Another chapter comes to an end

November 21, 2014
Thus my ongoing journey goes on...

Thus my ongoing journey goes on…

It all started with a website designed specifically for getting feedback on your logline.  In concept, a great idea. You post your logline, other writers let you know what they think of it and how it could possibly be improved.

On this site, there are a handful of commenters who offer their thoughts on pretty much every single entry (a lot of which, I have to admit, are very poorly written. Hence the seeking out of feedback).

Earlier this week, on a total whim, I posted the logline for my Chinese restaurant script. No intention of changing it. Just wanted to see what people thought.

To refresh your memory, here it is again: A Caucasian chef in a struggling family-run Chinese restaurant takes on a sleazy powerhouse competitor determined to shut it down.

Perfect? Of course not. Does it need work? Sure. But the rewrite of this script is an extremely low-priority item, so I’m not that worried about it.

And the reaction?

Lo and behold, a grand total of two comments from two of the usual suspects.

The first substituted “humble” for “Caucasian”, then suggested I describe what it is they do to save the restaurant.

Pass.

The second said that the stakes should be “hire” (sic). How does the main character change over the course of the story? (this one I can understand) Could I add a ticking time bomb element (a particular favorite of this commenter’s)? Was it a comedy (“Sounds like Dodgeball, but with restaurants.”)?

And the one that really sealed the deal for me – “Success or failure of a restaurant is not that big a deal in the grand scheme of things.” Besides the fact that any family who owns a struggling restaurant would probably want to bash your head in for such a statement, you’re saying the story’s not important enough?

Words fail me. It’s almost as if they’re working off a checklist. And misspelling a common word like “higher” severely damages your credibility.

Pass to the Nth degree.

So that’s it. I’m done. While I may occasionally pop in to look around, I definitely will not be seeking opinions from this site ever again and instead rely on my network of friends and trusted colleagues to tell me what I’m doing wrong.


Ask an Extraordinarily Insightful Script Consultant!

November 18, 2014

Andrew Hilton

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Andrew Hilton, aka the Screenplay Mechanic.

Andrew Hilton grew up in the U.K. and studied film in England and New York, before working in motion picture development at almost every major studio. Having read more than 7000 scripts, he is one of the most highly-regarded independent screenplay analysts in the film industry.

Andrew’s first produced credit as a screenwriter was the psychological thriller FATAL TRUST.  More recently, he rewrote and Co-Produced the indie thriller BRAKE, and served as a Co-Executive Producer on the feature documentary WHY WE RIDE.  Andrew also has several feature projects in active development, including the big-budget action picture BULLET RUN.  His latest screenplay, the Dickens-inspired action thriller THE GUNS OF CHRISTMAS PAST, is being financed and produced by Voltage Pictures and is expected to go into production early 2015.

1. What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?

While I’m more of a feature guy, I love that NEWSROOM is back on TV. At least in terms of dialogue, there are very few screenwriters on Aaron Sorkin’s level. He has the ability to craft dialogue exchanges that are as mesmerizing as any action sequence. Some criticize the heightened reality of his rapid-fire, snappy dialogue, arguing that it’s contrived and inauthentic. Personally, I’m going to savor every episode of this final season.

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

I attended film school in the UK and New York, then finished my final year of university in Los Angeles so I could start interning at the studios. My first gig was working for a producer at Universal and I spent six months reading scripts for him. I then moved to Warner Bros. and worked in the story department of one of my favorite producers, Joel Silver (Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, etc.). After six months there, I landed my first paying job at Paramount, as a Story Editor for Mario Kassar (First Blood, Terminator, etc.). It was there I began teaching others to write coverage and really honed my story skills.

3. Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

The ability to recognize good writing can be learned, but recognizing a good movie is a skill far fewer people possess because it’s partly instinctual. Consequently, there are many agents, producers and actors in the industry who struggle to recognize a good script. That’s one of multiple reasons why so many sub-par projects get off the ground. Often, producers and studio execs are throwing stories against the wall (or into theaters) to see what sticks. On the flipside, there are people in the industry – from readers to top producers – who consistently find that diamond in the rough. For example, Scott Rudin has an amazing eye for material.

4. What are the components of a good script?

It really all comes down to two things: Can this story entertain an audience for a couple of hours? Is that audience going to be big enough to turn a profit? It’s that Goldilocks balance of art and business, and reconciling that reality is one of the first goals every new writer should work towards. You could argue that there are good scripts which won’t be profitable at the box office, but who is that script “good” for? It might make a solid writing sample, but a genuinely good script is one that’s well-written and will make some serious coin in the marketplace once it’s produced.

So what specific components in a script will ensure the audience is entertained? An interesting protagonist is essential. We don’t necessarily have to like the hero, but it’s crucial we find them interesting. Ideally, the screenplay will also feature compelling conflict, engrossing dialogue, and a brisk pace which holds our attention. The end game is to ensure the audience leaves the cinema feeling completely satisfied. Nobody likes leaving a restaurant hungry, and nobody enjoys leaving the multiplex feeling as if they just wasted $15 on a crappy film.

