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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Bible Author Speaks!

Back from a retreat at Sundance with Dave Trottier. Dave has a free newsletter and this is an excellent article:

Get in the Game Now!

Options, Options...

(Writer Joshua James provides a guest blog today on the subject of options. If you enjoyed this article you can visit Josh's website: Joshua James.

Rapping On Writing - Options, We Got Options!
Okay, we’re back to Rapping On Writing!

Among other things, I had a couple screenplays optioned earlier this summer, and another one re-optioned (which means that the current option expired and a new one had to be renegotiated) all around the same time … and I realized I hadn’t really read much regarding options on the internets and thought I’d share what I know for the masses.

Anyone out there more experienced than I, feel free to chime in. But here’s what I’ve learned over time. Let’s begin.

WHAT IS AN OPTION?

Basically it’s a lease-to-own agreement on an intellectual property. Now that property can be a screenplay (and usually is) but can also be a book, a treatment, a newspaper article … a cartoon strip … a person’s life … a blog, too. Basically a person wants to exploit for profit an intellectual property and pays you rent in the form of an option for a specific amount of time to do so. During the period of the option, the person holding the option is the only person who can exploit the property (which usually means they bring in someone else, of course, but that’s the idea).

Once they get financing, they’ll purchase the property outright.

WHY NOT JUST BUY IT OUTRIGHT?

For a number of reasons, one being that perhaps it’s too costly to just purchase, therefore they pay less via an option. Or it needs work and they want to shepherd it to the point of being ready, and then buy it, but if the script can’t be whipped into shape, then they’ve saved money … or it could be that the option-er just doesn’t have the money. I’m sure there are a lot of reasons. Of course, you’d prefer to sell your script, everyone does. But an option is not a bad thing. Why?

Because when the option period runs out, the rights go back to the option-ee, the author, and if the option-er hasn’t been able to do anything, then they don’t get a return on the money they invested. So it’s smarter to invest a smaller amount. Nor is it bad for you, the author, because then it’s possible someone else can option it (I’ve had one script optioned more than once by different people) or purchase it. If they’re unable to do something with it, you get the rights back.

My understanding (and again, I could be wrong) is that most studios simply purchase properties they’re interested in, but not always. But smaller producers can’t afford to do this with every project, so it makes sense to purchase the exclusive rights for a period of time, then approach studios for financial backing.

If they go to the studios without the rights, then why should the studios (or any of the other entities who invest in such) need to deal with the producer? They can buy / option it on their own, without the person who brought it.

So many producers who have working relationships with development people will option a few properties they like, take to to them and see how well it’s liked by those who can get a movie made (which may not only be studio people, it can be a director, it can be a movie star … many people hope for a movie star) but they can’t test the water without showing it, and they can’t show it without obtaining the rights, so it’s a catch-22 for them … what if they buy it and everyone thinks it stinks?

Therefore the idea of the option, a test-drive, to see if someone falls in love with it.

FOR HOW LONG?

It can be whatever length both parties agree to … I think the standard for the screenplays I’ve had optioned is usually 18 months, with another year added on as an optional extension (paid, of course) for the option-er. It really depends, too, on the property … a book can take quite awhile before it comes out, and therefore may need a longer period …

But length of time should also depend on how much one is paid, too. If the option-ee is not making a reasonable amount, then the time period should really be shorter. Which leads us to …

HOW MUCH SHOULD I CHARGE?

That one is more difficult. Again, it can be any number, you can ask for anything, it just depends on whether or not someone wants to pay it. I’m not going to really share my own numbers, because talking about money, I never like to do. It’s a bit untoward.

It can be anything from a dollar (more on that later) to ten to twenty grand, depending on the property. The more infamous the property, the higher the price, I guess you could say. It also depends on who wants to option it, if you have two people trying to option the same property, the competition drives the price up.

But I’d recommend that, if you have a tight indie script, that you’re looking at a grand or two, depending. This is why it’s difficult, it depends on the commercial prospects of the script.

In her book KILLER INSTINCT Jane Hamshur writes about optioned a script from a then-unknown Quentin Tarantino for ten grand. While QT wasn’t famous, at that time, he had sold a spec and had a rep around LA. So she had to pay. But bear in mind, they viewed that script (NATURAL BORN KILLERS) as an independent genre film … it only became a big studio movie when they got a big name attached (Stone, Oliver) and because Jane and her partner held the exclusive rights, they were attached to the movie as producers.

it’s likely that if people thought NATURAL BORN KILLERS was a studio movie at all, it wouldn’t have been optioned, it would have just been sent by QT’s reps to the studios (who all turned it down when Jane first sent it, it only became big after RESERVOIR DOGS hit and Oliver got interested … but for more on that, read her book) and sold.

But it was viewed as an indie, so it was optioned. So it depends on the property … if the project is a quirky dark independent drama, with limited appeal, the option price is likely to be a lot less than a high concept thriller that reads like a studio movie.

In my experience, in NYC, usually screenplays would get anywhere from a grand on up … If someone offers you 1,500 for a year for your indie comedy, that’s about average (again, it depends on the script and genre) …

I will say this. No one will really get rich off of options, they’re usually modest amounts. You’re not going to be able to quit your day job because you got an option (and you shouldn’t) … of course, all monies taken in by writers are welcome, modest or not, but it’s important to know that the real money happens when a project is sold or made.

Now that being said, that brings us to …

DOLLAR OPTIONS

Which is a phrase that, if you’re writing screenplays, you’re going to hear many times.

Basically it’s an option for no money (usually a symbolic dollar, hence the name, Dollar Options) because the option-er can’t afford to pay a regular option fee to the option-ee, therefore they offer a dollar. Basically they want the same rights for nothing.

My advice is, 95 percent of the time, don’t do it. Don’t option your script for nothing. It is, 95 percent of the time, a bad idea.

It’s like you own a beach house, and someone wants to pay you a dollar to live there for a year. And while they’re living there, they’re going to have parties and invite all their friends over to stay with them.

From a business perspective, it doesn’t make sense, either. If someone pays nothing for your script, they have little incentive to make it happen. It takes a lot of energy and persistence to get a movie made, almost everyone says NO (every great script out there that was made into a great movie, was usually turned down a few times by someone else) and if an option-er knows their time is running out and they’ll get nothing on their investment (the option fee), they’ll bust a nut to make it happen.

If they risk a dollar, they can shrug and go, “Eh, maybe next script will be the one.” Because it’s just a dollar.

They’re playing Lotto with scripts rather than trying to produce them. Not good business for the option-ee. Great for the option-er, who probably has a stack of a hundred scripts they can throw out that cost them a buck apiece.

So I usually say, DON’T.

Plus, if someone wanted to option your script for a dollar, someone else who you HAVEN’T met yet may love it as well and pay you market price. On one of my first scripts, I had someone offer me a dollar option … I turned it down, and two months later, I got an offer for more from another person.

So it never hurts to say NO to a deal you don’t like, but more on that later on another post.

