Thursday, January 31, 2013

Happy birthday, Homicide!

Today is the 20th anniversary of one of the greatest shows in television history, Homicide: Life on the Street.  You know all those people who annoy you by telling you you HAVE to watch The Wire because it's just the greatest show ever?  Well, I'm like the hipster version of those guys because many of the creatives behind The Wire were also behind Homicide, and I was a Homicide fanatic long before The Wire was even a glimmer in David Simon's eye.

Speaking of David Simon, the series was adapted from his non-fiction book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, covering a year he spent shadowing the detectives of the Baltimore Homicide Unit. It's a fascinating examination of the officers who "speak for the dead," and a great insight into the sorts of people who are drawn to that line of work. It's easy to see how someone would have read this and concluded there was enough depth to sustain an entire series.

There really had been no show like Homicide on TV.  It focuses on murder police, but is more character-driven than procedural.  The characters grew and changed to a greater degree than most of the principals who drive the Law & Orders and CSIs.  Visually, it was distinct too, shot on 16mm with handheld cameras and often with jarring jump-cuts.

And the writing... If you want to see a master class in how to write a pilot, check out the premiere episode "Gone For Goode," written by Paul Attanasio  In the span of 45 minutes, a fairly large ensemble is introduced and if you don't have a handle on each of the characters by the end, you haven't been paying attention.  The characters are so well-defined through their actions and dialogue that you'd swear this was an episode deep into the first or second season, from a point where the writers really had the show figured out.

And then there were scenes in "The Box" - the interrogation room.  Andre Braugher frequently shined in these moments as Frank Pembleton, master interrogator.  This scene is the first time we see him in action.

But the show wasn't all drama. It was frequently funny, sometimes even funnier than the sitcoms of the day. It was sort of like if Quentin Tarantino did a dialogue polish on Law & Order. Frequently, the show would lapse into funny exchanges that often revealed much about the characters and their philosophies.  It wasn't unusual for the show to take a few minutes and let Richard Belzer's Munch drop a new conspiracy theory on the squad, or have a few cops take an... unorthodox approach to getting a witness to talk...

And then just as frequently, it would hit you in the gut.

One episode that made a huge impression on me when I first saw it was a third-season episode called "Crosetti."  In it, Ned Beatty's Detective Bolander is given the unenviable task of investigating the death of one of the squad's own, Det. Crosetti.  Crosetti's body is fished out of the harbor in what is almost certainly a suicide.  Largely out of respect to Crosetti's partner, Meldrick Lewis (the fantastic Clark Johnson, who graces the screen too little these days), Lt. Giardello agrees to let the case be treated as "wrongful death."

The episode deals with the entire squad's reactions to the loss.  Bolander is frustrated by everyone's denial that their comrade killed himself; Giardello clashes with the bosses, who deny permission for an honor guard at the funeral; Pembleton and Bayliss provide moments of lightness as they deal with arranging the catering for the memorial service.

But it's Lewis's denial that forms the emotional core of the story, and it brings him into conflict with Bolander.  As Bolander pursues an answer he can never get ("Why did he do it?"), Lewis does his best to get to Crosetti's friends first and block them from saying anything that would support the suicide theory.  And that's where we pick this up...

Lewis's breakdown gets me every time I watch it.  The way you can almost see him feel the room spin around him, the undignified way his voice breaks as he finally gives in to the truth, and then his collapse in Bolander's bear hug.  These aren't touchy-feely guys, and so when we see this kind of display from them, it just guts you.

I've talked before about how I ran a half-hour drama series for two years in college.  It sort of aspired to be a WB-type show, though I'll admit that our ambitions often exceeded our grasp.  Part way through the first season, I started planting seeds for a later storyline that would see one character ending up in a dark place emotionally and the other characters coming to her rescue.

I presented the idea to my fellow writers, and no matter how many times I denied it, they were convinced I'd been inspired by a different "serious" episode of a show.  See, Buffy the Vampire Slayer's "The Body" had aired just a few weeks prior to this and they were all "Oh, you want to write your version of 'The Body.'"

No. That's also a great hour of television, but if I'm being honest, I don't want to write "The Body." But I'd die a happy man if I ever write anything as masterfully done as "Crosetti."  It manages to be a powerful and standout episode without feeling too aggressively a departure from the norm.  "The Body" is clearly a very different animal from most Buffys, but "Crosetti" is pure Homicide, through and through.

If you want to see how to write great characters, watch Homicide.  It was a show ahead of its time, and 20 years later, it still feels unlike few other shows on TV.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Webshow - "Dream Sequences suck!"

