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



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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Nigerian guy tries to set off a bomb on a plane. After he's arrested, it is revealed that his father warned the US that his son had become radicalized and was likely to do something rash, such as try to set off a bomb on the plane. It develops that the would-be murderer was put on a terrorism watch list, but left off the no-fly list, presumably to leave room for US Senators and Congressmen, Marines returning from Iraq, Princeton professors, members of the Federal Marshal Service, Air Force generals, and Nelson Mandela.

The TSA responds with new regulations that say that no one can get out of their seat, and no one can have anything in their lap, during the last hour of a flight.

Many people, notably security consultant Bruce Schneier, have been remarking for a while that the TSA seems primarily to be in the business not of security, but of security theater:
Separating Explosives from the Detonator
Chechen terrorists did it in 2004. I said this in an interview with then TSA head Kip Hawley in 2007:
I don't want to even think about how much C4 I can strap to my legs and walk through your magnetometers.
And what sort of magical thinking is behind the rumored TSA rule about keeping passengers seated during the last hour of flight? Do we really think the terrorist won't think of blowing up their improvised explosive devices during the first hour of flight?

For years I've been saying this:
Only two things have made flying safer [since 9/11]: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers know now to resist hijackers.
This week, the second one worked over Detroit. Security succeeded.

EDITED TO ADD (12/26): Only one carry on? No electronics for the first hour of flight? I wish that, just once, some terrorist would try something that you can only foil by upgrading the passengers to first class and giving them free drinks.
So, class, today's assignment is: design a first class SECURITY RITUAL, complete with witch-doctor or technological substitute, that can provide passengers with a sensation of security, without unduly inconveniencing them. The ritual does not need to increase actual security, only make the customers feel like the TSA is doing its job to protect us from terrorism. Shouldn't be longer than 3 pages.

Send your security ritual to me, and I'll post the best.

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Q. To create a fictional series or movie loosely based on events surrounding real people and sports teams eg, if the lead characters are fictional characters who work as groundskeepers at Fenway in the 80's, would I need to get permission of MLB to use the logo or interact with actual people that are still alive? I understand most sports teams won't permit use of their logos that might portray them negatively, so in cases like the Ted Lindsay movie about the creation of the NHLPA, or baseball movies like Babe Ruth, how are these made?
As we used to say in computer science, this problem is non-trivial. Copyright is fairly straightforward (though "fair use" is not entirely well defined). But here you're looking at trademark right and privacy rights.

You can't use the MLB logo in a movie, whether positively or negatively, without permission. Nor can you use the Red Sox uniforms. They're trademarked. Your producer is going to have to get permission from MLB and the Sox to use those trademarked logos and clothes and such. Fenway may or may not be trademarked; sometimes stadiums and other icons are trademarked.

You can fake it to some extend. On BON COP BAD COP, we had a team that wears blue and white uniforms, and a team that wears red and white uniforms, and you were free to assume they had something to do with the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens, but we never actually used Leafs or Habs uniforms. The team name "Yankees" may be trademarked, but (I believe) you could call them "the Pinstripes" or the "Bronx Bombers" or "the Bronx Zoo" or "the Evil Empire" -- nicknames are generally not trademarked. (I can't think offhand of any Bosox nicknames that wouldn't infringe on the Red Sox trademark.)

You definitely can't portray living people negatively without inviting a lawsuit. That's why the two main characters in BACKBEAT are John Lennon and Stu Sutcliffe. At the time, Paul, George and Ringo were all still alive. Dead people have neither privacy rights nor can you libel them.

I believe you can portray living people positively, in an incidental way, without getting their life rights. (But I am not a lawyer, and nothing on this blog should be considered legal advice.)

Note that you can still write, and circulate, a script about the Sox. Circulating a script is generally not felt to be "publishing," and you're free to do lots of things in a script that you would not be free to do in a movie or a published book. You may be leaving a producer a bit of a headache, but in general I would recommend letting producers decide whether a given headache is too big for them, rather than shying away from a subject you love.

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Saturday, December 26, 2009

"Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book."
— Marcus Tullius Cicero

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Friday, December 25, 2009

I've been learning to play Beatles songs on the guitar.

The first thing you learn about Beatles songs is they're hard. By the time the Beatles were really into writing their own songs, they'd been playing for years, eight hours a day, at basement clubs in Hamburg and Liverpool. They really, really knew their instruments. They'll run you through a whole mess of arcane chords, fast.

For example, in "Hello, Goodbye," just the first line of the chorus, "Hello, hello, hello," runs you through:

C C/B Am Asus2/G

(I promise there's a screenwriting moral to this story, but bear with me through some guitar info.)

C and A minor are perfectly normal chords. You'll see them all the time.

C/B is a split chord. You don't see split chords that often, but some people like them. (Elton John does some nice things with a progression of split chords in "Your Song," going Am to Am / F# to Am / G.) Basically a split chord is an ordinary chord with one note changed, meaning you put your spare finger somewhere.

Suspended chords are pretty rare. You might see an A suspended 4, say, in "Lola," but you'd remember it. But taking a suspended chord and then splitting it so it's A suspended 2nd over G is practically unheard of.

So what's going on?

The odd thing about the Beatles is they were practically untutored. They learned to play guitar from fooling around with their guitars while listening to records, and occasionally from friends. They didn't have music classes. They didn't go to Juilliard, or whatever it is young music prodigies go to in England. I'm told Paul McCartney couldn't read music until after he quit the Beatles.

No one who knows music theory is likely to produce an Asus2/G. Musically, it's a very complicated chord.

But let's look at the fingering. Here's your C chord:



Your 1st finger is on the first fret of the B string. Second finger is on the 2nd fret of the D string. Third finger is on the 3rd fret of the A string.

Now C/B;


All you have to do is take off the first finger and you've got C/B. (Okay, technically you strum your low E string, while in the C chord you skip the low E string.)

Now, A minor:



This is the same as the C chord, except you take your 3rd finger off the 3rd fret of the A string and put it on the 2nd fret of the G string. (C - Am is a very common chord progression for this reason.)

Now let's look at that ridiculous Asus2/G:



Oh. That's not very hard, is it? You just take off your first and third fingers entirely, and leave your 2nd finger on the 2nd fret of the D string.

Not all the Beatles' arcane chords are this easy. But what I'm seeing a lot is chord progressions where you're taking a common chord and then taking a finger off, or sliding one finger down or up one fret.

