Craft & Career
|Dear Writer, |
Happy Holidays and welcome to our sixth issue.
I want to congratulate all of the winners
including Tony Nichols, the Grand Prize recipient, of the inaugural Champion Screenplay Competition. I recount some of the time spent with Tony and some of the others in my column.
Life coach Rhona Berens, Ph.D., is back with a timely and fresh take
on New Year's resolutions. And thanks to one of our readers, she was recently featured in one of UCLA's online magazines. Find out more below.
If my teachings and preachings have you pondering the DIY route, you are going to love indie-film-financing-specialist attorney Elsa Ramo's article
on film financing. I think this is foreshadowing for an upcoming production-focused issue of the newsletter
Check out our little holiday store below. Purchase my DVDS by noon or so on Tuesday EST, and they should get to you before Christmas.
If you have enjoyed my free newsletter this year, consider making a nominal donation (all proceeds go to The American Cancer Society) to receive my dad's awesome full-color e-cookbook: Papa Joe's Family Recipes: 20 Easy-to-Make Recipes from a Lifelong Chef
. (Best pizza in the world!) The holidays have always been about family for me and this is a way to share my family with you and to help raise money for a cause that is very meaningful to us.
Remember to follow the A-List
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
, or become a fan on Facebook
Thanks for being part of the A-list family for our first half-year. Happy Holidays and Happy New Year.
Last week, I finished up 64 straight hours of teaching with 10 of the top 20 Champion Screenwriting writers in two back-to-back classes. And now that I gotta do some shopping, I was really going to take a break from my column and let my talented guest columnists take over. But then like Michael in Godfather III: Every time I try to get out, they pull me back in.
I guess if you readers are the "they" and "back in" means writing about screenwriting, then that's not so bad, right? I promise to return to deep left-brained overly thorough craft topics next year, but in the spirit of the season, I am going to keep my recap of this months's A-List/Champion classes light, fun, and holiday-related.
THE IMPERFECT GIFT
I got more out of those three days than I have in other writing courses that have lasted for months ... I really appreciate this amazing gift you've given to me.
- Workshop Attendee
After my class two Wednesdays ago, I braved rush hour traffic to see my lifelong friend Sean Kanan perform comedy at the Irvine Improv. He and I did standup comedy when we were 15 and lived in a small town in Western Pennsylvania. We would steal his parent's car and drive to Niles, Ohio to Tickles Comedy Club and watch the old school touring comedians like Glenn Hirsch (Gleeb Hush), Shirley Hemphill, and Steve Mittleman. Then after watching six back-to-back shows, we would do our 10 minutes on Monday, open-mic night. One of the amateurs at the time, Dan O'Shannon, who later went on to exec produce Cheers, sold me a series of fat jokes for $10, a highlight being: I don't understand why I'm overweight, I try to eat a small amount of food from each of the 53 basic food groups. (Dan, if you're out there, will you take a look at my Night Court spec?).
Back to the Improv. Before the show, I asked Sean if he wanted to come and cold-read some scenes from my class to help the writers. Before I could even neurotically list all of the reasons he might not want to do it, he said yes.
My shopping cart is down, so arm yourself with PayPal and a calculator and shop away.
Killer Endings or T-Word: Theme
$25 for Expedited Shipping in the USA. $45 for both. Order by noon EST on Tuesday and Priority Mail should reach almost anywhere in the states by Thursday. $20 each to receive them in January.
For Charity My dad's e-cookbook. A life-long chef, Papa Joe's recipe for his Uncle Lou's "Luigi's Pizza" has been a family secret until now. Pay whatever you want. Any amount more than $4.99 gets you an additional version with pages formatted for better printing.
(All proceeds for the e-book this month go to the American Cancer Society in the name of my Aunt Patty, my mother's sister, who passed away this year.)
(Available for proofreading also)
GIFT CERTIFICATES FOR
Spoil someone you know with the feedback he or she deserves. Jim's clients have sold projects to Spielberg, Scorsese and Robert Rodriguez.
PayPal is only payment option this month.
NEW YEAR'S REVOLUTIONS
(no, that's not a typo)
by Rhona Berens, PhD, CPCC, ACC
First say to yourself what you would be; and then do
what you have to do.
'Tis the season to ponder New Year's resolutions, isn't it? You know, those lifestyle, behavioral or attitude shifts inspired by the conclusion of one year and the promise of a new beginning when the clock strikes midnight on December 31.
Somewhere between 80% and 90% of New Year's resolutions either never get off the ground or bite the dust after January 1. That's a pretty daunting statistic; daunting enough to nix New Year's resolutions altogether. Except ... Except if you're someone who really believes -- or wants to believe -- in the magic of fresh starts and the excitement, not to mention satisfaction, of trying new things, thinking in new ways, and shedding old, unproductive habits to make room for new, energizing ones.
