The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August and this is Episode 526 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Craig is stuck on a mountain in Canada this week, so I’ve convinced several previous Scriptnotes guests to come on the show with the promise that I’d ask each of them a single question. First I’ll be talking with Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi about moving their show from Canada to California. Then I’ll check in with Aline who is busy directing her first movie. And I’ll chat with Stephen Follows who has never actually been a guest on the show, but we’ve mentioned a bunch of times. He’s that data scientist who helped us look at the one page per minute rule of thumb and tracking down movies you can’t find anywhere. I asked Stephen to make his best pitch for going to college and film school in particular. So obviously this episode that Craig is not around to argue with him about.
Now for premium members stick around at the end where Stephen and I will discuss how to best answer the question of whether screenplay competitions are ever worth it. Stephen challenges the premise of the question but also helps apply some scientific rigor to the investigation.
Now, before we get to any of that there’s some news to get through first. So I’m joined by the master of Google sheets, baker of delicious desserts, co-founder of #PayUpHollywood, Liz Hsiao Lan Alper. Liz, welcome.
Liz Hsiao Lan Alper: Hi. Thanks John. Thank you so much for having me back.
John: Oh, thank you for being on this first and most crucial part of the news wrap up thing, because it’s so awkward when it’s just me talking through this.
Liz: I completely understand. I do that just by myself where I’m just talking to myself doing news wrap ups. It’s just always awkward.
John: It is. Now we are going to talk about some important things but nothing can be more important than what you’re baking at this moment. Because you have brought amazing desserts to my house before. What are you looking forward to baking this holiday season?
Liz: So honestly I’ve been perfecting – I think you saw this on Twitter – but I’ve been perfecting Arnold Palmer pie. This is my pride and joy. So it’s a lemon pie that also has an unsweetened iced tea gelee on top. So it’s a very half and half pie. And when you take a bite it’s supposed to remind you of the summertime. I’ve been perfecting this recipe for a few months now and we’re getting very, very close. I think I might have to drop something off at your house pretty soon.
John: I’m excited now. I can imagine this is a big pie, but I could also imagine it as sort of single serving kind of like ramekin kind of things. Like how are you doing this?
Liz: So before it was going to be just a single eight-inch pie and now I’m realizing it’s almost better to do the individual pies. So, if you get a muffin tin, if you use the muffin tin you fill up each muffin tin with a little bit of the graham cracker crumb, a little bit of the condensed milk/lemon mixture, and then just a little bit of the gelee. It makes it so that you actually have something that you can hold in your hand as you’re walking. And you don’t have to worry about it falling apart. So it’s an on-the-go pie.
John: That sounds amazing. Now, that’s the fun part of this, but let’s get to the actual work of this episode which is that you have a new survey going out and we want to hear about this. So this is a survey for support staff?
Liz: Yes. So this is the #PayUpHollywood third annual support staff survey. This is the third time that we’ve been putting out a survey strictly for entertainment staff, but this is the first time that we’re actually expanding the reach to not just people in New York, Albuquerque, other American cities where entertainment support staffers are based, but we’re also looking beyond American borders into Canada, into Mexico, into the UK, and specifically trying to get a sense of what it’s like in the entertainment business outside there.
And then we’re also going to be tracking how over the last three years pay has increased, how abuses may have been eradicated in the workplace, or any other loopholes that might have come out of the pandemic. We as writers, we’ve been seeing an uptick in different problems that came out of the pandemic we hadn’t experienced before. The same is going to be the same for support staff. And so we’re trying to make sure that we’re getting a good wide group of not just writer assistants and script coordinators and desk assistants, but also that we’re reaching out to the people who work in production and work in reality television and work in commercials so we can see where the trends are happening just across the board.
John: Now people might be listening to this wondering am I the kind of person who needs to be filling out this form for Liz and getting her the data she needs. So we’re going to put a link in the show notes that has a link to the Google form which is sort of the introductory form that really lists these are the kinds of jobs that you’re looking for. These are the kind of people in these positions. So if you have a question about whether you’re the right person to be filling this out click the link and you’ll see whether you actually are a good fit for what we need to know.
John: Cool. Now some of the world of assistants and support staff has changed a bit with the adoption of this new IATSE deal. So let’s talk a bit about that because one of the things we were always looking at when we looked at assistant pay in Hollywood was that there are some of these jobs which are union jobs. So script coordinators and writer’s room assistants can be union jobs. And they actually got a pay increase in this last round of negotiations.
Liz: Yeah. They actually received a massive pay increase. And I know that there were many members who were hoping for more simply because the wages for script coordinators and writer’s assistants has not kept in line with the cost of living for at least the last decade. So I think there was a lot of hope that there would be one massive leap that would bring all of the pay in alignment with what current times actually require.
What they’re going to be making nowadays is $23.50 an hour. That’s the absolute minimum. I know a lot of studios like to call that scale. It’s not scale. It’s just the absolute lowest that you can pay a union assistant to be on the show. And it absolutely should be going up after you factor in experience, responsibilities, the workload that that particular assistant is going to be carrying. But the nice thing is it does mean that anyone who is entering into an entry level position, anyone who maybe hasn’t been a writer’s assistant before, hasn’t been a script coordinator before, can now be assured that they’re going to be making something that’s much closer to a living wage than the $15/$16 an hour that they were making previously.
So, it’s a huge step. It’s a huge step. And it’s a great first step into making sure that three years from now when there’s another round of negotiations that those assistants are getting even closer to what a living wage would be considered, which I believe for a lot of them it was anywhere between $27 and $32 an hour. So $23.50 is much closer to $32 than $16 is, is the way that I look at it.
John: The point that you brought up earlier on the show is that the actual hourly rate is an important factor, but how many hours you’re guaranteed to work in a week is in some cases an even bigger factor. And so if some of these people were working under 60-hour guarantees, that’s great. But if they get cut back to 40 hours that’s not enough take home pay to be survivable in Los Angeles.
Liz: No, you’re absolutely right about that. If you are working for $16 for 60-hour weeks you would actually be making more than what you would be if you were working for 40 hours at $23.50. So the biggest thing that any of us, you, me, Craig, any writers or any employers who are really trying to make sure that writer’s assistants and script coordinators are taking home a living wage, it’s making sure that we can guarantee them 60 hours or as close to 60 hours a week as humanly possible, because I believe the studios now are going to try and cut everybody back down to 40. I’m sure that there’s going to be a freeze on any sort of overtime which is a little ridiculous only because we know how intensive those jobs are. I can’t imagine a script coordinator getting everything done in 40 hours a week.
But that is something that you can’t negotiate in the MBA. So they do need to make sure that for us, our part in it, is going to be making sure that they’re making the hours and IATSE is going to be sure that they’re making the hourly wage. So, between the two of us hopefully we can get people paid what they’re worth.
John: Now this pay increase was only the small part of a much bigger IATSE deal which was signed and approved this last week. So this was a membership vote. The membership vote was closer than we’re sort of ever used to on a WGA level. There’s a complicated Electoral College kind of system by which the IATSE approves its contracts because locals have to vote and there’s whole things. But the popular vote in some cases was against this deal. Overall when all the delegates are counted the deal passed. But tighter than you would expect, and especially for something that did seem to make significant progress but didn’t make as much progress as a lot of members hoped.