For example, in "You Won't See Me," in the line:

Time after time, you refuse to even listen

The chords are D6 Dm6 A

D6 is just a basic D chord with the second finger lifted. Here's a D:



Here's a D6:




You can go D6 to Dm6 easily by sliding one finger down on the high E string.


(It's actually easier if you put your 1st finger on the 1st fret of high E, 2nd finger on the 2nd fret of high E, and 3rd finger on the 2nd fret of the G. That makes D6, but if you lift off your second finger you go straight to Dm6 without having to move anything.)

Okay, so what is going on?

Simply, the Beatles are fooling around with their guitars. They are sliding their fingers up and down the frets, trying to hear something new. They are taking fingers off of ordinary chords to make chords that no well-tutored guitarist would make. They "don't know any better." So they're coming up with something incredibly fresh.

Now what is the frakking screenwriting lesson?

Thanks for bearing with me.

There is a whole bunch of theory of screenplay structure. Some of my friends, for example, are fond of the late Blake Snyder's "Save the Cat" method of structuring screenplays. It is a pretty foolproof way to write a coherent, well-structured, commercial screenplay. Blake Snyder wrote a couple of successful movies, and got paid a lot of money to write others that didn't get made, and he analyzed a bunch of even more successful movies. I used the "Save the Cat" method once to try to figure out where a beat sheet of mine was going wrong.

You can write a movie that's fun and enjoyable, and if your characters are fresh and your dialogue is snappy, you can sell it and get it made, and entertain a lot of people. But you're not going to surprise too many people using the "Save the Cat" method.

How do you surprise people?

By fooling with your guitar.

I don't recommend people use the "Save the Cat" method. I recommend people use the "telling your story" method. That consists of telling your movie's story, over and over again, to as many people as you can stand to. I recommend not writing anything down until you've told your story out loud, without notes, to at least ten people, none of whom are screenwriters.

When you tell your story out loud, without notes, you will, first of all, hear it yourself in a way that you never will if you write it down. You will hear what works and doesn't work. When you can't remember what comes next, you'll discover what doesn't make sense. When you're boring yourself, you'll know what's tiresome. You'll see your audience's immediate reaction, too. When you're on the right track, they're intently listening. When their eyes glaze over, you haven't grabbed them.

And best of all, you'll find yourself making up better stuff as you go along. Just like John Lennon, playing a D chord and wondering, "What if I take off this finger? Okay, what if I slide this finger over here? Yes, that is better."

This method involves a lot of carnage. You'll try out story ideas, and some will lead you off into the woods, even though they sounded good at the time. You'll come up with something that sounds fun and then realize it's ridiculous.

In musical terms, you'll try out chord progressions and most of them will sound terrible. But some of them will sound good, even though it would take a musicologist pages to explain why.

As you refine your story, you'll wind up with a story full of transitions between familiar chords like B7 --



and unheard of chords like E7sus4 that no one else is playing. It will sound fresher than your friend's story, which faithfully and competently follows the "Save the Cat" method. And no one hearing your story will notice that all you did was lift off three out of four of your fingers:


There are shortcuts in screenwriting. They lead to hack work. I respect hack work, because hack work is competent work, and sometimes that's all you have time for.

But there are no shortcuts to fresh screenwriting. You can't write ALL THAT JAZZ or ANNIE HALL using "Save the Cat." Or even FORREST GUMP or HARD DAY'S NIGHT. You have to try out things no one has done before.

But that's much more fun that writing to someone else's structure. Even if it's harder.

And you get to be the Beatles.

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I finished reading THE STRAIN. What a disappointment. Where is the Guillermo del Toro of PAN'S LABYRINTH? You would think a novel would be more personal, more distinctive, than his movies. After all, it costs nothing to write a book, and it costs millions to make a movie. A novel can be anything you want. A movie has to answer to the studio fronting the money; the music is the composer's, the acting is the star's. Aside from the scary vampires with their six foot tongues, where's del Toro? (And it's not like we haven't seen six foot tongues before, e.g. Doc from Season 5 of Buffy.) It's as if he sat down with Chuck Hogan for a few days, gave him some ideas, and then walked away, leaving the bestseller writer to do his thing.

It's not even top quality bestseller writing. At the end of the four day period of the novel, the hero is bravely uploading footage of a vamp to the Internet, to prove they exist. This, after vampires have been rampaging around all over Manhattan for days. Surely there would be hundreds of videos up on YouTube by this point? The Iranians managed it, and they had to smuggle cell phones out of the country.

Well, I hope del Toro will take his loot and go and make a personal movie. I'm going to go get some batteries for Jesse's presents.

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Thursday, December 24, 2009


I've been a fan of Guillermo del Toro since his elegant, low key vampire movie Cronos. So naturally I picked up his and Chuck Hogan's vampire apocalypse novel THE STRAIN.

Del Toro and Hogan have gone and written them a bestseller. I'm sure the sales are great, but I mean the genre. There's a certain kind of book that you just know was written to sell a million copies, and then to be adapted into a spectacular feature film with a cast of stars and familiar faces.

My family has a friend, Arthur Herzog, who was writing unsuccessful literary novels in the 70's. He finally went to his agent and said, "I want to make some money." His agent said, "Take the New York Times Best Seller list, and read the top ten books."

He did, and then proceeded to bang out THE SWARM, a novel about a plague of killer bees. Which became a bestseller, and was made into a movie. Also ORCA, a novel about a killer whale menacing a seaside community. Which became a bestseller, and was made into a movie. Also IQ 83, HEAT, etc. He's got a nice townhouse in New York with what he's bought from writing bestsellers. I think he would be the first to tell you that "bestseller" is a genre, if you look at it properly.

So you have: the scary precipitating incident. The cast of initially unconnected heros. Minor, foreshadowing incidents. Then the badness kicks in. The good guys realize their predicament, meet each other, and start to fight it.

I like that THE STRAIN's vampires are not Edward Cullen-style sparkly ponies. They are a scary perversion of nature. They are human beings taken over by a virus and a parasitic worm, driven mad by lust for blood, and they spread by feeding. Fast.

Del Toro and Hogan have thought out the science fiction, so it feels convincing. These aren't mystical vamps, they're realistic vamps.

What I don't like is the book starts to feel formulaic. Of course the hero is a top expert from the Center for Disease Control. Of course he's estranged from his wife and kid. Of course they're in danger. Of course the other hero is an old man from Europe who knows all the folkore about vampires, and has been fighting them on his own. Of course there's a girl expert, too. Of course the forces of evil insidiously contrive to make them have to go on the run, and fight the vamps on their own.

