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



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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Watched Sydney Pollack's lovely doc Sketches of Frank Gehry, about his friend the famous architect. Gehry is probably most famous for the Guggheim museum in Bilbao, but he has houses all over LA among other places.

It's a fascinating look into an architect who's broken lots of architect rules and developed new processes for creating buildings that don't look like anybody else's.

I was struck by a bit where Gehry recounts how someone asked him how he could like a mall like Santa Monica Place, which he designed, and the iconoclastic houses he's dotted around Venice and Santa Monica. He said he didn't like Santa Monica Place, he did it for the money. His friend told him, "then stop it!" At which point Gehry realized he had to stop architecting for money. At which point he realized that he wasn't going to be able to support most of his staff of 45 people, but he still had to quit grubbing for commissions.

You have to be brave. Gehry spent years flirting with bankruptcy after that decision. Now he's, uh, Frank Gehry, architect of the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao.

(I remember watching Day for Night in college and thinking that if only I'd seen it when I was young, I'd have gone into show business, but now it was too late. I was being sensible. After kicking around Paris for a year, a girl I had a crush on told me I needed to go into films because my sensibility was so visual. Instead of going into p.r., which was my sensible plan. So I stopped being sensible. I'm not sure I've been truly sensible since.)

One thing that struck me was what a fun, lovely man Gehry is. He laughs. He tries to see it from the other guy's point of view -- when he reads negative criticism, he says, he "tries it on for size," not in an intellectual way, not in a marching-orders kind of way, but just as another perspective. And as often as not he'll put his model aside and try something completely new.

And what do you know? He makes fun, humane architecture.

Compare that with Louis Kahn, who comes across in another arch doc My Architect as a nasty, cold piece of work, who made nasty, cold pieces of architecture, like the mausoleum-like Scripps Institute.

The most important lesson, I think, is the creative carnage Gehry is willing to inflict on himself. He keeps coming up with new versions of his buildings, even after the client is very happy with what he's got. He's never completely satisfied. You have to be able to kill your darling. You also have to be able to actually finish is one of the hardest. The balance is a difficult one, but what makes innovative people successful, I think, is having both the willingness to sacrifice the good for the best -- looking for excuses for creative carnage -- but also the determination to actually close and the willingness to risk failure.

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

It took shaving her head and getting photographed whacking at a car with an umbrella in the middle of the night, but Britney Spears finally gave me a reason to care about her: she has a problem.

(A story, in my book, is generally: (a) a person with (b) an opportunity, problem or goal (c) who faces obstacles and/or an antagonist, and (d) has something to lose (jeopardy) and (e) something to gain (stakes). And I do love a story.)

This WaPo article claims
If the 25-year-old pop star were to try to come back, he said, she would have to apologize, show some introspection, beg forgiveness for crumbling in front of us all, even if it is the fault of the culture that makes child stars grow up too fast.
But no. She doesn't have to apologize. (Except to the owner of the car, obviously.) She never had a responsibility to her fans to be a regular joe. Or even a good Mom.

(She has a responsibility to her kids to be a good Mom. But that's between her and them.)

What she has to do to come back, and to save herself, is focus on the work. Somewhere she seems to have forgotten that she is a pop star because she's a singer. Being a pop star will not save you. But music can save you.

Just go back to the studio, work long hard days making songs perfect, play small unannounced dates once in a while, and remember that only the music will survive. The music will start to fill the hole in your soul.

For me, it's my family, but before I had the family, it was the writing that kept me relatively sane.

Okay, that's enough caring about Britney.

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Most DVDs these days prevent you from fast-forwarding or skipping the FBI piracy warnings. Math question: if this wastes 10 seconds of 100 millon people's time, oh, say, 6 times a year, how many people's lives have the idiots who cooked this up completely wasted? And shouldn't they go to jail for spiteful endangerment?

What is the point of these, anyway? Does anyone really believe these warnings convince anyone not to pirate? Or that you can't prosecute people for piracy unless you have first forced them to sit through the warnings?

And don't get me started on studios forcing us to sit through their distribution logos, or forcing you to skip each preview individually before they let you access the main menu.

Where can I buy a DVD player that short circuits all this vicious nonsense?

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That's just crazy. (Via The New Yorker.)

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Monday, February 26, 2007

When are the Oscars going to stop claiming the transmission is seen by a billion people? This New Yorker article debunked the number two years ago. Not that it ever had any basis in reality. Or even common sense. Just arrogance.

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Martin of Sophocles writes:
We're in the process of beta-testing our combined screenwriting / pre-production app (Sophocles 2007). We'd love to hear any thoughts or ideas you might have for future versions as well. You can pick up the beta at our website. Or have a look at our Wikipedia article.

