Monday, January 18, 2016

Short takes on: Streaming, TV shows, Bad movies, Oscars, etc.

A bunch of short-takes on opinions and observations I don't have much inclination to write up as a full blog:

- Only a month after the release of THE FORCE AWAKENS and I'm already fed up with speculation and "theories" about what will be revealed in EPISODE VIII. I'm especially fatigued of the theory that Rey was a Jedi padawan at Luke's Academy when Ben went rouge. The suggestion is that she got training there (thus "explaining" her adeptness with the Force) and then had her memory erased before being sent into hiding. I think it's unnecessarily complicated and rests on some shaky evidence, but mostly I'm just annoyed with how universally this has been accepted as the "obvious" reveal. I'm looking forward to seeing it proven wrong.

- I haven't blogged or even tweeted about it much lately, but THE FLASH and THE GOLDBERGS continue to do excellent work each week and remain two of the shows I anticipate most eagerly. SUPERGIRL also remains pretty great. The flying wirework is amazing, and while there's still a kink or two to be worked out in the show, it's not afraid to be fun. I like a superhero show that doesn't think earnestness is a dirty word. I like that it's even more all-ages appropriate than THE FLASH.

- I still haven't figured out where I stand on DAREDEVIL vs. JESSICA JONES. I feel like JJ hit higher heights, but also lower lows. At times, I definitely felt like both shows bathed in so much unrelenting darkness that I could only watch an episode or two before needing a break. I do hope that both shows find a little more restraint and balance in season 2. Streaming gives license to be as brutal as they want to be, but the JJ episode "A Thousand Cuts" had a lot of brutality that just seemed to be showing off "Look how violent we can be since we're streaming." Kilgrave making people do horrible things to themselves was effectively creepy at first but this ep (and the later scene where a gentleman gets two arms cut off) went a long way towards alienating me from the show. I'm ready for them to explore a new story in that universe next season.

- I also still don't understand what most of you saw in SICARIO, not even after reading several reviews. I felt like it had a great opening, and fell into some blah character work as the focus shifted from Blunt's character to Del Toro's. Every year there's at least one critical darling that has me scratching my head and saying "Really?" This seems to be this year's.

- Okay, I didn't like KINGSMEN either, but I can accept that as a "Shut off your brain and enjoy the ride."

- There are some critical duds I seek out just to see if my opinion swims against the tide. It didn't really happen this year. FANTASTIC FOUR, BLACKHAT, and THE VISIT were among those that were pretty fairly maligned. THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. was more fun than the buzz suggested, though.

- My take on the Oscars: CREED was robbed. That's even more egregious to me than STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON being overlooked. It's easy to say that screeners would have really boosted CREED, and maybe that's true, but COMPTON had screeners sent out to little effect. You can blame the aging out-of-touch Academy voters and probably be right in using that to contend that race played at least some part in those films being overlooked.

- Fun movies that didn't make my Top 20: THE DUFF - a sharp teen comedy better than the trailer suggested; THE FINAL GIRLS - a send-up of slasher films that worked because of a strong emotional core; TIMELAPSE - a clever ultra-low-budget time-travel thriller; and UNFRIENDED - a smartly executed horror film that takes place entirely from the POV of a laptop screen as friends are stalked and taunted online during a video chat.

- If you get a chance, binge THE 100 on Netflix and catch the third season when it premieres this week on the CW. Might be that network's darkest, most mature show to date, and I mean that in terms of themes and moral choices as much as violence. It's the one CW show that feels like it really belongs on cable.

- Bringing up THE 100 reminds me of another thought - TV 'shippers have ruined TV fandom. Sad that we have a direct pipeline to writers and creators and a vocal and aggressive aspect of fandom uses that mostly to scream about which characters they want paired with each other and attacking every pairing that threatens that. Occasionally a showrunner for a series with this kind of following replies to me on Twitter and the next several days my mentions get hit with shippers replying to that tweet just to lobby for their particular hobby horse. It sad when these groups attack each other, and it's infuriating to watch them attack the writers for not making a show that matches the way THEY feel it needs to be done. Let's all try for fewer online death threats in 2016, okay?

Thursday, January 7, 2016

My Top Ten Films of 2015

Let's get right to it. Here's my Top Ten films from last year. You can find 11-20 here.

1. Creed - The best movie of the year. It's amazing that what's essentially the seventh film in a series can feel so fresh, even as it's constructed on the bones of the original film. Rocky Balboa himself got a fantastic, feel-good send-off in his previous eponymous outing. I was concerned that bringing him back again could only ruin that. Seeing him become a mentor to Apollo Creed's son justifies that risk. From acting to writing to directing, this movie fires on all cylinders. It manages the neat trick of feeling like a Rocky film for the old-timers, and a Creed film with a wizened mentor for the young 'uns. This movie wouldn't work if we didn't care about Creed, and Ryan Coogler and co-writer Aaron Covington have created a new lead so engaging that (as with THE FORCE AWAKENS) longtime fans won't be checking their watches waiting for the next time Stallone shows up.

2. The Martian - Matt Damon plays an astronaut named Mark Watney who's presumed dead when his flight crew has to evacuate Mars in the middle of a storm. As it turns out, he's very much alive and can't expect another mission to rescue him for four years. Oh, and there's the small matter of how he doesn't have a direct communication line to NASA to tell them he's still alive in the first place. On top of that, his rations will run out well before any rescue, which means he has to somehow figure out a way to grow crops on a planet with no oxygen. It's stirring to see these people given an unsolvable puzzle - one that's fleshed out from several angles - and then figure out an equally complex solution. There are so many variables to every possible course of action, which makes the obstacles feel real and not just convenient roadblocks to be hurdled. I said in my original review that this is the kind of film that screenwriting classes will study and I still stand by that.

