Saturday, December 21, 2013

Screenwriting links: Sat, Dec 21

Paul Dini on Cartoon Network's Programming Decisions and Why Boy Viewers Are Valued Over Girls [IGN]

Saving Mr. Banks Screenwriter Kelly Marcel on Crossing Over from Mary Poppins to Fifty Shades of Grey [Vanity Fair]

Netflix Says Binge Viewing is No 'House of Cards' [Wall Street Journal]

Writing Is Like Sex [Huffington Post]

‘Community’ Showrunner Dan Harmon Talks His Return and Chevy Chase, Donald Glover’s Exits [The Wrap]

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Is suffering an important part of writing?

I don't usually get too philosophical about writing, but I thought you guys might find this interesting. Last night Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert appeared on The Colbert Report, and talked with Stephen about whether artists need to suffer in order to create worthwhile art.

Stephen also brought up Elizabeth's TED Talk about creativity:

Along the lines of failure and suffering, be sure to check out INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, a heartbreaking and authentic look at a creative life. Llewyn is a musician, but I think you'll find a lot of parallels between his experience and the experiences of a writer.

Do you think you need to suffer to write well? Has your best work come from good times or bad?

Monday, December 9, 2013

White House launches student film festival

If you're a high school student or know someone who is, I wanted to spread the word about the White House's first-ever student film festival!

 

From the White House website:

Our schools are more high-tech than ever. There are laptops in nearly every classroom. You can take an online course on Japanese -- and then video chat with a kid from Japan. You can learn about geometry through an app on your iPad. So, what does it all mean?

We’re looking for videos that highlight the power of technology in schools.

Your film should address at least one of the following themes:
  • How you currently use technology in your classroom or school.
  • The role technology will play in education in the future.
Ideas: How technology helps with...

  • Personalized Learning 
  • Online Learning
  • Global Collaboration 
  • Student Creativity
  • Making and Tinkering 
  • Project Based Learning 
  • Critical Thinking

Submissions for the White House film festival will be accepted from November 25 through January 29, 2014. Videos must be uploaded to YouTube or Vimeo to be submitted. You and a parent/guardian must complete the form below and submit a link to your video.

Important Entry Requirements:
  • Open to U.S. students in grades K-12. All entries must be submitted by student’s parent or guardian. 
  • You must submit your Entry online during the Competition Period. Time and eligibility of Entry will be determined by The White House in its sole discretion.
  • You may not submit more than one Entry. 
  • Your Entry must have been created on or after November 25, 2013.
  • Your Entry must be three (3) minutes or less in length (including opening and/or closing credits).
  • Your Entry must not infringe any third party copyright or trademark, or violate the rights of any person or entity.  Make sure that you only use content in your Entry that you are authorized to use, including, without limitation, music, images, film clips, and other intellectual property.
  • Your Entry may not contain images or likenesses of any individuals who have not provided their authorization or whose parents or guardians have not provided, authorization if such individuals are under the age of majority in their jurisdiction of residence. 
  • Entries must be appropriate for viewing by the general public; appropriateness will be determined by the White House in its sole discretion.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

How to network at a talent agency



L writes: I'm a floater at a large talent agency in New York. How do I network - and how can I eventually transfer to the LA office?

The best thing to do is perform well at your job as a floater (which, for those who don't know, is a person who doesn't have a permanent assistant job but fills in when other assistants are out sick). Once you prove that you can be a good assistant, the agents start to remember you and request you to work for them. This does take some practice - but don't worry, you'll get the hang of it. Then when desks open up, you'll be considered for those assistant positions. Remember that even though you want to be working your way up (and maybe transferring to a different office/job/company/profession), that's not what you've been hired to do; you've been hired to be a floater. Moving your way up requires ambition but also a little patience. That said, make sure that whoever is in charge of the floater program (probably an HR person?) knows your goals and which department you'd like to end up in. You don't want to miss out on an opportunity because nobody knows you'd be interested.

I think it's going to be hard to transfer to LA because all the LA floaters and assistants will have an advantage over you - they'll be known by the agents there, and will be available more quickly (generally, no one is going to wait a month for you to pack up your life in NY if a job in LA opens up), but transferring is not unheard of. Make sure that the HR people know you'd be interested in going to LA, too. And when you're filling in on a desk, if you ever find yourself emailing or talking on the phone with assistants from the LA office, try to be friendly and get to know them, if you can.

It's also good to eat lunch with the other assistants and floaters so you can make friends and hear about gossip, desk openings, etc. I found that this came pretty naturally when I worked at the agency since we all hung out in the same areas and had a lot of down time (plus things in common). There was also a lot of turnover, so we were always training and getting to know new people.

What's funny is how many of my fellow agency comrades from 2007-2009 aren't even in the industry anymore...

Monday, November 18, 2013

My Hollywood Bound & Down podcast

Joshua Caldwell of Hollywood Bound & Down hosts a podcast about the early years of breaking into the industry (college screenwriting programs, internships, first assistant jobs, etc.). Mine's up now - take a listen! 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Black List expands to include TV scripts

My post on what to do with your TV script was fortuitously timed - because today The Black List has announced that you may now upload pilot scripts and bibles to its online database.

From the company's press release:
LOS ANGELES (November 13, 2013) – This morning, the Black List’s online script database (http://www.blcklst.com) launched its long awaited expansion into television and episodic scripted content.