There are few things that script readers hate to read more than dream sequences. In this week's segment, I point out the ways that hacks abuse this element. Most of the time, a dream scene isn't essential to the story in a good script.

The video segments might be taking a little break.  I'm working on a new screenplay this month, so that's where my priorities are at the moment.  Fear not! You'll see more of the puppet before you know it!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Tuesday Talkback: A follow up to the VHS post

I have an interesting post-script to yesterday's "challenge." V/H/S producer Brad Miska actually got in touch with me via Twitter yesterday, reaching out to reply. Those of you who follow both of us may have seen this go down. As this was a public Twitter conversation, I don't think he'd have much issue with me sharing some of his reaction:

"One response: should we add female directors just because people demand it? That would be like saying happy birthday to someone after they reminded you that you forgot. It has to be genuine and from heart. We didn't avoid female directors, and adding a woman "just because" is insulting to females." 

That is a valid concern to raise, and I understand other points made about not wanting it to feel like a woman was brought in to fill a quota. That sort of thinking rarely leads to rewarding creative work. However, the way I approach the situation is that the first batch of filmmakers was recruited seemingly because their work suggested a diverse range of strengths and the first V/H/S also set a precedent by including up-and-comers Radio Silence.

Let me be clear, I don't think it was sexist that all the directors on the first V/H/S were male. For all Bloody Disgusting knew, this was a one-time experiment that might disappear into bargain DVD bins almost immediately. I don't blame them for bringing in mostly directors with whom they had an existing relationship. However, now that it's certain that V/H/S is an ongoing franchise that has diverse filmmaking points of view hard-wired into its DNA, I don't see anything hinky about seeking out a female point-of-view to add a different voice to the chorus.

If I understand Brad correctly, he's already working on that, as he further tweeted, "I've been incredibly open to press as to which female directors I want to be included. And it's not because they're female. I want these specific female directors to be involved because they're supremely talented, not because it need[s] [to] fill [a] quota. Again, we don't have a clubhouse with a giant sign that says 'no girls allow[ed].'"

I got the sense that Brad had gotten some drubbing over this issue before, and I noted that it was hard to ignore certain themes that arose (albiet mostly unintentionally) from the first film. Even though each segment was produced in isolation from the others, when you put them together leads to certain connections in the viewer's mind. When certain tropes recur within minutes of each other (the "obligatory tit shot," for one), the audience is likely to become more aware and more sensitive to some of the more uncomfortable meanings.

The point I'm trying to eventually reach is, the whole takes on a deeper resonance than the individual parts. It's basically the difference between listening to a great song as a single and then appreciating it in context on the full album. Putting those six shorts together causes their meaning to undergo a transformative experience. Things that weren't designed to connect end up reinforcing each other.

I tweeted a distilled version of this reaction, which Brad seemed to understand, "Oh, for sure. Although, nearly every female in VHS is secretly the protagonist and gives the men what they deserve. If anything, to me, VHS is about the male gaze and how WE act."

I agree with that to a point, but I'll only go so far as to say that couldn't have been the intended theme from the start, for each of the directors worked in isolation.  However, I can accept that that is what the film itself says about the people behind the camera.

But I'll throw it to you guys.  Is Brad right that can be construed as sexist to seek out female directors specifically for their gender? For those of you who have seen the film, does it make a difference if you approach it the way Brad does, as a commentary on the male gaze?

Let me also say this - Brad made a point of saying that he listens to his critics, and one area in which we were in agreement is that you can't shut out critical reaction entirely.  A film is a conversation with its audience.  I think it's important to be receptive to that sort of dialogue.  That doesn't mean every critic is going to be right, or that one needs to bend over backwards to please those critics.  Make the film you want to make, but if your creation provokes a reaction, engage it.

So whatever you think of Brad's position, at least respect that he was open to the dialogue.  (That's my way of saying engage this debate as you see fit, but let's try not to get too personal here.)

Monday, January 28, 2013

A challenge to the producers of V/H/S and S-VHS

If you've been following the news out of Sundance, you probably heard that the found-footage horror sequel S-VHS debuted to strong reviews.  Many proclaimed the sequel to be stronger than the original V/H/S. One reviewer told me via Twitter that it felt like all the filmmakers involved with this installment had watched the Radio Silence segment in the first movie and went, "Got it." 

(In the interest of full disclosure, I'll state outright that I'm good friends with the team Radio Silence, who were responsible for the final segment in the original film. In fact, I interviewed most of them back when they were still called "Chad, Matt & Rob.")

