Category Archives: Screenwriting

Watching Tomorrow This Weekend

I saw one of the best Science Fiction films I’ve seen in a while, this weekend. Tom Cruise’s Edge of Tomorrow. I’m not a huge Tom Cruise fan – I’ve never really forgiven him for Days of Thunder, but being the open-minded kind of guy I am I gave him another chance. The buzz on social media among the film folks I follow was strong, so EoT got the popcorn money this week. It’s everything folks who work on the creative side of the movie business say the movie business needs, but it’s the textbook case study for why the business side of the movies works the way it does.

The film has everything a great summer blockbuster should have – an inventive story, taut writing, solid star power in the leads, off-the-charts special effects and dynamic action sequences. You genuinely care about the characters and there are enough light moments to bring a smile and make it feel real. Yeah, there are a couple of plot holes and then ending isn’t as inventive as the first 90 minutes, but it’s still a top 10% SF film.

The only problem with this summer blockbuster is it didn’t do big boffo blockbuster box office. And that is going to impact inventive original storytelling for major studio motion pictures. Here’s why – studios used to want a built-in fan base for a summer tentpole movie. Now they’ll require it. You have to have lines of geeks or tweenagers camped out at the theater for opening night. Where a 30 million dollar opening weekend was once solid, now that has to be the domestic Saturday night and it better have done $70-90 mil oversees the weekend before. Studios have seen the half billion dollar franchise and that’s what they want – there better be a hundred million dollars in pent-up demand before the script even gets its first set of notes.  Because EoT didn’t have a generation of comic books to stand on or a series of niche genre novels or even a long cancelled TV show to get behind, it opened to a great chorus of “meh.”

Only after it began to run and critics started raving and the film literate began to talk it up, did EoT begin to get some traction. Even then the headlines weren’t that this was a cool film with a great POV and a solid story. No, the narrative became that Tom Cruise got beat by a girl with cancer in a love story that tween girls came out for in droves.  All because there was an existing fan base for the book.

So the next time you feel the urge to wonder why Hollywood doesn’t produce anything original, remember where you were when they did. You were probably next door, with a theater full of orthodontic girls, crying their eyes out to The Fault in Our Stars, a story everyone in the auditorium knew by heart.

Waiting

The single hardest thing about screenwriting is waiting. And man, is there a lot of waiting. Finish a script? No, not really. It goes to someone. A reader. An assistant. A manager, agent, producer, studio, director, talent… Sometimes, it seems as if there’s as much waiting to hear back from people as there is writing. I’m in that mode right now. One script with a producer looking for a green light on financing my first independent film, and another with a network to see if they’ll come play with my movie of the week. It’s exciting and frustrating and more than a little nerve-racking.

I used to think I was a fairly patient guy, but this gets to you. I’ve started other projects. One for research on a feature,  did a rewrite of my animation spec and I’m about half way through a draft rewrite of my action adventure thriller. If nothing else, the nervous energy of waiting creates a good deal of work at the keyboard. It’s good to just lose oneself in the motivations of a character or reworking a plot point to get the mind off wondering how things are going. In the advertising world this was never a big problem – you did your client pitch and before you got back to the agency after the presentation, there was another deadline looming. I’m new enough at the screenwriting bit to not have those issues yet.

Since I only have self-imposed deadlines and way more time to kill while things move on other people’s schedules – I really get a lot done. The website has been tweaked. Catching up on blog posts. Fixed the twitter feed problem. I’m not to the point of cleaning the garage, but I can feel that coming. Nah… that can wait.

Why Woody Allen is a Genius

 
I read a quote from Woody Allen. He was asked, “What’s the hardest part of making a movie?” Allen replied – getting the money. I get it. This morning I’m preparing for a 6-hour trip to spend an hour with a producer and a banker so he can tell his investors that our group knows what it’s doing, and they should commit enough money to make a small independent film.

I think the entire project hinges on this one meeting. But at this stage I can say that about every meeting. I’ve met with CFOs, CEOs, a parade of Vice Presidents and ad-hoc committees. I have happily and, I hope politely, answered the same question, the same way a dozen times. And now we’re down to fishing or bait-cutting.

