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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.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Another Ending in Sight

Warning: Lengthy post!

Spring is typically seen as the season of rebirth, and new things. But following my recent ending to the search for information on a certain producer who was getting a number of hits on my blog, I now have yet another ending in sight:

The first draft of Hell on Wheels!

Anyone who has been following this blog for a while (or who is savvy enough to search through the archives) knows that this has taken me a ridiculously and foolishly long time to finish. But first a brief recap of me and HoW to date. And so you regular readers don't get bored by this, I'll go into a bit more detail about a few things along the way.

The origins of the idea for HoW came when I was doing a reading job for pay. No, I didn't steal someone else's idea (I assure you). I was reading a book about the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, deciding if the company should adapt it into a movie. I previously knew very little about the railroad, and though I didn't think the book would make for an excellent movie in itself, I was fascinated by many of the little things I learned along the way.

One of those things was that it was during this time that the term "Hell on Wheels" was coined. As it turns out, the Transcontinental Railroad was built from opposite ends (and not even stretching the whole country, but rather connecting to pre-existing railroads for the rest), and meeting in the middle. The Central Pacific moved eastward from Sacramento, and through Nevada, while the Union Pacific moved westward from Omaha, through Nebraska and Wyoming. The two railroads met in northern Utah.

But the two railways were being paid by the government based on the amount of track they laid, so it became something of a race between the two. As the UP raced westward (the CP moved more slowly, going through mountains), they would set up a base camp at track's end, and it would stay there for a few months until the tracks were extended another hundred miles or so. Then the camp would pack up, move down the tracks, and set up again.

To separate the rail workers from the money they earned, temporary towns sprung up right outside the base camps. These were basically built of tents and shacks, and that's it, and primarily supplied the men with booze and women. Since these towns were temporary, they never really had any police, and became completely lawless, at times experiencing literally a murder a night. Hence the name applied to these towns, Hell on Wheels.

After reading about this, it occurred to me what a great setting for a movie this would be, and since these towns really came to life (no pun intended) at night, the idea of setting a vampire western in that setting popped into my head. I mentioned the idea once in my writing group, and it was then that my buddy and fellow writing group member Michael Lee Barlin approached me about collaborating on it. He liked the idea and was interested in exploring a writing partnership.

Now, when I told the group the idea for the movie, I was already hesitant to write it, knowing that vampire westerns were kind of a joke around town. Even though I liked the story idea I had, I still was concerned. But I was also interested in trying a collaboration, since I hadn't done that before, and finding a friend who was enthusiastic about my idea offered a good opening for me to explore that. So I figured that even if the script didn't go anywhere (due to its concept's joke status), I'd hopefully improve my writing, explore the art of collaborative writing and ideally have a good writing sample (though I recognized the potential issues of it being a writing sample for both of us).

So that was that. We started writing, as I've previously described our collaborative method. We also eventually dissolved the partnership, due primarily to scheduling issues. We agreed to split story credit (because he certainly contributed significantly in that area), and I would maintain complete "Written By" credit. And though I had initially had hesitance about writing this property, my life and writing career were already too littered with projects begun and never completed, so I decided to finish the script on my own. Plus, I enjoy it, and think it still could be a decent sample, even if its chances of selling are somewhat limited for the aforementioned reasons. So I soldiered on.

Somewhat. More accurately, I attempted to, but as too often is the case, life interfered. I was finding that I never had the time or energy to dedicate to my writing because, as a full-time freelancer, I was always using my hustle just to get enough work to make a living. And I didn't mind being poor if it was allowing me to do what I wanted to do, but since I wasn't able to do that, what was the point? So as I've also discussed previously, that realization (in conjunction with my turning 35) made me decide it was time to make some major life changes.

I took a full time job (basically my first "real job"). A job that uses my skills but doesn't really drain my creativity (I write, but it isn't particularly creative writing). A job that pays decently (nothing amazing, but relative to what I'd made previously, it was a ton) and has really good benefits (e.g. free in-house massage therapy). And a job with regular hours and little stress, so that my time out of the office is actually my own. With that time, I could continue doing some freelancing, but also refocus on my screenwriting (and specifically on Hell on Wheels).