If the first, dollar-person shows it around to everyone (and does a bad job of it) then the opportunity is lost. So I say, 9.5 times out of 10, SAY NO to the dollar option. I’ve done it a few times, and nothing good as come from it, at least not yet.

But that doesn’t mean you should say no every single time … just 9.5 times out of 10.

WHEN SHOULDN’T I SAY NO TO A DOLLAR OPTION?

Well, it depends … there can be a lot of reasons … Let’s say you want to attach yourself as director, but that’s a hard sell. You got a producer willing to run the gauntlet for you as director, and you reward them by not charging them.

Or …

Let’s say you live in Podunk, Iowa … and you know ONE person in Los Angeles, but that person is a real producer with contacts … and you have no contacts whatsoever … then it may not be a bad idea to let him or her have the option for a short period of time while you work on your next script (and there should always be a next script, okay? Always.) … You can write a query letter to others, stating that such-and-such optioned your script, etc. Make sure you have another script ready to go. That’s something.

Other reasons? You have a relationship with someone you like, and you want to give them a chance … it’s a script you’re not really selling or optioning, its challenging material, so you’re going to let a person try and get it going.

Basically, if you know someone will bust a nut to get it made, it may be something to consider … but bear in mind, everyone will SWEAR that THAT is what they will do, when in reality they’ll probably drop you like a hot rock when the next cool thing comes along.

So it’s a real judgment call. Maybe your friend who’s dying to produce your script will be like Lawrence Bender, who was giving dance lessons and had never produced before when QT gave him a shot with RESERVOIR DOGS, and he moved heaven and earth to get the right elements attached. And succeeded.

It also depends on the material … if the script is a hard sell (tough subject, not commercial) like RESERVOIR DOGS at the time it was made, perhaps it’s something to consider. If you like them, they have good credits and a passion for it that you believe, then think about it.

But the reality is, most of the time they won’t be Lawrence Bender (sometimes he isn’t, either) so keep that in mind.

To sum up, it depends on the property and the person. But my scale still holds … 9.5 times out of 10, it’s better to say no.

If you DO agree to a dollar option, make sure it’s for a short period of time (six months, nine at the most) … they’ll kick and scream, but if they can’t do it in six months, it’s doubtful they can do it. Make that your non-negotiable point.

Trust me, you don’t want to get stuck in a bad deal for two years for a dollar. I’ve done that. It’s not fun.

Which brings us to

GET A LAWYER

My advice is, if someone asks you to option a script, is to get an entertainment lawyer to negotiate for you. They are expensive, and maybe you’ll end up paying more to the lawyer than you’ll even get for the option, but it’s worth it in the end.

Agents and Managers do know contracts, and can help, but this is what lawyers do for a living, after all. And actually, it’s a lot simpler to find a good lawyer than a good agent or manager … they bill by the hour, they’ll take your calls. While other writers may be loathe to introduce you to their agent, usually they have no problem recommending a good entertainment lawyer.

It’s especially important when negotiating the purchase price … some option contracts call for that, some do not. What that means is, if they get the property set up, they’ll know in advance what to pay for it. And you should, too. You should never agree to accept less than WGA scale (available at the WGA website) and if the option contract is going to that place, negotiating purchase price, I’d say you should get a lawyer. Soon.

But sometimes they are fairly simple things, just says the option-er is holding the exclusive rights to exploit the property for X months from option-ee …

If you’re not going to get a lawyer (and you should) then at least make sure you read everything in anything you sign very closely … you can make your demands to the option-er, and they’ll agree to them, then send a contract that says the opposite … this has happened to me (and, unfortunately, not so long ago …) and it’s on you to read the fine print.

I’ve had that happen … I’ve had offers, requested changes in the contract, the guy agreed, sent a contract and it was the exact opposite of what I asked for. I called him up and said, “Hey, this is exactly what I didn’t want,” real friendly-like, and he was like, “Oh, I’m so sorry, must of been a mistake, I’ll send another draft” and I NEVER heard from that guy again about it.

He was trying to slip it by me. It happens. That was from before I used a lawyer, of course. I think a lawyer is very necessary.

If I’d have signed without noticing, then found out about it later, he would have claimed that A) I never made that claim or B) the contract was what I agreed to, etc. That’s happened to me, too. From someone that I thought was a friend. I had emails proving otherwise, but it didn’t matter, I’d signed.

It’s especially important to have a clear, concise contract when in business with friends (as a mentor taught me). Don’t give someone the temptation of choosing between a million dollars or screwing you over … most will take the million and figure they’ll make new friends. Make the contract strong so they won’t have to make that choice. And you’ll stay friends.

So be careful when signing, but there’s no reason to be scared or nervous or paranoid … everyone wants to get the best deal for themselves that they can, and all you’re doing is coming to an accord … it’s why, in the end, it’s called an agreement.

You’ll either agree or you won’t, but don’t take it personal, either way.

Cell Phone Montage

A fun link for today.

"Why don't they just call the cops?"

Many a writer has faced that simple logic problem. With cell phones it's become a bigger problem.

The most common fix?

http://fourfour.typepad.com/fourfour/2009/09/no-signal-a-supercut.html

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Seeking the Magic Number

("Now we're just haggling over the price." How much for your script? Guest blogger Jesse Rosenblatt gives some great info. Jesse is an entertainment attorney and a gifted screenwriter. Good guy and someone you want on your team.)

A burning question on any first time writer’s mind is – “How much will I get paid for my feature film screenplay sale?”

It’s a valid question, though a difficult one to answer. You’ve spent months, maybe even years, writing your script. You want to get paid! And you need to make sure you’re protected and don’t sell yourself short. Often times, writers are willing to forego monetary compensation in exchange for the hope they’ll receive credit on a completed film to help launch their writing career.

While I certainly understand that perspective, and in some cases it’s a valid point of view, please remember – if others are getting paid well for their contributions to the project, you should too. Every great film starts with a great script.

I want to make clear that the typical structure of a screenplay deal is not an outright purchase but rather an option/purchase agreement. Let me briefly explain what this is for those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept: an option/ purchase agreement is one where the prospective buyer (a producer, production company, studio, etc.) agrees to pay you some money (generally 10% of the potential purchase price or less) in exchange for a period of time (typically called the “option period”) where your script is off the market and the producer can develop it.

At any point during this time period (which is often a year), they may decide to exercise their option to purchase your script and acquire all your rights in it. This generally means they must pay you the full purchase price set forth in the agreement less the amount of the option payment you’ve already received.

Rather than discuss these option/purchase agreements (a topic deserving an entirely separate article), I’m just going to focus on the actual purchase price amount for your existing screenplay (not one you’re now being paid to write or rewrite).
There is no universally applied standard for the purchase price of your screenplay (although you may use the WGA – Writers Guild of America – Minimum Basic Agreement as a guideline, whether you’re a member of the WGA or not).

The amount you will receive for your first feature film screenplay sale will vary from project to project. There are several factors to consider, including:

- the demand for your script;
- who the writer is (taking into account whether the writer is in the WGA, the writer’s stature in the industry including his/her track record, etc.);
- the anticipated budget level of the film;
- if the script is based on any other underlying material;
- who the party producing the film is; and
- how many writing elements/steps the purchaser will require you to deliver (e.g., a treatment, a first draft and subsequent drafts, rewrites and polishes.

