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.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Webshow: Worst Query Submission Ever

A fairly popular question when people find out what I do for a living is "What's the worst script you ever read?"  Honestly, after a decade in L.A., the vast majority of scripts I've read have faded far from memory.  There are the ridiculously awful ones that are impossible to erase, though.  This is the story of perhaps the most memorably awful of those.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Long, Troubled Future History of Back to the Future Part IV

November 12, 1955 - a seminal date for film fans, as that's the date of the famous Hill Valley lightning storm in Back to the Future.  It's the night that Marty McFly invents rock-and-roll at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance after getting his parents together and before using the Delorean to go back home to 1985.

It's also the date that Old Biff returns to when he delivers a sports almanac from the future to his younger self, and act that is responsible for an alternate 1985 that Marty and Doc have to undo in Back to the Future Part II.

So to celebrate that monumental day, I've written a piece over at Film School Rejects called "The Long, Troubled Future History of Back to the Future Part IV."  Yes, it's a look at the production history of the future sequel, 2015's most anticipated tentpole - Back to the Future Part IV.

Also, I neglected to plug this last week, but I had another piece up there recently called "Must There Be a Wonder Woman Movie?"

Check out Eric Heisserer's "150 Screenwriting Challenges" on Amazon Kindle

Feeling like you need to flex those creative muscles a bit to get them in shape for your next script?  Friend of the blog Eric Heisserer has just released a Kindle book called "150 Screenwriting Challenges."  You might remember Eric as the screenwriter of the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET reboot, FINAL DESTINATION 5 and THE THING reboot.  He also penned one of the most popular posts on my blog - an inside look at the path a screenplay takes through the development process.

These challenges began life as Twitter exercises Eric devised to sharpen writing skills.  A sample assignment:

Take a talky scene of yours and rewrite it so that no character speaks more than ten words total. If you want, you can instead borrow a talky scene from a movie or TV series. The point is to discover the bare essentials that must be said.

And then this one:

Write a monologue by a prophet whose prediction of a major event didn't come true. This is the "day after" speech.   How characters deal with shame, guilt, and betrayal through their own words is a crucial key to knowing how they will speak on more mundane topics. Are they confessional? Are they snide and vindictive, in search of a scapegoat? Are they in denial?

Eric's come up with a variety assignments that end up being a unique way to explore many of the fundamentals of screenwriting.  A lot of them actually remind me of some assignments from my screenwriting classes.

As of the time I'm writing this (10:45pm PST), 150 Screenwriting Challenges is listed as the #1 Best Seller in Screenwriting on Amazon, besting even Save the Cat!

It's only $4.99 so pick it up if you get a chance.

Friday, November 8, 2013

J.J. Patrow and Michael Palascak's "Interrogation" on Funny or Die

Longtime readers of the blog might remember the excellent guest post "The Same Old Three Acts" from J.J. Patrow where he essentially proved that all screenwriting gurus are basically saying the same thing in different words.  Well, Patrow recently directed a short called "Interrogation" which just went live on Funny Or Die.  The short was written by Michael Palascak, and I'd love for you to have a look at it.

It's only a minute long, so especially if you enjoyed Patrow's guest post, I'm sure he'd appreciate it if you check it out.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

12 YEARS A SLAVE is not just an important film, but a necessary one

I don't know if I've ever seen a film deal with slavery in the way that 12 YEARS A SLAVE does, and that's a good thing.  The film is based on the 1853 autobiography of the same name by Solomon Northrup, a free black man from New York who in 1841 is abducted and sold into slavery.  Here Solomon is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, whose expressive eyes are this film's secret weapon.  Ejiofor establishes an immediate connection with the audience.  We feel his pain in every scene - even when he doesn't speak.  Ejiofor is probably a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination and after seeing this, he might have even displaced my previous front-runner, Tom Hanks for CAPTAIN PHILLIPS.

12 YEARS is an unsettling film because of how it's the rare film about slavery that feels first-person from the perspective of the oppressed.  Usually, films set in the Civil War manage to center on a white protagonist who is of course, on the side of the righteous.  Even when evil white slavers abound, those films manage at least one prominent progressive thinker.  There's always a white man there fighting for what's right, metaphorically nodding his head at the antagonists and going, "These hillbilly assholes, amiright?"

