Friday, October 31, 2014

Daily Habits of Successful Screenwriters

A couple months ago, I asked for suggestions for blog topics. Since then, I’ve been working my way through them (in between writing about other topics that come up.) If you have something you’d like me to discuss, feel free to let me know in the comments of this post or via Twitter.

Today I’m going to address a suggestion from Michelle Hall (hopefully she's still reading my blog): “As a newbie wanting to pursue screenwriting full time, what tasks to pursue on daily basis?”

One of the problems, of course, for most “newbies” is that they often can’t really pursue screenwriting full time because they have to hold down a full time job to support themselves while they write. But they are also in competition with established pros whose only job is screenwriting, with way more experience and resources. It’s a challenge. The next challenge comes when you actually are able to pursue screenwriting full time. I’ll get to that in a minute, but let’s start with what you do when you have a limited amount of time.

The first thing that you have to do on a daily basis, naturally, is write. You can’t become a professional screenwriter if you don’t write! You need to learn your craft and generate a body of work to demonstrate your skill and potential employability. And I highly recommend writing on a daily basis – as in writing every day – to achieve this body of work. At some point you may be able to take weekends off – though the movie business is pretty 24-7 – but when you are stealing time around a job and other commitments, you can’t really afford to give up any possible writing time.

I think the best approach is to set a goal of daily writing time, as opposed to a certain number of pages or something. So you might say that you are going to write for an hour a day. It doesn’t matter if you write one line of dialogue or six pages, sit in front of your computer (or legal pad or whatever) and do nothing but write or think about your story. No email, no texting, no surfing the web. It may not seem like you’re accomplishing much in each session, but you’ll be surprised how much you get done in a month. Those hours add up.

You also gain momentum from writing on a daily basis. Your mind stays in your story. You’ll be working out problems as you commute or do laundry or take a shower. Take too many days off and your mind moves on. You’ll find it hard to get started when you sit back down to work on your screenplay.

Probably the next most important thing is to make time to watch movies and read screenplays. This serves several purposes. First, you learn by observing what works and doesn’t work. As you read screenplays, the style and form will become instinctive. And you will gain an understanding of the market. If you want to succeed in the movie business, you need to have seen the latest hit movies – and at least a few of the latest flops – particularly in your genre. You won’t necessarily watch a movie or read a screenplay every day, but each should be at least a weekly habit.

There is a third thing that you should be incorporating into your daily schedule, but what that thing is depends on where you are in your career preparation.

If you’re just starting to write (i.e. you’ve completed fewer than four screenplays), you should be learning writing techniques. Read screenwriting books and/or take classes. Not every book or class is equally good – and some are actually quite bad. Also, not every writer responds to the same approach. But there is valuable insight to be had. Try to get a variety of perspectives and use what seems to work best for you.

If you feel you’re starting to get the hang of screenwriting and you’ve built up a body of work, you’ll want to start plotting the move to “full time screenwriter.” This is going to mean earning a living from writing. And if writing is going to be a source of income (as opposed to a hobby), then you have to treat it like a business. That means market research becomes a part of your day. You’ll move from reading books on screenwriting to checking industry news daily. is a good source of free info, but if you want to be a pro, it’s probably worth subscribing to The Hollywood Reporter or Variety and getting their daily email editions.

(Learning how to pitch will also be a useful skill – might I humbly recommend The Hollywood Pitching Bible as a source of good information?)

And at some point you have to translate that market research into action. You need to get your screenplay read by people in the business. At the most basic level, the way to break in is to write great screenplays and show them to anyone who will read them. Get involved in industry organizations, go to film festivals, participate in online message boards – whatever you can do to meet and befriend people who are connected to the business. Once they like you, ask them to read your work. Entering the top contests or taking classes or going to pitch fests are other ways to get your work in front of industry connected people. You won’t necessarily reach agents, managers or buyers right off the bat, but if your work is great – and I mean really great – people will be happy to recommend it to the agents, managers or buyers they know. (See this post on “How to Get an Agent.”)

