Sunday, November 13, 2016

"Arrival" Screenwriter Eric Heisserer on Creating Character

Five years ago I interviewed several screenwriters about their process of developing characters. One of those writers was Eric Heisserer, who at the time had written mostly horror movies such as the Nightmare on Elm Street reboot. Since then, he has done several more movies, including writing and directing the wonderful independent film Hours starring Paul Walker. But this year has been a banner year for Eric. He adapted the movie Lights Out from a viral video. It grossed over $67 million worldwide on a budget of about $5 million. And he adapted a short story into this weekend's critical and commercial success, Arrival. I saw Arrival last night, and it's fantastic.

So, in light of that, I thought I would re-publish my interview with Eric. He's obviously got something figured out!

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Q. What is required for a compelling character?

They have to want something, and it's a want that drives them through every scene. This want can change over the course of the narrative, particularly if the character realizes that they have a need greater than their want. Next, that character needs adversity as powerful as their want. If you have a character get what they want with no resistance, we aren't really compelled to follow the story. Conflict is the breeding ground for compelling character. After that, it's a matter of window dressing. While it may not be absolutely required, something I find that really helps cement the character is a trait or two that feels grounded and realistic, something plucked from someone you know. Anchor the character in reality, even if it's just in a behavior or mannerism you've seen in your spouse, your friend, your coworker, etc.

Q. What is your approach to building a character?

My approach is sloppy and unstructured. Generally speaking, there are two approaches to story. Some begin with the question, "What if..." and others start with, "There's a guy (or gal) who..." Basically one is concept-centric and the other is character-centric. I used to be focused on concept, and would work outside-in toward character, populating my concept with people who could exploit it. What I've discovered after many years of bad writing and trial-and-error is that the two need to be married. So now I begin my story with, "What if there's a guy who..."

My litmus test when I'm first writing for a character is: I picture myself in a meeting with an actor. The actor is asking me questions about the character. I am putting lines in this person's mouth, and it has to come from an authentic place. If the actor is asking me about motivation or objectives, then my character is undercooked. I haven't yet made it compelling. So, back to the drawing board.

Q. How much back story do you create for your main character before you start writing?

I don't do much back story work, save for that which grows naturally out of the want/need I give the character. If a character wants to be a pilot, for example, then I can choose whether that want comes from a lust for life, or from fear. Perhaps my character has had dreams of flying among the clouds, or of breaking free from the world at ground level. Or maybe this is an escape from a terrible domestic life. Or the character is haunted by a parent's wish/warning. The want will dictate the backstory, in terms of what is pertinent to the narrative I'm trying to tell.

Q. What is the most important thing(s) you need to know about your character before you start writing?

I must know what they want to accomplish. What is the result they want by the end of the story? My characters need to tell me how they want the story to end, and there has to be at least two completely different endings in those answers, or else I don't have any conflict.

Q. Do you base your characters on people you know or imagine stars in the part as you write?


I have to base my characters on behaviors, speech styles, and mannerisms I've observed in real people, or else they won't feel real themselves. But I tend to avoid basing a character on an actual person, because reality can get in the way of my story (unless of course the point of the story is biographical in nature). I have begun to place actors in my roles, because it's great shorthand for talking with studio execs later, and sometimes it can help me find dialogue when I get stuck.

Thanks again, Eric! And for my readers, go see Arrival. It's worth it! 

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Get The Three Stages of Screenwriting

"I used to always recommend that new writers read Story as their first and most important introduction to the craft of screenwriting, but from now on, I’m going to recommend The Three Stages of Screenwriting."
-LA Screenwriter Review
 

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Sequelitis and the Cultural Irrelevancy of Feature Films

It seems like everyone in the movie business is talking about this year’s “sequelitis.” The term refers to the poor showing of sequels this year – the general assumption being that the audience is sick and tired of them.

How bad is it, exactly? This chart shows all the sequels among the top 100 movies released in 2016 as of September 6th. Exactly one quarter of the top 100 movies this year were sequels (that’s 25 for those bad at math). I’ve calculated the domestic box office performance of the 2016 sequels relative to the domestic box office performance of the prior movie in their series using data from boxofficemojo.com.

(Click on the image to enlarge.)

A few things immediately jump out. First, only four of the 25 sequels released this year outperformed their predecessor. Even worse, twice as many (eight) had greater than 50% drops from their predecessor. It would seem any studio at this point that green lights a sequel not based on Star Wars or a Marvel or DC superhero is insane (or Sweet Home Alabama… everybody would love a sequel to that, I’m sure).

Now there are a few caveats to this chart. Some of these sequels are still in theaters, though all have likely made the bulk of their revenue. I also have not adjusted for inflation – otherwise Independence Day Resurgence, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, Barbershop: The Next Cut and Zoolander 2 would look a lot worse! Probably most important, box office is not the same as profitability. So Barbarshop: The Next Cut, 10 Cloverfield Lane, and The Conjuring 2, for example, may still be quite profitable since their budgets were low. On the other hand, Batman v. Superman is a disappointment relative to budget despite improving over Man of Steel, and big-budget movies like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows and Alice Through the Looking Glass are going to rack up even bigger losses than this table suggests.

By the way, if you’re wondering where Jungle Book, Ghostbusters, Pete’s Dragon and Ben Hur are, those were reboots, not sequels (though it’s worth noting that other than Jungle Book all the reboots failed this year as well.)

So what does all this mean? Obviously it means that the audience is sick of sequels. But I think it’s indicative of a bigger problem for the film industry – that of cultural relevance. It used to be that the biggest new pop culture franchises mostly launched with original feature films. The1970s saw franchises like Alien, Star Wars, and Rocky launch with original feature films. The 1980s launched the Terminator, Indiana Jones, Die Hard, Ghostbusters, and Lethal Weapon franchises via feature films. And in the 1990s the movie business gave us the Jurassic Park, Austin Powers, and Matrix franchises. But since The Fast and the Furious fifteen years ago, what major franchises have started with an original feature film? A few low budget horror franchises, but not much else.

It’s not that there weren’t sequels in earlier decades, but they weren’t such a large part of the market. Three decades ago, in 1986, only ten of the top 100 movies were sequels. That means this year there have been two-and-a-half times as many sequels in the market as thirty years ago… and this year isn’t finished yet.

In previous decades, people talked excitedly about what they saw at the movies. They bought toys and comic books and video games based on original movie stories. But television has usurped that conversation. What movie today inspires the kind of widespread enthusiasm that Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead inspire?

Actually, there is one I can think of: Deadpool. And I consider Deadpool to be the exception that proves the rule: a movie that bucked trends to be fresh and different while still appealing to a wide audience. And it was a movie that the studio made reluctantly, insisting on a lower budget than many of those “sure thing” sequels that bombed.

In the seventies, eighties, and nineties the movies had a fairly captive audience. Back then, summer television was filled with reruns. Cable had virtually no original scripted programming. There was no Internet streaming. There was VHS in the eighties and DVD in the nineties, but they mostly gave us access to feature films. In the summer, anyway, if you wanted to see something cool you pretty much had to go to the theater.

That’s not the world we live in anymore. We don’t ever really need to go to the movies to see great, original filmed entertainment. In fact our DVRs are full of stuff we don’t have time to watch. And yet the movie business has responded by becoming less original and adventurous. The studios are not pursuing bold pop cultural statements, they are running to the “tried and true,” which are often also the “tired and dull.”

And if they keep going down this path, pretty soon I’m guessing most people will start to wonder: who needs to go to the movies anyway? Maybe most people already have reached this conclusion – as evidenced by 2016’s sequelitis.

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 The Hollywood Pitching Bible

“ ‘Bible’ is the right word. This is the Truth about pitching. Just do what it says.”
- Gary Goldman (Writer/Producer, "Total Recall," "Minority Report," "Big Trouble in Little China")

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Last (Regular) LetsSchmooze Blog Post

I started this blog in 2008 – that’s almost eight full years of weekly blog posts (with an occasional week off). This week, I’m bringing that streak to an end. It’s been fun and satisfying and occasionally wearying. Lately I’ve struggled to come up with new topics that are interesting and helpful. So I’ve decided to quit while I’m ahead (hopefully I’m not too late!).

