Archive for the ‘Screenwriting’ Category

Do novelists get more for successful adaptations?

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

questionmarkWhen a novel is adapted into a film or television series, how does compensation to the writer of the original novel work?

Does a studio pay the writer in one lump sum and then is allowed to do whatever they want with the property? Or does the original writer still benefit in some form if the adapted film or series is successful? For example, in the case of the television show Dexter, does Jeff Lindsay receive any extra compensation because the show has lasted as long as it has? Or was he paid only once, and then the success of the series makes no impact on his checkbook?

– Corey

I don’t know the specific deal with Dexter. But as a general case, yes, both scenarios are possible.

The studio (or producers) might pay a lump sum for all theatrical and/or television rights, generally structured as an option agreement. (Some money now for an exclusive hold on the rights, more money later if we decide to make it.)

Particularly in the case of a best-selling novel, the writer’s deal could include some form of backend. For a television series, that would likely be a specific amount per episode produced, along with a piece of the show’s profits. For feature films, it could be anything from a percentage of net profits (which almost never actually occur) to staggered bonuses at certain thresholds of domestic or worldwide box office.

Studios often buy books as manuscripts before they’re published. (That was the case with Big Fish.) In that situation, there may be language in the contract stipulating additional fees if the book enters the New York Times bestseller list, or some other event after publication.

For a novelist, a successful film or television adaptation should result in more sales of her book, and that money is all hers. The studio doesn’t get any portion of Stephenie Meyer’s publishing money for the Twilight series, nor Lindsay’s for Dexter.

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Denialism, and Toy Story 3

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

Many of my favorite people hold opinions I don’t. They enjoy things I find annoying, and support positions I find misguided.

That’s good. Part of being a grown-up is accepting that others don’t have to share your tastes and beliefs, just as you don’t have to embrace theirs. Surrounding yourself with only like-minded people is narcissism by proxy.

When you zoom out to society as a whole, you want a healthy mix of opinions to generate discussion. Yes, you get a few blowhards and demagogues, but they often foster enjoyable debate. Culture is the result of a never-ending game, and you want good players.

But do you know who’s no help at all? Denialists.

“Denialist” is a term often linked with Holocaust or climate change skeptics, but in a general sense applies to anyone incapable of rational discussion on a given topic. You can’t debate them. Not really.


There are huge gaps in your “fossil record.”


Between which species?


All of them! Pick any two, and there’s a gap between them.

With topics that can be argued from objective facts, you can ultimately feel pretty secure calling a denialist wrong. But what if you’re talking about a subjective experience, like art or literature or movies?

What if you’re talking about Toy Story 3?

Toy Story 3 is so besotted with brand names and product-placement that it stops being about the innocent pleasures of imagination–the usefulness of toys–and strictly celebrates consumerism.

In his widely-panned review of the widely-adored Toy Story 3, Armond White seems to have segued from film critic to film denialist. “Contrarian” feels too small, too polite — he’s not just paddling in the opposite direction of most critics, he’s climbed out of the boat and started grabbing fish with his bare hands.

Criticizing Toy Story 3 for celebrating consumerism is so non-sensical as to be objectively wrong.

Or maybe we’ve all been duped:

[Toy Story 3 is] essentially a bored game that only the brainwashed will buy into. Besides, Transformers 2 already explored the same plot to greater thrill and opulence.


Paul Brunick does a point-by-point dissection of the Toy Story 3 review, revealing its many factual inaccuracies. Never mind what movie is being projected on screen — White is here to catalog how it falls short of his ideals:

What makes Armond’s reviews perversely fascinating is that he is so obviously intelligent, yet this intelligence has been harnessed to the warped imperatives of an increasingly frustrated personality. Where your average critical hack job is just banal, White’s ability to disconnect the dots exerts a kind of bizarro brilliance. Try to take any of his recent reviews as seriously as he insists and you’ll find yourself, like Alice and the Red Queen, running in hermeneutic circles, getting nowhere fast. It makes for mediocre criticism but lurid psychodrama.

Don’t feed the trolls

Since you can’t debate a denialist, shouldn’t you just ignore them?

In forums and message boards, yes. On their own blogs, sure. But when a denialist has a platform that otherwise feels legitimate, are you doing society a disservice by letting the counterfactual opinion sit there uncontested?

Take evolution, per my example above. By attempting to engage with denialists, defenders of science paradoxically lend their opponents legitimacy — particularly if they can portray themselves as persecuted. “Teach the controversy” starts to sound like a reasonable middle ground, drawing in otherwise-reasonable people who want to be perceived as wise and fair.

