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  • Close A Door, Open A Window: My Fond Goodbye to BOSI

    May 7th, 2013

    By Danny Manus

    All good things come to an end, as they say.

    After just about 4 years and 180 articles, my column at BOSI has officially come to an end. There will be no final article, so I’m posting one here instead.

    It’s been a fantastic run, we’ve covered tons of great topics, I’ve made some wonderful friends, gained hundreds of wonderful clients, and launched numerous programs and classes. And I’ve written over 450 pages worth of material all for you, and all for free!

    I’m not going to go through all the reasons or details as to why the column is ending. Sometimes, it’s just best to appreciate what it was and move on. Though I get pretty chatty when I’m drunk. Haha!

    I want to graciously thank Marvin Acuna and James Lee for inviting me into the BOSI Community and allowing me to post my articles here and for helping to really launch No BullScript four years ago. Their support, friendship and promotion meant so much over the years, and I wish them much success.

    For those who don’t know, I became involved with Marvin after we both were part of a panel at the Screenwriting Conference in Santa Fe in 2009. I had met him briefly before that, but it was after the panel we became friends. He liked what I had to say and invited me to get a drink with him a couple weeks after the event. And as we got shitfaced on a Monday at 4pm in the middle of West Hollywood, he offered me a weekly column in this new endeavor he had started. I needed the promotion and the audience and he needed the content…BOOM. Done.

    It’s been a long, strange, and mostly fun journey since. Marvin has taught me a great deal about the business of show, perhaps the most important lesson being – ‘business is business.’ And you have to protect your brand, your name and your integrity with everything you have. I tend to take everything personal and internalize and analyze – when in the end, there’s always a bottom line to pay attention to.

    Most of all, I want to thank all of YOU! The BOSI Readers and Community. You’ve put No BullScript on the map. You’ve emailed me questions and article topics and great feedback and encouragement when there was an article you loved (or hated). And you’ve made me think much deeper about this business than I ever had before. And I am so thankful to the thousands of you who read what I have to say every week. And I hope to work with each and every one of you!

    In these 180 articles, we’ve discussed almost everything I could think of. But I’ve still got a few more tricks up my sleeve, so I invite ALL of my wonderful BOSI readers to follow me to my new column on ScriptMag. The title of my new column is “Notes From the Margins.” And I’ll be going through all the tips and things you need to know to make your story shine. So you can check that out twice a month (starting this week) on www.scriptmag.com.

    As you’ll notice, Manny Fonseca has also ended his podcast and column on BOSI but he is still doing his podcast and I hope you follow him too.

    It’s unfortunate that things have to end sometimes, but life goes on. And as I always say… Best of Luck and Keep Writing! I know I will.

  • The Right and Wrong Way to Enter Contests!

    April 23rd, 2013

    By Danny Manus

    The next couple of weeks impose some hefty deadlines for screenwriters. Both the Nicholls Fellowship and Page Awards have their final deadlines coming up on May 1, Final Draft Big Break has its early deadline April 30th, and pitchfest season is about to start as well. And every year, about 1-2 weeks from the deadlines of these big contests, I start getting tons of emails saying “I just finished my first draft. Can you get my script ready for Nicholls?”

    This is the wrong way to enter contests.

    I’ve been a judge for the Page Awards for three years and I’ve had numerous clients win or be finalists in major contests including Page Awards, Austin Film Fest, Scriptapalooza, the Disney/ABC Fellowship, LA Scriptfest, and (the now defunct) CS Expo. So, can I help? Sure. But can we totally fix your script 3 days before the deadline? No.

    Especially with contests as big as Nicholls, Page and Big Break, where there are thousands of submissions, you need to take it seriously! And there are certain things you need to think about when entering any contests:

    1. Prestige
    2. Payoff
    3. Readiness/Preparedness
    4. Genre

    Prestige means – enter those contests that actually mean something. Enter ones that have a great reputation, that get great media exposure, whose winners get into the trades, whose winners get HIRED and REP’D, whose finalists get optioned, ones that are nationally recognized and get more than 500 submissions. Do you know what it means to be a semifinalist in a contest that only has 500 submissions? NOTHING. And enter ones that mean something in a query letter if you win. Enter ones where the judge of all the winners isn’t the ONE guy holding the contest. I’ve said it plenty of times, there are only about 10-15 contests that mean anything to Hollywood, including the ones mentioned above. Do your due diligence before shelling out $30, 40, 50, 60 bucks year after year.

    Payoff means the prize is worth it. Now, this may be subjective. Maybe you really need that iPad, or really want that steak dinner and $500 bucks. If so, great. But if I was paying to enter a contest, the payoff better be ACCESS. Yes, a cash prize is awesome and makes you feel like you actually earned money doing what you love – and that’s a great feeling. But the key to a great contest is one that is either going to help you vastly improve your writing or get you access to people and players or meetings that can actually help your career and get you exposure.

    Entering a contest just to get feedback from anonymous “readers” who are paid $20 bucks to write a paragraph about your script is just a stupid idea. You enter contests to WIN them. If you want feedback and notes, pay a consultant that you can have a 1-on-1 (and not anonymous) relationship with who can walk you through where your script needs improving. I’m not saying there aren’t contests that give great notes and that it’s not a nice bonus, but it shouldn’t be the reason you enter one.

    The third step is Readiness and Preparedness. And this one has nothing to do with the contests – it’s all about YOU!  I want to give you just a little glimpse into Nicholls. Last year there were 7,197 screenplays submitted (a new record). There were 368 quarterfinalists (about 5% of all submissions), then 129 semi-finalists (almost all of which got script requests), and then 10 finalists and 5 winners. So, just to get any notice by Hollywood, your script and writing has to be in the top 368 scripts out of over 7,000.

    Do you REALLY think your first or second draft is going to be good enough to do that? Do you really think that a script that you RUSHED to rewrite in a week is going to fare well? Let me tell you – it won’t.

    If your script isn’t truly ready to compete against THOUSANDS of others, then don’t submit it just because there’s a deadline. Wait until next year, or the next contest. Some contests do allow you to submit a new draft after the first round, but you still have to make it past that first round!

    Rewriting is a process that, when done right, should take more than a week for most. Are there exceptions and writers who can totally rewrite a script in a week? Sure. But most of them are trained, professional writers who know the tricks to rewriting or at least have been doing this a while. If you’re a new writer, your rewrite period will probably last months. Most non-professional writers aren’t actually rewriting- they are doing what I call polite polishes. Some consultant told you the characters weren’t developed enough, so you stick 2 lines of backstory on page 21 and suddenly you think you’ve rewritten your script. You haven’t.

    Rewriting is a process by which you re-examine everything and often eliminate or rework core parts of your script. Polishing is a process by which you just make the writing and characters and action shine a bit more. Polishing can be done in a week. Rewriting usually cannot be. And if you’re asking for notes from a consultant with 2 or 3 weeks to go before the deadline, that will only leave you a few DAYS to rewrite your script. This is what’s called – a bad strategy. You want to give yourself a solid month to get feedback, rewrite and review your script if you can.

    Writing to a deadline is great – it’s usually the only motivation that will get me to write. However, while contests may be a great way to break in as a first timer, they are not for beginners. There’s a big difference between beginners and first timers. If this is your first draft of your first script, do NOT bother entering it into contests. You’re wasting your money. That’s not what these contests are for! Just keep working on it, rewriting it, polishing it, learning from it. Then 10 drafts from now, maybe it will be ready for a contest.

    And finally, you need to think about Genre. The TYPE of script you’re writing and the type of contest in which it will succeed. Not every script is a Nicholls script! If you’ve got a raunchy teen sex comedy or a run-of-the-mill woman in jeopardy thriller or torture porn or slasher horror or an epic sci-fi action movie – Nicholls probably isn’t what you should be spending time on. Nicholls is looking for more PRESTIGE projects, stories where character and voice stand out.  Over 50 percent of applicants last year entered drama scripts, which interesting enough made for only about 15% of all spec sales.

    You should be looking at contests that are either broken up by genre (like Page Awards), or contests that are specific to your genre. There are some great genre contests out there specifically for horror, sci-fi, fantasy, etc. Look at the past winners of the big contests and see what types of projects did well and judge accordingly.

    I’m not here to tell you which contests to enter, or which ones I love the most. I’m here to impress upon you that just because there is a contest, it doesn’t mean you need to enter it. And if you’re going to enter it, make sure your script is in its best shape possible to stand out and WIN.

