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 episode 77 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Now, Craig, your voice is back, but your voice was gone for a few days, is that correct?
Craig: Yeah. I got a virus, so I wasn’t able to speak very well and I’m still pretty rundown and sluggish. So, if I sound sluggish it’s viral. It’s viral sluggishness.
John: So, I hope that a lot of people in your life have come up to you with suggestions for things you should do to get rid of this virus. Hopefully like really kind of impractical or sort of new-age things; I think that would go well with you, right?
Craig: Yeah. I’m the perfect person to come up to and recommend Echinacea because it gives me a chance to talk about how Echinacea has been proven to not work. Or things like zinc, which works sort of very minorly and in a tiny, tiny window, or other nonsense, none of which works.
John: Maybe a cleanse. Craig, maybe you need a cleanse?
Craig: [laughs] Yeah, you know, I feel dirty. I feel dirty. No, no cleanses for me. I’m a big believer in the immune system.
John: Ah, that’s a good one, yeah. And bolstering the immune system when the immune system needs to be bolstered, but there’s good ways to do that through vaccinations. But you’re not going to vaccinate against whatever this virus was, because who knows what this virus was.
Craig: It’s pretty much your standard rhinitis. Your typical upper respiratory tract infection. Nothing you can do about it accept suffer until it is gone.
John: All right. Well, let us not suffer anymore. Let’s get to our topics. Today I thought we’d talk about three things. First off is a new Vanity Fair article about the history of the spec market –the spec script market — which I thought was really good, so let’s talk about that.
Second, I want to talk about how you get ready for a pitch, if you’re going in to pitch something. What are those things you do in those last hours before you go in to pitch something.
And thirdly, I want to talk about your movie, Stolen Identity…
Craig: [laughs] Well played, sir.
John: Opened at $36.4 million this past weekend. We are recording this on Valentine’s Day, actually. So, Happy Valentine’s Day, Craig.
Craig: Happy Valentine’s to you. And if you wouldn’t mind, there’s just a couple of quick follow up things I wanted to mention before we roll into the spec stuff.
John: Go for it.
Craig: First, I owe a bit of a retraction / apology and then a nice little follow up on our Raiders thing. So, real quick, many podcasts ago I told a story about Kevin Smith at Comic-Con dressing down film critic Jeff Wells. And it turns out that I screwed up. That, in fact, the film critic that he dressed down was not Jeff Wells. It was a guy named Ron Wells. So, sorry Jeff. [laughs] That was my fault completely. And I apologize. Obviously a somewhat understandable mistake, the last name is the same, the first name is one syllable; not understandable in the sense that nobody likes to hear their name being called out and associated with a story that is all about how they screwed up and it’s not them.
So, Jeff Wells, I’m super sorry. Ron Wells, it was you all along.
So, that’s the retraction apology. And now a little follow up on Raiders. I got an email from Larry Kasdan. And here’s what it said. And it was for both of us, but he didn’t have your email, so he sent it just to me and then I forwarded it to you:
“Craig and John. Your podcast about Raiders blew my mind. Fantastic. The best analysis I’ve ever seen by a power of ten. I loved it and I learned a lot. Lawrence Kasdan.”
Now, how about that as a little feather in our cap?
John: Well, that’s fantastic. And for folks who really have no idea what we’re talking about, Lawrence Kasdan wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark. And so our podcast talking about it, apparently he listened to which is just weird, and meta, but great. So, hooray.
Craig: Pretty great. And, always nice to engage in an hour long discussion of a movie and then have the writer respond back and say, “Hey, you got it right.”
Craig: Yeah. So, good for us. We win, again.
John: We do. Craig, it is weird to have you doing business on the podcast. It’s so — like you came with a prepared list of things you wanted to talk about. It’s just unusual.
Craig: It is unusual because, and I suppose people have picked up on this by now, my entire approach to podcasting is to be as ill-prepared as possible, almost really to be aggressively unprepared.
So, this time I came slightly prepared.
John: And you did ask Stuart to remind you about your note there.
Craig: Yeah. No one should be under the impression that I was really on the ball here. I was not.
John: I’m just saying, like if you were to go in that direction in the future, I would welcome it.
Craig: Oh, I see. This is a gentle suggestion that maybe I should actually…
John: There’s carrots. There’s sticks. There are many things. I can offer you carrot sticks, but it’s something that in the future as I get busier and busier with Big Fish, if you were to choose to do that, that’s just a thing that could happen.
Craig: I love that we’re having this discussion here on the podcast. And, you know what? You’re right. I’ve always been very careful to tell people when they compliment me on the podcast that you do all the work. That is correct. You pick the topics. You edit the show. You really do everything.
So, you’re right. I should step up and do more and maybe even come up with a thought about what we should talk about.
John: Every once in a while you do. I will give you credit for that. There have been times where I said, “Hey, we’re going to record a podcast.” You’ll say, “Let’s talk about this.” And we have talked about that.
Craig: Right. Those are far and few between. Probably of our 77 podcasts, maybe I’ve done that four times.
John: Well, today we’re going to talk about three good topics, and I think we’re going to have some good conversation on them, so let’s get started.
First off, this Vanity Fair article in the March 2013 issue is by Margaret Heidenry, I’m guessing, which I thought did a terrific job explaining sort of the history of spec scripts as a sales thing. I mean, screenwriters have always written scripts by themselves, and just defining terms, a spec script is technically any script that you’re writing just for yourself, that you’re not under contract to write it for somebody; you’re just writing it because you can just write a book. The same way novels are often written on spec.
But, what this article does is sort of track the history of when that began as a process of “I’m going to write this script and sell it to a studio,” which was a new thing, when it became really huge, which is the ’90s, and sort of what’s happened to it since then.
So, I strongly recommend everyone read it. But, I want to talk through some of the points because I thought they were really, really interesting.
The story, if I were to fault it for anything, it got a little bit heavy in the Schmucks with Underwoods references and the Sunset Boulevard of it all.
John: But the history stuff of it was really new to me, so I thought that was cool.
John: And we’ve talked on the podcast before about sort of the danger of this lottery mentality. I think a lot of people approach screenwriting as a career thinking, like, “Oh, I will write a script and I will sell that script and then I’ll have a million dollars. And then people will make my movie and I’ll be set.” And that’s not the way that most screenwriting works, particularly now. But it didn’t work back then that way, either.
