Thursday, July 30, 2015

Bridesmaids Analysis 1 – Concept and Character

(Spoiler Alert: Bridesmaids)

For the next few weeks I am going to do an in-depth analysis of Bridesmaids (written by Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumolo). Why Bridesmaids? First of all, it was a big hit, grossing $169 million in the U.S. on an estimated budget of $32.5 million (according to IMDB). It was also critically well received, scoring 90% on Rotten Tomatoes (and 87% from top critics).

But perhaps most important, it was the rare original screenplay to be produced by Hollywood studios in the new franchise era. It certainly didn’t hurt that it was written by a movie star (Kristin Wiig) and directed by a renowned comedy director (Paul Feig). But you may recall that when the movie came out, female-driven comedies were not considered viable in Hollywood. Bridesmaids laid the groundwork for movies like Spy, Bad Teacher, and The Heat to get produced.

I want to start by looking at the movie on a conceptual level. A while back I proposed “Five Questions About Your Story to Answer Before You Start Writing.” I’ve since added a sixth question to my list (“What is the character doing to achieve their goal?”) I’m going to begin this series by answering those questions for Bridesmaids.

1. Who is the main character?

A: This one’s easy. It’s clearly Annie (played by Kristin Wiig). Though the movie's title is plural, this is not really an ensemble story. We start with Annie’s story well before any other bridesmaids are introduced, and we stay with Annie when she’s at odds with the group. Rarely do the other characters get solo scenes, while Annie has many.

2. Why do we care what happens to the main character?

A: We see right up front that Annie is a woman who is down on her luck but doing her best to keep her lover and her best friend happy. She’s an underdog with a good heart. Moreover, as the story develops, we learn she’s a talented baker and we see that she puts a lot of thought into her plans and gifts for her best friend, Lillian. That best friend is also critical – we see right away that these two women rely on each other and their friendship is something we can respect and admire.

Annie certainly has flaws. At times she’s weak and at other times downright unpleasant and thoughtless. But she is given enough likeable characteristics that we want to see her succeed. We also want to see Annie and Lillian maintain their bond, a bond that will be threatened by events in the story.

3. What does the main character want?

A: Annie wants a lot of things – she particularly wants a good romantic relationship (her current lover is a selfish jerk) and money (she’s broke and unemployed). But the want that drives her through this particular story is “to succeed as Lillian’s maid of honor.”

4. What is the main character doing to get what they want?

A: Annie is trying to do an excellent job with her maid of honor duties, which include helping pick out dresses, throwing a shower, and throwing a bachelorette party. It’s important for the main character to actively pursue their goal. These duties give Annie something to do to “succeed as Lillian’s maid of honor,” something that is visible on screen that will allow us to judge her progress toward her goal.

5. What is at stake for the main character?

A: There are two big stakes for Annie: her best friend and her pride. Success means she keeps her friend and can be proud of herself. Failure means she might lose her friend and be humiliated. Big stakes mean the story matters. (I’ll look more in depth at how these stakes are established in future posts.)

6. What is the main thing that stands in the way of the main character achieving their goal?

A: Annie’s main obstacle is Helen, Lillian’s beautiful, wealthy, elegant new friend. Helen is the antagonist. And Helen has her own want – to become Lillian’s new best friend. This want puts her in direct conflict with Annie. This set-up is sometimes called “mutually exclusive goals.” Give two characters goals that are mutually exclusive and watch the drama emerge. Helen doesn’t have to be evil (though she does do some morally questionable things) for there to be conflict.

Note that Annie has some other obstacles as well – notably her lack of money and, at one point, her fear of flying. But there is one primary obstacle thwarting her success throughout the story: Helen.

As you can see, Bridesmaids has good, solid answers to all of my Six Questions. This tells us what the movie is on a conceptual level, which will help us analyze the structure and character development. And having this strong conceptual base helped the screenwriters craft a solid script, whether they verbalized the questions the way I do or not.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Three Traps to Avoid in Love Stories

(Minor spoilers: The Theory of Everything, Along Came Polly, Notorious, The Fighter, Sweet Home Alabama, 50 First Dates, Wedding Crashers)

Love stories are common in film. They are the A plot in romantic comedies, romantic dramas, and often in melodrama; and they are often the B story in other genres. But romantic storylines can be tricky. Here are three common flaws to watch out for – and ways to fix them.

