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  • 50 Reasons Why Your Query Letter Sucks

    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.

    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
    4. YOUR QUERY IS WRITTEN IN ALL CAPS OR SOME FUNNY FONT.
    5. You sent a handwritten serial killer-style manifesto. It’s called a computer. Use it. And stop torturing animals in your shack.
    6. 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.
    7. Your query is written in all Spanish. No hablo, muchacho.
    8. 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.
    9. 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.
    10. 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.
    11. 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.
    12. 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.
    13. 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.
    14. You included autographed headshots of yourself. Unnecessary. Unless you’re really hot.
    15. 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.
    16. 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.
    17. 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?
    18. 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.
    19. 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.
    20. 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.
    21. 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.
    22. 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).
    23. 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.
    24. 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.
    25. 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.
    26. 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.
    27. 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.
    28. 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.
    29. 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.
    30. 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!).
    31. 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.
    32. 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!
    33. 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.
    34. 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.
    35. 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.
    36. 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?
    37. 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.
    38. 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.
    39. 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.
    40. 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.
    41. 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.
    42. 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.
    43. 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.
    44. 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.
    45. 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.
    46. 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.
    47. 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.
    48. 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.
    49. 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!
    50. 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.

     

    ***This month, No BullScript Consulting is launching an exciting new Second Reader Service, where you can purchase a one-hour phone/skype consultation with a working Development Executive or Manager who will read your script and discuss their constructive notes and answer your questions! No assistants, no middle-men, no B.S.! Make it a combo and get TWO sets of comprehensive notes at a discounted price! Check out the Second Reader Page for more details!

  • My Top 10 Films of 2014: A Breakdown

    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.

  • Screenwriting As Sex – The Second Act – Foreplay At Its Best

    December 1st, 2014

    By Danny Manus

    Last we left off, you were trying to get laid and made it past the inciting incident, got asked back to her apartment (or you asked him back to your apartment), and while making yourself comfortable and beginning your mission, the first major turning point in your courtship reared its ugly head – she’s got a live-in boyfriend who’s supposedly away for the weekend. But you decide to forge ahead anyway into heavy foreplay – welcome to your Second Act.

    Your Second Act is about progressing your story forward and keeping the audience – or the person you’re with – invested and engaged as you and your character make your way through unforeseen obstacles on your way to the promise land.

    This is where many lesser men (and writers) falter and fail. You (and your character) may be deterred, distracted and even in some way defeated – but you keep going and try to build that momentum and pressure until you just can’t take it anymore.

    As Chris Vogler says, it’s about your “Approach” and the “Ordeal” you need to go through to claim the “Reward.” Ding!

    Without momentum, your second act will stall. And if you can’t build momentum, you allow too many moments where your partner could change her mind and ask you to leave. And the last thing you want when getting it on – is a bathroom moment.  How do you keep momentum? Your scenes (or your movements) need to seamlessly flow into one another. There should be a give and take between your protagonist and antagonist – and between you and your partner.

    This is also where your B Story may be introduced. And throughout your Second Act, you need to come back to this B Story and interweave it through your “A” Storyline so that it pays off in the end.  Perhaps you’re texting your best friend this whole time letting him know what’s up and he’s giving you advice on how not to fuck it up (not that I’ve ever done this). And in the words of the late structure guru Blake Snyder – pgs 30-55 or so is where you have your “fun and games.” So whip out the naked Twister!

    This Second Act is about creating a lot of action – not just talk. Amen, brother! Talking is for the first act – now it’s time for the good stuff! This can’t just be a personal, private journey (unless you’re alone) – but you and your character take the next steps in your arc to reach your objective. And we all know what that is…

    In the first part of your Second Act, your character usually confronts or reveals his worst nightmare – like maybe realizing that chick you’re mackin’ it with has an Adam’s apple.

    But it’s also about courting (compliment her even if you don’t mean it), preparing (breath mint, hand lotion, condom – check, check, check!), complications (like those damn button fly jeans and unfortunate lighting), and going through some sort of test or obstacle (like her saying “this isn’t just a one-night stand, is it?).  And since we all know that half of what a woman says is in what she DOESN’T say, you must use and understand subtext!

    I think Chris Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey, proves my point about how connected screenwriting structure is with sex as he uses terms to describe the second act like “temptation, synchronicity, discomfort, threshold guardians (you mean, like Trojans?), and the Secret Door” – and we ALLLL know what the Secret Door is!

    Okay, so you’ve reached the midpoint – you’ve past second base and you’re heading towards third. You’re halfway to the big finish. The point of no return. But your midpoint better be exciting and you better show your partner – I mean, your reader – that you know what you’re doing because if you can’t keep their attention here at the midpoint, they might doze off before you reach your climax.

    This midpoint is where the stakes are increased. Physical, emotional, mental – it all gets kicked into high gear. And another wrench is thrown into the mix – maybe she starts to get cold feet.

    At your midpoint, your hands start to make their way south and the pressure mounts. You – and your character – plan your next move. But don’t forget – your B story is also developing – and the bad guys are coming. Maybe that out of town boyfriend isn’t so much out of town.

    Structure guru Marilyn Horowitz says the second half of the Second Act is about what your characters would die for. And every guy in the world knows that if we have to go, we want to go while getting lucky. That IS what we’d die for. So you disregard any red flags or warning signs and you forge ahead.

    Then you need a twist. Something special. I suggest going counterclockwise. Maybe she brings out the handcuffs and blindfolds – twist! Don’t go too far with the twist though just yet – you want a game changer that increases the physical and emotional stakes, but it still needs to be the same game.

