Saturday, May 21, 2011

Movie Shorthand = Bad

I've been reading "Thor" since I was 5, and so I was really excited about the selection of Kenneth Branagh as the film's director. If anyone could really add depth to these characters, not to mention make Thor's "verily-and-forsooth" faux Middle English patois not laughable, it's Branagh. Turns out I was only partially right.

Minor spoiler alert!

Now let's just get right out there, I kind of liked the film. Captain Kirk's dad did a great job in the title role, radiating real star power and charm. Anthony Hopkins' gravitas indeed made the Asgardian elements of the story compelling when they could have been laughable. The fish out of water stuff on Earth was passable and generally fun, and some of the action was creative.

But I had two big problems with this flick. This first is: it was a nonstop CGI fest, from start to finish. Sure, we had some big sets and a few smartly designed practical elements, but the vast majority of the film looked fake. They spent $150 million (!) to make this thing, and yet the overload of enormous swooping CG vistas were a snoozeroo. To my eye, they never had the verisimilitude of a proper miniature set (although the Jodenheim ice world design was very effective), and the big Destroyer whom Thor fights in New Mexico, again, never believed it for a minute. Remember 29 years ago, in Star Trek II when we saw the Genesis Effect for the first time, how cool that was? Well, we've been so bludgeoned with similar visuals since then that, frankly, I don't care anymore. And they still look fake.

But that's not my biggest problem with Thor. That would be: movie shorthand. Movie shorthand means a plot event or characterization or subplot not fully developed in the script; but because we've seen a similar element in movies before and kind of know how it's supposed to go, the filmmakers just sort of sketch it in. They forget to do the heavy lifting necessary to really motivate the element and make it work.

In Thor, I'm specifically referring to character arc. Thor starts out as fat-headed and arrogant, so much so that his father banishes him from Asgard and sends him to Earth, powerless, to teach him a lesson! That's pretty bloody severe. But okay, so far so good. We've certainly seen this character arc in movies before, and thus we have a pretty good idea that over the course of Act II, Thor is going to learn a painful lesson in humility. And of course, that's exactly what happens.. sort of. Problem is, the transformation is not motivated by anything that happens in the script. It simply happens, and we're supposed to accept it because, well, it's movie shorthand.

Now what should have happened is something like what happened in As Good As It Gets and Groundhog Day. We have a charming jackass who by interacting with a feisty female, finally starts to get that he needs to change in order to be worthy of her. The arcs are handled masterfully in both those films. But in Thor, while Captain Kirk's dad interacts with, and grows fond of, Natalie Portman's quirky scientist character, we never really believe he's falling for her, and we certainly never believe he has to change his behavior in order to get anywhere with her. Instead what happens is: Thor abruptly, and with no tangible motivation, becomes gregarious and charming early in Act 2.

Huh? Wait. Where's the scene where he gets his dressing down from his fed-up costar? Where's the scene where he realizes he cannot achieve his objective UNLESS he changes? The mythological movie formula (which Thor in all other ways follows) dictates that the protagonist realize his Problem at the midpoint, but he cannot solve the problem yet. It's only in Act 3, after the black moment where the lead character is the farthest from his goals, that he finally assimilates all the knowledge he's picked up along the journey from interacting with the other characters, and realizes HOW he can change his approach -- in other words, arc. Once that change happens, the hero is finally able to solve his problem and achieve his goal and defeat the threat in Act 3. But Thor, eh, he don't need any of that. Simply landing on Earth and being stranded there with Natalie Portman, whom he doesn't really appear to have any real sparks with, changes him into a jovial sweetheart by the 30-minute mark.

Now one might argue that any deviation from formula is a good one, and I would agree in theory. But when your movie hits those formulaic waypoints (verily, with a loud clank) the rest of the way, and we do not believe that the character as depicted in Act 1 could so abruptly change his tune scant minutes later, well, that, my friends, is just crappy writing. AKA: movie shorthand.

Be aware of it and by Mjolnir, keep it far from your scripts, if you can :)

Jim C.

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Thursday, May 05, 2011

Coverage Ink/Writers on the Storm/Cyberspace Open Newsletter - 5/11


Writers on the Storm Returns! edition

1) Shorties
6) Lettuce

Greetings, fellow scribes!

Malleable. This is something I think all of us know we should be, but we kind of forget about that in the midst of raging writerly neuroses (and yes, as usual, I'm talking about me.) When we write a screenplay, we're creating an entire world. In our minds, that world is perfect and immutable. We know how each scene should look and play out. 
And then other people come in and f*** it all up.

It's all part of the collaborative process, of course. And it's all well and good. But it can be a shock to the system, even if you're anticipating it. And this is why I always tell people, if you don't want people mucking with your writing, write novels. Screenplays? Fuggeddabout it.

It all starts fairly early on for most of us. After we finish a draft, when we're done patting ourselves on the back, we get the first round of feedback, be it from friends, family, coverage service, or Slappy the mechanic from Pep Boys who swears he's bong buddies with M. Night. This is the first time in the process the dread spectre of having to make changes based on someone else's input rears its ugly head. But definitely not the last. 

Many, many drafts later, if you've taken the time to iron out all the bumps, or course, you will then send it to industry types. If you haven't pulled the trigger too early, you may get some interest. But that producer or manager is going to have... notes. So that's easily a few months and a few more drafts. At last, the script might go to an agent. If they like it, you guessed it -- more notes. If you're fortunate enough to get signed, your agent/manager team will likely send the re-re-revised script to a notable on-lot producer to... wait for it... develop the script with you. Agh! Have I mentioned you have yet to be paid a dime during this entire process? 

Finally, if and when that producer decides the script is ready to take out to the studios, and if you're lucky enough to get it picked up... take a wild honkin' guess. More drafts for the studio. By now you are SO sick of this project you would just as soon dip your hard drive in bacon grease and toss it your pit bull. But if you express any sort of frustration with the process, you will be perceived as "difficult to work with," and you will be replaced by another writer whose duty it will be to throw out everything you've written, in the hope that they'll win the WGA arbitration and be entitled to residuals. 

Even when the script is finally 'locked' for production, rewrites will happen for all manner of reasons. This week our production team for our upcoming movie LIBERATOR found a soundstage facility that would be perfect for our shoot, but it meant sacrificing some of our locations. We quickly realized our beloved supermarket scene, which has been in the script since the very first draft almost two years ago, had to be restaged to a diner (a standing set at the studio.) Similarly, our hero's crappy 1-bedroom suburban home became a crappy downtown loft. An explosive device blowing up outside fuel tanks became a chase through a creepy basement machine room, and a scene with the DOT tearing up a city street became... hell, we still don't know how we're going to pull that one off.

The point of this all is, within the space of a 1-hour tour of the production facility, we had restaged almost half the script on the fly. Just minutes before, there was no way I could see any of these scenes taking place any way other than how we'd written them. And now, it's all completely different, and in many ways better. 

This is the beauty of the art form we've chosen. A lot of writers, myself included, get defensive when it comes to making changes. But the collaborative nature of the filmmaking process, combined with things like budget, locations, and so forth mean that the written word is not gospel. It's template.

Embrace that. 

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As always, we have a content-packed newsletter for ya. Our own Writers on the Storm screenplay contest is now open, and we've got all the deets and a raffle. We have a review of the very ambitious new software Movie Outline 3 -- does it get it done? As usual, high-concept guru Steve Kaire brings his sage guidance, and Writers on the Storm IV runner-up Jeremy Shipp tells us all about how he got into UTA. We also answer your questions and cover the ten genres you should never write. All this and way more -- here. Now. Thanks for reading!

