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Volume 3                                                                                            September 17, 2009

A-List Screenwriting's
Craft & Career
Dear Writer,
Our third issue is a timely one.  We have Champion Screenwriting Quarterfinalists list, a report on the current spec market, and a chance for you to impact the next issue.
Alex Tse, the thirtysomething who was one of the writers who adapted Watchmen, chimes in in our Craft and Career combo article and has agreed to a more extensive interview for next issue.  Send me your questions for him about anything -- Watchmen, adaptation, breaking in as a minority or about his process. 
Rhona Berens, Ph.D., takes over my Attitude Adjustment column with a great topic about how to grow as a writer that dovetails with a cool way of thinking about character arc.  How does she get away with so cleverly integrating our spirit of Craft and Career?   Maybe it's because she is the only life coach I know who also has a doctorate. from UCLA Film School.
As promised, I have included a short (for me) follow-up article on Dead Poets Society, theme and what I call the F'd Up Permutation.  Next month, proofreader extraordinaire David Gillis will be back with his Style Matters column.  Mention Craft & Career to receive a 10% discount on his services this month.
If you sign up for my weeklong class (see below for $500 discount) in NYC in November, you can join me on a field trip and write December's WWTBD column.  Ah, class we might be getting out a bit early on day one.
Remember, our newsletter is free and we're here every month.  Let us know what you like and what we can do better.
"Thanks for putting out a great newsletter.  I appreciate your eclectic approach -- looking at theories, formulas, and strategies from different angles without preaching a single, dogmatic method. This seems so very open-minded, fair, practical and, well, realistic. I've already learned quite a bit."
Chicago, IL
"Fascinating, how excellently you analyzed the introduction of Dead Poets Society.  I thank you very much for giving me the chance to learn more than I already knew.  I teach screenwriting at the VWV Werkstätte Kunstberufe in Vienna, Austria and would like to use your article for my students."
 Katharina Kahler
"I really enjoyed your last issue of "Craft & Career."  I gave a big plug for signing up for the newsletter on my FaceBook Page.  Hope you get a good response.  It's a VERY good newsletter -- has more content in one issue than many screenwriting newsletters have in an entire year."
All the best,
Jim Mercurio

Jim Mercurio

I have clients who make tens of millions of dollars per film and I have clients who have paid other people to turn their scripts into movies.  You, my friends, and I are all somewhere in between.  And for us, the spec market sucks.  Writing the "Great American Screenplay" and then breaking into the industry with a high-six-figure sale probably seem like more of a delusion than a dream.
I am not a journalist, nor do I want to be one.  It's not for me to write a levelheaded, objective analysis of the current state of the spec market and business side of Hollywood.  (Self-limiting belief or self-knowledge?  Read this and Rhona's article and you decide.)  But I have gathered a few points of views from some writers and industry professionals to get perspective on the current state of Hollywood for the screenwriter.  Consider this
like a peer support group for Hollywood PTSD. 
own craft.
Leading up to the WGA strike, spec sales had been down, but as Jason Scoggins, manager at Protocol Entertainment puts it: "The biggest factor in the downturn over the past couple of years has been the worldwide economy in general.  Outside financing dried up; parent corporations' profits disappeared, which impacted the flow of development dollars; the bottom dropped out of the DVD market; etc."  Fellow manager Andrew Kersey, of Kersey Management, concurs: "The spec business - like the global economy - is certainly undergoing a transformation.  Let's call it an upheaval."
Yeah, I know, it's not really news that the economy sucks.  But industry honchos like Disney CEO Robert Iger aren't really offering screenwriters a bailout.  He recently expressed his disinterest in making $30 million movies that make $100 million (which also screws producers).

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Jim Mercurio
Participants submit their scripts in advance and I hand-select excerpts to use as teaching tools and as inspiration for parts of the weeklong workshop. 
"I had the privilege of attending (this class) in LA in 2008. This was not just a class. It was a reconditioning of my creative mind. It was, for me, as well as the others who attended, a life-changing experience."
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A limited number of writers may take the class without submitting a script for half of the $999 full price: $499. 
Their scenes will still be workshopped, but the lecture and exercises will be less tailored to their writing.
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To schedule a 5-minute chat (no- pressure) about the class or if you have questions, email Jim.