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The Oscarcast piqued my interested in Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion; then the IMDB plot summary piqued it some more. But the darn movie isn't out on DVD. Will someone please release it? It won Best Foreign Film of 1970, for heaven's sake!

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Q. Why do characters in television and film NEVER say "goodbye" or likewise when ending a phone conversation? It just seems unnatural.
It's a convention. It would take up, oh, 2-5 seconds that could be spent on story. What's the point? There's lots of things we don't show on TV that are part of real life, but it's a convention that, for example, no one ever has to go to the bathroom. (Except for Roger Avary.)

Characters on TV don't say "hi" on the phone either. And it wouldn't add any if they did. TV is a compressed reality. There are loads of conventions that take a small bit of verisimilitude away in exchange for avoiding a lot of shoe leather. For example, on TV, the news is always on when you need it -- and it only relates relevant news. Because no one wants to watch the character veg out for half an hour until the news he needs comes on. The audience understands it's a short cut. They probably don't love it. But they live with it because the alternative would be boring!

(Incidentally, this is why touch tone phones and caller ID were really invented: to speed scenes up!)

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Saturday, February 24, 2007

I want to read some hour scripts -- scripts to full 60 minute pay cable hours, not 44 minute broadcast hour dramas. A quarter of an hour Googling reveals only transcripts, though, which won't help me much. Anyone got a line on scripts of Rome, Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Carnivale or other HBO or Showtime full-hour shows?

(And I know the WGA library has all of them, probably, but I don't plan to be in LA any time soon. Even if the hills are green in February.)

If you have a hardcopy or two, could you perhaps let me know the page count?

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The LA Weekly has an interesting interview with the series creator of this year's serial series VANISHED.

Josh Berman's claim to an article is his notebooks. Voluminous notebooks about werewolf disease and how fast frozen bodies decay and the social structure of Atlanta. He doesn't write anything without extensive, in-depth research. I guess ideas grow organically out of the process of extensively researching. Novelist Tom Wolfe does that, too. He'll research a novel for a couple years before writing it; I suppose he's probably writing the novel in his head during that whole time.

Me, I usually wing it, with occasional nips at the Wikipedia or specialty web sites when I need to know how to do something. Granted, my head is crammed with trivia that occasionally comes in handy. ("Trivia,' for example, comes from the Roman tri + via, meaning where three roads meet, people will tend to bump into each other and exchange useless trivia. Still waiting to use that one.) And I generally only read non-fiction, particularly science and history, so when I was meeting a producer at Disney and he mentioned a project about the Siege of Malta, I could ask, "the Great Siege in 1565 against the Turks?"

But mostly I'm interested in the story I'm telling. For example in the pilot I'm writing, I have a character who's a social worker. I could do tons of research about social workers, talk to actual social workers, read books about social work. But honestly, we're not going to see this character do any social work at all in the pilot. We may never see her do any real social work; that's not what the series is about. I will probably ask my fearless research assistant to check some things out, as soon as I can figure out what those things are. But I'm not going to do a month of research.

I feel a little guilty saying it. Like I'm lazy. But I'm not sure what all that research would get me. And more importantly I feel it might pull me away from the needs of the story -- the way doing ten pages of character backstory gets in the way of actually putting the character on screen.

What kind of research do you guys do?

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Friday, February 23, 2007

I've been working on a pilot for a speculative fiction series I've been pitching, but for the very best of reasons I suddenly have to rethink it completely. I've been working on a 55 page five-act 55 script for a 44 minute pilot, and stressing about the fifth act being too short. Now I find myself in the exciting world of pay cable. I have sixty whole minutes to tell my story, with no act breaks.

This is first of all a relief, because the story has been resisting being put into five acts. But I need to rethread my head a bit. I need to rethink my whole story, see where I can go deeper, see where I might have shied away from something transgressive. I need to pick the story apart and see if I've gone for bigger, harder act outs than my story really wants or if the five act framework has forced me to make the wrong story choices.

But at a deeper level, I wonder what kind of structure I should be using. Just because the story doesn't have act outs doesn't mean it shouldn't have twists and turns. Is there a natural pulse to pay cable episodes? Should I be thinking in terms of four acts? Three? Should the story take a new turn every ten minutes? Every fifteen?

And what about secondary stories? In my broadcast version I'd avoided B and C stories -- I sort of had an "A story and an A story," where the speculative fiction and mundane aspects of the show came together in one storyline -- though later episodes would probably have had mundane B stories and spec fiction A stories. But sixty whole minutes seems to demand we pursue the lives of some of the secondary characters for their own sakes. And, because no act breaks, it's much easier to weave those in.

