Is the Screenwriting Expo any good?

Expo LogoMy question is about the Screenwriting Expo and other industry seminars. I realize that you are speaking this year, but is it really a worthwhile event? It seems like just another one of the money-sucks preying on desperate fledgling writers. Thanks!

– Corey
Los Angeles, CA

To be honest, I don’t know if the Screenwriting Expo is any good or not. I’ve never been, so I can’t vouch for it. I suspect some of you readers out there have been to it, and can give Corey the thumbs-up or thumbs-down.

I’m one of the “Guests of Honor” at this year’s Expo, along with a bunch of other really good screenwriters. I’m not on a panel per se, nor am I teaching a workshop. Rather, I guess I’m just a featured speaker, or doing a Q & A.

I guess I should ask. I really have no idea.

Public speaking used to terrify me, but I’ve gotten a lot better at it over the past few years. Some of that’s just from success; it’s a lot easier to speak to an audience that’s actually interested in what you’re saying. But a fair amount of it is just practice. I’ve survived enough panels, roundtables and TV interviews that the experience isn’t as intimidating as it used to be.

Whatever it is I’m doing at the Expo, it happens at 2 p.m. on Friday, November 11th, at the Los Angeles Convention Center. The event is listed as being free, so I assume you don’t have to register for the whole thing if you just want to come see me talk.

In general, I don’t speak at anything that charges a fee, unless it’s part of a larger film festival. I recognize that’s a fairly arbitrary rule, since I do speak to university classes, and college tuition can run $30,000 per year. But, like you Corey, I’m troubled and annoyed by the commercialization of screenwriter education. USC or UCLA might be expensive, but I don’t believe they’re profiting on false hopes and unrealistic expectations.

If any readers do come to my thing at the Expo, don’t be shy. Introduce yourself. The few minutes after a talk are always chaotic, with a bunch of awkward hand-shaking, but I’m happy to do it.

Avoiding AD mistakes

questionmarkHow do you avoid the possibility of a line producer or AD misinterpreting what you wrote?

Do you get to meet with them and say, “These two characters are the same guy, I just wanted to make him a mystery in the beginning. So don’t schedule two actors for this.” Or, “This location is just a different name for INT. JIMMY’S HOUSE on page 10.”

Philadelphia, PA

Since many readers may not be familiar with the process, one of the first steps in pre-production is to break down the script scene-by-scene, making a list of characters, locations, vehicles and other production concerns. Usually, this task falls on the assistant director (AD), with a lot of input from the director and line producer, along with other department heads. The goal with a good breakdown is to have all the information nicely structured, so the AD can build a good shooting schedule.

The first rule of breaking down a script is to read through the whole thing first, so you really understand what’s going on. And most AD’s are pretty sharp, so they’ll catch these simple mistakes themselves.

But yeah, it happens.

I can’t think of a good example from features I’ve written, but on my first television show (D.C.), we ran into a couple of situations where the breakdown didn’t reflect reality.

A common mistake is not including a character who should be in a scene. It’s easy to overlook a character who doesn’t have any dialogue, and therefore has no words on the page to acknowledge his presence. (Note: If you have a character who doesn’t do or say anything in a scene, your first question should be, why is he here at all?)

From the screenwriter’s perspective, the best advice is pretty simple: introduce yourself to the AD.

This is unfortunately rare.

Since the AD spends most of her time on the set, and the writer spends almost none of his time on the set, their paths don’t otherwise cross that often. The AD’s primary relationship is with the director. She won’t think to pick up the phone and call you with a question, unless you already have some kind of rapport. So introduce yourself, and make it clear you’re on call to answer any questions, 24/7.

Once you have a relationship with the AD, she’ll ask, “Could this scene be day rather than night?” And if it doesn’t really matter, say you’ll be happy to change it. Consult with the AD about how she likes her scene numbers; there are several philosophies about how you add a scene between 94 and 95, and it’s important to be consistent.

And as soon as the first one-line schedule is published, read it. Go through the script page-by-page and make sure nothing’s been left behind.

Which side of the pond should I choose?

questionmarkAs a long time reader of your blog, I have finally decided to pose a question to you which for myself irritates and intrigues me. I am currently 18 years old and in the midst of a gap year before taking cinema studies and scriptwriting next September.

However the thing is, as I live in the United Kingdom, more accurately England, I often wonder what is the potential in the future in script negotiations, optioning etc overseas? Is this possible, and if not would it be required to move to the wannabe writer over-saturated Los Angeles or attempt to firmly establish myself within my own countries Film and television network?

– Paul
Birmingham, England

Stay in England, study film, then decide whether it’s British or American movies you want to make. I won’t even try to describe the differences between the British and American film industries, but you’ll have a gut feeling about where your instincts lie. (Hint: If you find yourself saying, “This would be perfect for Jessica Alba!” then you belong in America.)

You’ll be at no disadvantage coming to Hollywood at 23 or 24, though you may find the visa situation a little trickier if you’re not enrolled in some sort of university program.

Does a Brit have a chance?
Is film school necessary?

The sky is not falling

To me, one of the most annoying non-stories of the summer — trumping even items involving Britney Spears — has to be the “crisis” caused by the box office slump.

