Monday, December 21, 2009

What to do with your specs, and the job market

Sasha writes: How many TV specs should I have? And what should I do with them when I'm done? On the one hand, I think I need more time to learn how to write a good TV script, but on the other, I don't really know what I'll do with all those scripts when I'm done.
Patrick writes: I'm not sure what to do with my spec once it's completed. I was wondering if you could give me some advice on the next step. Is there an address I can mail it to? Or is there some sort of middle man I need to go through first?



Dan writes: A writer writes a couple of spec scripts, an original pilot and a feature. And the writer is from out of town. What next? Does the writer approach an agent in L.A.? How should that be done?

Please read this post on spec scripts first, and this post about the "next step" after finishing a pilot.
Patrick - you do not "mail" specs anywhere. Eventually you'll probably want to send them to a fellowship or workshop like ABC or WB (links at right), or possibly an agent or manager you've made a connection with. (They're the "middle men" you'll need to get your work read by producers and executives.) Step one, though, should be asking some trusted friends, professors, etc. to read your script. A first draft is not ready to be entered in a contest or sent to an agent or manager.

There is no hard and fast rule about how many specs to have. I recommend writing a spec before tackling a pilot for the education of it, but since specs A) are really only needed for the ABC and WB programs, B) will become obsolete quickly and C) do not show off your personal voice as much as pilots, I would move to writing pilots at some point (unless, like Sasha said, you feel like you want to keep writing specs for practice and improvement). If you've got a great spec idea, go for it. Same with pilots. I think it's important always to be writing something you're passionate about. And if someone loves your pilot, they're not going to hate you for not having a spec. Good writing is good writing.

Lots of people find themselves in the situation of not knowing what to do with their scripts. This is why I recommend moving to LA and getting a job in the industry so you can start meeting the kinds of people who might want to read your scripts and possibly help you get representation. You can try writing query letters to agents and managers (from anywhere), but I don't think you're going to have a ton of luck. Read my thoughts on that:

A query about querying
About querying, again
Querying managers?

If you refuse to move to LA, your options are pretty much limited to querying and entering fellowships/workshops/contests. I'm not saying people never achieve success this way, but know that you're limiting your potential for success, and that all the thousands of aspiring writers in LA have an advantage over you.

Another way to end up staffed on a show (or to get the chance to write a freelance episode) is to be a writer's assistant or showrunner assistant. These jobs are extremely competitive and often involve being a PA or agent's assistant first, but they are time-tested paths to TV writing. I know a few people who have gotten to write episodes of produced television this way. These assistants also have the invaluable benefits of being in a writer's room and learning how it all works, and befriending experienced writers who can offer advice and possibly refer them to agents and managers.

Sasha also writes: I've put off moving to LA because of what I hear re: the horrible job market. Are you seeing a turn around? How's it going in terms of assistant jobs out there? I know I'd probably need to do a couple internships before landing anything regardless, but I'd like at least the hope of a job after the first few months.


Unemployment in California is above 12%, and it's probably worse in Hollywood. I do think I've seen a bit of an improvement in the last six months. I see job postings all the time, and I know that some companies have lifted their hiring freezes. But there still aren't a lot of people getting promoted, which means there aren't a lot of assistants moving up the ladder and offering up their positions to new people. Still, think about all the shows that are in production. They all need people to work on them. But does that mean you'll be able to get a job? Maybe, maybe not. It is EXTREMELY competitive. It has always been difficult. Read this post for more about this. My best advice is to save a few thousand dollars before coming out here, and to be prepared to get a non-industry job if you have to. And yes, getting an internship is usually the first step, since that will help you make the connections.

Here's the thing: there is no set path that equals success. You need to write something great and get someone important to read it (and like it). But that could (and probably will) take years, and everybody has a different story of how they did it. Uncertainty is something you just have to get used to if you want to pursue a career in Hollywood.


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Sunday, December 20, 2009

My Favorite Movies of 2009

12. Precious
I loved that Clarisse ("Precious") experienced so much hardship but refused to be a whiny victim. I was so prepared for the heaviness of this movie that I was pleasantly surprised by all the moments of lightness ("my favorite color is fluorescent beige..."). Don't get me wrong - it is an intense movie - but the acting is fantastic. I loved that the big moments were saved for last, and loved Mariah Carey's understated performance.



11. The Blind Side and The Proposal

What can I say? 2009 was the year of Sandra Bullock. Neither of these movies ignited any passionate fires inside of me, but I left both theaters smiling.




10. Up
Pixar movies are just plain fun, which I think we sometimes take for granted. They're also incredibly touching - and clever. The dogs? Kevin? Hilarious.







9. Inglourious Basterds
This movie had the best villain I've seen in a LONG time, played by Christoph Waltz. The perfect example of a bad guy who thinks he's the good guy in his own story.





8. Away We Go
Some of the supporting characters were a bit too kooky for me, but I loved watching the adorable central couple (John Krasinski and Mya Rudolph) in their search for a perfect family. Extra points for depicting a pregnant woman in a way besides morning sickness. Also, Chris Messina absolutely blew me away.