  • 5 Ways to Pitch for Success

    April 10th, 2013

    By Danny Manus

    This weekend, there are two big screenwriting events – the Screenwriters World East Conference in NY and the Toronto Screenwriting Conference in Canada. And both afford writers the chance to pitch the pros.

    So, I figured it was a good time to whip out some quick pitching advice to keep in mind. There is no ONE set way to pitch your script that will guarantee your success, but here are 5 different pitching strategies or focuses you could use to grab, attract and impress the other side of the table. But you better know what your project’s strong suit is before you decide how to pitch it.

    1. Focus on Story, Hook and World. If you think you have a very high concept story and the strongest selling point about your project is your amazing, original hook, then focus on that. If you have a truly original idea that hasn’t been done or you have a crazy new twist on a great existing concept that when you hear it, you get the story completely, then all you will really need to do is give them an awesome logline that gets that across and some perfect comparison movies that get your concept across (it’s THIS meets THAT). If you have a truly original – and COMMERCIAL – concept, you will get a visceral reaction to your logline. If you get no reaction, then either your logline sucks or you don’t have an original concept that grabs people’s attention and you will have to go into more depth on the story. Try to go through whatever exemplifies what’s original about your story.

    Focus on the elements of your script that will make it stand out – the world of your script, the locations, time periods, twists and turns in the plot, etc. If you have written a futuristic thriller, and your world is so visual and creative that it jumps off the page – then focus on that world and bring the exec into it. Give them the highlights that will help them picture it and then go into the specifics of the story that will bring that world to life. Focus more on the actual plot and the build of the story to tell us why audiences will be hooked all the way through.

    However, you should never EVER pitch the structure of your story. It is a major amateur mistake to just go through the Save the Cat structural beat sheet instead of the actual PLOT. Tell them a story like you would describe a movie you just saw to a friend. You’d never say “And then as we broke into three, the character did this…”

    Examples of movies that would probably be pitched this way – Olympus Has Fallen, Alien, Shaun of the Dead, Taken, The Departed, The Help, The Hangover, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Looper, etc.

    2. Focus on Character, Arc and Relationships. Sometimes a project is more character-driven than plot driven and the new angle or most interesting aspect of your story will be the characters you create and the journey they embark on. Or perhaps it’s about a special relationship that is forged over the course of the story that will really touch an audience like in Thelma and Louise or Superbad (Side note: It’s often the creation of a great dynamic or relationship and putting that into a high concept story that makes the most sellable projects). In this case, you want to really make us love both your characters and get across their dynamic and backstory.

    Sometimes a character is so complex, interesting or relatable that it’s the casting possibilities that hook an executive. Sometimes it’s the specific goals they have to accomplish and the obstacles they face that will make a story stand out. Focus on your character’s life, their struggles, their goals, give a morsel of their backstory, and then tell us what happens that totally turns their life upside down (the inciting incident) and what they have to do now. Build them up, tear them down, and tell us why we will want to watch it.

    Very often, it’s the non-high concept or more indie films that might be better pitched this way. Or a film that’s based on a real person and their life story. Example include; Magic Mike, Little Miss Sunshine, Erin Brockovich, Castaway, Rocky, Jerry Maguire, Into the Wild, Lost in Translation, Royal Tenenbaums, etc.

    3.  Focus on You and your personal story. Sometimes it’s not about making them love your pitch or your project, it’s about making them love YOU. I can’t tell you the number of pitches I’ve taken where I hated the story, but there was something so charming, relatable or likable about the writer that I asked to read a writing sample anyway. If you can come off as comfortable, professional, collaborative, fun to be around (without being an over the top clown who is trying to hard), and someone who truly knows their shit – then they will want to deal with you more. If you mind your manners, have a pleasant disposition, are decently attractive, dressed normally, have done your research, and just have a disarming way about you, that will often get you further than a great logline.  It comes down to three things – don’t be combative, don’t be desperate, and don’t be crazy.

    If you have real experience in the film industry or with writing in general in other areas, then you want to stress that. If you’ve won MAJOR contests (and I said WON), you want to mention that. If there’s something that is special about you or that you can claim that no one else can, then mention that.

    And if there is something about your life or your personal story or experiences that inspired the script you have written that will make us connect with you, you should share that. If you wrote an international action movie and you were a soldier fighting overseas, then that’s great to mention. If you wrote a sci-fi thriller and you’re a scientist or engineer who has been studying the very field you are writing about, then say that. If you were in a bank when it got robbed and it inspired you to write a heist movie, share that story. If you were witness to some huge event in time and you have a specific point of view or new information and your life rights are truly important to the story, then share that. If you are an EXPERT in a certain field, let them know.

    However, there are some major exceptions to this rule!! If your script is about a woman who got beaten, raped, divorced, diagnosed as clinically insane, was sold into sex slavery, raised in a cult, got cancer 17 times, etc., and it’s your own personal true story – keep it to yourself. Keep it light, but meaningful. This is not a therapy session, it’s a pitch meeting. You want to share something that will inspire a connection and confidence – not pity.

    Especially if you are pitching an agent or manager, you want to pitch YOU much more than a single story. Show them you have a real vision for your career, know what type of writer you want to be, what genres you want to write, whose career you’d like to have in 10 years, and what you’ve been doing to work towards that.

    4.  Focus on the Trailer Moments. Sometimes the plot and the characters may not insanely original or strong, but you have some awesome moments in your script and story that are sure to get people into the theater. This usually applies more to comedies, action films and horror movies, but if you know you have created some amazing set pieces or huge scares or amazing original action scenes, then that’s what you should highlight in your pitch. Don’t go through a character’s backstory or the beat by beat story – give us a logline, a quick overview of the story and then give us more of the specific, visual, compelling examples of the best parts of your story. Treat your pitch like you were writing a movie trailer. Set up the world in 1 line, set up the protagonist in 2 lines, give us the inciting incident that kicks the story into gear, and then give us the trailer moments and build to the amazing climax.

    Examples of movies that would probably be pitched this way include Project X, The Expendables, Evil Dead, Spring Breakers, Fast and the Furious, There’s Something About Mary, etc.

    5.  Focus on creating a relationship. This is where instead of sitting down to rapid-fire pitch a memorized speech for 4 and a half minutes and hope for the best, you just want to take the time to culture a relationship and create a connection. Get to know the person, learn what they look for, what type of project they’ve always wanted to find, what their pet peeves are, ask for general career advice and try to make yourself seem like someone who isn’t trying to SELL them something, but instead is someone they might want to get a drink with. This especially works if the conference you’re pitching at is NOT in LA, because those execs WILL be going to get drinks later and if you seem cool enough, they may invite you to come with. The best sales jobs are the ones where you’re not actually selling anything…while selling everything. The key to this kind of ballsy pitch is to make it seem natural – and they will know when you’re putting them on. But let them know you’re working on some new projects and that you’d love to contact them at some point in the future, etc.

    Whether you’re in NY or Toronto this weekend, or any other pitching situation in the future, know what your strongest selling points are (and your story’s) and let that dictate what kind of pitch will be the best fit.

    **On Saturday, April 13th, I will be teaching a LIVE in-store class at The Writers Store in Burbank. “12 Steps to a Screen-Worthy Script.” If you’re in LA area, you should be there! Sign up now and you get a free Logline Critique! We’ll go through different exercises and the 12 steps to getting your script to the next level. For more info and to register, click here – http://www.writersstore.com/12-steps-to-a-screen-worth-script/

  • Seven Steps to Saving “Smash”

    March 30th, 2013

    By Danny Manus

    I realize I’m in the minority (vast minority according to Nielsen numbers), but I’m a big fan of Smash. Critically loved in its first 2 or 3 episodes, it’s been painful to watch what the network, the creators, and the producers have done to this once-promising show. If ever there was a case of a show that needed a total upheaval but deserved another chance, Smash is it.

    Why do I care? Well, besides being a total TV Whore and producer, I’m a born and raised New Yorker, brought up on musical theater. I sang in choir all through high school and even worked at the local performing arts theater (a theater that launched Hollywood and Broadway stars like Jamie-Lynn Sigler and Dan Domenech).  And I love seeing this world brought to the small screen.