Why should you resolve to do anything if your chances of success are so slim? I have no idea, which leads me to suggest a different question altogether: How can you create a New Year's resolution that sticks?
One obvious resolution-spoiler is embedded in the very definition of the word, resolution: "a declaration, a determination, a motion, a decree." Is it just me, or is there something yawn-worthy about these words? Not to mention that they're momentum-killers, in that they evoke an aura of conclusiveness: as if deciding on, or announcing, an outcome is the same as actually achieving it. In writing terms, it would be like giving your agent, or manager, or even your best friend, the final scene of your movie or the last chapter of your book without any sense of how, or why, your characters are going to get there.
Don't get me wrong. Plenty of fabulous scripts and novels begin with a writer's vision of what's going to happen at the end. But there's a huge difference between starting a project with a notion of how it concludes, and assuming that the ending, in and of itself, is all that matters; without awareness of why characters are heading toward that final scene; without regard for the sequence of actions, events and character transformations that have to occur to get them there.
Yet, that's precisely what most of us do with New Year's resolutions. We focus on our vision of the way we want things to be -- the end result -- and forget to explore, really explore, why we want to get there, what we're willing, and not willing, to do to remain invested in the journey, and what will inspire us to stay there once we arrive.
To read more
10 THINGS EVERY PRODUCER NEEDS TO KNOW ABOUT FILM FINANCING
You found the script! And it's a great script. You have read hundreds of scripts, were an assistant for a hot shot at some big major studio, have helped friends on independent productions -- this is the script that should be made. More importantly, this is the script that should be made by you, independently.
Once you feel that strongly about a script, you need to take steps to turn this amazing script into an amazing independently-financed film....and usually that is where I come in.
As an entertainment lawyer, the producer meets with me for an initial consultation -- our first 'date' -- to talk about his/her perfect project in need of a perfect plan. My job is to guide the producer through the legal pitfalls of independent film financing and production. During this initial consultation I always provide these same tips. Here are the 10 things every producer needs to know about film financing:
#1) WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT YOUR PROJECT
In short, everything. Where it came from? Who owns the rights? Is it based on an underlying work, someone's life story? And is all of this properly documented so that you are able to provide a financier with clear chain of title?
It is important not just to have a script in hand but a clear understanding and conviction that money, time, resources and favors will be spent on this project. It is not enough to find a project that is a great story. It also has to be a great story for the marketplace.
Therefore, you need to understand everything about your project as you are going to be its voice to the potential financier -- if you are attached as a producer. You need to be prepared to sell the project. For instance, if the writer is a first time director, you have to have a better reason why than 'he wants to direct.'
#2) WHAT YOU NEED TO FIND OUT ABOUT YOUR PROJECT
You need to have a clear understanding of the budget you are providing and what you are able to contribute to save money. I often recommend that producers provide the market value of their budget with a side-by-side comparison with what discounts, deferments and 'favors' they can provide to discount the market value of the budget. For example, if locations should cost $10,000 during your 18-day shoot but you can get them for $4,000 you should indicate the savings. Additionally, the budget should cover real post-production costs (i.e., being able to actually deliver the film to a third party distributor and not just a completed edit of the film) and it should provide an alternative budget to cover the possibility of obtaining a higher level of cast.
Your budget needs to be directly in proportion to your target audience. You should draft a well thought-out marketing plan that accurately reflects an avenue for your project.
Often, a producer gets fixated on a festival piece that is 'arthouse' but the project does not have a broader audience. If the producer is unable to expand the niche arthouse audience by attracting legitimate talent (i.e., theatrical actors whose movies are in theatres now) then the producer needs to have a budget that is aligned with what the market will bear.
Similarly if you are making a genre piece, you need to consider your budget, your cast and identify realistic avenues for both domestic and foreign distribution. For example, if you are making a film that can be categorized as a Christmas film that would eventually have a significant run on television, you need to make sure that your script is 'clean' enough to get the TV sales which means budgeting time and money in the shooting and editing to clean up language and nudity.
#3) HOW TO COMMUNICATE INFORMATION ABOUT YOUR PROJECT AND FINANCING STRUCTURE
Once you complete steps one and two, you need to be able to effectively communicate this to potential financiers, partners, talent and everyone you want to involve in your project. You need to draft a business plan or an executive summary that provides the essential information to translate your creative script into a commercial commodity that may have a shot of getting the investor repaid. This written format is not the private placement memorandum or financial documents but rather an informational overview of the components of your project.
Putting your intentions in writing is difficult but it will help you be able to articulate all aspects of your project -- from pitch to financial structure -- in meetings. This is a necessity to gain the trust of investors.