I expect a lot of creative carnage. But one nice thing about starting the pilot before anyone asked (= paid) me to is that I can now go into a longer script treating the earlier broadcast version as research. I don't have to use any of it that no longer applies. I can treat the whole thing as research. On the other hand it may be that all I have to do is strip out the act outs and continue in the direction I was going creatively -- with more latitude and more breathing room.

This is exciting!

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

I spent the afternoon at Le Grand Flirt, an event Telefilm organized to put producers together with writers who've written screenplays (or treatments) in the Telefilm-funded Writers First Program. Ten producers, ten screenwriters, one hundred rencontres.

My throat is sore from pitching three projects every fifteen minutes.

It says something about the system in Québec that I knew two out of the ten producers. Granted two of them produce only in French, but that still leaves six I'd never met, although I've been here six years and I don't exactly have a low profile. So blessings on Telefilm's governmental head that they organized this. It does no good to fund scripts if the producers don't ever see them. (Number of Québec producers who have called me because I co-wrote the film that broke the Canadian box office for a Canadian film: 0.)

I got to meet Kim McCraw, who produced the film that grabbed the Jutra for Best Film and Best Director and a bunch of other Bests. And a bunch of fellow screenwriters I didn't know, because they don't come to the annual WGC cocktail party.

My French is definitely getting better. I had about half my conversations in French, and didn't feel I was stumbling too much over my vocabulary. I'm still lost when I have to listen to a conversation, but I can hold my own one-on-one.

I was particularly tickled that no one didn't want to read my romantic comedy just because I want to direct the sucker.

This evening I'm following up with everyone, emailing scripts. Let's see what comes of it.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

I see that Australia has just passed legislation to ban sales of incandescent bulbs. Pretty cool for the environment. A bit scary for me because I have the entire loft on dimmers. Help me, hive mind: are there dimmable compact flourescents? Do they really work when dimmed? How can I tell the difference between them and the kind that start flaking out whenever the voltage (or is it amperage?) drops?

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Monday, February 19, 2007

At Donors Choose, teachers place free ads for what their classroom needs. For example, one North Carolina teacher had the interesting idea to have all his students write their answers to a question on a dryerase board, so he can at a flash see how many students understand what he just taught. Instead of, say, calling on one student while the others pass notes. The flash boards will cost $357 he doesn't have (55% of his students are from low income families), so he is asking for donations.

This is a cool site. It shortcircuits charity administration fees, school paperwork, and geography. And some of the ideas are experimental, not to say (r)evolutionary. Check it out if you've got a bit of money to spare, or just want to do good.

Offer not available in stores. Or to non-US citizens, alas.

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But one of these days I hope to figure it out.

We didn't win the Jutra for Best Screenplay (the only award Bon Cop got was Best Editing, which in context is a sort of backhanded award), but I can really say I was delighted just to be nominated. The Jutras are, after all, the awards for Québec's French cinema.

The Steadicam guys seemed to cluster near me -- I was on the leftmost aisle, two rows back from the front -- so I was on camera a lot, I'm told. (You could see the transmission on giant screens high up, but I couldn't look up at them while the lenses were poking at me, could I?) I can only presume all the exposure was the result of my borrowing Dad's snazzy tux. Almost everyone else had a regular tie on, which makes a tux look like a suit. Which is a drag, because the whole point of a tux is to look like you are dressed up not for work.

In keeping with my habit of posting the thank you speeches I don't get to give, here's my intended Jutra speech, grammatical errors and all:
C'est un honneur d'être parmi vous ce soir.

Je voudrais remercier Kevin et Patrick and Erik d'avoir confiance en moi que je pourrais leur aider avec un scénario déjà super.

Ma femme: sans elle, je ne serais rien.

Mon agent Nathalie Brunet: sans elle, je ne ferais rien.

Et surtout la publique Québecoise, qui nous a permis d'effacer la honte que le premier film du box office canadien, depuis '82, était Porky's.
I contemplated the past subjunctive for that last ... shouldn't it be fusse? or something? But that just goes to show you what a hopeless combination of academic knowledge and ignorance is my French.

(My favorite sentence I ever worked out is: Que vouliez-vous que je foutasse? Still haven't had cause to use it. )

Well. Next year in Jerusalem, as we like to say. (Not to be confused for actual travel plans.)

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Saturday, February 17, 2007

Q. Have you ever heard of a company called 'The Screenplay Agency"? I stumbled upon them and am wondering if they are legit.
I haven't, but that doesn't mean much. There are lots of small agencies I've never heard of.

I answer this question in much greater depth in my book, but three basic criteria:

Are they WGA signatory? (Check with the WGA.)

Are they in the (310), (424) or (323) area codes, or failing that, in (818) or (212)?

Do they charge fees for "critiques" or for any other service whatsoever?

The answers should be yes, yes and no.

