Dreams on Spec is a documentary about three aspiring screenwriters (spec monkeys as the scribosphere would have it) trying to break in, intercut with interviews with rich, successful pro monkeys, er, screenwriters. I haven't seen it, but maybe some of you will find it interesting. Site is here. Lemme know what you think.
I almost always wind up editing my posts after I've posted them. The RSS feed, though, comes from the first draft of the post. So if you've got a feed hooked up to this site, then I recommend you actually click though to the blog entry. That way you'll see the current edition of the post, with any corrections, clarifications or updates. If you don't, you might be missing something.
Of course it's your own trip, so be my guest, but please be aware that there is a warning on that one.
At the Just for Pitching event, the Comedy Central guy mentioned that they're looking for 2-minute segments suitable for viewing on a cell phone or iPod's two inch screen, to release as "mobile content."
I've been hearing about mobile content for several years now. I wasted a bit of time with a producer who wanted an animated series of 90 second cartoons; it turned out that he didn't actually envision paying anyone until (or if) he sold the show somewhere. Since then other producers have asked if I'd like to "partner up" with them, i.e. I come up with a series concept and write a few short scripts for free, and then they'll see if anyone's interested. No one has explained to me yet where the payday is, though they're all convinced there's a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
The only success story I can point to is Têtes à Claques, the web-based Québecois animation phenomenon: if you're a Bell cell phone subscriber you can watch the episodes on your cell phone a week before they come out on the Web. But that was a phenomenon before Bell bought in.
Mobisodes are a fundamentally new medium. The screen is ridiculously small. You can really only have one thing in a frame that size. If you're having an explosion, the explosion fills the frame. If you're having a conversation, it's all closeups, no wide shot. How does that affect the kind of stories you can tell?
But it's not just the size of the frame.
The audience is also downloading whenever the episode is ready. Should that be on a regular or an irregular basis?
Do all episodes have to be the same length? Why should they be?
But my big question gets back to: how do I get paid? How do the actors get paid? Am I paid per download? Or is the platform (the cell phone service provider, or iTunes) producing a lot of content that they're paying for up front, and everyone's paid a reasonable advance against royalties? Or do they buy the show outright?
And how do you get paid for providing mobisode content when YouTube is giving content away for free? Or as Sam Goldwyn once said about B movies, why would people pay to see bad movies in a theater when they can watch bad movies on TV for free?
It's the Wild West out there. But has anyone struck silver yet?
Does anyone have more info on successful mobisode productions?
UPDATE: See Bill Cunningham's comment for links to two articles about downloadable content. Japanese kids are buying manga to read on their handsets, which is a big step forward in e-book technology. (The concept of spraying ink on paper, and then physically shipping it to someone who will read it once and then throw it away seems so, well, 20th Century.) And 24 has a sideline series of 24 one-minute episodes.
Note that manga-by-email is not a new medium -- it's just a new method of delivering the old medium of the graphic novel. Meanwhile the 24 mobisodes are a promotional item for the series. They're not making money off them directly; and even if they were charging for downloads, the mobisodes rely on the enormous promotional boost of the hot TV series. I'm still waiting to hear about a series that was created for, and paid for by, the mobile screen.
Q. When I first decided to write a spec script for "House," I bought several "House" scripts off eBay. They are production scripts, further along than a spec script would be, of course. But here's my question--given the complex pronunciations of some of the medical terms in my script, should I include a pronunciation list in the front, like the actual scripts do? I'm assuming I don't need to include a location list or a character list--or maybe I do?
I wouldn't put a pronunciation guide. That's for the actors. Definitely no location list or character list. Those are strictly for production.
Q. When's the best time of your to send out a spec screenplay to potential agents? I'm writing a spec this Autumn with a view to having it out to agents early in the New Year.
Timing isn't as critical for features and feature agents. I would avoid sending anything out in August, which is pretty dead, and December, when people are wrapping things up so they can leave town for Chrismukkah. January is good because people are back at their desks and feeling antsy about getting something done. I would say the second week people are back is good.
Various people from places that are not a nexus of international showbiz (hi, Branko!) occasionally write in to ask if it's possible to sell a script to Hollywood. My usual response is that it is theoretically possible, because Hollywood doesn't care where you wrote your spec, they just want a great hook. Often, however, I can tell from the email that the writer is not a native speaker of American English; then their script is almost certainly doomed.
Here my old friend and fellow staffer on CHARLIE JADE, Dennis Venter, goes and proves me right. (Via other fellow CJ staffer Denis-with-one-n) He's in South Africa, an easy 20 hours flying time from LA, and he's gone and sold a spec.
Dennis is an extremely experienced writer, mind you. In S.A. they pay practically nothing for scripts, which tends to encourage lots of writing for those few guys who can support themselves (and in Dennis's case, Lovely Wife and Adorable Kids). So his cops are pretty good. You can sell a spec to Hollywood from far away, but it still has to kick butt.
Good on ya, Dennis! Drop a note and tell us how it happened!
Q. In a spec script, which is a more pressing concern? a) That the reader won't be familiar with a certain aspect/plot point of the show necessary to the plot, or b) that the reader will be annoyed by an explanation of said plot point, etc.
Well, you can't just up and explain the plot point to the reader. A spec is supposed to look and feel like a real script for that series. On the other hand you can't rely on execs to be completely up on their show mythology.
How do you split the difference? You can try to have a story that stands by itself, that doesn't rely too heavily on arcane show knowledge. This is easier in an episodic show like HOUSE or CSI than a serial. Or, you can make it self-explanatory.
For example you can depend on readers to know that Commander Adama commands the fleet running away from the evil robots, but if you want us to know who slept with whom once, find a sneaky way to let us know. E.g. "he stops awkwardly, noticing her. He's still embarrassed that they slept together." There, you've told us, without making it look like you're dumping expo on us.
Bear in mind, the execs who are reading your scripts may not be fans of the show you're speccing. You can expect that if you've chosen one of the hot specs for this year, your readers (producers and execs) will be conversant with the show. But they may not have a deep appreciation of the show; so they may not get how clever you are if you've hung your whole episode on one of the finer points of the show's mythos.
