Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Updates on TOBY IS NOW FOLLOWING YOU and an offer to read your script

So the last three weeks have been kind to TOBY IS NOW FOLLOWING YOU on the Black List site.  I just got my 16th rating, half of which are 8s and two of which are 9s. My average is 7.5 and I have 45 unique downloads from the site.  That's very promising considering the script has mostly only been promoted through this earlier post and my Twitter feed.

In terms of the stats, 45 downloads is really good.  According to the Black List's stats for their first year, only 15 scripts were downloaded 50 times or more.  The next lowest stat they reveal is that 122 screenplays had 20 or greater unique downloads, which would seem to indicate that at least as far as exposure, TOBY's in some pretty good company.  (In case you're curious 2744 screenplays were downloaded at least once last year.)

Also, TOBY is currently #1 on both the Top Unrepresented and Top Uploaded Lists on the Black List website for the Month to Date, #2 on both for the Quarter to Date, and #4 on the Top Unrepresented for the Year to Date. It's #6 Year to Date on the Top Uploaded List.

I'll do a more complete data dump on TOBY once I conclude hosting, if that interests those of you who might be curious about how the numbers break down week-to-week. I'm already setting up meetings for after the holiday break.

This feels like a good time for another pay-it-forward post.  Same rules as last time - if you have a script currently hosted on the Black List (and one that will be up for at least another week, preferably two), leave your logline in the comments between midnight and 11:59pm on December 31st. That's 24 hours.  When we enter 2014, you've missed the deadline - no exceptions.

Pay attention, because this is important - your logline must sell me on the script.  The only submissions I will read will be those with loglines that interest me, just as if you were sending me a query.  It might be a good idea to look through the comments on this earlier post, where I gave notes on every logline that was submitted.  It could give you a good indication of what I respond to in a pitch, as would this post on the 8 scripts I selected last time.

The genres I'm most like to respond to are action, rom-com, horror, comedy, thriller and anything "high concept." What am I less likely to be drawn to? Period pieces and torture porn.  So keep that in mind if you're considering joining the Black List just to take advantage of this opportunity.

Your comment must include the following - Title, Genre, Logline and a link to your script's page on the Black List.  And remember that a logline is a sentence or a couple sentences.  Be concise, don't write me a paragraph. The link to your script's page on the Black List MUST be in the comments. Do not email me. Do not Tweet me. I will ONLY read scripts publicly pointed out here.

My aim is to select the 4 loglines that intrigue me the most and I will read at least the first 15 pages of each of those scripts.  In the event that you guys deliver a lot of awesome loglines, I'll consider going over that limit, but they're all going to have to be really good for me to consider giving that much time.   I probably will let you know if your logline was or wasn't selected, but I probably won't go into much detail why.  Don't take it personally - some ideas aren't for everyone.

I will offer no comments on any of the scripts I didn't finish reading. Don't ask me what you did wrong. Don't ask me for feedback. I doubt I'll have time to respond to everyone, and so to be fair, I will respond to no one.

I will be holding all scripts to the same standards as the material I read for my job. There's no such thing as "good for an amateur" on this scale. Scripts will be judged according to how they measure up to professional submissions.

If I really like your script I will spotlight it in a post on my blog, but know that it would probably have to rate an 8, 9 or a 10 for me to do that.  I'll do my best to write a review that sells people on the script.  It won't be full coverage, and I won't spoil any major secrets or plot twists.  If you want to get a sense of how these read, check out my reviews of MCCARTHY, DEAD CORPS, ALICE OF OZ, CHAMBERS, H8RZ, and WHERE DEATH FOLLOWS.

So good luck, gang.  I hope to be very impressed by the submissions in the comments.

P.S. This goes without saying, but I'm not making any claim of who I will pass the script on to and I will not attach myself as a producer or anything.  No crazy promises - and no exploitation.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Spike Jonze's "Her"- Siri as Manic Pixie Dream Girl

There's an old expression that dissecting a joke is like dissecting a frog - you can't accomplish the task without killing it.  And so as I dive in to explore my feelings on Spike Jonze's Her, I fear that the same adage would apply to this film.  It's a fantastic film, one of the best films in what has been a terrific year for film.  The more you examine it, the more you're likely to marvel at how effortlessly it accomplishes some rather profound work.

I'm a fan of Jonze's directorial debut, Being John Malkovich, and though Charlie Kaufman scripted that film there's some value in contrasting it with the Jonze-scripted HerMalkovich is an absurd film played totally straight, and no matter how grounded it feels, it lives in a world rather different from our own.  That was perfect for the tone of that film, and so it's fascinating to see Her tethered to lees ridiculous world.  You won't find a 7 1/2 floor here, to say nothing of portal's into an actor mostly remembered for his role as a jewel thief.

Her could flippantly be described as a story about man who falls in love with his Siri.  That's not totally accurate.  The computer "operating system" Samantha is a few evolutionary steps above Siri, but not to a ridiculous degree.  Our lead character, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), is a lonely introvert who's still not made piece with his separation and impending divorce from his wife.  His day job involves writing romantic letters for other people to give to their loved ones on particular holidays.  He spends all day composing poetic and romantic speeches for those who apparently can't do it themselves and then retires to his empty apartment, where he retreats into video games and phone sex with anonymous strangers.

Every part of Theodore's world has a veneer of phoniness to it, so it's not terribly surprising that he'd bond with his newly purchased O.S. "Samantha."  Speaking with the smooth and alluring voice of Scarlett Johansson, Samantha initially seems designed to be a voice-operated program that merely handles all of Theodore's computer functions like organizing his email, keeping his calendar and so on.  And yet, there's something remarkably human about this artificial intelligence.

Before long, Theodore is having ongoing conversations with her as if she was a real person, and she's taking it upon herself to read his emails and comment upon what's going on in his life.  He opens up to her about his feelings and desires and somewhere along the way, this relationship becomes as real to him as anything else in his life.  This is aided, of course, by Samantha's programming expanding as a result of their prolonged interaction.  She might be little more than a simulation, but feed her enough data and she can reasonably approximate what Theodore needs from human companionship.

Except that it's not real, and little-by-little it dawns on us that we're seeing a canny deconstruction of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. The term apparently traces to critic Nathan Rabin who identifies it as "that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures."  (Prime examples: Garden State, Elizabethtown). 

It's a subversion of the trope because even as we see Theodore coming out of his shell, we're aware of how artificial the relationship is.  Samantha isn't real. She can never be real.  The very nature of her programming would seem to make her Prime Directive to please Theodore.  That she's better at achieving the illusion means nothing.  There's as little substance to this as the phone sex fantasies that Theodore indulges in.  It's a healthy escape, but it's no way to live.

A lesser film might have had Theodore only confront the empty nature of his relationship at the film's climax.  Jonze actually has Theodore open his eyes to this a little more than halfway through the film, and its fascinating to see how that upsets his relationship with Samantha.  And at this point, we've reached the part of the film that I hesitate to examine too deeply.  I think what we take from the final 30 minutes or so of the film is largely going to be informed by our own individual experiences.

A lot of credit for the film's success has to go to Joaquin Phoenix.  He's makes Samantha's interaction so natural that it's easy to forget that most of his scenes have him essentially talking to himself (or likely, talking to an off-screen script supervisor reading Samantha's lines.  It's an even more Herculean task than an actor in a VFX film who is tasked with making his reactions to post-production produced environs believable because Phoenix has to make us feel human emotions for a totally artificial connection.  It's one of the year's best performances while simultaneously being one of its most subtle.

And who would have thought that one of Scarlett Johansson's most memorable and charming roles wouldn't involve her body at all? She's the other half of that connection, and if it wasn't for her interpretation of Samantha making the audience want to believe in this romance, even just a little, the movie would be far less effective.

There's a deluge of truly great films all coming out around the same time this year.  It's going to be really easy to fall behind.  (My personal "To See" list still includes: The Wolf of Wall Street, Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska, All is Lost and Dallas Buyers Club, as well as guilty pleasure Anchorman 2.)  As you're setting your viewing priorities, make room in the upper tier for Her. It's one that everyone's going to be talking about at Oscar time.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Webshow: "How to be a Reader"

One of the most frequent questions I get is "How can I be a script reader?"  Having just walked away from my reader jobs, this seemed like a good time to address that question on the YouTube channel.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Josh Abraham's "Screenplay Heroes" art

I don't usually promote reader's products here.  The real reason for that is that I don't want to open the floodgates to people asking me to spotlight their Kickstarter, their blog, and so on.  When I promote a short film, it's because I'm genuinely impressed with it and when I promote Kickstarters, it's only when I have personally donated to them.

