Monday, December 14, 2009

Steve Kaire: Writing Partnerships

Writing partnerships are like marriages. They can continue in bliss or end up in bitter divorce. Working with a writing partner can either reduce your workload by half or create twice the headaches.

Any kind of partnership is fraught with peril. If it fails, not only does the project come to an immediate halt, but your friendship may be over as well.

A well-chosen partner is a valuable lightning rod to create and bounce ideas off. That person’s strengths can balance your weaknesses. But there has to be a meeting of the minds on critical issues before a partnership is undertaken.

There’s a list of questions that has to be answered before both parties make the final commitment to work together: Do your writing styles mesh rather than conflict? Do you have personalities that work well together under pressure? Can you both invest the amount of time required from inception of the script to the ultimate marketing of the material? How will major disagreements be resolved when you reach an impasse? Will you be doing an equal amount of work and splitting the money equally, or will there be some other kind of financial arrangement? And if the worst-case scenario occurs and you both decide to go your separate ways, who does the material belong to?

All these questions and potential pitfalls should be discussed and solutions agreed upon in a written contract before any partnership is entered into. I’ve had my share of writing partners. In some cases the partnership worked very well, in other cases it failed miserably. The more you know and clear up in advance, the better your chances of having the partnership work out to the benefit of both parties involved.

Steve Kaire is a screenwriter-pitchman who’s sold/optioned eight projects to the major studios without representation. He’s taught writing classes at the American Film Institute and has appeared on the Tonight Show’s “Pitching to America” with Jay Leno. His groundbreaking CD entitled, High Concept: How to Create, Pitch & Sell to Hollywood is a best-seller and is available on his website:

Monday, December 7, 2009

Staton Rabin: Breaking In: Zen and the Art of Guerrilla Script Marketing

Well, it’s the holiday season again: Time for all good screenwriters to start typing up those query letters addressed to the North Pole. Yes, many of you have already sent your “wish list” to Santa -- asking for a new BlackBerry or, better yet, “$100,000 against a cool million” for your latest spec script. After all, you’re writing directly to St. Nick because you know the secret of success. Contacts.

We’ve all heard it before: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” But I’m here to tell you that, when it comes to contacts, most of what you’ve heard about Hollywood is dead wrong. It’s not about the contacts you have. It’s about the contacts you make. And you make them based on the quality of your work, not on “who you know.” You want powerful advocates who admire your work, not people who are helping you simply because your second cousin knows Brad Pitt.

When I was growing up, my father was vice president for a major corporation. Part of his job was to meet celebrities and organize charity events, or get their endorsements for his company’s products. One day he’d be talking to Eleanor Roosevelt on the telephone, the next he’d be having lunch with My Fair Lady star Rex Harrison, or meeting Motown founder Berry Gordy. I was so jealous!

But when it came to meeting famous people, my father couldn’t have been less impressed. It was like pulling teeth for me to find out which superstar he’d had lunch with that day. You see, my father’s a class act, and doesn’t “name drop” or exploit his contacts for personal gain. So when I grew up, after I graduated from NYU film school and was looking for my first job in the movie business, he wouldn’t let me use any of his contacts. In short, I was in exactly the same position you probably are (or have been). I didn’t know anyone in the film business. I was on my own.

But that didn’t stop me. First, I did my homework. I learned everything I could about the movie stars and directors I most admired. Then I started writing letters to them. Letters to people like actor Jimmy Stewart, director Frank Capra, and dancer/choreographer Gene Kelly. And what happened?

I got personal answers. Encouraging letters. From almost every celebrity I wrote to. In those days, it wasn’t easy to find contact addresses for famous people. It’s a heck of a lot easier now.

Soon, I applied my letter-writing skills to my career. I started writing query letters to stars and directors asking if they’d read my screenplays or books. My ultimate purpose? To see if they might want to “attach” themselves to the project.

What did I talk about in those letters? I showed that I had really done my homework about their life, films and careers. I never said just the obvious: that I admired their performance in their most famous film from a zillion years ago. Instead, I complimented them on things they don’t usually hear: a lesser-known film performance, or perhaps some specific aspect of an interview they gave in a newspaper. If I mentioned one of their famous films, I talked about their performance in it in a very specific way, instead of just saying it was “great."

Of course, my business letters aren’t “gushing” fan mail. They are business-like, and contain my pitch, and I work very hard on my pitch. But I really think about who I’m writing to, and why. I think about what their needs are, and what’s important to them in their work and their life. There’s nothing “generic” about any letter I send to an actor, director, or film producer. And I never say things I don’t mean in order to “flatter” them. Neither should you.

So. If you write the right kind of query letter to a star, you don’t necessarily need a personal referral (though it can help) in order to get noticed. Even if you have a friend who knows a major Hollywood player, do you really want to exploit that friendship by asking him or her to submit your script to them as a favor to you? If you value your friendships, maybe not.

And even if your friend is happy to do you that favor, the star receiving the script probably knows it was sent over mostly as a favor -- rather than on the basis of the script’s merit. What would you rather have? Your script’s arriving on Tom Cruise’s desk simply because his dry cleaner did you a favor? Or the script being sent to Cruise because somebody powerful in the film business loves your screenplay, knows Tom Cruise, and tells him it’s something he ought to read? You may say it doesn’t matter how it gets there, as long as it does. I disagree.

The truth is, it’s not really your “contacts” that lead to success as a screenwriter, it’s the quality of your work. It’s much better to have contacts and referrals that you earn, through the merits of your work, than ones that are handed to you merely as a “favor” or through happenstance. No matter who you are and no matter what your background, if you’re talented, you can make contacts for yourself. The right kind of contacts, for the right reasons.

Keep pitching. See you next month.
Staton Rabin is a screenplay marketing consultant, script analyst, and “pitch coach” for screenwriters at all levels of experience. She is also a Senior Writer and story analyst for Script, has been a reader for Warner Bros. Pictures and New Line Cinema, and is a frequent guest lecturer at NYU. Staton’s novel Betsy and the Emperor is in development as a movie with Al Pacino attached to star. Staton Rabin is available for consultations and can be reached at

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Discussing November/December with Andrew Shearer, Part 2

Ah, the myriad of screenwriting advice we have to sift through in order to become masters of our craft -- it can drive you to drinking. William Martell’s article “Worldwide Cool” in the November/December edition of Script magazine suggests we should be writing scripts that appeal to worldwide audiences. Sounds reasonable. More potential for international box office. But the part that rubs me the wrong way is when Martell basically suggests screenwriters not write a script that “focuses on culture or politics or social issues that are unique to America.” What happened to write what you know? Write it because you can execute it with flying colors. As a producer, would you rather read a really well written script about an American cultural issue, or a poorly written script with a bunch of “really cool stuff” in it as Martell suggests, that appeals to a foreign audience? My guess is the well written American-centric script is more likely to get you your next gig because you’ve proven your talent (God willing).

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the realities of the business. I just don’t think it’s the best advice for new writers. My partner and I have an old script centered on a teenage, African-American kid in a juvenile-hall setting. It won screenwriting contests and had actors attached and still hasn’t been made. To put it bluntly, African-American-themed stories don’t have foreign appeal, so it’s tough to find funding. But should I not tell that very personal, important, moving story because, as Martell says, “people in Uganda watching the film on the wall of a building” don’t care about some U.S. issue? I care about the people in Chicago who do care about the issue.

Another screenplay my partner and I wrote, which also received accolades and was well-received around town, focuses on another American-centric story. It’s a comedy set in the world of small town, Christian fundamentalism. Again, very little foreign appeal. However, this is the script that has basically launched my and my partner’s careers. Well, pseudo-careers -- we’re getting there. Either way, every deal we have in the works is due to that script. Had we set out in the beginning, attempting to write some movie based solely on international appeal with a bunch of action and twists and turns and without any personal stakes, I’m not sure we wouldn’t have fallen flat on our faces. But that’s our story. Like I said in the beginning, it’s about sifting through the advice.

My partner and I are at the point now with some of the projects we’re writing where we certainly have to consider foreign box-office appeal, so I understand Martell’s advice. I just think depending on where you are in your career, that advice is not automatically the way to go. What do you think?


