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.
The last episode of Game of Thrones will go live in just a two days and the internet is still roiling about last week’s episode. “What have the writer’s done?!” I can’t be certain how D&D plan to resolve this mess, but I can guarantee no matter what happens some people will hate it. Is all of the Sturm und Drang really merited?
I’ll start with a bit of a humble brag. I was a fan of the books. I was ecstatic to hear that HBO would be adapting them into a show. And for the most part, the series stayed true to the books, which is to say, it stayed true to human nature.
The thing that struck me about Game of Thrones was its realism. Sure, you had to get past the dragons and the army of the undead, but in many ways, George R.R. Martin’s world felt more authentic and his characters felt more real than most things you read. Writers – screenwriters in particular – rely heavily on preconceived notions (also called cliches) to keep stories moving forward. When you’re telling the story of Odysseus, you can’t get hung up what oarsman #3 is doing.
Martin didn’t let that bother him. Oarsman #3, the red-headed prostitute, and the kennel master’s daughter were just as likely to have staring roles as the king and the elite assassin. No one was purely good and no one was purely evil. Everyone was just trying to get by in this nasty and brutish world Martin had created. It was enthralling.
It also came at a cost. Descriptions could be burdensome. Do we really care what all eleventeen courses were at the feast? Or whose bannermen wore what sigils? All of the descriptions, details, side quests, and characters made each book in the series a massive tome somewhere in the 1000 page range. And then there was the killing of characters.
I started out rooting for Ned. Here was a man who was going to get things done. It’s not a spoiler at this point to say things didn’t pan out for him. Then I rooted for his son, Robb… and then Jon. But the last time Martin mentions Jon, he’s, well, dead. Then Martin went off and wrote a book on an entirely different continent with other characters. (As a reader, I was none too happy about it and couldn’t decide if I would finish the series. But I’d like to point out that, despite some angry fan mail, if anyone is winning the game of thrones, it’s Martin.)
HBO took the same route, shocking audiences each season. There was Ned, the Red Wedding, the Purple Wedding, the Great Sept. How do you top that? Looking back on it, however, the question isn’t about “topping” the previous season, but treating Westeros with the same reality the books did.
Life is messy. The people who you want to win don’t. The people in charge are often war criminals. The people who should be in charge don’t want the job. Siblings fight and betray trust. Some people redeem themselves. Others don’t. Game of Thrones created a world that was big enough to be treated realistically rather than having to rely on the tropes that govern most stories. Last week’s episode was a case in point.
Was Danaery’s a long con? Did D&D spend nine years building empathy for a character they knew would turn out to be an unhinged megalomaniac? Or maybe like the gods whenever a Targaryen is born, they just flipped a coin in the writer’s room. The point is, even though it frustrated a huge portion of the audience, it felt strangely inspired. It felt real. We don’t get upset when our deadbeat friend does something stupid. We get upset when our heroes and mentors do something stupid. That’s why this episode bothered us so much.
There are many theories about what will happen in the final episode, some of them more disappointing than others. But I can honestly say, I have no idea what will happen. That’s been the shocking fun of Game of Thrones since day one. Let’s be honest, for a show that killed most of its characters off, it would be completely “in character” for them to do something shocking, absurd, and brutal. I’m fully expecting that. The disappointment won’t be how it ends, but that it’s ending.
I’m hopeful though. Game of Thrones took chances with traditional storytelling, creating something new and complex and engaging. HBO adapted it – warts and all – into something we love, and love to hate. I hope that complexity affects television for years to come. In the meantime, I know what I’ll be reading.
While I stand by my comments regarding Game of Thrones, and my appreciation of George R. R. Martin’s storytelling, I won’t necessarily recommend Fire & Blood. It is a history book. It’s an interesting, well-written history book, but it’s a. history book. I guess I’ll just have to wait for The Winds of Winter.
