Friday, December 26, 2014

Interview with Simshar Writer/Director Rebecca Cremona

Shortly after I started teaching at Art Center College, a young woman from Malta named Rebecca Cremona developed a screenplay in my Screenwriting 1 class called Simshar. She went on to direct the film and this year it was Malta's official selection for the foreign film Academy Award. It's a terrific, moving tale about a maritime disaster against the backdrop of debate over immigration issues in Europe, and how the "little guy" is often caught up in political issues beyond his or her control. Rebecca kindly agreed to answer a few questions about the writing and making of Simshar for my blog.

Q: Simshar is based on a true story. It’s obviously dramatic, but what in particular drew you to this material?

Rebecca Cremona: I am very interested in how large political issues actually influence mundane life, so this fundamental link, which is intrinsic to the story, taps into a dimension I believe is very relevant in life. The story is also a manifestation of tension between tradition and change/progress - and in an increasingly globalized world and hailing from a very particular island, I find this theme too to be of great interest.

Q: What were some of the challenges of adapting a true story and how did you deal with them?

RC: There were many challenges but I would say the three main ones were: being respectful to characters based on real people who have been through extreme circumstances while simultaneously ensuring they are well rounded characters with flaws and all; sometimes fact is stranger than fiction and is just not believable, also sometimes amazing facts do not serve your story, character or themes and discipline is difficult but necessary; last but not least, when dealing with complex situations in little known parts of the world, a balance of giving enough context and not bogging down the story with too many details or too much exposition is essential.

Q: You’re credited as co-writer with David Grech. Tell me about that working relationship.

RC:Writing is such a personal, almost intimate process, so such collaborations are very delicate and can only be successful if people are on the same wavelength. After I had been writing for a couple of years I showed the screenplay to David and his feedback was so pertinent and really towards where I wanted to take the story, so we started a process where we would meet and discuss for hours and then after that I would revisit the script.

Q: This is an ambitious film for a first time feature director – you have refugee camps, a helicopter, multiple boats, a large cast including children, and of course it’s notoriously difficult to shoot on water. Did you have to make changes to the screenplay for practical or budgetary reasons?

RC: We tried very hard not to let those factors affect the story. However, as you say, it was very ambitious and, although together with the help of the team, the Maltese community and the expertise of our line producer we really maximized our resources almost beyond belief, there were times we had to compromise. For the longest time the opening scene was completely different and I wish we were able to keep it as it was intended originally as I feel it was much more effective. I think learning what and how to compromise is a big part of filmmaking, especially independent filmmaking.

Q: I love the complex thematic elements related to the refugees and how you manage to really justify everyone’s point of view and show how so many people are caught in no-win situations. Also, you aren’t heavy handed, letting the story drive the movie and using the immigration issues as a backdrop. How tough was it to keep that balance?

RC: I am so glad you felt that way. We put a lot of effort into that - lots of research not only in terms of reading up about the various issues and incidents but also by means of meeting the various groups of people - fishermen, refugees, soldiers...keeping the people in mind and prioritizing them over the issues was a good guiding principle to avoid being heavy handed.

Q: What did you learn about screenwriting from the experience of directing? Will you approach your next screenplay differently at all?

RC: Because of the emotional intensity and sometimes even the community specific jargon (for instance that of the fishing community) we sometimes derived the actual dialogue from selects drawn from a series of improvisations in rehearsals led by outlines dictated by the script. I'm particularly happy with those scenes and would love to work more along those lines in the future. Of course it depends on what the style of the story is and what access one has to the actors and prep time available...

Q: How has the awards season experience been?

RC: Incredible. Although we didn't make it to the shortlist it was wonderful to screen the film to the academy members and to be considered serious contenders together with some legendary filmmakers and really amazing films. Moreover, it was great to put Malta on the map as it was the first time the country participated. It also led to me getting representation with Management 360 which I am very excited about. So all in all a fantastic first time and I hope there will be others.

Q: What’s next for you?

RC: I have another story I am particularly passionate about and am working on the script for together with an American writer. I certainly don't discount working on films based on other people's scripts whilst the development for that is underway though. And although I am drawn to my country and the wonderful cultural specificity there, I believe that good stories are everywhere and I am happy to go where they are.

Thanks Rebecca! And for my readers, you can find out more about Simshar on the film's Facebook page and by following it on Twitter.

Friday, December 19, 2014

8 Truths for Building a Screenwriting Career

News flash: it’s very hard to break in to the screenwriting business. It’s equally hard to stay in it. There are many more talented people who want to write movies and television than will get the chance. The difficulty level can lead to mindsets that harm your chances of success. Here are eight truths that will help you avoid mental traps:

1. There is no “wall” between you and the industry, no secret password to break in.
For new writers it can seem like Hollywood is surrounded by a big wall, and they need to find some secret door to get past it. This can lead them to stalk industry insiders, or to try embarrassing gimmicks to get attention, or to fall prey to promises of, “if you just buy my product or seminar, you will be able to break in.” But in fact Hollywood is always on the lookout for fantastic new writers. Yes, you have to network. Yes, contests and pitch fests can help get you noticed. Yes, it will take time, determination, and a lot of rejection. But most people fail not because they lack access but because their material really is not yet as great as they think it is or because they don’t put in the required effort. So focus on creating better material and then getting it read, and stop looking for the “secret” way into the business.

2. It is always hard.

Two stories: After Sweet Home Alabama came out I was looking for a new agent via my manager. We were having difficulty getting agents to even read my new spec. I said to my manager, “Wow, I thought this would get easier.” She replied, “Oh no. It’s never easy. Get that out of your head.”

Second story: I got to have dinner with David Seidler (writer of The King’s Speech) at a WGA event. I asked him if winning the Oscar changed anything. He told me a story about going to a meeting (after the Oscar) where he thought he was being offered a writing job. It turned out he was competing against five other writers for the gig – four of whom also had Oscars. He said, “All that changes is you move to a higher level of competition.”

