Friday, June 30, 2006

Pencils down

Just a reminder that today is the deadline for the first-round submissions to The Writer's Arc. Five to ten pages on Alex Mackenzie and Parker Lam, in the yard, with the card. Just like Clue. You can submit and pay the entry fee all online through the website, in case you tend to put things off until the last minute. I tend to myself, although this time I popped mine off in the mail earlier this week. With 45 pages in the can for the feature-length spec that I would submit in the second round (should I move on), now it's just a matter of coming up with another 75 or so in a little less than a month. The second round deadline is Monday, July 24, in case you tend to put things off until the last minute.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Platforming your way to interrogatories

Warren Leonard, of The Screenwriting Life has an article in the May/June edition of scr(i)pt magazine on the use of other media platforms as a means for screenwriters to promote themselves and their work. With the rise of free video hosting sites, such as YouTube, cheap professional-grade content creation products, and technology like the iPod in more and more hands each day, the different avenues for standing out in the crowd has never been greater. But, as Cliff Robertson once told that jockey from Seabiscuit, with great power comes great responsibility.

Case in point: the copyright infringement suit filed by Paramount Pictures this week against Washington D.C. resident, Chris Moukarbel. It seems the self-starting Mr. Moukarbel obtained (illegally, it is alleged) a copy of the screenplay to World Trade Center, Oliver Stone's upcoming 9/11 dramatization of one New York Fire Department crew's experience at Ground Zero that day. Hot script in hand, Paramount contends, Moukarbel then created a 12-minute short film that dramatized . . . one New York Fire Department crew's experience at Ground Zero on 9/11. While imitation may indeed be the sincerest form of flattery, apparently Mr. Moukarbel took that to the extreme of copying the dialogue from the WTC script nearly verbatim. I don't know if Moukarbel made any money with his "homage" but one hopes he doesn't go wasting it on something frivolous like, say, an attorney to defend the suit. Just endorse the checks "Pay to the order of Brad Grey" and move on.

When T.S. Eliot said "bad poets borrow, good poets steal," I doubt this is quite what he meant.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Never tell me the odds

In the confirmatory email recieved from the efficient Greg Beal at the AMPAS Nicholl Fellowships, he stated that the Academy has received "only" 4,898 submissions to date. Compared to the 6,048 received in 2003, that represents a significant drop. Maybe the Academy beginning its transition to an online application process this year raised some barriers to entry for those who were frustrated by the website's occasional technical difficulties. Or maybe the bloom is off the rose for aspiring screenwriters hoping to send in their one great spec and catch lightning in a bottle. Who can say?

Mr. Beal's e-mail further informs that those 4,898 will be reduced by about 95% with the first cut, to come somewhere around the end of July. Which works out to 245 or so entrants moving on to the quarterfinals. Although one presumes that some percentage of the initial pool are non-starters, those are still daunting numbers.

If you have applied and want to further bleaken your outlook, there is also the breakdown of past winners (1989-2002) by genre from the Nicholl website:

* Action/adventure 6
* Caper/thriller/crime 11
* Comedy 4
* Romantic comedy 3
* Comedy drama 9
* Romantic drama 3
* Drama 32
* Horror 2
* Western 3

Although these percentages may vary from year-to-year, e.g., comedy or action scripts may do better than drama in one year and vice versa the next, you can get a sense of the trends. My submission was a drama so maybe, if it could become one of the 245, it stands a better chance than others of going further. On the other hand, I really have no idea if it is even good enough at this point to even make that first cut. Anything that tells me I am at least in the ballpark is validation enough for the moment. I'm sure August 1 will be here before I know it.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Raiders of the lost Arc

So with The Writer's Arc having posted the elements for the first round of the fall fellowship program, and because the doldrums of summer in Los Angeles (where all things can wait until Labor Day) have set in, I'll just link to this post from chilly December last. Wherein I explain the thoughts that went into crafting my previous (successful) first-round submission. Take it for what it's worth. I don't believe there are any hard, fast rules about how closely one is bound to the character, location, and prop elements. Although I chose to contain the action solely in the station location and the dialogue strictly between the two characters in that instance, I may not be quite as limiting this time around. Which is not to say that others will not advance if they are. Creative use of the elements, a demonstration of basic aptitude with the screenwriting style and format, and some ability to squeeze a little bit of storytelling out of your five to ten pages is what I think Amy & Ami are looking for at this stage. Note that the fall program has changed slightly -- $3,000 stipend for ten weeks of rewriting a fellow's second-round feature script, i.e., no starting from scratch on new screenplay ideas -- and good luck to all who enter.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Radio gaga

Living in the center of the entertainment industry without a television can feel strange at times. Aside from the water-cooler aspect of not being completely up to date on Jack Bauer's body count (or Chloe O'Brien's mysterious past), a writer in this town sort of needs to stay current with the hot shows if they hope to be able to spec them properly for potential writing staff gigs. I'm not to that point yet, but between ABC's free streaming of Lost and the shows available for download at iTunes, it has been possible to fairly keep up with the Pams and Jims of the t.v. world. Eventually, as DVRs and alternative delivery methods become more commonplace, I imagine that watching shows when you want and where you want will probably be the norm and not the exception.

