The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig, how are you? How was your first week of production?
Craig: It was good. Everything’s humming along. And that’s all I can say. [laughs]
John: This is your day off though, right?
Craig: Yeah. A little bit of a day off today.
John: So, what people may not understand is that when you’re in production you’re usually shooting either 5-day weeks or 6-day weeks. You’re in town, so it’s a 5-day week?
Craig: Yeah, well, sort of. I mean, for a lot of the schedules that I get involved in sometimes you have — I mean, I haven’t done a 6-day week in a long, long time. That’s really a low budget kind of thing to do. But some weeks you do do six days, and then other weeks you’ll do four days, because when you’re dealing with actors, particularly in comedies, almost every — no, half, let’s say, of comic actors are also on TV shows. And you can’t always shoot inside of everyone’s hiatus.
So, sometimes you have to adjust your schedule to work with their TV schedule. So you end up with odd weeks. I mean, our weeks are mostly 5-day weeks, but they’re offset in strange ways. So I have weird weekends that aren’t actually the weekend.
John: Yeah. If you talk to people who work on movies or on TV shows, you often find that their weekend is like a Sunday and a Monday, or a Monday and a Tuesday. And some of that reason may be because they need to shoot locations that would be occupied during weekdays. And so they need to shoot those locations during weekends, Saturdays and Sundays. And so their schedule might be Tuesday through Saturday or Wednesday through Sunday. And it’s a busy, complicated life.
The other thing to understand is that typically over the course of a week’s production you might start like at 6am on the first day and you’re shooting 12 hours or however many hours you’re shooting. But your schedule sort of drifts over the course of that week. And so by the time you’re into your Friday or your Saturday you may be starting at like three in the afternoon and going to like three in the morning. And your turnaround, which is the time between when you wrap it up and where you start the next day’s production, or your weekend in that case, you may have really eaten half of that day because you shot so late into the next day.
Craig: Yeah. Production isn’t exactly the healthiest thing for your body. I mean, we have rhythms and we like to sort of wake up around the same time and we like to go to bed around the same time. And you simply can’t do that with production. Two reasons: One, as you mentioned, there are locations that sometimes don’t allow you to be in certain places. The other issue is that when we shoot at night you have to suddenly be nocturnal. And then there are splits where you shoot half of day, half of night.
And then the phenomenon you’re describing, the kind of call time creep occurs because there are rules governing how much time off, crew, everybody gets between when you finish a day’s work and when you start the next day’s work. And I think it’s 12 hours. So, if you go over your normal 12-hour day, and that often happens, the next day you just start that much later in the morning, and so, you know, when you have movies that are constantly going over, by the time you roll around to Friday you might be starting at three in the afternoon because you finished at 3am the night before.
John: Yeah. So it becomes complicated based on your locations, based on your actors, based on everything else. And as you get more experience with this as a screenwriter you may find yourself not writing so many night exteriors that sort of demand to be shot out at night.
My first movie that was in production, of course, was Go. And Go takes place entirely at night really. And that meant we were outside at night, all night, for 30 days of production. And that got to be a real drag.
So, I wouldn’t do anything different about Go, but other movies I’ve written in the future I’ve been very mindful of “Is this a movie I would want to direct,” for example, “that takes place so much at night, so much in exteriors?”
Craig: You know, it’s one of those things when you’re in the middle of it you think, frankly everything about movie production I’m constantly thinking, “I can’t believe this is the best way of doing this.”
And I start to understand why guys who have been around for a long, long time start to drift towards mo-cap, because for somebody like Zemeckis or Spielberg, and they’ve done all these movies, they’ve gone through this harrowing physical trial so many times. The thought of being able to just shoot a movie in an air-conditioned room without running around and standing in the heat, it’s very seductive.
But, the truth is I love writing stuff that happens at night because I find night to be just more cinematic. You know? I’m always writing stuff — I love it.
John: The best part of shooting at night is also sometimes things just are quiet, and there’s not a lot of hubbub, and you can sort of create your world yourself, and there’s not just distractions. You just do your thing. It can be a nice thing, too.
Craig: Yeah. And I don’t know, there’s a weird, there’s just a cool vibe at night. I don’t know for whatever reason. And the weirdest thing, you know, when you make movies you hear about this in pop culture, people know about this phrase, “We’re losing the light.” You know, you’re always racing daylight if you’re doing a day shoot and trying to get that last shot in before the DP says, “No, we officially have crossed into evening.”
But the weirdest thing is when you’re chasing dark.
Craig: You know?
John: That was Go.
Craig: It’s just wild, yeah.
John: Because we were shooting these last little… I was directing second unit on Go, and we’d be shooting these insert shots like in an alley. And the sun would be coming up and you’re like, “No, no, no, hurry, hurry!” And just trying to block off the light. You’re trying to pick up flags just to make it a little bit darker here so you get his one last shot.
And you’re so exhausted. I remember thinking, like, “We should just build some sort of rocket that we could shoot at the sun to a make it dark.” And you can’t. That would not be a good — probably — thing for the world.
Craig: [laughs] I just like the idea that people would look up and riots would begin as everybody understood that the world was ending, the sun was not coming up, and then finally somebody would announce, “No, no, no, it’s okay; it’s just for the next 20 minutes because a guy somewhere needs a shot for second unit.”
John: Totally. It’s completely worth it.
