Saturday, October 29, 2011

Similar But Different (Five Parts) | Scott Myers

'Similar But Different' (Part 1: Remakes)

Perhaps you are sick of me talking about how Hollywood approaches moves and TV with the business ethos of 'similar but different,' a subject I have explored here, here, here, and here among many other posts.

Hey, I am sympathetic to you. However since now more than ever Hollywood is relying on similar but different, I'm going to hammer on the subject for the next three days. More after the jump.

We start with this recent LAT article: "'Footloose:' The '80′s are dead. Long live the '80′s." Despite the inauspicious B.O. performances of Footloose, Fright Night, Conan, The A-Team and Arthur, Hollywood keeps dipping into the 80s well:

Seasons, like paychecks and Republican presidential front-runners, come and go. But some things remain constant. Like '80s remakes. And, specifically, their power to make us yawn.

[Last] weekend saw the moviegoing public shrug off two more retreads, a revival of a 1984 Kevin Bacon classic and a prequel of a 1982 John Carpenter cult hit. "Footloose," that Bacon revival, pulled in $16.1 million — not a terrible number, but considering how heavily the movie was marketed, not exactly auspicious, either. Results for "The Thing" looked more grisly — the movie eked out only $8.7 million.

The films join a long list of '80s reboots that have yielded lackluster results: "Fright Night," "Conan," "The A-Team," "Arthur."

So if 80s movie remakes may not be faring all that well at the box office, why does Hollywood keep going to that well? Safe to say the big reason is 'similar but different.' A remake is the perfect execution of that concept: It is the same movie, only done with a different cast and a revised script to reflect contemporary sensibilities and freshen up the story.

At the core of 'similar but different' is a belief: All stories have been told before. More from the LAT article:

In "Drive," the well-reviewed art-house piece that has established a loyal fan base, Nicolas Winding Refn channels the spirit of "Miami Vice" and other pastel-colored entertainment. Throwback action movies such as "The Expendables' and "Fast Five," meanwhile, have turned into the biggest hits of the last couple of years. "Footloose" may have struggled, but its spiritual descendants, the "Step Up" films, has blossomed into one of the hottest teen franchises of the last few years.

And this summer J.J Abrams looked to the movies of the 1980s, like "Stand by Me" and "The Goonies," in creating his coming-of-age adventure "Super 8." The film went on to become a huge global hit.

There are good reasons we're looking back to the movies of several decades ago: There were some storytelling values to that period, for one thing, and there are only have so many stories to tell.

Even a contemporary director such as Jason Reitman, one of the more original-minded filmmakers out there, said he felt the ghosts of decades past when he gets behind the camera. "In a strange way, I always feel like I'm doing a remake," he told 24 Frames in an interview last week. "I mean, 'Thank You for Smoking' was 'Jerry Maguire' if Jerry sold cigarettes."

So even if the B.O. results aren't overwhelming, there is a default attitude deeply entrenched in Hollywood that will persist in remaking 80s movies… then over the next few years 90s movies… and so on.

That attitude? Similar but different.

You don't have to like it. You do have to understand it.

[Another reason remakes are so popular, as manager-producer Gavin Polone notes here, is that movies are "the greatest hard asset they [studios] possess," so a remake not only generates its own revenues through box office receipts and ancillary streams, it can also increase the value of the original film, a case of double-dipping.]

'Similar But Different' (Part 2: Retro)

With several remakes currently in movie theaters (e.g., The Thing, Footloose, The Three Musketeers) and a confluence of interesting articles of late, I decided it would be valuable to revisit a familiar subject that has a definite impact on a screenwriter's life: Hollywood's default business approach of 'similar but different.' Yesterday I spotlighted this this 24 Frames [LAT] article by Steve Zeitchik that delved into the whole 80s remake phenomenon. We explored two ideas:

* On the business side, remakes are popular in Hollywood because they are the perfect version of 'similar but different,' perhaps the safest way to create a product that carries with it strong consumer pre-awareness.

* On the filmmaking side, remakes are an acknowledgment that all stories have been told before, so why not retell the good ones.

Today I want to highlight a recent article by LAT's columnist Patrick Goldstein. The title suggests one thing — "Is Hollywood's mania for remakes spinning out of control?" However if we dig into the piece, we confront a powerful dynamic that seems to be at work in contemporary culture which would also help to explain the enduring power of remakes.

Some excerpts from Goldstein's article:

"Everything old is new again," the expression goes, but in pop culture these days, it seems more fitting to say everything new is old again. This weekend is an apt example: Paramount Pictures opened "Footloose," a remake of the cheesy 1984 dance movie, and it's battling for the box-office crown against "The Thing," a new version of the 1982 John Carpenter horror film from Universal Studios.

I guess it was inevitable that we'd have a weekend where both of the big new releases were remakes. (Next week brings another: "The Three Musketeers.") Whether you're writing about Hollywood, pop music, TV or theater, the prefix "re" gets a serious workout on your keypad, since every other new project seems to be a remake, reboot, revival, reissue, relaunch, reunion, restaging, reimagining or reenactment.

Goldstein had a sit-down with Matthijs Van Heijningen, the 43-year-old director of "The Thing."

Van Heijningen spent his teen years gorging himself on Kafka novels and groundbreaking American movies, notably "The Godfather" series, "Blade Runner," "The Exorcist" and "Jaws." At 17, he said, he sneaked into Carpenter's "The Thing" (itself a remake) and was impressed, being a Kafka fan, by what he calls "its nihilism and sense of doom."

The movie resonated with him so much that when Van Heijningen was looking to make his feature debut here, he found himself eager to revisit the film. The whole mania for remakes tends to revolve around commercial motives — it's usually easier to sell something that is familiar to audiences — so it's hardly a surprise to discover that there was an element of careerism in Van Heijningen's decision to pursue the film.

"It is slightly strategical to do something that's familiar," he told me. "But I thought I could give the movie some of my own flavor as a filmmaker. It's a lot like making a commercial. There's already a story, created to sell a product. So as a director, you just have to find a way to express your own ideas inside of that framework."