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

Overwriting the narrative to the point where clarity suffers is very common. Screenwriting is somewhat unique in that one of the best traits a scribe can have is efficiency of language. Don’t use twenty words to describe something when ten will do. Don’t try and impress anyone with your vocabulary or your grasp of metaphors and similes. Just write the most compelling and vivid movie using the fewest words.

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Anything post-apocalyptic is becoming tiresome. Mad Max was released in 1979 and the spec marketplace is still saturated with clones.

Ditto for “man on the run” stories. Whether the hero is in possession of a flash-drive, witnessed a crime, or underwent some kind of experiment, these screenplays always follow the same structure and climax. There’s often a foot chase in a subway and the protagonist almost always ends up sleeping with the love interest in a hotel. I read one or two of these most weeks.

I’m happy to read big expensive sci-fi epics, but 99.99% of the time the author needs to realize they’re writing it for themselves because it’s not going anywhere. If nobody in this town knows you and the story isn’t based on an existing IP, where’s the $200m budget going to come from?

Another common formula is the comedy about the dishonest hero. Often, these are romantic comedies which feature the protagonist misleading or lying to the love interest. The charade has to be maintained throughout Act II, at which point the love interest learns the truth and shuns the hero, leading to a climatic reconciliation (often a race to an airport).

All that said, if you have a unique conceptual twist, or craft one of these stories in a genuinely fresh and commercial way, there are still plenty of potential buyers out there. Clichés often become clichés because they work repeatedly. It’s also worth pointing out that this is where an experienced story analyst can be most useful. Some people rail against spending money on coverage, but I’ve read well over 7000 screenplays so I might be able to tell you how often I’ve seen a specific idea before and can give you suggestions on how to make your work differ from past fare.

7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

Not “rules” per se, but…

-Know your audience.

-Don’t bore anyone.

-Always remember a complete stranger will eventually have to write a huge check to make your story come to life. They’ll want that money back.

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

I used to read approximately 70% of major theatrical releases when they were still at the script stage, either for production companies or foreign distributors. Hence, I’ve done coverage on everything from The Sixth Sense to The Lord Of The Rings. I’ve also helped a couple of scripts get set up or made, most notably Tim Mannion’s Brake. A script I absolutely loved which has languished in development hell for almost 20 years: Icarus by Patrick Sheane Duncan. It tells the story of a fighter pilot who’s about to be put out to pasture, so he steals a fighter jet with the intention of crashing it into the ocean. His lifelong best friend, who married the woman he always loved, takes to the skies to try and talk him down. When I read it at Paramount in the late 90s, Bruce Willis was attached but the project ground to a halt when the director’s latest movie tanked.

9. How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?

Some are worthwhile, e.g. the Nicholl, but most are akin to entering the lottery. If you’ve written a genuinely brilliant piece of work, it may still go unnoticed because most contest judges are inexperienced and all of them are underpaid. However, there are enough lightning strikes to keep the contest industry alive, and if a writer can afford it I see no harm in rolling the dice. More often than not, it’s akin to a farm program where a small-time manager or agent may discover you. If you’re considering the contest world, target the established ones which have a good reputation.

10. How can people can get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?

My website www.screenplaymechanic.com, my Mechanic Facebook page, or simply email me at screenplaymechanic@gmail.com.

11. Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

I’m going savory on this one. Steak and Ale (with a pint, of course).


Isn’t this tuff enough already?

November 14, 2014
Proudly serving the public trust

Proudly serving the public trust

As a screenwriter, there’s a very long list of things to cover to make sure your script really works.

Story. Characters and their arcs. Theme. Plot. Dialogue. Action.

With awl of that going on, who has thyme to pay attention too such trivial things like weather or knot a word in you’re script is spelled correctly?

See what I mean? Misspelled words are distracting and unprofessional. And these are just homonyms. Getting into stuff like “loose-lose” is part of another issue altogether.

“No problem,” you say. “I’ll just use spellcheck to fix it.”

For the love of Ernest Lehman, don’t. Spellcheck is not a cure-all. It knows spelling, not context. As far as spellcheck is concerned, every word in that sentence above is as it should be.

One or two typos in a 110-page script are understandable, but you don’t want more than that. There are many out there more than willing to pass on your script if the number of misspelled words keeps increasing.

Not sure if your spelling is up to snuff? Ask a fellow writer. Nobody’s going to think any less of you for it. Chances are their editing/proofreading skills are what you need, and they’re probably more than happy to help. Just make sure to offer to help them with their material as well.

Not everybody is a good speller, but it’s something easily fixable. Truth be told, even some of my scripts, despite my vigilance, have contained (gasp!) the occasional typo.

Emphasis on “occasional”.


Ask an Industry-Powerhouse Script Consultant!

November 11, 2014

Lee Jessup

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Lee Jessup.

