Monday, October 26, 2009

The Writing Week (Vol. 2) part 95 - Stop Waiting Idly

It's been about two weeks since we went out to a former employer of mine who works at an NYC based production company and a few agents with my script. Two weeks might be a bit long (though I'm not completely sure) on the production company end, but is far from worry-territory with agents. Regardless of what traditional wait times might be, I'm trying to be patiently optimistic. Hard as that might be (and these past two weeks, the compounded stress of work and other things have made it quite difficult), I know the perfect distraction: more writing.

One of the greatest things about writing is that it is the solution to its own problems. Hiccups in the script and other walls we hit are only fixed by writing. The same goes for a writing slump. I spent the past few weeks allowing myself to be discouraged (unnecessarily, probably) for the first time in a while. I go back periodically and re-read old blog posts. As much as they make me cringe, they paint the picture of a young writer as unsure in his future as he is in his ability. Since December, I've had people in the industry encouraging and promoting my work. It's now October, and the fairy tale of the overnight hot-shot screenwriter has died, taking with it some of the confidence I had gained.

I'm not sure why I allowed myself to become so disgruntled. A few tough days here and a rejection from an agent there, a failed attempt at a screenplay competition, and I was ready to feel bad for myself. I wouldn't say I was ready to quit - I wouldn't be cut out for this who career path if I was - but I was facing some of the same futility that I felt more than a year and a half ago. This weekend, I did what all writers have to at some point. I started writing again.

It's amazing how quickly actually putting words to the page can completely redirect all emotions. That discouragement went away as the creative juices started flowing again. I was able to divert my energy from thinking about the script that's currently out of my hands to one that is one hundred percent in my control now. There's a new script to focus on now, and it's a fun one. I managed four solid pages of notes, questions, and ideas this weekend. They are four glorious pages.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Logline Central - C.O.D.

Logline Central is an irregular segment that takes a deeper look at loglines of scripts or projects that have just been purchased, as listed on DoneDealPro.

I saw an interesting logline earlier this week. It's nothing wildly earth shattering, but it did grab my attention - for both good and bad reasons.

Title: C.O.D.

Logline: A New York City bike messenger is forced to deliver three bombs under threat of his family receiving one. He must avoid capture by not only the authorities but also by an entire nation looking to stop him.
Carl Ellsworth
Rewrite deal. Original script was written by Lars Jacobson Barry Josephson and Royal Prospect's Neal Flaherty will produce. The project was picked up in March 2008 by DreamWorks.

What I like about this is the unlikely hero. A bike messenger - living in NYC, I see and meet plenty of them, so I'm already feeling a bit connected - has to deliver three bombs, while his family is held hostage (presumably). I'll go out on a limb and assume that he doesn't want to deliver these bombs - not a difficult assumption to make. Essentially, we have an Average Joe type guy who finds himself in less than desirable, dangerous circumstances where his actions lead to the endangerment of innocent or at least unknown people. COLLATERAL, anyone? Very much yes, but in a good way. Collateral was fun, and C.O.D. sounds like it has the potential to be, as well.

It sounds that way, that is, until you read the second half of the logline,
"He must avoid capture by not only the authorities but also by an entire nation looking to stop him." I get the authorities bit. Once that first bomb goes off - if they're planned to go off separately, that is - the authorities will be all over this. Even if they don't, it's New York, and someone will find out something's up. If being New York isn't enough, then the fact that this is a movie will push it over the edge. What I don't think I'm on board with, though, is the part about the "entire nation looking to stop him." Which nation? The U.S.? Why is an entire country trying to stop him? Is he nowhere near as innocent as the previous sentence leads us to believe?

Tying an entire nation into this throws a big red flag up for me. It might make perfect sense in a 100 page screenplay. But in a two sentence logline, I get worried. Am I supposed to have images of every Tom, Dick, and Harry on the streets of New York trying to run this guy down and pull him off his bike? It's one hell of a big obstacle to throw in there, and it has me concerned. I'm still very curious, but now that's not just in a good way. Nonetheless, Carl Ellsworth gave us such thrillers as RED EYE, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, worked on DISTURBIA, and seems to be attached to Y: THE LAST MAN. So time will tell.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

John August's Post about Pitching

If you're like me at all (for your sake, hope it's only a tiny bit), you're curious about pitching. What it's like. How it happens. How long it takes. How nervous you'll be. When you'll get to do it.

