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



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Monday, April 30, 2007

On the plane, I was listening to Neil Gaiman read his Sheherezade story from Fragile Things. To go by his blog and his take on the famous storytelling wife, Neil depends on inspiration to visit him. Which she does a lot, to judge by his output. Me, I'm one of those blessed with few inspirations and a lot of analytical tools.

But the story of the 1001 Nights struck me because it's a metaphor for TV and its relationship with the audience. Every night, Sheherezade told a fantastic story ... and stopped at the moment where her king and husband would most want to know the outcome.

That way, he wouldn't cut off her head in the morning. Because if he did, he wouldn't find out how it turned out.

That's an act out.

Would your act outs prevent a homicidal king from chopping off your head in the morning? Is there a way you could twist or amp up your act out so that you get to keep your head?

Because the king could also tune to American Idol. And that Jordan Sparks sure does sing good.

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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Alex and Denis share a drink or two at the Spoke before the WGC Awards. Because why wait to start celebrating the winners?



And here are my agents, Tina and Amy, as talented and hardworking as they are hot.


Robin, the producer on my pay cable series. I'm lucky to be working with him. He's hugging Tina, my agent's partner.

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Friday, April 27, 2007

Today I've been walking all around lower Manhattan having meetings with New York production companies. I have a few scripts that really need to be done in the States, either because the budget is beyond Canadian means, or because the material is really about the US and not about Canada. (The one I'm meeting on is a story about military families, and how you can be wounded by a war your father went to. Canada mostly tries to stay out of wars.)

These meetings are frustrating because they're meet'n'greets. They've read my script, unless they haven't. They don't want to buy it, but they like the writing, so they want to meet me. They're smart people whose company I enjoy. But there's a vagueness to many of these meetings that suggests the relationship may not go much further. I feel semi-obliged to meet because you never know. One of the meetings was actually semi-promising, in a long term kinda way.

But they're so different from the meetings I've just been having in Toronto, where I've have to think hard about which projects I want to do and when I have time to do them. It's the difference between "nice script, we'd love to read your next thing" and "nice script, how busy is your summer?" (A: Busy.)

Has anyone cracked the meet'n'greet? Any idea how you turn one into a job? Has anyone ever got a job off a meet'n'greet? 'Cause I sure haven't.

I'll be happy to get back home. I know a week of traveling isn't actually all that much. But I'm tuckered out, and I've got a big nasty blister on my foot, and I want to sleep in my own bed.

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I've been reading Ian Gurvitz's book Hello, Lied the Agent.
I was suspicious of this book, partly because Gurvitz stole the joke in the title from Linda Obst's Hello, He Lied -- And Other Tales From the Hollywood Trenches, partly because it sounds bitter. And it is a bitter book. Gurvitz is another one of these comedy guys who are lucky enough to be making huge wads of cash writing sitcoms -- he worked on Becker -- while whining about how painful the process is. (Is Ken Levine the only happy comedy writer in the world?)

The book won't tell you how to write comedy. But it does give you really good sense of what it's like to be a big-time comedy writer through the course of the year. If you're not sure you know, you might give this book a look.

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Q. I wrote a spec, but the show just did a similar episode!
If you have a movie with a similar hook to something that just came out, you're pretty much sunk.

With a TV spec you're in better shape. You are trying to show you can write the series, and your spec still accomplishes that. Many of the people reading your spec will not necessarily know every episode of the series, so they may not know that you're covering the same ground.

So you can still send your spec around. However you probably want to think about coming up with a new spec script soon.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

This looks interesting:
Emmy Winners and Nominees Highlight Panelists for Foundation Television Seminar

Emmy Award winning and nominated writers Peter Casey (Cheers, Frasier), Alexa Junge (Friends, The West Wing), Damon Lindeloff (Lost), Jay Kogen (The Simpsons, Malcolm in the Middle), Shawn Ryan (The Shield) and Jonathan Stark (Ellen, According to Jim) are just some of the writers who will serve as guest instructors for the Writers Guild Foundation’s first Breaking into the Box seminar to be held all day Saturday, May 19 at the Writers Guild headquarters in Hollywood.

The event is a new multi-program workshop designed to present various paths to a television career, and to demystify the world of TV production for both beginners, and professionals looking to switch art forms. A number of Hollywood agents (CAA, UTA, Gersh and others TBA) and network executives will participate in several workshop sessions.

Seating is limited to only 120 seats as the event will take place in the Writers Guild’s Multi-purpose Room.

Workshop sessions run 9am to 6pm, and include a light breakfast and box lunch, with a complimentary wine and cheese reception afterward, all covered in the registration fee. The Writers Guild headquarters is at 7000 W. Third Street, at Fairfax Ave. in Los Angeles.

Registrations are priced at $150, general public; $125, WGA members; and $110, full-time students with I.D. Credit card purchases can be made at www.WGFoundation.org (including full program and speaker lineups), or by calling 323.782.4692.

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Today, I had a negotation and a poker game. Both went well. I won $17.50 at poker! I won't tell you what I got in the negotiation, but everyone went away happy, I think.