3. You need luck, but it will do you no good if you are not prepared.

Ask any writer how they broke into the business and their story will inevitably contain a moment where they got very lucky. It can make you think success is random. But here’s the thing – everyone who makes the effort gets those lucky breaks. And if you stick with it, you will continue to get even more breaks. The writers who succeed are those who are prepared when the opportunity comes – prepared with good material and professional work habits.

4. Stop blaming outside forces for your lack of success. Even if it’s true, it won’t help you.

You hear a lot about ageism, sexism, racism, etc. in the business. Statistics back up the claim that it is harder for non-white, non-male, non-young writers to succeed. But if this applies to you, you can’t use it as an excuse. Whining won’t change things. And it can be a trap – I’ve seen writers refuse to accept that their material needs work because they blame outside forces for their failure. As a result, they never improve. If the playing field is tilted against you, you really have only two choices: give up or work harder. (The same applies if you have dyslexia, a family to support, or any other reason you blame for your failures other than the quality of your material.) The reality is that it’s hard for everyone, even young white males.

5. It is a business. If you want to be a pro, you have to learn the business side.

If you want to write screenplays as a hobby, you can write whatever you want and not bother to learn about the business. But unless you are independently wealthy, your screenplays will then be doomed to remain unmade. If you want to earn a living at writing, and you want studios or independent financiers to pay for production of your movies, you need to take the business side seriously. You have to follow the trades, network, learn to pitch, learn to incorporate studio notes, etc.

6. Nobody owes you. You have to earn it.

Nobody cares how badly you want to be a screenwriter. They only care how good your material is and how professional you are. Fortunately, passion can help you become a better writer. But only if you don’t feel entitled to a career. Focus on proving that you deserve a career. Be humble, work hard, and be willing to learn.

7. Being selfish holds you back. Being nice, generous, and cooperative opens doors.

Ask not what your industry contacts can do for you, ask what you can do for them. You will need help to start and maintain a career in Hollywood. People like to help people that they like. So remember the golden rule and treat people as you would like to be treated.

8. Watch your back.

Despite the above, be aware that there are many people who will try to take advantage of you, including some straight up con men that prey on desperation. Don’t let that make you overly cynical or suspicious – that will hurt you as well. But do your homework on people. Make sure they’re who they say they are. And seek legal advice when dealing with contract issues. Don’t be afraid to say no if something feels creepy or unfair. It can be better for your career long term to turn down the wrong offer. 

Keep these truths in mind as you climb that difficult mountain that we call a career in screenwriting.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Mailbag: How Much Do Screenwriters Make?

Today I’m going to address a couple of questions that have been asked by blog readers.

Marilyn Thomas asked about the financials of a normal script sale (as opposed to a huge million dollar type of sale).

This is a tough question because there really isn’t such a thing as a “normal” script sale, especially these days. For the purposes of this question, we’ll assume it’s a WGA covered deal (an independent, non-union deal could be for as little as nothing up front in return for a vague back-end payment). We’ll also assume we’re talking about a studio film (i.e. high budget), and that we’re talking about a straight up spec sale.

You can look at the schedule of WGA minimum payments on the Guild website - it can be a little hard to follow, as it covers multiple time periods and budget levels. Currently the minimum (scale) for an original high budget spec sale is $93,257. Often your agent will be able to negotiate scale+10% for a new writer. To make the math easy, we’ll round off to $100,000

Typically, studios don’t purchase the script outright, they option the script (giving them the exclusive right to purchase the script for one year - if they don't you get it back and keep the option payment). A 10% option for one year with a renewal for an additional 10% is fairly standard. That means your option payment would be $10,000.

Of that, you’ll pay 10% ($1,000) to your agent, 10% ($1,000) to your manager, and 5% ($500) to your attorney, assuming you have all three. The Guild dues are 1.5% ($150). That means your revenue will be $7,500. Your tax rate will depend on a lot of other factors about your income, but let’s say it’s 25%. Fortunately the above commissions and dues are deductable, so taking 25% off $7,500, you’re left with $5,625 for the one year option.

If the studio exercises the option and purchases the script, they pay the difference between the option and the purchase price. That’s $90,000 more to you – minus $9000 to your agent, $9000 to your manager, $4500 to your attorney and $1350 to the WGA. That leaves you with $66,150, which, after taxes, comes to $49,612.50. There will probably be a few other expenses from that as well, such as for an accountant to handle your taxes.

Of course there’s lots of variables in there. Your option could be for more or less. The total price could be higher if there’s competition among buyers. But the market for specs is very weak right now. Bidding wars are rare and often producers don’t feel the need to option material because they aren’t afraid of someone else stealing it away from them, or else they option it for a token payment. Also, ideally you want to include a rewrite in your deal, which would add a minimum of $33,916 to the deal but comes with other issues.

Still, that should give you an idea of how a deal might look for a new writer working with a studio. The most important thing is to get experienced people to advise and represent you. You especially want a good entertainment attorney.

Now on to the second question:

David Bishop asked, “The usual wisdom says you should write within your wheel house to build a cohesive career. … You've blogged how Sweet Home Alabama was an outlier for you, and that created challenges when it took off. Could you talk about how overcome that challenge, or about what happened next?”

Today we refer to this as your “brand.” Successful screenwriters are typically associated with one type of film – a certain genre, and maybe budget level or style. There are big career advantages to this. You’ll build relationships with producers and execs who like that type of film. You’ll get called upon when they need someone with the skill set you’ve established. And it will be easier to keep track of the market and your competition.

One big advantage to being a screenwriter is you can change your brand simply by writing spec work of a different type. If you’re a horror writer and you decide you want to write broad comedy, just write a broad comedy spec and voila – now you’re a broad comedy writer.

However, you lose much of the clout from what you did before. Most of the producers and executives with whom you’ve built relationships writing horror won’t be interested in making a broad comedy. The few who are might read yours but they’ll be skeptical of your abilities since they only know your skills at horror. And broad comedy producers will not know you or your writing. You’ll be building your network again almost from scratch.