You’ve probably come across a variety of blogs, books, and gurus who insist there are “rules” for writing a screenplay. (Maybe you’ve even read something to that effect on this very blog.) But are there really? Is there a secret formula for success? Well, yes… and no. Depends on who you ask. But maybe this is a better way to explain it.
Here’s one way to look at it. Screenwriting is like building a house. There are some generally agreed upon “rules” for houses: protection from the elements is a must. Generally a door to keep you and your stuff safe. Probably indoor plumbing and electricity. Bathroom and kitchen to make this a full service abode. Hopefully a window or two but otherwise…
The thing is, doors, electricity, and plumbing have rules. Doors need to be appropriately framed with headers. There are physical limitations to what you can do with electricity as well as safety precautions. Water flows downhill. If you want your sinks to drain and your toilet to flush, you’re going to have to install your plumbing correctly.
None of this has any bearing on the number or size of the bathrooms. None of it affects the shape of the house or the material you use. But there are definitely trends because some things are more effective or more efficient than others.
Point is: they’re all houses. They all meet the same basic requirements while expressing the art and lifestyle of the builder and the inhabitants.
Screenplays are similar, and many screenwriters will describe themselves more as craftsmen than artists. Yes, you need a creative mind, but you also need to know when to use a hammer and when to use a saw. Similarly, screenwriters need to be adept at understanding “the immutable laws of screenplay physics” as Blake Snyder calls them. Is your comic relief effective or overpowering? Does the story drag because the protagonist’s obstacles are episodic rather than escalating? Does the dialogue feel wooden because there is no subtext? Or maybe there’s no sense of urgency because your script violates the unity of time.
Or maybe your script feels cliched and predictable because itfollows the rules a bit too closely. (This would be the home building equivalent of a stamped out, mass production condo.)
And this is the final important thing to remember about the rules. Rules are meant to be broken.
Below are 2 examples of VERY successful movies that very clearly break screenwriting “rules.” I don’t care how much you want to bend the rules or try to contort things so they fit into some mold in a bizarro world. These are generally bad screenwriting choices, and yet, nobody cares.
Your Protagonist is not active enough.
Your protagonist should drive the story. Their decisions and actions push the movie forward. That’s why they’re the protagonist. Blake Snyder calls this “The Hero Leads.” And if your hero is just some schmuck who gets dragged from place to place like a cosmic lump on a log, Snyder calls him “Johnny Entropy.” But I have another name: Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge has probably gotten the most mileage out of doing the least work of any protagonist ever. Wikipedia lists 20 film adaptations of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and more than two dozen TV adaptations or episodes. But what does Scrooge actually do with all this screen time? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Marley, not Scrooge initiates the Christmas hijinx.Then the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future drag Scrooge on a time bending whirlwind. But apart from some tepid protests, Scrooge just goes along for the ride. Yes, at the end, Scrooge makes one massive 180 degree turn and starts giving his money away. But for the other 80 minutes of screen time, he’s as passive as Mr. Entropy himself.
The thing is, nobody cares. Since his creation 175 years ago, the audience has loved Scrooge’s largely unearned transformation from miser into philanthropist. And every ten years or so, a new production company capitalizes on Scrooge’s ability to do nothing and make cash. Do you always need an active protagonist? Well…
It’s important to hook your audience in the beginning of your script. Fifteen to twenty pages/minutes is a good rule of thumb. It gives you some time to establish your “world” before you hit your characters with the inciting incident. And when you analyze a story, most professionals look at scripts from the perspective of the protagonist’s conscious goal.
In Jurassic Park, a beloved, award winning, visually stunning, and financially successful film, you could make an argument for any number of main characters, but I think many people would agree that Alan Grant (Sam Neill) is the protagonist. What’s his goal? To make it out of Jurassic Park alive. Well that can only be his goal if the dinosaurs have already escaped their pens, which means the power going out is the inciting incident, which means, the inciting incident doesn’t actually happen until almost an hour into the movie!
Does that mean the power going out is the midpoint? Or should Spielberg have cut the first twenty minutes and had more screen time of Grant trying to save children from velociraptors. Or maybe you don’t always need your inciting incident in the first twenty pages.
