Archive for February, 2007
You can’t spoof
a comedy…A number of people have written asking me what I think of Date Movie and Epic Movie…both of which, I must again point out, I had nothing to do with.
The films’ marketing campaigns make fair use of the fact that Date and Epic Movie were created by two of the six writers of the first Scary Movie. You know, the one from seven years ago.
Anyway, I’ve now seen both Date Movie and Epic Movie. I’ll refrain from discussing whether or not I liked the films, because I think they present something far more interesting to unravel.
What the hell are they?
I’m not being facetious. In many ways, Friedberg & Seltzer, the guys behind Date and Epic Movie, have created a new comic genre.
First off, I have to say…these are not spoof films. To understand what a spoof film is, consider the spoof par excellence: Airplane!
Airplane! is, in fact, a comedic version of an overly serious film called “Zero Hour!” And that’s really all spoof is. It’s a comedic version of an overly serious film. Spoofs are not satires (a fact over which Jim Abrahams and I first bonded). Airplane! has no larger point, no insight to offer, no criticism to make. It merely offers us a familiar drama, but stocks the drama with characters who are curiously moronic (so moronic, they can barely tell that each other is a moron). Spoofs use parody, absurdity, wordplay and broad physical comedy to repackage something that was pompous and purposeful into something that is aggressively pointless.
Over the years, the spoof evolved somewhat. The Naked Gun spoofed a genre of television show, rather than a specific movie. Hot Shots! started the trend of spoofing multiple films that are linked by genre, and the Scary Movies are obviously children of that film, although they’ve been pushing the boundaries of spoof. Superhero!, the film I’m working on right now, is, well…I’m not allowed to say anything about that, but I can say its spoof style will be less Scary Movie and more…well, I can’t say.
What I can say is that Date Movie and Epic Movie are not at all spoofs. They feature some spoofesque humor, but they break a few cardinal rules of spoofing.
They do comic takes on comic films. They go after not just one or two or even five movies, but upwards of ten or twenty. And ultimately, they’re not so much movies as collections of sketches in which the lead actors change costumes constantly, become different characters as they need be, and work within the ever-changing dictates of whatever the next sketch is.
Also, they don’t spoof genres, despite their titles. What they seem to spoof is pretty much every notable film that came out in the year or two prior to their release.
Finally, and most importantly, much of what they do is reference a film without actually parodying the film. For example, in Date Movie, Allison Hannigan’s character has a nightmare in which she discovers she’s about to marry Napoleon Dynamite. The Friedberg & Seltzer version of Napoleon Dynamite says the exact same things that the actual Napoleon Dynamite character said, and nothing more. Similarly, at the end of Epic Movie, a Borat look-alike shows up to say, “Is nice!”, but that’s it.
In musical terms, their genre is more like a mashup, whereas spoof is more like a cover or a new song with samples from another song.
So they’re not pure sketch movies like Kentucky Fried Movie, but they’re not spoofs of a film (Airplane!) or a genre (Scary Movie).
They’re actually a genre unto their own. That’s pretty wild. It’s like finding a new species of dog or something.
So what do we call this stuff (easy now…)?
My buddy Scott Tomlinson, who knows a bit about sketch comedy, has the best name for the genre so far: comic film re-enactment.
Got a better name?
Granted, you may need more than two films before you can really christen something a “genre,” and I don’t know how many more of these Friedberg & Seltzer are going to do. All I can say is, as a devotee and disciple and ordained Jedi knight of the ZAZ religion…
…it’s definitely something else entirely.
I just wrote a piece for The Huffington Post expanding my thoughts on the upcoming WGA negotiations, including what I think is going to happen. So, wondering if there’s gonna be a strike or not? Read "Something Picket This Way Comes". To those of you visiting from HuffPo, welcome to our humble site. We hope you stick around.
Turman smash!These days, we’re clocking nearly 30,000 unique visitors a month at The Artful Writer. That’s great, but a lot of you are missing out on one of the best parts of this site: the Forum. Registering is free and easy, and the forum features one of our more popular offerings—the Ask A Pro section.
Right now, John Turman is our Pro, and he’s doling out advice and answers far more valuable than the stuff people pay for…be it in books or conventions or script analysts.