    I also absolutely hate watching good (or potentially great) shows go down without a fight or without the right support, and it seems to be NBC’s M.O. to cut the cord without giving things a real shot (Prime Suspect, Boomtown, Studio 60, Southland, Awake, etc.).

    I was hooked to Smash before the first note was sung. The advertising, the wonderful cast, the promises made of an adult, less sappy version of Glee – I was in! It was exactly what should have worked on NBC at exactly the right time, especially premiering after The Voice.

    And when the pilot of Smash aired, and Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty belted out that big number “Let Me Be Your Star,” I was hooked. And so were millions of others. It was a hit!

    CUT TO: 8 weeks later…it was a flop. Now, I’ve read all the articles are reports of what went wrong. Everyone had a different vision for this show from Spielberg to Creator/Executive Producer/Psycho Bitch Theresa Rebeck to NBC Execs to the cast. No one was on the same page about anything – the tone, look, casting, music, storylines. It was a mess. It became a cheesy drinking-game inducing soap opera.

    But there are plenty of insanely cheesy shows on the air, especially on NBC, and they were doing OK. So it had to be something else. Yes, the character of Ellis was absolutely unwatchably bad as was the actor portraying him (who better hope a soap opera hires him or else he’ll never work again). The “actor” playing Messing’s son was painfully unable to act or emote and you could feel Debra Messing begging for her scenes with him to be over. And the show just didn’t GO anywhere past episode 6. It was stuck.

    And in its second season, despite a cast shakeup, it’s done even WORSE. Unfortunately, a third season is nearly impossible now. Though it hasn’t officially been cancelled, many in the cast (including Messing) have already signed on to other pilots.

    But IF—IF!—NBC was inclined to save one of its potentially more impressive and fun shows (which could make them tons of Glee-style money on the original music it produces), there are 7 things that would need to change to revamp the show and make it a hit.

    1.  The basic concept of the show needs to change. Instead of it being a behind the scenes look at a show as it tries to make it to Broadway, it needs to be about a behind the scenes look at a show that’s ON Broadway! The biggest issue with the series currently is that each episode is horrible repetitive and stale. How many times can ONE show (that isn’t Spiderman) come back from the dead and keep plugging away. It’s gone through 3 directors, 3 lead actresses, 2 lead actors, 2 producers, 2 writers, etc. There is nothing more you do to the show except PUT IT ON BROADWAY and see what happens!

    Plus, with it still in eternal rehearsals of the same 4 boring musical numbers, there’s nothing on the line. There are no stakes. No one has anything except sweat equity and passion invested in the project, except for Anjelica Huston’s ex-husband, whom we don’t care about. If it was playing ON Broadway and there was huge drama behind the scenes, there would always be the ticking clock until they had to go on every night and perform, and those performances would portray the drama going on off stage.  There is so much more drama, hi-jinx and fun to be had with a show that’s playing on Broadway rather than a show that just wants to.  The difference between Smash and Glee is that the characters on Smash are supposed to be professionals – so let them be!

    The alternative to putting ‘Bombshell’ on Broadway immediately? Kill Marilyn. Marilyn was a great set up to the show when it started, but she’s over now. She was over the second Michelle Williams didn’t win the Oscar for My Life With Marilyn. No one gives a shit about Marilyn Monroe except old queens. You’re supposed to be targeting a younger demographic, but they’d rather watch a musical about the life of Minaj than Monroe.

    2.  For the love of God, stop regurgitating the same four ‘Bombshell’ songs in every damn episode. I love “Let Me Be Your Star,” but if I ever hear it again, I’m going to bleed from my ears. Because it’s not just sung in every other episode, it’s also in every single commercial and advertisement – there’s nothing left to love about the song! You’ve killed it. Dead. And the other handful of Marilyn songs we’ve also heard 100 times. I like that producers have created a second show this season to play off of so we get some new music, but now we’re just going to hear those same 3 songs for each of the next 6 episodes. They need to use more popular music like Glee does if you want people to be able to sing along. And if they REALLY wanted to set themselves apart, do what they did in Les Miserables and let the talented actors who are used to singing live, actually sing LIVE! There’s nothing worse than bad lip synching, and Megan Hilty is the only one who seems to have mastered the task. Glee works because every week we get 5-6 new songs. If they kept singing that one damn Journey song every episode, no one would watch that either.

    3.  The Producers need to go watch Noises Off!  The show or the movie. Either one will do. And then they need to work much more comedy into the show. I’m not saying make this a sitcom, but Debra Messing and Christian Borle are fantastic comedy actors and their roles feel SO stifling to their talent. Messing has barely broken a smile since episode 4 and Borle ONLY looks happy when he’s given the chance to sing and dance. In case you forgot, Messing won an Emmy for Best COMEDIC Actress. Let the woman play to her strengths. Which brings up the next point – LET DEBRA MESSING AND CHRISTIAN BORLE SING! Messing has barely done ONE number since the pilot by herself and the woman can sing. Borle has only done a handful – and the man won a Tony! Debra Messing is the star of the show – give her something to sing. And if Anjelica can hold a note, give her a song too.

    4.   No more Stunt Casting unless it’s permanent. It’s wonderful to put names like Jennifer Hudson, Uma Thurman, Jesse L Martin, Sean Hayes, Bernadette Peters, Daniel Sunjata and Joe Jonas in your commercials, but the problem is – putting stars like that in the show make us wish they were the stars of the show. Not only that, but only Uma Thurman and Bernadette Peters had natural entrées and exits to the storylines. The rest were basically forgotten plotlines that went nowhere. Some had nice storylines within the episode (like Sunjata), but then disappeared for no reason other than the show clearly couldn’t pay their salaries for more episodes.

    NBC put Jennifer Hudson on every poster, in every commercial, and featured her song and voice in every Season 2 promo there was. But she had no place in the story or series. She was just there, she sang her songs, and then she was gone. Her character in no way affected any of the others.  And the problem was, she was better than everyone else. I love Hilty with a passion, and McPhee is incredibly talented and sexy, but no one sings like Jennifer Hudson. So either you have stars that outshine your cast coming in for no reason, or you have stars come in that the audience is waiting to hear sing but they never do, like Jesse L. Martin and Joe Jonas. Trust the talents of your cast, or recast.

    5.   Speaking of which, Jeremy Jordan needs to go. Look, I like Jeremy Jordan a lot. In fact, he went to my alma mater Ithaca College and he is a SUPREME singing and dancing talent. He is a Broadway star if I’ve ever heard one and I could listen to him sing all day long and be very happy. But he’s painful to watch on TV. And I’m not sure if it’s because he’s just not ready for the small screen yet (Lea Michele is still figuring out how not to play to the balcony after 4 seasons of Glee), or if it’s because the character the writers have created is so flawed in the worst and most obvious of ways, that it’s incredibly hard to care or connect to him. Not only don’t we want Karen to fall for him, but we don’t even understand how she could. Despite his talent and brief glimmers of feelings, he’s an asshole that bites the hand that feeds him every time it’s offered. And for viewers who watch the show because they dream of being on Broadway, they can’t connect with a character that is being given the shot and decides to piss it away every week. If he doesn’t want it badly enough, then we won’t want it for him. He needs to learn the lesson I teach all my screenwriting students – this ain’t an artist colony, it’s the entertainment business.

    6.   The writers need to create empowered and strong female characters instead of the whiny, overpowered, overwhelmed, lovelorn, confused, slutty, low self-esteemed diva wannabes that currently inhabit the show. I think it’s pretty clear that the original series creator Theresa Rebeck created insecure characters she could relate to. Problem is, everyone hated her – and now they hate her characters. This is a show geared towards women and gay men – yet the female characters are some of the weakest on TV. Messing’s character is an adulterer-turned-basket case who has no direction, no confidence and no self-worth unless her husband, her male writing partner, her male director, or the male script doctor brought in to save her, tells her she’s good.  Anjelica Huston’s character is supposed to be this powerful producer type, but she’s really an emotional former gold-digger who can’t make a decision unless she gets the head nod from her ex-husband, whom she hates yet constantly relies on. And her romance with the mobster bartender was so implausible, it was laughable. Is she high society or just high maintenance? McPhee’s Karen was supposed to be the star-struck ingénue we root for but suddenly, after going through some rehearsals and a quick Boston run in Bombshell, is now the toast of the town and a celebrity who can get a new show going just by snapping her fingers. Plus, she finally gets out of her bad relationship with a cheater, and she jumps into bed with not only her Director (after being so strong to resist him in the first season) but also her new co-star, a drug addict with an anger problem and a chip on his shoulder. If ALL the women in the show have horrible taste in men, they won’t be characters women can look up to.