So, this article starts back in the days of the studio contract writer system, which I guess we should really talk about because it’s such a different experience than what we have right now.
Craig: Yeah, so, in the old days writers were essentially employees of studios. They got buildings to work in called The Writer’s Building. And they were under contract the way that actors used to be under contract. And you would work for a studio. You wouldn’t work on a project; you’d work for a studio and the studio would assign you to projects and off you’d go. And you would earn your weekly salary.
And you would type up what they told you to type up. And, frankly, a lot of wonderful movies came out of that system, but also a lot of junk, too. I mean, let’s not get too rose-colored about the past. Barton Fink does a great job of sort of portraying the worst of the old studio system days where writers were cogs in machines being assigned to Wallace Beery wrestling pictures.
John: I was just at a meeting over at The Lot, which is the old Warner Hollywood, and they sent me to the wrong place. But they said, “Oh, you’re going to The Writers Building.” I just love that there’s still a building called The Writers Building.
Craig: That’s right. In fact we have Phil Hay, and Matt Manfredi, and Ted Griffin, and Alec Berg, and Dave Mandel all have their offices in that building, which I love.
Craig: But, you know, just as in professional sports, there was the emergence of free agency. At some point in — that studio system collapsed and writers became freelance and able to sell their wares wherever. And they weren’t tied down by these contracts.
And essentially the era of the entrepreneurial screenwriter began. And it began perhaps most in earnest with one script in particular, and that’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
John: Yeah. So, her article goes through, she thinks the first spec screenplay that would sort of count under our terms is the 1933 Preston Sturges’s script called The Power and the Glory, which sold to Fox for $17,000 back in 1933.
John: And that’s probably — that feels right. It was unusual for a writer at that time to just have the time and initiative to go off and write something for himself, but he did. And so that was the first thing that sold, and didn’t do very well, but Butch Cassidy has got to be what we think about for the first groundbreaking spec sale.
Craig: Yeah. Well, Butch Cassidy managed to do two things at once. It sold for a big huge amount of money and it was a big huge hit.
John: Yes. Those are good things.
Craig: And Hollywood is as susceptible to confirmation bias as anyone. They say, “Look, we spent a lot of money on a completely original screenplay and we got this big huge hit movie out of it. Maybe we should do this more?” And so began the heyday of the spec seller.
John: It wasn’t overnight. And it’s important to understand that William Goldman at that point had already written other scripts. He had had movies produced. But this was a thing he chose to do, just write for himself. He was at a point in his career that he could have gone and just pitched it to somebody, attached some actors, and set it up at a studio in a normal way. But he just decided to go off and write the script by himself and let his agent try to sell it.
And so it was a surprise that it sold for $400,000, which is a little over $2 million now. And that was unique, and wonderful, and great. And it was unusual at that time to come in with, like, “Here’s a fully developed script. We can make them make this movie and attach actors and succeed.”
What — I don’t know sort of the movies that have come directly before and after that, but my perception of Butch Cassidy is that it was so different that it might have been hard to pitch it.
John: And so that is a good argument even now for when you spec some things rather than pitch some things is if it’s going to be so hard to explain what your vision is for the movie in a pitch, sometimes a spec is a better place to spend your time.
Craig: That’s right. And even if people can understand the pitch, and want to buy the pitch, you are no longer able to work in isolation. You don’t get the opportunity to present your screenplay and say, “This is how I want it to be.” You are immediately involved in a collaboration. Sometimes that collaboration is rewarding and sometimes it’s not. Either way, it’s a collaboration.
William Goldman obviously thought to himself, “I would like to write the screenplay without anybody in my ear saying, ‘Don’t do that. Do this instead.'”
John: Yes. So, in the article they point to the 1988 Writers Guild strike as being the other major turning point for spec sales.
The 1988 strike was a five month strike, which is a very long time for screenwriters to be not working in their normal capacity. So, during that time a lot of people wrote spec scripts. They wrote scripts because they could. During that strike you could not work for the studios, but you could work for yourself.
And so the wonderful thing about being a writer is you can just write. And so many scripts were written during that time. And as the strike wore down and was resolved, those went onto the market.
It was also a time when the business was expanding. So, you had studios like Disney that were going and trying to make a lot more movies over the course of the year. I remember during the Katzenberg era, wasn’t it like he wanted to make 30 movies a year?
Craig: Well, you know, between all of their divisions — Miramax, Touchstone, Hollywood Pictures, and Walt Disney Pictures — one year they released more than a movie a week.
John: Yeah. Which is crazy now. We would never do that.
John: So, the business was expanding. You had a bunch of writers who had written stuff who could now sell that stuff. It was a really great time to be selling a spec script. And so suddenly you had — “common” makes it sound like everyone was doing it, but it was not unprecedented to sell your script for six figures, in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, or even seven figures.
The first million dollar sale, which is in the article but I also think I remember, that was Ticking Man, which is the Brain Helgeland and Manny Coto script, which still has never been made.
Craig: That’s right. That’s right. It was an interesting time because the reason the strike occurred in the first place was also in part the reason that the spec boom occurred. The strike in 1988 was in a weird way a redo of a failed two-week long squib of a strike in 1985.
The studios on their own had unilaterally decided that they were only going to pay one-fifth out on video residuals. And their argument in 1985 when they did this, or ’84 when they first started doing it, was that the video market, this VHS market, was very new and they needed a break on all the residuals because it was a new emerging market. It was a bunch of baloney.
But if you remember at the time, 1982/1983 was really when video was just starting to take off. The Betamax/VHS war had been settled. By the time 1988 rolled around it was quite clear that video was enormous. It was an industry all of a sudden. Renting videos and watching videos and buying videos — this was a huge part of the Hollywood system.
In fact, video was so lucrative for the companies that essentially the name of the game was make as much as possible and get it on video. So, the studios were incentivized by the market place, by the consumer, to create an enormous amount of product. The writers, angry about how they’d been screwed over in the early part of the ’80s decided to go on strike to undo the residuals formula that they detested.
They failed to do so, even after the longest strike the Writers Guild has ever endured. But what happened at the end of that strike was a confluence of the following things. Studios needed to make a lot of movies because video made almost all movies profitable on some absurd level. They were incredibly short on movies to make because nobody had been writing anything for a half a year. And writers had been writing stuff during that time for themselves that they were now willing to sell.
