. We find ourselves at his funeral. He didn't make it.

It's a nice series of mini-reveals. The first scene casually reintroduces the characters, knowing we'll be scrutinizing their arrivals and their behaviors for clues as to Colin's fate. I remember seeing another show where the opening scene featured the aftermath of a car crash and from the reactions of those on site, it's clear that one of the main characters was killed. Cut to a local hangout - one by one the leads of the show are featured. The audience realizes they're subconsciously taking a head-count, figuring out who's missing... until we realize who isn't there.

The Everwood example is even better because the scene avoids the trap of feeling like a dream scene. Most of the time when a show does a fake-out dream sequence, it tips its hand early on. It'll have characters clearly acting out of character, or something happen that is clearly impossible. Here, the moment is a mundane daydream - nothing truly calls attention to the scene as being out of place. Not only does it make Colin's appearance a relief, the truth becomes that much more of a gut-punch because we're truly taken off-guard.

It's moments like these that lead to the fans at Television Without Pity coining the phrase, "Damn you, Berlanti!"

Friday, September 24, 2010

Fade In: The Making of Star Trek: Insurrection - Michael Piller's personal account on the writing of a feature film

Part One

Continuing from where we left off yesterday, Michael Piller spent a few weeks mulling over ideas for the ninth Star Trek film. He and producer Rick Berman agreed that since the previous film First Contact had been so dark and featured an incredibly formidable villain in the Borg, it would probably be best to go in another direction.

They began with the idea of finding a public domain story to adapt into the Trek universe. Then, one morning Piller was making his daily application of Rogaine when it hit him that a fountain of youth story might be the right way to go. Wedding it to an adaptation of Heart of Darkness, he pitched an idea that had Picard sent on a mission to track down an old friend who has seemingly gone rogue. When he discovers his friend's hiding place, he's shocked to find the man looking as young as he did at the Academy.

It soon becomes evident that this friend is actually defending the natives of that planet, and as the story evolved, it turned into a battle of principles. The planet is to be ceeded to the Romulans via a treaty and Picard learns there's much more to this mission than his superiors have told him. The planet is almost entirely composed a rare mineral that the Federation desperately needs. It also has regenerative qualities that gradually make anyone on the planet younger. Starfleet knows that and struck a deal with the Romulans - we'll give you the planet, you relocate the people, we share the ore.

Picard, recognizing this as an end run around Federation principles and a trick to get the Romulans to do the dirty work for them, resigns in disgust and joins his friend on the planet. Getting younger and younger until he reaches the age of 25 he defends the planet against the Romulans, eventually defeating them and exposing the matter to the public.

Sounds exciting, no?

The problem is that Berman hated it, and he had strong words for Piller: "Picard’s an old man who doesn’t get to buckle his swash until the planet makes him young again. But he’s our hero. When the movie’s over and he’s back to normal again, he needs to be a vital man of action. Patrick will hate this. He’ll never do it... You’re telling our star he’s an old man!”

Back to the drawing board. Piller makes changes. The old Academy friend is replaced by Data, and at one point Picard is forced to kill a malfunctioning Data to stop him, only to later realize that Data was defending the natives from a worse attack. The fountain of youth idea is discarded and we're left with a plot not terribly dissimilar from Avatar, with Picard making a stand to protect natives from those who want to destroy their planet in order to harvest an ore.

Piller's treatment - reprinted in full in the book - reads well. It's exciting and full of political intrigue. It also offers a heavy amount of action and seems to give Picard a compelling moral dilemma and an interesting conflict when he turns his back on Starfleet and the crew. Obviously he's exonerated in the end, but it's a hard-fought victory.

The treatment goes to the Paramount execs. They love it, including Sherry Lansing, then-chairman of Paramount Pictures. Smooth-sailing, right? Wrong.

But there was one more voice at the studio to be heard from and it belonged to Jonathan Dolgen, Chairman of Viacom Entertainment Group, the chief operating officer of the company. As a rule, Dolgen doesn’t involve himself in creative decisions. But he breaks that rule for Star Trek. And it’s not (just) the money. He happens to be a huge fan. Dare I say, a Trekker?
He thought the idea of people being exploited for natural resources was old hat and that Picard needed a bigger challenge. He didn’t feel there was enough action for Picard in space. He complained the story had too much internal Star Trek intellectualism and thought the countervailing argument by the Federation conspirators made a great deal of sense. Picard might be perceived as being on the wrong side of the issue.

Rick and I were discussing how to respond to the Dolgen notes when we received a call from Australia. We’d also sent a copy of the story to Patrick Stewart.

Patrick hated the story even more than Jonathan Dolgen. (p. 95-96)

Stewart's correspondence with the producers is reproduced in full in the book. He hates virtually everything about the idea. Most of all, he feels it retreads a lot of ideas they'd done before on the series. Proving that the job is more than a paycheck to him, he actually cites several specific episodes by name, as deftly as any hard-core Trekkie would.

Piller tries to argue his case and eventually sees that the only way to accommodate Patrick's notes, salvage their hard work and most importantly - get this film in theatres by its predetermined release date - is by going back to the fountain of youth idea. When Berman calls Stewart, he barely gets that pitch out before Patrick enthusiastically approves of the idea.

I think that's where I'll leave this, but there's much more to this story in the book. After Piller completes his first draft we see the notes sent to him by the studio and it's an intriguing look at how they analyze the script. And again, there's a surprising knowledge of Trek lore in their suggestions and concerns. They're not out to make a quick buck, they're looking to protect the integrity of the francise and its mythology. Most interestingly of all, they hit on virtually every failing that eventually makes the final film a less than satisfying experience.

Why don't all those problems get solved if they were identified? Short answer - not enough time, not enough money.

There are also reproductions of memos sent from actor Brent Spiner, whose nitpicking of such details also reads like it could have come from an online Trek fan debate:

- Why do the Ba’ku look twelve?
- Do they procreate?
- Are there any real children?
- Why do our crew’s appearances change “subtly” but their behaviors change “drastically”?

