Using the recession for political cover, the Conservative Government has cut (or failed to cover) about $170 million in funding to the CBC. The CBC is responding by cutting 800 jobs and reducing the number of episodes of many shows.
Meanwhile, the CRTC is proposing gutting rules that require local news coverage and programming, and is considering giving the private broadcasters "relief" from Canadian content regulations.
I think Canada needs and deserves to have its own popular culture, rather than just being a cultural backwater of the United States. And that costs money. And I think the private broadcasters ought to support Canadian content in exchange for the protection they receive from US networks.
But the Conservative policies are also economically dumb. It's a dumb idea to cut government spending during a recession. The US government is spending trillions to provide a stimulus to the economy. Canada's is looking for ways to save money?
Meanwhile, gutting Canadian content requirements would amount to shipping Canadian jobs to LA. Instead of requiring Canadian broadcasters to spend some money in Canada (currently they spend about $1 on Canadian drama for every 12 they spend on US drama), they would be able to spend all their acquisitions money in the US.
Hey, I know! Let's abolish our automotive protections, so people can buy their cars directly from the US! Want to guess what would happen to any government, Conservative or otherwise, that tried that during a recession?
Occasionally, LEVERAGE writer Albert Kim will regale us with stories of the horrible traditions and kabuki of his previous corporate life. He recently explained the idea of the 360 degree job review. You are reviewed by:
1.) Your bosses 2.) Your peers 3.) Your underlings.
I started doing this as a way to develop characters, and I have to admit I kind of dig it. How does Indiana Jones's boss at the university feel about him? Other archeologists? His students? How about the bad guys? "Major Arnold Toht is the best commandant I've ever had. He never sends us into dangerous situations without also taking the same risk. He is very organized and makes sure we have the tools and resources necessary to serve the Fuhrer. We always go to interesting places, and he really encourages individual initiative. His determination is an inspiration to us all ..."
Years ago another writer taught me a simple exercise -- describe a character, hero or villain, as his best friend would describe him while setting up a blind date. Then do it from the point of view of the co-worker who hates his guts and is unloading to his wife after work, or finally has a chance to sink him with a job recommendation.
I'm pondering the differences between a great video game and a great action movie.
My hypothesis is it's in the flaws of the hero. A video game hero has no flaws -- only the mistakes of the player. A great action story has the hero make decisions not just because of the situation but because of his character. His mistakes, his hesitation, his reluctance, are what make him human and make us care about him.
Whereas in a video game, you have to force the player to make errors, by failing to give him enough information, or by simply doing it in a cut-scene. And few players will make a mistake out of sentimentality, because they're trying to win.
What would you say are the great video game adaptations? What did they do differently to make a great movie?
What would you say are the great action movies that could easily have been video game adaptations? E.g. PREDATOR. What differentiated them from a video game?
TORONTO, March 25, 2009 — Story2.OH and giraffesoft introduce Hailey Hacks, a series of web videos starring Toronto grade 6 student, Marlee Maslove. Hailey (Maslove) is the Hermione Grainger of web wizardry showing 8-13 year olds all kinds of cool things they can do with their computers.
The Hailey Hacks videos are available in two length. The shorter versions are available at no cost across the web on Youtube and other popular video sharing sites. The full versions are available for DRM-free download at a cost of $2 per episode at www.haileyhacks.com.
Outline of scheduled video episodes: Hailey Hacks April Fools: Hailey demonstrates some favourite low- and hi-tech April Fools tricks, including the [in]famous Desk Top Hack in which the [Windows] desk top is replaced with a photo. (This drives parents crazy as they try to figure out why nothing works when they click on it.)
Hailey Hacks Wish Lists: Hailey shows you how to create and share wish lists so everyone knows exactly what to buy you for your next birthday.
In future episodes, Hailey shows viewers how to make a wiki, customize Google maps for school projects, use online tools to throw a party, use privacy settings on social networks, share bookmarks, collaborate using Google docs and how to set up your own blog.
Check it out! Before your teen does, and replaces your desktop with a photo.
At my agency, we're instructed to send all query letters to Business Affairs, though perhaps this isn't the case at smaller places. From what I see in Hollywood, everything happens through relationships, not query letters. Make friends with people, because people want to help their friends, not strangers. We're all willing to suck it up and work as underpaid secretaries so that we can develop the relationships needed to forge ahead. Why should we grant favors to these people when we're working so hard to earn our own favors?
If people insist on querying, I'd suggest waiting til after staffing season when people aren't so busy. [I.e. June.] Right before the winter break (agents take at least 3 weeks off) also might be good since a lot of people catch up on reading then.
Also, don't discount management companies. Many writers get managers before they get agents, and all agents are more willing to read writers who already have managers.
I think many smaller agencies do read queries, especially if the query says something like "[name of development executive] suggested I email you..." And according to the comments below, many major agencies do take queries. But Amanda's positive advice is still excellent. If you can make a personal connection, even with an agent's assistant, you'll do much better than if you're a stranger. That's why being in LA is so important. How do you make those connections if you're not there?
Join CFC Alum Denis McGrath in Toronto for a Deconstruction and Spec Writing Workshop followed by CFC’s CBC Prime Time Program Info Session!
