How to get into film school

questionmark I know there’s a post in the archives about film school, and whether it’s necessary, but I would love to hear any advice you have on actually applying to film school.

How can someone improve their chances for getting accepted to a MFA program in film production/writing? What in your opinion are film schools really looking for in applicants? Any thoughts on what to avoid in an application?

Honolulu, HI

This time, I decided I would go right to the source and ask Howard A. Rodman, who in addition to being a fine writer and all-around good guy, is the chair of the MFA and BFA programs in screen and television writing of the USC Cinema School.

Here’s what he had to say.

first personHoward Rodman: I read many, many applications. [We just this week finished selecting this fall’s incoming class.] Here’s what we’re looking for:

  1. Writing. Good writing. Not necessarily in screenplay format. We’re less interested, at this point, in whether you know what we’re here to teach you, than in whether you can put together a sentence. Tell a story. Create a dimensional character. In short: do you have your very own voice? [P.S. – We know the difference between “its” and “it’s,” and we actually care.]

  2. Grades, good enough to pass muster with the larger USC admissions apparatus, and good enough to give us the confidence you’ll be able to execute a demanding program. Four point something GPAs and 1600 SATs (or GREs) are truly lovely, but are not in and of themselves guarantors of anything. We’re looking for writers [see #1 above], but we do need to know you can handle the load.

  3. Diversity. Folks with life experience. Folks from strange and wonderful places. Folks who’ve had interesting ‘first’ careers before turning to writing. Not just your typical work/study/get ahead/kill types. The New York Times says that a cinema MFA may be the new MBA; but I’m not sure we’d view it that way.

  4. A good mix. Not all Hummers, not all Priuses.

Pitch fests: Are they worth it?

questionmarkI’m considering plunking down $300 to go to a pitch fest, but I’m wondering if they’re really worth it.

– Raffi Bagadasarian

For readers who don’t know, a pitch fest is an event where aspiring screenwriters pitch their screenplays to a group of Hollywood-types, who hopefully will want to read-slash-buy their scripts, or at least offer suggestions for improving their pitch technique.

A few years ago, I was on a (free) pitching panel for a local screenwriting conference. It was interesting, but I’m not sure it was terrifically helpful for the writers who pitched. (In fact, the other writers in the audience may have learned more just by listening to misguided pitch after misguided pitch, and the criticisms thereof.)

I’ve heard tales of studio executives buying ideas they heard during a pitch panel, but I don’t know of any verifiable success stories. If any readers have experiences, positive or negative, with pitch panels, please help Raffi out by leaving a comment.

Rewriting bad movies

questionmarkI was perusing your site, and it occurred to me that you might be a good person to ask a question I’ve been struggling with.

I’ve been a working screenwriter for about five years. I’ve never had anything produced, but some things are looking promising. I’ve worked at most of the major studios, and my career thus far has been steadily getting better. No spectacular ups and downs.

Over the years, I’ve pitched on quite a few rewrites, passed on a few, and done a few. Most rewrite opportunities that come my way are pretty bad. A lot of times, people are looking to breathe new life into their stalled projects. When you read them, it’s clear those projects have stalled for a reason.

Here’s my question. I mostly get rewrite opportunities on scripts that are based on mediocre ideas that are also badly executed. I’m generally interested in making money, but I’m not desperate. I don’t HAVE to do everything that comes my way. Often I get scripts that I know can make much, much better.

Here’s the catch: they’re based on mediocre ideas. It’s never going to be GREAT. If I bust ass and do what the producers want, it might be solid, professional, entertaining and generally well-written, but it’ll still be kind of derivative and unoriginal. In this (very common) case, should I:

  1. Take the job and just make it the best it can be, without making fundamental changes to the idea. I’ve done this. The problem, it seems, is that people are really happy with you initially because you’ve fixed the problems. But, when they go out to get it made, the fact that the idea was never that great becomes a problem. And inevitably, their enthusiasm for you as a writer cools. Since you were the last writer on the project, it becomes kind of your fault that the project is stalled again. Is that okay? Does it matter?

  2. Take the job and try to re-work the premise, making fundamental changes to try to make the project actually good. I tried this, as well. I’m proud of the work I did, and everyone I gave it to who had nothing to do with the project thought it was a HUGE improvement. But it was a horrible move politically, since I was changing ideas that had originated with the producers. I had been careful to make it clear what I was doing, but they weren’t listening – they just wanted it rewritten. Then I turned it in, and was burned alive.

  3. Pass on rewrites that aren’t based on good ideas. I’ve certainly done this, but I worry that it just takes you out of the rewrite pool. My agents aren’t going to endlessly send me rewrite gigs if I pass all the time. Rewrites are a big part of the business.

I know this is a long-winded question, but it’s a thorny dilemma. Oh, by the way, I’d appreciate it if you could make me anonymous if you post this. God forbid someone should find out I think they have a mediocre idea for a movie.

– Matt
Los Angeles

Obviously, many readers would kill to be in Matt’s position: a working screenwriter with the luxury to turn down jobs. But I think his question is helpful because it points out the tough choices you end up making as a screenwriter.

Deep down, a screenwriter wants many things: money, artistic satisfaction, the respect of his peers. But if you were to really ask…

STUDIO EXEC: What kinds of movies do you want to write?
SCREENWRITER: Movies that get made.

