Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Brainstorming Movie Ideas

After nabbing that lucky agent meeting, I've been doing a lot of waiting... but instead of refreshing my inbox all day, the healthy thing to do is to keep busy.

So what's a young writer to do?

For the longest time, my mantra has been: Watch Movies. Read Scripts. Write Pages. And it has served me well. What could be better than churning out pages while learning from the best scripts and movies out there?

But in one of my meetings, a Manager pointed out to me: Let's say we apply that mantra to a musician. This musician studies concert performances, reads tons of sheet music, and just jams out to new music... but something's missing...

Practice. We all have to practice. Especially emerging writers.

If we only focus on the result -- a polished spec script -- we're not preparing ourselves for a career of rewriting and polishing scripts for Hollywood, where we'll be expected to be handy with every tool in the writer's toolbox, from dialogue and structure to pitching and idea generation.

The paid writer in Hollywood is like a story mechanic -- a producer could tow in a sputtering action script and say, "Well, we modified it with an exciting chase sequence in Act Two, but now the characters are flat and have no chemistry... it was working yesterday, can you fix it?" And whatever is wrong with the script, you have to figure it out and fix it.

How do we get that good at writing? Practice makes employable.

For example, let's say you luck into that meeting with an agent -- and hey, that agent reads your script, likes it, and wants to meet with you again. But then, lo and behold, this happens:
AGENT: Hey, I loved your script!

WRITER: Why thank y--

AGENT: So what else have you got?

WRITER: Well, I've been writing this zombie comedy --

AGENT: Agh, I've been trying to sell a zombie comedy written by one of my clients, brilliant script, but no one's buying it. You have anything else?

WRITER: Umm...
You don't want to be this writer. You want to be the writer that has another idea ready. In fact, you want to have 100+ movie ideas lying around so you'll always be writing... but how?

Here are two great practice exercises that help me generate new ideas for movies:
  1. Come up with a character. Any character. In fact, go to a cafe, sit down, and the next person who walks in the door -- that's your main character. Deal with it.
  2. Give that character an expected goal. A universal goal. A primal goal. But most importantly, make it an ordinary goal. A cop who wants to get back together with his estranged wife -- not become an alien-fighting space captain.
  3. Give that character expected opposition. Considering the character and goal you chose, what would be their usual or obvious opposition? If we're going with this cop, then expected opposition could be his wife has moved out, his wife's lawyer has sent him divorce papers, one of his wife's co-workers is trying to date his wife already, etc., all of which are getting in the way of his goal and are all very much expected in this situation.
  4. Only his bigger problem is... This is where you put in all your creative imagination. So let's say we take this cop who wants to get back together with his estranged wife, who is trying to divorce him -- when terrorists attack! And then, voila, you get DIE HARD.
Some call this the "100 Bad Ideas" exercise. Once you tell yourself that you're just churning out bad ideas, the pressure's off, and you might actually generate 10-25 kick-ass movie ideas!

I wholeheartedly recommend this method, but if it doesn't click with you after a while, try a more traditional, more intuitive brainstorming session a la Jane Espenson:
  1. Make a list of your favorite stories. Movies, TV episodes, books, graphic novels -- if it has a beginning, middle, end and something that intrigues you, write it down.
  2. Write next to those stories what you love about them. Perhaps you love Sherlock Holmes for the characters but could care less for Victorian England. This isn't a list of good stories -- it's a list about you and what you already want to write about.
  3. Play. Take your favorite story elements, mix, match, and change them around until they transform into original concoctions you'd love to write. Let's say you love the character Sherlock Holmes but you also love police procedurals and doctor dramas... and then, voila, you get the Emmy-winning hit HOUSE.
Whatever brainstorming method works for you, go after it... just keep practicing :)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Reps: How to Get Your Script Read

Two weeks ago, I met with a rep. He talked about thrillers and I said I wrote one. He asked about it... and 30 seconds later he asked to read it.

How'd I do it? A good logline.

This is the magic and madness of the Logline -- you have a very brief window of time, a sentence or two, to sum up your big, fat script. This is your elevator pitch between floors 1 and 2.

But it's not all magic. Let me share with you the bare bones that have worked for me after lots of trial and royally screwing up:
[TITLE] is a [genre] about an [adjective] [hero - job/social status/family status, etc.] who wants [universally identifiable goal] when [something exciting happens] -- only our hero's bigger problem is [the twist].
Let me break that down for you:

1) TITLE: Your script's title evokes your tone, genre, style, etc., which is why it's good to either open or close your logline with your title since it can sum up the feel of your story.

2) GENRE: Let them know the Genre right up front so they know to be smiling, scared, teary-eyed, etc., by your screenplay's premise. Last thing you want is to hear a rep say "That sounds hilarious!" when you just told them about your tearjerker romance.

3) HERO: Describe your protagonist. You get one adjective and one noun. That's it. Think of this as your teaser trailer for the script... you're only giving them a taste of the movie, the bare essentials, just enough to get them to want to read the script.

