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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.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Traveling Scribospherian

Yep, that's me! I type this in the middle of the night here in London, and I'm only still up because I'm afraid that if I go to sleep, I'll miss my cab to the airport in the wee morning hours.

So first off, let me say that I'm heading to Israel tomorrow night (after a very brief stopover in Rome). So if any of you readers are in Israel and would like to meet up over the next week or so, please get in touch.

And on a related note, that's just what happened today. I was part of a really enjoyable (and potentially the first?) intercontinental gathering of members of the Scribosphere. That's right. The truly wonderful Lucy Vee organized the meet-up on my behalf, and I am indebted to her for it. It ended up being a group of 8 -- 6 with screenwriting blogs (including me), 1 screenwriter without a blog, and 1 other American (non-screen) writer with a blog as well. We got some food, had some coffee, chatted shop and not, and really just got to know each other. Was really a nice afternoon for me, and I hope for them as well.

In addition to Lucy and I, the other attendees were Elinor, Helen, James (whose film Severance I am looking forward to seeing, as it looks like a lot of fun), Potdoll (not sure if she wants her real name revealed), the blogless Paolo and Joyce.

Anyway, I'll write more about my trip in a bit, but for now I just wanted to get the word out about Israel. If you are there and are reading this, get in touch if you want to hang!

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Friday, December 14, 2007

Clarifications, Updates and "Thanks, DGA!"

After reviewing my last (extremely rambly) post, I realized I could have made my points much more clearly. Or at least, they could have been made more clearly. How do I know? Because I read a few other posts around that did just that. So for clarity's sake, let me point them out. And while I'm at it, I'll update a few things.

First of all, I discussed that by demanding that the WGA take 6 points of the table before any further discussions commenced, the AMPTP was countering the meaning of "negotiating." This post makes that clearer by stating, "The AMPTP wants to make the WGA reduce our demands to the bottom line so we’ll negotiate down from an acceptable deal to a bad deal." Negotiations are compromises -- I take this off, you take that off. (Get your sick minds out of the gutter!) But if we start from our bottom line position, what can we possibly take off that will leave us with a deal that is fair and acceptable?

I also focused on the issues of reality and animation. In this post, Crazy Canadian writer Alex Epstein addresses these issues more effectively than I did, but with similar sentiment. He writes, "A big chunk of the AMPTP's effort during this strike has been to identify where the movie and TV industries are going -- CGI animation, internet distribution -- and then get a contract that excludes the future."

It is for this reason that I am in support of the WGA's claim filed with the National Labor Relations Board against the AMPTP. The AMPTP have been acting with such arrogance and a sense of entitlement for far too long, both in these negotiations and in the way they treat unions in general and reality TV staff in particular. Well, to put it in literary terms, the AMPTP's tragic flaw is hubris, and such an attitude in conflict with the law must be met with legal challenges. Let them call it table pounding. I don't care. Because I don't think that's what it is. When you flaunt the law, you must face the law.

It is also for this reason that I respectfully disagree with some of Craig's points here. I agree that the reason the AMPTP has taken the tack they have is most likely because "This offer is a red herring designed to distract us from their real position, which is that they don’t want to make a deal with our union at this time." I've stated this opinion already. I just disagree with what the appropriate response to that is. Craig believes the WGA should, "dramatically reduce all of our demands down to the only one that matters, in an attempt to wrest this negotiation back to our union and away from the DGA." I believe that by doing that, the WGA inevitably will be forced to take a deal that is unfair and unacceptable. Even if the WGA never expects to close a deal that includes reality and animation (though I think they are points worth fighting for), they can't take them off the table with no quid pro quo from the AMPTP.

And no, agreeing to come back to the table is not acceptable "quo" for our "quid." (Sorry if the Latin doesn't hold up there -- I never studied it!)

I discussed force majeur taking effect at the end of this week. This article gives more details of how that might play out. And for more on how much the strike actually is hurting the networks (despite the offensive and ridiculous pay they give to their execs), this article tells the bottom line.

So, where does this leave things? Well, for starters, the DGA has basically said they will start negotiating with the AMPTP in January. Well, I certainly have no problem with the DGA beginning negotiations with the AMPTP before the WGA has settled their issues... in theory. My fears relate to how the DGA's negotiations may proceed.

They say that with the right circumstances "the DGA will commence formal talks in the hope that a fresh perspective and the additional pressure we can bring to bear will help force the AMPTP to settle the issues before us in a fair and reasonable manner."

