Q & A with Melody Jackson of Smart Girls Productions

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Melody Jackson, Ph.D., founder and CEO of Smart Girls Productions and Hollywood Business School, is a self-described “Marketing Person” and Entrepreneur.  After working as a Marketing Person selling to the film industry for several years, she started Smart Girls Productions in 1992.

To learn more about Melody and the services provided by Smart Girls Productions, check out their screenwriting blog.

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

That question is a little bit funky for me to answer and I’ll tell you why.  Years ago I took the famous/infamous Robert McKee screenwriting course, and there was one thing that really stuck with me. In that legendary, deep gruff voice with his big scary face belting from the stage, McKee shouted out:  “I’m not doing this class to try to make you guys win Academy Awards…. I’m teaching this class to try to raise the overall quality of films that are out there.” Something to that effect.

He talked about how, when he was a young boy, he would go watch every single film that came out in the theaters near him — even as a young kid, he went to see everything.  All types of films. He just loved the medium of film.

The thing I learned from him is not to be so hung up on what is great writing, but to learn to enjoy film as a whole.  Most scripts are not going to be great or really well-written. It’s easy to critique and criticize most of them. But in that class, I learned to have a different perspective, and that makes a difference for me as a script analyst and for my clients.  

Sure I can go deep into “analyzing” structure and character arcs and all kinds of stuff. But ultimately, it’s a question first and foremost of “did this script cause me to have some kind of emotional experience? Regardless of anything else.”  Then, and only then, do I engage my left brain and start seeing how it could be made better. With better writing, you tend to appeal across a broader group of people.  

How’d you get your start reading scripts?

Prior to starting my company Smart Girls Productions, I worked for a company that was involved with film distribution — both domestic and international — and I learned a fair amount about that.  At one point, I just had to quit — no really good reason; they were great. But I just wanted to do a business on my own. That’s when I started Smart Girls.

I was actually working on an acting career at that point and need to figure out how I was going to make money.  Since I read scripts as an actress, I thought, “Hey, I could make money typing scripts.” Yes, typing! I ran an ad in the Writer’s Guild magazine and got a call right away.  The truth is, I didn’t even know how to type a script. I called an aspiring producer friend of mine who was also my mentor. And I asked him desperately, “How do I type a script?”  He told me to get some book from Samuel French bookstore and I did. It took me forever to type those first two scripts. But after that, I typed a LOT of scripts…. we still do!

Then once I learned to type a script, I took lots of classes on screenwriting. Then I began writing my own scripts. Got hired to write a couple. I got a WGA agent. I went on to get my Ph.D. in mythological studies.  And along the way, I added script analysis to my list of services and it turns out, I apparently have a knack for it. I ended up being rated one of the top 5 Script Consultants on three different occasions by Creative Screenwriting Magazine.  

Your company’s called Smart Girls Productions. What’s the story behind the name, and what kind of work does the company do?

This one is short.  When I started my company, I brainstormed a list of about 30 company names. I read it to my Mom, and she said, “Definitely Smart Girls.”  And so it was. Told you it was short.

You have a PhD in Mythological Studies. Has that helped you in analyzing scripts?

For sure. Joseph Campbell, the father of bringing mythology into an understandable form, is the one who identified The Hero’s Journey.  That’s the foundation of almost every great Western story. My studies in mythology looked at story from innumerable angles…. not just Campbell’s but many others.  So yes. It is in my DNA that it informs my analysis.

What are the components of a good script?

For me this is where the Hero’s Journey meets Aristotle’s Poetics.  The Hero’s Journey focuses more on the experience of the character and the inner transformation.  The Poetics has more of an emphasis on plot. But if you work both angles, then you’re going to have things that appeal to more audience members.  That’s the big picture.

If I had to say what those elements are, it would be something like… You need to have a character that has something he or she NEEDS to learn, some kind of lesson, some area of their life where they are misguided.

They then get pulled into some external plot in which they will be forced to confront that thing they have not learned. They will come face-to-face with it in the external plot.

Their choice and how they handle it is the big lesson for them and for the audience.  The biggest component for a good script for me is that the the main character has some kind of transformation. That they are somehow a bigger, better or wiser character by the time the story ends.