    At the third turning point – as you break into your third act – something big happens. Perhaps you (and your hero) find yourself in a moral dilemma (like maybe you realize you’re both pretty wasted). Or perhaps she turns the tables and takes over. Either way…you overcome it.

    Then – as Vogler himself says – it’s time to “Approach the Inmost Cave.”

    Indeed….

    And at this point, you can see your reward – it’s within your sights. So you “seize your sword” and go for it. And through whatever darkness or hairy situations you might encounter, or whatever low point you might reach as you go down into the abyss – you and your character must put an end to your foreplay and persist into your Third Act.

  • Screenwriting As Sex Part 3 – The Third Act: Make Me Climax & Leave Me Satisfied

    December 1st, 2014

    By Danny Manus

    There are many different and often confusing opinions on what the third act is all about and needs to include.

    Blake Snyder said that after the Dark Night of the Soul, you Break into your Third Act on pg 85, have the Finale on pgs 85-110 and then your final image.

    Chris Vogler says the third act is about the Character’s Road Back, his Climax/ Resurrection, and his Return with the Elixir.

    Michael Hauge says the third act is about the Inner and Outer Journey, where the Outer Journey is the story’s final push to reach its goal, how it hits the climax and deals with the aftermath while the Inner Journey is about a character living one’s truth with everything to lose and achieving his destiny having completed his journey.

    And Robert McKee uses a graph with a bunch of squiggly lines and ellipses to basically say the same thing as everyone else.

    But in the end, what happens in your third act is really just a metaphor for a good old fashioned slap and tickle. That’s right…it’s all about making whoopee on the page. Don’t believe me?  Well, just answer these simple, completely sexually-charged questions about your third act…

    –          Was there a build-up and progression of emotional and physical tension until your characters’ instincts and better judgments took over?

    –          Did it lead to a satisfying climax where your characters release everything they have?

    –          Was there an unexpected or surprising twist or moment that makes one look at things differently?

    –          Who was left on top? Was there a winner?

    –          After it’s over, was it worth it and did it leave me satisfied? Or was it just wham, bam, thank you ma’am?

    –          And were there enough moments to make for an engaging or exciting 3 minute movie trailer?

    If your answer to all of these questions is YES, you mostly likely have a strong third act…and a fantastic Friday night.

    If your First Act is all about first impressions, the tease, and the seduction, your Second Act is all about foreplay – starting out with an exciting moment and progressing ahead hot and heavy with your mission – emotionally, mentally and physically.  And then there needs to be a natural build up and flow from the end of foreplay and your Second Act into the start of the Third Act – and you’re on your way home. If the Second Act ends with the hero at their lowest point – on the bottom – then the Third Act is where the hero suddenly comes up with a plan to get back on top.

    Executives don’t care if the climax occurs exactly on page 89 or 94. What they care about is that no matter what genre you are writing (or whom you’re with), you have built up events to an exciting and dynamic point where there’s a great payoff.  The climax has to involve your protagonist – because if your partner is alone and you’re not included – it doesn’t really count, does it? And naturally, your protagonist has to be the key to the climax and success.  It doesn’t count if someone else does it for him.

    The climax must resolve – or at least bring to a head – the main conflict in your story. And it has to be a big moment. All too often, the note executives give is that the climax is just anti-climactic. The resolution is achieved too easily. That’s what she said.

    Missionary is fine, but everyone knows how to do that. Being by-the-book usually isn’t enough. You have to stand out if you want to “work” again. So what makes you special? What’s that special twist in your third act that’s going to wow executives?

    Having those big trailer moments in your climax and third act is crucially important. In a two and a half minute trailer, a solid minute of that is probably going to come from your third act. So if you don’t have enough highlights and great moments in your third act to add up to ONE minute – well…there probably won’t be a sequel.

    Your third act must wrap up not just the main objective of your A storyline, but all of your subplots as well and draw the clear connections between them and how they affect each other for the progression of the story. And it’s where your main protagonist AND your main antagonist resolve their character arcs. They become different people after having gone through what happened between them.

    The final image should be a powerful moment. It’s the last thing the reader or audience is going to experience so you better make it meaningful.  You can use a circular ending where you finish the way you started – perhaps with a romantic kiss? Or you can finish big and go out in a blaze of glory.  But any way you finish, your job is to leave your partner – I mean, audience – feeling an emotion, whatever the correct emotion for the moment might be; love, warmth, security, happiness, anger, emptiness, confusion, etc.

    After the final word, executives must feel like the ride was worth it and that they’d like to do it again. Practice makes perfect, but follow the steps above and you will be one step closer to a finished screenplay and one hell of a good time.

  • Confessons of a Contest Judge: The Differences Between Semifinalists & Winners

    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!

    ***If you are a perennial quarter or semi-finalist, I encourage you to check out my services page and sign up for my 4-Week online course “Create More Compelling, Castable Characters” – guaranteed to help you create stronger, more elevated characters and stories to help get your scripts to the next level. Begins Sept 26th! Click here for more details – www.compellingcharacters.eventbrite.com

  • Don’t Heigl Yourself

    March 27th, 2014

    By Danny Manus

    I’ll admit it. I love Grey’s Anatomy. Have from the first episode. I even stuck in there for those couple of crappy seasons (much like I did with ER).  And sometimes, since I have a home office, I watch the repeats of Grey’s on Lifetime at 1pm. Yup, I said it. Don’t judge.

    And you know what thought constantly reverberates while watching the older episodes?

    Poor Katherine Heigl.