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Rhona Berens, Ph.D. 
Rhona Berens
"The story of the human race is the story of men and women selling themselves short." 
- Abraham Maslow
As a Life Coach and writer, I'm always looking for ways to navigate creative roadblocks.  I recently read some advice for aspiring screenwriters that went something like this: one way to get in the game is to throw your hat in the ring.  If a writer announces-to colleagues, to professional contacts-that he's polishing a spec for Pitchfest, or [fill in the blank with a time-constrained goal and someone to whom you pledge completing that goal], the deed will be done.  If we create accountability structures-actions for which we're accountable to others-then we'll propel ourselves forward and "just do it."
That's sound advice. Solid advice. Inspiring advice, even.  Except if you're a writer for whom self-doubt (and its good pal, Paralysis) is a far more familiar comfort-zone than confidence (and its bosom buddy, Action).  If you're that kind of writer, it's often hard to get into the game and, harder still, to stay in it.  So what's that screenwriter to do?
I want to introduce you to a technique that can help you step more consistently away from self-doubt and toward self-confidence.  In other words, I'm going to encourage you to expand yourself as a writer by expanding yourself as, well, you.  (Groan.)  I heard that; I also saw the dismissive wave some of you just gave.  Bear with me.  What does any of this have to do with staying in the game?  First of all, it's pretty hard to tease apart you from the writer, the writer from you.  Second, shifting how you do things (including how you view yourself) is an opportunity to befriend those, sometimes, elusive comrades: Confidence, Accountability, and Action.  The idea is for you to hone a new skill that helps you generate sustained energy and passion to get your work read... and bought... and produced.  Who knows?  Maybe you'll also find some golden nuggets along the way to improve your writing, too.
craftbonusCRAFT BONUS:
 Jim Mercurio
Imagine you are sitting at a four-way stop behind a little old lady in her car.  Now, it's her turn to go but she decides to be "nice" and let the car opposite of her go.  So she waves on that driver.  But that driver is confused and doesn't want to break the implicit agreement of "taking turns," so he motions for her to go.  So now of course the old woman waves even more ardently.  Maybe if you're lucky, the most efficient thing happens: The person whose turn it wasn't gets fed up and punches the gas and speeds through the stop sign.  I don't know about you, but this situation bugs the crap out of me. 
Why?  Because that woman has wasted our time (even 12 seconds each for the 15 people in the queues is three collective minutes we can never get back) in a misguided - though perhaps to her genuine - attempt to be nice.  I feel the impatience and anger in the pit of my stomach (I know, I need to meditate) because her action is actually the exact opposite of what it purports to be.  It looks like politeness, but that's the last thing it is.
If you don't get as worked up as me, then close your eyes and now imagine you are in a rush for an important meeting and this scenario continues with another four or five back-and-forths of waving (You go!  No, you go!  No, you!) before someone finally goes.  When you feel it in your stomach, remember that feeling, because your script needs to cover that beat. 
See, there is a moment at the end of the second act that I call rock bottom.  It sort of corresponds to Blake Snyder's (RIP, Blake) All Is Lost and Dark Night of the Soul beats.  It's where the character has regressed and is really at their worst and their goal is the farthest away it has been.  In a rom-com, it's where boy loses girl; in a thriller, it's where the bad guys have the good guys completely helpless. 
Well, those beats apply to the character and to the goal.  And although there is always going to be some overlap, there is also the thematic equivalent of rock bottom, where the ideas embodied in the theme are at their most disturbing.  This is an essential stop along your journey of telling a thematically coherent story.  McKee calls this the "negation of the negation."  I call it the "F'd-Up Permutation." 
In Sophie's Choice, let's say she gives away her daughter because she thinks the son has a better chance of surviving.  So she decides that he deserves to live while her daughter doesn't.  Does that make her a Nazi?  In Revolutionary Road, it's easy to see that the couple is living a lie.  And their crazy neighbor shocks with the truth.  But the thematically stomach-churning moment is when the lie looks like the truth or when Leo's character accepts the lie as truth.  You know, near the end of the movie, where Kate's character acts as though everything is peachy keen while her husband plays along, thus abandoning her to her demise as he heads off to work.
Dead Poets Society is pretty coherent theme-wise.  Each character must overcome his struggle with the pressure of expectations from conformity groups: the school, parents, society, social group (cheerleaders, sports teams), etc.  Keating's philosophy against conformity helps to clarify and support the idea.  The boys wrestle with their own version of "seize the day," of finding the courage to do things in their own individual way.
To clarify the filmmaker's intent, they use an alley-oop - my name for a specific sort of setup, a line of dialogue that establishes the context of the climactic action so that it can be understood on its own without any explanation.  In his first class, Keating tells the students, "Call me Mr. Keating or, if you're slightly more daring, O Captain my Captain."  This seemingly throwaway line plants an unconscious reminder that at the end, the boys' calling him "O Captain my Captain" signifies specific growth toward courage and daring.
So what does the old woman at the stop sign have to do with this?  Well, what frustrated me was that her inconsiderateness was veiled: It looked like she was being polite, but she was being the exact opposite.  Can you feel the ickiness?  This is what I call the F'd-Up Permutation of the ideas of politeness versus inconsiderateness.
If we are going to find the F'd-Up Permutation in DPS for one of the boy's stories, we have to find the opposite of daring.  So let's look at Knox's story.  His love interest, Katie, invites him to a party, although he hasn't even worked up the courage to express his interest in her.  Now if I told you he goes to the party and kisses her you might say, "Wow, that seizes the day."  (Look at the two party scenes
here (2:20- or 2:50-4:05) and here (the first part).
Awesome!   He kissed her.  What growth!
Why not?
Let's look at the details. 
When he walks in to the party, the first image we see is a couple making out and Knox staring enviously at them.  He also sees Katie and her boyfriend dance together.  He retreats to the kitchen, where he gets drunk.  (He gets drunk quickly, partially due to confusion over his identity.  Ah, those sly filmmakers.)  A swirling-cam POV lets us know he's drunk as he enters the fray of the party. 
(Quick side note: We briefly see Chet, Katie's boyfriend, and his friends from the football team. They wear letter jackets and helmets - some with huge Viking horns on them - and they head-butt one another.  Chet is also pressured and influenced by the rituals and traditions of his social group.  Hmm, are we going to be surprised later if his clan protects him or if he reacts with violence?)
Knox stumbles over to a couch, where he plops down between two couples who are kissing.   In the next shot, one of the couples even squashes him.  The next angle shows he is still flanked by the kissing couples, but now a third kissing couple is introduced into the frame.  He then looks down to discover Katie asleep (passed out?) next to him.  He declares "carpe diem," takes a swig of alcohol, and kisses her sweetly on the forehead.   She awakes, shocked and not happy.  Chet's boys point out what Knox has done and Chet gives him an ass-whooping.  End of scene.
The beauty of this scene is that it looks like or could look like he's seizing the day - that he is being courageous and passionate in pursuing what he wants.  But look at all of the supporting details:
1) He envies the kissing couple, and Chet and Katie as they dance.
2) He gets drunk, further removed from his true self. 
3) He faces peer pressure as he's bombarded by numerous visual cues of kissing couples.
4) Katie is asleep, so there is no interaction or connection. 
5) And, ironically, when he says "seize the day" he takes a shot of "liquid courage."  He actually must numb himself more before he kisses her.
It becomes pretty clear that this is not carpe diem.  It is courage's exact opposite: cowardice.   His choice is made not from his uniqueness, creativity, and passion, but from his fear and his need to blindly pursue what peer pressure tells him he must.  If figuring things out were easy for the characters, what fun would that be?  You can't go from wrong to right.  You have to travel through the wrong that looks right - getting your ass figuratively kicked in the process - and maybe even contrast it with the right that looks wrong.  (Some
argue that Meeks is right in protecting the students by blaming Keating for Neil's death.)
Okay, now I confess.  The little old lady story by itself doesn't perfectly illustrate this concept.  With no other context, her actions could represent other intentions or thematic strands: confusion, fear, or reluctance.  However, as a writer we need to see the hypocrisy and the paradox - or the potential for them - in surprising places.  I could have given a more meaningful or obvious situation, such as a mother who loves her 12-year-old so much that she gives him everything he wants to make him happy - including all the food he can eat, although he's 100 pounds overweight. 
I chose a particularly lightweight (wow, did I just use that pun?) scenario so that you could see the inherent structure in the situation and how it could be a piece of the puzzle in a story that weighs politeness versus inconsideration.  If it were part of a story, you would have to go beyond my neurotic mind and actually set up that her intentions are of kindness, and that the opposing idea of inconsiderateness is also in play - and then explore these two competing ideas elsewhere in the story.  If you feel duped, then consider this the lesson: It looked like I was teaching you, but I was actually confusing you.  Man, is that a cold F'd Up Permutation or what?  Exactly.  Now you're getting it.