So, although there had been a large time gap in my actively writing, due to a job search, etc., I was looking forward to getting back to the grindstone. But of course, the first few months at the job were spent acclimating to a new schedule and lifestyle, so still very little writing. Then I was ready to get started again, and right then, my laptop died. Ugh. I lost a lot of information, including about 15 pages of the script (I had backed it up, but not the most current version). Another month passes, and I finally get a brand new laptop (which I'm quite pleased with, by the way). Finally, I was ready to buckle down and write again.

And I did, somewhat. Slowly, I was working the writing back into my schedule, along with many other things that had been shunted aside when I started the job. Gradually, I added more things back in, slowly finding balance between the various areas of my life. But I was still not writing as much as I wanted to or needed to. Whenever people would ask me how the writing was going, I would tell them I was writing more than I had been, but less than I wanted to be.

Interestingly, I was encountering a strange problem. Though I was so close to the end of my draft (basically, just the third act left), I was finding the writing slow going. Almost plodding. Part of it, I think, was that following such a big gap in active writing, it was hard to get the passion up again. Also, I think that with so little left to write, and seeing the end so close, it was also hard to get moving. It was almost as if I would have to stop so soon, so why start?

I know this all might seem a bit odd, but I'm trying to get into the psychology of writing and/or procrastination a bit. Maybe this can be instructive, and I also want to talk about what I did to get past it.

I knew that things weren't working as well as they should, so there were two things I did. Firstly, I started sitting down on Sunday night or Monday morning and planning out my upcoming week. I am not able to have a set schedule for each week (and I actually prefer not to have one). But I know that I need to carve out protected time for writing. It doesn't have to be the same segments of time each week, but they do need to be scheduled. So now I'm aiming to find 3-5 sessions a week. If possible down the road, I can up it to more, but just that basic amount will be a huge step for me if I can make it concrete and steady.

More importantly, though, I decided to use a device to bypass the avoidance. I knew that a lot of procrastination is in the head, so at least for the final push to completion, I wanted to bypass the head as much as possible. Essentially, I wanted to rely on the outline I had already developed. So while I had already created a relatively detailed outline (with Michael Lee's collaboration), I decided to get even more detailed.

I went through the final portion of my outline, and made an even more detailed outline, which was literally a beat-by-beat sheet, with almost every detail. That way, every time I sat down to write, I didn't have to think about what I was writing. I could just execute whatever I had planned out.

And it worked. Now I go through about 2 pages an hour, which is a pretty decent pace. I'm not saying everything I'm pumping out is high quality, but it is a first draft after all. It ain't supposed to be perfect. I'm going to do a quick polish/brush-up as I normally would before I give it to my writing group for feedback. But I'm happy that I found a way to push through the blocks.

Now don't get me wrong. This is not a major celebration, because this script is still far from complete. This is very much a first draft. But I'm still happy with this small step.

Lastly, this is the plan moving forward (to add a little more accountability). Finish this draft by the end of the week. Get it to my group for feedback. While I await/gather the feedback, and let the notes gestate, I plan to return to the straight-to-vid, low-budget type horror script that I wrote previously. I owe it one good solid rewrite, hopefully not for more than a month of writing time. After that, I revise Hell on Wheels, with hopefully not more than one more draft (but we'll see). Then, use both to try to get some representation, and/or try to sell one or the other.

And my next script that I want to write is a wedding themed comedy, in the vein of My Best Friend's Wedding or Monster-in-Law. Wish me luck! :-)

[Oh, and yes, as MaryAn pointed out in the comments of my last post, you are seeing right in that picture up above. I cut my hair short, after 9-12 years (I forget exactly how long it had been). Surprise!]


Thursday, April 19, 2007

Sheila Hanahan Taylor Interview, Part 2

Here is Part 2 of my interview with Practical Pictures' Sheila Hanahan Taylor. Enjoy!

Most of my readership is made up of developing screenwriters who have yet to gain representation, and have not sold or optioned any scripts. What advice can you offer them in moving from that stage to eventually becoming working screenwriters?

