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



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Monday, March 31, 2008


Had a great time at the WGC Quebec's semi-annual free drinks get-together. We decided that since everyone in Toronto wants to visit Montreal, but only when everyone else in Toronto is here, we should pick an official weekend for Torontonians to visit.


Then the suggestion was put forward of an awards ceremony. But not just any awards ceremony. We already have the Genies and the Geminis and the Jutras and even more regional awards. These would have to be national awards. But what American award ceremony haven't we ripped off? Those'd have to be the Razzies, eh?


Ah, the Razzies: the award for the most spectacularly bad Screenplay, Direction, Performance in a Leading Role, etc. But you couldn't just vote someone a Canadian Razzie: that would be rude. No, people would have to submit their own films, by way of apology for their awful work, or the awful job that was done to their work. An award, if you will, by way of apology. Fortunately, Canadians are just self-loathing enough to do it. After all, if you write a real stinker, and you submit yourself for a Canadian Razzie, you're cool. If you don't, you're just the writer of a stinker. (As someday it may happen, I've got a little list, myself. But I'm not going to sing about it.)


And the name of these awards, to be doled out at a ceremony at, probably, McKibbins Pub, some time around the Montreal Film Festival -- whichever one we have left, that is -- shortly before the parties at TIFF? Why, inevitably, the SORRIES. Sorry is, after all, our national motto, isn't it?

So I'm putting you on notice, McGrath, Eriksen, Mohan, Fenn, KMac, etc. There will be a party in Montreal, some time towards the end of the summer. Sorries will awarded. We'll just have to work out a protocol for submissions and voting, but I'm sure Maureen can fill us in on that. Be ready to book your travel.

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Saturday, March 29, 2008

My kid wants to see a TREASURE ISLAND movie, done straight up (i.e. with neither cartoons nor muppets nor Cap'n Jack Sparrow). But none of the versions on IMDB seem to get decent ratings, at least not since the 1934 Lionel Barrymore/Wallace Beery one. Any recommendations?

And if there ARE none, maybe one of you should be working on one. (But don't call it TREASURE ISLAND, though, or execs will say "but there have been ten of them already!")

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I saw my friends Lina Roessler and Brett Watson appear in ZARATHUSTRA SAID SOME THINGS, NO?, at the Théâtre La Chapelle on Friday. Lina's a real find. I met her on NAKED JOSH, where she was up for three totally different parts and nailed each character. (I'm still bummed she didn't get a bigger part.)

The play is a cheery psychodramas about a pair of deeply messed up people trying to find a perfect day to do themselves in. Okay, maybe not that cheery. But unlike so much contemporary theatre, there was a play there. They each wanted something from each other, and they needed something, and those two weren't the same things.

Most contempo plays I see these days, if they're about anything at all, this play was about backstory. It was not that hard to figure out what the secrets were that were going to be revealed, and it is a disease the contemporary theatre seems to have that you are just waiting for the characters to aria their Deep Dark Secret.

I try to keep character arias out of my screenplays because I find them annoying. I'd rather watch the behavior and guess where it's coming from. I especially try to avoid character arias in TV. One of the characters in the show I'm writing now starts off doing something seriously self-destructive. Why does she do it? Was she abused? Or is she just angry at her father setting a bad example? I'll let the audience chew on that for, I dunno, maybe the whole series. Once you reduce the character's pain to "my uncle raped me," the character seems smaller and less interesting somehow.

I liked how throughout THELMA AND LOUISE, it becomes clear that Louise was raped in Texas, and didn't get justice. But she never tells Thelma that.

A lot of the fun of a drama is figuring out what's going on with the characters. Why spoil the audience's fun by telling them outright?

But if you're trying to write an hour and a half of two characters talking to each other in one room, it becomes awful attractive to make it about the backstory. Otherwise, aren't they going to run out of stuff to talk about?

Of course, one can cite a kajillion counter examples of not-so-contemporary theater without backstory arias. WAITING FOR GODOT, for example. SAME TIME, NEXT YEAR. [I think. I haven't seen it.]

I don't think theatre built on a cathartic revelation of backstory is a function of what theatre can and can't do. I think it's a function of what film can do. If you have a romantic comedy story about two people that takes place in a room, you can write it as a play and make hundreds of dollars, or write it as a movie and make tens of thousands of dollars. (Or, if you're very successful, you can make hundreds of thousands from the play and millions from the movie.) I suspect the movies suck up all the ideas that can be movies, leaving situations that are all about character arias.