I'm 60% into the novel, and I can't say that anything that's happened really surprised me. It's all fun and a little scary to read. But the plot unfolds just about how you would unfold it if you hired any competent write to construct a novel about a vampire apocalypse. The heroes aren't surprising. They're good people, without big flaws or complicated passions that would make them do the wrong (and surprising, and distinctive) thing. They're just generic smart people caught in an extraordinary situation.

The plot feels like it's built to support the eventual movie adaptation. You want to keep the plot focused on the motley band of heroes who are the sole hope of the human race, because those are your stars. That's why you have to put them on the run. It wouldn't do to have the heroes notify the White House, and then sit by while the Army and CDC and NYPD do their thing.

But then, how do a few heroes stop a vampire apocalypse? Soon we're hearing that you only have to kill the Master Vampire and you can stop the apocalypse. So it is a job for three people, after all.

Which was the point where I stopped reading and decided to write this post. Because I have trouble believing that vampires made by a virus and a parasitic worm give a hoot who the Master Vampire is. So there goes your convincing science fiction.

I think if I were writing about a vamp apocalypse, I would be more inclined to write a story like 28 DAYS LATER, where it's not about stopping the vamp apocalypse, it's about a couple of people trying to survive it. A close, personal story, where the characters are flawed, and don't necessarily help each other, and get into arguments at inappropriate times.

Of course, that's not a bestseller. That's a novel in danger of becoming literary. Then you have a literary novel about vampires, and what section do you put it in? I had the same thing with THE CIRCLE CAST: it's a novel about a girl with a huge talent and a huge flaw, and that makes it sort of a literary novel. But it's a literary novel about a young sorceress learning her magical powers, so what section do you put it in?

I sometimes wonder if I could write a bestseller. Again, not talking about sales figures; that's as much to do with marketing as anything. On the one hand I think I could write a book like this one, or like THE SWARM. On the other hand, I think I would be strongly drawn to making the characters flawed and interesting, and taking the plot off in some unexpected direction. And then it wouldn't be a bestseller any more.

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Friday, December 18, 2009

If you're wondering why your spec didn't sell this year, relax, spec script sales collapsed in April, sez Nikki Finke:
The wide spec basically died on April 30, 2009. For the first four months of 2009, 8.2% of the specs that went wide to the town ended up selling (16 out of 195). Not a great percentage, but probably to be expected, all things considered. From May through the end of the year, however, sales of wide specs fell off a cliff: 3 out of 178 wide specs sold during that period, or 1.7%.
Basically, "three studios put a moratorium on development spending."

It makes sense. Scripts are the first thing in the pipeline, so if you want to cut costs without affecting output immediately, those $200K vs. $500K deals are easy to cut.

Things should pick up at some point, when execs start getting antsy about having a dry pipeline. When that will happen, who knows. My feeling is that January is going to look better than November, but that's just a gut check.

And then there's this:
According to BoxOffice.com, 2009's domestic cume has already topped 2008's record haul of $9.626 billion from January 1 to December 31, 2008.
At some point studios will realize that they are actually making a profit, and need to continue to make product if they want that to keep up.

I thought this tidbit was also interesting, if you're wondering about the seasonal cycles of Ho'wood:
The Spring selling season is roughly twice as long as the Fall season: this year, there were 21 weeks in the Spring (from the end of Sundance to the week before Independence Day) versus 10 weeks in the Fall (from the week after Labor Day to the week before Thanksgiving).

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Here's why you no longer have to worry about writing too many expensive foreign locations into your script.


It's dangerous for a novice writer to worry too much about how much things cost, because novices often make wrong assumptions about what's expensive. These days an explosion might be digital. So might a wrecked ferry. So might Moscow.

If you're intentionally writing a low budget movie, or a TV show, then keep the number of locations down, and the number of actors in a scene down. But if you're writing a big spec script, leave the worrying to the producers.

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Q: if you're a new writer, should you even be considering pitching bibles and treatments? It strikes me that you need to have whole specs each time for awhile. Am I wrong on this? Would having a couple of specs as samples be enough to let me send out other shows simply as pitches?
Probably not. There was a run of networks buying shows even from novice writers, but I think most of that was networks buying spec pilots. These days there's a lot less development going on, and even experienced writers are back to writing spec pilots. At least, that's what my agent is telling me to do.

For experienced writers, it depends on the show. Lisa and I have a couple of high-concept pitches out there, where anyone can get what the show is just from the pitch. One of them I'm not speccing because the concept is so particular that we may not find a network where it's a fit, so writing a pilot might be a huge waste of time. The other one we're not speccing because it would require a ridiculous amount of technical research, and it's an execution-independent concept for which, really, any veteran writer could bang out a pilot based on our five minute pitch. (We're also not speccing them because we've optioned these to producers whose job it is to find me the money to write the pilots. But that doesn't really change the calculation.)

We're speccing everything that's at all execution dependent, particularly comedies, where you need to see the characters in action and hear their voices to know if it's going to work or not.

Even if your agent is willing to send out pitches, I wouldn't do it. Unless you're a TV genius, your pitch is not as good as you think it is. You'll discover how to make it better once you write the pilot. You'll discover elements that don't work. You may have to chuck out a core character or two. You may discover a brilliant new core character. You may change a character's personality when you realize it's not working on the screen. Why send out something that isn't as good as you can make it?

Write the pilot. It's easier to get someone to read a spec pilot than a pitch. A good spec pilot will get you further than a pitch. A pitch never comes alive. It's just a description of a show. A spec pilot is the show, and everyone wants to read a good one.

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Recently-turned-pro writer Jessica Butler is blogging* about what's been working for her breaking in. She has an amusing story about sneaking into the backstage of an awards show. And this advice to just ask for help:
When we finally met, we thanked the executive profusely for meeting with us, and surprisingly, she thanked us for contacting her. She said she's always amazed at how many simply don’t ask for help. The truth is, not that many people pick up the phone and say, “I'd like to learn something from you.” And most people are flattered when you do.
Check it out.

*Hollywood University, Or: How To Get A Job In Hollywood offers practical advice for students wanting to break in to the industry. Topics include how to write an industry resume and cover letter, spec materials aspiring writers should have in their portfolio, relocation to LA and NYC, etc., along with interviews from current professionals working in the industry. It's not a "how to write a good script" blog, but rather a practical advice blog providing students with the information they need to get their first job.