A redneck from Small Town, North Carolina (population 8,000, high school drop-out rate 40%), one day decided to tackle the film industry. Andrew’s film-school short, Son Up, based off his experience teaching at a juvenile hall, ended up winning seven festival awards and made the regionals for the Student Academy Awards. Andrew’s feature script version of Son Up, co-written with Nick Sherman, went on to win first prize at Cinequest. Then one day, the screenwriting gods shined their rarely shown light down from the Heavens and awarded the Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship to Andrew and Nick for their feature script, Holy Irresistible. The duo is now repped by Endeavor and Brillstein Entertainment. They have two projects in development and are lucky enough to be co-writing a spec with another writer they’ve admired for years.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Meet the Reader: Feedback

Feedback is a vitally important element of the screenwriting process -- without it, you will never know if your work is connecting with readers and audiences the way you want it to. For this reason, you should incorporate the obtaining of feedback into your writing process from the very beginning.

Start by pitching your premise to a few trusted listeners before you start writing. A well-conceived concept should be able to be clearly explained in a few concise and tightly focused sentences. If you are unable to express your premise this succinctly, or if your listeners don’t understand your sentences, then you may have some fine-tuning to do before you begin scribbling.

Once you have completed an initial draft, give your script to a few people to read and comment upon. It’s important that the people you choose are ones who will be able to read and analyze your piece with an objective eye and who will give you honest and constructive criticism. For this reason, I recommend that you seek out fellow writers and industry colleagues rather than simply handing your work over to friends and family members. Your dear aunt Sally may be a lovely person, but the odds are that she doesn’t have a solid grasp of the three-act structure, character arcs, or visual expository techniques. Also, she probably won’t tell you if there’s anything in your script that she doesn’t like because she loves you and doesn’t want to hurt your feelings. So, go to Sally for chocolate chip cookies, but go to your professional compatriots for creative input.

(If you don’t happen to know any other writers or industry-types, trusted acquaintances who don’t mind being blunt will do.)

Getting good feedback should be a proactive process. Don’t just hand your script to a few friends and then sit back and wait for general, generic responses such as “I liked it -- it was good,” or “I hated it -- it was bad.” These sort of responses are not helpful because they are not specific. Instead, you should direct the obtaining of feedback just as you direct every other phase of your writing.

• To begin with, don’t prep your readers. Simply give them your script and ask them to read it cold, without you telling them what it’s about or what you’re trying to achieve. That way, their reactions will be completely pure and they won’t read anything into the piece that isn’t there or couch their responses to tell you what you are hoping to hear.

• When your analysts have finished reading your piece, ask them to tell you your story. If the tale they tell is the one you thought you were writing, then you’re in good shape. If it bears little or no resemblance to your saga, then you may have some work to do. Then, ask your analysts some specific questions about your piece -- ask them to identify the main character and describe his or her arc; next ask them to identify the main theme of the piece as well as the highlights of the story -- the most exciting action set pieces, the funniest comedic bits, the tensest suspense sequences, the most horrific scares, and the weepiest emotional moments. If the elements your readers identify are the ones you planned for, then your script is working. If they’re not, then it’s back to the word processor.

• Once your analysts have responded, analyze their analysis. If one person has a problem with some aspect of your script, then it could just be that person’s individual issue. However, if a number of people have the same problem, then it’s likely that the fault lies with the script and will need to be addressed.

The most important thing to do with feedback is to listen to it. Writing is really hard and by the time an author finishes a draft, he or she is in no mood to hear that there’s a problem with their brainchild. Many tend to rationalize away criticism because they just can’t bear the thought of opening the whole story up and starting all over again. Avoid this impulse at all costs, because if you don’t, you may sabotage yourself in the long run.

After you have made sense of your analysts’ assessments, revise your script based on them and then repeat this process each time you have completed a new draft so that you can make sure that you stay on track. When the script has been finished to your satisfaction, hold a table reading so that you can hear the dialogue spoken aloud to get a sense of how the scenes play and the characters interact when the piece is actually performed. You will discover that some of your material works much better than you ever could have dreamed when it is brought to life; and you will discover that some of your material doesn’t pop quite as well in 3-D as it did on the page.

When you think you are finally ready to send your baby out to potential buyers, consider first submitting it to a professional script consultant or a reputable coverage service. This way you can get an industry-level assessment of your piece prior to exposing it to the scrutiny of the industry. Remember, you only get one chance to make a first impression and you want to be sure that you’ve caught and addressed any red flags before handing your script over to the people that will ultimately decide its fate.
Ray Morton is a writer and script consultant. His books Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg's Classic Film and King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon from Fay Wray to Peter Jackson are available in stores and online. He analyzes screenplays for production companies, producers, and individual writers. Morton is available for consultation and can be reached at

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Dwayne Alexander Smith: Screenwriting is Hard

Disclaimer: explicit language

I have a dear friend who, one day, called me up and asked me the most outrageous and absurd question that I have ever been asked about my screenwriting career. When he first asked me this question it sounded innocent, just a typical question that any aspiring screenwriter would ask a working professional about the business. But the more I thought about his question the clearer it became that this dear friend had just insulted me.

“How long does it take to get paid once you sell a screenplay?” That was it. That was his question. See what I mean? Doesn’t that sound innocent?

So I answered him … “It depends on who you sell it to. Some studios take longer to pay than others. Smaller companies can take forever. It just depends.”

My friend frowned. Not satisfied with my answer he decided to push further. “Does it take weeks? Months? What’s the average?”

“From the time I make the sale about a month,” I said. I also added a few more details like the payments came in steps connected to rewrites and not in one lump sum.

“And what’s the average amount a script could sell for?,” he then asked eagerly. “One hundred thousand? Two hundred grand? What?”

Okay, it was at this point in our conversation that I began to suspect that this was more than just an innocent inquiry about my pay schedule. “Why?,” I finally asked. “Why do you want to know this?”

My dear, dear pal looked at me with the most sincere expression ever and said oh so matter-of-factly … "Oh, I need to make some quick money so I figured I’d just write a horror film or a comedy or something and sell it real quick.”

I must have just stared at this motherfucker for two minutes straight. No words, just an astounded stare. Like I said earlier everything he asked sounded innocent … but this asshole had just spit in my face and in the face of the craft that I love so dearly.

You need to know a little more about this sucker to understand the scope of his insult.

He graduated from an Ivy League university. He teaches part time at another Ivy League school. He’s a decent screenwriter but all of his specs are artsy high-minded dramas that in my opinion are unsellable. Now are you beginning to see it? Here’s a translation of what this asshole was really saying to me:

“If Dwayne, a college dropout, can sell so many horror and comedy screenplays, then me, an Ivy Leaguer, can easily do the exact same thing any time I want. All I have to do is lower myself to his level and I’m in the money.”

See, he’s under the same delusion that a lot of wanna-bee screenwriters are also under. Screenwriting is easy. It must be easy. Look at all the stupid movies that get made. Anybody can write that crap. Would my friend be asking me that dumb shit if I was a brain surgeon, or a composer, or even a plumber? NO!

Here’s a tip: If you’re writing screenplays because you think it’s an easy way to get paid … YOU’RE AN IDIOT.

Yes, yes, yes … anybody can write a screenplay but not just anybody can write a good screenplay. Not just anybody can write a screenplay that can sell. Want to know why?

Because good screenwriting is a craft that takes years to learn and even longer to master … and even then you still might not sell shit if you don’t get lucky.

So, finally I stopped staring at my dear friend and calmly said: “If you need quick money you better get yourself another plan because …


Three months later my dear friend sold a horror spec for 750K and got signed to write Spielberg’s next movie. And if you believe that I have an artsy high-minded drama spec collecting dust in my desk drawer that I’m willing to sell you cheap.
Dwayne Alexander Smith is a professional screenwriter represented by Circle of Confusion. He's sold four spec screenplays and been hired by studios for numerous rewrites. In 2008 he was hired to adapt Jim Croce’s classic song “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” into an action comedy. Most recently he created a hidden camera show called True Colors for Sony Television’s website

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Meet the Reader: Friday Nights With Dad

Several weeks ago, I posted a blog entry about how -- thanks to DVD and cable TV -- it’s so much easier these days for movie fans to view their favorite films than it was when many of us were young. The post prompted a lot of discussions with different people about their early movie-viewing experiences, which in turn prompted me to consider my own early encounters with the cinema. Like many things in my life, those encounters sprang out of my relationship with my father.

