Friday, August 21, 2015

Check out Go Into The Story's interview with John Gary

Scott Myers is running an interview this week with my friend John Gary over on Go Into The Story. John is one of the many fine people I've met through Twitter over the years, and we've bonded through our similar outlook on the business at times, as well as our mutual histories as agency readers.

John's having a big week, as Deadline just announced that his screenplay SARAH has been acquired by Lionsgate's Summit. Buried in Deadline's announcement is the additional news that John is rewriting a film called OFF-WORLD for Paramount, with Josh Duhamel set to star.

(Having read SARAH, I'm rather perplexed by Deadline's comparison of it to LUCY. I don't see the two as being similar at all, beyond the fact both star young women and have action sequences.)

A lot of what John says in the interview really resonates with me. Speaking about the job of script reading, John observes:

"It is very easy to get stuck with velvet handcuffs when you’re pulling in good money for work that is pretty easy, not all that time consuming, you’ve been doing it for awhile and you’re getting the good scripts and you have some respect at work, and you’re complacent and it’s easier to read another script than it is to write something of your own. But in the end, you have to write."

SO. TRUE. I have lived this.

Later, John discusses how he reversed a cold streak in his career:

"I looked around and saw other people, other friends, and they were finding some success, so I knew there was a way in. I took a step back, and I said to myself, “What am I missing here?” and the thing I was missing was I was writing what I thought I should write, instead of what I wanted to write. I’d been listening to too many other people, and I’d stopped listening to myself.

"I fired my manager. I joined a small writer’s group. I needed to get back to what works for me creatively. I needed to figure out again what I liked to do. I’d forgotten by then. I’d gotten too wrapped up in chasing the machine, pining for success. But writing what you love is only half of the equation. Writing what Hollywood loves is the other half.

"I have this theory, and it’s a theory about who you are as a writer and what Hollywood does. It’s a Venn Diagram. There’s one circle – what Hollywood does. There’s another circle – what kind of writer you are. And this includes what you like to write and what you’re good at and what kind of writing really lights you on fire. The intersection of those two circles: that’s what you should write."

 Four parts have been posted so far, with more to follow.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

And don't forget to check out an archive post of mine: John Gary and the Hope Machine.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

On Mystery Exec and the value of your own identity

I usually keep the twitter-specific drama to Twitter, but this week one particular event occurred that seemed worth noting. The anonymous tweeter known as @MysteryExec nuked his account. The gentleman behind this moniker claimed to be a studio executive of some kind and in recent years, had taken to semi-regular "sermons from the mountain top" imploring his followers to "Be the Change" and support new and diverse voices in Hollywood.

I'll be honest with you - I was not always a fan of the guy and a lot of that had to do with my conviction he was a fraud. I remember what his account was when it launched sometime in 2010. He was less of an idealistic force for change and more like a bad parody of someone's impression of Kevin Spacey in SWIMMING WITH SHARKS. When an account goes from boasting about all the chicks he's banging while knocking back liquor to suddenly being very pro-feminist, it's hard not to see someone putting on an act. Neither incarnation really rang true as a real exec's voice.

In fact, there was one time I tweeted "If an account has 'Mystery' in front of it, you can bet that whatever follows it is total horseshit." Within seconds he replied, "oh, like YOU'RE so scintillating!" It seemed curious to me that my stray comment would have gotten so far under the skin of a person who was what they claimed to be.

But even I called a truce of sorts, eventually. I refused to follow him until late last fall when I saw that he was boosting the signal for some causes I feel strongly about, particularly anti-piracy and stronger voices for women and minorities in film.

Last night, I tweeted some thoughts about what we can learn from all of this. What follows is an edited transcript:

I don't blame people for feeling mislead by Mystery Exec. I don't like when anonymous accounts misrepresent themselves. No matter how transparent the ruse. I've seen people say that they really responded to a lot of his thoughts calling for more diverse voices in film, among other calls to arms. If what he said provoked you to think about things differently, that isn't diminished by learning Santa isn't real.

