Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Looking back on five years of the Black List website with Franklin Leonard

Five years ago this week, the Black List website launched as a service where aspiring writers could host their scripts, pay for professional evaluations and be discovered by industry members with access. It was the first service to incorporate all of these elements along with reputable industry access, and it built on the Black List brand originated by Franklin Leonard's yearly list of the most-liked unproduced scripts.

Over the last half-decade, the site has continued to evolve and expand its role, even as some of its competitors have closed up shop. The anniversary seemed like a good time for a "state of the Black List" check-in with Founder and CEO Franklin Leonard.


About a year after the launch, you stopped announcing every time the site led to someone being signed. I know your rationale for that is that it ceased being a newsworthy event and that since people are under no obligation to report this, you might not have an accurate count. With that in mind, do you have a sense of trends? Are the 2017 users who gained representation on a par with, say, 2013 or 2014?

Honestly, I wish we could track this kind of information more accurately, but in a similar way to the fact that it’s not news when an agency signs a client unless they’re leaving another agency, it’s not really news any more when the Black List played a part in someone getting signed. I only found out that several of this year’s annual list writers were discovered by their representatives via the site at the benefit we hosted celebrating the annual list two days later.

There are some pretty exciting stats about writers a bit further along in their careers now who found part of their start on the site: Seven movies have been produced in the last three years via scripts from writers who attribute the site to the movie’s momentum, including a Netflix acquisition (ZINZANA) and a Golden Globe nominee (NIGHTINGALE). At least a dozen writers have made the annual list who were discovered via the site, including two of the last three #1s (Kristina Lauren Anderson and Isaac Adamson) and two Black List screenwriters lab participants (Minhal Baig and Tom Dean.)

With five years of data behind you, have you made any conclusions about how the site most effectively is connecting writers with your professional users? Are the email blasts effective? Are there better results when the script recommendation comes via your Twitter? Do the Top Lists pull in a lot of attention? And are people finding ways to successfully promote themselves on the site even without purchasing reviews?

Dino Simone, Terry Huang, and Olga Vasileva continue to push the site forward and improve the effectiveness of all of these channels, and we’re constantly introducing new ones to further promote the good work that we identify. Some of those ways are small like tweeting the scripts that are included in the weekly email blasts. Some of them are larger, like new screenwriters labs for feature and episodic writers under Megan Halpern’s leadership.

That said, the biweekly featured script seems to be the most effective way to promote an individual script. That makes sense: it’s meant to be the script on the site with the most, highest ratings – a competitive position since scripts receiving scores of 8 overall or better from our readers receive as many as five free script reads for each high score.

I think that the hardest thing remains getting attention for your script without purchasing an evaluation, and that’s frustrating for us too. Still, we see roughly a quarter of scripts that don’t purchase an evaluation get at least one download from an industry professional, a number that consistently surprises me. I suspect that some percentage of those downloads are the result of screenwriters who actively promote the link to the script via queries, Twitter, etc.

I should also probably mention here that we give away a ton of free hosting and evaluations. One only need to follow us on social media, contribute to our Essential Films series on the blog, or read Scott Myers’s Go Into The Story to see opportunities to claim them.

What is the ultimate value in the Black List for the user now? Is it more of a place to be discovered by agents and managers via the email blasts, or is the value truly in competing for the many Fellowship and Partnership opportunities, such as the Verizon Go90 Fellowship, and the Michael Collyer Memorial Fellowship?

At this point, I think it’s important to think of the Black List as an umbrella organization for a number of things. There’s the annual Black List and the blcklst.com platform (and everything associated with it… the database, the partnerships, the Labs, etc.), but there’s also the Happy Hours, the Live Reads, and the blog.

Right now, we host monthly happy hours in 16 cities around the world, six annual live reads, and the blog is publishing constantly – via Kate Hagen’s amazing work as editor in chief, Terry’s terrific data work, and Go Into The Story, our official screenwriting blog. I mean, Scott Myers is the best.

All but the live reads are free, and like hosting and evaluations, tickets can be had for free with a bit of sweat equity following us on social media and the blog.

I suspect this question is specifically directed at the platform though, so I’d like to address that in depth. Honestly, there’s value on a number of fronts there, and it’s been specifically designed so that it can be. And it should since parts of it cost money.

Here’s where I think there’s value to be had:

1. Writer Profiles and Script Listing – This is probably the most underutilized part of the site at the moment, and it’s a HUGE opportunity for members of the WGA East or West and a number of other guilds worldwide. Entirely free, you can list your scripts, all of them, in our database. Title, author, logline, tagged with any of our over 1000 tags, representative and contact information, etc. The goal here is to build a Google for screenplays and pilots, so that any reputable industry professional can search for, say, “Action film with a budget under $20M with a female lead over the age of 40” or “Episodic Drama with a Latino lead between the ages of 25 and 35 with the theme of redemption” or “I’d love to find a writer with experience in the medical field” and if such a script or writer exists, they can find it and either download the script immediately or reach out to the appropriate person to get a copy of the script or connect.

2. Discovery (Representatives, Producers, etc.) – Similar to the writer profiles and script listings, industry professionals from agency assistants to producers to actors and directors are using the site to download material directly without the intermediary of a representative. Most of these writers are currently unrepresented, but increasingly we’re seeing those who are represented do the same thing to create incoming calls for their representatives. Being rated highly on the site attracts their attention to the script. It’s that simple.

3. Feedback – One of the kindest compliments I thankfully receive quite often is that a writer found the feedback they received on the site to be helpful in improving their script. Certainly, the cost is prohibitive for some – and we strongly advise everyone to push their script as far as they can quality-wise before paying for an evaluation – but our readers are quite good. And in the rare case where they fail to give you a full and close reading of your script, we want to hear about it so that we can replace the evaluation with a full and close reading and address the issue with our reader.

4. The Fellowships and Partnerships – One of the really exciting things that I didn’t anticipate before launching the site was the extent to which companies would reach out to us to help them find writers for various opportunities they wanted to offer. It’s been an incredibly wide range, from the NFL wanting two writers for WGA minimum blind deals to Cassian Elwes bringing one and now two writers to the Sundance Film Festival as his guests. Particularly for writers early in their careers, paying close attention to our emails, social media, and the Partners page is a wise idea.

Were these sorts of Fellowships part of your long game when you launched the site five years ago? Or did it emerge organically from companies coming to you, recognizing how The Black List could be a resource to them?

Definitely the latter. I wish I could claim to have had the foresight to predict that this would happen. They’ve definitely come about because companies have reached out hoping to take a non-traditional approach to talent discovery. In Cassian’s case, it was as simple as us running into each other and him saying “I want to find a brand new writer who writes Sundance type screenplays and I want to bring them to Sundance. Can you help?” In others, it’s grown out of conversations I’ve had with various companies explaining how the site works and where its greatest potential lies.

Have any of the Blind Script deals - such as the Warner Bros Script deal and the WIGS blind script deal borne fruit yet?

If by borne fruit, you mean movies produced, sadly none to date. If by borne fruit, you mean that writers have received blind deals or otherwise gotten work, then yes, very much so. Tasha Huo, Chris Salmanpour, and Suzanne Allain have received blind deals at Warner Brothers. Andrew Bluestone, who, incidentally, was discovered by his managers via the site, claimed that inaugural WIGS deal.

One thing I like about the Black List-related Fellowships and Script Deals is that there's no additional charge to enroll an active script in the process. Can you commit to that always being the case? Do you foresee any opportunities that would require a separate entry fee?

Unless the site changes radically in other ways or for some reason we’ve partnered with someone that requires for some reason that we not use the site, I can’t imagine any opportunities that would require a separate entry fee.

Come back tomorrow for Part II.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Black List website "success story" Justin Kremer reflects on how it launched his career

Mere weeks after the Black List website launched five years ago, an unknown writer named Justin Kremer became the first site user to be signed by representation. And this wasn't just any agency, it was with Creative Artists Agency, one of the biggest players in the industry.

I was an early supporter of Justin's work, but even by the time I'd posted my rave of his MCCARTHY, there was clear momentum behind it. Flash forward five years and MCCARTHY isn't in production, so I can imagine the cynics wondering what it all meant for Justin in the end. And what did it feel like to be at the center of the hype of the Black List's first success? Fortunately, Justin's here to take us through the last five years in his own words:

It was October of 2012 and I was fucking depressed. I’d spent the last six months lying on my couch, wallowing in self pity, as I searched for a job as a creative executive in the minuscule New York film community. I thought CE work was the best path toward the dream I had since the age of 16: becoming a screenwriter. But I had no prospects, no real plan, and absolutely no hope.

When I heard about the Black List’s new website. I didn’t think much of it. I uploaded a screenplay out of sheer boredom. I entered this experiment with no great expectations. I thought perhaps the site would reward me with a modicum of validation, in the form of a lukewarm/slightly positive review, at a time when I really needed a boost.

Forty-eight hours later, I was sitting in a friend’s basement when I refreshed my email, as I did compulsively those days (fine, I still do). It was Saturday night at 10 o’clock and there was no way a prospective employer would be emailing me, yet I persisted. I discovered an email from The Black List containing my review. It was positive. Very positive. My jaw hit the floor. I read it and reread it, convinced there had been some sort of mistake. This reviewer couldn’t have read my script, right?

