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



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Saturday, July 31, 2010

Q. Many writers said in their blogs or guides that is important to get good feedback, so I'm wondering, how to convince people not to "spare" you - meaning, saying what they exactly mean, without being afraid of hurting your feelings. Or, is there a good "read between the lines" technique for all those "it's good, but something is missing - what is missing? - I don't know" comments? And, how you handle these issues? (I mean, even my own brother is being vague with his comments, even though he knows me all his life and knows I'd rather get slammed for not doing something right, than leave it incomplete or not done properly.)
The first thing you can do is pursue the feedback. Make it really clear: "This is a rough draft, and I'm going to be rewriting it anyway, so fire away." Or, "Please kick my ass."

Often you have worries about your own material. Ask about them. "Are there too many minor characters -- did you find it hard to track them?" "Did you like the scene in the convenience store or did you feel that the story lost steam there?" "Did you enjoy the way Quentin is so over-the-top, or did he feel too much like a cartoon?" "Did you buy the romance?" "Did you like Sally or was she too much of a pain in the ass?" "Did it feel too long?" "Where did it sag?" Your reader can then reassure you, or go along with your own criticism.

One great way to get honest feedback is to start up a writing group. Everyone in a writing group is there to give and get honest feedback, so they won't have compunctions about busting you for the flaws in your writing. (Just make sure that everyone starts out saying something nice. See the section in CRAFTY SCREENWRITING on writing groups.) If you don't live in a town with a lot of writers, you could form a long-distance one using Skype (or whatever free internet teleconferencing software allows multiparty conference calls).

Bear in mind, not everyone can give you clear feedback. All feedback is useful to a point, but some people analyze their experience reading something, and some people don't. If someone doesn't think about why he likes movies, he may not be able to tell you why he liked or didn't like a script. If someone doesn't read fiction, they may not be able to imagine the movie from the pages you have written.

Also, you have to match the reader to the reading. If someone doesn't like chick flicks, he may not be able to give you good feedback on your chick flick. It may not be in his wheelhouse.

Now, how do you get great feedback? That's harder. Great feedback not only tells you what seems wrong, it tells you what is wrong. Great feedback tells you what is structurally wrong with your story.

Good feedback: "the middle sags." Great feedback: "the middle sags because it's no longer clear what your main character wants."

Good feedback: "I don't care about the main character." Great feedback: "I don't care about the main character because he doesn't really have a goal, so I have no reason to root for him."

You will find great feedback about as often as you find great writing, which is to say, rarely. And you won't necessarily find the two bundled together. Of the people who've given me the best feedback, maybe half are writers; the other half are development executives and producers. These people are treasures. They give you notes that cause you a lot of work; you think, "Crap. How did I miss that?"

How do you find people like that? Same way you find a great agent or a great producer: perseverance and luck. I found Tommy Gushue by asking on my blog for a reader intern. I met Victoria Lucas when we were both development execs working on projects together. I met Virginia Rankin by taking her a bunch of pitches; she had really good notes on all of them. When someone gives you really deep insight into your material, hold onto them!

While you're at it, develop your own feedback skills. When you read someone else's material, think carefully about what works and doesn't work -- and why. Analyze the elements of story: main character, opportunity/problem/goal, obstacles/antagonist/flaws, jeopardy and stakes. If you're critiquing a TV pitch, really try to go under the hood and see how the story engine works. Trying to come up with springboards yourself. Sometimes you need to play with a story in your head to really figure out how it works.

Then some lucky writer can find you.

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Thursday, July 29, 2010

And Tyler Durden is really Hobbes.

Also, Ferris Bueller is a figment of Cameron's imagination:
Ferris Bueller, the person, is just a figment of Cameron's imagination, like Tyler Durden, and Sloane is the girl Cameron secretly loves.

One day while he's lying sick in bed, Cameron lets "Ferris" steal his father's car and take the day off, and as Cameron wanders around the city, all of his interactions with Ferris and Sloane, and all the impossible hijinks, are all just played out in his head. This is part of the reason why the "three" characters can see so much of Chicago in less than one day -- Cameron is alone, just imagining it all.

It isn't until he destroys the front of the car in a fugue state does he finally get a grip and decide to confront his father, after which he imagines a final, impossible escape for Ferris and a storybook happy ending for Sloane ("He's gonna marry me!"), the girl that Cameron knows he can never have.

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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

This is not a frame from LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. It is a 16 x 9 rectangle chopped out of a frame from LAWRENCE OF ARABIA.

Hey, The Movie Network: if I'm paying over $20 a month for you, I probably have a widescreen TV. It probably really, really bugs me to watch movies in another format than the one they were shot in. If I wanted to watch LAWRENCE OF ARABIA in 1.85 pan-and-scan, as opposed to the glorious 2.35 'scope David Lean framed it for ... I could just put my VHS tape into my VCR, couldn't I?

Next time, can we please have the whole frame? Thank you.

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Monday, July 26, 2010

The Bechdel Test now has its own website.

