Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Coverage Ink/Writers on the Storm Newsletter

January 2013

1) We Need to Talk About "We Need to Talk About Kevin"
2) Writers on the Storm Quarterfinalists So Far
3) Agent's Hot Sheet: The New Paradigm


Writers on the Storm closes at midnight January 9th on writerstorm.com and coverageink.com. After that we will have a 1-month extension exclusive to WithoutaBox

This is your last chance to enter the contest at Coverage Ink and get coverage + contest entry for the price of coverage alone. As of 1/10, all submissions to Coverage Ink will receive our usual in-depth coverage but will NOT be entered into Writers on the Storm. From 1/10 until the final deadline (2/9,) the only way to enter will be on Without a Box. Good luck!


Hi folks,

Short newsletter this month (but hopefully no less worth reading.) Last night I finally saw "We Need to Talk About Kevin," the 2011 Cannes darling directed by Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher) and written by Ramsay and Rory Kinnear, based on the novel by Lionel Shriver. If you've seen the film, you know it deals with an uncomfortable subject: how can two seemingly normal, caring parents raise a frickin' maniac? But from a screenwriting as well as moviemaking point of view, there are quite a few things worth discussing. Let's do, shall we? WARNING: SPOILERS!

In "Kevin," Tilda Swinton ("Chronicles of Narnia") plays Eva, a mom who cannot connect with her manipulative, sociopathic son, played brilliantly by three actors: Rocky Ruer (toddler,) Jasper Newell (age 6-8) and the mesmerizing Ezra Miller (teen.) We're witnessing the genesis of a killer, and we figure out early on that the film is heading towards a big Columbine-like event at the conclusion. Needless to say, the film felt horribly timely, coming on the heels of the school shootings in Connecticut (although the weapon of choice here is a bow and arrow.) Evil is as evil does, and despite ample nurturing and attention from parents Swinton and John C. Reilly ("Stepbrothers"), from a very early age, Kevin is right up there with Damien from "The Omen" -- a creepy, malevolent little shit you want to strangle.

One of the rules of screenwriting we're bludgeoned with is "show, don't tell." What this means is, since cinema is a visual medium, it's better to show us something that to tell it. For example, let's say your protagonist used to be a cop but was thrown off the force after a big scandal involving ten hookers, a senator and a llama. Now you could TELL the readers this in a clunky, expository bit of dialogue; or you could put a flashback scene at the very top SHOWING the scandal going down, which works a lot better in a movie. In "Kevin," the screenwriters sagely embraced the "show, don't tell" ethos. There's a lot of character backstory in the novel they had to get out, and they chose to depict it all visually, every bit of it, mostly using wordless flashback scenes (there is a lot of jumping around in the time continuum, which we'll discuss in a moment.) So we see young Tilda and John in love in New York, young Tilda the famous world traveler and travel writer being carried away in some crazy tomato festival, pregnant Tilda uncomfortable with impending motherhood in a Lamaze class, and so forth.

The problem is, it's a bit confusing. Oftentimes we have no idea what's going on, what we're looking at. The tomato festival, for example, starts the film. But we the audience don't know what it means. It feels like an abstract sequence, something from an art film. If we knew, for example, where she was and that she was covering this event for a travel book, then we'd go, "Oh, okay." In fact it isn't until two-thirds of the way through that we learn she used to be a travel writer. When this is finally spoken, everything finally makes sense -- the maps on the wall, her getting a job at a travel agency, and so forth. So here we have a case of a little too much show, don't tell. In "Kevin," we really, really need a dollop of "tell." Sometimes direct exposition is indeed just what the doctor ordered.

We learn in the DVD extras that the flashbacks to pregnant Eva and the scenes of her with baby Kevin were meant to illustrate -- again, with images only -- that Eva was a reluctant mother and didn't put her heart into it, perhaps because of her career. Well, this came completely out of the blue and in fact, didn't read on film at all. None of those scenes conveyed to us anything about Eva not being into being a mom. Just the opposite, in fact. We infer that Eva puts aside her career to raise her child, and patiently tries anything and everything to communicate, play with and bond with her son, who rejects all of it, even as a toddler. In other words, the filmmakers failed utterly at conveying this specific character trait through visual-only means. How about a nice husband/wife scene where they talk about how she doesn't want to have a baby, it's going to wreck her career, or that she can't handle this screaming hellion anymore and they need to hire a nanny? To be clear, I'm all for show, don't tell, and the filmmakers are to be lauded for attempting to capture the mindset of the characters from the novel visually. It just didn't quite work. In adapting a novel, sometimes you need to verbalize the thoughts and emotions which are in a character's head.