- And if our people act like children, how are the Ba’ku “children” acting like adults?
- The Ba’ku don’t behave like children. Why do our people’s behavior change?
- Does the ore make people younger or just appear younger? Or does it make them behave younger?
- Do the Son’i reproduce?
- How old are they?
- Why are they coming back now? Did they take some ore with them and are just now running out?
- Why don’t they just ask their relatives for some more ore?
- Why doesn’t anyone on the Federation Council say this plan is a violation of the Prime Directive?
- Does the Federation know the Ba’ku and the Son’i are related?
- Why aren’t the Federation leaders punished at the end?

(p. 130-131)

In other words, he gives Piller all the notes he's hoping not to get. But they're all insanely logical questions and reasonable ones under the premise.

How does Piller answer all of these notes? In the words of a Time-Life commercial from my youth: "Read the book." Piller has left not just Trek fans, but aspiring screenwriters everywhere a great legacy in Fade In: The Making of Star Trek: Insurrection.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

A tribute to Star Trek's Michael Piller

"Mr. Worf... Fire!"

A generic line that could be quoting any one of a hundred and seventy-eight episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, or the line of dialogue that changed everything for Trek fans?

We'll come back to that in a minute, but here's a hint: it's the latter.

That line of dialogue was authored by Michael Piller, and it was the final line spoken in the third season of TNG (his first season as show-runner.) Piller is the writer often credited with truly defining the Trek sequel. Though the first two seasons had a number of high points, the shows were still largely plot-driven and many of the main characters were barely fleshed out at the start of the third season.

Adding to the problem was creator and executive producer Gene Roddenbury's edit that humans were perfect in the 24th century. There was no greed, no avarice, no hatred among those from Earth, and certainly not among those in Starfleet. That's a nice vision of the future, but any writer will tell you what the problem is with using that as the basis for your series.

There's no conflict. If everyone from Earth is perfect and gets along with each other, then you're not going to have interpersonal conflict among the human Starfleet officers. That means that all conflict in a TNG either had to be external - or come from one of the two non-human characters, the android or the Klingon.

Gene's rigid rules contributed greatly to the high turnover in the writing staff during the first two years. The original show-runner hired for year three also left before production even began on the first episode - which lead executive producers Rick Berman and Roddenberry to turn to the writer who'd been the second choice for the job and who fortunately had agreed to write a freelance episode (against the advice of his agent): Michael Piller.

How can one tell interesting stories under those rules? Piller found a way. During his first year, Piller worked hard to define the still-thinly developed characters on the Enterprise. He also instituted a policy where every single unsolicited spec script sent to the show was read. Most of them were unusable, but in his first month there he uncovered a spec from a promising young writer named Ron Moore. Moore would later spend five years each on the staffs of TNG and its spin-off Deep Space Nine before going onto several other shows, most notably the relaunched Battlestar Galactica. As it would turn out, Moore was just the first of many young writers whom Piller would discover and nurture over the years.

And indeed, you can feel the difference in TNG once Piller found his legs in season three, and come the season's end, he had a big hand in getting the series out from under the shadow of its big brother. The season finale boasted the return of the Borg, a race of seemingly unstoppable cybernetic zombies who can adapt to any attack. Their Collective mind seems unbeatable, and when the Enterprise is sent to intercept them, Captain Picard is captured.

First Officer Riker is left in command and when an away team manages to get aboard the Borg ship, they make a shocking discovery. Captain Picard has been altered and absorbed into the hive mind as a Borg himself. They return to the ship just as Riker is informed that their one-in-a-million chance weapon is ready. With the Borg about to launch into warp, Riker has to make the call. Does he open fire with a weapon certain to destroy the Borg ship, and his transformed captain, or does he hestitate - likely dooming humanity.

That line I quoted at the start of this entry? That's how the episode ended, followed by the words "To Be Continued...."

All summer Trekkers speculated on how Starfleet would get out of this. Would Picard be killed? Was Patrick Stewart being written out of the show? If not, how would Starfleet defeat the Borg?

Another person who wanted to know the answer to those questions was Piller himself. He wrote the cliffhanger not having any idea how it would be resolved. That seems unfathomable when one studies Piller's own philosophies of writing, the pride he takes in ensuring that each story he writes strive for deeper meaning or deeper exploration of the characters.

But the gambit worked. The cliffhanger held fans in anticipation all summer, and drew in new audiences. Even today, that episode, entitled "The Best of Both Worlds" lands on Top Ten Best Cliffhanger lists. Somehow he came up with a conclusion mere days before the next season's opener was to go into production.

Piller would work on the rest of TNG and co-create the two subsequent series Deep Space Nine and Voyager, and then after a few years away from the Trek universe, he was asked to come back and write the ninth film in the series. There was just one problem - he didn't have an idea.

"Where do ideas come from? I’m asked all the time. The only suggestion I give to young writers is to listen to the universe. The ideas are all around you – in newspapers and magazines, television, stories people tell you and most often in your very own life experiences. Sooner or later, something will resonate."

That's a quote from Piller's unpublished book Fade In: The Making of Star Trek: Insurrection. Back when he was working on the movie, he'd pitch the book as a unique look inside the writing process of a single feature film. We'd be right there with him as he wrote the treatment, struggled to refine the idea, got notes from the actors and the studio, and eventually went all the way to the final draft.

There was just one problem. Once the book was done, someone at Paramount killed the project. Time passed. Piller died of cancer in November 2005. The market for nonfiction Trek books fell apart, and it seemed that the book would never be deemed profitable enough to see publication.

Cue the good folks at Trek Core, who have been offering Piller's unpublished manuscript for free at this link. It's an amazingly candid look at the process of writing a feature film, from a perspective rarely addressed in such depth for any movie. This is not a book for Trekkies - this is a book for writers.

Maybe you hate Star Trek. Maybe you've never seen Star Trek. Or perhaps you have but you haven't seen Insurrection. Or maybe you hate Insurrection. It doesn't matter - this is a must-read.

