Who are you? Where do you come from?

surveyOn Sunday, I had lunch with Mary Edrington, my former marketing professor from Drake. She was one of the best teachers I ever had, because she did the near-impossible: she made me care about boring numbers. Even though I was much more attuned to the creative side of marketing, I always appreciated her zeal for research. It wasn’t enough to come up with a clever slogan for some product; you had to prove that there was actually a customer out there to buy it.

At lunch, she asked me who the average reader of johnaugust.com was. I confessed that I didn’t really know. I can speculate about education level of some readers based on the comments. Checking the logs, I can tell you what browser he or she uses. But my actual demographic data is an empty set.

So if you don’t mind, would you be willing to answer 10 really simple questions? I’ve timed it — it only takes 35 seconds, unless you write a big essay in the (optional) final comment box.

You can take the survey here. (Update March 2011: Link removed, outdated.)

After a week or two, I’ll put up the results.

LA Times story on DVD sales

The Los Angeles Times recently ran a good piece about the studios’ reluctance to disclose exactly how much money they really make on DVDs. They’re happy to tell you that home video is absolutely crucial to profitability, particularly when it comes to the threat of piracy. But ask how much money they made from DVDs on, say, Shrek, and they whistle a tune while rocking back and forth on their heels.

Of course, knowing a precise figure is not idle curiosity. Peter Jackson, for instance, is suing over Lord of the Rings, suspecting he was shortchanged somewhere in the tens of millions of dollars for DVD payments.

You can read the whole story here. (Free registration required.)

See also:

Glossary: Residuals
Big Fish sells 2 million DVDs in first week

Annoying Trend Watch: Technorati spam blogs

I use a Technorati watchlist to keep track of mentions of me, this site, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Technorati follows blogs, so it’s a nice way to gauge what topics people find interesting enough to write about. For instance, teenage girls tend to point out that “JohNny DePP iz SOOOOO HOOTTTTT!”

Over the last two weeks, I’ve noticed a disconcerting rise in the number of faux-blogs. They look like blogs, and they’re hosted on genuine sites like Blogspot. But they have no actual content, just a bunch of gibberish targeting a certain term, like “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” I assume they’re computer-generated. Here’s an example.

So why would anyone make a useless blog like this? Presumably, to drive traffic to other sites. The left-hand column on the example blog has links to various other sites, each of which either sells something, or has Google ads which make money on a pay-per-click basis.

It’s really annoying, because up until now, Technorati has been a terrific clutter-buster. I don’t know if the spam-blog problem is readily fixable. Unlike Google, which has algorithms to help it weed out junk sites, I think Technorati basically relies on self-reporting. The system would need to find a way to detect which blogs are real, and which ones are fake. That’s a tall order.

Tracking a comment thread by RSS

geek alertUnlike some sites, where the number of comments on a given article can reach triple-digits, most of the threads at johnaugust.com stay pretty short. Still, sometimes you want to keep on top of an interesting discussion without re-visiting the site every hour. That’s where RSS can be your friend.

On every article, down by the “Leave a comment” section, you’ll find a link for “RSS feed for comments on this post.”

rss feed screenshot

If you click it, you’ll get gibberish. Rather, copy the link (which ends with ‘/feed/’) and paste it into your newsreader of choice (such as Bloglines, NetNewsWire, or the new Safari RSS). You’ll then get every comment on the article as it appears, without ever having to go back to check the original page. And when you’re done following a conversation, just delete the link. No fuss, no muss.

Incidentally, this technique works for almost any blog you visit. So definitely try to make use of it.

See also:

Finding the RSS feeds
More about the RSS feeds

Writing about real events

questionmarkI’m writing a spec akin to The People vs. Larry Flynt or Catch Me if You Can that involves several real people, the FCC and a major U.S. company. There’s a lot on record regarding the incident in newspapers etc. I’ve hunted down the main character (a private citizen) and will talk to him about rights to his story. Assuming there hasn’t been a book written about the incident, what is the protocol for using real people (high profile like the former head of the FCC, etc) as characters?

I’m going to guess anything transcribed in a public hearing is available as dialogue but of course it’s the juicy stuff behind closed doors that I will have to infer to progress the story along. And what about using the major company’s name? Could I use, say Kmart, if the film is about an incident with Kmart?

– Matt
San Diego

John’s Standard Advice applies here: if you’re writing this as a spec, just write the best possible script you can. Yes, down the road, there may be some legal hurdles. You might have to change a company’s name, or lose/combine/alter a character for icky defamation reasons. But those are all making-the-movie concerns, not things to freak out about while writing the script.

However. You seem like a diligent guy, so there are things you can do now to save yourself some trouble down the road. First off, make a list of “facts” as you understand them. Who is who, who knew what, when things happened. For each of these facts, make a note of how you know this. Is it a matter of public record (i.e. you’re looking at court testimony), a newspaper story, or an interview you conducted yourself? Basically, pretend you’re a fact-checker working on a major story for the New York Times. Be detailed. Be obsessive.

Then tuck this list away. Don’t even think about it while you write.

A lot of what makes a script interesting isn’t fact. It’s the stuff in-between the facts: conversations that probably took place, motives that make sense but aren’t documented. While you’re writing about real people, you’re writing characters, and characters can’t be found in court testimony. You’re going to have to make some stuff up — so make it compelling. Find a point of view. You’re trying to create two hours of great movie, and great movies are rarely objective.

Do people sue when movies are made about them? Sometimes. But the fact is that no one is going to sue you, Matt Screenwriter from San Diego, for writing your script. It’s only when a script becomes a movie that the fear of lawsuits really merits any attention. And by that point, you’ll have more studio lawyers than you can handle. Hand ‘em that list you made and let them do their job.

See also:

Based on a true story
Third-party storytelling
“Fictional events” disclaimer