Monday, July 27, 2015

Reader questions: Is screenwriting a skill that can be learned?

Ed writes:

Many dispensing screenwriting advice say that screenwriting is a skill that can be learned and, with work, time and effort, it can be improved upon to the point of producing something market-ready.

How true is this?

Discounting scores of wannabes that lack the language skills and the real writing ability it takes to be decent…I’m curious about the gaps in talent that exist between a decent amateur writer, a writer on the verge of breaking in and an award-winning screenwriter (I’m assuming there’s no real gap in talent between ‘on-the-verge’ and ‘working / staffed’ writers).

What gaps can be overcome and what gaps will forever exist due to a unique spark of creative genius and pure talent?

I’ve received feedback on a few scripts that haven’t been overly negative (two 6’s on The Black List site for instance). I sent material to Amanda Pendolino. Her critique, while harsher than BL, rang true and her suggestions were great (and you’re right to steer people in her direction).

I’ve used those some of those suggestions to make improvements but I’m falling short in getting my material truly better. Amanda’s spot-on regarding the elements that need to be improved; I’m just not skilled enough to get it there.

My goal in this is to write a market-ready script worthy of a ‘consider.’ Right now that’s out of reach. Does a breakthrough happen if I keep writing and plugging away? Or does that happen with only a very talented few?

First, Ed hits on a lot of important questions that I wish more writers would ask themselves. I don't even know that I have good answers for all of this, but the really important part of the discussion here is the self- reflection. The worst writers are the ones who don't have an ounce of it. They go through life with the delusion that they are one of the greatest writers ever when often they don't even have enough exposure to enough real writers to really know where they stand on the spectrum.

You cannot improve as a writer if you go through life already convinced of your own brilliance. And let me tell you, just about every writer has room for improvement.

So to return to the question, can screenwriting be learned? Absolutely, yes. There is always going to be some degree of innate skill involved with any profession. You can't deny natural talent at work, but I don't think you'll find exemplary people in any field who have gotten by just on natural ability. There's a lot of discipline and routine that goes into developing that gift.

Obviously several factors can affect this. If you've always been a strong reader, you're probably going to find it easier to write than someone who's struggled through school. If you've been doing writing of any kind on an extracurricular basis for years, you'll have a leg up on someone who just decided they want to write movies and has never even written a short story.

Screenwriting is a trade that can be learned - but there are a lot of factors that can influence each person's individual learning curve and how effective that education is. I've seen people write nearly 10 scripts and still - despite any guidance or criticism - can't seem to gain significant ground, while there are others who seem to nail it on their third script.

Speaking as someone who's read a LOT of scripts, there's an absolute talent gap between those on-the-verge, the working writer, and the pure genius. (I'm ignoring a number of intermediate levels, but you guys get the point, I'm sure.) It's a distinction that some writers would really benefit from recognizing. Being good enough to get the interest of a manager or an agent doesn't mean you're on the same level as, say, Chris Terrio.

In fact, when you first make the leap to being represented, it might even be because the rep in question sees you as a diamond in the rough. To put it another way - you still have some growing to do. You don't stop trying to improve because you've "arrived." There's a whole host of obstacles still ahead of you even once you get representation.

Ask anyone who's been in this game professionally for five years or more and they'll probably look back on the work that got them noticed and still feel like they could make it a lot better today. You win the race by continuing to run - not by saying "I've made it far enough ahead, here's where I can catch a nap and walk the rest of the way."

If I handed you two scripts - one by a guy who just got signed and one by a guy who had three films produced, I almost guarantee after reading both of them, there'd be no doubt in your mind who the more experienced writer was. That's not to denigrate the newer writer. They might very well have done a fine job themselves, but you can tell when you're in the hands of a complete master of the craft.

I can't tell you where you are on the spectrum. You have the willingness to get better and the self-reflection to internalize the criticisms Amanda has given. Those factors give me hope. The people who don't grow are the ones who discount all critiques (which is not to say that sometimes you CAN get bad notes and advice. Sometimes you SHOULD ignore what you are told - just don't shut out all negative feedback merely on principle.)

One thing I do get concerned about is being part of what John Gary calls "The Hope Machine." I don't want to peddle the false hope that "Everyone - yes YOU TOO - can be a million-dollar screenwriter!" I think it's irresponsible to offer blind encouragement, but as long as people aren't bankrupting themselves and are still enjoying the process of writing, it's probably not my place to say "You should just stop because you'll never make it."