Today, Craig, I thought we would talk about two main topics. The first is what producers do, and specifically what they kind of don’t do. And I also thought we’d talk about pitching and sort of how pitches work, because I’m busy with a pitch right now and I think I have some things to say about it. But we also have some follow up, so let’s start with some follow up.
John: First up, a couple weeks ago on the podcast I was sort of venting about how, or at least my perception is that if you look through negative reviews of a movie, they’re much more likely to mention the screenwriter than they are in a positive review of the movie. And I didn’t have any scientific facts to back this up. There is just my perception.
And so I asked if there’s anybody out there who wants to do a study where they’re looking through all the reviews in Rotten Tomatoes for a subset of movies and figure out if that’s true or not, and I would really value that data. So, someone stepped up and did it. So this guy named Tim in Hollywood did it.
John: And so he just sent the report, which I haven’t looked through, so I’m only going to read you a little bit from his email. He says, “The report is enclosed, but the short version is: you’re wrong. The opposite is true. Critics are much more likely to mention the writer in a positive review, at least based on this data.”
Craig: Wow. Well that’s really encouraging. I mean, I’m glad we’re wrong. We’re wrong, because I agreed with you. That’s great to hear.
John: Yeah. So I will look through it and I will post it if it’s something that we can discuss and share with everybody else. But I just thought that preliminary finding was interesting. And I’m happy to be wrong. I think people who always want the facts to back them up, they don’t really want the facts, they just want validation.
Craig: Listen, you and I…very early on I understood shared one thing strongly in common, and that was our love for human fallibility, and fallacies, and broken thinking. I’ve always been fascinated with that. And obviously this is a great example of kind of the fallacy of the observer. You know, we see the things that are connected to us emotionally or meaningful and we skip over the things that aren’t. And so I love that. Good.
Second piece of follow up. Dave writes in: “In episode 33 someone asked about an immigration issue. I am still at the point of my career where I have a day job, and that day job is at an immigration law firm doing what is called 01 visas. 01 visas are for ‘aliens of extraordinary ability,’ basically successful individuals in the entertainment industries. In theory this is for Academy Award winners and movie stars, but I get in many people with as little experience as one or two credits for independent films.
“I know what a pain it is to get legal working status and how difficult it must be for that reader dealing with doubly uncertain futures, both as a screenwriter and a non-citizen, so I just wanted to reach out in case there’s a question you find yourself addressing again.”
So, thank you, Dave, for writing in. So what Dave is doing is he works at an immigration law firm, and the kinds of people who want to come to America to work in film or television, he’s the kind of guy who processes that stuff. And so if you find yourself having made a movie oversea and wanting to come to the US, that’s good news.
Craig: I get it. So if you’re Daniel Day-Lewis, and I presume he’s a citizen of the UK, and you need to come here to do a movie, you actually do have to get a work visa, and somebody has to actually tick off which box you are. And it turns out that somebody like Daniel Day-Lewis is an alien of extraordinary ability.
Craig: That’s great.
John: I like that term.
John: Another piece of follow up on HSX, which I think we talked about in the last podcast.
John: So Hunter Daniels, he writes in: “Cantor Fitzgerald did try to make a real-life HSX a few years ago and it fail for a plethora of obvious reasons, but you left out one important fact. Cantor Fitzgerald actually owns and operates HSX. They’ve been using the game to develop the real world version for a number of years. I know because I was part of the beta testing when they got close to asking for regulatory approval.
“Also in regards to your contention that nobody looks at HSX and that it’s an inaccurate tool for box office prognostication: I would have to agree. See, Cantor Fitzgerald runs HSX at a profit because they do mine data from stock movements on the site and sell them to someone for market research purposes. A few weeks out from release, HSX is a very good tool for those who track US grosses.
“For example, the current HSX for Frankenweenie is $46.33, which works out to an expected opening weekend of $17.1 million. It’s not always accurate. For example, fan-boy movies like Prometheus and Scott Pilgrim will always be overpriced while African-American themed movies are almost always underpriced, but again, this actually mimics real world tracking data which is almost always wrong about black-centric breakouts and fan-boy bombs.”
Craig: Ah, okay. I mean, well that’s interesting to know that they own it. The fact that they sell that data doesn’t necessarily mean that the data is valuable. It just means that somebody is agreeing to buy it.
Craig: I mean, I’m still skeptical about the relative value of it. I mean, for instance, NRG, which is the largest box office prognosticator and tracker in our business may very well purchase information from HSX to help them perform their analysis. But, I’m not sure it’s reasonable to say that simply because someone’s buying it it means it’s worth something.
John: Yeah. Again, this does feel like a thing that someone could study and really figure out: how close were they to predicting box office? And I’m sure somebody has studied that. So if you have a great link that shows how accurate the prognostication is from HSX, that would help back up this assertion.
So, a question, not a follow up here. Micah from LA asks, “What are the rules pertaining to naming screenplays the same as previously published films? Or, to take it a step further, what if you have dreams of adapting your screenplay into a different medium like a graphic novel, but there’s already a graphic novel with the same name? Are there any copyright rules for doing this? One search for IMDb for a film called Heat and you see a bunch of different films, so I imagine it’s doable. I don’t want to bring litigation monsters to my doorstep. What do I do?”
