Saturday, July 28, 2012

A Screenwriter Ponders the Aurora Theater Shootings

I debated whether to write this post. I have intentionally avoided politics and social commentary in this blog and I don’t want to exploit what happened in Aurora in any way. Plus, I don’t know that I have much of value to add to the cacophony of opinion. But this blog does cover the film industry and the screenwriting life, and when a guy walks into a movie theater and shoots seventy people, well, it’s hard not to address it.

There are, of course, no words to describe how heartbreaking the deaths and injuries are. Like everyone else in this business, this one hit me extra hard. I love movies. I love the joy of going to the theater with a group of people and watching a story unfold on screen. I love it so much I chose to do it for a living. For someone to violate that makes an impact even though I don’t personally know any of the victims.

There has been some call lately for Hollywood to engage in a little soul searching for the violence we show in film. And I doubt anyone in Hollywood has failed to consider the possibility of a connection. But it’s misguided and even dangerous to blame film violence for this kind of real world violence.

Despite the opinions of a few talk radio blowhards, we now know from psychologists and neurobiologists that violent movies, video games and other media do not turn people into killers. The brain just doesn’t work that way. In fact, studies of the subject indicate viewing violent media might make people less likely to engage in violence in real life, not more likely.

It’s probable that everyone who commits this type of horrible mass killing suffers from a biological brain defect of some kind. They may gravitate to violent media and they may reference that media in their actions, but they would be killers even if they were fed a steady diet of My Little Pony.

Last weekend every theater in the country reviewed their security plans. That’s good. That’s a logical response. Though we could easily go too far there, as well. You’re still more likely to die falling out of bed or from a champagne cork mishap than from being shot in a theater. (And you’re far more likely to be killed by someone texting while driving than by an assault rifle wielding maniac.) So let’s keep a little perspective while we make sure we take some basic precautions.

I do think the MPAA could do a better job informing parents about the violent content of movies with the rating system, though that’s difficult too. The problem is violence is qualitative, not quantitative. Based on number of deaths, Star Wars is one of the most violent movies ever, yet I know few parents who would hesitate to let their ten-year-old watch it. On the other hand, The Accused has no deaths but is very graphic and, in my opinion, not appropriate for kids. It’s also an important movie on an important subject.

In the end we as writers can’t censor ourselves based on one crazy nut job and some vague feeling that media might have influenced his actions despite all evidence to the contrary.

But we can say a prayer for the victims of the tragedy in Aurora, and remember the slain for how they lived, not how they died.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Screenwriting Lessons from Comic-Con 2012

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

The Importance of a Good Hook

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

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

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

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

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

Pitching is About You, Not Your Idea

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

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

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

By the way, Javi scripts out his pitches for his TV projects, and you can download several of them on his website:

Anatomy of a Fight Scene

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


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

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

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Trick Questions

Recently I learned of the fantastic “Good in a Room” blog about pitching. One particular post caught my eye: “5 Trick Questions Hollywood Executives Ask – And How to Answer Them.” I agree with Stephanie Palmer’s take on most of the questions, but wanted to comment on one of them and add an additional trick question I’ve gotten.

The trick question I answer differently is her #2: “How much would this cost?” Stephanie suggests you should not give a specific number, but instead say, “I’m not sure. What do you think?” I agree that you should not give a specific number – you are not a line producer so you aren’t possibly qualified to do that. (Unless you’re pitching a financier for an independent film, in which case you better have a detailed budget created by an experienced line producer and be able to give an exact budget number and back it up!)

But I don’t like to just say, “I’m not sure.” In order to better answer the question, I try to figure out what’s really motivating it. I once wrote a biopic set in the middle ages – a hard sell, to be sure. But my agent loved it and worked really hard to get producers interested. Most at some point said something like, “Period pieces are really expensive.”

To which my agent would reply, “Yes, but it’s not like this script has huge armies on horseback riding into battle. The conflicts are character based. It’s about people in rooms.” Sometimes this assuaged the doubts, sometimes not. But the point is, if the question has to do with nervousness over the size of the budget you might use it as an opportunity to describe how you’re going to approach the story in a way that keeps costs down. (Note that some genres are supposed to be expensive – big summer sci-fi pics, for example, ought to have spectacle. I’ve been told one of my scripts is not expensive enough!)

Also, some stories lend them selves to two possible approaches: the big budget approach and the small budget approach. Consider Independence Day (written by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich) and Signs (written by M. Night Shyamalan). Both movies are about alien invasions, but one is big and expensive and the other is smaller and relatively inexpensive. So it’s possible the question is meant to determine which approach you’re taking. If this is the case, your answer ought to match the kind of movies this producer makes!

The other trick question I often encountered early in my career was, “If we don’t buy this pitch, will you spec it?” This of course is when I was pitching an idea I hadn’t written yet. That’s by far the most common scenario where I pitch, by the way. Except in the case of a pitch-fest, I find it easier to get someone to read a script than to hear a pitch – because of course they probably aren’t going to read it themselves, they’ll give it to the intern to do coverage.

So what’s the answer to, “If we don’t buy this pitch, will you spec it?” The worst answer is “no.” You’ve just told them you don’t really believe in your project. And if you don’t, why should they?