7. Public Enemies
I think this movie got a bad rap - but I really liked it! John Dillinger was a such an interesting character that I had to keep watching.





6. Up in the Air
I didn't love it as much as I loved Juno, but this was a touching and entertaining movie. You kind of forget you're watching George Clooney, and that's pretty hard to do.




5. Julie & Julia
From blog to blockbuster! The real-life story makes me happy, and I thought the parallel journeys of these interesting women was fun and original. To quote Modern Family: "They could cast Meryl Streep as Batman and it'd be the right choice."




4. The Hangover
Hands down, this is the movie that made me laugh the most this year. The investigation element added a fun new element to an otherwise simple comedy, and each member of the cast was perfect. My favorite line: "I keep forgetting about the Tiger."


3. An Education
This film really blew me away. The story is incredibly simple, but it's told in a rich and compelling way and I was completely thrown by the twist. Carey Mulligan absolutely deserves all the buzz she's getting for playing a teenager who may not be as mature as she thinks, and Peter Saarsgard is powerful and enigmatic. The film balances comedic and serious moments as it maneuvers through endless shades of gray.



2. 500 Days of Summer
I love anything that subverts a genre and messes with expectations. It's a romantic comedy...that isn't exactly a romantic comedy. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is irresistible, the characters are incredibly well-drawn, and the nontraditional ending somehow still leaves you feeling satisfied. Plus, the music is fantastic - and there's an adorable dance number!





1. Fantastic Mr. Fox
I've always loved Wes Anderson, but even if you're not a huge fan of his tragic comedies and quirky retro aesthetic, I think you'll still be impressed by the cleverness of and whimsy of this Roald Dahl adaptation. It's a fun adventure that's thoughftul, touching, and downright funny. My favorite detail: using the word "cuss" in place of "f---." Example: "What a clustercuss!"


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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Decembering

Sorry I haven't been updating so much. You guys don't seem to be as quizzical as you used to! Feel free to send in any burning questions.

I've actually spent the last couple days in the writer's office of an upcoming network drama. I'm just filling in for a writers' PA who went home early for winter break, but it's been very cool. The writers are all so nice! They've all introduced themselves and asked me my name. And remembered it! I like writers.

(But the food! My god, the food. If I ever work on a show full-time I will gain 100 pounds.)

You might be interested in this interview with Josh Olson, whom you might remember from his famous diatribe, "I Will Not Read Your F---ing Script." A lot of us are pretty far away from adapting or rewriting the work of others, but I think he makes a lot of good points about the stories we choose, and how different people will respond to different things. It's always important to think about what your story is ABOUT on a deeper level. Trust? Fear? Identity? Commitment? Power?

Another interesting news item is that cancelled show The Beautiful Life will get a second chance on the internet. I always like seeing how the internet can affect the industry in new ways.

Coming soon...some thoughts on my favorite movies and TV episodes of the year. What are you guys reflecting on?

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Friday, December 11, 2009

2009 Black List

The 2009 Black List is here!

UPDATE: And now, for the full roster from Nikki Finke. I've got a lot of reading to do... But I already know I love #17, BOOKSMART! Probably my favorite script I've read this year.


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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Blogging tips - and your internet presence

By now I bet most of you have read the John August vs. Scriptshadow debate. I won't say too much about it since I think it's been exhaustively debated, but I did think this response from Craig Mazin was thoughtful.

I think there is another lesson to be taken from all this, though: be careful about what you put on the internet. It's incredibly easy to blog and Twitter and everything - and it's also incredibly easy for people to find whatever you've put out into the world.

We all know that you shouldn't post a million pictures of yourself smoking pot on Facebook and keep them public for potential employers to find - but it gets more complicated than that. I try not to badmouth people or things on here, partially because I don't really think I am successful enough to have the authority to do so, but also because of the Google effect. Let's say I get a meeting with a showrunner or something, and she types my name into Google, and this blog pops up. If she finds a post in which I totally bashed some pilot she did, she's probably not going to have a very good impression of me. Sure, not everybody will Google you - but some people will, and I think it's important to be aware of what comes up when people search for your name. So before you write that post about how much some show sucked, ask yourself if it's really necessary. I'm not saying we shouldn't all have our own critical opinions, but talking film over coffee with a friend is different than broadcasting your views on the internet. Is it going to help you at all? Sure, we can learn a lot from bad movies and TV shows - but we can also learn a lot from great ones. Personally, I like to focus on Things I Love.

There's also the issue of anonymity, which came up as people revealed Carson's real name. In the beginning of this blog I stayed partially anonymous, not revealing my company or my last name, obviously to keep my job but also because I didn't want the company associated with the blog if they didn't like it. I always thought very carefully about what I was writing - no company secrets, no name dropping, no badmouthing.

