Footnotes on the footer

In my previous post about the redesign, I glossed over what was actually was a fair amount of thought and logic behind what I did (and re-did). Based on the comments, some of that thinking might not be clear.

Why not just stick them on their own page? If you want archives, click on archives, and go to the archives. Seems unnecessary to hang them on the bottom of every page whether they’re wanted or needed for that visit, or no.
All that stuff at the bottom of the page seems overkill and excessive server to client material.

So here’s my rationale. (Beware, this is all very information-design-y, and may make your eyes glaze over. Caveat lector.)

If you read the site frequently, you’ll never see the footer anyway.
Since I only post every two or three days, only the top article will be new to most readers. You’d stop scrolling once you hit an article you’d already read.

So the footer isn’t overkill if you never see it.

Many of my visitors come via search engines.
Looking through the logs, it’s clear that a significant percentage of traffic on the site ends up here because of a screenwriting-related search. If a visitor lands on an article about what I/E means, he’d likely have no sense of what else was available on the site. To reverse a metaphor, he’d only see the tree, not the forest.

Yes he could click on a link for an Archives page, but I wouldn’t. By sticking the footer on every page of the site, I can help anyone landing on any page get a sense of how much is available.

It increases the stickiness.
“Stickiness” is an awkward term to describe how much time a person spends at a given website, which helps determine ad rates. This site doesn’t have any ads, but it does have a lot of information I’d like people to have. So, unlike my house, I’m happy to have people hang around for a while.

An Archives page means another layer of clicking.
Let’s say you want to find an entry about Big Fish. With the fat footer, you click on “Big Fish,” and you get a list of all the articles in that category. Pick your article and read it.

With an Archives page, you’d first get a list of categories, then a new page with the entries. That’s not complicated, but it’s an extra step, and an extra kind of page to keep straight. (That is, a main Archives page, and a Category page.)

For the same reason, I’ve chosen to have the Archives page list all the articles in a chosen category, rather than breaking it down into chunks of 10 or 20 articles. The smaller chunks look nicer, but are ultimately harder to mentally process. (Was that other article I was interested in on page 2 or 3 of the results?)

Yes, there are slick AJAX-y ways of doing all the category stuff on a single page. However, a lot of these solutions reset every time you come back to the page, which makes churning through a bunch of articles frustrating.

It’s not that much more work for the server.
The server is off-site, so I can’t give any quantitative figure. But in testing, I haven’t seen any difference in page-loading times with or without the fat footer. Generating the archive list for the footer is exactly one line of php:

< ?php wp_list_cats('sort_column=name&optioncount=1&hierarchical=1'); ?>

If generating the footer were slowing things down, it would be (almost) trivial to cache it. But I don’t see that being a factor.

Still, the footer means extra information to deliver to the client. That’s one reason I’ve dropped the default number of articles per page, and why I’m pretty conscientious about keeping images reasonably-sized.

Does the site sometimes load slowly? Yes. And too often, it goes down altogether. It’s a hosting situation that I hope to have resolved in the near future.

The archives listing helps search engines index the site.
This is debatable, honestly. True, it puts every article in the site just two links away, making it easier to spider through the site. In the old days of search engine optimization, this was a major goal. Now it’s probably much less important, because there are now many different ways for the Googles of the world to find, process and deliver the information on the site.

I mentioned before that this is part one of the redesign. The second phase will occur this week, and will make it more clear why I changed some of the things I did.


Redesign, part one

Readers who visit the web site, as opposed to getting it through the feeds, will notice a few changes, both cosmetic and architectural.

We’ll start with the obvious stuff. The blue header is a little bluer, the footer is fatter, and there are fewer entries per page.

There’s now an archive listing on every page of the site. This is by far the biggest change. Certain people have long pointed out the disgraceful lack of accessible archives for the site.

I feel that archive navigation isn’t really that crucial for most blogs. Odds are, a reader visiting your site doesn’t want to poke around to see what you really thought of Miss Congeniality 2. That’s not to say they shouldn’t be able to, it’s just that most blogs are about what’s happening today, not a year ago.

Archives are history. Most people just don’t care.

