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



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Sunday, December 30, 2007

As you probably know, the WGA has done a side deal with David Letterman's company, Worldwide Pants. WP gets its writers back; the WGA gets everything it was asking the AMPTP for.

Apparently some feature writers are miffed. They feel that if they're out of work, everybody should be out of work, I guess.

This seems selfish and short sighted. The more side deals AMPTP members do, the harder it becomes for the others not to grant the WGA the terms it's asking for. Who wants to be the company sitting at home with the sniffles while the other kids play?

The AMPTP isn't really a monolith, after all. NBC doesn't share revenues with CBS, nor do their parent companies. Putting Letterman back on the air -- not only with writers, but with star guests who may not be willing to cross a picket line for Leno -- doesn't help anyone but CBS.

As I read in the NY Times:
Every host who doesn’t work for CBS — like Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert — will now face the prospect of doing improv while Mr. Letterman is doing a nightly monologue and Top 10 list composed by his usual complement of writers. Beyond those advantages, the two CBS shows are expected to be able to line up far more impressive lists of guests. That’s because the Screen Actors Guild, which is supporting the writers, is explicitly directing its members — including every A-list movie and television star — to appear on the CBS shows. Alan Rosenberg, president of the actors’ union, issued a statement saying that his members “will be happy” to appear on the Letterman and Ferguson shows “with union writers at work and without crossing WGA picket lines.”
I'm not a Letterman fan myself, but you can bet I'll be watching on the 2nd. Now if only Jon Stewart can convince whoever owns his show to do the same deal, I can have my Daily Show back.

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Lisa never liked the hulking 27" cathode ray tube TV that a friend was kind enough to leave with us, because seen sideways it looked like a bunker, and sideways is the view you see coming in. So that was our excuse to upgrade to a 32" Sony Bravia flat panel LCD TV.

I've been a fan of Sony ever since the Sony TV I had in West LA did a face plant off the table during the 1991 Northridge quake... and survived without a problem. They get the details right. The hardware is well designed (down to, thank you, a headphone jack); the software is brilliant.

We fired up the box of BAND OF BROTHERS (Lisa's Chrismukkah prezzie to me), which I've only seen twice before... and I was blown away by the crispness of the details. I'd always liked the opening credits sequence, made up of old photos of the guys in Easy Company. This time I realized that all the old photos are aged, and scratched, and water-spotted, and folded. I'd seen it on my old TV, I guess, but somehow I hadn't really noticed it. Just wasn't enough detail. The blacks are darker, the pixels are invisible (at least till my eyes get used to 720p)... it's spectacularly pretty.

Of course this means I have to think about getting an HD PVR...

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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Q. I've optioned a book with the goal of turning it into a $10 million animated feature and I had a friend adapt it into a screenplay with the promise that he would be one of the first paid when we actually secured funding. We want to properly compensate him without breaking the budget. Is there a range that we should be looking at?
Okay, I'll bite. Bear in mind, I'm not an agent or a producer, and either of those will have differing opinions about what's "fair." This is a deal I would have felt good offering a first time screenwriter when I was a development exec.

"Funding" can mean two things. There's development funding, and production funding.

I would say $15,000-$20,000 payable out of the first development funding would be fair compensation for a first-time screenwriter who's written for nothing up front.

It should be agreed now that, should you get production financing, the deal will immediately be upgraded to a standard WGA deal. Your friend should get a production bonus of 2% of budget, capped at $250,000, reducible to 1% if your friend shares credit (or 0% if the writer doesn't get any credit). (Credit is arbitrated by the WGA in the case of disputes.) A 5% share of your gross revenues after recoupment of your expenses (5% of producers adjusted gross) would also be fair if your friend is making the project happen and investing his time on the if-come.

You're right to get the numbers negotiated now. Right now you can argue about slices of a hypothetical pie, and no one has cause to get mad. Once there's money coming in, you can destroy a friendship easily if one friend feels the other is taking advantage of a situation; and that can go either way. Maybe a great movie is worth losing a friend over. A development deal never is.

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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

One of the missions we have given ourselves, Lisa and I, is to come up with new show pitches. Particularly procedural pitches, because that's what CTV tells me they want.

It's hard to come up with new pitches, because all of the obvious, fertile territory is already under cultivation. You have to find the strip of creek bottom up in the mountains that has grown over. It is much easier when inspiration just comes to you. But I find myself coming up on a New Year with a bunch of pitches under option, but nothing to pitch. You always want to have something to pitch.

A movie is a story. It's easy enough to come up with a new movie idea; just come up with a new twist on an old story. It's easy enough to come up with the characters: just figure out what characters you need to tell your story.

A TV show is generally a family of characters. Ideally it is a family of characters who spend their time at a venue: a cop shop, a couple of apartments, the White House, NCC 1701. For a procedural show, it is ideally a family of characters who spend their time at a venue where stories regularly walk in the door: a law firm, a hospital, a restaurant, a hotel.

That's why there are so many shows about cops, lawyers and doctors: it is not too hard to come up with new episode pitches so long as people keep committing crimes, going to court and getting sick, in so many different ways. A great episodic episode needs more than a clever new crime, legal situation or ailment. But for a show to reach 100 episodes, you're going to have to hack some episodes out. If you don't have a venue where stories walk in the door, or an ongoing story arc, you're going to really have to work for every springboard.

So we're trying to think of venues where stories walk in the door that are not cop shops, law firms, courtrooms, hospitals, hotels or restaurants...

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Sunday, December 23, 2007

Q. A producer says he wants to hire me, but he's being vague about whether he can afford me. Meanwhile, I have an agent who is interested in repping me. I'd like a contract, and I'd like an agent to negotiate for me, but I'm afraid that will scare the producer off.
The only producers who can be "scared off" by contracts are those who plan not to pay you what they promised. And the only producers who will be scared off by a legit agent are those who want to rip you off.