Furthermore, your agent or manager may not be interested in representing you for broad comedy (you should definitely discuss it with them before changing your brand). So you may have to seek out new representation. And since agents and managers generally want to see multiple scripts from a prospective client, that means you’ll need to write more than one broad comedy spec to prove your abilities - and your commitment to the new direction.

Essentially, shifting brands means starting over again almost as though you were a newbie.

After Sweet Home Alabama set records for a September opening, I got known as a romantic comedy writer with particular skills in writing female characters. It opened a lot of doors to me. I could get pitch meetings just about anywhere – as long as I was pitching romantic comedy. Most of my assignment work has been in that genre – just this year I got a gig to rewrite a romantic comedy.

But what I've always wanted to write is science fiction and adventure movies. Sweet Home Alabama was an unusual spec for me, something I did in school somewhat on a whim before I really thought about things like branding. I don’t regret it. I like being paid to write! But I decided a couple years after the movie came out that I wanted to do different things and set about changing my brand. So I wrote a new action-adventure spec. My manager at the time was very supportive, but my agents weren't. So when I finished the spec I started looking for a new agent. To my shock, about a third would not even read the action-adventure spec. "If he does a romantic comedy, we'll look at it," they'd tell my manager.

Fortunately, the agent I did sign with, Lew Weitzman, was very supportive of the new direction. With his help, I was able to do some new things. Unfortunately Lew passed away a bit over a year ago. My current manager understands what I want to do now… but he still frequently encourages me to reconsider romantic comedy. It’s just easier for him to sell me that way.

What I really need is for one of my newer scripts to get turned into a big hit movie. But that's easier said than done.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

How Original Is Your Idea?

Reader D Brian Weller recently asked me, “How can a writer know an idea hasn’t been done before?”

Of course this is of great concern to screenwriters. But the short answer is, you can’t, really. In fact, with tens of thousands of people out there writing spec screenplays, there’s a pretty good chance at least a few of them are working on very similar ideas to yours right now. Every movie that comes out inevitably gets sued by two or three people who are convinced the producers stole their script. The writers always lose those lawsuits. Always.*

I’m not saying nobody ever steals an idea in Hollywood, but in the vast, vast, vast majority of these cases, a writer simply couldn’t accept that someone else had the same idea as them. I guarantee you, no matter how original you think your idea is, at least three other screenwriters are working on something similar.

It can, of course, be pretty depressing than to be a few weeks away from finishing a spec only to read about a sale in the trades of a script with the exact same idea. Unfortunately it happens.

That said, you do need to make an effort to make sure there wasn’t a movie already made on your idea. There’s no quick way to discover this. However, you should be watching everything you can in the genre you’re writing. If you’re writing science fiction, you should be watching every science fiction movie that comes out and working your way through the catalog of science fiction movies on DVD. If you’re writing horror, you should be seeing everything horror you can. Also reading books and comic books and seeing plays in your genre. (This is one often unmentioned reasons to work in a single genre… switching around requires you to do considerably more homework and research.) I would also recommend using a source like Done Deal Pro to keep track of what has sold recently.

There have been so many movies made (and books published and plays performed, etc.) that there really are no original ideas anymore, at least not good ones. But the originality of an idea is a little overrated. You don’t want to have a logline that immediately brings to mind another movie, of course, but it’s really the development and execution of the idea that counts.

Sometimes it’s a matter of identifying what’s original in your own idea. The Hangover (written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore) is about a bachelor party gone bad, an idea that was also the basis of Bachelor Party (story by Bob Israel, screenplay by Bob & Neal Israel and Pat Proft). If you presented The Hangover as:

A raunchy comedy about a bachelor party that goes horribly awry.

It will sound derivative. What’s original is the search for the groom aspect. That’s the new element. So a better log line for The Hangover would be:

A raunchy comedy about five friends who go to Vegas for a bachelor party and lose the groom. The four groomsmen must retrace their steps and find the groom in time for the wedding.

You’ll notice that it’s the specific details that make the idea seem original. This may seem obvious when analyzing an existing high concept film, but I see many writers who don’t take the time to identify the core details that are crucial to the originality of their concept. They either make a generic log line (such as the first one above), or they overload their log line with non-core detail. But identifying the core, specific, original details of your idea will help ensure you develop your script to emphasize these elements. Spend time on this before you start writing!

Often good movies come from adding a twist to a common or even cliché idea. Alien (story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, screenplay by Dan O’Bannon) took the monster movie and set it in space. Frequently the best way to ad a fresh spin is through the main character. Bridesmaids (written by Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumolo) did the bachelor party comedy seen in movies like Bachelor Party and The Hangover, but made the main characters women. Suddenly a tired idea was fresh. Attack the Block (written by Joe Cornish) is about an alien invasion – something we’ve seen a million times – but the heroes are street thugs. How original!

In 1981, Dragonslayer (written by Hal Barwood & Matthew Robbins) made a cliché story idea of a hero rescuing a princess from a dragon fresh by making the hero the wizard’s inexperienced apprentice rather than the wizard himself. Twenty years later Shrek (screenplay by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio and Joe Stillman and Roger S.H. Schulman) told the same story but made the hero a grumpy ogre, a traditional villain in most fairy tails.

Die Hard (screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza) did both a twist on the genre and an unexpected main character. At the time, action movies were globe-trotting adventures with heavily armed, indestructible, superheroic main characters. Die Hard contained the action in a single location and gave us a hero that was unarmed, overmatched and bled when he was hurt.

But the bigger point is that Alien, Bridesmaids, Atack the Block, Dragonslayer, Shrek and Die Hard succeeded because they were good, at least in terms of what they were attempting to do. A good idea poorly executed will do nothing. So do your research, identify the original core details of your idea, and, most importantly, write well!

