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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog


-- 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.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Unsustainable Premises?

I've said it before (recently, in fact), and I'll say it again: I know nothing about TV. An example I like to give as proof is that I was convinced that CSI was going to bomb! Shows you what I don't know. But actually, it is the specific reason that I thought it would bomb that is the subject of this post.

How or why do producers create TV series in which the very premise of the show is unsustainable? Okay, with CSI I didn't exactly think it was unsustainable, so that isn't really the best example. I just thought to myself, "Are people really going to want to come back week after week just to see this?" Apparently, yes. My bad!

But what got me thinking about this recently was the new show Rules of Engagement. For those who are unfamiliar, the concept is that one guy is married, one is a swinging single, and one is engaged. Potentially rewarding concept. Good cast overall too. So I think to myself, okay, not bad. But how do you keep the middle guy perpetually engaged?

I mean sure, it is easy to keep the married guy married and the single guy single. But how long does "engaged man" stay engaged before he ceases to be, well... engaging?

There was a sitcom some time ago called The Single Guy. That, at least, was a concept that was sustainable in theory, but in practice people got bored as well. It also narrows the scope to being about relationships only. But even that concept was somewhat better than this one. I ask again, how does the engaged guy stay that way without becoming either unrealistic, or just annoying as hell?

So I think, well, maybe they start to swap places. I guess that is theoretically possible, but probably an unlikely place to take the characters as they are set up. Thus, I think it will be interesting to see how long this show lasts, and if it lasts for a long time, it will be interesting to see how they sustain it. But I really just have one question: why?!

I mentioned this to someone recently, and they mentioned Prison Break back to me. Now on the one hand, I hear it. How long can you sustain the concept of a single prison break without boring your audience? But then again, I also think they've found a good way to extend it. I have never watched the show, but from the promos I've been seeing during football games, it seems as if they have gotten out and are now being chased or something. So now it is somewhat more sustainable. Anyone remember, er, ever hear of a show called The Fugitive?

Still, the difference between that show and my naive understanding of Prison Break (not having seen it) is that firstly there was both an underlying mystery/desire driving The Fugitive and a framework for him to do unique things in each town along the way. I don't think those are in Prison Break, though correct me if I'm wrong. More importantly, The Fugitive had a name that specifically focused on the running man, whereas Prison Break is titled based on the story's beginning and initial driving force. Once that has been completed (as the promos seem to indicate it has), the name begins to be more irrelevant. Are its days numbered as well?

What about Lost? Sure, we've got a mystery, and little bits being revealed steadily. But how long can you keep throwing weird stuff at people, yanking their chains to make them think they are getting anything, but still not really revealing much? For Twin Peaks it was two seasons. Lost is past that point, right? But how far can it actually go?

Still, with all these examples, most of them fall closer to CSI, in that I just don't know how you get people coming back week after week, but those are the thoughts of the guy who (all together now) knows nothing about television. But I don't think Rules of Engagement falls into the same category. We'll see, I guess. If the show sucks, we won't even need to wait and see what they have planned!

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Go See This Film

I went to a screening last night of a wonderful film, both moving and important. God Grew Tired of Us is a documentary about the Lost Boys of the Sudan, the thousands of young boys who walked across harsh desert to escape Sudanese civil war and genocide, first to Ethiopia, and then back through Sudan to Kenya.

I know this is not the first film to address this topic, and I have not seen the others. But I can tell you that this film is out in theaters now, in a slow platform release, and while the others are probably worthy of attention as well, this one can use the attention now, so it will be seen by even more people. It is well done, explores and reminds us of an important event, and won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at last year's Sundance Film Festival.

What made it even more interesting for me was that just the night before, on Sunday, I was chatting with a man I recently became friendly with. He had an amazing story of his own to tell. He is Ethiopian, and after conscription into the Ethiopian army and 6 years fighting with Eritrea, he finally escaped and walked on foot, by himself, all the way to South Africa and freedom! His journey took him through five different countries on his way between Ethiopia and South Africa, and he had many amazing close calls on the way. Plus he had no passport so he had to sneak across many guarded borders. Eventually, he made his way to Israel, and then to the U.S.

Though his tale was different, it made me think even more about the problems in Africa (of which there are many). We must do what we can to help, including raising our own awareness, and that of others. Seeing this film can be a small start.

If you are in LA, and want to see this film in the next few days, I do have one 2-for-1 pass that they were giving out after the screening. It is good through Thursday this week (1/18), and the film is playing at the Laemmle Sunset 5, on Sunset and Crescent Heights. Just email me if you want the pass, and we can arrange a way to make the exchange. First to ask gets it!