Real producers deal with agents every time they hire a "piece of talent," as they say. Hire a director? Talk to his agent. Hire a writer? Talk to her agent. Hire a cinematographer? Agent. Etc. Of course they don't like it -- they'd rather negotiate against you, hungry inexperienced writer, than an experienced agent who's going to tell them, "C'mon, I know what people get for low budget non-union horror scripts on a $500,000 shooting budget. And that's not it."

(Note: I don't know what people get for non-union horror scripts on a $500,000 shooting budget. But then I'm not an agent.)

Personally I don't think any writer should work without an agent if she can get a legit agent. All an agent has to do is raise your fee 10% and they're free. Moreover, the producer can get mad at your agent, and not at you. I once tried to negotiate a deal myself, and the producer got mad at me and decamped. I don't regret not working with him -- he was trying to rip me off -- but I do regret that I didn't run it through a representative.

What's a legit agent? Any agent who's signatory with the WGA, in the States, or the WGC in Canada. (I imagine it's the same with the WGGB in Great Britain.) You do not need to be in the Guild to have a Guild-signatory agent. I was a non-union writer for years in LA, and all my agents were Guild-signatory. It just means they adhere to a code of conduct -- no "reading fees," etc. I also do not believe that any agent outside of LA or New York in the States, or outside of Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal in Canada, is worth the trouble.

Happy Saturnalia!

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Friday, December 21, 2007

The Toronto Public Library invites applications from Canadian screenwriters for a Screenwriter-in-Residence position. The residency is designed to encourage exchanges between the screenwriter and the community and requires 14 hours per week at the library for programming (scope to be determined), evaluation of submitted manuscripts, and one-on-one meetings with writers from the general public. The remaining time is available for the Screenwriter in Residence to work on his or her own project(s). The tenure of the position would be from April 21 to June 14, 2008, and the screenwriter would be located at the North York Central Library. Compensation for the two-month term is $8,000. Applications are due by January 25, 2008. Please see www.wgc.ca for information on how to apply and eligibility criteria.
That's about $70 an hour. Not bad for mentoring, huh? I bet you get an office, too.

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Q. When a movie is written primarily in English but certain scenes call for characters to speak in other languages, how is this usually denoted in a script? Assuming the writer and most of the people who would read the script only know English, would the writer just add parenthetical under the character?
Anything that is clear will work. I do one of two things:

When characters are speaking in a foreign language, and we're supposed to know what they're saying, but either (a) I don't know the language and/or (b) the audience won't be able to make anything out from the language, then I just put it in parentheses. For example Japanese.

Where some part of the audience might appreciate the original -- say the foreign language is French or Spanish -- and I can generate it myself, then I create another Final Draft "element" called "Subtitles," based on the Dialogue element. Subtitles is smaller type, sometimes a different color. I write the actual dialog in the foreign language, and put the translation in the subtitles.

That's what we did on BON COP / BAD COP, which was half in very funny French, and meant for both French and English audiences. It is also what I did on MEDIEVAL, my medieval zombie horror comedy. The undead knights were speaking Old Provençal for a bit, until they realized our heros spoke French; then they switched into Old French. Francophone audiences will be able to make some of the Old Provençal out, without really understanding it; they'll probably grasp most of the Old French. Non-francophones can just read the subtitles.

This technique allows for some fun throwaway jokes. In the horror comedy I'm writing right now, I have two French Canadian characters who say incredibly rude things in French to the other characters, who don't speak any French. The incredibly rude things don't get subtitles. Heh. You could do the same thing in the States, where all the Latinos would laugh at your Spanish jokes.

If I don't want the audience to know what the character is saying (unless they speak the language), then I just write the language and don't translate it.

Or you can just go back to the old school technique, where the Germans all speak English, but with posh accents.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Jonathan Handel has been blogging a lot lately at Digital Media Law about legal issues related to the strike. If you're looking for a relatively neutral point of view, focusing on the legal questions, check it out!

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Red Board informs me that:
David Milch will continue his Idea of the Writer Series at the WGA Theater, today, Wednesday, December 19 and Thursday, December 20 from 2:15 - 4:00 p.m. The theater is located at 135 S. Doheny Drive, Beverly Hills, CA. Admission is free and WGA membership is not required.
Go thou, and learn.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Could it be true??? Is Peter Jackson really going to produce two HOBBIT movies for New Line?

Now that's a Christmas present.

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A dear friend of mine writes:
My little teen comedy was set up with a company with independent financing (always uncertain, of course) supposedly to start pre-production in February. Well, we shall see. I'm jaded enough not to get excited till the cameras start rolling. And even then...
Here is a small secret of mine to surviving showbiz: celebrate your victories as they come. Showbiz is risky as hell. You never know for sure that you're going to be shooting until you're on set. And even then the financing can fall apart at the last minute.

If you wait until the film is in theaters, you'll be too exhausted to celebrate anything.

I used to get excited about things. Then I got jaded, and I never got excited about anything. An agent is reading a script, good, but what if they reject it? I'm going out with a spec, good, but what if no one says yes? My movie's in prep, great, but what if the financing falls through? What if I get dicked out of credit? What if what if what if?

Now I just buy myself a nice bottle of wine whenever I have an excuse to. (Don't worry, this works out to at most a couple bottles of wine a month, in a good month.)

My attitude is: celebrate good news when it comes, even if it is tentative, shaky good news. Because you'll mourn the defeats as they come, so why not enjoy the victories?

Oh, and, make sure your friends celebrate their victories. Don't be all Gore Vidal about it.

What victories can you celebrate this Chrismukkah season?