The Bechdel Test, of course, is about how movies treat women. Does a movie have (a) more than one named woman; (b) do they talk to each other; (c) do they talk to each other about something other than a man?

Lisa and I were going through our Zip.ca rental history. Not too many movies pass the test. We just watched HOT TUB TIME MACHINE, which is one of the best bad movies we've seen in a while. None of the many women talk to each other at all.

It's not surprising. In most mainstream movies, almost all the conversations are between the protagonist and one or two other people. So if the main character is a guy, that doesn't leave a lot of room for conversations between two women. If the main character is a woman, your odds improve, unless it's a romance, in which case she's probably talking about a guy. I bet you SALT passes the test.

In TV, there are lots of female protagonists in non-romances. Going through my rental history again, Sarah Connor in THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES talks to, e.g. Cameron about, e.g., whether she is a good robot or a bad one. Buffy and Willow talk about magic. Echo talks with DeWitt about missions. GILMORE GIRLS is about a relationship between two women, and they talk about everything, endlessly, at high speed, so you don't even have to be in spec fiction.

(TV has female protagonists because women watch TV. Movies have male protagonists because girls will go see guy movies but guys won't see chick movies. Or is it the other way around? Women watch TV because it has female protagonists, and guys won't see chick movies because all the women do in them is talk about men?)

I think the Bechdel Test is interesting. But I think it mostly relates to who the protagonist is. If your movie is about Queen Elizabeth I, there's going to be some conversations with Mary, Queen of Scots, about whether Lizzie's going to cut off her head. If your movie is about Henry VIII, there are not going to be a lot of conversations without Harry in the room, so there won't be many conversations between two women.

But, to carry this a little further, it's not a bad idea, if you're writing a Henry VIII script, to see if there's something to be made of a scene between Catherine of Aragon and that Boleyn girl. It may not fit in the story. But if you have lots of scenes between Henry's male courtiers, maybe we should be listening to the women, too.

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Not sexual, mind you. It's just that I find my ideas for scripts, and the scripts I've written, to be not necessarily un-commercial, just a little too unusual. For instance, [snip].

I've been told that the writing is good (if too long), but that it's hard to 'market,' or sell to a producer, etc. Concepts that are unwieldy. They say originality is an asset --- but I suppose there's a balance to be struck?
Certainly. It's a truism that producers are looking for something that is just exactly like this year's hit, but slightly different. And Lord knows there are enough TV shows about a person with an ability and a cop sidekick, solving crimes.

In cable TV, and in indie features, it's less true. But all TV channels have a certain kind of thing they're looking for. For a while, HBO was all about dysfunctional families.

And there are certain kinds of stories that work in features. The medium itself has requirements. Movies generally like one central character (or in a rom com, two), and a story that would make sense to an intelligent ten-year-old. (They don't have to be a story you would necessarily want to tell a ten year old, but a ten-year-old ought to be able to understand it.)

So not everything works.

So what do you do if you find that your stories are offbeat?

Certainly you want to focus on those stories that tickle your muse that are also in the ballpark of other movies or TV shows that have got produced. If you want to make an indie movie, watch an inordinate number of indie movies. You'll get a sense of what similarities they share, even if they seem at first blush to be all different.

If you want to make blockbuster movies, watch a ridiculous number of blockbuster movies, preferably in a row. That will give you a sense of what's being bought.

A family friend of mine was a bit of a struggling book writer. His books sold, but not really enough to support him. So one day he went into his agent and said, "I want to write a bestseller. What do I do?"

Agent said: "Read every book in the New York Times fiction bestseller list." So our friend sat down and read ten bestselling novels front to back, in a row. (It's important to do it all at once, so the similarities stand out.) Then he went and wrote a novel about killer bees attacking the US.

Bestseller. Movie deal.

Maybe your concepts are off base instead of offbeat. Have you tried pitching your hook to friends? To civilian friends who might be the audience for that kind of a movie? You should. You should be telling your waitress, your postman, the kid cutting your neighbor's grass, about the hook of your movie. If you really pay attention to how they react to your story -- if you listen to yourself pitching it -- your concept will streamline pretty damn fast.

However. As always, beware the feedback you're getting. You have to interpret it.

Note that the feedback is coming back "good (if too long)". Maybe the problem isn't actually that your ideas are too offbeat. Maybe the execution is too unwieldy. Have you tried pitching your story to an intelligent ten-year-old? No? Well go and do that then.

Remember when I told you in my books to pitch, not just your hook, but your whole story to civilian friends, out loud, without notes, over and over, until you can tell the whole story without forgetting anything? You didn't do that, did you? If you did that, your story wouldn't be too long, I practically guarantee it.

Also, movies are characters times story. You might have a perfectly valid popcorn movie, but the main character is uncompelling. Or there's no relationship at the core of it. DIE HARD wasn't a hit because of its concept. It was a hit because it had a good concept and a compelling character propelled by a relationship. Yippee kai yay.

Are you writing what you know? And I don't mean write about your high school experience; I mean write about what's in your bones. I know Morgan le Fay, at least my version of her. I care about Lucifer, or my version of him. But if you're writing about characters you don't really know or care about, we're not going to care, either.

