Saturday, July 27, 2013

Structure vs. Formula

A recent essay on Slate blamed the structural outline in Blake Snyder's book Save the Cat for the formulaic nature of Hollywood movies. The essay has been getting a lot of play lately. It's well written, but the assertion is frankly a little silly.

First, Save the Cat is a popular and widely read screenwriting book, but it's hardly the most popular and most widely read screenwriting book. Second, though Blake Snyder put his own spin on structure, he's basically offering a variation of the three-act structure laid out by Syd Field in Screenplay (originally published in 1979) - and Syd Field was working from ideas laid out by Aristotle. So no, Save the Cat is not the guidebook for every Hollywood movie.

There are other questionable assertions in the article. It implies that Blake Snyder is responsible for blockbusters being targeted toward teenage boys, when in fact that started in the late-70's after Jaws and Star Wars introduced the blockbuster era. Save the Cat was published in 2005. It also claims Snyder was the first to specify page numbers for structural beats when, again, Syd Field did just that in Screenplay. Finally, it repeatedly says Save the Cat's structural breakdown gives a "page-by-page" formula. In fact, Snyder identifies fifteen structural beats. Unless you're making fifteen-minute movies, it's obviously not a page-by-page formula.

The biggest logic hole in attributing Hollywood's originality problems to Save the Cat is the historic time line. Many older movies follow Snyder's structural beats perfectly. In fact, if you convert page numbers to percentages of pages, most of Shakespeare's work fits pretty well. Even the Slate essay uses The Matrix as an example despite the fact it came out six years before the book.

When I read the Slate article I debated whether it was worth mentioning in this blog. Who really cares if it's being trumpeted by wannabe writers and lazy critics to justify a feeling of superiority over people who actually make movies? And it probably helped sales of Save the Cat. After all, if you want to write Hollywood movies and someone told you there's a book that all professional screenwriters use as a guide, wouldn't you buy it? (For the record, I think the book is quite good, though the structural stuff is its weakest part.)

But there's a bigger subtext here that appears regularly among aspiring screenwriters (including, occasionally, students of mine): That structure is a restrictive formula that inhibits creativity. And the inverse of that is often promoted by screenwriting "gurus" - that good structure is the key to good movies. Both of these ideas are not only wrong, they're dangerous to new writers.

In fact, structure is an element of craft. Understanding it is no different than understanding exposition, character development, or even grammar and spelling. It's a tool to tell the story. The story you tell can be original or derivative, imaginative or trite - regardless of whether the underlying structure is solid or not.

The parallel in architecture would be knowing the engineering required to keep your building from collapsing. You can make a beautiful building or an ugly building, but first you need to make sure it's not going to fall down!

The fundamental concepts of three-act structure are found everywhere - in European films like Amelie and art films like Beasts of the Southern Wild and classic films like Casablanca. Even, as I mentioned, the work of Shakespeare. Would you call those "formulaic"?

In fact Shakespeare worked within very rigid ideas of what a play should be. He even had to write in iambic pentameter! And he obviously didn't do that accidentally. He was well-educated in his craft. (I wonder if the Shakespearean version of Slate proclaimed iambic pentameter as the reason for unimaginative playwriting.) But Shakespeare accepted the traditions and conventions of his craft and used them to tell stories that have stood the test of time.

The danger of ignoring structure is that if your story is not well structured, it will likely have dull parts and logic holes. Counter-intuitively, it will often be predictable. You might get lucky and instinctively give your story a solid structure. But if you resist learning this aspect of craft, you will not be able to fix a story when instinct fails you. And it will.

On the other side of the coin, the danger of believing structure is the sole requirement of a good screenplay is that you might fail to do all of the other things necessary: create dimensional and compelling characters, build dramatic scenes, and write sparkling dialogue. Not to mention have something of value to say! Solid structure is the beginning of the process, not the end.

And whatever source you go to in order to learn structure, I encourage you to apply your own critical thinking. I don't like assigning specific pages to structural beats, either. That doesn't mean there's nothing of value to learn from Save the Cat. Take what makes sense to you and ignore the rest.


The Hollywood Pitching Bible, is now available for purchase in print through Amazon, or as an ebook for Kindle and iTunes. You can learn more about the book at the Screenmaster Books website.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Screenwriting Lessons from San Diego Comic-Con 2013

Last weekend I went to Comic-Con in San Diego. If you haven't been, it's a crazy pop-culture circus with both fan and pro components. Among the pro components are panels on industry topics and parties hosted by agencies, studios, and groups like the WGA. Here are a couple of interesting screenwriting-related things I learned/heard during my three days at Comic-Con this year:

What Do You Bring to the Table?

I went to a panel on Pitching Creator Owned Comics that had valuable information for pitching any type of creative project. The main point could be summed up in one line: "Why should a publisher choose your comic over someone else's?" You could transpose that to, "Why should a producer choose your movie idea over someone else's?"

