Sunday, November 30, 2008

How NOT to Network

Last Saturday morning my phone rang. When I answered, a voice asked if I was Doug Eboch. When I said I was, the voice told me his name – we’ll call him Joe – and launched into a rant about how nobody in the film business will help anyone. Several minutes into the call I was still wondering, “who is this guy and how did he get my number?”

Turns out I don’t know Joe. And I never found out how he got my number. Our only apparent connection is he informed me we both lived for a while in the same town (I had to ask him which one). But Joe’s call gives me a good point to launch into a discussion of how not to network. For that’s what Joe was trying to do.

It’s entirely possible that Joe is a nut job. But for the sake of this discussion I’m going to assume he’s talented, hard working and generally socially competent. We’re constantly told in this business that you have to be aggressive and that “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” This can lead otherwise very reasonable people to act like crazed hyenas. I know because I’ve done it.

First of all, I would suggest that cold calling someone you don’t know at home on a Saturday morning is not the best way to make a connection. But let’s say you see an industry figure that you don’t know personally at a party or a coffee shop or a screening and decide to approach them. Rule number one is to be respectful and considerate.

Put yourself in their shoes – if I’m at a party, I’m there to relax and have a good time. If I’m at a screening I’m there to see a movie. If someone comes up to me and within thirty seconds they’re asking me to give them career help I’m going to be thinking, “How can I get away from this person as quickly as possible and never talk to them again?”

But if I meet someone at a party who’s cool and interesting and who maybe turns me on to a great restaurant he just found or movie he just saw, then at the end of the evening I’m likely to exchange cards with that person. That guy just started a relationship which is what networking is really about.

If you’re contacting someone at work then keep in mind that if you’re talking to someone who can help you, they are also by definition a busy person. Keep it succinct and get to the point. It took several minutes to find out what Joe wanted and I had to ask him a couple times before he told me. He wasn’t even an aspiring screenwriter! He was a musician who wanted me to check out some of his work online. (I’m not sure why he thought I could help. Sometimes people who have not had any success in the entertainment business think people who have had success wield a lot more power than they actually do.)

Be prepared with a brief, polite introduction. Tell them quickly who you are. Explain why you’re contacting them in particular – ideally you’ve been referred by a mutual acquaintance, but if it’s just that you admire their work, tell them that. And then explain what you’d like them to do. Don’t ask for a lot! You might get a producer to read a script, but more likely you’ll do best by simply asking for a little advice on the business (and if you do that, make sure you LISTEN to them when they give you the advice!) Joe actually got that right. He only asked that I listen to some of his work online which is a pretty easy thing for someone to do. But he could have told me that in a two minute conversation instead of wasting ten minutes.

Tone counts for a lot. Joe listed a bunch of people he’d approached who hadn’t helped him and asked in a rather challenging way if I’d ever helped someone break into the business. You’re asking for my help…don’t attack me! Keep it positive. Why would I want to help out someone who’s bitter and pessimistic? And if all these other people hadn’t found Joe to be someone worthy of their help, then what does that tell me?

In a similar vein, Joe complained that he didn’t have time to go back to school or do internships – he’d been trying to break in for too long for stuff like that. And he scoffed that some of the people he’d approached, “asked me ridiculous questions like can I score to cues.” Well, that’s not a ridiculous question. That’s what composers in the film business have to be able to do.

More importantly, Joe was unintentionally telling me he’s lazy and unwilling to do what it takes to be successful. He’s looking for a short cut, for something to be handed to him. Why would I help someone like that? Just because he managed to track down my phone number? That doesn’t mean you have to enter a degree program or take every lame non-paying gig you’re offered, but you want people to see you as someone willing to work hard and sacrifice to make it.

There are different kinds of networking. What Joe was trying to do I would call “networking up.” In other words, he’s trying to build a relationship with someone more successful than he is. That is a logical way to go but actually not the most useful kind of networking. Tom Cruise networks with Steven Spielberg, I don’t. I don’t have much to offer Spielberg and real networking is a two way street.

