Q&A…or…I Don’t Have Any Ideas This Week

Yeah, fine, it’s my dirty little secret. Sometimes I don’t have anything worth saying to you people. And yet, I know you’re out there. Running a blog is a little like being on the roof of the mall in Dawn of the Dead. I can forget about the crowd outside for a little bit, but when I look down…

…you’re all still there.

Hungry for brains.

Well, if that analogy hasn’t turned you off forever, allow me to stopgap things for a bit with some Q&A. Oh, and no, that guy in the picture isn’t me. He’s better-looking than I am, even passed out and rubbery as he is.

Q: Why don’t you use “funny names” in your spoof movies?”

A: Because they’re not really funny.

Well, there’s funny names and funny names.

Fielding Mellish is a funny sounding name, but it’s not a funny name.

“White Bitch” or “Captain Jack Swallows” from Epic Movie are “funny” names, i.e. they pull a Mad Magazine on the name of the character you’re spoofing.

There are two reasons we don’t do this when we make spoofs. The first is that it’s so easy, anyone can do it, so why would anyone actually laugh?

This brings to mind a great joke from The Simpsons. We see the writing room of Mad Magazine. All the writers are quiet. Then one says, “How about…Everybody HATES Raymond?” The other writers laugh, and the editor says, “Well, it took all night, but it was worth it!”

The second reason we don’t use funny names is that they’re not funny after the first mention. Nothing is. Repeated jokes try the audience’s patience, unless it’s a running gag that builds.

This brings to mind a not so great joke from The Simpsons. This week’s episode was about Little League. Nelson is the pitcher, but instead of throwing the ball, he tosses it up in the air and punches it toward the batter. Cute joke…the first time.

The third time? Yikes.

It’s the same with funny names. Even if you get someone to laugh at “White Bitch” once, they’re not going to laugh at it the twelfth time.

We call this rule “Can you live with it?”

There is one and only one “funny name” in the ZAZ pantheon (and I include SM3 and SM4 in that). First person to name it gets a nod of recognition.

Q: How does one go about writing a remake? Can anyone pick up an old movie and retool it for a modern audience? Or do you have to be connected with the studio who owns the rights?

A: Carefully, no, no.

First, the easy part. Copyright includes control of so-called “derivative works”, which include screenplay adaptations. As such, if you’re serious about writing a script that will get produced, you do need to either purchase or option or receive a license for the adaptation rights from the copyright holder. For those of us who write professionally, this almost always means being hired by a studio that controls the underlying rights, although there are many inspirational examples of screenwriters taking the bull by the horns and going straight to the author on their own.

Some books have fallen into the public domain, so you’re free to adapt them as you wish.

The actual creative process of adaptation is its own unique form of screenwriting, and I’m simply not equipped to describe it fully. Having done two adaptations, I can tell you that it is essential to somehow carry with you a deep love and respect and total understanding of the material…as well as a simultaneous fearlessness to adapt and change it.

To me, the best adaptations aren’t the slavish ones, but the ones that alchemically transfer the heart and soul of the original material into a brand new work of art.

Read the novel “Out of Sight” and then watch the movie of Scott Frank’s screenplay. It’s a master class in how to adapt with soul.

Walsh/Boyens/Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings is another wonderful example of how to choose, omit and change and yet enhance the heart of the work, rather than diminish it.

Remember….love and fearlessness.

Q: I recently signed up for a screenwriting class. On our first day of class, myself and the other students eagerly asked our new teacher how many screenplays he had gotten optioned. His answer was long-winded and round-about, but basically amounted to: zero. So we asked him who his agent was, and he said he wasn’t represented, but didn’t need to be, because he was on a “first-name basis” with so-and-so big-name celebrities, who had agreed to “read anything I send them”. At that point, I started becoming concerned that perhaps I was not getting a quality education for my money.