You can join the Forum and check it out for yourself, but for those who are lazy, here’s some of John’s insights and advice…
…it’s important to respect genre. Genre is just another word for audience expectations. You can cross them, mash them up, violate the expectations, but do it judiciously and know what you’re doing when you break “rules.”
Seriously, the only thing that gives you an edge is writing. Finishing marketable material. If you’re writing, you should produce 3-4 projects a year, finished works. For pay, or on spec if you’re not paid. These are the closest a writer comes to having a work force. They go out and circulate and maybe come back with money or a job.
Storyboard work helps a bit when you’re mapping action. Legal background hurts when you’re starting out. Any lack of ignorance hurts when you’re starting out. You should be naive and enthusiastic and wildly productive but if you know a bit of what actually goes on in the business, it’s easy to self-censor and that’s bad.
Protect your process. Whatever your process is, whatever you need to do to organize your life so that you can finish 3 projects a year. I was speaking at USC and sharing the session with an agent, who went on about how a writer needs to protect his process — the things he needs to do and organize his life and routine to make writing as regular and primary as possible. A great speech. I wish early on that I had an agent who told me those things.
I recommend that you don’t go out with your script for feedback, to agents, to the market, until you’ve at least begun your next project. An outline, notes, the actual script. This is protecting your process. It’s easier to take negativity, rejection, or even smoke blown up your ass when you’re engaged in another creative work. It keeps the focus on what matters - the work. If someone trashes your script, that’s okay, because the one you’re working on now… that’s the brilliant one. It helps you survive.
Writing is not about waiting until you’re inspired to create magic. The people who think that aren’t professional writers. They teach candle-making at the Bodhi Tree bookstore. Inspiration comes to the prepared mind. Sit down and work. We all need to write a lot of bad pages to get to the good ones.
There are useful storytelling theories. You can come up with some yourself. But the paradigms and graphs and charts of rising action… that stuff is mostly crap and has probably overcomplicated the process for more writers than they have ever helped. I have plenty of theories of various sorts and problem-solving tools, that I’ve found for myself, but there’s not the time here for that. Read those books, they can inspire and give an idea or two, but don’t follow them. Most of them are written by failed or lousy screenwriters. See movies, read scripts. Just tell a story and make sure it’s in the right format.
What we usually miss when we talk about films is the sense of newness and innocence through which we viewed films 10 or 20 years ago, more than the films themselves.
That’s why an obsession with convention, with how the big writers write certain scenes or handle certain situations, will hold you back. Study them, learn technique and craft, but you had better have something unique of your own to say with that genre and a unique way to say it.
I don’t believe in the concept of writer’s block. This can make for some awkward times when I’m not getting done. I think it’s all less mysterious and mystical than that. I just think it’s an indulgent concept. And even if it does exist, it serves no good purpose to believe in it. I don’t buy into ‘Demons”. Issues and psychological motivational problems maybe. A decent book on the “problem” of procrastination is THE WAR OF ART by Stephen Pressfield. Treat it like a real job, not magic. Same as living a moral life. Religion is superstition, in writing as in anything. It may give added ‘meaning’ but it creates magical thinking which is ultimately pretty disempowering.
Conflict is the method of drama. It arises from character. Going back to Aristotle (read ‘Poetics) and before (Plato, Socrates), the Greek philosophical model seeks to resolve conflict through discourse. This is dramatic story-telling in essence. This dialectic is an exchange of propositions. The thesis is the first proposition. It can be a question or plan or idea/value the character holds. The antithesis is the counter proposition or obstacle, an opposing force. The synthesis is what results or resolves, transforming the material and the conflict between the thesis and antithesis into something new. This is where the idea of 3 act structure comes from. I use ‘thesis-antithesis-synthesis’ as philosophical short-hand for the basic structure of drama. As Syd Field would say, get your character up a tree, throw rocks at him, get him down. Going up the tree is the thesis, it’s the character’s solution to some problem. In the tree he has rocks thrown at him (antithesis), complicating the action. The synthesis is how and why he finds a way down from the tree. It’s the under structure of the play or movie, as well as being repeated internally as the basic structure of the smaller units contained within, the scene.