UPDATE: Various people are not that impressed with The Screenplay Agency. See comments and do a quick Google.

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Q. I'm thinking about writing a script about a dead person. They are famous, and as far as I know, no one has ever produced something about them. Do I need to get the rights from his family members? What rights do I need to get?
I don't believe so. As I understand it, dead people have no rights of privacy, nor can you legally libel them.

However, any living people in your story still have their rights. Thus you could do a biopic of Martin Luther King, Jr. (and someone ought to, for Heaven's sake!), but if you want to put Jesse Jackson on that balcony, you'll have to get the Reverend's permission.

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Friday, February 16, 2007

I've noticed over the past few episodes of Friday Night Lights that the Act Four out is really big. So big, in fact, that it feels like the end of the show, and we have to wait to hear if the announcer is going to say, "Stay tuned for more Friday Night Lights!"

/* spoilers */

For example, in the last episode, the big question is whether Mac will get fired for his racist remarks, and if not, will Smash and the other black players come and play. And the Act Four Out is, they do.

But that's not the last act. The last act is where the team goes and plays in another town, and Smash gets repeatedly fouled by white players on the other team, and the white refs ignore it, and a riot starts, and the team barely escapes "Southern justice."

/* end spoilers */

I've wondered how five act structure was going to crystallize. There's a rhythm to four act structure that drama writers have got used to. The act three out is the moment of greatest jeopardy. The act two out is a huge plot twist. But what's your moment of greatest jeopardy in five act structure? The act four out feels too late. The act three out feels early.

Is five act structure just four act structure padded out to five acts? With, likely, one of the act outs (probably the third) being a relatively soft dramatic out, or a B story out?

FNL seems to me to be solving the question by telling a regular, satisfying four act story and then taking the A story one twist further.

Is this a better way to deal with five acts?

How do you find other five acters are solving this conundrum? Discuss.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Q. I read your FAQ about writing sequels. The movie I would like to write would be at least 22 years after the original. Isn't that long enough to expect that the original producer has given up on a sequel?
Copyright now lasts almost a hundred years, thanks to Sonny Bono and the Mickey Mouse Protection Act. The producer may have given up on a sequel, but the studio still holds the copyright.
Q. I expect you may say that if it hasn't had a sequel, then it wasn't successful enough to merit a sequel. However, the original does appear to have a huge fan base. Can you give me any hope on this situation?
Old movies get remade all the time. And, for that matter, 22 years is not particularly old. THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR (1968) is getting remade, for example. And didn't they do a TV sequel to GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) in the past few years?
Q. If it is worth my time, would this be a rights infringement if I approach Warner Brothers about it, with a story using existing characters?
No. It is not a rights infringement to approach the copyright holder. It's not even a copyright infringement to write a script based on it. (It may be a waste of time, but not a copyright infringement.) The odds are small of you getting anywhere with WB if you're not a producer they know, but that's another matter.

If it were the material and not the fan base you were in love with, I would say write a great story as if you were writing a sequel, but change the names and a few of the circumstances. Last year I saw a pitch about two washed up drunks who used to solve crimes when they were teenagers. They were obviously The Hardy Boys, Twenty Years Later. You can't use The Hardy Boys without permission. But you can riff off The Hardy Boys. Then, later, if you get the copyright holder's approval, you can call them The Hardy Boys. And if you don't, the concept still works. And this frees you to make all the changes you need to make artistically.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

TV star Peter Keleghan has a Playback piece about how Canadian cultural content has disappeared from Canadian media, and the costs that has.

This has been my rant for some time. Politicians treat Cancon as a jobs issue. Should we protect Canadian TV a l'il bit from American content in order to buy some Canadian jobs? Or are the subsidies too expensive -- not worth it -- Canadians don't care to watch themselves on TV?

Little Mosque ought to have put a stake in the heart of that last argument if Corner Gas and Trailer Park Boys hadn't already. (Or, for that matter, The Red Green Show.)

But treating Cancon as a jobs issue is thinking small. Keleghan makes the point that Inuit culture is dissolving because they see North American culture on their TVs but they don't see themselves. How do you keep them down on the icepack after they've seen Paris? When culture dissolves, society follows.

Culture is not just a draw for tourism. That's just a bonus. Culture is what binds society together.

To take an obvious example, how many billions does Ottawa pour into Quebec every year to persuade French Canadians that they benefit from being part of Canada? How much effect can those billions have when French Canadians watch only two kinds of TV -- French Canadian, and American? Now, how much does a movie like Bon Cop / Bad Cop do to make French Canadians feel like, yeah, we have our differences, but we belong together?

