Friday, September 27, 2019

What I Learned at The Portal Virtual Reality Festival

Last weekend I attended The Portal virtual reality festival hosted by Film Independent and LMU. Prior to this I had tried a virtual reality installation at Comic-Con and done a few promotional virtual reality experiences in Google Cardboard, but the technology was still pretty new to me.

I stepped off the elevator into the Playa Vista campus of LMU’s film school – a spacious, airy floor of a large building (full disclosure: I teach a screenwriting class at LMU). I was early for the 90-minute time slot I had reserved. I was directed to a “VR Bar” where I took a seat and was given an Oculus headset loaded with a selection of five short VR experiences to try while I waited. I selected a documentary on tennis player Arthur Ashe. When it was over, I lined up for the main event.

There were eleven virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) installations scattered throughout the space. During my 90-minute time slot, I was able to experience four VR installations and one AR installation. Afterwards, I went back to the VR Bar and watched two more VR experiences (there must be a better term for those!) The eight sessions I ultimately did ranged from three minutes to eighteen minutes in length. Most of the experiences in the main program were done standing where I could turn or walk in the VR or AR space. One of the main experiences, and the experiences at the VR Bar, were done sitting. The installations used a variety of headsets, including the Oculus Go and Vive.

The VR Bar

What Works and What Doesn’t

The virtual reality effect was excellent overall. The sense of being in a 3D space was convincing. Most of the programs had extremely high production value, though there were a couple that seemed more like student projects. Some of the headsets were wired to computers, which felt a bit unsafe in the standing VR experiences. In one, the narrative led me to turn continuously clockwise to follow the action, causing the cable to wrap around me. The wireless headsets were much better, though all the headsets rested heavily on my cheeks.

Creatively, the virtual reality in most of the experiences didn’t seem to add much over what the experience of watching a traditional filmed version of the material might have been. There were two notable exceptions. First was an experience called Gloomy which was a Tim Burton-esque Claymation piece in the vein of Nightmare Before Christmas. It played out in dioramas with characters that appeared to be a few inches tall, sort of like looking into animated doll houses or toy displays. It was really cool, but the style wouldn’t be appropriate for many stories.

The second was a piece called Traveling While Black, a documentary about the Green Book. It was mostly set in a famous Black-friendly diner. It was a sit-down installation, which often positioned me in a booth in the virtual diner. There were mirrors along one side, which were used creatively – for example, showing a scene from the 50’s in the mirrors while inside the diner it was present day. Also, there was an interview with Tamir Rice’s mother* where the effect was as if sitting across from her in a booth as she told her story. It was incredibly powerful.

Traveling While Black Installation

In other cases, the VR was either extraneous, simply letting the setting expand into my peripheral vision, or downright annoying. Any time the camera moved in the virtual space while I was standing still in the physical space, I felt disoriented and off balance. A particularly bad scene involved standing on the front of an animated train zooming through the countryside. It was so disorienting I turned to look at the train conductor instead of the scenery. A friend told me she did the same thing in that experience.

Also annoying was the sitting experiences that required me to turn all the way around in my chair to view action behind me. For example, one scene in the documentary on Arthur Ashe put me next to the net on a tennis court. Ashe shook hands with his opponent and then walked behind me. I watched the opponent get into position and then stand waiting. I realized I was supposed to look back at Ashe directly behind me. Twisting around was uncomfortable, and I immediately wished they’d placed the camera so the action stayed in front of me. The idea of VR is that you have a 360-degree environment, but it’s still usually most satisfying just to look forward at the action.

The AR installation I tried had some advantages. In AR, you see a virtual overlay on top of the real world. Though the particular AR experience I did was fairly simplistic – an actor delivering a Shakespeare monologue while a tree went through its seasons behind him – it was nice to be able to move around the virtual actor with no disorientation or fear of falling. Although many of the VR experiences promised you could move within the VR space, I rarely took more than a couple steps in any direction. Any more would have risked stumbling or bumping into the walls. 

The Economics of VR

It was clear to me that VR has some big structural disadvantages for large audience venues that mean it will never replace movie theaters or theme parks. First, most of the standing VR experiences were in large empty rooms to allow the participant to move around safely. Almost all allowed only a single user at a time, although a couple allowed two people on opposite sides of the room. That means there was a significant amount of space required per participant.

At The Portal festival, it appeared that there were about thirty people allowed in each time window. Most participants still only got to do three or four of the eleven experiences in the 90 minutes, despite each experience being relatively short. I really hustled to squeeze in five. Also, there were probably twice as many festival staffers as users at any given time. Typically, one staffer was in the room to start the VR, clean the headset between uses, and make sure the participant didn’t trip or run into anything while in the VR space. An additional staffer stood outside reserving times for participants, and a couple managed the main check-in table.

