Saturday, December 31, 2011

Screenwriting lessons from my favorite movies of 2011

Instead of crafting one of those dreaded top-10 lists, I've decided to write what I learned about screenwriting from some of my favorites of 2011 (in no particular order). What have you learned?

Mild spoiler alerts below!

I loved a million things about this movie, but I especially liked that it was equal parts funny, sad and heartfelt. Comedy CAN be found in traditionally unfunny things, especially if you know a lot about a world or experience and feel it's your story to tell.
Download the 50/50 script PDF

Crazy Stupid Love
Never underestimate the power of a good twist! Genius Dan Fogelman laid the foundation of Emma Stone's real identity so that it was surprising but still made perfect sense. Sometimes in comedies and romances I think we forget about plot twists, which can be created by manipulating the audience's assumptions.
Download the Crazy Stupid Love script PDF

Like Crazy
I blogged about this before, so forgive me if you already read it...but this movie really got me thinking about the ever-discussed character arc. I had boxed myself in by thinking, "The character must learn a lesson" when perhaps it's more helpful to think, "the character must transform." The difference between Felicity Jones in the first scene and Felicity Jones in the last scene is absolutely heartbreaking - and a testament to her performance.

Young Adult
Perhaps society is ready for an unlikable female protagonist after all. I think this movie worked because it was ever-so-obvious that you're not supposed to like Mavis. But more than that, Young Adult may be a lesson in theme: everything in this movie emulated Mavis' ongoing adolescence, from her E! TV habits to her food choices to her Hello Kitty shirts. Also: nebulous, dark endings can work. Moving on doesn't always mean happily ever after.

The Descendants
Setting is so important! I am constantly telling people to be specific and actually USE the setting they've chosen. When I finish your script, I should be able to see where it is and understand why it's set there. In The Descendants, the Hawaii landscapes provided beautiful shots as well as a rich thematic discussion of what "paradise" is like on the inside versus the outside. How does your setting exemplify your theme? This movie was also an interesting exploration of grief, which can be a terribly inactive and boring emotion to watch onscreen. Instead of a story about a man losing his wife, this movie was a story about a man coming to terms with his dying wife's affair. It was complicated and different, and gave him active things to do.
Download The Descendants script PDF


Also, sometimes a big movie can spring from a small, emotional idea. At its core, this movie was about losing your best friend to her future husband. Growing up. Accepting that things can't always stay the same. Pairing this emotional journey with the ticking clock of the upcoming wedding gave us big comedy set pieces. Interestingly, Bridemaids wasn't the movie many of us expected; they never did make it to Vegas. I think the big "female Hangover"-esque romp that this movie was marketed as could have been fun too...but maybe the fact that this was a fairly small, bittersweet friendship story is why we all liked it so much.
Download the Bridesmaids script PDF

Cedar Rapids
This is another example of the importance of specific settings. The mundane Midwesternness of the location informed every single scene. Also, John C. Reilly's character was beyond entertaining...please write a Dean Ziegler into your script! Now that I'm thinking about it, this movie also demonstrates that conflict doesn't just come from the antagonist. Ed Helms' pals got him in just as much trouble as the evil Kurtwood Smith did. Lastly, stakes come from how much something means to your character. Maybe the Two Diamonds award isn't a big deal to you, but it was a big deal to Ed Helms.

No Strings Attached
Make your B-plots visually entertaining! I loved the Glee-like sets where Ashton worked. This movie also had great character details; Natalie's job as a doctor softened her otherwise tough exterior, and all the supporting characters were funny and specific. Also I want to be Liz Meriwether and create hit shows and call bitches pumpkins.
Download the No Strings Attached script PDF

Horrible Bosses
Uncertainty is your pal. What uncertainty is pulling us through your story, making us wonder what will happen by the end? In addition to the hilarious dialogue, Horrible Bosses offered up a number of questions that made the story unpredictable: Will they go through with this plan to kill the bosses? Will all three of them go through with it? Maybe just one or two? Will any of them get caught? What complications will they encounter on the way?
Download the Horrible Bosses script PDF

Martha Marcy May Marlene
Want to craft an exciting role for an actor? Give your character an unsettling truth or trauma hidden underneath layers and layers of tension. In this movie, every scene peeled back another layer - but Elizabeth Olsen could never quite communicate her complicated feelings.
Download the Martha Marcy May Marlene script PDF

Midnight in Paris
This movie was just fun. Magical. Wouldn't it be exciting if you could meet Hemingway? Movies aren't real life; they're better. Do something you can't do in real life.

I have zero interest in sports or baseball and I loved this movie. It wasn't about baseball, it was about a guy who had to do the impossible. Give your character an absolutely impossible task and see how he or she tries to accomplish it. Also, isn't Peter Brand the coolest supporting character ever?
Download the Moneyball script PDF

The Muppets
Self-reflexivity is hard to pull off - but when it works, it's delightful. Maniacal laugh, maniacal laugh.
Download The Muppets script PDF

Source Code
This was one of the most underrated movies of the year. Study it for its clever structure! I loved that Jake Gyllenhaal had competing goals and couldn't really try to accomplish them both simultaneously. This movie was also impressive in that we saw the same scenes over and over without getting bored.
Download the Source Code script PDF

Friday, December 30, 2011

Nominations open for WD's 101 Best Websites for Writers

Thanks to fellow blogger The Bitter Script Reader for putting this on my radar: Each year, Writer's Digest's unveils its list of 101 Best Websites for Writers. If you would like to nominate this blog (or another blog or website), send an email to: with 101 Best Websites nomination in the subject line. Write a brief note asking for WD to consider the site for inclusion in the 101 Best Websites list and make sure to provide both the NAME of the blog/site, as well as the URL. The deadline for nominations is January 1st. Happy voting!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Jane Espenson is blogging again!

The only reason you probably ever found this blog is Jane Espenson, a TV writer who has worked on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, The O.C., Gilmore Girls, Once Upon a Time & more. She used to regularly update her blog with writing advice, and one day was kind enough to link to my little blog. Eventually, Jane decided she was out of things to say. (If you're new to the blogosphere and haven't read her blog, though, you should definitely go through the archives!)

Luckily for us, Jane is blogging again - via The Huffington Post. She writes in her first post, "Is TV Writing the Best Job Ever?":

Hello, Gentle Readers. Who's up for a good blogging? I know I am! I used to blog on my own site, expounding on the art and craft of television writing. But I stopped one day when I realized that I had expounded myself into the ground. There was nothing left for me to teach. That was a few years ago, though, and since then I've learned new things and refined my thinking on a lot of the old things. Right now, I'm writing for the network hit Once Upon a Time (ABC), and for my own web series Husbands, so I'm topped off to overflowing with knowledge.

Yay! Welcome back to the web, Jane! It looks like even the pros regularly "refine their thinking" about writing. I'm glad to hear I'm on the right track.

Also, if you haven't seen her webseries Husbands yet, you can check it out here. Below is the official teaser clip:

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The best screenwriting books

Professional screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin recently spoke in a podcast about the helpfulness of screenwriting books, concluding that such books are not necessarily detrimental to your development as a screenwriter, but cannot replace analysis of actual screenplays and films. John & Craig also cautioned against any book (or consultant or "guru") trying to boil screenwriting down to an overly simple, one-size-fits-all formula. (I agree that despite the psychological appeal, there is no quick scheme or solution to writing a script.) Also problematic is that many book writers and seminar organizers have few or no produced credits, leading Craig to believe that many of them operate in bad faith.