But I also keep coming back to the fact that everything he said - he didn't need a fake executive pose to give it weight. It's a genuine shame he felt he couldn't express those opinions while being honest about who he was. Or what he was.

Look, I'm a script reader. I'm LOW on the totem pole. And via my blog and twitter, I've reached a lot of people here and made a LOT of contacts in real life. And I've made a lot of good friends. And it's NOT because I'm anonymous. And it's NOT because people love readers. It's because i have a voice of my own. And I've found people who respond to that. Or they found me. I'm not important, but people listen.

I'm sorry that ME closed himself off from that by maintaining total anonymity. I'm sure there are a lot of good friends he could have made. The first time a working writer asked me to coffee, the idea someone WANTED to meet me was so foreign I didn't realize it WAS a legit invite.

You can make good friends on here. I've made very strong friends. I've made bonds that have helped my career, for sure. I use the moniker so this isn't the first thing that pops up when people google me. It wasn't so I could drop gossip or put on an act. This is 100% me. I strive to be intellectually honest here. After all, who'd pretend to be a Script Reader?

So if you must take a final lesson from this Mystery Exec thing, let it be this. Don't be afraid to be yourself.

You don't need a fake Mystery moniker to have value.

Also, keeping up an act is HARD.

Thank you, and have a good evening.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Reader questions: How much should I worry about budget when writing? and writing later in life.

Kris writes --

As I'm currently trying to grind out my first feature-length spec, a bit of a harrowing thought crossed my mind; something that often is discussed in various podcasts and blogs of this nature -- keeping budget in mind when writing.

I'm confidently certain that it can happen to any screenwriter might get swept by the imagination he/she puts unto paper, but also understand that studios ultimately answer to what can be afforded, with X amount of blockbusters eating up studio funding.

Anyways, this concern of mine came into fruition amid writing my script; where a teenaged protagonist undergoes a transformation early on and remains in her changed form (a centaur) for the rest of the story. Given that the story is geared more as a drama with supernatural elements -- the focus more on the protagonist's decision to act on her sudden change, and how her family is affected by it -- I don't know of too many films that would have the level of practical-SFX integration I assume would be needed to budget (of course, if on fate's good luck it ever gets picked up); especially for the centaur FX.

I feel the transformation is key in the story to help conceptualize the forced change the character faces to keep it in the story, but also understand how a studio may not pick it up if they deemed it too expensive for a smaller tier film that would likely not be blockbuster material. And I must admit if a potential producer would ask me how much budget I thought the film, my vague understanding of SFX budgeting, being a screenwriter, would cripple my ability to answer effectively.

Given the aforementioned scenario, and writing skill aside, would it better to tailor down the SFX featured in the script to make it appealing to potential producers? Or can I try my best to make the premise and script solid enough that if the script was green-lit, that the SFX projections could be adjusted during pre-production? Also, in your experience, what is often the biggest reasons for a otherwise solid spec reliant on SFX to be rejected due to budget concerns?

Just my opinion, but I feel like it's not the writer's responsibility to budget their film. If the idea you're working on will not work without VFX, then embrace that and write to it. If someone likes your story but feels the price tag is too high, you can always cut back. There's something to be said for writing a budget-conscious script - such as if you're writing a limited-location thriller in a bid to keep the budget down - but once you're in fantasy land, I say embrace it.

Scripts might get rejected because they're too prohibitive to produce by those particular makers, but you'll find most producers stay in a particular price range. Blumhouse is never going to make a TRANSFORMERS-sized film, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea to take your TRANSFORMER-sized idea and cut it to the bone just so smaller producers can work with it.

Also, there's a strong likelihood that your first spec is just going to be something that opens doors for you and never gets made. Write the best version of your idea, then worry about where the money comes from.

 Johnny asks:

I'm in my late 40s and over the past several years I've begun to finally screenwrite (features and TV pilot specs) after years of being a really keen film lover. More recently I've been involved with several short films written by others, in a crew capacity.