But last week a reader named Josh Abraham sent me a link to his Etsy shop "Screenplay Heroes" and I found his product so damn creative that I just had to share it here.  He's created portraits of screenwriters drawn on excerpts of their scripts  They're available in his shop for $9.99. You can find a number of them on his tumblr as well.

Check out a few samples:

Joss Whedon

Kevin Williamson

Nora Ephron

You can find the Etsy shop here.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Writer/director Eric Heisserer gets a career-defining performance from Paul Walker in HOURS

For obvious reasons, this review is suddenly a lot more complicated than it would have been two weeks ago.

Some time ago, I was lucky enough to see an early screening of HOURS, Eric Heisserer's directing debut, an emotional drama about a young father desperately trying to keep his prematurely-born baby alive in an evacuated hospital during Hurricane Katrina. Heisserer adapted the script from his own short story and it's the perfect sort of material for a director to establish himself with. There are stakes, tension, a contained location, but still great production value. It also is largely a one-man show starring that young father, who for long stretches of the film, is only able to act against either a dog, or a prop baby in an incubator.

That young father is played by Paul Walker.

I haven't seen the film since before Walker's tragic death a few weeks ago. My opinions were set in stone long before he even began production on the seventh FAST & FURIOUS sequel. But most of the audience won't have that luxury. When an actor dies, their last few films are often reviewed kindly. The death brings a baggage that encourages the audience to feel the performer might have been cut down at the height of their potential. That even actors whose work was once maligned managed to offer hints of what they were capable of, if only fate hadn't denied them the opportunity to truly fulfill that promise.

Because of that, I know that it might be tempting to cast a skeptical eye to reviews of Walker's performance in HOURS. "Of course, he's going to be praised," you might think. "What heartless monster would bash a dead man mere weeks after he was buried?" You're probably right. But that doesn't mean these reviews are wrong.

What I can tell you is that I walked into that screening many months ago largely wondering one thing, "If Paul Walker tanks it, I'm going to need to find something I can tell Eric I liked about the movie." See, Eric Heisserer's been a good friend of the blog. I don't know him terribly well. We've certainly interacted a lot on Twitter and traded some emails, but I think we've only met face-to-face perhaps three times. Still, he's been nothing but terrific to me when we have interacted and so I was really hoping HOURS was something I could praise honestly.

But it starred Paul Walker.

Oy. The fratty guy from Into the Blue, I thought. I haven't even seen those car movies he's in, but I don't think they're exactly leaning on his acting. I'm sure he's got his range but this intense drama feels like it's going to be WAY outside of his wheelhouse.

Less than two hours later I dined on crow.

The set-up is efficient. Hurricane Katrina is about to hit New Orleans as Nolan (Paul Walker)'s wife Abigail (Genesis Rodriguez) goes into premature labor and dies. While Nolan struggles to process this (there's a moment where he quite literally seems not to understand what the doctor means when he says there's nothing they could do for Abigail) the storm takes a turn for the worse, forcing an evacuation of the hospital.

There's just one problem - the newborn needs to stay in an ventilator that can't be evacuated with everyone else. The baby has to remain inside for 48 hours. Nolan is told to stay with her while everyone else leaves the hospital, promised that someone will return for them. And thus begins the one-man show portion of the film.

There's a wonderful moment where Nolan looks down at his helpless child and Walker doesn't play the expected note where this new father melts at the sight of his baby girl. Far from it. He tells the baby "I don't know you" and then says that he'd rather have his wife back than have the child. His wife was the one more excited about having a child, and Nolan is clearly angry not just over her loss, but the manner of her loss.

From here, the script turns into a master class of raising the stakes. Power fails and the ventilator only has a backup battery that can hold only a three minute charge. This means that every three minutes, Nolan needs to crank the generator in order to keep his baby alive. If he tries to get supplies, he needs to be back in three minutes. If he seeks out food, he needs to be back in three minutes. If he attempts to call for help, he must be back in three minutes. In one intense sequence, Nolan races to the roof to try to let a helicopter know there's still someone inside the hospital. Tell me, do you think it's easy to run all the way upstairs, get a chopper's attention and then make it back downstairs in time to recrank the generator.

Oh, and did I mention that three-minute time limit actually gets shorter as time pases? Nolan gets more and more sleep-deprived and hungry, but actually has to remain extra alert to keep cranking the generator constantly.

I confess, there are moments where the film does seem to cheat the three-minute limit. One moment in particular seems to stretch the disbelief that Nolan could not only get into a situation within the three-minutes, but that he would allow himself to not even attempt to return to the child until the time is up. Once his watch alarm goes off, Nolan encounters another delay that leaves the impression the baby was left off the ventilator for a perilously long time. But then, I'm not a doctor so perhaps it's entirely reasonable that the child could be revived within that window.

In any event, Heisserer knows how to generate tension far more effectively than pretty much any of the directors who've interpreted his prior scripts for the screen. However, his greatest accomplishment might be getting a performance from Walker that few would have though him capable of.  In fact, by the end of the film, Walker no longer seems an unlikely pick for this role so much as his film personae makes him the perfect person to headline this story.

When a sensitive guy cries, as emotional as it is, it's also expected.  For some reason it's far more affecting when the stoic or the unflappable types break down.  The cockiness that usually defines Walker's characters is present in Nolan, but this entire ordeal is an exercise in breaking down that armor.  These are the most important 48 hours in Nolan's life and little by little, Nolan endures increasing mental and physical exhaustion.  To Walker's credit, he's not scared to go to some very vulnerable places on screen to really make us feel that along with him.

I walked out of that screening both impressed by the film and humbled that I had been arrogant enough to presume the lead actor wasn't up to the task of carrying the emotional drama in the story.  I may have also been a bit smug, knowing that I had a head start on the rest of the filmgoing public in declaring that Paul Walker was an actor whom everyone had underestimated.  I definitely felt I'd witnessed something that would later be pointed to as a turning point in that man's career.

So much potential, snuffed out right on the verge of being realized.  One lesson to take from the story of HOURS is to never take our loved ones for granted. Nolan never expected to lose his wife on the day she bore their daughter.  I'm sure it goes without saying the posthumous release of HOURS itself carries a similar message.

Hours is opening in limited release this weekend and is available on a number of VOD platforms. For a list of theatres carrying the film, click the picture below:

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Brian Scully's review of my script TOBY IS NOW FOLLOWING YOU

As I explained in yesterday's post, I'm not purchasing a review from the Black List readers, in part because the timing means that the value of the review might be questionable.  However, I've invited some of my trusted industry associates to offer their opinions on the script, starting today with Brian Scully.

I first met Brian via Twitter a couple years ago. I admit, after a few conversations, I followed him mostly because I thought he was the Brian Scully who wrote for The Simpsons, and after I'd discovered the truth it was too awkward to unfollow.  Fortunately he turned out to be a pretty cool guy, and a rather talented writer.  In fact, he started writing "professionally" at 14 when Star Trek: Voyager, and later Star Trek: Enterprise, gave him a standing invitation to pitch to them after submitting a spec to them.

Scully's script, COUNTERPOINT, a romantic thriller/drama, was recently optioned with financing currently being raised. It also was on last year's Hit List.  It's a really solid script, but it's nothing compared to his current spec, MERCIFUL, an action-thriller that is one of the best scripts I've read all year.

I was in awe multiple times while reading MERCIFUL, which is the story of a woman traveling across the post-apocalyptic remains of the country to reach the daughter she hasn't seen since the start of the chaos.  The script is full of evocative, visceral writing.  There are longer-than-usual stretches of silence, which really lets the visuals tell the story.  I told Brian after I read it that perhaps the biggest compliment I could give was that he genuinely surprised me.

So when it came time to give my script to people who were going to push me, Brian was at the top of the list.  The first few reviews came in and were very positive. You give a script to writers, you're going to get plenty of notes and suggestions because that's what writers do - but most people were really into it. However, I had one reader whose notes ran counter to that, and so I was pondering if perhaps the script needed an overhaul that the others were seeing.