Another viewer echoed that sentiment and said that in addition to S-VHS starting at the level of the Radio Silence short and building on that, there was no "accidental misogyny."  This got my attention, as a frequent topic on this blog is the sexualization of violence in horror films and the often-gratuitous nudity that accompanies that. I have to admit, when I saw V/H/S, I couldn’t help but notice the frequent uses of those tropes to a sometimes exploitative degree.

For those who haven't seen it, the original V/H/S is an anthology found-footage horror film made up of six segments by different directors. Pretty much everything good and bad about found footage can be found here.  Some segments are excellent, others range from terrible to pointless.  Out of those six segments, three feature female nudity – more than one instance of such in two of those segments. Of the remaining three shorts, two of those star male characters behind the camera who attempt to use it to leer at their female targets.

An aside to the teenage boys watching this who now have a reason to get the film on VOD – You’re welcome.

Look, I like boobs. Who doesn’t? I don’t see anything wrong with adding a little visual appeal to a film, and I’m well aware that topless shots add marketability to a project. I’d be lying if I said I never rented a movie to see boobs. When I was a teenager, I didn’t exactly watch Fast Times to see the riveting work of Judge Reinhold and Taylor Negron.

But there’s a certain point where a film contains so much leering it can’t help but feel excessively gratuitous. When two or three consecutive segments indulge in getting their female leads topless it’s not a huge leap to think that the filmmakers are taking as much advantage as their characters are.

Also of note, in all of the segments with female nudity also feature male protagonists whose attitudes range from “douchebag” to outright villainous. The Radio Silence segment is the only one that doesn’t deal with such male leads. In most of the other films, the men are presented as predators who get what’s coming to them. (But they were totally asking for it, amiright ladies?)

We’ve come a long way. It used to be that horror movies would punish the slutty girl for being sexually active. Now, it seems that the men get killed for their hormones, but not before they get an eyeful. (Or in some cases, a handful.)

I’ve seen interviews where the directors defend themselves against the accusation that the female nudity is gratuitous. Their position is that the point of the film is to punish these guys for their sleazy ways, not to celebrate them. Yeah, sure. You guys buy that, right? Maybe if it was a theme in one of the movies, but for five directors to arrive at that exact same message simultaneously? What’s more logical – that a quartet came up with the exact same feminist theme? Or that at least a few of these guys really just wanted some boobies in their short?

Oddly, if these works came from a female director, we could buy that as an intentional statement. But when men put forth that sort of feminist argument, it seems disingenuous. It sounds like some bullshit justification for the nudity. And if it’s not bull, then the message comes across as guys punishing themselves for their own sexual urges, as if they’re ashamed of or embarrassed by them.

Maybe I’m being unfair to some of these guys, many of whom were responsible for entertaining segments in the film. But when five out of six segments all tread on the same theme or very close to the same theme, what conclusion would you draw?

I'm glad to hear that S-VHS seemingly doesn't make this same mistake.  Since the reaction to this sequel almost certainly means that the producers are working on assembling their teams for a third installment, I'd like to issue a challenge to the V/H/S team.  For part three try to involve as many female directors as possible. Seeing six shorts from a group of male directors showcased some of the themes uppermost in their minds. It’d be interesting to see if there was a similar symmetry if the gender politics were completely skewed.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Webshow - "Writing with copyright-protected concepts"

I suspect this week's video will get some discussion going.  The Bitter puppet discusses why it's a bad idea to write a spec based on characters and concepts that one does not own.

Don't forget to subscribe by going to the YouTube page!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Is it all or nothing? And what makes a script generic?

Dennis wrote in with a question:

Do you get rocked by an amazing character and say "The plot sucks, but I'd like to spend more time with that character?" 

Or do you occasionally say "What a grab f-ing story. We could spice up the characters?" 

Or do you only let the whole pizza, with all the toppings get by?

This is kind of a case-by-case basis. I've certainly written up coverage that says something along the lines of "The main character is fun, but the premise and the plot are garbage."  Just as surely I've written, "The concept is very clever and marketable, but the script is marred by some cardboard characters and leaden plotting."

As to how much a bad lead character can hurt an awesome concept, that's something that depends on the degree of the "badness" and the ingenuity of the script's virtues.  Some scripts are fixer-uppers that can easily be flipped, while others are money pits.  For the most part, you can tell the difference between the two, and that can also be influenced by a host of other elements like: who's attached to the script, how similar films like it have done recently, what sort of project are we looking to do, and so on.

The takeaway from the writer's perspective should be that you can't count on any single aspect of the script to save your ass.  Write the best damn script you can, the best damn characters you can, and have a unique plot that we haven't seen before.

