Between all of that and some pandemic everyone keeps talking about, I haven’t really had time to advance my presidential campaign. You may think this is the point where I officially withdraw, but if you read my previous post… I was never officially running. I guess my point is, you won’t hear my stump speech any time in the near future.
Hopefully, we return to normal (or better) in the near future. In the meantime, I’ll see you online.
HBO recently released Craig Mazin’s miniseries Chernobyl. While nothing in this life is perfect, Chernobyl comes pretty darn close. From acting to directing to art direction to sound design, Chernobyl is a masterclass in filmmaking.
But the biggest story is probably the story itself. In the television world, screenwriters hold the creative power and, as writer and executive producer, Mazin made a variety of bold and effective decisions. For example, the explosion takes place in the first few minutes of the mini-series. He doesn’t make the audience sit through a lengthy first act or ordinary world, and it’s spectacularly powerful. But his reasoning behind the decision is what will really make things click for filmmakers.
In addition to the show, Mazin recorded a companion podcast with NPR host Peter Sagal to accompany each episode. In it, he explains his creative decisions. He shares insight about story structure, adapting true stories, portraying gore on screen, sound design, and even accents. It’s entertaining, engaging, and informative. It’s unfiltered information coming from a filmmaker at the top of his game.
Taken together, Chernobyl and the companion podcast are worth far more to aspiring filmmakers than anything you can find in a university catalogue. The podcast is free and HBO Now has a 7 day free trial. You have no excuses. If you want to learn about the craft of filmmaking, Chernobyl is a must.
A while back I wrote an article about “grips,” one of the first film credits the average movie goer puzzles over. But gripping isn’t my day job. I’m usually a video assist operator. Most people, even my coworkers, don’t really know what video assist entails. Well hold onto your BNC*, because you’re about to find out!
Do you ever watch the bonus features at the end of a movie and see the director watching a television monitor? That’s video assist. The video assist operator sets up that monitor. Pretty basic. More broadly, it’s the video assist operator’s job to get the image from every camera (no matter how many there are or where they are) to the director. In a nice, studio setting, it may look something like this.
This is a control room we built for Comedy Central. On a stage, with one camera, this may be as simple as connecting the camera to a monitor (with some BNC). Things get a little more complex if you’re riding around the street at seventy miles an hour or if one of your cameras is in a helicopter. In those situations, we use transmitters to get the image from the camera to the director.
Once upon a time, we filmed on something called “film.” This was a roll of cellulose coated with a film of photo reactive chemicals that had to be developed before you could see what you shot. Each day, someone would run the film to a lab where it was developed. Then they would race back with “dailies” for the director and producer to review. It worked great for about 70 years.
But in the 1950s, television and video came onto the scene. Television captured images electronically and recorded them onto magnetic videotape so there was no need to “develop” film. Although the quality was far inferior to film, people could now watch what they filmed immediately after they filmed it.
In 1960, Jerry Lewis used this new technology for his film The Bellboy. As both the director and the star, he couldn’t watch his own performance. He connected a video system to the film camera allowing him to instantly playback what was just recorded and make adjustments to his performance. This is generally considered the invention of video assist** and the first use of video playback.
In addition to getting the image to the director, the video assist operator records the action, allowing for immediate playback. This allows directors to re-watch takes without waiting for dailies. Directors may call for playback to check performances, look for continuity errors, see if a piece of gear was in the shot, check to make sure a stunt or effect worked, or watch something back in slow motion.
The video assist system is also used to record rehearsals. When we shot on film, this was a critical way to practice camera and actor movement without wasting thousands of feet of film. Today, most film production is done on digital video, but film crews still use rehearsals to practice shots before all of the lights, makeup, and effects are in their final places.
On a one-day shoot for a thirty-second commercial, playback may not be critical. But on something like a feature film that may take months and is generally not filmed in chronological order, playback can play a major role in keeping a film’s continuity. One intern I worked with said that video assist sounded like the film’s library. I kind of like that. (To be fair, the script supervisor is the film’s librarian, the video assist operator is the guy who has to go to the basement and find all of the old reference books…)
It’s important to point out that video assist is for reference only. When we shoot on film, the video feed or “tap” doesn’t have nearly the depth of field or exposure range of a piece of film. Video playback is not a completely accurate representation of what you filmed. In fact, oddly enough, video taps only record what isn’t on the film. The light entering the camera either exposes the film or goes to the video tap. Most things happen so quickly it doesn’t really matter. But several years ago, I was working with a producer to film gunshots for an action movie. When I played it back for him, he didn’t see the muzzle flash. I had to explain to him that was a good thing because it meant the muzzle flash was on the film. (Ugh. Tech talk.) And while that’s not the case with modern digital cameras, the video feed is a compressed version of what you’re actually recording. Much to the dismay of one producer whose intern deleted their favorite take, video assist operators do not record full resolution video files.
One other note is that for decades, video was recorded on tape. This led video assist operators to also be called video tape recorders or VTR. And while many ADs will still stay “let’s roll video” we moved on to computers about ten years ago.
In addition to the image, the video assist operator works with the sound department to get audio to the director. It’s critical to make sure all of the cameras and the audio are synchronized. Like watching a badly dubbed film, it’s disorienting and distracting to watch things out of sync.
