Thursday, April 17, 2014

Not Enough Time in a Day

A few weeks ago @LarryRosemann posed a question to me on Twitter:

Doug, how much 'writing' time should be for learning? Books, seminars, etc.. Thanks.

It’s an interesting dilemma, especially when you are starting out. On the one hand, you must learn your craft to have any chance of success. At the very least you need to learn proper format and the unique process by which words on a page get turned into images on a screen. If you want to work in Hollywood, not knowing these things is like not knowing the English language.

But screenwriting is also a complex and difficult craft. Throughout movie history there may have been a handful of geniuses who simply sat down and started writing and, after many drafts and much trial and error, somehow came up with a workable screenplay. But most successful screenwriters spent considerable time learning craft and technique from others. Nobody can teach you to have insightful, original ideas, but it is possible to learn an enormous amount about how best to bring those ideas to fruition.

On the other hand, how can you be a successful writer if you don’t write? In fact, you will learn the most by doing. You won’t really be able to fully grasp the concepts in books and classes until you try to apply those concepts in your own work. And of course, until you have a body of quality work, you will not be able to get attention from the industry.

Even successful screenwriters wrestle with balancing these competing demands. Nobody ever feels like they “know everything.” Many of us who have had movies produced still attend seminars and read the latest hot screenwriting books, looking for any tip that can make our writing better, or any edge that can help our careers.

If you are serious about being a professional screenwriter, my recommendation is to write every day for a minimum of an hour (with email and phone turned off). Writing every day is more important than how long you write in a sitting. Writing is like exercising – when you get in the habit, it’s much easier to do than when you try to resume after a long layoff. Equally important, daily writing will create momentum in the story you’re working on – you’ll find yourself thinking about it in the shower and the car. This amounts to “bonus” writing time.

And then you have to figure out how to shoehorn time to study the craft of writing into your schedule as well. Not only that, if you want to be a pro, you have to follow industry news, which means making time to read the trades and/or Deadline.com. Plus, you should be constantly reading other screenplays. And you have to make time for networking. Whew!

If you have a full time day job, this will be a challenge. But you have to remember that you are competing against people who pursue screenwriting full time – or more. Yes it’s hard. But nobody owes you a career as a screenwriter. You have to earn it.

Underlying the question of how much time to spend on books and seminars is the question of how valuable those things really are. As I mentioned, there is plenty to be learned about screenwriting. But just as there are many bad screenplays, there are many questionable books and seminars purporting to tell you how to write. In fact, it’s fairly easy for someone to just create a website and label themselves a guru or expert with little qualification. Who’s to stop them from self-publishing a book or renting a conference room at a hotel for a seminar and then collecting money from eager young writers?

It can help to look to people with produced credits. They at least have some practical experience and a record of success. But produced writers aren’t necessarily the best teachers. Established university screenwriting programs are also pretty safe bets since their faculty had to be at least minimally qualified in order to get the job in the first place. But not everyone is in a position to take a degree program in screenwriting. So you have to do your research, reading reviews and asking fellow screenwriters to recommend things that have helped them. (For the record, I am both produced and on the faculty of a college.)

And even the best screenwriting teachers and gurus (maybe especially the best) know that most of their students will never see their screenplays produced. This has less to do with the quality of the teacher/guru than with the fact that there are far more aspiring screenwriters than screenwriting jobs. Speaking as one who is part of it, the whole “educating screenwriters” industry sometimes feels like a big scam.

Yet many new screenwriters enter the business every year, and almost all learned their craft from professional teachers or gurus, whether in classes or from books. I personally have seen several of my students go on to have movies produced. It's a great feeling and really the reason I do things like write this blog.

Again, the film business is hard and nobody owes you anything. So write every day and study your craft. Carve out time to follow the business and network. And work really, really hard. Your competition is.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Get a Life

One common problem I see in beginner screenplays is characters who seem to exist only to experience the plot of the story. It’s like they’ve spent their whole life waiting for the movie to fade in. They often live alone with no family or friends, no significant other, no hobbies, no plans, no dreams. But real people aren’t like that.

In American Hustle (written by Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell) we meet the main character of Irving in the midst of a full life. At the start of the story (the movie jumps around a bit in time, so the start of the movie is actually the middle of the story) he has a rocky relationship with his wife, a child, and a thriving con business with a woman with whom he’s having an affair. Then he’s caught in a sting by Richie and the story starts – complicating his very active life. As a result, Irving feels like he could be a real person.

I am not a fan of using back-story to develop character. I find it difficult to write out the character’s history unless I know who they are now. The character will need specific personality traits, goals and flaws to make the story work. Any back-story should be created to support those things. If you start by developing back-story, you may not end up with the character you need for your movie.

However, if we're to meet the character in the midst of a life, at some point we probably need to construct at least a minimal back-story. For example, who is in the character’s family? What is his (or her) relationship with them? Who are his friends? How did he get into his job? Is he good at it? It’s not the history that’s important so much as the web of life currently surrounding the character.

