February 23rd, 2017
Hey there! Welcome to my slightly late February Newsletter. I hope all your writing goals are being met and you are working hard at advancing your projects and stories because it’s an exciting time in Hollywood.
Two weeks ago in Los Angeles, I attended a panel of all 9 of this year’s Oscar Nominated Screenwriters as they answered questions about their careers and their nominated films. And through their anecdotes and stories, I gleamed a number helpful quotes, tips and advice that I wanted to share with you.
Writing is Rewriting and sometimes it takes Years. Half the nominated writers wrote dozens and dozens of drafts of their script. The other half said they wrote only 3-5 drafts but over many years. There is no one process, but no script is ever done after draft 2. Tarell Alvin McRaney (Moonlight) wrote only 3 drafts of the original script but over 10 years. Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea) said his first draft took 8 months, the second draft took 2 years, the third draft was the production draft.
Put your character in a crisis of identity. The main character in each of these films faced an identity crisis in some way. Many of them reshaped the world they’re in to fit their needs or goals and find themselves. What are YOUR characters doing to find themselves and do they face a crisis of self in your story? How ingrained into your story is your character’s very identity?
“Writing (and character journeys) is about finding your true authentic self” — Mike Mills (20th Century Women)
“By unsuppressing things he held on to for so long, he was able to achieve his goals and find his identity.” — Luke Davies (Lion) on his main character played by Dev Patel.
Write who you are. Know why YOU are the only writer who could tell that story the right way. Allison Schroeder was a scientist at NASA before she was a screenwriter, so co-writing Hidden Figures was her destiny. It was also a writing assignment she got BECAUSE of her experience. Allison said, “It’s okay to be a woman and love dresses and heels and lipstick and also love math and science and want to be a screenwriter.” Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester) said, “Any good screenplay can only be written by THAT writer.”
“Understand the tone of what you’re trying to say.” And what your characters are trying to say. — Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water)
“Where’s the fun?” — Kenneth Lonergan. Know the fun of your story, your concept, your pitch. What is the entertainment factor of your story? If you cannot define that, why would anyone want to read or watch it?
When/If you feel you’re lost or ruined everything, put it into the creative. As I wrote in my own mantra in a newsletter about two years ago – write your way out. Desperation breeds achievement if you can channel it correctly. “Get out your last F*CK! and go do something.” — Eric Heisserer (Arrival).
Give yourself an inspirational and isolating place to write. Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) went to Brussells and shut out the internet.
Every success story comes on the heels of horrible failure stories. Allison Schroeder gave 44 pitches around town and no one bought anything. Her manager literally told her ‘I can’t get you hired.’ Taylor Sheridan was unable to pay rent when his girlfriend told him she was pregnant, so he started writing and didn’t stop. Eric Heisserer had two options die and his manager leave the business all in the same 45 days. Then he landed on the Blacklist. So, each failure brings you closer to success.
When stuck on an emotional scene, ask yourself – what’s the conversation you wish you could have with your parent and/or child? That will usually get the emotional and honesty faucet turning.
On Procrastination – “Procrastination is normal, if not inspirational.” Only ONE of the writers on the panel (Barry Jenkins) said he does not procrastinate. Everyone immediately hated him. He said his procrastination IS writing – he writes other things to get him in the mood to write the thing he needs to write. But every single other person on the panel confessed to “researching” for hours a day. Whether it’s creating playlists, setting the mood, cleaning the house, watching favorite films or TV series, clearing the DVR, driving around endlessly, etc. It’s normal. You’re not alone.
“I procrastinate by being depressed. I just recede from everything.” — Mike Mills
Luke Davies loves to read Poetry because it “puts you in touch with the primal linguistic energies of existence.”
“I do nothing as often and as intensely as possible. Procrastination is life.” — Kenneth Lonergan
“You have the right to write about anything you care about…If you care about it, others probably will too.”
— Kenneth Lonergan. True, however, you need to be budget and demographic conscious. If you know it would only appeal to a small demographic, then your budget needs to reflect that.
If you’re ever searching for story ideas, read the NY Times obituaries. Read incredible life struggles and stories and apply it to your own work. “Always go to the truth and your research” — Allison Schroeder
I hope these inspiring and talented writers help you on your journey to success, and I hope I can help you as well!
December 18th, 2015
By Danny Manus
I’m sure you’ve heard it said that screenwriting is a marathon, not a sprint. But in truth…it’s both. And sometimes it’s not the first step OR the last step that’s most important, but those treacherous steps in the middle as you make the run from aspiring screenwriter to professional.
As a script consultant and writing coach, many of my clients are at a sensitive juncture in their writing career. They’ve written their first scripts – and perhaps their second, third or fourth as well. They’ve gotten feedback, they’ve rewritten, they’ve polished, they’ve submitted to prestigious contests and they finally get the email they’ve been waiting for… They’re a contest finalist or maybe even the big winner!
They have beaten out thousands of other aspiring writers and have won the grand prize of whatever prestigious contest it might be.
This is the question that so many writers don’t know how to answer and because of that, either they don’t know how to capitalize on it OR they try to capitalize when they’re not actually ready and end up screwing their chance.
First things first. If you were lucky enough to win a major contest with your first script, that’s amazing. But you need to go write your second one before you start contacting agents. Yes, you can start querying and calling production companies with your contest-winning script but while you’re doing that, ride that wave of motivation to write and finish your next script!
Next, look at the contest you won. You should be entering contests that afford you opportunities to get read and make in-roads to industry connections. So, if those contests promise to send your script to X companies, then that’s your next step.
You want to capitalize on whatever buzz or momentum you can muster in this business. So, if there are social media announcements about how you’re the big winner – use that! But don’t just rely on the contest to do the work for you. Start making phone calls and your first sentence is “Hi, I just found out I beat out 4,500 other writers to be this year’s grand prize winner of Script Pipeline (for example), and I am currently looking for representation. I’d love to talk to you about my script.”
But before you start calling every manager, agent and production company out there about that first contest win, you need to know a few things that no one else will tell you…
1. If you won (or were a finalist in) a TV contest with a spec of an existing show, managers and producers don’t care as much because they can’t sell that script. And every single rep you call will say, “Great, do you have an original pilot you can send?” They may want to read your spec ALSO, but they will definitely ask for an original. If your answer is no, then your win doesn’t really mean anything except it should give you a big vote of confidence to start writing your original pilots!
If you won with a spec for an existing series, and you DO have other original pilots that are completed, polished and ready to go, then use your existing spec win as leverage to get reps or producers to read your original pilot. Call about the win, but have the pitch for your original series ready for that call. You should absolutely mention the contest win in your query letter, but your query should be for your original pilot. Leverage the spec win to get the read of your original. It will mean much more.
2. If you won (or were a finalist in) a TV contest with an original pilot, and you have an additional writing sample already completed, polished and ready to go – then start querying, calling, emailing, and try to use any executives who read your script as part of the prize to see if they would recommend you to any of their rep friends. Create a buzz about your win even if the contest doesn’t.
3. If you won a contest or film festival with a SHORT film or Web Series, you need to know what you’re calling places for. Are you calling places to help distribute your short? Are you querying because you shot the first episode of a web series and are looking for funding for the rest? Do you have a vision (or a script) for the full feature based on your short and you’re hoping someone wants to develop that with you? Are you calling because you’re a writer/director and want to find representation as a multi-hyphenate? You need to know why you’re calling and how to pitch yourself and your project, as each of the aforementioned goals would require a different type of pitch or query.
If you’re promoting a short or web series, create a strong social media platform and following to prove that your contest or film festival win isn’t just a lark, but that there is real support brewing for this idea. Use that platform to your advantage as proof of concept. If you were ONLY the writer on the short (as opposed to also directing or producing), chances are that’s not enough to get anyone to read you unless it’s a script for the feature version of the short that won.
4. If you won one of those top contests with a feature script, strike while the iron is hot. Know where you are in your career and what that next goal is for you. If you only have the 1 script and 1 idea, then your best bet is going to be contacting producers because they don’t care (as much) about how many other scripts you have. If they love that one, that’s all you need. If you have more than 1 finished script or at least 1 finished (winning) script and a bunch of other fleshed out ideas, then try querying and contacting managers.
If you have at least 2-3 finished, polished and semi-commercial scripts, then you can also contact agents. Go to pitchfests and use online pitch services if you can’t get to execs or reps any other way.
But again – know where YOU are in the process. And don’t get discouraged if your contest win doesn’t lead to fame and fortune – most don’t. It’s the writers who know how to capitalize on the win and follow-up on a win with their NEXT great script, that usually break out.