What could that "fresh perspective" possibly be? Are they dissatisfied with the desires and/or demands that the WGA has put forth? Do they feel the WGA is being unreasonable? I can only see one possible "fresh perspective" and it is the one I've been worried about all along. Undercutting the WGA in making a deal with poor residuals.

Why, some may wonder, would the DGA accept that? Wouldn't they want good residuals as much as everyone else? My understanding is that directors split their residuals with many below the line crew members, and thus are less reliant on residuals to begin with. Keeping this in mind, they negotiate better up-front deals for themselves to begin with. And so, with less reliance on residuals, they may very likely accept a contract that has a low residual rate.

And though the WGA is fond of claiming that they don't care what deal the DGA strikes -- the "just because they take something doesn't mean we have to" mentality -- the truth is that like it or not, once one guild settles for something (especially when that guild represents such high profile talent as the DGA), the AMPTP will be using it as a benchmark. Period.

Maybe I'm being an overly pessimistic doomsayer, but with the above DGA statements, and this response by the AMPTP, it almost seems choreographed. January rolls around, the DGA-AMPTP negotiations start, they take a bad residual deal quickly, and to make it seem like it wasn't planned, we have the AMPTP statement here. Back-channel negotiations happening already? You think? Man I hope there are some "fresh perspectives" out there that I'm overlooking!

Lastly, I want to congratulate MTV Networks' "permalancers" on winning their fight. Hopefully the same will come to the writers if we stand strong. And if we remember who are friends are, and aren't. Sorry, I couldn't resist -- that last one makes me laugh.

(Looks like I can't help but ramble. Sorry, and thanks for reading this whole thing, if you did!)

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Strike Round-Up # Whatever

This is going to be a long one and a bit rambling, but I hope you'll read it all. There may be some good nuggets buried in here!

Once again, it has been too long since my last strike update. I keep bookmarking interesting pages, and by the time I'm ready to post, at least 1/4 of them are no longer relevant. I'll try to do my best here!

So, the AMPTP walked out. Again. And again they blamed the WGA. This after the AMPTP offered a half-baked (or at least half formed, as they told the WGA they'd come back with the other half and then never did) "New Economic Partnership" proposal that they claimed broke new ground. By offering the vast sum of $250 for unlimited usage of streaming vids, the only new ground I can see them breaking is in how insulting they can be. Furthering that insult, they kept in their clause about no payments for whatever they deem to be promotional. So basically, writers shouldn't even count on getting that treasure trove if a $250 payday.

An explanation of the $250 proposal:

But when the AMPTP walked on Friday, they blamed the WGA. They used words they didn't really understand to characterize the WGA. They said that there were six points which were roadblocks to them closing a deal, and that they refused to negotiate until the WGA completely removed these issues from the table. Well, let's take a look at what's wrong with this claim.

The day before the strike started, the AMPTP got the WGA to remove DVD from the table, claiming it was the roadblock to moving forwards with negotiations. "The" is a definite article (though I know studio execs don't know grammar as goodly as us writery peoples do), indicating it is the only roadblock, not one of many. The WGA agreed to take it off the table and were thanked with the AMPTP's generous quid pro quo offer of... nothing. Guess that wasn't the issue after all, huh? So DVDs have been put back on the table.

Now they say there are other issues that are the sticking points. Should we believe them this time? I doubt it. But whether or not we believe them, there's a more important issue at play here.

In the four days between the AMPTP's offer of $250 and the WGA's response to it, Nikki Finke reported that an AMPTP insider said something to the effect of, "I hope the WGA realizes this is just an initial offer. They should negotiate with us and bring a counter offer." Seems logical, as that is, in fact, the definition of a negotiation, and what most collective bargaining entails. By coming to the WGA and saying, "We won't negotiate until you take these demands off the table," the AMPTP is removing themselves from the standard procedure. Rather than saying that these are points which are up for negotiation, and which we are prepared to offer x in exchange for their removal, they are saying their negotiating method is to ask the WGA to remove those points in exchange for nothing at all.

So let's examine the most prominent of those points, reality TV and animation.

Why does the AMPTP insist on excluding reality TV? Obviously, the biggest reason is they'd prefer to save as much money as possible, and that's acceptable -- they are running a business. But I think there is another reason that should be debunked. If they admit that reality TV is "written," then how can they continue to call it reality? My response: who cares? Viewers will continue watching! After the WWF was forced to admit in court that its wrestling matches were completely staged fabrications, viewership didn't drop. Nobody cares if reality is actually reality, and in fact, the average American would probably tell you outright that it isn't, if you asked them. So get over it!