That said, johnaugust.com doesn’t function quite like most blogs. A reader stumbling across this site is likely to be interested in screenwriting, and is likely to have specific questions that I’ve addressed in earlier entries. The ability to easily wander through the 500+ posts is a huge advantage, and the new archive structure will (I hope) make this possible. Try it out, and see what you think.

There’s also a new “Recently” section beside the archives list. Off-Topic, which used to be its own page, is now part of the same footer package on every page. It’s still powered by del.icio.us, which has made it ridiculously easy to add a link-roll. (The old way involved cron scripts and cache files; the new way means cutting-and-pasting two lines of javascript.)

The new footer is hugely inspired by Hemingway, a terrific and spare theme designed by Kyle Neath. I’m calling my version “Bradbury,” which is a lame and obvious pun.

The boring and invisible change is that I’ve upgraded to the most recent version of WordPress, which is faster, slicker, and one hopes resistant to evil little script kiddies. I’ve actually had the new version running for a while on a mirror site, and it’s proved to be very stable.

If I were a Proper Designer who really thought things through carefully, I’m sure I could come up with a full rationale for why everything is the way it is on the site. I can’t. Some of it is just that way because I like it. But your feedback is always welcome.

And yes, there’s a part two. Soon.


How the hell did I get on this mailing list?

crossword pajamasPajamaGram sells robes and pajamas — mostly for women, but they have some “cute” couples pajamas that are worth flipping to the back to see. Such as these his-and-hers crossword pajamas.

I ask you: Could anything be better than doing the Sunday crossword puzzle while wearing crossword pajamas?

I’ve now gotten three catalogs from this place, and I’m at a loss to figure out why. Yes, I’ve ordered stuff from baby catalogs recently, but having an infant hasn’t led me to swearing off actual clothes. I’m tempted to call and ask to have my name removed from their list, but I fear that it will be the snail-mail equivalent of the spam-reply trap: once they know an address is valid, the volume increases.

So for now, I marvel, then recycle. And try to figure out exactly who’s buying this stuff.

If you see me writing ugly pajamas into a future script, it’ll be our little inside joke.


The word escapes me

For the past few months, I’ve been at a loss for word. Not words, but one very specific word. It refers to knowledge that would only be known by people in a specific group. One would use it thusly…

“The distinction between italic and oblique is obvious to a type designer, but is frankly a little too blank for everyone else.”

I really needed the word. But I couldn’t remember it.

I started asking people, smart people, if they could help me figure out the word. No one could.

I Googled “pertaining to a specific group.” I got page after page of words, but not the right one.

I was 90% sure the word started with ‘e.’ So I actually went through the dictionary, page by page, looking at every entry for the letter ‘e.’

But I couldn’t find it.

Then last week, while walking through an almost empty theatre, I heard someone say something magnificent: esoteric.

From the American Heritage Dictionary:

es•o•ter•ic (es-uhter-ik) adj. Intended for or understood by only a particular group: an esoteric cult. See synonyms at mysterious. Of or relating to that which is known by a restricted number of people. Confined to a small group: esoteric interests. Not publicly disclosed; confidential.

I have no idea what the person was talking about. I just heard that one word, and felt the relief of an agonizing itch being scratched. I immediately emailed myself the word, just in case.

Just today, I found a Reverse Dictionary Search site, which I’ve already bookmarked for the next word I can’t remember.


I’m setting the TiVo for Bubble

BubbleSteven Soderbergh’s new movie, Bubble, opens in theaters today. I’ve hardly read anything about the movie itself, because all the publicity is about the unique (some say troubling) distribution strategy: reducing the traditionally months-long window between the theatrical release and the DVD release to mere days.

Of course, DVDs have always come out a few days after a movie. They’re called bootlegs.

The film is also debuting on HDNet movies tonight. I wasn’t sure we got that, but it turns out it’s been there all along, right at channel 78. So that’s where I’ll be watching it.

Also, I had assumed screenwriter Coleman Hough was a pseudonym for Soderbergh (like “Peter Andrews” the cinematographer), because Hough’s only real credits are Soderbergh’s indie movies. But then I found an actual article about the woman.