We get no such relief in this film. The character we identify with is not some crusader who maintains a safe distance from the ugliness. Slavery is an evil, to be sure, but we're usually kept from the worst of it. John Ridley's screenplay and Steve McQueen's direction unfortunately don't afford us that separation.  The film is told exclusively from Northrup's perspective.  When he's given his first beating - the raw, brutal introduction to the fact that his life as a free man is over - we experience it almost as much as he does.

It's the sort of moment that makes one realize just how easy it is to have your own liberties taken from you.  It's impossible to watch that scene and not put yourself in Northrup's shoes.  The man beating him won't stop until Northrup ceases protesting that he's a free man.  All he has to do to make it stop is admit he's a slave.  In an action movie, our tough-guy hero would refuse to break, preferring death to debasing himself before his foe.  But here, where every lash makes us wince in empathy, we understand why Northrup realizes it's futile to fight, even as we understand we'd have given in ourselves.

The film chillingly captures how quickly a life in bondage meant keeping one's head down, looking out for oneself, and not rocking the boat, even if it means turning a blind eye to the suffering of a fellow slave.  Early on, Northrup is put on a boat bound for the south with several other slaves who have been wrongly kidnapped.  At first, it appears three of these men might work together, realizing their mutual plight.  However one of those slaves doesn't even make it to port alive.  The other is reclaimed by his legal master almost as soon as they dock.  Northrup calls after him as he rushes away, desperately hoping that the slave will tell his master that one of the other shackled men is a freeman.  But it's futile, the slave's know they have no rights and so they have no inclination to stick out their necks for each other.

This scene is echoed throughout the film, first when a female slave - hysterical after being separated from her children - is led away into the woods by two of the slave overseers. By then, we know that a best case scenario for her fate there is pretty unpleasant.  Northrup watches.. and does nothing. He continues going about his work. This is life on the plantation.  If a slave wants to survive, he doesn't cause trouble for himself.  It's an unconventional move for a film like this. It's the rare movie with the guts to show its hero standing by idly while a woman is dragged off to be beaten, raped and murdered.

This underlines another conceit of the film. Because we remain wedded to Northrup's experience throughout the film, we're not grated the respite of visiting life outside the plantation. There are no scenes of honorable men working to outlaw slavery. There are no scenes of Northrup's family trying to find it.  In short - there is nothing that allows the audience hope that we will see a conclusion to this living nightmare.

In a movie like TAKEN, though we might understand it's a horrible fate for the teenage daughter to be sold into sexual slavery.  As much as that might be the catalyst for the plot there, I don't know if the audience ever feels for the character.  Indeed, the threat of sexual slavery is played like an abstract concept in TAKEN. It doesn't feel as unflinchingly visceral as Northrup's enslavement here does.

There is no escapism here.  This is no fantasy.  Last Oscar season I praised DJANGO UNCHAINED for providing a cathartic revenge fantasy against slavers and those who collaborated with them.  This season I'm left to praise 12 YEARS A SLAVE for the opposite reason.  We don't get to see the slave owners beaten and humiliated.  There is no retribution against those who have gleefully dehumanized those they see as their "property." We feel every ounce of futility in the situation.  In the rare moments when Northrup shows some defiance, our first impulse isn't to cheer, but to be concerned that he's putting himself at risk.

Indeed, the time comes when he does cross some of the slave overseers and they promptly lynch him. Though his attackers are chased off before he's fully strung up, the noose is pulled tight enough that Northrup must stand on his toes to get any slack.  In an agonizing unbroken shot, we see him struggle to maintain his footing while the many other slaves continue to go about their business nearby.  They willfully ignore his plight, for making trouble would only land them in the same predicament.

The film starts off being a study in how slave masters dehumanize their "property" and in this scene, it's fully demonstrated how effective that is. The slaves come to even see each other as unworthy of help or human decency. There is no empathy for him, and as we watch in horror, we remember how earlier, Northrup himself turned a blind eye to similar suffering.

I couldn't help but think that the hypothetical "studio version" of this concept would have Northrup as a man of great resolve who never breaks, always does the right thing, and who spends the movie actively planning how to escape.  After all, cinematic narrative demands an active protagonist, doesn't it? There needs to be change in the character, a goal he's actively working for. Isn't that what we are lead to believe.  Think of this version as "The Shawshank Redemption of slavery."