3. Spotlight - In some ways, this is little more than a procedural set within a newspaper. It's plot-driven, based on the true story of The Boston Globe's expose on sex abuse by members of the clergy in the Boston area. Since it's not character-driven, that means the script needs a more subtle hand in developing its characters. Michael Keaton gives a less showy performance than in last year's BIRDMAN, but it's at least as interesting. (Roger Ebert once rhapsodized about how a mark of good acting was watching an actor "think." You can see Keaton "thinking" at several points here.) Screenwriting homework: Study the build-up to Stanley Tucci's entrance if you're looking for a way to build anticipation for a character's arrival. Most of all, I love this film because it's a tribute to the kind of journalism we see too little of these days in real life.

4. Love & Mercy - I don't know who I'm more in awe of, Paul Dano or John Cusack, both of whom channel Brian Wilson at two key stages in his life. This might be my favorite Cusack performance since BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and he absolutely captures Wilson's essence despite not looking much like him. Dano IS a dead ringer for younger Wilson and is completely captivating. Forget the stories about all the people THE REVENANT almost killed, the real "that's insanely amazing" behind the scenes story is how LOVE & MERCY dressed real session players in period clothing and just turned Paul Dano loose in-character, shooting the scene documentary-style as he ad-libbed based on what he knew of Wilson. There's not enough space in this capsule review to get into all the reasons I loved this film, but I want to make mention of Paul Giamatti's depiction of the controlling Dr. Eugene Landy. I don't know if he's ever been scarier. It's a shame that none of these three men (or Elizabeth Banks, who's also quite good) seem to have much Oscar buzz behind them this year.

5. Mad Max: Fury Road - MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is a helluva ride. That's really all you need to know because this is one of those rare films where it's more of an experience rather than a two-hour photoplay. Gravity might be the only release in recent history to compare, being a film that's seemingly light on story and plot but still incredibly powerful and evocative. There's merit in comparing this film to the action orgys of the Transformers/Battleship school of filmmaking. Why does one seemingly require the viewer to force themselves not to examine the film too closely while the other effortlessly earns the audiences emotional investment? "Battleformers" is a sort of movie where the action eventually becomes boring as its assault on our senses eventually leaves us numb. Chicago and Beijing are nearly reduced to rubble throughout those films and while MAD MAX's violence never even threatens a city. Yet the viewer cares more for the half-dozen good-guys in the later than they do for any victims in the former. It's not about the size of the target. It's about the audience's connection to the target.

6. Star Wars: The Force Awakens - This was my favorite film of the year. Somehow, it managed to be even more powerful on the second viewing where all the emotional beats hit even harder. I don't hate the prequels the way many fans of the original trilogy do, but if J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan had screwed this one up, it would be a lot harder to forgive. Yes, it has maybe a few too many callbacks to A NEW HOPE, and coincidence moves along the plot more times than necessary, but movies aren't entirely intellectual exercises. The moviegoing experience can be as much about how a movie makes you feel than about the mechanics - and this movie made me feel like a kid again. I can over look a few nitpicks for that. (spoiler-free review here.)

7. Inside Out  - Speaking of how movies make you feel... this movie. What could have just been a fun romp inside the subconscious of a pre-teen is made more resonant by a willingness to dive headfirst into real emotions. Imaginary friend Bing Bong could have been a simple jester character, but instead there's poignancy in how he's been long forgotten, especially with his eventual fate. Lest things get too serious, some of the other emotional avatars are always ready with a joke (Lewis Black as Anger is particularly adept at stealing scenes.) But maybe the main writing lesson to take from this is how the easy way to write this would have just been a quest to get the missing memories. The writers' efforts at keeping everything tied to emotion, both inside and outside Riley's head, gives the film a depth many childrens' cartoons lack - while still meeting those young minds on their level.

8. Ex Machina - I've got a weakness for these sorts of smaller, limited-location, character driven films. A programmer named Caleb is asked to spend a week at the home of his CEO, who wants him to interact with the artificial intelligence he's developed, housed in the android body of a young woman. The programmer is there to provide a Turing test, which is a way of evaluating if a machine's behavior is indistinguishable from real human behavior. It's not long before Caleb appears to be a pawn, with the man question being, "Who's really manipulating him, and to what end?"

9. Batkid Begins - This is one of those films that will renew your faith in humanity. You probably remember two years ago when the Make-A-Wish Foundation helped turn San Francisco into Gotham City so 5 year-old leukema patient Miles could play "Batkid." Guided around by an actor dressed as Batman, Miles saved a sports mascot from The Penguin, foiled a bank robbery by the Riddler and took on a few other villains. This is the story of that massive good deed and all the people who worked to make it happen. You'll want to nominate Make-A-Wish Executive Director Patricia Wilson for sainthood after you see how she pulled together all these resources to give this kid a special day. Just as moving is seeing the good will of all the spectators, the people who were there just because they wanted to be a part of something good.

10. Faults - Summing up Riley Stearns's feature debut, FAULTS, without blowing too many details that are best left discovered for oneself is a tricky prospect. What I can tell you is what it displays an abundance of from its writer/director: confidence. I'm a sucker for these sorts of "two-characters-stuck-in-a-room-together" thrillers when done right and cults have always been a particular fascination for me, so this is about as tailor-made for me as an indie movie gets. If you're tempted to think that a film centered largely on two actors in one room is an "idiot proof" prospect for a director, you need to realize there are probably about fifty ways FAULTS could have gone wrong, even with it starting from an incredibly solid script. Leland Orser and Mary Elizabeth Winstead also give very strong performances in this very unique, funny and unusual thriller.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

My top 20 films for 2015

So we again come to my Top 20 films for last year. Today we'll cover 11-20, with the Top 10 revealed tomorrow. I saw just shy of 60 movies from last year, so there are going to be some I haven't seen yet. ROOM is the one I most regret missing, along with BRIDGE OF SPIES. I also have yet to see JOY, TRUMBO, and THE REVENANT, but everything I've heard about those suggests that they probably wouldn't have entered my Top 20.