Tilda Swinton, ostensibly not feeling the whole pregnancy thing.
In order to pull off all this show, don't tell, the filmmakers utilized a rather unique structure. No Save the Cat! paradigm here. There is no inciting incident, no midpoint turning point, no black moment at the end of Act 2. Yet "Kevin" is never anything less than compelling, which certainly proves that alternative structures can work when well-handled (and well-acted.) The story ping-pongs back and forth between numerous time frames, beginning with desperate, lonely and bereft Eva's present-day semi-existence, and then flashing back to various stages of her life and Kevin's development to tell most of the movie. The three acts loosely roll out as: Kevin as a toddler, Kevin aged 6-8, and finally, Kevin as a truly insidious teen. But even within this context, there are frequent jumps to other periods, including back to the present, featuring a minor subplot about Eva's ostracization by society and making a go of it in a crappy new job. It's a tricky and difficult structure to pull off, and the writers deserve big kudos for making it work.

But one thing that doesn't quite work is that post-incident, Eva is a pariah. She is subject to a non-stop torrent of vitriol by an angry public, which includes her house and car being splattered with red paint, verbal abuse from coworkers and even a right cross from an old lady. This treatment would really only make sense if she was the killer. Sure, there are going to be plenty of people angry, and some might indeed blame the mom. But considering her husband and young daughter were also murdered in the attack, and that Eva has moved from the murder home and now lives in a dumpy shack near the railroad where it would be a stretch for people to find her, the hostility feels a bit forced. Surely many would be sympathetic. She, too, lost everything.

To be fair, there is a nice moment when one of the victims rolls up in his wheelchair and is friendly with her. The filmmakers are making a valid statement here about how we as a society react to tragedy, of course. But perhaps this too would have more resonance if they'd also successfully painted Eva as the checked-out or self-centered mom they seemed to think they were portraying, as opposed to the bend-over-backwards-to-fix-this-kid lady we see on screen. Late in the movie, Eva takes teen Kevin out to dinner in an attempt to bond with her son. He cuts her to the quick by anticipating how much she's going to drink and everything she's going to say. It's mother/son psychology folded, spindled and mutilated, and it's a breathtaking scene. But the point here was to illustrate that she's just been pretending to care for Kevin's entire life, and he knows it, so cut the shit. It doesn't really play, because we've seen her care. In fact, the one scene where she loses patience with 8-year-old Kevin and hurls him to the ground, breaking his arm, we're right there with her. You'll be ready to smash this kid's head in as well.

The point of this all is that, while this is a flawed movie, there is much to be learned from it. As writers, we often get pigeonholed into writing formulaic structure; Like "Memento" and "Pulp Fiction," "Kevin" blasts that to pieces and shows you can indeed tell a great story in a non-linear way. Add in spectacular performances, creeping tension and a theme that resonates with what's going on right now, and you have a movie that should be on every screenwriter's Netflix list. Check it out and then hit me back and let me know what you thought!


It's January. Know what that means? The return of spec season is almost upon us. Every year, once everyone gets back from Sundance, they start reading scripts. February through May is usually an intense period of spec activity. Buyers have usually refilled their coffers (new fiscal year) and are ready to pick up some scripts. So now is the time to get your polish on and get ready to rock. Check out my Agent's Hot Sheet article below which I think you'll find helpful -- "the New Paradigm." I wish you all the best of luck with your screenplays and an exciting new year fraught with opportunity!

Jim Cirile, founder
Coverage Ink/Writers on the Storm

Continue to Writers on the Storm Quarterfinalists (So Far)
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Writers on the Storm Quarterfinalists (So Far!)

Hi folks, here is the updated list of Writers on the Storm 2012/13 Quarterfinalists to date. If you're wondering how we can already have some quarterfinalists to announce, it's because these folks entered the contest by submitting to Coverage Ink. When you do that, you receive full coverage and complimentary contest entry; if your script garners a "consider with reservations" or better for script, you're a quarterfinalist, and your script moves to the next round where it is read again.

Everyone else who enters the contest via writerstorm.com or WithoutaBox has to wait until after the contest's final deadline (2/9, on WithoutaBox only) to find out whether they're a quarterfinalist. Does this give the folks who entered via Coverage Ink an advantage? Damn right, because those folks get to see what we think of their scripts in advance, fix any problems and then resubmit a polished draft back to the contest before the final end date. if you want to take advantage of this, the deadline to submit at coverageink.com is midnight 1/9/13. 

