Monday, December 20, 2010

A Voice vs. An Echo

True artists have their D.N.A. imprinted on their masterworks.   You can recognize the work of a master painter immediately.   Same with a writer.   Rare are unique voices -- distinct and resonating -- in any artistic field.

The average pro screenwriter has a career of 3-5 years.   Read that some time ago and wondered, "Why?"  Because most in any artistic field are echos.   They copy the fad of the day and enjoy a brief bit of popularity before fading out.   Or the energy to sustain their unique voice consumes then and they have brief,  yet brilliant, careers.

The first dozen screenplays you write will likely not be that good.   The first few you'll finish and think they are ready to shop and give you quick success.   After fighting through script after script, you can reflect back and realize how you were fighting through your influences and notions of what's "commercial" and can get attention.   You have to burn out the dross before you develop your craft to a professional level.

There are exceptions: Artists who have early work that meets with success.   Yet they have difficulty sustaining this because they haven't put in the hours and paid the dues necessary.   A previous blog discussed the 10,000 hours necessary to master any subject.   Better to put those  hours in before success comes your way.

Success can be viewed as the residue of past failures.   By the time acclaim or a sale comes your way, you're miles ahead working on new things and pushing to develop your talent.   The book THE WAR OF ART by Pressfield is one I recommend frequently.   Be in for the long haul.   Show up.   Continue showing up.

Another year nearing conclusion, I can see how far I've developed as a writer and how far the road is ahead.   Become a voice.  Work your way through the mediocre ideas and echos.   Be a professional.

Happy Holidays and here's to a great 2011!

One year to go before the world ends.   Make the best of it...

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Handling Notes

Getting notes on your work is a big part of the job of a screenwriter. You'll be collaborating (you hope!) with producers, directors, and actors in the future. How you handle notes as an amateur, reflects the professionalism and devotion to the craft you have at this level. If you can't handle them now, you won't handle them later and you'll blow opportunities or have a short lived career.

Amazon Studios and other peer review sites provide the opportunity to get feedback from fellow aspiring writers. The are several pro writers on the boards as well making themselves available for notes. So what do you do with the notes once received? After having spent the last couple of years on peer review sites and working with professional readers I can give you what I do:

1. Have the right attitude reading the notes. Don't be super defensive. Don't argue with the note giver on every point, especially if it's a freebie. Read the notes and set them aside.

2. Get several viewpoints on your script from trusted sources. There are some people who "get it" when it comes to your writing. You want those that appreciate what you do well (yes, some encouragement is good for us all) but also are able to pinpoint weaknesses. Usually this takes getting multiple takes. This will also let you know if a problem area consistently raises red flags for readers. If 4/4 readers have the same reaction, rethink your position.

3. Do the 'Quick fixes' first -- typos. Easy to repair errors or dialogue issues (joke that falls flat or on the nose.

4. On the bigger notes (reworking a character, major plot revision, tone, etc.) make sure the notes is helping you do a better version of YOUR script. Many writers giving notes will pull you in a direction, "Well this is how I'd write the script." These notes can have you heading in directions that are inconsistent with the story you wanted to tell and your voice as a writer.

5. Don't get discouraged. There are many, many drafts on the road. The script is never done until the film is shot. Even then there are reshoots and the editor will shape the final product. You can write a draft trying a different approach and jettison it. You can ignore notes if you feel they detract from your story.

6. Often a note about something not working in act 3 is due to a problem in act 1 -- wasn't set up properly. Be careful of following "effect" notes and look for the root cause. Could be your protagonist or story setup is off early making the later payoff fall flat or off key.

7. Cut, cut, cut. Early drafts are overwritten. Cut scenes down to the essentials. Many writers say cutting the first and last lines in a scene is their first rewrite. Cut out opening chit chat and long dialogue down to size. Show, don't tell, if possible.

8. A table read with actors is a good way to check dialogue and see how your script goes over. Take copious notes.

9. Remember one reader's opinion is just one take on your script. Half the movies on RottenTomatoes are under 50% from critics and those are finished films. Not everyone is going to love your work.