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I didn't see this -- my 6 minute short film, 12 WAYS TO SAY I'M SORRY, was on Metacafe in October:


12 Ways to Say I'm Sorry - The most popular videos are here

The picture quality leaves something to be desired. One of these days I have to upload it to YouTube in HQ, but I'm not sure my distribution contract allows that.

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Where do people get their ideas from? According to today's Geek Chic Daily, from ICanHasCheezburger.com, your source for all things lolcat:
You know what the comic book industry is sorely lacking these days? Monkeys with guns.

Answering our prayers is Marvel’s newest sensation, Hitman Monkey, a highly-trained Japanese macaque assassin who would give the Punisher a run for his money.

Editor Axel Alonso tells GCD that the inspiration for the character came from a random photo of a monkey drowning a guy:
humorous pictures


Says Alonso, “It cracked the f--- out of me. I just thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever seen. And I thought, ‘Man, you know, that’d make a great comic book!’”
As I say in CRAFTY SCREENWRITING, you should be getting your ideas from Paying Attention and Stealing. No one can copyright an idea...



For realz!

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

I've been watching TV comedy pilots because I'm writing a spec pilot. I went to the library and went through a whole bunch of '70's pilots (THE JEFFERSONS, CHICO AND THE MAN, etc.).

A lot of it was unwatchable. Or at least, I couldn't watch it. Man, most old TV doesn't hold up any more. It's slow and the jokes seem obvious. The situations seem forced and the characters seem cartoonish, without being full of cartoonish life.

(To be fair, I don't watch THE NEW ADVENTURES OF OLD CHRISTINE either, for the same reasons. It feels like old TV.)

M*A*S*H holds up, though these days it would probably be an hour drama with banter, not a half hour, I think. LUCY holds up. What old TV comedy holds up?

If you're looking for a Golden Age of TV, it has got to be now. Single camera comedies like 30 ROCK and EXTRAS and THE OFFICE and ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT and CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM ... actually, there are a fair number of single camera comedies that aren't really "like" anything. Same goes for dramas like MAD MEN and ROME and SOPRANOS.

Pilots often suck. 30 ROCK didn't really hit its stride for me until about episode 9 of season 1. (1.09, in the parlance.) What TV comedy pilots really knock your socks off?

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Superchannel, the pay cable network, is running a screenwriting contest for aspiring/emerging screenwriters. (That is, you must be unproduced and your screenplay must be unoptioned for you to apply.) Four talented spec monkeys will get free story editing and a table read, and something to put on their resume.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

The WGA Noms are in:
DRAMA SERIES

Breaking Bad, Written by Sam Catlin, Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould, George Mastras, J. Roberts, John Shiban, Moira Walley-Beckett; AMC

Dexter, Written by Scott Buck, Charles H. Eglee, Lauren Gussis, Clyde Phillips, Melissa Rosenberg, Wendy West; Showtime

Friday Night Lights, Written by Bridget Carpenter, Kerry Ehrin, Ron Fitzgerald, Brent Fletcher, Etan Frankel, Jason Gavin, Elizabeth Heldens, David Hudgins, Rolin Jones, Jason Katims, Patrick Massett, Derek Santos Olson, John Zinman; NBC

Lost, Written by Carlton Cuse, Adam Horowitz, Edward Kitsis, Melinda Hsu Taylor, Damon Lindelof, Greggory Nations, Kyle Pennington, Elizabeth Sarnoff, Brian K. Vaughan, Paul Zbyszewski; ABC

Mad Men, Written by Lisa Albert, Andrew Colville, Cathryn Humphris, Andre Jacquemetton, Maria Jacquemetton, Brett Johnson, Erin Levy, Marti Noxon, Robin Veith, Dahvi Waller, Matthew Weiner; AMC

COMEDY SERIES

30 Rock, Written by Jack Burditt, Kay Cannon, Robert Carlock, Tom Ceraulo, Vali Chandrasekaran, Tina Fey, Donald Glover, Steve Hely, Matt Hubbard, Dylan Morgan, Paula Pell, Jon Pollack, John Riggi, Tami Sagher, Josh Siegal, Ron Weiner, Tracey Wigfield; NBC

Curb Your Enthusiasm, Written by Larry David; HBO

Glee, Written by Ian Brennan, Brad Falchuk, Ryan Murphy; Fox

Modern Family, Written by Paul Corrigan, Sameer Gardezi, Joe Lawson, Steven Levitan, Christopher Lloyd, Dan O'Shannon, Brad Walsh, Caroline Williams, Bill Wrubel, Danny Zuker; ABC

The Office, Written by Jennifer Celotta, Danny Chun, Greg Daniels, Lee Eisenberg, Anthony Q. Farrell, Brent Forrester, Daniel J. Goor, Charlie Grandy, Mindy Kaling, Ryan Koh, Lester Lewis, Paul Lieberstein, Warren Lieberstein, BJ Novak, Michael Schur, Aaron Shure, Justin Spitzer, Gene Stupnitsky, Halsted Sullivan; NBC

If you spec one of those shows, you can count on people knowing them. And these are ones you should be watching:

NEW SERIES

Glee, Written by Ian Brennan, Brad Falchuk, Ryan Murphy; Fox

The Good Wife, Written by Angela Amato Velez, Corinne Brinkerhoff, Ted Humphrey, Dee Johnson, Todd E. Kessler, Michelle King, Robert King;CBS

Hung, Written by Colette Burson, Ellie Herman, Emily Kapnek, Brett C. Leonard, Dmitry Lipkin, Angela Robinson; HBO

Modern Family, Written by Paul Corrigan, Sameer Gardezi, Joe Lawson, Steven Levitan, Christopher Lloyd, Dan O'Shannon, Brad Walsh, Caroline Williams, Bill Wrubel, Danny Zuker; ABC

Nurse Jackie, Written by Taii K. Austin, Liz Brixius, Rick Cleveland, Evan Dunsky, Nancy Fichman, Liz Flahive, Jennifer Hoppe, Mark Hudis, John Hilary Shepherd, Linda Wallem, Christine Zander; Showtime

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The IMDb has its new Starmeter rankings out. They rate actors by how often people look them up.

A few factors skew the rankings. Kids have more time to look up stuff, which put TWILIGHT's Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart at #1 and #2, not to mention a bunch of other secondary characters in the top #25. I'm pretty sure Ashley Greene isn't actually a bigger star than Leo DiCaprio.

Also, people look up actors when they have no idea who they are. Which might account for Tom Cruise's relatively low ranking (#18). Way more people go to see his movies, but who needs more information about him?