This may sound like a simple thing, but let me give you an idea of what it’s worth to a production. A few years ago, shortly after we switched to high definition signals, quality, affordable transmitters were still in development. The transmitters we used, while great at long distances had a noticeable delay. (It takes some time to crunch down all of that video data, shoot it through the air, and unpack it back into an image.) This isn’t an issue if you’re filming across a football field. It is if you’re sitting ten feet from your actor and the actor on your television is moving noticeably slower. So after one frustrating day of filming on a new television show with transmitters that were less than a year old, our company shelled out $40,000 to upgrade to the latest transmitters.
Gak is a technical film term for stuff. And video assist operators have a lot of gak: monitors, switchers, speakers, cable, transmitters, hard drives, HDMI, BNC, barrels, patch bays, UPS’s, power conditioners, batteries, power cables (OSHA cords, P-Tap, Lemo, Hirose, 4-pin XLR), 3-pin XLR, mini XLR, intercoms, video printers, and on and on and on. Again, all of this is to get the image from the camera or cameras, synchronize it with the audio and give it back to the director for live viewing and playback.
It’s a lot of techno-wizardry and it can be kind of mesmerizing. Maybe that’s why everyone likes to look over your shoulder. Or maybe they just like watching TV. Whatever the case, the video monitors always attract a crowd. The director, assistant director, and script supervisor are generally at the monitor. The producers will often get their own set of monitors. Then there are the hair, makeup, and costume people who need to be sure the actors look their best. And you’ve got the additional assistant directors cueing background actors, the electric and FX department standing by for cues, the humane society looking out for their four legged actors, and a couple of groupies for good measure.
And of course, all of these people need chairs and coolers and tents and heaters if it’s cold and, frankly, before you know it, you’ve got a regular village on your hands: a video village, which has become the industry term for, well this.
One of the biggest positives about video assist, however, is that you always want to be near the director. So if it’s raining, you’ll be dry. If it’s cold, you’ll be warm. If it’s warm, you’ll be cool. And you’re generally the first person to know if craft service is serving something better than hot dogs.
24 Frame Playback
Video assist operators have one more vital function that isn’t related to anything else I’ve mentioned so far. We are responsible for every “on-screen” video display. Every time you see a smart phone or a television or a computer monitor, a video operator has provided that image. Here are a few of the riveting images I’ve put on screens.
Amazing stuff, right? The video operator works in conjunction with the director, props department, and editor or visual effects department to make sure the right images get on the right monitors. Sometimes, that image doesn’t exist yet, so we just put green or grey screens on the monitors. That helps the VFX department create the image in post. Green makes it easier to remove the image. Grey allows light to fall on the set and actors like a real television.
Video assist operators need to be careful about what they put on screen. One of my coworkers was troubleshooting an issue with his personal phone and forgot to delete the number when we went to shoot. Months later when the DVD came out, he was inundated by calls from curious fans who wanted to know who Jason Statham called in the middle of the film
The name, “24 frame playback” comes from the fact that film cameras used to film 24 frames or individual pictures a second. Televisions, however, display 29.97 pictures a second. So for every 1 picture a film camera takes, a television displays 1 ¼ pictures. (Oh God. Math…) Because the television is projecting light, that means ¼ of the television screen will appear brighter than in every picture the film camera takes. That’s why in old movies, you will see television screens flickering in the background. To fix that, playback operators force the television to display images at 24 frames, not 30.
Modern TVs and flat screens like your phone don’t display images the same way older TVs did, so we don’t actually need to create a 24 frame video. That’s why it’s anachronistic to call it “24 frame playback” when it’s no longer 24 frames and playback actually has another meaning. Sheesh.
For some more information about how a television actually works, check out this fascinating video from The Slow Mo Guys.
Roll the Credits
There you have it. Another one of those hundreds of names that scroll by at the end of a movie explained. While it’s true that most of the work of the video assist operator doesn’t end up one screen, the movie – and filmmaking – wouldn’t be the same without them.
*BNC, the ubiquitous tool of the video assist operator, is a type of connector for video cables. BNC is also refers to the cable itself. Many people erroneously think it stands for “British Naval Connector,” a rather shoddy backronym for an American invention. It actually stands for “Bayonet Neill-Concelman,” the connecting mechanism and the name of its inventors.
You’ll read a lot of blogs and books about how to get representation as a screenwriter or how to get a script sold. But most of these present general guidelines or suggestions. I’d like to share my own experiences with one particular script, and the lessons I’ve learned along the way. My one caveat is that this is only one script from one person. How applicable will this be to you? I can’t say. But here’s my story…so far.
I don’t recall exactly what instigated the idea, suffice it to say that everything kind of clicked. The script has a clear premise (housewife thinks mother-in-law is a serial killer), small cast, few locations, and it features several great roles for women—something Hollywood seems to be looking for right now. After receiving some good feedback on the first draft, I polished it up and took it to the next level.
I thought having a ballpark budget might be a good thing to know when pitching to producers. (I have subsequently learned they generally don’t care what you think a film would cost to make.) Since I’m friends with a number of production managers, I asked one to come up with a ballpark figure for me, and we landed at just under $1 million. Certainly a million dollars more than I have lying around, but not a high budget picture by any stretch of the imagination. She also pointed out that based on my cast of characters, my script would be eligible for certain breaks from SAG, the actor’s union. Armed with a script and some solid production information, I started talking to producers. This is where I learned the first big lesson.