Why do I call it a permutation and not something more devious, like a lie or a charade, which it often is - or at least feels like?  Because I want you to get in the habit of thinking of your character arc and of your theme as a conflict between two competing ideas, like a thesis and antithesis that collide to create a new synthesis.  The more specific you can be, the more thoroughly you can explore the different combinations of your ideas and the more cleverly you can mismatch them, the more deeply you can explore theme.

 You can use this as a creative tool in writing - even in your first draft - to brainstorm scenes, to fill in the thematic holes, and to round out the ideas explored in your story.  Take the ideas and character traits of your characters and ask yourself hard questions.  Try to twist things up.  Let's say "selfishness" is the issue in your story.  When does selfishness look like altruism?   When does giving look like taking?  When does someone sacrifice something but actually gain something even bigger?  When does a loss become so huge that it obliterates any positive notion of sacrifice?  (Seven Pounds, anyone?)  How does being selfish allow you to take better care of someone else?
These sorts of questions will bring a sense of unity to your character orchestration, deepen your theme, and create more coherent meaning.  When thinking about all of the ways you can twist the ideas and the morality of your characters, take them all the way.  Whether you want to get on the A-list or just get an A in your screenwriting class, make sure you include an F: the F'd-Up Permutation.
Spend a week with Jim in New York City or Los Angeles in A-List Screenwriting: Immersion for a life-changing week of craft, passion, interaction, and storytelling growth.  And top it all off with a Pink's hot dog in LA or Junior's cheesecake in NYC.
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CraftContinuedCRAFT & CAREER:
by Jim Mercurio
Iger has cut back production and even defended the disappointing numbers for the Narnia sequel Prince Caspian: "It's a very delicate, very fragile marketplace."  He said that the marketplace can't always accommodate all of the releases a studio puts out.  I might add: Especially when the sequels are a bloated 150 minutes with at least one pointless battle sequence and a 12-percentile drop on Rotten Tomatoes.
Jim Cirile, who covers the business for the top two screenwriting magazines, sums up the new mentality: "It's no longer about a well-written script or a great human story.  It's about how can these multinational corporations re-purpose your property into a multibillion-dollar marketing industry.  Is your script a potential cell-phone game, a fashion line, paint shades at Home Depot?  This is how these people are thinking now."
There is a term called the Brandon Tartikoff Syndrome, named after the late NBC exec, that observes perhaps the biggest challenge in filmmaking: Each project means you are starting a new product line from scratch.  In one of James Cameron's early interviews about Avatar at Comic-Con, he discussed the challenge of attracting a global audience to a non-franchise film, a la Harry Potter or James Bond.  He said it was a difficult problem and that Avatar was his response to that.  If James Cameron had to lie in wait for 10 years and then spend a quarter of a billion dollars on his solution (Avatar), it's going to be a tricky market for all of us.
Devin Arbiter, former director of development for Ashton Kutcher's Katalyst Films, is pretty curt about the current spec market.  He calls it nonexistent.  Scoggins is a little more playful, if not optimistic, when he tells me what could sell right now: "The phone book with Will Smith or Tom Cruise attached.  Or the Bill of Rights with any one of the top 20 directors in Hollywood."
Kersey adds: "There must be some meaningful element attached.  And it needs to be really close to the goal line."  Arbiter elaborates: To have a shot now, a script needs the following:  "1) A high-concept idea; 2) a nearly shootable script; 3) a well-developed storyline; 4) well-developed characters; and 5) most likely needs an element [director or an actor] attached."
Do the numbers and data really support all of this gloom and doom?  Unfortunately, yes.  Besides being a manager, Scoggins runs a website and blog (busy guy) called Life on the Bubble where he follows the business side of the industry and tracks spec sales. He calls his methods unscientific and, sure, some scripts probably slip under his radar, but his work is much more in line with the aforementioned objective article that I am not going to write.  So let's see what his data say.
As of middle of August, of the 320 specs that went out this year (he doesn't count pitch sales nor the film rights to underlying material) only 52 had sold.  Outside of CAA, WME, UTA, and ICM, exactly a dozen specs had sold.  Like Oliver Platt's character (an actor) in The Impostors responded to the question "Have I seen you in anything?": It's a tough business.
Scoggins said that the industry looks for the spec flavor of the month in cycles.  After The Proposal and The Hangover did well, everyone was looking for a low-budget comedy.  He suspects that it will be the same for sci-fi action pics that can be done for under $30 million, a la District 9.  But in the same breath, Scoggins adds that to try to chase these trends would be folly.  

