Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Disaster in 3D for the Holidays

Face it, the most fun to read year-end stories are the ones that dump on all of the Hollywood movies that--if you'll pardon the technical phrase--sucked the big one.
And, oh, did 2010 provide some fine examples of just that. From "Valentine's Day" to the "The Last Airbender" to the truly atrocious "Birdemic."
The L.A. Times points out that this is an off-year for holiday films--few came to the screen in 2010. So it's with great joy that I kick the lifeless carcass of one of this year's holiday films that bombed at the box office and was duly loathed by critics: "The Nutcracker in 3D."
How could such a convergence of technological wizardry and classic storytelling fail, you ask.
Easy, it was made in Hollywood, baby. The place where they bet that the $55 million "Burlesque" was going to knock audiences on their asses.
While "The Nutcracker" does offer some perverse laughs: The Rat King, played by John Turturro in an Andy Warhol wig, for instance, the overall effect is better expressed with the words "grotesque" and "painful to watch."
Best advice: Stay home and pour yourself a big, big snifter of brandy in front of the fireplace.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Which Screenplay Contests Should I Enter?

Opinions vary greatly whenever the topic of screenplay competitions comes up.
One screenplay consultant I've talked to recently says contests are useless. The top screenplays chosen in any contest are just that: They're the best of the batch that were entered into the competition. Just because you're leader of the pack does not mean that your work is Hollywood worthy.
Another spokesperson, who not coincidentally happens to be a reader for one of the major screenwriting competitions, offered this sage advice in a recent forum:
"It depends what your goals are. Certainly Nicholl and Austin are two of the top competitions. I am a reader for one, and it is a very high bar with 4,000 to 7,000 entries, so make sure your script is perfect. Some will open doors for you even if you only advance to the second round. Nicholl top 10 are what interests decision makers. That said, there are many specialty competitions that may be better if you are in a genre such as horror or sci-fi, or even women. I can say this: It doesn't make a difference if you write a script set in say New Hampshire and then enter in the New Hampshire fest. A good script is a good script (period). It is a very subjective process of selection as is anything creative. If your funds are limited, I'd suggest getting a reputable script coverage done (at a reasonable cost) and then submit to one or two after making your script shine, instead of just entering the top 10 contests.
Do your homework too--are the prizes worth the entry? Do they offer feedback? Are the judges in your wheelhouse?"

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Royal Bout of Nerviness Bagged Rush


Screenwriter David Seidler, whose latest film, “The King’s Speech,” is being eyed as an Oscar contender, said the script first came to Oscar-winning actor Geoffrey Rush’s attention through unconventional—and perhaps unethical—means.
After Seidler failed to make contact with the Australian actor’s Melbourne office—The reception was “icy”—a Seidler associate took it upon himself to pop a synopsis of the script through Rush’s home mail slot. Seidler recounted being horrified to learn that the associate had broken protocol by approaching the actor directly. But six months later Rush was attached to the project.
Seidler made his remarks during a question and answer session following a screening of “The King’s Speech” last week at Los Angeles Film School. His film and TV writing credits include the Francis Ford Coppola directed feature, “Tucker: The Man and his Dream,” as well as animated films, “Quest For Camelot” and “The King and I.”
“The King’s Speech” tells the story of King George VI (Colin Firth), who is afflicted with a dreadful stutter. The King, known to family members as “Bertie,” gets help from unconventional speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).
Seidler himself developed a stutter at a young age, and as a child in England was directed to listen to the king’s radio addresses as therapy. The screenwriter developed a great admiration for Bertie. Through speech therapy Seidler overcame his stammer, but his soft spot for the king remained.
He first told the “King’s Speech” story in an unproduced play that he later rewrote as a screenplay. Tom Hooper (“John Adams” TV mini-series) directed the film.
Seidler says he always takes longer to write the treatment—up to three months—than the script, although it’s a common misperception that the treatment is quick and the script takes much longer.
When it comes time to write the script the treatment can fly out the window.“The characters start talking to you,” he said. “You’d better listen, because they’re smarter than you.”