#4) HOW TO BUILD YOUR TEAM FROM THE ATTORNEY TO PRODUCING PARTNERS TO THE CASTING DIRECTOR
Your plan is only as good as the people helping you execute it. You need a team -- from producing the film to getting to post-production. Here are some things to consider in putting together the right 'core' team:
Attorney: Does this attorney work in the budget/scope of your project? Do they have the credits/references? Is there a clear understanding of their fee structure? (Most independent producers cannot afford to pay a blanket hourly rate so it is really important to have a frank and clear conversation about what you are paying for and what it covers.) Are you looking for an attorney just to draft paperwork or read the script and get involved in assisting you in presenting to investors?
Producing Attachments: If someone is helping you with a budget and attending meetings with you, does that make them an owner? It is very important to avoid burdensome attachments that will hurt you tomorrow for perceived help today. If someone is a line producer and they are a friend of yours and they are willing to do the budget because they want to 'produce' you must have the discussion that this is a 'trial basis' and agree to a deferment or some other bonus to compensate them for his or her time and get it in writing -- always. In identifying other producers ask yourself 'what resources am I lacking?': If you have a distribution and marketing background maybe you need to find someone with more day-to-day production experience to help you execute. Just because someone likes the script and works in the film industry (and you like to have a beer together) that is not a reason to attach them.
Casting Directors: If you have some monies for development, it is extremely useful to have the support of a casting director to reach out to talent that will attract financing. To get cast committed without the money in the bank is a bit of an 'urban legend', but depending on the material, casting directors can help you align your expectations to your budget and maybe even help you gain interest of cast.
#5) UNDERSTANDING THE BASIC TERMS OF YOUR INVESTMENT VEHICLE AND DISCUSSING DIFFERENT TYPES OF INVESTMENT VEHICLES (I.E., EQUITY, TAX INCENTIVES, ETC.)
You must hire an experienced attorney in independent film finance. Side effects of trying to 'figure it out' without an attorney when people are handing you thousands of dollars will inevitably result in lawsuits and potentially criminal charges.
Caveat aside, when it comes to a film finance structure for independent films think of it like a recipe for pound cake -- the basic recipe is as follows:
A. 'Qualified' (for what 'qualified' means consult with an attorney) Investors provide 100% of the cash budget for the picture and for that they own 50% of the single purpose company that owns/control the picture (i.e., 100% of the budget of the picture equals 50% ownership of the company);
B. The investors get their money back plus 10-30% as a return on investment from revenues (this excludes the cost to make the movie and the ongoing residual obligations the company would have with any applicable unions) received by the single purpose company until they are whole with their return. This is distributed to all investors in proportion to their investment (i.e., if you have $100,000 received the investor who provided 50% of the money receives 50% of the $100,000);
C. Once initial investors recoup their investment from the film's revenues, the producers and investors split all revenues 50/50.
Then you can do things to vary the recipe or modify the ingredients. Examples: you can provide a deferment pool for cast/crew that are working for far less than their normal fees (this can be recouped before or after investor recoupment); you can raise some of the money with tax incentives and/or presales in which case you may only need a portion of equity so the 50/50 split may be modified accordingly; you can utilize a debt piece or product sponsorship piece to finance; and so on.
The financial structure requires careful consideration from the producer as it affects how investors will be repaid, how actors' profits and deferments are defined and also will place parameters and restrictions in the production and exploitation of the film.
#6) UNDERSTANDING THE BUSINESS DEAL TERMS AND THE LEGAL TERMS YOU NEED TO COMMUNICATE WITH AN ATTORNEY
It is very difficult to articulate your understanding of what the business terms of your film finance deal should be when you have never actually dealt with film financing. That being said, there are plenty of resources, books and individuals in the industry who can provide you with the initial guidance to have a sense of what the 'deal' should be. Producers sometimes fail to invest the time and energy in making sure the implied 'deal' exists in the written 'agreement'. Just like it is essential to execute properly from script to screen, you must also execute the understanding of the parties from meetings/emails into a legible and enforceable contract.
As an attorney guiding producers through this process, I have to probe and ask a lot of uncomfortable questions. The contract contemplates what should happen but there also needs to be a plan. Here are some of the uncomfortable questions that I have to ask producers:
- Who controls the company? The bank account? The budget?
- Who can bind the production company in third party agreements?
- If there are several producers is it majority decision or is there a tie-breaker? Who has the final cut right for the picture?
- Is it the expectation that all producers are exclusively working on the project during preproduction principal and post? What happens if they have an engagement where they cannot commit their time to the project?
- Does the investor have any assurances or security that the film will not go over budget? Is there a completion bond?
These are just some of the questions that should be vetted and agreed to between producers before they enter into an agreement with third party investors.