The panel discussed the need to prove your value as an artist. Simply being passionate about the media and your ideas is not enough, yet in creative industries aspiring artists seem to think simply loving something entitles them to create that thing. As one panelist said, "Guess what - everybody is passionate about their idea." The panel chair, Jim Zub, used this analogy about the restaurant business to illustrate (I'm paraphrasing):

Imagine an aspiring chef came into a restaurant and cornered the owner.
Aspiring chef: You should make me the chef of your restaurant!
Owner: Interesting. Why?
Aspiring chef: Because I love to cook! I cook all the time, I eat everything and I love food.
Owner: Have you ever run a restaurant? Or even worked in one?
Aspiring chef: No, but I've wanted to be a chef since I was five, I watch the Food Network all the time and I know the names of all the chefs and I really, really love food!

If you were the restaurant owner, would you give that guy a shot? Probably not. You need to put in the hard work to prove yourself before asking people to give you an opportunity.

Note Giving and Taking

The Writer's Room panel, featuring many TV writers and showrunners, including my friends Javi Grillo-Marxuach and Steve Melching, was fascinating, funny and informative for anyone interested in TV writing. Unfortunately there was too much good stuff for me to recap everything. But there were some particularly good points about giving and taking notes that I'll summarize.

On giving notes, the point was made that people have a limit for receiving criticism. The note-giver should focus on the macro and work toward the micro. If there are big issues, deal with those first and don't comment on specific lines of dialogue or grammar errors. When the big changes are made, much of that stuff will end up being changed anyway. (This came up in discussion about the way showrunners give notes to staff writers.)

On receiving notes, a major point was that you are not hired to be a typist. One panelist said executives live in "ball-shriveling terror" of seeing a line of dialogue they suggested appearing verbatim in a script. Instead, you're supposed to interpret the note and deliver a good version of the idea.

The panelists also discussed the need to dig into the note behind the note, or as one panelist said, "There's a pony in the pile of s**t." So even if the note seems idiotic, the person reading was troubled by something at that point in the script. Try to figure out what it was and fix the underlying problem.


The Hollywood Pitching Bible is now available for purchase in print through Amazon, or as an ebook for Kindle and iTunes. You can learn more about the book at the Screenmaster Books website.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Interview with Producer Ken Aguado

Today I interview independent producer Ken Aguado, my co-writer on The Hollywood Pitching BibleKen's most recent film, Standing Up, was written and directed by DJ Caruso and will be released later this year. Ken has produced several other films including The Salton Sea for Warner Bros., Ticker, which premiered on USA Network, Crazy as Hell, which was distributed theatrically by Artistic License and Sexual Life, written and directed by Ken Kwapis for Showtime.
Prior to his producing career, Ken was a production executive for several companies including Kings Road Entertainment, Miller-Boyett Productions and The Badham/Cohen Group.

What is your role as a producer?

The old joke is that the definition of a Producer is someone who knows a writer. But traditionally a producer shepherds a film or TV project through various stages of the project's creation. In my case, I originated, developed, helped find financing and supervised the production of every film I have my name on.

What do you look for in a script?

One of the main advantages of being a producer is that you get to follow your passion, which means the scripts I look for need only be suited to my tastes, as opposed to – say - the currency of the marketplace or what an employer might want to make. That said, my taste in material is all over the place, but I always start by looking for a character that is sympathetic in a compelling situation. From there I look for scripts that are about something or speak to some relatable authentic aspect of the human condition.

What do you look for in a pitch idea?

The same things I look for in a script with the caveat that a pitch needs to be either very high concept or so well realized that the execution bludgeons you into submission, or both.

What is the biggest mistake that screenwriters make in pitches?

Do I have to pick just one? Most pitches fail because the story fails to pass muster in some way. The story is flawed. Few writers are great pitchers, but a great story will usually shine through. Buyers know this. But the more specific answer is that writers often make the mistake of picking an idea that is really inappropriate to pitch, not high-concept. The only time I can sell a non-high-concept pitch is when the pitch is based on well-known source material or when the pitch is incredibly well worked-out and moving.

How do you work with screenwriters to develop ideas?

If I originate the project, I like to start with source material, if possible. In this age of branding, it’s just easier to sell projects that are based on existing intellectual property. Sometimes writers will bring me their original project. But in either case it is not unusual for my development process to take months and even years of work. I am sure some writers feel that I am torturing them during this time frame, but the experienced writers know how ridiculously hard it is to sell anything today, and there is just no room for any mediocrity. It has to be great, and great can take a very long time to create.

What tips can you give screenwriters for working with a producer on developing a script or a pitch?

That’s tough. There are all kinds of producers out there. Some are good at development and some are good salespeople. Most established producers must have one or both of these qualities. But the best advice is to seek out producers you trust for their integrity and the quality of their ideas and make the effort to keep working with them. Working with the right producer means finding a valuable and trusted collaborator. This may sound obvious, but in practice many other unrelated priorities tend to intrude.

What things should a screenwriter do to maintain a career once they've gotten that first sale?