One thing you can do is plan out how the character spends an average week. Do they work? Is it a 9-5 job or are the hours variable? What do they do with their free time – watch television, hit the bar, go to the gym, play with their kids, attend a book club? When and what do they eat? What chores do they have to do? Who do they interact with during all of this? Who do they like interacting with and who really gets on their nerves?

Even loners usually have some relationships. In While You Were Sleeping (written by Daniel G. Sullivan & Fredric LeBow), the main character, Lucy, is a lonely heart. This is wonderfully illustrated in a scene where she tries to get a Christmas tree into her apartment by herself. But she still has a job as a transit toll collector, coworkers she’s friendly with, a building manager she interacts with, a sleazy neighbor who hits on her, and a cat.

Her (written by Spike Jonze) also features a lonely main character. But we see his job where he interacts with a gregarious receptionist. And he has a couple friends with whom he socializes. Plus, he’s still trying to untangle his life from his ex. We also see him pass the time by playing a very immersive video game.

In both these cases, though the characters are loners, we enter in the midst of what feels like real lives.

Another thing to consider is what the character’s plans and dreams are. As John Lennon sang, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” Stories are what happens while the characters are making other plans.

At the beginning of While You Were Sleeping, Lucy dreams of one day going to Italy, while trying to work up the courage to talk to a cute passenger who goes through her line at work every day. Meanwhile, she’s upset at being asked to work on Christmas since she’s the only one without family. Not to mention the very small plans, like the aforementioned Christmas tree. Lucy may not be very ambitious, but she's going about life like a regular human being with an eye to the future.

Or consider Some Like It Hot (story by Robert Thoeren and Michael Logan, screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond). The story is about Joe and Jerry, two musicians who witness a mob hit and have to go undercover as women in an all-girl band. But they aren’t planning any of that when we meet them.

Instead, they have just landed a job at a speakeasy. Jerry wants to use their upcoming pay to see a dentist about a toothache, but Joe thinks they should bet it on a dog. We learn that they have a bunch of outstanding debts they need to deal with. Then they lose their job when the speakeasy closes. They hock their coats to bet on Joe’s dog and it loses. They learn of another possible gig but it’s far away so they arrange to borrow a car. It is when they’re picking the car up that they witness the murder.

The toothache and dog and debts and job in the hinterlands have no real bearing on the story. But by the time we get to the murder, the catalyst that sets the whole story in motion, these guys feel like real people with real lives.

And if you give your characters lives, then we will care about what happens to them in your story.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Framing Stories

(Spoilers: Saving Private Ryan, Titanic, The Notebook, The Usual Suspects, Edward Scissorhands)

One of the narrative devices available to screenwriters is the framing story. Today I want to discuss what they are and why you might choose to use one.

First of all, let’s define our terms. A framing story describes scenes that surround the primary story, often in the present for a story told in the past. For example, Saving Private Ryan (written by Robert Rodat) has a framing story – we see Ryan in the present day going to visit the grave site of Captain Miller in France. The Princess Bride (screenplay by William Goldman) also has a framing story – the grandfather reading the book to his sick grandson. In Saving Private Ryan the framing story literally frames the movie – appearing only at the beginning and end. In The Princess Bride, we move back and forth between the framing story to the main story of the book the grandfather is reading.

What differentiates a framing story from a flashback is where the main dramatic action of the movie takes place. If the main story is in the past, then everything in the present is a framing story. If the main story is in the present, then what takes place in the past is flashback.

It's important to understand where your main story is taking place. This is the story the audience really cares about. Everything in a framing story serves only to illuminate the main story in some way. Thus you must be careful not to let the framing story overshadow or distract from the main story.

If you spend too much time in your framing story at the beginning of the movie, the audience will become invested in it (or tune out – even worse!) and will be annoyed when you jump to your main story. Then it will be harder to get them invested in the main storyline. If you cut back and forth to the framing story, like in The Princess Bride, you should not linger in the framing story or the audience will grow bored waiting for you to return to the stuff they're most interested in.

We must also distinguish between a framing story and a prologue. Sometimes there might be an opening scene that’s set in the distant past – some bit of history that sets up important information for the present day storyline, as in The Mummy (story by Stephen Sommers and Lloyd Fonvielle & Kevin Jarre, screenplay by Stephen Sommers) or the Lord of the Rings movies.

Framing stories are a potentially powerful device, but one fraught with risk. When done badly, the framing story can seem weak or uninteresting in comparison to the main storyline. Or it can become an annoyance, taking us away from the good stuff. If you’re going to use one, you should have a clear reason why.

So why would you use a framing story?

Sometimes the framing story is a way to introduce a narrator for the main story. We learn that what we're going to hear is one person's perspective on the events. You might use this to get the audience to identify more strongly with the main character or to create a limited point of view. A framing story could also create an unreliable narrator, such as Verbal in The Usual Suspects (written by Christopher McQuarrie).

