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



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Sunday, August 31, 2008

Q. All of the sudden it kind of hit me, after spending years learning everything I could about writing, there's one thing I've never seen anyone talk about: getting paid.

If you wouldn't mind; when the heck do TV writes get paid? Before you "lay pen to paper" so to speak, when you hand in the final draft, when the episode airs, right after the studio goes bankrupt?
There are multiple payments due on signing, delivery of treatment, delivery of first draft and second draft.

Note that the checks are due upon delivery, not "approval." The WGA and WGC take care of issues like this but if you're pre-Guild, watch out for anything that ties payment to "approval." They will have you rewriting endlessly for free.

On a working television show, checks come pretty fast. You let your agent know when you've been given a script, and they start invoicing. The contracts are standard, so there's nothing to negotiate. Your staffing salary gets paid every two weeks same as the rest of the world.

Outside of a production, payments are almost always late. It's rare that you can wait for the completed contract to start writing; you usually wind up having to trust producers. Which is awkward, since they sometimes do not deserve that trust.

With professional producers (by which I mean producers who behave like professionals), you usually get paid for each step within two or three weeks of invoicing. More than that, and there's a problem, and you should stop writing until the problem clears up. Every now and then I make the mistake of continuing to write for a producer who owes me money. There's a respected Canadian producer who owes me about $33,000; he would owe me less had I ignored his constant pushing to be writing, and had waited to make sure that he was living up to his obligations. I went ahead because I trusted him and because I hate to stop working in the middle of a project. Ah, well. Part of the reason you get paid so much in this biz is that you don't always get paid what you're owed. Over the course of my career I'm probably out about $75,000. It's rarely worth suing over, so you just go on with the next project.

Producers also often pay options late. However this is risky business for producers. If their option payment comes late, you can refuse to cash it, and notify the producer that the option has already expired. (You are not obliged to notify the producer of the option's expiry; the fact that he failed to pay the option renewal payment triggers expiry. Unless your contract says different, of course.) That's the moment where you can clear up any ambiguities in the contract in your favor, or flat out ask for more money, if the project has become much more valuable due to studio involvement, bankable elements, commencement of pre-production, etc. (If it hasn't become more valuable, don't try to renegotiate it!)

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Saturday, August 30, 2008

Kira Snyder tagged me with the why do you write tv? meme.

First of all, I'm both a TV and feature writer. Whether I write TV or features depends on the story I want to tell. If I get a feature idea, I write a feature. Sometimes an idea wants to be both and then I try it both ways.

I write TV because it is the dominant medium in our time. It is where the best stuff is being done. It is what the most people are tuning into. It is the biggest lever to move people's hearts. If this were the 19th Century I would probably be a novelist, and this would be a diary. If this were the 17th Century I would be a playwright and this would be drunken rantings in a pub. If this were the 6th Century BC I would be a poet and this would be drunken rantings at a private dinner.

The medium is artistically rewarding because you get to create a world and a bunch of characters and then keep telling stories there and about them until they pull the plug. As I say in my book about TV, a TV show is a relationship. A movie is a one night stand.

The medium is also artistically rewarding because TV writers have way more control over their work than movie writers do. On the other hand they have far less control than novelists or songwriters.

The money's nice, but I didn't get into this for the money, and I don't know anyone who got into it for the money.

I have a longer explanation in the intro to my TV writing book. It boils down to "You get to run the asylum."

I don't think there was a specific moment I wanted to become a TV writer. At some point I noticed that I write pretty fast, and that's a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for being a TV writer. So I wrote some specs and tried to get hired. I had more success in movies in LA; I didn't break into TV until I moved north. But in terms of wanting to write TV over movies -- it's been a slow process -- as TV gets better, it becomes more and more exciting to write in the medium.

I would say I'm always open to writing, in whatever medium...

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Friday, August 29, 2008

Q. How can I find a writing group?


I've posted a section of my book about writing groups and how great they are.

Are you looking for a writing group in your home town? Please consider this post page a resource. If you're starting a writing group, or looking for fellow writers to get together with, please leave your info in the comments below. Be sure to include your home town, your eddress, and your rough level (aspiring / emerging / pro -- it's usually best if everyone's in the same place more or less in their level of craft).

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

While we're on the subject of speeches, a fella gave a pretty good speech exactly 45 years ago. It's worth a listen.

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And I will almost certainly watch it.

UPDATE: My friend Kay Reindl is working on it. So it may in fact not suck!

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My podcast for Charlie Jade episode 112, "Charade," is up at Slice of Sci Fi. 114 and 116 will follow. Denis has done 110 and 113 (they'll be uploaded shortly); Sean has done 111 and 115.

Let me know what you think!

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I don't have a lot to say about Bill Clinton's speech. It was superb. The line everyone was waiting to hear -- and he knew it -- was "Barack Obama is ready to be the next President of the United States." Because, you know, he had dithered a bit about that, and Hillary had not exactly taken back her claim that Obama wasn't. And this line was brilliant:
"People around the world have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power."
Clinton has the ability to make a speech and make it sound like he's just speaking. You could see him pause to let a thought enter his brain -- even though you know that the thought is there in glowing light on the TelePrompTer right in front of him.

I think he was having fun. "Y'all siddown, we got some work to do!"

Biden's speech was great too. He's going to be the attack dog of the campaign. And he's going to make Barack Obama seem a little bit less like a space alien. The convention is all about validating Obama. If Michelle Obama is a TV-ready all-American mom and wife; if Hillary and Bill says that Obama stands for everything they stand for; if Joe Biden says Barack gets it; why then, he's no longer a mysterious charismatic character. He's been vouched for.

Tonight, the patron saint of the Left, Al Gore, will say anything left unsaid -- I'm not really sure what that might be. And then Barack will rock Mile High.

I think the Democratic convention's going rather well, don't you?

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

We just tuned into the roll call vote for the Democratic nomination.

There is such a fine line between hokum and majesty. A travel agent talking about the rolling plains and majestic mountains of Montana is hokum. But put it in the mouth of a delegation:
Madam Secretary, the great state of Montana, which spreads from the rolling Great Plains to the majestic Rocky Mountains, home of William Jennings Bryan... casts all 35 of its votes for the next president of the United States, Barack Obama!
... and it is no longer hokum. It is grandeur. It is the People itself speaking through their elected representatives.

It is political theatre. But it is great political theatre. I watch, and even though I know it's hokum, I'm weeping and laughing.

And then New Mexico yields to Illinois, Land of Lincoln and home town of the next president of the United States ... and Illinois yields to New York, and Hillary is on the floor. Why? To move that the convention suspend its roll call and nominate Barack Obama by acclamation!

And the convention roars its approval, and Barack Obama is their nominee. And Hillary is hugging her friends like the woman at the wedding who didn't get to marry the groom but has to be there because he considers her his best friend.

You can rarely justify anything so operatic in a screenplay. And when you try and fail, you fail big. Sorkin is probably the master of the high pitch moment -- he makes protocol into something chilling and moving. ("Mr. President, you are relieved, sir.") He can also flop big: "I serve at the pleasure of the President." "I serve at the pleasure of the President."

When you have a legitimate moment, don't be afraid to spend the time it takes to do it right. No one complained that it took too long for Luke and Han and Chewie to get their medals.

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RA Porter has posted a fun interview with Michael Filipowich, who played O1 Boxer so well in CHARLIE JADE. Michael is either a genius or insane or both.
There was so much going on in Gamma that you didn’t see…in Freudian terms higher self - Gamma; lower self - Alpha; mask - Beta. It’s like when a man goes out to an S&M club, gets loaded, things get out of hand, but has self awareness and a mission, and a longing…days later he stumbles home…his clean wife his adoring obedient children.
And:
Interesting you [compare my character to] Daffy because Looney Tunes were a big inspiration for 01. In episode 14 when I sneak up on Julius I improv the line - “come into my shop let me cut your mop, it’s free”, Looney Tunes Barber of Seville…wow man you got it. So I don’t think that you were seeing the actor but definitely the character…Daffy was a template. In episode 10 maybe where I beat a dude down…I put a lot of cartoonish moves in which were mostly cut out…but there is this like weird little step thing that I do. (ed: It was actually ep 11, “Thicker Than Water”)

Also that one scene where I paint a road on the side of a cliff and walk right through but then fall, but as I’m falling I pull out my cell and order a huge umbrella from acme which gets delivered to me while I am still in the air and I open it and safely float to the ground but then a Vexcor anvil falls on my head and my teeth become piano keys.
Fun.