Winning a prestigious contest is a great step in your career – but it’s basically step 20 out of the 100 steps you need to take. The upside is that you’re now one giant step ahead of all the other writers who are still trying to win. Be excited and proud for your accomplishment! But then focus on your 21st step. You need to be aggressive, but realistic. Productive, and entrepreneurial. And above all…keep writing!
Because that next step is a doozy.
November 11th, 2015
By Danny Manus
There’s always a sharp adjustment period after I return from Austin Film Fest every year. And not just for my liver. It’s a constant whirlwind event for 5 days – and not just because of the Tornado that almost hit this year! There’s so much to take in – it’s wall to wall panels, parties and people! If you have never been, I highly recommend it!
This year, I was back teaching the Pitch Prep seminar alongside Pixar executive Emily Zulauf, as well as judging the early rounds. And I got to moderate a great panel on pitching as well.
While extreme weather and falling on Halloween certainly affected this year’s events, there was still a huge amount of learning and networking to experience.
My favorite panels that I saw were Phil Rosenthal’s interview with the legendary Norman Lear, who at 93 is every bit as sharp, hilarious and inspirational as he ever has been; the conversation between action heroes Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, Long Kiss Goodnight) and Jeb Stuart (Die Hard, The Fugitive); Michael Arndt’s (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3) course on Endings; the TV/Film Crossover convo between Justin Marks (Jungle Book) and Amy Berg (DaVinci’s Demons); and my own panel on the art of pitching with Chad and Carey Hayes (The Conjuring, San Andreas).
From all the panels I heard, as well as the pitching competition this year, there were some clear lessons, tips and quotes I want to share with all of you who couldn’t make it that will hopefully help you on your writing journey.
1. The greatest writers in the world all think Structure and Formatting is important. There are a few consultants and writers out there spouting about how structure is killing creativity and how having a beat sheet or using three-act structure isn’t necessary. And maybe it isn’t. But, when I hear writers like Michael Arndt, Brian Helgeland, Jeb Stuart and Terry Rossio touting the importance of specific structure, it’s clear those who don’t believe are in a vast minority. Even those who hate structure – still love structure. They just call it something else. You can look at structure from your character’s POV or thru visual beats or emotional beats – but it’s all structure. And it’s all important.
2. “At the moment of (true) commitment, the universe conspires to ensure your success.” – Norman Lear on becoming successful and what it takes. “We all walk in on the shoulders of others.” – Norman Lear.
3. “The big difference between action and suspense – suspense is cheaper.” (Jeb Stuart) He also said (and I’m paraphrasing): Action is when something exciting happens that the character and audience both experience. Suspense is when the audience knows something the character doesn’t and we’re not sure when or how they will discover it. For example, action is a bomb exploding. Suspense is seeing there’s a ticking bomb under the table and the character doesn’t know. Then finding ways to build the tension of that moment.
4. Humanizing your characters is about laying foundation with those small clues and moments early on that give us insight into them and connect us in some way. (Angela Kang, writer/Exec Producer, The Walking Dead)
5. When Die Hard was being developed, Joel Silver told Shane Black, “You have to blow up the top of the building!” Because if you don’t, you’re teasing the audience too much and audiences don’t want to be teased at the end of an action movie.
6. Insanely great endings are positive, surprising, and most of all – meaningful. There’s an emotional release, a new look on the world, and meaningful emotion… Always ask yourself – what’s at stake? And look at the External, the Internal, and the Philosophical (paraphrasing Michael Arndt in his Endings class).
7. “The connectors kill your script. They are what cause the lulls,” Shane Black said. He is referring to the exposition-filled PLANNING scenes where it’s just characters talking about what they are going to do or how they’re going to do it.
8. Good action scenes advance the plot. Never hit pause on your story to include action – it should be part of the story. (Angela Kang) And if you imbed the story in the action, then it can’t be cut for budgetary reasons later on. (Jeb Stuart)
9. In terms of pitching, TV was king this year. Two years ago, the pitch competition was about 60/40 in favor of film. Last year, it was 50/50. This year, it was about 70% TV pitches! And to that end, the WINNERS the last two years were TV series pitches.
10. When you pitch producers, pitch the External. When you pitch actors, pitch the Internal.
11. Have your pitch down. The winner this year had her pitch down so perfectly, she did not get ONE note in her preliminary judging session OR the finale. Her TV Comedy series pitch had everything one should have; a funny concept, likable characters and a strong entrée into the world, clear conflict, it wasn’t just a great pilot but a strong series, and she had great one-liners with perfect word choice, rhythm and cadence to the pitch. And she was unshakable. She knew her story and pitch so well a room full of drunken peers and three A-List writers judging her couldn’t shake her. That’s how you pitch!
12. “It took every moment of your life to get right here. And every second of mine.” – Norman Lear.
October 26th, 2015
By Danny Manus
SPOILER ALERT: The subsequent article and review includes spoilers from Steve Jobs. However, if you read the book or know anything about him, then there’s nothing really to be surprised about. It’s not like there’s some big reveal or twist ending. He created the Mac. There’s the big twist. I’m just saying Spoiler Alert so people don’t get pissed at me.
Let me preface this by saying I was really looking forward to this film. So much so, I waited to see it on my birthday as a special treat to myself. Danny Boyle, Aaron Sorkin, and an amazing cast?
I was so IN.
But while I wanted to love it, I’m not surprised this film bombed this weekend because despite a few emotionally strong moments, some wonderful performances, and a musical score that told a better story than the script did, the movie left me wanting much more and caring much less about Steve Jobs than I did going into the film. And I don’t even HAVE a mac or an iPhone. Or an iPad. Or any apple products actually. And now I really don’t want one.
The biggest issue with Steve Jobs’ life as a film is that while it carries a universal message everyone can understand in its tale of redemption for the modern age, it’s incredibly hard to connect with the man himself or anyone in his life including his long-suffering partner Joanna Hoffman (played by Kate Winslet, who does a stunningly subtle accent) who is half-martyr and half long-suffering spinster one can only assume stuck around for the boatload of cash.
It’s no wonder producers needed to bring on a writer like Aaron Sorkin, who employs his rapid-fire witty banter with reckless abandon throughout every scene. But while there is no bigger Sorkinite than myself, his cadence, references and relentless attention to word-perfect detail is so overpowering in the story that it starts to feel like this is really the story of Steve Sorkin. Because as far as I can tell from other clips, TV appearances and other’s accounts…Steve Jobs didn’t speak like Joshua Lyman or Toby Zeigler or Will McAvoy. But to be fair, if the voice of Steve Jobs actually WAS used instead of Mr. Sorkin’s, this movie would have put everyone to sleep within 15 minutes.
Because there is no story here. At least not one presented. A guy tries, a guy fails, a guy tries again, and he becomes a hit. And along the way he pisses people off cause he’s pretty much a douchebag of the highest regard. Sure, it exemplifies at the highest of levels how one can fail a million times in spectacular fashion yet still rise from the ashes to change the world – as long as you’re white, brilliant and have $500 Million. But I’m pretty sure one can argue he’s also the reason our society is now so fundamentally flawed, and the curtain isn’t really pulled back enough to show us anything we didn’t already know.
The wrap-around story of Jobs and his daughter is compelling in the first act, but when a man of science can’t accept a 94% chance that he’s the father, and is still tentative around her five and ten years later despite it being HAMMERED into us that he IS the father, it starts feeling like a bad episode of Maury Povich. And for me, the human side of Steve Jobs isn’t his estranged relationship with his daughter or his climactic realization that he needs to put her first. It’s his fear of failure in achieving his dream to change the world and the consequences of that.
Instead of trying to bring Steve down to earth, he should’ve seemed even closer to the sun so we could see the affects each time he’s singed by failure. What happened to him, personally, after each crushing defeat he endured? We don’t really find out. We don’t get the secret sauce that created the legend or the true impact of what happened when Apple fell.
Each scene, much like any page Sorkin has ever written, has a very clear rhythm to it. It’s a sonnet unto itself. And within each scene, the music so clearly underlines the beats of the beginning, the middle, and the end to each interaction between each character. There is a constant musical crescendo in each scene desperately trying to make us believe that the mundane and meaningless tiffs the characters REPEATEDLY have are something much more important with stakes that deserve a full orchestra building the moment.
The problem is…they don’t.
None of the conversations actually ARE that important and it’s seemingly the same repeated sequence 3 or 4 times for over 90 minutes. After each time jump, the story plays catch up and then Jobs speaks to the same 5 characters almost in the same exact order rehashing the same argument in each act. And Danny Boyle’s colorful and frenetic transitions between scenes and time jumps might be visual, as they were in The Beach, 127 Hours, and 28 Days Later, but they don’t tell a story and quite frankly feel unnatural to the one being told here.
