Thursday, October 19, 2017

Looking back on five years of the Black List website with Franklin Leonard - Part II

My chat with Black List Founder and CEO Franklin Leonard continues.

Go here for Part I.


Looking back over these five years, can you think of any instances where the site's achievements exceeded your expectations? For example, did you think that less than two months after the launch, MCCARTHY would appear on the annual list?

There are so, so many: How quickly it happened with MCCARTHY was definitely exhilarating. The stories of NIGHTINGALE and ZINZANA spring to mind immediately. Chris Salmanpour’s career. Minhal Baig and Tom Dean participating in the labs and then ending up on the annual list. Seriously there are way too many to mention with too many remarkable things and people associated with them. Best bet would be to read Kate’s interviews with writers who have found success via the site.

I have to admit, I've lost count at this point of how many scripts discovered on the list have become released feature films. Five years ago, did you think you'd see a substantial number of scripts from the service produced, or did you expect the site would have more success in launching the careers of writers who would see their first produced works on subsequent scripts?

I definitely expected that the site would have more career discoveries than produced movies, and that’s generally the case thus far. There have been seven movies produced in the last three years though, and all of those have premiered at film festivals like Toronto, SXSW, and the Los Angeles Film Festival. I expect we’ll start to see more, and a few produced films from writers discovered on the site with different scripts. BUBBLES, for example, was Isaac Adamson’s first script after Lee Stobby signed him after finding him on the site via another script.

I want to ask a little bit about your brief, aborted partnership with Scriptbook. In April, you announced a new service the Black List would provide is a report generated by an algorithm that would "indicates the commercial and critical success of a project, along with insights on the storyline, character analysis, target demographics, market positioning, distribution parameters [and more] prior to any made costs.” This was met with a lot of backlash from customers and professional writers alike.

Criticism of the Black List is nothing new. From the very beginning, I've seen writers accuse the site of taking advantage of aspiring writers. You've always met those criticisms head on and also reached out to people who've complained about their experience with the site. What was it about this particular criticism that struck a chord to motivate not only a complete reversal, but one that happened in a matter of days? You could have easily said, "If you don't see value in Scriptbook, you're under no obligation to purchase it." What merited going the extra mile in your response?

I really do view a significant part of the mission of the Black List as service to the community of writers. We partnered with Scriptbook because I know that many studios, financiers, and producers are increasingly deploying this sort of analysis in their own work, and I wanted to provide a best in class version of that sort of analysis to writers at a severe discount to what other parts of the industry were paying for it. I also believe that more information, rightly used, is always valuable.

Certainly, we could have continued the offering and left people to make their own decision about purchase, but the response was so overwhelming from the community – both online and from folks who I’ve previously sought wise counsel about how we can most be of service (John August, Craig Mazin, and Brian Koppelman spring to mind immediately) – I deferred to their judgment. I think it was the right decision.

I want this conversation to be mostly about the site, but with the annual list upon us, I feel like I'd be remiss not to bring up last year's LAX MANDIS PROJECT situation. I saw a lot of conversation - both on social media and in groups that I frequent - from people who felt the script should have been disqualified. I know you've said in the past that you don't think it's all that common that a script will end up on the list as a result of collusion. Has last year changed your approach at all to the annual list? Do you have anything to say to critics of the process that put LAX MANDIS on that list? What's your thought process for addressing a situation like that?

I generally prefer to address specific criticisms of the process rather than generalized critics of it. I think the important question is, why should it have been disqualified? Is it the subject matter? The author’s job? At the end of the day, I think the consequences for a script that lands on the list as a result of collusion (and I’m sure they’ve happened) are always negative in the long term. In the best case scenario, you attract attention to a terrible bit of work, and people stay away from the author in the future.

Finally, the last Black List Live reading of 2017 is upon us on November 18th. Originally these performances seemed to be aimed at reigniting interest in scripts from the annual list that maybe had grown cold. Indeed, it appears that was the case for GIFTED, which was released this year, and the reading for THE SHOWER was soon followed by Anne Hathaway attaching herself to star and produce in the film.

Recently, it seems the scripts have taken a turn towards being the more "unproducable" screenplays from the List, such as JAMES CAMERON'S TITANIC. As we head into 2018, what is the objective of the Live Reads in the Black List's overall mission?

First off, I want to give an incredible amount of credit to Megan Halpern (the Black List’s Events Director), Lisa Zagoria (our casting director), and the staff at the Montalban and now the Brooklyn Academy of Music for the live reads. None of it would happen without them. And the work that Megan and Lisa put in is truly extraordinary.