The blog will remain online for the foreseeable future, so you can read older posts if you missed some. And I may still post here from time to time when I have something to say that doesn’t seem to fit anywhere else (I suspect I will continue to post my annual “Ten Best Written Screenplay” lists, for example). But I am letting go of the obligation to post something new every week. If you want to be notified when I do post, you can subscribe by email or follow me on Twitter (@dougeboch).

I thank those of you who read the blog loyally, and I’m especially grateful those who commented on posts, debated my ideas, or sent me notes of appreciation. It’s great to know that this effort was not in vain!

If you’d like more of my thoughts on screenwriting or the screenwriting business, may I humbly suggest my two books:



The Three Stages of Screenwriting

"I used to always recommend that new writers read Story as their first and most important introduction to the craft of screenwriting, but from now on, I’m going to recommend The Three Stages of Screenwriting."
-LA Screenwriter Review  
 The Hollywood Pitching Bible

“ ‘Bible’ is the right word. This is the Truth about pitching. Just do what it says.”
- Gary Goldman (Writer/Producer, "Total Recall," "Minority Report," "Big Trouble in Little China")

Sunday, June 12, 2016

"The 100" Controversy

(Spoilers: The 100, Person of Interest)

Today I am wading into the controversy about the death of a major lesbian character on The 100. If you’re aware of the controversy, you’ll know I’m pretty late to the discussion – but you’ll understand why I’m bringing it up now in a bit. Also, full disclosure: I am friends with the writer of the episode in question, Javier Grillo-Marxuach (though we haven’t discussed the episode or the controversy).

If you are unfamiliar with what I’m talking about, the CW show The 100 featured a lesbian relationship between its main character and another character. When the main character’s girlfriend was killed off in the middle of the season, there was an outcry from the LGBT community. The primary reason for the anger appears to be that there are so few LGBT characters on television, though there was also anger at the way in which the character was killed off (in a non-heroic manner immediately after the consummation of the relationship) and in the showrunner's cavalier handling of the uproar afterwards.

On the other side of the argument, it’s important to remember that this is a show where many characters – including heroic and well-loved characters – have died. And the actress who played the character, Alycia Debnam Carey, had taken a major role on Fear the Walking Dead, so likely the character was removed partly because the actress wasn’t going to be able to star in two shows at the same time for very long.

There is certainly good reason to complain about the lack of heroic LGBT characters on television, and about how many of them end up dying. There should be more heroic, happy LGBT characters on television who survive all the way through their series. My fear is that this goal could be jeopardized by the backlash against The 100. Here’s how:

I read an interview with some of the writers of Person of Interest a few weeks ago. The interviewer asked them about the lesbian couple on that show and whether the controversy from The 100 might cause them to avoid killing either of those characters. The writers sidestepped, but the question is a bit disturbing. It happens that the characters on Person of Interest weren’t originally intended to be lesbians. But the actresses had great chemistry so the writers decided to give them a romantic relationship. The trouble is, we’re talking about another show where main characters have died. If making those two characters lesbian takes otherwise valid plot options away from the writers, the writers might not make that choice in the future.

I’m writing this post precisely because I just encountered that in something I’m outlining. I have a married couple in my story. Initially I conceived of them as a heterosexual couple. But it occurred to me that my story could use more diversity. I looked to see which character or characters I could make gay, and I thought it would be cool to turn this couple into a lesbian couple.

The only problem is, one of them is going to die in the story. This isn’t because they’re lesbians – that plot decision was made while they were still a man and a woman. But now I’m wondering whether I should make them a lesbian couple instead. Will people attack me when one of the characters dies as they have The 100?

So The 100 controversy is discouraging me from putting LGBT characters in my story. And that’s not a good thing.

I also recently read a roundtable in the Hollywood Reporter that included Lee Daniels, who said that it offends him when White writers write Black characters. I certainly don’t want to speak for him, but in context I think what he really meant was it offends him when primarily Black cast shows have primarily White writing staffs. And I agree that’s pretty offensive.

But the way he said it – that it offends him when White writers write Black characters – feels like a warning to White writers not to write Black characters. And that would mean less diversity in casts, a bad thing. I sympathize with the frustrations of communities that have been traditionally underrepresented, but it’s important to couch those frustrations carefully. You don't want to turn characters from that group into a "third rail" that discourages showing them on screen.

As I said, there was more to The 100 controversy than just the death of a lesbian character. It could and should have been handled better. Let’s just make sure that we affirm efforts toward diversity and that when someone missteps we couch our criticism in a way that’s productive rather than destructive.

By the way, I’ve decided to leave the characters in my story lesbians.

Monday, June 6, 2016

What’s it Really Like to Be a Screenwriter?

Tens of millions of people dream of being professional screenwriters. Hundreds of thousands each year go so far as to actually write a screenplay or teleplay. But most have a very idealized idea of what it means to be a film or television writer. In this post I will attempt to give you an honest description of the life of a screenwriter.

Screenwriting is hard work.

Yes, being a professional screenwriter means you sometimes get to go to premieres and swanky industry parties and hang with movie stars. You get swag and invitations to free screenings. But most of the job is sitting by yourself writing. Often on deadline. You don’t get to write only when inspiration strikes you. Feature writers have to spend hours every day writing (though you can work in your pajamas if you like). If you work in television, you will go to the office every day and work long hours (pajamas are frowned upon in most television writers' rooms).

And, you have to do the business part of the business. You will have to go to a lot of meetings and pitch yourself and your projects. You will have to deal with things like complex taxes, health insurance, and contracts. You have to keep up on the trades and you have to network. This is true even once you’re successful – in fact, the more successful you are, the more time you’ll spend on business.

And this is a high stakes industry. Film and television is unbelievably expensive to produce. Most people in Hollywood genuinely want to make quality product, but the producers’ and executives’ main responsibility is to make product that turns a profit. People are not there to coddle your ego or help you achieve your artistic dreams. You have to have a thick skin, because if they don’t like something you’ve written, they will let you know. There’s too much at stake to worry about your feelings.

Screenwriting is entrepreneurial.


Many people think it would be great to work for themselves, but I find few people really have the temperament for an entrepreneurial lifestyle. Most film and television writers I know live in nice houses and drive decent, late model cars. A few have mansions and expensive sports cars. Many send their kids to private schools. When you work in Hollywood, you tend to get paid very well.

But you will be constantly scrambling to find work. There are far more talented, hard working writers than there are jobs. For feature writers, the typical contract period for a draft is twelve weeks. These days, most contracts only guarantee one draft. So you will generally be in need of a new job at least once a year. Often you will have to do many pitch meetings over months to get a paying job. Even screenwriters with long lists of credits find themselves without income for extended periods. It’s stressful. You can write on spec, but the spec market has always been a long-odds game, never more so than in the last few years.

If you get a job on a television show, you can probably assume you’ll be working for four months or so… as long as the show doesn’t get cancelled (and of course most shows get cancelled their first season). You will spend that four months trying to make yourself valuable so you get brought back for the next set of episodes. When you are fired or your show is cancelled, you will enter the high-stress competition known as staffing season. It’s like musical chairs where the majority of people don’t get a chair. It used to be not getting a chair meant a full year of unemployment. These days with cable and online networks doing year-round development, there are more opportunities outside of staffing season.

Bottom line, you have to have a high tolerance for risk and manage your personal finances well.

You will not have creative control.

It can be enormously satisfying to work in a creative industry. But do not imagine that you are going to write whatever you want and it will be shot exactly the way you say. In the feature world, executives, producers, directors, and stars get to give you notes on your script. If you are unable or unwilling to execute those notes, they fire you and find a writer who will. They may do that even if you do successfully execute their notes.

Writers have more power in television, but not all writers. All writers who are not the showrunner are there to serve the showrunner’s vision. The showrunner has final creative authority on everything. Except, of course, the showrunner also has to answer to studio and network executives. Showrunners have a lot of power, but not absolute power.

One advantage in television is that if you are on a writing staff and you write something, it will almost certainly be shot and put on the air within a few months. In features, even if you sell a script or are hired to write or rewrite something, the odds are that you will still never see it on screen. I don’t have a reliable source, but I’ve heard the statistic that only about one in ten projects at studios actually get produced.

I’m just going to do independent films.

Great! Make sure you have a job to support yourself. It is nearly impossible to make a living writing independent films. They generally pay little or nothing up front. You will usually make decent money if the film is distributed and is at least moderately successful, but fewer than 1% of independent films achieve this, and it will probably take 5-10 years from when you finish the script.