These are my top 6 rookie errors:

1. Thinking your script is ready to show people, when it isn't.

Remember, most Hollywood execs, agents and producers read a person's script exactly once. So, when you're sure your script is really really ready, I suggest putting it in a drawer for 3 weeks minimum before you take it out to send places. Look it over. You'll have a fresh eye when you revisit the material. After those 3 weeks, I'd rewrite it again. Then I'd have people read it and make more suggestions. Ask yourself if what you've written would stand out at the multiplex. Ask yourself if you'd pay $10 to see it. Ask yourself if you think it is worth a $200,000 spec sale. I'd do that two or three times before giving it to anyone who matters.

2. Not reading enough professional screenplays.

Ideally, an aspiring writer reads an early draft and a later draft, or compares it to the finished film. There's a ton to be learned from the rewriting process, and usually rookies underestimate what constitutes a rewrite. Dialogue fixes aren't rewrites – they're polishes! Sometimes seeing how a project evolved can shed light on the overall craft of storytelling.

3. Treating screenwriting like a hobby instead of a career.

Take this journey seriously. The art of screenwriting is a craft that takes years to master. Dabbling is fine if you just want to dabble but if you want to eventually earn a living, you need to make this pursuit a lifestyle.

4. Writing the script as if you were going to direct the material.

I see this a ton. Professional writers write. Directors direct. If a script can't convey the mood on the page without naming specific music cues or describing camera angles to enhance the story, then the writing isn't strong enough to begin with. Also, as many writers have figured out, you have more room on the page for prose and good dialogue if you omit the camera angles and blocking minutia.

5. Rookies often think they're special, or their script idea is special... when they aren't.

Listen, I'm not talking about ego. I'm just talking about the idea that, in addition to the fact that there really are a finite number of stories out there and there's an even more finite number of reasons people/characters are motivated to "do something," there isn't a story an exec or producer at a certain level hasn't already considered. Seriously. If you weigh the volume of material we receive against the number of half-decent scripts out there, we've seen it all. Only about once a year does an idea or notion come my way that is 100% unique and fresh, so odds are your idea isn't the one.

So then the key to standing out is about how you deliver that familiar idea so that it feels fresh. Most likely we already know how the film will wrap up – that's hinted at in Act One – so the thing that gets most people invested is how you present the events in Act Two. Make that special, and you'll be in much better shape than the guy who imagines they have the once-in-a-lifetime genius idea that they're certain we haven't ever heard. (We have!)

6. Not knowing enough about how Hollywood really works.

There's something to be said for the writers who are true introverts, who don't read the trades, who just hang and write. The reality is most of those people don't actually make a living as screenwriters. Sadly, Hollywood is a very big and lucrative business, and the people who are surviving in it take it as seriously as any other successful person thriving in their chosen career. No, we're not curing cancer here in LA-LA land, but there's big money at stake, and when there's money at stake people bring their A-game. Get to know who matters and who doesn't. Learn how contracts and guilds work. Understand who makes decisions and who can make your life easier. Just being talented, just being a good writer isn't enough to help you achieve your dreams.

So, you know that what originally led me to post your name, and what led to the entire saga of my pseudo-quest to find out about you was that I had begun writing a vampire western script (known as Hell on Wheels), and that you had been quoted in Done Deal as not ever wanting to read another one of those scripts again. (I found that quite humorous, by the way.)

Fair enough, and I knew before I started what a joke that particular combination had become around town. And yet, I decided to go ahead with it anyway. Would you consider that an unwise decision, having known all I knew?

That's a tough call. Just when I think a script in my hands might suck, because the idea is so tired and shopworn, some writer figures out a way to make a very familiar and overdone world/genre just grab me. So, I guess I would say the answer lies within you: if you were really dying to write it and had done your research so you were pretty sure you had cracked a new way "in" or a fresh way to deliver the tale, then you might want to write it and use it as a way to redefine the genre.

From a more practical POV, I'd still press a writer to again evaluate their goals: if you want to accomplish a draft, then write from inspiration. If you want to land an agent, write with a great voice and from a more mainstream sensibility. If you want to sell something, work on your commercial taste and create a unique story with roles for movie stars... but remember that box office success is king and no one but no one can overcome a bomb or a topic that's just plain ole tainted, so chose your "tough love" project wisely. Oh, and do your best to find a strong director or producer who can help you see your vision through.