Jim Cirile

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THE STORM HITS. Coverage Ink's Writers on the Storm screenwriting competition is now underway, and we are psyched. Writers on the Storm IV got two of our top ten and honorable mentions representation, and this year we are looking to do even better. We have 150 high-end companies on board just looking for someone to bring them something magical. Are you down? Two ways to enter:  directly to the contest at writerstorm.com (early entry period ends June 1st.) Or submit your script for coverage to Coverage Ink during the contest period (ends 7/31/11) and contest entry is included for free. Show us what you got, folks! Oh, this is gonna be good :) Enter online now!

STORM RAFFLE! We'll be giving away TWO FREE ENTRIES PER MONTH for the duration of the contest. E-mail us at info@coverageink.com and put STORM RAFFLE in the subject line, and include your name, e-mail and phone number in the mail. Then watch this newsletter next month to see if you won!

SPEC-TACULAR. Okay, that's a little bit of hyperbole, but the spec market is definitely hotter now than the last two years. Which ain't saying much, but we'll take what we can get. Take a look at this grid from our buddy Jason Scoggins from ItsontheGrid.com:

While those numbers are decent (rememember, 2011 is less than half over), what's missing here are the non-studio companies that have ponied up to buy specs -- 15 so far this year, with one buy each, including Mandate, Wendy Finerman,1984 Films and Montecito. Add it all up and that's a pretty decent amount of activity! And thank heavens. We'll be covering all this in depth in our upcoming double-length 10th anniversary edition of Agent's Hot Sheet in Creative Screenwriting this September. In the meantime, get to work. At long last, the fish are biting!

ANGELIC. You can't keep a good (read: cheesy old) franchise down. Thus it should come as no surprise to anyone that ABC has resurrected Charlie's Angels as a series. The new take on the show, which sounds remarkably like the old take on the show, stars Minka Kelly (Friday Night Lights,) Annie Ilonzeh and Rachael Taylor. Ramon Rodriguez is the new Bosley (not to be confused with Tom Bosley from Happy Days or Bosley Medical Hair Restoration) and, coolest of all, the new Charlie... Mr. Robert Wagner. The plot of the first 13-episode order involves the angels going undercover as bikini models for no known reason. ABC's the place to be!
CYBERSPACE OPEN TOP 3. The competition was fierce. The writing talent on display in those top 100 was impressive. But of course, there can be only three. So let's give it up for 2011 Cyberspace Open top 3: Michael Hedrick, William Shank and Elisa Graybill. For full coverage on the judging and how it all went down, check out our previous blog post here. Their scenes will be taped in late May and put up on the web for you all to vote on (watch this blog for announcements.) This is always a ton of fun, and we encourage everyone to vote for your favorite scene. But remember, how closely the writers adhered to the scene prompt must also be taken into account! Oh, and everyone who made it to round two, nice work. The scores and comments have not been posted online, but if you'd like to see how you did, just e-mail us at coverageink@gmail.com.

LOOKING FOR THE FILM DEPARTMENT? SIX FEET DOWN. Not especially great news here, but the company behind the well-intentioned (but ultimately hokey) hit Law-Abiding Citizen, Film Department, has shuttered. Company CEO Mark Gill told The Wrap, "the financial challenges (were) a lot bigger than any of us anticipated and just overwhelmed us." It's never great news when a buyer bites the dust of course, but we can at least take some solace in the spec market rebound the industry has been experiencing this year. And no doubt Mark Gill and crew will be back with a new, perhaps less generically-named, company in the future.  

THE MOST WONDERFUL TIME OF THE YEAR. No, it's not the holidays, but it might as well be for screenwriters. It's the double whammy of Great American Pitchfest rolling into town June 4th and 5th, and the InkTip Pitch Summit, July 22nd and 23rd. We did a comprehensive review of the four leading Pitch festivals in the December/January 2011 issue of Script magazine. But all you really need to know is that both of these events represent a one-two punch of potential.
For most of us, of course, pitching is about as much fun as a colon resection. But once you gird yourself and walk through that door, adrenalin takes over. There in that room are a crapload of people who could conceivably help your career. We recommend both these events. They're both terrific values for the money and offer the fastest way around to make a boatload of industry connex. And who knows -- you may even meet your significant other there (I did!) Hope to see you all there!

DELHI-GHTFUL. Congrats to writer/director Prashant Nair for completing principal photography of his new comedy/drama "Delhi in a Day." Coverage Ink assisted in the film's development, and CI senior consultant and resident Indian culture expert Billy Fox is credited as Story Consultant. "Delhi in a Day" is "a dark comedy about the nouveau riche in India and class differences told in the context of a modern, urban upper class home," says actress Lillette Dubey. The English/Hindi film also stars Lee Williams (Billy Elliott, The Tudors) and Victor Banerjee (A Passage to India). They already have over 8,600 fans on their Facebook page. We can't wait for this one to come out.

ARRR-DMAN! A pirate movie from the makers of "Wallace and Gromit"? Yes! Ain't It Cool News reports that Aardman Animation has inked a deal with Sony for a new 3-D stop-motion animated feature titled "The Pirates! Band of Misfits." Since the only vaguely piractical Hugh Grant has been inked for the lead voice, it's probably safe to assume Wallace and Gromit are not in the picture (crap.) Let's hope the film won't get Flushed Away by a certain other big pirate movie franchise... Parents, check out Aardman's riotous Shawn the Sheep series.


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2)
CI evaluates Movie Outline 3, a brand-new all-in-one screenwriting solution.

by Ebony Jones

As writers, some of us are stuck in a habitual financial recession. Who wants to invest money in their art when they’re not even sure if it’s good? But at some point in time, you have to invest to make it better.  But is Movie Outline 3 worth the money? (currently $136 on amazon.com.)

Before I changed my attitude about the worthiness of my craft, I used the free software Celtx. For those of you eating Ramen every night, Celtx is great software. It allows you to seamlessly crank out a script or even whet your palate for the concept of script format. And I always recommend it to people who don’t have the ducats to afford software. And while Celtx does offer elements of script planning, I was looking for more. I’ve used Final Draft, which is of course one of the two major screenwriting software programs, along with Movie Magic Screenwriter. It’s simple and pretty self-explanatory. For the price, there aren’t a whole lot of bells and whistles, but it serves the basic purpose of its user for typing out a script and moving on to the next one. I feel like Final Draft is more for established screenwriters.

In my research, I have found that the perfect software is subjective to the person and the stage of their writing career. Movie Outline 3 fits my personality. I need to plan everything from story to location to characters. And I still rely heavily on screenwriting books that advise on how to write a great, award-winning script. This software does that.

I love that Movie Outline 3 allows you to write both scenes and/or steps. For me, stepping out the story in steps is easier to write, but since most writers work with scenes, the option is still there to speak the industry language. This software also allows you to use color-coded index cards (Step Cards) as steps or scenes. It’s simple to toggle back and forth between the two. There’s also a tab for Notes. But what I love is the Story Tasks tab, which allows you to write those little reminders that could make or break the continuity of your screenplay.

The selling point for me in this software is the character analysis. Celtx does this as well, by helping you createa character-based database for your characters. Movie Outline 3 takes it a step further and interviews you about each of your characters. It also gives you the option to create relationships between the characters and helps you evaluate how the realism of the interactions rates in conjunction with the pacing of your story. Movie Outline 3 focuses heavily on voice and whether or not your characters are diverse or if you’re just writing the same story, different day.