What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

The most common big mistake I see is no solid theme developed in the story. You have to have some point to telling the story, otherwise it’s a boring story about going to the store.

Gotta have some point about human nature that is revealed in your story, or what’s the point? That is the biggest mistake new writers make. I would also venture to say it’s also why more sophisticated movie-goers don’t like straight-up action films. Too many times, the focus is not on any kind of transformation, but on other fun stuff like chase scenes and explosions and cool special effects. Nothing wrong with that, but it does nothing for the soul. The soul longs for transformation, and personal development. The theme is the highest articulation of that. The most common mistake I see — actually I don’t see it as a mistake, but more like the most underdeveloped aspect of scripts I read is theme. And I say it that way, because I find that most writers have some place of meaning they are writing from; they just haven’t consciously identified what it is.

One of the non-writing necessities of screenwriting is the writer’s ability to market themselves. Seeing as how that’s one of your specialties, what are some key pieces of advice that writers should keep in mind?

You’re not going to be successful overnight or next week. You’re not going to sell your first script for a million dollars. Or even $250,000. The first person who reads your script is not going to fall in love with it and suddenly introduce you as this newly discovered gem that Hollywood has been waiting for.

Many screenwriters really have no idea how hard it is to get a deal and then get your movie made. It’s a long shot. I’m not saying you should give up, but I am saying that my best advice is to learn more about the BUSINESS side of the business. It’s far more likely that a writer will get hired to re-write a script if they’re a great writer than it is that they will actually sell their film and have it be produced. Trying to convey this idea and educate writers on this is why I launched my Hollywood Business School at HollywoodBschool.com.  My mission there is to help actors and writers better understand the business so they can have a much better chance at reaching their goals.

To boil it down to a few simple bits of advice:  Keep learning as much as you can about the business. Get great at your craft. Market market market. Follow-up, follow-up, follow-up.  Enjoy the pursuit. Be positive and be persistent. And don’t quit your day job. — BUT… do everything you can to help your career while you still have that job.

Part of your bio lists being the former emcee at the Hollywood Networking Breakfast. Could you provide a little more detail about the event and is it something screenwriters should consider attending?

My dear friend Sandra Lord is the Networking Guru of Hollywood. She was my manager for a period of time when I was acting. She started The Breakfast at that time, and she excelled at finding top level producers and agents to speak.  For the nine years I emceed that and heard the speakers, I got a deep education in how Hollywood works and what execs want.

Sandra still hosts the breakfast several times a year.  She also runs an event called “Let’s Do Lunch” and the L.A. Film and Television Meetup.  She is the first person that I recommend for every aspiring filmmaker, actor, set designer — anyone who wants to get into the business — go to her events as much as you can.  You will definitely start making connections. And it’s also not just for newbies. You’ll find a lot of working industry people there as well.

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

“Most” important?  I tend to stay away from hyperbole because how can I really boil it down to MOST important?  It’s a great question that writers need to know, so it’s not the question that’s an issue — it’s just my picky resistance to saying what is my most anything…Let me slightly modify and simply tell you what I think are some generally important rules.  Here are the three I pick for now:

  1. Learn story structure.  Study screenwriting. If you haven’t studied screenwriting, I guarantee you don’t know how to do it well. 100% guaranteed.
  2. Tap into your authenticity and write from there. In a very positive way, I think everyone has a great story to tell — of their own life even — if you find the right bits and pieces. Whatever it is that moves a screenwriter to spend weeks, months, and years on their screenplay, that tells me they have something important to say.  This goes back to the theme I mentioned above. They may not have completely identified what their theme is — and why their story is important to them. But I will also guarantee this …. if they tap into their authenticity and why they are so moved by that story, that story will have a hundred times more impact — on them and their audience.  If they get to their authenticity about it, there is deep fulfillment and satisfaction in writing a story like that. Then your passion makes it much easier for others to see its greatness.
  3. Don’t take anything you hear from a producer or agent at face value. You have to know how to read between the lines.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

It’s less a story trope that I’m tired of because they can be told in different ways.  What I find hard to watch or read is when the writer or filmmakers have not tapped into their unique vision — again I would call it lacking authenticity — but then … I don’t want THAT to come across as a TROPE!  If I had to say it another way, it’s when people are not digging deep enough into their soul to get to their authentic, unique perspective.