Other framing stories have their own conflict and structure. Citizen Kane (screenplay by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles) works in this way. The main story is of course Kane's life, but it's framed by a reporter's search for the meaning of Kane's last words. This cleverly allows the main story to be told by a series of narrators in interviews with the reporter. (These may appear to be flashbacks, but remember our definition: the main story of Citizen Kane is in the past.) Here the framing story is a device to limit point of view of each section and control how information is revealed to the reporter, and thus the audience.

Another reason to use a framing story is to create a fairy tale quality. The Princess Bride is an obvious example of that. The framing story makes clear this is literally a fairy tale being read from a book. This helps the audience accept elements of magical realism that can be hard to pull off on film.

A framing story can also increase the emotional impact of the main story. The Notebook (adaptation by Jan Sardi, screenplay by Jeremy Leven) is a good example. In the framing story, an old man tells an old woman the tale of the rocky romance between Noah and Allie (the main storyline). We learn, of course, that the older couple are Noah and Allie and that Allie has Alzheimer's disease. It adds great poignancy to the main story and serves as a profound punctuation mark on the romance of the main story line.

We also see this in Saving Private Ryan when we see how Captain Miller’s sacrifice defined Ryan’s future. Similarly, the framing story in Titanic (written by James Cameron) shows us how Rose has held on to her romance with Jack her whole life. Many epic love stories use a framing story to make the point that what we heard was the greatest love of the character’s life.

Edward Scissorhands (story by Tim Burton & Caroline Thompson, screenplay by Caroline Thompson) has a framing story that illustrates many of these purposes. It opens with Kim, as an old lady, telling her granddaughter why it snows. The granddaughter is in bed – this is literally a bedtime story, though Kim tells it as though it were true. We then go back in time to when Kim was a teenager for the main story, only returning to old Kim and the granddaughter at the very end.

This framing story serves to tell us that we’re getting Kim’s perspective on events. This is particularly useful since young Kim doesn’t appear for quite a while in the main storyline. The framing story also creates a fairy tale quality that allows us to accept that an inventor in an old house could build an intelligent, emotional robot that looks like Johnny Depp with scissors for hands. We don't question the scientific plausibility when we see how Edward was constructed - which is good, because it's completely implausible.

Finally, the Edward Scissorhands framing story provides an emotional payoff at the end by showing how the events of the main storyline affected Kim later in her life. We learn that Edward was no passing fancy but the greatest love she ever had.

So you should consider using a framing story when: 1) you want to create extra identification with a main character, 2) need to establish an unreliable narrator, 3) need to limit point of view, 4) want to create a fairy tale tone, or 4) it can add poignancy or an epic quality to the main story. But be cautious… make sure your framing story is actually adding something of significant value to the movie and not just distracting from the main story line.

Friday, March 28, 2014

How to Get an Agent

NOTE FROM DOUG: This week, Let’s Schmooze will do something a little different. This blog entry is an article I have co-written with Ken Aguado. Ken is a producer and my co-author of The Hollywood Pitching Bible.

How To Get An Agent

As established members of the entertainment community, we are frequently asked to speak to aspiring writers and directors, both in a classroom setting and outside. Doug also does this on a weekly basis in this blog-space and a glance at the links on the right will give you a pretty good sense of the vast range of subject matters he has covered. With the success of our recent book The Hollywood Pitching Bible, the number of invitations has greatly increased and we are now regularly invited to speak at numerous entertainment industry events, festivals, film schools and conferences.

No matter what the topic of the event, inevitably the dialog with the audience veers onto our views about the industry in general and life in the biz. Overwhelmingly, there’s one question we get asked more than any other: “How do I get an agent?” We also get this question or a regular basis from our film students at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. Often the question is asked with such intense interest, that we sometimes wonder if the rest of our lecture has just been “filler” for the audience, who are just waiting to get to this topic.

There is a common belief among aspiring writers and directors that getting an agent is the key to launching a successful career. And it’s not hard to see why – the primary role that agents play in Hollywood is to be the middleman between artists (writer, directors, actors, etc.) and the people who can hire them (studios, networks, production companies, etc.).

But when we are asked the question “How do I get an agent,” we know that what the audience really wants to know is “How do I get work or sell something in the biz?” They want to work as an artist, and see representation as a way of achieving that dream. And because the question is really one question masquerading as another, our answer is more complicated and probably less satisfying than you’d hoped. So how do writers and directors get that first job in their chosen field? We will get to that. But the short answer is you may not need an agent to work, nor does having an agent guarantee you will get work.

Who Are These Representatives?

Before we discuss getting representation, let’s regroup and make sure everyone knows the differences between the familiar Hollywood “representatives” – agents, managers and lawyers – what they do, and how they earn a living. Notice that we put the word representatives in quotes. There’s a good reason for this that has nothing to do with us being smarmy.

