Monday, April 30, 2012

A great in-depth review of The Dark Knight

I'll level with you guys... I ran into post-production problems on the webseries and getting our footage into a Final Cut-friendly format turned into an issue that consumed far too much of my free time this weekend.

So I didn't have much time to compose my usual posts.  Never fear, I've found an alternative.

The Avengers opens this Friday and if you've been following my blog for a while, you probably expect that I'm pumped up for this.  I've never really be a Marvel Comics fan at all (save for Ultimate Spider-Man), but I've really enjoyed many of the movies based on Marvel Comics characters.

So as we anticipate what the hype would have us believe is the greatest Marvel movie ever made, why not take a look at a fantastic review of one of the most acclaimed and most successful comic book movies of all-time - The Dark Knight.  I recently came across a series of posts from some reviewers at Comics Alliance.  It was part of a series last year where they reviewed every Batman movie.

The Dark Knight review is a great discussion of the film's themes and structure.  They also do a fantastic job of breaking down the characters.  If you're a fan of the film, it's worth a look.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

One thing I really like about their series is that they attempt to put the lie to one of the popular perceptions about the Batman films - that Batman Returns is substantially better than either of the two Joel Schumacher films that followed it.  Both parts of the Batman Returns review are excellent at pointing out every last way in which the movie is terrible.

And in a move sure to infuriate most comic book fans, in both parts of another review, they assess that Batman & Robin is actually more coherent and consistent than either Burton film.  (I won't exactly say that they "defend" the film, but they make a good case for the notion that if you accept the film on its own campy terms, it holds together better than the incoherent mess that is the second film in the series.)

If you've got some time, check out my list of 10 Greatest Comic Book Movies Ever Made and its companion piece, The Worst Comic Book Movies Ever Made.  The posts are a couple of years old, but the recent entries haven't been good or bad enough to really merit displacing entries on either list.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Friday Free-For-All: Call It a Show!

My friend Rob Polonsky of Chad, Matt & Rob has started his own web talk show - Call It a Show!

The first episode debuted last night online and feature Tyler Tuione, whom you might recognize as "The Big Deal" from the Priceline Negotiator commercials as well as a number of Chad, Matt & Rob segments.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Reader questions: Diversity programs and waiting periods

Matt writes:

I love your site and I was hoping to get your opinion on something.

I've been debating entering the CBS Writer's Mentoring Program

I think my specs and my pilots are pretty solid but the problem is I'm white. More specifically, a straight white middle-class twenty-something male. And it seems that every program for TV writers is looking for diversity. Basically the opposite of me. 

So should I even bother applying to CBS, WB, Nickelodeon or the NBC program? Or should I save my time and money? 

I'd welcome anyone with more direct experience with these programs to weigh in, but my assumption is that any program that states in its objectives that it's looking for"diverse" applicants, you can probably count on white males being given the lowest priority.  If entry is free, I'd say you've got nothing to lose - but if there's a submission charge, your money is probably better spent elsewhere.

Amanda asks:

I've been lucky enough to have some agents and agencies respond to my queries with a request to read my work. Now I'm wondering how long this usually takes? I know it can take a while depending on the agent/agency, how much stuff they get, etc. (Someone told me that at a big agency, it's a good sign if they don't say no right away . . .) 

Anyway, I want to be polite and give them the space they need. What's fair? At what point, if ever, should I send a follow-up?

I'd say give them at least a month. Opinions vary on what's the best way to approach them after that, or if you even should.  Most of the time if you don't get a reply, you can safely assume they passed on you. 

When I've gotten reads, the responses have usually come within three or four weeks.  Usually it's either, "This doesn't suit our needs at this time" or "This isn't for me, but please send me your next screenplay."

If I don't hear back, I usually don't push it.  I just make note of it in my files so I know not to submit to that agent again.

Does anyone else have an opinion on these two questions?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Tuesday Talkback - Who are the most underrated writers?

I've seen a number of articles complaining about how "Writer so-and-so is overrated" and how "That Hack is overhyped.  So I'm curious... what writers do you think are under-recognized and underrated?

Monday, April 23, 2012

Pulp Fiction: Let reactions speak louder than actions

This weekend I rewatched Pulp Fiction for the first time in what has to be about ten years.  I tried hard just to watch it as a viewer and not get caught up in the mechanics and the "what I can learn from this" of it all.  Unfortunately, Tarantino is often so good with character work and dialogue that I can't help but marvel at how he accomplishes what he does.

I'm sure there are a few hundred essays out there about the "Royale with Cheese" dialogue, but I want to look at a scene that closely follows on that moment's heels - when Vincent and Jules pay a visit to Brett to retrieve a briefcase that Brett has taken from Marcellis Wallace.  In 9 out of 10 other movies, "enforcers" Vince and Jules would "send their message" by physically attacking and/or shouting and brow-beating their targets.

Instead that doesn't exactly happen.  In fact, Vincent says very little, while Jules is downright jovial as he makes small talk with Brett and helps himself to a bite of his burger.  And yet, the scene is incredibly tense - but why is that?  We've not seen either of these men actually be violent yet, so why are we on the edge of our seat.