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(More about political theatre!)

My mom was ecstatic about Hillary's speech to the Democratic convention last night. I thought it was a pretty good speech from the point of view of sincerely supporting Barack Obama; anything but her full-throated endorsement last night could have been a major wound.

But I wasn't happy with the speech as a performance text. I felt it rambled all over the place. Laundry lists of people the Democratic Party should help:
To fight for an America defined by deep and meaningful equality -- from civil rights to labor rights, from women's rights to gay rights, from ending discrimination to promoting unionization to providing help for the most important job there is: caring for our families. And to help every child live up to his or her God-given potential. To make America once again a nation of immigrants and of laws.

To restore fiscal sanity to Washington and make our government an instrument of the public good, not of private plunder.

To restore America's standing in the world, to end the war in Iraq, bring our troops home with honor, care for our veterans and give them the services they have earned.

We will work for an America again that will join with our allies in confronting our shared challenges, from poverty and genocide to terrorism and global warming.
I'm for all these good things, too. But "a nation of immigrants and laws"? What the hell does that mean? The two have nothing to do with each other. "poverty and genocide to terrorism and global warming"? How do you even mention those four in the same breath?

Hillary could have given a coherent critique of the Bush-McCain policies -- no reason she couldn't go all out negative on the Republicans, she's not running for President. A coherent critique would have tied some of these issues together by our addiction to oil. The logic would be along these lines: Bush and McCain have prevented us from developing alternative energies and reducing our thirst for oil. So we've shipped hundreds of billions of dollars to unstable states in the Middle East where the money winds up in the hands of terrorists. And when we burn the oil it winds up in the atmosphere where it increases global warming. Because of oil we got stuck in Iraq. And that means our military forces aren't available to stop genocide. We need to seriously reduce our dependence on oil. There's no reason American technology can't do it. And when we stop shipping our money overseas to pay for oil -- when we start building windmills and solar panels and creating more efficient biodiesel -- we're going to create a huge new energy sector that employs millions of Americans that are losing their jobs building big cars that no one can afford to buy any more.

Laundry lists are lazy writing. They don't tell a story. Hillary did not, I feel, tell a story. She started her speech well, letting everyone know she's for Barack Obama. But I would have told a story. Intro: "Don't worry, I'm supporting Barack Obama." First section: "I started this campaign because I have a vision of America moving into the future doing X, Y and Z." Second section: "Bush and McCain are wrecking this country by doing the exact opposite." Third section: "And that's why I'm not going to sulk over losing the nomination -- that's why I'm fully supporting Barack Obama."

Or, riskier... don't start with the endorsement. Leave it hanging until the end. Then people will be parsing every word. Your supporters will be hanging on everything you say to see if you're going to endorse or not.

I also thought Hillary blew a couple of good shots at call-and-response:
Now, John McCain is my colleague and my friend.

But we don't need four more years of the last eight years.

More economic stagnation and less affordable health care.

More high gas prices and less alternative energy.

More jobs getting shipped overseas and fewer jobs created here at home.

More skyrocketing debt and home foreclosures .and mounting bills that are crushing our middle class families.

More war and less diplomacy.

More of a government where the privileged come first and everyone else comes last.
Two problems with this section. One, the country doesn't really have "less" affordable health care or "less" alternative energy. It just hasn't improved. Two, she's using some parallel construction but it's not consistent. This really wanted to be call-and-response:
Now, John McCain is my colleague and my friend.

But we don't need four more years of the last eight years.

MORE foreclosures and LESS jobs.

MORE war and LESS diplomacy.

MORE corruption and LESS competence.

MORE jobs going overseas and LESS jobs at home.
Etc. You'd get the audience participating. Or, make it simpler:
Do we want to see America sucked into more foreign wars? (NO!) Do we want to see our government agencies ruined by corruption and cronyisms? (NO!) Is America a country that tortures its prisoners? (NO!)
Etc.

It also wasn't an enormously memorable speech. There was only one good line:
Now, with an agenda like that, it makes perfect sense that George Bush and John McCain will be together next week in the Twin Cities. Because these days they're awfully hard to tell apart.
But hey. It probably did the job.

The media, of course, are writing articles about how "some Hillary supporters still have doubts" blah blah blah. No doubt they had those articles written before her speech. Because with 18 million supporters, you have to suppose that some of them are not going to like Barack Obama if he came to their front door with flowers and candy and gave them a new car. Anyone who's serious about what Hillary stands for, though, has to back Obama at this point.

Looking forward to Bill's speech tonight. I believe that man knows how to give a speech.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008



[This post is all about political theatre, so if you're not interested in that, please skip.)

I thought Michelle Obama hit the ball out of Pepsi Stadium. It was fun to listen to the memes being slung around. One of the jobs the Democratic convention has is to "normalize" Barack Obama, whom the Republicans are trying to paint as a weirdo elitist. Michelle Obama was there to say: my husband is a great guy, you'd like him, I love him, we have happy kids:
And you know, what struck me when I first met Barack was that even though he had this funny name, even though he'd grown up all the way across the continent in Hawaii, his family was so much like mine. He was raised by grandparents who were working class folks just like my parents, and by a single mother who struggled to pay the bills just like we did. Like my family, they scrimped and saved so that he could have opportunities they never had themselves. And Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values: that you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond and you do what you say you're going to do; that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don't know them, and even if you don't agree with them.
Michele Obama came across as the TV version of the mom you'd like to have: articulate but nervous in front of crowds, very concerned about her parents and her kids, wants good things for her family and everybody else's family. Familiar but compelling and appealing. So the math works out to: if she thinks Barack Obama is just like her, maybe he's just like everybody else.

You're going to hear a lot of the "funny name" meme during the convention, I suspect. The idea is to inoculate voters by saying, yeah, it's a funny name but that's all it is, he's American. I wouldn't be surprised if we hear more of the "and that's why I love America" meme, too, because why let the Republicans own patriotism?

It was interesting how middle-of-the-road Michelle Obama's speech was. Was there even 20% Democratic content? If the Democratic Party was ever about entitlements for minority groups, her speech was about a level playing field: "America is a place where you can make it if you try." (Emphasis mine.) Nobody gets a handout; they get a hand up.

Obviously I'm partisan and one of the things I've learned about politics is that everyone filters what they see according to what they already feel. Democrats will love her speech and feel she has Oprah-esque star quality. Republicans will see her as an insincere elitist desperately trying to hide her special pleading under gobs of smarm. I suspect the speech went down well with independents, though, which is the point of all the hoopla.

I am not sure how well Cindy McCain is going to stack up against Michelle Obama. She's had a lot of work to the point where it shows. Michelle Obama's mother worked to put Michelle through college; Cindy McCain's dad left her a beer distribution corporation. I'm sure Cindy McCain can give a superb speech; but can she project the warmth that Michelle Obama did?

I'll also be interested in seeing what the McCains do about their kids. One of their kids, Bridget, is Bangladeshi. Cindy McCain talks about adopting her; but the campaign has kept her carefully out of sight, I have to assume because they think having a dark-skinned daughter will hurt him with racists. (Bush's 2000 campaign successfully slimed McCain by claiming he was the father of an illegitimate black child during the South Carolina primary.) I hope they bring out all their kids, and I think it would show he has a heart. But I wouldn't bet a lot of money on it. On the other hand they can't very well bring out the three white kids and not Bridget. Watch the Republican convention to see who Cindy brings onstage.

Next up: Hillary's night. I'm betting she gives a barn-burner of a speech.

