Complications Ensue: The Crafty TV and Screenwriting Blog
Complications Ensue:
The Crafty TV and Screenwriting Blog



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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Here's another review of my new book:
Crafty TV Writing: Thinking Inside the Box by Alex Epstein (Owl Books) Many how-to writing books begin by looking at the larger picture. Some encourage you to try aromatherapy and (I'm not kidding) to eat more vegetables. These tips won't make you a better writer. But the first chapter in Alex Epstein's second book will. First, Epstein reveals the hidden structure of a great TV series. From there he homes in on great episode ideas, basic TV script writing, rewriting and comedy. Next he offers an insider perspective of working in TV land. You'll learn how to prepare to be a TV writer, how to break in, how to get hired, how to get promoted, and finally, how to create your own show. The back of the book offers several resources, including pay scales, samples, contests, a glossary and review of two major screenplay formatting programs. In this book, Epstein proves that, in addition to being a veteran TV writer and show creator, he's a funny and skilled reference writer, too.
Well, that's pretty snazzy. Thank you, Writers Digest!

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Tom Fontana is the creator or co-creator of such diverse dramas as OZ, THE JURY, TATTINGER'S, THE BEAT, and THE BEDFORD DIARIES. He was an Executive Producer on HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET. He began his TV career as a writer and producer on ST. ELSEWHERE. All his shows are crafted (and crafty) character dramas with evolving story lines. He was gracious enough to spend an hour on the phone with me answering a dozen or so arcane questions about his craft and his medium. Hopefully, I didn't ask him too many questions he's heard before.

Crafty TV: How much TV do you watch? What shows? Do you watch shows you enjoy, or shows you may not like but are popular, or shows that you feel are stretching the form in an interesting way?

TF: I'm fifty-five, so I grew up with television. There was a television set on in our house from the moment they brought me home from the hospital, and it was not turned off in all the years that I lived in my parents' house. I watched a lot of television up to high school. After that, I didn't really watch much for a while. I have a huge gap in my knowledge of seventies TV. Then when I started writing television, I started watching watching everything. Not just shows where I admired the writing. Shows like LOU GRANT or HILL STREET BLUES. Even the crap. I thought I should know what everyone else was doing.

By the time ST. ELSEWHERE went off the air, my viewing had burned out. When I moved back to New York, I didn't even own a television set. For a year. I had O.D.'d on it.

Now, even though I do watch TV, I don't watch it regularly. There are a number of shows that if I'm home, and they're on, I'll watch. It depends on how good the writing is. How good the cast is.

I've never seen a reality show, not because I'm snobby, but because I'm terrified I might become addicted and become a part of the segment of this country that obsesses on them.

I watch hour dramas primarily ... well written shows, like SOPRANOS, THE WEST WING, DEADWOOD. David Milch's work is always exciting. 24 is clever. The problem is I can never watch the show consistently enough to know what hour it is. The same with LOST. NIP/TUCK I find very well written and well done. And HUFF is terrific.

What I've started doing is waiting for the DVD's to come out, then watching the WHOLE season of a show in a clump....

CRAFTY TV: Which brings up the question: more viewers are using technology to skip commercials, or download pirated episodes. What do you think is the future of dramatic TV? Will we move to a subscription model?

TF: I'm not smart enough, certainly not technologically, to answer that question, except to say that in the same way that the legitimate theater shifted when the motion picture came about, then the movies shifted when sound came about, then shifted again when television came about, the market will have to shift again. Television is on the precipice of an enormous re-evaluation, of how shows are made, how much they cost, who's watching and how they're watching. I think in the next five to ten years, television, as we know it, will have ceased to exist.

CRAFTY TV: Then what about a subscription model, where, say, you tell people, "We're thinking of doing another season of OZ, are you willing to pay $20, and if we get enough people we'll take your $20 and everybody else's $20 and we'll make the season."

TF: Well, but how are you doing to do the first season?

CRAFTY TV: You can say, "Tom Fontana is doing a new show..."

TF: Then how do you get new showrunners?

I think that this is something everyone is trying to figure out. What the studios need is for somebody to tell them, "here's how you're going to make your money back." They shoot the shows for the networks at a deficit. If you put in permanent downloads, you eliminate all the other revenue streams. There's no chance for the studios to make their money back. So there's the problem. Anybody who thinks they can tell you now how this is going to work is an idiot. No one knows. No one at the studios, no one at the networks, there is no writer/producer who has a clear sense. We're in virgin territory. It's going to take time to settle down. What do we do? Do we go back to making TV for as little as possible, with paper sets, and no locations? The public won't accept that. There's a very real problem here. I'm not clever enough to come up with a solution. But I'm fascinated to see what happens.

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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Crafty TV Writing hits bookstores today. I hope y'all will rush right out to your local bookstores and buy it!

Or, just click on the link to the upper right and order it from Amazon.

My editor just faxed me a great review in Booklist, the publication of the American Library Association:
Epstein, Alex. Crafty TV Writing: Thinking Inside the Box. June 2006. 336p. Index. Holt/Owl, paper, $15.

Epstein, author of Crafty Screenwriting (2002), draws on his experiences writing for the television shows Naked Josh and Charlie Jade to create an essential guide for those hoping to break into television writing. Epstein starts ... by examining what great television series have in common: a hook that draws viewers in, compelling characters the audience cares about, and stories that unfold naturally on the small screen and make people want to return to the world of the show every week. From there he gets into the specifics of how to write a good script. ... After offering insightful writing hints and tips on how to write comedy, Epstein walks writers through finding jobs writing for television -- and how to get along with everyone from story editors to show runners once one does. Enlightening and straightforward, this is a must for anyone who wants to write for television.

YA/L: Ambitious teens who want someday to write for shows they love will find this an accessible read.
Whoo hoo!

(And by the way, while you're at your bookstore, if you haven't already picked up a copy of Crafty Screenwriting, check it out!)

UPDATE: Apropos Kelly's comment below: the book is not just for newbies. There's a lot in there that I didn't know when I started writing the book and doing the interviews.

And there's a lot in there that I haven't put in my blog!

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Monday, May 29, 2006

Q. Do you know of any online resources to find weekly rate averages for production art positions? I'm in the process of closing a deal to do a comic adaptation of an optioned feature film, and if the film goes into production, I may also have an opportunity to contribute to the production art staff on a weekly basis. Although my day job involves advertising and design work, I have no experience with the standards of feature film rates.
I would check the IATSE and NABET websites. You probably won't get union rates. But standard non-union rates for techs (not for writers!) are often as high as union rates; you just don't get the benefits.

Q. What do you call an electrician who can work when he's stoned?
A. A grip.

Q. How can you tell the Teamster kid at the playground?
A. He's the one sitting by his tricycle reading the funny papers while the other kids play.

Q. How many Teamsters does it take to plug in a light bulb?
A. Four. ... You got a problem with that?

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What are your favorite screenwriting magazines?

