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



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Saturday, February 28, 2009

A few months ago, I blogged that the entertainment sector should do well in the recession. So I was gratified, but not surprised, to read that movie ticket sales are up 17%.

This in spite of a really scary conversation I had with a director friend of mine in LA, who says that the market for new independent movies -- meaning the market in buying distribution rights -- has collapsed catastrophically. Indie movies are made on credit, and credit is tight. It may be a while before ticket sales pump money back into the indie sector.

TV is still a problem. When the tide goes out, you find out who's been swimming naked, as they say. Ad revenues are down, partly because of the economy, but partly also because advertisers may actually be coming to terms with the DVR. As more and more people buy digital video recorders, how many of them are actually going to watch the commercials? And it's patently idiotic to suggest, as some have, that people "watch" them on fast forward. A network exec friend of mine said she asked about DVR's in a meeting, only to be told "we don't talk about that." It seems likely that advertisers are now talking about the problem, whether or not network execs are.

So broadcast TV is facing a technological issue that strikes at the very heart of its business model, and the tide has run out, leaving its naughty bits swinging in the sea air.

Meanwhile, pay cable is doing well. And more and more people are watching "on demand" or downloading to their computer. Ironically, via computer, it is possible to sell your show for money, iTunes style, or offer it for free download with commercials you can't skip.

That's fair. If you don't like commercials, buy the show. If you'll watch the commercials, we'll show it to you for free.

Of course with 60 million Americans still unwilling or unable to grapple with the analog-to-digital switch, any technological solution will likely leave a chunk of the audience behind.

I still feel sanguine about the basic market for television, however it's delivered. TV is about the cheapest way to have someone entertain you. But in the mean time, I wouldn't take out any new mortgages.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Here's the Wikipedia's page on the most popular names by region.

Who knew "Lachlan" was the third most popular name in Australia? Who knew Bolormaa is the second most popular name in Mongolia?

Well, now you do.

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There's "pat the dog" scenes, where you show that the hero's likable because he's kind to animals. And there's "kick the dog" scenes where you show that the villain is a big meanie, because he's rude to his underlings or steals candy from a baby.

Another way to make your character likable is by showing her being mean -- or at least secretly wishing ill -- to someone we dislike, too. I have a scene where my wedding planner character is dealing with an atrocious bride. By the time the scene's over, she's a little more lovable -- because she had to put up with the kind of idiot we have to put up with way too often. We'll sympathize with her at the expense of the atrocious bride.

Just another way to get us on your character's side...

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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Q. When writing for a show that uses the two minute or so musical montage near the end of the episode, how is that generally conveyed on the page? would the writer suggest the song, or is that left up to the producers/director?
That's really done in post-production by the editor and the showrunner. You might suggest the nature of the feeling the song is intended to invoke.

I generally try to avoid montages in spec scripts because they read so poorly. It's very hard to convey the feeling of a montage on the page. I'd write a montage in a script I was hired to write, but in a selling script I'd stay away from them if possible. Of course if the show always uses a montage, you have to respect the template and use a montage.

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Friday, February 20, 2009

I've been listening to the amazing Ron Moore BATTLESTAR GALACTICA podcasts. And I've checked out some of the Creative Screenwriting podcasts. What else should I listen to while I'm walking the dog?

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Studio Reader Stan takes a potshot at marketing people in his latest comic strip.

C'mon. Taking potshots at marketing people is shooting fish in a barrel. All creatives have instinctive disrespect for the people who tell them broad truths about the audience, taken out of context ("Everybody likes monkeys!") and draws lame conclusions from them ("We want Seinfeld! But with a monkey!)

The truth is, though, that we creatives work in a relative vacuum. Most of our friends are creative people who work irregular jobs. I can take a wild guess at what the guy who works in the auto plant in Mahwah (at least till last month) likes to watch on TV, but only because of the numbers. Apparently he likes to watch comfort food TV -- crime dramas where the heroes are heroes and the villains are vile and the heroes always get the villains by the end of the hour. I like to watch MAD MEN, where if you get up to go to the fridge in the middle, you'll miss something important.

