Saturday, March 22, 2014

Screenwriting links: Sat, March 22

10 Ways to Get out of “Angry Writer Mode” [Screencraft]

Jill Soloway's tips on script-writing [Chicago Tribune]

Mad Men's Creator: Don Draper Represents American Society [The Atlantic]

Sundance Institute Creates 2014 Episodic Story Lab For TV & Online Writers [Deadline]

Life After Mars: Interview with Rob Thomas [WGA.org]

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

LA FIRSTS: Nick Sinnott


Nick Sinnott is a writer and Emmy award-winning VFX artist who went through the AFI Conservatory's rigorous screenwriting program. He graduated in '09 with a handshake option on a TV pilot and continues to write while working in television post production. You can find him being awesome (and posting an excessive number of photos of his cat Hobbes) at @ndsinnott.

When did you first realize that you wanted, or needed, to move to LA?

On a Thursday in August ‘07 I arrived home to find a message on my answering machine from the AFI Conservatory offering me a spot in their screenwriting program. The catch: classes started in three weeks and I only had a single weekend to decide. At the time I was pulling 80-hour weeks at a visual effects company in San Francisco, mostly entry-level work on projects I would never pay to see. Earlier in the year I had taken a month sabbatical to hastily write and submit a draft of my first feature script to AFI--it earned me an interview and a kindly worded rejection. However, a space had opened up at the last minute and they were willing to give me a second chance. I weighed my options, decided it was too expensive, and replied with a thanks but no thanks email. I spent that entire weekend hunched over a graphics tablet in the cramped vfx studio, slowly growing to regret the decision. I called admissions at 7:58am Monday morning to tell them I changed my mind and had made a huge mistake and please oh please dear god tell me there’s still an open spot. There was.

How did your friends and family react when you first told them you were moving?

My family back in Indiana had already adjusted to me living in California, so the actual move wasn’t a huge deal. I expected some push back when I told my parents I would be taking out hefty federal loans to cover the cost, but they remained supportive to a fault. As my father put it, “You didn’t move all the way across the country to NOT make movies.”

What was the first thing you did when you arrived?

I checked into the cheapest hotel I could find with a weekly rate and immediately drove into Hollywood for an awkward meet-and-greet for new AFI fellows at a since-shuttered club whose name escapes me. It marked the first and last time I ever set foot in a Los Angeles nightclub.

How did you find your first LA apartment (and what was it like)?

It took roughly three weeks of scouring Craigslist before finally locking down a not-too-terrifying one-bedroom in Burbank with a landlord willing to accept a student loan promissory note in lieu of a security deposit.

How did you find your first job in LA?

It found me. The visual effects studio I had worked at in San Francisco closed shortly after I left, sending many of its artists fleeing to LA for employment. The day after graduating AFI, I received a call from a former coworker I kept in contact with asking if I was available for a part-time night shift working on the visual effects for Avatar. It sounded like an easy way to cover rent while keeping my days open for meetings, but… more on that below.

What was your social circle like when first arriving in LA?

Surreal. My first LA friend was a producing fellow who lived alone in a mansion just off Los Feliz built by a long-dead actor for his mistress, still packed with dust-covered artifacts of the silent era. I was one of the few classmates the producer had entrusted with knowing where she lived--she wanted to keep her inherited wealth a secret during the first year of classes, assuming (correctly) she would be unfairly judged or exploited for it. Everyone else I met through AFI was equally fascinating and I stuck exclusively to socializing with other fellows that first year, but during year two we all tired of each other and began networking/partying/sleeping with our counterparts at USC and UCLA.

What was your first celebrity sighting or a time you saw/met someone you admired?

My first-year workshop instructor took us on a field trip to see Noah Baumbach at the DGA theater. Baumbach was asked what the most painful part of writing Margot at the Wedding was and responded, “Not letting myself browse the internet.” He was being glib but for me his answer humanized the idea of screenwriting as a profession.

What was the first time LA felt like home?

Eight months after moving here, a friend shared some leftover pizza from Tomato Pie and I was over the moon. It was the first pie I’d tasted in California on par with the ones I had grown used to during my undergrad years in upstate New York. I would later learn the owner grew up in Liverpool, NY, home of Avicolli’s--hands down the best pizza I had while in college.

What was the first time moving to LA felt like a mistake?

I deferred as long as I could, but eventually the day came when I had to start repaying my student loans. By this point, my part-time job had escalated to another 80-hour/week nightmare, leaving me with zero writing time. It felt like I was right back where I started, only now I massively in debt.

How did you move past that first time feeling that?

I did the sensible thing and quit my job. A few months later I was offered a staff position at a smaller vfx studio and this time I was up front about needing time to write. They promised not to invade my nights or weekends and so far, they’ve kept that promise. It’s still not ideal but at the very least the current gig led to my recent Emmy win, which has proven useful to bring up in meetings.

Did you have the kind of writing time you expected when you first got settled?

The screenwriting program at AFI is essentially a 27-month writing workshop, during which time fellows are expected to devote every waking second to their craft. Since graduating, I’ve found that first drafts and page one rewrites are easier to schedule around a day job than smaller revisions or polishing, which take a clear head and a focus difficult to muster after spending all day squinting at pixels.

What led to your first bit of exposure as a writer?

AFI brought in a working showrunner to teach my second-year TV writing course, and he loved the pilot I wrote in his class so much he asked to option it and take it around town. The pilot failed to find a home, but it was thrilling to gain my first industry advocate.

If you could do it all again, which of your firsts in LA would you do differently (and why)?