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Monday, December 17, 2007

From today's NYTimes:
The alliance “represents all the companies both individually and on a multiemployer basis,” Mr. Counter said. In all, about 350 production companies are represented by the alliance, whose stance is controlled by representatives of the big corporations.

Even if forced to bargain separately — and representatives from both sides said they expected the unions’ position to be challenged — the companies would remain free to deal through the alliance and would be permitted to let other companies monitor their separate talks, allowing them to remain on common ground.
Ask your congresspeople how it is not illegal collusion for the 6 media companies running the AMPTP to coordinate their strike strategy against the WGA. If General Motors, Chrysler and Ford all sat down at the table together against the UAW, that would beyond a doubt be illegal collusion. Ask your congresspeople how this isn't. And tell them you'd like your tv shows back.

You can easily find and email your Congressman here.

You can easily find and email your Senator here.

Here's what I wrote
Currently the AMPTP is refusing to negotiate with the Writer's Guild of America.

Why exactly is the AMPTP allowed to negotiate with the WGA at all? Why is this not collusion?

The strike would be settled already if the individual studios and networks were actually competing with each other, and negotiated with the WGA separately, the way the auto companies negotiate separately with the UAW.

I think you should investigate the AMPTP for illegal collusion.

I want my tv shows back!
You don't need to go into more detail than that. They just want to know how many people are on which side of the question.

UPDATE: Ryan asks how the WGA can negotiate 350 different deals.

They don't have to. They would agree with Worldwide Pants on a deal that gives them what they're asking for, or most of it. And then other producers can sign onto the same language.

Any producer that breaks ranks with the AMPTP will insist on a "most favored nations" clause that says that if anyone else gets a better deal, that producer's deal is improved accordingly. So there will only be one set of terms.

Also, if the WGA winds up signing with even 20 production companies, then the AMPTP will probably begin really-negotiating instead of posturing, and the strike will soon be over.

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The warmest winters I've ever spent were here in Montreal. Double glazed windows, oil heat... Our house in LA wasn't insulated worth a damn, and we shivered through February watching the rain wake up the brown land. In New York, as everyone knows, there is steam heat, but every radiator has been painted in the "on" position, so the only way to cool your overheated apartment is to open a window.

It's pretty out there this morning.

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Here's a rumor that David Letterman may sign a separate deal with the WGA. If his production company, Worldwide Pants, signs a deal with the WGA, giving them what they're asking for, then WGA writers can go back to work on his show. That also pulls the rug out from under the AMPTP, since Jon Stewart will follow suit. Once the WGA starts going back to work on a show by show basis, no one wants to be the network with no new content because you're waiting for Nick Counter to start negotiating in earnest.

And I don't think Letterman's network will want to refuse to air his show even if they feel he gave away the store to his writers. It's just too popular.

Let's say a prayer that this is really happening.

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We finally caught up with THE TUDORS on DVD. We had given up in frustration halfway through the season on the CBC. The plot lines didn't make any sense. Fine scenes, fine acting, utter confusion from scene to scene. I surmised that in cutting down the episodes from BBC length to CBC length -- let us say from 52 minutes to 44 minutes, though I can't vouch for the exact timings -- something important had got lost.

Well, now we know. THE TUDORS is very fine television on DVD. The episodes make perfect sense. The pacing is good too. Nothing jars. The episode we watched tonight built up to a satisfactory emotional climax. It was an entirely different show than the hacked-up episode we watched last month.

I'd love to talk with whoever edited this down, or whoever ordered her to do it this way, and ask why the CBC version was edited as it was.

When you have to cut down a complicated episode, the first thing you do is find the D story, if there is one. That's the least important story, the one that has few ramifications for the A story, and doesn't reflect theme. Cut that. There's most of your time savings.

A full hour show can have a D story. A 45 minute show probably shouldn't. Simple as that.

There is an obvious choice in episode 5. There's a plotline where a minor character goes off and has a gay affair with an episodic character, introduced for no reason I can make out except that someone wanted to bring teh gay. The entire plotline could have been cut with no damage to Henry's romance with Anne Boleyn or the the power politics, which are after all the point of making a show about Harry VIII.

If you need more savings, try to find some pageantry that can go. And sex scenes that go on longer than needed for story. Spectacle of any kind can go. Sure, it's production value. But the audience is tuning in for a story.

Whoever recut THE TUDORS (or ordered the actual editor how to recut it) got it exactly wrong, I feel. He started by trimming a little bit from all the scenes, throwing all the pacing off. He cut scene buttons. He cut key character moments. He left in the spectacle, the sex, the pageantry and teh entire gratuitous gay plot line.

And so, the episodes on CBC feel folded, spindled and mutilated. To the point where I actually fell asleep in the middle of one.

I'm going to take a wild guess that no writer was involved in the re-editing of these episodes. Which is a shame.

So how do you write for a series that you know is going to be cut down?

Simple. Almost any full-hour show you might right for, whether for the Beeb or for pay cable, has multiple story lines. Just make sure that the D story fits nicely on the plastic. Make sure that its connections with the other stories are thematic, rather than plot. Don't put any crucial information in the D story. That way when you have to kill it, you don't get blood on your carpet.

Make sure that whoever's re-editing the episodes knows what you have done.

If you can't be bothered -- say you are writing SOPRANOS for HBO, and you are more worried about groundbreaking TV than what it might look like re-edited and re-aired for a conventional network -- then make darn sure that at least one of the original writing staff, and ideally the showrunner, is present for the re-editing sessions.

Somehow I don't think that happened here.

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Saturday, December 15, 2007

Q. Has anyone had any luck querying since the strike started? I've had a couple agents tell me they aren't reading queries right now. I'm not sure whether to believe the strike is a good time for new writers to break in, or the opposite.
Agents can't sell a script to a WGA signatory company. So I could see that they might not be excited to read a script they can't sell. On the other hand I would have thought they would want to get a jump on the spec script market. Anybody else have a sense for whether agents are reading or not reading right now?