A lot self help and motivational sources will tell you that when you undertake a new endeavor, you should be very vocal about it, telling your family, friends, and coworkers what you’re up to. The idea is that 1) it makes your endeavor more real, not just an idea. Telling everyone also creates peer pressure for you to follow through. 2) You never know who might take an interest in your endeavor and offer some advice or help. So I started talking about my script.
The first producer I mentioned it to (who did read it), said it was fantastic, I should frame it, hang it on a wall, and “forget it.” He had just finished a low budget feature and was currently being sued by the writer or director or someone and thought that it just wasn’t worth the headache.
The second producer I spoke to sounded very excited. I’d been working with him on commercials for years, and I knew that he produced ultra-low budget movies from time to time. He sounded very enthusiastic, told me to send the script to him, and said he’d be sure to get it in the hands of his director. I spoke to the director, too, and he also sounded interested. I have never seen or heard from either of them since. I did however hear that they’d apparently collaborated on another project recently. (Hopefully, it wasn’t a rip off of my script, but time will tell…)
Then I reached out to a friend of a friend of a friend who’d just written and produced his first film. He was nice enough to call me back and have a lengthy and informative conversation, wherein he also told me it wasn’t worth the headache. More importantly, he said I was looking at the budget completely wrong. The problem is, an ultra-low budget film isn’t expected to make back very much money, so producers and investors generally avoid them. Ultra-low budget films tend to get made by maxing out credit cards, mortgaging the house, or schmoozing a rich uncle. Otherwise, you want to look at the $6-10 million range. Still low budget for sure, but you either need enough money to hire A-list talent or have the script (or chutzpah) to convince people to shell out several million dollars for your idea. This brings me to the second big lesson.
Everybody hates risk. And in the extremely speculative world of filmmaking producers and investors mitigate risk by making sure a script is “pre-sold,” that is, they can guarantee a certain number of tickets will be sold. Projects can be pre-sold in a variety of ways. Star power is the most obvious. Throw an A-list celebrity on screen and you can (almost) guarantee a certain number of tickets. Intellectual property (IP), is one of the most popular things right now. If you can say Ironman comics or The Girl on the Train have sold X number of copies, you can be fairly certain your movie will sell Y number of tickets.
The thing that surprised me with IP as I continued to have conversations with producers was how little success you needed to show. Granted, they’d prefer to buy a New York Times bestselling novel, but I definitely saw a producer’s eyes go green when a fellow screenwriter mentioned that she’d sold a few thousand copies of her vampire erotica.
Another bizarre pre-sell that’s cropped up is large social media followings. Did your short film get a million hits? Do you have a hundred thousand Instagram followers? Is your fake Twitter account for an anthropomorphized self-driving car constantly trending? Maybe it needs it own movie.
Foreign markets are another major pre-sell. The rest of the world likes American movies and they often make more money overseas. That’s even (or especially?) true for movies that aren’t blockbusters. For some reason, China loves investing in American films. And as they say, a billion times anything is a big number. As long as your film has something to do with China, has a Chinese character, doesn’t malign communism, and doesn’t include time travel (yes, that is real caveat), you might be able to convince a producer that your script is worth a boatload of yuan (tariffs notwithstanding). That is, as long as it’s not a comedy. Which brings me to the next big lesson.
Don’t Write a Comedy Feature
Comedy doesn’t translate well. There’s a great documentary called Exporting Raymond where Ray Romano tries (with much struggle and hilarity) to produce Everybody Loves Raymond in Russia. But he had a major issue initially getting the Russians to accept the overall comedic tone of the show. In the movie, Romano explains why simple, stupid pop songs like Brittany Spears do so well overseas. It’s pretty straightforward to translate, “Oops, I did it again. I played with your heart, got lost in the game. Oh baby, baby.” Clever wordplay and cultural jokes don’t travel well. (Consider this anecdote about American football. On a film set, if there’s a mistake that requires another take, the assistant director will often say, “Flag on the play,” a reference most Americans will understand.
A friend of mine was working on a Bollywood film and every time he said “flag on the play,” the grip department thought there was an actual flag—a piece of grip equipment—left in the shot. How’s that for comedy?)
So if you’ve written a comedy, you’ve just cut off a big part of your pre-sold tickets. Not good.
The other problem is that even if a producer thinks you’re funny, producers are usually weird people. Successful producers like to keep the world at arm’s length or do drugs… or both. In any event, even if they like something they can be sure if the hoi polloi will like it. “How will it play in Peoria?” as they like to say. That gives you the opportunity to launch your (semi) successful standup or improv career into a script sale (a phenomenon you may have noticed). But if you, like me, don’t have that track record, producers will hesitant to take a chance on your script.
Give TV a Whirl!
One producer was nice enough to point out to me that television might be worth a try. For one thing, we’re in the platinum age of TV. For another, there’s far more work for writers in TV. Each show has a staff, as compared to the single writer for a feature. A “season” of TV (now often down to ten or thirteen shows), is also much cheaper than a feature film. Both of these are ways producers can mitigate risk on their investments. Which means TV is a great opportunity for new writers and comedy writers… assuming you live in LA.