Author of the best-selling book Getting It Write: An Insider’s Guide To A Screenwriting Career, Lee Jessup is a career coach for professional and emerging screenwriters, with an exclusive focus on the screenwriter’s professional development. Her clients include WGA members, Golden Globe and Emmy nominated screenwriters, writers who sold screenplays and pitches to major studios and contest winner. An invited speaker at screenwriting conferences and festivals both in the US and Europe, Lee is a regular contributor to Script Magazine and was the interview subject for a number of film-centric television and web programs. To learn more about Lee and her services, visit www.leejessup.com.

1. What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?

It’s a cliché, but I always go back to Breaking Bad episodes, which is probably fresh in my mind because I just did that the other night. That’s master craft right there. I’ve been reading a lot of TV scripts lately; one of the best I read recently actually came from a client who wrote a really amazing, intricate pilot with some amazing, innovative character work. Sadly, I’m not allowed to say who. Can’t play favorites!

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

I started reading scripts as a kid – my dad was a film producer, and so we always had scripts lying around the house. I thought everyone read scripts and broke them down for fun – it took me a while to get that some people (like my mother) just can’t wrap their brains around reading that format. After all, a script is not fully realized work – it’s a blueprint made to be elevated by imagination.

3. Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

The more you read, the better you learn to recognize quality. When I send my clients to readers, I am always looking for people who are super-seasoned, who’ve read thousands of scripts, because that foundation really informs the reader about what’s out there and  provides a more solid quality barometer. When someone just starts out reading, they can often find promise in the work, whether or not it’s actually there. It’s after you’ve been reading for a while that you begin really evaluating the script for what’s on the page, rather than the potential your imagination allows you to see in it.

4. What are the components of a good script?

For me it all starts with character, so “must-haves” are things like: wound, stakes, clear goal(s), ample conflict. Michael Hauge has a great saying that a strong screenplay rests at the intersection of story and character. That’s a big one for me. Don’t get me wrong – a strong, clear external journey to take us from act 1 to 3 is a must, but if you don’t have that internal journey, that element of taking a protagonist from living in fear to living courageously, you lose me. At the end of the day, I always look to see what the protagonist’s goal was, whether this was achieved or reversed, and if it was done, whether it was done to satisfaction.

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

Page count is the most obvious one. I am sure you’ve heard this before, but I find it to be one that’s very, very hard to recover from because ultimately it’s your first impression. Second is another one of those: not enough white space on the page. The look of the material itself. I recently interviewed Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, and Scott talked about the fact that script pages are meant to be read from top to bottom, not left to right. When I am unable to read from top to bottom, when the script is overly described, then the writer automatically has a serious strike against him. Other things that drive me crazy are scenes that don’t move the plot along, or ones that repeat information we already know without giving us anything new. Hitchcock was famous for saying that in every scene you have to get at least two new bits of plot-relevant information, specifically once you’re out of the first act. That’s a great rule to go by.

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I am one of those who believes that anything old can be made new again with a new, different, unexpected take, so in this scenario I am actually open to seeing anything so long as there’s a fresh, interesting voice behind it.

7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

1. This is a craft; you get better as you go along (which means: write a lot!)

2. Screenwriting is iterative work. No one gets it right on the first draft. This is why you finish a draft, you get notes, you finish another draft, you get another set of notes, etc. It’s all part of the process.

3. While writing great screenplays is critical to screenwriting success, it’s only part of what it will take to build your screenwriting career. Building a screenwriting career takes consistent industry-facing efforts that will help construct and progress your screenwriting career. As a writer, your job is to consistently stoke and manage both the creative fire and your industry-facing, strategic fire.

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

Gonna have to pass on this one if only for client confidentiality…

9. How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?

Winning a big contest is a big deal, which just goes to show that contests are a small-fish/big-pond sort of a game. In order for a win to really work for you, it has to be in one of the biggies, where in truth even high placement goes a long way. For example, every year my clients who place in quarters or semis for the Nicholl Fellowship get multiple read requests from agents, managers and production companies. It’s a way for industry execs to have material vetted for them, and qualified for them to read. In addition, being able to say that you won, were a finalist or a semi-finalist in one of the BIG contests, such as Final Draft’s Big Break or PAGE is generally a door opener. The industry is a bit like the mafia – we need someone to vouch for you. The big contests can certainly help you build that pedigree.

10. How can people can get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?

Everything anyone ever needs to know about me (and then some!!!) can be found on my website: www.leejessup.com. There’s a full breakdown of how I work, what I do and all the rest of it.

11. Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

Chocolate mousse. Hands down. No question.


Something to tide you over

November 7, 2014
Not THAT kind of tide

Not that kind of tide

I’m neck-deep in catching up with reads owed on scripts and pilots, as well as trying to finish up the outline for the low-budget comedy, so time is quite a precious commodity at the moment.

But since this blog is all about offering up high-quality material, here are two links definitely worth checking out:

-A cover story from the Nov 1 Los Angeles Times about MARLOWE, a great script written by Louise Ransil. If you like film noir, true crime and hard-boiled detective stories, then take a look here. The script was also a semifinalist in the 2013 Tracking Board Launchpad competition.

-If you’re trying to break into the TV industry, take the time to explore Fighting Broke, a new website that offers up some very helpful advice and insight in doing just that.


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