There are bigger budget independent films that do pay screenwriters decently, but these gigs are pretty much like studio gigs in that producers, executives, and directors will require you to conform the screenplay to their taste and needs. The advantage is that everybody is generally working toward higher artistic goals than the studios. But they still need to make a profit if they are to stay in business.

If you write independent films you should be aware that most independent film writers earn their living rewriting studio films (and often not taking screen credit to protect their artistic brand).

It’s not so bad.

If you do have the right temperament, being a film or television writer can be a great job. What is the right temperament? You have to be dedicated, hard working, and talented. You have to have a certain level of business savvy and salesmanship. You have to be collaborative, willing to compromise the right way to move a project forward.

If you’re not discouraged by what I’ve said, you may have the temperament to be a professional film or television writer. I wish you luck. With the right attitude, it is a great joy having something you contributed to viewed by millions of people. If things go well, you sometimes even get to see your vision achieved in a way that makes you extremely proud. And there are those premieres and parties and free movies to enjoy along the way.

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Get The Three Stages of Screenwriting

"I used to always recommend that new writers read Story as their first and most important introduction to the craft of screenwriting, but from now on, I’m going to recommend The Three Stages of Screenwriting."
-LA Screenwriter Review
 

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Interview with Sean Nalaboff



Sean Nalaboff wrote and directed the recent movie Hard Sell starring Skyler Gisondo (Vacation), Kristin Chenoweth (Pushing Daisies, Glee), and Katrina Bowden (30 Rock, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil). The story centers on Hardy Buchanan (Gisondo), a senior at an elite private school who struggles to support his unstable mom (Chenoweth). Desperate to make some quick cash, he enlists the help of Bo (Bowden), a beautiful runaway, and together they devise a plan of profiting off of the wayward teens at Hardy’s school. When the students learn that Bo has more to offer than what meets the eye, the unlikely duo’s new business takes a unique turn, tossing them headfirst into the lifestyles of the rich and dysfunctional.

Sean was a student of mine at ArtCenter College of Design (in fact, he worked on the Hard Sell screenplay in my class), so I convinced him to do an interview for LetsSchmooze.



Q: The film has an impressively authentic sense of character and place. Where did the idea for the film come from?

I was attending Art Center College of Design about 3,000 miles away from where I called home (Long Island, NY) and I was homesick. I kept thinking about that environment and the colorful characters I grew up with. I thought it was fertile ground for a cool story. And so I started writing about a private school student on scholarship who very much feels like a square peg in a round hole, which was similar to my experience in private school. I was dealing with these morbid themes of isolation and despair with a sense of humor. I thought of the uniformity of the suburbs and prep schools and the resulting identity crisis that spawned from that. All the ideas for plot generated from there.

Q: How did you do your character development?


I would doodle in class having conversations with these characters. In particular, everyday I found myself excited to be in conversation with my protagonist, seventeen-year old Hardy Buchanan. It was all dialogue. Monologues about life, religion, love… I’d wax poetic about a ton of unrelated topics (nothing that really ever made the movie), but I became to understand Hardy’s point of view. I did that for everyone. It started with Hardy and then I’d add one more character to the conversation, then one more, then another, until finally I started to understand everyone’s POV.

Q: Did the characters change once the actors got involved?

The actors were really willing to listen. That was one of the things I was most surprised by being that I was a first time feature film director. I remember Kristin Chenoweth calling me into her dressing room on the first day and asking me to tell her what I wanted. She was so receptive to my vision for this. Little ideas were introduced by my conversations with the actors, you know, like “I think this character should smoke cigarettes,” or maybe they’d want to riff with some improv. Katrina Bowden wrote up a whole background story for Bo that contained VERY specific information about her upbringing that she used for her performance. I thought it was great. I became fast friends with Skyler Gisondo, the actor who plays Hardy, and we had the opportunity to really dive deep into the character and story. The actors brought something to the table that was never on the page, BREATH. Their cadence, their timing, the delivery, it was all so much fun to see it come to life through their unique voices.



Q: What is your writing process like? For example, how much time did you spend outlining? How many drafts did you do?

Man, I’m so impatient. I’ll have an inspiration for a broad idea of a story and I get really excited about it. I try to outline, but I get so eager to jump into writing dialogue. I develop the characters' voices for months writing scenes (that won’t even end up in the final draft) where they’re having a conversation with another character. I just like deciphering these characters motivations and how they represent themselves to the world before thinking about plot points. I re-write and re-write and re-write for years (everyday) until I have a draft that I feel comfortable producing (or at least that’s been the process for the first two films). It’s probably a ridiculous waste of time to not be outlining, but I go where the inspiration is. I really enjoy writing and I don’t want to screw that up for myself by considering it to be work.

Q: Once the script was done, what did you do? This is your first feature – how did you get it financed? How did you get the cast?

This is an incredibly abbreviated response to that question… I knew the script was ready to be made. The script was awesome. Truly proud of it. I figured if I could cast the three leads then I could simultaneously attract money to the project. I researched indie films with NY casting directors that put together casts that I liked and eventually found Bass Casting. While they put out offers for cast, I teamed up with one of my best friends from home who became my business partner, Jared Greenman. Greenman was in sales at a tech startup and wanted to sink his teeth into something more creative. We started lining up contacts to approach for financing. The game plan was to have it all independently financed through angel investors outside of Hollywood. So Greenman, myself, and my other friend from LA, Jimmy Seargeant, partnered up as co-producers on a quest to get this movie made. Meanwhile, The script was getting a great response from agents. Katrina Bowden signed on for the part of Bo. Then, I received a message from Kristin Chenoweth’s manager asking what I thought of Chenoweth for the mom? I had been hired to shoot a behind-the-scenes video of one of Chenoweth’s concert tours a few months prior and it turned out Chenoweth was a fan. I didn’t know at the time, but Chenoweth told her manager if I was ever doing something independently then she’d love to be a part of it. Once we had that, the pieces began to fall into place (sort of).

Q: You directed the film. Did you learn anything about writing from the directing experience?

I learned a tremendous amount about writing from directing and editing. I didn’t edit the movie, but I certainly sat through all the sessions and realized what made the cutting room floor (I recommend all writers sit with editors). Getting back to the question, you realize what moves the story forward in directing that you might overlook during writing. There’s a certain flow/momentum in a script that’s hard to pinpoint until you’re directing scenes. Some stuff just flatlines and you realize it’s because of the shitty writing (my script wasn’t perfect). Sometimes it’ll take an actor to tell you, “I can’t tap into this scene for some reason.” What’s not working here? It’s generally because there’s no POV and maybe it’s exposition heavy or something like that. If there isn’t a motivation to get from point A to point B in every scene then you have to figure something out quick on your feet while directing. We’d have what I called “Writer’s Meetings” on set where the actors and I would sit down and see what worked and what didn’t in the scene we were tackling that day. Kind of like small daily table reads. Some words felt weird coming out of some actors mouths, so I obliged them and let them change it to something more comfortable for them. Directing is one big collaboration and writing for me is an isolated thing.

Q: What’s next for you?

I’m in pre-production on my next film, Kingfish, which we aim to shoot in September. I’m also writing a book about my experience producing my first feature film while it’s still fresh in my heart and head.

Q: Any advice for aspiring screenwriters?

Write what inspires you.

Thanks, Sean. You can watch Hard Sell on VOD and iTunes. Visit the Hard Sell website.

--

Get The Three Stages of Screenwriting

"I used to always recommend that new writers read Story as their first and most important introduction to the craft of screenwriting, but from now on, I’m going to recommend The Three Stages of Screenwriting."
-LA Screenwriter Review
 

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Do You Have to Live in Los Angeles?

If you are an aspiring screenwriter who lives somewhere besides Los Angeles, you will inevitably ponder whether it is necessary to live in Los Angeles to succeed as a Hollywood screen or TV writer.

The simple answer is: Yes.

But the answer is really not so simple. Is it possible to maintain a screenwriting career outside of Los Angeles? Sure, a small but notable minority of working screenwriters live outside of Los Angeles. Is it possible to break into the business from outside of Los Angeles? Possible, maybe, but incredibly more difficult. Most working screenwriters who live outside Los Angeles lived here when they broke in and then moved.

