Sunday, March 29, 2009

Writing for Marvel

I'm sure most of you have heard by now, but Marvel's starting a writing program. From a deal perspective, it sounds like it requires you to give up a lot of ownership for a small amount of money. But if that's the kind of stuff you want to write and you don't have a lot of other opportunities popping up, it's probably crazy not to apply...

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Joining the screenwriting community

John writes: I would appreciate any advice you might have to give me in terms of getting into the Los Angeles screenwriting environment.

If you're interested in TV at all, I definitely recommend the TV Writers Networking Group and JHRTS. Unfortunately I don't know of equivalent groups for film. You can also start attending events at the WGA and try to strike up conversations with people.

Beyond that, the best thing to do is to get a job in the industry so you will start making contacts. The tricky part is that the best jobs are all filled through word of mouth, so you kind of need to have some contacts before you get one. That's why a lot of people do internships first.

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Saturday, March 28, 2009

About querying, again

I was recently quoted Alex Epstein's blog about querying. In regards to some of the comments, I thought I'd expand a little:

Yes, there are instances in which people respond to query letters. This happens when 1) your query is short, well-written and makes your script sound very interesting, and you do not ramble on about your life as a pig farmer or whatever - and 2) you happen to send the letter to a person who is looking to find new clients and read unsolicited materials.

Remember that most query letters will go to assistants, not the agents themselves. If the assistant is an aspiring agent (perhaps even an agent trainee) and wants to find material to impress their boss, they'll probably respond to interesting query letters. However, most agent assistants I know do NOT want to be agents. They are doing their "year at the agency" so that they can move on to work at production companies, studios or networks, or because they're writers themselves who want to learn and make contacts to start their own writing careers. The aspiring producer/execs are probably busy reading every project that's sold, every project that comes in for their bosses' clients to rewrite or direct, every script the clients write, etc. and aren't really scouring the earth for new material. The aspiring writers are probably not going to pass anything to their bosses unless they think it's the greatest script they've EVER read EVER because the only thing they're ever going to give to their boss is their own script. This is how I feel, at least. Because if I pass my boss a script he thinks is crappy, he's not going to trust my taste anymore. Now, if someone sends me a script that absolutely blows me away and I know my boss will flip for it, I'll pass it on. Have I ever read such a script? No.

Also, even if you do find an aspiring agent or agent trainee, you still might not get that far. Think like an agent for a second. Remember that agents' first priority is servicing their current clients, not finding new ones. And when it comes to new ones, at big agencies at least, they're looking for people who already have credits, already have managers, etc. Building someone's career from absolutely nothing is hard work, and they're only going to take the risk if they're really confident about the person. Even junior agents who are often labeled as "hungry" are expected to be out finding work for current clients or pursuing hot clients represented elsewhere. Plucking new writers from obscurity is never going to be the #1 concern. (Now, I'm talking about people with absolutely no heat or name recognition. If you win the Nicholl Fellowship or a well-known producer options something of yours, pursuing you will instantly become more important.)

So if you want to query, go ahead. I'm just telling you...the way I see it happen 99% of the time is that people pass along scripts written by their friends and colleagues, not people they don't know.

I also have to disagree a little with Alex's suggestion of saying "__(insert executive)__ suggested I email you." Because if you really have a relationship with that person, then that person will call or email the agent first on your behalf - and you won't be an unsolicited query anymore.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009


I am constantly impressed by John August's blog. He's a top screenwriter, yet he hasn't lost touch with his readers, who are mostly underlings and aspirers. He gives such straightforward, practical advice. Check out his latest, about relationships in Hollywood.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009


A friend posed a question to me today: how do you make your characters likable?

To me, likability is a lot less important than understanding WHY characters do what they do. Someone might not be nice, moral or even a good person, but generally, if I understand why a person is going after their goal, I'm going to give them a chance. Also, the more primal the motivation, the better. We tend to want to root for people who are fighting for:

1. SURVIVAL. It's the most basic desire on earth. Drop us in a hurricane and we'll follow just about anybody trying to get out. Same with medical shows. Are they going to live or die?
2. LOVE. It's every romantic comedy and many B-stories, and is completely universal. We've all been there. We all want to find love.
3. FAMILY. We've all got one, and most of us would do just about anything for them.
4. TRUTH AND JUSTICE. We want the good guys to win and the bad guys to lose. We want to believe that truth and justice exist. It's every legal drama, every cop show, every ERIN BROKOVICH-type story of fighting the man.