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Monday, August 25, 2008

Q. I have a follow-up question to your recent post on Canadian Showbiz Geography.

I'm just getting going with a career in the UK industry, I have long wanted to try somewhere other than the UK (where I have lived all my life). The Canadian attitude to skilled migration is much more relaxed than the U.S., so I have had my eye on you guys for a few years now. I have no ties to Canada and no reason to pick a particular town. How about Vancouver? That was mentioned in the question, but not in your response.

I have been able to get something of an impression by Googling around for TV and film production there, but there's nothing like a first-hand opinion. It seems like it might have the advantage of a being a relatively small self-contained community in which it is easier to get noticed than Toronto/Montreal -- and perhaps benefits from being closer to California. But is the community there too small? Or are my impressions on completely the wrong track?
I spoke with my friend Evil D about Vancouver. He's a hard-working, crafty writer who just finished staffing a successful network show here. Of the four Vancouver shows he's staffed recently, exactly one originated in Vancouver. The others were created in Toronto and at least partly staffed in Toronto; in fact he had his interview for one of them in Toronto even though he's a Vancouver based writer and the show was Vancouver.

So while Vancouver has more production going on than Montreal, I think, not that much of it originates there. (And let's not even get into American service productions like Battlestar Galactica.) Which means that you might have more chance staffing a Vancouver show by hanging out at the Paddock or Aunties and Uncles in Toronto than you would building up your network in Vancouver.

No, I think it's still Toronto. Your career will move faster in Toronto. Evil D feels he'd be five years further along had he started in the Big Smoke.

DMc commented in the earlier post that there's a lot of support for regional production, and that means if you are in, say, Edmonton, it behooves you to get to know your Edmonton producers before decamping to the Annex. That's undoubtably true; but once you know them, there's no reason to stay at home. DMc himself, I suspect, would not be on the cusp of running his own show if he was not in the thick of things in Toronto. Sure, he'd still be a superb writer, but fewer people would know that.

Writers do have the big advantage that they can create their own shows. The pay cable show I'm developing is set in Montreal because I wrote it that way. (There are also big provincial subsidies, and some creative reasons, too!) NAKED JOSH was set in Montreal because I and my co-creator lived there, and took it to a local producer; and neither of us had big TV credits. So you can live in Edmonton and create an Edmonton based show. But if you want to staff -- and you want and need to staff -- it's hard to argue with getting to Toronto ASAP, while keeping up your home town contacts.

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Saturday, August 23, 2008

This is apparently a homemade attack ad, but it's quite effective:



(Just a second while I marvel at the idea of "homemade attack ad," which was barely thinkable four years ago, and probably inconceivable eight years ago. Okay, I'm done.)

The ad makes one single point: the lower Bush's approval rating sinks, the more McCain votes for him. I like that it doesn't get sidetracked. It doesn't mention that McCain probably began taking more Administration-friendly positions to please the Republican base as he got closer to the election. It doesn't mention popular bills that McCain failed to vote for or voted against (alternate energy, the Webb GI Bill). It doesn't get into the "McCain has been skipping votes" meme. It does not draw conclusions.

It just asks if you, like McCain, like Bush better now than you did four years ago. Which is an extremely clever way to phrase it, because even among the 27% who still approve of George Bush, I bet you a big chunk are less impressed with him than they were in 2004.

Much of successful politics is drawing a line so that, when people take sides, the majority find themselves on your side of the line. This ad is the graphical counterpart of the picture Democrats keep using of McCain burying his face in Bush's armpit. If the Democrats can equate McCain and Bush, they win; just as, if the Republicans can make the election about who has spent more years in government, McCain wins.

The ad probably runs twice as long as it needs to; I can't think why you couldn't say the same thing in 30 seconds. But it's a web ad, and 60 seconds is not too long for the web.

I feel sure the campaigns are monitoring the web for homebrew ads. Youtube has unleashed the creative genius of America's political fans to make their strategy ideas directly available for candidates who grok the medium. Smart candidates will have contests for the best web ads; winner gets dinner with David Axelrod and David Plouffe, or Karl Rove, according to which side they're on.

I'd be interested to see if there are any similarly effective issue-based ads on the other side... please feel free to put links to the good stuff in the comments. I'm less interested in the outlandish Ayers/Rezko stuff; it's not very clever to put ominous music over some photos and quotes and insinuate that someone is a terrrrrrrist.

UPDATE: Here's McCain's new ad from today. (I can't figure out how to embed CNN video.) This is a terrible ad. It starts with another shot of a big Obama crowd, although you'd have to know that from previous McCain ads. It re-accuses Obama of being a rich celebrity, saying that he doesn't know what things cost, but "we" do.Then it moves on to accuse Obama of wanting to raise taxes on the middle class. Then it moves on yet again to accuse Obama of not being ready to lead.

This is just a mishmash of ideas, and poorly chosen ones at that.

The McCain people really have to get off the "Celebrity" meme. It just sounds like McCain is mad he's not the celebrity any more. No one likes a whiner. Get over it.

It is a very bad idea to follow up not knowing how many houses you have with accusing your opponent of not knowing what things cost.

It might be effective to talk about higher taxes; you can assume that low-information voters won't see the graphic circulating that shows that Obama's tax plan only raises taxes on the rich. (Or, as McCain would put it, the rich, and those working poor who only make over $250,000 a year.)

But then it shoots off into Obama's supposed unreadiness to lead. "He's ready to raise taxes, but not ready to lead."

I'm not really sure what we're supposed to take away from this ad.

If I were trying to counter the "So Many Houses He Can't Remember Them" meme, I would get off economics as fast as I could. I would talk about the war in Georgia. I would accuse Obama of being weak and mealy-mouthed and not standing up for our allies. (Again: foreign policy wonks would ask if standing up for Georgia would be a good idea, but low information voters would probably like to see us Stand Up to the Russkies.) I would try to reframe things as quickly as possible as "McCain knows what he stands for." Reagan forgot a lot of stuff too, and said that trees pollute, and fibbed about his war experience. But he won because everyone knew what he stood for, and that's what the election was about. After four years of Carter, the country was ready for a morally convinced stand-up guy.

Of course there's a danger there, too, that McCain comes off as a hothead. But he is a hothead, so you might as well make that a virtue, or you leave the issue out there for your opponent to frame, and that's never a good idea.

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Friday, August 22, 2008



This one is more effective than yesterday's Obama attack ad. Note how well they tie together a multitude of McCain slips: being photographed in a golf cart; saying you're not rich till you have five million bucks; not knowing how many houses you own.

A lot of people had been wondering why Obama wasn't jumping on every McCain gaffe. As someone or other pointed out yesterday, they have been waiting until they can build up a "narrative" by combining them. McCain can brush off an individual mistake -- everyone says dumb things. (Wait until Biden's the VP and see what comes out of his mouth.) But one after another, and people put together the pattern. You don't want to use up the gaffes; you want to build something out of them.

As always, it's about the story you're telling.

Note how the "out of touch" accusation cuts two ways. The ad, and its imagery, imply that McCain is an old, tired man. Heck, he probably couldn't remember how many houses he had even if he didn't have seven! Expect to see them continue to attack McCain for being old and forgetful while pretending they're attacking him for something else. Expect to see a lot of language like "out of touch" or "we think he's lost his bearings," which sounds a lot like "we think he's lost his marbles."

(Of course, the reason he couldn't answer the question is because some of them are owned by a trust, and some by his wife, so it's complicated. But attempting to address that would only open up a can of worms. His wife owns his houses? He has companies that own his stuff? What the hell?)

The McCain response has been twofold. One, jump up and down and say "P.O.W.! P.O.W.! P.O.W.!" over and over, until it becomes a Rudy-esque mantra: subject, verb, P.O.W. Second, bring up the Rezko and Ayers stuff again.

It's foolish to bring up the P.O.W. thing; the more you push it, the less impressed people will be, and they'll dare to ask why his being imprisoned 40 years ago excuses him from criticism.