The standing VR experiences are by their nature space-intensive, labor-intensive endeavors. It’s hard to imagine how they could be effectively done on a scale serving hundreds of customers a night like a movie theater. The seated VR experiences allowed more people to participate simultaneously in a smaller space, but if you’re just sitting in a chair with your personal headset, you might as well be at home.

Home use makes more sense for VR, but it still seems as though seated VR will be more practical. In the installations at the festival, there were no coffee tables to trip me or lamps I could accidentally knock over. How many people will be willing to dedicate an empty room of their house or apartment to VR?

VR is often talked about as the future of entertainment. While there are clearly things that VR does better than film or television, there is a lot it doesn’t do as well. I think it still remains to be seen how much mass appeal the technology has.

*Tamir Rice was a 12-year-old unarmed boy killed by a police officer in Cleveland in 2014.


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Friday, February 22, 2019

Lessons in Revealing Character from Oscar Nominated Films

(SPOILERS: Green Book, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, The Favourite, BlacKkKlansman, Roma)

It is nearly impossible to have a good story without good, three-dimensional characters. Characters who are fully realized and specific feel like real people, people we can care about. But it’s not enough to just create three-dimensional characters. You have to reveal the nature of those characters to the audience in believable, dramatic ways. We can learn some techniques for doing this well from this year’s Academy Award nominated films.

Dramatize with Behavior

In writing, there’s an old adage: Show, don’t tell. In film, this means dramatizing an idea rather than delivering it in expository dialogue. Here are some great examples of scenes that dramatize character traits:

In Green Book (written by Nick Vallelonga &Brian Currie & Peter Farrelly), we don’t need Tony to spout racist opinions (though he does a bit of that) to know he’s prejudiced. We see it when he throws the glasses in the trash after his wife gives two Black workmen a drink of water. After the Black men have used them, the glasses can never be clean enough for Tony. And the writers trust the audience – Tony doesn’t yell and scream, he just quietly puts the glasses in the trash.

That early scene in Green Book allows the writers to dramatize Tony’s character arc. Nothing Tony could say shows us he’s changed more than the act of inviting Dr. Shirley to join Tony’s family Christmas dinner at the end of the movie. By comparing these two scenes – the one where Tony throws away the glasses and the one where he invites a Black man to his table – it is obvious that Tony is not the same person after the experiences of the story.

In Can You Ever Forgive Me? (screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty), we learn a lot about Lee Israel from an early scene where she goes to a party held by her literary agent. The party is fancy and we learn Lee didn’t RSVP. Lee is only interested in pitching ideas to her agent, who brushes her off – that’s not what the party’s for. Lee soon leaves, stealing someone else’s coat on the way out. This scene, while not very important to the plot, shows us Lee’s disinterest in socialization and her lack of honesty or integrity. We sympathize with her because we see how much she’s struggling to make a living, but we can also easily believe this is someone who would graduate from stealing a coat to forging papers. And this comes mostly from her behavior, rather than from dialogue.

Similarly, in The Favourite (written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara), we don’t need a scene of Abigail telling someone her thoughts about marriage. We see exactly how she feels on her wedding night, when to satisfy her new husband’s amorous advances, she gives him a hand job, barely looking at him and continuing her monologue plotting her next political move uninterrupted. The writers found a way to show us that Abigail is not marrying for love or sex, but as a political ploy. And the scene demonstrates how little she cares about her husband through her behavior, rather than through her dialogue.

Using Contrast

We can also illuminate character by contrasting one character with another. This is often a major purpose of supporting characters – they offer alternative points of view on thematic issues. Here are some examples:

In BlacKkKlansman (written by Charlie Wachtel & David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott & Spike Lee), we learn a lot about Ron Stallworth in his contrast with his love interest, Patrice. While Ron is trying to fit in with mainstream society and relying on the law for justice, Patrice believes that only resistance and rebellion will work. She rejects mainstream society and embraces her culture. Ron is forced to hide his job from her, an act that illustrates the complicated line he is trying to walk. Meanwhile, the character of Flip is going through his own arc – he’s never really thought of himself as Jewish (though he is), but encountering the KKK’s anti-Semitic attitude, he starts to reconsider that aspect of his identity and what it means. Contrasting these various characters and their perspectives on race and assimilation allows us to more fully understand the attitude of each one individually.

In Roma (written by Alfonso Cuaron), we see a nice bit of character behavior from Antonio (the father of the household) when he arrives home. His car barely fits between the walls of their driveway, so he has to carefully inch it in, adjusting frequently. We can contrast this later with Sofia (his wife) pulling the car in carelessly, scratching and denting it badly. Where Antonio is cautious, Sofia is emotional. This may not be so much an illustration of Sofia’s character qualities, but a sign of her emotional state within that scene. The point is, it illustrates her psychology through contrasting her behavior with Antonio’s in the simple act of parking the car.