In other words, this is a distracting and misleading metric. Ah, well. You get what you pay for.

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

I've been giving feedback in various forms for perhaps 20 years. Because I do script evaluations over the Internet, in addition to my work for producers, I'm can run across wildly irregular material. Working with both professionals and aspiring writers has taught me a few things about giving effective feedback.

What do you do when you come across a bad script from a friend or colleague, and you want to be honest without being destructive?

When I do notes, the first draft can occasionally be horribly negative. I go through the script making little "oh, for heaven's sake!" notes to myself. There's nothing wrong with making this kind of note, so long as you don't communicate it to the writer. The notes are helpful because often I can figure out later on (from the ending of the script, or upon reflection) what the writer was trying to do. Often the writer's intentions become clearest where he succeeds least, because it's the most ambitious scenes that show what he was going for.

Then, after reading, I write up the main body of my notes. These are the real notes that I'll eventually send.

I try to always start with a compliment. We had a rule in our writing group back in LA that the entire first round had to be compliments. That helps prevent writer hara-kiri. In the rare cases where I can't find something I like about the craft -- an ear for dialog, or a clever twist -- I compliment the research, or the imagination, or how heartfelt the material is. Everyone has a tendency to jump in with criticism. If you start with something nice to say, the criticism will go down more smoothly.

Then I try to figure out what the movie is. No one writes a script without having a movie in their mind. They may not have got it on the page, but they had a vision in their mind. What was it? What is an even better version of that?

If you can make a really strong case for what the movie should be, then you can skip a good deal of your criticism; it becomes moot. I read a script recently where a lot of the scenes seemed irrelevant. But I could see that there was a potentially powerful relationship that wanted to be placed at the core of the movie; the story of that relationship was the movie the script wanted to be. So rather than saying, "a bunch of your scenes have got nothing to do with anything," I was able to say, "I think the core of the movie is the relationship between Parker and Schwartz, and if you focus on that relationship, you'll have a stronger movie." If the writer then puts the Parker-Schwartz relationship at the center of his storytelling, the irrelevant scenes will simply fall away.

If you can figure out what the movie is, and sell that movie back to the writer, then you can often skip as much as half of your criticisms. Say the movie is full of aimless scenes of dull dialog. But you've discovered a powerful story motor lurking in the background. ("I think that Kiki is really trying to get her ex-boyfriend to take her back.") If the writer brings the story motor into the foreground, that will tend to focus the dialog scenes. They won't be aimless any more. They likely will be less dull, too, since something will be going on in them.

I'd always rather say, "Here's the movie I think you're trying to write" than "the script you wrote sucks because here's why." And the former takes care of a good deal of the latter.

Note that I'm not saying, "I'd rather see a movie about Parker and Schwartz," or "If I were writing this, I'd throw all this stuff out and write about Parker and Schwartz." I'm saying, "It seems to me that the movie you're trying to tell is really about Parker and Schwartz. Their relationship propels the theme you seem to be interested in, and the failure of that relationship is what earns you the finale you wrote." You have to figure out the movie that the writer seems to be trying to write, even if he doesn't know it.

Sometimes, of course, you spot an opportunity for a stronger hook or a more accessible movie, but you can tell it's not what the writer has in mind. Then you have to say, "By the way, I think you're trying to write a dark movie about the futility of men's relationships,but if Schwartz was a girl, this could be a terrific rom-com, with a happier ending of course."

But leave it at that, and then move on to whatever the writer seems to be trying to achieve.

I think the most effective way to approach criticisms is to look at the elements of story. As I keep telling you guys, they are:

a. a character we care about
b. with an opportunity, problem or goal
c. who faces obstacles and/or an antagonist
d. who stands to win something he doesn't have (stakes)
e. and/or stands to lose something precious to him (jeopardy).

When scripts fail, at least 80% of the time they're failing because one of these elements isn't there or doesn't work. And it's amazing how many repercussions that has. A failure at the story level will take the fun out of your action sequences. It will sap the urgency and snap out of your dialog. It will make short scenes seem tedious.

For that matter, bad story elements almost always seem ruin your story structure. You would think you could theoretically craft a perfectly well-structured plot without stakes or jeopardy, or without knowing exactly what the heroine wants, but in practice, the writer senses that's something wrong, and starts throwing extraneous plot at the movie, trying to find what's missing, and sooner or later, the whole plot train derails as it goes searching for its missing elements.

Fix the story elements, and often the plot problems fix themselves, once you rewrite towards the revised story elements.

As you can tell, I think the key to good feedback is to say less rather than more, and to say positive constructive things rather than just pointing out what's not working. A good tennis pro won't fix your grip, your stance and your swing. A good tennis pro will fix your stance, and see if that fixes your grip and your swing.

Sometimes, of course, craft is lacking. The dialog may be bad because the writer just doesn't have an ear for dialog, or because he's not even a native speaker of English. At that point you do have to criticize. But even there, you can phrase a criticism positively rather than negatively. Compare these two remarks:

"All your characters sound the same."

"Try to give each character a distinctive voice."

These are basically the exact same idea. But one hurts. The other doesn't. The key to effective criticism is telling the writer what he could do better. No one likes being told they failed. But few people mind being encouraged to do better, especially if you tell them what the standard is, and how to get there:

"Try to give each character a distinctive voice. Ideally, you should be able to tell who's speaking just from the dialog, without seeing the character name. Look at each line, and see if there's some way you can tweak it so that it reveals something about the character's personality, in addition to communicating what they want to communicate. Tweak it so it sounds not only like something they would say, but something only they would say."

I usually wrap up my notes by giving a cleaned-up version of the page notes I wrote when I first read the script. I think it's helpful for the writer to know how the read went. I don't try to make myself look smarter than I am. If I missed something important, I'll leave in the notes that show my confusion (but with a parenthetical explaning that I got it later). After all, if I missed something important, maybe the writer should hang a lantern on it. Other readers will likely be reading less carefully than I am, after all. I'm getting paid to read, but they're working through the stack of reading that is keeping them from sleep and/or sex with their beloved. It's good for a writer to get a sense of how the read went.

One thing I never do is tell writers they're no good. I might say that the script is not there yet, or that the subject seems uncommercial. I might say they have a lot of craft they need to learn. But who's qualified to judge their potential? Maybe they need to write ten more scripts, and then they'll be good. George Lucas's early drafts of THE STAR WARS were horrible. I would hate anyone to read my early stuff. And suppose you're right, and they suck. So what? If they're a writer, they'll keep writing even if they suck. And now they're mad at you.