#7) HOW TO PREPARE FOR THE 'REAL' INVESTOR MEETINGS
I always recommend producers take informational meetings with mentors and colleagues and 'try' out their investor meeting for feedback and to perfect their pitch. In this industry you always have to be prepared to articulate what you are producing and what you are looking for without just asking for money.
One other easy way to prepare is an ongoing commitment to be aware of the existing marketplace -- from reading trade magazines daily, to attending and/or following major film markets and festivals. As a producer, it is your job to understand the economics of your creative project and that the economics of film is a constantly evolving and changing thing. You need to tell your investors everything they want to know about your project but also how it fits into the current marketplace.
Another key to the 'real' investor meetings is you have to remain fluid and flexible. You never know what the potential financier cares about and you have to be able to be receptive to their questions and comments so that you can provide the information that is valuable to them (not just the scripted information you practiced). For example, I recently set up a producer with a potential financier who was interested in the project. The producer was extremely prepared about numbers, statistics, returns, etc., but when they sat down the financier only wanted to talk about the minutia of the script (i.e., why did the girl run away on page 14?). Fortunately, the producer intimately knew that project and was able to quickly switch gears into what turned out to be a creative meeting. You need to be prepared to cover every aspect of your project from creative to business.
#8) HOW TO AVOID THE ILLEGAL OR 'FAKE' INVESTOR SITUATIONS
There are a lot of individuals who proclaim that they have access to money that is not theirs. This proclamation and promise of third party monies is usually a red flag. As a legal matter, unless someone is a licensed third party broker, they are prohibited from brokering deals between financiers and producers. However, there are still legitimate executive producers out there that have established relationships and the ability to work with you in properly securing the necessary financing.
When meeting people in the industry, it is your responsibility to ensure that you are dealing with a legitimate person. Whether it is asking around, checking credit or researching articles, you should know who you are dealing with. One cost effective trick is to actually see if there are any active lawsuits against the potential 'investor/finder' by doing a party search under Los Angeles Superior Court for a nominal fee. While being sued does not mean the person is not legitimate, it can often reveal previous dealings and associations that may reveal litigious or underhanded dealings. If you are very meticulous, this search can be done nationwide with a full background.
#9) HOW TO INVOLVE YOUR 'TEAM' INTO YOUR FINANCIAL STRUCTURE WITHOUT COMPROMISING YOUR OWNERSHIP OR INTERESTS
As stated above, it is very important to clarify with everyone how they fit into the project. You should ALWAYS make sure that the scope of services, conditions of their attachment and their compensation is clearly outlined in a work-for-hire deal memo.
It is also important for you to work with your partners to get an understanding of how you will work together and who owns the underlying property until you get financing. A constant misstep by some rights holders is that they will partner with two other producers and form a new company assigning all rights without a reversion right or timeline to finance and produce the material. In that instance the writer is giving up 2/3 of his or her rights without a clear exit strategy in the event that the financing is never raised.
#10) HOW TO TAKE THE ELEMENTS OF WHAT YOU HAVE WITH YOUR PROJECT TODAY AND PREPARE IT FOR THE FILM FINANCING OPPORTUNITY OF TOMORROW
This is just some basic information to get you started but being an independent producer in the film industry is a tough job. You must be creative as well as savvy in business. These initial tips should remind you of how comprehensive your duty is as a producer. But this information should also remind you to only invest this level of energy and resources into a project that makes sense - creatively and commercially.
Elsa Ramo owns her own entertainment law practice in Beverly Hills and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information visit the company website www.entertainmentattorney.biz. Her law firm specializes in representing independent, creative and financier producers in independent film and television projects.
Sean showed up 30 minutes early and agreed to talk about the business side of things. Sean has produced several films
(he wrote one of them) whose cumulative budgets exceed $3 million, he has been a regular on The Bold and the Beautiful
and General Hospital
. He discussed how competitive things are for an actor and although he doesn't play any head games in the waiting room, he says when it's his turn to audition, he is there for blood, to kill to get the part. His honesty was refreshing.
Here is a reminder that you can learn more about a person by showing than telling: Sean earned his breakout role as Ralph Macchio's nemesis in Karate Kid III from a 2,000-person open cattle call. The year before the movie was even produced, Sean and I -- juniors in college who were home for the summer -- were sitting on the stoop of the local Pennzmart (gas station) sipping our Big Gulp equivalents of diet coke. Sean stood up and announced that he had read there would be a sequel to Karate Kid II, and that (in a huge nod to positive thinking and diligence) he was going to get the part. I may have left out the fact that I was double-fisting spinach and pepperoni strombolis, but not a word of this paragraph is hyperbole.
Sean and the other actress, Giovanna Maimone, read the scenes aloud and brought the students' scenes to life. This was one of the favorite parts of the class for the writers. A lot of my teaching forces students to see screenwriting from the perspective of the other filmmaking artisans - directors, actors, designers, etc. - to gain insight into telling a more nuanced and cinematic screenplay.
