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


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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Tim Powers in The Guardian
"I look for a situation or historical character or place that looks likely to have elements that will make a good book," he says. "Of course I'm just guessing, but at this point you think 'that looks like a rich field'. And then I read extensively: biographies, journals, ideally contemporary travel guides, things like that, always looking for something that is too cool not to use."
I like the expression, "the audience doesn't know, but they know." When you get the details right, even though the audience doesn't know they're right, it somehow feels that the details are right.
One advantage of rooting his stories in the real is, he hopes, that readers will be more likely to suspend their disbelief. "It gives a lot of real-world lumber to support my crazy supernatural business. I'm always very aware of the risk that a reader will blink and say wait a minute this is all made up crap, isn't it?" he says. "But if I talk about carriages and shoe buckles and George III and commerce between London and Amsterdam, the reader will be a little more tilted towards thinking this is happening in the real world. If I wrote about the magical kingdom of Ding Dong and the lost prince and the dark lord, I would have ceded a whole lot of plausibility."


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Monday, June 27, 2011

The National Resources Defense Council says your cable set top box and your DVR suck more energy than your refrigerator.

I've noticed that my DVR is always on. This is frustrating. Most of the time I'm not using it. But it is on. I can turn it off, but once it wakes to record something, it stays on. Of course I can't turn it off from the power strip, because it wouldn't be able to record anything. Also, for some reason, it takes over ten minutes for it to download the program guide, which shouldn't be more than 10KB.

At least it takes a moment to spin up its hard drive; I gather American DVR's just leave them spinning.

They calculate an HD DVR at 446 KwH per year. That's about $25 at my rates, which are probably lower than yours because I live in a hydro power utopia. (I pay around 6 cents a KwH. Americans pay 12. New Yorkers pay 20.) What the NRDC report doesn't mention is that your DVR is also heating the house -- all that energy winds up as heat -- so if you're air conditioning during the summer months, you have to spend more to recool. Not a big problem in Montreal, but it must suck extra in Phoenix.

As the NRDC report makes clear, this is easy to fix. European DVRs go into standby when they're not playing video. They use 50% less electricity. My computer sleeps when it's not busy; it can go for a couple of days in standby, on battery. Engineers could obviously solve this problem in a jiff.

This is a classic case for why government should intervene in markets. No one is going to make "standby mode" their number one priority in buying a DVR -- even assuming people have any choice at all, which I, as a Bell Expressvu customer, don't. But if all set top boxes and DVRs had to go into a low-power standby mode after, say, an hour of idle time, we'd all save a lot of money. And, oh yeah, the environment.



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Sunday, June 26, 2011

So we ran into a drawback on Netflix last night. Lisa and I wanted to show my folks Jacob Tierney's adorable comedy THE TROTSKY, but the film kept buffering. I suspect the problem may be that we're on a cable modem, and we're sharing a pipe with too many other people in the neighborhood, so bandwidth goes down in the evening.

So we tried to watch THE KING'S SPEECH on iTunes. But it looks like you have to download the entire movie in order to watch it. We got an error message trying to watch it.

This morning, it seems to have downloaded [UPDATE: no, it didn't]. But ITunes has an annoying feature: once you start watching the movie, you have 24 hours to watch it. Then it goes away. Since I had to start watching it in order to see if it had downloaded all right, that means I have to watch it tonight. If I'd rented it from my video store, Boîte Noir, I'd have a week. If I had rented a disc from Zip or Netflix, I'd have as long as I like. So this is a step back in convenience. Apple could be a little more generous, considering $5 is quite a bit more than I'm used to paying to rent a movie.

Meanwhile, I'm trying to unravel a mystery. Apparently the second generation Apple TV's don't have hard drives, just a li'l 8GB flash drive for caching. So how can you download and queue multiple movies on iTunes? (You have 24 hours once you start watching, but you have 30 days from when you first ask to download, though it seems the first day is lost actually downloading.) Or rather, how many movies can you cache? Can anyone explain or point me to a link?

(UPDATE: Tried to watch it this evening. No go. It's saying it will be available to watch in 10 hours 18 minutes. Since it's also saying we can only watch the movie in the next 10 hours, that's probably not going to work for us. It does not seem to have cached or downloaded anything. That seems dumb. So much for iTunes on Apple TV.)



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Thursday, June 23, 2011

As Netflix penetrates the Canadian market, it's going to put a lot of pressure on Canadian broadcasters and cable companies. They want the CRTC to loosen up Cancon restrictions. There have also been calls to require Netflix to license Cancon. Jesse Brown is snide about this in the Globe and Mail.