Because Brett is clearly scared shitless - even before Jules moves on to overt threats and eventually violence.  And because Brett knows that, WE know that.  Brett's tension and nerves clearly convey that if Marcellis Wallace has sent these guys to deal with you, you are FUCKED.

Jules doesn't need to come in waving his gun around, shouting that everyone there is going to die.  His reputation precedes him.  And all of that is conveyed in Brett's reactions and posture throughout the scene.

So it's a good thing to remember - your characters don't always have to beat their own chests.  You can let everyone else in the scene do the work for them.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

How NOT to make a good impression

From time to time, I get emails from people asking me to read their scripts.  This really, really annoys me because anyone who's paying attention can see that IMMEDIATELY below the link to my email, I've put a notice that reads: "Please NO requests to read your material. All such queries will be ignored and deleted unread."

So what's so hard about following that instruction?  I'm sure I've talked before about how when you ask someone to read your script, you're asking a huge favor.  No one owes you a read, and it's a big deal to ask even a professional with whom you are acquainted with to take a look at your work.

Pro tip: when you don't know someone you're about to ask for a favor, it's a good idea not to get off on the wrong foot with them by ignoring their specific request.

About a month or two ago, I got an email that was pretty clearly a query - what was notable about this was that there was an attachment.  We've talked about this before, people, don't do this!   For more specifics, check out this old post.

I was feeling charitable, so decided to open the email so I could send a stern response to the sender rather than just delete it.

The email opens not with an introduction, nor a polite request to read material.  No, instead the reader is immediately assulted with a logline and a long synopsis.  And that's it.  No "please read my attached script.  It would mean a lot." Just logline, synopsis, attachment.  Now I'm really annoyed, so I send back this curt response: 

Do not EVER send anyone a PDF of a script unsolicited.  It's not only rude but it puts the receiver in an awkward legal position.  I cannot read your work and as the instructions just above the link to my email explicitly state, I do not accept submissions.

Please do not make this mistake with any other bloggers or screenwriters you attempt to contact.

So if you got that reply, what would your reaction be?  Perhaps you'd be too embarassed to reply.  Or maybe you'd be so mortified at your unintentional offense that you'd write back with an apology.

Or you'd do what this guy did, writing back with this response:
Keep your hair on - it's only a screenplay - thought you might enjoy it!  

Awkward legal position my arse! 

If you want to read it - read it! (It's actually very good!) If you don't - don't!  

No one's going to sue you!

And that's where the writer lost any benefit of the doubt from me.  I responded thusly: 

The correct answer should have been: "I'm sorry, I didn't realize that was a breach of etiquette.  Thanks for letting me know."

No one in this town reads anything without a release.  Look at all the idiots suing people like James Cameron saying he "stole" their idea merely because they sent him a script that had elements similar to a film he made.

That and it's just plain rude to send a script without querying first.

The writer responded with a couple emails, offering explanation and rationalization more than apology.  I've since learned that this writer has submitted to other bloggers in a fairly clumsy attempt at drawing attention to their spec.

Oh, I forgot to mention that this screenplay was an unauthorized sequel to an existing film.  You all know my thoughts on playing with someone else's toys.  So if I didn't already have my doubts about this writer's ability, an Amateur Hour blunder that big would have confirmed it for me.

But more than that, this writer's blunder was in not caring at all about the person he was submitting to.  I was nothing more than a means to an end.  The writer hadn't done even the most cursory read of my blog to see what might be the best way to approach me, or even if I wanted to be approached.

Would you have been any more forgiving of someone who treated you with the same disregard?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Tuesday Talkback - Best "insider" movie on Hollywood.

It seems like "meta" is perpetually in fashion.  Heck, just last weekend the extremely self-aware horror film Cabin in the Woods came out.  As this Moviefone column points out, this year is also the 20th anniversary of Robert Altman's The Player

When I started working in Hollywood, I quickly came to the realization that depictions of the business in projects like The Player and Entourage are somehow simultanously exaggerated and pretty darn close to the mark.  Yeah, that's an impossibility - but what I really mean is that Entourage might not be how the business IS, but it's often somewhere between how the culture feels, and how the players see themselves.

So what's your favorite "insider" look at Hollywood?

Monday, April 16, 2012

"Eating your vegetables" vs a "Five-Course Meal"

Michael asked:

I have a question relating to your very apt characterization of the "eat your vegetables" movie. Extending the metaphor, when you read scripts in your professional capacity, are you most looking for a "five course meal" movie- something with delicious apps, fresh salad, interesting soup, bright, seasonal vegetables and a champion's share of meat, overlaid with an astonishing wine and finished with an inspired desert, or in all honesty, when you are on the job, is it just booze, meat, and desert you want?

Great.  Now I'm hungry.

It depends.  With who I'm reading for now, booze and meat probably dominates, but I'd have no problem bringing them a fantastically-prepared steak.