Some people do choose to blog completely anonymously, but I'm not sure that's the best way to go. First off, your identity may be revealed at some point, by no fault of your own. And second, if you're going to put so much time and energy into a blog, don't you want to get credit for it? Don't you want people to find it and be impressed with you? Sure, you could always post an email address and have people get to the real you that way. But I think that if you're going to blog, blog thoughtfully - and proudly put your name on it.

I have gotten a few queries about how to have a successful blog. Here's my take on that:

1. Have a clear focus. Very few people can write about a ton of different topics (or just chronicle their lives) and be compelling. If you pick a specific topic, then you'll be more likely to attract readers because they'll know exactly what they're getting. Make sure you're adding something to the internet that isn't already there. What is special about your blog that is going to make people want to come back? What information are you providing?

2. Blog often. If you blog less than once a week, people will generally stop bothering to visit. On the flip side, a million posts a day get very exhausting and annoying.

3. Have an attractive layout and don't clutter up your blog with ads. Maybe I'm hypersensitive about this, but if the font is too small or the ads are too big or I don't like your color scheme, I don't want to read your blog. (And if you're wondering if you can make decent money from ads: probably not, unless you can drive more than a thousand visitors to your site each day. I could probably work harder to monetize, but if your sole blogging purpose is to make money, I doubt you'll be successful.)

4. Get more successful blogs to link you. I pretty much owe everything to Jane Espsenson.


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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Aspiring Producers

Justin writes: I'm an aspiring producer. Do you know where I can find writers who'd be willing to work on spec for a couple ideas I have?

Here's the problem...I don't know if I can really advise any aspiring writers to work on spec for aspiring producers, unless they are close friends and really want to give it a shot. Why? No manager, agent, producer or executive is going to see a script that has an attached producer with no experience or credits as a good thing.

(Also, you may want to be aware that all writers have plenty of ideas of their own that they want to work on.)

I know you may want to jump into you producing career, but I'm not sure this is the best way to do it. Usually the way to start producing is to become an assistant at a production company and get promoted. This often involves being an assistant at an agency first, or perhaps being a PA or receptionist at the production company and working your way up (I have friends who have done both).

The other path would be to start producing things independently, if you know how and can somehow raise money. You might look into film schools - The Peter Stark Producing Program at USC is definitely recognized in Hollywood, and many of its alums have been very successful.

Maybe you could start with a short. And to actually answer your question, maybe try the TV Writers Yahoo Group.


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Monday, November 30, 2009

Chasing people

Daniel writes: I sent an agent my pilot after he requested it. He responded almost immediately to acknowledge that he got it and say that we'd talk soon. Two weeks went by and I didn't hear anything so I followed up and he apologized and said he hadn't found time to read it yet. I then let four weeks go by without hearing anything from him before sending another e-mail reminding him of how appreciative I'd be to hear his feedback. That last e-mail I sent was about four weeks ago and I still have not received any kind of response. Do you think I should just give up on the notion that this guy might actually read this pilot at this time? Any chance he read it and deemed it not worth responding to?

What should I do differently in the future when I have someone's permission to send them a script? For example, should I have sent another follow-up after another two weeks instead of waiting a month the second time around?


I don't think you did anything wrong here - but unfortunately you may have to let it go. Yes, it's possible that the person is a flake and never read nor wants to read your script. It's also possible, like you said, that he read it and didn't like it and doesn't want to bother telling you that. It's not really a matter of when to send the email or how many times to follow-up. It's a matter of whether they will actually read your stuff, and whether they love it or not.

You do need to be proactive and persistent (without being annoying). Sometimes it can take a couple reminders to get someone (even a close friend) to read a script. I know it's frustrating, especially when that person offered to read and seemed really enthusiastic about it. But it's kind of like dating...at some point, you have to realize that he or she is just not that into you and move on.

The thing is, when you find the right agent or manager for you, you won't have to chase them down. They will chase YOU down because they love your work and can't wait to get out there and start convincing everybody in Hollywood that you're the Next Big Thing. You'll be a "pursuit." You don't want to have to pester someone into being your rep, because if they don't already love you, they're probably not going to do a very good job of getting you work.


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The curse of Black Friday (and Cyber Monday)

Black Friday. Cyber Monday. Aren't they the best and worst things ever? Sure, you can get some great deals on holiday gifts...but it's oh-so-hard to resist buying for the easiest person in the world - you.

Next year I'm saving money and going on a spree. At least that's what I tell myself when I see all these crazy deals. Amazon has the GLEE soundtrack for $7.99, and seasons 1-3 of 30 ROCK for $91. Yowza. If you click through me and buy anything (even like random dishes and jewelry), you'll help me out. Yes, I'm shameless. But all you people are too smart to click on my Google ads!



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Friday, November 27, 2009

Multitasking

Pilots are hard. In a pretty small amount of pages, you have to establish the characters, establish the world, provide exposition, keep us visually entertained, give a sense of what a usual episode will be like, and in a comedy, be funny. You don't have time to devote separate scenes to each of these things; you have to do them all at once.

I recently took a look at the pilot script for FRASIER and was really impressed by how much it accomplishes in each tiny moment.

