Craft & Career
Welcome to our fifth issue, whose theme revolves around the delicate balance of laziness and delegation.
I let Life On the Bubble's Jason Scoggins do most of the talking about his new endeavor, It's On the Grid, a subscription-based site that he recently launched. He even offers a free daylong test-run.
David Gillis is back with Style Matters: Don't be a Lazy Writer, Part II. David will be working on his own scripts through the holidays and new year, so this is your last chance (for a while?) to send him format questions.
After seeing the perfect show in Madison Square Garden with my wife and stepson, I asked my 14-year-old stepson to guest-write my What Would the Boss Do? column. Delegation disguised as laziness. Or the opposite? You decide. I think he inadvertently stumbled upon one of the implicit secrets of four-quadrant films. And he uses the word "juxtaposition" correctly.
And my craft column is the perfect amalgamation of laziness and delegation. The laziness: I pulled excerpts from my book proposal on scene writing. But this, my first-ever interactive craft column, will end with the perfect delegation: to you. You can send me your scenes to have them critiqued on the A-List Screenwriting blog.
I have also created a Champion Blog
for the most current updates on the contest. You can sign up for an RSS feed for either of the blogs or follow us on Twitter
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There is a great moment in Tony Gilroy's Duplicity where Paul Giamatti's character, Garsik, meets with the main characters in a bowling alley. The scene starts with him holding the ball, ready to bowl. But he doesn't move. He can't do it. He then says:
First of all, it's a great destruction of cliché. The scene itself tears apart what all other nine million jokers writing a scene in a bowling alley did before. How has every other scene in a bowling alley started? With a ball hitting pins? A strike? Or maybe someone dared to be creative and start with (gasp!) a gutter ball? This scene's intro is new and it's also superbly indicative of the essence of the Giamatti character.
Never liked this game. Any sport puts limit on your score's a waste of time. Three hundred? That's it? Bust your nuts just to do something nine million other jokers might do? Stupidest fucking thing I ever heard of.
The old-school (canonical screenwriting books) way of teaching you how to have written that scene is to tell you to write a 30-page biography of the Garsik character that details everything from his childhood dreams to his favorite color to his astrological sign and the color of his poop when he was a baby. But you know what? That biography probably doesn't exist and rarely does.
The Immersion with Jim Mercurio
"What I have to offer you, that's as good as it's gonna get. And it won't ever get that good again."
Christopher Walken's character in True Romance
Monday - Friday <> December 7-11
A FEW SEATS LEFT - OPEN TO EVERYONE
CAREER: IT'S ON THE GRID: AN INTERVIEW WITH JASON SCOGGINS
I have been following Jason Scoggins, who is a literary manager at Protocol Entertainment, and his website Life on the Bubble ever since he helped with my research for my Spec or Blech Market article from a few issues ago. I was intrigued when I saw that he launched a new site, It's on the Grid (IOTG), which, like Life on the Bubble, has up-to-the-minute information, but information that has never been collected and offered to the public. What information is that? I will let Jason explain it. My questions are in purple.
Jim: What is IOTG?
Jason: It's on the Grid is a subscription-supported website that provides competitive feature film development information to entertainment industry professionals, as well as people aspiring to break into the business. It's not unlike IMDb Pro or The Studio System, in that it's a database of movie projects and the people and companies associated with them. But instead of simply delivering information about upcoming projects as reported in The Hollywood Reporter and Variety, IOTG tracks development projects and makes the information available to subscribers before it hits the trades.
So what's unique about IOTG?
The single biggest draw, and the thing that's gotten so many people talking about it are the listings of open writing assignments ("OWAs") and open directing assignments ("ODAs"). These are job opportunities for professional writers and directors, and until IOTG launched, this information was not available publicly in any form, let alone the searchable and sortable database we built. Writers and directors had to rely solely on their agents and managers to know about and put them up for potential. With IOTG, filmmakers now have more control over their own careers.
DON'T BE A LAZY WRITER, PART II
In last month's column I admonished writers, including myself, not to be lazy, to hunt down that sluggard verb be
and replace him with active verbs that reveal character. You all listened and learned and vowed to never again write a sentence without revisiting it at least thirty-times, thus making Papa proud.
No? Still ducking the discipline that makes a good writer great?
Well, that's OK. In fact, it's to be expected. After all, you wouldn't be a real
writer if you didn't have a love-hate relationship with your craft, a struggle that Bono summed up nicely in Achtung Baby's
"The Fly": Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief
All kill their inspiration and sing about the grief.
So achtung, baby: Here's part two of my admonition, in which I argue that writing lean action (or direction) is sometimes just taking the easy way out, and cheating is never a good idea.
