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Screenwriting


My thoughts on the Black List

For those that haven’t heard of it, the Black List is a highly respected list that comes out once a year, cataloging the best unproduced scripts that have been circulating around Hollywood. It’s curated by Franklin Leonard, a very smart guy who I think takes great pride in the Black List’s record of scripts being turned into movies and picking up awards. (I think it’s something like 25 Oscars, which is an impressive stat). It’s an interesting and important project and Franklin has been expanding it in different ways throughout the last year.

The newest aspect of the Black List sees it opening up to aspiring writers, and having their work ranked alongside a database of past and current scripts by professionals. The idea is that the truly great work will rise to the top and a network of professional producers, agents and managers will be able to discover a great story they wouldn’t have found otherwise. It’s a wonderful idea in theory, but is it working as intended?

Let’s take a look at what’s currently working well:

The Good

They’re on it – Franklin Leonard has been talking at conferences, answering questions, listening to feedback, and been generally very responsive. They’ve already implemented some suggestions from users since launch. There’s a distinct plan behind the site, and some clever, experienced people involved. If nothing else, that’s reassuring.

The site is good – It’s clean, has some interesting stats and works well. There’s potential there, once they use all that data to do something interesting.

It’s not a con – At least, I don’t think it is. It’s an opportunity, with no strings attached. You can stop membership at any time and you don’t have to pay for reads if you don’t want to. (Although how you are supposed to get a rating without one, I don’t know). You retain all rights to your work and are free to go with anyone that contacts you regarding your script.

Now, some of the not so promising aspects:

The Bad

It costs a fortune – It really is the most expensive hosting plan in history. You pay $25 a month just for the privilege of being listed and having your script available for download. You can’t be listed without uploading a script, either. On top of that, you need to pay $50 for a reader to give your script a rating. On the site, there is a suggestion that you should get at least three ratings, so at a minimum, you’re looking at $75 for the least costly option (one month listing and one rating) and $450 for a year of hosting and 3 reads. That is extortionate.

You can’t edit your details – This seems like an oversight. You can’t edit anything once you’ve uploaded your script, so you better hope you get it right the first time. I think it’s because they don’t want people changing things randomly, but really, users should have some control over their own work and how it’s presented.

Slow response time – The site is busy right now due to the influx of new scripts, so you must wait up to two and a half weeks for your ranking score to come in. That’s half a month you’re paying for, while your script is parked and practically undiscoverable (unless someone knows the title or author, there’s absolutely no way to find it). Asking for your details to be edited also takes days, which is fairly unacceptable.

Bad value – In strict business terms, you’re paying for nothing, essentially. They promise you no more than a slightly random opportunity, but one that could just as easily be found by sending a query out to an agent and getting lucky. In fact, you’re paying to be listed in a database where no one can find you right now.

Scripts are buried and hard to find – There is really no mechanism to discover new scripts at the moment. I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt here, because it’s early days and most scripts don’t have ratings yet. I’m sure there’s going to be some neat stuff in this area in the future. At least I hope. If not, it’s a dealbreaker.

The Verdict

So should you upload your masterpiece to the Black List right away? Honestly, I’d say take the approach of wait and see. There isn’t a really good argument for laying out $75 dollars right now, and definitely not one that improves on the old fashioned and (free) route of querying agents. There is also a weird us-and-them aspect to the site that I don’t feel comfortable with. You are an amateur paying out of your pocket to be listed alongside professionals, who not only have free access to the site and the bulk of ratings being given to them (as it should be, and I get why), but that can also see data and information that you can’t. You don’t know who looked at your script, who downloaded it, who read it, anything. You just have to pay up and wait.

I’m certain the site will evolve into something sleeker, with less clutter as bad scripts drop out, and more data as the good ones get placed into their correct positions. I can definitely see that it could become a rolling competition of monthly winners as really great scripts get attention (assuming the people who matter buy into the idea). Whether it will help them sell faster than they would normally, no one can really say.

I guess it’s great that there’s another avenue for aspiring writers, but I wish it wasn’t so expensive, one that will profit from many and reward few.

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Christopher McQuarrie on writing

The most important thing I learned was this: everything can always happen much sooner, much faster, and with much less said about it.

So damn true.

Source: Go Into The Story

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PAGE Awards Finalist

My script is now in the final ten scripts in the Science Fiction category of the PAGE Awards. The interesting thing about making it this far is that finalists are required to send in the latest draft of their script, which I think is helpful. I did a few re-writes, so I was glad I could submit an update.

The winners are announced on October 15.