Talk about a seller’s marketplace. So, all of these writers went out with all of these scripts. The studios were desperate to make movies. And people started buying things. And, of course, this being Hollywood, when something sells for $500,000 every agent gets on the phone and says, “Okay, it’s the new deal, $500,000 now for a script like this.” And then it just goes up, and up, and up.
And at some point what ends up happening, like in any marketplace, whether it’s for visual art, art you hang on your wall, or whether it’s for tulips, you start to get into the realm of a bubble.
Craig: And that’s kind of what happened.
John: And this is the point where we move from history, like all that stuff that happened before we got here, to literally this is what Los Angeles and Hollywood was like when I got out of my car, sort of 1992. The business was expanding. Spec sales were happening. There wasn’t a lot of sort of common popular press about Hollywood, but there was Premiere Magazine. So, Premiere Magazine would write the articles about the big spec sales and like, “Oh, my, I want to be in screenwriting because the spec sales are happening.”
You’d see big articles about Joe Eszterhas selling a script for $3 million.
John: And, yes, it feeds that bubble. You know, like all bubbles, more people enter and it seems like it’s going to keep growing forever. What I think the article does a nice job is also pointing out a few of the unique factors that were happening right then.
First off, this was still a phone call and paper business, and so if you had a spec script going out you were literally making a bunch of copies, or the agency was making a bunch of copies, sticking them in envelopes, messengering them out to the studios. And agents were on the phone.
And that’s inefficient, but that inefficiency actually probably jacked up prices because no one had perfect information. You didn’t really know who was bidding on things. And so if the agent said, “I’ve got an offer,” it was very hard to check to see whether that was true or that wasn’t true. Even things like tracking boards were very new. There wasn’t a lot of ways to share information. So, you had to sort of take it on faith that, “This thing that I’m kind of into, that I would like to buy, well, I need to hurry and buy it right now because otherwise it’s going to become unavailable.”
Craig: Yeah. It’s a very simple human phenomenon: We want what other people want. Not always, but often. And I think for a lot of that period when you were an agent you would simply just lie and say, “I’ve got two studios. I’m not going to tell you who, but they’ve already put bids in, so you’re stupid if you’re not putting a bid in. And also, your boss is going to beat you over the head with this when it’s a hit at this other studio.”
I’m not a studio executive, but I hear something like that and I start to get sweaty because, what if it’s true? And, of course, nobody knows anything. And it might be right; that might be right. If two other people want it, maybe I should want it, too.
It was much easier to create hype back in the day. And it didn’t hurt that some of the big notable spec sales continued to work out. Lethal Weapon is a great example.
John: Absolutely. So, Lethal Weapon was a very big sale at its time, but that became a huge franchise. And so you look, and that was money very, very well spent.
John: And you had, in the article they cite Alan Gasmer who one year sold like 30 spec scripts, which was remarkable.
But friends of mine were in that pool of those spec scripts. I was in my first year of Stark at USC and this was the very early days of cell phones, so not very many people had cell phones at that point.
My friend Jen, we were at a night class, and my friend Jen, her cell phone rang, she ran out into the hallway, and it was sort of a big deal to run out of a classroom and to take a phone call. But she came back in and she said, “Al and Miles just sold their script for a million dollars.” And so, Al Gough and Miles Millar.
John: And it was very, very exciting. And we applauded for them and she hung up the phone and we got back to…poor Mitchell Block who was teaching a class about how to get money from public television to do small documentaries.
Craig: [laughs] What a hard class to keep teaching after that news.
John: Exactly. But, I mean, that fever does continue. And I think “bubble” is a really nice way to describe it, because I remember the housing bubble that happened in Los Angeles where suddenly you would go to an open house on a Tuesday and there’d be five offers by the end of the day. And you’re putting in backup offers. That was really, really common at one point. And now it’s gone away. And the same thing happened with specs.
Craig: Yeah. This is general human nature but it’s exacerbated by this business which is such a chasey business. Everybody is always chasing things, you know. And so they get so excited whenever there’s this — nobody wants to feel like they’ve been left out of a party in Los Angeles. This is their biggest fear. Whereas my fear is having to actually go to a party.
Craig: So, when the spec market was booming, it sort of fed in on itself. But with all things like this, eventually there is a correction as they say in the Wall Street Journal.
John: And that correction came partly because of overspending, but also because of other factors, just a change in times.
First off, most of the studios became bought by much bigger corporations. And so those corporations sometimes had deep pockets, but they were also very risk-adverse. They also had reasons to be using the material that they already owned, intellectual property that they already owned, or to gather up intellectual property that they could use and exploit.
So, it became much more reasonable for Disney to try to base things off of theme park rides, or for Fox to sort of look at what their publishing arm had and try to base off the books that they had. They wanted synergies. And that whole word synergy came about because these corporations were getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger, and looking for reasons to sort of justify why they were all under one big umbrella.
Second off, we talked about how paper and phone calls sort of helped inflate things, because information was hard to come by. But with PDFs they were just attached to an email, so they could zip out and everyone could have it at once. It was much easier to sort of leak things to other people just through email. And emails were just faster and quicker. And we didn’t have to wait on somebody calling back.
Like one of the most powerful plays an agent can have sometimes is just not calling somebody back and driving that paranoia. Email doesn’t do the same thing really.
Craig: No, it doesn’t. And then you also had the rise of the tracking boards online, which essentially eliminated the chicanery that would go on where you could essentially pump and dump a spec. People started talking to each other. Simple as that. The business had… — You know, it’s funny. It’s all sort of probably an antitrust violation, but one of the things that goes on at studios is they get very angry at any studio that breaks ranks and overspends on something.
When Jim Carrey got $20 million for Cable Guy, every other studio went bananas at — I think it was Sony that paid the $20 million — went bananas at them for basically resetting the pay scale for every A-list actor. They hadn’t just cost themselves $20 million. They’d cost everybody $20 million. And they do this with screenplays as well.
When you work in Hollywood, you have a quote. That’s what you get paid. And the way that business affairs departments work is, okay, if you got paid this and then your movie got made, then you get a little extra. And if your movie was a hit you get a little extra after that. They have all these little formulas. If anyone dares violate the formula and overpay somebody, everybody else goes bananas.