However, I think that a commenter on John's blog made the valid point that John and Craig may have trouble remembering what it's like to be an inexperienced, aspiring writer. They throw out phrases like "first act" and "midpoint," expecting that we know what they mean. Craig also suggested that a pile of books would cost about $80, forgetting about libraries. Did you know that for zero dollars, the County of Los Angeles Public Library system lets you reserve books (from their network of 88 libraries) online and emails you when they're ready to be picked up at your local branch? (Strangely, there is also an entirely separate City of Los Angeles library network.) As a cash-strapped girl who often gets stuck on a diet of whatever's left at the back of the freezer, I've found the library to be quite beneficial - and the brand new West Hollywood branch is also a gorgeous, free writing space.

John suggested that unlike screenwriting gurus who hold expensive seminars, college professors teach screenwriting in good faith. Let's look at one example: NYU currently costs $41,606 a year for tuition, room and board. So if you go for four years of undergrad, that's $166,424 for a film degree. If you move to LA after school and get an assistant job that pays $25,000 a year, I bet you'll have a pretty tough time paying off your student loans. I actually got into NYU and really wanted to go, but even with financial aid, loans, work study and a $13,000/yr merit scholarship, I was told I would still need to come up with $20,000 a year. (Apparently, I was supposed to have this on hand in a Walter White duffel bag somewhere). I'm not saying professors aren't teaching in good faith - I loved many of my IC professors, and it's not like they're pocketing gobs of cash while selling superfluous services to writers - but private film schools aren't cheap. For financial or other reasons, many writers get interested in screenwriting after college and don't know where to turn for guidance. You can start reading professional scripts (and you should), but you might not know exactly what you're looking for. Sure, some screenwriting books are complete crap, but I think books can be useful in getting you to think about screenwriting in new ways. I figure that if you learn just one helpful thing from a book, panel, blog, interview, etc., it's worth it. I certainly feel that my knowledge of and approach to screenwriting are things I've compiled from hundreds of things I've read, heard and watched.

The important thing to remember is that there is no quick fix to your writing - or your career. I often write complex notes to people and see them write back, "So, if I just switch this scene and this scene, it'll fix everything?" Facepalm. No! I just wanted you to think about your script in a new way. Often, we think of character arcs in movies as lessons character need to learn...but Like Crazy (my constant example, sorry!) made me see the arc as a study of how characters can become drastically different by the end of a movie. It's not about Felicity Jones learning to follow international visa rules, or even whether she and Anton Yelchin will stay together; it's about the fact that they will never again be the people we saw in the opening scene. The transformation is heartbreaking.

As far as careers go, people also send me emails like, "So, I just need to enter a fellowship and then I'll be good?" Facepalm again. There is no quick fix to your career. You need to write something great and get someone important to read it (and like it) - and unfortunately, both of those things entail multiple attempts, tactics and false starts. As Craig noted in the podcast, our psychological desire for certainty and simplicity is understandable - but you won't find it in a Hollywood career.

So, back to the screenwriting books. I've read many of them, and Save the Cat by Blake Snyder is definitely my favorite. You may criticize the book for demanding that screenplays adhere to a super-strict structure, but it's been a very useful tool for me. It was the first book that made me think, "Okay, this makes sense. I can do this," rather than intimidating me with lofty thoughts about the hero's journey. (But hey, read about that too!) Also, I tend to write things based on characters I love or lines of dialogue that pop into my head - and that can make me want to ignore structure. Blake's book forced me to focus on structure, in addition to giving me a practical framework for analyzing scripts and films. I have printed out the BS beat sheet and used it to break down dozens of movies. Now when I'm struggling with a midpoint, I can flip through my binder of breakdowns and look at how 15 similar movies dealt with midpoints. In Legally Blonde, the midpoint is when Reese stops trying to win back Warner and starts trying to exonerate Ali Larter. At The Holiday's midpoint, Cameron Diaz finds out that Jude Law has kids and isn't some deceptive womanizer. Both can inspire you to think about your script's beats in a new way.

Below are some of the most popular screenwriting books. If you'd prefer to buy copies so you can refer back to them later instead of borrowing them from a library, I've included Amazon links.
Save the Cat! The Last Book You'll Ever Need on Screenwriting by Blake Snyder
Save the Cat Strikes Back
Save the Cat Goes to the Movies
Story by Robert McKee
Screenplay by Syd Field
The following aren't specifically books about writing, but are fun and informative books about the industry:
Small Screen, Big Picture by Chad Gervich
Billion Dollar Kiss: The Kiss That Saved Dawson's Creek and Other Adventures in TV Writing by Jeffrey Stepakoff
Hello He Lied by Lynda Obst
Writing Movies For Fun & Profit by Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant
The Mailroom by David Rensin
Bossypants by Tina Fey
Feel free to comment about any screenwriting books or TV writing books you've found helpful!

Also, a quick note about my script consulting. In the podcast, Craig theorized that many script consultants start notes services because of underemployment. True! The production companies, festivals and contests I read for simply don't send me enough work to add up to an entire income. If I only needed one job, I wouldn't have five. But I like to think that my prices convey that I'm not doing this in bad faith; I'm simply making a fair and modest hourly rate. I never try to up-sell people, and I'm honest about shows I haven't watched or genres I don't like. Do I give encouragement to people whose scripts need a ton of work? Sure...but I'm also honest about whether their work would be taken seriously by professionals, and I acknowledge that we all have to start somewhere. Some of those who have asked for my notes are attempting their first scripts, and I evaluate them as such. Whether you think I'm qualified enough to offer notes is completely up to you, and I don't begrudge anyone who would rather go to someone with more than four years of professional reading experience. Most aspiring writers turn to their friends for free notes, and if those notes plus studious analysis of real scripts are enough for you, great! However, some people (in LA or otherwise) have complained to me that their friends only give feedback like "I like it" and "cool." I can't give you a simple quick fix for your script, but I can be more specific than that.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

PaleyFest 2012!

PaleyFest 2012 takes place March 2-14 in Beverly Hills.

Individual tickets go on sale today! Events include Mad Men, American Horror Story, Sons of Anarchy, Modern Family & more!

You can also follow @paleycenter on Twitter.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Terriers available on Netflix streaming!

FX's one-season PI character drama TERRIERS is available on Netflix streaming! I LOVED this show...kind of an adult VERONICA MARS. Check it out:

Thursday, December 1, 2011

You haven't seen...?

I can relate to Edgar Wright, who sometimes gets chastised for not having seen popular films. From his blog:
I hope in my time I have never chastised anyone for not seeing a movie. Neither am I a big fan of the phrase “I can’t believe you haven’t seen…” accompanied by an exaggerated expression of surprise. (Case in point: When I bought the first season boxset of ‘Breaking Bad’ at Amoeba, the cashier said with a smirk “You haven’t seen this yet?”) 
 I basically believe that you can’t be late to a party if the party never stops. 
Back in January, I did my second New Beverly season showing some of my favourite films and indeed saw some of them on the big screen for the first time. Which gave me an idea… 
For my next programming stint, why not screen classic or cult movies that I have yet to see and always wanted to see on a big screen.
He'll be showing films from Dec 9-16. Check out the listings here. 