The shortest answer to this question is that we want to put on great night of entertainment wherein the screenwriting and the screenwriter is the star. I don’t know that that exists anywhere else.

Originally, we were only going to do scripts from the annual list, but increasingly we’ve found scripts on the site – Noga Pnueli’s I’M STARTING TO SUSPECT MY TEENAGE DAUGHTER IS AN ALIEN FROM OUTER SPACE, Max Schwartz’s NEW COKE, and Trey Ellis’s HOLY MACKEREL – that have played incredibly well too. Honestly, we’ve been mixing things up over the last year or so on that front, and I think we’ve got a few more tricks up our sleeve, starting with November 11th’s reading. You read that right, we’re moving it up one week.

One of the many things that I never could have anticipated is the extent to which absolutely incredible actors have participated and absolutely murdered their performances. It just blows my mind that we had Parker Posey and Molly Ringwald perform a screenplay we discovered on the website at the Cherry Lane Theater in New York.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Looking back on five years of the Black List website with Franklin Leonard

Five years ago this week, the Black List website launched as a service where aspiring writers could host their scripts, pay for professional evaluations and be discovered by industry members with access. It was the first service to incorporate all of these elements along with reputable industry access, and it built on the Black List brand originated by Franklin Leonard's yearly list of the most-liked unproduced scripts.

Over the last half-decade, the site has continued to evolve and expand its role, even as some of its competitors have closed up shop. The anniversary seemed like a good time for a "state of the Black List" check-in with Founder and CEO Franklin Leonard.


About a year after the launch, you stopped announcing every time the site led to someone being signed. I know your rationale for that is that it ceased being a newsworthy event and that since people are under no obligation to report this, you might not have an accurate count. With that in mind, do you have a sense of trends? Are the 2017 users who gained representation on a par with, say, 2013 or 2014?

Honestly, I wish we could track this kind of information more accurately, but in a similar way to the fact that it’s not news when an agency signs a client unless they’re leaving another agency, it’s not really news any more when the Black List played a part in someone getting signed. I only found out that several of this year’s annual list writers were discovered by their representatives via the site at the benefit we hosted celebrating the annual list two days later.

There are some pretty exciting stats about writers a bit further along in their careers now who found part of their start on the site: Seven movies have been produced in the last three years via scripts from writers who attribute the site to the movie’s momentum, including a Netflix acquisition (ZINZANA) and a Golden Globe nominee (NIGHTINGALE). At least a dozen writers have made the annual list who were discovered via the site, including two of the last three #1s (Kristina Lauren Anderson and Isaac Adamson) and two Black List screenwriters lab participants (Minhal Baig and Tom Dean.)

With five years of data behind you, have you made any conclusions about how the site most effectively is connecting writers with your professional users? Are the email blasts effective? Are there better results when the script recommendation comes via your Twitter? Do the Top Lists pull in a lot of attention? And are people finding ways to successfully promote themselves on the site even without purchasing reviews?

Dino Simone, Terry Huang, and Olga Vasileva continue to push the site forward and improve the effectiveness of all of these channels, and we’re constantly introducing new ones to further promote the good work that we identify. Some of those ways are small like tweeting the scripts that are included in the weekly email blasts. Some of them are larger, like new screenwriters labs for feature and episodic writers under Megan Halpern’s leadership.

That said, the biweekly featured script seems to be the most effective way to promote an individual script. That makes sense: it’s meant to be the script on the site with the most, highest ratings – a competitive position since scripts receiving scores of 8 overall or better from our readers receive as many as five free script reads for each high score.

I think that the hardest thing remains getting attention for your script without purchasing an evaluation, and that’s frustrating for us too. Still, we see roughly a quarter of scripts that don’t purchase an evaluation get at least one download from an industry professional, a number that consistently surprises me. I suspect that some percentage of those downloads are the result of screenwriters who actively promote the link to the script via queries, Twitter, etc.

I should also probably mention here that we give away a ton of free hosting and evaluations. One only need to follow us on social media, contribute to our Essential Films series on the blog, or read Scott Myers’s Go Into The Story to see opportunities to claim them.

What is the ultimate value in the Black List for the user now? Is it more of a place to be discovered by agents and managers via the email blasts, or is the value truly in competing for the many Fellowship and Partnership opportunities, such as the Verizon Go90 Fellowship, and the Michael Collyer Memorial Fellowship?

