Friday, January 30, 2015

Power of Story: Serious Ladies at 2015 Sundance Film Festival

Moderated by awesome New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum, this Sundance panel features Mindy Kaling, Lena Dunham, Jenji Kohan and Kristen Wiig talking about everything from sex scenes to career strategy. It's long but fantastic!

Monday, January 26, 2015

Why do writers use "we see" in screenplays?

Brian writes: I wanted to ask why some screenwriters use "we", in their scene descriptions, while others do not. WE hear, WE see, and even WE saw etc...and it's not used just once or twice. Why do they do this?

Some people are very anti "we see," but I'm a little more lenient. Plenty of pro writers use it. I've used it. In many cases, writers probably don't need the much-maligned phrase; "We see Jenny walk up to the car" isn't really an improvement upon "Jenny walks up to the car." And if you're writing "we see" several times on a page, maybe your action could be trimmed.

I think writers use the phrase to convey the sense that we're all experiencing the script together as a movie, and to explain what precisely the camera is revealing at what time (as opposed to what the camera isn't revealing, or isn't revealing just yet). "We see" can also show us what's happening from a particular character's visual perspective.

Here's an instance of "we see" from FOXCATCHER, which earned Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye a 2015 Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay:

I/E. TAXI/MADISON/DAVE’S STREET - DAY

Mark rides in the back of a cab. As he nears Dave’s house, we SEE Nancy tapping a beer keg in the side yard. Dave and Alex sit in the TOP OF THE TREE, watching Mark arrive.

In her screenplay for GONE GIRL, Gillian Flynn also treats the script like a movie we're all experiencing together with "ushers us":

EXT. NORTH CARTHAGE - MORNING 2

A carved faux-marble entry—reading FOREST GLEN—ushers us into a ruined HOUSING DEVELOPMENT. Mostly VACANT houses. A few Fourth of July decorations hang in windows. A weird, BUCOLIC air: swaying grasses, stray wildlife.

If a reader criticizes your use of "we see," the reader might be a bad analyst who is focusing on the wrong things. However, the reader might be right that your action/description is clunky or uninspired, and just doesn't have specific advice for improving it.

The reader might also be trying to find things to say because he or she simply didn't love your script. Sometimes if a script is boring or unimpressive (but doesn't have obvious structure or character issues to talk about), readers find themselves getting picky about other things, because they don't know how else to fill up their required document of notes. I read a fair amount of "meh" scripts with clear concepts and fine characters and don't always know what to say beyond "I just don't love it." I try to not to obsess about things like "we see," but I think this is why some readers do. (I do think you should aim to make even the prose in your script impressive, though. In a script, you're creating an atmosphere while also showing off your ability to write. Words like "lavender" and "cinnamon" can even stimulate multiple parts of your readers' brains.)

Keep reading professional scripts to see how the best writers formulate their pose. Also, remember that "We see" is a small style thing. Agonize over the more important things in your script.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

2015 Academy Nicholl Fellowship submission period now open


Each year, the Academy Nicholl screenwriting competition awards up to five $35,000 fellowships to amateur screenwriters. To enter, submit a feature length screenplay and entry fee via the online application when the competition is open for submissions. Fellowship winners are invited to participate in awards week ceremonies and seminars and expected to complete at least one original feature film screenplay during the Fellowship year.


QUALIFICATIONS
  • Screenwriters who have not earned more than $25,000 writing fictional work for film or television.
  • Entry scripts must be the original work of one writer, or of two writers who collaborated equally, and must be written originally in English. Adaptations and translated scripts are not eligible.
ENTRY DEADLINE

There are three deadlines for 2015: early is March 2 ($40 entry fee), regular is April 10 ($55 entry fee), and late is May 1 ($75 entry fee). The online application form must be completed and a PDF version of the script uploaded by 11:59 p.m. Pacific Time on May 1. Because of the anticipated surge in submissions, we cannot guarantee access to the online application form during the last six hours before the entry deadline.

PRIZES

Up to five $35,000 fellowships are awarded each year to promising new screenwriters. From the program’s inception in 1986 through 2014, $3.74 million has been awarded to 149 writers.

