Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Screenwriting Lessons from Comic-Con 2012

Last weekend I attended the San Diego Comic-Con, one of the biggest conventions of any kind in the U.S. You’ve most likely heard of it, even if you’re not a comics fan – it gets covered in Entertainment Weekly, newspapers, E!, etc. Among other things it’s a big platform for studios to promote their upcoming movies, and a great networking event for the film industry (see this LA Times article.) There are also many panels on the craft of writing and filmmaking. Here are a few of the things I learned this year:

The Importance of a Good Hook

This one I am reminded of every year walking the convention floor. It is incredible to see how much intellectual property is out there. It gets extremely overwhelming and soon it all begins to blend together. It takes a good, clear hook to break free from the clutter.

My favorite part of the floor is the Independent Press and Small Press areas because that’s where you find the really clever stuff you can’t find in your local comic book store. But I kind of breeze right by the generic “Amazing Power Man” and “Space Commander Smith” stuff. Much of it looks exactly the same. Amazing how many people do independent work that is essentially poor imitations of the big comics publishers. And then I’ll see something like “Cleopatra in Space” or “Werewolf for Hire” and it will stop me in my tracks. It’s different – I’m intrigued.*

The hooky stuff may not be any better than some of the generic stuff. It also may not actually be more hooky – it just presents its hook clearly up front. “Amazing Power Man” may have a really clever twist on the genre, but I’ll never know because it buried the lead.

What does this have to do with screenwriting? Well, the average producer and development exec are kind of like me walking along the convention floor – they read six to twelve scripts a day, every day. After a while, those scripts must start blending together. If you want to get their attention, you have to have a really fresh hook, and you ought to get it out quickly and clearly - the title is a good place.

*As far as I know, "Amazing Power Man" and "Space Commander Smith" are not real, but "Cleopatra in Space" and "Werewolf for Hire" are.

Pitching is About You, Not Your Idea

I attended a panel on pitching (mostly fishing for ideas for the class I teach). One particularly noteworthy exchange came when panelist (and my friend) Javier Grillo-Marxuach said that a pitch is 50% selling your idea and 50% selling yourself. Several of the buyers on the panel quickly said they thought it was even more about selling yourself.

They went on to make the point that the exec or producer has heard your idea before. Nothing is really that original. Nope, not even your idea. It’s what your “take” on the idea is, how you will execute it. You have to hone your craft and your “people skills” if you want to work as a screenwriter – that’s what sells. (One panelist also mentioned that the surest sign of an amateur is someone afraid to tell you their idea because they’re afraid you’ll steal it.)

Another great Javi quote: someone asked what they should do once they’ve got their script finished and polished. His response: “Write six more.” The reason is people may like the script but not be in the market for that idea for a variety of reasons that you have no control over. So they’ll ask to see something else. It’s a really good idea to have something else to show them.

By the way, Javi scripts out his pitches for his TV projects, and you can download several of them on his website: http://okbjgm.squarespace.com/downloads/

Anatomy of a Fight Scene

I also attended a panel on writing a fight scene by novelist Maxwell Alexander Drake (www.maxwellalexanderdrake.com). The most useful part was when he discussed approaching a fight like any other scene – figure out the characters’ motivations. If a ten year-old kid attacks you, your motivation may be to stop the fight without hurting the kid. If a drunk attacks you in a bar, your motivation might be escape. If you attack someone who has hurt your child, your motivation might be to kill them. You will fight differently in each situation. And different people will fight differently as well.


I also attended a panel on using Kickstarter to fund comics that did not leave me particularly encouraged about the value of Kickstarter. Ironic, since I am in the middle of my own Kickstarter campaign for my short film, Microbe.

Hey, and speaking of that… only ten days left! Check it out – remember, I’m offering a limited number of script analyses at considerably below my regular rate as one reward. And I would be grateful if you spread the word to anybody you might think would be interested. http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1470121165/microbe

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