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DMc is asking for a guest blogger to cover the Banff TV Festival for him, since he's not going. He remarks:
if you're in a Master Class, come up with a great question before you go in. Seriously. I sat through some seriously lame questions.
Lucky readers of this blog, I will go one better. I am going to Banff, and unless more meetings come up (I've scheduled 21 so far, in three days! yikes), I hope to go to the master classes. They include Ali LeRoi (EVERYBODY HATES CHRIS), Scott Peters (THE 4400), David Shore (HOUSE) and Richard Lewis (CSI).

What crafty questions do you have for these guys?

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Sunday, May 28, 2006

When I wasn't wrangling small crowds of eleven year old boys armed with supersoakers this weekend, I was practicing my pitch for the Banff PitchIt! program. It's one thing to pitch a couple of executives. There I'm jest talkin' about my project. Add 149 more listeners and it becomes a performance.

Which means memorizing my lines, or at least my talking points, and the order they come in.

I know I make a big deal about "telling your story." Truly I am just as resistant as you are to telling my story out loud. I would much rather tinker endlessly with the four pages on my computer screen. But there is still nothing like telling your story out loud. So I went out to the park and did my pitch for myself out loud, not looking at the page. It went a lot slower. I bumped on a lot of stuff. But it also got better. I did it over and over, trying to figure out how to make it flow better. Then I rewrote my pitch document accordingly.

I just ran it through my head as I was lying in bed just now. It held together. I was able to get through the whole pitch without forgetting what comes next. That's a good sign.

What I may do tomorrow is literally memorize it. The technique I learned in my Meisner technique class is to memorize by rote very fast, over and over, without affect, just memorizing the flow of words. If you memorize with emotions, then the excitement of the moment can screw you up -- your emotions won't be the same. If you can get the flow of words down pat in your mind, without meaning, then when you perform, you'll have the words when your emotions get to them. And you can then change your words as the mood suits you.

Thank God for Monday.

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Friday, May 26, 2006

Given what you said about becoming a movie star in your FAQs on your website, I am curious as to whether you think it is more likely that the average individual could become a movie star, or date one?
It's a question of mathematics. A movie star can date dozens of people in a year, if they so choose. But it takes years to become a movie star.

Also, relating to the math, it depends on what the meaning of the word "date" is.

The question reminds me of my American History class in college, where Gaddis Smith remarked that during the Kennedy administration, "every American boy dreamt of becoming the President, and every American girl dreamt of sleeping with him."

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I am looking for a new agent to represent me in English Canada. Now some agents are willing to split territories; others aren't. They all will tell you that they can rep you worldwide. But I have found that not to be the case. It is very hard to rep a writer in Quebec if you're not in Quebec; Quebec has its own community and rules and language; and by "language" I mean both the French language, and the expectations producers have of the relationships with writers. On the other hand it's hard for a Quebec agent to rep you in Toronto. And no agent can rep you very well in LA if they don't work in LA. Someone living elsewhere is going to be out of the loop. They're not going to overhear lunch conversation. They're not going to be able to have lunch with buyers, and get a sense what people are looking for, and accidentally discover that there's a job available.

The drawback for the agent is their fear that they'll work to sell you in their territory, and you'll get a gig, or sell your material, in the other agent's territory. On the other hand unless you're white-hot, it's rare that this would actually happen. If you simply hold back your material from one territory while the other agent is working it, there will be no duplication of effort; and it's rare enough that you'll be up for two gigs at once, except during LA staffing season.

When I moved here, I had to give up a good agent in LA because her agency's policy was no split territories. My previous Toronto agent, I think, never really felt comfortable with the split territory. And yet there are agents who are willing to do it. I'm pretty sure I've got enough material to keep two agents busy -- I've had more trouble with my agents not being able to go out with all the stuff I come up with, and getting backed up with their reading, than duplicate sales of the same material.

So we'll see. And I'll keep you posted.

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Pandora is a neat site that helps you find new music to love. You give it a couple of artists you like, and it plays a customized streaming radio station for you filled with the music you said you liked and other music you might not have heard of. I gave it Peter Gabriel and Alanis Morrisette. It came back with David Bowie and late [i.e. recent] Cyndi Lauper. I'm a huge Bowie fan, so that was a pretty good guess. Instead of using an Amazon-style algorithm ("customers who liked Peter Gabriel's Passion soundtrack also bought the soundtrack to The Passion of the Christ"), it uses "genomics," attempting to identify the flavor of the music ("loose chord structure, syncopated beat").

Worth a listen.

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Thursday, May 25, 2006

I just had a very interesting interview with Tom Fontana (Oz, St. Elsewhere, Bedford Diaries). I'll write it up and run it by Tom next week, and I hope to get it to you guys by the 1st of June. In the mean time, here are the questions...
How much TV do you watch? What shows? Do you watch shows you enjoy, or shows you may not like but are popular, or shows that you feel are stretching the form in an interesting way?

When you come up with a series idea, do you typically target one network or demographic? E.g. do you decide "this one's for HBO, this one's for CBS"? Or do you go out with multiple versions at the same time? Was there ever a broadcast version of "Oz" for example? Was there ever an HBO version of The Bedford Diaries?

As more viewers use technology to skip commercials, or download pirated episodes, what do you think is the future of dramatic TV? Will we move to a subscription model? Encoded episodes?

Is this the best of all possible ways to develop television shows? Or is there a better way?

What do you think of the move to five act structure on some broadcast networks (e.g. ABC)? Does it change anything fundamental? Or are we just looking at a long tag?

Do you have specific goals for the first, second and third act outs? E.g. there's the notion that the second act out should introduce a major plot twist, while the third act out should generate maximum jeopardy. Theoretically the first act out would establish the problem, though the problem is often established in the teaser. Or do you just go wherever the story takes you?

Do you believe in show bibles?

I've heard that networks often only look at the pilot before they greenlight. Is that your experience, and do you know of anyone who's painted themselves into a corner with a great pilot that doesn't make an easy show to write?

Some shows have been described as hybrid genre, e.g. Desperate Housewives has been explained as a drama, a comedy, a mystery and a farce, and Lost has been described as science fiction or mystery or straight drama. Do you worry about whether a show you're creating is in a recognizable genre? Do you think the audience cares? Did, for example, Firefly fail for genre reasons, or for other reasons.

I notice your credits are all on TV. Do you ever get great feature film ideas? And if so what do you do with'em?

When you’re creating a show, are you analytical about the core cast you need? Do you decide how big a core cast you want and then fill in the positions? Do you try to have a love interest, a nemesis, a mentor? Or do you start with springboards?

If you’ve been asked to pitch a show — say ABC tells you it wants “an edgy detective story” — do you have techniques for coming up with a great hook? Do you look around to see what new trends in society or technology you can base a show on, or try to juxtapose genre elements that haven’t been juxtaposed before? Or do you start with characters?

