Thursday, July 27, 2006

Networking 90210

Thanks to a heads up from Jeff Gund's invaluable resource, Infolist, I attended a Women In Film event in Beverly Hills. The speaker was screenwriter and director David Ward, winner of the Academy Award for The Sting. If you are in L.A., sign up for Jeff's list, which notes similar upcoming events, job openings, and other industry-related news. And, no, you do not actually have to be a woman to participate in the WIF's networking series.

David spoke not only about his own career in Hollywood but also where he saw the business going, for better or worse, in the future. Some highlights:

He started in an apartment in Venice writing out his first screenplay, Steelyard Blues in longhand. Across the street from his apartment was a vocational school, where he would take his pages to be typed by students learning typing skills. David got his first representation through an instructor at the school, whose wife had been involved in a fender bender with a literary agent. Before that, he would take his scripts to casting calls, pretending to be an actor. In the audition, he would give the script to the producer and director (all of whom promptly never called him back again). Not necessarily the most efficient or likely to succeed method for finding an agent.

The development system today more than ever encourages the screenwriter to be limited to a specific niche. David encouraged the writers to avoid limiting themselves to one type of film and not fall into the trap of thinking, for example, that only women can write "women's" movies or that only men can write action scripts. Not only because showing range is good career advice, but also because it forces you to be a better writer, break out of your comfort zone, and not trod over covered ground. Also, in case anybody still harbored illusions, don't try and time the spec market. By the time you come up with This Year's Wedding Crashers or The Next 40 Year-Old Virgin, it is probably too late. Which is not to say don't keep up on what is generally selling and what is not. But just to write something that you would like to see and in a unique voice that hasn't been heard before.

Stay current. Along the lines of breaking out of boxes, it was David's opinion that a writer today should have their ear to the ground of popular culture even if they are not targeting the youth demographic with their work. In his words, although he probably would not write or direct a teen comedy at this point in his career, neither would it be possible (or desirable) to fix his stories in the period of his own youth. And if there are things about "those kids today" that you just don't get, perhaps all the more reason to work out what you don't understand through your writing.

Although I didn't stick around to schmooze much with the other attendees (having no real schmooze material to foist on anyone at this point), I will be keeping an eye on the WIF and Infolist websites for details on the next event. The evening series is on hiatus for August but starts up again in September, I believe.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Reading is fundamental

Unlike the hurried, late-night dash around Baltimore that was my previous Writer's Arc mailing, this time around was a sedate affair. Again, if you're in L.A., allow me to put in a good word for Maziar's Script Copier shop on Wilshire Boulevard. Fast and cheap (always an attractive combination). As for the script itself, who knows? For a first draft, I liked it. If Amy & Ami don't, I at least have another spec under the belt to get in shape and send out for representation inquiries. Also, should be getting the first word from Nicholl sometime next week.

Now having completed a second full screenplay, and being fairly comfortable with most of the style and formatting conventions, I find myself reading more and more scripts by other authors. Not as a template but to hear their "voice." How much do they put into their scene directions? How detailed are their character descriptions? But mostly how they use words and language to bring the visual aspects of a film to life on the written page. Especially coming from the background of legal writing, transitioning to a more "filmic" voice of my own has been challenging.

Although copies of many screenplays are available online, at sites such as IMSDB, Simply Scripts, and Drew's Script O'Rama, and for purchase in bookstores, most tend to be of more recent vintage and still only a fraction of all the movies ever made. One of the benefits to living in Los Angeles is the easy access to hard-copy screenplay collections at the several libraries around town.

The first is located at the Frances Howard Goldwyn branch of the Los Angeles Public Library (1623 N. Ivar Avenue). Although the special collection there includes much more than just scripts, the library has a number from both feature films and television. They did have one film script that I had been unable to locate online but there is a good deal of overlap with those on the websites. The television scripts I saw were mostly from the 1970s, the standout to me being the entire universe of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Fernwood 2Nite shows. While the Goldwyn branch is open to the public at large, they do ask that you schedule your visit to the special collections room in advance.

