Friday, July 25, 2014

Future Filmmaker Friday - Iris, Campus MovieFest Winner for Best Special Effects

In honor of San Diego Comic-Con this week, how about a more geek-oriented short for this week's Future Filmmaker Friday?

This short is Iris, produced by the group Apeture Process at the College of New Jersey.  As with all Campus MovieFest entries, it was entirely produced in a week - a fact that will blow your mind when you see all the CGI and compositing it entailed.  I've listed all of the team members below but Joshua Lewkowicz was Captain as well Cinematographer, Editor, Writer, Foley.  It deservedly won the CMF Golden Tripod award for Best Special Effects.

This short looked fantastic on the large digital screens at the awards ceremony.  The colors are slightly less vibrant on YouTube, but it's still worth a look.

The rest of the team:
Andrew Kuserk - VFX, SpFX / Animator, Match Moving, Character Design, Writer
Steven Munoz - Actor
Alyssa Mangel - Producer
Ryan Laux - VFX, Compositing, Editing, Gaffer, Writer
Chris Lundy - Sound, Composer, VFX, Sound Design, Writer, BTS
Garrett Verdone - Voice Actor
Manuel A. Montiel - Voice Actor
Julie Rossi - Voice Actor, Catering

Also, some of you might remember Nicholas Sailer, whom I profiled two years ago after his film "The Strong One" won Best Picture and Best Director at the 2012 CMF Hollywood awards.  He recently let me know he'd finished directing his first feature, "Ipseity."  'd like to send him some congrats and give all of you a link to view his film online.

CMF is a wonderful program that goes to college campuses throughout the year and provides students with Apple laptops and Panasonic HD cameras to make short film within one week. Each school then has their own finale to select the best of the best, which then move on to the Grand Finale in Hollywood. Each week I'm going to spotlight another student film that impressed me.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Future Filmmaker Friday - "Forgot My Pants" from the College of New Jersey, via Campus MovieFest

Last week I presented you with a heavy drama from Campus MovieFest.  Now for something completely different...

If there had been an audience award at the Campus MovieFest Hollywood Awards Gala, this selection from "The Best Team" at The College of New Jersey would have surely taken top prize.  At one point during the ceremony, we were treated to a montage that featured a few moments from each of the Top 30 Films.  When "Forgot My Pants" came up, it seemed as if most of the crowd was spontaneously singing along with the tune.

It's utterly silly, but you can't deny the tune is catchy.  The committment to the joke for nearly a full three minutes somehow makes it even funnier.  These guys definitely have a sensibility that reminds me of The Lonely Island.  It's the perfect ridiculous way to start your weekend.

CMF is a wonderful program that goes to college campuses throughout the year and provides students with Apple laptops and Panasonic HD cameras to make short film within one week. Each school then has their own finale to select the best of the best, which then move on to the Grand Finale in Hollywood. Each week I'm going to spotlight another student film that impressed me.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Get a great book about TV by MTV programming president Susanne Daniels for $0.99!

It was during my late teenage years that I broadened my ambitions from making movies to wanting to create and write for TV as well.  It's pretty easy for me to look at two big factors that pushed me in this direction.  The first was the crop of solid dramas coming out of NBC at the time: Law & Order, ER and Homicide were the shows that made me realize how much depth and complexity TV could have.  Even today, I still consider the stories I saw them tell to be very influential on my own work.

The second wave of shows that spoke to me creatively were a large number of the dramas on the WB: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson's Creek, Angel, and Gilmore Girls, to name just a few.  The NBC dramas tended to explore adult characters in very institutional settings like hospitals and DA offices.  The WB told stories about younger characters, sometimes with a high-concept trapping and sometimes without.  But it's impossible to look at The WB's most successful shows and see not only some of the most original shows of the last 25 years, but some of the most celebrated creators as well.  That was the training ground for guys like Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams.

This is why I was drawn to the book Season Finale: The Unexpected Rise and Fall of the WB and UPN.  It's written by Susanne Daniels, who was one of the executives who built the WB and was with it for much of its run, and Cynthia Littleton, a longtime reporter for Variety.  Together, their perspectives add up to a fascinating period of TV history.  For me, personally, it also convinced me that Daniels is an incredibly sharp executive and that one of my goals is to work for her on a series.

And right now, Amazon is selling the Kindle version of this book for a mere 99 cents!  Trust me, it's well worth the price.  You can find it here.

At present, Daniels is the programming president over at MTV, a position she's held for just under two years.  It's a good fit, as MTV has made a lot of strides in recent years to filling the void left by the WB.  With shows like Teen Wolf and Awkward, it's perhaps as much or more of a successor to that network than the CW itself is.  The CW has managed to launch a lot of genre hits, but it's struggled to really build a block of Gilmore Girls-like shows.  I don't know if the CW would be able to make a show like Awkward work, but it's lasted a while on MTV and allowed them to launch faking it.

Plus I just like the way Daniels doesn't have the narrow view of her viewers or the network's brand identity that you sometimes find in programming chiefs.  An interesting interview with THR last year yielded this quote:

"One of the things that I love about MTV, maybe my very favorite thing is that it's a youthful, contemporary brand but at the end of the day those are my only constraints, if you will. And those don't feel like constraints because I love programming for teens and young adults. After that, anything goes because this millennia is very interested in so many different things and watches and likes so many different things. We find in our research that millennials are big into food and I have two projects in development right now that are food-related reality projects. They're into style and they're into giving back. There's so many arenas and genres that we can develop that will excite our audience and that makes it very exciting for me as a development executive."

