Thursday, April 30, 2009

Going there, and making mistakes

I've been talking about my pilot with people, and I think I've come to some important conclusions:

1. Go there. And not just in the racy Degrassi-tag-line-esque ways. I talked once before about having your characters make big choices, and I think it's also important to remember that your characters can make big mistakes. Sometimes big shit happens that's out of our control. Natural disasters. Deadly diseases. Accidents. But what I find much more interesting is when people make big choices and mistakes all on their own - and then we get to watch the ramifications unfold. On Friday Night Lights, it's when Lyla Garrity cheats on her now-paralyzed boyfriend. On Weeds it's when Nancy starts negotiating with the DEA agent she's sleeping with. The consequences are sometimes juicier than the shocking choices themselves. I still maintain that it's important to understand why people do what they do - but I urge you to think about going bigger and badder.

2. People - especially family members - can come back from saying really horrible things to each other. On Brothers & Sisters, sometimes Kitty and Sarah will dig deep in their insults. But they're sisters. We know they love each other. And we know they'll make up. So it's okay (and realistic) for them to say reprehensible, regrettable things.

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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Why do movies and TV suck?

DL writes: With so many great ideas out there, why do we still see horrible movies out there on the silver screen?

Movie studios are in the business of making money. They are going to make movies that audiences will see. You and I can bond over not wanting to see OBSESSED, but it doesn't really matter, because more people paid to see it this weekend than anything else.

If you want to get into this business with the intentions of making art, of conveying your vision, of being experimental and avant garde, go ahead. There are plenty of people making independent films and otherwise artsy things. But if you intend to make a living in the mainstream Hollywood system, you have to learn to accept that money and audiences matter.

I don't see why you can't try to do both. Make a good film (or TV show) that people want to see. I think this is the goal of most people, really. Even money-focused studio executives never sit down and think, "let's make a piece of shit." They think, "let's make something millions of people want to see." I think it was Scott Rudin who said something like, "With the privilege of making movies comes the responsibility of making them great." And something tells me he's not suffering through bowls of Ramen for his art.

DL, I think your question actually has a lot to do with attitude. If you think that all the movies and TV shows out there right now suck, you're probably going to have a career of frustration and disappointment. You're not gonna show up and change how it all works.

I think it's important to be informed and to think about the big picture - sometimes. Mostly, though, I think you need to worry about writing a great script. Write stories you're passionate about. Don't waste so much energy being a hater.

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For aspiring agents

Yohan writes: I was wondering if you could provide some insight for someone considering a talent agent career. Do you know if agencies tend to prefer certain degrees over others when hiring new agents? Also, any tips for aspiring agents?

Nah, the field of your degree doesn't matter. I'm sure there are quite a few with film or media degrees, but being an agent isn't about debating Fellini. It's sales. And honestly, where you went to school or what you studied won't be the most important thing when you're applying for a job at an agency. Your personal connection will probably get you the job. Interviewing well also helps!

I'm actually kind of jealous of people who want to be agents, because the path to becoming one is pretty simple:

1. Get a job at an agency. Assistant, if you can - but if you can only make it into the mailroom, I'm sure you can move up to assistant at some point (like I did).
2. Get into the trainee program.
3. Be really impressive.
4. Get promoted to agent.

There are some people who don't do it this way - sometimes people work as executives in other fields or at studios or something before becoming agents - but from what I've seen, it's more the exception than the rule.

From what I see, getting promoted to agent requires major hustling. You have to network like crazy, taking people to lunch or drinks every single day. You should read every script you can, learn who all of the players are, and be up on every project. You should be looking for new talent to sign, while also looking for work for the agency's current clients. You should act like an agent in manner, knowledge and dress. You have to be assertive, maybe even ruthless. Being a good assistant won't get you promoted; proving you can be a good agent will.

When an agent I know was asked what he would look for in a new agent, he said he wants someone he'll be able to bring to an important meeting without being embarrassed.

So - play the part. Know your stuff. Hustle. And remember that image is very important.

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Support WriteGirl on May 3rd!

The amazing creative writing mentorship program I volunteer with, WriteGirl, is having a big event on Sunday May 3rd where professional actors will perform scenes written at our playwriting workshop. Tickets are just $20 (or $10 if you still have your student ID). Please support us! A VIP ticket will include fancy food & wine and mingling with actors!

Click here to download the invite!

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Do I suck?

Serita writes: How do you really know when you are a talented writer? My friends who read my specs tell me how funny they are, but I have literally applied to every single fellowship out there and I haven't been accepted to any of them.

Wow, this is tough - and we all ask ourselves this. We'll never really stop.