A step up in the scope of its collection is the Writers Guild Foundation's Shavelson-Webb Library (3d St. and Fairfax). Home to more television and feature film scripts, the WGA's library not only has more than are generally available online but also the t.v. scripts are pretty current, i.e., within the immediately prior season. Additionally, the space has free wi-fi access in case you want to work while you read. They also offer a limited number of DVDs accompanying some of the better-known screenplays and screenwriting instruction videos for viewing in the library.

But the cream of the crop, in my experience, is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science's Margaret Herrick Library (333 S. La Cienega Blvd., just north of Olympic). Though only open to the public four days of the week, the library's holdings of feature film scripts is unparalleled. Over 9000 in their Core Collection, they had the one that I had been looking high and low for out to me in a matter of minutes. Their special collection of documents, letters, and other materials related to the motion picture industry is similarly extensive and available for browsing at the Herrick's reading room.

Between these three locations, a writer in town should be able to get his or her hands on almost any screenplay they wanted to read. Both the Shavelson-Webb and the Herrick have online catalog searching available at their websites, just to be sure. And, best of all these days, they're all air conditioned and offer a cool refuge from the summer heat.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Thomas Ince affair

Received the congratulatory e-mail from Amy & Ami yesterday afternoon on making the next round of The Writer's Arc. So I'll be busy the next week knocking out the last twenty-some pages of the spec to be submitted by Monday.

From the files of the L.A. Times yesterday there was this glimpse into the life of an aspiring screenwriter in days gone by:

July 18, 1919: Two sheriff's deputies arrested an aspiring screenwriter, Clement d'Art, after he allegedly sent a letter to the assistant manager of the Thomas H. Ince studio requesting $20,000 for the screenplay "Jumping Jacks," which the studio had rejected. In the letter, the deputies said, D'Art told C.W. Thomas that he would kill him if the money wasn't delivered in 24 hours.

D'Art also reportedly said in the letter that after killing Thomas, he would kill himself "in order that his death and that of a man prominent in the motion-picture world would result in copyright laws which would protect scenario writers," The Times said.

D'Art was deemed insane and taken to County Hospital's psychopathic ward, The Times said.

As the French say, plus ├ža change. Except I guess they (disgruntled screenwriters, not the French) use lawyers now instead of death threats. All things being equal, the execs would probably prefer death threats.

Curiously, the studio head, Thomas Ince, himself would die under mysterious circumstances five years later. While on the yacht of William Randolph Hearst, along with guests such as Hearst's mistress, Marion Davies, Charlie Chaplin, and future gossip maven, Louella Parsons, Ince purportedly took ill. The yacht docked and Ince was taken off the boat, accompanied by a doctor who also just happened to be Hearst's film production manager. Ince died two days later, officially of a heart attack.

The true story will never be known, but legend has it that sometime during the voyage on his yacht, Hearst shot Ince. Possibly accidentally, possibly in a jealous rage after learning that Chaplin and Davies were having an affair. Other scenarios and variations thereon have been hinted at over the years as well. The rumors were given some credence by the fact that Parsons was given a lifetime contract with the Hearst company immediately following Ince's death. A version of the events was dramatized in the 2001 film, The Cat's Meow, directed by Peter Bogdanovich. Who knows if word ever reached Mr. d'Art in the pyschopathic ward.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Spare us the cutter

Blogging light as I work on finishing the first draft of my next spec (in hopeful anticipation of needing it to submit to the next round of Writer's Arc on the 24th). But I was pleased to note the recent decision from the federal district court in Utah granting summary judgment in a suit by the Directors Guild of America and the major studios against the CleanFlicks company of Pleasant Grove, Utah.