Along those lines, Jeffrey asks:

I came across your blog and wanted to ask you something (not to read my screenplay though) - I presume that you spend your time head in hand (for possibly only the first ten pages) that you're reading a generic screenplay. And that's what I want to ask about. If one isn't populating the fictional world with Pynchonian weird characters, or writing Diablo Cody swearing couplets - what are some of the signs of dreaded genericism. 

I realize that this is a very open ended question, and I'm just some idiot (probably one of many) emailing you with (inane) questions, but if you'd indulge ms with a little of your wisdom, that would be great.

 It's a hard question to answer.  For me, it's if I can tell where the script is going to go long before it gets there.  Some things are obvious - if this is a romantic comedy, the couple introduced at the start is probably going to end up together.  That's a gimmie. My beef starts if the road to getting there is predictable.

Does the couple bicker and deny their feelings for a long time?
Do they get together on a contrived date that strains to be wacky?
Is there a misunderstanding that causes one member of the couple to believe the other has cheated on them?
Does said misunderstanding somehow involve a slutty friend/co-worker/rival who has been set-up as promiscuous from the start?
If a workplace romantic comedy, is someone up for promotion?

In horror films you could make a similar list that details the sorts of characters along for the ride (the good girl, the jock, the geek, the slut, the stoner and the fat guy/wacky comedy relief), the order of the kills, the pacing of the kills, the fact that someone WILL be killed in a state of undress, the liklihood that at somepoint, someone will run through the woods and another person will probably take a shower or skinny dip....

I think you get my point.  It's when the same familiar beats get executed without any irony or self-awareness.  Cabin in the Woods works because it takes all those horror cliches and puts them in a context where the people pulling the strings know that they're cliches and NEED those cliches to play out.  In doing so, the film says something about the nature of horror films and our love of the genre.

A generic film has nothing to say. It simply is. It's like a mynah bird - it can talk, but only by repeating what it's already heard.

Friday, January 18, 2013

"Everything you EVER wanted to know about about THE AVENGERS movie"

My friend Clint sent me this fantastic (and very long) article that serves as a breakdown of THE AVENGERS.  It's a great examination of the film scene-by-scene, breaking down structure, character motivations and plot development.  Todd Alcott does a wonderful job as our guide through the film.

The Oscar nominations were announced the other day. To no one’s surprise, the screenplay for The Avengers was not among them. That’s a shame, because the screenplay for The Avengers is a startling model of precision, density and propulsion. It manages to juggle no fewer than ten wildly disparate main characters in its ensemble cast and give each of them weight, clarity and purpose. Dear readers, I’ve worked on many a comic-book movie, none of which ever got near production. To get one superhero narrative to work is damn near impossible; The Avengers soars with seven. 

We begin with a blue cube on a black screen. That’s the Tesseract. What is the Tesseract? Well, assuming the viewer has not seen Thor or Captain America, the answer is “Who knows?” But the Tesseract is the very first thing mentioned in The Avengers. It is, of course, the maguffin of the movie, the object around which the narrative revolves. That it has been mentioned in previous movies doesn’t matter. In a lot of ways, and this is an important concept, what the maguffin of any narrative is doesn’t matter. It is “an object of consequence,” and that’s all you need to know.

Read the rest here.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

I wrote it, now what do I do with it?

Mario asks:

Let's say you're an unrepped writer and that you've written what you believe to be the next hot property. To whom would you submit it first? 

With an abundance of contests, producers and web-hosting venues creating an atmosphere in which a potential hit could easily be labeled a dog, how would you ensure that your material gets objective attention?

Well, if it was me, my first recourse would be to submit to people I directly know in the business.  (And this usually comes after I've vetted the script through many, many readers whom I trust.)  I'd work every direct connection possible in search of finding someone willing to pass it on, take on the script, or otherwise work to advance the project.

Failing that, my next stop would be The Black List 3.0, for many of the reasons that we've discussed time and again.  I think the "do no harm" policy is a great way to test the waters.  If you're worried that your script will get some bad reactions on the site, you can always pull the script and the listing, so it won't impede any further queries that you do.

Step three would be targeted queries.  Notice the use of the word "targeted."  It's gotten very easy to dig up a bunch of email addresses for agents and managers.  The bitch of this is that if it's easy for you, it's easy for everyone else.  In the old days, if  you wanted to query an agent, you usually had to do your research, track down addresses and pay for postage to send your query.  With all those obstacles in place, there were fewer people submitting blindly.  They took the time to research their targets and the expense of sending snail-mail kept them somewhat in check.