OH, MS. SET DESIGNER?
In answer to a student's question about how much of car-chase scene he had to write in a script, my hero Syd Field gave a simple answer:
"All of it."
That is, if your story requires a car chase, then it's up to you to detail every bone-rattling twist and turn, every spinning-wheels-off-asphalt leap down the streets of San Fran, every OMG!: Is that a mom pushing a baby carriage through the crosswalk at the bottom of the hill? You can't just write "There's a car chase," then leave it up to the director to figure it all out for you.
Don't get me wrong: I'm a huge fan of lean action (or direction). Don't slow the read down with too many details - especially when they have nothing to do with the story. But too many times screenwriters leave out too many details. The screenwriter has all but said to the set designer: You figure it out.
Yes, the nitty-gritty is the set designer's job. Yes, he or she wants to be able to impose his or her own vision on a particular scene. But it's your story
. Your characters
. And you're missing a great opportunity to reveal something about them.
Here's one example of too-lean action: the car (whether it's involved in a chase or not). Too many times that's all I get, "car," as in: "John hops into his car." No make, no model, no color, no year of production.
No kidding: That's it. Sadly, the writer has just told me: I don't know my character well enough to tell you what kind of car he drives.
So you need to ask yourself a multitude of questions (ideally before you start writing). Among them might be: Is your dude a tough guy? Then stick him in a '71 Mustang. Is your woman outdoorsy? Put her in a forest-green pickup. But then have fun with it - if it suits your story and your character, of course. Make that Mustang pink. Give that pickup some monster wheels.
Being specific about his or her car is just the start. What about where he lives? What about her dog? The same principle applies to every bit of action you write, from the clothes your character wears - is that a Jay-Z T-shirt on that hip-hop wannabe ... or a plain white one? - to the food he or she eats.
Consider food. That figures into many a script. And, for the most part, it's bland stuff. We are what we eat, right? Well, let's see what your characters are eating.
Let's say you've placed your character at some sort of reception. Now a lot of writers will give me something like a "sumptuous feast" or they might write "food lines the table," and be done with it. But if everything in your script must reveal character, then sumptuous eats lining a buffet just doesn't satisfy.
Again, it all depends on your story and your character, but give me something more - maybe something surprising, like egg rolls and tacos at a bar mitzvah.
Mind you, don't overdo it. Don't give me a full eight-page menu. Don't pull a Henry James and describe every damn thing on the mantelpiece. Just provide enough detail to add another layer of complexity to each of your characters. Do that and you're well on your way to making them interesting, and thus worth watching for 90 or so minutes.
DON'T CHEAT ON ME - OR YOUR SCRIPT Do me and anyone else who will read your script a favor:
1. Take an index card.
2. Scribble on it the following: "I can only write what we SEE and HEAR."
3. Tape the card to your computer screen.
4. Slap yourself silly whenever you have the urge to write what a character is thinking or feeling.
We're not writing novels, folks. It's not OK in screenplays to internalize a character's thoughts and feelings. If you do, you have written a "cheat."
It's an apt word to describe what you've done to me as a reader. It also describes what you've done to yourself (as a writer) and to your script (as the work you've presumably crafted with love and care). Why? Because once again you have abdicated your responsibility. Take a look at the following example to see how: "Joe gazes at the sunset and it reminds him of the girl he met two summers ago."
Think about it. How the hell
do we know - see
- that Joe is reminiscing about a girl? Obviously we can't, even if he has a dreamy look on his face. For all we know, he's thinking about something else. Maybe it's the ice cream cone he ate or the beer he drank on that wonderful day two summers ago. Or was it yesterday? Hmmm ... time. How do you see
time on a character's face?
So if you write something like the above, you've all but told the director: "Look, I want Joe to remember the girl ... but I'm not sure why ... and I'm not sure how to do it. So I'm lobbing that grenade right at you. I'll be in my trailer till you figure it out."
If Joe's special girl is so important, then show
her to us. Maybe we see her in a flashback. Better: We see her earlier in the script, with a visual cue - let's say fading sunlight on a single red rose (trite, but you get the idea). When we later see him smile at the sight of a sunset-hued red rose, we can assume that he's thinking about her.
But here's the thing about cheats: I suspect that a lot of them can just be cut. Many times the writer uses them to bridge two weak scenes, or to show time passing, or to take a stab at poignancy. They're all a clear indication that the writer is still in first-draft mode and hasn't put the work in yet. Certainly most of them can be rewritten - as is the case with the following typical cheat: "Seeing the injured boy makes Mary sad."
How do we see
that she's sad? Does she grimace? Frown? Cry? Any one of those verbs works to fix the cheat: "The boy's arm hangs weirdly. Mary grimaces."
