Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Interesting Example

I have no idea who this guy is but I found this very interesting. He basically annotates the opening page(s) of a screenplay. There are more styles of writing than one can shake a stick at, but this one is as good as any. Enjoy.

I've been writing up a storm. I reoutlined the original story for the spec pilot and have been writing new backstory on each of the relationships. Instead of the individual bios which I normally do, I've been writing "histories" of the individual relationships, the dynamics and how they drive one another. This feels much more productive to me for some reason.

Also, Monday night I sat down and wrote the first 60 pages of a story I've been thinking about since July. I'm really digging these pages so I'm going to write the rest of the outlined pages tonight and let it rest while I start back in on the pilot. This is my year to finish things and I'm on a roll!

Next year will be my year to revise them. :-) I'm also catching up with my HEROES, DEXTER, and BSG viewing.

I encourage folks to write spec features not just for sale, but also because this is how you get representation, get work and it is one of your only chances for folks to see the work that you do, what your point of view is, and what you bring to the form. Spec screenplays are also the main way that screenwriting and films evolve. During my brief stint in Hollywood, the scripts that I remember -- PULP FICTION, SEVEN, AMERICAN BEAUTY, SIXTH SENSE, TRAINING DAY -- were all written on spec. I have definitely read some great assignment work, but most of the truly great material was written by a solitary writer, at home. Spec material, if it is solid, will get you "read" at the junior and middle levels which is how you make your name and get on "writer lists." This is how you get meetings. Once you get meetings the rest is up to you.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Weekend Blackout and Holiday Greetings

I'm traveling to the Bay Area this weekend for my novel writing group. While there I do not anticipate being able to post to the blog (not like I'm all fastidious to begin with) so please grouse amongst yourselves. And Bianca: I swear to you I'm going to post that manager series. I just haven't had the time to re-read it and make sure I'm making sense (a big problem these days).

In other news, remember way back in February when I mentioned holiday cards? I know you've all been networking your tails off with one another inside and outside the industry. Well, this is your chance to get in someone's brain in a non-threatening way. One of the few things you can do that's business but feels purely social.

True to my word, I'm gearing up for the holidays myself. My christmas cards are designed, I'm finishing up the mailing list (very short this year, but a few key names) then that goes to the printer -- I normally try to hand-letter them in this insane italic script I learned back in the 4th grade (very hippy dippy school system, don't ask), but I'm beating back the OCD this year and just doing either preprinted stickers (eek, how Targ├ęt can I get?) or biting the bullet and dropping precious $$ on pre-printing.... We'll see. This option is much cheaper than in years past.... Anyway, I'll let you know how it all turns out. I hope that everyone out there is sending out their holiday greeting cards. This is the perfect time to remind folks that you exist and make sure they have a way to contact you.

A few tips:

DO NOT MAKE THIS AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY. A simple: "happy holidays" with a handwritten gentle reminder of the last time you met/saw one another "great to see you at that screenwriting conference/Britney's party, let's stay in touch in the new year" and then drop your contact info at the bottom (the pre-printing makes this seem more professional).

Address (optional)
Contact number

Most offices are sort of automated as far as contact info goes, so there is a pretty good chance you'll be added to the rolodex using this method, and as any insider who has ever rolled a call will tell you, being in the rolodex vastly increases your chances of making the call sheet or (gasp) getting through. Make sure you name drop in a way that isn't obnoxious, but that will catch the eye of an overworked 2nd assistant who is the one who decides if your card makes it in the right pile. And don't send holiday cards to someone you haven't actually met. Fan cards to talent, OK, unsolicited holiday cards to agents and execs... a little creepy.

And thanks to Scott the Reader for the link and the coveted spot on his blog roll. You are a true gentleman.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

I'm Famous...Kind Of

Scott the Reader posted this in response to my Coverage post. I feel famous -- his blog gets waaaay more traffic than my little diary here.

And there must be something in the water, cuz UNKNOWN SCREENWRITER also recently posted about this, although from a different angle and he links to this solid little piece that lays out the bare bones of exactly what a reader's job is.

OK, back to the salt mines.... After I finish watching A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, of course. ;-) Talk about logic holes!!

Draft Numero Dos

I'm working on the second draft of my spec pilot right now. I'm really pushing because last week I met a writer from a one-hour drama show (I actually know him from just being in Hollywood and going to parties, but we've never worked together), and he agreed to read my spec. He's shooting his episode right now, so I've got 10 days to get myself together and put my best foot forward. I feel very confident about this pilot, perhaps foolishly, but I've only done one full draft of it and it is popping. I'm working on backstory for all of my characters and trying to lay to rest all of the logic/plot questions brought up in my notes session last week.