That's not the case in the electronic age.  Today a simple Google search will probably locate an archive of email address.  The lazy submitter will havest those and blindly blast out the same query to several hundred people.  (The really lazy types will do it all at once as a bcc.)  On the other end of the internet, those emails will be treated like the spam they are and summarily deleted.

So when you go the query route, really take some time to research the reps who are most likely to respond to your material and craft your query accordingly

Then after that, that's when I'd turn to contests and fellowships.  But be smart about which competitions you chose to enter.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Webshow - "Asking someone to read your script"

Every writer needs feedback - but a lot of those writers could use lessons in how to politely ask someone to read their script. This week, I offer some dos and don'ts for imposing on people to look over your work.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Black List 3.0 gets two more writers signed!

Looks like the signing of Justin Kremer was just the beginning. Deadline is reporting that two more writers have gotten representation after having put their scripts on the Black List 3.0's script hosting site.

Bob Ingraham has signed with Benderspink on the strength of his submission POSSUM, with a logline that reads, "When a vulnerable, autistic man is used thieves to commit a heist, it turns out he has remarkably valuable skills."  The Black List reader raved about it, saying, "POSSUM is a clever and thrilling heist film with interesting characters. With the great action and emotional relationships, it could find success across all four quadrants if ever produced."

The script was a Semifinalist in Nicholl and Chesterfield competitions, and a Project Greenlight Top 100 script.  Deadline says the script is being prepped to go out under a new title.

Also, Richard Cordiner has signed with Verve and Kaplan/Perrone after they responded positively to his script THE SHARK IS STILL WORKING.  The script is a behind-the-scenes look at the filming of Jaws, with a logline that reads, "When his big break finally arrives, an idealistic young movie director, Steve Spielberg, comes up against the one star he cannot control: a recalcitrant 25-foot model shark."

I have to admit, this one tickles me a bit because I've been saying for years that there's a great movie to be made about the turmoil that was Jaws's production.  Oh well, perhaps I'll have to write about the odyessy that was the making of Jaws: The Revenge instead.

Congrats to both gentlemen!  Let's hope this is the first of many more signings.

Tuesday Talkback - Worst retcon?

I saw the pilot for The Carrie Diaries a while back and was somewhat surprised to discover that I found it rather cute and charming.  Given that I can't take more than 30 seconds of Sex & The City without wanting to vomit at the terrible acting and the worse puns.  (Full disclosure: thanks to my wife being a fan, I've seen about six full episodes... and one of those I've ended up seeing at least three times.  If your curious, it's the one with SJP and her current boyfriend having their cabin weekend ruined by Detective Logan from Law & Order.)

Anyway, I read a few reviews of the show today and one of them led me to this article complaining that Carrie's backstory in The Carrie Diaries is incompatible with what audiences learned of her history on Sex & the City.  And now an entire generation of Manolo Blahnik-wearing fans get to learn a term familiar to anyone who's read comics for any decent length of time: retcon.

"Retcon" is short for "retroactive continuity."  Basically, it refers to when some element of backstory is reestablished after the fact.  Over the years, it's mostly been used to call out examples when the new elements clash with older elements (as in the above example), but it can also refer to instances where the new detail fits in perfectly and brings new depth to the story.  Darth Vader being revealed as Luke's father is an example of this.  When Vader was introduced, it wasn't set in stone that he was going to turn out to be Anakin Skywalker, so the decision to go in that direction in Empire Strikes Back is a clear retcon.

This sort of thing happens a lot in comics, where new creators love to come in and say "Everything you know is a lie!"  Sometimes they work, but often they just make stories more confusing.  I don't know WHY comic creators like meddling with characters origins.  All I know is that whoever gave Jeph Loeb (in 2000's "Return to Krypton") and later Mark Waid (in "Superman: Birthright") permission to muck around with what had been a consistent Superman origin since 1986 deserves a kick in the balls.  That really ruined several years of stories as later writers tried to make sense of the mess they left.

I'm sure everyone reading this has seen some kind of retcon, so what are your least favorite examples?  TV is full of minor examples like the Cunninghams having an older son who only existed for a few episodes on Happy Days, or Jerry Seinfeld referring to his sister on Seinfeld before later episodes reaffirmed he was an only child.

But the big ones can really put you off of a show.  The example that leaps immediately to mind for me is from the TV show Brothers & Sisters.  I had checked out the show early in its run due to the involvement of Greg Berlanti, who among many other great shows, created Everwood, one of my all-time favorite series.  The first few eps didn't grab me, but I was motivated to return about 2/3 of the way through the first season when they added Everwood's Emily VanCamp to the cast.