You could see the same story ten different times and if the filmmakers or screenwriter truly tapped into their own unique take deep within, it could still be interesting. It’s like when a great song is recorded by many different artists.  Whether it’s “Over the Rainbow,” “Amazing Grace,” “Yesterday,” “Can’t Help Falling In Love” or “To Love Somebody,” when a great singer does their unique rendition, we can hear it over and over and still be moved by it. The same with a story or a story beat.  The problem lies in the lack of tapping into the truth of the individual writer.

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

Gotta be pumpkin!  I need to find a good source for pumpkin pie here in Los Angeles. Got one?

pumpkin pie

I refuse to be complacent

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The road gets tougher, you run harder

First-round results for two of the biggest, high-profile screenwriting contests have been released within the past week, and the pattern for my western’s performance in both has once again repeated itself.

Total whiff for PAGE, and top 20 percent for the Nicholl. (I’m not doing Austin this year)

I didn’t get notes from the former, and based on the ones I got last year for the latter, am not that curious as to why it placed where it did.

My initial reaction was, naturally, disappointment, but this year is markedly different in what came immediately after.

There’ve been days where the agony, frustration and just plain shittiness of things not working out was so strong I’d seriously contemplate just walking away. After all, that would be one less member of the competition, right?

But that’s simply not an option – for any of us. Our desire to succeed as writers burns too bright.

I may not have done as well as I’d hoped with these contests, so instead of shrugging my shoulders and saying “Oh well. Better luck next year,” I plan on doing whatever I can to increase my chances. With a vengeance.

Gone is the wallowing in a blessedly brief mindset of “poor, poor pitiful me”.

In its place – a reinvigorated drive to buckle down, work even harder and write scripts so fucking amazing those readers won’t know what hit them.

I don’t think I can. I KNOW I CAN.

Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead, chums.

-A new addition and a return appearance on the bulletin board this week:

-Filmmakers Caitlin Stedman and Kayla Ditlefsen have launched a crowdfunding project for their short film Unattainable. They’re around the 60 percent mark, so donate if you can!

-The crowdfunding for filmmaker Steve Davis’s No Glory continues, with about a month to go. Steve’s a talented guy, and this sounds like a fantastic project. Donate if you can!

In with the good air…

deep breath
Step 1. Inhale through the nose.

You’d think working on a comedy would be a fun-filled, joke-laden romp.

Nope.

As you may have heard, comedy’s a tough row to hoe. Everybody has a different take on what they consider funny, so it takes a lot of work.

A lot.

One of my current endeavors is overhauling a low-budget comedy spec. It’s been a long, slow process – with a lot of moments of frustration and aggravation.

When I write, sometimes I just overthink things, which makes feeling stuck seem that much bigger and insurmountable. Not uncommon.

It probably also doesn’t help that writing comedy is a totally different world than writing a rollercoaster ride-type adventure. The latter has definitely gotten easier for me, while the former…

Let’s just say I’m still on a bit of a learning curve.

Despite all the obstacles, there’s still one powerful positive about this – I think it’s a fun concept with a new and unique approach and, if executed properly, would be a really good script.

So I do what I can to work my way through.

K could see the toll the stress was taking on me, and suggested I hit the metaphoric pause button and simply take a couple of deep breaths to help clear my head.

And wouldn’t you know? It did help.

After that last exhalation, the problems don’t seem as huge. Sure, they’re still there, but what originally seemed like “How in the world am I going to do that?” has now turned into “There is a solution here, and I shall find it.”

A little calm and rational thinking can do wonders to help you regain and maintain your footing after a little stumbling. I heartily recommend it.

Start with similar, venture into different

path
With one you can play it safe, while the other offers up more of a challenge

In the handful of times I’ve helped out as co-writer or script polisher on somebody else’s project, there have been variations on the following conversation:

ME: And then THIS happens!

THEM: Oh, we can’t do that. ACTUAL MOVIE did the same thing.