You’ll get most of your breaks by networking laterally. When I was starting out as a writer the people that helped me the most were the interns at production companies and the assistants to agents and producers. Those people are looking to move up and they do that by discovering great material that nobody else knows about. If my work is good then helping me helps them.

Since Joe wants to write music for movies he would be best served by contacting film students or other aspiring filmmakers and offering to score their work for free. If he does a good job his work will get exposed when those films are screened at festivals. Plus, those filmmakers will move into the business and they’ll remember the people who did things for them along the way. But it takes time and you have to be willing to scratch someone else’s back if you want them to scratch yours.

You do need to network to be successful in this business. But you need to be smart about it and you need to have the talent, work ethic and positive attitude to back it up. Most important of all: don’t call me at home.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Three Act Structure of Star Wars


I use Star Wars (The first one…you know, episode IV. Written by George Lucas, of course) in my screenwriting class as an illustration of three act structure. It’s good for two reasons: first, pretty much everybody’s seen it and second, the structure is obvious and easy to find. Here’s how it works:

Main Character: Luke Skywalker.

Domino: Princess Leia putting the plans and message in R2D2. This is the act that kicks off all the events to follow. Without it, Luke would go on living unhappily as a farmer on Tatooine. But it is not the catalyst as we haven’t even met our main character yet.

Catalyst: Luke sees the hologram of Leia and decides he must help her. Now our main character has a problem. He doesn’t really know what it is yet, but we do: Darth Vadar does not want the plans in R2D2 to get to the rebels.

Main Conflict: Will Luke Skywalker defeat Darth Vadar? Most action movies have pretty straightforward main conflicts. This one is set up at the catalyst because Luke has decided to take action that will put him in conflict with Darth. They have “mutually exclusive goals.” In other words, conflict results because the protagonist and antagonist can’t both succeed at their goals. This is a useful technique to make sure the conflict in your movie is strong. (You could quite easily tell the whole story as a tragedy from Darth Vadar’s point of view.)

Act One Break: Luke agrees to go to Alderan with Obi Wan to return R2D2 to Leia.

Midpoint: Luke rescues Leia from the prison cell. This is a big up point – he’s reunited Leia with R2D2. Unfortunately there’s still the little matter of being stuck in the bowels of the Death Star.

Act Two Break: Luke and the gang escape the Death Star. This may seem like an up moment – not the typical way the Act Two Break usually works. However this is an example of the kind of movie where the achievement of the initial goal at the end of Act Two leads to an even bigger challenge and problem.

In this case, that bigger challenge is destroying the Death Star before it can destroy the rebel base. Remember how immediately after the escape Leia says it was too easy? Darth Vadar has put a tracker on the Millennium Falcon that allows the Death Star to follow them to the rebels. They're out of the frying pan, into the fire.

Twist: The rebels discover the flaw in the Death Star by analyzing the plans. It gives them one hope to beat Darth Vadar.

Resolution: Luke succeeds in destroying the Death Star and defeating Darth Vadar, thus concluding the Main Conflict. This is followed by a denouement where we get to witness the awards ceremony and celebrate along with our main characters.

There you have it: simple, straightforward and incredibly watchable.

Monday, November 17, 2008

State of the Business Fall 2008

Since I started writing professionally enough to have an attorney, pretty much every time I talked to her she would tell me, "it's a really bad time for screenwriters right now."  After awhile I'd just laugh and ask, "when was it a good time?"  Then I'd go off and continue writing and pitching because, really, what was the alternative?  I wasn't going to get work sitting around NOT writing.

Well, now it really is a bad time for screenwriters.

This is the picture of the State of the Feature Screenwriting Business that I've been able to gather by talking to writers, agents and producers over the last two months or so.  There are a couple of short term forces dragging down the business right now:  

First is concern over whether SAG will strike and when.  I don't think there's much appetite for a strike, but at the same time the studios aren't giving the union a lot of other options.  And a strike right now would seriously devastate the business.

The second is the credit crunch which is making film financing difficult even for big studio films and nearly impossible for independent films.  In addition to a pull back in equity, most films are at least partially financed with borrowed money and there doesn't appear to be much money out there to borrow.