How far ahead do you arc out your episodes? Do you really know what your 100th episode is?

Do you spend a lot of time on the set? Do you send a writer to supervise the shooting? If there’s an on set writer what are his or her responsibilities?
Wellllll ... talk amongst yourselves!

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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

We watched Annie Hall, still possibly the greatest romantic comedy ever made even if the schtick shows its age a little more than it used to. What struck me most was how Woody holds his shots. Much of the movie plays in wide two-shots framed at three quarters (head to knees). Very little intercutting. I wonder where he learned that?

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Q. In your book, and Lew Hunter in his, it is clear that "happy endings" are preferable if one seeks to maximize commercial viability. The idea being that North American audiences prefer to walk out of the theatre feeling chipper rather than sad. My question to you is two-pronged:

1) Forrest Gump, the English Patient, Gladiator, Titanic, Terms of Endearment, American Beauty, etc -- all "sad" or somehow tragic endings where characters we care about are killed or fail in accomplishing an objective or where a victory is pyrrhic, but Oscar-winning commercially successful pictures nonetheless. Don't audiences also enjoy a good cry? Doesn't a tragic ending make them leave the theatres speaking about the picture for days to come? Isn't a tragic ending also a poignant one?

2) What's your view on a story's protagonist successfully and heroically accomplishing an objective that makes you "feel good" whilst at the same time having him experience a tragedy (e.g. he defeats the antagonist in a wonderful display of heroism, but he does not get the girl at the end)?
It depends on what kind of movie you're writing, and what audience you're going for. If you're making a popcorn movie -- Mission Impossible n -- it better have a happy ending. The same is generally true for kids' movies. If you're making a drama for the Brokeback crowd, then you have more latitude. An ending that rips your heart out is fine.

I don't mind sad endings and I'm rather fond of bittersweet endings. What I don't like is melodramatically sad endings. When the tragedy has been set up from the beginning, it can work. You pretty much know from the poster that William Wallace is not going to survive Braveheart, and if you didn't clue in, the scene where Wallace pretty much admits he's probably walking into a trap should tell you that. The bittersweet Wallace-dies/Scotland-wins ending works because by the time we get there, we know that this is how it has to happen. I don't think anyone watching Brokeback expected the boys to work it out and head off to the West Village to open a successful cowboy-themed bar.

Tragic endings often work best when they're foreshadowed. In the first couple of minutes of All That Jazz, Joe Gideon falls off the high wire. And the whole movie is punctuated by Joe's flirtations with the Angel of Death. The English Patient has already ended badly -- the guy's dying in agony -- we just want to know why.

What I can't stand is where the story ends unnecessarily sad ending. The only reason The Commitments ends badly is because (so far as I can tell) they're Irish and nothing ends well for the Irish. Or something. There's no point to it. There's no structural reason why they couldn't have met B. B. King and got a record contract. Certainly Fleetwood Mac went through even worse interpersonal problems and came out with a platinum album or two. You can probably think of other unnecessary bad endings in movies.

I see a useful distinction between a tragic ending, in the traditional sense of a bad ending brought on by the protagonist's fatal flaw, and a merely ugly ending, brought on by the writer's neurotic desire to send the audience out the door with even more misery in their lives than they came in.

The former brings catharsis. The latter brings critical acclaim and low box office.

It doesn't even need to be a fatal flaw. You can have a successful tragic ending when it is the point of the story. Love Story is not about whether Ryan O'Neal and Ali McGraw's characters will get together, as it would be in a romantic comedy; it is about how Ali McGraw's lingering death allows Ryan O'Neal to grow up.

Here's my simple test: would the story be stupid with a happy ending? The Commitments would be a movie about a bunch of messed up people who manage to get over their differences because they love Motown. Not a stupid theme. Not a stupid movie. I wouldn't feel at all cheated. While if The English Patient got better, or saves his lover, then we'd be stuck with hating him for selling out Tobruk to the Nazis, and the story would no longer function well.

Tragedy works when we know, either up front, or secretly, in our heart of hearts, how it's going to turn out. But we root for it to turn out okay anyway. So the key is letting the audience know the ending is going to be sad, and making sure the story still has enough drama and humanity going for it that knowing the ending doesn't kill the experience.

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Monday, May 22, 2006

I can't think of a single summer movie I'm actively looking forward to seeing. Is it just me, or is this summer shaping up to be a pretty dull one blockbuster-wise? Where are the big science fiction movies? The big period pieces? The movie that demand that I see them on the big screen and not on DVD? What's going to whisk me away from my popcorn? Does anybody know?

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I finished 1491. I'd recommend this book to anyone. It really gets you thinking about pre-Contact (or pre-Impact) American culture. The author makes a compelling case that most of the "primeval" forests in both North and South America that seemed so bounteous to the Europeans were in fact tree farms: the Haudenosee (Iroquois), for example, planted hickory trees everywhere, and did their best to hunt out all the animals that ate hickory nuts. The author also suggests that the massive herds of bison and swarms of passenger pigeons the Euros saw were not natural; they were population explosions after disease wiped out 95% of their principal predators, i.e. man.

There are interesting implications for the notion of "wildlife." I.e. if we are trying to restore the natural parks to their "primeval" condition, are we trying to restore them to a merely pre-Contact state or to a pre-human state? Because the case is made that pre-Contact, most of the American wilderness was carefully managed through controlled use of fire (creating the prairies and keeping down forest underbrush in the East) and hunting.

I'm not an anthropologist and I'm sure there are more caveats to this claim than the author put in his book. But the book is a real eye-opener.

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Sunday, May 21, 2006

Telefilm Canada has an engagingly named program called Writers First, which used to be the Scriptwriting Assistance Programme -- which, I guess, sounded too much like a handout. The program now allows writers with 2 hours of produced credits (shared credits count) to apply for a chunk of money to enable them to spec a script. All Telefilm asks in return is that if you sell the script, you give them back the money. Nice program, huh? It enables a working writer to justify spending the time on a spec feature.

So for the past week I've been working up a five page outline for a comedy based loosely on one of the TV series ideas. Writing the backdoor pilot if you will. The story ought to be a fun, goofy, quirky, inexpensive little comedy about twentysomethings trying to avoid growing up.

I am sort of noodling around with the idea of directing the thing. That is, if anyone wants to produce it at all! This is the first feature script idea I've had that I would, if I were a producer, allow someone with my inexperience to direct. It's all people talking in rooms and on empty streets. No serious production challenges. It's a talky comedy, which is a genre first time writer-directors do well in. But the main reason, oddly, would be that it avoids having to get directors to read and attach themselves to it. There are very few directors up here, I feel, who really add value to a project; but even the merely competent ones are hard to attach to your project, and they're going to want free rewrites. If I'm the putative director, I can always step away for someone I think is a great director, but I don't have to go begging to find someone, anyone to direct. And I'm at least as plausible as a first time director as a lot of people I see out there in the biz. I do, after all, have a degree in filmmaking!