Van Heijningen has a shrewd grasp of showbiz history. In the 1970s, with the studio system in a state of collapse, a generation of New Hollywood filmmakers seized power, inspiring a decade of auteur-driven artistry. But by the 1990s, Hollywood was once again firmly in the grasp of media behemoths. Intent on bringing order and sustainability to their often-chaotic studio subsidiaries, they began systematically developing the kind of film franchises and remakes that were easily marketable and offered predictable profit potential.

Here we see the merging of the two points we explored yesterday: Hollywood's 'similar but different' credo, filmmakers attempting to find an aesthetic justification to retell a story that's already been told. But later in the article, Goldstein cites another dynamic which suggests that the real energy behind remakes may not be studios or filmmakers — but consumers themselves:

Why are we so culturally backward-looking today, especially when our technology — our iPhones, iPads and computer graphics — leaps forward at such a dizzying pace? If anyone has a good theory about this deceleration of pop culture, it's Simon Reynolds, whose recent book, "Retromania," is about how pop music has gone from being an exploratory art to a form of cultural archaeology.

He argues that retro has become a structural feature of pop culture, acting as an inevitable down phase to an earlier manic burst of creativity. Though he's speaking in terms of music, many critics might apply that logic to film or TV as well. "Like a boom-time economy, the more fertile and dynamic a genre is, the more it sets itself up for the musical-cultural equivalent of recession: retro," Reynolds writes. "The sheer creativity of its surge years (the sixties, seventies and parts of the eighties) inevitably made it increasingly irresistible to be re-creative."

But today's retromania is also tied to the way young consumers experience pop culture. When I was a kid, I wanted nothing to do with my parents' music or movies. I needed to carve out my own cultural identity. Today's kids, thanks to the easy access to Netflix and YouTube, make far less of a distinction between what is old and what is new. With a century of culture just a click away on any computer, young consumers have become the ultimate archivists, just as willing to embrace familiarity as innovation.

What if remakes are primarily a response to a retro consciousness permeating contemporary culture? "Young consumers have become the ultimate archivists, just as willing to embrace familiarity as innovation."

What if old is the 'new' new?

Given the business, aesthetic and consumer state of affairs that suggest 'similar but different' is going nowhere soon, what is a screenwriter to do? It's easy for a professional screenwriter when asked by an aspiring writer, "What should I write," to go to the default answer: "Be yourself, write something original." Frankly I wince whenever I hear that, not at the spirit of the answer, but at the absolute lack of help that advice offers as it stands in complete opposition to nearly everything the Hollywood movie business is about.

The reality is this. A screenwriter has two choices: To play the game or not play the game. That is the subject of Part 3 of this series.

'Similar But Different' (Part 3: Playing the game)

It may not be pretty, but screenwriters — professional and aspiring — have to deal with it: Hollywood's default business model of 'similar but different.'

* Movie studios want projects that are similar to movies that have been hits. Per their logic, this is a safe way to approach script acquisition and development — If something was successful before, it can be again — and increase the odds the 'new' project will make a profit — Marketing efforts will benefit from pre-awareness among consumers.

* Movie studios want projects that are different enough from movies that have been hits. When they toss out a phrase like a "fresh take," they don't mean wholly original, rather they want a story that offers a spin on something that has been produced before.

I'm not saying this is a good state of affairs. Nor am I saying it's necessarily a bad state of affairs. I'm just saying it is the state of affairs.

In the first two posts in this series — here and here — we looked at this phenomenon from a studio, filmmaker and consumer perspective, each a contributing factor to the preponderance of remakes, prequels, sequels, and heavily similar movies.

Today we bring it all down to the screenwriter. And the simple fact is you have a choice:

You can play the game. Or not play the game.

You may look at the status quo of the Hollywood movie business and decide you simply can not work within the 'similar but different' framework. You want to write original stories, cutting edge scripts, movies not just filmed product.

If this is who you are and what you are about, two things:

First you absolutely have the right to write whatever stories you want. Indeed I'm sure all of us who visit this blog applaud your courage and creativity. God knows we need visionaries and unique voices creating distinctive films.

Second if you go this route, eventually Hollywood may seek you out if you create a successful niche for yourself, but on the whole that approach is not the studios' first resort. Rather they want screenwriters and filmmakers who work within the confines of 'similar but different.' In other words, screenwriters who can play the game.

What is the game?

It's coming up with similar but different stories.

It's providing your take on writing assignments that is — shock! — similar but different.

It's trafficking daily in a world of ideas and story concepts that fit comfortably within the broad perimeters of stories that have been written and produced before.

You must understand that almost every single professional screenwriter including A-listers, make their living writing these type of projects.

For example, Sony asks Aaron Sorkin to write a Steve Jobs movie which you can be sure the studio is thinking is similar but different to another Sorkin film, The Social Network.

Warner Bros. hires Ben Affleck to write a movie version of "The Stand" that is a remake of a TV mini-series.

Name any A-list screenwriter or filmmaker and I guarantee you they have worked on at least one and more likely many more similar but different projects..

Here's the thing: There is no inherent reason why a similar but different movie has to be bad. Indeed they can be great. Look at some of this year's quality hit movies: Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Bridesmaids, The Help, Rango, Contagion, Moneyball.

Why do some of these similar but different films succeed aesthetically while others just feel like knock-offs? I would suggest that it's because the filmmakers looked below the surface of remake and retro sensibilities to some familiar, powerful dynamics that exist in all stories which we can mine to craft compelling narratives: archetypes.

'Similar But Different' (Part 4: Archetypes)

In the first three parts of this series — here, here, and here — we have been exploring Hollywood's default business strategy of 'similar but different' pretty much on their side of the playing field.

Now it's time to move the ball to our (i.e., writer's) side.

As we have noted, simply because a movie is 'similar but different' doesn't mean it will necessarily be a bad one. Indeed there are remakes that are arguably better than the originals, one of which we will consider below.

Thus if we acknowledge it's possible to create 'similar but different' stories that are good, even great, it behooves us a writers to figure out how to do that.

For purposes of this discussion, I will suggest two narrative elements we can use to write entertaining and compelling 'similar but different' stories, thus allowing us to survive, even thrive as we play the screenwriting game in Hollywood. Today we look at one of those elements: Archetypes.

Now I suppose only I could attempt to pull a discussion like this back to Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, but honestly doesn't 'similar but different' apply to the very idea that all stories share universal elements? Whether we talk about The Hero's Journey, metamorphosis, and other character or narrative archetypes, aren't we essentially looking at variations on familiar themes?