    Katherine Heigl was Jennifer Lawrence before there was a Jennifer Lawrence. She was womanly, curvy, bubbly and beautiful, doe-eyed, quirky and smart, a strong actress who put craft before looks, and she was imminently likable. She was poised to be the next big thing. America’s Sweetheart with a slight edge – just how we like ‘em.

    The next big TV breakout star that would cross over into film much like predecessors Jennifer Anniston, George Clooney, Will Smith, Michelle Williams, Will Ferrell, Steve Carrell, etc.

    And at first, she played her cards perfectly. Her agents knew how to make her a star. She stayed quiet for a couple years, focusing on her TV work and building her sweet but sexy public persona. She won the Emmy in 2007 for Best Supporting Actress. And then while still on Grey’s, she filmed her breakout film role in Knocked Up, an R-rated comedy that connected with her target demographic but also made her seem cooler than her Grey’s character. And it was a huge hit.

    She followed that up with 27 Dresses, a more down the middle but funny and relatable romcom hit which grossed over $100M. She proved she could open a movie and was now the next big thing. She was on top of the world…right?

    Funny thing happens when you’re on top of the world. There’s only one way left to go.

    It all started with some public rants criticizing her co-stars and the writing staff of the show that won her an Emmy and made her a star. She angered her bosses and the people who put words in her mouth every week and so they turned on her, made her character an unlikable psychotic shrew with brain cancer who broke up marriages and then they wrote her off the show. She started being labeled as “difficult,” which is the only label in Hollywood you can’t shake.

    You can be a drug addict, a whore, a mental case or a talentless hack…but the one thing you can’t be is DIFFICULT. Diva behavior only works until your first failure. And then you’re just a bitch no one wants to work with. And guess what happened?

    Killers, Life as We Know It, One for the Money, and The Big Wedding. Each film a bigger flop than the last. And suddenly, not only was sweet Katie Heigl difficult, but she was box office Kryptonite.

    She tried playing it tough, she tried playing it sweet, she tried making up with Shonda Rhimes in the press. She even adopted an Asian baby.  But none of it worked.  Now, she’s starring in a TV movie and a commercial for a sleep aid.

    And you know who is responsible for this? Her mother. Or should I say, “Momager.”

    Notoriously known throughout Hollywood as being not only a horrible person (and business person) to deal with, but also an awful arbiter of taste, Katherine’s mother Nancy Heigl is the worst kind of parent. The kind who wants all the credit and thinks she knows best in every situation. And instead of listening to her agents or the rest of her team, Katherine fired them all, stuck by her mom, and made her a producing partner. In short, she Heigl’d herself.

    And it’s unfortunate because if you go back to the first 4 seasons of Grey’s, you will see a woman who deserved to be a big star and by all accounts should still be one.

    This doesn’t JUST go for actors, but here are some tips on how to make sure you never Heigl yourself:

    • You are your own brand.  First impressions matter big time. But you’re only as good (and as liked) as your last impression.
    • Never bite the hand that feeds you even if you see a bigger hand waiting with food.
    • Never burn a bridge you don’t know for sure you can rebuild – or that can be rebuilt without you.
    • Your mother should be your MOTHER. Ask her questions, take her suggestions, and then tell her to Fuck Off and listen to the professionals who do this for a living. The only successful Momager is Kris Jenner…and do you really wanna be a Kardashian?
    • Build buzz for your career in positive ways. Be endearing, quirky, and funny.  It’s okay to stick your foot in your mouth, as long as you do it in an adorable way.
    • Strike when the iron is hot, but don’t go too outside your comfort zone/demographic on your first project. Whatever your first hit movie role is, you’re going to have to play in that genre for a couple of years so get used to it and don’t badmouth it. But each role should expand your demographic slightly.
    • After you’ve had 2 or 3 modest to major successes, it’s time to branch out and do something against type to show just how much range you have. A dark indie, an action franchise, host SNL, etc.
    • Keep your fucking mouth shut in the press about any topics not related to whatever you’re promoting. Unless you’re Sean Penn or George Clooney, no one gives a shit what you think about foreign politics.
    • Your PR person is the most important asset you have. If she disagrees with your mother, fire your mother.
    • Surround yourself with people who have better taste than you do.
    • Be nice. Be cordial. Be self-deprecating without seeming too self-conscious. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Learn the crew’s names. Respect the writer.
    • Make it seem like you actually enjoy it and are grateful. We can tell if you’re not.
    • Never get bored. Always be learning. Always be improving.

     

  • Were Screenwriters Dissed at This Year’s Oscars?

    March 3rd, 2014

    By Danny Manus

    Since last night’s Oscars ceremony, there has been a lot of chatter by writers (both pro and amateur) on social media that screenwriters were all but forgotten in the telecast and in the winner’s speeches. I even got an email this morning from a client wondering why those responsible for the stories aren’t being appreciated by Hollywood anymore.

    In response to this, I have two answers.

    First – while Robert De Niro’s somewhat insulting and stereotypical introduction to the Best Screenplay Oscar didn’t help, I don’t think writers WERE forgotten from the telecast. They received their Oscars like everyone else in every other category. They weren’t dismissed any more than production designers or editors were. Screenwriters are hardly ever the FOCUS of the Oscars – it’s a night based around the actors, directors and films themselves. If it wasn’t for the WGA, the Screenplay awards would probably be given out at the Creative Arts Ceremony.

    That being said, my second point is that the lack of mention of the writing and writers from the winners last night I think illuminated something painfully obvious in the films nominated…the writing wasn’t THAT great.

