The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: Sshh, me Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 171 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig: That are interesting to screenwriters.
John: Oh, you’re my echo now.
Craig: You have latency.
John: Oh, do I have latency?
Craig: No. [laughs] I’m just pretending to be your latency.
John: Ah, you’re the worst.
Craig: I’m the worst. No one gets it.
Craig: By the way, people do get it. [laughs]
John: [laughs] Today on the podcast we are going to be talking about finishing a script. We’re going to be talking about this data that fivethirtyeight crunched about screenwriters and their screenplays. And we are going to be talking about the perfect studio executive.
John: Mm-hmm. But there’s follow up to start with. And follow up about future events, including the December 11 live show.
Craig: So exciting.
John: I’m so excited. So, I put a little teaser at the start of last week’s episode, but now you and I can both talk about how excited we are that on December 11 at 8PM in Hollywood we will be welcoming our guests including Jane Espenson. B.J. Novak. Derek Haas. Aline Brosh McKenna. Plus one special musical guest that’s not even announceable yet.
Craig: Fantastic. I mean, that’s a great roster even including the person that’s not announceable yet. I was watching, you know I’m a huge Quentin Tarantino fan.
John: I do.
Craig: And just the other night I decided, you know what, I’m going to watch Inglourious Basterds again, because I want to. And I forgot, because I hadn’t seen it in a long time, B.J. Novak.
John: B.J. Novak.
Craig: He’s Utivich. Utivich, I think that’s his name. He’s awesome.
John: Yeah. Just yesterday I was reading The Book With No Pictures, which is a kid’s book that B.J. Novak has at the top of the bestseller charts.
Craig: Very, very creative.
John: It’s a great little book. And so I was reading it to Chad Creasey’s little daughter who was over, and she loved it. And this is a kid with a limited attention span. And she loved it. Because whenever you get the chance to make silly noises to a kid at that age, they’re in heaven.
Craig: She’s also notoriously picky. Not an easy review to get out of her.
John: Oh, absolutely, no. She has set opinions. And they’re usually about where is my mother, where is my father, why are you not either of these people.
Craig: Right. I’m tired.
John: So, last week Chad Creasey, who is a writer on Castle, was live tweeting his show, because the new thing is you’re supposed to be live tweeting your show so the fans can talk with the creators of the show as the show is actually happening.
Craig: I see this all the time. Derek Haas does this.
John: Yes. And sometimes it’s wonderful, and sometimes it’s kind of annoying, because maybe Derek — I don’t need to see like the 20 tweets about Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D. Or the crossover episode between Law & Order and Chicago P.D., which is just — that’s like two hours of Derek Haas tweeting.
Craig: Wait, that was Law & Order?
John: So, Law & Order, the New York show, or Law & Order SVU, I’m sorry.
Craig: Oh, okay, yeah. Okay. SVU. Right.
John: SVU crossed over into a Chicago P.D. episode. And so I happened to catch part of this change over because I don’t, honestly I’m sorry, I don’t actually watch either of these shows.
John: The TV was on and I saw this crossover. And it was just so weird like, oh, that’s a thing that happens.
Craig: Yeah. Well, you know, it’s actually a very rare thing to have happen now because there are very few, I mean, Dick Wolf kind of stands alone. Dick Wolf and Chuck Lorre are the two people that have multiple shows. Oh, no, and Shonda Rhimes.
Craig: So, actually the three of them could get away with it.
John: Yeah. But no one else can get away with it. And so I was watching this thing happen. Of course Derek live tweets his show. Chad was live tweeting his show. And I had to interrupt Chad live tweeting his own TV show in order to arrange childcare for our children.
Craig: For both of your children?
John: Because that’s what it’s like to be a Hollywood writer is basically you’re supposed to live tweet your show to the mass audience and then figure out who is going to take care of your kid because you’re working late hours making Castle, the TV show.
Craig: Sometimes I’ll send out some tweets to people just because I’m at home and I need to arrange childcare for my kids because I’ve got to go score some heroin. Do you know how you know that I don’t have a heroin problem?
John: Uh, I don’t know how. How do I prove a negative?
Craig: Here’s how. I just said, “I needed to go score some heroin.” That’s not what they say. Right?
John: Yeah. Scoring is actually a really interesting word, this is going to be my awkward segue into Writer Emergency Pack, or maybe it’s a brilliant into Writer Emergency Pack.
Craig: It doesn’t really matter, does it? [laughs]
John: Because I made the transition?
Craig: That’s right. Transition Man.
John: We’re here now.
Craig: Segue Boy.
John: So yesterday we were going through all the text on all the cards just to make sure that everything was right and we were not disagreeing about any commas, and Stuart Friedel who genuinely loves basketball was arguing that I had said, in the card I said, “You could score three baskets in a certain amount of time.”
And he’s like you can’t score baskets. You can make baskets. But you can’t score baskets.
Craig: That’s right. Correct.
John: And I’m like, well, you’re being nitpicky. And then we looked on the Internet and he was right.
Craig: Yeah. Of course he was right. That’s correct. Just as you can’t make runs in baseball. You score runs. It’s just the parlance of the sport.
John: It is the parlance of the sport.
Craig: And similarly there is a Stuart Friedel of heroin out there listening to me and saying, “No, no, you don’t say I’m going to go out and score some heroin, you dork.”
John: Yeah. What do you need to score heroin? How do you get heroin? What is the verb for obtain heroin from a person?
Craig: I think we’ve established that I don’t know. At all.
John: [laughs] If you do know, if you are a heroin addict who knows the lingo, or even better yet, a heroin dealer, please write in to @clmazin on Twitter and let him know.
Craig: Let me know. By the way, this is one of the best arguments for drug legalization I’ve ever heard was from my friend [Gene Yin]. Because I remember I was saying, well you know, yeah, sure, legalize drugs. But heroin, I don’t know. And he said, “Let me ask you something. If you wanted heroin, do you think you could get some?” And I was like, yeah, I guess I could.
John: I don’t think I could. You know, honestly, that’s a fascinating sort of six degrees of separation. Like how many people would I have to go through to get heroin. And the way my life is set up right now, it would take awhile.