10. Don't ignore format, typos, and other essentials. Sweat the small stuff. It's a sign of a professional.

Finally, rewriting is essential. Many writers avoid the rewriting process thinking, "They'll buy it and fix it" or "I'll fix it when they pay me" or "I'm off on the next script." The real magic happens during the rewrite.

Hemingway once said, "The first draft of anything is shit." True! Now, if you're 16th draft is shit... you might have problems.

Good luck! Keep at it! Feel free to add your thoughts on rewriting and your approach to the process.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


A checklist for your screenplay:

1. Clearly defined genre. Horror, comedy, western, thriller, etc. Do we know what it is? BTW, drama is a tough sell, as are period pieces or bio pics.

2. Marketable concept. Typically referred to as a "high concept" -- a unique hook. Can we SEE the movie poster? Easily think of a tag line?

3. Is there a clear protagonist? Ensemble pieces are a hard sell. Is the protagonist's flaw evident the first 5 pages? Can we turn to the last 5 pages and see the character's arc -- how the protagonist has changed after going through the trail of your story?

4. Is there a clear antagonist? Not "fate" but a person (you can personify a force -- greed, fear, etc. -- but should be a character in your script). Does the antagonist in some way mirror your protagonist?

5. Does the central emotional response from your genre come through to a reader? If it's a comedy, are we laughing? If it's a thriller, are we on the edge of our seat? If it's horror, did you scare the shit out of us? If not, rewrite.

6. Budget. Two ways to go here: (1) Write big -- big expensive film = better pay day for the writer, though they'd likely replace you if you're new; or (2) go modest budget and you can shop it down the producer food chain and get an actual screen credit. Better usually to think big and rewrite to small.

7. Page count. 115 is the new 120. 95-100 is better for a comedy/horror/thriller -- what you should be writing as a newbie.

8. What's unique? Don't retread something we've seen... but, flipside, can't go too far off the beaten path. Better to take something existing and do your new take.

9. A CLEAR GOAL for the protagonist. Stakes should be high and we should know what your protagonist WANTS.

E.g. TAKEN. Protag wants to find his daughter. Stakes are life and death (her friend is made a drug addict/dies).

500 DAYS OF SUMMER scrambled the chronology of a standard rom com (but stayed within the traditional beats) and had a down ending. Something familiar; something new.

SOURCE CODE. GROUNDHOG DAY-style loop as a thriller. ALL YOU NEED IS KILL. GROUNDHOG DAY-style loop done as sci fi actioner. THE DAYS BEFORE. GROUNDHOG DAY-style loop done as sci fi actioner.

Even something like MALL COP. DIE HARD in a shopping mall with a mall cop protagonist played for laughs. We get it. We got it and went. (All the laughs in the movie were in the trailer unfortunately. But... it made a bundle.)

So ask yourself, "Is it a movie?"

Would you plop down $12 or even $1 at Red Box to watch the film version of this screenplay?

Feel free to post your logline here and tell us why it's a movie, or add to this list of factors to consider.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Q&A With Television Writer/Producer Alan Cross


Where'd you grow up?    

 I grew up about as far away from Hollywood as you can get:  Anchorage Alaska.   As a kid, I related more to Woody Allen than the hunters and fisherman who populated Alaska.  (I’m not Jewish, but I’ve never been athletic or a “gun guy” or a wilderness enthusiast.  I liked to watch TV and go to the movies.)   

Don’t get me wrong.  I loved living in Alaska.  I had a great family, and an amazing mom.  My mom was terrific for many reasons, but significantly because when I told her what I wanted to do with my life (become a TV writer) she absolutely encouraged and supported me.  There was no hesitation.  No “Gee, Alan, are you sure you really thought this through?”  No.  She knew I could do it and believed in me one hundred percent. 

So here’s what I believe:  Everyone needs someone like that in their lives  – someone who supports their career ambition and embraces their dream.   If you’re surrounded by negative people, get away from them!  Now!  Life is too short. 

Develop a positive mental attitude.  Hollywood can be a cruel town.   You have to be strong.  Persistent.   Thanks, Mom. 

How'd you wind up in LA?   First "big break"/writing gig? 