Liz: You have to figure that what happened on the set of Rust and the fact that there was a big uprising and acknowledgment that sets often become unsafe and are demanding so much of set members that it becomes almost deadly in certain situations. And because proposals to fix that weren’t actually on the table to begin with, that’s kind of one of the things that can’t get added later on. That doesn’t mean that they’re not wrong. And it doesn’t mean that they don’t need to be fixed. But I do understand why it became so close because I think there were a lot of people that were really hoping to make some change in the way that we approach work hours and set work hours and how we treat people not as though they’re disposable but as though they’re living, breathing human beings who need reasonable rest in order to function doing their jobs.
And so it’s hard. And John I’m interested to hear what you think, but I think for me one of the bright spots that I have been seeing is how many people are now actively trying to get more involved in the union because they’re realizing that this is a way to eradicate some of the abuses that they’ve been going through and they don’t need to accept it as just this is the way that it’s always been, they’re seeing that well now that we’re demonstrating the power that our union has we can actually use this power to further our betterment for all of the members.
John: Absolutely. I think it’s the recognition that the union is the members and the members are the union. And you looked at the #IAStories Instagram account that sort of really galvanized a lot of the support, particularly about working hours, and it’s the recognition that those people they’re not just a force you gin up every three years to get people excited and get some progress made on the contract. Once they’re revved up and riled up they’re going to be asking for accountability and some changes. And so I would not be surprised to see if we see some internal struggles within IA and some bigger developments happening because you have a bunch of suddenly engaged people who recognize that they did have power all this time.
Liz: Yeah. I think that’s great. I think hopefully for all of us, too, who aren’t IA members but who supported the IA efforts we’ll be back there in three years supporting them just like we did now. And so I think that’s going to be really important to remember come the next negotiations is that no matter what when it comes to worker safety that matters to everybody. That matters to everybody and we should show our support no matter how we can.
John: Now IATSE wasn’t the only big vote in Hollywood this last week. WGA members have voted to approve a new end credit for feature films, one that will show up in online databases like IMDb as well. Beginning in 2022 we’ll start seeing the credit additional literary material which will list all screenwriters who worked on a film who did not receive traditional writing credit like screenplay by or written by.
This was an actual referendum that had huge procedural things to go through and there were question and answer sessions. There were pro and con statements. It was a contentious debate, a contentious idea. Craig and I are completely vehemently disagreeing on every aspect of it, except that we both agreed that we thought this was probably pass and we were both correct. It passed by 72% of members voting yes on this.
Now, Liz, you are on the board so you got an early look at this. Was this surprising to you?
Liz: You know, it wasn’t surprising. I think for me especially being on the board I was very, very hopeful that this was going to help a lot of people that aren’t getting the credit that they need, especially because I am so involved in a lot of the diversity inclusion and equity efforts in the guild. And I have a lot of friends who are underrepresented groups, either writers of color, LGBTQ+ writers, who were all having their experience used to make certain films more authentic without ever receiving the credits or ever receiving any sort of help in their own careers as someone who writes these sorts of stories. So that if you were looking to tell a story about a Chinese American transplant here in the United States instead of going to let’s say the white male writer who had written a beautiful movie about that you go to the Chinese writer who used their own lived experience to make that movie more authentic.
So for me what I was really hoping for and I think what we are going to see is that we’re going to see a lot of midlevel and lower level screenwriters or people who are just breaking in who really needed that extra leg up and that acknowledgment that their work is crucial to the films that we see nowadays. I think that we’re going to see that their careers are going to start to blossom. I hope that’s what it is.
I like to speak positively because I don’t think that speaking negatively and just believing in the worst case scenario is ever truly helpful. I completely understand, I’ve heard from a lot of screenwriters who have doubts and who have questions and who aren’t sure if this is the best solution, but I also think that this is so much better than waiting around and doing nothing and letting more and more people fall through the cracks and letting their work go unacknowledged. So I’m thrilled.
John: Yeah. So I was on the committee that put up this whole proposal and wrote the explainer documents, so I’m obviously in favor of it. But I think you bring up two really crucial points here. One is that this is the difference between a writing credit and an employment credit. And right now in features the only things we used to have were writing credits. And so a screenplay by or written by, story by, that was it. And if you didn’t get one of those credits as a writer on a film there was no record that you ever worked on that film at all.
And so those credits just sort of disappear. And you had no way to sort of prove that you had actually been employed in the Hollywood system. Unlike in a TV writer situation where you get a writing credit for the episodes of television that you write, but you also get an employment credit showing that you were a staff writer, a story editor, a co-producer. There’s a whole way that you could prove that you actually worked. I think a thing that has changed over the last 20 years is that we’ve become much more aware of the fact that if you don’t have any employment credits you can’t sort of show that you work it’s very hard to sustain a career.
And you’re bringing up the diversity inclusion aspect of it, a thing that has also changed is that it used to be that those last writers on a project, the ones who were just coming in to do certain surgical work on things were the big guns, the folks who coming in to do a comedy pass, and it was maybe kind of OK that they weren’t listed there because they were getting paid a lot of money. What’s changed over the last couple of years is that oftentimes that last writer is someone who is coming in to do some work on authenticity and cultural specificity and it seems especially weird that they are not being acknowledged at all. And they sort of structurally could not be acknowledged by the way that our credits work. Because they’re never going to achieve the thresholds that they would need to hit in order to see their name on that movie.
So, like you I’m hopeful that this will bring about a positive change for those writers and sort of for all writers. And I’m mindful that there’s going to be people who are worried that directors are going to start asking for this credit or other producers are going to start asking for it, or actors will. I think the safeguards and the guard rails are there to sort of protect that from happening, but also if people did write on the movie, the wrote on the movie, and having their name show up at the end crawl of things I don’t think is going to be the worst outcome.
Liz: No. And I think, I mean, honestly I was just at the movies last week for The Eternals. And there was a group there who I didn’t realize this at the time, but I think this is what happened, but one of their friends worked in special effects. And the moment that their name came up in the middle of that huge crawl towards the end, like this group just exploded into cheers. And it was me and my friend and we’re cheering for them, too. And it was just such a proud moment. And I just remember looking at that, being like man it’s going to be so nice – it’s going to be so nice for the writers that I know who have been working on certain films for less than $1,500 a day to basically use their own lived experience to make someone else’s project feel authentic and breathe authentic. And to be able to have that moment of pride where you’re in the theater and you see your name and you can kind of acknowledge to everybody that, yes, I was part of something great.
It’s a good feeling. It’s a really nice feeling. So I wanted to bring that up because it was kind of a beautiful moment that just made me remember why it’s magical sometimes to be working in this industry.
John: Aw. And Liz it’s always magical to get to chat with you about our industry and our films and delicious desserts.
Liz: Yes, thank you so much for having me.
John: And can you come back at the end of the show to talk through a One Cool Thing?
Liz: Yeah, I’ll hang around.
John: Cool. Back in Episode 505 Craig and I talked with Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi about the challenge of producing the first season of their show, The Mysterious Benedict Society, which filmed entirely in Vancouver while they were in pandemic lockdown here in Los Angeles. The show got a second season, no surprise, but what was surprising is that the show is moving from Canada to California. So my one question for Matt and Phil is how the hell did that happen?
Matt and Phil, why is your show moving? How did that work?