My screenplays have received decent external feedback, including a few 6 ratings on the Blacklist. I write on a consistent basis, read screenplays, and do a lot of networking and attending film/screenwriting industry events.

I don't intend to give up my (non-film industry) day job anytime soon, and have a family to support. So my question is: what are your views for someone like myself or older who has a passion and dedication for screenwriting, but happened to come to it a bit later in life?

My view is that you're going to have to be ready for the long haul. Does ageism really exist in this business? People say it does, but I've never seen a newbie script from an older writer treated differently from a newbie script from a younger writer. I don't think that's the most insurmountable obstacle, though. If your writing is brilliant, you can probably overcome that.

I don't want to start this debate again, but the biggest handicap you'll have as an older person will be the result of where you settled. If you live in L.A., you're in a good spot because you're surrounded by potential contacts and you'll be able to take meetings at the drop of a hat.  Aspiring writers who are determined to stay out of L.A. are making things more difficult for themselves for many reasons, and I discuss that in this post.

(Whenever I say this, people often argue all the reasons why they don't WANT to move: they don't want to uproot their family, their job, etc. That's fine. That's a valid choice. But I'm under no obligation to reassure you that you're not forgoing any benefit by staying out-of-town. There are tangible advantages to being in L.A. - thus, when you forgo them, you place yourself at a tactical disadvantage. Yes, there will be exceptions, but a few lone exceptions do not disprove the odds or nulify the "rule.")

But if you've gotten decent external feedback, you're still enjoying writing, and it's not actively hurting you to pursue writing, keep with it.  As an older writer, you can't put your family's livelihood at risk by blowing too much on coverage, or seminars. If it's a choice between spending money on your kids and spending money on writing, indulge your kids.

A lot of people pursue writing expecting some kind of instant gratification or validation. Sometimes I feel like that attitude comes with being young and arrogant. When you're not responsible for anyone else, sometimes that attitude can be a positive. The conflict you're going to face is that you have to make your family your priority and your younger competition can afford to make writing and networking the priority.

You seem to have recognized that at the start. That's a good sign. It's not easy for ANYONE to make it as a writer so never put work out there that you know could be better.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

We'll miss you, Jon Stewart

At this point, the internet is probably saturated with Jon Stewart tributes, and so my first thought as I embark on this post is that you probably don't need another one. Still, as a long-time fan of Jon's, I couldn't let the occasion pass without paying tribute to one of my favorite comedians and one of the sharpest media critics of the century.

I've watched The Daily Show since before there was a Jon Stewart behind the host's desk. I vividly recall debating with my freshman roommate if the show could survive the loss of the comedic wit of Craig Kilborn. (For the record, I was pulling for Jon, he was convinced that Stewart would be a pale imitation.) It took about a year for Jon to really begin turning the show into what it would become. When Kilborn ran it, it was focused more on celebrity news and strange local weirdos who would become the butt of the jokes in remote pieces. The show was far less interested in politics and didn't aspire at all to be a media critic.

The 2000 Presidential campaign set the stage for TDS's practice of puncturing the pundits and their role in packaging the campaigns. Mo Rocca, Steve Carell, and Stephen Colbert were sent on assignment in TDS branded trenchcoats and crashed a McCain press conference to ask him hard questions taken from Trival Pursuit cards. Two things stick with me about that field report - my disbelief that they could get away with being that irreverent during a supposedly serious campaign, and that McCain was savvy enough to play along with them in good humor.

(Moments like that were part of what made it feel like such a betrayal in 2008 when McCain decided he needed to appease the psychopath wing of the GOP and seemed incapable of those spontaneous moments of humanity, instead sticking to fear-mongering talking points.)

It was stunts like that that helped make politics feel relevant to college students like me. Bob Dole got it, and served for an election or two as an election analyst for The Daily Show. Contrary to Fox News's Bill O'Reilly's assertion that Jon's audience is made up of "stoners," studies have shown that viewers of The Daily Show are among those most informed about current events.