At this point, I think it’s important to think of the Black List as an umbrella organization for a number of things. There’s the annual Black List and the blcklst.com platform (and everything associated with it… the database, the partnerships, the Labs, etc.), but there’s also the Happy Hours, the Live Reads, and the blog.

Right now, we host monthly happy hours in 16 cities around the world, six annual live reads, and the blog is publishing constantly – via Kate Hagen’s amazing work as editor in chief, Terry’s terrific data work, and Go Into The Story, our official screenwriting blog. I mean, Scott Myers is the best.

All but the live reads are free, and like hosting and evaluations, tickets can be had for free with a bit of sweat equity following us on social media and the blog.

I suspect this question is specifically directed at the platform though, so I’d like to address that in depth. Honestly, there’s value on a number of fronts there, and it’s been specifically designed so that it can be. And it should since parts of it cost money.

Here’s where I think there’s value to be had:

1. Writer Profiles and Script Listing – This is probably the most underutilized part of the site at the moment, and it’s a HUGE opportunity for members of the WGA East or West and a number of other guilds worldwide. Entirely free, you can list your scripts, all of them, in our database. Title, author, logline, tagged with any of our over 1000 tags, representative and contact information, etc. The goal here is to build a Google for screenplays and pilots, so that any reputable industry professional can search for, say, “Action film with a budget under $20M with a female lead over the age of 40” or “Episodic Drama with a Latino lead between the ages of 25 and 35 with the theme of redemption” or “I’d love to find a writer with experience in the medical field” and if such a script or writer exists, they can find it and either download the script immediately or reach out to the appropriate person to get a copy of the script or connect.

2. Discovery (Representatives, Producers, etc.) – Similar to the writer profiles and script listings, industry professionals from agency assistants to producers to actors and directors are using the site to download material directly without the intermediary of a representative. Most of these writers are currently unrepresented, but increasingly we’re seeing those who are represented do the same thing to create incoming calls for their representatives. Being rated highly on the site attracts their attention to the script. It’s that simple.

3. Feedback – One of the kindest compliments I thankfully receive quite often is that a writer found the feedback they received on the site to be helpful in improving their script. Certainly, the cost is prohibitive for some – and we strongly advise everyone to push their script as far as they can quality-wise before paying for an evaluation – but our readers are quite good. And in the rare case where they fail to give you a full and close reading of your script, we want to hear about it so that we can replace the evaluation with a full and close reading and address the issue with our reader.

4. The Fellowships and Partnerships – One of the really exciting things that I didn’t anticipate before launching the site was the extent to which companies would reach out to us to help them find writers for various opportunities they wanted to offer. It’s been an incredibly wide range, from the NFL wanting two writers for WGA minimum blind deals to Cassian Elwes bringing one and now two writers to the Sundance Film Festival as his guests. Particularly for writers early in their careers, paying close attention to our emails, social media, and the Partners page is a wise idea.

Were these sorts of Fellowships part of your long game when you launched the site five years ago? Or did it emerge organically from companies coming to you, recognizing how The Black List could be a resource to them?

Definitely the latter. I wish I could claim to have had the foresight to predict that this would happen. They’ve definitely come about because companies have reached out hoping to take a non-traditional approach to talent discovery. In Cassian’s case, it was as simple as us running into each other and him saying “I want to find a brand new writer who writes Sundance type screenplays and I want to bring them to Sundance. Can you help?” In others, it’s grown out of conversations I’ve had with various companies explaining how the site works and where its greatest potential lies.

Have any of the Blind Script deals - such as the Warner Bros Script deal and the WIGS blind script deal borne fruit yet?

If by borne fruit, you mean movies produced, sadly none to date. If by borne fruit, you mean that writers have received blind deals or otherwise gotten work, then yes, very much so. Tasha Huo, Chris Salmanpour, and Suzanne Allain have received blind deals at Warner Brothers. Andrew Bluestone, who, incidentally, was discovered by his managers via the site, claimed that inaugural WIGS deal.

One thing I like about the Black List-related Fellowships and Script Deals is that there's no additional charge to enroll an active script in the process. Can you commit to that always being the case? Do you foresee any opportunities that would require a separate entry fee?

Unless the site changes radically in other ways or for some reason we’ve partnered with someone that requires for some reason that we not use the site, I can’t imagine any opportunities that would require a separate entry fee.

Come back tomorrow for Part II.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Black List website "success story" Justin Kremer reflects on how it launched his career

Mere weeks after the Black List website launched five years ago, an unknown writer named Justin Kremer became the first site user to be signed by representation. And this wasn't just any agency, it was with Creative Artists Agency, one of the biggest players in the industry.