Friday, November 18, 2011

Does your conflict stem from concept?

I'm alive! Sorry, guys. I know the blog has been a bit quiet lately. I've been working on several writing projects, doing a lot of copywriting/blogging to keep my (leaky) roof over my head, and attempting to work off a lot of restaurant food at the gym.

But I thought I would throw out at least one thing I've been thinking about lately: does your conflict stem from your concept?

I guess you can file this under the list of things that might be wrong with your script when you finish it and it's just not "right." It also relates to Blake Snyder's idea of fulfilling the "promise of the premise."

You have a high-concept idea. A compelling logline. You have plenty of conflict and obstacles. Your character wants something and has a lot of trouble getting it.

But do your obstacles stem from your concept? In Veronica Mars, the title character is a PI who's still in high school. So when she goes out on PI missions, the fact that she's a young girl is what keeps her from solving her cases. People don't take her seriously. She can't just march into any biker bar she wants. And she still has to go to school. Of course, the concept also creates plenty of fun, and grants Veronica some special abilities (since nobody expects a high school girl to be a PI)...but it also creates specific obstacles. Your concept might offer a few different kinds of obstacles; on The New Girl, conflict results from the fact that Jess is newly single, and also that she lives with three dudes who don't really know her or understand her. Especially in the beginning, it wouldn't make sense for a New Girl ep to be about Jess having problems with a student at work, you know? Her problems come from being newly single and living with three dudes who don't really know her or understand her. In this week's ep, she brought home a date (Justin Long) - and the conflict stemmed from her new roomies trying to get along with him. Along these same lines, if you're pitching a show, you want your episode ideas to be stories that come directly from your concept - not stories that could be told on any show on TV. I came up with a ton of episode ideas before it really clicked that they weren't specific enough to my show (and concept).

The same goes for movies. In Like Crazy (have I told you that you have to see this movie?!), two characters attempt a long-distance relationship. With an 8-hour time difference, they're never around for phone calls. They aren't together to celebrate each other's career developments. Relationships can have plenty of conflict - but this one's specific conflicts come from the fact that the couple lives apart. Like Blake Snyder says, you want to fulfill the promise of your if you tell us the movie is about witches getting trapped in a prison, we'd better see a lot of set pieces of witches trapped in a prison.

Perhaps this all sounds obvious...but it took me a little while to figure this out. If you have a decent concept and plenty of conflict, you might miss the fact that the two aren't connected.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Intern Sushi & Laugh Factory Present: The Business of Comedy Panel

Next Monday, Intern Sushi is hosting a FREE panel event at The Laugh Factory.

Host: Mark Gordon
Heather McDonald, Comedian, Writer & Story Producer, Chelsea Lately
Erik Baiers, VP Production, Universal Pictures
Julie Darmody, President of Management, Mosaic
Stuart Cornfeld, Partner, Red Hour Films
Daron Moore, Director of Marketing, The Laugh Factory

The panel will be followed by a one hour standup comedy show, featuring T.J. Miller, Deon Cole, Melissa Villasenor and more!

Date: Monday, Nov. 14th at 7:30pm
Location: The Laugh Factory - 8001 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood
It's FREE, but RSVP is required:
Limited tickets available.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Tuesday links!

No film has affected me this year quite like Like Crazy... go see it.
Interview: 'Like Crazy' Director Drake Doremus on Filming Romance []

Young Hollywood: How 40 became the new 30 for actors [Slate]
The average age of female Oscar winners, after remaining steady for almost half a century—40 in 1960s, rising slightly to 41 in 1970s, 41 again in 1980s, 40 in the 1990s—in the 2000s dropped to 35 for the first time, pulled down by wins for Charlize Theron (28, Monster), Reese Witherspoon (29, Walk the Line), and Natalie Portman (29, Black Swan). And those are Oscar wins, not nominations, the culmination of careers, not their beginnings.

Interview: 'Happy Endings' producers David Caspe and Jonathan Groff talk Halloween, friendship and more [HitFix]
Caspe offers an honest, interesting perspective on the similarity among shows premiering at the same time: Obviously, when I pitched the show, all those others were being sold simultaneously. None of us were aware of each other. I know that from the outside, some of the reception was, "Oh, that's the thing to do this year," but that's not how it works. I was completely in a vacuum, and unaware of what's being pitched, and the people on those other shows were the same way. So not until things start to air did I realize, "Uh-oh, there's like 5 or 6 of them coming out." Then there is the concern, especially because we aired last, I believe. If you count 'Mad Love,' 'Perfect Couples,' 'Traffic Light,' only 'Friends with Benefits' came on after us. I felt the writing on the wall and felt we were going to have a tough road. I didn't quite realize how tough it would be, and some of that's my inexperience in television. And then there were some things that I kind of wasn't aware of. I thought a guy getting left at the altar to start a show was an interesting way to start a pilot, and I think people felt it was too similar to Jennifer Aniston's character running away from the altar. To be honest, I haven't seen the pilot of "Friends" in a long time and didn't realize that similarity. Once one thing went against us, everything looked even worse. I look like I ripped a show off even more. But it is what it is, and we just keep plugging away and trying to make funny shows.

Producers and Executives at Odds as the Sweet Studio Deal Dies [THR]

The State of the Studio Deals: Who's Doing What Where [THR]

The Script Writer for 'Anonymous' Defends His Controversial Movie [The Atlantic]

Friday, October 28, 2011

Nerdist Writer Panels for December

Nerdist Writer Panels are informal chats about writing and the business of writing. Proceeds benefit 826LA, the non-profit tutoring program founded by Dave Eggers. For tickets, click here!

Time: 5-7pm
Nerdist Industries at Meltdown Comics
7522 Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90046

November 6
Hart Hanson (creator, Bones, Finder)
Sarah Goldfinger (Grimm; CSI)
Jose Molina (Terra Nova; Angel; Firefly)

November 13
Josh Berman (creator, Drop Dead Diva)
Adam Glass (Supernatural; Cold Case)
Leigh Dana Jackson (Alcatraz; No Ordinary Family)

November 20
Marti Noxon (Buffy; Glee; Mad Men)
Danny Zuker (Modern Family)
Craig Silverstein (creator, Nikita; co-creator, Terra Nova)

You can also find out about the monthly panels by clicking "Like" on Nerdist's Facebook page.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tuesday links: Glamour Reel Moments 2011

In its 6th year — with 20 films premiered, Glamour Reel Moments brings Hollywood’s leading female talent to take a turn behind the camera, directing a short film inspired by real-life story submissions from Glamour readers.

By helping place more women in the director’s chair and focusing on real-life stories, Glamour Reel Moments strives to serve as a vehicle of empowerment for women.

Proceeds from Reel Moments—Produced by Glamour and Freestyle Picture Company—benefit a charity chosen by each director.