The "five-course-meal" you speak of, that is to say, a script that is exemplarly in every field - structure, characters, concept, pacing, tone, theme, subject matter - is extremely rare in nature.  There's a certain snobbery in writing that I never enjoy puncturing, namely that it's impossible for something mainstream to be "better" than something "important."

Let's say you write a script about how horrible a South African dictator is, and the script is one downer after another.  We're shown this warlord kidnapping children from their homes, forcing them to be child soldiers and sex slaves and repeatedly abusing them.  If all your script does is show us atrocity after atrocity, with no real through-line, it's a bad script.  (And yes, I've read at least one like this.)  It's meaningless if you feel this movie must be made to raise awareness of an issue important to you.  I don't care if it IS based on a real dictator - if there's no story and no structure to make it palpable, it's a bad script.

A fair amount of "eat your vegetables" scripts come out like this - a lecture on a social issue.  "Here, take this because it's good for you," it says.  If that's the story you want to tell, then make a documentary or a PSA.  If you're writing a feature film, there'd better be a story there - and you'd better know how to make it accessible and appealing.

My idea of a five-course meal might be something like Terminator 2.  It is quite simply one of the best action movies ever made, and also a "Great Movie," period.  It's got it all:

- strong core concept.
- vivid, compelling characters.
- strong character arcs for several of lead characters (John, Sarah, and the T-800) as well as at least one of the supporting characters (Miles Dyson.)
- intense pace and momentum, due in no small part to the relentless pursuit of the T-1000, which brings me too...
- A formidable antagonist.

Terminator 2? Five-course meal.  Pulp Fiction?  Five-course meal.  Raiders of the Lost Ark? Five-course meal.

So, yeah, if that fits your definition of a Five-Course Meal, then of course I want that.  But if you bring me something like Taken or a Fast Five, I'll probably jump on that too, because there's money in those.

But it's pretty hard to convince me to make a meal of something preachy like Green Zone.  Given the choice between vegetables and booze, I'd pick booze.

Hopefully that post wasn't too thick with the metaphors.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Thursday Throwback: Suspense

This post first appeared on April 28, 2009

Last week I cautioned that it's not often a good idea to let the audience get too far ahead of the characters in the story. Many times, it can be frustrating for a viewer to have to wait for the characters to "catch up" to them, resulting in a less compelling viewing experience. However, I'd say there's at least one very good exception to that rule. I'll yield the floor to Alfred Hitchcock, master of suspense.

"There's no emotion in a who-dun-it because you withhold information from an audience. The element of suspense is giving them information.

"[Suppose] you and I are sitting here . . . . suddenly a bomb goes off and up we go, blown to smithereens. What have the audience had while watching this scene? Five or ten seconds of shock. Now we do the scene over again, it's a five minute scene. You and I are talking about football, something very innocuous, but the audience are informed by a method unknown to us that there's a bomb under the table and it's going to go off in five minutes.

"Now this innocuous conversation about football becomes very potent. 'Don't talk about football, there's a bomb under there,' that's what they want to tell us, as the bomb ticks away and we keep telling the audience there's a minute to go; half a minute and finally ten seconds. That is when it must not go off. If we let it go off, the audience will be as mad as hell with us, they'll be disgusted. They'll say, "Don't go and see that movie or that play".Your toe MUST touch the bomb at the last minute, you must look under the table, grab the bomb and throw it out of the window, then it can go off; but you and I must be saved. An audience needs that relief after you've put them through the ringer."

(Source:, originally published in 'Heard in the Wings" edited by Roderick Bloomfield, 1971.)

The key thing to remember here is to take advantage of the suspense that is generated when the audience is ahead of the characters. One such example I remember well is the reaction the multiplex crowd had the first time I saw Air Force One. The premise is that terrorists have taken over the President's plane, and unbeknownst to anyone, one of the Secret Service agents is a turncoat who has aided the terrorists in taking over the plane. For much of the first half, this agent is with all the other hostages, as if he was one of them.

Then comes the moment when Harrison Ford, playing the President, gets to the hostages. Guess who he gives his extra weapon to? The Turncoat Agent. I don't think I've ever heard an audience react so aggressively as when Ford gives his enemy a weapon. It felt like the whole room was shouting "NO!" They knew that it wouldn't end well.

Basically, if your viewer is ahead of the audience, craft scenes that has characters making fatal mistakes that they wouldn't make if they knew what the audience did.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Tuesday Talkback - Amazon Studios: are you more likely or less likely to join?

Yesterday's post on Amazon Studios has already become my all-time third most popular post, so clearly there's a lot of interest in the topic.  Most curious of all is that there are absolutely no comments on this post.  I get that there's a lot to digest there, so why not just start with this simple discussion point.

Do the changes in Amazon Studios make you:

1) make you more likely to submit a script?
2) make you less likely to sumbit a script?
3) have no impact on your prior opinion?

I'm going with #3.  Had these been the terms of the program when they first emerged, I might have believed that this was a great opportunity.  However, the initial conditions of the contest were so wrong-headed and betrayed such a naivete about the business, that I have no confidence in those running the program.  I don't think the people at the top understand or respect the creative process.  I think they displayed astounding arrogance, both in thinking their early policies were in any way appealing and later in taking so long to correct course long after the feedback was drastically negative.