Michael Fassbender does a lovely job, but it isn’t until he puts on the black turtleneck that I really started to see him as Jobs, and that’s 50 minutes in. Rogen, Winslet, and especially Jeff Daniels have pitch perfect moments in the story (Daniels is equally as good in The Martian and is pretty much guaranteed at least 1 Oscar nom), but it isn’t enough.
I know I may be in the minority here and cinephiles may look at Steve Jobs and see a masterfully told biopic. But for me, all it did was make me curious about that OTHER Steve Jobs film and make me happy I’m still typing away on my PC.
September 1st, 2015
By New Writer on Message Board
Hey guys, thanks for accepting me into your Facebook group. I’m new to screenwriting though I’ve read at least two books on it. Well, almost two books. And I read at least 3 scripts last year which I think really prepared me for my new writing endeavor, but I could use some guidance because…
I just wrote a complete sentence and I think I really have something here.
I know it’s not much yet but it took me 4 months and I think in the right hands, it has huge commercial potential and could sell. It’s certainly better than most of the crap Hollywood is churning out these days, which I can’t stand. It’s like there’s no originality anymore, right? I only want to write my own original thoughts. But I thought I’d ask you all for feedback and advice before I start sending it to production companies and agents.
Be brutal – but kind. Because this is the first thing I’ve ever written – or at least the first thing I’m willing to show anyone – and I think it’s a pretty great sentence. Here goes –
“No one else could possibly imagine the tortured pain he felt inside after she drove away.”
What do you think? I’m really proud of it. I think it conveys a new type of character that’s never been seen and some deep emotion. I heard stories are all about internal conflict.
But since I’m new to screenwriting, I was just wondering a few things. I hope you can answer my questions and help find me the success I know this sentence deserves.
I heard Tarantino once wrote a sentence and it was bought for a million dollars. I’m not saying this sentence is as good as Tarantino’s of course, but who knows?
First, do you think I should capitalize any other words in my sentence? I’m pretty sure I read that the first letter in a sentence should be capitalized in screenplays, but am I getting the format right? Should I capitalize DROVE since it’s a verb? Or PAIN so that the reader really knows what I’m going for?
Second, I was thinking of Morgan Freeman when I wrote this sentence. I just think he’s brilliant and would really get it, ya know? Do you think he would be interested? And does anyone know how I could call his agent and send it to him?
I heard that you should register everything you write. How do I go about registering my sentence? When I send it out, should I put the registration number under the sentence?
How would you suggest I pitch this sentence? Should I read the whole sentence or just part of it and let execs ask questions about the rest? Should I send blind queries for it, and if so, would it help if I tell the execs that I’m currently working on the next sentence so that they know I really have a vision and I’m a hard worker who won’t give up until I’ve written a whole paragraph?
Do you think agents will like my sentence? Do you know any I could email about it? I know CAA is the biggest, but I’m thinking maybe ICM would respond more favorably?
In case you’re interested or know any investors, I also just launched a GoFundMe campaign so that people can donate to this project. Anyone who sends over $10 gets a personally written copy of the sentence. And a producer credit when it gets made. Please tell your friends!
Hey, guess what? I just bought a $45 online pitch session. I was told all I need is an idea, but luckily I have way more than that with my sentence so I think the exec will be impressed. How many writers do you know that have optioned their sentence? Does it happen often? How long should I wait to follow up on the pitch of my sentence?
That brings up another point – if my sentence gets optioned, should I move to LA? How much money do you think I should expect for the option of my sentence? I’m not looking for much, I’d rather just get my foot in the door. But if I move to LA, I’m going to need that sentence option money to get me through.
Oh shit, guys! I just read my sentence in another script that has already sold. But I’m pretty sure I thought of this sentence years ago before that script sold or was even written. I can’t believe someone would take my sentence and put it in their own script. I really feel like this sentence means more coming from me than it does in this other guy’s script. I think I’m gonna sue…
Does anyone know a good entertainment lawyer who will work for free until the settlement money comes in? I know it’s gonna be huge.
June 22nd, 2015
By Danny Manus @Dannymanus
Last week, a reviewer on Thrillist ranked all 54 HBO shows from worst to greatest. Upon reading this list, quite a number of things rushed into my mind. First – wow, HBO has had that many shows? Second – wow, I watch a lot of TV. Like, way too much TV. Though to be fair there were a few I had not seen and perhaps 2 I hadn’t even heard of. And third – wow, this guy who ranked these shows is kinda wrong on a bunch of ‘em. In my opinion.
Here’s a link to the original post – http://www.thrillist.com/entertainment/nation/best-hbo-show-greatest-hbo-show-of-all-time
So, I did what any self-respecting TV Whore with an extra 4 hours would do… I’ve made my own rebuttal list of the Top 51 HBO Shows of All Time. There were three shows – Generation Kill, The Pacific and John Adams – that the original poster included that I have discounted because they were mini-series and shouldn’t really count because that opens up a whole other can of worms. But other than that…here’s my list…
51. The High Life – Yeah, I never heard of it either.
50. Angry Boys – Didn’t remember this one either but it only lasted one season in 2011 apparently.
49. Family Tree – Not even Chris O’Dowd could save this boring comedy with uninteresting low stakes.
48. Doll and Em – Apparently Emily Mortimer did an HBO series before The Newsroom and this was it. For 8 episodes.
47. Summer Heights High – Chris Lilley as a girl in a private school. Mockingly humorous at times, but I’d rather watch Amy Sedaris.
46. John From Cincinnati – Ed O’Neill, Luke Perry, Rebecca De Mornay in an existential show with surfing. It lasted a season. I lasted the pilot.
45. Tell Me You Love Me – Great cast, but the three couples were so whiny it quickly became the whitest show on HBO at a time when they were ALL white. It was In Treatment without the actual issues.
44. Mind of the Married Man – Mike Binder doing his best Paul Reiser/Brian BenBen impression. Was amusing and introduced us to the ridiculously gorgeous Ivana Milicevic and likable Sonya Walger, but it turns out we already know what’s in the mind of married men…tits and sadness.
43. How to Make It in America – 20 somethings in NY. Hmmm…where have I heard this before? I feel bad that Lake Bell has to keep this on her resume.
42. Life’s Too Short – A mockumentary with Ricky Gervais and Warwick Davis, the original Leprechaun. Had some memorable, virally funny scenes but not enough for the show to rank higher.
41. Hello Ladies – There’s something wonderfully, painfully awkward watching Stephen Merchant do anything – especially try to get laid in LA. Again, some great stand out scenes but a limited concept that went nowhere.
40. In Treatment – I remember liking the first season or two, and then it all going to shit. Was perhaps the first drama to keep the concept and just trade its cast in every season save Gabriel Byrne, but it got too melodramatic. And made me hate my own therapist.
39. Looking – Despite the last 4 episodes of Season 2 finally getting good, this show was boring, unsexy, and confused from the start with characters I never cared about. It was Queer as Folk if the whole cast had just been that one unsexy, white, boring, hipster dude who didn’t have a storyline or arc. When the straight woman is the BEST character…there’s some problems with your gay guy show.
38. Enlightened – I get that Mike White is a genius, and created a great role for Laura Dern, but I couldn’t even make it to the end of Season 1. As the original post stated – I never felt compelled to watch the next episode.
37. K Street – Political junkies like me and people who enjoy watching Carville and Matalin fight, loved it. But it wasn’t enough to save this slightly fictionalized show about real politics.
36. Dream On – It was a trailblazer in many ways. So much so that I forgot it was on HBO. It was also one of the first shows I saw that had nudity, which was big for me at the time. Brian BenBen and that yappy blonde chick were a nice combo and it was a visually interesting show that did cutaways before they were popular.
35. Flight of the Conchords – I realize my placement of this show is one that will anger many, but I truly just disliked it. I appreciate a couple of the songs, but I just didn’t enjoy the style of comedy or its cast.
34. Luck – It’s a shame what happened to this show because it had great potential. But hey, ya kill a few horses and your luck runs out.
33. Lucky Louie – A show ahead of its time, but it was my first experience with Louis CK, Pamela Adlon and Jim Norton and I loved every low-budget, white trash, overly sexualized, awkward moment.
32. No 1. Ladies Detective Agency – Honestly, I watched the pilot and didn’t get much further because it wasn’t a show for my demographic (read: white male under 30 at the time), but it was original and had some much needed diversity and solid performances from people you didn’t think were actors.
31. Bored to Death – It takes a certain type to truly “get” Jason Schwartzman and what this show tried to do, and I think there were a couple brilliant episodes but the show gets lost in the mix.
