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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog

(OR EL DUDERINO IF YOU'RE NOT INTO THE WHOLE BREVITY THING)

-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Scriptwriters Showcase Recap

As you know from my previous posts, this will not be a recap of the entire showcase, but rather the two seminars that I attended on Friday.

First I went to "Pitch Perfect," moderated by John Scott Lewinski, and featuring Bob Kosberg, Bettina Moss, and Michel Shane (credits, etc, for all speakers in previous post). This was an entertaining session, and somewhat informative, but I wouldn't say I learned a hell of a lot. Here is some of what was said.

Michel stressed the importance of knowing your audience and market when you pitch something. He also pointed out that while scripts are fixable, and thus might get bought with flaws, pitches are just the bare bones, so things need to be in tighter shape. He spoke a bit about the lengthy process of getting Catch Me if You Can to the screen.

Bettina's greatest point was that when you are pitching, you must listen to those whom you are pitching. Too often, she felt, people just get lost in their practiced pitch, and keep plowing ahead, instead of reacting to the reactions of the audience. She tied this in to the idea of pitching yourself as well as your project. On numerous occasions, she said, she'd seen either a good pitch from a person they absolutely would not want to do business with, or vice versa. The latter is more important to us, in that the idea is that if they like you and the way you think/act/carry yourself, they may be interested in working with you on other projects, even if they don't like this specific pitch.

Bob, the so-called "Pitch King" (a term he decried, claiming he is neither Pitch King, Queen, nor Prince), was quite entertaining. He's a funny guy, though he does have a tendency to cut off other speakers, and/or answer questions that were directed to others. Still, he did have quite a good amount of value to contribute. He's probably sold more pitches in Hollywood than anyone else, and he (like Michel) was on the side of "high concept" being the best way to go with a script. He told stories of numerous occasions in which he or someone else found a newspaper or magazine article and used them to sell a pitch. A story that is not only original but also true is, he indicated, a good sell.

On the mechanics of the pitch, he suggested keeping it short (certainly under 15 minutes, and better 5-10 minutes). Structure the pitch in three acts, and feel free to mention where Act breaks are. It is better to keep the pitchees on the same page with you. Use very little or no dialogue, and few details, but do mention the big set pieces. Everything else can be spelled out if you've won your audience over with your sharp pitch.

He said that the best (though obviously very difficult) type of a pitch would be something that no one has ever heard before. That might be a simple phrase or a great concept. He mentioned one pitch (based on a true story out of Parade magazine) about a guy who lived in the Statue of Liberty. Another simply combined the words "alien puberty" (and he mentioned that aliens are automatically high concept, by definition). In brief, a good pitch is one that presents "a good idea, in story form, well told." As a way to practice pitching, he suggested we practice by pitching movies we've seen.

I asked about the importance of titles and/or movie posters to a pitch. The panelists seemed to agree that a good title goes a long way. They didn't suggest bringing in a poster (and in fact I actually meant just having the concept of a poster, more than actually bringing one in), but a good tagline can also be a good selling tool. Someone else asked a question lamenting the fact that pitches are not selling well in Hollywood these days. The response was that while many producers won't listen to pitches, there are still some who do. Another suggestion was to focus on talent-based (actor, writer, or director) prodcos, since good attachments open a lot of closed doors.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the second session I attended was by far the stronger of the two. Equally entertaining, and quite informative. Entitled "Element of Surprise", it was moderated by Bill Martell, and featured pro scribes Stephen Susco, Simon Kinberg, and last minute fill-in for Shane Black, John Cox.

Before I go into specifics, let me give a shout out to Susco, and recommend that you all go check out his site. Of the pro scribe sites out there, his is surprisingly undertouted and unknown. I will be adding to my sidebar soon. So go check out www.stephensusco.com, and/or his affiliated blog.

Okay, on to the panel. It began with a discussion of The Sixth Sense. I'm still not a big fan of this film, but after the praise heaped on it by all these guys, I'm going to have to give it another look. The writers discussed how it was a masterwork of misdirection and obfuscation. Everything you'd need to be able to figure out the big final plot twist was right there in front of your eyes. The guy gets shot in the first scene, and the kid tells us he sees dead people. And yet, we still don't see it.