I should also point out that as a new writer, it’s very unlikely you’ll be the showrunner of your own pilot. Producers are unlikely to pick up a pilot from an unknown writer because they have no idea if the concept has “legs,” if it will keep going for season after season. If it really is that great of a concept, they may try to produce the show, but they’ll almost certainly bring on a more experienced writer to run it. (Ironically, you need a pilot in order to land that first gig, even if it’s just getting coffee.)
That was something to chew over, and brought me to my final big lesson.
Producers (and agents and people in general) are very easily confused. If you pitch them a comedy feature, and they ask what else you’ve written, don’t say a horror television pilot. Their brains will explode. One of the difficulties all writers face is finding their voice. So even though you’ve only ever written hardcore slasher films, you may have a fantastic idea for a rom-com that just won’t leave you alone. And why not give it a try? Maybe you have a knack for it. Fine. Just don’t mention it in a general meeting!
It gets a little weird because I’m the first to acknowledge that people can be talented in many things and if you’re an adept writer, you should be able to shift gears to a new genre at least passably. In any event, it’s not recommended. I suppose that’s why writers have nom de plumes. (And yes, famous directors and writers can get away with hopping to new genres, but they’ve already proven that they know what they’re doing.)
One producer did, however, bring up an interesting strategy. So many middle of the road, mediocre movies are made for TV all of the time, you could probably use your slasher or raunchy comedy sensibilities to spice up something that would otherwise be a totally forgettable movie of the week.
Where’s that Leave Me?
Still writing (a good place to be for a writer, though never high paying enough). I still have my script, and I’m still pitching it to producers. Knowing what I know now, I probably wouldn’t have started out of the gate with this one. If you aren’t anchored in place and want to be a screenwriter, I would recommend moving to LA and lookong into TV.
If not, dramas based on intellectual property (true stories, public domain, folktales, that weird fan fiction your college roommate writes) might be your best bet. But one recurring theme I’d heard in my quest was, always pursue what you’re passionate about. That won’t guarantee anything about ever seeing it made, but at least you can enjoy it for the time (likely years) you’ll be working on it. I’ve also stumbled upon a handful of websites that screenwriters may find interesting.
The Black List makes your script available to producers, agents, and anyone else who pays to get on their site. It offers affordable coverage. Scripts that are well reviewed and build a buzz are published each year on an actual black list: a list of all the great scripts that weren’t produced in the past year. Before you think this is your answer to getting noticed by Hollywood, I should mention that one producer told me, “The Black List is huge.” So you may get noticed, but it’s also very likely, you will be lost in a sea of mediocre scripts.
I’ll be honest. I’m not a fan of IMDB as a professional resource. Their “verification” process is weak and opaque. (I’ve been in a production office with a producer screaming at them because they listed private, inaccurate information about a film that was in pre-production.) They also don’t seem to understand actual film crew categories. (There’s no such thing as a “camera/electrical” department and video assist is decidedly neither of those!)
But IMDB Pro can be helpful. It is a subscription service, although you don’t need any professional credentials to join. (Another bizarre feature.) In any event, it’s a good resource to see who represents whom, who owns or works for what company, and what films are in production. Useful data as you target your pitch.
Ink Tip is a kind of classifieds section for scripts. You can list your script for sale or you can browse what producers are looking for. You can also sign up for a free weekly e-mail that gives you access to 2 leads…for free. I have had some “success” connecting with producers through Ink Tip.
Many script services focus on perfecting your craft and tightening up your script. Roadmap Writer’s does that, but their bigger asset is connecting you with agents, managers, and producers. There are webinars, general meetings, and pitch sessions for you to learn about the business side of the industry. And remember, these are working professionals (not script gurus or professors). They can tell you, specifically, why they would never produce your script. Or, on the other hand, if they really like it, they may just add you to their rolodex. As of this writing, 51 screenwriters have gained representation through Roadmap Writers.
I’ll be honest. I haven’t really used Stage 32. It seems to be a kind of Facebook/LinkedIn for filmmakers. But like Roadmap Writers, they also offer pitch sessions, often with the same producers, agents, and managers. From that perspective, it’s another good opportunity to get face time with the very people your’e trying to reach.
This is a great site for following the news in Hollywood. Like IMDB Pro, you can use this to research scripts that are selling and, more importantly, who’s buying them. If you live in LA, they also have a jobs section (although it’s more for assistants than writers).
As a work of fiction, even the most “realistic” screenplay will have some made-up elements. But there’s a bigger question about how to make aliens or time travel or ghosts “believable.” That’s where we get into “story reality.” What is the reality of this world you have created?
A lot of this has to do with how your characters react to the situations you put them in. If you walk down the street this afternoon and come across someone bleeding to death, how would you react? Call the police? Call an ambulance? Vomit and run away? Now what if you were walking down a beach in Normandy on June 6, 1944? You may vomit and run away, but you might also pull out a machine gun and start shooting Germans. Not a great option in the first example, but perfectly understandable in the second.