30. Rome – It wasn’t my type of show, but it was grand and as the original article poster described it – X-Rated Masterpiece Theater. I’m not gonna try to do better.
29. Carnivale – Much like the original article writer, I appreciate this show for its production design, deep messages and originality, but I never made it to the end of the first season. It gets placement at #29 because I know many other people really liked it and it was a cult hit.
28. Getting On – This show took a while to find its groove and to find the funny in old people dying and the purposeful unlikableness of the characters, but Laurie Metcalf, Alex Borstein and the cast were so good and as it built to its conclusion, much like Grandma, I wanted it to stay around a bit longer.
27. Hung – A one-note show about a one-note character. I like Thomas Jane and Jane Adams, who stole most of the show, and it had its funny moments with the pimps. But it just never hung in there. See what I did there?
26. Eastbound and Down – This is the OTHER show whose placement I know people will argue. I like Danny McBride. I just never enjoyed Kenny Powers. I will say there are some hilarious episodes and lines in this show, and it had about one season of brilliance but the story went too over the top for me.
25. The Leftovers – This show has room to grow still, and the powerful performances by Justin Theroux, the wonderful Carrie Coon and the powerhouse Ann Dowd highlighted a magnificent and compelling CONCEPT, but the backstory episode which came about 10 Episodes in should have been episode 2 and then the series would’ve made much more sense. Its dark nature wasn’t the problem – the problem was that every time we thought it was finally getting somewhere, it didn’t. It got way better in the last 3 episodes, but man it was a chore getting there. But those 3 actor’s performances made it easier. And I’m curious about Season 2.
24. Arli$$ – Another show just slightly before its time which probably paved the way for Entourage, plus it gave us a young Sandra Oh. Sure, it probably wouldn’t hold up now and I haven’t seen it in 15+ years, but I remember it fondly. Arliss was the original Ari.
23. Togetherness – I love this show. But it’s so new I couldn’t really rank it any higher. I’ll watch anything the Duplass Brothers do, and Melanie Lynskey and Amanda Peet are pretty fearless. Steve Zissis redefines the shlubby best friend role and almost feels like the lead at times as his love story with Peet’s character was far more interesting than the married couple. If you didn’t see season 1, go watch it.
22. The Newsroom – My love/hate relationship with this show runs deep. I bow at the altar of Aaron Sorkin, but found myself tweeting all the regurgitated lines from West Wing, Sports Night, and Studio 60 after each episode of the first season. The pilot was brilliant…then it wasn’t. It was flawed structurally, and in its timeline of real news events. The second season got better, sort of. Watching Sam Waterston and Jane Fonda fight was fun, though Olivia Munn might have been my favorite character on the show. There were episodes I loved but I guess my expectations were too high because of his previous shows and this one just fell short of them. I still love you, Aaron…
21. Big Love – No one does psycho Mormons like HBO. Except for Utah. I loved this show for the first few seasons, but it just went off the rails in a crazy way. I never saw the last 2 seasons (I cancelled my HBO for about 2 years), but this was a groundbreaking show in many ways and it made Ginnifer Goodwin a bigger star and somehow made Chloe Sevigny less insane, which is hard to do.
20. Girls – The only HBO show that I look forward to hate-watching. It’s not really groundbreaking, it’s not really interesting, it’s not really sexy. It has moments of insightful brilliance in the writing, it is somewhat relatable for middle class, artistic, lost, white, Generation Y-ers in New York City, and Adam Driver is the biggest TV revelation of the decade in my opinion. But this show would be way more interesting if it was called BOYS and if someone lit the female supporting cast on fire. Yet, I still watch.
19. The Comeback – I don’t think I fully appreciated the intelligence and comedy of the first run of this show, and it took a few episodes of the rebooted season for me to care, but it got there. Kudrow does seem stuck playing the same type of character with the same nasal annoying voice over and over, but Valerie Cherish’s arc this season was something so enjoyable and satisfying to watch.
18. Treme – Brilliant look at a city that’s sometimes hard to watch. Great performances, inspired music, a great feel and setting, though it always seemed too preachy for me and is not in the top 2 of David Simon’s best shows.
17. True Detective – This is a show that might be in some people’s Top 5. It was for the Thrillist writer. But I didn’t get what was so great about it. Yes, it had wonderful performances by two top notch actors. Yes, it had sharp and powerful writing from a new voice (despite the plagiarism scandal). And it introduced us to Alexandra Daddario’s unexpectedly perfect body for which I’ll always be thankful. But, the story was pretty boring and anti-climactic. It was well-shot, well-produced, well-written and well-performed. And yet, it didn’t seem as interesting as it should have been. I hope the new season is good.
16. Silicon Valley – To be fair, I’m still in the first season of this show and I think it’s great, but it’s not the funniest show that HBO has ever had, which the original article stated. It’s smart, it’s timely, it’s well-acted, and I look forward to seeing more. But there have been funnier shows on the network.
15. Band of Brothers – I know I discounted the other 2 war mini-series, but this was the one that started it all and it’s still the best. It deserved to be mentioned. It’s a masterpiece.
14. Extras – Ricky Gervais. Movie Stars. British hilarity. The episode with Kate Winslet was everything.
13. Entourage – Was it the best show on HBO? No. But it was iconic. Plus, it gave us the line “APA? Who the fuck invited you?” which was used for at least 2 weeks at every desk in Hollywood. Through its “star” Adrian Grenier, it ironically proved that good looks IS all you need in Hollywood to get work. And it gave those in the business a chance to look at themselves in a comedic and exaggerated way. And gave those outside the business even more reason to hate us. It was never a Middle America show, but it wasn’t supposed to be. However, it was entertaining, had memorable cameos, and I’ll be damned if Ari didn’t always make me laugh.
12. True Blood – When it was good, it was f’ing great. It was Twilight before Jacob and Edward ever existed. But when it was bad…it was unwatchable. And I’d say the show balanced out at about 60/40. The faerie world lost me, and I’m still pissed about what happened to Tara. But this show was one of the first that reached new demographics for HBO, and made people excited for each season. It was sexy, gory and totally fucked up, but it launched a ton of careers and at least one marriage. And while it was definitely time for it to go, I still miss Eric and Pam just a little…
11. Boardwalk Empire – Strangely, this has the same placement on my list as the original list. Coincidence. It’s not my type of show to be honest, and I haven’t watch the whole series, but I can appreciate what it was. Plus… Buscemi.
10. Larry Sanders Show – Again, a match with the original article. This show was so before its time and so hilarious. I want to go watch it again right now. If there is ever an HBO show that needs to be rebooted – it’s this one. Plus, what would people say when they called Howard Stern without HEY NOW!
9. Deadwood – This was the #1 show in the original article. And I feel like if I watched this again now, it might rank slightly higher – but never #1. Or even Top 5. David Milch has a specific, stylistic, powerful approach to words that either goes horribly wrong (like Rick Schroeder’s first season of NYPD Blue), or horribly perfect. And this show was one expletive-laden c*nt-fest of a script. In the best way. The gritty look and feel was so Western and yet not. If this show were on now, they would never let it end after 3 seasons, but the upside is it’s perfect for binge-watching.
8. Sex and the City – It is the cornerstone comedy for HBO. It made them a household name network and made execs realize women watched cable too. It’s still used in everyday vernacular. Are YOU a Samantha or a Charlotte? Oh, and its first movie made $415 MILLION! It tackled superficial comedy, and also cancer. It made us – and I include men in this – actually give a shit if a barely employed, barely attractive shoe-fetishist wound up with Aiden or Mr. Big. AND DAMMIT WHY WASN’T IT AIDEN!!?? My point being, this show is too important to the TV landscape and the HBO landscape to rank less than 10.
7. Curb Your Enthusiasm – Much like many HBO shows, when it’s at its best it IS the best. And when it’s not so good…well, Susie Essman is still pretty fucking funny. Larry David is a genius. I connect with him personally for many reasons. Mostly for his general hatred of small talk, bullshit, and people. I could have lived without much of the JB Smoove storyline but the fact this show is improvised and is still this funny is something I have to admire.
6. VEEP – This show is easily one of the funniest on TV. There has never been an episode that didn’t make me LOL. And hard. Its cast and writing is second to none. You can argue that Silicon Valley is smarter, but it is not easy to keep the Jonah and Dan insults and the precisely perfect Gary moments that hilarious and fresh. And this season, watching Tony Hale finally fight with Julia Louis-Dreyfus was pure gold. Not to mention the molestation of Jonah. That’s why this is my highest ranked comedy.
5. Oz – Again, before its time and utterly engrossing with rich characters you love, hate, root for and root against in the same breath. It was HBO’s first dramatic series, it launched many careers including JK Simmons, Eamonn Walker and Edie Falco. It was the first series of its kind and went where no other would go. It didn’t glorify anything, didn’t condescend, and didn’t pull punches. If you’ve never seen it…it’s worth a trip to Oz.