So it’s really a couple different questions tangled together, first about how you name movies, and then about how you name other properties, and what’s protectable and what is not protectable. So, should we start about how movies get named?
Craig: Well, yeah, movie titles are actually governed by the MPAA, the same organization that handles the ratings for movies. It’s a trade organization. And so all the members of the MPAA, and you would want to be writing — I mean, I’m assuming you’re writing this for a studio and not for a little independent thing. But, all the members of the MPAA, the big studios, they just agree that this central governing body is going to kind of serve as a clearinghouse for titles.
And the rules about what title you can and can’t use are rather arcane, as you might imagine, because it essentially is kind of a Star Chamber thing. For instance, the very first movie that I ever wrote, I wrote with my then partner Greg, and we titled it Space Cadet. And Disney bought Space Cadet and they made Space Cadet, but as they were going to production as a matter of course they registered the title with the MPAA.
And the MPAA came back and said, “Oh you can’t. George Lucas actually has already registered Space Cadet. He’s going to make a movie called Space Cadet.” And I think Disney said, “Prove it.” Like you can’t just register a title and have nothing. I mean, but you know, if you can show some documentation that you’re working on, sometimes you can buy the title from people. But George Lucas said, “No, no, no. I’m definitely making a movie called Space Cadet,” which as far as I know he has never done.
So we had to change the name of the movie. But that’s really an internal battle between the studios. It doesn’t impact us as screenwriters. The only real rule of titling for me is don’t title it something that’s overtly misleading. Don’t title your screenplay Raiders of the Lost Ark 5, because that’s ridiculous.
But, it’s not our problem. It ultimately is the studio’s problem. Now, this other issue — what was the other issue exactly?
John: The other issue is if he wanted to do a graphic novel or something that wasn’t a movie, and he was concerned about a conflicting title. And so this really gets into understanding that copyright does not protect title. And some titles can be protected by trademark, but trademark is a whole other separate crazy barrel of fish.
John: And trademark is something that can protect a brand when it’s more than just a title for a graphic novel or for something else. It can protect like a toy line, or a line of licensed merchandise. And I just don’t know enough about it to speak.
Craig: Well the basic rule of thumb with trade… — See, copyright is something that’s hard. Either you have authored this unique expression in fixed form, or you haven’t. And then there’s proof in the documentation and the documents are compared. Trademark ultimately turns on a question of interpretation. And the interpretation boils down roughly to: Are you capitalizing on marketplace confusion? That’s basically the deal.
So, I trademark something, you can’t come along and use my trademark in a way that confuses the market into thinking that I’m doing it or you’re a part of me. This is why, for instance, when Apple was sued by the Beatles Apple, part of the deal, part of the settlement, was Apple Computer will stay out of the music business, because that’s what the Apple Publishing was in the UK. And they’re basically saying, “You’re confusing the marketplace. Apple here means music, so stay out of music.”
Then, of course, Apple went into music in a huge way and so on and so forth. But, that’s why for instance companies that have these — brand names that have become generically used like Kleenex…
Craig: Vaseline. If they don’t aggressively protect and defend their trademarks they lose them, because basically the courts say, “You haven’t really been trying to stop marketplace confusion; in fact, you’re kind of capitalizing on marketplace confusion. You like that everybody calls petroleum jelly Vaseline. So, no, now everybody can.”
And so this is why as of late companies get super duper uptight about — like Pampers, I remember when I was a kid. Pampers, I think, at some point had to really struggle to not have all diapers called Pampers.
Craig: But, again, not a writers problem. We don’t have to worry about this so much. As long as you’re not being intentionally misleading, you are fine.
John: Yeah. You should be focusing on, like, what is the best title that feels right for your movie, and don’t worry that back in 1947 there was something else called that.
Craig: Yeah. Because when you sell it, or when somebody publishes it, their legal department will step in and lay it out for you. And then you’ll make a decision.
John: A couple helpful suggestions. So, a project I setup fairly recently we haven’t announced yet, but when I turned it in they were like, “Okay, and now we’re going to make sure we can clear that title.” So what they’re really trying to do is they’re going to register that title with the MPAA and make sure that there’s nothing else that’s going to fight it, because they really do believe they’re going to be able to make a movie out of it pretty soon.
When I had the idea for the title, one of the things I could do was register the domain name for it. That doesn’t help me protect anything about trademark, or title, or the movie version of it, but it just means that I can have the URL for the movie, which is helpful down the road, just for promotional purposes.
For a TV project, you will hear the same kind of thing, where if you have a title they really like they will try to clear it. And by “clear it” they mean making sure that there’s no other competing TV projects this season or any nearby season that’s going to confuse people.
Craig: Exactly. I mean, you can’t, and even though Cheers has been off the air for decades, you can’t call your new show Cheers.
John: Yeah. Cool.
So, let’s get into some of our bigger topics here. And this is actually — a couple different listeners sent this in saying like, “Hey, what do you think about this?” And I’m like, oh, I didn’t even want to open the URL when I recognized what it was from, but it’s probably worth talking about.
So, there’s a blog called Scriptshadow, and my first interaction with Scriptshadow was when the man who runs the blog, Carson Reeves, had reviewed a project that I was currently rewriting. So he had read the script and written a detailed blog review of this script, this early draft by another writer, and I was the currently employed writer on it. It was, like, a pretty high profile project at that point. And so the studio I was working for went ballistic and got him to pull the review.