I don't think it's necessarily true that TDS viewers get ALL their news from Stewart, but that it's likely viewers of the show feel compelled to seek out more information. Jon is a gateway drug in that sense. I certainly know that many times one of their pieces led me to google the topic of a story, though I confess it was often out of a motivation like, "Louis Gohmert can't have ACTUALLY said that, can he? How does this jackass get elected?!"

Another Stewart trademark is the practice of taking a public figure or pundit's statement on something, and then digging back to find them staking out the opposite position on the same or similar issue. For instance, during Bush's tenure in office, Fox News often scoffed at anti-war protestors, essentially calling it treasonous not to fall in line with the President during a time of war. You know how this works, once a Democrat was elected, those same voices were the loudest calling for open dissent.

It seems like it shouldn't be revolutionary, but it felt that way. For too long, the media never called out a politician on blatant hypocrisy like that. Part of that might be that Stewart rose up just as our culture had multiple 24 hour news channels with a lot of time to fill. Such a setting afforded pundits and public figures plenty of opportunity to hang themselves with their own words. It also didn't hurt that DVR technology made it exceptionally easy to archive these broadcasts, so it's not as if Stewart's writers needed access to CNN's archives when they had to compile a montage of Wolf Blitzer's biggest gaffes. It's still amazing how easy it is to catch people contradicting themselves. You want to shake some of these guys and say, "You know you're being filmed, right?"

For many of us suffering as neo-conservativism threatened to impede any progress in this country, Jon Stewart was comfort food. He was that voice in the darkness letting us we weren't alone here in this asylum, reassuring us that we had not lost our minds. Through comedy, he demonstrated that Fox News was a flat-out evil media organization that distorted the narrative beyond all recognition in service of some truly deplorable agendas. Do you know how skilled one must be as a comedian to expose how dangerously ill-informed at least half the country is by some really scary people in power - and to still draw laughs from that horror?

And contrary to conservative opinion, he took plenty of shots at Obama. It's not his fault that the Bush Administration gave him a lot more to work with, though. Jon's targets were hypocrisy and intellectual dishonesty, two traits that neither political party is a stranger too, even if one party currently seems to trade in it more heavily than the other.

And yet beneath all of that, it always felt like the priority was to make his audience laugh. Some of his critics feel that it's somehow inappropriate for comedy to contain any elements of social satire. The instant their beliefs became the target of the joke, they cried that it was unfair for Jon to claim he was a comedian when he was clearly some kind of propagandist. It's kind of sad that most of Jon's critics were more willing to debate whether or not Jon was a comedian or a shill than they were to address any of the points or charges Jon would make in one piece or another.

A poll called Jon Stewart "America's Most Trusted Journalist" for a reason. He was the straight-shooter who never failed to back up his attacks with video evidence. It seems unfair that he leaves the arena while human bile Rush Limbaugh continues to spew garbage like blaming declining teenage sex on the acceptance of homosexuals. I'll miss my daily antidote to the latest lunacy from Donald Trump and the NRA, but after 15 years of daily exposure to the ugly side of politics, you can't say Jon hasn't earned his own respite from those horrors.

Come back anytime, Jon. You know you'll always be welcome.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Reader questions: Is screenwriting a skill that can be learned?

Ed writes:

Many dispensing screenwriting advice say that screenwriting is a skill that can be learned and, with work, time and effort, it can be improved upon to the point of producing something market-ready.

How true is this?

Discounting scores of wannabes that lack the language skills and the real writing ability it takes to be decent…I’m curious about the gaps in talent that exist between a decent amateur writer, a writer on the verge of breaking in and an award-winning screenwriter (I’m assuming there’s no real gap in talent between ‘on-the-verge’ and ‘working / staffed’ writers).

What gaps can be overcome and what gaps will forever exist due to a unique spark of creative genius and pure talent?