But that's not what we get at all. Northrup breaks.  He surrenders to his circumstances because to do otherwise would provoke his death.  It's a critical storytelling decision that that really drives home the enormity of the living hell of being a slave.  McQueen wields that facet of the film with great care. If you don't walk out of this film moved by Northrup's experience, you might not have soul.

It would be simplistic to say this makes the film an extended exercise in the message "slavery is bad."  I imagined some hardened cynics might claim the script isn't more profound than that, and it is here where I would counter that a film is "about" more than it is about.  Years ago, I was quite critical of Crash, which for me, did amount to little more than a pretentious expression of the idea "Racism is everywhere and it's bad."  The film was about as unsubtle as a jackhammer wielded by Ace Ventura.  Every character seemed on the verge of breaking out into "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" from Avenue Q.

What keeps 12 YEARS A SLAVE from feeling equally heavy-handed is how personal it is. Crash proceeded from the extremely misguided notion that the only way to explore its theme was to show bigotry from all sides.  The main cast included over a dozen characters in interlocking stories, all united by the theme of race.  When that many characters share screentime, no one gets explored in depth, and thus everyone got reduced to an archetype (or stereotype if you're feeling ungenerous.)  There was less viewer empathy because the narrative kept switching gears like a web-surfer falling down a Wikipedia rabbit hole.

12 YEARS A SLAVE is as deeply personal as any film I've seen this year.  GRAVITY had the IMAX presentation and the 3D cinematography to draw the audience into the experience emotionally.  This film accomplishes the same feat largely on the back of Chiwetel Ejiofor's performance.  In a world where school textbooks are white-washing the history of slavery, 12 YEARS A SLAVE is not just an important film, but a necessary one.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Five questions with Cassian Elwes about the Black List Fellowship

Continuing from yesterday's post, Cassian Elwes was nice enough to answer a few questions about the Fellowship he's created with the Black List.

My first question: Why the Black List? What makes Franklin Leonard's site an attractive partner for a producer who has four films being circled by Oscar buzz this year alone?

I love what the Black List is about - identifying material that should be made into films and hasn't yet for one reason or another. In a way it energizes the people involved to actually get their movie made and also helps highlight their project to people looking for things to finance. We're trying to take that notion and put brand new writers in front of 'Hollywood. ' I know there are new voices out there looking for as way in and the Black List is a proven entry point

The Black List is going to send you ten scripts. I'm sure every writer wants to know "Will Cassian Elwes read my script in its entirety?" Do these go straight to you, or will you have one of your development people do coverage on them as a way of culling that ten down to a smaller number first?

I'm absolutely going to read the 10 scripts myself. I love finding great scripts. Anyone who knows me pretty well knows when I find something I like I'm relentless in seeing it get made. I'm not committing to finance the movie of the winner but chances are good that I will.

How much direction does the Black List team have as to what sort of material you might be looking for? Obviously the first prerequisite is that the writing be strong, but is it worth submitting if the writer doesn't have a period piece or a prestige adult drama? Is there a scenario where you might end up attached to, say, a high-concept script like THE TRUMAN SHOW?

It really doesn't matter what the script is about or what genre it is. A good script is a good script if I can see the movie in my head and it's a movie I want to see. If you look through my work I've done almost every kind of movie there is.

The purpose of the Fellowship is, in part, to allow a young writer to be mentored by you. Could this mean you might use the winning submission as a writing sample and attempt to develop a new property with the writer, or is your intent to select a script that you can guide and develop?

I'm looking for scripts that could be great independent movies. I want material that directors and stars would jump at so no, it's not about development, it's about production

What exactly does mentoring from Cassian Elwes entail? Is it analogous to a writer working with you on development of a script, or do you foresee more frequent, hands-on interaction with the writer?