I've read a few books that glaze over pitching and have spoken with writers and other industry people who participate in pitches about their experiences with them. However, you can never get too much info ahead of time. John August recently had a short yet great
post about pitching Prince of Persia that walks readers through the entire meeting (20 minutes) with a brief play by play. I've pasted his pitch timeline below, but I suggest reading the whole post.
  1. Introductions. Apologies for keeping us waiting. (1 minute)
  2. John hyping Jordan’s prestigious videogame background. (1:00)
  3. Play the video. (2:10)
  4. Jordan describes the world of the Persian empire, using artwork. (:30)
  5. John pitches Prince Dastan, using artwork of him. (:30)
  6. John and Jordan alternate pitching story, introducing character/prop artwork as new things come up. (6:00)
  7. Questions about story, tone and scale. “Somewhere between Pirates and Raiders. It’s not Lawrence of Arabia.”(3:00)
  8. Promises that they’ll follow up. (1:00)

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Writing Week (Vol. 2) part 94 - Familiar Rejection

Last Monday, I was supposed to have a call with my manager and producer to update me on the status of my script at the top four agencies – WME, CAA, ICM, and UTA. The call was pushed to Tuesday to give agents extra time to read. Unfortunately, bumping it back a day didn’t really yield any extra results, and the one bit of information that I did get wasn’t the best. We only heard back from CAA, and the agent there passed on the script.

It’s an odd feeling to be experiencing rejection (from an agent) at this stage of the game. It’s also usefully humbling. I think that I had allowed myself to think beyond agents to the next step – actually making a sale – to such a degree that I needed something to ground myself and my expectations a bit. To be honest, I’m still not wedded to the notion of having an agent on board (that is, after all, an additional 10% out of my sale). However, my manager and producer think that an agent can help solidify a sale, so I’ll go with the flow.

I had previously thought that having a manager and a producer attached to a spec would make it a stronger case for an agent, especially if there’s already a laundry list of places we’re thinking of sending it out to. That’s obviously not the case, though. Breaking in, no matter how good other industry people might think your script is, is still no walk through the park. It’s easy to get aggravated by the sometimes seemingly insurmountable obstacles new writers face when trying to get into the industry. Especially in light of the number of terrible movies getting made and the cringe-worthy scripts we read as interns or readers, frustration is easy to succumb to. The key though, is to move past that.

My one large concern – if you can call it that – that came out of the CAA rejection was the feedback that came with it. The agent who read the script thought that the first half was great, but that the second half was just more of the same old. Setting aside the fact that once you break in, the same old is what every company wants from you (an exaggeration, perhaps, but not by much), the note was troubling from a developmental point of view. I’m not sure I agree with the note (or see exactly where it’s coming from), so I don’t yet know how I’d approach it without further insight from the source. When I asked my manager about it, he said to just treat it like one person’s opinion for now, and that the agent acknowledged that other agents might jump at the opportunity to tie themselves to it.

Oh well. The wait continues.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Logline Central - Untitled Loeb Project and What's He Got?

Logline Central is an irregular segment that takes a deeper look at loglines of scripts or projects that have just been purchased, as listed on DoneDealPro.

Let's take a look at two sales that were both logged yesterday.

Title: Untitled Loeb Project
A jilted lover must disguise himself as a woman and befriend his ex in order to win her back.
Writer: Allan Loeb
Price: High six figures against seven figures
More: Pitch. Working Title's Eric Fellner & Tim Bevan, Dark Trick's Jonathon Komack Martin and Scarlett Fire's Steven Pearl will produce. Liza Chasin, Ryan Reynolds and Allan Loeb will executive produce. Reynolds will also star.

Title: What's He Got?

Logline: After he loses his girlfriend to a lovable loser, a guy seeks the loser out to find out "what's he got."