Kinberg in particular (and I believe the other writers to a similar, yet somewhat lesser degree) were less pleased with The Usual Suspects, since they felt there would be no way to have seen the wool being pulled over our eyes. As they saw it, it was technically masterful, but it was really just a trick in which we couldn't see his hands.

Some other random points...
Kinberg spoke of burying set-ups for plot surprises within character scenes (mentioning Sixth Sense again). He also spoke about character, rather than plot, surprises. I can't remember the specifics (not having seen the film yet) but he mentioned a change in subsequent drafts of Mr. & Mrs. Smith where the second act had the characters reacting in equally believable, but much less predictable fashion than in an earlier version.

Cox mentioned a monster movie he wrote with a demon, in which the prodco liked it, but wanted him to remove the monster (in stereotypically Hollywood fashion). Still, he realized that by doing so, he improved the film. By extending the build throughout the film, the audience believed they were watching a psychological thriller, and then when at the very end a demon is revealed it created a satisfying surprise.

Susco mentioned the "unreliable narrator" as a great way to create surprise. He also mentioned how the big surprises work best when they are obvious in retrospect, but we never see them coming. For example, he mentioned that the name Darth Vader actually means "Dark Father" in old German, and we know that Luke has been searching for his father from the beginning of the first film. And yet, we are still surprised when the Dark Lord tells Luke "I am your father," we are utterly shocked. Cox explained this was because the best surprises express a deeper truth, and in this case made "horrible logical sense." Susco also discussed how the big surprises work best when they are in scenes that hit all sides of the "Grand Triangle" -- plot, character, and theme.

Kinberg spoke of the opportunity to use genre conventions in surprising the audience (noting that all three writers on the panel primarily are genre writers). Since audiences these days are quite savvy, especially within genres, he mentioned the ability to occasionally break some rules to defy expectations. He was impressed with the way Sixth Sense was able to bring tears to some eyes in one scene in particular, which he felt was unheard of in a psychological thriller. He also suggested opening your film with a scene that is not typical of the genre (bringing an example from Mr. & Mrs. Smithwhich started with the couple in marriage therapy, rather than opening with a big action sequence as would be typical of the genre). He felt that a good surprise makes the film emotionally bigger.

The panelists discussed the challenges of creating surprise in a big action film in which we know the hero will survive (such as Mission: Impossible 3 or a James Bond film). They discussed how the surprise can sometimes be in the "how" more than the "what." Susco mentioned that stakes can be raised so that jeopardy is at least ratcheted up higher. Cox said stakes can be about things other than life or death. Kinberg used Memento as an example of this; we already know the hero killed the guy that supposedly killed his wife, but the question is whether he killed the right guy or not. In the M:I 3 script Kinberg said he read, the writers supposedly increased the tension by making it less about whether Tom Cruise's character would die, and more about jeopardy to his love interest. Thus we begin to believe that Cruise might be willing to die for this. This is emotional, rather than physical jeopardy.

Kinberg also mentioned the pilot for Miami Vice in which we meet Don Johnson's character along with his partner, played by Jimmy Smits. Then, Smits character gets killed in an explosion. From that point forward, he always knew there was true jeopardy to the two true main characters.

Lastly, Kinberg also suggested adding or subtracting an element in each scene to see what types of surprises it creates.

So that was some of what I learned, and I hope you guys take a lot from those summaries as well.

On an unrelated note, I just wanted to thank everyone who contributed to my MS Walk yesterday (though if you didn't, and still would like to, you can still go to the website and donate, for about a month or so). I am proud to say that in just 2 weeks time I raised over $2500 to fight this disease, and I look forward to doing even better next year when I have more time!

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4 Comments:

Blogger taZ said...

Great! Very useful information! Thanks for sharing.

12:51 AM  
Blogger Bill Cunningham said...

You captured it perfectly!

5:15 PM  
Blogger Danny Stack said...

Wish I was there, great recap!

8:16 PM  
Blogger Philip Morton said...

Hey Joel, very nice re-cap, very helpful to all. We'll hook up next time -

2:43 AM  

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