Netflix looks like it will eat its way into the broadcast and cable markets until there's nothing left -- unless it is a vast Ponzi scheme, which is entirely possible. But if it's for real, and if Netflix isn't required to hit a Cancon target, then that's probably the end of the Canadian TV and film industry.

Of course you can't force individual Canadian viewers to download Cancon. But you can require that Netflix achieve a certain amount of Cancon viewership. Any company that streams video to individual users has, by definition, the ability to tell exactly who's watching what, when. And, having set a target of X unique viewers watching Y numbers of hours of Cancon, if Netflix isn't hitting its target, it can license more Cancon and promote it more. California forces automakers to make a certain percentage of non-polluting vehicles like electric cars; it's the price of selling cars in California. If the price of streaming TV to Canadian consumers is promoting SLINGS AND ARROWS and ONE WEEK, I don't think we're asking too much.



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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Dad has Netflix here in New York, and has his Apple TV box hooked up to it. For kicks, I downloaded A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and then METROPOLIS. Then Jesse wanted to watch something so I found her VEGGIE TALES 'TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE EASTER, in which vegetables sing and dance and occasionally proselytize for Jesus. It took about 5 seconds to download and start watching.

Netflix (and, in Canada, Zip) sending disks to people by mail killed Blockbuster. Streaming, downloadable movies and TV shows is a cable killer. Seriously. The only reason not to dump your cable subscription now is because not all content is available from Netflix.

But can Netflix make most content available? Are their economics sustainable? I've seen articles (can't find one right now) that claim that Netflix is losing money on its downloadable video: they're paying far more in license fees than they can possibly get from their subscriptions.

I'm not an industry analyst, so I can't tell you. But if Netflix can afford to get up to, oh, 80% of whatever it is that people want to watch, the cable industry is done for. Who needs cable when you can just watch anything, any time?

Here is a quick, irresponsible back of the envelope calculation: 23 million customers times $8 a month is $2 billion a year. If they've got, oh, say, 10,000 movies and episodes, they can afford to pay $200,000 per. If that $200,000 is on top of ticket sales, DVD sales, and syndication on cable and broadcast, that's nice. It's that way now. But if Netflix means no one has a reason to buy the DVD (they can download it) or watch it on cable or broadcast, then $200,000 doesn't go very far. HBO isn't going to let its content go for that kind of money. Neither should Paramount or NBC.

On the other hand, if Netflix really is a cable killer, then it will be able to drastically boost its subscriber base, and charge more, too. If I'm paying $60 a month for cable and $25 a month for Zip to mail me disks, I would certainly pay $80 a month so I can download absolutely anything any time. If 80 million households pay $50 a month, we have $48 billion to play with, and the license fee can go up to an average of $2,000,000.

Hmm. Well, that ought to be enough to greenlight any number of VEGGIE TALES. But a tentpole picture can sell 10 million DVD units. What would Warner Bros have to get as a Netflix license fee if it's not going to sell $500,000,000 worth of DVDs of Batman 5?

I can feel the earth moving, but who knows where we'll end up?



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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

If you're a Québecer filmmaker between 18 and 35, and you have a short you'd like to make, check out SODEC's Cours Après Ton Court



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David Martel interviews Lisa and me about YOU ARE SO UNDEAD on his blog today.



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By accident, we watched THE CAVE (2005), a cheesy movie about some professional cave divers who run into monsters in a cave. Lisa thought people had said good things about it, but she was in fact thinking about THE DESCENT (also 2005), about five women who run into monsters in a cave. The two movies share the same territory: a half dozen or so people go down in a cave, are trapped by a cave-in and have to find their way out. And there are blind, subterranean monsters who can see in the dark.

THE CAVE has monsters designed by Patrick Tatopoulous (STARGATE), a lot of underwater footage, huge sets, multiple environments. It starts in the Yucatan for no real reason, and then goes to Romania. (For once, Romania being shot for Romania, yay!) It feels like a big budget movie, except for the lack of name actors. After director Bruce Hunt has fun with everything being dark that doesn't have a flashlight on it, he abandons that so he can light up his lovely sets. There are barely any characters to speak of. There's the Leader, there's his brother The Hunk, there's the Babe Scientist (I never get tired of Lena Headey), there's the Reckless Dude, there's Reckless Babe, and there's an Older Scientist. But none of them have very much to do except react to their bad situation, and sometimes be brave and heroic. You could swap their characters for any other characters and the script would still play. It's really a movie about monsters in a cave.