There’s a scene in Green Book that uses contrast to delineate the two main characters. Tony buys fried chicken and convinces Dr. Shirley to eat it in the car, because Dr. Shirley has never tried it. We learn a lot about these two characters from this scene. Most obviously, we see that Tony is looser, happy to eat greasy food with his hands. Meanwhile, the idea of eating in the car without silverware is appalling to the uptight Dr. Shirley. At the end of the scene, Dr. Shirley makes Tony go back to pick up a cup he threw out the window. This shows Dr. Shirley’s respect for the rules and cleanliness – and Tony’s lack of such qualities.

On a more subtle level, this scene in Green Book is telling us something deeper about Dr. Shirley. The fact that he’s never had fried chicken – a stereotypical “Black” food – shows us that he is removed from the predominant Black experience of the time. And it’s a plant that’s paid off later when a host at a fancy dinner party serves fried chicken because that’s what the Black servants he polled thought Dr. Shirley would like. The latter scene dramatizes how the primary characteristic most people notice about Dr. Shirley is his race, and both scenes highlight his isolation.

It is useful to analyze successful movies like these to see the techniques they use so we can apply them to our own work. I’ll look at other lessons from this year’s Oscar nominated films in posts over the next few weeks.


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Friday, February 1, 2019

The 10 Best Written Movies of 2018

We’re already into February and I’m only now posting my list of the ten best-written movies of last year. I’ve been spending the last week bingeing a lot of the awards season movies. I’ve managed to see a lot, but I haven’t seen everything. For example, I still haven’t seen The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which was nominated for a best screenplay Oscars! So keep that in mind.

Also keep in mind that this is a list of the best-written movies, not necessarily the best movies or my favorite movies. For example, I really enjoyed Mission Impossible: Fallout and A Star is Born, and their scripts were certainly solid, but the joys of those movies mostly came from things other than the writing.

Overall, 2018 feels like a year with many solid, well-scripted movies, but few that really feel fresh and vital, at least in terms of the writing. Still, any year with a wealth of good movies to choose from is a good year. So without further ado, here are my top 10 best written movies:

1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (story by Phil Lord, screenplay by Phil Lord & Rodney Rothman) – This movie was fresh and fun and reinvented the superhero movie while still delivering everything we want from the genre. Characters were complex, dialogue was funny, and the set pieces were great.

2. BlacKKKlansman (written by Charlie Wachtel & David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott & Spike Lee) – This is one of the movies that does feel fresh and vital. There’s a strong, relevant message that is intellectually challenging, but also great characters, tension, and humor that make it extremely watchable. I think we’ll be talking about this movie for a long time.

3. Roma (written by Alfonso Cuaron) – This is not a flawless screenplay. It starts way too slow for my taste. But once the drama gets going, it’s a powerful story about a compelling, multi-dimensional character, told with subtlety and nuance. And, it is one of the few this year that is intensely personal and original.

4. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty) – This is an excellently constructed black character comedy that pulls off the feat of keeping us engaged with willfully unlikeable characters. Both entertaining and emotionally deep.

5. A Quiet Place (story by Bryan Woods & Scott Beck, screenplay by Bryan Woods & Scott Beck and John Krasinski) – A well-constructed and original thriller that doesn’t rely on dialogue (although despite some reports, it’s not technically dialogue free – there is a fair amount of dialogue done in subtitled sign language). It works as both a horror movie and a compelling family drama by giving us complex, well-rounded characters.

6. Leave No Trace (screenplay by Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini) – This was an emotionally complicated story of the relationship between a father and a daughter that also forces us to examine our attitudes toward those who choose to disengage from society... and with our views of society itself. And this is another movie with sparse dialogue, which shows how much of screenwriting is not just writing lines for actors to speak.

7. Sorry to Bother You (written by Boots Riley) – This screenplay has a few flaws, but it’s also wildly clever and interesting, with complex characters and thematic ideas. In a year that most movies felt kind of traditional, this one breaks the mold.

8. Black Panther (written by Ryan Coogler & Joe Robert Cole) – I debated where this movie fits into this list. It definitely had an impact on the industry and the culture, but a lot of that came from its conception rather than from a particularly revolutionary screenplay. If there were a lot of superhero movies with largely Black casts, would this one stand out? But it was well constructed, entertaining, and it has one of the most interesting villains in a superhero movie, so I ultimately decided it deserved eighth place.

9. Eighth Grade (written by Bo Burnham) – This screenplay deserves a lot of credit for capturing the voice of kids at this age and particularly at this time in history. I found some of the supporting characters a little underdeveloped, but the central character is one of the most complicated of the year, right up there with the lead in Roma.