TV writer and CFC Alumnus Denis McGrath (The Border, Across the River to Motor City, Rent-A-Goalie) will lead a workshop on the essentials of deconstructing a series – identifying themes, structural elements, storylines, and character profiles – and how to apply that deeper understanding of what the show is to writing an effective spec script.
Also explore and learn about the benefits of the CFC’s CBC Prime Time Television Program – who’s involved, how it’s delivered, skills development, and how the program helps grads take the final step towards being a professional television writer.
The CBC Prime Time Television Program is currently accepting applications for the 2009/2010 program. The deadline to apply is May 14th, 2009.Please contact Valentina Puvtoska at firstname.lastname@example.org for more details and to sign up.
Denis is one of the finest TV writers in Canada, and you shouldn't miss a chance to hear how he thinks about shows.
I'm a 30 year-old that has been thinking about breaking into the TV and movie screenwriting biz for 5 years. Finally, I'm ready to do something about it.
I'm about a year away from completing a PhD in environmental marketing (i know, i wonder what that means sometimes too). I've started wrting TV specs, original features, SNL sketches etc. on the side. I'm debating whether or not to finish my PhD and just move forward.
Q1: Would a PhD be helpful AT ALL as I attempt to break into the business? (in terms of differentiating myself from others)
No. No one cares if you have a degree or not. Having an interesting background is always good -- many of the BATTLESTAR GALACTICA writers have served in the military. But degrees? Nah.
Q2: I've been looking at the one year writing program at Vancouver Film School. Any comments about their program?
I don't know much about the program, though readers, feel free to comment blelow. But I don't think you need a writing program to write. As I've written repeatedly, you'll learn far, far, far more of what you need to know by getting an assistant job in an agency in LA than you ever will in film school. And you can write in your spare time, fired up by what you're living at work. The only film or TV program I think really jumps you ahead faster than getting an actual job in the biz is the CFC, and that's only relevant to Canadians who want to work in Canada.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is now accepting entries for the 2009 Don and Gee Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting competition. As many as five $30,000 fellowships will be awarded through the program later this year.
Application forms may be downloaded from the Academy’s Web site and mailed with the other required materials, or they may be completed and submitted online. Rules and details are available at http://www.oscars.org/nicholl.
The Nicholl Fellowships competition is open to any individual who has not earned more than $5,000 from the sale or option of a screenplay or teleplay, or received a fellowship or prize of more than $5,000 that includes a “first look” clause, an option, or any other quid pro quo involving the writer’s work. To enter, writers must submit a completed application form, one copy of their original screenplay in English, and an entry fee of US$30. Entries must be postmarked or submitted online no later than May 1, 2009.
Fellowships are awarded with the understanding that the recipients will each complete a feature-length screenplay during the fellowship year. The Academy acquires no rights to the works of Nicholl fellows and does not involve itself commercially in any way with their completed scripts.
Last year’s competition drew more than 5,000 entries. Since the program’s inception in 1985, 108 fellowships have been awarded.
Unlike online competitions like Scriptapalooza (which I suspect are for-profit), the Nicholls is a venerable competition run by the Academy. Winning the Nicholls really means something. Note the 1000-1 odds.
Note however, that I still don't take screenwriting competitions seriously, because they're irrelevant. If you have a great hook and a decent screenplay, and you make a reasonable effort to get it out there, you'll get an agent and your agent will sell your script for more money than you will ever get from a competition. And competitions don't necessarily pick the script most likely to get made into a movie. They pick the "best script," whatever the hell that means.
Q. So I've written a story, written a screenplay and I've got it basically finished. Unfortunately I'm not really happy with some of the pacing and dialogue, so I've invited a friend to come in and retool with me. Would he generally get full co-writer credit despite the script having already been written when he came into the project?
If he does writing, he's a co-writer. If he gives you notes, and even a few ideas, he's just a story consultant. I've given "heavy notes" without expecting credit, but if I did a pass on the script, I'd have a claim to be a co-writer.
So you might want to ask him for in-depth notes, and try to fix the pacing and dialog yourself. The less actually writing your friend does, the less he's entitled to share writing credit.
Note that if a Guild-signatory production company hired you and the friend to rewrite your script, the situation would be more complicated, because then the credits are arbitrated according to each writer's contribution, and the credits could theoretically then be something like "Written by You and You & Guy." In practice you don't see credits like that, though.
Script Frenzy is an international writing event in which participants take on the challenge of writing 100 pages of scripted material in the month of April. As part of a donation-funded nonprofit, Script Frenzy charges no fee to participate; there are also no valuable prizes awarded or "best" scripts singled out. Every writer who completes the goal of 100 pages is victorious and awe-inspiring and will receive a handsome Script Frenzy Winner's
Certificate and web icon proclaiming this fact. Even those who fall short of the word goal will be applauded for making a heroic attempt. Really, you have nothing to lose—except that nagging feeling that there's a script inside you that may never get out.
Who: You and everyone you know. No experience required.
What: 100 pages of original scripted material in 30 days. (Screenplays, stage plays, TV shows, short films, and graphic novels are all welcome.)
When: April 1 - 30. Every year. Mark your calendars.