I was an early supporter of Justin's work, but even by the time I'd posted my rave of his MCCARTHY, there was clear momentum behind it. Flash forward five years and MCCARTHY isn't in production, so I can imagine the cynics wondering what it all meant for Justin in the end. And what did it feel like to be at the center of the hype of the Black List's first success? Fortunately, Justin's here to take us through the last five years in his own words:

It was October of 2012 and I was fucking depressed. I’d spent the last six months lying on my couch, wallowing in self pity, as I searched for a job as a creative executive in the minuscule New York film community. I thought CE work was the best path toward the dream I had since the age of 16: becoming a screenwriter. But I had no prospects, no real plan, and absolutely no hope.

When I heard about the Black List’s new website. I didn’t think much of it. I uploaded a screenplay out of sheer boredom. I entered this experiment with no great expectations. I thought perhaps the site would reward me with a modicum of validation, in the form of a lukewarm/slightly positive review, at a time when I really needed a boost.

Forty-eight hours later, I was sitting in a friend’s basement when I refreshed my email, as I did compulsively those days (fine, I still do). It was Saturday night at 10 o’clock and there was no way a prospective employer would be emailing me, yet I persisted. I discovered an email from The Black List containing my review. It was positive. Very positive. My jaw hit the floor. I read it and reread it, convinced there had been some sort of mistake. This reviewer couldn’t have read my script, right?

Fast forward to the following Friday. I was sleeping when the phone rang. An agent was calling.

She was in New York City for twenty-four hours and wanted to know if I was interested in meeting.

I leapt out of bed, with a furor I haven’t matched since, and rushed to the train. I checked my email as I boarded. Another agency requested a call that evening. What the fuck. My head was spinning. I took the meeting, and the call, and suddenly I had offers of representation. When I returned home that evening, my friends and family surprised me with balloons and a cake. That was day one of the journey, but the euphoria I felt that day is a high I’ll chase for the rest of my life.

Forty-eight hours earlier, I was a loser with no direction. Suddenly, I was a loser juggling phone calls and meetings amidst the havoc of Hurricane Sandy, the greatest natural disaster New York had seen in ages. I spent much of the next two weeks in my car (the only place I could find a functioning electrical current to charge my phone), talking to folks selling me a dream. It was confusing. I’m a neurotic New York Jew terrified of disappointing people. Saying “no thanks” to potential reps was….a struggle. While I recognized that I was stuck with an embarrassment of riches, I was far more stressed than I was enthused.

How do I break the news to [insert rep here]?

Did I lead this person on?

And, most importantly…

Am I making the right decision?

Fortunately, I did, and found a wonderful manager in Adam Kolbrenner and the team at Madhouse. Adam's been by my side every step of the way, and I'd be lost without his sage advice.

The next step was a trip to Hollywood. I was a lifelong New Yorker, and hadn’t been to Los Angeles since I was a child. I flew in for a week of meetings and made the rounds, collecting Poland Spring from Burbank to Santa Monica. By the end of the week, a producer informed me that she’d like to “develop” an original idea of mine.

I was woozy. I heard the sound of a Brinks trunk. I had made it! I was a success.

…no, not quite. In fact, I was an idiot. I didn’t understand the meaning of the word develop. I didn’t understand the economics of life as a professional screenwriter. Hell, I didn’t make a dime for the first eighteen months of my career. Studios didn’t cut me a check just because I had landed reps and a spot on the Black List.

Life as a writer is full of false starts. One of the great challenges we face is in managing expectations, in finding a middle ground between overwhelming cynicism and bleary eyed optimism. Initially, I saw nothing but roses. Then, things took a turn. Every false start crushed me, and exacerbated my impostor syndrome. There was (and is) only one solution: keep writing.

Forgive the brief diversion here, but I’d like to share the most important thing I’ve learned about life as a screenwriter. When I first started, my happiness was solely dependent on my work. I set a goal, and I obsessed over it. First, it was: land reps. Next: make the Black List. Then: book a gig. I swore to myself that if I achieved this one thing, I’d be happy. I was lying. Each time I achieved something I felt a fleeting burst of joy, and then… nothing. I wasn’t happy. Instead, I’d just move the goalposts again. Onto the next goal. That’s the one that’ll really change your life. It took me years to recognize that I was the one who needed to change. I needed balance, to find happiness outside of my work.

I digress.

The Black List allowed to me to build the career I have today. It landed me representation and lasting connections. Two years after an executive downloaded my script off the site and emailed me to say hello, we worked on a project together. Four years after the site shined a light on my dusty old script, it was revived again, and is still kicking.