VanCamp was introduced as Rebecca, who soon discovered she was the illegitimate daughter of the Walker family's deceased patriarch.  This led to a lot of conflict with the Walker siblings, but Rebecca soon was welcomed into the family... for about a season.  Towards the end of the second season, the writers reversed course and revealed that - SURPRISE - Rebecca was never a Walker at all.  So a full year's worth of stories about the family coming to terms with her presence and Rebecca dealing with gaining such a large family suddenly seemed to be rendered null and void.

(Supposedly this change was made so they could capitalize on the chemistry between VanCamp and David Annable, whose relationship on the show was that of siblings until the Rebecca retcon removed any hint of incest.)

At that point, I felt like they'd pushed an unneccesary reset button on Rebecca, and as she was the character who had gotten me into the show, I found myself with little incentive to stick around much past the start of the following season.  It's a shame because the show was generally well-acted and the writing was usually pretty solid, but that twist broke a lot of my investment in the characters.

Actually, that was the real shame.  I wanted to keep enjoying the show and there was a lot there that still was working (evidenced by the fact it ran a further three seasons).  The Rebecca aspect was just one aspect of a very large show, after all.  Thing is, there's a risk that comes with taking chances and sometimes your audience isn't going to be able to follow you after certain choices.  A viewer less invested in Rebecca's story might have rolled with the punches better.  For me, it had been one of my favorite aspects of the series, so the change-up was a bitter pill to swallow.

So do you have any similar examples?  What retcons have earned your ire?

Monday, January 14, 2013

"Are readers biased against scripts from smaller reps?"

Cameron writes:

Hello bitter script reader... First off, I enjoy the blog--and I really like the youtube videos as well. 

Second I was hoping you could shed some light on something I've been thinking about. I'm currently fortunate enough to finally break through that first tough barrier of getting representation. There are several agencies/management companies I'm currently considering. I know you have a long history of reading screenplays for various places--and probably know a ton of other readers as well. 

I was curious if there was any bias you've ever seen amongst readers when you get sent scripts--lets say from CAA vs. a boutique agency or Circle of Confusion vs. small independent manager. 

Do companies/readers take "bigger" agency/management submissions more seriously than a smaller ones? I would love to think that the writing will simply speak for itself, but from what you seen is this true?

The first time I read this, my gut reaction was "No, not at all.  I don't think that has ANY bearing on the read."  But then I thought about it a little more and realized the following issues MIGHT come into play.

- Scripts from bigger agencies probably will be read faster.  This has less to do with reader bias and more often to do with the fact that the exec who needs the coverage will assign a higher priority to a script that comes in from a more reputable source.  On that count, all you're really losing is time, though.

- If a submission comes in from one of the bigger agencies and it REALLY sucks, odds are we might be subconsciously harder on it.  Probably every reader has finished a particularly bad script and thought "CAA reps this guy?!  How the hell did that happen?"  But again, that's a problem for the bigger repped writer, not necessarily you.

- The one instance where having a lower-level manager might hurt you is if your rep has shoveled a LOT of shit to my company lately.  I'm not talking about the "Eh, it's not for me" kind of PASS, nor the "Generic on every level" PASS.  I'm talking about the "I don't believe anyone in your office read a fucking word of this script because this is so bad  you'd be embarrassed for people to find it in your trash!"  (And yes, these guys exist.)  That's when you really start off on the wrong foot with me and then everything you do wrong in the script will go into my master thesis of why this particular rep should not get his calls returned.

But again, not that for this to be a problem, you have to have written a bad script.  Down on my level, there aren't many ways for a lower-prestige rep to screw you over.  Where the lesser rep might present a problem is in getting someone to accept their submission, but that's mostly a decision made above my level.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The ethics of script sharing

Last month, the new Black List was released and I was rather disgusted to see some of the usual reactions.  No, I'm not talking about people bitching that every script on that List sucked.  My ire was largely raised by the fact that within hours, people had compiled all of the scripts together in a zip file and posted the link for public download.

You could find it on Reddit, on Twitter, and even on a tracking board that charges its users for access to links like that.  In fact, the people behind that tracking board didn't just post the link, but were actively working to compile an archive of those scripts on their own.  That sort of thing doesn't sit well with me for a lot of reasons and - perhaps more importantly - it was clear it was not a welcome development in the eyes of several people ON the list.

This sparked a pretty interesting thread on Done Deal Pro.  (Notably DDP's moderators made it clear in no uncertain terms that posting a link to the scripts would not be tolerated, so kudos to them there.)  Several posters didn't quite understand what the big deal was and there was a (polite, it should be noted) request for people like myself to discuss our side of it.