Now, what happens when you find yourself in the position of having all day to dedicate to your screenwriting career? The danger here is that it’s easy to fill up your day with non-job activities. The gym is less crowded in the middle of the day, as is the grocery store… Flexibility is one of the advantages of the profession, but you have to maintain self-discipline. Most of the time you’re the only one who will be making sure you’re doing what you need to do to keep earning.

Your daily screenwriting-oriented activity when you’re full time is much the same as when you weren’t, except you do everything for longer periods of time. You have to keep writing. Hopefully, sometimes you’ll be working on assignments – rewrites, adaptations, turning your sold pitch into a screenplay. But if you don’t have an assignment, you should be generating spec work. Writing is your job and really should be the focus of your day.

Writers have different work habits. I personally write in short, intense bursts. I will sit down and write for an hour or two, then go do something else for a while, then come back for another session. If I try to write more than five or six hours in a day, for more than a few days in a row, I will eventually burn out. But I get a lot done in those short bursts – often I can do 3-5 pages in an hour. I think this is because I’m focused and because my mind noodles with the story between writing sessions. I also find it helpful if I work on one project in the morning and a different project in the afternoon. Somehow it keeps my creativity level higher.

This works for me, but other writers find other work habits are more successful for them. And of course I don’t always have the luxury of this system. Sometimes I’m under deadline and have to work ten hours straight on one project. Sometimes I have meetings, or have to teach my class and I can only get in a single writing session in a day (though I always try to get in at least one.)

The other daily activities are often business related: Reading or The Hollywood Reporter or Done Deal. Talking to my manager or attorney about a project or contract or upcoming meeting. Returning emails and phone calls from producers or development execs. Rehearsing pitches. I also practice saying my log lines for all of my current projects that I might want to mention should I run into a potential contact in a social situation.

Other things will come into your calendar on a non-daily basis, of course. As your career progresses, you’ll be doing general meetings and pitch meetings, and perhaps reading books or screenplays to prep for assignment pitches. If you should be so fortunate to have a movie coming out, you’ll have press and promotional obligations. You’ll go to networking events whenever you can.

But not matter what, write every day.

Make no mistake, it’s hard to become a full time professional screenwriter. Most people who attempt it fail. Those that succeed often struggle for years before they support themselves from writing. You have to be committed to it. You have to carve out that time every day. But if you take a strategic, disciplined approach, you will have a much better chance of success.


There’s still time to back my short film project on Kickstarter – if you enjoy this blog, it would be a great way to show your appreciation!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Three Techniques for Developing Complex Characters

Creating believable characters is, of course, one of the most important skills for a screenwriter to master. If the main character of your story feels like a real person, then we will care what happens to them. That will get the audience involved in the story. So how do you create characters that feel like real people?

Many writing teachers recommend creating a detailed backstory, and that can be useful. But I find it nearly impossible to determine a character’s backstory until I know who the character is now. I have the same problem with those long lists of “character questions” – you know, the ones that ask what their favorite food is and where they went to second grade. The answers feel arbitrary until I really know the person the questions are about. And if I know the character, why do I need to answer all those questions?

So here are three techniques I use to create realistic, complex characters.

1. Develop Them in Three Dimensions

From the initial story conception I’ll know some of the character's characteristics, such as maybe their job or family situation. Next, I’ll start fleshing out the character in three dimensions: physical, social and psychological.

In screenplays we generally avoid extremely detailed physical description such as hair or eye color unless for some reason it’s critical to the story (Legally Blonde, for example). This is because we want to allow some range for casting. However, there are still several aspects of physicality to consider. What is the character’s age? What is their race? How athletic are they? Are they graceful, clumsy, sexy or sickly? Naturally attractive or ugly? Do they have a high-pitched, squeaky voice or a deep soothing voice? All of these things affect the character’s attitude toward the world.

Social characteristics can be thought of as demographics. Is the character single, married, divorced? Are their parents alive and do they get along with them? Are they popular, stylish, a jock or a nerd? What religion are they? Socio-economic class? Education level? What ethnicity, and are they a minority in their environment? What social groups are they part of – friends, work groups, hobby groups? Where do they live – what city and what kind of domicile? Who do they live with?