Matt Manfredi: Well there are a couple reasons. One of which is there’s this tax credit specifically for shows moving back to LA after a first season. Perhaps after a second season. But moving back to LA. So it’s always appealing for us to shoot in LA and the thing about the story of season one, the setting for season two is not in the same location necessarily. So it kind of fit what we wanted to do story wise – it gave us an ability to move.
John: So was it always part of the plan? Or when did the possibility of moving to California come up?
Phil Hay: It came up, it wasn’t always part of the plan. It came up as a possibility right when we got renewed officially. As often happens there was a big run up period where we were kind of renewed but we needed to get all the ducks in order and actually get that. So in that period it came up as an idea that the studio thought was possible because of this, and again because of this tax credit which is kind of doing exactly what it’s supposed to do. So we kind of did a parallel plan, one for Vancouver and one for Los Angeles.
It became financially feasible once we got that tax credit. And for many reasons we were excited to do it. I mean, we absolutely loved shooting in Vancouver and loved the crew there and everything about it. In this case the opportunity also for the cast who in many cases had to not be with part of their family to move up to Vancouver and things, there’s an opportunity – most of them are LA based – to kind of bring everybody home which I think was a really powerful lure, you know.
And then I think we also, I don’t know, personally Matt and I are – and we’ve talked about this before – we’re very kind of passionate about California film and about filming here. And in the case of our movies, you know, Destroyer and The Invitation, they’re about Los Angeles so that’s kind of natural. But The Mysterious Benedict Society is not. It’s different. And this is just a desire to shoot here for all the reasons of jobs and pouring kind of back into our local economy, our local thing.
Matt: And I’ll say that one thing that made it a little easier for us, because we loved our crew in Vancouver, and if they were all available and ready to go it would have made it a more difficult decision because the look of the show is specific and they pulled it off during the pandemic and it was incredible. They were so great. But because of our short order and the time it took to renew the season our crew, the stages, our line producer weren’t going to be available. So it kind of made the decision a little less emotionally fraught.
John: Now a question for the two of you, what did you personally have to do in order to get this California tax credit? Were you tracking up to Sacramento with a slide show and tap dancing? Were you writing anything? What were you doing?
Phil Hay: Matt and I have a PAC, it’s a very small, it’s like 15 lobbyists, and the rest of the staff. No, we didn’t personally have to do anything like that. I think, you know, us in conjunction with Todd and Darren our partners, and in conjunction with 20th, the studio, and Disney+ the network, everybody just got excited about that idea and then it becomes very fairly decided that what the rubric is for deciding who gets this credit is very directly tied to jobs and wages. And the more you can show that and also filming out of the zone, for example, like filming in unlikely places and bringing work there within California. These are all things that go into deciding who gets it. So, the studio is responsible for creating that whole application and looking at the budget and highlighting how we can do it in order to meet all their requirements.
John: Now while I was reading up about this tax credit I saw a statistic which I thought was good and interesting which is that Film LA announced that film and TV production is 22.1% above the pre-pandemic average in Los Angeles. So, filming really is happening a lot here and in town. There was always this worry that after the pandemic shut down stuff wouldn’t come back up to speed here in California. That it would all move to Atlanta, it would all move to New Mexico, and there’s still plenty of shooting happening here in town.
Matt: Yeah, definitely. I think there’s a tremendous amount of shooting happening everywhere. Vancouver is booked solid as well. But I think in LA I think there’s probably other factors. I mean, I think that also, you know, frankly the vaccine situation is one that people think a lot about, about traveling to places where the vaccines are not as widely distributed versus Los Angeles. I think that’s actually a factor for a lot of productions. And I think it’s exciting for us to see – like, you know, as people who came out here as you did a long time ago to do this, I think a lot about cinematographers we know and the production designers we know and the costume designers we know who are kind of vagabonds by necessity. That they put down roots and have families in Los Angeles but spend so much time traveling elsewhere to make films and television that I just think it’s a really positive thing to have people consistently hopefully be able to be home for long stretches of time doing shows and movies, one after the other, in California.
John: Do you have a sense of when you start shooting?
Phil: January 24.
John: Fantastic. Guys, can I get you to come back at the end of the show to share some One Cool Things?
John: Aline Brosh McKenna, how are you?
Aline Brosh McKenna: I’m great. Thank you.
John: Now you are currently in production on a movie titled Your Place or Mine. It stars Reese Witherspoon, Ashton Kutcher. It is produced by so many talented people included a Scriptnotes friend, Jason Bateman. So my one question for you is what is it like directing a feature after having produced a television show?
Aline: Well, it’s interesting because I have never directed before when I wasn’t running a show. And so I only really know how to direct while – I mean, in the past I’ve had to direct while I was still writing, still doing cuts, still going to mixes. And in the case of the Crazy Ex finale also pitching in on a live finale. So, you know, I’ve almost always been doing ten things that were not directing while directing.
So this has actually been kind of luxurious to focus on the one piece of material where the script was done. And I’ve been lucky in that the script was pretty done. I did a few rewrites kind of leading into it and then I did that budget rewrite that you always have to do to kind of dial in the budgetary restrictions. But I’ve really been able to focus on this one piece. And the thing about being a showrunner is you can peace out whenever you need to. So it’s like if you’re on set and they’re doing the thing, you go in and you check in and you’re like you guys are cool here, you got it, I’m going to go to crafty and get a Mounds bar.
But directing you’re there, so you’re physically there for every second. You’re physically on set in a chair. So, you have this more singular focus when you’re directing and showrunning is a lot more jobs that you’re doing at the same time but you’re able to be flexible with them. So showrunning was oddly a better mom job because even though I was working way, way more I think hours wise as a showrunner I put in way more hours, but I could do them like I would do the room, leave at 6, go home, see my kids, and then at night go over scripts, look at cuts, talk to Rachel, you know, do other tasks that I could as a showrunner – my main time commitment was the room, but the other work I could do, you know, go to post when it suited me, or look at cuts.
But directing is physically you are contiguous with your project every minute of every second. So I’ve enjoyed the singular focus. And then the other thing I will say that might be of interest to people is that when I started the directing process there were moments where I was approaching it as a showrunner in terms of like wanting to be dealing with logistics. And I was trying to kind of get into it on logistical things that there were lots of other people around who could help me. As you said we have several really great producers and a great line producer and a great AD. And so I kind of had to learn to keep my focus on the artistic stuff and not get into the logistical weeds as much as I would as a showrunner.
John: Can we talk about the sort of on the set, because watching you do Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, like watching you on the set of that show, you have to achieve a certain number of pages per day or the show just won’t get shot, it won’t get done. And features have pages per day as well, but the count is going to be lower. There’s not the expectation of going through so much. What was that adjustment like for you? And learning how, OK, we don’t have to move on so quickly. Was that a change for you?
Aline: Well the most luxurious things for me was all the time I got to spend with our DP, Florian Ballhaus, who I had been wanting to work with for 15 years since he did Devil Wears Prada. And on a TV show you barely, barely get time with the DP. I mean, our DPs were generous enough with me that I was able to do a little bit of prep with them on the TV show. But on the movie I spent weeks and weeks with Florian going through and figuring it out and figuring out how we were going to approach it visually and doing storyboards. And that is extremely luxurious.