The problem is, if you create a fantasy world like Hogwarts or the Shire or Tatooine, your audience can only accept the “reality” of your story based upon how your characters act and react. Apparently, cutting off someone’s arm with a laser sword isn’t a very big deal in the Star Wars cantina. It may, however, be frowned upon at lunch in Hogwarts. Whichever the case, your characters need to react consistently to the “reality” that you have created.
That brings me to Zombie Honeymoon. I can’t necessarily recommend that you watch this movie. I watched it because seeing what doesn’t work can often inform you on what does work. Zombie Honeymoon (hilarious premise) was in many ways a hilarious movie. Newly married husband suddenly becomes a zombie and his wife struggles with the “reality” of that situation. The problem was, she had a very different view of “reality” than everyone else in the script.
The guy at the video store freaks out when he sees the zombie. The local cop is out looking for missing persons. And the best friend runs away when she realizes the husband is “undead.” It’s a consistent reality that aligns with our own reality. But the newlywed wife decides that she’s going to see her husband’s zombification through much as though he had been diagnosed with cancer or Alzheimer’s.
The thing to remember here is that by forty minutes into the movie, her husband has already killed half a dozen people. So instead of marrying Augustus Waters (The Fault in our Stars), she’s really married Michael Corleone (The Godfather).
The premise could still be resuscitated as a farce as the wife hides one body after another and tries to tape her husband’s ears back on for their double date, but it doesn’t. The new wife agonizes over “what to do,” leading to some decent performances and genuinely uncomfortable scenes as she hugs her decomposing husband. But her disregard for everyone else who’s died (including her best friend) and her casual acceptance that her husband is in fact a brain eating, murderous, animated corpse create a disjointed world that doesn’t follow the rules of its own “reality.” It was almost as though everyone else was hired for a horror movie and someone told her it was a Lifetime movie of the week.
Suffice it to say, a consistent “reality” is critical even if your script is reanimating corpses. For more thoughts on story reality and credibility in screenplays, check out these links.
With the Oscars this week, you’re probably scrambling to watch all of the films you’ve head about but haven’t seen. One little nugget that flew under the radar last year was Tragedy Girls. I only learned about it through the Queens of Crime podcast. (Highly recommended if you like true crime stories.) I enjoyed it for all of the reasons I thought I would: a ridiculous premise (high schoolers become murderers to publicize their blog), campy humor, ridiculous gore, and surprisingly high production value. The acting was spot on and the cinematography was creative and effective.
All that being said, there’s a reason this film flew under the radar, and it can be a lesson for the aspiring filmmaker. Tragedy Girls disregards many of the “rules” of screenwriting, and it shows. It wasn’t bad enough to be a B movie, but it wasn’t likable enough to be mainstream. The biggest thing I felt while watching it was discomfort. And here’s why.
Does your protagonist need to be likable?
No. But they do need to be relatable. The main characters, Sadie and McKayla, are snotty, narcissistic teens who are obsessed with social media. And while they can be funny, they aren’t likable. Nobody is rooting for them to succeed. The film never builds a bridge between these antiheroes and the audience. There is no “save the cat” moment or humanization of these sociopathic killers.
The film could have humanized them in a variety of ways. It could have better explained why they were killers (bullying? revenge?), given them their comeuppance in the end, or given them an opportunity to make amends for what they did. It also could have made their victims more despicable, turning Sadie and McKayla into the lesser of several evils (think of Dexter). But for some reason, everyone else in Tragedy Girls, is strangely guiltless and generally likable.
The Three Act Structure
Tragedy Girls disregards the three act structure, starting with Sadie and McKayla committing their first murder and capturing (and torturing) a serial killer. While it does get things moving quickly, it raises more questions than it answers. Who are these girls? What is their ordinary world? Why do they believe they are morally justified in killing people? Why is social media so important to them? Why do they want to be notorious killers? Answering even one of these questions would help endear them to the audience which is, after all, the primary function of the first act.
From there, the girls spiral into their killing spree–a kind of Mean Girls but with murder. And while it does have its comedic moments, that’s sort of it for the rest of the film. If you don’t find that entertaining, the film has lost you twenty minutes in.
The final act offers no real resolution or change. Sadie and McKayla are essentially the same on minute 1 and minute 91, giving the impression of a drawn out SNL sketch rather than a feature film.
Too Close to Home
When you strip away the jokes, you end up with a movie about two teens who kill their classmates and get away with it. The film offers no real alternative to the outcome, and it isn’t really a cautionary tale. If, for some perverse reason, you end up rooting for Sadie and McKayla, you end up rooting for high school murderers.
That really brings me full circle to discomfort. At every point in the movie, you’re not 100% sure if you should be laughing, cheering, or vomiting in disgust. I do have to tip my hat to the filmmakers because, production-wise, it’s very well put together. They also stick to their guns. They made a movie about unabashed serial killers who get away with their crimes. They bucked convention. As to whether or not it worked, you’ll have to judge for yourself. But as you build our own stories and craft your own characters, it’s important to keep in mind how some of these “rules” operate in screenplays and the reaction an audience can have if you disregard them.
If you didn’t get enough of it last time, here are some more fun facts about copyrights! For example, did you know that like being a Scientologist or owning a gun, copyright is protected under the United States Constitution (Article 1 Section 8)? Or that Walt Disney successfully lobbied to extend copyright protections to their current length in order to preserve its copyright on Mickey Mouse. Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up.