Which is where marketing people come in. And focus groups. And testers. If focus groups didn't work at all, networks wouldn't use them. Granted, they can become insulation for network execs ("How was I supposed to know it would tank? The testing was through the roof!") But sometimes creatives need to be reminded that if the show is all over the place, changing genre in mid-episode, writers may think it's cool, but watchers will think it's confusing. (Cf FIREFLY.)

Marketing feedback is like all feedback. You can't take it literally; you have to interpret it. But all feedback is useful, if you figure out how to use it.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Here's a fine discussion of whether or not Felix Gaeta was right.

Yes, I read all the comments. And FWIW, we seriously need some elected leaders.

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There's talk of the CRTC enforcing a $1-$1 ratio of spending on US programming to spending on Canadian programming. Currently the ratio is $775 million on US programming to $619 million on Canadian programming.

This seems like an excellent idea. There's no good reason for the Canadian networks to fight it, because it wouldn't actually reduce the amount of US programming they can buy. It just means they'll all have less money with which to compete for US product. They can still compete on a program-by-program basis, but they'll be competing with fewer dollars.

That means that US distribs will have to bring down prices. If Canadian networks have only $619 mil to spend on US programming, that's how much US distribs will sell the programming to them for.

Programming isn't a commodity. If you sell CSI to Canada, you don't have less CSI to sell somewhere else. Ultimately US distribs are going to sell CSI to Canada for however much or how little is on offer, because it puts dollars in their pocket and not selling it doesn't put any dollars in their pocket.

The nets probably can't afford to step up to $775 mil spent on Canadian programming. CanWest is in severe financial jeopardy right now as is. But the more money they save by not spending it in the US, the more money they have to spend in Canada. Which in a recession is probably an even better idea than it usually is.

Excellent idea, CRTC. Hope it goes through.

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Do you think that at the moment it's a bad moment to go to the States (I'm going to LA) because of the economic crisis? Or, as you once said, the show must go on and now rather it's a very good moment for film industry?
A lot of people are losing jobs all over the US, and that's bound to dry up entry-level jobs in every sector. Ad revenue in the TV industry is down, so there's less money floating around. Credit is tight, which makes gap financing harder, which is going to reduce the number of independent movies made; it may also hurt the studios.

In the long run, once credit loosens up, I think people will have an appetite for entertainment. If you're not dining out, movies are a cheap substitute. If you're not going to the movies, pay cable is a cheaper substitute.

But if you're trying to pick your timing, right now might not be the best time. Renting an apartment in LA might be a bit cheaper, but I doubt that offsets the bad economy.

What's everyone else's experience? Is the bad economy hitting showbiz?

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

I've been dipping into Chad Gervich's book SMALL SCREEN, BIG PICTURE. It's a really complete look at how the TV business works. There's quite a bit on spec scripts and how to get people to read them, but it also covers things like video village, upfronts, production schedules, back nine, deficit financing and POD deals. If you want to know how the TV biz works, soup to nuts, this is a great resource. There's almost too much information to actually use, but that's why you keep the book on your shelf: what do I do now I've got a PA job again?

Chad is an accomplished TV producer and executive, so he knows the nitty gritty of the biz. And he's a young guy, so his book is up to date, with sections on YouTube, reality shows and viral videos.

I interviewed Chad, as you may recall, back in December: part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.

Check out his book!

