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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.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

I Just Have to Say...

Look at these two items.

First, the Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay:

Juno -- Diablo Cody
Lars and the Real Girl -- Nancy Oliver
Michael Clayton -- Tony Gilroy
Ratatouille -- Screenplay by Brad Bird. Story by Jan Pinkava, Jim Capobianco, Brad Bird
The Savages -- Tamara Jenkins

Then look at this note from the WGA leadership, about their changes in opening informal talks with the AMPTP:

In order to make absolutely clear our commitment to bringing a speedy conclusion to negotiations, we have decided to withdraw our proposals on reality and animation.

Notice anything odd there?

Brad Bird can write a screenplay like anyone else, and be nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar like anyone else. But he won't be covered by the WGA contract like any other writer. Just because it is an animated feature. The Academy sees no difference between screenwriting for animated and non-animated movies. But somehow the AMPTP does.

A bit ironic, in my view, and very frustrating.

So, how long do you think it will be before Brad Bird stops writing brilliant animated films like The Iron Giant and instead starts writing non-animated films that aren't his forte (or presumably his greatest love and strength), just because it makes financial sense? Is there some logic here that I don't get?

And out of curiosity, does anyone know if animation directors are covered by the DGA?

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

I Have Not Seen Cloverfield

...and once again, I have very little desire to. Why do I say "once again?" Because I realized I have unwittingly started a bit of a series in my posts, about movies I have not seen. There were these two, both with similar titles to this post, and the first of which I also professed no desire to see. And of course, there was also this post from last year, about another movie I didn't want to see. And in some ways, it is like the film from this post, in terms of where my reaction to this film stems from.

So, what am I here to say about Cloverfield, now? This is not about how I feel that the motivated home video aspect is a silly gimmick, though I do think that. I'm actually pissed off at what I deem (despite not having seen the film) to be a relative tastelessness in it.

Minor spoiler alert (yes, even though I haven't seen it)

The first thing I saw regarding this film was the teaser trailer months ago. You know, the one where the Statue of Liberty's head crashes down into the street. And I actually thought it was a cool image, and liked the idea of it.

Next I saw the teaser poster, which picked up on the headless statue motif:

Fair enough. That's a cool looking image, and Manhattan burning in the background is not bad either. But what didn't become clear to me until I recently saw the full-width billboard of the image, was what part of Manhattan was on fire. Look:

That is not the best shot of the billboard, so in case it is unclear to any of you, that is basically the exact location of "Ground Zero" where the World Trade Center was. The billboard I saw the other night has even more space on the right side, so it is completely clear that that is the southern tip of Manhattan island.

Now, I thought that was pretty tacky and heartless. Then, a friend of mine saw the movie (and hated it, by the way), and I mentioned that to him. He then told me (and here's a minor spoiler) that one of the early images you see in the film is of the Empire State Building collapsing.

So now it seems like more than just coincidence, for sure. A massive conflagration at Ground Zero, an iconic skyscraper collapsing to the ground, and two recognizable images of Manhattan destroyed.

I'm sure there is the possibility that the whole film is meant in some ways as a meditation on/metaphor for the 9/11 attacks. Some unknown beast unexpectedly attacks New York City and wreaks havoc and creates turmoil. And thus, those parallels would be intentional. But to me, they still seem tacky, tasteless, thoughtless and heartless. No, I'm not going to say, "It's too soon to do movies where there is destruction in New York City," or something like that. But when you make the parallels as close as Cloverfield does, this is more than just making a movie that has destruction in Manhattan. It is a direct and pointed reminder of that time.

And though I haven't seen the film (so it is possible that I'm wrong here, and please tell me if you think I am), I doubt that Cloverfield offers up any kind of new perspective on 9/11. I don't think there is any political commentary or anything. After all, the whole thing everywhere in the press has been pitched merely as a monster movie seen from the victims' perspective.

So, maybe I'm wrong. But in my sight-unseen opinion, Cloverfield has been made or at least marketed in very poor taste.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Think Like Your Audience

A couple of posts ago, I promised more posts on the craft of writing. Here's the first.