Friday, December 17, 2010

You Deserve to be on the Hit List

The Black List is dead--the Hit List is where it's at.
Well, the Black List isn't exactly dead--it's still quite well read and influential. But following in its path, the Hit List provides a rundown of spec screenplays by promising unrepped writers.
That was the Black List's mission originally. But while most of the Black List scripts are in productions or are being flogged by major agencies, Hit List scripts don't have agents pushing them nor production deals in place. It's a list of some of the year's best undiscovered scripts that perhaps gives a wider perspective on fresh talent than does the Black List. In short, if you're an unrepresented screenwriter it's a list you'd want to see your name on.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Off With Their Heads at 'The Walking Dead'

 The entire writing staff of "The Walking Dead," AMC's series based on the post-apocalyptic comic book of the same title, has been given the heave-ho.
Word has it that they'll be replaced with freelancers. That's cause for both outrage and celebration, according to writer Ken Levine.
It's obviously bad news for the canned staff scribes, however it opens the possibility that some fresh talent will get a crack at the big time. And as Levine recalls, way back in ancient times (the 1970s), writers had to prove themselves by creating a spec script of a given series to get hired onto its staff. Maybe this house cleaning thing isn't such a bad idea.

Monday, December 6, 2010

To Move or Not Move to LA-LA Land

A question many screenwriters ask themselves is whether or not they should relocate to Los Angeles. While leaving Boise may initially sound like a sensational idea, the actual act of pulling up stakes and moving west may make you jittery.
Among the possible issues to examine are your ties to family and friends, the expense of moving and whether or not you're really committed to the craft of screenwriting. 
If you've completed a couple of polished scripts, have the financial means to start anew in a strange city and possess the overriding urge to get into the business, the answer is probably yes.
Some folks at Script magazine have tackled the question. They've covered some of the pros and cons, but as a whole, all signs appear to point toward an answer in the affirmative. If you want to make industry contacts and be taken seriously, you're better off facing the long odds in L.A. vs. the nearly impossible odds anywhere else, with the possible exception of New York City. However, bear in mind that New York's film industry is but a fraction of Southern California's.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

A Quote Worth Thinking About ...

"I have two tricks. One is that I write every day, regardless of whether I want to or not because as I just said, in a way I never want to write. It's not even an issue. I just write four pages a day when I'm working. I have a quota. A sub-set of that system is that I am a firm believer that bad ideas lead to good ones. When I am not inspired and I don't know the solution I will just type out the most banal solution and know that at least it's on the page and it gets me to the next story beat."
--Wesley Strick
("Cape Fear," "Wolf," "True Believers," "Arachnophobia") 

Amazon Studios: It's a Jungle Out There

One entertainment lawyer says that screenwriters should think twice before signing on with Amazon's production company: http://tinyurl.com/2bsschh

Actors Unions OK New Deal

The boards of the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists have approved a new three-year contract. The agreement must still be approved by a majority of the unions' members.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Jonesing for Another 'Mad Men' Cocktail

 I've been watching the first season AMC's "Mad Men" again. I say "again," although I saw only most of the first season when it was originally broadcast. Then, after the onset of this silly little recession, I shut off most of the more expensive (worth watching) cable channels. Fortunately, Netflix has "Mad Men" on disc, and I re-upped my subscription. Ever since, I've been taking in the series from the beginning.
And I'm hooked -- again.
As anyone who has been watching it knows, not only is the series' atmosphere intoxicating -- the amount of liquor poured during and after office hours aside -- but the writing is splendid.
Like the best feature screenplays, "Mad Men" not only presents great characters in the show's leads, Jon Hamm's tormented Madison Ave. advertising executive Don Draper especially, but even the fringe characters at fictitious Sterling Cooper Inc., take on more dimension than do most other TV dramas supporting players in six seasons.
Draper's initially mousy secretary, Peggy Olson, discovers her calling within the creative department shark tank of the Sterling Cooper agency.
Draper's young charge and nemesis at the firm, Pete Campbell, takes drastic steps in an effort to boost his profile at the agency.
And Draper's boss, Roger Sterling, has a revelation, perhaps too late, after his boozing and philandering drives him to the brink of mortality.
This is only part of the story, of course. I'm leaving out Draper's amazing family backstory as well as the supporting cast's personal lives.
I plan to watch all seasons available on DVD, and when I'm through, read the scripts. I recommend that you do, too.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Writing Gurus Tooting Own Horns a Sour Note For Some