Sean asked the writers if they had written a script that fit the parameters of a project he was looking for. I think he thought he was asking for a favor, but as you know whenever a producer queries us writers for a favor, well, you know ... it's more a favor to us. (If any of you have a Lifetime appropriate project with a strong female lead and a 40-year old male co-star, send me ONLY a three- to four-sentence pitch and I will forward it to him.)
Jim's approach is not dogmatic ... There's plenty of room for questions, differing points of view and input from attendees ... (it's) a thought-provoking, dynamic workshop guaranteed to push your creative boundaries.
- Workshop Attendee
Sean read the climactic scene from one of the writer's heavy dramas. He playfully chastised the writer and us for throwing him a cold-read curveball and said that he would have liked more time to prepare. We thought he and Giovanna were amazing in the scene and the writer was reassured that the scene was working. Sean showed up to read scenes with no preparation. And that's why it was such a giving and graceful gesture. His willingness to be not perfect in support of the writers' growth was why his favor was such a gift.
The Weekend Class (l to r): John, Bob, Sean, me, Sharon, Tony,
Magali, Giovanna (front)
Sean Kanan, Santa Klaus is spelled with a K this year. Thanks, for helping out, buddy.
New Year's Resolutions, Revolutions ... thematically related to beginnings, right?
We watched plenty of beginnings. Openings of movies, starts of a sequences, introduction to characters. We even saw what the openings of Harold and Maude and Legally Blonde have in common. The writers and directors use the exact same principles to build suspense and to lure us into the world one progressive beat at a time.
We watched the opening of Midnight Cowboy. And we unanimously decided that if thematic coherency were gamma radiation, not a person in the world could sit through the first two shots of Midnight Cowboy without ripping through their clothes and turning into the Hulk. That's just a really awkward way of saying, damn, that movie knows what it's about. If I can find the clip online (hint, hint YouTube account holders), I would use it as an A-list Screenwriting Quiz of the Week.
Immerse yourself and emerge a transformed writer.
- Workshop Attendee
Before we watched the opening minute or so of Se7en
, I told the writers a story about why I show the clip. In a class several years ago I was discussing the importance of the opening image. I said that all movies should be "what they are about from the first frame". For some reason the class was frisky and demanded: "For every film?" and I said, "For every good film." So one of the students went over to the shelf and picked Se7en
and stuffed it in the DVD player. Analyze that, Mercurio.
At the time, I had only seen the movie once. We watched the opening shot only and bam! -- the student hits pause. The opening shot is a wide shot of a kitchen, flat perspective, fairly deep focus. Morgan Freeman's character starts in the center of the frame and walks from the center of the kitchen straight back toward the sink, pours coffee into the sink, and walks out while buttoning the cuffs on his shirt. You know me, Mr. "Intersection of Possible Meanings" ... Give me the next 60 seconds, and, worst case, I will reverse-engineer the opening shot's meaning.
Well, unlike the following series of shots of isolated objects that follow (that I learned about later), this shot is about the mise-en-scène, so I take a hard look and notice a barely discernible silhouette of a chessboard in the FOREGROUND (ahem, read the WWTBD? column about opposites) and, in the BACKGROUND, there is an open window from which emanate chaotic sounds and a siren. His opening movement is also exactly on line between these two images.
JIM: Here is a guy who is caught between the belief that the world makes sense, has rules and is with complete knowledge (chess) and the belief that the world is a chaotic and messy place where there is unseen and unknowable danger (open window, O.S. sound).
STUDENTS: Mr. Mercurio, you are such an amazing teacher, where can I find more of you?
JIM: I'll be around. I'll be around.
Now even if I hadn't figured that out from my prior knowledge of the movie, the following shots that show how methodical and orderly he is -- culminating in a cut from a metronome by his bed to a bloody corpse -- probably
would have given it away. Viewers might not get this consciously on their first watch and as a writer you might not be able to write your opening image until your final draft when you really know what your story is about. Billy Mernit has a nice blog
here in agreement with me that ultimately, a powerful, coherent and foreshadowing opening image is the writer's responsibility.
Want some practice? Go watch Sobre los Ojos on Hulu.com and I will be very surprised if you can't write a 95% accurate logline for the entire movie based on the first 30 seconds of images.
THE ANTONYM SCREENWRITING COMPETITION
Half of the Champion top 20 writers who took the class and I met for dinner two Fridays ago, and the two classes got to meet each other. It was sort of our unofficial awards ceremony. I told them about the "pressure" I felt having to teach only the top students. What if my topics were too obvious? What if I bored them? What if they rebelled? Well, the good news is they didn't rebel (except for Mark). The weekend class (they watched my DVDs beforehand) became a fast-paced juggernaut. And a strength of both classes, especially the weeklong class, was our ability to explore tangent topics.