The odds of any such program finding even one brilliant script are incredibly long.  If you don't believe me, ask Trigger Street, which has been taking open submissions for years.  The peer review process has yet to find a script that even made it into production, much less a success.  Furthermore, even if Amazon Studios managed to find a single, or even two solid, well-written, commercial projects, it wouldn't "revolutionize the industry" as so many of its Kool-Aid drinkers believe.

At best, Amazon Studios would become a second tier avenue for projects, a mini-independent shingle.  And frankly, I don't see them finding the material to make that viable, nor do I think their executives show signs of being anything other than dilettantes.

So that's why I'm going with #3.  I grant that the contest terms are no longer the abomination they once were, but I have no faith in those steering the boat and I have no interest in putting even some of my dead ideas into their hands.

If you want to submit your scripts, be my guest.  But don't delude yourself into thinking you're on the front lines of a film revolution.  Even if you're the next F. Scott Frazier (four specs sold in two years), there aren't nearly enough GOOD undiscovered writers out there to give Amazon Studios the foothold it needs to remake the industry.

Monday, April 9, 2012

My KsiteTV op-ed: "What's to blame for dead 'Ringer?'"

I've written my first guest post for the TV news site KsiteTV, entitled "What's to Blame for Dead 'Ringer?'"

Last fall, there were few shows I was anticipating as much as Ringer.  As a long-time Buffy fan, I couldn’t have been more thrilled to see Sarah Michelle Gellar returning to television after watching her relegated to infrequent film appearances like her turn in Southland Tales.

Flash-forward to the present, where Ringer tops my list of “Biggest disappointments of the fall season.”  I’d never have guessed this was possible.  I was a pre-sold viewer for this.  For the most part, the cast has been pretty solid.  Gellar has done a fantastic job differentiating Bridget from Siobhan, to the point where the viewer can tell immediately which one she’s supposed to be playing.  I’d also single out Ioan Gruffudd for giving his part significant depth and nuance even in the early weeks where the Andrew character was underwritten.

I can’t be alone in my assessment – ratings have been alarmingly low through most of its run, but particularly in recent weeks.  The CW hasn’t officially canceled the series yet, but the writing is all on the wall.  Not only is the network burning off all the new episodes prior to the May sweeps, but the finale’s lead-in is a rerun of 90210.

So what went wrong?

To find out, head on over to KsiteTV and check out the rest.

The Auditorz of the Amazon weigh in on Amazon Studios' changes

Several times last year, I tackled the subject of Amazon Studios, a new venture that sold itself as being a gateway for aspiring writers to break into Hollywood.  For a more in-depth recap of what Amazon Studios announced itself to be, and my reaction to the same, go here.  Long story short, it smelled hinky to me.  It reeked of scam and I felt that their terms were going to end up taking advantage of a lot of desperate aspiring writers.

Another blog called The Auditorz of the Amazon took it as a calling to dissect every facet of the contest.  They not only took a look at the rules, they theorized what Amazon's motives where, uncovered what appeared to be suspicious and unethical game play on the part of entrants, and audited all of the finalist scripts each month.  The long and the short of it was: the quality of submissions was pretty poor, and the quantity of submissions was rapidly dropping.  It was fairly fascinating stuff, and I admired their dedication. 

The Auditorz abruptly went underground last summer, and in an interesting twist, it seemed to kill all conversation about Amazon Studios.  Without their arch foe keeping conversation about the contest alive, AS just plain fell off the map.  Even the winning scripts were announced without much fanfare. 

Last week, Amazon Studios announced some major changes to its program.  And I found myself wishing that the Auditorz were still around to do one of their incisive posts on what these changes mean.  I lamented that there was no way to see their reaction to this drastic shift in direction

Guess what?  The Auditorz contacted me this weekend - and provided me with a guest post that covered precisely that.  What follows is their submission, unaltered, and may not necessarily reflect my own opinions:

Well, after much conjecture and four months of waiting, Amazon Studios relaunched Thursday with absolutely no press, or fanfare.  There's no more "All your base belong to us" rules, or million dollar prize, but what there is instead is an ACTUAL opportunity for screenwriters.  Are there any "catches"?  Yes, nothing in life is free.   But at least this time around the rules are actually very favorable to the writers and not a repeat of the extremely unfavorable rules from the original contest.

What's gone:

Test movies.*
Screenplay contests*
Million Dollar Prize

User generated test movies are (thankfully) for the most part gone.  Previously users had to guess the projects A.S. was interested in, or simply try to make their own project and HOPED Amazon liked it.  There are rumors that A.S. is going to fund -some- test films later but those details are still rumors at this point.

The monthly contests AND the million dollar prize are both gone, baby, gone.   This is great because it shifts Amazon from contest based crazy-town to an actual studio development environment.

Screenplay contests are now "Opportunities" and are much more focused this year.

