Complications Ensue: The Crafty Game, TV and Screenwriting Blog
Complications Ensue:
The Crafty Screenwriting, TV and Game Writing Blog


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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Crafty: Specs or spec pilots? If specs: many people want to know how you spec a show with a story arc. Do you stick your episode between two specific shows so it's part of the chronology? And if so do you include a page that says "the events in this script take place between episodes 5 and 6, where Jim and Pam are doing this" or "we don't know where the hatch leads yet" or whatever? Or do you constantly have to update your script?

Gervich: The standard rule used to be "specs"… and NEVER "spec pilots." But that's changing. Kind of.

Over the last few years, especially since the explosive success of Marc Cherry's spec pilot, "Desperate Housewives," execs and producers alike have been much more open to reading spec pilots. Many have even BOUGHT spec pilots… although most of the spec pilots that have sold have come from established writer-producers like Aaron Sorkin, David Crane, and David E. Kelley. Some younger writers HAVE sold spec pilots, yet almost none of them have been produced or made it to air. Having said that, many more execs and showrunners have still become more open to reading pilots as samples for staffing.

So two or three years ago, I'd say do NOT write a spec pilot. But today… If you have an idea for a killer pilot that you're dying to write, I say "write it"… just be honest with yourself about why you're writing it. If you're writing it to sell, know that the odds are incredibly slim. If you're writing it to have a calling card, a great sample, it's a much more viable endeavor.

As for the second part of the question… writing a spec for a show with a story arc… it's rarely a great idea to spec something that's highly serialized-- for this exact reason. I would never recommend that someone spec a "Lost" or a "Prison Break."

Of course, many shows with close-ended episodes, like "The Office" and "Private Practice," also have highly serialized threads and relationships. So how do you deal with those?... Well, the truth is… you don't. Kind of.

The trick to writing a great spec is to simultaneously make it current AND "evergreen"… which is, of course, easier said than done. For example, if you were writing a spec of this season's "The Office," you'd probably want to include some scenes and moments that reflect the current status of the Andy/Dwight/Angela triangle… but without making the relationship so specific that it can only work between episodes 3 and 4. You'd try to capture the ESSENCE of the relationships, not the microscopic chronological details.

Having said that… sometimes a show's relationships and stories DO change in ways that affect your spec, and when this happens--yeah… the best thing to do is to go in and update your script. This is one of the gritty realities of spec-writing… your spec is never quite finished--part of the game is the constant act of updating your script to make it as current as possible. (Which is another reason why it's best to tell a story that's "evergreen"--it makes your re-writing process much easier.)

Crafty: You say go to networking parties. But everyone who could actually hire you is too busy to go to networking parties, and they get invited to actual parties when they do have time. Is there a point to meeting other aspiring writers / directors / etc.?

Gervich: The point of networking parties is NOT to meet people above you. In fact, if that's your motivation for going to parties, you'll invariably wind up going nowhere except Disappoinment-ville. In fact, I think one of the biggest mistakes young aspirants make is thinking they should be networking with people higher up the food chain. The truth us…

You should be networking with people AT THE SAME LEVEL AS YOU (or, if possible, a notch or half-notch above you). Here's why…

People at the top do not have time--or a need--to meet you. They've got their hands full with much bigger financial, strategic, and creative issues… and if they're going to meet with writers, producers, or showrunners, they're going to meet with people at THEIR level, A-listers. Sure, a network VP wants to find the next hit show, but he wants to find if from Paul Scheuring or Shonda Rhimes or J.J. Abrams.

People LOWER on the food chain, however, like low-level creative execs and junior agents and even assistants, are DESPERATE to find fresh voices and writers… either someone to staff on a show or--if they're lucky--someone with a mind-blowing spec pilot. This is how low-level people get promoted… by delivering to their bosses a great piece of talent. So they're hungry to find you, love you, and pass you on to the bigwigs that can hire you. (Besides, look at it this way--you may meet Les Moonves at a party and ask him to read your script. He may even take it. But reading it is not going to be a priority… and it'll probably wind up, unread, at the bottom of Les Moonves's wastebasket. Yet if you meet Les Moonves's ASSISTANT, he's much more likely to read your script. And if he loves it and recommends it to his boss, who trusts him much more than he trusts some random stranger from a party, that script has a much better chance of getting read by Les Moonves himself.)

Also, people at the same level tend to rise through the ranks and help each other along the way. The friends you make as an assistant will somecday be writing on shows, directing features, and working as heads of networks or studios. So they may not be able to make decisions or hire you NOW, but as you progress together, eventually they WILL be able to… just as you'll be able to help them.

So to answer the question: yes--there is a HUGE point to attending networking functions, and to meeting EVERYONE you can… including fellow writers, directors, assistants, agents, and execs who will (hopefully) go on to great achievements that will help them help you in the not-too-distant future.

Crafty: Is film school any use, and if so, what? Is making a short film any use, and if so, what?

Gervich: This is a two-part question: film school and short films.

For Part One: Film School, I'm going to refer you back to a blog post on Script Notes

For Part Two: Short Films, I'm gonna say this:

Definitely! I believe any piece of work that shows off your talent is worth doing… anything of quality that will grab the attention of execs and producers. Having said that…

Short films are *probably* more helpful in the world of features (rather than television), where buyers are looking for writers and directors who can tell finite stories… and a solid short film is a great representation of that talent. Four years ago, for instance, Ari Sandel directed a funny short film called "West Bank Story," and it served as a great calling card to land him a job directing Vince Vaughn's full-length "Wild West Comedy Show."

(Again, this isn't to say short films can't be helpful in TV, but as a manager-friend once told me, "Write in the medium you want to write in. If you want to write movies, write a movie. If you want to write novels, write a novel." So while sometimes writing a killer short story will push forward your TV career, it's more likely that it'll help your fiction/prose career. Likewise, a short film is more helpful to a feature career than a TV career.)

At the very least, a powerful short film can put you on the radars of producers and execs… where you can start forming relationships that you'll maintain until you have something else to show: a new script, a pitch, or even another short.

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Crafty: Are any production companies looking for reality series pitches? Or are all of them generated in-house or by people they already know?

Gervich: Absolutely! Production companies and networks are looking for unscripted programming just like they're looking for scripted ideas! Broadcast networks tend to develop fewer unscripted ideas than scripted, but they're still looking… and many cable networks--like TLC, Food Network, MTV, Bravo, etc.--program ONLY reality series.

Likewise, some production companies--like "Big Brother"-producer Endemol USA--dabble in both scripted and unscripted shows, while others--like "Project Runway"'s Magical Elves or "Don't Forget the Lyrics"'s RDF--focus only on reality shows. Either way, most production companies--like networks--are almost always taking pitches for alternative television.

Crafty: What would a reality show pitch look like? How many pages? What format? What questions do you have to answer in your pitch? How much could the newbie creator reasonably expect to stay involved with the show they pitched if it gets picked up?