And that was the end of it, I think, from his perspective. From my perspective, his publishing this review of this other writer’s draft made my life horribly worse, because suddenly I was having to sign all these things about, like, I couldn’t send this script to anybody. I couldn’t show it to my agent. I couldn’t show it to my sort of trusted friends. I could only send it to this one executive. Everything had to be watermarked, and they got super paranoid about this.
And in a blog post I wrote up sort of my frustration, and so the blog post was called “Why Scriptshadow hurts screenwriters.” I explained that reviewing a script of a movie that hasn’t shot yet, hasn’t come out yet, is really damaging for both the movie and for screenwriters. It’s damaging for the movie because you’re trying to review something that’s still its fetal form. So you’re pretending that this movie is the way it’s going to finally be. But it’s not. This is just a plan for, “At this moment this is what we kind of think the movie is going to be.”
For screenwriters overall, it’s incredibly damaging, because I suddenly couldn’t go to the trusted people who I want to have read my script. What’s worse is that sort of forcing us to lock down the script, I can’t let anyone else read that script if it’s sort of stuck in development for awhile.
You have to understand that when you’re hiring screenwriters you are going to read scripts, their spec scripts. You’re going to read stuff that’s of movies that have been made, but you’re also going to read the stuff that’s in development, and that stuff does get handed around. And the rule is, like, just everybody be cool about it. Like you can pass the stuff around, just don’t talk about it that much.
This script I wrote for them I can’t show anybody now because they sort of had it on this crazy lockdown. So those were my frustrations with Carson Reeves’s Scriptshadow that is the back story that I needed to sort of setup for this newest blog post.
Craig: And just to echo your thoughts here: Reviewing screenplays that are in development is a stupid, counterproductive thing to do. It is anti-writer. And it will make movies worse. Please don’t do it.
You don’t review food as the chef is cooking it. We have drafts for a reason. You cannot write a final draft first. Anyone who actually writes for a living, who understands what writing, or painting, or writing a song, or sculpting something knows what I mean when I say it’s not done. We’re working — ING — on it. So if you put it on the internet like it’s done and review it like it’s done, you are hurting something that was not meant to be read or seen.
Please be respectful enough to just wait until it’s done. How hard is that? How hard is that? And I just find it so frustrating that people in their desperate need to be involved somehow, or to release a secret for whatever small burst of adrenaline that gives you, ruin something that somebody is working on. And they don’t all turn out great.
But, you know, the example I always give is The Sixth Sense, which is one of my favorite screenplays. He wasn’t dead the whole time until like the sixth draft. You know what I mean? You have to wait. Just wait.
John: Yup. It’s that need to be first, and that thrill at being first is why you — is that instinct to talk about it before it’s ready to be talked about. But I think your cooking analogy is exactly right. It’s not done. It’s still in the oven. Stop. And that’s maddening.
Craig: Yeah. Stop.
John: So, anyway, that was my earlier rant, so recycling a rant from two or three years ago. So, the thing that people sent in this last week was about this guy Carson Reeves who has continued to read a lot of screenplays, and I guess to his credit I will say he’s moved his focus from reviewing in-development drafts at major studios to things that people send in, like aspiring screenwriters’ stuff. Things that would kind of show up on the Black List, that kind of stuff.
And I still don’t think that’s right. I think reviewing something that a writer has written without sort of their blessing to review it is a concern, but it’s not — this isn’t in the development chain. So, I’ll at least acknowledge that.
Now his new thing, so I’ll quote little parts of the blog. “My readers are asking me, ‘Why aren’t you producing. You’re finding material. You’re bringing it to the rest of the town. That’s one of the hardest and most important things a producer does — find material.’ Hmm, I thought, I guess they were right. I was finding material. I could do that.
“All of a sudden I looked at producing a whole new way. Therefore, what I’d like to do instead is find material through Scriptshadow, partner up with a much more established producer — say Scott Rudin — sell the script to one the studios with both of us attached, and then let him use his muscle and expertise to get it through the system. In essence, I would be more of a silent producer. I’m in it to learn because, let’s face it, I don’t know what I’m doing yet. I mean, I can help a writer whip the script into shape, but I can’t call Tom Hardy and ask him if he’s free in three months to shoot a desert zombie film.”
So that’s an excerpt from a much longer blog post which I’ll link to in the show notes. But I thought it was worth discussing because it raises some misconceptions about what producers are, what producing is.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, first of all, John, you know, a lot of people say to me, “You have all these really cool thoughts about movies. You should write some movies.” And I thought, yeah, that’s right. I do have really cool thoughts about movies. I should write some movies. But, I don’t know how to write a movie. So what I should do is partner up with somebody that does know how to write a movie like, say, John August. And then he’ll write the movie and I’ll just be sort of be like a silent writer.
And then we’ll sell that screenplay to the studios with both of us on the title page, but I’ll let him use his talent and expertise to kind of get it there, and on the way I’ll learn.
John: And I know that’s meant in a mocking way, but I think he actually does think that way — I think a lot of people do think that way, too. It’s like, I get emails and the person is like, “Hey, I have a really good idea. Would you want to partner up on a script with me?” And I’m like, “…But! …But! …No.
Craig: No. Why? I don’t need to partner on a script with you. You know who I need to partner up on a script with? A writer who’s writing pages. And my point is here — ugh — okay.