Persistence can take you a great deal of the way. Does that always mean a breakthrough will happen? Not always - true success is always some convergence of talent and opportunity. It's the lucky break that happens when that assistant you met at a party gets promoted to agent and is intrigued enough to read your stuff. It's how you're able to capitalize on attention from a Nicholl semi-final placement to get in the room with people you can submit to in the future.

Eventually, the most talented of the most-talented seem to find their way in, if for no other reason than the fact they keep trying to make new opportunities. If we're talking just about the writing aspect, though - can you eventually write a script that will make those opportunities pay off? - it's not an easy answer. It's easier for me to say that there's no "magic bullet" writing program or book that will turn ANYONE into the hottest writer in town. When it comes to assessing whether YOU personally are someone who can make it... I can't really say that.

But if Amanda's assessment is spot on - and it usually is - you're quite a bit ahead of a lot of people who are trying. That probably counts for something.

Jastin writes:

I feel that I'm in desperate need for a mentor; someone with writing experience that is willing to give me the truth about my work and make suggestions for improvement. However, finding the right people has proven to be a daunting task.

I was wondering if you had any suggestions about writers/producers that are willing to do this? Do you know any retired writers from the industry that are reputable and approachable? If you could point me in the right direction that would be most helpful.

I have been writing for almost three years. I educated myself by reading books on proper screenplay formatting and I use final draft software. So far, I have completed three full length movie screenplays and I have one pilot for a television idea. I am confident in the formatting, but I really need help with character driven plot, character development , and dialogue. Any assistance that you can provide would be fantastic.

I don't really know of anyone actively seeking to be a mentor. In my experience, it's something that happens after people have gotten to know you through networking or other experiences, read your work and decided that you're someone they're invested in helping. So with the stage you're at, it's really more about making as many connections as possible.

Most working writers are busy working, and both they and the retired writers have no shortage of people clamoring for their attention. They don't have to go far to find many, many people seeking their ear, so you've got to prove yourself beyond just wanting to be a writer.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Get $50 off a badge to the Austin Film Festival

I've been told that there was a lot of interest the last time I posted an offer from the Austin Film Festival, so I hope this is similarly appreciated:

For a limited time, the 22nd Annual Austin Film Festival is offering $50 off the Weekend Badge!

With a Weekend Badge you get access to all Saturday and Sunday panels, not to mention priority badge line access to all eight days of film screenings and admission to the Pitch Finale Party, Heart of Film Conference Party, and Film Pass Party!

Buy your badge at and enter the code AFFWKND225 at checkout between now and Friday, July 17th to get access to this great offer!

 The Austin Film Festival runs from October 29-November 5.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Derrick Borte's H8RZ (HATERS) is coming to VOD!

Almost exactly two years ago, I held an open call for people who put their scripts up on the Black List site. From those submissions I selected 8 loglines that appealed to me and read at least 15 pages of each of them. In a few cases, I was so impressed with the writing that I completed the entire script and gave the best of those some attention in a "spotlight" post on the blog.

Derrick Borte got my attention with his strong logline and I came away even more impressed by his script H8RZ (HATERS). I felt the tense thriller merited a 9/10 rating and spoke at length about the reasons why in this earlier post.

As it turned out, Derrick and his co-writer Daniel Forte were already repped by an agency. In fact, Derrick already had one feature to his name, the David Duchovny indie THE JONESES. This fact had some other participants in the competition crying foul, even though I said it didn't factor into my decision to read the script. I wondered why someone with an agent and manager would use the still-relatively-new Black List site, and so I put the question to Derrick in this interview. Part of his motivation, he said, was, "This material seems to be a little difficult for some people and I thought that maybe this could help build some momentum/buzz that might uncover some production company that I'd like to partner with to make the film."

Well, I don't believe that my efforts had anything to do with this, but Derrick DID eventually find the money to produce H8RZ with a cast that includes Cary Elways, Abigail Spencer and Jeremy Sisto.

I'm having trouble embedding the trailer, but you can find it on Hulu here. It's available for pre-order on iTunes and comes out July 17th!

Monday, July 13, 2015

No one wants to read your spec for existing feature IP

I got a recent email that really touches on an issue I've addressed at least a few times before. My first impulse was to just link to those old posts, but as I reread the question, a couple other things jumped out at me. To be blunt, there was a lot of presumption on the part of the writer and I felt like it might be useful to go nearly line-by-line here and point out a few things.