Psychological traits are about the character’s personality. Are they outgoing or shy? Optimistic or pessimistic? Patient or short-tempered? Greedy, overly-sensitive, confident, competitive, charming, uptight, lecherous and/or kind? What are they most afraid of? What do they enjoy?

2. Give Them a Contradiction

As I said, some of the character’s traits will be suggested by your concept. If the story is about a doctor, then he’s going to be well educated. You’ll need to decide how long he’s been a doctor and how much experience he has. Think about what kind of people are doctors. They’re often smart, motivated workaholics. Usually they make a lot of money. They’re respected.

Now, look for contradictions – character aspects that separate this specific character from the norm. What if this particular doctor is actually lazy? Or maybe he’s broke… why would that be? Does he have a gambling problem? Or maybe he’s been divorced a bunch of times and spends most of his paycheck on alimony.

The hero in the excellent film Edge of Tomorrow (screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie and Jez Butterworth & John Henry Butterworth) is a soldier. We expect certain things from soldiers - bravery, toughness, discipline, maybe a little macho. We probably assume they're from working class backgrounds and have a modest education. But in this film, they made the hero a slick, fast talking PR guy for the military - and someone very afraid of going into actual combat. Those contradictions made him interesting and unique.

3. Give Them Plans

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

-John Lennon

John Lennon’s quote neatly crystallizes a valuable concept in creating characters. In order for your characters to seem like believable human beings, they can’t just be sitting around waiting for a story to happen to them. The story has to interrupt a life in progress. In other words, your characters have to have other plans.

I like to think through my characters’ short term, medium term and long term plans. Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) demonstrates this well. Richard, the main character, isn’t sitting around waiting for his daughter, Olive, to get into a beauty pageant. He has plans.

His short-term plan involves the inconvenience of taking in his brother-in-law, Frank, after Frank’s attempted suicide. In the medium term he’s trying to confirm a book deal for his “9 Steps” plan. In the long term he wants to be a motivational guru. One of the main reasons we show the characters’ plans is to establish who they are and what they want.

Let the story happen to your characters while they’re busy making other plans. After all, that’s life!

It's not unusual for me to read scripts by neophyte writers with a central character who's a loner - single, no family or friends, etc. Dedicated to their job with no outside hobbies or interests. Often they're white, middle class, mainline protestant, and in their mid-twenties - generic "movie character" demographics. Unless the story requires the character to be so one dimensional, this is usually a sign the writer is lazy. And it comes off as unrealistic - few people live like this. If you want us to care about your characters, you have to give them full, complicated lives.


I’m grateful for all my readers! If you find this blog useful, may I humbly suggest a way to show your appreciation: back my Kickstarter campaign and help me finish my short film, Microbe. Pledging just $10 will get you a digital download of the film. And, I’m offering a professional script analysis if you pledge $300 – that’s more than half off my usual rate.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Five Lessons from Making a Short Film

A few weeks ago I shot a short film called Microbe. It is a sci-fi/thriller story about three astronauts who struggle to survive after an alien microbe turns one of them homicidal.

I had several reasons for tackling this film. First, I want to get into directing and need a sample to show people. Second, I want to change my “brand” and start doing more science fiction. Third, I wanted to learn some of the latest film technology. I studied production in film school, but the process of filmmaking has changed greatly since then. I pushed myself with what I’m attempting. We’re using green screen, CGI, wirework stunts, and we even shot in 3D (or “stereo” as the pros call it).

We had a great time on set – I had a fantastic cast and crew – and I have learned a bunch. Now we’re moving into post-production. I thought I’d share some of the lessons I’ve learned so far about this process.

1. Make sure you actually have what you think you have before you start. I had a few problems with people offering something for the film (money, their services, free use of equipment or facilities) only to pull it back before we started. Similarly, sometimes people would say they could do something for a certain budget, only to come back later and say they needed more money – after I’d already committed to using them.

