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17 FUDGING


It's a dirty little Hollywood secret -- hidden away, rarely discussed, and even more rarely written about. Yet it's more common than the casting couch, more insidiously clever than creative studio accounting. Like nepotism, it's quietly tolerated by most, as long as it doesn't get too out of hand. I admit I've even done it myself. I'm talking about fudging the page count. Go to any gathering of industry types. Check out that little knot of writers in the corner. The ones speaking in hushed tones. I guarantee you the conversation has nothing to do with box office results, critics or starlets. They're not even talking about their latest deals or complaining about their agents. Nope, they're exchanging techniques... trade secrets on how to lower the page count of their scripts.

See, this is what happens when a producer or creative executive receives a screenplay. If the script was written on assignment, they pick it up, flip right to the end and see how many pages it is. If it's a spec script, then they open it up, glance at the title -- -- and then flip right to the end to see how many pages it is! Any script with a page length over 125 is suspect. Over 130, and the script is, at best, an interim draft with "Lots more work to be done." And it may not even get read. "If it's too long, it goes to the bottom of the pile," a Disney executive told me once. "At one o'clock in the morning, a 105-page script can look a lot more appealing than a 135-page script."

The bias isn't just due to how long it takes to read the script. The classic rule of thumb says that one page of script will average out to one minute of screen time. This isn't always true -- sometimes a single descriptive line such as 'the horses stampede through town' can take more than a minute, and some dialog scenes will take less. (It's said that screen time eats up dialog, and action eats up screen time.) But over the course of a script it's supposed to average out to that magic page-a-minute. So a 135-page script is automatically considered to be a longish movie, more expensive to produce, and may limit the number of screenings the exhibitors can schedule in the course of a day. Bad things all. In addition there are structural concerns. Quite often in a 135-page script, the spin into Act III won't come until after page 100. It can feel a bit odd to head off in a brand new direction at a point where some movies are winding up. The script, then, may be thought to be paced too slowly. Oh, and I should mention that none of this actually makes any damn sense whatsoever, of course. There are many films that work just fine at 150 minutes or longer. And the screenplay for the first TERMINATOR movie was, I believe 170 pages long. But these are the biases we deal with, whether they have merit or not. If your script is under 105 pages, all the notes you get will be about stuff that needs to be added. If your script is over 130 pages, all the notes will be about stuff that needs to be cut. At 115 pages or thereabouts, the notes tend to be confused and cancel out, because no one can figure out whether to add stuff or cut stuff. So what do you do when your screenplay is edging into the unreadable 130-page plus territory? You cheat, of course. In whatever sneaky, underhanded way you can come up with. We're talkin' O.J. Simpson defense team tactics. Here's a few ways to do it, and a few ways NOT to do it:

#1. USE A DIFFERENT FONT Man, don't even try. The mark of a rank amateur. As a master of cheating page count, I look upon using different fonts with disdain. See, the idea is to conceal your efforts. Sure you can switch to Elite instead of Courier (back in the old typewriter days) or use a fancy justified font and shave the page total. But it's too obvious -- you end up highlighting the very problem you're trying to conceal. People read those scripts with absolute suspicion ("How long is this really?") if they read them at all.

#2. WIDEN THE DIALOG MARGINS

Commonly attempted and also a bad way to go. Again, it's too obvious -- the page just doesn't look right with those fat dialog blocks sitting there. Usually attempted by writers who have too many half-page speeches loading down their scripts in the first place.

#3. CHANGE THE LEADING

Okay, now we're getting somewhere. For those that may not know, leading ('ledding') is the vertical spacing between each line written on the page. Minimize the leading and the lines become slightly squished together -- and more of them will fit on the page! It's sneaky, it's hard to spot, and it's effective. Two or three lines per page is a whole extra page every thirty pages of screenplay. It's an option most word processing programs now allow you to control.

#4. USE SCRIPTOR

"Scriptor" is a screenplay formatting program for people who work in Microsoft Word. One of its many fine features is that it automatically squishes the leading of a script, commonly saving four or five pages. It also allows control of the space before each scene heading, and whether or not to use MOREs for broken dialog and CONTINUEDs at the bottom of each page. And it seems to use a slightly more compact Courier font. With all the choices it offers, the length of a script can be changed up to 10 pages just by changing the settings.

#5. ELIMINATE 'WIDOWS'

A widow is, I believe, a typesetting term for when one or two words at the end of a line 'hang over' or wrap around down to the next line. So you have an entire line there, but just one word sitting there using it. Not very efficient. If you can rewrite the line to get rid of just that one word, you save ONE WHOLE LINE.

Widow-hunting is now an automatic part of our writing. Suppose the line is, 'He stood frozen in the glare of the headlamps a moment, then dove sideways, away from the onrushing car.' Let's say the word 'car' wraps around, causing the sentence to take up two lines. It's easy enough to edit the line to: 'He stood frozen in the headlamps' glare, then dove away from the onrushing car.' You could argue that the less wordy version is easier to read as well. Sometimes there's a three or four line paragraph that has just a single word 'hanging over' onto the next line. The challenge is to find juuussssst the right word to edit in the paragraph that will cause the words at the end of each line to start wrapping around, and then save a line at the end. It's a real thrill when you do it. Throughout an entire script, a good widow hunt can take out maybe three pages.
Ah, the joys of writing. You've got to take 'em where you find 'em.

#6. ELIMINATE CUT TOs Gee, does EVERY scene change really need its own CUT TO? Maybe we can get by with just every major sequence, and when we need to use DISSOLVE. Or, if the script's really long -- forget the CUT TOs altogether, leave 'em for the shooting script!

#7. MISNUMBER THE PAGES Ted and I sort of stumbled onto this one by accident. In writing for the Disney Sunday Night Movie, we were asked to put in the seven act breaks for the commercials. This is the format of a made-for-TV movie. Well, it so happens you don't put the page number on the pages that start each act. And by mistake I started to leave those numbers out of the total page count. So, say act III ended on page 46, Act IV started on the next page (unnumbered), and then the page after that was page 47.

Yes, it was a mistake. Really it was. We saved six pages that way. Our justification was that the last page of each act tended to take up a half of a page or less, but we were getting 'charged' for a full page. But this should probably be looked at as the desperate act of desperate men, and is not recommended.

#8. THE 97% SOLUTION Okay, so you're wondering, just how bad does it get? How low will these guys go? To what level of depravity will they allow ourselves to sink? Here it is. This is it, the absolute bottom, I swear. When we were just starting out, I figured the best way to handle this whole formatting issue was to copy the format of a professional script EXACTLY. I'm talking down to 1/32 of an inch in all directions, margins, leading, everything.