(If you’re interested in more on this topic, see this post on The Value of an Idea)

*You may be thinking of the Art Buchwald Coming to America lawsuit. He actually won breach-of-contract, not copyright infringement. He had a contract with Paramount that if they made a movie based on the idea, he would be compensated. Or maybe you’re thinking about The Matrix case. That’s a myth based on an inaccurate newspaper article. See:

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Hollywood Economist

I just finished reading the 2nd edition of the book, The Hollywood Economist by Edward Jay Epstein. It discusses the economics of the movie business – how studios finance and distribute films, how movie theaters make money, how revenue is divided and disbursed, why almost no movie ever hits profit on paper, and so on. Today I’d like to offer a combination book review and musings on some of the issues raised.

You may be wondering whether a book like this is worth a screenwriter’s time. After all, we’re not involved in things like financing and distribution. However, we are independent contractors, and I believe it behooves us to understand the industry in which we work. Moreover, the feature film business is in a period of radical change that will likely have a big impact on what kind of movies get made in the future. The Hollywood Economist is the perfect business-of-Hollywood book for a screenwriter because it discusses the economics in the language of lay people. (It also explains why you’ll never see any income from those net points in your contract.)

There are some problems with the book, however. First, it has a few unsettling errors, such as when it’s discussing the box office for Gone in Sixty Seconds. The movie grossed $242 million, which the book then refers to repeatedly as “almost half a billion dollars” when in fact it’s less than a quarter billion. This may seem minor, but when the subject is economics, you want the author to be a little more detail oriented!

The other problem, which is unavoidable, is the information becomes quickly dated. The first edition of the book was published in 2010; the second was published in 2012. Many of the examples and illustrations are from movies at least five years old. Much of the data ends at 2007 because it comes from reports published by the MPAA that were stopped at that point (more on this in a minute). That means that today much of the information is over seven years old.

Another example of the problem: updates for the second edition included Netflix and their move into streaming. But the book didn’t anticipate Netflix’s move into original programming, or that television would quickly overtake features in Netflix’s streaming business. What does this mean for feature film streaming sales? Even just two years later this book is too old to offer help. All of this is part of the fast-changing nature of the business right now, and any book will quickly become dated. How I wish there was an up-to-the-minute version of this information!

Still, you can learn a lot about the movie business from The Hollywood Economist. For example, you’ll learn that theatrical box office is a very small part of studio revenue these days. In 1980, theatrical accounted for 55% of a movie’s revenue, while in 2007 it had dropped to 20.4% of revenue. Meanwhile, Video/DVD rose from 2.2% in 1980 to a peak of 22.8% in 2004, only to drop to 17.9% in 2007.

This is one of those areas where the numbers stop in 2007 because the source was MPAA reporting that ended that year. I think it is very likely the MPAA stopped revealing this data because of the dramatic drop in home video revenue. The MPAA is in the business of promoting the movie business. This means they like to report the good news and avoid reporting bad news.

2007 was seven years ago. What’s happened since? A few clues come later in the book. At one point, Epstein notes that MGM’s net receipts from DVDs fell from $140 million in 2007 to just $30.4 million in 2010. Later he mentions that Time Warner’s home video revenue dropped 30% between 2007 and 2010. That’s not a good sign, particularly considering the book makes very clear how home video was the underpinning of feature film financing for the last two and a half decades.

Add in reduced income from pay TV as channels like HBO, Showtime and Starz focus more on original programming than features. The book notes that pay TV channels were buying half as many movies in 2009 as they were in 2005. Considering all this, we may start to understand why studios have cut back production so much in the last few years, and why the mid-budget movie has largely vanished.

The book traces the historically changes in the industry. Much of this you might be familiar with – how movies exploded in the twenties. How by 1948 two thirds of the U.S. population went to the movies at least once a week. How television destroyed that business model.

Here’s where Epstein makes an interesting point. After television upended the industry, studios found they had to create an audience for each movie. They did this through advertising. And that’s how teen boys became the primary movie audience. They were the easiest to reach because they clustered around a handful of TV programs. But today that has shifted – teen boys have become the most difficult audience to reach with advertising. And, I would say, the industry has been slow to react by changing its product to target different audiences.

Another interesting topic the book looks at from a unique perspective: the battle over day-and-date releasing. Epstein explains how, for a variety of reasons, it is in the best interest of the studios to release movies on pay-per-view and streaming at the same time they’re released in the theaters. This will, of course, hurt theatrical attendance, but that would be a small price to pay for the studios.

It would not, however be a small price to pay for the theaters. Epstein explains that theaters are really in the business of selling popcorn and sodas. He quotes a studio executive estimating that a 10% drop in attendance would cause two thirds of American theaters to go out of business.

A chilling thought for those of us who love seeing movies in theaters.

The book is an interesting read and a useful primer on how revenue flows into studios (and doesn’t flow to production companies and talent). Unfortunately, it only starts to address the issues of importance to the feature film business. We’ll all have to stay tuned to see how this plays out.

 Next week I plan to do a "mail bag" post where I answer reader questions. If you have a question for me, leave it in the comments!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

How to Survive a Notes Session

Before you become a working professional screenwriter, you are the master of your screenplay. You can – and should – solicit feedback, but you are not obligated to take any suggestions. Once you become a professional, however, that is no longer true. Professionals have to do notes sessions.

A notes session happens after a screenwriter turns in a draft of their screenplay.* After the various producers and executives involved in the project have read the screenplay – which will take much longer than it really should – you will either be asked to come to a meeting or participate in a conference call to get notes. All of the producers, executives, and in some cases possibly a director or even a movie star will then bombard you with ways you ought to change the screenplay.

These sessions can be brutal, and not just because a whole bunch of people are ripping apart your work. The truth is, many of the notes will be very smart and help your screenplay. However you will inevitably also get notes that do not fit your vision of the movie. Worse, you will frequently get ridiculous or contradictory notes. Also, producers and executives may have different visions of the movie from each other, and you’ll be stuck in the middle. Here are some tips for surviving a note session:

Accept the process. Film is a collaborative art form. Get used to it. If you won’t make the changes, they will replace you with someone who will. Do not expect your screenplay to be used exactly as you wrote it in the first draft. Commit yourself mentally to collaboration.