A round of applause for our amazing 12 quarterfinalists (TV and features) so far!

Theory of Everything by Tim McSmythurs
My Asshole Neighbor by Andrew Currie + Robert Chomiak
The Galaxy's Littlest Prince by Joe Borriello
On the Edge by Patrick Hunt
Wormweed by John + Jessica Walker
Russian Roulette by Karl Schiffman
Stay by Jocelyn Osier
Messiah Project by David Baugnon
Dead Dolores by Michael Yagnow
American Supervillains by Andrew Watt
Carn Evil by Jason Siner
An Atom of Freedom by Yehuda Yaakov

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Continue to Agent's Hot Sheet

Agent's Hot Sheet -- The New Paradigm

by Jim Cirile

All of us have certain expectations of the way the business works -- you write a spec, hopefully sell it for a lot of dough and launch your career. But there has been a paradigm shift, and you’d better know how Hollywood operates circa today if you plan on embarking on a writing career.

Got a mail last week from a friend of mine, a noted screenwriting teacher, in response to my column "The Speck Market", about the ever-shrinking spec marketplace:

“Jim, great column. But this causes a tough time teaching screenwriting. They all have dramas. And no one is buying dramas. No one is buying much of anything from new writers. Can't get an agent for them. Half of them are over 40 (or 50) -- it's too late for them, practically speaking, but what are you supposed to tell them?  They can't come in and write ‘Shrek V.’ They can't afford bestsellers to adapt or find a way to package stars into their new scripts. They don't have the rights to TV shows or past movies for remakes or sequels. They all come out naked. I feel as though we're teaching a theoretic, classical, dead art form.”

Yep, “Sad but True” isn’t just a Metallica song. The old paradigm is dead. Long live the new paradigm. What say we bring in the panel and get their take on the issues raised?

The first point: they all have dramas, and no one is buying dramas. Sadly, yes, the days of Hollywood making a fair amount of dramatic feature films are for all intents and purposes over. With a few notable exceptions, what would have probably been a dramatic film that got a theatrical release in the 1970s is now likely a Lifetime or Showtime film. “It also depends on who that client is,” says producer/manager Richard Arlook from the Arlook Group. “If it’s somebody established who’s got some real writing credits, then it’s not impossible to get them a job. But I would tell them (not to) write a spec drama unless they had an amazing relationship with some major actor/director; some kind of element going into it.” And if you don’t have any connex? “If you’re a baby writer obsessed with writing drama, then write a small one that could be done as a small under-$1 million movie that could maybe still get into Sundance or work on the festival circuit for you. But the old days of just being able to sell a well-written drama and then get open writing (assignment) work is, for the most part, over.”

And because of that, attracting feature reps is going to be that much harder. “The problem is, (launching a new dramatic feature writer is) just a lot of work,” says Magnet Management’s Jennie Frankel. “It’s going to be a labor of love. And when you’re looking at taking on a new client, you don’t want projects that are labors of love.” Why? Months and months of working a difficult project with a tiny chance of success versus a commercial one – which would you choose? She continues, “If (a writer has) this amazing drama and understands how the business works and there’s a really obvious piece of casting, then absolutely that would be someone you’d want to sign. But if they’re like, yeah, I’m a drama writer and that’s all I want to do -- (write) movies that aren’t going to get made anywhere -- then who really has the time?” There are plenty of things you can write that are just a simple sidestep away from drama -- for example, romantic drama, or drama with a certain genre element to it. You can have your cake and eat it, too, if you’re smart about it. “That’s the difference between the people who get it and don’t get it,” says Frankel. “I mean, if you look at ‘Twilight.’ ‘Twilight’ is really a drama, but it’s hung around vampires.” And don’t overlook the most obvious path of all for drama writers right now: TV.