THE DESCENT feels like an indie movie. First of all, there's the interesting decision to cast all women. The movie starts with a tragic accident that lays the emotional foundation for the story. They're trapped without hope of rescue for a character-based reason, not an external reason. That provokes resentment, a sense of grievance. One of the women can't be trusted. Some of the women are cowardly. The movie is about how these women react to a terrifying threat. The cave is cool, but they would be interesting to watch in a different terrifying situation.

In THE DESCENT, the monsters are just as goofy looking as in THE CAVE. (Some day I'd like to see a movie in which the monsters are sleek and beautiful. You know, tigers are beautiful. But if you're in an environment with a tiger, you're in serious trouble.) But director Neil Marshall keeps them mostly in the dark. As, you know, they would be, in a cave.

So THE DESCENT is frakking terrifying. And THE CAVE is just something that will kill 97 minutes of your time on Earth.



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Monday, June 20, 2011

THE WOODSMAN is a deeply felt, deeply disturbing movie about an ex-con child molestor trying to go straight after 12 years of jail. Kevin Bacon is the child molestor. Kyra Sedgewick is the woman who falls in love with him.

It's deeply disturbing because the movie is sympathetic to a guy who's still attracted to underage girls. It's interesting because director Nicole Kassell trusts the viewer to make the most of Bacon and Sedgewick's extremely subtle and underplayed moments on screen, and Kassell and playwright Stephen Fechter's script trusts the viewer to make the most of dialog that says the minimum directly.

Movies this underplayed sometimes bug me; sometimes it like a cop-out. The director doesn't want to tell the audience what to think, but winds up not telling the audience what the story is. But with material this alarming, it's probably wise to avoid anything that's the least bit showy for fear it will be exploitative. I mean, this is a movie where we're wondering all along if Bacon's character -- who we're meant to root for -- is going to backslide and we're going to have to watch him molest another girl.

I found the movie hard to watch, in a good way. I'm not really scared by monster movies. But the protagonist in this story is somewhere between hero and monster in a very human and convincing way; and that is far scarier. Check it out.



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Sunday, June 19, 2011

Bob Bates has a good article in Gamasutra about how to enjoy your career in the game industry. Quite a bit of it is good advice on how to enjoy your career in showbiz. Including:
People expect to feel more regret because of foolish actions than foolish inactions. But studies show that nine out of 10 people are wrong. Indeed, in the long run, people of every age and in every walk of life seem to regret not having done things, much more than they regret things they did."



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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Q. So we're getting notes from the producers. There are a few ways to address them, both with narrative pluses and minuses. Should I present the options and let them give their input or should I just figure it out myself?
Producers and execs hire you to bring your passion and intelligence to the material you're working on. When you have a creative question, do your best to solve it the way that feels right to you. If the producer doesn't like it, you can come back with, "I have another way to do it."

It's generally better to actually do the fix and then get feedback, than to ask a producer's opinion. What they think you're going to do and what you're going to do may be different things.

You may also find out as you try option A that it really isn't as good as option B. If you didn't ask your producer's opinion, you can now merrily go to option B without a fuss.

Execs, in particular, don't have time to babysit you.

I ask questions only when there's a marketing or budget issue. "I want to do X, is that doable on the budget you have in mind?" is a legitimate producer question. So is, "I want to make the hero a woman." Anything that changes the marketing profile of what you're working on is a producer or exec question. If it's purely creative -- how do I get the hero out of this corner I've painted him into? -- go with your craft and your gut.



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Friday, June 17, 2011

We watched THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT, a drama about a family with two moms, Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, whose daughter turns 18 and goes looking for her biological dad, played by Mark Ruffalo.

I didn't think I'd like this. The hook seemed a little too pat. But it's a really keenly observed movie. The characters are very carefully drawn. They are among the most real-feeling characters I've seen in a movie in a long time. Annette Bening does a brilliant job of playing an unsympathetic career woman. I came to hate her even though her crimes are just in the way she puts people down, judges them, and acts superior to them. And then she won back my sympathy. It's brave for an actress to play someone unlikable, and brave to give such an understated performance: another actor might have broadened her performance to make sure the audience got it. I thought she deserved an Oscar nomination for it, but it's the kind of non-flashy performance that rarely wins.

Kudos to writer-director Lisa Cholodenko, who also proved in her film HIGH ART that Ally Sheedy wasn't just a Brat Packer.



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Thursday, June 16, 2011

The deadline for the NSI Features First program. It's a part time training and mentorship program for teams of emerging writers, directors and producers with a project they'd like to refine. It's not an award -- it doesn't pay -- but thirteen features have been produced since the program started in 1997, or almost one a year. That's pretty good.

