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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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Reduced-Price Script Coverage & Notes!

12/6/10 - Update: YES, I am still doing notes! Rates are all still the same.  E-mail me!

"Amanda is an incredible reader. Her insight into my script was original and compelling. In fact, I just optioned it to a prominent production company. So use her!" - Tony D

"Amanda gave me excellent script coverage with my Law and Order: Criminal Intent spec. She praised the positive aspects while giving me constructive feedback about the parts of my script that weren't working without hurting my feelings or making me feel stupid--and as a sensitive person, I admire someone who can do that. She not only gave me advice on the overall structure of the script but helped me with nit-picky details that many other readers might have overlooked. I spent several hundred dollars on feedback from so-called "professional scriptwriting services" but won't make that same mistake in the future--I got better quality script notes and advice from Amanda." - Sarah M

I've really enjoyed getting all of your emails, and I'm glad to have shared some of the things I've learned about writing and the industry over the past couple years. However, I know that sometimes you guys are looking for more specific feedback on your individual scripts - so I'm introducing a reduced-price script coverage & notes service.

Why am I doing this? 1. A lot of you have been asking for my notes. 2. I know there are a bunch of services out there, but $600 is something that most aspirers just cannot afford. 3. It's kind of the off-season for tutoring, and I'm seriously running out of cash.

My rates are:
1/2-hour pilot or spec: $65
1-hour pilot or spec: $80
feature: $100

I'll bill you through PayPal and you can pay via credit card, bank account, etc.

You can compare this with Alex Epstein, who charges $600 for TV and $850 for features, or Jen Grisanti, who charges $450 for TV and $600 for features. They've worked as professionals and I'm sure they give great feedback...but that's a lot of money.

What you'll get from me: at least three pages of notes addressing the structure, plot, characters, dialogue, format, commercial viability and writing style/voice of your script. (Keep in mind I'll probably have more to say about a feature than a half-hour sitcom.) I'll also recommend any relevant scripts I think you should read or shows/films I think you should watch. Turnaround time is one week. (If I suddenly get hundreds of scripts, I may have to change that, but I think it'll be fine for now.) If you need immediate help for some kind of deadline, we can talk about an additional fee. And if you're not sure if I'm familiar with a show you're speccing, feel free to email and ask.

But Amanda, you say, you're still just an aspiring writer too. Yes, of course. That's why I'm cheap. I haven't sold anything yet. I haven't been staffed yet. But I HAVE read dozens and dozens of scripts by aspirers and professionals. The agency I worked at didn't have freelance readers, so the assistants did all the reading. I've also listened to hundreds of phone in calls in which producers and executives talked about why they liked scripts and why they didn't, why they were willing to shell out $600,000 and why they weren't.

Here's what a few people who asked for my notes had to say:

"Amanda's critique was insightful and specific. She helped me tighten the structure of my BONES spec immensely and provided a window into how industry insiders would see my script." -Rebecca S

"Amanda put into perspective everything that was weak about our feature script, but in a very positive and constructive way. With every criticism came a helpful suggestion. She is a genius script doctor and her diagnosis was the perfect cure for our story. She definitely knows the anatomy of a script and is a very valuable resource." -John L and Ishira K

"Amanda read and gave notes on a half-hour TV spec pilot I wrote. Amanda's notes were smart, constructive and detailed which helped in the finessing of the script. The script has now been optioned by a UK TV production company who work a lot with the BBC." - Kevin L

If you're interested in my coverage service, send me an email at aspiringwriterblog at gmail dot com. I will send you a release form to fill out, sign and mail or scan and email (sadly I don't have a fax machine). Don't fret about this - it's just a protective thing that happens all the time. I'm not starting this service to steal people's ideas - I have plenty of my own. :) Then I will send you a PayPal invoice, and after I see that the payment is processing, I'll start reading.


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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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