Kids, anyone working in show business ought to learn poker. Nothing will better prepare you for the bluffs and stakes-raisings of negotiation than a few thousand hands of poker. Seriously. Consider it part of your education.

And, poker with drunken writers is hi-larious. Just ask Adam Barken, or as he is now known, "Man-Boobs."

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Q. An agent wants to read our work. We are sending a spec script as well as an original pilot. What we should submit with our pilot? A treatment? A summary?
If you're confident of the pilot, just send that. I would never send a summary of a script. Summaries just never read very well.

If you're trying to set up a TV series -- as opposed to showing people a writing sample -- then you could conceivablly send along a pitch document for the whole series. This should be short -- five pages-ish -- with lots of story springboards to show that the pilot isn't a fluke. But where I have a pilot to show, I would show just the pilot, and then see if they ask for a pitch doc.

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Monday, April 23, 2007

I'm on the 6:55 train to Toronto again. Montreal is a lovely place to live, and not a bad place to write or shoot television, but it is not where the financing is. Over the past couple of years I've found myself making the pilgrimage to the Big Smoke more and more often; now it's about once a month. I've got three network meetings and a bunch with producers.

Plus, of course the Canadian Screenwriting Awards -- I'm not up for anything this year but it's good to go and applaud your fellow Guild members. The WGC throws the best party, I think.

(Plus, I just love trains. The view is better. The tracks run through people's back yards and fields. The freeway accumulates suburbs and strip malls like arterial plaque.)

Could you get away with this kind of monthly commute in the States? It wouldn't be easy, even if the US had modern train technology. In Canada the provinces have their own subsidies, which tends to spread out film and television production. When CHUM bought Craig Media, they had to spend money in the Prairies. And Telefilm has offices throughout the country. In the States there's no similar regulation. There's money to shoot in Louisiana, but the screenwriter and director don't have to be from there.

But you don't really need to see people more than once a month. You'd need to be in LA for staffing season. You could skip August and February entirely. If you could get into LA for a few days every month the rest of the year, and so long as you have enough of a name that people are willing to see you when you are in town, you could probably live anywhere.

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Dan Goldstein's tips on how to improvise a scene are great for doing improv. You could also use them to generate skits or situations or complications in your story...

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On Lotsa Words I read this:
I want to write for tv.
Period.

So why is it that I can't get this screenplay idea out of my head? I keep coming back to it and it's finally gotten to the point where I just have to write the damn thing - just to get it out of my system.

Is it commercial? Not particularly.
Is it high concept? Nope.

So why do it? Don't I want to write for tv? Shouldn't my limited time be spent writing that Veronica Mars spec that I've started?
Originally I was going to write something passionate about writing what you love. Then I went back through the past few years in my head and pondered which of the things I wrote strictly for love, that I didn't think were commercial, have gone anywhere.

I couldn't think of any. All the series ideas I've set up, and all the movies I've optioned, were ideas I liked that I also thought were commercial. I'm passionate about the series I'm writing a pilot for. But I chose to develop it because it was one of the speculative fiction ideas I had that seemed the most easily grasped by the mainstream audience, that had the least special effects. I wrote my medieval zombie picture because it was a goofy fun concept I knew I'd enjoy writing -- but also because it is a natural co-production shot almost entirely in one easily found location. (There are lots of empty castles in Europe. Especially in Eastern Europe, where it's cheap to shoot.) The series I developed last year had a great commercial hook.

I've got a stack of scripts that I wrote because I just had to, even though I wasn't sure I could sell them. They make great writing samples.

Now bear in mind: I'm not writing anything I don't love. I don't develop commercial ideas I don't actually want to work on. I don't think I'd be able to do a good job on them if I did. Lisa is always coming up with commercial ideas I don't think I can write, along with the ones I think I can. I put them on the backburner until I see an aspect of them that I love. Which may not happen.

I don't take writing commissions on projects I don't think I'll be able to love. On the other hand I am lucky enough that I can almost always find something to love about projects I'm asked to come in on. So I haven't had to turn down very much because I wasn't turned on by the material.

So it's tricky. You have to write what you love, but you have to write what other people are going to love, too. Is it a matter of training your muse to love commercial stuff? Or is it a gift that some people have and others don't?

Where are you? Are you trying to figure out what the market wants? Trying to figure out what you love? Trying to put the two together? Let us know.

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Straight from Ken Levine's blog:
You can now sign up for my two day comedy writing workshop, the Sitcom Room.

It will be held in Los Angeles on July 21-22. For two days you’ll experience what it’s like to actually be in a writing room. I’ll have actors to perform your scene and drive you crazy. I’ll have studio and network notes. Instruction and guidance. Camaraderie and much laughter. When you’re not pulling your hair out by the roots you will be having a helluva time.

For details and sign up information please click on our website Sitcomroom.com
You could learn a lot from Ken Levine. He wrote on M*A*S*H and Cheers.

You know how I'm down on film schooll? This is different. This is a short seminar with a guy who does this for a living.

If I were in LA, I would probably go and take his class.

What are you waiting for?

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Ivy Oldford at the CFC asks me to remind my Canadian viewers that the deadline for applying to the Prime Time Television Program is May 16.