Alex Tse, the young thirtysomething screenwriter who landed one of the coolest of recent assignments, that of co-adapting Watchmen, tells me: "You have to be aware of the market, but don't write directly to it."  He found out firsthand when early on he wrote a genre thriller that, judging from the way he talks about it, fell somewhere above "by the numbers" and below "inspired."  So his manager pushed him to write something personal.  The resulting 87 Fleer, a coming-of-age drama, got him meetings all over town and opened several doors. 
Tse's advice is easy to misinterpret by embracing the "write whatever we want" and conveniently ignoring the "be aware of the market."  It's much easier for us to regress to how things were or how we liked them. 
I understand fondness for the past.  It used to be you could go see a Hollywood genre movie and at least have something to talk about.  When I was a teenager, I saw 48 Hours 10 times.  (Luther, are you angry with me?)  I loved the fact that they used their own lonely desperation to figure out the bad guys would return to their girlfriends.  Die Hard and Speed were really great exploitations of concept.  LA Confidential was a textbook example of succinct character setup.  
But coming out of Transformers, I learned gray robots bad, colored robots good ... I think.  And I learned about marketing: Cool car for product placement.  Check.  Hot star, bouncing breasts.  Check.  Her doppelganger (unknown actress) that morphs into sexy succubus to keep A-list star Megan Fox's role virtuous.  Check.  Jar Jar Binks-like ethnic stereotypes because some suit thinks they appeal to urban audiences.  Check.  Cute robot that humps Fox's leg for preteens.  Check.
This just isn't your dad's (or older brother's) Hollywood any more.  And personally, it's frustrating.
And if it's frustrating for you, then let me give you one coping strategy.
GET OUT NOW!  There, I said it.  Just in case you need someone to spell it out for you: The industry that used to be - the one that the books or film school in the '90s or early '00s prepared you for - doesn't exist anymore.  Outside of the top five agencies 15 specs sold this year.  F-I-F-T-E-E-N. 
Spend your weekends playing catch with your kids.  Skip grad school and take a trip to Europe.  Start a business.  Start a blog instead of learning screenwriting, and maybe by the time you would have written enough to be a great screenwriter you'll be making a living from your blog.  Run!  Go!
Take a breath, Jim.  Relax.  Hey, that was for you.
If you're still with me, let's see if there is a productive way to adapt to this ever-changing Hollywood landscape.
Don't take Tse's advice of "being aware of the market" as some sort of sellout but as a chance to take a delusion-free look at what the business currently is.  You're not chasing trends, you are trying to get a scent of the beast you are hunting.
For instance, if you haven't bookmarked Jason's Life on the Bubble, what are you waiting for?  It's a heck of a lot cheaper than a Variety subscription.  Another great resource is a blog by a guy who goes by ScriptShadow.  I discovered his site after my script placed in a fun free contest he held.  He reviews the screenplays for five current spec sales a week.  Whether you agree with him or not, you can see what's selling, find links to current scripts, and learn from others' responses to the same material.
If you want to try to be a timely storyteller, you need to be in tune with the zeitgeist.  And not just as a career strategy.  As a craft tactic, too.  My 40-something friends pitched me a teen comedy where some Beverly Hills High students get involved with a staged kidnapping of the members of a famous boy band.   After I listened to it, I realized that in the story's world there was not one cell phone, not one computer, not one social networking site or use of texting.  They weren't in Miley or even Backstreet Boys territory.  They were in Menudo-land, circa 1984. 
Well?  Is there a smart phone in your second-to-last spec?  If you are telling stories that are supposed to be taking place now, well, then let them take place now.  Yeah, yeah, I know, I have an article about Dead Poets Society.  Well, come to my class and we can discuss Frozen River, The Dark Knight, and, if you have a bootleg copy, Julie and Julia.  And last week's spec sale.
But whether you can join me in NYC or LA, here are some tips on how to survive in this crazy market, tailored to your goals as a writer.
If, despite all of the doom and gloom of the first part of this article, you decide your goal is to be a Hollywood screenwriter, then life is easy.  You write.  
Scoggins confirms: "The tried-and-true way to break into the business as a writer hasn't changed in a long time: Write some great scripts, get a manager and an agent (in that order), and then keep writing great material."  He admits that it's easier said than done. 
If your goal is to write Hollywood screenplays to sell to Hollywood, you are already looking at the market.  You already know you love genres and writing to concept.  You don't have to decide whether you're supposed to be writing your personal story or your genre film, because you are writing two to three scripts a year.  Write one of them now and then the other one after the holidays. 
Tse puts it an interesting way.  He reminds us that when he or any A-list writer is on assignment, the writing part is for free.  You are getting paid to take and apply notes.   So just like them, you gotta just write. 
Tse also reminds us that there's more than one goal in writing a spec.  There is a sale and there is also establishing a career.  He tells me: "If you know no one is going to buy a volcano movie because there are so many f---ing volcano movies, but you love f---ing volcano movies and you know you can write the best f---ing volcano movie ever, then you gotta write that f---ing volcano movie."  (F-bombs were passion and emphasis, not anger.) 
Scoggins also advises writers to hire professional readers.  "Not only will you get valuable feedback about the script as well as the merits of your writing, most reputable readers have relationships with managers and agents [and can refer you]."  He points out that the best way to land a rep is to be referred.  He has never signed a client based on a query letter or unsolicited submission.
If you want to be this writer, stay tuned to what's going on, keep your head down and ears up, and grind away at that keyboard.  Your job is to just ride this out and reevaluate your situation two to three marketable specs from now.
I like the fact that Scoggins gave me a counterpoint argument about production.  If you want to be the journeyman screenwriter and not a hyphenate, then production is risky, because it takes a lot of energy away from ... say it with me ... writing. 
However, I know that if production is an itch that you have, then you're going to scratch it no matter what.  An immediate benefit is that you will become a better writer from having your script produced or from being involved with production.  Tse says his work with A-list directors like Spike Lee and Michael Mann have been invaluable.  Each has his own way of seeing things.  For instance, Mann is so concerned with authenticity and research that he has had Tse hang out with actual gangsters for their project Frankie Machine.
If you don't have the luxury of working with Michael Mann this week, consider having your script read aloud, participating in a 48-hour film festival, or, ahem, taking classes where you workshop scenes.
If you do a short, that's great.  But make it short.  Make it within a genre you want to direct.  Don't even waste energy trying to figure out how it's going to make money.  It's not.  It's a loss-leader, an expensive calling card.
Finding distribution or money for indies is even scarier than the spec market.  However, I will do an upcoming issue on DIY production and raising money. 