Gervich: As a writer, I've pitched both scripted and reality ideas… as an exec, I've HEARD both reality and scripted pitches… and I have to say: there's not much of a difference. Aside from a few pieces, a reality pitch sounds very similar to a scripted pitch.

A friend of mine used to be the showrunner of "Friends," and he once gave me some great advice; he said (I'm paraphrasing): "In the old days of ancient Greece or Rome, people used to gather round a bard or poet, usually sitting in some kind of circle, and listen to him tell a story. A pitch works almost the same way. The execs or producers usually sit in some kind of circle and your job--as the writer--is to, quite simply, TELL THEM A STORY."

To me, this is the basic tenet of ANY PITCH, scripted or reality. Use your words and storytelling skills to create a world that MOVES YOUR AUDIENCE… that sucks them in, enthralling them till they want to hear more. And--if it's a TV pitch--help them understand how that one world or story can generate an endless supply of OTHER stories.

Now, if you're pitching a reality show, you're not so much telling a story as you are creating an emotional world. Even though it's not a scripted narrative, you want your audience of buyers to feel the emotional premise of your series. This could be done by articulating an anecdote or observation from your own life… or by setting up a universal emotional truth. In classes that I teach, I like to use "Survivor" as an example. If I were pitching "Survivor," I might begin with something like this…

"We live in a beautiful world… a world full of beautiful people building beautiful homes in beautiful cities… driving beautiful cars… wearing beautiful clothes… raising beautiful children. But the truth is: no matter how beautiful anyone is… or the world they live in is… one thing always holds true: EVERYBODY WANTS SOMETHING.

"Some people want true love; others want a new house. Some want a dream job; others want their kids to go to college. Some people want to cure their father's cancer; others want to reunite with a long-lost sweetheart. And when it comes to their life's dream, most people will do ANYTHING to make that dream come true. They'll lie, fight, backstab. Betray their friends. Befriend their enemies. Whatever it takes.

"So this is a reality show where we take fifteen beautiful people, each with a life's dream, and strand them in the world's most beautiful place… then give each of them a shot at a million dollars--enough to make their life's dream come true. Then we sit back and watch… as each of them fights, claws, lies, cheats, steals, forms alliances and backstabs their way to making their one dream a reality."

Now, I'm not saying that intro is perfect… or I wouldn't tweak it… or it's anything close to how Mark Burnett pitched that show… but I do think it sets up the series, both narratively and emotionally. You "get" how the show works on a macro level. And once your audience has this understanding, it's very easy for you to give them examples of individual episodes, or challenges, that bring the show to life. They'll understand how forcing people to compete in a bug-eating contest fits into the larger narrative and thematic whole. They'll understand the types of characters and relationships the show will build and play with. They'll understand how and why we'll relate to the show on a personal level.

Thus, I think there are four main things to spell out to potential reality buyers:

• The emotional/thematic premise
• The kinds of "characters" who will be on this show, including what drives them and what's at stake (i.e., "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" casts desperate, downtrodden families who need a warm, safe place to live; "What Not To Wear" casts loveable people in need of a self-esteem makeover… by way of making over their fashion sense; "The Bachelor" casts lonely women desperate to find a partner).
• How the pilot works… or, more specifically, how a typical episode (which is what a pilot is--a typical episode) will translate your emotional/thematic premise into a dramatic series
• Examples of future episodes and challenges

Ultimately, these are the same things that sell a scripted series. So the key, whether you're pitching a comedy, a drama, or reality series… is to be like those bards and poets hundreds of years ago: SIMPLY TELL YOUR STORY AND MOVE YOU AUDIENCE.

Here's a quick link to another blog post which (I hope) offers some helpful into about pitching a reality show.

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Monday, December 29, 2008

Crafty: Are production companies interested in new media? Should writers worry about multiplatform spin-offs? Or should they pitch their mobisode/webisode series to people who do just those? (Does anyone just do those?)

Gervich: Yes, production companies are interested in new media… but only SOME production companies. And, unfortunately, not enough.

Personally, I think most TV production companies are CRAZY for not dipping their toes further into the Internet pond. Sure, it's tough to make money with Internet fare… RIGHT NOW. But soon--very soon--the Internet and TV will converge, and production companies that aren't experimenting with web shows will find themselves uncomfortably far behind the eight ball.

Producing Internet shows is valuable for three main reasons…

One: it's a chance to try fun, inventive entertainment that can't be done on TV. The Internet is a different creative sandbox than television, with different strengths and weaknesses, and--just like movies or novels--it has the ability to tell very different kinds of stories.

Two: Internet shows can make great calling cards for TV. Rarely does an online show jump wholly from cyberspace to television, like "In the Motherhood" or "Sanctuary." But creative, well-produced web shows can certainly attract execs and producers. Luke Barats and Joe Bereta, for example, scored a development deal at NBC after producing a popular series of comedic YouTube sketches.

Three: it IS possible to do things on the Internet that can make a huge splash… like "Dr. Horrible's Singalong Blog" or "Lonelygirl15." While creating a hit is never easy in any medium, whether it's TV or Broadway or the Internet, hit Internet shows have gone on to become pop cultural phenomena that develop a life of their own. And while "Dr. Horrible" was independently produced by Joss Whedon, part of what allowed it to succeed was the fact that it was developed and produced by people with great creative chops and top-notch production resources. So it saddens me that many producers and production companies are so short-sighted, refusing to see past the Internet's current financial restraints to recognize it as the amazing creative canvas it's poised to become.

Having said all this, two quick answers to your question:

One: Yes, there are production companies--like Disney's Stage 9 and Michael Eisner's Vuguru--producing Internet-specific content, and a wannabe Internet producer's best hope of selling something is to target those companies. I'd suggest watching your favorite Internet shows, or shows similar to your idea, then tracking down the production companies behind them.

Two: if you're pitching a TV show, I wouldn't bother elaborating on how it could foster an Internet spinoff. Not only do Internet spinoffs generate little money, but TV buyers want to know the TV show they're about to invest in can work--first and foremost--as a TV show. The TV idea itself is the "cake;" if it works, there are plenty of people (and time) to figure out how to develop the "icing" (spinoffs, merchandising opportunities, etc.) later. Your job is to sell a television show… so go sell a television show.

Crafty: Do producers and development execs care about Internet script competitions? Or are they a waste of money?

Gervich: I think winning ANYTHING is a feather in your cap. I mean, at the very least, it feels great to win something, and it's validation that you're a good writer!

Having said that… I don't think many producers, agents, or execs are trolling the Internet for the next Marc Cherry, Simon Beaufoy, or Damon Lindelof.

So if you're entering an online contest in hopes of breaking into Hollywood… I'd adjust your expectations. If you're entering the contest because it's fun to win… or you're looking for feedback… or you want some validation… or you just figure, "hey--it can't hurt to have people read my script"… then by all means--BREAK A LEG!