ME: Not exactly. ACTUAL MOVIE did THIS, and what I’m suggesting is maybe at the very foundation the same concept, but if we did it THIS WAY so THIS HAPPENS, it would be entirely different.

THEM: But won’t people think we’re just ripping off ACTUAL MOVIE?

ME: First of all, ACTUAL MOVIE has been out for a while, and you’re at least a year away from having this thing done, so I highly doubt the first thing anyone’s going to think is we’re ripping off ACTUAL MOVIE. Second, this is exactly why I think THIS is how it should happen. True, both use the basic concept, but we’re putting our own spin on it so it doesn’t resemble ACTUAL MOVIE at all. They’re similar, if you could even call it that, but still different.

THEM: (thinks it over). Well, okay. We’ll give it a try.

And…scene.

I’ve read about this in articles and seen it firsthand while reading scripts, both times usually associated with newer writers. Somebody really likes how something happens in a film or a script, so then they go and have the EXACT SAME THING happen in theirs. I get that you liked that original, but why, oh why would you want to use it practically verbatim in yours?

Doing the screenwriting equivalent of a “copy, cut, and paste” will do you no good because it’ll be painfully obvious that’s what you did. You’re trying to tell an original story, and THIS is what you do?

If anything, people will definitely think you ripped off that original thing and berate you for your total lack of originality. Was that your goal? Probably not.

Time to get analytical. What was it about that particular something that really got to you? Why do you feel the need to have the same thing happen in your script? That’s the angle from which to approach it.

But this is also where the challenge begins. Once you identify that core detail, it’s up to you, the writer, to figure out a new way to use it in such a way that not only does it serve the purpose you need, but also pays homage to what inspired it in the first place.

You know where things are going, or at least where you want them to go, but now you need to tweak how they get there. Work those muscles of creativeness! Try something new! Don’t hesitate to jump off the beaten path into new territory! If anything, you might come up with an entirely new idea that accomplishes exactly what you needed, but just a totally different way.

Sure, there’s a very slight chance it could potentially remind somebody of ACTUAL MOVIE, but they’ll definitely remember that it came from yours.

Now it gets really interesting

desert
First few steps are always the toughest. Good thing I came prepared.

Let’s pause now for your humble blogger-in-residence to proudly proclaim that Act One of the first draft of the pulpy adventure spec is complete.

Whoopee.

But you know what that also means.

Yep. Time to buckle down even more, strap myself in, and jump feet-first into the intimidating arena commonly known as Act Two.

I’ll also admit it’s a little thrilling, too. There was a particular charge in working out the action sequences and story set-ups in Act One, so I’ve a strong suspicion the continuing build-ups for the former and the gradual development of the latter will be equally, if not more so, fun to write.

(and believe me when I say this is the kind of story that automatically requires a sense of fun)

Maybe it’s from continuously trying to improve as I go, but working on Act Two doesn’t seem as intimidating as it used to. Not to say that it comes easily; just slightly less insurmountable. I spent a lot of time on the outline, so confidence in that is pretty solid.

I read a lot about how a spec script might have a phenomenal Act One, but then things fall apart in Act Two for a myriad of possible reasons: the characters don’t do much/nothing really happens, or the overall story’s too thin, so a lot of Act Two is empty filler, and so on.

The only writing process I know is my own, and I always strive to make sure the story feels…complete? Full? It comes down to “I know what has to happen to tell this story,”, and while the first act is all about setting it all up, the second act is about fleshing everything out.

We get a closer look at the characters and how they’re progressing through the events of the story. We can see how they’re changing from when they were first introduced. Plot threads of all sizes get further developed. The central question is continuously asked (oh-so-subtly, of course).

It also involves steadily-mounting complications for your protagonist. They’ve got a goal, and it’s our job to throw all kinds of obstacles in their way that just keep making it harder for them to reach it. Again, a lot of it happens during our second act.

Act Two really is where the meat of the story takes place, so stuff needs to happen that not only holds our interest, but makes us want/need to know what happens next, and even that better be that much more intriguing.

 

As you’d expect, our work is cut out for us.

So off I go. Dispatches from this formidable excursion as they develop.

See you on the other side.