Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Things I learned while co-writing Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul | Peter D. Marshall

1) Myth and secrecy are rampant in the film industry. No wonder no one knows the true state of the industry or what to base their decisions off of! Filmmakers won't talk (or their investors won't let them) about how much is spent making their films because they are trying to get a sales agent or distributor interested in buying it and paying as much upfront as possible, but how can anyone possibly know what is achievable and what is fantasy?

Secrecy in the industry is probably not really a revelation to you, but by holding back information in the hope of sales that mostly aren't materializing, it keeps anyone from really knowing what budget level films should be made at if recoupment is part of the plan. Solid decisions, both by filmmakers and by investors, can't really be made if no one knows the truth, both about the budgets and about the profit.

2) A realistic budget level for indie films. In order for an indie film using a hybrid or DIY strategy to see recoupment and possibly more, the production AND marketing and distribution budget must stay low. Based on our case studies, that number is below $200,000. Films that went over this budget level were far less likely to recoup within the first 2 years of release, none of the cases over this amount in the book have recouped in full yet.

3) Marketing and distribution are the production's responsibility and must be part of the budget. Many of our cases did not plan or budget for taking on this expense from inception and were caught in that familiar scene of thinking a distributor would be found and scrambling to make a plan and raise more money to implement it when low offers or no offers materialized. Over and over again our participants noted they could see now why it was important to think about this work, they remarked on how big of a job this is and that they would need to get some help on board much earlier in the process, and why a clearly defined audience was important to maximizing their efforts at reaching them.

4) Financial gain is not always the main goal. This was particularly true for the subjects of my chapter who are using file sharing sites to distribute work. Most of them were first time filmmakers and mainly they are interested in reaching the widest audience possible for the least cost and building names for themselves that could be used to get attention from the industry. Publicity and word of mouth play a huge part in this. Most of the time when filmmakers say they want to reach the "widest audience possible" what they mean is they want to make the most money possible.

Those 2 things do not always go hand in hand and it is especially so for complete unknowns. For filmmakers who have very little financial resources to reach wide audiences, it is better to spend as little budget as possible to make the content and spend a lot of time engaging with audiences and figuring out how to cost effectively distribute the work.

5) The importance of research before you sign with anyone. With the internet as pervasive as it is, there is no reason not to do your due diligence before you sign a contract, including research on sales agents and distributors. Don't just rely on a company website to inform you of their reputations or a few media write ups of some well known films they handled. Really take the time to contact a cross section of their client accounts and see if you are getting the clear picture.

You should also know what all the terms of your contract mean and don't be rushed to sign because your big premiere is happening. If you have someone on board who is solely responsible for the marketing and distribution of your film, have them get samples of contracts and really understand what you will be agreeing to, what you can negotiate, how you can terminate if the agreement isn't being followed and how to protect yourself should the company go bankrupt.

Transmedia & the Future of Filmmaking | NYPress - Zachary Wigon

Forget 3-D —interactive media is the next wave of entertainment.

There are a lot of theories as to why the movie business isn't what it used to be. The financial crisis of 2008 significantly lessened private equity's desire to sink investments into films, independent and otherwise. A number of great indie and semi-indie distributors (Warner Independent, Picturehouse, THINKFilm) have gone out of business in recent years, leaving the ratio of independent films made to those bought at an all-time low. And most of the lucky films that do land a distribution deal get one- or two-week runs in a handful of cities scattered across the country and then go to die on VOD, as most independent distributors lack the finances to allot them even the most basic P&A budgets. Yet the problem, as evinced by across-the-board domestic box office ticket sales figures, has a far simpler answer: People simply aren't going to the movies as much as they used to.

Cinema was the dominant art form of the 20th century but, much as theater and classical music before fell out of favor with younger generations, so, too, is film beginning to go through a cultural outmoding. Thanks to Web 2.0, the Internet has shifted from utility status to something more akin to an entertainment form itself, and art forms don't get outmoded without reason—they get outmoded because they're replaced. Of course, the Internet isn't fully developed as an entertainment source yet; surfing Facebook is fun, but it's not the kind of experience that sitting back and watching a movie is. And while one can watch movies online with ease, one gets the feeling that it will take an art form endemic to the net's properties to change the way we consume entertainment.