Fast forward to the following Friday. I was sleeping when the phone rang. An agent was calling.

She was in New York City for twenty-four hours and wanted to know if I was interested in meeting.

I leapt out of bed, with a furor I haven’t matched since, and rushed to the train. I checked my email as I boarded. Another agency requested a call that evening. What the fuck. My head was spinning. I took the meeting, and the call, and suddenly I had offers of representation. When I returned home that evening, my friends and family surprised me with balloons and a cake. That was day one of the journey, but the euphoria I felt that day is a high I’ll chase for the rest of my life.

Forty-eight hours earlier, I was a loser with no direction. Suddenly, I was a loser juggling phone calls and meetings amidst the havoc of Hurricane Sandy, the greatest natural disaster New York had seen in ages. I spent much of the next two weeks in my car (the only place I could find a functioning electrical current to charge my phone), talking to folks selling me a dream. It was confusing. I’m a neurotic New York Jew terrified of disappointing people. Saying “no thanks” to potential reps was….a struggle. While I recognized that I was stuck with an embarrassment of riches, I was far more stressed than I was enthused.

How do I break the news to [insert rep here]?

Did I lead this person on?

And, most importantly…

Am I making the right decision?

Fortunately, I did, and found a wonderful manager in Adam Kolbrenner and the team at Madhouse. Adam's been by my side every step of the way, and I'd be lost without his sage advice.

The next step was a trip to Hollywood. I was a lifelong New Yorker, and hadn’t been to Los Angeles since I was a child. I flew in for a week of meetings and made the rounds, collecting Poland Spring from Burbank to Santa Monica. By the end of the week, a producer informed me that she’d like to “develop” an original idea of mine.

I was woozy. I heard the sound of a Brinks trunk. I had made it! I was a success.

…no, not quite. In fact, I was an idiot. I didn’t understand the meaning of the word develop. I didn’t understand the economics of life as a professional screenwriter. Hell, I didn’t make a dime for the first eighteen months of my career. Studios didn’t cut me a check just because I had landed reps and a spot on the Black List.

Life as a writer is full of false starts. One of the great challenges we face is in managing expectations, in finding a middle ground between overwhelming cynicism and bleary eyed optimism. Initially, I saw nothing but roses. Then, things took a turn. Every false start crushed me, and exacerbated my impostor syndrome. There was (and is) only one solution: keep writing.

Forgive the brief diversion here, but I’d like to share the most important thing I’ve learned about life as a screenwriter. When I first started, my happiness was solely dependent on my work. I set a goal, and I obsessed over it. First, it was: land reps. Next: make the Black List. Then: book a gig. I swore to myself that if I achieved this one thing, I’d be happy. I was lying. Each time I achieved something I felt a fleeting burst of joy, and then… nothing. I wasn’t happy. Instead, I’d just move the goalposts again. Onto the next goal. That’s the one that’ll really change your life. It took me years to recognize that I was the one who needed to change. I needed balance, to find happiness outside of my work.

I digress.

The Black List allowed to me to build the career I have today. It landed me representation and lasting connections. Two years after an executive downloaded my script off the site and emailed me to say hello, we worked on a project together. Four years after the site shined a light on my dusty old script, it was revived again, and is still kicking.

I look back at my Black List experience with disbelief and a hell of a lot of gratitude. As I write this, the sun’s peeking through the window of my LA apartment (yes, I moved, and you should, too, if you’re serious about this). I’m sitting at my desk, as I do every day, writing. There’s no greater gift than that. So thank you, Black List. Thank you, Franklin. Happy Anniversary.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Happy birthday, Black List site!

This week is the five year anniversary of the Black List website.

I was an early supporter of the website. In fact, I'm not only an advocate, I'm also a client. About a year after the launch I made a public show of putting my stalker thriller TOBY IS NOW FOLLOWING YOU on the website, and it resulted in my script being one of the Top 50 Downloads of 2103, and a manager taking me on as a client. (I'm no longer repped by that individual, who has since left their agency and the business.)

One of my favorite Black List related posts was when founder and CEO Franklin Leonard sat down with the puppet the week of the release and took some hard questions about the site's intent and mission. One of the site's strengths is Franklin's transparency. He doesn't hide from criticism and over the years has made himself available many times to me for interviews and clarifications. His kind of integrity is rarer than it should be in this business and I've never questioned his commitment as an ally to all writers, aspiring and professional.



I also have found the site to be a great way to solicit amateur scripts based on their loglines. Several times I've invited my readers to post their loglines within comments during a 24-hour period, with the result being I will weed out the best and read a half-dozen or so scripts. These days I don't have the sort of free time that allows for me to do this any time soon, but I enjoyed it while it lasted.

The site itself marked the occasion yesterday with a press release that announced in part:

Seven feature films have been produced from scripts discovered on blcklst.com since our launch five years ago: NIGHTINGALE (written by Frederick Mensch); ZINZANA (aka RATTLE THE CAGE, by Lane and Ruckus Skye); SHOVEL BUDDIES (by Jason Hellerman); EDDIE THE EAGLE (by Sean Macaulay and Simon Kelton); KATIE SAYS GOODBYE (by Wayne Roberts); PSYCHOANALYSIS (by James Raue); and DESOLATION (by Matt Anderson and Michael Larson-Kangas.)

Countless writers have found representation, had their scripts sold or optioned, or made further advancements to their professional careers via site interactions -- read our series of screenwriter interviews on the Black List Blog for the stories of these writers in their own words.

Since October 2012, we've partnered with organizations including the WGA-W, the WGA-E, The Sloan Foundation, The Sundance Institute, Women in Film, UrbanWorld, Indigenous Media, and more, in addition to collegiate partnerships with schools like New York University, Columbia University, UCLA, and Chapman University.

Screenwriters have been able to submit their scripts for consideration in opportunities with Warner Bros., Disney, the NFL, Google, Women in Film, go90, FOX, Turner/TBS, WIGS, Studiocanal/The Picture Company, Symbolic Exchange, Cassian Elwes, and more. Additionally, annual screenwriters labs have been held by The Black List to provide mentorship and development for writers using blcklst.com since 2013 -- the fifth installment of the Black List Lab for Feature Screenwriters featured mentors Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith, Phyllis Nagy, Allison Schroeder, and more. 

 Later this week, I'll have a post from Justin Kremer, the Black List site's first "success story," and then hopefully another follow-up interview with Franklin Leonard.

While you wait for those, head on over to the Black List's site and check out this cool timeline of everything they've been up to since the launch.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Writer/director Josh Klausner (DATE NIGHT) debuts WANDERLAND at the Hamptons International Film Festival

A number of years ago, I interviewed screenwriter Josh Klausner about how he broke into the business and his work on SHREK FOREVER AFTER and DATE NIGHT. Today, Klausner's latest film WANDERLAND debuts at the Hamptons International Film Festival.

WANDERLAND is a low-budget film, written and directed by Klausner. It has musical numbers, but as he told the Village Voice, he doesn't think of it as a traditional musical.



Josh Klausner’s lively, lovely film, shot on a dime in and around the Hamptons, does not exactly have the trappings of what we think of when we think of musicals. Inspired partly by Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, partly by Homer’s The Odyssey, and partly by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Wanderland — which premieres at the Hamptons International Film Festival this Friday — follows Alex as he drifts through a weird night trying to make his way home, coming into contact with a whole host of local oddballs. It’s a strange, atmospheric little film, occasionally hopping genres and always keeping us wondering as to where it’s all headed.

It’s quite a change of pace for Klausner, who made his name as a screenwriter on Hollywood films like Shrek Forever After and Date Night. But that was sort of the idea: He says that after years of working in the mainstream and studio world (he started his career as an assistant to the Farrelly brothers, eventually becoming a second unit director for them), he felt he was “creatively dying” and wanted to get back in touch with his own voice.

Coming from a regimented world of carefully placed plot points and clear, preordained through lines, Klausner embraced with this film a drifting open-endedness. “When you work for so long in the studio system, for better and for worse, you kind of know the pattern that works,” he says. “So as you’re writing, you basically know where you’re going at every moment. I wanted to have the experience of writing again when I didn’t know where I was going — to once again have that feeling of discovery. I tried to make an intuitive movie.”

The rest of the profile is worth a read here, and has me hoping it won't be long before WANDERLAND is available for general viewing.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Law & Order's greatest moment on gun control

Sandy Hook was the last straw for me. That's the point where I just flat out stopped pretending there's any reason to give consideration to the pro-gun rhetoric of the under-educated, trigger-happy degenerates who act like any regulation on guns is a far more violent injustice than a five year-old's head splattered open like a melon with a featured role on Gallagher's comeback tour.

(Gory? Of course it is. I think our only chance of escaping this nightmare is to not ignore the horror. Reduce these victims to a statistic and you dehumanize what was done to them. Think of them as people whose insides ended up on their outside and you'll never look at a gun defender the same way again.)

If you're inclined to argue with me, you're wasting your time, particularly with the same talking points peddled by scum like Fox News, Alex Jones and Rush Limbaugh:

"Criminals don't care about laws so gun laws wouldn't solve anything." Yeah, and laws against homicide don't do a thing to stop the thousands of people to take the lives of others so let's just stop regulating murder too. And fuck you.

"Guns don't kill people. People kill people. People can kill with knives and cars too. Do you want to outlaw them?" Show me the knife capable of cutting 600 people in five minutes from a few under yards away and I'd demand it be outlawed to. And fuck you.