Those issues will likely resolve themselves in the next six months.  In the meantime, everyone is afraid to put anything into motion in such an unpredictable environment.  Most buyers seem to be going into an early holiday hibernation.  They'll poke their heads out January 1st when most new fiscal year budgets start.  If they see their shadows and get scared back underground we could be in for a long, painful winter.

Of more long term concern, studios are cutting back on the number of movies produced.  This is actually overdue.  The glut of films in the market over the last few years was causing mid-level films to cannibalize each other.  The downside, of course, is fewer films means fewer jobs for writers.  And probably less risk taking meaning less interesting material.  And woe to the people trying to break in right now with so many previously working writers hitting the market desperate for a gig.

It's even worse in the indie arena.  A shakeout would also be good for that industry, allowing specialty theaters, audiences and press to focus on fewer films, thus increasing each film's likelihood of finding an audience.  But again, that means fewer people get a chance to make films.

In this regard it's interesting to look over recent indie film history.  A lot has been made about cheap, high quality film technology democratizing the business.  The thought is that an undiscovered, extremely talented aspiring filmmaker from somewhere like the Midwest who previously would have been shut out of the system can now break through.  And that has and will happen.

The trouble is there is no "gatekeeping" now.  A decade and a half ago an indie filmmaker had to convince someone with some money that they and their film were worthy of investment.  At least one and probably several people had to agree that this project was good.  Now all a filmmaker needs is a credit card.  This has allowed too many untalented, inexperienced aspiring filmmakers to flood the market with bad films... meaning those real undiscovered talents have trouble rising above the crap.  Turns out it's just as hard to break in now as it ever was.

I wish I had a happy ending here.  Normally I'm a pretty upbeat guy.  And I do believe that no matter what studios will keep making movies.  And of course someone will get to write them. But man is it bleak out there right now.  Good luck, everyone!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Why I Fight, er, Write

Recently in the pitching class I teach at Art Center College, I was pontificating about the battle to weasel as much money as possible out of the tight fists of the studios. A student raised her hand and asked me, “Do you have any higher purpose in your writing, any issues that you want to get out to the world, or is it just about making money?” It was a very, very good question.

First of all, let me just say that if your primary interest is making money, there are a heckuva lot of easier ways to go about it than screenwriting. So let me tell you why I write movies.

When I was a kid I remember how I felt when I came out of my favorite movies. I felt energized, alive, and anxious to do…something! At that tender age I couldn’t exactly describe what that feeling was but now I know it to be a lust for life. A sense of Carpe Diem. Those movies made me not just fall in love with movies but fall in love with living. They made me believe the underdog could win and true love was real and justice will triumph if good people persevere.

I was drawn to be a filmmaker to give that experience to other people.

I believe film is an art form but I don’t think of myself as an artist. I’m an entertainer. If I can help create a film that people walk out of at the end having had a thoroughly good time then I think I’ve done something worthwhile. I aspire to quality but I’ll leave it to others to judge the artistic merit of my work.

There are a few issues I feel passionately about and I try to work those into my scripts. I make it a point to write diverse characters, particularly including positive images of gay and disabled people. And I’m careful not to inadvertently promote ideas I don’t actually agree with. But entertainment is always the first priority. And ultimately I think the messages are more powerful if they come in an entertaining package.

Mostly I hope a few people experience that feeling I remember as a kid.

But here’s the other side of the coin. Screenwriting isn’t a hobby for me, it’s my career. And if you’re doing something as a career you better care about how much money you’re making. Furthermore, screenwriting is an entrepreneurial career. When you set out to be a professional screenwriter you’re starting a small business. You have to give some thought and energy to how your business is going to make money. If you don’t want to do that I recommend you stop writing screenplays, get a good, solid day job, and write short stories or maybe a blog as a hobby. You’ll be a lot happier.