It was in this context that Brian emailed me his notes.  He went in depth, not just talking about the broad premise and characters, but having notes about specific pages and scenes. Often he was writing stream-of-consciousness, describing his reaction to an event as it played out.  And let me tell you - he GOT it.  I don't think I've ever seen someone so completely understand what I was going for in a script.  Every emotion he experienced, every reaction he had, was precisely what I was trying to achieve.  And by this point, I knew that Brian knew what made a great script because he'd written one himself.

That review gave me a lot of confidence that there WAS an audience for what I was writing and that I shouldn't second-guess my instincts.  So because of that, I can think of no one better suited to tell industry members why they should download TOBY IS NOW FOLLOWING YOU on The Black List site.  Take it away, Brian...

We all love GROUNDHOG DAY, right? Everyone should, and if you don’t, you’re fired from life. Well, think for a moment about Bill Murray spending countless days following the same routine to glean even the tiniest new piece of personal information about Andie MacDowell as he attempts to seduce her, and with each new day and each new piece of info he’s “armed” with, he gets closer and closer to what he wants. 

…Have you ever considered how genuinely creepy that is? Ever stop to think that this efforts in slowly accumulating knowledge about her life in order to appeal to her more effectively is really, really disturbing? He’s earnest about wanting to know her better, he wants the two of them to click, so could his efforts really be so bad? Is it just an overreaction? 

Welcome to just a hint of what’s explored so effectively in TOBY IS NOW FOLLOWING YOU. It’s one of the most compelling dramatic thrillers I’ve read in a long while. The idea of our digital footprints, how detailed they are and how actual privacy has become a distant memory, is explored here from all angles, through numerous characters, but especially our rich and complex lead, Toby, and the woman with whom he’s become infatuated, Nina. 

What this script does is lead you gently to the top of what becomes a very slippery slope, letting you see why Toby is a legitimate hero (flawed as he is) and unworthy of scorn… and then the script gives that last nudge so you can start sliding down the slope. Over the course of a brisk and taut 90 pages, as personal lines begin to blur, the true horror of the film builds unrelentingly as Toby loses himself further and further in his obsession. 

But, Toby is no psychopath. He’s not some deranged criminal. He’s not a predator seeking to harm. There’s no malice. Toby is a legitimately earnest, heartfelt and charming guy who could fit very comfortably in even the safest of romantic comedies. And that is PRECISELY why this script becomes so damn haunting and unsettling — because Toby is not a monster. And yet, his actions become monstrous. By the time you finish reading this script, a terrifying realization dawns on you — Toby, by being so incredibly human and well-drawn throughout, could be your neighbor. He could be your best friend. Oh god, he could be your significant other. Oh god… he could be YOU and you’ve never even realized it. 

TOBY IS NOW FOLLOWING YOU is such a good thriller because it holds the mirror up to us and lets us see just how slippery that slope is with our own behavior in this digital age, how easily we may find ourselves crossing those lines in life, and how little we realize it. With our lives becoming more keyworded and searchable by the minute, and the myth of privacy becoming more and and more understood, there is no better time for a strong story to hit home about the world we live in, and TOBY IS NOW FOLLOWING YOU is that story.

Industry members of the Black List site can find TOBY IS NOW FOLLOWING YOU here.

Brian Scully is currently repped by Kathy Muraviov at The Muraviov Company. You can find him on Twitter at @brianscully

Monday, December 9, 2013

1000th post - My script - TOBY IS NOW FOLLOWING YOU! Come and get it!

Related: Brian Scully's review of TOBY IS NOW FOLLOWING YOU

[UPDATED at bottom - 5:25 pm PST - with FAQ]

Here it is, gang. The big one.

On a number of occasions, I have used my site to promote unsold scripts that have really impressed me, often by unrepresented writers.  It's something I've been happy to do, especially since the nature of the Black List website has made it possible for me to vet those unrepped screenplays as well as inform people in the industry of where they can find these scripts.  A number of those people have seen good fortune find their script subsequently.

As I've said many times before, having seen the Black List process up-close and through the eyes of readers who have benefited first hand from it, I absolutely think there's value in it.  I really think of a site or service marketed to amateurs that has a better method (and believe me, there are a LOT of them.)  I don't speak highly of the Black List because I'm paid to promote them, I speak highly of the service because I consider my blog a resource for amateurs looking to break in as writers and in my honest opinion, the Black List is the one site worthy of your money.

And now I'm putting MY money where my mouth is.

Right now, my script TOBY IS NOW FOLLOWING YOU is up on the Black List website. 

Logline: After a chance encounter, a young man becomes infatuated with an attractive woman and is determined to become the perfect man for her. His curious voyeurism turns obsessive as he exploits her online footprint to insert himself into her life. And the more success he has in manipulating her, the greater the temptation to go further...

It's a low-budget thriller that is essentially a stalker story from the point of view of the stalker.

I have had this script vetted by a number of fellow writers and other folks in the industry - many of them with professional credits.  The enthusiasm they had for the writing convinced me that it was ready for the Black List and the eyes of its professional members.  I have asked those individuals who liked the script to please rate it accordingly on the site.

And industry professionals who lurk around here, I hope that you will be interested in checking out the script, as well as spreading the word to reps, producers, filmmakers and actors who might be interested in reading it.  It's a brisk 90 pages so hopefully it won't take up too much of your time unless you read slowly.

And just in case a little audio/visual pitch might grease the wheels a little bit....

Honestly, my inclination is to keep the pitch brief, but for those who are interested in knowing a little bit more about the screenplay...

I wrote this script in part because I wanted to write something low-budget enough that it wasn't entirely impossible to direct it myself, should I scrape together enough money.  Most of my other scripts have tended to land in the mid-budget range. I didn't have a writing sample that was achievable on less than a $1M dollar budget, at least not without vastly compromising the quality.

After struggling with a few contained thriller ideas, I decided to tell a story with a little more scope but could still be done micro-budget under the right circumstances.  The basic concept of TOBY IS NOW FOLLOWING YOU grew out of my desire to tell a story about how much easier it is to dig up information on someone now than it was 10 years ago.

Facebook didn't exist when I was in college, so if there was a girl in one of my classes who I liked, I had to actually talk to her. I didn't have easy access to a self-generated stream of her thoughts. There was no site I could go to to look up the photos she took at wild parties or on the beach.  When these existed as physical photos, you mostly only saw them when people publicly displayed them in their homes, or let you browse their actual photo albums.

I'm drifting, but my point is that it's become more normal it's become to keep tabs on your friends (or people you might not even know) without actually having to interact with them to get that information. And that means that behavior that might have once made one feel like a stalker no longer seems as dirty.

I wanted to tell a story about a man who's gradually taken over by his worst impulses.  One small step leads to another, and another. Yet no matter how small the steps may be - they still are leading in a particular direction.  I've read a lot of thrillers about psychopath stalkers - guys who are just straight-up nuts. I think those stories are less scary because the bad guy is often unrecognizable as a normal person. This is not a story about a deranged madman.  This is the story of a very normal guy, a guy we might even sympathize and identify with, who makes some very disturbing decisions.

For now, I'm not able to put together the money to make this myself, but the very positive reactions I got from my trusted readers has made me think that the Black List might be the right place to take it first.

I like that the Black List makes it possible for me to publicize my work without having to make it available to everyone on the internet.  I want their users to access it, and so this will be the only place to get it. I'm not posting it anywhere else and if it does surface publicly outside of the Black List, I can assure you it is without my permission.

Regular readers, I know that might be frustrating to you, but one thing I will promise is to be as transparent as the situation allows. I will be updating you regularly on the traffic to my script and perhaps use this experience to give you even more information about what it means to have a script on the Black List site.  If you have questions about the experience, please leave them in comments and I'll do my best to be as open as possible.

And Black List members - it's your move.

UPDATE: Since this is the post that's getting all the traffic, it seemed prudent to add the FAQ here rather than create a new post.

The following are some common follow-up questions I've gotten today:

How was this timed so perfectly? You hit 1000 posts, quit reading, and announce this JUST as you top the horror charts on blcklst.com. Did you post the script in secret at first under a fake name or something? 

It was serendipity for a lot of it. I had been planning for a while to quit reading by the end of the year. (For tax reasons, I didn't want 1099s for the following year, so I knew I'd be ending by the start of 2014.) I had passed the script around to some friends in the industry who also have Black List access, and they were reacting to it well. I realized that if it was on the Black List, they'd be giving it pretty good ratings and that in turn could draw other eyes to it.