The difference between the Hollywood studio version of 'similar but different,' furiously digging through development slates for something that hearkens back to a successful previous movie, and a Campbell-Jung approach tapping into character and narrative archetypes, patterns that have evolved over thousands of years and exist both in our consciousness and unconsciousness, is a matter of depth. And therein lies the secret: By using archetypes to dig deeper into our stories, we go beyond a shallow, surface level approach to writing, which is prone to generate nothing more than 'knock-offs,' to find and create stories that resonate with script readers and movie viewers on multiple levels of entertainment, meaning, and emotion.

Archetypes have power because they carry with them associations we have made through the tens of thousands of stories we have read, heard, or listened to in our lifetimes.

Archetypes are true because if used well, they reflect genuine and real aspects of the human condition and the universe around us.

Archetypes are entertaining because we recognize them consciously and intuitively, both as familiar forms and when crafted against type to surprise us as fresh variations.

In other words, understanding and being attuned to archetypes as we craft our stories, even 'similar but different' ones, allows us to find deeper drama, humor, thrills, action, suspense and all the rest of the psychological reactions we hope to evoke in our characters and plots.

A great example of this is the Coen brothers' remake of True Grit. As noted previously, a remake is Hollywood's perfect version of a 'similar but different' story: It is the same movie, only done with a different cast and a revised script to reflect contemporary sensibilities and freshen up the narrative. Any filmmaker who sets out to do a unique and compelling retelling of a previously told story has a huge challenge. In my view, one of the major reasons the Coens succeeded with True Grit is because of their understanding and use of archetypes. Whether they were conscious about these elements as they wrote the script or not doesn't matter. The fact is their cinematic version of True Grit is infused with powerful character and narrative archetypes.

I have already done an analysis of the story's archetypes here, so I will only summarize my thoughts [I encourage you to go back and read my OP].

In the movie, we see the five primary character archetypes:

Protagonist: Mattie Ross

Nemesis: Tom Chaney

Attractor: LaBouef

Mentor: Rooster Cogburn

Trickster: Mattie's father

Each character provides a specific function to the story and in aggregate create a rich tableau of personalities and interrelationships.

Moreover there are several narrative archetypes at work as well:

* The Hero's Journey: Mattie leaves her Old World — the family farm — traveling to the New World — the wilderness — in order to pursue the goal of killing her father's murderer.

* Metamorphosis: Along the way Mattie confronts both her adult self and juvenile self, going through a transformation of her psyche.

* Romance: In LaBouef she finds an idealized version of a potential lover.

* Surrogate father: In Cogburn, she finds a more powerful and compatible version of a father figure.

* Good versus evil: She is an innocent who is exposed to the harsh realities of a dark and dangerous New World.

* Stranger in a strange land: She is a fish-out-of-water.

* Underdog: The odds are stacked against her.

I'm sure you can find more.

These character and narrative archetypes connect with us psychologically in a variety of ways and in so doing create a depth of experience that transforms this remake of True Grit into a powerful 'new' version of the story.

So how to survive as screenwriters while playing the 'similar but different' game in Hollywood? One set of tools we have is archetypes. Use them well and we can play their game while playing our game… and everybody wins.

In order to use archetypes well, we don't come at them randomly, but must see how they service a story's central organizing principle — its psychological journey.

'Similar But Different' (Part 5: Psychological Journey)

In the first three parts of this series — here, here, and here — we explored Hollywood's default business strategy of 'similar but different' from the vantage point of movie studios. In the fourth post here, we shifted the perspective to the writer's side of things by considering powerful tools available to writers — archetypes — how they can be used to transform a 'similar but different' story into its own unique and compelling narrative.

But that's only part of the story. Character archetypes and narrative archetypes do not exist in a vacuum. Properly understood, they serve a story's central organizing principle: its psychological journey.

In any script, there are the events that transpire in the External World, the domain of what the reader can see (Action) and hear (Dialogue). I call this the Plotline.

There are also a related movements that occur in the Internal World, the domain of what the reader can sense (Intention) and interpret (Subtext). I call this the Themeline.

The Plotline and Themeline comprise the two realms of the Screenplay Universe.

Throughout the course of a story, events in the External World impact characters. They process and assimilate what happens which causes a change in their attitude in the Internal World. In turn that shift in perspective gets reflected in how they act back in the External World.

So throughout a story, there is this recurring dynamic — action, reaction, action, reaction — that plays out like a dance between Plotline and Themeline.

The result of that is the Psychological Journey. A character begins the story in one Psyche State and over time through a series of actions and reactions ends up in quite another Psyche State.

[Almost all movies feature a Protagonist going through some sort of metamorphosis].

To the degree we as writers create a compelling psychological journey [or set of psychological journeys] in a story, the more likely we are to entice the reader into our story universe. Furthermore a 'similar but different' story can evolve into a compelling experience for a reader. In other words, the specifics of a character's psychological journey can transform a familiar narrative into a unique one.

Yesterday we looked at the Coen brothers' remake True Grit to explore that story's use of character and narrative archetypes. Today let's examine another remake — the most obvious example of the 'similar but different' mentality — with the script we have been analyzing this week: The Thing.

In the 1951 original (The Thing From Another World), the story's psychological journey was focused on the group of men and women banding together to successfully defeat an alien force. The psychological journey of the remake is substantially different:

* Unlike the original, the remake's take on the Thing is that the alien has the capability to enter into a human's body and transform itself into an imitative version of its host. This sets into motion the primary component of the story's psychological journey for its characters: Paranoia. Who has been 'infected'? Who is for us? Who is against us? Have I been infected? Is my or their behavior a sign of the infection?

* Instead of a more typical Hero's Journey as reflected in the 1951 version of the movie, where the crew defeats the Thing, the remake is a much darker affair: alien kills humans, humans kill humans, humans kill alien. Eventually as witness in the story's denouement, what is left is two human beings [MacReady and Childs] playing a game of chess, awaiting their eventual death either due to Antarctica's unrelenting winter or the emergence of the alien presence in one or both of the characters.

In effect, every character in The Thing plays a Trickster — at points they are allies, at other points enemies — until eventually their real nature is revealed.