And then as you said, you know, TV we went pretty much twice, I would say 2.5 to 3 times as fast. So, I’m sort of blown away by things like we have playback all the time and that seems like a real simple thing, but we didn’t really have the budget to have playback all the time on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. We only had playback on the days we were doing musical numbers.
John: So let’s describe that for our audience. So this is basically you can look at the take that you just shot and see like, oh, did we get everything we needed in that take, correct? That was a luxury for you.
Aline: Yeah. And so you can say like did the actor put his beer down here or there. And then if you don’t have playback you’re like well I think someone saw it. You know? But with playback you can just see and match a lot better. So, there are a lot of things about the movie schedule that feel luxurious to me and they’re mostly around being able to get more interesting, more diverse types of coverage of scenes and really being able to conceive the coverage in a bigger way. And as I said I’m not doing ten other things so we’re focusing on those two or three pages in a different way than TV is really.
I mean, there were moments on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend where we would show up like Miracle of Birth, which I directed that episode, we showed up, did that musical number, which is quite complicated with children dancing, people going through a vagina like opening, and it was pretty complicated. We did that for four hours and then we went and shot the rest of the day. And on a movie that would be your whole day, if not two days. And obviously if you’re making an indie or you’re making something where you have a very short schedule then it’s similar, but this is a studio feature where we just have more time and really the luxury of really spending time with your collaborators in a very long prep process where you prep this one specific piece of material as opposed to a TV show is sort of like a flowing river, a network TV show I shall say, a flowing river where you’re really just trying to make sure that your boat stays upright, your baling out water, and you’re getting everything going in this giant flow of all these other things that are going on.
So it’s a little bit more micro surgery and I love that. So, you know, I focus on sleeping, which is something I couldn’t really do when I was running the show. When I was running the show I was pretty much working and often people were shooting while I was working at night and I would have trouble sleeping until I got the text that said we wrapped. And then, you know, first thing in the morning you’re going. And the movie has been much more regularly structured because I’m not working on all these other ten – I’m not looking at cuts. I’m not going from set to a mix. I’m really just focused on this one thing.
So what I have been focused on is sleeping. So if I’m not on set or preparing, I’m asleep.
John: Or you’re answering my one question on Scriptnotes. So thank you for coming back to let us know. How much longer do you have in production?
Aline: Not too long. A couple more weeks. Yeah, I mean, it’s been an enormous privilege. You know, when you’re a writer you live in the hypothetical. As I’ve said on the show before like the document production business is not why you come to Hollywood. You come because you want to make things. And I feel tremendously privileged. Any time I’m in a car driving to a set, any kind of set that’s shooting stuff that I wrote, it’s an enormous privilege. And it’s the thing as a writer you work so hard to get to. So, I’m really trying to savor it and not take it for granted.
John: Aline, thanks so much.
Aline: You’re welcome.
John: All right. So I’m sitting across from Stephen Follows who is a British filmmaker and data scientist. Are those the right combination of things?
Stephen Follows: Yeah. I don’t think I have qualifications in anything. But I do a lot of film data research and I’m a filmmaker by trade.
John: Now I first found you on Twitter or online because we were talking about the movies you can’t find online anymore, so movies that you used to be able to find at Blockbuster and just for whatever reason you cannot get them anyplace. Can you remind listeners what you were able to discover about that?
Stephen: Yeah. I mean, I’ll be honest, I’m not going to quote numbers off the top of my head, but definitely it was really interesting when we think about the kinds of films that make it through all of the different gatekeepers to be available to the public. And, you know, there are films that are taken off the circuit I guess for political reasons. My understanding as an outsider is that Dogma was one of those films where there was a deal done to take it out of circulation.
But there are many films that just sort of fall out of circulation. They fall between whether it’s bankruptcies, or people can’t be bothered to do it, or they forget. There’s a lot of messiness in the supply chain.
John: Absolutely. And so in the days when we had Blockbuster or when Netflix was really shipping DVDs around DVDs still existed so you could always have a copy of that movie, but as we moved to a completely streaming world some movies you just can’t get because there could be music rights that are complicating it or just the underlying rights to who owns this film can be hard to sort out. The problem is not a supply chain thing. Really it’s a legal rights thing. Basically you need a bunch of paralegals to sort out all this stuff and it’s not profitable for anyone to do it.
Stephen: Well exactly. And so yeah you’ve absolutely got legal reasons. You’ve also got technical reasons in the sense that you’ve got to scan some of these films. And you’ve got to find the good master print. You’ve got to scan it. And that whether it’s profitable or not just might not be worth the effort. And then any restoration work or I mean I’ve seen a few DVDs, I won’t name any names, but you watch them and they clearly scanned from a very old print. And it’s just like this is trash. But no one is going to bother going back to the original if they can find it in the right vault. And so I think we forget that as we go through all these different formats. I think you can tell how old you are by how many formats you remember shooting on.
And I think as DVDs everyone thought well we’ll scan them at SD because that will be all we’ll need. Oh, now we need them in HD. Oh, no, we only do 4K content. And fortunately we’ve skipped the fact that we’re only in 2D. Fortunately 3D hasn’t become a requirement. But there is that. Every time we upscale and we improve we also lose a load of things that just aren’t worth taking along the journey. It’s like every time you move houses you leave a load of things you don’t really care about and then years later you look back and go where’s that award I won or whatever.
John: All right. I want to talk with Stephen Follows about his film education in London versus what he perceives to be film education here in Los Angeles, because you are the first I think London-educated film person we’ve had on this podcast. So talk to us about when you first started studying film.
Stephen: So I went to film school as a university student 20 years ago. And I did a degree in film production. To give you a sense of the timing we did some stuff on celluloid, you know, Super-16, and some stuff digitally. And I had a friend, Chris, who was on a digital film course which was called Time Based New Media. So it was that era where everyone didn’t know what film was and didn’t know what film wasn’t.
But, yeah, I did a three-year degree at an arts college. And so what it meant was that most of my friends and people who were around me in other courses were doing costume, jewelry, fine arts. It was very arts-based. Whereas I think here in the states it’s a business, isn’t it? Even if you’re an artist you’re an artist within a business. And I think being in London, being in an arts college, I mean, we didn’t have any lectures on business at all. And by design perhaps. And I may be self-selecting because I went to an arts college, so this is no criticism of them necessarily, although it wouldn’t have hurt to have a couple in three years.
John: What strikes me as strange at an arts college is that I think of the arts as being things that you can kind of do by yourself. Obviously there’s dramatic arts which require teamwork and everyone coming together, but things like painting is a solo art. And filmmaking though is inherently a really collaborative art. It’s about getting a big team together and sort of sharing a vision and doing all that stuff.
And so were you, the celluloid stuff you were shooting or the video stuff you were shooting, was that as teams or was it solo projects?
Stephen: It was a mix of it. So there would be the occasional celluloid project or essay, but the vast majority would be for a semester you were put together in a team and you’d take different roles. And you were going out and making a short film on a brief, essentially. That’s what it was. And there were other lectures around there, around editing. And you take special lessons. But fundamentally the thing you cared most about was the short that you were making each semester.
John: And how much of that focus on that short was on the writing versus the production of it?