In other words, maybe the concept isn't bad, but you need to step up your writing in general.

In general, as you go forward, you get a sense of what the market wants from you. But there are still projects I write that I think are ridiculously commercial which I can't sell, and projects I wrote in spite of the market that have found a home. That's why you should only write what you love. Ask yourself, not, "would someone pay $15 to see this?" but, "is a producer going to want to spend two or three years of her life trying to get this made?" Because that's what it will take.

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Sunday, July 25, 2010

I'm reading AND HERE'S THE KICKER: CONVERSATIONS WITH 21 TOP HUMOR WRITERS ON THEIR CRAFT. It's ridiculously full of useful nuggets of info. Marshall Brickman on Annie Hall:
After watching [the rough cut], we thought, "Where's the relationship?" When people come to me with ideas, sometimes they say, "I want to do a story about a war," or "I want to do a story about a hospital." And I'll always say, "Tell me the story in terms of a relationship." So with Annie Hall, we knew what was missing. It didn't focus on a relationship.
And Harold Ramis:
I always tell students to identify the most talented person in the room, and go stand next to him. That's what I did with Bill [Murray].
And George Meyer:
You can't keep bitch-slapping your creativity, or it'll run away and find a new pimp.
Buy it. Read it.

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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Does anyone have a "key man" clause in their agency contract? I'd like to see one. Thx.

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Friday, July 23, 2010

Hey, Montrealers: I'm planning a panel discussion on the intersection of games and screenwriting. You're invited! Only, I need a biggish venue. Ideally a free one, in which case the panel will be free; but I'm open to alternatives.

If you can help hook me up with such a place (McGill? Concordia? National Theatre School? Cinémathèque? CBC Building? NFB? The Segal Centre?), please drop me a line at craftyscreenwriting at gmail dot com. Thanks!

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Thursday, July 22, 2010

This Boston Globe columnist is tired of Canadian shows that look just like American cop shows. But he likes THE BRIDGE.
It all started a couple of seasons ago, when CBS picked up “Flashpoint," a series about a Toronto police SWAT team that was popular in Canada. “Flashpoint" celebrates everything the Canadians say they hate about us Americans: It’s gratuitously violent and stupid, with the Kevlar-vested lads in blue armed to the teeth with the latest weaponry. They cruise the world in caravans of gas-guzzling, black Chevy Suburbans, just like Canada’s favorite son, Kiefer Sutherland, in “24.’’ They even use the phrase “set up a hard perimeter,’’ which I thought had been trademarked by the lazy writers on “24.’’

Here’s the thing. Absent the gorgeous scenery and the occasional glimpse of an Ontario license plate, you would never guess this was a Canadian show. The cops work for a “big city police force,’’ with no identifying uniform or cruiser markings. Toronto-based logophobe Naomi Klein, author of “No Logo,’’ would approve.
I disagree about FLASHPOINT, which is after all the sniper show where they try not to shoot people. But I am down with the idea that maybe some Americans wouldn't mind seeing shows about Canada.

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

We watched DE PERE EN FLIC, which won the Golden Reel Award in 2009, which means a bunch of people saw it. It is a funny, extremely warm-hearted cop movie starring Rémy Girard and the famously fast-talking Louis-Josée Houde. It takes the buddy cop comedy one step further: the cops who hate each other are father and son. And it takes them into the Québec backwoods on a male bonding trip, in order to save a kidnapped cop.

This is how we make our popcorn movies here. We can't afford boom-boom, so the special effects are character and schtick. And heart. Lots of heart. In Québec people and movies aren't afraid to wear their hearts on their sleeves. (I'm tempted to say: as opposed to that other country to the East and West... because when I watch movies like this, I can't help feeling like a bit of a Québec patriot, for all that ONE WEEK and BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE made me feel like a bit of a Canadian patriot, and for all that ANNIE HALL makes me proud to be a native New Yorker. But that gets into a whole 'nother conversation.)

Anyway, check it out.

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

But you asked how you get the comic pitch. Well, obviously a lot of it is rhythm. And as often as not, it's the surprising rhythm. In life and in movies, you can usually guess what someone is going to say—you can actually hear it—before they say it. But if you undercut that just a little, it can make you fall off your chair. It's small and simple like that. You're always trying to get your distractions out of the way and be as calm as you can be [breathes in and out slowly], and emotion will just drive the machine. It will go through the machine without being interrupted, and it comes out in a rhythm that's naturally funny. And that funny rhythm is either humorous or touching. It can be either one. But it's always a surprise. I really don't know what's going to come out of my mouth.
Bill Murray Will See You Now

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Monday, July 19, 2010

Don't be this guy.

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This is just a reminder that the August 9 deadline for youngish (<36 years old) Quebec screenwriters to apply to SODEC's SPRINT FOR YOUR SHORT program is fast approaching. Oh, and check out Jeunes Créateurs, too, while you're at it!

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Saturday, July 17, 2010

I have a question for you guys.