2011's directors are Olivia Wilde, Eva Longoria and Zoe Saldana. Check out their awesome shorts!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Advice from Brandon Easton, author of Shadowlaw

Strangely enough, I came upon this Wired magazine interview through an imperfect Google alert for my blog...and then I realized that graphic novel writer Brandon Easton is also a screenwriter who did his undergrad at my alma mater (Ithaca)! I thought he offered some great advice for all kinds of writers:


In general, what inspired you to become a comics creator and screenplay author? What advice would you give others seeking the same career?

BE: I have many inspirations in film, TV, comics and literature. It would take me another hour to get through just a few of them [laughs]. If you were to pinpoint a few, I would say the works of Gene Roddenberry George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Katsuhiro Otomo, Mamuro Oshii, John Steinbeck, Richard Wright, Ridley Scott, Warren Ellis, Aaron Sorkin, ’80s afternoon and Saturday morning animation, the culture of the street/neighborhood arcades and Soul music from 1970-1989.
The best advice is to have something to show people.

Far too often I’ve met people who claim to be writers but have nothing to show for their career. No blog, no articles, no self-published work, no “officially” published work, no track record of any kind.

It is impossible to take someone seriously when there isn’t a method of determining if they have talent. If you’re a comic book artist and you don’t own a portfolio, then you’re a complete moron.

I don’t mean to seem harsh but the same thing applies to writers who have nothing written down. I wish I could say this was a small population of people, but the reality is that I’ve met thousands of aspiring writers over the years that talk a great game about getting published but spend little or no time actually writing anything.

Then the next level is to find ways to let people know you exist. It’s not easy, but it is possible to build a following through message boards, internet chat rooms, Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites.

I see writers finish a project and then assume that editors and publishers will miraculously find them and offer them a contract. Writers have to be aggressive, vigilant and consistent in their pursuit of recognition. It takes time to develop yourself as an entity (it took me ten years and I am JUST getting through the thick outer layers of the business) and even more time for people to realize that you’re not going to waste their time.

Writers have to do research. If there is one thing I have learned, it’s that writers need to do research as often as possible. What do you research? Well, 1) market trends (what’s selling, what isn’t, and where your product will fit in once you get it out there); 2) how the industry accepts new talent (do you know how to find a literary agent and why you need one? What processes exist to get you past the gatekeepers of publishing companies and Hollywood studios); 3) determining who or what your core audience is and finding ways to attract them to your product; and 4) understanding how to “brand” yourself as a franchise and using that to attract others to you.

I produce a podcast devoted to sci-fi and comic book writers called Writing for Rookies that addresses the ins and outs of the business. I set it up as a “writing 101″ for those interested in comics and screenwriting but have no idea where to begin. It’s a perfect way to learn how this industry operates.

You can read the full interview here.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Nerdist Writer Panels for October

Nerdist Writer Panels are informal chats about writing and the business of writing. Proceeds benefit 826LA, the non-profit tutoring program founded by Dave Eggers. For tickets, click here!

Nerdist Industries at Meltdown Comics
7522 Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90046

October 16
Josh Berman (creator, Drop Dead Diva)
Kyle Killen (co-creator, Awake; creator, Lone Star; The Beaver)
Charles Murray (Castle; V; Criminal Minds)

October 23
Liz Meriwether (creator, The New Girl)
Liz Craft & Sarah Fain (Vampire Diaries; Dollhouse)
Angela Kang (The Walking Dead; Terriers)

October 30
Tom Lennon (Night at the Museum)
Seth Grahame-Smith (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter; Dark Shadows)

Monday, October 10, 2011

Putting your scripts online?

Joseph writes: I've recently finished two pilots and am working on a spec right now. I'm planning on moving to LA next summer and would like to be as prepared as I can when I get there, so I set up a portfolio website to introduce myself and display my work. I've read online that these can be a good way to get your name out there, but haven't been able to find much info on the subject and I was wondering what you thought about them and if you had any suggestions on what to include. Do you think it's a good idea to show my actual scripts on the website as long as they are registered with the WGA? or should I just have a summary of the pilots and have people email me if they would like to read them? Any other tips you might have would be greatly appreciated.

Hmm. My gut instinct is to tell you not to put your scripts online, but I can't come up with a lot of reasons why. There's no reason to be overly precious or protective of your's not as though people are begging new writers to read stuff (usually we have to do the begging)! Also, I don't think anyone is going to steal your ideas, and like you said, you can protect yourself by registering the scripts with the WGA. Still, if you meet people (managers, agents, producers, etc.), you'll want to establish email contact at some point - and you'd be able simply to email your scripts to them. I feel like if you tell people "just go to this website," they might never do it. If people who stumble across your site are impressed by other material you post online (like blog posts), they might want to download your scripts - but they could also just email you if you post an email address online.

My friend Josh and his writing partner Juliana, who were chosen for NBC's Writers on the Verge, have posted their scripts online (on Josh's blog) for a I asked Josh if he thought posting scripts online had helped them. Here's his response:

I have no idea whether it's helped us or not. We've certainly not had any producers or agents contacting us based on that. Where it may have helped us, though, is in getting freelance work. I can't say for sure that this is why, but over the past year or so we've been doing more ghostwriting working -- books, pilots, features -- and a few of the people have mentioned our work. Not necessarily that they found it on the site, but I'm not sure where else they would have seen it. I just figure it doesn't hurt anything to put it out there, and there's always the chance that someone who matters will see it, whereas if you don't do it, there's no chance.

Anyone else get bites from posting your scripts online? Please comment!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Family comedy writing contest!

Got a half-hour family comedy pilot?

The ANA Alliance for Family Entertainment, a group of some of the country’s largest national advertisers, is looking for the freshest take on what’s real—and really funny—about today’s American family. Share your original, half-hour comedy format script for an opportunity to win $5,000, PLUS receive creative guidance and direct input from John Wells, executive producer of the television series ER, Third Watch, The West Wing, Shameless and Southland.

Click here for more info. The deadline for script submission is October 28th at 11:59 am ET. Note: your submission must NOT be under current consideration for another contest, competition or festival.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Tuesday links!

I'm doing a new feature called Tuesday links, in which I will post links to things I think you'll find interesting (FYI, I also retweet a lot of links to articles on Twitter). I'll do this every Tuesday until I get busy and forget about it.

Interview with Jeff Davis, creator of CRIMINAL MINDS and TEEN WOLF [IAE Magazine]

Interview with Patrick Walsh, writer on 2 BROKE GIRLS [Broke Girls Guide]

Interview with Brannon Braga, executive producer of TERRA NOVA []

Video Interview with Will Resier, writer of 50/50 [Buzz Sugar]

Monday, October 3, 2011

The 2nd London Screenwriters' Festival

For my readers across the pond:

The 2nd London Screenwriters’ Festival kicks off October 28th and lasts for three days.

The fest includes:
Over 100 speakers - Top screenwriters, producers, executives and educators share their passion and insight with you.
Nearly 100 events - You’ll be spoilt for choice with our world class screenwriting workshops, seminars and panels.
Networking - Meet over 400 professional writers and network with producers and agents at our social events.
Speed Pitching - Get your project in front of producers and agents in our Speed Pitching sessions.
Script Chat - Get face time with our speakers in post-session round table script chats
Never miss a session - We film most sessions, so you can have your cake AND eat it!
Online network - Join our online network so you can connect with other delegates now
iPhone App - We will have an iPhone / Smartphone app so you can keep up to date on added sessions, speakers and delegates.