Be prepared. Bring a pencil and notepad or notebook to take notes on the feedback. Not taking notes can appear unprofessional. Taking notes will also make people hesitant to improvise new feedback, which is often what leads to the most bizarre suggestions. Also bring a copy of the script so you can refer to specific scenes or lines.

Remember the goal. Everyone wants two things: A good movie and a successful movie. But if a studio or producer is forced to choose between good and successful, they’ll pick success. That means you have to consider the business requirements and fit your art into those.

Don’t defend. It’s best not to respond to a note in the moment. Simply record the suggestions. This will give you time to process the feedback objectively. Something that seems stupid at first glance may actually be brilliant once you wrap your head around it. Or if not, there may be an underlying thought that is really valuable. The exception to keeping your mouth shut is if you don’t understand something – you should then definitely ask for clarification.

Never embarrass anyone. Most meetings are political for the people in the room. If someone makes a bonehead mistake – suggesting something that’s actually already in the script for example (it happens surprisingly often) – don’t call them out on it. You will make an instant enemy. If you challenge a bad idea, you force the person who said it to defend it. There are often ways to skip a bad note, but if you start a public ego contest with the person who gave it, you will end up forced to make the change. Which brings me to…

You don’t actually have to take every note. If you do most of the notes, you can reject a few. Say you tried it and it didn’t work and explain why. This shows that you did seriously consider it (and you should actually have considered it). Most producers and executives don’t expect you to follow every note literally, they actually expect you to take the notes and improve upon them! You ultimately may still have to do a specific note that you disagree with if the executive really believes it’s right.

If you get a note that doesn't work, try spinning it into something better. Remove what they objected to, but replace it with your idea instead of theirs. Then you’ve addressed the note, but not weakened the script. Always credit the note-giver for the inspiration. Again, most producers and execs will be happier if you find a better way to address a note than just taking their suggestion verbatim – that’s why they’re hiring you! (If you are particularly skilled, you might be able to pull off this redirection in the room.)

Take baby steps to get to your position. If you have a radical difference with a producer or executive on a story element, it may take time for them to come around to your point of view. Rather than fight to get your way right now – a fight you will probably lose – try moving them gradually to your idea. Give them time to get comfortable with it.

Remember, this is a business of personality. You have to figure out how the people you’re working for like to work. Some are happy to debate, some want you to do every note exactly as they say.

In the film business, the writer is the employee. That’s why you get paid! Like any job, you are under some obligation to tailor your work to what your employer wants. If you don’t, they can fire you and hire someone who will. But if you are a team player, they will come to trust you. And when they trust you, you will have more ability to shape the material the way you see it.

And not for nothing, you will also be happier if you embrace the collaborative nature of the filmmaking process.

*Note, even though it is not contractually required, screenwriters are generally expected to turn the script in to the producer first, get his or her notes, and then do an unpaid revision (a “producer’s pass”) before officially turning in the draft. This is good in the sense that you get some valuable feedback that can help you succeed with the draft. It is bad in that many producers have started abusing this process to get multiple free rewrites out of poor writers.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Let’s Schmooze Field Guide to the LA Screenwriter

This week I’m going to have a little fun. I have categorized the ten types of screenwriters I’ve met in Los Angeles. I’ve even been a few of them. Which one are you? (Don’t get insulted… if you’re going to survive in this business, you need a thick skin and a sense of humor!)

1. The Talented Temp – A rare form of screenwriter, skilled and talented who has yet to sell anything and typically supports him or herself by temping. Often the reason they have yet to sell a script is they insist on writing non-commercial stories or they have no interest in or knowledge of the business side of screenwriting. They are unaware of this failing.

2. The Un-Talented Temp – A common form of screenwriter, unskilled and untalented who has yet to sell anything and typically supports him or herself by temping. Sadly, they believe they are Talented Temps.

3. The Someday Screenwriter – Someone who plans to be a writer someday, when they have the time. Since they will never have the time, they will remain writers in their own mind. Someday Screenwriters often work in development, convinced they could do better than the writers whose scripts they read… if they only had the time.

4. The One-Idea Wonder – This screenwriter has been working on their first screenplay for over a decade. It is typically an epic passion project or coming-of-age story. They will be working on it for the rest of their lives. It will never become a movie because they will never finish.

5. The Imposter – This is an aspiring actor or director writing a screenplay for themselves to star in or direct, respectively. They mistakenly believe writing a screenplay is easier than acting or directing. Typically they write an incoherent first draft filled with spelling, grammar and format errors and immediately send it around to producers and executives. They are amazed when it doesn’t sell.

6. The Studio Hack – A regularly employed screenwriter with excellent craft skills who will execute any development note to the letter. They are typically the middle writer in a long chain of re-writers. They often wonder why they never get to work on better projects.

7. The Indie Writer-Director – an award-winning hyphenate writer and director of art house films. They actually make their living re-writing studio scripts under a pseudonym.

8. Charlie Kaufman – a brilliant, idiosyncratic artist who can break all the rules and still get his work produced. The industry allows one of these to exist per generation. If you’re name’s not Charlie Kaufman, it’s not you.

9. The A-Lister – The writer of one monster big-budget hit movie. They will then be continuously employed no matter how many bombs they write as long as they always book their next project before their current project is released.

10. The Has-Been – A once regularly employed screenwriter who has not had a job in over a decade. Typically working on a noncommercial, mid-budget drama spec about the Holocaust, the McCarthy era blacklist, or marital infidelity. Spends their non-writing time teaching screenwriting and bitching about ageism.

Doug Eboch wrote the original script for Sweet Home Alabama and is the co-author of The Hollywood Pitching Bible. He also teaches screenwriting. Yeah.

Check out the Kickstarter campaign for the short film Microbe.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Daily Habits of Successful Screenwriters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But not matter what, write every day.