If my introduction of Piller as a writer fails to impress you, then perhaps this tantalizing tidbit will make you curious enough to check out at least some of this book.

As I approach a new project, my process always begins with the question: what is it about? Here’s one answer that might apply to a Star Trek movie...

I want it to be about the most horrible, treacherous aliens ever known to man who are about to destroy life as we know it, leading to the most spectacular thrill ride of an adventure with fantastic space battles and huge explosions and great special effects -- a white knuckle ride for the movie audience.

Yeah, but what’s it

I can write space battles with the best of them, but what makes that space battle interesting to me is: why are they fighting? What are the stakes? What does the hero lose if he loses? And what does he win if he wins? Why should we care?

Tomorrow - the journey to making the audience care. Lessons from Fade In: The Making of Star Trek: Insurrection.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

An InkTip horror story

Quite a while back I asked readers if they had any experience with InkTip. I didn't get many responses then, but recently a reader named Anne wrote in with her experience. It seems she wasn't terribly satisfied with them. I've heard anecdotially that other people have had better luck, so I'm not putting this in as a general "InkTip is a scam" post, but rather, to encourage others to post their feedback regarding the site.

Take it away, Anne...

The following is written without prejudice, based on my experiences with InkTip. I am not saying I am a great writer but some of my scripts were Quarter Finalists and few received Consider status. So this is just an educated opinion and not sour grapes.

I stayed with InkTip for almost four years. I had a lot of activity but no substance and definitely no results. Over the years, I had better results from one shot e-mail queries from Script Express and others. No kidding. Their producers are a bunch of young wannabees , or unemployed actors looking for a new gig. Some of them are not even listed on Imdb. There is no background info on them, anywhere. I seriously question their connections to the industry. I found InkTip's vetting process extremely lax, sloppy and irresponsible. They don't even bother to check for references. Name dropping is enough for them. Some of their "Industry professionals" wrote back to me after accessing the script on InkTip, telling me they liked my style of writing, etc. and requested the script with a release form. Afterward, either I heard nothing again or they wrote back to sell their services to me for script consulting. One even requested $10,000 to re-write the script without telling me what was wrong with it. When I informed InkTip of this, I was told that they were aware of it and the person was asked to leave and no longer was associated with them, although they were listing the services of the same person on their database. Go figure.

I drew the line when LA Film School (including scriptwriting) student posed as a producer and asked me how much I would demand for the production rights of my script. Upon checking, I noticed that she accessed the script many times over, on the site, and further queries indicated that she was indeed a student. When I asked for an explanation, InkTip treated me like an idiot, trying to convince me that they were producers as well as a film school. Further queries indicated that, although they did student productions, it was mostly for the work of their scriptwriting students. InkTip kept defending their actions, refusing to see the seriousness of the situation. That did it! Consequently, I cancelled all five of my scripts and subscription of the preferred newsletter and parted company. Thanks but no thanks. It was obvious I could not trust them anymore.

The whole thing in my experience was a bust. It's a useless money pit, only benefiting Jerrol and company and never the writer. I also witnessed that their loyalty is directed to industry members on their database and not to the writers, who pay dearly for their services. One is better off going to MovieBytes and subscribing to "Who is Buying What" and then pitching directly to those producers.

Lately, I have been getting a lot of e-mails from all over, advertising forthcoming InkTip Pitch festival. If we're dealing with the same calibre of producers, I'll say save your money. It's not worth it.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Tuesday Talkback: New fall season

Let's keep this short and sweet, people. What new shows are you interested in seeing this season, and which ones are you avoiding like the plague?

As I've got several friends working on this season's new offerings, I'm probably not an unbiased observer, so I'll refrain from weighing in until after several of you have had your say.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Reader question: How do I get started?

Maye writes in with a question:

What advice would a seasoned professional like you give a 17 year old with a whole bunch of ideas in multiple genres and SO much procrastination that all those (good?) ideas end up on her shelf collecting dust?

And if she ever was to complete a screenplay or two, what advice would you have on how to do something with them?

Running over to the nearest world famous production company and making a scene (no pun intended) to get them to give me a chance is not an option 'cause I seem to have found myself living in the desert (also known as the united arab emarites.)

Wow. You don't ask the easy ones, do you?

I do envy you. When I was 17, I wasn't able to access many writing resources on the internet. The best insight I had were some regular AOL Q&A's that writer Ron Moore did with fans while he was working on Deep Space Nine. It's not like today where many writers, wannabe writers, and writing teachers have blogs.

Step one is to learn your craft. Reading my blog is a good start. Also, read Scott Myers' Go Into The Story everyday. In fact, read it multiple times a day, as Scott updates like a madman. After that, read a screenwriting book or two. Most of them say pretty much the same thing, so my picks are anything by William Goldman, and then read Save the Cat so you can understand the way most Hollywood films are constructed.

Concurrent with that, read several scripts. Read scripts to movies you love so you can see how they were translated to the screen. In fact, Scott's GITS Club has complied an archive of recommended screenplays that you can access here.

It's easy to get stuck in this pre-writing phase, so be sure not to fall into that trap.

Then, start breaking your story. Decide which one you want to start with. Personally, I favor not making your first script that's something too ambitious. Don't try to reinvent the wheel. Look at this as a way of getting a feel for constructing a story, writing scenes, learning how to write succinct, interesting dialogue - and most importantly, creating distinct characters. It's hard to do all that and write a massive epic or a grand period piece.

If you start with something that means something to you, it might be easier to start developing your own voice. You say you have a lot of ideas - what ideas might be too ambitious and which ones are easier to achieve? You'll have better luck figuring out how to write a simple story with a clear lead and a defined arc. You're better off writing something with one or two protagonists rather than trying to write a "hyperlink" movie like Crash and Magnolia. It's really hard to balance multiple plotlines and a large cast of characters.

If you can, write everyday. If not every day, set a goal of a set number of pages a week. Don't obsess over getting your first draft perfect. It's more important to get it on paper. Most of writing is rewriting - and that's a helluva lot easier to do with a complete work rather than just a smattering of pages.