One of the more frequent questions I get about being a script reader is some variation of, "What is the most common mistake you see developing writers making over and over?" I've got lots of responses to that question. But recently, as I read a script for a consulting client, I saw that he one of the bigger problems with his screenplay was indicative of a larger problem that I see much too frequently.

The screenplay was a satirical thriller with more than its share of reversals and plot twists. Characters regularly turned out to be anything but what they first seemed to be. And then later, they might actually turn out to have been yet a third thing.

Sounds like a pretty good thing, right? Keep the audience on their toes, and guessing what is going to happen next. What could be bad?

In this case, a lot. While the reversals were interesting and exciting at first, the audience never got more actual information as the film progressed about what was, in fact, real. What makes mysteries engaging is that they do just that -- they engage the audience. When a film holds back certain details and facts from an audience, it is generally in order to keep the audience guessing what will happen next. But the best such screenplays will carefully dole out bits of information along the way, so that the audience can actively participate in figuring out what is happening. Or at least to keep them guessing about what might be happening.

By not actually feeding the audience any further information along the way, the screenwriter in this case was not engaging his audience. He was "performing" for his audience, pulling literary sleight of hand. You thought the character was over here, but in fact she was inside the hat, with the rabbit! Ta da!

He compounded his problems with a different flaw. The film's central character was a young man whose parents are murdered in the beginning. Through the rest of the film, he is trying to figure out what happened to them. Or maybe he isn't. He may have actually set up their murder in order to make money and get out from under their meddling oversight. Is he a nice guy victim or a cold-blooded criminal?

Now, while having a complex character is a good thing, and while we might want to be kept guessing about his true nature, the way the screenplay set things up, we don't have a rooting interest one way or the other. We (as an audience) aren't sure if we want him to succeed or fail, nor are we even sure what success or failure would actually look like in this case.

To my mind, both of these flaws stem from the same overall mistake, and it is this mistake that I want to highlight in this post.

The screenwriter was so absorbed in using the tools and skills available to him as a screenwriter, employing them to trick his audience, that he neglected to think about how those tricks would be perceived by his audience. In other words, he was thinking like a writer, not thinking like an audience!

Do audiences love to have the rug pulled out from under them? No question! But at the same time, they want to feel satisfied afterwards, not like they just had the wool pulled over their eyes. I love Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner as an extremely twisty film that constantly keeps me guessing, and which pays those twists off at the climax quite effectively. On the other hand, I absolutely hated Fincher/Brancato/Ferris' The Game. I know a lot of people liked that film and will disagree with me, but I felt there was no real point to the tricks. Nothing was as it seemed, but I came out of the film feeling cheated by the filmmakers, rather than thrilled and satisfied. The reversals were little more than a gimmick, to my viewpoint.

Being a screenwriter is not just about staying in our own little worlds, putting words on a page, and creating art for its own sake. Screenplays are blueprints for finished works in another medium -- words that are purely designed to be turned into pictures. And those pictures are specifically meant to connect with large groups of people.

So to a certain degree, when we write screenplays, we need to meet certain audience expectations. This doesn't mean we should be predictable. Just the opposite. Audiences expect to be surprised, and we meet those expectations by presenting the unexpected. (How are those for reversals?) But they also expect that the surprises that we give them will have a purpose, and not simply be examples of us fooling them for the sake of fooling them.

Movies should also give audiences something to root for, or want to happen. Different types of films will deliver or thwart those hopes to varying degrees, and those are all acceptable. But what isn't acceptable is not giving them anything to hope for at all. If an audience doesn't something to happen, they won't care what happens one way or the other.

So, bottom line? Think like your audience as you write. How will the images and scenes you create be perceived by those who will eventually watch them on the screen? How conscious you are of these perceptions is almost directly correlative with -- and is certainly indicative of -- how skilled a screenwriter you have become.


Thursday, January 10, 2008

FFFJ: Passengers

So Emily recently brought to my attention that Jon Spaihts' Passengers was among the screenplays on this past year's Black List. For those who aren't familiar with the Black List, or who would like to see the full list, you may go HERE first. I'll wait.