We start off by seeing Frasier answer questions on his radio show. We learn his profession, that his show is popular and locally famous, and that we'll spend time in the studio with him each episode. (I would imagine the calls he takes are probably also the thematic backbone for each show.) We also get a lot of exposition with this exchange:

FRASIER
Russell, we're nearing the end of our
hour. Let me see if I can cut to the
chase by using myself as an example.
Six months ago I was living in
Boston. My wife had left me, which
was very painful, then she came back,
which was excruciating. I thought I
could forgive her indiscretion but
there was this nagging little hint of
resentment, this minute lack of
trust, this overwhelming desire to
shove a grapefruit in her face. On
top of that, my practice had grown
stagnant and my social life consisted
of hanging around a bar night after
night. Suddenly I realized I was
clinging to a life that wasn't
working anymore. I knew I had to do
something, anything. So I put an end
to the marriage and moved back here
to my hometown of Seattle. Go Seahawks!
I took action, Russell, and you can too.
Move, change, do something. If it's a
mistake, do something else. Will you
do that, Russell? Will you? Russell?
(TURNING TO ROZ) I think we lost him.

ROZ
No, we cut to the news about thirty
seconds ago.

FRASIER TAKES OFF HIS HEADSET, GETS UP AND HEADS INTO ROZ'S
CONTROL ROOM.

FRASIER
Oh, for crying out loud. I finally
bare my soul to all of Seattle and
they're listening to "Chopper Dave's
Rush Hour Round Up?" At least the
rest of the show was good. (THEN)
It was a good show, wasn't it?

ROZ
Here. (HANDS HIM A SLIP OF PAPER)
Your brother called.

FRASIER
You know, in the trade, we call that
avoidance. Don't change the subject.
What did you think?

---

At first I thought that big block of text was cheating with all the backstory, but now I think it's kind of genius. In addition to the practical nuts and bolts structure of the show, we get all Frasier's info, we understand the big choice that resulted in the pilot (Frasier moving back to Seattle), we nod to the show was spun off (CHEERS), we undercut it all with the joke that nobody was listening, we establish Frasier's pompous attitude and penchant for psychoanalyzing people (even when they don't ask for it), we establish Roz's sarcastic attitude, and we see that Frasier really does care what Roz thinks. All in two pages.

Then at the end of the first act, Frasier's dad moves in with him:

FRASIER CROSSES TO THE KITCHEN. MARTIN LOOKS AROUND THE ROOM.

FRASIER (CONT'D)
So, do you like what I've done with
the place? Every piece was carefully
chosen. The lamp, Corbu. The chair
by Eames. The sofa is an exact
replica of the one Coco Chanel had in
her Paris atelier.

MARTIN
Nothing matches.

FRASIER
It's a style of decorating. It's
called eclectic. The theory behind
it is, if you have great pieces of
furniture, it doesn't matter if they
match. They'll go together.

MARTIN
It's your money.

MARTIN WALKS OVER TO THE WINDOW AND GAZES AT THE SKYLINE.

SFX: THE DOORBELL RINGS.

FRASIER
(INDICATING) That's the Space Needle
over there.

MARTIN
Thank you for pointing that out.
Being born and raised here, I never
would have known that.

AS NILES RE-ENTERS FROM THE OTHER ROOM, FRASIER CROSSES TO THE DOOR AND OPENS IT. IT'S A DELIVERYMAN.

DELIVERYMAN
Delivery for Martin Crane.

MARTIN
In here.

DELIVERYMAN
Coming through.

FRASIER STEPS BACK. THE DELIVERYMAN BRINGS IN A BARCALOUNGER.

FRASIER
Excuse me, excuse me. Wait a minute.

DELIVERYMAN
Where do you want it?

MARTIN
Where's the TV?

FRASIER
(INDICATING) In that credenza. Why?

MARTIN
Point it at that thing.

DELIVERYMAN
What about this chair?

NILES
Here. Let me get it out of the way.

NILES PICKS UP THE CHAIR AND MOVES IT. THE DELIVERYMAN REPLACES IT WITH MARTIN'S BARCALOUNGER.

FRASIER
Careful. That's a Wassily. (RE:
LOUNGER) Dad, dad, as dear as I'm
sure this piece is to you, I don't
think it quite goes with anything
here.

MARTIN
I know. It's eclectic.

---

This is fantastic too, since it gives us such a great sense of Frasier's and Martin's relationship, that Frasier wants to be welcoming to his father but doesn't like his style cramped, that Martin may not like art but he's no dummy. And that iconic chair is a great visual metaphor of these two very different worlds colliding.


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Monday, November 23, 2009

Encouragement from the banking industry



I've been seeing these ads all around Hollywood and WeHo. (That banner is obscuring the U in "unsold," by the way.)

Thank you, Chase, for reminding me that I have absolutely no use for your ubiquitous ATMs.