    Sometimes it’s the powerful words on the page that elicit fantastic performances from actors. And sometimes, it’s the fantastic and powerful performances from the actors that bring the words on the page to life. And in 2013, I dare say it was the latter that occurred.

    Looking at the projects that won big last night, Gravity and Dallas Buyers Club specifically, these were not movies driven by story or script. These were not films driven by powerful dialogue. These were films driven by powerful performances and technical achievement. In Dallas, let’s be honest – it wasn’t the words McConaughey or Leto said that made that movie special – it was the WAY they said them and their immersion in their roles. And that’s not due to the writer.

    In Gravity’s case, it was a film driven by the DIRECTOR’S vision and technical handling of the material and how that skill created a movie-going experience unlike any other. But no one thought Gravity had a very strong story or script.

    American Hustle went home empty handed (which was fine by me) and its biggest criticism was that while the PERFORMANCES were great, and the world was original, the actual story and plot wasn’t very strong. It had style and voice, but not much substance. It had a few powerful scenes, but it was Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence that made those words shine.

    The Wolf of Wall Street was a much loved movie with some great dialogue and memorable scenes and performances. In fact, it probably has the most quotable lines of any nominated film. But with more F-bombs than any other film in history, an often muddy theme, and a story that seemed to end three different times in its 3-hour plus running time, the script was seen as overwritten and could have been tighter.

    In Blue Jasmine, because of all the negative media attention Woody Allen has been receiving, people wanted to play it safe and just focus on Cate Blanchett’s masterful delivery of the words and emotional turns instead of the writing itself.

    Then there’s 12 Years a Slave. It won for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay but because of the drama behind the scenes, writer John Ridley and Director Steve McQueen didn’t even mention each other in their speeches. There are sometimes a lot of politics in screenwriting. John Ridley has a history of writing scripts that get completely rewritten and then arbitrating for credit, which brings up another major point for why screenwriters perhaps aren’t being as well-respected anymore.

    Every script is rewritten. A lot. Sometimes by many different writers (or producers or executives or directors or actors) to the point where the original script is barely recognizable and the original writer getting credit often isn’t the one who wrote the best lines. And because Hollywood knows this, they have stopped celebrating the writer the way they used to.

    It’s not that ANYONE can just write a great script. But it often takes a village to create one these days. The only projects that get made with only the single original writer working on the script are ones where the writer is also the director, producer or star. So how do you celebrate a screenwriter who only wrote maybe 50% of a script while everyone else gets nothing (but a paycheck) for their efforts?

    In addition to this, the majority of films produced and released these days are based on already existing properties (books, comics, TV shows, etc.) that get adapted by a team of writers. I’m not saying it’s easier to adapt than write an original project – it’s a very different and equally important skill – but when the spine of the story, the characters and even some of the dialogue is already written, which writer do you celebrate?

    Two of the best written scripts of the year (in my opinion) – Her and Philomena – were films that weren’t going to win the big prize and didn’t make as much money as some of the others so they didn’t get the attention they deserved. I’m thrilled that Her won – it deserved to. Of all the scripts, it had perhaps the most insightful dialogue and the most memorable, quotable lines. But for most of the other memorable lines of 2013, you’d have to look outside the 9 nominated films.

    And that’s the litmus test for truly great, memorable writing – how many lines become part of the zeitgeist. How many withstand the test of time. Try to list your 10 favorite lines from films last year. Could you even name 10 quotable lines from the 9 nominated films? I’m willing to bet you can’t. But let’s try…

    “I’m doing this from the feet up.”

    “Falling in love is a socially acceptable form of insanity.”

    “I don’t want to survive. I want to live.”

    “I hate space.”

    “You’re nothing to me until you’re everything.”

    “Sell me this pen.”

    “You have my money taped to your tits. Technically, you do work for me.”

    “I’m the Captain now.”

    “I don’t want to hate people. I don’t want to be like you.”

    “I never knew the son of a bitch even wanted to be a millionaire! He should have thought about that years ago and worked for it!”

    Whew…10.  

    No offense but do ANY of those lines have the resonance of “You can’t handle the truth!” or “I ate his liver with a side of fava beans and a nice chianti” or “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me” or “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist” or “They’re called boobs, Ed.” I don’t think so.  The lines from HER are the closest for me to being iconic.

    You want projects with truly deep, powerful writing where the screenwriter is celebrated, then watch the Independent Spirit Awards. Or attend the Nicholls Fellowship Winners Ceremony.

    You want Hollywood to celebrate screenwriters more, then they need to produce more ORIGINAL scripts written by FEWER writers. Until then, we’re all just cogs in the system and cogs don’t get celebrated. They just keep cogging away.

  • Why Her ?

    January 4th, 2014

    By Danny Manus

    2013 was an excellent year for movies – perhaps the best in quite a few years. And there are many films that I would be very content with winning the Oscar. But for me, the best movie of the year is Her. And no one is more shocked about that than I am.

    I went in doubting the hype. I’m not a huge Joaquin Phoenix fan and Spike Jonze is the kind of manic eccentric genius that sometimes doesn’t translate to a relatable cohesive story. And considering his writing credits include the Jackass movies and Where the Wild Things Are and his directing credits include Adaptation, Being John Malkovich and dozens of music videos, who could guess that he’d write the next great American love story.

    The best compliment I could give Her is that it makes me never want to write again because I don’t think I could ever write something as good that works on so many levels. It is a touching, amazingly relevant, powerful and complete love story that engrosses you more than most love stories where there are TWO people present on screen. It is beautifully crafted, beautifully acted and thematically impactful. It’s a love story for the ages, and the age that hasn’t come yet.