I came to Los Angeles to go to the University Of Southern California.   I initially got rejected by their Film School but accepted by the University.  So I went anyway because I discovered you could take a lot of film classes without being in the actual film program.   And, when I tried a second time to get into USC film school,  I was finally accepted. 

Three years later I left USC and started working in the Los Angeles area.  If you’re very fortunate, coming out of USC, you direct a great student film that gets you noticed by Steven Spielberg and you live happily ever after.   And if you don’t, you become a Runner.   Which is what I did.  A friend hired me for a runner job with the television accounting department on the Disney Lot in Burbank.  The runner gig eventually led to a job as a Story Analyst for the Disney Sunday Movie department.   I read hundreds of movie scripts and realized a simple truth: Yes, screenwriters have a lot of competition.  But the number of people who write screenplays well,  who know structure and can write good dialogue, is a much smaller number. 

During my career as a Story Analyst I was always writing TV specs, by myself and with writing partners.   With time and persistence, I figured out how much plot I needed for my story.   I figured out how to write a smart joke.  My partner and I finally figured out a story with a strong comedic hook that got us our first professional job as staff writers on a half hour sitcom called CITY. 

Television vs. film.   What are the Pros and Cons of each medium? 

The advantage of writing for television is the short amount of time between writing your script and seeing it filmed and aired on TV.  I’ve often joked that it’s the closest thing to being God.  Because something you imagined, just an image in your head, is quickly and professionally created – made real - just a few days later. 

The cons of television writing?  There are a few.  Mostly the long hours.  Especially if you’re working on a sitcom.  Why?  Because your success depends on the jokes being funny.  But the power and freshness of a joke weakens with repetition.  After you’ve heard the same joke in rehearsals five or six times, you begin to doubt whether or not the joke is still funny.  So new jokes are created to replace the original joke.  In short, there’s a lot of probably needless re-writing.   It’s just the nature of the sitcom beast. 

Group writing in a sitcom is necessary.  But in-group rewrite sessions you can be rewritten to the point where there’s very little left of your original material, even though your name still goes on the script!  For example, your favorite sitcom writer, whose episode of TWO AND A HALF MEN you love, may only have had a handful of their lines make it into the final, aired version of the teleplay. 

The pros of feature writing?  Well, the paychecks are bigger and the high-end production values look great.   Everyone wants to make a feature because of the prestige that is associated with a successful commercial film.  The biggest con to being a feature writer is that it’s a director’s medium.  The writer can be treated badly, ignored, barred from visiting the set, and rewritten to the point where you lose final screen credit. Also, it can take years to get your writing made.   The time frame in television is much faster.

How do you land a TV staff job?  Tips? 

In my experience, if you go on to actually GET the staff job you interviewed for,  you almost have it before you walk in the room.  That’s because the Executive Producer has already read your material and loves it.  They’re looking forward to meeting you and hope you’re not a jerk in person.  All you really have to do is not be an asshole in the meeting, show a genuine interest in the show, and you’re hired.

The big tip:  If the show is already on the air, WATCH THE SHOW before your interview.  Be able to reference episodes/scenes you like.  (If you really need the job, yet hate the show, FAKE your enthusiasm and sell it!)   If it isn’t on the air yet, get a hold of the pilot or pilot script.  Be able to talk about it in glowing terms.  FIND SOMETHING you like about it.  Anything.   During the interview it helps to match the Executive Producer’s energy level.  If they’re quiet and low-key, then being loud with relentless energy won’t go over well.   Or the reverse:  if they’re high energy and restless, being quiet and soft-spoken certainly won’t win them over.  Know how to read the room and adjust. 

So in the end is it wise to “just be yourself?”  Yes.  Absolutely.  Be yourself.   Don’t come across as phony (especially if you’re faking your sincerity!).  But get a bead on the Executive Producer’s personality and try to emphasize the part of yourself that seems to be the best fit.    

Should a new writer write a spec TV pilot? 

The current wisdom is ‘yes.’  This hasn’t always been the case.  Unlike features, newbie TV writers have to prove that their one killer spec script wasn’t a fluke.  You usually have to write at least one other great sample.  If you have two specs written for existing TV shows, then it proves you can mimic another writer’s voice, which is an essential part of the staff writer’s job.  So far, so good.  Writing an original spec pilot is an opportunity to show off YOUR voice. 