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Sunday, November 22, 2009

It all comes back to theme

Have you ever written a script and realized one of your characters wasn't really doing anything? No? That's only my problem? I was watching an episode of Sex and the City a few nights ago...the one in which Charlotte marries Trey and Carrie feels guilty about cheating on Aidan and wants to come clean. (I certainly picked a depressing episode for my first SATC in a while.) It was all about flaws. Aidan makes a wedding present for Charlotte and Trey - a wooden bench or something - and talks about how he likes the flaws in the wood. So Carrie thinks...maybe Aidan can accept my flaws, my bad decision to cheat, and love me anyway. Of course, it doesn't quite work out that way. Meanwhile, Charlotte discovers Trey has a sexual problem, but Trey refuses to face this flaw and do something about it. Every moment added something to the thematic discussion.

Sometimes I think when we do outlines and drafts and rewrites and we can get so bogged down in the nuts and bolts that we forget about what we had envisioned for our theme. So if you're stuck coming up with a plot, I think it helps to go back to your theme. What are you exploring and examining? What are you trying to say?

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Friday, November 20, 2009

Thrifty Thursday/Fan Friday: Planet Salon

This is totally off-topic, so I apolozige to all boys and otherwise uninterested parties. But I wanted to share my love for Aveda's Planet Salon in Beverly Hills (and the amazing Brian McCombs).

Throughout my life, I have had very few haircuts I've been happy with. My hair is somewhere between curly and straight, and it takes considerable effort to make it either one of those things. When I moved to LA, I met people who would exclaim that their favorite salon "only" cost $120 a cut. Oh, LA. I figured I would just give up on an awesome cut and opt for cheap: SuperCuts. Incorrect! If you're like me, you want at least that one day of perfect hair. But SuperCuts charges a-la-carte for things like shampoo and dry hair, so if you want to walk out of the salon with perfect (dry) hair, you have to pay extra. My not-so-super cut ended up costing me like $55!

So then I started going to Floyd's, a trendy rocker barbershop for both men and women. It's a cool place that's reasonably priced (I'd definitely recommend it for dudes), but the cuts can be very inconsistent, and it's clear that they're just trying to get you in and out as quickly as possible. One time the woman cutting my hair told me that my last haircut had been done all wrong. I was like, "Uhh..you guys did it."

Finally I discovered Planet Salon in Beverly Hills. It's funky and cool and has a bit of that Aveda hippie my-body-is-a-temple stuff going on. In addition to your shampoo, cut and style, you get a head massage with vapory things, and a hand massage. It's super fun, and I really love my stylist, Brian McCombs. Plus, it's reasonable - and not just LA reasonable. Cuts start at $65, and they often have coupons (they're running a 20% off special right now).


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Thursday, November 12, 2009

The New TV Black List

Well, that was quick. James has started a new TV Black List, and is accepting votes from anyone and everyone. So far he's thinking of calling it "The Gray List" or "The Runway" (for pilots that haven't taken off yet). To be eligible, a pilot must have been written in the past year but never shot. You can email your votes to tvpilotblacklist@gmail.com - and there is no limit to how many pilots you can vote for.

Happy voting!

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Black List - New & Improved!

I remember walking in the agency one morning last December with my friend Nate, a fellow feature lit assistant. "I'm so excited," he said, bounding up the concrete steps, messenger bag full of scripts slung across his crisp shirt and tie. "It's Black List Day!"

From the official site: The Black List is a snapshot of the collective taste of the people who develop, produce, and release theatrical feature films in the Hollywood studio system and the mainstream independent system.

An annual list of Hollywood's most liked unproduced screenplays published on the second Friday of December each year, The Black List began in 2004 as a survey with contributions from 75 film studio and production company executives. In 2008, over 250 executives contributed their opinions.

Since its inception, dozens of screenplays that appeared on the list have been optioned, produced, and released, many to great commercial success. Two of the top three screenplays on the inaugural 2005 list - JUNO by Diablo Cody and LARS AND THE REAL GIRL by Nancy Oliver - went on to be nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the 2008 Academy Awards, with JUNO winning the Oscar.

It's no wonder that The Black List has spurred plenty of other lists, like The Brit List (writers from the UK), The Brown List (scary executives) and The Blood List (horror writers). I'm still waiting for an enterprising TV assistant to create a version to recognize beloved unproduced pilots.

But the Black List is the original and most widely known. Even though it's industry-specific, the legend of the List reached the mainstream last year with Entertainment Weekly's feature about creator Franklin Leonard. He's excited to announce that his famous Black List has some new features this time around:

1. The Mailing List - There will be some BIG announcements about The Black List's evolution coming in 2010, stuff that non-industry execs are going to be interested in. By signing up for the mailing list, you'll get all of that information - and other general Black List info - first.

2. The Black List Blog - A one stop shop for new Black List info and past Black List scripts. (Get reading!)

3. Cover Art Submissions - The Black List is exploring not designing their own cover this year, and have opened up submissions for cover design to anyone who'd like to submit. So if you've got an inner graphic designer, have at it! There's no prize money or anything, but your work would get seen by most of Hollywood.