For those who’ve somehow missed the articles, here’s the quick summary: weekend-by-weekend, the total box office was less than it was for 2004. This slump lasted from February until July, a total of 19 weekends. Along with the numbers, every Monday brought new speculation about just what was causing the downturn, and What It Really Meant. Could the problem be the poor state of movie theaters, the growth of DVD, the price of gasoline? Fingers were pointed everywhere, but most often at the movies themselves.

The movies stunk.

Whew! Glad we got that settled. You hear that Hollywood? You have to start making better movies! Movies people want to see!

Thank God we have the conventional wisdom. All we have to do is keep repeating it, and everything will be okay. Just this morning, the Los Angeles Times had a front-page story on the issue: “This Just in: Flops Caused Box Office Slump.” In the article, various studio big-wigs take responsibility for how badly the summer movies fared:

After months of hand-wringing and doomsday forecasts about the permanent erosion of moviegoing, the lunchtime chatter at Mr. Chow in Beverly Hills and other industry haunts has turned decidedly inward. Now, four straight weekends of crowded theaters have forced moguls and creative executives to admit in public what they have spent months avoiding: They were clueless about what audiences wanted.

The story has quotes from the likes of Amy Pascal and Brian Grazer. I can imagine how those conversations went:

Journalist: “Would you say the slump was caused because the movies were awful?”

Executive: “Umm, maybe. I guess.”

Journalist: “No, seriously. Say it.”

What makes this self-flagellation so annoying and unwarranted is that the “box office slump” is basically a myth. The Los Angeles Times included a chart which ostensibly shows the crisis, but in reality disproves it.

Box Office Chart

Week by week, the black line is a little below the gray line — except when it’s above it. More importantly, it tracks very closely. A more honest chart would have also included a line for 2001, which was at the time the pinnacle of box office grosses. This summer had that beat.

An analogy: Let’s say one year you have record rainfall. If you’re a journalist covering the weather, you write about how much above average it is.

The next summer, you’re back to a more typical rainfall. That’s not interesting. That doesn’t merit a story. But if you write about the “shortfall” compared to last year, well, now that’s worrying. And fallacious.

To their credit, buried deeper in the story, the LA Times writers do reveal the less-exciting truth: “Ticket sales lag behind 2004’s numbers by only 6%, with attendance off 8.7%.” Since Labor Day, the numbers have been running significantly ahead of last year, so by the time January rolls around, the year-end totals may not be very far from the $9.4 billion that movies brought in last year.

Which leaves an open question: did this summer’s movies really stink? There were some outright bombs (Stealth, Bewitched) and some quality misfires (Cinderella Man). But I think trying to correlate a quantitative measure (how much movies make) with a qualitative one (how good they are) is pseudo-science at best. Case in point: Fantastic Four made a lot of money, but it won’t end up on any best-picture lists.

Let’s ask the question: What if one of the late-spring movies had made a fortune? Say, xXx 2: State of the Union. Just one mega-hit would have erased the supposed slump, and the week-to-week numbers would be higher. Which brings up two points:

  1. Is there really an industry crisis if just one movie would eliminate it?
  2. If the numbers were better, would you still write about how bad the movies were this summer?

The final apples-to-oranges comparison in the story is perhaps the most annoying. Bennett Miller, a talented documentarian whose first narrative film Capote opens soon, is asked to comment on the state of the box office. What he says is less revealing than the fact that they asked him at all. It’s like writing a story about the auto industry and interviewing a guy who makes bicycles.

I hope Capote is great. But I’m not counting on it to save the film industry, which, for the record, I don’t think needs to be saved.

Hollywood makes some shitty movies. It always has, and always will. But trying to conflate popular sentiment with specious data does a disservice to everyone.

I am Hillary Clinton’s clavicle

political chartI’m always a little dubious about online tests, which purport to give an accurate assessment of one’s intelligence and/or sluttiness in a few simple questions. But I took this political-leaning quiz anyway, and was dismayed to find out that a detailed analysis of my opinions on issues of social and economic freedom placed me squarely on Senator Hillary Clinton’s right collarbone.

I certainly have nothing against Clinton. I guess of all the famous people portrayed in the chart, there’s no one I would say is a better fit. But I guess I somehow expected my thoughtful multiply-chosen answers would land me somewhere off the grid, in a special fifth quadrant of Deep Thinkers who are above Politics.

But no.

I’m Hillary’s clavicle.

Looking back through the questions, I can’t help but think they’d be useful when trying to get inside the heads characters whose beliefs are different than my own. For example…

(9) People shouldn’t be allowed to have children they can’t provide for.

Who would mark “Strongly Agree?” To me, that’s someone who not only believes government should intervene in personal matters, but thinks there’s a clear economic standard for determining it. No real politician would stake out this turf, but it’s an interesting worldview for a scary Texas sheriff, for example.

(15) If I’m dating someone I like to know where they are and what they’re up to at all times.

If you answer “Strongly Agree,” does that make you Republican, Democrat or Stalker?

(24) It should be legal for two consenting adults to challenge each other to a duel and fight a Death Match.

And these death matches would be held in the Thunderdome.

You can see the rest of the questions here.

Being a reader

I’ve written before about being a freelance reader in Hollywood — it was my first job in the industry, as it was for many screenwriters. It’s been almost ten years since I’ve written coverage, but looking through Scott the Reader’s own explanation of his job, it seems that not much has changed.

Not even the pay: $50 a script. Adjusting for inflation, that sucks.

You can read Scott’s recap here.