It seems, several years ago while watching Titanic -- specifically the one brief moment of Kate Winslet nudity in the three and 1/2 hours of James Cameron disasterrific spectacle -- the proprietors of CleanFlicks were sufficiently offended as to take it upon themselves to scrub clean other Hollywood releases of any offensive content for the home rental market. According to their website, CleanFlicks removes all "profanity, nudity, graphic violence, sexual content." Then, Netflix-style, customers can request the sanitized-for-their-protection version of the latest films. And have a big, happy, white family like the one pictured on the CleanFlicks website, presumably.

All which might have been perfectly okay, but for the fact that all of the films receiving the CleanFlicks treatment were registered works under the Copyright Act. Because the company was making the world safe from offensive content without the consent or permission of the copyright holders, CleanFlicks's activities were alleged to have infringed on several of the exclusive rights provided for by the Act, i.e., reproduction, creation of derivative works, and distribution. CleanFlicks argued that under the fair use doctrine, their unauthorized copying was permitted as a form of criticism because, in the court's words:

"They seek to establish a public policy test that they are criticizing the objectionable content commonly found in current movies and that they are providing more socially acceptable alternatives to enable families to view the films together, without exposing children to the presumed harmful effects emanating from the objectionable content."

As CleanFlicks's motto states: "It's all about choice!"

The Utah court, however, wasn't buying. However objectionable, or purportedly harmful to the customers' children, the court found those arguments "inconsequential to copyright law and . . . addressed in the wrong forum. This Court is not free to determine the social value of copyrighted works. What is protected are the creator's rights to protect its creation in the form in which it was created." Of the several factors weighing against a finding of fair use, the most damning (as it usually is) was CleanFlicks's contention that there was no adverse effect from their use on the value of the copyrighted works to the studios. To the contrary, the court found, the bowdlerized versions were not only being sold as a substitute for the original works, but also that the unauthorized edits were themselves the sine qua non for CleanFlicks's customers.

A good result for the industry and one consistent with prior cases dealing with the fair use defense to infringement claims. It is interesting to note that the DGA, but not the WGA, was a party to the suit. Just another indication of the auteur perception of films as the sole creation of the director (someone had to write the dirty words and nude scenes before they could be filmed and, ultimately, censored). It is curious to me that the DGA and several individual directors would have been parties (as "defendants-in-intervention") at all, aside from the publicity value to the case. I'm not sure they have any more legal standing than the screenwriter to the extent that the studio is the sole owner of the copyrighted works.

Here in the United States, the statutory rights conferred to copyright owners by the Copyright Act are the exclusive grounds for an infringement suit. Unlike Europe and other jurisdictions, we have not generally adopted the concept of droit moral, or "moral rights," which provide the creator of artistic works with certain protections for their creations, irrespective of whether they are the actual holder of the copyright, e.g., prevent others from modifying, distorting, or otherwise interfering with the integrity of that work. Which, I suppose, avoids placing directors in the awkward position of having to separately enforce their moral rights against companies like CleanFlicks while complying with each and every suggested cut or change to come down from the studio after the latest round of test screenings.

[Postscript] While the CleanFlicks decision is a sort of vindication for Hollywood, in practice it is likely a pyrrhic victory. The Family Home Movie Act of 2005 expressly exempts from liability makers of technology that edits DVD content "on the fly." Companies such as ClearPlay cut out (heh) the CleanFlicks-type middleman with players that censor as you watch. So if thine DVD offends thee, pluck it out . . . and pop it in a ClearPlay machine. Although the happy white family on their website isn't quite as large as the one on CleanFlicks's, so I remain dubious of their claim to be "Better for your Family!"

Monday, July 03, 2006

Superman's returns

The July 4th weekend traditionally represents something of a highwater mark in the summer box office season. A day off from work here in the United States to celebrate (ironcially, these days) our break from the monarchy. In the industry, it means only one month to open your big summer blockbusters before the dog days of August kick in, a/k/a the island of misfit movies. This year, however, with the Fourth falling on a Tuesday, there isn't really one weekend that can claim the date. The closer of the two was this past, which saw the opening of Superman Returns, director Bryan Singer's restart of the film franchise. Pretending, as most Superman fans who are old enough to remember them have for years now, that the third and fourth sequels to the original never happened.