Shortly after I decided to write Hell on Wheels, I found that Ghost House had purchased Priest, another (you guessed it) vampire western. I think my concept is a lot better than theirs, but that’s irrelevant. My question is, would you think that would improve my chances of selling HoW, or make those slim chances even slimmer?

Personally, I'd say it makes the odds slimmer. Perhaps not to get bought, but certainly to get made. This is where the artist-brained writers need to take 5 and consider the business angle: there are only so many sources of production financing and distribution. There are only so many slots devoted each year to releasing horror films.

In this case, Ghost House – a company with a great team and reputation – has now gotten in line ahead of you in the queue. They beat you with their press release and the sold script and will most likely, now that they're up and running, beat you in the progress to having a production draft. Even if you were to sell yours tomorrow, you're behind... and if someone who finances these kinds of films or a director who helms genre pictures were weighing whom to work with, who would they most likely choose? Most people want to get movies made, so they back the horse with the best shot at seeing the silver screen. Your script might be better but unless you have a big dog in your corner helping you get noticed, your job just got harder by being late to the ball.

That being said, anyone can take their pet project and point to a number of competitive projects out there, so the key to getting anything bought or made is to have the superior product that stands the test of time as the other projects get tripped up and veer off course. But the question remains: what is the definition of a superior product? Some may argue that it isn't the script but the reputation of the people involved with the project. In my book if I were considering two similar horror projects, Ghost House beats most, hands down.

Thanks, Sheila! This has been fun, and maybe even a little ego boost for you too! Hopefully it will lead to good things coming your way as well.

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Monday, April 16, 2007

At Last! Sheila Hanahan Taylor, Part 1

Finally! An ending to the saga...

A short time ago I posted about finally meeting Sheila Hanahan Taylor. In that post, I described the "saga" of why I was trying to learn about her, and you can feel free to read up on all the posts from there. Well, Sheila has been kind enough to answer some questions for the blog, so that at long last, anyone who comes to this blog by Googling her name, can actually find some valuable information! And for anyone else who doesn't have any questions about Sheila in particular, I hope you'll still find this interview informative and enlightening.

I've split the interview into two parts, not only so I can get two blog postings out of it, instead of just one. ;-) Also, because it is kind of long, and this should make it more easily readable. I'll post part 2 in another day or two.

So, on to the interview...

Hey Sheila! Thanks so much for meeting me and for agreeing to do this interview. Should be fun, and hopefully informative for all those people Googling your name!

I know that aspects of your bio are scattered around online, but why don’t we start with a brief rundown on that info again?

Okay! Here's a short version; longer version exists if you're curious.

I'm currently a partner at Practical Pictures, a feature film and television production company founded with Craig Perry, an associate from the now-defunct Zide/Perry Entertainment. While at Zide/Perry I began as a development executive and ultimately grew to the role of Sr. VP of development and production. I collaborated successfully on a number of projects including the American Pie and Final Destination franchises, resulting in over $1 billion in box office revenue. Additionally, I oversaw development of numerous spec screenplays for the management division of Z/P, including material that went on to become award-winners and earn million dollar sales.

Prior to my time at Zide/Perry I worked with Garry Marshall and the Zucker Brothers, developing movies such as My Best Friend's Wedding and Rat Race. I began my career in my hometown of Detroit, Michigan where I often worked as a child actor in national commercials. During high school and college I performed in New York and at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre.

Along with my producing duties I am also an associate professor at UCLA’s film school, teaching year-round in the MFA Program for Producing. In addition to appearing on panels and running screenwriting, development, and production workshops at various film festivals around the country, I happily serve as a judge for a number of screenplay contests and regularly guest-teach abroad at Sorbonne University and Tokyo International Film Festival.

I live in Santa Monica with my filmmaker/Chicago native husband, Paul.

So, you formed Practical Pictures with Craig Perry. I know you guys have the Final Destination movies under your belts. What other kinds of projects do you guys produce?