I don’t have a good answer. I haven’t devised a formula for figuring out when to just ignore it. And thus I spend a few hundred words on a terrible review of an excellent movie.

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Hitchcock on MacGuffins

Friday, July 2nd, 2010

McGuffin by Hitchcock from isaac niemand on Vimeo.

Any way you spell them, they’re a screenwriting staple. (via Movie City Indie)

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All of the other reindeer

Friday, July 2nd, 2010

A few months ago, I discussed how Every Villain is a Hero — very few bad guys perceive themselves as bad guys, so you need to think of their motivation in heroic terms.

I just finished playing the Descent into Darkness scenario for Battle for Wesnoth,1 which provides a surprisingly good example of this lesson.

The story follows Malin Keshar, a young mage trying to save his village from orcs. Desperate, he uses a little necromancy in a pinch, which gets him banished from his homeland. As the twelve chapters unfold, bad decisions snowball until the story reaches a satisfyingly bleak conclusion.

Reading up on the scenario afterwards, I came upon this description of Malin’s dilemma, a trope called All of the Other Reindeer:

A character is surrounded by people who constantly put him or her down, usually because of some trait that is integral to them being a hero or villain. It seems the only responses one can make to this are the extremes: “put up with it silently” or “let them die/kill them all.”

If a hero, the character will constantly show their virtue by putting up with it and saving their tormentors’ lives again and again. Said tormentors will be grateful for about five seconds (that is, until the end of the episode), and then start it up again.

If a villain, they’ll inevitably explode and slaughter their tormentors, to the barely disguised envy of the audience. Oh, the hero will stop them eventually, but not before most of those who wronged the villain are taken out.

That’s a great roadmap for one kind of villain backstory.

And if you haven’t spent an afternoon clicking through TV Tropes, it’s well worth the time suck.

  1. Wesnoth is an old open-source game now available for iPad.
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Story is free

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

One of my frustrations with independent film — and in particular, micro-indies of the past few years — is a lack of narrative ambition.

Flip through the catalogs of any festival and you’ll see movies with fascinating characters and rich settings in which nothing really happens, as if the filmmakers took a Dogma vow to avoid plot.

My hunch is that it’s actually a consequence of thinking small. If you’re making a movie on a limited budget, it may put real constraints on your locations, schedule and cast size.

But that frugality doesn’t need to limit your story. Story is free.

Waiting around for things

I spent last week at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, working with writer-directors on their next projects. I don’t want to single out any one script — I’m eager to see all of these movies made. These filmmakers are very talented.

But I often found myself pausing at page 45 asking “What’s happened so far?” and “What am I curious about?” And too often, the answer was not much.

Some of my red flags:

  • Are characters waiting around for something?
  • Do they take half-steps, then retreat?
  • Do major events (death, abortion, incest) happen off-screen, or before the movie begins?
  • Do people talk about food?
  • Could you swap a scene from page 10 and page 34 without changing much?

A few of these projects would fall within the loose borders of the mumblecore movement, stories that focus on the sputtering interactions of a few well-educated characters. This is no ding on the genre; I like my Humpday just fine.

But I wonder if filmmakers are looking to mumblecore movies as an excuse for underwriting and avoiding character conflict.

A lot of story can happen even when you’re constrained to a few locations. Hamlet takes place in a few rooms. So does The Usual Suspects. Both Go and The Nines pack a lot into each of their three-part sections. And while Sex, Lies and Videotape might seem low-plot, the story keeps forcing characters to make choices and face the consequences.

In meeting with the screenwriters at Sundance, I challenged them to look for scenes in which characters were talking about things and show them doing those things. Often, the omitted scenes weren’t more expensive than what they would replace — but they were more difficult to write. The beginning of an affair is trickier than showing it mid-course. A trapped child is uncomfortable to write, but compelling to watch.

The writing is always going to be the least expensive but most challenging part of the process. Making a low-budget movie is a study in compromises. Story shouldn’t be one of them.

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Should a screenwriter pay for notes?

Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

questionmarkWhat weight do you give professional reading services? You know, the dudes that read your script, mark it up, make suggestions, tweak it, and send it back? Do you recommend anyone or company in particular?

– Chance

Other than my assistants, I’ve never paid anyone to read my scripts. All the notes I’ve gotten have come from friends and colleagues, many of them producers or screenwriters.

