Tuesday, February 24, 2009


OK, so a development exec read your script and liked it. Maybe they want to buy it, but odds are they don’t. That’s no reflection on you, that’s just the percentages. Most of the time when you have a meeting it will not be because you’re making a sale, but because someone liked your work, however it wasn’t the right fit for them or missed the mark a bit. Now they want to know if you might have something stuffed in a drawer, or that you're working on that could be cool. Take it from me, yes I was once a naïve writer too, don’t go in there thinking because you had one hot script that now your'e in a position to get a paid assignment. Odds are 9/10 you’re not. And remember, an unpaid assignment is just working for free, they are not the same.

So you walk into the office and inevitably there is “the writers couch.” Most offices are too small for a real couch, so it’s almost always a loveseat. If you write with a partner get used to sitting really close to them- use deodorant.

The meeting will start out with 5-10 minutes of small talk followed by the D-person asking something to the effect of “So what are you working on.” Which really means “please tell me you're working on some really cool stuff that we can set up and turn into amazing and profitable movies so I can get a promotion or move to a better production company than this shi@#y place.”
This is where your preparation is going to come in, because you’re going to have:

1) 3 projects you can pitch them. No more than 5-10 minutes on each and you can do this by heart. You don’t have to pull out a piece of paper. And while you're pitching, observe whether they are into it or not. (I’ll write more on the theory of the “Execudot” another time) If not, move to the next one. We’ve got a client who can literally go in with 10 things. He pitches the hook, sees if they bite, if yes, gives them the rest and, if no, moves to the next one. It’s beautiful. And because he’s not married to any ONE project, the development exec. doesn’t feel any pressure to soft-pedal his or her response, and often enjoys the process more.

2) The knowledge of what this company is producing and has produced in the past.

3) A generally pleasant personality. Because they're also getting to know you and deciding whether, or not, they may want to work with you in the future. Nobody wants to work long hours with Debbie Downer, or some totally introverted freak. Everybody wants to work with nice, fun talented people. So be that guy. This, and pitching well, are what’s referred to being “Good in a room.” It's good to be "Good in a room," trust me.

Monday, February 23, 2009


You can check these guys out at Backoftheclass.net


First, I want to genuinely congratulate all of last night’s winners and nominees. You all deserve the accolades received and you made great contributions to our art and industry. Also, to the producers of the show and Hugh, Great Job!

Now, before I get twenty writers calling me with scripts like Slumdog, I want to post an article from Forbes, their 2nd annual Forbesies.
Not that Slumdog wasn’t great, but I remember the fall of 2002, after the summer when My Big Fat Greek Wedding, (a mediocre film, marketed to women during a summer filled with bad male driven product) did so well and I constantly heard people saying they had something similar to MBFGW.

I urge you not to do this. 1) Hollywood wants things that are, or feel original- see my first blog entry 2) That Slumdog succeeded is great, and it arguably is a watershed event, but it doesn’t change the fact that the odds against it were huge.

I want you to succeed. So, if you’re not yet established as a working, (paid) screenwriter, I suggest first writing scripts that have a higher probability of selling.
And now, on to the Forbesies. I have a small complaint regarding their methodology, but overall it’s a good study tool.