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From Twitter to TV Show

CBS is developing a sitcom based on the Twitter feed “Shit My Dad Says” by Justin Halpern.

Suddenly Tweeting doesn't seem like such a waste of time. Like the blog that resulted in a book deal and the movie Julie & Julia, I think they key is a very specific focus.


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JHRTS & THR Present the Next Generation Panel




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Monday, November 9, 2009

Because I'm a Vampire

Here's why I love The Vampire Diaries. It's a teen vampire show, and it knows it. It has fun with the genre. It's badass. Main characters get killed off. But it can be light, and delightfully self-aware...

Here's a clip from last week's episode...it might be one of my favorite scenes of the season.





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Friday, November 6, 2009

The importance of reading

Whenever I read a script by a new writer, I can always tell if that person has read enough professional screenplays. I'm still learning, but when I go back to my scripts from college, I realize I hadn't read enough yet and I think I've gotten a bit better. Besides committing obvious format errors, new writers often misstep with their action and description.

First off, don't make it too long. we should never see giant blocks of text. Even if you do have a lot to describe, try to break it up. Use spaces to differentiate shots, places, people, etc. I usually break up anything that's more than 4 or 5 lines - and I think you'll see that's usually the norm.

Secondly, you want your action and description to flow well and not be clunky. I think it takes time to really master this. Newbies will often be too novelistic with their prose, telling us things the characters are thinking or feeling, or giving us backstory and exposition. Screenwriting books and professors often try to nip this in the bud by demanding that you never write anything that can't be shot - but then students get scared and start writing really wooden, lifeless description like, "Sarah enters. She sits down on the chair. Paul exits." I would read the House pilot to see something that veers on the edge of too novelistic, and comedy pilots like 30 Rock for what takes a more minimalistic approach. Focus on specificity and juicy verbs. Vary your sentence structure - and know that fragments are okay, even recommended.

Too much: "She stares longingly at the couple that has been together for 5 years, thinking that they're so lucky to be so much in love. She wishes she could be in a relationship like that.

Not enough: "She gazes at them."

Better: "She watches them, envious. So this is what love looks like."

The only way to get a sense of this stuff is to read, read, read. You can check out real scripts at Pilot School and Simply Scripts (linked at right), though don't waste your time with any transcripts at Simply Scripts - you want to read what the screenwriters originally wrote, not what a viewer has transcribed.

Reading also helps with scene pacing, dialogue, structure, etc. You should probably be reading at least a script a week, if not more.


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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Feature writing lessons

I recently finished a fifth draft of my romantic comedy feature, and I think I'm really getting close to something final. But in addition to a script I'm proud of, I think I've acquired some really useful knowledge and insight. Pardon me for stating the obvious, but the more you write, the better you get! This shit starts to make sense! Yay.

Now, I do owe a lot of this to the amazing writer/director/producer/mentor/badass I've been working with. She's helped me realize a lot of things about features and the writing and rewriting process. I'm sure some of this works for TV too.

1. You really have to know your characters. But it's more than just who they are, what has happened to them and what they want. You need to track how feelings throughout every scene, and really think about how they react to situations. You need to show how they change and what they learn. And we need to believe it. We need to buy the decisions they make. We need to understand WHY they do what they do - even if their logic is flawed or misguided. In comedy, you also have to restrain yourself from writing the first joke that pops in your head. Even if it's a funny line, is it a line your character would say? It's important to differentiate your characters with dialogue, action, attitudes, etc. Don't let two characters experience the same arc and journey; that's boring - and their scenes will feel repetitive. They should have their own unique problems and arcs.

2. You need to provide fun performances for actors. Don't let your characters take the easy way out. Thrust them into awkward, terrifying situations and make them try to get out. The more that goes wrong, the more the actor has to work with.

3. There's more than one way to tell a story. Try stuff out. See what works. If something is too long or too much or too expositional, you can always throw it out. It's usually easier to write everything you think of and cut later instead of staring at an 80-page screenplay and trying to figure out what you're missing.

4. But you DO need to cut stuff. It's sad, but you may have to cut your funniest joke. If it makes you feel better, copy it into a new document and tell yourself you may be able to use it later (you probably won't). If you find yourself dreaming up entire plots to sustain a joke, that's a problem. Just let go. I always tell myself: if you wrote funny stuff before, you'll write funny stuff again.

5. Make the second half of act two intense. I am a big fan of Blake Snyder's Save the Cat (at right), but I've always had trouble with the section "Bad Guys Close In." Because in some romantic comedies and comedies, there isn't really a bad guy. In my script, it's the protagonist's job that's the enemy. I found it much more helpful to think of the phrase "World Closes In." Basically, everything that can go wrong should go wrong. Relationship, work, friends, whatever. Everything that was so fun in the beginning of the second act and maybe at the midpoint is coming back to bite her in the ass. Because she hasn't really confronted her the issues that have set this entire movie into motion. She's making bad decisions, and they're backfiring.

