Friday, August 1, 2014

A Screenwriter at Comic-Con

Once again this year I attended Comic-Con in San Diego. Even if you’ve never been and don’t care about comic books, you probably know about this event. It’s widely covered for its movie and television studio presentations where stars and directors reveal new footage of upcoming genre movies, as well as for all the people who like to dress up in costume.

In reality Comic-Con is much more than that. What many people don’t know is that there are a ton of panels on creative topics related to writing for movies, television, internet video and comic books. This year, a lot of the panels seemed to be pretty similar to last year – same topics, many of the same panelists. But I did hear some interesting and thought provoking things relevant to screenwriting. Here are some of my take-aways:

“They come for the concept, they stay for the characters.” This quote was from Jeff Krelitz of Heavy Metal at a panel on the convergence of television and the Internet. It was in response to a question about what they look for in material. His point was that you need a big catchy concept to stand out in the vast sea of content on the Internet, but to get people to come back you need strong, compelling characters.

I think the same theory applies to any kind of storytelling medium. In fact, this is a pretty good summary of my approach to pitching (as elaborated on in The Hollywood Pitching Bible, of course – second edition coming very soon!) What you sell in a pitch is a concept and a character or characters. Writers tend to focus on plot detail in pitches, but this is not what will get people to buy your idea.

I also went to another panel on pitching movies and television where one of the speakers (can’t remember who) commented on how you have to explain why your project is different than the next one, and why you are different than the next writer. I think this is an important thing to remember when picking material, whether it's to pitch or spec – you are not working in a vacuum. The people who might buy your pitch are hearing several pitches a day. The people who might buy your spec are reading dozens a week. It’s not enough to just competently execute a story. Your story has to be original and interesting enough to stand out.

Notice that the speaker also mentioned the need to distinguish yourself from the next writer. This is less important with a spec since the writing will speak for itself. But with a pitch you are selling yourself as a writer as much as you are selling the story. Give them a reason to think you will do a good job.

One of my favorite panels every year is the TV Writers Room panel. I wrote down a quote, but again forgot to note who said it (sorry to that person). It was in reference to the television writer’s job when coming up with an episode story idea. The writer needs to ask, “Ten years from now when someone is looking at the DVD box set or Netflix, what in this episode is going to make them say, ‘I have to watch this one because it’s the one where that happened’?”

I thought that was a great way of phrasing the importance of having a cool idea at the heart of the episode story. And actually that was kind of the theme of convention for me: the need to have not just a workable idea, but an idea that is fresh and original enough to stand out from the crowd.

Of course I also saw lots of cool video, movie stars, and people in amazing costumes. It was Comic Con after all.


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In other news, I will be moderating a panel on pitching at the Screenwriters World Conference on August 16th. Also on the panel are Rob Edwards, a writer on Treasure Planet, The Princess and the Frog, In Living Color, The Fresh Prince, and Studio 60; Daniel Manus, CEO of No BullScript Consulting; and screenwriter Patty Meyer who has sold eight pitches to studios. Come check it out!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

5 Networking Tips for Industry Events

“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”

That’s the famous excuse used by aspiring screenwriters to explain why they haven’t been successful. Well guess what – it’s partly true. You need industry connections to get your screenplay read by people who have the power to make it. (You also do need to know a thing or two.) But what if you don’t have any industry connections?

You make some.

You don’t have to be related to someone in the business or grow up in Hollywood in order to become friends with people in the industry. But you do have to go to where industry people are. Ultimately this means moving to Los Angeles, but you may not be at a place in your life or career where that’s possible yet. And Los Angeles is a big city – just because you live here doesn’t guarantee you’ll run into producers and directors… although if you leave your apartment it’s hard not to.

There are places industry professionals congregate – film festivals, screenings, conventions, etc. – that are open to the public. As I type this, Comic-Con is going on in San Diego. Tons of movie stars and big name directors will appear on stage in Hall H. Of course there will also be security guards keeping the general public away from them. But there are also tons of producers, directors, writers and agents walking around on the show floor and hanging out in the hotel bars.

So it’s not too hard to put yourself in proximity with industry folks. But how do you make an actual connection when at an industry event? Here are a few tips.