What's new:

Screenplay "Opportunities"
Trailer Contests
PRIVATE submissions
45 day option
$10,000 cash money option up front (18 months)
$33,000 rewrite opportunities

The screenplay opportunities come in two flavors: Assignments and Original Ideas.  If you want to submit your original screenplay idea you can submit it either OPEN, or PRIVATE.  If you submit it open, you really don't gain much and stand to lose a lot.  Open means that any boob (like me) can come along and review your script and run it into the ground and give you "bad press."  However, reviews (supposedly) will NOT affect the internal Amazon Studios rating of your script.

And yes, someone could come along and steal your title/idea/story if it's out in the open, most of the open submissions for the A.S. development process are already looking identical to last years.  Here's a winner that was just submitted an hour ago.  It's called "MILIFARY,"  Another recent upload is "Spidletop" which has the author flipping the bird as the cover page.

Yes, in fairness, there are a lot of crazies out there, and all Amazon Studios (open) submission system has done is brought that to light. But from what I've been told, EVERY script gets read. Even stuff like "Defib: A Christmas Tale" A story about A prototype defibrillator that uses her warped programming to keep a struggling military academy open and off the radar of the man she fled. Yes, the story is about a sentient Defib machine.

There also isn't much of an audience for screenplays, or much of a community left on Amazon Studios, and to be honest, there really doesn't need to be with the new rules.

But the two big disadvantages to the OPEN/PUBLIC process is that A.S. can immediately make a test film of your script AND you also give them the COMIC BOOK RIGHTS for them to make a comic book.  Now I seriously doubt they'll make an ACTUAL comic book, but this provision/addendum was probably added simply so they could make "motion comics" and didn't want any rights loopholes, especially if they planned to drop $50,000+ on a motion comic.

Now I know what you're thinking, "Well, Amazon Studios did pretty good with that 'Nevsky Prospect" test movie, it looked really great!"   Well, they didn't do so good on the "Touching Blue" test movie.  It looked like "Dick Tracy and "Kim Possible" mixed together, and not in a good way. But really, unless you direct your own script with your own money, you're never going to see your own vision up there on the big, or small screen.

So that means that if anyone's interested in submitting they really should choose...

PRIVATE submissions:  Private submissions mean that nobody sees the project except Amazon.  So if you have a hot idea/script you obviously don't want it blurted out all over the internet, so this new way of submitting actually ENCOURAGES much BETTER writers to submit this time around.  Writers can submit their BEST material, instead of trunk scripts this time.

By submitting to Amazon Studios you grant them a 45 day review period.  If after the 45 day period they're not interested then you can simply remove your script.  NO rights are encumbered.  No hanging chads this time around.

IF they're interested then they can option your script for 18 months.  They will pay you $10,000 for the option which can be renewed twice (for a total of 36 months).  If they don't buy your script during the (36 month maximum length) option, the rights revert back to you.

Once under option the script goes into the "Development Slate" where Amazon Studios can rewrite the script, host rewrite contests, make comics/motion comics, trailers and test movies of the script.  Obviously, once the script hits the development slate it's open for the public to see as well, automatic inclusion in the rewrite contests, test movies, everything.

This is truly the only (possible) fly in the ointment.  A writer with a super hot idea/screenplay would probably do better shopping it around town first if they can.  Mainly because Amazon could option the script and then focus group it to death, greenlighting a movie well after the script's "sell by date."  Granted, this could happen with ANY studio, but at least if your script is super hot you might get a lot of money UP FRONT via a direct purchase, instead of just ten grand.

But if you're a writer living in West Union, West Virginia, Amazon is still a very good alternative.  Mostly all of the studios are like "F-U, don't send us your shitty screenplay, we'll pee on it and then send it back to you unopened."

If Amazon Studios purchases the script you get paid $200,000 with a $400,000 bonus if the film does over $60 million domestic box office.  The real kicker in this instance is that if you wrote a movie that somehow did $60 million domestic box office, a $400,000 bonus may seem like chump change, but the real payoff would be the amount of money you would get for your subsequent screenplay; obviously with a different "real" Hollywood studio.  I would image you would probably get a good rep and a manager as well.  Heck, you might even get an assignment or two from Warner Bros. which is Amazon Studios' producing partner.

Now here's something really good:

There is no scenario where someone can claim any of your rights money by revising your original script or movie via Amazon Studios.If someone creates a revised version of an original script, they may be eligible to receive a share of any contest winnings. But rights payments are not shared. If a theatrical movie is released from an original script on Amazon Studios, the creator of the original script or movie gets 100% of the rights payments. People who are revising scripts or making video content (like trailers) based on scripts are going for award money and are helping someone else get their movie made. But they are not sharing in the rights money. 

But I know what most of you WGA writers are saying to yourself, "Pffft!  I'm a luminary WGA writer and can't participate in such non-union baffoonery!!"

Well, now you can!


What is The People's Production Company? "The People's Production Company is the production arm of Amazon Studios. The People's Production Company is a signatory to the Writers Guild of America Minimum Basic Agreement, while the Amazon Studios site is not. So, if you are a WGA member, we encourage you to have your agent contact the People's Production Company directly in order to submit your original script or to apply for paid writing assignments." Also new is the $33,000 rewrite opportunities.