I look back at my Black List experience with disbelief and a hell of a lot of gratitude. As I write this, the sun’s peeking through the window of my LA apartment (yes, I moved, and you should, too, if you’re serious about this). I’m sitting at my desk, as I do every day, writing. There’s no greater gift than that. So thank you, Black List. Thank you, Franklin. Happy Anniversary.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Happy birthday, Black List site!

This week is the five year anniversary of the Black List website.

I was an early supporter of the website. In fact, I'm not only an advocate, I'm also a client. About a year after the launch I made a public show of putting my stalker thriller TOBY IS NOW FOLLOWING YOU on the website, and it resulted in my script being one of the Top 50 Downloads of 2103, and a manager taking me on as a client. (I'm no longer repped by that individual, who has since left their agency and the business.)

One of my favorite Black List related posts was when founder and CEO Franklin Leonard sat down with the puppet the week of the release and took some hard questions about the site's intent and mission. One of the site's strengths is Franklin's transparency. He doesn't hide from criticism and over the years has made himself available many times to me for interviews and clarifications. His kind of integrity is rarer than it should be in this business and I've never questioned his commitment as an ally to all writers, aspiring and professional.



I also have found the site to be a great way to solicit amateur scripts based on their loglines. Several times I've invited my readers to post their loglines within comments during a 24-hour period, with the result being I will weed out the best and read a half-dozen or so scripts. These days I don't have the sort of free time that allows for me to do this any time soon, but I enjoyed it while it lasted.

The site itself marked the occasion yesterday with a press release that announced in part:

Seven feature films have been produced from scripts discovered on blcklst.com since our launch five years ago: NIGHTINGALE (written by Frederick Mensch); ZINZANA (aka RATTLE THE CAGE, by Lane and Ruckus Skye); SHOVEL BUDDIES (by Jason Hellerman); EDDIE THE EAGLE (by Sean Macaulay and Simon Kelton); KATIE SAYS GOODBYE (by Wayne Roberts); PSYCHOANALYSIS (by James Raue); and DESOLATION (by Matt Anderson and Michael Larson-Kangas.)

Countless writers have found representation, had their scripts sold or optioned, or made further advancements to their professional careers via site interactions -- read our series of screenwriter interviews on the Black List Blog for the stories of these writers in their own words.

Since October 2012, we've partnered with organizations including the WGA-W, the WGA-E, The Sloan Foundation, The Sundance Institute, Women in Film, UrbanWorld, Indigenous Media, and more, in addition to collegiate partnerships with schools like New York University, Columbia University, UCLA, and Chapman University.

Screenwriters have been able to submit their scripts for consideration in opportunities with Warner Bros., Disney, the NFL, Google, Women in Film, go90, FOX, Turner/TBS, WIGS, Studiocanal/The Picture Company, Symbolic Exchange, Cassian Elwes, and more. Additionally, annual screenwriters labs have been held by The Black List to provide mentorship and development for writers using blcklst.com since 2013 -- the fifth installment of the Black List Lab for Feature Screenwriters featured mentors Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith, Phyllis Nagy, Allison Schroeder, and more. 

 Later this week, I'll have a post from Justin Kremer, the Black List site's first "success story," and then hopefully another follow-up interview with Franklin Leonard.

While you wait for those, head on over to the Black List's site and check out this cool timeline of everything they've been up to since the launch.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Writer/director Josh Klausner (DATE NIGHT) debuts WANDERLAND at the Hamptons International Film Festival

A number of years ago, I interviewed screenwriter Josh Klausner about how he broke into the business and his work on SHREK FOREVER AFTER and DATE NIGHT. Today, Klausner's latest film WANDERLAND debuts at the Hamptons International Film Festival.

WANDERLAND is a low-budget film, written and directed by Klausner. It has musical numbers, but as he told the Village Voice, he doesn't think of it as a traditional musical.



Josh Klausner’s lively, lovely film, shot on a dime in and around the Hamptons, does not exactly have the trappings of what we think of when we think of musicals. Inspired partly by Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, partly by Homer’s The Odyssey, and partly by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Wanderland — which premieres at the Hamptons International Film Festival this Friday — follows Alex as he drifts through a weird night trying to make his way home, coming into contact with a whole host of local oddballs. It’s a strange, atmospheric little film, occasionally hopping genres and always keeping us wondering as to where it’s all headed.