Craig: It would take awhile, but you could get there. It’s not hard. By the way, anyone can. Especially now. Go to the marijuana dispensary. Get your marijuana card. Hang around the people in the lobby of the marijuana place and be like, “Anybody have any heroin?” Somebody will hook you up.
The point being, if you want it, you can get it. But we don’t get it because — the law is not what’s stopping us. It’s our understanding that heroin is just bad.
John: Yeah. Heroin is bad.
Craig: It’s bad.
John: Lessons we’ve learned on podcasts.
Craig: Heroin is bad, you guys.
John: It’s not good at all.
Craig: Breaking news.
John: So, going back to the Stuart Friedel basketball conversation, the reason why we’re editing all these cards is because we are nearly done with the Kickstarter campaign. So, this is the last chance if people want one of these cards in the early part of 2015 is to go to our Kickstarter page. So, we are nearing 5,000 backers, which is crazy.
Craig: That’s great.
John: We exceeded our fundraising goal. Thank you, Craig Mazin.
Craig: Yeah. I’m one of those backers.
John: Which is fantastic. So, this podcast comes out on Tuesday. Thursday at noon the campaign shuts down. And it’s a hard out. Because when you actually set up the campaign you set the end date and that is the end date for all time.
John: It’s done. No more. So, if you’d like a pack, that’s where you can get it. If you’d like to support the youth writing programs that we’re partnering with, that’s also a great place to go.
Craig: Hey, not to undermine the Writer Emergency Pack situation, but our live show on December 11th, tickets are on sale now for that?
John: They are on sale now. I can’t believe we left that out. Yes. So, if you would like to come to our live show in December 11, go to the Writers Guild Foundation. They’re the people who are selling the tickets. It’s wgfoundation.org. There will also be a link in the show notes. And the seating is quite limited, so really if you haven’t gotten tickets yet, you should maybe pause this podcast and go over there and get some tickets, because it will sell out, especially with those great guests.
Craig: And the money goes to charity. Once again, we lose.
John: Yes. Once again, a money-losing podcast.
John: Awesome. The last bit of follow up is previous weeks I described how I had this phone pitch and it was on a Friday at 4PM, which is the worst time for a phone pitch, but it went really well. And so now I think I can announce that the deal happened. It closed. And I’m going to be writing this movie.
John: So, it’s called Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. It is a kid’s book that you kind of probably remember from your childhood.
Craig: I totally remember that book from my childhood.
John: Yeah. So it was one of the most controversial and one of the most banned or sort of like on a lot of parent not favorite lists throughout our entire childhood. It’s written by Alvin Schwartz. Illustrated by Stephen Gammell. It’s a great collection, an anthology of sort of all of the stories that you sort of remember being creeped out by as a kid, so including like “the worms crawling, and the worms crawl out, the worms play pinochle on your snout.”
All of that stuff is in there. And so it’s going to be I think a potentially really cool movie, but I’m not supposed to spoil how we’re going to do it, but I think it’s going to be a very interesting and innovative way to make this movie.
Craig: I think that’s great. That’s a very cool project. My daughter in particular is a big fan of, there’s a current kid’s series that’s like a Goosebumps kind of series, but I can’t remember the name of it. Anyway, the idea of horror movies for children is great.
Craig: I loved like all the ghost stories when I was a kid. I loved all that stuff.
John: So, what I will tell you is that while this book is for children, the horror movie that we’re making out of it, I think hopefully captures how scary those books were when you were a kid, but is not strictly a kid’s movie. In fact, you should not take certain younger kids to this movie. To the degree like I can’t actually take the art into the house, because if my daughter saw it we would have nightmares.
Craig: Is the idea that it’s a — you don’t have to say anything that you don’t want to say, but is it a PG-13 kind of thing?
John: We are aiming for a PG-13.
Craig: Got it.
John: The same way that I loved Poltergeist.
John: Or that I loved The Ring. Movies that are not gory, but man they can freak the bejesus out of you.
Craig: I love that. That’s the best kind of horror as far as I’m concerned.
John: So, we have high hopes. Lord knows anything can happen, but it’s been a very fun couple of weeks getting this all put together.
Craig: Where is this?
John: This is at CBS Films. And it’s such a strange experience going into CBS Films because I get there and I’m talking with the producer, and he’s like, “Oh, I don’t know if you saw in the trades today.” And I’m like, oh god, what was in the trades today? And so Lions Gate is not distributing CBS Films’ films. And that was a change, but also like, oh, well Lions Gate is kind of awesome at doing this exact kind of thing. So, it feels like it’s going to be a change that will benefit the making of movies like this.
Craig: Who was distributing their movies prior?
John: They were self-distributing. They had their own distribution company.
Craig: Oh, yeah. You know what? Good. That’s smart, frankly. Nothing wrong with —
John: Distribution is expensive.
Craig: Distributions are.
John: And distribution is expensive to maintain even if you don’t have a lot of movies going through it. That becomes the real stumbling block, without enough product like you have this team that you can’t keep continuously employed.
Craig: And distribution, we know as we discussed before that the big trick of distribution is that you need big huge right hand punches to sell your left hand jobs, you know. So, a movie like this that’s new IP and it’s not like say Hunger Games, right. A movie like this needs the weight of a Hunger Games behind it, so that Lions Gate can say, “Hey everybody, you want Hunger Games? Here is our package. Hunger Games, Scary Stories You Tell in the Dark.” You know what I mean?
John: Yeah. And that package is important throughout the entire process. So, that’s how you get the great theaters. That’s how you get the ArcLight versus the thing in Gardena. That’s how you get —
Craig: The thing in Gardena. By the way. Terrible name. Great, great cinema.
John: It’s one of the highest qualities that you can find anywhere.
Craig: Heading down to the thing, yeah.
John: Except for that one stain on the screen where somebody threw their Coke at the screen.
Craig: That was me.