 Trust me, this will be 99 cents well spent.  Click on over to Amazon and buy it now.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A few questions with a WGA arbiter

Continuing from yesterday's post, I managed to get an email interview with a screenwriter who has served as an arbiter on multiple WGA arbitrations.  I agree to grant him anonymity, but he has written several produced feature films that were released theatrically, so you can trust the guy knows what he's talking about.

1. First off, how are arbiters chosen? Is there any attempt to match arbiters to the sorts of projects they work on as writers, or is it completely random?

I don't know how arbiters are chosen. However, I believe you have to have been through an arbitration yourself to be eligible. Writers are often too busy to do arbitrations, so if you pick up the phone and volunteer, I have no doubt there would be a stack of scripts at your door within a day. It's a thankless and much needed job. And yes, I don't think there's an official rule on it or anything, but I do think they try and match project with arbiter as the three I've done have been in the genre I've worked in most often.

[Bitter Note: I looked up the official rules on selection in the Screen Credits Manual and this is the official word on how they are chosen: "The Screen Arbiters List includes writers who have been current members for at least five years or who have received three screen credits. At least two of the three arbiters on any Arbitration Committee shall have served on no less than two previous Arbitration Committees."]

2. As an arbiter, it's your job to determine the appropriate screen credit, so does this mean you have to read every single draft ever written for that project, even drafts that were completely abandoned by their producers?

If writer A wrote 10 drafts for the project, and writer B wrote 6 drafts, the arbiter does not read 16 drafts. Each participating writer picks one draft they feel best represents their work, in terms of how much of it is reflected in the final shooting script. So, in that case, the arbiter is reading 2 drafts. But if there was a writer hired for that project, and the producer "abandoned" the draft as you say, the arbiter would still read it. All participating writers are included in the arbitration, whether the producer "used" their draft or not. It is up to the Guild to determine who gets credit, not producers, not the studio, etc.

3. There are some notorious examples of films with an excessive number of writers. THE FLINTSTONES, for instance, had about 60 writers. In a case like that, does it mean the arbiter had to read at least 60 drafts? How does one keep straight what came from which writer and then somehow decide which three writers deserve the credit? And what is the largest number of drafts you personally have read for an arbitration?

In that case, then the arbiter would read 60 drafts. Each writer is assigned a letter, based on the order in which they were hired for the project. Once I read 12 screenplays for an arbitration. They arrived on my doorstep in a very large box :)

4. As I understand it, the writers' names are not put on each draft, but in most cases, I have to imagine it's impossible for the film itself to be anonymous. If I flip open the script to page 60 and see "IRON MAN pile-drives HULK while BLACK WIDOW takes aim at alien warriors," it's a pretty safe bet I'm reading AVENGERS 2.

In a fortunate coincidence, suppose I'm best friends with Joss Whedon. In fact, let's say Joss not only gave me my first job, but he saved my life with a kidney donation, performed my wedding, co-signed my first lease, and is godfather to my children. Let's also assume that some of the other writers on this project are ones whose shared contributions to a project that started with my spec led to me getting merely "Story by" credit. Is there any kind of ethics policy in place that would require me to recuse myself?

Arbiters are expected to act ethically and not give anyone preferential treatment. Anyone who has gone through an arbitration knows how important they are in the life of a writer and would act accordingly. In that case, the arbiter would probably recuse himself if he or she didn't think they could be impartial.

5. Are there administrative processes to protect the integrity of the process against the sort of cronyism I posit above?

Yes. For instance, when you enter into an arbitration as a writer, you can cross off' names of potential arbiters. So what that means is... you get a large list of potential arbiters, and you see the name of someone you don't think would be fair to you? You can alert the Guild, and that person will never be an arbiter on your scripts. The Guild takes many such steps to ensure as fair a system as possible.

6. You're arbitrating a Steven Spielberg film that originated as a spec script. Let's say it's about a bus driver on Mars. Original Writer is replaced after doing his draft. Second Writer comes in and since Tom Cruise has gone off to make COLLATERAL 2, the lead role is rewritten for Jennifer Lawrence and she's now a courier on Venus. That goes through three more writers - each bigger than the last - until finally Spielberg's "Closer" comes on and restores some order. The final draft centers on a female garbage collector on Mars. In a case like that, how likely is the assumption that the bigger names deserve the greater balance of the credit?

That assumption is unlikely. In the credits manual, there are a number of rules that take great pains to protect the writers of the original screenplay, such as in the case that you outline above.

7. It's my understanding that the process tries to protect the first writers on a project. We can look at The Descendants and see that even though it was an adaptation and that Alexander Payne threw out Nat Faxon & Jim Rash's draft and started fresh, they all eventually shared credit and an Oscar.

Yet on Edge of Tomorrow, it was Dante Harper who first adapted the project from a graphic novel. He was rewritten by subsequent writers and did not get any screen credit on the project.

With the understanding that you aren't speaking about these specific arbitrations, can you shed some light on what it falls upon the arbiters to weigh in cases like these, where there is pre-existing material?

It's hard to comment here as I don't know the specifics of the case you cite. However, when you adapt existing material, there are a different set of rules, different thresholds for credit. And if you are adapting something you don't control, things can get very tricky.