I have written an exemplary screenplay on the iconic female DC Comics character, Wonder Woman that I'm determined to get in the hands of a DC Comics/Warner Brothers studio exec.

Let me stop you right there and direct you to this post about why you don't want to play with other people's toys.

As she finds herself in a screenwriting limbo over at her home studio, I found a way to prevail over some, if not all the obstacles her previous writer(s) faced.

Really? Screenwriting limbo? That's a weird way to describe a project that goes into production this fall, has a director and a lead actress attached and that has SIX writers working on the script.

We can debate the wisdom of putting six writers to work simultaneously, but the fact is, WB has people working on this already.

Also, how can you know you prevailed over "all the obstacles her previous writers faced?" Have you read the earlier scripts? Talked to the executives steering the project about what didn't work for them in earlier versions?

Do you have first-hand knowledge of what those "obstacles" were? Because if not, it sounds like you're talking out of school - and doing it in the course of pitching people who DO know what went on with those earlier scripts.

I have the completed screenplay ready, but it’s nearly impossible to get it seen by the right people. I talked to Warner Brothers and they want a WGA signatory agent. I talked to several listed agents, and they want industry referrals.

This is not unusual in the slightest even when it comes to original screenplays. Writing a franchise script is one of the most difficult and sought-after assignments in the industry. It's a gig you earn your way to, like clawing up to the major leagues from the minor leagues. Unless you are crazy talented, if you show up on the first day of spring training at Yankee Stadium and say, "I'd like to pitch," you're gonna be laughed out of the joint.

How the hell do they expect to get fresh, innovative perspectives when they keep recycling the same clueless writers?

This was the statement that pushed me to write this post in the way I did. I really, really loathe when people who don't know what they're talking about toss around insults like "they keep recycling the same clueless writers!" I had a whole rant I was ready to write but then I remembered that writer/director Eric Heisserer did a much better job of lifting the veil on the studio writing development process. Go ahead and read it here. I'll wait.

All done? Good. Eric's post underlines that whatever you think you know about a film's development process, there's a lot that goes on unsaid. Critique a finished film all you like, but critique the product, not the engineers. A writer might have been rewritten by someone who went uncredited. Or a director might have pulled rank and forced the scripting of a scene the writer argued against. Or the studio might have forced the director to cut 20 minutes of scenes they felt were too boring.

There's also an arrogance to assuming that only someone from outside the industry can provide "fresh, innovative perspectives." Honestly, what does that even mean in relation to a character who's existed for nearly 75 years? There seems to be an assumption that once writers work on a few films, they all start to write the same. That's a patently false notion to begin with.

Honestly, real innovation is more likely to come from writers who've worked in the system because they've seen how the machine works, and seen how it doesn't work. It's hard to innovate when you're coming from a place of ignorance. Guys who've been in Eric's shoes understand why some projects turned out bad. This means they're better equipped to advise on how to avoid the pitfalls.

All of this is ignoring that with a franchise like the WB/DC shared universe, the desire is probably going to be less for someone who marches to their own drum and more for someone whose vision of Wonder Woman is compatible with what's already been established in next year's Batman v. Superman and the already-scripted Justice League film.

They don't hire first-timers for that kind of thing. They hire professionals who they know can deliver pages, writers with the skill and experience to execute studio notes in a way that works.

My genuine advice to you is to write an original spec. If you really are as talented as you say, the best way to break in is with original material. It might not happen on the first spec, or even the third or the fifth. This is a marathon, not a sprint. If you don't have it in you to write four or five original films before you get a shot at breaking in, this really isn't the career for you.

Writing your version of someone else's idea is a really hard way to break in, particularly when a half-dozen writers already have the exact job you are going for.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Reader questions about queries and coverage

R asks:

I’ve read the feedback on all the online sites, BL, Inktip, ISA, et all, and found none of them seem to be worth the money or effort. So, in your humble opinion, for someone not located in California, what is the best way to approach an agent, manger or producer? Send a logline only? A logline and synopsis? Hold their children hostage? Threaten to send them back if they don’t read it?

If you don't have feet on the ground in LA, then I'd first try reaching out through any connections you might have through your college's alumni network. The next thing I'd do is research managers and (assuming your script is low budget enough) smaller producers who might accept queries.

And if I struck out there, I'd probably use the Black List.