So I got a copy of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, and took a page out of the middle as a sample page. I retyped it word for word in order to be able to re-create the exact settings that must have been used to type it originally. But a weird thing happened -- I couldn't make it come out right. Finally I took my page and Kasdan's page to a light table, and superimposed one page over the other. Somehow my typeface, even though it was basic Courier, was taking up slightly more space for each letter than his version of courier. And so he was fitting more words on each line. Damn. I was using an IBM Selectric at the time, and working late at night on a college campus. I scoured the offices for those little interchangeable IBM Selectric typeface balls, convinced that somewhere there was the magic Kasdan ball that would allow me to fit as many words on a line as he did. But the Elite ball was too small. The Schoolbook ball was too big, etc. Unlike Goldilocks, I could never find the typeface ball that was just right. Then inspiration hit. The school had a copy machine that also made reductions. Through trial and error, I discovered that if I widened my margins, 'overprinted' the pages, and then made copies reducing them to 97% of their original size, I could match the Kasdan script EXACTLY. And I mean exactly -- back at the light table, when one page went over the other, it was a perfect match. I was able to get more words on each page, lowering the page count -- and best of all, at 97%, it still looked exactly like a normal Courier font. The fit was so exact, I have come to believe that this may have been how the original RAIDERS pages were created in the first place. Perhaps all this seems a bit extreme. That these are extraordinary lengths to go to, just to perhaps gain a relatively minor advantage. And after all, if the studio is really interested in making the script, one of the steps they'll do before budgeting it is to have it re-typed to their standard format. So the truth of a cheated page count will eventually out.

But there's one final, greater point to be made out of all this. In retrospect, my dedication -- or my obsession -- toward getting the script to look exactly the way it should, no matter how long it took -- that's an example of the sort of focus one needs to make it in this industry. Any slight advantage is worth gaining. Nothing that might allow our scripts to be passed on is acceptable to ignore. If a page break came at a bad spot, perhaps splitting the set-up and pay-off of a joke, I'd go in and edit out a line so the pay-off came without the reader having to turn the page. If, as I was mailing the script off, I noticed a word was misspelled or a dash got split, even if it was 2:00 A.M., I'd re-type the page. If you find yourself with this sort of obsessive behaviour -- like coming up with inventive ways to cheat the page count! -- then, I think, you've got the right kind of attitude to make it in Hollywood. Oh, and to Larry Kasdan, wherever you are -- I'd dearly love to know whether I indeed stumbled onto to your own personal fudging technique. If you ever happen to read this and have the time, please send an e-mail and let me know the truth. For myself, I'm going to believe you did fudge the count of RAIDERS. Thank you for the inspiration, and on behalf of all fudgers everywhere, let me say it: you're the best!

18 ME & MY AMPERSAND


So Terry, my writing partner, calls me up and asks if I'd do a guest column for Wordplay. Sure, I say. What's the topic?

Writing partners, he says. I figure you might have a few insights on the subject. "Pro or con?" I ask. "There's a con?" Oh, yeah, there's a con. Let me tell you: If you work with a partner, one of you will always run a little late. Guaranteed. Invariably, your partner will get all the good news phone calls ("Oh, yeah, I forgot. Jan De Bont called yesterday. He said he liked the script. And, uh, some other stuff, I can't remember what.") and you will get the bad ones ("As far as Warner Bros. is concerned, this draft is unacceptable, and we won't even consider it officially delivered. We may have to scrap the project, it's so bad."). You will have to listen to the excruciating details of his latest Rotisserie baseball trade, or his badly-told David Letterman bits that may have been funny at the time, but lose something in the translation. When a meeting gets rescheduled to an hour earlier he will be impossible to locate. That brilliant idea you had in the shower this morning will be met with absolute indifference at best, non-comprehension at worst. Defying all laws of probability, three out of four times, studio executives will call you each by the wrong name. You will feel like you're doing all the work. And you only get paid half the money. Naturally, your writing partner will feel the same way. That being said, I consider working with a partner to be the smartest career decision I've ever made. Of course, I got the best one, so the rest of you are out of luck. Naturally, my writing partner feels the same way.

I think. We've never actually discussed it. In fact we've never really discussed how our partnership works. Which makes this a very difficult column to write, probably the most difficult column in the history of Wordplay. Which is exactly why Terry asked me to do it, the gold-bricking slacker. I have to do all the hard work. Which is at it should be. Right off the top, no mincing around, I am going to dispel one of the single biggest misconceptions about working with a writing partner. Ready? Here it is: It doesn't make it easier. Even though you have a writing partner, you still must do 100% of the work. Don't think that finding a partner who's good with action means you don't have to write action anymore. You had both better be thinking constantly about solving the problems, clarifying the characters, sharpening the dialogue, making the story work. A partner doesn't make writing a script easier. But a partner can make the script better. Terry and I began working together over ten years ago (more, if you count our high school newspaper time). There were a number of reasons. Fear was one. Neither of us really had the slightest idea what we were doing, but we thought -- hoped -- prayed -- that the other guy did. The writing partner as security blanket. Discipline -- or, rather, lack of it -- was another factor. If it was just me by myself, I'm not sure I would have had the discipline to finish a single script, let alone gut out years of bad dialogue, tepid screen directions, and the realization that you really ought to have some idea for an ending before you start writing. But knowing that if I didn't show up, Terry would be left sitting there, glowering -- Terry has a particularly fearsome glower -- goaded me into showing up. And knowing I was there goaded Terry into showing up. And once we were both there, we figured, heck, we might as well do some work.

HOW WE WORK, PART I Terry and I did most of our early writing in restaurants -- specifically, a CoCo's in Orange County. Big table, no distractions, pretty waitresses refilling our coffee -- okay, minimal distractions -- all for about five bucks. We would sit across from each other, writing in long hand, passing a single pad back and forth. While we worked from an outline, we hadn't yet discovered the importance of really nailing the structure before we wrote FADE IN, so there was a lot of tearing out and crumpling up and staring blankly at each other, wondering how we're going pay for the coffee on the miserable salaries from our real, full-time jobs. We had a lot of shared sensibilities. We differ in a lot of ways (let's not bring up politics, hmm?), but have similar ideas about what makes stories work. We both loved movies, we both read voraciously, we both wanted to be screenwriters (a particularly good thing. Try to avoid getting a partner who wants to be, say, a convicted murderer or, worse, a performance artist). But it was the common goal of telling good stories -- and the kind of stories we wanted to tell -- that made our partnership work, and continue to work. The next thing I want to mention is one that maybe shouldn't be mentioned. The dark one. The one that ought to stay buried deep in the back of the drawer, under the socks. The one that everyone wonders about, but nobody talks about.

Competitiveness. Writers are competitive. Humans are competitive. I am competitive. And Terry? Do yourself a favor. Don't play ping-pong with him unless you're really good. He will not go easy. No quarter given, none asked. And, yes, he usually beat me (we don't play much anymore). When I'm writing a scene, the person I'm trying hardest to impress, the one whose opinion I value most, is Terry. I want him to read it and be floored. To wonder, "How does he do it?" And... I want him to be jealous. Just a little, but jealous all the same. And that prompts him to write a scene that impresses me, floors me, makes me jealous. And there's no way I can let him have that last little satisfied smile... Because I know that if the scene works for him, if it impresses him, it'll work for an audience. Terry is my harshest critic -- but also the one I respect the most. And ultimately, that's the most important thing about a writing partner. Find a writer you respect, whose abilities you envy -- and hope he or she feels the same about you. Working with a writing partner comes down to one simple thing: you should both feel like you're getting the better part of the deal.