The Advantages of Moving to Los Angeles

Living in Los Angeles has several advantages for the aspiring and working screenwriter. Chief among them is networking. It is almost impossible to get anyone to read your script via a query or other long distance contact. In Los Angeles, you can meet someone who can help you in your career anywhere – at a party, at Starbucks, watching a sporting event. Los Angeles is where almost all of the producers, agents, managers, directors and other screenwriters live. It’s hard to be here long without meeting some of them, even if you don’t try. And if you intentionally set out to network, there are plenty of opportunities every week in Los Angeles to put yourself in proximity to industry professionals. That’s not all there is to networking, but it’s the first step.

You also have many more opportunities to become better at your craft in Los Angeles. There are dozens of seminars, classes, speakers, etc. pretty much every day in Los Angeles. You will also make friends with other serious screenwriters who can give you feedback on your scripts.

Once you crack open the door to the industry, you will need to take meetings in Los Angeles because that’s where the producers and development execs are. You can fly in for a week to do a series of meetings, but that requires everyone else to arrange their schedule around you – something they may not be willing to do if you are just starting out. It also takes you out of contention for emergency gigs – if someone needs a writer to rewrite something ASAP, I can be at a meeting in hours. A writer living in Denver can’t.

Finally, if you want to work in television, almost all writers’ rooms are in Los Angeles. They may shoot the show in Vancouver or Georgia or Hawaii, but the writers are in Los Angeles.

The Disadvantages of Moving to Los Angeles

There are, however, some downsides for an aspiring screenwriter moving to Los Angeles. For one thing, the cost of living is high here. It can take a while to break in, and supporting yourself during that time will probably be more difficult in Los Angeles than elsewhere.

Also, since almost every screenwriter lives in Los Angeles, we are exposed to a lot of the same influences and inspirations. With several million people in the city looking for movie ideas, many are bound to come up with the same ones. Which is why you so often see movies with the same premise being developed at different studios.

For these reasons, it can be wise to time your move carefully. If you live outside Los Angeles, consider building up a body of work – a portfolio of really great spec scripts – before coming out here. Maybe you can even win some contests and make some initial contacts before moving out. That way you hit the ground running, armed with a reason people should want to read your work.

But What About New York?

The one other place that you may be able to break into the screen or television business is New York. There are a significant number of producers and agents in New York – not nearly as many as Los Angeles, but enough. Unfortunately, New York is even less affordable than L.A. But there are some cultural advantages L.A. doesn’t have (and L.A. has some cultural advantages New York doesn’t have.)

There are a few business reasons (as opposed to personal reasons) that you might choose New York over Los Angeles to try to break into screenwriting:

First, if you plan to work in independent film, there are a lot of indie film producers and distributors based in New York. There are also a lot in Los Angeles, but New York is really the bigger independent film scene. It’s nearly impossible to make a living as a writer of independent films, but many of those writers parlay their success in that world into studio rewrite gigs to support them while they work on their independent projects.

Second, New York is the premiere city for stand-up comedy. If you are a comedic writer who also does stand-up, New York is probably a better place to get discovered on stage. You can then parlay that attention to the film/television business.

Third, New York is the place to be if you are a playwright. Succeeding as a playwright is a good way to get Hollywood’s attention. But now we’re really talking about breaking into a different industry and trying to leverage that into a movie or television career.

New York is also still the center for book publishing, so if you are both a novelist and screenwriter, that might suggest New York is a better destination. But the book business seems less dependent on being in the same city with the publishers. Many authors live outside of New York… not many screenwriters live outside of Los Angeles.

Moving is Scary
It can be a big decision to uproot your life and move to a new city without a guarantee of employment. But guess what? That’s what it means to be a screenwriter. This is not something you can do as a hobby, it has to be your career. And the career of screenwriter is an entrepreneurial one. No matter how big you get, you never really have job security. You will always be hustling to get your next gig.

If you are trying to break in, you are competing against tens of thousands of people who are willing to take the risk, move to Los Angeles, and dedicate their life to becoming a screenwriter. If you aren’t willing to do the same, you will be at a significant disadvantage.


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Get The Three Stages of Screenwriting

"I used to always recommend that new writers read Story as their first and most important introduction to the craft of screenwriting, but from now on, I’m going to recommend The Three Stages of Screenwriting."
-LA Screenwriter Review
 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Awesome Stakes with Bill and Ted

(Spoilers: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure)

One of the most critical things you must do in a story is establish what’s at stake for the character. What happens if the main character succeeds or fails? The more the character has at stake, the more dramatic and exciting the story. Conversely, if the outcome of the story isn’t going to affect the character, then why does the audience care?

But raising the stakes isn’t just about increasing the size of what’s at stake.

The key to raising the stakes dramatically is to increase how much the character cares about the outcome of the situation. We care about the story only as much as the character does. The more important it is to the character, the more important it will be to us. So to raise the stakes, make them more personal to the character.

Stakes come in both positive and negative flavors. Many of the best stories have both. The character gets something good if they succeed and they suffer something bad if they fail. This gives the audience something to hope for and something to fear.

I recently watched the classic eighties comedy Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (written by Chris Matheson & Ed Solomon). It provides a great demonstrates of the nuances of using stakes. In the story, Bill and Ted are in danger of failing history class if they don’t ace their final presentation. If Ted fails, his father will send him off to military school.

The biggest stakes in terms of objective importance come from Rufus, the time traveler from the future. He is sent back to 1991 to ensure that Bill and Ted form the band that will ultimately bring peace and awesomeness to the world. These are pretty big stakes! But it’s not really the reason we care whether Bill and Ted pass their class.

No, the bigger stakes come from the threat to Bill and Ted’s friendship. We like these guys and we want them to stay together. More importantly, they want to stay together. Their biggest dream is to form a great rock band. That dream will be destroyed if Ted gets sent to military school, which means they have to pass their final project.

The audience hopes Bill and Ted succeed in their quest because that will make them happy. The audience’s way into the story is the characters. We care about their happiness. Sure, Bill and Ted think it’s cool they can create a future utopia, but that’s not what’s motivating them on their quest. And it’s not what we really care about either.

The bit about the future utopia is really only there to provide the mechanism for Bill and Ted’s time travel. It’s why Rufus brings them a time machine, not why we care about whether they pass their presentation final. Really, they could find another way to travel through time and the story wouldn’t change much.

The film does a good job spelling out both the character's excellent potential future: a life as rock stars who save the world – and their bogus potential future: military school and the end of Bill and Ted’s friendship. This gets the audience invested in the outcome of the adventure. And note that the dramatic question of the film – “Will Bill and Ted pass history?” – is relatively mundane and minor. It’s what the resolution of this question means to the characters that makes it significant.

Good stories connect the main character's internal journey to the external journey (the plot). In the case of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, this comes in the form of the characters' self-discipline. They want to create a great rock band, but they don't know how to play their instruments. They are as lazy as musicians as they are as students. But over the course of the movie, Ted comes to the realization that if they want to be great, they have to learn how to actually play. Thus the stakes in the external journey - passing history so Ted can avoid military school - dovetail with the stakes in the internal journey. If Ted doesn't have this realization, the band will never achieve greatness.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure may be just a dumb comedy, but it still has stakes that are the most important thing in the world to the characters. That’s why we engage with the story. Make sure the stakes of your story are equally important to your characters.

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Get The Three Stages of Screenwriting

"I used to always recommend that new writers read Story as their first and most important introduction to the craft of screenwriting, but from now on, I’m going to recommend The Three Stages of Screenwriting."
-LA Screenwriter Review
 

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Using Minor Characters to Explore Theme

(SPOILERS: The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Little Miss Sunshine, Up in the Air, American Beauty)

We don’t talk about theme in Hollywood much, but every movie has some kind of philosophical subject, even if it’s just good vs. evil. You can deepen your story and provide a more meaningful experience for your viewers without sacrificing entertainment value if you explore a complex theme in a way that is not didactic. One of the best ways to do this is by giving different supporting characters different points of view on the thematic topic of your story. This will not only add intellectual and emotional depth to your story, it will help you develop interesting supporting characters and insert conflict into your scenes as points of view conflict.

This approach is one of the reasons why the screenplay for The 40 Year Old Virgin (written by Judd Apatow & Steve Carrell) was nominated for an award from the WGA. The thematic subject of The 40 Year Old Virgin is, obviously, sex. Notice how each of Andy’s friends holds a different take on the topic: David is still hung up on an old girlfriend and has an over romanticized view of sex, Jay is in a relationship but cheats because he is afraid of monogamy, and Cal just likes any kind of freaky, no-strings-attached sex. These views interact with Andy's anxieties about sexuality in a way that makes the movie more complex than a simple "losing his virginity" story.