 Top speakers include:
Consultant Christopher Vogler (Hero’s Journey)
Writer Linda Aronson ( 21st Century Screenplay)
Scriptwriter Ashley Pharaoh ('Life On Mars', 'Ashes To Ashes')
Producer Duncan Kenworthy (‘Four Weddings..’, 'Love Actually')
Script editor Kate Leys ('The Full Monty', 'Trainspotting' and 'Four Weddings and a Funeral’)
ITV commissioner Elaine Bedell (X-Factor)
Film editor Eddie Hamilton (‘Kick Ass’, ‘X-Men: First Class’)
BBC Writersroom Paul Ashton
BAFTA-nominated scriptwriter Tim Clague
BBC commissioner Ben Stephenson and many more, including one big name - a surprise that will only be announced in October!

Get £30 off the ticket price of £300 by using the code MONICASOLON.

An evening with THE LEAGUE - watch the panel live on Hulu!

An Evening with The League
Monday, October 3, 2011 7:00 pm PT

Jackie Marcus Schaffer, Cocreator, Executive Producer, Director
Jeff Schaffer, Cocreator, Executive Producer, Director
Katie Aselton, "Jenny"
Mark Duplass, "Pete"
Jon LaJoie, "Taco"
Nick Kroll, "Ruxin"
Steve Rannazzisi, "Kevin"
Moderator: Rob Huebel

Submit your questions on Twitter with the hashtag #HuluLive. Here is the URL to watch live!

Miss Representation - a documentary about women in media

Miss Representation brings together some of America's most influential women in politics, news and entertainment, including Condoleezza Rice, Nancy Pelosi, Katie Couric, Rachel Maddow, Margaret Cho, Rosario Dawson and Gloria Steinem to give audiences an inside look at the media's message and depiction of women. The film explores women's under-representation in positions of power by challenging their limited and often disparaging portrayals in the media. Miss Representation takes the stand that the media is portraying women's primary values as their youth, beauty and sexuality - rather than their capacity as leaders.

Premieres Thursday, October 20th at 9/8c, only on OWN.

You can find additional information at

(Thanks, Olivia!)

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The end of Hollywood internships?

Yesterday, a friend of mine told me that his company has discontinued offering unpaid, school credit-only internships as a result of the BLACK SWAN intern lawsuit. They are permitted to hire paid interns - but it doesn't really make budgetary sense for them. As John August once blogged about, essential tasks generally fall to paid assistants, not interns - and these assistants are often expected to have some kind of experience.

Well, crap. I had hoped the lawsuit might spur a discussion about educational experiences versus unpaid assistant-ships, but I suppose that was naive. If the result of this lawsuit is that companies are afraid to offer internships, it could be very bad news for people just starting out in Hollywood without experience or important relatives. Internships can be a great way to learn about Hollywood, make connections and, as one of my commenters noted, find out more about the job you think you want. I'm concerned that a lack of internships will mean that it will become even harder for non-connected people to break into the industry, because they'll be trying to delve into assistant-level jobs without any experience at all. I'm a perfect example: my internship supervisor is the person who recommended me for my job at the agency. My agency job led me to my manager (among other people). Without that internship, where would I be now?

Interestingly enough, the same friend I mentioned above started at his company as an intern and has been promoted several times over the past few years.

Have you guys heard of any companies changing their internship policies as a result of the lawsuit?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Do the BLACK SWAN interns have a case?

The New York Times reports:
Two men who worked on the hit movie “Black Swan” have mounted an unusual challenge to the film industry’s widely accepted practice of unpaid internships by filing a lawsuit on Wednesday asserting that the production company had violated minimum wage and overtime laws by hiring dozens of such interns. 
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Manhattan, claims that Fox Searchlight Pictures, the producer of “Black Swan,” had the interns do menial work that should have been done by paid employees and did not provide them with the type of educational experience that labor rules require in order to exempt employers from paying interns. 
“Fox Searchlight’s unpaid interns are a crucial labor force on its productions, functioning as production assistants and bookkeepers and performing secretarial and janitorial work,” the lawsuit says. “In misclassifying many of its workers as unpaid interns, Fox Searchlight has denied them the benefits that the law affords to employees.” Workplace experts say the number of unpaid internships has grown in recent years, in the movie business and many other industries. Some young people complain that these internships give an unfair edge to the affluent and well connected.

Many Hollywood types instantly criticized plaintiffs Alex Footman and Eric Glatt for complaining about having to fetch Natalie Portman's coffee. The general attitude among execs and assistants is: we had to be interns once, too. Suck it up.

However, as I blogged about in April of last year, an internship must be "similar to what would be given in a vocational school or academic educational institution" and "for the benefit of the trainee" to be legal, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Another stipulation that likely makes many Hollywood internships illegal: "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." While Footman and Glatt may be seen as having poor attitudes or questionable work ethics, they may also have the law on their side.

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25 Insights on Becoming a Better Writer

Check out these 25 great tips from Margaret Atwood, Zadie Smith, Chinua Achebe & more. They range from philosophical to obvious-but-hard: Zadie says, "Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet."

(Thanks Joey!)

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Thursday, September 22, 2011

...and have you seen UP ALL NIGHT?

I know I have some of your questions to get to... but I'm swamped with new shows!!

Created by Emily Spivey, UP ALL NIGHT tells the story of a fun-loving couple who realize they can't maintain their crazy lifestyle when they have a new baby. Maya Rudolph co-stars as a Tyra-ish talk show host who thinks she's Oprah. The second episode aired last night, and it was pretty hilarious.

UP ALL NIGHT airs Wednesdays @ 8 on NBC.

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Premiering tonight: WHITNEY

At just 29, Whitney Cummings is the co-creator of new CBS sitcom 2 BROKE GIRLS and stars in another sitcom she created, WHITNEY, which premieres tonight, September 22, at 9:30 on NBC. “I don’t think that these shows are on because women are the stars of them,” she told The New York Times. “The shows that just happened to be the best this year happened to be centered around women.” In another NYT profile, the comedian said she was inspired to write the show because she “didn’t see anything on TV for young, sexy, smart women to look at and say, ‘Yeah, I relate to that, I’m like her.’ It’s time. It’s time.”

I'm not in love with the laugh track, but I do love Whitney Cummings. The insurance forms were my favorite part of this pilot. Check out a preview:

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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Premiering tonight: NEW GIRL

Written by Liz Meriwether and starring Zooey Deschanel, NEW GIRL is a comedy about newly single woman who moves in with three dudes she finds on Craigslist. From an interesting New York Magazine profile of Zooey:
The New Girl script came her way at a time that Deschanel was a little weary of the indie-film circuit. She’d already taken most of 2010 to tour with She & Him. She hadn’t thought seriously about doing TV—she’d never found a character she wanted to play for such a potentially long stretch. Jess, though, she liked. The show’s I Love Lucy sense of high jinks, too. Plus it was a chance to work with a female writer, which she’d hardly ever done, and to show off her ­physical-comedy skills, which in later episodes will include fending off an 11-year-old suitor on a wedding dance floor and leading a group of troubled youth in a hand-bell choir, impromptu choreography by Des­chanel. “I guess I felt like there was stuff I could do that nobody knew I could do,” she says. “It’s rare that the ladies get to be funny in that particular way.”