My dad has been a movie fan for his entire life. Growing up in Queens, New York during the 1930s and 1940s, he was a fixture at his local neighborhood playhouse, The Corona Theatre, where he saw just about every movie Hollywood put out during its undisputed Golden Age. And he has retained great affection for film ever since (Gunga Din is an all-time favorite). When I was a kid, he would revisit these Golden-Age masterpieces and near-masterpieces (and sometimes not-so-masterpieces) when they were on TV. I would often join him in viewing them and he would tell me about the actors and their backgrounds, and the impact each picture had on him when it first came out -- and it was there on that couch that I first began to fall in love with the movies.

It was a frustrating romance, however, because, as anyone who was around in those pre-home- video days can tell you, watching movies on television could be a consternating experience. The screen was small and frequently fuzzy, the prints often dodgy, the story was interrupted constantly by an endless stream of commercials, and arbitrary cuts were made to the narrative in order to fit the picture into its allotted, always-too-short time slot (rendering the film sometimes impossible to follow).

Things improved when my parents moved us to New Canaan, Connecticut in the mid-1970s. A small, quintessential New England town, New Canaan had an excellent local library that would screen 16mm (remember 16mm?) prints of classic movies on Friday evenings during the fall, winter and spring. Here, finally, was a chance to see these great films in a rough approximation of they way they were intended to be seen -- on a relatively large screen, uninterrupted, and with the narrative intact. Needless to say, my dad and I both loved the idea and so began a Friday night tradition that lasted (on and off) for several years.

On designated evenings, I would eagerly wait until my dad arrived home from work on the 5:08 from Grand Central. He and my mom would indulge in their weekly treat of a Chinese dinner (with us kids having dined earlier on my mom’s patented race-car hot dogs and mac & cheese). Then my dad and I would put on our jackets (New England nights can be pretty chilly) and stroll the ¾ of a mile to the library, where we'd grab some good seats (of the folding-chair variety), settle in, and enjoy that week’s show.

We saw quite a few classics over the years, but three really stand out in my memory:

• The first was 1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, starring Frederic March in the title roles. Even then, I recognized how amazingly inventive the filmmaking in that picture was -- director Rouben Mamoulian’s delightful intoxication with the technical and artistic possibilities of cinema and his determination to push the creative envelope is evident in every frame of the film. Its effect on the audience that night was palpable. I also recall how racy the film (which was made in the years just before the Production Code was introduced) was, something that -- if the gasps coming from the audience were any indication -- the majority of that evening’s comfortably middle-class viewers were clearly unprepared for.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) -- one of the crown jewels of Alfred Hitchcock’s early British period -- was a thriller about an ordinary English couple whose child is kidnapped by villains seeking to silence them after the wife witnesses a murder. The film was dark and tense and chock-full of atmosphere and suspense and I was absolutely enthralled with it. Most critics and viewers prefer Hitchcock’s expansive, 1956 color remake starring James Stewart and Doris Day, but for me the much more modest and moodier version is the one to beat.

• The film that I remember best from our bibliotheque cinema was 1939’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips, starring Robert Donat in an Oscar-winning turn as a teacher at a British private school looking back on his long life and career. It’s a sweet, lovely, gloriously sentimental movie that I really enjoyed. What made my viewing of it so special was that it's one of my father’s all-time favorite movies. It had made a huge impression on him as a boy and he had told me about it many times, but this was the first opportunity I had to actually see the film. I loved it, but I think knowing it meant so much to my dad and seeing him have chance to enjoy it again endeared it to me all the more.

When the show was over, we would put our coats back on and talk about the picture all the way home. These were always grand times and, to tell the truth, I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed going to the movies quite as much as I did on those chilly Friday evenings so long ago.
Ray Morton is a writer and script consultant. His books Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg's Classic Film and King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon from Fay Wray to Peter Jackson are available in stores and online. He analyzes screenplays for production companies, producers, and individual writers. Morton is available for consultation and can be reached at

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Staton Rabin: Breaking In: Zen and the Art of Guerrilla Script Marketing

“If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you; …
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same …”
--"If," by Rudyard Kipling

Maybe, when he wasn’t writing classic short stories and novels like The Jungle Book, Kipling was secretly writing movie scripts. That might explain why his immortal poem, "If," is such useful advice for screenwriters. Trying to “keep your head” in this business is a never-ending challenge. But staying sane is critical to success. If you’re a movie star, producer, director, even an agent -- “crazy” might even be considered part of your job description. But if you’re a writer, it’s a luxury you can’t afford. If you want to succeed in this business, you need to be able to “keep your head when all about you are losing theirs …”

Last month, I promised to tell you what I’ve learned during my long career as a writer and story analyst. I quoted one of my favorite philosophers, baseball great Yogi Berra. Well, I’m about to quote him again. In his inimitable style, Yogi once said about baseball, “Ninety percent of this game is half mental." The same can be said of finding success as a screenwriter.

Sure, talent and knowing your craft are the most important factors in whether you win or lose this game. But the mental discipline you bring to the process of writing and selling your script -- your attitude, in other words -- is critical.

Make no mistake: having a “zen” attitude to your career doesn’t mean being weak or passive. Quite the contrary. You must learn to apply your mental and physical energies in the right amounts, in the right way, and at the right time. You must be creative and assertive (but not obnoxious) in how you market yourself and your work. You do your homework, work hard, and, to use another baseball metaphor, you keep stepping up to the plate for another turn at bat -- even if you keep striking out. And when it’s the bottom of the ninth inning, with two outs and three men on base, and you’re up at bat, you can’t choke.

Let’s apply this “zen” idea to a real-world script marketing situation. Here, as in baseball, the pitch is all-important.

Whether you call it a pitch fest, a screenwriting expo, or a screenwriters’ conference, it boils down to this: a chance to pitch your story to producers. Unfortunately, for many writers, it’s also a situation tailor-made for getting a whopping case of the heebie-jeebies.

There you are, at some big glitzy hotel, surrounded by thousands of other desperate screenwriters hopped-up on Starbucks lattes, waiting anxiously to pitch your script to CAA or Disney. I’m going to give you some tips here for sharpening up your mental game so that next time you go to one of these events, you’ll hit one out of the park.

1) You have no competition. Really. I know it may seem like the entire cast of Ben-Hur is competing with you at this humongous pitch fest or expo. But the truth is that if you have a great pitch, producers will want to read your screenplay -- no matter how many other pitches they heard that week. They don’t have a quota that, once met, forces them to turn away good story ideas. And, trust me, most of the other pitches aren’t that great.

2) There are a lot of nervous, depressed writers at pitch conferences. They will want to bend your ear. If you let them, they will suck the life and spirit out of you like Edward in Twilight. Don’t let them. Steer clear of these blood-sucking vamps and leeches. Leave them to their misery so you can keep your own spirits up.

3) You know how they tell you that you will have five minutes to pitch your story to each producer? Well, you’ve really got only one minute. By the time you find your producer’s table, boot the seat’s previous occupant out of it, and exchange friendly small talk with the producer to ease into your pitch, you’ll have just one minute left. So plan for that, and make the most of it.

4) Ladies, wear comfortable shoes. I’m not kidding. You will be doing a lot of standing and waiting around. If you wear shoes that don’t hurt your feet or back you will have a leg-up, so to speak, on half the writers in the room.

5) Don’t overbook yourself. Instead of pitching to 10 producers before lunch, consider limiting appointments to no more than three or four, and resting between pitches.

6) Expect last-minute changes and be flexible. You may book time with a film company that produces highbrow Oscar-caliber movies set on English country estates -- but they might be a no-show. So you get offered instead a chance to pitch to a producer of horror movies about man-eating washing machines. What to do? Grab the opportunity, and re-jigger your pitch to fit the replacement producer. (“You see, it’s kind of like Sense and Sensibility, but set at a crazy Maytag factory in Hampshire …”)

7) Stash your business cards and pitch appointment tickets in that clear plastic name-tag holder that is already hanging around your neck. That way, you won’t lose your tickets, and when producers ask for your business card after listening to your wildly successful pitch, you’ll be ready. You won’t have to frantically hunt around in your purse or wallet for your card while the next “pitcher” is breathing down your neck.

