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  • 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!

  • But I Want to Write About Unicorns!

    October 30th, 2013

    By Danny Manus

    There once was a young child no more than 8 years old – let’s call her Susie – who loved to write. She’d write short stories, poems – whatever came to her. And she was obsessed with Unicorns – like, totally obsessed.

    One day her teacher gave the class a homework assignment – to write 1 page about their family. The next day, she presented her paper to the class. Except while everyone else in the class followed the assignment and spoke about their brothers and sisters and parents, and they all got gold stars, little Susie decided to write about unicorns…Because she liked them.

    The teacher scorned her, told her that the assignment wasn’t to write about unicorns and while she is free to write about unicorns in her spare time or for fun, when she’s doing her homework she needs to write what everyone else is writing. She needs to complete the assignments given to her. Or else no one will get to hear her stories.

    Susie cried and screamed about how she would only write about unicorns no matter what anyone said and no matter what anyone told her she should write about. And poor little Susie ended up with 14 books about unicorns that no one ever read, and sadly had to repeat the 4th grade.

    What’s the lesson here?

    Originality is a great thing and the thought of rebelling against the system or Hollwood machine can be intriguing. But if everyone is telling you to stop writing about unicorns because no one wants to hear about them…then maybe you should start paying attention to what everyone else is writing.

  • Why Summer Movies Flopped & Succeeded – And What This Means for Movie Trends

    July 15th, 2013

    By Danny Manus

    Hindsight is 20/20, but when it comes to big summer box office failures…should it be?

    Maybe they should’ve read my newsletter last month and my article on the Tenets of Tentpole Movies Ha!

    It’s barely mid-July, but the summer has already claimed a few box office casualties. But alternatively, it’s also created a few unlikely heroes. The questions remain, however – why did they fail? Why couldn’t studios see it coming? Weren’t there obvious warning signs? And what kind of consequence could it have on movie trends in the near future?

    There have been 4 box office flops so far this summer with one still TBD and another (I predict) right around the corner. Those are; The Lone Ranger, White House Down, The Internship and After Earth. Pacific Rim is still TBD and RIPD is set to be released in a couple weeks and I believe it will join the ranks of these fine films. But if you look at each of these movies, I tend to think it’s pretty obvious why they didn’t perform to expectations. And when you compare them to a few of the movies that over-performed, you’ll see why.

    Most of the underperforming movies can be blamed on bad casting, bad timing, or bad concept. Or a combination of all three.

    The Lone Ranger – To be fair, studios saw this coming for a year. NO ONE thought this would make money, Disney was just hoping it would squeak out enough money to not see reminders of John Carter in the headlines. It didn’t. The reasons for Lone Ranger bombing are multiple and obvious. They cast the lead actor in the supporting role and then had to redesign a story so that both the lead and the sidekick were basically equal. Oh, and the lead is a Native American character played by a white guy who speaks with a fake French accent as he wears a dead bird on his head.

    I get that Johnny Depp is bankable after the Pirates movies and Alice in Wonderland, but did anyone think that maybe people went to the theaters because they like pirates and Alice in Wonderland and maybe it wasn’t all because of Depp? Depp would’ve, could’ve made a great Lone Ranger – except he won’t do any movie where he’s not in full make-up and costume.

    Lone Ranger had what studios call pre-recognition. People recognize the ‘Lone Ranger’ title. Yeah…if you’re over 50! No one under 35 has ever seen the Lone Ranger, no one under 25 has ever heard of it, and no one overseas cares about it. And no one over 50 goes to see big blockbuster Bruckheimer movies like this one. So, it never had the audience it thought it did. But even with all that, the movie COULD have made money – if it was made for $125M instead of $250M.  And by the way – remember when big summer blockbusters cost $125M and we all thought that was an insane amount of money? Independence Day was made for less than $100M! Remember that. The studio didn’t want to lose Depp, so it just kept shelling out money. Meanwhile, if you had cast 2 different actors, and kept the budget down to $125M, it could have saved Disney a $150M write-down.

    With White House Down, it sounded like a perfect movie. A no-brainer. Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx together in an action movie about defending the White House. What could be a better movie? Oh right…Olympus Has Fallen. This film suffered because those crazy kooks at Millennium Films (a company I have worked with before) decided to buy a script that was just like the White House Down script – and get it made first, and cheaper. And it did really well. If it had bombed, WHD would’ve had a shot. But it didn’t – so people had no incentive to go see the same movie twice.  When Olympus Has Fallen passed $100M, they should’ve shelved WHD for 6 months instead of releasing it now.