Craig: And so I think there is a natural tendency once the tools are in place for the studios to start talking to each other and saying, “Let’s not get suckered anymore, not by the writers, by the agencies.” The agency became the enemy here. CAA and William Morris and ICM and UTA and Endeavor were and continue to do everything they can to get as much money out of the studios as possible. And the studios, frankly, have gotten much better about talking to each other to prevent that.
John: Yeah. We talked about how the rise in spec sale prices came because of supply and demand. Essentially the studios had demand and then they would buy scripts because they had to fill a pipe. Those pipes became much smaller. They didn’t need as many scripts. And so as demand fell so did the prices for these things.
You know, first off, they’re just making fewer movies. Like that idea of, “Oh, we’re going to make a movie every weekend,” that went away because home video became less lucrative, less important. Movies themselves became more expensive, so we’re going to step up to the plate fewer times and bat at fewer things.
John: Plus, as these corporations grew, there were fewer buyers. There were fewer buyers because Warner Brothers takes over New Line, so you can’t — Warner doesn’t want to bid against New Line on a property.
Craig: They can’t.
John: As more labels get folded under each other they start having to negotiate who gets to buy something. So, if Fox 2000 doesn’t want to bid against Fox on a property, even if they might both want it, only one person is going to bid, so you can’t play them against each other.
Craig: That’s right. And there was this whole world of mini majors that existed with the Carolco and Orion and MGM and UA. And all these people just started disappearing and boiling down to five major buyers who were very corporate, who realized that marketing expenditures now were so enormous that it almost seemed that that department was the one to satisfy more than any other department. Specs were considered an inordinate risk.
The success of Batman in the late ’80s, I think, woke the whole town up to the notion of franchises that they were already sitting on that they should just exploit.
John: Yeah. Mm-hmm.
Craig: And then as things were sort of struggling and petering, the writers decided to go on strike again.
John: Yeah. That probably didn’t help. It was a rough time to do that. I think we should fast-forward to today because we talked I think two or three weeks ago about that spec sale report which showed sort of how many total spec scripts sold over the course of this last year, which I thought was really fascinating. And the numbers have trended up over the last three years. And there are more spec sales selling now than before.
They’re not nearly at the stratospheric prices that they used to be, but there are some that do sell. And often they’re selling for smaller figures to smaller places/labels that you may not necessarily have heard of. They’re happening in genres that are less expensive. So, it’s the horror and thriller ones are the ones that are selling. It’s not the giant action tent-poles.
It’s not Lethal Weapons that are selling. It’s smaller movies that they can make for a price that are selling specs, but they are still selling. They are still selling.
Craig: In general, yeah. I mean, there are some exceptions. All You Need Is Kill is a big huge action-adventure that sold for a lot. But, yeah, it does seem like a lot of the smaller genre movies are what they’re picking up.
John: Yeah. So, I want to sort of wrap this up by saying our sort of standard disclaimers that it’s interesting to think about and talk about spec sales because that’s often what people think about when they think about the life of a screenwriter is like, “Oh, you’re going off and writing a script and someone will buy the script and make that into a movie.” But that’s not the bread and butter of what most actual writers do.
And it’s not really necessarily the reason to write a spec script. Most spec scripts will never sell, but those good spec scripts will get those writers future work and future employment. Most of the things that are on the Black List won’t sell, and they won’t get made. But those good scripts on there will get those writers meetings and give those writers projects down the road to write and keep food on the table.
John: Cool. So, one of the things that a writer is going to be doing if he’s not selling a script is going out to pitch a project, and so I thought that would be our second topic today, because yesterday I had to pitch two different movies in the same day…
John: …which was exhausting. Have you had to do that?
Craig: No! That sounds crazy. Why?
John: it’s just the way my schedule worked out. Because I’m heading off to New York to start some Big Fish stuff, so it was the only day where I could go in and meet on these two different projects. And it was tough. One of them was a phone pitch and one of them was in person.
But I want to talk a little bit about getting ready for a pitch, not the days of prep going up to it, but just like literally the couple hours ahead of time. Because one of the projects was the very first time I’d ever really pitched it, and so it was all sort of new and fresh, and it could be a little bit less formed because it was one of those pitches, like, is there even an idea here that we feel like could make a movie? It was a property that they owned the underlying rights and they weren’t sure if they wanted to make something out of it, but I thought there was something cool to make out of it.
The other one was based on a book, and so they’d already read the book, and I’d already pitched it other places so I definitely knew what the pitch was. But that was a pitch that I hadn’t done for four weeks. And so I had to refresh myself on it.
Craig: Got it.
John: So, I thought we’d talk about that.
What was the last thing you had to pitch, Craig?
Craig: Well, you mean to pitch to say get a job as opposed to pitching an original thing?
John: Either. And we can talk about what the difference is there.
Craig: Probably, well, it’s been a long time frankly. I mean, I was with a director the other day talking about rewriting a project that he’s attached to. So, I was sharing my thoughts and my opinions about how it should go, but that wasn’t really a formal pitch.
John: No. You’re sort of describing a take but it’s not “buy this.”
Craig: I think if I collect enough information together to sort of say, “Okay, yeah, I do want to do this, and here’s the story,” and he agrees, then I’ll go and pitch it probably to the studio. But it’s been awhile.
John: Yeah. I find every couple months I have to sort of dust off my sort of pitching brain and go in and do that. And I genuinely enjoy it. A few things that I found really helpful, and so I’ll talk first about this one project that I’d already pitched before, so I sort of had it worked out, but I had to sort of refresh myself on it.
If I’ve written something down, a lot of times I will write up sort of the pitch. And I’ll write it up sort of the way I would normally speak it. And that’s a document I will carry with me, but I’ll never really look at. So, for Chosen, I had to pitch the Chosen pilot to Josh, and then I had to pitch it to Fox, or 20th, and then 20th again, and then I had to pitch it to NBC and ABC. And so I had to pitch that thing a lot.
And, in that case I would only have a couple days off, but what I found to be really, really helpful is because I had this written document, in the couple hours before I would have a meeting I would go through and I would rewrite the document. And I found that actually just going through and rewriting and sort of putting it in my — the way I was thinking about it today, really helped it fit — it helped it come out of my mouth better when I was speaking it to a group because I had just written it, and so it felt real and it felt sort of alive in my head. I could sort of see it all again.