6. Add your own voice to common moments. You won't always be shockingly original. Sometimes you need to show a breakup, a fistfight, a first date, a sex scene, or a shootout...something we've seen in hundreds of movies. Make yours unique by making your characters unique, making your description specific and perhaps tossing in an unexpected surprise, setting or joke. Not all characters would respond to a conflict in the same way...and even a serious moment can have a moment of lightness.

7. Use transitions deliberately. Do you need to show that time is passing or that we're moving to another part of town? Should we see the outside of the building? Would it be jarring to jump from a very serious confrontation to a happier moment? Think about your script visually and show your voice in quick establishing descriptions.

8. Tackle one issue at a time. You may have a big heap of notes, but I find it most effective to focus on one problem in each pass. If you're having trouble differentiating characters, go through the entire script and make sure that person's voice is clear in every scene. Then do it again for another character. You might do a separate joke pass. Then maybe a separate visual description pass. I think this makes you focus and really be critical of yourself...and also prevent you from feeling too overwhelmed. If I get stuck, I like to highlight things to do in yellow and move on. Rewriting something is always better than rewriting nothing.

9. It's all about the arc. What does your character learn? What happens to make her change? How does she apply this knowledge to her life? What's your theme? How is it present in subplots? How can you show us these things and not insult our intelligence or be too obvious?

10. Think big. Can you add a ticking clock? Raise the stakes? Make your set pieces more exciting? Your jokes funnier? It's a movie, you know? Have some fun.

What have you guys learned?


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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Schmoozing the assistants?

Jennifer writes: One of my instructors at UCLA Extension told us the best way to get get staffed on a show these days (if we don't yet have an agent) is to try and get in good with the assistants on various shows, so they'll read our material and if we're lucky, pass it on to their bosses. He said this is probably a more helpful and productive route than trying to land an agent first to get us a job second.

What are your thoughts on this from your experience? And if you agree that "getting in" with the assistants is the best way to go, how in the world do you go about doing that? Start cold calling or emailing them from some production company staffing lists that exist somewhere?


Networking is definitely important, but I think there's some flawed logic in your teacher's advice. Why would those assistants want to help you? Don't you think that they are aspiring writers too, and want to use their positions to get their own writing opportunities? Their bosses are too busy to read a million scripts by aspirers...so I bet the one script that gets handed over will be written by the assistant. Besides, you're asking for a favor that you have no right to be asking for.

Instead, focus on making FRIENDS. Cultivating RELATIONSHIPS. People want to help their friends, not random cold callers.

As for getting staffed - if you can't find an agent yet, I would recommend you become one of those assistants on a show, at a production company, etc. I realize it's hard - and you may have to be another kind of assistant first (PA, office PA, agent assistant, manager assistant, etc) - but being a showrunner assistant or writer's assistant can be a path to getting a freelance episode, and then getting a staff gig. It doesn't happen for everyone, and it doesn't happen on every show, but I have seen it work for some people. And even if you don't get a script or get staffed, you'll still be learning about the craft and meeting professional writers who may be able to give you notes or, if they like your work, refer you to their agents.

Related posts:
That Guy
Favors, Cahones, Contests
Respectful Networking


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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Upcoming WGA events

Make sure you're checking the WGA website I have linked on the right for cool panels and events (here's their calendar). There are too many for me to feature them all, but they're a great opportunity to hear from writers you admire!

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Monday, October 19, 2009

Advice from Carter Bays

Really enjoyed the 826LA panel last night. I'm generally kind of sick of panels, because it's either really basic advice I've heard a million times (like "write every day" and "try to get a job on a show"), or it's really upper level stuff I can't relate to (like "ugh, it's so hard when your quote drops from a million to half a million"). This panel was a nice medium, since the panelists treated us like we were beginners, but we knew what we were talking about.

When asked if new writers should try specs or pilots, Carter said he didn't think it really mattered. You just have to "make people laugh." Putting your stuff on the Internet might also be a good idea; he said that he hasn't hired anyone off a YouTube clip yet, but you never know.

He also stressed that with writing pilots, you should go for a show you're passionate about - and something that can generate 100 stories you'll want to write.

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Thrifty Thursday: Entertainment Weekly

I'm not making money off this or anything...but I thought you guys might want to know that you can get Entertainment Weekly for $10 a YEAR at this site. I've always found it to be a fun mag if you're a fan of all things TV & film. Just the right amount of snark.



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Colleges with Good Screenwriting Programs

Tobie writes: I was wondering if you could tell me what colleges have good screenwriting/playwriting courses?

Here is a list of schools that I know people have enjoyed and/or resulted in them coming to LA and getting a job in Hollywood. I'm sure there are others out there; feel free to comment. Definitely give prioirty to any school in LA (or that has a LA semester program), since that allows you to do really valuable industry internships while you're still in college. (Any schools in NY also would be attractive for internship possibilities.) Note that just because a school has a screenwriting or playwriting program doesn't mean it has any connection to Hollywood. If you really want to pursue this as a career, you need to study craft AND the business of it all.