I had been thinking of doing something big for my 5 year blog anniversary in January, and I briefly considered posting the script then. Once I realized I was coming up on 1000 posts, it occurred to me that I might benefit from pushing the script out as the year winds down, before the yearly Black List release. I posted the script to the Black List site on Saturday and alerted my industry readers (well, the most effusive ones at least) that it was up and asked them to rate it. Two of them did so before the blog post went live. Two ratings is the minimum to be visible on the site's top lists, provided the scores average out at a certain number. In this case, my first two ratings gave me an 8 average, which was high enough to qualify.

Will you make the script available to Black List members who are fellow writers? 

I have to admit, though I remembered the announcement that writers could choose to make their script downloadable to all, I had completely forgotten about that feature. I won't be using it, though. Right now, this is targeted at the industry pros who can rate it. Frankly I don't see the advantage for anyone giving that open access to their script. If you were looking to workshop it, sure, but I don't think the Black List site is a place to put a script that you're still contemplating major revisions of. I'm aware that there are plenty of people in the industry who read this site, though, and so it stood to reason I could get a lot of downloads from them by publicizing it here. (Early numbers seem to back me up on that supposition.)

Honestly, I don't see any benefit to making the script available to people who can't rate it. If there are industry pros who are not a member of the site who are interested in reading it, they can contact me directly. The more exclusive a script is, the more valuable it is. Remember that when you upload your own work to the site.

Will you be purchasing reads from The Black List? 

Not as of yet, for a number of reasons. Because of this, I realize I am forgoing certain benefits. Since I have not purchased a read from one of their readers, then my script will NOT be featured in the weekly email announcing the scripts that have been rated highly. Also, I believe that this means I will not show up in the Top Uploaded List, even though I will show up in the top genre lists.

Part of this is simply due to timing. It can take 10 to two weeks to get back coverage. Because I wanted to upload the script as close to the 1000th post as possible, it meant I didn't have much lead time. This also means that any review would probably come back during Christmas week - a completely dead period of the year. It just seemed like it would be a waste to appear in that email. And if the Black List decided to hold off on that weekly email until the following week, then there would potentially be twice as many scripts pushed in that first email of 2014. It seemed like it could be lost in the shuffle there.

Knowing the people who frequent my site, as well as those who follow me on Twitter, I gambled that I'd be able generate a fair amount of traffic to the page based on my own visibility. (Also, by not promoting my script through the site's reviews/emails, this means I can really get a good idea of how much influence my blog carries - how many people in the industry I really have lurking here. There's a part of me that really likes the opportunity to study this.)

So we'll see how things go over the first month, which will then give me a good idea if it's worth it to continue for a second month, and possibly purchase a read from the site.

With all your industry contacts, if the script was 'great' wouldn't they just have passed it on to their reps?

I know writers and people in the biz, sure. But even counting everyone I know with access to agents and managers only gives me a direct line to a very small fraction of available people. With the Black List, I'm casting a much wide net. It's always good to have options, you don't have to dance with the first one who asks, yada yada...

Also, though some of my professional contacts may have passed the script on to reps, some of them cautioned me "My reps take forever to read stuff." I understand that. Even with some of my friends' scripts I put off reading for a few weeks jut because I don't feel any kind of ticking clock. By putting TOBY out there publicly like this, I've added some urgency.

Before I had a few reps who had this great script on their To-Read list and as far as they knew nobody else had it. Now, everyone who's seen this post knows that if the script is really good, someone else might beat them to it. Never underestimate the value of urgency.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Post #999 - "Script reader... NO MORE"

Okay, so maybe the blog title is a little dramatic, but I couldn't resist the Spider-Man allusion. If I could actually draw, you might have gotten a sketch of the Bitter Puppet walking away from a trashcan full of scripts.  Instead, you get the copyright infringement above.

[Update: a very kind reader, AP Quach, did a sketch much as I described.  It was kind of a kick to see!  Check out more of her work at http://www.sassquach.com.]

For some time now, I've talked about how the market for script reading is drying up. Sure, you can always hang out your own shingle and take payment directly from people interested in your feedback, but the days of supporting yourself on just a couple regular script-reading gigs with agencies, production companies and studios are fading fast, if not gone entirely.  It's why when people have written in asking how to become a reader, I've told them, "You don't want this job."

Things have been going down this road since the writer's strike.  For a while, I was able to compensate thanks to the sheer number of freelance jobs, but I've been aware of the ticking clock.  Each year, it became more and more difficult to make a full living off of just my reading gigs.  I've pursued other jobs within the industry, particularly with the goal of becoming a writer's assistant.  I got maddeningly close several times, close enough that I convinced myself I just needed to stick with the freelance jobs a little bit longer because surely my objective was within my grasp.

But as the years wore on, I enjoyed reading less and less.  The scripts seemed to get worse, and I found increasingly less satisfaction in what I was doing.  The companies I read for were unfortunately very stable in their development departments, which meant there was little opportunity to convert my reading gigs into some sort of Creative Exec position.  I'd love to work in Development if the opportunity presented itself, but I'm done being just "the reader."

So effective immediately, I'm ending all of my freelance reading jobs.  I'm not going to say no to any permanent positions that come my way, and you can bet your ass I'll be looking for writer assistant gigs come pilot season.  The difference is this time I'll be doing it without a net.

When I made this decision, I honestly felt like a great relief.  In the past, my writing has definitely been better for the brief hiatuses I've taken from reading.  But it's not even the reading that really wore me down. It's the futility of being that first filter.  Most of what you read is crap, and even when you find the good stuff, there's little reward or opportunity to develop it.

Fear not, this blog isn't going anywhere.  I've got a decade of experience in the industry and I'll continue to draw upon that here.  I'll always be willing to give the benefit of my experience.  But the days of enduring multiple scripts a week (most of them sub-par), being paid by the script and then having little stake in what happens to it afterwards are over.

You can't start a new chapter without ending the old one first.  As such, I have decided that, at least for my career as a freelance reader, this is definitely the end.

See you on Monday for Post #1000!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Post #998 - A Shameless plug for my friends' new movie DEVIL'S DUE

My friends at Radio Silence have released a new trailer for their upcoming horror film DEVIL'S DUE, hitting theatres January 17th!

The film is directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett of Radio Silence. The other members of Radio Silence are Justin Martinez (Executive Producer, Cinematographer and Visual Effects Supervisor) and Chad Villella (Executive Producer.)

I think the guys have cooked up something pretty exciting. If you've seen their work in the final segment of the first V/H/S you know they're a clever group of filmmakers and from talking to them, I know they are really trying to deliver a horror film that makes you care about the character, played by Zach Gilford and Allison Miller. They star as a young couple whose pregnancy starts to take a dark and supernatural turn.

And how about that international poster? (Warning, probably not safe for work.)

Post #997 - Some thoughts on Superman vs Batman vs Wonder Woman

Uh oh. The internet's being cranky. Someone must have announced some comic book movie news.

Yesterday Warner Bros announced that Gal Gadot will be playing Wonder Woman in the still-unnamed Man of Steel sequel which everyone has been referring to as Batman vs. Superman.  Right now it's starting to seem significant that WB has conspicuously not affixed that moniker officially.  At ComiCon, the announcement was made by way of a logo mash-up featuring the Bat symbol and the Superman crest.  Beyond that, we don't know much more except that David Goyer's writing, Zack Snyder's directing and Ben Affleck is joining the cast as Batman.

If Wonder Woman is now also a part of the cast, could this mean that the true title of the film will end up being JUSTICE LEAGUE?  It's kind of exciting to consider that possibility because I like the idea that the studio has been able to keep so many details out of the public eye and thus far is releasing information on their own terms.  As much as fanboys scream and cry that they want to know everything now (probably so they can begin their manifestos on how it's not what THEY would do and thus it's therefore wrong) there's something to be said for the joy of filmmakers completely surprising their audience.

My take: I think Gadot could have the right look for Wonder Woman.  Sure she's skinny now, but the right trainer could easily put her in Sarah Conner-in-T2 asskicker mode.  She's got the right kind of exotic beauty and she's enough of an unknown that she brings little baggage to the part.  I've already seen fanboys whining that her boobs aren't big enough, but I think we need to focus on what really matters - the fact she's got a butt that can pull off the tight and revealing Wonder Woman trunks.

I kid, I kid.  Though that cheap joke would be more out of line were it not for the fact that her character's biggest contribution to the Fast & Furious series was using that asset to get a criminal's fingerprints onto her bikini bottom.*

*This is why real spies don't wear thongs.

