Thursday, May 28, 2015

Development Hell 2 - The Stages of Development

Development Hell is a series of occasional posts where I discuss the process by which an idea or spec screenplay becomes a movie either in Hollywood or in the independent world. Development is the bread and butter of the professional screenwriter’s life. This is the second post in the series.

When a screenwriter is writing a script on their own, on spec, they are not in development. Development starts when someone else gets involved in the screenplay. Today I want to look at the various stages and events that can be part of the development process.

Development almost never proceeds in a smooth, straightforward fashion. So though I’m presenting these stages/events in a roughly chronological order, often a project will move backwards on this list, skip steps, jump around, etc.

Free Development
Some might not consider this technically development, but it is often the first step in the process. Free development typically occurs when a producer (or sometimes a director or actor) finds a script (or sometimes a pitch or underlying material – see below) that he or she likes, but is not willing or able to pay to acquire it and doesn’t feel it is ready to take to a studio yet. The producer may offer to work with the writer, giving them notes to hone the material. Of course the writer may turn down this offer, and in many cases probably should – such as when the producer has no track record or credibility. But if the producer is established and has a good vision for the project, this can be a big opportunity for the writer. (All of the foregoing also applies to a director or actor who might want to work with the writer on some spec material – also see attachments below.)

This is the point at which someone acquires spec material or a pitch from a writer. An option is a temporary acquisition – the buyer has the exclusive right for a limited time to purchase the material (for more on what an option is, read this post). With a purchase, the buyer now owns the copyright. At this point it is the buyer’s project to do with as they like.

Underlying Material
If you look at the films currently in the theaters, you will discover that most movies these days are not made based on screenwriters’ original ideas. Instead, the producer or studio acquires some type of “intellectual property” – a comic book, novel, video game, play, etc. A writer is then hired to adapt that underlying material into a screenplay. This is also development and plays out very similarly to what happens to a spec script.

Development Drafts
Once a spec screenplay or underlying material is acquired, it is rare that the buyer immediately proceeds to production. Instead, they first commission new drafts from the writer to shape the material to the buyer’s needs and vision. Under WGA rules, the writer is to be paid for these drafts, but often they are pressured to do extra free drafts. This is a complex and nuanced issue beyond the scope of today’s post – perhaps I’ll cover it in the future.

Notes Sessions 
Before each new draft, the writer gets notes on the previous draft. These notes will come from the producer and development executives involved in the project, and may also come from a director or star(s) attached to the project. They may even come from a marketing executive. Notes may be delivered in person in a meeting, over the phone, or in writing. The writer is expected to address these notes in the next draft. (I’ll definitely go into more detail on this process in a future post.)

The Writer is Replaced
In Hollywood, it is exceedingly common for writers to be replaced by new writers on a project. There could be many reasons for this. Perhaps the current writer is not capable of fixing certain problems in the current draft. Perhaps the producer can’t figure out why the screenplay isn’t working and wants new creative input. Perhaps the writer and producer have different visions of what the film should be. Perhaps the writer is not a good team player. Perhaps the producer is not a good team player. In any event, the writer is fired and a new writer is brought on to do the next draft. Rinse, repeat, sometimes with more than a dozen writers. It may not be the best system, but it helps many writers pay their mortgages!

The Option Lapses 
As I mentioned above, often a producer or studio will option the right to buy a script for a particular period of time. If that time expires and they don’t acquire it (by “exercising their option”), the rights of the original script return to the writer. The rights to any drafts done while the script is under option do NOT necessarily go to the writer… that’s a more complicated legal question that depends on the wording of the contract and whether the writer was paid for those drafts. If the writer reacquires his script, he is free to start the development process all over again with a new buyer.

Turnaround is when a studio has actually purchased a screenplay but decides they no longer want to make the movie. Turnaround is actually a specific legal situation having to do with tax write-offs, though the term is sometimes used in a broader sense. When a project is put in turnaround, it can be acquired by another studio, but that studio would have to reimburse the initial studio for all development costs (this can be negotiated, of course, but usually it’s the full cost). Those costs can run to tens of millions of dollars if many drafts have been commissioned.

When a script is in development, other creative talent – typically directors and movie stars – may become attached. “Attached” often has a fuzzy definition. Sometimes it means a mere expression of interest; sometimes there is a contractual element with hefty financial penalties. But when a director or star becomes attached, they often become another participant in the development of the screenplay. In fact, it is not unusual for a major attachment to initiate a new creative direction for the project.