And, if your original TV pilot turns out really good, and fits the needs of a network, it’s an opportunity to leap frog the standard job ladder and wind up with your OWN show on the air.  So, yes, write an original spec script.   (And if you get your own show on the air, hire me!)

What’s the hierarchy of the television staff room?  What are the various jobs?   How do you move up?

Well, first, the obvious things:  You move up by working hard, getting along with the other staff writers, contributing great ideas that can actually be used in the show, and respecting the leadership and final word of the show runner.   A tip I would give a beginning writer:  When you’re in the writers room make positive contributions.  It’s EASY to point out the problem in another writer’s pitch (“Sorry, but that idea won’t work because it’s too unbelievable for the character, etc.”)  

If you disagree with another writer’s pitch, don’t just shoot it down, propose what you think is a BETTER idea.  (“I’m not sure our hero would do that, but if you take the first part of what you’re pitching, and you change the second part so that the hero DOESN’T see the knife, then you’ve got some real suspense!”)   Be supportive.  Don’t tear down other writers contributions without offering your own, hopefully better, alternative. 

The Staff Writers 

The staff writers are the people on the bottom of the ladder.   Staff writers are the new guys.  This is their first job.  They’re the least paid.  But they don’t care.  They’re just happy to be there.  They’re on staff to learn and hopefully say something occasionally smart enough to justify their presence.  Still, there’s not a whole lot of pressure on a staff writer on a daily basis. 

No one necessarily expects great story ideas or jokes from a staff writer.  So if you manage to impress people at this level, great!  Your time to impress your boss comes when you’re given your first script assignment and, hopefully,  knock it out of the park.   This is how you keep your job and move up the ladder.

Story Editors/ Executive Story Editors 

These are staff writers with at least one show hire, or one season on a writing staff,  under their belts.  They’re still considered beginners.  No leadership role is expected at this level.  Frequently, mundane writing tasks are assigned to Story Editors, such as writing episode summaries or putting together a show bible.   The pay’s better though no one expects too much of you yet.  You ARE expected to contribute ideas in the writers room.  Here’s a tip:  If you can’t contribute good ideas, then dance.  One writer I knew did this.  He called it the “End Of The Night” dance.  He’d get up on top of the boardroom table and strut like he was at a dance club.  Everybody loved him!  (He was talented too, which always helps.) 

Producer/ Supervising Producer/ Consulting Producer 

These are fairly nebulous titles.   Usually, they indicate you’ve had some experience.  Maybe you’ve been on staff for a couple seasons.  Or you’ve worked on a handful of other shows.  Your salary quote is higher than a Story Editor or Staff Writer.   And thus the expectations for the quality of your work are adjusted upward.   You haven’t priced yourself out of the market yet, so it’s still fairly easy to find work.    No real leadership abilities are asked of you.   Though you may get invited to sit in on an editing session for your episode.    (At least you can ask.)   

The only real wild card here is the Consulting Producer title.   Let’s say you’ve actually been an Executive Producer on another show.  But that show went off the air and you need another job.  There’s a new show you want to write for but they don’t have the money match your pricey Executive Producer salary quote.   You don’t want to work with a lesser title.   What to do?  To make you happy, the studio will call you a Consulting Producer.   There are some hour-long shows with LOTS of Consulting Producers.  They’re usually high-end guys who agreed to the Consulting Producer title and lower pay, in order to get on a writing staff.

The Co-Executive Producer 

The Co-Executive Producer is often designated as the Second In Command  (not always, sometimes it’s just your title).   They run the writers room while the Executive Producer (EP) is in casting or editing, etc.   It’s a lot of responsibility. 

And it’s a hard job to get.  But it’s rewarding.  Leading the writers’ room is challenging.  But the moment you find the emotional arc of an episode, or figure out the moment that makes a story click, it makes the frustration and stress worth it.   So does the paycheck. 

You’ll have to pitch the scenes you’ve written to the Executive Producer when they return to the room.  And you hope they like it.   And if they don’t, you have to be able to accept their word and go back to the drawing board if you have to. 