The movies' effect on theater strikes me as similar to photography's effect on painting. Photography nudged painting to become less representational because what is the point of spending days painting a scene photorealistically when someone can shoot a picture in a few seconds? Plays have to leverage the advantages they have: essentially, the ritual of the actors being in the same space. (And, I suppose, the relative cheapness of a theatre production; but in the age of YouTube, prosumer cameras and FinalCut, theatre is no longer cheaper.)

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Friday, March 28, 2008

The 28th Atlantic Film Festival announces its Call for Feature Film Outlines for the Festival’s Inspired Script program. The Inspired Script program offers a unique opportunity for four Atlantic Canadian writers to develop their feature film outlines to treatments and pitch them at the 28th Atlantic Film Festival, September 11-20, 2008.

The program will culminate in the selection of one screenplay that will be eligible to receive a maximum of $20,000 in development financing from the presenting sponsors and allow the writer to work with a veteran story editor to help bring the treatment to a first draft script to be presented as the Script Out Loud at the 29th Atlantic Film Festival in 2009.

The deadline for submissions is Monday, May 5, 2008. The entry form is available for download from the AFF website at www.atlanticfilm.com under "For Filmmakers & Delegates." Participating writers will be announced in early June.

"We expect we'll see plenty of solid entries from the incredible screenwriters in Atlantic Canada as we roll out the 12th year of this remarkable development opportunity," says Lia Rinaldo, Festival Director. "Every year the program just keeps on getting stronger and stronger, there is certainly no shortage of great ideas in this region.

An Inspired Script jury will select the four outlines that will be developed into treatments that will then undergo two intensive weekend workshops under the guidance of [producer] Al Magee... The writers will then have the chance to work with Jan Miller to hone their pitching technique by participating in Jan's reputable Pitcher Perfect workshop. All four writers will take part in Inspired Script industry events at the 28th Atlantic Film Festival, including the Inspired Pitch & Matchmaking Session. These treatments will then be vetted back to a jury of Inspired Script sponsors who will choose the one that will receive further development funding for the next year. The chosen project will also receive a live, staged full read-through with local actors at Script Out Loud during the 29th Atlantic Film Festival.

Inspired Script is sponsored by Telefilm Canada and Astral Media the Harold Greenberg Fund. The winning treatment will be announced during the Atlantic Film Festival.
See? This is what I mean by Canada being a more nurturing cultural environment than LA.

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Kristen Havens posts MFA Programs Are Bull****, and asks, "If you've been rejected from an MFA program for writing, ask yourself, "What would that degree have bought me, really." She hastens to specify that this applies to poetry and fiction programs, not screenwriting programs.

I think it's a good question, though. In fiction and poetry, what an MFA gets you is the ability to teach professionally at institutions that require an MFA for their professors. Other than that, you get teachers' advice on your writing, and admission to the official Poetry Writing Mafia. You may need those if you plan a poetry "career" where you get published in small presses and occasionally win grants and (because poetry doesn't pay) teach.

If you actually plan to be a poet, you don't need a poetry program. You need to write poetry that people who are not themselves poets want to read.

If you actually plan to write fiction, then write fiction. If it's good, someone will publish it. I can't imagine that racking up $40,000 in tuition debt helps you find the time to write. If you need someone breathing down your neck to get anything finished, get married.

I'm not that big on screenwriting programs, either. I think you can learn far more by going to work at a literary agency; and they will pay you for it. They pay bupkis, but at least you don't have to pay them. You'll get a sense of how the industry works, and what it wants, and what it doesn't want. Then you can write at home, and you'll have people to show your work to. My biggest problem with most screenwriting professors is they teach how to write a "good" screenplay, when what you actually need to write is a screenplay that someone wants to pay money for. Those are not the same things, as you know from the first chapter of my first book.

I'm not even that big on MFA filmmaking programs. These do more for you than screenwriting programs, because to make films, you need equipment, and you need friends who are willing to work for free, who love movies, and who know what an f-stop is. Filmmaking is a collaborative medium. While you can shoot your own videos at home, and edit on a Mac, it is much easier to get a crew in film school, and to work on other people's crews, than it is in Fargo.