Green Light/Flashing Green Light
When a movie is given a green light, it officially leaves development. A green light means the studio has decided to make the movie and the project proceeds to pre-production. This is supposed to be a hard line, but sometimes projects get what is referred to as a “flashing green light,” meaning the studio is starting pre-production but might still back out of the project. Also, some producers claim something has a green light before it really meets that criterion. Even when a movie enters pre-production, however, development often continues with more rewrites. Sometimes the script is being rewritten even as the movie is being produced – usually not an ideal situation.

Going through these stages and events should give you a good idea of how the development process functions – and perhaps how it sometimes malfunctions. Next week I’ll dig more deeply into the players involved in the process, what they do, and what their concerns are. After all, if you want to be a professional screenwriter, you need to know how the game is played and who the players are!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Development Hell 1 – The Purpose of a Screenplay

Today I present the first in an occasional series of posts about screenplay development. The series is titled “Development Hell,” which is the industry term for when a project gets stuck in development – an endless series of rewrites are commissioned from one screenwriter after another, and yet no movie is forthcoming. It can, indeed, feel like you’re being punished for your sins.

If you haven’t experienced development then chances are you haven’t worked in Hollywood. If you are just starting out, there may be a temptation to bury your head in the sand and ignore this aspect of the business. And no wonder – it’s so much nicer to think of the pure creative process of imagining your dream movie on the page. But that also suggests why you shouldn’t ignore the realities of development. And that brings me to today’s topic.

There’s an obvious truism about screenplays that most screenwriters seem to forget at one time or another:

A screenplay is not a finished product.

No, a movie is a finished product. A screenplay is simply a step in the process of creating a movie. A screenplay that does not get turned into a movie is a failure by definition. Sure, the writer may learn something by writing the screenplay. They may get an agent and/or meetings using it as a sample. They may even earn money optioning or selling it. But the ultimate goal of any screenplay is to be turned into a movie… or at least that really ought to be the goal.

As writers, it’s easy to forget that the screenplay is not the finished product. After all, it’s usually the final thing we produce. We must remember that we are creating a plan for the making of a movie. This has certain consequences for our writing, some obvious, some not. For example:
  • We must write in proper format. Much of the weirdness of screenplay format is designed to aid production. For example, the production manager uses the slug lines to schedule the shoot. They need to have each scene identified by slug line so that they know how many pages are to be shot in each location. They need to know whether it’s an interior or exterior scene, and whether it requires a night shoot or day shoot (which is why you should not use things like “afternoon” or “3 p.m.” in your slug lines).
  • We can only write what can be seen and heard. Prose can tell us what’s going on in a character’s head or what they smell or what something feels like, but a movie can’t. We should only write what can be communicated on film.
  • More subtly, some things work better on the page than on screen and vice versa. For example, every scene looks the same in a screenplay – black words on a white page. But in the theater, we usually want visually interesting settings. Good screenwriters think about how the scene will look, not just how it reads.
  • Similarly, your dialogue must actually be spoken by actors. Something may read well but be very difficult to say.
  • Your decisions carry production implications. Every 100 words cost the writer the same as every other 100 words. But for the producer, the content of those words has serious budgetary impact. “He makes a sandwich” is not equivalent to “He blows up a bridge.” And producers have to worry about legally clearing things like hit songs or brand logos that screenwriters blithely write into the screenplay.
A screenplay is often compared to a blueprint, and that is really an excellent analogy. Just like an architect’s job is to provide the plan for the construction of a building, the screenwriter’s job is to provide the plan for the construction of a movie.

This does not mean you tell everyone else how to do their jobs, though! The architect doesn’t tell the electrician what kind of wire to use or the decorator what color the drapes should be. Those professionals bring their own expertise to the project. Similarly, the screenwriter should not be telling the director how to stage the scene or the cinematographer what kind of shot to use. This is why actors hate parentheticals like:

I hate parentheticals.

They want to decide how to play the line!

Instead, the screenplay should capture the vision of the final film to allow the other creative artists to make good decisions. You don’t describe each character’s wardrobe in detail, you provide a clear vision of the character and environment so the talented costume designer can create a better wardrobe for that character than you could imagine.