It doesn't have to do very much at all to justify its expense. Bon Cop / Bad Cop cost the Canadian taxpayer $7.5 million (probably less now that the movie was such a success). If it makes the Québecois even .5% more patriotic about Canada, it's a bargain.

Ditto Une Dimanche à Kigali, which reminds people how Canada stands for peace and decency. Or even Maurice Richard: The Rocket, which might have reminded some anglos of how much humiliation the French used to swallow, and might remind some francos that Canada has come a long way since then.

(As a side note, how awesome is the new Canadian Armed Forces Ad, with the slogan: Fight Fear / Fight Distress / Fight Chaos / Fight with the Canadian Armed Forces. Makes me proud. Makes me wanna sign up.)

Without Cancon on our TV and movie screens, what is there showing people that their country is worth saving? What tells people what we stand for?

In the rest of the world, Cancon, when it's supported and promoted, gives Canada clout by giving foreigners a sense of the country. It promotes the Canadian brand. When people see Une Dimanche à Kigali in the US, or in France, or in Russia, it gives people there a sense of who we are. That may sound mushy. But so are ocean currents. In the long term, they have a powerful effect. Human beings feel more comfortable with people they know. They prefer to agree with people they like. When the nations are picking sides for the next Cod War between Canada and Spain, there are economic issues, sure. But people have trouble grasping large abstract numbers. They tend to side with the people they know and like.

When the question of who owns the Northwest Passage comes up, or softwoods, does it matter whether Americans think of Canadians as their nice friendly sidekicks, the would-be 51st State, or as a real nation? You bet it does.

(Especially when some extremely powerful Americans make their most crucial judgments entirely without reference to pesky facts.)

You think culture doesn't matter? Look at the Mideast. Is there any conflict there that couldn't quickly be resolved on rational grounds except for culture?

Never think culture doesn't matter. You can't point to that many life-altering decisions that are decided on purely cultural grounds. But every major political decision is affected by it, whether it's something decided by millions of individuals voting, or by politicians' personal prejudices. And affecting people's prejudices -- the feelings they bring to the negotiating table, rather than their reasoned opinions -- is the best, and cheapest way to win the argument.

Culture is not a luxury good. Culture is what creates society. And culture is the cheapest clout any government can buy.

UPDATE: For Bill C's sake, when I say "Canadian culture," I mean "anything in the arts made by Canadians." Not just "worthwhile" projects. It doesn't have to be drenched in maple syrup, or be pro-Canada. Les Invasions Barbares was about the crappy Québec health system, or about a guy and his cranky old dad. It is not calculated to increase tourism to Montreal. But it went up for an Oscar. If you just tell stories set here, or about people from here who are somewhere else, they will be Canadian stories by that very virtue. And a culture that stops telling stories about itself stops being a society. And then it gets eaten by a culture that still does.

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I just got A Bit of Fry and Laurie in the post. The book, actually, not the DVD. Did anyone else know that Hugh Laurie starred in a sketch comedy show? (Not talking to you, Stephen.) (All right. And Denis. And everybody at the Hugh Laurie FAQ) But this explains a lot. I've always suspected that the scariest thing in the world is a comedian playing it straight and showing his pain...

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I was pleased to hear from several friends that Bon Cop / Bad Cop won Best Picture at last night's Genie Awards. (The Genies are Canada's Academy Awards.) Maurie Richard: The Rocket swept most of the other awards. Sunday, I'm off to the Jutra Awards (French Canada's Academy Awards) to see if the screenplay picks up an award.

I got some even better news yesterday, too , since you cannot trade honors for food: Telefilm has funded further development on my spec feature Medieval. That ought to keep us in extra cheese pizza for a while. (Zesto's charges extra for extra cheese. "Cheese like gold," says Tarik.) For the past few months I've been feeling officially sanguine about work in the pipeline -- I have something like half a dozen projects that are looking seriously promising, and a few more I could luck out on -- but ever so slightly nervous, 'cause "promising" is another thing you can't eat. This is the first major project to go from promising to paying this year. We'll see what shakes out in the next few months. Thank goodness I got ahead of the game on my pilot, which I hope to finish this week or the next...

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Rex Reed trashes Factory Girl in the New York Observer:
Clumsily directed by an amateur named George Hickenlooper, Microsoft Word–ed with five-and-dime psychology by three hack writers of no importance, and edited with a Cuisinart, I doubt if it would have been considered slick or glam-sham enough to hold even Warhol’s interest in the days when he stuck the label of high art on everything that popped out of a Polaroid.
This isn't at all fair. Not that I've seen the movie, or will, but George Hickenlooper (whom I apparently went to college with) is by any stretch a veteran director. But more importantly, the writers are not hacks.