    7.   Bring back the competition aspect and make this show more like A Chorus Line. The show worked best when Megan Hilty and Katharine McPhee’s characters were battling each other, and now they are barely in one scene together per episode. Make us FEEL something as our characters FIGHT for something. Right now, the fight is over. They’re just waiting for things to happen, and that is boring for the audience. Hilty’s back as Marilyn, McPhee’s banging every guy connected to her new show, Huston’s got the show back from her ex-husband, Borle is directing Bombshell and Messing is….there too. But none of them have anything to fight for anymore. Give them something new to fight for and keep the competition aspect going.

    TV shows with truly new concepts that stand out amongst the crowd don’t come around too often, and they certainly don’t come around on NBC too much. This show had everything going for it, but bad producing and lazy writing has destroyed what could have been a solid 4-5 season run. It may be too late now, but if the NBC execs and show producers could wake up, acknowledge they screwed up, and follow the aforementioned steps, they might have one more chance to make Smash live up to its name.

  • The Biggest Threat to Screenwriters in the Digital Age

    March 26th, 2013

    By Danny Manus

    It used to be that a screenwriter’s biggest fear was pitching or sending a script to a producer and them stealing their idea and making a billion dollars without them. But in the new digital, social media age where every week there seems to be a new website that writers can post their scripts on in the hopes of being reviewed, loved and discovered, the biggest threat to screenwriters – is other screenwriters.

    Between Amazon, BlackList, Talentville, Virtual Pitchfest, InkTip, Greenlightmymovie, Triggerstreet, SpecScout and many more – there are a ton of websites that promise (or at least intimate) you will gain access, attention, accolades and success from Hollywood heavyweights by using their sites and posting your scripts or pitches or synopses. And many of them do have great success stories. Some of them are even free. But there’s a downside to posting your script in a forum or on a site where ANYONE – not just Hollywood professionals – can see it.

    Let me preface this article by saying that I don’t have anything against any of the aforementioned sites and I have worked with (and continue to work with) a few of them. I believe the people running all of those sites have the best of intentions and are not doing anything wrong.

    However, this past week, one of my clients (who will remain nameless but I’m sure many of you reading this may know who I’m talking about) had an issue on one of these popular script-posting/review sites. She discovered that there was another project with the same title and basic concept, time period and protagonist posted onto the site months after she had posted hers. Now, it was a TV script and hers was a feature, and after reading both it was clear to me there were notable differences in the stories, writing and focus. But, they were definitely similar. And while it wasn’t a wholly original story, it was original enough – especially the title – to draw some ire from numerous writers.

    After much ado, and numerous emails between the parties (some of them contentious), the situation was looked into by the website and resolved as best as possible considering no one had sold their project yet and no one could actually PROVE anything. Though mark my words – if one of their projects sells, there will be a lawsuit. Which means both their projects are now tainted and if a production company hears there might be a registration claim against a script, they will most likely stay away.

    Writers need to know there is basically no recourse through the site when something like this happens (especially if it’s a FREE site), because most have terms and conditions you have to agree to before you post your material, and any smart site will include a big old paragraph that basically says – “Post at your own risk. It ain’t our fault if your story gets jacked.”  At least, that’s the legal terminology I would use.

    In addition, if you’re posting into Facebook groups, screenwriting forums like the notorious Done Deal Pro or others, many people use screen names, fake names or pseudonyms – so you’d never be able to find out who actually took your idea.

    Let me ask you something – why the hell do you care what a fellow amateur screenwriter living 3000 miles away from you thinks about your screenplay? Do you know what their opinion means? Absolutely nothing! Many of these sites and forums are the blind leading the blind. And in the land of the blind, the one-eyed-man is king.

    Situations like the one I mentioned above seem to be happening on a weekly basis now – and it’s not going to improve until these sites take more control over what’s being posted and have a more in-depth system or screening process or algorithm to compare (or search for) projects. Or until writers realize that posting their script for peer reviews is mostly a waste of time and often opens them up to more harm than good. Everyone is so hell bent on getting feedback from EVERYONE and getting their script in front of as many eyes as possible, that they don’t realize some of the pitfalls of posting their projects or loglines or ideas online.

    And some contests aren’t much better. First and second round judges for many contests out there, are writers. Perhaps they’re writers with a couple options under their belt or a manager or agent, or some credits. But for the most part, it’s out of work writers trying to make some extra money. And the rest of the judges are readers, who get 20 bucks a script. It isn’t until the quarter or semifinal rounds where more major Hollywood professionals get involved in the judging.

    So this leaves burgeoning writers with two very important questions – How do you promote yourself, get read and try to break in while ensuring your ideas won’t be stolen? And are you sabotaging your career if you refuse to post your scripts on these websites or enter contests?

    The answer to the first question is just to be smart and protect yourself and always keep a paper trail! Know when you registered the script, know when you copyrighted it, know when you started writing it, know the first time you pitched it to someone. Know what sites, at what times, your script was posted and keep a log of who has seen it or read it or commented on it. And that goes for your writers groups and friends as well. Because if there is one thing I’ve learned after 10 years in this business, it’s that friendships don’t mean dick when there’s money at stake.

    Read ALL terms and conditions before you post. Try to post on sites where there is more DIRECT access to professionals or where it’s only professionals who can access your projects. Or where YOU can control the access. At least with Virtual Pitchfest, for example, your query letter goes directly to the professional and no one else is able to see it.

    The answer to the latter question I posed, is YES. By choosing NOT to put your script out there at all, you are cutting off your nose to spite your face. You can’t be THAT precious with your idea, because chances are it’s already been done anyway. And if you’re not trying to pitch and sell your idea, then what was the point in writing it? You can’t sit there and complain that you’re not being discovered if you’re not being pro-active about getting your script read. But again, you have to protect yourself.

    Do NOT post your brand new, unregistered idea or logline or synopsis in Facebook groups or on twitter or in ANY screenwriting forum asking for feedback. If you want to know if your idea or project sounds commercial and might be worth pursuing, or you want to brainstorm your story concepts (especially before they are written), then for the love of God – go to someone who isn’t a fellow writer! You’re not selling your project to other writers anyway – you’re selling them to execs, producers and reps!

    I realize I’m a bit biased here, but use a professional! Pay the $50 bucks and use a professional who can give you constructive feedback but will also keep your project confidential and won’t be wondering the whole time if your project and idea sounds better than the ones they are trying to write.

    Pitching to an executive or producer or submitting work to a script consultant or even your own personal writing groups is much safer than posting your story all over the internet. Why? Because the former all rely on their reputations staying intact in order to stay in business. And if someone in your writers group stole your idea – you’d know who they are, where to find them, and exactly how they got it. There would be a clear paper trail.

    Now, the law of averages – and the sheer number of writers and scripts out there – dictates that your idea was probably thought of by someone else, somewhere. Every few months, I get two clients that submit a similar story or concept and they live countries apart and have no connection to each other whatsoever. Even the most random of story ideas, has probably been thought of in some form by someone else. It’s just a coincidence and there’s nothing you can do about it. And just FYI, I do inform my clients when that occurs.

    This happens to professional writers and production companies all the time as well. When I was at my old production company, Clifford Werber Productions, I sold an “Oz” movie to United Artists. We were first out of the gate. But within months there were 4 other Oz projects set up and as you can see…ours didn’t win the race. We developed a revamped Jack and the Beanstalk…oh well. We developed a project called “Family Bond” and the very week we sent it out to the town, another script titled “Family Bonds” (with an S) was also sent around by another producer and the story was eerily similar. And just this month, a consulting client of mine submitted a script with the same concept as one I developed years ago at CWP. It happens all the time because as different as we are, humans all share certain experiences and people write what they know.

    And if you suspect that one of your projects, ideas or scripts has been “stolen” in some way, the best way to handle it – is calmly. Don’t go threatening lawsuits or demanding anything – especially of the sites on which the projects were posted. First, read the other writer’s project to make sure it’s not just a similar title or same broad generic idea. Make sure there are REAL similarities throughout the script. Investigate, do your due diligence, go back thru your paper trail, and contact the writer or the site and try to come up with a resolution that benefits you all. And worst comes to worst, take down your project and just move on to the next one. Because if your script has been posted on a site for 9 months and NO ONE has read it or contacted you about it – it’s not doing you any favors anyway.