I missed others, but I suspect those are the ones people will bring up. As these are capsule reviews, I'll refrain from major spoilers.

11. The Stanford Prison Experiment - I'd been hearing big things about this one since Sundance last year. This is a college psych experiment gone horribly wrong... or perhaps more right than its originator, Professor Zimbardo had ever dreamed. 24 student volunteers are gathered, with half of them spending two weeks as prison guards and half of them spending two weeks as their prisoners. It takes shockingly little time for the guards to become abusive in their power, and it's just as disconcerting when the prisoners submit nearly as fast. In particular, I like the relatively subtle way we're shown that Zimbardo is as equally corrupted by his own authority in the experiment as his "guards."

12. Me And Earl and the Dying Girl - The story of a young man who's forced to give comfort to a classmate suffering from leukemia. As the film reminds us (perhaps too often), this is not the feel-good "Hollywood" version of the story. Romance doesn't blossom between Greg and the ailing Rachel. Indeed, Rachel - played by the wonderful Olivia Cooke - is allowed to be a bit more of a raw nerve than these stories cast their cancer patients as. I liked The Fault in Our Stars, but this is very much the anti-Fault, the less romanticized version of the story. I can see the argument that the film at times is a little too cute with its own meta-ness (a subplot has Greg and Earl making a film), but the ending pulls it back from that brink. I think I appreciated the film more than I loved it, but it's still a wonderful piece of work.
13. The Gift - I nearly wrote this one off from the trailers as just another stalker thriller. Fortunately there were enough rumblings about this being a very compelling script that I saw the movie before the big twists were blown for me. What elevates this thriller is the careful character work and the subtle performances. Joel Edgerton (who also directs from his own screenplay here) plays his role very finely on the line where he might be dangerous or he might just be a little "awkward." For a while, it seems like we might be in for a darker version of What About Bob. Bit by bit, we start seeing other shadings to Jason Bateman's character and by the time the big twists arrive, the character work elevates those moments above being mere shock value.

14. Straight Outta Compton - I'll confess I don't have much knowldege of hip-hop, particularly the era documented here. Thus, the story behind the early days of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Easy-E didn't hold much compelling interest for me as a reason to see the film. Still, I found myself pulled into this story, particularly with what it has to say about the relationship between the police and the black community. It feels relevant now in the wake of a number of recently documented police abuses, and then you realize it was relevant when it was shot, just around the time of Ferguson. Then sadly you realize there's probably no point between now and the time the film documents where there wasn't racial tension between the black community and the police, spurred on by a possible law enforcement overreach. Sadly, the lack of accountability in the Tamir Rice shooting indicates that this film will remain relevant for many, many years to come.

15. The Nightmare - Horror films never really scare me, but you know what gets under my skin? Paranormal "documentaries." When I was a kid, the Time-Life commercials for Mysteries of the Unknown were probably the most unsettling thing I'd ever seen. The Nightmare is cut from the same cloth, a documentary about sleep paralysis and the utterly terrifying hallucinations and experiences it subjects people to.
16. Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films - For what's largely a "talking heads" documentary, this look at the work of schlockmeisters Menahem Golan and his partner Yoram Globus is endlessly entertaining. At one point, these men were producing nearly 50 films a year, most of them incomprehensible. Most of the earlier years is dominated by exploitation flicks just shy of soft core porn, but later they tried to make inroads into respectability by making MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE and SUPERMAN IV. The best part of the documentary tends to be the many, many tall tales, from numerous imitations of Golan, to one collaborator noting "We didn't make films for the audience. If you came to our films, they were something to be suffered through."

17. The Big Short - If this movie doesn't make you angry, then you didn't pay close enough attention. Adam McKay's film follows three teams of people who stumble onto a disturbing truth in the early 2000s - the housing market is built with a foundation of quicksand. Not only that, but the collapse is inevitable, imminent, and they can make a LOT of money betting against the market. We didn't really need another reminder that banks are scum and some really terrible people need to be in jail rather than still walking the streets... or did we? It's a shame that films like this can't spur on real change in the system. It's an excellent argument for capital punishment in white collar crime. Call me for the Hank Paulson perp walk.

18. Spy - I haven't always enjoyed Melissa McCarthy's comedies. In fact, I think she's often better used as a supporting character, as her characters wear out their welcome when they monopolize the screentime. Spy is an exception, perhaps in part because she's given other strong personalities to play off.  Jason Statham steals several scenes, showing a flair for comic timing no one would have suspected. The film impressively finds laughs in what seems like overdone territory - spoofing James Bond films. Actually, forget it being a spoof - it might actually be a BETTER Bond film than this year's offering, SPECTRE.

19. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation - I didn't love it as much as I loved the previous outing, Ghost Protocol, but if every action film was as committed to interesting set pieces, generating tension and just doing "cool shit" the way the MI series has gone, we'd be in good shape. There's a showmanship to this film that helps smooth out the rough patches that crop up now and then. Both this film and SPECTRE did a little bit of naval gazing into their own past with this year's offerings. The difference is that SPECTRE thought that this sort of inside baseball was what we were paying to see. The opera sequence alone is better than the entirety of SPECTRE, and if we're comparing female leads, Rebecca Ferguson wipes the floor with anything Bond has had to offer in a while, save for Dame Judi Dench.

20. Man Up - It's been way too long since we've had a really great romantic comedy and Man Up excels because it starts with one of my least favorite rom-com conventions (a romance starts with an implausible and inevitably discovered lie solely so its reveal can generate tension) and then just when we think we're ahead of the film, it pops that tension far ahead of schedule. Lake Bell and Simon Pegg also have real chemistry as two older people who feel like complete characters rather than an assemblage of quirks. I'm tempted to call this an anti-rom-com.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

A conversation with Franklin Leonard about all things Black List: podcasts, live readings, website

Last month the annual Black List was released, compiling the "most liked" unproduced scripts of the year for the 11th year in a row. The dawn of a new year seemed like a good chance to check in with Black List founder and CEO for an update on all aspects of the Black List empire, including the Live Readings, the Black List Table Reads podcast and the website. 