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EXTRASOLAR: The Prequel

A little comic that explains the set-up before the events in my script EXTRASOLAR. Think of it as viral content for a movie that doesn’t exist. Like those Alien ones with Mike out of Neighbours.

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The Quest

I entered another contest. This is an interesting one. Scott Myers at Go Into The Story has been teaching screenwriters for years (one look at his blog should be enough to convince anyone of his altruistic tendencies) and with the huge blog presence and an affiliation to the Black list, he’s in a great position to help emerging screenwriters break through. The idea he’s come up to do that is called The Quest. I hope it involves swords and dinosaurs at some point.

The idea is to take four lucky writers and mentor them for six months, for free. At the end of the year, these four people should each have a completed script, Scott attached as producer, plenty of people willing to read them and a better understanding of the craft. That’s the idea, anyway.

I like it. Seeing as I arrived in Los Angeles less than two weeks ago (now that’s an overdue post) to do this kind of thing, it comes at a rather nifty time. To enter, you were required to send in your logline(s) and see if Scott picks one he’s excited about. He got something close to 4000. He’s looking for high-concept, very commercial stuff – something that would open on a lot of screens. I spent some time polishing my most extra high-concept loglines to make them short and concise and dutifully sent them off. I guess we’ll see. I’m ready for it.

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Get your script read by Benderspink

If you want to get read by BenderSpink and support a good cause at the same time (let’s be honest, getting read is the real reason you’re gonna do this), head over to Done Deal Pro and check this post. $50 donation to the American Heart Association gets you 50 pages read by Daniel Vang.

I did it and I got an open door to submit new scripts in the future.

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You can’t have it both ways

There’s an interview with David Simon on the New York Times website. I have the utmost respect for the guy, but this jumped out at me like a hoodlum in the low-rises:

The number of people blogging television online — it’s ridiculous. They don’t know what we’re building. And by the way, that’s true for the people who say we’re great. They don’t know. It doesn’t matter whether they love it or they hate it. It doesn’t mean anything until there’s a beginning, middle and an end. If you want television to be a serious storytelling medium, you’re up against a lot of human dynamic that is arrayed against you. Not the least of which are people who arrived to “The Wire” late, planted their feet, and want to explain to everybody why it’s so cool. Glad to hear it. But you weren’t paying attention. You got led there at the end and generally speaking, you’re asserting for the wrong things.

Am I crazy or is this a huge contradiction? People who critique a show before the end are ridiculous, but people who only watch it after the end aren’t paying attention. I’m so confused. When should I watch a series? From the beginning, middle or end? On cable, blu-ray™ disc, or DVR? When is it OK to talk about it?

Some guidelines might help. I just want to be in strict compliance here.

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Script Frenzy

It’s that time of year again. The blossom hangs from the trees, sunlight dapples across the sidewalk (AKA pavement) and a man’s fancy turns to thoughts of rutting. It’s also Script Frenzy time, when thousands of amateurs bash out a half-baked script in a single month. Sounds bad, right? Not at all.

Script Frenzy is actually really great for getting stuff done. It solves two problems a lot of writers have – lack of impetus and self-editing. The first one can mean you never start anything and the second can mean you never finish it. Having a deadline of thirty one days gives you something concrete to aim for. Instead of measuring your work in such subjective terms as ‘is this the best I can do?’, you just have to count the pages as the days progress. Write two pages per day for a week, you’ve got fifteen pages. Bingo– you’re a writer. And once you get started with a little routine over the course of the month, you tend to not want to stop.

What you write may be gibberish, but you know what? I doubt it. If it’s flowing (because of the rapid deadline), you tend to find quick solutions to problems, skip over character names that might hold you up for hours. You get in the zone and it comes to you. You also don’t edit and rehash the same opening page over and over again ad infinitum. This is crucial – you should only edit something (I’m talking about proper, qualitative editing, not typos and vocab) when you’ve finished it. Then you can assess it as a whole.

Once the pressure to make something perfect is off, you have the freedom to create. It’s a lesson that has helped me in more than just my writing, so I’m a big fan.

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The Disciple Program/ Hyperdrive/Orphan’s Dawn

OK, let’s talk about scripts. I mean, if you want to write them, you have to read them. Science fact. I’ve been working hard at my day job, so I have to fit in reading on the subway ride there and back. Basically the most uncomfortable environment known to man or farm animal. A New York City subway car in rush hour is the nadir of civilization and people don’t even give you enough room to hold a Kindle DX, but I persevere because I want to win an Oscar.

THE DISCIPLE PROGRAM

The spec script everyone’s been talking about for the last few weeks. Uncovered and championed by Carson Reeves at Scriptshadow, it received major attention and now writer Tyler Marceca is signed to WME. It all happened in the blink of an eye.