One user, Anagram, gave a fairly succinct explanation of where the lines are drawn when it comes to the ethics of script-sharing.  I posted that I pretty much agreed with that, but there was a request for a more complete answer on my part.  Since some people here might find this interesting I decided to re-post it:

 - Any public review of a script without first obtaining permission of the writer - WRONG, for a whole host of reasons.

- Any public dissemination of a screenplay you didn't write, including but not limited to in-development projects and contest winners - WRONG.

You'll find zero negotiation from me on those points. Screwing over contest winners like Nicholl Finalists is something I find especially repugnant. I don't care how much anyone wants to read them, those winners deserve the chance to control who reads their script and know who in the industry is requesting their script. When websites and web posters make these scripts widely available, it deprives the winner of the joy of seeing everyone coming to him, wanting to look at their work.

Let's also make it clear that "public dissemination" means giving access to the script to people who you might not personally know. So if you're dropping scripts in a Sendspace folder that anyone can get to, that counts. Scriptshadow's email where he sends links to a "limited" list of a few thousand people? That counts.

Let's talk about the grey area people seem to want to find here...

 I don't think there's anything wrong with trading a script between friends, and it's understood between my friends that there are some scripts we can't share at all, and other scripts that if I pass it to them, they CANNOT pass it to anyone else. At the end of the day, that works because I'm accountable to them and they're accountable to me.

This is one reason why no one cares about assistants swapping scripts - because they're not going to fuck each other over. If Harvey's assistant gives a friend the new Tarantino script, that friend isn't going to jeopardize his buddy's job (and the friendship) by writing a review of it and emailing it to everyone in his contact list. In Assistant Land, there are consequences to that kind of thing and it basically keeps everyone in line. In Assistant Land, if you let the tentpole slip and the leak is traced back to you - it costs you your job.

But a writing hobbyist in, say, Idaho doesn't have that incentive. If they get JUSTICE LEAGUE or AVENGERS 2, what consequences keep them in line? Sure, there was that $15 million lawsuit over DEADPOOL, but the mere fact we're having this discussion means that clearly didn't scare anyone too much.

I only give scripts to people I know personally. And I have NEVER traded a script for a major film produced the companies I've worked for. I've been lucky enough to work for companies that have dealt in franchise films and nobody wants the grief that comes if those scripts get out.

I interviewed Scott Frazier recently, and damned if I didn't get people emailing me asking me to send them copies of his scripts. I was surprised at their boldness, but that's also the perfect example of someone I'd never give a script to. I don't those people. I don't know what they'll do with the script, where they'll post it. And they have no loyalty to me, so there's no real incentive for them NOT to screw me over.

Or here's an even better example.  Back when Scriptshadow was hyping up The Disciple Program for two solid weeks before his review, he didn't just slip it to a few trusted industry contacts.  He actually emailed it out to his entire newsletter three days before the script was reviewed.  Given the timetable that was later revealed this also would have been AFTER the script was in the hands of several agents and managers who were looking to sign the writer.

Blasting such a hot spec out to a newsletter of hundreds or thousands of people indiscriminately could have been a colossally stupid move.  At the time that newsletter was sent, a lot of people were trying to get their hands on the script and they all had to go through Carson.  Better still, it created a ticking clock where some agents and potential buyers were worried that their rivals had access that they didn't.  Thus, a fire was lit under them to react quickly if they wanted it.  Hesitation or inability to get the script could have meant missing out on a hot property.

This is the mentality you want your buyers to have to deal with.  It puts more power in your hands and it creates a bidding war.

Within an hour of the newsletter going out, three readers of MY blog had forwarded it onto me.  The emails were mostly variations of "Hey, this is the hottest spec in town and just in case you want it I figured I'd send it to you."  I'd never heard from any of these people before, and I'm pretty sure I haven't corresponded with them since.  They don't know me (outside of my blog).  They don't know who I work for.  They don't know what I'd do with the script or who I'd send it to.

But they knew this was a hot spec.  And it made them feel cool to show someone that they had it.  They had nothing invested in the writer's success or failure.  I doubt they even knew the writer.  They just were feeling the rush of having something they believed was desirable and wanted to show people that they were on the inside.

Maybe you don't see how dangerous that is, but when it's a script you're attached to, I guarantee you'll think differently.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Webshow: Being "good enough" as a screenwriter

Most aspiring writers don't appreciate how hard it is to be "good enough" to break in to the entertainment industry. And then there are the writers who think "good enough" means being just barely better than the latest bad movie released by Hollywood. In this week's ep of the webshow, I explain why the writers who make it are never satisfied with just being better than the worst of their peers.