4. Six Feet Under – A simple concept with a well-balanced tone of darkness and light, clever episode structure and a family most couldn’t really relate to but always connected with. Even in its most morbid moments, the levity made us love it. And let’s face it – the series finale is still one of the best episodes of television ever and will make you sob like a baby.
3. Game of Thrones – This series just keeps upping the ante in every way. This season made the Red Wedding episode look tame, and while it may have lost some of its female viewership this season for various reasons, I think the last few episodes of this season were some of the strongest episodes of the whole show. The scale and scope of this show is so hard to comprehend that often I don’t even try to follow it, I just simply enjoy it. It makes me want a dragon. And if I can’t have one, I’ll gladly take a Dinklage instead!
2. The Sopranos – Yep, it’s #2. I had a personal connection to this show early on, but that wasn’t what kept me watching. Sure, it had its failed storylines. And sure, that whole fade to black in the last episode is STILL being fought over in some Jersey strip clubs. But this show changed the landscape of TV – and the quality of it. Watching James Gandolfini and Edie Falco was a masterclass. Watching Pauly and Big Pussy, Silvio and Bobby, and of course poor Adriana…it was appointment TV every week, every season. It changed the language of water-cooler talk from “Did you catch last night’s episode” to “Fuggedaboudit”.
1. The Wire – I got to re-watch the whole series from the start this past December, since I had only watched the first 2 seasons when it was actually on. And I’m so happy I did. Masterfully crafted, powerfully written and acted, heart-breakingly executed. It is the ultimate lesson for writers in crafting an arc for a whole series. Omar, McNulty, Bunk, Daniels, Barksdale, Stringer Bell, and the kids. They’re unforgettable. David Simon wrote what he knew, and translated it beautifully. The fact that this show never won an Emmy is one of the Top 3 most shameful Emmy facts in history. But I’m making up for that now by making it my #1 show on HBO.
Whew…made it! Did you agree? Disagree? I challenge you to make your own list!
May 21st, 2015
There are so many opinions out there for writers to listen to these days. So many voices trying to tell writers what to do, what not to do, how to do it, how not to do it, who they should hate, who they should respect, how to succeed, how not to succeed, etc. It’s coming from all sides. And some of those voices have begun to take a tone that, for me, seems almost unhealthy to listen to. I’m not sure when social media became the technological equivalent to a Branch Davidian compound, but it needs to stop.
All writers want to do is connect. Especially those still trying to “break in”. But I think some of the recent rhetoric has made it hard for writers who are trying to get noticed, get read, learn, or make that connection with a professional they admire, to figure out when they are actually networking and learning…and when they are unknowingly part of a cult.
To be honest, I don’t even think the professionals themselves are aware of their Jim Jonesy behavior and what type of self-aggrandizing, arrogant dome of cynicism and power they are creating. So, in hopes that there is still time to save others from drinking the Kool-Aid, and as a public service to inform those unknowingly responsible (on both sides), here are some ways to know if you’re leading a cult…
– Your followers or fans have a collective name they are referred to by outsiders.
– You have tried to preclude your followers, fans, friends, or people within your circles from communicating or forming relationships with others who don’t share your way of thinking. You make introductions and arrange “instant friends” for those you want to be part of your group. You make your world seem like a loving, supportive place to be. But if anyone disagrees with you or leaves your circle, they suddenly lose all their new friends. When support = control, it’s not a friendship or mentorship…it’s a cult.
– You suggest your followers and fans not seek out or read outside information that disagrees with yours. Only information you provide is correct and will help your followers. Anyone else providing information is a false guru with a sinister motivation. Only your motivations are true.
– You denounce outside education, classes, advice, feedback or knowledge from anyone other than yourself or those you have personally endorsed and deemed as worthwhile. And you discredit other people’s information or advice not based on how true it might be, but on the basis of how it supports your party line.
– If you are attacked on social media, your followers quickly exact revenge on your behalf in heinous and personal ways without even knowing your attackers personally.
– You cast aspersions on outside computer programs or software your followers may use (…and then launch your own and charge for it).
– You advise your followers that they need to move closer to you, and can only truly be part of your world if they are living nearby in the same town.
– You create your own terminology for words and concepts that don’t require new terminology (or perhaps your own font?).
– You offer FREE information, FREE help, or FREE access to some higher power that can get followers closer to their dreams. All they have to do is believe and be loyal.
– You often emotionally break down those seeking your advice by saying their chances of success is infinitesimal. That if they don’t have an innate talent, they are hopeless, and that the only people who can truly help them are people who won’t – except you.
– Your group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader or group is on a special mission to save others from what you deem as making mistakes).
– The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.
– You enjoy being equally feared and revered by your followers. You make it clear you have direct access to a higher authority (like, for example, the Studios). Anyone disagreeing with you might as well be disagreeing with that higher authority. Questioning your authority or opinion is seen as a sign of stupidity, naivety or inexperience.
– You are self-funded and use the fact that you are accountable to no one and have no direct allegiances or corporate ties to convince followers that unlike others out there, you have no agenda other than their well-being.
– You answer logical reasoning or other’s valid points with your own brand of false reasoning, shaming, guilt, peer pressure or character assassination. In terms of character assassination, you may say things like, “Maybe the reason you’re not as successful as me is because you’re not doing it how I did it.” Or something like, “How could you possibly disagree with me? I’ve been doing this longer than you and at a higher level. You are obviously unsatisfied with what you do and are jealous of me and my success, and your rebellion to my opinion is only hurting yourself and others.”
– Your followers display excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to you and your teachings and regard your beliefs, ideologies, and practices as The Truth.
This list is obviously meant in a humorous way and should be taken as such. But if you take anything else away from it, let it be this… Those who spout off about how THERE ARE NO RULES – but then continue to tell you exactly what to believe and think and how to act and who to do business with – are either wildly hypocritical, or completely oblivious. And you don’t need to listen to either one. If you are worried that you or someone you know has been involved in cult-like behavior, please seek help immediately – and stay off social media.
May 8th, 2015
By Danny Manus
Have you sent out dozens of query letters? Hundreds? Thousands?
And no response? No reads? No meetings? Not even a polite rejection letter telling you why they won’t read your material?
Then let me be clear…It’s YOU. Not THEM.
You’re the problem. Or at least, your query letter is.
There have been some articles lately about how the whole idea of a query letter in today’s Hollywood is a hoax. I don’t believe that. Why? Because while 98% of queries may go straight into the trash and the chances of them paying off are indeed incredibly slim… they’re no less valid than any other way of trying to get read, signed, produced or otherwise noticed. And they’re still the least expensive. Everything’s a long shot. Everything’s a crap shoot. Queries are no different. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a try. IF you’re doing it right. The problem is – 98% of you aren’t.
I recently agreed to help a boutique agency sift through their backlog of hundreds and hundreds of queries that were piling up – something I’ve done for other agents and managers in the past. I was asked to keep the ones I thought might be worth reading or contacting the writer about. I read about 550 queries just for this one company over the course of a couple weeks, and it quickly became frighteningly obvious how many ridiculous, unnecessary, sloppy, unprofessional, clueless, amateur mistakes writers were making with their queries.
For the record, of the 550(ish) queries, I gave 35 query letters back to the agent to look at. All the others are now sitting in my recycling bin. Except for the handful that were so ungodly awful, unprofessional or ridiculous, that they are now being kept in my folder of query gems that I use in my classes as examples of what not to do (don’t worry, I don’t use names).
But it doesn’t have to be like that. You CAN get read and noticed and even signed from your query letters. If you’re not committing any of the cardinal sins of queries listed below. A checklist I crudely call…
The 50 Reasons Your Query Letter Sucks. I hope you’ll forgive my foul language.
- TYSPOS. If yuo cant right one paragraf without dozens of tyspos then you’re script is probably illegidable. See how insanely annoying that is. Makes me sound like a fucking 4th grader, doesn’t it? Why would a manager invest their time in someone who writes like that? If you cannot write a half a page without correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation, I will not read your script. Period. Hire someone to edit your letter if you need to. You have no idea how many letters I read where the script’s own TITLE had a typo in it. There is NO excuse for laziness or stupidity.
- You didn’t include your EMAIL ADDRESS in your letter. Do yourself a favor and stop including a SASE with your query. No one is mailing you back. If we want to read your script, we’re going to email you and let you know. If there’s no email address on the letter, then guess what…we can’t contact you and you wasted a stamp. Of the 550 queries in this batch, well over 100 did not have email addresses and went right in the garbage. Also, make sure your Email address is appropriate and professional. If your email is Hottieforyou69@aol.com, do yourself a favor – get a second account.