You could make an argument for any of those things. But the bigger point is that Jurassic Park is a great movie and that the rules are not so hard and fast as they might appear.
As a filmmaker, it’s important to know the rules. Like a builder, you are part artist and part craftsman. The “rules” are more of a user manual than a blueprint. They’ll help you understand how a screenplay works without really telling you how to make one. So don’t cling to the rules like a Dickensian judge. Successful movies, like life, find a way.
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).
Last year, I wrote a post about Unity or Time (or why biopics have good acting, but are really boring). The basic problem is that real life is mostly boring. And even when you condense a very interesting person’s life into a two hour window, you’re violating one of the foundational laws of screenplay physics: your main character (real or fictional) is under pressure. If they do not achieve their goal soon, they will face serious, negative consequences. (Kind of hard to make that argument when your screenplay covers seventy years…)
John Lee Hancock’s The Founder sidesteps problem in two very clever ways. Overall, it is a very well put together film, and unquestionably worth your time. But if you’re struggling to make your “based on true events” story engaging, you should take particular note of how The Founder handles time.
The Founder tells the story of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc (deftly and engagingly portrayed by Michael Keaton). One may argue that it is not a proper “biopic” in that it doesn’t tell Kroc’s life story. But that’s point number one. Ray Kroc is only interesting to us because he founded McDonalds (well, franchised it, but whatever… you have to watch the movie). We don’t care what his childhood was like, what he did during the war, or how he whiled away his golden years.* And Hancock wisely choses to focus on that one interesting “moment” of Kroc’s life: the founding of McDonalds.
The second, more interesting point, is in how Hancock handles time: he doesn’t. Intellectually, we know it takes time to get building permits, train staff, track revenue growth, etc. And all of this time, while Kroc is waiting to turn a profit, he’s sweating bullets. But Hancock never tells us how much time has passed. He never shows the changing of the seasons or ages Michael Keaton. So while the real events took anywhere form weeks to years, the pacing of the film feels like each scenes follows day after day and may only have taken a week or two. It’s entirely engrossing.
This all falls back on Robert D. Siegel’s expertly crafted script that continues to escalate and grow with each new scene. We’re not sure how long it takes for Kroc to realize he’s not making any money, and it doesn’t matter. The point is, he’s not making any money. This leads to a second infuriated phone call to the McDonalds brothers, Kroc’s wife finding out about the mortgage, and Kroc’s quest to reduce refrigeration costs (a plot point that instigates all kinds of other interesting complications). The story just keeps pressing onward.
Is this an accurate representation of Ray Kroc’s life? I can’t say. But I can tell you it’s a movie. And it’s a damn good one. So keep these two tricks up your sleeve as you work on your future projects, especially if they’re based on true events. When you get down to it, your audience’s time is the biggest factor you need to consider. And if they are emotionally engaged in your movie, they won’t be looking at the clock. It may not be a burger in thirty seconds, but it’s a service you should definitely aim to provide.
*Some mention of Kroc’s backstory (previous failed business ventures) is appropriately and entertaining revealed as backstory through dialogue in the second act of the film. It’s a great case study in effective use of dialogue and exposition.
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.
One of the biggest issues I faced in college was coming up with ideas for scripts. Without too much self-pity, I have to admit that it’s difficult for college students to write a decent script. For one thing, they simply don’t have enough life experience. Production issues create another major problem. While film students may have brilliant ideas (probably not, but maybe), they don’t usually have the means to produce them. You can only shoot a dorm room from so many angles. Something that really would have helped and that I recommend all young writers do is find their muse.
In classical Greek mythology, the Muses were goddesses (or nymphs) who flitted down from the ether and whispered ideas to artists. The Greeks (who were also ridiculously chauvinistic) believed that there was a pure, objective form of beauty and that the Muses themselves embodied it. Naturally, this is what the artists used as inspiration for their work.