Check out a preview of the show, which premieres tonight, Sept 20, at 9/8c on FOX:

You can also watch the entire pilot episode online right now!

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Monday, September 19, 2011

Premiering tonight: 2 BROKE GIRLS

Kat Dennings & Beth Behrs star in CBS' new comedy 2 BROKE GIRLS, about 2 waitresses at a diner in Brooklyn. The show is one of many female-centered comedies premiering this fall; Kat told The New York Times: “Women are supposed to be mysterious, and there’s a veil you don’t cross, but vagina jokes are just gold, man."

Check out a preview of the show, along with some insight from EP Michael Patrick King:

2 BROKE GIRLS premieres tonight, Sept 19, at 9:30/8:30c on CBS.

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Sunday, September 11, 2011

Pitching advice from the pros

Pitch season is here, and a realization dawned on me: we can read lots of professional scripts to learn about writing, but what can we do to learn about pitching? It's not as though we can sneak into professional pitches to watch how they're done (at least not without pissing off some studio security dudes). So I figured I would look 'round the interwebs to see what the pros have to say. Here are links to some helpful articles I've found, along with some of my favorite snippets of advice:

How to Pitch a Pilot or Movie by Ken Levine
Rule number one: Be enthusiastic. This is a killer idea! You’re passionate about this one. To say, “I see a lot of vampire movies are selling. Why I don’t know but anyway here’s my vampire movie” is to say, “Hi, I’m wasting your time and mine.”

No, I said "Pitching" by Jane Espenson
Now, everyone likes to pitch differently. Some people read their pitch, others have no notes at all, most are somewhere in between, with notes that they consult, but don't read directly from. I'm an in-betweener myself. I like to have practiced the pitch, but not to the point where it's lost all meaning.

But wait! There's more! by Kay Reindl
Our product -- our idea -- has to have that "why didn't I think of that" element. It has to be familiar enough, yet different enough. It has to fill a niche, but not create one. It has to be, in essence, a simple solution to an everyday problem.

TV Executive Roundtable: AMC Chief Defends 'Drama' Around Matthew Weiner, 'Mad Men' Negotiations
Here's some insight from the executive and producer side about what people are looking for. It's trying to find something that you're not developing "out of the box," just to be out of the box. Modern Family is a great traditional comedy. There are many elements about it that feel fresh and original, but it's not reinventing the wheel -- it's just executing a comedy in an incredibly special way. Glee is a bigger swing, but again, it's telling high school stories, coming-of-age stories, just with this incredible twist. [Warner Bros. TV president] Peter Roth used to say, "A great series is a conventional idea with a completely updated twist." I think that is right.

Writing: The Pitch by Jon Rogers
You are not just telling a story: you are selling a story. To be blunt, people, you are asking some strangers to pay you. A lot. You must both exhibit competence and inspire confidence. And that word is pretty important, as you figure out how to pitch your story: "inspire." To me this is important, because it is very, very easy to get lost in overly detailed plot point pitches.

How to Pitch by Craig Mazin
Write your pitch before you pitch it. It’s intuitive, right? We’re writers. We are paid to write words for prettier people to say. Pitching is our moment on the stage. Why shouldn’t we script it first? Write the whole thing out. Nnnnnoooooo, you’re not going to recite the damn thing like a school play. No, you’re not going to memorize it. Here’s what I do. I write it out. By writing it in my own voice, I quickly start to get a grasp for how I’m going to tell the story.

The Writers Making "Characters Welcome" at USA Network - article by Sandra Berg
From Steve Franks, creator of Psych: "The pitch itself actually started with me talking about my relationship with my dad and my dad sort of secretly training me to be a cop from a very young age.” Development executive McGoldrick was sold on the idea after Franks told him a story about how his father would take him to get ice cream as a kid, but before he would let him eat it Franks had to close his eyes and tell his father what the four people in line behind them were wearing.

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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Finding a writers group in LA

J writes: I was wondering if you had good suggestions on where to look for/how to find a good writer's group. Are there listings somewhere? I'm pretty new to LA and doing a Google search just brings up too much different stuff. I'm a young gay aspiring TV writer, and if there's a group like that, great. Otherwise I'm assuming that most of today's Hollywood writers are pretty tolerant and open to gays and some gay action in the writing.

There is an LGBT-centered Hollywood networking group called Homotracker, so I encourage you to check that out! Perhaps you could start meeting some other writers at one of their events. Your instincts are right, though -- all the Hollywood writers I've met are tolerant and open to all kinds of people. I would imagine most writers would be thrilled to consult people with differing experiences and points of view...though you may get sick of the straight people turning to you and asking you to weigh in on behalf of the entire gay community. Then again, I enjoy telling a group of men the definitive female point of view on something. :)

I'm not in a writing group anymore, but my group started when a like-minded blogger emailed me and some other people she found online. Reading blogs is definitely a good place to start to find someone at your level - and if other LA writers are looking for a group, feel free to use the comments section here to get in touch with J.

I know it can be awkward to chat up strangers, but you can also try meeting people at events at the WGA and the Paley Center. The latter is hosting free fall TV preview parties this week, and I'm sure plenty of the attendees are aspiring writers. FYI, there are parties in NY too. JHRTS, a networking group for Hollywood assistants, also holds mixers and panels. I try to post about other notable events held at places other than these usual spots. Maybe you could start trading scripts with just one person and eventually meet more people to form a group.

You could also meet potential writers group members through classes at UCB or UCLA Extension.

Lastly, I'm not a big fan of expensive screenwriting seminars, but I would imagine you'd find plenty of aspiring writers at those too.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

50 for 50 - Help support diverse women writers with WriteGirl!

For her 50th birthday, Colleen Wainwright is trying to raise $50,000 for WriteGirl, the LA-based nonprofit organization that empowers teen girls to fulfill their potential as writers. I've been volunteering with WriteGirl since 2007, and I can attest to the amazing support it provides girls all across Los Angeles via monthly workshops, one-on-one mentoring, in-schools programs and college counseling.

As of today, Colleen has raised $31,132 - and she has just 21 days left to make her goal. Click here to donate any amount you can - and check out this video for more:

Thanks for your help!

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Friday, August 19, 2011

Paley Fall TV Preview Parties!

Kick off the new fall TV season with preview parties at Paley! Watch the new pilots and listen to panels with the creators and stars. Admission is free but reservations are required.

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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Using a talent agent instead of a literary agent?

Melanie writes: I was wondering if one needs a literary agent to submit one's work or if a regular talent agent (for actors) is sufficient.

It depends. Let's say you call up NBC and say you have an idea for a show. They'll probably tell you they can't accept unsolicited submissions, and that you need an agent to have your stuff submitted. Simply to mollify their legal fears, I think a talent agent would suffice. Whether NBC would pay much attention to what you submit is another matter.