Where: Online and in person (if you want!). Hang out in the forums, join your fellow participants at write-ins, and make friends by adding writing buddies online.
Why: Because you have a story to tell. Because you want a creative challenge. Because you’ll be disappointed if you missed out on the adventure. Because you need to make time for you.
How: Sign up. Tell everyone that you are in the Frenzy. Clear your calendar. (US participants: Get your taxes done now!) Start some wrist exercises. Have fun!
The 5 Basic Rules of Script Frenzy
1) To be crowned an official Script Frenzy winner, you must write a script (or multiple scripts) of at least 100 total pages and verify this tally on ScriptFrenzy.org.
2) You may write individually or with a partner. Writing teams will have a 100-page total goal for their co-written script or scripts.
3) Script writing may begin no earlier than 12:00:01 AM on April 1 and must cease no later than 11:59:59 PM on April 30, local time.
4) You may write screenplays, stage plays, TV shows, short films, comic book and graphic novel scripts, adaptations of novels, or any other type of script your heart desires.
5) You must, at some point, have ridiculous amounts of fun.
Telefilm Canada invites you to its first annual public meeting on April 8, 2009, from 2:00 to 3:30 p.m. at the Cin´mathèque québècoise, 335 de Maisonneuve Blvd East, Montreal.
Michel Roy, Chair of Telefilm Canada’s Board, and Wayne Clarkson, Executive Director, will take questions from the audience and those watching online. The Board members will be in attendance. The meeting will focus on Telefilm Canada’s 2007-2008 annual report and the 2009-2010 priorities in its corporate plan.
The CFC’s Prime Time Television Program is recognized within the industry as an essential source for trained writers and newly developed projects for the television marketplace.
Through industry driven training our residents learn to write for episodic television in a collaborative story room environment, acquire real on the job skills, meet industry contacts and develop and pitch their own original series.
Application deadline: Thursday, May 14th, 2009. For complete information on eligibility, the application package and program details, please visit: www.cfccreates.com/tv or e-mail: email@example.com.
If you're Canadian, the CFC is the place to go to start your TV or feature career. The program is short and extremely effective, and you get to meet lots of industry players. And then you go to Banff for free. A ridiculously high percentage of successful Canadian writers, execs, producers, etc., went to the CFC. There's actually a Facebook group for people in the Canadian industry who didn't go to the CFC.
Start working on your application, Tommy!
Q. What are the demographics of the people in the program?
I asked, and was told:
Prime Time residents range from their mid-twenties to their 50s or 60s. This past year half of our residents were between 35 and 40, while the other half were between 24 and 30. However, in previous years we have had residents from every age range.
As for experience, we have had people come in who have taken just a few writing courses, and we’ve also had people come in who have been in story rooms for established shows, but felt they needed the extra something that the course provides.
You don't have to be a WGC member to join. You could just be friends with WGC members. Or care about Canadian screenwriting. Or want to know where you could go to meet writers and take them home and tell them it's going to be okay.
Q. I'm a student headed to a film festival where a short that I directed was accepted. I'm also headed out to LA later this year. Though I've directed several short films, I don't want to put "Director" on my card because I'm realistic. My aspiration is to become an editor, but again I don't want to simply write, "Editor" because I don't want to limit potential jobs when out in LA.
Right now it says my name, then "Freelance Film Production." However, I don't want to alienate possible TV or other jobs. A friend of mine has "Film & Video Production," but that sounds too long to me, and I like the word freelance, but simply "Freelance Production" sounds awkwardly vague, but maybe it's not. Maybe I'm over thinking it?
I think that until you have a job, your business card doesn't need a job title. Anyone you give your card to presumably knows that you're just starting out and you'll take any job that will get you moving forward.
Cards are cheap to make. In this specific case, I would spring for cards that give your name, phone, eddress and website, and the name of your short. Hand these out to everyone at the festival.
In general, when you get back to town, I would suggest you make a card that has your name, phone, eddress, and website on it. Then you can put a short bio or resume on your website, and update it as you have more accomplishments. Most people will Google you, anyway.
My own cards have my name, eddress, website and phone number. And a logo belonging to my loanout company. I got rid of the loanout company's name, and my mailing address, a few years ago. I'm wondering about getting rid of the logo.
You could write "editing" instead of "editor" if you don't want to imply that you are already an accomplished editor. You could be cute and humble about it and put "aspiring flunky" on your card. My screenwriting prof Lew Hunter's card, if I remember correctly, said he was a "Ritor." I think I might have seen one that said "part-time ninja assassin," unless I'm making that up, which I do more and more these days. But I think it's cleaner to put only your name and contact info.
Q. In regards to writers with no produced credits yet- should we just have contact info or have a "writer" title so people remember us after they meet us and remember what we do?
Concentrate on making more of an impression than that! If they can't remember who you are after a meeting, your card is the least of your problems.
On the other hand if you think someone you're handing a card to might not be able to remember you, then scribble something on your card as you hand it to them. That gives you flexibility on what you write ("writer" / "would be writer's assistant" / "you have beautiful hair"), and the recipient is also more likely to remember your face, because seeing the scribble reminds them of seeing you scribble it.
Q. And if you have a website with samples of your writing, should you write on your card that that info is available or should you just have the website and let them figure it out?