Even to a seasoned writer, this class will allow new gears in their brain to turn. And as any artist knows, a new angle, a new way of thinking is the first step to a creative windfall.
- Workshop Attendee
I admit that I was sort of joking when I said I was worried about that. But I secretly was worried about one thing. On the first day of the weekend class, the students had $4,000 in checks in their pockets as a reward from me for their writing. I chose this handful of writers from more than 600 scripts. My contest is called Champion because I want to support these writers - champion them - right? Well, I was a little worried about how the next 24 hours of class was going to go when 12 of those hours were to be spent critiquing their work. I didn't want to send mixed messages. I loved these scripts and now it was time to roll up our sleeves and ponder improving them.
Often the answer to improving a scene comes in an instant. But once in a while we get stuck in sort of a grind. Maybe stuck is the wrong word because of its connotations. Sometimes we would immerse ourselves in a section of a writer's script and stubbornly stick with it. If you walked into our class at that exact moment, as an outsider it might look like we were just spinning wheels. But we were getting real work done. I - or often we, as a group - would find a way to help the writer elevate the scene.
We got "immersed" like this once each on two of the winners' scripts, and both times the writers had eminent patience until we found solutions to subtle problems. One of the solutions came from thinking about the scene as an actor would. "Pushing someone away" is a really inactive, easy choice for an actor to make. It's much more interesting if the actor has something positive to fight for, like "I must make him understand my point of view before he leaves." This thought process came as a solution to both a drama and a comedy. And then, in true Paddy Chayefsky fashion, we stumbled upon the fact that all one scene needed was a stronger setup in an earlier scene and subplot.
The reason we were able to do such awesome work together was because the writers stayed open-minded and didn't get defensive. They were open to suggestions from not only me but the other writers too. Ironically, maybe this is why they were there in the first place. I don't think I want to change the name from Champion Screenwriting Competition to "We-Gently-Break-Your-Script-Down-Before-We-Build-You-Back-Up Competition." It might capture a bit of what we do, but, unfortunately, the web domain isn't available.
Maybe there is a lesson for in there for all of us, but that's not what interests me this month. That's not what I want to close with. I want to congratulate all of the winners of the contest and thank the writers who showed up for the class. You have given me an incredible gift this year by allowing me to be part of your writing growth.
Jim's got some exciting announcements for next year. Stay tuned. You can read the workshop's writers' full testimonials here
James P. Mercurio
Story Analyst Services
Jim's clients have sold projects to Roland Emmerich, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg.
ATTITUDE ADJUSTMENT (cont.)
NEW YEAR'S REVOLUTIONS
by Rhona Berens, PhD, CPCC, ACC
THE BEST LAID PLANS
For a New Year's resolution to succeed, think of yourself as a script or novel: Your job is to dig deep into your own character profile and write a detailed outline of the steps- - the narrative twists and turns -- that have to happen for you to get to the last page. All of which suggests we should call them New Year's revolutions, to remind us of the commitment and momentum needed to make lasting change happen.
I have a confession: I'm not a big fan of outlines. Well, that's not exactly true, because I -- as in, my true, higher, and best self -- really respect and deeply appreciate outlines. My Inner Critic, the voice in my head that convinces me to procrastinate screenwriting, and argues convincingly why almost everything else in my life is more important than screenwriting, that voice hates outlines with a passion.
"Outlines kill your creativity," is what it whispers in my ear with regularity.
The only problem is that since I know from experience that the absence of an outline kills my script -- I tried to write my earliest screenplay without an outline, barreled through the first act, and then had nowhere, and I mean nowhere, to go with it -- the net result is that if I listen to my Inner Critic, I don't write anything.
While it seems like I'm off on a tangent, that's not really the case. Because the truth is, your Inner Critic -- your Saboteur, as Co-Active Coaching dubs this internal phenomenon -- is yet another form of resolution-spoiler.
The Saboteur is an often vocal and rather unkind aspect of oneself committed to the status quo. In short, Saboteurs hate change. You know that voice of absolutes you sometimes hear railing at you inside your brain, the same one that announces you'll always or never be a,b,c, or says you should or shouldn't do x,y,z? That's your Saboteur.
Professional Coach, David Darst, describes the Saboteur this way: Imagine every individual is a corporation. Now think about the stereotype of early employees: loyal to the end, devoted to the company's founding mission, vision and strategic plan. The only problem is those folks often have a tough time adjusting to new plans, and revised vision or mission statements. They hang around the cooler doing their best to undermine the CEO's efforts to make sure the company stays current in the marketplace, improves teamwork, ramps up productivity, and grows the bottom line. Instead of supporting change, Saboteurs hold the company back from evolving.