    And I realized there are some specific reasons why this movie works so well.

    1.    It creates an interesting, expansive world but only explores one tiny piece of it. There are so many lovely nuances to this futuristic Los Angeles setting. The green screen backgrounds shows how much LA has changed in the near future, with its endless glittering lights and cell towers pinging like shooting stars. Every single person is engaged in a schizophrenic-like experience talking to their own ear pieces and personal OS systems as they walk down the street completely oblivious that anyone else exists. The sharp, ultra-functional, ultra-modern, color-infused world of the apartments and offices underline the isolation that seems to exist between its residents. There are friendships and dates and social interaction, but the closest relationship people seem to have in this world is with their tech gadgets.

    Other nuances like how email is read and categorized, how fast technology works and is able to absorb and grow and adapt, how people get around, etc. only further help flesh out the world.  Jonze clearly knew every little aspect of his near-future landscape before he wrote this script and was able to pick and choose which ones would highlight his theme and story and characters in genius ways.  There are probably tons of other aspects of this world that could have been explored, but limiting it to what is directly connected to the love story makes it all the more intriguing. When writers know how to create a truly intriguing world that is special yet relatable, different yet plausible, and that world matches the story that is occurring within it, it’s a winning combination.

    Many of the scripts I’ve read lately have these expansive futuristic/dystopian/post-apocalyptic worlds, but they aren’t really necessary to the story – the writers are just hoping that their “awesome” worlds will mask what’s lacking in the narrative. Jonze chose a time and world that complimented the story in perfect fashion and made it feel MORE believable and viable instead of just distracting us from it. Jonze created a big world but made it feel small, while creating a small story and making it feel big. That’s one of the keys to successful world building.

    2.   Timing. Is there a more relevant love story right now than that between man and technology? It’s the right story at the right time. The themes and societal questions raised and explored of what makes for a genuine relationship, what defines a happy couple, what makes for true love, and what constitutes an acceptable love dynamic in society is done so in beautiful ways. At a time when gay marriage is a hot button issue, Jonze takes the concept two steps further and makes relationships with OS’s (Operating Systems) the next issue to be tackled. It’s talked about and accepted by many in this story – but it’s still not the thing everyone is comfortable with. It’s still somewhat taboo and embarrassing for Phoenix’s character. There’s still that unsure “Ohhh…umm…okay” reaction when people hear about this relationship.

    When a writer can tap into the zeitgeist – and what could be NEXT in the zeitgeist – in a way that examines an issue in a brilliant way without ever mentioning the issue, that shows true talent. The concept of the OS/Human relationship is discussed, but it’s more about the doubt the Human and the OS have in their own feelings than their worries about what the outside world thinks. It’s about being comfortable in your own love and your own mind and letting everything else go. And if that’s not an important and relevant message and theme to explore today, I don’t know what is.

    The beauty of the way Jonze explores this theme, however, is how he has elevated the genre and the discussion. Which brings us to…

    3.    It defines elevated storytelling. And that’s not easy to do with romance or romantic dramas. If you’ve ever seen a Nicholas Sparks novel brought to life on screen, they all have strong emotional hooks. They all have an internal dilemma and external conflict that rips the lovers apart only so they can find a way to come back together. But almost none of them feel realistic or relatable. His books explore life-threatening illnesses and death. They are female fantasies underlining the power of true love. None of them are overly intelligent or complex. They connect on an emotional level but that’s about it. The beauty of Her is that it connects on an emotional level AND a cerebral one. It makes you feel, it makes you cry, and it makes you think at the same time.

    Hollywood always says it wants ELEVATED material. This is a romantic drama on an elevated level. Elevated means there is something smarter and deeper about the story than the normal, down-the-middle boy meets girl story. And Her delivers on that in spades.

    4.    It tells a complete love story. It’s boy meets girl (ish), but in a whole new way. But the beauty of the structure of the story is that we really get to experience their whole relationship. I don’t want to give anything away about how the film ends, but every time you think the story can end, Spike Jonze finds a believable and relatable way to throw another plot twist into the mix that progress the arcs of both characters and raises the stakes. And they all feel like REAL twists that would plague any real-world human relationship which is what makes it feel so genuine.

    It doesn’t take much to believe that a person can fall in love with a voice on a computer. So once you swallow that premise, the rest is a rollercoaster ride of emotion from beginning to end that probably feels like a love story you’ve experienced.  Or maybe that’s just me. It uses all the tropes of romantic drama – loss, death, cheating, conflict, temptation, realization, growth, change, love and sex – but there’s only one physical person involved. It’s a focused story, but a complete story. And that’s what you should be trying to do with your scripts.

    5.     It gives its actors immense room to play, react, feel and emote. Movies don’t get made without stars these days, and to get stars you need characters that stand out and give them something to do.  A new situation or mindset for them to explore emotionally. And too many writers focus on the action of what the characters do in the scene and not enough on the REACTION the actors get to portray in their quiet or reflective moments. And all of the actors in this film have those moments and play them perfectly.

    Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams (who looks more like Cameron Diaz in Being John Malkovich than the glam roles she usually plays), Olivia Wilde, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt and especially Scarlett Johansson are all pitch perfect (and listen for the greatest voice over cameo ever by Kristen Wiig).