First of all, don’t stray too far from the kind of material you just sold. A long career will offer writer opportunities to reinvent themselves, and if your career stalls you may have to do it anyway. The second thing to do is make sure your next project is great. I like to tell writers that one good script is a fluke; two good scripts is a career. Hollywood is awash in writers who sold one script and then crashed and burned because their second script wasn’t great. Lastly, find your “voice” as a writer, but don’t fall in love with the sound of your own voice. The kiss of death in any career – writer or otherwise – is when you stop seeking out considered opinions because they tell you something you don’t want to hear.

How do you find new writers? What are you looking for from them?

I almost never seek out new writers. Working with new writers is a ton of work for me. No matter how much innate talent they might have, there is just so much they don’t know about the craft and the business. I don't try to avoid new writers, but I know plenty of experienced writers and I have no shortage of my own ideas and subjects for film and TV. When I do meet a new writer it’s almost always via a personal recommendation from a friend. Thereafter I need to see some seed of inspiration, and understanding of the craft, in their work. You can’t wing it as a writer, there’s too much you need to know. Read every good script you can, see every movie and TV show, know something about the history of cinema and TV, learn how to write clearly and effectively – then we’ll talk.


Ken and my book, The Hollywood Pitching Bible, is now available for purchase in print through Amazon, or as an ebook for Kindle and iTunes. You can learn more about the book at the Screenmaster Books website.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Two Ideas for Effective Networking

Over the last couple of weeks I have been to several different events that have offered me the opportunity to network. I've also observed some pretty painful attempts at networking at those events. (I am going to change the details of the stories to avoid embarrassing anyone because I don't want to get a reputation where people are afraid to talk to me at industry events!)

At one of the events, an industry party with several high level writers, directors and stars, I saw an aspiring feature writer approach a big TV showrunner. The feature writer was polite and complimentary, asked to take a pitcher with the showrunner, and the showrunner was happy to oblige. Then the feature writer said, "Can I tell you about the script I'm working on?" and without waiting for an answer launched into a decent elevator pitch.

I saw the TV showrunner immediately tense up. When the feature writer asked if he could send the script, the showrunner told him to contact his agent and made a beeline for the bar.

Realistically, what do you think the feature writer's chances of getting a positive response from that showrunner were? The showrunner doesn't know the feature writer at all and reading a script takes a couple hours. Besides, showrunners don't really buy feature scripts, so what's in it for the showrunner? And then there's the legal risk...

An elevator pitch is called that because of the idea that if you're on an elevator with a VIP, you have only a few seconds to sell them your idea. But in the real world you aren't going to sell an idea on an elevator anyway. You're just going to scare the VIP.

At an industry dinner that same week I was seated by a producer and an actress who were doing a web series for a big new web company. As I'm currently in discussions to direct a web series myself, I was very curious about their experiences with that company. I asked them several questions about their project that led to a bigger discussion about the future of web series and eventually an exchange of business cards. At one point the producer asked about the web series I was doing and I gave him my elevator pitch. But I never asked him to do anything for me.

This leads me to my first big tip for effective networking: ask smart questions.

I was asking the producer about his experience because I was genuinely more interested in the information than anything else. If you're an aspiring writer (or director or producer or actor for that matter), then when you meet someone established in the industry, think about what you could learn from them and ask them a smart question.

Don't ask something generic or self-serving like, "How do I get an agent?" Instead, ask them something specific and relevant about something they have done. (Of course it helps if you know something about what they've done - which is one reason keeping up with industry news is important.) And don't go in with an agenda to work up to pitching them your material. Just try to make a positive impression and then see what happens.

In some scenarios, an even better approach is not to ask them anything specifically about the business. For example, at a film festival, ask them what films they've seen. At Comic-Con, ask them what panels they've been to. Asking questions is a good way to start a conversation and starting a conversation is the best way to build a relationship.

Here's tip number two: send thank you notes.

I've been working this summer with Inner City Filmmakers, an organization to train inner city kids for film industry jobs. They have lots of guest speakers. The people who run Inner City Filmmakers always encourage the students to send thank-you notes after those events.

It's a brilliant idea. Ever been to a panel with someone you'd really like to talk to, only to have to fight through a mob of people afterwards to try to get ten seconds of their time while they're edging toward the exit? What if, instead, you sent them a thank-you note afterwards? Most people can be reached via their company or agent, and those addresses are easy to find.

The note is your chance to make an impression - but not to pitch your material. Comment specifically on something they said that you found enlightening. Make sure to mention what you do - "I think your breakdown of the relation between text and subtext will really help my own writing" - but keep the focus on them. It also helps if you made some sort of positive impression such as asking a good question during a Q and A period (remind them of the question and thank them for their response).

There's something special about sending an actual hand-written card. It would definitely make an impression. But if you can get an email address, that has a benefit as well since it's very easy for them to reply. And if you ask a polite follow up question, the chance of a reply will be higher. Most of all be patient and be grateful for any response you get.

Though I've given you two tips here, I really don't like to think of networking as a strategic thing. You'll notice both of these tips come out of an attitude of respect and good manners. And respect and good manners are probably the most important techniques for networking.


Next week I'll be posting my interview with producer Ken Aguado (The Salton Sea)