Friday, July 29, 2011

Friday Free-For-All: The Joker Blogs webseries

I just discovered this! The Joker Blogs, which is a pretty cool idea for a webseries - featuring the Joker after his capture in The Dark Knight as he undergoes therapy with Dr. Harleen Quinzel.

A clever idea, a built-in audience, and an premise that allows for a low budget. That's pretty much a recipe for web series success.

I'm told subsequent episodes do a solid job of weaving in details from the movie and comic book continuities.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Reader question - How should I use a familial connection to sell a script?

Chris writes in:

Mr. Bitter Script Reader,

Please, Mr. Bitter Script Reader is my father. Just call me Bitter.

After coming across your blog, I quickly consumed all the valuable information you provide. With as much information that you, as well as your guest bloggers, have provided there is still a question I wanted to ask. I understand that it is important to utilize all contacts you may have within the industry, from fellow writers to "gatekeepers" to executives. My concern with this is that I have a family member who is an executive producer who is fairly well know (thus I'll not mention their name) and has worked on numerous projects from television to motion pictures.

I know that should I ever polish my screenplay to a level I feel conforms to a level of a professional, my relative would be more than willing to read what I have created. But I am quite worried that with this person being a direct family member-one of my mother's siblings-they may pass it down the ladder only as a way of saying they tried. I have spoken with them a couple of times and have indicated my interest in this field and it has always been responded to with strong words of encouragement.

Seeing as I've taken the long winded approach to my question, here goes. What advice would you offer given my set of circumstances. Seeing as this may be my "one" opportunity to offer a script that has the highest chances of being sold. Though I know this individual would be more than happy to "read" more of my material at a later date should this one not be of interest, I know that I only have one shot. Additionally, at what point in the polishing of this document should I take the leap and send it to them? I don't want to be still polishing up, re-writing, ten years from now, but again I don't want to make a careless mistake and look like an amateur. Perhaps I should send it to them and ask for advice one what they would change, what they might do differently, or seek general advice pertaining to my document.

Any advice would be extremely appreciated.

Well, this is your uncle you're talking about, so I'm assuming this isn't someone you have a distant relationship with. That'll help a lot if by some chance you turn in something that "isn't quite ready yet." If you show potential, I'd think your uncle would offer encouragement and advice even if your script needs more work. As busy as people in the industry are, I don't think you have only one "at bat" with someone that closely related.

If my cousin or brother sent me a script, unless it was truly, truly terrible, I have a hard time believing I'd completely cut them off from submitting again, or say, "You had your chance."

My advice would be to worry less about giving him something that he can help get sold and instead, look at this as an opportunity to obtain a mentor. You don't mention how long you've been writing or how many scripts you've written, but I sense this isn't something you've become attracted to on a lark.

Are you close with this uncle? Is he aware of your passion for writing? Do you share common tastes in films or movies? You have an opportunity to bond with him on a personal level and really pick his brain. You'll probably get a more candid view of the industry than if this person was someone you happened to meet through your college's alumni group or something like that.

Like, if my uncle was someone like Joss Whedon or John Wells, I'd probably be constantly prodding them with curious questions about their job. I'd be asking them what they thought of the latest big films, which TV shows they watched, what they like to see in television or movie writing. Often people are only too happy to talk about their work or their industry with people who show a genuine interest in it.

Look at this as your opportunity to get a free master class in writing. To see this as just an opportunity to get your script to someone in power is really short-sighted. Sell yourself, not the script. A real mentor is worth his weight in gold.

But how do you know when to lay that script on him? I don't know if there is a firm answer for that. You seem to understand that one shouldn't send out their first draft, or even their second. Do you have other friends who you trust to give you writing feedback? Have you gotten people together for a table read of the script so you can hear it outloud? Have you sent it to professional readers and coverage services so you can get an idea of how it holds up to other professional works.

As far as how to approach him, I think giving it to him with the understanding that you're looking for feedback is an excellent way to go about it. It shows you understand that writing in the industry is rewriting, and that you're not arrogant enough to assume you've hit it out of the park the first time.

You seem to have given it a lot of thought and seem to be aware of a lot of the mistakes that less savvy people might make. I say "go with your gut." When the script is ready - when you've polished it enough so that nothing major in there is bothering you - you'll know.

Good luck. You've got access to a great resource, so you just need to be smart about how you use it.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Reader question - Timetables to becoming a writer's assistant or reader?

David asks:

If I'm looking to seriously break into the industry (which I am), I already know I pretty much need to move and live in LA. My question is: what are the odds or realistic time tables of landing a job as a reader or in an agency or as a writer's assistant where I can make the connections needed while honing my craft and continue writing my own specs?

Well, this post covers my path to being a reader, so that's what I can offer as far as first-hand experience. It was just about two years before I became a reader, though by then I'd already been a development assistant and I had been reading for a good while before that too.

To add to the "how do I become a reader" end of things, I'll direct you to this post from me and this post from Amanda the Aspiring Writer. The gist is that you really don't want to pursue being a reader. With the way things have shifted the last few years, it's practically a dead end. Trust me, you'll still read plenty if you pursue work as a production assistant, office assistant, agency assistant or executive assistant. (That and the position of reader is becoming a rapidly disappearing one.)

Why should you pursue those? Two works: desk experience. I don't think I've seen many job postings of late that haven't made a point of saying they want the applicants to have a year or more of experience on a desk. If you want to climb the ladder that way, aim for the desk. If you soak up that experience, you'll likely also make the contacts that can set you up when writers' assistant positions need filling.

It's hard to give an accurate guess these days. With the job market in the state it's in, there's a lot of competition out there. I've heard of job postings for assistants receiving submissions in excess of 300! Not only that, companies are cutting back, meaning that staffs are smaller and there are fewer opportunities to move up.