Click to watch a demo of Movie Outline 3 in action.
Speaking of pacing, your screenplay is beholden by the genre for which you’re writing it. While it helps to study screenplays for your genre, Movie Outline 3 gets the ball rolling by providing a sample from each of the main genres. I’d like to see them offer more recent options in future upgrades. But for what they do offer, the analysis is impressive. Basically, they allow you to pace your script with one of their examples. You'll catch on quickly whether your horror movie is moving too slowly or whether the suspense for your actioner is starting too soon, only to fizzle out before the end of the movie.

Typing out the script is efficient as well. Once you add all your characters under the Characters tabs, when writing the script, you have the auto-complete function that predicts your next function or who your character will be. You also have the option to turn off this function. The default settings are set to industry standard, but you have the freedom of changing settings if necessary. Scripts that export from Movie Outline 3 are portable to standard formats including Final Draft 8. Movie Outline 3 can also import from a wide range of formats, including Final Draft, .rtf, and even PDF (it's the only software I know of that can do this!) Once you import, Movie Outline 3 will analyze and reformat the script.

Some of my other favorite functions from Movie Outline 3 are the FeelFactor tab, the Dialogue Spotlight function, and Story Structure Templates. With FeelFactor, you can visually pace your story’s emotional levels via a graph of other genres. The Dialogue Spotlight isolates a character’s dialogue throughout the whole script so you can ensure you’re using a consistent voice. The Joseph Campbell fan in me (I have actually read his book) loves that they have a Hero’s Journey template so you can step out your story based on a structure that even George Lucas hails as key to his success. Other templates include One-Hour Drama, the Half-Hour Drama, and 3 and 5-Act Screenplays.

Finally, you won’t believe the bonus Movie Outline 3 has to offer. Before you even start typing out your screenplay, read the manual. Trust me on this. I downloaded the .pdf and loaded it onto my Kindle. This is serious coffee-with-Girl Scout-cookies-during-a rainy-day kind of reading. The manual was written by artists. They not only go through the techie stuff that bores you to tears, but they actually break down screenwriting in the most simplistic way imaginable. They tell you what a scene is, or what a character arc is, or what pacing is, and why it’s important to master in your script. The writers for the Movie Outline 3 manual convince you that you need all these elements to make it in this writing world.

So is it worth the dough? Heck yeah! I can say without a doubt that I’m a believer in what they’re selling. Movie Outline 3 is one size fits all software that really does perform as advertised. Click here to download a free trial of Movie Outline 3 at their website.

Ebony Jones is a 2001 graduate of Cornell University's School of Hospitality with a degree in business communications. She has completed her first unpublished novel "Sierra Phillips: Swimming in Blue Liqueur" as well as a short story, “When Ariel Lost Her Voice”. She has finally tackled restructuring the dramatic screenplay she's been working on that has now gone from “When Momma Dies” to "Untitled" since the mother no longer dies.

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3) TEST YOUR SCREENWRITING IQ PART 2

by Steve Kaire

Quick quiz, then we'll discuss some common myths about the biz. True or False:

1) You should try to get your material to directors or actors who may take an interest in getting your movie made.

True. Get your material to anyone who might be in a position to help.

2) Another term for a thriller is a suspense film.

True.

3) Most material that is optioned is successfully produced.

False. The vast majority of options expire without the project getting made.

4) Beginning as an intern or reader for a production company is a smart way to start a writing career.

True. You get to learn how the business works, read a lot of scripts and network.

5) It is easier to sell screenplays based on established books, comics or other medium.

True. Films based on established material from another medium have a built-in audience.

6) Studio readers synopsize all the scripts they read and decide whether or not to recommend the script.

True.

7) You should write and try to sell sequels to successful movies.

False. If you don’t own the rights, no one will buy it. You can still maybe use it as writing sample, but it may be difficult to interest anyone in reading it.

8) The easiest genres to sell are comedy and romantic comedy.

False. The easiest genre to sell are action movies because they do well in foreign markets.

9) You shouldn’t write a period piece because it is more expensive and they don’t sell.

False. Although period movies are a much tougher sell, if that genre is your strength and you target the right companies, go for it.

10) With the increased studio focus on PG-13 films, horror specs are difficult to sell.

False. Horror films are typically low budget and have a dedicated following. Bear in mind however they are not generally studio films.

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There are several common myths that I’ve encountered that hold back the careers of new screenwriters. First is the notion new writers have that there’s big money to be made from screenwriting. They hear of spec script sales in the six to seven figure range. The truth is that these days, it’s more difficult to sell because of the avalanche of submissions. Those writers fortunate to sell their screenplays are often paid in the low six figures. Half the members of the Writers Guild have no income at all from their writing in any given year.

The second myth is the perceived glamour associated with being a screenwriter. Writing is a solitary profession that takes years of writing and rewriting on a single script. The business is filled with frustration and disappointment.

The third myth is about acquiring an agent. New writers think they’ll write a script, get representation, and collect a big payday soon after.  The reality is that getting good representation these days is difficult. Agents are buried with work representing their existing clients and aren’t actively looking for new talent to take on. That’s why I strongly recommend marketing your material yourself. I sold all 8 of my projects without representation. How I did this is discussed in detail on my CD or new Ebook.

Despite these obstacles, if you feel that you want to pursue screenwriting, you should press on. Educate yourself on the craft, network as much as you can and learn how the business works. Having realistic expectations and knowing what you’re up against, gives you a leg up on everyone else.

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Steve Kaire is a Screenwriter/Pitchman who’s sold eight projects to the major studios without representation. His top rated CD, "High Concept –- How to Create, Pitch and Sell to Hollywood” is available on his website along with original articles.


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4)

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Writers on the Storm IV yielded a pretty great top ten as well as three honorable mentions. We were pretty confident that our winning script, Kevin Madden's RIVETER, an alien invasion movie, would get a lot of play. We were less certain about a few others, which included a few period pieces, dramas and harder-to-market types of scripts. But when time came to send the scripts to our industry list, "Riveter" was the victim of timing -- a similar-themed movie had just tanked at the box office. (We're still working on it, however.) Honorable mention Paul Moxham's excellent basketball comedy VERTICALLY CHALLENGED got him signed with Muraviov Management, which is fantastic, but our top ten weren't getting a lot of traction.

Lo and behold, our pals at powerhouse agency United Talent (who read all 13 top ten plus honorable mentions) blew us away when they said they wanted to meet with the writer of SLEIGHT OF HAND -- an expensive WWII-era magic-themed adventure movie. They fell in love with the writing, the clever characterizations and smart action. In short order, they'd signed Writers on the Storm IV Runner-Up Jeremy Shipp. Shipp is now getting meetings all over town as well as writing on the new "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" animated series for Nickelodeon. Not bad, huh? And he's a super nice guy, too. Check out what he has to say and heed well his advice. Who knows -- maybe you'll be next!

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Jim Cirile (JC):   Hey, man! Thanks for taking the time. Tell us a little about your background.

Jeremy Shipp (JS): I’m from upstate New York. I majored in film production at Syracuse University, Visual and Performing Arts, and graduated in 2001, and moved out (to LA) with my girlfriend at the time. I spent two months trying to find a job. The first job I found was at a place called Film Tools. They sold expendables, and I worked there for about five months.

JC: And how’d you get that gig?

JS: I think it was one of several places that I just walked into and handed in my resume.  I had no idea what to do. This was after I had crewed on several films that I saw in Backstage West, little ads. I had cold-called all the studios, rather naively. I actually got to go onto Paramount a few days in and met with a lady who told me I should learn how to use Excel. But no actual leads. And then I worked at Film Tools for about five months. It was a retail job, very nice boss, good people – but it really got me no closer to working where I wanted to work, at the studios.

