The Zen of Short Scripts

The Buckhorn Saloon in Pinos Altos, NM is reminiscent of buildings used in the sets of western movies, image from wikipedia
The Buckhorn Saloon in Pinos Altos, NM is reminiscent of buildings used in the sets of western movies, image from wikipedia

Writing Features

I began writing scripts for feature length film not because I thought that it would be a good idea, but because someone else thought I had a great story for a movie. Unfortunately (or fortunately) whatever the case may be, my friend just happened to be an agent for screenplays and TV pilots. As luck would have it, he was not very successful at negotiating sales, even though he had one of his own scripts optioned and turned into a pilot. Nonetheless, I finished my first script and seeing how relatively straightforward the process was, I went ahead and put together two more. Presently, these screenplays sit in a drawer. Here’s what I learned in the process.

Some things To Consider

Will your screenplay be economical to shoot. That means no fancy special effects, no foreign locations, and the fewer scenes you have the better off you will be if and when a Hollywood executive gets to take a real look at the script. Also a smaller cast might be an advantage also. Does anyone remember The Blair Witch Project? Your concept does not have to be that bare bones, but still the remarkable and unpredictable success of this film should be noted.

Why Make A Short Film

Overall, there are many reasons why you might want to make a short film. First of all it’s cheaper. That kind of goes without saying, for making a five minute short will be a lot easier on the old budget that a feature length. On a similar note a short film does not take a lot of time to edit and involves a smaller cast and production crew. Furthermore, the short will give the director and writer more artistic freedom, so that they might undertake riskier work. Also of note, is the improving market for short films, especially with the advent of such online markets as Vevo and Youtube. And finally, if you short takes off, it could still get previewed at a high-profile film festival or even receive an Oscar nomination for Best Short Film.

The Short Film Script

Now comes the challenge of actually sitting down and writing the short script. When you do you might want to keep some of these ideas in mind. Don’t forget that a short film is usually really short, less than ten minutes with the 2 to 5 minute range being very popular, especially if are planning to put your finished product up online. Just think of a short film as the equivalent of flash fiction….that is small bite of reality that might go over well in our contemporary world of digital communications and the 30-second sound bite. And just because your little episode is short, remember that it must tell a story. This means a beginning, middle and good ending.

Old school method of using a camcorder to make a film
Old school method of using a camcorder to make a film, from wikipedia

 

 

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Why Do Fairy Tales Have So Many Strong Female Leads?

Image of Cinderella from the upcoming movie
Image of Cinderella from the upcoming movie

Woman’s History Month

The month of March is Woman’s History Month. Usually, this is an event that I completely ignore, but this year due to a series of interesting blog posts around the web, I have become intrigued with the subject of not only women in filmmaking, but also the study of stories with strong female leads. As a result my blogs for the rest of this month will revolve around this emerging topic.

The Situation Today

There is a fascinating blog post over at blcklst.com (Blacklist), where the author, Terry Huang, does a comparison of movies made with female leads to those made with male leads. What is most revealing about this undertaking is that Terry does this at different budget levels and the result is not really very surprising. As the budget for a film increases so does the likelihood that the film will revolve around a central male protagonist. What is surprising here, is how this comparison falls into an almost predictable mathematical curve. For example, at the one million dollar budget level, male films outscore female films by a two-to-one ratio. However, by time one reaches the 200 million dollar budget, this ratio has increased to a 10 to 1 margin.

Once Upon A Time

Once upon a time, there were many stories with strong female leads. In that bygone era, the art of storytelling was dominated by the likes of Cinderella, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Gretel. And as in the case of Gretel, not all these characters liked to play nice. Take Gretel for example, who outsmarts the wicked witch that has imprisoned her and her brother and gains freedom for both herself and her less inventive brother, Hansel.

Nowadays, it seems that most of our big budget movies are not made unless there is a storyline that revolves around a strong, male protagonist. Incidentally, some recent movies have returned to the days of the Grimm Brothers to come up with a cinema feature with a strong female lead. If not for the recent releases of Snow White and the Huntsman, Frozen, Hansel and Gretel (Witchhunters) and soon-to-be-seen Cinderella, this picture would be a bit darker.

Still, 50 Shades of Gray leads the 2015 releases with the most sales. With over nine months left in the calendar year, it remains to be seen, if this will still be the case.

Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf as pictured in an ad by HADD (Hispanics Against Drunk Driving)
Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf as pictured in an ad by HADD (Hispanics Against Drunk Driving)

 

The Day After the Oscars

A Collage of Gowns from 2015
A Collage of Gowns from 2015

The Morning After

I woke up this morning and was surprised to learn that last night was Oscar night. I don’t think I missed very much and it came as no surprise that this years awards had the least number viewers in six years. The 2015 awards have also been criticized as the “whitest” group of nominees since 1998. Also by the looks of things, the array of colorful gowns were probably the most conservative in quite a while. A sign of the changing times……..or perhaps just coincidence. My thoughts are that one year does not make a trend. Over the past decade black actors and actresses have been fairly well represented at the podium, while their Hispanic and Asian counterparts have been much less conspicuous. And Native American participants have been almost non-existent. It’s too soon to tell if this is a trend, but if this continues over the next few years, the people who put on the show may have to do some re-thinking.

Highlights

Just from looking around the web on the morning after, the highlights can be described in one short sentence. Birdman won best picture and screenwriter, Graham Moore, gave an impassioned speech about his main subject, Alan Turing and the screenplay he wrote for the Imitation Game. Other than that the Oscars may have been more routine than usual.

Is There More Competition Out There

Naturally, the question arose in my mind about whether the increased presence of Indie films and online venues such as Amazon Prime, Netflix and Hulu is taking its toll on our much-cherished national institution. Just from what I’ve seen of Amazon Prime, I would say that there may be something to this argument. Especially, Amazon, which seems to be gearing up in a big way to possibly challenge the dominance of Hollywood……or at the very least providing a viable alternative in the way we are entertained.

Two Questionable Films

Fifty Shades of Grey is tearing up box office sales at the theater almost in the same that the story did, when it was first released in book form. However, at the Oscars, the film was kind of snubbed (though Dakota Johnson did get to present an award). Besides being snubbed the film has been attacked as being misogynistic and misguided. There have even been boycott efforts, but these appear to have little effect, as the film is still the number one grossing film in its second week at the box office. However, 50 Shades did receive support from one star, Julie Andrews, who said she didn’t mind a red room of pain. (really)

And the other source of controversy is the recently released action/thriller called The Kingsman, in which there is a scene, where the head of a black president explodes. Critics here point out that the resemblance to our current Commander-in-Chief is way too close even if it is, just a movie.

It seems to be that a close look at these two questionable films may be symptomatic as to why Hollywood may have a problem with the content and overall caliber of its product. Only time will tell.

 

M104: The Sombrero Galaxy  Image Data: NASA, ESO , NAOJ, Giovanni Paglioli - Processing: R. Colombari
M104: The Sombrero Galaxy
Image Data: NASA, ESO , NAOJ, Giovanni Paglioli – Processing: R. Colombari

 

 

Is Hollywood Passé?

A Hollywood based business in New Mexico, photo by author
A Hollywood based business in New Mexico, photo by author

A Unique Photo Op

This abandoned business in Northern New Mexico, got me thinking about the present fortunes of tinsel town. Though the West Coast film mecca is very much economically alive and producing popular films, there is no doubt about it, the film industry is going through changes. People just don’t attend movies like they use to…..but to compensate for the lack of moviegoers, the industry has found a healthy market in foreign countries and at the American home. This and the ability to lead the field in special effects have enabled the popular industry to remain an important force within the entertainment industry. ……. And don’t forget cartoon characters almost always sell well.

Quotes On the Nature of Hollywood

1. “The classy gangster is a Hollywood invention.”  by Orson Welles

2. “Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul.” by Marilyn Monroe

3. “Hollywood is like Picasso’s bathroom.”  by Candice Bergen

4. “Mark Twain’s old saying ‘Never let the truth get in the way of a good story’ still reigns in Hollywood.” ― James Morcan

5. “Sometimes it’s good to be the smartest rat in the sewer.” ― Michael Houbrick

6. “Whether you’re talking about the Egyptian pharaohs or Hollywood movie stars, it all ends the same way. DEATH.” Neal A. Yeager

7.  “I feel very adventurous. There are so many doors to be opened, and I’m not afraid to look behind them.” – Elizabeth Taylor

8. “Hollywood didn’t kill Marilyn Monroe; it’s the Marilyn Monroes who are killing Hollywood.” – Billy Wilder

9. “It’s actually great to shoot far away from Hollywood because we don’t have the distractions of the parties and premieres and all that. And, of course, you can save money – there are no good shoe stores.” – Katie Holmes

10. “But the West did not last long enough. Its folk myths and heroes became stage properties of Hollywood before the poets had begun to get to work on them.” – Christopher Dawson

11. “Independent films are where you really get to cut your teeth and have some fun and do the things that mainstream Hollywood doesn’t want to do.” – Anthony Anderson

12. “Hollywood isn’t your cesspool, America. It’s your mirror.” – Bill Maher

13. “In Hollywood, the real stars are all in animation. Alvin and the Chipmunks don’t throw star fits, don’t demand custom-designed Winnebagos, and are a breeze at costume fittings. Cruella DeVille, Gorgo, Rainbow Brite, Gus-Gus, Uncle Scrooge, and the Care Bears are all superstars and they don’t have drug problems, marital difficulties, or paternity suits to blacken their images.” ― John Waters

14. “Hollywood is loneliness beside the swimming pool.” – Liv Ullman

 

Did Hollywood peak in 1939?