It used to be a bad idea to approach managers and producers via email but that's more accepted now. I say do email or snail mail. The key is to keep it brief. Introduce yourself succintly. Don't ramble. Don't give any more information than is absolutely necessary. If there's a reason why you might be of interest to them, say it here, but don't take more than two sentences or so to get there. (Example: "I used to be an analyst for the CIA covert ops division, and I've brought some of that experience to my spy thriller spec.")

Don't send a synopsis. Keep it to a logline. I wouldn't go into more than a three-sentence description of the story. Hook them, intrigue them and don't overwhelm them with details. The people you are reaching out to get a LOT of emails a day so if they click on an unsolicited email that's five dense paragraphs long, they WILL skip it.

Take it from someone who just went through his inbox and by-passed a number of emails from readers telling their life stories. Brevity is your friend. (And in the case of the long emails I was getting, many of them asked things outside the scope of this site, or asked questions that we've answered a number of times before here.)

Queries tend to have a low success rate, but if you're not in LA, that's one of the few options available to you.

n asks:

I've been following your blog and youtube/twitter channel for a while. Always appreciate the frank advice you give, and would like your quick opinion on something. 

 I heard an interview with Corey Mandell who said that since it's difficult to judge when your screenplay is "ready" (and most screenplays aren't anywhere near the level they should be), it's helpful to pay a few studio readers to give professional coverage "off the books" so you don't burn any bridges if it receives multiple passes. 

Do you recommend this approach? How many readers would be enough? How much would be a fair amount in a situation like this? 

I would not pay more than $150 for standard studio coverage from a reader. As longtime readers know, for cases like that, I always refer people to Amanda Pendolino. She knows her stuff and she's got the work history that ensures she'll be looking at it the way the "first filters" at all agencies and production companies would.

I've talked about coverage services before, and that includes what to look for in a reputable coverage service, and how much feedback you should get before you know you're ready.

 Eventually, after you've written several scripts and read many, many more, you'll get better at judging the quality of your own work, though it's rare to become fully objective.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Reader question - Does INSIDE OUT prove that more writers is better?

Yes, I know. I've been gone a while. Let's dive into the mailbag and see if I can't make some headway on questions....

This one's from Ryan:

I just saw Pixar’s INSIDE OUT, and I can only say one thing: Brilliant. The writing was the best I’ve seen in recent memory. The concept was truly original and off-beat; the launch was solid, straight, and captivating; and the story arc beautifully threaded ten needles to hit the bull’s eye at the end. Walking out of there I thought, “I couldn’t have come up with a fifth of that myself.”

So I looked to see who wrote the script. It was Steve Docter’s (spelling correct) brain child, and he got writing credits with Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley. And Ronnie del Carmen helped with the story. And Michael Arndt from “Little Miss Sunshine” fame was on board at one point. And they got suggestions from other film makers and the creative leaders at Pixar and …

Wait a minute, one person DIDN’T come up with this all by himself! But I should have guessed that. People don’t design automobiles or airplanes all by their lonesomes, why screenplays? If one guy is great at writing dialog, another is gifted at story arc, another at story concepts, another at characterization and so on, it seems that a table full of geniuses working as a team will be able to craft a better script than even a singularly superior screen writer working by him/herself.

So my question is, are we all wasting our time banging out spec scripts as sole proprietors? Won’t a team (properly working) always beat out an individual? And if so, won’t that push solo screen writers into obsolescence? Shouldn’t anyone serious about this business work in a writing group? It seems the only logical way to achieve the best possible finished product.

The fallacy here is assuming that there's only one single way to skin a cat. The correct answer to any question about the creative process usually involves some variation of "Whatever works for you."

Pixar's process is rather unique because the animation production allows them to screen early test versions of the film and get a sense of what's working and what isn't. They can refine scenes, remove others, scrap entire storylines and completely rebuild the story from the ground up. It's this process of evaluation and revision where most of the other voices seem to come in.

Live action does not and cannot work that way. Maybe if you're talking about a George Lucas or a Robert Rodriguez film that's shooting on green screens, it might be possible. In that case, you're not bound by the massive expense of building sets and spending weeks and weeks shooting sequences. All you need to do is get your actors on a green screen for a couple days and build everything around them. (And in fact, this IS what Lucas did on Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.)

That's a pretty significant distinction. Sometimes there are problems on the page that you can't really spot until they're on screen. With the production process in most live action films, it's really not possible to make the sorts of course corrections you do in animation. (To say nothing of the terrible press that live-action films get when reshoots happen. Suppose tomorrow it's revealed that Batman v. Superman is reassembling the cast for three weeks of reshoots. How much do you want to bet that'd be reported with the attitude of "See? WB doesn't know what it's doing! This movie's gonna suck!")