(Did I mention that you really hope they like it?) 

The Executive Producer (EP) 

This is the person who created the concept and wrote the pilot script that sold the show and got it on the air.  Or, this is the seasoned pro who the network trusts and hires when the original, newbie writer was deemed “not ready yet” to run their own show.  The EP is hired to have a vision for what the show should be.  They have final say about every creative aspect of the show (assuming they’re in sync with what the studio and network execs want.  If not, it can get ugly quick.) 

The EP is sought after by every show department head for their guidance and approval in making decisions.  This makes the EP’s time extremely valuable.  They are constantly being tugged in different directions.  Naturally, they are often out of the writers room for hours at a time, leaving the Co-EP and the writing staff to beat out the next episode of the show on their own, armed only with a rough idea of what the EP wants (because even THEY don’t know what they want yet).   

Some writing staffs will decide whatever direction the EP gave them no longer works.  Or they’ve stumbled on to a better idea.  Left on their own, the staff will beat out a story they believe in, only to have the EP return, hours later, and become angry that their staff strayed from their original mandate.  Or, the writing staff stays true to the direction the EP gave them, only to learn the EP has changed their mind about the direction of a story the staff spent five hours developing while they were gone.   Frustrating?  You bet.  But this frustration is a part of your job.   You want to be an EP yourself someday.  The only way to get there is to please the EP you’re working for now.   

Learn to be flexible if you want to survive and get ahead in the business.

Are we in a Golden Age of television? 

Yes.  I say ‘yes’ only because of the wide range of high quality, scripted, television worlds.  These are worlds we’ve never seen before on TV.  Everything from the sci-fi exploration of LOST, the desperate despair and frenzy of BREAKING BAD to the insightful elegance of MAD MEN.  This is great TV.   You may not like all these shows, but they are all executed with first class production values, great acting, and powerful dialogue that equals and often exceeds what you experience at the movies. 

That’s not to say that crappy shows have gone away.  They’re still here.  And some of them do great in the ratings.

Many top screenwriters have moved to television?  Why? 

Because a lot of TV executives wish they were making movies.   They want to be associated with successful people.  (And to be fair, in concept, who doesn’t?)   Successful movie stars, directors, and screenwriters have an allure to TV networks and studio executives.   They are more likely to buy a pitch from McG than the same basic pitch from an unknown writer.  McG has been successful in the past.  His success immediately brings buzz to a TV project and raises expectations of movie-quality production values. 

Top screenwriters, who are often treated like second-class citizens in the movie world, find that they are kings in television.  The directors work for THEM, and not the other way around.   Which is reason enough to move into television. 

Should your original TV pilot have 4, 5, or 6 acts? 

A few years ago I wrote a one-hour drama pilot for a major network.  I got a few meetings off of the script.  One of the meetings was with a development executive at another studio.  Fox Studios.   The Fox executive told me that when he was sent my pilot script, there was no attachment that identified which studio my pilot had been written for.  But he knew, as soon as he finished it, which studio had commissioned the script.

“ABC, right?” He asked.   Yes.  He was correct.  I asked him how he knew. 

“Because it’s written in five acts,” he told me.  And then went on to explain that 

ABC was the first studio that developed the Five Act structure, simply to squeeze one more set of commercials out of an hour of television.  Genius!  Or maybe I should put that in dubious quotation marks:  “Genius?”  Yes.  Much better. 

So how many acts should your one-hour spec script have?  Here’s what I’d do:  If you’re writing for an existing show, get one of their production scripts and see how many acts they use.  Then plot your spec script with that same number of acts in mind.  Simple!  If you’re writing an original pilot spec?   I’d shoot for five acts.   It shouldn’t be that hard to do.  The fifth act is, essentially just picking a moment in the fourth act and splitting it in two.  If the studio loves your pilot, and wants to buy it, only to notice it doesn’t have a sixth act, I can’t imagine they’d change their minds and pass.  They’ll buy your pilot and ask you to create a sixth act out of your fifth.

Thanks to Stephen for the great questions.   I hope my answers have helped someone somewhere get a better sense of the TV world and I wish everyone the greatest success in selling their work to the Studios and Networks. 