But let's try to come up with a middle of the road estimate:

Start with 3-6 months doing internships. After that, let's add another year for production assistant work. Odds are that could be two or even three years if you're really unlucky. Eventually a slot opens up at an executive/agent's desk in the company where you work. Figure at least a year on that desk before you can take advantage of that to go elsewhere. More than likely, you'll end up doing more time there. I've got a friend who took an executive assistant position intending to only be there a year and he's ended up staying on through his third year.

So the "you were damn lucky" estimate probably comes out to just under two and a half years. I wouldn't count having that kind of luck. I'd say four or five years is probably the more realistic way to go before you get enough experience and make enough contacts to get that writers' assistant job.

But everyone moves at their own pace. There's no set timetable. It tends to be a combination of ability meeting opportunity.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Tuesday Talkback - Most obvious studio tinkering

I can still remember the first time I was abundantly aware that a feature film must have been released with an ending other than the one the shooting draft was commissioned with. The offender in question was Conspiracy Theory, a 1997 release starring Mel Gibson as a taxi driver who's obsessed with conspiracy theories. His other fixation - a State Department official played by Julia Roberts. He tries to convince her that NASA is going to pull off a presidential assassination by causing an earthquake.

Well, some government baddies led by Patrick Stewart come after Gibson's character, and Gibson and Roberts are led to believe that it's in response to the conspiracy theories presented in Gibson's latest newsletter. When they check the subscription list, everyone but one subscriber has been killed. This leads to a lot of running and chasing, and I admit I don't remember the rest of the film that well.

What I do remember is that the movie was striving for a dark and almost ambiguous tone that it never quite hit. Even at the time, I mostly blamed Gibson, thinking that someone a little off-kilter and unbalanced would have been better. I'd seen Steve Buschemi play such a character in a relatively recent episode of Homicide and figured he'd have been a better fit for the film's attempted weirdness. Gibson's performance is less Cohen Brothers-quirky and more "USA Original Series - Characters welcome" quirky.

Anyway, I've drifted from my point, which is that near the end of the film, Gibson's character is shot and seems to bleed to death right in front of Roberts and medics rush to his aide. Later, we see Roberts visit Jerry's grave... and then she walks away and the film cuts to Gibson and two agents in a van, watching her. There's some hamfisted dialogue about how she has to think he's dead and he's going to help them bring down the remaining players in the conspriacy. There's even a silly feel-good moment involving the three men singing along to a Frankie Valli song featured earlier in the film. This is followed by a coda where Roberts' character finds an object that belongs to Gibson on her horse's saddle.

So everyone's happy - Gibson's alive, Roberts knows he's alive, and we go out on a high note.

I remember walking out of that film thinking "Bullshit! He should have died!" What's more, it really felt like the movie was intended to end with that beat of her at his grave. The two reveals of "Gibson lives" and "She knows" seemed tacked on for an audience that wanted to walk out with a "Happy ending."

It completely ruined the film for me, and to this day I haven't watched it again (hence the hazily-recalled recap above.) Several years later I saw a Richard Donner interview that referenced the reshot ending and had my suspicions confirmed.

This ever happen to you?

Monday, July 25, 2011

Reader question - Snail-Mailed queries vs. Emailed queries

I'm still kinda zonked from Comic-Con, so I'm just going to take an easy question today. Greg asks:

I'm about to send out query letters to a bunch of production companies, so I've collected all their contact details. But I'm wondering if I should send these letters out via e-mail or regular mail. E-mail would certainly save on paper, ink and stamps, but physically mailing letters seems much more professional. What do you think?

A few years ago, you might have been right about physically mailing the letters being more professional, but I think these days they're accepted as a legitimate way of querying people. I used to do the physical mailings but I actually got more read requests off my last spate of email queries. Perhaps I just had a better pitch with this later one, but I'd like to think that since it takes little time to open and read an email, maybe that makes it easier for a recipient to give it a quick glace. A letter from a dubious sender might sit on a desk for weeks, unopened.

One thing I would stress with an email query is to be very concise. It takes so little effort for someone to press "DELETE." Be brief. Pitch your idea succinctly and don't ramble. Don't tell your life story - just get them interested in reading your script.

I've heard anecdotally from enough people who had luck with e-queries that I'm inclined to believe it's no less likely to succeed than actual mailed queries.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Friday Free-for-All: Comic-Con edition - Slave Leia PSA

It's that wonderful time of year again when all of the faithful flock to Nerd Mecca - San Diego Comic Con. Over the past eight years of so, I've watched it go from being a fun event where I could easily attend a lot of panels to an overcrowded exercise in herding people across the floor like cattle.

Last year I didn't get into a single panel, and the year before that I didn't have much better luck. It's a shame because that used to be my favorite part. Checking out the exhibition hall is fun too, but often the booths are so crowded that you can barely see anything.

What does that leave? Checking out the costumes. As a retailer friend of my father's told him during his first visit to Comic-Con (yes, my parents have been to SDCC. TWICE!) "You'll see so much fucking eye candy this week!" And it's true - there are a lot of elaborate, well-made costumes as well as a bevvy of scantily-clad women. Slave Leias are to Comic-Con what pumpkins are to Halloween. They also are excellent words to have on your blog during Comic Con week if you want to goose your search engine hits. (Additional good words to draw in those hits: Joss Whedon, Team Edward, and "How bad is the line at Hall H")

Fortunately for those suffering Leia fatigue, Chuck star Zachary Levi and his Nerd Machine have produced this Slave Leia PSA with The Big Bang Theory's Kaley Cuoco. (Don't get your hopes up guys... she doesn't appear in the outfit.)

If anyone else has some good Comic-Con related shorts, please post them in comments.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Reader question - "What sort of deal should I make with an independent filmmaker for my script?"

Liz asks:

I've been talking to two independent directors about writing scripts they can produce themselves. I don't think they'll be able to pay me, which I can live with since it will add something to my resume. Have you ever worked with that sort of thing? What kind of agreement should I make concerning things like copyright, future profits, etc?