The problem with cheats, too, is that they invariably involve a passive activity. So instead of an active, vibrant character who actually does something, your character just stands there, with some sort of undefined expression on his or her face.
But, you say, it's the actor's job ... right? Wrong. He or she will want to make that scene his or her own - and maybe that grimace will instead be a frown or a nervous laugh - but you need to give us something
As examples, I offer you three cheats from a script I recently edited (with names changed and sentences edited to protect the innocent): "Joe looks at Mary and wonders what she's thinking."
"Mary senses that she's hurt Joe."
"Joe is filled with remorse at the thought of cheating on Mary."
In each of these examples it is impossible to see
what Joe and Mary is thinking or feeling or sensing. That's why they're cheats. Even the best acting in the world can't change that fact. But how do you, the writer, fix them?
There are any number of ways. Maybe for the first: Joe asks "What's wrong?"
For the second: "Mary caresses Joe's arm as he hangs his head."
For the third: "Joe pounds his fist against the wall, but pockets his wedding ring anyway."
In each instance we've changed internalized thoughts and feelings into actions that we can see
. We've done the work we had to do.
Some writers cheat more than others. Sometimes there are a handful sprinkled throughout those 120 pages, but often there are two or three on every single page. Do the math: That's an awful lot of cheating. So do yourself a favor. On the next pass through your script, read each line and ask yourself: Can I actually see or hear what I've just asked my character to do? If you can't, you've more than likely written a cheat.
And you know by now what comes next.
Have a question about grammar, or how to format that INTERCUT? Email me
David Gillis was a journalist for more than 20 years, including 15 as an editor on the Living/Arts and Business copy desks at The Boston Globe. He has written for newspapers and magazines nationwide. His screenplays have garnered several awards. He offers several proofreading services for screenwriters.
In this instance, Gilroy probably doesn't know 30 pages worth of stuff about the character. He knows one thing. In this case, it's "this character is the most competitive guy in the world and is competitive at EVERYTHING. He wants to be better than everyone else." And then one of the principles in the art and craft of scene writing is exploiting your setting (in the bigger sense) and your location (the bowling alley). Your scene isn't really done until you have put the scene in the right place or changed the place to match the scene and you have made your characters and their conflict interface with the immediate environment.
If you have been reading my blog or newsletter, you will know that this is not the first time I have talked about this. But it's as if USC's MFA program was reading my newsletter: They recently gave an exercise to their incoming screenwriting MFA applicants to write a scene in an elevator. That doesn't mean arbitrarily plugging in a "he presses the L button" and "the elevator stops, DING, the door opens" into the scene. Think of the velociraptor scene in Jurassic Park set in the kitchen. The kids' only chance for survival is their home-turf advantage: doorknobs; smooth, hard-to-navigate-with-claws surfaces; reflective stainless steel; sliding doors. The point of the scene is that it's in a kitchen. Write the elevator scene where the point is the elevator.
SHOOT THE CANONS
I spend a lot of time on scene-level craft as opposed to structure. It's not that I think that all of the books about story structure are wrong. In fact, I think that they are for the most part right. The principles they adhere to are valid. It's just the description of a structural paradigm or its understanding does not necessarily lead to great screenplays. Take weight training, for example. If all you did was curls, bench presses, squats, and toe lifts, you might look pretty good at the beach, but you probably won't participate in any sport at the world-class level. Whereas we can easily see how Barry Bonds outclasses us as an athlete, it's not so easy to see how Tony Gilroy does so as a screenwriter. The nitty-gritty detail of scene writing is important to the aspiring writer.
In the '80s and '90s, studios were buying mediocre scripts with cool concepts (Ticking Man
). The spec market has changed. With so many projects originating from pre-existing material like comic books and graphic novels, it's much harder for writers to break in. Why would you want to be an incomplete writer and have a clever concept but then not fully exploit it and fill it with great scenes? Understand structure, the commercial hook, and the idea of concept. But then write 5-10 amazing scenes.
The big-picture strength of Judd Apatow's movies is their gooey, lovable centers, but those films thrive on the scene level. The story of Role Models
is pretty paper thin. Without a half-dozen or so great scenes - even if some are improvised - Role Models
(Apatow-produced and influenced) gets maybe a B+ in a 400-level screenwriting class. Movies like Inglourious Basterds
and Good Will Hunting
also work because of the great scenes. (My blog about IB
). It's not a coincidence that the leading roles in Good Will Hunting
are all played by writers of sorts - Affleck, Williams, and Damon. Each is fighting to get his character's point of view across. Good Will Hunting
without its 10 good scenes is a movie of the week: An angry, abused boy grows by going to therapy. SCENE WRITING AND STRUCTURE
Ironically, scene writing can help your story and structure. If you make your scenes and dialogue specific, you clarify your character. This happens in two ways. The character talking and the character to whom he is talking both get defined better. Let's say you are writing Million Dollar Baby
and you want a character to say to Frankie what you the writer knows: "Look at you and your daughter and the guilt you carry and this girl is like a daughter to you, so, if you kill her yourself, you will never recover from that guilt. Your soul will be lost." Well, who knows that much about guilt and forgiveness? A Catholic priest. The specificity of the criticism leads us to who is really equipped to recognize that flaw. We have helped to define the "mentorly" character as well as the main character.
