a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Monday, October 31, 2005


I grew up in the middle class suburbs of Long Island, where Halloween (at least between the ages of like 7 and 13) meant our parents turning us loose to hit as many houses as we could. It was the 1970s, and no one was afraid of anything.

So I have some Halloween anecdotes. Like the time when I was around 11, or 12, when I got dressed in my costume, and waited for my best friend Billy to come over so we could go trick-or-treating. And I waited. And waited.

Called his house, no answer. Waited. For hours. Freaking out. Valuable candy-collecting time slipping by, plus, you know, he was my best friend, and he had just vanished.

Finally, I learned that he had been so excited, that he ran outside, fell down his stairs, and broke his leg. He'd been in the hospital the whole time.

Or the time when I was with a small group of friends, and we went to a house where the owner apparently didn't like Halloween very much. So he sicced his dog on us. Bit one of my friends. (I have no memory of a hospital visit, so the bite might not have been that bad. But I think it did put a damper on the evening).

But my best Halloween anecdote didn't take place in October. It took place in July.

My parents had gone on vacation, leaving me and my younger brother with some family friends, out in some other random Long Island town (Patchogue? I think so). I must have been about 10, my brother 8, and this family's kids were probably about 8 and 9.

We were bored. I guess we didn't have much supervision. And we were hungry.

So someone (hell, probably me) decided that maybe we should go trick-or-treating. So we put together makeshift costumes (I think I was a tree -- AKA holding a few small branches in my hands. My brother held a newspaper; maybe he was a delivery boy. Or a newspaper).

And we started knocking on doors. In July. And I don't know if it was the novelty of it (or the fact that this was a simpler, happier time), but it worked.

As I remember, about a third of the people told us to get lost, or threatened to call the cops (I doubt they did; we weren't too concerned). The rest were amused, and gave us stuff, whatever they could find. A lot of people seem to have had candy lying around. We got a lot of pennies, which back then wasn't bad. My brother's nose got scratched by a really big dog, but he got over it. And by the end of the day, we all had a big bag of loot.

Shameless? Probably. And something that probably would never have worked, if someone else had tried it first.

But to this day, I've never had anyone knock on my door, trick-or-treating, in any part of the year except for Halloween. So I like to think that we were way ahead of our time.

Anyone else have any good Halloween anecdotes?

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Don't Look At Me, I'm Not Writing

A few weeks ago, I happily posted about writing again. "Look At Me, I'm Writing". It felt good. I had the words-on-paper buzz.

Unfortunately, I haven't done any real work on a screenplay in weeks. And that doesn't feel good.

I can make excuses. Time crunch is a valid one; because my better-paying reading jobs are in flux (at least until the Weinsteins get their new company rolling again, or the old Miramax decides to throw me some work) I've been scrounging up lesser-paying work to make up the difference. There's plenty of it; it just takes more work to make the same money I was making before.

But the more work I do, the less I want to work on my own stuff. Catch 22. And the irony is, I still love writing. It's not that I'm burned out on the process itself. It's... I don't know.

The angst and chaos of moving certainly didn't help. My wife gets her well-deserved attention each day. We don't have children, and I respect the hell out of anyone who can do this with kids; if I had kids, forget it.

Blogging takes some of the edge off; making myself post here on a regular basis gets my creative engine revving. But it's still not advancing my own work.

I've been reading stuff for some people who took me up on my offer, and giving them notes, and that's been good too. Because the type of notes I've been giving them is mostly story notes, and brainstorming ideas, and I'm good at that stuff. Very good. And that gets my creative juices flowing too.

But still, not in the right direction.

I feel pregnant with creativity. But when I do find an hour to do something, the last thing my brain wants to do is dive back into my own stuff. And it's going to take more than an hour; it's about getting up to speed, and getting it rolling.

I'm a cliche. And I know what you're going to say. It takes discipline, setting aside hours, focusing on what I want to do, getting my priorities straight. And you're right. Dead on right.

Fuck. I'm 42. The train is leaving the station. And instead of taking red pen to pages 60-110 of my supernatural-thriller-that-desperately-needs-a-really-tight-polish, I'm writing a whiny blog entry, that I may have already deleted by the next time you come here. Because who needs to hear from another writer lamenting their lack of production?

I don't know what to say. The whole situation sucks.

I feel like Danny Bonaduce. I thought his new show was weird, turning the cameras on himself, showing all his warts, a lot of unsympathetic stuff, as he spirals down, and hopefully gets better.