The Rezko/Ayers stuff might be a little more effective, but they were going to bring that stuff out sooner or later. Here they've had to bring it out a few days before the convention, when it will get swamped. But it didn't tarnish Obama much when the Democrats brought it out against Obama, and now it's old news; for some reason, America only values new news. McCain is getting a similar pass for his involvement in the Keating 5, and the Vicki Isenman mystery: old news. You can run ads about Rezko and Ayers, and they will, but the media are not going to talk about it unless you can find a new angle.

But worse, it doesn't work with the story they're trying to tell about Obama. The past few weeks the Republicans have been painting Obama as an airhead celebrity. Now they're implying that he's corrupt. Either you're an airhead, or you're a dirty politician, but if you're dirty, you obviously know what's going on, and if you're an airhead, you're not responsible.

The McCain stuff sticks, because it fits the narrative the Obama campaign has been pushing: McCain 2008 is not the McCain of 2000. He's sold his principles. He was a maverick; now he's ready for the glue factory. He's tired and forgetful and cranky. In short: he's lost it.

Our brains seem to absorb information much better as part of a story than as an accumulation of facts; whenever you can make facts into a story, it will make a stronger impression.

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Stewart McKie is at it again with his word cloud software at ScriptGeist:
You can import as many scripts as you want into your own Scriptgeist library. Then you can view a variety of statistics and visualizations generated directly from the content of your script. The statistics include lists of characters, scenes and locations and dialog by character. The visualizations include word frequency clouds, pie charts and character throughlines.
I'm not sure what mechanical analysis of the words and characters in your script gives you, but it looks like fun.

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

What is turnaround? I would think they would give it back to the producer and he would try to shop around again or give it back to you if he/she is not interested. And if so, does the producer have to pay you, the writer fees?
Turnaround is when the studio, having shelved a project, gives the producer an opportunity to buy the project back for an amount in the neighborhood of every single cost the studio can allocate to the project. Practically it means that the producer can take it to another studio and try to get the other studio to buy it from the first studio.

A studio can easily rack up a couple million bucks just ordering rewrites, so normally it is very hard to use your turnaround rights. However, see LORD OF THE RINGS.

The writer does not get his rights back until his contract says he does. Some writer contracts have turnaround or actual reversion clauses (mine do); usually the producer has bought irrevocable rights.

The producer only has to pay the writer fees per his contract. So if selling the project to another studio means that the show goes, and you get paid a production fee when the show goes, then mazel tov to you, you're getting paid. But turnaround itself does not generate any fees to the writer.

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Yesterday, John McCain said he doesn't know how many homes he owns:
"I think — I'll have my staff get to you," McCain told Politico in Las Cruces, N.M. "It's condominiums where — I'll have them get to you."
This was the Obama campaign's response in an email:
"This story about John McCain losing track of how many houses he owns is a telling moment that helps to explain why he still thinks 'the fundamentals of our economy are strong' and why he offers just more of the same economic policies that we’ve gotten from President Bush for the last eight years."
Guys! Hire some screenwriters! The line is:
"At a time when many Americans are losing their only homes, John McCain can't remember how many homes he owns. We think that says it all."
If you can get the audience to draw their own conclusions, they will feel much more strongly about them than if you push your conclusions at them.

(NOTE: please use the comments to complain about other bad writing in the campaigns, not to talk politics itself, or to tell me to keep politics out of my blog. See the upper right hand corner.)

UPDATE: This attack ad is okay, but only okay:

I think it contains way too much information. Why keep slamming McCain for saying "the fundamentals of our economy are strong"? First of all, the statement is arguably true, depending on how you define fundamentals (American workers are skilled, our technology is superb etc.). Second, the statement is so dull it slips right out of the mind and you can't remember what the guy just said. (I'd have gone with the Philip Gramm "Americans are whiners" here.)

I would just pound away for 30 seconds on the unbelievable fact. I would have man-in-the-street interviews, with one ordinary person after another saying, incredulously, he doesn't know how many houses he has????. Over and over. Maybe have someone saying, "I just lost my house. I sure remember that!"

And I might wrap it up with the shot of the White House, "Do we really want to give John McCain another house?" Not "the American people can't afford," blah, blah, blah, which is portentous and meaningless. Just the basic logic, if he can't remember how many houses he's got, maybe we don't need him in the White House.

Keep it simple! Keep it catchy! Keep it down to earth!

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Q. Is it completely insane to contact the president of a major network studio to ask her to read a TV spec script if I met with her once (in an amicable, academic-professional capacity) a few years ago?
It's an extreme long shot. Can't hurt though, can it? At worst you get ignored.

I wouldn't ask her to read it. I'd ask her to pass it along to someone to read. If she wants to read it she will, but really, she's too busy. Whichever one she is.
Q. I was going to send along a little basket with the letter. Thoughtful gesture, or weird?
A sacrifice to the gods is unnecessary. And, anyway, she gets bigger baskets all the time. Probably gives them to her assistants.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Q. I have been studying/writing screenplays on my own for close to ten years now, and I'm returning to Canada after a stint teaching English overseas. What I want to know is, do I need to live in Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver to be "in the industry?" How close-knit is the Canadian screenwriting community?

I'm considering taking a scriptwriting course at a college in Ottawa. Am I going to be removing myself from the industry and the jobs by living there? The main reason I'm thinking about going to school is to build relationships and network, but if I'm completely cut off from everyone else geographically, it won't do me a whole lot of good.

I know that if you're writing for the U.S. market you pretty much have to be in L.A., but is there a Canadian equivalent?
Toronto is far and away the center of anglo showbiz in Canada, as Montreal is the hub of francophone showbiz. The networks are guilds are all Toronto-based. At least a plurality of Canadian shows are staffed and cast out of Toronto. There is a good deal of production in Vancouver, and to a lesser extent Montreal, but many of those shows originate in Toronto. 18 TO LIFE, SOPHIE and DAD'S IN THE ATTIC are all Montreal productions with Toronto prodcos; BLOOD TIES, which shot in Vancouver, was largely a Toronto creation as well. (Weirdly, they shot Vancouver for Toronto, which seems a huge waste of production value.)

I live in Montreal, because it's the best city in the world to live in. But I make a point of visiting Toronto regularly. Maybe every 6-8 weeks. My pay cable series is set up with a Toronto production company. Montreal producers are, collectively, terrible at reading people's material.

I also have feature writing friends who live here, who work with producers in LA, New York, England, even Mongolia. But their agents are in Toronto or LA, or they have networks of producers who know and love and think of them.

In Canada there is support for regional production, which means that an Edmonton-based writer will occasionally get a gig because he's the best available Alberta writer. But I wouldn't advise anyone to stay in Edmonton and wait for that to happen. [UPDATE: Though, as DMc points out in the comments, I would recommend that person make friends with any production companies active in Edmonton, and maybe Calgary too, before ditching the Prairies for the Center.]

Anyone who's serious about working in the Canadian biz should make it a priority to go to the Canadian Film Centre. A shockingly high percentage of working screenwriters and development execs and network execs are alumni of the Prime Time Television Program or the Film Resident Program. They're both only six months long.

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Apropos "how often should I call my agent / the producer I sent my script to?" Rouge Wave writes:
The best thing you can do is to treat this like dating: you call once, twice, maybe three times, and if you don't get a response, move on. When you make it big, we'll totally be sorry.
And, let's be honest. That third time? You know what the answer is. Have you ever called that third time and heard, "Oh, snap! We've been meaning to call you!"

(Whereas I have called a second time, on occasion, and heard, "Thanks for calling, I lost your number," and gone on to have a productive conversation that suggested that the other party really did unintentionally lose my number.)

Via

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

A pro writer friend of mine is trying to resolve an issue with a producer, and writes
Ugh. Maybe I'll try another nice email ...
Y'all love email, don't you? You can gather your thoughts. You send it off into the blue. No real face to face confrontation.

Email is great when two people are more or less on the same page. Where email sucks is resolving confrontation. Email just generally exacerbates problems. Someone who is mad at you will take an email the wrong way no matter how you write it. If it's nice it'll come off smarmy. If it's not nice it'll come off pissy.

More importantly, it is extremely easy to say "no" by email. In fact, you just don't respond.