Now, I don't think any of these are necessities in your story - but they make it really easy for us to root for people, whether those people are "likable" or not.

On a similar note, it can be challenging when our characters make unconventional choices - but it can also be interesting. When Nancy in WEEDS needs money to support her family, she turns to drug dealing. She could have gotten a job as a secretary and moved into a smaller house - but she didn't. She could have chosen a profession that didn't put her children at risk. Sometimes it's not easy to like her - but on the flipside, her story is also a lot more interesting. Would we want to see the story about the secretary? Probably not. In Nancy's case I think the balance comes from A) the show's quirky tone B) how we see, in other ways, that she really does love her children, and C) that she often gets what she deserves after she makes mistakes.

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Monday, March 23, 2009

Give me a few years

Check out this fun New York Times article about screenwriters Dana Fox, Diablo Cody, Liz Meriwether and Lorene Scafaria: An Entourage of Their Own

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Friday, March 20, 2009

This is your life

My friend and I tried to cross Rodeo today on our way to lunch and we ran into a film crew, tourists and policemen. General melee. Then I heard a raspy woman yelling "ARE YOU GAY?" and I realized it was Joan Rivers, just the pint-sized plastic hellion in a black dress you'd expect her to be. I stepped into the street in an attempt to pass by, and was chastised by a policeman who then turned to the crew and said, "You have to let people walk down the sidewalk! We can't have people walking in the street."

Let's all calm down, people. It's just CELEBRITY APPRENTICE. Move so I can get my panini.

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Monday, March 16, 2009

Umm...I kind of love KINGS

I just watched the KINGS pilot on Hulu and I actually really liked it. It's big and sweeping and poetic and dark and hopeful and interesting. It's filled with conflict. It balances modernity with a biblical tale of timeless themes. It's gorgeous and symbolic.

But mostly, it's just different. As I watched I just kept thinking, I've never seen anything like this. And that excites me.

Its premiere numbers were quite low, so I'm cautious in thinking about the show's future...but I'm happy it made it this far. Check it out.

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WGA Panel: Gay Today in Hollywood

Just a heads up about Thursday's panel at the WGA, Gay Today in Hollywood: A Status Report. Unlike some of the others, you don't have to be a member to attend.

Panelists will explore issues such as: Are there more – or less – LGBT projects in the pipeline now than in recent years? Will they be produced more readily for film or TV? Is there still a viable market for gay and lesbian indie films? Is the closet still an issue for LGBT members in Hollywood today?

Moderated by producer J. D. Disalvatore (Shelter), the WGAW-hosted panel is scheduled to include: Academy and Writers Guild Award-winning screenwriter Lance Black (Milk), entertainment publicist Howard Bragman, 15 Minutes PR; Emmy-winning writer Liz Feldman (The Ellen DeGeneres Show); Kevin Goetz, president, Motion Picture Group, OTX Research; film producers Honey Labrador & Christopher Racster (April’s Shower, Save Me), Last Bastion Entertainment; director Arthur Allan Seidelman (The Awakening of Spring); actor Doug Spearman (Noah’s Ark); and agent Sandy Weinberg, Summit Literary & Talent Agency.

WHEN: Thursday 3/19 @ 7:30 PM

Writers Guild of America , West
7000 W. 3rd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90048
*Parking available in WGAW’s underground lot; enter off Blackburn Avenue.

For more info on this and other WGA events, click here.

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Missed Opportunities

I saw the movie SUNSHINE CLEANING tonight, which I liked but didn't love. It has some really great acting, two great female roles and an interesting concept: people who clean up after deaths and violent crimes.

I think there might have been a missed opportunity there - something which I think happens in a lot of scripts. You've got a great concept, or a great situation, or a great conflict - so use it. Push your characters to their limits. Think of the most interesting or surprising or powerful thing that could happen. I don't mean melodrama...but my thought process is, you can do anything in TV and movies (at least at the writing stage). Have fun! Don't hold back. Go there.