We also touch on the yearly list, and the fact that for the last two years, the #1 script on that annual survey has been a discovery from the Black List website.

So you've had a busy year! Let's start with the Black List Live Reads - You staged four readings in LA and two in New York, and speaking as an LA attendee, attendance is nearly sold out, if not completely sold out. Are you surprised by how popular they continue to be?

I’m very excited by how popular they’ve come to be, but I can’t honestly say I’m surprised. The first live reading we ever did was Maggie Carey’s The Hand Job (released as The To Do List) at the Austin Film Festival years ago. It was sold out and utterly hilarious. Between that and Jason Reitman’s Live Reads with Film Independent, I knew there was an appetite for them, and when you take the best screenplays the industry hasn’t yet made and you put great actors onstage performing them, it’s a pretty good proposition for a Saturday night.

Has that made it easier to cast the parts and get approval to use particular scripts?

I think it certainly helps, but honestly a tremendous amount of the credit on the casting goes to Lisa Zagoria, our casting director, and Megan Halpern, the Black List’s Events Director.

Are you at the point where people are lobbying you, "Hey I want to be in one of these?"

We have had a few folks reach out and ask to participate and when they do, we certainly make an effort to figure it out (and if anyone wants to participate, by all means, get in touch.)

Funny thing about that question: the idea for the Black List Table Reads podcast actually began because of such a call from Paul Scheer’s reps. I had been listening to How Did This Get Made religiously for weeks when it came in and between that and the regular tweets from folks who wanted the live reads to be streamed online, it seemed like an obvious extension of what we were already doing.

At each Live Read, you take care to remind every one that this is really the writer's night, but there's no way anything like this would be going on if it weren't for you and the Black List staff. Is there an aspect of the Live Reads that you're most proud of?

Probably that it actually is the writer’s night. It’s not really something that happens anywhere else in Hollywood. We – and by we I mean me, the entire Black List team, especially Megan, and everyone else involved in putting them on – really make a point of following the writer’s lead on how they want to see their script executed and making sure that they’re the star of the show on the night.

What would you say are the most difficult aspects of pulling off these live reads are?

In all fairness, I think Megan’s probably the right person to answer this question, but from my point of view, it’s probably the number of moving parts that go into pulling this off. I know you’ve been to a few of these at this point so you know that there’s a lot that could go wrong, and with the exception of a late start at the first and third due to some audio issues, we’ve managed to avoid any major or even minor issues.

After two reads - GIFTED and CARTOON GIRL - that were stolen by some very young actors, we joked that a future live read should have a cast entirely of child actors. In all seriousness, after staging so many successful readings in the last eighteen months, do you have an itch to take a few more risks with the format? Or to pick the kind of script you might not have selected while you were still building the audience?

At the risk of being a bit coy, suffice it to say that the success that we’ve had thus far has made us quite a bit more ambitious for 2016. Rest assured you’ll see some stuff in 2016 that we wouldn’t have thought to attempt in 2015.

Moving on to the Podcast, there have been some changes for season two. Specifically, you're not serializing the table read podcasts anymore. What sort of feedback did you get from season one?

The feedback from season one was universally positive with one great exception. Audiences hated the fact that they’d get thirty minutes into a script and then have to wait a week to find out what happens next. They were loud and clear about that, and we couldn’t help but listen. Honestly, I’m really proud of how we responded, and the feedback on Season 2 reflects the good work that the entire team has done. Being named one of iTunes best podcasts of 2015 and the Guardian’s best podcasts that isn’t Serial is frankly beyond my wildest dreams this early in the process.

Knowing the numbers geek that you are, I'm sure you've poured over all the download data from the first season and tried to learn what you can from it. Who is the audience for the Black List Table Reads? Do you have any sense that a notable percentage of your listeners are coming to you through Earwolf's audience and not necessarily the sort of aspiring writers who are already active in the Screenwriting blogosphere/Twittersphere? Or to put it another way, does it feel like the podcast is reaching an audience that was completely unaware of the yearly Black List up to this point?

This is a tough question for me to answer, because we actually don’t yet have data rich enough for me to analyze, though obviously I’m looking forward to it greatly. Anecdotally, based primarily on the social media response to the podcast, we’re definitely reaching beyond the audience that is aware of and has professional use for the annual Black List or our website. I imagine it would be hard for us to be ranked as highly as we are on the iTunes charts if we weren’t.

Are there plans for any episodes that might be drawn from the Black List website as opposed to the yearly list?

To date, all but one of the scripts for the podcast have been taken from the site, and that one exception was our debut script BALLS OUT. We chose that one because it was the first ever script to make the jump from the internet to the annual Black List (which was symbolic of what we wanted to do with the podcast) and because it fit well with the Earwolf/Wolfpop brand and talent relationships.

What sort of criteria do you look for when selecting something for the podcast?

Very simply, we’re looking for scripts that have the highest ratings on the site with a particular eye toward high ratings for dialogue, for probably obvious reasons.

Regarding the website, is there any sense that the "new toy" aspect might have worn off in terms of it being a useful scouting tool for reps and producers? It's been a long time since your last data drop.

It has been a long time since a massive data drop but look for that to be remedied in the first half of 2016.

Short answer: no, I don’t worry much about new toy dynamics with the Black List, because we continue to deliver on the promise of enabling great storytelling by changing the way things have been done historically.

After three years, do you have a bigger picture of the kinds of success stories the site can facilitate? Are unknowns still able to get traction there?