While I'm not that big on film school in the States, it's different up North. The program is very focused on the real challenges of starting a career writing for television. It's close to an apprenticeship en mass in the industry. Participants get to meet with showbiz vets regularly; they even work developing a series with a showrunner. By the time they're done with the program, they've got specs and pilots and they know lots of people in the business. And, a shockingly high percentage of show people in Canada have gone to the CFC, so you've got a nice old boy network to rely on.

If you're in showbiz up North, you really, really want to go, or have gone, to the CFC.

So if you've got 6 months to spare in order to save yourself five years, send your application in before May 16!

UPDATE:
Q. I was looking into CFC as an alternative to the not-so-common television writing programs at film schools in the states. What do you feel about an American studying abroad and using what is learned back here in the states or getting a start in Canada?
I would feel very good about it, but the CFC doesn't take Yanks... Sorry.

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My VisualPitch gives writers the opportunity showcase their work to industry pros by creating Visual Pitches (think mini-trailers) of their screenplays. Filmmakers with completed projects looking for a home are also uploading.
When I was starting out in the biz, occasionally people would shoot trailers for their movie rather than shooting a short film. You like my trailer, fund my movie.

The problem with shooting a trailer is that the best moments from a movie come organically from the scenes that are shot. When all you're shooting is, say, a single line from scene, the moment rarely comes off the way it would if you were shooting the whole scene. You wind up with an underfunded and undershot trailer -- 'cause you have no money to shoot it with -- that detracts instead of adding to your script.

My VisualPitch is trying another way to get around the ol' "No one will read my query" fear. They throw together some trailer-esque music and a bunch of stock photographs, Ken Burns style, to create a faux trailer.

I watched one. And the music really did sound like a trailer. The problem is, the query didn't give away very much of the story. Something about two brothers divided by a bridge, and then a woman, and then a guy who's been 23 years old since 1935. So it's like some mashup of an angsty Irish family drama and a vampire story, I guess.

While I applaud the effort to think outside the box, I don't think this is the way pitches are going to go. Because all you can do in this is dress up your logline. And that means I have to sit through a sixty second trailer, and react to the music and the slideshow, instead of just reading your logline.

If I were still taking pitches (hasn't been my job in years) I would just want to know what your story is about. Just tell me what your story is about. You can do it in one sentence. Three sentences tops. I wanna know who your main character is; what his opportunity, problem or goal is; what obstacles or antagonist he faces; what he might win, and what he stands to lose.

The elements of a story, right?

If you have a good story, you don't need to hire a firm to create a trailer for you. All you have to do is tell people what your story is. They will want to read it. That's what they do for a living.

My Visual Pitch's slogan is: You've gotta be here if you're gonna be seen.

But it ain't true. Everyone wants a great hook. A great story. And if you don't have a good story, no amount of multimedia slideshows will get people to buy it.

UPDATE: Pamela Schott of MyVIsualPitch replies:
I really appreciate that you took the time to review the site and comment on it, and your feedback is absolutely invaluable to me.

What is not evident from the home page (but becomes evident once a producer is signed in), is that all the information you want (i.e., the one-sentence logline, etc.) is displayed in its entirety. Actually, an artist can upload a logline, synopsis, and treatment. They also indicate what material is available, such as completed screenplay, or, in the case of feature trailer uploads, the entire film itself.

The Visual Pitch is there to pique a producer's interest; anything else he or she would need to know is accessible. But what I think needs to happen is that there should be a "This is what the industry will see" snapshot page on the home page (or somewhere close by) so that artists and industry pros alike know that there is the substance to back the pictures.

I think I can make a case for Visual Pitches as an alternative (initially, anyway) to simply reading loglines. As an example, these days, more people in my industry pro target audience get their news from online sources. And if there is a video available about the story, more will view the video before deciding whether or not to tuck into the story.

On the other side of this is the artist. Again, in my target audience, these are young people who are increasingly turning to user-generated content to express themselves. Along these lines, the feedback from this demographic has been instantaneous and very enthusiastic. [... snip ...] What I would consider the "youtube crowd" has really embraced the site (film school kids and their profs leading the pack).

What your blog post drives home, regardless of demographic assumptions, is that we need to be clearer on what the industry pro will have available to view, assuming the Visual Pitch hooks him in.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

UNESCO has a publication on how to write docs. If you're interested, check it out. And let me know if it's any good.

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I'm facilitating a two day TV workshop in Prince Edward Island this June:
As a first initiative in PEI, the Island Media Arts Coop in partnership with Telefilm Canada, Technology PEI, and CBC is hosting a competition for emerging screenwriters from the Atlantic Region, the PEI Screenwriter’s Bootcamp 2007.

In keeping with the popularity of reality TV shows, Bootcamp hopefuls will be voted in by a jury of industry professionals, based on the quality of writing and appeal of an original idea. Up to twelve submissions will be selected to be developed during a five-day retreat style workshop in Mount Stewart, PEI this coming June. There will also be pitching sessions and networking opportunities with producers, providing an exceptional forum for pitching ideas for both writers and producers.

