Monday, June 20, 2016

The Last (Regular) LetsSchmooze Blog Post

I started this blog in 2008 – that’s almost eight full years of weekly blog posts (with an occasional week off). This week, I’m bringing that streak to an end. It’s been fun and satisfying and occasionally wearying. Lately I’ve struggled to come up with new topics that are interesting and helpful. So I’ve decided to quit while I’m ahead (hopefully I’m not too late!).

The blog will remain online for the foreseeable future, so you can read older posts if you missed some. And I may still post here from time to time when I have something to say that doesn’t seem to fit anywhere else (I suspect I will continue to post my annual “Ten Best Written Screenplay” lists, for example). But I am letting go of the obligation to post something new every week. If you want to be notified when I do post, you can subscribe by email or follow me on Twitter (@dougeboch).

I thank those of you who read the blog loyally, and I’m especially grateful those who commented on posts, debated my ideas, or sent me notes of appreciation. It’s great to know that this effort was not in vain!

If you’d like more of my thoughts on screenwriting or the screenwriting business, may I humbly suggest my two books:

The Three Stages of Screenwriting

"I used to always recommend that new writers read Story as their first and most important introduction to the craft of screenwriting, but from now on, I’m going to recommend The Three Stages of Screenwriting."
-LA Screenwriter Review  
 The Hollywood Pitching Bible

“ ‘Bible’ is the right word. This is the Truth about pitching. Just do what it says.”
- Gary Goldman (Writer/Producer, "Total Recall," "Minority Report," "Big Trouble in Little China")

Sunday, June 12, 2016

"The 100" Controversy

(Spoilers: The 100, Person of Interest)

Today I am wading into the controversy about the death of a major lesbian character on The 100. If you’re aware of the controversy, you’ll know I’m pretty late to the discussion – but you’ll understand why I’m bringing it up now in a bit. Also, full disclosure: I am friends with the writer of the episode in question, Javier Grillo-Marxuach (though we haven’t discussed the episode or the controversy).

If you are unfamiliar with what I’m talking about, the CW show The 100 featured a lesbian relationship between its main character and another character. When the main character’s girlfriend was killed off in the middle of the season, there was an outcry from the LGBT community. The primary reason for the anger appears to be that there are so few LGBT characters on television, though there was also anger at the way in which the character was killed off (in a non-heroic manner immediately after the consummation of the relationship) and in the showrunner's cavalier handling of the uproar afterwards.

On the other side of the argument, it’s important to remember that this is a show where many characters – including heroic and well-loved characters – have died. And the actress who played the character, Alycia Debnam Carey, had taken a major role on Fear the Walking Dead, so likely the character was removed partly because the actress wasn’t going to be able to star in two shows at the same time for very long.

There is certainly good reason to complain about the lack of heroic LGBT characters on television, and about how many of them end up dying. There should be more heroic, happy LGBT characters on television who survive all the way through their series. My fear is that this goal could be jeopardized by the backlash against The 100. Here’s how:

I read an interview with some of the writers of Person of Interest a few weeks ago. The interviewer asked them about the lesbian couple on that show and whether the controversy from The 100 might cause them to avoid killing either of those characters. The writers sidestepped, but the question is a bit disturbing. It happens that the characters on Person of Interest weren’t originally intended to be lesbians. But the actresses had great chemistry so the writers decided to give them a romantic relationship. The trouble is, we’re talking about another show where main characters have died. If making those two characters lesbian takes otherwise valid plot options away from the writers, the writers might not make that choice in the future.

I’m writing this post precisely because I just encountered that in something I’m outlining. I have a married couple in my story. Initially I conceived of them as a heterosexual couple. But it occurred to me that my story could use more diversity. I looked to see which character or characters I could make gay, and I thought it would be cool to turn this couple into a lesbian couple.

The only problem is, one of them is going to die in the story. This isn’t because they’re lesbians – that plot decision was made while they were still a man and a woman. But now I’m wondering whether I should make them a lesbian couple instead. Will people attack me when one of the characters dies as they have The 100?

So The 100 controversy is discouraging me from putting LGBT characters in my story. And that’s not a good thing.

I also recently read a roundtable in the Hollywood Reporter that included Lee Daniels, who said that it offends him when White writers write Black characters. I certainly don’t want to speak for him, but in context I think what he really meant was it offends him when primarily Black cast shows have primarily White writing staffs. And I agree that’s pretty offensive.

But the way he said it – that it offends him when White writers write Black characters – feels like a warning to White writers not to write Black characters. And that would mean less diversity in casts, a bad thing. I sympathize with the frustrations of communities that have been traditionally underrepresented, but it’s important to couch those frustrations carefully. You don't want to turn characters from that group into a "third rail" that discourages showing them on screen.

As I said, there was more to The 100 controversy than just the death of a lesbian character. It could and should have been handled better. Let’s just make sure that we affirm efforts toward diversity and that when someone missteps we couch our criticism in a way that’s productive rather than destructive.

By the way, I’ve decided to leave the characters in my story lesbians.

Monday, June 6, 2016

What’s it Really Like to Be a Screenwriter?