    Channing Tatum is a big star and people love him. Shit, I love him. But Jamie Foxx as the wise-crackin’ black president who loves his Air Jordan sneakers? Give me a break. There are plenty of Black actors I could totally see as the President – but Jamie Foxx isn’t one of them. When you’ve got a big concept, you have to cast it in a way that brings some believability to it.

    After Earth was just Will Smith masturbating over himself and his children again, but this time he asked one of the most derisive and hated directors in town to help him with M Night Shyamalan (whose name isn’t even on the poster). And this masturbation session cost $130M plus P&A and marketing costs. Now, it’s made $200M, but $140 of that was overseas, and it has put a true damper on Will Smith’s star power. But, are Will Smith and the execs at Sony the ONLY people who don’t know that society doesn’t approve of the talent-factory Will Smith has tried to turn his family into? Add to that a twinge of scientology and you’ve got yourself the makings of a flop. Let’s be honest- Jaden Smith isn’t likable. He doesn’t have his father’s charisma or personality or acting chops (yet). If they had done a talent search and looked for some new kid to play Will Smith’s son, the movie could’ve done much better.

    The Internship failed for 1 very specific reason. It isn’t 2006 anymore and no one wanted to see Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson as idiots who don’t know what GOOGLE is. I get the product placement value, but if the movie wasn’t about Google and instead was about some little startup internet company that did something amazing and these two guys had to work there, it might have made the story more believable and interesting. And if those two guys weren’t Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, who at 40 should know how to work a computer, but were instead…say… Bill Murray and Billy Crystal or someone older and funnier, the concept might have made more sense. The project seemed to lack heart and Owen Wilson, after his incident a couple years ago, isn’t as believable as the light-hearted loveable funny man. In 2006, this movie would have made $150M easy. But today, it hasn’t even made its production budget back.

    Pacific Rim was on target to bomb. But good reviews and a last minute swing of the Hollywood pendulum has turned what could have been a disaster into a possible sleeper success. It remains to be seen, but it got good word of mouth this weekend and while it only made $40M and has a $200M budget, it should do very well in Asian markets and overseas. And while it’s not my cup of tea, people should root for the project as it’s the largest budgeted ORIGINAL project of the summer. Of course, I say “original” loosely as it’s basically a mash-up of Godzilla meets Transformers. Everyone has been asking for MORE ORIGINAL CONTENT – but studios apparently took that to mean more original content that looks EXACTLY like all the unoriginal content we already have.

    Speaking of which, RIPD opens soon and if you’ve seen the trailer, it couldn’t look more like Men In Black if it tried. One cranky older white guy? Check! One good looking younger sexy guy? Check. Big guns chasing down weird-looking bad guys with big visual effects? Check. An underground section of law enforcement that no one knows about? Check. They swapped Aliens for the Undead, but come on – it’s the SAME movie! Mark my words, it’s going to bomb bad.

    Original projects can work, though! And hopefully these failures won’t discourage studios from pursuing them. The thing is, they only work at a certain budget level. Horror film producers figured this out years ago – so why hasn’t everyone else? The upcoming film The Conjuring is tracking HUGE and will probably be the next InsidiousThe Purge did similar great business. Both were made for under $10M. Now You See Me was a big surprise hit for Summit, and made for about $75M – which is about the acceptable ceiling for original material unless it’s being directed by a Nolan, Fincher or Spielberg. The Great Gatsby, which had a $100M budget, was a surprise hit early in the summer but had huge international stars, a proven visionary director and pre-recognition. And The Heat took the most likable actress on the planet and added in the hottest female comedy actress of the year and with a $45M budget, created a major hit. It was a sure-fire winner.

    Man of Steel could’ve have gone so wrong. The third re-launch of a franchise? Really? But sometimes good filmmaking, a new vision and a great cast can overcome what could’ve been a train wreck.  Despicable Me 2 had perhaps the most expansive and infectious publicity and marketing campaign of the year. And in the summer, that can pay off big and it’s now one of the most successful animated movies of all time and it’s only in week 3.

    So what do these summer failures and success mean for future film trends? Hopefully it means more original content and smarter, slimmer budgets. Hopefully it means that “pre-recognition” will stop dictating green lights. Hopefully it means the same 10 stars won’t star in every movie. Hopefully different studios won’t race to make similar competing projects and will just go find other material. Hopefully there will be more movies starring women. Hopefully it means that writing and producing great genre movies is still the best way to break in and create a hit. Hopefully, it means certain bloated studio producers can spend a month languishing with the rest of us.