Fun Joel already posted his thoughts on why it might suck. Scott the Reader breaks down the reasons that it didn't work for him. Bill Cunningham is not a fan of this version. Because the flaws have been thoroughly explored, I won't get into a detailed review myself. As a movie in the comic book genre, I thought it (mostly) worked. The tagline for the 1978 film was "you'll believe a man can fly" but only now with the full power of digital effects does that become completely true. The sense of scale, speed, and strength of Superman are perfectly rendered. Less successful are the romantic moments between Superman and Lois Lane. Brandon Routh fills out the cape adequately but there simply are no sparks between him and Kate Bosworth. She's slight in every sense of the word. And Lex Luthor's plot for world domination, aside from not breaking much new ground (okay, maybe some new ground), doesn't ever quite put Metropolis in enough jeopardy to make the payoff as satisfying as it probably could have been. But for summer escapism fare, there was enough fun to outweigh the heavy-handed Supes-as-Christ imagery, which bordered on ponderous by the third shot of him floating in space, arms outstretched. Okay, we get it, Bryan.

More interesting to me are the reactions and spins going around town in reaction to the film's box office performance since premiering Wednesday. With $84 million in ticket sales over its first five days, Superman Returns has outpaced last year's franchise restart, Batman Begins, by a good $12 million dollars. If it maintains a similar margin over the course of its theatrical run, it should end up with around $230 million. Although the eagerly-anticipated Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest could undercut those legs if it connects with audiences as well as the first one did.

But in Hollywood (as with Wall Street, I suppose) perception is reality and the game is one of managing expectations. Speculation as to what the $84 number really means is a hot topic. On one hand, Warner Brothers execs are touting it as the biggest five-day opening in that studio's history. That's kind of true, although I believe all of the the Harry Potter series and The Matrix Reloaded took in more (but opened on a *Thursday* which makes them four-day openers. savvy?). And War of the Worlds, opening in essentially the same slot last year, managed $69 million over the Friday to Sunday period. Which makes Supes's $52 million for the weekend look not as super. For a (strictly-speaking) non-sequel opener of this type, I would put Superman Returns in the sold but not spectacular column. Given the high costs of production, a large portion of which were incurred under pay-or-play deals with previously-attached talent such as Nicolas Cage, Warner's would probably have been happier with a higher number (who wouldn't?). Nonetheless, it should be strong enough to warrant another installment with Singer at the helm (which is good for the studio in the long term).

Others, however, are not quite as sanguine about the film's prospects. In her Deadline Hollywood column, Nikki Finke quotes unnamed rival studio sources as estimating that Superman Returns will struggle to break the $200 million dollar mark. Perhaps not surprisingly, the comparison that the anonymous "rival studio bigwig" based their analysis on was the crater job that X-Men: The Last Stand did last month after a strong Memorial Day weekend bow. When a quote from an unnamed rival studio source begins "It's not unfair to note . . . " you can be pretty sure that what's coming next will be completely unfair. Although I can see the argument, e.g., when compared against the original Spiderman's $100 million weekend, that $84 million is a disappointment, I don't know that it fully accounts for the kind of poormouthing coming out of some quarters.

Studio rivalries are one thing but my completely unsubstantiated theory is that "it would not be unfair to say" that the fact that the film's producer is former Columbia Pictures head, Jon Peters, has something to do with the negative press as well. An article in today's Los Angeles Times details Peters's return from his fall from Columbia in 1991 to shepherding the Superman project through development hell to the top of the box office. The article also makes clear, from similarly anonymous sources, that Peters's personality and prior dealings have not endeared him to many around town. It isn't beyond the realm of possibilities to think that some of the people he clashed with on the way up (and down) just might be willing to give a comment or two off the record at the first opportunity. But that's just a theory. It may be, as Lois writes in the movie, that the world really doesn't need a Superman.