Is this a legit thing? Is being able to say “I know four big wigs in Hollywood on a first-name basis” as good as being able to say, “I have optioned four screenplays” in the screenwriting world? Are all screenwriting teachers probably going to be people who have not actually sold screenplays (because presumably the people who are selling all the screenplays don’t need to teach to support themselves)? If you were me, would you drop the class and get your money back?

A: No, yes, don’t know.

I have a very dim view of the entire screenwriting “cottage industry” out there.

I think I’ll coin a word.


These people are all paraliterary. They exist on the fringe, selling “secrets” and teaching lessons and dealing in confidence, but of course they’d be gone in a moment if they could sell a script or work as a screenwriter.


I do believe that some people are really good at teaching and guiding. We see this in sports all the time. Casey Stengel was a pretty mediocre baseball player, but a great manager. Teaching is its own art, so if you’re learning things that make you a better writer, than the class is worth it.

I am extremely suspicious, however, of anyone who starts featherbedding their resume by talking about how “connected” they are. This is a bad sign.

My only advice here is this: if you think the class is helping your writing, stick with it. If you think it’s a waste of time, dump it.

Just remember, folks, professional screenwriting really is a lot like professional sports. Most of you will never be able to hit a 95 MPH two-seamer no matter how much training you get…and the sad statistics are than most of you will not be able to maintain a career as a screenwriter either. It’s hard. Take help where you can find it, but keep a watchful eye out for the paraliterary.

They want your money.

Q: I’m writing from Canada (go hockey!), and I have queried four agencies up here that rep TV writers. They all said “We are simply not expanding our roster. Do not send us anything.” So… now what? Is that a January thing? Is that a test to see how determined I am? What would be a reasonable length of time to re-contact them? Any advice on approaching production companies (in Canada) this spring without an agent? Am I kidding myself?

A: No, no, don’t bother, some, no.

I’m enjoying this multipart question trend.

Many agencies will not take on clients who don’t already have agents. They’re either full, or they don’t want to break in new writers, or they’re over-committed already, and can barely keep up with the clients they have…and are perhaps considering dropping a few, much less taking on additional ones.

You have to try and find a way in beyond the cold-call of a query letter. You need a friend, a lawyer, a manager, a someone. Once you get that, you need material that will impress.

Remember, if writing is your Plan A and what you’re doing while you’re waiting is your Plan B, make your Plan B your Plan A and your Plan A your Plan B. Find a job somewhere in the business and do it really well. This is the best way to get yourself into a position where you can be read by people who can help matchmake you with an agent.

Q: Is R. Kosberg’s Moviepitch a ripoff or is it worth while to send him ideas?

A: If you’re using this, you’re not a writer.

I’ve spoken with Robert a few times. He’s a very nice guy, he really is known by everyone in town, and he really does sell things every now and again. He’s a legitimate producer, and he certainly has made a living pitching ideas.

What he’s not is a writer. He’s a producer. That’s what some producers (not the full kind, but some) do: they come up with ideas for movies or they find ideas for movies, and they set them up. Writers like me then come along and write the script.

Guess who gets paid more on that project?

(hint…I do)

The reason Robert is a success is that he deals in volume, and more power to him! If he sets up twelve projects a year and just two get made, he’s probably into the seven figures.

So…should you be using him as a broker? Yes…if you can’t write the script of your idea. In that case, you’re a producer looking for another producer to help you. If you’re a writer, then write the damned script! A great script will be found. A great script will make you a lot of money. A great script will launch your career.

Setting up ideas is silly if you’re a writer…unless you’re doing it yourself in order to write the script (i.e. a pitch). In this case, it sounds like Robert’s getting you option money for your idea, but you’re not going to write the script, because who the hell wants to bother with you?

If you were a writer…you would have already written it, right?

Hmmm…I have a few more questions stored up, but I’m not gonna answer them right away. Gotta have something saved up for another lazy day.

Next up, I’m going to take on “clams.” If you read Jane Espenson’s blog, you know what I’m talking about….

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