Ithaca (I went here and it led to me studying in LA and ultimately moving here)
Boston University
Emerson
Northwestern
UCLA
USC
Chapman
Syracuse
University of Miami
UT Austin (one of few public schools with an LA semester program)
NYU
Notre Dame (not sure about their programs, but I have a bunch of friends who work in Hollywood who went here)
Yale (same as above)

Keep in mind that being a screenwriter or TV Writer doesn't require a degree (but if it's the only thing that really interests you, I say go for it.)

You could also attend a different school and then study in LA through a school that does have a program here.

Related posts:
Is TV School Worth It?
Grad school? UCLA Extension?
Getting a Head Start


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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Monday, October 12, 2009

TV Writer Panels Benefitting 826LA

826LA Adult Writing Seminar Series: TV Writing! A Four-Part Miniseries

Sundays, October 11, 18, 25 and November 1 at 7:30 p.m.

826LA East
1714 W Sunset Blvd
LA CA 90026
(213) 413-3388

Join us in a panel discussion with professional writers from some of the best programs currently on TV. Our hilarious panelists will discuss such topics as creating one s own work vs. staff writing, business vs. art (and whether it s always a vs situation), long days, stale jokes, breaking new ground, and the looming threat of new media. Panelists will also answer your questions and give tips for breaking into the business.

$25 per installment or $100 for the full miniseries
Tickets prices are non-refundable. All proceeds go to 826LA.

For a limited time get $10 off one installment (of your choice) or 25% off of the entire series (it's like getting one free!).

826LAML01 to get $10.00 off of one installment 826LAMLA01 to get 25% off the entire mini-series.

Click here to purchase tickets.

Each seminar will feature 3 - 4 writers and, in some instances, include an industry executive. All panels moderated by Ben Blacker.

October 18, 7:30 p.m.
Carter Bays
Samantha McIntyre
Warren Bell
Sam Register
David Schulner

October 25, 7:30 p.m.
Chrissy Pietrosh & Jessica Goldstein
David Slack
Jerry Stahl
...To be continued

**About 826LA**

826LA
info@826la.org
www.826la.org

826LA West
685 Venice Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90291
310.305.8418

826LA East
1714 W. Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90026
213.413.3388

826LA is a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting students ages 6 to 18 with their creative and expository writing skills, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write. Our services are structured around the understanding that great leaps in learning can happen with one-on-one attention and that strong writing skills are fundamental to future success.


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Thursday, October 8, 2009

Thrifty Thursday: DineLA Restaurant Week

DineLA's Restaurant Week offers specially-priced lunch and dinner menus at restaurants all across LA. I had some delicious salad, pasta, and chocolate cake (you can never go wrong when the word "decadence" in the name) at Taste today. Check it out!

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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Industry vs non-industry jobs

Elyse writes: I’m moving to LA in February, and I’m looking for some employment insight. Since you’ve gone from an industry to non-industry job, you seem like a good person to ask. I have basically two options:

1. Since my goal is to eventually work as a TV writer, it seems like a no-brainer to take whatever industry job will have me, and make some solid contacts while I pay my dues and learn the ins and outs of the business.

2. Obviously my goal is to leave my current career (copywriter). But in light of how the economy’s been tanking, it almost seems like a more even-handed approach to nail down a job in my current field, then write/network like crazy/take some classes/hunt for a less-than-terrible industry gig in the off-hours. I know that in a lot of ways, this plan is a far cry from the first-hand experience I’d get as an assistant – but, since I can’t afford to go potentially months without paid work, I do want to be realistic.

As someone who’s been on both sides of the equation and actually lives in LA, what would you recommend? I’m stumped.

Good question. I would read through my old posts about the Job Search for more. Here's the thing: right now, you are an outsider. And in order to be a successful writer, you have to get on the inside somehow. Some people sort of slip inside by winning the ABC/Disney or Nicholls Fellowship, or they might have strong connections through their family. But the vast majority of us can't expect to be successful this way. I recommend that people get industry jobs so that they can become insiders. Make connections. Learn how it all works. Meet friends who will champion their writing. Without that, you're kind of doomed.

I don't work in the industry anymore, but I did for 2-3 years. Without the information I learned and the contacts I made, I don't think I would be equipped to forge ahead in my career.

For you personally, you don't really have to decide right now. Save some money and move to LA. Once you're here, try to get an industry job. If that doesn't work, at least you have your copywriting skills to fall back on.


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Friday, October 2, 2009

Fan Friday: Ze Frank

I started following Ze Frank a few years ago when I lived in New York. With a combination of info, commentary and humor, he's a great vlogger who now does mostly political stuff for Time. I think what I love most about him is that he's got a very creative way of looking at things. A new lens. A voice. Whatev. Check him out!




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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Inside the Writers Room: TRUE BLOOD


Paley is presenting an Inside the Writers Room event with Alan Ball, Raelle Tucker, Alexander Woo, Nancy Oliver, Brian Buckner, Kate Barnow, and Elisabeth Finch on Weds, Oct 28 @ 7 pm. Click here for all the info!


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