JC: Other than learning the tools that go into making a movie.

JS: That’s true. It was fun. Around that time, I got onto the Dreamworks Animation campus. There was a fellow Syracuse graduate, and my friend, also a Syracuse grad, somehow got a hold of him, and he invited us both to the campus, and we walked around. It looks so awesome – it’s the coolest campus in the world over in Glendale – fountains and manicured trees and free lunches. I submitted my resume and after a few interviews, they hired me as a P.A. (production assistant) on SINBAD, LEGEND OF THE SEVEN SEAS. And I won’t go through all that, but after awhile there I thought, you know, maybe I should write an animated movie. That was a very na├»ve thought because you don’t really just write animated movies, you come up with a pitch and you pitch them, and then they decide if they want to make them. I didn’t know that. So, I wrote an animation feature. I rewrote it a couple of times, and it turned out pretty well. I won a minor contest with it. I decided that I would put that in a query letter and send (it) out to agents.

JC: At this point, did you know that you had to run anything you wrote past the brass at DreamWorks?
JS: I did. I was pretty careful about that. Anything you come up with (while working) at DreamWorks you have to pitch them first, and they get first and last rights of refusal, which was fine with me. And I did pitch the story to them a few times, and they sent me back with a few notes, and heard the pitch a total of maybe three or four times. They were very helpful to me.

JC: So they were actually interested?

JS: They seemed like they were, but they ultimately passed on it, which was fine. Concurrently, I got my first animation agent via this query letter. I had fancy artwork on top of the query letter, which is a mark of amateurism, but I didn’t know that. It was artwork done by a fellow DreamWorks (animation artist). I conscripted him to work on it off-hours.

JC: It’s not amateurish if the artwork you’re presenting blows people away.

JS: This is true. So yes, it caught somebody’s eye, enough for them to want to read my script, which they did, and they liked it enough to sign me. And that was with this agent who was a great agent for about five years or so, and he gave me writing assignments, found me gigs to petition for/audition for. I started making my first bit of money writing. It was all for animation, that was his focus, and expertise.

shipp quote 1

JC: What was your first paying gig?

JS: It was for a company in the Netherlands, a half-hour Internet sitcom. I’m not sure what ever happened with that, but I got money for it. I was ecstatic.

JC: Do you feel you're wired to be an animation guy, or was it primarily because you were at DreamWorks?

JS: I had always imagined myself writing and directing live action thrillers in the Spielberg vein, movies full of wonder, genre pictures, exciting action/adventure movies. I never really pictured myself as an animation writer. I only really started it as a lark, and soon, after a few years, I found myself – I saw my future and I was writing animation forever, and that’s not a terrible fate by any means, but I did have a passion, an interest in writing other types of movies as well. So I took it upon myself to write a live-action thriller, and that’s how SLEIGHT OF HAND came about.

JC: Now you've always been interested in magic, right?

JS: Yes, I went through a very intense magic phase when I was a kid. I did a couple of shows and all that. It fell away when I got more interested in making movies. Then about five years ago maybe, I bought a trick in a magic store up in Cambria, just for fun, and that reignited the old hobby. And I used that interest in the hobby to write a thriller. I found a story in my research about a magician in 1953, hired by the CIA to find sleight of hand ways of drugging people. I thought that was kind of a cool launch pad for a story, so I wrote one. I had taken a hiatus from DreamWorks. I finished out my contract – I had worked on KUNG FU PANDA for about four years as their editorial supervisor. I said no more for now, and I took a break for about a year and a half, and I worked on some scripts, and one of them was SLEIGHT OF HAND.

JC: What did you do for cash?

JS: I had saved up money. That was about six and a half years I worked for DreamWorks, and my wife and I were very frugal and we saved up a nice chunk of change.

JC: Okay, so you finish the first draft of SLEIGHT OF HAND. What do you do with it?

JS:  I don’t like to hand out my first drafts to too many people, so my wife read it, gave a few notes, and I rewrote it. I like to spend as much time with it as I can just making it the way I want before everyone tells me what’s wrong with it. (laughs) But after a certain point I know that I cannot achieve greatness on my own – I wish that I could say that I could, but I really can’t. Not to say that the script was potentially that great, but I definitely needed notes, I needed feedback. I found Coverage Ink on the web, and the price looked competitive to me, and I signed up for the dual feedback there, and I also applied concurrently to some other contests. I received two 'considers' from the coverage from Coverage Ink and was very encouraged. Unbeknownst to me, I was entered into the Writers on the Storm Contest because I received those two considers while the contest was running. I certainly wasn’t savvy enough to know that I was submitting to that contest, but I got in and was very happy to, because I received the notice that I was a quarterfinalist, a semifinalist, and finally I got your phone call and I had placed, so I was ecstatic.

JC: Right, Writers on the Storm entry is automatic with any submission to Coverage Ink while the contest is running. Okay, so what happened then?

JS: I had placed in a couple of other contests at the same time, so I was really starting to feel like there’s something to this, and people are kind of enjoying this. Part of my winnings was a big conference call from you, and you gave me a number of notes, and they were not easy notes. They were considerable notes, but hey, I needed them. And I was not discouraged to receive notes like that, especially if I agree with them. They’re exciting. So, I thought about them for awhile, and I rewrote the script based on the notes and I sent it in, and it was a few more months before you and your team were ready with the other scripts to submit them to where you were going to submit them. In the meantime, I worked on another script and started a UCLA writing class. I returned to DreamWorks because I ran out of money.

JC: They were cool with that?

JS: I was very careful not to burn bridges when I left. I tried to be very kind to them, they were so kind to me. And I really think the world of them, they’re such a great company. So I was back at Dreamworks, and time had passed, and you finally emailed out and you said, I’m going to be submitting to our connections as part of your winnings, so consider this date your deadline for polishes – I believe it was in early October – and I said, oh great. So I cracked open the script again, and because time had passed, I was able to really read my script with fresh eyes, and I instantly saw that there were a number of things wrong with it. I didn’t like how I had addressed your notes – it wasn’t that I didn’t like your notes, it was that I felt like I had addressed them in the wrong way, so I canned my rewrite and I started with the older draft and I did a completely new rewrite using your notes.

 JC: You went back to the previous draft?

JS: I went back to the previous draft. I discarded what I had rewritten, but I took your notes, took the older draft and started anew, and came up with what I thought was a much better addressing of those notes. I handed to my wife; she really dug it, I really dug it. I was feeling good about it, and I sent that in.

JC: Awesome. Not everyone took the time to do that -- really crank to make sure the script was as good as they could get it by the deadline.

JS: I’ve heard several times that the last ten percent of any project is the hardest, to get that final ten percent, and it’s consistently where people seem to give up.

JC: Much though I loved this script, i figured it would be a tough sell. Period piece, big budget, and there have been a bunch of magic-themed period pieces both made and in development.

shipp 2

JS: I know. Expensive period piece. And I’m an unknown writer – I don’t have credits. But one of the people who did want to read it was UTA's Emerson Davis, and he wanted to meet with me. I was so excited. I was also very nervous because I had just signed a new two-year contract with my existing agent and so I was worried about that, but I of course wanted to take the meeting anyway. I met with Emerson, Julien Thuan and Ben Jacobson, and they were extraordinarily nice to me. They asked if I would like you to come over (to UTA). On January third of this year I had the talk with my agent and he took it very well. He said, you know what, if UTA would like to be with you, go ahead, give it a shot. He wished me the best of luck. I’m still on very good terms with him. I’m working at TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES for Nickelodeon right now as a staff writer. That is something that he got me, and I couldn’t be happier with this day job, and it’s just a wonderful, wonderful gig.