If you pursue screenwriting professionally and you aspire to artistry or even just quality entertainment you will struggle with balancing your vision with your need to make money through your entire career. Here’s how I recommend you find the balance:

Work hard to master the business of the business but write only scripts you are passionate about. Ultimately I think that’s how you find your value to the industry anyway. There are hundreds of writers out there that can turn in competent but uninspired screenplays. Why do they need you? Find the stories that excite you and put that excitement into your writing. Find your voice and sell that. Not only will you be happier, I believe you will be more likely to find financial success.

And hopefully you’ll write a film that makes me fall in love with life all over again.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Set Pieces Sell Scripts

(Spoilers: Casablanca, Aliens, The Devil Wears Prada)

Think about the last time you went to a movie you really loved with your friends. When you came out were you talking about how the second act break fell at just the right moment and how neatly the inner and outer conflicts of the main character tied together? Or were you talking about your favorite scenes and quoting the best dialogue? My guess is the latter.

It’s the same for producers and executives. Put yourself in the shoes of a development exec going home with a dozen spec scripts for the weekend. She reads one that is perfectly structured, in a marketable genre, and with a good character arc. She’ll probably jot down some very nice notes about that writer. Next she reads one that has several original, fantastic scenes -- scenes she’s still thinking about on her drive into work. Scenes she can’t wait to tell her coworker about as they get their coffee. Which script do you think she’s going to fight passionately for in the Monday morning development meeting?

I’m not suggesting your script doesn’t need solid structure. But competence with structure is just the buy-in to the poker game of screenwriting. Once you’re at the table, success depends a great deal on your ability to deliver things like memorable and compelling set pieces.

There are several ways to define the term “set piece.” For me the most useful is, “the big, audience pleasing scenes that deliver on the genre elements of the movie.” In a successful comedy they’re the scenes that have you clutching your sides with laughter. In a good action movie they’re the scenes that put you on the edge of your seat holding your breath. In a horror movie they’re the scenes that make you cover your eyes in terror. In a romance they’re the scenes that have you reaching for your loved one’s hand.

Of course, a good comedy will never go too long without a joke and a good horror movie will probably be pretty creepy throughout. But set pieces ratchet up the intensity to give your story memorable peaks that will stick with the audience. It’s a cliché that good movies are like good roller coasters -- they have peaks and valleys, periods of anticipation and moments of adrenaline rush release. Set pieces are the loops and big drops of the roller coaster.

I don’t like hard and fast rules, but here are some guidelines I use for myself: Every movie should have at least five set pieces. More than ten and most likely either the script will be too long, the set pieces will be underdeveloped or the pace will be too unrelenting. One set piece should be near the beginning, one at the climax. If the script goes more than 25 pages without one, that could be trouble. Often set pieces will correspond to major turning points in the film such as act breaks or the inciting incident, but they don’t have to.

You should try for a sense of spectacle with your set pieces. This often means big, showy visuals, but spectacle can also be of the emotional kind. Think about the scene in Casablanca (screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch) where Ilsa comes to beg Rick to help her husband escape Casablanca. Even though it's only two people in a room it delivers big emotional fireworks. How? By pushing the main characters believably to the extremes of their emotion.

Hopefully, you’ve spent some time thinking about what’s unique and original about your script’s premise. In Aliens (screenplay by James Cameron based on a story by James Cameron, David Giler and Walter Hill), one of the new twists in the premise of the sequal is Ripley taking on Newt in a surrogate mother/daughter relationship. There are plenty of expected action-horror-suspense sequences about Aliens attacking the overmatched human characters, but the premise is more deeply exploited in a set piece in Act III when Ripley has to rescue Newt by facing off against the mother Alien. When it comes time to deliver the spectacle, don't just go for the standard car chase or love scene. Build your set pieces on what's original to your story.

The world of your story is another potential source of fresh set piece ideas. At its core, The Devil Wears Prada (screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna) is a story about a mean boss but it’s made unique by setting that story in the world of high fashion. We get the obligatory bits about coffee and phone messages, but look at the scene where Miranda Priestly is going over wardrobe for a photo shoot. There are several jokes about how demanding Miranda is and then when Andy laughs at a debate over two nearly identical belts, Miranda delivers a withering monologue breaking down how Andy ended up with the bargain bin sweater she’s wearing. That scene draws its humor completely from the world of the movie which is why it’s so memorable.

