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


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Monday, May 27, 2013

Apparently you can crowdfund an indie Canadian movie. Catch: it has to star the Mayor of Toronto.


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Farhad Manjoo writes in Slate that ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT was ahead of its time in a specific way:  it was so jam-packed with jokes that flitted across the screen, and foreshadowings of bizarre events, that audiences can only appreciate it in its full glory on a DVR. But the show came out before many people had DVRs. Now 46% of the audience does.
Some of Arrested Development’s best jokes are on screen for just a few seconds—quick shots of yearbook quotes or Tobias’ blue handprints. (Arrested Development owes a huge debt to The Simpsons here, a show in which every bit of on-screen text is a joke that can to be decoded by freeze frame.) The show is also obsessed with continuity. “We wanted the rules of the world to be consistent,” Hurwitz said during a recent conference call with journalists. “If somebody smashed a hole in the wall, we wanted that hole there the next week. People who ended up seeing it back-to-back really got a distilled sense of that.”
... Once the show was issued on DVD, new audiences could finally see the show as a self-referential, endlessly rewatchable whole. And once they did so, people noticed something amazing—they could watch each episode a second, third, or fourth time and keep seeing new stuff. For example, it turns out the show was subtly foreshadowing Buster’s missing hand long before that tragic seal attack, and it was constantly dropping hints about Annyong’s planned revenge on the Bluths. Also, Tobias was probably an albino black man.


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Sunday, May 26, 2013

Just a shout out to Danielle Bélanger and Danny Lennon, who put together the terrific Not Short on Talent program at Cannes this year. You guys really opened the door for us. And no country outside Canada gave their emerging filmmakers a similar showcase at the market.

I had an interesting chat with Carole Brabant about Telefilm's evolving mandate. (Classic Cannes sentence:  back home, I don't tend to bump into Carole Brabant.) The agency seems to be moving out of development and aiming more to help market films that are already made. As a writer this is bad for me, but marketing has long been where the Canadian film industry drops dead. If fewer films get developed but more get adequately marketed, perhaps the anglophone side of the Canadian feature biz can break out of its ghetto.

A boy can dream, can't he?


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Friday, May 24, 2013

Faithful Reader Shaula E sent me a link to a Ryerson School of Media "Report on Canadian Screenwriters" by professors Michael Coutanche and Charles Davis.

The report comes from a survey of WGC members, so it doesn't address non-Guild writers. These tend to be younger, less experienced writers. As you work in the biz, you tend to join the Guild and stay in the Guild; you don't hear of a lot of people quitting the Guild. However, it also doesn't include directors who also write, but count on the DGC to protect them. And it doesn't include a few cats I know who write mostly for overseas production companies, whose work the Guild wouldn't cover anyway.

Most of the conclusions seem about right.
  1. Most WGC members have at least ten years of experience.
  2. Only a little over half of professional WGC writers make all their living from writing
  3. Writers make the most money in their forties. Income from screenwriting tends to drop in the 50's, and plunge in the 60's. I can confirm that I know very few working sixty-year-old writers. You would think that people become better writers the longer they write. Quite a number of older writers complain of age discrimination, but I'm not sure. They may become more subtle writers when the world is looking for a fart joke; it's hard to write a movie in which the hero slaughters dozens of "guards" after you've changed your first thousand diapers. Or they may not like the hours a TV writer works, and go into the relatively less lucrative field of feature writing. Or they want control over their work, and turn to novel writing. Or they get fed up with chasing after jobs, and become full time professors and part time writers. Or, hell, they become directors.
  4. Not a lot of minority writers in Canada, and they are making not a lot of money.
  5. Not that many woman writers, either, and they're not making as much as the boys.

  • Half of the biz is in Toronto. Considering that almost all the American biz is in LA, that figure is actually pretty low.
  • About half of older writers mentor.
  • Consider becoming a pirate, for greater longevity and job security.