Wow.... you might have stumped the band on this one. I've never worked with something like this, though I'm sure it happens all the time.

My legal knowledge in this area is murky. I think the important thing to do is copyright the script. The form and the instructions to do that are available online HERE.

As far as future profits, I admit I wouldn't know where to start with this. I think that you might want to look at some standard WGA contracts and see about using some of those deal points as a starting point. The Independent/Low Budget signatory information is here.

I think whatever agreement you hammer out, it might be smart to get a percentage of the gross (not net!) Even just a single point could be worth a lot if you end up writing something that turns out to be the next Paranormal Activity. True, the odds of that are long, but you have to think that when the filmmakers were shooting Paranormal Activity, no one on that set ever imagined it would make nearly $200 million worldwide.

Yeah, how would you like to own even half a percent of that?!

Beyond that, I have to admit I'm rather ignorant of some of the finer aspects of these buisness deals. Rather than giving bad advice, I think I'll yield the floor to anyone who might have more practical knowledge of such things.

UPDATE: Also if you decide to seek legal representation (always a good idea if the deal is moving forward), this post from Go Into the Story about getting an entertainment lawyer over a regular lawyer might be of interest to you. Just remember, Scott and I aren't lawyers - in case you happened to skim this post and missed the two instances where I said I'm not an expert in this field.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Reader question: How do I get hired as a writer's assistant?

Kyle asks:

I'm curious about how to land a job as a writer (or writer's assistant) on a sitcom. I've been told things as varied as working at an agency, interning with production companies, doing stand up, or inundating yourself at the UCB theater. I'd appreciate whatever advice you might have.

I'm going to tackle the writers' assistant part of this question first. To start, you should go read my interviews with writers' assistants Amy Baack and Scott Towler. Their experiences in getting their jobs couldn't be more different. That should give you an idea that there's no set way to get the gig.

Now for the more bitter response - how do you get hired as a writers' assistant? Through an act of God or network executive. Those jobs are highly coveted and the competition is fierce.

Last year, I got word from a friend that a series was in need of a new writers' PA. Determined to put myself on a path that might lead more directly to a writers' assistant job, I had my friend throw my resume into the ring. I should also mention that this friend was a very trusted assistant to the show's star, and gave me the highest possible recommendation. Better still, I seemed to have the exact qualifications they were looking for.

I was relieved that for once I might have the nepotism/favor factor working to my benefit, but I was still careful to go in for the interview with a full can-do attitude and not at all trading on the connection that got me there. I got the inevitable "With all your experience, why do you want this job?" question, and artfully navigated it. I flat out said that I had friends who started out as writers PAs and after they put in the hours and showed the right attitude, eventually moved up to writers' assistant, and in some cases full-fledged writers. I made sure they knew I was serious about the job, that I was a pro, and that I didn't see the job as being beneath me.

So naturally they gave it to someone else.

My friend did some digging, aghast that a recommendation that came from his boss's office was cast aside. It turned out that someone on the writing staff had a buddy who wanted the job.

For all I know, that guy was as qualified as me and did just as well in the interview. In fact, there's probably a pretty good chance of that - there are a lot of qualified people out of work in Hollywood. Or maybe he just knew someone with the right amount of pull. But that also speaks to a good lesson - no matter how strong your contact is, there's always someone with a stronger contact.

This past season was very competitive. I knew people on more than one show and despite how well they were placed in the chain of command, I didn't exactly get that many interviews. There was one series that needed to replace MULTIPLE PAs as they geared up for the new season and the network told them flat out who they had to hire for ALL of those positions! Yes, in that case the writing staff and the cast connections didn't mean anything, because "the suits" took care of their buddies.

So what have we learned? Get connected to someone in power.

As for how to become a writer, being an assistant is a great way to get in the door. Usually they graduate to staff after a couple years, so long their as boss is writing on a show and not in development. Note that was the experience of Rob Levine when he worked for the Judging Amy show-runner.

Write specs and get representation. That can get you out there for meetings. Or you could apply for writing fellowships. For more on those, check out this interview with Margaux Froley about how the Warner Bros Television Fellowship landed her a staff writer job.

If any other writers' assistants out there want to chime in and share their experience, feel free.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Tuesday Talkback - Harry Potter and the Role of Adaptations

I've noticed a curious thing about reactions to the Harry Potter films. Fans who read the books seem to assume that moviegoers who haven't read the books must be complete idiots. I've cruised online for reactions to the movie, and while the reaction to this film (and the films in the series in general) trend pretty positive, it's the biggest fans who seem to complain the loudest about plot points that go unexplained.


- "They didn't explain why Harry lived!" (Yes, they did. It might not have gone on for pages and pages, but it was pretty clear what was going on.)

- "The Supporting Characters didn't get big fight/death scenes!" (Not really a problem... in the Star Wars movies do we need to focus extensively on each Rebel pilot before they get killed?)

- "They didn't explain how Voldemort was really killed!" (I think it's depicted pretty clearly in the movie without an explanation. Show, don't tell.)

Or to take it back to earlier films:

- "They never explained who made the Hogwarts Map!" (because it's not important to the plot.)

I've noticed this with Star Trek fans too. People complained that "Abrams movie doesn't make any sense unless you buy the comic books that explain the backstory." Hilariously, people who made this argument that the film sucked on those grounds were almost always the viewers who bought the comics. I personally knew many causal viewers who didn't even know the comics existed and had no trouble following the story.

Yet those who complain about such "plot holes" do so with an air of "I only know this because I read the books! Those if you didn't read the books you'd be lost!"

No, if you didn't read the books, you wouldn't know what you were missing and thus, you wouldn't care. Either that, or you assume the general audience is brain dead and needs everything spoonfed to them.

But what this comes down to is the superfan's inability to judge a film adaptation on its own terms. Any criticism that begins "In the book they..." is largely an invalid one. These aren't the books. It's called film adaptation, not film translation. "Adaptation" means "change." Minor plot points that were essential to the books are not going to be as high a priority as in a film.