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


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

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Three Techniques for Developing Complex Characters

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

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

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

1. Develop Them in Three Dimensions

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

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

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

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

2. Give Them a Contradiction

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

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

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

3. Give Them Plans

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

-John Lennon

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

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

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

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

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


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

Friday, October 17, 2014

Five Lessons from Making a Short Film

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Hollywood Conventional Wisdom Fails

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 3, 2014

Making a Good First Impression

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Tracking Character Through Preparation and Aftermath

(SPOILERS: Aliens, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Godfather)

One of the hardest things to do in a screenplay is to reveal the progress of the internal journey of the character – their “character arc.” Part of the challenge is that in many of the big scenes with significant plot advances, the character will either want to hide their emotions or won’t have time to have an emotional reaction. This is one area where scenes of preparation and aftermath can be particularly useful.

As you might expect, scenes of preparation are scenes that show the character getting ready for something. They give us an opportunity to see how the character feels about the upcoming event. Are they excited? Confident? Afraid? Determined?

Scenes of aftermath give the character a chance to react after a major event. We can see how they feel about what just happened. How did the event impact them emotionally?

The movie Aliens (story by James Cameron and David Giler & Walter Hill, screenplay by James Cameron) has two scenes that demonstrate this quite well.

First, we get a scene of preparation on the space ship before Ripley and the marines land on the planet. Ripley is briefing the marines on what she knows about the alien life forms. Ripley is clearly anxious and scared of the aliens. The marines are unconcerned, however, making jokes and goofing around. One marine confidently says she only needs to know one thing: “where they are” and them makes a shooting motion with her finger. At that point Ripley tries without success to convince the marines of the impending danger.

About halfway through the movie we get a scene of aftermath following the marines’ first, mostly unsuccessful encounter with the aliens. The characters’ attitudes are reversed. The surviving marines are freaked out, arguing about what to do next. But Ripley’s been in this situation before. She begins to take charge, coming up with a plan. Now the marines listen to her.

These scenes set up the characters’ expectations leading into the action and then show us the impact the action had on them psychologically. That in turn helps the audience stay emotionally involved in the story. It also illustrates progress in Ripley’s character arc – tentative and anxious initially, determined later.

This summer’s hit movie Guardians of the Galaxy (written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman) demonstrates the power of good aftermath/preparation scenes. After the team’s failure on Knowhere, we get a scene of aftermath where we see Drax’s devastation at being defeated by Ronan. Drax’s sole purpose was to avenge his family’s death, and he has failed. Without this scene, Drax’s storyline would lack emotional punch.

A bit later Drax, Rocket and Groot are reunited with Peter and Gamora. In another aftermath scene, most of the group is depressed, feeling like there’s no hope. They’re ready to give up. But Peter attempts to rally them with a new plan. At first there is skepticism, but eventually everyone comes around and commits. The filmmakers do a particularly good job undercutting the emotion with humor so it doesn't become too cheesy. But we do get the emotion, and we see how these characters, all self-centered loners at the beginning of the film, have become a team. Character arc.

Often scenes of aftermath become scenes of preparation for the next event, as in the second Guardians of the Galaxy scene. This also happens in the scene from Aliens after the marines are decimated. Once they come to terms with their failure, they start to make new plans: to take off and bomb the site from orbit. Of course if you’ve seen the movie you know those plans don’t work out so well either.

Scenes of preparation can reveal character in another way – by establishing the character’s plan for the upcoming event. Then, if the character does not do what was planned, it will tell us something about their emotional state.

There are a couple scenes of preparation in The Godfather (screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola) before the big set piece where Michael kills the rival Mafioso in retaliation for the attempt on his father’s life. First, we see one of the Corleone hit men giving Michael a gun and explaining how the hit will go down. He makes a particular point of telling Michael to drop the gun immediately after the killing.

That’s followed by a second scene of preparation where the family waits for a call that will give them the location of the meeting between Michael and the rival Mafioso. Everyone’s nervous, snapping at each other. At one point, someone suggests they should call the whole thing off – it’s too dangerous. After they get the call informing them the meet will be in a restaurant, they decide where the gun will be planted for Michael – behind a toilet. Michael is told to use the restroom and shoot his targets as soon as he comes out. He’s also reminded again to immediately drop the gun.

These two scenes serve several purposes. First, they tell us that this is going to be a dangerous mission and that Michael is inexperienced. Second, they tell us the plan so we can judge how well Michael’s doing as it unfolds. When Michael comes out of the bathroom, he doesn’t follow the plan. Instead of immediately shooting his targets he sits back down. We understand that he’s on the verge of chickening out – something we wouldn’t know if we didn’t know what he was supposed to do. Then after he finally does shoot the rival Mafioso, he forgets to drop the gun until he’s halfway out the door, reinforcing his anxiety.

There are additional uses for scenes of preparation. They can provide the audience with the information we need to appreciate the bigger set piece. They allow us to plant things that can be paid off in the later scene. For example, in The Godfather scene, we need to know the gun will be hidden behind the toilet so we understand what's going on when Michael retrieves it.

In both the outlining and the rewriting phases, be sure the character’s emotional journey is being tracked. If you’re losing focus on how the character’s feeling, consider adding a scene of preparation or aftermath.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Personal Journey: The 2nd Edition of The Hollywood Pitching Bible

NOTE FROM DOUG: This week, Let’s Schmooze will do something a little different. This blog entry was co-written with Ken Aguado, who is a producer and also my co-author of The Hollywood Pitching Bible. We wanted to talk a little bit about why we did a new edition of the book.

Personal journey: The 2nd edition of The Hollywood Pitching Bible.

When we wrote the first edition of The Hollywood Pitching Bible, we really didn’t know what to expect. We certainly knew that we were writing about a subject matter that was both incredibly important for Hollywood career longevity but also suffered from an incredible dearth of good information. We also knew from our teaching experiences how students struggled with pitching, and this gave us insight into the most challenging aspects of the pitching process. Still, when a new book is set free upon the world you never know what the reaction will be. The good news is that the book received uniformly positive reviews and the book is now required reading at several film schools around the country.