Somewhere near the end of the second act, a character is going to say to the protagonist: "The problem with you is _____" or "You will never get the girl because you are too ______." The better your can nail that line, the better the rest of the movie plays out. If the end of act two - the failure/rock bottom, where the character regresses - is ambiguous, the dialogue will help us understand it because of the context. This will also help lead you to a more specific and emotional and meaningful ending
Another thing that scene writing can do is to help make your movie more castable. Jack Nicholson says he won't do a movie unless it has a handful of great scenes. I can quickly think of an amazing scene in each of his movies. The dinner-table scene in The Postman Always Rings Twice
; the destruction of the art gallery in Batman
; the ode to his penis in Carnal Knowledge
; the literal pissing contest in Wolf
; and, of course, from Five Easy Pieces
, THE scene.
You can also reverse-engineer this principle. Learn from A-list actors what they want from scenes. I show scenes with Sean Penn in my class where you can almost see him taking the red pen to the page: "I won't say that." "That's boring." "I'm not going to say that." "That's clichéd" "Give that line to her." "There is nothing special about this reaction." Watch Ed Norton or Sean Penn in a scene. In the potboiler Pride and Glory
, watch the scenes with Norton. You can tell they were doctored or that he himself had a hand in the writing and blocking. His scenes are actually better than the other scenes in the movie. PROTECT YOURSELF
Let's say you are going to go shoot your movie for $10, $10,000, or $100,000. Chances are, your actors aren't going to be as talented as Sean Penn or Ed Norton. But by learning all of the other tools you have other than words and faces, you can write scenes that are more cinematic and are based on action, movement, and visuals. This will protect your film by making it actor-proof. Like I mentioned last month, your uncle Charlie, the executive producer with a cameo, might not be able to play "beneath his stoic face is the subtlest hint of an out-of-control fear," but he can make his hand shake when pouring the coffee. So whether you are baiting A-list actors or writing to your nonA-list cast, scene writing can be your friend. THINK LIKE A DIRECTOR
I think I look at all of the elements available to screenwriters - locations, props, visuals - because of my training and work as a filmmaker. You, too, need to think like a director a bit and not just get scenes that work, but find ways to elevate the material on the page. Check out William Goldman's script for Misery
. This movie was in the can on the page. I can see my proofreader David
taking a red pen to some of the camera cues, but essentially Goldman directs on the page. Here is an excerpt from Misery
. I deleted each "cut to" and replaced it with a "-." PAUL driving confidently, carefully. Now he reaches out, ejects the tape, expertly turns it over, pushes it in and, as the MUSIC continues, he hums along with it.
THE SKY. Only you can't see it.
There's nothing to see but the unending snow, nothing to hear but the wind which keeps getting wilder.
THE ROAD. Inches of snow on the ground now. This is desolate and dangerous.
THE SNOW. Worse.
THE ROAD, curving sharply, dropping. A sign reads: "Curved Road, Next 13 Miles."
THE MUSTANG, coming into view, hitting the curve -- no problem -- no problem at all -- and then suddenly, there is a very serious problem and as the car skids out of control --
PAUL, doing his best, fighting the conditions and just as it looks like he's got things going his way --
THE ROAD, swerving down and
THE MUSTANG, all traction gone and
PAUL, helpless and
THE MUSTANG, skidding, skidding and
THE ROAD as it drops more steeply away and the wind whips the snow across and
THE MUSTANG starting to spin and
THE MOUNTAINSIDE as the car skids off the road, careens down, slams into a tree, bounces off, flips, lands upside down, skids, stops finally, dead.
I am not telling you to overload your script with details, but to try to make the "reader" see the movie in his or her head. Obviously, this can only improve the response to the script. But the extra time it takes to write in this detail helps you solve a lot of the story problems and can help you achieve the "handful of great scenes" that Nicholson is talking about. SCREAM THE THEME
One of the reasons I made my Theme
DVD was because I know one of the biggest reasons writers write is to share their viewpoint on the world. However, there are implicit rules in drama about how ideas get communicated so that the narrative can still be entertaining and not just a didactic essay. I have really high expectations for how much can go into my students' scenes, but I don't want them to bog their scenes down with clunky ideas. Here is my rewrite of a scene from a popular movie that demonstrates how NOT to get your thematic ideas across in a scene. GUY: You know we live in a society that values nature and your genes more than nurture and character.