In the last year alone, five films have been produced based on screenplays discovered via the website including NIGHTINGALE, which was nominated for two Emmys and a Golden Globe, and ZINZANA, an Arabic language genre film that played the London Film Festival and Fantastic Fest based on a English language screenplay by a husband and wife from my home state of Georgia.

Possibly the most remarkable thing though – and this I was only made aware of days after the 2015 list came out so maybe we can make some news here – the last two #1 scripts on the Black List have come from writers discovered by their representatives because of the Black List website.

Kristina Lauren Anderson based on CATHERINE THE GREAT (which topped the 2014 Black List after a strong showing on the site) and FOREVER JIAYING (which will be movie number seven in this season of the podcast). Isaac Adamson based on a script that preceded BUBBLES, which topped the 2015 list.

As we go into 2016, what place does the site have in the industry?

I think we’re still in the very early stages of being a hyper-efficient marketplace where writers of great work can have their work discovered by people who can do something with it, and folks looking for good material can find exactly what they’re looking for much more efficiently than anywhere else.

Do you have any data on how many industry pros are coming to the site on their own, versus only arriving there in response to an alert email?

We don’t have numbers on the percentage of industry members who arrive to the site because of alert emails, and I’m not sure I’d trust those numbers even if we did have them because folks could receive an email, login without clicking the link, and then go in search of a script mentioned in the email (I know I do sometimes.)

I think the best indicator of industry pro activity on the site might be the number of unique downloads we’ve seen over the life of the site, more than 42,000, and the average number of downloads scripts receive with high scores of 10, 9, 8, and 7: 61.4, 35.9, 15.5, and 2.8 respectively.

Is it harder to get noticed on the site now than it was in late 2012, early 2013?

Probably, but only because more writers (and I suspect more experienced writers) are using the site than did in the early days before there were success stories like the ones we now have. I think you see this in the numbers as well. The average number of downloads for scripts with a high score of 7 has gone down since our first annual report while the average number of downloads for a script with a high score of 8 has gone up slightly (3.3%) and the number of downloads for a script with a high score of 9 has gone up dramatically (43%)

After over a decade of seeing stories of all kind land on the list alongside each other, were there any scripts on there this year that completely surprised you? (And here I'm speaking of an idea that seemed so original that you can't believe it had never been done before, not in a "How did THAT get on the List" sort of way.)

I think I’m still surprised when two scripts about the same subject matter make the list. This year it was the making of The Godfather. Two years ago it was the making of Jaws.

It’s also quite strange to see my “write an inflection-point biopic about someone who folks between the ages of 25-45 feel some sort of nostalgia” advice continue to be quite so on the mark.

The Black List brand encompasses so much now, as this interview demonstrates. Is there ever a point where you worry about taking on too much? You and your staff make it look easy, but the lack of competition suggests it's not at all effortless to manage a yearly list, multiple live readings, a podcast, and your Screenwriting Workshops.

We have a team of five (plus our readers):

· Me
· Dino Sijamic, my co-founder and CTO
· Terry Huang, our Director of Product and Data
· Megan Halpern, our Director of Events
· Kate Hagen, our Director of Community 

And special mention goes to Scott Myers, whose blog Go Into the Story is the official screenwriting blog of the Black List and is frankly required reading in my mind.

Suffice it to say that we’re enormously proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish thus far, but we’re just getting started.

What have you learned from that success that could make a good life lesson for anyone who aspires to build something that covers as much scope as The Black List does?

Impact optimization is always more fulfilling than profit optimization, which in my experience is true in most aspects of life worth exploring.

Monday, January 4, 2016

That time Jane Espenson answered my letter

I spent some of the holiday break cleaning out my office and in doing so, came across some material that has survived several moves with me. I had completely forgotten about this letter, which was a reply sent to me by writer Jane Espenson in March of 2003. At the time, she was just wrapping up work on the final season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Since then she's worked on Battlestar Galactic, Dollhouse, Caprica, Once Upon a Time and co-created Husbands.

I had moved to LA a few months earlier and wrote just under a dozen letters to a number of my favorite TV writers. Longtime readers of this blog might remember my story about writing a letter to Ronald D. Moore (Star Trek, BSG, Roswell) a few years earlier and getting a phone call from Ron in response. I figured I'd had little to lose by trying again, and Jane was the only one who wrote back, which was VERY cool of her.

As it's full of some good advice for people wanting to know how to get started in TV, I've decided to put a picture of the letter up here. Consider this essential advice from someone on the inside.

Because I'm sure people will ask, I don't remember exactly who else I wrote to. I know Joss Whedon was one of them. I'm pretty sure Greg Berlanti was another, along with Tim Minear. Possibly Kevin Williamson. For most of them, I used the Hollywood Creative Directory at the office where I was interning in order to get the address of either their agents or the shows they worked on. Using the address of the agent or the network is always a risk because who knows if it'll get forwarded on. By the time I got around to sending Jane's letter, I think I'd gotten the address for the Mutant Enemy production offices, and so it went more directly to her than to some of my other targets.

When I posted this on Twitter, someone asked if I think I'd have as much luck trying this today. I'm not sure. I think if I was just some dude on Twitter, despite the ease of access there, I'd probably still try the snail mail approach. There's something about a personal letter that seems likely to provoke a response in a way that a tweet or email won't. I don't think writers get much fan mail sent to them personally so a physical letter probably stands out among all the electronic feedback they get on their work.

Monday, December 21, 2015

A spoiler-filled reflection on STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

Obligatory warning - this post is going to discuss all the major plot points from THE FORCE AWAKENS. This is your spoiler warning right here, so turn back now. If you wish a spoiler-free examination of the film, you can find that here.

Luke Skywalker - It's a testament to how good the film is that Luke doesn't appear until the final minute, and yet it still is one of the best Star Wars films to date. I like the mythic reputation the character has taken on in-universe and it really makes the whole "search for Luke Skywalker drive" really carry weight. Now the ball is in Episode VIII's court. It has to be worthy of all the build-up this film gave our exiled Jedi.

