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Screenwriting


This Should Be a Movie: ZOIDS

Most people in the US haven’t heard of ZOIDS, which is nothing short of a national disgrace. They’re a toy range that stood alongside Transformers and Masters of the Universe in the toy aisles of the 80s, complete with their own mythology, epic characters, and comic series from Marvel. Look at this big red elephant:

To catch you heathens up, ZOIDS themselves are a race of giant robotic mecha dinosaurs controlled by drone pilots that are locked in an eternal war for control of the planet Zoidstar. The good guys are the Blue Zoids and the bad guys are the Red Mutants, and they damn well want to rip each other to shreds.

The toy line itself has a convoluted history. Originally released in Japan as Mechabonica in the early 80s, it was then released in the US under the new name of Zoids. These did well, and were subsequently rebranded as Zoids in Japan. The designs were tweaked once again and given new individual character names and backstory for release in Europe. By 1985, the toys were reintroduced in the US as Robostrux (with no backstory or supporting media), rebranded in Japan as Zevle, sold to Kenner in the US and re-relaunched as Technozoids, and so on ad infinitum. I like to think if the US market hadn’t suffered this brand fragmentation, it would have been a huge property like the European release.

In the UK, most boys had Zoids. They were too cool to ignore. The robot designs were a cut above the majority of kids toys, looking like they’d just jumped out of a fierce James Cameron movie. They were motorized (either wind-up or battery operated), meaning they could walk under their own power, and you had to assemble them yourself, like a Lego kit on steroids. Their imagined scale was massive, and the box art, TV commercials and overall product design only added to that.

The ace in the hole was the Marvel UK comic, published weekly as a dual title with Spider-Man. Marvel UK could turn rat turds into gold (as demonstrated by their amazing Transformers run), and their penchant for violent, cinematic storylines permeated all the way through the Zoids run. It bought the toys to life in a visceral way, and added some odd spiritual overtones that I never fully understood as a kid (the war between the factions is overseen by a weird immortal dude called The Namer, though I can’t remember why.) Comics legend Grant Morrison wrote a  bunch of these, hence the high quality factor. You can read the whole run here.

The comic took huge inspiration from movies such as The Terminator, Aliens, Blade Runner and The Thing, and that, plus the grandiose beauty of the Zoids themselves, would make for a hugely satisfying cinematic experience. Leaving the exact plot of the comic aside, if a crew of humans were to discover the planet the Zoids were warring on, all hell could break loose. And if the crew in question had someone among them that didn’t exact stumble upon this planet by accident, but lead them there in search of a family member, and subsequently draws them into the fight… well, you’d have an emotional barnstormer of a story.

Zoids are still going strong today, with the Japanese market supporting new toys, a number of anime, various games, and reissues of classic kits. With the movie industry leaning so heavily on IP these days, it’s genuinely surprising that something so screen-ready has been left undisturbed for so long. I think it’s down to lack of familiarity in the US, but you could argue that ‘undiscovered’ factor, combined with a built-in audience in other markets, is the best of both worlds. Get Neill Blomkamp on the phone immediately.

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Homer’s Donut Allergy

homerCheck out my Simpson’s spec called ‘Homer’s Donut Allergy’. I researched for hours to see if the premise had been done, and I don’t think it has, but who the hell knows?

This owes a huge debt to ‘Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Baadasssss Song’ by Bill Oakley & Josh Weinstein, which is absolutetly jam-packed with funny ideas. I ripped them off so hard.

Download the pdf here: HOMER’S DONUT ALLERGY

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Nicholl Near Miss

I received a pass latter from the Nicholl Fellowship yesterday. It was close:

…your script placed among the Top 10% of all entries and fell short of advancing to the quarterfinals by two-to-six points.

Two points! Not bad for a loopy sc-fi script. Oh well, there’s always next year.

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From the Blacklist

crystal01

The blend of Victorian-era settings with science fiction storylines is always a fun way to tell a story, and this script does a great job of combining the mores and trappings of that era with the strange new realities that Haldane encounters. Scenes such as those where Haldane is in his lab examining the crystal are particularly easy to envision in this context. The reader spends almost every moment of the script following Haldane, so it’s crucial that the author is able to maintain sympathy for him; and, while it’s never quite clear if Haldane is a ‘good’ person or not, his adventures and actions are never boring. Also strong is the presentation of Haldane’s slow acclimatization to his newfound powers. This is reminiscent of superhero stories in which the protagonist finds himself entering a new reality, but, set in Victorian times, it feels fresher and more fun. The script’s final scene, with the alien ships arriving one hundred twenty years later, is a great moment that vastly expands the world that the story inhabits, and opens up the door for more stories set in that world.

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The Fellowship of the Nick

patrickI sent my submission to the Nickelodeon Writing Fellowship today. Two copies of a comedy spec, a one page resume, a half page bio and the application form and release. Ended up being quite a stack of paper. Satisfyingly hefty.

The script I sent was a Simpsons spec, which is traditionally a hard show to write due to the fact that they’ve covered everything in known universe. I somehow figured out two ideas I hadn’t seen before, then went through TEN YEARS of episode synopses to see if they’d been done already. One had and one hadn’t, so I wrote the one that hadn’t. Oh, and I should really say thanks to Simpsons writer Bill Oakley, whose outline for an episode I found online and then shamelessly copied like a Canal Street bootlegger.