John: All right. The old theatres that were across from USC, the USC Cinema Schools, there was this village, I think it was a three-plex or a four-plex. I remember going to see Last of the Mohicans and there literally was like this brown stain on the screen, because someone had just like taken a Coke and thrown it at the screen. And like they never washed it, they never cleaned it.
John: And so you’re watching this movie that obviously a lot of care went in to making it. And there’s this brown stain.
Craig: Why do you think someone did that for — was it that movie or a prior movie?
John: No, I’m sure it was some previous movie. Some previous movie that really deserved to have a Coke thrown at it.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, that movie didn’t really.
Craig: I mean, unless somebody was like, “Look, this is an embarrassment to the work of James Fenimore Cooper. [laugh]
John: “Stay alive no matter what occurs.” Splash.
Craig: Splash. “That was not in the book!”
Craig: Yeah, some USC lit major.
John: Yeah. Daniel Day Lewis hater.
Craig: Oh, all one of them.
John: All one of them. So, anyway, it’s incredibly fun to be making this. My last point about sort of distributing in a package, it becomes important to get your film into a theater. It’s also important for getting your money out of that theater, which sounds really obvious.
Craig: Yeah, no, that’s right.
John: They will pay you very slowly unless you say like, “Oh, wait, you still haven’t paid us for that movie and we have The Hunger Games coming.” They are more likely to actually total up that money and write you the check that they need to write.
Craig: That’s true. Plus, you have a marketing department that likely just through the experience of marketing more movies and generally larger movies will be very, very good.
John: That is the hope.
John: Excited to be writing that.
John: But, Craig I’m so excited that you just finished your script.
Craig: I did. Well, let’s just say that the two words that screw writers up more than any other two words in the English language are The End. We type The End and it is not at all the end. But, you do feel kind of an ending. It’s a very strange feeling, isn’t it?
John: It’s a little post-partum depression. You’re so excited to be done. And at the same time you’re like, but, but, but, especially in those last few weeks as you’re finishing something up. You are a person who writes this script. Like your entire being becomes consumed in the writing of this thing. And so when that thing is done, well, who are you?
Craig: That’s right. You have molded your day-to-day life around a routine of creating this thing. You are living in that world. And it is a world of possibility. And it’s still a world of possibility. But when you write the end and you get to the end of it, no matter how good you have felt along the way, or about the moments, suddenly it’s just a script. Isn’t that the hell. It’s just the worst feeling.
Like I’ve been living this thing and breathing this thing and imaging a world, creating — all the wonderful woo-woo stuff that writers say about being kissed by the cosmic joy. But then you print it out. And so it’s a PDF. [laughs] It’s like, huh, all that and this isn’t shooting rainbows out of its butt. It looks like every other script.
John: A couple memories that brings up. The first is finishing something and printing it out for the first time, and laser printers used to be quite so slow. And so a page would print out and I’d take it out of the printer and look at it. Inevitably I would find a typo just because I had pulled it out of the printer. And so it was like these weird things where like because it’s coming to you at a page at a time I started to recognize all these things and want to go through and fix them.
John: Second is that advice that I remember being told like all the way back in probably junior high school is like well when you finish something, you put it in a drawer for two weeks and you don’t look at it. And then you pull it out so you can look at it fresh. I’ve never been able to do that. I’ve never been able to sort of just completely walk away from something and look at it fresh. It’s like one of those great ideas in theory that rarely is practical or possible, partly because I’m generally giving it to someone trusted to read and I want to be able to have that conversation with them before two weeks from now.
Craig: Yeah. You can look at things in a fresh light, I suppose, after a year or two. No real reason to put something away for a year or two. Better to just hand it to somebody you trust. Or, if you are writing professionally, you don’t have a choice.
Craig: You’re a week late. No matter how fast you write it, you’re a week late.
John: Yes you are.
Craig: Yeah. If you write it in three days, you’re a week late.
Craig: It’s like reverse Scotty.
John: So, in your situation, you were showing pages the whole time through. So, did that change your process? Because that doesn’t seem like what you would normally do. I think of you as being a Craig does the whole thing himself and then someone gets to read it. In this case, you were showing stuff all the way through. Did that change the process for you?
Craig: Not as much as I would have thought, in part because part of my process — this is one area where I know you and I are very different. You quite religiously don’t go backwards when you’re writing. I quite religious do go backwards. I’m constantly — every day I’m reviewing the prior eight pages.
And then that’s kind of how I ramp in to the next work. So, by doing it this way with Lindsay I wasn’t doing actually anything different than I normally do in that sense. The other very helpful thing is that she was incredibly supportive. And so all of her notes came in the form of questions. It was never, “I don’t like this.” It was more, “What did you mean by this? What if this happened? What about this?” And these were all just very positive things. And, of course, there was a lot of praise along the way, too. Not, of course. [laughs] Surprisingly I should say, there was a lot of praise along the way, which is something I’ve actually never had because when I’m writing by myself and my creative associate, Jack, can attest to this, mostly I just sit and go, “This is the worst thing anyone has ever done. I’m the worst.”
Actually, what I used to say is, “I don’t even know what this is.” You know, there’s a lot of that that goes on. So, it was great to have somebody say, “I know what this is. This is good. I like this.”
John: That’s great.
Craig: Yeah. So, we’ll see what happens now.
John: Was there any good boy syndrome kicking in though? I wonder if having someone like Lindsay who is mom-like in the best ways, did that motivate you to work harder, work differently? How did it change your approach to the daily work? Did it?
Craig: It did a little bit. Yes. For one, she has a strong emphasis on clarity. Not just clarity for story sake, but also clarity for the reader. And her emphasis on clarity is actually very admirable and very optimistic. Her emphasis on clarity is this: we’re making this movie. I and you, and if it happens Scott Frank will be directing, the three of us are going to be in rooms with people who are going to ask us questions. Let’s answer as many of those questions as we can now, without breaking the script or making it — and sometimes, occasionally I would say, “Okay, I can’t do that. That’s just ridiculous.” [laughs]
And then she would agree. Mostly. John: I should stress, when you say answer the questions, in some cases you’re really talking about taking away the questions.
Craig: That’s right.