People, if you want a "yes" from someone, or even part of a yes, then you can't do it in prose. You have to call. On the phone. Even better, get a face to face meeting. People are much, much nicer in person than they are on the Internet. They tend to see your point of view. It's hardwired in us as human beings to cut the other person some slack when she's right there and we can see she's upset.

When you meet people in person, they become your friends.

People write email because they don't want to expose themselves. They don't want to be vulnerable. Yet being vulnerable is what gets the other person to be nice to you. If you are, for example, trying to get a producer to give you a project back, what are they odds they're going to do it because you sent an email? Not very good. But if you take your producer out for a nice cocktail and, after a few drinks, say, "Hey, are you gonna do anything with that project? Because I put a lot of love into that, and I would really love to do something with it" Then they might say, "Sure, go for it."

Of course, meeting with people means that you will have to see their point of view, and you'll have to swallow your anger yourself. That's another reason people like to use email -- they get to stay angry. It is also another reason why you need a meeting. Don't you want to see the other person's point of view?

Negotiating without seeing the other person's point of view is like playing stud poker without being able to see the other guy's "up" cards. It's bad enough you can't see their hole cards. It's impossible without seeing their up cards.

Seriously. Texting and emailing is great to arrange a hookup. To negotiate anything substantive, get as much contact as you possibly can. Phone good, meeting better. Email won't get you what you want.

The exception to the rule is if you email someone and then immediately call them. I like to lay out my concerns clearly. But leave the email open ended. Just lay out your concerns. Your point of view. Don't take the other side to task. Don't ask questions you can ask on the phone. You only want the email to frame the phone call. Not to substitute it.

Human contact, people! There's no substitute for it.

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Saturday, August 16, 2008

As research for my political thriller, I've been reading Peggy Noonan's WHAT I SAW AT THE REVOLUTION. I'm on the other side politically, but Noonan is one of the great speechwriters of our epoch. She writes a heck of a book.

It's striking how similar speechwriters and screenwriters seem to be. I guess writers are writers. Speechwriters get no respect from the bureaucrats, of course, yet speeches are essential to governing; how else do people know the direction to go? Noonan wandering around the Washington Monument in the middle of the day searching for inspiration will seem pretty familiar to all of you.

Washington sounds a good deal like Hollywood.
At a party there were rules. One is that people are allowed to quickly turn away from you once they've determined you do not have any clear utility to them. If you cannot help them in their rise, if you are not famous or influential or important, or if you're important but not in their field, they will simply turn away.
And, like Hollywood, DC is a town that people break their balls to get into because they're passionate about things. But once they're in, they discover that it is considered uncool to stand up for those things. Yes, we want your passion. But we don't want you to disagree with our notes. We don't want controversy. Talking about a man who broke the rule of dispassionate vagueness in conversation:
Once he was invited to a dinner party with people of high repute in a splendid house with fine food. These people were the permanent Washington, Potomac royalty, the unchanging inside; they lived in a world of tacit assumptions and assumed understandings, a world in which it is de rigueur to talk about left-wing fanatics and right-wing fanatics, a world in whch when you call to RSVP, the person who answers always somehow makes you feel like a total yahoo. He wanted to be liked. The talk was of the day's events. Someone mentioned the big demonstration that had held up traffic for what seemed like hours, and a woman with pale hair explaimed, Oh those anti-abortion people, they're so awful!

And the man who was controversial said, Yeah, well, abortion's pretty awful too, don't you think, the ending of a life?

And as he finished that sentence he looked at her, and her eyes went mmmmmm-nice-to-see-you, and she looked away. He wasn't invited back.
Replace abortion, say, with "the theme of my movie is the tragedy of war, so no, he can't miraculously recover from his wounds," and you have the reaction of a bunch of studio types to a young, passionate director who will never be asked back.

And,
Only the amateurs stay mad.
True in Ho'wood, too, with a twist. Only amateurs stay mad at people they worked on a hit with.

(Though you're not obliged to work with anyone whose knife is still in your back.)

Both worlds have new people showing up every day, of uncertain pull and power, that has to be constantly weighed and reweighed. You are only as valuable as your last hit movie; you are only as valuable as your last won election. Maybe, too, both politics and showbiz are about playing to an audience, and sometimes only a bit of the audience, only to a slice of a demographic. It is said that politicians all want to be movie stars and vice versa; maybe it's because they understand each other all too well. And that's how the Senator from Tennessee winds up on Law & Order, and the Terminator becomes the Gubernator.

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Friday, August 15, 2008

The McCain campaign has been running a bunch of negative ads slamming Obama:





Here's why these might not work. Watch them with the sound off. What do you get?

Right. Obama smiling. Obama waving to enormous crowds. Obama looking calm and serene and presidential.

By contrast, McCain looks kinda uncomfortable.

Oh, sure, there are words on the screen, too. Those say negative things.

But people don't tend to read words on their TV screen. TV is famously "radio with pictures."

There's also an announcer saying negative things about Obama. That's going to be a little more effective. But not that effective. The audience doesn't like to be lectured. It doesn't like you to "push" plot at it.

What it likes is to be pulled into a story. Look at this ad with the sound off:



There's potatoes in someone's hands. And people working. And wind power.

What's this about? we wanna know.

And then -- oh, hey, it's that Obama guy! I guess he's for people working. And for windmills and stuff. And solar panels.

In the McCain ads, the visuals make Obama seem like a good guy and a big leader. (I mean, why not use the footage from the ELLEN DEGENERES SHOW of him dancing ... ohhh, right, that would look racist. Ok, how about showing him playing basketball ... whoops, that just makes him look young. Damn! Doesn't he ever look stupid?)

In the Obama ad, the visuals make him look like a good guy, and tell a visual story where he's part of a movement towards new kinds of jobs.

One frustrating thing about writing for TV is that the audience is not paying attention half the time. You can't count on onscreen text to carry the weight. You can't dump the whole thing into dialog. You really have to craft something coherent. Or trick the audience -- by, e.g. not telling them what the ad is about until the end.

Part of the problem, I think, is that the McCain ad is trying to do too much. Slam Obama and build up McCain. You really only want to try to do one of those things in your thirty seconds. This is what advertisers call the Unique Selling Proposition -- you're supposed to hammer it home.

Just sayin.

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Two important WIRED articles Bill Cunningham insisted I read, and you should, too:

Fitting Network TV For a Toe Tag.

Hollywood Has Figured Out How to Make Web Pay (Though the article seems to say the reverse.)

My predictions:

a. If you are fiction writer, in the future you will likely be writing for more cheaply made, niche-ier shows with smaller staffs. That's bad if you want to get rich. Good if you like to write. More niches means more scripts. Someone's got to write them.

b. If you can think outside of the narrative box, thank your lucky stars. There will be more hunger for docs of various flavors. The article references ICE ROAD TRUCKERS, History Channel's surprise hit about, wait for it, ice road truckers. There will be more hunger for reality and lifestyle shows. If you can think of fresh new formats other people haven't thought of, you have a future in TV. It may not be a glamorous and creatively fulfilling future, however; it will be a future producing cheesy reality shows.

c. The whole frakking TV industry may still come to a crashing stop. People will always want to be told stories, but it's going to be a problem getting them to pay for them. The current business model relies on people watching ads. They keep telling us that people with TiVo's still watch the ads, but I find that incredibly hard to believe. Once people get used to hitting the SKIP button, ad-supported TV is doomed. Subscription channels may work for a while, but you get an entirely different show on subscription TV, and a different audience. Ultimately I think we'll need to move to a pay-per-view streaming model, I think, which will be a game-changer not only in terms of financing, but creatively. I bet you we'll see fewer 22 ep seasons, more serialized shows, more minis, more experiments.

But first, people will have to get used to the idea that they can't watch TV for free. This may be less of a leap than some suppose. TV never really was free. You always had to pay for the hardware. And for the past 30 years, we've been paying for cable or satellite. But if people think they can get away with piracy, they will; just look at any torrent site. Will people fork out the dough? I sure hope so, or I really will have to become a speechwriter.

