Friday, August 29, 2014

Screenwriting links: Fri, Aug 29

My Scripts and Scribes Interview: I answered some questions about my writing background, agency assistant job and professional script reading experience.

Being Mara Brock Akil: The Creator Being Mary Jane Gets Some Shine [Written By]

Inventing the End of the World: Interview with Manhattan's Sam Shaw [WGA.org]

How 'Wild' Saved a 'Lost' Reese Witherspoon [Vulture]
"The ideas of what a woman can and can’t do on film have really changed, and I think that’s in great part thanks to wonderful female writers like Lena Dunham, who tell very honest stories and explore female sexuality without shame. Just recently, I saw Jenny Slate in Obvious Child — so great — and I love characters like that who are that unapologetic and realistic. Even Bridesmaids changed the landscape of what we can see a female lead doing in a film. I’m just excited to be a part of it. I’ve never seen a film like Wild where the woman ends up with no man, no money, no family, no opportunity, but she still has a happy ending."

Can Jill Soloway Do Justice to the Trans Movement? [NY Times]

Writers Are Scared: Interview w/Geena Davis [Makers.com]

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What to expect in Black List and Nicholl Fellowship reader comments

Joshua Caldwell over at Hollywood Bound and Down has posted two comments he received from Nicholl readers and one comment from a Black List reader. Definitely check out the post if you're considering submitting your script to either place.

I was shocked by Comment 2, which came from a Nicholl reader. It's more personal than analytical, containing phrases like "Normally I want to run for the hills as soon as I see a script set in the Middle East. I have no patience or interest in them usually," and "This was a solid script, and even though it's not my cup of tea per se, I really did enjoy it...and that should say something."

Nicholl Comment 1 and the Black List comment were more specific and professional, but I find myself wondering: would these notes help you in a rewrite? By design, these comments are more like the ones you'd see in coverage for a studio, production company or agency. They indicate to other industry professionals if the script is worth reading; they're not crafted to be tools for writers trying to imrprove. That's not a bad thing -- but it's something to be aware of.

The Black List aims to find excellent screenplays and connect them to people looking for excellent screenplays. It is most helpful to writers whose scripts achieve a very high score (8-10), and founder Franklin Leonard has been candid about how lower-scoring scripts will probably not be discovered by industry pros on the site, telling writers, "If you're not finding traction for your script on our site, stop giving us your money." Similarly, the Nicholl aims to find the very best screenplays written by non-established writers. In 2013, it received  7,251 entries and will select only five fellows.

So here's where it gets tricky for writers: if you get a low score, especially one accompanied by comments that indicate that the reader read the script very quickly or didn't seem to "get it," should you rewrite the script based on these suggestions? And for the Black List, should you pay another $50 for another read? On one hand, the first reader is just one person with one opinion -- maybe another reader would feel differently. But on the other hand, your sense of hope is encouraging you to shell out more money, and you could get caught in an expensive cycle. "The thing is no two readers are alike. You may pay to have several pro readers provide feedback on your script and each may have a differing take on it," writes Scott Myers at Go Into the Story. "This could end up confusing you, providing no clear path through the rewrite. So there are dangers in getting too many assessments."

I know writers who have gotten evaluations containing typos, incorrect loglines, incorrect story information/key facts, etc. But on the flip side, I know writers who got thoughtful ones. Some have even found reps and launched their careers because of the Black List.

The Black List only pays its readers $25 a script, but does at least encourage writers to contact customer service if they feel their evaluation was too rushed. From their FAQ: If you believe the reader did not thoroughly read your script, reach out to us outlining the reasons you believe so with any specifics from the review. Note that ratings themselves, whether high or low, are not an indicator of a bad review. We want to make sure that all scripts are given a thorough and fair read. Any factual inaccuracies, for instance, will be taken seriously. But we try to separate valid opinions from clear misreadings of the script.

Ultimately, if your script is in great shape, the Nicholl and the Black List might be able to help, especially if you need access more than you need notes at this point in your career. In an industry that's nearly impossible to break into, they offer rare opportunities. Maybe I'm biased because I offer notes to writers too, but if you receive an low score and evaluation you agree with, you'll probably want to rewrite the script -- and I'm not sure these types of brief comments will help you do that.

Monday, August 18, 2014

When to give up on the entertainment industry

JR writes: I've been an appreciative reader of your blog for a couple of years (love it!), throughout which I also worked in NYC television and film development and production as a production assistant. I originally went into the industry because I was in love with the idea of doing something for a living that was grounded but involved creative decision-making. My ultimate pipe dream job: be Jennifer Lee.

I left the industry about a year ago because I didn't even see my bosses making any creative decisions; they were coordinating logistics and playing to the lowest common denominator audience desired by advertisers - basically what I was doing, but for more money and under more pressure. The long hours didn't leave me time to do any of my own creative work, or to have any kind of social life, for that matter. For the last almost-year, I've been doing some teaching and soul-searching (aka the ultimate pastime/disease of our generation). I'm not happy teaching, and can't quite shake my vague TV/film dreams as I watch former coworkers move up and become "accomplished."

Do you know anyone who left the industry with similar frustrations? How did they find creative fulfillment and pay their bills? As a Hollywood insider, have you heard any solid advice on grappling with this? As I see it, I have three options: 

1) Kill the dream, find something else to do with my life and continue to write email stories for my friends.

2) Stay in the industry, keep paying my dues, and hope the right opportunity comes along someday.

3) Find a flexible day job and do as much creative work of my own on the side as I possibly can. 