On the other hand I think most people go to film school too soon, before they know anything. So they make the wrong calling card film (I did) and don't have anyone to show it to once it's made. I think it's better to spend a few years in LA working, and then go to film school. (Also, you'll be more likely to get in, and you'll be eligible for in-state tuition rates at UCLA, rather than the huge out-of-state rates.) My years at film school qualified me to get an assistant job working for a producer; years later, they helped me shoot a pretty good comedy short film. I think I could probably have got an assistant job anyway, you know?

So before you fork out tens of thousands of bucks for an MFA program, ask yourself if you really need to. What are you getting the credential for? No one in the arts cares about your degrees, unless you want to teach. What are you going to learn that you can't learn on your own?

That way, you'll most likely save a whack of dough; and even if you do decide to go to an MFA program, you will know to spend your time in the program focusing on learning those things that you cannot learn outside of one.

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

As part of the PEI Screenwriters Bootcamp, I'm teaching a four day seminar on TV writing in Prince Edward Island June 2-5, courtesy Telefilm and the Island Media Arts Cooperative. You must be a Canadian in the Maritimes to participate. The deadline is tomorrow but if you're interested, please email Louise Lalonde at youthinkyoucanwrite@yahoo.ca and let her know I sent ya. The website says the deadline is the 21st, but it's been extended to today, and if you can get your app in by Monday, I'm sure it'll be okay.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008


If you're in Toronto on Friday, April 11th, the Spoke Club (600 King Street West, 4th floor) will be hosting a 'live' broadcast of my short, 12 WAYS TO SAY "I'M SORRY" and others, starting at 7:30. The event is free and open to the public.

The Spoke is where we all go to start drinking before events like the WGC Awards, so you'll be in good company.

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Q. I am currently working on a spec pilot and have a series bible to accompany it. In the bible, I give synopses of each of the characters--long, one-page descriptions of the major characters, a few paragraphs for the supporting characters, and brief blurbs for the rest.

My question: how much of these descriptions should I carry over to the pilot, and embed into the teleplay?

On the one hand I don't want to clutter the script with a lot of material that is found in the Bible, both because it's redundant and because it breaks up the pace.

On the other hand, just introducing the lead character with "Claire, 23, has long hair, wears little makeup, and tends to favor clothing with a 60's and 70's flair" doesn't provide any context for her actions, and it seems likely that whoever is reading this thing is going to do so before plowing through the Bible.
A pilot should stand by itself. It should read like an episode of a show. It should leave you with a sense of having experienced a great episode of television, while clearly showing the reader what each episode of the series is going to be like (its template).

I keep description down to a minimum. I try to show what the character is like by having them immediately bust out a line that only they would ever say, and do something only they would ever do. So instead of saying, "JESSICA, 16, sarcastic and sulky," better to have Jessica just start in with, "Go ahead, be a dick about it."

Show, don't tell.

I generally avoid physical description of core cast because an actor reading for the part may be perfect, but feel dissed if you said "tall" and they're short, for example.

Try to avoid telling us overall details, anyway. How do we know Claire tends to favor clothing with a 70's flair? Just put her in a tie-dyed blouse.

In the US you generally go out with a pilot script, not with a bible. In Canada, because there's more development money floating around for political reasons, you can set up a project with a one-pager or a six-eight page pitch bible. I use the latter because I find it's hard to sell my ideas off a single page. These both contrast with the kind of bible you might see in a writer's room, which would have synopses of all the produced episodes, detailed character descriptions, etc. You would never go out with one of those. No one has the time to read one unless they're staffed on a show.

I wouldn't overdo descriptions in the bible, either. Tell us who the character is, not what he or she looks like. Tell us what he wants, what he's scared of, what is going to put him in conflict with the other members of the cast. You probably don't need to describe more than the core cast in the pitch bible, unless you have heavily recurring characters. If your show goes into production, someone may or may not put together character descriptions of minor characters, but those will change regularly anyway, so no need to do it now.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Q. You mentioned that an hour show is no more work than a half hour show. How do you mean? Is it that once you're already rolling on a show idea, its easy to keep pumping out pages? Any other reasons?
When I signed on to CHARLIE JADE, I'd just spent a year fussing over eight half-hour scripts for NAKED JOSH with my co-creator. I landed in Cape Town, and our writing room immediately started banging out hour scripts, three in the first week, then one a week for every week after that.

My impression is that a contemporary half hour script has almost as much story as an hour does. On NAKED JOSH, we had A, B and C stories. Sometimes we even had a runner on top of that. In CHARLIE JADE we had an A, B and C story. We simply had to work harder to fit that much story into 22 minutes.