But nothing is ever perfect and we took the last year or so to listen to feedback in the hopes we’d eventually get it together to write a 2nd edition. We got a few requests to include more examples of pitches, and also some requests that we continue to develop some of our more unique and interesting ideas about the nature of pitching. More on that in a moment.

But first, a little recap:

The first edition of The Hollywood Pitching Bible came about when Ross LaManna (the Chair of the Undergraduate and Graduate Film Departments at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California) asked if we would help create a graduate level class in pitching. Ross, being an established Hollywood screenwriter and a bright guy, was deeply acquainted with the value of learning to pitch. He knew that, while many film classes can teach you how to write a script or operate a camera, understanding how to present your ideas (and present yourself) is where the rubber meets the road in showbiz. He knew that sending a graduate into the working world without knowing how to sell themselves and their projects is leaving them half-armed. In retrospect, Ross’ idea was pretty clever: take a Hollywood screenwriter (Doug) and put him in an arranged marriage with an experienced producer (Ken) to create a pitching curriculum that was able to explain pitching from “both sides of the desk.” Prior to that, Doug and Ken had never met. But it worked, and our first edition was the successful offspring of our combined knowledge.

Back to now:

The new edition of The Hollywood Pitching Bible was released in late August of 2014. We call it the “expanded second edition” because it has more content than the first edition by 50%. As mentioned, we dig even deeper into pitching, with many more specific examples of pitches. Maybe more importantly, we also greatly expanded some of the core components and unique principles we originated in the first edition – especially our ideas regarding how the process of pitching can help uncover and perfect the DNA of an idea. In this regard the book is much more than just a book about the verbal selling of film and TV ideas. We are solidly in the fundamental territory of screenwriting and storytelling. As far as we know, this is a unique aspect of our book.

In addition, we also expanded our coverage of reality programming and added more information about pitching from a director and producer’s perspective. We added many anecdotes from top Hollywood professionals about how they actually pitched and sold their projects that got made. All of these contributors did a stellar job and their stories are really illuminating. You can read some of them on the Hollywood Journal website. It is our sincerest hope that this will help make the 2nd edition of The Hollywood Pitching Bible a definitive and practical resource for years to come.

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Below is an excerpt from our section on creating a good log line. You will see how we use this element of a pitch to access the DNA of an idea. In this excerpt we discuss two of the six elements you need in a stand-alone log line.

Identify Your Protagonist. Who is the protagonist? In other words, through whose point of view is the listener experiencing the events of the story? Try to identify the primary aspects of the protagonist that matters for your log line. Referring to the protagonist merely as a “man” or a “woman” is almost never enough. It is often better to identify the protagonist by what they do. Is he or she a cop, a superhero, a doctor, a mother? But make sure your description is relevant to what comes later in your log line! In other words, if you describe your lead as a cop, and what follows is not a story that involves cop-things, there might be a better way to describe the lead. One other important thing – if your lead is under 18, specify the age exactly. Calling someone a child or kid is vague. There’s a big difference between a 5-year-old and a 12-year-old. But in general you probably won’t specify the character’s age in the log line unless their exact age is important to the story – for example, a story about a character’s first trip to Las Vegas at 21, or forced retirement at 65, etc.

Usually, the earlier you can identify your protagonist in your log line the better. So, “a resourceful scientist fights back when the Earth is attacked by aliens” is better than “after the Earth is attacked by aliens, a resourceful scientist tries to fight back.” Do you see how the first version keeps the primary focus on the lead? (If the aliens are the stars of this film – never mind.) You want your protagonist at the center of your story’s reason to exist.

You don’t need to give your protagonist a name. In fact, you should almost never give your protagonist a name in a short log line, unless they are based on a famous or real-life person – in other words, if your listener will recognize the name when they hear it. If your character’s name is something like Harry Potter, Noah, Santa Claus or Kermit the Frog, by all means let your listener know! This is a marketing decision.

If your story is told from multiple points of view - if it involves a group, or a team, or an ensemble - try to characterize the group. “A team of superheroes,” “a dysfunctional family,” or a “motley band of soldiers,” are all good examples. This usually applies if there are more than two central characters. If you were doing a story with two equal leads, such as a romance or a buddy story, each character would more likely be described individually. For example, “Notting Hill” would probably be described as a romance between a “British bookseller and an American movie star.” A typical exception would be for a comedy like “This is 40,” where the two protagonists might be collectively described as a “middle-aged, married couple.” Of course, some romances and buddy films have more than two leads, such as “Love Actually” or “The Hangover,” respectively. In films like these you will need to summarize the group in some way – “A cross section of Londoners” or “Four groomsmen.”

One last aspect of establishing your protagonist is the use of adjectives to enhance the description of them. In most cases you should choose an adjective that will help the listener zero in on the protagonist’s primary quality: “a lonely housewife,” “a reluctant superhero,” “a dysfunctional family,” and so on.

Adjectives can be a log line’s best friend if done right. Two tips for doing it right:

First, try to choose an adjective that confers a dramatic, dynamic, sympathetic, or admirable quality to your protagonist. You’re describing your lead, after all. This doesn’t mean your choice has to imply heroism or perfection. Flawed characters are okay, but there’s a huge difference between describing them as a “loser” versus “down on their luck.” The latter is much more sympathetic. Remember, the listener does not have the benefit of knowing all the complexity of your character that will appear in the screenplay. They will build their impression entirely on what words you use to describe them here.

Second, your choice of adjective must be relevant to the events or actions that follow in your log line. So, a lonely housewife finds true love, a reluctant superhero rediscovers his courage, and a dysfunctional family learns to live together. Do you see how these character descriptions and actions that follow compliment each other?

One last piece of advice, it is very easy to slip into some bad clichés with adjectives if you’re not artful. Some of the examples above come pretty close, but we chose them just for clarity. Use a thesaurus; find the best words, ones that are both fresh and evocative.