1. Break out of your shell. This should be obvious, but writers in particular tend to be introverted. That’s fine, but you need to be at least a little social. Don’t sit in the corner at an industry event with your face buried in your phone. If you’re with a group of friends, agree beforehand to make an effort to talk to others. Be friendly and social – do not act like a used car salesman. Recently, I was waiting for a friend at an awards reception. I was standing at the edge of a room full of people by myself. I noticed another gentleman standing by himself a short ways away. So I went over and introduced myself. We ended up having a long conversation, and it turned out he was a development executive at a major production company. It’s amazing what happens when you make just a little effort.

2. Prepare an icebreaker. At film festivals, you can always ask the person next to you if they’ve seen anything good – or even better, tell them about a great film you saw at the festival. At conferences and conventions, you could talk about a great panel or presentation you saw. Other situations do not have such built-in conversation starters, so think about something interesting you can lead with (NOT something about your work) before you arrive. Or even just comment on how good the hors d'oeuvres are. Sometimes you can commiserate over a complaint - "The lines at Comic-Con are really long!" But I prefer to stay positive.

3. Know what you want. Not so much from the event - although that can be helpful - but in your career. Be focused. For writers, usually what you want is for people to read your screenplays. But you could also be looking for funding for an indie film. Or you might want to find representation. Or maybe you’re running a Kickstarter campaign for a short film. If you don’t have a goal, it’s hard to network effectively. But – and this is very important – do not directly ask for the thing you want! At least not at a networking event. Instead, work on making yourself and your pitch so appealing people offer to help you.

4. Oh yeah, your pitch. Have a short, compelling pitch of your project ready. Do not “sell,” simply describe it in the most appealing way possible. You should have both a 30 second and two minute pitch ready to use depending on the circumstances. You don’t want to wing it when somebody asks you what you’re working on. And remember, if you’re at an industry event everyone else there has a project they’re working on. What makes your project different? What makes you different?

5. Do your homework. Consider whom you might meet and what might interest them. People at a smaller film festival will probably be interested in art films. People at Comic-Con will more likely be interested in science fiction, fantasy and horror. Is this a place where you’re going to meet other creatives, or where you’re going to meet buyers? The environment should influence what you talk about. And if there are specific people you might run into (panelists at a convention, for example), familiarize yourself with their bio and credits.

Most importantly, networking is not the same as pitching or selling. When you are networking, you are trying to make a connection with someone. It’s not important that you even get to talk about your screenplay. So be outgoing but not pushy. And bring business cards!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Reading Screenplays

What would you think of someone who tried to write a novel without ever having read one? Or someone who tried to design a house without ever having seen a blueprint? Foolish, right? But a surprising number of people try to write screenplays without ever reading one. They have seen movies, of course, and that helps. But if you plan to be a screenwriter, you need to read screenplays.

This can be harder than it sounds. Screenplays generally aren’t published, and when they are, they are often reformatted and edited to match the final cut of the film. There are “screenplays” online that are actually just transcripts of the film written after the fact. If you are trying to learn screenwriting, you want to read the screenplays that actually went into production.

Here are a few sources of actual production screenplays:

The excellent Good in a Room blog posted screenplays for The King’s Speech, Milk, 12 Years a Slave, Dallas Buyers Club, Iron Lady, Wolf of Wall Street, and Lincoln.

You can browse The Daily Script, Drew’s Script-o-Rama and Simply Scripts. They are archives of all kinds of screenplays, however they do include many transcripts. And, many of the screenplays are production screenplays which are formatted a little differently than what you would submit as a writer (more on that in a moment).

Here are two pdf’s that are the actual, properly formatted screenplays for Mean Girls and Speed. And here are screenplays for The Long Kiss Goodnight and The Matrix that are in more-or-less proper format and style, except they’ve been converted to html so the page breaks are no longer there.

If you’re in Los Angeles, there are also plenty of places you can go read physical scripts. The Writer’s Guild Foundation Library is a good starting point.

 I’ve referenced the different kinds of screenplays out there. I want to go into a little more detail on this subject. I’ll leave out the transcripts and other forms of “screenplay” that are not actually something the writer is involved with. There are three basic types of screenplay you should understand. I’ll cover them in reverse order of the chronology in which they are created.