They're more concerned about whether you've nailed the characters and their dialog, tone, structure, and the sort of story that show tells, than whether you are weaving your story into the narrative framework of the show's current season. After all, you're audition for free lancer -- and not for the show you're speccing. So if you succeed, they will either be asking you to write a mostly stand-alone show anyway, or they will give you strict marching orders for how your show weaves in.
The National Screen Institute - Canada is calling for filmmaking teams to apply to Features First 2007. The 10-month program offers sessions on script and story development, legal requirements, financing and more, all delivered by Canadian industry leaders.
Up to five teams will be selected. Selected teams do not have to pay tuition or relocate.
The Winnipeg institute [aims] to help emerging filmmakers advance their first or second feature film. Eleven of 33 projects developed by the program have been produced.
Teams must apply with a feature film script by Sept. 28. Visit www.nsi-canada.ca/featuresfirst for full details.
Q. I just finished my MBA in India. Are there any websites that list job openings for movies in like asst. to VP of distribution or should I send resumes to production companies that have listed in HCD- producers that have in-house distribution? Do I need agents?
Agents don't handle suit jobs. There are classified ads in VARIETY and THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER, both paper editions and online; those might be able to help. There are also employment agencies in LA that you can contact, e.g. The Right Connections, the Friedman Entertainment Agency, London, Persona, etc. (Some of these may no longer be in business.)
You have the right idea starting as an assistant. Many people would be happy having an assistant with an MBA, and if you're good, you won't be an assistant long.
Being from India is a complication since you'll need a work permit / visa to get a job, and it's hard to get a job unless you're in LA already. But while Homeland Security won't make it easy for you, LA itself is an enormously diverse place and the industry is more so.
Craig Mazin blogs about the huge wads of money that the pro monkeys get paid in LA. Daunting numbers indeed. For comparison, many established Canadian writers would be happy to get paid what US "baby writers" are getting paid. Especially if they could get paid that without a long, knock-down-drag-out negotiation with the producer.
Which is probably why some of my best writer friends are doing a lot of their work for LA producers.
Fortunately, the WGC's basic agreement has an escalator clause -- on production, you get paid "production bonus" that is a percentage of the budget. As a development exec, I was always fond of escalators because they are fundamentally fair. If we agree on, say, 2 1/2% of budget, then if the movie comes in at a million dollar budget, you don't get any additional money, because $25,000 is less than the scale payment for a script. But if you write something awesome, that garners a ten million dollar budget, then you deserve $250,000.
Q. I have completed a detailed outline [for my script] from beginning to end with all major plot points in between. Is it worth my (or the agent's) time to send queries on either an outline or a treatment, or will they only accept finished screenplays?
Well, if you feel confident you can write the script and you've solved all the story problems and now it's just a matter of writing pages ... you could query as if it's a screenplay, and then if you get positive responses, write the screenplay then.
You probably won't be able to sell an outline. For one thing, if they don't know your work, they don't know how you'll execute the outline? In the technical sense, it requires less skill to write a paragraph of plot description than a dramatic scene. So how do they know what the finished product will look like?
But even pro screenwriters mostly can't sell outlines. Joe Esterhazs, at the height of the spec mania, sold a four page outline for about a million a page. But that was after BASIC INSTINCT. Some buddies of mine, one of whom is a Hollywood screenwriter you've heard of, sold a pitch for a ton of money. But I doubt I could sell an outline, for example.
That's because it's ten times harder to read an outline than to read a script. Outlines tend to read very plotty. The characters don't come through, because characterization exists in the myriad details of dialog and action that exist only in the pages. Tone rarely comes through well, either. Comedy doesn't come through at all -- comedy plots tend to read either ludicrous or tragic.
Outlines are like the score to a symphony. How many people can read a score and feel the music from it without playing it? Maybe composers and conductors, and some, but not all, musicians.
The same is not so true of an oral pitch. People can usually follow an oral pitch -- because they're getting tone and characterization from your delivery -- your tone of voice and attitude. That's why I try very hard to avoid giving an outline to anyone but a writer, unless I've pitched that person the story orally first.
If you are stuck giving someone an outline, do what I call the "subtitles for the nuance-impaired" pass. Go through and explain everything. Explain why things are happening. Explain what the events mean. Describe the tone. Describe how hilarious the hilarious scenes are. Add 10% handwaving. Basically, turn your outline into a written pitch. Make it no longer an aide-mémoire for the writer, but a sales document. Add the sizzle to the steak.
Come to think of it, always add a little sizzle. People in showbiz tend to be nervous Nellies about their own opinions, because the consequences for saying "yes" and guessing wrong are so much worse than the consequences for saying "no" and guessing wrong. It's not a bad idea to remind the reader every now and then, in subtle ways, just how exciting this is...
That's how writers generally feel when you tell them that they have to rebreak their entire story. And the good ones say, "Okay, well, I don't want my story to be a cripple, so get your axe out." And the bad ones think, "Maybe I can just shove a lift into one of the shoes and it will walk more or less straight."
When it comes to getting the right details into your story, my feeling is "the audience doesn't notice, but they notice." To unpack that a bit, the audience sees all sorts of details they aren't aware they're seeing. They don't consciously read them, but they process them. In particular they notice when they are wrong. They might not bump consciously, "Hey, that's wrong!" But they'll get a sense that something isn't right.
Here's an amusing stunt pulled on a couple of ad writers who didn't notice all the messages they were being exposed to...
Lee Thomson, in his latest post for THE LIGHT, IT HURTS, gathers together a bunch of dandy script links to things like FIREFLY, and WONDERFALLS, and Tim Minear's now-defunct new project DRIVE.
And I notice that he lives in Chipping Norton, an adorable medieval market town just outside Oxford, where they have a very cool stone circle just by the side of the road, in a corn field. England is like that: throw a rock, and you'll hit something old. Actually, the rock you're throwing is probably something old.
I'm jazzed to see that my poker crony Heidi Foss picked up a CBC development deal for the family show she pitched on Thursday, and so did Sarah Glinski, whom I know from many a WGC cocktail:
Foss' comedy idea "Four Minutes Apart," about an anti-establishment female stand-up who moves in with her upwardly mobile brother and his family, and Glinski's "Sibling Rivalry," about a young woman's changing relationship with her younger brother, convinced CBC head of comedy Anton Leo at the annual Just For Pitching panel.