Once you start spending money on a film, it’s pretty hard not to keep going until it’s done. Not finishing means you lose everything invested to that point. So when the budget goes up, you have little choice but opening up your wallet. The more you can lock down everything, in as clear and firm terms as possible, before you actually hit the “go” button, the better. Of course filmmaking is a chaotic endeavor, so you should always have contingency of 10% in your budget.

2. Good collaborators are critical. Get people who know their jobs and listen to them. As I said, I had a great cast and crew. There was a point where we finished a shot, the actors and I stepped off the set, and I just watched the crew work. The art department was bringing in a set wall while the camera team laid dolly track, the gaffer set up lights and the grip set up C-stands. It should have been chaos – everyone running into everyone else – but instead it was like a beautiful choreographed ballet. I realized this was a century of Hollywood figuring out how to make films distilled into my well-trained crew.

Filmmaking is complex and you can’t know everything – especially on a shoot as complicated as mine. I had to rely on my stereographer to ensure the 3D was working, my VFX Supervisor to confirm the shots fit what he needed, and tons of other people to do their jobs so I could focus on the staging and acting. Especially valuable was my script supervisor making sure we got each piece we needed and that it would all cut together.

3. Take the big swing. It’s the only way to get noticed, and it makes people excited to get involved. Okay, I don’t know for sure yet that this will pay off. But my theory here is that there are tens of thousands of short films made every year. If you want someone to pay attention, you have to do something different, something interesting. So I took a big swing with a very ambitious project.

What I did find was that people were very excited to get involved. For some it was an opportunity for them to experiment with certain technology (particularly 3D for many of my crew). And it was just more fun than doing another short film shot in someone’s apartment. I was pleased to see people using the breaks in production to take pictures of themselves in the cool set my production designer constructed. And that kind of excitement helps get everyone through the long days.

4. Preparation is critical. Do and plan as much in advance as you can. Especially with complex effects, it was critical to have a carefully planned shot list and storyboards so we could figure out where to put the camera. We were constructing shots from multiple elements, so we needed to be sure everything fit together, and that we didn’t forget to shoot a particular element.

Production is chaotic – and things will go wrong. Preparation allows you to adapt and prioritize so you get what you need. One place I fell down in this regard was costuming. We didn’t do fittings with the cast in advance. Fortunately, the costumes fit them well, but we should have checked them with the harnesses for the wirework. The costumes didn’t cover the harnesses properly, forcing some creative nipping and tucking on set, and extra work for the visual effects guys who will have to digitally smooth the clothing. There was no need for this trouble – we could have tested all this in advance.

5. All jobs, and all parts of the process matter. The costuming issue was a good example. I didn’t think the costumes would be a big deal so I didn’t really pay attention to them. But a film is only great if no part fails. One bad performance can ruin a film. So can a bad score, or bad cinematography, or bad effects, or bad editing. To succeed you need everything to be good. That’s why making a great film is so hard. Fortunately, the costuming issues on our shoot were minor and fixable!

If you’d like to see more about Microbe, check the Facebook page and/or website.

As I said, I’m now in post-production on the film. We have created a Kickstarter campaign to help us pay for equipment, facilities, etc. that we need to finish. I hope you’ll check it out and consider backing us!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Hollywood Conventional Wisdom Fails

Much has been made about the huge failure of this summer’s Hollywood movies. The numbers are grim: Total U.S. box office was $4.02 billion, a drop of 17% from last year and the worst total since 2006. But actually, adjusted for inflation, this was the worst summer since 1997 – seventeen years ago! Moreover, the National Association of Theater Owners reports that this summer’s ticket sales (501 million) was the lowest since they started keeping seasonal records in 2002. Also of note, no film crossed the $300 million mark at the box office during the summer (Guardians of the Galaxy made it after summer ended). That’s the first time that’s happened in fourteen years.

So what does summer 2014’s box office mean for screenwriters? We are independent contractors – essentially small business owners – so the fate of the marketplace affects us. Of course, it’s risky to try to deduce trends from a single season. Movies are unique products, and variations in quality make for volatile short-term economic numbers.