(Of course December is never a good month to get an agent to read anything, what with Chrismukkah and all.)

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Friday, December 14, 2007

If you get Bravo! network (the Canadian one, not the US one), you can record a bunch of shorts, including my film 12 WAYS TO SAY "I'M SORRY", starting at 7:30 pm.

You can also watch it on Citytv Toronto on December 15 at 7:30 pm and December 20 at 4:30 pm local time; and on A-Channel Barrie, London and Ottawa, December 18 at 8:30 pm local time, and on A-Channel Victoria December 22 at 6:00 pm local time.

Thanks for tuning in!

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The WGC recently won representation of animation writers, I believe in the last round of contract negotiations. That's one area we're ahead of the WGA.

Here are two interesting blog posts from United Hollywood, on why the WGA must not give up their demand to rep animation and reality writers, and a reality writer explaining why it's a lie that reality writers have "chosen" not to belong to the WGA.

The simplest explanation why the WGA must not give up on animation writers: because more and more movies are going to be animation. Think BEOWULF. Technically that was animation -- and was written on a non-WGA contract. Personally I thought the crap animation and videogame-quality rotoscoping seriously distracted from what might have been a reasonably cool live action movie. But animation is going to get better and better, and who knows if in a decade, any fantasy movies will be shot "live action."

A big chunk of the AMPTP's effort during this strike has been to identify where the movie and TV industries are going -- CGI animation, internet distribution -- and then get a contract that excludes the future. Think of the US policy towards the Indians. Keep making deals where the Indians accept less territory, then once they're weakened, break the deal and make another deal for even less territory. The AMPTP wants us all on the rez.

But it seems clear from how united the membership is -- with support from all over the industry -- that the WGA isn't interested in the plague blankets. And at some point, the shareholders will tell the AMPTP to come to its senses and accept its creative partners as real stakeholders.

(incidentally, the Huffington Post has an interesting post asking why exactly the AMPTP gets to negotiate with the WGA at all? Isn't that industry collusion? Isn't that illegal?)

What can you do? Don't buy any DVD's this Christmas. (American ones, anyway.) Buy videogames, mp3's, Blackberries, whatever you like. Just don't buy anything from the AMPTP. The worse their bottom line, the sooner they come around.

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Here's another reason why you should be reading the United Hollywood Blog, aside from it's your strike news hq:

The Idea of the Writer: Business Model Discussion with David Milch

12/12 and 12/13, 2:15-4 pm, at the WGA Theater: 135 S. Doheny Dr. Beverly Hills, CA 90211

David Milch will host two days of discussion, focused on creating a new, participatory business model for writers. Please remember that parking at the theater is limited, and available on a first come, first served basis.
That's David Milch, baby. Talking about how writers can get a piece of the action by not giving it up in the first place.

UPDATE: Note that this event now starts at 2:15! Thanks, Scott!

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There are 967 customer reviews on Amazon for Tuscan Whole Milk, 128 fl. oz..

THIS is what happens when people can't get their Jon Stewart.

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I don't live in the same town as all the networks. In Canada that's possible because the Canadian government supports the arts regionally -- there's some money to develop in Ontario, some to develop in Saskatchewan, some for Québec, etc. Likewise, production support.

But you can't count on it to come to you. You have to make a pilgrimage to the money. I try to go whenever there's something fun happening. I'm heading up to Toronto tomorrow for a CFC party and a WGC party and another private party. Good way to catch up with everybody, see my friends, and remind people I exist. Then on Friday, a producer and director are organizing a reading of a script I wrote for them, so I'll get to hear what works and what doesn't. That's always exciting.

Quite a bit of show business is over the phone and Internet. I know an agent who spent an entire month in Aspen during an LA heat wave, pretending he was suffering too. He just had his phones forwarded. No one knew.

But you have to physically be there every now and then, or you fall off the radar. My friend J had already had lunch with everybody he was talking to on the phone.

It's harder to live outside the epicenter when you're in the American side of the biz, and it's harder in either industry when you're unknown. In either case you really don't want to miss an opportunity to meet people and make friends. You need to absorb the feeling of the biz -- the sensibility that enables you to match up a story against what you know people are looking for and go, "Naaaaah, that's just not going to happen."

Success in show business is maybe 30% talent and 30% craft ... the rest is actually getting out there. You have talent, and you can learn craft ... but getting out there is your job too.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

In case you're wondering where the AMPTP would like to go in all this, MTV recently reduced health benefits for its "permalancers" -- un-unionized workers who are hired as freelancers to work permanently. They just walked out to protect the benefits cuts.

Ultimately the WGA is not only striking over residuals cuts. They are striking to protect everything they have won over the past fifty years. Current management attitude is "you'll take what we give you and you'll thank us for it." Their goal in this strike is to break the union. If they had their way, there would be no minimums and no health benefits ... just like it is for MTV.

Some members of the craft unions wish the WGA would cave so they could go back to work. "We don't get residuals" they say. Actually, they do -- 55% of their health benefits come from residuals. The truth is the AMPTP would like to dispense with both residuals and health benefits for writers and everybody else. If the WGA caves, SAG and the DGA won't be seeing much from the Internet either.

It's a short-sighted attitude. I've written before how residuals keep experienced writers like Marc Cherry and David Chase in the business during dry spells, which can go on for years. Health benefits keep them and their families from having to panic over health problems. Paying fairly, protecting workers from health disasters, and allowing employees to share in the successes helps cultivate a pool of crafted employees.