Copyrights Never Die. They Just Pass into Public Domain
Seventy years after you die, all of your work will pass into the public domain or PD as they say. Public Domain means we the people now own your work and can do whatever we want with it for free. This is great for filmmakers who want to do a spinoff sequel to Hamlet or use Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata in their soundtrack. But be forewarned, while Beethoven’s music is PD, specific recordings of the Moonlight Sonata are copyrighted by the person who recorded them. You’ll have to make your own recording of Beethoven’s music.
Interestingly, too, while you can make an adaptation or derivative work from something in the public domain, you can’t use any elements from other derivative works that are still copyrighted. The Wizard of Oz is a great case study. The original L. Frank Baum works are public domain, but the 1939 Warner Bros. movie is not. What’s the difference? For one thing, L. Frank Baum does not describe the Wicked Witch of the West as green. So when Disney made its Oz the Great and Powerful a few years ago, they had to be careful not to use Warner Brothers copyrighted shade of green. Read more about The Wizard of Oz copyright here.
(Sidebar, my first job in television was securing music rights for a high school band concert. We needed separate rights to broadcast the music and rights to synchronize the music to the televised concert.)
Fair use allows you to use part of copyrighted works for specific, limited purposes. Courts generally consider four criteria in fair use litigation.
1) Nature of the use. Educational and informational purposes are generally permitted while commercial purposes are generally not. Since I run a free, educational blog, I’m not too concerned about including a copyrighted image in a post to help illustrate a point. (That being said, if you own the copyright and were not credited or don’t want to be associated with my blog, I’ll gladly remedy the situation.)
2) Nature of the copyrighted work. While audio and video recordings may be copyrighted, audio and video recordings of newsworthy events (facts), may not be copyrighted. Time magazine, for example, tried to purchase the rights to the Zapruder film–the assassination of President Kennedy. But as a matter of fact and public record, the court decided the film should be in the public domain.
3) Amount of the copyrighted work. Screening the first scene of Saving Private Ryan to educate film students on a particular cinematography technique is probably okay. Screening all of Saving Private Ryan to a packed theater, not so much.
4) Damages. Of course, all of this comes down to money. If you start selling pirated Game of Thrones DVDs or Game of Thrones themed T-shirts, you’re taking money out of HBO’s pocket. But if you reprint a promotional picture for educational or news stories, you’re probably okay.
4B) Parody. But wait there’s more! One dicey way that you can ride off of the success of copyrighted work is parody. That’s how we end up with all of those porn parody gems. The key here is that your new copyrighted work is parodying a specific other work, but not infringing on the same market. That is to say, people who want to watch the adventures of Jack Sparrow will not intentionally purchase Pirates XXX.
Intellectual property rights are largely covered in three categories: copyrights, trademarks (which I mentioned briefly in the previous post), and patents. Patents are distinct from copyrights in that copyrights protect “fixed works of authorship.” Patents protect processes. If you make the world’s first 5D film, you can copyright the film. But you’ll want to patent the process for making all future 5D films.
Copywriting is different than copyrighting. Writers may work on copy (text) for advertisements or articles. That’s called writing copy. And while copywriting may be copyrighted, make sure you’re using the right copy when writing copy about copyrights.
More fun with copyrights
Phew! That was exhausting. But the fun’s not over. www.copyright.gov actually does a really good job explaining copyrights. I highly recommend checking it out if you have questions. In the mean time, get out there all of you creative people and fix some original work in a tangible form!
A few years ago, a biopic about Magaret Thatcher came out. Merryl Streep did a fantastic job in the titular role of The Iron Lady. She won several awards including the Oscar for Best Actress. But as a whole, the movie was virtually unwatchable. Halfway through, I started folding laundry, and by the end, I was scrolling through Twitter. The reason is that The Iron Lady violated an ancient, very clearly spelled out screenwriting rule: the Unity of Time.
Remember, drama isn’t real life. Your real life is probably pretty boring. You wake up. You commute. You suffer through work. You commute home. You play with your kids, watch TV, go to bed, and do it all over again. Not that gripping. When something out-of-the-ordinary happens (your daughter is abducted, you see dead people, an alien lands in your back yard) we have a story. Or at least the beginning of one. But in order to keep that drama, we also need a sense of urgency.
Imminent, terminal cancer like we saw in Breaking Bad (even if it’s mostly manifested as a cough) launched one of the best television shows ever made. An increased risk of Alzheimer’s at some vague future point probably won’t. Film happens now! That’s why it’s written in the present tense. And if nothing’s happening, your audience will tune out. The audience’s ordinary lives (i.e. Twitter) have just become more interesting than your movie.
This isn’t a new idea. Aristotle pointed it out over two thousand years ago. (I did say ancient.) For those of who you like classical learning, check out Aristotle’s Poetics. And if ancient Greek is a bit much for you, Michael Tierno did an excellent job updating it in Aristotle’s Poetics for the Screenwriter.