HOW WE WORK, PART II (E) The Apple IIe, that is. What a wonderful machine. 64k of RAM. I remember the thrill when Terry kicked it up to 128. Monochrome monitor. Screenplays stored on six-inch floppy discs that were honest-to-God floppy. A daisywheel printer that chattered out a blistering two pages a minute. No mouse. Ah, nostalgia. But even with the advent of technology, Terry and I worked pretty much the same way: one at the keyboard, the other hanging over his shoulder. One of us would occasionally draft a scene in long hand while the other worked on a different scene, but for the most part, it was the same as the coffee shop (without the pretty waitresses, though. It's true; progress has a price). Except now we'd switch chairs, the CPU and monitor being a bit bulkier than a pad of paper.

In reading interviews with other writing teams, there's one phrase that always bothers me: "Once we've structured it (or gotten a first draft or heard from the producers or whatever) -- " -- that's when the shouting begins." What a horrible thing to look forward to, let alone incorporate into your day-to-day work life. If that be the price of a writing partner, give me the single life. There's got to be a better way... ... and there is. Terry and I have developed a process we call 'Egoless Arguing.' Simply enough, it means that the ideas do battle, not the people. It means not having a personal stake in any one story point, but in the overall script itself. If one of us makes a suggestion, it has to be backed up. Not by intimidation, debating tactics, Schopehauer's 38 stratagems, or name-calling, but by actual reasons -- and reasons beyond the development executive classic "It just feels right." That can be one of the reasons, but if the idea is right, there'll be more substance to it. Example: We're stuck on a story point. I suggest that the whole script is crashing down because our hero should wear a fedora, and Terry, in his infinite wisdom, believes he should go hatless. But now, having brought up the fedora issue, it's no longer my idea. It's simply an idea. It must stand or fall on its own merit. And neither of us takes sides -- it's the idea that must prove itself. I might start with a more pro-hat stance. After all, we don't want our hero to lose 80% of his body heat needlessly, what with the South Pole setting and all. Terry might make the point that hats are passe, and the supermodel-love interest would consider our hero a fashion dinosaur. But Terry might also realize the hat could make a good hiding place for the serial killer's virtual reality microchip plans on the DAT tape in Act II. And I could be the one who brings up the problem that the fedora is pretty much identified with Indiana Jones, and, since the hero is already an archeologist, it just might be considered plagiarism. Ultimately, the idea proves itself to be unsound, is rejected, and we go on to consider other issues, the main one being that, from all appearances, this seems like a pretty stupid idea for a movie. Egoless Arguing is also something we bring with us to story meetings. We try not to reject any suggestion out of hand -- even ones which sound like something Charles Manson babbled to Geraldo Rivera. Our long years of practice at collaboration have made it possible for us to sift through a producer's inexact fumblings, and find the good idea that may be lurking at the core. The whole point is to make the script better, and we'll take credit for anyone's good idea.

HOW WE WORK, PART III Over time, we discovered the real craft of screenwriting: structure. We began staying at the outlining phase until we got it right, working off cards until the major story points were set, and even most of the individual scene structures were figured out. We can now divide up the scenes and sequences, and work independently. Sometimes we're in the same room, on separate computers, sometimes not. Occasionally one of us gets stuck, or realizes that, in order for a moment to work in Act III, it's got to be set up in the Act I scene the other one is writing. But since we both know the structure, and we've both been thinking about the whole story, and we know it's the value of the idea, not the one who thunk it, it's simply a matter of solving the problem.



(An aside: Outside of science fiction and fantasy, the only writing partnerships I could think of in literature are both in the mystery genre: A.E. Maxwell, the husband-and-wife behind the Fiddler series, and Fred Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, better known as Ellery Queen. Interesting that the mystery genre, more than any other, demands an extremely high level of pure craft and structure. The good mystery genre, anyway.) One of the most common phrases Terry and I use when we're writing is "Okay, this is the bad version, but what if ..?" And the other one takes that, refines it, tosses it back. Maybe we follow a few blind paths, or reject an answer that later will prove to be the correct one, but more than likely, we will end up with a solution that neither of us could have come up on our own. (We're at Amblin', meeting with Walter Parkes, trying to work out a tricky rewrite on MEN IN BLACK. We're stuck. Nothing's coming. We can hear the bubbles crackling softly in a can of Diet Coke. And finally, cautiously, Walter says: "Okay, this is the bad version... " Terry and I laughed. We felt like we were home.) Movies are a collaborative art form. The auteur theory is a joke (unless you're Robert Rodriguez, who wrote, directed, shot, edited and sound-mixed his own movie. And maybe cooked the lunches, too, for all I know). A writing partnership is just getting an early jump on the process. And, of course, as you struggle as writers to perfect your craft, schlepping from studio to studio trying to make that elusive sale or capture that dream assignment, as you wend your way over the freeways that link Hollywood to Burbank, and Beverly Hills to Century City, there is a final, overwhelming way in which a writing partner can be beneficial. Two words: Carpool lane.