Beginning today, writers from around the world will be able to upload their original pilot scripts (and, optionally, their series bibles) to the script database, request evaluations by professional script readers, and make their scripts available to the Black List's growing membership of industry professionals, currently over 2,000 members. Writers will be able to categorize their scripts in a near infinite number of ways, including but not limited to multi-cam/single-cam, procedural/serialized, length of season, prospective number of seasons, and more than 60 genres and over 800 tags.

“Writers and industry professionals have been asking us about a television version of the site since we launched our feature script service last year. We’re excited to roll it out now in a way that can accommodate conventional television, miniseries and web series scripts,” said Black List founder Franklin Leonard. “The goal of this new venture parallels the mandate of the feature film script hosting service: make it easy for those making episodic content to find great scripts and writers, and help those with great scripts get them to people who can do something with them. I’m very optimistic that we can repeat the success we’ve had since our film launch: more than 13,000 downloads of uploaded scripts, more than four major agency and management company signings, one two-script blind deal at a major studio, one produced film, and more than twenty sales for writers living as far away from Hollywood as Ireland and Sweden.”

As with feature film scripts, writers will pay $25 per month to host and index each of their pilots (and if they so choose, the series bible at no additional charge) on the Black List’s website, accessible only by a closed community of industry professionals (and by their fellow writers if they choose to make them available.) They can further pay for evaluations by professional script readers hired by the Black List. Evaluations for pilots meant to be longer than 30 minutes will cost $50, just like feature scripts, and those meant to be 30 minutes or less will cost $30.

WGA East and West members will be able to list their material free of charge (without hosting it), just as they can with their film scripts.

Also, just like with film scripts hosted on the site, reminded Leonard, “writers retain all rights to sell and produce their work and are free to negotiate the best deal they can get. All we ask is an email letting us know of their success.”
Comment if you have any questions or concerns and I'll get them to Franklin.  

Monday, November 11, 2013

What to do with your script

Ed writes: I am in "now what" mode so it's hard to know where to start…I wrote a TV pilot script that placed third in the competition at TVWriter.net. This came after a year of learning how to write a script, writing it, getting it picked apart by a coverage service, then re-writing it. I plan to throw it into additional contests and I’m working on a couple of feature scripts. But what  should I be doing to market it? Blind queries seem like a waste of time and energy. I’m wary of pitch-fests based on what I’ve read about them. Is that wrong?

I’m a nobody in the Midwest with a career in sports P.R. and broadcasting. Should I be looking for established writer / future showrunner who would champion this script and concept? If so, how do I find that person?

I don’t know if this sounds strange, but I believe in the story, characters and show concept I created much more than my ability or future as a writer. Ultimately, I just want to give this script the best chance possible at being brought to life. While I'll work at writing some other things, it seems like I should be doing something to get the pilot script discovered.   

This is a super tough question that we all face.  How do we break in? How do we get our stuff read? Unfortunately, there's no easy answer.

I've always maintained that breaking in requires only two things: you must 1) write a great script and 2) get someone important to read it (and like it). Also, this person has to like it so much that s/he offers to buy it, represent you or send it to people who can do one of those two things.  If people say they like your script but take no further action, then they didn't really like it that much. As Jeff Willis says, #ItsAPass:
In my experience, writers often focus on #2 - finding the Important Person - when they're really not done with #1, writing a kickass script. I haven't read your script, so I'm not saying that it isn't good or ready - but I just want to bring up the possibility that the script isn't ready to be considered on a professional level. If you've only written one script, this concerns me; most writers' first script isn't ready for professionals. I'm encouraged that you placed in a competition, since that means that some readers out there enjoyed your work, but I'd be careful not to read too much into the results. I've never heard of TVWriter.net, and having read for some contests, I know that probably 80% of the entries were terrible. I'm glad you already realize that the contest itself isn't resulting in industry connections or attention. This is the problem with contests on little-known sites that aren't affiliated with studios or organizations like the Academy. Unless you pocket cash prize money, is it really worth entering? Anyway, the point is that maybe your script is ready -- but maybe it isn't. Keep in mind that sometimes the best thing we can do is move on and write something else.

Now, let's say that your script really is fantastic and the problem is just that you can't get it to anybody who can help.

If you're not really interested in pursuing a career as a television writer, I'm not sure it's worth trying to get this pilot out there. TV IS JUST SO HARD. In my opinion, the idea that you can just kind of swoop in and get this one idea made is not realistic. People generally only sell pilots if they've previously been staffed on someone else's show (Mindy Kaling wrote on THE OFFICE before she sold THE MINDY PROJECT, for example) or if they're a feature writer, novelist or playwright with some heat (Liz Meriwether got her feature NO STRINGS ATTACHED made before she sold NEW GIRL). It's not that newbies can't ever sell a pilot - I've written about this before - but it's just not how the majority of television shows are sold. I suppose what I'm getting at is that "How do I become a television writer" and "How do I sell my show" are two different questions - and the answer to that second question might not be worth discussing if you're not interested in the answer to the first. Maybe your comment stems less from a lack of passion or disinterest in writing on other people's shows and more from a lack of confidence about your writing ability. If that's the case, know that we all feel this way from time to time, and that the only way to get better is to keep doing it. But if you don't really want to be a TV writer, maybe you should keep working on the features and focus on those. Later, if you can establish yourself as a feature writer, you could be in a better position to sell the pilot.

If you DO want to become a TV writer, including writing on other people's shows, my usual recommendation is to work your way up as a PA/assistant/writer's assistant, etc. Everyone I know who is staffed got there this way, with a few exceptions for people who entered programs like the WB Writers' Workshop. Even if you're not working on a show, simply being in LA will help you start meeting producers, agents and their assistants, all people who can help you and send your work around town. Trying to make things happen from the Midwest is harder. It just is. If you have friends, relatives or old classmates who have connections in Hollywood, you might as well ask if they can help - but I'm guessing this isn't a super reasonable avenue for you.