1. The characters love each other because it’s a movie.

Too often filmmakers assume that if they cast two attractive movie stars, we will believe they are in love. Or in an action movie with a romantic subplot, the love interest may be the only female in the film so of course the hero will fall for her, right? But neither of those scenarios makes the romance truly compelling. You want the audience rooting for the two characters to be together, and for that to happen we need to understand why these people need each other. Otherwise it won’t feel like there’s much at stake in the romance.

Try asking yourself how each character makes the other better. Ideally, the characters fulfill some psychological or emotional need of their partner. One common approach in romantic comedies is the uptight guy who needs to loosen up and the free spirited woman who needs someone to ground her (Along Came Polly (written by John Hamburg) would be a good example).

In The Theory of Everything (screenplay by Anthony McCarten), Jane gives the shiftless Stephen ambition – at first to take physics seriously and later to fight his disease. In return, Stephen opens Jane’s eyes to the wonder and beauty of the universe. He’s drawn to her inner strength and she’s drawn to his brilliance.

In the classic Notorious (written by Ben Hecht), Alicia needs someone to believe she’s good at heart while Devlin needs someone to awaken his dormant emotional side. Devlin sees Alicia for who she really is – someone with a strong moral core despite her reputation, and Alicia’s passion brings out Devlin’s emotions.

Be sure to do this for both sides of the love story. I’ve seen some stories where it’s obvious why the main character would fall for the love interest, but not so clear why the love interest would reciprocate.

2. We spend Act Two watching them be happy.

There’s an old writing adage: Happy people are boring. For drama we need obstacles to the romance. This can take two forms: internal and external.

External obstacles are things like a rival suitor, social convention and competing interests. Social convention is a tried and true obstacle but is getting harder as society becomes more progressive. These days mixed race and mixed class romances are more accepted - good for humanity, bad for screenwriters. Arthur (written by Steve Gordon) is an example of a movie that managed to use class differences as an obstacle to the romance.

The Fighter (story by Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson & Keith Dorrington, screenplay by Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson) demonstrates a more unique external obstacle. In this case, Micky’s mother fears losing influence over him. She opposes his romance with Charlene because Charlene encourages Micky to do what’s right for him, even if it means disappointing his family. So the family fights back.

Internal obstacles come from the character needing to overcome a psychological flaw to have a successful relationship. Maybe it’s the womanizing hero who needs to give up his bad boy ways, or the workaholic who has to get his priorities straight. In Notorious it’s Devlin’s stubbornness and loyalty to his job.

In The Theory of Everything, the obstacle may appear to be Stephen’s disease (external), and that’s part of it, but the bigger challenge to the relationship is Stephen taking Jane for granted and not recognizing how much she’s sacrificing for him. Ultimately it’s not the disease that sends Jane away, it’s the lack of emotional fulfillment.

You can have multiple obstacles to the romance, but it’s usually smart to have one primary obstacle so the movie stays focused. If you’re working in a romantic genre, often the external obstacle is the A story and an internal obstacle will be the B story or vice versa. This adds complexity without diluting the focus. For example, in 50 First Dates (written by George Wing) the A obstacle is Lucy’s unusual form of amnesia, while the B story is Henry’s fear of commitment.

3. The obviously bad romantic rival.

One of the most common obstacles is the alternate suitor – known as a love triangle. But there’s a pitfall here. In order to get the audience rooting for one suitor over another, many writers make one good and the other bad. But if the choice is obvious and our hero or heroine doesn’t see that, we start to lose respect for them. In Wedding Crashers (written by Steve Faber and Bob Fisher), for example, Claire is with Sack who is such a jerk we start to wonder about Claire. Do we really want John to end up with a woman who would date a guy like that?

One solution that has become cliché is the rival cheating on the love interest. In this case, the hero and audience learn of the infidelity but the love interest is oblivious. This can work, but if the rival isn’t really good at hiding his philandering we’ll again wonder about the love interest’s intelligence.

This is where it becomes important to show why two characters are right for each other. You can have one suitor help the character be a better person, while the other suitor encourages their less desirable behavior. Neither suitor needs to be bad per se, but one is right for the character while the other is not.

This is what we did in Sweet Home Alabama: Melanie needs to reconcile with her past to be truly happy. Andrew represents a fantasy life that ignores her roots. Jake represents her roots but also her aspiration to something more. Jake is the right person for her, but first she will have to overcome the guilt and fear she has about her past. She will have to be honest with herself.