Unlike the novelist, whose work is finished the minute she hits “Print…”, the screenwriter is beholden to countless external forces who will determine whether or not his screenplay becomes a film. Matt’s been working five years, and hasn’t had a movie made. Still, he has a career, because the people who hire screenwriters recognize his talent.

What should Matt do when rewrites come knocking? I think all three of his options have their merits, given the right circumstances. Here’s what I’d do:

Pass on fundamentally bad ideas.
Note the difference between “bad idea” and “not based on a good idea.” Lots of good movies are based on ideas that, on their surface, don’t seem especially promising. Keep those in the mix. You’re just trying to weed out the concepts that, even if perfectly executed, would be lackluster. (“He’s a clown who solves grizzly murders!”)

Pass on perma-development projects.
Watch out for the project that one mid-level studio executive is championing, particularly if he says something to the effect of: “I think if we could just crack this one thing, then the Studio Bosses will get it.” Nope. That project is going to be sitting on the development list for years. You have plenty of unmade projects. You need a produced movie.

If you’re planning major changes, say so before you take the job.
And if they’re squeamish about what you’re planning to do, walk away. You may still piss off certain personalities involved with the project, but at least they were warned.

Accept that sometimes, you’re shining shit.
Or to put it more optimistically, you’re making a bad movie better. Think of yourself as an interior designer. True, new paint and curtains won’t fix the hole in the living room ceiling, but they might make you notice it less.

In the end, remember that you’re a screenwriter, not a screen-rewriter. You don’t want to make a career of it. But sometimes, rewriting a bad movie can be liberating, because you know that almost anything you do will improve it.

No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die!

james bond Following in the spirit of the earlier article about how difficult it is to destroy the world, here’s Peter Anspach’s Evil Overlord List, a useful checklist of good advice for any super-villains you may be writing.

As you go through the list, it’s alarming how many uber-villains manage to fall into the same traps. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Here’s just a sampling of the wisdom the thinking-ahead madman can apply:

  1. My ventilation ducts will be too small to crawl through.
  2. When I’ve captured my adversary and he says, “Look, before you kill me, will you at least tell me what this is all about?” I’ll say, “No.” And shoot him. No, on second thought I’ll shoot him then say “No.”
  3. One of my advisors will be an average five-year-old child. Any flaws in my plan that he is able to spot will be corrected before implementation.
  4. If an attractive young couple enters my realm, I will carefully monitor their activities. If I find they are happy and affectionate, I will ignore them. However if circumstances have forced them together against their will and they spend all their time bickering and criticizing each other except during the intermittent occasions when they are saving each others’ lives at which point there are hints of sexual tension, I will immediately order their execution.

Check out the other 100 or so here.

Using the story of a friend’s life

[question mark] I’ve looked through all your replies to rights questions, but didn’t see one that quite answered mine.

A friend of mine tried to write a memoir a few years ago, but ended up with a hodgepodge of notes and thinly connected chapters. It never came together, but while trying to help him ferret out a through-line, I started thinking of it in terms of a screenplay. So I adapted it, devising an entirely new story to bind the fragments together. I haven’t told my friend because he’s hideously critical (I once dreamed he was a snotty French midget who made me carry him around on my back), so I don’t want to breathe a word of it until I have a half-decent script to show him.

In the meantime, I want to submit it for a contest whose prize is a month-long workshop, but they require that adapted scripts include written proof that the rights have been obtained. Do you think this sounds necessary in my case? My understanding is that since it’s just for a workshop, the sponsor organization isn’t in any position of liability anyway — am I correct in believing rights needn’t really come into play until money changes hands?

– Lara

There are two issues at work here. First is legal liability. If you were simply appropriating bits and pieces of your friend’s life from stories he told you, and constructing a new narrative, then I think you’d be relatively well-justified in thinking yourself safe. But the fact is, your friend wrote this stuff down. You read it. No matter how badly written it is, his hodgepodge memoir is his intellectual property, not yours. So if your script is based on the stuff he wrote, you need his permission. While it’s true that there’s not a lot of consequence to this kind of copyright infringement until money changes hands, that doesn’t mean it’s harmless, or okay.

The second issue here is moral responsibility. You’ve read through my other answers about copyright, where my standard advice is generally write first, ask questions later. I think you wrote in specifically to get the same counsel, and keep your conscience clear.

No such luck.

I think you’re a pretty crappy friend. So what if the French midget can’t write a good memoir? That doesn’t give you the right to make the movie version of wee Napoleon’s life without consulting him first. Does the title page even acknowledge that it’s based on his life? Or is that something that doesn’t matter “until money changes hands?”

My advice: tell him what you did, and show him the script. Maybe he’ll love it. Maybe he’ll hate it, and stop being your friend. I can’t say I’d blame him.

Screenwriter makes, saves a million dollars

The Wordplayer site has a good anecdote about why it’s important for screenwriters to stay active throughout production:

I’m on the set less than a minute and I see Miss Improvise, in costume, her makeup being touched up, all ready for the first master shot. She’s supposed to be dead. Dead for at least twenty pages.

Definitely worth a read. Check it out here.