Just reading it didn’t do enough. Sometimes reading is sort of passive. Writing forced me to really engage with what the story was and what the points were. I could remember sort of like how I was getting from A, to B, to C, to D.
Craig: Right. Exactly. Yeah, you want to be able to inspire confidence. And part of what inspires confidence is sounding like you’re in control of your own story. Sounding like you’re in control of your story doesn’t mean you are; it just means you sound that way.
But it’s important to sound that way because the worst thing is to be in control of your story and sound like you’re not. Then you’re pitching yourself out of a gig that you deserve.
John: For this other property I pitched yesterday, I didn’t have a written pitch, but I had slides. So, I’d done slides and keynote on the iPad. And so because there were some very distinct visual images I needed to be able to show, I just brought in a little keynote presentation I did with it.
And it had been a couple weeks since I looked through it, so I went through and I sort of did the quick version of it just to myself going through the slides, and that helped me sort of put it all back together. Basically you’re just trying to recreate the best performance you have of what it is you’re doing.
And think of it like an audition. And I do definitely treat it like an audition. Even in that drive over as I’m headed there, I won’t listen to the radio. I won’t listen to a podcast. I will just speak the pitch. And I will start the pitch. And get the pitch rolling. If I can’t get my mouth to move right I will do those little vocal exercises I learned in college to, you know, just be able to speak, and speak clearly and intelligently.
I definitely find that the beginning of the pitch is crucial. And if the first few minutes are awkward you will never recover. You’re never going to get them back. So, you have to really think about, like, how are you going to introduce this property? How are you going to introduce this project? You can talk about: If there’s an anecdote, that’s great; if it’s something about the people who are in the room, that’s fantastic. With this book I could talk about…the producer had called me, we traded voice mails, and finally I just bought the book on my Kindle and I read it overnight and loved it.
And that’s not important in a weird way, but it just gets the ball rolling. It gets stuff started.
Craig: Well, it is important though because it shows that you care. I mean, we’ve talked about this before. It’s a weird thing to pitch something because you’re a salesperson. And when sales people come up to me, I’m annoyed and skeptical frankly, as I should be. Because we all know enough about sales — we’ve all seen Glengarry Glen Ross to know that there’s a lot of flimflam often involved.
But, if you care, and you are passionate about the material, then it’s not flimflam. Frankly, you are doing them a favor. You are giving them a chance to buy something that should be bought, because you’re going to do a really good job. And if you convey that and you get that across, it’s a very important thing. But it has to be true.
John: It has to be true. I mean, I think it’s a good idea to acknowledge someone else on your side, on your team who’s in the room with you. Just because if you’re going to be doing most of the talking, at least you’re sort of giving them a nod to say, like, this is an important person who’s here and there’s a reason why this person is in the room.
Then you’re going to talk about the things, you know, this is sort of Pitching 101, but you’re going to talk about what the story feels like. Sort of what the world of the story is and what kind of movie it is. You’re going to talk about the most important characters. If it’s based on an underlying property, you’re going to talk about what’s fantastic about the property, but also be honest about these are the challenges with this and this is where I think we can go in a better direction.
Because, they would hopefully have some exposure to what the underlying thing is. And they probably have some genuine concerns. So, if you head them off and sort of state their concerns, like you’re going to be worried about these three things, then they feel, “Oh, not only am I smart, but this writer is smart and understands what it is that I need to hear from him to get me past my basic objections.”
So, if you can start that way and then get into your actual, “This is how we open,” you’re going to be in a much better place.
Craig: Yeah. And the “This is how we open” is important because, you know, you pointed out it’s sometimes hard to begin a pitch. It’s such a formal, strange thing to do. And we’ve all seen parodies of it in movies about Hollywood. It seems so ridiculous.
You know, in The Player it’s, “Night. Chinese Lanterns.” It’s always so absurd sounding and kind of gross. But, what saves you is your first scene. Because the first scene of a movie is a similar difficult transition. People are in their seats, and they’re eating popcorn. It’s quiet. There’s a company logo. And then something happens. And that something is designed to be a wakeup and an introduction, whether it’s gentle or abrupt. That’s why it’s there. So, use that.
If you’re not pitching your first scene the way people would experience it in the theater, I think you’re pitching it wrong. You may spend three or four minutes pitching that first scene, and then eight minutes pitching the rest of the movie. That’s okay. But there’s an excitement about a first scene, a well-crafted introduction to a world, and a character, and a problem, and a situation that gets everybody in the front of their seat and makes them think, “Okay, that’s a sample of how this person is going to be in control of this story, hopefully.”
John: In my experience I’ve found that the degree to which it’s not quite clear when you started pitching is often very helpful. And so a lot of times you can start by talking about the character. And obviously you’re talking about your main character, and you can just sort of describe him. And we meet him and this is what’s happening. And because you’re often meeting your hero in the opening scene, that’s a nice way to transition into it. So, like you’ve gotten into it without the sudden like stop, and then like “Tracking through the Los Angeles hill sides.”
It makes it feel like you are starting your story with your hero if that is the right way to start your movie.
Craig: Right. Exactly.
John: Cool. So, that’s pitching.
And now I want to get to the third topic which is what I’m sort of most excited to talk about which is your movie, Stolen Identity, which opened so huge…
Craig: I think that’s great. [laughs] We should have called it that.
John: [laughs] Which opened so terrifically over this last weekend. And I got to see it at the ArcLight and loved it. I saw like a 5:30 show. It was pretty full.
And it’s always weird when you go to see a friend’s movie, in this case two friends’ movies, because I wanted it to be good for you, and I really wanted it to be good for Melissa. And Jason Bateman I know, but he’s fine. Whatever, Jason Bateman. But I wanted it to be good for both of you, and it was really good for both of you. I was very, very excited to see it.
Craig: Thank you. I had a weird week.
John: Yeah. I know you did. So, tell us about that.
Craig: Well, I will. So, we’ll start with the good news. The good news is the movie is a big success. And the audience that we set out to make the movie for showed up in droves. We’ve gotten great word of mouth. It had a terrific opening weekend, far beyond our expectations. Frankly, if it hadn’t been for the snow storm we could have made upward — nearly $40 million. So, it’s a lot of people buying tickets; a ton of people buying tickets for the movie.