Pre-GLEE and pre-HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL, movie musicals have been on the ropes since the 1960's.  There have been some standouts usually based on Broadway hits (HAIR, CABARET) but many have flopped disastrously (PENNIES FROM HEAVEN, I'LL DO ANYTHING, that horrible Woody Allen thing).

On the other hand there are any number of successful movies about musical performers. Every rock'n'roll biopic ever made, THIS IS SPINAL TAP, THE COMMITMENTS, A HARD DAY'S NIGHT, etc.

What all exactly is the distinction? Is it that in musicals, characters sing about their emotions, whether directly (WEST SIDE STORY) or onstage (CABARET)? Whereas in a movie with music, the story is often about how they're doing with their music, are they succeeding, are they singing the happy song with tears in their eye...

What do you think?

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Thursday, July 15, 2010

I just got word that 18 TO LIFE will be airing on the CW starting August 3rd! I'm so happy for my friends Derek and Karen who have been running this show so brilliantly, and I'm happy for y'all down South, 'cause you get to see it. 18 TO LIFE is a warmhearted, funny, witty show about two 18-year-olds who decide to get married on a whim -- and then stick with it. With character actors like Al Goulem and Peter Keleghan, and the adorable Stacey Farber, you can't go wrong. Lisa, Hunter and I watch this show ON PURPOSE. Check it out.

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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Lisa and I watched SUNSET BOULEVARD again. I was struck by how permeated the movie is by voiceover. And not, by modern standards, necessary voice over. I can't think of a line of the voiceover that tells you something you can't see. The voiceover tells you the narrator parked in a parking lot as we see him driving off a parking lot. The voiceover tells you there's a faded tennis court as we're looking at a faded tennis court. The voiceover tells you Norma Desmond is lost in her fantasy world as she is clearly lost in her fantasy world.

I guess the movie was so advanced in its noirishness that Wilder, or perhaps the studio, felt the audience of 1950 wouldn't get it if they didn't have it narrated to them.

It's also striking how Wilder hired film legend to play film legends: faded superstar Gloria Swanson to play a faded superstar; former director Erich von Stroheim to play a former director; Buster Keaton as a visiting movie star of long ago. I wonder what they thought when they got the call?

... Probably: "a job! Yes!"

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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Q. After lots of writing into a void, my writing partner and I got recommended to a lit agent. We sent her a few scripts that she liked quite a bit. Her words were 'I'm interested in taking you on.' So at the beginning of August, we're going to have lunch.

What are some questions I should ask? Or items me and the writing partner should have straight before talking face-to-face with her? Do we pay for lunch, does she, or do we go halfsies on it?
Agents and producers should always pay for lunch. It's just a thing. "The writer is the girl" in the relationship, as someone said.

Before you meet, you should know what your partnership is. Do you write everything together? Or just some things? You should have an agreement stating that you share all revenues 50-50.

If you don't have another agent offering to rep you, then you are almost certainly going to accept her offer. (Unless she's crazy, or weird, or isn't signatory to the WGC.) So the meeting is about you proving that you'll be a great client.

I'd ask her, "What do you want us to write next for you to sell?" "How can we make our current scripts better?" "Where should we focus our efforts?" "What aspects of our writing are weak that we should try to strengthen?"

Ask her about herself. Everyone likes that.

Show enthusiasm. You're not judging her; you need an agent. You're essentially pitching yourself to her.

After all, if she rubs you the wrong way, you can always call a day later and say, "We've decided to go another way." But if you've been too reserved in the meeting, you can't call back later and say, "No, really, we're excited!"

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A US sale has become crucial lately to getting your Canadian TV show set up, but most Canadian producers and writer-producers aren't sure how to pitch to the guys in LA. Fortunately, former head of Amblin Television Carole Kirschner is giving a two-day seminar on just that in mid-August. Check it out!

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Sunday, July 11, 2010

Australian SF novelist Jonathan Blum decided to watch the whole season of CHARLIE JADE, and has written it up in his LiveJournal. If you haven't had a chance to check out the podcasts, check it out. It's a great summary of what Denis McGrath, Sean Carley and I experienced as the writing team who parachuted into South Africa on short notice to try to help showrunner Bob Wertheimer put his vision on the screen.

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Lisa and I watched BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, Michael Moore's thought provoking documentary that asks why Americans shoot each other at such an appallingly higher rate than any other civilized country.

He points to things like the lack of health care and a social safety net, and also to the culture of fear: nightly news that does its level best to make people scared of their world. (Especially other people. Especially other people who are black. But also killer bees. And Y2K.)

Lisa and I were talking about how US networks are filled with cop shows. Does that come out of the same nightly news broadcasts where every night there's another crime story? If you get your picture of the world from American TV, it's a scary world full of perpetrators and cops, and everyone else is a victim.

Moore contrasts the US culture of fear with the Canadian culture of listening to other people and trying to work things out. He walks through Windsor, ON, checking to see if people's doors really are unlocked. (Yep. They are.)

So: what happens if Canada doesn't support its own TV? What if, for example, CTV's application to the CRTC is accepted, and they no longer have to put any Canadian shows on the air. (They want to use "best efforts." Heh.)