Every writer I know, and I am no exception, suffers from Gore Vidal-ian envy ("every time a friend of mine succeeds, a little part of me dies"), but this time we knew going in that there was no way the show we were pitching was for the CBC. Let's just say that no one in it is a role model.
Jargon watch: when people talk about "the watershed," they mean the difference between 8 pm and earlier, when kids might be watching, and 9 pm, when if kids are still up, it's their parents' fault. Our show is probably a post-watershed show. Heidi and Sarah's are perfect family viewing.
The Emmy nominations practically shut out the best written show on broadcast TV, Friday Night Lights. One nomination for Peter Berg for directing, and one for casting. FNL's casting is outstanding, and Peter Berg deserves a win for creating the show's style. But the writing is leaps and bounds past the usual suspects (Lost, Grey's, Desperate, Heroes). Plotting is fresh and original, the dialog is convincing, the characters are fleshed out... if I could choose one show on broadcast where I'd get to come in and write an episode, or get to work in the writer's room, or just listen in on the sessions ... that's the one I'd choose.
I should just get used to Mariska Hargitay getting nominated for “Law & Order: SVU” every year and get over it. I should just accept that "Two and a Half Men" will get seven nominations and "The Wire" will get none. I should just accept that Keifer Sutherland will get a nod every year, whether or not “24” is full of cougar bait or not. I should just accept that, every year, “Boston Legal” will get more nominations than shows that actually moved me to tears in the past year.
Whatever. I’m just so over the Emmys.
The Emmys and I were never a number, so I'm not disillusioned, but I agree with most of what she has to say.
No surprises that Sopranos swept, eh? I guess no one's mad about the ending after all.
Alec Baldwin didn't get spanked for being rude to his daughter over the phone. I guess many Emmy voters have exasperating kids, too.
Nice that Ugly Betty and Heroes picked up a few. Ugly Betty isn't my cup of Rosie Lee, but the wife adores it. Heroes, otoh, the wife doesn't grok, but the Crazy Monkey and I consider it appointment TV, or would if we didn't have a PVR to render appointments unnecessary.
Jon Stewart got nominated again for outstanding variety, musical or comedy show, though personally I would have nominated it for the best news show on television, since Stewart is the only anchor willing not only to relate the news but explains what it means and call politicians out (on both sides) for lying and/or shoveling it.
I'm pondering whether to watch the last 40 minutes of TURTLES CAN FLY, a fascinating depiction of kids in a Kurdish refugee camp on the Turkish border days before the American invasion of Iraq. Shekhar Kapur (director of ELIZABETH, one of my favorite movies ever) mentioned it on his blog.
It's a world that's as compelling as it is appalling. The movie starts with a teenage girl jumping off a cliff. The teenage "hero" makes his living by browbeating and conniving the refugee kids into disarming mines by hand to sell to a local broker who will then sell them to the UN. The strangeness of the situation, which I could not have imagined on my own, draws me in; the appalling makes it hard to watch. Another major character is a boy with no arms, perhaps from failing to disarm a mine. It doesn't make it any easier to watch that the actor is a boy who's lost his arms, while other characters are played by child actors who have lost other limbs. I stopped 54 minutes in last night, when it began to get worse. I had to go in and hug my daughter, and thank God I live in Canada.
I could have probably managed the last 40 minutes if I felt there was going to be a message of hope, but I gather from the comments on the Net ("descends into miserablism") that it goes in the opposite direction. Which, really, did it have to? I already got the point that life sucks for these kids. But hey, it's not my movie.
Anyway ... still worth renting for the first 55 minutes, and if you've got an iron constitution, you can finish it. And tell me how it turned out.
A bunch of people have asked me how my sneak preview of my short went. Hmmm, how should I answer that? The audience laughed, so that's good. And people came up and said nice things afterwards. And a short film distributor sounded interested.
On the other hand, I was hoping they'd laugh more! There are a few things in the film I find terribly funny that the audience didn't quite laugh at.
(Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.)
I'm not sure the audience knew 100% what to make of it. I could have directed the same script much broader, anywhere up to Kids in the Hall over-the-top. I went for a subtle, naturalistic kind of humor where you recognize the characters and situations, from your own life. I think that would probably work better in a longer film, where the audience has time to figure out what the tone is. The audience needs to know they're supposed to laugh.
The short aired in a block of shorts that were mostly not actually comedies. It's easier to keep people laughing than to get them laughing.
I also could have stuck a little more expo in the film. There's enough to tell you what's going on, but only if you know that you're supposed to be paying attention, and until maybe halfway through, you don't necessarily realize that all the story lines are interweaving, so you might have not been picking up all the info that's there. In a five and a half minute film, I didn't think that I would have to remind the audience what went on in previous scenes; but I ought to have referred to the previous scenes a little more clearly.
For example, in an early scene, a Texan steps on Dave's foot, and Dave apologizes. Five scenes later, Dave is at a dinner party saying, "So I stopped him, and I told him, hey, maybe you can go around stepping on people's toes wherever you come from, but that kind of behavior is unacceptable here." It would have killed me to have Dave start with, "And he stepped right on my foot!"
Likewise, I was a little too clever in some of my dialog, pursuing that naturalistic style. For example, if you pay attention, you realize towards the end of Jenny and Buster's scene what exactly Jenny is mad about: Buster has sent naked pictures of Jenny to her best friend, who is also named Jenny. ("You know how email can be!")
But you have to figure it out. And that cuts into the laughter.
So I was a little subtle. And subtle doesn't get the laughs. It gets the chuckles.
It's nice to get laughs.
In some ways you have to put more expo into a short film. A long film has time to set up its tone and its rules and its world, and then play with them. That takes about five minutes, or just when I'm rolling credits.
Or you could be not so bloody ambitious. You could not have eight characters and nine locations and ten scenes in five bloody minutes!
Anyway, those are my complaints at myself, because I'm picky.
Mostly, I'm really happy with how the film turned out. The actors are brilliant. The rhythm is great. The music is terrific. (Though because of a mixing problem, you couldn't hear half of it. That, we can fix.) I think the film is entirely successful for what I was trying to do. It's a style that would translate really well into the feature I want to direct. I got people to laugh without having to make the actors mug for the camera.
