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  • 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.

  • The Virtues of a Short Film

    February 27th, 2013

    By Danny Manus

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

    Is he wrong? Sort of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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