Hacks are writers you can count on to turn in a screenplay with a by-the-numbers plot; clear first, second and third acts; a love interest; and likeable characters. They are writers who do not experience writers block because they have disabled their critical faculties. You will not get a brilliant screenplay out of a hack. But you will always get something you can shoot.

Hacks hack it out. They always deliver. That's why you hire a hack. Like a cabbie, they get you there.

No, what the writers of Factory Girl are, in fact, is something else. Based on their credits, they seem to be producers.

It's risky for producers to work on their own projects, I think. Not because producers don't have writing talent; some of them do. They also often have superb critical ability. The problem is that any writer loses perspective on his own work that only time can restore. It is exactly the producer's job, though, to have perspective: to know what's good about a script and what needs fixing, and either motivate the writer to fix it, or fire the writer and hire someone else who can fix it. The problem is, the person who's supposed to guide the writer now is the writer. And who's going to tell their producer that their writing isn't perfect? (Unless, of course, they have a good writing partner.) Based on the horrible reviews that Factory Girl got, it seems like these producers lost perspective on their own work. They should have hired some hacks!

Incidentally, I think the same caveat applies to writer-directors. Many directors are superb writers; but they run the risk of deluding themselves that their scripts are brilliant, because no one wants to disagree with the director. Woody Allen's best work, I think, came from when he was still working with Marshall Brickman. Usually it's a director's job to guide the writer. When the writer becomes the director, he needs to find someone who can stand up to him and guide him. Because who's going to tell the director that his script is no good? It can be a writing partner or a more powerful being such as a studio exec. (George Lucas had to listen to Alan Ladd, Jr., at least for his first few movies.) But you need someone. Or, a lot of time.

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Kody Chamberlain notes that Pages 2.0 has a screenplay template. Pages is part of Apple's iWorks, which is Apple's answer to Evil Microsoft Office:
The cool thing about Pages is it comes free [ED NOTE: demo is free, $79 to keep it working] on the usual consumer model Apple machines like the iMac and the MacBooks. And having used Pages quite a bit with their other templates, I'd say that there's a pretty good chance that the screenplay template will be worth using for those that can't fork over the cash for Final Draft.
You can find out more on the Apple site.

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Friday, February 09, 2007

I'm continuing to double check my info on when to send your specs out. My L.A. manager confirms (a) avoid February/March as it's the run-up to staffing season, and (b) avoid June as agents are looking for pilots to sell. (Which suggests that June is a good time to go out with a spec pilot.)

And it goes without saying that during staffing season itself (April/May/early June) you'd be lucky to get an agent to return your call if you're not their client.(Actually if you do have an agent, they may not be returning your calls reliably, either.)

One reader mentioned this happy post from fellow bloguiste Procrastinatey In Which She Gets An Agent in Mid-January. I asked her about why she chose January:
I had heard that starting any later would probably be too late for that staffing season. And that starting around March, agents would be too busy with their own clients to consider taking on new ones, so I should start early.

I had just won the Warner Bros. workshop and was a finalist in the Disney Fellowship, both of which happened in December, so I was advised to take advantage of that while I could. Since December would be fairly inactive due to the holidays [ed note: practically comatose after the 15th], I started right after the New Year, and found for the most part that the TV lit agents I chose to contact were all back in town and ready for business the first week of January. At that point, I felt I had a fairly solid portfolio, and with the added backing of being in a studio program, it felt a little less like begging for representation and more like going in on equal footing. I don't know if that made any tangible difference, but it did matter a huge deal to my sense of confidence.

It could be that Fall is the best season, as you mentioned; in my case, the timing just worked out a bit later than that. Since most of the programs select their participants in November-December, waiting a little longer for the possibility of being selected might be a risky move... but the name recognition of being selected (or finalisted) could be very helpful in getting agents' attention initially. I found that was certainly true for my case. But, it wasn't that I was waiting and counting on winning contests; it was more that the program results lit the fire and encouraged me to get hustling.
So January, clearly, works.

Two caveats. The more of a brand you have, the more you can ignore the cycles. If Jane Espenson wanted a new agent smack in the middle of staffing season, she'd get one in about two minutes.

Also, if you have something fresh to go out with now, early February, it is better to go out than wait till after staffing season. You don't want to miss staffing season if you can get into it.

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Q. Could you run down the best/worst times of year to do things? When it's good/bad to query an agent, when it's good/bad to pitch producers, how many weeks you should allow before and after things like Banff, CTF announcements, etc. I know producers and agents are ALWAYS busy, but I sometimes fear that I'm showing my greenness by contacting them at a bad time of year.
I wouldn't dare. But I will make a few observations from personal experience. Here are some regular events that distract producers and agents from the important business of giving you a career:

Christmukkah: it is useless to try to start any new showbiz between the third week in December and the first Monday after January 1. The town shuts down. On the other hand, this is a good time to go to Aspen to bump into people who are -- surprise! -- also in showbiz.

