Sunday, February 25, 2007

It's a major award!

Oscar Sunday, for a town that can't support an NFL team, is the equivalent of Super Bowl Sunday everywhere else. With the Bluecat deadline coming up this week, however, I'll spend it rewriting rather than fighting the crowds over at Hollywood & Highland. Or enduring the insufferably long telecast. But for every screenwriter who has dreamt of walking down the aisle and giving "that speech," this year's awards do provide a few inspirational stories.

Likely to take home the Best Original Screenplay is WGA-winner, Michael Arndt, for Little Miss Sunshine. His first script. Which only took a year (and 100 drafts) to write. And then five years to be produced. Michael, a former script reader and assistant, now works at Pixar. Nice work if you can get it.

Also in the category is Iris Yamashita, for Letters from Iwo Jima. Also her first produced screenplay. Iris worked as an engineer and web programmer while taking classes at UCLA Extension. And then she won the Big Bear Lake Film Festival's screenwriting competition, which got her hip-pocketed at CAA. Which also represents Paul Haggis. Who was working with Clint Eastwood on Flags of Our Fathers. When Paul begged off also writing a companion piece from the Japanese perspective, Iris's agent sent them some samples of her work and the rest was history.

The LA Times ran a roundtable discussion with all the first-time nominees for Original Screenplay this week.

Polish up those scripts for contest season and, maybe, you'll be polishing up your acceptance speech before you know it as well.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The wasteland

The screenwriting litigation du jour is a lawsuit between author Clive Cussler and producer Philip Anschutz's Crusader Entertainment over the movie adaptation of Cussler's novel Sahara. Cussler's allegations, essentially, are that the script sucked. More specifically, that his option agreement with Crusader for Sahara (and a second novel) gave him the unqualified right of approval over the screenplay adaptations of his works. And, further, that the approved screenplay could not be materially altered by Crusader without his consent. Great for Mr. Cussler, who felt burned by the disastrous film version of his Raise the Titanic in 1980. And, in theory, great for Crusader, which obtained the rights to a popular action-adventure character -- Dirk Pitt -- upon which a franchise on the order of Indiana Jones could potentially be developed.

That was the theory, anyway. In reality, the film (starring Matthew McConaughey as Pitt) tanked. It grossed only $68 million in the U.S., with a budget of more than $130 million. Anschutz countersued Cussler for the $105 million he purportedly lost on the production, contending that Cussler overinflated sales figures for the Sahara book to induce the original option by Crusader. As well as deliberately undermining the film with fans and in the media prior to its release. The trial started a few weeks ago and the dispute between Cussler and Anschutz has been playing out daily in a Los Angeles courtroom. Cussler's attorneys are attempting to portray Anschutz, who lives in Denver, as a Hollywood outsider looking to blame anyone buy himself for the movie's failure. Crusader brought out evidence during discovery of Cussler's alleged racism, anti-Semitism, and alcoholism. In other words, the usual stuff for a movie industry lawsuit.

I have neither read Cussler's original novel nor seen the film adaptation, so I can't say whether the script, in fact, sucked or not. That the movie failed despite having the "built-in" audience that studios supposedly crave these days seems like evidence that whatever made it on to the screen was not very good. Of note for members of the scribosphere is the fact that Josh Friedman's draft of the script appears to be the one that sent Cussler over the edge (Josh is not listed as one of the four credited writers on the screenplay), branding it "juvenile" and "silly": "Mr Cussler said he was unimpressed with the finished result. "I got as far as page 35. I couldn't go on," he said." It appears from Cussler's testimony that several more writers were brought in even after Josh. The screenwriting-by-committee approach rarely bodes well for great story results.

So the jury got to go on a field trip to the Paramount lot for a screening of Sahara which, as jury duty goes, is a pretty good deal (although they still did have to watch Sahara). As a writer, I do feel some sympathy for Mr. Cussler, who just wanted Hollywood to do right by the story in his book. But any working screenwriter would likely have told him before he optioned it to Crusader, you can't always get what you want. And even if he wins on the merits, the labrynthine maze of industry accounting methods means years of fighting to collect any judgment awarded. Just ask the late Art Buchwald. On the other side of the table, it seems a hard case for Anschutz to say that Cussler's right of approval was the stumbling block to coming up with a good script when it apparently went continual rewriting with his continued okays. Crusader's allegations of inflated sales figures strikes me as a funny case of the pot calling the kettle black -- whose accounting methods are more shady? Hollywood or the publishing industries -- and whether the number was 100 million sold or something less than that, the Dirk Pitt books and character were the value that Crusader sought and received with the option agreement. With the evidence as it stands at this point, I would be surprised if the jury returned a verdict in favor of either party.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Out of the Blue

Instead of melting snow and budding plants, Hollywood has screenwriting contests to herald the coming of spring. For writers in town and without, winning or placing highly in one of the well-regarded contests is a way to get noticed and read by production companies and agencies. The brass ring is still the Academy's Nicholl Fellowships, and that deadline is still May 1 (sooner than you think). One of the up-and-comers, which I plan on submitting to this year, is the BlueCat Screenplay Competition. Founded in 1998 by Gordy Hoffman (brother of Philip Seymour Hoffman), BlueCat has a few things going for it that sets it apart from some of the other non-Nicholl competitions. First, the winner receives $10,000 and finalists receive $1,500. Not an insubstantial amount as far as these things go. Second, all entrants receive written analysis on the scripts they submit. So if you get dinked early on, you're not left wondering why. And even if you make it a little further, you've gotten some value for the $45 entry fee with the reader's opinion of what works and what needs work. Third, the past two winning scripts both sold and are in various states of production (Gary the Tennis Coach in 2005 and "Hyung's Overture" last year). People in the industry are taking notice and committing to the winner's script. And Gordy has some great articles on the writing process at the website to boot. But if you plan on entering this year's competition, time's running out. The March 1 deadline is fast approaching.

P.S. Christina has a wonderful interview with Gordy over at Development Hell. Apparently, he's one intense dude.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Does it have to be an Old Mill?

Love him or hate him, David Mamet remains one of the most influential American dramatists of the time. Even if you find the "Mametspeak" style of dialogue too highly stylized for your tastes, I still recommend reading his scripts as exemplars of lean, visual writing. State and Main and Wag the Dog, both skewering Hollywood and politics (large and small), stand out for me. And his book, On Directing Film, is valuable even to screenwriters for understanding why, in theory, a perfect script could be written containing no dialogue at all. Mamet will be making an in-store appearance at Book Soup in West Hollywood on Tuesday, February 6th, to present and sign his new book, Bambi v. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose and Practice of the Movie Business. A unique opportunity for those in the L.A. area.