The final thing I do is sit on the notes for at least 24 hours. Often I come up with a much better way to put something, or a crucial insight, or even a "solution" for the movie, without even really trying to. I do a final pass, upgrading any remaining negative comments that might have slipped through, unpacking remarks that aren't clear, and adding in any new insights.

It's tempting to fire off notes right away, but hold off, just like you'd hold off sending anything you just wrote. You'd think people who are anxiously awaiting your notes would appreciate your speed, but if you turn notes around too fast, they feel you didn't spend enough time on them. And you'll always have more perspective the next day.

Everything I've read has a better version hidden within it. That's the version that's in the writer's head -- maybe only in the back of his mind -- trying to get onto the page. It may not be a movie -- sometimes it's a novel. Or a comic book. But there's always something better that just isn't on the page yet. If you can draw that out and sell it to the writer, then you're giving truly great notes.

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

I got back after midnight last night from my train trip back from Toronto. (I knew there was a reason I try to avoid the local.) The networks and most of the production companies are there, and a lot of shows even in Montreal are staffed out of there. So I try to get up there about eight times a year. Ideally, I go when Jill Golick has one of her terrific Writers Watching TV events, or for some spectacular party.

So Thursday night was the Telefilm do from 5 to 7, and then the WGC Christmas party from 7:30 until at least midnight. That's when I left, anyway, and Christin Simms was asking me why I was leaving so early. (Because I ran out of mana, is the truth.)

I've got a point where I can spend five hours at a party and not run out of friends to talk to. That's nice. When I started out in the biz up here, and when I started out in LA, I had to force myself to go to parties, because I didn't know anyone. I find it really difficult to be at a party where I don't know people. I'm not an enormously social person by nature (which may surprise some people who only know me now). It doesn't come naturally to me. It probably doesn't come naturally to most writers. That's why we sit in front of the computer writing instead of sitting on the phone talking. (People who have a talent and a love for that become successful agents.) When you're first trying to break in, you're at a lot of parties hoping there will be somene you can talk to.

But it's your job. If you're not meeting people, you're not doing your job. Writing great stuff is necessary to break in. But it's not sufficient. If no one knows you, they're not going to "see" you in their writing room.

But it won't be your job forever. Eventually you'll make friends, and then it becomes fun. Like the writing, it stops being work as soon as you're enjoying yourself.

What's really fun about showbiz -- and probably any business that's also a calling, art, sports, music -- you get to be friends with people whose work you also admire. I'm friends with many of the best TV and feature writers in Canada. it adds something to the friendship when you can share the work you love.

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Friday, December 11, 2009

Rob Edwards, writer of THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG, has an interesting post called Seven Writer's Rules for Survival in Animation at MakingOf. I liked these points:
RULE 3. THINK IN SEQUENCES
Animated features are usually divided into about 30 3-5 minute sequences. Each Story Artist is “cast” to do various sequences according to their abilities with action, comedy or dramatic moments. If you’ve followed Rule #2, you’ll quickly figure out how to write to the strength of the particular artists. If she’s great with physical comedy, take it as a challenge to create dynamic physical gags. If he’s good with drama, go for it and allow the tone of the film to change a bit. It will help give the film a variety and pace that will ultimately add to its overall entertainment.

RULE 4. REMEMBER WHY IT’S ANIMATED
The current state of special effects is so advanced that it’s become increasingly difficult to impress even the least theatrically experienced 8-year-old. But take heart, there are still things animation can do that can’t be matched by the most skilled effects wizards in the world. The key is to know what those things are and use them as tools to make your story as fun as possible.
Good animation looks for an “animation hook” – essentially a reason why the movie is being animated in the first place: Toys coming to life after you leave the room is a hook that bursts with possibilities. The ascension of a rat to the pinnacle of Parisian gastronomy would probably lose a bit of its charm in live action, but Ratatouille stands out as one of my favorite animated films of all time. The key is to squeeze as much mileage out of that hook as you can.
Good points to remember as we try to work up some animation pitches.

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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

It's the week of Christmas parties, so it's perfect that there's a foot of snow scheduled for today. This is the time of year that we trade experiences and realize that, wow, everyone else had a terrible year, too. Which is reassuring. If you're not making your nut in a good year, either you're no good, or no one likes you, or no one knows you exist. If you talk to some of your extremely accomplished friends, all in various corners of the biz, and they made a quarter as much this year as last year, then you're in good company, and it will probably get better next year.

There's been a lot of talk about whether the Canadian networks would manage to sink the last few Cancon requirements and gut Canadian-made TV entirely. (Because why does Canada protect them from US competition, if not so that they can buy as many US series as possible?) It was reassuring to hear that Konrad von Finckenstein, Chairman of the CRTC, thinks the 1999 decision to dilute Cancon requirements (which turned 12 homemade dramas a year into 2) was a "mistake." So I'm feeling reasonably sanguine that there will still be jobs in my local industry next year, and I won't have to move back to LA.

I'm also feeling reasonably sanguine because Lisa and I wrote a pilot for an American cable channel this year, and we have a bunch of projects being pitched to studios right now, one with a Big Name Showrunner attached. Come to think of it, pretty much every TV project I have out there currently has a US component. That's the direction things seem to be going. Which is mostly a good thing, I think.

Next year I'm also hoping to branch out a bit. I'm directing another short, and if all goes well a romantic comedy feature. I'm also hoping to do some more work on videogames. That's fun work, and it lets me use all my sf and fantasy and mythological thoughts that are way out of budget range for any of the TV or feature producers I work with. Of course if one of my series goes, then that's what I'll be doing. It's all about irons in the fire, and keeping the fire stoked.

I hope you survived the year in good shape, and are enjoying your own Christmas parties. (Some of you I'll see you at the WGC party in Toronto tomorrow.) Next year's going to be a good one, God willing.

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Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Q. Can you give me an example or examples of film where there was a good hook and story but they were underdeveloped or and the theme and subplots were highly developed? Perhaps a better way of putting it is where the hook plays second to the theme and substories of the characters. I want to see if this can still work and how if feels when it does not work.
Can you clarify your question?
Q. Ok, I have heard it said that if a film is not good "if it is about what it is about". So to make it good, it has to have a strong underlying meaning and not just focus only on the hook and premise. If the script is written and there is not as much technical detail and time spent on the hook but there is much more effort applied (succesfully) to the characters and how the hook affects and changes their lives, can this work and do you know if any films that show this? It seems it may make the audience feel like it was a bait and switch.
The point of the hook is to get people in the door. It isn't necessarily what the movie is about.