But here's a hint for the adjective: What's your protagonist's greatest flaw? The one character trait that's going to get them into the most trouble? In BACK TO THE FUTURE, our hero Marty McFly hates being called chicken... so you might call him an insecure or impulsive teenager. That's all you need because...

4) GOAL: Tell us what our character wants and make sure it's something we all want. Hunger. Sex. Survival. Protection of loved ones. Something primal. In TAKEN, Liam Neeson's character wants to save his daughter from vicious criminals. Audiences the world over identify with that goal -- because it's a primal, instinctual desire we all have.

5) SOMETHING EXCITING: Some screenwriting gurus call it the "Inciting Incident," "The Call to Adventure," or "The Catalyst" -- whatever you call it, it's something exciting that happens around the end of the first thirty-or-so pages that propels your protagonist out of his or her ordinary world into the exciting, adventurous part of the story. In PRETTY WOMAN, it's the moment Richard Gere's character agrees to hire Julia Roberts' character to be his escort.

6) THE TWIST: This is where the magic comes in. And to show the cards up my sleeves -- the magic is conflict. Your logline needs to overflow with conflict. Your protagonist is in conflict with him- or herself, your protagonist is so far away from his or her goal, your protagonist is the least likely person to be able to deal with this something exciting happening -- when The Twist takes that conflict to the edge and pushes it over.

To give you a better ideas, here are some loglines to some amazing screenplays:
PRETTY WOMAN is a romantic comedy about a hardhearted businessman who needs an escort for an important business function when he's left with no choice but to hire a free-spirited prostitute -- only to fall in love with her.

DIE HARD is an action thriller about a lone cop who comes to L.A. to visit his estranged wife and save their failing marriage -- when terrorists attack!

BACK TO THE FUTURE is an action-comedy about an impulsive teenager who teams up with a wacky scientist to go back in time and save his parents' marriage when he disrupts history -- and now he has to make his parents fall in love or he'll cease to exist!
But notice how none of these fall perfectly into that cookie cutter model above... and none of them perfectly capture the movie, right? That's where your hard work comes in. Trying different adjectives for your hero, different phrasings for the goal, the twist, etc. Write, rewrite, tweak, polish, hone, again and again.

Most importantly, practice. Pitch your logline to people. Not just friends and family, because they'll love it since they love you. Ask the guy behind you in line at the coffee shop. And really gauge their reaction. Keep pitching and keep reworking it until it feels like the most natural, organic, and most exciting way to sum up your story.

That way, when you get that lucky break to have an agent or manager or producer ask about your script, your logline can roll off your tongue like the weather forecast, and hopefully you'll hear those lovely words:

"Sounds great! Send it over."

Speaking of great, I have more good news!

Jessica Marie Sutherland, good friend and now paid writer (hooray!), shares all in how to go one step further from getting read to getting paid to write: Holy F^@k, Or How I Got My First Writing Gig.

Also, my screenplay FURIOUS ANGELS -- the one I sent to the rep -- made Quarter-Finalist at the Page Int'l Screenwriting Awards! More on the Page Awards here.

My meeting with the manager went well with promises of another meeting down the line. Lastly, I'm in talks with a producer to write a few graphic novels. Exciting! Stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Reps: Make a Good First Impression

Last week, I met with a manager. 20 minutes later, he asked to read my script. Here's how I did it:

I sat in the agency's nice little lobby for a while as the manager wrangled a conference and then another call that all went overlong before meeting with me. If you've dealt with any rep before, this is to be expected. I read in the trades that while I was celebrating the 4th of July, this agency won a bidding war on optioning a bestselling book. These are busy people.

After a while, the manager's assistant offered me water and escorted me to the manager's office -- which was a nerd's candy store. Graphic novels. Collectible action figurines. Posters of your favorite Sci-Fi movies signed by the writers. I gravitated right towards a Star Wars book when the manager came in and we got to geek out about Comic Con a bit before he asked:

"So tell me -- What's your story? What's your journey?"

Every up-and-coming writer needs to be ready for this question.

Remember, this is not lunch with your friends, nor is it a business interview. You can't blather on about your cat for 5 minutes and neither can you recite the bullet points of your resume. You have to strike a balance between a fun, casual conversation and telling your own superhero origin story with gusto. What radioactive bug bit you and made you a writer?

The trick is to prepare an answer for this question -- a blurb that sums up your "brand." Are you the next Tim Burton or the next Charlie Kaufman? Do you write gothic fairy tales or mind-bending character dramas? What's your genre or niche? Put your starving artist ideals down for a moment and remember that you're talking to a manager -- and that rep is hoping, praying you can answer his real question: "Can I sell this kid?"

So have an answer ready and timed out to 30-120 seconds. Focus your origin story to answer questions about who you are, where you come from, and what draws you to your brand. If you love writing crime thrillers, why? And what has happened in your life that would give you any kind of authority to write in that genre/niche? Also, don't forget to point to your successes -- awards, festivals, film school, etc. all help a rep think you're a horse worth betting on.