Still, while I disagree with the concept, I can hear and understand the arguments and think that reality TV may be a lost cause (until the producers are charged with the numerous labor law violations and/or Congressional hearings they are likely facing). Animation, on the other hand, makes no sense to me whatsoever.

I believe I said it once before, but it is worth repeating. As it stands currently, the same writer could write two different movies for the same studio, one animated and one live action, and be covered for one and not the other. Does this make any logical sense? You want o claim that reality TV editors aren't really writers? I disagree, but I can accept it. Try explaining the animation situation logically!

And it is sad, really. I know a guy who has written some major animated features, and he told me once about how he is stopping writing animated films and only doing live action. Why? Because it was not economically wise for him to keep writing animation. His live action films have done well, but at his core he is an animation writer and always has been. Why should he be forced to change what he writes simply because of an idiotic provision of the contracts?

Furthermore, with the advances in digital FX technology, more and more film are becoming categorized as animation, when they really aren't. While Beowulf's MoCap technology still included a lot of real animation, a large part of it wouldn't traditionally be categorized as such. What about Transformers? How much of a film will need to be digitally created before the AMPTP classifies it as "animation" thus removing the need to compensate the writer fairly?

So, can we see what the AMPTP is really going for here? They clearly want as much as possible in as many ways as possible. What do I mean by that? Well, in their spin on this past week's nonsense, the AMPTP sent out this letter. Notice what they say they believe: "writers should be compensated from the revenues created by new media." Notice what they didn't say: "fairly" next to that word "compensated."

They also purport to care about the fact that "tens of thousands of below-the-line workers are seeing their health insurance jeopardized by the continuing strike." Of course, that must only hold true for some workers, not those who are full-time freelancers, aka "permalancers." If they cared about them, this walk out at MTV Networks would never have happened.

Maybe they really are possessed by evil demons of greed. Perhaps more exorcisms are necessary.

Footage of the exorcism at Warners:
(Check out Friend of Fun Joel, writer Father Stephen Susco, in this vid.)

So, how long will this all last, really? No one knows, but it obviously looks like longer rather than shorter. From talking to a lot of people, I hear lots of varied (and well thought out) opinions. Some say that the fact that the AMPTP walked out now is a good thing, indicating they may be ready to settle it by mid January some time. The idea there is that they walked out as a strategy to weaken the WGA's resolve, then plan to return after 4-6 weeks and settle it. If they were really planning to hold out until March or later, they wouldn't have walked out yet. That's one theory I heard.

Another theory relates largely to this up coming weekend. Some think that the entire reason that the AMPTP forced the strike (and let's be honest, they made it pretty hard for the WGA to not walk out) was so that they could take advantage of force majeur clauses in numerous contracts. Force majeur is a legal term that allows for the dissolution of contracts when an outside "major force" beyond the contract's parties' control prevents them from meeting their obligations. Typically this refers to so-called "acts of God," but the studios have already begin to invoke this clause in some cases (or at least warn that they will). I am not an expert on the legal issues, but for whatever reason, the studios will be able to invoke force majeur beginning December 15 -- this coming Saturday. So keep your eyes peeled about that.

What does this have to do with the strike? Some believe that since most of the studios are now owned by huge multinational conglomerates, this is their first opportunity to "clean house" as they do in so many other industries when they move in. There are numerous "vanity contracts" floating around Hollywood that cost the studios lots of money and net them nothing in return. Once they can invoke force majeur, they will be able to dissolve many of these contracts.

Now, I have no idea how much these contracts actually cost the companies, but it would have to be a lot to make it worth the hit that the strike is inflicting on the studios. And make no mistake -- while the strike is not going to shut down these companies for good, it is certainly hurting them right now. Want some examples?

For starters, though a bit outdated, check out this drop in stock prices. As predicted, networks are starting to refund huge amounts of money to advertisers.

NBC's plan, after refunding $500,000 to each advertiser:

And the studios and networks who are represented collectively by the AMPTP may be splintering somewhat. So while they try to drive wedges between the various groups of writers by focusing on animation and reality TV, they may in fact be the ones who are dividing. Many have even questioned how it is that they are allowed to negotiate together -- in every other industry, that is called collusion. The United Auto Workers, for example, negotiate with each automotive company separately.