I just want them to laugh more, damn them!
So that's how my screening went. Probably really successfully! I think it was one of the better short films there. But don't ask me. I'm the writer-director. You tell me how it went. What I'm focusing on is how I could have done it differently, and better...
Hey, does anyone out there have graphic design skillz, and wouldn't mind helping me out with my short?
I have a basic design concept and image for TWELVE WAYS TO SAY I'M SORRY, but I'd like it to look a little more pro than I and my posse can manage. And we need CD sleeves and CD labels and so forth, and I will easily spend 10x as long learning how as you might spend whipping it together.
If anyone would be willing to donate some graphic design brilliance, I would be grateful!
In a few minutes we're off to pitch our mock rockumentary comedy I'M WITH THE BAND at the Just for Pitching event at Montreal's Hyatt Regency. It's Lisa's first pitching event -- really her first live pitch -- so we're excited.
It's a lot more fun pitching with two people than one. There's something exciting about one person jumping in where another person pauses. The whole thing just feels more dynamic.
Last year at Banff I memorized the whole pitch. But I think that took up way too much effort. We know our pitch pretty well off the page.
Meanwhile I'm pondering what to do with the rest of the summer. Stick around? Or head off back to the country? 'Cause this time of year you're either staffing a show in production, or kicking back your heels waiting for the network execs to come back to their desks from their cottages. Might as well get out of Dodge. I'm waiting for a couple of deals to close so I can get to work on them. Until then I'm working on another spec feature...
I watched about 40 minutes of WILDE, and then couldn't stand it any more. (Lisa soldiered all the way through it.) To me, it was one of those movies that does everything well except have an interesting script. It was lovingly directed by Brian Gilbert. Stephen Fry does a lovely turn as Oscar Wilde, and Jude Law is beautifully hateful as Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas, Wilde's downfall. But Julian Mitchell's script was one missed opportunity after another.
There seems to be a species of biopic in which an actor "brings to life" a character we know well. Fry is witty, cultured, pained and thoughtful as Wilde, as one might expect.
But I want a biopic to get under the character we know so well and tell me something I didn't know. Show me what makes Sammy run. I don't need a movie to tell me that Wilde was witty and cultured, for God's sake.
Here's what I would have wanted to know about Oscar Wilde. Why did he test the limits of Victorian respectability? Was it a calculated bit of self promotion to congratulate his audience on their intellligence in liking his play? Did he figure he would go farther by being slightly shocking? Did he really just say what he thought and damn the torpedoes? Did he not realize he would get in trouble? Or was he just a lovestruck fool?
I am inclined to the first, because I can't imagine that a fellow who writes plays as clever as THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST about society and its mores, could possibly be unaware of society and its mores.
But then why does Wilde destroy his life by pursuing a man for libel for calling him homosexual when he knows he's homosexual and hasn't been discreet about it? And then why, when he loses the case, and knows he's going to be arrested for sodomy, does he not hop on the next boat to Paris, where he might have been the toast of the Bohemians? Gross miscalculation? Believing his own hype? Or a sudden, inexplicable need to be straightforward and honest from a man who up till then had been explicitly in favor of art over truth?
And how about Wilde's attitude towards his bisexuality? He had a wife and children. He had homosexual affairs. Were the latter really so easy and un-fraught for him? Did it really require no emotional anguish at all to go to bed with a man for the first time? Sure, a lot of public school boys enjoyed each other. But homosexuality was considered an abhorrent vice. The movie treats Wilde's choices as if he just went where his heart lead him. But he had a brain, too. Where is the scene where he tries to convince himself that he dares sleep with his friend? Where is the scene where he tries to convince himself to go back to his wife?
And how about Wilde's attitude towards his family? Wilde abandoned his wife and two young children to rent a country cottage with Bosie. Quite aside from his infatuation with Bosie... doesn't he miss his kids? Or, doesn't he worry that he ought to miss his kids, but doesn't? One way or another, I want to know.
Oh, and what about Wilde's attitude towards being Irish, two generations before Ireland fought free of colonizing Britain?
If you're going to write a biopic, think about what the story is. What does the main character want? What are his obstacles? Is there an antagonist? What are the stakes? What is the jeopardy? Just because you know what the events of a man's life are, doesn't excuse you from figuring out what his story is.
In the movie, Wilde goes through with his various court cases because Bosie wants him to, in order to make his father look bad. But that is not a story. That is an event. To make it a story, you have to know the price Wilde is paying -- and in his case, you want to know that Wilde is keenly aware of what he is going to lose in order to satisfy his lover's hatred of his father. The story is not just what happens. The story is why it happens. The story is what it costs. The story is what the protagonist feels and knows about what is happening. The story is seeing the tragedy coming and knowing why it is coming and why the hero does not step off the railroad tracks.
Lisa tells me that some of what I'm talking about shows up in the second half of the movie. But the story is supposed to be the whole movie. The seeds need to be planted already. I didn't see'em.
This movie had an implied jeopardy, but no clear stakes. What did Wilde feel he was going to gain? And most importantly, it is not clear what precisely Wilde wants out of life. Did he want above all to be famous? To be loved? To be loved for what he really was? What drove his love for Bosie? Was it just Bosie's beauty? Or Bosie's utter lack of a reality check? Did he chase Bosie as a young man, or as a dream of a young man?
We would want to see scenes where he unburdens himself to someone other than the object of his desire. We'd want to see how his plays and novels related to his life, I think.
I'm mad. I'm mad because the movie could have been so much more compelling... ah, well.
America doesn't have a state religion, but if you look at American movies, there are certain things that are taken on faith. The little guy is right; the empire is wrong. The ragtag band will triumph against the powerful, disciplined army.
I wonder if that has boomeranged at all against the US? These days it's the US with the powerful, well-disciplined army, and our enemies are ragtag bands. I wonder how many jihadis have worn out their copy of STAR WARS waving around imaginary light sabers while killing American storm troopers in their minds.