When a writing fellow graduates from the AFI Conservatory, their contact info and loglines to any features they’ve written during their fellowship are published in a little booklet that gets sent to every studio, agency, and management company in LA. This happens concurrently with a swanky gathering the conservatory puts together to match graduates with industry representatives--sort of a film student debutant ball. Afterwards, provided we made an impression, requests for scripts start pouring in. It’s all terribly exciting, but when my turn came I forgot to keep a level head and rushed to send out many, many scripts that weren’t quite ready, burning several bridges in the process.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

5 Questions with an Assistant to a Feature Writer/Novelist

Christopher Ming is the writer's assistant to a feature writer and novelist. His website is FightingBroke.com. On Twitter, he's @thisisming.

1. How did you get the job? 

In August 2013 I told my current boss, an agent, that my dream job was to work for a specific client. I spent about 10 - 15 hours brainstorming different ways I could add value to his business, and pitched him 3 suggestions by email. I offered to do any or all, on my own time, for free.

That got our working relationship started. He was always perfectly clear -- he appreciated the help, but there was no guarantee he'd ever be in the position to hire me.

The point being: there was never a job opening. He wasn't looking to hire, he didn't ask for anything. I studied his business and found ways I could improve it (there are always ways), positioned myself to do so, and did it for free.

It took 7 months before he made me an offer.

2. What are the basic duties of your job?

There's the typical assistant stuff, of course -- scheduling, handling email and requests and acting as the liaison between him and various agencies.

It's research heavy as well -- he'll send me questions about a project, and I'll go find the answers. Because he works on books, features, and TV (we're trying to get his first show on the air -- fingers crossed) there's always some reach to do.

A chunk of my time (I'd say 30%) goes towards what I was doing before -- identifying places to improve the business, then doing it. My boss doesn't assign this. I'll spot the issue, and once I get traction on a solution, I'll let him know, "hey, this is something I'm working on."

Quick example: I wanted to build up his web presence, so I start handling his website and his social media. I notice another writer, in a similar genre, is doing some really interesting work. So I reach out to that web master/social media person and we begin emailing. She sounds like she'd be happy to help, so I hope we'll have a phone conversation soon. Then, I let him know that this is in the works.

To be clear: I realize this autonomy isn't easy in many jobs. I think it's how you present yourself in that initial pitch. I presented myself as someone who's always looking to solve problems and add value. So I have the freedom to do it.

3. What are your hours like? Do you have time to write when you're there or do you do that in the off hours?

My hours are, frankly, awesome. 90% of the time I work from home, so I structure my hours to my preference. (This will change when we get a show.) Any of my own writing, I do first thing, so I wake up at 5:30 every weekday and start writing by 6.

As best as I can, I batch my work into two distinctive parts: creative work in the AM, administrative work in the PM. Things like research and examining business opportunities, I handle in the morning. When it's time to deal with scheduling, emails, and executing ideas, I do that in the afternoon. The downside is that technically, I'm on call 24-7. The phone is always on. However, that's not unlike other Hollywood jobs.

I realize this level of independence isn't applicable to everyone. What I've found (with all my bosses) is that the most important thing to communicate is: your investment in their success and failure. When they know you're as invested as they are, they'll trust you to do your own thing. You don't need to be micromanaged. This kind of emotional investment can't be faked. They'll smell it on you. Either you're 100% committed, or you're not.

4. What's something you've learned from your job/boss?

That the key to building a world is research. You have to know every square inch of your world. The research has got to ooze from every pore of your script: settings, characters, dialogue, tone. If you're just winging it, it's going to come through in the writing. Do your research.

5. What advice would you give someone who wants a job like yours or wants to succeed in a job like yours?

Two things:

Find where you can add value, and then go do it. If you want to learn from someone, if you want to work for someone, figure out where they could use help, then execute. For free. You don't need to get paid to help someone, especially if it's someone who inspires you, whose career you aspire to emulate (hopefully both are true if you want to work for them).

How do you find where to add value? Research. What's true for building worlds (see question above) is the same for building your career. Sounds simple, right? But is it easy? No.

For any person you aspire to work for (you should have a few), have you:

Read their entire body of work? Books, scripts, articles, blog posts?

Are you up to date on all the news on them - not just what you find on Deadline, either...I mean, have you dug through 10 Google pages worth of material, combed through their entire Facebook fan page, and through every Tweet they put into the universe (or that they're mentioned)?

Did you read the books they said they read? Have you watched the films that influenced them?

Have you read every single article they were profiled in, or interviewed?

Have you watched every video on Youtube of them: giving a commencement speech, an Interview, or doing a red carpet interview?

For me, this research -- not including reading his books -- took almost 15 hours. The result? I wrote one email. But it was the email that got the attention I needed.

That's part one. Part two, also one word: Patience.

People's general lack of patience astounds me. There are so many moving parts, so many things working against you, and so much competition, the stars need to line up for you to land that dream job. If you're not patient, it won't happen.

I think we read stories about these wunderkinds: the David Karps, Kevin Systroms, Lena Dunhams and Zac Efrons...and we think: why haven't I reached that level of success yet? Plus, it's all compounded by the social media we consume, where everyone inflates their level of happiness and success by, oh I don't know, a factor of bajillion… We forget about the David Chases, the Michelle Ashfords and the Vince Gilligans of the world -- extremely talented people, all who took time to build their careers.

Luck plays a big role in grabbing your dream job, too. However, by adding value, and by being patient, you create more opportunities… until that one day you're "lucky" enough to get an offer.