Oh, and when you finish that first draft - lock it up for a week. Seriously. Print it out. Don't look at it. Don't think about it. Don't do anything with it. You'll need fresh eyes when you come back to it.

Also, the odds are roughly 90% that your first script is going to be... less than stellar. That's okay. The first draft of that first script is likely to be even worse. That's okay too. The first script you write is not something you show around and blow people away with. It's not for them, it's for you.

Look, a pastry chef probably doesn't make a wedding cake as their first project. That's all I'm saying. You start with plan, ordinary cornbread muffins.

Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Look at the material with fresh eyes. Figure out what works and what doesn't. Could a scene be tighter? Does your main character change?

If you go the distance on your first script and find that you're not satisfied with it even after several drafts, it may be time to let it go and move onto something new. And I think you'll find that your second screenplay comes a lot more easily than the first.

As far as "doing something" with your script at long distance, I'm afraid I don't have a great many suggestions. I guess you should use the internet to your advantage. I'd start by joining several writing discussion boards and commenting on blogs. I know there are a few bloggers out there who have attracted the attention of agents and managers through their blogs. (By the by... if any of you agents out there are fans of my blog, come and get me.)

I admit, I'm less adept at offering advice on that end. Anyone else care to weigh in?

Anyway, that's the short version of my advice. The most important thing - get started. Stop thinking about your ideas and start committing them to paper. Procrastination is the enemy - and the only way to beat it is write.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Friday Free-For-All: A Rally to Restore Sanity

Last night Jon Stewart made an interesting announcement. Ever since Glenn Beck organized a rally of the 100,o00 or so nutballs who would believe the sky was green if he said so, Stewart and Colbert have been getting calls from the true minority in this country (that being the rational viewers who when they hear something outrageous, don't get mad, they fact-check and find that once again Fox/Rush/Palin/Newt/Olberman have been distorting things.)

He heard the call, and he announced "A Rally to Restore Sanity," terming it "a million moderate march." Here's the announcement below. I won't spoil the jokes, but I love his suggested signs.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Rally to Restore Sanity
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

Now I'm sure there are a few of you devoted Glenn Beck watchers who consider him an intelligent truth-sayer who's well-informed on the issues. To you, I can only say, "Fuck off."

I'm sorry. That came out wrong. My point is, that you uneducated reactionary folk might take umbridge at me calling myself a moderate. And I admit, that on today's political spectrum I probably sound like a hippie liberal. That's only because the Right has moved so far to the right in the last ten years that my ven diagram barely covers most of their now-extreme values. I assure you, just because I'm not willing to believe anything Rush or Fox says, that doesn't make me biased against the Right. I think there are well-meaning conservatives with decent values and ideals. They've merely sold out because it's politically expedient (*cough*McCain).

I hope that Stewart's rally gets a lot of coverage, if only in the hopes that it will encourage more moderates to come out of the closet. Nothing is going to get done as long as these two sides only demonize each other and obstruct any progress from being made. It's not about doing good, it's about winning. As we've seen, Karl Rove can denounce a Tea Party candidate as a nut and a liar one day, and then, when she wins the nomination to be the Republican candidate, he turns around and endorses her.

Because it's not about anything other than winning. If Joe McCarthy were resurrected today and held a commanding lead in the primary polls under the "I want to lock up everyone who joined a union, heard of a union, or has worked for Western Union" party, the Republicans would get behind him faster than the Flash getting freaky with his wife in the bedroom.

Why won't that happen with the Democrats? Because they can't get their shit together on anything. After the last two years, it's pretty clear that you could play a game of "Horse" with a Democrat, spot him the "H, O, R" and the "S" and he'd still get his ass kicked! Even with a black guy leading the team! So every November I die a little inside when I have to chose between the party of no higher principles, and the party of no effective action.

Issues like mosque construction, socialism (which is only imminent if you'd have called the Clinton Administration socialist as well), and terror babies are just election year rhetoric with virtually no basis in reality. It's designed to aim for the emotions rather than the truth of the situation. And people on both sides of the aisle are equally guilty of it.

Meanwhile, those of us in the middle just look and shake our heads - and get attacked by BOTH sides when we inevitably have to point out it ain't black and white.

So that's why this rally interests me. Do I think it'll make much impact? No, not really. But maybe it'll convince many of those moderates like myself that we are not alone. While it seems the whole country has gone mad around us, it's really just an increasingly vocal (but still relatively small) percentage of assholes, and a large group of well-meaning people who have merely been misinformed.

So if I was in Washington DC this Halloween, I'd definitely be going as a moderate - which I guarantee will scare the hell out of my conservative and liberal friends. Because we don't fit in their neat little box.

I leave you with this song from River of Dreams, one of my favorite Billy Joel albums:

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Don't write about Hollywood

Earlier this week I said that writers who haven't broken in shouldn't write about screenwriters. Today, I want to give a broader note along those lines - don't write about Hollywood.

There is nothing more frustrating than reading a script about the industry you have worked in for years, and stopping on every page to tally up the numerous ways the writer has gotten the basic attitudes, tenor and tone of that lifestyle wrong. As you might imagine, it's pretty irksome when some writer from Iowa - who's probably never been to L.A. - writes a story that is cast as an insider take on dealmaking, packaging and movie production.

A quick sidebar: a few people have asked how I end up reading the work of writers so naive to write about writers, or write about Hollywood. The short answer is that this town is a town of back-scratching. Just because I'm on the inside, it doesn't mean that I only get material from insiders. One of my gigs is reading for a production company, and there is a fair amount of utter shit that comes in. Sure, there's a healthy diet of material from agents, but there are also scripts that come in as favors.

These scripts could be anything from something that the company president's nanny wrote, to the script that some VP's college buddy sent him, to something submitted by financiers who've funded projects in the past. There are a hundred reasons why I end up reading a script written by someone less experienced than many who read my blog. I've stopped trying to trace the path back and just accepted that in any given month, I'm going to get several assignments that are horribly amateurish.