And we’re still doing well. I mean, even on Tuesday, a Tuesday in February we made almost $3 million. So, that’s great. That is incredibly gratifying and it confirms what I suspected, because I watched the movie with test audiences long before the movie ever came out. So, I got to see audiences enjoy the movie and laugh all the way through and have a great time. Not everybody, but most of them.
And that’s why probably if you look back a couple of podcasts ago when we talk about Stolen Identity, or Identiweenie, as I like to call it.
John: I was also going with Identi-Thiefy.
Craig: Identi-Thiefy. When I was talking about Identi-Thiefy I was like, “Oh, and you know, I think the critics will like it.” Oh Craig. Oh stupid, stupid Craig.
So, my love affair with critics continues. Not big fans of mine. And this is the bad part of the week. And I want to talk about this in a way that perhaps people aren’t anticipating. Here’s what I don’t want to do: I am not going to discuss why the critics didn’t like it. Why so many of them seemed very, very angry about it. I’m not going to talk about Rex Reed. I’m not going to talk about the state of film criticism or try and explain any of it. I’m not going to do any of that. Not interested.
The critics will continue to do what they do. And I will continue to do what I do. And there’s nothing that either party is going to say to each other that’s going to change anything. So it goes. So it goes.
What I want to talk about is how terrible it all made me feel. And I want to talk about it because this is a podcast for screenwriters. And some of you out there are trying to be screenwriters and in success will have a movie in theaters. Some of you already are and have had movies in theaters. All of us who have movies in theaters, me more often than some, [laughs] but all of us will come face to face with bad reviews at some point or another. Or at all points.
And I am going to be very, very frank with all of you. It feels terrible. It was awful. I hated it because I think in part I love the movie, and I was proud of what I had done. I had watched it with people and I saw how Melissa and Jason had made people laugh, but also moved them to tears. And it was so great to watch. And then here come these reviews that basically say everybody stinks, especially this Mazin guy, how atrocious, how stupid, and illiterate, and so forth.
And for about three or four days I was kind of paralyzed in emotional anguish and misery. And I felt very, very stupid and very, very sad for myself. And rejected. And frankly just in pain. It really hurt. It hurt my feelings. Sometimes these phrases from childhood express our emotional states the best: My feelings were hurt.
And I wish that I could say to anybody out there that there’s a strategy to avoid this. There isn’t. In fact, I think this is what needs to happen: It is a sign that you care. Do not bargain this pain away. It may sound foolish, but the reason you’re in pain is because you care. The reason you’re in pain is because they’ve attacked you and your expression. And they’ve discounted it, and debased it, and frankly just made fun of it which is very much what goes on now in film criticism. There’s a mocking quality, all of it. You feel like a kid in the school yard who’s just been beaten up.
And good. That power that they have over us to some extent is real and will always be there. If you begin to close yourself off to being hurt, I fear that you begin to close yourself off from caring about what you’re doing. So, a good sign, I think, that I was in such terrible pain. But that’s not really to paint it with any kind of a brush. It stank. I’m just now kind of coming out of it.
I can’t even say that the big weekend sort of cured me of anything, because the truth is if you read terrible things about yourself and then lots of people go to see the movie and they send you all of these wonderful cards and things — cards? Sorry, what am I, in 1970? — emails and Facebook posts and so forth, we have a natural tendency to discount the positive and over-emphasize the negative because the negative feels more honest somehow or more real. That is an illusion.
I think that there is just as much dishonesty in negativity as there is in positivity. So, when it happens to you, or if it has happened to you, all I can say is, “Yup, that stinks.” And there is nothing we can do about it except to endure it, and then when it’s done let it go and then get back to work.
And I’ll tell you for me the tough part is I know it will happen again, and again, and again, because I think what I like and what I do, they don’t like. [laughs] And never will. And so this will happen again to me, and again and again. And I just have to find solace in the fact that the audiences do seem to like it. And they are who I make the movies for, for sure.
And so this pain goes along. There’s this phrase that Nietzsche popularized. I’m a big fan of Nietzsche, John. Have you ever read any Nietzsche?
John: [laughs] I’ve read some Nietzsche. It’s a little sad that you’re bring this up in the podcast, but yes I have.
Craig: Oh, why is it sad? [laughs]
John: It’s such a paragon of bleak times for me, yes.
Craig: Oh, it is? You mean when you read Nietzsche?
Craig: Oh, I’m sorry. Well, we’ll work you through your therapy after. But Nietzsche is my favorite of all philosophers, if you can even call him a philosopher. I think he’s sort of something more than that. But he spoke often of this concept of Amor Fati, which is the Latin phrase that means essentially “love your fate.”
And this is my fate. [laughs] I get it. I am not to be feted at fancy dinners. I will not get awards. I will not get Red Ripe Tomatoes. I will for many, many people always be looked at as a goof and a bad writer. But, I don’t believe I am one. And so I just have to accept it. That’s the way it is and that’s the way it’s going to continue to be. And so it goes. Amor Fati.
And here’s what he wrote. I just want to read one little thing that he wrote because this is sort of how I feel about it all. Nietzsche wrote, “I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.” And I love that.
And so I’m going to really try next time to — I’m going to try looking away. That shall be my only negation. So, next movie I have out, please remind me to look away.
John: Can I challenge some of your theses here?
Craig: Yes, of course.
John: Great. So, I’ll start with this last one, which I won’t challenge, but I will actually encourage. And Frankenweenie was the first movie that I did not read reviews. And the reviews were pretty good. So, it was kind of easy to not read the reviews because I’d say they were going to be good reviews, so that’s fantastic, and most people seemed to really like the movie. But I didn’t read them.
And because I didn’t read them I didn’t become obsessed with them. Because my experience has been even in times — exactly your point, that you will read ten glowing reviews and one negative review, and you will focus on the negative review. So, I decided, you know what, I’m not going to read any of them this time. On Frankenweenie I read none of them. And I would encourage that.
Second point. I would remind you of an earlier conversation we had where we discussed film criticism versus film reviewing.