10. Deadpool 2 (written by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick & Ryan Reynolds) – It would be too much to expect this sequel to be as fresh and revolutionary as the first one, and it isn’t. But it does capture the same irreverent spirit and humor. Plus, it adds the amazing character of Domino, who is worth the price of admission herself.

There were several other excellent movies that could easily have made the list. I’ll give honorable mention to: The Incredibles 2, Ralph Breaks the Internet, Green Book, Annihilation, First Reformed, and Private Life. I also want to highlight The Rider – it was a fantastic movie, though it seems to be unclear when it was released – even IMDB lists it as both a 2017 and 2018 movie. I saw it in 2017, so didn’t include it on my list, but if you count it as a 2018 movie, it would be.

One more observation: this list is for movies, which I have traditionally defined as having theatrical releases. I’ve kept it that way this year, though the line is blurring. Roma, for example, only got a token release to qualify it for awards. But since it was in theaters, I accepted it. On the other hand, the HBO movie The Tale would have definitely made this list, but it only played theatrically at festivals, so I left it off. It will be interesting to see how the line continues to blur in the years ahead.


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Friday, October 12, 2018

Lots of Log Lines

My co-writer on The Hollywood Pitching Bible, Ken Aguado, and I co-wrote an article to provide examples of effective log lines. Ken posted it on his Medium account, and I'm posting it here. Enjoy!

Lots of Log Lines  

A Bevy of Sample Log Lines from Recent Films

 By Ken Aguado and Doug Eboch

In our travels as the “pitch guys,” we are often called upon to talk about log lines. It’s not hard to see why. Of all the kinds of pitches, the most common kind in the film and TV business is the humble log line. Usually two or three sentences, running 50 words or less, it’s the briefest answer to the question, “So, what’s it about?”

But for all their brevity, crafting a good log line can be surprisingly difficult. In our book, The Hollywood Pitching Bible: 3rd Edition, we spend something like 15 pages on the topic, but for the purposes of this article, we will summarize the kinds of elements that a good log line should convey:

  • Assuming the log line is presented without any other context, it should contain the title, genre, and (sometimes) the anticipated MPAA rating (if it’s a movie idea).
  • It needs to convey the world or setting of the story, if it’s unfamiliar. This includes when the story takes place (if it’s a period piece or an unfamiliar timeline), where the story takes place (if the location is important to the story), and any fantastical elements.
  • It should describe the main character or group of characters in a way that explains why they are the most interesting person/people for this story.
  • A good log line sets up the story in a way that conveys the character(s) goal and the major obstacle to that goal – and does so in a way that is active, visual, and can fill 90+ minutes of screen time.
  • The stakes for the character(s) must also must be clear.
We are often asked for examples of good log lines that do these things, so below are numerous log lines examples of recent existing movies. We’re doing existing movies because our examples will only be helpful if you know the story and thereby can understand the choices we’ve made. But before you read these samples, we need to give you a few caveats, so hang in there. This is important.

  • The following are what we call “stand along” log lines - the most complete version of a log line. These log lines assume they must “stand alone” as the entire pitch. If all you are pitching is a log line, these are the Cadillacs of log lines. If you know the films, sure, there might be simpler log lines, but try to imagine if the film didn’t exist. What would the listener need to know? This is the tricky part about pitching, because it’s sometimes hard to imagine what the buyer/listener doesn’t know.
  • Even when the movie is based on underlying material, we assumed that the listener was unfamiliar with that material.
  • Lastly, these log lines are less about poetry and more about maximum clarity. Please leave us comments below, and let us know what you think!

“American Hustle” is an R-rated crime drama based on the 1970’s Abscam scandal. An arrogant, small-time con artist and his seductive lover are forced by the FBI into a dangerous sting operation involving political corruption and the Mafia. (38 words)

“Big Hero 6” is a PG animated superhero film set in the near future. After the death of his older brother, a young robotics genius befriends a child-like medical robot. Together they team up with a group of robotics students to defeat the evil scientist who may have killed the older brother. (51 words)

Based on a true story, "Captain Phillips" is a PG-13 thriller. In 2009, Captain Phillips, his crew, and cargo ship are hijacked and taken hostage by desperate Somali pirates. But when negotiations don’t go as planned, the resourceful captain struggles to keep himself and his crew alive. (47 words)

“The Conjuring” is an R-rated supernatural horror film. When a family experiences disturbing events at their remote farmhouse, they hire a married couple of paranormal investigators. But as the terror escalates, the couple must risk a dangerous exorcism to rid the house of its evil spirit. (46 words)

“Edge of Tomorrow” is a PG-13 sci-fi/action film set in the near future. When Earth is attacked by monstrous aliens, a cowardly public relations officer becomes the key to defeating the invaders when he finds himself re-living the same battle over and over again. (44 words)