GIRL: Yeah, I really hate the way people who are born with good genes get all of the advantages whether they have deserved it or not. But I have noticed something special about you; you seem to either be a person who has succeeded on their character and grit alone and/or possibly you see the ludicrousness in this system and worldview.
GUY: Yes, that is true.
GIRL: I have a heart defect, but I am a really nice person and I wish I had the self-confidence and belief that it's not about nature and genes and who you are is determined by things like determination, courage, and character. So it's hard for me to see myself as lovable, but I am willing to risk that since you are the one person around who might be able to see me as what I do, not the gene pool of my parents.
GUY: Your assessment is correct. I see you for who you are, not just for your biology.
And the Oscar for the worst scene ever goes to ... Jim. And now for the speech: "I would like to thank the Oscars ... I would have never been even considered until the Academy allowed 15 scenes to be nominated..."
Okay, but seriously, that's some bad writing. However, the ideas in there are pretty good. In fact, this ugly scene is a parody of a pretty nice scene from Andrew Niccol's sci-fi film Gattaca, which he wrote and directed.
From the script:
EXT. GATTACA - WIND FARM. AFTERNOON.
A forest of wind turbines, supplying energy to the aerospace complex. However the blades of the turbines are motionless in the still afternoon. JEROME finally catches up with IRENE. She turns, unsurprised by his appearance. Standing beside her, he looks out over the complex as if he too has come for the view.
(eyes fixed on the view)
We were looking at each other. You stopped.
Irene, also keeps her gaze ahead.
I'm sorry. I didn't mean anything.
JEROME (shrugging as if it makes no difference to him) We were just looking.
IRENE I know about you.
(Note from Jim: works on plot level for him (does she know that he is the "in-valid" that the cops are looking for?) and on the level of the romance: I see your essence.)
Jerome turns to her, startled, trying to read her face. Irene takes a deep breath and abruptly plucks a long, dark hair from her head.
(offering the hair to Jerome)
Here, take it.
Jerome, confused, takes the hair - more in reflex than intent.
If you're still interested, let me know.
Jerome contemplates the hair in his fingers for a moment, then deliberately lets it fall to the ground.
(never taking his eyes from her)
Sorry, the wind caught it. In Gattaca, it has already been established that in the current society, doctors are able to test and modify genes in children before they are even born. This society also keeps track of all of its members' DNA, which can be traced with a sample as small as a strand of hair.
Irene meets his gaze. There is not a breath of wind. The hair lies, plainly visible on the ground.
You have to do work in the setup and the character orchestration, but then you have to find props and setting and subtext for the ideas to play out in terms of drama, not just ideas. Notice how the moment in this scene where she hands him her hair, says "If you're still interested," and he lets it goes, eloquently embodies ALL of the ideas in the clunky piece of crap-en-scene that I wrote without being on the nose.
Also, notice how much of the information in my bad version of the scene is not in this scene. The viewer doesn't need to get all of the information at once. Her actions are consistent with her attitude and point of view, and they raise questions that will be answered later. It's much better to create suspense than to bog this scene down with exposition. Raise, rather than answer, questions.
There are even more reasons why scene writing is important. It can help you find your voice, and it's a skill most akin to the writing of commercials, sketches, and shorts. But, alas, I have to stop lecturing about scene writing, if only to convince my book agent that I haven't exhausted ALL of my material. However, that doesn't mean we have to be done talking about scenes. Here is your chance to continue a dialogue.
If you are willing to let me critique your scenes on the A-list Screenwriting Blog as a learning tool for you and everyone else, please send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org (this address only). Limit five-pages per person. Let me know if you want to keep your name anonymous. Send a few sentences to make the context clear. And tell me where in the script the scenes are from: opening, page 10, page 35, climax, opening of the second act, etc. Also, please put it in a non-PDF format: Final Draft, Doc, RTF, Word, or Text. By emailing the scene, you consent to letting me post, modify, and critique them.
I can't promise that I can address all of them. But stay tuned to the A-List Blog to see if yours has been chosen and to learn from the other brave souls who let me comment on their scenes. If you fan/follow Facebook or Twitter, you can get updates when new material posts.
Jim's got space for two more consulting clients this year. Mention ad below to save 10% or get a free seat in the weeklong class that starts a week from today.