The GREAT thing about these new opportunities is that you don't have to rewrite the whole script, trying to guess and figure out what Amazon was looking for and hoping you were right.  This was another BIG problem with the rewrite contests during the first year.  Nobody knew what Amazon wanted, not even Amazon!  People did page one rewrites on one project only for Amazon to choose a punch up.  Another project the inverse happened.
Now you submit a proposal first and then if you're selected you get $10,000 up front and $23,000 on delivery.  In this economy I'm certain will see a lot of WGA writers writing "below their weight" to get what they think is going to be an easy $33,000 dollars.  This is actually fine by me as I love competition and real competition only makes things better.

As for the two rewrite opportunities up for grabs, I'd say "I think my Facebook Friend is Dead" is the more viable of the two projects up for grabs.  The million dollar winner from last year, "12 Princesses," is completely devoid of a story.  Good musical numbers, no story.  So it's really a page one rewrite.  So if you've got a good kids story you can shoehorn into "12 Princesses" then go right ahead.  If not, go for "Facebook Friend is Dead."

Another plus is that if you somehow get shared credit, or even sole credit (with a page one rewrite), then you can get a $100,000 bonus, or $200,000 bonus respectively. Keep in mind Amazon Studios is the sole decider of who gets credit, and I can only assume that this "bonus" will be more readily applied to WGA writers who sneak in through the PPC backdoor, seeing that (I assume) A.S. would have to adhere to the WGA rules.

* Subject to the terms of the writing services agreement, Amazon Studios intends to pay those writer(s) or team(s) as follows:

* USD $10,000 upon commencement of a rewrite, and an additional USD $23,000 when we accept the fully completed draft screenplay from that writer or team. The writer or writing team will have ten weeks to complete the draft screenplay from the date of commencement.

* If we commence principal photography on a full-length motion picture based on the screenplay for commercial theatrical distribution (which, for clarity, does not include test screenings to test audience response), and if, upon final determination of writing credits, the writer or team receives screenplay credit, the writer or team will receive a one-time bonus in the amount described below. If the writer or team receives shared screenplay credit, the one-time bonus will be USD $100,000. If the writer or team receives sole screenplay credit, the one-time bonus will be USD $200,000.

*If you're WGA and have some questions about how things would work through the Amazon PPC, ask your union rep and/or agent.

* Remember, regardless of what Amazon Studios pays the rewriter(s), the original author still gets FULL payment of $200,000. As an example, lets say that I rewrite "Facebook Friend" and Amazon loves it, and puts it into production AND pays me a $200,000 because my page one rewrite was so awesome. The original author still gets their full $200,000 as well. HOWEVER, I as the rewriter, would not get any further bonuses like the performance bonus of $400,000. BUT, once again, if my name is on a $60,000,000 domestic-grossing film as a writer, I'm going to be compensated by getting better offers on my future scripts.

Lastly, it appears that Amazon is shifting towards trailers to present ideas for projects instead of making whole test movies.  This is a more novel approach as the general public really doesn't have time to sit through an hour and a half long precursor to a movie.  A trailer could easily be used to gauge the public's interest in a project before large sums of money are dedicated to even test film production.

Overall, I was Amazon Studios biggest fan and biggest detractor last year.  My blustery hoopla on my old "Auditorz of the Amazon" site, the only site on the net that covered the contest from day one, had a lot of biting satire and humor, but also a lot of never-ending suggestions to make the contest and Amazon Studios better.  In the end, Amazon Studios did listen to myself, as well as the people that contributed to the "Auditorz" site, even following most of the suggestions to the tee, so I'm happy about that; we did make a difference in the end. 

This paradigm shift in Amazon Studios really does finally open some doors for the struggling writer (and director).  If you previously wrote off Amazon Studios, I can't stress enough that things have changed for the better.  Whereas A.S. 1.0 felt more like an episode of "Survivor," there is actual opportunity in Amazon Studios 2.0. And from what I hear, Amazon Studios is looking to get into "television" later on this year, which is also yet another opportunity.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Friday Free-For-All: Campus MovieFest's "The Strong One"

This week kind of turned into an unofficial salute to student films and short films, so this seems like the right time to plug a program I first heard about a while ago.  Campus MovieFest has been around for a little more than a decade offering college students a fantastic opportunity to brush up on their filmmaking skills.

CMF travels from college to college, providing participating students with Apple laptops and Panasonic HD camcorders.  Each group has one week to create their own short film.  At the conclusion of this, a red carpet finale is held to select the best films from each school, which then advance on to the finals at a gala event held in Hollywood.  CMF gets stars from TV and Film to present awards to the best shorts in several categories.

I had the honor of attending one of these as a guest a few years back, when it happened to be held on the Paramount lot.  It was quite a kick to see students all over the country getting a taste of the Hollywood experience and seeing their film shown in the state-of-the-art Paramount Theatre.  That year, the celebrities handing out awards included Oscar-winner James Cromwell and Don Johnson.  Living out in L.A., you can get kind of jaded to the whole Hollywood experience, but I know what a thrill it would have been for me to have my movie compete in the CMF Finals when I was in college, and I think it's pretty cool that Campus Movie Fest has been able to do this for more than a decade.