NEWSFLASH: OPRAH & BILL GATES HAVE SABOTEURS!
What does any of this have to do with New Year's resolutions? If you have an internal Saboteur whose job is to keep you from changing the way you do things, the way things are in your life -- and trust me, all of us have Saboteurs, Bill Gates and Oprah included -- then that same part of you is going to do its best to sabotage your New Year's resolutions, given that resolutions, at least in intent, are forms of change-in-action.
"Wait a minute," I hear you muttering. "There's no way this applies to people like Oprah and Bill Gates. They're masters of taking risks. They're gurus of change!"
You're absolutely right. But if you were to ask them about their process for making shifts in their personal or professional lives, my guess is they'd say:
"I politely ask that Saboteur to stay quiet long enough for me to explore whether or not this proposed change honors my core values. If I conclude the change is in sync with who I imagine myself to be at my best, and decide I'm in a place in my life to really develop that aspect of myself, then I create a detailed action plan to maximize my chances of success."
Well, maybe they wouldn't say exactly that, but I'd wager they'd say something along those lines. Which introduces yet another common obstacle to succeeding at our resolutions: We often forget to look closely, really closely, at why they're important and evaluate if they're compelling enough to maintain our loyalty to them.
THE VALUE OF VALUES
What I'm suggesting is that unless you have a sense of how your resolutions tie into, and indeed support, your most important values -- by which I mean those qualities and ways of being in the world that reflect your best self -- it's unlikely you'll have the passion and commitment, not to mention sheer energy, to make good on them.
How do you ensure your resolutions are driven by your core values? One way to begin is to be rigorous in discovering the intentions that drive your resolutions in the first place. Here's what I mean: Let's say your resolution is that you want to lose 20 pounds by April 1. Okay, you've got some good resolution ingredients there: you've articulated a specific goal and a deadline; in other words, you've avoided the trap of vagueness that causes some resolutions to die quick deaths.
Now it's time to dig into your values: What's important, really important to you, about losing 20 pounds? Here are some of my made-up answers: because I'm single and want to get out and meet more people in the new year and the extra weight undermines my self-confidence; because those 20 pounds are a threat to my health; because I can't keep up with my young, energetic kids; because I love my old wardrobe and miss wearing designer clothes; and so on.
Perhaps, if this were your goal, you'd articulate all these reasons, and then some. Great. So what values are those reasons evoking? Here are some possibilities: connecting with others, romance, self-confidence, living to a ripe old age, being healthy, physical strength, family, an aesthetic appreciation of design ... You get the idea.
What do you do with the values once you've come up with them? Figure out how important they are to you -- or pick the most important one -- and ask a bunch of other questions, like: What am I willing to do, who am I willing to be, to honor this value? If putting the effort into losing 20 pounds doesn't come up as an answer, you might want to rethink the resolution.
It's also important to ask yourself: What am I not willing to do, how am I not willing to shift myself, in service of that value? Or you could ask something else entirely: In what other ways could I honor and support this value? Go ahead, brainstorm some answers. Then look at your responses to see if any of them are as, or more, compelling than losing 20 pounds. You might find there's another option -- one you'd feel more inspired to stick with -- to get where you ultimately want to go.
Bottom line: What matters most isn't the specific resolution you come up with, it's starting, or keeping, yourself on the road to fulfillment. Given that the street signs on that road are your values -- in my daily life, for example, I often find myself traveling on Connecting-with-People Blvd., before turning onto Authenticity Ave. -- for resolutions to pan out they need to be deeply rooted in values, and you need to believe those values are important enough to do what it takes to get there, wherever there is for you.
GOALS THAT STICK
Are you now thoroughly exhausted by the mere thought of a New Year's resolution? I don't blame you. It's painstaking work to figure out the changes we want to make in our lives, the shifts we want to nurture in ourselves, and then pursue them in a way that's meaningful and inspiring enough to follow through.
You have every right to ask yourself: If resolutions are so demanding, why bother? Here's my earnest response: Because you
are worth the effort. Whether you do it on January 1, 2010, or at any other time (or times) between now and the day you die, honor yourself enough to create goals that grow who you are, and increase your fulfillment in this one, very precious life that's been given to you.
Not sure what to do after asking yourself the questions posed earlier? I sometimes use a Co-Active Coaching tool with clients called a S.M.A.R.T. Goal (S is for specific, M for measurable, A for accountable, R for resonant, and T for thrilling). I've created a S.M.A.R.T. Goal worksheet as a template for you to craft a New Year's revolution, or any other goal in the future. (To grab the PDF of the worksheet, click here
What do I ask in return? Drop me a note and let me know how it goes. I'm a sucker for revolutions. Rhona Berens, PhD, CPCC, ACC, specializes in coaching creatives. She's a writer (who placed in several screenwriting competitions and co-wrote an episode of ABC's short-lived drama, High Incident). She also chaired Film Studies at UC Irvine. Curious about coaching? Book a complimentary phone or video session with Rhona (323-363-3571) and check out her website. If you missed Rhona's first Attitude Adjustment column, check it out here.