I think the answer is: we get a lot of American cop shows trying to get us to feel that our world is filled with criminals and cops and victims. And if we get any Canadian shows at all, they are cop shows made for a US network buying cheap: FLASHPOINT, THE BRIDGE, ROOKIE BLUE, THE LISTENER.

And then we start to be scared of going out and talking to our neighbors, because our neighbors might shoot us.

And then, who knows? We start shooting each other?

Now, this post itself is a tendentious argument based on fear. (What do you want? I'm an American.) But I'm not sure it's wrong. Culture is important. Popular culture is the most important kind of culture, because everyone consumes it, not just the fancy folk.

As I've said before: culture is not a luxury good. It is part of the fabric of society, like roads, and water mains, and electricity. There's a good reason that every civilized country except the US supports its own popular culture. We should bear that in mind the next time they come around and ask why the taxpayer should pay for TV shows when we can get perfectly good TV shows like CRIMINAL MINDS and 24 and CSI from the US.

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Saturday, July 10, 2010

If you haven't been following FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, the last episode had 16-year-old Becky Sproles struggling with her pregnancy.

The New York Times seems to think it was an unbalanced episode, and even accuses the show of a "quasi-Marxist" attitude towards economic determinism. I don't see that. It seemed a pretty gripping episode, with Becky torn by the knowledge that she's utterly unequipped to be a mom, and the vision and hope that she could somehow be a better mom than her own -- between the fear of ruining her life, and the horror of terminating the separate life inside her. Luke Cafferty, the boy responsible, has no idea what to do and really can't do anything except make a lot of promises. Tami Taylor would clearly like Becky to carry the baby to term and give it away, but she's not about to force that decision on her. Becky's mom wants her daughter to be spared the life she's had -- a paradox since Becky wouldn't exist if her mom had made the same choice 17 years ago.

(I'm noticing that it's impossible to write about an abortion without taking sides. Is it "killing her baby"? Is it "terminating a pregnancy"? Are you terminating a life or removing a blastocyst?)

I've noticed that TV has been pro-choice but anti-abortion for years. I can't remember the last time I saw a character willingly have an abortion. They're usually saved by a miscarriage, or they decide to have the baby and then they disappear from the show so we don't have to see the diapers. It's not entirely political. It's just much more upbeat to say yes to a baby, or a marriage, or a new career (and then roll credits), than to say no.

Back in the day this would have been A Very Special Episode. FNL continues to thrill and surprise me by never using a go-to plot. The cops still haven't busted the Riggins's chop shop. But you never know if they might.

Is this the best hour drama on broadcast, or what?

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This site has a terrific rundown on how to protect your blog from copyright infringers.

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Friday, July 09, 2010

HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX made $938 million, and is still $167 million in the red. Riiight.

Ever wondered why they call them monkey points?

Interestingly, this may all change:
It appears that Hollywood Accounting is coming under attack in the courtroom... and losing. Not surprisingly, your average juror is having trouble coming to grips with the idea that a movie or television show can bring in hundreds of millions and still "lose" money. This week, the big case involved a TV show, rather than a movie, with the famed gameshow Who Wants To Be A Millionaire suddenly becoming "Who Wants To Hide Millions In Profits." A jury found the whole "Hollywood Accounting" discussion preposterous and awarded Celador $270 million in damages from Disney, after the jury believed that Disney used these kinds of tricks to cook the books and avoid having to pay Celador over the gameshow, as per their agreement.
Personally I find these lawsuits disingenuous. Everyone who gets monkey points knows they're monkey points. If you want real money, and you have the clout to demand it, you get gross points. James Cameron has made over $350 million dollars from AVATAR. Personally.

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Thursday, July 08, 2010

I found the first season of Ken Finkleman's show THE NEWSROOM at Housing Works, and I was immediately struck by how much it's a predecessor of THE OFFICE. You have an irritating, petty, two-faced, grandiose boss lording it over a work environment; and the jokes are deadpan "embarrassing silence" type jokes, not punchlines. At the time (1996), that was pretty revolutionary. Five years later, when Ricky Gervais did it, it was still considered revolutionary.

I wonder what Ken Finkleman's up to now?

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Wednesday, July 07, 2010

There's a bit of whinging at The Single Screenwriter and Done Deal about a contest reader's admission that she "read" 75 scripts in 3 hours for a contest:
Last night I managed to get through 75 scripts in about 3 hours. How are you so speedy and brilliant, you might ask? Easy, the 10 page rule. It’s true. All those stories about “make sure you grab ‘em in the first 10 pages” are absolutely true.

Honestly, I can tell in 2-3 pages if you are a writer. Then I give you 10 pages to show if you are a GOOD writer. If you’ve kept me going that far, then I’ll read further to see how you develop your plot. If you understand how to construct a midpoint, battle scene, and satisfying ending. And if your voice continues throughout, or if it tuckered out when the heavy lifting came into play.
Various commenters think that's just terrible. Readers should read every last word of the script they slaved over! How dare she!