John: This is really, just, so much umbrage, yeah.
Craig: So I don’t want to go crazy too early. I don’t want to peak here at minute 20, or wherever we are.
Look, yes, people are sending screenplays to this guy because they don’t have anywhere else to send screenplays to. Or, I should take that back: They have lots of places to send screenplays. Those places aren’t reading their screenplays, or they’re rejecting their screenplays. So they send it to this guy.
And I do think anybody that finds unfound screenplays and loves those screenplays and reviews them positively and promotes them is doing god’s work. For the life of me, I don’t understand what the value is in finding somebody’s screenplay that is unfound, not liking it, and trashing it, because I don’t really think you’re changing the universe at all there, you’re just complaining. But promoting, I get it.
Like the Black List is a really, really cool thing. And if Scriptshadow promotes, finds a great script and promotes it, and somebody picks it up and buys it, fantastic. But, sir, that’s where your value is and that’s where it ends. Producing has nothing to do with that, at all. There’s no finder’s fee here. Wouldn’t it be great if that’s the way the world worked? But, in fact, you haven’t done the work beyond just simply reading it.
There are people who kind of have offices in Hollywood and sort of do that kind of thing. They end up very tangential to the process anyway. And ultimately the people that do the real work of producing, which we’ll discuss in a second, just employ a lot of kids out of college to do what you’re doing, which is just to read stuff.
John: That’s exactly what I did as my first job. I got paid $65 a script to read and write up the report.
Craig: That’s what it’s worth.
John: He’s just writing coverage.
Craig: Right! That’s what that’s worth. That does not make you a producer. That just makes you one of a thousand people who read scripts and go, “Ah, this is pretty good. Let me now give it to somebody that does the work of producing,” which is not the same thing as just reading through lots and lots of scripts and going, “Well this one’s pretty good.”
John: So let’s talk about the work of producing. And, I think the way to think about a producer is it’s the CEO of a corporation. And that corporation is the final movie. And so it’s the person who says, “I see what this idea is. I can build this idea. Bring in all the necessary talent to make this into a great movie. And put it out in the world that everyone will enjoy it and it will continue to have a life 20 years from now.”
It’s the cradle to the grave, but not even really a grave because you’re going to keep it going, vision behind the movie. And he wants to do this tiny, tiny little sliver which is, “There already was something, I thought it was pretty good, and I handed it to somebody” — that’s what he wants to do and call himself a producer.
Craig: Everybody wants that. Everybody. I mean, like you, I can’t tell you how many times people have said to me, “I have a great idea for a movie. You could just write it up. I just need somebody to write it, but I have a great idea.”
Well, the “I just need” part is actually 99.99999% of the job, just so you know.
John: So let’s talk about some of the more specifics in terms of what this — Scott Rudin — let’s just say Scott Rudin would be doing here. So, Scott Rudin was the person who was like, “Okay, this script came into my hands.” And so maybe Carson Reeves handed him that script. Okay, that’s great. You are a reader, but this reader handed him a script.
Craig: Right. Now what?
John: Scott Rudin has to say like, “Okay, reading this script I know that these are the ten different ways I can get this movie made. And I have to make decisions about who, like first off, what needs to change in the script. Is the script as good as it can be? Is it the script that it should be to make the movie we want to make?
“Next, who do I want to get involved? What studios make sense for this? What actors make sense for this? What directors make sense for this? In what order should I try and go after those writers and actors and directors and studios so that we can get to the next stage? How much should this movie cost? Where should we shoot this movie? Who should we get in all the different department heads to make the best version of this movie?
“Once we found who the director is, how can I protect this woman from all the vagaries that are going to come at her and sort of let her make her vision for what this movie is going to be? How do I step in when her vision for what this movie should be is not really the right vision for what I know this movie needs to be? And how do I serve that function?
“How do I deal with the marketing of this movie? How do I yell at the marketing chief when I don’t like any of the one sheets that they’ve presented me?”
Craig: “When is the movie going to be released?”
John: Exactly. “And is this the right data based on all the competing movies that might be coming out on that date?”
Craig: Exactly. “Is the final cut too long? Is the final cut too short? What scenes should we keep? What scenes should we lose?” It’s a never ending job.
It’s sort of like if you combine matchmaker and wedding planner into one gig, you know. The producer isn’t the person that provides the love. I always think of the writer and director and cast as providing what is the love of the marriage, but the matchmaker puts them together. The wedding planner makes sure that the caterer is there on time, does all the stuff you don’t see. Makes sure that everybody’s in place and the video is there, and the DJ doesn’t play the wrong song. All that stuff.
Movies are a massive undertaking. You’re turning this huge ship all the time. And at every stage there is something different you have to deal with. And at every stage there are different powerful people you have to deal with. And doing all of that — I mean, I wish there were more people that were good at it. There are a bunch of people out there that are good at it, probably fewer now than ever, before because studios I think very intentionally have limited the power of the producer to reserve more of it for themselves.
But, the least of it, I mean the least of it, is doing what the average $20-an-hour coverage person does.