Now I had glanced at that list when it was first released, but oddly I didn't notice Passengers, even though it was listed at number three. But I actually read Spaihts' script back int he middle of June. When Emily mentioned it to me, it rang a bell. So I figured I'd use it as my next FFFJ post.

Since this is still recent, and since my comments (in this case) made it a PASS for the specific company I was reading for, I've decided not to post my full comments on it. Instead, I will excerpt some quotes and summarize some other points. Here we go:

LOGLINE: An interstellar traveler finds meaning in life when his hibernation pod malfunctions and he wakes alone, 90 years too soon.

Overall, I liked Passengers, though I did have a few reservations about it. One of the things I liked best about it was that while it had a strong and unique concept, it still would not cost much to make.

Passengers is unique and thoughtful science fiction film that has the added benefit of not requiring an exorbitant budget to produce, due to a small cast, single primary location, and few serious effects shots.

At the same time, however, I recognized that even with the low budget, this was not likely to be a runaway blockbuster success.


The film’s potential to be made for a budget lower than most Sci-Fi films suggests some commercial viability. Of course, its more intimate, dramatic and less action-oriented nature suggest it will never become a blockbuster.

Still, I liked the overall concept of the film.

[The concept] is both unique and thought provoking. As an audience, we can easily empathize with Jim and Aurora, and wrestle with their dilemmas ourselves. The film is an excellent example of finding a story out of a “what if” scenario.

I did, however, have some problems with the plotline.

There are a number of plot holes that might not be terrible, but still exist. None of them alone is that bad, but in conjunction with each other, they do weaken the story somewhat.

And in my discussion with Emily about the script, it was one such plot flaw that (in my understanding) made her dislike it. This differing take on things can be instructive for an understanding of how script readers think, which is why I wanted to bring it up.

When I read a screenplay professionally, I am not just looking at what is on the page. Rather I'm looking at a combination of what is on the page and what could be on the screen. Most screenplays have flaws, some greater and some more minor. When a flaw is more directly tied to, and inherently a part of a screenplay's structure or concept, it becomes a much greater obstacle to the film's success. It is a central flaw. In this case, while the series of plot weaknesses might have compounded each other to become a larger problem overall, none of them could not have been rectified with relatively simple rewrites.

So to Emily (and again, this is in my understanding of her complaint), how could a script with such a glaring error make it onto the Black List? Whereas, to me the idea was: though not perfect, this script has a lot going for it, and the weaknesses it has could be easily fixed. Plus, there was a reason it was on the Black List -- those were scripts that were not going to be released this year. They all had some problems to them!

Anyway, in the end I gave the script a PASS anyway. But not because of the script's weaknesses. Rather simply because the script did not match with the mission statement of the specific company for whom I read it. And this is another point to remember when thinking about script readers. We don't evaluate scripts in a vacuum. We read them and evaluate whether they would make good films, but also whether those would be the types of films that our employers make. For example, if I read for a company that exclusively makes films in the $20 million budget range, a film with a $100 million budget will never be right for them, no matter how great that script is.

So, I'd say that Passengers is worth a read. Yes, there are flaws in it. But overall, there is also a lot of promise in it.

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Strike TV Boot Camp

LONG post, but worth the read, I think/hope.

Sorry it has been a while since I last posted. After I got back from my trip, I was involved in settling back into life/work here in LA. I have a lot of posts waiting to be written, including another Safari Picture Update, another Strike Round-Up, and one or two FFFJ posts. Plus, following a recent script consultation I did, I got an idea for another craft-related post. It has been a very long time since I've written one of those! So lots to look hopefully forward to.

But I thought I'd stick with the most timely post first. Earlier today I attended the Strike TV Boot Camp at the WGA Theater. I wasn't particularly sure what to expect, but I learned a lot and had a good time, while seeing an old face or two and meeting some new people as well. Thought I'd tell you all about it, and let you know some of what I learned.