No way around it, Hollywood had a great year in 1939. Some even say it was the best. While large parts of Europe were falling to a fascist regime, our American moviemakers put out a short list of great films. Among the 1939 greats are such classics, as The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and Wuthering Heights. Looking at the titles, one might think the country was oblivious to world events, but Hollywood has always been a bit of an escapist and surreal enterprise. If America was in a cloud during the last year of third decade of the twentieth century, they would soon find themselves rudely awakened by events in the Pacific, nearly two years later.

Moviemaking In New Mexico

Actually, film directors are more often coming to the Land of Enchantment to film parts or all of their movies. The Spanish state has always had great desert scenery and recent economic incentives from New Mexico seem to be working well in attracting film companies. Just a few years ago, Lone Survivor, was shot almost entirely here because the landscape resembled Afghanistan so well. Other film crews that have spent all or part of their time here include The Lone Ranger, True Grit (2010 version), The Avengers, Crazy Heart and the 3:10 To Yuma.

More Words from Bloggers

Yellow Bug parked in front of the NM Museum of Art, photo by author
Yellow Bug parked in front of the NM Museum of Art, photo by author

Best Piece of Writing Advice Ever

Best Piece of Writing Advice Yet  (from the venerable Mark Twain)   “Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.” Nothing could be more simple, right?

Today’s look around the internet includes more on Amazon-Hatchette, words from a black screenwriter and a bunch of Tom Swifties.

Does Anybody remember Boyz in the Hood?

Don’t go through the system. Do it yourself. Do something you believe in.”
Oscar-nominated writer/director John Singleton (Boyz in the Hood

The title definitely caught my eye when the film first came out in 1991, but I never got around to watching the movie (on DVD) till a few years ago. I must say I enjoyed the show immensely. It’s a great coming of age story about a tight-knit group of black teenagers trying to cope with the urban, drug-infested neighborhood that they find themselves thrust into.

The amazing thing about this film is that Singleton wrote the screenplay and landed the director’s spot just a year or two after he graduated from UCLA film school. I can’t imagine anything like this happening today, even though they are more opportunities out there and internet sites like the Black List have made Hollywood more accessible. Do it yourself is not all that it’s cracked up to be.

This Hatchette-Amazon Thing Drags On

“Consider the French Revolution. A bunch of blue bloods really thought they were born to rule, and the peasants couldn’t live without them to govern. They were wrong.” Joe Konrath

Mr. Konrath continues his defense of ebook publishing and self-publishing with this timely rage against Author’s United. His assertion that the ebooks are radically changing the publishing world has been around for several years. Now that the Amazon-Hatchette feud dominates the literary conversation, Joe has gained more notoriety as the great defender of Amazon and the new reality of cheap ebooks. No different than the rise of paperbacks right after WWII or the emergence of DVD discs and the consequent demise of VHS tapes, ebooks are here to stay. Check out his blog…….even if don’t agree his opinions you may the argument compelling.

Who Was Tom Swift?

Last week while discussing the overuse of adverbs, Anne Allen dug up the popular 60s phenomena of Tom Swifties, which derived from the Tom Swift character of YA fame that has been around since 1910.

Here are some of my favorites.

“Careful with that chainsaw,” Tom said offhandedly.

“I might as well be dead,” Tom croaked.

“I wish I drove a Scandinavian car” Tom sobbed (Saabed)

“I wonder if this radium is radioactive?” asked Marie curiously

“We could have made a fortune canning pineapples” Tom groaned dolefully

“That’s the last time I’ll stick my arm in a lion’s mouth,” the lion-tamer said off-handedly.

“I’ll have a martini,” said Tom, drily (dryly)

“I unclogged the drain with a vacuum cleaner,” said Tom succinctly

“Hurry up and get to the back of the ship!” Tom said sternly

“I have no flowers,” Tom said lackadaisically

Don’t lend me more yarn— / I can’t mend worth a darn,” / Said Tom, as he knitted his brow.

Kind of silly, but in a way they still retain some of their charm.