Note from Jim: Thanks to a reader of our newsletter, Rhona was featured in a UCLA article. GO, Rhona!
album has a plethora of songs about immigrants and people migrating out of desperation or hope to find a place to call home. The song starts with the singer/narrator's bag packed; he is ready to leave the "the pain and sadness we found here." His physical journey takes him out on the road, which begins with the simple wish to drink from the Rio Bravo's muddy waters; that is, across the border. The song culminates with the "across the border" that is ultimately bigger than any physical place: For what are we
Without hope in our hearts
That someday we'll drink from God's blessed waters
And eat the fruit from the vine
I know love and fortune will be mine
Somewhere across the border
Even without the allusion to religious iconography in the end, the song offers hope for everyone's journey - home, to our new home, to our new country, or to our new "home" in the great beyond. The song's eternal optimism is amazing. It is one of the most optimistic and beautiful moments in his entire oeuvre, and it creates the climax of an album. (A long time ago musicians would sequence their songs with purpose to create a short story-like experience. And listeners had the attention span to, well, listen to them all, too.)
However, the ultimate power of the moment in the album is enhanced or created by its placement right next to one of the darkest moments of this or any Bruce album. Like the match cut in 2001: A Space Odyssey from the weaponized bone to the spaceship is possibly the widest gap in time between any two shots in the history of cinema, the silent seconds before "Across the Border" starts and the end of the previous song create perhaps the biggest gap of all his albums between desperation and hope.
What is the dark moment that precedes "Across the Border" and throws into sharp relief its grace and beauty? The song is called "The New Timer." In it, a young man leaves his family to look for seasonal work across the country. He meets a friend on the road who shows him the ropes. He imagines his family at night but never gets a chance to go back. He splits up with his friend and only sees him again briefly in a passing freight train's grain car: "He shouted my name, disappeared into the rain and wind." His friend ends up murdered for no reason. One cold night, the main character makes his camp and sits alone with his machete by his side. He is overcome with the disturbing thought that ends the song and leads us into "Across the Border":
My Jesus your gracious love and mercy
Tonight I'm sorry could not fill my heart
Like one good rifle
And the name of who I ought to kill
Yikes. The choice to buttress this stark and dark moment with "Across the Border" is masterful storytelling. This principle of opposites drives a lot of great art and narrative. It's why you have a calm stillness before your climax. It's the basis of character orchestration. It's how you make a scene full of hate resonate with love. It's the principle behind sequences.
The absence of something makes us yearn for it more. The opposite of a thing makes us ponder the essence of the thing. Some times the best way to get at something is to get at what it's not.
This is why a romance has to, in some way, deal with loss or loneliness. It's why capturing the serial killer at the end of Act II in Se7en should scare the crap out of you. And it's why Pedro Almodovar's Broken Embraces has the newly blind director, who carefully navigates walking down stairs, share the frame with a young boy who effortlessly jumps down them.
WINNERS - CHAMPION SCREENWRITING 2009 from Jim Mercurio
The Champion Screenwriting Competition is proud to present the winners of its inaugural contest. All winners receive several additional prizes including development notes, time with mentors, pitches with PitchQ.com and a seat in this year's 3-day or 5-day 2009 A-List: Immersion.
All entrants are welcome to submit their pitches at PitchQ.com and the quarterfinalists will receive instructions soon on posting video pitches.
Thanks to everyone who entered.
Grand Prize - $2500
Mr. Unlucky by Tony Nichols
Second Place - $1000
Scout by Laurie Weltz
Third Place - $500
The Moonbeam Fisherman by John Dummer
Low Budget Horror - $500
Doctor Cockner's Carnival of Carnage by Jason Siner
First Place - $1,000
Kitten - by Magali Rennes
Second Place - $500
Shoe by Nick Kelly
We will be kicking off next year's contest soon in early 2010. Loook forward to expanded coverage option, 10k grand prize, exclusive entrance to A-List: Immersion plus thousands of dollars in other prizes.
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What Would the Boss Do?
In the early '90s when Bruce was with that "other" band, he wrote a beautiful song about his newborn son called "Living Proof." He described him as "a little piece of the Lord's undying light" and then juxtaposed it with "Crying like he swallowed the fiery moon."
Here are the next two lines:
In his mother's arms it was all the beauty I could take
Like the missing words to some prayer that I could never make
A prayer that he could never make. Funny, I always thought he wrote that prayer a few years later on the Ghost of Tom Joad album, in the song "Across the Border."