Writer: Kevin Bisch

Price: $900,000 against $1.6 million

More: Pitch. Walt Becker, Andrew Panay and Category 5's Brian Sher will produce. Becker will also direct. Josh Duhamel will star.

I think the similarities are obvious enough to not linger on them too long. These are both romantic comedies. Both are about guys who have to win their exes back. And both - amazingly - were bought for high six figures against seven figures. (If you're wondering what the "against" means, the writer gets the higher sum when the movie is made. So Kevin Bisch, for example, sold WHAT'S HE GOT? for 900K, and will get another 700K when the film is made. Pretty sweet.) Neither writer is new to the game (Bisch did the Will Smith hit HITCH, and Loeb has a few more credits to his name on imdb with 21 and WALL STREET 2, among others), but the sales are still impressive.

When I read these two loglines back to back, they were similar enough in both concept and deal for me to wonder (albeit only briefly) if the same script had been logged twice. Of course, they're not the same. In one, Ryan Reynolds has to dress like a woman in order to woo his ex back. In Bisch's script, a guy has to learn what he's lacking and (supposedly) steal his girlfriend back from the more lovable guy she's now with.

What's really incredible is the first word under the "more" category for each. Pitch. In my mind, that translates to "spec." As writers, we have to love the fact that two specs collectively went for almost $2 million, with potential to bring in almost another $1 mil. Equally exciting is that both of these already have people attached to star. The fact that someone like Ryan Reynolds, whose $40 million rom-com THE PROPOSAL took in over $163 million domestically, is attached to Loeb's script certainly pushed that price tag up a bit. The lesson this week is that an idea (both could be funny, but neither seems to be breaking new ground) can go a long way and increase its value with the right people attached. Packaging a project is a beautiful thing when its done correctly.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

What, When, Where this Weekend - FilmLinc's Scary Movies Series

The Film Society of Lincoln Center has a great slate of horror films screening right now - lots of cult classics and new favorites. I wish I had the time and money to check out a bunch of these on the big screen, but I'll give a few of my recommendations below. (You can read the full list of screenings here.)

An American Werewolf in London - One of the few great werewolf movies made after the classic Universal-era films. (The only other great ones that come to mind are the first "Howling" and "In the Company of Wolves" - any others?) Writer/director John Landis will be present for a Q&A on Thursday. (I wonder how long it'll take before he gets his first "Thriller" question of the night?)

The Brood - When you try to rank your favorite David Cronenberg movies and this one lands around sixth or seventh on the list - it's just a reminder of how many strong films the guy's made. This is one of his weirdest ones - and that's saying a lot, considering he would go on to direct Videodrome just a few years later.

Phenomena - I feel the same way about Dario Argento that I do about Cronenberg - he had such an incredible streak of moviemaking in the 70s and 80s, particularly from Suspiria to Opera. In this movie, a young Jennifer Connelly talks to insects to solve murders. Also, there's some business with a deformed little person and a highly-suspicious chimp. Really, I don't know how to properly explain this movie, but I enjoyed it.

Dead Alive - One of the funniest zombie movies out there, made long before Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland. Also, one of the bloodiest. So, so much blood. Still not sure how Peter Jackson went from this to Lord of the Rings, but I'm glad he did. Highly recommended.

Night of the Living Dead 1990 - Remakes rarely live up to the original film, but this Tom Savini-piloted remake of George Romero's classic does enough differently to make things entertaining, especially if you've seen the original a dozen times. The more familiar you are with the first one, the more this one'll toy with your expectations. The only negative thing to say? They somehow managed to make the new Cooper even more grating.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Writing Week (Vol. 2) part 93 - Thoughts on Working with a Manager

If you've been following my Writing Weeks, you'll know that the past few weeks, my manager and I have been working on nailing down my next project. At this point, since I've taken no meetings and am still not on the industry radar, that project will be a spec. (I've got so many ideas that I want to work on - hell, I gave my manager 10 loglines to sift through - that I'm happy to have the time to work on an original idea again.) We narrowed the idea list I sent him down to four, and from there focused on our collective top two. We still have yet to cement what my next script will be, and are developing the two finalists to see which one bites back as more urgent.

