A-List Ticket Logo (lrg)

Issue 7                                                                                               January 31, 2010

A-List Screenwriting's
Craft & Career
Dear Writer,
Happy 2010!  And welcome to our seventh issue.
This issue is somewhat late because I wanted to announce the opening of the 2010 Champion Screenwriting Competition, which has a grand prize of $10,000!  Enter before the March early bird deadline and save up to $25.  Be sure to check out the ad or the Champion Corner for details of our coverage service plus all the contest rules and regs.

Speaking of winning scripts, Avatar just smashed Cameron's Titanic record for highest worldwide box-office. And it's still going strong.  My craft article Avatar: Take the Best, Leave the Rest dabbles with the business side but looks at what craft lessons we can and can't take from this box office behemoth.
In counterpoint to the worldwide phenomenon of Avatar, I was recently on the East Coast to catch a screening of the low budget horror film I exec-produced.  It inspired me to share some elementary tips on raising money.  In fact it's so elementary, I'm calling it, Film Financing 100.5.
Continuing the DIY theme is David Gillis's Style Matters column, Writer, Edit Thyself.  The one great thing about having an A-list proofreader write for you? You don't have to send his stuff to an editor.
Catch us on the A-List and Champion blogs. Plus, follow us on Twitter or become a Facebook fan. We will be announcing a lot of cool stuff later this year.

Skip Ad

Champion Competition Square Logo 
Use our expanded coverage service to help your script advance to the quarterfinalist round.
Early Bird Deadline
March 26


Jim Mercurio
Jim Mercurio
2.04 billion dollars in 45 days.  And counting. 
There is a big blue elephant in the room. How do we talk about it? How do we learn from it? And most of all, how do we apply it to our own work?
I emailed a few managers and development execs asking if there are any lessons screenwriters can glean from how Avatar changes the landscape for writers in Hollywood.  One development exec told me that he had packaged a few specs for movies with budgets in the $200 million range, but even with A-list talent attached, they went nowhere.  
Jason Scoggins at Protocol evoked a Gladwellian term and called the movie "an outlier in every sense" business-wise but  thought it was more evidence of the importance of 3-D and of the blockbuster/franchise mentality. Although he was optimistic that the studios took a risk on original material, he felt the movie held no secret formula for screenwriters.
I am glad that both of these industry players think that Avatar is not a game-changer for screenwriters.  And I happen to agree.  Check out my blog later this week for a bigger defense of this argument, but I don't think copying the Hollywood blockbusters is a valid screenwriting strategy.
Avatar was made because it was the brainchild of James Cameron. Moreover, most of the top 40-50 grossing  (US box office) films are franchises, had the backing of brand-name filmmakers or rely on preexisting properties (Indiana Jones, Spielberg, Lucas, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, Shrek, Batman, Spiderman, etc.).  Only two of the top 50 films were spec scripts -- The Hangover and The Sixth Sense -- and they both adhere to my philosophy of modestly budgeted scripts with crisp concepts or cool hooks.  
Look at the top 50 leaders of the domestic box office and you will find a lot of talented filmmakers and writers.  But it would be delusional and futile to copy these films without regard to practicality and budget.  And yet there is a lot to learn from these talented filmmakers, it's just not what we think we can learn.
James Cameron is obviously doing a lot of things right.  And while we don't have a $200 million canvas on which to paint, let's look at what Avatar does well and incorporate these elements into our own writing.   
Are you ready to take the best and leave the rest?

 Style Matters: Writer, Edit Thyself
David Gillis
I've always been amused by Final Draft's motto, "Just add words."  If only it were that simple.  Of course, FD's makers are referring to the software's ease of use - to which anyone who writes with it can attest.  But "Just add words" also spotlights two beliefs that, if taken to heart, prevent you from being a good writer, much less a great one.
The first one is that a writer can just add words to the page and - voila! - a modern classic springs into the world full-born and perfect in every way.  Sadly, a lot of writers have fallen for this bunk, even veteran scribes who should know better.  Even sadder, this misguided myth is occasionally chronicled in the media during interviews with the latest flash-in-the-pan litterateur, who invariably sputters breathlessly (I'm paraphrasing here): "The story just came to me and I set it down word for word and my editor didn't have to change a thing!"
No one is that good.  Even Scott Fitzgerald wasn't, and he knew it.  In fact, he relied on his agent, Harold Ober, to serve as his initial editor.  Ober cleaned up much of the spelling-challenged Scott's stuff, helping to polish that diamond as big as the Ritz to ensure Fitzgerald's place in the literary heavens.  As for those Oprah-endorsed flavors of the month ... well, I doubt that their "classics" will ever be required reading in high school and college.  And what was that wunderkind's name again?