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    Wednesday, May 22, 2013

    The best films I've seen at Cannes have been Canadian shorts. I actually did get to see a bit of Joss Whedon's MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING. You know the story behind it, right? Joss has been having actor friends over to his house to read Shakespeare for some time. He had an empty month in his schedule after THE AVENGERS, and rather than going somewhere on vacation, he just decided to shoot a Shakespeare play, in black and white, in modern dress, at his house.

    It's a very nice house. And it's fun to see Amy Acker (from DOLLHOUSE and ANGEL and CABIN IN THE WOODS) and Fran Kranz (ditto) and the other usual suspects performing Shakespeare. But Joss Whedon is not an outstanding film director. He's an outstanding storyteller and dialoguist. The problem is that here he's filming Shakespeare's story and dialogue. Though he keeps the visuals interesting and gives the actors interesting things to do amid all that dialog, he just doesn't bring enough to it to make it new.

    Or so the buyers seemed to feel. The folks at the desk were holding back hordes of Joss fans with badges, hoping to save seats for actual buyers. By the time I got to the theater, maybe eight minute in, the place was almost empty; and it was not a big theater.

    Possibly the most inventive film I've seen here is Chris Landreth's animated 3D film SUBCONSCIOUS PASSWORD, in which C'thulhu, James Joyce, Ayn Rand and Chris's childhood babysitter, among others, try to help Chris remember the name of the guy who seems to know him at the party.

     I was also terribly fond of Monica Sauer's whimsical silent THE PROVIDER, about a woman musher who needs a man to provide food for her huskies; and I dug Mark Slutsky's THE DECELERATORS, a parable about a group of kids who want to freeze time so they can stay in their favorite moments. Monia Chokri's QUELQU'UN D'EXTRAORDINAIRE (en français) tells the story of a not-so-young-anymore woman experiencing a surprising moment at the end of a day that starts badly and then goes to Hell in a handbasket. And Elise de Blois has a really clever and funny story called FOU, RIEN PIS PERSONNE.

    I haven't seen all the Canuck shorts yet; I'll try to catch more tomorrow. It was interesting to see on the Cannes program that only Canada and Quebec are providing screenings in the market for their shorts. Cannes has a festival program of shorts, of course, and I know the American Pavilion is holding a screening of student work in their tent; but only Canada and Québec (separate pavilions, of course) are helping their filmmakers this way.

    But what's really incredible is the wide variety of technique and style and story and theme in the shorts. A narrative feature has a lot of restrictions on it. A short isn't going to make money anyway, so you can do anything you want; and the audience will tolerate more elliptical story telling over the course of ten minutes than they will for ninety. So you're free to execute on your extraordinary vision. And these guys have.


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    Tuesday, May 21, 2013

    So, I have absolutely no idea what makes a film worthy of screening at Cannes. Your market badge entitles you to a certain number of red carpet screenings. There's no special hijinks involved, you just have to sign onto the website with your badge number at the exact time a given screening goes up for grabs, and spend your points, and if you're online in, say, the first 7 minutes, you'll probably get a shiny holograph end ticket.

    So, I'm here in Cannes, with my tuxedo and all; no way I'm not going up that red carpet at least once, right?

    Thing is, most of the films selected for red carpet screenings sound not fun at all. I can't remember the premise of ONLY GOD FORGIVES, but you can guess it's not a Kate Hudson vehicle. And my old UCLA classmate Alexander Payne has a movie about a son traveling with his father, who has dementia. It's the tragic sequel to AS GOOD AS IT GETS; I think it's called IT'S ALL DOWNHILL FROM HERE. Okay, that last sentence I made up. But you get the idea.

    So WARO NO TAKE (STRAW SHIELD) is about a team of cops tasked with bringing a giggling psychopath child rapist/murderer 1200km across Japan to Tokyo. Obstacle: a multibillionaire whose granddaughter he murdered has offered a billion yen to whoever takes the guy out. So potentially, anyone they meet could be an assassin. And many of them are. And cops have been bought. And as teammates die over the course of the mission, they themselves will begin to question why good cops are dying to preserve a giggling child murderer who is destined for the noose anyway.