“Frozen” is a PG animated family adventure. When a magical princess accidentally curses her kingdom with eternal winter, her spunky younger sister must team with a rugged mountain man to save the princess and the kingdom. (36 words)

“Gone Girl” is an R-rated psychological thriller, based on a bestselling novel. An unfaithful husband is suspected of murder when his seemingly-perfect wife disappears. But as the husband tries to prove his innocence, he uncovers disturbing things about the woman he married. (42 words)

Based on the bestseller, “The Hunger Games” is a PG-13 sci-fi adventure film set in a dystopian future. A resourceful but unassuming teenage girl must learn to be a warrior when she is forced to compete in a televised fight to the death against twenty-three other teenage competitors. (48 words)

“Identity Thief” is an R-rated comedy. A mild-manner accountant’s life is ruined when his identity is stolen by a kooky female thief. To clear his name, the accountant must find the thief and bring her to justice while being chased by an assortment of unsavory characters. (46 words)

“Interstellar” is a PG-13 sci-fi adventure. With the Earth dying, a reluctant astronaut who is also a single father embarks on a journey to explore a mysterious wormhole and find a new home for humanity while fighting to keep his promise to his daughter that he will return. (48 words)

“Kingsmen: The Secret Service” is an R-rated action comedy. A tough British street kid is recruited into an elite aristocratic spy organization called the Kingsmen. But when the Kingsmen are betrayed, the street kid must save the world from a genocidal tech genius. (43 words)

Based on real events, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is a PG-13 historical drama about an African-American man who served as White House butler for eight US Presidents. Over the course of 30 years, the Butler and his family must survive the sweeping social changes confronting America. (46 words)

“The Lego Movie” is a PG animated comedy/adventure set inside a fantastic world of Lego toys. A cheerful but ordinary construction worker is mistaken for the “chosen one” and embarks on a quest to save the Lego universe from an evil tyrant bent on stifling creativity and mobility. (48 words)

“Lucy” is an R-rated sci-fi action film. An American woman living abroad accidently ingests an experimental drug when forced to be a drug mule. But when the drug gives her superhuman abilities she tries to understand what’s happening to her, while evading capture by the dangerous gang that gave her the drug. (52 words)

“Maleficent” is a PG-13 dark fantasy, based on the story of Sleeping Beauty from the evil queen’s point of view. When she is jilted in love, young Maleficent casts an evil spell on the daughter of her lover. But she begins to reconsiders her evil ways when the young lady falls under her care. (54 words)

“The Maze Runner” is a PG-13 sci-fi thriller set in the future. A teen boy is trapped in a community surrounded by a colossal maze structure, built by unknown captors. The teen must prove his ability as a “runner” when he joins an elite group of teens who search for a way out of the ever-changing, deadly maze. (58 words)

“Pacific Rim” is a sci-fi action film set in the near future. When giant monsters from the ocean overrun the world, mankind builds giant piloted robots to battle the beasts. A top robo-pilot mourning the loss of his co-pilot must train an inexperienced young woman as his new co-pilot to save the world. (51 words)

“The Ride Along” is PG-13 buddy comedy. A fast-talking, high school security guard gets in over his head when he accompanies his girlfriend’s street-cop brother investigating a dangerous international smuggler. (30)

“This is the End” is an R-rated supernatural comedy set in Hollywood. The good times come to the end for a group of shallow Hollywood actors who must fight to survive when the world is gripped by a global apocalypse – the Rapture. (42 words)

Based on the inspirational true story, “Unbroken” is a PG-13 World War II drama about survival and courage. When US Olympian Louie Zamperini’s bomber is shot down during a mission, he must summon unprecedented determination to survive shark infested waters and then prolonged brutal capture in a Japanese POW camp. (50 words)

Based on a true story, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is an R-Rated black comedy about the rise of an ambitious young stockbroker in the late 80s. But the broker’s lavish lifestyle and criminal excess soon attracts the attention of the FBI and he must fight for everything he’s built. (50 words)

“World War Z” is a PG-13 Sci-Fi adventure film. A UN Employee must leave his family to help stop a Zombie apocalypse. Racing against time, he travels the world to find the origins of the deadly pandemic that threatens to destroy humanity. (42 words)


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Thursday, September 20, 2018

Four Tips for a Great Elevator Pitch

(Spoilers: Get Out)

An elevator pitch is named after the idea that if you happen to find yourself in an elevator with a Hollywood big shot, you will have a captive audience for about thirty to sixty seconds, allowing you to give them a quick pitch of your idea. Now, I would not actually advocate pitching someone you’ve never met in an elevator. Their defenses will go up and your chances of a sale are bad – but the chance they will remember you in a negative light is good.