Enter the "transmedia" movement. A cinema/digital media hybrid anchored in filmmaking, this new brand of storytelling is defined by works that combine the typical moviegoing experience with more interactive elements, enabled by new media tools. There's no standard formula for making a transmedia work—the field is too young to have ossified in form yet—so the new medium is being produced in varying iterations.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Writing and decision fatigue | John August

This past weekend consisted of three long days of meetings and work sessions for the Big Fish musical; Sunday went fourteen hours. I had a hunch that late in the day wasn't the best time to introduce a new song, and now science has my back:

No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can't make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It's different from ordinary physical fatigue — you're not consciously aware of being tired — but you're low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice. Ducking a decision often creates bigger problems in the long run, but for the moment, it eases the mental strain.

Writing involves a dozen choices every sentence, a thousand every scene.

Discussing material with producers and a director means understanding and deciding between myriad possible options — and the more people in the conversation, the more choices to consider.

And casting? Exhausting. It feels like it should be one of the easiest parts of production — you're not doing anything, just sitting there and listening — but it wears you out. I've been through casting on five projects, and each time I'm amazed how tough it is. You're trying to compare the actor you just saw versus the actor you saw yesterday versus the actor who won't audition.

The article explains that sugar (glucose) is one of the quickest ways to restock your willpower supply. That's why writers get fat.

Writing and decision fatigue | John August

People don’t want invulnerable heroes - Brad Bird - LA Times


I would not say that we ever have  have completely locked scripts [at the beginning of the animating work]; they are in the process of being remade as the film is in the works. There are some films like "Toy Story 2″ and "Ratatouille"  where it is really last minute, chaos reigning, trying to get the stuff ready for the animators so no one was sitting idle and drawing a paycheck.

There's no secret at Pixar, but there is a belief in letting people pursue something with passion and take chances, and most of Hollywood, really, doesn't like that. It's too scary. Some studio executives will say they love obsessive creators who take risks, but really most of them would rather play it safe.

To make something really great and different and interesting means taking risks and following these ideas in your head.

If you worry too much about that, you're just bound to fail. You have to kind of go into stories with a strong sort of "I'm doing this" sort of attitude, or else it comes off as sort of tiptoeing.

Part of the reason "Die Hard" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and things like that work so well is that the actors really get that people don't want invulnerable heroes. It's far more interesting to see heroes who are afraid and then go ahead anyway.

One of things that people get wrong is they toss off too many witty comments — and this isreally true in animation — and we tried to avoid that like the plague in "The Incredibles." When you're in danger, be in danger, don't be making wisecracks and tossing things off. You don't need to be sweating and crying but at least show that you're worried. 

The trouble we have in animation is that the medium itself encourages the audience to believe that people can't be hurt.

The challenge was showing people that do amazing things but still have feeling.

You know, in the prologue of the film, there's a moment when Mr. Incredible positions himself in front of a hurtling train and, for a fleeting second, he winces. "It's quick, maybe a second long, but it's a shot to tell everyone that 'This is going to hurt.' Those little touches, if you are diligent about them, they get the audience really involved, because that's the reality that they know. This is blown often with superheroes.

Reader Question: How and when is it okay to use voiceover narration? | Scott Myers (GITS)

Narration is generally considered a no-no in screenwriting, but some films have made magnificent use of it (A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, for one). Do you have any tips as to when and how to use narration?
There does seem to be a conventional wisdom in Hwood against narration. My guess is execs and producers think it can represent sloppy writing per the axiom, "Show it, don't say it." 

However consider this list of movies: 

A Clockwork Orange 

Forrest Gump 

The Shawshank Redemption 

Fight Club 

Apocalypse Now 

Sunset Blvd. 

Double Indemnity 


American Beauty 

Stand By Me 


The Big Lebowski 

To Kill A Mockingbird 



A Christmas Story 

Each of these movies uses voiceover narration and that's just a list off the top of my head. 

So what can we glean from this list? 

1. When the narrator ties together a story that takes place over a long span of time. Movies that make several time-jumps and cover several years -- like Forrest Gump and The Shawshank Redemption -- can benefit from a narrator V.O. Hell, they probably wouldn't work if they didn't use narration. 

2. When the narrator provides a distinctive personality (read: entertainment value), ala The Big Lebowski and A Christmas Story. The narrators in these two movies offer some of the most entertaining moments along the way. 

3. When the narrator can help to establish a mystery upfront like American Beauty and Sunset Blvd. In both cases, the narrator foretells in the movies' opening scenes the Protagonist's impending death. 

Other than that, when I look at that list, I see movies where the narrator offers deep insight into the Protagonist's inner world, revelations that might not be made as well through action and dialogue -- Platoon, Fight Club, A Clockwork Orange, Trainspotting, Apocalypse Now, Lolita -- each a journey into dark psychological places, where the narration is both revelatory in content and evocative in tone. 

