Housekeeping

A few things around the site to mention and discuss:

Chinese in the feeds

This was my bad. I misconfigured a plug-in, and it started to grab some random Chinese Twitter feed. I’m going to be traveling a lot in July, well outside of traditional internet access, so I’ll be needing to use an alternative method (like Twitter) to post from the field. I’m still debating whether it’s best to generate traditional posts, or just a persistent header (like I did for Sundance).

Follow-Up Email plugin

AndrewJS wrote in about troubles with this plug-in:

Your WP plugin that emails people regarding new comments for certain articles seems to be overly ambitious lately. I left a comment on your Finale PDF thread and checked that box, but am receiving follow up emails for several other articles also that I never subscribed to. I rarely leave comments on your site, and I checked those other articles just to make sure I hadn’t commented on them. This included the Marvel thread and something about a Screenwriter’s Dinner, and one or two others. They all poured in overnight at once. Seems a bit odd.

Is anybody else having troubles with this plug-in? Is anyone else using it? I’m happy to troubleshoot it if people are finding it useful, but if not, the simplest solution would just be to remove it.

Live preview on comments

Some readers are having trouble with the live previews on the comments. If you’re one of them, shoot me an email at ask@johnaugust.com. Be sure to include which browser you’re using (e.g. Internet Explorer). Some readers have had success by breaking long comments into shorter sections. That really shouldn’t matter, but if it works, go for it.


Life is now worth living

awardIn a bold choice that shocked, well, me, The Morning News gave this very site one of its 2007 Editors’ Awards for Online Excellence, which is pretty cool considering it’s a damn screenwriting blog.

The other award-winners are more deserving quite interesting, and worth a click-through. I’m particularly enamored by Mindy Kaling’s awesome Things I’ve Bought That I Love. Not that I really need to know about the best elixir for whiteheads and why they’re a unique challenge for Indian women. It’s just very funny, particularly if you read it in her Kelly Kapoor voice.


Screenwriters’ dinner

Last week, I attended the First Annual WGAw Screenwriters’ Dinner. I’m not sure one should call a first-ever event “annual,” but it was successful enough that it merits a repeat in 52 weeks.

Since screenwriters tend to work alone, there’s not a lot of water-cooler talk on a daily basis. Message boards help to some degree, but WGA events are often the only venues for catching up in person. For example, it had been 23 months since I’d last seen Simon Kinberg. I know because our kids were born the same week.

The event also gave me a chance to meet a lot of writers I’d only known by name — Billy Ray and Jeff Nathanson, to pick two tablemates. Seeing my nametag, Iris Yamashita said she’d just pitched a project as being “Big Fish meets Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” which was flattering. I wanted to point out that she has the Oscar nomination, but we were already being urged to take our seats. I introduced Jessica Bendinger to Robert Towne, even though I didn’t really know Mr. Towne. It felt like the kind of event you could get away with that.

I got roped into recording an interview for a video podcast. If it ever hits the inter-waves, you might notice my hands shaking. I had just arrived, and was incredibly hungry. The mini-pizzas hadn’t made their way over yet.


Calling on the hive mind

beeOne advantage of having a brilliant and devoted readership like mine is that I can occasionally reverse the Q&A process and appeal for your insight. Here’s the situation…

At Sundance, I talked about my plan-slash-pipe-dream of releasing the underlying footage of The Nines simultaneously to its DVD release. Essentially, you could load it into your Avid or Final Cut system and it would show up neatly divided into bins. From there, you could cut your own version — or better yet, mash in other content to create something unique: The Nines vs. The Grifters, or Donnie Darknines: The Koalapocalypse.1

Yes, you could do some of this just by ripping the DVD, but having the original material allows for much more sophisticated re-cutting, just as the a cappella version of Jay-Z’s The Black Album enabled a thousand remixes and reinterpretations.

There are legal and political hurdles to be sure, but all of that’s months away.