John: And so film criticism is the actual study of film and what film is doing and what it means, what the trends in film are. Film reviewing is, “This is what opened at the movies this week.” And film reviewers are the people who had it out for you with long knives this last time.
John: My third point is that I feel like some of the reasons why they had their long knives out for you is because you are the guy who wrote Hangover 2. And that if this exact same movie, if exactly the same print was shown on the screen, but that opening card had read Kristen some-last-name, and it was her first script sale, they would not have been anywhere nearly as harsh.
It’s because you were the guy who wrote the Hangover that I felt like, well…
Craig: Well, the Hangover and Scary Movie whatever.
John: Oh, yeah, and Scary Movie, yes, yes.
Craig: That is true, contextually I think there is — and it’s human, you know, but here I am, I’m trying to explain it away. I don’t want to do that. I’m willing to stipulate that they genuinely hated it.
John: Yes. And so I would stipulate that there were people who genuinely did not like the movie, but I would also argue that any reasons for singling you out for it in many cases was because you are that guy.
John: My next point, and I would offer as a counter example: Ben Affleck. Ben Affleck was a joke. Ben Affleck was a punch line. And Ben Affleck is now considered the best director. So, for you to say that this is your fate, and that you will always be perceived as this person, that’s absurd. And the fact that Ben Affleck…
Craig: Well, I know what you mean…
John: That like Ben Affleck can go from being the punch line and the guy who was dating J-Lo to acknowledged as a really good writer-director, I think, should be some evidence that you can arc.
Craig: Yes. You’re right. And really all I’m saying — I’m not saying that I am incapable of writing something that maybe one day critics will like, although that’s not certainly my goal. I guess what I’m saying is I have to be okay with the fact that it might not ever happen. That essentially I have to stop caring about it at all because the truth is it’s immaterial to what I do. It’s immaterial to what we all do, I think.
I don’t know any writer that thinks that writing towards critics is a good idea.
John: I would agree. I think we talked about as part of my New Year’s resolution is not counting chickens before they hatch. This is not counting your emotional chickens before they hatch. And it’s trying to divorce yourself from the expectation of like “I will be a better person if a lot of people like this thing I just made.” And that’s not the reality and that doesn’t last.
Craig: Yeah. Yeah. So, not counting the emotional chickens, precisely. And, you know, in a very real way I want to thank you. I’m so glad that you liked the movie, because I know that you are a very, very honest person. And that means, frankly, more to me than buckets of bloggers and their pun-based reviews. So, thank you.
And I’ve heard some great things from a lot of people actually. I feel bad in a sense, I feel goofy, and that’s why I needed to do this, frankly. I needed to be a little mawkish. But I also wanted to be honest because, look, in the end, what the hell else are we doing this for but to help each other? Not you and me helping each other, but to help our little community of people. And this is something that happens and it wrecks people, you know? It does. It really messes them up and it makes them sad. And I don’t like that. I don’t want any writer to be out there feeling as bad as I felt last week. It sucks.
And when I talk to writers, suddenly they have their stories and you start to realize, god, this isn’t cool. This isn’t healthy. We shouldn’t get quite so dark about it. But yet by the same token it’s kind of a sign that we care.
The only thing I can say about reviews that I know is wrong is when they say, “It was cynical” or “It was lazy.” No. If it were cynical or lazy, believe me, I would not have shed a single tear about the reviews.
John: Yeah. Now, Craig, I enjoyed so many things about it. And I don’t want to sort of spoil it for people who haven’t seen it by focusing on any one, although having directed a movie and having directed several things with Melissa, it’s so fascinating when you recognize an actor’s face so well that you recognize like, “Oh, that’s what Melissa looks like when she cries.” And so when she cries in the movie — not a huge spoiler, there’s some actual genuine tears in there — it was fantastic. And it was just so exciting to see like, “Oh, that’s Melissa. That’s what it looks like when she cries.”
But I also can’t watch a movie without some sort of producer brain kicking in, or someone who has been through the experience of making movies. And so I have one question for you which if you’ll indulge me.
John: Which is a game I like to play called Guess the Reshoot.
Craig: [laughs] Go.
John: So, I’m guessing that when they go from St. Louis back to Denver there’s a car shot which was a reshoot which was done significantly after the fact. Because they shot the car, it’s daylight.
Craig: You mean that little car ride back to Denver?
John: Yes. It’s the one where she’s sleeping with her eyes open.
Craig: No. Not a reshoot.
John: That’s crazy. Because it looks like he’s in a wig. It just looks like it was shot seven months later.
Craig: You know what? I think something kooky happened with the green screen at some point. You know, these days… — Well, first of all, the movie did not have a large budget. I think it was maybe $33 million or something like that. Pretty tight schedule because Melissa has her show, Mike & Molly, and then literally the day after we wrapped on Identity Thief she flew to Boston to shoot The Heat which is coming out this summer, which also looks really, really good.
So, there was a tight schedule. And sometimes you’ll still shoot characters driving in cars in actual cars on little trailers which you pull around, but largely now they’ll kind of cheat and they’ll do a green screen thing. And then put plates in and so it looks like they’re driving but they’re not. And something seemed to go a little kablooey on a few of those. [laughs] I don’t know what else to say.
John: Sorry, it was a bad plate shot rather than a reshoot. It’s weird; I noticed first that his hair just looked bizarre in it, so I assumed he was wigged because his hair had changed for some other role. And I’ve been through that so many times, on Charlie’s Angels and on The Nines.
Craig: There was, I think, only two or three days of additional photography. And that wasn’t where it was. But it was elsewhere.
John: Okay. Then I have to single out, first off, Amanda Peet who is just a national treasure, and she’s so good in your movie playing, you know, what seems like a — it’s basically a reactive role. She’s sympathetic but she’s strong enough to say, “Well, this is not a good idea.” And yet she actually can bend to the fact that the plans change.
The scene with Melissa and Amanda at the kitchen is so good. [laughs] It’s so specific.
Craig: Yeah. And I have to give Amanda credit because when she came onboard, the idea of that scene was her suggestion. And I loved it. And so then I went and wrote it and then, you know, shot it. And Melissa, definitely the Bermuda Triangle is Melissa’s invention inside of that scene. But, yeah, big fan. Big fan of Amanda.