John: Basically making it so that question doesn’t even come up.
Craig: That’s exactly right. So, we had many discussions about where people were standing and how we could get across where they were standing and how far away they were and all the rest of it.
But, that did change the way I was approaching things because when I was writing I then kept in mind a certain amount of clarity, which in the end actually didn’t really — I think it helps the read. Actually, I liked it. I like that style of it.
There was a good boy syndrome in as much as there were times when I disagreed with her. But there were most notably what would happen is we would have a discussion, she would say here’s six things to consider. I would consider all six things. And then come back and say I’ve done four of them. These two, I do not. And you know what? She never once said, “No, no, no, you have to.” Every time she said, “Well, if you thought about it and that’s your reason, I agree.”
It was actually kind of great. I guess the point is that I’ll always have good boy syndrome because I want to make people happy. You can’t work in our business and not want to make people happy. But, it wasn’t a toxic good boy syndrome. And Lindsay also had good producer syndrome. It is interesting. She wanted me to like her notes.
You know, every now and then she would say something and I would go, oh my god, that’s why we get along so well. She would say, “Here’s something.” And I would say, oh, that’s very good. I like that. And she’d go, “Well thank you. I thought it was good. I was hoping you would think it was good.”
It’s the same. We’re the same. You know, so many of us are the same no matter the different jobs we do. We just want to be liked.
John: The other thing I think is probably crucial about the way she was framing these conversations was this is the movie we’re trying to make, so that way it becomes not a criticism of your words on the page, but it’s about this shared vision and this shared goal of like let’s make this movie. And so let’s always frame these discussions in how are we going to make this a great movie, not about this work that you just did, Craig, and whether it’s good or bad.
Craig: That’s right. And ideally if it goes well, then instead of what I normally have which is I wander into a room, at least initially alone, and then rally people to the cause through the script. Now I walk into the room with an ally, which is nice. It’s new.
So, I really enjoyed it. It’s not something that I would do I don’t think with anyone else. No offense to everybody else in the world. But, it takes a certain amount of deep trust there. And even then, who knows, it might have not worked, but it did. At least, I can’t speak to the [final] product —
John: Well, you can speak to the process. You can at least speak to like that you got through this script is terrific. And so I don’t know if you know that I was racing you and I wanted to finish my script before you finished your script, because we started our scripts at about the same time. But you finished and I did not finish.
John: So, I am past the midpoint, but I got pulled off to do another job, and then of course this Kickstarter. So, you finished first. Congratulations, Craig.
Craig: Well, I can’t really take — there is no prize for first. Also, you had a good excuse. You had one good excuse, another job, and one ridiculous, awful excuse, a Kickstarter.
John: The Kickstarter madness.
Craig: Just disgusting.
John: I will say, I did write the last scene. And that is always an incredibly important part for me, because I tend to write that pretty early in the process so I know kind of where I’m going to. And the ability to sort of have that last moment fixed and encapsulated is in many ways as important to me as knowing what that first scene is going to be.
Craig: I agree. In fact, where I differ from you is I don’t write it, but I know what it is. And I couldn’t wait to write it because it should be your favorite scene in the movie, frankly.
Craig: And so it was held back as this little reward for finishing. And so, you know, but man, when I finally finished it I was, you’re right, when you finish a screenplay, even though it’s intermediate, even though there will be another draft. Even though there will be changes. Even though it will be transformed into a movie and the document will disappear, as it should. You do feel like you accomplished something and it’s a weird thing for us as screenwriters to acknowledge that we have accomplished something and yet also at the same time we have accomplished nothing. [laughs] It’s very odd.
John: It is. Yet, there’s something very special about that first draft, which is entirely yours, before the building starts to get built. Before all the necessary changes that have to happen to change it from this idealized form to its actual form, there’s something really terrific about that first draft.
Craig: No question.
John: Congratulations on that.
Craig: Well thank you. And congratulations to you on your new project and congratulations to Stuart for being — staying alive.
John: For being Stuart.
Craig: Staying alive.
John: Next thing we want to take a look at is this article that everybody tweeted at us this week by Walt Hickey. It’s in fivethirtyeight, the data science blog. The headline, which is umbrage-inducing, “How Data Can Help You Write a Better Screenplay.”
Craig: Hold me back. [laughs] Hold me back.
John: And so I read this headline and I’m like, oh no, that’s just Craig bait. That’s like little someone has an algorithm for like how can we make Craig Mazin angry. That’s the headline.
Craig: The best part was that when I saw that headline I thought, okay, calm down. It’s not going to be that bad. And it was actually worse than I thought it would be.
John: Oh, see, this is going to be fun, because I actually thought the article itself was not nearly as inflammatory and actually had some things —
Craig: I hated it.
John: That were interesting to talk about. I don’t think useful for screenwriters necessarily, but interesting to talk about as a general sense.
Craig: If your praise is “not useful for screenwriters” and the title of it is “How Data Can Help you Write a Better Screenplay,” I actually think that’s a brutal condemnation here.
John: I strongly suspect that Walt Hickey did not write his headline for his article, because it doesn’t — because his article does not support that headline at all.
John: Because there’s nothing about helping you write a screenplay. There’s nothing about that in here at all.
John: So, here’s the proper headline. Here’s I would say is the actual fair headline that does not attract as much umbrage or clicks, but is actually accurate to what the article is about: “In a statistical survey of the blacklist.com’s scripts, these are the patterns we’ve noticed.”
Craig: That, honestly, is useless. It’s useless. And this is shocking to me, because honestly these guys should know better. And Nate Silver who runs fivethirtyeight.com should have really said, “Hey, wait a second. I mean, our bread and butter is being rational.” And this is just irrational nonsense. First, yeah, go ahead.
John: We should frame what is actually happening here. So, this article takes a look at the data from fivethirtyeight.com and basically anonymized a bunch of the reviews — so they weren’t looking at the actual projects themselves, but just the genre, the reviews of things, the most frequent criticisms of these different projects. And they were able to look based on genre and based on response what types of scripts are getting positive reviews versus negative reviews.