One interesting thing on the application is you have to point out how ethnically or culturally diverse you are. I put that I’m English, which is fine I guess, but just realized my mother-in-law is Indian. I should have put that! Missed opportunity.

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Inspiration

With this show, I wanted people to laugh and cry… and shit themselves all at the same time.

– Garth Marenghi

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PAGE Awards Finalist second year in a row

I made it to the finals of the PAGE Awards again. Down to the last 10. They announce the winners on Oct 15th.

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Elysium

I saw ELYSIUM last night. As my most anticipated movie of 2013 I was pretty excited to get into a press screening at the Arclight Hollywood. We were literally the last people in line, got the last passes, were the last to have our phones taken and bagged, and the last to enter the theater seconds before the light dimmed for the screening. That’s when an usher opened up a reserved aisle, and we got seats together in a perfect spot. Don’t know what the moral of this story is. Sometimes it pays to be late?

Anyway, the movie is entertaining and goes faster than a dropship breaking through Earth’s stuffy atmosphere, but I my feelings are I only liked it rather than loved it. The style and the execution of the world is amazing, and every frame is recognizable as a Neil Blomkamp film, but a lot of stuff doesn’t land. It follows Matt Damon’s character, a downtrodden worker human on Earth, as he tries to get himself to the orbiting ringworld of Elysium for urgent medical attention. He has five days to do it before he dies, and a bunch of people on Earth, as well as up in space, do not want that to happen (because they hate poor people? It’s never explicitly explained).

The real problem I had is with the film’s antagonists – for a start there’s too many. It muddies the plot to have not one, but four different people against the lead for different reasons. Specifically, Sharlto Copley’s character is a kind of government-sanctioned bounty hunter straight out of a comic book, and he really is the film’s weak point. He has ludicrous action, barely any motive and just a weird performance that doesn’t work at all.

There’s a bunch of little plot holes that don’t really bother me, but the general switching of stakes kept the story from really building to a nice ending. There was a goal, quickly achieved, then another totally separate goal that needed attention, and so on.

It’s entertaining, but not the genre-defining kick to the balls I was hoping for. Lower your expectations, cause Neil Blomkamp is human after all.

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ScreamCraft Horror Script Contest Quarter Finalists

The ScreamCraft Horror Script Contest just announced their Quarter Finalists and I made the cut!

It’s a smaller contest, but it’s associated with The Blood List, and the judges panel includes development executives at Lionsgate, Paramount and Sony, which is awesome. (The Blood List is basically The Black List, but for horror only). So yeah – I’m one of 79 QF’ers – good luck to them all, I say. Here’s the full list: ScreamCraft Quarter Finalists

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On Fellowships and Contests

Last year I entered lots of screenwriting contests, in essence to try them out and see which ones felt like they were run properly and had value. Of the five or six I entered, I only really liked the PAGE Screenwriting Awards and the Austin Film Festival Screenwriting Contest. The others were too sloppy (1998 called, it wants its web design back) or, in the case of the Nichols Fellowship and Zoetrope contest, not a good fit for the kind of scripts I write.

This year I wanted to enter new scripts into PAGE and AFF, and also try and branch out into entering the TV Writing Fellowships, namely the WB Writer’s Workshop, NBC Writer’s On The Verge and the Disney | ABC Fellowship. These are a little different than regular contests in that the are aimed at propelling you into a job in the television industry. If you get selected, you will be working with them for a year trying to achieve that goal.

To enter, you need to write a TV spec that is currently on the air and has been around for at least two seasons. I wrote a spec for THE SIMPSONS, partly because I wanted to do comedy, and partly because I can use it as a sample in the animation industry, where I have some contacts. There aren’t many sample Simpsons scripts out there (only transcripts, which aren’t helpful) but I managed to find an outline by Bill Oakley for an episode, and I followed that format. Wrote the outline in a day, and the first draft in under a week. I came out twenty pages short, so I had to go back to the outline and add in a nice chunk of second act business, then go back to the script and fill it out. I think it came out great, and it seems fresh to me, which I what I was aiming for.

Because all the fellowships have deadlines on basically the same day (end of May), there wasn’t much time left to perfect things. I just had to trust it was funny and submit it. Here’s where things get interesting. The fellowships have an additional requirement than screenwriting contests to enter – they want to know who you are and why we have a unique perspective on things. I entered the NBC WOTV first, and I kinda didn’t take it seriously. Although every word I wrote in my bio is true (I really did work with the director of Demolition Man on a shampoo commercial), as soon as I hit submit, I started thinking it might be too flippant for them. We’ll see.

For the WB Workshop, I cleaned up my act and submitted a bio I was really happy with. That one felt like it has a good chance. Lastly, the Disney Fellowship. Be prepared for this one, because they ask for a bunch of extra stuff, such as letters of recommendation from writing professionals, and they wanted it mailed to them on two CDs. If I knew I would have to take a trip to Office Max to buy obsolete media, I might have started on that one first. Anyway, I didn’t enter. It’s a shame because I could have got the two letters lined up and just about squeezed in the deadline (assuming everything went smoothly), but it’s a lot of stress for such a huge long shot. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Overall, I’m excited about what I submitted. It always feels like progress when you’re sending finished work out the door, using the deadlines to get new work created. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.

Here’s some links:

WB Writers’ Workshop

NBC Writer’s On The Verge

Disney | ABC Writing Program

Austin Film Festival Screenwriting Competition

PAGE International Screenwriting Awards

Nicholl Fellowship

Zoetrope Screenplay Contest

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