Stephen: I mean, it’s tricky because they did care about the writing, but to be honest the production is so much more complicated. It’s bigger, it’s longer, almost so you can’t do it till you’ve done the writing. I don’t want to say they dismiss the writing, but it definitely was you need to get over that first step and you’re quite keen to get over that first step. But I mean I have been involved in other schools since then. I’m the Chairman of the Central Film School. I’ve taught a lot at the Met Film School and a few others. And what’s interesting is that they all have different approaches. But the ones that are most interesting to me, just interesting, I don’t even know if I can validate it either way, is that you have a screenwriting program and you have a filmmaking program. And sometimes they also have acting programs or sister colleges or whatever.
And that’s really interesting because it means that the writers are really spending a whole – they have a client to start with, which is a nice relationship to get used to. It’s not a nice relationship, but it’s a nice thing to get used to. But also they can actually put time into it. It’s not just the first thing you have to tick off the list of making a short. It’s their project. And so I don’t know whether that produces better films, whether it produces more arguments, whether it works. But it’s closer to the industry and probably I think as a writer doing them a better journey because they’re just writing. Writing is hard. It’s a fulltime job. It’s a full thing, as you know. You don’t need it to be one step before you then go off and shoot it. It should be its own thing.
John: Now Craig is notoriously anti film school. And so what is the best defense of film schools or argument for film schools for a person who is out of high school or out of the lower grades to learn about film? What is a good argument for film school?
Stephen: Well it’s funny. I wouldn’t even say I’m pro film school per se in the same, you know, I’m not pro Chinese food. You know, like it depends what is the right place to be, the right time, and so for some people it’s exactly the right thing to do. And for others it’s entirely the wrong thing to do.
I’d say it’s almost never the shortest path if you know where you’re going. It’s going to be more expensive. It’s going to be more time-consuming. And we all know that what you need to do is go and work in the film industry. Like that’s kind of it, right? Especially the moment we’re in right now, nobody is unemployed who wants to be employed in the production side of film. Wages are going through the roof. Streamers – I mean, I don’t know how long this will last, but certainly no one is unemployed. You know, we have the opposite problem of working too many hours or whatever.
So, if you know where you’re going the shortest path is very rarely via film school. The main argument for film school is an argument that you’ll hear a lot within general education which is that you don’t know what you want to do. It’s that magic quasi period between being an adult and a child. It’s by having a purpose but not a job. And you’ve got restrictions but you’re safe. And so discovering yourself in [postural] care. Like I learned a lot about who I am at university and who I shouldn’t be. I learned a lot about what it was to be an artist and to bumble around and have no purpose in what you’re up to but still the opportunity to do things.
The idea of jumping out of high school into being a runner sounds pretty harsh and I wouldn’t be surprised if they went very well through the industry but then got to 30 and went who am I, what do I want to do, how I have ended up in visual effects. You know, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but you end up specializing incredibly hard. Whereas at film school you hold the boom one day, you write the script the next, and then you’re doing music. There’s a lot to be said for the discovery of personhood and identity and you as an artist. I don’t know what else compares to that.
John: Yeah. I think my best argument for film school is that it puts you in a cohort of people who are trying to learn about the same thing you’re trying to learn about and you graduate from that film school with a bunch of people who are at your same level. And that people always assume that they need to meet people who are further up the ladder, who are going to help them out, but really it’s your peers that are your biggest resource that you get out of film school. And those are the folks who are going to be crewing on your films. You’re going to be reading their scripts. And you’re all going to kind of grow in the industry together, especially if you’re in a growth period which this feels like.
Stephen: Yeah. I mean, I still remember the very first day of film school and I still have a strong emotional positive connection to it, because no one knew anyone else. Everyone was super awkward. It’s the first day. But I went from being one of two guys in my high school that were the film guys to everyone being the film guys. Everyone saw the same films as me. Everyone saw the same references. It normalized my thing. But it also then instantly said well what are you going to do with it. Because, OK, you don’t get points for saying you’ve seen that film. Are you going to go make one? Well actually we’ll come and make one with you. Oh, OK.
It bumped everything up a level like you said with peers who were in the same place as you. And those people I met, I mean, so as an anecdote when I was a kid growing up I’m really into comedy and I’d see all of these BBC comedians all working with each other and I kept thinking how do you break into that circle. And then after film school I realized you don’t break into that circle. You build your own circle. And you build a circle when no one cares. And you work hard and you see who works hard. Who steals money from you, who doesn’t? Who has got good ideas, who doesn’t? Who is a nice human being? And then as you all start to progress you’ve got a circle that’s stronger and stronger and then when you’re actually in the industry and you’re looking for someone to rely on that you understand, that you respect, of course it’s that person. It’s not someone you haven’t seen before.
So those circles are very hard to break into, but they’re very easy to form because they just take time. And you’re in the trenches before it matters. So I would say that the biggest argument for film school is about space. And time and focus. And arguably in the world today, especially now, but also generally when do you get to try something and fail? Who is going to give you the chance to be a boom operator? I’ve worked a Nagra machine. I’m never going to do it again. But I have a huge amount of respect for sound because I’ve had to do it once and I remember how bad I did it. And I’d never do that in the industry. And I think if everyone in the industry has gone down a single department track their entire life that can’t be as good as if everyone has had a go at everything else early on and failed and succeeded and found their joy.
So, yeah, I would say it’s never shortest the path but it might be the one you need to let things grow.
John: Great. Stephen Follows, do you have a One Cool Thing?
Stephen: I do. This is something I read a while ago and when I’ve subsequently looked for it I’ve had to dig around a bit because I think it was originally on the Village Voice and the original link isn’t there. But I’m absolutely certain that we can find it and link to it in the podcast. There is an article entitled No I Will Not Read Your Script. And it is fantastic. It is everything you’ve been thinking when someone says, “Oh, can you just read my script.” And then two days later they go, “I’ve rewritten it. Can you have a read of it again?” And you start to boil. And you know you want to help people but you get to a point where you’re like, no, I will not read your script. And it’s explaining the process of reading, but also about people ask quite glibly for people to read their script and actually it’s quite a big ask. And it’s OK to do and it’s OK to read scripts, but it’s sort of, I don’t know, it’s a good articulation of all of that pain and blood boiling you get if you just open yourself up to read everyone’s script.
So, let me ask you, John. How much time do you read people’s scripts when they say will you read my script?
John: I will read a script if it is truly of a friend who is doing it for the first time and I feel like might have a shot at it. I’ll always read a script for somebody who I think actually I suspect has a good, funny voice. And so there have been people who I see on Twitter and they seem to actually have a good sense of how words fit together in ways that work well. Or if I’ve read them in another way I will do so.
I’m not rushing out there to read my dry cleaner’s script because it’s just exhausting. And we all know why it’s exhausting because they’re generally bad. And you’re asking a huge time commitment. You’re asking for a good hour/90 minutes at a time and the painful possible discussion afterwards about sort of what you actually thought of this.
Stephen: Yeah. I mean, I always ask people a couple of questions when they say can you read my script. I’m always like OK what stage are you at? What do you at need? You can ask them quite directly do they need validation or are they actually wanting notes. Mostly they want validation. But also you say, look, I tend to be quite brutal with notes. It tends to not work out well. You know, you try and put them off. And the ones that actually really say, “No, I need that. I need that. Please be honest,” you kind of go, OK, well you know.
I had a friend Ben Aston recently who is writing a film for Netflix. And he took notes so well it was so impressive that it sort of restored my faith in giving notes. Because he was just – it was painful for him because notes always are, but he was so open to them. He cherished them and he basically cherished me giving the notes to him. And I was so inspired by that I wanted to go and read four more other scripts, which I’m sure would then put me back on the loop elsewhere.