In terms of narrative archetypes — the tribe versus outsider, underdog, Hero's Journey, metamorphosis [with an alien twist] — each of these dynamics serve the story's psychological journey, the devastating impact of paranoia and inevitable decline into violence. In other words the remake of The Thing is a transformed movie experience precisely because of its radically different psychological journey.

To sum up our own journey through this series of posits this week, while we may be inclined to look at Hollywood's fixation on 'similar but different' movies as a negative, I would encourage us to keep in mind movies like True Grit and The Thing, remakes which use elements — character archetypes, narrative archetypes, psychological journey — that demonstrate how writers have the opportunity with any story to transform that which is familiar into that which is unique.

As writers, we have the tools to do this. All that's required is an understanding of those tools, careful use of them, creativity, and the passion to create distinctive stories.

Similar But Different | Scott Myers

The Business of Screenwriting: Sweepstakes Pitching, Prewrites and One-Step Deals | Scott Myers

If you want to know what screenwriting members of the WGA have to confront in their interface with the studios [and what you will eventually deal with], here are three common practices: sweepstakes pitching, prewrites and one-step deals. From THR:

The development issues the guild identified in its Pattern of Demands could result in contentious negotiations. These include "prewrites" – in which writers are asked to prepare uncompensated treatments – and sweepstakes pitching.

The latter is a practice in which a studio asks multiple writers to pitch their approaches to a movie idea proposed by the studio. The studio may then ask a number of those writers to come back for meetings repeatedly, using the process as an unpaid way of having numerous writers refine the studio's initial idea. In the end, the studio hires – and pays for – just one writer (at least until it orders rewrites).

Creative rights matters such as sweepstakes pitching may be particularly touchy, since the issues are not just monetary. That means that studios' creative management, in addition to business executives, will have to weigh in on the studios' negotiating posture.

Another guild sore point: the prevalence of one-step deals, rather than the multi-step deals that predated the 2007-08 strike and the troubled economy. Writers dislike one-step deals not only because the money is less (unless the writer is then hired to do revisions), but also because it gives the writer only one shot to get it right.

Okay, let's take a hypothetical screenwriter named Sammy Glick and run him through this maze of onerous obstacles.

Sammy's agent calls.

"I got you a meeting for 'Contagion 2.'"

"How many writers going up for it?"

"Studio says it's only a couple."

Sammy spends weeks working up a take. He meets with studio execs. Pitches his heart out. Feels pretty good about his chances. Then as he goes about his life in L.A., it seems like every writer friend he runs into has been pitching… you guessed it… 'Contagion 2.'

Cut to a few years later as Sammy sits in a movie theater watching Contagion 2. He spots certain scenes, plot elements, even dialogue that seem awfully close to what he pitched.

Welcome to the downsides of 'sweepstakes pitching': Not only does a writer have to go up against – potentially – dozens of other writers in the hopes of landing the gig. There's also the fact that at each meeting, there is a CE who sits in the corner furiously taking notes from what each writer is pitching, so Sammy can't help but have a sneaking suspicion that the studio put together the best of those ideas, then handed them off to the one writer who finally landed the OWA. And Sammy is in no position to prove anything.

But let's say Sammy lands the 'Contagion 2′ gig. Good for him… until he smacks up against 'prewrites.'

Sammy meets with the studio. They just loved his pitch, but… they have a few suggestions. They walk Sammy through their ideas. "Can you work up a really short treatment with the revisions? Then we can sign off on a draft." So Sammy spends several days pounding out a treatment. Turns it in. They have more suggestions. "Just these changes and flesh out the story a bit more, then we're set to go." Sammy revises the treatment. More suggestions. This goes on for weeks of back and forth, multiple treatments, until there is a document with every beat of the story. "We just want to make sure we're all on the same page."

It would be one thing if Sammy was getting paid to write each of these treatments, but the dirty not-so-secret fact in Hollywood is writers most often do not receive any money for said efforts.

"Think of it this way. It's really about giving you your best chance to nail the draft."

Which leads to the third thing: 'one-step deals.' In the good old days [barely 5 years ago], when a writer signed a deal for a studio project, the standard contract entailed a first draft and a rewrite. That meant writers were guaranteed to have two passes at the story. Nowadays it's all pretty much one-step deals. That means Sammy only has one shot. And that simple change, not only denying a writer rewrite fees, creates a situation where — even though it's technically against WGA rules to write treatments without compensation — writers routinely do because they feel pressured to maximize their chance of nailing the script in that one draft.

So what of Sammy? Well, he could fight the system by not pursuing OWAs, only writing scripts on spec. He could become a writer-director and thereby control the content of his stories. He could leave the industry and write greeting cards.

Or he could choose as most WGA members do to work within the system… which means sweepstakes pitching, pre-writes, and one-step deals.

UPDATE: I've gotten a few dispirited emails and seen some chatter on Twitter about this post. Yes, the situation as described above is frustrating. But I feel I wouldn't be doing my job with TBOS columns if I didn't let folks occasionally see the dark underbelly of what it takes to be a professional screenwriter. You need to prepare yourself for all aspects of the craft, good and bad. That said writers have been dealing with things like this in one form or another for decades — and somehow we survive. And don't forget, for all of these hassles, you can get paid a pretty penny for your troubles. Finally there's this: You are getting paid to write. So while sweespstakes pitching, prewrites and one-step deals are a pain, there are other aspects of life as a screenwriter that can balance them out.

The Business of Screenwriting: Sweepstakes Pitching, Prewrites and One-Step Deals | Scott Myers

Friday, October 21, 2011

Exclusive GITS Q&A: John Swetnam ("Evidence") | Scott Myers

Posted on March 1, 2011

On January 21st of this year, I posted this:
Bold Films buys spec crime thriller "Evidence" from screenwriter John Swetnam. Per Deadline:
Police arrive at an abandoned gas station following a brutal massacre. The only evidence at the crime scene is the victims' personal electronic devices, including a camcorder, flip Cam, and two cell phones. With nothing else to go on, a detective must analyze the bits of "found footage" to piece together the identity of the killer.

Another example of the "found film" sub-genre.

Swetnam is repped by APA and manager Jack Wagner.

This is the 1st spec script sale of 2011.