Now, I think this article tries to go too far and say like, well these are the kinds of scripts that get these good reviews and therefore become these kinds of movies. There’s actually no evidence at all to support that. All they’re really looking at is the people who have put their scripts on the blacklist.com and had them reviewed, this is data that they’re pulling from that information. Nothing about the actual finished movies. So, when it says — the first two paragraphs where they talk about Interstellar, that’s just random BS that should not be in there.
Craig: It’s all bad. This is all bad. And let me get to the heart of why I was shocked by this. Shocked.
Craig: Shocked. Yes, obviously the massive flaw floating at the surface of this mess is that they are attempting to analyze what makes a good screenplay from a population sample that is not at all accurate. Sorry, a sample that’s not at all accurate to the appropriate population. The sample that they’re using are Black List screenplays, which has nothing to do, frankly, with the sample of say professional screenplays from which most movies are drawn.
The Black List is open. It’s just people throwing their stuff in there. But the real — the real problem with this is that what they’re doing is they’re looking at trends. Trends have absolutely nothing to do with success. In fact, I would argue that they have the opposite to do with success. Let me explain.
They’ll say things in here like, he’s talking about courtroom dramas, I think.
John: Yeah. We make a lot of courtroom dramas, don’t we Craig? Our cinemas are overflowing with courtroom dramas.
Craig: So, you know, he talks about these courtroom dramas, and he’ll say take courtroom dramas. “Because of the legal eagles writing them,” that’s an unfounded comment, “only two percent of such scripts were flagged as having logic holes or unanswered questions. However, a whopping 47 percent of them suffered from unnatural, clichéd or on-the-nose dialogue.” So, he’s finding this problem that seems to exist with courtroom dramas, but it’s not a problem. Because here’s the fact: success in screenplays is an outlier. Success should be anti-statistical. We are looking for things that are not a trend.
Here’s the most uncommon trend in screenplays: quality. Okay? So if you have a situation where, well, 50 percent of our comedies rate an average of seven out of ten, but only two percent of our courtroom dramas rate a seven or higher out of ten, you might think, well, comedy is the way to go.
Wrong. Because, we don’t know how many of those comedies sell. We also don’t know how many of them are seven, eight, nines, or tens. And here is the other important point: all the courtroom dramas, all of them, could be a one, but one of them is a ten. That’s a great script. That gets made.
None of this analysis has any relevance. None of it. It is flawed. It is both flawed internally and flawed externally. It is a terrible — this is terrible. And, Walt, I think you know. I think you know that this was a mess. Don’t do this anymore. This doesn’t make any sense.
I mean, come on, critical thinking here. Ugh. Look here’s my problem, honestly John, this paragraph made me angry. Following what they’re talking about, you know, the complicated relationship between genres and a best picture nomination, which again has nothing to do with quality.
John: These amateur scripts in Black List.
Craig: And not even anything to do with quality. Being nominated for Best Picture is just what the Academy thinks. Okay, anyway, he says, “This is also part of a larger question about the difficulties of writing a good movie. What makes a screenplay good? What makes it bad? Are writers in certain genres at an advantage or disadvantage when it comes to certain elements like plot, premise and characters? And if so, how can we show this?”
Get ready. Hold on. Hold on. Grab something now, because this is what he says, “And if so, how can we show this? All we need is a data set to draw from.” That’s all we need! That’s it! And we’ve solved —
John: More data!
Craig: Yes. All we need is a data set and we’ve unlocked the mystery. You’ve unlocked the mystery of nothing. First of all, your data set sucks. And, no, all you need is not a data set to draw from. You don’t have the answer. You’ll never get the answer from a data set because the whole point is that the answer exists counter to the data. Counter!
And that, my friends, that is the umbrage of the week.
John: And mic drop.
The final chart in this thing lists the most common problems in amateur screenplays. So, if you take nothing else from this article, the final chart in here shows the most common problems in amateur screenplays, which I think could actually be useful if you were a person who had your script on blacklist.com and you got flagged for one of these things. You would at least know like how often are they flagging for these things.
These are the list from most commonly flagged to least commonly flagged. Underdeveloped plot. Underdeveloped characters. Lack of escalation. Poor structure. Unnatural dialogue. Logic holes. Commercially unviable. Derivative or unoriginal. Not cinematic. Or too long.
The only reason I kind of like that too long being last is that it’s the first thing that everyone is freaking out about. They’re like, oh my god, my script is 122 pages, it’s going to be too long and they’re going to say it’s too long. No, that’s actually one of the least likely things they’re going to flag it for.
They’re mostly going to say like your story sucks, I didn’t believe your characters.
Craig: Well, yeah, okay. So, this is a list of problems that a screenplay can have. This is a percentage of problems that those readers had with that pool of screenplays. We can also point out that, again, on the outlier theory, any script that actually emerges from the Black List and gets produced, and that’s been happening happily, my guess is at least one or two of their readers would pick one of these things.
John: 100 percent.
Craig: So, again, it doesn’t reflect success. I have a different theory about the too long, and it’s a pessimistic theory actually, John, because I’m in a pessimistic mood.
John: No one sensed that.
Craig: Your theory is that people should feel free to ignore the admonition, the — I agree — inaccurate and unnecessary admonition, “Keep you scripts short,” because look they’re not really having a problem with the length of scripts. My theory is they’re not having a problem with lengths of scripts because everybody is freaking out over the length of their scripts and refusing to send in anything that is longer than 115 pages. So, they’re not getting long scripts anymore, because everybody has lost their freaking minds about page length.
John: Yeah. That’s probably more likely the case.
Craig: I read this thing and literally I needed beta blockers when I was done with it. [laughs] I don’t actually take beta blockers, but I think I could have used beta blockers.
John: So, here’s a possibility, and I wonder if this is a statistical study that would be meaningful. So, I don’t know if you know that there are districts across the country, they do this thing where they can sort of measure teacher’s effectiveness by taking a kid from one class and then checking to see in the next grade whether that kid progressed or did not progress in that teacher’s next room. So, it’s a way of sort of tracking kids through time. And therefore you can measure the kids in this teacher’s class tend to have progressed more than kids in another teacher’s class.