I guess my point is: sometimes asking for more is more effective than asking for less.

But the first step is convince Telefilm they want to give me the money to write my movie...

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Friday, May 19, 2006

I'm really enjoying 1491, a compelling survey of what we now think we know about North and South America before the Europeans showed up. The news (to those of us who grew up hearing about how the Indians were mostly a scattering of bands of hunter-gatherers living in harmony with nature) is that the place was crowded with fairly sophisticated cultures. The reason Europeans forgot that is that shortly after Columbus's arrival, European travelers managed to infect Native Americans with devastating plagues that killed off up to 95% of their people -- possibly due to genetic bottlenecks from the crossing of the Bering Strait. You try keeping your sophisticated culture operating with 19 out of 20 people dead. It is full of surprising info, e.g., the Pilgrims weren't the first Northern Europeans (not counting the Vikings) to try to settle in New England; they were just the first the Indians didn't chase off.

I love a good paradigm-revising book. The book before that, I was rereading Robert T. Bakker's The Dinosaur Heresies. By now everyone knows that dinosaurs were fast warm-blooded killers, but I grew up on taildraggers. Bakker's 1986 book was a revelation long before Jurassic Park. It's nice to reread the detective story: predator-prey ratios, lack of growth rings, speed calculations based on trackways, evidence of what dinosaur herbivores used to chew their food (hint: not their teeth)... Fun, and fills me with very satisfyingly useless knowledge.

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/* Spoilers */

I tried to watch the finale. I really tried. But come on. Izzy clips the LVAD, putting Denny in a death spiral. You have got to be joking. What doctor would do that? What other doctor, no matter how friendly, no matter how "family," would ever allow someone to do that? Stealing a heart from someone who needs it by making your patient worse off -- whatever happened to "First, do no harm"?

And Burke behaving like a girl because Cristina fell asleep on him? Taking it personally? He ought to know something about female physiology by now, no?

And ... oh, I didn't even get to see this because I could not stand watching the show, it was just too stupid. But the girls put on a prom at the hospital to placate a teenage patient. You have GOT to be joking. I'm dyin' heah.

I don't mind when shows stretch credibility. But there has to be a little plausibility. A bazooka shell in some idiot who built one? Okay, it's unrealistic but it's close enough to other idiotic things that real people do that I'll forgive it as a stand-in. The writers could probably have come up with something more credible but they didn't.

But I feel that Grey's Anatomy is becoming the O.C. of doctor shows. Shonda Rhimes doesn't trust her core cast to be interesting enough as they are. She seems to feel she has to bring in plots that belong more properly to other shows. Bomb squads. Fugitives from justice. Guns. And yet their core cast would be quite interesting. Izzy's feelings over giving up her daughter for adoption. George's feelings about being smarter than his family. Those were interesting territories. I wish we'd get more of those.

I wonder if both Rhimes and Schwartz being first time showrunners has anything to do with it?

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Hey, bloggers: what do you think is your best post ever? I'm going to add some outside links to my blog fu.

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I'm a Canadian writer (screen and TV) and journalist (newspaper columnist) from Vancouver who recently sold a TV pilot to the US History Channel.
Mazel tov!
I found a production co in CA which does a lot of work for the History Channel. They liked the idea, pitched it and got a pilot.

Any idea how I, as a Canadian can negotiate the touchy US Border Patrol/Homeland Security "travel and/or work in the US" issue?
The simplest solution is not to work in the US. You do your paid work only in Vancouver, for your Canadian loanout corporation. Your loanout charges the Californian prodco for your services. Which are done all in Vancouver. Naturally those services may require meetings in LA. Lots of meetings in LA. Long meetings in LA, which might take place over several weeks. Or months. But the actual paid work is done in Vancouver.

As a Canadian, you are free to visit the US any time you like. Just tell them you're there for the cheese. (Sorry. Californian inside joke.)

Failing that, you can get a work permit if your prodco can demonstrate that you are providing unique services, which since it's your show you obviously are. After all, corporations hire people from Europe all the time. It can be done. It's just a pain.

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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

This is pretty cool if you're just starting out in Canadian TV:
The Writers Apprentice offers an emerging Canadian writer with the unprecedented opportunity to gain significant experience by completing a four-week internship in the story department of a prime-time series.

The winner will be selected by a Jury consisting of three jurors (one representative from Global Television, one representative from the Banff Television Festival Foundation and one representative from the broadcasting/production community).

The winner of the Global Television Writers Apprentice will be contacted by May 26, 2006. Winning the award is not contingent upon the winner being in attendance at BANFF 2006. The winner will receive complementary registration to the Festival. Applications are due by May 24, 2006.
There are similar fellowships at ABC and the other networks; look for the word "fellowship" or "internship" at their websites.

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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Q. What do you do about the technical aspects of the narrative? For instance, I've always been intimidated by specing a medical show like Grey's or ER. Or a law/crime show. Do you research the hell out of something, or do you fake it the best you can? All of those shows have actual consultants, so will people cut you slack if your relationships and story are tight but your technical methods are suspect?
Yes. You research the hell out of something, and then you fake it the best you can.

First of all, you're not showing your Grey's spec to the Grey's staff. You're showing it to anyone but. The people on a show know it too well to be impressed by your spec.

Second, the writer reading your spec is usually not a doctor or lawyer and isn't going to show it to a doctor or lawyer. If you can convince him or her that you know what you're talking about, you've done what you set out to do.

That said, it is hard to convincingly fake medicine if you have not studied up on the illness or condition you're writing about. Most of us have seen enough medical and law shows to know when you're just completely making everything up. And writers are often fonts of trivia. This morning I was reading up on how Allosaurus jaws flex wide when they're eating something big. You never know what another writer will know. If they can spot the holes in your medicine by checking the Wikipedia, you haven't done enough research

On the other other hand, as Doris Egan (House) points out, the experts don't always agree, either.

Yes, the thing to concentrate on is the relationships. Do what you can to make the medicine convincing (not the same as real), compelling and above all interesting. But your spec lives or dies on the characters, their relationships, and how you tell their personal stories.

Incidentally, this is why I wouldn't spec a House, though lots of people are. It's too much about the medicine. I'd spec something like a Grey's first; it's not really about the medicine. Ditto something like Boston Legal (though BL may not have enough heat any more to spec): the cases rarely turn on intricacies of the law. They usually turn on Denny Crane pulling some courtroom stunt or Allan Shore suppressing a witness.

For bonus points -- and this is always a good thing to do if it doesn't bend the rest of the episode out of shape -- find a reason why the medical situation or legal problem is personal to the doctor or lawyer who is handling the case. It's one thing to have a story about a woman pondering giving up her baby. It's another thing entirely when Izzy's on the case and we learn that Izzy gave up a baby herself. Or when Denny Crane is fighting to defend a steakhouse when we realize that he's suffering from mad-cow-disease-related CJD. Or Burke has to operate on a musical hero of his who doesn't want to live if he can't be the best -- bringing up the question of what drives Burke to be the best.