Tom Shoebridge, founder of the Canadian Screen Training Centre in Ottawa will be mentoring the group along with Alex Epstein, screenwriter and author of two books on writing for film and television. Mr. Epstein was also one of the co-writers on Canada’s recent box office smash, “Bon Cop Bad Cop.”

The Bootcamp is a pilot project for an annual event for emerging writers who will learn the basics of screenwriting and pitching to the industry. So, if you have a flare for writing and an original idea or two for a film or a television series, this is your chance to learning how to get your work produced. Visit www.theislandmedia.pe.ca to enter.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

I am going to interview a top sitcom writer, Ellen Sandler, in these pages in a couple of weeks. What do you most want to know that you haven't seen answered elsewhere? I'm looking for specific craft-oriented questions, not the usual "how did you get your first job."

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Q. I have just been offered a contract from Sherry Fine of the Screenplay Agency in New York. They want me to have my screenplay critiqued and mail that back with the contract. Have you ever heard of them? is this common practice?
I've never heard of The Screenplay Agency. But any time an agency asks you for a critique, my feeling is that they are not a real agency. Real agencies read the scripts themselves. Why would they rely on someone else to critique stuff they're supposed to feel passionately enough about to represent?

My suspicion is that they will refer you to someone to do a critique, and get a cut of the action.

The simple test is: are they WGA signatory? (In this case: nope.) If an agency does not appear on the Writers Guild of America's list of signatory agencies, don't bother with them.

UPDATE: Shawn writes: "Warren at The Screenwriting Life investigated this company last year using a fake name/script. Check out his posts before doing anything.

I did. Wow. Excellent, and hilarious, hatchet job on what certainly appear to be a bunch of fraudsters. The Interweb is full of these guys. Patricia Nielsen Hayden is always railing against similar scam artists working in the lucrative field of novel publishing. To reiterate: the WGA is there to protect writers. If an agency is not signatory with the WGA, do not bother with them.

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Q. You've said that reading bad screenplays can be even more instructive than reading good ones. Where do I find bad screenplays?
Good attitude!

It shouldn't be hard at all. Simply volunteer to read and do coverage for free for any company in showbiz. Most production companies and agencies are swamped with submissions. They have to pay $40 or so for coverage, or dump the scripts in the lap of some hapless assistant who's already working 12 hour days. I'm sure many companies would be delighted to have someone attack the slush pile. I'm not sure how many companies are getting electronic submissions, but it is a matter of a few moments to forward a script to someone.

And, now you're a development intern for a production company or agency.

If you can get a gig like this, you can ask to read the company's other coverages; and if they're doing coverage on the scripts you're reading, read those carefully -- bearing in mind that the reader doing coverage is often not much more experienced than you. (There are professional readers, but most companies, especially small production houses, can't afford them.)

If for some reason you can't get a production company to let you help them out for free, there's a website whose name escapes me (um, hive mind?) where people read each other's scripts and rate them. These will tend to be more amateurish than what's coming in to production companies and agencies, so I'd try to go with plan A. Prodcos have to wade through a lot of bad scripts, but these are usually professional even if uninspired.

If you have a writing group -- even one on the internet -- consider reading a flawed script every month and discussing it with your group. You'll hear critiques you may not have thought of, and you may come up with inspired fixes that will put another tool in your toolkit.

UPDATE: Author Unknown was kind enough to remind me that the website where you read other people's scripts is Zoetrope:
They have a peer review section for screenplays. I believe you have to review 4 that are assigned to you before you can have access to all the screenplays that are on the site at any given time. Fun fact: Michael Arndt posted Little Miss Sunshine up for review way back when.
UPDATE: Barkalounger says Trigger Street "also has a peer review section. Plenty of bad screenplays there, including mine."

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Monday, April 16, 2007

Everything is cool if you ramp and de-ramp.

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Here's cheery news: I just got back the rights to a script I wrote on commission in 2002. Should the script be produced, I have to pay the original producers what they paid me, and certain costs, but essentially I have a brand new old script to sell.

Whee!

The script needs a rewrite -- it was only a second draft comedy script, and I'm a much better writer five years later. But perhaps I can persuade a producer to find funding to hire me to rewrite it. People are always looking for romantic comedies, because they can feel big budget on a low budget, and everyone likes to work on them.

When you agree to write a script for money, try to get a reversion clause. The WGC contract mandates an automatic reversion after 7 years, but the WGA contract does not, so far as I know. A typical reversion clause would say that if the producer fails to produce a film based on the script within X years, the rights revert to you, subject to repayment of any script fees you were paid, plus "direct, out-of-pocket development costs," payable "on the first day of principal photography." You won't have to pay these yourself; they'll go into your option contract should you option the script, and then into the budget of any film based on the script.

Producers may balk at a reversion clause. Studios will rarely give you one. Their shelves are full of scripts they won't let anyone touch short of paying the full "turnaround" costs. These are all script fees plus any kind of overhead or marketing costs they can conceivably associate with the project. I can add up to millions of dollars. One of my old scripts is tied up at Disney; the full turnaround, which includes scripts by much fancier writers, and the cost of a pre-production office, plus visits to Cannes, etc., adds up to $2.6 mil. Turnaround usually kills the script, unless there's a mondo director who can convince another studio to pay the full turnaround. No exec wants to let a project go even if they don't like it any more. What if they're wrong, and it becomes a hit film for someone else? That would be embarrassing.