[Ed. note: To me, this is a very nice way of saying "save your money."]

Crafty: Is it a plus if a script is by an international writer (English, Canadian, Australian)? Is it a minus?

Gervich: I don't think it matters. Producers and execs are looking for talented storytellers with unique voices… no matter where those writers and voices come from. In fact, most showrunners want to hire writers who can bring interesting stories and life experiences into the writers room… so a talented writer who hails from a foreign country may have an advantage over someone who's lived in L.A. all their life.

Also--many networks and studios are now implementing "diversity programs" to help find and hire diverse writers for their TV shows. Here's a quick list of some of TV's diversity programs…

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Sunday, December 28, 2008



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According to this blogger, you can learn a lot about business from poker. Pretty much all these lessons apply to show business.

Since lessons don't really sink in until you're in the mix, I recommend you all find a poker game to join. Then you'll know what he's talking about.



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Chad Gervich is a TV producer with a blog and now a book, SMALL SCREEN, BIG PICTURE, on how to break into TV. He's on a virtual author's tour of the blogosphere, so I threw him my dozen questions. He'll be answering them over the next few days here.

Crafty: What do development execs know that they wish aspiring screenwriters knew?

Gervich: I can only speak for writers and execs in the world of television, but I’m guessing there’s a film version of this answer as well, so movie folks—infer as you will.

I think many TV development execs wish more newbie writers had an understanding and appreciation of the medium. This is not at all to say that MOST writers don’t have an understanding or appreciation of the medium, but I can’t tell you how many wannabe TV writers I meet who haven’t the first clue about the industry they want to work in. This inexcusable a lack of understanding or appreciation often manifests itself in two ways.

ONE: Writers who don’t understand how television works differently from film. I don’t mean business-wise; I mean creatively. TV series tell their stories much differently than movies, novels, short stories, or plays… but I somehow still find myself meeting writers who don’t understand this.

For example: I once met with a writer who said, “I have a great idea for a TV show, but it’s only 30 episodes. It can’t be longer and it can’t be shorter… it’s exactly 30 episodes.” Well, unfortunately, this writer may have had a brilliant idea… but TV series (at least in America) don’t work on a finite number of episodes. Sure, other countries have produced successful telenovelas, but the form hasn’t taken off in the U.S., and here, successful TV series are designed to run into perpetuity.

There’s nothing wrong, creatively, with dreaming up telenovelas and limited series—and I am NOT saying this to discourage people from thinking outside the box—but I often hear young writers pitch ideas that don’t seem to illustrate a competent understanding of how TV stories work. The ideas themselves may be perfectly fine—outstanding, even—but they’re not TV ideas. They’re novel ideas or short stories or web ideas or SOMETHING… but not TV.

TWO: This is actually the bigger—and more common—offense, but you wouldn’t believe the number of writers I meet who simply don’t seem to respect the medium of television itself. I’ll ask writers what their favorite shows are, and they’ll say: “I don’t really watch TV. So much of it is bad. That’s why I want to do this show: to do something smart for once…”

Well, first of all—why would a writer expect a producer or exec to do business with someone who just spat upon the very industry they love and make their living in?! And second of all—why would that producer/exec want to work with a TV writer who has actually said they don’t watch or like television?! A law firm would never hire a wannabe lawyer who claims to have no respect for the law—or even an interest in studying it… so why is television any different?! (And again—this isn’t to say there’s not a lot of bad television… or that execs and producers aren’t hungry for writers who want to break rules… it’s just saying that producers and execs want people who are excited and passionate about the medium of TV.)

I’ve also met with writers—and to be fair, as a writer, I know I’ve been guilty of this—who are pitching, say, a cop drama, and I’ll ask: “Is it kind of like ‘NCIS?’” Or, “So, it’s like ‘CSI: Miami’ meets ‘Leverage?’” And they’ll say, “Huh—I’ve never seen those shows.” Or they’ll be pitching a reality dating show and I’ll say, “I like it—it’s like ‘Parental Control.’” And they’ll say—“Hm. I’ll have to check that out.” This is maddening… as a writer/producer, especially one trying to work in a particular genre, it’s your responsibility to know the landscape and the marketplace. You wouldn’t try selling a new kind of vacuum cleaner or baking pan without knowing what vacuums or baking pans are already out there… and TV is no different.

So to sum up: what execs know that they wish more writers knew… is how to articulate and verbalize an understanding or appreciation of TV itself.

Crafty: Do development execs expect queries by internet, or still by snail mail? Do people send in physical scripts, or will a PDF do?

Gervich: To be honest, I don’t know many development execs that accept unsolicited submissions at all. Most submissions come through agents, managers, lawyers, other executives, or friends. Having said this—submissions themselves come in all forms, regardless of who they come from. Some agents email PDF’s; others send hard copies. I’m not sure it really matters which… and in fact, different execs probably have different preferences. My old showrunner used to read all his scripts on email. Others like the feel of paper. Still others don’t want the hassle of having to print from an email.

If you’re submitting to someone, I think the smartest route is to simply ask which they prefer.

Crafty: Do queries ever work? If not, how do you get someone to read a script? Hang around the bar at the Ivy in tight pants? Get a job as a pool boy in Laurel Canyon? Work as a TSA inspector at LAX and slip a script into every bag as it goes past?

Gervich: I don’t think, in today’s world of television, that queries are effective. Most execs only read or accept scripts from people they know… usually agents, managers, lawyers, execs, or friends. This is why, if you don’t have representation, the best way to get your script into hands of producers or execs is to get out there and meet them yourself. Expand your network of industry friends and contacts! And the best way to do this?...


If you want to be a TV writer, the job you’re aiming for is to be a writers’ assistant on a TV show, where you’re interacting closely with writers and showrunners, forging relationships that will not only help you get a bona fide writing job, but will get your material read by the appropriate people.

Writers’ assistant jobs, unfortunately, are few and far between… and usually go only to showrunners’ friends or co-workers. So your job is to get your foot in the door however you can… as an intern, a runner, a P.A., an assistant.

Most people in Hollywood will say the best starting place for a newbie is at an agency, working as an agent’s assistant… even if you don’t want to be an agent. (In fact, many executives and producers won’t even hire assistants who don’t already have agency experience.) Working at an agency is like grad school for Hollywood… you’ll learn the ins and outs of the business, the players, the players’ assistants and phone numbers, who’s buying, who’s selling, who’s hot and who’s not… and you’ll learn it all faster than you’ve learned anything before. You’ll also meet everyone in town… execs, agents, writers, and—most importantly—assistants, the gatekeepers to Hollywood’s bigwigs. Once you have your network up and running, you’ll have access to huge amounts of valuable information… not only important industry updates, but jobs and job openings… so you can keep your eye—and your friends’ eyes—peeled for that next step, whether it’s a job as a PA or an assistant to a studio exec.