The second misguided, "Just add words" belief is that one need only type and Final Draft will magically format your screenplay, no thought required.

Again, bull-sheviki.

Yes, it sets the correct margins for action and dialogue.  Sure, it will all-cap the characters' names.  And, wow, it provides all of those cool transitions, as in DISSOLVE TO and MATCH CUT TO, and will even put them in the proper place.  Never mind that such transitions are rarely, if ever, used in a spec script.  But then you knew that, right?  How about the proper way to do an intercut?  What's the difference between a series of shots and a montage?

Don't know?  Well, a good editor can help you with all of those these.  And that's why you need one.
Now, I'm enough of a cynic to never trust a guy who's trying to sell me something.  And neither should you - even if the guy doing the selling is, well ... me.  So here's the deal.  Times are tough.  It's not easy scraping up the money for all of the contests and pitch fests and sage advice from the screenwriting gurus.  Money for proofing?  Dude, I can't even make bank for a Subway footlong.
While I do believe that people with a certain skill - something Freud muttered about being "retentive" - make the best editors, I also know that with the proper tools you can learn to do it yourself.  So here's my simple guide to becoming your own best editor.
Film Financing 100.5
(Part 1 of 3)
Jim Mercurio
I gave a simple film financing lecture to roughly 25 people last year on the East Coast. And although it was for informational purposes only, it actually led, in one way or another, to my raising more than $100,000 for two different projects. I thought it was a lucky lecture.  So in case you are considering the DIY filmmaking plunge yourself, I am sharing the luck and expanding my presentation into a three-part series over the next few issues.
Although I have raised more than half a million dollars for my various projects over the years, financing is not my specialty.  If you admire the simplicity in my presentation, it's not brilliance: It's simply that I don't understand it any more deeply.  In two or three issues you will know as much about film financing as I do. 
First off, I want to introduce you to the idea of film as a security so that you can understand why even on a miniscule project, it is necessary to hire a lawyer.  Then I'm going to examine four different film paradigms (5-10k, 50-75k, 200-300k and 750k) from both the filmmaker's and investor's perspective. If you are a filmmaker who is trying to raise money for a project, understanding the investor's side IS crucial.
In concluding the series, I will present a list of reasons why people invest (it's not what you think).
The first question you have to ask yourself when raising money is: "Am I selling a security?"  
What if your only investors are rich Uncle Charlie, your mother, and the trust-fund brat (word of advice: never use that term in investor meetings!) who is dating your second cousin?  Do you really need to involve SEC law and a lawyer?  You do if you are selling a security.
Where the money comes from, even if it's friends or family, is irrelevant.  This is what you need to ask yourself:  Are you taking your investor's money and then denying them any say in the creative or business decisions of the film?  Are you retaining all of the managerial and decision making power despite their investment? 
If so, then you are selling a security
If your Dad's sending you a check for a couple grand to shoot your student film, maybe just stick your head in the sand and go for it. But anything beyond that, you gotta dot i's and cross t's.  And you should want to.  You want to make your movie your way, yes? So this is the price you pay: Invest YOUR time and money in an attorney who specializes in SEC stuff or suffer the consequences.  You can set up the deal so that you can reimburse yourself later.
If you take people's money and don't protect yourself, you open yourself up to risk.  The investor can say, "You took my money but you didn't take it the correct way," "you sold me a security but neglected to tell me," OR, the one thing that really makes the creative blood run cold, "I didn't know what I was getting into."  And sometimes, certain people won't even qualify to invest in your project and you could end up having to return their money (even if it's already spent).
At the end of the day you are accountable to your investors. You hold ALL the risk.  If you lose your investor's money, they can come back and say you took their money OR you were selling a security but didn't make it clear.  And then you may have to return the money or be at risk for civil damages.
Usually you will sell units in a manager-managed LLC, a limited partnership or sometimes shares in a corporation -- all of which fall under the Securities Exchange Commissions Regulation D, which requires less paperwork and red tape.  
You need to create a Securities Disclosure Document (the most common of which is a private placement memorandum) which has sections that are similar to a business plan:  
  • Bios
  • Synopsis
  • Script
  • Overview of Business
  • Plans for Distribution
  • Comparables/Projections 