The stories in NAKED JOSH were smaller stories -- more about observing the vagaries of metro life than, say, saving the multiverse -- but you could easily have unpacked them to hour stories to make a FELICITY-esque hour show.

When I started in writing CHARLIE JADE scripts, I found that I had a few more beats in each story than on NAKED JOSH, but not that many more. We were doing four acts instead of three. But the scenes could breathe more. Instead of the scenes being 45 seconds long, say, they were a minute to a minute and a quarter. (I'm guessing.)

I think it's telling that half hour sitcom staffs are much larger than hour drama staffs. Of course comedy is harder than drama. But I think if you take a typical half hour and plot it out, you'll wind up with almost as much story as you do for a drama.

I have some half hour pitches I would love to set up. But I know that if they do, I'll wind up working just as hard or harder on them as I will on my hour material!

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Bob Wertheimer, showrunner of CHARLIE JADE, writes to let me know that our show has been sold to The Sci Fi Channel. The deal is being drawn up so we don't have air dates. But we will keep you informed.

Rolanda Marais, think about visiting LA, huh?...

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Ken Levine has a particularly crafty post about when to stop writing for the day. Check it out.

If things are going well, I stop when I can't tell if I'm writing crap or not, usually around 12 pages. If things are not going well, I stop when I run into a story problem I'm not solving. Then I walk the dog. Or sleep. Sometimes the answer comes.

I once went to bed telling myself to come up with a comedy series pitch. And I did!

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Q. I was curious about your thoughts on a new series on Fox: The Return of Jezebel James. The format seems off or just plain wrong. This very well could be me but it feels like a one camera show and not a sit-com with a laugh track. If it is a little awkward in its format would this be a creator issue or a network issue? Once a show is bought can it's whole format be made to change to fit into something else entirely?
I haven't seen the show, but there could be a genre problem like you're seeing. The creator could have conceived of it wrong, for creative reasons, or because a network exec asked for a sitcom. Or, the network could have asked him to turn a single camera comedy into a sitcom for budget reasons, or because of market research, or because of the mix of programming they're looking for.

Denis Leary's half hour series THE JOB failed. If you watch it, you can clearly see its similarities to the later, successful RESCUE ME. What didn't work in a half hour format worked very well in hour.

I've occasionally come in with a pitch that could go either half hour or hour. That way, if the exec "hears" a half hour show, it's a half hour show. If they hear an hour show, it's an hour. They tend to hear the kind of the show their network has room for. My preference is to do hour shows -- they're no more work to write than a half hour, but they pay twice as well. But I'd rather have a show than no show. Bear in mind, though, that Canada has half-hour dramas, a form that barely exists in the US.

It's good that you're thinking this way. Don't just tune out a show, "this sucks!" Think about why it sucks. The makers must have had something in mind. Where did they go wrong? Sometimes (COP ROCK) it's easy to figure out. Sometimes it's harder. I'm convinced that FIREFLY failed not because it was a space western, but because Joss Whedon's storytelling might have been a bit too surprising for the broadcast audience. You just never knew where an episode was going to end up. And on broacast, that's not necessarily a plus.

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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Paul Graham has another insightful essay entitled You Weren't Meant to Have a Boss. It's about the difference he's observed between programmers who work for Google and Microsoft, and programmers who work for their own startups. He compares them to lions in the wild versus lions in the zoo. The lions in the zoo seem "both more worried and happier."

I think that's why I like show people.

The ones who don't seem happier are executives. They have big salaries and regular paychecks, and here in Canada, they're not in constant danger of being fired. (Though, I suspect, they also don't have absurdly lucrative "golden parachute" clauses.) But they have to work within a structure and a specific mandate. My network executive friends may like my show, but they already have one in the same territory, or it's not in their mandate, or they can't sell it to their boss.

And they're always in meetings. Ack.

I don't know anyone who's left a network job who didn't seem happier afterwards.

My producer and writer friends are worried all the time. They don't know where their next paycheck is coming from. They don't know if the industry will collapse due to moralistic Conservative government intervention. They have no idea what they'd do for a living if people stopped hiring them, or paying them.

But their frustrations are the frustrations of lions in the wild. They are always stalking the next antelope, or trying to keep the hyenas off of one they've already caught.

They all seem so alive.