The key thing for this article is Aristotle’s Unity of Time. To sum it up, the action of the drama (screenplay), should take place in as little time as possible. I think it was Robert McKee who said that a script should be as long as it needs to be, then it should end. Fox’s 24 with Kiefer Sutherland took this to the extreme when each episode happened in real time. One season of twenty-four episodes covered a single day.
That’s a little over the top and the premise wore thin as the seasons went on. But you’ll notice many of your favorite thrillers take place over the course of a few hours or days. If your daughter’s been abducted and we see the seasons changing, it’s hard to hold suspense throughout the script. If the bad guys haven’t done her in over the past few months, she’ll probably be okay for another fifteen minutes. Sounds like a good time to check Twitter.
This is also the reason montages are generally weak storytelling. The “learning to play baseball,” “series of quirky dates,” “watching your business grow” montages get the point across, but aren’t good drama. Are you telling me that your emotionally immature love interests who fought like cats and dogs for the first twenty pages suddenly went on a series of fun, carefree dates to a musical montage and nothing interesting happened? That’s kind of whacky. I thought they were more interesting than that. And yes, you will see these kinds of montages all the time. That doesn’t mean you should do them. You’re better than that.
And of course, this is why biopics tend to be kind of boring. It’s hard to condense someone’s entire life (Whitey Bulger in Black Mass, Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, J. Edgar Hoover in J. Edgar) into a compelling story arc. (The first half of Life of Pi literally made me want to throw a TV. In another post, I may tell you how that movie could have been immeasurably better.) At the same time, these movies often have fantastic performances. Now you know why those two things aren’t necessarily related.
Just this Thursday, I heard NPR’s Eric Deggans review the amazing true story of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. In it he praises Oprah Winfrey’s performance as “one of her best roles yet,” but criticizes the film for being “uneven” with “deeply affecting moments” that “don’t quite knit together into a consistently powerful film.” Does not surprise me in the least.
If you’re writing a script, and it’s not keeping readers on the edge of their seats, Unity of Time may be your problem. Add a concrete deadline. “Get that report on my desk by tomorrow morning.” “You have until midnight to deliver the money.” “Death Star approaching. Estimated time to firing range: fifteen minutes.” The added pressure tests your characters’ mettle and focuses your story. No time to stop and smell the roses with a Death Star on the horizon.
Aristotle also advocated for unity of space and action, theories I may discuss in another post. But right now I think I’m going to advocate unity of blog subjects and see you in the next post.
Like all forms of employment, freelancing has perks and shortcomings. But without a doubt, filing your taxes as a freelancer is one of the most obnoxious and time consuming ordeals you’ll have to deal with. I hate filing taxes so much, I made a video about them last year. (President Obama did write me back, but he never paid the invoice…) The point is, never have I ever—not even in TVF 361: Working in Film as a Freelancer—received any education about filing taxes as a freelancer. So if you do plan on going down this dark and terrifying path, I’d like to give you some pointers.
DISCLAIMER: I am not a tax expert. Anything you learn from this article is for informational purposes only. Do your own research and consult with a tax professional for your own specific tax situation.
If you earn money, you pay taxes. You generally owe taxes to 3 governmental agencies: the federal government (IRS), the state government (in my case the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue), and your local city, town, borough, hovel, whatever. Usually, your employer takes these taxes out of every paycheck. That’s why when you received your first job in high school, you were shocked to find out how little money you actually took home.
However, even if your employer doesn’t take this money out, you still owe taxes! At some point, someone’s going to come looking for that money. It’s up to you to make sure you’re paying the right amount of money on time. Keeping detailed records is the name of the game.
As a freelancer, you’ll have 2 basic kinds of employers: W-2 and 1099. Both are named after the tax forms you receive at the end of the year.
When it comes to taxes, W-2 jobs are a little bit easier. These are the jobs where the taxes are taken out for you. In the biz, they are also called timecard or payroll jobs. These are the kinds of employers that most of your relatives and friends with “real” jobs have. For us, things are a little confusing.
The thing is, most production companies don’t want to pay for accountants. They use payroll companies to take care of their paperwork. CAPS, Entertainment Partners, and Cast and Crew are three of the big ones. So even though you work for Mom & Pop Productions, The Josés Film Co., and Hollywood South, LLC, you might get W-2s from CAPS, Entertainment Partners, and Cast and Crew. To make it even more confusing, Mom & Pop and The Josés may use the same payroll company. Then every job you did for both of those companies will appear on the same W-2. (Last year, which was a slow year for me, I worked for 17 different companies and received 6 different W-2s.)
If your employer just hands you cash or a check, this is called 1099 or invoice work. Generally, you’ll have to send the company an invoice, and then they’ll send you a check. This check will be for the full amount of the job. (If you invoiced them for $250, you’ll receive a check for $250.) Even though your employer didn’t take taxes out of your paycheck, you still owe taxes!
You may think tax season is early April, but for freelancers, it’s always tax season. The thing is, you owe taxes as you earn money, not at the end of the year. For W-2 work, those taxes are taken out every paycheck, and you’re golden. But for the 1099 work, you need to estimate how much money you’ll make and send out those estimated payments quarterly. (Remember, you owe federal, state, and local taxes.)
The four payment dates this year are April 18th, June 15th, September 15th, and January 15th. The perplexing thing is that quarter two is 3 months long while quarter four is 5 months long. Clearly no one at the IRS had my mother for math, since “quarter” implies four equal parts, but I digress.