1) Fixed (or Flat) Purchase Price; WGA Minimums

For a writer seeking their first script sale, practical realities and other issues may lead smaller production companies to seek to buy your screenplay for a purchase price as low as a few thousand dollars. Whether or not to accept such an offer depends on your assessment of who the party making the offer is and your
confidence in your ability to find another buyer willing to offer more.

If the party seeking to acquire your script is a mini-major or major studio/ production company, you can expect the purchase price they’ll pay you should be at least WGA scale (e.g., the WGA’s stated minimum for its guild members), even if you’re not yet a WGA writer.

If you’re a member of the WGA, the union spells out mandated minimums to be paid for the purchase price of a screenplay by guild signatory producers. These prices currently fall between about $40,700 (for low-budget productions – i.e., less than $5,000,000) and about $113,600 (for high-budget productions – i.e., above $5,000,000). The WGA minimum schedule can be reviewed at

http://www.wga.org/uploadedFiles/writers_resources/contracts/min2008.pdf.

2) Purchase Price Tied To Production Budget

On projects set up with well established production companies or studios, often deals for screenplay purchases are done as a percentage of the budget, rather than a flat or fixed amount. So, you may expect to receive a purchase price equal to around 2.5% – 5% of the “in-going production budget” (which is typically defined as the final budget number for the film, including above and below-the-line items, less a
bunch of costs, such as overhead, completion bond fees, contingency, interest, bank/financing charges and any contingent compensation).

But if you try and apply this percentage of budget approach to a low budget feature, the purchase price amount you come up with may just seem too low (for example, for a $750,000 feature, the screenplay purchase price at 2.5% of the budget would be only $18,750 – over $20,000 less than the WGA minimum).

The purchase price is often further refined with a stated “floor” amount – maybe $25,000 – and a “ceiling” amount – maybe $150,000 – so there is a fixed minimum and maximum the purchaser knows they’ll have to pay and you know you’ll receive. The idea here is that the studio or production company is protected from overpaying and you are protected from selling your script for a price that’s too low (so if the film becomes a major production with a much larger budget, your compensation will increase accordingly).

As a general rule, no more than 5% of a production’s total budget is allotted to acquiring all of the underlying literary properties (though in the case of very low-budget or very high-budget productions this percentage may not apply). This budget item must cover the payment for any books, articles, etc. on which the script is based, as well as all payments to all writers for the initial screenplay and any
subsequent drafts, rewrites, polishes, etc. As a result, the production company must be mindful that if the“ceiling” amount is too high, this may be a hindrance in getting the movie made (since this line item in the budget will be too costly). So the purchaser will generally do their best to keep the “ceiling” amount as low as possible.

3) $__________ Against $__________

I’ve also heard it said from time-to-time that the “typical” range for new writers selling their first screenplay to an established production company or studio is $100,000 “against” $250,000 (but obviously take that with a grain of salt, particularly based on the current economic climate in the industry). This means you get paid a guaranteed fixed fee of $100,000 for your screenplay drafts (including the original draft delivered, and any additional writing steps included in the option/purchase agreement), though this fee may be actually payable in stages, with a chunk upfront and the remainder upon starting/completing writing steps.

Then, only upon some condition taking place (which condition will be stated in your
option/purchase agreement), you would get the other $150,000, which is often referred to as a production bonus.

The condition triggering this production bonus payment is usually one of the following:

- the film going into active development;
- the film proceeding to production; or
- you being the sole credited writer on the final produced film (though in this case, if you receive shared credit, you would typically only receive half of this amount, or $75,000 in my example).

The reason the production companies and studios like these structures is that they purchase many more scripts than they actually ever produce and so this protects them from overpaying for material that ends up unproduced.

4) Purchase Price As It Relates To Writing Services – Which Amounts Are “Applicable Against” The Purchase Price?

In the event that you are negotiating not only a screenplay option/purchase, but also the terms for you to render additional writing services on the same project (e.g., additional drafts, rewrites, polishes, etc.), these may be negotiated at the same time (though the terms of each may appear in separate agreements).

That said, you will need to negotiate which writing services are required from you and which optional writing steps the purchaser may elect to require from you down the road. Whatever the case, it is always important to make sure you know which of your writing steps are going to be “applicable against” your overall purchase price. This means that the purchaser will deduct the payments for those writing steps
from the overall purchase price – so when you receive your purchase price, it will be less than the amount originally stated, since you’ve received additional sums along the way as you complete writing services).

As a rule of thumb, optional writing steps are almost always applicable. But once you go beyond the required steps and optional steps set forth in your agreement, if the purchaser asks you to render further writing services, you must make sure the payments for these steps are not applicable against your overall purchase price (because otherwise, you could be in a position where you cap out and working more does not yield you any more money).

Sometimes, a purchaser will request a writer enter into an “all services deal” once the film heads into production – meaning the writer is paid a flat payment which covers all required writing services from that point forward until the film is released. These should never be applicable against your purchase price
and you should make sure some limits are placed on them so you are not stuck writing for ages if the project is dragged out.

5) Contingent Compensation (or “Back End”)

In addition to the purchase price, you can also hope that your option/purchase agreement will entitle you to contingent compensation in some form, often referred to as a “back end.”

It is not uncommon for a writer selling their first screenplay to be entitled to an amount equal to 5% of the producer’s “net profits” (or however else this concept may be defined by the party purchasing your script). This may drop to 2.5% if you receive shared credit on the finished film. Be aware that your agreement will likely grant you a percentage of the limited pool of “net profits” received by the producer rather than those of the film production as a whole.

Generally, “net profits” are monies leftover after the producer (or the production company or studio producing the film) deducts all of their expenses (whether actually paid or not). The list of deductible expenses is quite lengthy and frankly, most writers believe that you will never receive a penny from your “net profits” allotment.

In an effort to give yourself the best shot at ever seeing some money from this, I suggest you try to tie the definition of “net profits” in your agreement(s) with the same definition in the agreement of the producer and/or director, since they will likely have greater negotiating leverage based on their past precedent. The
above approach is often referred to as a “favored nations” or “most favored nations” definition, whereby your definition is ‘tied’ to that of someone else (usually the producer). This way the pool of money from which you all may receive contingent compensation will be defined, calculated and paid the same way.

Since production companies/studios have several negotiated versions of the same definition for “net profits,” you want to do your best to protect yourself from getting gypped out of money (if any is actually left after permissible deductions) which other above-the-line personnel receive.

If you’re feeling confused by all of this, you’re not alone. I urge you not to try and parse through these concepts without an experienced attorney at your side. In the event that your definition is not as beneficial as it should be and your script turns out to be a blockbuster film, this could potentially cost you millions in the long run.

In addition, you may try to negotiate additional compensation in the form of box office bonuses, which only become payable if and when the film hits certain threshold levels of theatrical box office gross receipts. In some cases, you may even be able to negotiate a bonus which is contingent upon budget level(so if the budget ends up exceeding a certain amount, you’d receive additional compensation).