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Saturday, March 22, 2008

Q. If I found a book that I thought would make a great movie, and I bought the rights, on what basis could I then hawk it around? Am I still a spec writer? Or am I a production company looking for partners/backers?
Realistically if you're looking to write it, you're a writer, and if you're looking to set it up, you're producing it.

As a writer you'd be expected to have a "take" on how you'd adapt the book: basically pitch the story as you see it on screen. As a producer you'd want to write up a short and snappy pitch on why the book is a great property to adapt, but you wouldn't have to explain how you'd adapt it.

Only a successful book really adds commercial value to the project; only a bestseller is really a bankable element. If no one's heard of the book, then it might actually be a strike against the project: the book already flopped, who is gonna want to see a movie about it?

(In Canada, though, the mere fact of a book being Canadian is a plus when you go to Telefilm for development money.)

If the book isn't a hit, then ask yourself how closely you're going to adapt it. If the characters and plot are very clever indeed, then you'll need to option the book. If what you really like is the concept, then you might be better off considering the book "inspiration." No one can copyright a concept. So long as you don't use the original characters or plot, you are free to steal the book's concept -- that is, until you sign an option agreement with the author. Then the book is attached permanently to the project.

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Friday, March 21, 2008

Paul William Tenny reminds me:
The entry deadline for the 2008 Nicholl fellowship is coming up on May 1st. The ABC/Disney fellowship deadline is still a ways off, July 1st, but looming.
The Nicholl is probably the most prestigious screenwriting competition, period. And the ABC/Disney Fellowship is possibly the closest program the US has to the superb Canadian Film Centre.

If you're Canadian, also check out the Canwest Emerging Writers Program at Banff. Their deadline is 18 April, so get on it.

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Read it and giggle. Or if you do not giggle, a giggle will be provided.

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An odd thing came up during our discussions in the writing room. I'm writing a pay cable series, so I felt free to write in a fair amount of nudity. The main character is an entity that wouldn't be self-conscious about nudity in the first place, and hell, it's pay cable.

My two veteran story editors (technically executive story consultants) warned me that I'm not going to get my lead to actually take off her clothes as much as I've got.

When you hire an actor who's going to be expected to disrobe, the casting director will discuss nudity and then put a nudity clause in his or her contract. The nudity clause is quite specific about what the actor might be expected to expose.

The problem is that there's a big difference between what an actor will promise to expose when he or she wants the role, and what they'll do once they're hired. Particularly if they're the lead, they know you're unlikely to fire them for not showing their behind even though they promised to. They just balk and won't come out of their trailer.

Naturally this depends on the actor and the show. Some actors (especially French ones) have no trouble showing skin. Actors will also show skin if they feel the show is creatively strong: great director, great writing, the nudity makes an essential story or character point. Julianne Moore has a great scene in SHORT CUTS where she's arguing with her husband, played by Matthew Modine, with her panties off. The point was that this is how married people sometimes argue. So theoretically with the right actress I might get away with my nude scenes -- if I can convince the actor that she's telling the audience something about her character, rather than just providing eye candy.

The smaller the role, the less likely the actor will balk, as well. An actor whose character can be killed off is unlikely to become a pain in the butt on set.

But you never know. I worked on an "erotic thriller" years ago. Pretty much the whole point of the movie was a few sexy scenes with the female lead. Guess what? She wouldn't do them, and neither the director nor the producer was willing to go to the mattresses to make her do it.

The movie was unreleasable.

I've also heard tell of a certain actress now showing lots of skin in a sexy cable series who signed on for a show about a stripper, directed by an award-winning director. A stripper! She didn't show anything. The director was tearing his hair out. It does take quite a bit out of the movie.

What can you do? Make sure there are lots of conversations about the nudity before shooting, so the actor knows you're serious about it. Have the casting director roll tape on the conversations in the casting office. "So, you understand the role calls for full frontal nudity? And you're okay with that?"

In a movie you could, I suppose, shoot the nude scenes first, so you can replace the actor if she refuses to do what the script calls for. Can't do that in a series, though. You could also, I imagine, build financial penalties short of firing into the actor's contract.

I guess the most important thing is probably checking the actor's filmography. If there's a lot of nudity there, ask him or her if she's still cool with it, or if he or she has made a decision to change tack. If not, you're probably okay. If the actor has never done nudity, you'd need an explanation why he or she is willing to do it now. (You might have Sharon Stone, for example, just before BASIC INSTINCT, telling you that she and her manager have decided to "sex me up.")