Right now, we’re surprisingly close to having an official trailer.2 After seeing vastly different approaches–comedy to thriller to existential drama–it became clear that no matter what the tone, there are approximately 15-20 shots which were in nearly every version of the trailer. Which is a pretty small number. Which raises a natural question…

Why not let people cut their own trailer?

Surprisingly, everyone who could veto the idea hasn’t. So I think we’re going to do it. But that means there’s a lot to figure out, much of which falls well outside my area of expertise. I know this blog has a significant readership beyond aspiring screenwriters, so I’m hoping that editors, web-heads and other folks with useful insight will de-lurk and offer some of their genius.

Format

My hunch is that most of these trailers will end up on YouTube, where the ideal input format is MPEG-4, 320×240. (Update March 2011: Outdated, obviously.) It’s certainly compact. The trouble is, editing systems like Final Cut would rather ingest almost anything other than .mp4. Which leads to my first question:

1. What’s the best video format for sending out the trailer footage?

We’re trying to strike a balance between a few competing goals. First, it needs to look and sound pretty good, both as edited, and ultimately, as re-compressed by YouTube. Second, it needs to be fairly compact, so that it’s feasible download (or torrent) the footage.3 Third, it should be something fairly industry-standard. No doubt there is a clever proprietary format out there, but if it requires special plug-ins, people are much less likely to bother.

2. One clip, or many?

Would it be more efficient to offer one long clip (perhaps with chapter marks) or a folder of the individual clips? The latter seems more convenient — you could just drop it into your system as a bin. But does more clips mean more chances for things to go wrong?

Logistics

Beyond the video format, there are other questions about the smartest way to do this. Such as…

3. Should it be a competition?

I suspect many people would participate just because they thought it was interesting, but my experience with the Scene Challeges is that even a phantom prize gets a lot more people invested. Assuming the trailers end up on YouTube, would a standard tagging scheme be enough to help identify the contenders, or should there be a forum for people to list/hype their entries?

3A. If there’s a competition, how long of a deadline?

Assuming the footage came out on a Thursday, would the following Monday be enough time? I suspect there’s a sweet spot between enough time and too much time.

4. What’s the best way to get the footage out there? Torrent? Download?

I’ve barely torrented, and have never set up any seeding situations, so I’m almost fully ignorant on the best ways to make this sizable file available. (In coming up with solutions, you can safely assume we have almost no money to spend on this.)

No doubt there will be other smart questions asked amid the answers in the comments thread. If you’re addressing any of the technical issues, it would be helpful if you mentioned your experience, or provided links. Thanks in advance.

  1. Just typing that makes me eager to shoot new koala footage.
  2. Once the official trailer comes, you’ll find a link here, and no doubt a lengthy talkback on a certain site.
  3. I’m going to guess and say that we’re looking at about six minutes of raw footage, if that helps the back-of-the-envelope calculation.

Title page trouble with Final Draft .pdfs

Reader Josh C wrote in with one solution to a problem that’s been frustrating me for months. When you want to save a script as a .pdf, Final Draft won’t always include the title page. It’s frustratingly inconsistent. The obvious workaround is to save the title page as a separate file, which is what I’ve often done. But then you end up emailing two documents, increasing the confusion on the other end.

Josh was using Final Draft version 6.0.6.0. It turns out, the issue is whether the “Title Page…” window is open or closed.

1. Save your screenplay as normal (as a .fdr)

2. With your saved screenplay still open, go to Document > Title Page. A new, blank Title Page opens.

3. Fill in the blanks, then just CLOSE THE TITLE PAGE. This is the part that I got hung up on forever. If you leave the title page open, then try to save as a PDF, it won’t work. The Title page WON’T attach itself to the PDF if the Title Page is still open when you try to Save as. Just close the Title Page. It saves automatically to your screenplay.