Pretty good stuff, I think, and you don’t even have to buy a pricey ticket to the Screenwriting Expo or anything. I hope to see you there.
A few weeks ago, I received an email from a fellow WGAw member who wrote:
I joined the WGA last year. Joined WA a few weeks after. All this talk of strikes and what-not….man, it’s a mess. I’ve talked with fellow ‘newbie’ wga writers and the fact is: no one understands what the hell is going on.
…So, a primer or a “The WGA for Dummies” type of thing…y’know, like ‘Our Story So Far….” sort of article. It’s a big undertaking but if you’re ever looking for a topic for your site, maybe this is one that should at least start getting addressed.
At first, I groaned, because I thought that a) he was right, I did need to write this, and b) it was going to be a big undertaking.
But you know, in the end, it’s not really all that complicated.
And so, I present to you the primer. I will do my best to be as unbiased as possible.
What Are These Negotiations Anyway?
Every three years, the WGA, west and the WGA East work together to negotiate the Minimum Basic Agreement (or MBA) with the companies we all work for. The MBA sets the terms for things like “What is scale?” and “How much residuals do I get?” and “How much will the company contribute to my pension and health insurance?”
The companies are represented by a trade organization called the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, or AMPTP. The AMPTP is largely controlled by the big studios (Paramount, Disney, Columbia, Universal, Fox, Warner Brothers) and the big networks (CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox and The CW). Their chief negotiator is a man named Nick Counter.
How Do The Negotiations Work?
The WGAw and WGAE create a joint committee called the Negotiating Committee, or NegCom for short. The NegCom consists of 17 members, and the division between East and West is determined roughly by the proportion of the two memberships. The officers of the WGAw also sit on the committee in an ex officio status.
First, the NegCom drafts a laundry list of “stuff we want out of this negotiation,” and they send it to the members of the WGAw and WGAE. The members try and rank the laundry list in the order of importance to them, and the NegCom then uses this list as its “set of demands.”
In reality, the “set of demands” is pro forma, as the demands tend to be the same year after year, and the NegCom isn’t bound by them in any case.
The NegCom then proceeds to negotiate with the AMPTP. Our chief negotiator is our Executive Director (currently, that’s David Young).
The negotiations occur over weeks and sometimes months. They consist of two basic types of interaction.
The formal negotiations occur between the committees in large conference rooms. They have often been compared to kabuki, as they’re ceremonial, extremely structured and very carefully orchestrated so as to avoid making any mistake, setting any dangerous bargaining precedent or carelessly ceding leverage.
The true negotiations largely occur in sidebars. The two sides caucus separately, then send their three heavy hitters into sidebars with three guys from the other side, and wheeling and dealing ensues.
Once a deal is determined, the NegCom votes on whether or not to recommend it to the Board of Directors of the WGAw and Council of the WGAE. Following that recommendation, if the Board and Council vote to recommend the deal to the membership, then we all vote on the deal. Majority rules.
How Does A Strike Or Lockout Work?
The first thing to know is that while we’re covered by the deal we approved in 2004, we can’t strike, and the other side can’t lock us out.
Once the deal expires (October 31st, 2007), all bets are off.
If the NegCom fails to recommend a deal to the Board, or if the Board fails to recommend a deal to the membership, or if the membership fails to ratify a deal, then a strike is possible. It’s the same mechanism. The NegCom recommends a strike to the Board, the Board recommends a “strike authorization vote” to the membership, and the membership votes.
If the membership votes to authorize a strike, the Board is then free to declare a strike if they feel the need. The Board can also ask the membership to vote to declare a strike.
In no case can a strike happen without a majority of the members voting for it.
A lockout is pretty much just like a strike, except instead of writers refusing to work, the companies decide to no longer hire any of us until a deal is struck.
Again, a lockout can only occur after the current deal expires.
The WGA has struck a number of times since its inception, with the longest and most recent strike occurring in 1988.
The AMPTP has never locked out the WGA.
So What Are We Arguing About This Year?
Every three years, we ask for increases in minimums, increases in pension and health, more creative rights, and a long list of other things.