However, a decent producer will often give you a reversion clause, especially if they'll get their money back. I like to ask for a 5 year reversion. In this particular case, the producers were gracious enough to acknowledge that they had no intentions of doing anything with the project, and simply let me have it back before it reverted. Thank you!

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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Q. I've read scripts where the writer will break up a line for and capitalize a sound, such as

A grenade

EXPLODES

beside Desmond.


Also seen a few that break up the line for a verb:

Tony

swings

his bat.
Okay, white space is good. But this is overdoing it.

My rule is: one line is one shot, or sometimes, one action:

Jimmy races over to the third ladder just as-

-a KNIGHT comes over the top, clambers up on the parapet-

Jimmy races up to shield-bash him as-

-the Knight slashes down at him. Jimmy blocks - CLANG! - but in moments he's fighting for his life against a blizzard of sword blows. Jimmy's good, but the knight is a pro.

Caz runs up just as -

-the Knight gets his sword point under Jimmy's breastplate and THRUSTS.

Jimmy staggers, in shock and pain.


Each line is a new "virtual camera angle." When I write Jimmy races I'm hoping you'll see him coming head on as he runs up. A KNIGHT comes over the top is the reverse angle. And so on.

I do capitalize sound effects, special effects, and any action I want to be sure the reader doesn't miss. Don't overdo it, though. If everything's in caps, they lose their emphasis and you're just shouting.

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

A little while ago I quoted TV comedy writer Ellen Sandler's list of what not to do in a TV writing room. Ellen has also written a book, The TV Writer's Workbook. Her approach is methodical. She suggests, for example, that when you're writing a spec script, you break down three produced episodes carefully. Count the number of 1/4 page scenes, the number of 1 3/8 scenes, etc. If your own script is way off the produced numbers, your script won't have the same rhythm as the show.

The book has many useful exercises -- it's a workbook after all. For example, to come up with springboards, mine one of the seven deadly sins for things you've done, or seen people do. Take one of those moments and brainstorm a "cluster" of associations and images. Then you can transfer one of these associations or images onto one of the main characters of the show, and see how it can grow into a story for him or her.

Ellen is an extremely accomplished sitcom writer/producer -- she's written for Everybody Loves Raymond and Coach, among others. So particularly if you're aiming for a career in TV comedy, check this book out!

UPDATE: Dan Abrams reports that Ellen will be promoting the book at the Dramatist's Bookshop in New York on Wednesday at 6 pm. It's on 40th St. between 7th and 8th.

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Friday, April 13, 2007

Q. We're coming to Banff armed with (a) a spec episode of a current show and a comedy feature, to show as writing samples, because (b) we've also got a couple of shows we've developed and we're looking for network or producer interest in them.

So, my two-fold question is:

1) Is it possible to make a deal for a show with a network without produced credits or are we only likely to get something done if we get a legitimate producer with a track record attached first, perhaps while in Banff?
Attaching a strong producer is a definite plus. Networks will often agree to read your material whether you have credits or not, but my experience is they don't read it as seriously. Often the pitch just disappears. The right producer validates your pitch and makes up for your inexperience.
Q. 2) I'm not sure what kind of documents to come armed
with for a show. Is a simple two-page leave-behind going to be enough? Or do we need more comprehensive documentation? You mention a 20-page pitch document you put together last year...?
I generally like a 3-6 page pitch doc that says what the show is. That way the exec I meet can pass it up the chain; otherwise it's just the exec's recap that gets passed up the chain. Also, it's easier to prove it was your idea. A good friend of mine who's a veteran writer uses one page leave behinds. But I like to work out more of the details of a show before I pitch it. Working up 3-6 pages forces me to come up with springboards, that forces me to nail down the relationships, and I often discover (and hopefully fix) problems when I have to do that.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Q. What does ccd size have to do with dof? dof is a function of the lens, no?
The lens focuses light onto the image plane. A smaller CCD gives you a smaller image plane, which gives you the same effect as a smaller aperture.
Q. Check this out.
Or maybe I'm misinformed. Can someone straighten us out?

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I had been wondering why the heck anyone would shoot HD instead of HDV for a short film. HDV is much cheaper, and if you're only really airing on TV... the difference is just grain, right?

I've finally managed to get some answers.

a. HD has a greater latitude. That is, bright spots won't blow out as much. Having a blown out sky is a big part of the "video look" that people disparage.

b. HD has less depth of field. Depth of field refers to the depth of the area in which things are in focus. Ironically, less depth of field is good. You don't want everything in focus. You want the important stuff in focus and the other stuff out of focus so it doesn't distract. (Unless you are going all Orson Welles-y and you've got a staff of 100 to make sure that everything on your set is worth looking at.) I'm shooting a comedy. I don't want anyone looking at the background unless someone's doing something comical there. Because the CCD chip in an HDV camera is smaller, you have greater depth of field whether you want it or not.

c. HD cameras use film-style apparatuses. If you've got professional camera people on your show, they'll be used to shooting with film cameras, so they'll be comfortable with the HD; but they may be unfamiliar with the HDV camera.

d. HD makes your DP happy. While you're not making the film for your dp -- and don't let a pro d.p. railroad you into thinking you are -- you don't want to turn him off the project or you may lose him.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

We're shooting our short at the end of this month. Many of you have shot short films. Let's all pool our mistakes, and then maybe I won't make so many of them.