If this meeting goes well, then in two weeks a Board of Directors in a far-away wood-paneled room will take a recommendation from this man and give the command to move forward. If that happens as we’ve presented the concept – there should be development money attached and, bang, we’ll be making a movie. If… If… If.  It’s close to out of my hands at this point. The story is terrific. My draft script is solid and the producer has made a ton of films. We’ve even built a strong marketing and business case for the ROI wonks

I really think it’ll get that legendary greenlight.

Then all hell breaks loose. We’ll go to production.  And maybe, just maybe, Good Lord willing, we’ll be watching our movie this time next year. At that point, I really hope that Mr. Allen is right, and this has been the tough part.

Writing is Rewriting

There is a really good reason for clichés like writing is rewriting. They are usually correct. Kinda like stereotypes. This week has been rewrite week. I’m on rewrite number 6 or maybe 7 on my Rom Com. As this is the first time I’ve dealt with “Hollywood” I don’t know that this is typical or unusual, but the working writers I’ve talked to tell me this is how it is.

Originally, this story started out as a comedy with a female lead. I sent it to my story reader and she said it needed romance.  I put in a little side arc for two of the characters as a romance.

When it went to the manager he said, “No, no, no. The lead needs the romance.”

Rom Coms have to have the lead in the romance. When I tried to explain that it wasn’t a Rom Com, just a Com, I was told that if I want to sell it, with a female lead, it needs to be a Rom Com. Rewrite three – add more romance. And wrap it around a holiday.

Then it went to the Producer. Still needs more romance. Amp it up he said. Use a different holiday.

Here’s the rub. I’m about as romantic as a tree. Ask my wife. The last time I brought home flowers was … well, neither of us remembers. I’ve never read a romance novel, never knowingly even watched a Romantic Comedy – Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan would have starved if they waited on me to buy a ticket.

This quandary led to two revelations – One, thank the Good Lord for Netflix; and Two, how do people watch this crap? I watched a couple. I’ll not name names but Diane Keaton and Reese Witherspoon have made better films. Not a single explosion in 240 minutes of movies. I did not know they could do that.

I sit here rewriting in a genre I don’t know, going with my gut and wishing for a car chase, a bomb plot or a mystery shooter. But I want to sell this. So now it’s a romance, it happens during a holiday that’s not the same holiday as every other Rom Com and I’ve got a solid 30 pages of notes recommendations and suggestions.

I’m rewriting and rewriting and I guess something good is coming of it. I did get my wife some flowers. Who knew? Christmas Poinsettias are only five bucks at Home Depot.

The Game Changer

One of the biggest things to impact screenwriters in the last several years is the new Black List 2.0. The original Black List is the brainchild of Franklin Leonard, a producer in Hollywood who saw a number of really good scripts that hadn’t been produced as films. He polled his colleagues for their favorites and that list became the annual end-of-the-year Black List of unmade movies. It was a cool idea and has given deserving scripts buzz through the holidays when managers, agents and producers catch up on their script reading. It also gave Franklin a load of credibility in the business.

Last month he introduced the Black List 2.0. BL2 is a list of scripts that also haven’t been made into movies. But they are raw scripts, coming straight from writers submitting them, not people discovering them. To filter these, Mr. Leonard has contracted script readers to rate those films and compile a list of the best of the bunch. For $25 a month to join the site and another fee to pay the readers, writers have a conduit straight into the Hollywood studio system.

This is a Herculean task. Every bartender, waiter and busboy in the greater Los Angeles Southland has a script waiting to be discovered. If your script sucks they tell you and the world. You can rewrite it or go back to pouring that Margarita for table number 6. If your script is great… well a couple of talented writers have already signed with agents, and at least one script has been optioned for a movie.

Now for the Law of Unintended Consequences. I see two industries that are going to be heavily impacted by this. First, are all the screenplay readers and consultants in the world. There are a lot of these folks who charge way more than $125 to read, rate and give coverage on scripts. They are about to see business dry up and blow away as writers look to BL2 as a means to be seen and a shot at the big time in one move. 95% of independent script readers can’t offer this because they don’t have the pull the Black List does.

The second group will be more interesting to watch – Screenwriting contests. For years, the best way to be seen was to win or place well in a contest. The Academy’s Nichol Fellowships, the PAGE awards, the Austin Screenwriters Conference and a few others; do well in those, the right people saw your name and recognized the quality of your work. This only happens three or four times a year with a huge run-up and writers sweating blood at the deadline. Pay your entry fees and wait weeks or months for the results.