Definitely don't print on your card, in teeny tiny letters, that there is information available on your website. 'Cause, duh.
The card is just, only, solely, to provide a point of access.
I'm not crazy about the idea of putting writing samples up on the Net. I don't want people reading my stuff without my knowing it. I want them to have to send me an email asking for a PDF. Then I know they're supposed to be reading it, and I can call them later on. You can put your credits and bio up on your site, though. Check out my poker crony Heidi's site.
Remember, you want them to interact with you as much as possible. The card is there to help them reach you, not to provide all the information they need so they don't have to contact you.
A ways down the comments thread on the last DOLLHOUSE post, I think I came up with a fix. Kind of an idea for a mild reboot, really.
As you know, the concept is: Every episode, Echo (née Caroline) is injected with someone else's personality. Then she goes on missions. But then that personality is wiped, and she goes back to being a tabula rasa: a person without a personality.
The problem: it's hard to care about a person without a personality. Abstractly, it's sad, what's been done to her. But as human beings we're hardwired to respond to people not concepts. I don't viscerally care about Echo/Caroline the way I viscerally care about even a bad person like Dexter or Tony Soprano. She's barely alive.
However, we still want a show where the main character's personality gets wiped every episode. 'Cause that's cool.
Proposed fix: instead of wiping her personality and overlaying it with other people's personalities, use a different paradigm. Each episode, they regress Echo back to the personality she had as a six-year-old child.
And then, when they give her a new personality for a mission, the new constructed personality is essentially who she would have become if she'd grown up to be that new person. So safecracker Taffy is who Caroline would have been if she'd become a safecracker. Woodsman Girlfriend is who Caroline would have grown up into if she'd been really into the woods. Sure, they're using bits of other people's personalities to create the new Carolines. But they're always Caroline.
So, when she's Echo, we see a six-year-old girl in the body of an adult. And we would care about her the way we'd care about a six-year-old child. We have an instinct to protect children and childlike people. So our heart goes out to her the way it doesn't go out to Echo the Blank Slate.
And when she's given a Mission Personality, we still see Caroline in there -- she's the same person, but with a different life story. This wouldn't actually change the acting much, because Eliza Dushku (or any actor) is going to bring herself into whatever character she plays. But it's going to change how we feel about the acting, because we still know this is Caroline.
I'm not even sure the pseudoscience of the memory overlay is funkier in this paradigm. Arguably, wouldn't it be easier to make Caroline think she spent years learning to crack safes than it would be to overlay someone's entire existence onto someone else's brain? But that's irrelevant really, because the audience will accept whatever pseudoscience allows you to tell a fun story. I doubt there are many sf fans who reject FRINGE because the pseudoscience isn't sufficiently well thought out.
And, there's no problem about changing the paradigm in midstream. The Dollhouse technology is a work in progress. Have Topher say, "I'm going to start leaving a bit of her personality in there. That'll create a more robust Active." Etc.
Would this fix the problem? Discuss. You know you want to.
The deadline for the Drama Writing Master Class has been extended to Monday, March 16.
The WGC and CBC invites writers across Quebec to submit their projects for a chance to attend an exclusive Drama Writing Master Class on April 5 led by award-winning screenwriters Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik (Durham County) and Bruce M. Smith (Prairie Giant: The Tommy Douglas Story, The Sleep Room). This call for submissions is open to up-and-coming screenwriters who have created and are working on one-hour TV drama series. This one-day intensive workshop will help selected participants develop their skills in drama series analysis. Master Class members will receive in-depth critiquing of their projects, bringing them one step closer to being pitch ready for producers and broadcasters. Interested candidates are asked to fill out the submission form and attach requested documents. The Drama Writing Master Class will be held at the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema at Concordia University and is free of charge.
For more information and/or submission form, go to the WGA site
Incidentally, some of you were wondering, "Hey, why would I take the Friday, April 3 seminar on HEARTLAND? Isn't that a show about girls and horses?" Here are some reasons to consider. The show has done 31 episodes so far. That's more than the whole run of my show, NAKED JOSH, so points for longevity. Anyone can write a pilot, but can you get your show to episode 30? And the network has ordered 18 episodes for season three. The show has an audience of 800,000 in spite of every effort by the network to pre-empt it. HEARTLAND wins its time slot, k? So if you're looking for an innovative Canadian show, how about these "innovative" ideas: tell solid stories, make the audience care, and get them to come back?
OnTheSet.Biz is holding its first free, interactive online seminar this Friday, March 13, at 2 pm EST/11 am PST. The main focus of the 90 minute seminar will be film financing, and the lecturer is Jim Holt, producer of MICHAEL CLAYTON and many other fine movies.
Jim will be answering questions LIVE from text questions as well as live voice and video questions from skype users.
The technology is really amazing and it's mobile... we are taking the cameras TO Jim to do this seminar.. hence "on the set".
Pre-registration is required and can be done at ontheset.biz
If you're interested in film financing, definitely check it out. You might want to ask him how the credit crunch is affecting movie financing, for example.
Jim will be talking about "studio deals, indie deals, soft money, tax credits, creative financing, packaging and private equity" followed by 45 minutes of Q & A.