All of which brings me to this question: What do you guys do to stay focused? I have wicked ADHD and I normally drink about 10 cups of coffee per day when I'm under the gun like this. I'm trying new and different things this year so I thought I'd reach out to you all. I never pulled an all-nighter in college, but I think I may have to break my perfect record if I don't drink up. This is one of those damned if I do, damned if I don't situations since the coffee makes me so dang jittery I'm walking around with a dry mouth, wide eyes, and a paranoid mentality. :-)

Also, I hope you all have been paying attention to all these articles about digital/web-movie making. I've been preaching this to everyone I've ever met with -- and you can ask any filmmaker, actor or aspirant who has ever taken a talent meeting with me -- get some $$$ and make a movie yourself, and then post a comment here so we can all go and see it.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Notes Coming Out My Ears

First up, thanks to Will for the link on your blog and the advice -- I'm putting it to use already! I reoutlined the feature spec and found some good holes, so I think if I can figure out a more concrete objective for my protagonist, one that is thematically linked to his internal conflict, then I'm golden.... Until the next draft anyhow. :)

In other news, Saturday I went to a get together and ran into a few television writers. Last year, a friend got me into a table read-thru and the writers' room during a taping day and I was able to watch them solve a few last minute problems and break a story that played later in the season. Very cool stuff. It was nice to see those folks and catch up with them and feel like an insider while they dished.

My experience working as an executive doesn't really help me in situations like that, not directly, anyway. No one cares which directors I've worked for, or what credits I have, or what studio was paying my car allowance. These are writers who are, generally speaking, well-paid, they are at the top of their game industry-wise, and for the most part, only looking up. I mean nothing to them. I do have basic social skills from giving and taking pitches for the last ten years, so I didn't embarrass myself or nothing.

Then, tonight, this manager I've been chatting with called me about the spec pilot. He liked it, feels like it will get me work (yippee!) and gave me notes. Ugh. Nothing crazy, I don't need to reconceive the pilot, or the structure, just deepen some things that I had sketched in, make a bit more of a meal out of the basic character conflicts/objectives, and clarify some plot points. So, tonight I'm typing up what he and I talked about (after this post...), then tomorrow morning I'm off to Starbucks for a few hours to see what I can get done. I want to get the pilot out to a couple of drama writers I met at the party who've agreed to read it and give me pointers. I want a nice polished piece before I hand it over to the agent. Then, I have to write a current sample. This never ends, does it? Luckily, I'm hyperactive.

Chris: I've been asking around, but I don't really talk to the production company contacts I used to have, and studios use union readers. I'll keep you posted if I hear of anything. My suggestion to you is to dust off your resume, put the non-Hollywood stuff at the bottom, and at the top put a section that details your writing related/story training stuff. E.g. Robert McKee's story structure class, that part-time MFA in Screenwriting you've pursued, or the festivals you placed in -- I can write a longer post about what folks look for in a reader if you want, but there's an excellent book called READING FOR A LIVING that I highly recommend. It is dated, but for the most part that job hasn't changed since it was invented. Once you've got the resume reconfigured, go ahead and start sending it out along with a copy of sample coverage. Sample coverage should be for a script that is out in the world, but unproduced. For example, THE TRUMAN SHOW was the first script that I did coverage on (How old am I?! Yikes!). At that time, it was well-known as a solid, but flawed screenplay, something that everyone agreed should be made, but no one could seem to pull it together. That is, of course, until Jim Carrey came along.

I was never able to get work as a reader because I'm far to literal to write summary, fortunately for me I was able to hustle my way into an executive job. I always looked for readers who had some formal training, either in screenwriting or literary analysis. I didn't like to use readers who read for too many folks, but always wanted readers who had experience. My main criteria were: good grammar (cuz I need all the help I can get), objective analysis (meaning, I didn't want a reader who felt that their job was to pass or recommend material to me, but rather someone who understood dramatic structure well enough to know if a screenplay worked and why or why not), and consistency (both in terms of their taste in material and their work habits). I employed about 5-7 readers in addition to reading myself and aside from my core group, used about 2-3 readers on a rotating basis. Every production company is different, and generally it is the story editor who hires the reader, so directing your queries to that person, or his/her assistant is a safe bet.

Good luck with all of that, I don't think the reader route is for everyone, and certainly don't think it's the only (or the best) way to learn story structure. Actually making the scripts you've written is the most effective teacher, especially if you can find filmmakers who meet or exceed your own skill level. That's my advice, anywho, worth what you payed for it minus depreciation.... :-)

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Coverage Tips [UPDATED -- I forgot to label it!]

I've posted a little bit about this before, but thought I'd expand.

The only coverage that matters is bad coverage. Sure, folks will tell you that a Recommend can get you work, get you a meeting, and agent, blah blah blah, but let me tell you from experience -- I've blown off positive coverage with no ill effects, but every bit of bad coverage I've received on a project has dogged my footsteps.