In the movie, I kept waiting for the cleaners to find something really crazy or surprising, but they never really did. The movie wasn't really about that, it was about their personal journeys - which I totally get. But why couldn't it have been both? What if they had found ___ during one of the cleanups? I don't know the exact answer, but I feel like maybe there could have been a more interesting movie in there somewhere.

Can you guys think of missed opportunities in movies or TV that disappointed you?

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Vanity post

Today I put on lipstick and heels and a pencil skirt and you'd think I was wearing a prom dress or something. I got "you look nice today," "you look very made up today," "you look so fancy," and "you got a hot date tonight?" (The last from my boss, of course.) I mean, I guess it's nice they noticed, but I just kept thinking jeez, I must look like a real effing slob every other day of the week.

I won't be wearing the heels tomorrow, since I just slashed open the side of my big toe on what I think was an unfortunately placed staple on one of my kitchen baseboards. It all started when my stupid cat was yelping and yelping (God, his life is so hard) for dinner. So I opened some Fancy Feast AND replenished his dry food, and when I spilled a few fish-shaped pieces, I kicked them in his direction because it's kind of fun to watch him spaz out. Foot, meet staple. Then came the gushing blood. Foiled.

So I'm getting back into books. But since I'm a Hollywood snob, I'm only reading books that will live on as pilots or features. I'm almost finished with The Ten Best Days of My Life by Adena Halpern, which Fox recently bought for Amy Adams. It was only $4.99! (For me, not for Fox.) It's really lovely...exactly the combination of sweetness and ireeverence I hope to achieve in my stuff. The first line is "I died today, which is so weird." I've been hooked ever since.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Adventures in the judiciary system

Today I had jury duty. So did Bob Saget. He's kinda tan and freckly, and his hair is thinning. He grins as though he's playing some kind of joke on the world. I fought the urge to sneak up behind him and sing "WHATEVER HAPPENED TO PREDICTABILITIES?"

Sometimes life in LA is so silly. The dude who gave us the "jury duty is important, this is democracy, America is great" speech also mentioned that Brad Pitt had served in this very court just six months ago! There were various red, white & blue cardboard cutouts scotch taped to the walls, and framed photos of other celebs who had served. But they were all circa 1998, so it was people like Camryn Manheim and Jamie Lee-Curtis smiling down at me, filled with civic pride.

For some reason I thought the jury room would be like the green room on WHO WANTS TO BE A contact with the outside world allowed. I now realize it's a very silly expectation, but I haven't been in that many rooms with strangers for hours on end. But there were computers with internet. People brought laptops. I eavesdropped on phone calls; one woman worked in the music industry and had something to do with Death Cab and OAR and Mat Kearney. Another said "then we can bring in the evangelists." Scary.

We sat there from 8:30 to 3:30 before anyone's name was called. Then they called two rounds of people for panels, and I didn't make either cut. Hooray! I wouldn't have minded being on a jury (I think it's lame when people complain about it - how do we expect the system to work if we don't participate?), but my company doesn't pay you for jury duty, so financially it would have sucked.

So - I got dismissed. So did "Robert!"

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Saturday, March 7, 2009

What's your major?

Manda writes: I know you mentioned that you switched from journalism to majoring in television. How soon into university did you do that? My goal is to one day be a writer/producer and I've just started a journalism degree but I'm kind of unhappy with it. My only option is to change my major to Writing and Cultural Studies (which is just fancy for creative writing), and I think I would be happier doing that course except it's not as practical as journalism and although I would be able to experiment with screenwriting in my subjects, I don't know what kind of job I'd get out of it at the end. Do you see any hope for creative writing graduates in the entertainment industry or is it better to just keep your interests outside of your studies?

It sounds like you've already read them but in case other readers haven't I first want to point you to these posts:

Is TV school worth it?

Why I (aspire to) write for television

But to answer your questions - I think I technically switched in the fall of my sophomore year, before I went to London...but I ended up taking only classes outside of my major requirements in London, so I didn't really hop on the TV writing path til I got back. I was in a good position because I already had 30 credits under my belt when I entered college (yay AP classes), and my school had very few "gen ed" classes (0 for journalism majors, and 5 for TV majors, 3 of which I covered with APs). Every school is different. Switching majors late in the game can make it hard to fit in all your requirements, and also present the interesting scenario of being the random junior or senior with all the freshmen in Media Prod 101, but I found it to be doable.