- You’re writing stories everyone else is writing. Sometimes it’s just your concept or lack of originality. In this batch, there were some CLEAR trends. The most common concepts queried included: War/Soldier Stories (at least 15% of all queries received), Aliens/Robots/Sci-Fi stories (15%), True Stories likely based on the writer’s life (at least 10%), Bank Robbery/Heist stories (10%), Christmas movies (5%), Torture Porn (5%), Rape/Abortion Stories (5%), Sequels to Existing Movies (5%), etc. The other 30% were broken up between comedies, other types of dramas, thrillers, a few ghost stories, and TV pilots. In other words – most of the queries were for stories and genres that can’t sell.
- YOUR QUERY IS WRITTEN IN ALL CAPS OR SOME FUNNY FONT.
- You sent a handwritten serial killer-style manifesto. It’s called a computer. Use it. And stop torturing animals in your shack.
- You don’t tell us your genre and you don’t have a good logline (or ANY logline). The people you’re sending queries to have to pitch your concept to their bosses. That’s why your logline is so important. Plus, if your logline is truly great, the rest of the letter doesn’t need to be that long. But I can count on one hand how many of the 550 queries had a truly GREAT logline that made me excited to read more.
- Your query is written in all Spanish. No hablo, muchacho.
- The first line of your query is “I’m a first time writer…” – well then you’re not ready to be querying and definitely not ready for an agent or manager who don’t want to be your guinea pig.
- You’re querying agents about your first script. Do not bother. You need at least 2 polished and ready scripts for agents to care about you. You can query producers, but honestly, it’s probably not ready for them either.
- You are querying about an IDEA you have and not a script you’ve written. Thanks for the idea. Next time, write the script and register it. This is how ideas get stolen – and it’s YOUR fault. No one is going to sign you based on an idea. They are worthless.
- Your brief story synopsis is really just ONE scene or only covers the first 15 pages of your story and it doesn’t point out the situation your character must do/overcome/achieve or what your hook is.
- You’ve written a sequel to a major franchise, book, or film. STOP WASTING YOUR DAMN TIME AND MINE! No one is buying your Batman or Star Wars movie – CUT IT OUT! It makes you a fan, not a screenwriter. DO NOT write scripts for stories, characters or films you don’t own the rights to. Producers and studios have a prestigious stable of million-dollar screenwriters they want movie ideas from for their franchises and you’re not one of them.
- You’re querying about a spec you’ve written of an existing TV show because you want to sell it to the producers of that show. This is NEVER going to happen. If you want to be a TV writer, you should be querying about your ORIGINAL PILOT and as a 2nd sample, you can mention you also wrote a spec of an existing show. But you should never query an agent because of a spec of a show you want to sell to its producers.
- You included autographed headshots of yourself. Unnecessary. Unless you’re really hot.
- In your letter, you ask for DONATIONS to your Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaign! I even got one letter that was a query asking for donations to his college education for film school. No joke.
- You’re sharing TMI or opening with something personal or embarrassing. If you have a legitimate mental illness – DON’T tell us about it in your query. I read at least 3 queries where the writer told me in the first line that they are bipolar. You’re a screenwriter – I already assume you have mental issues.
- You tell me to call your MOTHER. Yes, in one of the greatest/worst queries I’ve ever read, it was a 3 page hand-written letter on yellow legal paper and at the end, the writer – who is 27 YEARS OLD(!!) – says he lives in his mother’s basement and to please call HER cell phone and leave a message and she will pass it along. Seriously, Norman Bates? Would I have to ask your mother if you can come to a meeting too?
- You’re starting your query by telling me your whole life story. I don’t give a shit. And you’re not that interesting. I have only read 2 query letters ever where the life story was so moving and powerful I had to read their script. TWO. Out of tens of thousands.
- Your story is about rape, domestic abuse or abortion. Especially if you’re a male writer. These are NOT the most interesting things about women to write about. Even if you’re a female writer, it’s been done to death (no pun intended) and 90% of the time we know it’s based on your own true story. Not even Lifetime is making movies about rape and abortion anymore.
- Your whole query letter is one huge block of writing without any line spaces or paragraphs. I can only imagine what your script looks like.
- Your query is for a Game Show or (unmade) Short Film. No one represents short film writers or game show writers. Try writing something that can make you MONEY.
- You’re not using both capital and lower case letters like a normal person. The title of your script better start with a Capital Letter. It should also be in quotation marks and can be capitalized (though not necessary).
- You INSULT other movies in your query letter to make yours sound better. You have no idea who’s reading your letter or who they’ve worked with or what movies they worked on or love. Don’t tell us your story is “like X movie but with a good story, more likeable characters and actually funny.” Makes you sound like a jealous dick.
- You promise us your script is the best script we’ll read all year. It’s not. I guarantee it. Don’t set the bar higher than you can reach.
- You tell us to check out your Tumblr blog or website or Twitter feed to find out about your story or download your script. Don’t troll for followers or website hits.
- You close your query with “Kiss, Kiss” or something stupid and immature. End your query with “Warmest” “Warmest Regards” “Sincerely” or “Respectfully” and then your name, email, and phone number. That’s it.
- You are LYING in your query and it’s really fucking obvious and insulting. Do not tell me in your query letter that you’re an award winning writer if that award is some high school competition or 3rd place in Scriptapalooza 2006. You didn’t win shit. Don’t say you have lots of agents begging to represent you or numerous producers clamoring for your story – because I know that’s not true. You know how I know? Because then you wouldn’t be blind querying me, would you!? Do not say studios or actors are interested if you don’t have a Letter of Intent. It takes ONE phone call to confirm you’re a liar. Do not tell us about what your “friends in the industry” said about the script. If you had real friends in the industry, you wouldn’t be querying like this. You’re trying to start a long-term relationship with someone – don’t start on a lie. This isn’t Tinder.
- Connected to that, you try to exaggerate to make yourself sound better by using words you think we can’t decipher. For instance, “My script is currently with X MAJOR STUDIO” – We know that means you randomly emailed your script and haven’t heard back. Or “My script is currently in contention for the Nicholls Fellowship” – which means you paid the entry fee and submitted.
- You say you’ve been inspired by God to write your story. God has nothing to do with it. Unless the God you pray to is Aaron Sorkin.
- You’re a repeat offender. If you have sent the same query letter to the same company 16 times – guess what? IT’S A FUCKING PASS! Take the hint. Stop sending it. You only seem like more of a desperate nut-job (I’m talking to you, Jack!).
- You don’t tell us anything that makes you stand out in a POSITIVE way or makes one think you have a strong enough voice or pleasant and professional enough disposition.
- You start your query with a ridiculous rhetorical question. “Ever wonder what would happen if your dog turned into a beautiful woman?” Umm…NO. No, I haven’t. Better question is – Why have you? We can’t answer you and if we answered NO, then we have dismissed your premise before reading your story. This is an antiquated way of writing queries – stop it!
- You offer to send me pictures of you, and ask me to send you pictures of me. It’s not that kind of agency, you creepy fuck.
- You make it feel like a form letter even though we know it is. Send your letter to a specific person and spell their name right! Don’t address your query to “Dear Sir or Madam” or to the wrong name or wrong company, and don’t address it to “Dear My Next Agent” or “Dear Gatekeeper” or “Dear Development Person.” Do your due diligence and research and know who you are sending it to. It’s called IMDBPRO.
- You’ve included random coverage reports and you didn’t even get a RECOMMEND! A CONSIDER is nothing to brag about. And those coverage/notes reports are private.
- You tell us who should star in your movie or who you wrote the characters for. If it’s well-written, producers will know who should play that role. The way to cheat this is when you describe your character, you can say “A Seth Rogen type” instead of “I wrote this for Seth Rogen” – because what if the agent or producer hates him?
- You tell us in your letter that you demand to produce/direct/star in the movie. I even had one letter where the writer said he would appreciate it if the hypothetical movie would be scheduled around his day job. INSTANT PASS. Unless you’re also financing the film.
- You’re writing your query letter in the third person. Danny Manus has written a wonderful new thriller that Danny Manus would like you to read…. Danny Manus sounds like a douche.
- You’re bragging that you got honorable mention in the Writer’s Digest Contest of 2006. Who the fuck cares? It’s not a major contest, you didn’t even win, and it was like 10 years ago. If you haven’t WON or been a FINALIST in one of the 10-15 major prestigious contests (or semifinalist in the top 3 contests) in the last 5-6 years then it’s not worth mentioning in a letter. It just tells us your script has been around FOREVER and no one has wanted it or signed you off of it.