This short film was produced by students at North Carolina State University, and it popped up in my feed a while back as one that really impressed some of the folks at CMF.  I figure the least I can do is give these guys a few more eyes on their film.  It's called The Strong One.

The Strong One Cast & Crew :
Josh Bielick - Captain, Cinematographer
Nicholas Sailer- Director, Screenwriter
Matt Harris- Production Assistant
Timothy Reavis- Writer, Actor

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Inside the submission process with Gavin Polone

If you haven't already checked out Gavin Polone's weekly Vulture column, head over there and check it out to get an agent/producer's take on how script submissions are evaluated.

I also closely read scripts that my friends send me or those that have been submitted by writers with whom I’ve worked before. But other than that, scripts submitted to me as possible development projects are given to my development executive and our assistants, who write a synopsis and critique on each. When an agent calls and says, “I’m going out with this project that I think you’ll love,” I always reply, “Thanks, I’ll read it right away," but both he and I know that what I really meant by "it" was the write-up from my assistant, not the script. 

It goes without saying that this is how most scripts end up in my hands.  With dozens of scripts coming into the office each week, it's the only way the people at the top can focus on the stronger material and get their jobs done.  I know there are plenty of aspiring writers who will argue about the unfairness of that practice, but logically it's the only way any development office can function.  It's not (usually) because the producer is lazy and hates to read - it's because there's just so much to read.

If my assistant really liked it and my development executive concurs, I will read about twenty pages; if I like those twenty pages, I read on until I don’t like it anymore or I finish. If I get all of the way through, I probably will get involved with the project in some way; if I pass (which is the usual outcome), I will send an e-mail to the agent thanking him for thinking of me but declining to produce the project. I’ll offer some reason as to why I’m passing — maybe I didn't "relate to the premise" or "connect to the characters" — but, of course, anything specific I say is actually plagiarized from the document my assistant gave me urging me to pass. 

Twenty pages.  There.  You have it right there from someone at the top.  I've gotten some flack in the past when I've harped on the importance of having a strong first fifteen pages.  Some writers have shot back, "But you have to read the whole thing!  Why should I write to your laziness if my awesome spec scripts needs thirty pages of build-up?"

Because you're not just writing to my "laziness." You have to write to the habits of people like Gavin too. Even if you catch me on a generous day, you'll still have to knock it out of the park with those above my paygrade - and they're a lot harder to impress.

If this seems disingenuous, keep in mind that the writer's agent probably didn't read the script either: A more genuine process would be to have my assistant deal directly with his assistant, since they're the only ones who did read it. But to preserve the illusion on all sides, when the agent calls his client and goes over the list of producers to whom he submitted the script, he will say, “Gavin Polone passed,” not “Gavin Polone’s assistant told him to pass.” 

I'll admit that this process breaks down when the agent's assistant is a moron with no taste.  I've gotten submissions where I've had zero trouble believing that the submitting agent never even skimmed the script.  I'd like to see more quality control in what gets sent out, but when you mix fringe agents with story editors and creative execs who are still making names for themselves, you end up with a less than perfect screening process.  Still, I don't know what a fringe agent gains from setting our rubbish and having that swill associated with their name.

In fact, there's one agent who - at least based on his submissions - couldn't recognize a truly shitty script if bad writing looked like a naked Brooklyn Decker and good writing resembled Golda Meir!

And as we've said before, the best way to avoid getting screwed by this process is to write an awesome screenplay.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

"Briefcase" has been licensed by Netflix

Remember a few weeks back when I featured the short film Briefcase by Nate Golon?  Well, Nate sent me an email last week with the news that Netflix has decided to license it for use online and in retail stores.  I'll let him take it from here:

Several weeks ago, after 'Briefcase' premiered on YouTube, a friend of mine contacted me, and told me that Netflix was looking for a cinematic looking short film to license. Netflix is now offering a VOD feature in many new TVs, and they wanted a film that could play in retail stores worldwide, as an "example" of the quality of films Netflix offers, without having to license a studio film. My friend connected them with 'Briefcase,' and Netflix wanted to exclusively license it. I agreed, on the conditions that I could still retain ownership, keep it online, submit it to film festivals, and develop it into a larger project in the future. 

 So 'Briefcase' is not going to be offered as a film to rent on Netflix. But in many ways, the film will actually have much more exposure with the licensing agreement we agreed to. Netflix may also use pieces of 'Briefcase' online, as further advertising as "examples" of what Netflix has to offer. The licensing agreement is a win win in my book, as it also gives 'Briefcase' much more notoriety. It also helps me for future projects, as I can now say my last two projects, "Workshop" and 'Briefcase,' have been licensed by Hulu and Netflix, respectively.

 So congrats to Nate, and it's a good lesson that you can never know what will come of a short film, so if you've got the means, why aren't you making one?