19 YOU, THE EXPERT


Okay, let's pretend that all the agents working in Hollywood are suffering from brain aneurysms. Every last one of them. (Some people would say, hey, that's not so hard!) They're all in dire straits, they're going down for the third time, they can feel the cold breath of the Grim Reaper on the backs of their collective necks... Hey, this is kind of fun. Their days are numbered. The Fat Lady is belting out a show tune. The sand in the hourglass is running low, and they have no choice but to go under the knife. They've gone through anger, denial, bargaining -- spent a lot of time on bargaining, of course -- then depression, and finally acceptance. All that's left is to choose a surgeon to perform the needed operation. Now. Would any one of them be willing to hand YOU the knife? Probably not. What's more, you wouldn't even want them to. After all, you're not trained. You wouldn't have any idea what to do. You're not an expert. You would, in fact, make a bloody mess of things. They wouldn't choose you for the job, and you wouldn't feel like you deserved to be chosen. So. Now. What makes you think any one of them would select you to be a screenwriter they wanted to represent? I made up this silly, extreme (but memorable, I hope) metaphor because I think the two questions are essentially the same. Yes, that's right -- I'm talking about screenwriting as if it were brain surgery. I always wanted to do that. See, here's the thing: Many writers, when they're starting out, get it backwards. It's easy to think of the agents as the professionals, the experts, the 'insiders' with all the information, their fingers on the pulse of the industry. Lowly scribes from all over the country make their pilgrimage to these Guardians of the Gate, and offer up their screenplays in hope they will be deemed worthy. And to a few lucky souls, the agents, like gods, bestow their blessing -- Well, bull. That's not how it goes. And sorry for mixing my metaphors, but the truth is, agents pick screenwriters the same way they'd pick a brain surgeon. Or any professional person. They want someone with knowledge. Experience. Talent. Someone well-practiced in their craft. Someone who is capable. Someone who has demonstrated their abilities. Someone who knows what they are doing -- They want, in short, an expert. You're the expert. Or you need to become one, quickly. That's the first step in finding an agent! See, agents are all searching for the next highly-trained, yet unknown, screenwriter... not for any of the highly-known, untrained screenwriters! Writers who want to find an agent are commonly told about the Writer's Guild Agency List. Call up the Writer's Guild and they'll mail you a moderately up-to-date list of agencies 'open for submissions' from new writers. I guess that's not bad advice, as far as it goes. New writers are also told to mail their scripts to production companies, or to stars that might be interested. Other advice says writers should camp out in parking lots and hand-deliver scripts to agents, or give away a bottle of wine with each draft -- Well, okay. But I've got a different angle. Here's how to do it... First, write a great script. Now, be very careful to have only one copy of it. Immediately upon writing FADE OUT, THE END, take that single copy and place it in a small, sturdy safe. Close and lock the safe. Take the safe directly to your basement, dig a hole seven feet deep, and place the safe in the hole. Refill the hole. Lock the basement door securely, and then go to bed. The next day, get up and go to the basement. The place will be lousy with agents, several of them already involved in a bidding war over your script. I'm being facetious, of course, but to make a point. The really hard part is step one -- 'write a great script.' It's like that Steve Martin joke where he says, "I know how you can make a million dollars, tax free!" He looks out over the audience, then says, really fast: "Okay, firstyougetamilliondollars. Then..." Once you have that great screenplay, nothing after that much matters. I truly believe that you can't complete writing a great script without finding an agent along the way, or the people who will lead you to an agent. In other words, worry about the writing, and the rest will take care of itself. Write a great script and copy machines throughout the industry soon will rumble to life, and you won't be able to keep your screenplay from breaking down doors and careening straight on up to the big buyers. And without a great script, no amount of networking is going to amount to anything. Now, I fully realize this is not a popular position among writers. I spoke to a screenwriting seminar at UCLA, and it wasn't hard to see that the students were incensed. The prevailing opinion was, "But my script is great. If only I could get it in the right hands, its brilliance would be appreciated. It's not what you do, after all -- it's who you know." So I wrote my name on the board in big letters. Beneath it I wrote my address and phone number -- which is what I always do when I give a seminar. I turned to the class and said, "From this moment forward, none of you have to worry about contacts ever again -- because you know me. And I know agents, producers, directors, studio execs. Plenty of people in the industry. And I promise I won't overlook a great script. Now, write a great script, and send it to me." Not one of them ever called. In the five or six seminars I've given, no one has ever called. Contacts are easy. I know lots of people who have set out to make contacts -- and they did it. Takes about three or four weeks, tops, of concerted effort to make a contact in the film industry. Contacts are easy. Writing a great script -- that's hard. All right. So let's say you are absolutely convinced that you do have a great script. It's a bidding war just waiting to happen. In point of fact, nobody's going to come dig it up out of your basement. You do have to actually put it out into the world. But I swear, this is the easy part. You can enter screenplay competitions. If you win, you gain credibility in an agent's eyes. You can send your script to the agencies on the Writer's Guild 'open for submissions' list. You can target specific stars and production companies. You can attend seminars, and talk to the industry pros afterwards. If they're impressed at what you have to say, they'll quite often be willing to read your work. You can make contacts with readers and assistants, get them to read your script, with the idea of passing it along. You can take classes. Often professors have special access to the industry. You can work with independent, low budget, or no-budget filmmakers, perhaps even get something produced. You can meet 'journeyman pros,' online. There are thousands of them. In other words, you don't have to target Tom Hanks or Oliver Stone. There're plenty of anonymous, mid-industry level people who'll give you a chance. Journeyman screenwriters are always good to approach, I believe -- they're easily flattered, and sympathetic to the cause. If your screenplay is truly great, any one of these approaches will be enough. Another strategy is to not try to find an agent. Instead, get the agent to try to find you. Get a development deal in the works, for example, and you can have your pick of agents. Winning a prestigious screenwriting competition can have the same effect. Making an award winning student film can, in some cases, result in overall representation, including writing services. Have a play produced, or sell a novel -- hell, even create a comic strip -- and you're instantly more desirable in an agent's eyes. One quick tip I'd like to pass along, if you get to that point where you're interviewing an agent, and the agent is interviewing you. Some phrases an agent wants to hear are "I'm almost finished with my next script." "I have several ideas I'm ready to pitch." And, "There's a little-known out-of-print-book I've always wanted to do." Some phrases an agent doesn't want to hear include "How long will it take for you to sell my script?" "How much can you get for my script?" And, "How long will it take for you to get me a job?" But more on that later. Working with an agent, and what you can expect them to do for you is a topic for another column. "Sure, that's easy for you to say," is one likely response to this column. "You have an agent, you don't know how hard it is to get one." Fine. Here's the story of how we found our agent. Ted and I, when we were first starting out, wrote the equivalent of 12 feature film screenplays. And we didn't send any of them out. (I say the 'equivalent' of 12, because we wrote episodic TV specs, short films, half-hour comedies, etc., along with features.) That was FIVE YEARS of writing, where our self-assessment was that we weren't quite good enough yet. Five years of study and training. Close to what it would take to get through med school. (Hmn -- maybe this is brain surgery, after all!) Finally, at script number 13, we felt we had something good enough to put on the market. The script got into a bidding war, and we signed with our current agent. It's that sort of patience, and willingness to learn the craft, that pays off in the end. Oh, and one final, last resort way for you to find an agent. I'll make the same kind of offer here that I made to that UCLA class but now, via this Website: If you're willing to talk about your script, and I'm intrigued by the concept, I'll ask you to send it to me to read. You'll find all the how-to info in the Company section's Submission Statement. I promise not to overlook a screenplay that's truly great. If it's great, I'll pass it along up the chain. But... please don't send me your script and ask me whether or not it's good. You should know already whether it's good, and be able to tell me exactly why. You're the expert, remember? * Original AOL-era title: "Agents with Aneurysms"

20 STORY MOLECULE


I've come to think of any story element, story idea, beat or story solution as a STORY MOLECULE. Come along with me, into the strange world of subatomic story physics, and I'll show you one. Remember the old Monsanto ride at Disneyland? The world around you isn't getting bigger, you're getting smaller.

There! I spotted one. A story molecule. It's a little round sucker.

Looks sorta like this [Fig. 1] Could be a clever plot twist, inventive escape, unexpected complication, satisfying resolution, or whatever. We're going to call it a story molecule, and the first-and-only rule for all story molecules is: bigger is better. That's the only criterion on how we're going to judge them. Choose the molecule that's bigger. Ah. But what makes one molecule bigger than another? The answer is, happily, pretty much just what you'd expect. Here's a basic hierarchy. The story molecule gets -- BIGGER, if the story element is:

1. visual 8. dramatic 2. emotional 9. smart 3. filmic 10. concise 4. unique 11. interesting 5. funny 12. organic 6. effective 13. appropriate 7. on theme But -- not all story ideas are so good. In fact, some ideas just plain suck, they don't work at all. And that's were we get those crummy, tiny, little no-good story molecules, the ones you want to avoid. So, the molecule gets -- SMALLER, if the story element is: 1. cliche 8. internal 2. dumb 9. unbelievable 3. ineffective 10. coincidental 4. contradictory 11. mean-spirited 5. boring 12. annoying 6. long 13. off theme 7. overly complex 14. disruptive of tone

So what you want to do when you write is, pick those big huge molecules with lots of the good attributes, the ones that look like this: [Fig. 2]

And avoid the dumb little molecules with a preponderance of bad attributes, gaunt tiny ones that look like this: [Fig. 3] That, in a nutshell, is what us writers do. We sit around all day making these value-choices. We use our instincts and training, our highly refined creative sensibilities, to always pick the bigger molecule.