- You’re not setting up a context for your script. Use “It’s this meets that” or “It’s in the vein of this and that” because it allows execs to see where your project fits in the marketplace. But use the RIGHT template films that show tone, genre and context.
- You’re making it sound like you only have ONE idea and want a quick sale and are only in it for the money. If you’re querying producers, that’s fine. But not if you’re querying reps because they’re in it for the long haul and want someone looking for a career.
- You include copies of your Library of Congress Copyright form, WGA Registration receipt, or anything else that makes it look like you’re expecting us to steal your idea.
- You’re including MULTIPLE loglines when sending to a producer. Your query to a producer should be about ONE project. If querying reps, you can include 1-3 projects in your query but more than that and it looks like a red flag that no one likes your work.
- You’re pitching multiple scripts in multiple genres. This is what I call spaghetti queries because you’re just throwing a bunch of shit at the wall and seeing what sticks. You can include more than 1 logline to a rep, but if it’s 4 projects in 4 genres then you don’t know what kind of writer you are yet and you’re not ready.
- You bad-mouth an agent or manager you USED to have. It’s a small world in Hollywood. Keep that in mind and don’t be that guy.
- Your query letter is longer than ONE page. Some people send treatments, some send packages, some send the first 10 pages of script (not ONE of them were good). All you need to send is a ½ to 1 page query letter. That’s it.
- You tried to be overly clever – and failed. Comedy is subjective. Let the comedy of your story and concept sell us instead of you trying too hard to make me laugh.
- You try to promote or sell your personal agenda, message, political affiliation, or social beliefs instead of telling a story. That’s not what screenwriting is for. Write a blog. Because no one gives a shit.
- You quote box office grosses of movies because you think it means yours will be likewise successful. Just because Saving Private Ryan made half a billion dollars does not mean YOUR war story will. That movie had the biggest movie star in the world and the biggest director in the world. You cannot in any way compare your movie to that one. And you don’t have to tell us how successful other movies were – we know!
- You’re just not a good enough writer. Brutal, but possibly true.
Let’s be realistic – there are upwards of 60,000 scripts registered every year with WGA plus thousands more that are not registered. Agents, managers and producers receive many thousands of queries each year and 90% of them don’t even accept unsolicited queries. The competition is staggering. The window is small. So just having a good idea, good script, or good query simply is not enough. I’m not telling you to stop writing or stop querying – I’m just begging you to be better. Be better than the 550 queries I just read. Be ready. Be professional. Heed the above list and give yourself a shot. Write a query that no one can resist…and no one will. Or, you can just keep writing queries that suck.
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February 11th, 2015
2014 was a very interesting year for film. It was a grab-bag of wonderful cinematic experiences, powerful true stories, big comic book blockbusters, British invasions, and some movies that perhaps never should have been. And with the Oscars right around the corner, I figure it’s time I break down my personal Top Ten Films of 2014, and what screenwriters can learn from each.
I want to preface this list by saying there are about a dozen high profile films I (shamefully) still have not seen including Inherent Vice, Interstellar, Big Eyes, Fury, Snowpiercer, Jennifer Aniston’s Cake, Maze Runner, Obvious Child, Unbroken, and Edge of Tomorrow. So I reserve the right to change this list slightly in the future. But, I don’t I will. Here we go….
10. The Babadook – The best horror movie I’ve seen since The Conjuring. It does what possession films have been trying to do for years and very seldom succeed at. Besides a performance by star Essie Davis that could rival most of the Best Actress nominees, this is a great movie to watch if you’re writing horror/thriller and want to learn how to create tone, build suspense, employ frightening visuals, and how directing can really make a difference. I’m not sure I loved the last 10 minutes, but it is a scary film reminiscent of The Shining and Bug.
9. Wild – While I think it is the directing and acting that make this film more than the script, it’s a great example of how to bring a powerful emotional journey to screen in a satisfying way. Though it’s a small, personal story, the writer creates moments of tension, fear and raises the stakes even when there’s no actual threat.
8. The LEGO Movie – For me, the biggest snub of the year and while based on the well-known toys, its writing is beyond original and clever and takes characters we know and love and gives them a whole new spin. It exemplifies animation that is just as enjoyable for adults as it is for kids. And it will only give you half an epileptic fit. The voice casting was pitch perfect, and it had a powerful, relatable theme driving the story. In Lego Movie, everything is awesome.
7. The Imitation Game – The first British invasion film on my list, and one of the fascinating true stories this year. It’s a great example of creating characters that should never be sellable on film, and making them compelling. It’s also a great example of how to make every character, no matter how small a role, matter and add to the whole of the plot. Trying to craft strong supporting characters? Check this one out.
6. Captain America: Winter Soldier – My favorite of the comic book movies this year. It’s a complete film with magnificent action, huge visual, exciting set pieces, strong chemistry and levity from the characters, and it doesn’t feel longer than it needs to be (I’m looking at you, Dark Knight Rises and Avengers). I liked it even better than the first Captain America.
5. Boyhood – I saw this movie long after everyone else did, so I guess I was expecting a little bit more. But I still really enjoyed it. As a filmmaking gimmick, it’s brilliant. It’s original, it’s compelling even though very little is actually happening in many scenes. There are only a few real “movie moments,” but it’s theme and gimmick and Patricia Arquette’s realness make it enjoyable and Linklatter is a great storyteller.
4. Theory of Everything – Another true story British film about a character that doesn’t sound like one who would make for a watchable film. But is. What could have been a 90 minute montage of a movie as time passes, instead became a thoughtful and moving love story. It’s damn near impossible to make an audience invest in a love story in a way where viewers are still happy even after they divorce and still root for each of them to be happy with other people. This is a great example of how a writer took a three-prong approach to the theme and story, and wove all three elements of the plot together in a masterful way. And Eddie Redmayne’s performance is simply perfect.
3. Gone Girl – A controversial film that many of my friends HATED, but I thoroughly enjoyed. Besides some great performances and being beautifully shot, I was riveted by the story (and never read the book). This a great example of how to create morally bankrupt characters and keep them compelling while creating a strong mysterious tone that makes you constantly question everything. If you’re looking for an example of how to incorporate twists and turns and how to structure a mystery, read this script. The fact that she was not nominated is a damn shame.
3. Whiplash – Yes, fine, it was a tie. I couldn’t decide. Another small story, well-told and well-acted. It’s compelling, powerful and sometimes cringe-worthy in a good way. If you want to know how to write roles that attract actors while still writing low budget, this is one to watch – and read. Could there have been other subplots or more depth to the female character? Yeah, maybe. But this story is about two relationship dynamics – student and teacher, and music and musician – and their consequences.
2. Birdman – What can I say about Birdman that hasn’t already been said? Its filmmaking gimmick wasn’t as well-publicized as Boyhood’s, its characters were fascinating in their unlikablity, and its ending is purposefully open to interpretation. But it is captivating filmmaking, acting, and a premise told in an original way. Would this movie be as good without Michael Keaton? Fortunately, we never have to find out. If you like movies that think outside the box while still connecting to those inside the box, this is your movie.
1. Nightcrawler – Yup, this is my #1 choice. A script that broke all the rules because it could (the writer, Dan Gilroy, also directed). It is a perfect example of how to create tone, how setting can impact a story, and how to craft an anti-hero in a whole new way. It’s a great example of how to tell a story where the protagonist is not only the antagonist, but also has no arc. Gilroy has said that he thinks character arcs are fallacies, and while I may not totally agree with that, I love how he brought that to screen in this film. It walks the most perfect line between satire and psychotic and its view on society is gripping. If you haven’t seen it and read it – you should!
Okay, those are my picks! What say you? And before you start to rebel in outrage or question the voracity of some of my snubs…read this –
*Almost made the list – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes could have made the list if the human characters weren’t drawn, written, and tracked so poorly. American Sniper probably would’ve made the list if I had seen the movie before all the social media attention and true life details of Chris Kyle were brought to light. And I still liked last year’s Lone Survivor much better. Ditto for Selma, which is a very good film and Ava and David should’ve been nominated, but I think the (social) media outrage set up expectations for me that it didn’t QUITE live up to. I was expecting the greatest movie ever snubbed, and it’s just a good movie. Chef – another good movie, but the plot and goals were too easily achieved.