Bottom line: I'm rather bewildered by all the venom directed at Warners about this casting. Some people hate the actress. And some people are pissed that Wonder Woman is making her big screen debut as a supporting player in a male hero's film.  I guess I can't say I'm surprised - fanboy overreaction has been a tradition since back before the outrage over Michael Keaton's casting as Batman - but it feels like a real waste of energy to be this angry when we really still don't really know anything.

I'll admit, as someone who loved Man of Steel it does bother me a little that instead of getting a straight-up Superman sequel, the new movie is more of a stage-setter for JUSTICE LEAGUE (if not JUSTICE LEAGUE itself.)  My preference would have been a bit more world-building of the Superman mythos, especially considering the first film didn't do anything with the Clark Kent reporter disguise.  My immediate reaction is that it feels too soon to crowd the movie with other characters.

However, I'm open to the possibility that Snyder and Goyer have somehow found a way to tell a story that explores the Superman mythos while also integrating Batman and Wonder Woman.  As nothing has been released about the story, it's not worth getting worked up over what I presume they might be doing.

But I also don't want another Iron Man 2, which pretty much stands as one of the weakest Marvel movies - in large part because it was forced to give a lot of screentime over to connective tissue to the other films.  The vast majority of material involving S.H.I.E.L.D. and Black Widow was there mostly to lay pipe for The Avengers.  Hopefully Warners and DC Entertainment are capable of learning from Marvel's mistakes as well as their successes.

I also wonder (oh shit, pun TOTALLY not intended, but I'm too lazy to think of something better) if the fact that they're introducing Wonder Woman here means that the studio is further along in developing a Wonder Woman script than they've lead on.  For all we know, her role in Batman vs. Superman is little more than a cameo that sets up a solo feature that will go into production right after BvS wraps.  I'd feel a lot better about the state of DC films overall if something like that is in the works.

Or it could just be a trial balloon designed to see if it's even worth the effort to develop a Wonder Woman standalone.  I guess we'll just have to wait and see.  This might be a good time to revisit my old post at Film School Rejects, "The Biggest Challenges Facing a Wonder Woman Movie."

Can we at least agree that if Warners does develop Wonder Woman, we'll force Emily Blake to tell us her pitch if someone else lands the assignment?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Five to go... Post #996: A look back at a good script's journey to being a bad movie

Friends, the post before your eyes right now is my 996th post.  Four posts to the big 1000, which will be arriving on Monday.  It probably would be a good idea for me to do something big and unexpected then, wouldn't it. Hmm....

In the meantime, how about a trip down memory lane to spotlight some older posts that might have eluded more recent visitors to this blog.  About a half-year into the life of this blog, I conducted an interview with screenwriter Dan Callahan.  With his writing partner Adam Ellison, Dan wrote a pretty good script called COLLEGE that got turned into a rather terrible movie.

I feel bad saying that, but Dan basically says as much over the course of this interview.  Rotten Tomatoes agrees, rating it at just 5%.  I've read the version of the script that sold, and while it's probably not anything that would make the yearly Black List, it is a perfectly good teen comedy.  It was rather fascinating to read that draft and then see what resulted on-screen.  There's a lot to be learned just through examining that development process.

Unfortunately I can't provide a copy of that original draft, but I can provide the next best thing - an in-depth interview that covers everything about the script's development and how certain plot points that once made sense became inexplicable on the journey to the big screen.  All is revealed in this five-part interview.

Part I - The Writing Process 

"There’s writing and there’s the business and they go hand in hand. The more professional your scripts look, the more seriously you’ll be taken as a writer. Reading scripts was the first thing that got me… before I ever wrote College, I had read a ton of scripts. Nowadays with the internet and having access to scripts online, there’s no reason someone can’t go and find scripts and read, look at it, and go get Final Draft…. Access to interviews of writers, and some of my favorite books are just interviews with writers and how they did it."

Part II - Getting an Agent and Selling the Script

"She passed the script off to a colleague of hers at ICM... He read it on vacation and came back and was like, “I’ll take it out next week.” It literally was that quick. He read it. He knew what it was. He liked it. I don’t even remember if he had any notes. If he did, they were minor. Stuff we could fix in a week. He basically said, “Fix this. Get it ready. We’ll take it out next week.” 

Part III - Notes, Rewriting, Casting and SUPERBAD

"I think in general we probably didn’t agree with most of the notes. We’d never been through the process of getting notes from producers and because it’s your work, you think you know better. You think you know the material better, and at the end of the day, you DO know the material better… as the writer. You know the characters better, the story better. Anything they suggest you’re generally going to have an answer for right on the spot." 

Part IV - More Rewrites

"The other thing that happens is in these writing sessions you’ve got a lot of people’s opinions and the script often becomes a mishmash of people’s opinions. And as the drafts go on it becomes a Frankenstein of all these versions. We went through two directors, so you’ve got notes from the first director that might still be in the script and then you bring on a new director and they’ve got their own notes. Then the guys from State Street who were set to produce ended up pulling out because of differences they had with the producers at Element so now you’ve got so many people coming and going. And you’ve got a draft with so many opinions in there that it really is a struggle to keep it fluid. It’s never quite what it was before… and that’s the hardest part.

"But what are you gonna do? You don’t want to get fired. You want to get paid."

Part V - Release and Reaction

"I didn’t look at the box office. Adam did. We both were in Chicago that weekend visiting family. A news channel wanted to do a story on us because we were local guys, and we flew home to do that. I did go see the movie with my parents sitting behind me, which… if you’ve seen the movie…  I had already told them I didn’t want them to see the movie because it was obviously inappropriate for them. But they insisted on coming and it was… it was tough. It was tough literally having your mom behind you with some of the stuff going on."

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Tuesday Talkback: So what have you done this year?

We've begun the final month of the year.  The clock is ticking on those screenwriting goals you laid out in January.  How many of you will be rushing to keep resolutions of that nature?

My completed writing goals include:

- completing several drafts of a new screenplay.  Much to my relief, it's been met with good reviews from some of my writing peers and even some professionals who have read it.  I've got high hopes for this one.

- Completed a massive overhaul on a comedy pilot I'm working on with a co-writer. Notes are coming back on that and revisions are underway.

- Completed an entirely new pilot, for which I will be getting reactions very soon.

And though they don't count as much, I've begun outlining a couple other ideas which will be on my agenda for 2014.

What have you accomplished?

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Jeff Willis: "When an option expires, what happens to the writing you did for the producer?"

Today brings another guest post from Jeff Willis.  Jeff is an executive currently working at the Weinstein Company in business affairs, but he's also a screenwriter/producer who co-written a feature due to start production next year, as well has having finished two commissioned rewrite assignments.

Aside from his earlier guest post here, Jeff has become known for his Twitter lectures of DOs AND DON'Ts. It's a good idea to follow him there because you never know when he's going to drop some knowledge.  This week, Jeff touches on a topic that I have to admit, I had never even thought of discussing here.


As much as I enjoy tweeting succinct tidbits of information on Twitter (follow me @jwillis81), the fact is that some of the concepts and practices in the entertainment industry require more than just 140 characters to fully explain. Thankfully, The Bitter Script Reader has kindly agreed to host some of my more in-depth articles that examine screenwriting from a business perspective.

I thought I’d start off with a tricky situation, but one that’s probably familiar to a lot of writers out there who have had their work optioned. The question: What happens to all the work you do for a company if their option lapses and the rights to the project return to you?

When you perform writing at the instruction of a producer or production company, it’s typically as a “work for hire” situation. Just like a receptionist or a mechanic or an accountant, they are paying you to provide a service (in this case, creative writing rather than answering phones, fixing a car, or filing a tax return). Naturally, they expect to own the end result of those services they’re paying for, just like you’d expect to own a product once you’ve paid for it.

Where this becomes a little tricky is when the company no longer controls the rights because they didn’t renew or exercise their option. On the one hand, they paid you for a service and have a draft of a script they own as a result. On the other hand, they no longer control the rights to the project.

That’s when they have what’s called a STERILE SCRIPT.

They still own the draft they commissioned you to write (it was a work for hire after all), but they can’t do anything with it because they don’t control the rights to the property anymore. They no longer have the right to send it out, make further changes, sell it to someone else, hire another writer to work on it, etc. without your permission.