John: So, it’s a rough way of doing that. I wonder if you could do the same kind of thing by basically rating the reviewers as a place like blacklist.com. Basically saying like how often does this reader give negative reviews to writers. Is there a specific genre that they always give bad reviews to? In cases where something has been reviewed twice, how often is it likely that they are the lower reviewer rather than the higher reviewer?
There probably is data there somewhere if they’ve done enough of these things. You could actually check and see sort of like, you know, a profile of what these reviewers actually like and what their tastes are and whether they agree with the consensus or are outliers from the consensus.
Craig: But the problem is what do you do with it? Because let’s say you have one guy that’s just remarkably grumpy.
John: Then if you’re Franklin Leonard, maybe you fire him.
Craig: Maybe. Or maybe or you go, this remarkably grumpy guy was the only one that loved this script that actually got bought and made.
John: Yeah. He was the truth teller.
Craig: That’s the problem is that this whole thing is all about trends and the middle, the big thick middle. So, for instance Ms. Hagen, this is Kate Hagen. Kate Hagen, does she work for the Black List?
John: She works for the Black List. Yes.
Craig: So Kate Hagen says to Walt Hickey, “Sports dramas tend to do really well on the site because you’ve got a fusion of a real-life concept or event to then structure a narrative around.” Okay. But what does that have to do with the purpose of the site? The purpose of the site isn’t to do well on the site. The purpose of the site is to get the hell out of the site. You see what my point is? So, that actually doesn’t mean anything.
It reminds me of a story that someone told me, and I don’t know if it’s apocryphal or not, but I love it. In the early days when they were first making Seinfeld, they had to test it, and it was notoriously the lowest testing pilot in NBC history. That, I think, has been talked about before. But as the story goes, what happened was they tested it and the numbers came back terribly. And they sat down with Warren Littlefield, who was running NBC at the time, and he said, “Listen, this one low number here for this particular thing, we know that’s an artifact. We know that in television shows that have this kind of arrangement,” for instance like a show set in New York, “will always get a lower number on this, but it actually doesn’t translate to the success or failure of a show. It’s a statistical artifact.”
And they were like, okay, well that’s good to know. And he said, “But anyway, we should change it.” And they said why. And he was like, “Well, because of the testing.”
Now, you’re just chasing the testing. You’re not chasing what the testing is supposed to test for. And my sense here is that all this is doing is really just trying to figure out how to get a pretty decent middling number on the Black List. Your job, if you’re on the Black List, honestly, the perfect script is the one that gets a bunch of ones and a bunch of tens. You know, like in my mind, who cares if everybody agrees it’s okay.
John: Yeah. A bunch of sixes is not the same. And so you could have two scripts and if the average score was a seven, that doesn’t mean as much as if there were a bunch of tens and a bunch of ones and it drifted down.
Craig: You want to be the outlier.
John: I’m trying to do a max/median/mode, and I don’t have the right numbers for it, but that’s the thing. If there’s people who love it, those are your champions and those are the people who are doing to say, “I want to make this movie.”
Craig: Yeah, the least useful thing, frankly, I mean, I suppose the only useful part of this average overall score is that it might inspire some people to read that script who might not have been interested to read it. But, see, if I were running the Black List, I don’t know how they do it. If they just provide a mean overall score, that’s actually not as interesting to me as a chart, a graph, you know, where you show a one to ten and then you show the amount of people that have broken out between one and ten. I think IMDb does this for their stuff.
Because if I see spikes at the bottom and the top, that’s way more interesting to me than sort of a blob. I want spikes.
John: A bell curve distribution opinion on your script is not likely to be a good sign.
Craig: That’s right. I want spikes. I want outliers. So, this article was bad. And Walt Hickey, I want you to do better. And I think you can do better. Nate Silver, no, no, no.
John: Let’s move on to our series, I think you’re proposing this as a series.
Craig: A series.
John: That’s the new trend in podcasts is series. So, let’s make this a series. And the first topic is the perfect studio executive.
Craig: Right. So, the idea —
John: Talk us through what a perfect studio executive might consist of.
Craig: Well, the idea of the series is that we want to do something called The Perfect series where we go through each kind of job in Hollywood and talk about what the perfect version of that job would be. So, we might as well start with the studio executive because they’re sort of the bosses sitting at the top of this whole thing making these decisions.
So, you know, it’s an interesting thing. The studio executive job has changed over time, even in my time. I think you’ve probably noticed it, too.
Craig: As the studios fell under a much more corporate control, and as they reduced the amount of movies they made, and as they began to rely more heavily on tent poles, there’s less of the old kind of job that they used to do which was read a bunch of drafts of a script and give a bunch of notes and try and try again. Now, it’s really about managing these projects that are sort of born as movies that cannot be stopped.
But to me, the perfect studio executive is somebody who is willing to focus on the filmmakers, the writer and the director. And who will support them and when things run counter to what we’ll call quality, to sit them down and explain honestly what’s going on and then ask how can we have our cake and eat it, too.
Far too often I think studio executives hide the reality because they’re ashamed. They’re embarrassed that they just got their leash yanked because there needs to be some character in there for some market. Or they’re having a bunch of problems, or somebody above them is demanding a car chase.
John: So, I think honesty is a fundamental quality you’re looking for in a studio executive. I would also say intelligence. And intelligence I’m going to sort of combine with knowledge, is that sometimes you encounter studio executives who will come to you with an answer, saying like we need to have a car chase here, or we can’t do this, or we can’t afford this. And they’re just — they’re basically telling you what they’ve been told, because they don’t actually fundamentally have the information about what it is that needs — why that thing needs to happen that way. They’ve just been told that, and they are parroting it back.
And so you want the person who has either the knowledge, or the intellectual curiosity to find the answer for why this thing needs to be a certain way. I remember being on the set of a film and we were doing this night shoot. And there was a real concern that like is there actually going to be enough light. And so the two studio executives showed up and they’re like, okay, where are the lights.