The script is fantastic. It’s purposeful and muscular, every scene has a dramatic element to it and the opening ten pages make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. The story is basically a version of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, but it’s so well told it’s never anything less than riveting. (This goes back to what I was saying last week about execution.)

A couple of nitpicks are that it’s a little overwritten, a twist shows itself way too early and it doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the opening scenes. But they really are nitpicks. This script has already inspired me a great deal. Congratulations to Tyler, the talented swine.

HYPERDRIVE

Pretty solid sci-fi spec by Morgan Jurgenson and David Daniels about a famous author (who’s also a huge nerd) getting caught up in an intergalactic war exactly like the one he writes about in his books.

The tone is really flimsy, and the characters are a bit stock for my liking. They’re ‘playing’ with ‘genre conventions’. There’s a grizzled cop and his partner, an annoying wimpy sci-fi fan, a hot girl from space and some ugly space heavies. It plays out exactly how you imagine – it’s like MEN IN BLACK/GALAXY QUEST/ROUNDTABLE. Like I said, solid, but not inspired.

ORPHAN’S DAWN

Epic original sci-fi by Josh Friedman. This is a weird one. It seems like it’s adapted from a set of revered novels, but it’s all original. It’s about a man who is ostracised from his people on a city floating in space, left to live the life of a wandering something. I forget what. He must help a woman who will lead the ship to a new planet and start a new life for the millions of inhabitants. So basically, the plot of WALL-E.

Very well written, he’s got an awesome voice (though I’m not a fan of the asides to the reader), and it’s densely plotted and sharply realized. The one thing that confused me was near the end, a long scene involving a tightrope walk and grappling hooks attached to the sky of the city (the sky is made of fabric). It’s not bad, it’s just a really odd moment – he lives in a city that has giant anti-gravity drives and yet there’s no such thing as a jetpack and he’s jumping around like Cirque du Soleil. Still, it’s commendable madness to write this on spec and expect it to get made, but it’s so ambitious I see why it sold.

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Concept versus Execution

Concept is your one stellar idea. You hang an entire story around it. It carries your title, characters and plot all the way to awesomeville and back again. Hollywood prizes high concepts above all else, they’re pretty much the currency they trade in and people’s careers have been made (and sustained) on them. So there’s a lot of emphasis, and rightly so.

Examples of excellent concepts are things like LIAR LIAR (a lawyer can’t lie), TRADING PLACES (rich guy and poor guy swap lives) and FINAL DESTINATION (death comes back for people he missed). Boom, you’ve got the movie in your head in one second. A thousand possibilities immediately spring to mind. Half your work is done for you – your concept is a series of ‘What If?’ questions and all you need to do is answer them. A good concept can even sell a bad script, because studios know they can fix the details later as long as the magic is there at the beginning. But here’s the thing… I think the details ARE the concept, or at the very least, they’re how you present it to the world. And presentation is everything.

Take a concept and look at two executions of it. Let’s say it’s the idea of entering a world inside the human mind. On the one hand you’ve got INCEPTION and on the other you’ve got THE LAWNMOWER MAN. Pretty big difference.

Execution lessons

Think about BACK TO THE FUTURE. That is a prime example of perfect execution. You name it, they nailed it. I like to think about the million other directions it could have taken. I remember seeing the film for the first time as a kid with my Dad. I was bouncing down the street afterwards, and I asked my Dad if he liked it. He did, although he was surprised they had a time machine but only went back thirty years. He thought they were going to visit Ancient Rome or somewhere, all these places throughout history (he would have made a shitty screenwriter). Now, with the concept they had (guy invents time machine, kid accidentally uses it), they had that option – but they restrained themselves and it was a great choice. Hell, the time machine itself was originally a fridge. Doc Brown was originally called Professor Brown, and he had a chimpanzee called Shemp. Eric Stoltz was Marty McFly. God have mercy on us all.

The point is, having an idea is one thing. Inspiration hits us all the time. But the execution of that idea is everything. What you chose to focus on, what you chose to leave out, how you take something that exists and give it a twist – this is just as important as the concept itself, maybe more so.

What I learned: This is where I’m at with a sci-fi thriller I’m writing. The concept has a lot to do with time travel, so I’m facing world of infinite possibilities and choices. It’s the easiest thing to overload a project with ‘cool shit’, but that’s a mistake. Do what best serves your concept and edit all the other stuff out. Take what you DO have and make it the best, most exciting version possible. That way you’ll be writing the next BACK TO THE FUTURE and not the next FREEJACK.

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