In conclusion, there’s no easy way to answer the question posed, since the amount paid for any screenplay is totally determined on a case-by-case basis. Armed with the information I’ve outlined above, and hopefully a great lawyer, manager and/or agent, you’ll reach an agreement and sign a contract for your first screenplay option/purchase.

Congratulations! Going forward, the amount of your compensation from this (your most recent agreement) with be referred to as your “quote.” The next question you’ll call to ask me is “How can I raise (or “bump up”) my quote?”

Generally, as your career builds and you work on more projects, your quote should grow organically with each new deal. But three common ways to help speed up the process are:

-Have one of your screenplays green lit so the film proceeds into production and you receive credit on a completed film;
-Attract heat by selling a pitch, treatment or spec script (e.g., one written on your own with no impending buyer ready and waiting for it) in a “bidding war” where there are multiple interested parties; or
-Receive screenplay credit on a project that nets awards or has an impressive performance at the box office.

You should now have some parameters by which you can gauge your expectations. But remember, you’re a writer, not a lawyer/manager/agent – so make sure you surround yourself as early as possible with experienced and capable representation who will make your career and your success a priority. You want a team with integrity who can fight for what’s in your best interest – but only after first trying to reach a mutually amicable agreement. And let them handle all the heavy lifting. You should never try to negotiate the terms for your agreements on your own. It’s your job to write and be seen as the friendly creative force – not the negotiator.

I hope you found this helpful for providing some context to your question. I wish you all ever-increasing success!

Jesse Rosenblatt is the founder of the Law Office of Jesse Rosenblatt, an entertainment law/consulting firm servicing corporate and individual clients across all segments of the entertainment business. He has over 10 years experience working and negotiating with many of the most powerful players in the entertainment industry. For more information, please visit www.jesserosenblatt.com.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Michele Wallerstein: SOCIALIZING!

(How would you like to know, before you send a script out, what a manager or agent will think of your work? With 25 years experience as an agent brokering major sales to Hollywood's top production companies, Michele Wallerstein will let you know where you are and what you need to do to get that sale. Michele has worked with me over the past year elevating the quality of my work. She's a friend, mentor, and an inspiration. Rare to find such a positive person in what can be a bleak path for the new writer. To reach Michele you can email her at novelconsult@sbcglobal.net.)

Socializing is an extension of Networking, but is not the same thing. It goes the next step in helping to ensure a longer life in professional writing. Working in Hollywood is not only about the quality of your work, but is about living in the entertainment community. You will need to become a friend and social connection with others who also live in the world of movies and television.

Networking is your first connection with the people who can give you a hand when you begin that long trek through the labyrinth that will hopefully lead you through the ubiquitous closed doors of show business. Socializing gives you the potential of establishing relationships with the Tinseltown folks who are necessary to your future. They also love the business just as you do.

You might think that writing well and even having a hit movie out is enough. Not a chance folks. One-hit wonders are a dime a dozen in every business. If you want to have staying power you’ll need friends who will open doors and give you the benefit of their knowledge and connections. Industry insiders spend an inordinate amount of time at activities that look like simple socializing interactions. The truth is that they are always working. Executives have breakfast, lunch, drinks and dinner meetings. They attend dinner parties, galas, award ceremonies, cocktail parties and screenings. Personally, I often found these events both physically and emotionally draining because while they looked glamorous and fun, they were really hard work. For example the person you are talking to may be looking over your shoulder to see who else they want to talk with. The person you want to talk with is too difficult to get close to or too busy with others. The hours are late and it’s been a long, long day. The “phonies” are all over the place and vying for your attention.

The good news is that you may run into someone who is interested in you or your project or your clients. You might meet some industry executive that you really like and will work with extensively in the future. There are endless good things that can and often do happen at these events. So, we go and go and go to as many as possible.

For writers, socializing is a combination of hanging out and going out. If you meet someone in the business that you like, you might have to make the first move and see if they want to meet for coffee or lunch. If you have the ability to throw dinner or drinks parties, then you must do so. I’ve found that mixing people who are in and out of the business is not a very good idea. People tend to want to talk to others in the same or similar fields of endeavor. Show business people talk in show business. That’s our language, that’s where we are comfortable and that’s the subject that interests us the most.

Earlier in this book I mentioned that I often orchestrated dinner parties and lunches so that my clients could meet with buyers. Not every agent does this, but it’s a good idea to ask your agent to try to put you together socially with development executives and producers. These are the people that you will need.

Whenever you are able to attend some social event you must never drink too much, talk too much or do drugs and this applies to your date or spouse who might be attending with you. This will be remembered and you will never be trusted. Certainly you will never be trusted with a writing assignment.

When you are lucky enough to attend events you will need to mention your projects. Don’t be shy about it. Everyone will want to hear about them and to put their two cents in on the creative aspects or salability of those projects. Occasionally these folks will discuss their skiing vacations or their personal lives, but not much. We all want to talk about our projects and to hear about others. Ask those questions about their work, the company and their favorite films and they will become your best friend. I don’t mean to tell you to befriend people that you don’t like. You will find there are plenty of those lurking about and you don’t need to pursue them. Find people that you enjoy and simply pursue a friendship. Remember that in business just like in childhood, it’s always good to use the buddy system.

I’ve met some of my best business friends at the aforementioned events and it has made my life easier and much more pleasant. I ask about their children and spouses, their parents and their favorite books. These are effortless ways to begin what could be very fortuitous associations.

Always keep in mind that you might be able to help someone else while you are looking for people to help you. As a writer you might have meetings where you find out information about job openings for development executives or what new projects are being developed. These are not secrets and if you share the information the recipients will “owe you one”.

All of the above presupposes that you live in Los Angeles or its environs. Obviously, if you are living somewhere that is far from the action it will be nearly impossible for you to socialize in a meaningful way. There’s always Facebook and Twitter.

It’s always possible to have a script optioned if you live anywhere. The continuation of a writing career means that you must be able to reach out and touch the right people. A writing career is not defined by selling (optioning) screenplays. A writing career means meetings, writing assignments, pitching to studio executives and to producers or development execs. It means building a foundation with your agent and others in your working world. It means getting rewrite jobs and development jobs. These are the things that will keep you in front of the pack.

For writers socializing is more difficult than writing. I understand that these pointers are hard for you to consider and even harder to do.

So……get off your duffs and call someone.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Chris Soth on MIRROR CHARACTERS

(Another great guest blog from Chris Soth. As many books and articles I've read over the year on CASABLANCA, Chris provides new insight into that classic.)