But the AMPTP is not being led by the people who hire the most WGA members. It's being led by the ones who have the fewest scripted programs. The AMPTP has set itself up so that the entity with the least to lose -- say Time Warner -- can veto a deal that the others would be willing to agree to. That's quite a bit of moral hazard, especially since a strike would leave some studios crippled enough that Time Warner can buy them up cheap afterwards.

In the old days, after a strike went on for long enough, Lew Wasserman walked into the negotiating room and told the studios to get off their high horse and cut a deal. The WGA will stand firm because it has to -- there's no future in giving in to terrorism. The AMPTP seriously needs its heads conked together by someone, or we're going to lose a season of TV and maybe even a summer of movies. That doesn't help anybody.

Who's going to conk the heads? Maybe advertisers. Here's a page of links to campaigns to let advertisers know you're sick of management's greedy attitude that's robbing you of your TV shows. Nothing will convince the AMPTP to stop posturing and start really negotiating like a bunch of advertisers asking for their money back.

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Monday, December 10, 2007

That's a good morning's work.

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Sunday, December 09, 2007

Here's a rundown of the hottest as-yet-unproduced screenplays of 2007.. Worth checking out.

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Saturday, December 08, 2007

Not having studied acting formally, this line in this post gave me pause:

"In acting class, you learn to break down a script by finding the verb for each line. In a well written script, there always is one. If you can't find it, as an actor, you have to make one up."

Could you elaborate a bit, Alex?
John Badham talks about this in his book I'LL BE IN MY TRAILER, which is the best book on directing actors I've ever read. I trained in Meisner Technique (an offshoot of the Stanislavski method) with Joanne Baron for a couple of years in order to learn to write and direct better. One of the things you learn as an actor is that with each line, you should be doing something. Overall you have an objective in a scene: something you are trying to do. Usually it is something you're trying to get from another character in the scene. It can be abstract like praise ("I want Rachel to give me praise for my accomplishments") or concrete ("Get her to give my that bottle").

But as you break down a script, you identify an action that goes with each line. "I am insulting her." "I am begging for forgiveness." "I am seducing her." "I am scaring her."

Since the lines of dialog which the actors are breaking down are coming from you, the writer, you should also have an action in mind for each piece of dialog.

A single word could be a single action; or an action could be several sentences. It's probably rare for an action to be more than three sentences long, say, unless it's a long explanation or a soliloquy.

The words in your dialog are the muscle; without the bones of the actions underlying them, they have nothing to grab hold of.

You almost certainly have actions in most of your dialog already. But identifying them explicitly is a great exercise for making your dialog stronger, and seeing how you can clarify it or spice it up.

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

Q. I am from India.

I have written, directed, produced, camera operated, edited and acted in a 110 minutes documentary feature.

I'll be soon completing my MBA.

I want to work as an Executive Assistant to VP in Hollywood.

What is the salary I should expect for the post of Executive Assistant?
First of all, I think it's great that you're willing to work as an assistant. You're right that a documentary feature and an MBA aren't enough to walk into an above-entry-level job in Ho'wood, especially when you're from overseas. You need connections, and a sense of the industry, and working as an assistant (especially in an agency) is a great way to get those.

I have no idea what an assistant makes, but there are employment agencies that specialize in show business. (Maybe my readers can fill me in which are active.) They will know. I don't think anyone gets a job from the classifieds in VARIETY or THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER, but employment agencies wouldn't be in business if they didn't fill jobs. I never got a permanent job from an employment agency, but I did get a bunch of temp jobs here and there in the biz. Some of them were really lousy (the billing department at Disney?) but some of them could have turned into something permanent (assistant to the video marketing director at New Line?) if I'd wanted to work in a big company. At any rate, you need a foot in the door.

Right now, of course, is the worst imaginable time to try to get work in show business, because so many people are laid off. But God willing the Axis of Six will come to their senses and offer the writers a fair-ish deal and everyone will be working overtime to make up for lost time.

There's also EntertainmentCareers.net and ShowBizJobs.com, which should have listings; though again, who knows if people actually get jobs out of them. Almost all jobs in showbiz are filled through relationships.

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I got a note on a script a while back that it was too "talky."

This can be a frustrating note early in your craft. "But CLERKS is talky as all get out!" you say, "That's part of the fun of it. And look at Shakespeare. Big whacking chunks of solid text. And he's won more Oscars than you can shake a stick at."

And then you grump and go back to the script and cut a bunch of lines, and now people just think your script is dull. What happened?

A movie can be full of talk. But that's not what makes it talky.

What makes a movie feel talky is that we don't care about the talk. The problem with my script, the reason I was getting the note, was that the characters were talking undramatically. They weren't trying to get things from each other. They were not in conflict with each other.

Everything a character says in a movie should come out of that character wanting something from another character. You should always be able to think of a verb to describe what that character is doing by speaking: asking, demanding, probing, deflecting, misleading, deceiving, explaining, selling, seducing, rejecting, insulting, scaring, soothing.

In acting class, you learn to break down a script by finding the verb for each line. In a well written script, there always is one. If you can't find it, as an actor, you have to make one up.

A script becomes talky when the verbs get mushy. If it is not clear what each character is doing with their talk, then the talk becomes tiresome.

A script is also talky when the characters are not distinct enough. Then it feels like the same person is talking all the time. The nature of the verb is what creates character. A shy character is often going to be covering, or avoiding. An extrovert might often be selling. A liar might be trying to charm another character, or to insult them so they are off balance, or to make them feel guilty. A scene where one person is selling and the other is avoiding is naturally dramatic.

Another way to phrase it is: dramatic characters are defined by what they do onscreen, in both action and dialog. Too many beginners think that their characters "are" a certain way when they walk onto the screen. But they really aren't anything until they start doing something.