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Friday, February 13, 2009

Questioning and Aspiring writes:
Q. I'm an aspiring writer moving toward my first spec screenplay (after having already written a spec pilot) for which I've work shopped my very detailed step outline in my Feature Writing class and also handed it out to some friends. My fellow film-aspiring though non-writing friends are the ones with the harshest notes, and they happen to be the friends whose story sense I trust most. I've received great feedback on the large strokes, and the originality and inventiveness of my story but have gotten notes on my execution, logic issues inherent, and/or character/story motivations. I react defensively and usually argue my approach. How do I decide what I should change, whose opinion I should trust, and how do I implement said feedback without feeling like I have lost everything I enjoyed and that it is no longer a work of my authorship, but rather a compilation of problems other people had with what I wrote or others' suggestions that I implemented? It's scary to have worked on research and an outline for the better half of a year to then have readers suggest changes that would invariably alter my entire story and make it unrecognizable. I'm sure you can relate this to getting notes from execs, producers, etc. and because I know this is a large part of the business of being a professional writer-- I want to figure out how to deal with this now. How do I become a writer that accepts, understands, and acknowledges good feedback (versus being defensive) and possibly even a writer who realizes the faults in his scripts before they reach the hands of someone else?
My rule of thumb is: readers are usually right that there's something wrong. They're often right about what's wrong. They're usually wrong about how to fix it.

a. Readers are usually right that there's something wrong. If they find the story predictable, something is definitely wrong. If they don't like the main character, there's something wrong.

The only case where you could safely ignore feedback would be when you obviously asked the wrong person. Lisa might not be the right reader for your STARGATE spin-off. My dad wouldn't be the right reader for your Will Ferrell picture. If you're writing torture porn, I might not be your ideal reader, though as a professional I could probably give you good notes on structure and dialog. So be careful who you're asking for feedback.

b. Readers are often right about what's wrong. If they say "I don't like the main character," the problem might not be likability. If you think your main character is perfectly likable, that comment might mean that you haven't given the main character a compelling opportunity, problem or goal. He might dither too much. He might seem to introverted, or dull. Very few readers are capable of identifying what is structurally wrong with the elements of your story. Most will identify the symptoms rather than the cause. They are right that there is something wrong, but they may be wrong about what is wrong.

c. Readers are usually wrong about how to fix it. Nine out of ten suggestions from civilians will either not work at all, or work, but derail another section of your story, or make it a different story. Sometimes the different story might be a better one, which is why you have to listen to all ideas. But you're not obliged to take them.

d. It is your script. It is your vision. Don't write anything you don't believe in. Try something if you're not sure, but if it doesn't work, go back to your previous draft. If you don't like what you've done, it's unlikely anyone else will.

My advice is NOT to argue. It discourages people from giving you negative feedback in the future. But more importantly, it prevents you from hearing the criticism. What you are allowed to do is ask follow-up questions to clarify the criticism -- "do you not like him, or do you not care about him?" You are allowed to say, "What I was trying to do with that scene is this." And if the criticism seems completely off base, you can cut it short by saying, "Thanks, I'll take a look at that."

"I'll take a look at that" is writer-ese for "I think that's a dumb suggestion. But I might be wrong, and once I get it home and work with it, it might turn out to be a great suggestion. So I'm going to shut up and listen." Fairly often, suggestions I thought were horrible, in the depths of my resistance, turned out to be great, or result in something great once I'd worked on them some.

And you can always come back, even when you're getting paid, and say, "You know, I tried that, and it just didn't work." If you honestly tried it, and it truly didn't work in any way, shape or form, then nine times out of ten you won't have to pursue it further.

Remember, feedback is a gift. Even when you're paying for it, it's a gift. It allows you to see your work through other people's perspective. To get perspective on your own work by yourself requires vast amounts of time. Readers have the advantage of not being in your head and not knowing what you intend, but only what you've done.

And, bear in mind, you are writing your screenplay for other readers who are not your friend. If your friends are beating you up about something, what are the odds that a gatekeeper at a production company or agency is going to have the same problem? Only they won't give you feedback, they'll just ditch your script.

"I'll take a look at that." Practice it in front of a mirror if you have to. And try to listen as carefully, and as whole-heartedly, as possible. And then do what feels right to you.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Q. An agent in the States asked me for an IRC with my script. Whazzat?
It's an International Reply Coupon. You buy one at, say, the Canada Post, and when the agent wants to send your script back, he can slap it on the envelope. Because, obviously, Canadian stamps don't work in the US.