Mid-January: Indie people go to Park City for Sundance. Studio types and agents show up for a few days if they can get their boss to spring for it, but they don't make a meal of it. Still, it eats up much of January.

Mid-April: MIP-TV. I'm guessing not too critical for American network and studio TV types. Important to TV producers in all other countries who have to cobble together multiple sales to fund their series.

May 1: In order to ensure a successful summer movie season, producers and agents gather on Catalina Island where they sacrifice a dozen unproduced screenwriters by burning them in a giant Wicker Man. Tickets go on sale February 2.

Mid-May: Cannes. Producers who do international co-productions will devote most of May to pre-festival, festival and post-festival. Haut studio types go there to strut and ogle the half-nekkid women. Some international co-pro-type producers take their vacations right after Cannes, as they are already in the South of France.

Mid-June: Banff. Primarily a Canadian TV thing. American network types go there only if they grew up under the Maple Leaf Flag.

August: New York goes to the Hamptons. LA goes out of its head. "From a marketing perspective, you never introduce new products in August."

Early September: Toronto International Film Festival. Like Cannes, this is principally a distraction for movie distributor types and producers who want to make international co-pro deals. It doesn't cripple most of the day-to-day operations of the town.

Mid-October: MIPCOM. I'm not really clear what the difference is between this and MIP. Can someone explain?

Those are the major events I can think of off the top of my head. There's also the AFM, MIFED and the umpteen film festivals: Venice, Berlin, Montreal, Telluride, Slamdance, New York, Hamptons, etc. But these are less important than Cannes and Toronto and if you're a writer they don't really affect you.

In fact, as a writer, I would say that the only times that seriously affect you are Christmas/Hanukah and August. These are the times you're better off skipping town, as it's way too depressing to try to get anyone on the phone then. If you can swing it, go to a resort where other show people go (Aspen, East Hampton, etc.), otherwise drive to New Orleans and get yourself a story to tell

The rest of the year, just call up the assistant and ask if now is a good time. If her boss is too busy packing for Cannes, she'll tell you.

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

I always wonder, when I hear about, say, Marc Cherry rewriting the Desperate Housewives spec pilot for six months, what that actually means. Was he sitting down at the computer for six hours a day tinkering? Because I don't see how you keep your perspective if you do that. Was he getting endless rounds of feedback from different writer friends? Chatting in coffee shops about themes? Chatting in coffee shops about old episodes of The Rockford Files?

Right now I'm fighting with a spec pilot. By Marc Cherry standards I haven't been at it long at all. But by, say, David E. Kelley standards, I feel like a slug. It's not the 10+ pages a day I can get when I'm working on a show, or the 5+ pages a day I'm used to getting on any given feature. (Of course, a spec pilot is about the hardest thing you can write, if you're doing it right.)

To be fair to myself, I've got a bunch of other irons in the fire, and those take some juggling. Since the spec pilot has no real time sensitivity just yet, if I have to choose between spending an hour on it, or an hour taking a meeting, or making phone calls, I usually try to keep the irons, uh, up in the air.

When you're working on a script for months ... are you mostly sitting in front of the keyboard? Mostly thinking? Mostly doing other things that urgently need attention?

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Telefilm has recently announced a new program to support English screenwriting in Quebec. Deadline is February 13. It's intended to give a lot of support and professional feedback, and a couple thousand bucks, to help develop either a TV project or a feature. You have to be a produced Quebec anglophone writer working with a Quebec "anglophone producer."

"Anglophone producers" are producers who have produced 51% or more in English. Which leads me to ask: who are the anglophone producers in La Belle Province? Aside from Galafilm, Muse and Kevin Tierney, who qualifies? Cirrus and CitéAmérique both are strong producers of anglo work, but probably would not qualify for the program as they produce more than 51% in French, I'm guessing.

Any of you kind readers care to add to this very short list?

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Q. How do you know when to start looking? That's my biggest issue. I've got two features, a spec pilot, an award winning short and two substantial treatments. I just don't have that one great feature that I'm really proud of. Do I just say screw it and give them what I've got?
Yep. How do you know how good you are? Maybe you're hypercritical and your stuff is good enough. Maybe it's terrible. How do you know? You can't, until you gauge the level of showbiz's interest in you.

Anyway, what do you have to lose? Say you go out with your stuff right now and no one likes it. Six months later, no one will remember your bad stuff. But if they like it, you've succeeeded.

Odds are your first two features are not, in fact, salable. But you can learn something from the process of going out with them. So long as you don't spend too much time in the marketplace -- so long as you spend most of your energy on your writing -- go for it.