Note that the verbs can be subtle. A character can be telling an irrelevant story as a means of avoiding responding to a question. Or to suss out the nature of another character, by their response to it. Or to seduce somebody. Or to scare them. The verb does not have to be related to the literal meaning of what the character is saying.

In boring dialog, people say what they mean: she tells him she wants him. In crafty dialog, they say one thing in order to do something else: she warns him that the neighborhood is dangerous at night so that he will sleep over so she can seduce him -- and wind up doing something unintended -- she embarrasses herself.

In good dialog, what each character is literally saying is at odds with what he is trying to do by saying it. But we get exactly what he's up to. In great dialog, we understand what he's saying, what he's trying to do, and what he's actually doing, all at once. His words, his goal, and his results, are all different, yet we clearly see all of them.

One of the pleasures in watching well-crafted drama is decoding what's going on for ourselves, when the characters themselves don't see it.

(To wax philosophical for a moment: all young mammals play -- as a way of learning what they're supposed to be doing when they grow up. Lion cubs play fight. Chimp babies climb for fun. We watch movies and TV in the same way -- to practice decoding the social world around us, to model what we'd do in similar situations, to hone our own social skills. If there's nothing to decode, the drama lacks "play." If it's too hard to decode -- if it's murky or mushy -- then it's no fun either and we just feel frustrated. Great dialog shows us characters who resonate with us because we know people like that -- and then gives us a window into those people, so when we see the people we know who are like that, we feel we know them better.)

(Of course, sometimes you need your characters to have an outburst of pent-up emotion. "I have had it with these motherf***ing. snakes on this motherf***ing plane!" is a great line. So is Rick's send-off to Ilsa on the tarmac. But if the whole script were like that, we'd be bored.)

So long as each character has a strong dramatic goal in talking, the script can have a yards of dialog without seeming too talky. And that's not always a bad thing. Dialog is the cheapest special effect there is.

I did go back and cut some of the less clever dialog. But mostly I tried to make the dialog more compelling by making sure each character was trying to do something by talking, rather than just running at the mouth. That seems to have done the trick.

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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Banff Worldwide Television Festival has opened its virtual ticket office. The first 100 registrants who haven't already come to Banff are eligible for the Rookie Rate. It's $1000, but that's a sight cheaper than the Early Bird rate of $1425 or the regular festival rate of $2125.

The Banff TV Festival is a great opportunity to meet Canadian producers and network executives. The first time I went, I had thirty set meetings in four days, not counting people I met in the halls and in the bar. Producers and network executives are more willing to meet you (being at Banff means you're serious), and there are also Face to Face programs and Breakfast /Cocktails/Dinners with Dealmakers where you can sign up to sit with execs for ten minutes whether they're interested in meeting you or not.

And lots of parties.

And you are in the absolutely stunning town of Banff Springs, with the Canadian Rockies all around you.

If you're in the Canadian industry, I consider Banff a can't-miss appointment. This year I hope to interview some of the writers who come to give master classes -- stay tuned.

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Now you can buy proper WGA strike swag. Get your WGA strike shirt (if you haven't already got one for picketing). All the cool kids are wearing them, and it strikes fear into the hearts of the Axis of Six media conglomerates.

You can also get red bracelets that say "No Justice No Scripts".

Be the first one on your block!

Profits from the sale will go to non-WGA members laid off during the strike. How cool is that?

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

DMc is always worth reading, but be sure to check out today's post about how everybody better hope the WGA strike isn't crushed by management. He quotes:
In his book Confessions of a Union Buster, Martin Jay Levitt details the techniques he learned in his many years attacking unions. A key element is the demoralization of the union members during any industrial action against the company. Taking away people's hopes, their aspirations for a quick resolution to any labor dispute – that was Levitt's job. "If you can, make the union fight drag on long enough, workers...lose faith, lose interest, lose hope."
So next time you see an article about how two soap writers crossed a line (they didn't) or how a late night host is crossing the line (one is, but not Leno, or Dave Letterman, or anyone who counts), or how TV Guide readers are against the writers (they're not), you know where it's coming from.

And there's more at United Hollywood:
A few years ago, I was on the WGA Negotiating Committee. As negotiations with the AMPTP were drawing to a close, I went to a dinner party where I happened to be seated next to a gentleman who until recently had been for decades the chief negotiator for the Companies in another segment of the entertainment industry. He was a wiry guy, and he had a sense of humor. When I asked him if he was the Nick Counter of that particular part of the industry, he smiled and said wryly that he thought he was better than Nick but, yes, that was a fair comparison. He said he knew Nick and admired him. For an hour and a half, sprinkled in with the small talk, he told me about his negotiating strategy. After the party, I went to my car and jotted down as much of it as I could remember. I thought it might be useful to share it with you now:
Strategy for Hardball Negotiations:
Piss off the leaders and spokespersons for the other side. A leader who loses his temper loses something in negotiations. Why?
  1. Anger clouds judgment.
  2. It’s human nature to want to be liked, even in a tough-as-nails negotiator. A person who loses his temper is embarrassed, usually comes and apologizes, and always gives something away to get back into the good graces of the other side.
The end game is the money, but hardball negotiations aren't about money, until the end. The real game is dividing and conquering.
Tactics:
  • Lower the expectations of the other side, divide and conquer.
  • Raise and lower the expectations of the other side, divide and conquer.
  • Do everything possible to destroy the credibility of the other side’s leadership, divide and conquer.
  • Use confidants and back channels to go over the heads of the stronger leaders to the softer targets. Divide and conquer.
  • When you figure out the other side’s bottom line, offer a fraction. It’s surprising how many times that stands.
Sound familiar? If you examine the recent "leaks," comments, and press releases from the other side, you'll realize this is exactly the strategy the Companies are employing against us today. And why not? It's worked for them for the last 20 years! They are putting us on an emotional roller coaster by raising and lowering our expectations, attacking our leaders, trying to pit the town against us, refusing to move on the issues that matter to us, bragging about their generosity when the opposite is true, fear mongering and claiming we're going to ruin this industry – hoping we'll splinter, lose faith in and attack each other, negotiate against ourselves, and cave.
Gee, that does sound familiar. And it explains why the the AMPTP keeps coming back with ridiculous, insulting, b.s. offers, doesn't it? Doesn't it all become clear now?