A strong example is FREE ENTERPRISE. The hook is "Two Trekkies meet William Shatner and agree to help him put on a rap version of JULIUS CAESAR, with Shatner playing all the parts." (I think the movie, incidentally, is where Shatner discovered that he could have a lot of fun playing a blowhard.) The movie is actually a romantic comedy about a geek guy who meets a geek girl.

It works. I really enjoyed FREE ENTERPRISE.

At a less obvious level, many movies develop far beyond their hooks. THE FULL MONTY is about a bunch of unemployed Sheffield steelworkers putting on a strip show, but a good bit of the movie is about the guys and their relationships and their personal problems. Those problems do affect the strip show, so the scenes aren't irrelevant, but you could make the case that the filmmakers were at least as interested in telling a story about unemployed steelworkers as a story about them putting on a show.

You have to serve your hook. At the end of FREE ENTERPRISE, there's Shatner, rapping about Calpurnia. If the movie didn't satisfy the hook, the audience would feel cheated. But you are always welcome to give the audience more than they signed up for.

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Wednesday, December 02, 2009

In today's episode, Friend of the Blog Paul William Tenny, author of Media Pundit considers how NBC can get its groove back. (Complications Ensue does not necessarily endorse the opinion piece below, but it's food for thought.)

How NBC can get its groove back

By Paul William Tenny

NBC is almost certainly better off today than it was with Ben Silverman helming the network -- which isn't saying much -- but he's not the only exec that needs to go, and NBC is still pretty far from playing on a competitive level with the other networks. A number of mistakes have been made that go much deeper than entertainment direction. Although his new show may end up playing an insignificant role in the network's future, the debacle involving Jay Leno perfectly illustrates how a lack of leadership at NBC has resulted in a network that cares more about not losing than it does winning.

Despite all of that, nobody should be writing them off. And despite what I've written below about what NBC needs to do to get back on top, their biggest obstacle might be getting rid of this perception that they're already ancient history. The more I think about the way people react to this network, the more it reminds me to the way I thought about the Red Sox. Here was a baseball team that was on top of the sport a really long time ago, but hadn't won it all in some 86 years. Then out of nowhere, they were back on top in 2007.

It won't take NBC that long, but the message ought to be pretty clear. Where you are today is not a guarantee of where you're going to be tomorrow.

No amount of effort or good intentions can replace talent. In NBC's case, it's not creative talent that's been lacking these last few years, it's back-to-basics business sense that's been missing.

Here's how to fix it.

Acknowledging The Problem


It's natural to be cautious after getting knocked on your rear. You question your ability to make decisions and begin doubting your ability to accomplish goals. A bad leader will use their failure as an excuse to exhibit a "stop losing ground" mentality. That becomes the ultimate goal. Forget trying to win, you're now obsessed with not losing.

A good leader, on the other hand, will use these tools to find and address their flaws so that they can go back on offense.

This may sound simplistic and not really all that related to NBC's most visible failure: they can't put out any good shows. That's because NBC's problems are fundamental to their business. Putting terrible shows on the air is simply the result of timid business decisions, it has nothing to do with creative drought.

Pardon my hubris as I am not an expert on business management, but one doesn't have to be an expert to identify problems at this level. Ask yourself this, when was the last time that NBC was ever accused of being too aggressive?

The big problem I identified while building a narrative for this story in my mind was the concession that NBC has already lost, and is giving up. Everyone could see that putting Jay Leno on for five nights a week was a step backwards. It doesn't matter if Leno's program makes money, it will never make enough money to enable NBC to take any real risks, and what's worse, it consistently robs the network of a chance to find a breakout hit. And that's the bottom line here. Leno doesn't enable NBC to attack the competition, doesn't get it any closer to third place.

Leno enables NBC to pretend that it's playing a different game than everyone else, and if that's the way they want to do it, fine, but they should quit and find something else to do.

That move was a classic blunder. The only thing Leno's new show is doing -- or trying to do -- is temporarily stop NBC from losing more ground, but it does nothing to gain back anything they've lost. If that mentality is prevailing within NBC's highest levels of management, then everyone needs to be fired. It's not personal or arbitrary, but there's really no getting around it. This is worse than good people making bad decisions or having bad luck, these are people who are fundamentally incompetent. It doesn't matter how hard they try or how badly they want to succeed, it's long past time to recognize that they simply aren't capable of doing their jobs.

A New Game Plan


I've seen the television industry accused of being risk averse in any number of areas and for any number of reasons, some justified, some not. NBC should dismiss a lot of this "conventional wisdom" which often turns out to be completely worthless and wrong. Conventional wisdom once said that year-around schedules wouldn't work, and then cable came along and proved that it can (while neither the networks nor cable have truly embraced year-around programming on their own, together they do cover the entire year proving that there are always people looking for something good to watch.)

Being NBC right now shouldn't be all that hard. You're in last place, so you've got very little to lose. Nobody expects you to succeed so there really shouldn't be any real pressure, either.

Going year-around would satisfy at least two requirements of good leadership:

1. It's an offensive move that will attempt to take advantage of potential weaknesses in the other networks who aren't airing original programming during certain times of the year. Put more simply, when the enemy is standing still, you need to be on the move. If even marginally successful this would mean NBC gaining ground on all of its rivals, something it hasn't put any serious effort into in who knows how long.

2. This will reverse the trend of having less original programming. Leno was a mistake not because NBC execs thought or hoped he would have good ratings or be more profitable -- only to find out that his ratings would sink -- but because it didn't address NBC's problem: no scripted hits. It the end it doesn't matter at all what NBC put on at 10PM, or why. They don't seem to understand what their problems are.

There are surely a lot of problems and circumstances that are unique to the television industry, but it is not so unique that the basic precepts of math and common sense don't apply.

TV and film share something in common: Sturgeon's Law, which states that 90% of everything is crap. If you make 10 movies or 10 TV shows, nine of them are going to suck.

It would therefore follow that in order to make more great movies and TV shows, you have to make more TV shows and movies overall. This logic is stark in its simplicity and surely subject to certain exceptions, but it is sound nonetheless. If NBC wants more successful shows, it needs to start putting more pilots on the air.

Period.

It'll cost them more money but at the end of the day they'll also end up with more successful shows.