When I shot my MFA thesis film, these were my worst mistakes:

Too long: My thesis film was 27 minutes long. That was the requirement, but I bet they would have waived it if I'd come up with a really nifty 15 minute idea. Or I could have made an anthology of 3 short stories that I could have shown together or separately. I would stay away from anything over 10 minutes that's under 92 minutes ("feature length").

Too slow: I let the actors feel their way through all the moments. The acting is really good for a student film, but the film is about 30% too long for the number of things that happen. I should have kept the emotional truthfulness, but got them to pick up the pace by giving them an organic sense of urgency. "Okay, do it again, but this time you have to meet your boyfriend and you're late." "Okay, do it again, but you think someone is trying to come in the door."

Not enough camera movement: Probably the opposite of most people's mistake, but I shot the first 18 minutes of a 27 minute show entirely on sticks. It was a style. It also let me focus on the actors. It looks dull.

No hook: My story was emotional: girl comes out of the desert looking for the man she thinks killed her father 18 years ago. But nothing about that screams "Wow! I gotta see that!" As opposed to, say, "a short film about a man on fire." Or, "a jet, a freeway, and a little old lady in a car." (And gee, can you guess the twist?)

What are the biggest mistakes you've made shooting your short films?

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Monday, April 09, 2007

Q. I am very interested in the film/tv industry. I do have a desire for writing scripts,producing and directing. Do you have any comment or have heard anything on this school's program; a community college in NC has a two year curriculum in Film &Video Technology, it's an associates degree program in Applied Science. Hands-on instruction taught be industry professionals.
It would be easier for me to comment if I knew the name of the community college. (Guys, please, spend at least as long writing the question as I'm likely to spend answering it, huh?)
Q. Sorry, the college is Cafe Fear Community College, in Wilmington,NC. A few of the major courses are; Intro to film & video,Camera and lighting I & II,grip and electrical I & II,production techniques I & II, 2D and 3D design & animations I and editing I.
Offhand, I don't think that a community college (even in Cafe Fear) is going to teach you anything in two years that you could not learn on your own. I'm not just being a snob; I'm not actually sure that major programs like UCLA or NYU teach you all that much that you couldn't learn on your own. Sure, you get access to equipment, but you can rent a prosumer video camera for a couple hundred bucks for a week, or buy one for a couple thousands; and you can edit on a Mac with Final Cut.

Don't go to a community college to study film, unless of course you just need an AA degree. Write a script. Rent a video camera. Buy a Mac and put Final Cut on it. And shoot and shoot and shoot and shoot and shoot.

Set yourself a goal of making one complete under-ten-minute short film every two months. This gives you six months from script to edited film if you edit one film while you're prepping and shooting the next film and you're writing the film after that. (Multitasking like that will help you absorb the lessons, as you sit in the edit bay cursing your idiot director -- you -- and moron writer -- you.)

Don't shoot anything longer than ten minutes; it's much easier to get people to watch a short short than a long one, and you'll take more risks with a short short.

Where do you get your crew? From the AA program at the community college, of course. But you don't have to actually go there. For my short I'm getting a lot of people from Concordia, but we're producing it ourselves.

In fact, if you get a film student in the AA program to "produce" your film, then you can lay your hands on the free equipment without paying for the classes.

After two years of this, you'll either to be ready to go to LA, with a kickass reel, or you'll know that the film business is not for you. After two years of community college, you'll have spent a lot of time in classes hearing people talk about how it's done, but a lesson learned by doing is worth ten times a lesson heard in class.

Of course you could also go to the AA program while shooting a film every two months. I'm just not sure what the benefit would be; except possibly to get your parents off your back about how you're spending your time.

Film is all about the doing, not the theory. And experience will be a much better instructor than anyone you'll get at a community college in North Carolina -- possibly better than anyone you'll get anywhere.

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Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Toronto Star asked various Canuck screenwriters how they'd write the finale for The Sopranos. Here's what we came up with.

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Saturday, April 07, 2007

Q. [A high level exec at a studio has sent me] a novel they've optioned, with a view to me adapting it into a screenplay.

I've read the novel, I love it, it's very me, and I feel like I know how to adapt it. I'm meeting with the next week to "discuss my take" on it. And that meeting is my shot at the big time. That's my chance to get a Hollywood commission.

So how should I play the meeting?

Should I write up a treatment, or notes on how I'd like to adapt the novel, *before* the meeting? Would that paint me into a corner? Or should I keep an open mind, stay flexible, and sound them out about *their* take on the novel first? Would that sound wishy-washy, like I don't know my own mind or trust my own opinions?