"SECOND AMENDMENT!!!!!!"  ...calls for a "well-regulated militia." So let's compromise and regulate gun ownership so much that you can't buy a starter's pistol without a five-day waiting period and a DNA sample.

And fuck you.

"Now is not the time to have the conversa--" Fuck off and die.

Columbine should have been the end of this. Virginia Tech should have been the end of this. Some degenerate shooting up a pre-school SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE END OF THIS. And every time we get the same bullshit talking points, fueled by a racist xenophobic hate group that gets to call itself a political party, and who scares their base into voting against their own economic interests every time with "They're gonna come to take your guns!"

We can't reason with these people. And it's time to stop pretending that there's any value in being the reasonable adults in the room. They've thrived not because of any adherence to legislature, or facts, or studies. It's pure emotion, pure rage.

Gun enthusiasts are creatures of ID, not intelligence. You don't find a middle ground with them. The slaughter at Sandy Hook should have been an appeal to the emotions of even the most ardent gun supporters. So how did they react? They embraced the claims of a nutcase who argued the entire thing was a staged false flag.  "More lies the libtards tell so they can take your guns!"

Bill O'Reilly called these mass shootings "the price of freedom," as if the needless deaths of hundreds is acceptable collateral damage that deserves not even a conversation about changing our ways. Mind you, this lover of freedom was incensed by expressions of the First Amendment when football players PEACEFULLY protested racial injustice. Maybe they should have taken out a couple toddlers. That seems to be what it takes to get a conservative behind a constitutional right.

So let's stop acting like these nuts can in any way be part of the solution. They won't be. We'll only solve this problem when we're strong enough to do this without them.

And make no mistake. The only solution IS taking all of the guns. There are international studies that show strong gun regulations have had a massive impact on the number of gun deaths. Banning automatic weapons, implementing a background check system, and requiring permits are all things that definitely work.

18 years ago, Law & Order took on the topic of gun control in an episode called "Gunshow." Jack McCoy attempts to prosecute a gun manufacturer for selling a gun that they knew was desirable for its vulnerability to being tampered with to make the firearm fully automatic. It's one of the best closing arguments in the history of the series.

I thought of that scene a lot yesterday when I heard about how the Las Vegas shooter was able to to hit nearly 600 people in a matter of minutes. What I wrote above is pure emotion. Without apologies. If it upsets you, good. It should. What Jack does below is a masterful presentation of how grotesque these weapons are, and what an abomination it is to defend their existence over the lives of the people they injure and kill.


Law & Order "Gunshow" (Jack McCoy's Summation & the Verdict) from Law and Order Diehards on Vimeo.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Do I still hate this? A second chance for ONE TREE HILL's school shooting episode - Part 2

Yesterday I began a re-visitation of the infamous school shooting episode of One Tree Hill. For the first part of this series, go here.

Let's talk about Jimmy. When Colin Fickes was cast in the pilot in a role that had only a few lines, no one would have envisioned that less than three years later, that character's emotional breakdown would have to drive the series's most intense episode. For the most part, he fares okay. The script is not without its overwrought moments and in a few spots, it proves to be too tempting an invitation for the actor to go over-the-top. The extreme nature of the situation excuses some of this, but Fickes has one line-reading near the end of the show that always makes me wince. (I won't spoil it, but it comes when he confronts Lucas and Peyton.)

In spite of that, Fickes does a good job of conveying Jimmy's pain and the growing panic as it becomes clear to him that there's no good way to walk away from the situation he's responsible for. Unlike most of the school shooters we read about in the news, Jimmy doesn't walk into the school with the intent of mowing down as many of his enemies as possible. It seems he brings the gun for protection, expecting he'll be a target.

It's also notable that he brings a simple handgun and not any kind of assault rifle. That helps put a little bit of distance between this and the Columbine incidents, mitigating most charges that the show is exploiting those sorts of tragedies. Something else I hadn't considered until this rewatch: at no point does this storyline ever lead to any discussion of gun control. It's not an episode that's focused on America's gun culture. It doesn't want to say anything about gun control or the availability of firearms. It really wants us to be focused on the pain that might drive someone to do something like this.

When a teen show is in that territory, it's in immediate competition with one of the best episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Earshot." You might remember it as the episode where Buffy gets the ability to read minds and ends up trying to prevent someone from killing everyone in the school. When she confronts Jonathan, who she assumes is the would-be school shooter, the young man snorts at her claims that she could understand his pain. He can't imagine anything that could be bad about being beautiful and popular.

Buffy, who's spent the entire episode unable to block out the thoughts of everyone around her, exposed unfiltered to all their fears and insecurities, says, "My life happens on occasion to suck beyond the telling of it. Sometimes more than I can handle. And it’s not just mine. Every single person down there is ignoring your pain because they're too busy with their own. The beautiful ones. The popular ones. The guys that pick on you. Everyone. If you could hear what they were feeling. The loneliness. The confusion. It looks quiet down there. It’s not. It’s deafening."

One Tree Hill can't hope to top that, especially with as deftly as Buffy set up that moment, but it clearly wants to make that statement. I'll give them points for ambition, but too many other factors prevent them from earning that kind of moment.

I'm going to bring up something that couldn't have contributed to my initial dislike of the episode for the reason of "facts not in evidence" at the time. This is an episode that puts our characters in a room with a fellow student on the verge of shooting them, and asks us to feel HIS pain. We're absolutely preached to empathize with Jimmy and to feel that he's not a bad person so much as someone who's made terrible mistakes that he can't take back. He's clearly depressed and POSSIBLY suffering from mental illness. The show wants us to know "he - and people like him - need help."

In the following seasons, there will be no fewer than three antagonists who are depicted as, to use a clinical term, "crazy." The psycho stalker becomes an OTH staple thanks to:

Psycho Derek - stalker who claims to be Peyton's long-lost brother. He became obsessed with Peyton following a complete mental breakdown that was brought on by the death of his girlfriend in a car crash while he was driving. We eventually learn that his girlfriend bore a striking resemblance to Peyton, which led to him fixating on her to an obsessive degree. He becomes violent and unstable, but any effort the show makes at empathy comes far too late, and after several episodes of playing him as a violent deranged psycho.

Nannie Carrie - hired to look after Nathan and Haley's son Jamie, she gets fired after trying to seduce Nathan. She then attempt to kidnap Jamie and run away with him, determined to become his new mom. It's revealed that she too suffered a mental breakdown after her own child was kidnapped and murdered, thus eventually provoking her to "replace" her child with Jamie. As sad as this is, she too is treated like yet another horror movie stalker psycho and is the ONLY OTH villain to actually be killed by the "good guys" (well, Dan) in a sequence where we're supposed to cheer for her demise.

Katie - Katie is the only one depicted as already being treated for a mental illness and becomes dangerous when she goes off her meds. She becomes convinced she's Clay's dead wife, who she resembles (don't ask), and after an attempt to get Clay back fails, she shoots Clay and his girlfriend Quinn. In a later return she gets the same "horror movie psycho" depiction that Carrie got, with the difference being she gets captured and presumably treated.

So three villains shown to be suffering from either some kind of mental illness or grief-indued psychotic break, but all of them might as well be Michael Myers. This is how the show normally treats its antagonists, and why if you're watching this episode in context with the rest of the show, it's probably going to feel like more of an awkward fit than for the "very special episode" watchers.

The show's anti-bullying message also takes a hit just a few episodes later when Brooke bullies Rachel fat-shaming her by digging up pictures of her pre-plastic surgery self.

The thing that really pushed this episode over the edge for me on a first viewing was the ending. Keith, who's Lucas's uncle (and soon-to-be stepfather) enters the school in a bid to talk Jimmy down. He ends up confronting Jimmy in the hall, trying to reach this broken kid, but all of his "it gets better" talk only pushes Jimmy further over the edge. The boy turns the gun on himself and takes his own life. Keith rushes to the body and looks up to see his brother, Dan Scott standing there.

Here's where I explain way too much backstory. Dan and Keith never got along much. After Dan abandoned Lucas's mother, it was Keith who was there for her. Dan resented this, and had an even more legitimate reason to hate Keith when Keith slept with Dan's wife. After he attempted revenge for that, someone drugged Dan and left him to die after setting fire to his car dealership. Thanks to Lucas, Dan survived, but Dan was convinced his brother tried to kill him. He was determined to take revenge.

This episode ends with Dan picking up Jimmy's gun and shooting Keith.

It's a moment completely out of tone with the rest of the "very special episode." A decent story about the pain of the bullied suddenly turns into a shocking soap opera twist of one man using a school shooter to cover up the murder of his brother. It's like if Buffy's excellent "The Body" suddenly dropped in a scene with Glory and her minions doing business as usual.

I know. I'm talking out of both sides of my mouth. Before I said part of the problem was that this episode was so removed from the show's usual soap opera antics and now I'm complaining when that reality snaps back and asserts itself. It provokes the question of if the problem really is the melodramatic twist... or how it's executed?

The whole rest of the episode is about the hidden pain of the invisible kids, the ones no one pays attention to except to bully. It's about the darkness that grows in silence. That's NOT Dan Scott by any means. He started the series as an asshole dad and by season three he was practically a comic book villain. There's no empathetic darkness there.