However, this document also requires disclosures.  "Disclosures" is a nice way of saying to investors: here are all the reasons this is a really crappy investment.  These disclosures include fancy ways of saying these sorts of flattering things:   
  • We're inexperienced.
  • Our company is thinly capitalized.
  • A high-powered magnet could destroy our project in a second.
  • The film business is intensely competitive.
  • We may not be able to finish the film.
  • It may be a terrible film.
  • Distributors may offer us a bad deal or no deal at all. 
It all sounds incredibly negative, right?  Well, what this document does is warn the investor of ALL of the possible risks involved in investing in the project.  This is an important part of the legal process and it protects you should anything go wrong with the project.  Maybe like me, the creative side of filmmaking is way more fun, but make sure you or your producing partners take care of the business side of things too.
The budget levels I chose aren't completely arbitrary.  I tried to find enough variety in the examples to cover the sorts of projects you would want to make.  And the information is clearly adaptable.  For example, a $100,000 film probably has more in common with the 50-75k budget than the 200-300k one.  These categories might help you figure out how much money you should raise. I have seen people raise 250k because that's what they could raise, but there was no reason they should have spent that much money on their film. 
Here we go... 
BUDGET: 5-10k          
  • Reel: Consider this a loss leader for your career.  If you are making a calling card short or scenes for your reel, be upfront about it. This is not-for-profit filmmaking.  Don't try to sell it as anything but that.   Put up the money yourself or borrow/be gifted money from those who are willing to invest in your career.
  • Trailer for feature: If you are filming an excerpt from a script in order to raise money for the eventual feature, make it very clear who owns what and have a clean chain of title.  Does the investor in the trailer automatically own a piece of the to-be-shot feature - whether you intended him to or not?  Does the fact that you neglected to sign a contract with the DP(who came up with some of the original ideas that are now in the trailer) mess up the underlying rights to the original film?
  • Super-low budget feature:  If you are making a micro-budgeted feature,  know that it's like winning the lottery if it ever hits big.  But why are you even making it if you don't plan on hitting it big?  Make sure you are upfront about who gets paid and when and which entity owns the film.  A distributor won't touch a film with a messy chain of title.  And so many people will be working for free or with a "hey, we are partners" vibe that you want to make sure that everyone knows where they stand with the movie if/when it makes money.
 BUDGET: 50-75K    
  • Vehicle: Oftentimes, this is a vehicle to show off your acting, directing or writing skills.  If you are really good at one or two of these things, consider letting someone else do the other tasks. Really talented people will direct, write, or act for pretty much free if they can be part of a good project.  Everyone starts somewhere. 
  • For Profit: If the goal is to make money, and this is a business venture with profitability as a key goal, then KNOW THY GENRE.  If you're a straight-to-DVD horror film, find out what's selling and what budget a deal can support, and talk to distributors of similar genre films to make sure your film fits the current marketplace.
  • Schedule: Usually, this is a two- to three-week shoot or is done over a series of weekends.  There is a tipping point where it is exponentially harder to get people to work for free or freeish. Usually it's just after two to two and a half weeks.  One week, sure.  Two weeks, okay. Two and a half weeks, let's get this done.  Threeish weeks, hey, I'm off the market for a month ... got kids and a mortgage.
  • Producer Skill: The skills that you need at this level are more about chutzpah and championing and less about line-producing, budgeting and scheduling.  You need to cut great deals and get people excited. In order to get the crew to work for free you must convince them to believe in the project.  And you need to get cool locations by schmoozing that guy with the awesome house.