What is coverage, exactly? It's a two to four-page report generated by a (usually freelance) "reader" which summarizes and evaluates a manuscript. It typically comes with a cover page that gives an at-a-glance "snapshot" of the project: logline, brief description of the story, and a grid that provides a short-hand for the reader's evaluation of the major elements of a script. Usually, the scores are on a five point scale and cover Characters, Plot, Dialogue, and Story Structure. Then, there's that little box that matters most: OVERALL.

Readers frequently have a disproportionate amount of power in the industry. Sometimes it is justified (I worked with some crackerjack union guys when I was at the studio, folks with a deep understanding of story), often it isn't. While there are shops where the head of the studio is a literate, well-read cineaste, and there are also those where the boss doesn't even read coverage and instead each movie depends on the exec's pitching skills and the effectiveness of the lobby from its agents and managers. The only way to get through all of this is by mastering your craft, keeping your eye on the marketplace, and networking, aka the good old fashioned way.

There are ways to "write with the reader" in mind that won't compromise the artistic integrity of the script, but these things are best thought of after you've put the piece through your own rigorous artistic machine, not before. That said, let's go through a few:

1. Professional formatting.
I cannot tell you how often I've heard of folks tossing a script because it came in a 3-ring binder. That is about as asnine as putting a script in one in the first place. And two wrongs don't make a right. Because you can't count on getting a reader with a sense of work ethic, please show yours by submitting screenplays secured with 2 brads, one in the top hole and one in the bottom hole -- and go the extra mile to get "industry standard brads" i.e. ACCO Solid Brass Fasteners, 1 1/4 inch No. 5. Hollywood is a rigid, image conscious place. The nail that stands up gets hammered down. Remember that.

2. To paraphrase Cameron Crowe (stealing from Billy Wilder, I think), write the script as if you're writing a letter to a friend.
I say this in regards to the descriptive action, of course. I do not recommend you do this on the first, or even fourth pass. Wait until you are ready to send the script out, then, carefully, go through it and keep in mind that someone is reading this. Does your description invite the reader into your story? Are you clear and unambiguous in your choices? Can someone reading the script enjoy the time s/he spends with you and your story? Shane Black has made a career out of this, and is worth studying. I recommend reading only the descriptive text to test flow. This is also another candidate for the little black box method, and if you have a friend who loves you, perhaps you can provide enough beer and pizza to get them to do the reading for you and you can sit back and listen. Or you can use the Final Draft voice box, but I wouldn't recommend it -- no poetry.... Still, any port in a storm.
3. Plug Logic Holes.
Readers love to find logic problems with a script. If you have done a solid job with characterization and the tone feels right, these types of problems will be forgiven, but there are readers out there who rejoice in finding flaws in a screenplay's structure and will allow these flaws to dominate their analyses of a screenplay. Find as many logic-minded folks as you possibly can and get them to comb through the screenplay. Address their problems. Even if it kills you and upsets the delicate dramatic balance you've crafted. Even if it costs you a laugh. Don't get nutty and throw the baby out with the bathwater, but at the very least, tip your hat to the logic-fascists.
4. Keep your tongue out of your cheek and don't wink at anybody.
While you want the script to be reader-friendly, don't go overboard and put on a show just for the reader. I'm sure Scott the Reader has a few things to say about this, I dug round the archive but don't have the time to find a good post to link. Anyway, executives, producers, directors and readers hate it when writers "break the fourth wall" and ruin the flow of a screenplay by facing camera and doing a softshoe.

All of this sort of assumes you've exercised basic craft and found a story that's compelling. Again, that OVERALL box is a killer, but if you can get high marks in the other areas a story is evaluated for -- i.e. Characters, Plot, Dialogue, Story Structure -- you may get passed to the next level... underpaid story editor.

Good luck and toss questions where you think they'll do the most damage. :-)

Back to the Beginning

Hey, everybody! I turned in the script last week to the indie director. They couldn't read the first copy (software incompatibility issues), so I had to wait another day and a half to hear from them after I sent the second copy (thank goodness for word RTF files). I've been a bundle of nerves and Tums waiting to hear from them, and sorry to say, not the best company for my poor little Stinky Cheese puppy dog.

Anyway, last night, I finally heard from the local producer. The director read the script Monday night and she cried at the ending. And not because it was awful. :-) So after rushing out to buy myself a pint of Haagen Das chocolate peanut butter ice cream and then eating it, of course, I've been waiting for her notes.

This project is a beast. A 130-page script that I had to basically rewrite from page one. I managed to cut 18 pages out, but the director wants to add to a storyline I'd been trying to minimize, so I know the next pass is going to require a rethink of the dramatic structure. It's all good, though. I'm trying to keep it out of my head until I actually get the notes back, so I'm turning to another draft of the spec feature I drafted in August. It's slow-going....