The theme of Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) is success and failure. Richard believes the world is made up of winners and losers, and commitment is how you become a winner. Sheryll, on the other hand, believes everyone just needs to be practical and take care of their responsibilities. Grandpa doesn’t care about success, he advises everyone to just enjoy life. Olive loves the process of preparing for competition. Dwayne represents someone who does everything in their power to achieve a goal, only to be foiled by something out of their control. And Frank has given up on life altogether. Each character takes a different approach to the question of success and failure, allowing the film to explore the theme from different perspectives.

The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Little Miss Sunshine are ensemble movies, but the same technique can be used in movies with a strong central character who is going on an emotional journey. The theme of Up in the Air (screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner) is relationship. The main character, Ryan Bingham, believes that relationships weigh you down. He goes through life avoiding any kind of attachment. But over the course of the movie this point of view is challenged by Ryan's experiences and the characters around him.

Natalie, the young woman Ryan is forced to train, longs to be married but has unrealistically high expectations. Alex, a woman Ryan is sleeping with, seems to share Ryan’s point of view but we later learn she’s leading a double life – trying to have it both ways. We get additional perspectives from Ryan’s siblings when he goes back home for his sister’s marriage. The bride and groom are perfect for each other, and though there lives aren’t fantastic (there’s intimations of considerable financial difficulty), they are happy. Meanwhile we get an even different perspective from Ryan’s other sister who has just separated from her husband.

Each of these characters allows us (and Ryan) to view the question of whether relationships are good or bad from a different perspective without implicit discussion (though that sometimes occurs). And the movie doesn't shy away from things that reinforce Ryan's original position.

Dealing with theme is tricky. You don’t want your story to come off preachy. Characters should have good, justifiable reasons for their point of view. And it’s much better if they demonstrate their point of view through their actions, rather than through debate and argument. Watching characters debate philosophy is not a recipe for engaging storytelling!

In the beginning of American Beauty (written by Alan Ball), the main character, Lester, is doing what a middle aged family man is supposed to do in the suburbs. He works at his job, provides for his family...and is thoroughly miserable. Over the course of the movie we see Lester abandon his concern for what others think of him and be true to his own desires. This manifests itself in both positive and negative ways. He quits his stultifying job but there is some question if he can sustain his new lifestyle financially. He gets in shape and starts to enjoy himself by buying a car he wants and smoking pot. But he also pursues an immoral and inappropriate attraction to an underage girl. Ultimately Lester finds balance between honoring who he is and being responsible.

The minor characters illuminate this theme of individuality and conformity. For example, Caroline is the embodiment of the suburban image. Maintaining that image has become her entire purpose as shown by her carefully coordinated dinners and attention to landscaping. And being accepted and “normal” makes her happy. Meanwhile Ricky has abandoned any need for acceptance or normalcy. He is an outsider and proud of it. This attitude grows out of the dysfunction and inauthenticity we see from his family life.

Angela is one of the most interesting supporting characters from a thematic point of view. She constantly talks about her various conquests and sexual experiences. Of course we learn at the end that she's been making it all up. She's a virgin. We also learn that Angela's biggest fear is being ordinary. It's when Ricky insists she is just ordinary that Angela works up the nerve to actually sleep with Lester. It's an attempt to be special. Angela doesn't want to be just another suburban girl, but the pressure to conform has forced her to seek distinction by pretending to fulfill a stereotype - the sex object.

The most important thing to keep in mind when assigning thematic points of view to your characters is to make sure they are human beings, not bumper stickers. Give them fully fleshed out lives, human desires and foibles, so that we get caught up emotionally in their story.

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Did you know The Hollywood Pitching Bible is available as an audio book on Audible? If you don't have Audible, try it now and Get Two Free Audiobooks

Monday, May 2, 2016

How to Succeed at a Pitch Fest

Before I dive into this week’s topic, I wanted to highlight a couple of places I will be appearing in the near future:

This Saturday, May 7th, I will be conducting a workshop on pitching at The Writers Store in Burbank

On June 3rd I will be appearing on a panel at the Phoenix Comic-Con called “How Do I Pitch my Property?

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Pitch fests like the upcoming Great American Pitchfest can offer an opportunity to crack open the door to Hollywood for those who find themselves stuck on the fringes. They give you an opportunity to have brief meetings with producers, executives, agents, and managers to pitch your project. Sometimes you will be pitching to an assistant or even an intern – that’s okay, those people are often the best connections for unknown writers as they are looking to move up by discovering new talent. But there will also be legitimate high-level buyers at many pitch fests. I spoke at the Great American Pitchfest last year and discovered that a producer who had recently hired me to rewrite a script was there personally hearing pitches from total newbies.

However, it is not as simple as paying your admission and showing up. You will be competing against hundreds of other writers just at the pitch fest. And most of the buyers will not end up buying anything pitched to them that day – remember, they hear pitches every day at their jobs and probably only buy a handful a year at most. If you come into a pitch fest unprepared, it can be a big waste of time and money. So here are some tips for increasing your odds of success.

Know your goal. Who are you trying to meet and what do you want them to do? If you are an unknown writer, the chance of selling an original idea on the spot is about the same as the chance you’ll stumble across a ten-pound diamond in the parking lot. But it is entirely possible that you can convince people to read a spec script. So you should be pitching something that is already written and that you are ready to send off as soon as the pitch fest is over.

Are you looking for representation? If you are pitching to agents or managers, you will still be pitching your idea, but agents and managers represent writers, not projects. They will want to know you have other scripts in the same genre, so have a couple of extra log lines prepared, and be prepared to spend a little more time talking about yourself and your qualifications than your script.

At least in the beginning of your career, you will probably be working mostly in one genre and one medium (TV, features, etc.). So you should pick people who work in that genre/medium and pitch them an appropriate project. However, you may find that you still have time after you’ve pitched to all the TV comedy people (for example), so you should also prepare a related back-up pitch, such as a comedy feature. You’re already there – don’t waste the opportunity.

Do your homework. Once you know whom you will pitch to, do some quick homework on them. Find out what they’ve produced, or in the case of agents and managers, who they represent. This will help you seem informed when you meet them. You might not know exactly who you will be talking to until you actually arrive on site, so be ready to check IMDBPro or similar databases.

Construct a great two-minute pitch. You generally get about five minutes with each table of buyers at most pitch fests. Prepare a tight two-minute pitch to give yourself plenty of time for introductions and questions. Two minutes is plenty to get someone interested in reading a spec if you do it properly. A good two-minute pitch should contain:

1. A brief personal connection explaining why you are interested in writing this story – implying why you are the best writer for the story and why others will be interested in seeing it.

2. The title, genre, and rating (for features) or format (for television). Don’t make them guess whether it’s comedy or drama, science fiction or horror, animated or live action. Tell them up front.

3. A great log line that contains the hook of your idea.

4. A sentence or two about the main character(s) implying why we will care about them.

5. The set up for the plot. You do not need to tell the ending (unless they ask). That’s what the script is for. Instead, give them the set up and end with a statement of where the story is going that can sustain a movie or TV show. For example: “So the soldier will have to make his way through enemy territory to find his true love and get her to safety.”

(For more information on constructing a two-minute pitch, see my book The Hollywood Pitching Bible – or attend one of the events above.)

Present yourself like a pro. Don’t over or under dress. The entertainment business is casual, so wearing an expensive suit to a meeting feels awkward. However, it never hurts to look sharp. You don’t want to look like you came from your job at the car wash... or from the nightclub. Dress nice-casual and business appropriate.


Also remember that you are selling yourself as well as your idea, particularly if you are looking for representation or to work in television. Be friendly and polite. Prep your introductory comments - do you have some experience relevant to your story? Did you go to a film school or win an award? Try to bring that kind of thing up (in a modest way) when you introduce yourself.

Avoid gimmicks. Your job as a writer is to just tell a good story. Artwork, mock trailers, costumes, Power Point presentations, or "clever" gifts will not impress anyone and may make you look amateurish. If bringing a photo or map or something like that helps you more easily explain your idea, that’s fine – but otherwise just focus on telling a story. You should bring business cards, possibly printed with your log line, but it’s usually better to get the business cards from the buyers and be the one in charge of making contact afterwards.