As it is, even without voiceover narration, scripts have a Narrative Voice, evidenced in the language of scene description, the nature of scene transitions, the pacing of scenes, and so on. For more on that, you can go here for an article I wrote for Screentalk magazine. 

I guess the question boils down to whether your story benefits from taking that Narrative Voice, which is invisible in most scripts, and giving 'life' to it in the form of V.O.. Given Hwood's apparent disaffection for this narrative device, you'd have to have a genuinely compelling reason, like those listed above, for using narration. 

What does everybody else think? And what other notable movies use narration? 

UPDATE: Here is a comment from one of my students in the most recent online screenwriting course I took, her recollections of what Robert McKee had to say about using narration:
Can you strip out every bit of VO and still understand the story? Is the script moving without the VO? Coherent? Is the plot the same? If the answer is yes to all of these, then you can keep the VO. That means you aren't relying on VO to tell/clarify/explain the story, but are using the VO (if well-written) to add new depth, perhaps even contrast, to the story. You are using VO as an effect element of characterization and world-creation, not as a crutch to keep a lame plot hobbling along.
Perhaps that's the easiest way to decide: By using voiceover narration, are you adding something of value to the story, not just relying on it to facilitate a "lame plot?"

[Originally posted October 26, 2009]

Reader Question: How and when is it okay to use voiceover narration? | Scott Myers (GITS)

What's it like to have your film flop at the box office? | Sean Hood

Don't they know how bad it is before it comes out?

When you work "above the line" on a movie (writer, director, actor, producer, etc.) watching it flop at the box office is devastating. I had such an experience during the opening weekend of Conan the Barbarian 3D.

A movie's opening day is analogous to a political election night. Although I've never worked in politics, I remember having similar feelings of disappointment and disillusionment when my candidate lost a presidential bid, so I imagine that working as a speechwriter or a fundraiser for the losing campaign would feel about the same as working on an unsuccessful film.

One joins a movie production, the same way one might join a campaign, years before the actual release/election, and in the beginning one is filled with hope, enthusiasm and belief. I joined the Conan team, having loved the character in comic books and the stories of Robert E. Howard, filled with the same kind of raw energy and drive that one needs in politics. 

Any film production, like a long grueling campaign over months and years, is filled with crisis, compromise, exhaustion, conflict, elation, and blind faith that if one just works harder, the results will turn out all right in the end. During that process whatever anger, frustration, or disagreement you have with the candidate/film you keep to yourself. Privately you may oppose various decisions, strategies, or compromises; you may learn things about the candidate that cloud your resolve and shake your confidence, but you soldier on, committed to the end. You rationalize it along the way by imagining that the struggle will be worth it when the candidate wins.

A few months before release, "tracking numbers" play the role in movies that polls play in politics. It's easy to get caught up in this excitement, like a college volunteer handing out fliers for Howard Dean. (Months before Conan was released many close to the production believed it would open like last year's The Expendables.) As the release date approaches and the the tracking numbers start to fall, you start adjusting expectations, but always with a kind of desperate optimism. "I don't believe the polls," say the smiling candidates.

You hope that advertising and word of mouth will improve the numbers, and even as the numbers get tighter and the omens get darker, you keep telling yourself that things will turn around, that your guy will surprise the experts and pollsters. You stay optimistic. You begin selectively ignoring bad news and highlighting the good. You make the best of it. You believe.

In the days before the release, you get all sorts of enthusiastic congratulations from friends and family. Everyone seems to believe it will go well, and everyone has something positive to say, so you allow yourself to get swept up in it. 

You tell yourself to just enjoy the process. That whether you succeed or fail, win or lose, it will be fine. You pretend to be Zen. You adopt detachment, and ironic humor, while secretly praying for a miracle.

The Friday night of the release is like the Tuesday night of an election. "Exit polls"are taken of people leaving the theater, and estimated box office numbers start leaking out in the afternoon, like early ballot returns. You are glued to your computer, clicking wildly over websites, chatting nonstop with peers, and calling anyone and everyone to find out what they've heard. Have any numbers come back yet? That's when your stomach starts to drop.

By about 9 PM its clear when your "candidate" has lost by a startlingly wide margin, more than you or even the most pessimistic political observers could have predicted. With a movie its much the same: trade magazines like Variety and Hollywood Reporter call the weekend winners and losers based on projections. That's when the reality of the loss sinks in, and you don't sleep the rest of the night.

For the next couple of days, you walk in a daze, and your friends and family offer kind words, but mostly avoid the subject. Since you had planned (ardently believed, despite it all) that success would propel you to new appointments and opportunities, you find yourself at a loss about what to do next. It can all seem very grim.