JC: That's awesome. So what's going on with SLEIGHT OF HAND now?

JS: I’m taking lots of "generals" -- that's meet n' greet meetings, the bottled water tour, as they say, although it’s the tap water tour now, because everyone’s gone green. They tell you they like your script, and they tell you what they’re looking for, and if it happens to align with your interests, you can try to pursue that. I’ve had a great time so far, I’ve got about eight more meetings on the horizon that Emerson has set up for me. I don’t want to piss off my new employers here by taking too many meetings, so I’m trying to be as transparent as possible at every stage, every step here. 

JC: Staff gig on an animated show is pretty amazing. But you're also working on a new feature spec, right? 

JS: I’m working on an adventure spec in my off hours when I’m not trying to break eternal stories with my employers. I’m very excited to get that off the ground. Actually, it took me a little bit of doing to try and figure out my genre. I’m doing animation as my day job, but the type of scripts I’m putting out into the market, SLEIGHT OF HAND was an adventure/spy thriller, and I had my sights set on a comedy next. It’s hard when you’re in a room and you’re in there for a thriller and you say you’ve been working on a comedy and their eyes kind of glaze. So I had written a comedy and I did submit that to Coverage Ink as well, and I got two passes on it. Those two passes were well earned and deserved, I believe. It was not my strongest effort. A very similar story was recently purchased by Summit, so I took that as a sign to set that project aside and try to, at least in the short term, keep my specs within a particular area – adventure/thriller, I’ll try to be that guy for a while.

tmntJC: Yeah, you definitely have to pigeonhole yourself when you're starting out. The good news is there's plenty of room for comedy within the adventure/thriller genre.

JS: Absolutely. Someone said that your first half of your career you should spend trying to put yourself into a box, and the last half, to get it out of it.

JC: Right on. Thanks for taking the time, Jeremy. Sounds like things are really exploding for you now. Any words of advice for folks who hope to be the next Jeremy Shipp?

JS: The next Jeremy Shipp? (laughs) Really, just keep rewriting. One rewrite, two rewrites, three rewrites are not enough. You have to keep going. Print it out on paper, dual side if you want to save the trees, and read it, write on it, set it aside, and then bring it out, do it again, and just keep doing it, because that last ten percent is just so important, and I think many people decide to let their script go at that stage and it’s not going to help.

JC: Right. What do you think would have happened if we'd sent your earlier draft to UTA?

JS: We would not be having this conversation, that’s for sure. I’ve rewritten the script, and it was good enough to get me into UTA. But I know people are not buying it. It requires even more work, I’m sure. And if someone does decide to buy it, I’m sure they’ll give me more notes. It never ends. And we as writers need to be okay with that and embrace it. The last thing is, don't overlook a great contest for what it can do for you. Whoever says that contests get you nowhere should be shot. You got me signed to UTA!

+++

5)  
Ten Genres to Avoid Like the Plague

by Jim Cirile

Even more important than what’s hot right now? What’s ice cold. Our industry panelists give you the skinny on ten genres to avoid.

ADVISORY BOARD

Richard Arlook
The Arlook Group

Nicole Clemens
International Creative Management

A.B. Fischer
The Shuman Company

Emile Gladstone
International Creative Management

Julien Thuan
United Talent Agency

Jake Wagner
FilmEngine
You’re ready to write a spec. You know it’s tough out there, but you’re confident that with your quirky, exciting characters, you’ll be able to stand out from pack. And so you fire up the computer and set about writing... an angst-ridden teen ensemble drama about a struggling screenwriter. RRRK! (Sound of brakes being stomped on.) Step away from the vehicle, ma’am. Certain genres make good specs; others do not. Before you waste years of your life, make sure that your concept is not dead on arrival!

Here are ten genres to beware of. Bear in mind that any of these genres could conceivably be resuscitated by an attachment or by bringing a fresh new spin to a tired formula...

1) THE MOB MOVIE. When a mafia script lands on my desk, I wince. “I rarely get excited (about them,)” says UTA agent Julien Thuan. “You’re starting from not a good place.” Manager A.B. Fischer from the Shuman Company seconds that. “Coming off the end of The Sopranos, that show did it so well for so long that I think it’s going to be a while before the mob movie comes back.” Absent having Scorcese attached, you’d best park Guido and Nunzio on the shelf for a while.

2) THE WESTERN. The toughest material to get any interest in. “They’re useless foreign,” says FilmEngine’s Jake Wagner. “It’s such an American thing that it’s very tough to sell (internationally.)” ICM’s Nicole Clemens cuts to the chase: “The Western as a spec, I would say no. It won’t work until a studio makes one that makes a ton of money. Unforgiven is one of my favorite movies, but...” Of course, that doesn’t mean they never ever sell. Ultra-hot prodco Vertigo picked up Brigands of Rattleborge (by Craig Zahler, repped by our own Julien Thuan) earlier this year. “It’s is a great script,” says Clemens, “but I don’t know if they’ll ever make it.” And then there's "Jonah Hex," which certainly did nothing to help the Western genre. Sigh.

3) FANTASY MOVIES. Think you can spec the next Harry Potter? Ha! “That’s impossible, frankly,” says Fischer. “If you look at the projects that are sold, the majority of them are based on an article, a book, a true story. For a studio to spend $100 million-plus on something that doesn’t have built-in awareness, it’s not gonna happen.” But Wagner offers a ray of hope. “Because fantasy is a hot genre right now, I would encourage someone to write a fantasy spec. That spec that sold recently, Land of Lost Things, by (newcomer) Dan Mazeau, it’s a big, expensive project, and Nickelodeon picked it up. That’s going to put him up for all the other book adaptations -- the Harry Potters, the Lords of the Rings. Even if it doesn’t sell, if it’s well-written and well-received, it’ll put you up for all those open (fantasy) assignments right now, which are half the assignments out there.”

4) THE SPORTS MOVIE. This one’s not dead at all; it just has one very important limitation -- the story has to be true. Fischer says, “I think the most recent huge sale was The Fugees (based on New York Times
reporter Warren St. John's article on Luma Mufleh, who assembled a soccer team of kids from various war-ravaged countries.) It’s an uplifting story, but (it’s) based on a true story. To write one from scratch, once again, it’s another uphill battle.” Fischer recommends seeking your own source material. “If you’re a writer out in Minneapolis, and there’s a figure there that the entire country doesn’t know about, try to get that person’s life rights. If it’s a story that you feel needs to be told, there might be a place for it.” Thuan adds that while buyers keep saying they don’t want sports movies because there’s little foreign sales potential, “(they keep making them,) and they all succeed. So I feel like if that’s your bag, go for it.”


5) (TRADITIONAL) ROMANTIC COMEDY. The Meg Ryan/Julia Roberts style romantic comedy is indeed moribund. Long live the new paradigm -- the male-driven romcom. “That was Failure to Launch, which was a spec I sold,” says Clemens. “There are no actresses out there anymore who can get a movie greenlit. But also if it’s male-driven, you have a better shot at getting a guy to take his girlfriend on movie night.” Thuan says that the town still wants romcoms, “but (not) a traditional romantic comedy. (They want) the big concept with the star in the middle of it. Knocked Up becomes the new paradigm for the romantic comedy, which has maybe an edgier sensibility. That kind of innocent romantic comedy doesn’t seem to work as well as it used to.” Wagner adds, “It’s the hardest genre to find something new and interesting and fresh, because it’s so formulaic.”