The important thing for writers to note is that you may have the rights back, but you don’t have any claim to what’s in that sterile script. The revisions made to the script in that version are lost to you because you performed those writing services for an employer.

Ultimately, that leaves you both in a bit of a Catch-22. The company can’t do anything with that sterile script unless they somehow re-acquire the underlying rights to the property from you, and you can’t do anything with that sterile script either unless you can somehow buy it from the company (typically for the amount of money you were paid to write it, plus interest) or otherwise get them to agree to let you have it.

This is why it’s incredibly important for a writer to be organized and methodical about keeping track of their work once they start dealing with option periods and revisions made at the request of other people as works for hire. There may very well be a point when a sterile script situation happens, and you want to be able to easily and efficiently go back and say, “Okay, here’s the latest draft before I did any revisions for that producer, so this is the one I completely control.” The last thing you want is to get the option back, set it up somewhere else, and have the first company come back around again claiming that you’re using the sterile version of the material that they own.

Once you start working with prodcos and performing works for hire, I would strongly recommend some kind of easily organized system for your drafts, such as including a date for each one in the file name itself and keeping a detailed log of the script notes you’ve received or been assigned when rewriting at someone’s request. Make it as easy on yourself as possible by being 100% clear about which material is owned by the company engaging you to write, and which material you can work with if the rights lapse and find their way back to you. 

Jeff made an appearance this week on Josh Caldwell's podcast Hollywood Bound and Down.  I've not had a chance to listen to it yet, but Josh really knows how to lead an interesting conversation.  All of his interviews are worth listening to (and I'm not just saying that because I've already done his show.)  You can download it here, or listen to the embed below:

Monday, November 25, 2013

CATCHING FIRE and why Katniss Everdeen is a too-rare heroine

Hunger Games heroine Katniss Everdeen is the sort of female hero I wish we saw more of in popular culture.  She's the female protagonist who drives the plot specifically through her actions and her decisions.  Her "specialness" is not her birthright, it's because she has made choices that have fostered far-reaching consequences. 

This stands in stark contrast to many heroines in Young Adult literature who are often born "special" or "different."  They don't have to do anything to earn their position as "Girl Who Would Change the World."  Before Catching Fire, I saw a trailer for the upcoming Divergent, which appears based on a similar sort of idea. The heroine of that series is subjected to a test that is meant to declare her proper role in society.  Apparently in this dystopian future, the free will to choose one's own path has been stamped out in favor of letting "the test" determine that. Much to her shock, our heroine learns that the test "didn't work on you," setting up a story that surely will place her in opposition to society, probably as part of a revolution.

A brewing revolution is also at the heart of Catching Fire, but in this case it's not because Katniss was born with a defect, or because she's a special snowflake.  Here it's specifically the fallout of her defiance at the end of the first Hunger Games.  By being willing to die rather than play the Game the way her leaders demand, Katniss has become a symbol of defiance against the oppressive government.  This puts President Snow in a difficult position. He cannot tolerate the seeds of revolution, but Katniss is too popular among the people for him to move against her directly.

The opening act of the film does a good job of laying out the early rumblings of rebellion. Snow's new Gamemaster, the absurdly-named-even-for-this-series Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), suggests that Snow first attack Katniss as a symbol. "Show them she's not one of them anymore." When it appears that long-game is taking too long, Plutarch pushes Snow to another action, cut all the champions of the Games down to size by making 24 of them participate in what amounts to an all-star match-up.  If everything goes to plan, it will eliminate the Champions as potential instigators of insurrection and force Katniss to either get her hands dirty or die.

That's a strategy that works only if the Champions are willing to toe the party line, and it's evident from the early media tours it's clear that most of them have no interest in being the Capital's dancing monkeys.  There's a thrilling sense of inevitability here.  What Katniss has brought about is too large to be put down by any government edicts or propaganda.  Before the onlookers may have bought into the lie that this bloodsport had some honor to it, this time the political strategery reeks of bullshit a mile away.  Every move Snow makes seems likely to only incite further defiance.

And all because of one girl who volunteered herself as tribute in order to save her sister.  Everything in The Hunger Games saga goes back to that one moment.  It's not an act she was fated to take. It's not an action she was born to make, and it's not something she took on because she was special in some way.  It's a moment of pure free will, and it plants the seeds of further resistance in the name of free will.

One girl can change the world, and not because she's destined to from birth - but because she is capable of having an impact beyond her station.

Twilight merely asserts that Bella is somehow special because the vampires can't read her mind.  Later entries in the saga further this concept of her "specialness" by having her become pregnant with a vampire's child.  Bella doesn't have to really earn her place as the girl who changes her world. She merely has to show up and play out a predetermined script, in a way.  It's the polar opposite of how Katniss becomes the axis her world turns on.

Not that the "destined hero" doesn't have its place, or is inherently bad.  Buffy certainly would fall into that catagory and she's an excellent female protagonist.  What helps there is that even though her powers are her birthright, the series was often shaped by the consequences of how Buffy made use of that power.

I get why many young adult leads might share this "born special" idea.  At that age, everyone feels like an outsider.  It can be a great metaphor of how teenagers feel like they are special even as they're forced to fit in with the crowd.  It's a power fantasy, even if the subtext of "the people who change the world were fated to it, so nothing the non-chosen ones do matters" is a bit disturbing.

But if there were more heroines who pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, it wouldn't be such a bad thing.

I enjoyed much of Catching Fire, though I have to confess I've never read any of the novels.  This seemed to work in my favor during the first film, as I came away with a more positive reaction than many of my friends who were devotees of the source material.  This is definitely the Empire Strikes Back of this series, right down to the darker tone, larger scope and bleak cliffhanger.  When the film faded to black, I couldn't believe I'd have to wait a year to see the next chapter.

Having said that, I'm fully aware that my reaction would be very different if the following chapter wasn't a certainty.  These days, you can't take it for granted that a film will perform well enough for a follow-up, not even if the original movie is based on a successful series of books.  Just ask anyone involved with The Golden Compass.

The first Hunger Games could have worked as a standalone film. If it somehow had bombed, you could still walk away from that movie feeling you got a complete story, much the same as how the the original Star Wars could easily stand on its own.  Catching Fire - like Empire Strikes Back - is very much an Act Two.  There's enough meat that it doesn't feel like it's only there to set up the third part, but I'd be lying if I said it provides much closure or resolution.

In fact, there are so many sudden reveals in the film's final ten minutes that I'd probably tear into the film under any other circumstances.  A lot of very important stuff is unexplained, though I'd wager that much of it will be laid out in the third chapter, as it ends up being explained to Katniss.


In case you're curious what those issues are:

- Plutarch Heavensbee has been on the side of the good guys all along?  How did he get Haymitch to trust him? How was Finnick brought into the scheme?  Should we really trust either of these guys?

- How did the aforementioned steal the aircraft that picked up Katniss and Beetee? Does the Capital know about this and if not, why did they apparently send a second craft that nabbed Peeta and Johanna?

- Much confusion about Beetee's motivations in splitting up Peeta and Katniss during the climax.  The way things went down, Katniss improvised on the fly and brought the house down, but what was the "real" plan? Why make Katniss deliberately suspicious by seeming to send her and Peeta into separate traps?  Since she knew to cut out Katniss's "tag," Johanna was definitely in on the plan, which makes me even more curious about how all of this came together.  This is one area that I think could have written and revealed more smoothly.

(By the way, if these are explained in the novel or subsequent novels, don't tell me. I'll see how Mockingjay handles these points next year first.)

There's a lot in the climax that has the appearance of coming together too neatly.  Knowing that at least some of it was part of a plan helps, but there are a few wildcards within that plan that are inviting me to nitpick.  The series has earned my trust that much of this will be explained, so I'm not letting it get to me too much.

But know that if you are writing a script that has some of these issues, you will NOT get the benefit of the doubt.  As I've said before, never write a spec script that ends with "To Be Continued."  Don't end a script with so many character's motivations in confusion as they are here.  The filmmakers wouldn't have taken that big of a risk in the first movie.  They had to earn that chance.  If you're submitting a spec, you haven't gotten the same cred, and thus, judgement will be harsher.

Overall, I think I enjoyed Catching Fire even more than the first film.  This time around it was less irritating that circumstances kept Katniss from having to get too cold-blooded in the Games.  The last time around it was drilled in pretty hard that anyone who wasn't on Team Katniss was an outright asshole who probably deserved to die even outside the battle royale situation.  Katniss seems to end up with even less blood on her hands this time around, but the overall morality feels less manipulative than before.