    In the 90s, it was snail mail query letters. In the 2000s, it was email queries and pitchfests. In the 2010s, the new norm of breaking in for writers without connections is thru social media and self-promotion thru certain types of websites. And the fact that new writers can more easily connect to big Hollywood players is a great thing. But with these new rules and opportunities, come new threats and problems that writers need to be aware of, and protect themselves. And hopefully now, you’ll be a bit better prepared.

  • Writing Yourself Out of a Hole

    March 26th, 2013

    By Danny Manus

    There’s an old story I’m tweaking slightly for our purposes that goes…

    A screenwriter is walking down the street and falls into a deep hole and can’t get out.

    A Director comes by and the screenwriter yells, “Hey, I’ve fallen into this hole and I can’t get out. Can you help me?”

    The Director throws a camera down the hole and says, “I can’t get you out, but if you film your journey, I can make it into a movie.” And he moves on.

    Then an Executive Producer comes by and the screenwriter yells, “Hey, I’ve fallen into this hole and I can’t get out. Can you help me?”

    The Exec Producer takes out his wallet and throws a bunch of money down the hole and says “I can’t get you out, but if you figure out the way, I’ll pay for it.” And he moves on.

    Finally, a fellow screenwriter passes by and the writer in the hole yells out, “Hey, I’ve fallen into this hole and I can’t get out. Can you help me?”

    The second screenwriter immediately jumps down into the hole with him. The first writer turns to him and says, “Well that was stupid, now we’re both trapped in this hole.”

    And the second screenwriter says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down in this hole before and I know the way out.”

    Writers write themselves into holes all the time. But the sign of a truly great writer is being able to write yourself out of it. And let me tell you, more than 80% of writers – can’t.

    Writing yourself into a hole usually happens if you haven’t planned, plotted, outlined or completed character exercises before starting to write. If you get stuck and you’re not sure what should come next, or after you’ve started rewriting and you (or someone else) find tons of plot holes and unanswered questions – you’ve written yourself into a hole.

    And I’m guilty of this myself. On the conspiracy thriller script I was hired to write, I had a rough treatment going in, but the person who hired me and had written the treatment forgot one major part…the conspiracy. So, we knew where the story started and we knew where it ended and we knew a few of the major moments and action in the middle. But I started writing before I really nailed down how the conspiracy was going to come together or how everyone was exactly connected and what the pieces of evidence were that would ultimately expose said conspiracy… And guess what…I wrote myself into a hole. I had killed a character that I realized could have been the key. I had created a conflict that caused a major plot hole before I had thought of a solution. And I didn’t know exactly how to pace the conspiracy so it would make sense but not reveal too much, too soon. And the hole began to get deeper.

    So when you find that a question is unanswered or a plot hole has formed, instead of continuing on the same road hoping the hole disappears, here are some of the major things to think about and examine to go back and cement that hole and keep your story moving.

    –          Set Ups – I dare say that 60% of all plot holes and story issues exist because the writer has failed to set up something earlier on that would help explain it all. A set up doesn’t always have to be a big extravagant moment – it can be a quick line or quick shot of off-color comment, but that we will connect later on to what’s happening. If your character has to know how to climb a mountain in order to escape her situation in the climax and you’ve never set this up that she knows how – you’ve written yourself into a hole. But instead of going back and inserting many scenes of her climbing, you could just show us pictures of her doing this in the first act or show us mountain climbing ropes and gear in her car, etc. It’s all about set ups, but it doesn’t always means retooling your whole story.

    –          Motivations – Look at why you’re characters are there, doing what they’re doing, and why (and if) it’s important to them, what they have to accomplish and why (what happens if they don’t accomplish it?). You may find that your hole has been created because your characters are doing something unnecessary or not set up as being important to them. If your characters are only doing something because YOU need them to in order for other things to make sense, then you may be writing yourself deeper into a hole.

    –          Locations – Look at where the action (and the hole) is taking place. Do your characters have to be here or is there an easier way? Is it a location that makes sense to the story and action taking place? If it feels like your characters are just pinging back and forth between different locations, is there a way to condense them so your story won’t feel confusing or scenes won’t seem unnecessary? But also, do your locations give you enough opportunities for action or scares or comedy and afford you the visuals you need to make your scenes work without forcing it? If not, you may want to think about changing your locations.

    –          Coincidences – If big moments in your script (more than 1 or 2) only occur because of coincidences taking place, then your plot is not strong enough and you will be writing yourself into a hole. If “coincidence” is the only explanation for your action, you’re not outlining enough. Go back and think of other ways or reasons why that “thing” could occur or bring your characters to where “it” occurs.

    –          Brainstorming – It’s all about thinking about different ways to obtain the same result. If your character has to get into a house without being heard, think of 5 ways for him to do so. Always give yourself options and see which one makes the most sense for your set ups, your characters and your purpose. Ask other people if you need to.

    –          Streamlining – Very often holes are created because you’re trying to do too much with your plot or action or you’re working too many characters into the plot because you think it will keep things interesting. Streamlining your story and only including plot points, subplots and characters that advance the important storylines and arcs of your protagonist will ensure that you don’t write yourself into unnecessary holes.

    –          Common Sense – When all else fails, follow an old adage that always holds true – KEEP IT SIMPLE, STUPID. If you find that your characters are trapped in a situation or have to do something and they don’t know how to, just use common sense. Think about what YOU would do to get out of that situation – then make it visual.

    So many writers try to get all complex and intricate with their conspiracies or their action or even small innocuous things – like getting through a front door for example.  But sometimes you don’t have to wire a tree to break a window to signal the dog to chase the cat to jump on a bookshelf to knock over a lamp to ignite a fire to burn the door down…Sometimes you can just turn the fucking doorknob and walk inside.

    There are so many holes that writers can find themselves trapped in – don’t let it be one you’ve created for yourself. And if you do find yourself looking up from that position, don’t be afraid to ask others who have been there for help.

  • The Virtues of a Short Film

    February 27th, 2013

    By Danny Manus

    A couple weeks ago, Dov Simens – that guy who teaches a very popular 2-day filmmaking course and cites Tarantino as one of his students – said that “the only thing that making a short film demonstrates is that you’re a 12 year old”. That there’s no point in making a 5-12 minute short film because they don’t sell and everyone these days seem to have one.

    Is he wrong? Sort of.

    Shorts don’t make money, that’s true. Even if your short film is nominated for an Academy Award – you’re still not quitting your day job from the money it brings in, especially if you financed it independently.

    And yes, the boom of handheld technology, iPhone apps, webcams and social media has lead everyone and their mother to think they are the next Chris Nolan. And many of the people creating and posting their “short films” are, in fact, 12 year olds.

    That being said, creating a high quality and well-produced short film is still a strong way to break in. It just takes much more than it used to because of the gluttony of product being created. I have produced two short films with talented directors, consulted on dozens more for clients, and have had a couple of those clients win major short film contests. But were any of their careers suddenly launched by these shorts? Nope.

    Yes, if you are lucky enough to have your short premiere (and win) at Sundance or Toronto, you will score meetings with managers and maybe even producers for your next project. And winning the 48-hour short film contests that are held around the country is great and will teach you all about guerilla filmmaking. But will it pay your rent? Nope.

    Are there people being paid on YouTube for their short content? Sure. In fact, YouTube has 1 million monetization partners. But with nearly 48 hours of content uploaded every MINUTE and 8 YEARS worth of content uploaded every day, that’s 1 million videos making money out of TENS of BILLIONS.  You have a better chance of winning a major screenwriting contest while getting bitten by a rabid squirrel that can dance like Justin Bieber than you do going viral.

    So while I do think that making a short film can be a great calling card and can help you garner some attention, I agree with Mr. Simens that making a career out of making short films is a waste of time. Make one to learn and perfect the process, make a second to show off your talents. If you make more than that, you’re probably wasting your time.

    There is a difference, however, between making short films and making webisodes, which are sought out more often. What could be more lucrative and garner more of a payoff for you and your project might be to create a great webisode series (especially if you’re looking at writing/directing for TV) or a trailer for your feature project as a selling tool. A trailer has to get across a full and complete story just like a short film, but it’s an even better test on whether you know how to bring the most commercial and visual elements of your story out while forcing viewers to connect with a character in 30 seconds. This trailer can also help you raise money on crowd funding websites much more than a short film can.