John: Cool. Liz Alper, do you have a One Cool Thing to share with us?
Liz: I do. I am really into shrubs right now. I’ve been getting more and more into shrubs. And it’s not the shrubbery.
John: Not topiary?
Liz: Not a topiary. So shrub is a vinegar based drink that you usually mix with soda water or you can use it for the basis of a non-alcoholic cocktail. And as someone who is actually physically incapable of consuming alcohol because I don’t possess the enzyme that can break alcohol down, for me it’s been a really, really fun drink to have and feel like I’m having something special at the end of the day.
So right now I actually went to a little sale for a restaurant that I love called Phenakite. It’s the chef who does a wonderful restaurant called Porridge and Puffs. And she’s really into pickling and she’s really into vinegars. And she made a yuzu pear shrub and a hibiscus rose shrub that I’m a little obsessed with right now. And it’s a great alternative to soda because I drink Diet Coke like it’s water, like I’m in the middle of the desert and I haven’t seen an oasis for nigh two months. And so having this kind of different drink that’s a little healthier for me, it’s cleaner, it’s got those good gut bacteria that’s going to help you digest things well. It’s something that I can’t recommend highly enough. And especially if you’re a little bit more adventurous and you’re looking for something that really is very low in sugar but has so much flavor to it, try it out.
You can make your own. You can look some up. There are lots of recipes out there now. It’s a great alternative to an alcoholic beverage. It’s a great alternative to soda. It’s just a really great way to keep hydrated while also having a good time.
John: I also fully hear you about the need for a nighttime beverage versus a daytime beverage. Because I think your body and your brain want somebody say like, OK, the day is over and now we’re just going to watch TV and not think about things.
John: And so that traditionally has been a glass of wine for me, but increasingly I’ve been going to herbal teas that I wouldn’t drink during the day but I will drink at night. It creates that nice split of like, you know, this is a nighttime thing. I can start winding down.
Liz: You would actually really enjoy this then. IKEA of all places has an amazing pine needle lemon tea. And that is my go to right before bed, have a cup. And my brain immediately is like, OK, it’s sleepy time now. We’ve had our pine needles. It’s time to go to bed.
John: Liz, thank you so much for this. This is perfect. Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi, do you have One Cool Things to share with us?
Phil: I sure do, John. I, and this is a little bit of home cooking, but I think you’ll all figure me. There’s a television show called Yellowjackets that Karyn Kusama, my wife, and Matt and my partner in our company directed the pilot of. It’s created by Ashley and Bart Nickerson. And it’s just fantastic. I can say that freely as someone who is only a fan and did not work in any way on the show. So, check it out. It’s on Showtime. It is wild and weird and crazy and really glad that it is on television.
John: So Yellowjackets on Showtime. And Matt are you plus one on that? Do you have your own recommendation?
Matt: I’m going to plus one that hard. Because I am a big supporter of Karyn Kusama, obviously. So I’m going to plug that. But I will say I was holed up awaiting the results of a PCR test before flying home. And so I was by myself unexpectedly for a few days, just watching a lot of TV. And I will say that the first sketch of the new season of I Think You Should Leave got me laughing like nothing in a while. So I highly recommend just taking three minutes out of your life and getting a big laugh.
John: Now I’m trying to remember, the first sketch of this new season, is that the hot dog and the sleeve?
Matt: That is.
John: It’s just terrific. It’s brilliant.
Matt: The whole show is good. But that particularly was just a highlight of mine.
Phil: I will plus one that sight unseen. Because it sounds great.
John: Gentlemen, thank you both very, very much.
Phil: Thank you.
Matt: Thank you.
John: Aline Brosh McKenna, do you have a One Cool Thing for us?
Aline: I do. Do you know about Goldbelly?
John: I don’t. Tell me about Goldbelly.
Aline: Oh my god. So Goldbelly is a website and you go and you can order delicious things from all over the country. So, pizza, biscuits, pies, and cakes, and bagels. And they source it from mostly small businesses all over the country. It gets to you super-fast. It’s stored in a way – they give you really clear instructions on how to store it, freeze it, thaw it, whatever. And I started using it during the pandemic because we couldn’t travel and it just was like fun to get, you know, pizza from Chicago and biscuits from a soul food place, and whatever. So BBQ we ordered.
So I started getting stuff from all over the country just so we could feel like we were getting some adventure at home. And now for Thanksgiving I don’t have a lot of time to prepare for Thanksgiving so I hit it hard with pies, the cakes, the sides. You know, you can really order from some great places and support some small businesses. Goldbelly.com. And there’s an app also. But it’s a good service.
John: Excellent. Thank you.
John: All right. And finally my One Cool Thing is a website called Series Heat, it’s sort of web app, by Jim Vallandingham. What you can do is you enter in the title of a TV series you like, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and it shows you the IMDb ratings for each episode of that show. And what’s kind of fun about it is it organizes it into a grid so you can see like, oh, this is when people liked the show, this is when people did not like certain episodes, or there might be an arc of the show. Around the office we’ve been playing it as a game where we will do it for a show and then take a screenshot without the title of the show and have people try to figure out what show we’re talking about.
So useful to the degree that any ratings are useful. Also it shows you the shape of a show in terms of like when there were short seasons, when there were long seasons. You can tell when the writers’ strikes happened. So it’s called Series Heat and there will be a link for that in the show notes.
And that was our show for this week. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao, as always, and edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Henry Adler. If you have an outro you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions. For short questions on Twitter, Craig is sometimes @clmazin. I am always @johnaugust.
You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you find the transcripts and sign up for our weekly-ish newsletter called Inneresting which has lots of links to things about writing.
You can sign up to become a premium member at Scriptnotes.net where you get all the back episodes and bonus segments. And don’t forget to order your Scriptnotes sweatshirt, your hoodie, your t-shirts. Most of them can still probably ship by Christmas but there’s no guarantee at this point. But still you want something for the holidays. Thanks and I’ll talk to you soon.
John: So back here with Stephen Follows. Now having you hear in 2021, a question we put out to our listeners on the podcast is are screenplay competitions ever worth it. And so there are the big name competitions like Nicholls Fellowship and Austin is a bigger one. And then there’s a bunch of scammy ones that we’ve always sort of railed against that are sort of we kind of know are worth very, very little.
But you as a data scientist, the person who sort of would look into this question normally, how would you approach the question of whether screenplay competitions are ever worthwhile for the entrants?
Stephen: Well, I’d start by objecting to the question, but that’s usually just for fun. Is it ever worth it implies that, you know, there is an implication there. And it might well be the result of all these kind of areas. There are a bunch of scammers and there will be a bunch of great examples that can help people. And our job is to disentangle which are which. But also overall what’s the average. You know, these outliers skew everything in the film industry.
John: So let’s pretend your Nate Silver. Maybe the phrase, the question of like what value do screenplay competitions provide, if there is a value.
Stephen: Well let’s start by saying who we are. You know, if we’re somebody who is already established in the industry then the benefit might be quite marginal. If we’re somebody who lives very, very far, this is not for the actual competition, it’s just the concept of a competition. So if we’re someone who lives in a very far distant place geographically, or just from the center of the industry, then the theory of a competition is great, in theory, because you have a level playing field. People are only reading your text on the script. And so any disability, anything that you have that’s holding you back from barriers in the industry won’t come to the fore.