  • Common Flaws: Bad acting, poor production values, not enough coverage.  Get good actors.  How?  I don't care.  Just do it.  The production values situation isn't always a matter of channeling your inner Anton Furst or Richard Sylbert (his daughter worked on Hard Scrambled, hi, Daisy!).  Often it's just a matter of not settling for an empty house with blank white walls.  This is where the art of deal making comes in.  Find the best house.  Talk a secondhand store into allowing you to rent/borrow stuff for a "special thanks credit" (or nominal fee) for set dressing.  Or crazy idea: paint!  Regarding coverage, there are two issues: Inexperienced directors don't know how much they need (edit a few shorts before directing your first feature) and the harrowing schedule never allows the time for the coverage you want.
 BUDGET: $200-300K   
  • Nominal Salaries: This is the threshold where you actually have salaries to budget.  There are different opinions about this, but as a producer or director you might be able to pay part of your rent for a few months on your salary.  But don't overpay yourself or other ATL crew or your film will suffer and you will have trouble paying your 100-200/day non-union crew.
  • Schedule: Another reason for not overpaying yourself is that you might be able to squeeze three and a hal to four weeks to shoot.  Which means at this level, crappy amateurish production values are not an option.  If you're making 8k but the sets and locations aren't right, then something is WROOONG!
  • Market: You are spending enough money now that you need to think about the business side. If this is a drama with a bunch of no-names, consider sliding this down to the previous paradigm.  If you aren't in a genre that can support a no-name cast, try to get a name actor.  And at this level, you can afford low-budget SAG, so you can get good actors no matter what.
  • Biggest Challenge:  EGO.  The stakes are getting higher and you can afford to recruit talented allies.  Do the one or two things that you do well and make sure that the other positions are filled with people who are better than you in those spots.  For instance, you might not be able to pay a DP 25k in this scenario but you can pay him or her SOMETHING, and you can entice them with a chance to shoot a film with significant resources, i.e.,they are building their reel that will land then the project that will pay them 25k.
 BUDGET: $750K OR SO    
  • Director, Writer, Producer get paid: Congratulations, you are a working filmmaker.  At this level, you might even be able to afford union crews.  
  • Why this budget level?: It took a Ryan Reynolds movie (Buried) to fetch $3.5 million at Sundance this year but the acquisitions at Toronto were slow.  A Colin Firth and Julianne Moore film  (directed by fashion mogul Tom Ford) could only muster up a $1 million to $2 million acquisition deal by Fords' longtime friends, the Weinsteins. Joel Schumacher's film Twelve with Gossip Girl star Chace Crawford just sold for $2 million at Sundance. If a homerun these days is a $2 million sale, do you really want to spend $2 million to make a film?
  • Market: Because of the economy and shrinking acquisition coffers, it's really a buyer's marketVariety recently opined that the old indie model - scrape together financing and then secure a US distribution deal after a festival opening - is "becoming outmoded." I don't have the answer of to how to ensure your film will find a home in the marketplace, but I will say this: Unless you know this market and have done your due diligence, don't make a movie at this level.
  • Actors: You might try to go favored nations if you have an ensemble cast of semi-recognizable names who want to be part of the project. Or if you interest a name (that has demonstrable market worth) you might put a disproportionate chunk of salary toward the actor and then proceed as though it were a 400k film.
  • Professionalism: At this level, there are NO excuses.  You have to put together a professional looking movie that is worthy of and definitely eligible for release.  At this level, chutzpah (always a necessary ingredient) starts giving way to the finer skills of producing -- organizing, scheduling, making your days, staying within budget, and protecting the director and stars. If there is a hole in your set of skills, pay or persuade someone to come on board and compensate for it.
Next issue we will look at each of these budget categories from the investor's perspective.
If you have any questions about fund raising or investing issues send your questions or call
Avatar: Keep the Best, Leave the Rest
Jim Mercurio
One of the most muddled moments in the history of cinema is in Titanic when Rose throws the heart shaped diamond into the ocean.  It's thematically incoherent.  Was it supposed to symbolize that she was giving up materialism?  No, she had that arc/epiphany when she was a teenager and Jack died.  So what the heck was it supposed to mean?  Oh, that's right, I promised to take the "best."