Kevin Miller (XI) speculates about Hitch's habit of adapting trashy novels instead of great, literary ones. The idea is that great novels depend on their language, while trash novels depend on their plot. Since the language isn't going to make it into the movie, the idea is, great novels don't adapt as well as bad ones.
I don't think it's that simple. I think the danger with great novels is that you'll try to adapt them faithfully. The only novels safe to adapt "faithfully" are those which are pretty much already written with a movie in mind -- anything by John Grisham or Tom Clancy, say. If you try to adapt even a page-turner like WAR AND PEACE faithfully, you'll get lost in the subplots. But you can make a pretty good movie out of it if you don't care what readers of the book think.
When you're adapting THE BIRDS, though, you're not going to worry about jettisoning scenes that don't help the movie.
The Hitch technique for adapting a novel is to read the book once, and then not look at it again. Whatever you remember is the movie. If there's something you don't remember, it isn't memorable enough for the movie. I've adapted books that way and it works pretty well. I usually go back and skim the novel after I've written a draft, to see if there's anything I really ought to have remembered, but there usually isn't.
I think it might have been Neil Gaiman who pointed out that you can't "ruin" a book by unfaithfully adapting it to the screen. The book is still there. But a movie has to be its own thing. Hopefully you can retain the tone and the theme, but ultimately your responsibility is to make a good movie, not a faithful one.
The Writers Guild of Canada (WGC) and CBC proudly invite Quebec-based screenwriters to participate in In The Writers’ Room, a Drama workshop series, presented in partnership with the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema (Concordia University). This two-part pilot initiative will take place on April 3 and 5, 2009 in Montreal.
In The Writers’ Room kicks off on April 3 at CBC with the Drama Clinic: Analysing Heartland, led by series writers Leila Basen and David Preston. This 3-hour session will offer a screening of an episode of the hit CBC TV series Heartland, followed by an in-depth look at the creative process behind its success. This free event is open to all students, emerging and seasoned writers.
Drama Clinic: Analysing Heartland with Leila Basen and David Preston Friday, April 3, 2009 at 6:00 pm CBC (La Maison Radio-Canada), 1400 René-Lévesque Blvd East RSVP : Anne-Marie Perrotta
For the second part of In the Writers’ Room, the WGC and CBC invites writers across Quebec to submit their projects for a chance to attend an exclusive Drama Writing Master Class on April 5 lead by award-winning screenwriters Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik (Durham County) and Bruce M. Smith (Prairie Giant: The Tommy Douglas Story, The Sleep Room). This call for submissions is open to up-and-coming screenwriters who have created and are working on one-hour TV drama series. This one-day intensive workshop will help selected participants develop their skills in drama series analysis. Master Class members will receive in-depth critiquing of their projects, bringing them one step closer to being pitch ready for producers and broadcasters. Interested candidates are asked to fill out the submission form and attach all requested documents. The Drama Writing Master Class will be held at the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema at Concordia University and is free of charge. Drama Writing Master Class with Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik and Bruce M. Smith
Sunday, April 5, 2009 at 10:00 am Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema (Concordia University),1250 Guy Street, Room FB449 For more on eligibility details, proposal requirements, and submission form, please visit www.wgc.ca. Only selected participants will be contacted by or before March 23, 2009.
This is a real opportunity for writers at any level, but if you're an aspiring writer, you really shouldn't miss these seminars.
We finally went and saw MILK, which is a very moving movie without being in any way a well-structured story. (Yes, I'm going to criticize an Oscar-winning screenplay. Feel free to consider me an idiot.) It carries you along by sheer verve, and the feeling of being on the right side of a successful and righteous movement. (Unless, of course, you have an aversion to homosexuals, or believe that God hates them, in which case you may not dig it.)
The traditional way to tell the story might have shown us who Harvey was, and what he faced in the closet, before he went to San Francisco to come out. San Francisco might have been the end of the first act. Instead we only see him blossom. The screenplay seems to assume we all know what being closeted truly meant. The story is full of appalling incidents that show how much hatred gays faced only thirty years ago; but somehow, maybe because the only characters we really get to know are gay (until Dan White shows up late in the game), Harvey's ultimate success never seems in doubt. Harvey's flaws as a person come through, but they don't seem to be obstacles to his success.
I cried when the kid called from Jackson, Mississippi, and I cried at the candlelight march. But I felt there could have been more of a story there.
But Penn does an absolutely amazing job of disappearing into the role. And the other characters are full of life, too. And I couldn't say that the movie would have sold one more ticket if anyone had taken my advice. This is my blog, so this is my attempt to understand what I didn't feel worked. YMMV.
And here's where I suggest you doing well by doing good. I've mentioned before that one way to break into the biz is to involve yourself in a charity or cause dear to the hearts of showbiz people. If there ever was one, the anti-Prop-8 / pro-gay-marriage cause is that. If you live in LA, and you think that gay people ought to be able to get married, you should consider volunteering, in person, at the nearest office. There will be other show people there. You will get to know them in the context of being a mensch, not someone who needs a gig. If you happen to be straight, you might get bonus points for giving a damn about gay rights.