So this is my plea to those writers who don't live in L.A. and aren't immersed in the industry: stop writing about Hollywood. Stop thinking that Entourage and a half-remembered viewing of Get Shorty back in 1995 counts as research into how people in the industry behave. I'm sick of seeing the same stereotypes - the screaming agents, the bimbo actresses, and the overly arty directors. Do these types exist in this town? Hell yes! At one time or another I've been in a room with sterling examples of each of those. But here's the thing: Ari Gold already exists! There's no need to clone a less-nuanced version of him.

If you've never been on a set, don't write scenes about film production. Trust me, you'll get the details wrong. If your main character is assistant to an actor, writer or director, make sure you've got a good idea what that job entails.

And if you don't have any real understanding of how agents put their clients up for jobs, negotiate sales and cut deals - PLEASE don't write about it.

There's nothing wrong with honing your craft while you live outside L.A. There are millions of stories out there in the wide world. Tell one of those.

And yeah, sure there are plenty of people who write about subjects where their first-hand knowledge might be lacking. I wrote a legal drama and I've never been a lawyer. However, I've worked for lawyers, I've read lots of law memoirs, books on major cases, seen several law documentaries and watched a lot of legal TV shows and movies. And you know what? I'd be willing to be that there are still errors in that script that a real lawyer would nitpick.

But here's the thing - when I want to get this movie made, I'm not sending it to a lawyer. It's going to be read by someone who likely is less knowledgeable than I am about the law. Those little details I get wrong aren't going to be noticed. If I write a medical drama, the same thing applies.

But you don't know much about Hollywood, and you're going to write about it? And you're going to send it to someone who lives and breathes that world?

Good luck.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

90210 - Writing a story check that your climax can't cash

I had planned a post about the perils of writing about Hollywood, but while catching up with shows on my DVR, this post more or less sprung to my mind fully formed.

If you recall my piece on One Tree Hill, you'll know that one of my long-standing TV weaknesses is teen dramas, both good and... not so good. What this means is that I watch 90210, despite the fact that it has got to be one of the worst shows on network television. What's amazing to me is that the current showrunner, Rebecca Sinclair, cut her teeth on the Buffy writing staff, learning how to write for TV under one of the greats Joss Whedon - yet she made one of the most elementary writing missteps. As a creator, never write a check you can't cash. Never put yourself in a corner without a strong payoff.

At the end of the first season, Annie, the lead character, left a party in tears after having a few drinks. Late at night, she's so distracted driving (drunk) while crying that she apparently runs over someone. After hearing the bump she stops the car, sees a body lying in the road... and drives off. Season two opened three months later, and she still has yet to tell anyone what she did. She's wracked with guilt when she reads of the unidentified vagrant's death in the hospital, but she still doesn't come forward. In fact, as the season goes on we learn that she took steps to have the damage to her car repaired so that no one would find out.

Let me just spell this out: she killed a man, left the scene of the accident without calling for help and her primary fear is getting caught... and she's not some second or third banana character - she's the lead! Some moral center, huh? (What is it with the female leads on teen dramas being utterly annoying or unlikable types? See: Lana Lang, Marisa Cooper, Peyton Sawyer.)

Worse, when the John Doe is eventually identified as a man documented with mental problems, her guilt leads her into a relationship with Jasper, the victim's nephew. Before long Jasper is revealed as an unbalanced, drug-dealing psycho. Being a bit dim, Annie takes a while to pick up on the warning signs and when she tries to dump him, he reveals that he knows she's the one who ran over his uncle.

So her choice is: come forward with the truth or be blackmailed into a relationship with a dangerous psycho. Guess what she chooses? There's even a point where Jasper attempts suicide, and when Annie goes to see him, she's less concerned for his health than if he told anyone about what she did!

Then, after more than a year of this crap, Annie finally decides to come forward in the final seconds of last year's finale. All we see is her saying to her parents that she has something to tell them. We don't see the confession, we don't see her parents' reaction and we certainly don't see the legal fallout. When this season starts, we're told that Annie spent the summer on house arrest and is on probation until she's twenty-five.

A year of build-up. A year of the character trying to dodge a murder charge. A year of that hanging over her head. And the only payoff comes in the form of an off-screen confession and a throwaway line of dialogue designed to brush the whole thing under the carpet. That's just bad writing. Not only is it bad story construction, but it's completely implausible!

I wrote in jest on Twitter that after Lindsay Lohan's brushes with the law, it's not too implausible that three months house arrest and eight years of probation is the going rate for murder (or more likely, manslaughter) in Los Angeles. To be perfectly blunt, I find it utterly stupid that an entire staff of writers who are paid good money to sit in a room and craft stories spent an entire year building this plotline and THAT was the climax.

Worse, it's a story that completely taints the lead character. When the chips were down, when Annie made a mistake that cost someone their life, she chose to hide from it. At one point this hit-and-run was a big enough deal on the show that another character who happened on the scene after Annie was hailed as a hero for doing what he could to help. Everyone on the show was aware of this death. So to have Annie come forward and not acknowledge any sort of fallout isn't just bad writing, it's terrible writing.

If the writers were willing to follow through on it, they should have made Annie a social pariah. We should see her family and friends utterly disgusted by her behavior. Can you imagine having a worse reputation at school than being the girl who ran over a guy and tried to get away with it for a year?

I know that the writing staff's defense might be that they had spent most of the season planning to reveal that someone else had actually run over the guy first, and that Annie hit him second. That still doesn't solve the central problem of the plot - that Annie believed that she was a murderer and completely failed to do the right thing. Even if that guy had been stabbed, shot and poisoned before Annie hit him, that does nothing to mitigate Annie's complete moral failing. One way or another, they would have had to have a plan to deal with that.

Let me tell you, writers, if you're not willing to deal with the fallout of your plotlines (whether it's in a screenplay or in a long-running TV show arc) then you shouldn't tell that story. The audience will never ignore a logical question just because you tell them to.