The filmmakers have definitely raised their game here and hopefully they'll push it even further in the two-part finale, the first of which is set to open next winter.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

An interview with a Black List 3.0 success story - ALICE OF OZ's Matt Bolish

It's been about six months since my friend Matt Bolish was signed as a client to Resolution after his spec ALICE OF OZ got some traction on the Black List website.  The script is set years after the first visit over the rainbow, as a now-adult Dorothy Gale is pulled back to Oz to help her friends fight an invasion from another world - Wonderland.

Considering Matt just recently visited L.A. to do the typical "new writer" tour of meeting producers and development executives, this seemed like a good time to check in with him and discuss his experience with the Black List and what it's like to be the new writer taking meetings all over town.

So how did you come up with the idea for ALICE OF OZ?

Well, a lot of people have made comparisons of the two stories. Both Dorothy and Alice are young girls, sucked into fantasy worlds that are populated by magic and incredible creatures, both are on a quest to get home. But there are some striking differences. Dorothy arrives, drops a house on a witch, and is immediately honored as a hero. Along the way to the Emerald City she meets this amazing cast of characters that treats her like an adult, who look for her for guidance – every ten year old’s dream!

Then there’s Alice; she’s bored and desperate for some adventure, so she follows the Rabbit down his hole. While it’s all fun and games at first, she’s frequently on the defensive. The people of Wonderland call her stupid and foolish, even a monster, they constantly make and remake the rules. Alice’s quest is as more about escaping Wonderland then getting back to a worried family waiting in a land far, far away.

It was fun to consider how those different experiences would have made two VERY different women and how those two women would have in turn made two starkly different worlds.

What led you to put ALICE OF OZ up on the Black List website?

I’d been aware of THE Black List for years; I remember getting a hold of it back in the day and treating it like a “to-do” list; here were dozens of scripts that I had to get my hands on to read, study, and pick apart. Best way to spend a weekend…

Fast forward a few years and a friend and fellow writer tipped me off to the new venture, blacklist.com. We were pretty skeptical at first; there are lots of services out there that are happy to take you money for notes, promising connections or introductions to industry insiders if your work passes muster. But then I dug into it and realized that this was more then just a script reading service; it was a community. Not in the sense of a facebook or instagram, but a dynamic and exciting place for THE WORK to live and breathe. I figured that it was worthwhile to give it a shot and I couldn’t be happier with the results.

One of the most daunting things a writer can do is pass their work to someone else; it can be terrifying. But in order to have a life beyond your close circle of friends you have to get your work out into the world. Blacklist.com allowed me to solicit opinions from people in the business who WANTED to be there, who were looking for stories. No long email “putting it in context,” no coffee meeting where you hang onto the script like grim death, unsure if you really should slide it over the table to your girlfriend, roommate, or that guy from down the hall.

Having a place like blacklist.com allows writers to get out of their comfort zone and get reasoned, considered feedback while at the same time providing executives, representatives, and producers tools to find stories that they are interested in – seems like a win/win.

When did you start getting reactions? What was that like?

I knew from the moment I started hosting on the site that I was going to pay for a read. It seemed like the best way to take advantage of what the system had to offer and it also forced me to put myself out there. One of the best components of the site is the “do no harm” rule – no one would see the pro-review if I didn’t want them to. If it went bad, well, I’d go back to the drawing board. If it went well, making those notes and scores public would likely drive interest in the script. I got lucky and landed some very solid numbers and notes.

But make no mistake, it took a little bit of time for all of that to come together. So if I was asked to give some advice to people who are exploring site as an option I’d lead with “be patient.” Even after I made the review public it took some time for ALICE to get traction but when it did things started to happen pretty quickly.

The first messages I got were a mix bag of “pats on the back” and requests for more material ("That’s great…what else do you have?"). I heard from producers, directors, agents, managers, creative executives and it was a little overwhelming at first. I mean, when you are plugging away at a script you get the impression that it’s a one way street. An endless cycle of sending out specs and going after people to see if they had a chance to read them. But this was the other way, people were drawn to the work for one reason or another, took a look at it, and wanted to touch base. I’ll be honest, I was nervous…but then it got to be fun.

As a direct result of those conversations I signed with Resolution and we’ve been working together for six months now.

Since you were courted by so many people, what advice would you give to other writers who have to decide whether or not to take someone on as their rep?

Number one, talk to everyone, no matter how big or small or whatever. I had to learn very quickly that while writing may be a solitary pursuit – you, a computer, and a pot of coffee – finding the right person or people to work with you to develop a career is a team sport. You need to ask questions, you need to get a sense of the sorts of folks they work with, the stories they like or like to tell, you need to get a sense of how hands off or hands on a possible rep might be.

Number two, meet them. Phone calls are key, skype calls are cool, but I personally don’t think you get the measure of a person (nor they of you) unless you are sitting across from them. This might be easier said then done but this is a person who you hope to have a long professional relationship with…you should be able to pick them out of a line up. I think that also says something about a possible rep as well – they should want the same thing.

Since you don't live in LA, has that complicated capitalizing on the attention your spec has gotten?

Yeah, I currently live in New York which made things like sitting down with possible representatives a little challenging. I was lucky in that work, friends, and family on the west coast make trips back to LA a necessity. I’ve found that it’s important to coordinate trips back west for meetings – a week of hitting the road, dropping in, saying “hi,” and meeting as many people as possible. It’s so much better if you can actually be in the same room at least for those initial meetings. By virtue of geography I’ve got to rely on phone calls and emails for following up…but I’m planning another trip very soon!

Are you comfortable going into these general meetings? Any advice for other writers who have yet to experience that?

Yeah, I tend to feel pretty good about going into a meeting. When it comes down to it, you are there because someone saw something they liked in your work and wanted to meet you. It’s easy to confuse them with job interviews but (at least in my experience) it’s best to go in ready for a conversation, not a review of credentials. It’s easy to say trite things like “relax, take it easy,” but I really do think that’s key.

The way I prep for a meeting is making sure I know about who I’m meeting with – what does this person like, what does this company produce, what are they working on – that sort of stuff. Another thing that might be easy to take for granted is your own work…be prepared to talk about your script or scripts, and if it makes sense at the meeting be ready to talk about what you are doing right now. For me, this goes a long way towards making me feel comfortable in the room.

I’ve had the chance to be on the other side of the table (albeit in a different context), and have people pitch me their ideas, stories, or projects. I found the ones that I was most interested in were ones where I was able to ask questions, engaging with the creator and the through them, the work. That means making sure that your meeting doesn’t turn into a monologue. Make sure you give the person you’re sitting down with the time to respond, to ask questions, to tell a few of their own stories…and before you know it you’ve filled an hour or so.

You mentioned earlier that you blocked off a week to pop into town for meetings. Is that a reasonable way to work?

I think that it makes sense as a way to get started. Thanks to the web and things like Face Time and Skype it’s no longer an unbreakable rule that a writer must live in LA county to crack inside. But I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a pull towards the west coast. I’m biased though, I love LA…

So what's next?

I’m trying to wrap up my next spec script now while at the same time playing with ideas for story I’ll work on after.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Parallel development or "There's no such thing as a unique idea"

Why is it so hard to get someone to read your script? Why do I get so pissed when someone emails me their screenplay unasked?  (And we've covered this before, if you send me a script unsolicited and your response is anything other than "I'm sorry" after I tell you why that's an unwelcome thing to do, YOU are the asshole in the situation.)

Short answer: legal reasons.  I don't want to get sued down the line should I have some connection to a project that bears any resemblance to your idea.  This is the same reason that most companies demand that you sign a release before submitting your script.  One of the clauses in a standard release is that you waive your right to sue should the company eventually release a project similar to yours.

Not that this stops the wave of lawsuits.  There are plenty of successful films that have to contend with nuisance lawsuits claiming the original idea was stolen from them.  Less than two months ago, James Cameron fended off yet another lawsuit containing such allegations.  I almost never believe the allegations of theft. True theft of ideas is a lot rarer than parallel development.

I should know. This week I had at least my third instance of a project being announced that bore similarities to something I had been working on for a while.  I'm not going to name the project, but the concept is disturbingly similar to a pilot I've been working on with a friend of mine.  There's no obvious link between us and them, nor do I think that the other writers could have seen our work through anyone we gave it to.  This just happens to be one of those cases where someone else happened on the same idea we did.