It’s quite a change of pace for Klausner, who made his name as a screenwriter on Hollywood films like Shrek Forever After and Date Night. But that was sort of the idea: He says that after years of working in the mainstream and studio world (he started his career as an assistant to the Farrelly brothers, eventually becoming a second unit director for them), he felt he was “creatively dying” and wanted to get back in touch with his own voice.

Coming from a regimented world of carefully placed plot points and clear, preordained through lines, Klausner embraced with this film a drifting open-endedness. “When you work for so long in the studio system, for better and for worse, you kind of know the pattern that works,” he says. “So as you’re writing, you basically know where you’re going at every moment. I wanted to have the experience of writing again when I didn’t know where I was going — to once again have that feeling of discovery. I tried to make an intuitive movie.”

The rest of the profile is worth a read here, and has me hoping it won't be long before WANDERLAND is available for general viewing.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Law & Order's greatest moment on gun control

Sandy Hook was the last straw for me. That's the point where I just flat out stopped pretending there's any reason to give consideration to the pro-gun rhetoric of the under-educated, trigger-happy degenerates who act like any regulation on guns is a far more violent injustice than a five year-old's head splattered open like a melon with a featured role on Gallagher's comeback tour.

(Gory? Of course it is. I think our only chance of escaping this nightmare is to not ignore the horror. Reduce these victims to a statistic and you dehumanize what was done to them. Think of them as people whose insides ended up on their outside and you'll never look at a gun defender the same way again.)

If you're inclined to argue with me, you're wasting your time, particularly with the same talking points peddled by scum like Fox News, Alex Jones and Rush Limbaugh:

"Criminals don't care about laws so gun laws wouldn't solve anything." Yeah, and laws against homicide don't do a thing to stop the thousands of people to take the lives of others so let's just stop regulating murder too. And fuck you.

"Guns don't kill people. People kill people. People can kill with knives and cars too. Do you want to outlaw them?" Show me the knife capable of cutting 600 people in five minutes from a few under yards away and I'd demand it be outlawed to. And fuck you.

"SECOND AMENDMENT!!!!!!"  ...calls for a "well-regulated militia." So let's compromise and regulate gun ownership so much that you can't buy a starter's pistol without a five-day waiting period and a DNA sample.

And fuck you.

"Now is not the time to have the conversa--" Fuck off and die.

Columbine should have been the end of this. Virginia Tech should have been the end of this. Some degenerate shooting up a pre-school SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE END OF THIS. And every time we get the same bullshit talking points, fueled by a racist xenophobic hate group that gets to call itself a political party, and who scares their base into voting against their own economic interests every time with "They're gonna come to take your guns!"

We can't reason with these people. And it's time to stop pretending that there's any value in being the reasonable adults in the room. They've thrived not because of any adherence to legislature, or facts, or studies. It's pure emotion, pure rage.

Gun enthusiasts are creatures of ID, not intelligence. You don't find a middle ground with them. The slaughter at Sandy Hook should have been an appeal to the emotions of even the most ardent gun supporters. So how did they react? They embraced the claims of a nutcase who argued the entire thing was a staged false flag.  "More lies the libtards tell so they can take your guns!"

Bill O'Reilly called these mass shootings "the price of freedom," as if the needless deaths of hundreds is acceptable collateral damage that deserves not even a conversation about changing our ways. Mind you, this lover of freedom was incensed by expressions of the First Amendment when football players PEACEFULLY protested racial injustice. Maybe they should have taken out a couple toddlers. That seems to be what it takes to get a conservative behind a constitutional right.

So let's stop acting like these nuts can in any way be part of the solution. They won't be. We'll only solve this problem when we're strong enough to do this without them.

And make no mistake. The only solution IS taking all of the guns. There are international studies that show strong gun regulations have had a massive impact on the number of gun deaths. Banning automatic weapons, implementing a background check system, and requiring permits are all things that definitely work.

18 years ago, Law & Order took on the topic of gun control in an episode called "Gunshow." Jack McCoy attempts to prosecute a gun manufacturer for selling a gun that they knew was desirable for its vulnerability to being tampered with to make the firearm fully automatic. It's one of the best closing arguments in the history of the series.

I thought of that scene a lot yesterday when I heard about how the Las Vegas shooter was able to to hit nearly 600 people in a matter of minutes. What I wrote above is pure emotion. Without apologies. If it upsets you, good. It should. What Jack does below is a masterful presentation of how grotesque these weapons are, and what an abomination it is to defend their existence over the lives of the people they injure and kill.