I'm really hoping that I get to mentor someone who I can help guide to a long career and that I can have a long term professional relationship with. I know I have a lot to offer in terms of knowledge, relationships and access to financing. I envision this fellowship generating great movies which is what I'm all about.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Franklin Leonard answers some questions about the Black List's Cassian Elwes Independent Screenwriting Fellowship

You might have seen last week's announcement that The Black List has teamed up with producer Cassian Elwes (LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER, DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, ALL IS LOST, AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS) to create the Cassian Elwes Independent Screenwriting Fellowship, wherein one unrepresented writer with lifetime earnings not exceeding $5,000 with a screenplay of indie sensibility will receive an all-expense paid trip to the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and mentorship from Elwes himself.

Writers with scripts on the Black List or who have had scripts on the site since their October 15, 2012 launch will be able to opt into consideration for the opportunity until December 1, at which time a short list of writers will be shared with Elwes who will decide on one writer to make the trip. The Black List and Elwes plan to award the fellowship annually.

Black List creator Franklin Leonard was generous enough to take some time to answer a few questions I felt some writers considering the fellowship might be curious about.

How did Cassian Elwes come to be involved with The Black List?

Cassian came to us and said that he wanted to do something to support writers from outside the system who are writing scripts with an independent spirit, folks who were writing for the love of storytelling and not in the hopes of making a massive spec sale to the studio. We were honored by the outreach, and it was easy to find a way to do something from there.

So tell me about what I have to do to get Cassian Elwes to pick my script. Do I have to pay to host my script from now until the deadline? Do I need to buy an evaluation from you in order to qualify?  If so, do I stand a chance if my evaluation comes back lower than an 8?

You have to do two things: 1. Have your script hosted on the site for at least one week before 12/1. 2. Opt into consideration for the opportunity via the site. You don't have to buy an evaluation in order to qualify, but we will be basing our decisions on the short list on the data that we have about the scripts and buying an evaluation is the easiest way to create some data and catalyze others viewing, downloading, and rating a script.

I want to mention to that all of the data we've gathered to date will matter. So if you had a script hosted on the site in October and rehost it before the deadline, all of the evaluations, ratings, downloads, etc. that that script has ever accrued will still be incorporated into our decisions.

Each evaluation (and each rating for that matter) is just one person's opinion on a script. One low rating (or one below 8 rating) doesn't make it impossible to get selected, but obviously a script with multiple high scores is more likely to be selected than one with multiple low scores.

We're told "a short list of writers will be shared with Elwes" on December 1. Has Mr. Elwes given you any direction as to what sorts of scripts he's most interested in?  Do I stand a better chance of making the list if my script reads like a prestige drama like THE BUTLER or ALL IS LOST?

We'll be sharing 10 scripts with Cassian that are highly evaluated and bear the marks of an independent spirit based on their genre, logline, and likely budget specs.

I'll let Cassian handle the question about how he'll be making his decision from the 10 script short list.

Are there any prizes for the runner-ups?  Will the rest of the short list be publicized as a way of making them known to the screenwriting community?

TBD, but in all probability, we will share the short list after the Fellow has been selected. It's also important that people don't think of this as a contest or a prize. The Black List is an ongoing platform, and Cassian is essentially identifying an individual on that platform for a fellowship. It will be conducted in an ongoing way. This is just the first year.

What if the winning script is written by a writing team? Will both their trips and expenses be covered?

Expenses will be covered up to $5K. If it's a writing team, we'll do our best to make arrangements.

And while I've got you, I'm sure my readers would love to hear any figures you have on the Black List's first year of operation.  For instance, how many writers got representation as a result of putting their work on the site, at least that you know of?

We know of between 40 and 50 signings at major agencies and management companies through our first year. About two dozens sales and options. One of those from Ireland and another two from Sweden. Richard Cordiner has a two script blind deal at Warner Bros. Pictures, and there's one produced movie, NIGHTINGALE, starring David Oyelowo.

Have submission levels remained rather steady over the course of the year?  Has the participation met your expectations for the first year of activity?

With the exception of the inevitable initial burst of submissions during the first month, submissions have been climbing steadily since we launched.  As for expectations, if you had told me that we'd have more scripts submitted in our first year than any screenwriting competition has ever reported in a single year (including the Nicholl) I would have hoped you were right and thought you were crazy.

That's what happened though.

Another quick thing, the launch of episodic content (TV, webseries) is imminent. Definitely by the end of the month.

Come back tomorrow for Cassian Elwes himself answering questions and giving a little more detail about his hopes for the fellowship!