In subsequent drama, the muses are often portrayed as beautiful women whom tortured artists obsess over. In an amazing example of life imitating art imitating life, Maxfield Parrish, who had a major influence on the look of fantasy in the early Twentieth Century, fell in love with his model, Susan Lewin. But when his wife died and he didn’t marry Lewin, she went off and married someone from her home town (at the age of 71!). Parrish never painted again.
(Who would think the guy that painted this would have relationship drama?)
But your inspiration needn’t be a woman. (In fact it’s probably better if it’s not.) Nature may be your inspiration. Or music. Or old literature. Or Irish folktales. Or history. Or true crime. Or you may even just jot ideas down and pull them out of a hat like Mad Libs. I, strangely enough, stumbled on NPR.
To be clear, I’m not necessarily talking about the news broadcast. But NPR does a lot of in-depth reporting about human-interest stories, technology, and even book reviews. And delving deeper into these subjects often tickles my brain. How will this technology change the world in ten years? Why was this peculiar law written in the first place? How would this news story unravel differently if the gender roles were reversed? I stash away all of these ideas, characters, and psychological puzzles, and I let them simmer until they coalesce into my next idea.
Hey, that was my idea!
If you’ve read my posts about copyright, you hopefully have a handle on how to protect your work. But what do you do when you’re sitting in a theater and see a preview that seems an awful lot like that script you’ve been working on for years? Well, sadly, probably nothing.
One theory of creativity questions whether we can ever come up with an original idea or merely recombine things we have already experienced.
Even if you don’t fully agree with that theory, it’s not hard to see that the zeitgeist, the “spirit” or “attitude” that’s driving societal trends, will have a major influence on what artists create. Something happens and then BAM, eighteen months later, you’re inundated with scripts that are all about the same thing.
When I started covering scripts years ago, I read three scripts in one month that tried to tackle Die Glocke. It was a supposed Nazi time travelling machine that crashed outside Pittsburg in the 1960s. The scripts were all very distinct from each other. None of them had the same characters or general plot outline so none of them infringed on the other’s copyright. Sadly, none of them were very good, either. But it did have me wondering where the sudden interest in Die Glocke originated. (Sidebar, I’d stay away from moon Nazis, time travelling Nazis, and really any sci-fi Nazis when you’re writing.)
This wasn’t the first time I’d noticed the phenomenon, either. 1995 brought us Braveheart and Rob Roy, true stories about Scots fighting the English for independence. Then there was 1998 with it’s hyper-realistic World War II epics Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line. Okay, sure, lots of war movies come out every year, but 1998 also brought Deep Impact and Armageddon as well as Antz and A Bug’s Life. True, especially in the last case, studios may be intentionally trying to steal market share from their competitors. But scripts don’t materialize overnight. The inspiration for the stories, the drive to produce the stories, and the technology required to make the films all coalesced independent of one another, but at the same time. (Wikipedia actually has a page dedicated to so-called “Twin Films.”)
(Maybe we’d all be better off if one of these had been a documentary. Image via another fun article here.)
I’ve had to kick myself more than once for coming up with an idea, but getting beaten to the punch. (Not to say that my ideas, sketched out in a journal, would be as good as or even similar to the works that came out later.) In December of 2008, I made a note that I should write a dark comedy about cancer. I even wrote that “The Big C” would make a good title. In August of 2010, Showtime premiered The Big C. (Too bad you can’t copyright titles.) In April of 2013, I started jotting down notes for a TV series about pirates. It just felt like the time was right. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one. A few weeks later, watching previews before The Great Gatsby, I saw a trailer for the Starz series Black Sails. You can ask my wife, I nearly threw a shoe at the screen. In March of 2006, I scribbled down something about a love story for a musical I was brainstorming. It was about Aaron Burr…the man who shot Alexander Hamilton.