The Movie Biz
The Year's (Truly) Best Pictures
John Burman
(Forbes magazine)
Fans of Warner Bros.' The Dark Knight who are still reeling from its absence in the Best Picture category at the upcoming Academy Awards can take heart--the latest installment in the Batman franchise tops the second annual Forbesies Awards, Forbes.com's look at the real Best Picture winners, based on box office and critical response. Following The Dark Knight for 2008 honors are Disney/Pixar's WALL-E and another super hero who made his initial big-screen appearance last year, Paramount's Iron Man, based on the Marvel Comics character. In putting together the list, our nominating process, so to speak, was to look at all films released in calendar year 2008 culled from box-office reporting service Box Office Mojo. In Pictures: The Year's (Truly) Best Pictures Next, we took every film that grossed $1 million or more at the North American box office (a universe of nearly 220 films) and charted where they ranked in worldwide box office, according to figures from sources including Box Office Mojo and Exhibitor Relations Co. We then looked at how the film did with critics, using measurements from MetaCritic.com. Each film received a point for its rank in the category. (A finish in the No. 1 spot yields one point; No. 2 yields two points, etc.) The scores were then added together, and the film with the lowest combined number finished on top, indicating consistent placement in the upper tiers of each grouping. Dark Knight's No. 1 slot is familiar territory for the film given its reign at the box office when it was released in summer 2008. It flew out of the gate and finished on top in North America four weekends in a row. Grossing a phenomenal $996.9 million globally in 2008--it is now No. 4 all time worldwide and No. 2 all time at the North America box office with its $530.9 million take stateside in 2008 (those figures have grown in 2009). Director-producer-co-writer Christopher Nolan's film was a huge hit with critics as well, scoring an 82 on MetaCritic. Animated films are well represented on the list with four entries, led by WALL-E, which is nominated for a Best Animated Feature Film Oscar. In finishing at No. 2, it had a global box office take of $518.7 million and a tremendous MetaCritic score of 93. (Disney/Pixar's Ratatouille was No. 1 on the Forbesies list last year.) Also making an appearance is a name from the past who showed he still has muscle with audiences. The return of Indiana Jones to the big screen after 19 years away in Paramount/Lucasfilm's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull proved bountiful as the film finished at No. 5 thanks to a global box office haul of $786.5 million (which was No. 2 in that category behind The Dark Knight) and a MetaCritic score of 65. In looking at trends in the top 10, six films opened in North America in the late spring through summer window, which Hollywood views as its summer period. That makes sense given the availability of audiences during the time, namely kids out of school and the greater potential for repeat business. But it also speaks to quality projects finding their way amidst the clutter of summer given their MetaCritic performances. Late-year debuts often provide a treasure trove for potential Oscar nominees by Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science voters. (This year's Best Picture nominees include three that opened in December and two in November.) But only one late-2008 release made it on to this year's Forbesies list: Paramount/DreamWorks Animation's Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (tied at No. 8), which opened Nov. 7 in North America. It showed impressive stats in its shorter window, taking in $473.6 million box office globally and snagging a MetaCritic number of 61. Certainly some films released toward the end of the year were no doubt hindered in North America either due to lack of days in the calendar or, perhaps, by a limited release before going wider in 2009. But, there's always next year--witness the fact that two entries from 2007 made the cut in 2008. At No. 7 is Fox Searchlight's Juno, with 2008 global box office sales of $201.9 million and a MetaCritic score of 81. Tied at No. 8, is Warner Bros.' I Am Legend (2008 global box-office: $361.9 million; MetaCritic score: 65), starring Will Smith, who recently topped the inaugural Forbes Star Currency survey of Hollywood's most bankable actors. On the studio front, Paramount was the most represented with four on the list, including DreamWorks Animation projects. And for those already looking ahead to 2009, your top five in order through Feb. 10: Taken, Hotel For Dogs, My Bloody Valentine 3-D, Notorious and Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Stay tuned.

Thursday, February 5, 2009


If you wanted to be a painter, before attempting to have a career of your own you’d study the masters; Rembrandt, Monet, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Dali, Van Gough, Picasso and some of your contemporaries like Warhol and Buffet etc.

If you wanted to be a musician you might go to Juilliard and study Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Vivaldi along with Muddy Waters, Clapton, The Who, The Clash and Daft Punk.

So it always amazes me when I talk to a young screenwriter and ask “have you read any Shane Black?” and I get the answer “No.”

Are you kidding me?

Now if you're one of the aspiring screenwriters that answered “no”, don’t take this personally as you're in great company. But unfortunately it’s a great company of unsold screenwriters.

Do yourselves a giant favor and read the masters AND your contemporaries. The masters show you the basics and classic style. Your contemporaries show you how those same basics are being adapted into screenplays audiences are enjoying today.

It’s sort of like here’s Henry Ford’s original V8 engine (a work of art and genius), and here’s Chevy’s first small block V8 (a work of art and genius), and here is the V8 in the new BMW 7 series (a work of art and genius).

Here’s a list of screenwriters I’d recommend you read. It is in no way everything you should read, but it’s a start.

Shane Black
The Wachowski’s
William Goldman
Oliver Stone
Ganz & Mandell
John Hughes
Lawerence Kasdan
Cameron Crowe
Charlie Kaufman
David Mamet
Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio
Billy Wilder

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


This is a simple litmus test as to whether your story has a strong hook. Whether or not it is “High Concept.” High Concept is most often what development execs and studio execs are looking for.

This is how you do it.

1) Close your eyes
2) Think about what the poster for your script, as a completed film in theaters would look like.
3) In your mind pay attention to the design of the poster. What is on it?
4) Remember that.