    Even just looking at the professionally made shorts, there are usually only about 5-10 stand-outs every year that break thru, get major industry attention and land the filmmaker into some impressive offices and meetings with big agencies and producers. But that’s 10 shorts…out of thousands.

    Three years ago, shorts like The Raven, Pixels and Marcell the Shell were all the rage. In 2011, it was the short film Portal and the Dead Island video game commercial. And last year, Ruin and Archetype (both now set up at Fox) broke out huge.  And in case you’re wondering where you can find these tops shorts, there’s a website for that. Much like The Black List surveys the executive’s favorite unproduced scripts of the year, the View Finder List surveys exec’s favorite short films, videos and commercials of the year. The 2012 list can be found here – http://www.viewfinderframes.com/category/viewfinder-list-2012/.

    All that aside, if you do decide to make a short film, there are three important things it needs to accomplish:

    The first is that it must prove you can tell a complete story – beginning, middle and end – in a visual way in a very short period of time.

    The second is that it needs to convey your visual style and that you have a voice as a filmmaker. What is it about your way of storytelling, developing characters, creating a world, visuals, effects, shot selection, writing, editing, transitioning, etc., that makes you stand out and defines why you’re someone people should pay attention to.

    And the third, and sometimes most important, is that however much money you make the short for, it needs to look like it was made for 10 times as much. If your budget is $5,000, it needs to look like a $50,000 short film. If your budget is $50,000, it needs to look like a half million dollar low budget feature film. Producers who look at your short want to see what you can do with the money you are given and they don’t just want to see every cent on the screen – they want to see tons more than that! They want to see what you can make ten grand look like before they will be willing to give you a million.

    So in order to make your sure you’re giving your short its best chances, here are some specific tips to keep in mind –

    Start with a truly tight and complete script and story. It’s not three-act structure per se, but there is a big difference between writing a complete stand-alone story and writing what feels like one random scene taken from a larger story no one can figure out.  It can feel like it could be expanded and explored into a much larger story, but it should be able to stand alone.

    It’s great to be a multi-hyphenate and do everything yourself, but if writing isn’t your strong suit and isn’t what you’re trying to do – then find a real writer (or consultant) to help you.

    Unlike a feature, where you have 5-10 pages to create a world and a tone and genre and character, in a short, you have ONE page. One. That’s it.

    Find a talented crew you trust and who won’t complain about long days and shitty conditions. Stock the craft service tables like you’re at a bar mitzvah. And if you can only hire 3 awesome people, make it your First AD, a Lighting Designer and a Sound Guy. Good lighting and sound designers are worth their weight in gold and a great First AD will keep everyone else in line.

    Don’t hire actors just because they are your neighbors and friends. If they can’t bring the words to life, it doesn’t matter how good the shot is – it will be painful to watch.

    Keep your shorts under 8 minutes – that’s as long as any executive is going to give your project. And keep in mind that it takes a solid minute to roll credits. Don’t waste time with credits at the beginning of your short.

    Write a story with very few locations and very few changes in time of day. If your whole short film can be shot at night, it will be much easier to schedule and keep consistent and you won’t need to have a skip day for your crew to adjust to day shoots.

    Your story should have as few characters as necessary to tell your story and preferably use as few extras as possible, if any.

    If you are shooting outdoors, always check weather reports from multiple sources. Then check them again.

    Always, always, always have a plan and a schedule and a shot list. Know which shots you want, but always, always, always get enough coverage just in case. One of the biggest problems we had on one of the shorts I produced was that the director knew exactly what shots she wanted, but if I didn’t suggest alternatives, she never would have had the coverage we needed.

    Despite what some filmmaking teachers might say, I think everyone should be involved in making a short film at least once. It’s great experience and usually a great deal of fun. But if you’re relying on your short film being the thing that gets you signed by CAA and pays your bills, I hope you have a Plan B.

  • How to Launch Your Career Correctly (And Why Jennifer Lawrence’s Reps are Brilliant)

    February 27th, 2013

    By Danny Manus

    Ask any agent worth their salt and they will tell you that there is a right way and a wrong way to start, build, and grow a career in Hollywood. Sometimes it takes a perfect storm of variables to make it happen, sometimes it’s dumb luck and good timing, and sometimes it’s about having a winning strategy and having something special to offer.

    This week, the young, talented and ridiculously beautiful Jennifer Lawrence, 22, won her first Best Actress Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook. And it solidified what I have believed for a couple years now, which is that Lawrence’s reps are some of the best in the business and her rise to stardom and success is EXACTLY the model that should be used not just with actors, but writers and directors as well. Whether you’re a representative or fledgling talent, there’s something very valuable to learn from Jennifer Lawrence’s career.

    Before we get to the actual process of her success, let’s stipulate that the person trying to break in has to actually BE talented and trained. That goes without saying. It also obviously helps that Jennifer Lawrence is model gorgeous! If she wasn’t, would she have the success she’s has? Probably not, at least not in the same way. But good looks doesn’t guarantee you anything in this business – beautiful girls are a dime a dozen in Los Angeles.

    If you have seen Lawrence in interviews or her hilarious Jack Nicholson meeting after the Oscars or have read her quotes on her IMDB page, you know there is much more to her than a pretty face and acting chops. This is a charming, witty, funny, sarcastic, intelligent woman who knows how to handle the media and more importantly – knows how to handle herself and the pressures of Hollywood with humility, humor and honesty.

    I don’t want this to turn into a total love letter to Jennifer Lawrence (those I keep in private), but what makes Jennifer Lawrence difference from many of the other gorgeous actresses in Hollywood is that she has that special THING. That special QUALITY that extends past beauty and makes her relatable and versatile. She has great innate comic timing, but she can do drama or horror or action as well (and has). And one of the reasons her reps are so fantastic is because they recognize how versatile she is and have lined up different types of movies to show off her many different talents. She’s the actress version of Allan Loeb (look him up).

    When describing actresses, you often here the saying “Girls want to be her and guys want to fuck her.” And, yes, those are true with Lawrence. But what she has that doesn’t come along too often in Hollywood, is that both guys AND girls want to get a beer with her and hang out. Why? Because she seems cool and unaffected. The type of girl next door who could kick your ass, chug a beer and then put on a dress and win an Oscar. And that’s what guys love and girls respect.

    There are very few actresses whom you not only want to sleep with, but also want to be their FRIEND. Sandra Bullock, Emma Stone, Cameron Diaz, Anne Hathaway, Natalie Portman, Chelsea Handler – they have that quality (in my opinion). It’s that thing that Angelina Jolie, Scarlett Johansson, Kristen Stewart, Nicole Kidman, Katherine Heigl, Megan Fox, and others, still lack. And you can’t fake relatability too long – you either are or you’re not.

    Same with writing – either your stories and characters and conflicts have that THING that just engrosses you and makes you care, or they don’t. And if you try to force it (usually thru exposition and overwriting), it becomes painful and obvious and makes one care even less. There has to be something connectable and relatable about your writing.

    Possibly the most respectable thing about Lawrence, is she is a TRUE movie fan. She throws out quotes and movie references like a 50 year old critic. She’s a fan of what she does – and what other people around her do – and that makes for a great actress, much like it makes for a great writer or director.

    But let’s see beyond the looks, the talent and the likability factor and examine the way she and her reps have positioned her career. Whether you’re an actor, director or screenwriter, the key to breaking in and making it big, is about breaking in the right way at the right time to be able to capitalize on one’s success and become a star.

    Jennifer Lawrence was about 19 when she filmed Winter’s Bone. And if you remember, she wasn’t the only actress to burst out on the scene a couple years ago. Hailee Steinfeld from True Grit, Shailene Woodley from The Descendants, etc. And what have you heard from them in the last year? Not much.

    The problem with breaking into film at 15-17 is that you are too young for most of the good, adult, meaty roles that win awards and get critical acclaim so people will take you seriously. But you’re too old for the tween roles that launch huge followings and make you a teen star. And so if you aren’t at the top of your game at that age, you don’t get the few great roles out there and your career stalls. Jennifer Lawrence happened to be at the tip top.