And—of course—you’ll be bolstering your network of people who can read or pass along your material. Maybe not today, but next week, or next month, or next year. Each person you meet is a potential reader and ally… and agencies are a great place to begin meeting them.

For a great blog post about working at an agency, check out this recent post from Amanda the Aspiring TV Writer. (She also has some great info in her “Inside the Agency” section.)

Here’s another post, from “Script Notes,” my blog at “Writer’s Digest” magazine, that lists some wonderful job-hunting websites and resources.

To be continued...

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Friday, December 26, 2008

I'm watching the pilot to ZOS, about which I'll blog more in a bit. But there's a scene in it which is so effective, and so dark, I had to stop the DVD and go help my daughter play with her new dollhouse for a bit.

A lot of the best shows on cable seem drawn to the darkness. SOPRANOS, SIX FEET UNDER, THE WIRE, even MAD MEN seem disinclined to give us too much to be hopeful for in life. Even BATTLESTAR GALACTICA treats hope and faith and redemption as a French chef might treat sugar: it has its place, sure, but it's hardly artful to use it in more than a couple of dishes.

I appreciate the attraction to the darkness. But as a writer, you risk losing a big chunk of the audience. You may be able to stomach scenes in which children are killed, but Lisa won't watch shows that do that. A lot of people, including me, put the script down or turn off the television, when we see animals being hurt onscreen.

I guess darkness is like sex or bad language. All are undeniably effective, and attractive to many. But go too far, and they run the risk of throwing some of the audience out of the picture, or the series. I think you have to ask yourself if the darkness is a necessary part of your story, or if you're just doing it because you can. I think Ron Moore felt that he couldn't do justice to a series about humanity being chased by genocidal robots without bringing the darkness; how do you bring the comedy after most of humanity has been A-bombed to death? He was willing for BSG to pay that price.

And, obviously, David Milch felt he couldn't do justice to DEADWOOD without his particular style of poetically obscene dialogue.

But in other shows, the darkness seems to go farther than the story requires. Did DURHAM COUNTY need to be quite so bleak? Was that crucial to the truth of the story Laurie Finstad is telling? I don't know, because I couldn't watch the otherwise excellent series through. Too dark.

ZOS is a show about peacekeepers in former Yugoslavia. It's a tough show about convincing characters in an atrocious situation, and it goes deeper into the darkness than, say, OVER THERE, another strong show which wasn't easy to watch.

When you're trying to do that, it's a tough call. There were atrocities there -- kids getting blown up by mines, rape used as a policy of terrorism, genocide. So how do you avoid showing that? On the other hand, how do you sit and watch that? I find ZOS to be both effective drama, and hard to watch.

Is there a point at which showing the whole truth makes for a less effective drama, because the audience starts tuning it out? I heard the opinion of one concentration camp survivor of SCHINDLER'S LIST: "It was good, but he only showed the nice parts." Spielberg didn't go as dark as he could have. But would the audience have followed him further into the darkness -- both literally, into the movie theater, and also emotionally, once they were sitting in the darkness?

I feel that there's a point at which darkness becomes spectacle, not storytelling. That's the point at which you're showing more darkness than you need to show us the story. There are ways of conveying the truth that are more effective for showing less. Quint's story of the sharks eating the survivors of the USS Indianapolis arguably conveys more of the horror than actually seeing a historical flashback on the screen -- because it doesn't throw you out of the picture.

My personal favorite in both the darkness and sex departments is ROME. ROME was a seriously cruel show, with lots of sex and shocking language. But it was not a bleak show. Almost all of the violent characters were trying their best to do the right thing; I can't think of any violence that didn't have a point to it. And the sex scenes were pretty much all character scenes. Clausewitz called war "a continuation of diplomacy by other means." In ROME, sex is a continuation of dialogue by other means.

My feeling is, show only as much of the darkness as you need to tell the story. Beyond that, you're indulging yourself.

At least, if my pay cable series goes, that's the standard I hope to apply.

UPDATE: To be clear, calling ZoS "hard to watch" isn't to say they've crossed the line into spectacle. I don't think they do. And if you don't find this stuff hard to watch, you're probably not watching with your heart.

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Very few books about screenwriting or directing make a serious effort to crystallize the knowledge that most screenwriters or directors know. In the CRAFTY books, I tried to crystallize what I know about screenwriting. What I find in Judith Weston's DIRECTOR'S INTUITION is a serious attempt to crystallize what film directors know. Specifically the book is about how to develop your director's intuition: what you know at a subliminal level, how you tell when an actor is bringing truth versus indicating, how you get an actor to bring his truth rather than just pretending.

The book is dense and kind of scattered. It's not a method and it's not a how-to. Possibly this is because Ms. Weston is an accomplished actress and acting teacher, not, in fact, a director. But she busts out legitimate insights -- hers and others -- at a furious rate. I would read this for the many nuggets of truth, each of which is worth a think. It's much like spending a week chatting with an accomplished actor and teacher in a country house. Every few minutes she says something that took a lifetime to learn.

The important caveat to reading any book about the arts is there is little point to reading passively. I try to make my own books as transparent as possible. You ought to be able to read it and get what I'm talking about. But to really have an idea what I'm talking about, you have to be writing. The best books crystallize what you are seeing -- they allow you to see a pattern in what you've already observed at some level. You can't learn to dance from reading a book. You can learn to dance by dancing, and improve your technique by dipping into a book.

In Ms. Weston's book, she says a lot of things I know already. Those are lessons I've already crystallized. She probably says a lot of deep things I didn't even notice, because I don't have the knowledge to crystallize. What jump out at me are the occasional insights that connect things I've seen but haven't paid enough attention to yet.

In other words, the book rewards rereading as you are directing or acting.

I would still like to read a book I call, in my head, CRAFTY FILM DIRECTING. That would be a soup-to-nuts method for directing, with chapters on finding material, analyzing material, casting, prepping, directing actors, directing camera, managing a crew, directing the editing, directing the sound and directing the soundtrack. John Badham has a fine book about directing actors (I'LL BE IN MY TRAILER). I've seen books on directing on a budget (REBEL WITHOUT A CREW). But I've never seen anything on how to approach reading a script, or how to talk to a composer, or where to let the soundtrack go silent. You're just supposed to know these things. Since I'm not a film director, I don't feel qualified to write the book myself.

Oh, and there'd be a chapter or two on managing your film career, along the lines of the career chapters in CRAFTY SCREENWRITING and CRAFTY TV WRITING.

What's the most influential book on screenwriting or filmmaking that you've read?

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A friend of the blog is in a bind because he's done several specs of a show -- let's call it TELEPORTERS, a show about interstellar luggage -- and the producer of the show just asked to read his stuff.

It is generally maintained that you can't show a TELEPORTERS script to TELEPORTERS. They will hate it, because, while it may appear to be a perfect TELEPORTERS show to viewers, the writers have all sorts of attitude about what they're trying to do on the show, and you don't know what that is.