Then I discovered long-time GITS reader Emily Blake knows John. I asked if she'd inquire whether John would be up for a Q&A. Emily did and John emailed me back agreeing to answer some questions.

It's always exciting to hear from someone who sells a spec script. In John's case, even more so as he's what Variety calls a first-timer, someone who breaks into The Biz with a spec sale. So here is the story how John made that big leap into Hollywood:

First off, what's your background and how did you end up wanting to pursue filmmaking?

I am an Air Force kid which means I moved around a lot. Every two years or so I had to change friends, towns, countries and continents. It was stressful at times but it also allowed me to experience different cultures at a young age. I'm of a mixed background (Thai and white) and sometimes it was hard to find the place where I belonged or to find things that I had in common with the other kids and that's what I've always loved about movies, music and television. They cross every divide and have the ability to give a common ground to so many different people. There's something magical about meeting someone from some random town a million miles away and being able to strike up a conversation about some movie you both enjoyed. Movies connect us and I guess I've always just wanted to feel connected.

As for what was the moment that really started my dream of making movies… it was when I was living in Ely, England. My dad had a pretty tough job and we didn't have much money and I remember when they came to town and were shooting a movie called Revolution with Al Pacino and Donald Sutherland and they needed extras. I'll never forget going to visit my dad on set at our local Cathedral and seeing all these grown men in period costumes, carrying guns and "playing pretend". It seemed so unreal to me that these grown ups could have so much fun and get to make believe all day and get paid for it! I was curious and intrigued to say the least.

And then years later when I saw Jurassic Park… I was officially hooked.

Have you had any formal education or training in either/both screenwriting and directing? If so, what and how did that education contribute to your recent success in the sale of your spec script "Evidence"?

After getting a bachelor's degree in TV production at MTSU (outside of Nashville) where I studied broadcast TV and was going to make music videos, I decided to go take the leap and move to California for grad school. I have an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman University. The best thing grad school did for me was that it gave me a place to go. I had a purpose and I was taking classes and I was in Southern California. I'm not sure I learned any great secrets about writing, but I met some great friends (one of them being my former writing partner Darren Whisker who I owe a lot to) and it acted as a sort of buffer between my life in Tennessee and the business of Hollywood.

When it comes to the craft of writing… there are three types of aspiring writers as I see it. First, you have the people that will never make it. Period. There's a huge percentage of aspiring screenwriters that will never, ever, ever make it no matter how hard they work, ever, ever. That's just a fact. Then you have the ones who were just born with it. I mean, these guys just have a gift. And lastly, you have a percentage of writers who have ability, but it's very raw and buried way way down. They're not born with some extraordinary gift, but if they watch enough movies, write enough scripts, read enough scripts, and study the business in an intelligent way, they can go far. I consider myself in this category. Yes, you have to have "it" to an extent, but the rest of it is about hard work, dedication, sacrifice, determination and intelligence. Watch, read, write… repeat.. repeat…repeat. Yes, I went to grad school, but I also read every screenwriting book, watched hundreds of movies and then rewatched them to break them down story-wise, and I read hundreds of scripts, wrote dozens of my own, all while networking, interning, being on sets, and meeting people. Nothing can take the place of hard work. Nothing.

Here is the premise of "Evidence" as summarized in the press: "Police arrive at an abandoned gas station following a brutal massacre. The only evidence at the crime scene is the victims' personal electronic devices, including a camcorder, flip Cam, and two cell phones. With nothing else to go on, a detective must analyze the bits of 'found footage' to piece together the identity of the killer." How accurate is that description?

This is a very accurate description, but I just call it Usual Suspects meets Texas Chainsaw Massacre Cloverfield-style. Not sure if that is any more clear. It's basically a found-footage movie inside a crime-thriller movie. Two movies for the price of one!

There seems to be a sub-genre of "found footage" movies including Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield, and another spec script that sold in 2010 "Killer." Did you consciously think that was a hot story area you could mine with "Evidence" or did you generate the story concept and decide to write it just because you liked the idea?

Evidence was born out of the fact that I was tired of sitting in my house writing script after script after script. I had always been good with ideas and had gotten repped at a few places, but I couldn't take that next step. No spec sale. No assignments. Not one dollar. So after writing 16 specs I decided to take matters into my own hands and was going to finance a movie myself so I could be writer/director and producer. So I had to think long and hard about what kind of movie I would make. I wanted to be very smart about it and decided on the genre of horror and then "found footage" because it could be done so cheap and had lots of upside. Then I tried to figure out a fresh take and a story that I thought would be cool and I came up with the multiple angles and the crime-thriller movie that surrounds the POV stuff. I finished the script after a few months and when I was done I knew it was good and it deserved more than my 50,000 credit card budget, so I decided to take it into the world and the rest… well, that was the easy part.

You're represented by APA and Jack Wagner at FilmEngine Entertainment. Were they involved in your script rewrite process, giving you feedback? If so, what areas did you focus on in rewrites to improve the script?

Evidence moved very fast. I have been in town for a while and had my share of agents/managers and I knew exactly what I was looking for this time around. I entered my script into the trackingb contest because me and Darren Whisker had a script do well there a few years ago, and that was a great experience, so I tried it again and was a finalist. Within a week Jake called me and we met up and talked about Evidence and a new spec that I had just finished that was a huge tentpole. He had passion and enthusiasm and I knew he was my guy. Soon after, we met with some other agents, but Boxerbaum killed it in the room and I knew he was the perfect fit and I couldn't be happier with my team. Evidence didn't have any rewrites at all with the guys. We just took it out fast. With the new spec, both Jake and Box had great notes and we did a few passes on it that made the story much stronger. We recently took the new script out and it's been getting a great response. Still crossing my fingers for a sale!

Now the fun part: Can you describe for us how the script ended up at Bold Films? Where were you when you heard your script had sold and what did that feel like when you received the news?

I was having a burger with Darren Whisker when my reps called. He spit up his milkshake and then we finished eating and I went home to do a rewrite on the new spec.

Press reports say that you are being given "first shot at directing." Do you see yourself continuing to write screenplays and direct them, or do you hope eventually to move strictly into directing?