But Keith - the guy who's spent the two seasons (and presumably many years leading up to it) being bullied, tormented and manipulated by his brother - now that's a guy whose pain inspires some empathy. It would require a step or two to get there, but for the shocking ending to work thematically, it should be KEITH firing the fatal shot.

As it stands, when this episode becomes "the one where Dan murders Keith in cold blood," it becomes the point where no matter how much slack I give the rest of the show, I can't help but groan in frustration. When rewatching the episode, I ended up tweeting with a few people about it and several fans said that one thing they liked was that this episode had repercussions that were felt all the way up until the end. Well, yes and no.

The lessons from Jimmy Edwards's sad fate are forgotten pretty quickly, both by the show and the characters. Keith's murder lingers for a while. It's a full season and a half before Dan is exposed as the killer and the fallout from that keeps him estranged from his sons until the very end of the series. In other words, the fall out is all about Dan.

This isn't an episode about Dan. It's not even an episode that gives us particular insight into Dan. When Dan gets that gun, he's presented with an opportunity that the story failed to build up effectively. The turn comes too late to be anything but inexplicable.

So after two days of breakdowns and analysis, let's return to the original question: Do I still hate this episode?

You know what? No. It's not without its flaws, but it's not as exploitative or offensive as I found it on a first viewing. I'd have given it a D-,  maybe even an F back then. This time, it feels like a B-, maybe even a solid B if I'm feeling charitable. Schwahn makes some smart choices in terms of how he uses most of his ensemble. Even with the misstep of an ending, there are definitely TV writing lessons to be learned from this episode.

Does it deserve its reputation as the best episode of One Tree Hill? I'm gonna say "no." It's neither representative enough the series or transcendent enough to earn that title. My personal favorite is probably Season 1's "Every Night is Another Story," though a couple other episodes could challenge it.

Was it worth the revisit? Definitely. Aside from having a completely different perspective on the episode, it was a good reminder in general about how the context we bring to something at the time we experience it can inform our reactions. Some media will hit us differently under different circumstances. In my case, the hot button nature of the episode was probably a major factor in my initial disgust. I'm not the same person 11 years later, nor is the world the same place.

So will I be revisiting other TV shows and movies that got a strong negative from me before? You bet I will.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Do I still hate this? A second chance for ONE TREE HILL's school shooting episode

For a while, I've been keeping a list for some posts on pop culture "second chances." The concept was that I'd rewatch something that I notoriously hated, particularly something where my opinion ran counter to consensus and see if I would have to own up to missing the mark. The only reason I've not pursued this yet was that there's so much NEW content to consume and react to that I couldn't justify burning time on something I already was expecting to hate. Then about a week ago I ended up revisiting one of the items at the top of the list and found that - SURPRISE - my original, strong reaction had evolved. It took a couple of days of thinking about it before I realized, "Dammit, I'm gonna have to write this up, aren't I?"

I'm in the middle of writing a spec pilot, and for the first time, I'm attempting a teen drama. A few of my friends have been saying for a while (but especially after my posts on 13 Reasons Why) that it's shocking I haven't done one yet. The closest I ever got was the half-hour drama series I ran in college, but I've never tried a teen series formally. My fear has always been that I'm TOO much of a fan to bring anything to the genre but imitation. (It's similar to Bryan Singer's stance that he should never direct STAR TREK because "you'd feel like you were watching WRATH OF KHAN again.") I reasoned one thing that might help would be to revisit some of my old favorites that I haven't seen in a while that I didn't watch to death. (In other words, not The Wonder Years or Dawson's Creek.) I spent a week revisiting Roswell, which was surprisingly helpful in getting me started. Then, just as I hit a wall in development, I saw that One Tree Hill would be leaving Netflix at the end of the month.

I watched the series from the very first episode, mostly because I was still relatively new to LA, had very little money, knew very few people, didn't have cable OR DSL, and was very bored that Tuesday night. The first few episodes showed promise as the writers and the actors got a better handle on the characters, there was a decent part of the first season where it felt like it could have evolved into a thoughtful teen drama that we might have talked about in the same breath as Friday Night Lights. The show choose a different course, embracing a more soapy direction and becoming the very definition of a guilty pleasure.

Here, I'll prove it. If you're outside the target demo and you've heard of this show, you almost certainly know it as "the show where the dog ate the heart." (Be sure to check out this awesome oral history of that scene.)



I want you to remember this as I drop the following quote from Les Moonves, President and CEO of CBS, speaking about the decision to pick up One Tree Hill when the WB and UPN merged into the CW: "Qualitatively I think it was the best show the WB had." 

This was in a season that included Gilmore Girls, Everwood, Smallville, and Supernatural. Was Les Moonves seeing something that I wasn't? Had I been watching One Tree Hill wrong all these years?

I never watched the original Melrose Place, but I know the appeal that show had for its audience, and that's more or less what kept me coming back to OTH. (Okay, that and Bethany Joy Lenz as Haley, who was the show's best character, best actress and almost certainly in my Top 2 WB crushes.) I wasn't alone in this opinion in the internet circles I traveled in back there, but there was also a teen audience that watched this show in earnestness, and it's that audience that creator Mark Schwahn wanted to speak to in the third season when he wrote a school shooting episode.

The episode is the sixteenth episode of the third season, written by Mark Schwahn and entitled "With Tired Eyes, Tired Minds, Tired Souls, We Slept,"  It aired on March 1, 2006, placing it less than seven years after Columbine and in a time when the subject was still seen as being off-limits. Schwahn recalled in one interview that, "The studio and the network were scared to death of that episode. They tried to convince me not to do it."

They weren't the only ones. Cast member Hilarie Burton recalled the actors didn't like the idea much either. "None of the actors were into it, none of us wanted to do it. We got the script, we were very upset about it. Um, we were like 'This hasn't happened in so long. Why would we bring this up? We don't want to encourage or give attention to that kind of behavior.' Then literally while we're having this conversation with our creator and our bosses, two incidents happened. It was heartbreaking to know that stuff was still going on, it just wasn't receiving media attention that it used to."

For years after the airing, I've seen this episode cited as one of One Tree Hill's best episodes. I've even seen it place on other lists that cite intense, powerful or otherwise relevant episodes of TV. This always got under my skin because when it first aired, I hated this episode. I felt it was a story that the show wasn't capable of doing, that they had no business trying to touch it and that the whole thing felt very preachy and melodramatic in a way that cheapened the very message they were trying to send. And all of that was before the final moment of the episode, which threw away any goodwill the show had otherwise built up. I found the whole thing offensive and disrespectful to the real tragedies it was reflecting.

Last week I rewatched it and much to my shock, my reaction was significantly distant from my earlier encounter. I still think the ending risks throwing the whole thing in the trash (more on that later), but the route there didn't get under my skin nearly as much.

The setup: In the previous episode, the school's time capsule was released 20 years early and among the video confessions was that of Jimmy Edwards, a minor character who'd appeared in the first couple episodes. In his confession, the nerdy outcast laid into all the jocks and the popular kids, which only made him a target for bullying. The episode opens with Jimmy returning to school, and when he gets hassled in the hallway, he pulls out a handgun and fires a wild shot. Lockdown is declared, everyone who can flee does while others barracade themselves in classrooms.

From here, the story follows four tracks, and as some of this is teachable with regard to television production, I'm going to break them down. In writing for television, you always have to be thinking about budget. In the case of this particular episode, it also helps to know that it was not a popular episode on the network end. From the stories I've heard over the years, Mark Schwahn was a very savvy man when it came to managing the network and finding ways to do the show his way without running afoul of them. My theory - and this is only a theory - is that he wrote this episode as a relatively cheap bottle-show so that the budget couldn't be used against him to extract creative concessions.

Fortunately, a school shooter standoff can easily lend itself to the sort of limited location tense thrillers that I'm so fond of. I'm also gonna guess Schwahn's next creative decisions were based on two and seasons of knowing his cast's "strike zones" when it came to acting. As a showrunner, you figure out what your cast can and can't do and you write to that. As seriously as the show was going to take this scenario, it demanded that some actors not be taken too far out of their comfort zone. There are four locations, and so you want to place your MVPs where they can get the most out of those story tracks.

Outside the school - For most of the hour, this is where the adult actors are, as all the parents get to show concern and argue with the police that enough isn't being done. This part probably has the most extras - which don't come cheap - but more than likely was knocked out in a single day of location shooting.

The school hallway - This is where Jimmy fires the gun while everyone's at their lockers. After that one scene, there's no need for extras and we only return to this location at the end of the hour, in a confrontation featuring far fewer actors.

The Library - Peyton (Hilarie Burton) is hit by a bullet and in the commotion, ends up hiding alone in the library. Lucas (Chad Michael Murray) actually joins his brother Nathan (James Lafferty) to sneak back into the school and help. He gets to Peyton and this turns into one of those stories where two people trapped and afraid of dying end up confessing their feelings for each other. At this point in the series, Lucas is dating Brooke (Sophia Bush), Peyton's best friend. Brooke/Lucas/Peyton was the show's big love triangle almost from the start.

So the show basically uses this to restart some tensions. That's one reason for isolating these two (two of the bigger leads of the show) in what's basically a B-story. The other reason might be that Burton's efforts at conveying terror are often pitched at soap opera levels, and I'd go 50-50 if Murray was the guy I'd want to bet on when it comes to delivering tension in a hostage scene. Could they have risen to the occasion? Maybe, but Schwahn lobs them easier pitches and plays to the relationship fans at the same time.