6) MOVIE INDUSTRY MOVIES. "It’s a personal pet peeve of mine," says Fischer. “I hate it, a lot of people hate it, and it’s one of those stigmas that I don’t think will go away. You’re trying to appeal to the broadest possible audience, and Middle America doesn’t get it. The red states that look at Hollywood as elitist, they don’t care what goes on in the industry.” He adds that half the query letters he gets are from people who just graduated film school and say things like, “‘Hey, I wrote a script about a guy who wants to be a filmmaker.’ It feels amateur.” Get some life experience, folks, and write about that instead. And keep in mind that movies like The Player rarely get made and when they do, they’re auteur-driven.

7) ENSEMBLE DRAMAS. Dramas are hard enough to sell, but ensemble dramas? Ugh. Worse, many scripts are “accidental ensembles,” a result of writers not knowing how to focus on their protagonist. It’s easy to get lost exploring all minor characters and subplots and think it’s okay because, “Well, it’s an ensemble.” BZZZ. “Those are the hardest movies to get made,” says Wagner. “I personally would never encourage a writer to spec an emsemble. Maybe if it was based on a book -- a literary property that’s held in high regard.” Clemens says succinctly, “Not a spec. A spec means you clearly get the concept, or you know who the star is going to be, and it’s clearly a movie star movie.”

8) PERIOD PIECES. One of the hardest genres to get any interest in, largely because they’re so expensive to make. Clemens tells us she has one that she’s been trying to get set up for years. “Specs are things that are kind of like fastballs down the middle. (Period pieces are not) a fastball down the middle.” Thuan adds, “Those who write them and write them well work all the time, because the skills that you demonstrate with a period piece are so applicable to so many other genres. But (they’re) always hard to sell.” Adds Wagner, “Those movies get made because a director with a great track record wants to make one. You know, if George Clooney wants to make a period movie, he can. I personally always cringe when I hear, ‘It’s set in 1850.’”

A subset of the period piece is the War Movie, another tough egg to crack. “I’ve seen projects that tell little-known stories about a hero in World War II that are amazing,” says Fischer. “The comments you hear back are, ‘Eh, we’ve seen (these types of) stories to death.’” Thuan adds that war movies only happen when “a huge director shows up and says, ‘I want to do a war movie,’ and he wills that movie into existence.”

9) ANIMATION. Just because there’s a new talking animal flick opening every week doesn’t mean you can write one on spec. Says Thuan, “The reason is because the process of how animation studios make their movies – some, like Pixar, don’t even entertain projects that weren’t generated there. And other places want to develop their own ideas, even though that’s not a hard and fast rule.” So you don’t even have a buyer. And Dreamworks just put a 3-year moratorium on talking animal movies. Believe it.

10) KIDS’ ADVENTURE MOVIES. I saved this one for last because the answers here surprised me. “Hot,” says Wagner. “Everybody’s looking for the next Goonies, Amblin-type piece right now.” Thuan agrees, “If you polled a group of studio executives, I bet you they’d all say that they want one.” But beware -- the format is deceptively difficult. “I loved The Goonies,” says Fischer. “People have tried to duplicate it and haven’t been successful.” Writers forget that there needs to be an adult star role. “That is the key,” says Wagner. “A lot of times they’ll write the hero as a kid. Then you cut out the Ben Stillers and the Jack Blacks, the guys that greenlight movies.”


+++

6)


Yes, we stole the title of our letters column from "Cracked."

Sandy W. writes: Hi guys, do you do anything to help writers if you like their script?

Jim C. replies: Yes and no, Sandy. With our Writers on the Storm contest, we definitely do plenty to help writers. The contest is on right now and you can find out all about it right here. You can enter either directly into the contest or by submitting a script to Coverage Ink for analysis while the contest is running (until 7/31/11.) However, we do not make any representations of offering to help promote writers outside of the contest (although we do, on very rare occasions.) We help you make the script rock, but the marketing is up to you. I personally have found that some companies that make such promises are full of it, and as a writer, I resent that sort of carrot and stick approach.

Juan H. writes: Jim, thank you for the coverage but I must be honest, at first I wanted to kill you and both your readers who covered my screenplay. This is why it took me three weeks to write you after getting the coverage back. My first reaction was, well how do I put this. I felt like I had been sliced and diced by Bobby Flay. The reviewers were very nice but the sheer volume of things they found. I felt angry, I will be honest. I watched your surviving coverage video and you are so right. After seeing that you too go through the same things! I was finally able to go back into the notes. Now I am writing to say I am excited. I have a lot of work to do but I know I can handle it and I have already begun making the small fixes first just like you suggest.

Jim C. responds: LOL! That is terrific, Juan. Believe me, I know whereof you speak! Any of you who want to watch that video, it's right here. And check out the rest of our free videos on the CI videos page.

Bob writes: Hi Jim, I wondered if you might address something in your next newsletter... about The (Blake Snyder) Beat Sheet. I've kinda drifted away from it over the years, because I found myself sometimes trying to stick a square peg into a round hole. I'll give you two examples (I'm counting step 14 and 15 as one):

6. Break Into Two (pg 25): Act break is the moment where we leave the old world behind and proceed into a world that is upside down version. Something MUST happen on this page.

14. Finale (pg 85): Where the lessons learned are applied. It's where the character tics are mastered. The chief source of "the problem" - a person or thing - must be dispatched completely for the new world order to exist.

15. Final Image (pg 110): The final image of the movie is the opposite of the opening image. It is proof that change has occurred and that it's real.

With 120 pages as the AVERAGE industry-accepted screenplay length, all of the above can frequently shift, so the “MUSTS” are out the window.  I have three screenplays that are 98 pages, 105 pages, 117 pages. Shouldn't Step 6 say, "Something MUST happen on AROUND THIS page?"

Jim C. responds: Hi, Bob, great question. First of all, 120 pages is no longer average screenplay length. The new normal is 110. See my video Writer, Edit Thyself. And "MUST" happen on a certain page is ridiculous. Perhaps that language is used to keep writers on the rails, but it's too rigid. For example, your inciting incident can happen anywhere between page 3 and page 13, although it's preferred to spend the first ten showing the protagonist in his or her know world first. This prevents the need for clunky exposition later.

The main thing here though is that the Beat Sheet, as is the Coverage Ink Magic Movie Formula, are just that -- formula. Most contemporary studio movies are based on it, and once you start paying attention, you'll see that the same types of things happen in generally about the same place in every movie you see, whether is cute and fuzzy like "Hop" or dark and edgy like "Hanna." And hitting those beats in generally the right places is required, but a few pages in either direction is fine. Note that the 'final image' thing is all Blake. Many movies don't do this. In short, don't worry so much about the page numbers, but instead go by feel. Thank God, there's a certain amount of flexibility even within formula.

+++

Thanks for reading! Questions? Comments? Shoot us an e-mail at info@coverageink.com.

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Agent's NOT Sheet

 
Ten Genres to Avoid Like the Plague

by Jim Cirile

Even more important than what’s hot right now? What’s ice cold. Our industry panelists give you the skinny on ten genres to avoid.
ADVISORY BOARD

Richard Arlook
The Arlook Group

Nicole Clemens
International Creative Management

A.B. Fischer
The Shuman Company

Emile Gladstone
International Creative Management

Julien Thuan
United Talent Agency

Jake Wagner
FilmEngine
You’re ready to write a spec. You know it’s tough out there, but you’re confident that with your quirky, exciting characters, you’ll be able to stand out from pack. And so you fire up the computer and set about writing... an angst-ridden teen ensemble drama about a struggling screenwriter. RRRK! (Sound of brakes being stomped on.) Step away from the vehicle, ma’am. Certain genres make good specs; others do not. Before you waste years of your life, make sure that your concept is not dead on arrival!