John: Yes. So, here’s what I would say: If Carson Reeves were serious about taking that next step and becoming a producer, some of his instincts are almost kind of right, is that he does need to learn — he understands what he doesn’t understand, which is good. He’s like, “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
He would need to find somebody who actually does know what they’re doing, but he would also need just to learn the job. And he would need to learn the job making a tiny movie and doing all of the stuff that he has to do. That sense of like, “I’m going to go from 0 to 60” is crazy. And that anybody would want to help in and involve him at this stage is nuts.
Craig: It’s naïve. And I think that, you’re right, there is something refreshing about his honesty here, but I want to point out this — there is something that comes out of the internet that I find fascinating, and revealing.
A lot of people who address what I’ll call Inside Baseball Hollywood Topics, like producing for instance, from the vantage point of the internet, come at it from a “we’re the cool new guys and they’re the old school guys, and we get it; we have this really cool perspective on it. We are the next generation.” The closer they get, suddenly the more they are interested in getting the hell away from the internet and getting over to that apparently old stale institution called Hollywood, because the truth is everybody that gets close understands pretty quickly in fact that’s where the real deal is.
That the internet is no more than really just a very good megaphone for individuals writing flyers, and actually making movies is still where it’s at. So, what I would say to anybody who’s on the internet who is kind of tangential in this way and wants to get involved in the real deal: Do what people who want to get involved in the real deal do, and don’t overestimate the value of your blog experience, which is essentially zero.
I mean, you are now definitely, I would say, anybody that does what he does is certainly qualified to be a reader at a studio, but again, that’s a galaxy away from being a producer. So, start by becoming a PA. Start by working for a production coordinator. However you want to get there, do it the old fashioned way, because that’s pretty much the only way that it works, as far as I can tell. You actually have to learn the gig.
John: This reminds me of an article I real this last week about Pauline Kael, who was a tremendously gifted and influential film critic. And what I hadn’t realized is that at one point in her career, like after she was a successful critic, she was brought in to, like, “Well, help us out on movies. Help us out — produce some movies for us.”
Craig: Yeah, I read that.
John: And it didn’t work out well.
John: Because it’s a very different skill. And the skills that made her good at analyzing movies, the finished product of movies, and made reading her writing about those movies so rewarding, did not translate to the actual making of the movies.
John: And that’s because it’s a very different thing.
Craig: Yeah. Analysis and creation are so dramatically different. And I guess the way I would put it is people who analyze know how to analyze; people who create know how to create and analyze.
John: Mm-hmm. And god bless analysts. God bless people who can figure out stuff. God bless Tim in Hollywood who went through all that data on movie reviews for me so he could prove me wrong. That’s great. But analysis isn’t creation.
Craig: Correct. Correct. But those who create must also know how to analyze, at least in Hollywood. And so I just feel like, I love the guy for sort of saying, “I don’t understand what producing really is, and I wonder what it is,” but this is a very naïve approach.
John: I would agree.
Craig: The internet is really good at confusing people into overvaluing. I mean, look: If we’re to take these podcast numbers seriously, you know, eventually we’ll get to a million people listening to this. But, you know, it’s a podcast. [laughs] You know what I mean? We’re not on Sirius XM. We’re not Howard Stern.
John: We’re not.
John: That’s okay. I don’t need to be Howard Stern.
Craig: Yeah, you know, I think it would be cool. [laughs] Just a little bit.
John: So, switching topics. Next I really want to talk about pitching, because I have a new project that I’m taking out and pitching this week, and it’s actually been really kind of fun. And when I first started out doing this crazy thing of screenwriting, pitching was by far my least favorite part. I would get completely nervous. I’d freak out the night before and I was like sort of rewriting it and trying to figure out how much I wrote down beforehand and how much I was sort of delivering a canned performance versus sort of making it feel extemporaneous and free.
And it’s gotten much, much easier. So, I wanted to share a few things I’ve learned along the way and hopefully you can chip in with some good suggestions.
John: I always describe a pitch as imagining you just saw a great movie and you wanted to tell your best friend they had to see the movie. You had to convince them. A pitch isn’t going to lay out every beat that happens, exactly how it happens. You’re sort of going to give them the highlight reel. It’s sort of almost like a trailer for what your project is.
You’re going to start with, “This is the world, these are the characters; these are the big things that happen along the way.” It doesn’t have to be exactly in sequence. The logic doesn’t even necessarily need to be the same logic that you will use in your final screenplay. It’s just giving them the sense of, like, “This is what the movie feels like.” If they were sitting there watching the trailer, this is the experience they’d get.
A crucial thing I learned early on is that you will go in with a plan for, “If I need to pitch the whole movie and people start to ask for real details, I know it all. But I can also give them like the two-minute version, the five-minute version, the 10-minute version.” You have to be able to sort of telescope in and out a little bit, because you’re reading the room and hopefully they’re going to love everything you’re saying, but you look for that moment where like their eyes start to close a little bit and their attention is starting to fall off. You have to be ready to jump to the next thing and sort of get through it more quickly.
Craig, when you’re going into pitch a comedy how much detail do you know about the whole world? How much are you trying to create a performance for just that room versus sell the whole movie?
Craig: Well, I approach it pretty much the way you approach the job. I mean, to me pitching is really about saying, “I just saw this awesome movie; let me tell you what I saw,” and pitching it the way we used to — remember when we were kids and we came back from Empire and we were like, “Oh my god, you’re not going to believe it…” Because we didn’t respect spoilers back then. We were 9 and it was just so exciting.