    So, this sounds like a good premise for a John Woo movie, right? And, therefore, exactly the sort of movie that gets programmed at Fantasia, and not at Cannes. I mean, it's got good guys and bad guys, and a plot, right?

    Goes to show, I have no idea what gets something programmed at Cannes. The movie is exactly as cheesy and on-the-nose as it sounds. Linear narrative, lots of yelling, looooooots of expository dialog, fair amount of blood. And at least five conversations among the teammates about, "why don't we just shoot him and take the money, instead of letting good cops die to preserve the life of a scumbag" (the actual word used in the subtitles). Until I was asking myself, "yeah, why don't you?"

    The answer is, apparently, that honor and duty are important to Japanese people. I know, right. Who knew?

    And then, tacked-on happy ending.

    The only thing I can figure is, a cheesy cop story with a heavy-handed theme is okay for Cannes so long as it is Not Actually Fun.

    Bear in mind, of course, any number of my friends saw the movie and liked it. So there you go.

    An odd thing about the red carpet is that they will not actually let you exit the theatre via the red carpet. You have to get on line to exit the Palais. And that takes some time. No idea why, but the French do not seem to be too good at managing crowds. The other day I was in the worst river of human traffic I've ever been in, just trying to get up the Croisette to the Scandinavia Terrace. The cops blocked the street to traffic, prioritizing cars. So there you go. 


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    Monday, May 20, 2013

    Today is my second real day at Cannes. Saturday I was only semi-coherent, at least to myself, on only about three hours of sleep on the plane, followed by one of the most harrowing descents I've ever been in, second only to landing in Palm Desert many years ago.

    And the rest of the day, wandering around in the pounding rain.

    It's odd being a writer-director at the Cannes market, or indeed at any market. Film markets are about you, but they're not really for you. Markets are for producers to sell to distributors, and for distribs to sell to buyers. So I keep having conversations that end with, "we'll that sounds really interesting. Let me know when you have a few more pieces in place."

    So, oddly, I'm hanging out with the other Canadians. It is, after all, good to get to meet the up-and-coming talent. And it is always good to let old friends know what else you're up to.

    One odd thing about screening your short at a market is that very few buyers or producers are likely to come to your screening -- they'd have to sit through nine other shorts. But it gives you an excuse to hand people the postcard with your poster on it, and direct them to your online screener.  So your actual presence, or your film's actual screening, is just the tip of the iceberg.

    The rest of it is just walking around the festival looking at the posters -- it's an education in what people worldwide want to see.



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    In another version of the story, three were offered the same choice. Achilles chose glory and death, Homer chose to sing of others' glory, and the third, whose name is not recorded, became the ancestor of most of the human race.


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    Friday, May 17, 2013

    About to head off to Cannes. Coming up with names for a new project.

    How awesome is this? The Baby Name Voyager now lists the most common sibling names for a given baby name.

    So, for example, Chelsea's brothers are usually Andrew, Blake, Caleb, Christopher, Jacob, James, Justin, Kevin, Michael, Tyler and Zachary.

    Her sisters are usually Alyssa, Amanda, Ashley, Brittany, Chloe, Courtney, Hannah, Jessica, Lauren, Megan, Nicole, Olivia, Samantha and Sara.

    Try it for really obscure names. Fun!


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    Sunday, May 12, 2013 is too good not to pass on.
    The anthropologist Gregory Bateson used to tell a story:
    New College, Oxford, is of rather late foundation, hence the name. It was founded around the late 14th century. It has, like other colleges, a great dining hall with big oak beams across the top, yes? These might be two feet square, forty-five feet long.
    A century ago, I am told, some busy entomologist went up into the roof of the dining hall with a penknife and poked at the beams and found that they were full of beetles. This was reported to the College Council, who met in some dismay, because where would they get beams of that caliber nowadays?
    One of the Junior Fellows stuck his neck out and suggested that there might be on College lands some oak. These colleges are endowed with pieces of land scattered across the country. So they called in the College Forester, who of course had not been near the college itself for some years, and asked him about oaks.
    And he pulled his forelock and said, "Well sirs, we was wonderin' when you'd be askin'."
    Upon further inquiry it was discovered that when the College was founded, a grove of oaks had been planted to replace the beams in the dining hall when they became beetly, because oak beams always become beetly in the end. This plan had been passed down from one Forester to the next for six hundred years. "You don't cut them oaks. Them's for the College Hall."
    That's the way to run a culture.

    From How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand.

    I remember seeing a table in Colonial Williamsburg with incredibly wide planks. It had to have been cut from a pine tree at least two feet thick. And this table used these planks, not because they were convenient, which they weren't, but because it was illegal for the colonists to cut down trees that big, because they were reserved for masts for the British Navy. So the table was someone's way of thumbing his nose at the redcoats.

    I guess there are some stories that just don't fit in a movie.


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    Friday, May 10, 2013

    Meanwhile, I've been playing a bit of My Singing Monsters on iPad. (I heard about it watching the Canadian Video Awards. Congrats, Nels Anderson! Mark of the Ninja is a great game.) Remind me never to play another free-to-play game again. I would happily have paid ten bucks for this initially adorable game, where you grow an economy of bakeries and decorations so you can breed happy singing monsters. But it's free to play. Which means that as soon as it gets interesting, the game design's goal becomes sucking you into paying cash to keep it interesting. Everything becomes incredibly slow and tedious to do -- you have to leave the game alone for hours, Farmville-style, and then come back to it again and again.

    Which means you are not actually playing the game. And it gets more and more tedious and chore-like as you go on.

    Sure, I could pay the ten dollars anyway, and get a bit more game play. But I have a feeling that ten dollars would run out pretty fast, leaving me feeling cheated.

    Free-to-play is a pox upon the land. Argh.


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    I played through BIOSHOCK INFINITE. Once again Irrational Games has created a really fresh and clever and convincing world, with a freaky and surprising narrative. This time, instead of an Ayn Randian dystopia under the sea, it's a racist apartheid state floating in the clouds around 1912. With a film noir anti-hero trying to complete a dubious mission that gets more complex as things go along. And you can jump on these "sky-lines" and zip around the clouds at high speed, which is pretty awesome.

    Most of the game you're with Elizabeth, the feisty heroine, who you are initially trying to rescue from her captors -- except that you are rescuing her in order to deliver her to some guys you owe gambling debts to. I did a MIGS talk a few years ago about how games need flawed characters, because flaws are what make us care about characters. I liked that in BI, I care about my hero because he's kind of a rat, and I'm hoping he'll redeem himself. And I care about Elizabeth because she didn't always help me, and didn't even always like me. She's not always the helpful sidekick. She can be very helpful, but she has a will of her own.

    The slaughtering is a bit tougher to take than the first two Bioshocks. In those, you're primarily slaughtering "splicers," deranged zombie-like people who are no longer really human. In this one, you're primarily slaughtering cops, guards and soldiers. You know, ordinary guys with jobs. It bugged me a little that this is one of those games where the hero's goal -- in this case, clear a gambling debt -- is so completely out of proportion to his means -- kill hundreds of people who have nothing to do with the debt. If he's that badass a dude, couldn't he have just killed the dude he owed the money to?

    It seems unfortunate to me that with all the effort Irrational put into this world, the only way you can interact with it is to kill people. An FPS should have lots of ways to kill d00dz, yes. But I think it's more interesting if there are other interactions you can have with NPCs, and I prefer if there's at least some opportunities not to kill some people.