The AMPTP recently redesigned their website (and no, I'm not referring to this hilarious spoof website which has been blogged about ad nauseum in the span of just one single day), and on it they include a nifty counter akin to the "national debt counter" that used to sit a block from Times Square in NYC. Amazing how they can do the math on that, but can't possibly figure out how they can make money off the Internet! Well, I think the WGA should put up their own counter, showing how much it is costing the studios and networks. $500,000 ad refunds, canceled film productions, weak movie box office (potentially due in part to no late night TV promotions) and dropping stock prices has to be adding up.

Okay, so that's where I stand for now. We must stand strong and united, until the AMPTP decides to negotiate in good faith. Finally, let me leave you with some of my favorite videos and other links. Some are entertaining, some are insightful, some just are.

A great aggregation of media sources and vids about the strike.

A proposed solution, if you just believe:

The Strike and Your Marriage:

More on proposed solutions, by various genre writers:

Rumble in the Negotiating Room:

Pets on Strike:

And my two faves, so far, from the Speechless Without Writers series:

...and this vid below for its punchline...

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

London Calling, and I'm Answering

Cheerio, London!

Just wanted to let you blokes and birds know that I'll be hopping across the pond and spending a few days in London next week. So if you live there, or can get there from elsewhere in the UK, let me know! Would love to get together with you!

The lovely Lucy is meeting me on Tuesday, and is planning to bring some other UK Scribospherians out as well. So if you (Scribospherian or not) want to join us, let me know. Otherwise, my schedule is relatively open. I get in on Sunday afternoon and leave again on Wednesday morning.

I hear you Brits know something about pubs, yeah?


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One Reason I Love December

I am on a lot of email lists from which I receive invitations, year-round, to see free preview screenings of various films. But one thing I love about December is that the quantity of such films increases significantly during this month. So what this mans is that I've been able to see a lot of movies lately, and not spend much money! Instead of doing separate reviews of each, I wanted to give you one post about many of them, as well as a few other films I wanted to spread the word about! So, in sequence:

Eastern Promises
I saw this a few weeks ago, and really liked it. This film is not for the faint of heart, with a lot of graphic violence. The new film by David Cronenberg, this film again stars Viggo Mortensen, as did Cronenberg's previous A History of Violence.

To me, this film is much better than History of Violence. I think the acting is better, and the story works and holds together more cohesively. I felt that the former film rambled a bit and was somewhat unfocused in terms of its theme and point. I still liked it, but I didn't love it. Eastern Promises may try to say less, and that may be why it works better, in my book.

On a funny side note, the screening was followed by a Q&A with screenwriter Steven Knight. He also wrote this past year's Amazing Grace, the story of William Wilberforce. I am ashamed to admit that I haven't seen this film, but I have heard wonderful things about it. Why am I ashamed? Because I read the original version of this film for the producers, as well as two subsequent drafts, each by different writers. I had loved the subject, as well as the treatment it received int he initial script, and the company bought the script for development. The two rewrites I read were inferior, in my opinion, to the initial draft I read, and I said so in my coverage. I did not, however, read Knight's version.

I went over to him after the screening and identified myself to him. It was actually kind of fun for me, since essentially he might not have had that specific gig if it weren't for me, since the film might not have been made otherwise!

The Mist
I had originally gone out to see a free preview of Walk Hard, but alas I got there too late and was closed out of the screening. So don't let it be said that you don't have to pay for these free screenings -- you must pay with your time. My friend and I were already at the theater, so we decided to go see something else anyway, and the only film there that was mildly appealing was The Mist.

Wow. I was very disappointed. I expect a lot from Frank Darabont. Shawshank was amazing and classic, and I really liked his screenplay for the upcoming Farenheit 451 (which hopefully I'll discuss in a future post). But this film was a major disappointment, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone. Highly overwrought and bombastic, overall.

This is not to say it was without its strengths. In fact, there were actually a number of aspects that I really admired here, which made my disappointment with the other parts even more painful. I thought he handled the character interactions excellently, and pulled some amazing performances and intense moments out of the actors. There were some truly dramatic scenes, and painfully so. Much of the thematic subtext is powerful as well. But overall the film just feels heavy-handed, and the whole suffers irreparably from this flaw, in my opinion.

Yiddish Theater: A Love Story
This little documentary was produced and directed by friends of mine, and I went to a special screening on Sunday, a week and a half ago. It is a remarkable little film in a small release, and could really use all the support it can get. But be aware that is has received excellent reviews from many major newspapers, so this isn't just a plea on my friends' behalf!