Let's say I write a script about BATMAN, a character I don't own. Let's say Warner Bros even buys the project from me. Three years later, they make a BATMAN movie sort of similar to what I wrote, but pretty far off. Should I be considered the first writer on that project? Even a participating one? It can get messy. And since you wrote something based on materials you don't control, you don't necessarily have the same kinds of protection under the Guild.

As a rule, you don't want to spec something based on materials you don't control without a contract with those who do control it beforehand. You want the Guild involved, they're protecting you as a writer. For instance, many writers do not realize that Animated movies are not covered under the WGA. That means, on animated movies, the Guild doesn't determine the credits. If you do not have specific protections within your contract, the studio can decide the final screenplay credits without any arbitration at all.

8. How does the arbitration process handle drafts done by directors? Are they treated like any other writer?

They are not. Directors are treated as production executives, and have an even HIGHER threshold in which to receive credit. Many directors feel this an unfair bias against them.

9. Do all the arbiters get together and meet to decide the credits? Is it a totally blind process? Is there any chance that younger writers on the arbitration panel might find themselves too intimidated to oppose the findings of more veteran writers on the same panel?

It is a blind process. There are three arbiters, and each determines credit independent of the other two. You write up your findings then turn it into the Guild. If the decision is not unanimous, I have heard that the Guild will get a conference call going where the arbiters can talk to each other about why they made their decisions, and hopefully come to a resolution. However, I've never experienced this. All the arbitrations I've been involved with have been unanimous at the outset. Hopefully, that means we made the right call :)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

An introduction to the WGA arbitration process for determining screen credit

In seeking out new topics for this blog, it occurred to me that we haven't really covered the issue of WGA arbitration.  This is the process by which screen credit is determined.  The names you see credited at the start of each film and TV show weren't just placed there at the whim of the director or producers. Since many projects have multiple writers and may even have a pretty complicated development history, there needs to be a mechanism for determining who gets the screen credit.  This is significant because screen credit is tied to royalties.  The more significant credit you get, the more money you get.

It's an unfortunate truth that writers are often replaced on projects.  Sometimes this is the result of a studio, director or producer being unsatisfied with a writer's latest draft, sometimes it's a case of a writer stepping out after declining to rewrite, and sometimes it happens when a director wants "his guy" to finish out the project.

In some studio films, an entire army of writers will be hired in succession.  The Flintstones movie supposedly had 60 writers who worked on it at one point or another.  Catwoman had over a dozen writers on it at one time or another.  The Writers Guild of America doesn't allow for all of them to be credited.  In fact, "Story by" credit may only be shared among two writers and the same goes for "Screenplay by." (For the purposes of credits, a screenwriting team is considered "one writer." As an example, Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci were an official writing team, so they count as one writer and may share screen credit with one further writer or team.)

For those of you who don't know, a writing team is always denoted by an ampersand.  (Blogger really likes to screw up ampersands, by the way.  Many apologies if that happens here.) So if you see a credit like "Written by William Goldman and Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman," you can understand that to mean that Goldman wrote the first draft alone and was rewritten by the team of Orci & Kurtzman.

In some instances, the writers may work out the screen credits among themselves.  The Guild rules give them the right to do so as long as its unanimous.  This can happen when a writer comes on and is perfectly upfront about not wanting credit.  He or she may be happy with their standard fee and merely getting the project to production.  This isn't uncommon, by the way. A really good rewriter will call up the previous writer on the project and say "Look, I'm the new guy here.  Why don't you fill me in on what's led to this and we'll see if I can't bring this home in a way that'll satisfy everyone.  I'm not here to steal your credit. I'm just here to get this into production."  If you're lucky, it's one of these guys rewriting your script.

If you're not lucky, you've got a credit-grabber who's also seeking credit. I know plenty of writers with stories about credit-grabbers who came on a project after them and couldn't wait to change character names, move action scenes from uptown to midtown, and re-christen certain settings and locations.  Their hope was that some of those changes would last until the end and then their draft would be see as the one that originated enough of those elements to retain screen credit.

Those kinds of writers are the reason WGA arbitration exists.  This process is when three current members of the WGA are assigned to a committee that receives the particular case.  Both the screenwriters and the arbiters are anonymous, and the three arbiters independently review the final shooting script as well as all submitted drafts to determine which authors (identified as "Writer A," "Writer B" and so on) deserve credit for contributing most to the final film.  Each writer may also submit a statement.  The Screen Credits Manual descibes this process as such:

Each participating writer is strongly urged to submit a written statement of his/her position to the Screen Credits Administrator to forward to the arbiters. It is suggested that the statement address the requirements to receive credit as set forth in this Manual, “Section III. Guild Policy on Cred - its.” The statement may include breakdowns and illustrative comparisons between the final shooting script and earlier work or any other information which would help the Arbitration Committee to evaluate the writer’s contribution to the final shooting script.

While I'm quoting the manual, it's probably useful to reproduce exactly how it says screen credit should be determined.

Additional Guidelines for the Arbiters in Determining Screenplay Credit

In each case, the arbiters read any source material and all literary material provided to them in connection with the development of the final screenplay in order to assess the contribution of each writer to the final shooting script.

The percentage contribution made by writers to screenplay obviously cannot be determined by counting lines or even the number of pages to which a writer has contributed. Arbiters must take into consideration the following elements in determining whether a writer is entitled to screenplay credit:

■ dramatic construction;

■ original and different scenes;

■ characterization or character relationships; and

■ dialogue.