    But what it really means is…no one knows anything.

  • The Tenets of Tentpole Movies

    July 15th, 2013

    By Danny Manus

    It’s summertime at the box office, which means big effects, big budgets, and even bigger stakes for the studios. Because it’s tentpole movie season.

    You’ve probably heard the terms four-quadrant and tentpole movie, but what do they mean exactly? Should you be writing one? And what makes them work?

    A four-quadrant movie is one that will attract all four of the general quadrants of movie goers – male, female, old and young (or over 35 and under 35 more specifically).

    A tentpole movie is called such for two reasons; One, because everyone can fit under the tent – it attracts all four quadrants. And two, because it’s these huge money makers that basically fund and allow all their other, smaller movies to be made throughout the year. It’s the big flagship movies, franchises, remakes, sequels, and blockbusters that bring in a billion+ dollars that give the studios the ability to take chances on other projects.

    And when a tentpole fails, the whole tent comes caving in and everyone inside goes running for safer grounds… aka other studios.

    These days, not every tentpole movie has to be four-quadrant, especially if you’re writing a comedy. Look at Hangover 3 and the upcoming movies The Heat and This is The End.   But Hangover of course is a three-quel and a proven entity, and the other two star some of Hollywood’s biggest and most popular stars, so they were no brainers.  Almost every other big blockbuster film this summer, however, is rated PG-13 to maximize possible viewership. If animation, it needs to be PG.

    So what makes for a successful tentpole film? How do you know it’s going to hit it big?

    Well, on a business/studio level it’s really all about tracking and data and marketing and promotion and publicity and word of mouth and great reviews and having a great trailer and poster and huge stars making the rounds. It has almost ZERO to do with story.

    But on a story level, there are many things that a great tentpole needs to include or be in order to work.

    1. The SINGLE biggest thing that a tentpole movie must be – is sellable overseas. Doing well domestically is nice frosting on the cake, but studios make their money overseas. If it’s not a story with big visuals (whether it be action, visual effects, scares, etc.) and big name stars (with the exception of animation), it won’t work in other territories. If it isn’t a story with a universal premise and universal themes that EVERYONE can understand and connect with, it won’t work. Aliens, Robots, Vampires, Superheroes – these are universal things.
    2. It must be super high concept and have a visual hook. You need a BIG idea. If you can’t pitch a tentpole project in one sentence and make us see the poster, trailer, what’s new about it, why people will get it, and its opportunity for success – it’s dead in the water.
    3. A Hero and Villain that people will love, and that huge name actors that sell overseas will love to play. Tentpoles cannot work with no-name actors, unless the writers and directors are huge names (like Nolan, Spielberg, Michael Bay, etc.) Don’t believe me? Look at John Carter and Jack the Giant Slayer.
    4. A big tentpole movie requires a larger cast. An ensemble. A team. A group.  There may be one main protagonist, but there are almost always 2-5 OTHER very castable team members on the journey. Transformers, Star Trek, X-Men, The Avengers, Armageddon, etc.  The exception for this is if it’s a solo superhero movie with a titular character we all know and love already like Wolverine, Spider-Man or Iron Man.
    5. Every tentpole movie – in fact EVERY movie – needs an Iconic Image. It’s that one thing – that one moment, scene, visual, etc. – that you will always have in your head when you think of that movie. What is YOUR script’s iconic image?
    6. If you have big action and big effects, make them friggin’ HUGE. Not every movie needs big explosions and VFX to work, but if you’re making a big VFX movie, it needs to have action sequences and moments we’ve never seen before on film.
    7. An already established and proven audience. It’s easier to fund a project when you know there’s at least an already-proven core audience that will go see the project. This is why most tentpole movies these days are based on popular books, comics, graphic novels, remakes, TV shows, video games, sequels, etc. It lessens the risk. And when you’re writing a check for $150 Million dollars, less risk is a good thing.

    Now the big question for you as a screenwriter – should you be writing these movies?

    Well, you should definitely NOT write something you don’t own the rights to. That means, do not adapt a bok series just because you love it. Do not write a sequel to a movie, or a reunion movie for a TV show, just because you love it and have an idea. This is a horrible waste of time.

    Studios like proven track records – which is why they don’t buy huge epic blockbusters from new writers. They just don’t. Unless that writer has an amazing agent at a major agency that can package the hell out of the project and there’s already an A-List producer attached, studios will not buy tentpole big budget movies from new writers. So, should you write it? Sure, if you want. But just know that you’re going to have to write something ELSE that gets made first before anyone will think about making your tentpole movie. But if you follow and include most of the points above in your script, at least it will have a better shot when the time comes.

