Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Staffing season

Lisa Takeuchi Cullen is blogging about her first staffing season - the reading, the meetings, the cops/lawyers/doctors. Check it out!

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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Writing a character bio

In developing my new feature, my manager (more on that later) suggested I write some character biographies. I went back to an exercise I did in film school, and added a few categories of my own. Here's the list I now fill in for all of my characters:


Height/Body type/Prototype:
Favorite color:
Pet Peeves:
Worst Fear: 
Bad Habits:
Sexual Habits:



Generally, "wants" refers to what the character is trying to achieve on the surface, in the short term, while "needs" refers to the bigger life lesson that the character needs to learn to be happy - or sometimes it's the character flaw he or she needs to work on. (In movies especially, this is often referred to as the arc.) For example, in FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL, Peter WANTS to get Sarah back but NEEDS to move on and focus on getting his life and career together. In VERONICA MARS, Veronica WANTS to solve the case of the week (or season), but she NEEDS to learn to trust and forgive people. (Apparently I've got Kristen Bell on the brain.)

Ideally, the more stuff like this you figure out before you start writing, the fewer soul-crushing rewrites you'll have to do later! 

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Monday, April 12, 2010

UCLA Extension Seminar: From Assistant (or Intern) to Producer/Studio Executive/Network Executive


Saturday, April 17th
9 am - 3 pm
Moore Hall, Room 100

Seminar Directive:
Interested in being a network executive, studio executive, agent, manager, producer, writer, or director for film or television? N ot interested in answering phones or being an assistant for four years? This intense, challenging one-day seminar features a straightforward, no-holds-barred curriculum designed to help you advance more quickly to the top.

Seminar Features:
One FULL day, one-on-one access to a minimum of 6-8 guest speakers, and handouts including professional
resume samples, job information and a comprehensive resource guide for assistants.

Guest Speakers:
Past and future speakers from film and television industries have worked at the following companies: Warner
Brothers, Fox, William Morris Endeavor, CAA, Disney, BC Universal, MTV, BC, ABC, CBS, BET, and
countless others. A minimum of 6 – 8 guest speakers from different entertainment industries are guaranteed to

Current confirmed speakers include:
David Zelon (EVP of Production, Mandalay Pictures)
Ken Storer (Writer – Law & Order)
Clancy Collins-White (VP of Drama Development, Warner Brothers)
Jon Kroll (TV Executive and Award Winning Producer of Amazing Race & Big Brother)
Alex Young (VP of Production, Barry Josephson Productions)

Who Should Attend:
1) Current assistants who want to advance in film or television, eventually to a career as a studio executive,
network executive, producer, agent, writer or director.
2) Individuals looking for assistant positions or internships at studios, networks, talent agencies, management
companies or production companies.
3) Motivated individuals who want to be an executive sooner rather than later!

How To Enroll:
Only through UCLA Extension at www.uclaextension.edu
(Careers in Entertainment seminar – Reg #: V6341)

*Attendance for full day is mandatory for resource list, handouts and job information.

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FREE Academy Workshop: Working Your Way Up in Television

Working Your Way Up in Television: An Entertainment Career Workshop
MONDAY, APRIL 19, 2010
7:30 - 10:00 PM


Leonard H. Goldenson Theatre
5230 Lankershim Blvd.
North Hollywood, CA 91601

Aspiring Network & Studio Executives, Producers, Agents, Writers, Directors, Production Staff; anyone seeking entry-level positions including PAs, assistants, interns, and those trying to move up the ladder. Come in business attire and bring a pen and notepad in a leather portfolio.

6:00 – 7:30 PM

7:30 PM
(We will begin on time and doors may be closed after 7:30pm.)
President, Red Varden Studios; Founder, Hollywood Mentorship Program.org

TV Overview: agencies, networks, studios, production companies, production staff and development process. Career Overview: resumes, interview advice, resources and career strategies.

8:45 PM
Career Advice and Q & A with:

VP, Development & Original Programming, Bravo

Agent, Innovative Artists

Executive Director, Alternative Series, ABC

Director, Mobile Media Solutions, CBS

Royal Pains, Friday Night Lights, According to Jim

Director, Current Programs, Warner Bros. Television

Vice President/Co-Head of Comedy Development, Fox Broadcasting Company

9:30 – 10:00 PM
Small Groups Session with Panelists & additional representatives from ABC/Disney, CBS, NBC Universal,
Fox and others.