 It is up to the arbiters to determine which of the above-listed elements are most important to the overall values of the final screenplay in each particular case. A writer may receive credit for a contribution to any or all of the above-listed elements. It is because of the need to understand contributions to the screenplay as a whole that professional expertise is required on the part of the arbiters. For example, there have been instances in which every line of dialogue has been changed and still the arbiters have found no significant change in the screenplay as a whole. On the other hand, there have been instances where far fewer changes in dialogue have made a significant contribution to the screenplay as a whole. In addition, a change in one portion of the script may be so significant that the entire screenplay is affected by it.

There's also a very important guildline listed under "Irreducible Story Minimum:" "In the case of an original screenplay, the first writer shall be entitled to no less than a shared story credit."

So if you write an original spec, take heart that at the very least, you'll get shared story credit.

That's a basic introduction to arbitration.  If you want to find out more, I really encourage you to look at the "Credits Survival Guide" on the WGA website and read through the entire Screen Credits Manual.

And if that still isn't enough, tomorrow I'll have someone who's actually served on several arbitrations answer some follow-up questions about the process.  Make sure you don't miss it.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is one of this summer's best achievements

Several days later and I'm still impressed by what Dawn of the Planet of the Apes achieves.  It's fairly fashionable to bash the number of $175M+ films, we've been getting lately, particularly when they're franchise movies.  I don't fault anyone for being upset as the presumed decline in original stories - but that the same time, it's hard to argue that most of the films we've gotten lately in that realm have been pretty damn good.

This summer alone, we've gotten entertaining, intelligent and well-executed blockbusters like X-Men: Days of Future Past, Edge of Tomorrow, 22 Jump Street, Godzilla, and How to Train Your Dragon 2.  Yes, Transformers: Age of Extinction was a bit of an anomaly there, and while Amazing Spider-Man 2 was a letdown, the Andrew Garfield/Emma Stone interaction kept it from being a total loss.  In the face of all of that, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes still stands above most of them.  (Days of Future Past is probably still my current favorite, personally speaking, and I think that's likely to hold by the time Labor Day rolls around.)

Dawn is probably the best film this summer at building tension and character simultaneously, and that equation adds up to tragedy.  Even if you went into this story unaware of how events have to turn to line up with later installments, you'd probably be struck by the inevitability of the events, specifically the war between apes and humans.

The story picks up some ten years after the previous film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  The Simeon Flu has wiped out the fast majority of the human population while also giving rise to a more intelligent race of apes.  In one of the film's boldest moves, we spend at least the first fifteen minutes of the film entirely immersed in the apes' world, following a settlement led by Caesar (mo-cap performance by Andy Serkis.) The apes are vocal, able to speak in rudimentary sentences, but amongst themselves, the most often communicate in sign language.  Even given those limitations, the audience very quickly finds their empathy aligned with the apes.  They're real flesh-and-blood characters.  In a few scenes, they display more depth than the intelligent robots of the Transformers films have across four features.

These apes haven't encountered humans in two years, so it comes as a shock when a small group encounters apes as the humans attempt to make their way to a nearby dam.  Unfortunately the first human in the group to run across the apes isn't Jason Clarke's thoughtful Malcolm, but rather the quick-triggered Carver, played by Kirk Acevedo.  Carver shoots one of the apes, setting things off on the wrong foot and Caesar surrounds the humans with his army.  He shows them mercy, ordering them to leave while also scaring the shit out of them.

Unfortunately, the human settlement down in San Francisco desperately needs access to that dam so that they can restore power.  Malcolm bravely returns and convinces Caesar of his honesty.  Caesar permits the humans a few days to do their work, though his second-in-command Koba feels humans are not to be trusted.  Caesar's decision comes not only from his affection for humans, but his insight that they are desperate.  To deny them what they need so badly might only provoke them to return with weapons and take it by force.

Koba, however, feels that Caesar has gone soft.  He has a far less charitable view of humans than his leader does.  Koba was a lab chimp, used for experiments that have left him blind in one eye and scarred.  A lesser film might have just made Koba a hard-headed war monger, but both Koba and his human counterpart Carver have reasons for their prejudice and mistrust.  By exploring their hatred of the opposing race, we understand how it will be very, very difficult to forge peace.  Malcolm and Caesar are capable of respecting each other individually, but these two societies are on a collision course that will be very hard to avoid.

I don't wish to spoil the many turns the story takes on that way to open conflict, but the real skill is in how director Matt Reeves and the screenplay credited to Mark Bomback and Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver do such a solid job of maintaining and building that tension throughout every scene.  There are a couple close calls where you feel like the apes might justifiably kill their human guests, even as we see that the situation in the human colony might push them to open aggression as well.

Neither side really wants a war, but the ones doing the most saber-rattling are provoked into it out of the fear that if they don't strike first, they will be run over.  Both sides have their justifications and once the die is cast, the saddest moment of the film comes when it's apparent there will be no way to avoid the consequences.

It's rare to get this sense of tragedy in a summer movie.  In fact, it's probably even rarer to find this sort of craft in a franchise that's some eight films in.  The reason why the last two Apes films have been so successful is that the concept lends itself to world-building and expansion.  Even more fortunately, this is possible without using most of the same cast in each film, allowing for new characters and points of view to come in and add their own flavors to the mix.