I can verify that the few times I've looked at a spec NAKED JOSH, I found it irritating. And in the paid world, I have rarely read a free-lance script for a show I was staffing -- a free-lance script, not a spec, a script based on conversations with the writer and often even an outline that we wrote for the writer -- without the urge to fling it across the room.

On the other hand, Lisa pointed out just now that in every screenwriting book she's read, the author repeats the rule -- and then says "that's how I got my first job, but don't do what I did."

It's showbiz, Punky. The rules aren't really rules, they're just how things are typically done. They're the path of least resistance, and you don't want to create more resistance if you don't have to. But if you find yourself in a situation where the rules aren't helping you, and you can do it convincingly another way, go for it. You'll stand out from the crowd. And if you can't do something convincingly, it won't help that you're doing it the same as everyone else, will it?

I know one writing team that got their first break by snarking on an X-FILES website that Chris Carter happened to be reading. He asked them how they'd have fixed the episode. They answered. He asked if they had a spec. They said they did. And wrote one over the weekend.

That's definitely not how you get a break in showbiz. Except for them, it was.

What's been your experience? Have you ever got a break by showing a spec of a show to that show? Do you know anyone who did?



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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

"Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up."

-- Thomas Edison

Certainly, my career was in very poor shape in 1999. My parents kept banging away at me to go to law school, part time if necessary, or go back into computer science, and I always took the point of view that I would either continue hammering away at showbiz, or dump it and go full force into something else. No point in doing things halfsies.

Rather than do that, I got my permanent residence in Canada. And then I split up with my first wife. Either might have been responsible for putting me over the top. Emotionally I was in a rut. That couldn't have helped my writing. And I just wasn't making a dent in LA. I made the move out of logic and desperation. I wound up on a TV show within weeks of landing in Toronto, and it wasn't long before I was supporting myself writing.

I think the flip side of Mr. Edison's lovely sentiment is that you must give it everything you've got. You shouldn't quit before you've given it everything you've got. (Unless of course you decide you don't really want to do it that badly after all.) If you're holding anything back, then it's practically a guarantee that what you're holding back, is what's holding you back. 85% gets you nowhere in showbiz. 90% gets you treading water. You need to be at 95%+ to put you over the top. People see that commitment and they want to be part of it.

Hope you had a good year. Hope you have a better year next year.



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Sunday, December 21, 2008

I've been trying for the past ten minutes to see LEVERAGE on my computer. (My parents don't have a TiVo, inexplicably.) The TNT website promises me "full episodes." But first I have to get FlipforMac to watch Windows video. So I do. Then I reboot and reload, and it tells me I have to get FlipforMac.

So I try Firefox. Firefox tells me I can only watch on a Windows computer. 

So I try my mom's Windows computer. This asks me to upgrade two components of my browser, Flash and something else. And then agree to some sort of DRM. And then watch a commercial. And then another commercial.

Then I got a couple of seconds of video. And then it froze. And then it jumped. It's unwatchable. (The commercials, interestingly, had no such problems.) 

The TNT site is really crappy.

For a mere $2.99 I can download the whole thing to iTunes. And I might do that. But only because I consider John Rogers a friend. $2.99 is a lot for a heist show.

I think they're going to need to work out a few bugs in these systems before they replace broadcast and cable.



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Friday, December 19, 2008

I got a very thoughtful letter from a friend and colleague:
Hi Alex,

Interesting points about CTV and arguments to reduce Cancon.

I agree with your analysis. That is, that in poor economic times, broadcasters cut jobs because of the recession, but then again in better economic times, broadcasters still cut jobs because of .... consolidation, streamlining, operating efficiencies, [insert your rationale of choice here]. When you compare private TV broadcasters' profit margin with layoffs in broadcasting, there just isn't much of a link. So, layoffs in good times, layoffs in bad times:

The simple truth is this: having caved to unsupported claims that laissez-faire reliance on the marketplace will achieve all of Parliament's objectives for our broadcasting system, the CRTC is on the tipping point of accepting broadcasters' claims that what we really need is not more Canadian content, or even the same amount of Canadian content but .... wait for it ... high-quality Canadian content.

So please, just let us spend the same amount of money on less Cancon, attract more audiences, make more ad money that way, and we will all be better off. And then we will really really really try very very very hard to put more Cancon on air. Honest, we will.

Naturally this argument entirely ignores the last twenty years of broadcasters pleading to become bigger ... so they are better placed to fund more Cancon with more money .... and face fewer competitors (having bought them out) ... and can make more money .... and history continues to repeat itself. I can accept that few people remember the Aird Commission, or the Massey Commission, or the Fowler reports.

But doesn't anyone remember in 1967 and 1968 when Parliament finally decided that Canadians should run Canadian broadcasting, and give Canadians Canadian programs about themselves? Doesn't anyone remember that in 1967 Quebec's only private TV stations (CFCM-TV and CKMI-TV) were both controlled by non-Canadians (Famous Players, 51.8% owned by Americans), and that some American cable companies were running cables (literally) across the river to serve Canadian subscribers?

Yet here we are: CRTC is going to be renewing OTA TV licences next year (early 2009). Some 70 TV station applications will be heard in April, which means that Canadians will have the chance to comment in either February or March on these applications.

The CRTC has the legal authority to enforce Parliament's objectives, but only conditions of licence and regulations can be enforced. "Commitments", "expectations", "promises" and "undertakings" are simply not enforceable in law or under the Broadcasting Act.

Broadcasters will claim they must cut more Cancon to survive. They will commit to do more, sometime, when things improve to some unknown degree.

Will Canadians comment? Will they ask for more and better Cancon? Will they ask for their local news to be reinstated? Will they ask for more than one (one!!!) hour of Canadian drama a week at night? Will they even be aware of this issue? Who knows. But it's good to see people such as yourself writing about this.
Excellent points, thank you!

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When you do a slew of drive time CBC Radio shows, the hosts are all looking at the same overall script emanating from 205 Wellington Street in Toronto. They make the questions their own, but you wind up touching on the same points.

What Canadian hosts want to know this morning:

Q. How's the recession affecting television?

A. You hear a lot about CTV firing employees because of the recession. Corus fired a lot of guys last year, and there was no recession. So maybe when there's a recession on, and you fire people, you blame the recession.

Traditionally, cheap entertainment does well during a downturn. People need entertainment, and they're not going out to dinner. That $16.95 a month for The Movie Network starts looking like really good value for money. The movie companies made money hand over fist during the Depression. People went from the bread line to the movie theatre, to see Fred Astaire dance on a piano wearing a top hat.

Q. But there are fewer advertising dollars.

Advertising is the big question in TV regardless of the recession. Our deal with TV has always been that they put the shows on the air for free, and we watch the commercials. We're not doing that any more. We're recording the shows and blipping over the commercials. Who's going to pay for all this great television? Do we move to a pay cable subscriber model? Do we pay $1.99 an hour for an internet download? Or do we see Pepsi cans in every shot? No one knows. If we're paying for shows, we're going to want smarter, more urgent shows. We won't accept "eh" television. And there are some shows advertisers won't want to put their products in. It will change the mix.