So let's stop calling them "the producers" or "the studios" and use a term everyone understands: "the bosses". And if that sounds too red, use "management." Everyone knows that means "the bosses." And everyone knows how they feel about them.

Because I agree with Denis. If they can crush the WGA, and roll back residuals, guess who's next?

(Oh, and, here's a petition you can sign that goes to the AMPTP asking them to negotiate a fair deal. 60,000 signatures so far.)

(Oh, and -- I've been reading a lot about aspiring and emerging writers schmoozing up pro writers on the picket lines. Good work, guys! This is probably your best bet in the next twenty years -- God willing -- to hang out with the people who write your favorite movies and shows. And because it's Week 5, they are probably even more grateful for new blood -- and new conversation topics -- in the picket line than they were four weeks ago. So if you're an aspiring writer within driving distance of New York or LA, TAKE A PERSONAL DAY AND GO PICKET. You would have to be NUTS to pass up an opportunity to spend four hours walking around with John August, or Jane Espenson, or Ken Levine, or the 30 ROCK writing room, or the writers of LOST, or any of the other three thousand picketers. Dig?)

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Monday, December 03, 2007

TV Guide has an online poll about the WGA strike. Silly, because online polls are about as unscientific as you can get -- just as Next President Ron Paul. But this one is important because it's about whether TV Guide viewers support the writers or the producers studios.

Please vote for the side you care about. (Free registration required.) Currently it's writers, 81%, studios 19%.

You can also leave a comment on their strike blog.

It's not much, but getting the word out is, I think, more important than buying pencils.

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Dang that's a lot of snow.

We went out tonight, Lisa and Jesse and the dog and I, and frolicked in the deep deep snow in the park. It's light powder, over a foot deep. Jesse just kept falling into it and laughing. The dog porpoised around, while Lisa and I stood there grinning and watching to make sure Jesse's mittens stayed on. What I love about Montreal is that while you do get a long cold winter, you get lots of snow. If you're going to have to have winter, at least have snow. Know what I mean?

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As we continue working on the plot of this haunted house movie, one question that keeps coming up is whether to put a teaser at the beginning.

A teaser in a tv show, you'll recall, is a high-key opening sequence that grabs the audience and makes it want to watch the whole show. Someone's running, someone's fighting, someone is killed. It often sets up the story. In HOUSE, someone becomes ill. In CSI, they find the bodies.

A teaser in a theatrical movie functions differently from a teaser in a TV show. If you've paid $12 to see a movie, you're not likely to walk out if the first twenty minutes are slow. All a teaser does is get your blood pumping. Think of the Bond movie opening sequences. Sometimes they have nothing to do with the plot of the movie; they're just an excuse to have a neato action sequence.

Arguably a teaser does have the same function in a movie you're watching on DVD. If you've rented a bunch of DVD's from Netflix or Zip, and the first twenty minutes don't do it for you, you'll go on to the next one. Netflix doesn't lose any money, but you lose word of mouth.

A teaser can be enormously valuable in a spec script, of course. If you don't grab the reader within the first five pages, she'll dump your script and pick the next one off the stack; or, if she's required to read through, she'll start skimming. Skimming is the death of most scripts.

But we're not writing a spec script. And I've noticed that a teaser seems to function much differently in a horror movie.

One of the biggest challenges in a horror movie is pacing. You want to reach a crescendo of fear. But you can't stay there long. A crescendo wears out its welcome pretty fast. So you have to carefully ramp up the pace, from the first stirrings in the shadows up through the climax. A horror movie is a symphony of fear. You start with the tinglings of dread. Slowly you build to a level of alarm. Soon there's whammy. But then you back off to a lull where the characters react. Then you begin building again to a bigger whammy, and so on until finally you're on a home stretch to the climax -- with plenty of twists and turns to stretch out the finale.

(There is a really clever recording I heard on the radio once that I haven't been able to find since. It's Beethoven's 9th Symphony with baseball style color commentary. "And he's coming up to the crescendo -- no, wait! I think he's going into a minor key! Folks, this is incredible!" Anybody know where to find it?)

So what happens when you have a teaser?

THE AMITYVILLE HORROR opens with a kid murdering his whole family with a shotgun. This sets up the curse on the house. Then we have a big lull while the Lutz family moves in. We're killing time getting to know the family and their issues, waiting for the first scare. A spectral voice tells a priest to "get out," the dog is nervous, etc.

The biggest problem for me was that the most horrifying thing in the movie happened in the first two minutes. Blood seeping out of the stairs has nothing on kinslaying.

The problem with a teaser in a horror movie is that it spoils the build. It's like starting a symphony with the whole horn section blasting away.

I noticed that in a lot of the movies we're watching for research -- THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, THE HAUNTING, THE OTHERS -- there is no teaser. The movie is a long build from the smallest, rationally explainable events, to the scares at the end.

(These can be of different pitch. THE OTHERS and BLAIR WITCH stay in the land of dread, while THE HAUNTING turns into a special effects lollapalooza.)

So what keeps us watching?

I think it's important to remember that neither the reader's nor the audience's experience begins with the script or the movie. The reader's experience begins with the cover letter, which mentions the hook. The audience's experience begins with the marketing campaign.