Avatar's eco-myth message -- that we are all the same and connected to one another and to our home planet -- isn't earth-shattering (oops) in its intellectual depth or complexity.  But, you have to give kudos to Cameron for expressing the idea thoroughly and in an all-encompassing way.  The physical problem of the Na'vi battling the soldiers from Earth and the internal problem of Jake letting go of " the us versus them" mentality and committing to being a Na'vi are both solved by the same idea: the principle that everything is connected.  
There are several nice touches:
  • The hair tendril thing that interfaces with the animals
  • The way the other tribes and EVEN the animals join the cause
  • The big black beast that lowers its shoulder to Neytiri
  • The idea that the banshees and Na'vi are connected for life
  • The  Deku tree, err, I mean, the Sacred tree that is a LITERAL connection to the ancestors
  • "I see you" tagline
The film is full of stunning visuals. The scene where Jake bonds with his banshee and rides with Neytiri is pure cinema.  Especially in 3-D, the time spent on "just flying" is magical and never boring.  The moment is so effective because it's also an important beat in their romantic relationship.  If the animal can trust Jake, then subconsciously so can she.  He is moving closer to being and seeing the Na'vi, which is the arc he needs to fulfill before he is worthy of her love.  Maybe someone needs to write a book about Cameron and these "King of the World" moments. 
Look how Cameron avoids talky exposition when the Sacred Tree tries to save the wounded Grace by permanently putting  her "spirit" into her avatar.  If it's going to work later for Jake, of course it has to fail now.  But the rules and point of the ritual are established here so that at the end we IMMEDIATELY know what's going on as Jake submits to the same process.  There is no time needed to explain it.
Speaking of visual storytelling, if you want to learn from modern blockbusters how to do things right, check out the 10-minute wordless montage in the first act of Up which chronicles the husband's and wife's relationship.  This is also pure cinema and the following three shots probably encompass less than 20 seconds:
  1. A wide shot of the hill where they usually joyfully picnic.  As she climbs, she falters.  He moves toward her. Cut to:
  2. Tracking shot where he is with her in a hospital bed. Cut to:
  3. He is sitting on the floor alone in front of her casket by himself after the funeral.  Some colorful balloons counterpoint the glum shot, reminding us of their levity and love and foreshadowing what is to come.
I started my WWTBD? column because of Bruce Springsteen's line, "We learned more from a three-minute record than we ever learned in school."  Well, you can learn more from a 30-second Pixar montage than you could ever learn in film school.
... now back to Avatar ...
Colonel Quaritch is the perfect ideological nemesis for Jake.  They have both been injured by the/an enemy and the story shows how they take the complete opposite paths. In a sense, they are different sides of the same coin.  Jake's journey is to understand that there are no boundaries between us and them,  living beings and nature, nature and the planet, and this life and the afterlife.  It's about unity, oneness.  As a Marine, the Colonel sees things with fascist rigidity.  For him, it's about us versus them.  To him, the planet and the Na'vi are the OTHER.  He sees Jake's literal miscegenation as a betrayal not only of him, but of the entire human race.  The Colonel also serves to raise the stakes by giving Jake -- and the story -- a kick in the rear by adding a ticking clock or difficult demand.  
Some of this is related to Cameron's reliance on images to tell the story.  But notice that during some of the scenes with Jake and the Na'vi clan, they speak in their own language.  Cameron will use no subtitles and allow us to be confused like Jake. And then he will use no subtitles but allow the conversation to be completely clear by its context. And finally he will use subtitles for the conversation.  There are artistic reasons for this choice: You get to keep the audience in a point of view similar to that of Jake's.  However, from a worldwide marketing perspective, this means these sequences are watched and enjoyed in the exact same way for speakers of all other languages: The Na'vi speak a language that is foreign to all viewers and so the subtitles are in the language of the audience.