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Monday, May 15, 2006

Because I love street theater...
Manhunt is a game of mass hide and seek that is played downtown. Players receive orange armbands to distinguish players from the populace. It's a game much like hide and seek where you stalk your prey like mosquitoes to a bare backside. Although the rules are discussed at the pre-assigned meeting area, they can be seen at our website www.manhunt-montreal.com, along with news for the following game, reports on the last and links to pictures of charging hunters and fleeing prey.
Essentially, you hide from the appointed hunters; if found, you join the hunters.
So far we've managed to exponentially attract hipsters and yuppies, students and professionals, girls and boys. (And let it be said that it is not MANhunt because we are sexist. It is not our fault that somebody came up with a name that sounds very much like a gay cruising technique.) This is not a private event, there is no RSVP. This is a show-up, show-on, show-off type of game. Friends are welcome, enemies are invited and hunted.

Immediately afterwards there is a just-as-successful BBQ/drinkfest . This is for players to unwind and exchange their wild stories of the hunt. It starts at about 7 or 8pm (give or take, sometimes stragglers take awhile to return the meeting point.) The party is hosted by the organizers (LePhil and Adair), who are graciously providing some hot dog calories.

The next game is on Saturday the 20th at 5pm . This game is going to be on the cobble streets of Old Montreal (check up our map at www.manhunt-montreal.com for specifics). We are meeting outside the Centaur Theater.

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Q. You say I need to watch more TV and watch TV smarter. The honest truth is that I have next to no time to do this. Unless I set specific time aside to just watch, I don't get to. I'm starting to clear my schedule so I can do just that.
Good, because you can't write TV without watching TV. To save time, get a Personal Video Recorder or TiVo; skipping commercials will save you 25%. Also, watch shows on DVD where you can.

Once you've spotted a show you want to spec, you don't need to watch any other shows. You want that show to enter your bloodstream and your dreams. At least until you're done with your spec.
Q. What exactly should I be looking for? I've noticed exactly what you said, that there is not a single scene that goes by without either some kind of foreshadowing, or an argument between characters that moves the show forward or a resolution of an argument that ends up developing in to something else in the next scene. Also I've noticed what you mean by "entering a scene late and leaving it early." But what about the technical stuff like lighting and camera angles? Are those going to be important to me?
No, not the directorial stuff. But you should be looking at everything else. E.g.: How many story lines are there? How much do the story lines interweave? Who are the characters who get story lines? How many of them are there? Who are the characters who are in every show? Who are the recurring characters? Are the plots primarily driven by external events (a previously unseen character commits a crime) or the internal dynamics of the core cast (Ross asks Rachel on a date)? How much of the story is completed by the end of the ep? How much carries over into the next ep? I.e. how serial is the show? What's the hook (what gets us watching)? What is the attractive fantasy (what keeps us watching)? And so on.

Watch the same episode several times in a row.

Watch three episodes from the same show back to back to back.

At the end of each act (at the commercial break) write down what the act out was.

Read the script, if you can find it on the Net.

Try to come at the show from as many different angles as you can. You want to really grasp the show, not just let it entertain you.

Watching a show in order to spec it is work. If you don't do the work, you probably won't nail your spec. And if it's too much work... well, no one's holding a gun to your head and insisting you become a TV writer, are they?

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Q. Can you recommend a good class in LA or a book that will help me craft a solid spec script. It seems like everyone just seems to KNOW how to write a spec and all the books and articles I read say vaguely, write a spec and make sure you know the shows. Any ideas? Based on a short I wrote and some contacts I've made since moving to LA, I was given the opportunity to submit samples for some new shows in development. It would have been so much more beneficial if I had actually had a tv script.
Yes, it would, woudn't it?

Fortunately, my new book, Crafty TV Writing goes into great depth and detail on how to write a spec. It comes out in two weeks. You can order it today!.

Second, I have posted about the question in this blog; links are in my Blog Fu. Check out the sections on springboards and spec scripts.

Third, other bloggers have touched on the subject, in particular Jane Espenson, though not in an organized way. For organized thinking, buy my book!

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Sunday, May 14, 2006

Q. I was once told, by a story editor I worked with, that an action-adventure story should have roughly 1.25 to 1.5 times the number of scenes as pages - so, a 100-page action-adventure script should have about 125 to 150 scenes.

Do you agree with this as a guideline? And is there a similar guideline for other genres? For a comedy, a drama, a romance, a thriller?
Where do these brilliant story editors come from?

The scene count depends on whether you're cutting back and forth between two locations or not. If, for example, your climax is the shootout in the OK Corral, you might have multiple shots (capitalized, no scene number) but it's all EXT. OK CORRAL - DAY. If your climax is a karate fight in a building, you'll crash from INT. ROOM -- NIGHT to INT. STAIRWELL to INT. ELEVATOR SHAFT etc. If your climax is a conversation, you've got just one scene.

How many scenes were there in the climactic fight in Rocky? I haven't read the script, but it's all INT. RING -- NIGHT. So there is no reason for there to be new scene descriptions.

Counting scenes is silly. Does your script seem slow? Try raising the stakes or the pitch or the pace. If you feel you're spending too long in one place, cut someplace else. It's all about how you tell a story.

An action adventure should have as many scenes as it takes to keep the pace up. You get a new scene slugline whenever you change the location or the time. The two prescriptions have nothing to do with each other.

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Friday, May 12, 2006

What other blogs do you read, and what do you like about them?

In particular, what TV-related blogs do you read?

I had a nice lunch with my editor and publicist and Holt, and they are all excited about internet promotion of the book. (Print media is so 20th C, y'know.) And they'd like to know what are the hot blogs to approach. And so I turn to you, my faithful readers...

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Bill Cunningham is talking about webisodes on his blog.

There's of course the question of how you make money off the damn things. I can see how "The Lost Experience" (an Alternate Reality Game) keeps people watching Lost, and on a budget of less than, say, $25,000 a week, I would imagine. If you can get people writing articles about "The Lost Experience" you've made your publicity budget.

But webisodes on their own? Where's the money in it? You really need a breakout hit, don't you? I've been working with the writers of The Untalkative Bunny (a brilliant cartoon on Teletoon) to create a 90-second Flash comic serial. We've been working with a producer, but somehow the money does not seem to materialize. We had the same issue with doing a mobisode/webisode series based on Lisa's book The Intrepid Art Collector: much buzz, no follow through. Supposedly young guys in fancy suits were walking around MIP with their pockets full of money, but they must have heard about the dot com bust because they're only spending their money on themselves.