If you're not in a position to work your way up the assistant ladder, then you can enter the programs I have listed at right - WB, ABC/Disney, Fox, NYTVF, Austin Film Festival Teleplay Competition, etc. But keep in mind that most of these programs aim to help you start your career as a television writer (which includes writing on other people's shows), not just to get a show of your own on the air. Many also focus on diversity, and accept only a tiny percentage of applicants -- so it'd be a mistake to put all your eggs in this basket, or to think that rejection from these programs automatically means you're un-talented/doomed. But they can be launch pads, and they can also be ways to connect you to agents and managers. Just be wary of entering contests on random web sites, at least in terms of what you can expect if you win. Hungry agents and agent trainees read Nicholl winners. ABC shows are interested in staffing ABC/Disney Fellows...but not all contests are created equal. My old agency boss was very unimpressed by contest winners.

You can also try to get noticed as another kind of writer -- journalist, novelist, playwright, etc., or popularize your show's concept with an online presence such as Twitter (I've written more about that here), a blog or your own web series/video shorts. Kelly Oxford gained notoriety through Twitter; shows like SHIT MY DAD SAYS also started that way. This one's a movie, but FORTY DAYS OF DATING was a blogCOUPLES TIME was a web series. Web stuff seems to work better for certain genres than others, but it's something to think about.

You can try to get an agent or manager, or send queries to producers. Like you said, blind querying can be a waste of time and energy (please read my posts about querying for more about why this is the case), and I doubt that you'll have much luck in this regard -- but since you're not in LA, perhaps it's worth a shot as part of a bigger overall plan. Also, if you were to get into a writing program, or win certain contests, you might find that you could attract interest from a rep. Most people don't even get in the room to pitch a show (or get their pilot script on the desk of someone who can buy it) without a rep. It can seem like a frustrating chicken/egg situation, I know... but that's how it is. Sometimes you get noticed, and then attract a rep; sometimes you attract a rep who can help you get noticed.

As for Pitchfests -- this is anecdotal evidence, but I've never met anyone who sold anything (or got a rep) that way. Readers, please comment if you have a different experience.

In the future, you'll also be able to upload your pilot to The Black List site. From there you might attract producers, studio execs or agents/managers, the same way you would with a contest like the Nicholl (and yes, I know the Nicholl is only for features - this is one reason the Black List's expansion is exciting).

I realize that all of this advice basically comes down to, "you can try this or this, and MAYBE you'll be successful." Unfortunately, that's as good as you're going to get. Every professional TV writer and screenwriter has a different story behind how they broke in. John August once likened it to losing your virginity; you can ask a bunch of people how they lost theirs, but it probably won't help you lose yours. Some writers win contests; some work as assistants; some give their scripts to their neighbor's hairdresser's dog walker. There's no one path to success, which is why I think it's important to look at all avenues and try multiple things.

THINGS TO REMEMBER:

1. Be sure your script is actually ready. If it's your first one, it probably isn't.

2. If you think you have a great idea for a TV show but don't really want to be a TV writer in general, I'm not sure you should bother going down this difficult and competitive path. Lots of new writers get paired with more experienced showrunners, but if your thought process is "I'll get someone else to write my super awesome story" or "I don't wanna write for other people's shows," I'm concerned.

3. Try multiple ways to get your script to someone who can help - and be realistic about whether they want to help, or if #ItsAPass.

4. As you try to find that Important Person Who Can Help, remember that it can be tacky and ineffective to ask strangers for favors. Networking shouldn't just be about asking for things; it's about people mutually helping each other. That's why when people move to LA, make friends and get jobs in the industry, they're able to get their scripts in the right hands. Friends help friends.

4B. Producers, directors and agents are looking for material, but they're not as desperate as you might think. THEY ALREADY GET SENT SO MANY SCRIPTS THAT THEY HIRE PEOPLE TO READ FOR THEM. When a new person with no experience asks them to read something, they assume it's going to be terrible. This is why you shouldn't bother running up to Paul Haggis after a panel; it's rude/tacky, he's already got a pile of scripts from his agent that are all written by professional writers, and he probably assumes your script is bad. Similarly, you shouldn't be surprised if your neighbor's hairdresser's dog walker never gets around to reading your script.

5. A writer rarely has a big break that suddenly clinches his/her status as a professional screenwriter. I myself have only had a string of small breaks, most of which haven't worked out. Be prepared for the long haul.

RELATED READING:

Where can I send my screenplay? (Emily Blake)

I wrote it, now what do I do with it? (The Bitter Script Reader)

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

5 Questions with a Production Company Reader

John Flynn-York is a writer who's been living LA for two years. He read scripts for Principato-Young Entertainment before starting his current job writing coverage for a production company with an open submission policy. We sat down with him and asked him Five Questions about his job:

How did you get your current job as a reader?

I moved to Los Angeles a little over two years ago to attend UCLA's Professional Program in Screenwriting. While I was taking classes, I started interning at a management company in Beverly Hills. When my internship was over, the manager I had been working for put me in touch with a production company that he knew was looking for script readers. They had me write sample coverage, and based on that, hired me.

What's the workload like? Is it full time gig, or is there a fluctuation in how many scripts you get assigned?

The workload varies. Sometimes, it's close to a full time job, but more often it's part time, maybe 20 to 30 hours a week. It depends on the amount of scripts coming in.