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Monday, February 05, 2007

Q. But Jane says agents are looking for spec pilots
She also says in a later post that spec scripts are still the way to go, among other reasons because fellowships won't look at spec pilots.

But a more important reason to write a spec script is it's easier. When you write a spec pilot, you have to write a compelling hour of television, AND create characters WITH their voices, AND create the world of a show, AND set the season arcs in motion, etc. etc. etc.

It is very hard to write a pilot. On many shows, the pilot is one of the weaker episodes. And that's after casting, directing and editing.

If you are writing a spec HOUSE, all you have to do is write a great episode of HOUSE. We already know what Hugh Laurie looks like. We know how he is going to deliver your lines. When your write a snippy little line, we know exactly how it's going to come across.

Agents may be open to looking at spec pilots. But most agents are still looking for a solid spec episodic script. And if you don't have episodic credits, they are really going to need to see one.
Q. And Jane says prime agent shopping season is January-March.
I've heard otherwise. Based on my conversations with agents, my impression is that you want to be hooking up with an agent in the Fall, so you can re-polish your specs in time for Christmas. January-March, your agent is already getting network execs and showrunners to read your specs, so when staffing season rolls around, they know your work.

In my own experience, and from what I've heard, if you try to get an agent to read a potential new "baby writer" client in March, the agent is likely to say, "Sorry, I'm full up right now. Can you call back after staffing season?" (Something, I suspect, that Jane hasn't had to hear in a while, if ever...)

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Apparently Osama is embarrassed by the similiarity, too.

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Sunday, February 04, 2007

Q. I get how to query an original [feature script] but I'm less clear on how one would query an existing [tv] show spec script.
It's simpler. You don't have to describe the main character, for example. Instead of "a war-weary veteran who's killing time working at a paint store," all you have to say is "House" or "Jack" or "Jack" or whoever.

You don't need to say much. Really just the territory. In a feature spec, they're interested primarily in the hook, and only then the execution. In a TV spec, it's mostly about the execution. So they are going to have to take a look at your pages. Maybe not all of them, maybe only 5 of them if they see something they don't like, but they can't go off the query.

So, if you're speccing a House (and who isn't these days?), you'd say something about the patient of the week ("a runner whose leg may have to be amputated"), and something about House's personal drama in that episode. (Never ignore the emotional component!)

So really you're not querying the whole story, as you would with a feature, but more like the territory. Even with a stunt spec, you really only need to query the stunt: House hires a new intern named Meredith Grey.
Q. And the fact that I have several scripts, how much do I say for each one in a single letter?
I don't think you need to mention other specs. If they read and like the first one, they'll ask for your second spec. But you could say, "I also have a Grey's Anatomy spec."
Q. Do they record each query so they can blacklist me in the future if I get annoying?
No one keeps track. Who has time? And you're only going to query once per script. So if they actually remember you from 6 months ago, and you're offering a new spec, you could only get points for persistence.
Q. How often do you send out new queries (or re-distribute old ones)?
You send out new queries when you have a new script you're proud of. November or December would be a good time, if you're hoping to get into next year's staffing season. By this time of year (February) most agents already have a full roster and are trying to get people to read the clients they have. See my other posts on staffing season.

By redistribute, I assume you don't mean sending the same query to the same agency again. Don't do that. You can always send a query to an agent at an agency to whom you have not proposed that particular script.

Your old spec may still be good, and that's what you'd send as your second script if you get interest.

By the way, I hear a lot of conflicting info about spec pilots. My take on spec pilots is: don't write a spec pilot unless you've written some produced television, or at a bare minimum have one or two kickass spec episodic scripts.You're trying to show you can write other people's shows. Writing a pilot shows neither that you can capture the voice of another show, nor that you can write episodic tv. A pilot is, after all, more like a feature, because it introduces characters and situations and does not have to relate to established story lines. It is also much, much harder to write a kickass pilot than a kickass "center cut" script. (Something I'm struggling with right now, thank you.)

I would say write a spec pilot if you've proven through staff jobs that you can write episodic TV. Write a spec pilot if you think you've got a shot at setting it up somewhere, or if you're looking to break out of the niche you're in.

That said, there are people who've got hired with spec pilots or even plays. But I wouldn't count on doing that.

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Friday, February 02, 2007

Happy Groundhog Day / Candlemas / St. Brigid's Day / Imbolc!

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Our 11-year-old son is trying to get us to let him watch HBO by promising that he does not copy whatever we watch on TV.

Which is a relief.

'Cause we're watching DEXTER.

He's still not going to get to watch it.

We're not even sure we're old enough to watch it...

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Remember Iron Chef? France has Le Fer D'Or, an ironing competition. Competitors iron shirts and pants. At high speed. Really well.

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