Many screenwriters get annoyed when their script changes throughout the production and post-production process. But this is actually what’s supposed to happen! You want all the other artists to bring their valuable contributions to the final product. Film is a collaborative medium after all. In the best cases, the rest of the creative team makes your work better. All too often, however, the opposite happens. But the solution is not slavish devotion to the screenplay.

So to review, I’ve discussed two major purposes for a screenplay:

One, through proper formatting, provide the basic technical information for the planning of the production.

And two, carry the vision of the story so that the rest of the creative team can make good decisions.

There is one final important purpose of a screenplay: Give the studio, producers and financiers a clear idea of what the film can be so they can decide whether they want to make it or not (and movie stars can decide if they want to play a part, and directors can decide if they want to direct it, etc.)

This is really what we talk about when we talk about development. Development is the process by which the movie is repeatedly made and remade on paper (or pdf) until everyone agrees it should be made on film – or until they agree it should remain forever on the page, never to be seen by an audience!

If you think of it that way, development is a good thing. Even though it often feels like hell.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Some Thoughts About Tone

Tone is a tricky concept. It’s something we all sense, but when we try to define it, it can get slippery. Most screenwriters approach it on an instinctive level. But sometimes that can cause problems.

Imagine a movie that followed a gritty, violent scene with a sentimental comedic scene. It would be jarring and distancing to the audience. It might even strain suspension of disbelief. On the other hand, you don’t want to be two one-note. A relentlessly depressing or relentlessly cheerful film will become tedious and wear on the audience.

I think it’s best to stake out a tonal landscape where your story will live. This will put your audience in a specific mood, which will help you land certain elements of your story.

I divide tone into three axes: Comedic to Dramatic, Light to Dark, and Fantastic to Realistic. Each is a range. Your story will probably fall toward one end or the other of each. You can visualize them as a three dimensional graph.

(Note that it is hard to represent three dimensions with a two dimensional image. Imagine the dark/light axis extending out toward you and back away from you.)

Comedic to Dramatic

People often talk about comedy and drama as genres, but they are really more of a tonal continuum. At one end is broad, slapstick comedy. As we move toward the middle we have wittier, character based comedy. When we get onto the dramatic side of the range, we first have realistic drama and move out to melodrama on the end.

Light to Dark

This axis relates closely to the rating of your film. Is it more toward the gritty and disturbing end, or more light and fluffy? On the dark end we have graphic violence and sex, and disturbing themes. Adult popcorn movies are mostly somewhere in the middle. On the light end we have children’s films.

Fantastic to Realistic

Some films live in the real world, the world we’re familiar with. Others are in completely fantastic realms. Between these poles are films that mix some fantasy into the real world.

Let’s place some specific examples at each corner of our three dimensional graph (the size of the dot/text indicates whether it is closer (larger) or farther away (smaller) on the dark/light axis):

Not every film is going to be at these extremes. For example, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial is not exactly realistic, but not as fantastic as Star Wars. So it might be in the middle on the realism range. And Imitation Game lands somewhere between Theory of Everything and Requiem for a Dream in the darkness scale, though like those films it is dramatic and realistic.

(In fact, even these movies probably aren’t at the very corners of the graph – Theory of Everything has some darkness in it and Sweet Home Alabama is probably not all the way to the left on the comedy scale.)

As you start considering where films fall on this graph, you might notice the most popular films are not evenly distributed. Movies that fall in the dark/comedic range (whether realistic or fantastic) tend to be niche cult films. I find hits tend to be light/comedic films (whether realistic or fantastic) or dramatic/fantasy films (whether light or dark).

MPAA ratings are not assigned based on tone, of course, but the things that get a movie a more restrictive rating tend to put a movie further on the darker end of the light/dark scale. This may explain why hits tend toward the lighter – a more open rating makes it easier to market a film and allows for a broader audience.

So how do you use this information as a screenwriter? First it might help you get a sense of how commercial an idea is. Place it on the graph and then try to identify movies that would fit in a similar area. Were they hits?

Second, it can help you identify scenes that might fall wildly outside your tonal range. If you are doing a light, realistic comedy, is a huge slapstick set piece appropriate? Is a rape scene appropriate? Note that tone can be pretty flexible (check out The Apartment for a light, realistic comedy with some very dark sections). But you must handle the transitions deftly.