Network with other attendees. The obvious purpose of a pitch fest is to make contact with potential buyers or reps, but you may actually get more value out of meeting your fellow attendees. People tend to break into the business by making a network of friends at the lower levels of the industry who work their way up together, helping each other out. So don’t ignore opportunities to socialize with other attendees.

Following up. If you do the above things well, you will hopefully get several people to request your spec script. Follow up promptly, reminding them of your log line and your interesting background and qualifications in your cover letter or email. Then don’t bug them. A polite inquiry four weeks or so after sending material is fine, but it can take a while for people to read material. It has also, unfortunately, become commonplace for people to reject material by simply not replying at all. So following up once or twice after sending your spec is fine, but after that, take the hint.

It is very likely that everyone will pass on your script, but if anyone responds with encouraging words or compliments when they pass, be sure to follow up with a query when you have your next spec script done (hopefully not more than six months later). If they genuinely like your last script, they’ll remember you. Hollywood success is a marathon, not a sprint. Building fans is the path to a career. Overnight success is a myth.

Most of all, stay calm and try to have fun.

Monday, April 25, 2016

8 Things to Know Before Signing a Writing Contract

Before I get to this week’s topic, I want to point out a wonderful review of my screenwriting book from LA Screenwriter. Here’s an excerpt:

Douglas J. Eboch, scribe of Sweet Home Alabama, has written a book called The Three Stages of Screenwriting, and it deserves a spot on your shelf right between Robert McKee’s Story and Syd Field’s Screenplay

I used to always recommend that new writers read Story as their first and most important introduction to the craft of screenwriting, but from now on, I’m going to recommend The Three Stages of Screenwriting.

What Doug does so beautifully is break down the entire process of developing an idea, outlining it, writing it, and rewriting it into digestible chunks.

The book is structured the same way your writing process should be, and it covers every topic you could possibly want covered under the umbrella of the writing process.


You can read the whole review here: http://la-screenwriter.com/2016/04/22/6-questions-to-define-your-concept-from-douglas-j-eboch/

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When you are starting out as a screenwriter, it is likely at some point that a producer will offer you a contract to acquire your spec scripts or to work on their ideas. Sometimes these producers have thin resumes and usually they will be offering very little or no money up front. These types of jobs can present opportunities for the new writer, but they can also be dangerous. Here are some things you should consider before agreeing to anything.

(Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. This is an informational post and not legal advice. Every situation is different. Please see point #8.)

1. The WGA offers some protection – but only if you work under a WGA contract. The Writers Guild of America is the union that represents professional screenwriters when they work for signatory companies (companies that have agreed to abide by the union’s Minimum Basic Agreement). But many producers are not signatory, and many companies have non-union subsidiaries so they can hire non-union writers outside of the WGA’s rules. The WGA cannot protect you in those situations. And even if you are covered under a WGA contract, there are probably many additional aspects you will want to negotiate.

2. The WGA determines credit on WGA films. This is one of the main reasons the WGA was formed. If you are working under a WGA contract, the producers cannot guarantee you credit. If you are not working under a WGA contract, you will have to negotiate how credit will be determined. Be aware that if you sign a deal with a non-union production company who then sells the script to a signatory, you may not even be eligible for credit unless your contract is worded properly.

3. Understand how an option agreement works. Technically an option-purchase agreement, this is the typical contract used to acquire screenplays in Hollywood. Essentially, the producer is buying the exclusive right to purchase the screenplay for a period of time. There are three key components to any option agreement: the upfront payment for the option, the length of the option period, and the purchase price should the producer choose to acquire the screenplay (known as “picking up the option”). There can be any number of other terms in the contract, but all must have those three things. Note that if the option period expires without the producer picking up the option, rights to the original script revert to the writer – but not necessarily the rights to any revisions made while the script was under option.

4. How many drafts will you do? If you are hired to write or rewrite a screenplay – whether yours or the producers – make sure you are clear on how many drafts they can ask for. You do not want to be doing rewrites five years from now. Also consider what will happen if you disagree with their notes.

5. How long do you have to write a draft? How long do they have to read it? Make sure you understand how long you have to deliver your drafts. And there should be limits on how long they can take to read your drafts and give you notes before you start your next draft. You don't want someone appearing out of the woodwork ten years from now demanding that draft you promised them way back when.

6. Understand who owns or will own the copyright. Copyright law can be complex in collaborative mediums like film. If you write a spec screenplay based on your own idea, you will own the copyright. If someone wishes to acquire that screenplay, you would typically transfer the copyright to them (when they purchase your screenplay, not when they option it). It gets fuzzier when you sell a pitch, or when you write a script based on someone else’s story, or when you rewrite someone else’s existing script, or when you are hired to rewrite your own script as a “work for hire.” Know that the person who owns the copyright decides what happens to the script. Make sure you understand who will own the copyright of any and all drafts at the end of the contract - different drafts may end up being owned by different people, which can get problematic. (And hopefully you know that you cannot write scripts based on other people’s material if you don’t get permission from them.)

7. Oral contracts are worth the paper they’re printed on. Technically oral agreements are legally binding with a few exceptions (including work for hire situations) but you should not rely on oral agreements. It is easy for people to have different understandings as to what was actually agreed upon in an oral agreement, and if it goes to court, it will be your word against theirs. Always make your agreements in writing. This can take the form of a deal memo or even an email spelling out your understanding of what was agreed to, but before any copyright is transferred and before you do any work you should have a written contract.

8. If you can’t afford a lawyer, you can’t afford the deal. As you can hopefully see from the previous seven points, literary contracts for movies are legally complex. You should have a lawyer look over any contract that you are going to sign. And you want an experienced entertainment lawyer because of the complexity of film contracts – a real estate lawyer is not going to know the nuances of streaming royalties or sequel rights. It is not uncommon, though, for a lawyer to cost more than the amount you are being offered when you are starting out. There are a couple of things you can do:

First, many entertainment lawyers will help out new writers if they think the writer has a shot at a long career. If you know producers or have representation who can recommend you to an entertainment attorney, that attorney may agree to look over the deal for you for free. Second, there’s an organization called California Lawyers for the Arts that can help you find a lawyer willing to help struggling artists for little or no money.

Bonus tip: It is always better if you are not negotiating for yourself.
Very likely you will not have a very good idea of what is reasonable to ask for in a given situation. Avoid agreeing to any deal terms until you can line up representation, whether that’s a manager, agent, or attorney. If you already have representation, always refer any buyer to them.


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Learn how to sell your ideas! I’m conducting a pitching workshop at the Writers Store on May 7th.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Icebox Questions


(SPOILERS: Sweet Home Alabama, The Matrix)

When I was doing rewrites on Sweet Home Alabama, I got into an argument with the producers about a point of story logic. In the story, Melanie goes back to Alabama to secure a divorce from her estranged husband Jake. In my original spec script, Jake signs the divorce papers at the end of Act Two. The producers wanted to move that to the midpoint for valid reasons of character arc.

The only problem was, once Melanie has the divorce papers she has no reason to stay in Alabama. Her fiancé, friends, and business associates in New York are already pressuring her to get back home. Yet in the producers’ version, she would hang out in Alabama for the next couple of days for no apparent reason. The producers argued that the audience won’t notice or care. I wasn’t so sure.

The producers won the battle on the script, as they usually seem to do. And it turns out they were right about the audience: I’ve heard a lot of criticism of the movie over the years, but nobody has questioned why Melanie doesn’t hop the first plane home after getting the divorce papers. (We did try to sell the idea that she sticks around because she feels she needs to apologize to all of her friends for her bad behavior before she leaves. If you have to make a change, you ought to do it the best way you can!)

I still think this is a bit of a logic problem in the movie, but I now realize it’s what Alfred Hitchcock called an “icebox question.” An icebox question is a logic flaw that the audience doesn’t think about until they’ve gone home and are getting a snack from the icebox (refrigerator for us Americans). Hitchcock’s theory was that by then the audience has already firmly decided whether they liked the movie or not, and belated recognition of logic holes wouldn’t change their mind.

I think this is also related to the saying that “The only rule in screenwriting is don’t be boring.” (Not sure who coined that one.) Audiences want to be entertained, and as long as they’re entertained, they won’t start picking too hard at the story. Stories have an emotional logic that trumps plot logic. The audience doesn’t question Melanie sticking around Alabama for a couple more days because they want her to stick around Alabama for a couple more days.