This isn't the first time I've gone through the "what's next" process with a manager. If you haven't done it yet, I hope you get the opportunity to. I can also see, however, how it might seem like an odd or unwarranted process. I mean, your manager is just that, right - your manager. He or she technically works for you. so why do you let him or her tell you what to write next? It might seem odd and possibly a misdirected approach. Keep in mind, if you're like me, you read the daily script sales and keep your ear to the ground about industry trends and news as much as you can. the plain fact of the matter, though, is that your manager knows industry trends better than you do (or should, at least; if he/she doesn't, maybe you should think about looking elsewhere). I am still an outsider. You are probably still an outsider. Your manager isn't.

When last I went through the process, all the way back in December 2008, I pitched my manager four ideas. He jumped on one big time and informed me that of the other three, one was currently too big and possibly out of my league and out-of-the-box, and the other two were similar to projects already in development. While I obviously didn't want to be deterred and chose not to believe that anything was beyond me (then it would have been a struggle, and it still might be; but one day I'll do it), I put the other two ideas behind me. It would not be worth my time to write something that's too similar to two projects already in development at major studios to get greenlit. And it wasn't worth his time, either. A good manager will know what's coming up in the industry, which trends are on the rise, which are fading out, and where you can best wiggle your way in.

Of course, you can't lose sight of the fact that your manager does technically work for you. he or she makes money when you do, in no small part because they help you make that money. their contacts become your contacts. If they're not helping you, you totally have a right to move on. But it's a two-way street. In exchange for their connections and their industry insider knowledge, you have to represent them in as best a light as possible. That means not only comporting yourself professionally, but trusting them to guide you in the best direction. for both of you.

The ideas that my manager and I were working on are all my original ideas. He had some thoughts on some them and was rightly hesitant about a few others. But I was always free to comment, to defend one that I thought he was shortchanging, or to guide him away from one that I didn't feel committed to at the moment. It's a balance, but it's also a working relationship. I'd caution any new writer from feeling like they owe their manager anything and everything, because in the end, who has to write the script? Know that you can speak up - the dialogue goes both ways.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Surrogates - Forget the Alternate Body, Get an Alternate Script

I guess it's about time to admit that I saw SURROGATES on opening night. (Onyx and I had passes to a free screening, and we were in the mood for some brainless Friday night on-screen action.) The fact that I feel as though I have to defend my decision to go see it should be indicator enough of what I thought about it.

Based on a graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele, the screen adaptation is written by Michael Ferris and John D. Brancato, the writing duo that most recently disappointed Onyx with Terminator Salvation. The premise behind SURROGATES, which stars Bruce Willis, is that a detective in a world where 98% of humans live their lives remotely through surrogate robots of themselves must solve a string of homicides that has left both robots and their human operators dead. Theoretically, having a surrogate safeguards people against physical threat, since if their robot gets shot or hit by a car, all people have to do is disconnect from their surrogate command module long enough to activate a new robot. People can design their surrogate to look like anyone - kind of like second-life online - so in this near-future, city streets are clogged with supermodel robots controlled by balding, overweight slobs who haven't left their apartments in nearly 15 years. Romantic notion of the future, no?

One of the largest problems I had with SURROGATES is that no one seems to have bothered to ask some very basic, yet very essential developmental questions. For one, other than not being able to get hurt and being able to design your surrogate's appearance, we're given no indication why 98% of the human population has adopted this lifestyle. Yes, not getting hurt has its perks. And the movie does do a half-hearted attempt of explaining that surrogates have the sense of touch (though breezes right over the fact that watching your surrogate is more like watching TV than anything else). But there is never any real reason given for why almost everyone in the world has opted to stop going outside, stop directly communicating with loved ones and friends, stop having any sort of actual human interaction in favor of growing old in a chair, watching their younger-looking robot self live life for them. When I explain the premise to friends, their first question is always, "why would people want that?" I can't for the life of me explain it, and perhaps Ferris and Brancato couldn't, either.