However this summer has offered ample evidence that much of Hollywood’s “conventional wisdom” no longer applies (if it ever really did). Whether or when Hollywood producers and executives recognize this remains to be seen.

One bit of conventional wisdom is that teenage boys drive box office. A corollary to this is that movies with male leads will be more successful.

Yet this summer female driven movies such as Maleficent (ranked #3), Lucy (#12) and The Fault in our Stars (#13) were some of the most profitable films. And this follows the success of Divergent this spring. Among the broad audience films, the ones that appealed more to women such as Guardians of the Galaxy (#1) did best. The exception was Transformers: Age of Extinction (#2 with a heavily male audience).

( has an interesting article showing that films that pass the Bechdel test – two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man – are typically more profitable than those that don’t.)

The emphasis on youth also seems to be outdated. According to The Hollywood Reporter, frequent moviegoers between the ages of 12-17 plunged 15% last year (2013), while moviegoers 18-25 plunged 17%. Or perhaps, given that total box office is also dropping, what this really means is that what Hollywood thinks will appeal to young people is completely outdated. Perhaps being out of touch with the young audience is a big reason for the weak summer.

The Hollywood Reporter article compares this summer’s Amazing Spider-Man 2 to the 2007 Sam Raimi Spider-Man 3. The recent movie’s audience was 39% female compared to 46% for the former, while only 41% of the recent movie’s audience was under 25 vs. 65% of the 2007 movie’s audience. The result? This summer’s Spider-Man movie was the lowest grossing of the franchise.

In fact, the reliance on franchises and well-known properties (the safest approach according to Hollywood conventional wisdom) didn’t pay off very well this summer. While the latest X-men movie managed to nearly match the last one, the latest Transformers and Spider-Man movies were among the lowest grossing in their series.  And the reboots of Teenage Mutant Turtles ($188 million) and Godzilla ($200 million) did just okay at best. The only real exception was Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which beat its predecessor. (Maybe this indicates that the other franchises were simply played out.)

The summer’s biggest hit, Guardians of the Galaxy, was technically based on a comic book, but one almost nobody had heard of. This might indicate audience really want something fresh. Lucy, which grossed $125 million on a $40 million budget, is also a point for originality.

On the other hand, perhaps the scariest summer movie for studios and screenwriters was Edge of Tomorrow. It featured big stars in Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt, was a high-concept genre movie, was loved by critics (90% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) and well-liked by audiences (B+ Cinemascore). Yet it was a big flop, grossing just $100 million domestically on a budget of $178 million. If a high-quality, commercial movie like that can fail, what does that mean for original content?

Perhaps it means, like William Goldman said, “Nobody knows anything” when it comes to box office.

The other real question is whether domestic box office really matters anymore. International box office can completely change a movie’s fate. Though Transformers: Age of Extinction was pretty ho-hum domestically, it is the number one movie of the year worldwide, with a gross over a billion dollars. (Interestingly, the female driven Maleficent comes in at #2, and Lucy holds the #12 position for the year-to-date worldwide.)

Of course box office gross might not tell us much either. Studios typically take a much lower percentage of the box office from foreign theaters than domestic, so grossing $100 million in China is not as good as grossing $50 million in the U.S. And, gross isn’t the same as profit – why Lucy is wildly successful while Edge of Tomorrow is a bomb. Furthermore, theatrical exhibition is only a small part of the studios’ revenue stream, though box office success does tend to increase the value of secondary revenue – television and cable networks, Netflix, Hulu, etc. pay more for a hit movie than a flop. Hits can be licensed to toy and video game companies; flops seldom are.

It’s enough to make a poor writer’s head spin. My takeaways are: First, the industry should stop ignoring the female audience and avoiding female stars. Second, we desperately need some fresh franchises. Perhaps that will influence the kind of material I choose to work on going forward.

(Note: I relied on Box Office Mojo heavily for my numbers)

(UPDATE: Apparently Box Office Mojo shut down within hours after I posted this!)