We're a year-round production and development company. Currently, we have over 20 feature projects set up at major studios, we are EPs on hour-long TV series at both AMC and Paramount Television, and recently entered into a first look deal with award-winning Producer Scott Rudin, who has an overall deal at Disney Studios.

In addition to looking for finished spec scripts, we're also cradle-to-grave producers, meaning we grow movies hand-in-hand with writers from one sentence ideas to treatments, then to scripts, then find a home for the script at a studio or financier, then see it through more development, attach a director and actors, get the greenlight, keep the vision of the movie on course by collaborating on set, participate in editing, and chime in on marketing ideas. Our taste and projects range from a mid-budget Hitchcockian thriller to an underdog sports comedy in the vein of Dodgeball, set in the world of competitive eating. We tend to stick with higher-concept studio movies.

You mentioned the deal with Scott Rudin. Tell me more about that, and what types of projects you might be doing for that deal.

Scott Rudin's deal is with Disney Studios, which includes Disney proper, Touchstone, and Miramax. So we're looking for just about anything that feels like something one of those studios might make. If you look at those companies' slates, they are very diverse and well-rounded, which makes our job easier. We've considered everything from art house fare to four-quadrant material.

As a script reader, there are certain mistakes I know I see consistently in spec scripts. I’d love to hear what problems you encounter regularly in the scripts you come across.

I'm going to presume the basics – using good brads, no artwork, proper format and grammar – have all been accomplished and go with the actual art of screenwriting. (By the way, there are a few great books on the market about all of these: How Not To Write A Screenplay is fantastic!)

The problems I regularly encounter are:

1. There's some interesting/funny/smart/cool stuff in the script but it isn't a "movie."

I often read scripts that have such promise! They start off well, have some snappy dialogue or a strong open, but they quickly spiral into a mushy place of non-movie. What does that mean? It means the writer found a cool world, or a unique character, or a fresh set up but they didn't take the time to think through how to build in enough conflict to create a full-blown 90 minute movie.

All stories, comedy or drama, from the Greeks to Melrose Place, have conflict. Without conflict you have no real story... you just have elements like witty dialogue or a great world. Those, sadly, do not a movie make. And all our bosses or studio executives continually ask us, "Forget about the writing, what's the movie?" and we need to answer in 30 seconds or less. So, take 5 and ask yourself, without fudging: Can I write a full-on 2-3 sentence logline, with beginning, middle, and end, with a clear pro- and antagonist, goals and obstacles, and with a great resolution? And does the logline honestly match my script? If not, you don't quite have a movie! Keep working.

2. The theme is vague or completely missing.

Sometimes rookies forget that it isn't what the movie is about, it is what it is ABOUT. Theme can be a slippery thing but hopefully this will help: First off, all good films have theme, even when they are silly little light-hearted stories. For any film to work, in addition to the tangible goal of robbing the bank or getting the girl, it has to be about something!

Ask yourself what theme you want to explore and how you can best demonstrate it in the story you are telling. Do the main story points best service this theme? Do the lead characters' choices further comment on the topic? Do the antagonist's comment equally? Does the resolution take a stand and show the theme played out in all its glory? Will the audience leave with something earned from the experience? If so, you've successfully woven theme into your script.

3. The structure is off.

I know there are a hundred screenwriting books out there, and they all have a different opinion on how movies should be structured. Three acts. Five acts. 15 sequences. 10 sections. It is crazy and confusing and makes my head hurt. I've found the best and simplest way to learn structure is from the guys who do it best: film editors.

Editors are the magicians of all – they know story and structure, moments and camera! Once you pick an idea you want to write, you must watch at least 10 films in the same film family and write down what happens every 5 minutes. You'll be amazed how much you learn from breaking down existing films.

And when I say film family, I mean a few different things. If you're doing a heist film, sure you need to watch heist films. But, if it is also an ensemble story, you need to watch how those work too – even if the example isn't about a "heist" – because the story structure, not the genre structure, will have the same elements whether the movie is about an ensemble that's robbing a bank or robbing a baseball team of victory. Bottom line for me and most people in this town, if by page 30 your lead character hasn't clearly declared a goal and a plan to achieve that goal, and if we haven't seen the obstacle – human or otherwise – that is in direct conflict with your lead's plan, then your structure is off and you're on your way to bigger issues.