It also helps that director Matt Reeves knows how to stage some great action scenes that don't feel like they originated as your generic-brand pre-vis.  You can see his preference for longer takes in at least two instances and he seems to understand that the audience needs to be emotionally invested in the pyrotechnics if that action is really going to affect them on any level.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about this is that the intended concept for this sequel was actually scrapped mere weeks before shooting after Matt Reeves came in and pitched an entirely different take on the story.  We're conditioned from years of entertainment reporting to believe that if a script gets trashed weeks before shooting that there's no way a good film can result.  Just earlier this year, a lot of angry muckrakers started crowing about how the new Star Wars was going to be a disaster because J.J. Abrams scrapped Michael Arndt's draft some seven months before shooting.  Apes went for a more radical re-conception on an even shorter timeframe, so maybe we could all stand to not assume the sky is falling when some late-in-the-game rewrites are in play.

The real lesson of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is that a tentpole franchise film can be compelling and intelligent so long as you hire smart people with a vision and let them tell their stories.  I'd like to see more stories that are entirely original, but if we're in an era of franchise films, at least they're very good films!

Friday, July 11, 2014

Future Filmmaker Friday: "Stetson Street" - CMF Best Director and Best Actress Winner

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending one of my favorite yearly events, Campus MovieFest

CMF is a wonderful program that goes to college campuses throughout the year and provides students with Apple laptops and Panasonic HD cameras to make short film within one week. Each school then has their own finale to select the best of the best, which then move on to the Grand Finale in Hollywood. I was so taken with the quality of the films shown there that I spotlit a number of them in a segment I called Future Filmmaker Friday.

Longtime readers of the site have seen me talk about CMF a number of times before and I always enjoy attending their on-site workshops during the several-day event known as CMF Hollywood.  This year, their guest speakers included director Jake Kasdan ("Sextape"), director Tom Shaydac ("I Am," "Bruce Almighty," "Liar Liar,") screenwriter Richard Wenk ("The Equalizer,"), screenwriter Robert Ben Garant ("Night at the Museum," "Reno 911"), manager-producer Richard Arlook, and Black List founder Franklin Leonard.   I attended many of these panels and enjoyed mingling with the visiting college students and chatting them up about their work.  It's impossible to be around a group like that and not feed off their enthusiasm.

With another year gone by, a number of films from this year's CMF Hollywood have ended up on my radar, so I wanted to restore that weekly feature throughout the summer and it wasn't hard to figure out which film should kick it off.

While at the CMF Hollywood Awards Gala, I had the pleasure of meeting director Connor Williams, his lead actress Caity Parker and the rest of his team from Bridgewater State University.  Connor and Caity walked away with top honors in their nominated categories, Best Director and Best Actress for their film Stetson Street.

As each filmmaker is limited to only five minutes for their projects, it's really hard to do drama and have it resonate with the audience.  Comedy presents its own challenges, but in general, I think it's easier to try to be funny than to be serious.  There were actually a lot of serious films in the screened selections this year and I was impressed how a number of them would have been compelling even if one wasn't taking into account the fact they were completely made in a week.

I reached out to Stetson Street's director, Connor Williams, to find out a little more about his film and his CMF experience in general.

So tell us a little about yourself. How did you get interested in film? Where are you in your school career?

All my life I have been good at making people laugh. The feeling you get when somebody forgets all their troubles and just laughs is like no other. I had made a few skits in high school with a friend and hosted a few events, but by the time I got to college I had to turn this into a career so of course I chose communications. I made my first real film entitled “four score and seven years ago” when we screened it in front of 60 people and all of them were in tears laughing I knew this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I spent the next four years mastering my craft taking classes and working on countless projects. I have just graduated and do part time work for a studio in Boston called Generation Cinemastories.

Had you participated in Campus MovieFest before?

All four years I have always been screened at my school, but I never won. It was a great learning experience being told that I suck year after year and only made me a stronger filmmaker.

How did you develop the idea for STETSON STREET? How did the limitations of one-week to shoot and edit it play into how you developed your idea?

I have always wanted to do something domestic disturbance related because of how dramatic it is. My actor Mark Cividino is very explosive and I wrote the script around his acting style. My directing style comes from experience and film taste but mainly from a short I did called FRED which takes advantage of those static compositions. The flashback technique is nothing new to film making and neither is changing time order. I have always had trouble fitting my films into 5 minutes and these two techniques really helped me condense my story down. My goal was to make an intense “trailer of a travesty” leaving the audience wanting more. I am also a purist and don’t really go in for fancy effects and camera tricks. I like clean story-telling and let the content of the film itself do all the talking.

How much time did you spend shooting the film?

The camera came a day late and I thought I was going to murder somebody, I thought everything was going to be horrible. We had two 12 hour days Saturday and Sunday and then a non stop three day edit. We shot the argument, birthing and grocery store scene one day and everything else the other day.

I think a big help to me winning Best Director and the film being so successful was we filmed the rehearsals. I would get Mark and Caity to scream at each other and then I would show them what they looked like and adjust the script accordingly we did this 3 times and I cannot explain to you how much this helped. It was the writing process.

Was there anything you wanted to do, but couldn't, due to time restrictions?

Honestly, I wanted to get the opening shots at a train station and that’s about it. I can’t complain one bit about anything other than lack of editing time. We actually didn’t end up using a lot of footage and the part where mark is throwing the clothes into the bag is entirely improve. I was just lucky enough that the audio was recording.