Then we clump a huge collection of these molecules together, call it a story, and send it out into the world. And we think that's enough. We think that will carry the day. At least, when we first start out, that's what we believe. We presume that industry folk are going to be smart, and act the same way we do, and use the best ideas available. Heck, it's an easy presumption to make. After all, that's what everyone says they want, and why shouldn't we believe them? And the alternative appears so clearly wrong -- choose the ideas that aren't the best? Who could be in favor of that? When you see a bad movie, you think you know the cause: Hollywood is simply starved for good movie ideas! You think: imagine what Tim Burton would do if someone gave him a strong narrative. You think: if only the BATMAN films made sense, they'd make even more money. You think: if someone had stood up and yelled 'let's have some courage' Disney wouldn't have made a watered-down version of HUNCHBACK. You think that if someone would just provide some good ideas, those ideas would be recognize and used. Because, deep down, you have faith. You believe. You think everyone wants a film to be as good as it can be so the best ideas will win out. Right? And then you attend your first story meeting. And reality hits like an ocean liner slamming into a dock at five miles an hour. Like a punch from a last action hero, knocking you flat, a spinning merry-go-round of HOWARD THE DUCKs over your head. You stumble out of the meeting, eyes glazed, in a state of shock -- "The changes they want are ridiculous! They don't even make sense!" Story logic gets ignored, set-ups are left unresolved, character motives are incomprehensible at best. Theme overlooked, absolute dictates given, perfectly good solutions prohibited. What's going on here? The answer lies back with our humble little friend, the story molecule. You see, he's not just a simple little round circle, like I described. I lied. All I told you about is the proton that sits at the nucleus of the story molecule. And yes, that little story proton behaves pretty much how I said. But -- there's more than just a proton in a story molecule. There are neutrons in there as well. Your story solution proton always -- ALWAYS -- comes attached to other particles. It really looks something like this: [Fig. 4] Let's start with the most important added neutron: Who came up with the idea. Like the basic story proton, this little sucker has its own hierarchy. A story element will be deemed to carry more or less 'weight' depending on who came up with it. Here's how the current industry 'periodic table of story idea contributors' goes, in descending order: 1. Steven Spielberg 2. 'A' list director (with recent hit film) 3. Studio head 4. Jim Carrey 5. 'A' list director (without recent hit film) 6. All other 'A' list movie stars 7. All other directors 8. Producer 9. Girlfriends/boyfriends/wives/husbands/lovers of the above 10. All other actors 11. Cinematographer 12. Editor 13. Development Executive 14. Anyone on the set that day 15. The writer

So you can see right off how a mediocre idea (a medium-sized proton) coupled with the fact that the idea came from the studio head (a big huge heavy neutron) -- [Fig. 5] -- can outweigh a better idea from the writer: [Fig. 6]

The other big particle cluttering things up here is the CONTEXT OF THE IDEA neutron. This one's a little more tricky, but generally speaking, we must recognize that it's not just how good the idea is, or even who came up with it -- but under what conditions and circumstances the idea was presented. As your humble servant, I have gone out into the world, sat through thousands of hours of story meetings, and identified several ways in which this 'context' neutron gains weight. Here they are:

#1. NEW AND DIFFERENT The newest idea is better. Old ideas are suspect simply because they are old. Particularly with comedy: if it was funny six months ago, it's almost guaranteed it's ain't funny now.

#2. FIRST IMPRESSION

Directly contradictory to the point above, but powerful nonetheless. Ignore this at your peril. You're at your first meeting with the director, the script hasn't even been written yet, and he says: "I think maybe the answer should be coded in the pattern of the villain's tie." "Uh huh," you think to yourself, "That'll never work." So you outline the 12 clear arguments against the code-in-tie concept, proceed down a different path entirely. Seven months and five free rewrites later, the director brings up: "Y'know, what about the idea that the answer is coded in the pattern of the villain's tie?"

When Ted and I worked on the John D. MacDonald TRAVIS McGEE movie, director Frank Marshall mentioned that of all the books, he was leaning toward adapting "Cinnamon Skin". We exhaustively reviewed all nineteen novels and decided a better choice was an ambitious combination of "Pale Gray for Guilt" and "Bright Orange for the Shroud". Our script landed at the studio with a thud. We were fools.

#3. LARGE GROUP PHENOMENON When a large group wrestles with a problem, and you come up with an effective solution, that thrill of the moment of providing consensus is so profound, it can cement the solution into your head, whether or not it's really the best. Seen it happen.

#4. NEW REGIME EFFECT All decisions made by the old regime are subject to review. All possible solutions are to be explored and considered, except those arrived at by the old regime.

#5. IN THE ROOM Second best to coming up with the idea yourself is to be in the room when the idea is proposed. After a few months, you'll be able to convince yourself -- and others -- that, in fact, you were the one who came up with the idea after all. (Reference: who really did propose the casting of Eddie Murphy in BEVERLY HILLS COP?)

#6. NOT IN THE SCRIPT Actors especially will favour an idea simply because it is not in the script. The script is suspect -- especially those annoying parentheticals, which they are inclined to cross out. The thing to keep in mind is that, creating a story is powerful fun. Everyone on a movie wants to do it. Everyone wants to play, to be a part of that creative fire. And all those effective answers provided by the writer and written down in the screenplay can really get in the way of people trying to solve the problems on their own.

Beware of this tactic: actors, directors, producers, or executives finding fault with the material, creating havoc and disorder, so they can be the ones to come in with the their own solutions and 'put things back on track.'

#7. THE MOMENT OF UNDERSTANDING Much of filmmaking involves trying to imagine what is good and effective before it is done. This requires a huge act of faith on the part of the artist. You have to believe something will work months before you put it in front of an audience. How do you come to such faith?

Well, it's easier to know in your bones an idea is right if you did the work yourself, tasting your sweat, personally feeling the heat as the idea was forged. I've seen this happen in meetings. An executive doesn't get the solution, doesn't even get the problem and then has that moment of understanding, of 'getting it.' They really are trying to fully imagine the picture, and the way in which they finally do come to 'see' the answer is the solution they will promote. There's a great scene in STUNT MAN where the screenwriter -- who has been at odds with the director the entire production -- arrives on the set with an odd item he has purchased. He shyly shows it to the director -- it's an old-fashioned crank-up mechanical music box, depicting a surrealistic scene of a bear having sex with a girl on a swing. The writer sees it as perhaps a symbol for the story? The director (played by Peter O'Toole) looks at the writer, opens his arms wide and says, "Welcome to the same picture, Sam." I always think of that line when several months, or a year into a production, someone offers an opinion that shows they 'get it.' I'd like to make it clear here that I'm not just talking about ego. Yes, people tend to like their own ideas best. But most people in the business are professionals, and they are sincerely trying to come up with a way to 'own' the picture, to understand it, to get it into their heads. A great director or producer can own the picture right off the page. They read it, get it, like it, own it. Other directors have to 'make the story happen' by breaking it down, reinventing it, building it back up piece by piece, in order to really understand it well enough to tell. You need to be prepared for this. Otherwise you'll be caught off-guard.