Moreover, a talent agent isn't really a long-term solution for your writing career. In my experience at the agency, I did come across some talent agents who repped a writer or two, or talent agents who helped their acting clients who wanted to try writing - but this is more the exception to the rule. I don't know a ton about the agent situations for writer-performers like Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling and Whitney Cummings (please comment if you do), but from what I've seen, most writers have a strictly literary agent. One of the many convenient things about being at a big agency with both lit and talent departments is that when clients want to try another path, they can easily reach out to the applicable department in the same agency and get expert guidance. You could have a lit agent and a talent agent on your team.

If you have a friend who is a talent agent, you should ask him/her if there are lit agents at the same agency, in the hopes that your friend can pass your stuff on to the more appropriate department. If the agent is at a talent-only agency but is willing to help (and knows whom to contact to get your writing out there), maybe you could A) have the talent agent submit your stuff to a buyer, B) impress the buyer and C) have the buyer refer you to a lit agent s/he regularly deals with. It's kind of a roundabout way to get an agent, but it happens. Some people get the agent first, then get their stuff out there. Others manage to get their stuff out there first, and then attract an agent as a result.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Film a short and win $5,000!

Calling all aspiring directors! Marz Sprays is holding a Facebook commercial contest - and giving away a $5,000 American Express giftcard. Simply film a short and entertaining commercial promoting C-Spray, Marz’s vitamin C supplement, and include one to twenty oranges in your video. Then, upload the video to YouTube and post the link to the Marz Sprays Facebook wall.

For more information about how to apply, click here.

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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Why readers pass: concept

Last week, I wrote about why readers might pass based on character. Today let's delve into concept.

"High-concept" is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot. Basically, it means a unique and exciting hook/premise that makes people go, "I want to see that!" INCEPTION is high-concept. ORDINARY PEOPLE is not. These days, it seems like every script needs to be high-concept to sell, unless someone like Leonardo DiCaprio is attached (though I guess it's worth noting that Leo tends to do pretty high-concept projects anyway). Sometimes I kind of sigh when I watch 80s & 90s movies like CLUELESS or THE BREAKFAST CLUB, because I'm not sure if they'd ever get made today.

Not every movie is high-concept, and certainly not every high-concept movie is good or successful. But as a new writer, you'll make life much easier for yourself - and guard yourself against a pass from a reader like me - if your premise is interesting and original. Amazing writing (dialogue, characters, etc.) will often get a Consider from me even without a big concept...but ideally you want people to think your ideas themselves are compelling. Also, you may not knock it out of the park with your execution in your first few scripts. You will likely need the excitement of your premise to open the door. Great concepts with mediocre execution get Considered more often than mediocre concepts with great execution.

One of the biggest mistakes that writers make in choosing a concept is failing to do some research to find out what else is out there. Remember that for every movie in theaters, there are dozens of scripts floating around Hollywood that mine similar territory. If I say "road trip," you can probably name movies like ROAD TRIP, DUE DATE, COLLEGE ROAD TRIP and LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. But are you aware of all the road trip scripts in development? DESPERADOS? ASS BACKWARDS? BEST BUDS? What may seem like an original idea to you might be something that producers and executives have seen many times before. Try to follow projects in development through the trades or blogs like Go Into the Story. Keep your industry friends abreast of what you're working on so that they can tell you when they come across similar things.

Something that often comes to mind when I read a script is: "Why would anyone want to see this movie?" Every writer is attracted to something about an idea. Maybe you want to explore the complexity of loss, or you think your taxidermist uncle is fascinating, or you really want to tell the world about the time you got stabbed at the Pizza Hut/Taco Bell. But have you thought about why your idea might be interesting to other people? Have you considered whether you could get people to pay money and sit in a theater to watch it unfold? Try pitching your ideas to your friends and seeing how they respond. Do their eyes light up with interest? Do they start asking you questions? And on a more commercial level - is this something that could appeal to men AND women, young people AND old people (the famous "four quadrants")? Not every script is a four-quadrant movie, but if I feel like a movie will have a hard time attracting enough people, I usually pass.

Remember that different companies are looking for different things. A reader at one company might be told to pass on scripts that can't sell internationally. Another might be told to pass on concepts that require high budgets. Like the Bitter Script Reader has said, readers must serve their clients. You might be tempted to try and please the greatest number of clients..but be warned that this could result in a mediocre script. I don't think it's a good idea to become obsessed with concepts, trends or "whatever will sell." Just because R-rated comedies are doing well right now doesn't necessarily mean that you should write one, especially if what you write best are contained thrillers. I've read a lot of scripts that had great concepts but lacked a soul, voice, point of view and/or any kind of statement about life or the world. Be true to your voice. Ideally, you can find something you're really passionate about and frame it in a high-concept, commercial way. One more thing: be careful that your quest to be high-concept doesn't result in something too ridiculous or over-the-top. Aliens are cool. Zombies are cool. Boats are cool. But we probably don't need a zombie apocalypse on the sea of a distant planet.

Instead of "high-concept," maybe we should all just think about the words "interesting" and "compelling." Is your premise interesting? Also - is it clear, and established quickly? Can I write it in a simple logline? I once covered a script that was set in a kind of futuristic dystopia with confusing rules, meandering plots and no main character. I had trouble even summarizing the concept - and that meant a big PASS.

Sometimes I also see scripts that start out strong, but then miss out on opportunities to really milk their concepts. Are you going as big as you can? Do you have fun twists and complications?

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Thursday, August 4, 2011

Agency referrals

Daniel writes: A lot of the better agencies require referrals in order to, I guess, simply get a meeting. How would one go about getting this referral? Is it as simple as asking a fellow pal who's represented by an agency for the referral? Or is that bad etiquette? And if that is the case, does the pal have to read the script first, or would they just give the referral? Just unsure of how this all works, because I do know some people I could ask.

A "referral" can be anyone the agency deals with on a regular basis, be it client, producer, manager, studio exec, network exec, etc. If you have pals who are represented by agencies, they can definitely help you. Agents want to keep their clients happy, especially important clients who regularly make them money. Agents are usually willing to look at submissions from their clients' friends (though they often ask assistants or more junior agents to read the scripts first).

It's not bad etiquette to ask your friends for a referral, but you should add something in your email like "if you like it" or "if you feel comfortable." Some people might be cool with passing stuff along before reading it, but I wouldn't. I would imagine your friends wouldn't want to stamp their approval/recommendation on something before reading it. Also, you should be prepared for the possibility that they won't like your writing. (And if they don't, that's fine. Taste is subjective. We all have to get used to getting passed on.)

Also, some of your writer friends might not feel like they're yet at the point to be asking their agents for favors - so don't be insulted if this is the case. Let's say I signed with an agency a month ago and I'm still getting used to how it all works. Especially if I haven't yet gotten staffed or sold anything, I'm probably not going to be sending over more potential clients.

You might also ask your friends for some general advice about getting an agent. Most people are flattered when others ask for advice, and they like being treated like experts. This might also be useful if some of the people you're talking about are more of acquaintances than friends.

The last thing I'll say is: make sure you're really ready to look for an agent. You should have multiple polished scripts and a bunch of ideas for more.