These are the same principles that allow genre films and straight-to-DVD horror films to play better in foreign countries.   A monster chasing a woman through the woods plays just as well in Germany as it does in Korea.  If you are making a horror film or small thriller, try to think about long sequences that don't rely on words or cultural context.  I don't even think of a film like The Orphanage as foreign because the experience of watching it is so unrelated to its dialogue.  And for a non-English speaking audience member, the first half of Wall-E must be a similar experience.  Films like Paris, Je t'Aime (and perhaps Don't Look Now) also make strategic casting and language choices to create international appeal.
Mainstream cinema often has an escapist element to it.  People want to be transported to a different place, literally or figuratively.  In some ways Avatar is a pretty extreme example of this phenomenon considering that Cameron literally created every blade of grass using technology.   But this aside, all this creativity is integrated into the fantasy world through the storytelling and ultimately become essential plot points:  
  • Floating mountains  are cool visually but also block radar.
  • The Sacred tree and its floating luminous seeds mark Jake as something special.
  • Different species of animals change roles from neutral/enemy to ally.
  • The trees and plants allow the Na'vi to freefall (set up during training sessions and later used during the fighting).
  • The unbreathable air raises the stakes for the humans
The trick for up-and-coming writers is to create and exploit a complete world within a budget.  You aren't allowed to have an Avatar- or Lord of the Rings-sized scope.  But look at what District 9 did in creating its own world.  Even if you are making films in a completely different genre, the challenge remains: Create a unified world and stick with it.  Here are a few movies that do a great job of creating their own world, several of them on a budget: Brick, Pi, The Wrestler, Memento, Being John Malkovich, Where The Wild Things Are, Do the Right Thing, most of Woody Allen's films.
Another great example of where everything filters through the created world is in Up in the Air.  My favorite meet-cute this year is between Vera Farmiga and George Clooney where they flirt by discussing their membership cards (page 16-17 of the script).  This is also an example of exploitation of concept on the scene level.
Sam Worthington is filming Clash of the Titans. I know the dude is probably pretty buff, but did you notice his scrawny little legs in the film?  Several times when he had to load himself into a wheelchair or his Avatar "control station," he would lift and move his legs.  I thought they were like a rubber prosthetic/prop but some sources say they were CGI.  Either way, it's a nice touch.  
Cameron took a decade to work on the special-effects technology that would allow him to make the Avatar that was in his head.  His goal was pretty big: to create a franchise from scratch, something that could compete with the blockbusters of Harry Potter what were based on preexisting material.  Yeah, I know Cameron didn't have to sweat a day job and was probably going to find financing one way or another, but he also had the vision to know that his story was universal and that the audience was going to be there when the film was ready.
On a smaller scale, the importance of stick-to-it-iveness showed up this year at Sundance.  In 1995 when I was director of development for Allison Anders's producer Bill Ewart and his partner David Peters, I covered this small relationship drama called Blue Valentine.   It wasn't very commercial but it was an honest and intense drama; the kind of movie I have always wanted to (and sometimes get to) make.  In one of our meetings, David compared it to Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage.  At the time, I hadn't seen the film (Hey, I was in my 20s and, btw, had seen most of Bergman's films and had even met Max Von Sydow.)  Well,  I went out and watched Scenes and it became a major inspiration for a script I finished about eight years ago and am still trying to make.  Well, I guess I still have seven years... Blue Valentine finally got made, starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, and just sold at Sundance to the Weinsteins for about a million bucks.  It was directed by the co-writer, Derek Cianfrance. 
It's a ridiculously tough business right now but when the dust clears in a few years, there will still be room for the writers with great scripts and the courage to stick around.