Not anymore. BL2 means those same scripts get seen everyday. They get rated on a daily basis in an ongoing contest of the best work. Now there’s only one contest. And the winner doesn’t get a trophy, they get a career. Why waste your time trying to be the best amateur out there when BL2 makes you a professional? Last year the large contests received 6-7000 entries each. I bet that number drops to a fraction as writers figure the return on investment.

Writers vs Readers

In an effort to compress my screenwriting education I’ve looked to several resources for input. But what do you do if you get conflicting advice?

Craig Mazin is a respected screenwriter, former WGA board member and, along with John August, he’s half of the excellent Scriptnotes podcast. I listen every week.
Danny Manus
is a script consultant, author, former producer and sells his services as a screenwriter’s resource for everything from how to write a logline, to pitching, to giving notes.
Through the Dallas Screenwriters Association, I had the chance to hear Danny speak. I liked what I heard enough to pony up a few bucks for his one-day seminar on pitching and how to garner interest from agents, managers and producers. It was good stuff. So much good info that I had a hard time taking notes and keeping up. Hey, Danny – would it be that hard to offer handouts? I think I’m supposed to buy the book.

Now, Craig thinks what I’ve done is stupid. He thinks that all script consultants are charlatans. That paying money for professional script readers to give notes is a waste of money. He famously takes umbrage at people who aren’t in the movie writing business trying to tell those working to get in, how to do it. He logically argues that if they could do it, wouldn’t they?
He may be right. There are some who charge a ridiculous amount. A thousand bucks to read my script? Please. But, I’ve listened to his advice and arguments on these screenwriting gurus and it seems he believes that spending money on learning the craft is a bad idea.
Here’s my take – I’ve bought a lot of books – I bought McKee first, and still don’t know what he’s talking about in most of Story. I invested in Cat Saving techniques and a couple of others. I’ve found a couple of really good reasonably priced script readers – ScriptGal and Scott the Reader. Yeah, they don’t promise to waltz my work into studio execs, but they have helped identify plot holes, structure issues, characters that need more depth and what does and doesn’t make sense. It’s been a great, affordable education. I’m doing this to try and get paid to tell a story, not spend the rent. I’m also starting from scratch here.
I went to the Austin Screenwriters Conference this year and thanks to what I learned from Mazin, Manus and the incomparable Stephanie Palmer’s Good In A Room pitching tips, I made the finals of the pitch competition. It really helped that I’d paid some smart people to look at my script and incorporated their significant changes. That lead to a recommendation to a manager. Who has since moved my script on to a prolific producer. Gears are turning. So far it’s been a good investment. Lord willing it will pay off.
This step in my education has taught me that not everybody is always right. Mazin makes good points – buyer beware – there are crooks out there. But then so too do the good folks who are charging a fair price for excellent service and information.

Fade In

The blank page is the writer’s equivalent of echoing footsteps in a giant, empty warehouse. I like that. The cool thing I discovered about screenwriting is I can fill that warehouse with anything. I Am A GOD! Creator of worlds.

Be right back, God has to haul the recycling bin to the curb.

A year ago, I’d never written a script for anything longer than about 12 minutes. And those were industrial films and corporate videos. Most of my really good stuff has been for radio. 60 whole seconds. But then I happened into a client meeting and discovered a topic that I walked out thinking, “this is a movie.” That simple thought changed my focus.
I wrote an outline/treatment of the idea and pitched it to some people. They liked it. Now, you should know that 35,000 people write movie scripts every year. Hollywood makes 250 movies. Sane people don’t like odds like that. However, it’s not because Studios don’t want to make more movies. It’s because 34,500 of those scripts just aren’t very good. The other ones go into the hopper to happen later or get reworked or forgotten or die of old age.
I started trying to learn the craft. Online courses, conferences, symposiums, “script gurus.” I bought scriptwriting software. And then I wrote my script.
It was terrible.
But I sent it to a reasonably priced script reader who patiently explained things like format, exposition, structure and character arcs. But most of all she said I wasn’t that bad and should keep trying. So I rewrote. And rewrote and rewrote. I’m up to about version 15 now.
Then I wrote another script. And another. And another. I just finished script number six. It’s light years better than that first draft.

And I’ve learned I am not God. I’m just the guy who gets to see the movie before anybody else.