MIRROR CHARACTERS OF YOUR HERO'S ARC

So, last Newsletter I was talking about how all your characters MIGHT be arranged on a "thematic continuum" where they all illustrate different aspects of your central theme –

-- and specifically, how you might create (at least) two characters as mirrors for your hero, and further, (and here's where I MIGHT be getting a bit original, at least I've never heard this said in quite this way) –

You MIGHT think of creating a mirror character at each end of your hero's character arc. That is, among your subsidiary characters might be one character who represents what your hero SHOULD BE, what he will be if s/he undergoes the change this story is driving them through, I think I called him the "YOU OUGTA BE THIS GUY" GUY, but maybe we could call him "THE SHINING EXAMPLE" – AND –

-- a character who serves as "THE CAUTIONARY TALE". That is, a guy or gal who shows us, and perhaps our protagonist, what they will become if they DO NOT change and serves as a stark warning against the folly of proceeding through life as such a flawed character.

And now, some examples:

Call me old-fashioned, but I love me the Casablanca. It's great for examples and I've learned a lot, A LOT from it, because, well...

...it's a perfect movie. It's not my favorite movie of all time, but it IS a perfect movie or as near as has ever been made, and there may not have been one since. In fact, whenever I'm stuck for a scene, or wonder what a specific Mini-Movie should be in a story, it's not long before I'm asking myself:

"What do they do in Casablanca?" And trying to apply that to the story I'm working on at the time.

But that's another newsletter...SO...

In Casablanca, we've got Rick Blaine (as portrayed by Humphrey Bogart), he's an isolationist, won't stick his neck out for nobody, and serves only his self interest, especially when it comes to the woman he loves, Ilsa…

HE OUGHTA BE: Victor Lazlo (as portrayed by Paul Henreid), a selfless freedom fighter, who sticks his neck out for everyone, everywhere – and who will gladly sacrifice anything, everything for the woman he loves, Ilsa Lund.

And in fact, it looks like this is who Rick will become as the credits roll, as his character arc has completed – "Where I go, you can't follow, etc..." he's off to become a freedom fighter, to take on the Nazis and fight for the little guy, as he used to before Ilsa broke his heart in the backstory.

But...if Rick keeps up his selfish ways, he'll never be that guy. In fact, he'll become:

THE CAUTIONARY TALE: Captain "Louie" Renault (as portrayed by Claude Rains). Here's a man who "blows with the wind" and serves only his own self-interest...and when it comes to love – Louie's happy to "whore out" any or every woman he comes across...and his doing so w/a young Bulgarian refugee serves as an object lesson for Rick at one point...

This is what Rick has to avoid – and in the end, Louie ends up changing too, and heading off into the future WITH Rick.

So, Victor Lazlo, Captain Renault...both mirrors to Rick Blaine. One is what Rick SHOULD be…the other what he COULD become...

Thanks for reading, hope this helps in your writing and thoughts about character. And if you want a brand new way of looking at story, please take a look at the eBook and DVD set at...

www.MillionDollarScreenwriting.com

Thanks "A Million",

Chris Soth

Saturday, September 5, 2009

5 Easy Ways to Write Locally and Reach the World

(The next two blogs will be provided by Andrew Horton. Andy is an internationally awarded screenwriter whose films include Brad Pitt’s first feature film, Dark Side Of The Sun, and the Yugoslav hit social comedy Something In Between. He is the Jeanne H Smith Professor of Film Studies at the University of Oklahoma (ahorton@ou.edu) and author of Writing The Character Centered Screenplayand Laughing Out Loud: Writing The Comedy Centered Screenplay. Andy is also the co-founder of the New Orleans Film Festival and will be honored there this October at the Fest’s 20-year anniversary.)

FIVE EASY WAYS TO WRITE LOCALLY AND REACH THE WORLD
By Andrew Horton
Oklahoma As A Case Study

This is a simple tale bout how screenwriters everywhere can write locally and reach the world. Using Oklahoma where I currently live as a case study, I am suggesting five easy approaches that can be used by screenwriters everywhere. Yes, I personally continue to work on projects in Hollywood, New York, London, Athens, New Zealand and beyond in contact with filmmakers, screenwriters, and producers. But this is my fifth year of living in beautiful Oklahoma, and I feel there is a lot in common for screenwriters here that many of you around the world share who contact me in response to my script books and workshops since I have long said that you don’t need to live in Hollywood to write and produce screenplays. My “case study” will involve my own work and that of seven local writers who I feel have a good chance to break out of Oklahoma because of their talent and because of the approaches we are pursuing.

1: SET UP AN INFORMAL SCRIPT GROUP THAT MEETS ON A REGULAR BASIS

We all need that support group we can depend on for encouragement and honest feedback! Years ago in New Orleans I taught a short script class that lasted only six weeks. The course was offered through an Arts Center and thus drew participants with a wide range of ages and backgrounds. The result was that when we wrapped up the last evening, the group on its own decided to have monthly meetings, rotating homes of the participants. I thought this was a fine idea, but figured it would last only about two or three months. I attended several of the gatherings and was impressed that they really were bringing new work to read and critique and were helping each other think of where to send completed scripts and whom to contact. Even more amazing, this original group of about 6-8 members carried on for about three years. Thus my students educated me and ever since I been encouraging other kindred souls to do the same. In Oklahoma there have already been several informal groups meeting at bookstores like Barnes and Noble and Borders, for instance, so the concept was already in place before I arrived five years ago.

But recently I have helped start up a group to bring diverse and talented folk together. To celebrate the spirit of diversity among writers, let me briefly mention some of the members. Jeff Van Hanken is a writer and filmmaker living in Tulsa who has produced films in Los Angeles, Texas and Oklahoma. For his Heart of Los Angeles Film Project, Jeff secured support from Universal Studios, Paramount Pictures, Eastman Kodak and Panavision Cameras. Another member, Gena Ellis, has served in the military and is completing an MA in screenwriting and creative writing at the University of Oklahoma and has already written some award winning screenplays. Jim Butcher is an award-winning newspaper report-editor working out of Tulsa, while Kevin Mahoney is a member of the WGA and Dramatists Guild who has returned to Oklahoma after twenty years in Los Angeles writing for Columbia Pictures, CBS Entertainment and having written plays for the Playwright’s Theatre (Los Angeles).

Two women lawyers in our group have also taken up the screenwriting calling. Sarah Lee Parrish is a staff lawyer at the Oklahoma Supreme Court by day and a screenwriter by night, and Cindy Elias has trained through the UCLA Professional Screenwriting Program and is studying acting at the same time. The only undergraduate student in the group so far is Sterlin Harjo, a Native American writer and undergraduate film and video studies student at the University of Oklahoma, who has won a Summer 2003 Sundance Script Development Fellowship. And we also have a member who has spent years in religious pursuits and as a professional hobo, Wayne Iverson. Again, the vibrant diversity of such a group is important, for it is hard to image such a variety of folk meeting as part of our or their regular daily lives. Screenwriting is what binds us together, and in person and by e-mail, we share a lot about what we are up to and what we can do with completed projects.

2: WORK WITH YOUR LOCAL FILM COMMISSION TO LIST LOCAL SCREENWRITERS AND THEIR WORK ON THEIR WEB SITES

At a recent informal meeting of our Oklahoma group, we decided to contact the Oklahoma Film Commission to see in what ways we could work together to help promote talented Oklahoma based writers. In Oklahoma we are fortunate to have Dino Lalli as the Film Commission Director. A well-known former television film critic, Dino was immediately responsive and helpful. So it is with his support that we are about to launch an Oklahoma Screenwriterssection of the Commission’s site at www.oklahomafilm.org, which should be up and running the summer of 2003.

Pull back the cameras a bit here to realize what a coup this is for local writers. You have to realize that in the United States, State Film Commissions have traditionally existed to attract big Hollywood films to their states. This seldom happens, of course. Therefore taxpayers basically pay for large parties in Hollywood where the Commissioners tell filmmakers and stars how wonderful their states are. Ditto, of course, for most national film commissions around the world.

Simply check the Internet and websites for film commissions everywhere to see how rare such listings are. But what if these commissions began to more actively help good local projects? That’s the question and really, it is an exciting new possibility for groups everywhere. At a time that some states are actually getting rid of Film Commissions— Massachusetts, for instance, the Oklahoma Film Commission under Dino Lalli’s imaginative leadership is gearing up to be very “proactive” in supporting local talent on all fronts.

A sample listing? Nothing complicated. We are thinking of simply short script summaries and briefbios such as the following: THE FANADDICT by Cindy Elias: A family drama about an Oklahoma attorney, LIZ WYATT, who is addicted to sports gambling. While working for the U.S. Attorney’s office, Liz puts her baby in a daycare located in the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. On April 19, 1995, her baby dies in the Murrah bombing. Blaming herself for the baby’s death, Liz begins gambling even more to help ease her guilt. Now in her early 40’s and an associate at a silk stocking law firm, Liz is in danger oflosing both her family and her job due to her escalating addiction. Cindy Elias has trained through the UCLA Professional Screenwriting Program. Having a talent for painting pictures with words, Cindy creates fresh characters with snappy dialogue cindykayelias@aol.com.

3: FEEL FREE TO WRITE MATRIX 5 AND DUMB AND DUMBERER, PART 4, BUT ALSO WORK ON SCRIPTS THAT COULD BE SHOT FOR A LOW BUDGET LOCALLY

Each member of our group has a script that could be done “locally,” for we realize that while writers everywhere dream of selling to the Big Guys, the fact is that there is a much better chance of getting a smaller film made and out to festivals and, hopefully, into distribution. At a recent meeting of our group, for instance, we targeted a script by Kevin Mahoney as one that could easily be shot for under a million dollars in Oklahoma. The script, Claytonis a l952 small town tale about thirteen year old Eli who is orphaned by tragedy and forced to live with relatives he has never known in Clayton, Oklahoma. Over one summer, he must come to terms with his sudden loss, gain the acceptance of a new family and survive the eccentricities of a rural Oklahoma town. Such a story has the potential of being a powerful character centered piece (do we hear echoes of To Kill A Mockingbird?!) and I think we can all see that with no “special effects,” no need for build a set, in fact, an on location shoot could be very cost effective and dramatically moving. In one sense Clayton concerns small towns anywhere and therefore could be a Kansas or Texas or Arkansas story too. But other scripts of the group are 100% tied to Oklahoma history.

Jim Butcher used to live in Pawhuska, Oklahoma where he became aware of one of the darker pages in American history: the massacre of hundreds of Osage Indians in the 20’s who owned the land with some of the best oil in the world. His script, Blood Sisters, needs a larger budget as a historical film, but we are still talking about a touching film that could be made for about the budget of MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING: Five million dollars. In my script workshops everywhere I do emphasize this point: do write at least one script that could be made without worrying about Hollywood agents, power lunches and years of optioning deals from distant producers!

4: HELP EACH OTHER FIND FUNDING FOR LOW BUDGET FEATURES THROUGH LOCAL FINANCING, PRIVATE AND INSTITUTIONAL/ GOVERNMENTAL CHANNELS

One of the recent jokes among film circles in Oklahoma is that if you had walked into one local bank a year ago and said, “I need five million dollars for a risky oil exploration deal” and another bank asking for five million to make MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING, you would have been rejected for the film investment but given the money for a shaky oil deal.

It goes with the culture and the territory, and so screenwriters and filmmakers everywhere on any local level have a job cut out for them to educate those around them about the reasons and opportunities that film investment can open up. Clearly having a few individuals with money to invest can help jump-start any project. But local screenwriters should meet up with bankers and investors and simply begin to open up a dialogue about what film investment means.

There are governmental opportunities as well. How about imitating what New Zealand has done in the past for its young filmmakers. That is, what if the Oklahoma Film Commission were funded by the State Legislature to offer a number of $100,000 “low budget” film awards each year so that a few complete Oklahoma films get made and put in festivals and theaters? We all know that New Zealand has been something of a model for attracting filmmakers and investments, but such local governmental assistance and grants have helped younger filmmakers. Such a use of taxpayers’ funds to help promote and create a local film industry can, as the New Zealand example shows, begin to bring national and international attention to your area!

5: YOU WANT TO BE A FEATURE SCREENWRITER? WRITE AND SHOOT SOME SHORTS!

More frequently these days one hears, even in Hollywood, “I don’t want to read your script unless it is sent to me by an agent, but I will watch a SHORT. What do you have?” So there is a lot to be said for feature screenwriters also writing and shooting shorts! Realize that even to say “short” is to open the door to a wide variety of possibilities, for of the many festivals specializing in shorts around the world, the definition of “short” varies from 45 minutes or shorter at a number of locations to ten minutes or less at Capalbio Fest in Italy. Think about it. In five or ten minutes you can, as in a short story, say and do a lot that exhibits your talent, interests, and potential. With the help of two of our filmmaking faculty at the University of Oklahoma—Heidi Mau and Gary Rhodes—we sent our first batch of Oklahoma shorts adding up to a 100 minute program this year to the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival in France, and we plan to continue to do so each year.

Meanwhile one in our script group has already won attention for her short script we hope will be filmed this year: ANGELA’S DECISION by Gena Ellis (short, 32 pages). Angela Jacobs, 18, has been waiting all her life in a small Oklahoma town- waiting for BILLY TURNER to come home from the Army and marry her, waiting for her mother to sober up, waiting to see if she’ll end up pregnant like most of Everly’s disillusioned young women. Angela finally quits waiting and makes a decision that will change her life. An award-winning short drama. Top 25 Winner (out of 632) in the 2002-2003 American Gem Short Script Competition. Gena is a feature screenwriter now and wants to make this a career. But her success in the short script market to date has also convinced her that she wants to continue doing shorts too. After all, don’t a lot of novelists also enjoy writing short stories?!

So there you have it … five simple ways to reach out from wherever you are living and writing! And, of course, there are more ideas, but they deserve a sequel. Meanwhile, members of our group are deciding which film festivals and summer script workshops they may attend. Write on, dear friends!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Chris Soth on WANT VS. NEED

(Chris Soth, USC MFA graduate, produced screenwriter, mentor, guru, and friend is today's guest blogger. I met Chris through is wonderful mentorship program after reading his eBook. Give this a read and visit his website for more information.)