Leia - Carrie Fisher's screen time is briefer than Harrison Ford's, but Leia's encounters with Han are a highlight of the film. Fisher's persona has more recently been brasher and more humorous than Leia's, to the point where I was concerned that it might be hard to see the outspoken actress as a more reserved leader. I need not have worried. this feels like the same woman who took charge of her own rescue and later commanded the evacuation of Hoth.

It's a disappointment that she apparently didn't undergo any Jedi training. In JEDI she was held out as the last hope, but here, she's the same political leader she was before, albeit with a higher rank. How cool would it have been to see Leia light up a purple lightsaber during a ground assault? Or have her use some kind of Force abilities to gain insight into the attack? Or to reach out and try to communicate with Kylo Ren? (Or her own brother for that matter?) I like the Leia we got, but I can't help but feel an opportunity was missed here.

Kylo Ren's backstory - From the first images of Kylo Ren, people were theorizing that he was a Skywalker or Solo child, if not Luke himself. The film wasted no time dropping teases about his parentage, so it's no great shock that he's revealed as Han and Leia's son. I wish we'd gotten a little more of a tease as to exactly how his corruption by Supreme Leader Snoke happened. Even just giving us a vague point on the timeline would help. How old was he when he turned? Did his fall precede Rey being abandoned as a child?

How does a child born to two leaders of the Rebel Alliance, and trained by the man who destroyed the Sith become determined to follow an evil path? It's like an Orthodox Jew deciding to be the next Hitler. He's definitely got a warped view of Darth Vader, but does that mean he doesn't believe the story that Luke surely told? That Vader renounced his evil ways before his death? There's a key scene I'll get to later where he unmasks and he gives off the impression of being a brainwashed cult member. Adam Driver does great work, but I'd have loved just a few more bread crumbs about his turn and his goal beyond "finish[ing] what [Darth Vader] started."

Supreme Leader Snoke - At this point, he's not much more than the Emperor was in EMPIRE STRIKES BACK - a mysterious figure communicating via hologram. The "Great and Powerful Oz" routine has me suspicious that we're not seeing his real form there. At a minimum, I don't think he's going to be remotely that big in person. I wonder about his history with Skywalker. Were they close? Was Snoke a Jedi instructor who infiltrated Luke's academy to corrupt Kylo Ren? It might be interesting if he was a Jedi who survived the Order 66 Purge, only to embrace the Dark Side late in life. (Hell, it might even work out that he was an escaped youngling from Anakin's attack on the Jedi Temple.

Coincidence after Coincidence - There's an adage that you're allowed one coincidence per film. I tend to look at that as a loose guideline, but the motivation behind that "rule" is worth keeping in mind. When too many coincidences drive the plot, the audience can sense the film "cheating." You don't want contrivance taking a too big a hand in things.

I can buy into the idea that the Millennium Falcon is just sitting there on Jakku, waiting for Rey and Finn to steal it. And you know what, I'll even spot the film the huge coincidence that Han Solo is able to track and recapture the Falcon almost immediately. What feels too convenient for me is the fact that Maz Kanata just happens to have Luke's old lightsaber. The last time we saw that thing, it was falling down a deep pit in Cloud City. I would have loved at least a hint of an explanation for how it went from A to B, rather than putting us off for a later explanation that will probably never come.

Rey's parentage - After the film, I immediately rejected the idea that Rey could be Han and Leia's daughter. There were just too many pieces that didn't seem to fit. It also felt like we weren't given enough information to really conclude she could be Luke's offspring, even if the film seems to want us to consider that. I decided that might be a mislead to keep us from considering other parentage. Could she be a descendant of Obi-Wan? Of Supreme Leader Snoke?

Then I read this excellent Film School Rejects speculation piece and it completely turned me around on the Solo child theory. Give it a read.

Another megaweapon? - In-universe I get it. These Death Star-level mega weapons can totally upset the balance of power. It's an important part of any arsenal. But three out of the last four (numerically) episodes have utilized one of these planet killing weapons. It doesn't help that they're always destroyed the same way - a tiny flaw that lets enemy firepower take out a crucial reactor. As much as the whole movie is a riff on A NEW HOPE, here's where I really wanted something more original. The preponderance of planet killing weapons was what quickly turned the Extended Universe novels in to an aspect of the franchise that deserved to die and I really hope we won't see another of these in Episodes XVIII and IX.

It's a fool's game to poke at the science in these films, but I think Starkiller Base is ridiculously implausible. As visualized on-screen, it either happens to be in the exact same system as five other Republic planets it attacks, or it fires a laser capable of traveling at hyperspeed. The former reeks of contrivance and the latter makes the weapon too powerful and scientifically ridiculous. (Which is also a factor if the whole planet is mobile.)

The political situation - After the endless talks of trade disputes and taxation in the prequels, I never expected people to come out of the new film craving "More politics." However, I have to concur that the situation between The First Order and the Resistance could have used some clarifying. We're told the Republic is backing the Resistance, but the implication seems to be that the Republic is considered the more legitimate governing body while The First Order is more of an insurgency (or at best, the equivalent of the Southern States in the Civil War.)

Yet the First Order seems to operate as if they have all the dominance that the Empire did in its prime, while the Resistance is reduced to hiding in remote bases. (And again, why is a military force supported by the dominant power called "the Resistance?" That's not the sort of name you'd give to something like the U.S. Military.)

Finn's skill with the lightsaber - I call massive bullshit on Finn lasting more than 15 seconds in a lightsaber duel with a Force-adept opponent who's been using his weapon for years. It's maybe the falsest moment in the entire film. In contrast...