So we have to move to, OK, so in theory they could work, but in practice do they? Well, we have to think about who is picking up these films that the other end. Are the people who actually are important gatekeepers who can pick up new films or spec scripts, are they looking to these competitions? And so there is a little bit of fashion. If everyone thinks something is cool it is cool. If everyone stops thinking it’s cool it’s not cool. But it was.
And so part of the question for this if you were starting to do the data analysis you’d start saying, OK, well what’s the goal of the people entering, which is to get purchased or optioned. Who is optioning them? OK, go and talk to them and do the analysis of what do you think of competitions, what do you think of these competitions.
And if everyone thought that they’re a waste of time, well then by definition they are if they’re the only people purchasing. But I think we have to think about with all these things there are multiple benefits in theory. So for example a lottery ticket. If you only do the math on the lottery ticket apparently if a lottery draw is on the Saturday night you should buy the ticket on Saturday afternoon, because before that you’re more likely to die than to win the lottery. And so it’s utility theory.
But I’d argue that actually you should buy it Sunday first thing in the morning because then you get a whole week of believing you might win, right? The utility there is not the million dollars, it’s the dreaming of being a millionaire. So with these competitions you could argue that there’s a soft benefit in the sense that it gives you a deadline, it gives you a structure, it gives you a support base, it gives you a dream. And it might give you feedback and it might give you a journey. So those things are hold to quantify. But if we thought that they were worth it to the screenwriter’s journey we’d have to find ways of quantifying them.
But I guess all of this stuff is talking around the edges of the core question which is is it worth the money. Can they deliver on the promise? And I’d say without having run hard data on all of them, no, the vast majority of them are not delivering value for the vast, vast majority of people entering. Because they can’t possibly. You look at the numbers. That’s the thing about these. They’re not multi-level marketing. They’re not pyramid schemes. But when you look at multi-level marketing you only have to look at the math to know that they can’t deliver. And with these competitions look at the number of people entering and the number of people who could meaningfully get an outcome that would change their lives. You have to argue that – I mean, you could argue that will somebody benefit from this competition? Yes. Will I benefit in this competition? Almost certainly not.
You know, I have looked in the past. I’ve done research on quite a few scripts and quite a few competitions and I’ve never been able to directly address the benefit or not of these competitions because what you have to start from is a quite complicated place. You have to say what would the journey have otherwise been. Because in theory if these competitions are perfect they’re won by incredible writers. And the industry is actually quite good at discovering – it’s messy but it’s actually quite good at discovering talent, I think. It’s not efficient but it’s good.
So therefore the competition is just a way of getting there quicker and also you have to think about well what are they actually getting? They get the award, they get the pleasure, they get the attention. But I don’t know how many of them are doing deals.
John: Yeah. So let’s try to distinguish between the hard benefits and the soft benefits. So the soft benefits shouldn’t be overlooked, so I’m glad you brought them up. Because that sense of like giving you a deadline, giving you a purpose, giving you a sense of some hope, those can all be soft benefits. I’d argue they can also be sort of soft detriments where you’re putting too much faith and too much hope into this one thing which will probably not pay off. And it may be distracting you from the actual real achievable things you could do which is to write another script, to like actually find ways to put it in the hands of someone who could do something with it. And that false hope can I think be its own detriment which I think these often can sell false hopes.
Stephen: Oh, absolutely, and there’s no doubt that they do, even if they’re intending not to. Even if you have the best competition in the world, by definition people are going to think they have a chance when they don’t, some people.
I think what’s really tricky about this is that when you look at the, I don’t know what it is, hundreds of thousands of people coming into the industry every year. The vast majority of them will fail if your metric is purely whether they get to the end goal or not. But whether that makes you wrong to encourage them to carry on, you know, I talk a lot with drama teachers in the UK and the ethics of them telling every actor they have a chance when the odds are absolutely saying they won’t, you know, is false hope false hope or is it hope and then it turns out not to have been what you wanted but it’s still part of your journey? That’s almost philosophical.
So if it’s not a scam, as in like there is a competition. They have got industry people involved. And if the people entering know the odds, then I’m very agnostic about it. I don’t really care, as in I don’t mind. But the question is always are they actually describing what it is. Do the people entering have a clear sense of their chances and what’s going to happen?
John: All right. So let’s try to narrow the question down to the hard benefits of what you get out of this and the value proposition for we’ll just say the Nicholl Fellowship is the premier screenplay competition because it’s the one most people have heard of and it’s the one I can think of working writers who have won that who seem to have benefited from it, or at least they won it and now they’re still having careers.
So what would be the criteria we’re looking at here? So would we be looking at who were the winners for the past ten years, or quarterfinalists for the past ten years and then tracking to see whether they are WGA members? Whether they are continuing to work? Because you’re the person who is often finding ways to pull data out of IMDb or do some hard rigorous analysis. So what would you do to see whether somebody is successful? What are the things you would look for as markers of success?
Stephen: That’s a great question. And I think that it’s the first step of all research that I do. It’s usually quite a disappointing first step which is to what level am I going to give up. What level am I going to have an easy answer? Because the real answer is you need to have a different universe where the only difference is they didn’t enter the competition. And we can’t have that. And we also need to make shortcuts like WGA membership is success. And of course it is correlated, but it’s not one to one. And so you’re right. We have to decide the level to which that we can accurately get the data and that it reflects our true question.
So we have to first by saying what is our true question. Is our question about them as a writer, the act of writing and crafting? Is it about the utility of them earning money, getting an agent, getting out there in the world? What is the promise of a competition? So I guess I’d ask you, John. What do you think is the meta promise of these competitions? Is it about writing or is it about being a writer?
John: I think it’s about being a writer. And so I think it’s about you win one of these competitions or you place high in one of these competitions and it gets you started in the process of being a professional screenwriter who is employed and employable as a writer, not just on this one project that you sold, but on future projects. And that it should never be about sort of this one script that won the award. It should be about sort of all the work that you’re doing and hopefully decades of a career.
Stephen: OK. That’s good. That’s a good focus and an easier one for us to tell. It reminds me of a study that, you know, there’s long been a conversation about whether certain schools that are selective whether they actually just find good students or whether they make good students. And there was a study I remember around Stuyvesant High School in New York which is public but filtered. And they tried to work out to what degrees are they finding good students or making good students. And they looked at the students who just made it in and the ones that just didn’t. So in theory they’re a very close cohort.
And my understanding, apologies if I’m wrong from remembering it from a few years ago, was that they found that there was very little life difference between those two people, meaning the school didn’t have a meaningful difference in the things we’re measuring. There still might have been quality of life or whatever.
So, perhaps one of the things to do would be to think about how did the outcomes differ from people who make it through to the quarters, the semis, the finals. That might be interesting and see whether there’s a big drop off. We might be measuring talent, again, but I’m making up the numbers, but if you have 5,000 people entering the competition, the final 16 and the final 1 should be very, very similar in quality on a curve, right? So you’d hope that if you’re saying winning the competition is everything, then you’d hope to see those people having disproportionately large outcomes compared to the people just below them.