NOTE: Each individual attendee must RSVP for themselves only. DO NOT RSVP FOR YOURSELF AND A GUEST.

Early RSVP strongly encouraged as seating is limited. Each individual must provide first and last name, and all guests must RSVP individually as well. Admission is free but not guaranteed. Seating is on a first come, first served basis. Arrival instructions will be emailed upon a confirmed RSVP. Attendance for full evening is mandatory (those who do not RSVP cannot attend). Parking is $4 in the TV Academy structure. Street parking may also be available.

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Friday, April 9, 2010

Ensemble and "intersecting lives" pieces

Jeremiah writes: I'm 17 and working on a drama/thriller feature that is an ensemble piece. I'm trying to make it a tricky project like LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN meets CRASH, but I'm having trouble with the structure. Any ideas?

CRASH is not just an ensemble piece,  it's what I call an "intersecting lives" piece, because the characters are all dealing with their own stories and conflicts that intersect and weave together throughout the movie. LOVE ACTUALLY is another successful example of this, though in that film there are already a lot of established familial and friend relationships, which might have made the storytelling a bit easier and more natural. An example of a straight-up ensemble piece in which the characters are all dealing with the same plot/conflict would be THE BIG CHILL. Often, ensemble pieces are about families, students or groups of friends - because these people are already in the same settings and dealing with the same problem(s). When we throw together a lot of unrelated people who only meet because of the movie, things get trickier.

In my opinion, ensemble pieces are hard and intersecting lives pieces are even harder. I've read a lot of ones that don't work, usually because I don't care about the characters enough, or because the plots are muddled or confusing (or worse, nonexistent). It's a lot of work to develop several characters equally, and movies can feel disjointed if it's not one single person who is driving the story. For writers attempting their first (or second, or third) feature, I would recommend sticking with a more typical structure with one protagonist going on a single journey to achieve a single goal. (Even in TV shows with lots of characters, it's usually a good idea to zero in on a protagonist. Look at the LOST pilot - we immediately see things from Jack's point of view.) It's not that you can't have well-defined secondary characters, conflicts and subplots, but focusing on your protagonist will keep your story clear and organized. I think once you master this structure, then you'll be more equipped to tackle a more complicated ensemble piece or intersecting lives piece.

But if you insist on writing an ensemble or intersecting lives piece, I would recommend studying the structure of every successful one you can find. What works? What doesn't? How do you get to know the characters quickly? How does the plot keep moving along? In a general sense, I would stick to the standard three-act structure laid out in books like SAVE THE CAT (my must-have guide for outlining features).

I think you'll also notice that these pieces have really strong themes, and that each plot is an exploration of the theme, whether it's love being all around us or racism and prejudice being all around us. (HE'S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU is another ensemble piece with a really specific theme.) Maybe the key is to start with what you want to say.

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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Perfecting your quick pitch

The idea of pitching used to terrify me. (And to be fair, I haven't had an official pitch meeting with producers or executives yet.) But I'm always informally pitching my ideas to people - and I think it's a crucial skill for working out your ideas, and seeing how other people respond to them.

If you tell someone about an idea and can't boil it down to a sentence or two, that's a problem. You need a simple logline like "A woman has to make it to Canada in time to save her husband from terrorists who ride elk." If you can't simplify the story, you might have too many elements, or it might be unfocused. The protagonist, theme, conflict and character arc/journey should be clear in your head, enabling you to communicate these things to others.

Comparing your idea to other movies or shows often helps people understand the tone of your piece. A workplace comedy like OFFICE SPACE is a lot different from a romantic comedy like IT'S COMPLICATED. Just make sure you're using movies and shows that were successful. Nobody wants to hear a pitch for a movie that's THE HOTTIE AND THE NOTTIE meets CAVEMEN.

Remember that people always respond to passion. Why did you choose to write this idea? What is so interesting about it? If you're able to make other people see why it's so compelling, you're halfway there. Pitch your idea to lots of people as you develop it. They might recommend similar TV shows or movies you haven't seen, or give you a new perspective to perfect or even re-imagine your idea.