Filmmaking is collaborative, and you have to be ready to deal with other versions of your story. Much of this column is tongue-in-cheek, so let me say, here's the important part: One bit of advice I tell every first-time screenwriter, on every assignment, is to find out who their writing partner is. Who they're going to collaborate with. They commonly look confused. "But I don't have a writing partner" they say. Oh, yes you do. You just don't know who it is yet. You are always co-writing the script with somebody -- and the sooner you scope out who that is, and figure out their take on the material, the better off you will be. Could be the director, could be the development executive, could be the studio head. But somebody in power at some point is going to tell you what you can, and cannot, write. Make no mistake -- the allure of 'creating story' is the most powerful elixir of in town. It beats money, sex and power put together. Very few will give up the thrill of defining story simply because your version is better. If you're lucky, you're co-writer will be someone who is smart and capable. Too often you end up with 'creative input' from a variety of people who can't do your job, and who will serve simply to add an extra layer of difficulty onto your efforts. Okay. Let's return to our story molecule. At the risk of pounding this extended metaphor totally into the ground, I'm going to add two more particles, and then we'll be done. We're talking electrons. Wild electrons that buzz around, circling the nucleus. I've identified two:

#1. The LOW COST/HIGH COST electron There's nothing you can do about this one. Some story ideas -- and entire screenplays, as we learned with our GODZILLA experience -- will be jettisoned simply because the production cannot afford them. Others will be chosen because they're cheap and fast. You gotta live with it.

#2. The FORCE OF PERSONALITY electron An average idea brilliantly and forcibly presented will often carry the day over a better idea that is not promoted effectively. The reason Jon Peters pushed through his pet scene in the first BATMAN movie was not because he's a literate, capable writer. No, he was loud and aggressive and insistent. The reins of moviemaking are there for those who will grab them.

So, bringing this all together, if we were to ask ourselves what the most compelling story molecule is, it would look something like this: [Fig. 7] Note how far we've come from our original model. The truly weighty story molecule is a good idea that comes from the director or studio head, is a new idea that confirms someone's first impression, is cheap, not from the script, gets delivered with a force of personality on the set to a large group that solves an immediate story need. (So, basically, if your director is driving to the set, sees a fire hydrant explode with an attendant plume of water, has an inspiration and decides it's perfect for Act III, that's how the end of the film is going to go. Check out the end of LETHAL WEAPON.) As for the writer, well, consider the position of the writer. His original idea is often old, in the script and therefore suspect, not delivered with any force of personality, maybe expensive, perhaps of the 'old regime,' and just begging to be 'improved upon' by those many folk wanting to play at story. No wonder so many writers are unhappy. All they have, sometimes, is the best idea. And the faith that it should be enough. In the strange realm of subatomic story physics, too often, that doesn't carry much weight.


21 RISK VS. REWARD

Welcome to the Great American Spec Screenplay sweepstakes! Just sit down, bang out 105 pages of car crashes, explosions, and kiss-off one-liners, and you too can WIN BIG FUN BUCKS! Or, you can choose to INCREASE YOUR ODDS by buying books chock-full of screenwriting SECRETS -- or listen to an insider audiocassette series, and virtually guarantee your chance of success! It's THAT EASY! Don't wait! Enter now! You can be the next OVERNIGHT SUCCESS and win MILLIONS! Or at least that's how the industry can seem, sometimes, when you read the headlines of twenty something writers closing film deals every week for mid-six figure sums. Shane Black defined the image of the hotshot maverick writer who becomes a name brand overnight, signing huge spec script deals at an enviously young age. There are, in fact, two ways a writer can actually earn a pay check in this town. One is to sell a spec script. The other is to land a writing assignment.



This column is in the form of one of those English 101 essay assignments: "Class, please compare and contrast the basic aspects of a spec script and a writing assignment..." Okay. Let's start with selling a spec script -- it's by far the more glamorous of the two. A 'spec' script is a screenplay written 'on speculation,' which means the writer just sat down and started writing. No deal in place, nobody attached, no guarantee that the project would ever produce any income. It's a completely speculative proposition on the part of the writer. The writer gambles by investing his time and effort -- a chunk of his life, so to speak -- into that script. He assumes all the risk himself... which means that the eventual reward can be substantial. Because when a spec script hits the market, it's a relatively risk-free proposition for the studio. If they want to buy it, they can see exactly what they're getting, with no question marks, no surprises. They can pick and choose amongst the various scripts submitted, with the freedom to only make offers on projects they truly intend to produce.