*Movies I Thought Were Overrated – Foxcatcher, Guardians of the Galaxy, Grand Budapest Hotel, Into the Woods. I liked Guardians – it was a ton of fun – but there were issues. The rest just didn’t do it for me.Life in Hollywood, Random Ramblings, Screenwriting Tips Acting, Adapted, Babadook, Birdman, Boyhood, British, Captain America, Comic Books, Filmmaking, Gone Girl, Guardians of the Galaxy, Lego, Nightcrawler, Original, Oscars, Screenwriter, Screenwriting, Theory of Everything, Top Ten, Whiplash, Wild
September 9th, 2014
By Danny Manus
The last couple weeks I have been judging the semifinal round of the prestigious PAGE Awards in the Horror/Thriller category. It’s my fourth year as one of their judges and I have had a pretty darn good track record in choosing the top scripts, picking the winners 2 out of the last 3 years (this year’s still being decided).
I know contests can sometimes feel like this vague guessing game to writers. They’re subjective, often inconsistent, some have anonymous readers and judges, and there are SO many out there, each with their own lofty promises and prizes, that it’s hard to know which are worthwhile and which are a waste of $40. And with every year, there are more submissions and increased competition to overcome.
When I started reading for PAGE just 4 years ago, there were just 4,500 submissions. Now, there are over 6,000. Six thousand writers vying for 31 prizes, including the grand prize of $25,000 and of course all the access and accolades that go along with that. But those are some daunting odds – 31 out of over 6,000. THAT’S how good your script needs to be. And those are better chances than most other contests which only have a couple prize winners and don’t break it down by genre. This is also why submitting to nationally (or worldwide) recognized, prestigious contests have become a launching pad for new talent – because you have to be better than SO many other writers that Hollywood is almost forced to take notice.
Yes, some good scripts don’t get through that should. And that goes for EVERY contest. I have a couple clients that won or were finalists in one prestigious contest that didn’t get to the quarters of another with the same exact script. It happens. Sometimes it just comes down to the reader and there’s nothing you can do but brush it off and try again next year.
Contests aren’t a shortcut to getting discovered, but they are one major avenue that didn’t really exist 10 or 15 years ago that writers can use to break in. The prestige and results that winners of the PAGE Awards find, and the level of writing in the semis, is the reason I continue to judge for them (I’ve judged for other smaller contests as well over the years).
However, the reason I wanted to write this article is to share with you some lessons and trends that I have noticed, especially this year, as well as give you some insight into what judges are looking for when they read and why, perhaps, your script has been a consummate quarterfinalist or semifinalist, instead of a winner.
A script wins when the right story, writing, character, commerciality, voice, timing, and luck all come together. And you only have control over a few of those, which I know is frustrating. You could write an amazing script, but if it’s exactly like the film that just came out 2 weeks ago, you’re probably not going to win.
Semifinalists are scripts with really strong writing and story and resonance for a reader. Winning scripts just have that something extra. They don’t read like a contest script – they read like a professionally written Hollywood film that just hasn’t been made yet. There are a LOT of really GOOD scripts out there. Winning scripts feel like films.
I can’t speak for other categories, but every year in the horror/thriller section, there are clear trends that stand out. This DOES NOT mean that judges or readers are looking for any specific type of story – especially since there are so many different readers involved before the 25 semifinalist scripts make their way to my desk. Some of it may relate to what is commercial in the marketplace, but it really just comes down to the writing and hook on the concept.
My first year, the trend was clear – zombies, vampires and werewolves. Those 3 types of stories made up for at least 10 of the 25 semifinalists (the winner that year, by the way, was MAGGIE which comes out this November and stars Arnold Schwarzenegger and Abigail Breslin).
The following year, there was an increase in creature features of the non-vampire/werewolf variety and that seemed to be the trend. Last year there were more supernatural projects and found footage stories, as well as a higher number of thrillers than horror.
This year, the trends were glaring and possibly clearer than ever before…
By FAR the biggest trend this year…was children. 13 out of the 25 scripts were based around kids being kidnapped, murdered, brutalized, and/or needing to be saved from something. Add three MORE to that list if including the unborn, older teens, or adult children of the protagonist.
That is a HUGE number. And I think the reason is pretty clear. It’s not because the judges are sadistic or are enjoy reading about murdered children – believe me, that’s NOT the case as some were very hard to read no matter how well-written. The reason is because what could create higher stakes or more fear or emotional resonance than a missing, abused or murdered child? What could make for a stronger and more relatable motivation for a protagonist than trying to rescue their child or seeking vengeance for their death?
There have always been “evil child” movies and they’ve always done well. But after the success of films like Taken (and its sequels), Prisoners, Gone Baby Gone, Lovely Bones, Insidious, etc., films about children as victims instead of being the evil entity themselves, are also succeeding. And this year, they have clearly succeeded in this category.
Along the same lines, the second biggest trend this year was REVENGE. It was the guiding motivation, theme or driving force behind 12 of this year’s semifinalists. In thrillers and horror, revenge is always popular, and it was exploited in different ways in this year’s offerings. Revenge by the hero, revenge by the antagonist, revenge by society. It’s an emotion everyone can grasp and get behind. What makes it stand out is HOW it’s used – not why.
Trend number 3 was a massive increase in the brutality of the action and gore contained in this year’s scripts. In a year where 15 scripts involved children or teen victims, the amount of sheer brutality and detail involved was sometimes a bit shocking.
Brutality is different than “torture porn”, however, which hasn’t been selling for a few years. The difference between brutality and torture porn is purpose, context and literary quality, which can often bring out one’s voice. Torture porn is about finding new disgusting, extreme ways of torturing or killing people or ripping off their body parts for gruesome shock effect. It’s about resonance on a visual scale.
Brutality is often about resonance on an emotional scale. It often makes you uncomfortable or makes you cringe – but not scream. It could be the same repeated simple action – a punch to the face – but when done 15 times, the description of the consequences of that punch become increasingly brutal and visceral. That being said, I feel like many writers were trying to get their Tarantino on this year – and for some it paid off, and for others it really didn’t.
The final two story trends aren’t new, but combined made up for about 6 of the 25 scripts. These are – Military experiments gone wrong; and haunted locations. What’s odd is that the haunted locations were all the same type of location, and the “creatures” were all somewhat similar, which for me, made the scripts harder to stand out despite some very nice writing.
When it comes to similar concepts, what makes them stand out is the originality in hook and voice. Sometimes the hook is related to the location or time period, sometimes it’s what the characters must accomplish or how or why they must accomplish it, sometimes it’s the characters themselves, and sometimes it’s the combination of two hooks that really elevate a project and make it different than the others. That was definitely the case with some of the stronger scripts this year.
Another very interesting trend this year wasn’t so much story related, but structure. It felt like some writers hoped that judges would only read the first 20 pages and the last 10, and that is NOT the case. We read every word. There were a large number of scripts that had an AMAZING first 15-20 pages – but just couldn’t keep up that level of skill or consistency in tone, voice or plot throughout the rest of the script. You need to make sure that you’re not just starting strong with a great set-up, but that you have an EQUALLY strong execution and pay-off throughout the script. Keep in mind, writers – EVERY sequence needs to be as strong as your opening and closing sequences.
At the end of the day, it comes down to the X-Factor. The voice. That THING writers have where you know it when you read it, and it just jumps out at you and grabs you (often) immediately. It’s a gut reaction and connection I get to scripts and the writing, and after doing this for over a decade and reading and evaluating many thousands of scripts, my instincts on voice and story are pretty darn strong.
Sure, I look for strong complex characters with strong goals, motivations, and deeper needs and flaws. Sure, I look at the originality of the concept and hook on that concept and how that is brought out in the story. Sure, I look at the dialogue and if it flows and feels natural and genuine and tight and powerful and if it’s full of personality and DISTINCT character voices. Sure, I look at transitions and themes and structure and if the script moves well and is an easy, enjoyable read. And sure, I take into consideration if it’s something that could sell or garner attention in the marketplace or by a manager or agent. But then there’s the X-Factor. The question I ask myself is – if you had to stake your name and reputation on a handful of these scripts, which ones would they be? Those are my top choices.
The past two years have been MUCH harder to judge and pick a winner than the first two years where it was pretty darn obvious (to me) who the winners were. Why? Well, with the increased number of submissions, it really is the cream of the crop rising to the semifinals. My first two years, I was scoring scripts in the 50s and 60s. This year, 73 was the lowest score I gave.
For the first time, I could probably count on two hands the number of typos I found between ALL 25 scripts! That was NOT the case 3 years ago, believe me! It’s certainly not the MOST important thing, but if you’re not meticulously proofreading your scripts and making sure your formatting is professional, it may be the thing that keeps you from advancing to the later rounds. I’ve got 2600 pages to read – your job as a writer is to make reading them easier and fun.
This year, it was a hard choice as all of the top scripts were executed well, but I am very content with my picks. I was so pleased with the quality of the writing this year and I look forward to seeing what takes home the big prize.
In the meantime, good luck and keep writing!
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