Production Screenplay – this is the screenplay that is used to make the actual film. A screenplay becomes a production screenplay when it is “locked” – which generally happens when the film is given a “green light” by the studio, or put into production. At this point the production manager or line producer will number the scenes so they can start breaking down the script for scheduling and other production purposes. This is the primary way to recognize a production screenplay: the scenes are numbered. Screenwriters never number the scenes when submitting scripts for sale or development!

Just because we call the screenplay locked doesn’t mean it won’t change, however. Often revisions are made as pre-production is going on, or even into production itself. This can cause problems for the crew, though, because if you start changing scene and page numbers, it becomes difficult to track and schedule things. So there is a special process used, involving things like Omitted Scene designations, a and b pages, and asterisks to mark changes. New revisions are printed on colored paper, starting with blue and moving through a pre-set order of colors. New pages are integrated into the crew’s screenplays until they look like rainbows! How to do this would require a blog post all its own, but it uses all those things on the “Production” tab of Final Draft.

Development Screenplay – this is the type of screenplay you see while the movie is in development. In other words, the studio or production company has acquired or optioned the screenplay and is now paying writers to revise it. The example links I’ve included above are mostly this type of screenplay. Development screenplays do not contain the production mark-ups of a production screenplay.

Selling Screenplay – These are the screenplays writers write – often on spec – to try to get the project off the ground. A selling screenplay and a development screenplay look quite similar. The difference is mostly stylistic, based on the different purposes. Since a selling screenplay is meant to sell, they tend to focus on making a great reading experience (while still conforming to the filmic guidelines I discussed in my last post).

What does this mean? It means deemphasizing things like camera direction. Sometimes it means fudging the format – for example, many selling scripts use incomplete slug lines to speed the reading experience. It can mean using more explicit expository dialogue than you might want in the final film, to make sure a development exec, who is reading five scripts a night very quickly, doesn’t miss an important point. And it can mean streamlining action, since action is hard to convey with text.

Admittedly, the distinction between a development screenplay and a selling screenplay is subtle. But it can be important. You can’t make your movie until you convince the right person that it deserves to be made. Newer writers are usually writing spec screenplays and should thus be using a selling screenplay style. Too many inexperienced writers overload those screenplays with unnecessary and even inappropriate things like camera direction or music suggestions that are not integral to the story.

The best way to grasp the differences is to read a lot of screenplays. Try to read recent screenplays, since format and style changes over time. And any time you can get your hands on the selling draft – a difficult thing to do – pore over that script carefully!

You want to pay attention to the tone and style, and to the sorts of things the writer includes – as well as what they leave out. How much description do they use to set the scene? How much detail do they provide for action scenes? How long are their paragraphs? What is the ratio of dialogue to action to description?

Every writer is a little different, but by studying a broad selection of screenplays you will start to get an instinctive understanding of what professional screenplays look and feel like. And then you can make sure yours are up to that standard.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Film vs. Screenplay

It’s important for screenwriters to keep in mind that the screenplay is not actually the final product. The general public does not read screenplays, they see movies. What we are doing when we write a screenplay is crafting a guide for the making of a movie. This is self-evident, but easy to forget when you’re in the throes of writing. After all, the screenplay is your final product. But, though we often do our work alone, the screenwriter is part of a team with a goal beyond the words on the page.

This has important implications for what you write. You have to constantly think about how your work will appear on screen. Screenplays have their own unique style that you have to absorb if you want to write them well. And the best way to absorb that style is to read a lot of screenplays. Today, I want to discuss some of the stylistic concerns of writing for a filmic medium.

Most basic, you must remember that film communicates to only two senses: vision and hearing. Therefore you should only include in a screenplay what can be seen or heard in the theater. You can’t describe how a room smells or how food tastes. You can’t reveal what’s going on in a character’s mind in the action/description lines. If you do, scenes and story points may work in the screenplay that won’t work on screen.

But there’s more to it than simply avoiding unfilmable elements. You want to take advantage of the visual nature of film. One of the things I learned seeing my screenplay for Sweet Home Alabama turned into a movie was how concerned the director (Andy Tennant) was with creating interesting visual arenas for scenes. Many of my scenes involved people talking in rooms. Andy moved several of them to new, more interesting, more visual locations, with “business” for the characters that provided action on screen.