The script went out very hot and we were getting interest almost immediately. I met with Bold before it sold and they really seemed to be passionate about getting the movie made which was huge, and of course it didn't hurt to be working with the guys at Marc Platt. So when they made an offer it felt like a no brainer. And now it looks like we'll be in production this summer. As for me directing, I put together a presentation and told them my vision for the movie, but I have no ego about the job, or to my script. My loyalty is to the movie. So if a more talented director with a great vision comes in, then I will do everything in my power to help him succeed if it means at the end of the day we make a better movie. To be honest, the more I think about it, the more I feel like writing/producing will be my ultimate path. Because that's what a producer does… they get things done. And that's what I came here for. Not to write movies, but to make movies.

A few questions about your creative process. How do you come up with story ideas? How important do you think the story concept is to the overall strength of a screenplay?

Story concept is like the foundation to a house. It has to be strong or everything else may come tumbling down. I've always been good with ideas and it just took me a long time to be able to execute them in professional way. If you want to write "Hollywood" movies then the biggest question you have to ask yourself when you come up with an idea is, can you really see this opening at your local theater next weekend? I mean, really? What does the trailer look like when it comes on TV? You have to be brutally honest with yourself and most people just aren't. Look, you can have a small idea and if you're an amazing writer you will get it read and get work. But for most of us who aren't Aaron Sorkin, you have to start with a great idea, something clean and fresh, and then you have to execute at a professional level. The days of getting by on concept alone are over. I think you need both. Concept and execution. But this stuff gets debated all the time and I have no idea if I'm right or wrong. It's just my personal opinion.

How much time do you spend in prep-writing (i.e., brainstorming, character development, plotting, research, outlining)? Which of the aspects of prep do you tend to devote the most time and focus to?

My process works like this. I come up with an idea and then I put on my "producer" hat. What's the budget, genre, tone? Where does it fit in the market place? Who would I cast in it? Who would direct? What's the trailer, poster? Who's my audience, etc, etc, etc? If I can answer all these questions clearly and I'm still pumped then I know I have something that I can dig into. That's when I put on my "writer" hat and forget the rest and start exploring the story and the characters. I have put myself inside a box and now I can really get creative. I constantly ask myself if I think what I'm doing is cool. Do I love this? Am I excited to see it on screen? The ball usually just starts rolling and I put together a pretty fast beat sheet. Then I do a treatment and get feedback on it asap. I love feedback. If I'm still feeling good, then I rewrite the treatment a few times before I go into a really detailed outline. Then I set it aside for a while and work on other stuff. If I come back to it after a week, read it, and still love it, I do some more rewrites and then kill the first draft. I do tend to write and rewrite as I go along, but I can pump out a first draft in under a week. Then I put on my "director" hat and really dig into the tiny details and make sure I know the answer to every possible question that might come up. What if an actor asked me this? What if the production design wanted to know about this, etc, etc? Only after I've worn all three hats, which means at least three drafts on my own, I get more feedback, take more time away and rewrite and rewrite and get more feedback until I honestly think it's as good as I can get it. Then I send it to the manager, get more feedback and rewrite. Then send it to the agent, get more feedback and rewrite. And then… I drink… and then we take it out. Easy, right?

Finally what advice can you offer to aspiring screenwriters about the craft?

This is of course the question that I get asked about the most. Here's my simple answer and I think it's something that you say all the time. Watch movies. Read scripts. Write. Write. Write. But here's the problem with most aspiring writers and I had this same issue. We think we're ready before we are. If you think you're ready to send out your script, you're not. If you think it's good enough, it's not. YOU ARE NOT READY. Spend less time worrying about agents, and gatekeepers, and all the other BS and just focus on the writing. Look, I have an MFA, I've written 18 specs, watched thousands of movies, read hundreds of scripts, and I just barely broke in this year. I mean, you see all these people who've got three specs and they complain about the system and Hollywood won't give them the time of day or some other crap, well here's the truth — 99% of the time it's the script. Period. If you're not getting noticed. No reps calling you back? It's the script. KEEP WRITING.

I truly believe that there are hundreds of ways to break in and every one of us must find our own path. The one that works for us. And at the end of the day it doesn't matter what advice I give to aspiring writers because most of them won't listen… I know I never did :)

There's a lot of takeaway in this interview. John has his own variation on my "Read scripts, Watch movies. Write pages" mantra. His emphasis on the absolute necessity of writing a great script is spot on. But there's one thing John says that I've never quite heard in just this fashion: When he develops and writes a story, he goes through a process of wearing three hats: Producer, Writer, Director. I think that's quite astute. It should not only help you in shaping and writing your script, it could have a residual effect of making your script more marketable because you've already been thinking like a potential producer, who can help sell the script, and director, who can get it greenlit, then made.

So thanks to Emily Blake for facilitating this interview. Here's a whole bunch of creative good karma going your way!

And of course thanks to John for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer these questions. I'm sure everyone in the GITS community joins me in congratulating John on his good fortune and wishes him the best of luck with his filmmaking career.

Speaking of which, you can follow John on his Hollywood journey via Twitter:


Exclusive GITS Q&A: John Swetnam ("Evidence") | Scott Myers

The Business of Screenwriting: Trailer Moments, Set Pieces and Bits Of Business (BOBs) | Scott Myers

These may have come up in some other context, perhaps a newspaper or online article about the movie business, or a film producer's memoir. But trust me, while these three may not appear in any best-selling screenwriting book, they are phrases you will hear from in the context of the script development process. Therefore it behooves you to understand what industry types are referring to so you can keep up with the shorthand. Moreover this trio is actually a helpful packet of concepts when it comes to crafting your stories because if a screenplay is, indeed, a blueprint to make a movie and these three narrative elements appear in every movie ever made, you should toss them into your creative mix with the usual suspects: acts, sequences, plot points, subtext, dialogue, and so on.

Trailer Moment
: It is what it sounds like, a moment in a script which is so noteworthy, it is something worthy of inclusion in the movie trailer. This is a big deal. Perhaps no other sales device is more critical to a movie's success than its trailer. And when the task at hand is to put together a trailer that conveys key highlights of the plot, characters, tone, mood and feel of the movie, believe me editors [at the behest of marketing execs] carefully study film footage looking for trailer moments. So when a producer or studio exec says to you about your script, "I'm looking for the trailer moments here, but just not seeing them," you have a problem. Either you have what you think are trailer moments, but they aren't written in a compelling enough fashion to come across as such, or you just flat-out haven't mined your story for enough truly memorable movie moments. And while you may be focusing on story and character, they are thinking about how they are going to sell the movie. To do that, they need trailer moments. A smart screenwriter provides them.