“And then, and then, and then,” but that was all very plot-oriented, and I think now as I go into these things I try and tell the story as if I just saw the movie, but I also try and ground as much as possible inside of the character, and what the character is thinking, and what the theme is, and why it matters.
And I liked what you said about prefacing everything with a little bit of an introduction. And I like to introduce things by saying, “This is why I’ve always wanted to write a movie like this.” Or, “This is what I’m interested in.” I want to put the story I’m telling in the context of a personal passion, because I just think that immediately, that immediately dispels what — there’s a stink in the room. And the stink is cynicism, because when somebody’s coming into pitch, they’re there to sell you something. They’re knocking on your door with a vacuum cleaner set and they want to sell you something. And everybody knows it and it’s a little bit cynical.
And I like to kind of broom that stink out by saying, “Yes, sure, I’m here to sell you vacuum, but actually this is emotional for me, and here’s why.” Even for a comedy. There’s something at the core of it that matters to me.
John: You need to sell them on, “This is the movie I want to make.” “This is the TV show I want to create.” “This is the vision I have for it.” So, it’s not about, “This is the show I want you to pay me money for,” it’s like, “This is the movie or the TV show I want to see on screen in a year.”
Craig: Exactly. And that’s for everything. Even if the movie itself is a genre piece that most people would consider to be crassly commercial, you have to love it somehow, or else everybody is like, “Okay, well I get it. You’re selling widgets. And you’re calling it widget. And we’re widget buyers. Ah, I don’t know. I could I guess.”
John: I would also stress you have to really look at it from their perspective and try to make sure that you’re tracking the logic from their perspective. Like, what is the next question they’re going to ask. And sometimes you have to just let them ask the question. You have to sort of anticipate, “Well, they’re going to ask me a question about this now,” and so you need to be able to answer that question. Lay it out from the perspective of the characters. And so talk to them at the start — “these are the four characters we really need to pay attention to” — so they can listen for those and they can actually track what’s going on in your story through those characters.
And they can see like, “Okay, we’re here, and now we’re here, and we’re here.” And if you end up with one on of those stories that is complicated, where there are like these subplots and stuff, sort of bundle them together. And you can say, “Okay, let’s stick a pin in that for a second because I need to tell you about this.” Or, like, “Meanwhile back at the ranch,” so they can understand sort of where your story is flowing.
Craig: Yeah. And this requires some practice. It’s a good thing to pitch to somebody and just have them stop you every time they get confused, lost, or bored.
I also say, if I’m pitching something to somebody I’ll say, “By the way, at any point if you have any questions stop me. I’m not here doing a monologue. This isn’t Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain.” Because I find questions to be a sign of interest.
If you think about when you get bored during things it’s when you start having questions about them but you don’t have any opportunity to answer those questions, so suddenly you’re drifting, and the questions start to pile up. And once you have two or three questions that have piled up in your head while you’re patiently waiting to figure out what the hell is going on, you immediately start concluding that this just isn’t very good. It might be very good.
John: You lost faith.
Craig: There might be great answers. But give people an opportunity to stop you and ask.
John: Yeah. So, the last thing I’ll say about pitching today is what’s been weird about this week is I’ve had to pitch the same project to multiple places, back to back to back. And you can sort of get, I mean, you get a little bit frozen. This is sort of the performance you give each time. So, I pitched it three times in a row, and then I had like a week off and had to pitch it again. And I was nervous, like, “Am I going to be able to do the same thing again? How am I going to be able to recapture all of the same sort of enthusiasm?”
What I found most helpful is I have my little pitch document, which is like a two-page thing that sort of outlines what’s in there. And I went back through and I rewrote that, because I found that the process of rewriting it sort of got it reenergized in my brain in a way that I could sort of give the pitch again and it has new life and it has new details. And so it is interesting for me.
Because if you’re not interested in the pitch, they’re not going to be interested in the pitch. So, you have to sort of be able to kind of surprise yourself with the new stuff that you’re adding.
Craig: Yeah. You know, there is for me every pitch, even if the content doesn’t change, every room is different. And if you watch actors working together — and I always say if you want to be a screenwriter take an acting class. There’s a class that’s actually worth something. Because you learn skills in acting class that not only help you write for actors, but it helps you just talk to people.
And the secret to talking to people, and that’s what pitching is, is listening. And the first thing I do, just automatically when I go in to pitch something is I just listen for a moment to what the room sounds like. Is it a quiet room? Is it an amped up room? Is it a feminine room, a masculine room? Is it bored? Is it ready? Is it receptive? Is it scared? Just read the room.
And just adjust. Every pitch is different.
John: That’s why those first three or four minutes of just nonsense chit chat are actually really important for just establishing a baseline for what the room feel like. If you have to come in and like, “Okay, go. Start pitching,” you’re not going to likely have a good outcome. But if you have those little like, you know, “So what did you see?” “What are you working on?” “Oh, where did you get this trinket on your coffee table?” Those kind of things can be a huge help in getting you set or going.
Or, just honestly the conversation about, like, “This is why I’m in the room today,” can be just a good way to get started. I do often tend to rehearse that first minute of conversation just so I can have it, it can be a little bit packaged so I can start speaking and get the flow going.
Craig: And above all make sure when you leave, whether they buy it or not, make sure that they know your answer to this question: Why should this movie exist? Why should this show exist? It’s not enough to pitch something competently and have it be interesting in a way. It needs to want to be. So, figure out how to get that across.