4. With your screenplay still open, go to File > Save As — then select Adobe Acrobat Document (*pdf) – or whatever your computer says. Save the new PDF file somewhere and open it up. The Title Page should be attached at the top of the screenplay where it should be :)

In my tests with 7.1.3, the .pdf will also include the title page even if that window is still open1 — provided you have a certain checkbox checked in “Preferences.”

checkboxYes, I’ll admit that I didn’t read the manual with version 7 of Final Draft. But this is a pretty questionable place to put this checkbox. After all, sometimes you’ll want to include the title page, sometimes you won’t. Does it really make sense to have this be an application-wide preference, housed in a panel that has nothing to do with printing, saving or the specific document you’re working on? It’s pretty much the last place I’d think to look for it.

What’s more, at least on the Mac, Final Draft is using the built-in .pdf facility of OS X. It’s basically just printing to a file.2 Since it seems to be using the standard print architecture, you’d think that choosing the “Print Title Page” option in the Print dialog box would have some effect. It doesn’t. And that’s why it’s frustrating.3

Whenever I complain about Final Draft, I get a nice note from the developers asking me to help out with the next version, and a few emails from companies working on competing applications. So let me make it clear where I stand. Despite its annoyances, I end up using Final Draft because what it gets right generally outweighs what it gets wrong. There’s certainly some inertia on my part, but given a better alternative, I’d switch in a heartbeat. The shipping versions of Screenwriter, Montage and Celtx aren’t better, particularly when it comes to revisions.

I’m hoping the upcoming Screenwriter 6 gives Final Draft some real competition, because that’s what’s lacking. When we were cutting The Nines, I realized that editing software has benefitted tremendously from the battle between Avid and Apple, with new features, better interfaces, and dramatically lower prices. I started out a Final Cut Pro man, while my editor was firmly Avid. We had the luxury of both being right. Both systems are terrific, and I think that’s largely because of the competition.

  1. However, if you haven’t closed or saved the title page, it won’t be updated until you do.
  2. You can test this by choosing a two-page layout in the Print dialog box. The next time you choose to Save as PDF, you’ll get facing pages.
  3. On the Mac, you always have the option of using the “Save as PDF” function built into the Print dialog box. But I’ve never had any luck getting that to include a title page. My guess is that Final Draft treats the title page as a separate document. When you print to a traditional printer, you’ll notice a one-page progress dialog flash for a second. I think Final Draft is kicking out the title page as a distinct job. It never incorporates it into the “real” script.

Should I write a novel or a script?

questionmarkAfter dreaming of publishing my own stories, either in screenplay form or novel, I finally landed a job writing for a local alternative music publication. With a year of deadlines, word counts, and earning endless scorn from my editor (who I am convinced possess more red ink than blood) under my belt, I now feel comfortable beginning the process of flushing out these stories in a structured form.

My question is: Which format should I pursue?

Through your site, I now understand the plus and minuses of writing a screenplay. And, I take heed into delving into the business end of screenwriting. (I enjoy living in Florida and have little desire to pack up for L.A., at this time.) Also, some of my ideas just seem easier to tackle for a first time screenplay than a first time novel, such as my quirky rom-com outline rather than my existential mind bending sci-fi epic. Finally–not to belittle the screenwriting process–there are some stories that I feel more comfortable sharing credit on the final product compared to other stories I feel so strongly about that I want to collaborate with no one.

I know your personal answer would always be a screenplay. But, have you ever read a friend’s or fellow professional’s script and advised her material is best suited as a book? For what reasons? And, what format would be best for a (semi) unpublished writer? (For some reason, the Premiere magazine feature on Rex Pickett and his struggles to sell “Sideways” as a screenplay keep popping in my head.)

I searched your archives and could not find a similar question to answer my query. If I missed it, I apologize.

– Mike Rabinowitz
Head Writer
REAX Music Magazine

answer iconAssuming you enjoy novels, you should probably write one, rather than writing a screenplay.

I know that seems like heretical advice for a blog about screenwriting, but I think the numbers support me. In the U.S., more than 3,500 novels are published each year. Compare that to film: For 2006, there were 607 movies released theatrically.