I'm sure that some might say, "Hey it's just a stupid teen drama. Do you really expect good writing?" Well, I don't expect great writing - but for what those people are paid, I'd expect them to not make an elementary writing mistake. When you step up a plot with the question "Is our lead character a killer?" it's writing malpractice to not consider, "How are we going to get out of this? How do we keep this from tainting Annie after this story is done?"

I could be writing the show for free and I still would have cared enough to ask those questions.

But they didn't. Professional writers should be better than that.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Tuesday Talkback: Good movies about writers

Yesterday I railed against spec scripts about screenwriters, but every now and then there's a good movie about a writer. Here's your place to present your counterarguments. What movies about writers were actually pretty good?

My favorite is probably Misery. Here, James Caan's writing profession is mainly used an an entry into the real theme - obsession - as a novelist finds himself a prisoner of his "number one fan."

Interestingly, Sunset Blvd. also deals with a writer held prisoner in a manner of speaking, also by a somewhat unbalanced woman.

There are a couple others that are certain to come up in comments, but as I'm not over the moon for a few likely suspects, I'll leave them for more determined fans to discuss.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Writing about writers

I've seen a common mistake among a lot of first-time writers and slush pile submissions and it seems to be another case of taking "write what you know" a bit too literally. That mistake? Centering your screenplay around a writer.

I can't help it. I groan a little when I start reading a screenplay only to find that the protagonist is either an aspiring or a wannabe screenwriter who's struggling to break into Hollywood. I've seen dozens of these scripts and most of them share the same problems. First, even more than usual, the protagonist tends to be a stand-in for the writer. That's not a bad thing unless the script turns into a soapbox for the writer to vent about everything they think is wrong with the world they're writing about.

In other words, a script about a struggling screenwriter quickly can turn into a therapy session where the writer complains about everything wrong with Hollywood, how the system is out to block people like him and is basically a 120-page pity party with the lead character as the only sane one. Either he's fighting to get a fair shake from sleazy agents and producers, or he's doing his best to maintain his artistic integrity against forces trying to ruin his script.

Seriously, save that sort of self-indulgent tripe for your blog. I do.

The only think worse than that is when the story is not about how everyone is against the protagonist and their unique vision, but when the writer/protagonist is such a visionary that everyone they cross paths with can't help but remark on their brilliance.

Seriously, save that knob-polishing for your blog too.

Part of the problem is that writing isn't very cinematic. The act of writing is little more than a guy sitting alone, working either with pen and paper or a word processing program. It takes a VERY talented writer to make that interesting on the screen. If I may be so frank, writers who have only completed one or two scripts haven't yet grasped the subtleties of writing cinematically. That's something that a diamond in the rough might be able to get away with if they happen to be working with a very solid concept. Something like this - which isn't inherently visual - might stymie the newbie writer.

And let me say this - if you are writing about a screenwriter, and the last scene of your film is that screenwriter's movie winning "Best Picture" at the Oscars, for the love of God, change it. At least twice I have literally tossed a script across the room in frustration when it ended with such an indulgence.

There's a big risk that comes with proclaiming your characters to be brilliant writers - whether they're supposed to be great screenwriters, songwriters, novelists or poets. At some point, those characters are going to have to deliver the goods. That's a problem if the talent the characters are supposed to have surpasses the ability of the writer.

I always think back to Can't Hardly Wait, a film I enjoy quite a bit and can't help watching whenever I run across it on cable. There's a subplot where Preston, played by Ethan Embry, is trying to give a letter to class beauty and queen bee Amanda, played by Jennifer Love Hewitt. It's the night of their graduation and the letter is his confession of his long-standing crush from afar; the first time he's ever really even said anything substantial to this girl.

As much as I enjoy the movie, Roger Ebert nailed the films biggest flaw in his review. Remarking upon the fact that Amanda falls hard for Preston after reading the letter, he says, "This must be some letter. We never get to see what it says, no doubt because a letter good enough to win Amanda would have to be better than anything the screenwriters are capable of writing."


But I think the point is made. If you're going to write about a character capable of writing an Oscar-winning film - it helps if you yourself are talented enough write said movie.

And one final note: most of the time, that Oscar coda is completely unnecessary for the resolution. Show a little restraint and your story might earn a little credibility.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Friday Free-for-All: Alias

I watched the pilot episode of the CW's Nikita last night and I have to say I wasn't really blown away. I feel like the casting people really missed the mark with both Maggie Q and Shane West. I just don't find Maggie Q convincing as a physical threat for any of the guys she fights. She's just too much of a twig for me to believe there's any power behind her kicks.

Now Jennifer Garner in Alias - THERE was a woman I believed could kick-ass. Nikita isn't fit to hold Sydney Bristow's bikini. (Standard issue undercover garb, you understand.)

So today's Friday Free-for-All is a tribute to Jennifer Garner and Alias. First up is one of the best fight scenes she show offered. It's from the second season finale, where Sydney realizes that her roommate has been replaced by an enemy spy.

And since I'm feeling generous, here's the opening to season two's "Phase One." This was the episode that aired right after the Super Bowl that year, so you can forgive the producers for trying to give the largely male audience a little incentive to stick around.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Thursday Talkback - Writers block

Writer's block.

We're all going to get it one day. There will come a time where no matter how hard you try, you're not going to be able to come up with something to write about, something to talk about. You could be mid-script and find yourself unable to pound out the dialogue for your next scene. Maybe you have to come up with a new story idea and find yourself stuck.

Or... and I'm just tossing this out here... maybe you've got a new blog post due and can't think of anything useful to impart.

So how should you deal with writer's block? I'm a fan of not forcing it. If you can't write, just give your brain a break and do something else. For me, that usually means either catching Law & Order reruns, or diving into my Green Lantern back issues.

So how do you deal with writer's block?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


Sam wrote in with a question:

When did people start hating parentheticals so much? In older scripts I read like Chinatown and Godfather they're used in almost a quarter of all dialogue but now it seems people are of the opinion that you should never use them. Is this really the case with readers? Does the very site of a parenthetical immediately turn them off from a script even if used appropriately?