However, there are many situations where a very brief pitch is useful. Any networking event or social situation where you could meet industry people is likely to lead to the question, “What are you working on?” A great quick pitch could be the start of a productive relationship. Or in a general meeting you may discover the producer or executive is looking for something that’s just like a spec script you already have. Give them a great elevator pitch, and they will probably ask to read it.

So, how do you craft a great elevator pitch? Here are four tips. I’ll use Get Out (written by Jordan Peele) as an example of each one, culminating in a possible elevator pitch of that film.

1. Start with the title, genre, tone, and rating. When you have a limited amount of time, you need to give as much information as possible in as few words as possible. Don’t make the listener guess what kind of story you are telling. Identifying a genre is a quick way to provide a ton of information. And don’t make them guess whether it’s a comedy or drama, or what the likely rating might be. These labels are how the industry classifies films. Let them know how to classify yours.

Example from Get Out: If you don’t tell us that this is a horror movie, your description of a Black man meeting his white girlfriend’s parents might sound like a relationship drama or even a romantic comedy.

2. Be sure you’re conveying the appeal of the concept. Think hard about why someone would want to see this movie. What is the joy of this story? That is the single most important thing to bring out in your elevator pitch. You’d be amazed how often writers fail to convey the most interesting aspect of their idea when they have to condense the story.

Example from Get Out: What makes Get Out special? I’d say it’s the satire of racial attitudes among liberal white people. So you would want to make sure this aspect is clear in the elevator pitch.

3. Describe your character in a way that makes it clear why it’s interesting to see them in this story. In an elevator pitch, you will only have a few words to set up the character. You should describe the aspect of the character that is most relevant to the story you are going to tell. Most of the time, their name is not what’s important, nor is it their gender. So don’t describe the character as “Chris” or as “a guy.” These things don’t tell us anything about him that will make your pitch more interesting. Find a more specific description.

Example from Get Out: What makes Chris the most interesting character to get caught up in a nefarious body-swapping plot? It’s not just because he’s Black (though that is critically important to the concept). It’s because he’s non-confrontational, trying to go along and not make waves. To survive, he’s going to have to overcome this reticence.

4. Eliminate details that don’t add to the thirty-second version of your story. It’s obvious that you won’t be able to describe all the great aspects of your story in thirty seconds. But it can be hard to let go of elements that are important in the full-length script. Once you’ve crafted your elevator pitch, examine every phrase. Is the information adding to the appeal of the story in this brief summary? Will a listener who has no idea what is in the screenplay understand the significance of the information?

Example from Get Out: The sunken place is a crucial detail in the movie. So is the weird auction. And so are characters like the maid, groundskeeper, and the girlfriend’s hyper-aggressive brother. But there is probably not room to include these things in an elevator pitch, at least not in a manner that makes it clear why they are so cool in the movie.

So here is an example of an effective elevator pitch for Get Out that you could probably say in less than a minute:

My story is called Get Out. It's an R-rated horror movie about a reserved Black photographer who goes to meet his girlfriend’s parents at their remote estate. Creepy things start to happen, which the photographer at first attributes to the well-meaning cluelessness of his liberal hosts. But after he’s hypnotized by his girlfriend’s mother, he realizes he’s trapped in a nefarious plot and will have to overcome his fears to escape.


The third edition of The Hollywood Pitching Bible is out! If you are in Los Angeles, Ken Aguado and I will be doing a book signing at Book Soup at 7 pm on September 26th. We’d love to see you there! You can RSVP here which will help us ensure we have enough books on hand.

Are you Crazy? Don't wait.  Buy this book now! Ken Aguado and Doug Eboch are guys who walk the walk, and here they talk the talk. They know as well as anyone how to navigate the trickiest waters on the continent: Hollywood's pitching process. Demystifying the secrets of what works and what doesn't for the not-so-brave new world of corporate Movie Biz. It's on my top shelf of books I can't be without.
-John Badham (Director, Saturday Night Fever, WarGames, Stakeout)

Friday, September 14, 2018

The Care and Feeding of Your Professional Network

In my last post, I discussed some ways to meet people in the business. This is crucial, as most screenwriters get their breaks through referrals. But meeting someone is only the start of the networking process. Today, I’ll discuss some things to keep in mind when you do meet someone, and tips to keep the relationship alive afterwards.

1. Be aware of the environment. There are many ways you might meet industry contacts. When you do meet someone, make sure your actions are appropriate for the environment. Someone at a party does not want to listen to your lengthy film pitch. In social situations, keep the interaction mostly social. I once met an actor at a film festival party, and the moment they found out I was a screenwriter, they handed me their headshot. I guess they expected me to carry the headshot around for the rest of the party. I didn’t – I conveniently forgot it on a table. On the other hand, in a more professional situation (such as a pitch fest) stay professional.