Unless you're asking a close friend to help you with a writing dilemma, don't get into all the things that are wrong with your idea. Don't poison the pitch (or read). See what people respond to and have trouble with on their own. The writing landscape is already really competitive, so don't give people a reason to dismiss you. Be your own biggest advocate.

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Monday, April 5, 2010

Are Hollywood Internships Illegal?

I've blogged extensively about how doing an internship in Hollywood can be beneficial in making contacts and can possibly lead to a paid gig. But are Hollywood internships illegal? The New York Times ran an interesting piece about the subject.

For an internship to be legal, it needs to satisfy the following six criteria:

  • The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to what would be given in a vocational school or academic educational instruction
  • The training is for the benefit of the trainees
  • The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under their close observation
  • The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees, and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded
  • The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the training period
  • The employer and the trainees understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training 

Based on that, a lot of Hollywood internships are probably illegal. If your entire day consists of making copies and fetching coffee, you're not learning something that would be taught in a traditional academic setting, and it's not really for your benefit. An intern should not essentially be an unpaid PA or assistant.

But what can you do? As the article points out:
Many regulators say that violations are widespread, but that it is unusually hard to mount a major enforcement effort because interns are often afraid to file complaints. Many fear they will become known as troublemakers in their chosen field, endangering their chances with a potential future employer.
We all want to prove how hard-working we are, and we know that if we refuse to do menial work, our employers could post an ad on Craigslist and have 200 wannabe replacements show up within the hour. 

Keep in mind that some menial work is part of all internships. If you make a lot of copies but also learn how to write good coverage, then the internship isn't illegal. After reading these criteria, I'm certain that three of my four internships were definitely legal. But with companies looking to cut costs, we have to hold them accountable.
Employers posted 643 unpaid internships on Stanford’s job board this academic year, more than triple the 174 posted two years ago.
It can't just be coincidence. Companies know they can get high-quality workers for free. Even more insidiously, the prevalence of unpaid internships favors people who come from wealthy families and don't need to support themselves. People suggest that talent agencies do the same thing with their ridiculously low wages of $350-500 a week. You might argue that they're weeding out people who aren't really passionate and hard-working, but they're also weeding out people whose parents aren't sending them gobs of cash. How is any kind of social mobility possible in this environment?

So, what can we do? Internships have been part of television and film for a long time, and will likely remain that way. As a prospective intern, protect yourself. Don't be above doing menial tasks, but make sure you're getting something worthwhile out of the internship (I've blogged about this before). If you're in the position of supervising interns, make sure you take the time to teach them about what you and you company do. Internships should be educational, benefitting the intern and not the company. Otherwise, you're breaking the law.

Inside a Writers Room...

With 24 and The New York Times

and Life Unexpected's creator/showrunner Liz Tigelaar via the WGA website

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Sunday, April 4, 2010

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Scene Cards and the use of the word "We"

Steven the Canadian Script Writing Student writes:  Do you use scene cards (Eg. writing some basic info about each scene on a cue card along with a brief description of what happens)? Do most screenwriters use this technique?

I don't really use the cards, though I know that many top screenwriters do - including John August. (He wrote an additional post about card tips here.) It can be a great way to look at the structure of your script in a visual way, and also a way to force yourself to think about the necessity and movement of scenes. But it can also be a colossal procrastinating tool that isn't all that different from an outline or beat sheet. And for what it's worth, I think Final Draft has a card feature that simulates the visual layout.

Everybody has his or her own process. The important part is creating a solid outline and figuring everything out before you start writing.

Steven continues:
Another thing my professor mentioned was that we should avoid using the word "we" when discussing action in a script such as "we then see the red car approaching the house" or "we get a sense of terror when seeing the hook wedged into the door knob." I'm a little confused after reading a few professional scripts which have used "we" when describing action. Is this something I should avoid doing?

Some teachers will tell you that the "we" is an absolute no-no, but like you discovered, some pros do use it. I think the key is to use it sparingly. Sometimes it can help the reader see how the camera will move, but sometimes it gets annoying. If you can figure out a way to write your description without the "we," I'd recommend going that route. That way, you won't annoy the people who despise it. 

Definitely DON'T write "we get a sense of terror." It's your job to SHOW the reader things to make them feel the terror, not tell them what to feel. 

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