How much of "discussing my take on the material" should be me justifying my choices, and how much of it should be me listening to how *they* think it should be done? What are they chances they've even read the novel at all, rather than just coverage from some reader?

I really don't want to blow it, but I'm not sure exactly what's expected of me at this stage. I know I can write the screenplay to a professional level; I just want a chance to prove it!
First of all, relax. Half the time you've either got the job walking in the door, or they're just jerking your chain. Which they do all the time, by the way. Having meeting with additional writers when they've already decided who's getting the job is something that studio development execs do in order to look like they're working hard.

I have never got a job by doing an elaborate "take." I know one guy who did this once, but he wasn't going to be able to take the meeting in person. An elaborate take is risky. One, they could disagree with you; but because you've put it all on paper, now they think you can't take it in a different direction. Two, they could fail to understand that the "take" is not intended to be a polished document. They might criticize it as a treatment, rather than as a take. And of course it won't be as good as a treatment that you'd do, because you don't have the job and you're not going to spend 6 weeks on a take.

What I do is go in planning to show them that I'm going to be easy to work with. They already have an opinion about my writing. I want to show them I'm agreeable.

I come in with, at most, an opinion about what the movie is -- theme, hook, and the five elements of the story. (Which are, as you know, dear readers, character, his opportunity/problem/goal, obstacles/antagonist, stakes, jeopardy.) I might sketch out the premise or setup, the sort of complications, and then the ending we're heading towards. At that point they have enough to hire me on, but not so much that they feel I'm tied to one approach.

You might also give them a few really cool visuals, or one particularly memorable scene, if you've got'em.

Don't assume they've read the novel. It might have been bought by the studio head on his summer vacation and dumped in their lap; and who has time to read a 300 page novel? That's what readers are for. On the other hand, do tell them why this novel is a great idea to develop into a movie.

And by the way, if you haven't figured that out by the meeting, you haven't done your homework. Sometimes they will have told your agent what the book is about, which is a good tip-off; or if they called you in on their own, they might have pitched it. There's no harm in giving them back their pitch, elaborated a bit. But if they haven't given you a hint, you still ought to be able to identify what the movie is in any material, whether it's schlock, or incoherent, or derivative, or actually is a good idea. Some of the best movies have been adapted from terrible books, so the quality of the material is no excuse!

What if they don't like your take? Then draw them out as subtly as you can. You can't ask them point blank what they think the movie is, but you can get them talking about the theme and it will usually become obvious.

And after you've listened a bit, start agreeing. Do you want to be right, or hired? Unless your career is in very, very good shape, you're there to get a job.

Remember, as in any interview: they already know your credentials. They want to meet you. Sell yourself as a person above all.

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Friday, April 06, 2007

Q. How much should shifts in a show affect your spec? For instance, In the season finale of Battlestar Galactica, [snip]. But we haven't seen how that will play out, so there's no frame of reference for us spec-monkeys to go from. ... I guess what I'm asking is should I try to guess what the show will eventually do, or should I just forget about it, and set my episode at an earlier point in continuity?
I wouldn't recommend guessing. You'll too easily guess wrong and waste your spec.

The point of a spec isn't to show you're good at guessing, but that you're good at writing to a show's template and capturing its voices. If you can capture the feel of the show from last January, say, then your reader will assume you could probably do it on staff for next January. While it's best to be as up-to-date as reasonably possible with your spec, no one's expecting you to predict the future. That's what network execs are supposed to do.
Q. So you think it's okay to even spec a serialized show like Battlestar Galactica? Or Lost?
It's okay. It's just not particularly easy. You have to find a way to insert an episode into the show's chronology. If you can think of how to put in a "missing episode," go for it. But most top shows these days have a chronology, so you'll probably have to do that to some extent in almost anything you write.

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

I've been reading John Gaspard's Fast, Cheap and Under Control lately. It's a flock of interviews with directors who made low budget features, from arty (Eraserhead) to exploitative (Grand Theft Auto) to indie (sex, lies and videotape). Gaspard draws an assortment of morals from the stories that you may find useful if you're planning to perpetrate your own low budget feature. Worth the read.

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Watched Sopranos, "The Fleshy Part of the Thigh," last night, to see if I want to get back into watching the show.

I'd forgotten how unhappy that show makes me. It makes the world feel dirty.

Not saying it's not an excellent show. It just has a profoundly sick view of the world. After an episode of The Sopranos, I'm a little more afraid.

After an episode of Slings and Arrows, by contrast, I feel thrilled about love, the world, and theatre. It makes me delighted at what I'm doing for a living.

I think we'll keep The Movie Network for Slings and Arrows's sake. But I'm going to skip getting back into Tony Soprano's life. It's just not an existence I want to hang out in.

And yet, weirdly, I love Rome. I guess the difference is that the violence in Rome is part of the sweep of history. Octavian's cold-hearted clawing his way to absolute power creates the Roman Empire as we know it. (And what did the Romans ever do for us? Well, aqueducts...) I don't mind slaughter. I just want there to be a point to it.