What - in your opinion - makes for a good short film?

Emotion, emotion, emotion. In short films it is impossible to develop characters, blow peoples minds with huge over arching plots and all the other dynamic qualities of features. For shorts you want people to get sucked in and feel an emotion for five minutes an emotion that will help them escape reality for 5 minutes. You can have a build up, you can have a little bit of a story, but in the end the audience needs to feel emotions. Also, a good score is vital, this film was nothing without music.

What have you taken from the CMF experience? What were your impressions of CMFHollywood?

I am proud to say that my university, along with Ed Cabellon, flew my crew and I out to Hollywood for free and put us up in the Sheraton plus paid for our CMF badges. SO, I had no expectations at all though knew I wanted to meet some people.

Honestly, it was the best time of my life so far. I met so many awesome people and got to here good advice from amazing people. The best work shop was “Life After CMF Hollywood”. So much free food and booze was overwhelming and really brought everyone together at the mixers and Jillian's. Obviously winning was the highlight of my week and the WD hard drive they gave us will truly help me get my production company up and running. My university is SO proud of me and so are my bosses at work. They both want to hire me full time now and it feels good to be wanted.

I just need to say this film would not be possible without Henry Carrasco, Jason Kimball, Billy Loftus, Mark Cividino, Caity Parker and everyone at Readville Productions.

Henry is one of the most talented audio engineers I have ever worked with and a main focus of this project was to get great audio and mix it in post and he did just that.

Jason Kimball scored the film and was Johnny on the spot with anything through production gaffing, editing, set design equipment, griping he even shot a few shots.

Caity, Mark and Billy were phenomenal actors to work with and are no doubt going to make it in this industry.

Readville Productions is a budding organization focused on comedic skits. We have a sizeable YouTube following and are always looking for more! 

When I met Connor, he struck me as a good guy and I can tell I wasn't wrong because not only did he make sure in this interview to single out each team member's contributions individually, but in our email communication, he asked me twice to make sure I didn't leave out the shout-out to his team.

You can find the Readville Productions website here. I wish these guys all the best.

Congrats to the entire team! I'll be showcasing some more of my favorite CMF films from this year throughout the summer.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Black List launches "Work in Progress" table reads for WGA members

I've talked in the past about how a great way to evaluate your own work with fresh eyes is to hold a table read.  I've done it for some of my own scripts and had both the thrill of hearing my characters come to life and the soul-crushing embarrassment of enduring scenes that desperately needed a rewrite.  Nothing highlights the moments that need improvement like hearing talented actors attempt to perform them.

Well, the Black List is working to make that process that much easier for WGA members.  Earlier this week they launched a private screenplay reading series with the help of casting directors Deborah Aquila and Lisa Zagoria.  This reading and all future readings will feature actors from the Aquila Morong studio.  As the Black List's press release announces, the series is "designed to allow working screenwriters to privately workshop in-progress original material with the benefit of hearing it performed by professional actors for an invite-only audience of their choice and at no cost to them."

Aquila and Zagoria agree, “Work shopping a script-in-progress is a great way for the writer to hear what works and what might not, and for actors to stretch their muscles and play around with different characters that they may not typically have the opportunity to play.”

Their press release further announces:

The Black List is currently accepting submissions for the Works in Progress series. Scripts should be that which the writer has an eagerness to workshop with an eye toward an immediate rewrite. Any WGA members (East or West) interested in submitting their script for a potential read can do so by emailing with a brief description of the script, why the author wishes to have it read, and who they’d like in their audience to help workshop the script. Writers should also have at least one script listed in the Black List's screenplay database (a free service for all WGAe, WGAw, and WGGB members). 

Following the first event, which was a reading of a screenplay by Brian Duffield, Black List founder Franklin Leonard said, “The Black List has always been about highlighting and supporting ambitious storytelling, and this is a particularly exciting platform where we’ll do it.  This is the first of many, and we look forward to hearing from writers about material to which they’d like to give similar treatment. Seriously, get in touch.”

I'm sure I've got some WGA members who read this site, so I hope this is of use to you.  Drop me an invite sometime and I might even show up.

Here's what the puppet had to say on table reads:

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Inside the development process of one production company

I think that every blogger who's out there anonymously has to be aware in the back of his mind that the day will come that their identity is known.  From the beginning, I've been cognizant of not putting something out there that I'd be afraid to stand behind one day.  Obviously there are plenty of employers who don't look kindly at all on the idea of their subordinates running a blog and that's the main reason I've hidden behind this pseudonym.  I didn't want there to be one day where the mere existence of this site would be an obstacle to getting a job.

Because of this, I've generally refrained from the sort of gossipy stories that frequently dominate these kinds of insider blogs.  Yes, it would be fun to talk about how an agent was a dick to me, or how some assistants need to be stabbed in the front for their treachery, but at some point, the information will be out there to allow people to connect the dots on what stories match with which people, and I don't want to put something out there that will embarrass anyone.

This has forced me to be extra vague when discussing the particulars of my employers, past and present.  I've long wanted to go a little more in-depth on how certain movies got made, but that often entails discussing failures as well as successes.  I'm leery of that because it's one thing for me to write a review saying why I disliked THE PURGE. It's quite another for a former boss to read an underling's diatribe about why a movie they had a relationship with sucked.  So try to be understanding that I'm not particular to whip a deceased equine, even if I'm not naming the specific film.