Q. How is Canadian TV different from American TV in all this?

Canadian TV is protected. We have a requirement that broadcasters air a certain amount of Canadian homebrew programming. And that's the only reason why Canadian TV exists. And it's a good thing. You look at Canadian music. 25 years ago the only stars anyone had heard of were Anne Murray and Bryan Adams. Now Canadian music is beating the world.

And it's important we tell our own stories, because we're a different culture. I'm a New Canadian from America, so I get to say this. Americans are scared of terrorists, and losing their health care. So they put on 24, where Jack Bauer beats the stuffing out of people whenever he needs to know something. We put on THE BORDER, where Major Kessler says, "Well, unfortunately we can't beat the stuffing out of this guy, so what do we do?"

But I guarantee you that CTV and Global are going to try to use the recession to justify putting on more American programming. They're going to go to the CRTC and say, "Hey, there's a recession. We need to get rid of the Cancon requirements"

And the CRTC is going to say, "Huh? It's cheaper to make Canadian shows than to license American shows."

And CTV is going to say, "But there's a recession!"

And the CRTC is going to say, "You want us to ship Canadian jobs to America during a recession?"

And CTV is going to say, "But didn't you hear us? There's a recession!!!"

Q. What changes are we going to see next year?

There's a lot of talk about Jay Leno moving to prime time. I don't know if that's going to work. At 11:30, people want TV to help them turn off their brain. I think at 10, they want to be told grownup stories. The kids are asleep, they want LAW & ORDER.

If the recession has an impact on shows, I think you're going to see more escapism. More LOST. More shows like BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. When you're trying to pay the rent, you want to be taken to another world which isn't about rent. Paradoxically you may see budgets on shows go up.

Meanwhile, in other news, Boston and the Habs were winners last night...



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Thursday, December 18, 2008

I'm taping a slew of CBC drive time shows this morning, talking about the state of showbiz during the recession.

I'll be on in Corner Brook, Ottawa, Yellowknife, Victoria, Labrador City, Calgary, Kelowna and Quebec City.

By the time we get to Quebec City, I should sound like I know what I'm talking about.



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I had an interesting chat with a friend of mine about the state of showbiz in the recession. All around, I'm hearing anxiety and fear due to the economy tanking. Networks have been firing employees and blaming the downturn, though as DMc remarked yesterday, they likely would have made those cuts without a recession to blame. Certainly Corus didn't need a downturn to fire dozens of employees last year, including beloved veteran network execs like Shelley Gillen.

What I hadn't heard till yesterday was a convincing explanation of why the downturn had to affect my own neck of the woods. Canadian broadcasters already make the absolute bare regulatory minimum of homebrew drama, preferring to air American shows they buy for more money than home-made shows cost to make. They could make less by petitioning the CRTC to allow them to air fewer hours of original drama. But I'm not sure how well that conversation would go. They would be asking a Canadian government agency to allow them to ship jobs and money out of the country. That doesn't sound like a winning argument.

The convincing reason to panic is simply the credit crunch. Producing movies is the same business as producing clothes. (One reason why so many of the great names of the early days in Hollywood started in the rag trade.) Unless you're a studio, you don't start with the money to make a movie. You start with a script, a director, and a cast. You sell your package of bankable elements to distributors in the various territories. (I'm making these numbers up; I haven't been in foreign sales for a decade.) The contract with the British distrib gives you a "minimum guarantee" (m.g.) of X number of dollars. Say Great Britain comes in for 15%, and Germany for 20%, and Japan for 15%. Say you wind up with 70% of your budget presold. Often a foreign film won't be able to presell the US market for any kind of reasonable price. How do you make your movie?

You take those contracts to a bank. They "discount" your contracts (as they would in the rag trade), and give you cash for your contracts (taking a small fee). That leaves you with a 30%+ "gap."

Now you need "gap financing" to "bridge the gap." Gap financing costs more than discounting, because it's riskier. What if the movie stinks? The presold territories have to pay anyway -- their contracts don't promise a good movie, only a movie based on the script, starring the stars, and directed by the director. But you'll have trouble selling the unsold territories. So the bank is going to want to see territories worth, say, twice as much as the bridge money it's fronting.

In years when credit is loose, banks love gap financing. They charge a lot for it. Charging for financing is their business. But now that credit is tight, banks are wary of gap financing. They might only gap 10%, and they might demand, say, three times the gap in territories. They'll make less money, but they won't get left holding the bag.

You don't have to go to a bank for gap financing. You can find your own money from investors. They might take, say, a 30% piece of the movie's gross revenues in return for bringing 30% of the budget. If the movie's a hit, they'll do better than the bank. The bank gets paid the same fees whether the movie is a hit or not. Investors get a share.

But when credit is tight, there are fewer investors around, and they're more demanding. If they do put money in your movie, they might want, say, 45% of the revenues for their 30% contribution.

One reason Canada has a film industry is that government subsidies and regulatory protection help bridge the gap. If you shoot your movie in Quebec, you wind up with federal and Quebec subsidies amounting to 25% of your budget. Canadian distributors and broadcasters have to buy a certain amount of Canadian films, so they'll contribute another 9%. That 31% can solve a producer's gap problem right there.

TV is financed along similar lines. The Canadian broadcaster provides a much, much bigger chunk of the puzzle. Instead of 9%, you could be seeing anywhere from 30-45% from broadcasters, which could be topped up by the CTF envelope to a max of 25% of budget; so potentially 70% of budget. (Even more if they take an equity position, as CTV did with CORNER GAS.) So financing Canadian TV, if you have a broadcaster, is much easier than financing Canadian features. But you still have to find that remaining 30%+. That usually means a foreign sale, unless you can wangle a US broadcaster on board up front. If you can get a US broadcast partner up front, of course, you're laughing. Even if you get a lousy license fee, you're now selling a "US" series overseas, and you'll get more for it.

I've been fortunate in that all three of the series I've staffed had US sales. GALIDOR and NAKED JOSH were sold up front to FoxKids and Oxygen; CHARLIE JADE sold to Sci Fi after we made it.

So the Canadian TV market shouldn't be in as much danger.

But here's a bigger reason I'm not panicking.

Movies and TV are two of the best industries to be in during a recession. Why? Because movies and TV are cheap entertainment. Compare a night at the movies to a night out to dinner. $12 a ticket versus $30-60 a person? How about nightclubs? Let's not even think about ticket prices for rock concerts or theater.

TV, of course, is even cheaper. For about $60-80 a month, you can get cable or satellite with premium movie channels, and no babysitter to pay. I told my exec at The Movie Network that they ought to be taking out full page ads in the papers, saying "You know you're not going out tonight. What's on TV?"