Great romances can draw out powerful emotion in the audience – as long as you avoid these traps.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Report from Comic-Con Part 2

If you read my last post, you’ll know that last week I was down in Comic-Con in San Diego. While there, I attended several panels of potential interest to aspiring screenwriters. I reported on a couple last week, and today I will cover some of the highlights of a few more.

Indie Comics Marketing & PR

I attended this because I am working up an idea for a graphic novel. Most of the content of the panel is a little off-topic for this blog, but one thing that I wanted to mention was this quote: “The thing you love is the thing that will resonate and sell.” Also fairly true in screenwriting.

Children of Tendu Live Podcast

If you’re interested in television writing, you should be listening to the Children of Tendu podcast by Javier Grillo-Marxuach (Lost, The Middle Man, The 100) and Jose Molina (The Vampire Diaries, Sleepy Hollow, Agent Carter). Javier and Jose did a live version of the podcast at Comic-Con. Some of the points they made:

If you get on a show, it’s important to know how to behave "in the room" (meaning the writers' room). Javier and Jose discussed the importance of not “stopping the fun train.” Your job is not to point out all the flaws in the ideas being thrown around. “Pitch, don’t criticize,” Javier said.

They also encouraged new writers to check their ego and learn on the job. Be patient – you don’t have to prove yourself the first day. It takes time to learn when to speak up and how to contribute.

Answering a question from the audience, they stressed the importance of moving to Los Angeles if you want to work in television. American television is written in L.A., no matter where it’s made. They acknowledged the financial risk this entails, but you can’t break in from out of town.

They also addressed the reality that your career will always have ups and downs. Javier said no matter what level you reach in the business, “You always feel like the train is leaving the station without you.” (I can attest to the truth of that sentiment!)

From Comics to Animation

The last panel I attended was a group of comic creators who had moved into animation. There was a lot of discussion of pitching on the panel. Johnen Vasquez (Invader Zim) said, “To me, pitching is just being in a room with people and talking about what’s a good idea.” Later, referring to the need to have a solid core concept, he said, “That’s why God invented log lines. If it’s a good idea, it’s right there.”

Executive and creator Reginald Hudlin (Black Panther) discussed the new trend of making pitch reels. He said you can sell something without one, but having something to look at makes it easier for an executive to pull the trigger on a project. He’s seen buyers push for creators to make pitch reels. However, there are some dangers. He’s seen people “go down the hole with it.” Conversely, he’s seen good ideas ruined by bad art or production. (My note: these days writers and especially directors in live action are increasingly being pushed to do pitch reels – and the same advantages and pitfalls apply.)

More on Publicity

As it happened, I had two friends who were at the Con actively promoting projects (this is in addition to those like my animation writer friends who are kind of always promoting their shows). One was James Murray from the show Impractical Jokers (watch it on Tru-TV!) and the other was Zack Lipovsky, director of Dead Rising: Watchtower (watch it on Crackle!). Both had publicists who were getting them on panels and into industry parties.

I bring this up because it does become part of your job when you are a creator of entertainment product. Publicists play a critical role largely invisible to the outside world. Sometimes the publicists are appointed by the studio, but sometimes it can be useful to hire your own publicist to help promote your career as an artist as well as the individual project.

Publicists aren’t cheap, though. So when should you consider hiring one? When you have a product launching in the marketplace, and ideally when you have a promotional platform like Comic-Con to leverage. You’ll want to start working with the publicist a few months before the release/event. But you only need them for a few months. You should have a specific idea of who you want to reach and why, and work with the publicist to figure out how to do that.

Hope you enjoyed this report from Comic-Con 2015.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Report from Comic-Con San Diego

Hi readers. I’m currently at Comic-Con San Diego (why this blog post is a little late).

In addition to being a whole lot of fun, a lot of entertainment business gets conducted down here. There’s a lot of networking - my con roommate, Eugene Son, now running an animated television show, got some of his early animation writing gigs from someone he met at Comic-Con. That’s why it’s important to go to places where the industry gathers to meet and talk to people, especially when you’re trying to break in. Not that I’m saying you have to go to Comic-Con specifically – unless you’re an established industry pro, it’s extremely difficult to get passes these days even if you want to go. But there are other events and festivals where the industry gathers – get out there! The other big aspect of Comic-Con from a professional standpoint is the craft and business oriented panels. I’ve been to several so far and I thought I would report the highlights of a couple.