I want to discuss a little bit about what goes on in production companies.  When I go onto other screenwriting sites, I see a lot of people who've never gotten near L.A. speaking with seemingly great authority about how Hollywood works.  I hear them talk about "Hollywood" as if it was one monolithic collective - usually with zero insight or self-awareness of their own workings.  Some of these bitter types even act as if Hollywood deliberately is trying to piss them off with what they do.  I don't think it's helpful or accurate to let these misconceptions stand, and so I'm going to try to peel back the curtain a bit by using one of my employers as an example.

Let's call this company "Miracle Pictures," and we'll say the CEO is "Roger Bergman."  I'm going to draw on my pre-recession experience with them, because this came at a time when the company was successful enough that few decisions were made out of fear.  Pre-strike, pre-recession, it was a different place and I think there's something to be gained from examining what people choose to make when their jobs aren't riding on their next film.

Miracle Pictures output could generally be spilt among four different buckets.

The Passion Project That Was Also a Prestige Picture
If it was a Harrison Ford movie it would be: Regarding Henry, Sabrina, The Devil's Own, Extraordinary Measures

There's a reason I'm bringing this division up first - to show that Roger Bergman always put his heart and his passion behind a story that meant something to him.  I won't claim to have loved all of these films.  Indeed, they didn't speak to me as a young man in my mid-twenties, and to be honest, the young ladies in the office didn't really relate to them either.

One day we were talking about a run of films in this realm and noted all the similarities.  Most of all of them were dramas.  They tended to have prestigious casts, but centered around an older male.  The directors were solid and the scripts tended to be thoughtful, if generally light on visceral action.  You could probably dismiss some of them as "Oscar bait," but usually of a particular breed - by and large, they focused on men of a certain age.  This similarity was initially cloaked by the fact that they were usually cast with stars, and you just accepted that some of those box office draws were going to be older white males.  It wasn't until we really looked at it closely that it was apparent the real draw for Roger Berman was that these stories were about people who were dealing with the sorts of questions in life that he himself was exploring.

You're certainly free to call that self-indulgent, but if each of us had the means, what kinds of stories would we back?  When you're looking at a dozen scripts, which one is going to stand out as the story that will fuel you for the year-plus you'll be working on the film?  Ultimately, it was Roger's money and resources and I can't really fault a guy for getting excited about a tale that reaches him on an emotional level.

Every producer I've worked for has had some films that fall into this category. They don't always turn out as great films.  Honestly, a lot of them end up being more forgettable and inoffensive than bad.  As you'll see, these aren't the only movies these guys make.  The "one for me, one for them" principle was in effect back then and you'll still see it play out now, though perhaps less often.  At their core, people want to make good movies and they want to tell meaningful stories.

The "Elevated Genre" Picture
If it was a Harrison Ford film it would be: Frantic, Presumed Innocent, What Lies Beneath

This is a film with genre trappings, but generally played more grounded and dramatic than typical. You'll almost always have very accomplished, serious actors, little gunplay, a lot of tension and occasionally some supernatural entries.  These were a little more to my tastes and were largely the sorts of films I thought of when the company came to mind.

I hesitate to call any of the films in this bucket a "home run."  A lot of them were solid B+s, with the occasional project dipping below it.  You probably weren't going to rush to own these films, but you'd see them a lot on TNT.  (About half of them would make you think, "Okay, I recognize these actors, so I know I saw this. I just can't remember much about the movie.")

With these, you could feel the producers trying to please studio commercial sensibilities while trying to tell stories that they found unique in some way.  Sometimes this meant mixing genres in ways that didn't always payoff, but in general, I'll salute the noble failure over a film that doesn't have any ambitions and came to life in a cynical way.

The "IP Farm" Genre Pictures.
If it was a Harrison Ford film it would be: Cowboys & Aliens, Ender's Game.

Let me explain those comparisons a bit - not all of the films in this subcatagory were the debacles that the listed Ford films were.  The similarity is largely in that a number of projects were clear attempts at starting franchises.  To be fair, they got a couple sequels made, but the false starts out-number them.

The chief difference between this category and the previous one is that the genre films in that list were generally one-offs.  It was pretty clear that the way most of those films ended, a sequel would be difficult to justify. In this category, most but not all of the films were either efforts at franchise launching or came from existing intellectual property.  While passion played a decent role in the other films, this category seemed to put commercial concerns first.

These are the pictures that helped keep the lights on for the previous two categories.  Roger Bergman and his fellow producers at Miracle Pictures were intelligent people, but I'm not sure they were the audience for these films.  When you're not the audience for the films, you either have to employ people who understand those genres or you have to second-guess the audience.

My opinion was really only sought out with regard to one of these pictures.  It was a genre film targeted at a teen audience, so I have to give them credit for trying to capture that market ahead of Twilight.  But the script... look, I was not the audience for it.  I wrote a long memo wherein I invoked Buffy and attributed its success to how the series used metaphors to relate the supernatural to everyday trials teens face.  The monsters would somehow personify an insecurity or an issue that was emotionally relevant to the teen viewing audience.  This was something the feature script lacked, and the result was a story short on subtext.

My notes were politely accepted, but that was pretty much the end of it.  I can't really say if that was because I was pushing them in a direction they weren't interested in or if they didn't consider the suggestion to be of much weight.  This was also a project with a number of producers, so it's possible compromises were made.  When you've got a lot of voices in the project, it can become a challenge to maintain a consistent vision.