The catch is that all three participants have to be a little bit experienced, but not too experienced. The producer must have "production or craft experience" but cannot have made more than one feature in a producing capacity. The director must have directed several short dramas, but can't have directed more than one feature. The writer can't have more than one produced feature film credit.

It's fairly hard to find three competent people on the knife's edge between being up to making a feature, and not having made more than one feature. And if I'm a first time director (as I hope to be), I don't want a first time producer. I want a highly experienced producer.

There are all sorts of training, mentorship and grants programs up here in Canada, all with their own particular cutoffs. For example SODEC's Jeunes Créateurs program helps filmmakers under 36. That's a little more tendentious of a cutoff: some filmmakers are quite experienced at 30, while many, particular women, may have come from another career and are "baby" writers/directors/producers at 40. But if you're trying to help emerging artists, you have to define some sort of cut-off, I guess.



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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

There's been some talk lately about how Hollywood hates new ideas these days. There sure are a lot of sequels and movies based on games and toys, including, notoriously, a movie in development based on the Magic 8 Ball.

I think this criticism is off base. Movie adaptations are rarely faithful to their original material. The Pirates of the Caribbean ride didn't have a story, and Elliot & Rossio came up with a really fun one, with outlandish characters and a mythology. And the recent, lovely HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, while based on a children's book, created a brand new story. (In the original book, the Vikings are already training dragons. In the movie, they start out trying to kill them.)

Developing a movie based on the Magic 8 Ball sounds like a dumb idea, not because you can't get a good story out of it, but because no one has them any more.

Producers can also use a "property" where there's a prejudice against a certain territory. Pirate movies were dead until PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN. And probably the only way to get a movie project going involving battleships would be to sell a movie based on BATTLESHIP™.

In a way, adaptations can be freeing. In fact the less story is attached to a product, the more room the writer has to come up with original characters and wild situation. The writers of THOR had to be faithful to the well-known Marvel comic hero and the sagas from which he sprang. But the writers of MAGIC 8 BALL can take it wherever they want.



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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Several times now over the past few years, I've run across people asking me, or someone else, to clarify the "theme" of a TV show. Maybe this is a thing they teach in film school, I don't know. Thing is, I'm not really sure that successful television shows have "themes," in the sense of having an overall point that they're trying to make. Certainly television episodes can have themes. But a whole TV series?

I don't think people watch television shows in order to have someone make a point. This was a bone of contention on a show I worked on a ways back, where my producer kept insisting that every episode had to make a point, and every story line within it had to make the same point. It got in the way of telling fresh stories. I think people watch television shows in order to be told dramatic or comically compelling stories.

Does MODERN FAMILY have a theme, other than "hey, families are wacky"? Or 30 ROCK, other than, "hey, show people are wacky"? Does CSI have a theme, other than, "wow, there are a lot of bad people out there!"?

I think a show needs a territory. It needs a vein to mine. It needs a way to generate hundreds of stories. The problem with defining a theme for a show is that it limits your territory. Some stories may relate to your theme, but some other perfectly good, entertaining stories will have absolutely nothing to do with your theme.

Worse, if your show has a theme, you are more or less telling the audience how every episode is going to end, and how your main character is going to act. After four or five episodes, your audience is going to go, "Yeah, fine, I get it." And tune into another episode of THE SIMPSONS, whose endings are practically impossible to predict, because it has no theme at all.

(And at this point, you are probably trying to figure out a theme for THE SIMPSONS to prove me wrong. Yeah, they have endings where the family is back together again at the end. You could claim that there's a theme of "family is important." But I don't think that's what the episodes are about.)

Maybe talking about theme helps execs get a sense of a show. But I don't think in terms of theme. I think in terms of story engine. What's going to keep the show moving? Give me a show with a great story engine and no theme and I'll tune in every week.



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Monday, June 13, 2011

Q. I could use your critiques, but what I need even more badly are your contacts. How much do you charge for that service? Please let me know if you have a price for networking.
First of all, you don't want my contacts. You want my agent's contacts. Or, if you're in the States, you want an American agent's contacts. Writers spend most of their time writing. Agents spend almost all of their time cultivating their contacts.

Second, you can't really hire someone to hook you up with people as a writer. You can hire script consultants to read your material, and if they love it, they will likely pass it along to someone. If they don't love it, they'd be crazy to pass you along. They'll get a reputation as someone who passes along bad material, and people will stop reading the material they pass along.

Of course, if you want to be a producer, and you have a ton of money, you can hire a publicist to introduce you around LA. But they're not really recommending you. They're recommending your money.