The Matrix (written by Lilly & Lana Wachowski) also demonstrates this theory in action. Toward the end, Neo is shot inside the Matrix and therefore dying in the real world, according to the well-established rules of the story. But then Trinity tells him he can’t die because the Oracle prophesied that the person she loved would be The One and she loves Neo. She kisses him and he comes back to life.

There is no narrative logic as to why Trinity’s kiss has the power to resurrect. It’s a logic hole. But it is absolutely right in terms of emotional logic. It’s the culmination of Trinity’s emotional journey, the culmination of Neo’s internal journey, it plays off classic fairy tale mythology, and most of all, it’s what we want to happen. I think it also matters that it occurs late in the movie when the audience is deeply invested in the story. Once we have bought into the story, it takes bigger logic bumps to knock us out.

So as a writer, it’s important not to let plot logic trump emotional logic. The trouble is, how do you tell the difference between a serious logic hole that will take the audience out of the story and an icebox question? Because serious logic holes can absolutely ruin your movie.

In my experience, audiences don’t generally get too hung up on timeline issues like the one in Sweet Home Alabama. They don’t calculate how long it would really take to get from point A to point B or to write a computer program or for wet clothes to dry, as long as it's not blatantly unrealistic. They also don’t get overly concerned about things like how long a character’s been awake or whether they had a chance to go to the bathroom or if they’ve eaten recently (unless you explicitly make those things part of the story). They usually don’t track the ammunition in guns or the amount of gas in a car’s tank. In real life these kinds of limits are annoying and we're happy to look the other way if the movie ignores those annoyances for the sake of fun.

But probably the most important thing is to test your screenplay with a selection of friendly readers who will give you brutal and honest feedback. If those readers don’t notice a logic hole, then you might be safe ignoring it. If someone does point it out, though, you better figure out a way to fix it. It isn’t an icebox question if it occurs to the reader during the read.

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Check out my book, The Three Stages of Screenwriting.

“In the crowded field of scriptwriting how-to books, Doug Eboch’s Three Stages of Screenwriting is a standout and a must-read. Why? Three solid reasons: He really, truly knows what he’s talking about. It will help everyone, from novice to pro, become a better writer. And, most impressive of all, it is entertaining as hell - as engaging and fun to read as one of Doug’s scripts.”
-Ross LaManna (Rush Hour)

Monday, April 11, 2016

Six Tips for Better Log Lines

The ability to write a good log line is crucial to success as a professional screenwriter. Log lines are used to convince people to read your script. They are used on tracking boards and services like The Blacklist and Ink Tip to describe your script. They are a crucial part of a good pitch, as producer Ken Aguado and I describe in our book The Hollywood Pitching Bible. A well-prepared log line give you a quick, pithy answer to the question, “What’s your script about?” at parties and networking events. Log lines are even required on film festival submission forms, ultimately finding their way into the festival catalogue and influencing how many people see the film.

As important as they are for selling your script, creating a good log line can also help you creatively. It forces you to zero in on the core concept of your story, allowing you to focus your plotting. Conversely, the inability to create a good log line can point out narrative problems in your story.

Here are some tips for crafting better log lines:

1. Align the character with the plot. The way you describe your character in the log line should resonate with the story elements that follow. So if your story is about a “woman who finds love,” it is better to describe her as a “lonely thirty-something” than as an "aspiring journalist." But if the story were about a woman who “uncovers government corruption,” the journalist angle would be better. You want your log line to answer the question: Why is this the best character for this plot? (And never describe your character simply as a guy, girl, man, or woman – see tip #6.)

2. Include the character’s goal and the reason that goal is hard to achieve. This may sound obvious, but many log lines fail to explicitly contain these core story elements. Consider our above concept of “An aspiring journalist who uncover government corruption.” That’s fine, but is it her goal to uncover the corruption or does she just stumble upon it? If it’s her goal, why is it hard? If she just stumbles upon it, what does she do next? Write an article? Why is that hard for her?

Try to determine what the core obstacle is to the character achieving their goal. Often this is an antagonist. Maybe a cutthroat district attorney is trying to silence our journalist, for example. If your story is about the lonely thirty-something woman finding love, does she just meet someone and fall in love? What’s interesting about that? Maybe there’s a rival suitor or maybe some situational obstacle blocking the relationship. Maybe the primary obstacle is internal – but think about how it will be dramatized.

3. Keep the main character front and center and make them active. It's almost always best to introduce your character before you describe the conflict of the story. Then, describe the action with a verb that makes the character active rather than passive. In our investigative reporter story, “investigates” would be a better verb than “uncovers” because it implies action and intention. Consider these two approaches:

A city is thrown into turmoil when an aspiring reporter uncovers government corruption and a cutthroat district attorney sets out to silence her.

An aspiring reporter investigates a corrupt city government, putting her in the crosshairs of a cutthroat district attorney.

See how the main character is much more central and active in the second version? In the first, it’s not even clear who the main character is – it sounds like it could be the district attorney!

4. Avoid transitory actions. The log line needs to suggest an entire film, so make sure the action is something that will take an hour or more of screen time. So “investigates” is better than “discovers” because discovery might only take a few seconds. Other transitory actions that pop up frequently in log lines are realizes, decides, learns, and finds out.

5. Don’t clutter your log line with secondary elements that don’t add to the concept. You have limited words in a log line so you will not be able to capture the entire scope of the story. You should focus on conveying the central concept and what is unique and compelling about it. Your goal is to get the listener or reader to want to know more. However, it is easy to include unneeded elements subconsciously because you know how they work in the story. The person reading/hearing the log line won’t have that context.

So, for every word you include, ask why does this matter in the log line? Let’s say your log line begins, “An aspiring reporter who’s estranged from her husband uncovers corruption in the land use office of a city government…” Does it really matter that the reporter is estranged from her husband? It certainly might in the script, but if that detail doesn’t pay off in some way in the log line, cut it. Similarly, it is probably not important that the corruption is in the land use office unless the log line is going to deal with land use later. Though it would be more evocative to keep “land use office” and cut “city government.” That’s because…

6. Specific is better than vague. You want the listener/reader to visualize your story. The more specific your word choice, the stronger the image will be in the listener/reader’s mind. This is why simply describing the character as a “woman” is not as good as saying she’s an “aspiring reporter.”

Your log line needs to stand on its own to intrigue a reader or listener. Give the version of your story that works best in one or two sentences. The script will naturally include a lot more – in fact, it better!

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Check out my new book on screenwriting: The Three Stages of Screenwriting.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Writing Web Video Content: Interview with Laura Holliday

It used to be that there were two types of screenwriters: film and television. But these days those divisions are blurring. And to make matters more complex, there are scripted web series, web shorts, and streaming product from places like Netflix and Amazon. The screenwriter today is best served by being a jack-of-all-formats. And writing web series can be a great way to break in.

Today I'm interviewing one of my students, Laura Holliday. Laura has written and directed commissioned digital content for Lifetime, Spinmaster, Full Screen Inc. and Funny or Die. She's also part of the sketch group and youtube channel "Practical Folks" (subscribe!) and a member of the Funny or Die Community. I asked Laura about how she got to the point of making commissioned content for Funny or Die.

Q: How did you first get a meeting with Funny or Die?

I uploaded a video I made on my own with some improv friends (Jessie Sherman, Katie Wilbert, Dylan Dugas) called "Sad Lonely Girl" to the site on my own and it ended up getting a lot more views than I expected.

Someone from the site reached out to me about joining the Funny or Die Community (a group of comedy filmmakers that Funny or Die supports, shares their work) and also suggested I enter the video in a contest they were having along with LA Film Festival called Make Em Laff Fest. I made the top three and screened at LA Film Fest but if I had won I would have gotten to produce a sketch legitimately with Funny or Die. I was super upset but then they called me in to talk about ideas anyway.

Q: What was that meeting like? What happened next?


I just had a really casual meeting there where they showed me around the office and kind of talked about what sorts of content fit best there and told me to email them when I had a viable idea I thought was up their alley!

Q: How did you create your pitch for your project?

I had recently sent log lines for a bunch of serial sketch concepts to a friend who worked at Awesomeness TV at the time. Nothing happened with that but he told me that one of them about a girl who is roommates with a 7 year old girl, really made him laugh and I should try to get it made elsewhere, so I basically sent on that logline and gave them a few quick examples of jokes and episode ideas. They asked to see scripts for three episodes.