Friday, October 3, 2014

Making a Good First Impression

A couple months ago I solicited suggestions for blog topics here and on my Twitter feed. My friend Paul Guay suggested I talk about the crucial importance of spelling, grammar, punctuation and format. Paul, a top professional screenwriter (Liar Liar, Heartbreakers, Little Rascals) obviously doesn’t need to be told about format and grammar. I’m sure the suggestion came from his frustration in dealing with students from his classes and consulting business.

Screenplays have a very specific format (or really several specific formats if you consider sitcom, hour drama and feature film). It should not surprise you that if you want to work as a professional writer you need to use the proper format. It should not surprise you… but for some reason I’ve encountered an amazing number of aspiring writers who moan about learning format.

Using proper format is important for several reasons. First, it makes you look like a professional. Second, properly formatted screenplays should roughly time out to about one minute of screen time for each page of the screenplay. This helps the studio know if the screenplay is an appropriate length for a movie. Finally, many things about screenplay format are designed to help in the production of a film – for example, slug lines indicate a new location or time of day, which is helpful for scheduling the shoot.

There is a difference between a production formatted screenplay (a script which has been “locked” and is in pre-production) and a development script. Most of the time, writers are dealing with development format.

Here is a format guide for development scripts I’ve prepared with Paul’s help.

Note that format changes subtly over time (this is why it’s risky to use a guide printed in a book from 1988). For example, when I started out it was considered proper format to put “(CONTINUED)” at the bottom of each page. These days few professional writers do that.

The other thing that will help you is to use screenwriting software. Final Draft is currently the industry standard, though Movie Magic Screenwriter has its adherents. There’s even Celtx, a fairly good freeware product. Once you load the proper template for the kind of script you’re writing, the software will take care of most of the formatting for you. There is a small learning curve with any of these, but you’ll get the hang of it quicker than you think and wonder how you ever wrote without them.

Similar to format, you have to use proper spelling, grammar and punctuation in your script. Most of the executives and producers in this business have degrees from top universities. They know the difference between “lose” and “loose,” “than” and “then,” “its” and “it’s.” If you don’t know how to use those words, the executives are going to think you’re kind of stupid. Is that the impression you want to give? As a writer, your tool is the English language. You are expected to have mastered that tool!

There are two places where you will violate the rules of grammar. One is dialogue. People rarely speak in perfect English and your dialogue should reflect the way people actually speak. The second is for stylistic effect. For example, screenwriters often use sentence fragments to create a sense of pace and tone. But in these instances it will be clear that you are violating the rules intentionally for effect. On the other hand, if you confuse "their" and "there" everyone will know it's out of ignorance or sloppiness.

Now, if you read professional scripts you won’t have any trouble finding the occasional spelling, punctuation, format or grammar error. That isn’t really surprising when you consider that unlike a novel a script isn’t intended as a final product. Studios don’t employ copy editors the way publishing houses do. But don’t take that a license to be sloppy.

A few errors will never get your script rejected. But if an Ivy League educated producer finds half a dozen spelling and grammar errors on the first page of your script, you can bet she won’t bother to read the second page. If you haven’t mastered Basic English what’s the chance you’ve mastered dialogue and plot?

Similarly, if you use a slightly dated format people will still take your script seriously, though if you’re writing in a format used in the ‘40s or if you number your scenes (as is done in a locked production script) it’s kind of a tip off that you’re not a working professional yet.

If, however, you write in a radically non-standard format, people will absolutely not take you seriously. First of all, if you can’t be bothered to learn something as simple as formatting you probably haven’t bothered to learn anything else about the craft of writing either. The moment a producer or executive or movie star sees an improperly formatted script they immediately assume it’s awful. Experience says they’re probably right.

Remember, seldom are people in Hollywood obligated to read your work. Especially if you are trying to break in, any indication that you aren’t ready will be an easy excuse for a producer or executive to toss your script aside and move on to the next one.

Of course the thing that will ultimately determine your success or failure is your storytelling ability. The prettiest script in the world won’t sell if the story isn’t compelling. But format, grammar, punctuation, and spelling create an impression on the reader before they even get to the quality of your story. You want to create the impression that you are a smart, skilled artist who has spent time learning your craft.

In the end it’s all about being a professional.