Here are ten genres to beware of. Bear in mind that any of these genres could conceivably be resuscitated by an attachment or by bringing a fresh new spin to a tired formula...

1) THE MOB MOVIE. When a mafia script lands on my desk, I wince. “I rarely get excited (about them,)” says UTA agent Julien Thuan. “You’re starting from not a good place.” Manager A.B. Fischer from the Shuman Company seconds that. “Coming off the end of The Sopranos, that show did it so well for so long that I think it’s going to be a while before the mob movie comes back.” Absent having Scorcese attached, you’d best park Guido and Nunzio on the shelf for a while.

2) THE WESTERN. The toughest material to get any interest in. “They’re useless foreign,” says FilmEngine’s Jake Wagner. “It’s such an American thing that it’s very tough to sell (internationally.)” ICM’s Nicole Clemens cuts to the chase: “The Western as a spec, I would say no. It won’t work until a studio makes one that makes a ton of money. Unforgiven is one of my favorite movies, but...” Of course, that doesn’t mean they never ever sell. Ultra-hot prodco Vertigo picked up Brigands of Rattleborge (by Craig Zahler, repped by our own Julien Thuan) earlier this year. “It’s is a great script,” says Clemens, “but I don’t know if they’ll ever make it.” And then there's "Jonah Hex," which certainly did nothing to help the Western genre. Sigh.

3) FANTASY MOVIES. Think you can spec the next Harry Potter? Ha! “That’s impossible, frankly,” says Fischer. “If you look at the projects that are sold, the majority of them are based on an article, a book, a true story. For a studio to spend $100 million-plus on something that doesn’t have built-in awareness, it’s not gonna happen.” But Wagner offers a ray of hope. “Because fantasy is a hot genre right now, I would encourage someone to write a fantasy spec. That spec that sold recently, Land of Lost Things, by (newcomer) Dan Mazeau, it’s a big, expensive project, and Nickelodeon picked it up. That’s going to put him up for all the other book adaptations -- the Harry Potters, the Lords of the Rings. Even if it doesn’t sell, if it’s well-written and well-received, it’ll put you up for all those open (fantasy) assignments right now, which are half the assignments out there.”

4) THE SPORTS MOVIE. This one’s not dead at all; it just has one very important limitation -- the story has to be true. Fischer says, “I think the most recent huge sale was The Fugees (based on New York Times reporter Warren St. John's article on Luma Mufleh, who assembled a soccer team of kids from various war-ravaged countries.) It’s an uplifting story, but (it’s) based on a true story. To write one from scratch, once again, it’s another uphill battle.” Fischer recommends seeking your own source material. “If you’re a writer out in Minneapolis, and there’s a figure there that the entire country doesn’t know about, try to get that person’s life rights. If it’s a story that you feel needs to be told, there might be a place for it.” Thuan adds that while buyers keep saying they don’t want sports movies because there’s little foreign sales potential, “(they keep making them,) and they all succeed. So I feel like if that’s your bag, go for it.”


5) (TRADITIONAL) ROMANTIC COMEDY. The Meg Ryan/Julia Roberts style romantic comedy is indeed moribund. Long live the new paradigm -- the male-driven romcom. “That was Failure to Launch, which was a spec I sold,” says Clemens. “There are no actresses out there anymore who can get a movie greenlit. But also if it’s male-driven, you have a better shot at getting a guy to take his girlfriend on movie night.” Thuan says that the town still wants romcoms, “but (not) a traditional romantic comedy. (They want) the big concept with the star in the middle of it. Knocked Up becomes the new paradigm for the romantic comedy, which has maybe an edgier sensibility. That kind of innocent romantic comedy doesn’t seem to work as well as it used to.” Wagner adds, “It’s the hardest genre to find something new and interesting and fresh, because it’s so formulaic.”

6) MOVIE INDUSTRY MOVIES. "It’s a personal pet peeve of mine," says Fischer. “I hate it, a lot of people hate it, and it’s one of those stigmas that I don’t think will go away. You’re trying to appeal to the broadest possible audience, and Middle America doesn’t get it. The red states that look at Hollywood as elitist, they don’t care what goes on in the industry.” He adds that half the query letters he gets are from people who just graduated film school and say things like, “‘Hey, I wrote a script about a guy who wants to be a filmmaker.’ It feels amateur.” Get some life experience, folks, and write about that instead. And keep in mind that movies like The Player rarely get made and when they do, they’re auteur-driven.

7) ENSEMBLE DRAMAS. Dramas are hard enough to sell, but ensemble dramas? Ugh. Worse, many scripts are “accidental ensembles,” a result of writers not knowing how to focus on their protagonist. It’s easy to get lost exploring all minor characters and subplots and think it’s okay because, “Well, it’s an ensemble.” BZZZ. “Those are the hardest movies to get made,” says Wagner. “I personally would never encourage a writer to spec an emsemble. Maybe if it was based on a book -- a literary property that’s held in high regard.” Clemens says succinctly, “Not a spec. A spec means you clearly get the concept, or you know who the star is going to be, and it’s clearly a movie star movie.”

8) PERIOD PIECES. One of the hardest genres to get any interest in, largely because they’re so expensive to make. Clemens tells us she has one that she’s been trying to get set up for years. “Specs are things that are kind of like fastballs down the middle. (Period pieces are not) a fastball down the middle.” Thuan adds, “Those who write them and write them well work all the time, because the skills that you demonstrate with a period piece are so applicable to so many other genres. But (they’re) always hard to sell.” Adds Wagner, “Those movies get made because a director with a great track record wants to make one. You know, if George Clooney wants to make a period movie, he can. I personally always cringe when I hear, ‘It’s set in 1850.’”

A subset of the period piece is the War Movie, another tough egg to crack. “I’ve seen projects that tell little-known stories about a hero in World War II that are amazing,” says Fischer. “The comments you hear back are, ‘Eh, we’ve seen (these types of) stories to death.’” Thuan adds that war movies only happen when “a huge director shows up and says, ‘I want to do a war movie,’ and he wills that movie into existence.”

9) ANIMATION. Just because there’s a new talking animal flick opening every week doesn’t mean you can write one on spec. Says Thuan, “The reason is because the process of how animation studios make their movies – some, like Pixar, don’t even entertain projects that weren’t generated there. And other places want to develop their own ideas, even though that’s not a hard and fast rule.” So you don’t even have a buyer. And Dreamworks just put a 3-year moratorium on talking animal movies. Believe it.

10) KIDS’ ADVENTURE MOVIES. I saved this one for last because the answers here surprised me. “Hot,” says Wagner. “Everybody’s looking for the next Goonies, Amblin-type piece right now.” Thuan agrees, “If you polled a group of studio executives, I bet you they’d all say that they want one.” But beware -- the format is deceptively difficult. “I loved The Goonies,” says Fischer. “People have tried to duplicate it and haven’t been successful.” Writers forget that there needs to be an adult star role. “That is the key,” says Wagner. “A lot of times they’ll write the hero as a kid. Then you cut out the Ben Stillers and the Jack Blacks, the guys that greenlight movies.”


Return to newsletter

Screenwriting IQ Part 2 by Steve Kaire

Quick quiz, then we'll discuss some common myths about the biz. True or False:

1) You should try to get your material to directors or actors who may take an interest in getting your movie made.