Tens of millions of people dream of being professional screenwriters. Hundreds of thousands each year go so far as to actually write a screenplay or teleplay. But most have a very idealized idea of what it means to be a film or television writer. In this post I will attempt to give you an honest description of the life of a screenwriter.

Screenwriting is hard work.

Yes, being a professional screenwriter means you sometimes get to go to premieres and swanky industry parties and hang with movie stars. You get swag and invitations to free screenings. But most of the job is sitting by yourself writing. Often on deadline. You don’t get to write only when inspiration strikes you. Feature writers have to spend hours every day writing (though you can work in your pajamas if you like). If you work in television, you will go to the office every day and work long hours (pajamas are frowned upon in most television writers' rooms).

And, you have to do the business part of the business. You will have to go to a lot of meetings and pitch yourself and your projects. You will have to deal with things like complex taxes, health insurance, and contracts. You have to keep up on the trades and you have to network. This is true even once you’re successful – in fact, the more successful you are, the more time you’ll spend on business.

And this is a high stakes industry. Film and television is unbelievably expensive to produce. Most people in Hollywood genuinely want to make quality product, but the producers’ and executives’ main responsibility is to make product that turns a profit. People are not there to coddle your ego or help you achieve your artistic dreams. You have to have a thick skin, because if they don’t like something you’ve written, they will let you know. There’s too much at stake to worry about your feelings.

Screenwriting is entrepreneurial.

Many people think it would be great to work for themselves, but I find few people really have the temperament for an entrepreneurial lifestyle. Most film and television writers I know live in nice houses and drive decent, late model cars. A few have mansions and expensive sports cars. Many send their kids to private schools. When you work in Hollywood, you tend to get paid very well.

But you will be constantly scrambling to find work. There are far more talented, hard working writers than there are jobs. For feature writers, the typical contract period for a draft is twelve weeks. These days, most contracts only guarantee one draft. So you will generally be in need of a new job at least once a year. Often you will have to do many pitch meetings over months to get a paying job. Even screenwriters with long lists of credits find themselves without income for extended periods. It’s stressful. You can write on spec, but the spec market has always been a long-odds game, never more so than in the last few years.

If you get a job on a television show, you can probably assume you’ll be working for four months or so… as long as the show doesn’t get cancelled (and of course most shows get cancelled their first season). You will spend that four months trying to make yourself valuable so you get brought back for the next set of episodes. When you are fired or your show is cancelled, you will enter the high-stress competition known as staffing season. It’s like musical chairs where the majority of people don’t get a chair. It used to be not getting a chair meant a full year of unemployment. These days with cable and online networks doing year-round development, there are more opportunities outside of staffing season.

Bottom line, you have to have a high tolerance for risk and manage your personal finances well.

You will not have creative control.

It can be enormously satisfying to work in a creative industry. But do not imagine that you are going to write whatever you want and it will be shot exactly the way you say. In the feature world, executives, producers, directors, and stars get to give you notes on your script. If you are unable or unwilling to execute those notes, they fire you and find a writer who will. They may do that even if you do successfully execute their notes.

Writers have more power in television, but not all writers. All writers who are not the showrunner are there to serve the showrunner’s vision. The showrunner has final creative authority on everything. Except, of course, the showrunner also has to answer to studio and network executives. Showrunners have a lot of power, but not absolute power.

One advantage in television is that if you are on a writing staff and you write something, it will almost certainly be shot and put on the air within a few months. In features, even if you sell a script or are hired to write or rewrite something, the odds are that you will still never see it on screen. I don’t have a reliable source, but I’ve heard the statistic that only about one in ten projects at studios actually get produced.

I’m just going to do independent films.

Great! Make sure you have a job to support yourself. It is nearly impossible to make a living writing independent films. They generally pay little or nothing up front. You will usually make decent money if the film is distributed and is at least moderately successful, but fewer than 1% of independent films achieve this, and it will probably take 5-10 years from when you finish the script.

There are bigger budget independent films that do pay screenwriters decently, but these gigs are pretty much like studio gigs in that producers, executives, and directors will require you to conform the screenplay to their taste and needs. The advantage is that everybody is generally working toward higher artistic goals than the studios. But they still need to make a profit if they are to stay in business.

If you write independent films you should be aware that most independent film writers earn their living rewriting studio films (and often not taking screen credit to protect their artistic brand).

It’s not so bad.

If you do have the right temperament, being a film or television writer can be a great job. What is the right temperament? You have to be dedicated, hard working, and talented. You have to have a certain level of business savvy and salesmanship. You have to be collaborative, willing to compromise the right way to move a project forward.

If you’re not discouraged by what I’ve said, you may have the temperament to be a professional film or television writer. I wish you luck. With the right attitude, it is a great joy having something you contributed to viewed by millions of people. If things go well, you sometimes even get to see your vision achieved in a way that makes you extremely proud. And there are those premieres and parties and free movies to enjoy along the way.


Get The Three Stages of Screenwriting

"I used to always recommend that new writers read Story as their first and most important introduction to the craft of screenwriting, but from now on, I’m going to recommend The Three Stages of Screenwriting."
-LA Screenwriter Review