FELLOWSHIP OBLIGATIONS
  • Up to five fellows in the Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting competition will be invited to participate in awards week ceremonies and seminars in November.
  • Fellowship recipients will be expected to complete at least one original feature film screenplay during the fellowship year.
  • Fellowship payments will be made quarterly subject to satisfactory progress of the recipient’s work, as judged by the Academy Nicholl Fellowships Committee.
  • The Academy reserves the right to grant no awards if, in the opinion of the Academy Nicholl Fellowships Committee, no entry is of sufficient merit.
ENTRY REQUIREMENTS
  • Original feature film screenplay (no shorter than 70 pages and no longer than 160 pages) in PDF format only
  • Completed online application form
  • Early entry fee of US$40 (by 11:59 p.m. Pacific Time on March 2) or regular deadline entry fee of US$55 (by 11:59 p.m. PT on April 10) or late deadline entry fee of US$75 (by 11:59 p.m. PT on May 1).
For more information, head over to the Academy's' Nicholl Fellowship website. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

5 Questions with Writer and Script Consultant Timothy Cooper

Timothy Cooper is a screenwriter and script consultant whose web series, CONCIERGE, was nominated for a WGA award. On Twitter, he's @therealtimothy. He also runs the Blueprint Screenwriting Group.


What's your background? 

I got my undergraduate degree at Yale, where I was pre-med at first, then moved into philosophy (organic chemistry isn't easy, y'all). I focused largely on bioethics—the intersection of philosophy, and medicine, technology, and politics. A lot of my work is still informed by those interests. But it was as an undergrad that I wrote and directed a bunch of my own plays for the first time. I took two playwriting courses, including one with the excellent Donald Margulies. And I directed (we'll see if she remembers this) a one-act play by Elizabeth Meriwether (New Girl) that starred Zoe Kazan (everything) called “The Touch, The Feel.”

After graduating, I wrote plays while doing freelance editing jobs. I eventually earned enough consulting on people's college and grad school application essays (that's a whole story in itself) to start supporting myself, so I moved to New York City. Throughout this time, I was doing tons of film internships—script coverage, production assistant jobs, getting coffee, picking up laundry (having done this, I will never make an intern do anything close to that, ever), acting as camera assistant, building props, whatever. I also read every single screenwriting and story theory book available, read thousands (really, thousands) of screenplays, and joined different writing groups and communities of filmmakers.

I also did lots of improv at Upright Citizens Brigade and the Magnet, under some amazing teachers (Jason Mantzoukas, Liz Cackowski, Owen Burke, Peter Gwinn, and Chris Gethard, among others), where I got to perform with and direct some remarkably funny people.



How did you get Concierge made into a web series? 

I had tons of talented friends at Upright Citizens Brigade, and I thought they deserved starring roles. Since then, I was proven right in several cases, as you'll see if you (shameless plug) watch Concierge: The Series. A hotel is a perfect place expose all types of characters at every status level, from high to low. Plus I'm kind of obsessed with hotels, for reasons that are unclear even to me. But it really is the perfect setting to experience all walks of life, all types of behavior, and tons of awesome cameos. I think it would make the perfect sitcom—right, NBCaslongasyouhireme?

I think it only took a few days to write the script for all the episodes. I workshopped it with a few close friends to get feedback. Then I did improv rehearsals with the actors, which definitely helped. I love that collaborative process because it creates so many great new moments, and tells you what needs to be expanded or cut.

I called in lots of favors, then funded the rest out of pocket, which wasn't too bad. The location—a senior home that used to be a hotel—was donated. So was most of the food.

That was my first time really directing, but I knew exactly what I wanted. I brought on cast and crew I genuinely got along with, whom I agreed with comedically and aesthetically. At that point, all you have to do is trust them to do their job really well.

Ultimately, the series got me plenty of meetings with networks, producers, and my now-managers. Our Writers Guild Award nomination —the first for a webseries—didn't hurt either.

One mistake I see over and over is people spending all their time on one script for years, then completely giving up when that doesn't sell. 

Do you have an agent or manager? If so, how did you get representation?

I do have a manager—actually, two managers, at a boutique management company in Hollywood. They are amazing. We work together on my new feature and pilot projects pretty much every week.

I met my managers at Sundance; after they saw my webseries, they asked for more scripts. So I sent them a spec feature and two spec sitcom pilots that I was really proud of. These projects presumably demonstrated my writing style, voice, and commercial appeal.