If you had to pick one or two of most common mistakes you see from these writers, what would they be?

The most common problem I see is characters not being given specific objectives to achieve. This may sound like a small issue, but it really goes to the core of a lot of different areas: character development, plot, dialogue. It's not entertaining to watch characters who aren't doing, or trying to do, anything; conversely, we care about and root for a character who is pursuing a goal. What they're trying to achieve tells us a lot about who they are as a character, and how they're trying to achieve it tells us even more. Whether or not they're successful is beside the point -- in storytelling, it's the trying that matters.

Another problem I see frequently is a lack of clarity in communicating the premise. Some writers seem to know what their premise is, but have a hard time translating that into a story; other writers don't even have a basic idea of their premise. This is the fundamental idea of the movie or show we're talking about here, and it needs to be crystal clear. If it's not, then everything suffers. I don't know what the characters are trying to achieve, I don't know who they are, I don't know what this story is about.

What are some suggestions you'd make about evaluating your script before sending it out?

It's easier than ever before to send your work out, both in terms of how many avenues there are to get it read and the ease of the actual process. I don't know if that makes writers less likely to read over their material before sending out, but I do see a lot of work that's fairly sloppy. Spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, typos – for the most part, they're easy mistakes to correct. Contrary to what some people will tell you, though, a few mistakes here and there won't kill a script's chances. But a scripts that's full of them says something about the writer and how much effort they put into their work.

That's the easy stuff, though. Spell check can catch a lot of errors, and a read dedicated to grammar and spelling can help clean up everything else. It’s much harder to look at your own work and evaluate things like character, story, and dialogue. The most helpful thing, I think, is to have someone who's interested in screenwriting read the work and give you notes. They’ll catch things you won't, and another perspective can be very helpful in evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of your material. It can also be really useful to read your work out loud. Many things that work on the page don't work as well when spoken, and that can be a kind of guide to rewriting dialogue. Again, a friend can be really helpful with this, but it works well on your own, too.

As someone who is exposed to such a high variety of scripts (from pros, from yet-unproduced writers, from hopefuls), what would you say is the biggest takeaway is and how has it affected your own approach to writing/getting noticed?

It may sound disingenuous, but I think it's more important to be great at one thing than it is to be good at everything. There's a lot out there, getting your work noticed is hard, and it's not enough to just write a decent script, although even doing that isn't easy. To stand out, a script really needs to be memorable, and that means doing something really well. If you're funny, be as funny as you can be on the page; if you write characters well, write a character who's going to stick with anyone who reads your script; if you can tell a great story, then really go for it and tell the most interesting story you can. In other words, play to your strengths as a writer. That way, when someone reads your script, there will be something about it that they can recommend to other people -- how funny it is, or how great one of the characters is, or the incredible twist in the third act.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Screenwriting links: Monday, November 4

5 Things to Keep in Mind When Making an Independent Pilot, From the Founder of the New York Television Festival [Indiewire]

They Liked to Watch: Interview w/MASTERS OF SEX creator Michelle Ashford [WGA.org]

Podcast: Screenwriter John Ridley Discusses 12 YEARS A SLAVE
[The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith]

'Ink and Bone' Tops 2013 Blood List [Deadline]

Inside the Minds of Late Night Comedy Writers [CableFax]

The International Fate of '12 Years' [NY Times]

8 Questions about Agents Every Screenwriter Wants Answered Right Now [Indiewire]

How To Write An Awesome Movie, According To Some Of Hollywood’s Best Writers [Buzzfeed]

Has independent television become too calculated? [A.V. Club]

Amazon's First Original Shows Will Premiere This Month [Vulture]

Why We Call That Failure Art: Writing Advice from Tony Kushner
[The New Yorker]

The Original Writers of Conan's 'Late Night' on Writing [Splitsider]

Watch: Ava DuVernay's Filmmaker Keynote Address At 2013 Film Independent Forum [Indiewire]

Kelly Masterson on Writing 'Killing Kennedy' and 'Snowpiercer' and Why We Revisit History's Most Painful Moments [Indiewire]

Cassian Elwes Endows New Indie Writer Fellowship Via the Black List
[The Black List]

Franklin Leonard Answers Some Questions About The Black List's Cassian Elwes' Screenwriting Fellowship [The Bitter Script Reader]

Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Halloween treat: Red Scare is here!

Many eves ago, I told you about my friend Sam Roberts' web series project RED SCARE. It's finally here!

1956. Ten strangers lock themselves in a fallout shelter during an air raid, only to discover that one of them is secretly a VAMPIRE. Unable to escape into the sunlight, the group must figure out who among them is the bloodsucker… before it’s too late!

Check out the first episode:

RED SCARE Episode 1: "The Nuclear Club" from Sam Roberts on Vimeo.


You can also like RED SCARE on Facebook.

Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

10 ways to beat writer's block - and finish your screenplay

MaryKate asked via Twitter:
Finishing a feature - or any script - can be a daunting task, but you can do it! Here are my 10 tips for getting it done:

1. Write an outline
Pro writers disagree about whether you absolutely need to write an outline before you jump into the script (check out Scott Myers' Go Into The Story post about prep, and Geoff LaTulippe's response), but I think that new writers often move on to the script stage too soon. You don't necessarily have to know what every conversation will be or what themes will emerge from the story, but I think you need to know your act breaks, your midpoint and your ending before you get started. (Of course, it's okay if those change later!) Also, when you start working with producers and directors, you're going to have to do pitches and send in outlines, so I think it's good practice to get used to that kind of prep work now.