    Actors (and writers) often feel like if they haven’t landed a starring role (or sold a script) by the age of 19, they will never make it. But it’s the actors who don’t find their big break UNTIL they are adults who are the ones who stick around and have real careers. Olivia Wilde, Emma Stone, Teresa Palmer, Elizabeth Olsen, Rooney Mara, Anna Kendrick, etc. Now look at the actresses who hit it big as young teens – Lindsay Lohan, Amanda Bynes, Olsen Twins, the High School Musical kids, etc. Sure there are exceptions – Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Saoirse Ronan, Mia Wasikowski (though the last two are Irish & Austrailian, so it’s a bit different) – but sometimes it’s the maturity to know oneself and one’s talent and goals that make one ready to truly break in. And most don’t have that before they’re 20 years old.

    Look at Jennifer’s career in comparison to the other franchise lead and young superstar, Kristen Stewart. She’s not a bad actress, but she was a child actor from a very young age, so by the time she was 18, she was so jaded and cynical about the industry she could barely force a smile when cashing her $10M checks. And people hate her.

    Writers are the same – they try to rush it, try to force it, try to insist that they are ready when they just aren’t mature enough on the page (or in the room). And they try to break in by doing the wrong types of material, and that’s why their career stalls. Or they refuse to pay their dues and work for nothing starting out, which will stall a career before it ever starts.

    Jennifer started as many young actresses do – modeling and doing commercials. She did a few crappy commercials, got a couple small TV roles, and that led to her moving out to LA and finding a part that meant something to her and she fought for it (Winter’s Bone). She didn’t snub her nose at the tiny budget or harsh shooting conditions or the hell she had to go through to nail the role.

    She paid her dues and got discovered the hard way. Of course once Winter’s Bone (and her Oscar nomination) happened, she was snatched up by CAA and then the strategy begins. She did a couple more high-profile indies (The Beaver, Like Crazy), then a mainstream horror movie, got a supporting role in a huge blockbuster to increase her public profile and bankability (X-Men First Class), then landed a franchise lead role of her own with Hunger Games, which they knew would be huge based on the success of the books (and Twilight). And in the middle of Hunger Games madness, she returns to the smaller side of things to do Silver Linings Playbook.

    And now she has an Oscar, a 4-film franchise, plus a larger role in the next X-Men Days of Future Past, and her pick of any movie, director and co-star she wants.

    It’s actually the same type of career trajectory that Halle Berry attempted. She broke in the hard way, doing small roles and TV jobs, then got supporting roles in bigger movies (Last Boy Scout, Flintstones, Executive Decision), then did a smaller passion project that she felt connected to and loved and fought for (Dorothy Dandridge on HBO), which got her critical acclaim and led to her Oscar-Winning feature role in Monster’s Ball. She capitalized on her success with big roles (but not lead) in major blockbusters to increase her public profile and relatability (X-Men, X2, Die Another Day, Swordfish). And then she got what could have been her own major franchise – Catwoman. And that’s where things went sour. When that went horribly awry, she tried to increase her likability by doing a few thriller/horror movies (Gothika, Perfect Stranger, Dark Tide) – all of which bombed. Her upcoming The Call is tracking softly, and she’s had personal issues in the tabloids. So now she’s trying to reboot her career again, returning to big budget projects like the new X-Men. It just goes to show that it’s all about picking the right projects at the right times.

    Writers can actually learn a great deal from this career path.

    –          Learn, train, practice, grow, move to where the jobs are (if necessary).

    –          Pay your dues and take any writing job you can, even if the money sucks.

    –          Write material (or take roles) that bring out and highlight the natural sides to your voice and personalities (all of them). Something that means a great deal to you. I would suggest smaller, commercial projects (thriller, horror, action, comedy) or really unique indies that show off what you can do. Do not write the billion dollar trilogy franchise action movie FIRST.

    –          Get discovered by an agency or manager who thinks you have promise.

    –          Win a couple contests, maybe option your first project for little money, build a bit of buzz and get whatever exposure you can.

    –          Get discovered by a bigger agency who poaches you from first agent and understands your vision for your career and supports it, while always thinking outside the box.

    –          Be versatile and eclectic and get as many logs in the fire as possible, but never veer from doing what speaks to you.

    –          Write bigger, visual, commercial projects that can sell on a larger scale and that can get packaged within the agency and impresses everyone. Hopefully one gets produced.

    –          Get hired on big rewrites and projects that expand your public profile.

    –          Once it’s paid off and you’re in demand, go back to where you started and do a great indie or drama or project that will gain you critical acclaim and awards.

    –          NOW it’s time to write or adapt that big franchise.

    –          And through the whole time, be collaborative, courteous, courageous, humble and witty. Luckily, writers don’t have to be gorgeous. But never forget that you chose this profession because you love it. Those who choose it for other reasons, don’t last too long.

    While sitting at your computer typing up a new idea, you might not think you have anything in common with my future wife, Jennifer Lawrence. But think again. Because breaking in and igniting a successful career is all about talent, timing and tenacity whether you’re an actor, director, or screenwriter. But it’s also about having that X factor and choosing the right projects and the right people to have your back who can see the bigger picture. And always remember, the material comes first.

  • What You Can Learn from the 2012 Black List Scripts

    December 21st, 2012

    By Danny Manus

    This past week, the heavily publicized 2012 Black List was released. 78 scripts made the list this year, and what an eclectic bunch. Much like the last two years where I’ve analyzed the Black List scripts, this year’s crop raises a number of points, questions and lessons for writers…but perhaps the largest lesson this year’s list can teach us is — Hollywood’s just a popularity contest and no one really knows what the fuck they want.

    And just because something’s well-written does not mean it’s sellable.

    For the last 8 years, the Black List has not just been a barometer of talent, but of trends. It’s been a launching pad for careers – of both writers and reps – and it’s been a great way to discover new voices and praise the voices Hollywood already loved. It’s often been a predictor of what projects would be put into production the following year. And sometimes, it’s been a great way for producers to find awesome commercial projects that didn’t sell on the spec market and give them a second chance.

    I still think reading the Black List scripts is a great way to learn how a great voice can make a project stand out and jump off the page – even if it’s not commercial or original. And it may be a strong indicator of what types of projects agents and managers are attracted to.

    If you’d like to see the full list of scripts, click here – http://www.deadline.com/2012/12/black-list-2012-winners/

    This year, however, it feels much more like a popularity contest than ever before because most of the projects on this list would never get made (even if they did sell), and are simply not commercial in any way. And surprisingly, quite a few feel very cliché – though this may be due to their not-so-great loglines (which are created by The Black List).

    A disgraced cop goes after the serial killer who killed his partner; A teen tries to lose his virginity to the girl of his dreams; A man goes to the wedding of his ex-girlfriend to stop her from getting married; Geeky female high school outcasts decide to get revenge on the bully Queen Bee; After being dumped, a guy’s best friend devises a plan to get him laid by as many women as possible.

    These are the cream of the crop? Really? I’m not saying the concepts aren’t brought out in new ways or with great voices – but these concepts have been done a million times before.

    While it is executives and assistants who vote on these scripts, my guess is that these same execs PASSED on the script when it crossed their desk. Sure, they loved the writing and wished they could have gotten them made – but they couldn’t. They couldn’t sell them.  How do I know? Because if they could’ve….they’d be sold.

    Only about 50 of the 78 scripts listed have a producer attached, which is a lower number than previous years. And keep in mind, having a producer attached does not mean the producer will be able to get the project made. It just means it’s in development. Only about 25 of the scripts actually have financing (or companies that finance) behind them.

    The reason this year’s Black List scripts are such a paradox and hard to learn from is because they break all the rules. From formatting to voiceovers to genre to period to types of characters to page counts to rights issues…this year’s scripts broke all the rules.

    But keep in mind, ALL of the writers who made the Black List already have great agents and/or managers behind them and many of the writers have been produced, sold or optioned before.  The writer of the #1 (“Draft Day”) has even won a Pulitzer. So for the most part, these aren’t novice writers. But sometimes, the key to having a voice that screams from the page…is breaking some of the rules.

    The biggest rule broken, however, was subject matter and genre. For the last few years, anyone will tell you that the number one genre that is impossible to sell – is drama! And period dramas? Fuhgedaboutit.

    Yet of the 78 scripts on the list, well over 20 are straight dramas (not including dramedies) and almost 25 are period pieces (not including scripts set in the future).