WANT VS. NEED

That's what it's all about, as far as I'm concerned. They teach this at USC... I've run across people at the UCLA Extension who've learned it there, but I haven't run across it in any of the major screenwriting books or programs – except, perhaps the ones written by the faculty I learned from at USC – take a look at David Howard's excellent books, Tools of the
Screenwriter and Building a Great Screenplay. Mr. Howard is a fellow Minnesotan, and my faculty advisor while I was at USC – a disciple of the great Frank Daniel,
and a proponent of story sequencing-the parent of the The Mini-Movie Method.


So, "want versus need" – what am I talking about?


The essence of the
character arc. If you visualize an actual "arc" – an arcing, curved line drawn between point A and point B (I must admit, I DO…), then…


WANT…is point A…where a character, your main character, at least, starts…


NEED is point B – where you main character will end up.


Want is point A…


Need is point B…


And the "character arc" takes your character from the first to the second…


…and if you remember your geometry, you'll know that the line defining that arc is made up of an infinite variety points
along the way.


WANT…


We should be called Human WANTS, or Human Wantings, rather than
human beings. Being is at rest, to want…is active. There is nothing more human. There is no more defining aspect of a character than what that character wants.


Just try writing a scene about a character who doesn't want anything in that scene. It's not easy. I don't want to say it's impossible, I try never to say that, but…it's tricky.


Make sure the "wantless guy" is the star of the scene – make it his/her scene…


…where's that scene gonna go?


Nowhere, right?


Because what drives the scene? Ideally, the character's want, right? Whether that's to reach out and touch someone's
heart in a love scene/love story, or to escape the gunfire of
Blofeld and his minions in an action scene…which our hero
evades because…


…he WANTS to stay alive.


The want is where character and story are inextricably bound –
what your main character wants is the engine that will drive
your story, and the more they want it, the more keenly they feel
this lack, the more monomaniacally they pursue it, the harder and
faster the story will go – so pick a great character, with a
great want and s/he will serve you well.


NEED…


…this is something of which the character is unaware. They don't want this. It's probably the last thing they want. But it's what they SHOULD want.


They need to go through this arc. They may want money, but need
love. They may want love but need to become worthy of love, they may want to become worthy of love but need to love themselves
first…


…the list goes on and on.


And even we, the audience, may be blissfully unaware of the main
character's need. But at some point – perhaps, ideally, at the same time they do, we'll become keenly aware of it -- .


IN THE TEXTBOOK CASE:


A main character pursues his want from the start of the story, or the inciting incident/call to adventure, through the body of the story…


…they do greater and greater things to get what they want, take more and more extreme measures to achieve this goal, until, perhaps, they turn a corner, and we're no longer rooting for them – we realize that achieve this WANT, without servicing this NEED would be worse than never having what we wanted in the first place…the hero realizes it too…


…and their character arc is complete. Typically at the end of what is usually called Act Two. They spend Act Three serving their need…and, usually, are rewarded with what they wanted at the very end…because they have healed their need and become worthy of it.


For more on story and how it relates to character, and the best
way of breaking a story down to its component parts, come take a
look at our ebook, dvds and seminars at
www.MillionDollarScreenwriting.com.


You may not want it yet. But you might NEED it. (Couldn't resist!).


Thanks "A Million",


Chris Soth

Emmy Winner Erik Bork: The ten most important things

…that I have learned about succeeding in writing for the screen…

  1. CONCEPT AND STORY FIRST. People tend to think screenwriting is about writing scripts (i.e. slug lines, scene description and dialogue) – those words on the page that others will read and possibly use as a blueprint for a production, in that special format unique to our medium. And yes, it is ultimately about that. But those words on the page are the final and least important step in a process that begins when you start thinking about what your script is going to be about. To put it simply, concept is king in selling your work into the marketplace, and story (the underlying choices behind what’s written on the script page) is king in deciding if it’s going to be “good” or not. The heavy lifting of screenwriting is always about these two things.
  2. YOU MUST HAVE PASSION. When you commit to writing something, if you’re doing it for the money, and/or the desire to please and fulfill another’s vision, without having real passion and belief in what you’re embarking on, you are destined to fail. You must find your individual “take” on material that you fully believe in, and are excited about, if it’s to have any hope of working for someone else. Even if someone else tells you what they think it needs to be (and pays you to deliver that), if you don’t fully buy into that idea, too, it will show – and it will end up not pleasing anyone. You have to make it “yours.” It’s your job.
  3. BE OPEN TO OTHERS’ FEEDBACK. There’s a specific way to do this: you don’t let “them” tell you what it should be., but you also invite real honesty from people whose opinion has earned your respect. You then look at what they have to say through this lens: “Is there an underlying concern they have that, in my heart of hearts, I agree with?” This means looking beyond their suggested “fixes” (which you should never take literally unless you love them) to find what isn’t working for them, or what the material might need to work. Especially look at issues that multiple readers share. This doesn’t mean they’re right necessarily: you have to run it all through the filter of your sensibility. But don’t be defensive, protective, and resistent. Fully weigh what they have to say, and be completely honest with yourself. Your work has to please you first, but it’s ultimate goal is to have a positive effect on others. Feedback is essential to achieving this.
  4. YOUR INTELLECTUAL MIND DOESN’T CREATE. All it can do is record and explore and organize what has “come” to you from the source of all ideas. What is this source? I know what Mozart said: that good ideas come best when you are “completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer.” So a big part of the job is to do those three things, not to try to “figure out” your concept, story, character and scenes. Yes, there is intellectual work done along the way. But the receiving of good ideas is the most important “work” we ever do.
  5. “FRESH, COMPELLING, AND REAL.” A good concept, story, character, scene, or dramatic event will ideally meet those three criteria. (1) It has to be FRESH: unique and not overly familiar – it can be familiar, but not overly familiar. Something about it should be brand new. (2) COMPELLING: It has to grab the audience and make them care about what’s happening – it must compel them to want to read or see more – and entertain them while it’s doing that. (3) REAL: It must be believable within the world where the story is set. If you don’t believe the characters would do what they’re doing, then you won’t be entertained, and you won’t care. Yes, movies and TV shows are made which don’t fully meet all these criteria, and certainly not for all audience members. But it’s a worthy mission to keep in mind.
  6. CONSTANT CONFLICT. At every moment and in every scene there must be a problem for your characters – preferably a pressing overall story problem as well as a present-moment scene problem. There is an unanswered question that is important to them, and to us, that is driving the action forward. Whenever that doesn’t exist, the story goes slack. When characters are happy and a scene is about exploring that, the audience will always begin to yawn. There must be something threatening that happiness in the background that is still very present in our minds – and that happiness has to be partial and very temporary.
  7. SINGULAR POINT OF VIEW. Very occasionally, a movie succeeds that is a true ensemble: a collection of mini-stories with different main characters (like THE BIG CHILL), or a “couple story” where it’s hard to define who is more central (like PRETTY WOMAN). But these are so rare, and difficult to pull off, that they are truly the exception to this rule: There must be a main character whose point-of-view we experience the story from – and whose emotions and desires we take on. Usually, they are present in (or the main topic of) virtually every scene. Be clear about whose story it is, if you want to make us care.
  8. ENTERTAINMENT IS ABOUT EMOTION. We are not primarily trying to stimulate people’s minds by presenting them with things which are interesting. Our primary job is to stimulate them to feel something – and that’s what audiences pay us to do. At the end of the day, we all want to be uplifted into states of greater joy, greater passion, greater aliveness. We want to feel part of something we care about, relate with and feel connected to, and through that, to experience big emotions that will provide a release and escape. Some stories are about problem-solving, and some give us something useful or enjoyable that we can take into our day-to-day life. But first and foremost, we must have emotional investment to take the journey.
  9. “IT’S REAL” IS NOT ENOUGH. Whether you’re writing about a true story, or just a type of situation or character that you know exists in the real world, every story needs to be a coherent emotional journey from beginning to end, in order to really succeed with audiences. The fact that an event was an interesting or key element that really occurred does not justify it’s inclusion. Our job is always to serve the overall concept and story, and keep the audience focused on and compelled by that. If you’re tempted to include something that wouldn’t fit into a totally made-up story, only because it’s “true” or “really happened” or seems “important” or “cool” in and of itself, but it doesn’t connect to this larger purpose, you will dilute your impact.
  10. SEEK TO “GIVE,” NOT TO “GET.” First and foremost, what works in life also works in a screenwriting career. If your focus is on receiving money, employment, praise, or success, and you are writing in order to try to get those things, your work will never come alive and be as successful as if you are truly giving something to the world that you believe is of value, without attachment to what it might do for you. Ironically, outer success seems to always come from this pure intention, and not from trying to make something happen for yourself. It’s tempting to focus on who you can get your material to, or what you want from them, in order for you to “succeed” in your career, but you will always be better served if you focus on bettering your craft, your work, and yourself, and seeking to give something you’re excited about. Keep adjusting and adding to what you do so that you are giving more and more value, in ways that you believe in. That value will come back to you, probably through better channels than you expected: because the business – and the world – is hungry for good material.
(Special thanks to my guest blogger today, Erik Bork. Erik won an Emmy for his work on BAND OF BROTHERS. His script notes are the best I've ever received. Amazing that such a talented writer does consulting. He's reasonably priced and a nice guy. For more articles and information, check out Erik's website at www.flyingwrestler.com.)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Billy Wilder's Tips for Writers