UPDATE: DMc thinks I can keep my job.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Lisa and I watched Antonioni's BLOW UP last night. This is a quietly spectacular movie -- quietly because very little happens from a plot point of view, and there are no chases or explosions. Mostly the hero wanders through Swinging London of 1966.

But after you see the movie, the world looks slightly different to your eyes, which is a spectacular thing for a movie to do.

(The following has spoilers, though they probably won't affect the movie much.)

What struck me this time is how David Hemmings' photographer character Thomas curiously fails to do something normal in the middle of the picture. He finds a dead body in a park. He goes home. He visits his neighbor. He goes back home. The photographs he took that led him to the body are gone. His neighbor's wife visit. She asks if he should call the police. He changes the subject. He goes to a rave. He goes to a party. In the morning, he goes back to the park.

Any normal person finding a dead body in a park would call the police. Hell, he's got a radio in his car. He doesn't.

What's interesting about this from a craft point of view is that there's no explanation given. His neighbor's wife asks him if he shouldn't call the police. He changes the subject.

The question is addressed but it's never answered. We have to make our own explanations for his behavior.

In a way, the strangeness of his behavior becomes the point of the film. Maybe to Thomas, only the unreal is real; the dead body is so real, it's hardly there at all. But if you were to have Thomas or antoher character put that in words, the movie probably wouldn't work; it would reduce the thematic mystery to a sound bite.

I'm working on an odd political thriller, where the motivation of the main character is at odds with normal. There have been a lot of calls to make clear exactly why he's behaving that way. But I wonder if I should, instead, simply commit to what he's doing, to create a strong portrait of a man who is doing that, and not explain. Like a locked box, there is something fascinating about an opaque character. CAT scan it, and you run the risk of ruining the mystery.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Some times ago, a Pro Writer (let's call her PW) called me to discuss her situation. PW created a show for a producer a few years ago. The contract agreed that this producer (who contributed some ideas, but maybe didn't do the heavy lifting) would be a "co-creator." Nothing has happened with the show lately. What can PW do?

Legally, PW can't do anything without the original producer's okay. He has co-ownership of the copyright from the ideas he may have contributed.

In order for PW to take the show out and sell it, she needs to make a deal with OP. You can't sell a show that someone else owns or controls. So PW has to get OP to agree to take a step back.

What's a fair deal to offer?

Whether or now PW did the heavy lifting is irrelevant because the deal was a co-creating deal, and the producer did contribute ideas. He probably won't take less than shared Created By credit of the TV show. He'll want a share of the Purchase Price and any royalty. He'll want an appropriate courtesy producer credit -- maybe Co-Producer, or Co-Exec Producer, or (you want to avoid this) a guaranteed Exec Producer credit.

The same deal works for movies. When you see Bigname Director taking an Executive Producer position on a movie he didn't direct, odds are good that he was on the movie as the director during development, and the studio bought him out for some reason or another for money and a courtesy credit.

PW should have OP sign an agreement that puts control of the show in PW's hand, and acknowledges that he doesn't have any right to share in PW's further involvement in the series. So PW would be free to negotiate her own status on the show if goes: showrunner or Head Writer or whatever she can get. She would get paid for any scripts she'd write. Her salary on the show would not be shared. (Remember, "an oral agreement isn't worth the paper it's written on.")

Likewise in the movies, PW would have to share the purchase price of the original script, and the credit accorded the original script, but not anything she'd get paid for a later rewrite.

That's a reasonable deal for everyone. There is still plenty of money in the deal for PW, and enough for OP that he has an incentive to let it go get made elsewhere.

If you can't afford a lawyer to draft the agreement, then write something up in a couple of pages that spells everything out. You'll eventually have to sign something written by lawyers, but most people, having agreed on the substantive points, won't be too much of a dick about the legalese. Just be aware that when it comes to the Big Legal Agreement, any ambiguities you've left in the document will probably be negotiated in favor of the party that has the least to lose.

This is why you want to be clear what rights you're giving up. You might be focused on the up front payment now, figuring what's the odds it will actually go? And I really need to fix my bike. But eventually something does go, and you might be kicking yourself later for a too-generous deal you made long ago.

On the other hand, don't be too proud. If I originated the project, or even if a producer brings me in to adapt something from another medium (e.g. producer has optioned a book), I am unlikely to share my created-by credit. But if it's the producer's idea, then I might co-create with him. I'd just evaluate the rest of the deal. I recently wrote up a pitch based on a producer's concept. I share co-created by credit. I agreed to come on board because his concept was good; it was easy to see how to develop it into a show. I got paid appropriately to do it. It was a short time commitment. The producer is a heavy hitter with good credits. He can get something made. I had the time. Why not do it and put another iron in the fire? I'm not proud about sharing credit when there's an argument for it.

With a less heavy producer, I might have been less interested in doing a co-create. Or with a producer who likes to keep picking things apart and rethinking them. Or if it wasn't obvious how to turn the concept into a show. You have to consider all the factors. And then, of course, get everything on paper.

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Monday, August 11, 2008

If you are an American in Montreal, and you dig Barack Obama... then please let me know and I'll invite you to my August 28th fundraiser in the Old Port. (Only US citizens can contribute to US races.)

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Saturday, August 09, 2008

As someone whose job it is to put words in people's mouths, it irks me when the people trying to run the free world fail to explain themselves in a simple, convincing way. If I were a speechwriter, here's a couple soundbites for Barack Obama:

  • The Republicans haven't lowered your taxes. They've just put off paying them. When you cut taxes and raise spending, it's like telling people you're saving money because you're putting everything on your charge card. You know you're gonna have to pay it sooner or later... with interest.
  • The frightening thing is, the credit card company we owe all that money to ... is China.
  • I don't see where I'm the elitist in this race. I'm not the guy who lives in eight houses.
  • I can't even figure out how you live in eight houses. Do you keep one just for barbecues? Do you only like to tidy up once a year? Does a guy with eight houses really need the White House too?


I just thought of a good one-liner for the other guy, but I think I'll keep it to myself.

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Friday, August 08, 2008

Q. How often are your periodic conversations with your agent? Weekly, bi-weekly, monthly or bi-monthly. Is there such a thing as engaging with your agent too much (or producers and development people for that matter)? What happens if you pester them so much they won't take your calls, let alone work with you?
Then they won't take your calls or work with you.

It depends where your career is and how much you have to talk about. I never call Amy to chat. If I have info for her, I email her. When I have questions, I call. If I'm busy writing, that might not be more than once a week. If I'm actively trying to round up business, or forward my own projects, that could be several times a week. If we're in a contract negotiation, that's several times a day.

Even if I'm hunkered down in the middle of a script, I'll usually send her a weekly "roundup" email of all my current projects, where they stand, ideas for things I'd like her to do (what about sending script X to guy Y?), and questions about new avenues to pursue. Then I call to go over the roundup email. That way we don't forget anything current. Nothing focuses a meeting like an agenda.

I try to be very sparing of her time. The point of the call is to determine (a) what I should be doing (b) what I'd like her to do. It's all about the doing. Neither of you make any money from her talking to you. 

I let her know where I would like her to focus her energies. Sometimes, I'm overloaded and I can't take on any more work; then I would like her to push my finished material. Sometimes I'm running low on work and I'd like her to find me a rewrite or a free lance script or a commission.

You can usually tell if you're calling too much, or if your agent has lost interest, because the time to return your call starts to deteriorate. I fired my last agent after a couple of phone calls went unanswered within a week. (There was a hostile email, too!) Amy almost always responds within 24 hours. If you're a newbie, response time may be closer to a week than a day; but if it gets to be much over a week, your agent may not be beating the bushes for you. Is that because you haven't provided her with fresh material? Write something new and brilliant. But if you've sent in a new spec and you haven't even had an acknowledgment, time to quietly reach out and start looking for a new agent.

Give your agent time to read new material. At least two weeks to read anything longer than six pages.

Don't call to nag. If you haven't heard back in a reasonable while, send an email. If that goes unanswered, don't send a follow-up. Wait until you have fresh info or a fresh question.