Your estimated payments aren’t what you will actually owe because your tax rate is based on what you earn, and on April 18th, no freelancer I know has any idea how much money they’ll earn in the next eight months. There’s a lengthy form to help you estimate your quarterly payments (which I have found utterly useless) called the 1040-ES. I’ve included a link to it below.
FILING YOUR TAXES
If you haven’t had enough fun yet, there’s tax day! When you “file” your taxes, you’re squaring away all of those uncertainties you’d had from the previous year. You find out what you actually earned, deduct what you can, and end up with your Adjusted Gross Income (AGI). Some people use accountants or tax professionals. Most tax professionals charge more as things get more complex. Since I didn’t make much money when I started in this business, I began filing my own taxes with the help of TurboTax. So far, so good.
For the most part, you just enter all of the data from your W-2s and 1099s. Remember to report income even if you didn’t receive a 1099. (Keep in mind, Al Capone was ultimately arrested for tax evasion, not murder.) And remember to report those quarterly payments you made. The software will do the rest.
Everybody is allowed to take a variety of personal deductions. Charitable donations, student loans, and mortgage interest come to mind. Many people will take the standard deduction because it’s easier and often bigger than an itemized deduction. But as a freelancer, you also have unreimbursed business expenses. Even if you take the standard personal deduction, you have plenty of additional business deductions.
These deductions may include, clothing, food, work tools, mileage, and even your house. There are rules and regulations for each thing, but a general rule of thumb is, if you use it exclusively for work, it’s deductible. I’m writing this from my home office, where I do all of my paperwork. I could potentially deduct the utilities for this room, but I use it for a guest room as well. Sadly, no deduction for this one. But that rain gear I bought exclusively for set? Deducted. Flashlight, surveillance headset, and Leatherman? Deducted. That Box of Joe I bought for the locations department to ensure I had good parking on the last shoot? Deducted. Make sure you save those receipts!
Mileage can also be deducted, whether that’s driving to another state for a job or running out to pick up lunch for the crew. As with all of these things, however, you need to keep detailed records.
And of course, if your employer reimburses you for any of these expenses, you cannot deduct them.
STATE AND LOCAL
Generally speaking, state and local taxes operate similarly to federal taxes. There are slightly different rules for each, so you’ll have to do your own research on that one. But here’s one small positive; programs like TurboTax have software for states, and most of the information transfers seamlessly from federal to state forms. One caveat, if you work outside the state where you live, you may need to file taxes in both states.
Local taxes are generally the easiest. You’ll simply need to transfer numbers from your federal or state tax form onto your local tax form. Unfortunately, W-2 employers will deduct local taxes from where you work, not where you live. It may take a bit of arithmetic to figure out what, if anything, you owe your local government. (For example, my borough has a 1% tax rate, but if I work in Philadelphia, Philadelphia takes 3.5% of my paycheck. I’m never going to see that 2.5% again. However, I can use it to offset the taxes I owe to my home borough from my 1099 work.)
DEATH AND TAXES
Taxes suck no matter who you are. But if you plan to make this filmmaking thing work, they’re one more unforeseen hurdle you have to jump over. The most important thing is to keep detailed records and save paperwork. And speaking of paperwork… below are links to some of the forms you’ll encounter in your illustrious career. Check them out so you know what you’re looking at.
Finally, I’d like to reiterate that I am not a tax professional. If anyone who reads this post has other thoughts and comments, feel free to reach out or respond.
When doing W-2 work, the W-4 tells your employer what to withhold in taxes. You’ll receive this on set either when you’re hired or when you fill out your timecard. There’s an obnoxious worksheet to calculate how many allowances to claim (probably 1 or 0). If you claim 0, your employer will withhold more taxes, which means you’ll likely get a refund at the end of the year, but see less money in your paychecks.
When doing W-2 work, the I-9 verifies that you are allowed to work in the U.S. Most people only fill out a handful of these in their lives. You, however, have to fill one out every year for every employer. That is why I have my driver’s license number memorized. However, if you work for a new company, you’ll want to be sure to bring your 2 forms of I.D. (Click on the second link on the USCIS website to view the form.)
You’ll receive this in January or February. It shows how much money you earned, what you paid in taxes, what you paid for Social Security, Medicare, state, and local taxes, etc. from the previous year. It’s very easy to transfer this information into a program like TurboTax. (This W2 is blank. Yours should come with numbers on it!)
This is identity verification for a 1099 job. (I-9 is to W-2 as W-9 is to 1099… where’s 3 through 8 in all of this?) Generally, you’ll need to send production one of these when you send them your invoice. Unless you are incorporated as a business, check the box that says “individual/sole proprietor” and fill in your social security number.
This is what you get at the end of the year for your 1099 jobs. As with the W-2, it’s very easy to enter the information from this into a program like TurboTax. (And again, yours should come with numbers on it!)
I’d say this is where you can flex your creativity because you get to make your own invoice, but that would probably just annoy your production manager. Generally, you just need your contact info, the company’s contact info, the job name and number, and days and hours worked. This is what I use. It’s not pretty, but I always get paid (except for the one I sent to Obama…).