You won't be doing theater to make money, but for a few thousand dollars risked (more on the coasts) you can produce your play.  Worst case, you will improve your craft and add a dollop of credibility to your query letters when you write: "I am a produced playwright." 
David Scott Hay, who adapted his play and directed Hard Scrambled, the feature film that I produced, says: "For a beginning writer I would wholeheartedly encourage the DIY approach.  Just consider it a positive investment.  You need to be produced.  You need any and all ink early on."  But then his warning seems to jibe with Scoggins's take on DIY: "At a certain point, though, it's about cost/benefit.  Will it further your career?  Or do you just want to put on a show with friends?  Nothing is wrong with the latter, but a few times later you know the drill and the psychic costs."
If you are a hyphenate or multi-tasker - actor, comedian, writer, or comedy writer - I would ponder writing and performing a one-person show.  It's a lot cheaper than several years of therapy.  In the Midwest, it's going to be a labor of love and a way to stay sane while improving your craft.  In LA or NYC, there is more of a financial risk, but it's a way to show off a few of your skills and get exposure.
My friend Alanna Ubach, who was in Hard Scrambled and stole the show from three Oscar winners in Meet the Fockers, put on a one-woman show in Los Angeles and New York City.  Anytime you can get a reviewer to compare you to Giuletta Masina, that's not so bad.
Story skills are story skills.  Up to recently, I had a humor column in a national poker magazine.  One of my columns was a relationship guide in the form of a play-by-play poker book.   It was fun to exploit the concept of the parody.  It was also rewarding to come up with an idea, finish it a few hours later, get paid, and then within a month have 10,000 people read it.  And honestly, I had more fun with my R-rated WWTBD column last month than the last treatment I wrote as a gun-for-hire.
Remember, screenwriting has some characteristics that make it an inherently frustrating medium.  As merely a blueprint for a film, a screenplay is, in some sense, never finished.  A person reading your script isn't the same thing as an audience watching the completed movie. 
Whether it's a blog, a song, an article for a magazine, or even a post on a newsgroup, make sure you create a few opportunities to complete the cycle of source, message, and receiver.
If you can be productive and make money with these skills, awesome.  But mostly, this is not so much about business as it is about mental health.