What do agents, managers, and lawyers do in Hollywood? There is a lot of confusion on this topic. Some of this confusion is understandable, especially if you’re new to the industry. But some of it is the result of the sometimes-confusing overlap in what these representatives actually do in the real world.

In California and New York (but not all states) agents are licensed, bonded, and allowed to solicit work on behalf of their clients. Managers and lawyers are not licensed to solicit work for their clients (although lawyers are licensed to practice law and regulated by the state bar associations where they practice). This is why we used quotation marks above when we described them all as representatives. While agents, managers and lawyers are all “representatives” in the colloquial sense, only agents are legally authorized to represent their clients to solicit work on their behalf.

So if they are not procuring work for their clients, what do managers and lawyers do? Managers are supposed to provide what can generally be described as career guidance for their clients. Lawyers do legal work and contracts for their clients. For their services agents charge 10% percent of their client’s income. Managers are usually paid the same percentage (actors typically pay a 15% commission), though unlike agents there is no rule as to what a manager’s commission must be. Lawyers typically charge 5% or bill hourly. If you are just starting out, you can expect to be billed an hourly rate by most entertainment attorneys. While there’s no universal rate, many charge between $350 and $500 an hour, sometimes more, and very often it is money well spent. If you are going to discuss obtaining legal services from any attorney, be sure to ask up front what their services will costs.

There are a few more differences with practical implications that we should mention. Agents are prevented from producing their clients’ work, hiring their clients, or being active owners in a business that hires their clients. This is intended to prevent a conflict of interest.

Managers, being unregulated, have no such restrictions and many managers use this freedom to work as producer on their client’s work. In fact, many management companies are also active production companies. Because they are allowed to perform this dual role, there has been a proliferation of management companies in the entertainment business over the past couple of decades. In fact, many of these new managers are former agents.

Some managers will also help clients develop their material, though this service varies from manager to manager. Most agents act primarily as salespeople and do not want to spend their time giving feedback on their clients’ work.

Now that you understand the division of services that the various representatives perform you should know that, in practice, there is considerable overlap between all three jobs. Managers often do solicit work, agents often do give career guidance, and lawyers sometimes make project submissions and help their clients get work. As a client, you’re probably best served by letting them all do these things, even if technically they’re not supposed to.

Doug has written extensively on the topic of agents, managers and lawyers. For those readers interested in learning more please check out these posts.

Breaking In

Now that we have summarized what the various representatives do in Hollywood, let’s get back the original question: “How do I get an agent?” which as we’ve said is really a placeholder for the real question – “How do I get work?”

The short answer is: do great work. Not just good work, great work. So problem solved, right? Okay, maybe not, but the point is this: if you want to get work as an artist in the entertainment business, no one will hire you unless you have already demonstrated substantial skills in your desired profession. For directors this means directing an impressive piece of filmmaking. For writers it means writing spec screenplays.

The truth is, most aspiring screenwriters and directors do not yet have representation because their work is not yet of high enough quality to attract representation. And it’s not just fledgling artists that are seeking representation. Many established artists are looking for agents (and work) as well, so new artists are competing with many seasoned pros. All the more reason you must make sure your work stands out from the pack.

We know what the follow up question will be: How do you know when your work is good enough? What is good?

We cover this topic in detail in our book, The Hollywood Pitching Bible, but the short answer is this: learn your craft, accept that every artist loses perspective about his or her own work, and seek out honest feedback about your work from trusted friends.

Of course very few people get to start their careers in their dream job, no matter what the industry. And this is certainly true in entertainment. You may have to take an entry- level job to get established and work your way up. And while working your way up, you may discover your natural talent in the business is actually some other job you didn’t anticipate. You may really be a great editor, sound mixer, development executive, or production manager at heart. Keep an open mind and always work hard and do your best. You won’t impress people if you act like you’re too good for the job you have.

For writers, working in development can help you make contacts and teach you a lot about writing. Many professional screenwriters got their first industry job as professional script readers. Ken Aguado, the co-author of this article, started out as a script reader. Doug Eboch, the other author, did script coverage as part of an internship.

Many directors get their initial directing opportunity by proving themselves in another area first. Sometimes they’ve been very successful writers or cinematographers or producers who have impressed people in the business and are given an opportunity to move into the director’s chair. They’ll also have contacts and favors to call in to help them succeed at this rare and critical opportunity. Often they need some other leverage as well – for example, they’ve either written or acquired an excellent screenplay.

Other directors have worked their way into Hollywood gigs by creating an impressive body of independent directing work. Very often this means directing at least one feature film. Few directors are able to break into the business if they’ve directed only a couple of short films, a music video or a spec commercial, etc., but it’s not impossible. Sometimes a collective body of short-form work can be enough. But it has to be great and consistently demonstrate a mastery of things like tone, technical skills, acting, and other less tangible qualities, such as commercial intent.