You make light of it, of course. You joke and shrug. But the blow to your ego and reputation can't be brushed off. Reviewers, even when they were positive, mocked Conan The Barbarian for its lack of story, lack of characterization, and lack of wit. This doesn't speak well of the screenwriting - and any filmmaker who tells you s/he "doesn't read reviews" just doesn't want to admit how much they sting.

Unfortunately, the work I do as a script doctor is hard to defend if the movie flops. I know that those who have read my Conan shooting script agree that much of the work I did on story and character never made it to screen. I myself know that given the difficulties of rewriting a script in the middle of production, I did work that I can be proud of. But its still much like doing great work on a losing campaign. All anyone in the general public knows, all anyone in the industry remembers, is the flop. A loss is a loss.

But one thought this morning has lightened my mood:

My father is a retired trumpet player. I remember, when I was a boy, watching him spend months preparing for an audition with a famous philharmonic. Trumpet positions in major orchestras only become available once every few years. Hundreds of world class players will fly in to try out for these positions from all over the world. I remember my dad coming home from this competition, one that he desperately wanted to win, one that he desperately needed to win because work was so hard to come by. Out of hundreds of candidates and days of auditions and callbacks, my father came in....second.

It was devastating for him. He looked completely numb. To come that close and lose tore out his heart. But the next morning, at 6:00 AM, the same way he had done every morning since the age of 12, he did his mouthpiece drills. He did his warm ups. He practiced his usual routines, the same ones he tells his students they need to play every single day. He didn't take the morning off. He just went on. He was and is a trumpet player and that's what trumpet players do, come success or failure.

Less than a year later, he went on to win a position with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he played for three decades. Good thing he kept practicing.

So with my father's example in mind, here I sit, coffee cup steaming in its mug and dog asleep at my feet, starting my work for the day, revising yet another script, working out yet another pitch, thinking of the future (the next project, the next election) because I'm a screenwriter, and that's just what screenwriters do.

In the words of Ed Wood, "My next one will be BETTER!"

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Spirit Of The Spec: You Put It Out There | Scott Myers

I had a conversation recently with a former studio executive turned producer in which I found myself talking about the "spirit of the spec," essentially when a person chooses to pursue a project or goal entirely on speculation with the hopes of some eventual payoff. Not everybody would make that choice. To many, with the odds so long against success, doing something on spec is not only illogical, it's also seemingly inane.

And yet almost all screenwriters, TV writers, novelists, short story writers, playwrights, and poets have as some part of their creative self the spirit of the spec.

After my conversation with the producer, it occurred to me this is a subject we should discuss here at GITS because it speaks to the very core of why we're here and what we're about as people driven by creative impulses. So today through Friday, I will post something each day exploring what it means for a writer to have the spirit of the spec.

You Put It Out There. 

One might think typing FADE IN, thereby signifying your commitment to writing an original screenplay, is the single act requiring the most courage in the process. But time and time again, I hear from writers who have a problem on the other end of the spectrum: Actually doing something with the script when it's done.

Some have confessed to me they are petrified to submit a script to an agent or manager.

Others have said they can't even bring themselves to give their script to a professional reader for coverage.

And there are some writers who have one or more scripts -- I'm talking completed drafts -- which they have never letanyone read, not even friends or family, let alone somebody in the entertainment industry.

I get it. I think we all get it. As I suggested in yesterday's post, writing a story is a scary endeavor. And yet the fact is the entire time you work on it -- coming up with an idea, acting on that idea, the actual page-writing part of the process -- your story only exists in theory. That is until you send your script out into the world. Only then does your story become in any meaningful sense of the word 'real.'

No matter what fears you have to overcome to write a story, they don't compare substantively with the type and degree of fear that can arise when you actually hand over your script to someone else to read.

At that point, your story becomes their story, no longer the private experience of you and your characters, but rather your characters and the world.

Talk about courage! Sure, typing FADE IN is a significant moment. But there the stakes are limited. If you don't write a good story or don't finish, you have disappointed nobody but yourself. However if you present your story to other people, you are taking a leap of faith they will respond favorably. And if they don't? It's no longer just you and those hectoring voices of negativity in your head to deal with. Now you actually have to take into account the feelings, thoughts, impressions and -- get ready for it -- criticisms of other people.

And yet if this is a fundamental truth -- "You can not sell it if you don't write it" -- here is another reality etched in stone: "You can not sell it unless you submit it."

A buyer is not going to magically read your mind, buy an airplane ticket to your home town, sneak into your house, locate the drawer in which you keep your precious script, read it, then wake you up with a check for a million dollars.