4. The writer is confusing good plot with good story telling.

Ever notice how some people can make a trip down the Amazon boring while others can make buying a pack of gum a fantastic journey? That's story telling. The reality is, movies often aren't as much about plot as they are about story telling – that includes voice and tone as well as how you present and unfold the plot. A cool plot will definitely open doors, but without good story telling you'll end up being rewritten!

5. The writer hasn't become an expert in the genre.

This means I'm reading a script that isn't quite fresh enough or inventive enough, and the problem usually stems from the writer being under-exposed to successful material in that genre, produced or otherwise. Writers need to read and watch as many movies as they possibly can and take the time after they're finished to think about their structure, theme, voice, tone, and storytelling. Simply watching them isn't enough. Digesting them is the key.

PART 2 of the interview to follow shortly!

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

Reviewing (briefly) The Nines

I was among the people who got to go to the screening last night of John August's new film The Nines. Also in attendance were Emily and my buddy Rack. John came and addressed us briefly before the film began, but did not stick around afterwards, so I was a bit disappointed to not be able to introduce myself to him. Some other time.

Since this was a relatively small and early screening, I don't want to include any real spoilers in here. So this review will be brief and somewhat vague, but should help to describe the film a bit. (Enough hedging qualifiers in that last line? ;-) )

Overall, I enjoyed the film. I'm a big fan of what I refer to as "mindfuck" movies, and the bulk of this film works on that level. It moves along at a really nice pace, and definitely gets you thinking throughout, trying to figure out exactly what the hell is going on.

John's done a good job of striking a balance between different tonal elements, shifting back and forth with apparent ease. There are moments that are genuinely funny, a few touching parts, and surprisingly a few chilling moments that evoke the horror genre. And yet, they all work.

I did have one problem with the film however. While the bulk of the film was thought-provoking and confusing enough to keep you guessing (though not too confusing to follow), the final 10 minutes or so of the film veer into a much-too literal exposition that explains everything. It almost felt like the end of the really old mysteries, where the detective gets all the suspects together in the room to explain whodunnit and how. Most importantly, however, I felt this didn't work stylistically with the rest of the film, and felt that there had to be a more subtle way of making the point.

Now I know that the script indeed set this up earlier (I won't explain further, so as not to spoil, but I am referring to a portion of Part II in the film). Even still, that bit didn't work for me, and felt a bit heavy-handed. Or like an easy way out.

That being said, I still "enjoyed the ride," and appreciated the points the film makes. There was one plot point that I felt was a bit of a hole, though in discussions with Rack on the way home, I think we came to a reasonable and acceptable explanation for it, so it doesn't bother me as much as it did at first.

So ultimately, I'd say this is a film worth seeing. Strong acting performances, especially from some of the supporting cast members. A plot/style that blends aspects of such films as The Butterfly Effect, The Matrix, Go and Groundhog's Day. Enjoyable moments throughout. And a generally memorable and somewhat thought-provoking plotline.

Well done, Mr. August! And best of luck with it.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

A Brief Call for Help

I can't recall if I publicly made this request last year or not, but I am doing so now, hoping to reach the few of you who still are kind enough to come around and read my blog, despite my poor posting schedule.

I will be walking in the MS Walk 2007 to raise money for the fight against Multiple Sclerosis. My mother has had MS for many years now, and a few other friends of mine have also been diagnosed.

Last year, I was overwhelmed by the response of support I received from all my friends/associates. I was among the Top 100 fundraisers in LA, and I'm looking for a sizable increase in funds raised this year. But I'm also quite late in getting moving on this.

The walk is a week from Sunday, on 4/22. If any of you would like to walk with me, feel free to contact me. And I would be honored if you would consider making a donation on my behalf. ANY amount, large or small, is equally appreciated.

You can visit my page at:


[Also -- I just saw the news that Kurt Vonnegut died. Rest in peace, you funny man.]

(Lastly, I plan to soon post a progress report on a little project of mine you've been hearing about -- and not hearing about -- for way too long now: Hell on Wheels. Stay tuned!)

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