As a script consultant, what are some mistakes you see writers making over and over, or what are you sick of?

One mistake I see over and over is people spending all their time on one script for years, then completely giving up when that doesn't sell. Your first script will be the best you can write at that time. The second will be even better. By the third, you won't even know why you wasted time on that first script, since you can now see its flaws. But you HAD to write the first one to get to the second one to get to the third! Trust me: If you sell your 10th or 20th script, you're doing really, really well. If you give up before that, you didn't give yourself a chance to get better. For some reason, unlike any other sport or art or skill, people expect their first completed screenplay to be bankable. That's not a realistic expectation, and it's definitely not a viable way to improve.

I also see writers who spend a week on the outline and then months or years on the script. It should be the other way around. Run your story and outline by some trusted associates who understand the industry. Sadly, your parents or significant other don't count, because they (hopefully) think everything you write is golden. Spend time to really iron out the story. If it doesn't capture people's interest in the summarized form, the longer form probably isn't going to work any better.

Don't wait for someone to come along and produce your work. Just do it yourself. I'm talking about making webseries, short films, sketches on YouTube, music videos, fake commercials, isolated scenes, anything. You can easily pick up the skills to shoot a video or short film yourself. Or, if you don't want to direct, try to get in with your local university or improv school. People everywhere are desperate for new stories and great scripts. If it's good, it will get made.

What is the best writing advice you've ever gotten?

David Koepp told me, “Keep at it.”* That's pretty much the answer.
(*When I accosted him after he presented at the Writers Guild Awards.)

Don't put off writing until the perfect day. You have to write when your boss isn't looking, when you have a minute on the toilet, when you're sitting in a traffic jam, when your kids are napping, etc., etc. No one just gets weeks off on an island to write somewhere.

Don't watch a mediocre movie or see a mediocre script and say, “But I could write something mediocre too.” Of course you can; anyone can. Your job, when breaking into the industry—and with every script thereafter, too—is to write something extraordinary. Very few people can tell a story we haven't seen before, in a brand-new way. That's why screenplays sell for so much money—it's really freaking hard to write something with universal implications and appeal.

Move me. Another scene about a reluctant assassin who blows up lots of stuff won't affect anyone in the least. A truly flawed, multidimensional character WILL affect us. Write about a topic you genuinely care about, not just a genre that you've seen selling lately. If you don't care about your message, why should we?

Something I always emphasize in my Blueprint Screenwriting Group workshops is the importance of being receptive to feedback. There is no successful screenwriter who doesn't have to listen to executives, producers, funders, and—most important—his or her audience. Even the world's highest-paid screenwriters rely on a brain trust of peers with whom they test every story beat (as they do at Pixar, for example). If you argue with the criticism rather than just listening, that doesn't bode well for your ability to work with a studio or a production team.

Just hear to what people are saying. Do a reading with actors or friends. You don't have to take everyone's advice, but you have to listen and be open to it. Every script can be improved. Your job is never done.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

5 Questions with a Writers' PA on a network drama

I interviewed a Writers' PA on a network drama (who wishes to stay anonymous). I can relate to her story of a winding path: a career is more than just one job or one opportunity!

1. What's your background?

I went to film school at USC, majored in Critical Studies (Film Studies). I did a wide variety of internships from production companies to TV shows and even in TV I dabbled...I worked in the art department on Mad Men but then also worked in writers' offices on shows like Smallville and Brothers and Sisters. I also at one point worked with an executive coordinating animation events which was interesting. And then if I don't sound career ADD enough, on weekends, I was doing film makeup and working as a production designer on music videos and student projects. I was all over the place, but honestly I think a lot of the moving around came from fear. I knew I wanted to write and was trying to find everything and anything to replace what seemed like a far-fetched dream but then a few years later decided to actually take a chance on myself.

2. How did you finally get the writers' PA job?

Oh god. I honestly thought after school I was golden, I had done so many internships, I thought I'd easily land back on a show after graduation but it didn't happen that way, not for 3 more years. I sort of had to take every step possible to get there which frustrated me beyond belief. I ended up temping / PAing at a studio which then got me assistant experience. With that assistant experience I was able to land a desk at a management company where I also worked for a film / tv producer in development. While I was there, I was trying to take advantage of building up my network which ultimately helped me finally move back into TV where I landed a gig as a production PA. I was on a few Showtime shows as a production PA before I was able to finally hop over into the writers' office as a writers' PA on a network drama.  My friend worked on the sister show and let me know about the opening.