No, you need to put your script out there. Indeed this is where you would do well to embrace the spirit of the spec. And the spirit of the spec provides writers with two incredibly powerful words to help them circumnavigate all their fears, thus enabling them to submit their manuscripts to people who matter.

Those two words: Screw you! 

If you are afraid to let your spouse read your script, repeat after me: Screw you! 

If you are afraid to let other writers read your script, repeat after me: Screw you!

If you are afraid to let a professional script reader provide coverage of your script, repeat after me: Screw you! 

If you are afraid to send out email inquiries to managers about your script, repeat after me: Screw you! 

Who is the "you" you are telling to screw? Why fear, of course. If you have any realistic chance of succeeding as a writer, you have to squash your punk-ass fears, give them a big time beat down.

You telling me I don't have any talent? Screw you!
You telling me people will hate my story? Screw you!
You telling me not to believe in myself? Screw you!

Screw you! Screw you! Screw you!

Here's another fact to add to your list: 

You can't sell a script unless you write it. 
You can't sell a script unless you submit it.
You can't sell a script unless you defeat fear.

Now you may consider that to be Coach Myers talking. If you need a confrontational therapy to get you over the hump to put your script out there, go to town. Empowered with those two key words -- Screw you! -- you should be on your way.

There is another dimension to the spirit of the spec. This message comes from Pastor Myers. For those who are more spiritually inclined. 

Do you recall this reference from another spirit of the spec post here:
If there is a path, that presupposes there is an end to the path. So instead of a battle over your story where some random barbarian can spring up out of nowhere and split open your meager confidence with a pole axe, if you are on a journey of discovery, it's all a matter of taking the time, asking the questions, and walking the steps necessary to get you to that end point, where you do find your story.
I want you to consider this idea: Your story's path does not end when you type FADE OUT. Rather that is simply anew beginning. The path goes on. The journey goes on.

It goes on as your story gets read by others.
It goes on as your story gets bought.
It goes on as your story gets developed.
It goes on as your story gets a green light.
It goes on as your story gets produced.
It goes on as your story gets edited.
It goes on as your story gets released into theaters.

Your script, while a key component of your story, is but one step in a longer journey. I suppose you can look at the day your movie goes wide into theaters as the end of the path. But that's not even true. I get emails every week from people who have seen K-9, Alaska, or Trojan War. It's one of the most endearing and enduring aspects of our movies that they continue to live as long as people will watch them.

Which is to say you, as the writer, are but a player in that larger journey. Your story already exists, its path is already laid out. Whether it sells or not, gets produced or not, while we may work as fiercely as we can -- and should -- to make it happen, in a very real way, our story's fate has already been determined.

So in actuality, you really have nothing to fear. The destiny of your story will play out the way it will play out. Thus when your obnoxious voices of fear would do their best to restrain you from putting your story out there, here are some other words you can use to quiet them:

Let it go.

I am afraid...
Let it go.
I am scared...
Let it go.
I'm not ready...
Let it go.

Afraid or not, your story's fate is determined. You can not control its destiny, only the story can.

So how to put it out there? Let it go.

Okay, two possible courses of action in confronting fear, one from Coach Myers, the other Pastor Myers. I know for many of you, this is not an issue. You knock off your scripts, you get them out there. That's being filled with the spirit of the spec. Because there is a baseline of belief undergirding what we do: If you put it out there, somethingcan happen.

But only if you put it out there.

Should all readers recognize the same script as strong writing? | The Bitter Script Reader

Matt asks: 

A screenplay I submitted to Nicholl made semi-finals two years ago. I re-wrote the heck out of it, again, and again, and again, figuring out of ten sps this was the first to get any attention, so I might be onto something. 

Submitted it again this year, and it went out the first round. 

I realize there were over 6000 entries, what one reader likes, another hates, etc... Question is: If a script is really "that good" should it be recognized as such by most trained readers? Was it most likely a fluke it even made semis before (like maybe the subject matter hit the right reader on the right day cuz of something in his/her personal life etc)??

I could probably offer some long-winded thesis about criticism, personal tastes, and how the varying quality of submissions between the two years can contribute to these different results.... but I won't. This is the sort of answer that's bound to drive some aspiring writers nuts because they DEMAND automaton-like consistency from readers. 

Here's the thing - that's not possible. Sure, you'll probably find general agreement about the very best screenplays and the very worst screenplays, but there's a whole middle section of that curve that's neither enough fish nor foul to get the exact same reactions from a plurality of readers. 