I’ve received feedback on a few scripts that haven’t been overly negative (two 6’s on The Black List site for instance). I sent material to Amanda Pendolino. Her critique, while harsher than BL, rang true and her suggestions were great (and you’re right to steer people in her direction).

I’ve used those some of those suggestions to make improvements but I’m falling short in getting my material truly better. Amanda’s spot-on regarding the elements that need to be improved; I’m just not skilled enough to get it there.

My goal in this is to write a market-ready script worthy of a ‘consider.’ Right now that’s out of reach. Does a breakthrough happen if I keep writing and plugging away? Or does that happen with only a very talented few?

First, Ed hits on a lot of important questions that I wish more writers would ask themselves. I don't even know that I have good answers for all of this, but the really important part of the discussion here is the self- reflection. The worst writers are the ones who don't have an ounce of it. They go through life with the delusion that they are one of the greatest writers ever when often they don't even have enough exposure to enough real writers to really know where they stand on the spectrum.

You cannot improve as a writer if you go through life already convinced of your own brilliance. And let me tell you, just about every writer has room for improvement.

So to return to the question, can screenwriting be learned? Absolutely, yes. There is always going to be some degree of innate skill involved with any profession. You can't deny natural talent at work, but I don't think you'll find exemplary people in any field who have gotten by just on natural ability. There's a lot of discipline and routine that goes into developing that gift.

Obviously several factors can affect this. If you've always been a strong reader, you're probably going to find it easier to write than someone who's struggled through school. If you've been doing writing of any kind on an extracurricular basis for years, you'll have a leg up on someone who just decided they want to write movies and has never even written a short story.

Screenwriting is a trade that can be learned - but there are a lot of factors that can influence each person's individual learning curve and how effective that education is. I've seen people write nearly 10 scripts and still - despite any guidance or criticism - can't seem to gain significant ground, while there are others who seem to nail it on their third script.

Speaking as someone who's read a LOT of scripts, there's an absolute talent gap between those on-the-verge, the working writer, and the pure genius. (I'm ignoring a number of intermediate levels, but you guys get the point, I'm sure.) It's a distinction that some writers would really benefit from recognizing. Being good enough to get the interest of a manager or an agent doesn't mean you're on the same level as, say, Chris Terrio.

In fact, when you first make the leap to being represented, it might even be because the rep in question sees you as a diamond in the rough. To put it another way - you still have some growing to do. You don't stop trying to improve because you've "arrived." There's a whole host of obstacles still ahead of you even once you get representation.

Ask anyone who's been in this game professionally for five years or more and they'll probably look back on the work that got them noticed and still feel like they could make it a lot better today. You win the race by continuing to run - not by saying "I've made it far enough ahead, here's where I can catch a nap and walk the rest of the way."

If I handed you two scripts - one by a guy who just got signed and one by a guy who had three films produced, I almost guarantee after reading both of them, there'd be no doubt in your mind who the more experienced writer was. That's not to denigrate the newer writer. They might very well have done a fine job themselves, but you can tell when you're in the hands of a complete master of the craft.

I can't tell you where you are on the spectrum. You have the willingness to get better and the self-reflection to internalize the criticisms Amanda has given. Those factors give me hope. The people who don't grow are the ones who discount all critiques (which is not to say that sometimes you CAN get bad notes and advice. Sometimes you SHOULD ignore what you are told - just don't shut out all negative feedback merely on principle.)

One thing I do get concerned about is being part of what John Gary calls "The Hope Machine." I don't want to peddle the false hope that "Everyone - yes YOU TOO - can be a million-dollar screenwriter!" I think it's irresponsible to offer blind encouragement, but as long as people aren't bankrupting themselves and are still enjoying the process of writing, it's probably not my place to say "You should just stop because you'll never make it."