The movies really took off when they learned to embrace Harry's journey as the spine of the series and to discard anything that wasn't germaine to that. That meant that a lot of third bananas might have lost some character beats, but that indulgence is something the books can afford.

I've only read the first five books, and I think one of the better adaptations was Order of the Phoenix specifically because it jettisoned a lot of the bloated passages of the novel and got to the heart of the story. That book was one instance where Rowling probably could have used a firmer editor because the pacing of a few points tested my tolerance greatly through the first 2/3 of the novel. In contrast, the film was much more engaging and might even be one of my favorites of the series.

But what do you think about this? Those of you who've only seen the films, did you feel major points went unexplained? Those of you who love the books, what do you hate the most about the movies? Are you able to enjoy the films and the books as separate entities or do you spend the entire viewing experience checking off what was and wasn't represented from the novels?

Do you worry about what a viewer who hasn't read the books would make of a scene or missing plot point? And how much credit do you give them to infer details they aren't directly told?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Open Line Monday - Reader Questions

Well, it's that part of the summer where I pretty much hit a wall and could use a kickstart of inspiration. That means it's time for you guys to pitch in and come up with interesting questions for me to tackle over the next couple of weeks.

So hit me up. You can ask about the craft, about being a reader, about me in general, about movies in general, Los Angeles, Carmageddon... Basically, if you've got something you're interested in hearing me tackle, go ahead and ask. The worst I can do is ignore it.

No, actually the WORST I could probably do is ridicule you, but that comes with the risk of me looking like the ass too.

Submit away!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Friday Free-for-All: Harry Potter and the Inappropriate Comment

It's the late fall of 2001 and I'm in the office of my academic adviser. I've just arrived to finalize my schedule for the next season and a fellow student is on his way out. As he departs, he and our professor discuss the upcoming movie slate. This prompts my classmate to mention that he's already purchased his tickets for the following week's midnight showing of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

I expressed a small measure of surprise at that, for while this friend was a massive Superman fan and possibly an even bigger Star Wars fan, at first glance, you'd probably totally make him for the kind of fan who was into the oeuvre of Michael Bay. A kid's movie about magic didn't seem like his bag. I mentioned that I'd not yet read the books and he assured me that they're more mature than the standard kiddie fare.

"So you sound pretty excited about this," I said. "You think the movie will do the books justice?"

"Looks like it," he replied. "And that girl who plays Herminoe is probably going to be really hot when she grows up."

With that, he departed, leaving me and the professor to shake our heads with bemusement. We had to be bemused, you see... for if we took him literally, it would probably have been a much creepier exchange.

A few years later, I'm watching Saturday Night Live and this Harry Potter sketch starring Lindsay Lohan shows up.

I can't help but think of my former classmate every time I see this. And every time Emma Watson shows up for a premiere looking glamorous, in the back of my head I think, "You can call him 'creepy,' but you can't call him 'wrong.'"

Fair warning to all of my friends - you never know what inappropriate comment I will forever remember you for.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Reader question - What about "appropriating" someone else's failed screenplay idea/script?

The Auditors of the Amazon commented yesterday with a question that probably deserves some discussion.

What about "appropriating" someone else's failed screenplay idea/script?

We've been contacted by a lot of people lured into that Zombies Vs. Gladiators rewrite contest. Like us, they see the massive problems with the script, a script that went out to the studios, and has already been passed on.

It's actually easier to do a page one, total, and absolute new rewrite than to try and fix ZvG.

However, it appears that Amazon Studios doesn't think that there's much to fix with the script, so we think that anyone that would submit a page one rewrite to the contest would be at a disadvantage.

So, what about taking the BRAAAAIINSSSS behind ZvG and changing everything? The names, characters, places, times, plot, story, everything, and then writing an entirely new script and submitting it to the studios?

Scott Mullen (a fellow reader) said that this would be immoral. We don't think morals and ethics enter into it if it's totally different.

Let's say a ZvG page one rewrite is really good, and somehow gets back to the studios who declined/passed on a previous iteration (by different authors), could ZvG sell without legal troubles?

There's a legal question and a moral question before the court here. Scott's probably right that you're on slippery moral turf. In a case like this, if it wasn't for the initial script, you never would have generated your idea in the first place. Still, time and again, writers are told that it's the execution of ideas that are copyright-able, not the initial idea itself.

With something like Zombies vs. Gladiators, suppose you just heard the title and went, "That's a pretty cool idea! I know what I'd do with that." Then, without ever reading the script, you go off and develop your version of it. Obviously, you couldn't have stolen anything from the script because you didn't read it. The original writers might sue you, but unless they could point to specific details that could only have come from a reading of their script, odds are they'd lose.

As I've said, I'm not a lawyer, but that's my best guess at how this would shake out in court. A full page-one rewrite of the concept with a completely different plot, characters, and setting probably would be on safe ground legally. Legally.

Ah, but then comes the moral question.

I'm a struggling writer. After years of trying, I break through and get representation and lo and behold, my manager takes a look at my Zombies vs. Gladiators script (aka "Dawn of the Dead meets 300") and declares that it's perfect for Zack Snyder to produce. And guess what, Snyder's development people agree. I send them the script. I go in for a meeting. We rap. They pass. It's "not for them." They "liked it but didn't love it." I get no money, and move on to other projects.

One year later, I see a trailer for "Zack Snyder presents 'Zombies vs. Gladiators.'"

Should I have a case? Doesn't it seem like Snyder's people owe me something?

That's why in cases like this, usually you'll see the company buy the spec even if all they want is the concept. They'll get a few rewrites out of the writers, and then probably pay another writer or four to takeover and rewrite the project completely. Why do they do that? Because it's cheaper and less of a hassle to buy the script outright than deal with the legal question later. After all, circumstances like that look mighty fishy, and you never know what a judge or jury would do with a scenario that grey.