If you want to be a writer you will probably need at least two great screenplays of the same genre under your belt. After all, you can’t really call yourself a writer if you don’t have a body of work to back up that claim. And it might take you several attempts to master the skills or learn where the sweet spot is for your talent. If you plan to seek representation, all the more reason to make sure you’ve done a variety of work and made it the best it can be. “Breaking” a new writer is a lot of work for an agent or manager, and your first deal is usually pretty small. Representatives want clients that will have a long-term career, not one-hit wonders.

You’re Great. Now What?

So let’s say you’re a writer with many terrific scripts or a director with a great film or killer reel; what do you do next? Well, as we’ve said, the real goal is to work, right? If you were able to pull it together to actually direct a film, you probably had to convince someone your project had merit, even if your family or friends financed the film. That’s a start.

So let’s lay out a few strategies for cracking the business.

If your goal is to be part of the mainstream entertainment industry, your first step should be moving to Los Angeles or New York. That’s where 90% of the business lives and works. Some initial contacts can be made by long-distance phone call, e-mail or snail mail, but that will only take you so far. There are pockets of active production elsewhere in North America in places like Georgia, Texas, Illinois, Louisiana, North Carolina, Toronto and Vancouver, but most of the creative decisions on those productions are made in NY or LA.

If you’re looking for an agent, both the DGA and WGA websites have lists of signatory agencies. These are not lists of every agency out there, but rather lists of the ones that have agreed to abide by certain practices. The problem is that most top agencies will not accept unsolicited submissions. This means you will get your script or reel back with a polite but unambiguous form letter saying, thanks, but no thanks.

There are some agencies that will accept unsolicited submissions, usually after you send a query letter or email describing your qualifications and what you intend to submit. We have seen lists of these agencies online – in fact the WGA website includes such a list - but often the lists are wildly inaccurate, out of date, or contain agencies we’ve never heard of. Conversely, there may be agencies out there that aren’t on the list that would still look at your work. The only way to be sure is to start making calls. Agencies get these call 100 times a day and the person who answers the phone will answer the question in 30 seconds. If they do accept unsolicited materials, sometimes they will require you to sign a release form before they consider your work. This cold-call route to representation is the hardest way to go. Very, very few artists get an agent this way.

It’s Who You Know

The truth is that almost all writers and directors (even working ones) get representation as a result of a referral from a current client of the agent or manager, another representative (e.g. your attorney or manager refers you to an agent), a producer, an executive, or some other established member of the entertainment community. So if you think you need an agent to get your work to producers, you’re thinking of it backwards. You might need a producer to get your work to an agent! Most top agencies will only agree to represent artists they consider “bookable:” the ones production companies are eager to hire.

This brings us to the crux of the matter. You shouldn’t assume that getting an agent is your only, or even best, strategy for getting started in showbiz. And as we’ve said, getting an agent doesn’t guarantee you will get a job. Plenty of established artists with agents and managers can’t get a job. So what should you do if you really want representation?

Yes, we know we said that agents are the only kind of representative legally empowered to seek work for the clients. But we also said there is some overlap with other forms of representation and the reality is that for many artists a manager will end up performing many of the same duties as an agent. And because managers can also produce their client’s work, this is added incentive for them to seek out new clients. But managers aren’t the only ones who can produce. You know who else can produce? That’s right – producers.

Managers and producers are usually more receptive to discovering new talent that comes their way through other means. What are some of these other means? Major film festivals, the major screenwriting contests, film school instructors, and referrals from friends, are all common ways it can happen. In other words, you have to show your work to people who are in the industry who aren’t necessarily representatives or buyers, but who may know representatives and buyers.

This is known as networking. But good networking doesn’t mean cornering a producer at a party and assaulting him or her with your “elevator pitch.” It means getting involved in the business and meeting other people with similar interests and aspirations. People who will support you, look at your work, and when they see something great, tell others about it.

This is why doing exceptional work is so important. Perhaps you’ve heard the maxim “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your front door”? The same is true in showbiz, which is why it is crucial that you’ve taken the time and effort to create the best work you possibly can. When people in the industry see truly great work, they are excited to pass it on. After all, they are all anxious to get credit for helping to discover the next big thing!

And here’s the kicker – after you get representation you will still have to produce great material and network. So really, stop worrying about how you get an agent or manager and just start building your career.

If you make your own success, the agents, managers - and more importantly, a career - will come to you.

--

Douglas Eboch is a screenwriter living in Los Angeles. His credits include the original script “Sweet Home Alabama.” Follow Douglas on Twitter @dougeboch.

Ken Aguado is a producer living in Los Angeles. His most recent film is “Standing Up,” written and directed by DJ Caruso.

Doug and Ken co-wrote “The Hollywood Pitching Bible: A Practical Guide to Pitching Movies and Television," which is available at Amazon, iTunes and selected bookstores around the country.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Working with Agents and Managers

Agents and managers (collectively, “representation”) are important components of a professional screenwriter’s team. They better be – if you have both they will take one fifth of your income – before taxes! Most aspiring screenwriters are obsessed with how they can get representation. Few bother to think about what happens when they do land an agent or manager.