There is a silver lining to all of this. At least I can say with confidence that my ideas are not totally off the mark. In fact, they’re not even off the market. You can’t copyright cancer or pirates or American history. So long as my expression of these topics is different than the others, I’m still good to go. Furthermore, when pitching my own version of the famous Burr/Hamilton duel, I can use the success of Hamilton to entice investors. Of course, I have to be careful not to use any of the fictionalized characters, dialogue, or other original plot devices that the brilliant Lin Manuel Miranda used.
Should you watch movies that are similar to your idea? Of course. Everyone else is. If you pitch an idea about a theme park full of cloned dinosaurs to an investor, you better be able to explain how it’s different than Jurassic Park and why it’s worthy of their money. Watching similar projects will also inform you about what works and doesn’t work for a particular genre or story. It may even spawn another, better idea. Don’t be afraid that watching similar work will influence what you’re writing. It will. But if your project is so similar that it risks copyright infringement, you should probably quit while you’re ahead.
Obviously, if you have legitimate reasons to believe that someone stole your “original work of authorship” that was “fixed in a tangible form,” you should fight for your rights. But my bigger point about the zeitgeist is, don’t get too paranoid.
The biggest way to get over your slump is simply to keep writing. This is what you want to do, right? It’s very unlikely that you’ll come up with and execute an original idea perfectly on your first go. If you trust yourself as a writer, you’ll just get back to work with your next great idea and hopefully hit the market before the next guy. I’ve also noticed another peculiar phenomenon.
Ideas beget ideas. You’ll be in the midst of doing research for some project and suddenly get hit with another brilliant premise. Or you’ll finish a project just to realize it’s complete trash, but that one minor character you created is pretty cool and maybe, just maybe, deserves their own story. The muse can come from anywhere. You may also discover that your billion dollar idea that was going to make all of your dreams come true is just a massive pain in the neck. You might not be able to look at it for ten more seconds without vomiting. That’s okay. It may be a good idea (maybe not), but it’s not going to be your idea. And maybe, just maybe writing period educational pieces for children isn’t what your destined to do. The only way to find out is to try it and follow that muse wherever she or he or it leads you.
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!
I’ve had a wide range of bizarre and usually misinformed conversations with people about copyrights. Having just copyrighted my most recent script, I thought maybe I should write a post about it. As with other posts that get into legal matters, this is merely meant as a guide and a primer. If you need legal help with copyrights, please consult a lawyer.
Intellectual Property Rights
Owning physical property, like real estate, is pretty straightforward. There’s only one property at 123 Fake Street in Springfield, California. I can’t be enjoying the ocean breezes of 123 Fake Street in California if I am freezing my butt off in Ontario. But what about something a little less concrete? What about “intellectual property?”
You may have a hardcopy collector’s edition of The Hunger Games trilogy sitting on your shelf in California. I may be huddling with a secondhand, tattered paperback edition in Ontario. But we are both able to enjoy (or slog through) the series at the same time. Why? While the book is a physical piece of property, the story is intellectual property. Its main value isn’t derived by owning the actual book.
Lots of things are intellectual property: books, poems, screenplays, computer code, movies, music, choreography, architecture, photographs, paintings, and sculptures just to name a few. Ownership in these cases has less to do with the physical object than the idea. Catniss Everdeen isn’t real. She’s an idea. You can’t water your garden with The Rain Song. It’s an idea. And you can’t smoke tobacco in The Treachery of Images. It’s an idea (not a pipe!).
In all of these cases, the original manuscript or recording or painting becomes worth less as more and more copies are made. If I can download The Rain Song to my computer, I don’t need to hunt down Robert Plant to hear him sing it. The real value in intellectual property is being able to produce (and sell) copies or as those of us in the know call it… holding the copyright.
What is a Copyright?
Straight from www.copyright.gov “Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States to the authors of ‘original works of authorship’ that are fixed in a tangible form of expression.” (Well, that was easy.)