The Gym - After evacuating, the students are taken to a nearby gym to await pickup from their parents. This is Brooke's story to carry, and again, it feels like Schwahn made sure one of his better players was the anchor for this. This part gets a little preachy with the message, as Brooke realizes she doesn't know a less popular student who's nonetheless in her grade. That same student also hides when her mom arrives, saying she wanted to see if her mother even would miss her if she was gone. The show feels like it's trying to use this plot as an appeal to reach out to kids who feel unloved or like they don't belong.

I remember this subplot seeming ridiculous to me at the time, and so I was perplexed by my non-reaction on the rewatch. I didn't revisit any of the immediately surrounding episodes, so my best guess is that maybe Brooke's empathetic attitude didn't quite mesh with whatever her current storyarc was. The sheer earnestness of this plot is also likely easier to taken out of context from the show. It's a series often about beautiful people doing horrible things to each other and escaping consequences, so a story about "hey, we should all be nice to the unpopular kids" might mean well, but it's coming from the wrong messenger.

But as I said, if you're not coming to this ep as a hard core viewer, that's gonna blow right past you.

The Tutor Center - When lockdown is called we see Haley lock the door after some kids take shelter. She tells everyone to get down and the camera pans past the six students in there before finally coming to rest on.... Jimmy Edwards. It's an effectively chilling moment, as no one in the room realizes the shy, awkward kid they've known for years is the guy who fired the gun.

The Tutor Center is a perfect setting for this story for a lot of reasons: it's a small, producible set; there's a built-in reason why no adults might be there; it can strand some of our regulars with new characters who MIGHT turn out to be cannon fodder... and it's a very logical place if you want to put Haley at the center of the action.

As I said before, Bethany Joy Lenz (billed in this ep under her then-married name Galeotti) is the clear MVP among the cast. Also, the Haley/Nathan relationship is pretty clearly the show's most popular pairing and Schwahn himself has said, "I think Haley is probably the most beloved character." If you're doing an OTH story with a lot of emotion at its core, Lenz is someone you're gonna want to send in.

It's also pretty obvious that you'll need to put Nathan in there, as James Lafferty tended to do his best work in scenes with Lenz. The characters got married at the end of the first season (yes, while they were both still high school juniors), and it's interesting to note that this episode doesn't hang a lantern on that fact. I don't think there's a single direct reference to the fact they're married. Nathan doesn't say anything like, "My wife's in there!" when he charges into the school. 

I very much suspect this was intentional and that the creators, knowing this episode would get extra attention, decided to downplay one of their more absurd developments. This is the rare episode where these characters ACTUALLY feel like students and not mini-adults or college-aged. They're not running fashion lines or touring as music superstars. They feel like regular kids stuck in a terrifying situation.

That's another case of something working within this one-hour confine, but throwing the whole series off-kilter to do it. The following week, things are business as usual and one story has the teens throwing a late night kegger at the site of the shooting as a way of coping with their feelings. Even Lucas calling that out as inappropriate can't mitigate the sheer insensitivity of the scene.


But damn if the scenes in the Tutor Center don't make it easy to forget all of that for a while. In addition to Haley and Nathan, two other characters in there have close ties to the shooter. Mouth and Skills were his buddies at the River Court until they drifted apart, and the actors do a decent job of conveying their disbelief and horror at what their friend has started. There are also two other characters never seen before on the show who are there to more or less add other pressure on Jimmy.

For crying out loud, even RACHEL - possibly the worst character on the show up to that point - gets in a strong moment or two.

Tomorrow: I dig deeper on the big themes of the episode and if the show's big twist is as much of a miss as it used to be for me.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Writing a season of television using only the most time-tested tropes

A new fall season is upon us, and with it comes many new (and returning shows) that have to fill 22-24 episodes. It's a heavy chore and you can't help but notice that there are plenty of familiar tropes that shows rest on while finding their way. Plenty of these also bubble to the surface as the staff's energy might be spent enough for them to need an easy week to recharge.

As a public service not just to the viewer, but to those beleaguered writing staffs, I've complied a list of some of the most common ways these trope can be deployed throughout the first season. I came up with nineteen, so long as the show's a genre show that can take advantage of all of them. (In other words, some of these won't work on NCIS.)

With everything below, you could write almost an entire season of TV. I just don't promise it would be a GOOD season. And without further ado, an episode guide composed entirely of these tropes:

1. Pilot - You're in luck! This one's already done if you're a first season show! For later season shows, this is basically a reset ep. Standard case of the week, dressed up with explanations for character arrivals/departures, hairstyle changes, new sets, and foreshadowing the big plots of the season.

2. Do the Pilot Again - On a first year show, you're gonna be repeating the pilot dynamics for the first few eps, only with less money. If you have ANY kind of procedural element to your series, this is gonna be a case-of-the-week thing.

3. The Naked Time riff -This is mostly a convention of genre TV. The entire cast gets hit with a drug or a spell that removes inhibitions. I've named this one for a classic episode of Star Trek, which used this concept to get at the core of several characters. Most uses since then have been about getting the characters to act drunk and horny with each other. (TNG's "The Naked Now," Lois & Clark's "Pheromone, My Lovely," Buffy's "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.") So pick your poison - hint at buried depths to your characters, or get them mostly naked and send them to bone town.

4. Shady Character Loyalty Tested by Crooked Friend from the Past - You don't have a character with a shady, possibly illegal past? Get one! Every show needs at least one morally ambiguous player. This is the ep where you hit and their past sins while they get a chance to affirm to the team that they're on the side of angels now.

5. The Undercover episode - Your lead actors are getting bored of playing the same beats every week, so this week's caper has them assuming new identities to go undercover.

6. The Pre-Pilot Flashback - We all know how it started on your show, but what about before it started? If your characters knew each other in the pilot, what was their first meeting? Since most pilots are about a shake-up in a character's life that disrupts the status quo, what was the previous status quo? Frasier has one of the best ones of these, showing Frasier's earliest days in Seattle before his father moves in with him. Friends went to this well several times, most notably in "The One With the Prom Video." This Is Us did one of these last year too.

7. The Body Swap ep -There are few things more fun that watching one actor have to imitate another. It's another trick that helps alleviate actor boredom and gives the straight-up good guy get to play bad in most cases. (When you're in genre TV, these kind of personality-altering tricks are a regularly deployed tool. I think there was a season of Smallville with more episodes where someone acts out of character than ones when everyone was IN it.)

8. Bottle Show I: Interrogation - "Uh, guys... we spent a lot of money on the season premiere then really blew our wad on Episodes 3 and 6. Gonna have to be a cheap one just to to get us back on track. Whatta ya got?" Yep, you're gonna have to do the "bottle show," a cost saving episode that takes place 80%-90% in one location - preferably an existing set or a cheap/easily redressed set. Here's the good part - with the right actors and story, the interrogation show can be an intense pressure cooker of an ep that lets your best performers act their pants off. One character has something the other character wants, and it becomes a psychological chess match to get them to break. Two gold standards: Homicide's "Three Men and Adena" and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's "Duet."

9. The Fight Club - this is a less successful genre stable where your characters are captured and forced to fight in gladiator fight club-type settings. I'll never forget the season where Angel and Voyager both aired similar eps within weeks of each other and neither one was all that good. Last season, Supergirl did one, proving the trope is alive and well.

10. The Character-Driven Road Trip Episode - ER did this a lot, usually to good effect. Doug and Mark took a road trip to handle Doug's father's funeral and the story detoured into visiting Mark's family.The result illuminated a lot about the characters that wouldn't have been revealed within the confines of the ER. It also works as a fish-out-of-water way to throw different challenges at your characters.

11. Bottle Show II: Real-time in one location - Usually a hostage ep. It's a cousin to the interrogation bottle show, as you're still putting a few actors into one location for the duration. The extra wrinkles are the time pressure added, by real time. This is a pretty easy ep for genre and procedural alike. Comedy versions of this usually drop the jeopardy aspect and just tell a story in one space. Seinfeld's "The Chinese Restaurant" probably is the most notable, but there's also a Mad About You shot in real time about trying to sleep-train the baby. The dramatic version of this is not to be confused with....

12. The Die Hard episode - What makes this different from the Bottle Show version? You usually have a higher budget for stunts and gags. The previous version is designed to be fast and cheap to shoot while this is all about being an action episode. Sometimes it's a trade-off, "We get the action, but we're staying on-pattern by only shooting on a few sets."

13. The Evil Twin Ep - Like the body swap ep, it lets one of your actors stretch. (Note: if making ORPHAN BLACK, this is basically every episode.) The fun part of evil twin shows? You get to put your actor side-by-side with themselves, i.e. every actor's dream scene partner. Again, my favorite part of these is when the actor playing the evil twin has to play that character imitating their normal version of the character. This is where you separate the pikers from the pros. Tatiana Maslany could give a master class on this, as she's had episodes where, say, Allison has to pretend to be Cosima, forcing her to nail the nuances of how Allison would embody that imitation, not how Tatiana usually plays Cosima. She's usually good enough that even if we haven't been explicitly told about a switch, her performance has a small tell. Another great example of this fun: Williow having to pretend to be Vamp Willow in Buffy's "Dopplegangland."