8) If possible, learn everything you can about the companies you’ll be pitching to -- before you get to the pitch event. Know what movies they’ve made, and if you’re a fan it can’t hurt to single out one for praise when you meet each producer.

9) Always remember to thank any producer who listens to your pitch. If you’re polite in this business, you will impress some people and astonish the rest.

10) Know that if you fail to attract interest in your pitches at this event, this isn’t “the end” for your hopes of breaking in to the business. Yes, it might be a sign that your pitch or script needs work. But you can always rewrite it or start a new script, send out query letters, and go back to the pitch fest or expo again next year.

Keep pitching. See you next month.
Staton Rabin is a screenplay marketing consultant, script analyst, and “pitch coach” for screenwriters at all levels of experience. She is also a Senior Writer and story analyst for Script, has been a reader for Warner Bros. Pictures and New Line Cinema, and is a frequent guest lecturer at NYU. Staton’s novel Betsy and the Emporer is in development as a movie with Al Pacino attached to star. Staton Rabin is available for consultations and can be reached at

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Mystery Man: Steven Soderbergh's Moneyball Script

Soderbergh opens his script with this sobering bit of news:

"Billy Beane's minor and major league career will be shown via filmed interviews with scouts, coaches, managers, players, and family members who were with him at the time. These interviews will comprise approximately ten percent of the film.

"Another ten percent of the film will consist of re-enactments of real events as remembered by the people playing themselves. The purpose of these scenes will be to provide set-up and perspective for subjects, situations, or relationships which currently appear in the screenplay without the requisite/normal amount of context.

"All that is to say an importation portion of this film will be written in the editing room. This isn't a cop-out; it's just a fact and entirely by design."

I will defend Soderbergh only this far: I'm guessing that he instinctively picked-up on the weaknesses of Zaillian's script, and he sought to, in an inventive way, make the experience more unique, emotional, personal, and generally, more realistic.

For that, I applaud him.

Having said that, Soderbergh should've retitled it 'FUBAR.' He re-shaped this flawed story into something so unnecessarily convoluted. His script contains not only the same problems as Zaillian's but also piles on more problems with weak, flat, phony dialogue and mountains of verbal exposition. Oh, the mountains of insufferable exposition, so high and so vast, they should be called "Soderberghs Himalayas."

Consider the differences between these two stories in how Billy met Paul DePodesta, a guy who is crucial in shaping Billy's new way of thinking about statistics. First, let's see Zaillian's scene. This starts on page 18. At this point, the team lost the division to the Yankees. They're about to lose their three best players. Their options are severely limited. You could cut the tension in Oakland with a knife. Billy had a heated discussion with his scouts and threw a chair. And now, Billy just had a very depressing meeting with the Indians' General Manager, who changed his mind about a deal after Paul, who worked for the Indians at the time, whispered something into the GM's ear. Billy has just left the office. He sees Paul.

Billy: You.

Paul: Excuse me?

Billy: Come here.
[Paul comes out into the hallway.]

Billy: Who the fuck are you?

Paul: I'm Paul, Mr. Beane.

Billy: I don't give a fuck about your name. What are you doing?

Paul: Um... I'm doing my job.

Billy: No, I'm doing my job. You - are fucking up my job. You just cost me a left-handed setup man.

Paul: I like Rincon.

Billy: You like Rincon. You like Rincon. Was I talking to you in there? [Billy leaves. Paul works up his courage.]

Paul: Rincon has nothing to do with your problem. Your problem is you can't replace Giambi with another first baseman like him, because there isn't another one like him.
[Billy stops walking.]

Following this moment, Paul and Billy eat at a Steakhouse. Paul enlightens Billy about what's wrong with current thinking about baseball statistics. Billy loves what he hears and hires Paul. Now, consider Soderbergh's approach. This moment starts on page 2 and PRECEDES the Inciting Incident of the Oakland A's losing the division to the Yankees.

Billy: JP said you're the guy I should be talking to.

Paul: JP is great.

Billy: JP is great. He said you just got promoted.

Paul: Yeah, I was advanced scouting and I just made Special Assistant to the GM.

Billy: Well, Cleveland's a monster franchise. I think John Hart and Mark Shapiro are super smart. They got a good thing going.

Paul: I have to say, it's nice knowing at the beginning of the year that you're probably going to the playoffs.

Billy: I'll bet.

Paul: I hear you extended.

Billy: Yeah, four years. It's good, you know, I can watch things happen. And we're close to getting a new stadium.

Paul: Which you need.

Billy: Which we definitely need. So let me ask you: can you work spreadsheets and all that stuff, like Excel? Can you manage a payroll?

Paul: Yeah.

Billy: Great, because I suck at that. And you're totally up to speed on all the league rules? I need to make sure I don't accidentally put someone on waivers or something.

Paul: I'm pretty familiar with all the league rules. Also, I used a software program to chart games when I was advancing. It might be worth buying. It's really helpful.

Billy: Is it expensive?

Paul: I know the guy who developed it, I'm sure we could work something out.

Billy: Great.

Paul: So let me ask you. Do you really think you can win with your payroll? No small market team has made the playoffs since the strike.

Billy: I will never use payroll as an excuse. Look, being a small market team, we're constantly being pushed to the edge of extinction by the big market teams. We can't do it the way the Yankees do it. They've got guns, and we've got bows and arrows. We've got to find a way to adapt or we're going to disappear, and I like a lot of the ideas coming out of statistical analysis. It could be our edge.

Paul: You know, I was playing blackjack once and a guy sitting next to me hit on seventeen and actually drew a four. And he's collecting his money, clearly thinking to himself: "This is a good strategy for playing blackjack." And that's when I realized: that's how most teams operate, they play like the guy walking into a casino, when they should be playing like the house.

Billy: (excited) Right, exactly. That's what we have to do. We have to be the house.

Paul: You've heard of Paul Drucker?

Billy: The management guy.

Paul: He's got a thing called the Naïve Question: "If we weren't already doing it this way, is this the way we would start?" And can I drop another name?

Billy: Hey, you're the Harvard grad, not me.

Paul: You've heard of him: Thomas Paine. "A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right."

Billy: That's fantastic. Look, Paul, you should do this. We should do this. Before somebody else does. Somebody with money.

Paul: How comfortable are you looking crazy? I mean, people have dabbled in statistical analysis, but to run a whole team based on sabermetrics - no one's really done it before. Some of the decisions we make will look really strange.

Billy: (trying to close him) That's our edge, them thinking we're crazy. The longer they think we're crazy, the better. By the time they figure out what we're doing, we'll have beaten them. So let's do this, right?

Can you not see the huge difference between those two scenes? Zaillian's version crackles with energy. It's short, fast, and snappy. It exists in the context of a huge conflict, that is, the Oakland A's team is up shit's creek and Billy is driven to save the team. Soderbergh's scene lacked life because this came before the Inciting Incident and there's no conflict driving the story or Billy. Zaillian's exposition in the steakhouse scene isn't bad because it's in the context of a problem. We need this exposition to figure out how to save the team. Soderbergh's exposition feels false and flat and nearly puts you to sleep because there's no conflict yet. There's nothing driving what's happening between these characters.

So let's come full circle back to the scandal. I'm inclined to believe (up to a point) the Brad Pitt theory. No star at his level would stay on a project when the dialogue has been butchered this badly. I do not for a minute blame the studio for pulling the plug on Soderbergh. I certainly would've done the same.

However, I will not give one shit about this project unless someone tells me that Aaron Sorkin (and his team of writers) fixed the problems in Zaillian's script and focused on the character's journey.

For An Intro to the Moneyball Disaster, Click here.
For Steven Zaillian's Moneyball Script, Part 1, Click here.
For Steven Zaillian's Moneyball Script, Part 2, Click here.

Mystery Man is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. He blogs at and tweets at And he has nice shoes.
A version of this post originally appeared on Mystery Man on Film.