I disagree. I have read literally thousands of scripts. Most are horrible crap. If the first three pages are horrible crap, I have found, the rest of the script never gets good. Sometimes it finds its way up to mediocre, but it never gets good; and usually it just goes downhill from there. I have rarely read a script that was better than its first ten pages. Or first three pages.

If I am reading a script in order to give notes, I will read every last word, of course. And think about it. And try to find the vision that inspired the writer to write it.

But if I am reading a stack of scripts to separate the wheat from the chaff, then the writer has got two or three pages to convince me to read the rest of the script. I don't need a teaser, I don't need a whammy. I don't even need an inciting incident. I need a gripping three pages, whatever that is. They can be subtly gripping. It can be a guy getting out of bed, if, somehow, the way the guy gets out of bed is truly revelatory. If the writer can't grab me in three pages, I'd be wasting my time to read the rest of it, because I guarantee you the writer won't rock my world in the next ten, or twenty, or fifty, or one hundred pages.

Apparently everyone jumped on this poor reader for being honest. Grow up, guys. This is how it is. If you were in the position of reading 75 scripts for a contest, this is what you'd do, too.

Ditto query letters, by the way. When I read query letters as part of my development job, I gave the average letter about 5 seconds. Literally. 5 seconds. I gave the good letters much, much longer than that. But the bad ones? Round file.

I do think that most online screenplay contests are very poor value for your money. But not because the readers don't read the whole script. I wouldn't wish that on anyone.

In general, if you find you are moaning a lot about how people in the industry are not being very nurturing -- how they will not, for example, read your effing script -- you may need to re-examine your attitude. Showbiz does things the showbiz way for good reasons. And if you can't stand the heat, maybe a career in cooking is not for you?

UPDATE: I've been trying to come up with the perfect analogy. Here's the best one I've got. You know the first episode of a season of AMERICAN IDOL? The one where they have all the people who are horrible, horrible singers? How long does it take you to decide someone can't sing worth a damn? Does it even take ten seconds? Okay, now that you've heard the first ten seconds, would you willingly listen to the rest of the recording, just to respect all the effort they've put in?

Well, there you go.

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MetaFilter, my favorite news aggregator, has a good post on the "tough times for screenwriters" meme, with lots and lots of actual screenwriters commenting to flesh out the picture. Some say it's the aftermath of the writer's strike followed by the crappy economy. Others say it's the obsession studios have for idiotic projects like, I kid you not, MAGIC 8 BALL: THE MOVIE.

Just for the record: any good screenwriter could probably come up with an interesting pitch for MAGIC 8-BALL: THE MOVIE. When you're writing a movie about a toy that comes with no narrative content, you can write anything you want. But why?

Anyway, there's an explanation of one-step deals and lots of other goodies. Check it out.

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Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Q. A Canadian producer wants me to write/direct his next feature. He says that in order for us to access development money from Telefilm Canada, I need to provide write a 5 to 20 page outline. But he can't pay me.

Fair? Unfair? Normal? Abnormal?
It's normal. Telefilm wants a longish outline before you can touch the scriptwriting development money, but Telefilm won't pay for the outline. Outlines aren't covered under the WGC IPA, so there's no minimum.

Whether it's fair or not is a subject of discussion between the WGC and Telefilm -- we feel writers should get paid when they write for hire, and if Canadian producers can't or won't pay, then perhaps Telefilm could help them.

The key question is whether you're writing up your own idea for a producer, or writing up the producer's idea. If it's your own idea, then you should probably spec it.

If it's the producer's idea, then you should get paid something for it. I generally don't expect a lot of money for writing up an outline, but I can't do it for free. I usually get paid for my time, as it were, plus I'm attached to write the first draft of the script if it ever gets commissioned.

If the producer literally won't pay any money, and you still want to work with him, then you could propose the following: you write the outline, but you own it. He is attached as producer for X number of years -- say three. If he doesn't hire you to write the script within 3 years, all rights revert to you. You can take it to another producer to get commissioned to write the script, you can write it yourself and sell it, whatever. That's fair, I think.

Note that when a producer says "I want you to write and direct my next feature," it's rhetoric. Any sane producer has a whole slew of projects that could be his next feature, depending on how the financing and creative packages line up. And most of those will be ahead of you in the pipeline, because they already have a script, and maybe some casting, and maybe some financing. Always evaluate producer hype critically.

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Monday, July 05, 2010

In the current New Yorker, there's a very fine piece on Steve Carell (tragically behind a paywall although everything else seems to be free). The key takeaway is the degree to which the big comedy hits are worked over and over:
With "Dinner for Schmucks," the script was crowd-sourced: after Paramount and Dreamworks hired several screenwriters to try to adapt the 1998 French farce "Le Diner de cons," without success, David Guion and Michael Handelman, both trained in improve, devised a structure that seemed to work. ... Guion and Handelman's draft was fussed with three times by sets of other writers, then tweaked three more times at comedy roundtables, where groups of writers gathered for about six hours to suggest new bits and jokes. Last summer, the script was given a two-week polish by Roach's writing partner, Larry Stuckey, and revised one last time by Guion and Handelman, before finally being turned over to a cast skilled in improve (with Guion and Handelman on set to suggest more alts).

Nowadays in the comedy industry, a Bucket Brigade of actors, writers and directors pitches in to punch up one another's films... They read one another's drafts, attend one another's table reads and rough cuts, and give notes. Lots and lots of notes.
The full article is definitely worth a read. Now where's my Bucket Brigade?

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Sunday, July 04, 2010

David W. Zucker is the showrunner of CBS's drama THE GOOD WIFE. He talked about the genesis of the show at the Banff Worldwide Television Festival this June.

The show was actually created by Michelle and Robert King. “What they came in with was the notion of the disgraced relationship. and you could see the opportunities to go five years with the show. She’s a compelling character, and every decision she makes has a huge impact on those around her, and she gets involved in the moral and ethical gray zones that corrupted her husband.”

What attracted CBS was the idea that Julianna Margulies’s character was also going to be a lawyer. CBS “has got fat and healthy knowing how to develop and promote franchise shows, and this gave them the potential of close ended case stories.

“But they passed on the first pitch. You could tell from their questions what had freaked them out. In the original pitch there was more time with the lead-up before she goes back to being a lawyer” [as she was 13 years before]. “The Kings wanted to explore the whole media frenzy. But the studio didn’t want to live there, because that’s not where a procedural would live. They didn’t want to spend a lot of time on the premise.

“So we went back to the same exec, and they were very open. I said, I think we can address your problems. Because it wasn’t a problem with the characters.”

So they made it more procedural (I’ve been in the same boat. I have a pay cable series that I developed; now we’re taking it to American networks. It has a fairly unique main character that everyone’s interested in. But in the serial pay cable version, she was working at a church charity; that took her into her stories. In the version we’ll pitch CBS, she’s a cop, and she solves crimes. If a network wants olive bread, you’re foolish to give them pumpernickel.)

The network liked the new version quite a bit more. “But [CBS president] Nina [Tassler]’s notes were very broad. And I tried to figure out what was missing in the script for her. Normally CBS are logic police if there is any possible confusion for the audience. But the interesting thing was that Nina was missing a deeper connection to the Alicia character. The studio and the network had been pushing for more of a procedural. Now the head of the network was asking for the thing they’d wanted us to do less of. They weren’t asking for any revisions but it left us feeling off.

“So we came back and said, “We want to go deeper with Alicia.” And out of that we got the scene in the pilot that Alicia has with her mother in law in the kitchen. That was the only time we get an expression from her what Peter put her through. And she loses it. And that single scene provided another texture. It also did a beautiful thing for us – made Nina feel she had ownership of the script.”

One of the weird things about Hollywood is that it’s not like what you think, but everything they tell you is also true. We joke about how you don’t want to be the guy at the gym who’s inflicting his script on all the producers, but passing along his script at the gym is exactly why Ian Brennan has gone from theater actor to creator of a hit show. And there are as many paths to getting your show on the air as there are shows. You can get your show on the air if you’re not an experienced TV writer — the Kings were experienced, but if you look at their credits, they’re almost all lower budget features. But they took it to Ridley and Tony Scott’s company and, though they’re “second chair” to David W. Zucker, they’re integral to the show.

The thing that all these shows we’ve been hearing about have in common is great characters — usually one great character — in a compelling and fresh situation. If you have that, a bit of luck and a lot of persistence will take you the rest of the way.

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It's not just Canada: LA scribes are having a tough time.

While it is sort of depressing, think of it this way: at least it's not just you!

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Saturday, July 03, 2010

“We write every episode together from page one. There are seven of us on staff, and generally we are all sitting around while our assistant sits at a computer and typies it all up.

“To keep our momentum, we tend to skip over the science and put it in later: “Science to come.” The science itself isn’t crucial to understanding the show. It’s like Ricky shouting at Lucy in Spanish. You don’t have to understand it, but if you do, there’s another level available to you.

“We have a science advisor. A friend of a friend of mine was an astrophysicist at UCLA. What we did with the pilot was find stuff and then he corrected it. So for the show we asked him for recommendations for a science advisor. But he said, “can I do it?”

“Then later he told me he was on a plane reading a script, women came over and started talking to him. Welcome to LA where scripts are magic.

“The science has to be right. There was a show that shall remain nameless, but one of the characters was a paleontologist. And the paleontology was never anything that sounded right.

“We always have ‘the nerd beat.’ This is usually whatever we were talking about ten minutes before. Like Green Lantern is vulnerable to wood. But classic Green Lantern is vulnerable to the color yellow. Which means you can take both green lanterns out with a #2 pencil.

“Here’s our test for humor. If you can say a line to a friend, and your friend gets the joke without any context, then it’s a bad joke. You should have to spend ten minutes explaining who the characters are. If your friend doesn’t get the joke unless he knows the whole setup, then it’s a good joke.”

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Friday, July 02, 2010

Bill Prady showruns the incredibly highly rated comedy series BIG BANG THEORY. He had some interesting things to say about the genesis of the show at the Banff Worldwide Television Festival.

The show originated out of misery: Prady was unhappy. “Marta Kaufman [FRIENDS] had been blackmailed by the WB into running a 1 hour drama about four sisters called RELATED. I was her third choice for the number two writer. She wasn’t happy. It was awful. We were working a mile north of the WB lot. I started walking south down Hollywood Way, and I wound up in the office of Chuck Lorre.

“Now Chuck has no need for any more money. He’s created TWO AND A HALF MEN. I’ve told him, ‘Has no one explained to you how wealthy you are?’ But he’s passionate about his work.

“We decided to work on a pilot together. We wouldn’t pitch the show, we would just figure it out ourselves. We went through a bunch of ideas. Chuck had read a science fiction novel, and we tried that for a month adapting it until we realized it wasn’t a good idea.

“There was an actress famous for indie films who wanted to do TV. We developed a show for her about a woman who’s tough on the outside but out on her own for the first time. That didn’t work.

“Then we thought, let’s put these two charcters together. The original version of the show was about Leonard and Sheldon and this very tough version of Penny.

“So we wrote the first two scenes, and brought in a couple of actors and had them perform it for the president of CBS, and they commissioned the pilot.”

(Okay, let’s just stop there a moment. Remember how Ian Brennan was a theater actor before his gym buddy took his spec feature of GLEE to Ryan Murphy? Remember how Vince Gilligan created BREAKING BAD because he had no idea how to feed his family? Stories that give you hope that your long dry spell could just be the prelude to earthshattering success? Okay, this is the opposite. Somehow I suspect that if you were buds with Chuck Lorre, and he developed a show with you, and took it to the president of CBS, you could probably get a pilot commitment, too.)

“The original female character was envisioned as tough as nails but with a sweet inside, and it would take a while to break her down. Now I’m not a big fan of focus group testing, but the company that focus grouped BIG BANG had never seen such a gap between a score for a show and a score for a character. They loved the show. They hated Penny.

“Supposedly you never watch the men in a focus group. They’re dull, they don’t say much. Watch the women’s conversation. And all they were talking about was how they could get rid of this woman on the show and keep the guys.

“Generally the decisions on pilot pickups are made on Mother’s Day. This is to ensure that you have an absolutely miserable Mother’s Day. The first half you can’t focus on anything because you’re waiting to hear. And then you hear you didn’t get picked up.

“In this case, though, the network did an almost unheard of thing. They said, ‘we don’t want the show but we’ll do another pilot because we like the guys.’

“They thought it was a casting issue. But we thought it was a writing issue – no actress could play the part we’d written sympathetically.

So we brought in Kaley Cuoco. She’d actually auditioned before, but she was all wrong for the tough version, and it turned out she was perfect for the nice one.”

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THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER had a little roundtable last month with Vince Gilligan, Damon Lindelof, and a few other showrunners about what they think about showrunning. You should check it out.

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Thursday, July 01, 2010

My television has four screen width settings: Full, Zoom, Wide Zoom and Normal. Sometimes I can't figure out which is the right one until I see that someone's face is a little too tall or wide. That can get to be a real problem if you're watching a Danny DeVito movie.

It would be really nice if DVDs included a square right before the movie. The square would go from the top of the frame to the bottom, so you could make sure you weren't cutting off anything important. And if you didn't have a square on the screen -- if you had a rectangle -- you'd know you had the wrong width.

Oh, and while I'm running for King, can we get rid of the FBI warnings you have to sit through? I don't they've stopped piracy.

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I didn’t make a lot of notes at Ricky Gervais’s talk at Banff. Gervais is a very funny man to listen to, but he wasn’t talking much about craft. I did learn that his name is pronounced "Gervaise. I had a great time at William Shatner’s panel moderated by Bill Prady too, but I can’t say I learned much beyond the importance of doing Shakespeare.

Towards the end of his talk, though, he mentioned having a list of do’s and don’t’s for THE OFFICE. He mentioned some of them:

“No exposition. ‘You know your brother who just came back from the Yucatan.’ ‘Yeah... he’s my brother, of course I know him.’

"No people entering just to do the important thing.

"No Eye of God camera coming between two people dancing. I mean, whose point of view is that?

"No director’s jokes. Nothing the character wouldn’t say just because it’s funny. We cut out half the jokes that were too smartass for the character. For example, Tim and Dawn weren’t supposed to be having a good time if they’re not together. Tim was supposed to be Norm from Cheers. But he was too smart. And the audience would think, if he’s that smart and happy, I don’t care. So what we did was no one laughs at his jokes. Only Dawn laughs at his jokes. That meant more than getting the laugh.

"Also, jokes sometimes ended with an embarrassing silence. That excited us as well.

"The reality of the piece excited us. The realer it was, the more it would resonate.

"It was about a man in free fall, who confused respect with popularity.

"Oh, and we knew we had to keep reminding people it was a fake documentary. Otherwise all we had was a slow sitcom without enough jokes.”

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