First, a word about these formatting rules because they tend to turn into the most heated threads on this site. I notice a lot of people who hate the idea of learning any formatting in screenwriting tend to phrase their grievances as an "all or nothing" sort of question. In other words, they might ask, "No sane person would really throw out my script just because I underlined and italicized every word, would they?"

No. But that would be a pretty big clue that the writer didn't know the first thing about how a script is supposed to look - or that they don't give a fuck about finding out. And let me tell you, writers like that often haven't figured out what makes a good story or how to tell a good story.

To put it another way - if I pass you on the street and you're unshaven, unbathed, wearing ratty clothes and seem to be moving erratically, I might not know for sure if you're homeless, but you're certainly wearing the uniform well.

So that's why guys like us make a big deal about this formatting stuff. And just so you don't think I'm beating up on Sam, these remarks aren't aimed so much at him as they are at the people who tend to get aggressive in the comments for articles like these.

Anyway - parentheticals. Beyond the reason stated above, there are a few other things to consider. If you're writing strong dialogue, you rarely will need to tell us how it's sad. The intent should fairly clear if you've done your job in establishing both the context and the character. As an example, let's say you've written a scene where a nervous rookie cop just pulls over a guy because his tail light is out. As soon as he comes up to the stopped car, the guy inside shoots at him, barely missing. The car takes off down the road as our hero goes after him. A chase ensues, during which our hero nearly hits several pedestrians and other cars, and nearly collides with his quarry before the fugitive rams a light pole and finds himself trapped in the car.

Our rookie cop gets out of his car, gun drawn. He runs over to his new prisoner and says, "Well, that was a lot of fun."

Do you really need a parenthetical to tell us that he's delivering the line sarcastically?

The other thing to remember is actors. Actors HATE being told how to deliver a line. If you go overboard with parentheticals not only are you constraining their interpretation, but you're sending a message that you think they are utter idiots if they can't figure out the tone for themselves (see the above example.)

Basically, if you're writing your dialogue properly you won't need more than five or six parentheticals in a screenplay. And if you're noticing that people are having trouble deciphering your tone, subtext or intent without those parentheticals, it might point to a larger problem in your writing (one that an experienced reader will probably notice even if there weren't 200 parentheticals tipping him off that the writer might be a newbie.)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

What can we learn from Summer 2010 in hindsight?

Well this certainly was an interesting summer, wasn't it? There were some surprise flops, and some decent hits, but my take is that there were few surprises among the major performers. In fact, with only a few exceptions I have a feeling that in a few years, I'm going to struggle to remember many big films from the past few months. Case in point: Iron Man 2. By June I'd almost forgotten about it. No one was talking about it much past its release. We all went to see it, but then quietly went about our lives.

Here's what I think we're going to take from Summer 2010:

Kids and their families will turn out for animated and 3D films... but only if they're good - Toy Story 3 currently sits at the largest domestic gross of the summer, with $408 million. Despicable Me is at $240 million (the 7th biggest film of the year) and Shrek Forever After is right after it at $238 million. Cats & Dogs? It cost $85 million and only made $41 million domestically.

But you can only go to the animated sequel well so many times - On the other hand, Shrek Forever After is down from $322 for Shrek 3, and $441 for Shrek 2. Even when you factor in the worldwide picture, Shrek the Third made $798 million and Shrek Forever After made only about $708 million with the aid of 3D tickets. Which leads to....

3D isn't going to save the day - It's already been pretty widely reported that 3D grosses have shown a mostly-steady drop over the year. Granted, when the first 3D film is Avatar, the biggest grossing movie of all time, there's going to be SOME drop. This subject has already been chewed over many times, but it bears repeating.

Hollywood is vastly overspending on niche films - Scott Pilgrim is everyone's favorite whipping boy for this lesson. It's worldwide gross is $35 million... on a film that cost $60-70 million to produce. With Hollywood accounting the way it is, that means the film would have had to make in the $150-200 million range just to turn a profit. Given the niche audience for the material, someone should have reigned that in. Eat Pray Love earned $68 million domestic and just a few weeks, but the film cost $60 million to make (How!?)

Comedy doesn't travel well, so it might be time to cut costs - Lost amid the cheering for Will Ferrell's The Other Guys is the fact that the film cost $100 million to make. It's made only $106 million so far. Factor in the advertising costs and the theatre owners' cut, plus the fact that foreign box office isn't likely to be high... and you've got a film that'll stretch to break even before DVD. Another prime example - Dinner for Schmucks, which cost a reported $69 million and made $71 million. The only way that a should-be low-budget comedy like that could cost that much comes from above the line, which is a crucial point when...

People aren't paying to see stars - Or at least you can't count on a star to provide the appeal that your story isn't offering. Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher's Killers cost $75 million and made only $47 million domestically/$87 million worldwide. People avoided Drew Barrymore and Mac guy Justin Long like the plague in Going the Distance, which made less than $9 million in its first weekend. Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman could only rake in about $21 million for The Switch, which is pretty weak even though I can't find a reported cost for that one. Nicholas Cage only drew in $61 million domestically for his $150-budgeted The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Tom Cruise's Knight & Day cost $117 million and made $76 million domestically. You can add $146 in overseas gross to that, but for a once-superstar like Tom Cruise, that's a weak figure. On the other hand, it points up that...

Action can still travel - Knight and Day and The A-Team ($77 domestic/$167 worldwide) both did better overseas than here. The A-Team still cost $110 million, so no one's exactly jumping for joy at that final take, though. In just a few weeks, The Expendables has made about $94 million domestic and just about equaled that abroad. Even more interesting, the $200 million price-tagged Robin Hood stalled out at $100 million here, but made $205 million abroad.

If you're adapting a comic book, make sure it's one people have heard of - Even with a so-so script that at times felt too much like an ad for the other upcoming Marvel projects, Iron Man 2 made $621 worldwide. On the other hand, Jonah Hex made $10 million. And I can't bring myself to beat up on Scott Pilgrim again, but taking those figures in tandem with The Losers and Kick-Ass, and studios are feeling the bite of going "too geek" and not mainstream enough. The geeks might make a nice street team, but at the end of the day, Joe Public still is the guy you should be selling to.