Law & Order "Gunshow" (Jack McCoy's Summation & the Verdict) from Law and Order Diehards on Vimeo.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Do I still hate this? A second chance for ONE TREE HILL's school shooting episode - Part 2

Yesterday I began a re-visitation of the infamous school shooting episode of One Tree Hill. For the first part of this series, go here.

Let's talk about Jimmy. When Colin Fickes was cast in the pilot in a role that had only a few lines, no one would have envisioned that less than three years later, that character's emotional breakdown would have to drive the series's most intense episode. For the most part, he fares okay. The script is not without its overwrought moments and in a few spots, it proves to be too tempting an invitation for the actor to go over-the-top. The extreme nature of the situation excuses some of this, but Fickes has one line-reading near the end of the show that always makes me wince. (I won't spoil it, but it comes when he confronts Lucas and Peyton.)

In spite of that, Fickes does a good job of conveying Jimmy's pain and the growing panic as it becomes clear to him that there's no good way to walk away from the situation he's responsible for. Unlike most of the school shooters we read about in the news, Jimmy doesn't walk into the school with the intent of mowing down as many of his enemies as possible. It seems he brings the gun for protection, expecting he'll be a target.

It's also notable that he brings a simple handgun and not any kind of assault rifle. That helps put a little bit of distance between this and the Columbine incidents, mitigating most charges that the show is exploiting those sorts of tragedies. Something else I hadn't considered until this rewatch: at no point does this storyline ever lead to any discussion of gun control. It's not an episode that's focused on America's gun culture. It doesn't want to say anything about gun control or the availability of firearms. It really wants us to be focused on the pain that might drive someone to do something like this.

When a teen show is in that territory, it's in immediate competition with one of the best episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Earshot." You might remember it as the episode where Buffy gets the ability to read minds and ends up trying to prevent someone from killing everyone in the school. When she confronts Jonathan, who she assumes is the would-be school shooter, the young man snorts at her claims that she could understand his pain. He can't imagine anything that could be bad about being beautiful and popular.

Buffy, who's spent the entire episode unable to block out the thoughts of everyone around her, exposed unfiltered to all their fears and insecurities, says, "My life happens on occasion to suck beyond the telling of it. Sometimes more than I can handle. And it’s not just mine. Every single person down there is ignoring your pain because they're too busy with their own. The beautiful ones. The popular ones. The guys that pick on you. Everyone. If you could hear what they were feeling. The loneliness. The confusion. It looks quiet down there. It’s not. It’s deafening."

One Tree Hill can't hope to top that, especially with as deftly as Buffy set up that moment, but it clearly wants to make that statement. I'll give them points for ambition, but too many other factors prevent them from earning that kind of moment.

I'm going to bring up something that couldn't have contributed to my initial dislike of the episode for the reason of "facts not in evidence" at the time. This is an episode that puts our characters in a room with a fellow student on the verge of shooting them, and asks us to feel HIS pain. We're absolutely preached to empathize with Jimmy and to feel that he's not a bad person so much as someone who's made terrible mistakes that he can't take back. He's clearly depressed and POSSIBLY suffering from mental illness. The show wants us to know "he - and people like him - need help."

In the following seasons, there will be no fewer than three antagonists who are depicted as, to use a clinical term, "crazy." The psycho stalker becomes an OTH staple thanks to:

Psycho Derek - stalker who claims to be Peyton's long-lost brother. He became obsessed with Peyton following a complete mental breakdown that was brought on by the death of his girlfriend in a car crash while he was driving. We eventually learn that his girlfriend bore a striking resemblance to Peyton, which led to him fixating on her to an obsessive degree. He becomes violent and unstable, but any effort the show makes at empathy comes far too late, and after several episodes of playing him as a violent deranged psycho.

Nannie Carrie - hired to look after Nathan and Haley's son Jamie, she gets fired after trying to seduce Nathan. She then attempt to kidnap Jamie and run away with him, determined to become his new mom. It's revealed that she too suffered a mental breakdown after her own child was kidnapped and murdered, thus eventually provoking her to "replace" her child with Jamie. As sad as this is, she too is treated like yet another horror movie stalker psycho and is the ONLY OTH villain to actually be killed by the "good guys" (well, Dan) in a sequence where we're supposed to cheer for her demise.

Katie - Katie is the only one depicted as already being treated for a mental illness and becomes dangerous when she goes off her meds. She becomes convinced she's Clay's dead wife, who she resembles (don't ask), and after an attempt to get Clay back fails, she shoots Clay and his girlfriend Quinn. In a later return she gets the same "horror movie psycho" depiction that Carrie got, with the difference being she gets captured and presumably treated.