The very best writing - the strongest writing that's eventually going to send those writers onto their career - will probably garner similar reviews from readers. Is it likely that all the scripts at the semi-finals are at that top level? Personally, I wouldn't stake my rep on it. 

I'm not saying you're not a good writer, or that your work doesn't show potential. It might just be that you're still in the middle of the pack. You show promise, but you're not quite ready for "the show." Yet. 

You also have to look at the fact you didn't submit the exact same script both years. You rewrote it, which could account for the difference in reactions. Maybe there was something in that more raw version that the readers were responding too. Perhaps the rewrite took some passion, some edge or some urgency out of the script. I've seen it happen before. 

But look at this - you got to the semi-finals. You hit near the target. If you were an archer, you'd keep drilling, keep firing arrows until you hit dead center more consistently. Put the reader out of your head. Yes, sometimes you might get a crap reader. Sometimes you might get a good reader on a bad day. But none of that really matters. 


Because there's nothing you can do about it. You accomplish nothing by worrying about this. Reasonable, intelligent people will sometimes come to very different and still valid conclusions about the scripts they read. I took a quick look at the comments at Scriptshadow and saw plenty of evidence of this. You see evidence of this in movie reviews. Heck, I'm willing to bet that there are movies that you love that your friends can't stand. 

I've got a friend who will argue that Armageddon is legitimately one of the best movies ever made. Yet he and I agree on many other films. Corner him at a party and bring up (500) Days of Summer and you will see him physically react with disgust and contempt for that film. (So he's not ALL wrong in his cinema critiques.) Me, I'm stunned so many of my film classmates had near-religious experiences during Magnolia. I hated that film so much that it's pretty much put me off of Paul Thomas Anderson's work for life. 

Seriously. You will have to drug me and throw me in a straight jacket to get me in that theatre. I don't care if the film gets 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Blame everyone who put their hand to their heart in Oscar season 2000 and said, "SUCH a brilliant movie. Magnolia was incredible." 

Liars. Every last one of them. 


Keep writing. Keep working. And when you're really good, you won't have to worry about getting the "right" reader. Even bad readers recognize a home run. 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Book Review: Writing Movies for Fun and Profit | ScriptShadow

"Writing Movies for Fun and Profit" is one of the more interesting books to come along in the screenwriting community in a while. Its authors, the writers of such movies as Night at the Museum and Herbie Fully Loaded, seem to take the opposite approach when it comes to writing than mainstays such as Robert McKee and Blake Snyder. Gone are long chapters on how to develop your characters. Absent is any in-depth look at structure. In their place is a single core piece of advice: Write big fun family "four quadrant" movies and rake in the dollars.

Despite the actual screenwriting advice being some of the worst I've ever encountered, the backstage insider look into the business side of screenwriting is nothing short of amazing. Basically, the book tells you what happens after you break into the club. It's funny, it's sad, it's interesting, but if you ever wondered what it's really like to be a working screenwriter or you want to prepare yourself for when you finally make that big jump, this is definitely a book for you.

Before I get into some of the more interesting aspects of the book, I'd like to warn you about its biggest weakness - its unequivocally terrible advice when it comes to writing a screenplay. You see, these guys believe it's as easy as slapping together a bunch of funny scenes and making a $1 million sale. Let me tell you why they think this and why they're wrong. As the authors point out in their book, on most big projects there are a lot of writers. Oftentimes, new writers are brought in to beef up the weak portions of the screenplay. So if the dialogue is bad, the producers will bring in writers who are good with dialogue. Once they're finished, the producers may realize that the structure is sloppy. So they'll fire the dialogue guys and bring in some structure guys. What our authors seem to understand but not acknowledge is that they're the "comedy" guys. They're the writers you bring in when you want jokes. But the between the lines message here – and I'm not even sure our authors are aware of it – is that when the producers want people who actually know how to write a screenplay, who understand the guts, the depth, how to add heart, and all those things that actually make a story resonate with people, they bring in writers who actually know how to write. So while our authors implying that none of that "deep" stuff really matters may be true for their own specific experiences, it has nothing to do with Joe Nobody's approach to a screenplay. Joe Nobody still has to display an intrinsic understanding of the craft to impress a reader. It would be nice if all you had to do was tell a couple of jokes to make a million bucks. But that's simply not the case. 

The good news is, none of that stuff is the focus of the book. The main focus here is the business end. And I have to give it to these guys. They taught me a hell of a lot about how things work once you're a highly paid screenwriter. Here are some of the highlights.

