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

Taking the "Bull" out of Bulletin Boards

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.