Final Quote of the Day

“Don’t write a book someday, write a book today. That’s what I did.” Chuck Wendig

 

A Guide To Screenwriting Blogs

kepler186f_artistconcept_0h600
NASA Illustration of a possible earth-sized planet in another galaxy

 

Striking Paydirt With Screenwriting

Screenwriting can be a lucrative occupation……..that is if you can sell your screenplay to Hollywood or other interested parties. But that’s a big “IF”. First you have to come up with a killer screenplay……..this might mean literally, for if there ain’t some dead bodies or corpses floating around, film producers might not be so interested. That’s not to say other types of films don’t have a chance, but for a breakout screenplay your 120 pages of script must be first rate or better.

 

Something To Consider 

For those writers who choose to go down this perilous path of writing, here is a list of blogs that might help you on your way……..or a more likely scenario……they might provide good reading, while you convert your unsold screenplay to novella or novel.

From Writer’s Digest

In the May/June WD issue, there were three screenwriting blogs included with the 101. They are as follows: MovieBytes, The Script Lab and the blog by John August. Movie Bytes is a good place to go for info on upcoming screenwriting contests. This site also contains mucho info on previously released movies. The Script Lab is another blog singled out by WD. They provide a wide cross-section of useful tips that includes many reviews and trailers.  John August is a commercially successful screewriting who promotes his blog with the slogan, “a ton of useful information”. This is not an understatement.

Some of My Favorites 

Here are the screenwriting blogs that I most commonly visit.

Screenwriting from IowaScott W. Smith really does live in Iowa, where he posts several times a week on various topics related to screenwriting. Just goes to show you don’t have to live in southern California to keep abreast of events in Hollywood.

The Bitter Script Reader – This guy has actually been reading Hollywood scripts for the last seven years. No wonder he’s bitter. To keep his true identity a secret, this irreverent commentator goes by the name of Zuul. His comments are fun to read, but I kind of miss the talking puppet. Maybe Zuul will bring back his animated sidekick soon.

The Black List Blog – The Black List is the digital equivalent to screenwriting agents. Even in this new century, you can still get an agent, but the best route for newbie writers trying to crack the big time is to get your script posted and read at the Black List. That in itself makes this a most interesting website and blog.

Inktip – Inktip is simular to the Black List in that it helps fledgling screewriters get there prospective hit movies out there. Membership is free and do receive a weekly listing on who is looking for what. Still a long shot, but just paying attention to what’s current could be helpful.

Screenwriting Goldmine – A British site that operates in much the same manner as inktips. Sign up and you’ll some info on what British producers are looking for in screenplays. If you can match your script to a producer’s request, you might get lucky.

And then there’s this new site called the Bitch Pack. Go there and judge for yourself.

 

 

 

Advertising changes with the times
Advertising changes with the times, from flickr

Sign of the Times

In recent years one of my most frequently-visited screenwriting blogs has been an irreverent site called “Just Effing Entertain Me”, run by an experienced insider, named Julie Gray. Right now, this particular blog has ceased, only to be replaced by a website promoting her consulting business. In April, Julie just started blogging again from the Middle East. You can read all about the screenwriter in her newfound home at Stories Without Borders.

Welcome To the Digital Age

Like everything else in today’s world, the business of writing a screenplay is changing all the time. Always remember good writing will find its voice…….somewhere, though it might be where you least expect it. So long for now.

Digital devices are everywhere, from Wikipedia, photo by Tomas Castelazo
Digital devices are everywhere, from Wikipedia, photo by Tomas Castelazo

 

Why a Great American Novel Does Not Make for a Great American Movie

great Gatsby
The most recent version of the Great Gatsby featured Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby

Number Five Entertains

Last week I had a chance to view this year’s release of The Great Gatsby. Overall, it is Hollywood’s fifth attempt at making a great movie out of a great book and who knows whether it will be the last. First of all, let me say I did enjoy the movie. I usually don’t go for films that rely heavily on the new digital technology for special effects, but in the case of this Gatsby version, I found that they added to the story by helping visualize turning back the clock to the roaring twenties. The atmospheric effects obtained through digital manipulation were very good, making you feel that you had been transported back into time.

Nick Caraway and Daisy from
Nick Caraway (Tobey Maguire) and Daisy (Carey Mulligan) from the Great Gatsby

Revisiting F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby is not the only piece of Fitzgerald’s fiction that has produced as a feature length film. The other cinematic effort comes from a short story that Fitzgerald wrote, called The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The story was first published by Collier’s magazine in 1922 and then was featured in Tales from the Jazz Age, a collcetion of short stories that was published in the same year. Since this weird and fantastic tale revolves a main character, who was born as an old man and died as a baby, it can be easily placed in the catch-all category of speculative fiction. The 2008 movie featured Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in the leading rolls. It did quite well at the box office and has continued to sell as a popular DVD ever since it closed at the movie houses.

Today, this film probably has a larger following than Fitzgerald’s super popular novel, which goes to show that a successful novel does not guarantee a box office smash hit.