In the rush before filming, these sorts of things get lost, unless you have experienced people around you. That's why experience is rated so highly in TV, often much more than talent. There are so many things that can go wrong that you wouldn't think of, unless you've been there.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Want to know how to write a speech? This is how you write a speech:



I try to keep politics out of this blog, but this is political theatre at its finest.

Sam Seaborn would be proud.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

I got an email from Jennifer Arzt telling me about Script Frenzy, which is an offshoot of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). The idea is you write 100 pages of script in a month.

Personally, once I have an outline I like, I usually bang out a 110-page feature script in about 20 days. But I understand a lot of aspiring writers have trouble completing scripts.

I think the key to finishing your script is not reading it. I rarely read what I've written till I've finished. Oh, I'll go back and tinker with a scene if I need to set something up that I've just written. But I don't read more than a scene until I've written it.

You can fritter away endless time and energy tinkering with the pages you've just written. Don't. They will still be there when you write THE END. And you'll have a better sense of the pacing you need, and the tone, and the rhythm, once you have the whole thing done.

Get your beat sheet or outline in as good shape as you can. (My book CRAFTY SCREENWRITING has a section on step outlines and beat sheets.) Once you start writing, write 5-12 pages a day. Don't let yourself write less than five, or you're slacking. Don't write more than 12, or you may be writing absolute garbage. Stop writing any time after five pages that you feel done for the day.

Your first few days you may write only a page or two. That's normal, as you find the voices of the characters. After page ten, you ought to be in the land of five pages a day minimum.

Five pages a day gives you a 120 page script in 24 days.

Note that I spend much more than 20 days working on the script. I probably spend more time rewriting than I do writing. When people talk about how they "wrote the script in three days," they are talking about the first draft, not the shooting script. Writing is rewriting. But rewriting before you've done the writing can be crippling. Not to mention you can't meaningfully show it to anyone until you've told the whole story.

As Satchel Paige said, "Don't look back. Someone might be gaining on you."

(As always: ignore as much of this or any other advice as doesn't work for you.)

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Monday, March 17, 2008

It could be worse.
Novelists Strike Fails To Affect Nation Whatsoever

LOS ANGELES—The Novelists Guild of America strike, now entering its fourth month, has had no impact on the nation at all, sources reported Tuesday.

The strike, which scholars say could be the longest since 1951, when American novelists may or may not have voluntarily committed to a six-month work stoppage, has brought an immediate halt to all new novels, novellas, and novelettes from coast to coast, affecting no one.

Bookstores across the country saw no measurable change in anything.

Nor has America's economy seen any adverse effects whatsoever, as consumers easily adjust to the sudden cessation of any bold new sprawling works of fiction or taut psychological character studies.

"There's a novelists strike?" Ames, IA consumer Carl Hailes said. "That's terrible. When is it scheduled to begin?"
The Onion
Heh.

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

Q. What would you suggest putting in the subject line of an e-mail query for a spec TV episode? Something cute/catchy or just plain and straightforward?
Whatever will get them to read the query, bearing in mind they've seen all sorts of come-ons.

I would try to describe your movie in a few choice, catchy but descriptive words. Compress all the sizzle into a few words. Give the essence of the hook. Remember, you're selling.

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Saturday, March 15, 2008

After three weeks in the story room, I ended up with some pretty dark white boards. My brilliant assistant explained that paint thinner wipes dry erase marker right off. Awesome, Webs, thanks!

UPDATE: Whaledawg recommends nail polish remover, but I suspect that's a lot more expensive per ounce than the pint of paint thinner I got at the hardware store.

Also, I occasionally need to thin paint, while I have never had to remove nail polish.

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Q. I wrote a play which contains a Superman-type superhero. I understand that I can protect this play through the copyright office or the Guild. But, will this also protect my superhero? Or, would I need to copyright my hero separately?
As I've written in my book, registering your work with the Library of Congress gives you much stronger protection than registering it with either Guild.

Copyright protects the expression of your idea, which includes characters. No one can put Harry Potter in their own novel or movie without permission of J. K. Rowling. It does not protect the basic idea, e.g. 14-year-old wizard fights evil dead wizard with the help of his disturbingly hot 14-year-old female wizard friend.

You'll note that D&D had "orcs" but not "hobbits." That's because "orc" is an old English word for a goblin, and therefore not copyright-able, as is "halfling," but "hobbit" was an invention of J. R. R. Tolkien. Although D&D borrowed heavily from THE LORD OF THE RINGS, it kept away from his characters, and his invented character classes. (Which does not prevent you from putting Shelob in your home game.)