StyleMattersContStyle Matters:
 Writer, Edit Thyself (cont.)
David Gillis

Buy a good stylebook - and use it.


Let's be clear about this: It's not enough to type your great idea for a film into Final Draft.  It still doesn't make it a screenplay - even if it kinda sorta looks like one.

Think of it this way.  A sonnet is 14 lines - no more, no less.  Write 10 lines, or even 100, and, while you might have penned a great poem worthy of Shakespeare, you still haven't written a sonnet.  Just as there are rules for writing a sonnet, so too are there rules for writing a screenplay - rules that make it a screenplay, as opposed to merely a Final Draft document.  And you'll find these rules in a good stylebook.
There are at least three on the market, all of them available at Amazon or some of the screenwriting websites.  If you've read my stuff before, you know that I prefer, and religiously use, The Hollywood Standard by Christopher Riley, if only because I find it clear and concise and easy to thumb through, unlike The Screenwriter's Bible.  But it doesn't matter which one to use.  Just do it.
But here's the big caveat (with apologies to those who've heard me shouting from my soapbox): There is no standard in Hollywood.   The people writing the checks ultimately don't care if you follow Riley's or anybody else's rules - at least, that is, if you're an A-lister.  Just take a look at the bloated script for Evening and you'll see what I mean.  Of course, that it was a crappy script probably had much to do with it being such a crappy, pretentious gimmick of a movie.
So why bother with script format and style?  That's because while you can still make a bad movie from a great script (maybe the director is an idiot), you can't make a great movie from a bad screenplay.  I maintain that following the "rules" keeps you focused on telling your story.  You're careful to hit all of your beats, aren't you?  Then why screw up all of your shot headings?
But what's most important, especially for spec screenwriters, is that following the "rules" allows you to tell your story compellingly, thus bettering your chances of winning over that skeptical reader.
Then, of course, there's pride in your craft.  Maybe your script will end up lining a bird cage (as does that newspaper in the opening of the old TV show Lou Grant).  Or maybe it becomes the script that film professors use to teach aspiring screenwriters years from now, the one that gets collected in a book (say, The Best Screenplays of the 21st Century).  I'll wager that Evening will never enjoy that distinction.


Find - and dust off - your copy of The Elements of Style.


If you've ever taken a college-level course in writing, then at some point you were told to buy a copy of this little book by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White (he of Charlotte's Web fame).  If you didn't, or if you did but never read it, then shame on you.


No matter.  There's still time to redeem yourself - and your writing.  Not only does The Elements of Style give you a crash course in basic usage, it provides rules that should resonate with screenwriters, such as using the active voice, trimming needless words, avoiding qualifiers, and, perhaps more important, writing with nouns and verbs - for, as Messrs. Strunk and White assert: "It is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give to good writing its toughness and color."


Find a good dictionary - and use it.


It doesn't matter which one you use - or whether it's hardcover or online.  Just get in the habit of looking up words you don't know, and do it using the same source every time.  Don't trust spelling checkers.  They're limited - especially Final Draft's.  Sure, it might question a word's spelling, but if it's not in FD's dictionary, it must learn it ... from you.  Which means that, if you're not sure, you need to look it up.


 Even after more than 20 years, here's how I still operate.  If I have even the slightest doubt about a word, I look it up.  Nine times out of 10 the spelling is just fine.  That's OK; no time wasted.  I learn the word's etymology [FYI: Word doesn't know this - and, yes, I looked it up - so I'll need to add it to the dictionary on the final spelling check.], maybe boost my vocabulary by reading all of the definitions.


Besides, it's finding that one misspelled word that gives a true copy editor such a rush.  Maybe that Freud guy was on to something.


And, finally, an old copy-editing trick...


It's time to do that final proof, so you comb through your screenplay from beginning to end.  Maybe you find errors, maybe you don't.  But guess what?  You're still not ready to hit send or print.  You need to read it again.  Only this time, you must read it backward.
I kid you not.  Turn to the last page of your screenplay and start there, working your way back to page one. Last word to first?  Yes, if you can stomach it.  If not, do it sentence to sentence.  But do it.  Because if there's one surefire way to catch your own mistakes, then this is it.
Here's why.  When you read your brain wants to race ahead - so much so that it will actually see things that aren't there (sorta like an Oliver Stone film).  Missing words.  Repetitions.  Words that on first pass appear correct, but are in fact misspelled.  Grammatical errors.  Problems with their, they're, and there, or its and it's.  You name it.
Reading backward makes your brain slow down, actually see each word in all of its glory.  Do it meticulously, and you just might become your own best editor.  And with the money you save on proofing, you just might be able to buy a round at Subway. 
James P. Mercurio
Story Analyst Services
Jim's clients have sold projects to Roland Emmerich, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg.
"I'm on Fire" is a simple, soulful song, sung by a narrator whose longing haunts him, that culminates in the audaciously ambiguous, ah, climax:

At night I wake up with the sheets soaking wet
and a freight train running through the
middle of my head
Only you, can cool my desire
I'm on fire

The song has an instrumental coda that mixes the late Dan Federici's haunting organ and Bruce's blues-inspired moans.  It's a moving song about passion that is almost or fleetingly fulfilled.  However, it's a little one-sided.  The object of desire only gets to be adored, worshipped and lusted after. 