Alan Cross   September 13th, 2010

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Book Review: THE STARTER SCREENPLAY by Adam Levenberg

I know what you're thinking already: Another screenwriting book!?   I've got a shelf full already.  Me, too.  

But here comes a new book unique from all the others currently on the market: THE STARTER SCREENPLAY by Adam Levenberg. 

Hollywood executive and consultant Adam Levenberg has a unique book out with great information.  THE STARTER SCREENPLAY is told from the POV of a creative exec that may be buying your material.  How to avoid the big, "No."

The value of this book comes from Adam's experience as a Hollywood executive who spent thousands of hours speaking with unrepresented screenwriters.   What do you need to learn to have a shot at success.   It's in the book!

An alternate title might be, WHAT SCREENPLAY NOT TO WRITE.  This is the first book to specifically identify types of movies that are difficult for new screenwriters to deliver.  For example, he suggests avoiding an ensemble drama like CRASH.  Why?  Because ensemble movies are exponentially harder to write than a "single hero" movie.

The chapter on "What Not To Write" is the most expansive resource out there on how the majority of amateur screenwriters are DOA at the concept level.  They start out on the wrong foot and never recover.  This wastes months, if not years, and prevents most amateurs from breaking into the pro ranks.

Adam is a huge fan of Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT and has created a companion piece from the executive's perspective.  New screenwriters often get hung up on describing their ideas as "this meets that."  Adam lays out exactly how to use existing movies as templates while incorporating your own creativity and ideas to create something original.  He calls this adding value to your story.

The book is a fast, easy read that delivers essential information on virtually every single page.  Overall, THE STARTER SCREENPLAY is groundbreaking because it delivers information you can't find in other screenwriting books.  If you feel you have advanced as a writer but are hitting a career brick wall, give this one a read.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Should You Get a MFA in Screenwriting?

(My guest blogger today is award-winning writer Steven Arvanites.  I met Steven at the Atlanta Screenwriting Competition workshop -- we both were winners last year.  Nice guy and a unique talent.)

If you have any aspirations to teach it's definitely of enormous benefit.  Also, it marks you as someone who is dedicated and serious about the craft.  Additionally, it opens professional doors through your teachers and mentors.  This is especially true for screenwriting programs at UCLA and USC, and Hollins too.  However, you can win an Academy award with only a G.E.D. high school diploma.  It's all about your passion and dedication to the screenwriting and the wacky business.  But if you are looking for a higher degree I definitely recommend Hollins.  It has much to offer.

In conclusion, I grew as a writer from by teaching, learning from my students and the plethora of guest speakers.  For you are constantly exposed to ideas, structure, dialogue and character development it eventually seeps into your own writing.  That was true for me. 

In the summer of 2009 I was invited by the Hollins Universityscreenwriting summer program director, Dr. Klaus Phillips, to teach two workshops.  My topics were: Reaching Your Creative Goals and How to Pitch.  Both were successful and the students enjoyed learning how to pitch their scripts.  Afterwards, Klaus took me to lunch and offered me a teaching job for the following summer's screenwriting program.  I immediately accepted.  This would be a great opportunity to expand myteaching credentials and to spend the summer on the bucolic campus of Hollins University in Roanoke Virginia.

After two delayed flights on United Airlines -- The Greyhound Bus of The Sky -- Klaus picked me up from the airport.   Before checking into my housing he took me to lunch.  Has anyone ever say no to free food?  In reflection, I think Hollins works so well because his leadership.  He's not only generous and magnanimous, but he knows exactly how to make students and faculty feel at home, and at ease to do their best work.  In other words, a Mensch!

I wandered the sprawling Hollins campus with its antebellum buildings coupled with their state-of-the-art Visual Arts Center and the magnificent $14 million Robinson Library. (It would become my "office" for the summer.) My housing was located across the Highway, but centrally air-conditioned, and had a brand-new TV/DVD player thanks to Klaus.

That evening I met the other members of the faculty.  It was serendipitous for we got along extremely well.  The other faculty was: Tim Albough, Christa Maeker, Joe Gilford, Stephen Prince and Seth M. Donsky (who will be teaching a workshop for NYC screenwriter in October).  All talented teachers; and great fun too!!