Also be careful to set up the proper tone at the beginning of your screenplay. Once a certain tone is established for a story, it’s difficult to get the audience (or a reader in the case of a screenplay) to accept a significant shift in the tone.

Sometimes writers will put something into the early part of the screenplay specifically to establish where the tone might go. For example, the prologue with Trinity at the beginning of the Matrix establishes there are fantastical elements to a story that might otherwise seem realistic. The creepy scene where all the kitchen cabinets open in The Sixth Sense establish both a fantastical and a darker element in a movie that will otherwise take a while to get either fantastic or dark.

Where does your story fit on these axes? How far does it drift?

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Two Software Tricks for Screenwriters

There is a lot of software out there targeting writers in general and screenwriters in particular. I, like most professional screenwriters, write my scripts in Final Draft. And I use Microsoft Word for treatments, outlines, and the like.

Otherwise, though, I’m pretty old school. I like to make notes on paper (often I recycle the backs of old script pages for this purpose) because I like to be able to draw arrows between things, circle things, highlight and so on. There is probably software that would let me mimic that process, but I also like the tactile feel of writing on paper.

Sometimes, though, one finds little software tricks that make life a lot easier. Here are a couple I’ve discovered that you might find helpful:

Tip #1 Create a hyperlinked “bible” for your project.

Many projects require research that can generate a lot of information to manage (what is that thing the scientists use to sequence DNA called again?). Or sometimes the story generates data – characters, locations, etc. – that you need to track (what were the names of the crew of the boat the hero chartered back in Act One?). Science fiction or fantasy projects can require a tremendous amount of record keeping (what was on the coat of arms of the prince of the neighboring country?). It can be a challenge to access the information quickly when you’re in the midst of writing a scene.

Television shows have “show bibles” with all of the information writers need to write an episode of that show. I often create similar “bibles” in Microsoft Word for my scripts. For example, for a novel I’m working on now, a thriller about cold-water divers in Antarctica, my bible has the following sections:

Story Outline
Character Information
Ship Information
Dive Research
Antarctica Research
Scientific Research

Here’s the tip: I’ve discovered creating a hypertext linked table of contents can make quickly navigating the document a lot easier.

I use Word for Mac 2008 (don’t make fun of me – it works just fine). This is how to do it in my version of Word – if you’re running different software you may have to poke around a little.

First create bookmarks on all your section headings. Highlight the heading and then click Insert -> Bookmark. Then in the window that pops up, name your bookmark and click “Add.” Your bookmark can’t have any spaces, but it doesn’t really matter… it just has to be something you can associate with that section.

Then, create a table of contents by typing out all your section headings. Highlight each heading in turn and click Insert -> Hyperlink. Choose “Document” as the source of the link, then next to the “Anchor” field hit “Locate” and you should get a list of bookmarks. Select which bookmark matches that entry. I also do a “Back to Top” link at the bottom of each section that sends me to the Table of Contents (which I bookmark as TOC).

Now, if I need to go to Dive Research, I simply click that link in the Table of Contents and Word take me right there.

Once you get the hang of this it can be really powerful. You can add links within your outline to specific pieces of research that apply to that scene, for example.

Tip #2: Using Final Draft’s Speech Function to proofread

It can be hard to catch your own typos and spelling errors. When you read the work, your brain tends to subconsciously convert mistakes into what you meant. Using spell check and grammar check can help – and is highly recommended – but those don’t catch everything. If you misspell a word as a different word, spell check won’t catch it. You can – and should – ask a smart friend to proofread, but they will probably still miss a lot.

Final Draft has a nifty function you might not know about. You can have it read your script to you -- out loud! Under Tools, you can use “Assign Voices” to assign each character and the action/description to one of a small selection of voices. Then under Tools select Speech Control and click play on the box it brings up. Voila, Final Draft is reading your script.

The computer voices are pretty limited and don’t know how to act. But, they also won’t correct your mistakes. Typos and spelling mistakes will jump out at you when you hear them pronounced. It’s a great way to make sure your script is in tiptop shape before sending it out. And it’s kind of fun.

Got any software tips of your own you’d like to share? Post in the comments!


Check out my novella Aftermath: Kodiak & Dawn, currently available as an ebook.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Become a Prince in Another Land

A couple years ago I attended a Writer’s Guild retreat where J. Michael Straczynski spoke. Mr. Straczynski is known for creating the television series Babylon 5, doing runs as writer on the comic books The Amazing Spider-man, Thor, and Superman, and writing the movie Changeling. And that is only a sampling of his television, comic book, and film writing!