Persistence can take you a great deal of the way. Does that always mean a breakthrough will happen? Not always - true success is always some convergence of talent and opportunity. It's the lucky break that happens when that assistant you met at a party gets promoted to agent and is intrigued enough to read your stuff. It's how you're able to capitalize on attention from a Nicholl semi-final placement to get in the room with people you can submit to in the future.

Eventually, the most talented of the most-talented seem to find their way in, if for no other reason than the fact they keep trying to make new opportunities. If we're talking just about the writing aspect, though - can you eventually write a script that will make those opportunities pay off? - it's not an easy answer. It's easier for me to say that there's no "magic bullet" writing program or book that will turn ANYONE into the hottest writer in town. When it comes to assessing whether YOU personally are someone who can make it... I can't really say that.

But if Amanda's assessment is spot on - and it usually is - you're quite a bit ahead of a lot of people who are trying. That probably counts for something.

Jastin writes:

I feel that I'm in desperate need for a mentor; someone with writing experience that is willing to give me the truth about my work and make suggestions for improvement. However, finding the right people has proven to be a daunting task.

I was wondering if you had any suggestions about writers/producers that are willing to do this? Do you know any retired writers from the industry that are reputable and approachable? If you could point me in the right direction that would be most helpful.

I have been writing for almost three years. I educated myself by reading books on proper screenplay formatting and I use final draft software. So far, I have completed three full length movie screenplays and I have one pilot for a television idea. I am confident in the formatting, but I really need help with character driven plot, character development , and dialogue. Any assistance that you can provide would be fantastic.

I don't really know of anyone actively seeking to be a mentor. In my experience, it's something that happens after people have gotten to know you through networking or other experiences, read your work and decided that you're someone they're invested in helping. So with the stage you're at, it's really more about making as many connections as possible.

Most working writers are busy working, and both they and the retired writers have no shortage of people clamoring for their attention. They don't have to go far to find many, many people seeking their ear, so you've got to prove yourself beyond just wanting to be a writer.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Get $50 off a badge to the Austin Film Festival

I've been told that there was a lot of interest the last time I posted an offer from the Austin Film Festival, so I hope this is similarly appreciated:

For a limited time, the 22nd Annual Austin Film Festival is offering $50 off the Weekend Badge!

With a Weekend Badge you get access to all Saturday and Sunday panels, not to mention priority badge line access to all eight days of film screenings and admission to the Pitch Finale Party, Heart of Film Conference Party, and Film Pass Party!

Buy your badge at and enter the code AFFWKND225 at checkout between now and Friday, July 17th to get access to this great offer!

 The Austin Film Festival runs from October 29-November 5.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Derrick Borte's H8RZ (HATERS) is coming to VOD!

Almost exactly two years ago, I held an open call for people who put their scripts up on the Black List site. From those submissions I selected 8 loglines that appealed to me and read at least 15 pages of each of them. In a few cases, I was so impressed with the writing that I completed the entire script and gave the best of those some attention in a "spotlight" post on the blog.

Derrick Borte got my attention with his strong logline and I came away even more impressed by his script H8RZ (HATERS). I felt the tense thriller merited a 9/10 rating and spoke at length about the reasons why in this earlier post.

As it turned out, Derrick and his co-writer Daniel Forte were already repped by an agency. In fact, Derrick already had one feature to his name, the David Duchovny indie THE JONESES. This fact had some other participants in the competition crying foul, even though I said it didn't factor into my decision to read the script. I wondered why someone with an agent and manager would use the still-relatively-new Black List site, and so I put the question to Derrick in this interview. Part of his motivation, he said, was, "This material seems to be a little difficult for some people and I thought that maybe this could help build some momentum/buzz that might uncover some production company that I'd like to partner with to make the film."

Well, I don't believe that my efforts had anything to do with this, but Derrick DID eventually find the money to produce H8RZ with a cast that includes Cary Elways, Abigail Spencer and Jeremy Sisto.

I'm having trouble embedding the trailer, but you can find it on Hulu here. It's available for pre-order on iTunes and comes out July 17th!