I suspect that Alternate Reality Games will be a niche market. They're too much work to play. They're probably immensely absorbing when done right. But how do you even know when you're playing them? I've been involved in live action role playing situations before, some of which went on for months and involved email and websites and so forth -- I was among some very wired nerds -- but the more "real" it gets, the more it feels like real life, and everyone already has a real life. When I settle down for the night to watch Sopranos, I like that my life has nothing to do with Tony and his guys.

On the other hand I could be wrong. See my post about MMOGs below.

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Wondering where the audience went? Here's a chart showing current membership in Massively Multiplayer Online Games. Folks are paying ten-twenny bucks a month to immerse themselves in fantasy worlds. Of course, when I say "folks," I mean, of course, "twelve-year-old boys," and when I say "twelve year old boys," I mean, of course "20-something men without girlfriends."

Via What Fresh Hell Is This, which is about both computer games and screenplays.

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Thursday, May 11, 2006

Someone who hired me to read their script asked me:
Q. What I've decided I need to know is: Do I have what it takes to make it in the industry as a scriptwriter? If you read my script and think I am totally useless at this -- I want to know that so I can quit writing and just concentrate on being a really damn good engineer.
I don't like to answer this question. Read George Lucas's early drafts of "The Star Wars." They are HORRIBLE. Bad clanky dialog that goes on for pages. Weak plots. Pretentious. Longwinded, overcomplex plots. And yet what George finally refined into the first Star Wars script was pretty good. The dialog was still a bit stilted -- Harrison Ford is supposed to have told Lucas, "You can write this s___, George, but you sure can't say it." But hey.

On the other hand, sure, I've read scripts and thought "forget it" or "hey, not bad."

And I could, theoretically, tell someone which reaction I had.

But I can't tell someone if they have what it takes to make it in the biz. I can tell if someone has a knack for storytelling and a sense of what a plot is. I can see if I think they have an ear for dialog. But talent isn't all there is. Much of success is the willingness to write 10 scripts until your craft gets to the point where you're competent, and then another 10 scripts until you're really a pretty good screenwriter. I've written about 30 feature scripts, plus a whole bunch of TV. Every five scripts or so I look back at my last five and think, "Geez, and to think I thought I knew what I was doing!"

I can't tell someone if they have the perserverence. And it wouldn't matter if I could. If you are a writer, then you will not be able to quit writing. Writing is a calling. You can quit writing screenplays. I can tell someone that I think they ought to go write novels. Novels are more creatively rewarding to write and the form allows personal expression in the way that screenplays do not. And they publish way more novels a year than they make movies. But I would never tell someone to stop writing. Either you're a writer, and you write, or you're not, and you can quit. It's something your heart tells you. Not a script doctor.
Q. I was once told that if you haven't sold a script by the time you turn 25, then you should quit.
Don't hang around with those idiots any more. If you can't make a living in the biz after you've been trying for 10 years, you might consider another line of work. But so long as your work continues to get better -- so long as you're taking your writing seriously and working at your craft, and writing different kinds of things and challenging yourself and trying seriously to figure out what weak points are dooming your projects -- then just keep on keeping on. You may make it, you may not. But you won't regret not having tried.

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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

From the career-suicidally-titled Agents are Evil:
For all those who are interested, Deadwood creator David Milch will be giving a one-on-one interview on May 25th at the WGA theater on Doheny in Beverly Hills as a part of their annual Spring Storytellers Series. (Scroll down about halfway.) Cost is $25. I'm going with a couple people from work, so if anyone out there is interested in going and meeting up after for a drink, let me know.
And if you go to the link, there it is:
SPRING STORYTELLERS SERIES: DAVID MILCH
Thursday, 5/25, 7:30 p.m. - Writers Guild Theater, 135 S. Doheny Drive, Beverly Hills. Info/RSVP: http://www.wgfoundation.org or (323) 782-4692. Held annually at the Writers Guild Theater, the series features one-on-one interviews with legendary screenwriters. Moderator: Paul Brownfield. Cosponsored by Chipotle Mexican Grill in the Grove and Pravda Vodka. Proceeds go to the Writers Guild Foundation Shavelson-Webb Library and other Foundation programs. A light reception will follow in the theater lobby. WGA member cost: $50 for the series; $20 per program.
Now $50 may seem like a lot, but bear in mind that a $50 entry fee means that if you can chat up some people at the reception afterwards, they are likely to be working writers. (Even rich writers don't turn down free food -- it becomes a habit.) If you can shave a day off the time between now and your next paid job, that's worth more than $50, right? Look, if I lived in LA, I'd go.

Yesterday a producer friend of mine says he tells other writers to talk to me about how to schmooze -- apparently I am the schmooze king of Montreal screenwriters. That tells you more about the Montreal scene, though, than about my skills.

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Now that staffing season is just about over (a few weeks left to run), you'll want to start thinking about your next spec. Fortunately the TV season is almost over, too, so you know where the shows' timelines are.

Ah, if only I could spec Slings and Arrows. It's finally on Showcase (I refuse to shell out for The Movie Network), and I have a new favorite show to watch. Really clever, true and funny. (In the States you can watch it on The Sundance Channel.)

Well, guyz, what are you speccing? And what have you heard are the shows to spec? I want names, people!

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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Thanks to DMc for this very cool interview with Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino, the creative force behind Gilmore Girls, about why they're no longer the creative force behind Gilmore Girls.

It's instructive to see how short-sighted bean-counters can be even when they're dealing with a successful show in its 6th year.

For the record, Denis, I don't watch that show any more. It was really irritating up to about season 5, and then for one year it was really pretty cool, and then it went back to being irritating. At least, to me.

I have no shows to watch. I mean, yes, Grey's. But mostly I'm watching old episodes of Sopranos. And Northern Exposure. I wish I could spec a Northern Exposure, but it's not old enough for a stunt spec.

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I am not sure what mind mapping is, but this PDF page talks about how to do it for screenplays.

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Here's an enthusiastic rant on what makes a great screenplay idea versus a merely good one, from the aspiring screenwriting blogging at Trying to Make You Laugh.

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Monday, May 08, 2006

I spent the morning wondering what I should be writing, in between phone calls and emails trying to set things up at Banff. And then I realized, what am I thinking? I'm going to be pitching a series in a month in front of 5-10 network execs and about 200 people in showbiz. And at Banff's prices, and general isolation, not too many of those are going to be "aspiring" or "emerging" showbiz people. Gee, maybe I ought to concentrate on my pitch for Banff?

Which, y'know, I was kind of doing already. And enjoying it very much. The show I'm planning to pitch is, of all the series pitches I've got in my bag o'tricks at the moment, the one I'm fondest of. It's the only supernatural one, for one thing. It will likely be the hardest to write. And it is the only one that addresses Big Metaphysical Questions (which is where the supernatural comes in).

When you're on a show, it's easy to prioritize. The show is your whole priority. Anything else you do, you better be doing for relaxation.