But even without that, I urge you to see this film. It is currently playing in LA and NYC, and this weekend it opens in five more cities, with hopefully more to follow.

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Friday, January 05, 2007

FFFJ: Code Name: The Cleaner

Yet again, it's been a long time since I did one of these "From the Files of Fun Joel" posts. For those who don't recall, or are unfamiliar, these posts are based on scripts that I covered professionally. Sometimes they are scripts that I read which eventually came out, others they are scripts that did not get picked up for one reason or another, or were lost in the proverbial Development Hell.

With today's release of Code Name: The Cleaner, I had to put up such a post. The film's release is an exciting moment for me, but also one which I fear may prove to be bittersweet.

In all the time that I have been a script reader, I have read many films that eventually were released. I've written about many of them on this very blog. There have also been films which I read, and were purchased or optioned by the company I read them for. Still, to my knowledge, no film yet has gone the entire way from me reading it, to my company buying it, to having it produced, and seeing it released by them. The ones that have been released came from other companies than those for whom I read. Often they were just writing samples, other times someone else bought the script.

That's all about to change with the release of this film. Back in mid-April of 2001 I read for New Line a script called Traces by Robert Adetuyi. I gave it a RECOMMEND. In time, New Line optioned it. Nearly six years later, that film is being released as Code Name: The Cleaner. Obviously, this is somewhat exciting for me. At the same time, however, while I suspect the film might do okay, I also fear that the film might not meet my original hopes or expectations.

For one thing, I am not the hugest Cedric fan. Though I did think he was quite hilarious in THIS MOVIE, I still fear he may not have been the best choice.

On the flip side, he does have a sizable fan base, so they might be enough to give this film a good opening weekend. Furthermore, with the type of film this became, he might actually be just the right type of comedic actor to pull it off.

I say "the type of film this became" because it is clearly a far cry from what I originally read. There is currently a second credited writer, which means a lot has been changed from Adetuyi's version, firstly. Also, my biggest issue when I read it originally was that the action and comedy elements did not meld well. I said that something needed to be done -- either make it more action, or better blend the comedy with it, though I leaned towards the former. Clearly, they went with the latter.

Now this is not necessarily a bad choice, just one that could potentially backfire. Hopefully not, but we'll see.

So the film ended up becoming sort of a comedic version of Bourne Identity. With the popularity of the Bourne movies, and the recent spate of spy thrillers, this could actually work quite well, but it remains to be seen.

I'd also like to add, by the way, that this coverage was early in my reading career, and if I read the script today I probably would only give it a STRONG CONSIDER or CONSIDER. But still, it could have paid off in the end. We'll see soon enough. Now for my coverage:


DRAFT DATE: 3/15/01

LOGLINE: A man with amnesia learns that he is actually a secret agent, and must try to recover his lost memories.

BRIEF: This script works best in its thriller and action elements, but loses some steam from a bizarre dollop of humor laid on top of the whole story. If the tone can be more adequately matched throughout, and the specific story elements made more original, this could be a very good film.

COMMENTS: Traces is a relatively well-crafted action thriller. It benefits from some good plot twists and rapid pacing. The script does, however, present a few weaknesses, primarily in its uneven tone, and somewhat hackneyed scenes throughout the mildly complex plotline.

The best element of this script is its fast pace. Each sequence moves rapidly into the next, without much wasted time. Adetuyi does a good job of avoiding too much exposition, and also successfully avoids showing too much extraneous information. If we would have no trouble figuring out how Jake got from one scene to another, Adetuyi wisely cuts immediately from one to the next. This is, unfortunately, too often not the case in films these days.

The twisty plot is also relatively well constructed. There are, of course, the major shifts, corresponding to the revelations that Jake is actually a spy and, later, that Jake is actually not a spy, after all. Similarly, the other twists, such as Diane’s and Gina’s identities and the fact that Chambers is actually a “bad guy,” help maintain interest throughout the film. We can pretty much assume that no character in this film is exactly who we think they are, which is always entertaining for an audience to watch. In many ways, this script is reminiscent of The Spanish Prisoner, though a major distinction between these two lies in that script's greater originality and homogeneous tone.

And it is exactly those distinctions which highlight the flaws of Traces. Although the overall storyline is full of enjoyable reversals, the individual scenes that make up those sequences are rather standard. The fight scenes are like so many we’ve seen before, and more importantly, are way too similar to each other. The weapon itself is kind of silly sounding, lacking any special aura, and the fact that Jake “disarms” it by removing a computer disc is patently ridiculous, and rather trite. And the entire sequence involving the recovery of the X-1, along with the escape from the Nucor offices, are again standard order. To make this film stand out, the specific scenes that fill the twisty sequences should be crafted as well as the overall plotline.