Similarly, I’m about to embark on a rewrite assignment on a script that has a director attached (I’m not at liberty to reveal the details just yet). The mandate from the director is no talking heads. He always wants the characters on the move. The screenplay may contain mostly dialogue, but your choice of where to set scenes, and what characters are physically doing during those scenes, has a big impact on how visually rich the final film is.

However, it’s very easy to overdo the amount of action and description in a screenplay. You must be ruthlessly efficient, picking just the right details and actions to include. Otherwise, you may be guilty of overwriting. One page of screenplay is supposed to equate to roughly one minute of film. If you take a full page to describe a room that the audience will grasp on screen in a couple seconds, your length will be way off. (See this post on tightening for some tips.)

And remember, it is considered bad form to include much camera direction (pan, tilt, move across, etc.) or actor direction (parentheticals with words like "slyly," "sadly," etc.) in a screenplay. Your job is to tell the story, not tell the cinematographer, director or actor how to do their job.

There are also several things that can technically be done on screen, but do not work as well as they might on the page:

Long speeches: There is definitely a place in filmmaking for characters to make big speeches (anything more than, say, five lines of dialogue), but you should pick these moments judiciously. It’s very difficult to make a character’s speechifying visually interesting. One or two big speeches can give your stories rousing moments and be catnip for stars, but much more and your script simply becomes talky and your character a gasbag.

Voiceover: Voiceover is an even bigger challenge. With a speech, at least you have the actor’s performance to engage the audience visually. But with voice over, you have to think long and hard about what is happening on screen while we listen to that voiceover dialogue. If we’re watching characters in a scene, they will have to have some plausible activity – and no dialogue of their own – while the voiceover is running. This can be harder than it seems. Even a couple sentences of voiceover can create a challenge in a scene if the writer hasn’t thought about this.

Time Transitions:
It’s easy to skip over some time in a script. You simply create a new slug line ending with LATER or MOMENTS LATER. But if you have the same characters in the same location, an audience watching the film may have difficulty understanding that time has passed.

Text on Screen: Describing text in a screenplay – say the contents of a note, letter, email or text messages – reads not much different than dialogue. But if the text is more than a few words, this can be problematic on screen. We don’t have to worry about illiteracy much anymore, but people read at very different speeds, meaning some people will finish reading well before the editor cuts away while others might not finish reading before the cut. Also, text on screen is visually boring. And now that people are watching things on smart phones and tablets, you have to worry about the size of the text. Best to minimize any use of text on screen.

There is an audience for a screenplay as a written document, however. In the period before a movie is given a green light, that audience is development execs, producers, directors and movie stars. After the green light, that audience is the entire production crew. This leads to two subtly distinct types of screenplays – the version written to get a project going – often known as a selling script – and the version written to produce – known as a shooting script.

I’ll go into the distinction next week, as well as where, how, and why to read screenplays.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Happy Independence Day!

Let's Schmooze is taking the week off to celebrate the U.S. Independence Day holiday! If you need something to read you might check out this humorous article I wrote with Ken Aguado about "fixing the liberal bias in Hollywood movies."

Or check out these posts if you missed them:

Why This Character for This Story?

Wisdom from LAFF and DIFF

Working with Agents and Managers

Have a safe and happy 4th of July!

Friday, June 27, 2014

Six Qualities of Great Main Characters

A great main character is one of the most important components of great storytelling. If the audience doesn’t care about the main character, they won’t care about the outcome of the story. From a more “business” standpoint, great main characters draw stars and directors to your screenplay.

Today I want to look at six common elements of great main characters – three that relate to who the character is, and three more that are a little more subtle, but help explain why the first three are so important.