Once the merchandising companies get involved, they tend to also trademark characters. Superman is trademarked. The big "S" logo is trademarked. The bat logo of Batman is trademarked. If you make action figures, you'll trademark them in addition to copyrighting the text you wrote about them.

Now: how the hell are you going to make your character in your play fly?

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Monday, March 10, 2008

The one movie at the Oscars that I'd really LIKE to watch, and it's not even on DVD. In fact, it's not even in the queue at Zip.

C'mon. The story of Genghis Khan, a slave who became ruler of the greatest empire in history? Who doesn't want to see that? Sex, death, and horses?

I used to wonder how the Arabs went from the most technologically and philosophically advanced civilization in the West to, well, not. The short answer: the Mongols destroyed all their greatest cities except for Cairo. And when I say, "destroyed," I mean, "slaughtered everyone they couldn't send as slaves to Mongolia" and "leveled the place so that grass grew at the intersections of what used to be streets." They annihilated Damascus and Baghdad, then two of the most civilized places on the planet.

The Mongols were serious dudes. Fortunately their deadly accurate compound bows turned to crap in humidity, thus saving muggy Western Europe. (They also didn't like deep rivers, woods or mountains, which hindered their ability to maneuver.)

I know way, way, way too much historical trivia.

UPDATE: This movie has been MADE. It was nominated for a foreign language OSCAR. The tragedy is that it has been so poorly marketed, NO ONE KNOWS IT EXISTS!

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Sunday, March 09, 2008

Q. HI there, I was asked to write a spec pilot for a TV series. How much of a percentage should I ask if the pilot gets bought? should i ask for an upfront pay? how much would that be?
This is not a "spec pilot" situation. A "spec pilot" is a pilot for your own series that you write on your own, hoping to sell it. You own it 100%. Once someone wants to buy it, any agent in the world will be happy to negotiate your deal.

What you are being asked to do is write a pilot on spec, which is an entirely different thing, and it is forbidden under the WGA and WGC rules. There will be no upfront payment; that's what "on spec" means. A WGA or WGC signatory producer is not allowed to ask for you to do any writing on spec, so I assume you are not dealing with a signatory producer.

Let's suppose you're a newbie writer and this is a big break for you; otherwise, don't do it.

The odds are the pilot will not get bought. But if it does, then you would normally be entitled to a great deal: "Created By" credit and a per-episode royalty; a guaranteed staff position with a guaranteed number of scripts per season; a big hunk of cash for purchase of rights; and, of course, the Guild minimum for a pilot (150% of payment for a regularly episode). Also, the right to write any MOW or feature based on the series, and passive payments if you don't write same. (Agents know all this stuff.)

What the producer will try to do is get you to do the heavy lifting, in exchange for a small payoff if he sells the series. Don't do it. The odds are terrible of anything happening, especially on a project that a producer is unwilling to pay money for. If something does happen, you need to make out like a bandit in order to make up for the long odds. That's why you don't want to negotiate your terms now. You're not getting paid anything, so there's no reason for you to negotiate your back end now. Negotiate your back end when you're in a strong negotiating position, when there's a network that wants to buy and you're the only one they can buy it from.

Mmy point of view is that you are contributing a few months of your time and the producer is contributing a "napkin idea" and some notes. So you should own the results, not him. The producer must assign his idea to you, in return for a limited-period option during which only he can set up your project. Should the producer set up the project, your agent will negotiate your compensation then, when it's actually worth something; not now. If the producer hasn't come to you with a bona fide offer within 18 months, say, then the project reverts entirely to you and you own it outright. Only fair.

I don't think you should negotiate terms up front. But if your producer insists and you still want to work with him, then I would insist on the following:

a. Upon producer assigning his rights to the project to any third party, your pilot script has to be bought under a WGA deal. I.e. your deal becomes WGA upon the producer setting up the project with a studio or network.
b. You have the right of first refusal to write at least the first two scripts ordered after the pilot, up to first draft.
c. Should the series be produced, you get a CREATED BY credit, which can be shared with any other writers getting credit on the pilot according to WGA arbitration.
d. Should the series be produced, you get a per episode royalty of, let's say, $5,000 per episode, for the life of the series.
e. Should the series be produced, you must be hired as a story editor for at least the duration of the first season, at WGA scale for a story editor. (I think it's about $6,000 per week.) You are guaranteed at least 2 scripts per season, above and beyond any scripts written during the development period.
f. Should the series be produced, you receive $25,000 in cash on the first day of principal photography, in exchange for the series rights.
g. Whether the series is produced or not, you have the right of first refusal to write the first feature or MOW based substantially on the pilot, at WGA scale.