2. "Eat dessert first"
You don't have to work on the scenes in order! Keep yourself motivated by working on the parts of the script you're most excited about. "Absolutely eat dessert first," advises Joss Whedon. "The thing that you want to do the most, do that."

3. Polish later
If you come across a problem and you're not sure how to fix it, just mark it for later (I like to highlight unfinished things in yellow in Final Draft) and keep going. If you're writing a comedy, you can also add jokes later. Mindy Kaling has spoken about writing the "straight version" of a script first and adding "ornaments" when you're feeling funnier.


4. Don't aim for perfection
Some problems you simply won't solve in the first draft. That's okay! I think one of the biggest things that holds back new writers is the pressure to get it perfect. Just get something done so you can send it out for notes and then work on a second draft. Let go of the idea that your first draft will be perfect and launch your career.

5. Talk to your friends about your script
You're going to get stuck. It happens. Lean on your writer friends (tip: get writer friends!) to help you think of solutions and new directions. Even if a friend pitches "the bad version" or something you're not totally on board with, it can help your brain start working in a new way that solves the problem.

6. Write down new script ideas - but don't abandon your first one
Just when you're getting to the hard part of your script, an amazing new idea will pop into your head. This is an especially evil form of writer's block, since moving on to a new script can seem productive. Lots of writers work on multiple ideas at once, but unfortunately, jumping from idea to idea can result in ten half-finished scripts and zero finished ones. Keep a folder where you can write down new ideas - but make yourself go back to your original idea. Sometimes it is necessary to put a script aside, but ask yourself why you're really doing that.


7. Shut out the internet
I'm terrible at this, but closing down Facebook, Twitter and even your email might be necessary for you to focus. "I have on my computer something called Freedom," Nora Ephron said once in an interview. "You put in however many minutes of freedom you would want, and for that period of time your computer does not allow you to go on the Internet." You might also benefit from Jane Espenson's writing sprints or the Pomodoro Technique.

8. Find the time when you're most focused
Some writers get to work early so they can write in the mornings, while I'm the kind of person who will stay up until 3 am, when nobody's awake (especially since I'm on West Coast time) and there are fewer distractions. Try out different writing times to see what works for you. However, let go of the idea that you need a perfect moment or workspace. Even with an uninterrupted day and a view of the ocean, writing is still hard. "A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper," E.B. White once said. And if you want to write television, get used to tough deadlines.

9. Start simple
I love the idea of writing what you think is missing in the world of film or TV -- and I think this is a great way to choose your projects. It seems a waste of time to write something if you have nothing to SAY. Still, when it comes a first draft, and especially your first script, you just need to start with a coherent story. The subtlety of theme and social commentary may come later. Don't let yourself crumble under the pressure to be brilliant or insightful.

10. Stop reading articles online
Irony alert! But seriously, I think the wealth of internet resources about screenwriting can be cacophonous. After you've soaked up some information and inspiration, walk away from all the advice and just focus on your story. Be honest with yourself about whether you're researching or straight-up procrastinating. Although we can fool ourselves into thinking that screenwriting-related research is a form of "work," it's not the same as writing.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

On the Rocks - a multicamera web series

Ten writers met through an email group and formed a writers room. They produced a 22-minute pilot episode, which they are distributing as the web's first multicamera web series. Their room is the largest crowd-sourced writers room of its kind and many of its members have professional credits working with writers in both television and features. Now they just need to raise funding to shoot five more television-length episodes. Here's their Kickstarter video:

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Making Mistakes: Nine Hollywood assistants tell all


Being an assistant can be stressful. Even if you've settled in a comfortable routine, you have to deal with difficult, volatile personalities, and you often face new problems you have no idea how to solve. It also doesn't help that your boss will get annoyed if you bother him/her too much with questions. You're going to make mistakes -- but that's okay. I always remind people that your boss has a lot other things to worry about, and s/he will probably have forgotten about your mistake within a day. It also may help to know that we've all been there. To prove it, I asked nine Hollywood assistants about a time they messed up, and what they learned:

From a writers PA:
I was working on my first show, where the writers drank a lot of coffee. I did my best to make sure there was always coffee on the burner, but occasionally one of the writers would go to get some coffee and discover that we were out. I'd apologize profusely, but still get chewed out, and I spent much of my time on that show in constant fear of an empty coffee pot. When I worked on my next show, I was more confident and set expectations differently. If we ran out of coffee after the morning rush, I'd wait to brew more until someone asked for coffee (usually in the afternoon). Rather than apologizing, I'd say, "Sure, I'll have a freshly-brewed cup for you in a few minutes." Because I was positive rather than apologizing, people were happy rather than mad. After all, isn't a fresh cup of coffee is way better than one that's been sitting on the burner all day?

From a producer assistant: 
Once I sent the DVD of a movie in post by Fedex with only $500 insurance. Thankfully, it didn't get lost, but my boss said, "You sent a $15m movie with $500 insurance??" I guess I should have used our overnight courier? What my boss should have done is flown one of us with it, since it was going overseas.

Assistants often lie about their fuckups. I'm really effing good at it. Some things you have to own up to, but some things you should just lie about - like if you don't get your boss when it's an important call, you just have to lie and say the person called when he was on the phone with someone else really important

Also, I once ordered Sprinkles cupcakes for an office birthday and the boss' wife got really mad that I didn't think to call her and ask if I should also order some for her -- at her home.

From a showrunner assistant:
I've done so many things wrong. I've forgotten to book flights, set meetings, lock pages in a script, send emails... I even called a very powerful writer a midget. He, thankfully, had an excellent sense of humor. My list of blips is endless. I have one piece of advice for those who find themselves in my same position.

Lie.

Lie like your livelihood depends on it. Because it does. Often the flubs are small. Like that drafted email of directions that you didn't send that was really important because Mr.X and Mrs.Y are incredibly smart, but don't know how to Google map an address. Of course they know how. But that doesn't mean they won't be pissed. So, lie. Blame the internet, or say the electricity went out for like a second and somehow the lines of power got crossed and the little dude that lives inside the internet got all confused and couldn't deliver your email. Gah! If all else fails, use big, made up words. Example: "Oh it's the flibergantor that's connected to the interfication was broken. How prostibilous!" No one will question you for the fear of looking dumb. Especially in this town where people are so concerned with image.

And if you're a terrible liar, or get caught, remember, we aren't saving lives here. It's just TV. It's just a movie. We're here for entertainment. Use the f-up as part of your next pilot, movie or spec. That's what it's there for in the first place.

From a producer assistant: 
My car's battery had died in my driveway and needed to be jump-started. Instead of taking a cab straight to work, I explained the situation to my boss and waited for a tow truck. Unfortunately, the tow truck took hours to arrive and by the time I got my car to a Pep Boys, it was 11 am. We had an important notes call with a studio starting at 12 pm. My boss was furious that I was late late to work, and said she would have paid for my cab to work, I just needed to be there. Luckily, the call was running 20 minutes late, so I was able to get to my desk in time to take notes. However, my boss reamed me for being cavalier about the notes call and stressed how important it is I think of these things ahead of time. Lesson learned: if my car ever breaks down again where it's safe in my own driveway, I'm getting my butt to work and worrying about the car when I get home.

From a studio exec assistant:
My junior executive boss was on location and traveling with the same itinerary as a senior executive. They had the exact same schedule. The senior executive's assistant told me they were coming back early and to change my boss's travel, so I did this after getting an email from my boss that they were coming back early. Then I got an angry call from my boss asking why I changed the travel. In the midst of getting yelled at, I heard the senior executive in the background say something to the effect of "why are you yelling? I told her to." Everything was ok because the senior executive pulled rank, but I should've just actually talked to him. I just need to get to know his personality enough so I could anticipate his reaction to everything.

From a manager/producer assistant: 
Shortly after I got my very first assistant job as an assistant to a manager/TV producer, I booked a trip for him to go to New York. He directed me to some janky website with NYC hotel deals, and after spending some time on it I thought I found him a killer one, which I was super excited about. Turns out, what I thought was the total cost of the stay was actually the cost PER NIGHT. He was pissed when he got the bill in New York, but it was only two nights, and he really liked the hotel which is what I think made it okay. He cut me some slack because I was pretty green, but he gave me a hard time about it for years. After that, I triple checked everything related to travel and money.

From a showrunner assistant: 
When I tried to help get a friend hired as a background extra without consulting my boss (the showrunner) first, the Assistant Directors called my boss when he was busy at home writing a script and and told him about my request. I had gone through the ADs because he was busy, but because I had highlighted my position as his assistant when I made the call, they checked with him anyway. He was angry at being interrupted during crunch time and at my throwing his name around with the ADs. I kept my job, but from then on, I approached even the smallest requests with much more caution and consideration.

From an agency assistant:
There could be the time an agent told me to never use the word "as" again. That was... frightening.

But the worst I did was fail to connect a call between international clients and a big producer on a coveted project at 8 AM.

I had scheduled it and just completely forgot. Neither the producer nor the clients had any way of contacting the other, so they both sent confused emails to my boss... who had no idea the call was happening then. I awoke to a few missed calls and texts. I got to the office and he was furious. A mild-mannered guy who never really got upset. But this was an important call about a project these clients desperately wanted and now it had to be... rescheduled.

And guess what? It was, and everything was fine. I was in the doghouse for a day because everyone was inconvenienced for an hour. It just cemented my firm belief that, especially in the agency world, there is a mad rush to make things happen immediately, but in reality... things can wait a day or two. If there's mutual interest between a client and a producer or studio, then a missed call or meeting isn't going to change that. I also learned that sometimes when you're scheduling countless meetings, you might miss confirming a few. And when it comes to phone calls, sometimes it's best to NOT have to connect the calls. Let the producer call the client directly. What's the harm in that? The agency frowned on it, but no client ever really cared WHO was calling them, as long as the call was happening...

A better mistake is one I heard from a Talent Agent assistant. He was sending an audition confirmation to Actress A and had to CC her "Group", which consisted of any relevant managers, agents, etc. But he accidentally selected the Actress B's "Group." So Actress A saw that Actress B was going to get the same audition. And Actress A called the agent and ripped him for sending other competing clients against her for the same role... and the agent eviscerated the assistant all night for being a "fucking idiot." Called him repeatedly all night, insulting him, threatening to fire him, etc...

And my friend? He just apologized and took the beating. What else could he do? He thought he lost his job, but he showed up the next morning and there was his agent, waiting for him in his office, with an agenda of stuff to take care of. They didn't talk about it again. Accidents happen. People apologize. People move on... agents just take it a little bit harder.

From a producer assistant:
Once I was listening in on 9-person conference call. I was not invited to listen in on this call, but Michael Douglas was on it and I wanted to hear what he had to say. As long as I kept my headset muted, no one would be the wiser. I ended up having to juggle several lines, though, and I forgot to re-mute myself when I went back to the conference call. Then a co-worker walked by my desk and I more or less started shouting into my headset about how many shrimps were in my lunch and how great it was, interrupting Mr. Douglas himself. "Who is that?!" he said. Then I heard my boss' door open and him yell "Get off the fucking phone!". Good times.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Now on Vine: Six-Second Screenwriting Lessons from Brian Koppelman


Plenty of pro screenwriters have taken to the web to offer advice and thoughts on the craft, but Brian Koppelman (Rounders, Ocean's 13, the upcoming Runner, Runner) is the first to do it via looping video. "Six Second Screenwriting Lessons" is Koppelman's Vine account, which he uses to share snippets of insight on screenwriting, Hollywood, and creativity. They range from illuminating to no-brainer, but all of them are encouraging coming from a guy who's been steadily writing movies for over a decade. And because they're all limited to Vine's six seconds, they're refreshingly no-nonsense.

Check them out. Here are the first three to get you started:




You can follow Brian Koppelman on the Vine mobile app, or catch the videos via his Twitter account, when he rocks the #SixSecondScreenwriting hashtag.

Monday, September 23, 2013

5 Questions with a Comedy Showrunner's Assistant/Writers' Assistant

Jessica is the showrunner's assistant and writers' assistant for NBC's Sean Saves the World, which premieres on October 3. She was kind enough to answer 5 questions about her job:

How did you get your job?
I started working with Victor Fresco as a writers' PA on ABC's Better Off Ted. Over the course of the show, the other writers' office assistants were nice enough to train me in their respective jobs, so by the end of the second season, I'd had experience helping out as an Executive Producer assistant as well as in-room writers' assistant.  When Victor's assistant got staffed and moved on, Victor hired me as his assistant through his deal at ABC Studios.  From there, I took on the additional responsibility of script coordinator for the pilot of ABC's Man Up! and served as in-room writers' assistant when it went to series. And then when Victor made a deal with UTV, I went with him, which led to my position on Sean Saves the World.

What are the duties of your job/what is a usual day like? 
Victor's a pretty low-maintenance guy, so it's mostly just scheduling, communicating with other departments, and taking notes on calls for him. As writers' assistant, I'm in the writers' room typing the script or notes on a computer hooked up to two big monitors, trying not to make any real-time mistakes. I also help with proofreading and script distribution in my downtime. Annnd judiciously pitch jokes.  Since SSTW is a multi cam, part of my day involves going to set and seeing run-thrus or a shoot, which is always fun and allows time to socialize - something you don't get on single cam as much.

Do you have time to write at your job? 
Haha. No. While my boss was in development, I had plenty of time to make progress on my own samples, write for my sketch group, and freelance blog for two different comedy sites, but all that has fallen by the wayside for the time being. Every show I've worked on has been like this - you kind of have to give yourself over to the job and not look back, or you'll go nuts with guilt.

What kinds of things have you learned about writing or the industry from your job? 
Oh my gosh - it's like paid grad school. Watching the writers go through the writing (and rewriting and rewriting) process, I've learned that it's worth it to rethink every single joke...the best stuff doesn't come from the most obvious thought pattern.  And you want your main character to drive the story - that's a big one. Oh, and just say nice things about everyone all the time, even when shit-talking is justified.

Have you asked your boss to read your writing? How have you gone about navigating that?
Yes - it took me a long time to work up the courage to show my boss my writing, and he was very encouraging and gave me great feedback. I've also gotten to develop with an executive I met. I think most people want to help you to the extent that you enable them to do so, but you can't expect anyone to be your savior. It's important to be really, really confident that what you're showing them is your absolute best work, as first impressions can shape the way a person perceives your talent. But don't be such a perfectionist that you never show anyone anything. It's...hard, but worth it!

Monday, September 16, 2013

September is BAFTA Guru's Screenwriting Season


This month, BAFTA Guru will enter its "Screenwriting Season." An educational resource of BAFTA, BAFTA Guru is an extensive library of interviews, podcasts, and lectures featuring countless filmmakers and creatives - including many screen and television writers. The site already includes lectures from Charlie Kaufman, Abi Hoffman, and John Logan and insights from the likes of Joss Whedon, Seth Rogen, Jenni Konner, and many more.

The 2013 BAFTA Guru Screenwriting Lecture series schedule:
Sept 23 - David S. Goyer (Man of Steel, Batman Begins)
Sept 25 - Hossein Amni (Drive)
Sept 28 - Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich)
Sept 29 - Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton)
Sept 30 - Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral)

Tickets have all sold out for these events, but Guru will be releasing podcast audio, transcripts, and video clips in the days following each lecture.

In the meantime, you can access all of BAFTA Guru's writing content via their Screenwriting strand, including their "Big Questions" interviews, in which writers talk up what inspires them and how they got their starts in the business.

So bookmark and watch this space, as it's sure to expand its spotlight on some of the most exciting film and TV writers working today.

Friday, September 6, 2013

How to Pitch a Movie or TV Show


Pitching: all working writers have to do it at one time or another, but in the aspiring writer world, it's a topic often mentioned but rarely parsed. Which is a shame, because if presenting your ideas (or your take on an idea) is essential to the professional writing process, perhaps we should talk more about it. Luckily, there are few illuminating resources and demos available. This blog collected some good pitching links in 2011, but we felt it was time for an update. 

The Hollywood Pitching Bible, by Douglas Eboch (writer on Sweet Home Alabama) and Ken Agaudo (producer on The Salton Sea) is a no-nonsense, cut-and-dry examination of pitching movies and TV shows. Segmented into brisk chapters, the book covers everything from pitch structure, room etiquette, and even what ideas you should be pitching in the first place. Already boldly assuming that the reader lives in LA or NYC right in its forward, The Hollywood Pitching Bible feels like a sharp weapon by your side as you brave the intimidating arena of pitching. It's worth a look. 