Monday, January 7, 2013

DJANGO UNCHAINED, the value of ultimate evil and the need for revenge fantasies

Often writers will be advised to create complex, multifaceted characters. "The villain is the hero of his own story," they are told. Often, it's considered undesirable to have an antagonist who's just evil for evil's sake. And that's true. I've read many a script where I was put off because the bad guy was just one-dimensionally evil.

But one genre where you can get away with that sort of writing is revenge fantasy. These are the sorts of stories that exist to give a cathartic release to the audience by allowing them retribution against a horrible evil.

I've said before that the lone virtue of Nazis is that they have provided storytellers with the ultimate unsympathetic villain. You need to create an antagonist that the audience is in no way going to feel bad for, no matter how brutally they are punished? Make him a Nazi. You need your hero to kill 50 guys to prove his badassery, but are worried about the moral quandary of the good guy indiscriminately murdering people left and right? Make them Nazis.

No one will ever complain about how horribly a film depicts Nazis. Their entire existence is a horrible depiction. If a film showed a Nazi party member raping an altar boy, killing a horse, beating a woman and torturing a kitten, is anyone going to step up and say that besmirches the good name of Nazis everywhere?

Of course not.

Now try that with a Catholic Priest.

The fact that Hitler is the go-to comparison in an argument when someone wants to demonize their opponent is pretty much proof that it's impossible to be unfair when painting Nazis as evil. There are only a handful of groups that share that sort of reputation. Having used Nazis in Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino turned to another decidedly un-protected class in Django Unchained - viscous slave owners.

It's interesting that Tarantino gets attacked for the violence in his films, but more often than not, the people who die horribly in his films totally deserve what's coming to him. Again and again we're shown the worst of humanity - slave owners who sell human beings as chattle. They beat them, they brand them, they whip them. In one uncomfortable scene, Kerry Washington's character is debased by being thrown naked in a hot box, then later is nearly stripped for the amusement of her owner, who takes particular glee in showing off the whip marks on her back.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays one of the more prominent slave owners in the film and his performance is a major highlight.  We're used to seeing him play mostly intense and serious characters, so it's incredibly enteraining to see him taking such glee in playing such a loathsome character.

It's interesting how Tarantino handles the violence.  All of the "evil" violence is handled in a serious, unsettling way.  There's no tongue-in-cheek when it comes to the slave whippings and brandings.  But when the victimizers get what's coming to them, it's classic over-the-top violence.  This isn't Unforgiven.  This is no meditation on the morality of violence.  It's evil people getting what's coming to them.

I'd posit that we need these revenge fantasies.  We want to see some kind of horrible retribution visited on the monsters who murdered six. Million. Jews. in the Holocaust.  We need to see the people who sold and whipped other human beings get a taste of their own medicine.  Do they deserve to die?  (skip to :20. Stupid YouTube won't let me set it to embed there directly.)

That clip is from A Time to Kill.  It's a fantastic film with a somewhat troubling morality behind it.  Two southern rednecks beat and brutally rape a young black girl.  Though the men are arrested, there's an excellent chance that they will go free.  Unable to cope with that, the girl's father, played by Samuel L. Jackson, guns them down in the courthouse.  The rest of the film focuses on the prosecution of Jackson's character for capital murder.

It seems insane that the grieving father could be punished for avenging his daughter while the men who beat her might have been able to walk around as free men.  The film asks us to sympathize with vigilante justice.  Nay, it demands we do so.

In the real world, as much as we might sympathize with Jackson's plight, those men never faced their day in court.  They never were found guilty and so the presumption of innocence is something they're legally entitled to.  In the real world, the hero of our movie is a premeditated murderer.  Does passion excuse that?  Think of the West Memphis Three - three innocent men who lost nearly twenty years of their lives to wrongful murder convictions where child murders stirred up passions as intense as those in A Time to Kill.

But that's the real world.  Why don't we shed a tear for the bastards in A Time to Kill?  Because in "movie world," we are omniscient.  We KNOW they did it.  We SAW them do it and if it was in our power, we'd strangle them with our bare hand.  As viewers we are witness, judge, jury and executioner.

That is the power of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained.  Those horrible evils are beyond our capacity to punish.  But through the movies, we can take back a little control, and for a few hours, we can live in a world where evil people will not escape justice.  Tarantino taps into our primal need for this and provides us with movies that make us feel.

Strive for this in your writing.  Seek powerful scenes and moments that speak to what an audience needs to see, what they need to believe in.  Django Unchained doesn't fetishize violence for it's own sake, or for simple shock value.  There is a clear purpose to Tarantino's methods.