And, obviously, look, Melissa McCarthy is spectacular. And I love Jason, too. I think they’re both great. And it was — not to drag it back to mawkishness, but I was so angry about some of the stuff that was said about her. It just…ugh. I got very, very angry.
John: I got angry to hear the reports about it. But, again, I deliberately didn’t read it because I knew, “Don’t read things that you know are going to just piss you off.”
Craig: Yeah. Well, you’re smart.
John: Craig, over the course of this podcast have you come up with a One Cool Thing that you want to talk about?
Craig: I’ll bet I can figure one out by the time you finish your One Cool Thing.
John: Great. My One Cool Thing is something called Dungeon World, which sounds like it’s a fetish magazine, but it’s actually a role-playing game. It’s a new take on something that’s like Dungeons & Dragons. And it’s incredibly simplified and stripped down.
And so I had tweeted a few weeks ago about TSR which is now part of Wizards of the Coast, they had released all of their old modules as PDFs. And so I’ll have a link to that in the show notes. But this thing, Dungeon World, another reader had sent me the link to it. And it’s very, very cool. It’s a cool idea.
So, it takes all the sort of, the stuff of D&D and boils it down to a really, really simple system that doesn’t have turns or initiative. It’s all just talking. And it’s a very clever idea.
It’s a Kickstarter project that got funded, so it’s in this weird in between state where it’s sort of open source and sort of a physical product you can buy, but I’ll have a link to it. And if you’re at all curious about sort of what a reboot of Dungeons & Dragons would look like. It’s worth your time to check it out.
Craig: Well, while you were talking I did actually think of a possible Cool Thing. And, you know, I love Possible Cool Things. You do things that actually are currently cool, and I do things that might be cool if they ever happen. And you know I love science and I love medicine.
Craig: So, the Holy Grail — what do you think, John, if you ran a pharmaceutical company, what to you would be the Holy Grail medicine, to find, to discover, and bring to market?
John: A cure for cancer.
Craig: Exactly. And you would be right if companies were interested in saving lives, but they’re not. Remember, you are the CEO of a corporation with shareholders and they want money. Now, reevaluate your answer. What would be, you, money bags, what would be the drug you’d want to bring to market?
John: A sexual aid?
Craig: No. Although sexual aids definitely have sold well. If I were in charge of a pharmaceutical company and I did not care about saving lives, I only cared about my bottom line, I would want to bring an anti-obesity drug to market.
John: Oh yeah. I’m an idiot, of course, that’s exactly right.
Craig: Boom. Yeah, I mean, you would just make a killing, right?
John: And at times they have had anti-obesity drugs, but they’ve always done terrible things to you and they get pulled from the market.
Craig: That’s the thing. Here are the problems with anti-obesity drugs to date: A, they don’t work; or, B, they work but they’re addictive because they’re basically speed and they mess up your brain and your metabolism; or, C, they have terrible life impinging side effects like damage to your valves, the cardiac valves. All sorts of problems.
And it makes sense because if you try and pull on strings and gears inside the metabolism to move it one way, it seems like you’re affecting the body in a huge important way. It’s going to, perhaps throw other things out of stasis, and then you have a huge problem.
So, they keep trying and they keep trying. There is some glimmer of hope all of a sudden. You know how Viagra came to be discovered as a sexual aid?
John: It was as a side effect on another drug they were testing, right? It was a heart medicine I thought.
Craig: Yes, it was a heart medicine. I believe you’re exactly right. Same thing for what’s the Minoxidil…
John: Yeah, Propecia.
Craig: Yeah, the stuff that grows your hair. That also, I think, was for some sort of heart condition and they went, oh look, people are suddenly hairy.
John: I’m correcting myself already. So, Propecia is a different thing than Minoxidil, but Minoxidil, you’re right, was a heart thing.
Craig: Yeah, it was a heart thing. So, they call these off-label applications. You have a drug that does one thing, it’s intended to do one thing, it’s FDA-rated to do one thing, but then, “Oh off-label it also does this other thing. Maybe we should use it for that.”
Of all things, there is a drug that is used to treat canker sores. And what researchers have found is that this drug happens to be extraordinarily good at turning obese mice into normal weight mice. And apparently does so safely. That this drug is one of those drugs that’s been around forever. There’s a ton of research to back up its general safety to people. It doesn’t seem to do anything wrong. It just, at least in fat mice, makes them skinny.
Craig: So, soon they’ll be starting clinical trials on people. Now, at that point we’ll read about how their hands are falling off, or their hearts are exploding, but still, considering the enormous health implications out there for being extremely overweight or dangerously overweight, the idea that there might be a medicine for something like this, particularly for people who are just biologically inclined to gain weight like myself, it’s encouraging.
John: I agree.
Craig: Because, let’s face it, the whole eat less and exercise thing for 99 percent of people doesn’t seem to work.
John: It’s a very challenging chore.
Craig: So One Almost Cool Thing.
John: That’s a very cool thing. And if I were to be writing a spec TV pilot, for example, I would think of House of Cards but in the pharmaceutical industry and you have that drug. So, writers, go off and do that.
Craig: Come on guys. Go off and just kick us back 1 percent.
John: We’d like it.
Craig, thank you so much for a fun podcast. This is our last one that we will be recording in the Los Angeles region. I will be in New York and then Chicago doing Big Fish stuff, so I’ll have a different microphone so I’ll sound different, but it will still be fun.
Craig: Well, you know what? You’ll always be you.
John: I’ll always be me. I’ll always be me no matter what time zone I’m in.
John: So, standard reminders: If you enjoyed the podcast, please subscribe to us in iTunes because that’s how we can actually know that you’re listening to it. While you’re there you could leave us a nice review, because we like those, and we actually do read those. And they’re lovely and they’re a great counter to the negative reviews of movies we’ve made.
Craig: Yeah, yeah. It would be nice to read a couple of good reviews for once. [laughs] Sure, why not? I’ve admitted I’m human.
John: Those are reviews we actually will read. People have continued to fill out the screenwriting survey, but I think we’re kind of done. So, thank you so much for all the people who contributed to that, we’re going to take that link down because we have like thousands of responses, which is great, and we’ve learned a lot about who our readers are and what we want to do.
And that is our show for the week.
Craig: And just remember we are Lawrence Kasdan approved.
John: We are. That’s nice.
Craig: See you next week.
John: Thanks bye.