Of course, you're probably better off telling them they can recycle the script if they don't like it. Probably cheaper than shipping it back, even assuming it's not thrashed. And by then you ought to have rewritten it, anyway.

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Q. I realized that, if I wanna work in american movie industry, trying to break in as a writer, for a foreigner may be very very difficult. Hence, now I'm thinking about trying to work in Hollywood as a reader, with the intention to work lately, after a practice that can also consent me to improve my english, in any company development department.
I think it's extremely difficult to write screenplays in a language that isn't your mother tongue. If you speak so fluently that you can pass as a native, sure. I'm not talking fluent. I'm talking, people are surprised when you say you're not from around here.

It is hard enough to write great dialog. Your characters not only have to sound convincing, they have to have voices. They have to come across as the people you want them to be.

Moreover, dialog is not talk. What you put on the page can't be just a replica of how people actually speak. Actual talk on screen is usually banal. Dialog is a heightened form of talking, more distinctive, crisper, with rhythm and syncopation. Working on dialog is like writing free verse. Take this word out, how does it sound? Turn the "want to" into a "wanna"? Nah, it doesn't scan. Let's try it this way.

You have to be able to hear how it sounds in your head.

It is very hard for a non-native speaker to hear the difference between what he's writing and how the people around him are talking. If he could hear it, he would speak like a native speaker, wouldn't he?

There's lots of room in showbiz for foreigners. Hollywood loves to adopt people from all over the world. I'm about to head off to a breakfast with a director who hails originally from Malta. But I think screenwriting is about the hardest thing that a foreigner can set out to do. I wouldn't dream of trying to write a screenplay in French, and I've lived in French lands for almost a decade.

On the other hand, if you are brilliant at story and visual action, you could conceivably partner up with a US writer who's great at dialog. That could work.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

I am working on a TV spec right now and I have some ideas for other specs that I plan on putting together in the future (most have some basis in law/crime since I've been a lawyer for a number of years). However, I am 38 years old - is that too old to try to break in to the business?
I get these questions a lot.

It's true, there is some prejudice in favor of young writers. But the big issue isn't age. Age gives you a depth of experience that younger baby writers don't have. In particular, actual experience with law and crime is a big plus on law and crime shows.

The question is whether you're willing to make the sacrifices that the good baby writers are willing to make. Are you willing to work the hours? To write a lot of probably uncompensated specs before you get hired? If you're not, then you have to ask why should someone give you a break?

Another question: is this the first time you've written creatively? Why? It's not that hard to turn a good fiction writer into a TV writer, but it's hard to turn a non-writer into a screenwriter.

Why did it take you this long to get into showbiz? Are you seriously committed? If you're so committed now, why did it take 18 years for you to get there?

Talent will make its way in, but it takes time. You have to be willing to give yourself the time and effort to work your way in. That's a combination of craft, talent, perserverence and being ready for your break. So long as you're willing to be treated the same as a 23-year-old baby writer, there shouldn't be a problem. I think most of Hollywood's so-called "ageism" is really inside the writers who claim to be discriminated against -- they don't want to suck up the disrespect Ho'wood dishes out, or they don't want to write what 18-year-olds want to watch.

In Canada, there's less prejudice against age. There's also more free lancing, and less insane hours. And there's an environment that is more encouraging to baby writers generally.

The real questions for anyone thinking of breaking in are: do I love it so much I'm willing to risk a big chunk of my life against possible failure? And is there something else I could be happy doing? You know what the right answers are.

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If you're working on straight-ahead comedy, Lisa highly recommends WRITING TELEVISION SITCOMS by Evan S. Smith. It has the usual stuff on careers, but what's gold is the explanation of how to write jokes and comic scenes, even unto what sort of mix of characters you need. Check it out.

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Monday, February 09, 2009

Q. How hard is it to break into the industry with kids? If I were to pursue being a television writer, I'm imagining incredibly long hours and an environment unforgiving of kids' illnesses and other things. After all, there's lots of talented people without kids wanting to get into any spot I might have worked my way into.
Plenty of TV writers have kids. I have kids. Granted, relatively fewer emerging writers have kids. But it can be done.