14. The Alternate Timeline Ep - Another "out of character" concept favored by genre shows, but also finds its way into sitcoms. In genre, the change is usually the result of characters messing with history and needing to put it back (TNG's "Yesterday's Enterprise," Buffy's "The Wish.") while in comedy, it's more likely you'll get a dream/fantasy explanation, such as when Friends explored alternate histories for the gang

15. The Rashomon Ep - Something happens and each act of the show is another character's version of how events came together. I've seen versions that are just a Tarantino-esqe non-linear way of telling the story (though Quentin is really ripping off Kubrick's THE KILLING), but to be totally true to the concept, the action should be presented in subjective flashbacks that reveal how each narrator is coloring the story. (I maintain there will be no funnier example of this trope than The X-Files's "Bad Blood.")

16. A Day in the Life ep - For some series, this is baked into the premise. Most early ER episodes all take place in one day, though it was rare that the experience would be filtered through one character's POV. A good way to do this is to pick a second-tier character and follow them for the day. Not to be confused with...

17. The "Lower Decks" ep - Named for a 7th season TNG episode where the focus is on the lowest-level officers on the ship, giving us an outsider's perspective on what it would be like to work for our heroes. Crucial point here is that most of these characters are new, previously unestablished characters. Part of the thrill of this is that they don't know the main characters well and we're placed at something of a distance from them.

18. The Dream Sequence ep - Can your actors sing, but have no credible reason to do so on the show? Put it in a dream. Have you wondered what it would be like to take your workplace show and set it on a spaceship? Put it in a dream.

19. Bottle Show III: Therapy Ep - Then after you spent all that money on an episode that technically doesn't "count" in terms of the story, you'll need to save some with another bottle show. The therapy ep is a cousin to the interrogation episode, but with (slightly) less confrontation. Still, it has the same virtues, particularly being a dialogue-heavy actors' showcase that lets them emote rather than run around with gun, or play out the same old rhythms of the show.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

An awful Inktip "success story" - how one writer's script got ruined

Weirdly, one of the older posts that is most prolific in generating new comments or emails is something I wrote ages ago about InkTip. InkTip is a site where users can post loglines for their scripts - and even complete scripts - in the hopes that some of their producer and manager members take a liking to it.

I'm gonna be blunt. In all my years out here, I've not heard of any significant deals made from this site and I don't think any of the companies I worked for ever used InkTip. (And one of two of those DID go to Pitchfests, which I also advise against.) I don't foresee a situation where my answer to any question about Inktip is gonna be, "Spend your money HERE to jump-start your screenwriting career.")

The story I'm about to link to doesn't have TOO much to do with Inktip, aside from the chain of events starting there. I'm just aware that putting "InkTip" into a post will increase the odds of people finding it via Google, so maybe the above paragraph will save them an email or comment.

Almost 20 years ago, A.J. Via put one of his first scripts on InkTip. There it sat for 15 years until it was discovered by Chad Ridgely, who'd scraped together money to produce a film. It took another year and a half, but finally the project started to come together... just as that professional relationship fell apart.

As the AV Club notes:

By the time of the premiere, almost two years later in November 2015, at the Buffalo Dreams Fantastic Film Festival (where it somehow ended up winning Best Comedy Feature against other no-budget competitors that had names like Frankenstein’s Patchwork Monster and Valley Of The Sasquatch), contact between Via and Ridgely was essentially nil, to the point where Via felt uncomfortable even attending the premiere. (Via describes that email exchange thusly: “I’d write, ‘Where and when would I go if I was actually coming to see this movie?’ And he would reply back, like, ‘Yeah, maybe we’ll see you. That’s great!’ And that would be the end of it.”) Thus, it wasn’t until months later, when the film finally came out via digital platforms like iTunes, that Via had the opportunity to see it. His wife alerted him to the fact that his movie was coming out after she saw a notice online saying Massacre On Aisle 12 was now available for purchase.

That night, Via plugged in his Amazon Fire stick, sat down on the couch with his wife, and finally got to see the results of a script he had written roughly 15 years earlier. To hear him describe it is an experience roughly akin to having a next-door neighbor recall in intimate detail an eyewitness account of their own child being slapped around. He says his wife fell asleep after about 20 minutes and he didn’t wake her, so happy he was for her to miss the film. “The first 10, 15 minutes of it, she turned to me five or seven times and said, ‘Did you write that?’ And I said, ‘No, no, no. I didn’t write that. I didn’t write that.’ To the point where as jokes were happening, I was turning to her saying, ‘I didn’t write that. I didn’t write that.’” He watched it in silence, blank-faced, until it ended. Then he put it aside, the way a shell-shocked mugging victim will often have a delayed response to their encounter. Via couldn’t even process what he had seen.

After several weeks, he felt ready to watch it again, and actually engage with the material. It was almost as bad as the first time. “I don’t want to come out sounding like I’m on a high horse. There are things that can be offensive that I’ll laugh at,” he stresses, before singling out the bombardment of gay panic humor that is laced throughout the film as his biggest issue with it. “And I don’t mean to make it sound like I wrote Casablanca. It was a horror comedy that was really designed to be dark, you know, kind of in poor taste. But I looked at it and was like, ‘This is such schlock. This is stuff a 10-year-old would think was funny.’” It really depressed Via to see his name on something he so profoundly disliked. He warned friends to stay away—the same friends he had proudly boasted to a couple of years earlier about the movie he wrote that was getting made.

In retrospect, Via wonders how he could’ve been so naive about what the results would be. He had really gotten along with Ridgely at first, had considered him someone who understood what Via wanted to do, who loved the same jokes, the same beats in the script, and the two had appeared creatively simpatico. But as the partnership eroded in tandem with the original screenplay, Via started to investigate Ridgely’s output further, and kicked himself for not looking more closely at the outset. “He’s a very sex-obsessed—I mean, you can see for yourself [on Ridgely’s site]. His biggest things on there are songs about boobies and movies he’s made that are—he does a whole fake game show, Gay Or Not Gay? And it’s supposed to be this hilarious thing of trying to guess if an actor is queer or not.” 

The whole article is worth a read. Check it all out here.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Bad Pitch: Alicia and Liv in "Still CRAZY After All These Years"

If you follow me on Twitter, you've likely seen a version of this pitch before. Every now and then I like to forecast the most unlikely piece of existing intellectual property to be revived like The X-Files, Will & Grace and Roseanne all have been or will be. (To say nothing of Rocky's resurrection via Creed, Star Wars's resurgence, Blair Witch, Tron, Terminator... the list goes on and on.)

Is it really so impossible that 90s nostalgia would eventually lead to the rebooting of music videos? I'm honestly shocked we haven't already seem SOME kind of re-visitation with the two women who were - for a time at least - synonymous with Aerosmith: Alicia Silverstone and Liv Tyler.

Okay, listen up everyone. An old man's talking. Back in my day, we didn't have YouTube, where every music video was on-demand the instant we had the urge to see it. No, the only way we saw a music video would be to happen to be watching MTV or VH1 when it played. And if you were a teenage boy in the mid-90s, chances are one of the clips you were willing to wait all day to see was Aerosmith's "Crazy," starring the future Clueless and Lord of the Rings icons.


Silverstone's entire career was launched from the three Aerosmith videos she did. There was about two years there where she was known as "the Aerosmith chick." I don't think I totally realized until reflecting on this that my generation didn't really have many "teen idols." The ages before me had Tiffany and Debbie Gibson. Britney, Christina, and their ilk - despite being about my age - were mostly idols for the teens slightly younger. When I was in high school, if you were looking for the female teenage sex symbols, they'd probably be Alicia and Liv.

Both of these women just turned 40, which I found unbelievable before I saw recent pics of them and now I find it even more inexplicable. 40 really IS the new 30.

And who could pass up the perfect title? "Still Crazy After All These Years." Hell, half of you can probably already picture the trailer just off of this information and that name.

The pitch: Now 40, both girls are married with teenage children. They've remained close and outgrew their wild ways long ago. However fate sends them on a cross-country roadtrip when Liv's daughter (Bella Thorne) runs away from home with Alicia's son (Dylan Minnette.) The specifics of the trip? This ain't rocket science. Just replicate the music video beat-for-beat.

I'm putting this here mostly so that when this project is announced within the next few years, I can say "TOLDJA!"

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

"How Do You Talk To An Angel?" turns 25 today!

Today is the 25th anniversary of one of my favorite one-hit wonders of the 90s, "How Do You Talk to An Angel?" It's not one of the big hits of the 90s, but left enough of a footprint that the lyrics are instantly memorable upon mention.

For me, I have a very clear memory of that song's hook being used in every one of the ubiquitous promos for the TV show it belonged to, The Heights. As I recall, it was an NBC show about a struggling band. The show itself barely lasted longer than the song's run on the charts and is all but forgotten today. The show premiered on August 27, 1992, but Wikipedia says the song itself was released on September 5, 1992 so that's the date we're going with here. It climbed the charts through November, when it hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100.

The song was the show's theme, but also seems to have played a part in the premiere episode. This scene below showcases one of my favorite tropes of a band movie or TV show - the initial jam session where every one meshes PERFECTLY and turns out an impossibly perfect first run of a song where all band members magically know their places and when to come in.