Also, be sure to exploit your setting. The same basic set piece from a movie located in New York can be very different than one set in San Antonio, Texas or Venice, Italy. Think about how you might use those three locations to give a unique spin to a big emotional scene about a couple breaking up. (The world of the Deep South was a particularly rich setting for C. Jay Cox and I to mine in the development of Sweet Home Alabama!)

The hard reality of this business is that there are probably a thousand well structured but unsold scripts out there for every movie that gets made. If you want to sell your script, you need to make people passionate about it. Creating set pieces that are funny, scary, exciting, or moving is a great way to inspire that kind of passion.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Structure of "Cloverfield"

(Spoilers: Cloverfield)

Today I want to analyze the structure of the movie Cloverfield, written by Drew Goddard. I enjoyed the movie a lot, plus it is well structured and a good example of how the three act structure works in a movie where the character fails to achieve his goal. Let’s look at the major structural elements.

Main Character: This movie is also a good example of a viewpoint character that is not the main character. The story is told through “found footage” from a video camera that was carried by Hud. Hud is the character whose eyes we see the story through but he is not the main character. It is Rob’s goal that drives the story forward and it is his decisions that create the turning points. So Rob is our main character.

Catalyst: The catalyst is when the monster attacks the city. This is dramatized when the characters feel something akin to an earthquake and run to the roof. They don’t know what’s happened, but they now have a problem.

The one flaw I see in Cloverfield is the long first sequence. The movie is less than 90 minutes long but it takes over 15 minutes to reach the catalyst. Frankly, the opening gets a little tedious. It’s there to introduce us to the characters and their relationships before we get bogged down in the action, but the characters are not the most interesting bunch in the world until they become victims of the monster attack. Once we get that attack, though, the movie is off and running.

Main Conflict: In the catalyst we set up the main conflict – can the characters escape the monster that’s attacking New York? (Note that at this point all the characters have the same goal, but in subtle ways Rob starts to become the leader.)

Act One Break: Rob receives a cell phone call from Beth telling him she’s trapped in her building. He decides to try to rescue her. The other characters go along. This spins the story in a new direction and creates a second act tension of “Can Rob rescue Beth?”

Midpoint: Marlena dies. Remember, the midpoint is usually similar in tone to the ending and a mirror of the Act Two Break. Marlena’s death is a partial failure. Not all of Rob’s loved ones will make it out of this alive.

Act Two Break: Rob rescues Beth from her building, thus achieving his second act goal. This is a high point which is appropriate since the end of the movie will be failure. The story spins in a new direction: getting out of Manhattan.

Twist: The helicopter crash. Things had been going up from the Act Two Break, but here it all turns bad.

Resolution: Everyone dies.

In a movie where the character achieves his goal, the Midpoint will be a moment of success, the Act Two Break will be his greatest failure, things will spiral downhill until the twist when the character figures out how to win, and the resolution will be success.

In a movie like Cloverfield it is just the opposite. The Midpoint is a moment of failure, the Act Two Break is the character’s greatest success, and things go up until the twist, which leads to the resolution of failure.

Whichever structure you use, you are playing with the audience’s hope and fear. In the first you lead them to fear the worst will happen before rewarding them with a happy ending. In the second you lead them to think things will come out well before pulling the rug out from under them. But neither approach should be linear - thus the mini success or failure of the midpoint.

Of course a character’s failure isn’t necessarily an unhappy ending if we are rooting against an unlikable main character such as in a gangster movie. But Cloverfield does have a true unhappy ending. Conventional Hollywood wisdom says popular movies must end happily but Cloverfield is an example of why this isn’t always the case. It was a successful genre hit and completely satisfying despite the tragic outcome.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Work Habits

I was at a party recently talking to other screenwriters when the subject of work habits came up. Writers - including myself - seem endlessly fascinated with the work habits of other writers, though I can't really figure out why. Successful writers work in enormously varied ways none of which seems to give one an advantage over another.