I say without shame that I wrote out this 120-second blurb, rewrote it, tweaked it, polished it, and rehearsed it until it was second nature -- and then let the meeting follow its natural course. The manager interrupted my blurb (a good thing!) to ask about being a Coca-Cola Refreshing Filmmaker Finalist, and I told him about producing a short film in a blizzard -- so have that amusing anecdote ready for all potential questions for your career's highlights.

Then I wrapped up my little blurb with the desire to make it as a script doctor.

And then the manager did a wonderful thing: he offered me sound advice for an emerging writer.

He broke the bad news lightly that the script doctor jobs for emerging writers no longer exist. After the Writer's Strike coupled with the recession, all the A-list writers have lowered their quotes to B-list prices, and the B-list writers have lowered their quotes to C-list prices, etc.

In other words, making a good chunk of change as the new writer on the block, hungry for work, no longer attracts studio and development executives anymore... since they can get a rewrite on their baby project by an already-established writer for the same bargain basement price.

So what to do?

Here's the honest truth: Most represented emerging writers have day jobs. They work with their manager/agent to take the best of the writer's script ideas and combine them with the rep's spec market know-how to come up with a great script that will sell 12 weeks from now.

Then the writer goes home and writes and writes and writes and finally sells that spec script. What next? The writer goes home and writes and writes and finally sells another spec script.

Then this writer has the experience, connections, and capacity to make their first feature.

In short, here's a manager's advice to up-and-coming writer/directors:
  • Get a steady day job.
  • Write spec scripts in your off hours.
  • Make whatever connections will lead you to a manager/agent's office.
  • Write and network until you sell TWO scripts to established buyers.
  • Then Hollywood will start asking you to direct their movies...
Then the manager gave more advice if you want to make an indie first feature instead:
  • The low-budget feature is the new short film.
  • Indie films are cheaper to make nowadays (and studio films are too expensive to risk an untested director), Hollywood scouts for talent at festivals
  • Before you sink thousands into your first feature, make your story UNIVERSAL
Think of Taken. Your daughter has been kidnapped by sex traffickers and you will kick ass and take names until you get her back. Audiences in Shanghai, Sao Paulo, and Sri Lanka will want to see that movie. Will audiences around the world really want to see your mumblecore quarter-life crisis auto-biopic? Tell your story but with a universal premise.

That's all a lot easier said than done, right? But I resolve to take up his advice and I will keep you all updated as to whatever I learn along this journey to work all day, write all night, and meet more agents and managers until my first feature comes along.

So right after the manager gave me his advice, he tried to cheer me up by saying that spec market is very hungry for all kinds of thrillers these days -- political thrillers, gritty Taken-esque spy thrillers, Luc Besson girls kicking ass thrillers --

I chimed in, "I have one of those" and hit him with the logline to my girl-power action thriller.

He said that my script sounds great, asked me to email it to him, and after he allowed me to ask a few questions (have those smart questions ready!) the meeting ended soon after that.

So there you have it! The anatomy of meeting a rep. Hope that helps you readers when you nab your first manager meeting!

(For those of you curious about crafting manager-ready loglines, I'll cover that next week).

Looking for more tales of emerging artists in Hollywood? Look no further:
  • The Last Blog I'll Ever Start is written by good friend Jessica Marie Sutherland who's now a paid, working screenwriter only a year or so out of USC film school.
  • The Scene Partner is written by another friend and classmate Nina Harada who is moving on up in the world as an emerging actress.
  • For those of you looking to make that first feature, but wondering how in the hell to do it, check out the new MovieMaker blog Just Crowdfund the $&*# Movie!
Now to get myself a day job...

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

We Got Into the Rome Int'l Film Festival!

It just keeps on going! Another Life was just selected for its eighth film festival: the 2011 Rome International Film Festival!

The Rome International Film Festival prides itself on screening the finest in independent film from around the world. Considered by MovieMaker Magazine as One of the Top 25 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee, RIFF has screened hundreds of spectacular film offerings originating from Georgia to Katmandu! In fact, a number of their featured films have since been picked up by Miramax, STARZ, public television, and HBO!

Another Life will screen in a few months! So mark your calendars for Friday, September 8th @11:00PM at the Historic DeSoto Theatre (530 Broad Street, Rome, Georgia, 30161).

I'm simply amazed at how our short film keeps going and going! I am so endlessly grateful to my wonderfully talented and hard-working cast and crew -- and not to forget my ever-supportive family, friends, and fans! My heart goes out to you! Thanks!!!

Also -- more big developments!

My two feature screenplays have advanced to the second round at the Big Bear Lake International Screenwriting Competition! Considered one of the top emerging screenwriting contests, this one is closely watched by some Hollywood insiders...

Also, I've got a meeting with an agent this week! Wish me luck!