I guess I'd rather see immoral acts committed by moral people than by immoral ones. And I want people to finish an episode with a feeling that there are more possibilities in the world than they might have guessed. (More things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio...) Rather than feeling that no matter what you achieve, someone will screw you out of it.

What feeling does your spec pilot leave your audience with?

The pilot I'm working on now is pretty dark. Or at least it is when I step back and think about it. When I'm in it, it just feels like life and metaphysics. I wonder what David Chase thinks about his creations, and if he's ready to write a musical comedy about mistaken identities?

UPDATE: Not so much. Via DMc

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Q. When writing a spec pilot should I spend a lot of time on the bible or, as a writing sample, is it more important to prove I can write an original five-act script that conforms to television parameters? I would, of course, set up relationships and introduce conflict that would continue throughout the series but how important is it to know where the show is going? What are the chances the spec pilot would ever function as anything other than a writing sample?
You wouldn't be the first writer to write a spec without knowing where the show is going. Just look at J. J. Abrams and LOST. Or Aaron Sorkin and STUDIO 60. Many big showrunners sell the pilot and then arc out the show when they have staff.

(That's not how I do it. But up here in Canada you can option a bible and get paid to write a pilot. In fact, that's what's paying my mortgage right now.)

When you circulate a spec pilot, you're not circulating the bible with it. You're sending around an excellent half hour or hour of television that tells a single story and introduces an arc of future stories. You want people to finish the script and think, "Wow. That was great. I'm dying to find out what happens next."

Usually the pilot asks the driving question. "How can we get off this damn island?" (LOST, GILLIGAN'S ISLAND) "Who do I want to be when I grow up?" (FELICITY, etc.) "Will Sam and Diane ever get along?" (CHEERS)

I think you probably want to know where your series is headed. It's a good idea to know where Season One is going to end. It's a good idea to have an answer for "What's the 100th episode of this series?" But more specific than that, I don't think you need to be.

What are the odds of selling your pilot? Tiny. It's mostly a writing sample. So take risks. It's more important to write a memorable pilot than one that would make it easy for you to write the season. If your pilot gets set up, you'll have help solving the problems you set yourself. If your pilot is not memorable, it won't get set up anyway, no matter how "well wrought" it is in the abstract.

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Q. Many of the agencies do not list literary agents, but President or VP only (in the case of Above the Line Agency). Should I phone and get a name of an agent within the company or send it to one of them? Also, many agencies have a listing of several agents. What is the best way to determine which agent to send to?
If you can get an answer over the phone, great. Many agents won't tell you who's the young, hungry agent. They figure if you don't know, they don't want you.

You could also Google the agency and see whose names pop up. Or, write to the VP. The assistant may forward your query to a young, hungry agent. Or he may read the script himself. (The assistant, not the VP.) Either way you're better off than querying the agency itself.

UPDATE: As Tenspeed and Brownshoe points out, the best way to find out an individual agent is through the IMDBPro.

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A while back I complained about being forced to watch the same dumb FBI and Interpol warnings.

This handy website explains some neat tricks for avoiding the un-fastforwardable warnings.

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Monday, April 02, 2007

My recent post on spec scripts prompted the usual slew of questions about whether one should spec this or that show.

I don't know.. I am not currently trying to write a spec script, so I haven't done the research. Which means I'm just guessing. Shows go in and out of favor as a spec. As Shawn noted in an earlier post, Cold Case is out. Criminal Minds is in. Go figure why.

So I would like to ask those blog readers who have agents to do a bit of homework for us. Please ask your agent's assistant what the hot specs are these days, in general. And post the answer in the comments.

Thanks!

PS There is the ongoing question whether you should spec an episode or a pilot. My feeling is you need one of each these days. I wouldn't hire someone if they couldn't show me at least one kickass spec episode, no matter how good their pilot was. Writing a spec episode is also better practice; and writing a great spec episode is a hell of a lot easier than writing a great spec pilot.

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Sunday, April 01, 2007

I'm watching La Grande Séduction, an utterly charming Québecois movie about a small town that must persuade a doctor to come and stay in order to get a factory that will save them from oblivion.

It's the sort of movie that isn't a brilliantly new idea, but is done with heart and charm and lovely characters. Québec seems to make a lot of successful movies like these. You couldn't accuse Les Boys of being a particularly original sports movie. Horloge Biologique showed three guys freaking out about their girlfriends' fertility -- nothing super new there. It's all in the execution. And the execution here is lovely.

But it's bugging me, O Hive Mind, that I can't remember the movie from the 80's where some Tom Hanks-like executive who works for some Gregory Peck-like rich guy is scouting a small town because he wants to buy it to build a factory there is planning to install some kind of factory that will destroy a small Scottish fishing town, and he comes, and the village charms him, and the magnate decides not to build the factory, and the exec decides to settle down in the town...?

UPDATE: Bill Cunningham nailed it: Local Hero, starring Burt Lancaster and Peter Riegert!

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In about eight weeks, we plan to be shooting my short, Twelve Ways to Say 'I'm Sorry', on a budget of about $20K.

What books do y'all recommend on shooting a low-budget film and/or a short? What are the most useful books you've read on the specifics of do-it-yourself production? Of nuts and bolts directing?

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