To illustrate my list, I’ll use three engaging but very different main characters from three very different types of movies: Indiana Jones from Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan), Amelie from the French movie Amelie (scenario by Guillaume Laurant and Jean-Peirre Jeunet, dialogue by Guillaume Laurant) and Theodore from Her (written by Spike Jonze)

1. Great characters are really good at something.
Even if the character is a “loser,” they will still be really good at one thing. We like people who are talented, intelligent, resourceful, and/or heroic. Indiana Jones is fantastic at using a bullwhip, and incredibly resourceful at getting out of sticky situations. Theodore is one of the most romantic people in the world – so romantic he makes a living writing love letters for other people. Amelie is very clever – look at the complicated pranks she plays on the mean grocer and on her father, and the complex trail of clues she leaves for the man she’s attracted to. She also discovers she's quite good at helping other people, and makes that her mission in life.

2. Great characters are flawed. Despite being good at something, they also have at least one weakness, which makes them relatable and gives them room to grow. Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes, and though he's tough, he's usually not the strongest guy in a fight. Amelie is shy and emotionally guarded, terribly afraid of having her heart broken. Theodore is having difficulty getting over his failed marriage.

3. Great characters want something badly within the story. Indiana Jones wants the ark. Amelie wants to find love before it's too late. Theodore wants Samantha. These wants are what drives the story forward, what ties the character to the plot.

Now the three more subtle traits:

4. Great characters are specific. The more specific a character, the more believable they are, and the more believable they are, the more we can relate to them. Indiana Jones is an archeologist who uses a bullwhip – not a common action hero type, but a unique and memorable hero. Amelie’s life is initially drawn by the movie's narrator through specific, minute details. Throughout the movie great care is taken to tell us exactly where thing are located, how long actions take, and how people are connected, among many other details. Theodore is similarly delineated through a specific, unique job and details about his lifestyle and relationships.

5. Great characters are complicated. This is why it’s important that they are both really good at something and flawed. Often complication comes from the contrast between their strengths, flaws and wants. Amelie wants love but is afraid of having her heart broken. Her flaw is her biggest obstacle to getting what she wants. Theodore loves Samantha, but also questions whether the relationship is genuine. He worries that he may be motivated to love an operating system because of his previous failure to stay married to a human woman. Indiana Jones wants the Ark but wrestles with his motivations and the value of what he does – is preserving history more important than saving Marion's life?

6. Great characters are active. We don’t want characters who simply experience events, we want characters who take action, driving the story. This is why it’s important the character wants something badly. This will motivate them to act – the way Indiana Jones is spurred to keep going despite multiple setbacks, because he really wants that Ark! Or the way Amelie finally overcomes her fears, or the way Theodore fights for his relationship with Samantha. This action can be reactive – the character may be minding their own business when something happens to them. But the character must then respond to that event actively.

If your main character is talented, flawed, motivated, specific, complicated and active, you have a good shot at a great main character.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Wisdom from LAFF and DIFF

Over the last couple weeks I have attended two different film festivals – DIFF LA, an Art Center College student run festival for film students from around the world, and the LA Film Festival run by Film Independent. (Full disclosure: I am one of the faculty advisers for DIFF!) There were great speakers at both festivals, a few great films, a few not-so-great films, and some good networking opportunities. Here are some highlights you might find interesting:

DIFF LA

Greg Silverman, President of Creative Development and Worldwide Production at Warner Brothers, gave the keynote at DIFF. He started his talk by asking, rhetorically, why a bunch of young, independent minded film students should listen to a “suit” like him. He said he saw his job as striving “to connect great artists to audiences through the right source material."

He elaborated that what he looks for in a filmmaker is a unique, original voice. His goal is to match the right voices to the right stories. And he’s looking for these voices everywhere, which is how Monsters lead to Godzilla, Swingers lead to Edge of Tomorrow and Zack Snyder’s Jeep commercials lead to 300.

(Here's a Hollywood Reporter article about this keynote)

Later, Tarsem, director of such films as Mirror, Mirror, Immortals, and The Fall, continued the theme of finding one’s voice and creating work that reflects that – in a hilariously honest and profanity-laced talk. His biggest piece of advice to students was to, “Put together a portfolio that reflects who you are. And it may turn out you’re shit, but then you’ll know.”

Tarsem also suggested the people who succeed are the ones who know they can’t do it all and find other talented people to collaborate with. (Tarsem attended Art Center around the same time as Michael Bay and Zack Snyder, and mentioned those two had this collaborative quality.)

Tarsem won my additional respect and admiration by taking a large group of students out to the lawn after his talk and sitting with them for over two hours discussing filmmaking and answering questions.