But that’s important. Just getting an agent doesn’t guarantee you a successful screenwriting career – not by a long shot. Plenty of agented writers find their career stagnant, their representation apparently not lifting a finger to help them. They then complain about their awful agent or manager. (For a description of the difference between agent and manager, look here.)

Is their rep really awful? Could be… there are plenty of bad agents out there, and even more worthless managers. But it’s equally possible that the writer did not fulfill their responsibilities in the relationship – probably because they didn’t realize they had responsibilities.

So today I want to discuss your relationship with your representation.

Your Responsibilities:

1. Keep producing new material. Whenever you don’t have assignment work you should be writing new spec material. If you’re just starting out, or your career is in a slump, or you’d just like to be doing different kinds of work, your reps can’t do much for you without the right new material to show people. And this doesn’t mean a half-assed polish of a script that went out five years ago.

2. Run spec ideas by your representatives before writing them. If you surprise your reps with a new spec they didn’t know you were working on, be prepared for them to ignore it. Do them the courtesy of approving ideas before you write them. I like to present a selection of loglines – between three and ten – for my reps to choose from. There are two reasons for this: your reps will do a better job selling if they’re invested in the material, and they can advise you which ideas will work better in the marketplace based on what’s currently out there.

3. Do your own networking and maintain relationships. Part of your reps’ job is to help you expand your network, but they love it if you help. Get out there and socialize within the industry. Meet producers, directors and executives. Let your reps know when you have a new connection. And when your agent or manager connects you with someone, it’s now your responsibility to build that relationship.

4. When you call your representation, have a purpose and keep it short. Your reps are busy. Don’t call them “just to check in.” Have a reason. And a little chit chat is nice, but try to get to the point within a couple minutes. You want your reps on the phone with buyers, not with you.

5. Respond within 24 hours. If your reps email or leave a voicemail for you, respond as soon as possible, but definitely within 24 hours. If your reps can’t reach you, they will be nervous about doing things like setting up meetings for you.

6. Be prepared and professional in meetings. When your reps do get you meetings, it is your responsibility to be prepared and professional. If your reps hear you annoyed the person you were meeting with or delivered a rambling, half-baked pitch, you can bet they won’t send you anywhere else. It’s their reputation on the line, too. (Same goes for when you are working on an assignment – be professional and reliable!)

Understanding the Relationship:

1. Your reps are not your critique group. Some agents and managers like to give feedback on material, others are of the “sell it don’t smell it” perspective. But in any case you should not expect extensive notes on multiple drafts from your reps. That is not their job. And when they do give you notes, you need to be able to effectively execute them in the next draft.

2. Your reps are not your mother, financial planner, therapist or life coach. Your reps are business partners. Often they also become friends. But that doesn’t mean you should burden them with your financial or personal troubles.

3. Your reps’ job is to expose your material to people and get you meetings, not to get you work. You get work by impressing people with your writing and pitching skills. It’s like a recruiter getting you a job interview – if you don’t get the job, it’s not the recruiter’s fault.

4. They deserve their commission even when you get work yourself. Believe me, they’ll do a lot for you that they’ll never get paid for. The commissions are for your overall career. As an example, I once got a job from a referral through a contact I made myself. I still paid my agent’s commission. Then later when the producer was late on a payment, my agent yelled and threatened them until they sent a check. Boy was I glad I’d given my agent his cut!

If you do your part, what should you expect?

1. Calls returned within 24 hours. The courtesy of a quick response works both ways. Most of the time you should expect calls and emails returned within 24 hours. If you reach a point that you can no longer get your reps on the phone, the relationship has failed. (Give them a couple weeks to read spec material, though.)

2. Follow-through on agreed upon plans. If you make plans with your reps – say they buy off on a spec idea and you jointly make a list of who might get that spec, you should reasonably expect them to actually send the spec to those people. If your reps are making promises and not keeping them, it’s time to find new reps.

3. They have your back when you have a serious work conflict. When you are in a conflict with a producer over late pay or free rewrites or some other work related dilemma, your reps should help sort it out. Keep in mind, they have to maintain their relationship with the buyer, so they may not deal with the situation exactly as you’d like (and it is possible you are actually part of the problem). But some reps are way too cautious about making waves. They forget they represent the writer, not the buyer. If your reps throw you under the bus at the first sign of trouble, you might want to find new reps.

Representation is a two way street and it takes some effort to hold up your end of the relationship. But it’s worth it – ultimately it’s all in service of your career. And being in a dysfunctional relationship with your representation can be worse than having no representation at all!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Solutions to Five Common Screenplay Problems

A few weeks ago over at the Fast Company website, a series of infographics were posted showing the statistical results of a professional reader’s coverage of 300 screenplays last year.

If you’re unfamiliar with the function of a reader in Hollywood, they are people who are paid to read and do coverage of scripts (or books, comic books, and other underlying property). Their primary purpose is to identify the best scripts in the avalanche of material a given company receives. The executives then look at the coverage that gets a “recommend” or “consider” rating. If the story seems interesting, the executive may then read at least part of the script.