Billy Wilder is one of the all-time greats. Here are his tips:

1. The audience is fickle.

2. Grab 'em by the throat and never let 'em go.

3. Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.

4. Know where you're going.

5. The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.

6. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.

7. A tip from Lubitsch: "Let the audience add up two plus two. They'll love you forever."

8. In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they're seeing.

9. The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.

10. The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then -- that's it. Don't hang around.

11. You can be subtle. As long as it's obvious.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Shopping a Script Too Early

A TriggerStreet poster recently asked at what point should he approach a producer. This was my response:


Wait until it's finished -- and polished (which means about 10 drafts in) before you start shopping it.

(1) If it's a great high concept you risk someone -- 'hey let me tell you about this great idea -- but the script sucks -- but listen to this!" -- hearing the idea. And using it.

(2) If they read a first/early draft and it sucks, you're out the door and the door is closed. Don't care what anyone else says on here, people in the industry (real production companies that is) work this way. They cover the script and you as a writer. If you score PASS as a writer = door closed.

BTW, early drafts always suck. Saying "I'm almost finished with this script" means "I'm about to waste your time." You want "Written and rewritten, it's polished and ready to shoot next week."

(3) The script isn't written yet and how can you pitch it if you don't know the story? You may be pitching something that's a cute concept but won't work on the page.

and

(4) Short term memory in Hollywood. From "I've got this script" to getting it on their desk -- maybe two weeks; usually one; usually the next day. So many things flying at them if you catch their attention you want to be ready to roll.

Good luck!

That post addressed this common question.

BTW, I currently have a contact to an A-list producer that would be ideal for one of my scripts. About a dozen drafts in it's still not ready. Getting notes on it form Erik Bork (Emmy winner for BAND OF BROTHERS who posted his services on DoneDealPro) and making sure it's in 'ready to film next week' shape. Producer of an Oscar-winning film.

90% plus (if you talk to people who judge screenwriting competitions it's higher than that) of the material floating around in the system should be floating somewhere else. It's not ready. May be a decent idea there or great potential but it's not executed at a professional level.

Now, Hollywood may be forgiving a bit if the script is a high concept they love. The execution can be improved by the screenwriter or someone they bring in to rewrite it (which happens often) but the concept can never be improved. This is why it is so critical to spend your precious writing time working on scripts that have a chance of getting you in the game.


Shorted Out

Short scripts. Why should a screenwriter write them? And what to do with them when finished?

First, I should mentioned Zoetrope.com. That and TriggerStreet provide peer review opportunities. After you have legally protected your work (I suggest a copyright and submitting that online -- easier and safer) you can submit to these sites and trade reviews with other writers. The systems are run on a point/exchange method and both sites are run very well.

After you have completed the short you can get feedback through swapping reviews on Zoetrope or within your film community. There are books on writing short scripts (amazon.com) and make sure you nail your genre, your character arcs, and you've written it budget appropriate. There are some who spend $25,000 and up on short films but writing to budget gives you the opportunity of shooting it yourself.

With a polished short you can then do the following:

1. Shoot it yourself. With digital video the costs come down every day. You can also rent pro-quality equipment. Sound is a particular problem area with indie films so budget for that. Most actors work inexpensively/free to get a demo reel.

2. Work with an aspiring filmmaker. You can network with them by posting your script on simplyscripts.com. InkTip allows you to post a description of your short script for free. You can search "Hoover" on simplyscripts to see several of my scripts. You can search on youtube "once bitten twilight" and see two filmmakers that turned one of my scripts into short films.

3. Contests. There are contests with categories for shorts. Many of the winners have been made. Contest win attracts attention.

Ideally your filmmaker will intend on submitting the material to film festivals. IMDB allows for shorts to be posted on the site if they have been accepted into the more prestigious festivals. Start building that list of credits.

Rates vary for the price of a short. I grant permission to use my short scripts for free but retain the copyright/ownership. That's working with student filmmakers and I'm sure those intent on pursuing it further may require some type of agreement. Make sure to consult with an entertainment attorney if possible. The main issue is what happens if your short becomes a feature film? You want to retain ownership of your characters and concept and have the short film be a springboard to a feature.

Finally, screenwriting is a career of many delays. Waiting, more waiting, and waiting to wait. Having your work turned into a film is good motivation and keeps momentum moving forward. Positive things are happening and your work is getting seen.

Advice from Agents/Managers

A friend in Los Angeles sent me this:

Went to a Writer's Boot Camp agent/manager panel last night and
learned some interesting things:

- Don't write dramas. Not this year. Comedy and action are both doing well.
- Query and send your script to fifty producers. If you get a
positive response from any of them, use that as a intro to query a
manager - so and so at this company read the script and liked it...
- Don't bother trying to get an agent without serious referrals and
some credits.
- Persist, persist, persist.