2. Build relationships first. Too often people think of networking as meeting someone and getting them to read a script. But when you first meet someone, they have very little incentive to help you, and may even be afraid to hear your idea – for all they know, you could be a crazy person who will sue them for some imagined copyright infringement. Real networking is about creating a network of people who can help you along in your career over the long term. And you never know where an opportunity might come from. Sometimes a chance meeting leads to a big break years later in a way you never could have anticipated.

3. Start by asking questions. A good way to start a relationship with someone more established than you is to ask for advice. Most people love to give advice! Don’t overwhelm them – ask a question or two. And don’t ask just to ask, actually listen to the advice – you may learn something of value. If you reach a point of familiarity where you don’t think it’s presumptuous, you may ask to have coffee with your contact to get more detailed advice. If so, come prepared with a list of questions. And pay for their coffee!

4. Have a Good Elevator Pitch – But Don’t Use It in an Elevator! Although I don’t suggest initiating a pitch to someone you just met in a casual environment, often they may ask about your project. If you meet a producer at a party, for example, and say you’re a screenwriter, the producer might ask what you’re working on. This is the perfect time to wow them with your great thirty-second pitch. They probably don’t want to hear more than that right then, but if they like the idea, they may ask to read it when it’s done. In any case, you want to sound like you’re writing cool stuff. Elevator pitches are named based on the idea that if you happen to be in an elevator with a VIP you will have a captive audience for about thirty seconds. But I wouldn’t advocate a pitch in that scenario. You are more likely to end up with a restraining order than a movie deal.

5. Networking is a Two-Way Street. You may not think you have anything to offer an industry professional, but you probably do. Even simple things, like retweeting them or sending a complimentary email about their latest project can get them to think of you in a positive light. If you hear of an event or see an article they might like, send it to them. But be judicious… don’t bombard them with the equivalent of junk mail. Maybe there's someone among your other industry contacts they would like to meet – one of the best ways to network is to help other people network. You also may be able to help them out in some way outside of the business – a discount on something, for example. The point is, don’t just think about what they can do for you, think about what you can do for them.

6. Social media can be your friend. It’s much easier to maintain contacts these days than when I was starting out. After you meet someone at a party or networking event, you can friend/follow them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. This also makes it easy to shoot them quick messages. Don’t abuse this ability. But if you’re a good follower and supporter, social media can keep a relationship alive and help people remember you months after you met them.

7. Do stuff that shows your talent. It’s also never been easier to show people what you can do. Depending on where your talents lie, you can make short films and post them online, write short stories for web magazines, write sketches for a local sketch comedy troupe, create a web comic... there are tons of options. And then you can let your network know about these accomplishments. It gives you an excuse to contact people, to remind them you’re there, and show them you are an active creator. Even just posting funny tweets or cool Instagram images can keep you on people’s radar.

8. It’s not a contact if you’re afraid to use it. I’ve heard people talk about a big Hollywood VIP they know, but then say they don’t want to ask this VIP to read a script because they don’t want to spoil the relationship. Caution is a good instinct. But if you’re a writer, the ultimate purpose of any business relationship is to get read. If you can’t ask someone to read something, then they aren’t really a contact. So put aside your fear and make the ask. That said…

9. When you ask for a read, do it professionally. Make sure you’ve built up the relationship enough that it’s reasonable to ask for a favor. Ask before you send the material. Make sure you give them a script that is your best work. Don’t ask someone to read something new too often. Once you’ve sent a script, don’t badger them about whether they’ve read it – a follow-up three or four weeks later is fine, but they are busy people and you are asking for their time. And if they don’t respond to the material, or they give you harsh critical feedback, be gracious. Telling you what’s wrong with your script is also a favor.

10. Say thank you! Finally, when someone does something to help you out, even if it’s just giving you advice, say thank you. A handwritten card is especially appreciated. Gifts are usually not necessary, but if you do want to give them something, the thoughtfulness of the gift is much more important than how much you spent.

Most of this can be summed up as: be nice. Self-involvement is not attractive. Neither is desperation. Just treat people well, show them what you have to offer, and the networking will take care of itself.


The third edition of The Hollywood Pitching Bible is out! If you are in Los Angeles, Ken Aguado and I will be doing a book signing at Book Soup at 7 pm on September 26th. We’d love to see you there! You can RSVP here which will help us ensure we have enough books on hand.

"Luck, they say, is when preparation meets opportunity.  Consider yourself lucky that Douglas Eboch & Ken Aguado have written a book that tells you not only how to achieve a screenwriting career, but also sustain it over time."
-Lem Dobbs, screenwriter ( Dark City, The Limey, The Score, The Company You Keep, Haywire)

Thursday, September 6, 2018

I Don’t Know Anyone in Hollywood – 5 Ways to Network as an Outsider

They say success in Hollywood is about “who you know.” That’s only partly true.