The first guy I met as I was walking up Doheny towards the theater was Paul Barber (I think I have his name right, and I believe that is the right link on IMDB). He saw me and immediately said, "you're a writer, right?" He had identified me, as I pegged him as one too. Funny, I guess writers have a certain look to them! Well, we chatted briefly as we walked up to the theater, and I later found out he was slightly more involved than just being some other guy who was attending.

The place was really packed with a ton of people, which I found to be very exciting. I was kind of expecting there to be about 50-odd people there, but the place was really packed. I've always been terrible at estimating numbers of people in a crowd, but I'd say there were definitely a few hundred. Though there were certainly empty seats scattered throughout the theater, overall it felt generally full. I ran into Marc Zicree, whom I'd met before. He filled me in on, and gave me a copy of Star Trek New Voyages: World Enough and Time, a full-length new Star Trek episode that he directed, starring George Takei. Then, when I went to sit down, I saw Bill, which was nice. Always good to see a friendly face. I'm sure he'll have a good post up about it as well!

The event started with an introduction by Ian Deitchman, one of the founders of Strike TV. He explained that the idea is to allow writers to get back to work, and to own their work. Strike TV's plan is to have writers create and own their own content, broadcast it on the web, and use it as an Internet fundraiser. The other people involved are Jim (I didn't catch his last name), who made the "Why We Fight" video, and Peter "the Gooch" Hyoguchi. Ian said that Strike TV was the "logical next step" to follow United Hollywood, and the buzz it had created.

Strike TV will feature original shows that are not strike related, and will monetize them via ad revenues. The revenue will then be contributed to the Industry Support Fund, which benefits non-Guild members who have been hurt by the strike. Since the Writers will own their content, if a particular piece is a success, it could then be moved into other formats and exploited as the writers see fit. Ideally, said Ian, there would be some profit participation with the other creatives involved.

This would all be done under "union jurisdiction" with Strike TV as a union signatory, but since the writers would be employers and employees, there is little need for the guild to protect them from screwing themselves. Unfortunately, this also meant that the rest of my day there would largely be dedicated to educating myself, rather than learning how I could get involved, since it seems that the pieces will need to be written by WGA members. Oh well.

Ian also mentioned that Paul (whom I'd met on the street) had come up with another idea a few months earlier, also called Strike TV, which was similar. He gave him credit for it, but also said that Paul's idea was more long-term, and theirs was a short-term idea. He sees it not as a new business model. Rather it is a foundation. As he put it, before you build the railroad, you need to lay the tracks.

Next up was "the Gooch," who caught us up on the last 100 years of cinematic history. Money has always been the obstacle for cinematic storytellers, both in terms of production and distribution. But now, with the advent of affordable HD production and post-production, and with the ability to upload films onto the 'net for free, the who this is no longer a real issue. And since it is finally getting to a point where video on the Internet can be monetized, we are at the start of something big. He pointed to the start of cinema, when the big "hit" film was "Man Sneezing." And he said that now on the Internet, the big hit is "Panda Sneezing" (5.5 million views when I just watched it, FYI).

He said we are all pioneers. Creating content for the Internet is not slumming these days. It is a superior distribution medium. We just need to be the ones to create the big hits that will prove that it is a viable moneymaking medium.

Next, there was a panel discussion. On the panel were Kent Nichols, co-creator of AskANinja.com; Tom Smuts, who has written for TV and has been moving into web content; Rob LaZebnik, a writer on The Simpsons who co-founded Icebox, an early web video site; Aaron Mendelsohn, a writer who recently started VirtualArtists; and Ken Hayes, a non-writer who specializes in Internet advertising and New Media ventures.

Kent spoke first, and entertained us all with the story of AskANinja, and how it has grown. Among other things, he says that he and his co-founder gave themselves permission to be less than perfect. He cited early episodes of The Simpsons and Homestar Runner, and pointed out how much worse they were than later episodes. They started simple, built a following via their social network (they now use Ning, which I'd never seen before but which looks intriguing as a tool), and got lucky by being featured early on as an iTunes podcast.