Discussing November/December With Andrew Shearer

Attention blossoming screenwriters who think screenwriting is a solitary art form: Read Script’s article Anything but Elementary: Sherlock Holmes by Ray Morton with additional reporting by Bob Verini, and realize, as Editor in Chief Shelly Mellott put it, “It is better when we all work together.” Morton’s article breaks down four different credited writers’ contributions on the new Sherlock Holmes movie, as well as how various directors contributed at different stages of the project and how much Robert Downey Jr. contributed on his own, too.

I think it’s an illuminating exercise to see how one writer can be brought on to solve a particular problem another writer couldn’t. Sometimes, it takes more than one perspective, more than one brain. Sometimes four. I hear writers complain all the time about how scripts get “rewritten by other writers” and about how they could “never work with a partner” and sometimes it seems like any time they have to leave the confines of their room and their laptop, they might breakdown because they have to actually speak to another human. If you want to write solo, people, write a novel!

Look, there’s nothing wrong with writing alone all day, huddled up in a room with the shades barely drawn -- we all do it. But my point is if you’re writing screenplays for the movies, you’re eventually going to have to collaborate. That means taking notes from directors, producers, maybe even working with another writer. Personally, I love getting rewritten! I get rewritten everyday by my writing partner. The best challenge in the world is to write something that doesn’t get sent back to me rewritten, but that comes back untouched. That’s when I know I’m on my game.

I echo Derek Haas’ sentiments he shared in Script Girl’s column about writing with his partner, “Working together makes us better at collaborating …” Now, I’m not saying you have to have a partner to be a good screenwriter obviously, but I am saying you have to be a good collaborator to be successful in the screenwriting business. In order to fund my writing career, I worked as an editor for many years in Los Angeles, and nothing annoyed me more than other editors who said “I can’t stand when the director stands over your back giving notes.” But they’re the director! Of course they should be doing that! Personally, as an editor, that’s a lot more exciting to me than sitting in a room editing by myself.

My point in all of this isn’t to say that we should all be happy when we get rewritten because I’m sure it burns really badly when you’re feeling wonderful about your work only to see it turned into a big, steaming pile of shit based on some seriously misguided studio notes -- handed down to the new writer who just replaced you. My point is you need to step out of the cave. Bounce your ideas off your peers, get notes, and practice collaboration. Because the people getting these jobs today are the ones who learned this a long time ago.

A redneck from Small Town, North Carolina (population 8,000, high school drop-out rate 40%), one day decided to tackle the film industry. Andrew’s film-school short, Son Up, based off his experience teaching at a juvenile hall, ended up winning seven festival awards and made the regionals for the Student Academy Awards. Andrew’s feature script version of Son Up, co-written with Nick Sherman, went on to win first prize at Cinequest. Then one day, the screenwriting gods shined their rarely shown light down from the Heavens and awarded the Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship to Andrew and Nick for their feature script, Holy Irresistible. The duo is now repped by Endeavor and Brillstein Entertainment. They have two projects in development and are lucky enough to be co-writing a spec with another writer they’ve admired for years.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Mystery Man: Steven Zaillian's Moneyball Script, Pt 2

There is a lot of entertainment value in the story. You have a baseball team losing its best players. The A’s do not have enough money to buy solid replacements. You have a protagonist with a clear goal of getting this team out of the cellar and engineering a winning season, and interesting enough, he does so with “bad” players. You have a strong masculine physical lead role. You have fast scenes with fast, smart, snappy dialogue, which I’m sure Pitt couldn’t wait to rattle off in front of cameras.

Those factors alone make the script passable, but the story as a whole gives me pause. Not only that, the idea of adapting this book, which was essentially about statistics and how scouts changed the way they viewed the statistical value of players, also gives me pause.

Why? There’s no theme or strong emotional hook to this concept. There’s too much emphasis on statistics and not enough on characters. After its all over, when you think, “so what was that all about?” you realize that this story essentially amounts to the audience saying, “oh, isn’t it interesting how the Oakland A’s re-thought the statistical game and came up with a winning team with undervalued players on a tight budget.” That’s not a movie. That’s an article for Sports Illustrated. That’s a made-for-TV-event targeted to the most hardcore-statistics-lovin’- baseball-fanatics. For a movie that’ll get distributed around the world, this kind of anecdote about a change in the way we view statistics is at best a side note for what should be a bigger story, for what should be a gripping theme and emotional hook, which should be centered on the character’s journey. We don’t have that here.

What do we have? We have 128 pages of Billy Beane playing hardball with his scouts, with the owner, with the coach, with Paul the economist, and he’s doing what he can to change the way people think about statistics to create a winning team. We have flashbacks to Billy’s past that only serve to show how the emphasis on Billy’s personal statistics during his brief attempt at playing baseball shaped his thinking as an executive and helped bring about change to how the scouts view statistics. Okay, so what? That’s just exposition. Billy goes through women as often as he goes through baseball players, which never changes, and from what I’ve read isn’t historically accurate either. So I have to ask, “How does that serve the story?” We’re occasionally shown Billy hanging out with his daughter, which likewise does nothing to advance the story but only serves to show a different side of Billy. Of course, I’m all for character depth and I do not believe it essential that every character arcs.

But in the end, you walk away feeling not as exhilarated as you had hoped because there’s an emphasis on the intellect over the emotion. That’s really evident toward the end when the story loses steam and fails to deliver the emotional goods as it should. The fact that there’s Bill James occasionally popping up to explain statistics to us only illustrates my point that there’s too much emphasis on things other than the character’s journey. James reminded me of the motivational coach in Jerry Maguire whose words had so much more heart and who existed solely to support the character’s journey.

Consider the greatest baseball films ever made. Pride of the Yankees, a favorite of mine about Lou Gehrig -- that’s a character’s journey. The Natural -- character’s journey. Field of Dreams -- character’s journey. Major League, Bull Durham, A League of Their Own -- all about the character’s journey.

What’s my mantra? Characters come first.

It’s so strange that throughout this script, various characters repeatedly talk about and watch The Natural, which only made me prefer that story over this one and which also reminded me that the best stories stay focused on the character’s journey. We know the theme in The Natural -- dreams deferred. Would you still pursue your dreams when the world thinks you’re past your prime? Great! I’m there rooting for Roy Hobbs like the rest of the world. But what’s the theme of Moneyball? I’m not sure, but I can tell you that statistics is not a theme. That’s a intellectual argument. If it was up to me, I’d de-emphasize statistics and emphasize something entirely different that gives us a strong theme and an emotional hook. Say, a theme about failure. How often and how long can you endure failure before you give up your dreams? Thus, we’d be rooting for Billy to “never give up your dreams.”

When you cannot easily articulate your theme, when the emphasis on a script is on something factual or on anything other than the character’s journey, it is an inevitability as sure as death and taxes that despite great scenes and snappy dialogue, the story will fall flat in the end.

Tomorrow: Soderbergh's Moneyball script

Mystery Man is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. He blogs at and tweets at And he has nice shoes.
A version of this post originally appeared on Mystery Man on Film.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Mystery Man: Steven Zaillian's Moneyball Script, Pt 1

There is a character moment in the opening sequence that I loved, probably lost now forever. Fade In. We’re flying over the Oakland Coliseum at night, the floodlights on. We drift past the Oakland A’s three premier players painted on concrete, a good visual setup. These guys are essential to the story. We turn, dip, and float toward the A’s dugout. There’s the faint sound of crowds cheering. There’s the voice over of a sports announcer talking about an exciting game: “one out, nobody on, two on two to Saenz…” We descend into the dugout and over to the tunnel and into the “netherworld bowels of the Coliseum.” The cheering and the voices of the two sports announcers get louder.

We continue to move down the cinder-block corridor “dimly lit with wire-encased lamps like in a coal mine.” The announcer’s growing voice continues: “a ground out to second, Thom, is not what the A’s were looking for from Saenz – down by two in the ninth.”

We float into a room and see the solitary figure of protagonist Billy Beane bench-pressing “with the intensity of a soul expiating sins” as a nearby TV plays a game taking place somewhere else. Announcer: “- the A’s are down to their last strike and this Yankee crowd is on its feet. Rivera squints for the sign, gets it, delivers, and –“ Billy turns off the sound. He cannot bear this moment. He goes back to his bench pressing “like he’s trying to sweat out the impurities of deed or thought.” He sits up, switches the sound back on. Announcer: “it is bedlam in New York! The Yankees have done what no other team in MLB history has been able to do: come back after losing the first two games to win a Division Series!”