And I’m like, the lights are those giant condors above you that are providing the light. Because it’s actually the middle of the night and it looks really bright. Those are the lights.
And so it was frustrating to be talking with — I lost some trust and faith in these executives because, wait, I thought you’d made a bunch of movies. They really didn’t have a fundamental understanding of the filmmaking process.
John: That’s crucial. You have to have had some time on the set, in the trenches, in the editing room. I have to believe that you really know what this is like, even if you’re not good at doing a director’s job. Great. That’s terrific. You’re a studio executive. That’s fantastic. But you need to know what it is a director is doing.
Craig: That’s exactly right. And it’s easier for them to wrap their minds around what writers are doing, because that involves reading. But directors and studio executives often clash because, you’re right, there are studio executives who are under-powered in the experience department. And that’s not helpful for them. And it’s not helpful or the director. The truth is, we want to make studio executives happy. What I always look for in somebody is somebody who will be honest with me about the why something has happened and then is respectful of the fact that I want to still make, do as a good of a job as I can. And there have been times when I’ve just, somebody has just pointed a finger at me and said, “No, I’m sorry. We’re actually saying we don’t want it to be good. We want it to be this.”
And that’s hard because you, I’m just saying to my imperfect studio executive, the Goofus, look at Gallant. Gallant sits there and gets what he wants with the filmmaker, and the filmmaker still feels good at the end. Goofus just points a finger and says, “Do what I’ve been told to tell you to do.”
And by the way, if you are Gallant, what happens is you will — the perfect studio executive has close personal loyalty-based relationships with key filmmaking partners. That actually is more job protection than just doing what you’ve been told, I’m guessing. I don’t know. I’m just guessing.
John: I think experience will — I think the data scientists will be able to figure that out. Because essentially if having a hit movie, that may buy you some time in that seat, but you know what — did you really make that movie? If you were the person who helped James Cameron get his vision onto the screen, that’s going to count for a lot more.
Craig: That’s right. Saying, look, this director that we trust wants to work with me. I’ll tell you something, studio executives, you have a nice situation in a weird way, the way that screenwriters kind of have a nice situation. There’s a lot of people out there doing your job poorly. It doesn’t take much to shine. So shine. And you will be rewarded. You will be rewarded. And if you get that pool of writers and directors that you know deliver wanting to work with you, that’s pretty great.
John: So, my next point about the perfect studio executive is that he or she is really good at the stuff that filmmakers are not good at. And that means a lot of times dealing with other departments. Dealing with marketing. Dealing with distribution. Dealing with all of the other layers of corporate stuff that has to be dealt with that we are not privy to and we’re not good at it.
So, the great studio executive has a vision for what this movie is. And when she goes in to talk with the marketing department and they throw a bunch of stuff back at her, she can say, “That isn’t the movie. That is not what the movie is. That’s not how this is going to be.”
It’s a person who can communicate the vision of the movie to all the different people, like the merchandising people from Hasbro about like this is what the movie is and can get their feedback and communicate it back to the filmmakers that it has to happen in ways that makes sense.
Craig: It’s funny. That actually is a way that I think things have changed. Because for a lot of studios now, the traditional relationship which is what you just described, has changed into, “No, the marketing department is telling me what the movie is. And the merchandising people are telling me what the movie is. All the more reason for the perfect studio executive to turn back to her writer and her director and say here’s honestly what’s going on, let’s not freak out, let’s help each other. Let’s together, I’m going to give you what I know, you’re going to give me what you know, and now I can go back to them with some substantive alternative plan. And let’s see if we can win this one.
So, something to think about, again, as you’re choosing between Goofus or Gallant, by two favorite twins.
John: They’re the best twins.
Now, some of what we’re describing overlaps with what a producer does, because a producer should also have some of that role of insulating the filmmakers from some of this craziness, but the producer is fundamentally CEO of this little corporation that is the movie, versus the studio executive who is part of this giant corporation that’s making ten movies at once. And there’s all this stuff going on that we’re not going to privy to and honestly we probably shouldn’t be privy to. But hopefully we’re going to have a champion in there who is making sure that when it comes time to our movie it’s being treated really, really well.
John: All right. Let’s get on to our One Cool Things. Craig, I see what yours is on the list and I’m just so happy that you’re keeping true to the spirit of Scriptnotes in that we are a show about women’s reproduction.
John: We are a show about razors. And we are a show about cooking.
Craig: Correct. I think in the past one of my cool things was brining. I’m a big briner. This Thanksgiving my sister and her family are heading out to the west coast to join us and I opted to get a Heritage turkey. And I’ve just been doing a lot of turkey reading, you know, so the turkeys that we get in stores like Butterball and so on, they are — essentially they’ve been bred over time, selective breeding over time to be super breast heavy. Yeah, hey, you know who’s back, Sexy Craig.
John: Yeah, Sexy Craig comes back every Thanksgiving. It’s the holiday for Sexy Craig.
Craig: I like my turkeys with huge breasts. Huge. They’re so big that those turkeys actually can’t really stand up straight. I mean, it’s amazing actually what we’ve done.
John: We’ve created these deformed animals.
Craig: They are. But, you know, if you like breast meat and American stew, yeah, then that works. And they’re not, you know, for all people’s handwringing over corporate factory farming genetic freaks of nature, they taste pretty good.
But Heritage turkeys are turkeys that are essentially from an unselectively bred line of the original three or four different kinds of turkeys that ran around America back in the day when we were genociding our way across the continent. And they are different. They’re smaller breasted, bigger thighs, and wings. God, this is so sexy.
John: [laughs] I know.
Craig: It’s so sexy.
John: Yeah, when you talk about wings, everyone just immediately goes there.
Craig: Smaller breasts and bigger thighs. Honestly, that’s kind of my thing. So, anywho, and it’s a different kind of flavor. I’m not opting for this because, you know, I think GMO is perfectly fine. I’m a skeptic and a pro-science guy. And I know that almost everything we eat has been genetically modified either through science or just people growing stuff the way they grow them.