Some relevant numbers. They started with a $50,000 investment from friends and family, that basically paid their rent, etc. Currently they have revenues of approximately $100,000 a month, 80-90% of which comes from ads. The rest comes from merchandising and other deals. Their ad deals are brokered by agents at UTA, who take their cut as well, of course. They signed their main ad deal about 1 year after launching, and currently are signed with Federated Media, which Kent seems very pleased with. Currently they get 2.5-3 million views a month and 1 million page views. They beat Adult Swim's viewer demographic.

Tom spoke next and says he sees what Kent is doing as a return to the heyday of TV production, before financial syndication (Fin-Syn) ended. He also spoke about what happened with quarterlife, and the various shifting possibilities offered to Herskovitz and Zwick.

Rob spoke about his experiences with Icebox. Basically he attributed the failure to poor management. The story he told was relatively common for web startups during the first dotcom boom. He recognized Kent for not biting off more than he could chew, and said that is really the key in this type of venture. He suggests starting small and letting the opportunities come to you.

Aaron spoke about what he sees as "Hollywood 2.0" -- a direct relationship between content creators and content consumers. He said his venture began as picket line talk, where they wondered why we were bothering to fight over pennies, DVD and the Internet, when we could just go straight to the Internet ourselves. He said writers should be out there trying to make a deal with the Googles of the world, not the studios. He met with Internet guru Henry Poole, and they decided to create VirtualArtists (just a splash page now, but bookmark it) as a marriage between Hollywood content creators and Silicon Valley.

Finally, Ken gave a PowerPoint presentation about how to monetize new media. Firstly, he pointed out that an extremely small percentage of advertising dollars are being spent online, compared with a tremendous amount of time being spent online. It was by far the most disparate segment of any media documented here.

He then broke down the various types of content and ad formats. Basically, traffic comes to a site either organically or via pay (e.g. advertising, etc.) On the published site, content can come from users, editorial, or a niche that Ken referred to as "scraped" -- taken and aggregated from other content sources around the web. Finally, advertising comes in four ways -- flat rate, CPM (cost per thousand ad views), CPC (cost per click, as with Google's AdSense program), or CPA (cost per action, basically commission for product sales, such as affiliate programs). And the largest ad segment online is via search (e.g. sponsored ads on Google).

A commenter (might have been Kent) in the crowd at that point also mentioned a recent statistic that online video views had recently reached parity with online searches, suggested the potential to monetize videos could be as large. But as everyone seemed to point out, few companies have yet figured out the key to fully monetizing video, though there is no question that they have started and are constantly experimenting.

Ken said (daringly in a room full of writers) that content is not king. Traffic is King, he believes. Your content will inevitably be scraped (one of the challenges he mentioned at the end), but if you own your traffic and find ways to bring them back to your site and keep them there, you can monetize them. You can have your content monetizing itself, no matter where it shows up, for example by embedding links to your site in videos. Other challenges he pointed out include more or less revenue sharing between web publishers and content creators, and recognizing that the real value of your content may not necessarily be in its rebroadcast, but in other areas such as merchandising.

The panel then responded to questions from the crowd. Regarding length of content, which has been most successful in shorter segments, the panelists seemed to agree that that is still the best way to go for now. But at the same time, Aaron suggested there was an evolution taking place and as TV and Internet grow closer together, this will gradually change. Kent furthermore pointed out that many people already download feature films (illegally) and watch them on their computers. So it is already happening.

Tom sees the future as Internet content that builds a brand around itself, instead of simply being the entire content in and of itself. He mentioned the way TheKnot expanded their offerings as an example of this. The content can be used to launch other revenue-generating streams.

Lastly, Kent mentioned a new organization for which he serves on the Board of Advisors: the Association for Downloadable Media. The ADM is aiming to normalize the ad business and model for videos and the like. Seems interesting.

Overall, it was a very interesting and enlightening afternoon. I learned a lot, and got thinking about projects of my own. Lastly, I'll give a shout out to someone I met in the lobby afterwards. Tanja Barnes has been making The Writers' Strike Chronicles, a podcast about the strike. She was there recording the proceedings, and interviewing people. I might make it into this episode, as she interviewed me. But either way, I recommend you check it out!

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