Los Angeles Film Festival

I love LAFF, particularly the Coffee Talks and the FIND party. This year I attended the Directors’ Coffee Talk featuring Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks), Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don't Cry, Carrie) and Debra Granik (Stray Dog, Winter's Bone).

One of the first topics was what draws the directors to material. Kimberly Pierce stated that she has to fall in love with the main character. The other panelists all pretty much agreed that an interesting, fully developed main character is the key draw for them to make a film. Jonathan Dayton also said that “Making a film is like getting a tattoo – it’ll be there forever so you better make sure you really like it.”

They talked a lot about craft – about sound design, score, mixing, how they find indelible images, working with actors – far too much for me to recount, unfortunately.

Kimberly Pierce made a great point for writers. She said there are scenes you like and scenes you need. And she advised writers and directors to get real about what they really need in a film. She described too often getting to editing and finally accepting she had to cut a scene she liked that wasn’t necessary. And then she was angry that she spent the time and money to shoot that scene. Jonathan Dayton suggested that’s why big studio popcorn movies (which he likes) are often so bloated – they’d be better if they cut 45 minutes out, but that 45 minutes cost $50 million to make so everyone is too attached to it.

When an audience member talked about how his father only likes mainstream films and asked how the panelists deal with relationships like that, Debra Granik gave her Trojan horse theory: you make mainstream films but slip in interesting characters and observations about the human condition. She went through a thought exercise of doing a romantic comedy but with two well-developed, realistic characters you wouldn’t expect to fall in love. This led to the panelists agreeing that every film has to be entertaining – even indie films.

The question that stumped the panel for several seconds was asked by a young actress (young meaning maybe 12 years old): What does success mean to you? The consensus that finally emerged was you have to love the process, not be results oriented. The result is too much out of your control.

I would summarize the underlying message of all the talks at both festivals as being two fold: First, it’s necessary to find your voice and to stay true to it. But it’s also necessary to collaborate and to be flexible with how you insert your voice into your work.

Film festivals are great not just for hearing talented people talk about their craft, or for seeing interesting movies (tip: Of Men and Horses was great), they are also a fabulous opportunity to network. Between chatting with people sitting next to me at the talks or screenings, and two parties – the WGA/SAG Indie party and the Film Independent members party – I met several writers, directors and producers, and a couple of film financiers. After a lengthy chat, one producer even asked me to send him a script.

Now, a few of observations about networking at a film festival or really anywhere:

First, the hard sell just turns people off. When you sit down next to someone at a festival, the wrong approach is to try to find out what they can do for you, then pitch them a project. The right approach is to talk about what films they’ve seen at the festival and what they thought of them. (Though be careful - at one of the parties someone was slamming a film only to realize one of the actors from that film was five feet away. Awkward!) At some point you’ll both probably talk about what you do. Invariably, upon finding that I’m a writer, producers or directors will ask what I'm working on. But it should be casual and friendly. And you should treat everyone exactly the same, no matter what their position. After all, making a friend is as valuable as making an industry contact – maybe more valuable!

Second, don’t make it about you. Try to find a way to help them, even if it’s just recommending a film you really like. I was able to recommend a writer’s group to a screenwriter I met, and after talking about the challenge of writing treatments with a director, she asked if I had any good samples I could send her – I did.

Third, networking laterally is the most valuable. Tarsem made that point when he talked about how important the connections he made at Art Center were to his early career. The big film financier I met ultimately may not do anything for me, but perhaps the fellow screenwriter will introduce me to a producer who will buy one of my scripts.

So when networking, look for like-minded people and, to paraphrase Kennedy, ask not what they can do for you, but what you can do for them.

If you’ve never been to a film festival, I highly recommend giving it a try. If you love film it’s hard for it not to be a great experience. These festivals also show why it’s so helpful for aspiring screenwriters to live in Los Angeles – a festival like DIFF would not get speakers like Greg Silverman or Tarsem if it were in the Midwest. There are small festivals at least once a month in LA that manage to draw real industry people.

Also, I recommend checking out Film Independent as an organization. In addition to LAFF they do the Spirit Awards, a film series at LACMA, and have tons of filmmaker resources.