I know successful writers who:
Write first thing in the morning.
Write late at night.
Write every single day.
Lock themselves in a room for weeks to finish a draft then take a month off from writing.
Turn out five pages in an hour.
Labor all day on a single page.
Write outlines that are longer than their script.
Start with "Fade In" and write with no idea where they'll end up.

Each method seems to work for the writers who use it. So why should we care what other writers do? I guess hearing someone works the same way you do is reassuring. But it can also be unsettling to find a writer you admire has a completely different system.

Anyway, with that in mind, here is my writing process.

First, let me give a little history. When I first graduated from college I had to take a 40+ hour a week "day job" to make ends meet. My writing process was developed somewhat in response to this. I found that it was important I write for at least an hour every day. Writing every day helped me to keep momentum even if I couldn't get very much done on a specific day. If I waited until I had a large block of time to write, most of that time would be eaten up trying to remember where I'd left off the last time I had a huge block of time. Keeping momentum meant I would have ideas throughout the day that I would jot down in a notebook (or often on scraps of paper because I didn't have my notebook with me - I'm kind of forgetful about stuff like that). When I sat down to write I would already have a lot to work with.

Once I started writing full time, I decided I would take the weekends off like a normal person. It often doesn't work out this way in practice, but I don't feel guilty if I don't write on the weekend. I do try to write every week day.

I typically have one major project and a few secondary projects at any one time. I find it difficult to write first draft material on two things at once, but I can combine working on a first draft of one project with rewriting or outlining another. And not all my projects involve writing - I might be editing a short film or directing some sketch comedy.

I've found that I can't sit at my computer and write or rewrite for eight hours straight. I burn out and my writing is no good for several days afterwards. Whatever mental process I developed when I was writing an hour a day is still with me. So I only "write" a couple hours a day. But that doesn't mean I'm lazy the rest of the time. My typical day breaks down like this:

In the morning I'll work on a secondary project for an hour or two and do bureaucratic stuff like returning phone calls or accounting or research or when I'm really desperate, filing. (Some days I'll also write this blog.) Then I'll go to the gym or for a run to get a little break.

After lunch is when I focus on my primary project. I like to have a free and clear afternoon so I don't feel any time pressure, even though I rarely write for more than three hours. After the primary project is done I'll spend the remainder of my day working on a secondary project. If I have a meeting or it's a day I'm teaching I'll adjust my schedule accordingly, prioritizing my primary project into the largest available chunk of time.

I like to outline. Typically I'll have a 12-20 page step outline of my script before I begin my first draft. This takes weeks to develop. I can't imagine starting a script without knowing where I'm trying to go. Plus, having the outline means no writer's block. I always know what I'm supposed to be writing next. I sometimes use notecards and a bulletin board to break a story, but not always. I find it helps most when I'm working on a story with complex interweaving plot lines.

When I actually sit down to write on the first draft of a script, I start my session with a quick polish of the previous days pages. I don't spend a lot of time on that, just enough to smooth the dialogue and get in the groove. I try not to stop for the day immediately after finishing a scene. Instead, I make some notes for the first scene of the next day. This primes my mind to come up with ideas throughout the intervening time that get jotted down in my notebook or on scraps of paper.

I can usually turn out two to five new pages in an hour and do five to ten pages a day. This is possible, I believe, because of the outline. Also, I believe strongly in keeping momentum going on the first draft. Perfection is for the rewriting process.

When I'm rewriting my output is a little harder to quantify. Sometimes I can get through a quarter of the script in one sitting if it doesn't require much work. Sometimes I can spend a couple days fixing one scene. Often I'm jumping around (working on a particular character, for example, or adjusting the placement of exposition). I have done dozens of drafts before calling a script finished, and as few as three. The more I do this, the fewer it seems to take.

I have tried to write late at night and/or with a glass of scotch handy because I like the romance of it. But in both cases I find I get sleepy very quickly. Romance aside, I'm at my best earlier in the day when I'm rested.

That's my process. I don't particularly recommend it for anybody but me. If you find something else works for you, more power to you!