The film is a truly touching story about the triumph of the human spirit. And yes, I am Jewish, but I don't really know any Yiddish, and I don't think you need to know any in order to appreciate the film. In fact, many of the attendees were not Jewish either, and they all seemed to enjoy it immensely.

It is currently playing at the Pioneer Theater in NYC, two Laemmle theaters in Los Angeles, and at the Lev Theater in Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv. Its run has been successfully extended in each city in which it has opened, a testament to the film's quality and popularity.

On another humorous side note, I actually ran into Michael in the lobby (he was going to the next screening), and got to meet Josh as well. It turns out that Josh used to intern for my friends who made the film! Michael was there to meet Josh and see the film as well. It was quite the fun coincidence, and provided the added benefit that Josh recognized me when he saw me on the Fox picket lines this past Friday, during the Mutant Enemy gathering. More on that later as well.

Go and see this film. I really loved it. Like Waitress earlier in the year, this film worked as a true dramedy. (I guess that offers another bit of synergy, since when I saw Nathan Fillion at the Mutant Enemy picket, I thought I would have told him how much I liked his work in Waitress had we had a conversation. We didn't.) The comedic parts were very funny, and the dramatic bits were touching as well. There were parts that were uncomfortable to watch, and others that were quite touching. And nearly every character had some serious depth to them.

All this is even more impressive when you learn that this was writer Diablo Cody's first attempt at writing a screenplay, it was written in just 2 months or so, and was barely changed before it was shot. Diablo and director Jason Reitman were there for a Q&A afterwards. I had previously met and spoken with Reitman following a screening of his excellent Thank You For Smoking, and I briefly greeted him again, as well as mentioning former Scribospherian Warren Leonard to Diablo (he'd interviewed her).

The truth is that Reitman and Cody make a great team. Their sensibilities seem to match very nicely and he did a wonderful job of bringing her script to the screen. And I'm pretty sure we'll be hearing much more from Cody down the road. Hopefully by her second or third film she'll be regularly described solely as a writer; every current news story absolutely has to mention her prior profession. I won't.

* * *

Tonight I'll be going to a screening of The Kite Runner, and am looking forward to it. I haven't read the book, but I've heard amazing things about it. Unfortunately, that means I'll be missing a preview of Sweeney Todd, which I'd also love to see. That is one of the problems of this season -- too much of a good thing. I've missed other screenings as well due to conflicts. Oh well.

And you know I must really not want to see a film if I don't even want to attend a free screening! I got an invite today to a screening of The Great Debaters. I'm sorry, but this film just looks so trite and familiar. Teacher inspiring underdog students to achieve academically. Denzel looking self-important. (Sorry, I like him often, but other times I just find him annoying.) Okay, there is seemingly a bit more of a race issue here. But is that enough to make it stand out? Hey, look, maybe I'm wrong. But I've found that I have a pretty good idea of whether or not I'll enjoy a film before I see it, and this one seem more like a "not" to me.

Lastly, I wanted to mention a few other friends' films, and encourage you to see them. Support indie films!

In addition to Yiddish Theater and What Would Jesus Buy? (which I mentioned in my Holiday Gifts post), I also have two other friends with indie projects out right now. My buddy and writing group partner Brooks Elms is having two screenings of Schooled this coming weekend in L.A. Brooks worked on the script for this film in our writing group, so I had the chance to see the film really develop. The film is a drama that deals with alternative schooling, an interesting and somewhat controversial topic.

The screenings will be at the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax, near Melrose. There are two screenings, one of which is a benefit and the other of which is the official DVD release party. Details:

At the Silent Movie Theater
611 N Fairfax (south of Melrose) 90036

Saturday, December 15th at 4:30pm
(Benefit Screening for Play Mountain Place)


Monday, December 17th at 7:30pm
(Followed by The Official DVD Release party!!)

Tickets $12 - ($15 at the door. Seating is VERY limited!)

And lastly, my friend Debbie is in a new horror film called Timber Falls. It opened this past weekend in 50 theaters throughout Southern California, including Mann's Chinese and Beverly Center in Los Angeles. Hopefully, if enough people go see it they can expand their release.


Sunday, December 09, 2007

I'm Being Interviewed

Sorry for the last minute announcement, but I am scheduled to be interviewed today by the Scribosphere's own Chris Soth, as part of his awesome Hollywood By Phone series.

The call should start at 5:30 PT/8:30 ET, and is bound to be a lot of fun. And hopefully informative as well! Hope to hear from many of you on the call!

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