My class was intimate, only five students.  I had three women and two men.  The requirement for my advanced class was the first-year basic screenwriting course. Each student had their own unique voice and great stories to tell.  However, we got off to a slow start due to Logline Trauma.  It is amazing how difficult one sentence can be to create.  But after some rewrites the students quickly caught on and we flew for the rest of the term.   In the very first class, I laid down my Rules of Critiquing. In previous teaching situations writer comments were dismissive and non-constructive.   I determined it was not going to happen again. This class needed to be a "safe place" where students can make mistakes and not only learn from them, but flourish.  The first round of criticism must be entirely complementary.

What did you like about the writing?
What did you like about the characters?
Are there particular moments in the writing that delighted you?

Then we did our second round of critiquing -- the criticism. Criticism is not a dirty word.   It is vital to receive criticism in order to make you a better screenwriter.  Surprisingly, my class had a difficult time in praising and an easy time criticizing. But soon all balanced out and everyone's script was better for it.

Each student was required to write seven pages a week.  Next a short movie clip demonstrating "High-Concept". E.g. - Liar, Liar -- the lawyer's son makes a wish that his father must tell the truth for 24 hours.   Please click on my VLOG for an expanded definition.

Also, I was a worksheet monster.  Each session had at least one in-class worksheet and several informational take-home worksheets.  The three hours usually flew by and so did six weeks.

However, teaching only occupied a minority of my time.  With the help of my wonderful and talented friend Hillary Homzie (a professor on the children's literature side) I accepted a personal challenge and wrote a script in two weeks entitled, Mafia In A Dress. I needed new material for the CineStory Writers Retreat (co-sponsored by the Academy Awards) in September.  Location: Idyllwild, California.

I had written a High-Concept script, Mafia In A Dress, two years ago.  The concept was great.  My execution stank.  Not wanting to abandon such a good idea, I rewrote 97% of the original screenplay.  I trudged to the library every day (with the heat hovering at 100° it was a no-brainer) and to my favorite computer terminal and turned out the pages. It was the ultimate Butt In Chair Time.  In two weeks I was finished.  I'm ecstatic at the finished script, and eagerly anticipate my CineStory mentor's critique.

Another benefit of the Hollins M.F.A. screenwriting program are the informative workshops offered.  My lecture was: How To Make A Film for under $10,000 and Win At Two Film Festivals.  I'm officially in love with PowerPoint!

Among the other lecture guests was Scott Kosar the screenwriter of:  The Machinist, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Crazies. What a fascinating story on how, The Machinist got made via the connections he fostered through his UCLA masters degree.  Additionally, screenwriting guru Hal Ackerman spoke about his famous book and his newly published novel; and, finally, Peter Riegert of Animal House fame.  The cumulative experience was a 24/7 screenwriting paradise!

Remember, keep writing!

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Saturday, July 10, 2010

Ten Scripts and Ten Years

A pro writer told me he was at a conference and one of the panelists (working screenwriter) was asked if he had any advice to new writers.   "Quit."  After the laugh from the crowd subsided the writer explained, "It's damn hard work.  The odds are against you.  Spend time with your friends and family.  Exercise.  Do anything else if you can."
The average pro takes ten scripts and ten years to break into screenwriting. 

Saw Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot speak at the Nashville Conference (great event) in '09. They gave themselves ten years to break in. Wrote ten scripts they never showed to anyone before they had one they felt was ready. They broke in the business in five years -- well ahead of schedule -- and went on to write Shrek and Pirates of the Caribbean. 

10,000 hours. 
The excellent book THE OUTLIERS by Malcolm Gladwell has a chapter discussing the early years of The Beatles.  Grinding it out hour after hour in seedy Hamburg clubs is where the developed into pros. Studies show it takes ten thousand hours to master something -- anything. 

So if you write 10-20 hours a week (assuming you have a day gig) that's ten years of consistent effort to hot those 10,000 hours. 

If you can go at it fulltime -- average working year is 2,000 hours -- you can get there in five years. 