Now, the scenario you posit is a bit different, in that instead of Snyder's Director of Development initiating the new idea, you have come up with this Page One rewrite entirely on your own. I'd say that probably puts the legal burden on you rather than the studios. (But again, I'm NOT A LAWYER.) So if your question is, "Does the fact that another iteration of this idea already went wide to studios present an obstacle for this one?" I'd say only as far as the first pass indicates that they might not be interested in the idea.

Try this scenario: I'm telling a friend about my idea for a new screenplay. Maybe I've come up with a cool new comedic hook like, "It's about a woman dealing with her best friend getting married and having to put up with her raunchy bridesmaids while doing her duties as maid of honor." While I write my version, he goes off and writes his. As it turns out, the plots and the tone of both scripts is distinctly different. He writes from the school of Apatow while I wrote from the school of Wilder.

His sells, mine doesn't. Can I sue him? Probably not... but he's probably just a tiny bit of a dick for coming up with a competing idea, no matter how much he might legally be in the right.

Thus, I don't really endorse this. I have enough trouble when I mention an idea to a writer friend and then have to worry if his role in brainstorming a few ideas means he's going to think I "stole" the idea if I write it without him. As you might guess, I see a dozen badly-executed scripts a week - and every now and then there's one that has a great premise, but is never going to get bought because it's so badly written. I really can't see appropriating that idea because to me, that would feel too much like theft.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Reader question - Can I re-adapt something that's in the public domain?

I got an email from Tim entitled "Writing for Existing Properties, Sort of."

Trust me, I know. I know I can't write the next Pirates of the Caribbean to get in on all that cash, or Transformers, or even Die Hard 5: Live Free or Die Harderer.

My question is about King Kong. I, of course, have a brilliant idea for a King Kong sequel/reboot/reimagning/prequel. I thought that based on the 2005 Peter Jackson version the copyright was owned, however according to the ever-reliable wikipedia:

"MCA/Universal attempted to sue Nintendo for copyright infringement in Universal City Studios, Inc. v. Nintendo Co., Ltd., claiming that the game infringed its copyright for the film. However, they lost and had to pay Nintendo $1.8 million in damages when it was discovered that King Kong was in fact in the public domain at that time and that MCA/Universal knew this when they filed the lawsuit. They did not own the copyright to King Kong and had not trademarked the name "King Kong". They had even argued in the past that the name "King Kong" was in the public domain in Universal City Studios, Inc. v. RKO General Inc., et al."

So here's my question: can a property be deemed "in the public doman" still be property of a studio? I understand that Universal owns the 2005 version and all the likenesses, blah blah blah, but does that preclude me from writing ANOTHER King Kong movie based on the above ruling?

As Scott Myers always says in a prelude to answers of this nature, "I'm not a lawyer. I don't play one on TV." Bear that in mind as I answer.

As I understand it, if something is in the public domain, nothing should preclude you from writing your own version of it - so long as your adaptation sources only the original material. As an example of this, I recall the creators of Cruel Intentions noting on the DVD commentary track noting how careful they had to be during their rewrites. Cruel Intentions was an updating and adaptation of the novel Les Liaisons dangereuses, which had previously been adapted as Dangerous Liasons. (Les Liaisons dangereuses was in the public domain, while Dangerous Liasons was not.)

I ran across this a few years back when I wrote a spec script that was a sequel to The Wizard of Oz. My notion was that it would be a sequel to the books rather than the 1939 film - a conceit that I felt not only offered more interesting story paths, but also precluded the need to secure the rights to MGM's classic film. After all, the original novel is in the public domain - which is also why you see so many Oz properties floating around out there.

[Side note - when I queried with this, I was a little dismayed at how many agents were ignorant of the fact Oz was in the public domain. This was especially surprising since it was my bad luck to start pushing this script just as a wave of Oz projects was making its way through Hollywood, effectively killing the market for my take.]

So my advice is to research the source material thoroughly and make note of precisely what's in the public domain and what might still be under copyright laws.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Tuesday Talkback - Bad queries

We talk a lot on this blog about how you should approach someone with a script, or how you should get your material out there. Does anyone have any horror stories about any major missteps they made in trying to break in? Maybe you bugged Jeff Goldblum at Kate Mantilini's when you tried to lay a script on him. Perhaps you went to William Morris and asked to see an agent. You might have stupidly sued two agencies for $8 million dollars or horror of horrors, maybe you even put your scripts up on Amazon Studios.

Who's brave enough to share their mistakes?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Reader question - If given the chance, should I proposition an actor with my script?

I've been sitting on this email for a couple months now, so I should probably just get to it:

I just found your blog about a week ago and have DEVOURED have some good stuff on there. I really enjoyed reading the cliché series.

So, it got me thinking about a few questions I didn't see on your blog that I thought you might be able to answer.

And at the risk of sounding like the amateur that I am, I'll go for it and ask...

If I ever got the chance to ask a actor/actress if they'd be interested in reading one of my scripts should I or would that be a big no-no?

Or instead of asking them to read the whole script should I ask if I could send a query to their agent?

Also, should I have an agent before I do that? Or wait until the actor/actress gets back saying that they loved or hated it and be able to put that on my query letter to agents if it was positive feedback?

I haven't had the opportunity to meet anybody but, I wanted to be prepared and know what I could do if I did.

Very complicated question, and one that's going to run up against a lot of variables. I'll do my best to account for everything.

Let's first address an important fact - there are very few actors with the power to get a film made just by being attached to it. So if you're at a party and happen to bump into, say, Treat Williams, don't kick yourself later for not giving him your script. I'm not saying that a working actor can't be a good connection, but you definitely want to temper your expectations.

Important fact #2 - asking someone to read your script is a big deal. It's true of asking working screenwriters, and it's equally true of asking actors. It's not something I'd usually feel comfortable asking someone who I just met. I was recently at a party where I met a couple actors whom I've been watching on TV for a decade or so. I even managed to strike up a pretty good repor with one of them and we had a good conversation about movies, TV, the business, life in general... but at no point did it ever cross my mind that it'd be a good idea to push my script on him.

If possible, you can put it out there that you're a writer. It's bound to come up in conversation, and usually the person you're talking to will likely ask not only what you do, but what kinds of stuff you write as well. This is your chance - be able to sum up the script succinctly:

"It's about a cop who has to save people from a bus that will explode if it goes under 50 mph."

"It's about a police chief on Martha's Vineyard who's faced with stopping a man-eating shark from killing the beachgoers on the biggest tourist weekend of the year."

"It's about a killing machine from the future who comes back in time to murder the mother of the leader of the resistance against it before he's even born."

If possible, tell the concept in a way that makes the lead role appealing - play to the actor's vanity.

If you're really lucky, maybe, MAYBE they'll say that sounds cool and they'd like to read it. If you can, get their email address. If not, get the name of their agent and that contact info. Send it to them with a polite note saying you'd love to hear what they think of it. Then - leave them alone for a month, if not more. It takes people a long time to get to other people's scripts.

The key thing here is not to come off too pushy. Put the info out there and let them make the move. I don't think it's necessary to have an agent to play it like that. Now, there's always a chance that you meet Anne Hathaway at a party and she just happens to be great for your script. If you talk her up and she likes the idea, you could always say, "If you're really interested, I could have my agent send it to your agent."

That at least shows you're professional enough to have an agent. However, it also means that you've just added at least two intermediaries before it gets to Anne. It goes to her agent, who sends it to their assistant and possibly an agency reader. Being vetted through those people means you've got to impress two, perhaps three people before Anne gets it. That's why I favor the "I could send it to you if you like," and see if you can finagle a direct contact. More than likely, you'll still be referred to the agent.

By the way, this procedure is pretty much the safe way to handle making any Hollywood contact at a party or public event. Managers, agents, writers, directors and assistants all fall into this category. Bear in mind that ALL of these people probably have someone trying to read their work on a daily basis. Make sure you've made a good impression. If you come out the gate with "Will you read my script?" you'll more likely get a polite decline.

As for if actor interest can help you get an agent by noting said interest on a query letter, I really couldn't say. Unless you can say something like, "Ted Danson really liked my TV pilot" or "Robert Downey Jr. dug my script," the notation that an actor liked your script isn't likely to impress. (And in the above examples, the person receiving the query might think, "Well, if Danson's so high on it, why isn't this referral coming from him?")

Every connection helps, but I'd say this is one of the less likely ways you'll get traction for your script. Having said that, if anyone is in a position to prove me wrong, I'd love to hear their story.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Friday Free-For-All: Final Destination 5

Some of you may remember that last year I interviewed screenwriter Eric Heisserer soon after his first film, the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street, hit theatres. In the second part of that interview he offered a few teases about his next assignment, Final Destination 5:

There was so much cool suspense, character development, and sense of mystery in the first Final Destination. Then you look at the fourth movie and it’s almost a porn version of the first—just one death sequence after another. And you know, it was still fun, I can’t lie, but for me it lacked a lot of what made the first movie so good. What I’m trying to do with this fifth film is make it work on its own; make it a supernatural thriller first, and a Final Destination movie second. It will have all the trademark elements fans love from the series, but hopefully it will surprise them, too. At least, that’s my hope…

I rather liked the first Final Destination film. In all honesty I can't recall seeing the second - or even if I saw the second film. I'm pretty sure I liked the third film too, but I readily confess that might be my Mary Elizabeth Winstead crush talking.

With regards to the fourth film, I think Eric said all that needs to be said.

In any event, the few tidbits we got from Eric gave me the hope that he wrote the kind of Final Destination movie I want to see. Better still, the trailer has me intrigued.

If you're not following Eric on Twitter, you need to remedy that immediately. (I have never figured out if his Twitter name means "Writers Pry" or "Writer Spry" though.) He has regular Writing Challenges that a lot of aspiring scribes can learn from. On top of that, he's a cool guy and has been a great friend to the blog, so I genuinely hope the film does well when it hits theatres on August 12.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Can I build my career without moving to LA?

Warren asks:

Just curious to know if you think a screenwriter can only break in from LA (or the US at least)? I'm on the other side of the world even though I have been polishing my skills for years.

I get this question a lot, and usually I refer people to the archives, but I recognize that it's been a while since I covered this, so it makes sense to promote this FAQ again.

I think it gets significantly harder to break in the further you get from L.A. Is it impossible? No... but you're at a disadvantage if you're not in the same town as the industry you want to work in. Writers who argue that writing is a job that can be done anywhere and that meetings can be done over the phone are missing that there's an entire social aspect to the industry - as with any industry.

I'd never say "I want to work on Wall Street... but it should be no big deal to telecommute from Burbank. I can chat with my boss via Skype and handle my work over the internet, right?" And frankly, that presupposes that I've already got the job.

If you're in L.A., you'll meet other people in the business pretty quickly. These friends can be of help in guiding you. Maybe your neighbor is a writer on a TV show and offers to look at your samples. Heck, maybe you're lucky enough to impress him and he passes you on to his manager. Perhaps that girl you meet in the dog park is a Creative Exec for a production company that makes precisely the kinds of movies that you write.

But let's get back to talking about getting work - these days, it still seems that people like to actually meet the people they're hiring. Let's not forget it's easier to build a relationship with someone in person. If you meet someone and actually break bread with them, you're bound to be more "real" to them than someone on the other side of an email or a phone call. Face-to-face meetings are still very much the norm, particularly for the sorts of meet-and-greets that managers send their clients on in the hopes of getting work. If you're in the room, you're "real."

Case in point: during the instances where I have met someone through this blog, it's always been a bit surreal to have a conversation with that person and realize, "This is someone who's read my words." Even when it's someone who I've exchanged emails with, they're not particularly "real" to me until we've met face-to-face.

Related to this, check out these must-read posts from John August on the subject:
Like banging a chainsaw against a tree
The Duluth Dilemma

In the latter, John offers a variation of what he calls "The Nashville Argument."

The country music industry is based in Nashville, Tennessee. If you’re a country music singer/songwriter, you could stubbornly refuse to move there. You could record your demos in Denver and put them on your MySpace page and play all the local clubs.

But while you’re doing that, a hundred other singer-songwriters are in Nashville, surrounded by an industry that is looking for the next great song, or the next great star. If you lived in Nashville, every third person you met would have a connection to the industry. You could learn from the best performers and technicians in the world.

Moving to Nashville is a smart, proactive move. But you could stay in Denver and just hope for the best. And if your career never takes off, at least you’ll have some heartbreak to write a song about.

If you want to write for Hollywood, it really helps to be in Hollywood. But for contrast, you might also want to check out this post: Starting a career from Puerto Rico.

UPDATE: I almost never do this, but Joshua Caldwell left a great comment that deserves to be seen and I know there are plenty of readers who might not click on comments, so consider this my first-ever comments spotlight.

Is it possible? Yes. Is it harder? Yes. Ultimately, talent wins out. A great script is a great script, no matter where you live. But the bigger struggle is getting people to read it. Hollywood is a town built on relationships and the only way to start building those relationships is to be here, meeting people face to face.

The problem is that people in this town are always looking for a reason to say no and it is far easier to toss a query letter into the garbage than it is to tell a friend of yours that you threw away his buddy's script.

Whether it's writing, directing or even just getting a job as an assistant, referrals and personal recommendations are the name of the game. It is very, very difficult to find a job if you don't know anyone and I should know, because I spent three years sending out blind resumes and I was the recipient of an MTV Movie Award.

The way I finally broke in was a swallowed my pride and got an internship. I decided that if I was going to be spending 8 hours a day doing something for money, I wanted to to be something in the business. It was through my first internship that I met a guy who would eventually get one of my scripts to a big producer who signed on and took it out wide (didn't sell, but...). Because he read it, loved it, recommended it to a friend who a friend who worked at the producer's prod co, who read it and loved it, who then recommended it to the producer. Sure, it was a great script and a bad script wouldn't have gotten as far, but really, it was about me being here, meeting people, talking to them and saying, "Hey, take a look at this."

And it was this internship, that eventually led to me working for Anthony E. Zuiker, creator of the CSI franchise, as his Director of Digital Media. It was this job that provided me with the money and resources to direct my current short film "Dig." And it was shooting "Dig" that allowed me to meet a guy who gave me a great idea for a feature, one I am now developing with Participant.

When you don't live in LA you have to be THAT much better of a writer, THAT much better of a filmmaker, because you're asking for execs to adjust their way of doing things to accommodate you. Whether it's a block of meetings the week that you're here (meetings are cancelled and rescheduled ALL the time) or being only available on certain dates, it's just not worth their time unless it's just a blow your mind amazing script. And few scripts are.

Can you build a career without moving to LA? Sure. But know that there are a ton of people who ARE here, waiting in line, willing to take your place for the chance to succeed.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Plot holes vs. nitpicks - Ferris Bueller's dog and weak screenwriting

UPDATE: Again, I swear Scott and I don't plan these sort of tag-team bits (except for when we do) but he's got a GITS post today on emotional logic, which deals with many of the same kinds of issues I talk about below. Check it out, won't you?

Last week I found myself watching Ferris Bueller's Day Off in its entirety for the first time in quite a while. This was one of my favorite movies when I was growing up and still is. Teen movies have changed so much since the days of John Hughes that as I was watching, I couldn't help but wonder how the film would be received if it came out today.

I thought of another film of that era, Back to the Future, which is often cited as a textbook example of how to set-up and payoff every single moment in the film. If you watch the first act, there's hardly a line of dialogue in there that doesn't resonate later in the film in some fashion, whether it's the way that the lightning bolt at the clock tower is set-up, or the reasons for Marty to hold onto the flyer announcing that event. There's also the backstory of Marty's parents meeting, George McFly's dynamic with Biff and even little details like the "Twin Pines Mall" and Marty later running over one of Old Man Peabody's dual pines.

As this was banging through my head, the film reached the classic scene where school dean Ed Rooney breaks into Ferris's house and has a confrontation with Ferris's dog... and it hit me! This is the first time we're seeing Ferris's dog and it's more than an hour into the film! You'd think conventional screenwriting wisdom would have dictated a scene earlier in the movie establishing the pooch's presence before Ferris left, and yet... no.

This struck me because it wasn't that long ago I saw the divide among fans of Super 8. There were those who nitpicked every last detail of the film as proof it was crap, while plenty of other viewers who were touched by the movie basically adopted the "la la la... not listening" approach to the holes. I didn't think it was a perfect film, myself. I even admit there are some details that don't quite fit... but some of the critiques crossed the line into really anal nitpicking. It was almost as if these viewers were looking for a fight with the film and were blasting it for not having any faith in their ability to connect the dots off-screen.

There's an excellent comment thread from Go Into The Story that deals with this. Also, the review by the usually excellent Auditors found here contains a number of examples of the latter. Just to pick two of them:

1. Why was the Air Force moving the Cloverfield Jr. monster EAST across the country to more heavily populated areas? There’s a reason why Area 51 is in the middle of fucking nowhere; only accessible via AIRCRAFT; it’s GREAT FOR HIDING STUFF!

It's not explained, but I don't particularly think it needs to be. They had it in captivity for a long time and obviously they had their reasons for moving it. Maybe they were taking it to the East Coast to put it on a barge to the Arctic. Does it really matter? Is this really a plot hole?

2. Why didn’t the Cloverfield Jr. monster simply escape previously while on the train? This is a HUGE plot hole that everyone just simply (and stupidly) accepts without any logic. The Cloverfield Jr. monster is capable of manipulating metal objects to a great degree, and can apparently also interfere with computers/mechanics/electrical systems. So why didn’t IT just stop the train itself, or just kick open the cargo door like it did when it escaped after the train derailed?