Set Piece
: As far as I know, this is an old phrase dating back many decades in the movie business and technically refers to scenes or scene sequences which involve the location or construction of a big set. Think the chariot race in Ben Hur. That is a big ass set piece. Over time it has come to mean any substantial scene or sequence of scenes that is critical to the plot. The importance of set pieces can not be underestimated. I have never been able to find the actual quote, but I have heard that Irving Thalberg, Hollywood's first great movie producer said something to the effect when talking to his stable of screenwriters at MGM, "Just give me five great set pieces… and I'll give you a hit movie." I like to think of it this way: Set pieces are what make movies… movies. They are cinematic and memorable. They are the scenes you most likely talk about as you exit the theater, what you discuss with your co-workers the next day at the water cooler, and as such are the foundation of by-word-of-mouth buzz, a critical aspect of marketing a film. For a screenwriter, if you're looking for your script's set pieces, check out your major plot points. Chances are they're there. If not, maybe your script would benefit by making those scenes bigger and turning them into set pieces.

Bits Of Business (BOBs): This one confused me when I first heard it at meetings. "This scene could use… you know… a bit of business." "This bit of business doesn't work for me. Can't you come up with a funnier one?" Basically as I have come to understand it, a BOB (my acronym) is the answer to the observation, "It needs something." A BOB can be a line of dialogue that is called back a number of times. An interesting visual conveying humor, irony, or meaning. A clever plot machination. Essentially anything that elevates the experience of the moment while servicing the plot. Screenwriter Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio are experts at using BOBs and a great example of that is Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Remember the recurring line of dialogue "Parlay"? That is a BOB. Servicing iconic images from the theme park ride such as the prisoners trying to lure the cell door keys from the dog? A BOB. When Jack and Will traverse the ocean floor while holding a row boat over their heads to provide an air pocket? BOB. Ragetti's eyeball that keeps popping out? BOB. Elizabeth setting fire to all the rum on the island to create a smoke signal to lure a ship to rescue she and Jack? BOB. There's hardly a scene in the original POTC that goes by where there isn't a little or big Bit Of Business to spice up the plot. And spice is a good descriptor because BOBs do add flavor to a script.

So while you're busy digesting this or that screenwriting guru's story structure paradigm, don't forget to keep in mind these three key movie concepts: Trailer Moments, Set Pieces and Bits Of Business.

The Business of Screenwriting: Trailer Moments, Set Pieces and Bits Of Business (BOBs) | Scott Myers

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Recommended: Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris + other films...

Woody Allen, after decades, gives his biggest Box Office hit and it's a film not to miss. Quite a delightful comedy - Midnight in Paris.

However there's only one way to catch it - torrent download, unless you can get a dvd rip-off. Since it's not likely to release in this country. Our distributors and exhibitors have better films to show.

Owen Wilson is in tremendous form; will remind you of Allen himself. So are all the actors, especially the most charming, Marion Cotillard, who was stunning in Inception.

The film is part fantasy as it takes the protagonist, a screenwriter who wants to be a novelist, into his favorite world of '20s, where he meets Hemingway, Picasso, Dali et al & falls for Adrianna (Picasso's / Hemingway's lover) played by Cotillard; oh yeah...she is the best. ( to watch La Vie En Rose, for which she won the Oscar.)

Watch it for Wilson, watch it for Cotillard, watch it for '20s characters, watch it for Allen's typical direction - photographed amazingly, soft-n-slow-n-smooth momentum, ripping off pseudo-intellectuals, lost protagonist trying to get by....

Other films you may enjoy and may need to access Torrent to view them, unless you have watched them:

Grizzly Man (2005) - superb flick, a documentary by Werner Herzog, on a man who lived in Alaskan wilderness with bears and eventually died there courtesy a bear attack; Herzog is one of the top dudes in the game along with Errol Morris. He has a thick, coarse voice, and you can sense a lively persona despite the sombre subject;  he shall also play the lead villain opposite Tom Cruise in a film called, One Shot.

Horrible Bosses - funny flick, about three friends who try to kill their bosses; stars Kevin Spacey and Jennifer Aniston besides others and all in form.

Source Code - solid concept and quite exciting; an army captain has to keep reliving for 8-mins so he can go back into a train that explodes and try catching the bomber. This one falls under the high-concept category. As a screenplay, this was rated right at the top by one of the veteran bloggers

The Adjustment Bureau - Another high-concept flick with Matt Damon. Good fun. Romantic thriller with good chemistry between Damon and Emily Blunt.

Drive - intense character-oriented film; Ryan Gosling is fundu in the slow-momentum film that has a tremendous feel to it with Carey Mulligan being the love angle; if you haven't watched the two, catch the two of the brightest young stars of Hollywood.

Tree of Life - phenomenal; may feel quite random but it's an extremely ambitious film - take on life, god, death...a family loses their kid. This should be up there for Best Film Oscar. It's magical.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Business of Screenwriting: It’s not just about the script | Scott Myers

We spend so much time here focusing on writing a great script, as well we should because that is such a critical piece of the Hollywood screenwriting puzzle. The quality of the scripts we write, whether on spec or assignment, is hugely important. They are bottom line, career changing kind of deals.

But there are other dynamics involved in working as a professional screenwriter that have nothing to do with your actual ability at crafting a story and translating said story onto the page. Here are some of key items:

* Know how to talk to Hollywood players: Whether they are studio execs or producers, directors or actors, it behooves you to become comfortable conversing with people you will perceive to be somehow 'bigger' than yourself. Of course, if their name is Spielberg, Di Caprio or Bruckheimer, for all intents and purposes they are bigger than you (not existentially, but professionally). Other than conditioning your gag reflex so you do not immediately hurl on their Guccis when you are introduced, the first rule of thumb in these type of meetings is this: God gave you two ears and one mouth… for a reason. Almost every 'powerful' person I've met in Hollywood seems to have a default operating system set to chatter. They enjoy talking about themselves. Play to their comfort zone: Let them take the lead in the conversation. Combine that with the fact that by listening you can learn much more about the person with whom you are meeting and the project you're discussing, you can almost never go wrong in going ears first, mouth second.