Billy sits up. He walks out as the announcer continues: “This is historic not only for New York, Thom, but for Oakland. The A’s have just set a new record, too, but not the kind you want: no other team has ever lost a division series after winning the first two games…” The TV shows the Yankees constructing a human pyramid at home plate while the A’s, including the ones we saw painted on the concrete, sit glumly in the visitors’ dugout, cameras zooming into their shell-shocked faces.

“Billy pulls himself up off the bench, walks over to an equipment area, selects a bat, regards his surroundings calmly… then suddenly swings the bat mightily at an open locker door, ripping it from its hinges… He attacks another locker, spreading its vents with a violent crash. He slams the bat into another locker… wood-splinters fly…”

That, my friends, is how you open a screenplay that will be greenlit by a studio for millions and millions of dollars with a premium director and global star attached.

A few thoughts about this sequence:

* Zaillian, first of all, gives us an intriguing shot that pulls you in as we float over an empty Oakland Coliseum and into its bowels. So often we think of strong openings as plot-related, that is, something exciting happens in the plot within the first five pages that makes us want to keep reading. Many times, though, intriguing shots can tease us with visuals that make you curious and want to keep reading to see where the shot and the story will take us. This is a great reminder to let your imagination take flight and consider unique experiences and new ways of looking at subjects we’ve seen many times before in film. There’s no limit to screenwriting, and yet, too often, we confine our imaginations.

* Zaillian also solves some tricky issues about the setting with this floating shot. This story is about the Oakland A’s, although this crucial, painful loss to the Yankees, which is the inciting incident, takes place in New York. You can’t change that. So we’re shown in this sequence the empty A’s stadium, how important these premier players are to thousands of Oakland fans by the fact that they’re painted on the concrete, which is contrasted later with their shell-shocked faces on TV after a stunning loss. Following this game, those players will become free agents, another huge loss to the organization.

* I love the shift in values over the course of this one sequence. At first, the juxtaposition of these words and images in the context of the baseball genre usually implies that this is a “reliving the glory days” kind of moment. The bread and butter of baseball is a romantic sentimentalism about the game. Here, you assume you’re hearing the ghosts of a past game that took place in the stadium in which there will be the inevitable thrilling victory. But we find that this isn’t the case at all. This is a very haunting present, complemented visually with this night shot and the darkened cinder-block corridor “dimly lit with wire-encased lamps like in a coal mine.” This haunting present leads to a very painful conclusion of a very important game that will set this entire movie in motion.

* I love how we’re first presented Billy Beane. He is so gripped by his turmoil about this game that he can’t watch it. He has to work-out while the game is being played. It’s a kind of manly expression of anxiety not seen in film before, I don’t believe, and without Billy saying a word, we understand his pain, not just because he’s bench pressing like his soul depends on it but also by seeing him turn off the sound of a moment he knew was coming that he cannot bear to hear. In that moment, we feel the sting of his loss. We know his obvious frustrations and goals for the Oakland A’s. We also get a sense of his past, too. He’s working out because he must’ve been a player. Or, at least, he aspired to be a player.

* Every detail in your screenplay is important in terms of the information you’re passing along to the audience. What did Zaillian do? He hooked us with an imaginative opening shot that sets up expectations about what we’ll be seeing in the film. He makes us want to keep reading. We want to know where we’re being taken and who we’ll be seeing. We think we’re hearing a sentimental glory moment and that expectation is turned on its head. He also slyly establishes the setting, the inciting incident, the principal characters, the protagonist, the protagonist's goal, backstory, and inner turmoil about his team, and he does all of these things in under two pages.

I dare you to do better.

Mystery Man is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. He blogs at and tweets at And he has nice shoes.
A version of this post originally appeared on Mystery Man on Film.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Mystery Man: An Intro to the Moneyball Disaster

Let’s talk scandal, baby!

Moneyball was in development a few years and championed by Columbia Pictures co-chair cutie Amy Pascal. It’s an adaptation of a popular book by Michael Lewis.

Whispering lips say the studio spent roughly $10 million to get this project off the ground. Steven Zaillian wrote a script. Everybody loved it. Soderbergh came onboard. Brad Pitt came onboard. The budget ballooned to around $57 million, which is quite risky. Baseball movies can be hit and miss. They rarely play well overseas, and you’re lucky to get $35 million domestic.

Soderbergh told ESPN: "My clearly stated goal is to set a new standard for realism in that [sports] world." He proceeded to tinker with Steven Zaillian’s script.

Just days before production was to begin, Amy Pascal gasped and pulled the plug.

Soderbergh’s tinkering gave the studio a case of cold feet. The project was put into limited turnaround, which meant that other studios had the chance to pick it up. They all politely declined.

According to Michael Fleming:

“Soderbergh and Pascal had discussions about his vision when the director signed on, Soderbergh last Tuesday turned in a rewrite that sources said was substantially different from a Zaillian script that Pascal -- and Pitt -- loved. Soderbergh took the film from a classically structured drama to a hybrid that has a documentary feel, complete with footage of actual ballplayers who witnessed Beane’s metamorphosis from player to exec who fielded competitive teams by using statistics instead of paying big salaries. Pitt didn’t read the script until last Wednesday, but he continued to back Soderbergh.”

Oh, but wait. There’s also the Brad Pitt theory:

“The new spin out of the Sony camp … is that Brad Pitt disliked the new script as much as Amy Pascal and that he is the one who secretly sunk the ship, though he didn't want to be seen as doing it.”

But then Anne Thompson wrote:

“That is not what I'm hearing from Pitt's camp. They say he was ready to make Soderbergh's movie. It's hard to imagine Pitt agreeing to make the movie with another director at this point. It would have to be Soderbergh or no one. Pascal was demanding certain changes that Pitt and Soderbergh refused to make and threw her foot down, perfectly willing to walk away. Point is, she would have made the movie a year ago. She can't afford for this movie to lose money right now, bottom line.”

But, of course, Pitt’s camp would continue to publicly back Soderbergh, wouldn’t they?

Then there was that infamous e-mail that made the rounds and got removed.

David Poland had many questions, such as “How could Soderbergh be shooting interviews for the movie on the studio dime without the studio knowing what his plan was?”

But no worries, Aaron Sorkin’s on it now. And, apparently, he has a whole team of writers.

And now Soderbergh has relaxed and joked about the whole sad affair:

"There have been a couple of times in my career where I’ve been unceremoniously removed from projects. I don’t waste a lot of energy on it. It doesn’t get you anywhere. As soon as it became clear that there was no iteration of that movie that I was going to get to direct, I immediately started looking around for something else to do. I have a couple of other things in development that I had hoped to move up, but actors' schedules wouldn’t allow it. But I have something I can get to after the first of the year, and I’m supposed to do my Liberace movie next summer. So my attitude when something like that happens is, ‘What’s next?’ You can’t dwell on it.”

Brad Pitt still sounds hopeful, but as he said, “It’s a weird climate right now.”

So let’s analyze the scripts, MM-style.

Tomorrow: Zaillian's script.

Mystery Man is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. He blogs at and tweets at And he has nice shoes.
A version of this post originally appeared on Mystery Man on Film.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Staton Rabin: Breaking In: Zen and the Art of Guerrilla Script Marketing

I don’t have to tell you that there are too many writers trying to break into the film business these days. When it comes to writers and “Hollywood," I’m reminded of what baseball great and part-time philosopher Yogi Berra oxymoronically said about his favorite restaurant: “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.”

Frankly, up till now, I’ve been hesitant to tell you all my secrets about how to break into the film industry. It feels a little like telling you about my favorite neighborhood restaurant -- a little hideaway with great food. If everyone knows about it, the place is going to get awfully crowded. Maybe I won’t even be able to find a seat at the table for myself anymore. Well, I’ve finally decided that the movie business can’t get much more crowded than it already is. I’ve had a seat at the table long enough. It’s time to give some other writers a chance.

I’ve been a story analyst for over 25 years. During that time, I’ve also sold six books to major publishers, gotten a big film deal with a superstar attached, have been in the Hollywood trades over a dozen times, and been profiled in The New York Times. I’ve even lectured about screenwriting aboard the greatest ocean liner in the world, the Queen Mary 2, where I became the only seasick screenwriting teacher on the Seven Seas.