True. Get your material to anyone who might be in a position to help.

2) Another term for a thriller is a suspense film.

True.

3) Most material that is optioned is successfully produced.

False. The vast majority of options expire without the project getting made.

4) Beginning as an intern or reader for a production company is a smart way to start a writing career.

True. You get to learn how the business works, read a lot of scripts and network.

5) It is easier to sell screenplays based on established books, comics or other medium.

True. Films based on established material from another medium have a built-in audience.

6) Studio readers synopsize all the scripts they read and decide whether or not to recommend the script.

True.

7) You should write and try to sell sequels to successful movies.

False. If you don’t own the rights, no one will buy it. You can still maybe use it as writing sample, but it may be difficult to interest anyone in reading it.

8) The easiest genres to sell are comedy and romantic comedy.

False. The easiest genre to sell are action movies because they do well in foreign markets.

9) You shouldn’t write a period piece because it is more expensive and they don’t sell.

False. Although period movies are a much tougher sell, if that genre is your strength and you target the right companies, go for it.

10) With the increased studio focus on PG-13 films, horror specs are difficult to sell.

False. Horror films are typically low budget and have a dedicated following. Bear in mind however they are not generally studio films.

+++

There are several common myths that I’ve encountered that hold back the careers of new screenwriters. First is the notion new writers have that there’s big money to be made from screenwriting. They hear of spec script sales in the six to seven figure range. The truth is that these days, it’s more difficult to sell because of the avalanche of submissions. Those writers fortunate to sell their screenplays are often paid in the low six figures. Half the members of the Writers Guild have no income at all from their writing in any given year.

The second myth is the perceived glamour associated with being a screenwriter. Writing is a solitary profession that takes years of writing and rewriting on a single script. The business is filled with frustration and disappointment.

The third myth is about acquiring an agent. New writers think they’ll write a script, get representation, and collect a big payday soon after.  The reality is that getting good representation these days is difficult. Agents are buried with work representing their existing clients and aren’t actively looking for new talent to take on. That’s why I strongly recommend marketing your material yourself. I sold all 8 of my projects without representation. How I did this is discussed in detail on my CD or new Ebook.

Despite these obstacles, if you feel that you want to pursue screenwriting, you should press on. Educate yourself on the craft, network as much as you can and learn how the business works. Having realistic expectations and knowing what you’re up against, gives you a leg up on everyone else.

Steve Kaire is a Screenwriter/Pitchman who’s sold eight projects to the major studios without representation. His top rated CD, "High Concept –- How to Create, Pitch and Sell to Hollywood” is available on his website along with original articles.



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TEST DRIVE: Movie Outline 3


CI evaluates Movie Outline 3, a new, all-in-one screenwriting solution.

by Ebony Jones

As writers, some of us are stuck in a habitual financial recession. Who wants to invest money in their art when they’re not even sure if it’s good? But at some point in time, you have to invest to make it better.  But is Movie Outline 3 worth the money? (currently $136 on amazon.com.)

Before I changed my attitude about the worthiness of my craft, I used the free software Celtx. For those of you eating Ramen every night, Celtx is great software. It allows you to seamlessly crank out a script or even whet your palate for the concept of script format. And I always recommend it to people who don’t have the ducats to afford software. And while Celtx does offer elements of script planning, I was looking for more. I’ve used Final Draft, which is of course one of the two major screenwriting software programs, along with Movie Magic Screenwriter. It’s simple and pretty self-explanatory. For the price, there aren’t a whole lot of bells and whistles, but it serves the basic purpose of its user for typing out a script and moving on to the next one. I feel like Final Draft is more for established screenwriters.

In my research, I have found that the perfect software is subjective to the person and the stage of their writing career. Movie Outline 3 fits my personality. I need to plan everything from story to location to characters. And I still rely heavily on screenwriting books that advise on how to write a great, award-winning script. This software does that.

I love that Movie Outline 3 allows you to write both scenes and/or steps. For me, stepping out the story in steps is easier to write, but since most writers work with scenes, the option is still there to speak the industry language. This software also allows you to use color-coded index cards (Step Cards) as steps or scenes. It’s simple to toggle back and forth between the two. There’s also a tab for Notes. But what I love is the Story Tasks tab, which allows you to write those little reminders that could make or break the continuity of your screenplay.

The selling point for me in this software is the character analysis. Celtx does this as well, by helping you create a character-based database for your characters. Movie Outline 3 takes it a step further and interviews you about each of your characters. It also gives you the option to create relationships between the characters and helps you evaluate how the realism of the interactions rates in conjunction with the pacing of your story. Movie Outline 3 focuses heavily on voice and whether or not your characters are diverse or if you’re just writing the same story, different day.

Click to watch a demo of Movie Outline 3 in action.
Speaking of pacing, your screenplay is beholden by the genre for which you’re writing it. While it helps to study screenplays for your genre, Movie Outline 3 gets the ball rolling by providing a sample from each of the main genres. I’d like to see them offer more recent options in future upgrades. But for what they do offer, the analysis is impressive. Basically, they allow you to pace your script with one of their examples. You'll catch on quickly whether your horror movie is moving too slowly or whether the suspense for your actioner is starting too soon, only to fizzle out before the end of the movie.

Typing out the script is efficient as well. Once you add all your characters under the Characters tabs, when writing the script, you have the auto-complete function that predicts your next function or who your character will be. You also have the option to turn off this function. The default settings are set to industry standard, but you have the freedom of changing settings if necessary. Scripts that export from Movie Outline 3 are portable to standard formats including Final Draft 8. Movie Outline 3 can also import from a wide range of formats, including Final Draft, .rtf, and even PDF (it's the only software I know of that can do this!) Once you import, Movie Outline 3 will analyze and reformat the script.

Some of my other favorite functions from Movie Outline 3 are the FeelFactor tab, the Dialogue Spotlight function, and Story Structure Templates. With FeelFactor, you can visually pace your story’s emotional levels via a graph of other genres. The Dialogue Spotlight isolates a character’s dialogue throughout the whole script so you can ensure you’re using a consistent voice. The Joseph Campbell fan in me (I have actually read his book) loves that they have a Hero’s Journey template so you can step out your story based on a structure that even George Lucas hails as key to his success. Other templates include One-Hour Drama, the Half-Hour Drama, and 3 and 5-Act Screenplays.

Finally, you won’t believe the bonus Movie Outline 3 has to offer. Before you even start typing out your screenplay, read the manual. Trust me on this. I downloaded the .pdf and loaded it onto my Kindle. This is serious coffee-with-Girl Scout-cookies-during-a rainy-day kind of reading. The manual was written by artists. They not only go through the techie stuff that bores you to tears, but they actually break down screenwriting in the most simplistic way imaginable. They tell you what a scene is, or what a character arc is, or what pacing is, and why it’s important to master in your script. The writers for the Movie Outline 3 manual convince you that you need all these elements to make it in this writing world.

So is it worth the dough? Heck yeah! I can say without a doubt that I’m a believer in what they’re selling. Movie Outline 3 is one size fits all software that really does perform as advertised. Click here to download a free trial of Movie Outline 3 at their website.

Ebony Jones is a 2001 graduate of Cornell University's School of Hospitality with a degree in business communications. She has completed her first unpublished novel "Sierra Phillips: Swimming in Blue Liqueur" as well as a short story, “When Ariel Lost Her Voice”. She has finally tackled restructuring the dramatic screenplay she's been working on that has now gone from “When Momma Dies” to "Untitled" since the mother no longer dies.


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