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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Balancing writing and your day job

Michael writes: I know the industry is very difficult to break into. I've read your posts about the different PA/Agency/Writers' Assistant jobs, which confirms information I've got from an EP I contacted through my alumni network, but, knowing myself, I can't realistically see myself balancing the 10-12 hour/day average with good-quality creative writing, especially over any kind of long haul (especially when one factors in after-hours networking.) I was wondering if you could sketch out a in a little more detail just what the life of an aspiring writer looks like — how many years on average (I know there's a lot of variability and luck to go along with plain hard work in this field) in the "aspiring" category, and how one keeps it rewarding.

This is a great question - and as you might predict, it has a complicated answer. Many assistants on shows do work 10-12 hour workdays...but know that not all Hollywood jobs are this intense. Two of my friends currently working on shows work more like 9-hour workdays. When I worked as an assistant at the agency, I worked 9:30-7 with an hour and a half (!) for lunch, so an 8 hour day and 40-hour workweek. Overtime was expressly forbidden. Some assistants with busier bosses had to log unpaid overtime to stay afloat, but I didn't. I didn't make much money - and I wasn't able to write while I was on the clock or at lunch (for a number of reasons), but I got a fair amount of writing done on nights and weekends. I even had time to drink enough at Happy Endings to add contacts in my phone like "Brian Republican Valley" (oh, to be 22). Here's the ironic part of it all: today in my life as a blogger-tutor-reader, I generally only work 20-30 hours a week - but I honestly don't know if I get much more writing done than I did when I was an agency assistant. I can write at three in the afternoon if I want to - but I can also redeem my CVS Extrabucks and see if Sebastian Stan is at the gym (two of my favorite activities). I bet a lot of readers with full time jobs are really jealous of my odd lifestyle and the fact that I rarely set an alarm in the morning...but it's not as fantastic as you might think. Sometimes I don't speak to other humans until 8 pm. Buying your own health insurance is hella expensive. And writing is still hard.

I guess it all comes down to priorities. If you really want to be a writer, you will get the writing done, even if you're working 10-12 hours a day on a show. I think you have to be realistic about yourself, getting in the writing when you can and knowing that you will have prolific periods and rough periods. Sometimes you will wonder if you're totally batshit for pursuing this career. I think you have to indulge yourself a day or two of "this sucks" and then get back on the horse. I would still try to get a Hollywood job, even if it's super time-consuming, because the knowledge and connections will be invaluable. Just make sure you keep writing so that you'll actually have a sample to hand over when someone important asks to read your stuff. Joining a writing group gave me the deadlines I needed to stick with writing in the beginning. You can also use the Fellowship deadlines to motivate you. Ideally, you won't always have super long hours - and shows all go on hiatus, which could enable you to catch up on writing full time (or at least full time minus shopping and gym-celeb-stalking) while collecting unemployment for a while.

As for how many years it will take before you can stop slaving away all day and writing on nights and weekends...this really varies, depending on how fast you can crank out scripts, how good your writing is and how long it takes you to get your stuff to the right person (be it manager, agent, producer, etc.). But don't feel like you're sending yourself to prison when you take a day job. If you no longer feel your job is worth it, you can quit (like I did) and try something else for a while. You just can't expect certainty or security if you're heading down this path. Even after you sell a script or get staffed, the balancing act isn't over.

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Monday, August 1, 2011

Why readers pass: character

I finally finished another draft of a feature so I have a minute or two of free time until I get soul-crushing notes. Woo! In the meantime, I thought you guys might want to read some posts about why readers pass on scripts, since you don't want readers to pass. You want them to consider or recommend you.

So - why do readers pass? First, let's talk about character. Characters don't always have to be likeable, but it helps. If I hate the person I'm reading about, I'm not going to enjoy 110 pages of him. If you're writing people who aren't likeable, then we should at least understand why they do what they do. "Sympathetic" is another way to think about it. Do I feel for your character? Want him/her to succeed? Make sure that you show us how the characters feel about what's happening in the story; emotional tracking will help us root for them.

Characters also need to be specific and unique. Do they have specific quirks or traits? Do their voices sound different from the other characters? Do I know some backstory about them? Do locations tell me about them? Actions? Sometimes plot-heavy scripts suffer from bland characters. If your main dude is simply trying to stay alive and fight bad guys throughout the movie, you may have to work a little harder to show us more about him, since his goal doesn't really tell us much about him as a character. This is where you might work on his emotional needs, flaws and arc. I recently read a script in which the characters were likable and had noble reasons to be looking for money fast - but this was almost the only thing I knew about them. It was a cool, ambitious concept, so it got a consider...but the lack of character work was one of the things that made me add "with reservations."

More about the arc: In features, characters should change over the course of the story. They learn a lesson and apply it to their lives, the way Macaulay Culkin learns to appreciate his family in Home Alone or how Natalie Portman stops pushing Ashton Kutcher away because she's afraid she'll get hurt in No Strings Attached. A common note is that characters don't have arcs, have too small of arcs or have confusing arcs. Make sure the arc actually fits with the theme and the events of a story. I don't think there's always one right answer to the question of what the arc should be, since there are different sides of a story to explore. But if an arc isn't there, you'll likely get a pass.

Readers also think about actors. Would an A-list star want to play this character? Is there depth and range in the part? Is there comedy that will push an actor to his limits? Are there satisfying moments of desperation? Confrontation? Tension? Subtext?

Lastly, don't forget about your supporting cast. Stanley Tucci wasn't just any old scientist in Captain America. Jonah Hill wasn't a boring hotel employee in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Infusing your supporting cast with specific details will make your script polished and memorable. Also, make sure the supporting characters (and antagonists) aren't just convenient devices for our leads. Do their goals make sense? Are their choices believable?

Here are some snippets of character notes I've written in coverage lately:

"Not much conflict is mined out of their differences, or how they might disagree on how to handle each situation."

"It’s not entirely clear what they think they’re going to accomplish"

"he’s a little too omniscient in his advice"

"His antagonism is convenient and unmotivated; he comes across as more of a stock villain than a real person."

"It's too obvious that they're not meant for each other."

"We don't really get a sense of whether she likes him or not."

"Why is he doing what he does? What got him on this path? Is he hoping to one day do something else?"

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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

THR's 25 Best Film Schools

The Hollywood Reporter has unveiled a new list of the 25 Best Film Schools.

I'm a little disappointed my alma mater, Ithaca College, didn't make the list. Since I know you're curious, we have some cool industry alums, including Bob Iger (CEO of the Walt Disney Company), Liz Tigelaar (creator of Life Unexpected; currently working on Once Upon a Time under her ABC Studios overall deal) and Allan Loeb (screenwriter of 21, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, The Switch and Things We Lost in the Fire). Maybe after I become super important in Hollywood I can help us make the list?

Also, for what it's worth, the list is focused on film, not television.

I loved studying film and TV in school (and it directly led to me coming to LA), but it's not a requirement for a career in Hollywood. I think anyone out here will tell you that they learned more after school then during it. I've met some really talented and successful people who went to college for poli sci or art history, and I've also met some clueless people who paid $200,000 to go to a fancy film school.

For me, the most important thing was coming to LA and doing internships - so no matter where your school is, try to spend at least a summer here. (One of the best things about Ithaca was that its Los Angeles program made that incredibly simple.)

For more about film school, check out these posts:

Is TV School Worth It?
Colleges With Good Screenwriting Programs

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