(I read in Walter Murch's book that George Lucas actually meant STAR WARS as an allegory of the North Vietnamese fighting American hegemony. Of course, I'm no cheerleader for the NVA; they were fighting for their freedom to order their own people around. But they probably didn't see it that way; and I guess neither did George.)
It is interesting that Americans identify with the underdog, though the US is the most powerful nation in history. I'm not sure it's ideological, really, in spite of our origins in ragtag rebellion against what was well on its way to being the most powerful nation in history at the time. It's probably more inherent in the movie medium that heroes facing armies alone "always works."
On the other hand, take a look at movies of the '40's, or even BAND OF BROTHERS, for heroes doing their duty and following orders. So loners aren't the only heroes.
These days I can't help taking the question at the end of the first verse of the Star Spangled Banner seriously. Home of the brave, no doubt. But land of the free? I worry.
At least Hollywood continues to glorify the dissenter, fortifying the Daniel Ellsbergs and Seymour Hershes of the world in their battles against those who would turn the Land of the Free into the Evil Empire for real. That's what stories are for: to tell us how to be. Without these stories, we probably would all be "just following orders."
A most excellent post from Denis on the CRTC proposal to split the CTF into "commercial" faux-American shows conceived and produced out of LA, like RELIC HUNTER, and underfunded "Canadian" shows. McGrath shows that it's the Canadian-content shows that are actually the most commercial; but only when the definition of Canadian is simply "stories told by Canadians."
Jim Henshaw wrote me an email, continuing his well-needed rabble-rousing about the attempt by the CRTC to sell out Canadian content rules for the Canadian Television Fund:
You guys didn’t live through the Canadian film boom of the 70’s. I did and that’s what this 8/10 rule would send us back to. “Corner Gas” would star Paulie Shore and “Intelligence” would feature Lee Majors. Guys like Win (The Greek Tycoon) Wells would be writing “Little Mosque” with Potsie from “Happy Days” directing. They’re the “names” that the agents at CAA can market internationally over anybody from here – and until we build a legitimate homegrown industry they always will be.
Think about it. When HBO and Showtime are getting guys who can’t land features anymore, the guys who worked there are moving to the nets, and the guys that worked on the A shows on NBC and CBS are running the B shows and the guys who couldn’t get arrested at CW or the D2DVD world are coming here. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again. And with the audience shrinking everywhere it’ll happen quicker with some species like Canadian writers suddenly turning up on the endangered list.
Has anybody considered that nobody can sell Canadian shows because they’re already mostly written by LA writers who can’t get even an animation job in LA?
And look at the money. If the $230M is divided $100M @ 100% and $130M at 80% with ALL development and the CBC coming out of the hundred that means $0 for virtually everything that isn’t CBC and $130M going to stuff 99% of Canadian writers, directors and actors won’t get a shot at.
I also see something more sinister here. It’ll take companies headquartered or well connected in LA to package those 8/10 shows. No wonder Robert Lantos put money in Blueprint.
You want a plan – how about no development or pilot money. Maybe no public money for the first 6 shows. If a series scores with an audience, you get future funding and something to offset the original investment. How about supporting the MOWs and “cultural fare” out of a levy on prime time shows that don’t come from here. If CTV and Global want to continue to make fortunes on non-Canadian shows, then let them if it’s funding indigenous programming. That’ll also take our hands out of the pockets of the taxpayer and Jim Shaw, so nobody gets to complain anymore – and maybe we get back to doing what we’re supposed to do.
Not much for ten minutes thought I agree, but it’s a start. And as for who takes it to them – well we’ve all got MPs. I had mine get me face time with Paul Martin cause I bought him lunch at Red Lobster for crying out loud – and Martin’s first questions were how much money I wanted and if I’d contributed to a political party lately.
The most important thing is that we’ve got to stop being the whipping boy for this industry and we’ve got to make people see it’s the execs running the system who are incompetent not the ones writing, directing and starring in the shows. God, we’ve got people who make the majority of their money by selling Video on Demand porn and ringtones deciding our cultural policy. How f***ed is that!?
I was much too young to work in the '70's, let alone sweat Canadian cultural policy. But I did work in L.A. in the '90's trying to set up co-productions. We would package an American script with one of the few bankable Canadian directors available to work on commercial projects, and go and shoot up in Quebec. We succeeded in making some very bad movies that way, and a few okay ones. None of them had anything in the way of Canadian cultural content. How would they, with an American script and an American producer?
There was always a Canadian co-producer who qualified for the Cancon rules. But he didn't originate the project. Except one guy I worked for was a Dutch national with a Canadian permanent resident card who lived in Palos Verdes. For Cancon purposes he was the Canadian co-producer. Guess how Canadian our projects were.
There's nothing wrong with making American movies in Canada. I'm all in favor of CAVCO, the program that subsidizes productions without Canadian content. It keeps our technicians busy, and busy technicians become good.
But if you are asking taxpayers to kick in their hard-earned dollars to support Canadian cinema and TV, they damn well ought to get Canadian cinema and TV.
I'm inclined to say that of all the "points," the ones that really most need to be Canadian are the points for writers. If you have a script with a Canadian sensibility, an American director is not going to make it any less Canadian. An American actor is not going to make it less Canadian, unless you're asking him to fake an Ottawa Valley accent.
But the real problem isn't American writers. It's the producers down in L.A. who are going to try really hard to erase any Canadian content from the movies or TV shows they're making, so they can sell them into the US more easily. US distributors and TV networks persist in the notion that Americans won't watch anything set in Canada. On Naked Josh, we couldn't say the word "Montreal."
You can, however, push back. We never said "Montréal," but we refused to change signage. Eric lived above Ciné L'Amour. The stop signs said "Arrêt". We had Frenchie characters.
American producers, obviously, are not going to push back. They'll just set everything in Generic North American City. You know, the one where everyone has New York accents and there are snow-capped mountains in the background?
I hate having to go to Generic North American City. Montreal has spectacular landmarks. Even Toronto has the occasional spot of architecture worth showing. Writing a good movie is all about the specifics. I don't think American viewers have a prejudice about Canada. I think American distribs still have a prejudice against crappy, low-budget Cancon shows from the old 8/10 days.
No society can afford to have its culture made somewhere else. Not even by expats.