In this blog, I’m going to show you everything I know about how to break into the film industry as a writer. For those of you who don’t read Script, I’ve noticed that a lot of what you’ve been told elsewhere is dead wrong -- designed to capitalize on writers’ anxieties.

To quote the sage of the Yankees, Mr. Berra, again, “You can observe a lot just by watchin’.” Well, in my long career in the movie business, I’ve learned a lot just by watching. And by listening to other writers’ stories and helping them with their scripts, I’ve come to better understand why my approach to breaking into the business has worked for me and my clients -- and why, too often, other writers fail or give up too soon.

You see, until I began teaching screenwriters about eight years ago, I didn’t realize that there was anything unusual about my approach to writing and marketing my own books and scripts, which explained my success. My approach was hard work, but it came naturally to me. I figured every writer used the same approach I did. But I was wrong.

I’ve since learned that there are a boatload of myths and misconceptions out there about how to break into the business as a screenwriter. I also came to understand how my own attitude, personality, and method of doing work and business gave me certain advantages and explained my success. There were big differences, I discovered, between the way I saw the world and the way most other aspiring writers did. And it’s those differences that became the key to my understanding of why some writers succeed, and others fail.

I spent some time picking out a name for this ongoing column. It’s no accident that the title seems almost as oxymoronic as any quote from Yogi Berra. After all, how can an approach to marketing a screenplay be both “zen” (peaceful, thoughtful, enlightened, restrained) and “guerrilla” (creatively aggressive and proactive) -- a seeming contradiction in terms?

Well, it turns out that those two words aren’t contradictions at all. And learning how to use both qualities simultaneously is one of the secrets to writing and selling a screenplay. As for the rest, stay tuned. That’s what this blog is going to be all about.
Staton Rabin is a screenplay marketing consultant, script analyst, and “pitch coach” for screenwriters at all levels of experience. She is also a Senior Writer and story analyst for Script, has been a reader for Warner Bros. Pictures and New Line Cinema, and is a frequent guest lecturer at NYU. Staton’s novel Betsy and the Emporer is in development as a movie with Al Pacino attached to star. She is available for consultations. Contact:

Monday, October 5, 2009

Discussing September/October With Andrew Shearer, Part 2

As new writers, it’s always hard to know whose advice to listen to. In film school, when sulky students got feedback they didn’t like, they’d complain, “If the professor knows so much about making films, why is he teaching, instead of making them?” Well if we already knew so much about making films, we wouldn’t have had to go to film school in the first place. I find the best guidance comes when it’s oriented toward making your project the best based on your own vision, not someone else’s.

Upon reading Staton Rabin’s article Screenwriting Snafus, I think she offers some great tidbits of advice, particularly “A ‘Typical’ Script," “Prozac®, Anyone?,” and “Waitress #1, Thug #2.” But honestly, the rest of the advice seemed to suggest we’re writing scripts for contest readers alone, as if we’re honing them for their tastes. Don’t get me wrong, I get what she’s saying -- I’ve read for several contests, and I feel her pain. But advice requires a little more nuance.

For instance, “Let It Be.” I agree, bad idea to fill your script with popular songs. But I think new writers will read other scripts and see examples of that and wonder why other writers do it. I recently read Judd Apatow’s Funny People, and it’s filled with references to popular songs. Most of them didn’t make the final film, but it was about “the read.” He wanted to evoke a certain emotion for that scene. My advice is to follow Staton’s suggestion for the most part. However, if there’s that one scene in your script where you think there’s that perfect song for it, I say put it in there. It doesn’t really matter if it makes the final film, it’s about evoking emotion. Be specific in your choice, but not obscure.

I also take issue with a few examples in the “Omit” section. New writers will see examples of “establishing shots,” “camera/editing directions,” and “This is John Jones” in professional scripts and wonder why they can’t use those techniques themselves. You can, you might just piss of Staton. My advice -- use them in extreme moderation.

Finally -- and contest readers will KILL me for this one -- “War and Peace.” Yes, the Hollywood standard for scripts is 120 pages or less. Yes, in general, if your script is less than a 120 pages, it gives you a better chance of winning a contest, so it’s probably good advice. However, out of the 40 contest scripts I read this summer, two that brought tears to my eyes (in a good way) were 136 pages and 126 pages. Two of the most awful scripts I’ve ever suffered through in my entire life, were 88 pages and 92 pages. So my advice is make your script read well! Make it a smooth, quick read. Have friends read it, get feedback before you submit it. The 136-page script was a character-driven script, filled with wonderful dialogue, and it read quicker than the 88-page script, which left me scarred for the rest of my life. Okay, that’s my humble take for the month. If my fellow contest-reading colleagues read this, I expect them to trash me.

A redneck from Small Town, North Carolina (population 8,000, high school drop-out rate 40%), one day decided to tackle the film industry. Andrew’s film-school short, Son Up, based off his experience teaching at a juvenile hall, ended up winning seven festival awards and made the regionals for the Student Academy Awards. Andrew’s feature script version of Son Up, co-written with Nick Sherman, went on to win first prize at Cinequest. Then one day, the screenwriting gods shined their rarely shown light down from the Heavens and awarded the Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship to Andrew and Nick for their feature script, Holy Irresistible. The duo is now repped by Endeavor and Brillstein Entertainment. They have two projects in development and are lucky enough to be co-writing a spec with another writer they’ve admired for years.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Steve Kaire: 12 Brainstorming Techniques

Odd Couples
This is exactly what the title implies. Two people are thrown together in a situation in which they’re stuck. In the film and TV series of the same name, it was a slob and his obsessively neat roommate. In The Defiant Ones, Sidney Poitier was an escaped convict chained to a racist played by Tony Curtis. War movies frequently had two enemies who found themselves in the same foxhole or building and have to cooperate with each other to survive. Enemy Mine had a human and an alien facing a similar situation.

The Blank From Hell
Here, you have to fill in the blank with a noun that hasn’t been done before. The Affair From Hell is the film Fatal Attraction. The Roommate From Hell is the movie, Single White Female. The Patient From Hell is What About Bob? The Doll From Hell is Chucky. And so on.

Fish Out of Water
This technique has been used in literature for a long time. You take a person out of their normal environment and place them in a radically different one. Examples would be Beverly Hills Cop, where a Detroit cop investigates his partner’s murder in the city of Beverly Hills. Another is Crocodile Dundee, where a crocodile hunter from the Australian outback encounters the urban jungle of New York City. There’s also the film Splash, which is literally a fish out of water story.

Amateur Blank
Here again the challenge is to fill in the blank with a noun that we haven’t seen before. I’ve sold two stories that were Amateur Detectives. Illustrations of movies in this category are Critical Condition, where Richard Pryor impersonates a doctor. The Couch Trip, where Dan Aykroyd escapes from an asylum and pretends to be a psychiatrist. Also, Trial and Error, in which actor Michael Richards passes himself off as an attorney.

Fairy Tales, Myths & Stories That Are Updated
Here you take an old classic and contemporize it. It’s the same structure, similar story, but occurs in the present time. Pretty Woman is really Pygmalion. Trading Places is a modern version of The Prince and the Pauper. The obsessive hunt for the great white shark in Jaws is not much different than the search for the great white whale in Moby Dick.

Information No One Else Knows
I’ve sold three projects that I initially saw on the news that fall into this category. The information is unusual, sometimes amazing, and the general public is completely unaware of it. The movie Con Air is based on the U.S. government's real airline that transports the nation’s most dangerous criminals from state-to-state. That was the basis for the film. The information revealed doesn’t always have to be true. In Men in Black, what is fascinating is the notion that there’s a secret government agency that tracks the whereabouts of aliens that are living on earth and which also has strange alien life forms working for them.

First Time
This refers to a situation which occurs for the very first time. There was a film in development that was supposed to star Michael J. Fox called Vassar. It was about the first guy to attend Vassar, an all female college. The conflicts and romantic entanglements are obvious in a setup of this type. Another example is the comedy My Cousin Vinny. A Brooklyn attorney who’s never tried a case before in his life is summoned to a southern town by his cousin, who’s charged with murder. The attorney, played by Joe Pesci, must win this case despite his inexperience and the fact that he’s totally out of his natural element.