I tread carefully when I have to make a subjective call about a project's marketability and/or premise.  On their first or second script, I think writers should be left alone with whatever concept they want to write.  The process of finishing those scripts is so important to the writers' growth that trying to point them in a different direction (however slight) could be hazardous to the passion and drive needed for them to finish their daunting and, for them, seemingly uncharted task.  Also, once in a while, a writer is well aware of a concept's limitations but the story just has to be told. 
I personally am a self-professed - or should it be self-diagnosed - lover of low-concept movies.  I have produced and/or directed three low-budget dramas.  I once mentioned Eric Rohmer in a development meeting and was happy that the assistant - if not the exec - got the reference.  If you have to write your character-piece slice of life indie, then do it and make that the best it can be.  In some ways, all of the advanced craft - theme, character, dialogue, cinematic writing, and actor-bait flourishes - are even more important in this genre.   But even when you nail it, just a heads up: According to Scoggins's numbers, dramas have little chance.  Four sold in May, and only one other has sold so far this year.
Arbiter, a development exec, suggests that writers stick with genres that offer audiences a break from everyday life: comedies, thrillers, and horror.  The problem with action is that writing a super-expensive movie gives the script less chance to be sold and a worse chance to be made. 
There are 20 things I love about Inglourious Basterds that are so far down on the list of things you need to know as a Hollywood screenwriter that I will probably not cover two of them in the next year of this newsletter.  But unless screenwriting is just a hobby, then at some point you need to consider hook and concept.  (Check out our first issue's piece on concept.)
As much as I think he has a great voice, Charlie Kaufman's success is more due to his fresh and innovative concepts (Eternal Sunshine, Being John Malkovich) as well as great execution.  I have read a dozen undiscovered writers who may have as idiosyncratic a voice as Charlie, but a mere few with an impeccable ability to come up with and masterfully exploit concepts with crazy hooks.  And those few are already on their way to being discovered, at least at some level.
Although insiders still rely on the classic syntax "It's Jurassic Park, but with aliens," Scoggins reminds me that the term "high-concept" is a bit out of vogue.  Instead, people are looking for stories with strong "hooks."   If you understand the concept of hook and have or are willing to develop the craft of writing within a strong concept, I encourage it.  And if you can do it on a reasonable budget so that you open yourself up to more potential buyers, that's a huge plus.  Heck, if you write a great script that can be made for less than $100,000, you can shop it to the filmmakers you run into at second-tier film festivals.
I guess that by process of elimination we have come up with something practical to write.
Here are some examples of good movies with clever hooks and reasonable budgets: District 9, (500) Days of Summer, Memento, The Hangover.  I haven't read or seen the new Youth in Revolt, but the trailer made me think "Fight Club as a teen comedy," which is a pretty cool idea.  Let's see how it plays.  Blair Witch Project made a jillion times its budget and the same premise applied to Cloverfield made it much less expensive than the standard take on Godzilla.  I prefer Knife in the Water, but you probably have a better shot with an updated take on Dead Calm
I stumbled upon two clever scripts on ScriptShadow's blog.  One is Source Code, a recent sci-fi action spec that uses a Groundhog Day-like repetition and excessive use of two limited locations.  Maybe check it out.  Or make sure to check out a handful of recent specs in the genre you are writing.  The other is Buried, which was sold and attached a director and an actor you may have heard of - Ryan Reynolds - and is now in the can.  Why did it sell so easily?  Why did it get made so fast?  It takes place in one location: a buried coffin.  Seriously.
If you can make something like that work, go for it.  If you can write a one-location or limited-location script that an A-list actor or hip director would dig, there are dozens of indie companies with private equity or the ability to package it that can give it a chance.  Assuming execution is up to par, write a movie with a clever premise told in an interesting way and people will pay attention.
And before you jump off a bridge, check out Life on the Bubble: Six scripts sold last week.
Sign up for coaching with Jim this month and receive a free week with him in A-List: The Immersion in LA or NYC. 
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with Rhona Berens, Ph.D.
The story of your reality
I've been thinking a lot lately about the ways in which people-not just screenwriters-storify pretty much everything.  I stumbled on the word "storify" a few weeks ago when I considered turning the noun, story, into a verb (e.g., to story my experiences), just like businesspeople have morphed the word "grow" so that now they can grow a company.  Turns out, storify does what I was looking for: "To form or tell stories of; to narrate or describe in a story;" or, most succinctly, "to make up."
To state the obvious: Fiction writing is, at its core, the ability to storify scenarios and characters.  To state the not so obvious: Autobiography-including our self-focused thoughts and beliefs that we never write down-is how we storify ourselves.  What I mean is, we believe a lot of the stuff we make up about ourselves (or others); we often believe what others make up about us; and, sometimes, we believe what we think they make up about us.  In short, humans storify all the time; writers take that skill and parlay it into art. 
Let's take a closer look at one common "storifying" tool that's an entrée into growing ourselves (and a boon to character development): Self-Limiting Beliefs.  Brian Tracy, a motivational speaker and author, defines a Self-Limiting Belief (a.k.a. SLB) as: "An idea you have that you are limited in some way, in terms of time, talent, intelligence, money, ability, or opportunity."  I'd add a few other items to his list, like the belief you're limited by how well or poorly others love, respect, or treat you.  Plus, there are limitations you might ascribe to yourself based on appearance, cultural or ethnic background, gender, age...  you get the picture. 
The bottom line is: SLBs constrain how (far) we take action in our lives.  If we're in the territory of our SLBs, we might take some action, maybe the first or second or third step toward a goal.  Then an SLB will intervene, either in the form of discouraging words articulated by our own Inner Critic or Saboteur (the topic of a whole other column) or by rejection/criticism from people in our daily lives, whose opinions matter to us (even when we say they don't).  What's the impact?  We stop sprinting full-tilt boogie toward the finish line for the things we really want to do, the person we believe we can be, the dreams we yearn to fulfill.  In other words, when it comes to our own lives, SLBs suck the momentum right out of us.
SLBs and the Characters We Love:
That's a lot of personal growth talk to accept, so in an effort to keep your defenses down (or at half-mast), I'm going to back off and apply some of these concepts to other people first, fictional people.  (BTW, you might find this an interesting approach to developing characters.)  Two of my favorite screen characters are Harry Burns and Sally Allbright from the rom-com, When Harry Met Sally.  Their SLBs emerge pretty quickly in the first act and are rampant by the third; I've listed a few below.  One more thing: the same person (fictional or real) can have contradictory SLBs. 
How did I come up with this list?  I re-read Nora Ephron's script with Brian Tracy's definition of SLBs in mind.  
Some of Harry's SLBs include:
"Men and women can't be just friends."
"All relationships are doomed."
"I can't be involved with someone who is high maintenance."
Here's a smattering of Sally's SLBs:
"I'm not an interesting person."
"I have a type and you, Harry, are not it."
"I'm broken, so no one will marry me."
In a romantic comedy, like When Harry Met Sally, the most obvious SLBs are about love and relationships; SLBs are intimately tied to genre conventions.  Yet, regardless of genre, and regardless of whether or not a script is plot-driven or character-driven, SLBs provide a structure for building a really productive back-story. 
If we do our homework on our characters' SLBs, if we truly understand how they think they're limited, plot points come from an organic source, which means they're powerful turns in the story.  That's not to say we can't build scripts based on events and actions.  In those cases, SLBs give us a dramatic way to craft how protagonists respond (or don't) to events.  Either way, if we really know our characters' SLBs, and if those SLBs both drive and respond to major plot points, then we'll also have a roadmap to building and sustaining the themes that form the foundation of a script. 
So when do movie heroes and heroines most often shift their SLBs or, put another way, when do they expand and grow beyond their SLBs?  You guessed it: in the third act. 
That's the scoop for fictional folks.  What about SLBs and you?  Here's the rub: I really, really don't want you to wait until the last act of your life to dislodge your SLBs about who you are and what you're capable of.  Do you? 
How can you explore and dislodge your own SLBs?  Start with understanding that SLBs aren't always transferable.  A belief that stops someone else from doing stuff they really want to get done might inspire you to take action.  So it's important to look at SLBs in a very personal way.  To help you begin, here are four of the most common types: 
1. I'm Not Enough, which also includes I'll never be enough and I've never been enough:    

This is probably the most popular of SLB varieties.  It includes remarks along the lines of: "I'm not smart/talented/disciplined/[fill in the blank] enough to be who I want to be/get what I want to get/do what I want to do."
 2.  You're Not Enough:
This is a simple pronoun-shift on the first type of SLB, from me to you. Sally Allbright has at least one of these, which include assumptions like: "I have a type and you're not it." 

3.  That's Just the Way It Is:
This type of SLB has the staying power of maxims: "You can't teach an old dog new tricks."  I always imagine statements like that are followed immediately by the sound of a judge's gavel banging on the bench.  Boom!  Outside of adages, and inside real people, this SLB might sound something like: "I was born a pessimist; I'll die a pessimist."  Or here's one you might be familiar with: "Art demands suffering.  I'm an artist, therefore, I have to suffer."