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Tuesday Talkback: Long delayed sequels

Last week, big whipping boy of Twitter was Triplets, announced as the sequel to the 1988 Schwartzenegger/DeVito comedy Twins.  This time, Eddie Murphy is attached to appear as the long-lost triplet of the brothers established in the first film.

Then earlier this week came the news that the Farrelly Brothers are getting together with Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels to make Dumb and Dumber 2, following up the 1993 original film.

And lets not forget that Columbia has been trying to get Ghostbusters 3 together for years, with seemingly every interview with one of the principles bringing up the subject.

What's the deal with all of these reunion fests two decades after the fact?  Is there really a demand to go back and see old friends, or is it an acknowledgement that Hollywood is out of ideas?

One of the few of these films that worked was Rocky Balboa.  It's probably one of the best of the series and honestly, you could just watch the first film and the last film and come away with a pretty satisfying experience.  (Though I guess you'd need to account for how Rocky became the champ.)  There was more meat to Balboa than some of the earlier sequels, and the film really invested you in Rocky's final fight, even if it was a bit implausible that he could still last in the ring that long.  It also had the benefit of ending the series on a high note, rather than leave Rocky V as its epitaph.  For that reason alone, it justified iteself.

But would it really be fun to see the Ghostbusters twenty years older and out of shape?  Will it be funny or just plain sad to see Harry and Lloyd still as dumb as they were during the Clinton Administration?  Sometimes I think it's just best to leave the original alone.  Why not get the Dumb & Dumber team together, but make an entirely different movie?

What do you guys think?  Are there any older movies you'd like to see pull off a reunion movie?  Are there any long-delayed sequels that you really like?  Imagine the possibilities - E.T. 2, Labyrinth 2, Three Men and an Old Maid...

Monday, April 2, 2012

Film schools finally join the digital era... but why wait for them?

This is my 700th post today, and I wanted to say something more significant.  As it turns out, I'm probably going to get off on a bit of a ramble, but I saw a story that weekend that sparked  a lot of thoughts.

I graduated college about ten years ago, and I was remarking recently to another graduate of that era that most of the technical aspects of my film education are now remarkably outdated.  To put it in perspective, most of my film projects were shot on 16mm film using Arri and Bolex cameras.  Fortunately I made two digital short films during my senior year, which gave me experience with the Canon XL-1 and Final Cut Pro, but we were just at the start of the digital revolution.

On one hand, I have to respect my professors' insistence on really pushing us to tell stories with our short films, to not let them become little more than sketches.  But looking back with the perspective of the last ten years, it's hard to deny that the rise of YouTube has certainly benefited the kinds of short filmmakers who have been good at creating short, flashy and vivid entertainment.  The kind of stuff that rises to the top at Funny or Die or that goes viral on YouTube is also the sorts of things that would have been dismissed in most of my film classes.  And yet... that material is also often what gets young filmmakers noticed.

The Wrap had a recent article that highlighted how some schools are finally adjusting to the new climate.  In part they say:

“Twenty years ago, people went to film school to become the best filmmaker they could become so they could go out and make films,” said Bob Bassett, dean of Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, told TheWrap. “Today, they have to be much more calculating about developing their skills, because those skills are what lead to paying jobs.”

In all cases, there is an increased emphasis on crafting films that can be viewed on YouTube, Funny or Die, or other digital platforms.

“It’s not just learning to work on a mini-budget or simply recycling a television episode and putting it on the web,” Paul Schneider, chair of Boston University’s film and television department, told TheWrap. "It has to be content that really is outside the box."

Both BU and Chapman University, for instance, now routinely encourage students to create shorter and more interactive film projects.

 It's great to see film schools really step up and join the 21st Century.  I get the sense I have a fair amount of readers in college, and perhaps even some in high school.  I have to say that I really envy you guys.  I've talked before about how I was the executive producer on a student-run TV series in college.  In those days, no one had Final Cut Pro on their personal systems, and the idea that someone's cell phone would be able to shoot high-definition video was an impossible dream.

There is so much opportunity for those of you even if your film schools are still teaching hot splices and reversal film.  Those of you who are nearing high school graduation there is no better graduation gift you can ask for than a MacBook with Final Cut Pro.  Shoot footage on your cell phone if you have to, but start turning out product. 

You'll pick up the process of storytelling by doing, and by forcing yourself to chisel coherence out of your own raw footage.  There were some night in college where my friends and I would grab a high-8 camera and just start shooting little sketches in the bowels of the library, making the script up as we went.  A lot of times, we came back with some silly pieces, but that trial and error helped us figure out the kind of concepts that worked and what didn't worked.

Telling a story in a short film is incredibly different from telling it over a 100 pages in a screenplay.  I'm going to start highlighting some examples of good short films over the next few months because if this blog is at least going to address ways to break it, it's hard to overlook the value of short content as a showcase for storytelling talent.

I learned a lot in my film classes and I'm a big proponent of education.  But if film school isn't an option for you, I see no reason that you shouldn't get a laptop, get Final Cut and start shooting.  Even if you think you just want to be a writer, you'll learn so much from the process of translating your script to the screen.