But if you say “yes,” they’ll probably smile and say, “Great, send it to us when it’s done.” This isn’t all bad – you’ve got someone who will read the script. But you’ve also just agreed to work for free and probably killed any chance of selling it at a pitch level.

My response was usually something like, “I love this idea and I’m definitely going to write it, but my agent is setting up a bunch of meetings so I hope someone will see the potential in it that I do.” This is a not-so-subtle threat that if they don’t step up, they might miss out. Of course it often didn’t work!

Right now, the spec market seems to be heating up. But the pitch market still appears to be pretty dead (unless you have some kind of popular underlying property). So some of this is academic right now – you probably won’t sell the pitch anyway.

And partly because of that, the new trend has been to develop specs in conjunction with a producer. So you pitch, but rather than hiring you, the producer agrees to “coach” you as you work on your spec and take it out when you’re finished. Personally, I find that a distressing development. You’re at the mercy of someone with no real skin in the game. But sometimes we just have to be realistic about the business.

And the market changes constantly. A year ago specs were impossible to sell. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if in a year pitches start to sell – with payment up front for the writer to do the work. Wouldn’t that be nice!

Don't forget to check out my Kickstarter campaign for Microbe! Lots of cool rewards available.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

What Makes a Good Spec Screenplay?

By all accounts the spec market is back. The Black List blog estimates sales up 27% so far this year. Back in March the script White House Down by James Vanderbilt sold for a reported $3 million. Personally I know at least two writers who have sold feature specs this year. All of this is getting me excited to finish my own new spec!

It’s also caused me to think a lot about what makes a good spec script. Obviously it’s great when a script sells – you get a nice check, after all! But good specs have another purpose – they bring you to the attention of producers and development execs. If you’re a new writer, they can get your career off the ground. If you’re more established they remind people you’re out there and what you can do. So what are the elements of a successful spec?

1. Good Specs Look Professional. This means proper format, grammar and spelling. Presentation counts. You want the readers to see you as someone ready to deliver professional caliber work. This also means that the script follows typical screenplay conventions in terms of things like the amount of description, tonal consistency, length, etc.

If you are unsure about these things, the best solution is to read a bunch of recent screenplays. There are several good sites online that have screenplays (check out my recommended links list for a few). You need to be a little careful – sometimes what you find are transcripts or shooting scripts (which have scene numbers… selling scripts do not). But a good format book should keep you on the right path.

There are a million people out there who know this stuff so obviously creating a professional looking script alone is not enough to make you a pro, but if you don’t know format, grammar and spelling, you have almost no hope.

2. Good Specs Feel Like Movies. This is a tough thing to explain… you kind of know it when you see it. Some scripts are very well written but they don’t bring a movie to mind. There are a couple things I can suggest to help you make your script feel more filmic:

First, make sure it’s visual. Always think about what we’re seeing. Even if you’re doing a story about regular people where the conflicts are interpersonal, this is important. One of the biggest things I learned watching how director Andy Tennant developed Sweet Home Alabama was how he worked to make things more visual. That meant things like moving scenes to more interesting locations. I could and should have done that in the original screenplay.

Second, make sure your dialogue sounds like spoken language. The best way I’ve found to do this is to gather people together to do a reading of the script in my living room. Everybody takes a part and we read it out loud. I can easily hear when the dialogue doesn’t sound natural. Taking acting classes will also help you develop this skill.

And again, read a bunch of screenplays. After a while you’ll be able to hear when something sounds like a real movie script and when it doesn’t.

3. Good Specs are Marketable. This does not mean you have to write a big summer blockbuster, but if you write a type of film that nobody’s made in years, they probably won’t want to make yours.

Your story should have a clear hook. You should be writing in a popular genre. There should be strong, castable parts – ideally the lead role is a star vehicle. And you should be budget conscious - the script should be producible at a budget suitable to its genre. Action movies can have exploding buildings, romantic comedies shouldn’t.

4. Good Specs Have an Original Voice. Marketable is good, but just mimicking the latest blockbuster is not. Producers have plenty of competent, experienced writers they can go to that they’ve worked with before. You have to show them why they should give you a chance. And that means doing something they haven’t seen before.

Remember what I said about the dual purpose of a spec? I – like most writers I know – have a spec that gets me the majority of my meetings yet has never sold because it would be very risky to make. But it’s original and shows my unique voice (and is still in a marketable genre with strong, castable characters and so on.) Besides, people buy things they love, not things they like, so you need to get a strong reaction.

How do you develop your original voice? Write things you care about. That doesn’t mean autobiography or arty drama, necessarily. But if you’re writing sci-fi it better be because you LOVE sci-fi and you have an idea or character you think is REALLY, REALLY COOL! That will come through in your script, and that’s your voice.

As the saying goes, “writers write.” Over the last few years, working on specs has seemed like a bit of an exercise in futility. But it looks like that may be changing… so get to work!


Want to get my professional feedback on your script? I’ve just added that as a reward to my Kickstarter campaign for my short film, Microbe. If you contribute $250, I’ll do a professional evaluation of your script (some limitations apply). Normally I charge $695 for this service, so it’s a pretty big discount. If you leave a comment saying you were referred by this blog, then even if the Kickstarter campaign isn’t successful, I’ll still give you the evaluation for $250. But don’t wait… the campaign, and the offer, ends July 27th.