    The fact that Scarlett Johansson can’t be nominated for an Academy Award is a damn shame. Personally, I’ve never been a big Joaquin Phoenix fan. I find him intense and creepy to watch but not in a fun way (like Daniel Day Lewis). But the man knows how to genuinely emote on screen like very few others can. He’s so open and able to commit to the words, it’s powerful to watch. And I’m not sure if Scarlett was in the room or speaking to him through the ear piece or if it was all done in post, but you’d never know he was the only person in the room.

    Phoenix’s character has a simple enough backstory – a nasty divorce from the love of his life has left him somewhat of a recluse and emotionally crippled. It’s not a hugely original backstory. But when combined with the world created, it’s all you need. The OS Samantha, played by Johansson, has just as much (if not more) or a character arc than the human characters. It’s her character that grows and changes the most. As I said, it’s a complete love story told from both perspectives, even though we are only SEEING one on screen. Give huge credit to Scarlett for bringing a character to life that isn’t even alive and that we never see. If you can write characters like that, you will get a major actor attached to your script.

    6.    The dialogue will affect you. I don’t want to ruin anything, but I will leave you with two quotes that stand out.  “Love is a form of socially acceptable insanity.” This line is brilliant not just because it’s accurate, but because the whole story is about a guy talking to an ear piece, which makes him look even crazier yet in this world it’s socially acceptable. And “The past is just a story we tell ourselves.” It’s one of those lines that stay with you, that become part of the way you think. The script is full of these, and that kind of dialogue is what powerful films are made of.

    Hopefully I’ve convinced you to go see Her, but also to read the script and learn how to craft a story that deserves Oscar gold.

     

  • Me and Mr. Gilligan (at Austin Film Fest)

    November 4th, 2013

    By Danny Manus

    “I am not in Danger…I am the danger….I am the one who knocks.”

    After hearing the powerful, blistering, graveled, cold-hearted speeches of Walter White, you might think the man behind the words would have a twinge of Heisenberg in him. Be some sort of formidable, overpowering, guarded type who could just as easily talk you into an acid bath as he could talk you into getting a beer.

    But that’s not the type of man Vince Gilligan is. Or at least seems to be.

    This year at the Austin Film Festival, there were many huge name writers, actors, producers and directors, but no name inspired as much discussion and anticipation among amateurs and pros alike, as Vince Gilligan.

    The creator of Breaking Bad was the toast of the town. People (including myself) lined up over an hour ahead of time to listen to him speak, and THREE hours ahead of time to hear the stages reading of his unproduced script, “Two-Face.” More on this in a moment.

    My goals in coming to Austin Film Festival this year were clear; be an engaging moderator and bring out the best from my panelists, teach people to pitch and judge my ass off, get drunken blackmail stories from A-List screenwriters and producers… and talk to Vince Gilligan.

    I was a huge fan of the X-Files, and an even bigger fan of Breaking Bad.  The mastery by which that story was told is hard to replicate or even explain. And very few shows build in popularity and plot the way Breaking Bad did. It was somewhat of an anomaly, aided by Netflix and binge-watching, that became a phenomenon among TV whores like me.  And so my whole goal for AFF, was to finally meet (and thank) Vince Gilligan.

    I figured he’d be guarded at all times from the throngs of people waiting to shake his hand, and at best maybe I’d get a picture of him from 20 feet away and then just tell people that I got to meet him and fabricate some story of how we laughed until the wee hours, drinking and reminiscing about the good old days.

    Luckily, none of that came to bear.

    On Thursday evening at the first WGA Opening Party, which featured an open bar, great drinks, and the insanely awesome Grilled Cheese Truck, you could imagine my glee when I turned around and saw Vince Gilligan just standing there chatting with people like he was Joe Schmo at the neighborhood watering hole. Of course once people realized he was there, a line formed which quickly became a meet and greet. But I didn’t care. I came to Austin to meet Vince Gilligan, and dammit, that’s what I was going to do.

    I waited my turn, I got my camera ready, and I walked up and said hello. For some reason, I was less nervous than I usually am around people I truly admire or “celebrities.” It’s not that I get nervous so much as I feel like anything I’m about to say to  them, they’ve already heard a million times. And there’s that constant thought in my head when meeting celebrities that sounds like “Dontsayanythingstupiddontsayanythingstupiddontsayanythingstupid!”

    But I didn’t feel that way with Mr. Gilligan. I had my Producer’s badge on, I was on a few panels, and I was a professional. A professional with a creativity boner, but a professional nonetheless.

    I introduced myself and what I do, told him how much I loved the show, as well as X-Files and how I really think the writing on Breaking Bad was a master class in how to express great emotion and detail without nailing people over the head and going overboard, a la Homeland.  I’m sure I then gushed a little bit like a school girl and thanked him for making a TV whore like me very happy, and then I offered to buy him a drink but he already had one. Quite frankly, my AFF experience could have ended there and I would have been happy.

    Vince (yeah, I call him Vince now) could not have been more gracious and kind. He listened to everyone, said hello to everyone, shook hands, chatted and took pictures with everyone. He even came to the smaller events and BBQ parties and never turned anyone away. And listening to him speak during his sessions, was special for me. Not just because I love his work, but because his story ISN’T spectacular.

    He won a college screenwriting contest in Virginia and me the one guy who believed in him and made things happen for him and his career. And having heard Mr. Gilligan speak on two different panels over the weekend, his humbleness, his humility, his passion, and his gratitude for the place he’s in right now, really came across. And hearing him speak actually sparked and inspired a new feature idea in my own head that I immediately started outlining and texting to myself in the middle of the panel. I’ll be sure to thank him the next time we meet.