    What I regretted most about the game is how linear the flow is, and how free of consequences. It's not sandboxy at all. You're sent on your basic scavenger hunt: find the gunsmith. What, he's not here? Find him there. What, he has no tools? Find his tools. There aren't a lot of different ways to play the game, except for which weapons you wield and how you use magic, er, "vigors". I'm into the epilog, and there are maybe three or four permanent choices I can remember. (Throw the baseball at the couple or not; which pendant Elizabeth gets; whether to draw first on the shifty teller; euthanize an NPC or not.) The consequences for most of them seem trivial, from what I can tell from articles and forums. Considering the mammoth amount of resources that went into this game, it's a shame that there are so few decisions to make beyond which ways to slaughter NPCs. Considering the budget of a AAA game, these days, there ought to be room for at least one real moral choice.

    Of course it's possible that there was an intention to make these choices more meaningful, and that got triaged out as the game moved toward completion. I suspect a lot of teams talk about putting consequence in their games, but in the end they figure they absolutely must get the gameplay and the environment polished and working, whereas the game doesn't absolutely NEED consequence, so out it goes. I've seen that happen. It's a shame our industry is so secretive, because we could learn more from our mistakes if it weren't.

    So, all in all, it's a good game when I feel the urge to kill some dudes at the end of a day. And it's a beautiful game. And the world is truly original and convincing. And the story gets reasonably mind-blowing in the finale. But for me, it missed its chance to be a great game. It's just very hard to have your main character's moral choices carry emotional weight when the game makes those choices for you. So for me, the game mostly left me cold.

    I remain convinced that injecting real choice into a game like this, if done cleverly, could add no more than 5%-10% to the production cost, while leaving the player with a much deeper emotional commitment to the ending. (I mean, even at the very end ... do you accept baptism, or not? Do you become one, or the other? And that wouldn't require much programming at all.)

    And now I'm wondering -- would PAPO & YO have been even more powerful if you had a choice in the end?


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    Thursday, May 09, 2013

    Les Capsules: NOT SHORT ON TALENT - TALENT TOUT COURT - CANNES 2013 : Presentations from Dan Lennon on Vimeo.

    Here are some of the filmmakers I'm going to Cannes with. Cool guys, huh? I'm at 9:40.


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    Tuesday, May 07, 2013

    Various friends have been posting this article about a perfessor who will, for $20,000, run a script through his Big Datametric Model, and tell you if it will be successful, based on how similar it is to other movies that were successful, or not.

    A chain-smoking former statistics professor named Vinny Bruzzese — “the reigning mad scientist of Hollywood,” in the words of one studio customer — has started to aggressively pitch a service he calls script evaluation. For as much as $20,000 per script, Mr. Bruzzese and a team of analysts compare the story structure and genre of a draft script with those of released movies, looking for clues to box-office success. His company, Worldwide Motion Picture Group, also digs into an extensive database of focus group results for similar films and surveys 1,500 potential moviegoers. What do you like? What should be changed?
    “Demons in horror movies can target people or be summoned,” Mr. Bruzzese said in a gravelly voice, by way of example. “If it’s a targeting demon, you are likely to have much higher opening-weekend sales than if it’s summoned. So get rid of that Ouija Board scene.”
    Oh, if only THE EXORCIST, HELLRAISER and HELLBOY had involved targeting demons rather than summoned demons.

    But let's take the idiocies one at a time.

    First of all, the company tells you how similar your movie is to successful movies, and assumes that's a good prediction of how successful your movie is. The problem is, the more similar your movie is to IRON MAN, the more people are going to think you ripped off IRON MAN. Unless you are bringing a new twist, I tend to think that the closer you are to recent successful movies, the less successful you'll be.

    Second, as fans of Nate Silver know, there's such a thing as data overfitting. If you analyze a data set with enough factors, you can come up with all sorts of correlations, of the nature of "candidates from cities with winning football teams never win the presidency" or "always win the presidency." Unless you can explain exactly why a targeting demon is better for box office than a summoned demon, I'm going to assume you have the box office equivalent of a cancer cluster:  a meaningless correlation.