Agents know this, and use it to their advantage in deal making. The studio pays a premium to the writer for the imbalanced risk. And that's how you end up with those big-deal headlines. For those of you who don't subscribe to "Daily Variety," here are a few older script-sale stories picked entirely at random: Turner Pictures Hopes 'Thoughtcrimes' Pays Ending a bidding war that included a brief sibling scuffle between the 20th Century Fox divisions headed by Tom Jacobson and Laura Ziskin, Turner Pictures snapped up the spec script "Thoughtcrimes" for a deal worth $150,000 against a mid-six-figure sum late Thursday. The thriller was written by first time scripters Josh Oppenheimer and Thomas Dean Donnelly, who both graduated from the University of California Stark program in 1993. The story involves a clairvoyant woman who gets recruited and trained by a top-secret government agency, only to find herself enmeshed in a plot that threatens U.S. security. 'Treason' Committed Jerry Weintraub's Warner Bros.-based production company has nabbed Elliot Stern's spec script "Acts of Treason," a political thriller detailing the internal workings of the White House. The script sold Friday for a low six-figure sum against just under $500,000, sources said. The story, described as "In the Line of Fire" meets "The Bodyguard," revolves around a conspiracy to kill the first lady. U Pours 600G for 'Rains' Universal Pictures plunked down $600,000 against $1 million Friday to preemptively take scribe Ken Nolan's action thriller "The Long Rains" off the market for Imagine Entertainment. The deal was done before lunch after Universal and Imagine execs read the script overnight. The story revolves around a convict in a small Mississippi town who escapes from prison with two other inmates and attempts to retrieve a cache of stolen money and take revenge on the crooked sheriff who framed him for murder. Disney Enters 'Eden' with First-Time Scripter Ending a fierce 72-hour bidding war late Friday, Walt Disney Pictures purchased a spec script called "Eden" for about a half a million dollars against nearly $1 million if the picture gets made. David Hoberman will produce. "Eden" was written by Ronnie Christensen, a 24-year-old first-time screenwriter. The action-adventure story involves the modern-day discovery of the Garden of Eden, in the Indiana Jones vein. No talent has been attached. Schechter's 'Cup' Runneth Over to Fall for Caravan Caravan Pictures plunked down $800,000 for Jeff Schechter's comedy spec, "Stanly's Cup," and is fast-tracking the project for a fall start with Dennis Leary attached to star. Sources said Leary is already at work with Schechter on a series of revisions to the script, which is described as "Midnight Run" with hockey's Stanley Cup and is based upon an idea by Jason Blumenthal, who is VP of development and production at Sony-based Mandalay Entertainment. Spec Sold on Way to O.R. Caravan Pictures acquired the spec 'Ladies Man,' sources said, in a deal that closed one hour before the writer's agent went in for minor outpatient surgery at UCLA. Terms were not disclosed. APA's Justin Dardis closed the deal with Caravan's Amanda Moose and Jonathan Glickman on his way out the door Thursday. "Ladies' Man," a romantic comedy written by Diane Drake, is about a guy who acquires the ability to hear what women are thinking and develops into a decent guy. It's valuable, I feel, to pull stories like these out and look at them in a group. It's inspiring, for one thing. It's good practice in thinking like a studio ('know thy enemy') and in learning what type of stories are already out there, and who's buying what at which studio. WORDPLAY readers will spot some strange attractors listed, and note how quickly the industry reduces projects down to their basic ideas. How often the stories that sell reveal a larger world, the larger scope of the human spirit, etc. There's a fair amount of tinsel-speak going on... Oh, and truckloads of money being paid... that satisfying sound of silver dollars cascading down, piling into the payout tray, the jackpot siren screaming. On that point, it should be noted that quite often the screenwriter never gets to see the really 'big money' quoted in the headlines. Often, the numbers reported -- say, a $700,000 script sale -- include all of the steps of the deal, including the elusive production bonus. The picture has to get made -- and more importantly, the screenwriter has to be awarded sole screen credit -- for the big bonus check to get cut. Those are two pretty big ifs. More likely, the writer gets a hundred grand or so up front, and a series of steps (rewrites) to earn the rest of the money, against a total of (in this example) seven hundred thousand if the picture gets made. Still, that's a lot of money at stake. Lottery-type numbers. So what, then, are the odds of 'winning?' One way to answer that questions is to simply look at the cold hard numbers. And the numbers are pretty bleak. Several production companies have told me that they're interested in "About one out of a thousand" screenplays they receive. A particular executive amended, "In a bad stretch, one out of every two thousand." One agent estimated the major agencies hit the town with over 150 screenplays every weekend of the year. We read about that one screenplay that sells, and never hear about the other 149 that go back onto the shelf, or into the trash. And that's 150 scripts submitted by agents. That doesn't count scripts submitted by producers, writers, etc. But there's another, more realistic way to look at the odds, I think. And it's the reason I favor this whole screenplay/sweepstakes analogy. Because the Hollywood Spec Script Sweepstakes is the only lotto game in the world where you can truly influence your chance at winning. Simply put: all screenplays are not created equal, and so do not have an equal chance of selling. I believe that with so many buyers, a great script is almost certain to sell -- while many scripts -- most other scripts, in fact -- have zero chance of getting any real interest. Shane Black overnight success stories aside, this business has and always will continue to reward talent, hard work, and application of well-learned craft. What if you could pick six lotto numbers... and then load those ping-pong balls with lead? Like loading the dice. Why, it's almost like cheating. Okay. Let's move on to the second way a writer can actually get a paycheck in this town. We'll start with a question: what do you call a spec script that doesn't sell? Answer: a writing sample. Every writer who writes a spec hopes that it will sell. But if it doesn't, it still has value. The major studios all have their lists of 'open writing assignments.' These are projects based on ideas from the executives, or books, plays, magazine articles -- and often purchased spec scripts! -- that need revising. The studios are always on the lookout for a writer to re-write these 'projects in development.' Perhaps your spec, which wasn't quite strong enough to sell, can get you in to pitch on one of these open assignments, and you'll get hired to do the job. With a writing assignment, the studio is gambling a lot more than on a spec -- as much as, or more than, the writer. The studio doesn't know whether the draft that the writer eventually turns in will be any good, but they've already agreed to pay for it. With the balance of risk between studio and writer much more equal than for an assignment, the pay to the writer is far less. While a first time spec script deal might pay $100,000-$200,000 up front, a first-time assignment deal runs around $70,000. So if the big bucks are all over in the spec market, why, then, would a writer choose to take writing assignments? There are several reasons:

#1. SECURITY This is the obvious one. You get paid as you write the script, you don't have to pin your hopes on making an eventual sale.

#2. PROPERTIES Assignments are often based on existing properties, the type that can give a thrill to any writer's heart. Who could pass up the chance to write a ZORRO film, or to adapt John D. MacDonald's "Travis McGee"? Or a GODZILLA film, for that matter? Ted and I would kill, for example, for a chance to adapt the Saturday morning cartoon "Johnny Quest". Often writers don't have enough money to pay for the rights to properties, or the rights aren't available. Taking assignments becomes the only way to land these dream jobs.

#3. TALENT In the same way that assignments lead to working with great properties, they can also lead to working with great industry talent. In other words, when Ron Clements and John Musker (directors of LITTLE MERMAID) call and ask you to work on something, you say, 'yes.'

#4. GREEN LIGHT For every 10 screenplays written, only one gets filmed. That's the dark downside to this profession. Often assignments are closer to that elusive green light -- because of the previous two points -- than an original spec script.

#5. LAST POSITION There's a huge value of being the last writer on the project. That's the writer who gets to see his work up on screen. That's the writer who gets to work with the director, be a part of the decision- making process, and really learn how films get made. Remember -- just because you make that big spec script sale, don't presume for a second you're going to get to see your 'vision' up on the screen. When you sign that check, often a magic thing happens. You go from being the god of your project, someone courted and admired, appreciated and respected... to someone who's opinion can count less than the lowest reader. Your perspective is now suspect. You went from being "the brilliant guy who conceived this great story that we all love," to, "the defensive writer standing in the way of what needs to be done to get this film made." Have no doubts on this point. You just know the writers who originally wrote THE LAST ACTION HERO weren't the writers hanging out on the set! People outside the film business are often amazed to hear this -- and even some writers trying to break in. "You mean they can just do whatever they want to my script?" they ask. The answer is, a loud and resounding yes. (Ted and I have the really terrible films in our resume to prove it!) When you sell something, you sell it. Sell your car, and the new owner gets to do whatever he wants with it, even paint it zebra-striped and hang little fuzzy dice from the rear-view mirror. Say yes to a deal, say good-bye to creative control. A script is no different. Which leads us to the last, and perhaps best reason to take open assignments:



#6. THE ULTIMATE DEFENSE The decision to take assignments is one pretty effective way to defend your work: you don't even put it out on the market. After our LITTLE MONSTERS debacle -- an original spec script that was mangled in production -- Ted and I decided to only take assignments. Why give up your best ideas to other people, just so they can screw them up? Heck, we can screw them up ourselves! If you do believe that you've got a truly great film idea -- a BACK TO THE FUTURE, a BODY HEAT -- why would you ever let the creative control leave your hands? A bad film from a good original idea just hurts too much. To avoid that pain again, Ted and I hope to build up some industry standing... and then only hit the town with a spec script when it's part of a package: us as producers, and with a director of our choice. Or, even, we might insist on one of us directing the script. At the very least, they can pay extra to 'unattach' us from the project. Because ultimately, real satisfaction only comes from seeing a good film made. Despite what you might think, a bad film is worse than no film. And no amount of money (at least, none that we've been paid) is worth wasting your life getting nothing done, or only getting lousy stuff done. Of course, if you do manage to retain some creative control, or hook up with talented people who make your script well, I will certainly concur that getting paid lots of money is great. Especially if it lets you quit your day job, and write full time. I'm reinded of a moment over 10 years ago now, at an American Film Institute (AFI) seminar on screenwriting. I forget who the speaker was, but he was an agent, and he was speaking on the subject of dealmaking in Hollywood. For those of you who don't know, AFI is situated in the hills above Los Angeles. Behind the agent we could look down on the glittering lights of the city; it was quite pretty. Near the end of his talk the agent sighed, and gazed out over Los Angeles. Out of nowhere he said, softly: "There are tons of money to be made in this town." He was almost wistful. The words hung in the air, full of possibility. The implication was clear for our class. If we could just come up with that great film, the city, and its riches, would be ours. Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets!

22 INK & PAINT


A friend of mine casually mentioned the other day, "My writing partner and I are working on our first feature animation spec." For a brief moment, it seemed like a completely plausible thing for him to say. Then it hit me. Animation spec? "Stop," I told him. And then I said, "Don't even bother." It's pretty big these days, this whole cartoon thing. Could be more than just a passing fad... Jeffrey Katzenberg has fashioned DreamWorks Animation into a precision fighting unit, with all the single-minded intent of a general preparing for war. Fox and Warner Bros. are producing feature animated films on a regular basis. And there's always the Disney behemoth, continually threatening to step up production and release two animated features a year. Clearly there are huge profits to be had, as the recent opening of the books at the Mouse House reveal. And TV animation is huge. Like the Hydra in HERCULES, chop off the head of one bad series, and two more appear in its place. So it's perfectly natural for writers to look upon animation as an area of opportunity -- perhaps, even as a field that is not as entrenched as live-action features. I've been getting more and more pitches -- via fax and e-mail and letter -- for animation stories 'in the Disney tradition' or, just as likely, films that 'break out of the narrow confines of the Disney paradigm.' I really hate to have to report this, but, either way, you're probably wasting your time. Hey, I'm all for being optimistic. Have to be, to work in this business. And I know the line between foolhardy and impossible is jagged at best. But in the hopes of saving many people much wasted effort, I'll toss this perspective out into the world: There are a very limited number of opportunities to make animated films. And there are many people in positions of power, ahead of you in line eager to fill those slots. And it takes quite an effort to fight your way to the front of the crowd. Let's take DreamWorks Animation as an example. We'll go crazy and say DreamWorks is going to put not just one, but two animation 'ideas' into production each year. (Or into development, but it's really the same thing -- they tend to only develop properties they truly plan to produce.) So there are two 'slots' open for what those films might be. So Katzenberg starts thinking. And he thinks... it's important to logically integrate the music of an animated film into the setting... let's see, we haven't done a 'down on all fours' animal picture yet... what sort of animals sing? Wolves are noted for their howling... that southwest setting has great visual possibilities... Wolves are social, but they also fight... that's it, we'll do WEST SIDE STORY with wolves. And so one of the slots for the year is taken. Then he thinks, "Hawaiian mythology!" And the other slot is gone. The following year, the same thing happens. Here's the deal: COMING UP WITH AN ANIMATED FILM IDEA IS REALLY, REALLY FUN. JEFFREY ISN'T LIKELY TO LET SOMEONE ELSE HAVE THAT FUN. But we know that one man doesn't pick all the animation films that the industry puts into production. What about over at Fox, or Disney? The next group of people who have the power to push an animated project forward are the established animators. Folks like Don Bluth, or the team of Ron Clements and John Musker, each of whom have their own list of favorite ideas. Studios are strongly motivated to keep their veteran animation filmmakers happy, and choose one of their projects -- especially when it's presented with passion and expertise. At Disney, Ron and John finally get to start on TREASURE PLANET, the Treasure-Island-in-outer-space story, a full ten years after the idea was first proposed. All right. Next, consider that most animation ideas are based on pre-existing myths or fables, or existing properties, such as children's books. Enter the development executives with their recommendations -- and there are more and more development people in animation than ever before. And, they're perfectly capable of coming up with concepts for films themselves -- in fact, they sort of have to, it's their job description. So fill up a few more of those precious slots. And where does that leave us? The 'Gong Show.' (Remember, we're still on the list of people who can get an animation project going ahead of the spec script writer.) At Disney Feature Animation, they hold this meeting once or twice a year, dubbed the Gong Show. It's an opportunity for writers, artists, layout people, animators, directors, etc., to present their ideas for new movies directly to upper management, including Disney's Michael Eisner himself. You can bring music, outlines, concept drawings, mock-up posters -- whatever you think will help sell the idea. You get three to five minutes to present the concept -- unless it's absolutely hated, you get gonged, and it's on to the next presentation. POCAHONTAS, for example, originated from a 'Gong Show' meeting. Now, this forum is not very advantageous to the presenting writer, because if the idea is accepted, it is promptly taken away, and given to others to craft. It's not something I recommend anyone do -- but even those people have a better shot at getting an animated feature going than the average spec script writer. And so, the final open slots are filled. Add this all up, and you can see that your odds of making an animated film happen are really terrible, even worse than in live action. In fact -- and here's a bit of an eye-opener -- I've never heard of an animated project happening on the basis of a spec script. Not once. Ever. Now, if you didn't think THAT was bad, we're going to take it a step further. Here's where we grind your hopes and dash your dreams. Here's where we add insult to injury. "It just doesn't matter." (For those readers who aren't familiar with the film MEATBALLS, an excerpt of the great Bill Murray speech: "And even if we won... even if God Himself came down and pointed His finger to our side of the field... it still wouldn't matter because all the really good-looking girls would still go out with the guys from Mohawk because they have all the money! It just... doesn't... matter!") So let's say God Himself points His finger to your script, and miraculously, it actually does get put into production. Now the animation process takes over. The animation process is itself is designed to make the first draft screenplay irrelevant. The film is supposed to 'happen' in the course of storyboarding. Directors, artists, animators, producers, executives... they will all want to 'make' the film as they go along. Yes, a writer may be called in the course of production to draft scenes, but that's after the director and producers, head of story, board artists, and writers have come up with story solutions. These are arrived at through months, and most often, yes, years of group meetings spent 'exploring' the story. In fact, the story solutions you provide in the script can really get in the way of the problem-solving the group is trying to accomplish. And so here we go with another eye-opener: No Disney or DreamWorks animated feature, from LITTLE MERMAID on, has ever made it to the screen without throwing out the first draft of the screenplay -- and the first set of reels based on that draft. This is not likely to change. You have to do it this way -- none of these really great directors, artists or animators are going to sign on to do a film where the story's already been worked out. Heck, that's the best part, the fun, creative part. Do you think they're going to let the writer have all that power? So, if you're writing an animation spec for television, or simply as a writing sample, I suppose that's okay. But be under no illusions that, despite animation's growing popularity, the feature animation industry is sincerely interested in finding your great spec script. Writing a spec script for animation is a little like showing up for a basketball game wearing full football gear -- helmets, pads, cleats. You may look cool, you may be prepped, but it ain't going to help you much for the game at hand. In the battle between typewriter and pencil, the pencil is going to win out. Some things just don't mix. Cats and dogs. Oil and vinegar. Conservatives and Liberals. And, newly added to the list -- Ink and paint


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