That's the economics of entertainment. But there's also the appetite. In a downturn, people desperately need to take their minds off their problems. The movies boomed during the Great Depression. The Warner brothers were in the red in 1929, but cleverly invested more and more money in their movies. They did better in 1930, and even better in 1931 and 1932. The lousier the economy was, the more people wanted to see Cary Grant playing a millionaire or Fred Astaire dancing in a top hat.

And reruns won't cut it. People will fix their old car instead of buying a new one. But no one wants to see last year's AMERICAN IDOL, and there's a limit to how many times you can watch HELLBOY 2 before you really won't be satisfied with anything less than HELLBOY 3.

So I'm not extra worried about finding work this year. And maybe you shouldn't be, either.

(I think. God willing.)

(There's a huge irony. When I was in school, the safe jobs were in banking, insurance and real estate. Who knew that showbiz was a more reliable choice? And nobody's outsourcing screenwriting to Mumbai.)

There will be changes in the type of entertainment that gets greenlit. I am told that Harvey Weinstein recently stood up in a crowd of producers and said, "We're not looking for artistic integrity any more. We're looking for commercial integrity."

In other words, Harvey, of all people, is looking for popcorn movies. Your MEAN STREETS style idea might not be the way to go these days. Think about your AMELIE or WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING or OCEANS 21.

The credit crunch will initially hurt movies and, to a lesser extent, TV. But in the medium run, people's appetite for filmed entertainment will, if anything, strengthen. And that appetite will pull in whatever money there is.

UPDATE: Looks like I'll be talking more about this on various CBC Radio stations tomorrow morning. I'll post times as soon as I know them.



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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Some people like to give to a charity in honor of a friend, by way of a present for someone who doesn't really need a material gift.

DonorsChoose allows you to give the money to charity, but let your honoree choose who it goes to. And they concentrate on small projects -- e.g. a classroom of autistic kids in Nevada who need $587 worth of photo and other resources to help them learn to communicate. (Nevada has crappy social services.) So whoever you're giving the gift of a charitable gift to can choose where he'd like the gift to go -- and have a pretty good sense of exactly how it helped.



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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Q. The more screenplays I read, the more I realize that, while there are conventions and trends, there is no single way to make formatting decisions. One thing, I have noticed is that transitions like 'cut to:' are rarely in scripts nowadays. Do you use them regularly or just to emphasize a cut or specify a certain kind of transition? I've used them, but only out of convention--scripts seem much more readable without them.

Also, most of the scripts available are shooting scripts, sometimes even with omitted scene markers in them. Frustrating when you want to see a writer's original intent, obviously. Other than that, what are some other principle differences between a shooting script and a writer's final draft?

Is the process different in movies and television?
CUT TO: seems to have gone out of fashion, because it is, strictly speaking, redundant. Of course you cut from one scene to the next. I used to use CUT TO: to indicate a big jump (in time, or characters), as opposed to following one character continuously from an interior to an exterior. But I don't do that any more because no one else does.

Shooting scripts have scene numbers. Later drafts have changed lines indicated by asterisks on the right hand side of the page. Scenes that have been cut are indicated by OMITTED. I would be too put out about that. The writer's "original intent" isn't as important as his final intent. A good writer is trying to tell his story as effectively and efficiently as possible. That often means cutting scenes when you realize you don't need them any more.

The only way that movie and TV scripts differ are the act breaks. TV has act outs (see my book CRAFTY TV WRITING for an extensive discussion), and each new act goes on a new page.



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Friday, December 12, 2008

The Alberta Minister of Culture discovered to his surprise that he has no way of denying funds to films whose political opinions he disagrees with. He was miffed to find out he'd signed off on an Oscar-nominated documentary showing some of the environmental problems with the exploitation of Alberta's vast oil sands (pollution, toxic waste, etc.). Now he's looking to change the laws.

Canada has pretty strong government support for culture, combined with a strong attitude that politicians shouldn't try to dictate culture. I don't know what the situation is like in other Western countries. But I'd be surprised to see the Texas Ministry of Culture getting in a twist about a documentary they supported because there is no Texas Ministry of Culture. (Google "Texas" and "Ministry" and you get an entirely different kind of ministry.) I'm not sure there's any governmental support for culture in Texas.

On the face of it, it does seem odd to ask a provincial government to support a documentary criticizing what's going on in the province. In a democratic society, we believe criticism is good. If something's wrong at the tar sands, Albertans ought to have a chance to know about it.

It's interesting that the very same Conservatives who object to government telling the oil industry what to do, want to tell the culture industry what to do. I don't think it's a good idea for government to be in the business of picking which movies to support, any more than you want government tell oil companies where to drill or which drill bits to use. Government has a role in saying where not to drill, and what you can't put on television before kids go to bed.

I definitely don't think government should pick which stories to tell. Let's let the audience weigh in on that. I'm a little more on the fence on the question of whether government should have to fund, say, a Michael Moore-style propaganda piece, or, let's say, a wingnut documentary about how immigrants are ruining our sacred national identity.

What do y'all think?

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Q. This contest makes some enticing promises, but I'm not sure it's worth a $40 ENTRY FEE ...
There are very few contests I'd consider legit. The Nicholls, the ABC Fellowship ... competitions sponsored by major showbiz organizations (AMPTP, DGA, WGA), or networks, or studios. Agents take the winners seriously. The fellowships practically set you up with a career.

The rest are, I feel, junk. The economics of script competitions are just too good for the people organizing them. With a $40 entry fees and awards in the low thousands, how many entries do you need to break even? How much does it cost to get someone to skim a script and decide it's not going on the short list? I think a lot of people are organizing script competitions to make money.

I also find script competitions suspicious in general because what's the point? There already is a script competition. It's called "getting your movie made." There are no entry fees to this competition, and the prize is, you get your movie made. (That should mean at least $100,000 in cash and offers to write other stuff, not to mention you get your movie made.) Producers deciding whether to invest two years in getting your movie made are making a hard, honest judgment. Juries are deciding, in the abstract, which are the "best" or "best-written" scripts. That's not an honest judgment.

Competitions have all these "quarterfinals" and "semi-finals" so the max number of competitors have something to put on their resumes. It's like getting three out of four strawberries on a one-armed bandit. It gets your hopes up, but it doesn't get you where you want to be.

I suppose getting an award at a competition gives your script a bit of an advantage if it's something that's hard to describe in a few words. An agent might be more willing to read your script if it's a finalist somewhere. But how many winning scripts would have got picked up anyway, without winning a contest?

But I'd rather you focus your energies on coming up with great hooks. Any agent, and any good producer, will read a script with a great hook, for free.



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Q. One of my screenplays is set during a political and news-covered movement. The story is fictional as are the characters and their plot in this story.

However, certain events in the story did occur in true life. For example municipal, provincial and supreme court involvement with a political action which is all public record. Also police actions and political group actions which are not public record - are seen throughout this part of the script. The story is about fictional characters living out their plot around and during these real life events.