As writers, our success is always based on what others think of our work, which is probably why it's so nerve-wracking. We spend hours at the keyboard, molding characters we absolutely love, writing lines we think are so wonderfully clever. But unless other people agree with us, we're not going to get anywhere. You have to find people who are fans of your writing. People might tell you they like your script, but if they don't A) offer to represent you, B) buy it, C) offer you a writing job or D) pass it onto someone who can do one of those things, then they didn't really like it that much. Friends are great - but they might be afraid to tell you the truth. Or they might just not have any way to help you.

You have to keep writing, and keep sending your stuff to people. If you give it a few years and you don't find anybody to do any of the above, then maybe you're not cut out for this. As for the fellowships - they're great, but they only accept a tiny fraction of applicants. It doesn't mean you're a bad writer. I don't think it's wise to count on fellowships alone. This business is very competitive, and you have to give yourself the most opportunities you can. You have to be proactive, be your own biggest advocate. Success is not going to hunt you down. Come to LA and meet more people to send your scripts to.

If you can imagine yourself being happy doing something else, then you're not meant to make a career in writing. But if you know you HAVE to do this, keep going.

If you're good, you'll get there. Don't feel like talentless people with great Hollywood connections have a big advantage over you. You still have to be a good writer. I see it all the time: My boss's friend's wife's son's friend's friend will write a script and send it to us. He had the connection. He got inside. But then we'll read the script, and it will suck. And we'll pass. Because you still have to be a good writer.

If you are, keep at it. You'll get there.

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Comic Sans MS: 1994-2009?

It's totally nerdy/snobby, but I'm thinking of joining the movement to ban Comic Sans MS.

I have seriously wanted to use it in dialogue, though...can't you hear someone crying out, "that's like engraving a tombstone in Comic Sans MS" ?


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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Life, Feelings, Zac Efron

So I've been a bit lax with the updating for a few reasons:

1. Momz is in town, so I am eating my way through the weekend via every nearby restaurant

2. The Biggest Loser: Weight Loss Yoga DVD. Oh, Bob.

3. My one-hour light drama pilot - I almost have a new draft finished, which is exciting

4. My feature - I'm working on a rewrite under the guidance of a rather successful and impossibly nice writer/director/producer, which is super exciting

5. 17 AGAIN - is it weird that I am unable to evaluate cinema intelligently when Zac Efron is present, and in aviators?

So yeah. Life and stuff. Until next time, I want you to think about tracking the feelings of your characters. It's a note I've gotten a few times and it's starting to sink in. Sometimes we think about our scripts in terms of plot, and that's certainly understandable - but how do your characters feel about all the things that are happening? What are their greater emotional journeys and arcs? Do they feel differently in the end than they did in the beginning? Is there consistency? If there are changes in feelings, are they on purpose? Understanding what our characters are feeling is an important step in understanding their motivations, and thus being able to root for (or at least be interested in following) people. That's how I see it, at least.

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Sunday, April 12, 2009


Here I am promoting another new NBC drama! SOUTHLAND is a cop show, which normally would make me dismiss it - but it's way more about the cops than the weekly cases. It stars my OC crush Ben McKenzie as a rookie cop tackling a tough first day on the job. I think it's a little funny his character is Ben Sherman - also the name of an English fashion designer - but I'm probably the only one in the world who noticed this. I love the directing and the look of the show. Acting was good. Writing was good. And in that scene where Ben's partner gets as close as he will to waxing poetic about life with a badge, he says "You're a cop, because you don't know how not to be one." This made me happy, because everybody on TV is splitting their infinitives lately - ugh! Anyway, Ben's the kind of protagonist you don't learn much about in the pilot since he's sort of quietly experiencing this new world - but he's a guy you want to learn more about. Ratings were pretty impressive, so it may just stick around. Check out the trailer below, or click here to watch the full pilot on Hulu.

I am also really happy for my friend K, who worked with the show and came up with the name! I think it's great.

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Thursday, April 9, 2009

CBS Writing Mentoring Program

Terry writes: Do you know if the CBS Writing Mentoring Program is open to everyone?

From their website:

The primary focus of The CBS Diversity Institute’s Writers Mentoring Program is to provide access and opportunities for talented and motivated diverse writers with a focus on writers of color. Aspiring diverse writers with a strong desire to write for CBS television series are encouraged to apply. You must be 21 or older to be eligible. If you don't live or work in the US, you may apply - but they will not pay for you to come to Los Angeles to participate in the program.

To apply, you have to submit both a spec episode of a show AND a screenplay, play or fictional short story. So if you only have TV scripts, you're out of luck.

Deadline is May 1st. Good luck! I have it on good authority that this is a great program.