Your first few jobs will likely be freelance. So long as you get the work done, no one cares when you do it. So no problem there.

Once you're on staff, yeah, the hours are long. Your spouse may need to pick up the slack. In return, once you're unemployed again, you can return the favor.

Also, in a pinch, most decent showrunners will let you go pick up your sick kid, if there's no current crisis.

There are also people called nannies. US TV writers get paid tons of money. If you're making $5,000 a week, you ought to be able to afford a little help with the kids. Just consider it part of the cost of being a writer.

The downside to being on a show is you don't see your kids as much as you'd like. On the other hand, a TV writer who works 6 months out of the year is doing extremely well. So you make up for it during the other 6 months when you are in your kids' faces to the point they probably get sick of you and go hide in their room and play Xbox 360.

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Q. My wife is from New York and is itching to move home, and I'm not adverse to the idea (hey, it's New York, right?) But although I obviously knew that the heart of the industry is in LA, I was surprised that it really seems like NY is a big fat zero for tv writing, even freelance? Is this still the case? Will I simply be on the wrong coast?
There are not a hell of a lot of shows in New York. There's LAW & ORDER, and 30 ROCK, and SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, and probably some shows on The N (which is based in NY) but the vast majority of shows are shot in LA. Or if they're shot in Vancouver, their writing rooms are often in LA -- see BATTLESTAR GALACTICA.

But it's worse, because while a writing room may be in New York, they may staff out of LA. If you're trying to start a TV career, there is simply no substitute for being in LA. You need to be able to take the meetings.

In the film department you're a little bit better off. No one really cares where a spec script's writer is living at the moment, and if you make a big sale, you can come to LA for the meet'n'greets then.

But the other thing to consider is that you are writing, on the whole, for people in LA. If you're not meeting them on a regular basis, and overhearing them at lunch, and getting honked at by them on Wilshire, you may have more trouble getting a sense of what sort of people you're writing for. LA has a mood and a flavor. It's hard to track that if you're not there.

UPDATE: The same is less true of Canadian TV, but it's still true. There are shows that are written and staffed out of Vancouver, Montreal, Edmonton and so on, and there are producers based in most major cities. But the majority of the shows are staffed at least partly out of Toronto. Writers from Toronto regularly get jobs in Montreal, Vancouver, Halifax, etc; writers from those cities almost never get jobs in Toronto. I recently lost a shot at a job because I wasn't in Toronto to have drinks with some producers from another city while they were in town. So yeah, it's not impossible to survive as a regional writer in Canada. But if you're breaking in, you probably should move to Toronto, at least till people know who you are.

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Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Christian Bale rant has been going around, and now he's released a contrite apology...

You know what? The d.p. was resetting lights while he was acting. Bale is a pretty intense actor, and he had got himself into some intense emotional state in order to be able to do his thing. And he needs to be totally focused, and believe that he is alone with the other actor in some fictional place, while sixty people are staring at him. And he needs to trust that no one is going to interfere with that.

And this idiot was resetting lights during a take.

To me, that's like tickling Michael Phelps while he's swimming a race. If you touched Michael Phelps while he was in a race, he would probably break your nose. The rest of the time he might be a nice, quiet, stoned kinda guy. But during a race, he's pumped.

The d.p. has the advantage here, because he has access to the footage. So he gets to air the moment where Bale went off. He doesn't air the five or six times that Bale no doubt told him, "Don't move the lights around while I'm trying to act, okay?"

Everyone on a set who counts is pumped. The director is pumped. The actors are pumped. The d.p. is pumped. They are all into their own thing, which means they don't always listen. Sometimes, in order to get their point across, people have to yell. And actors usually can't write dialog to save their lives, so Bale cursed a lot.

Though by Hollywood standards, he didn't really. When I lived in LA, my mouth got really foul. Years and kids later, I'm still trying to clean up.