If you’re looking to put your story out into the world, paper beats film, hands down.1

Beyond the hard numbers, consider the relative levels of authorship. Novels are a final art form — you write a book and that’s it. It sits on a shelf with your name on it. Screenplays, on the other hand, are one link in a long process leading to the final art form: a movie. While it’s your name on the script, the movie is the result of a huge collaboration. Right or wrong, the director will get most of the credit for what makes it on screen.2

So why would anyone write a screenplay?

Based on questions my readers send in, a couple of scenarios come up frequently:

  1. To get rich. Often, when you read about a new script, the story has a dollar figure attached: “Joe Smoalan sold his spec MONKEY BUTLER to New Line for high six-figures.” One you figure out that “high six figures” means more than $500,000, you realize that there’s a lot of money to be made in screenwriting. Most of the authors you find on the shelves of Barnes and Noble aren’t making that much money.

  2. “I could never write a novel, but…” Because screenplays have fewer words than a novel, they should be easier to write, right? Besides, everyone’s seen bad movies. It can’t be hard to write one better than The Grudge 2.

  3. “I could never direct a movie, but screenwriting is just words.” So much of moviemaking is esoteric and intimidating. Just watching the end credits scroll by is bewildering to anyone outside the industry — who rated the men to pick the Best Boy? But it’s not hard to imagine writing a script. It’s just words and margins.

It will surprise no one when I point out that these are three terrible reasons to write a screenplay.

We’ll start with the money. I get frustrated when journalists treat screenwriting as a kind of lottery, emphasizing the payday rather than the work. Most scripts never sell, and most scripts that do sell, sell for a tiny amount. The reason why you read stories about million dollar sales is because they are pretty infrequent.

In terms of the “I could never write a novel” excuse, yes, some writers seem better suited to one kind of writing than another, just as most painters aren’t sculptors. But creating characters, shaping storylines, and stringing together words in a pleasing fashion are prerequisite skills for both novels and screenplays. I would lose respect for any working screenwriter who professed an inability to write traditional fiction.

It’s true that the learning curve for screenwriting isn’t as steep as it would be for, say, directing. And it costs a helluva lot less. But a screenwriter quickly finds that maintaining a willful ignorance about the moviemaking process is impossible. In order to get your film made, you’re going to have to learn about the physical and political ordeal of production. You can do that in school or on the set, but you’ll soon know your grips from your gaffers.

So back to the original question: Should you write a screenplay or a novel?

The answer is a question: What does your idea want to be?

Do you envision an intimate psychological profile of a half-Korean woman trapped in a mediocre marriage who imagines an affair with her co-worker? That’s probably a novel. The story is largely internal; the action is minor; the stakes are low. In the novel version of your story, you can spend a paragraph detailing her decision to buy percale sheets, describing the different textures and comparing them to the geography of her homeland. In the movie version, she buys sheets, and maybe has a conversation during the process.

Are you looking to write a comedy about a deposed crime boss who goes into witness relocation at a fat camp? That’s a movie. Here’s a test: Can you envision a one-sheet poster? It’s a movie. Could it star Martin Lawrence? It’s a movie. Could you describe it as “something meets something?” (e.g. SOPRANOS meets SISTER ACT) It’s a movie.

What happens if you have a novel-worthy idea, but you’d rather write a screenplay? Tough. Don’t make the mistake of trying to force it into screenplay shape. Yes, some books can be adapted into great movies, but it’s because they inherently had enough cinematic content to make the leap. If yours doesn’t, you’ll only frustrate yourself and your readers.

  1. Yes, I’m omitting films not shown theatrically. That’s a significant number. I’m also leaving out television, which is kissing cousins with screenwriting. On the book side, however, I’m omitting paperbacks and genre fiction. The total number of books published in the U.S. is 50,000 — and they’re not all gardening manuals.
  2. Interestingly, the screenwriter may get a lot of the blame. In my experience, the screenwriter’s name is approximately three times as likely to show up in a negative review than a positive one. That’s a master’s thesis waiting to be written.