But I think because this industry is all about people. It’s all about the stories you tell and the stories that people believe, I think it’s not really going to come down purely to quantitative data. It will come down to qualitative data. And I think you need to find a really good subset of people who are exactly the people who would buy scripts, would try and pick up a writer. Right at that inflection point and they use competitions and then start talking to them about what they think of the competitions.
John: That’s definitely been one of our plans is to really talk to the people who would theoretically be using these competitions as a gatekeeping function to see whether they are actually reaching out to the winners and quarterfinalists and semifinalists and see whether that is a metric that is helpful and useful for them and as a filtering process. Because unlike a sports competition or even an academic program where you can see what the grades were and that stuff, there’s not objective quality on like this is a great script, this is a poorly written script.
And even the fact that these screenplays are going through readers who probably have some rubric for how they’re doing things, it’s not the same readers reading all of these things. I know I was a reader for a year at Tri-Star and I liked some things and I didn’t like some things. And some of that was just taste. It’s hard to figure out whether there could be any real objective measure of success in this one script and then success going down the road.
So, I do think talking to both the agents, managers, producers who would be looking at this stuff and meeting with these writers, but also talking with the folks who placed well in the Nicholls and comparing them with a sampling of the folks who didn’t place well in the Nicholls and sort of what the outcomes are.
Stephen: And also you can talk to people who are finalists and winners and say how did your life change. Because I think the analogy that I can connect to is when you have a short film that does very well at awards, or you have a golden year where you’re doing quite well, what’s really interesting is that that year very clearly starts at the first awards and very, very clearly ends when someone else wins that award 12 months later. And I’ve warned about it and I went through that journey with a few shorts. And it’s so interesting because it is like hot and cold. It’s just on and off. And that actually proves that there is an effect. Any writer that you speak to who has done very well in awards you kind of want to know how steep that inflection point was. How much do they suddenly get calls when they go through to a certain stage? And to what degree did it actually cool down afterwards? Because the flatter the curve, the less the competition made a difference, the steeper, the more it was like well Monday it was announced, Monday afternoon my phone kept ringing. That’s a good sign. Correlation right?
I think also there is a separate piece of work you can do where if you look at, this might be more sociology than data science, but try and look at all the promises, all of the claims that are being made by each of the competitions and then boil them down to the underlying human desire there. What is this? Is this validation? Is this improvement of your writing talent? Is this connections? And then the onus is on the competitions to prove that they do this.
I mean, it’s a free market. They don’t have to prove anything. But if they want to say that this works you should be able to say, well, it seems to me that the main sell, the main thing that you put out there and that people talk about is that you do X, Y, Z. Say you get me an agent or whatever. OK, well show me the data for that. And they don’t have to. But I would have thought they’d want to. And you’ll find very quickly some of them will be incredibly open, very happy to talk to you. They’re very proud of their record. Others won’t talk to you. And I kind of think well that’s not data-data. That’s data we use in the same way if you’re meeting someone new and you ask them about their personal life or what they’re up to and they’re incredibly closed and sketchy, you draw conclusions right?
So, I wouldn’t expect any of these guys to be pleading the fifth. And I would be worried if they were. It’s kind of on them, I think. I don’t think it’s on you to take them down or prove them. I think it’s on them to back up what they’re directly or indirectly claiming. And I think the best ones would be delighted to do that and have that for them. And I think many of them would love to be sitting in this chair talking to you about it. And the ones that won’t, I mean, maybe there’s your answer. You just release blank podcast where you just give them the questions and wait a minute or so and then carry on with the next question like in a police interview.
John: Let’s wrap this up by bringing it back to the first case that you made which is that for many aspiring screenwriters competitions are a means of access. A means of access to someone who doesn’t live in this town, doesn’t have any other connections to this industry or might have disability or something else in their life that prevents them from doing the traditional ways into this industry. And I get that screenplay competitions feel like a point of access. I think what we’re trying to measure in this study is really whether equity of access leads to sort of equity of outcome. And basically it’s one thing to say this provides access to all these people, but if it’s access that doesn’t actually lead anywhere then it’s actually not truly access.
Stephen: Yeah. I mean, certainly we all know in all sectors of the film industry it’s very easy to sell a dream. It’s very easy to go to someone who doesn’t know about film investment and say look at the Blair Witch Project. Look at Paranormal Activity. Look at how much my film is costing. You do the math. And whilst that may not be in any way a lie, it’s definitely a lie through omission, it’s definitely amoral. And that’s an extreme case that we both know happens quite a lot. But that’s an extreme case.
It’s the same thing here. It’s the stuff between the lines that we need to sort of codify. We need to say, OK, you’re saying agents will read this, but what you’re really saying is people will sign you. And what you’re really saying is when they sign you you’ll get hired. And what we’re really saying is you’ll get hired to make real things. OK, so that’s your eventual promise. Let’s take away all the interim stamps and get to the final why and then measure that. And I think that we can do that with a lot of decoding.
I mean, it might be an interesting exercise to sit there, maybe even on the podcast, and read through the press releases or the statements from these kind of thing and then just start putting them in a small number of boxes. And doing it openly and honestly. Because the claims are not wrong. You can make any claim you want. It’s only if you back it up that it becomes stupid or not. So start by just assessing the claims, putting them in to different categories, seeing how they differ. Because I think the other thing you might be doing subconsciously is grouping them all together. And I’m sure if I grouped all screenwriters together you wouldn’t come out well. We are not the average of the people we’re around.
But also I think then if you did say, look, it turns out that 95% of them just aren’t delivering, or making false promises, then it would be a much stronger credible claim. And I suspect it would be closer to that then you’d be pleasantly surprised. But, you know, and then you have to think about what harm you’re doing. Like you said, false hope is horrific. But hope is essential. And the outcome at the end can’t really – maybe – I mean, what’s the difference between hope and false hope? I don’t know.
John: I think what we’re both talking about, making sure people have the information about what they’re really getting into and that they’re not receiving hope for false hope. And that that’s important.
Stephen: They’re not being misled.
Stephen: And through omission or outwardly, I don’t care. I couldn’t care less. It’s the same thing. You know what you’re doing. And if you’re doing it ethically, as in you’re saying, no, this is the competition. If you believe in yourself so much that you think you’re bound to win, well that’s OK. But if I’m telling you you’re so good that you’re going to win, whatever, then it’s a problem.
John: Stephen, thank you for this.
Stephen: My pleasure.
- PayUpHollywood Survey
- WGA Members Approve Change In Movie Credits To Better Reflect All Writers’ Contributions
- Hollywood crew union narrowly ratifies its contracts with studios.
- ‘Promised Land’ & ‘Mysterious Benedict Society’ Score Tax Credits For Moving To California
- I Will Not Read Your F*%!ing Script
- Shrubs Drink Recipe and Liz’s favorite Ikea Pine Needle Tea
- Yellow Jackets
- I Think You Should Leave
- Goldbelly Food Delivery
- Series Heat
- Liz Hsiao Lan Alper on Twitter
- Matt Manfredi on Twitter
- Phil Hay on Twitter
- Aline Brosh McKenna on Twitter
- Stephen Follows on Twitter and his website
- Get a Scriptnotes T-shirt!
- Gift a Scriptnotes Subscription or treat yourself to a premium subscription!
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John August on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Outro by Henry Adler (send us yours!)
- Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao and edited by Matthew Chilelli.
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can download the episode here.