Jim, thanks for raising your voice. Now all you readers out there in Canuckistan: what are you doing to raise your voices? Remember, all you have to do is surf to the CRTC site and click on the "2007-70" button and add your two cents.
Hey, for that matter: all you American readers, feel free to chip in at the CRTC, too. Do you want to see more Generic North American City movies coming out of Canada? Or do you want to see more stories about Canadians?
Jim Henshaw has a passionate and righteous post on his blog ,The Legion of Decency. He, too, thinks the two-pronged approach the CRTC is proposing will be a disaster. Maple syrup to the left, thank you, American in all but points productions to the right, thank you.
Best quote: "A country that does not tell its own stories has no soul."
Oh, and I screwed up the post urging you to comment to the CRTC. You have to click the button for 2007-70, not the one for 2007-10. It would help if the buttons told you what you were commenting on, but then, why encourage people to comment? So if you commented before, and have a copy, please upload it to the right button on the CRTC's website.
We finished TWELVE WAYS TO SAY I'M SORRY today. Whee!
And not a week too soon. We'll be sneak previewing next Friday, at the Comedia Festival in Montreal. We're airing in an hour of Bravo!FACT shorts at 5 pm at Monument National (1182 St. Laurent) next Friday. There will be yummies afterwards, and you can meet Judy Gladstone, who runs the Bravo!FACT program. Seating is first come first served.
Q. I have just finished a spec script for "House" where the teaser is for the A story, but Act One opens in the clinic and flows into the B story. The A story comes in about three minutes into the Act. In reviewing "House" episodes, almost all of them have the beginning of Act One flow from the teaser. I want to submit the script for some contests, but I wonder if I should rework it so the A story comes in right away? It's pretty tight the way it's written, and all three story lines--A, B, and C--are linked thematically, but if you think it's a definite "no no" to wait that long to get back to the A story, I'll rework it.
You have obviously done your homework. Good work! And good attitude, too.
If the teaser usually flows into the first act in HOUSE, then that's what you want to do for your HOUSE spec. It's great that your script is tight now, but I'm sure you can make it tight the other way. Right? That's the hard work of writing a spec script.
Generally, in most shows, you wouldn't start with a B story. By starting act one with certain events, you're privileging them. You're telling the audience this is the important story. If it later turns out to be the B story, the audience may be confused.
That said, you have to trust your gut. There might be a circumstance where starting with your B story makes sense. The concept of A and B stories is only there to help you tell good stories. Leading the audience where you want them to go -- and where they will feel satisfied going -- is far more important than screenwriting theory.
The WGC sent out a letter about the CRTC proposal that's worth reprinting in its entirety:
We know writers are never far away from their computers and this is a good thing because you need to send e-mails/faxes/letters to your Member of Parliament and the CRTC about the CRTC Task Force’s Report on the Canadian Television Fund (CTF). Nothing in this report is good news for writers. In fact, this report directly attacks your ability to work as a writer in this country.
The Report makes a number of ill-conceived and ill-informed recommendations, but the main thrust is that CTF (currently a public/private partnership) should be divided into two separate pools – one being the Heritage contribution of $100 million, renewable annually, and the other being the $130 million or so from the Broadcast Distribution Undertakings (BDU’s) – ie, the cable/satellite companies.
The Heritage pool will become the "cultural" fund – aka "must do Canadian stuff.” A producer will still need all ten Canadian content points to access this money. Also, development funds will come out of this smaller pool of $100 million whereas, in the past, it was a percentage of the full $230 million. The Heritage pool will also pay for minority groups’ TV projects – aboriginal films, projects funded by the educational broadcasters, French outside ofQuebec, etc. The CBC's guaranteed envelope will also come out of the Heritage pool rather than of the total $230 million CTF.
The BDU pool – $130 million – will be "a more flexible and market-oriented private sector funding stream,” which is supposedly devoted to funding “hits.” The flexibility they’re talking about is in the form of lowered Canadian content points, specifically a drop from 10 points to 8. This means either the writer or the director (worth 2 points each) or one of the top two leads (worth 1 point each), do NOT have to be Canadian. Canadian producers will now have the “flexibility” to pre-sell their program to an American broadcaster, who can insist on an American writer. This isn’t a new phenomenon. A lot of our “industrial” production works this way. What’s new is that for the first time, these programs would be eligible for CTF funds. Now, American writers will be charged with writing programs that “reflect Canadian experiences.” – CTF’s mandate. And our regulator is supporting this policy change.
The CRTC has given the industry a July 27, 2007 deadline to file comments on these proposed changes to the CTF. In the WGC’s official response we are requesting that at the very least, a public proceeding to give everyone an opportunity to hear the dissenting opinions on the CTF. We’d also like to see factual evidence to back up the report’s assumptions. Because we don’t think there is any. Programs written by, directed by and starring Canadians do better in the ratings than the “any-town-USA” stuff the broadcasters/cable operators are shilling.
You can help fight for your livelihood by e-mailing your comments on the CRTC’s Report on the CTF to the CRTC through the Commission’s web site at www.crtc.gc.ca. Click on E-Pass in the top menu, then click on participate in a CRTC public proceeding, then find the sentence to submit a comment related to a public proceeding and click on the word “form.” Then you scroll down to 2007-70, click on it and submit your comments. Attached you will find a copy of the Public Notice CRTC 2007-10 for your review. Also attached is a sample letter to the CRTC that you may choose to use. We have put both documents as well as a copy of the Report on our web-site for your information (all three are available in the WGC Members' Only section).
DMc had an even more than usually incisive column a couple days ago about the latest proposal from the CRTC. (Those of you outside Canuckistan can skip this post, unless you're interested in Comparative Cultural Policy.)
I missed one very important part. As someone wrote to me:
The main thrust of the CRTC report is that the CTF should be divided in two– the Heritage contribution of $100 million, renewable annually, and the Broadcast Distribution Undertakings’ (BDU) required contribution of 5% of revenue which is about $130 million. The report makes a clear distinction about which projects should be funded from which stream of money. Also there a whole bunch of new governance provisions, etc. for the BDUs’ portion. It is a return to our murky past with different streams of funding and two different boards and policies.
See what happens when I read too quickly?