Q: Once they bought the show, how did development go? Did you do drafts of scripts or did they let you just go make the series? How much input did they have?

With "Kid Roommate," they outsourced the job to me and it was pretty free. My friend who I wrote it with (Ellen Jacobs) and I did multiple drafts ourselves until we were happy and showed them but they gave basically just gave notes on the edit of the video. All the notes were great and very helpful.

Q: What is your plan for building off this experience?

I definitely met wonderful people from doing this first project and recently did an in-house video for them that I wrote and directed. Hopefully I can continue to work with them in that capacity. Hopefully we can also make more episodes of "Kid Roommate."

Q: Any advice for those wanting to do online shorts?

I've found that you just have to make a bunch of them on your own and keep uploading them. There is no way to predict what will stick or what the internet will like, so you just have to keep putting your ideas out there. The trick is finding ways to make the videos solid enough technically to sell you creatively without spending a bunch of money on them each time. I think that's totally possible with sketches which is part of why I love them.

Thanks Laura!




Catch all three episodes of "Kid Roommate" on Funny or Die.

And More videos here: http://www.funnyordie.com/lauraholliday

Facebook: facebook.com/laurahollidayfilm
Twitter: @lalalaholliday



Monday, March 28, 2016

(Almost) Everything You Need to Know About Screenwriting Contests

When you are starting out, getting someone in the industry to read your screenplay can seem like an insurmountable task. Screenwriting contests promise to offer a short cut. Almost all of them claim to get your script in front of industry professionals. (For an entry fee.) (Provided you win.) But not all screenplay contests are created equal. You could easily spend thousands of dollars entering contests this year, and at the end of the year you’d be no closer to a career as a screenwriter.

But there are screenplay contests – and fellowships – that can help you advance your career, though not always in the way you expect. I won a contest (the now-defunct Carl Sautter Award) early in my career and received some excellent prizes and reads from many producers and agents. Here’s a look at some of the contests and fellowships that are worth your attention. It is not an exhaustive list, but it should give you a place to start as you consider how to spend your hard earned money.

Traditional Screenplay Contests

The Nicholl Fellowship is the big dog of screenwriting contests. It’s sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the people who run the Oscars). If you are a finalist in the Nicholl – or even a semi-finalist – producers and agents will be contacting you to read your screenplay. The competition is fierce – nearly 7,500 screenplays are submitted each year and only about 10 reach the finals.

The Nicholl costs $60, but winners receive a $35,000 grant. Contests that offer big prize money can help your career simply by giving you the freedom to spend more time on your writing.

When considering a contest I suggest evaluating the stature of the sponsoring organization, the history of the contest, and the prizes offered. Then compare that to the cost of entering. Some contests focus on specific types of material - certain genres, for example, or screenplays set in a specific location (usually sponsored by the government's film department for that state, city, or whatever). It may be worth entering contests that your material is right for because you have a better shot at winning. And obviously avoid ones your material is not right for.

Film Festival Contests

Some film festivals sponsor screenwriting contests that provide winners with passes to the festival and participation in festival events or workshops. In addition to the learning opportunity, this can provide you with networking opportunities if the festival is well attended by industry people.

The Austin Film Festival Contest is probably the best of these. Cost is $40 and all entrants get at least discounts to the festival (with bigger discounts the higher you go in the contest). Plus, this contest is taken seriously by the industry. And Austin passes on feedback from the contest readers – another potentially valuable benefit of contests… as long as the readers are good.

Slamdance also offers a contest that provides reader feedback, a cash prize, and festival passes – not bad since it coincides with Sundance.

Film Independent’s Screenwriters Lab

The Film Independent Screenwriters Lab is a four-week intensive program for art house style screenplays. Many participants go on to have their screenplays produced (I suspect Film Independent does a lot of behind-the-scenes pushing of the participants’ scripts). In addition to the classes and industry mentorship, participants get passes to the Los Angeles Film Festival. Definitely worth the $45 entry fee.

The Studio Fellowships


Many studios offer writing fellowships. Particulars vary in terms of length and financial compensation, but they are all programs designed to train writers. The majority of these are for television writers with the ultimate goal of getting the participants staff writing jobs on that company’s shows. Obviously that would be a career making opportunity. Also note that many of the fellowships are dedicated to promoting diversity, though most are open to any applicant. An added bonus – many don’t have application fees, so they’re definitely worth trying. Here are some links to investigate:

Disney-ABC

Fox

Warner Brothers Writers Workshop

Diversity Programs

Speaking of diversity, there are some excellent programs designed to give writers of color, LGBT writers, and female writers opportunities. Here are some links that might be useful if you fall into one of these categories.

CBS diversity mentoring program

NBC’s Writers on the Verge

Film Independent’s Project Involve


As I said, this is not an exhaustive list of worthy contests and fellowships, but hopefully it will give you a place to start investigating and a metric for comparisons. Note that most of these are only open to writers who have not yet made significant money in the film or television business.

One final benefit of entering these contests: they can be a gauge of how good your material actually is. If you don’t make the finals in one contest, don’t worry. The competition is high and reader taste and experience can vary dramatically. But if you enter a dozen contest and don’t make the final in any, maybe your money would be better spent taking a screenwriting class and your time better spent developing your craft.

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Need to develop your craft? Try my book: The Three Stages of Screenwriting.

And if you're in Los Angeles, I will be teaching a pitching workshop at The Writers Store on April 9th.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Seven Tips for Better Pitches

If you want to be a writer in Hollywood, the reality is you are going to have to pitch your ideas. This isn't always a natural skill for the type of people who gravitate to writing.

There are many types of pitches and many pitching situations – from formal original pitches to pitching for an assignment. From two-minute pitch-fest pitches of your existing script to casual 60-second pitches at industry social events. From a five-minute pitch in a general meeting to a pitch of a new idea to your agent. Feature films, television shows, and web series all require different approaches. Here are seven tips that will help in almost any situation:

1. Give them a log line before launching into plot. Remember, they don’t know anything about the story you are pitching. If you launch into details and scenes, it can be confusing. Give them the basic idea up front. Once they know the idea, they will know how to process the information that follows.

2. Tell them the genre. Don’t make them guess if your story is comedic or dramatic. Don’t surprise them by revealing science fiction elements halfway through the pitch. Let them know up front what kind of story they are going to hear. In television, the genre will probably be evident by who is hearing the pitch, but consider what other information they may need, such as whether your hour drama is open or closed-ended, or whether your sitcom is single or multi-cam.

3. Tell the plot through the character. Just like character is the viewers’ way into a movie or television show, it’s the buyer’s way into your pitch. We only care about the plot to the extent that we care about the character, and to the extent that we can see how the plot affects the character. Don’t simply recite dry plot points, describe how the character feels about the events and what decisions and changes the character makes as a result of those events.

4. Be specific. A pitch is shorter than the final product (movie, TV show, etc.) and you don’t have the advantage of the fully dramatized scenes, so you need to be as specific as possible so that the listener envisions the final product in their mind. Don’t just say the character has a bad relationship with their father, for example. Why is that relationship bad? What is their father like? Choose your words for maximum impact.

5. Practice with real people who don’t know your story. You have the advantage of knowing a lot more about your story than the listener, so you may not recognize what they won’t understand about your pitch. It’s important to test drive your pitch with trusted friends – ones who will be honest with you – to find out where you are being unclear.

6. The pitch should be the same tone as the story. If you are pitching a comedy, your pitch better be funny. If you are pitching horror, it better be scary. Since you don’t have the advantage of actors delivering lines, this can be a challenge. For a comedy you may have to make jokes that won’t be in the movie. That’s okay – you are showing them that you’re funny so that they'll know the script might also be funny. And present your story in a dramatic way. Don’t recite every aspect in the same monotone.

7. Engage with your listener. Make eye contact, read their reactions. Watch for where they get confused so you can elaborate or slow down. It’s okay to have notes for a longer pitch – most buyers will expect that. But never pitch from a computer – it’s very distancing for the listener.

Pitching is a difficult but necessary skill for screenwriters in Hollywood. You need to put as much care into learning the craft of pitching as you do learning the craft of writing. But with practice, anybody can become a better pitcher.

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If you're in Los Angeles, I will be teaching a pitching workshop at The Writers Store on May 7th where I will be revealing many more tips!