But let's look at the simple reworking of the song as a male-female duet with the inspired choice to have the singers facing each other, that also requires a small change: The word "he" becomes "she" twice:

Tell me now baby is SHE good to you
Can SHE do to you the things that I do
I can take you higher

By bringing in the "other voice" and allowing the object of adoration and longing to have an equal presence in the song creates an entirely new and powerful emotional experience.  The original song works just fine and there is nothing stopping a storyteller from telling an awesome story from one person's perspective.  But this just shows you what can happen when you make two equally unstoppable forces collide.

I have talked about this in terms of theme and the "F-d up Permutation" where you have to challenge the main idea of your story, but here I am looking at it from more of an emotional perspective.  Often, a writer will favor one character because it's easier or more fun to write or because it's the character he or she most identifies with.  But always look for ways to surprise the "dominant" character with points of view from supporting characters that are equally strong as his or hers.

Attention to this principle is why Robert Sean Leonard's Dr. James Wilson on the television program House has recently become the show's second-most interesting character.  The producers have let Wilson fight back and be as audacious, in his own way, as House is in his.  And it's what makes the Vera Farmiga character such a great foil for the George Clooney character in Up in the Air.

Conflict is the nature of drama, which means you have a force that pushes things apart.  But that means that a story must have an equally strong force that pulls things together.  Jennifer Nettles understands the nature of visual media like television.  Her unwavering eye contact (Twilight has made a billion dollar film franchise from the technique)  supports her voice and delivers a pretty convincing "pull."

In this two-minute reworking of Bruce's story, the object of desire reveals her equally compelling longing.  And it's surprising, to say the least.  In your writing, you must also look for every chance to, like Ms. Nettles, baaarringggg it.
Hey Writers,
I am going to be using this space for the Champion Screenwriting Competition: celebrating winners, announcing new prizes, highlighting sponsors and updating you on our progress.
Remember, that becoming a top twenty writer is the only way to assure yourself a seat in this year's Champion Lab.  Check out testimonials from last year's attendees.
Here are some of the changes for this year: 
  • Grand Prize is $10,000 cash
  • There is an additional $30,000 in cash and prizes
  • Our coverage service offers more feedback and is designed to help writers advance to the next round.
  • The price for resubmission has been cut almost in half
  • We have three Shorts prizes, including Best Drama, Best Comedy and Best Short Short (under 3 pages)
  • We have several new sponsors including The Writers Store, Truby Writers Studio, It's on the Grid and Virtual Pitch Fest.
If you have any questions about the contest, feel free to drop me a line.  And if you want more information about the contest, check out the Champion site: www.championscreenwriting.com.
Bookmark or sign up for the RSS feed for
In This Issue
Avatar: Take the Best, Leave the Rest
Style Matters with David Gillis
Film Financing 100.5
The Champion Corner
WWTBD? Column
Quick Links
Story Analysis

Facebook Logo

Twitter Logo

What Would the Boss Do?

Dear Jennifer Nettles,

After seeing your performance at the Kennedy Center Honors of Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire", I am, well, on fire.


DISCLAIMER: It probably doesn't make sense to read any further without taking two minutes to watch this performance.

First things first.  I don't like country music.  I am happily married.  I think Ben Harper is too reluctant in his performance.  But Jennifer Nettles (from a country band called Sugarland) baaarringgggs it. 

Jim has a crush.

Writing in orange third person allows me to focus long enough to write the 618 words in this column. 
So what is the lesson to be learned about storytelling?  Is there a lesson to be learned?  Let's find out.

Oh, and by the way, my wife cleared the topic. 
Get creative support to support your creativity.
Contact Rhona Berens, PhD, ACC,
for a complimentary coaching session.
Check her out.
Read a cool interview with her.
Unless otherwise noted, all content is copyrighted by A-List Screenwriting, LLC or James P. Mercurio.