John: Look at the history of corn and you’ll see that corn is completely made up.
Craig: Oh yeah, bananas. Bananas, like the yellow banana we have, that’s the most GMO’d thing on the planet. Not by Monsanto, by banana farmers. Anywho, as Seth Rudetsky says, anywho, I’m giving this Heritage turkey a try just out of curiosity. I want to see if it tastes better, different, more interesting. It is certainly more expensive. I will say that. But I like the fact that it’s an option.
So, I will have a turkey review for you all post-Thanksgiving.
John: Fantastic. I did a Heritage turkey a couple of years ago and it worked out just fine. It wasn’t the best turkey I ever had, but it wasn’t bad, and it was interesting and it was different, so I salute you in attempting to do it.
You will discover that it will take longer to cook because it is heavier dark meat. You may actually just want to change some of your technique and basically pre-cut it down so that you’re doing your legs and thighs first before you’re trying to do your breast, because it may just be forever in there. But you’ll see.
Craig: What I like to do, a little method, I’m a big believer in Cook’s Illustrated, they’re geniuses.
John: Oh my god, they’re so smart.
Craig: You foil tent the breast, so you can actually let it — the legs and thighs and wings will cook faster — they’ll cook hotter, I guess.
Craig: Slows down the breast cooking, speeds up the, yeah, anyway. We’ll see how it goes. And if it’s a disaster, guess what? Everybody is there for the side dishes anyway.
John: 100 percent. So, my One Cool Thing this week is the show that perhaps people have already watched, but I just started watching it and it’s really good. It’s Transparent on Amazon. Jay Duplass is a friend who I got to connect up with again in Austin for the Austin Film Festival. He is great in the show. Everyone is great in the show.
And I will admit to being skeptical of Amazon when they started doing their TV thing. I was especially skeptical about this whole process where they shoot a pilot and then put it up for there for everyone to look at and then they decide what shows are going to shoot.
I’ve actually been convinced that maybe that’s not such a bad thing, because having shot pilots that never aired or never got seen by the world, at least in the case of the Amazon pilots, they exist out there in the universe. And so people loves Transparent from when it was a pilot. The rest of the show is also really, really good.
So, I would urge you to watch that if you have the opportunity to watch it.
Craig: Guess what’s coming?
John: It’s a siren.
Craig: Multiple sirens.
John: I love it. So, what have you done this time, Craig?
Craig: It’s not good. [laughs] It’s not good. I actually really, most of the time when I commit a crime, you know, I just do it because I feel like it. And I feel fine afterwards. That’s, you know, like a real sociopath. But this time honestly I crossed the line. I should not have done that.
John: Yeah. Somewhere between victim number three and number four, you stopped to think for a moment like, wow, I may have gone too far. But by the time you got to victim six or seven you’re like, you know what? This feels right.
Craig: Sometimes the only way out is through.
John: 100 percent. Sometimes you’ve just got to put the accelerator down and just keep killing.
Craig: Just keep killing. JKK.
John: And that’s our show this week. So, if you would like to talk to Craig about his murder spree, you can find him @clmazin. I am @johnaugust on Twitter. Longer questions you can write to email@example.com.
That’s also where you’ll find the show notes for this show and all of our other episodes. On iTunes we are — just search for us on iTunes. We are Scriptnotes there. That’s also where you can download the Scriptnotes app, so you can listen to all the back episodes there and on the Android store of your choice.
We have just now crossed 1,000 paid subscribers.
Craig: Oh yeah.
John: So, we are going to be recording a dirty episode that is just for our premium subscribers. If you would like to be a premium subscriber, go to scriptnotes.net and that will let you listen to all of the back episodes, some special episodes we’re putting up this week, and the dirty episode when we get that recorded.
Craig: So dirty.
John: It’s going to be so good.
Craig: It’s going to be filthy.
John: You can also join us on December 11th in Hollywood. The Writers Guild Foundation is throwing our live Scriptnotes Holiday Spectacular.
Craig: And that’s going to sell out.
John: That’s going to sell out. And that will be — I’ll bet it’ll be dirty in person, but then Matthew will probably cut it down so that it’s clean for air. So, if you want to hear the dirty version, maybe show up live. That would be great.
Craig: Yeah. For sure. And just get your tickets quickly because we are the Jon Bon Jovi of podcasts.
John: We’re the Elton John/Bernie Taupin of podcasts.
John: Plus, our special guests are super special this year, so I think it’s going to be great.
Craig: It’s actually a spectacular lineup. Oh man, you know, B.J. Novak, he’s in that last shot of Inglourious Basterds, looking down at the swastika they’ve carved into Christophe Waltz’s head. It’s fantastic. It’s great.
John: It’s pretty great. This is the last week for Writer Emergency Packs, so Thursday at noon is the cutoff. And so if you want one, get one. Thank you to everyone who has joined us and backed us there. Our outro this week, well, I should say first off our show is edited by Matthew Chilelli. It is produced by Stuart Friedel. Our outro this week comes from RJ Sampson, who didn’t compose this, but he found this thing on the Internet. It is actually a TV spot for Restasis, an eye drop, for people with chronically dry eyes.
And, weirdly, it’s exactly our outro.
Craig: What the…Restasis.
John: Restasis. I just love that you pick five notes, people are going to pick the same five.
Craig: Of course. Restasis, do they list the side effects of Restasis on the website?
John: Yeah, umbrage.
Craig: Oh yeah, here we go.
John: It’s terrible. Craig, thank you so much for a fun podcast.
Craig: Thank you, John.
John: I’ll talk to you soon.
- Get your tickets now for the Scriptnotes Holiday Show
- The Book with No Pictures by B.J. Novak
- Writer Emergency Pack is on Kickstarter until Thursday
- How Data Can Help You Write A Better Screenplay by Walt Hickey
- Heritage turkeys on Wikipedia, and the Heritage Turkey Foundation
- Transparent on Amazon Prime
- Get premium Scriptnotes access at scriptnotes.net and hear our 1,000th subscriber special
- Outro submitted by Scriptnotes listener RJ Sampson (send us yours!)