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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

How to write script coverage

Andrew asked about writing coverage. Script coverage is a report that includes a synopsis, comments and rating of a script.

I find people that always do a better job at coverage when they understand WHY they're doing it. So, WHY are you writing it? Basically, coverage exists so that more important people don't have to waste their time reading scripts. Instead, they'll read your coverage and know if it's worth them taking a read. At production companies, you'll read scripts to find out if the producers want to become attached, develop the scripts and take them out to try and sell them. At studios, you'll read scripts to find out if the studio wants to buy the script - or you'll read scripts as writing samples from writers to see if they'd be good to adapt or rewrite other projects, or join the staff of a show. At an agency or management company, you'll read scripts to find out if your company wants to represent the writers, or if your current clients will want to become involved (to star, rewrite, or direct). Sometimes you might have to cover books or plays for possible adaptations. The situation will affect what you focus on.

Your synopsis should be an objective breakdown of what happens in the story - you won't give a sense of whether it's good or not. I generally find it easier to read the whole script first and not write the synopsis as I go, because if you do the latter you won't know which events are more important than others and you'll write down everything. It'll take you forever (and be annoying for the people who read your coverage). One the other hand, your synopsis should be long enough to get a sense of the whole movie. In some cases, people will have to get on the phone and talk about the script as if they've read it - just by reading your coverage.

In the comments section, you'll want to comment on things like plot, story, dialogue, concept, commercial appeal, character development, acting roles, character arcs, etc. Is it easy to follow? Does it have satisfying arcs? What shows or movies could you compare it to? Is it original? Is it derivative? Are the characters interesting? Likable? Are they castable - would actors want to play them? Is it predictable? What is the tone like?

I've only really done feature coverage but in the TV world I'd imagine you'll be commenting on the same kinds of things. Additionally, for specs, did the writer nail the world and tone of the show, and the characters' voices? For pilots, can you see where the show is going? Would it sustain a whole series? Are there series conflicts set up in the pilot?

And then you'll generally give it a PASS, CONSIDER or RECOMMEND. Pass means that whomever you're reading for won't need to read it. Consider means you didn't love it, but it's worth them taking a look. Recommend means you like it a whole lot. Some companies also allow you to make a distinction like WEAK CONSIDER or STRONG CONSIDER. A rookie mistake is to like everything you read - but as you read more and more, you'll get more discerning. Of course, you want to be careful not to get so jaded that you hate everything and pass on something that turns out to be a big success somewhere else. Remember that an imperfect script might make a good movie. Seasoned, successful veterans of the business are able to spot potential within these scripts. Bad dialogue can be rewritten. Tones can be changed. Characters can be more deeply developed. As writers we want to try and nail everything - but as a reader, looking for perfection in every aspect of the script isn't always the goal.

In the couple dozen scripts I've covered for the agency, I've passed on most, considered maybe six or seven, and recommended only one. That one is actually now set up at a pretty big actress' company, which makes me feel like I know what I'm talking about.

Nobody writes amazing coverage at first. Talk to people who have done it, and discuss with your supervisor what it is that he or she is looking for. Every company has a different philosophy, and is looking for different things.

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Sunday, April 5, 2009

When applying for jobs:

1. Follow instructions. People often have specifications about whether to attach or copy & paste your resume, what to put in the subject line, whether to include a cover letter, etc. If they say NO CALLS, don't call.

2. Pay attention. See if you can find out what company it's for. Tailor your letter to the job - if it's for an agency, don't write about how you can't wait to work in production. Same thing with "objective" on your resume - I actually think you can trash this section. But if you really want to have one, make sure it doesn't say "to get a job in development" when you're applying for a job at a management company or something. Don't go on and on about your writing and directing accomplishments if the job does not involve writing and directing. And if the posting says "send resumes to Sally Brown," don't address your email "Dear Sir or Madam" or "To Whom it May Concern." It concerns Sally Brown.

3. Don't make your resume more than a page long. Use smaller fonts and wider margins if you need to - but when you're applying for entry-level or nearly entry-level jobs, it's ridiculous to go onto a second page.

4. If you're not already in LA, you need to specify that. You probably shouldn't even be applying yet at all. There are sooo many people already here - the employers aren't going to wait for you.

5. Keep your cover letter short - and for Hollywood, I'd err on the side of not being super formal. Try to let a little bit of your personality show through rather than sounding like your letter was automatically generated from a Career Services website.

6. Check and double-check for grammar and spelling mistakes. Duh.

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Saturday, April 4, 2009

Coming soon: What to spec

I know a lot of you have been asking what's good to spec this season. My agent trainee friend will be sounding off on that very soon.

In the meantime, work on that pilot!

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