Putting that aside, there's a pretty significant history of studios bringing in multiple writers and rewrites on projects during both the pre-production stages and also while shooting. The movie Catwoman had 28 writers. The Flintstones supposedly hired 35 writers. If you've seen either of those films, you probably would share my opinion that more isn't always better.

It's not the number of arrows in your quiver - it's how well you use them.

In television, it's pretty standard for there to be a writers room that could have anywhere from 6-12 writers contributing ideas to the series. Different shows use these writing staffs differently. A non-serialized show like Law & Order: SVU might have most of its writers working individually on their own episodes while sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory literally write every line in the room collaboratively and rotate credit among the staff. This gives the advantage of a large brain trust of ideas, though perhaps at the expense of an individual writer's distinct voice and quirks.

Lately, we've seen some franchise films adapt a version of this process as part of their world building. Both Transformers and Avatar have "writers rooms" where a team of writers will work together in breaking the stories for several flims and then individual writers will splinter off to write features on their own, based on the work of the think-tank. It's not how I would have likely done this, but I'm curious to see the results.

But I don't think I've yet address your question of "should we become sole proprietors?" That's really a decision only you can make. I know writers who thrive in a writers room and really benefit from having that chemistry and that sounding board to react to.  There are others I know who just can't share their process with others. It becomes a hindrance to their creativity to bring another voice in at this stage.

Work however works for you. A writing team isn't always more than the sum of its parts.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Arnold isn't obsolete, but TERMINATOR: GENISYS is

A few months back, the second trailer for Skydance's Terminator: Genisys (and that is the LAST time I will type that ridiculously stupid title here) stunned viewers by revealing a seemingly major twist - the discovery that in this film, John Connor has been assimilated by Skynet and turned into a Terminator himself. It felt like a Hail Mary on the part of the marketing the department. The first trailer didn't fire up the fans as hoped, so dropping this bomb on the audience appears to have been calculated to use shock value. If you can make the fans curious or enraged, they just might buy tickets opening weekend.

Then as release neared, Terminator creator James Cameron did some press where he essentially gave the film his blessing, saying "If you liked the Terminator films, you're gonna like this movie." As he's been vocal in the past about not liking the third and fourth entries, so this endorsement carried a bit more weight.

Having seen the film, I respectfully submit that whatever Skynet did to John Connor is pretty much what Skydance had to have done to James Cameron.

I sort of dread writing a long post about this film because thanks to the time travel paradoxes, this movie is the kind of adventure where pulling on one loose thread immediately unravels a lot of other threads. When the rest of the movie is really good, it can earn a sort of contract from the audience, whereupon the viewer agrees not to look to hard at some inconsistencies, so long as the creators stay somewhat internally consistent.

Just to name one example from within the Terminator-verse: The original film and the first sequel operate on two entirely different concepts of time-travel. The first movie is a closed loop, where history is fixed and immutable. In sending a Terminator back in time to kill the mother its greatest enemy, Skynet unwittingly creates the circumstances that result in him being born.

However, the second film proceeds from the assumption that history CAN be changed. The problem with that is that if you accept that, you accept that at some point there was a history where a Terminator didn't come back in time to kill Sarah Connor, which means no Kyle Reese followed him back, which means John was never conceived.

However, Terminator 2 is a great film and while it not only stays internally consistent, this paradox is pretty well-concealed and probably can even be rationalized away with enough though. I can't say the same for the newest film.

This time around, when Kyle lands in 1984 the Sarah Connor he finds is not the carefree waitress of the first film, but a more capable warrior akin to Sarah's T2 evolution. It seems that Skynet also sent a Terminator back to Sarah's childhood, where she was saved by yet another reprogrammed T-800 model (That's the Arnold Schwarzenegger version.) He raised her and trained her for this day as a father figure, whom she eventually calls "Pops."

I'm gonna press pause for a second and point out that it's never explained who sent either Terminator to young Sarah. We see Skynet send the Terminator to 1984 just before the time machine is seized by Connor's men, but not to 1973 (or to 1994, for that matter, if we want to acknowledge the T2 timeline). Something happens after Kyle time travels that gives Skynet the upper hand, but if we assume that's what allows for another Terminator to appear back in 1973, then how do the good guys send "Pops" back in time?