Woody Allen
 Woody Allen famously stated, "Those who can't do, teach. And those who couldn't teach taught at my school."
Screenwriting teachers abound, not only in L.A. but most everywhere in the free world. And by "free world" I mean anyplace where you can get a laptop, a copy of Final Draft and a seat at Starbucks. A space at the ubiquitous coffee shop, with its now free Wi-Fi and unlimited supply of caffeinated beverages, is essential for aspiring screenwriters, you see.
The question many ask is whether anyone can really teach screenwriting. There are those who point out that most of the better known screenwriting teachers have never had any of their scripts produced. The doubters say that those who truly understand the craft and business are writing and selling their work, not lecturing and writing how-to books.
Fair enough.
But screenwriter John August, whose credits include "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "Charlie's Angels" and "Corpse Bride," offers a different view. In sports, some of the best coaches were unspectacular players during their on-field careers. However, they are able to bring out the best in the athletes whom they train.
The same may be true for screenwriting teachers. A good teacher may not have an impressive IMDB page, but just might offer insights that can help you write better scripts or improve the ones you're rewriting.
There are, no doubt, some who collect fees from aspiring screenwriters yet are unqualified to teach. The good news is that word gets around about scam artists--although perhaps not quickly enough to warn all potential victims.
If you're looking for an instructor, ask others who have attended lectures and seminars with those you're interested in learning from. Find out what they learned and how that particular teacher helped improve their work.
In all, simple word of mouth can be the best tool to help you sort out the sages from the charlatans.
What are your experiences with screenwriting teachers, good and bad? Write them in the comments section below.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Access Hollywood? I Don't Think So ...


The never-ending debate over whether or not screenwriting consultants are useful or just snake-oil salesmen with leased Maseratis won't be resolved anytime soon. As was mentioned here in previous columns, there are many willing to read your screenplay, give notes, and even, so they claim, provide access to producers, agents and stars who get movies made.
Getting notes on your script is fine. A knowledgeable story editor can help shape up a script, find weak points and zero in on places where character development and conflict can be punched up.
Those who offer access for a handsome fee, however, should be viewed with skepticism--even if a story editor does have access to some Hollywood power players, she can hardly offer to present your script, sight-unseen, to the movie-making elite. Here's the reason: The business's upper echelon only has time for the best of the best scripts. So, say your story editor presents your good, but not great, script to one of those Gods of the industry, who can green light a script, package it with a star and a director and secure funding. The script goes to one of the mucky-muck's underpaid assistants, who reads it and writes coverage. And when the coverage come back the likely verdict is: "Stink bomb." Well, both you and your story editor buddy are henceforth pariahs in that producer's office. You won't necessarily be banished from Tinsel Town, but a couple more stunts like that and you'll be asked to move to the Valley. So, a consultant couldn't possibly offer unconditional access without burning out his friendships in short order.
And in this town, friendships are more important than a few ill-gotten dollars swindled from some unsuspecting novice screenwriters.

Friday, November 5, 2010

It's All About the Craft ... Dumb Ass!