Rey's Force skills - On one hand, it's a little absurd that Rey's Force abilties already outstrip Luke's in A NEW HOPE despite less training. Compare her pulling the lightsaber to her to all the effort Luke expends in EMPIRE trying to get his weapon while in the ice cave. And then there's the fact she displays the mind control it took Luke until JEDI to use. The topper to all of this is her duel with Kylo Ren, where she not only matches his skill, but decisively defeats him. He's only saved by a conveniently-forming chasm. Rey opening up a can of whoopass on Ren makes for one of the best lightsaber battles ever. It's a fist-pumping moment big enough to make us overlook that she's a complete novice.

But my theory is that this adeptness on her part is neither mistake, nor contrivance. She might be a latently-powerful Force-user, one whose natural ability can outstrip even Luke's. Kylo Ren's no novice, so the movie knows what it's doing in having Ren match him in combat. I hope this will be explored in later chapters.

The Map to Luke Skywalker - As a MacGuffin, this worked for me up until the point we saw it actually executed. I could go with the idea that the map is just a jigsaw puzzle piece-ike fragment. What feels aggressively convenient to me is that R2-D2 just so happens to have every part of that star chart except for that precisely missing fragment - to the point where his charts are displayed with a big gaping hole.

Artoo having shut himself down of his own accord, apparently, and then springing back to life when the plot requires it also rankles. Would it have been so hard to just have Artoo damaged in a battle and undergoing repairs until the moment when the script needs him to analyze the map? It also might have helped if Artoo first studied the map fragment, then made use of that data by triangulating some of the stars in it with stars that he already knew. The end result would still be that data in his memory banks gives the map the context needed to figure out where to go, but these changes would make it slightly less easy on our heroes.

The Death of Han Solo - From the moment Han stepped out on to that walkway, it was evident he was a dead man. The parallels to Obi-Wan's death in A NEW HOPE were just too strong, particularly when Finn and Rey arrive to bear witness from a distance. Being certain of the outcome didn't lessen the tension one bit for me. If anything, it heightened it. My heart has not been pounding like that in a film for a very long time.

Han Solo reaches out to his son, a confused young man consumed by evil but clearly struggling with a good that threatens to awaken in him. Speaking like a programmed cult member, Ren tries to shut his father's words out and sees only one path that will ensure he can never return to the light again - he impales his father.

It is possibly the single most visceral act of evil depicted on screen in any of the STAR WARS films. Sure, we've seen planets blow up, but never with people we know on them. The deaths of billions is almost too abstract a concept to empathize with - but the painful death of one of the most beloved film characters of all time? That's epic in its emotional investment. The fact his given name is "Ben," presumably after Jedi Kenobi, only twists the knife further.

Chewie's reaction was equally heartbreaking. He doesn't hesitate for a second to fire at Ren. This is significant because the lore tells us that Chewie was bound to Han by a life debt. Han saved his life years ago and Wookie culture demanded Chewie remain indebted to Han. Some books have extrapolated that this would extend to Han's children. If that was at all true in this continuity, Chewie's attempt to avenge Han shows that he doesn't consider Ren to be Han's son any longer.

I may have regarded Darth Vader as pure evil, but I never wanted him dead the way I want Kylo Ren dead now.  DEAD. PAINFULLY. I want Luke, Leia and Chewie each to get a shot in, perhaps each taking off a limb. We surely will get the usual talk of redemption, of saving this wayward soul from the darkness... but I don't care. There's nothing there to save, nothing worth saving. He made his choice. I've never felt that Anakin really deserved to die as a hero after all he did and Ren deserves even less consideration.

STAR WARS exists in a universe where morality is absolute. Black and white. Good and Evil. Ren's patricide is an act without redemption. He made his choice, and I doubt there are few viewers who don't want to see him burn for it.

It's a powerful way to draw the film to a close, and one that makes us hungry to see the fallout among the older characters, and especially how they treat Kylo Ren at their next encounter.

We have less than two years until the next episode and already it feels like forever. J.J. Abrams gave us a new chapter that was a dose of the familiar mixed with some bold and powerful moves for the franchise. J.J. threw down the gauntlet. Now it'll be Rian Johnson's turn to deliver.

Friday, December 18, 2015

A spoiler-free review of THE FORCE AWAKENS

A note about this review - I have endeavored to keep this as spoiler-free as possible. I'll have another post next week dealing with more specific discussion of major elements that I don't think it would be fair to blow for unsuspecting viewers. If you've watched the trailers and maybe seen a bit of the press tour, I won't be revealing much here that you don't know. For another post where I drill into the specifics of the big twists, what worked and what didn't, come back next week.

THE FORCE AWAKENS is the STAR WARS movie I've been waiting for since I first watched RETURN OF THE JEDI on VHS. It's not a perfect film, but it feels like more of a piece with the STAR WARS universe than much of the prequels, and I'm hardly a prequel hater. It doesn't feel slavishly devoted to the filmmaking style of the original trilogy, but still plays like an evolution forward from that theory. This is a tactile universe in a way that the prequel universe isn't. I'm able to appreciate the aesthetic design of the prequels on their own merits. That whole venture is different enough I don't feel the need to tear it down for NOT trying to look exactly like the originals.

But man, does THE FORCE AWAKENS feel like coming home. Things have changed, some things are very different, but you recognize the feel of this world - the way things move through it, the way the people inhabit it. It's kinetic. It's REAL. All of it.

A particularly savvy move on the part of JJ Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt is to build this film around the quest for a living legend - Luke Skywalker has been gone for some time now. Exactly how long is unclear. Evidence in the film seems to hint with as long as 15 years or as little as a few. In the time since JEDI, the fall of the Empire has given birth to two warring factions - the Republic, which backs The Resistance, the current designation for the Rebellion; and The First Order. All you need to know about The First Order is that they're the Imperials, and that the Nazi parallels get even less subtle.