This might sound a bit Machiavellian, but it's not. When you volunteer, you don't just do good and you don't just feel good. You also do well. You become a member of the community, not just an inhabitant. You start to belong. When you help your neighbor, you're doing a mitzvah; there's nothing wrong with the fact that your neighbor also owes you one. That's how communities knit together.
Up here in Canada, gay marriage became legal nationwide a few years ago. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that it was a fundamental right, and the various provinces quickly said, "Oh, sorry!" and passed the required laws. Now, you run into a guy at a party and he introduces you to his husband. And you know what? It hasn't hurt traditional marriage one bit. We continue to enjoy our traditional low divorce rates, low abortion rates, and low crime. Make of that what you will.
I'm having trouble getting into DOLLHOUSE. A while ago a reader wrote in to ask if Joss Whedon wasn't breaking the rules by having a series in which he could tell any sort of story because his central character kept changing who she was. My answer was more or less "Let's see if Joss comes up with a consistent template based on something subtler than genre."
I'm not sure he has. But I think a bigger problem is simply that the whole premise of DOLLHOUSE is that the central character ... has no character. She's a different person in every episode. And when she's not being different, she's being a blank slate -- a bit of a drip, really.
How do you fall in love with her when you don't know who she is?
The concept seems compelling. But maybe Echo's the wrong main character. Maybe the detective who's trying to find her is the main character, and she should keep showing up in his life, convinced she's someone else. He's pursuing the impossible, trying to get her to remember who she is, and it's not working. Maybe that's what the show wants to be.
But maybe Joss is a little bit in love with Eliza Dushku, so that's not going to happen, is it?
When I was doing coverage back in the day, the only categories that got checkboxes were: CONCEPT, STORY, CHARACTERS, DIALOG, PACING, STRUCTURE & LOGIC.
These days if I were doing coverage I would probably boil that down to HOOK, STORY, CHARACTERS and DIALOG.
Note how the coverage dissects the story in detail; mostly, it seems, to show off how smart the reader is. They might be useful feedback for a rewrite, though my own personal approach to giving notes has more to do with strengthening the structure of the story -- increasing jeopardy/stakes, strengthening the obstacles/antagonist, making the hero more compelling, giving him more of a problem.
If I were commissioning coverage, all I want to know is: does this have a great hook? If it does, is the story well told & are all the elements of a great story there? Are the characters compelling and fresh? Is the dialog yummy?
I only need these categories because they relate to how much work a rewriter would need to do. If there's no hook, the project is dead. If there's a hook but the story is weak, I can conceivably bring in a writer for a page-one rewrite, but it's going to be a lot of work. (I've done enough page-one rewrites, Lord knows.) If the story is good but the characters are weak, that's a lighter rewrite. If the characters are well defined but the dialog could be punched up and the characters thereby rounded out, then that's just a polish.
The coverage on the Triggerstreet site relates to how well written the script is. Producers don't really care about that in the abstract. They need to know whether the script is worth optioning; agents need to know if they will be able to sell that puppy. A badly written script with a great hook is worth something. I've optioned those. A well written script without a hook is almost useless unless you, the producer, have direct access to bankable elements.
Paul Graham is a Silicon Valley venture capitalist who writes thoughtful, brief essays about startup software companies. I read them partly because I have a degree in computer science and this sort of thing still interests me; but partly also because there are surprising correlations between computer science and showbiz. (For example, in a computer program, a mistake setting things up will produce a cascade of failures down the line.)
Cofounders are for a startup what location is for real estate. You can change anything about a house except where it is. In a startup you can change your idea easily, but changing your cofounders is hard. And the success of a startup is almost always a function of its founders.
Writing a script or pitch with a partner is sticky. You can't do what you want with your idea any more. If your partner wants to take it off in a direction, you're bound to follow that direction, or at least come up with something better that they like, too. If they get bored, you're stuck doing the heavy lifting, for which you won't see any extra money. Getting another writer off your project is an ugly, probably self-destructive process that creates bad blood.
Having an actual permanent writing partner cranks these issues up a notch. A great writing partner -- not necessarily a great writer, but a partner who brings strengths you don't have -- can make you both a significantly better writer. And a 25% better writer is likely to see 200% of the jobs. But the wrong writing partner can drag you down and make your life miserable. And divorcing yourself from your partner means all your material is now useless. You will need all new material.
The same goes for your partner in life, of course. The wrong life partner can screw up your writing career. The right one can save it.
2. Launch fast.
The reason to launch fast is not so much that it's critical to get your product to market early, but that you haven't really started working on it till you've launched. Launching teaches you what you should have been building. Till you know that you're wasting your time. So the main value of whatever you launch with is as a pretext for engaging users.
Don't send your scripts out to buyers until they are as good as you can make them. Don't send your scripts to your agent until they're ready to go to buyers.
But that doesn't mean work in a vacuum. You need to develop savvy readers. They don't have to be fellow writers, though forming a writing group is an excellent idea. They can be friends in the biz. I don't send anything to my agent until I've addressed Lisa's notes and my reader intern's notes. I find that after a draft or two, I've run out of notes for myself. I need someone else to give me notes.
3. Let your idea evolve.
This is the second half of launching fast. Launch fast and iterate. It's a big mistake to treat a startup as if it were merely a matter of implementing some brilliant initial idea. As in an essay, most of the ideas appear in the implementing.