I suspect that Bale will have no trouble getting his next job. We expect actors to be emotional. If they weren't, they wouldn't be able to act. I suspect that the d.p. will run into some resistance getting his next job. Not only does he move lights around during the take, but he stabs everyone in the back by releasing a recording (or letting it be known that he wouldn't mind if a recording were released) of what should have been a private moment in the temporary family that is a film set.

I'm not a screamer, myself. If I were ever to find myself a star of Bale's magnitude, I still wouldn't scream, I hope. But I have a very high tolerance for screamers. My first boss in showbiz was a screamer, and I worked for him for four and a half years because I was learning a lot; hey, it was his problem. I would much rather work with a screamer than a hack; and I'd work with either of those before I'd willingly work with a flake.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Q. When one is trying to get the most out of their page count and there is the occasional widow (single word that takes up an entire line) that won't go away, is it OK to occasionally change the dialogue right indentation to accommodate an extra character or two?
No. Of course not. I don't know what you're talking about. Cheat the margins? How dare you. I am shocked, shocked that you would even consider such a thing!

UPDATE: As some readers have pointed out, the better thing to do is to trim unnecessary words elsewhere. Read the dialog out loud. You'll often find you can trim a lot of it.

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Q. I'm currently writing a screenplay about a former child star who's struggling with living life as a has-been. The main character is a real former child star. Except everything that happens to him in the story is fiction. I believe they call those Factions. I haven't finished the script yet, but when I do, I plan to get it copyrighted and then send it to this actor. Now, here's my question: Can I be in any kind of legal trouble for writing a script with a real actor as the main character if the plot is fictitious? I guess the closest example I can give you is the movie Being John Malkovich.
It's not illegal to write a fairy tale about a real person. It's only illegal to publish it without his permission.

The problem is, a real former child star may not want to play a "has-been." They may have other things going on.

I don't know why you need it to be one particular child star if everything's a fiction. Just make sure the backstory is all fiction too. Then you can get any number of different former child stars to play the lead, or go with someone new.

It took some doing to get Bill Shatner to star in FREE ENTERPRISE (though it ultimately gave him a new career as a professional blowhard) and John Malkovich rejected BEING JOHN MALKOVICH several times.

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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

As you know, I'm fond of using census info to find first names that are unique to a generation. Subliminally, naming a character "Lisa" tells the reader that she is probably in her 40s. Ashley is probably in her 20s, and Edna is old as the hills.

Dynastree breaks down last names geographically. You won't be surprised to learn that Epsteins tend to congregate in New York, LA and Florida. There are apparently no Epsteins in Alabama (and I doubt there will be more any time soon.)

You can use the site to come up with a common name for a character in Montana, say, or, alternately, to come up with an intentionally uncommon name.

Names are important because they repeat throughout the script. Even if the characters don't say them often, they affect the read.

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Q. Right before Thanksgiving, AGENT sent out my feature comedy to about 10 companies. After Thanksgiving, he called me about something else, and while I was on the phone with him, said:

AGENT: And you know that EXECUTIVE at WELL-KNOWN COMPANY wants to meet with you, right?
ME: No.
AGENT: I sent you an email about it. Didn't I?
ME: Let me check ... No.

He then said that EXECUTIVE wanted to meet with me, but not until January, as the holidays were nearly upon us.

In January, I left a message on AGENT's office machine to ask, "Wasn't I supposed to be having a meeting with EXECUTIVE this month?" Three weeks later, he hasn't called back.

1. Is this normal AGENT behavior? Wouldn't it would be in HIS best interest to at least make a call to EXECUTIVE and get me into her office?

2. You say don't nag, so I have not called him again about this; I'm just writing another spec so I have some good news to tell him soon (i.e., "I have a spec for you to read!"). But should I maybe call him again, this time perhaps on his cell? Did this just slip under his radar because I'm not a huge priority, indicating that a reminder is in order?