The next point: no one is buying much of anything from new writers. Well, of course it's never easy out there in the spec market, especially during tough times, but the market has been responsive lately. But don't expect windfalls. Up until a few years ago, the way in for feature writers was clear -- write a great script, an agent or manager will sign you and blast your script out to the town, and then when the script sells, you’re off to the races. Even if it didn’t, you’d hopefully get a pile of general meetings, and if you’re cool and easy to work with, that could turn into writing assignments. While this still happens, there have been some changes. The first is that more often than not, the specs don’t sell -- they just become writing samples. You still get the meetings, but if you land a writing assignment off them, you’ll probably be hired for scale plus 10%, a far cry from what you’d have made if the spec had sold. And the second sea-change is agents and managers are seldom blasting scripts out to the town anymore. “I haven’t gone wide with a script since last July,” says ICM’s Ava Jamshidi. “I specifically target certain producers,” she says. “For the most part, I’m trying to find one producer for a project before showing it to buyers.” She’s pleased to note several recent sales were from baby writers... sort of. “A number of them are established writers in television, but they’ve never sold anything in features before. So they do have a body of work; it’s not the same thing as coming right out of film school. I’ve helped establish a fan base off of pilots and other things like that. We didn’t break the bank on (those deals,) but, you know, they’re big opportunities.”

The next point: the dread pirate Ageism. It’s true: Hollywood is a youth-oriented town. And we’ve all heard stories that after a certain age, you can’t get arrested in the biz. And yet many of the top working writers in film and TV are in their 40s and 50s. So does ageism even really exist? “It would be ridiculous for me to say that it doesn’t happen,” says manager A.B. Fischer from Shuman Co. “If they’re looking for the next up and coming writer, the 50 year old person is probably not that person. But with an incredible piece of writing, it doesn’t matter.” Jamshidi agrees, “Breaking in is challenging no matter who you are or what age you are. Ultimately, ageism will never exist when the talent is there. If somebody’s good, they’re good. It doesn’t matter how old you are.” Jamshidi adds, it’s less about age than it is about personality. “For me, the biggest thing is how they are in a room. If somebody’s awesome and dynamic and great in a room, then that’s almost as important as being a really good writer. Having a really good script gets you into the room, but if you can’t wow ‘em once you’re there, you’re never going to get the job.”

Arlook explains the real way ageism works: “Let’s say Writer ‘A’ graduates USC Film School at 21 years old. He writes a spec, and it sells; he gets a couple of assignments. By the time he’s 25, he’s a working writer. Everybody that he knows (are now) VPs at the studios or working for producers or producers themselves. He continues to work and tends to get hired by his contemporaries. So now it’s 20 years later. He’s in his mid 40s. Meanwhile, there are other guys in their mid 20s that went to film school being hired by their contemporaries. The reality of it is that once you get to be in your 40s in this business, you’re working on a really, really senior level. How many guys in their 40s are reading samples and stuff like that? You can call it ageism. To me, it’s like a circle of life.”

On a brighter note, Fischer asserts that TV in particular shows more promise for the above-30 set than features. “Showrunners are looking for writers to bring in a lot of life experience to a room with a lot of stories to tell. And a 24 year old that just graduated from the graduate program at USC doesn’t really have a lot of stories to tell.”

And the last point of the letter: writers can’t afford to option best-sellers to adapt. Nonsense. There are plenty of places to find source material. It needn’t be a current best-seller. “I’ve gotten rights to random books that we’ve sort of agreed, wow that’s a really interesting story,” says Fischer, “and we’ve gotten (them) for practically nothing because it’s old and no one’s really ever asked about them.” And don’t forget public domain, which means everything ever written up till about 100 years ago! “I would always advise updating a classic story,” says Fischer. “A live action version of ‘Cinderella’ just sold for seven figures this week. Shakespeare is another great example. There’s been a ton of projects set up based on updating Shakespeare plays.”

So fret not, intrepid readers. The paradigm may have changed, but Agent’s Hot Sheet will continue to be your beacon in the dark. Keep the faith!

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Writers on the Storm EXTENSION

Hi guys, the FINAL deadline to enter Writers on the Storm via http://writerstorm.com and www.coverageink.com is midnight 1/9/13. After that, the official contest website and Coverage Ink will be closed for entries. Screenplays submitted to CI for analysis from 1/10/13 forward will no longer be entered into the contest (but will, of course, receive our usual in-depth coverage.)

HOWEVER, due to the terms of our deal with Without a Box, we have a special 1-month final extension exclusive to WAB. This extension ends midnight 2/9/13. So you can still submit your new drafts for coverage and have time to polish 'em up and have one last chance resubmit to the contest.

It's been a real thrill bringing Writers on the Storm to everyone for year six. We've seen a couple solid scripts so far, but perhaps the winner still has not yet arrived on our doorstep (that's your cue.) Get cranking, folks, and make us proud :)

-- Jim C.

Click HERE to go to Without a Box!