It may seem obvious, but copyrights are only allowed for unique works. If I write a screenplay about a modern day theme park full of dinosaurs created out of fossilized mosquito blood, it would be hard for me to argue that I wasn’t somewhat influenced by Jurassic Park. This flip side of this, however, is that copyrights do cover derivative works. Once you invent Jurassic Park or a Galaxy Far, Far Away, or The X-Men, all the spinoffs and sequels are still protected by that first copyright. That’s why movie studios are so interested in “intellectual properties” or IPs, as they say. You can make endless sequels merely by purchasing that first copyright. You can also see how well that initial IP did (say the New York Times bestseller The Girl on the Train) before you spend a lot of money turning it into a movie.
Curiously, some things—titles in particular—are too short to be deemed “original” and can’t be copyrighted. Otherwise, someone would just start smashing words together and copyright every title imaginable. Brand specific words like lightsaber or frappuccino, however, can be trademarked, another form of intellectual property protection. That’s how you know the Halloween store’s “Pubescent Frog of Silent War” isn’t official Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles merchandise.
Interestingly, you cannot copyright facts, either. Something that is known to have happened is simply a fact. World War I happened. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. The Allies won. And any information published about that is now public knowledge. So why have you heard about companies purchasing “life rights?”
Life rights give the purchaser access to additional information from the subject (a diary, for example), which may not be public knowledge. It also protects the purchaser from being sued for defamation. You can’t sue me for defamation if I gave you the rights to publish my story. You really don’t need life rights for public figures (who have a lot of facts floating around about them), dead people (who can’t sue you for defamation), and dead public figures (who are pretty helpless). Want to claim Abraham Lincoln was a vampire hunter? You’re gonna be A-okay.
This is probably the part where people get most confused. While we’ve been talking about “intellectual property” and ideas, you can only copyright something once it is in a tangible form. You may have a great idea for a Nazis on the moon script, but until you write it down, or film it, or carve the plot into stone, you don’t actually have the copyright for it. Your idea must somehow be fixed—permanently and irrevocably set—into some kind of physical medium.
Could someone overhear you talking excitedly about your “brilliant” Nazis on the moon script, jot everything down on a napkin, and steal that copyright from you? Yes, they could. It would be unethical, but it wouldn’t be illegal.
Another way people describe this is that copyrights don’t actually protect ideas, merely the expression of an idea. Nazis on the moon is an (intriguing and ridiculous) idea. That scribble on the napkin is the “expression” of that idea. It is “fixed in a tangible form.” Now if you don’t have time to “fix” your Nazis on the moon idea by writing the screenplay, you could perhaps write a short story or a treatment and copyright that before you start talking about your idea in public. Then at least the basics of your story and the characters are satisfactorily “fixed.”
And to backtrack briefly, while you cannot copyright a fact, e.g. World War I, you can copyright the original expression of those facts, e.g. The Guns of August or Lawrence of Arabia.
The good news is, as soon as you fix your original work of authorship in a tangible form, it is copyrighted. As the author of the work, you have the exclusive rights to copy, sell, distribute, or create derivate works from it. You also have the right to prevent anyone else from doing the same thing. Things start to get weird when someone else tries to claim credit for your work, which is why it’s highly recommended that you register your copyright.
It’s extremely easy and cheap. Simply go to www.copyright.gov, follow the prompts and voila. The United States government has a record of your creation! The only downside is (being the government) they often take a while to get back to you.
If you’re in a hurry, you can register your screenplay with the Writer’s Guild of America. WGA West if you’re west of the Mississippi, WGA East if you’re east of the Mississippi. This is slightly cheaper and must faster, but they apparently destroy all of their files after a few years, so you have to keep renewing it.
I’ve also read about the “poor man’s copyright” several times. Basically, you mail a copy of your script to yourself and leave it sealed, using the Post Office’s postmark date as proof of when you fixed your original work in a tangible form. It is not a substitute for registering your work with the copyright office and according to Snopes, has never actually been tested in court. So in the U.S. at least, you’re better off just registering your work.
That gives you some basics about copyrighting your scripts. Next time, I’ll cover some of the other interesting copyright situations you may find yourself in as a filmmaker. Copy that? Over and out.