I remember seeing an interview a number of years ago where Jamie Walters, who sang lead vocals on the single, indicated that the single's popularity caused a little tension between him and the cast because he was the one getting all the recognition from it. Walters would have a solo hit of his own a few years later, called "Hold On."


The song comes up pretty frequently on my iTunes shuffle and when I've mentioned it on Twitter, I'm always surprised to find there are a few fans. So on its birthday, let's pay tribute to a song whose shelf life well surpassed that of the show that birthed it.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Broken Projector tries to answer every screenwriting question ever

It's been a while since I plugged the Broken Projector podcast, but last week Scott Beggs and Geoff LaTulippe decided to take on the challenge of answering every screenwriting question you could hope to know.

More accurately, they created an archive of the questions they get asked EVERY TIME they open up for listener questions about screenwriting. It feels like they were had the same sorts of thoughts that led me to write this post last week about how to ask a useful question. Below is a breakdown of the episode question-by-question, with timecodes. It's worth a listen not just for the answers, but understanding the kinds of questions that get asked again and again, and why some of those questions will never have a satisfactory answer.

An intro note on methodology and where to learn formatting [0:00 – 4:15]
A way to rethink the questions you’re asking [4:15 – 9:10]
“Do I have to move to LA?” [9:10 – 11:28]
“How do I get an agent/manager?” [11:28 – 18:10]
“Where do I find scripts?” [18:10 – 20:45]
“What screenwriting books are the ‘right’ ones?” [20:45 – 24:00]
“How do I pitch?” [24:00 – 25:50]
“Should I go to film school?” [25:50 – 31:05]
“I just finished my first script. What do I do now?” [31:05 – 37:45]
“How do I get an actor/actress to read my script?” [37:45 – 44:35]
“How do I get a job as a TV writer’s assistant?” [44:35 – 50:05]
“How did you get your start?” [50:05 – 54:55]
“How do you come up with your ideas?” [54:55 – 59:10]
“What are agents/managers/producers looking for?” [59:10 – 61:05]
“What genre should I write?” [61:05 – 61:10]
“How do you impress a reader?” [61:10 – 63:15]
“How do you expose yourself personally in your writing?” [63:15 – 68:45]
Closing thoughts [68:45 – 73:30]

The podcast is embedded at this link, but you can also subscribe to One Perfect Pod wherever you get your podcasts.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Crossing the stream(ing service)s

This is probably gonna come off as one of those old man "get off my lawn" rants, but I've been thinking a lot about the cost of streaming services. I've had Netflix since before it WAS a streaming service. I've been an Amazon Prime subscriber for about three years now, but that was mostly for the free shipping and until recently they've never had any original programming that enticed me.

Hulu's been a thing, but until this year I never felt any pressing need to subscribe. As I'd never purchased a service JUST for the original programming, there wasn't motivation to start now. The fact that no real Hulu show had broken into the zeitgeist also lessened any urgency I might have felt.

This year felt like a real sea change, brought about by two factors: The Handmaid's Tale and the explosion of other streaming services. I want to be clear here - I think Netflix did the heavy lifting of legitimizing original content on streaming services, but when you already have that service for unrelated reasons, you don't really feel the shift as much. It still felt like the game was: Netflix - and then everyone else.

Let's take stock of the major players in that "everyone else," and their subscription fees:

Here are the monthly fees for the more notable streaming services:

Netflix - $7.99 (no HD), $9.99 HD, $11.99 HDX
Amazon - $8.99
Hulu - $7.99
YouTube Red - $9.99
HBO Now - $15
Showtime - $10.99
Starz - $8.99
CBS All Access - $5.99, $9.99 no ads
FX - $5.99
AMC Premiere - $4.99

The days of Netflix being a good one-stop shop for a deep library of content are numbered. As each of these networks and more launch their own services, they'll likely be taking back their content from other sites. It's the only way to add value to their product. Are you prepared to pay all of this and more a month?

Let's put the library aside for a while and focus on the value of original content. This is a list of all the Netflix shows which I watched in the past 12 months that I can expect another season of within the next 12 months or so:

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Master of None
13 Reasons Why
Love
Stranger Things
Grace & Frankie
Glow
House of Cards
One Day at a Time

That's nine shows right there. You can also add the next season of Arrested Development to that for AT LEAST 10 originals that I'll watch. Marvel also typically has 2 shows in a 12 month cycle. This past year I skipped Iron Fist, didn't finish Luke Cage and plan on watching The Defenders. Odds are I'll watch at least one of whatever they offer, so let's bump the total to 11. My wife watched Fuller House, so adding that gives us an even dozen original shows in the next year.

Or we could use last year as a baseline. These are the one-off seasons that I watched in addition to the shows in the last list:

Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life
Girlboss
MST3K: The Return
The Seekers

So that supports the notion of about a dozen original series a year. At $9.99/month I feel pretty good about that value even before you account for binge-watching any of the licensed library, or the many Netflix documentaries and acquired features, of which there are a lot. Even with some of the licenses rotating out now and then, overall I feel really good about paying ten bucks a month for access.

CBS All-Access has two tiers. $5.99 a month for limited commercial interruption and $9.99 a month for no ads. They also don't follow the Netflix model of dropping all the new episodes in a season at once. This is important because if you want to see each new episode in a 13 episode season as it comes out, you MUST subscribe for four months. If you're paying for no ads, that means that new season is costing you $40, assuming that's the only thing drawing you to the service during those months.

By next year, they will have TWO original shows: The Good Fight and Star Trek: Discovery.

I've been a Star Trek fan since I was ten. I own most of TOS on blu, all of TNG on blu and all of DS9 on DVD, along with at least half of the films on blu, DVD or both. I've watched every new season as it's come out since 1991. Hell, I even own a ton of the novels and behind the scenes books. I'm laying all this out to make it clear that I am fairly representative of the audience that CBS is chasing when they used the Star Trek IP to launch this service.

I will not be subscribing to CBS All-Access. There are 15 episodes in the season, so we're talking about four months of subscription. At the cheap rate, that's $24 for one show. The economics of that don't work out for me, as that's how much the bluray will probably be. I'd rather just wait for the physical copy and buy something I'd actually own.

When a service's exclusive originals are so sparse, it falls to the library to be even more valuable. I can see the case being made, "We're the home for ALL the Star Trek archive!" You might see the problem brewing though - long-time Trek fans are collectors. Like me, they probably already OWN most of those hours of television in some kind of physical format, so there's no incentive there to subscribe for that. The service also includes all of CBS's current programming (99% of which I don't watch), and older CBS/Paramount shows like Cheers, CSI, MacGyver, and so on. For some people, maybe that's enough to get their fee. (I doubt it, but I want to put the possibility out.)

I'll also allow that for new fans who come into the Trek tent with Discovery, it's not a bad idea to have the entire rest of the franchise at their fingertips to binge. Having said that, with only two new shows, the odds of total TREK virgins buying CBS All Access and sampling Discovery seems pretty low.

And this is just the beginning. FX announced this week they're starting their own streaming service, featuring their catalog at $5.99/month and there's AMC Premiere for $4.99/month. Of course, for now they don't have any original programming that will be exclusive to those services, so the incentive to buy that to watch, say, Better Call Saul is rather low. (At least until that's the only streaming service where the entire series is available.) As cable declines the cost of these a la carte services will become more important. I don't know how keen I am to pay $6/month per basic cable channel, essentially. There's a certain point where that cost would easily exceed the cable bill total for all those bundled channels and more.

But it's inevitable.

I'm curious how some of you feel about this. Which streaming channels are essential and what is your calculus for the value of a monthly fee?

Monday, August 7, 2017

Reader emails and the art of writing a good question

I haven't done many "reader email" posts in the recent past and there's are reasons for that. Some of the questions I've gotten have been on topics that I've already covered a lot on the blog, so they're answered quickly with a link to an existing post.

What's left after weeding out those are emails that often fall into one of two categories:

1) An email that asks a question too broad or abstract to yield a useful answer. This would be something like "Tell me how to break into the business" or "what are all the things I can be doing to make my script attractive to an agent?"

Those are questions without any concrete answers, and if they DID have answers, they would require a great deal of effort on my part to answer them. Entire books have been written about each of those subjects. Any effort on my part to answer them in the confines of the blog would likely result in even larger broad and sweeping generalizations than you usually find.

In both cases, the knowledge you want is out there - but it will take some effort on your part to seek out and absorb. When I sought answers to these questions, I researched the lives and careers of people I admired. I went looking for the story of how they broke in. Everyone has a different story of how they attracted an agent or how they got their first job. That diversity speaks to how there's no single way in other than persistence and building up your portfolio to the point where your work will stand out.

2) Long rambling emails that tell me your life story and take many detours that might include the origins of your latest script, the depths of your anxieties, the many disappointments and setbacks you've suffered in your career, and so on.

I know I run the risk of coming of like a dick when I get glib about this, but I assume that if this is how you're composing emails to me, it's also how you're writing to other people who are FAR more important than me. If your email has more than three paragraphs (BRIEF paragraphs), you're doing it wrong. I've been known to open an email, see a wall of text and say, "I'll get to it later" without reading it and I'm much less busy than anyone who can actually do something for your career.