Yes, it's agonizing to wait. But keep the relationship professional. She has other clients. If you're not getting served the way you want, figure out what you're doing wrong, or move on.

Agents like to hear from their clients. But they like to hear positive, useful things from their clients. They want to hear "I have a fresh spec." Or, "I met a development guy at a party and I wanted to chat with you what to send to him." Or "I have two great ideas, which should I write first?"

They don't want to hear, in essence, "I'm lonely and sad and you're the only one who'll talk to me." 

(If you're lonely and sad, volunteer.)

Like all relationships, put yourself in your agent's shoes and ask: "would I want to be on the other end of this phone call?" That should tell you whether to call.

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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Q. What do you mean, "agent your agent"?
Many people come into the biz thinking that "an agent gets you work."

It is true that the best agents will beat the bushes looking for work for you. They will send out your samples. They'll keep their ear to the ground to hear of upcoming jobs, and put you up for them.

But no agent is perfect, and no agent has unlimited brain cells available for you. They have other clients, y'know.

So you have to agent your agent.

At a basic level, that means not only providing a steady stream of new material to sell, or sell you with: spec scripts, spec pilots, spec features. It means also suggesting places that you'd like her to send your stuff. Ideally, people with whom you have relationships, or at least people who've read you before and liked you, and maybe even met you. Keep lists of those people, and when you send in your latest new thing, have a chat with your agent about where she should focus her energies.

You should be reading the trades and talking to people about upcoming shows and upcoming projects. Is one right for you? Drop your agent an email, or call.

Engage with your agent as if you were another agent representing you. Consider yourself as a product. Where should we send my stuff?

I have periodic conversations with my agent, Amy, who may possibly be the best agent in Canada. I remind her of each of my current and available projects. We discuss: what's the next step with each of them?

Agenting your agent also means being involved in the deals. You always want your agent to negotiate for you. But you should be right behind the scenes discussing the deal terms with her. What do you want? What are you willing to settle for? How willing are you to walk away if the deal's not right? How important is money up front? How important are guaranteed scripts or rewrites? My philosophy is to push hardest for money that won't affect the budget -- e.g. guaranteed scripts that someone will have to be paid for -- and least hard for things like option payments that come directly out of the producer's pocket. Essentially I just want enough to know the production company is serious.

I almost always leave the pure money points to Amy. I want as much as she can get me, of course. But we discuss issues like creative control, continued involvement, print rights (I try to keep them), etc.

Amy reads every contract looking for language that needs to be negotiated. I also send her memos listing my concerns.

A successful writer is a businessperson, not just a creative. You never want to negotiate on your own behalf; but you are the key figure in the negotiating team. You will not get the best deal if you drop the whole problem in your agent's lap and head to the beach.

Agenting your agent really means continuing what you were doing to support your career before you had an agent. Only now you've got a partner who shares many of your goals. Give your partner the information and support she needs to succeed.

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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Interesting piece about Lesley Stahl, who did a "hard-hitting" piece on Ronald Reagan in 1984. Unfortunately the footage was Reagan smiling and waving to crowds. The campaign called to thank her. She ran the footage for a focus group, and 75% thought the piece was positive about Reagan.

Think about that when you're crafting your screenplay. Or your attack ad.

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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Q. I have just received a contract offering to option a pilot and bible I've been working on. [Long list of deal terms follows.] Is that a fair deal?
Probably not. Producers write contracts to give themselves loopholes and outs. They lowball their offer a bit. Even if they're honest, they figure you'll want to negotiate, and so they give themselves a little room to negotiate.

If someone is offering you an option deal, it should not be hard to find an agent to negotiate it for you. They'll take 10% of what is likely a small upfront fee with a bigger back end. They will almost certainly boost your deal by at least 10%, so they cost you nothing. In return you get their knowledge of what a fair deal is, and you won't piss off the producer by asking for more than they offered.
Q. I am a 45 year old first-time writer (ridiculous, I know), so I'm willing to take a less than industry standard offer.
Nothing ridiculous about you if you have a property someone wants to option!

But more importantly: don't negotiate against yourself. You want your agent to get you as much money as you can without pissing the producer off. The more he pays, the more he'll value the property and you.

You don't get what you deserve. You get what you negotiate.

Where your being a newbie comes in is what you want to struggle for and what you'll give up. Obviously you're not going to be the showrunner. On the other hand you should insist on being on staff and writing as many scripts as they'll let you have. Ask for 25% and settle for 20%. You won't get control but you can insist on involvement. In a TV deal, it costs the producer very little to guarantee you scripts. Someone will have to be paid Guild scale for them; and the writing staff can always rewrite you if you suck.

Producer will use Producer’s reasonable best efforts to have Owner engaged as a writer on the Series on terms and conditions as generally prevail in the television industry comparable to those of Owner’s experience as a writer.
This is why you need an agent who knows how to read a contract, or failing that, a lawyer. You want "best efforts," which is a term of art, not "reasonable best efforts" which doesn't mean anything. "Terms and conditions ... comparable to Owner's experience" is useless if you have no experience. You want "Owner shall have the right of first refusal to write the first draft of the series pilot. Owner shall right of first refusal to be hired to write no fewer than 20% of all scripts commissioned during the first season of the Series." That is an enforceable right. The language you've got can easily circumvented. ("We asked the network, and they said no.")

Remember the legal axiom: "a man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client." Never negotiate on your own behalf if you can avoid it.

This rule is even more important where the people with whom you're negotiating are friends or family. You will either piss them off (don't you understand what a big favor they're doing you???) or seriously undervalue yourself. Or both.

The correlary to this is: don't abandon the negotiations to your agent. Discuss the terms and the language in depth. Ask questions. Insist on what you need to get. Explain what you're willing to give up. Go over the contract yourself. Your agent fronts you, but the decision is yours.

And always be willing to walk away from a deal that doesn't feel right. It's almost impossible to get a fair deal unless you're willing to walk away.

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Monday, August 04, 2008

Q. A producer is interested in optioning my material, but asked me for a thousand bucks in order to [snip]
Gonna stop you right there.

A producer should NEVER, EVER ask you for money for ANYTHING. You bring the intellectual property. They bring the money.

An agent should NEVER, EVER ask you for money for ANYTHING. (Years ago, they sometimes wanted a newbie client to pay for copies and postage, but who mails scripts any more?)

Any producer who wants any money from you is, at best, not a real producer, and much more likely a scammer.

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I'm writing a thriller set in the exciting world of Canadian politics. 

(Now that's not something you hear often.)

It's a little unfamiliar to me. The topic of the day on the Conservative Party's website is how we need better product labelling. 

I'm way too familiar with leftie American political websites like Huffington Post, Daily Kos, FiveThirtyEight. Crafty readers: what are the best rightie Canadian political websites? (And by best: intelligent, thoughtful, not mindlessly repeating talking points.) 

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Sunday, August 03, 2008

Fascinating post on Jennifer Kesler's blog The Hathor Legacy about an unwritten rule that I never heard of, but which, come to think of it, I almost certainly have followed instinctively in my screenplays: women can't talk to other women about anything other than men.
Only to learn there was still something wrong with my writing, something unanticipated by my professors. My scripts had multiple women with names. Talking to each other. About something other than men. That, they explained nervously, was not okay. I asked why. Well, it would be more accurate to say I politely demanded a thorough, logical explanation that made sense for a change (I’d found the “audience won’t watch women!” argument pretty questionable, with its ever-shifting reasons and parameters).

At first I got several tentative murmurings about how it distracted from the flow or point of the story. I went through this with more than one professor, more than one industry professional. Finally, I got one blessedly telling explanation: “The audience doesn’t want to listen to a bunch of women talking about whatever it is women talk about.”
If you think about it, it's largely true. I bet you could go through even an ensemble piece like THE BIG CHILL and find guys talking about stuff other than women (business, ideals); but the women are talking about who's going to give Meg a baby.