  • The #1 Reason NOT to Be a Screenwriter

    June 25th, 2013

    By Danny Manus

    There are a million reasons to want to try your hand at screenwriting; as therapy, as a creative outlet, because it’s been a dream of yours since childhood, because you just love telling stories in a visual way, because you want to leave your stamp on pop culture or create your legacy, etc.  Or maybe you just want to be famous and get your picture taken in US Weekly standing next to Kristen Stewart looking like she just ate a sour candy.

    But there is one reason that should NEVER come into play – Money.

    It’s time for some tough love, No Bull style. Lately, I’ve had a few clients who told me they NEED to sell their script and quick because they are having financial issues. They’re broke, they are getting evicted, they lost their jobs, they can’t find a new job, they need to pay their mortgage, their children are going to college, etc.

    Let me say this as clearly as humanly possible: If you need to sell a script in order to pay your mortgage…you’re going to be homeless very soon!

    Money is the LAST reason to go into screenwriting because chances are it’s going to take you YEARS to make any. And even if you do (by some miracle) sell or option your first script, it’s not going to be for much money, if any. We’re talking a few thousand dollars – certainly not enough to quit your day job or send a kid to school. Even if you got super-duper lucky and get paid WGA minimum for your script, it’s still less than you’d make as a first year school teacher in a bad neighborhood.

    And getting the movie made is a whole other process that can take anywhere from 2-10 years, so I hope you aren’t counting on those residual checks to pay your rent.

    If you are having financial difficulties, please – do ANYTHING else! You might as well get a job at Starbucks because you will make more money, get full benefits, and if you’re working at a Starbucks in Los Angeles – you’ll probably get to meet more celebrities than you will as a screenwriter anyway.

    Screenwriting is something you want to do as a career because you’re so passionate about it, you just can’t picture yourself doing anything else day after day, year after year and because you LOVE writing – not because you’ve tried everything else and writing is the only thing left and you think anyone can do it.

    Being a professional screenwriter isn’t about writing 100 pages. Anyone can do that. It’s about immersing yourself in the craft of writing and the BUSINESS of film and TV. You have to know what you’re getting into.  Being a professional screenwriter means you don’t just have ONE story to tell that you’d like to see get made one day. It’s about having so many ideas and inspirations and stories that your brain can’t hold them all, so they need to flow out onto paper.

    And if you’ve got tons of ideas but you don’t want to write them – then you’re not a screenwriter – you’re a producer! Ha!

    It’s fine to change careers in life and want to try something new, but screenwriting at a professional level is something that takes YEARS to become proficient at – much like I’m sure whatever your current profession required.

    No one leaves their job as a social worker and says, ‘Ya know what, I need to make more money – so I’m going to be a doctor from now on.’ And then immediately starts working on patients and gets paid a million dollars. So why do you think screenwriting would be any different?

    It takes MANY scripts, many rewrites, many classes, education, etc. Ask any professional screenwriter how many scripts or years it took for them to break in and finally feel like they were good enough, and I GUARANTEE you that none of them will say a number less than THREE.

    To make real money as a screenwriter – and by that, I mean quit your day job money – you need to perfect not just your writing, but your rewriting, your pitching, your selling, your polishing, and your networking skills. And if you think you can do that by reading Save the Cat and downloading Celtx – you’ve got another thought coming.

    It’s incredibly easy to write a script. It’s insanely difficult to write a great script at a professional level. And it’s ten times harder than that to sell it. And ten times harder still to get it produced, released and be successful.

    The competition even between amateur (non-professional) screenwriters increases with every year. Just five years ago, the total number of submissions for the top 4 screenwriting contests was about 15,000. Now it’s over 30,000. The number of consultants out there offering to help has increased from about 50 to over 300. And for a buck, many are ready and willing to pat you on the head and tell you you’re wonderful and talented and are gonna be rich and famous.

    But they’re wrong.

    I’m not saying this to dissuade you from screenwriting – it is a wonderful profession that can be incredibly satisfying, creatively fulfilling and fun. I’m saying this to make sure screenwriting is something you are so passionate about that it’s not your answer to being broke – it’s the thing WORTH being broke for.

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

    May 7th, 2013

    By Danny Manus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Seven Steps to Saving “Smash”

    March 30th, 2013

    By Danny Manus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The Biggest Threat to Screenwriters in the Digital Age

    March 26th, 2013

    By Danny Manus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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