A major topic of Mr. Stracynski’s talk was his “Prince from Another Land” concept. He believes writing in different media boosts his career, because people are more impressed by accomplishments in a different field, one they don’t know as well. So comic book people are impressed that he worked in television, movie people are impressed that he worked in comic books, and TV people are impressed that he worked in film. The prince from another land is more impressive than the local prince.

Mr. Stracynski may have been prescient in his career approach. The screenwriting business is changing fast. When I entered it, there were firm walls – screenwriters didn’t work in television and television writers didn’t work in film. You picked one and if you were lucky enough to be successful, you stayed there. But today, many screenwriters are moving to television, and several television writers I know have made movie deals – and both are finding jobs in videogame and comic book writing.

There are many reasons for the shift. One thing that has broken down the barrier between film and television is the improving quality of TV. When I started out, television was considered creatively inferior to movies. Writing for TV was supposedly beneath screenwriters, and television writers were thought to lack the skill to write movies. Now, of course, most people regard television, on average, as creatively superior to feature films… and the wall has come down.

But there’s a bigger change at work here – a technological paradigm shift. Not only has the snobbish judgment collapsed, the divide between what is television and what is film is blurring. And you can add “web series” to that blur.

In the past, we defined media largely by delivery system. Television came in over cable or through the air to your TV set. Movies played in movie theaters (and then on television and DVD, but that was considered secondary). Anything on the Internet was a web series, something you watched on a computer.

But now we’re moving to a world where television series and movies are being created by websites like Netflix and Amazon – and winning Emmys. Web series are streamed to your television while television shows are often viewed on a computer. Widespread day-and-date releasing of movies in theaters and on-demand at home seems inevitable. And the new buzzword in movies is “story worlds” – a fictional universe that can generate multiple movies (e.g. the Marvel, Harry Potter, and Star Wars story worlds), changing the perception of what a movie story is.

So today, the difference between “television” and “movies” is simply whether something is serialized or self-contained. For screenwriters, it means that we must become increasingly versatile to sustain a career.

And that can be harder than it sounds. Narrative works differently when it’s serialized vs. when it’s self-contained. That’s another reason film and TV writers didn’t cross over much in the old days – their skill sets were different. Movies are all about beginning-middle-end. Television is all middle. Story worlds are a new form entirely – a world that can generate multiple self-contained stories that are yet interconnected.

Let me get back to the “Prince from Another Land” idea. You may have noticed another shift in the film industry. Almost everything is based on something else – a comic book, novel, videogame, etc. There have always been a fair number of studio movies based on underlying material (historically novels and plays), but now it’s newsworthy when a studio actually greenlights an original screenplay.

Television isn’t immune to this trend. Many recent television shows are based on comic books (Daredevil, Flash, iZombie, Agents of Shield) or movies (About a Boy, Fargo, Parenthood, the upcoming Rush Hour).

This is posing a challenge for newcomers breaking into the business and for established writers trying to reinvent themselves. It used to be you would do both of those things by writing a spec script. Spec scripts got a lot of attention and showcased what a writer could do. But the spec market is waning in the era of “underlying material.” It’s actually a little unclear how the industry is going to find new writers in the future. Specs are certainly still part of the equation, but it looks more and more like if you want to write for movies and/or television, you ought to showcase your skills in another medium.

To that end, I just self-published an ebook novella based on one of my favorite spec screenplay that was never produced. It’s an action-adventure story called Aftermath: Kodiak and Dawn. The logline is: After America is devastated by a deadly plague, a world-weary trucker who’s lost his family searches for a runaway teenage girl in a wilderness controlled by a gang of vicious hijackers.

It was an interesting process turning a screenplay into a novella. I’ve written prose before, but converting a screenplay to prose really emphasized the differences in the mediums. Much like the difference between serialized and self-contained stories, there are differences in the way film and prose function. It was sometimes challenging to deal with those differences – but also a lot of fun to try something new.

If you’d like to read the ebook of Aftermath: Kodiak and Dawn, it’s available for a mere 99 cents at Smashwords, Barns and Noble and in the iTunes store (use the search function from iTunes) – with more outlets to come. Let me know what you think!