My favorite chapter (and probably the most terrifying chapter you'll ever read if you're a screenwriter) is the one that deals with the authors' experience writing Herbie: Fully Loaded. Now if you ask me, I'm not jumping up and down begging somebody to let me write another Herbie movie. But hey, everybody's got their thing. So these guys pitched Herbie to the studio president and she loved it. She thought it was the greatest idea ever and quickly made Herbie the most important movie on the studio's slate. She then set them up with a producer who basically had zero interest in making a Herbie movie and therefore tried to make a version of what she believed a Herbie movie for people who don't like Herbie would be like. She then proceeded to make the writers change every single aspect of their story, even though those were all the things the studio fell in love with. And they couldn't do anything about it. When you're the writers, you can't just call the studio president and say, "Hey, this producer is making us change all the things you love." There is a hierarchy. You're not allowed to go over anybody's head. So all they could do was stand on the deck and watch the Titanic sink. 

This is what I don't get about Hollywood. It would seem to me that one of the more important decisions you would make as a president would be to match up a project with a producer who understands and cares about that project. It sounds like a producer was just randomly assigned to these guys. I don't see how good movies could consistently be made under that process (note to readers: the authors assure us rather proudly that that producer is no longer working in the business). But what should really tickle your noodle is that these guys also wrote Taxi – a movie in which the development process went as smoothly as newly churned butter. Now comparing Herbie to Taxi is kind of like comparing Jersey Shore to Basketball Wives. But in a close race I would still say that Herbie comes out on top. Which begs the question: How much does development really matter?

One of the big changes in your life after your first sale is that you'll now become a human pitch machine, pitching your own projects or pitching yourself as the best option for someone else's projects. This is an element of the business that very few people talk about outside of working screenwriters. And these guys do a pretty good job of preparing you for it. Probably the most important advice they give you is that whatever movie you're pitching should have a main character a movie star will want to play. Because no matter how much movie blogs and Hollywood insiders are trying to convince us that stars no longer matter, the easiest way to get financing and confidence behind a project is to have a movie star attached. They also point out that your idea should be different but shouldn't reinvent the wheel. It should sound like a cross between two really successful films (they use the example "Die Hard" meets "Home Alone" but I'm pretty sure they were joking – although it's hard to tell – these are the guys who wrote Taxi remember). The rest of their advice about pitching is rather practical – be excited about your movie, don't be afraid to act out some of the parts, and keep it short (a typical pitch is 15 min. long). But the point is, this is the part of Hollywood that most screenwriters have no clue about until they're thrown into the fire. It sure is nice to get a look at the logs before the match is lit.

One of the more amusing chapters I ran into was in regards to page count and page formatting. For everybody who thinks that the length of their screenplay doesn't matter, wait till you start writing for a big studio. The studios are so obsessed with page length that they actually have their own specific formatting requirements. They give you specific indents and formatting rules you must enter into your screenwriting software when you write drafts for them. If you turn a script in that doesn't follow that formatting data, they will chop off your fingers. The reason for this is, obviously, every page is roughly equal to a certain amount of screen time, usually 1 min. And each of the studios have perfected a formatting template that allows them to best measure the length of a movie based on the length of the screenplay. So for those of you freaking out about page length now, wait until you have to start formatting a studio script. That's when shit gets real.

One of the most enlightening chapters in the book is the chapter about getting paid. I can't tell you how many writers have asked me how much they should expect to make selling their first screenplay, and then, if the screenplay gets made, how much they should expect to make on the back end. These are the details I've always wanted answers to and the book goes into as much minutia as I've ever seen on the matter. So how much is the minimum one can make from selling a screenplay? The short answer is, the Writers Guild requires a writer be paid at least $110,000 for an original screenplay. However, you aren't in the Writers Guild. And that means somebody could pay you 200 bucks. Where things get interesting though is on the backend. This is where the writing business gets messy. The reason that those writing credits are so coveted – even on total pieces of shit like Paul Blart 3 – is because as long as you have an official credit on the film, you'll be getting paid for the rest of your life. All those writers who worked on the script but didn't get credit? They don't get diddly squat outside of their rewrite fee.

The fight for that coveted credit has created one of the most highly controversial arbitration processes in any union. Without getting into too much detail, in order to determine who gets the credit on a screenplay, a bunch of your fellow writers read all the drafts from all the people who worked on the project, and decide who to give the credit to. Each writer is also allowed to give a written argument as to why they believe they should get the credit. Oftentimes, credit is given to the writer with the most persuasive argument. So Writer A may have done a lot more work on the screenplay than Writer B, but Writer B came up with a much better argument, so he wins. This has become such an intense process, that there are actually arbiters out there that you can hire for thousands of dollars who'll write your argument for you to give you the best chance at getting written credit on the film.