Are you writing this many hours? 
If someone asks you, "How can I become a screenwriter?"... Now you know what to tell them. 

Ten years.  Ten scripts.  Ten thousand hours.  Or you could just tell them to quit...

Monday, July 5, 2010

Ten Tips to A Better Screenplay

 (Guest Blogger/Consultant Julia Bergeron provides these tips.  Good advice!)

1.     Make your protagonist active.  So easy to say, so important to do.  Passive protagonists who don’t have a goal and/or don’t pursue their goal are the downfall of potentially great dramas.  Don’t let that be the downfall of your script.  Let your hero act.
2.     Show don’t tell.  I know, I know. You’ve heard that before and plenty of times.  That’s because it’s so important.  Film is visual therefore creating strong images is a key to writing a solid screenplay.  Rather than use exposition to have a character tell us, “Cora is the world’s best sharpshooter,” show a scene where Cora makes an extraordinary shot.  Show.  Don’t tell.
3.     Write in the active present tense.  It’s, “Jericho kicks the door in.” and not “Jericho is kicking in the door.”  Screenplays unfold as we read them and the active present tense reinforces that impression.
4.     Spell check.  Format check.  Script writing software makes it easy to do it.  The other guy will.  You should too.
5.     Read your script out loud. There is no better way to develop an ear for on the nose dialogue than to hear your script out loud.   So, read it aloud.  Better yet have friends read it out loud while you sit silently and listen.  Oh, you’ll want to jump in, to correct them, to explain.  Don’t.  Don’t correct them, don’t interrupt, don’t defend your script.  Just listen to it.  If your readers make mistakes, the readers you submit your script to just might make the same errors.  Fix the errors; don’t blame “bad” readers.  In fact, thank them.  They are allowing you to hear your script’s weaknesses.  A decent actor can make bad dialogue sound reasonable.  But you aren’t writing your spec script for a “decent” actor, are you?  I’m writing mine for Penelope Cruz! And we are all writing for the reader. 
6.     Between the truth and the legend, tell the legend.  This means don’t overwhelm the story with factual, but boring, details.  Alfred Hitchcock said, “Drama is life with all the boring parts cut out of it.” Cut out the boring bits.  While it might be true that it takes a half hour to saddle up a horse, adjust the stirrups, put the bit in, etc., the fact is you are not writing a horse-care manual.  You are writing a screenplay. When it comes to it, just have the cowboy hop on the horse and go.
7.     No chitchat.  Films are expensive to make. The average cost to make a studio film in 2006 was $65 million (it’s more now) plus marketing.  That’s easily $500,000 per page.  It’s unlikely that a producer is going to pay that much money for “Hi, Bob, nice to meet you.”  And when it’s an independent film on a tight budget, there is even less money to spend on chitchat.  So eliminate it.  Enter as late as possible; leave as early as possible for each scene.  Words are money.  Make them count.
8.     Steer clear of  “talking heads” scenes.  What are those?  That’s when two characters sit around and talk.  Maybe they eat or drink but basically they aren’t doing much.  Usually they are just telling all about themselves.  You’ll often find these in the first draft of a “date scene.”  Remember: telling = dull.  Dull = no sale.  However… If you must include a “talking heads” scene, make it active.   The characters can be doing something totally unrelated to what they are talking about. And you can use that activity to reveal completely new and interesting information. For example, if it’s a date scene, rather than have the date happen in a restaurant, figure out a hobby or an interest that your character has.  Maybe tennis.  Or making sushi.  Or skeet shooting.  Every scene is another opportunity to create something visually interesting. Use every opportunity to put something visual on the page.
9.     Grab us emotionally.  In important moments, slow down and let the reader see and feel how those moments or events affect your character.  For example, if two characters kiss for the first time, don’t have them kiss and then immediately race on to the next plot point.  Show the reader how the characters feel about that experience. We want to know what happens, but we also want to how the characters feel about what happens.   Show us what they feel.
10. Last tip.  Have fun!  Love your characters.  Love the story that you’re telling. If you love it, the chances are much higher other people will too.  And if they don’t, well, you had fun writing it.  And now, if you’ll excuse me, I am off for some “fun” writing of my own!
To contact Julia email her: