Category Archives: The Silver Screen

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The Secret Science of Screenwriting

In all the literature I’ve ever read on the subject of screenwriting, the advice is: write, that’s the only way you’ll finish. I’ve finished what I will largely refer to as “my first feature script,” and I’m damn proud of the fact that I finished it, put it through the paces, completely rewrote it, and finished it again.

Will it sell is a completely different subject.

So many people want to “break in,” that the system of finding new talent for writing TV and film is irrevocably deranged. Imagine you are a high-profile movie manager, and your job is to find that next great talent, that diamond in the rough, that one in a million with the perfect idea at the perfect time. Oh, and you also get a thousand query letters a week from wannabe screenwriters like myself, only 996 of the emails are written so badly, you don’t even want to read the log line.

You're in that line somewhere, so your chance has to come eventually, right?
You’re in that line somewhere, so your chance has to come eventually, right?

That’s just the first guy, and he’s already too bombarded by bad ideas to even consider your half-way decent idea. If you happen to get the manager, who will read your stuff, tell you how to fix it, and help you develop your craft, you still have to get that polished turd into the hands of someone with money to pay you for your time (and your manager’s too).

They say Hollywood is like a small town, where everyone knows everyone. Your shot at the big time is so far away, you’ll have run, climb, swim, and fly to get there. Even if you do, what if that one chance lands in the wrong hands? Not what they’re looking for right at that moment, and it turns into a waste of their time, and now you’re on a list in a computer that tells everyone else that they shouldn’t waste their time either.

We haven’t even found an agent yet, or a lawyer, neither of which will waste any of the little squares in their scheduling calendar on you until you’ve proven you can find work. Usually this means actually finding work.

So what’s the secret? There must be a science to it, because the Internet is saturated with persons and companies that swear they have the sure-fire formula for breaking into the business. If that is true, what is holding all these hundreds of thousands of Hollywood hopefuls back?

No wonder regular people can't figure out the Hollywood job formula: i sure don't have a degree in theoretical particle physics.
No wonder regular people can’t figure out the Hollywood job formula: i sure don’t have a degree in theoretical particle physics.

I think it goes back to the original conundrum: writing. If you suck, you suck, and that’s a really hard teet to ween from. Anyone can aspire to do something, and when you have websites and magazines selling the email addresses of every script buyer in the world, of course every American Idol schmuck that got too much unwarranted praise from their family is going to give it a shot.

There is also an originality debate. You need to have an original idea, but it can’t be so original that there’s no telling if people will like it. That’s just too risky for anyone to pledge a hundred million dollars to, and that makes perfect sense.

Personality is also a big part of the equation. Say you get into that meeting, and you pitch your project like the village idiot with a stray cat. Who is going to want to start a long-term business relationship with you, especially when they’ll have to introduce you to people with money, and pretend that you’re the next big thing? if I owned the agency, I’d fire myself.

Then there’s the middle of the sandwich, the PB&J: perseverance, blink luck, and just plain patience. Okay, it didn’t work out well as an acronym, but you get the picture. You’ve got to keep fighting, working on your craft, improving your skills on and off the typewriter, and then after years of submitting queries, entering contents, and going to pitch fests, you still have to be in the right place, with the right idea, at the right time.

Not that I’m telling bad writers to move aside and let those folks with a real chance to stand out more. I’m definitely not saying that, especially because I’m not sure which side of that particular fence I’d land on. Follow your dreams, but don’t just dream about following them.

There you have it, the equation of screenwriting success, as far as I fail to understand it right now. Work hard, be good, don’t give up. And maybe buy some online guy’s ultra secret list of top executive emails and blast them into space; who knows? Luck may be all you need.

If you think you’re going to fall ass-backwards into money for nothing, maybe you should keep you day job for now, just in case.

The Business of Family

You’ve always heard people say, “it’s all about who you know”. I can personally attest to this fact, as every job I ever got, before I began working for the grocery industry, someone helped me acquire. Even now, as I wait for a phone call from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, I realize it’s a potential for employment that a person close to me academically set up.

Family. Friends. Former associates. This is how many people achieve a lot of goals in life, There’s nothing wrong with it, especially if you’re on the inside.

Ah man, they even got fancy dinner mints I always see on reality TV.
Ah man, they even got fancy dinner mints I always see on reality TV.

But what if you are on the outside, looking in? That enormous Christmas goose in the window has already been promised to someone the butcher knows personally, so it’ll be canned ham for you and yours. Is it fair? Even if you had the money you couldn’t buy that goose, simply because you don’t know the butcher.

How many times have to clocked in at your job, looked at the lazy schmuck running your department, and accidentally said aloud, “how did he get that job?”

“His dad is friends with the boss,” a co-worker disdainfully replies.

It’s the same in places like Hollywood. I’ve read that Hollywood is a small place, that everyone knows you, who you are, and what you’re all about. If you aren’t the kind of person people want to work with, word gets around fast and no one wants to work with you. If your mother has won an academy award for dramatic acting, that gets around pretty fast, too.

I recently found a passion for screenwriting. My first screenplay, a fantasy-action-adventure, is something I’ve spent more time on than probably any other single pursuit. After much research into the modern difficulties of breaking into the business, I decided that my best course of action would be to hire a company called SpecScout. What they do is take a spec script, like mine, and run it through a three-person critical analysis, then return the results to you.

The company is small but respected in the industry for its scoring system, on which if you place high enough, they will invite you to join their spec script library, which is accessed by producers and movie studios. According to their own literature, their script scoring system places the average quality of all screenplays currently for sale in Hollywood in the immediate 70 range.

After paying the fee and waiting a month, I got my screenplay back. I scored an exact 70, with 75 being the cutoff for invitation into the SpecScout agency. For a first effort, I was overjoyed, and the fifteen pages of notes I received about my screenplay were a great boon to my knowledge base.

I am currently re-tooling my screenplay, based on the suggestions and criticisms I received. I will be allowed to re-submit it, for a discounted price, and should be able to pop myself over thebar and find my way into the outer edges of the movie industry.

The question remains: if my first screenplay is “industry average,” am I going to be really good at it, or is Hollywood keeping its borders closed to new talent, and working with the same people it always has? We’ve all left the theater at some point wishing for a refund, but if you paid close attention to the credits, you’d probably notice that the bomb you just saw was written by the same person who penned a bomb you saw before.

Mr. DeMille, I think he meant you.
Mr. DeMille, I think he meant you.

I’m not saying I’d have a perfect list of top-notch films, but I’m wondering how many amazingly written works never get a chance to be a motion picture, simply because too much of the movie making machine is focused on its own inner workings.

Now, there’s a lot going on, and you can’t just blame the writer, but if a person is churning out sub-average screenplays and continues to find work, what gives? Are they just that fun to be around, or have they been accepted into the fold and made a member of the family? All I can say for sure: if anyone I know has a sister, or Uncle, or friend of a friend in a Hollywood agency or management company, feel free to give me a call.

So I keep company with good people without the power to make things happen. Someone has to know someone who knows somebody…

Before Fear and “After Earth”

I’ve been watching dramas lately, which is not in character for me. When After Earth came through Netflix, I got a chance to continue my drama kick, and fulfill my never-ending desire for new sci-fi.

The movie was okay, directed by slow-drama madman M. Night Shyamalan, best known for films like The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, in which the entire movie occurs only to surprise you at the very end. Still, Jaden Smith was better than the critics said, and there was at least one gem to take away from the experience.

During the film, Will Smith‘s character, a hardened war hero that knows nothing about how to raise his son, gives a speech about fear. The monologue, used to bolster his son’s confidence, is a well-presented argument on the subject.

I love the fact that, no matter what I want to blog about, I can find it on YouTube; I just can’t be afraid to look.

We sit comfortably on the couch of complacency, in a warm house, filled with routine, and we allow ourselves to be trapped there by the thought of what might go wrong.

We don’t put in for that promotion, because we are afraid of not getting it; or maybe we’re even more afraid that we will get it. We don’t apply for a loan to fix up that old restaurant off the freeway, because failure is the first thing that pops into our heads. We don’t ask out the girl in the office at work, because if she says no, we’ll still have to look at her every morning. It’s just easier to let it go, but of course, we don’t really ever let it go, do we?

Fear can block all manner of futures from getting their fair shot. Maybe that girl really wants to say yes, but now she’s blown her first and best chance. Her only option now is to step up herself, but she’s afraid of what you’ll say after she’s already rejected you once. Maybe he’d just say no, having convinced himself he’s moved on. Maybe you’d have a full and happy future together; as lovers, as friends; the overbearing fear of that word “no” has this door locked tight.

Any locked door has a key, somewhere, and most doors can simply be shut again, if we don’t like what’s behind them.

You broke free from your comfort zone and tried the new breakfast sandwich at Jack in the Box. It was terrible. You just went back the way you came in, closed that door, and now you know.

Personally, I am rarely up in time to get my ass in gear and hit the road for a fast food joint to get breakfast. Yes, this is awesome.
Personally, I am rarely up in time to get my ass in gear and hit the road for a fast food joint to get breakfast. Yes, this is awesome.

The alternative is a long road of wondering what might have been, until the day you eventually (and hopefully) forget all about it. Of course, the human mind doesn’t really work that way, and you’ll occasionally find yourself glancing back at a moment that is now too far away for you to do anything but wonder about; just like me and the Star Trek Hilton in Vegas.

And this whole time you could have just tried it out, given it a shot, then just stepped back and closed the door if you didn’t like the way it was going. Our society is built around giving people that opportunity to realize their mistakes, and recover from them. Even if that restaurant fails, you will survive.

There are definitely people in my life I’d like to read this particular blog, and I think that this argument has the ability to really make a number of people think out loud about their path in life. I took a very serious plunge recently, and if I let fear get in my way, I’ll sit on my couch until the day I just have to go out and get a job again; and always muse quietly over what could have been.

Past failures can strike down any hope we might have for embracing our future. Do we simply live in fear of making more mistakes, or of things we’ve never experienced before? Personally, I’d rather live a life full of my own errors than spend it in front of the TV, fantasizing about what I might have done differently during the commercial breaks.