I covered the upfronts for the first time a couple of years ago and was shocked at just how few new shows each network puts on the air each year. I don't think any network had more than four in any genre, and some genres only had a single show. I seem to remember NBC having the fewest, which made sense. They've become so risk averse that they'd probably rather not put any new shows on the air at all. It's seems eerily similar to the results of domestic abuse.

It will cost a lot of money -- money that GE and NBC's possible new parent Comcast can undoubtedly afford -- and everyone except myself will call them crazy, but NBC needs to come out of the upfronts with enough programming to cover the entire year. They need to put triple the number of pilots on the air than anyone else, do whatever it takes to give themselves a reasonable shot at gaining ground. If that means pulling Leno off the air while still paying out the rest of his contract, so be it. It happens every single year in sports.

If that means putting programming on the weekends again, so be it. Whatever they do can't possibly perform worse than a musical tribute to ice skating, which was on a weekend or two ago.

I'm not kidding.

There's been talk of expanding the NBC Nightly News to a full hour. It beats every other evening news program in the ratings, so why not build on a winner? If it gains against the competition in the ratings by even a point, then mission accomplished. Small steps add up.

There are any number of greater risks that NBC could and probably should start taking. The accountants may tell you that it makes more sense to only order eight or nine episodes from a new series, so that you can cut it lose before building up a lot of debt if it's not working out, but by definition the only thing accountants will tell you is how to save money. They can't tell you how to run your business successfully and can't tell you how to make money. Making money means taking risks, and executing risks safely via mitigation takes skill and experience that accountants don't have -- and sadly neither does the current crop of NBC execs.

The only network experimenting with full season orders right off the bat is FOX, and their experiments could be fairly described as halfhearted at best. Although the economies of scale are different, I've never heard of a cable network going out of business because they ordered a full season from a new series, and a ton of them are already doing that. With little to lose and no one else really looking at that territory, it seems ripe for NBC to give it an honest try.

The benefits seem apparent. Audiences should be more apt to stick with a show they know is going to be around by next spring. The creative talent should theoretically perform better under less pressure, and by default will not have to unnaturally structure their series to be front-loaded with crap that will excite the network execs but just freak out the audience. The value of those two benefits are far too often underestimated. A show that sticks around for a full season, even if it's only mediocre, is still keeping eyeballs on your network instead of someone else's.

Again, small steps. How can you gain viewers when you can't even figure out how to keep the ones you've already got?

Incentives


Sports teams love to cannibalize talent from their opponents. It's a zero sum game; their loss is your gain. NBC should do the same as ruthlessly as possible. If you're a hot shot exec-prod who has a good relationship with FOX and offers on the table for more action, why would you ever leave for a loser like NBC?

If you're NBC, the answer is that you're going to start giving people things that nobody else will. Start offering hot talent working for your competitors higher residuals. Offer full season orders. Promise -- and mean it -- that you won't syndicate their shows to a sibling cable network below market value. Don't preempt their shows or dump them in death slots. Don't change their time slot. Since you're putting more pilots on the air you can give these people something that FOX can't: airtime. If they stay with FOX they might get one pilot on the air this fall. If they come to NBC, you'll give them two, and maybe one on USA as well.

Swallow your pride and give people what they want so that they'll come to your side and give you the next CSI instead of the next Trauma.

Some of these things will cost the network money but they'll also serve as investments that should pay back everything they cost and more. So what, you'll make a little less on having the next CSI than such a show makes for its network/studio elsewhere (because you stopped being greedy on residuals), but at least you'll have the next CSI. And you'll have potentially taken that show from your rivals, to boot.

Promotion


I read somewhere (and ended up writing about this some time ago) that USA Network was more profitable for NBC-U than NBC was. Although this probably would better fall under "game plan", perhaps USA would be a good place to start mining for talent to replace all the execs at NBC that need to go. And while they're at it, it wouldn't hurt to try promoting some of USA's most successful shows (and perhaps SyFy?) to NBC to see how they do (or at least the talent behind them.)

NBC seemed pretty desperate to build a theme for Monday nights for a while, I can't think of a better fit right now for what they've got on Monday's than Stargate Universe, or Warehouse 13 which is doing very well for them. Maybe it's time that NBC and the other networks started using cable as a form of minor leagues from which they can mine shows and talent both on the creative and executive level.

It also wouldn't hurt if they hooked up with Joss Whedon, if not just so that we can stop watching him get repeatedly murdered by FOX.


Check out the feisty discussion in the comments!

If you're interested in guest-blogging, drop me a line.

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Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Q. Is it a bad idea to kill your protagonist? This morning I had one of those moments that come to you when you're writing…things are humming along and then you write something and realize that you can go somewhere else entirely.

Anyways, my moment involved possibly killing my protaganist right near the end of the story. There's a twist following the climax, and just when everything seems resolved the protaganist is fed to the wolves by a character he thought was on his side. This character gets away…the credits roll…basically I'm afraid the audience has too much at stake with the protaganist and will be pissed off if he dies. But at the same time I think the twist could be good enough to satisfy them.
This is really a gut check question. Are you in the right genre? Does it make it a more satisfying story? Does it deliver the goods on the concept? Have you set this up throughout the movie so that it is a surprising but inevitable ending? Then go for it.

I think the key thing with a surprise downer ending is it has to be, somehow, not a true surprise. It can't come out of nowhere. It has to be set up emotionally. The hero has a death wish. The hero is getting away with something that we know, deep down, he can't really get away with. Or shouldn't. There have been intimations of death all along. The resolution of the movie is really about what the hero accomplished, not whether he survives. The hero is a bad bad man and we really want him dead.

The posters for a certain Mel Gibson movie say, "Every man dies; not every man really lives." So you know going in that the odds aren't good for Mr. William Wallace.

In a horror movie I saw a few years ago, the heroine loses her child in the opening. She never really gets over that. In one version of the ending (the European one, of course), she doesn't make it out alive because dying (and being reunited with her dead daughter) is a better result for her than going on living.

In a long-running HBO series, the main character (arguably) winds up dead in the finale. But he's talked about it and he lives in a world where it's normal.

You shouldn't end on a twist for the sake of a twist. But if you can surprise us, yet leave us with a feeling afterwards that this was the natural conclusion of the story -- then go for it.

(Incidentally, if you are pitching your movie out loud before you write it, then this question will answer itself. When you tell your listener that the hero's dead, do they go, "Cool!" or "WTF???")

NOTE: The comments are rife with SPOILERS, since it's impossible to talk about surprise endings otherwise!

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