I am using the accurate dates to reflect the times of the Supreme Court hearings and the public record events, but do I use their names? (the judge the prominent lawyer?) These people are not characters in the script, although they are relevant to the story line and to the setting.

Another example within the story is a bank manager who exhorts money. I use the name of an actual Bank to suit the setting - although no such extortion ever happened there in real life. Is there jeopardy for using the Bank's name within a film that has in part some true life events?
This is tricky ground. I'm not a lawyer, but I know that you would not, for example, use a real bank's name, because you are saying that some of their bank managers are corrupt. That tends to bring them into disrepute, and they will sue. (Actually the insurer's Errors and Omissions lawyers will tell you to change the bank name before it gets that far.)

On the other hand, you can refer to real events that happened in the past. You can make a movie about a bunch of kids going to Woodstock, or going on the various Marches on Washington, or getting into trouble at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, and you can probably show Mayor Daley saying "I'm going to make Attila the Hun look like a faggot," 'cause he's a political figure (not a private person) and it's well enough documented that he said that.

Ordinary people have rights of privacy and reputation. You can't put me in your movie without my permission. Public figures have little right of privacy but you still aren't allowed slander them. In other words you can make a movie about Nixon, but it better all be true. Dead people have very few rights. If you notice in the movie BACKBEAT, only John Lennon and Stu Sutcliffe do nasty things. They're dead and can't sue. Paul and George and Ringo are sort of genial people. Either McCartney approved the script, or the film's lawyers decided that there was nothing for him to sue about, since he's a public figure (appearing onstage in front of hundreds of thousands of fans will do that) and the movie didn't say anything nasty about him. You can make a movie about Marilyn Monroe and Jack and Robert Kennedy, and you're probably on safe ground.

I say "probably" because there are other rights, like likeness rights, and brands and trademarks, which I don't begin to understand. And even movie stars have some privacy rights. I wouldn't try making a movie about Brad and Angelina and Jennifer, at least until they're all dead. In general, as I understand it, you're on safe ground so long as you stick to events that appear in the newspaper and in books and in court documents (anything said in court is part of the public record), so long as you make up fictional individuals and corporations to populate them.



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Friday, December 05, 2008

Our loft is in Apartment Therapy.

I'm very proud of Lisa, who has done an amazing job of turning our loft into an Old Hollywood Craftsman bungalow.

Now if we could just figure out where to put the palm tree and the barbecue.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

I recently upgraded to Mac OS system 10.5 for one killer app. Time Machine is Apple's built-in backup program. You hook up a suitably massive storage device, and it backs up your computer -- your entire computer -- every hour. It keeps archived versions of everything on your computer for every hour in the day, then every day in the week, and then every week until it runs out of storage and starts deleting old archives.

Apple also makes a hard drive called a Time Capsule. It's also a wireless router. You install it, and now your laptop (we only have laptops) can back itself up wirelessly no matter what room of the house it's in. Our Time Capsule is 500GB but they make one that's a full terabyte.

Note that you can use Time Machine software with any backup device, including the ol' flash drives. But then you have to remember to hook them up to your laptop. The beauty of a router/hard drive is you don't have to do anything. The backups just happen.

Previously I was fitfully backing up my working directory to a couple of flash drives. But to restore my stuff would have involved rebuilding the system, finding all the application DVD's, and manually restoring all the preference files. That could take a day or two. With Time Machine, you just say, "Please restore my entire computer as of this date."

That's pretty good.

This Slate Article talks about what backup programs and devices are available for Windows.

There are also online services, such as Mozy and Carbonite. Offsite backup protects you from fire or theft. The problem is speed. It takes all day for a physically present device to back up your whole computer wirelessly the first time. A full backup over the Internet could take days. Also, if your internet service provider has set limits, even large ones, on your internet use, then an online backup service will put your into a higher use bracket.

But one way or another, idiot-proof backup has arrived. Might be worth setting up. We've lost two hard drives in the past two weeks. It's not fun to lose your data!


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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

I am really impressed by the three dozen (!) letters I got asking to intern as a reader for me. Kudos to all y'all who wrote in.

I've contacted the people on my short list. If you're not one of them, thank you so much for volunteering, and please keep up the good work. Good attitude, guys!

I do have a couple of observations about the emails I got, which I'd like to share with you guys, since you'll probably be writing letters to other people for other jobs -- hopefully paying ones.

First, the most effective letters focused on how you can help me. I want this to be a good fit for you, but my primary focus is on what qualifies you to do the job well. What are your qualifications? What are your skills?

Second, the best letters tended to be shorter. I know this is your shot at the job, so you want to put it all in there. But a really well crafted, well-thought out half page impresses more than a page with everything in it. Anyone who's looking to hire you wants to know that you can prioritize. What's the most important thing you have to say?

Third, the most effective letters were unapologetically positive. Never diss your lack of experience or the quality of your work or talk about your doubts. Almost any letter you write to a stranger is partially a sales letter. Sell yourself to the person you're writing to. Why give me reasons to doubt you?

Finally, showing is more impressive than telling. How you respond to the posting when you don't have the job yet tells me a lot about how you'd do in the job. For example, this is a job that's all about doing work for free. A well-wrought, insightful email on which you obviously spent time and thought shows that you are comfortable doing work for free; one that shows you know me and my point of view qualifies you even better.

Content is important, but, particularly in any writing related job, presentation of content is just as important.

Again, thanks to all of you who wrote me. You're an impressive bunch of people!



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Monday, December 01, 2008

Q. I have a concept for an animated comedy series, is it best to write a spec pilot and bible - or to pitch it as a producer?

Note: I'm a former film-school type that sidetracked into the creative agency world. I'm used to making things happen myself, and I've even had the crazy idea to actually create a pilot on spec. (Does anyone do that and succeed - assuming the product is good, of course, and not a heap of amateurish junk?)
My knowledge of the animation world is not deep. I've (re)written exactly one animated feature, which hasn't come out yet. So take this answer with a handful of kosher salt.

Both routes are viable, I think. I know if I had a really great idea for an animated series, I could take a pitch bible or spec pilot to a network, without drawings, and if they loved it, they'd team me up with an animator. Or, I could find an animator, and flesh out the pitch bible with a package of key art. I've seen those around. Then I could probably take that to a production company that does animated series and ask to co-produce with them. I probably couldn't propose myself as a sole producer to the network because I have no track record as an animator, though; so while you could be a producer, you wouldn't likely be the sole producer.

With animation, as with musicals, the concept goes beyond the words. It's hard to imagine an animation series without seeing the key art. So if you can lock down the key art, you'll be ahead of the guy whose pitch doesn't have it.

That said, though, you need great key art. If you team up your great animation idea with mediocre key art, it's dead. The studio or network may have animators they already want to work with. So don't bring in an artist just for the sake of bringing in an artist. Bring in an artist who really illuminates your idea.



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