    Also interesting to note – there are way more male protagonist stories than female on the list, and almost all of the female protagonists are either slutty or total basket-cases or overwhelmed mothers dealing with death. The only two real exceptions are the Hilary Rodham Clinton story “Rodham,” and “The Keeping Room” which is about 3 southern women who defend their home from the Union Army while their husbands are fighting in the Civil War.

    Here’s my full breakdown for those interested –

    –          23 period pieces (non-future)

    –          19 titles that start with ‘THE’

    –          11 True Stories

    –          9 Sci-fi scripts

    –          8 Small-town stories with large personal/emotional stakes

    –          6 Straight comedy or Romcom scripts (not including dramedies or mix-genres)

    –          6 Stories based on well-known real life people

    –          5 Projects based on already existing intellectual property

    –          5 Projects with veterans or soldiers as protagonists

    –          3 Political stories

    –          3 Projects with characters dying of cancer

    –          2 Sports stories (including the #1 script on the list)

    –          2 Handicapped main characters (mentally or physically)

    –          …And a partridge in a pear tree.

    While the Black List has always been – and still is – a great deal about “voice,” it used to ALSO be about scripts that COULD sell and get made, but just haven’t yet. Much of this year’s crop, however, lacks the high concept, pitchable quality of projects of yore.

    If you still don’t believe that The Black List has become a popularity contest that agents, managers and their assistants lobby (heavily) for, think about this –

    72 of the 78 scripts are rep’d by the 6 Major Agencies.

    40 of the scripts (that’s more than half) come from the same 9 management companies.

    Luckily, The Black List is no longer the only barometer of great unmade specs. The last couple years, there has also been The Blood List (for genre films), The Brit List, The Spec Scout Top 10 List and The Hit List, which comes from TheTrackingBoard.com.

    Despite both Spec Scout and Hit List predicting that their top scripts would also land at the top of the Black List…that wasn’t the case. Only 30 of the 84 scripts on the Hit List made the Black List as well, and only 3 of the Top 10 matched. Only 4 of the scripts on the Blood List made the Black List (the only 4 genre scripts that made it). And only 3 of the Spec Scout’s Top 10 scripts even made the Black List at all.

    This would indicate that the voters for Black List are a bit more snobby about their favorite material than those voting for other lists. It’s like the difference between the Nicholls judges and the Page Award judges.  Reading through the other scripts on The Hit List, voters clearly preferred more commercial and genre projects. And there are TWICE as many industry voters for the Hit List as the Black List.

    No matter what list you’re reading, the important part is that you’re reading tons of scripts. Whether they teach you what to do – or what not to do – reading scripts that are getting attention and praise in Hollywood can help improve your story skills and instincts and help you develop your own voice that perhaps will land you at the top of one of these lists next year.

  • Writing Yourself Out of a Hole

    September 24th, 2012

    By Danny Manus

    There’s an old story I’m tweaking slightly for our purposes that goes…

    A screenwriter is walking down the street and falls into a deep hole and can’t get out.

    A Director comes by and the screenwriter yells, “Hey, I’ve fallen into this hole and I can’t get out. Can you help me?”

    The Director throws a camera down the hole and says, “I can’t get you out, but if you film your journey, I can make it a movie.” And he moves on.

    Then an Executive Producer comes by and the screenwriter yells, “Hey, I’ve fallen into this hole and I can’t get out. Can you help me?”

    The Exec Producer takes out his wallet and throws a bunch of money down the hole and says “I can’t get you out, but if you figure out the way, I’ll pay for it.” And he moves on.

    Finally, a fellow screenwriter passes by and the writer in the hole yells out, “Hey, I’ve fallen into this hole and I can’t get out. Can you help me?”

    And the second Screenwriter jumps down into the hole with him. The first writer turns to him and says, “Well that was stupid, now we’re both trapped in this hole.”

    And the second screenwriter says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down in this hole before and I know the way out.”

    Writers write themselves into holes all the time. But the sign of a truly great writer is being able to write yourself out of it. And let me tell you, more than 80% of writers – can’t.

    Writing yourself into a hole usually happens when you haven’t planned, plotted, outlined or done character exercises before starting to write. Writing yourself out of one usually happens either when you get stuck and you’re not sure what should come next, or after you’ve started rewriting and you (or someone else) begin to find tons of plot holes and unanswered questions.

    If you have left a ton of unanswered questions from not outlining, then it’s like you’ve jumped into that hole and crossed your fingers, hoping everyone would just keep walking and not notice.  But why would you want to stay down in that hole instead of figuring a way out?

    And I’m guilt of this myself. On the conspiracy thriller script I was hired to write, I had a rough treatment going in, but the person who hired me and had written the treatment forgot one major part…the conspiracy. So, we knew where the story started and we knew where it ended and we knew a few of the major moments and action in the middle. But I started writing before I really nailed down how the conspiracy was going to come together or how everyone was exactly connected and what the pieces of evidence were that would ultimately expose said conspiracy… And guess what…I wrote myself into a hole. I had killed a character that I realized could have been the key. I had created a conflict that caused a major plot hole before I had thought of a solution. And I didn’t know exactly how to pace the conspiracy so it would make sense but not reveal too much, too soon. And the hole began to get deeper.

    So when you find that a question is unanswered and a plot hole has formed, instead of continuing on the same road hoping the hole disappears, here are some of the major things to think about and examine to go back and cement that hole and keep your story moving.

    –          Set Ups – I dare say that 60% of all plot holes and story issues exist because the writer has failed to set up something earlier on that would help explain it all. A set up doesn’t always have to be a big extravagant moment – it can be a quick line or quick shot of off-color comment, but that we will connect later on to what’s happening. If your character has to know how to climb a mountain in order to escape her situation in the climax and you’ve never set this up that she knows how – you’ve written yourself into a hole. But instead of going back and inserting many scenes of her climbing, you could just show us pictures of her doing this in the first act or show us mountain climbing ropes and gear in her car, etc. It’s all about set ups, but it doesn’t always means retooling your whole story.

    –          Motivations – Look at why you’re characters are there, doing what they’re doing, and why (and if) it’s important to them, what they have to accomplish and why (what happens if they don’t accomplish it?). You may find that your hole has been created because your characters are doing something unnecessary or not set up as being important to them. If your characters are only doing something because YOU need them to in order for other things to make sense, then you may be writing yourself deeper into a hole.

    –          Locations – Look at where the action (and the hole) is taking place. Do your characters have to be here or is there an easier way? Is it a location that makes sense to the story and action taking place? If it feels like your characters are just pinging back and forth between different locations, is there a way to condense them so your story won’t feel confusing or scenes won’t seem unnecessary? But also, do your locations give you enough opportunities for action or scares or comedy and afford you the visuals you need to make your scenes work without forcing it? If not, you may want to think about changing your locations.

    –          Coincidences – If big moments in your script (more than 1 or 2) only occur because of coincidences taking place, then your plot is not strong enough and you will be writing yourself into a hole. If “coincidence” is the only explanation for your action, you’re not outlining enough. Go back and think of other ways or reasons why that “thing” could occur or bring your characters to where “it” occurs.

    –          Brainstorming – It’s all about thinking about different ways to obtain the same result. If your character has to get into a house without being heard, think of 5 ways for him to do so. Always give yourself options and see which one makes the most sense for your set ups, your characters and your purpose. Ask other people if you need to.

    –          Streamlining – Very often holes are created because you’re trying to do too much with your plot or action or you’re working too many characters into the plot because you think it will keep things interesting. Streamlining your story and only including plot points, subplots and characters that advance the important storylines and arcs of your protagonist will ensure that you don’t write yourself into unnecessary holes.

    –          Common Sense – When all else fails, follow an old adage that always holds true – KEEP IT SIMPLE, STUPID. If you find that your characters are trapped in a situation or have to do something and they don’t know how to, just use common sense. Think about what YOU would do to get out of that situation – then make it visual.

    So many writers try to get all complex and intricate with their conspiracies or their action or even small innocuous things – like getting through a front door.  But sometimes you don’t have to wire a tree to break a window to signal the dog to chase the cat to jump on a bookshelf to knock over a lamp to ignite a fire to burn the door down…Sometimes you can just turn the fucking doorknob and walk inside.

    There are so many holes that writers can find themselves trapped in – don’t let it be one you’ve created for yourself. And if you do find yourself looking up from that position, don’t be afraid to ask others who have been there for help.

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