James P. Mercurio
Story Analyst Services
Jim's clients have sold projects to Roland Emmerich, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg.
Professional Analysis: 10% discount or free seat in A-List Immersion 12/7-12/11
CAREER: IT'S ON THE GRID: INTERVIEW WITH JASON SCOGGINS
As of today, our database includes over 400 studio writing assignments in active development, over 150 independent features that need writers as well, plus dozens of projects that need directors. In addition to OWA and ODA projects, we have all of 2009's spec scripts in the database (we'll be adding 2008's specs during the Christmas break), plus a growing list of projects in active development throughout Hollywood. There are close to 1100 projects already on the grid, and it expands daily through our tracking activities. The system also includes links for nearly 3300 people (agents, executives, managers, producers and writers, plus a growing list of actors and directors) and over 650 companies (agencies, management companies, production companies, studios and other buyers). Basically, if you're in the film development business and you're not already on the grid, you will be shortly.
What inspired it?
My partners in IOTG and I all got our start at the big agencies, where we were trained to gather information during every phone call and share it with the rest of our departments. The way those agencies work is they gather all the collected information into their internal databases, print out the "grids" (hence the name of the website) on a regular basis, and distribute hard copies to the chosen few (that is, agents on the Motion Picture Lit Department's distribution list). Those grids are jealously guarded from being copied and shared with people outside the department (let alone outside the company); some companies will fire anyone discovered to have leaked a copy of the grid to outsiders.
Jealously... yikes! So why the openness now?
As managers at smaller management and production companies today, we all missed having ready access to all that data, so we started to replicate the model for ourselves. It may seem counterintuitive for competing managers to share information with each other, but we all believe we can do our jobs better individually if we collaborate to systematically gather competitive development information and immediately share everything we dig up. We end up submitting clients for the same jobs pretty frequently, but that would have happened anyway. (That happens all the time at agencies not named CAA, by the way; we used to joke ICM stands for "I'll Call Myself.")
As we worked during the summer to design the website that would serve as the hub of our information gathering, we decided there was no reason not to make our grids available to people outside our group. In fact, by doing so on a subscription basis we could recoup the pretty heavy costs of developing and maintaining it. We knew instinctively that agents and other managers would want access to the site for the same reasons we were building it in the first place, but we quickly realized that the grids would be interesting and useful to anyone whose livelihood (or future livelihood) revolved around developing movies. Ultimately, what started as a set of professional tools for our private use became a general purpose, publicly-available website. We hope to make it one of the de facto official sources of information on movies in active development in Hollywood, alongside The Studio System, the Hollywood Creative Directory and IMDb Pro.
How did this venture evolve from your past experience?
One of the reasons I personally was well suited to lead the development of www.itsonthegrid.com is my somewhat unique combination of entertainment and non-entertainment industry business experience. After a five year stint in the business, starting at ICM as an assistant and then as a TV Lit agent at Gersh and Writers & Artists, I worked outside the business for about seven years in several different industries. Most of my jobs were at companies that spent all or part of their time developing web-enabled products and services; in the two years prior to coming back to the business as a literary manager (at Protocol, in 2007), I was head of sales for IGCN, a Pennsylvania-based company that had developed a fantastic website content management system specifically for hospitals and healthcare systems. The experience of learning that platform well enough to sell it to potential customers as well as discuss it in depth with our internal development team was invaluable as we began developing IOTG, and I ended up managing the IOTG design and development process from end to end.
Who is IOTG designed for? What are its uses?
We designed www.itsonthegrid.com with four distinct audiences in mind:
- MP Lit agents and managers. As I mentioned above, the project started as a way for MP Lit managers to track specs, open writing assignments and open directing assignments, so the site is primarily designed this. Rather than having to thumb through their instantly-out-of-date, hardcopy OWA and ODA grids (and constantly having to copy private notes from grid to grid to grid), reps who subscribe to the site have always-on access to web-enabled, constantly updated, searchable and sortable versions. The ability to attach private notes to every Project, Person and Company record in the database is particularly helpful for this group, since they're able to keep track of their private data (client submissions and meetings) alongside the public information. We have a slate of future development plans already mapped out for the site, much of which revolves around enhancing the site's submission tracking features for agents and managers in particular as well as producers and development executives (see below).
- Professional filmmakers and screenwriters. Generally speaking, professional writers and directors have never before had steady access to the kind of data www.itsonthegrid.com provides (by the way, I'm often surprised by how many literary clients don't really understand how integral the OWA and ODA grids are for what their reps do on a daily basis), so the site has the potential to be a game-changer for them. Writers and directors who are currently well-represented still use the site on a daily basis, since knowing the history of a given project (plus everything else that exec or producer is working on) before going in for pitches and meetings can be a real competitive advantage. Those literary clients who feel lost in the shuffle use the grid to "agent" their agents and managers and get themselves in the game. And this entire group uses the grid as a competitive development tool, the same way producers and development executives do (see below). After all, knowing what not to write or develop can be just as important as coming up with a great concept in the first place.