Anyway, I decided not to pursue the job opp. I'm going to kick networking into high-gear instead and try to meet as any showrunners as I can over the next few months. I haven't done that because I didn't have any current samples worth passing around, but I will by the end of December.

P.S. Scott the Reader is trying to get a Koffee Klatch going. Join him! Screenwriters UNITE!!

P.P.S. The pic is from Natalie Dee.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Another Job Call

Every six months or so, I get a call to see if I would be interested in "meeting" about a job. I don't take every one of these that floats down the river, but if I think the person who is inquiring is interesting, or if it would just be rude for me to turn it down, I'll go in. I'm 99% committed to my artistic poverty and the whole notion of writing until I sell something, but there is that little niggle of doubt that haunts me. When I get calls like the one I got this morning, that doubt trebles in urgency and the next thing I know, my eyelid is twitching again....

This morning an agency friend called to ask me if I wanted to go in and meet with a client who just got a boatload of financing and a distribution deal with a pretty substantial marketing committment behind it. As you may or may not know, having money to make a movie, getting a movie into theaters, and spending money to let folks know the movie is made and out there, are each entirely separate things and have to be approached as such. So, this place sounds like it could be set up pretty nicely. In my previous incarnation as baby shark in Gucci pumps, I would have shown up with double-shot soy lattes for everyone, but, with my goals in sight (the writing is getting much much better), I'm not as interested in the dance as I would have been this time last year.

The irony here, of course, is that the dance is just that, a dance. I call her, she invites me to meet and it's on from there. Here's a little Hollywood for you:

an office meeting -- she's not that serious, but if I can tapdance well enough she might tease me;

a coffee date -- she's not that serious, but she doesn't want to insult me so she's playing the "we're close enough to not need to do the whole formal thing with one another," tap dancing required;

a breakfast/lunch date -- she's serious, but I'm still too junior for her to beg, a softshoe is in order;

a dinner -- she's serious, real serious, if I play my cards right I might pry out enough money to buy a real house somewhere near the beach, no dancing, but a nice rhythmic swaying would be prudent;

a dinner at Mr. Chow's -- how serious am I about this job? They'll double whatever I ask, but they will own me.

If I were looking for an exec/producing for hire gig, this one wouldn't be it. I'd shoot for something at a studio-based production company, something at a branded entertainment deal (meaning they already have a name for themselves, so you're pushing product) because when you've been dead as long as I have, you gotta find a way to make what's old look new (Chris Rock has a funny blue riff on this that I won't repeat here), and the best way to do that is following a mandate and filling a slate -- the assembly line assures that you won't wont for submissions, and the brand guarantees that you have a wide mouth ready to swallow whatever you're serving.

To build a new company, from the ground up, with all the pressures independent financing brings (e.g. the slate has to hit the ground running, there's little time for development because the money is coming from individual institutions, not some corporate board with a thousand other ways to monetize your failures), is a huge endeavor. I've participated in a few of those and they're startups, and have the same advantages and disadvantages of every start up.

Anyway, I might get sucked into the meeting out of guilt and loyalty. But I won't like it. I'd rather be home, writing.

Monday, October 09, 2006

And Another Excellent Bargain

My friend who has donated her services for a charity auction has just informed me that her book agent, Richard Abate at ICM-NY, has also donated his. This is a grand opportunity to get feedback from someone who normally wouldn't even see your query letters. Take advantage, please! And pass it along to anyone you know with a book manuscript. The auction's not been highly publicized, so I think whoever submits for this one will get an excellent "deal."

Thursday, October 05, 2006

A Good Cause

A friend is auctioning off her services. She's an excellent reader and excellent analyst. Please consider donating to what promises to be a good cause. I'm a big softie and reading through the website moved me enough to post this here. Please spread the link, bid and/or donate as you are able.


In other, more frivolous news, I'm watching Ugly Betty again. Already had two big belly laughs and the show is only halfway done. I'm not digging the arch-nemesis, or that dumb Fashion TV bit they keep overplaying, but the freaking fight between the sister and Gina Gambaro was the best ever. Also funny -- the line, "You can take my bunny, but you can't take my spirit." I saw it coming a mile away by that girl really sold it.

My biggest question: why are they Mexican? In New York? Queens, no less?

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Oh Yeah, Baby

I dig it.

Count Me In

I was over at one of my favorite new blogs: Unknown Screenwriter, and he has a (meme? thread?) from Red Right Hand. My DSL has been down since Saturday, so I'm straggling in with the first page in the short I held the read-thru for last month. I hope you guys like it....

P.S. This is the Unpolished Turd... er, version.