This boils down to: be ruthless in your rewriting. You may realize after polishing your fifth draft of a script that your story would work better if the whole thing were told from the girl's point of view, not the guy. That means throwing out 60% of your scenes. You might find after writing your spec pilot that while you have a good show, it's the wrong pilot, and you have to throw out the entire script. A mark of a good writer is the willingness to rewrite radically.
4. Understand your users.
You can envision the wealth created by a startup as a rectangle, where one side is the number of users and the other is how much you improve their lives. The second dimension is the one you have most control over. And indeed, the growth in the first will be driven by how well you do in the second. As in science, the hard part is not answering questions but asking them: the hard part is seeing something new that users lack. The better you understand them the better the odds of doing that. That's why so many successful startups make something the founders needed.
This is why I encourage beginning writers to work in an agency or for a producer. The better you can understand your buyers, the more likely you can write something they want to buy. I wrote my first book, CRAFTY SCREENWRITING, after a decade as a development executive, because I noticed that 80% of the scripts I was getting had no chance at all of getting set up. Some of them were well written. But they didn't have a marketable hook.
"Understand your users" is also why you need to move to LA (or in Canada, go to the CFC). If you're in Kansas, it's very hard to get your finger on the pulse of the business. In LA, you get a sense of what people are like, how they talk about things, what issues worry them. Elsewhere, you're out of touch.
5. Better to make a few users love you than a lot ambivalent.
Ideally you want to make large numbers of users love you, but you can't expect to hit that right away. Initially you have to choose between satisfying all the needs of a subset of potential users, or satisfying a subset of the needs of all potential users. Take the first. It's easier to expand userwise than satisfactionwise. And perhaps more importantly, it's harder to lie to yourself. If you think you're 85% of the way to a great product, how do you know it's not 70%? Or 10%? Whereas it's easy to know how many users you have.
If you have several ideas, try to fall in love with the best mainstream idea. The odds are that producers will not buy your gay-themed movie about the French colonists in Acadie and their relations with the Indians.
But once you've settled on an idea, pursue it where it leads you. Don't pull any punches. If you do have a gay-themed historical movie, don't try to make it a tad less gay or a tad less historical. You'll wind up with something tepid and useless. A movie or TV script can always be toned down; your job is to make it stand out.
Write what scares you. Write what upsets you. A memorable script that upsets people will get you further than a familiar romantic comedy or garden variety serial killer/detective story.
6. Offer surprisingly good customer service.
Customers are used to being maltreated. Most of the companies they deal with are quasi-monopolies that get away with atrocious customer service. Your own ideas about what's possible have been unconsciously lowered by such experiences. Try making your customer service not merely good, but surprisingly good. Go out of your way to make people happy. They'll be overwhelmed; you'll see. In the earliest stages of a startup, it pays to offer customer service on a level that wouldn't scale, because it's a way of learning about your users.
Take feedback like nobody else. Don't just take it; seek it out. And then take it to heart.
Keep in touch with your buyers. Take them out to lunch, or if you can't get lunch, coffee, or if you can't get coffee, chat them up at industry events. Schmooze as if it is your job to schmooze; it is. Volunteer to help with industry events. Be your buyers' friend. Above all, never send an email when you can get a call through; never place a call when you can talk in person. Too many industry people, especially aspiring industry people, treat email and Facebook as a way to avoid personal contact. Faint heart never won favor.
7. You make what you measure.
Merely measuring something has an uncanny tendency to improve it. If you want to make your user numbers go up, put a big piece of paper on your wall and every day plot the number of users. You'll be delighted when it goes up and disappointed when it goes down. Pretty soon you'll start noticing what makes the number go up, and you'll start to do more of that. Corollary: be careful what you measure.
Put your page count up on the wall. How many pages did you do today?
Chart your projects up on the wall. How many pitches do you have out there? Cross'em off when they pass their sell by.
How many calls did you make this week? Put that up on the wall -- you'll make more calls.
Wasting a lot of time surfing? Install RescueTime and try to get your percentage of productive time up and your hours of surfing down.
8. Spend little.
I can't emphasize how important it is for a startup to be cheap. Most startups fail before they make something people want, and the most common form of failure is running out of money. So being cheap is (almost) interchangeable with iterating rapidly. But it's more than that. A culture of cheapness keeps companies young in something like the way exercise keeps people young.
I am frugal for my income bracket. We don't spend our money on fancy cars or expensive clothes or fabulous vacations. Almost all our luxuries are investments of one kind or another.
My favorite use for money is to buy time. I'm going into this recession with at least two years in the bank. That frees me to work on projects that forward my career (movies that might get made, TV that reinforces my brand) rather than diluting my brand by writing projects that will only bring in money. I'm always stunned to read about pro writers in Hollywood who can't make their mortgage payments. These guys make three or four times what I do, and they can't pay off their houses? Why? Because they overspend. Which means they have to take any job that comes along, rather than holding out for the right job.
You can buy surprisingly good clothes at yard sales in Santa Monica on Saturday mornings. I'm still wearing some shirts I bought for fifty cents in the '90's. And I still get my books at the library.