- Producers and development executives. Producers and development executives (and their assistants) use the site as a competitive development tool in a number of ways. First, making sure every project on their slates is accurately represented on the grid helps inoculate against competing projects being put into development across town (or even at the same studio). Second, by researching other studios' and producers' projects, they save their own time and development dollars by not developing projects similar to those already in the pipeline. Beyond simply protecting themselves, though, they also use the site to keep track of their thoughts and notes on the specs and samples that flow across their desks every day. We've already gotten feedback from people who've used the grid to make themselves look like the most plugged-in people in town by doing a quick search of the grid while on a phone call or in a development meeting.
- Aspiring filmmakers and screenwriters. If you're serious about breaking into the film industry, you need to know as much as you can about how the business works; what's in development around town; who's where; and what they're working on or whom they represent. IOTG is a window into the world of feature film development that has been all but unavailable to outsiders until now, and aspiring writers and directors in particular have been using the site in two primary ways since we launched recently: First, as a way to decide what spec projects to work on (or not to work on) next, the same way the professionals do; and second, as a tool to help achieve that most elusive of prizes: Access. With a few clicks of the mouse, future screenwriters and directors can figure out which managers and agents would be most receptive to their material, thus increasing the chances of being asked to submit their stuff for consideration for representation.
To be very clear, however, THE LAST THING this group should do is use the grid to submit material directly to studios and production companies for a given open assignment. Gatekeepers are built into the system for a reason; one goes around them at one's peril.
Okay, then how can aspiring writers use it? Can beginning writers benefit from it?
Beginning writers can definitely benefit from having access to the grid. If I were an aspiring writer (and in fact I once was), I'd use the grid in a couple of ways.
First, I'd use it as a way to study how the business works. I've noticed there are plenty of places to learn the craft of screenwriting, but comparatively few on the business side of the business. Even the trade papers (The Hollywood Reporter and Variety, plus the Los Angeles Times' "Company Town" column) usually don't get sufficiently granular about the development process for an aspiring writer trying to grasp how all the pieces fit together. Between the main site and the free section (blog.itsonthegrid.com, where we post teasers of updates and new projects in the database as well as news and other online articles on about the movie business), IOTG is like a graduate class on movie development. Over time, the database will provide a snapshot of the entire life cycle of a movie, from spec script to development hell to greenlight to production and release.
Second, I'd use the site to study who's developing what around town, for several reasons: A) To avoid writing a script too similar to something already in development; B) To learn which executives seem to work on which kinds of films, and which agents and managers seem to prefer material like my own scripts; and C) So that when I finally get my big break, I can sound like peer, rather than someone who just got off the bus at Hollywood and Highland. Not that there's anything wrong with being green; we all got our start somewhere. It's more a matter of fitting in and having things in common with a group of people who eat, drink and sleep the film development process.
Third, I'd use www.itsonthegrid.com to help track down copies of scripts in active development. After the writing process itself, there's no better way to learn the craft and refine one's material than reading as many professionally-written screenplays as you can get your hands on. If we can figure out the rights issues, we plan to start an IOTG script library in the next few months. In the meantime, it's not at all hard to find up-to-the-minute material if you know where to look (and IOTG can point you in the right direction).
Finally, I'd use the site to fine-tune my sense of the marketplace. I'm no advocate of chasing the market with one's material (I always recommend writing that script you absolutely have to write, as opposed to writing something because a particular genre is the current flavor of the month), but it's nevertheless helpful to understand the commercial prospects of a given piece of material, as well as the most likely potential homes for it.
Any success stories of stories of people using the product?
We've only been live for a week or so, but I was pleased to learn at a drinks last week that one of my friends had used IOTG to quickly look up a project at a competing studio during her weekly development meeting. Since the project hasn't been announced in the trades yet, it's not in The Studio System or on DoneDealPro, so having access to IOTG made her look like the smartest kid in class.
Closer to home, having access to the grid has already improved my colleagues' and my own productivity and efficiency. We've literally made about ten times more submissions in the past two weeks than we had in any other similar period this year, specifically thanks to how easy it is to see all the projects a given producer or executive is working on. We're big fans of the product, and it's been great to hear the enthusiastic response it's been getting from everyone who tries it out.
Anything else you want to add?