As I look at the post-recession films that Miracle Pictures made, I can see a heavier tilt that favors this category.  That's not terribly surprising.  Priority one is going to be staying in business.  But I can't help but look at that and think, "Well, I sure hope Roger is finding ways to feel as fulfilled by these films as the ones he made when I first worked for him."

The Favor Catagory

Honestly, this is a hard category to define.  It produced one of Miracle Pictures' best films and also one of its.... not-so-best.  From time to time, we would be involved in co-productions where we were largely a silent partner.  I always kind of likened it to co-signing a loan or an apartment lease for someone.  Sometimes we were partners, but with limited creative involvement.  Other times, I get the sense our contribution was largely financial.  I separate this out because there were a few pictures that would not have ended up on our resume otherwise.

These are the four basic buckets for projects that came into Miracle Pictures.  At the time I was there, the company was taking on a pretty wide diversity of genres, at least comparatively speaking.  There are some companies that focus only on horror, or on action, or on high-concept thrillers.  What I liked about Miracle Pictures is that any of those sorts of films could get traction there so long as the people making the decisions either had a passion for it or couldn't resist the commercial lure.

Commercially, I think they fared better when they were sticking to the films they loved and understood.  They were more likely to have a misfire when they stepped outside their box, but that's true of anyone.

Would I have made the same slate the Roger Bergman did? No, not in a lot of cases.  It's only with hindsight that I can look back on that whole experience and realize that the most important education was not second-guessing and saying "This is what I would do."  The real learning experience comes from understanding why they made the decisions they did.

I've had a number of bosses since then.  Some of them would never have touched the films on the Miracle Pictures slate.  But they've all had success and there's been a different method to each of their madness.  Some of them are extremely business-minded.  They'll follow the market and be rewarded for it commercially even if the artistic results are inconsistent.  Others will take big risks that are further outside the box and find a way to make those projects work.

If everyone in Hollywood was purely commercially driven and thought the same way, then Miracle Pictures would be indistinguishable from my subsequent employers.  I can assure you I'd never mistake one for the other.  They're very different people with very different passions.  The only thing they all have in common is that they've made a lot of movies and the good ones are flicks that people recognize when you list them.

If you take nothing else from my post, let it be this - people are the ones who make decisions in this town, not "Hollywood."

Monday, July 7, 2014

Reader questions: defining unknown words and turning screenplays into graphic novels.

Nicole asks:

My question is regarding whether or not to define potentially unknown words in a script.

My screenplay involves a scientist working with electrical equipment. In lines of action to describe calculations/diagrams around his lab, I've been trying to be as simple with the terms as possible (volts, watts, etc), but there are a few instances where I need to be more specific to convey the actual experiment the scientist is working on, so I've written it with: equation for inductance, equation for capacitance, etc.

I doubt most people understand what those terms mean without doing a Google search, so for the reader/agent/manager who might be reading the script, do I need to put a small definition next to those types of terms so they have a basic understanding of what it refers to? Right now I have a brief definition in parentheses besides each, to err on the side of caution, but I feel like that might be odd...

I was hoping you had any kind of insight on this. I prefer not to have the scientist character spew off all of his methods in a heinous exposition monologue, so if there's a better way to keep this in the action lines, I'm open to any suggestions.

 I don't think I've gotten one like this before.  I'd say that the most important thing to remember is that you're writing a document that represents what we will see on screen.  The most important thing to convey to the reader is what the action will look like.  Is there a reason you can't just tell us what his methods look like?  Is it the sort of experiment we can follow visually or is there a narrative-important reason that we be able to actually understand the finer details of what he's doing?

Think of Breaking Bad.  We've seen Walter White cook up a number of meth batches, but at no point are we given a straight-up recipe for his meth, nor does the visual action spell out every detail.  We see only what is necessary for the story to advance.

Hope that helps.

Kevin asks:

I've been hearing for a while that it might be worthwhile to adapt your screenplay into a comic book as a means of getting your story picked up by a manager, agent, and/or production company. Now, I have the means to be able to create a graphic novel, then through Amazon's Createspace, I could easily print out a number of cheap copies. 

The questions I have are 

1. What would I do with the finished graphic novel once I have printed copies of it? Submit it directly to managers/agents? Submit it with a copy of my screenplay? 

Then, 2. Have you heard of their even being an interest and/or market for screenplays turned into graphic novels?

This was a hot trend about ten or so years ago, and there's at least one success story that people can point to in 30 Days of Night, which was written as a screenplay, then adapted to graphic novel and then adapted back.

The intel I have is that this trend is over and done.  If you've got an idea that works as a graphic novel, then great, pursue it.  Don't invest your time and energy in this if you're just doing it in the hopes of selling it as a screenplay.  Graphic novels and screenplays are different mediums entirely, even though they both have a focus on visual storytelling.

A quickie graphic novel will do you no favors.  If you're gonna go through with it, you'll probably want to get an artist who understands the nature of comic book storytelling, as well as some solid colorists and letterers.  A slap-dash comic book isn't going to excite anyone.

The only real value a graphic novel would have is if it was published and actually had a following of it's own.  Then it's an existing intellectual property that studios might have an interest in because they can point to preawareness with an audience.  A graphic novel without a fan base is as unattractive as a naked spec.