In the meantime, to fill the void, my trusty radio has been performing admirably. Santa Monica College's public radio station, KCRW, plays great new indie music on Morning Becomes Eclectic and other shows throughout the evening. And during weekends, This American Life and Harry Shearer's fabuleaux Le Show, wherein he applies his considerable voice talents and insight to all things political, keep things interesting.

One of the few shows that KCRW does not air (but which can be found in L.A. on KPCC) is the long-running A Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor's weekly paean to Midwestern reserve, American music, and old-timey radio's "theater of the mind." A film version of sorts, directed by Robert Altman, is out this week. Which is how I found myself at the famed Hollywood Bowl last Friday night, where the show was in town for a live broadcast to coincide with the movie's release. The show can be listened to in its entirety here if you weren't at the Bowl yourself.

Three of the film's stars joined the regulars for the show: Virginia Madsen, John C. Reilly, and Meryl Streep (writ large on the video screen in the picture on the left). Befitting the Hollywood setting and their experiences in the business, the troupe did several long skits skewering the filmmaking process. Having only listened to PHC on the radio before, it was fun to see how loose the players actually are in the midst of the show. Keillor and Streep even went off-script when Meryl blew a line now and then (yes, Meryl Streep flubbed a few lines).

A writer first and foremost, Garrison seemed particularly attuned to the station that most screenwriters occupy in the town, i.e., low. The segment titled "Farewell" told the sad tale of an aspiring scribe who drives from Minnesota to California with only a spec in his hand and dreams in his head:

Farewell, Minnesota, I'm bound for L.A.
In a car with my girlfriend and a screenplay.
It's only a first draft and the opening is long
And the part where they blow up the truck is all wrong
It's about two lovers from the Midwest
Who come to LA cause they're under arrest
And they are on drugs and her hair is on fire
But I could make it a comedy if you desire.

You can see how it all ends here, though like all good radio it is best heard for full effect.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Turn around, Used Guys

Although the prospect of ever shepherding a script through the development maze into actual production may seem to be remote, at best, to the aspiring screenwriter, he/she can perhpas take some small comfort in knowing that even the pros have the plug pulled on them now and then. Witness the recent reversal of fortunes for Jay Roach, who had Fox shut things down on his latest film, Used Guys, just as filming was set to begin on location in New Mexico.

This turnaround is raising more eyebrows than might normally be expected because the project seemed to have all the elements that studios appear to be looking for these days: Roach has directed two successful franchises (Meet The Parents and Austin Powers) and the two headliners, Jim Carrey and Ben Stiller, are as bankable as any comedy leads around. Unfortunately, that star power comes at a price and, with a sci-fi/comedy premise, the budget for Used Guys had creeped past the $100 million dollar mark when Fox said no mas. The story -- in a world where women rule the earth, two obsolete pleasure clones escape in search of a mythical "Mantopia" -- sounded rife with comic possibilites for all concerned.

But fear is the showkiller these days and, like the boss Remo in Casino, when given the choice of letting the made men who could testify against him keep their vow of omerta or letting them sleep with the fishes, the studio said "Look, why take a chance?" And in the end, the person to feel the most sympathy for is probably the screenwriter, Mickey Birnbaum. IMDB indicates that this was his first credited script and Fox's move could cost him financially as well:

"Mickey Birnbaum, the movie’s screenwriter, who stood to make millions of dollars if the movie became a success, was equally surprised. 'I’m shocked, like everybody else,” he said. “I’ve been told the party line: That budget issues are at the heart of it'"

Although presumably the movie didn't even have to become a success, just a movie. Ouch.

If any lesson can be learned from the story by those of us toiling away in obscurity, it's that costs matter and should be factored into spec writing if one has any intentions of ever selling the work. All things being equal, a character-driven drama that can be filmed with a minimum of locations or special effects will likely have more commercial appeal than a killer condensation of of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen down to 120 pages. At least for the screenwriter who is an unknown quantity to industry executives, agents, or managers. Though even proven talent with high concept in hand is apparently no sure thing anymore either.