This has also led to some really shady practices in the screenwriting community, some of which actually encourage writers to sabotage a good script. If you're hired to rewrite another writer, and you want to make as much money as possible, it's in your best interest to rewrite as much of the story as possible, regardless of if that new story is better than the current story. If you know that the movie you're working on is already getting made, then it's practically demanded of you to change as much as possible so you can get final credit on the film. This is at least part of the reason why there are a lot of bad movies out there. The system is rigged to encourage writers to change what's working. There are actually standard tricks of the trade – like changing all of the characters names – to help it look like you've written the majority of the story. Arbitration is one of, if not the, most heated topic amongst professional screenwriters. I can't say I know how to fix it but from the way these guys lay it out, it's clear that the process is broken. Maybe some savvy Scriptshadow readers have some ideas on how to fix it and can share their ideas in the comments section.

What I've highlighted above is just scratching the surface. There are a ton of other topics that the book covers (including how to take notes from Martin Lawrence – well kinda). Despite some of the worst pure screenwriting advice I've ever read (please, don't listen to anything these guys say when it comes to the actual writing), I have to admit that I've never seen this kind of insight into the professional plight of a working screenwriter. Not all of us are going to hang on long enough to become screenwriting superstars, but for those of you who are in this for the long haul and expect to be looking at real estate in the Hollywood Hills at some point in your life, you'll definitely want to read this book. For those who have already bought it, feel free to offer your opinions in the comments section.

Book Review: Writing Movies for Fun and Profit | ScriptShadow

Spirit Of The Spec: You Write Your Story Scott Myers

Probably most people imagine that when a writer writes a story, they are seated at their desk, plunking away at their keyboard, hour after hour until they finish their opus.

Yes, there is a good deal of 'butt on chair' time involved in writing. But when you are moved by the spirit of the spec, committing yourself wholly to your story, the fact is you are never not writing.

You are writing your story when you drive.
You are writing your story when you eat.
You are writing your story when you shower.
You are writing your story when you fold the laundry.
You are writing your story when you exercise.
You are writing your story when you sleep.
You are writing your story when you are engaged in conversation with others. 

This last point can be a particularly vexing condition for your friends, family and loved ones. They know they only have a certain percentage of your attention. That at any minute, you will be there, then not there. Your body present, your mind off with your characters somewhere.

But it's not just somewhere, is it? No, when we write our story, we create a universe in which that story exists. The characters live and breathe. We may sit and write about them for a few hours at a time, but they go on with their existence, every minute of their every day.

And frankly that's one of the most damnable aspects of the writing process: Knowing just what to pluck out of that universe to put into our story. To my knowledge, there is only one way to determine that, summed up wonderfully by my then three year-old son when asked his advice about writing: "Go into the story, and find the animals."

We come up with an idea and test to see if it has merit.

We act on our idea by getting curious and following the path on our journey of discovery.

Then we write our story by going into it [immersing ourselves in that place and with those characters] and finding the animals [everything of substance that prowls there -- moments, scenes, dialogue, images, feelings, and so on].

The animal allusion is particularly apt because stories are organic in nature and frankly rather wild, teeming with life which is both great in terms of the vitality that exists there, but also dangerous because there are times when we lose our way... as if in a jungle.

A thick, dark jungle with lots of creepy shadows, a multitude of trailheads -- which ones to take?!?! -- and a constant chorus of whispered voices: Go back! Who are you kidding? This story sucks! You suck! Why are you wasting your time? You'll never make it to the end! You'll be humiliated if you continue! Epic fail dead ahead! 

On the whole, writing is not only a daunting task, it is also a frightening one.

But when you have the spirit of the spec, you have a card you can play to trump your fears, a simple and pragmatic one: "If you don't write it, you can't sell it."

There is no way around that. It's an inescapable fact. Truth with a capital "T".

Thus when we struggle with our story, even to the point of feeling fear about writing it, the spirit of the spec reminds us we haven't done squat until we have that finished manuscript in hand. Everything we do is just words vanishing into thin air, an exercise in vainglory... until we type FADE OUT / THE END.

But then a moment of true existential bliss: Printing out that final draft. Feeling the heft of those pages in our hands, their warmth as they slide out of the printer, one by one. We touch them. We hug them. We smell them.

This... THIS... is what it's all about. We have gone into the story, immersed ourselves in that universe and with those characters, given ourselves over to an all-consuming creative process in order to craft something tangible, something real. Creativity incarnate. Our story.  Come to life.

And now having written our story, we are ready for the next step on our journey.