Introduce yourself in two or three sentences. Use another two or three to establish you're familiar with the person you're reaching out to and that you understand their time is valuable, then quickly get to the point of what they can do for you. Obviously if there's a connection you share, like a common friend or the fact you went to the same school, obviously mention that. The point is to be brief, and yet still establish a connection in a few lines.

If you're a good writer, you can do that.

In the meantime, if you've got what you think is a good question, hit me up in the comments or at zuulthereader@gmail.com.


Wednesday, July 19, 2017

16 Great TV Shows, Part 16: 13 Reasons Why

Part 1: The Wonder Years
Part 2: The Simpsons
Part 3: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Part 4: Seinfeld
Part 5: The John Larroquette Show
Part 6: ER
Part 7: Newsradio
Part 8: The X-Files
Part 9: Law & Order
Part 10: Homicide: Life on the Street
Part 11: Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Part 12: Gilmore Girls
Part 13: Everwood
Part 14: The Office
Part 15: Breaking Bad

And at last we arrive at the final show on the list, which is appropriately the series that got me thinking about making this list in the first place. I wouldn't blame you if you wondered what else I could possibly have to say about 13 Reasons Why, considering I already devoted 13 posts to the series. As I indicated, this one burrowed into my gut. I was thinking about it for weeks after I saw it and it still is living rent-free right between my ears.

I can't help but be disappointed that Katherine Langford's incredible performance was overlooked by the Emmys last week. I freely admit that one of the problems of Peak TV is that I haven't seen everything, thus, I can't say which of the nominees should have been left off to make room for her, but considering Katherine started off in the first episode having to create two wildly disparate versions of Hannah, and then spend the next 12 episodes gradually bridging that gap, I'd be stunned if all six nominees beat that degree of difficulty. (And that's without bringing in the fact that this was Langford's first serious role.) She'll have a long career, for sure, but I wish her amazing work here was recognized. Dylan Minnette also gave what I consider an Emmy-worthy performance, particularly in the episode showcasing his tape, but I can accept his work was less singular in an equally crowded category.

Ignoring Kate Walsh's devastating turn as Hannah's grieving mother is another instance of insanity, but that's the way the Emmys go sometimes.

During my earlier series of posts on the show, I didn't cover the topic of how the adaptation compares to the original novel. Unexpectedly, when I read the novel, it gave me a deeper appreciation for the series. In every measurable way, the changes made for the show are superior to what they replace or add to. I've almost never seen that, where every divergence results in improvement.

I'm not going to list every difference, but a key change is that the "present" of the book all takes place on the night Clay receives and listens to the tapes. That means nearly all of the post-suicide scenes in the series are unique to the show. In the book, we never meet Hannah's parents, there's no lawsuit involving the school, and Clay never confronts any of the other people on the tapes. This makes a big difference in his arc, because he's generally passive. Also, book-Clay is a lot blander, kind of a generic nice guy. He lacks the rougher, more interesting edges the character has in the show.

But perhaps the most impactful change is that in the book, Clay barely knew Hannah. He crushed on her from afar, but they barely interacted. We're told they worked together at the movie theater, but the book lacks most of the cute interactions between the two at lunches and particularly at the school dance. The tragedy of the Clay/Hannah love story is the heart of the series and it's not present at all in the book. The two DO still make out at the party, and Hannah still freaks out, but so much around their characters is different that this event is recontextualized in a way that makes it less emotional.

In the book, it definitely feels more like Hannah made these tapes as a revenge plot. (As you know, I've argued that on the show, Hannah's motivation to make the tapes appears to be so that she can reclaim her own story.) Without the sweeter scenes between her and Clay, all we really know of Hannah is this person who was constantly wronged by her friends and has every reason to be bitter about it. Two other encounters also take on a different feel due to the changes. In the book, Hannah's rape is much more ambiguous in nature. She seems to put herself in that position know that Bryce will do to her and when he starts having sex with her, she doesn't resist. In fact, there's an inference that she's using him as a way of surrendering to her reputation. On the page, we're left with the impression she's trying to make her life horrible enough to motivate her suicide.

Yeah, it's pretty dark. And it speaks to a less likable (to use a word I know I just derided in the last post) version of Hannah. With this change also comes the feeling that she's really setting Mr. Porter up to fail when she sees him on the day she takes her own life. In the book, it plays almost like a challenge she throws down, like "C'mon, I've already decided to kill myself. Let's see if he can stop me." On the show, the motivation is similar, but more tragic. Hannah seems to be reaching for a life preserver that's never tossed.

So many of the elements that 13 Reasons Why a show I just can't shake either originated with the series or play completely different in the series. All of this speaks to the choices that showrunner Brian Yorkey and his staff had to make when writing the show. The book provides a great hook and a framework to hang the story on, but the TV writers really reached for the depth and emotion of the concept, and every change is geared towards achieving that end.

You come away from the book feeling like Hannah's story is shortchanged so that the focus can be on Clay's man-pain as he learns about this poor girl he barely knew. The series is more committed to making Hannah a real person rather than just an object of pity. The writers knew that Clay shouldn't be a stranger to Hannah. This has to be the story of their near-romance, with their dynamic ultimately making us aware of everything that was lost when Hannah took her life.

The other significant changes are more aimed at making it clear Hannah is broken, but not vindictive in her final days. Her depression and PTSD consume her until she can no longer fight. When the events that break her arrive, there's no sense that she surrenders to them. She merely has the will to go on beaten out of her. It sounds like a subtle distinction as I explain it, but when you compare the two, you'll understand just how vastly different they are.

The show understands Hannah's depression and suicidal choice in a way that I don't feel that the book ever communicates. Some of that is the advantage of being able to see an actress depict that transformation, but if I had to boil that down into a succinct writing lesson it would be this: Write from emotion, not plot. Write to make people feel.

After I put aside the novel, I couldn't help but ponder if I'd have been smart enough to make the choices that the TV writers made. I feel like I probably would have realized the Clay/Hannah connection needed to be more substantial, but I don't know if I'd have woven their flirtation through the series so perfectly and still found a way to be true to Hannah's breakdown that sends her spiraling.

When I tried to convince my wife to watch the show, I noticed all the ways this source material could have been less deftly mined. I told her the show dealt with a lot of real issues teens face, like cyber-bullying, rape, slut-shaming. Her reaction was to say, "Oh, like how Switched at Birth has been doing?"

Look, I've seen plenty of Switched at Birth due to my wife's appreciation for the show. I'll even give them credit for tackling issues like date-rape on their show. But nothing on Switched at Birth has the depth or the emotion of 13 Reasons Why. Ditto for the other show that my wife drew comparisons to as I explained the premise: Pretty Little Liars.

I'm not here to bash those two shows or the genre they represent. They're just a very different kind of product. Whatever darkness they have, it's contrasted by the aspirational artifice you find in most teen dramas. Teens in those shows often feel too much like mini-adults and visually, they aren't dressed and made up the way normal teens are.

When my wife watched, I was glad to see her pick up on some of these points without prompting. When Hannah goes to the dance, my wife's reaction was the same as mine - "They have her wearing a dress a girl that age would actually wear. It's not a sexy designer dress. It looks like she had to go to TJ Maxx and buy within a budget." She was 100% right about that. On PLL, that dress would have been three times as expensive, have a much lower cut to the top and a much higher hem on the skirt.

In general, 13 Reasons Why doesn't do much male gazing at Hannah. She's not overly sexualized in the way that teen protagonists often are. It's funny because at one point, Tony says that Hannah liked hanging with him because she could complain about the guys who stared at her boobs and her ass. Having watched the show, I feel pretty confidant in stating that Hannah's never dressed in a way that invites that sort of leering from the viewer. In fact, I'm reasonably sure there's not so much as a cleavage shot.

Even in a sequence where we know Hannah has stripped to her underwear and gotten into a hot tub, the action is staged with angles that don't show off her body at all. A couple other characters are put on display, but not Hannah. A running theme of the show is how her peers objectify and degrade her, and the show seems to take great pains not to make the viewer complicit in that. It's a restraint rarely seen in this genre.

What all of this adds up to is that the show creates a world that feels more grounded and believable than most of its contemporaries. It's very easy to imagine a version of the show that lives in that Freeform space. It might even be a compelling show with all the thrills and twists of Pretty Little Liars. But PLL never shook me to my core the way this series did. It lacked the rawness and the verisimilitude that made 13 Reasons Why such a potent tragedy.

Brian Yorkey and his team of writers, directors and actors worked hard to elevate their show above its source material. They found every possible emotional touchstone in the novel, and when that wasn't enough they invented more of their own. No short cuts were made just because this was a "teen drama" or a "YA adaptation." When I write something, be it an original or an adaptation, I will always think of the example this show sets, and how much power it draws from raw emotion.

Other posts on the series:
Side 1: The Setting
Side 2: An overly contrived premise can present a challenge
Side 3: Hannah Baker, from joy to despair
Side 4: Clay, an outsider who isn't an outcast
Side 5: Clay's tape leads to one of this year's most heartbreaking episodes
Side 6: Mr. Porter - Terrible Counselor or Worst Counselor?
Side 7: Do depictions of suicide provoke imitation?
Side 8: Generating tension that stokes viewer intensity
Side 9: Keeping storytelling clarity in non-linear structure
Side 10: Alex's storyline hides parallels in plain sight
Side 11: Fleshed out parents help deepen the other characters
Side 12: Episodic structure makes a comeback
Side 13: Thoughts on Season 2