4.  If This Then That:
Like all SLBs, the If This Then That version is about giving the impression that it's a done deal, no two ways about it.  Here's an example: "If I put myself out there and date, I'll get hurt. It's happened before, it'll happen again."
Do I hear some hesitation, skepticism even, about exploring your own SLBs?  You're right to be wary.  It's one thing for you, as a writer, to manipulate a hero or heroine's SLBs and "force" him or her to grow in the service of a storyline.  I mean, s/he's fictional after all and you're not fictional, at least not entirely so.  But at the most basic level, fictional or otherwise, Self-Limiting Beliefs are just that: beliefs.  They're your mind's version of habits.  If habits can be broken, so, too, can SLBs.  And another thing: just because you believe something doesn't make it true.
I started this column by citing advice about accountability: motivate yourself to complete that script, or outline, or whatever you're working on, by giving someone else a heads-up that you'll be submitting it to them by a certain date.  Instead of accountability to others, I'm going to end by asking for accountability to yourself via a request:  Take one of your most powerful SLBs about your writing and perform the following steps, which are a variation on author Byron Katie's self-inquiry method, The Work.  Think of this as developing the most important character you'll ever create: You.
Here are the steps: 
(1)  Jot down one major SLB (fine, you can do more, if you're feeling prolific) that negatively impacts your growth as a writer, however you define growth.  Don't think you can come up with one on your own?  No problem.  Call a couple of people you like and trust, people who have known you for a few years, and ask them any or all of the following questions:  What are some ways in which you think I under-estimate myself as a writer?  How do you think I hold myself back from moving forward with writing goals you know I care about?  What limitations do you think I impose on myself as a writer (vs. external ones imposed on me)?  Feeling shy about asking questions?  Blame me.  Tell them you read a column by one of "those" Life Coaches and you're curious to see how wacky her advice is.  After those conversations, I guarantee you'll have at least one SLB to work with.

(2)  Now take that SLB and say it aloud to yourself.  That's right.  Speak it out loud.  Listen to what you're saying.  Listen closely. 

(3)  The next step is to "Byron Katie" that SLB, which means ask yourself the following four questions and write down your answers:
a.  Is my SLB true?
b.  Can I absolutely, 100%, incontrovertibly know it's true?
c.  How do I react when I believe that SLB?
d.  Who would I be-and what might be possible for me if I didn't have that SLB?
(4)  Now take that same SLB and do a turnaround, which in Byron Katie's terms means reverse it.  For argument's sake, let's say your SLB is: "No one I know will help me get my writing out there."  The turnaround can take multiple forms, so I encourage you to come up with more than one.  Here are three possible turnarounds: "Everyone I know will help me get my writing out there;" "I will help me get my writing out there;" "People I haven't met yet will help me get my writing out there."  Whatever you come up with, write it down.

(5)  Now select the one you consider the most empowering of those turnarounds.  Didn't think of an empowering one?  Do so right now.  Once you've got it, ask yourself these revised questions:
a.  Might my turnaround statement be true?
b.  Might it be equally or perhaps more true than my SLB?
c.  How might I react if I believe my turnaround instead of my SLB?
d.  Who could I be-and what might be possible for me-if I believe, or act as if I believe, my turnaround?
(6)  Say your turnaround statement aloud.  Say it once more and, this time, say it as if you mean it. 
(7)  Believe, or act as if you believe, your turnaround.  Do it one day, one minute, at a time.  If that pesky SLB shows up again-perhaps, in the guise of your Inner Critic who's regaling you with why you'll never be able to change-replace that SLB, and interrupt your Inner Critic, with your turnaround.  That's right, just repeat your turnaround to yourself and remind yourself that you're trying a new belief on for size.  Over time your new belief will become habit, only unlike your SLB, this habit will be a useful one.

(8)  Now what?  SLBs often cluster around our creative roadblocks.  For example, if you struggle with procrastination, or staying focused on one project at a time, we often have multiple SLBs that "support" those issues.  The best next step is to spend some time figuring out the other SLBs that cluster around your particular creative challenge (or challenges).  Take one challenge at a time, one SLB at a time, and repeat the steps listed above.  And if you're really curious and brave-which I know you are because, after all, you're a writer-repeat the steps for SLBs that have nothing (or nothing obvious) to do with your writing and everything to do with roadblocks to other types of fulfillment in your life.
Sound easy?  Good.  Go for it.  Sound daunting?  Sorry.  Go for it anyway.  Why?   Like I said before, I really, really don't want you to wait until the last act of your life to throw your SLBs out the window or to mutter the words: shoulda, woulda, coulda.  So just do it: storify your life in a whole new way and see what's possible when Self-Limiting Beliefs fade and you step fully into the talented, powerful, energized you.  
Rhona Berens, Ph.D., CPCC, specializes in coaching "creatives." She's a writer (who placed in several screenwriting competition finals and co-wrote an episode of ABC's short-lived High Incident) and a recovering academic (chairperson of Film Studies at UC Irvine).  Curious about coaching?  Book a complimentary phone session with Rhona (rhonaberens@me.com; 323-363-3571).
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Quarterfinalists for 2009
The Champion Screenwriting Competition received more than 560 scripts this year and a little more than a hundred of those were shorts. 
We are proud to announce the quarterfinalists who are still in the running for all prizes.  Several of the features quarterfinalists will win seats into A-List Screenwriting: The Immersion.
Thanks to everyone who entered and good luck to the quarterfinalists.
#14 by Solomon Grundy
God's Girlfriend. by Alexandra Williams
A Mate for Lonesome George by Sharon Clark
A Snowball's Chance by Deborah Stenard
A Walk in the Park by Jason Sotolongo
Atom Smashers by Phil Ferriere
Blowback by Robert Kotecki
Blowback by Jeff Travers
Body Count by Dale Pitman
Bookworm by Sharon Clark
Brill by Jennifer Fink
Buchanan by Patrick Harrison
Christmas Commandos by Gareth Bennett
Coal Hard Cash by Arthur Schurr
Controlled by Craig Cambria
Dark Frontier by Seneca Smith
Dead End Love by Ethan Marrell
Dead Man's Hand by Ronald Ecker
Deadly Breach by Danny Kay
Death Valley by Stephen Escudero
Devlin by Kelly Michels
Doctor Cockner's Carnival of Carnage by Jason Siner
Fairies Landing by Cheryl Miller
Felix the Flyer by Christopher Canole
Flood by Jan Hendrik Verstraten
Funny Bone by Jan Stanton
God Complex by Matthew Zbrog
Headhunter by Melissa Goetz
Hell and Jack by Ben Shearn
Holmes by George Nicholis
Ian Hawk by Chris Veeneman
Identity Theft by Jeff Travers
In The Beginning by Paul Pawlowski
Keep My Love Here by Bernard Grysen
LA Bandera by Tina Juarez
Laramie by William Johnston
Mademoiselle by Nathan Goldman
Meadowlandz by Moon Molson
Miss Christmas by Irin Evers
Mr. Unlucky by Tony Nichols
One Night Stand by Ian Coyne
Paper Hero by Michael Valente
Pasteurized by Susan Pak
Redemption Road by Christine Downs
Rochester by James T. Frazier
Rough Country by Peter Phinny
Rough Trade by Howard Casner
Run For Your Life by Melissa Goetz
Running Gun by Mike Bencivenga
School Spirit by Robert Watson
Scout by Laurie Weltz
Season of Mists by Kevin Brodie
Sebastian and the Lost Atoll by Michael Hogan
Shift Tab Kill by Yarrow Vincent-Wayman
Skinned by Carlos Perez
The Big Thing by Brett Boham
The Black Cat by Mark Penberthy
The Cipher by Andy Levine
The Classy Genie by Brian Fuller
The Color of Music by William Melton
The Competitors by Nancy Smith
The Conjur' Man by Joseph Kenny
The Hardway by Todd Schlichter
The In-Between Time by John Barry
The Kids from Nowhere by Deborah Schildt
The Long Way Down by Theo Burtis
The Moonbeam Fisherman by John Dummer
The New Jersey Turnpike by Robert Lewis
The Unseen by Shivakumar Ramanathan
The Virgin Club by Hilla Medalia
The Winged Avenger by Walter Stewart
To Live, Press 1 by Stephen Hoover
Townrats by Josiah Signor
Trauma Queen by Jan Stanton
Wajda by Haifaa Al Mansour
Wallflower by Tim Eavey
Wedding Knight by Stephen Hoover
What Tigers Do by Richmond  Riedel
Where There's a Will by Jason Carter
Wrath by Alex Sosin
Zitkala Waste by Olivier Séguéla