Of the 300 scripts this reader covered, he recommended eight (2.7%), gave a “consider” to 89 (29.7%), and passed on 203 (68.7%). That means for more than two thirds of the scripts submitted, the company executives probably never even looked at a synopsis. When you’ve put months of work into a script, that is not the fate you want!

Fortunately the infographic goes on to list the biggest story problems the reader encountered. Today I want to look at the top five most common problems (each found in over 50 of the scripts, according to the reader) and suggest how you can avoid them.

1. “The Story Begins Too Late in the Script” 

This is a failure of structure. In proper three-act structure, the story begins at the Catalyst, which is the moment when the hero and their dilemma are both apparent to the audience. Traditionally this is supposed to come on page 10 of the screenplay. I have seen it work both earlier and later, but the point is if the audience (or reader) doesn’t know who the main character is and what their dilemma is fairly early in the proceedings, they’ll start to wonder why any of the scenes matter.

Occasionally the catalyst comes nice and early, but what should be the Act One Turning Point doesn’t occur until the middle of the script. Remember, at the end of Act One, the character ought to be actively embarking on the challenge of solving their dilemma. And the Act One Turning Point generally comes about a quarter of the way into the screenplay.

To prevent this problem, make sure you are doing a solid outline. A late story start often comes when a writer launches into the first draft without properly breaking the story first.

2. “The Scenes are Void of Meaningful Conflict” 

The subtitle on this one said, “Scenes come and go but the narrative and characters are unchanged.” Every scene in a screenplay should be moving the story forward. This means a significant plot change or a significant character change. In every scene! (Well, maybe not a quick establishing shot, but you get the idea.)

Early in the rewriting process you should look at each scene in your screenplay and ask what would happen if you cut it out. If the story would still work, the scene should go. And ask yourself what’s different at the end of the scene than the beginning. If the answer’s “not much,” cut the scene. Be brutal. Also, combine as many scenes as you can so they do double duty.

3. “The Script Has a By-the-Numbers Execution” 
This often happens when writers focus too much on being commercial. Marketability is important, don’t get me wrong. But your reason for writing a script should not be just to make some money. You should be passionate about your story. In fact, when breaking in to the business, it’s critical to demonstrate an original voice rather than simply the ability to mimic established screenwriters. The trick, of course, is to only choose ideas that are both commercial and that you’re passionate about.

Before you start writing any idea, ask yourself: If someone else made this movie would you be first in line on opening night? If the answer isn’t an absolute, “hell yeah,” then you should probably find another idea.

Another cause of by-the-numbers execution is too slavishly following structural paradigms. Again, craft is important, but you also need to give your imagination some room. Try writing the story in treatment form, letting the ideas flow freely, before organizing them into a structural paradigm. Structure should support your story, not constrain it. And when approaching a scene, ask yourself what the most interesting way to realize the scene would be. Let your creativity loose!

4. “The Story is Too Thin”
Another outlining problem. Three-act structure works at all lengths of narrative. Simply doing an act breakdown of your idea doesn’t solve all your plotting needs. Between each act break there should be many plot twists, highs and lows for the character, revelations, etc.

If you find your story feels stretched to fill your outline, try adding more obstacles to the character’s goal, and/or a thematically relevant subplot or two. Also, watch out for a scenario where a single action solves the character’s problem. Try splitting that beat into sub-goals the character has to overcome. This is true of character arc as well. The character should go through stages of change, not one sudden change.

5. “The Villains are Cartoonish, Evil-for-the-Sake-of Evil”

Ooh, this one is a pet peeve of mine. Remember, everybody thinks of themselves as the hero of their own story. Nobody thinks they are a villain. Hitler thought he was saving Germany, not destroying Europe. Even characters who do things they know are wrong should justify that behavior.

A thief may believe he deserves his ill-gotten gains because of the unfair breaks he’s had in life. A psychotic killer may believe he’s the hand of God, or that he’s getting revenge on bad people (bad from his perspective). An insider trader may think his crime is okay because “everybody does it.” Or maybe the villain rationalizes their behavior because they have a family to support, or they think the “system is corrupt.” Make sure your villains have a mindset that justifies their actions. Then make sure their actions stay consistent with that mindset.

There are several other problems that the reader found repeated in dozens of scripts. It’s worth taking a look at the infographics and asking if perhaps you’re guilty of any of these. Then fix the problem before sending the script out. Don’t be one of the 203 passes!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Cars vs. Cars 2

Today I have a guest blogger - novelist (and my sister) Chris Eboch. She writes on the difference between Cars and Cars 2, and how structure affects the success of each story.

Cars vs. Cars 2
by Chris Eboch

My husband and I own the movie Cars and watch it at least once or twice each year. It’s funny, it’s action-packed, it’s heartwarming. Recently we watched Cars 2 on video and found it… Lacking.