Protagonist’s Goal. Once we identify the protagonist, next we must articulate their main goal for the bulk of the story. What do they really want? So, for example, in the movie “Gravity,” the astronaut’s main goal is to survive a disaster and return to Earth. It’s not to repair the Hubble Telescope, although that is her initial goal. This is a crucial distinction. You must identify what drives the drama for most of your story. If your log line is for a movie, the protagonist’s goal should be the thing that drives the story for perhaps 90 minutes of screen time. If it’s a television series log line, it might have to help drive the stories of 60 episodes, or more! In almost all cases, the protagonist’s goal will be described with a verb – “survive” and “return,” in our “Gravity” example above.

Be careful when selecting the appropriate verb. Make sure it describes something that can be ongoing and sustained. Stay away from verbs that imply very transient things for the protagonist. Verbs like “discovers” or “realizes” or “decides” imply a very brief screen time, unless followed up with another verb that describes the protagonist’s actions after that discovery, realization or decision! It only takes a few minutes of screen time for the astronaut in "Gravity" to discover her space shuttle has been destroyed, but it takes the rest of the film for her to survive and return to Earth, so the latter is an example of what you want to capture in your log line. Also look for external, visual verbs. If you say your character “contemplates” something, the listener might imagine a movie of someone looking out the window pensively. Remember, film is a visual medium.

If you’re having a hard time identifying your protagonist’s goal it is probably a good indication that your story has some fundamental flaw. Once again, this is an example of how pitching can be a tool that helps you uncovers the DNA of your story, and make it better. This is a core principle of this book.

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The Hollywood Pitching Bible
is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, for Kindle, Nook, and at bookstores nationwide.

See more excerpts at The Hollywood Journal

Friday, September 12, 2014

When to Dump a Project

A few weeks ago I asked for suggestions for blog topics on Twitter. Marc Wobshcall responded with, “How many rewrites are too many. When to dump a project.”

It’s a complex question, so naturally the answer is complex. As long as you have an idea that can make the script notably better, you haven't done too many drafts yet. I did over 40 drafts of Sweet Home Alabama before I sold it.

Of course, this assumes continuing with the project is worth the effort. Sometimes it may be better from a career standpoint to just move on – such as when a movie with a depressingly similar concept to yours comes out. Also, note that I said “notably better.” I believe in polishing a script as thoroughly as possible before sending it out, but the reality is you can always noodle with a script. Eventually it’s just becoming different, not better.

I think what Marc’s really talking about, though, are those times when a script just isn’t coming together and you don’t have a clear idea how to make it work. It happens to most writers – it’s certainly happened to me. When do you give up?


Before I address giving up, let me discuss techniques for preventing this situation in the first place. I’ve noticed many of my students reach a point in the outlining phase when they get frustrated and just want to start writing the first draft. They’re imagining great scenes and dialog in their heads and want to get them on paper.

It’s a trap.

If you have a clear, well-defined idea of what you’re trying to do before you start that first draft, you’re less likely to run into a wall down the line, or worse realize three drafts in that you need to fundamentally reconceive your story or character. If your idea isn’t working in the outline phase, it won’t work in script form. It’s even possible there’s a fatal flaw in the underlying concept – in which case spending months or years writing drafts won’t solve the problem.

If you do have great ideas for scenes or dialog, my suggestion is to go ahead and write them down. And then get back to outlining.

I now develop all my ideas as pitches first, even if I plan to spec them. Then I try those pitches out on trusted friends to get their reaction. I don’t proceed to draft until I’m sure I understand the fundamental core of the story and character, and that those things are compelling and viable. A pitch helps you hone and focus your vision.

Hitting a Wall

Let’s say, though, that you do hit a wall. You know your script isn’t working but you don’t know how to fix it. Maybe you’ve given it to several people for feedback, and the feedback is contradictory or confusing or just doesn’t seem right to you. How do you know when to abandon a project?

I’ve thrown out two scripts after the first draft because I just didn’t like them. It actually was surprisingly easy to let them go. I felt no compulsion to keep working on them, and I had tons of other ideas. I also think many writers have a bad script in them that they just have to get out (for some reason these are often coming-of-age stories). So get it out and move on. There are no wasted scripts. Even if they don’t sell, you will grow as a writer by writing it.

If you’re feeling like your script is hopeless, I would recommend not thinking of it as “abandonment” but rather as “setting it aside.” I have several times gone back to troubled scripts a year or two later and discovered, with the aid of time and a better perspective, I knew exactly how to fix them. Other times I’ve gone back and realized the story was fatally flawed at the core level. Or that, though I could see how to fix it, I just wasn’t that interested in the idea anymore. It’s much easier to face (and admit) these facts when you’ve had some time away.

So if you can’t see the solution now, put the script aside and write something else. If you’re in this for the long haul – and that’s really the only way you’ll ever get a movie made – you’re going to write a bunch of scripts. You’re probably going to have to write a bunch before you sell your first one. Might as well start the next script. You learn something from every script, and sometimes what you learn will be the solution to an earlier project’s problem.

A caveat to this: I would not suggest abandoning a script in the middle of the first draft until you’ve got several scripts under your belt. In my experience, you will hit at least one rough patch on every project. You have to learn to push through those and finish. It takes experience to tell the difference between a tough problem and a fatal flaw.

I wouldn’t even really recommend abandoning scripts after the first draft. I believe in allowing the first draft to be bad. Writing is rewriting – rewriting is where you make stuff good. However, if you're three or more drafts in and you feel like there’s no hope, give yourself permission to move on.

Of course I’m talking here about spec scripts. When you’re writing or rewriting screenplays for assignments you kinda have to finish. But in those cases if you can’t find the solution they’ll probably fire you anyway, so the question of whether to move on will be out of your hands!


For information on how to find the core of your idea and build a pitch, may I humbly suggest The Hollywood Pitching Bible.