All Things Beautiful by Helmann Wilhelm
Answers by Edgar Martinez Schulz
Archived by Mark Oakley
Backstabbin' Blues by Celso Lazaretti
Death Doesnt Like Me-Short by Stephen Daniels
Every time I go to Staten Island Something Bad Happens by Irin Evers
Freer by MJ Hermanny
Godmother by Giulietta Speziani
Hells Angel by Mark Millicent
High Feelings by Michael Parish
Honey-Colored Boy by Fran Kaplan
Kitten by Magali Rennes
Like, What Do You Do All Day? by Denise Sodaro
Mañana by Joshua Wagner
One Last Bomb by James Becker
Second Nature by Michael Cross
Shoe by Nick Kelly
Small Gifts by Ronnie Mackintosh
Sparkle by Jan Ducker
Stalker: A Love Story by Pamela Nash
Tall Order by Natalie Fellowes
The Anniversary by Stephen Mack
The Blackberry That Saved LA by Keith Blackwell
The Chess Game by Adam Hughes
The Red Converse by Ya Fang Cheng
Unintended Heroes by Jamie Feldman
Wedding Cake by Leslie Lyshkov
Yes, There is an Afterlife...It's Only 6 Minutes Long by Rubi Herrera
In This Issue
Praise from Readers
Spec Market or Blech Market
Attitude Adjustment w/ Rhona Berens
Craft Bonus: The F'd Up Permutation
Champion Screenwriting Quarterfinalists
WWTBD? Column
Quick Links
Join Jim and Kevin Costner this weekend at 
Aberdeen, South Dakota

What Would the Boss Do?

You ask casual Bruce fans what their favorite song is?  I bet you get "Born to Run."
You ask me what my favorite song is, you get "Backstreets."
You ask me, Bruce or God what Bruce's best song is, you get "Thunder Road."
But you know what?  It's not Bruce's favorite.  And I don't think Bruce has ever come out and said what his favorite song is.  But I know.
And years after he wrote it, he couldn't sing it as is.  He had to change a word or two.


I am turning over my ATTITUDE ADJUSTMENT column this month to Rhona Berens, Ph.D. 
And I couldn't relegate her to this skinny little purple strip, so, in a second, I am going send you over there.   <=
You are in good hands with Rhona.
How do I know?

One day, I will tell the entire story but for now, here's the punchline.
I asked Rhona to be my life coach before I even knew she was one. 
Use David Gillis - veteran editor and award-winning screenwriter - before end of September and save.
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ELLEN SANDLER is teaching
The Writers Store
 Los Angeles
Saturday, 9/26/09
Ellen was nominated for an Emmy for  Everybody Loves Raymond. She has created pilots for ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox Family and the Disney Channel.

Killer Endings 

Killer Endings and
 T-Word: Theme.
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What Would the Boss Do?
Here is the original line.
"I lost my money and I lost my wife."
He wrote the line in his twenties before he even got married.  And years later he rewrote it.
"I lost my faith when I lost my wife."
These lines are followed by
"Those things don't seem to matter much to me now."
Why did he need to change it?  Some day, I may answer it but I don't know what the story topic would be?
Adaptation? Autobiography?  Theme?  Rewriting?   
Maybe while I am trying to figure out the topic, you can just check out the evidence. 
You think he likes this song?  Is he passionate about it? 
Here is the stripped down black-and-white, on film, with the original verse version.
And here, with some better production value, is the rewritten version.
Unless otherwise noted, all content is copyrighted by A-List Screenwriting, LLC or James P. Mercurio.