The monster had been held in captivity for decades, ergo, they clearly had some method of countering its powers. Maybe they drugged it, or maybe binding it kept it mostly docile and it wasn't able to escape until the train derailed. This is another instance where the on-screen evidence offers a clue that one can reasonably extrapolate an explanation from.

So if those two points and others like them bothered you in Super 8, you're probably the type of person who'd be pissed that John Hughes didn't respect his audience enough to establish the dog.

So what makes us nitpick some movies and let others off for similar flaws? (And don't think I'm setting up a false dichotomy of either "you must nitpick EVERYTHING or you must question NOTHING.") I'd wager it has to do with the emotional engagement between film and audience. People who gave Super 8 a pass on some logic issues tended to be those who were touched by the film on a deeper level. Conversely, a lot of the people who delivered laundry lists of plot holes probably were viewers looking for chinks in J.J. Abrams' armor.

If you want an even better example, take a look at the reaction J.J. Abram's Star Trek. I've been pretty open in that I think it's one of the best, if not the best of the ten films, and perhaps one of the most emotionally engaging Trek projects in the entire franchise. The vast majority of viewers - heck, even the vast majority of Trekkers - who saw it, liked it... but there was also an extremely vocal minority of Trek fans who are so venomous on the subject of this movie, you'd think it screwed their girlfriends right in front of them.

As a lurker on a few Trek boards, I saw several examples of these individuals as early as a year before the release. Before shooting was even complete on the film, they were already calling it the worst thing since Howard the Duck and were preemptively listing all the things that made working on this movie tanatmount to a war crime. That's why I wasn't too surprised to see these haters offering the following evidence that the film sucked:

"The Stardates are completely inconsistent with Trek standard at that point! They had no respect for the fans or the franchise and that's why this movie sucks!"

"Stars don't just go supernova without warning! They have no respect for scientific accuracy and that's why this movie sucks!"

"The mentally-deranged villain has a crazy revenge scheme that doesn't adhere to cold, dispassionate logic!"

Comments like this amuse me because you can look at ANY Trek film - including the highly regarded Treks II and VI - and find a comparable laundry list of issues. Anyone who cited scientific accuracy as a reason to bash Abrams' Trek has to be willing to concede that there's just as much implausible science in Wrath of Khan. (To wit: the Reliant crew's inability to count planets in the Ceti Alpha system and notice one is missing; anything and EVERYTHING connected to the Genesis Project, including the complete implausibility of its detonation forming a planet and star out of the Mutara Nebula.)

So why for these Trekkers was Wrath of Khan "Trek done right" while Abrams' film couldn't do anything right? Possibly because they didn't give the film a fair chance and were looking for reasons why it was bad. Possibly because the very idea of the film offended them so much that they couldn't give themselves over to its world, and thus, couldn't stop looking for details that reminded them it was a construct.

I'm not saying it's a folly to point out plot holes - but I also think that there comes a point where nitpicking can become a bit too obsessive.

It comes down to this: if you think Ferris Bueller is a stupid film, you probably hate the fact Ferris's dog isn't established sooner. If everything else in that movie works for you, what does it matter if the dog shows up out of nowhere? If Super 8 worked for you emotionally, do you really need to find out why the alien was being moved?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Help fund a sequel to Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon

Ages ago I raved about a little film I discovered on DVD, called Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. That film was a pitch-perfect spoof and homage to horror films and their conventions - perhaps the best meta-commentary on the genre since the original Scream. Part Christopher Guest-like mockumentary, part legitimate horror film, Behind the Mask is the story of a documentary crew that follows a budding serial killer looking to make a legend of himself along the lines of Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers.

Filmmaker Scott Glosserman is looking to fund a sequel to the film, and according to this interview, hit on exactly how to go about this after a disappointing reaction from the original film's distributor:

"I had a very rude awakening when I called the distributor of the first film and said 'We're ready to go with the sequel.' And they said not only forget about financing but that if I brought them a finished movie, if I handed a finished movie to them, they would not even distribute it for a fee. It just blew me away. I figured of anybody they must know how well Behind The Mask has been accepted. It did a great number on DVD."

And so Before The Mask has set itself a lofty goal: To be the first film ever to raise over a million dollars in crowd financing. "We sold mid six figure units on the original DVD and if half of those people spend twenty bucks pre-ordering the second film then we've raised more than a million dollars. So, in theory, we could crowd fund the movie. I know that's probably not a fully realistic possibility but, nonetheless, it's fun to set a goal to be the first movie ever to crowd fund more than a million dollars. That's our benchmark... and if I can take that - with a fully baked script and a couple of cameos - to a Lionsgate, who are already making original two million dollar films, it just seems to me that it would be a no brainer that they would finance this film."

To hit that goal Glosserman and company have created a unique, proprietary Facebook app to allow fans to pre-order Before The Mask DVDs and other merchandise at no risk to themselves. The company has set a reserve number - the number that is required to actually make the movie - and only if that number is met, so that orders will be able to be filled, will credit cards be charged. If they fall short of that reserve mark then nobody is charged a cent. "We will allow people to buy a Supporter's Edition of the DVD, which will be limited to the number of people who actually buy it in advance this way. We're going to do all sorts of fun special features and, if I can, since I've never done a director's commentary for the first movie I'd like to put that on this disc. All sorts of special features and an uncut, director's cut version of this new film along with proprietary art. We want to make a really special collector's edition of the movie which would be only available to people who pre-order now. And we can also offer posters and signed posters and DVDs and bundles."

You can find their Facebook page HERE.

What do you think about this approach to funding films? Obviously it's a model that's going to be more successful to those who have pre-existing followings than to the average independent filmmaker, but those who are savvy about searching out their audience might at least get a boost that would have been impossible just a few years earlier.