The big argument for the last 20 years, however, has been over residuals.
Most of our residuals formulas stipulate that we are to collect 1.2% of what the companies make off of so-called “secondary markets.” Those markets include broadcasting movies on television, pay-per-view, and home video.
It’s the home video that’s been giving us fits.
In 1985, the companies decided that they didn’t want to pay 1.2% of what they were making on VHS tapes. Instead, they wanted to apply the 1.2% to 20% of what they were making. After a failed strike in 1985 and another failed strike in 1988, we ended up with the much-hated home video formula of 1.5-1.8% of 20% of what they make on VHS…and DVD.
Arguing and posturing aside, there haven’t been any strikes since 1988, because once the home video battle was lost, no strike-worthy battle has arisen.
Everyone is freaked out over “new media,” or “internet video on demand.”
In short, the football this year is how we’re going to be paid residuals when people pay to download our television shows and movies through the net, be it on to their iPod or their computer or their Apple TV or their DVR or some soon-to-be-purchasable tv-computer-internet thingy.
The two unions with the biggest stake in this are the WGAw/E and SAG. The DGA has a lesser stake, because many of their members are below-the-line employees (1st AD’s, UPM’s) who earn a relatively small fraction of money from residuals. Regardless, it’s a huge issue for all three unions.
It’s also a huge issue for the AMPTP. When they deal with one union on this issue, they know they are dealing with all three, because of “pattern bargaining.”
Pattern bargaining dictates that if one of the three creative unions gets a residual improvement, then the other two must get it as well.
Residuals are generally paid like this: the writers get X, the director, 1st AD and UPM get X, and the cast gets 3X (because there are many more actors to divvy the residuals for than there are writers or DGA employees).
So, whatever we’re asking for, the AMPTP knows it’s going to have to ultimately pay out five times that amount.
Is It Just Me, Or Does Everything Seem More Militant This Time Around?
It’s not just you.
In 2005, the WGAw elected a slate of candidates who expressed a desire to be tougher with the studios.
The basic plan of this slate, led by current WGAw President Patric Verrone, was to organize reality television writers, bring them into our union, and thus be able to create a very strong strike threat against the AMPTP (right now, the producers believe, rightly, that reality television is a huge wedge against the efficacy of any WGA strike, because it keeps new programming on the air during a walkout).
The slate believed that with this enhanced strike threat, we’d be able to improve on the 1.5-1.8% of 20% formula when it came to residuals for internet downloads.
Unfortunately, no reality writers have been organized into the WGA. It is highly probable that we will go into the 2007 negotiations without any enhanced strike threat.
Still, the last year has definitely been marked by heightened rhetoric from both sides. The WGA engaged in a number of controversial “corporate campaigns” designed to shame or pressure the companies into letting us organize reality writers, and the AMPTP took out a full-page ad in the Variety excoriating the current WGA leadership.
So Are We Going To Strike Or What?
Hard to say. Always cloudy is the future…
I think there’s certainly a better chance of a strike this time around than there was last time around, but my personal opinion is that there won’t be a strike.
It is possible that we might work past our contract, as we did in 2004.
Okay, What Happens If We Work Past Our Contract?
Not much. We lose our protection against a lockout, and certain grievance provisions go away, but other than that, our 2004 contract remains in effect. The idea of working past the deadline is simple: we try and get closer to the expiration of the SAG contract (June 2008), and then we use their strike threat as leverage to get us both a good deal on internet downloads.
The danger of waiting?
The DGA could always leapfrog the WGA and SAG and make an early deal (which they did in 2004). If they do, it’s pretty much game over. The WGA and SAG will almost certainly get stuck with the deal the DGA makes. If it’s a good deal, that’s no problem.
If it’s not, that is a problem.
Will We Win?
Possibly. A better question is…will the fight even happen? It’s possible that the entire issue of internet residuals will get punted down the line three years, because no one really knows how the economics of downloading movies and television will work.
I hope this primer was of use and answered everyone’s basic questions. I tried my best to stay away from political opinions. If you have any other questions about this rather nutty negotiation year, please go ahead and ask them in the comments section.