I was listening to an podcast interview the other day with screenwriter, screenwriting consultant and producer Erik Bork, best known for his work on the HBO miniseries "Band of Brothers" and "From the Earth to the Moon," and he said the most remarkable thing. It came at the end of a lengthy discussion with Pilar Alessandra, host of the weekly podcast, "On The Page." She asked him to give the audience a writing tip, and this is, in essence, what he said was: Concentrate on the craft of screenwriting and forget about marketing yourself. Keep trying to make your writing better. Be open to notes and criticism, and forge onward. Once your writing is good enough to reach a mass audience, Hollywood will come calling on you.
In a town where everyone is hustling a script, and there are consultants poised on every street corner who want to teach you how to break into the business -- for a princely sum -- these sage words struck a chord with me.
Could it be that you really can't expect to make it just because, say, you're related to an industry big shot, or posed as the pizza delivery boy and brought Steven Spielberg his Anchovy Delux with your script on top?
Connections will help get your script read, but if the script doesn't deliver the goods -- strong, proactive, clearly motivated characters, interesting conflicts and an ending that is surprising yet, in retrospect, inevitable, readers will recommend that their bosses pass on your script. And that's how it ends up in the Dumpster out back.
Attending networking parties, for some at least, is a blast. Often, the advice you hear is get out and meet people, make connections, and presumably, get ahead. That may not be a bad idea, but don't confuse attending networking parties with the real work of screenwriting. As yet there's no substitute for sitting before a blank page and working it out, page by page, scene by scene. That's where all the real self-advancement gets done.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Two 'Unknowns' Craft 'Megamind'


Former Emerson College roommates Alan Schoolcraft and Brent Simmons will this weekend see their seven-year effort to bring "Megamind," the new DreamWorks release, to the screen.
Previously unknown, screenwriters Schoolcraft and Simmons pitched their idea to Ben Stiller, and his Red Hour production company, and Stiller in turn pitched it to director Tom McGrath, whom Stiller worked with on "Madagascar" films.
Originally conceived as a live-action comedy, Dreamworks saw the story as ideal for animation. The voice cast includes Stiller, Brad Pitt and Will Ferrell. The story involves a super villain (Ferrell) who unexpectedly defeats his nemesis, a crime-fighting caped crusader (Pitt). After conquering good, the villain goes through a mid-life crisis.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Forget the Bull, Get a Bulletin Board

These days, scriptwriting software does almost everything for you--thankfully, so far, none of the top programs can pitch your scripts for you, take lunch at The Ivy or collect a 10 percent commission on your earnings. But give them time.
 Some screenwriting software allegedly, and I emphasize the word "allegedly," walks you through the process of constructing scene structure for a feature film script--holy Ishtar!
By far the most useful tools I've found, other than my Macbook pro, and Final Draft screenwriting software, are low-tech products that have been around since before there was any such thing as movies, let alone screenwriting software. It's the standard bulletin board, push pins and index cards.
This is not news to readers of Syd Fields and other screenwriting instructors. But for myself, it was a revelation after years of resisting the bulletin board. Turns out, it's a flexible, inexpensive way to plot out your entire script, and its most obvious advantage is that you can take in the entire story at a glance.
If you establish a set number of cards that you will post to make up a script--the standard being 40, at least for me--you can immediately tell what part of your story is missing and needs to be filled in.
Save yourself a lot of headaches by using these tools and you'll be amazed by how much easier it is to keep your story on track.

Friday, October 29, 2010

It's Good to get Black Listed


The Black List is an annual survey of Hollywood power players in which they pick the year's screenplays they liked best. It doesn't mean that the scripts are going to be produced, although many are either in pre-production or have been purchased. Scripts that make the Black List typically are read by major talent agencies and top producers. They're also a great read for anyone who wants to learn screenwriting principles--and they give you a clear picture of what kinds of scripts Hollywood is interested in.
You can download the 2004 to 2009 lists at the Official Black List site. Elsewhere on the Web, you can download all the 2009 Black List scripts in PDF format.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Roku to you, too, pal!