Studio Production Chiefs Speak 

The first panel I went to had three studio production executives talking about the state of the business from a studio standpoint. They described their job as buying, developing and overseeing production of movies from nascent ideas through completion of production. But they also said there job is really one of advocacy. They fight for the projects they believe are good. Other takeaways:

They acknowledge the value of underlying intellectual property (IP). Executive Jim Miller said, with existing properties, “the fans are telling you what stories you’re going to tell.” They said original fare can get made, but there is budget pressure on original product. They also said for smaller projects, the executive is often pitching their vision to the writer, where for big projects they’re looking for a writer or director to come in with a unique point of view. Finally, it is important that someone in the creative process be a fan of the IP, not so much to protect it but because they will know best how to change it to make it filmic.

They agreed that these days they have to consider franchise potential for all projects from the get-go. From a business standpoint they always want something they can franchise. But creatively not every story lends itself to world-building, and not everything has to be a franchise. One of the advantages of working on tent pole projects for the execs is they know the movie will get made.

They said the greenlight decision is as much a creative one as a financial one. They do get financial models done, but since each film is so unique, the models are, at best, estimates. In the current media environment, the biggest question is, what is going to be compelling enough to get people to leave their homes and go to a theate?

Finally, Drew Craig emphasized the importance of passion when working with new talent, saying, “If they’re not writing from a passionate place, we won’t get a good script.”

Animation Showrunners Panel 

The group of showrunners (called Story Editors in animation – different than what a Story Editor is in live action), included my friends Charlotte Fullerton and Eugene Son. They spoke mostly about how to break into the TV animation business. Their advice really applies to breaking in to any part of the business, though.

They talked about networking horizontally. There’s a writers group that Charlotte allows to meet in her living room. At the start, none of the members of the group were in the business, but they’ve been breaking in one-by-one and then helping the others in the group to break in. That's the kind of networking that's valuable.

Another big point was, “Don’t be an asshole.” They said you need two things – good writing samples and a pleasant personality. The story editors are too busy to have to deal with a difficult writer.

They also stressed the importance of watching everything in the genre you write in. You have to know the tropes.

Finally, they acknowledged the difficulty of getting anyone to pay attention to you when you have no experience. But they suggested the internet can be a great tool. Producing a stand-out short piece that goes viral will get attention.

That’s it for now – I want to get back to the convention. I’ll report on more next week.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Interview with David Simkins

The Hollywood Pitching Bible, the book I co-authored with producer Ken Aguado, is now available as an audiobook. Screen and television writer David Simkins (Adventures in Babysitting, Warehouse 13, Grimm, The Lizzie Borden Chronicles, and many, many more) kindly read the book for us. So today, I am running a brief interview with David done by audiobook producer Pavan Ojha. Hope you enjoy!

Filmmaker and audiobook producer Pavan Ojha interviews screenwriter and show-runner David Simkins about the making of “The Hollywood Pitching Bible” audiobook.

Ojha: David, you’ve had a long and amazing career as a screenwriter and show-runner. Why did you agree to read the audiobook edition of “The Hollywood Pitching Bible”?

Simkins: The authors sent me a copy of the paperback version. I loved it. I thought it was a terrific and necessary treasure of insights and information that needs to be given every method of dissemination possible.

Ojha: Do you recall your first attempts at pitching when you started your career? And how important has pitching been in your career?

Simkins: I’d rather not discuss my first attempts at pitching. The pain and humiliation is still too fresh after all these years. Slowly, by trial and error (and working with a few folks much more successful at pitching than me) I began to get the hang of it. Pitching is a very important part of any storyteller’s career. It’s how I usually figure out what a story is trying to be by stumbling through a potential pitch with friends and family.

Ojha: Having read the book, do you have any insight or advice for people just starting out about how to approach pitching?

Simkins: Ken and Doug said it all better than I ever could. One thing I might stress (and it’s something they cover) is to be relaxed. Don’t fake it, earn it by knowing your material backwards and forwards. Keep it conversational, and find the humor where you can.

Ojha: You have a great voice. Did you ever consider pursuing something along those lines?

Simkins: When I was a teenager I was part of a locally produced television comedy sketch show. My voice had just changed (and I was listening to The Firesign Theater’s comedy albums in almost every waking moment) so I ended up as the announcer, using many different voices, in a lot of the bits. Only recently did begin to consider the possibility of doing voice work professionally.

Ojha: What’s next for you? What are you working on now?

Simkins: I recently did the narration for a documentary about the revitalization of Old Pasadena in California. I’m also working on season 2 of POWERS (based on a series of graphic novels) for Sony’s Playstation Network.


Thanks guys!

If you'd like to hear a sample of the audiobook, here it is: