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



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Saturday, September 29, 2012

The good folks at the Writers Store in LA were kind enough to send me a copy of their Fall 2012 Hollywood Screenwriting Directory. This is essentially a replacement for the Hollywood Creative Directory I mention in my first book. It's a list of almost every production company you would want to send your screenplay to, with the names of contacts, addresses, phone numbers and email addresses. (Also, weirdly, the permalink to their IMDB page.) They conveniently list genres that each production company likes, and how willing they are to accept queries from unrepresented writers. If you want to get your query out directly to as many producers as possible (which, if you're just starting out, you may need to do), this is the book for you.

It is a bit odd that it's a book. A treeware database is going to be out of date almost the moment it drops. It would make more sense to distribute this as an online directory. But, I guess, it's hard to sell an online directory in a store; and you can't buy your nephew an online directory for graduation. Hopefully they will follow up with an online directory.

I have a small caveat. There's a section up front about 25 page treatments, and how you need them because producers don't want to read a screenplay. Personally, I try to avoid sending 25 page treatment. 25 pages is way too long to hook someone. Three pages is enough to get someone to crack your screenplay; hell, if you have a great hook, three or four lines in an email ought to be enough to get them read the first five pages, and from there it's up tot he script.

Treatments communicate tone badly, and they almost always kill comedy. To me, treatment are a writer's tool for figuring out what to put in your scenes when you write your script pages. The only time I ever show treatments are (a) to funding agencies that demand them (b) if I haven't gotten around to writing the screenplay yet. And (b) is of dubious usefulness. I've never managed to option a feature film off a treatment.

The script is the thing that will make the sale. I give producers only what I need to get them to open my script. Usually that's three or four lines in an email after I've talked to them in person.

It is hard to sell a script by querying producers directly. It is ten times better to have an agent. But if you don't have an agent yet, you're probably querying producers. The Hollywood Screenwriting Directory just made your job a lot easier.

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Friday, September 21, 2012

At the IGDA Presentation Night Tuesday, Raphael Colantonio told us what the difference between a "big" game and a "small" game is: on a big game, you get to do everything over and over and over.

Game making is iterative: you build something, and test it, and put it in front of players, and see what works. Then you throw some stuff out and build some new stuff, and test it, and put it in front of new players, and see what works.

On a small game, you can only iterate so many times. We're running up against this on Contrast. I had a great conversation today with Guillaume, the game designer (and company founder). Actors are really, really expensive: like, a thousand bucks a day with all their buyouts. They are also really, really better than your game design team at voicing characters, which is why you hire them.

The most money-efficient way to work with actors is to build the game, test with scratch dialog recorded by whoever, animate the characters, and then get the actors to come in and do voices.

The problem is that actors trying to match pre-animated characters cannot give you their best performance. You get a much stronger performance when the actor voices the character, and then the animators, at their leisure, put the character on the screen. For one thing, the animators have the actors on video as reference footage, to capture gestures the actors made organically.

When Tom Hanks is voicing a toy or a fish or whatever for a Pixar movie, he's usually doing it first. Then the animators bring the characters onto the screen to match his performance.

Artistically, the best way is to bring in the actors right away, and build the scene around them. But then, you inevitably have to throw out some dialog, and write some new dialog, and bring the actors in again.

This makes actors rich. (Or, at least, pays their back rent.) Small studios like ours can't afford to do this too many times.

There is no solution here. There is only a trade-off. I lobby Guillaume to bring in the actors as soon as he can afford to. Derek, our producer, tells us how much earlier than the last minute we can afford to bring them in.

You'll have to see the game, when we've done it, to see how well we've succeeded in making that tradeoff. But I did get an awfully big compliment from a level designer today, who felt that the finale scenes we're coming up with were something new in games:  nuanced, without being muddy. We both left the meeting inspired to kick ass. 

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Q. Can a writer get sued for a script he sold if the movie gets made and other people say they were part of the “executive team” but never got paid? 
If others who weren’t part of production can prove via emails, text messages, phone calls, etc... that they were at one point “working” on getting this movie done, does the writer have to worry about being sued? 
Or is it mainly the producers of the movie who have to worry about that? Would the writer be safe simply because he’s the writer and not the producer? 
Do writers EVER have to worry about being sued?
Here's my understanding. Bear in mind I'm not a lawyer and this is not legal advice.

In general, any idiot can sue if he can find a lawyer willing to take his money. However the case will usually get thrown out of court if it has no merit.

A writer can be sued successfully by someone who claims he stole their script. Not their ideas, but the representation of their ideas:  dialog, characters, plot. If you were to write a sequel to CHINATOWN using any of the original characters, and that script got shot, whoever owns CHINATOWN would sue you.

A writer can also be sued if his script defames someone, or invades their privacy. If you were to write a script about my private life, and it got made, I could sue. That's why you want to be covered on the producer's E&O insurance policy.

If someone "works on" getting your script made, even if he gives you "ideas" or "notes," that doesn't give him any rights, unless he also options your script.  Legally this could be an oral agreement, but it is very hard to prove that an oral agreement exists if the parties disagree. There's a sample option agreement in my book CRAFTY SCREENWRITING. He gives you money; you sign a piece of paper saying he has the option to buy the rights to your script.

If a producer buys or options your script, and screws someone he's working with, that's not your look-out. The third party doesn't have a contract with you. If I rent you my car, and you crash it into a store, the store can't sue me.

TL;DR:  If you didn't sign anything, and you didn't steal anything, you're probably not going to get sued. 

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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Studies show that the more decisions you make in a row, the worse your decisions get.

At a certain point in a writing day, you start writing crap. This may be why. Writing is all decision making.

The important thing is to recognize when you're about to start writing crap, and stop writing for a while.

The danger is, of course, that this becomes an excuse for procrastination. "I need to recharge the batteries," you say, while you play a few levels of Bastion, or blog, or tweet, or go see if Nate Silver has posted anything new about the election, or fold laundry. (And the laundry actually needs to get done!)  Writing requires sitzfleisch:  the willingness to sit and hack it out even if it's not perfect, which it never is.

But still, at a certain point, it's time to call it a day. No one cares how many pages you cranked out in a day. (Unless you're in production!) They care how many good pages.

Now back to work, Alex. There might be one more good page in you...

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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

New TV season's starting. What are you looking forward to? What old shows coming back and new pilots are can't-miss for you?

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I was listening to Terry Gross's Fresh Air interview with Michael Lewis at the gym today. Michael Lewis (Moneyball, The Big Short) has been following around President Obama for the past six months, fly-on-the-wall-of-Air-Force-One style, for a Vanity Fair profile.

The President makes decisions all day long. He's "the decision-maker," in the immortal words of George W. Bush. Research has shown that everybody has a certain amount of decision juice -- varying levels, but when it runs out, it's a while before it comes back. Call in mana, in the D&D sense. The more decisions you make in a day, the worse your decisions tend to be.

I found it interesting that the President has done a few things to reduce unnecessary decision-making. He threw out all his suits except for some identical grey and identical blue ones. (Shades of Steve Jobs.) He never gets involved in what's for dinner; whatever shows up, he eats.

That's probably the least interesting point in a fascinating profile, but it might be the most useful for screenwriters. Screenwriters, like all creative people, make decisions all day, too. Decisions about fictional people, sure, but every page is a page full of decisions.

So how do you avoid running out of go-juice?

I think that's where a lot of our procrastination comes from. Reading Nate Silver obsessively during elections involves no decision making at all. Paying the bills involves no decision making.

Also, that's why I so fervently leave the negotiating to my agent. One of the many things agents do is remove much of the stress from negotiations by taking it on themselves.

But I wonder how many other unnecessary decisions I could remove from my life?

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Monday, September 17, 2012

Q. In your book you recommended not to deal with agents who aren’t members of the Hollywood Representation Directory, as they can’t help a writer, and they could probably hurt a writer. Can you briefly tell me how it’s possible they could hurt a writer?
An agent does three big things. One, negotiates your deals. Two, puts your work in front of people you don't otherwise have access to. Three, validates you.

An agent who is not a recognized professional -- well, there's probably a reason for that. They may not know how to negotiate a good deal for you. They probably don't have much more access than you do. They might put your material in front of, and make deals with, people who won't get your material made, and won't pay you very much along the way.

And, crucially, if they are not recognized, then they don't validate you. If your script comes in from CAA, that carries a lot of weight with producers and execs. It means that someone at a top agency thinks you're worth their time. If your script comes in from Willard McGumby of the Willard McGumby Agency in Baton Rouge, that means that the only guy you could find to rep you is some dude who answers his own phone in Baton Rouge. That might actually be worse than repping yourself.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2012


I've been following Romney's attempts to blame the President for the unauthorized press release of a terrified embassy staffer, and failing to check out the supposed "movie" that provoked the riots.