John: Exactly. The classic test I give people is: Would you pay $15 to see this? And if you as the writer can’t answer that question affirmatively, there is no way they’re going to.
Craig: Right. Right.
John: So, Craig, I have a One Cool Thing this week. Do you have a One Cool Thing?
Craig: Well, you know that the answer to that question is no.
John: No. My One Cool Thing is actually a very simple good one. Before we started this podcast you cracked open a Diet Dr. Pepper?
Craig: I did. It was delicious.
John: Yeah. Dr. Pepper is a really good beverage. But I gave up drinking sodas all together. I gave up drinking — Diet Coke was sort of my big one. Diet Coke, or actually Coke Zero, was my sort of go-to thing. And I was like two of those a day.
And then at a friend’s recommendation he was like, “You know, you should really stop that.” And I was like, “Oh, okay, I guess it’s possible to stop that.” So I did. I stopped it all together. But I still need like a little small caffeine fix, and so I was going for iced tea.
The weird thing about iced tea is it doesn’t can or bottle well. There’s something about it that, I don’t know if it’s the essential oils in it or whatever, but like I’ve never had a good plain iced tea. Because I want the plain iced tea; I don’t want the sugar/sweetened kind of stuff, the Snapple stuff, until I found one that is actually really good. So, it’s Tejava. Have you ever had it?
Craig: Yeah. That’s good stuff.
John: Yeah. It’s good stuff. And it’s not like the best iced tea you will ever have in your world, but it’s actually really good for being in a bottle, and it works out as a really good sort of pennies per ounce kind of equation. So, I’m just recommending Tejava, which is available anywhere. And if you are a person who likes iced tea but sort of has never tried bottle iced tea because bottle iced tea is generally terrible, you should give this one a shot.
And it’s all a credit to Stuart, who is just like, “I can get you this.” I’m like, “All right, let’s try it.”
Craig: You guys should start making your own sun tea, and then at last you will be an old lady.
John: I’d be such an old lady. The thing is I’m such the kind of guy who would make sun tea, who would have a little pitcher and every morning I would sit it out there on the thing and by the afternoon it would be there. But I don’t do that.
Craig: No. I mean, I’ve had sun tea. It’s actually pretty good. I’m not a huge iced tea drinker. I do not for the life of me understand this phenomenon of the sweet tea thing in the south. It’s just ruinous — it is both ruinous to your body and also frankly it just tastes awful.
John: It does taste — it’s like thin honey. It’s just not a good thing.
Craig: It’s gross. I don’t know what is going on.
John: I was in South Carolina this last weekend and it was that phenomenon. And so you had to distinguish between iced tea and sweet tea. It was just odd.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, you really get the stink eye down there when you’re like, “Can I just get it unsweetened?” And they’re like, “Ugh, yeah, whatever, outsider.”
Craig: Yeah. But I’m like, “Okay, I’m not going to lose a foot in three years.”
John: [laughs] Oh.
Craig: You know, this is just tragic. It’s tragic.
John: Yeah. So, Craig, I’m going to offer you a One Cool Thing, which is that I think we should open up again the Three Page Challenge, because we haven’t officially been taking in new entries, but some of them have still been coming in. And so we didn’t really close it down, so I think we should officially reopen it. So, if you follow the links on this podcast with the show notes you can always find at johnaugust.com/podcast, if you follow the links there there will be a page to go to that will explain how you can submit your entry to the Three Page Challenge.
And next week we should do another batch of Three Page Challenges and help out some writers there.
Craig: Open the flood gates!
John: The flood gates are now reopened, so poor Stuart will have to read a bunch of Three Page Challenges.
Craig: Can I just make my One Cool Thing Stuart?
John: Stuart. I love Stuart.
Craig: He really — you know, people just don’t know that he really does everything.
John: Yeah. Well, he does all the editing. He makes the sound coherent. In this podcast he just had a Yeoman’s task because I did not, this was not one of my better podcasts, and so by the time it’s edited hopefully I’ll sound coherent.
Craig: Yeah. Those of you, you’ll only hear the edited version. In the unedited version, John spoke in tongues for ten minutes. And then just cried. He cried for 20 minutes. I sat and listened to him cry for 20 minutes.
John: It was one of our rougher podcasts I’ll have to say.
Craig: He was sobbing. [laughs] Still don’t know why. Look, John is touchy. I’ve got to tell you guys out there. I’m just telling you this is between you and me.
John: I have some trigger words.
Craig: He’s unstable.
John: But, if you want to see this in real live action where we can’t edit out all the mistakes, you can join us in the Austin Film Festival for our first ever live Scriptnotes.
Craig: It’s going to be awesome.
John: Yeah. So, almost for sure it’s going to be October 20, which is a Saturday at Austin in a big room. We think we have a special guest who’s going to be joining us. It’s going to be great.
Craig: It’s going to be spectacular. And if you haven’t already purchased your passes to the Austin Film Festival and Screenwriting Conference it is one of the very few of these things that I heartily endorse, because you’re actually hearing from real screenwriters who do the actual job. How about that? I think you get more out of it then you would a year of film school in, I don’t know, Kentucky.
John: Yeah. Craig, thank you again for another fun podcast.
Craig: Thank you, John. I’ll see you next time.