OK, this is how it works. If your story has a strong Hook, is High Concept then the studio/financier has the choice of whether to put big stars in the film, or use lesser known’s. They can use lesser-known actors because the Hook of the story, the Concept is very strong and will market the film. That concept will be so interesting that even without big stars people will say, “That looks cool, I want to go see that.”

Examples of this are:

Independence Day
Star Wars
The Watchmen
Hotel for Dogs

Now notice that some are recent, or even in the future, while some are older. Some are based on underlying material, while others are originals. Regardless the concept is what’s marketing the film and often the actor’s cast are not stars. They may be stars now, but when they were cast in these films they were still just actors.

Now let’s look at the opposite, stories that are “Cast Dependent” (without stars it’s very difficult to sell these weaker concepts to an audience, so without stars the studio won’t make the film and since there is no guarantee they will get the stars they need, will be more reluctant to buy the script):

Seven Pounds
Bull Durham
Gran Torino
Duplicity (2009)
Music & Lyrics
The Holiday
When Harry met Sally
Intolerable Cruelty

In each case the star(s) are being used to push the film, and the concepts are more complicated, soft or nuanced than the first list.

Now back to your poster. Assuming we’re talking about an original screenplay and all other things remaining equal, if your poster falls into to the second group it will be much more difficult to sell/set up than if it falls into the first. It’s that simple.

I could go on about the complexities of why, but let’s just leave it simple today. First group easier to sell, second group much tougher. If you want more detail you can go to my topic “What should I write?”

Sunday, February 1, 2009


As a writer you have two customers, the studio and the ticket buyer. Let’s look at what these two were selling and buying in 2008.

Give yourself a quiz, no really. Grab a sheet of paper and a pen and answer these questions. They all apply to 2008 films and therefore the current state of the marketplace.

#1 What was the average length of the top 10 grossing films in 2008?

#2 Of those top 10 grossing films, what were the top genres and place them in order?

#3 Of those top 10 grossing films, what were the most popular ratings, in order?

#4 Of ALL films released in 2008 what was the best performing genre… meaning avg. gross per film? What was the worst genre?

OK here are your answers.

#1 108 minutes. See the chart under #3. So remember, every time anyone is about to read one of your scripts the first thing they are going to do is check the length. If it’s a family comedy that’s 127 pages, you might want to do a little cutting first.

#2 Drum roll please… 1) Action 2) Comedy 3) Adventure 4) Family 5) Drama

Genre Total Gross
Action $1,561,281,485
Family $616,258,290
Comedy $998,734,003
Adventure $717,924,818
Drama $176,922,850

Now notice I added together the grosses of any film containing any portion of that genre because it is very rare that a film is just a comedy or just an action film. It effectively shows you what attributes filmgoers most coveted from the top 10 in 2008. Does your screenplay contain some of these attributes?

#3 PG-13 is the clear winner

Ratings Gross Avg. Length
G $378,336,328 92 min
PG $392,451,401 90.5 min
PG-13 $1,738,204,335 120 min

#4 By this definition, Action was the best and Drama the worst. Now this doesn’t mean your script should never have great drama or all scripts should be straight action, but it is a clear reflection of what the current ticket buyer is wanting most from you. It also may reflect those genres with a higher probability of sucess.

1 Comedy 133 $2,981,119,208 30.28% $22,414,430.14
2 Action 37 $2,040,042,510 20.72% $55,136,284.05
3 Adventure 39 $1,802,838,468 18.31% $46,226,627.38
4 Drama 222 $1,125,484,774 11.43% $5,069,751.23
5 Thriller 44 $762,196,068 7.74% $17,322,637.91
6 Rom/Com 23 $335,612,934 3.41% $14,591,866.70
7 Horror 24 $294,178,978 2.99% $12,257,457.42

This is a simple exercise designed to remind you of what your customer wants. Hopefully your answers didn’t differ greatly. If they did, hopefully this will help you see what consumers and studios are looking for.

And I know a few of you are going to point to several films outside the top 10 that buck the trend and I fully acknowledge their existence and that this quick exercise is not an exhaustive study.

But that’s kind of like pointing to the market for bubble gum flavored soda while ignoring it in comparison cola’s utter dominance of the soda market. Thank god for us Coke and Pepsi aren’t movies and the soda has to be reinvented every year. This being the case, do yourself a favor and write a cola.

I apologize for the charts. Apparently formatting is lost when pasting from Excel to the Blog.