If you live cheaply, you can afford to take that internship. You can afford to take that job in the mailroom at CAA. The more money you spend, the fewer options you have. I took a screenwriting class once from Stirling Silliphant, Oscar-winning writer of IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT. His number-one piece of advice was: don't get divorced. He was carrying alimony from three marriages at the time. He hadn't written a spec script in decades. So he was writing things like THE TOWERING INFERNO. When you're writing from hunger, you rarely do your best writing.
(This doesn't mean don't pick up the check, or don't contribute to charity or causes. It means don't blow money on yourself. Be a mensch first, a writer second.
Also, it doesn't mean don't spend money on your career. Even a writer should spend a little money now and then to establish his or her profile, whether that means going to Banff or buying brand new "meetin' sneakers.")
10. Avoid distractions.
Nothing kills startups like distractions. The worst type are those that pay money: day jobs, consulting, profitable side-projects. The startup may have more long-term potential, but you'll always interrupt working on it to answer calls from people paying you now. Paradoxically, fundraising is this type of distraction, so try to minimize that too.
Don't take a job outside of showbiz if you can get a job in showbiz. Don't take a job working on a set if you can get a job in an agent's office.
That said, everyone has a different route. I was a development exec for years. That helped my writing. Who is to say that writing an animation script won't teach you something about writing science fiction? Or working on a reality show? One of the most useful classes I took at UCLA was a class in editing. One of the most useful classes I took at Yale was "From West Africa to the Black Americas: The Black Atlantic Visual Tradition," which taught me about using syncopation. If something rings your bell, follow the sound.
11. Don't get demoralized.
Though the immediate cause of death in a startup tends to be running out of money, the underlying cause is usually lack of focus. Either the company is run by stupid people (which can't be fixed with advice) or the people are smart but got demoralized. Starting a startup is a huge moral weight. Understand this and make a conscious effort not to be ground down by it, just as you'd be careful to bend at the knees when picking up a heavy box.
On a micro level, every script sucks at some point. Syd Field has his Turning Points. I have the Sucky Point. Most scripts suck when you're about 40% into them. This is also true of outlines and pitch ideas. You've lost your initial enthusiasm, but you're not over the hump yet.
I make a point of finishing everything I start, whether I like it or not. I don't take every idea to script, of course. But if I start writing an outline, I finish the outline. If I start writing a first draft, I finish the first draft. I only let myself stop when I've finished that particular step, and I can evaluate whether it's worth going to the next step.
On a macro level, do what it takes to keep your spirits up. Develop a support network of people who also love the biz. Don't forget to see great movies or great TV, ideally with your creative friends. It will remind you why you're putting yourself through all the crap.
12. Don't give up.
Even if you get demoralized, don't give up. You can get surprisingly far by just not giving up. This isn't true in all fields. There are a lot of people who couldn't become good mathematicians no matter how long they persisted. But startups aren't like that. Sheer effort is usually enough, so long as you keep morphing your idea.
Sheer effort is usually enough. Look at how long it took Stephen King to break into the novel-writing biz. If you take your feedback seriously, and keep writing, and take feedback to heart, and try new things, and write what scares you, and stretch your writing muscles by writing the sort of thing you don't write well, you will probably break in. Very few pro writers are truly brilliant. Most of us just love to write, and kept at it until we made it pay.
I read about a study of classical musicians, comparing which musicians had been identified as talented by their teachers and which succeeded in their careers. The study found that there was no correlation between talent and success. There was a direct correlation between success and numbers of hours the musicians practiced. The guys who practiced four hours a day didn't make it. The ones who practiced eight to ten hours a day made it.
I suspect that 95% of "talent" is "the talent for sticking with it." Sheer effort is usually enough.
13. Deals fall through.
One of the most useful skills we learned from Viaweb was not getting our hopes up. We probably had 20 deals of various types fall through. After the first 10 or so we learned to treat deals as background processes that we should ignore till they terminated. It's very dangerous to morale to start to depend on deals closing, not just because they so often don't, but because it makes them less likely to.
I try hard not to focus on whether things will go through or not. Generally I assume they won't. I've had my hopes dashed way too many times. I try to focus on what I'm writing next. That's what I can control. The ideal frame of mind to be in is, "Oh, I hope I don't get hired too fast -- I really want to finish my new spec first."
That said, celebrate your victories as they come. Getting something optioned doesn't mean it will get made. But celebrate getting optioned. Showbiz is so flakey that if you only celebrate when you're in principal photography, you'll never celebrate at all -- because by the time you're in p.p., you've had months or years to get used to the idea that this one might actually go. Most victories come in little pieces. Celebrate each piece as it comes -- not because of what it might lead to, because that's getting your hopes up, but in its own right. You have to figure out how to enjoy the process, not the results. The results are often disappointing. The process is kind of fun.
Having gotten it down to 13 sentences, I asked myself which I'd choose if I could only keep one.
Understand your users. That's the key. The essential task in a startup is to create wealth; the dimension of wealth you have most control over is how much you improve users' lives; and the hardest part of that is knowing what to make for them. Once you know what to make, it's mere effort to make it, and most decent hackers are capable of that.
Know your buyers, in every possible sense. Write something that you love that they want. Sooner or later, success will come.