    On Sunday, my entire plan (other than a bit of recovery), was to get in line early for the staged reading of Mr. Gilligan’s unproduced script, “Two-Face”. The reading was at the State Theater, which only seats about 300, so I knew I had to get there early. It started at 2pm, and I got to the line about 11:50 – and it was already around the block. I was number 168 out of 300. By 12:15, the line was shut down.

    I had never been to a reading like this. Certainly not one where Will Ferrell, Linda Cardellini, Thomas Hayden Church, Billy Burke, Rob Brown and the insanely fantastic Giancarlo Esposito were doing the reading. It was very interesting to watch, and despite a few audio issues, it was very engaging.

    I will say that Billy Burke apparently went to the Kiefer Sutherland school of acting, where there are only two ways to say a line – whisper it inaudibly into your chest or scream like a nuclear bomb is about to go off.  Will Ferrell brought a voice to the project that only he could, and considering it was a dark comedy about race and mental illness and love, it needed his comedic voice to feel relatable and fun. But the standouts for me were easily Linda Cardellini, who hit every line with pitch perfect accuracy, and Giancarlo Esposito, who is a master class unto himself.

    Esposito easily got the largest applause when he walked out – yes, even more than Will Ferrell. This was a Breaking Bad crowd all the way. And the fire with which he delivered his lines, was unmistakable. He’s the ONLY actor that ever got out of his chair and did something physical. You could tell he was totally engaged the whole way through, even in scenes he wasn’t in.

    And in the back stood Vince Gilligan, watching his baby that he wrote 20 years ago (but since updated), finally getting read in public for the first time. I occasionally glanced back at him after a line hit particularly well (or didn’t) to gauge his reaction, and he looked like he was enjoying every second but thinking about exactly how the script could still be improved or tightened.  It was a joy to watch and I think it’s great that the man who I’m sure is being offered every single writing gig in town, is still trying to get his own non-commercial scripts made.

    I saw Vince Gilligan a few times over the course of the weekend at different parties, but didn’t want to seem like a stalker or monopolize his time. So in case I never get to meet him again, I’ll just thank him now for the inspiration, the memory and the creativity boner. You may not be Heisenberg…but you’re Vince Fucking Gilligan.

  • Finding Inspiration, Motivation and Opportunity in Austin

    November 4th, 2013

    By Danny Manus

    Sometimes all you need to keep going is a little creative rejuvenation. A little brainstorm Botox. A writer’s reset button.

    That’s exactly what I found in Texas last week at the Austin Film Festival. It was an enjoyably exhausting vacation from the mind-fuck of monotony that sometimes plagues this business. It was a much-needed respite from the bad scripts and solitude of writing notes and a reminder of all of the best reasons I went into this business. It was, in the most basic of terms, an inspiration.

    It was basically non-stop from 8am to 3am for 5 days, with panels, screenings, parties, networking, walking, and lots of drinking. But sometimes that adrenaline, that insanity, that busy-ness, is what can unstick you from your creative rut.

    I went into this business to be heard. To be respected. To have a creative outlet and make a difference with my words. Or at least make a splash. I went into this business to work with the best, talk with the best, learn from the best. And find ways to improve my own talents, and help other improve theirs. And that’s what AFF is all about.

    I had never been to the AFF, despite a few years of campaigning. So when I got the invite this year to come and be a moderator on a few panels, I was really excited. I had heard so much about the creative energy and spirit of Austin Film Festival, as well as the HUGE A-list names that attend and speak every year, that I jumped at the chance to be a part of it. And then as the event neared, they also asked me to be a judge for their pitching competition and teach the Pitch Prep Panel alongside writer Pamela Ribon (Samantha Who), which was a great experience. In all, I was involved in 5 panels. Moderating two, teaching one, and pitch judging for two others.

    I had been to Austin once before, this past June for the Writers League of Texas Conference, which was a wonderful event though it was also 103 degrees in the shade with 140% humidity. I’m pretty sure that’s possible. But even as I sloshed my way through the city, I could feel an air of creativity. From the music to the art to the passion they show for books and films.

    But Austin Film Festival harnesses that creativity and produces a conference and festival unlike any other. It’s not as stodgy as Sundance, not as overhyped as Comic Con, not as expensive as Cannes. And AFF offers something you can’t get at any of those events….direct access.

    This year, the undisputed star and main-draw was Vince Gilligan, writer/creator/God of Breaking Bad. It didn’t matter who else was speaking, Vince Gilligan was the one person even the other celebrities were hoping to meet. I will speak about my experience with Vince in another article.

    In addition to Vince Gilligan, Will Ferrell was there, Susan Sarandon was there, Giancarlo Esposito, Callie Khouri, Barry Josephson, Elaine May, Paul Thomas Anderson, Jonathan Demme (who was perhaps the second biggest draw), plus major A-List screenwriters like Zak Penn, Scott Neustadter, Leslie Dixon, Leigh Wannell, Craig Mazin, John August, Phil Rosenthal, Shane Black, Scott Rosenberg, Terry Rossio, John Swetnam, Justin Marks, Kelly Marcel, Lee Aronsohn, Rian Johnson, John Hamburg, Robert Rodriguez, Roberto Orci, David Shore, etc., plus tons of agents, managers, producers, and industry leaders (if you don’t know those names, you’re not reading enough!).

    I don’t list these names to name-drop or make you jealous, I promise. I list them because they were (almost) all accessible and inspirational. If you couldn’t find inspiration in some form from listening to these people speak and meeting them and learning about their journeys, then you just might be dead inside.