Or, to be more accurate, the video clips which were the excuse for the riots. Even the most cursory glance at the supposed movie will show you that it is not a "movie" at all, but a laughably bad series of clips pasted together by someone who is unfamiliar with how editing works. The historical clips are of bad actors amateurishly lit in a studio, composited over generic Arabian footage, and badly dubbed. Any Concordia student could do a better job over the weekend with her iPhone and iMovie.

Seriously, look at the picture. Saturday Night Live actors wear more convincing makeup.

It mystifies me that anyone would consider this mishmash worth an angry tweet, let alone a riot. I would have to assume that jihadi elements spend a lot of time sifting through the Internet to find something, anything they can use to outrage their fellow citizens, because you would really have to go out of your way to find something this badly made. There are much better dubbed cat videos.

(Meanwhile, there are reports that the riots were staged as a distraction to enable a plot to murder our embassy personnel.)

I think the only proper thing to do, the patriotic and righteous thing to do, to show who we are as a civilization, is to turn this into the next Downfall meme. Okay, raise your hands: who's willing to be beaten to death by humorless fundamentalists?

UPDATE: The story just gets weirder and weirder. The apparent director of the movie is an American Egyptian of Coptic Christian persuasion, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, who is on probation for bank fraud.

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This is going around Facebook tagged as John Cage's rules, but Corita Kent actually wrote them:
RULE ONE: Find a place you trust, and then try trusting it for awhile.

RULE TWO: General duties of a student — pull everything out of your teacher; pull everything out of your fellow students.

RULE THREE: General duties of a teacher — pull everything out of your students.

RULE FOUR: Consider everything an experiment.

RULE FIVE: Be self-disciplined — this means finding someone wise or smart and choosing to follow them. To be disciplined is to follow in a good way. To be self-disciplined is to follow in a better way.

RULE SIX: Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail, there’s only make.

RULE SEVEN: The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things.

RULE EIGHT: Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They’re different processes.

RULE NINE: Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.

RULE TEN: “We’re breaking all the rules. Even our own rules. And how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for X quantities.” (John Cage)

HINTS: Always be around. Come or go to everything. Always go to classes. Read anything you can get your hands on. Look at movies carefully, often. Save everything — it might come in handy later.
By the way, TIFF was great fun.

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Thursday, September 06, 2012

I needed to turn an audition clip file into a DVD that a funder could throw into a DVD player and see the movie on their TV.

I wound up using iDVD. It's meant to be a super simple program for putting your home movies on a disc. But if you actually want to do something really simple, it's not that intuitive.

What I wanted to do was make a DVD that plays one movie file once, without a menu. I could not figure out how to skip having a menu. You can put a movie before the menu. But the menus all seemed to require a minimum of two movies after. So I had to put the movie (an audition clip) before the menu, then twice after the menu.

It worked, but it was ugly. Also, the menus themselves, in their efforts to look "professional," came off as cheesy.

Eventually, I was able to download 1.6GB of other menu options, some which only demand one video after the menu, and don't look as cheesy.

So now: hey, I can make my own DVDs now!

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Brenda Brathwaite has a compelling argument for what games can do that other art forms can't do as well: implicate the player in the moral universe of the story by giving them choices with moral consequences.

In less fancy talk: her seven year old daughter came home from Black History Month. She'd heard all about the Middle Passage, but she didn't get it. It hadn't reacher her emotionally.

Then Brathwaite made a little game where some pegs were people and her daughter painted them different colors to be families. And then some of them got put on a boat. And the boat had a certain number of turns to cross the ocean. And there wasn't necessarily enough food for everyone -- unless she kept rolling low numbers. So what could she do? Throw some people into the ocean, or risk everyone starving?

After playing the game for a few turns, her daughter got it. Then, she cried. And so did Brenda, and her husband, too, when he came home.

A movie can ask the viewer, "What would you do?" In SOPHIE'S CHOICE, which child would you save? But you don't have to participate in the decision. The movie will keep rolling on to its conclusion.

A game can make the player choose to do it.

Daughter story starts at 4:30.

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Tuesday, September 04, 2012

I'm having sync problems with some videos I've put on Vimeo for private distribution. Has anyone else had this problem? Anyone know a better site? (I don't think you can upload stuff to YouTube but restrict its availability.)

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I played Episode 1 of Telltale Games' WALKING DEAD on our Xbox. (It's also available on PC/Mac/PS3 and iPad.)