I completely understand what you're going through. Working at a job you don't like can be soul-crushing, especially when you're not making enough money to build savings. The only reasons for a writer to stay at a low-paying entertainment job are to learn about the industry and to make important connections who can help you get a better job, buy or produce your material, represent you, etc. If none of these things are happening, it's time to quit the job and find a better one. You mention that your former co-workers have moved up, but in what way? If your dream is to be a writer or writer-director, it's not necessarily worth your time to try and get promoted in development or production. If you do want to work in these areas, as you've found, it can be a long and political struggle. I'm afraid I don't have much specific advice for that, except that you have to find a job in a place where there's room for advancement and where your bosses like you and actually want to promote you. I do think, though, that after a year or two in the industry, you need to have a specific goal (writing, directing, producing, etc.). Yes, there are lots of people who do multiple things, but if you're hoping for a kind of amorphous "success in entertainment," that might be a problem. You say "grounded but involved in creative decision making" (is that development?), but then you mention Jennifer Lee, a writer-turned-writer-director.

Yes, I've had some development friends leave the industry for good because it just wasn't working out. I'm not sure about their creative fulfillment; I feel like they were people who liked movies and TV but weren't as creatively obsessed as my writer friends. It's certainly possible that you could find a fulfilling career in another industry...maybe teaching just isn't it? Meanwhile, I know writers who left their industry jobs but still pursued writing careers. They work as babysitters, tutors, Apple Store geniuses, translators, receptionists, baristas and delivery drivers, but they all hope to quit these jobs and Just Write someday.

You've already kind of answered your own question with the answers you've laid out. If you decide that becoming a screenwriter is too challenging, maybe you've reached the end of the road and now you just need to find an outlet for your creative urges -- like the emails to friends you mentioned. You can also blog, take writing classes or make videos, but with no hopes of this hobby resulting in a professional career. Maybe being part of a book club or attending panels and screenings would be fulfilling, too -- or maybe they'd just make you wish you were still in the industry. I don't know. Only you can answer the question of whether creative hobbies will be enough for you.

If you decide you want to continue to pursue a screenwriting career, then you need to choose whether to find a day job in the industry or outside of it. But if you do get another industry job, you can't expect it to magically turn into a writing career. "Hope the right opportunity comes along" sounds a bit passive. Even if you're working in entertainment, you need to be doing creative work of your own on the side. I left my agency day job not because I couldn't write in the off hours, but because I had learned everything I was going to learn, had made valuable connections, and could find a better salary pretty much anywhere else. If your new job is simply too exhausting, you might decide to leave the industry once you've made some connections, because you need to find time to write. Did you really put in the effort with your writing? How many scripts did you write? Did any industry professionals ever give you feedback? Did you ever try to apply to a writing program or fellowship? Have you ever tried directing or producing a short?

Then comes the hard, endless part: monitoring your success and continually deciding to persevere (or give up). I've had to find comfort in small achievements, reminding myself that 2007 me would be impressed with little things like getting a manager, finding a producer to develop with and getting hired for an assignment. These intangible milestones have made me think I'm not totally crazy to believe I can do this. But if a decade goes by and I'm still writing script coverage about hookers and teaching grammar to teenagers, maybe I'll change my mind.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

What's the difference between an average script and a great one?

Ed writes: As you’ve read and evaluated scripts, are there common ingredients missing in a script that is good but not good enough to go anywhere? Are there characteristics you notice between a script that’s OK and one that’s oh-my-God-I-have-to-see-this-made!

This is a great question -- and it's difficult to answer. You're onto something with the idea of the "oh-my-God-I-have-to-see-this-made" script. On a practical level, your script needs to be something that will make the reader take action. A script that will make them write "Consider" or "Recommend" in coverage, forward it on to a boss or other person who has the ability to take the script to a buyer, buy the material themselves, or represent the writer. If your script doesn't make a reader do one of these things, then they didn't love it that much.

A reader friend of mine said that after ten years of reading over 10 scripts a week, he only remembers about 15 scripts. I feel similarly; sometimes I'll be asked about a script I read two days ago and I'll have to re-read my coverage because I can't remember anything about the script. Unfortunately, most scripts are forgettable. Fine. Standard. Mediocre. So that's step one: you need to write something memorable.

I know that might sound intangible and unhelpful, but that's because impressive scripts are memorable for all different reasons. A script might have a really unique main character or point of view, laugh-out-loud dialogue or a high-concept, unusual premise. But the common theme in all of these things is originality. Most of the scripts I read feel a lot like all the other scripts I read (or movies I see). Most scripts have nothing new, fresh or different about them. They present characters who are just like every other character, dealing with the same things you've seen a thousand times before. They go through all the plot points you expect, with no real surprises or turns. Nothing that makes you think, "I've never thought of that" or "I've never seen that before." One of the challenges of screenwriting is working within convention and structure without resorting to the cliche, formulaic and expected.

Another difference between OK and great scripts is polish. Great scripts feature action and description that create mood and atmosphere along with dialogue that sticks in your head. Don't miss any opportunity to show off how well you can write. When people read your script, they should feel like they're experiencing a great movie -- but you don't have the advantage of the actual visuals or performances, so your words on the page need to convey everything: emotion, atmosphere, intensity. Is reading your script an experience?

Keep reading professional scripts and you'll see the difference. Also, if you're working to make your current script better, the problem might be in the concept itself. You can polish characters, dialogue, etc., but if people don't find the premise memorable or original, it may be time to move onto another idea.