But when you're writing at home, it's possibly to spread yourself too thick or too thin. You're spreading yourself too thin whenever you're not making the things you've already worked on as good as you can make them. Sure, you're allowed to abandon projects if you realize they don't work creatively or have no market -- I almost never do, but there's a feature film for which I have a 20-page treatment on which I haven't gone to draft because I don't know who I could send it to. But if you are sending out or showing something that isn't 100% because you have something new you're working on, you're spreading yourself too thin.

You're spreading yourself too thick when you only have the one project you continue to work on past the point where you're making it better, and you're now only making it different. When you've made it as good as you can, and sent it to everyone who can give you good comments, and you've executed those comments, and now you're only hoping that the biz will change its mind and want your project now. You're also spreading yourself too thick when you don't know what you're working on next.

So I hope I'm spreading myself juuuuuust right. I've got four new pitches for Banff, one project that's waiting for responses, one old project that needs a new home, and some spec scripts that are ready to go...

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Sunday, May 07, 2006

For research on an pitch I'm working on, I've got a hankering to check out the cancelled NBC show The Book of Daniel, or at least, read the spec pilot that started it all. But alas my intrepid assistant was not able to find any live torrents or downloadable scripts, and I really don't want to shell out a couple hundred bucks to buy a DVD on Ebay.

Anyone out there got a script or an ep I can check out?

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Saturday, May 06, 2006

[POLITICS] If you're here from the Daily Kos, here's some more of my posts on politics.

REDISTRICTING REFORM: A simple, non-partisan regulation that could make it almost impossible to gerrymander voting districts.

Here are the political posts I'm proudest of from this blog:

THE FIRST PRIMARIES SHOULD BE THE SWING STATES: Want to win the next election? Do ya?
AS AMERICAN AS HAVING A DOOR ON THE JOHN: Let's have a Right to Privacy Amendment. It will make a good wedge issue.
THOUGHTFUL KILLERS: Soldiers aren't blind to their boss's stupidity.
LET'S PUT THE SATURNALIA BACK IN CHRISTMAS: We have always been at war with Eurasia.
DIDN'T SEE IT COMING: The next few things the Administration will be surprised by.

More political posts:

A HALF HOUR OF REAL DRAMA: Thoughts on the Moussaoui prosecution.
HISTORICAL THOUGHTS: The Muslims conquered much of the civilized world through their tolerance.
CANNED QUAIL: What hunts quail? Chickenhawks.
AS THEY WERE SAYING: The irony of the Muhammed cartoons.
I DIDN'T READ IT...: Some of the things the State of the Union address didn't address.
TRUTHINESS IN ADVERTISING: James Frey, Republican hero.
INSANELY SIMPLY: Let the blogosphere vet laws.
STEP AWAY FROM THAT THRONE, SON: Let the Patriot Act wither a bit.

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Friday, May 05, 2006

Tired of advice on how to make a living as a screenwriter? Here's wildly successful painter Mark Kostabi's advice on how to make it as a painter.

Gee, it sounds a lot like good advice on how to make a living as a screenwriter...

Via the always provocative How to Buy Art.

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I can't help wondering whether Tom Cruise would have had this kind of bad review if he hadn't fired Pat Kingsley, his publicist.

Boy, would I love to be in her shoes. "This is Tom Cruise with me. This is Tom Cruise without me. Any questions?" The only other publicist I can think of with as much to show for her magical powers is whoever Paris Hilton hired -- the one who, I have to assume, came up with the idea of the otherwise not-particularly-interesting heiress having her sex tapes get out onto the Net.

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Thursday, May 04, 2006

I finally managed to get registered for the Banff Worldwide Television Festival, and I'm glad I did. Now I'm trying to set up meetings with the slew of attendees who might potentially help work come my way.

The upside of a festival is that people are there in order to meet you, if you can give them a good reason why. In town, they have a stack of work on their desk. They leave those scripts and papers at home. They are there to drink and schmooze. They are there, incidentally, without their receptionists and/or assistants, which means that even if they do not want to set up an appointment, if you know what they look like, you can just walk up to them and introduce yourself.

Festivals are best when you have a story to tell and something to sell. If you know people, good; if people have heard your name, even better.

I went to the 1994 Sundance Film Festival only to realize that, of the 600 or so people I'd talked to on the phone over the previous year, I had met only about 50 in person. And of those fifty, I could recognize exactly none of them, because they were all wearing parkas. It was surprising to see how much my brain needed those slick Armani suits to recognize agents, and the white sneakers and fresh blue jeans to recognize writers.

But more importantly, I didn't have a story to tell. I didn't have a place in the festival or the market. So I had no excuse to start conversations. Oh, I snuck into a few cocktail parties. but it was pretty much a bust.

At Banff this year, I'm a finalist in the pitch fest, and I've got a computer full of 8 page pitches. And most of the people I talk to these days have heard of Naked Josh and/or Bon Cop Bad Cop.

So I'm chewing through this vast delegate list, trying to prioritize who I hope to meet... back to it.

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This will only help you if you're a Quebecker; the rest of you, talk amongst yourselves.

Martine writes to let me know that, because writers are officially considered artists under Quebec law, they are entitled to a special deduction on screenplay fees. These are considered "droits d'auteur" (royalties) and the first $15,000 of them can be directly deducted from your gross annual revenue; that's $15K you don't pay Quebec taxes on. The deduction only applies to Quebec taxes and not federal ones. The Ministère du Revenu has thoughtfully made its opinion available as a PDF. The letter only mentions members of SARTEC (the French writers' union) but the law applies equally to English writers. Here's some details from a friend:
The provision applies to all writers, artists, filmmakers, musicians, performers and anyone who produces copyrighted material that generates income. Since copyright is clearly defined through the Copyright Act, such a provision is very easy to administer. There can be no argument as to who the first copyright holder is. It is the creator, exactly the person we must encourage throughout our country.

Quebec Tax Program

The Quebec Taxation Act (Loi sur les impôt) provides income tax deductions based on the copyright revenue of individuals.

In section 726.26, the Taxation Act states:

Any individual who, in a tax year, is a professional artist, within the meaning of the Act respecting the professional status of artists in the visual arts, arts and crafts and literature, and contracts with promoters (L.R.Q. c. S-32.01), or an artist, under the Act respecting the professional status and conditions of engagement of performing, recording and film artists (L.R.Q., c. S-32,1), can deduct, in assessing his/her taxable income for that tax year, the lesser of the following amounts:

a. copyright income for that year;
b. the amount in excess of $15,000 of any amount equal to 1.5 times the excess copyright revenue for the year above $20,000.

Songwriters and other targeted artists enjoy full tax exemption for all copyright income below $15,000. For copyright income between $15,000 and $20,000, the $15,000 tax deduction is maintained. For copyright incomes higher than $20,000, every dollar over $20,000 reduces the exemption by $1.50.