In the 30-plus years since the Empire's defeat, the name "Luke Skywalker" has passed into legend. Even a young woman raised on the backwater desert world of Jakku and a man trained from childhood to be a Stormtrooper know who he is. The former is Rey, a beautiful scavenger who also happens to be an excellent pilot and a great combat fighter. She's thrust into a larger world after encountering the droid BB-8, carrying some secret data that the Empire wants - a map to Luke Skywalker. She soon crosses paths with Finn, a deserter Stormtrooper now being hunted after helping BB-8's master escape The First Order. Before long, the two make their escape in a craft that Rey initially dismisses as "garbage" - the Millennium Falcon.

Abrams talent for casting continues with Rey and Finn. The unknown Daisy Ridley is instantly likable and engaging as Rey. She not only stands with the best of Abrams's heroines, but with the STAR WARS gold standard of Princess Leia herself. She's got the spitfire and the pure likability that too often was missing from the prequels' Padme. The childhood crushes that my generation had on Princess Leia are probably nothing compared to what today's lads will have for Rey. By the end of the film, she's essentially been positioned as the successor to Han, Luke and Leia in terms of the character traits she's inherited. She's a child of the original trilogy, in a figurative, if not literal sense.

John Boyega's Finn makes a compelling sidekick for Rey, and his introduction is done so well that you're almost tricked into thinking it's his journey that we're on. After six films that depicted Stormtroopers as either clones or faceless cannon fodder, it's immediately fresh to go behind the helmet of these drones and find a scared young man who just wants to run. When he saves ace Resistance pilot Poe Dameron, it's not out of any heroic motivations - he just needs a pilot to get him off the... are we still calling them Star Destroyers? He gets a journey similar to Han's in the first film, going from being in it for himself to committing to something greater.

One of the sheer delights of this film is that I wasn't sitting there restless, waiting for the reappearance of the "legacy characters." I got so caught up in the plight of Rey, Finn and BB-8 that I felt like they were the people I came to see. They could have carried a film that had nothing to do with the original characters. If they are indeed to be the centerpiece of this new trilogy, then this series is in good hands.

Before long, they encounter Han Solo and Chewbacca. In one of the film's best gags, Finn knows of Han's rep as a general for the Rebellion, while Rey excitedly identifies him as "the pilot who made the Kessel Run in 14 parsecs!" Harrison Ford slides back into Han's boots in a way that I honestly wasn't sure was possible. His last several roles have seen him play alternating variations on "gruff" and "angry." Even his return to Indiana Jones couldn't escape that, with Indy frequently feeling like a far cry from the rogue archeologist we all know and love.

From Ford's first entry into frame, it's clear - this is Han Solo. He's older, and more grizzled, but his heart's intact. His interaction with Chewie feels as sharp as ever, just as his moments with Leia are as moving as some of their best stuff. Ford and Carrie Fisher bring the weight of 40 years of history into their interactions, even if her role is more limited than his. It's probably fair to say that Han has one of the more emotional arcs of the film, perhaps even more than the character has been called to carry in earlier entries.

And yet, the film doesn't feel like it lazily trades on our nostalgia. The movie earns most of its emotional payoffs, though they are clearly enriched by the shared history we have in this universe. It's even more remarkable that it's able to do that while essentially retreading a lot of the beats of A NEW HOPE. (Or STAR WARS to the purists.) I thought it was a lazy and inaccurate criticism when people called Abrams's STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS "a remake of THE WRATH OF KHAN." Those two films have little in common aside from a villain, an aspect of the climax, and an important line. The plot, themes and character arcs are completely different between the two films.

But THE FORCE AWAKENS is very deliberately using the structure of the original film in a way that brings it much closer to that entry than the relationship between KHAN/DARKNESS. A great deal is gained by sending wildly different characters through that same structural path, but it doesn't change the fact that every major new element of this film has a direct analog to the original characters. This isn't necessarily a criticism - CREED (and ROCKY BALBOA before it) used this to excellent effect in drawing off of the original ROCKY. And sometimes the contrast lets us notice interesting departures.

This might be most relevant with regard to the film's major villains, Kylo Ren. I'll save some of my deeper thoughts on this for a future spoiler-filled article, but though he wears the black cloak and helmet, he's not Darth Vader. Vader was a very controlled, almost cold villain. When Obi-Wan assessed "He's more machine now than man" it was true in more ways than one. Yet, that seems to fly in the face of the prequel assertion that the Sith "are ruled by their passion."

There's a moment where Ren gets a report from a First Order officer who has failed him. The beat plays like we're about to get the standard "bad guy strangles lackey for his incompetence" moment. That's not what we get. Instead, Ren gives in to pure rage. In a way it makes him more terrifying than Vader because he's so unpredictable. It's hard to discuss too much about Ren without getting into plot details. I think it'll suffice to say that by the end of this film, I never wanted Vader dead as badly as I want Ren to meet an ugly end. Adam Driver has created an infinitely hatable badguy in all the right ways.

It's not perfect. There's at least one major parallel to A NEW HOPE that I think the film would have been better served without. There's also an incredible reliance on coincidence throughout the story. I could grant the first big one, accepted the second, but by the time it comes for a major buy-in about halfway through, I wouldn't blame the audience for balking at that convenience. I wish a couple major plot discoveries didn't feel too easy for our heroes. The film moves fast enough that we can roll with it, but when you reflect on the movie later, the contrivance stings a bit.

I attended with my wife, who said she liked it but felt she'd been overhyped to the point that many things, even the crowd reaction, felt like a letdown. She's not a STAR WARS fan, has only seen each film once, and one of her most immediate responses was "I felt like I knew where every twist was going before it happened." I can't argue with a lot of that. For me, there were a lot of points where knowing worked for me, as the anticipation built suspense. There was one scene where it was blatantly obvious where we were going, but my heart was pounding like it did in no other film this year, just the same.

It all comes down to the characters. After two hours, I not only cared about the old friends we revisited along the way, but was invested in many new faces. THE FORCE AWAKENS brought humanity back to STAR WARS, and I can't wait to see where the saga goes forward from here.