Note that these terms are (a) unrealistically low for a professional writer writing a pilot for money, and (b) much more than your producer probably dreams of paying. But screw him. He's not paying you anything to write it, so he shouldn't complain that you'll get paid fairly -- by the studio, not even by him -- if by some miracle the pilot gets picked up.

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Friday, March 07, 2008

Q. I have a producer in London requesting my movie for television script through an agent/agency. But it's the old story of a new writer having trouble getting an agent to even "hip pocket" my project for me.

Am I putting a foot wrong by asking the producer to name an agent he knows to do the submission? Or should I simply submit the material through an entertainment attorney?
You're having trouble getting an agent to "hip pocket" your project AFTER someone has asked to see it?

("Hip pocketing" is when an agent reps you, or one piece of your material, without bringing you into the agency formally. If your material sells, you'll be brought in; if not, the agent doesn't have to look stupid at the Monday morning meeting.)

Normally you shouldn't need an agent until the producer actually wants to buy or option the material. Just to submit, you can usually sign a release form. (That's a daunting-reading document saying essentially that you can't sue if he later produces a movie with a similar idea.)

I'd be careful using an agent recommended by a producer. The rule in Hollywood, as elsewhere, is dance with the one that brung ya. So if your producer brings in an agent, it may be hard for that agent to take your side 100% against the producer who brought him on. But if he merely gives you a few names, then you're probably okay. An entertainment lawyer is fine for negotiating a deal, but they won't then beat the bushes looking for more work for you.

Have you tried calling the less grand agencies in the Hollywood Representation Directory, and asking who'd be willing to rep your material that a producer wants to read?

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Coming in on the second week of my three week writing room for my TMN series, things are picking up. We spent the first seven days with me pretty much trying to explain and clarify my vision of the series. I'm surprised to discover just how ambitious my series actually is. Apparently I'm trying to do for a genre series what HBO has already done for night time soaps. You know: throw out the usual story motors and franchise plots. My heroine doesn't kickbox demons every week. She's not even against evil, necessarily. And yet she's living half in a netherworld where supernatural critters are interested in her. It makes it a hell of a lot harder to generate stories, but I think the stories might be fresher. We'll see what our network people think in a month or two, when I turn the results in.

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Thursday, March 06, 2008

Since I'm posting soooo little content of my own these days, here's an interview with Ken Levine in The Issue...

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Jon LaJoie is an Everyday Average Normal Guy. He lives in Montreal. Who knew my city looked like 8 Mile?

DJ, do you know this guy?

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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

You may have noticed I'm blogging a bit less, and shorter, lately.

I'm in the middle of a writing room. I have three weeks to break down episodes 4-10 of the pay cable series I'm developing. And rebuild the pilot better, stronger, faster.

It takes a lot out of you. This show in particular is part dysfunctional family drama, part metaphysical fantasy. Mixing mythology and reality is tough, especially within the limitations of TV. Too many monsters and you're hokey. Not enough monsters and you're not really delivering the goods. Every time you give someone a power, you have to make sure it's not something that will overwhelm the plot -- or would overwhelm the plot except you just keep ignoring it. (E.g.: if Superman can fly faster than the speed of light and go back in time ... why doesn't he do that every single time he's in a bind?) But if your characters have only minor powers, what makes them interesting?

It's a fine line. In THE SANDMAN comics, I manage to believe that Dream is an entity of unutterable power and knowledge and age... and he's got the hots for a human witch and gets upset when she no longer loves him. It feels right even though it seems inconsistent.

You're looking for the logic of a fable. There are a lot of great stories you could pick holes in. The trick is, I guess, something like prestidigitation. Don't look over here -- look over there! Sparkly!

How you actually do that is the surprisingly hard work of a story room.

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Saturday, March 01, 2008

Bill C-10 has been sent back to the Banking Committee. Where, perhaps, the Royal Bank of Canada will tell them that while they couldn't care less about imposing censorship on Canadian culture, they very much mind losing all the business they're doing banking Telefilm contracts, which the bill would render worthless... Every now and then, you actually win one!

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