This fiscal exemption is a form of incentive for Quebec creators. Given their average annual income from reproduction and performing rights, no doubt many of them are beneficiaries.

Some songwriters and music publishers have suggested that this incentive would become more significant if the Canadian government were to adopt a similar measure. In their opinion, that fiscal measure, for one thing, helps compensate for the fact that, unlike others in the cultural industry, authors and composers only start collecting copyright revenues long after creating a work.

Deduction for copyright income

If you are an artist (within the meaning of the Act respecting the professional status of artists in the visual arts, arts and crafts and literature, and their contracts with promoters, or within the meaning of the Act respecting the professional status and conditions of engagement of performing, recording and film artists) or a performing artist, you may be entitled to a deduction, for the 2005 taxation year, for your income from copyrights (including public lending rights) of which you are the first owner.

You may claim this deduction if the total copyright income included in your business income or shown in box H of your RL-3 slip is less than $60,000. In this case, complete work chart 297.
I am not a tax attorney, of course. Use this suggestion at your own risk! And, again, if you're not from Quebec: nya, nya nya-nya nya.

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[POLITICS] For his birthday, I bought my dad a coffee cup with the Bill of Rights printed on it. When you fill it with hot coffee, the Bill of Rights goes away.

Of course, you have to take very good care of the cup. If you're not careful -- say you wash it in the dishwasher -- your rights go away permanently.

I read in The New York Times a few days ago that the Administration is contemplating prosecuting reporters for espionage if they print (or possess!) classified documents.

At first blush this might seem reasonable. We don't want reporters printing the names and addresses of our spies or even our soldiers. And it is "wartime," though it's a war undeclared by Congress, and a war (the Global War on Terrorism) that will likely go on forever.

But that's not what the prosecutions are for, are they? How often do reporters actually print the addresses of spies or soldiers? What reporters print are articles about how our leaders are lying to us. And the Administration has a record of hiding anything it thinks would be politically awkward. They still won't tell us which energy executive pals Cheney met with, on the grounds that it's none of our beeswax whom our elected officials meet with while setting national policy.

Given that it is the Administration that decides what's classified and what's not -- and doesn't need to tell anyone in advance what's classified and what's not -- it's very hard to imagine how a democracy can function if the Administration can prosecute reporters for reporting "classified" information. It amounts to carte blanche to prosecute reporters any time they feel like. Certainly, under this doctrine, Woodward and Bernstein would have been locked up, not to mention Daniel Ellsberg.

Incidentally, the White House recently declared May 1st "Loyalty Day."

And we have always been at war with Eurasia.

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Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Get yer t-shirt here.

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Q. In your book, "Crafty Screenwriting", on page 226, you say that agents can charge you for photocopies and postage for your script. If your agent gets your script sold to a production company say for $250,000 and he or she gets 10% of that, does the charge for the photocopies and postage come out of the $250,000 too?
If you sell a $250,000 script, your agent better stop charging you anything. And start taking you out to some very fancy lunches.

Agents only nickel and dime you, if at all, when they're not sure they're going to make any money off you. But really, it's only the bottom tier, not very successful agents who charge you for anything. My first agent charged me postage and photocopying. My second agent charged me for photocopying, but not postage. My third agent and later agents never charged me anything.

Generally, the more successful (i.e. better) agents never charge you for anything. They will either make money off you or, after a while, fire you as a client. But any (Guild-signatory) agent (in LA or New York) is better than none, so if the only agent you can get wants to charge you postage, you'll have to write a small check.

As you know from reading my book, any agent that charges for anything else -- e.g. reading fees, script analysis fees -- is breaking the Guild rules. You should report them to the Writer's Guild, then never talk to them again.

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Tuesday, May 02, 2006

I'm writing a scene where two characters are IM'ing each other. How do you do that in a script? Can you physically put in how the conversation would look, or do you write it in a scene action paragraph


In the action.

Joey looks at his cell phone screen: UR SO BUSTED. He grimaces.

He keys in L8R 2 U D00D. His finger hovers over the SEND button.

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Having recently decided it didn't make sense to go to Banff for the TV festival, as you faithful readers know, I just got a cheery email telling me that
Your project [snip] has been selected as one of six finalists for the Pitch It: Drama & Comedy initiative which takes place on June 13th from 9:00am - 10:00am at the Banff World Television Festival.
Well, this is an honor, a chance at some exposure, and, it turns out, a shot at ten thousand bucks in development money as a prize.

So I guess I'm going after all.

It may seem like a fur way to go for a 10 minute pitch, but I'm not really going for the ten minute pitch. I'm going to schmooze for three days while telling people I'm there for the pitching fest. If you go to an industry gathering, you want to have a story to tell. "I was nominated" is a good story. "I'm looking for work" is not such a good story.

The main attraction of the Banff Fest for me is just to be there and talk to people there and be seen there. The Canadian industry is a bit of a club (as is the American industry, but a much bigger club), and Toronto is its clubhouse, except when its clubhouse is Banff. If I want be in the club, I have to show up at the clubhouse now and then. Especially when everyone in the club is drinking heavily...

Anyone else coming along? Let me know.

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Monday, May 01, 2006

For a good laugh, check out How to Write Screenplays. Badly. A good antidote to all the well-meaning crap Ken and Denis and Rogers and Craig and I post. Oh, yeah, and those other guys who don't blogroll me, too, the m******f****rs.

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The Global Americana Project aims to translate the classics of American political thought -- Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Susan B. Anthony -- into Arabic, and make them available to the Arab in the street. Amazingly, many of them are not translated or not available. It would be nice if literate Arabs had a better idea of what we think we stand for, wouldn't it? Because right now they think we stand for oil consumption.

And now I'm going to give them some money...

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This mercury fountain is oddly disturbing. Yet it's just an ordinary fountain that happens to pump liquid mercury.

I was watching Walking with Prehistoric Beasts yesterday with Hunter, and thinking how if you wanted to put your space travelers down on a weird yet convincing planet, the Oligocene epoch would work rather well. Want a convincing alien? Try an intelligent elephant. Or raccoon.

We all have built-in b.s. detectors. What's most convincing is usually what's true, or what used to be true. The Klingons of Next Generation Trek are convincing because they are essentially Vikings: they're all about honor and vengeance and dying a good death in battle. The Klingons of Classic Trek are less convincing, because no human society has ever survived that cherishes betrayal and deceit.

If you want a convincing alternate reality, often you don't have to go very far. My rule of thumb is: change one thing. Just because you have space travel doesn't mean you have to revert to Empire. You can have space travel without even having a world government. The US has colonies, Europe has colonies, the Chinese have colonies. Why not? It worked that way in the 18th Century, didn't it? And the less you change, the less our b.s. detectors will go off, and the more convincingly you'll be able to write your characters.

Of course, cartoons can work, too. Star Wars is still one of my favorite pictures of all time.

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