Over at Film School Rejects, Scott Beggs wrote a funny article trying to rationalize all the Terminators that Skynet would have had to send through time in its final moments. It's worth seeking out, and under the humor, there's a pretty solid point about the logic underlying the conceit.

Pops is one of the better things about this film, and so it becomes particularly galling that the film glosses over his origins. It could have worked better if our POV was locked to Sarah, not Kyle, and thus, allowing for some ambiguity in how things play out to let all the time travelers end up where they do.

The second bit of temporal logic that hurt the film for me hinges on just plain common sense. In 1984, Pops and Sarah have been building their own time machine and have been waiting for the 1984 Terminator to arrive so they can use its CPU to power it. They plan to leap forward to 1997, where they can stop Judgment Day, because they know the exact date thanks to Pops's records.

Wait, so right now they have a 13-year head start on the end of the world and they want to shrink that margin to a day or so? Does that make any sense at all? There are some plot twists that result in Kyle pinpointing 2017 as the new time of Judgment Day and so after an argument, they leap there instead. Pops has to stay behind, but he uses the next 33 years to gather intel and weapons, to the point where he briefly infiltrates the construction site of the future Skynet AND manages to infiltrate their security systems.

Am I crazy or does it seem like Pops was a lot more effective at stopping Skynet simply by taking many actions over the years than Kyle and Sarah were by skipping to a point where they have a rapidly expiring countdown? There's no reason they should give up the three decade advantage they have, aside from the fact it lets the film generate more tension.

When Marty McFly stupidly fails to realize that he should give himself more than ten minutes to save Doc from getting murdered by terrorists, we can chalk it up to Marty being impulsive, immature, and not thinking all the time travel logic through. When the new Terminator has people who have been planning a major attack on a planned event for over a decade miss this obvious logic, it becomes harder to swallow.

Two of the biggest cruxes of the film are tied to incredibly flimsy logic. It's really hard for me to ignore that. Worse, if you pick at those scabs you eventually start finding other nitpicks that arise out of it. The film tries to handwave the biggest one (it has to do with whether or not John can kill his parents before they conceive him), but it feels less like an explanation and more like a "yeah, we know this doesn't work out and we're going to affirm that somehow it does."

I don't want this to turn into a laundry list of nitpicks in the film, beyond those few points. The internet had a three-week field day pulling apart Jurassic World, and this movie gives them even more to feast on. It doesn't help that aside from Arnold, there isn't much here that's great. Jai Courtney is pretty badly miscast as Kyle Reese, having none of the presence of Michael Biehn. Biehn felt like a credible war vet while Courtney feels like a star quarterback who's just having a bad season.

As for Emilia Clarke, let's just say she's no Linda Hamilton and leave it at that. She has some nice moments with Pops, though. I found myself wishing that this film was more about that relationship and focused on the time before Kyle meets her. When it comes to Arnold himself, I enjoyed him more here than I have in any of his other post-gubernatorial films, except for perhaps Escape Plan. His chemistry with Courtney doesn't come close to what he had with Edward Furlong in Terminator 2, but he plays off of Clarke well. He even sells a joke about his creepy smile that probably shouldn't work.

(As for jokes that don't work, the biggest misfire is a sequence that uses the COPS theme and attempts a couple silly sight gags. How did this ever make it out of the assembly cut?)

The way the film uses time travel to achieve a sort of soft reboot is reminiscent of how J.J. Abrams used a similar conceit in a far more elegant and meaningful way when he relaunched Star Trek. This might be the first time that the series has used time travel as more than just a conceit to launch the story. As depicted in the other films, time travel was a one-way prospect - Terminators and protectors only are able to go into the past. Time travel kicks off the story, but it doesn't become the story.

Here, our heroes have built their own time machine and they use it to leap forward to the future. Even ignoring the logic issues I brought up above, this feels like it gives the characters too much power, hence they have to use that power poorly or else the film would be over.

Ultimately, I don't know that I agree with Cameron that this is the best film since his two originals. As much as Rise of the Machines is a lesser sequel after T2, I find that it's elevated by its shockingly dark climax. That shows more guts than this latest film does, whatever other faults exist in that film. The first two films are virtually untouchable in terms of quality and they're probably all the story anyone could need from this series. That said, the TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles eventually proved itself worthy to carry the name and in my mind that is the proper follow-up to James Cameron's films.  Stacked side-by-side with those, this fifth feature can't help but feel like fan fiction.