Reciprocity is a big part of relationship-building. When I was starting out, I would give hours of notes to friends, working through several drafts with them. In turn, they would read my scripts. I got my first agent through one such screenwriter friend who was interning for a producer at Columbia.

I was fortunate in that essentially all of my LA friends were from film school, and many of them were really smart. But you actually only need one or two smart people. One set of brilliant notes is more helpful than a dozen mediocre ones.

If you can’t find that one great note-giver amid your circle, it’s possible that you’d benefit from paying someone. I don’t have any names to recommend, but if I were in your place, I’d look for a few things:

  1. A sample set of notes. I wouldn’t pay anyone who didn’t write clearly and logically.

  2. A face-to-face meeting. Good feedback ends up being a conversation. In addition to written notes, I’d want an hour to talk through the issues and options.

  3. No producers/managers. I want insightful feedback, not connections. Some producers and managers can give great notes, but I shouldn’t be paying them upfront to do it.

  4. Someone who can say ‘not for me.’ Every person has genres that simply don’t click. Before taking my money, a reader should ask what my script is about, and respectfully decline if it’s outside of her domain.

I’m certain there are good paid readers out there. A few will probably leave comments. So let me stress, I’m not recommending or endorsing any of them. Caveat scriptor.

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Why must we have board-game movies?

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

questionmarkSo, I understand the merits of re-making movies from the past, or making old TV shows into features. I also get it from a studios perspective inasmuch as it’s a known property that has a fanbase, or has made a profit in the past.

But when I see studios making adaptations of toys like “Magic 8 Ball” or “Battleship” or “Stretch Armstrong” it really bums out the aspiring writer in me. It makes me think Hollywood doesn’t want my original idea. Can you talk me down from the ledge?

– Logan
Los Angeles

Logan, I’m right there on the ledge with you. But when you look down past your shoelaces, you realize that it’s not rocks and crashing waves below. The ledge we’re standing on is about eight feet high. At the bottom is concrete.

Jump wrong, and it’s going to be painful. Jump carefully, and you’ll be fine.

Yes, I rolled my eyes when the “Battleship” movie was announced. But I’ll happily see a modern naval war movie, and if it has to be named after a Milton Bradley property, so be it. A hidden upside to writing a movie based on just a title is that the screenwriter has huge latitude, unlike a book or TV adaptation.

Pendulums swing. It was dumb to make a movie out of a theme park ride before Pirates of the Caribbean. This trend towards making movies out of properties with no inherent narrative will eventually end. (A big success from an original like Inception might help.) In the meantime, let’s root for the best versions of these projects.

Good movies are a blessing, regardless of the source.

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On protagonists

Thursday, June 24th, 2010

In earlier posts, I’ve talked about protagonists and heroes at length. Yesterday Michael Goldenberg offered a a new description that I love:

The protagonist is the character that suffers the most.

In one sentence, both definition and practical advice. Perfect.

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Credits referendum overwhelmingly approved

Saturday, June 19th, 2010

ballotThe WGA’s three uncontroversial proposals for amending the TV and screen credits process passed by a large margin:

  • Screen Proposal – Uniform standard for screenplay credit on non-original screenplays – 85.7% in favor of adopting the amendment (1,237 yes; 197 no)

  • Television Proposal #1 – Arbiter Teleconference in the case of non-unanimous decision – 91.4% in favor of adopting the amendment (1,319 yes; 86 no)

  • Television Proposal #2 – Consolidation, reformatting, and clarification of Television Credits Manual and Separation of Rights Manual – 92.9 % in favor of adopting the amendment (1,341 yes; 64 no)

Thanks to everyone who voted.

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Can you include emotion in character description?

Monday, June 14th, 2010

questionmarkI’ve been following your screenwriting posts since the IMDB days, but I’ve been unable to find anything on this, maybe because it’s such a grey area.

Is it considered a faux pas to use emotion in the description of a character? Right now, I’ve written “His uncomplicated features might easily reveal fear,” but will that scream Oblivious Rookie should I be lucky enough for my screenplay to end up in the hands of a reader?

– John

It’s fine to refer to either the emotions the character is experiencing at the moment we meet him, or his general emotional makeup. Anything you can do to help paint a distinct portrait of who the character is will help.

Her braces-bound teeth biting into her lip, CASSIE FINWELL (19) silently swoons as Mr. Gleeson pulls off his sweater, in the process revealing a glimpse of his navel.

CLARK CLEMMONS (27) is the happiest man in Eugene -- just like it says on his t-shirt. He’s also a serial arsonist, but doesn’t advertise that fact.

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