Jennifer (whose icon makes her look disturbingly like Thessaly from A Game of You) has a parallel post about how female characters exist to promote the male leads:
The real reason, I was informed, to put women in a script was to reveal things about the men. Any other purpose I assigned to the women was secondary at best, but I could do what I wanted there as long as the women’s purposes never threatened to distract the audience from the purposes of the men.
How about it, class? Outside of WAITING TO EXHALE, are there successful mainstream movies where women talk about non-men stuff? Is this why SEX AND THE CITY flopped? (EDIT: Tim W. points out that S&TC actually was a monster hit.; but Dr. Brooklyn points out that the girls talk about little except men. And then there is the theory that S&TC is really about four gay men. Certainly, Samantha is.)

(Note: I haven't actually seen WAITING TO EXHALE, 'cause it's probably just a bunch of women talking about whatever it is women talk about. Also, lesbian movies don't count, 'cause we know why men are watching those.)

UPDATE:  Obviously this "rule" doesn't apply to TV. Mainstream studio movies are largely aimed at young men. The TV audience is much wider and (depending on the network) often skews female. 

Also, Amanda, this is not a real "rule" that I think one should be following. It is more an observation. It is probably a byproduct of the plots that you see in mainstream movies. If the lead is a guy, then a conversation between two female secondary characters that isn't about the lead is a distraction from the plot -- not because they're female, but because they're secondary characters. And the lead is usually a guy because, again, movies are aimed at young men. It's not a problem with "society"; it's a function of the specific demographics of who makes the choice of what movie to see. Young women will go see movies that guys are interested in; guys won't go see movies that only the girls are interested in, unless they're sure they're going to get laid afterwards. (See LOVE STORY.) 

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Saturday, August 02, 2008

Q. My Canadian wife says we should move to Canada, where there are fewer screenwriters. My career is not catching fire down here in LA. Would my writing career be better there?
I began my career in the US, and moved to Canada because of its more nurturing cultural environment. Canada supports emerging writers, established writers, producers, and production, in various ways, through various government programs and subsidies. Canada funds grants and training programs, and has a truly awesome film school (the CFC). Because of that network of support, once you establish Canadian permanent residency (the equivalent of a US green card), it could be easier to make it up here than down there.

Establishing permanent residency takes about eighteen months. Unlike the US, Canada has a fairly sane immigration policy, which encourages educated people with professional experience to come here. You're looking at spending a couple thousand bucks if you do the paperwork yourself, or about five thousand bucks if you hire an immigration lawyer. You wouldn't actually come live here until you're granted permanent residency, which is also when most of the fees come due.

There are indeed fewer screenwriters up here. Of course, there are also fewer jobs. Herman Mankiewicz lured Ben Hecht out to Hollywood with a telegram that read "There are millions to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don't let this get around." Nobody is making millions in Canada, and the competition includes some very smart, talented people.

However, as someone who's knocked around Hollywood, you might have a bit of an edge. People in the Canadian industry often have an inferiority complex about the US industry. Anyone who's worked down South gets a bit of hero worship. Some of that is undeserved, but you have probably also absorbed the LA work ethic. Many writers in Canada do not hustle much. They don't write spec scripts, because even newbie writers can get development deals. They don't agent their agent. They fail to send samples when you ask for them. They don't go to every party they conceivably could. Some of the most talented writers don't have agents.

Also, we do periodically lose some of our best and brightest to LA. We lost K-Walt years ago; she lives here but works there. DMc keeps threatening to go down to LA to test the waters.

So you would probably be welcome here. Canada is probably one of the most welcoming countries to immigrants in the world. We're a melting pot like the US, without the anti-immigrant hysteria.

And then there's the free health care. If you're free lancing, it's nice to know you can go to the hospital if something's wrong.

The major downside to working in the Canadian industry is that, if you decide to go back to La-La-Land, I don't know how transferable Canadian credits are Down South. (Otherwise we would have lost DMc long ago.) I generally tell Canadians that the only good times to move down South are when you have no credits, or when your Canadian show is getting good numbers in the US. (I hope Heaton and Barken aren't reading this.)

How do you break into the Canadian biz? Same way you break in to the US biz. One kickass spec script of a popular US show. One kickass spec pilot. And lots of networking.

So... move to Canada? It is a biiiiig step. It is another country. You will have to make new friends. You'll have to make new contacts. But it could be the break you need.

Now, would I encourage writers to move to Canada? Aren't I increasing my competition? I don't think that's how we think up here. We're mostly in competition with you down there. The more brilliant writers we have up here, the more shows we can get into the global marketplace. The more shows shoot up here, the better the crews, and the more credibility Canadian shows have overseas. What's good for FLASHPOINT is good for me.

It's a small enough community that you can get to know everyone. The weather outside is variable, but the weather inside is pretty warm.

UPDATE: Tim asks if it's harder to make a living in Canada. My response in the comments is: it's easier to make a living. It's harder to make a fortune.

UPDATE:
Q. regarding your comment that to get work you need a kick ass TV spec and a kick ass spec pilot, what about a spec feature? is it worth it to write one in Canada?
If you want to get paid to write movies, then write spec features. The Canadian English-language feature market is not strong. (The Quebecois one in French is tiny but strong.) But about half my business is writing features, so there you go.

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Friday, August 01, 2008

I had a chat yesterday with a friend of mine who's freelancing. The development guy at a company she's worked for has left. She had considered, but kind of rejected, talking to them about the job. She was concerned that it might be hard to get back into writing from being a development person.

There are a couple of legit concerns here, and some misconceptions, I feel.

A development job takes time away from your writing, true. If you aren't disciplined, you can spend your weekends and evenings reading scripts.

However, a dev job is not a network job, where you are inundated with material and spend your work days in meetings. Few independent production companies get so much readable material that it can't be read in an hour or two a day. The key is to triage. When I was a development guy, I read good scripts in half an hour. If a script wasn't grabbing me, I gave it 15 minutes. Or, if it didn't come from my boss, 5 pages. I spent my weekends and evenings -- and many lunches -- writing.

A development job may also represent a commitment. The company probably wants to know that you won't ditch them two months later for a staff job. You might need to agree not to staff for a bit. Unless you are in imminent danger of staffing -- and in August, you are not -- you can give them a six month commitment. It may not even come up.

You certainly wouldn't need to ditch a development job for a free lance script. Just write the thing at night. That's what I did.

On the other hand, you get some major benefits from a development job that will help your writing career almost as much as your writing will.

First, you make contacts. You talk to agents. You talk to network people. They get to know you. You get a sense of what they're like. You can tell the real agents who hustle for their clients from the "commissioning" agents who just take a cut of deals their clients find.

You go to lunch with people. You drink with people. You get yourself sent to Banff, or Cannes, or the AFM, or Sundance. When later on your script comes over the transom, you're not a stranger.

Second, you get a sense of the market. Unless your parents are in show business, you probably have wrong ideas about what networks and production companies and studios are looking for. After you've sent a couple dozen projects to the network, and heard back frank feedback about why they don't want them, you'll have a much better sense of what floats boats at the various networks and among the various execs. This one doesn't get speculative fiction. This one prefers execution-independent shows. This one thinks she has a sense of humor, but doesn't. This one is really smart and wants really fresh stuff. This one is really smart but has a dumb boss, poor thing, and you have to wonder how she gets up in the morning.

Their feedback will be honest because they're not worried about hurting your feelings and they want you to send them stuff they'll like. My first book, CRAFTY SCREENWRITING, came out of my observation as a development exec that my company couldn't do a thing with a "good" script; we needed a script with a hook, whether good or not.

Don't worry about there being a stigma against development people. It is understood that everyone in a development job would rather write for a living, or produce, or both. Everyone understands that people need paychecks. While being in a development job suggests to people that you aren't making a living writing, so does sitting at home not making a living writing.

Unless you're supporting yourself writing, don't be afraid to take a show business job in a different part of the equation. You could do worse than to work as an agent, a development person, or a producer, or as an assistant to any of those. Your scripts will get a little better from your exposure to other people's good and bad writing. But they'll get a lot better from your exposure to the marketplace.

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