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Sunday, June 12, 2011

One of us said no to a potential writing gig the other day. It was not an actual job offer. (Writers almost never turn down actual job offers.) A producer offered us a chance to do a "take," with the possibility that if they liked it, they'd hire us over the other people doing "takes."

A "take" is how you would approach some creative material. It could be how you'd rewrite a script, or how you'd adapt a novel, or what you'd do with a one-liner TV pitch. You're hoping to get the rewrite or the adaptation job. A "take" means that the producer hasn't chosen you, you're just on the shortlist.

The reason you might do a take is that there is a producer who is interested in your creative involvement. That's flattering. If you're pounding out spec scripts, you have to work just to get someone to read your spec. Here there's already a producer.

The downside is that there is only one customer for the take. You don't own the underlying material. If the producer decides to "go a different way," all your effort is down the drain.

When I do a take, I'm rethinking the whole movie or TV show, whether it's an adaptation or a rewrite or whatever. It often ends up being 6-8 pages. That can easily take me a week. I can't really do less work than that, because I know someone else is going to be turning in a week's work, so if I'm going to do anything, it better be as good as I can make it. I suppose there are people who can get a job with a page or two, but I find I need 6-8 pages to be sure I know what the movie is.

How do you know when to turn down an opportunity to show what you can do?

The key factors are the value of the job, how much the producers like you, and above all, how many other writers the producer is talking to. Last year we did a "take" for a producer who promised our agent they were only going to a few other writers. If I wind up doing, say, four takes for four different producers, and get one job, it probably is worth my time. If I was up against a dozen writers every time, then I could spend, on average, a quarter of the year doing takes. I won't do a take if I'm up against a dozen writers.

Writers, of course, don't like it when producers go to too many writers at once. They are taking advantage. They are using up the writers' time and creative juices for nothing.

There's also a drawback for producers, believe it or not. When you ask for a "take," busy writers will not bother. Busy writers tend to be the good ones. The person who has the most time generally is the least experienced.

Smart producers just ask two or three writers they know they like for their take, instead of going to a dozen people. Or better, just ask a writer they like, whose writing style is somewhere in the ball park. Rejecting a writer because they didn't come up with the exact story you want them to write is like auditioning actors without directing them. A good actor isn't good because they can direct themselves, but because they take direction. A great writer can come in with something completely off base, and yet be the person who could give you exactly what you want, if you would only tell him or her what that is.

The other key factor, of course, is where your career is. If you're not busy, you can learn something from the experience of writing a take, even though you will almost certainly not get any honest feedback. The busier you are, the more confidence with which you can say, "Thanks for the thinking of me."



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Monday, June 06, 2011

Rotten Tomatoes can now graph a director or actor's movies according to their critical ratings, showing a kind of career directory. So you can see M. Night Shyamalan getting worse and worse, or Woody Allen getting gradually worse... hmmm, well, theoretically the average director gets better, but Famous Directors seem only to get worse. (Possibly because they no longer have to listen to anyone. See Lucas, George.)

Anyway, fun to play with....



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Saturday, June 04, 2011

Suppose you're writing foreign language dialog that the audience won't understand. My usual approach is to say it's in (German), say, and then write the dialog in English but in parentheses. (I got the idea from Doonesbury.) You don't have to write clever German dialog because the script's readership is not likely to be able to appreciate your witty bon mots. (Or whatever the German is for that.)

But what if a significant chunk of the audience may understand the dialog? E.g. you're writing a Canadian script in French and English? Or an American script in Spanish and English?

On BON COP / BAD COP, we had French dialog with English subtitles, and English dialog with French subtitles. Since a huge chunk of the audience would be bilingue, we had to write both the dialog and the subtitles into the script. (In one or two places, I think we might even have written subtitles that really didn't match the dialog. Like politicians do all the time.)

But how do you do that on the page? On BON COP, we were using Final Draft. We created a separate script element called subtitle that was 10 point Times, italics, and red. So it was easy to tell the difference from the dialog, which was 12 point Courier.

Of course, that plays hell with your page count. And it breaks up the read visually. And Screenwriter, should you be using it, won't let you create new screenplay formatting elements, so far as I can tell.

Another way to do it would be to put the translation in the action, in italics, but in regular old Courier 12.

Yet another way to do it would be to format bilingual dialog as dual dialog -- spoken dialog on the left, subtitles on the right. This would do the least damage to the page count. It ought to break up the read the least -- you just read the right column or the left column, depending on your language skillz.

Alors, qu'est-ce que vous en pensez? Also, was meinst du?



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