3. What are the typical duties and hours of your job, and how long did the job last?

I was pretty lucky that this writers' PA gig lasted from March to the holidays -- but the catch is that because it's a new show and wouldn't air until a couple months after, if we did get picked up, we wouldn't work until June so then you're on the search all over again. While on the show, the hours depended on where the writers were on the deadlines. Sometimes a couple writers would work late and you'd stay an extra hour or two but I definitely didn't work the hours I did in production. I can safely say I worked 9-10 hour days, sometimes less, sometimes more. As for tasks, my gig was a little more unique in the sense that our production was in Vancouver so I ended up also being a production coordinator type role for LA so I ended up setting up the entire office. It was surprise on my first day when I came and there were no office supplies, no internet, nothing. It was like OK, we have a lot to take care of and you sort of just dive in. Luckily, I just came from production so had an idea of what to do. In addition to those tasks, I did the lunch runs, grocery runs, handled office supply orders, any sort of distribution to the writers and logistics I took care of.

The journey never looks anything like you expect it to.

4. What's something you've learned from your experiences in Hollywood?

That even when you "make it" and are consistently working, there is always going to be a new writing struggle. You're constantly proving yourself even if you have a multi-million dollar deal with a studio. It was eye-opening. It made me realize to try to have fun even while going through the sludge and misery -- being miserable the 90% of the time you're not feeling accomplished or successful is no way to live.

5. What advice would you give someone who wants to be a writers' PA or wants to get closer to TV writers?

The funny thing is there's never just one way. I know people who literally ran into a producer or UPM who then put them on a show and it's history after that then there are others who have had to really climb through different facets of the industry or TV departments to get on a show. It really comes down to meeting that person who can hire you so yeah, just bumping into someone isn't a sure thing but gaining exposure certainly will help those chances of getting to know the right people. I'd look at where you are now and think of ways to meet people. The agency route tends to be great for networking but I don't think is necessarily good for everyone. A TV production company could be a good way to go and I know working in the digital space you meet a good chunk of people who have access to writers. I don't know, the list could go on, there's literally ten thousand different ways to get there so if you're carving any sort of path, I'd say throw it out now because if I've learned anything, the journey never looks anything like you expect it to. Just make sure to keep meeting people, thinking of outside of the box in your approach and of course, writing as much as you can.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Nickelodeon Writing Program open for submissions



The Nickelodeon Writing Program is now open for submissions! The program is a full-time one year program that, unlike many other writing programs, includes a salary. US and international applicants 18 years of age or older are welcome to apply. The application deadline is February 15, 2015.

SCRIPT GUIDELINES

All applicants must submit a writing sample. Appropriate Spec Scripts must adhere to the following guidelines:

  • Must be Comedic; either Live Action or Animation
  • Based on a half-hour television series that is currently on-air and being produced for primetime network or cable (series must have been on-air for at least one season)
  • Typed in standard Final Draft (or equivalent) script format
  • In black ink
  • In 12pt courier style font
  • On 8-1/2 x 11, 3-hole punched white paper
  • With only two brass fasteners (top & bottom)

THE FOLLOWING MATERIALS WILL NOT BE CONSIDERED

Feature-length screenplays, hour-long dramas, reality-based comedies or dramas, pilots, treatments, outlines, plays, short stories, books, graphics, magazine/newspaper articles, poems, headshots, audio/video tapes, digital media, loose-leaf pages or non-U.S. content.

SUBMISSION MATERIALS TO INCLUDE

  • Two copies of one spec script (this applies to both individual writers and writing teams)
  • One-page resume
  • Half-page biography
  • Completed and signed application form
  • Completed and signed submission release form and Schedule A (included with application)
Good luck! For full information about the program, check out Nick's website and FAQ. You can also follow the program on Facebook and Twitter

I also did an interview with the Executive Director of the program back in 2011. I can't say if the program has stayed completely the same, but the interview contains a lot of good advice!