So I apologize for doubting her existence.


Ops stops

One strange aspect of writing a blog is recognizing that one’s online narrative doesn’t always match up very well with reality. There is a lag between when events happen and when you write about them.

Take for example Josh Friedman’s recent and scary brush with kidney cancer. As his real-life neighbor, I knew he was on the mend before anyone online knew there was anything wrong. Quite understandably, Josh didn’t blog about the situation while he was in the middle of it. But it was weird watching the two realities diverge. Josh’s readers would write in to me, asking why Josh hadn’t posted for so long. I knew, but it wasn’t my story to tell.

I’m just glad it has a happy ending.

In the dramedy of my own life, one story thread I’ve let drop is Ops, the one-hour drama Jordan Mechner and I developed for Fox.

For those who’ve tuned in late, Ops is an adventure-drama about two guys who run a private military corporation. They’re the sub-sub-contractors for a giant corporation like Halliburton, providing field operations in really dangerous parts of the world, such as Iraq, Afghanistan or Venezuela. Week-to-week, our heroes could be delivering a blood shipment, rescuing a kidnapped executive, or training a security force. Tonally, it’s probably closest to Three Kings. You could also think of it as a modern-day Western.

Ops was originally Jordan’s idea. He’d been researching private military corporations, with the intention of writing a feature. As he described the world to me, I felt it was really more of a TV drama. Much like the detective shows of the 80’s, you were following two guys. You didn’t just want to see them on one mission. You wanted to see them in a new predicament each week.

Jordan agreed, and we decided to write it together.

Our first hero would be THEO VANOWEN, the experienced soldier who is not only the brawn but the tactical brains — he could tell you exactly how many men you needed to guard an airstrip. His partner JOE McGINTY would be the business side of the equation: the salesman, the negotiator and problem-solver. While there would be other supporting characters, the show really falls on their backs.

We pitched the show to our agents at a hotel bar. (Since I’m represented at UTA, and Jordan’s at ICM, it was helpful to have a neutral location.) The agents loved the idea, and suggested we pitch the show to Fox. Two days later, we did. Fox (the studio) quickly bought it, and set it up for Fox (the network) as a put pilot. That was the end of September, 2004.

There was an article in Variety about the show a few days later.

FULL SPEED AHEAD
While Jordan and I were writing the pilot, we met with the physical production department about location and budget strategies, since the show would no doubt be expensive. We also had preliminary meetings with actors the studio and/or network liked.

We turned in the pilot script in November, and were met with thunderous silence.

After a week or so, we got notes asking about the tone, and asking questions about certain plot points. We addressed those concerns as well as we could, but there was no question we’d lost mojo. Something was bugging them, but what? It was only after a few drafts that we got our answer: they liked the characters, but weren’t crazy about the A-plot. At all.

For the pilot, we began with a teaser in Afghanistan, then segued into a kidnap-and-rescue in Venezuela. The studio liked the Afghanistan part, but was eager to speed up the story. We tried an Alias-like jump-ahead structure which was interesting but a little gimmicky. No one really liked it.

We met with Gail Berman, president of Fox (the network). She said that what she had really been hoping for was more literally Three Kings. Happy to oblige, we pitched a new pilot that had our heroes trying to deliver a shipment of human blood from Turkey to Kirkuk. Everyone loved it. Jordan and I went off to write our new pilot, which was tentatively slated to shoot mid-season.

Then Gail Berman left Fox, to take over as president of Paramount.

THE NEW GUY
She was replaced by Peter Liguori, who had mostly recently run FX. One of the shows he had developed at FX was “Over There,” an Iraq war drama that was not fairing well in the ratings. Concerned, we called our people at both Foxes, but were assured that the Iraq-ish-ness of our new pilot would be no problem.

Much happier with our new pilot, we turned it in. We got a lot of small notes about tone and comedy, which we tried to address. Everyone professed to love the pilot (several Fox folk called it their favorite), but we never got any word from Liguori about whether or not we would be shooting the pilot.

While we were waiting, I had a baby, and Jordan wrote Prince of Persia. So we were both busy enough.