My instinct is to tell you to go for Creative Writing and not Journalism. It seems like you're going to gain more from writing prose than shooting B-roll of the local mayor election. But it really kind of depends on what the programs are like at your school. Remember that there is no specific degree requirement for becoming a writer - or for getting a job in Hollywood. For writing it all comes down to your writing, and for the Hollywood job, it all comes down to someone giving you a chance. Personally, I recommend taking courses that allow you to read and write as much as possible. I was a TV writing major, so I ended up taking several TV writing and screenwriting courses. I was also an English minor, so I took a ton literature courses - Asian American Lit, Feminist Lit, Poetry, Dramatic Lit, etc. They were all great. And then I took a bunch of regular creative writing courses on my own, too. You also might want to think about picking a major that allows you to take the most classes OUTSIDE of your major. Courses in science or psychology or architecture might just inspire you to write something really interesting.

Lastly, happiness is important. Since in the long run it doesn't really matter what your major is, I think you should pick the one that makes you happy. And yes, journalism might seem more "practical," but really only if you want to be a journalist, I think. And it's a pretty tough career right now: Check out this blog, which chronicles all the newspaper layoffs in 2009.

Ha. As if TV writing is an easy career :)

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Thursday, March 5, 2009

Thoughts on comedy

I think somebody asked about whether writing specs of multi-camera half-hour comedies was wise. Based on the fact that TWO AND A HALF MEN just got renewed for 3 seasons and BIG BANG THEORY got renewed for 2, I'd say yes. It's fairly rare for a network to put so much faith in shows, and I don't really see it happening for a lot of single-camera shows. But it makes sense...they're consistent. They pull huge ratings numbers. They have clear identities that everyone understands. And it's unlikely any of that's going to change. As long as those shows keep doing what they're doing, they'll continue to succeed. If you want to be a comedy writer, I think it's smart to have examples of both single-camera and multi-camera shows.

I sat down with a TV Lit Agent the other day who suggested that getting into half-hour comedy at all is pretty hard, just based on few of them are on the air. It's a numbers thing. More drama shows mean more jobs for drama writers. Comedy was king in the 90s, and all those writers are still hanging around town. There's just a lot of competition. It's my opinion that this business will always be tough, so you should just forge ahead and do what you want to do... but if you're thinking you're not sure whether to do drama or comedy, you might be positioning yourself better by writing dramas. I feel like I meet a lot of people who tell me they're comedy writers, and I find myself thinking, WHY ARE YOU NOT HILARIOUS? I dunno. Not everyone is funny. It's okay if you're not. As long as you think I am.

Andy writes: Is it even possible to do a show based on a dysfunctional (snobby) family after Arrested Development? Would agents immediately pass on the idea since AD was so good yet "only" lasted a few seasons?

Hmm. I say write what you want to write...but whether you should outwardly compare it to ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT is another matter. AD has some very passionate fans, but it just didn't get enough viewers, and at the end of the day, that's what executives have to be buying. Shows that will get viewers. And agents want to represent people who write things that executives will buy. Usually you only want to compare your work to successful things. Saying it's just like a show that nobody watched is probably going to attach a negative connotation. Like I said, AD falls somewhere in between a hit and a show nobody watched...but in general I'm not sure.

But simply for the topic of a dysfunctional family, I say go for it. It's definitely a good idea to have some kind of interesting hook or world that makes your show different, but I don't think any settings or concepts are totally off-limits. Families will always be fodder for writers since they provide natural relationships and believable conflict. And we can all relate. My advice is - please just be funny.

Also, a sort of general note - agents do not represent scripts. They represent PEOPLE. You need at least a couple of scripts before you get an agent... and like I said, agents are looking for material that's sellable. But it's not about just one script. It's about you as a writer, your voice, your style, etc. Even if you write a spec screenplay or spec pilot that never sells, your reps will use it as a sample to get you staffed (or, in the feature world, get you considered for open writing assignments).

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