    Third, the data set is not really big enough or precise enough to draw conclusions of. How many movies have targeting demons, anyway? Probably not that many. In a small data set, one big flop or one big hit can change everything. Prior to RETURN OF THE JEDI, you might have guessed that having little teddy bear creatures fight gigantic killing machines with stone age weapons would not be indicative of a successful movie. Now, of course, it's a guarantee of >$400M box office.

    This isn't Big Data. It's Small Data.

    And finally, you can write a stupid movie with all the right elements and have it flop. And you can write a ground-breaking movie that proves the conventional wisdom wrong. All the models in the world will not predict THE FULL MONTY or THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT or, for that matter, STAR WARS. Remember, at the time A NEW HOPE came out, there hadn't been a hit science fiction movie in years, and the studio was convinced they had a flop. Built on hindsight, Mr. Bruzzese's analysis would have told them that STAR WARS was a losing proposition.

    And SNOW WHITE. When that came out, there had never been a successful full length animated movie. So, obviously, SNOW WHITE was a terrible idea.

    And TOY STORY. Big animated movies were done for, right?

    What this really is all about is Cover Your Ass behavior. Studio execs don't like to be responsible for big, expensive flops, because it gets them canned. If they can spend $20,000 of the studio's money on a former perfessor's analysis that says it's a great script, then when the movie flops (as movies often do), they can say, "Hey, how was I to know it was gonna flop? The perfessor said it was a sure thing!"

    This is similar to why studio execs hire overpriced stars. Many analysts have run the numbers and movies without big stars tend to make more profits -- because big stars get gross participation and it's hard for the studio to break even. But studio execs keep hiring Tom Cruise. Why? Because you can always say, "How was I supposed to know OBLIVION would flop? I got you Tom Cruise!" And then, maybe, they don't get fired for poor judgment.

    (I have no idea if Oblivion flopped, or made back its money overseas, or what. Replace OBLIVION with WATERWORLD, if you like.)

    Let's not confuse Mr. Bruzzese with actual metrics and data crunching. I am all for putting 20 civilians in a room and hooking them up to video game style sensors, showing them the movie, and building heat maps, and determining when they're excited and when they're bored from their skin galvanic response. That's Real Data. Like any tool it can be used well or stupidly, but it has the potential of being used well.


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    Saturday, May 04, 2013

    How do you judge a film school? Or any school that graduates filmmakers? Ranker surveyed the top 500 films (according to the IMDB and other lists), and then asked where the filmmakers went to school.

    On top of the list was NYU, followed by USC and UCLA. No surprise there.

    What's interesting is how it's not all film schools. NYU, USC, UCLA and UT Austin are there for their film schools, I imagine, though they are also universities that graduate lots of people who go on to live in New York and LA; ditto Columbia. Cal Arts is there for all the animators it turns out, undergrad and grad.

    But Beverly High also gets on the list because it is where the Hollywood aristocracy's kids go to school; a disproportionate number of them become filmmakers, and they help their friends get into the biz.

    The FAME school, New York's Fiorello Laguardia High School for Music & Arts, graduates a lot of kids who know early on that they want to be creative in the performing arts.

    Northwestern is sort of the go-to school for undergraduate dramaramas.

    HB Studio and the Actors Studio are on the list along with other legendary actors conservatories like RADA and AADA.

    Yale (my alma mater), Harvard, Stanford and Brown get on the list just from graduating a lot of smart go-getters.

    I think this list goes to prove that you don't need to go to a film program per se. If you can get into a top film program, great. But there are multiple roads into the biz. Some of them have to do with simply living where films are made. Some of them have to do with learning how to get'er done.

    The school that would be at the top of the list if it handed out rectangles of parchment, though, is the School of Hard Knocks. That school generates more real filmmakers than all the other ones put together.


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