    Sure, some were more guarded than others. But for the most part, everyone’s wearing the same badge and waiting on the same line and drinking in the same bar. And just being there, having that direct access, being able to go up to Terry Rossio and go “Hey, can I buy you a drink” is the very thing new writers and young producers dream about. Very few of those huge names turned people away.  Instead, they engaged in real conversation, answering questions and giving nuggets of encouragement.

    I watched Shane Black chat it up with newbies in the bar like they had known each other for years. I watched a socially awkward comic book nerd who (amazingly) didn’t even know who Zak Penn was, out-nerd him on a comic book question (a hilarious story you’ll have to ask me about in person). And I watched myself getting shit-faced with multi-million-dollar screenwriters and forging relationships I hope last a long time.

    I also got to finally meet many of my Twitter followers, which was great! And got to chat with some of the people I follow on Twitter and whose articles I read, like Scott Myers of Go Into The Story and Franklin Leonard, creator of The Black List. Was good to put some twitter-warring to bed and forge new relationships.

    Sitting in on a few panels, there were a few that truly motivated me and inspired me but for different reasons.

    First, listening to Vince Gilligan speak and just watching him interact with the hoard of people who were trying to meet him all weekend (including myself), I was amazed at how sometimes, nice guys do win. If there was a more gracious, humble, kind man at this festival, I didn’t meet him. He was a lesson in how to be successful as a screenwriter, and as a human being.

    Best part? While listening to Vince speak about Breaking Bad and Bryan Cranston’s method and if the characters will live on in some way, I came up with a new idea for a script that came so quickly into my head I had to text it to myself right then so I wouldn’t forget any of it. You never know where the kernel of an idea will come from, and this time it came from Vince Gilligan. So I’ll be sure to thank him in MY acceptance speech.

    At the panel for those getting an award this year – Gilligan, Sarandon, Khouri, Demme and Josephson – what struck me most was that NONE of their stories of how they became who they are, were spectacular. They were all interesting and fun to listen to, but they all just seemed to take random opportunities when presented with them, no matter what it was. It’s all about capitalizing on opportunity. Jonathan Demme and Susan Sarandon spoke about their journeys to fame, and they both just kept saying ‘Yes’ to things. Sarandon never had any training, but she had innate talent and did shitty movies, soap operas – whatever she could to get that next job and learn. She didn’t wait around for that ONE big starring role to launch her career, she worked her way up.

    Demme was a film critic and had no wanting to direct, but he got put on a Roger Corman film to do publicity and eventually was just asked to fly to London, write a movie, and it got made. He was asked, ‘Do you think you can write a movie about motorcycles?’ and he said “Sure.” And that was it.

    I see new writers passing up opportunities left and right as they try to break into this business, because it doesn’t pay enough or it’s not a high-profile enough producer, or it’s “only straight to DVD.” Take every opportunity you can to improve your craft and get a foot in the door, because you never know which door will actually open.

    Vince Gilligan won a Virginia screenwriting contest over 20 years ago and it just happened to be that one of the judges was producer Mark Johnson (Rain Man), who went to the school and was doing them a favor. He liked the script so much, he contacted Vince months later and made the movie (Home Fries), and has been a mentor to Vince ever since, serving as exec producer on Breaking Bad.

    What I learned from these industry giants is that it’s not just about trying hard. It’s about having natural talent – an innate ability – and then having luck, good timing and opportunity. But once those stars align, you have to then be willing to work harder than everyone else and trust your own instincts and never quit.

    Another inspiration came from screenwriter Terry Rossio (Pirates of the Caribbean, etc). I have always been a fan of his and this year, he was doing the REWRITE class, and as someone who does a lot of rewriting, I was very interested to hear his technique and see what I could learn (even professionals are always constantly learning).

    Unfortunately, while Terry is incredibly likable and engaging on stage, I didn’t find the class to be as informative or on-point as I would’ve liked (and got into numerous arguments about it after). But Terry did do something no one else does – and that is polish a script sight-unseen right there live on stage. It’s an impressive feat that most couldn’t do. And while I didn’t always agree with the changes Terry made, and he admitted they weren’t so much rewrite changes as polishing changes, it inspired a new class for me to teach and a new way to teach it. Now I look forward to teaching my own rewrite/polish class in 2014!

    And finally, on one of my panels, The Spec Script, a writer named John Swetnam was one of my panelists. He had written 18 scripts – 18!!! – before he sold his first one. He admits he didn’t think he had that innate ability and had to learn it and work hard. He decided after those 18 scripts that he was going to put his producer hat on and write something he knew could sell and get made quickly according to the marketplace. And 8 months later, he was in production with Stephen Moyer and Radha Mitchell starring in his first film. Now he’s writing Step Up 5 and has completed a couple huge budget studio films that will be out in 2014 and 2015.

    It doesn’t always take 18 scripts. Another panelist, screenwriter Matt Cook, who has had 2 scripts appear in the top ten of The BlackList, wrote one script, gave it to the ONE guy he knew who happened to be an agent at WME, he got signed, and the rest is history. By the way, Matt still lives in Austin.

    Across the board from all the dozens of panelists and screenwriters and producers and agents at AFF, the one thing that become clear was that there is no ONE way to break in. But let me tell you, attending Austin Film Festival is one hell of a great first step.

    Just hearing all the stories from these pros and getting to really talk with them and hang out with them gave me a kick in the ass like I haven’t felt in a long time. It was exactly what I needed because to be honest, I’ve felt like I’ve just been treading water the last few months. And so if you ever feel that way, do yourself a favor, and book yourself a pass for next year’s Austin Film Festival. I’ll see you there!

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