Cars was nominated for an Academy Award, won a Golden Globe, and won several other awards. According to IMBD trivia, Cars 2 is the only Pixar feature film to receive a Rotten collective rating at Rotten Tomatoes, the first Pixar film not to win the Golden Globe Award for Best Animated Feature Film since the category began, and the first Pixar film not to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Film since the award was created.

Cars 2 has a lot going for it – an action-packed plot, gorgeous animation, and plenty of humor. So why did it fall short? In a word, structure. Let’s look at some of the basics:

Cars

Main Character: Lightning McQueen. Though there are some important secondary characters, this is his story, start to finish.

Goal: To win the Piston Cup. It’s a clear goal at the start, he works toward that goal despite many complications throughout the story, and he makes his final attempt at the end.

Stakes: Fame and respect. He may change what he values most as the story progresses, but the stakes are clear and they are important to him.

Plot Arc: With a clear goal and high stakes, the plot moves smoothly and logically through a series of complications with that goal always in sight. Suspense builds as the date of the Piston Cup nears, and he can’t get there. At the climax, it’s all about whether or not he will win.

Character Arc: Lightning McQueen changes over time in a believable way as his goal shifts from fame and fortune to an appreciation of friends and community. In the end, he gives up his original goal in order to help someone else, showing how much he’s changed and learned.

Cars 2

Main Character: Lightning… No, wait, Tow Mater. At least, if you look at how much of the screen time focuses on one character, Tow Mater would edge out Lightning McQueen. He’s also the hero at the climax. But it takes 30 or 40 minutes before you realize this is not Lightning McQueen’s story.

Goal: Mater’s goal is weak and confusing. He wants to support his buddy, but he loses that focus for much of the story as he gets caught up in a spy plot. In the end, he wants to save Lightning, but that’s a reaction to immediate circumstances, not an overall story goal. Lightning wants to win the race and beat the foreign car, but it doesn’t seem all that important to him, and it’s not the focus of the story. Besides, he’s not the main character (is he?).

Stakes: Without a clear goal, the stakes are automatically weak. There are big stakes in the spy plot – damage to cars and destroying the reputation of alternative fuel – but the main character (whether you think it’s Mater or Lightning) doesn’t know about any of that.

Plot Arc: The plot is all over the place. It starts with a spy scene with no context. Then a racing battle is set up between Lightning and a foreign car, but first Lightning and Mater do some touring, for no particular reason except that we get to see the Cars interpretation of Japan. Then the story focuses on Mater as he gets caught up in spy activities, with occasional race scenes. It’s like two different plots rammed together.

Character Arc: People make fun of Mater, but in the end they realize he has a lot going for him. However, those are secondary characters. Mater doesn’t know that people are making fun of him until close to the end, so his plot arc lasts for about five minutes. Lightning has a slightly stronger plot arc, as he realizes he shouldn’t be embarrassed by his friend, but he gets that epiphany far before the end as well. For a strong plot arc, Mater should understand early that people see him as a fool, feel bad about it, try to change it throughout the story, and realize his true value at the end.

By looking at these simple aspects of structure, it’s clear how Cars is stronger on every count.

Focusing on a different main character in Cars 2 might have been a good idea. We saw Lightning change in the last story, so he would either need a different strong character arc, or the movie could focus on someone else. The problem is that the main character isn’t clear and doesn’t have a character arc. Without a specific hero, who has a clear goal with high stakes, the character arc is weak and the plot wanders. A lot of stuff is happening, but there’s no sense of where you are in the story – no building toward a clear climax, so the pacing is off.

I expect Cars 2 would be more enjoyable with multiple viewings. Once you know what’s going on, you could focus on the fun animation and humor. But if the moviemakers had concentrated on structure at the start, they might have had another beloved classic instead of a disappointing sequel.

Structure: It’s not just a good idea, it’s the basis of sound storytelling.

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Chris Eboch is the author of Advanced Plotting. If you struggle with plot or suspect your plotting needs work, this book can help. The Plot Outline Exercise is designed to help a writer work with a completed manuscript to identify and fix plot weaknesses. It can also be used to help flesh out an outline. Additional articles address specific plot challenges, such as getting off to a fast start, propping up a sagging middle, building to a climax, and improving your pacing. A dozen guest authors share advice from their own years of experience. Read the book straight through, study the index to find help with your current problem, or dip in and out randomly — however you use this book, you’ll find fascinating insights and detailed tips to help you build a stronger plot and become a better writer.
 
This really is helping me a lot. It's written beautifully and to-the-point. The essays really help you zero in on your own problems in your manuscript. The Plot Outline Exercise is a great tool! – Carmen O.

Chris Eboch: www.chriseboch.com
The Eyes of Pharaoh: a mystery in ancient Egypt
The Well of Sacrifice: a Mayan adventure
Advanced Plotting
 Writing romantic suspense as Kris Bock: www.krisbock.com