If you don't mind a shameless plug, I'll mention our introductory promotion: Our introductory pricing ends in January 2010 (just in time for the spec market to spool back up), but if you subscribe between now and the end of December 2009, we'll lock in the introductory rates for as long as you stay subscribed. And if the site's not what you expected, just shoot us an email before business hours the following day and we'll deactivate your account and prevent your card from being charged.
Jason Scoggins is a manager and partner at Protocol Entertainment, a Beverly Hills-adjacent literary management and production company. He represents writers, directors and producers of film and TV alongside Protocol's founding partners Brian Inerfeld and John Ufland.
Is "Glory Days" really about reliving your past? Or is it about trying not to get stuck in it? Is "Adam Raised a Cain" based on a Bible story, or on Bruce's hard times growing up with his father?
Another theme in Bruce's songs that appeals across ages is the juxtaposition of light and dark in images, words, and rhythm. Take "Dancing in the Dark." Because of the title and upbeat tempo, and the fact that Bruce brings a young Courteney Cox up to dance on stage in the video, it's a light, happy song, right? Well, its lyrics seem to contradict its tone:
I ain't nothing but tired
Man I'm just tired and bored with myself
Hey there baby, I could use just a little help
You can't start a fire
You can't start a fire without a spark.
You can understand this song from many points of view. A child might think that it is about dancing and fun, but if you are more mature or in a different state of mind you might find it depressing, with a whole different vibe.
Let's look at "Born to Run." A generally interpreted theme is that Bruce wanted to get out of Asbury Park and make some money in the world with his artistic talent. A 7-year-old doesn't understand that: He or she just gets that the music is catchy, and the phrase "Born to Run" sounds cool. It means something to his younger audience, but his older audience can understand what he is telling them. Still, both can understand the theme.
Bruce's songs have strong emotions that everyone can relate to, no matter what age. In "Backstreets," for example, anyone can, in his own way, relate to its story of betrayal and lost love. For a teenager, it might be a crush gone bad. For an adult, it might be the end of a marriage.
With Springsteen, all ages can understand the power of his songs' simple but powerful emotions. Here are some lyrics that inspire emotion in me and all of his fans:
"Born to Run":'Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run.
"Backstreets": With a love so hard and filled with defeat, running for our lives at night on them backstreets.
"Badlands": It ain't no sin to be glad you're alive.
Bruce's music can be both simple and complex. Those who just want a light song can listen to it that way, while those who want a heavy, engaging masterpiece can perceive it that way. There are so many different ways to approach a Springsteen song, finding whatever meaning you want, that everyone can relate to the strong emotion that comes from each one of them. Overall, I love his music, and I know many people of all ages who do, too, because of the way he writes and the stories he tells.
from Jim Mercurio
Congratulations to our Shorts winners and our top 20 Feature Writers. I invited all of the top 20 feature writers to my December classes and about half are coming. Stay tuned for the next announcement for the final winners and some other surprises.
FIRST PLACE - $1,000 CASH
KITTEN - by Magali Rennes
SECOND PLACE - $500 CASH
SHOE by Nick Kelly
THIRD PLACE - TIE
The Anniversary by Stephen Mack
Sparkle by Jan Ducker
TOP 20 FEATURES
#14 by Solomon Grundy
A Mate for Lonesome George by Sharon Clark
Coal Hard Cash by Arthur Schurr
Controlled by Craig Cambria
Doctor Cockner's Carnival of Carnage by Jason Siner
Funny Bone by Jan Stanton
God Complex by Matthew Zbrog
God's Girlfriend by Alexandra Williams
Hell and Jack by Ben Shearn
Holmes by George Nicholis
Mr. Unlucky by Tony Nichols
One Night Stand by Ian Coyne
School Spirit by Robert Watson
Scout by Laurie Weltz
Shift Tab Kill by Yarrow Vincent-Wayman
The Black Cat by Mark Penberthy
The Hardway by Todd Schlichter
The Moonbeam Fisherman by John Dummer
To Live, Press 1 by Stephen Hoover
Townrats by Josiah Signor
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What Would the Boss Do?
Why Springsteen's Music Appeals to All Ages
guest columnist (high school freshman)
Wilson Rush Rhodes
Bruce Springsteen is a legendary songwriter and storyteller. His music appeals to young and old alike, because it works on so many different levels that almost anyone can understand it. His songs have an emotional core that almost everyone can relate to. Bruce often writes about topics that have specific meanings to him and might resonate with others on a number of levels. Both an 8-year-old and a 78-year-old can enjoy "Born in the U.S.A.," but for different reasons because of the song's several meanings. Is he talking about a country he loves, or a disillusioned war veteran who gets no respect after Vietnam? That it is both is what makes his music so layered, and this can be applied to almost all of his songs.
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