In fact, you need to do two things to break in as a screenwriter, and the first is far more important and difficult: you need to write at least one excellent, spectacular spec script. (Two is better. Three is even better.) It has to be excellent, not just good. You’re competing against the 12,000 or so members of the Writers Guild who have already broken in, and the hundreds of thousands of other writers out there trying to break in. With only two or three hundred theatrical releases of studio and major independent films per year, and only about 600 scripted television series airing per year (even in this peak TV era), there is a lot of competition for every writing job. And your spec has to be spectacular to stand out from the deluge of excellent material pouring across the desk of every agent, manager, producer, and executive.

But once you have this excellent, spectacular spec script, who you know does matter. Most new writers get their breaks through referrals. This means someone you know recommends your script to a producer, development executive, agent, or manager. So if you don’t know anyone in Hollywood, how do you find someone who can make such a referral? Here are five ways:

1. Become strategically active in professional organizations. To meet people in the film industry, you have to go where those people are. There are many established professional organizations that anyone can join for a small membership fee. In addition to the other services they offer, Film Independent, IFP, Women in Film, Scriptwriters Network, and similar organizations have member events teeming with industry professionals. And the more you get involved in the organization, the more relationships you can develop.

2. Go to Film Festivals. Like professional organizations, major film festivals (Sundance, SXSW, Telluride, Toronto, etc.) or almost any film festival in Los Angeles or New York are gathering places for industry pros. You wait in a lot of lines and there are a lot of festival parties. It’s easy to strike up a conversation with strangers – just ask if they’ve seen any films they like at the festival. Your chances of meeting someone connected to the industry are high. And volunteering with the festival increases those odds. (There may be other festival-like events where you can meet certain types of industry people based on your areas of interest. For example, San Diego Comic-Con is teeming with animation professionals and people who work on science fiction movies and television.)

3. Network laterally. Newcomers usually obsess about meeting top Hollywood players, but the reality is the big dogs are the ones least in need of new talent (not to mention the hardest to reach). So think about building a network of people on your level. This starts with other writers. Many writers get their first agent or manager through a referral from a client, so knowing someone who could become one of those clients is useful. But beyond that, get to know PA’s and assistants and others in the entry-level jobs in the business. Agents’ assistants want to become agents and they do that by finding new talent. Producers’ assistants want to become producers, and that means finding material. Usually your opportunities will come through people at your level or just a little above.

4. Put your social media to work. One great thing about the advent of Twitter, Instagram, and the like is that you can actually communicate with people in the business. But that doesn’t mean you can just direct message Jordan Peele and ask him to read your script. Follow people you feel an affinity for. “Like” and “retweet” their posts. Make insightful comments. Ask questions. You can build a relationship online. But keep point three above in mind – if you aim for the most famous people, you’ll get lost in the shuffle. Find those lower level screen and TV writers you really admire and follow them. Also, be sure your social media feeds are filled with clever posts. More than one aspiring comedy writer has parlayed funny tweets into a job.

5. Come to Los Angeles. You can use your social media from anywhere. You can probably have some involvement with film organizations from anywhere. But networking still mostly happens face-to-face. That means if you live outside of the big filmmaking communities of Los Angeles and New York, you are at a significant disadvantage. That doesn’t mean you have to drop everything and move to Los Angeles. It’s expensive to live here and it will take time to break in. But even if you can’t move out right away, consider a strategically timed visit, perhaps building a trip around a film festival and a couple of events through filmmaking organizations. Make those initial contacts, and you can nurture them via email and social media when you’re back home.

Whatever methods you use, keep in mind that good networking is about building relationships, NOT accosting people and asking for their help. In my next post I’ll talk about how to make the most of your networking opportunities.

There are also a few ways to get attention without a referral. You do not need a referral to enter the television fellowships, and if you win the small handful of meaningful screenwriting contests, people will ask to read your script. But to build and sustain any kind of long-term career, you are going to have to network.


The third edition of The Hollywood Pitching Bible is out! If you are in Los Angeles, Ken Aguado and I will be doing a book signing at Book Soup at 7 pm on September 26th. We’d love to see you there! You can RSVP here which will help us ensure we have enough books on hand.

Are you Crazy? Don't wait.  Buy this book now! Ken Aguado and Doug Eboch are guys who walk the walk, and here they talk the talk. They know as well as anyone how to navigate the trickiest waters on the continent: Hollywood's pitching process. Demystifying the secrets of what works and what doesn't for the not-so-brave new world of corporate Movie Biz. It's on my top shelf of books I can't be without.
-John Badham (Director, Saturday Night Fever, WarGames, Stakeout)