Note from Amanda: If you're specifically looking to pitch TV, also check out Small Screen Big Picture by Chad Gervich. He outlines exactly what goes into a TV pitch - and when I pitched a show to a TV studio, the advice I received from my producer was exactly in line with what Chad wrote. 

I haven't pitched a ton, so the following is certainly not a list of rules you must follow (everyone pitches differently)...but in both TV and feature pitches I've done, I've structured them this way:

1. Intro - why are you the perfect person to write this? Why are you passionate about the idea? Embarrassing childhood and dating stories welcome. Don't be afraid to geek out - people respond to passion. 

2. The concept - what's the show/movie? What's the world? What's it ABOUT on a thematic and emotional level? What movies or shows are tonally similar? 

3. The characters - who are we following? What are their qualities? What's an example of how they would react in a certain situation on the show? What's their backstory? How do they interact with and conflict with each other? What are their arcs (over the movie, or the series?) - what do they have to learn or deal with? Where are they going to go? How will they change? What are they discovering?

4. The pilot story/plot - if you're pitching a TV drama or a movie, then you'll want to go through the plot (but not get SO specific that your pitch gets too long or that things get boring). This is hard. When I pitched a movie, I noticed some of the producers get bored, so I cut some things out on the fly. Keep assessing your audience. They might want to spend more time on one area and skip over another. If you're pitching a TV comedy, the pilot story is less important - you really want to sell them on the show/world and the engine for creating stories, rather than one single episodic story.

5. Episode ideas - for a TV show, have ideas about where the show is going or what some episodes might be (again, dramas and comedies are a bit different here). But I pitched three different stories that got into the areas I was interested in. Any of them could have been the pilot.

6. Questions - Ask if your listeners have any questions. You may get a lot, you may not get any. Once a producer told me he didn't have any questions, and "Quit while you're ahead." 

I like to write out my complete pitch (which should take about 20 minutes or less) in prose a Microsoft word document. For me, it ends up being about 8 single-spaced pages, or 4,700 words (I talk quickly). Then I'll memorize it, but also print it out (or write it out in shorthand) on 3x5 index cards. Some writers say you shouldn't read off of anything, and I don't really READ the pitch, but I bring the cards in case I have a brain fart and totally forget something. The cards are there more as a security blanket just in case I need to look down. Also, I think index cards are better than full sheets of paper, because if you DO end up reading off them a bit, you'll be forced to look up and make eye contact when you have to move on to the next card. If you're afraid you'll use the cards as a crutch, write out the pitch in shorthand instead of printing out the whole thing. I find that if you just write out the first sentence of each paragraph, it will jog your memory and make you remember what you wanted to say - but since all the words aren't on the card, you won't keep looking down. 

Keep in mind that this advice is for formal pitch meetings. Often, you'll go on general meetings where you're asked about your ideas or what you're working on - but you won't give formal 20-minute pitches in these situations. In these cases, you just need to say a bit about concept, characters and/or why you're interested in an idea (it could literally be a 30 second explanation to start off with). Think of it more as testing the waters. Is this the kind of thing the company or person would want to do? See if the person responds to your idea and has some ideas to add. A lot of my generals have been kind of like brainstorming sessions. Producers, execs, etc. might also tell you why your idea won't work, or how it's too similar to another idea - which can be a little soul-crushing, but also helpful. They might have some insider information that will save you time and energy. But it's good to spend some time on small talk and also have a few mini-pitches ready for your general so that if an executive immediately shits on your idea, you'll have something else to talk about. Luckily, you don't usually have to guide a general meeting - the other person will be asking you questions and telling you about their company. I did have one meeting where two executives just stared at me until I said "Okay, so here's what I write about..." but I'm happy to say that's more the exception than the rule. 

Again, for more accounts of how people pitch, check out the links I compiled in 2011

Okay, back to Rob:

We're able to read professional scripts, but unfortunately we can't sit in on professional pitches. Luckily, Max Landis (Chronicle) detailed pitching techniques on a recent(ish) episode of the Nerdist Podcast, and even offered his own take on a Peter Pan prequel live on air. Even A-lister Damon Lindelof (Lost, Prometheus, World War Z) just sat down with Vulture, and, after detailing the current climate of tentpole movie pitches, was challenged to pitch the legend of John Henry as a blockbuster film. Lindelof did. Four different ways.

In another Nerdist writers podcast, THE GOLDBERGS creator Adam F. Goldberg also detailed his TV pitching experience at ABC, which included showing real home videos of his childhood. Usually pros advise against using aids or gimmicks - but since the show is based on his family, the authenticity of the ancillary materials really helped execs to see his vision. 

But part of improving your pitching skills comes just from practice. You can do this on your own, with patient friends, or even to professionals willing to volunteer their time. Just this last year, The Great American Pitchfest celebrated its 10th anniversary and continues to be a yearly festival where hopefuls can go, pitch, and receive feedback on both their idea and their Don Draper game. [Amanda's note: I wouldn't necessarily count on pitchfests as the only thing you do to launch your career, but I do think it's good for people to get practice.]

So, yes: pitching can be scary, but resources are out there to study, demonstrate, and help you prep. Keep an eye out and remember them for that next time you realize that, in so many cases, before any of us will ever get the chance to be paid to write something... we'll probably have to talk about it first.

What was your first pitch like? Chime in!