3. Is it appropriate to call EXECUTIVE and say: "I'm the writer of COMEDY SPEC YOU READ. I heard you wanted to meet"
When I say "don't nag," I don't mean "don't call more than once." I think you can legitimately call once a week, and maybe send an email too if your calls aren't being returned.

But it sounds to me like your agent may have lost his enthusiasm for you. Remember, the value of an agent is "enthusiasm x enthusiasm x clout," so when the enthusiasm is gone, an agent is just short of worthless.

("Just short of" because it's always better to have an agent than not to. You can still use the agent's assistant to send scripts to people you've had meetings with, and you have someone to negotiate deals you've got on your own.)

Time to start looking for a new agent. My feeling is not to tell your old agent -- that will reduce his enthusiasm to zero -- but start finding someone who cares. At the same time, put a couple more phone calls into your agent to see if he's really fallen out of love with you, or if you just slipped through the cracks.

I think you can probably call the exec. You can truthfully say to the exec's assistant that "my agent said she wanted to talk to me after January, here I am." It's stepping on your agent's toes a bit, but it doesn't sound like he's paying attention, does it?

It always sucks when your agent falls out of love with you. And they almost never tell you, they just stop returning your calls. I think I've been fired as a client only once, by my first agents. I fired all the others.

You may not be able to get a new agent in time for staffing season, which is already on the horizon. Fortunately you are already pursuing plan B, which is write a kickass new spec that will make your agent love you all over again.

Always work your career. That gives you good, fresh reasons to call. Arrange your own meetings, and get your agent to follow up with materials. Your job is to help your agent sell you.

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Monday, February 02, 2009

Q. I have a scene in my spec pilot that would play better in the rain. And maybe thunder. Is rain an expensive effect in TV?
One mistake aspiring writers make, I find, is to worry too much about the production budget, and often in incorrect ways.

Some things look expensive and are: car chases, stunts, explosions. Robots that turn into cars. Dinosaurs. Dragons.

Other things don't look expensive, but are. Every time you take the cast to a new location, it involves a company move. That means the entire company has to wrap up all of their stuff, put it in the truck, take it out again at a new location, and put it in place.

Every time you put an extra character in a scene, that increases the number of setups the director needs to cover the scene. Each new setup means the d.p. gets to fuss with his lights some more. It's hard to get in and out of a new setup in less than half an hour.

Time is the real cost. TV shows just don't have that much time in the schedule. You have a crew of, let's say, 30-60 people, all of them on the clock and hoping you go into overtime.

Cats. Cats are really expensive. The cat wrangler doesn't get all that much money, but cats never do what you want them to do, and the whole crew is sitting around while the little carnivore is not doing what you want him to do. Dogs are better -- at least they want to do what you want them to do. But any kind of animal on screen that isn't a person sitting on a horse is going to eat up your day. That's why characters on TV so rarely have pets.

What's not expensive? Rain. If you are shooting indoors, rain is a pipe with holes in it, stuck just out of sight above the window. In you are shooting outdoors, rain is provided by a rain truck, which is just a tanker truck, some hoses, and a variety of nozzles. The camera doesn't register rain at a distance, so the crew just has to slick down the street with water and then provide rain up close.

Granted, you can't shoot rain in the sun, which is why most rain scenes are at night.

Thunder, on the other hand, is practically free. It's a sound effect; the sound editor has it in his computer, and he can give you fifteen different thunder breaks inside of a minute. Sound editors are super fun to work with.

Oddly, real rain rarely registers on camera. You can shoot in a drizzle, and no one will know. Only big gloppy raindrops show up.

You know what else isn't expensive? Extras. While producers will always try to get you to knock some of the extras out of a scene, a regular TV budget can stand a few scenes of your stars walking along a busy street. Don't be afraid to put a (non-speaking) guy selling knishes in your scene. They can always take him out later if they have to.

It's good to keep your pilot "small" and easy to shoot. But don't go overboard and write nothing but two-handers in rooms. No one wants to see that on TV. Focus instead on fitting your story into fewer locations with fewer speaking characters, and flesh out your world with an appropriate number of extras and all the rain you like.

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