The most important fact that the audience knows coming into a horror movie is that they are seeing a horror movie. So they don't, strictly, need a teaser. They know bad things are going to happen. If you go see THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, you know that kids are going to be cut apart with a chainsaw. So you're going to stick around at least until the chainsaws come out. Until then, you'll make do with hints and suggestions. It's enough to see that one character is very, very scared; we don't have to see what she's scared of, yet.

Likewise, in ALIEN, we know there's going to be an alien hunting down the members of the crew. So we know to be scared going into the crashed spacecraft. We know to be scared of those eggs. We know that the dark corridors of the ship are scary, even if we haven't seen the beastie yet.

In fact, one of the hardest things to watch in a horror movie is where the characters needlessly put themselves in danger. What kind of idiot would poke his nose into that egg? And we have to remember that the characters don't know they're in a horror movie. They can't hear the scary music. Who's scared of an egg? Who's scared of a corridor?

We're writing this script in 7 act structure. No one dies until mid-3rd act. I've had the note that peril comes late. But I'm not sure that's right. The audience knows what the hook to this story is. They know this is a haunted house. So if I give them clever hints, they should experience dread. And I need to play with their dread for a while before I start killing off the characters, or the picture will climax too soon. On the kind of budget I'm working with, there aren't going to be any big special effects.

Oh, okay, one character gets sucked into a Maw of Hell®. But that's at the very end.

I'm using a seven act structure because it helps me make sure that each act raises the horror level and the pitch. In the first act, the villagers are scared of the house. In the second act, the characters see weird things in the house. In the third act, someone dies, but the characters don't know it yet. In the fourth act, they know the house is haunted, and try to escape, but can't. In the fifth, they're up front and personal with the house's evil. In the sixth, the outside world becomes involved. In the seventh, they discover what makes the house evil, and lay the evil to rest.

We did consider various teasers. One would have shown that the house was haunted; but we know the house is haunted. One would have set up the curse; but we know the house is cursed. All would have introduced extra characters that we'd never see again. All would have told the audience what they already essentially knew.

So, we ditched the teaser.

Of course, there are horror movies with teasers. The dreadful AN AMERICAN HAUNTING tells a haunting story set in the 1800s which begins in dread and ends in death; but it starts with a girl in the present running from nameless horror, in a bookending scene. It doesn't quite work but I see what they were trying to do.

There are also terror movies, which I'm leaving out of this equation. In CRAFTY SCREENWRITING I distinguished between horror and terror as: In a terror story, you're scared you'll end up dead. In a horror story, you should be so lucky. SCREAM has a clever teaser that kills off the movie's only name actress. But SCREAM isn't really about scaring the audience. You can watch SCREAM and eat popcorn all the way through. Try doing that the first time you see ALIEN. I'm not sure my definition holds up entirely.

I'm not sure how all this relates to the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET movies. They are technically horror movies. The victims do wind up in nightmarish fates, though they seem more cartoonish than horrifying. The horror movies I like violate the laws of God in primal ways; the deaths in the Freddy movies seem more clever than primal. But they don't have the same slow pacing. We see Freddy in the first reel, I think, and the pacing is mostly dread punctuated by horror, dread, horror, dread, horror, etc. rather than dread, dread, dread, dread, horror, horror, horror.

But I don't really grok the whole Freddy/Jason/Pinhead franchisable demon killer subgenre, so I'll leave its analysis as an exercise.

Maybe I'm making too much of this. Maybe there isn't a rule that a horror movie doesn't need or want a teaser; maybe just a horror movie that depends on a long slow build. But I am pretty sure that the haunted house movie I'm writing now doesn't want one. And I think it is very important to remember that almost no one is going to see the movie you're writing without knowing what kind of movie it is. The audience is coming in to see it with certain expectations.

This incidentally is one reason the right title is so important. THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION suggests a movie about a convict who comes to terms with his imprisonment, which is not what the movie's about. Whereas if a movie has "haunt" in its title, or "horror," or "nightmare," or is simply called POLTERGEIST, then at least we're clear what kinda movie we're watching.

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Sunday, December 02, 2007

We're writing a haunted house movie, so we watched the AMITYVILLE HORROR and POLTERGEIST. I'd never seen the first, but I remember the second one being molto scary when I saw it in my 20's.

Lordy, how lame they seem now?

Is it the cheesy special effects? The late 70's styles, which seem so off now?

Or is it the really terrible acting and dialog?

For me, what's at the heart of the problem is that nothing is going on except haunting. You take a perfectly nice happy family with no problems -- something that doesn't exist -- and throw it into a perfectly nice happy place, and then we're all waiting for something to happen.

Here's my recipe for a haunted house movie: they're already having problems. They're arguing and not talking to each other enough. So you're interested in them, and something interesting is going on during the spaces between the supernatural incidents. And of course, they don't give up their point of view -- they don't stop arguing about whatever it was. Because people don't. Soldiers will keep arguing about who stole whose dessert while they're waiting for the next barrage -- even if only to keep their minds off being under fire.

Ideally, the resolution of the haunting has some relation to the problem that they were having interpersonally. As if the haunting was the universe's way of helping them solve their problem.

None of that in POLTERGEIST.

And I have to keep asking myself "why don't they get the hell out of the house?" Especially when they have retrieved their daughter from the maw of Hell. I mean, that's what movers are for.

But both these movies were huge hits. THE AMITYVILLE HORROR grossed $86 mil in box office, on a Samuel Z. Arkoff budget.

What made them work at the time?

Was there some collective unconscious thing going at the time?

I bet you THE SHINING is still alarming. I still have to turn the sound down on ALIEN, and I know John Hurt isn't going to finish his porridge.

Why did they work then? Why do they seem so lame now?

Or am I just, y'know ... old?

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