Note: It's almost a lock cinch you will have to work on this as your default setting will be to nervously babble on about the first things that pop into your head — Traffic! Coffee! My cat! — in order to fill space, but trust me… don't do that.

* Know the basics of the business: At the very least, you should have a working understanding of how the movie business works. Acquisition. Development. Production. Post. Marketing. Distribution. Where you plug in. What journey your script has lying ahead of it.

Note: You don't have to know everything about the business, but the more you understand the world a studio exec, producer or director lives in, the innumerable hassles and issues they have to handle, the less likely you will have a script notes moment like this: "Lemme get this straight: You want to have a scene that involves boats with children, animals, snow, and helicopters?" — eyes bugged out, glaring at your for not having a clue about what it takes to produce a movie.

* Know the players: If you're smart, you'll be able to assign names to key development execs at the studios. Also big producers. And while you're at it, top agents and managers. These are the people who dominate the script world. Everyone you meet with in Hollywood will know these players. If you can do more than stare blankly into space when a name is mentioned, two points for you.

Note: I know what you're thinking. If I don't know a name, I can just nod my head as if I do know who they are talking about. This is dangerous territory, my friend, the equivalent of Russian roulette. When a studio exec or producer meets with a writer, they are sizing you up. Would you rather get caught in a lie or simply admit, "Sorry, don't know the name." Opt for the latter. Your excuse? Smile sheepishly, shrug, and say, "I pretty much focus on writing stories." As long as you convey a modicum of what The Biz is about, the "My job is to write stories" card is an ironclad defense.

* Know the deals: You probably think Hollywood is all about scripts and talent, movies and TV shows. Actually on one level what it's really about is deals. Who bought what. Who signed with whom. Who agreed to do this with that. As confirmation of this fact, check out Variety or The Hollywood Reporter. Peruse the headlines: How many of them are deal announcements? Most of them. And if it makes the headlines in the trades, you can be sure that whoever you are meeting with knows about the litany of that day's transactions.

Note: You don't have to know the details of the deal, in fact in some ways it's better if you don't. Them: "And what about that spec deal for 'Slinky: The Movie'"? You: "Yeah, Universal?" Them: "Universal and what were they thinking. Two hundred million on 'Battleship,' dump 'Ouija Board,' then buy 'Slinky'? What I hear is going on is…" And off they go with their insider info. It's one of Hollywood's favorite dynamics: Someone who knows something someone else doesn't, then gets to display their knowledge. Allowing them to fill in the details makes them feel good about themselves… which in turn makes them feel good about you.

* Know when to take charge: Here's the thing: Most of them know about this much about story. You, as a writer, know THIS much about story. Despite all their bravado, intimate knowledge of the business, and ability to network, once the subject turns to the project itself, that's when the table turns. They want you to handle the problems, they want you to be confident, they want you to know your stuff. Whether it's a  pitch, OWA or script notes meeting, at some point it's your baby. Everything else is just preparation for this moment. When it comes, you need to approach it like it's in your wheelhouse. You swing with confidence and knock that fat fastball out of the ballpark. Power respects power. And if they feel like you know what you're doing and what you're saying makes sense to them, chances are you will their comfort level.

Note: Knowing your stuff means really knowing your stuff. In preparation for these type of meetings, you must immerse yourself into the story universe, engage your characters, and work out a coherent take on the project. There are no short-cuts here, you just need to do the hard work to break the story. This is what they are paying you for.

I suppose there's some sort of algorithm wherein the better the writer you are, the less ancillary details like the above you need to know. If such an algorithm exists, I never figured it out. I do know this: If you consistently write great scripts, you could be a mime who dresses like Sasquatch and farts in their faces… and they would hire you again and again.

So write great scripts? Absolutely. That is the numero uno prime directive. But the way you are perceived as a writer can be heavily influenced by your understanding of The Biz and basic human psychology. In other words, it's not jut about the script.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Film Fading to Black | Creative COW

Film Fading to Black


While the debate has raged over whether or not film is dead, ARRI, Panavision and Aaton have quietly ceased production of film cameras within the last year to focus exclusively on design and manufacture of digital cameras. That's right: someone, somewhere in the world is now holding the last film camera ever to roll off the line.

Aaton founder Jean-Pierre Beauviala notes why. "Almost nobody is buying new film cameras. Why buy a new one when there are so many used cameras around the world?" he says. "We wouldn't survive in the film industry if we were not designing a digital camera."

Do camera manufacturers believe film will disappear? "Eventually it will," says ARRI's Russell. "In two or three years, it could be 85 percent digital and 15 percent film. But the date of the complete disappearance of film? No one knows."

From Radin's point of view, the question of when film will die, "Can only be answered by Kodak and Fuji. Film will be around as long as Kodak and Fuji believe they can make money at it," he says.

"It's a stunning development," says International Cinematographer Guild President Steven Poster, ASC. "We've been waiting for it as far back as 2001. I think we've reached a kind of tipping point on the acquisition side and, now, there's a tipping point on the exhibition side."

The third, and perhaps most devastating blow to film, comes from the increased penetration of Digital Cinema. According to Patrick Corcoran, National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) Director of Media & Research/California Operations Chief, at the end of July 2011, "We passed the 50 percent mark in terms of digital screens in the U.S. We've been adding screens at a fast clip this year, 700 to 750 a month," he says.

He notes that the turning point was the creation of the virtual print fee, which allows NATO members to recoup the investment they have to make to upgrade to digital cinema. (Studios, meanwhile, save $1 billion a year for the costs of making and shipping release prints.)

Eastman Kodak, Chris Johnson, Director of New Business Development, Entertainment Imaging, counters that "I don't see a time when Kodak stops making film stock," noting the year-on-year growth in 65mm film and popularity of Super 8mm. "We still make billions of linear feet of film," he says. "Over the horizon as far as we can see, we'll be making billions of feet of film."

"Though reports of its imminent death have been exaggerated, more industry observers than before accept the end of film. "In 100 years, yes," says AbelCine's Shore. "In ten years, I think we'll still have film cameras. So somewhere between 10 and 100 years."

Film Fading to Black