The notion of a 98% utilization rate brings me to my next biggest gripe. As writers, we're hounded (or should be) to explain everything in the script, down to the smallest details. SURROGATES avoids major issues like it's its job, issues like how people can afford this complex mechanized versions of themselves. Just about everyone has one (if not more). Are we to assume that these are just given out on the street like fliers for Subway sandwiches? How can they have become so universal? In the intro to the movie, we learn that this all happened in a matter of 14 years. Fourteen years for near total acceptance of life through surrogates. I didn't buy it then, and I don't buy it now. Again, maybe the filmmakers couldn't answer this one, so they opted to sweep it under the rug.

There's a lot that's been deftly ignored in SURROGATES. In what must by now be in his contract, Bruce Willis once again plays a troubled cop with a broken family life who must win back his wife. Yet, the family stuff hardly plays a role in the movie at all. Sure, it affects his decision in the end, but the 88 minute run-time allows for much more character detail than we're given (not that I would have wanted to sit through much more of SURROGATES, mind you). There's a fairly major reveal with anti-surrogate movement leader Ving Rhames, but that's another thing that the final cut just dances right past. If you find yourself wondering why people who refuse to use surrogates are forced to live in slums worse than the aliens in DISTRICT 9 have, don't worry - you're not alone. You will, however, have to stop worrying about the answer, because you won't get that one, either.

The plot is convoluted and disappointing enough, but to me, it's these major omissions that are at the heart of the problems with SURROGATES. In the most recent issue of
Creative Screenwriting, there's an article about the film, in which Ferris and Brancato mention that they were racing to complete the script before the 2007-2008 WGA strike. As a result, they did very few drafts of this. Unfortunately for all involved and for audiences, it shows. Watch SURROGATES, but only as an example of why you have to answer (at the very least) the big questions in your alternate-reality flick.

Monday, October 05, 2009

The Writing Week (Vol. 2) part 92 - Picking the Next Project

One of my stand-out memories from the last student-faculty meeting I had with my dramatic writing program chair was of some advice he gave me about going to LA. "Don't move to LA," he said, "until you have one script, one outline, and one treatment, all for different projects. If you go before that, you're not ready."

Of course, his 'rule' certainly has exceptions to it. In fact, it's more advice than an actual rule. People certainly can and do move out to LA with a single script. What his point was, though, is that uprooting and going cross country without any job or prospects lined up is quite a big leap of faith. The best time to do something like that is when you're as prepared as possible. For an unproduced, young writer, that time comes when you have a solid script library.
I'll admit pretty freely that I'm not as pleased with my script library as I'd like to be. My post-Apocalyptic spec is by far my most polished. I have a half dozen first or second drafts of other projects, but they're nowhere near ready to go out to anyone.

my manager and producer and I are hoping to hear back from agents regarding my script this week - we felt that getting an agent from one of the big agencies onto the team might help lock-in a sale. Part of that preparation process on my end (and with my manager) is to choose my next project. I had been under the impression (in large part due to that conversation with my professor) that to take any meeting or attempt to sell any script without anything to back it up would be a major mistake. According to my manager, though, I don't necessarily have to have another script in hand, ready to go. What I do need to have, though, is other ideas.

Last week, I sent my manager another script I've been working on, the Roman army one. It's not ready, but as part of a manager's job is to help a writer develop ideas, I asked for his opinion on it. It's a big idea, and he felt that it is probably too out-of-the-box for the current acquisitions climate. Studios are largely scared and are buying conservatively now, and an idea as out there as mine will likely appear too great a risk. So, I sent my manager a list of ten loglines for other ideas I've been toying with. Some already have drafts, but a lot of them are just something I've been playing with. This week, we'll talk about them and pick one or two to move forward on. The plan from there? Hope that I can take some meetings and get the opportunity to pitch the ideas, ideally landing a pre-emptive purchase (wouldn't that be a dream?) or an option.

I guess the moral of that story is, if you don't have another script ready to go, at least have solid ideas for future projects. Personally, I still wish that I had more ready to go, but my writing has evolved rapidly since I last worked on the other projects (what with spending basically this past year on the post-Apocalyptic spec) that I wouldn't be comfortable presenting those as current indicators of my writing ability. And that, to be honest, is what's most important, I think.