My hope is that our script might still be alive and viable if this other project fails to get traction.  If I'm really lucky, in a year or so, few will remember it.  If they do, it might hamper the project, or worse, they might assume WE swiped the concept.  Having said that, you can't copyright ideas and I have a feeling that our particular expression of this idea is already different from where the other creators have gone.  Just because our concept can't go out now, it doesn't mean it will never have its day.

Case in point: in 2007 I wrote a spec screenplay that was a sequel to The Wizard of Oz. I cast it as a sequel to the original book (which was in the public domain) not the movie.  I made it a bit darker and more mature.  Not brutal, though.  Think of it as being more in the tone of the Harry Potter films.  In this way, it's a bit similar to what was eventually done with OZ: The Great & Powerful, though they went the prequel route.  The week I started sending it to people also happened to be the week that Warner Bros announced they were developing a "revisionist take" on The Wizard of Oz that would be "a dark, edgy and muscular PG-13, without a singing Munchkin in sight.”

An agency friend revealed to me that another studio was quietly developing their own Oz take, but I opted to send this out to a few management contacts as well as query a few other possible reps. Let me give you an idea how long ago 2007 was - I actually had to explain to more than one rep that The Wizard of Oz was in the public domain and that there were no rights issues so long as everything was derived from the books.  And even then - get this - a couple of them were STILL dubious that any studio would want to risk competing with the memory of such a beloved classic.

Yes, just six years ago, the idea of strip-mining every fairy tale in public domain was so novel that fairy solid reps were ignorant of some of the legal loopholes.  Those days seem quite far away now that we're in a pilot season that has seen Oz-inspired projects developed at CBS, NBC, CW and SyFy

Gee, those earlier Oz efforts sure killed the market for L. Frank Baum's material, didn't they? I sometimes wonder if I should have tried reviving my script but by the time fairy-tale adaptations became bigger, I was focusing on using my contacts for scripts that I felt were stronger and more likely to hook representation.

The most painful instance of a similar project came relatively recently.  My senior year in college, I made a short film about a teenage girl who finds out she had been cloned as a child.  In a story exploring nature vs. nurture, she comes face-to-face with her own clone, a very different person from her.  I wasn't happy with how the idea came out, largely because it was a pretty big idea to squeeze into eight minutes.  I spent some time trying to reimagine it as a feature, but even that wasn't working.

And then the idea hit me - do it as a series! That would give me the breathing room to explore the mythology and more importantly, it would really allow me to explore the lead character and her clones in depth.  It could be a fantastic acting showcase for the lead actress - sort of like how Alias and Dollhouse demanded their leads take on multiple personalities.  I brought on a friend to co-write it with me and it became a project we worked on in between our other screenplays.

For various reasons, this pilot became a lesser priority for a while.  We'd gotten a few drafts done and had plans to revise further.

And then I learned about the show Orphan Black.  Dammit.

I have very specifically NOT watched Orphan Black. All I know of it is the basic premise, which gets uncomfortably close to my idea.  For all I know, the execution and tone could be completely different from what we planned.  The mythology is almost certainly different.  Still, my basic problem remains that I can't pitch the show to anyone without them saying, "Oh, like Orphan Black."

I hear it's a great show. I just can't bring myself to watch it.

But because this has happened to me three times, I'm well aware that there's no such thing as a completely unique idea.  The important things to take from this are: Work hard to develop your ideas quickly, know that today's hard-sell can quickly become tomorrow's trend, and hope that the fact a similar premise has been done before doesn't necessarily mean that it can't still be useful.

Oh yeah - and your idea isn't as unique as you think it is.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A couple of Black List updates

There has been some recent news with the Black List that I'm sure will be of interest to many readers of this blog.

First, on Tuesday they released their comprehensive stats for the first year.  The massive data dump highlights one reason I really have a lot of respect for The Black List - the total transparency.  There's no smoke and mirrors here.  Here's the data, use it wisely.

Then yesterday, the Black List announced that they are now hosting TV pilots.  I know this is a feature that many have been clamoring for all year.  There's a thread over on Done Deal Pro where Black List creator Franklin Leonard regularly answered questions about the site and damned if he didn't get asked about TV pilots on every page.  In that regard, I can't blame the site for giving the audience what it wants.

On the other hand, I have reservations about how successful this new feature will be.  I suppose that it's possible that agents and manager will use these spec pilots as a way of discovering new talent, just as they have with the spec screenplays.  However, my gut tells me that we're not going to see many sales off of the site.  TV works differently from film and it's incredibly rare for spec TV pilots to sell from first-timers.  They're more frequently useful as writing samples.

My advice to those of you thinking of submitting pilots would be to calibrate your expectations accordingly.  Your goal should be to get repped. Don't expect to have a network knocking on your door looking to buy it or a show-runner inviting you onto staff based on your spec pilot.

Of course, I will be very happy to be proven wrong.

The press release follows:


LOS ANGELES – This morning, the Black List’s online script database (http://www.blcklst.com) launched its long awaited expansion into television and episodic scripted content. 

Beginning today, writers from around the world will be able to upload their original pilot scripts (and, optionally, their series bibles) to the script database, request evaluations by professional script readers, and make their scripts available to the Black List's growing membership of industry professionals, currently over 2,000 members. Writers will be able to categorize their scripts in a near infinite number of ways, including but not limited to multi-cam/single-cam, procedural/serialized, length of season, prospective number of seasons, and more than 60 genres and over 800 tags.

“Writers and industry professionals have been asking us about a television version of the site since we launched our feature script service last year. We’re excited to roll it out now in a way that can accommodate conventional television, miniseries and web series scripts,” said Black List founder Franklin Leonard. “The goal of this new venture parallels the mandate of the feature film script hosting service: make it easy for those making episodic content to find great scripts and writers, and help those with great scripts get them to people who can do something with them. I’m very optimistic that we can repeat the success we’ve had since our film launch: more than 13,000 downloads of uploaded scripts, more than four major agency and management company signings, one two-script blind deal at a major studio, one produced film, and more than twenty sales for writers living as far away from Hollywood as Ireland and Sweden.”

As with feature film scripts, writers will pay $25 per month to host and index each of their pilots (and if they so choose, the series bible at no additional charge) on the Black List’s website, accessible only by a closed community of industry professionals (and by their fellow writers if they choose to make them available.) They can further pay for evaluations by professional script readers hired by the Black List. Evaluations for pilots meant to be longer than 30 minutes will cost $50, just like feature scripts, and those meant to be 30 minutes or less will cost $30.

WGA East and West members will be able to list their material free of charge (without hosting it), just as they can with their film scripts.

Also, just like with film scripts hosted on the site, reminded Leonard, “writers retain all rights to sell and produce their work and are free to negotiate the best deal they can get. All we ask is an email letting us know of their success.”


Since 2005, the Black List has become one of Hollywood’s primary arbiters of taste in scripted material. Begun as an annual survey of several dozen executives’ favorite unproduced film scripts, the 2012 edition surveyed over 300 executives, over 60% of Hollywood’s studio system’s executive corps.

The Black List, run by founder Franklin Leonard and CTO Dino Sijamic, now includes the annual list of most-liked unproduced screenplays, the membership community and “real time Black List,” the Black List blog - home of Scott Myers’ “Go Into the Story” and Xander Bennett’s “Screenwriting Tips… You Hack” - and the Black Board, the free online discussion community moderated by Shaula Evans.

225 scripts from the annual Black List have been produced as feature films grossing over $19 billion in worldwide box office. Black List scripts have won 35 Academy awards – including three of the last five Best Pictures (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, THE KING’S SPEECH, and ARGO) and seven of the last twelve screenwriting Oscars (JUNO, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, THE KING’S SPEECH, THE SOCIAL NETWORK, THE DESCENDANTS, DJANGO UNCHAINED, and ARGO) – from 175 nominations. It is also solely responsible for bringing undiscovered writers and new material to the attention of Hollywood actors, directors, producers and financiers in tens of thousands of introductions per year. 2013 awards contenders SAVING MR BANKS, PRISONERS, LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER, and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET were all once scripts on the annual Black List.

Since October 2012, the Black List’s membership community has generated over 13,000 script downloads, more than forty major agency and management company signings, more than twenty script sales, one two-script blind deal at a major studio, and one produced film.