I recently bought a Roku box, the gadget that lets you stream some Netflix titles to your TV set. Now that it's hooked up properly it works well, but getting it to connect with the Internet was no easy matter. The Roku people say it takes just five minutes to set up the equipment--balderdash! For me it took a couple of days and three help-desk phone calls. I get my Internet via a Time Warner cable modem, and that may have been the snag. I read some online forums about others having Roku-Time Warner problems, and I called TW in hopes of straightening things out, but to no avail. Finally someone at Roku helped me get online and before I knew it I was streaming "La Dolce Vita," "Strangers With Candy" and "The Dick Van Dyke Show." Roku isn't the only game in town when it comes to Internet video streaming. You can also get online content on your TV if you have a Blu-ray player or an Xbox. Some folks in the forums say it's easier to hook up the latter two devices--I wouldn't imagine it's any tougher that sorting out the Roku.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Making Enemies at The Social Network

Whenever I sit in a nearly empty movie theater, a couple of people always sit directly behind me and talk. This happened the other night when I saw "The Social Network." Granted, it was a movie house on the Vegas Strip--the Strip being a place where the greater majority of people at any given time are drunk. I turned around and gave them a hard stare and shushed them until it finally dawned on them that there were other people in the joint, and they finally quieted down.
I would have expected a rowdy audience if it were a Kung Fu movie or anything with Sylvester Stallone--but at "The Social Network"?
Please, people, do your social networking after the film's over.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Social Network's opening scene takes place at my old watering hole, the Thirsty Scholar.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Bank of America pays fines for Countrywide execs who caused the recession: Hooray! The system works!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Cedars-Sinai has a TV channel of vintage shows. Almost worth it to be a patient.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Lookout is one of the best I'vew seen in a while -- Scott Frank writer/director.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Kiss Me Deadly is still one of the best noirs on film.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Digital ads on Calif. license plates -- because you can never have too many commercials.

Monday, June 14, 2010

L.A. Film Festival is coming up this weekend.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

FWD: Finished reading and reviewing screenplays for phase 1 of Big Bear competition.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Robin Hood is Robbin' the Ticket Buyers

Robin Hood is claptrap with medieval battle scenes. It's really not worth the 12 bucks--trust me.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Neo-Realism About Networking for Screenwriters and Others

Here are some networking tips from screenwriter and story development guy, Neo Edmund:
He began with no Hollywood connections, but attended a pitch fest in 2001, then interned at the pitch fest the following year.
Networking is not about "read my screenplay," it's about "friending." People who hang out and make friends usually do better. Attend a networking event a couple of times and people will usually ask you where you come from.
He spends time networking through Xbox, which involves chatting online and playing video games.
Nobody exchanges business cards anymore, it's all about Facebook.
He holds a once-a-month by-invitation-only networking event. A guy came with a knapsack full of scripts---he took him aside and told him that's not really the way it works.
How do you contact someone you connected with at an event but with whom you didn't exchange contact information? One word, "Facebook."
Follow up the next day after the initial meeting with a note saying, "Nice to meet you, this is what we chatted about, and hope to see you again."
If you do finally want to ask a contact to read a script, after a friendship connection has been made, Edmund suggests having a coffee date. Be easygoing and ask if the other would be willing to give you feedback. Oftentimes your contact will be glad to help.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Marie Osmond and Nutrisystem

Does anyone else find it eerie and slightly sad, not to mention in questionable taste, that Marie Osmond's TV commercial for Nutrisystem is on the air a scant two months since her son's suicide. The corker is her closing line in the advertisement. She looks at the camera, smiles, and says, "I never thought I could be this happy."
Although she likely taped the spot before the suicide, can't Nutrisystem give it a rest?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Las Vegas photos at the Pacific Design Center are cool retro 1965 stuff.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Supreme Court strikes a blow against the free Internet

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

3D the end for the movie star? Who needs them now?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The line to get into The Runaways screening was a tad too long, and yours truly was left out in the cold.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

In any case, Jason Reitman's growth, from Thank You For Smoking to Up In The Air is impressive.
Up In The Air somehow recalls the jouney of The Last Detail, an Ashby masterpiece.
Jason Reitman the new Billy Wilder? Maybe the new Hal Ashby instead ...

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Rob Long talked on KCRW about using a kitchen timer to help write scripts in 25 minute bursts--not a bad idea.