It's a point-and-click adventure: a "choose your own adventure" book brought to life on the small screen. Mostly you are making choices of which thing to say and whom to side with, and the other characters react differently depending on what you do. There's also the occasional button-mashing combat with a zombie.

Philosophically, I don't like point and click adventure games. They're much more about branching narrative, and much less about gameplay.

The difficulty in branching narrative is that, to tell a truly powerful story, it has to be of a piece. The ending has its seeds in the beginning. The characters are the right ones for the plot. But if you're going to let the player choose his ending, then how do you make sure the character is the right one for that ending? How do you foreshadow an ending, how do you commit to a theme, when you don't know what the player is going to do? The more outcomes, the vaguer the characters have to be, don't they? So how sharp can the storytelling be if one beginning has to serve sixteen endings?

I guess one answer is to make the player character mysterious, and reveal more of him as the player chooses his actions. It would be interesting to try revealing different backstory depending on the player's actions, but I don't have the impression that the game is doing that. We know he's a professor who was convicted of murder; he's pretty up front that he was righteously convicted.

But I gotta say, I never found the game boring. I played the two or three hours of Episode One. I definitely got my $5 worth. (Actually, Hunter's $5 worth.) The game does convincingly put you in situations where you have to choose who to save, and you feel bad about the ones you have to leave behind. Because the characters are rotoscoped, rather than CGI animated, the acting is pretty good. So I really did care about the 8 year old girl I'm trying to save.

Will I play Episodes 2 and 3? Jury's still out on that. This game might be more convincing on iPad, where it would be a really big game for the platform, rather than on Xbox, where I can't help comparing it with AAA games. And I could play it on the train to TIFF.

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Sunday, September 02, 2012

Final Draft has released an iPad app.

This is a nice little app. It provides all the basic functionality of Final Draft. You can easily edit and format text. Typing works via the iPad keyboard.

If you touch the screen and hold down, you get a little magnifying glass you can move around to make it easier to land the cursor where you want. You also then have the option to add a Script Note.

When you're done, you can email from the app, or use Dropbox. The app autosaves fairly often.

All in all, this does just about everything I would want an iPad app to do. You can't do the fancier stuff, but on the other hand, you don't have to lug your entire computer around to do it.

I don't see myself writing an entire script on an iPad. The touchscreen keyboard is too unwieldy. Anyway, I don't go very far without my laptop. But I could imagine making notes on a script, or trimming some dialog, on the subway or at a cafe or in the park. When I'm at TIFF, I'm not going to want to schlep my laptop with me everywhere, but I will have my iPad at all times.

Right now the app is $30. They say they'll jack that up to $50 at the end of September. For $30, it's a handy little app. You might find it handy, too.

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My old writing group friend Kay Reindl has a cool digital series on Ideaboost. The fae have been getting a bad deal for years in pop culture -- they're either Tolkien elves, or they've been Keeblerized. The fae were, traditionally, divided into the nasty, capricious, dangerous sort who would trick you into falling off a cliff, and the really bad ones. Only lately have they been getting their bad reputation back in series like LOST GIRL.

Knowing Kay, she's going to get them right.

I would totally watch this series. How you do it on a digital series budget, you got me.



If you dig it too, Boost it.

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Saturday, September 01, 2012

Here's a little quick'n'dirty promo video I shot for the game I'm working on, Contrast.



That's the spectacularly good Vanessa Mitsui playing Kat, our film noir shadow dame; she was a joy to direct. Yours truly is talking narrative.

We made the video for our pitch on Steam Greenlight. The idea is that game creators pitch their games, and players vote for which ones they want to see distributed on Steam. We'll be updating our Greenlight page as we progress towards our release early next year.

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I have designed a new iPhone headset keeper. Originally I didn't have a keeper, and my iPhone headsets got all tangled up. Then I got this one:



It was a big improvement. But it takes a lot of turns to wind up the headset cord. A lot of turns takes more time, and it leaves the cord all twisty.

Also, only one slot to hold the cord in place. The cord has two ends, you know.

This one is cute. And it has two slots, one to hold the beginning of the cord (with the plug), one to hold the end of the cord (with the earphones):



Still, way too many turns.

I'm happier with the one I just made myself:




Four slots to hold the cords -- because when you wind the cord, you don't know where the end will wind up. The little horns keep the looped cord from slipping off the keeper.

And it takes roughly a third as many times to wind up the headset.

Also, it's free. I used a pair of scissors to make this one out of an Indigo customer card.

You're welcome!

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