Even women are sick of Carrie Bradshaw's shit - The first Sex & the City movie cost $65 million and made $152 domestically/$415 worldwide. The second one cost $100 million, made $98 million domestically and only $290 worldwide. It's getting to be that if you can't make a sequel for the same cost or less than the first one, it's probably not worth it.

When talking about well-written original films, if not for Inception, we'd have nothing to talk about - is there any movie you walked out of this summer that you really found yourself talking about afterwards? Debating? Discussing? (Beyond the "how the hell did this get made?" talk.

So what do I see? I see an era where getting a star attached to your script isn't cause for celebration alone. I see an day where every star is going to have to lower their quote because these figures show they. Ain't. Worth it. At a minimum, the studios are going to have to take notice that a familiar face on the poster isn't going to compensate for cookie cutter, slapped-together scripts.

And here's the truth, folks. If you want to make it as a Hollywood writer, you're gonna have to write for the masses. That doesn't mean you need to turn out homogenized films that are imitations of what you think Joe Filmgoer will blindly see. It means you know how to write material that resonates with a wide audience. Don't just speak to a small cult of geeks or Manolo Blahnik-wearing sorority girls. Find a way to tell those stories so that people who aren't already pre-sold the concept will care.

I'd start writing low-budget comedies, or high-concept action films that don't necessarily need a star to sell them. I'd strive to write something that engages the audience on more than a superficial level. The material that really resonates is the material with something to say. Iron Man 2 was a rehash of the first one when it wasn't being a commercial for future sequels, and I had to think hard to remember it came out this summer. When I thought of the long-term winners of this summer, only two films immediately rose to the top: Toy Story 3 and Inception.

Are we on the verge of the Renaissance of the writer? Is the time coming when good ideas are at last in style?

Dare we dream?

Friday, September 3, 2010

Friday Free-for-All: Date a Human

A few weeks back, I went to the Feel Good Film Festival to attend a panel on webseries productions. There were several rather entertaining programs there, so I figured I'd showcase a few of them on the blog.

First up is Date a Human. One of the things I like about this series is that the episodes can work well on their own even if you haven't seen all the others.

In the future, Allie, a human female, has had her heart broken by a human male for the last time. All men want is babies! Can’t they think about something besides propagating their dwindling species? Fortunately Ruthie, Allie’s cat-like roommate, has the solution... all the single aliens on

This particular episode is Episode 4 - "Total Rip Off."

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Become a script reader for just $500!

As those who follow me on Twitter probably saw, last week I sort of mocked the idea of paying $500 to take a correspondence course in script reading so that YOU TOO can live the glamorous life of working at home as a script reader. I feel like I probably owe you all a longer explanation of my position.

First, as I said back when I attacked the idea of paying someone $75 a shot to evaluate a logline or a query letter, your money is your money. Spend it how you wish. Hopefully most of my readers are smart enough not to be taken in by such schemes. Now, there might be some who take exception to my calling a reader correspondence course a "scheme" so let me unpack that a bit.

I ask you, student in reader correspondence course - after you get your "degree" in script reading, what are you going to do with it?

Oh! You're going to hold yourself up as an expert and charge other newbies for your "insider" insights. Here's the problem with that, bub, you're not an insider.

There are plenty of people out there who work freelance as script readers and many of them have credentials that qualify them to offer advice as to not only what makes a good script, but what is received by agents, producers and studios.

Take Amanda the Aspiring Writer for example. She offers services that are fairly priced, but more importantly, she worked for a couple of years as an agency assistant. She's been on the inside. She knows that low budget character dramas aren't hot specs, she's seen the subtle reasons why some period pieces become hot specs and others are relegated to the PASS bin on sight. She knows the difference between the kind of material that gets talent excited and the stuff that may have little more than an interesting premise.

More than that, she's been exposed to professional level writing. There is a vast difference between the best scripts on Triggerstreet and the most average writing you'll see come from most agencies. If you've worked in this business professionally, you'll have a better idea of how high the bar is set. You'll know what "average" competence looks like and that's something you can't learn long distance via e-mail.

And to charge customers for your advice on how to clear that bar when you probably haven't even gotten close enough to describe that bar is utterly, utterly deceitful. If your resume does not include at least one production company, agency or management company, you're not a real reader. You have no more business telling people how to write than my dentist's receptionist has drilling my teeth.

I'm willing to grant exceptions for people like Carson Reeves, who has read so many scripts in the course of his blog that he's more or less made his bones. Plus, if you read Carson's reviews and find him to be knowledgeable and insightful, I certainly wouldn't blame you for wanting to pay for his insight. There's also the fact that most of his reviews do include some element of analyzing why the spec might have been well-received in the industry. As far as I understand, Carson's a complete outsider, but he's certainly got a large enough portfolio for one to make their own judgements as to his skill. Paying Joe Nobody with no experience and little more than the training of another reader is quite a different story, though.

I would pay Amanda the Aspiring TV Writer twice as much to read my script as I would someone who merely learned the ropes by proxy and has never set foot into a development executives office, who never had to go through a large slush pile and find the few gems in a pile of garbage.

This is why you'll find the most reputable coverage services insist that their readers have read professionally for actual businesses in the industry. The ones to shy away from have zero standards for their readers beyond completing their own training. If this was just about being a writing teacher maybe that would be okay. But when someone pays for coverage on their screenplay, which they are trying to sell, there's an expectation that the person giving the advice has some authority on how to make it palpable to industry eyes.

So in my eyes, that's why this sort of reader instruction course is worthless. I wouldn't give a dime to any reader who's only experience was one of these courses. $500 buys a lot of coverage from Amanda, or Carson, or the Screenplay Mechanic, or ScriptShark. And if I offered such a service, you'd certainly be able to get a lot of coverage from me for that price too. That's all I'm saying.