Additionally, the tone shifts awkwardly between action and humor. If the humor were to simply be of the type that regular people use in their daily lives, this could work. However, the humorous tone the author attempts to set borders on farce, and silly farce at that. This is particularly true in the opening sequence, the most important time to set the proper tone. This script doesn’t play as broad comedy, but rather as an action thriller with an everyday hero. Any humor in this script should probably remain of an extremely realistic nature.

Overall, however, this is an enjoyable script with some fun reversals. The fact that the main characters are African-American could help in opening up an audience that wouldn’t necessarily attend a film like The Spanish Prisoner. If the scene and tone weaknesses can be improved, this film could prove a true crossover success.

COMMERCIAL POTENTIAL: This script could definitely attract a decent sized audience based on its plot strengths and protagonist alone, but to make this script truly successful, the specific elements of the film must be improved to make this a more unique movie.


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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Another Difference Between TV and Film

So the other day, I was chatting with a friend who has a drama pilot in development with Touchstone and ABC. (And before I go any further, forgive me if I mix up any of the TV terminology -- as I've said before, I don't know TV. Not sure if "in development" is appropriate here or not.) He just delivered his script to the network, and by mid-January, they should know if they get greenlit. Something he mentioned got me thinking, and us talking.

He mentioned the voluminous amount of notes he got from everyone involved at nearly every stage of the process, and I immediately thought of watching the episode of Situation: Comedy in which I watched my other buddy Marc getting notes from the network. Just the number of people listening and giving notes made it more intimidating than the film development process.

So I asked him what percentage of the notes he got were actually good ideas. He said, "Surprisingly... 85%." To which I responded that I wasn't surprised, which was not (incidentally) my opinion about film notes. Film notes are notoriously bad, but TV notes not as much so (despite the complaints of many TV writers).

So why is that? I think it largely comes down to a combination of money and numbers.

My friend pointed out that while a film development person slave for years over a given film, and many have only had a few films actually get made in the end. Whereas TV execs make pilots every year. Both pilot scripts and completed pilots that simply are tested and either developed further or dropped. Lots of them. So they have a lot more experience in getting product made and then tested, and thus have a better understanding of what works for their medium. Now at the same time, this might mean there is going to be less originality in the TV format, since they do more of "what works." (I would argue that almost the entire sitcom genre would attest to this.) But at the same time, it is easier to get to know what your audience wants.

So then the questions is, why don't movies make pilots of some kind? For one thing, it costs a lot more to make a film than it does to make a TV pilot. An expensive TV pilot costs maybe 4 million dollars. Okay, I think Lost was more in the $7-12 mil range. But even that would be a very low budgeted film. And while the networks invest in about 30 pilots or so a year, that only adds up to the budget of one or two major motion pictures.

Now let's also look at the other side of the economics. Of those 30 pilots, a number of them go on the air each season. And even TV shows that don't have good ratings still earn some income (even if they aren't turning a profit). So even the losses make some money back. With film, it is true that an underperforming film will also make some income, but a much smaller percentage than what TV shows bring in. And here's the major difference: marketing/advertising. TV stations have a built in venue for promoting their own shows. Films have to pay big bucks to promote in those same venues. So it costs significantly less to promote and market a new TV show, than it does to do the same for a single film.

Yes, by the end of the season, a TV drama series might cost as much as a single feature film. But if it makes it that far, it earned a lot more guaranteed income, and also cost a lot less to market. So the combination of money and time makes it easier for TV development execs to gain experience quickly, thereby making them more adept at giving effective development notes.

Later that day, I grabbed lunch with another friend who covers TV for The Hollywood Reporter and other venues. I mentioned this topic to him. Which led him to another related topic. With so many TV shows leading to movies (e.g. The Simpsons, Firefly, South Park, etc.), he wondered what the potential might be for going int he opposite direction. Launching a TV series with a theatrical motion picture.

T my mind, it comes down to the money thing again. Since it costs so much more to make a feature, it would not likely be worth it, in my mind, It might be interesting to do once or twice, as a marketing gimmick, but I think it would lose its effectiveness very quickly. Plus, what makes TV work is different than what makes film work, except in very few exceptional cases (e.g. 24). Fans are more willing to accept the TV-to-film changes when they are already fans of the show. But if it were a one-off movie setting up a TV series, they would never have the opportunity to get invested in the idea before it changes.

To put it differently, I don't think that many people would have wanted to go see the Lost pilot as a theatrical release.

I don't know that this all adds up to very much practically speaking, but I think it does make for some interesting food for thought and fuel for conversation.

On another note, MERRY NEW YEAR!

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