This is indeed a disaster. Because it's a return to "bureaucrats decide what makes a program Canadian." So the ridiculous, hamfisted values of "visibly Canadian" (you know, wheat and beavers) will rear its ugly head. Also, inevitably, a two fund system will mean one favored fund and one idiot cousin. Wonder which will be which, hmm? The "commercial" fund or the "100% Canadian" fund? It'll be the wild west fighting over the "commercial" fund, while Canadian producers fight over the scraps tossed by Heritage. Feh and fie.
I'm a stout supporter (a little too stout after visiting my parents) of Canada supporting its cultural industries for all sorts of reasons. Like Denis, I am also against regulating what flavor of culture Canada supports. The government is terrible at deciding what sort of culture the public wants; generally it doesn't try, and instead decides what sort of culture the public should want. This leads to a stagnant, politically correct government-supported cinema -- you know, tragic stories of alcohol-fuelled incest in dying fishing towns. Films about how Life is Bad for the Natives.
I think the best cultural policy is to make it easier to produce films by Canadian creative people, and then get out of the way. That means percentage subsidies for Canadian films (and for marketing those films; and requirements that Canadian broadcasters get a certain level of ratings for Canadian content TV drama.
(You can't insist merely on a certain number of hours, or broacasters will air the cheapest possible dramas, and hang the quality. See Train 48.)
If you have a "blind" cultural policy, what do you get? Corner Gas and Trailer Park Boys and Slings and Arrows. In case you've been living in a wikiup, Corner Gas is a hilarious comedy about a bunch of goofy characters hanging around a truckstop and diner in Saskatchewan. It regularly pulls in over a million viewers, and got a US deal recently. TPB is a kind of obnoxious comedy about a bunch of drunk, stoned, losers hanging around a trailer park. It isn't for everyone, but its fans are rabid.
Neither of these would have ever been approved by a government employee looking to promote Canadian culture. (Slings and Arrows, sure, in a hot second.) They're not about Canadian Culture.
They just are Canadian culture.
Of the French Canadian movies I've seen, the ones that stand out aren't the loving adaptations of French Canadian novels, like The Survenant, or the Big Idea films of Denys Arcand. They're Les Boys -- your basic sports movie about lovable misfits who don't stand a chance in the big hockey game -- and Horloge Biologique -- a comedy about three guys whose girlfriends all want to get pregnant, and how it freaks them out. They stand out because they are unapologetic. They're good stories well told about the sorts of people the filmmakers know.
I'm not a believer in Ringo Starr's dictum (roughly, "Everything government touches turns to crap"). But I don't think government can dictate what culture is. Culture is a living thing. It will surprise you. Governments aren't good at surprises.
I hope the CRTC ditches the two-prong approach. What do you think?
You can comment directly to the CRTC using this link. Click on the button for 2007-70 and follow the instructions...
UPDATE: I screwed up. It's 2007-70, not 2007-10. Thanks, Dix.
Q. I've been writing for three years and have finally deemed myself ready to look for an agent. Following your advice, I am using IMDBpro to look for the youngest, hungriest agents at all the guild signatory agencies. My logic flows thusly: the agent with the shortest client list is probably the youngest/hungriest. Is this reasonable?
Not necessarily. The late Patricia McQueeney had only one client: Harrison Ford. The bigger your clients, the more service they expect and need, and the fewer you need to support yourself. You have to look at who the clients are. If they have big credits, the agent may be too big for someone who's starting out. A junior agent might have a lot of clients she's trying to find breaks for; she needs a lot because she's making small commissions from each of them.
Q. And secondly: I notice that many agents rep not just writers but also directors, actors, visual effects artists, etc. Do I want an agent like this, who reps multiple kinds of talent, or should I avoid these in favor of strictly literary agents?
Many good writer agents rep directors as well. That's fine: for their directing clients they will be taking meetings with the same sort of producers and execs that you want them to be meeting for your own benefit. I got my manager because my agent was visiting LA with her top directing client; and during negotiations on a certain film I worked on, it was extremely helpful that she repped the director on the film, too. If your agent reps directors, she can give your scripts to those directors, which might help you get them set up.
A smaller agent might rep directors and actors as well; agents at bigger agencies will usually specialize. I don't think that having an agent with a big acting roster helps you as much as a purely writer/director agent; and an agent who reps a lot of below-the-line talent (visual effects artists, etc.) may not be focusing where you need her to focus.
Spent a few hours with a sound guy doing the sound editing on my short. He had a lot of proposed audio slotted in -- stings and whooshes, background noises, ambient sounds. I spent a couple hours responding to them -- this one I liked, this one is no good, this one needs to be less swishy and more whooshy. And we did some fun little audio gags, like where the film freeze-frames, letting the score slow down to a halt, rather than just cutting out.
What amazes me is that this all took about two hours. Based on his amazing speed while I was in the room with him, I'm going to guess all the sound editing on this film will take up maybe eight hours.
I spent three months building the sound on my student film back in the day, cutting and splicing bits of mag film. Sure, that was a longer film, but man! Just to take the soundtrack-slows-down gag I mentioned -- that we did in about a minute. In my student days I would have had to set up a tape recorder, then played back the soundtrack on another tape player, and then physically slowed it down. Then dub that to mag film. Then splice it in. And if that didn't work, doing it again.
I'm feeling very good about the film. Some of the sound problems I thought were going to be serious just went away. ("Oh yeah, the bar upstairs was only on the boom mike track, not the wireless mikes. So we just used the wireless mikes.") While sound guys are always bitching that directors ignore their complaints on set ("we'll fix it in post"), my impression is that I could have ignored our sound guy a little more. He was doing a better job than he realized.
Tomorrow we're going into the mix. End of the day, our film is ... done!
Q. And then what?
Then we take it to a billion festivals. And air it on Bravo in Canada. And see if any networks in the States want it.
Eventually it will hopefully wind up on Moviola, or some other paying short film venue on the Net. And y'all can see it!
Q. I kept wondering how "The Office" fits into your breakdown of acts and storylines. It seems very nontraditional in so many ways...First off, I can only seem to find a very obvious A and B storylines--no C. And the acts--they don't seem to be clearly defined beyond the cold opening and Act1.