So three villains shown to be suffering from either some kind of mental illness or grief-indued psychotic break, but all of them might as well be Michael Myers. This is how the show normally treats its antagonists, and why if you're watching this episode in context with the rest of the show, it's probably going to feel like more of an awkward fit than for the "very special episode" watchers.

The show's anti-bullying message also takes a hit just a few episodes later when Brooke bullies Rachel fat-shaming her by digging up pictures of her pre-plastic surgery self.

The thing that really pushed this episode over the edge for me on a first viewing was the ending. Keith, who's Lucas's uncle (and soon-to-be stepfather) enters the school in a bid to talk Jimmy down. He ends up confronting Jimmy in the hall, trying to reach this broken kid, but all of his "it gets better" talk only pushes Jimmy further over the edge. The boy turns the gun on himself and takes his own life. Keith rushes to the body and looks up to see his brother, Dan Scott standing there.

Here's where I explain way too much backstory. Dan and Keith never got along much. After Dan abandoned Lucas's mother, it was Keith who was there for her. Dan resented this, and had an even more legitimate reason to hate Keith when Keith slept with Dan's wife. After he attempted revenge for that, someone drugged Dan and left him to die after setting fire to his car dealership. Thanks to Lucas, Dan survived, but Dan was convinced his brother tried to kill him. He was determined to take revenge.

This episode ends with Dan picking up Jimmy's gun and shooting Keith.

It's a moment completely out of tone with the rest of the "very special episode." A decent story about the pain of the bullied suddenly turns into a shocking soap opera twist of one man using a school shooter to cover up the murder of his brother. It's like if Buffy's excellent "The Body" suddenly dropped in a scene with Glory and her minions doing business as usual.

I know. I'm talking out of both sides of my mouth. Before I said part of the problem was that this episode was so removed from the show's usual soap opera antics and now I'm complaining when that reality snaps back and asserts itself. It provokes the question of if the problem really is the melodramatic twist... or how it's executed?

The whole rest of the episode is about the hidden pain of the invisible kids, the ones no one pays attention to except to bully. It's about the darkness that grows in silence. That's NOT Dan Scott by any means. He started the series as an asshole dad and by season three he was practically a comic book villain. There's no empathetic darkness there.

But Keith - the guy who's spent the two seasons (and presumably many years leading up to it) being bullied, tormented and manipulated by his brother - now that's a guy whose pain inspires some empathy. It would require a step or two to get there, but for the shocking ending to work thematically, it should be KEITH firing the fatal shot.

As it stands, when this episode becomes "the one where Dan murders Keith in cold blood," it becomes the point where no matter how much slack I give the rest of the show, I can't help but groan in frustration. When rewatching the episode, I ended up tweeting with a few people about it and several fans said that one thing they liked was that this episode had repercussions that were felt all the way up until the end. Well, yes and no.

The lessons from Jimmy Edwards's sad fate are forgotten pretty quickly, both by the show and the characters. Keith's murder lingers for a while. It's a full season and a half before Dan is exposed as the killer and the fallout from that keeps him estranged from his sons until the very end of the series. In other words, the fall out is all about Dan.

This isn't an episode about Dan. It's not even an episode that gives us particular insight into Dan. When Dan gets that gun, he's presented with an opportunity that the story failed to build up effectively. The turn comes too late to be anything but inexplicable.

So after two days of breakdowns and analysis, let's return to the original question: Do I still hate this episode?

You know what? No. It's not without its flaws, but it's not as exploitative or offensive as I found it on a first viewing. I'd have given it a D-,  maybe even an F back then. This time, it feels like a B-, maybe even a solid B if I'm feeling charitable. Schwahn makes some smart choices in terms of how he uses most of his ensemble. Even with the misstep of an ending, there are definitely TV writing lessons to be learned from this episode.

Does it deserve its reputation as the best episode of One Tree Hill? I'm gonna say "no." It's neither representative enough the series or transcendent enough to earn that title. My personal favorite is probably Season 1's "Every Night is Another Story," though a couple other episodes could challenge it.

Was it worth the revisit? Definitely. Aside from having a completely different perspective on the episode, it was a good reminder in general about how the context we bring to something at the time we experience it can inform our reactions. Some media will hit us differently under different circumstances. In my case, the hot button nature of the episode was probably a major factor in my initial disgust. I'm not the same person 11 years later, nor is the world the same place.

So will I be revisiting other TV shows and movies that got a strong negative from me before? You bet I will.