Stumble Into
This technique has been around for a long time. It always involves an average person who by chance, is thrust into a monumental life-threatening situation they have no control of. James Stewart in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, is a man confined to a wheelchair who believes he’s witnessed the murder of one of his neighbors. Whoopi Goldberg is a telephone operator who overhears what she thinks is a spy plot in Jumping Jack Flash. In Cellular, a guy is mistakenly called on his cell phone by a total stranger who claims she’s being held hostage and pleads for him to help her.

The Ultimate Blank
Again you must fill in the blank with a noun that hasn’t been done before. If you substitute the word "Shark" in the blank, we would get the movie Jaws. Plug in the word "Dog," and we have the movie Cujo. Insert the noun "Cop," and we have the film Robocop.

Unintended Consequences
This method is almost always used in the science-fiction or adventure genre. An experiment is taking place and something goes terribly wrong. In The Fly, Jeff Goldblum is a scientist performing a genetic experiment on himself in an isolation chamber when a housefly flies into the booth and he’s transformed into a half-man, half-fly. In Jurassic Park, an amusement park has genetically engineered ancient dinosaurs for the public’s entertainment. The dinosaurs escape and wreak havoc on the guests. In the family film, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, a scientist who’s experimenting with miniaturization accidentally shrinks his children. His kids must then try to get from their yard back into their house and get the attention of their unsuspecting father to return them back to regular size.

Going to Extreme Measures
Here we start with a character who must take some extreme or outrageous action to reach his or her goal. In Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman is an impossible actor to work with. He can’t find employment until he dresses up like a woman and lands a role in a soap opera. In that same vein is the movie Mrs. Doubtfire. Robin Williams’ ex-wife has a new boyfriend and Williams is forced to don a nanny’s uniform in order to spend more time with his children and try to win his ex-wife back.

Fatal Character Flaws
This showcases a character who has a major weakness in his or her personality which causes them major complications. In Liar, Liar, Jim Carrey is a lawyer defending a client in the most important case of his career. But because of a wish his son made that caused his father to have to tell the truth for 24 hours, Carrey is forced to do the opposite of what his profession normally entails: lying. Another example would be A Christmas Carol. Here the character of Scrooge is an old, bitter miser who is given a chance at redemption when he is haunted by ghosts on Christmas Eve.

Steve Kaire is a screenwriter-pitchman who’s sold/optioned eight projects to the major studios without representation. He’s taught writing classes at the American Film Institute and has appeared on the Tonight Show’s “Pitching to America” with Jay Leno. His groundbreaking CD entitled, High Concept: How to Create,Pitch & Sell to Hollywood is a best-seller and is available on his website:

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Ray Morton: Abyssinia, Larry

We lost one of the greats when Larry Gelbart passed away on Friday, September 11, 2009. Born in 1928, Gelbart was a truly gifted writer’s writer that refused to confine himself to a single format. He began his career as a teenager penning jokes and skits for the Danny Thomas radio show. He also worked for Jack Paar and Bob Hope and then became a staff writer on the classic radio sitcom Duffy’s Tavern. In the 1950s, he made the transition to television, most notably joining the bullpen on Caesar’s Hour alongside such other future notables as Neil Simon, Mel Brooks, and Woody Allen. In the 1960s he began writing both for the screen (his debut feature script was 1962’s The Notorious Landlady. He also worked on the screenplays of The Thrill of It All, The Wrong Box, and Not With My Wife You Don’t, among others) and for the stage (most notably collaborating with Burt Shevelove on the book for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) and continued to work in television (writing and producing The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine and contributing to a number of other shows as well).

The highest profile portion of Gelbart’s career began in 1972, when producer Gene Reynolds hired him to adapt the smash hit movie M*A*S*H for television. Gelbart spent four years with the show, first as executive story consultant and then as co-executive producer, writing or rewriting most of the episodes and directing a bunch as well. After leaving the Korean War behind, Gelbart wrote more screenplays (Oh, God, Movie Movie, Tootsie), continued to work in television -- both in series (Roll Out, United States, After M*A*S*H) and in MOWs (Barbarians at the Gate, … And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself) -- and in the theater (Sly Fox, City of Angels, Mastergate). He also wrote a book (his 1997 autobiography Laughing Matters: On Writing M*A*S*H, Tootsie, Oh, God!, and a Few Other Funny Things), articles, message board postings, blog entries, and even a few songs.

Although Gelbart had a masterful sense of plot and characterization, he was best known for his biting wit. A passionate humanist that admired decency, correct behavior, and noble effort, Gelbart was moved to furious indignation by anything -- greed, hypocrisy, prejudice, chicanery, self-righteousness, willful ignorance, war-mongering, the bureaucratic and institutional mentality -- that sought to impinge on peoples’ rights, lives, or dignity. Gelbart took aim at such targets with gusto and would lacerate them with barbs that were as truthful and searing as they were funny (and they were damn funny).

Gelbart obviously has a lot of really impressive work on his CV (the screenplay for Tootsie -- which is one of the smartest, funniest scripts ever -- borders on the sublime), but for me his greatest achievement will always be those first four seasons of M*A*S*H, which as far as I’m concerned are a virtual encyclopedia of really great writing.

To begin with, the approach was groundbreaking. Gelbart stated many times that when he was first approached to adapt the film for television, he had no interest in turning Robert Altman’s anti-war black comedy into just another service sitcom in the Gomer Pyle/McHale’s Navy mode. At the time he was writing the pilot, America was still in the midst of the Vietnam War and Gelbart felt it would be immoral to trivialize combat and its horrors. So he made the primary focus of M*A*S*H war itself and the show dealt with it unflinchingly -- the (often) dark comedy came out of the obscene situation that the show’s doctors found themselves in (repairing soldiers’ wounds so that they could be sent back to the front to be shot up all over again) and their struggle to maintain their dignity and their sanity in the midst of it. The operating room scenes were played straight (although often with a welcome gallows humor to cut the tension) and one of the show’s signature moments was the war-related death of one of its beloved regulars (McLean Stevenson’s Henry Blake in the classic episode "Abyssinia, Henry"). At the time, such a combination of comedy and drama was unheard of, but by insisting on it, Gelbart (along with Norman Lear and the writers at producers at MTM) helped make television comedy more smart, mature and sophisticated than it had ever been before (and, some might argue, has ever been since).

It was also really clever. Aside from generating an unending string of brilliant one-liners, Gelbart had enormous fun playing with the storytelling -- the show had heavily plotted episodes and virtually plot-less episodes and even an episode that was totally improvised. The show had verbal gags, sight gags, non-linear narratives, and multiple plotlines that magically intertwined at the climax. It found ways to make serious subject matter funny and found the profound poignancy in even the silliest of conceits. The invention and innovation was constant and thrilling -- you can practically feel Gelbart’s enjoyment as he pushed the envelope in every possible direction -- and is something that I still marvel at after all these years.

The characters in M*A*S*H were all sharp and funny and very real, most especially Hawkeye Pierce, who Gelbart used as something of a surrogate for himself and through whom the writer channeled his passion, his intelligence, his anger and vulnerability, his silliness, his profound respect for humanity and his hatred of anything that conspired against it. Gelbart had a virtuoso dexterity with words that grew out of his passionate love for the English language and he used Hawkeye’s dialogue to playfully twist them, tease them, and send them aloft with soaring verbal arias of wit, passion, nonsense, outrage and humor.

Gelbart left the 4077th after four years, feeling he had given it his all. The show continued without him for another seven seasons and morphed into something softer, preachier, and much more conventional. It was still entertaining and often quite good, but never again equaled the brilliance of the Gelbart era. I learned, and continue to learn, so much about screenwriting from those 96 episodes. And they still make me laugh.

So now Larry Gelbart is gone. Luckily for us, he leaves behind a tremendous body of work for us to enjoy. That’s almost a consolation for having no new Larry Gelbart work to look forward to. Almost.

Ray Morton is a writer and script consultant. His books Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg's Classic Film and King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon from Fay Wray to Peter Jackson are available in stores and online. He analyzes screenplays for production companies, producers, and individual writers. Morton is available for consultation and can be reached at