Acts are easy to find on television. It's not a conceptual thing. When they cut to a commercial, that's the end of the act. If they only cut once, you have two act comedy. If they cut twice, it's three acts.
Likewise, if you're finding only A and B storylines, then maybe that's all they have. There's no law says you have to have C stories. An A and a B give you the ability to cut out of one story and go to another. Then you can give your secondary characters things that they want, which interfere in interesting ways with the protagonists of the A and B stories getting what they want ... and now you have an episode.
I think there's an interesting trend away from defining A and B stories too strictly. A show like FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS tracks all its characters as they move through their overall character arcs for the season. When two characters come across each other, are those two stories weaving together? Or is the interweaving the story itself?
I think you can overthink storytelling. It's good to know what your A and B stories are so you know that you have them, and so you can make sure something interesting is happening in every act. But the point is to keep things moving along, not to conform to some theoretical notion of structure.
Just bear in mind that a loose show like FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS is actually much harder to write than a more traditional show like LAW AND ORDER. Free verse was always harder to write well than rhymed verse.
If you want to see what I look like pitching in front of an audience, and you're in Montreal on the 19th, check out the Just for Pitching event at noon at the Hyatt Regency. I'll be pitching a sexy comedy called ... well come to the event and you'll see!
The Writers Guild of Canada has joined ACTRA against the CRTC's recommendations for the Canadian Television Fund, and in a Tuesday release accused the regulator of selling out Canadian talent in order to "placate Shaw and Videotron."
The WGC objects to the suggestion in the report, released late last week, that the minimum CAVCO requirement for primetime content backed by CTF should be lowered to 8 out of 10 points, from 10 out of 10. The change would make it possible for CTF-funded productions to be made without a Canadian director, writer or lead actor and drew a similar rebuke from ACTRA on Tuesday
(For those of you in the States, to access the hefty CAVCO subsidy for "Cancon" -- Canadian content -- movies and TV, you need a certain number of points. You get points for each Canadian getting a creative credit -- writer, director, editor, composer, star, etc.)
I'm of two minds about this one.
On the one hand, as a guy who's worked in production companies, trying to set up movies, I can see how the 10 out of 10 points constraint makes it extremely difficult to make shows that will sell overseas. There are very few Canadian actors who are bankable stars. As DMc remarks, there are very few Canadian directors who are bankable.
And, frankly, a lot of Canadian screenwriters aren't writing marketable material. Or at least, they didn't as recently as 1999. As a development exec, I used to call up Canadian agents and ask for their best scripts. I would get a pile of aimless dramadies about lovable losers; I never got anything with a good hook.
On the other hand, how do we develop bankable actors, writers and directors if we give the top jobs away to Americans? An 8 out of 10 requirement means someone's going to be left out in the cold. And then producers will be able to say, truthfully, "we can't cast a Canadian star, there aren't any." Already my actor friends in Montreal complain they can never get a role with more than 5 lines on the many American pictures that shoot there. So I don't think I'm being purely selfish when I agree with the points the WGC makes in their press release (it's a PDF), Vote of No Confidence for Canadian Talent.
There ought to be some middle ground. You could have two levels of support: 100% for shows with 10 out of 10 points, say 60% for 8 out of 10. That would encourage 10 out of 10 productions. But it wouldn't shut out producers that need one American star, or star director, in order to finance their picture, or who have a great US script they want to shoot in Canada.
PS: In the same issue,
Revenues for private, conventional casters were flat at $2.2 billion in 2006, unchanged from the year before, while profits fell 62.5% to just over $90 million, the first time in 15 years that that particular segment has made less than $100 million, according to a study released on Wednesday.
Hmmm. Then why did CTV just pay hunks of money to buy CHUM, and why did Rogers just buy the CityTV channels? It's not possible the networks are crying poor again, is it?
PPS: There is a useful list of famous or at least semi-known Canadian actors at Northern Stars; thanks Steve. However while I would say Rachel McAdams is an enormous talent, is she really bankable? That is, does she open a movie? Has she ever opened a movie? I'm inclined to say no.
We saw TRANSFORMERS. It's not just a high-octane action movie about alien robots. It's also an fun comedy about a kid who gets his first car, only to discover it is an alien robot.
I have to say it is the best movie I've ever seen that was based on a series of action figures. (And I say this as one of the writers of a FoxKids series that was created largely to sell action figures.) Who knew Michael Bay could direct actors?
I wonder if John Rogers will tell us how his draft of the script differs from the final shooting script. Because I could have sworn the movie had his "voice."
We watched MUSIC AND LYRICS last night. It's an amusing bit of fluff with no plot and very witty dialog. (The plot has the problems you often get with a writer / director -- no one with the power to say, "Oh, come on! Come up with something more convincing. The high quality of the dialog makes me think they had a real writer in to punch up the dialog. Whoever he is, he's good.)
What I find interesting is how adorable Drew Barrymore's character is. When you think about it, her character is really an annoying person: demanding, high-strung, pretentious. But Drew is utterly charming.
If you think about it, Sally in WHEN HARRY MET SALLY is no prize, either. But because she's Meg Ryan, you see what Harry sees in her.
Is the lesson here that you can write a main character to be irritating, and then cast a professionally adorable actress (Rachel McAdams!), and she'll bring it off? Is there a useful tension between the character as written and as played?
If you write your main character adorable, and then cast someone adorable, do you get such a helping of adorableness that the audience's head explodes?
Certainly it's safer to write your main character the way you want her to be perceived. You can have a real problem if you write her annoying and the actress plays her the way she's written -- cf. THE SURE THING.
I'd still be inclined to write my main character adorable (if that's what she's supposed to be). That's what I've done with my character Kiki Wilder in my feature spec THE ALTERNATIVE. And if I get to direct it, I'll cast an adorable actress -- and tell her to relax.
But it makes me wonder: is it better to write her edgy and then cast her soft?
I was taped this afternoon by phone for tonight's Stroumbo Show, evangelizing as usual about the side benefits of supporting culture. I'll be on somewhere around the beginning of the second hour, I think. The Stroumbo Show is 9-11 Sundays on CJAD in Montreal and CFRB in the Big Smoke. If you listen, let me know if I sound too much like a wild-eyed fanatic, eh?