Nearly a year after we’d set up the project, Jordan and I finally went in for a meeting with Liguori and approximately 10,000 Fox executives. (Okay, maybe just 11.) Peter Liguori, for the record, is friendly, polite and thoughtful. He explained that his reluctance to proceed with Ops was the subject matter, and the Iraq setting in particular. And yet he really admired the show, and wanted to find a way it could work.

Generally, I’m the eager-to-please guy, which explains why I wrote a whole new pilot for Gail Berman. But I wasn’t going to write a third pilot without some commitment from Liguori. He agreed we could start casting and looking for directors based on the current pilot script. Meanwhile, we’d be writing a brand-new pilot that would feature a new A-plot set somewhere other than Afghanistan and Iraq. (We chose Brazil and Uzbekistan.)

And this is where I last left the story, blog-wise. We were casting. When I mentioned that Alexis Denisof and James Marsters had come in, I got lots of gushing Buffy fan mail. In reality, we were pretty far down the road with two actors Fox loved: LL Cool J and Luke Mably. Those two weren’t the only choices; we were lucky to have a lot of interest from talented people.

Then something strange happened.

LL Cool J was “offer-only,” which means he wouldn’t come in to audition beforehand. That’s pretty common for a star at his level. Every day or two, I would get a call from LL’s agent asking if we were still interested in him, because Fox business affairs hadn’t called to start making a holding deal for him.

So, every day or two, I would call the powers-that-be at Fox and say, “Hey, let’s make that LL deal.” But it wouldn’t happen. And I could never get a clear answer on why it wasn’t happening.

Finally, I ended up just calling Liguori to ask why they weren’t making LL’s deal. Was Liguori having second thoughts about making the show?

Yes.

In fact, he had decided he didn’t want the show after all.

And suddenly, just like that, Ops was dead.

Our phone conversation was at noon. We had another casting session scheduled in an hour. So my first call was to the casting director, telling him to cancel the session and send the 30 or so actors home. Then I called Jordan, who was bummed. He had just finished seven pages of the third pilot.

He sent them. I read them and gave notes, just for the hell of it. We sent a big basket of muffins to the casting agency to thank them for their hard work, and called it a day.

THE AFTERMATH
When a pilot is announced, it shows up in Variety. Everyone knows about it.

When a pilot dies, it dies quietly in the corner. So for the next week, I kept getting calls from agents about their writer/director/actor client who would be perfect for Ops. It was awkward to tell them that the show was kaput.

In reality, the show wasn’t fully dead, because Fox (the studio) still had the right to take the project to other networks. One of the reasons I didn’t blog about Ops’ demise earlier is that we were still under consideration at NBC and Showtime. They both ultimately passed, which is good, because I had mentally moved on about an hour after the phone call with Liguori.

One aspect of the Ops situation that might perplex some readers is that the show was announced as a “put pilot,” which means that when Fox made the original deal with Jordan and me, one of the conditions was that they basically promised to shoot the pilot. In reality, I’m not sure there is such a thing as a put pilot.

In the case of Ops, there was a substantial penalty that Fox agreed to pay in the event they didn’t end up shooting the pilot. In a few months, I’ll get a check with a few zeroes for my trouble. Given how much time and money it would have taken to shoot the pilot, it’s almost certainly for the best the train stopped where it did. There’s no sense producing a pilot if the network didn’t want the show.

To the degree there’s a silver lining, I can now offer a bunch of new stuff in the Downloads section. In the Ops category, you’ll find stuff from all three versions of the pilot, along with the sides we used for casting.

On the whole, I’m proud of the show that never was. It was my first experience writing with a partner, and Jordan was a great collaborator. While I probably wouldn’t choose to write with someone again, it was good to learn that I could if I had to.

I’m really not angry with Fox or Liguori. I understand his decision, although I wish he’d reached it a few months earlier. The various incarnations of Ops took about six months of my writing, and a sizable chunk of my brain space. The mental real estate can be reclaimed, but there’s a real opportunity cost to the time I lost. I could have written two features in that time.

Or blogged more.

Anyway, that’s the story of Ops. It feels good to have my real-life narrative a little closer to my online version.