But maybe there's something to this. Maybe opening oneself up, and saying this is who I am, this is the me that has to change, helps drive that change. I don't know.

Maybe it's just self-absorbed bullshit.

I have friends who get doubts sometimes, who consider chucking writing and not chasing the dream any more. It's a tough decision to make. It's not one that I want to make. But the clock is ticking.

So feel free to nag me about the supernatural thriller that's 85% there, but needs another solid pass. Or the horror tale I started working on last month, that is perculating away. Or the idea that me and a guy I met online have been trading e-mails on for almost a month now, slowly piecing the plot together, which is probably the closest I've come to writing even though my contribution has been largely limited to lobbing ideas in his direction.

The sad thing is, I think there's a good writer in me somewhere. I just need to get off my ass, and try to help him get his shot.

The end of the year is coming. Work will be slower. If I'm going to make it happen, it's time to start getting up speed, to hit that ramp.

Here's hoping. Here's... Shit.

Just going to try.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

There's Some Weird, Weird Stuff on Late Night Cable

So I'm flopped on the couch last night, suffering from insomnia, flipping around the channels. The cool thing about cable nowadays is that it actually tells you what is on the station you have reached; no longer do you have to squint at the screen and try to figure out which obscure Michael Caine movie is on.

So I'm flicking around, and I come to a 2003 movie called "Super Sucker". The synopsis (yeah, they provide one of them too) says that it's about a rivalry between two groups of vacuum cleaner salesmen, one of whom finds success when they find a vacuum cleaner attachment that proves very popular.

Automatically, this sounds really dirty.

But the movie (which I've never heard of, and which I'm 100% sure never got a theatrical release) stars Jeff Daniels, so how dirty can it be?

It has been on for about 25 minutes, so even though I hate entering movies in the middle, I linger, figuring that it should be about plot point one, and I'll get to see what this attachment is.

So Jeff Daniels and his crew are struggling to sell vacuums door-to-door, and Jeff knocks off early one day, and goes home, only to hear his wife moaning from the bedroom.

So he bursts in on her. And finds herself pleasuring herself with the vacuum cleaner.


Turns out that the vacuum cleaner has an attachment meant for drapes that (I kid you not) has a little spinning brush that pops in and out of the middle, and an easy button that switches the vacuum from blowing to sucking to blowing to sucking, something that the characters are so happy about that they keep talking about it.

Of course, this isn't really a porn movie, because there's no nudity (despite the R rating), even though the plot has them selling this attachment to every woman in town, and apparently it works for men too. The story gets silly late, with chases, and government agencies that shut them down, though there really isn't any exploration of whether it is actually right or wrong to have sex with your vacuum cleaner, or what the law would even say about it.

(But kids, I'm not sure you should try this as home).

So I watched the last hour of the movie, somewhat dumbfounded, wondering how the movie could even be made. It doesn't seem like the kind of movie that has a particularly good shot at being released in theaters, but it isn't really raunchy enough to seem like a solid genre entry either. It's just sort of a sniggering tale about women masturbating offscreen with vacuum cleaners.

I mean, how much do you have to pay Jeff Daniels to be in something like this? Can I pay him half that much to be in my movie?

Finally the closing credits roll up, and a lot becomes clear.

Written by Jeff Daniels. Directed by Jeff Daniels.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Screenwriting and Marathons

So this post is based on posts on two other blogs, which got me thinking.

The first was by Craig Mazin of The Artful Writer, a professional writer, who says that in his eyes the idea that "screenwriting is a marathon" is not true at all. Not only that, he goes on to say that if writing feels like a marathon to you, then either there's a major problem with your script, or you're not cut out for writing screenplays.

Mazin goes on to define what he is thinking about, talking about what it means when he gets antsy or bored or tired when he is writing a screenplay, and how it needs to be fun and exciting to write if it is to be fun or exciting to watch. Mazin says "If you repeatedly find yourself dreading the work, if you keep praying to find yourself at the end of the process, if you view the second act as some sort of Bataan Death March, then it’s time to hang it up. Screenwriting is hard enough to do when you want to do it. If you’re dealing with a lack of will at the same time, what’s the point of torturing yourself?"

Disagreeing with this is MaryAn Batchellor on her blog, Fencing With The Fog, who points out that her son is a runner, and he loves running -- it's not torture for him.

I think that the problem here is defining what a marathon is -- and in realizing that screenwriting is a lot more like a marathon than most people want to believe.

I think that Mazin is right, when he says that if you are bored and antsy or tired when writing, you need to ask yourself if there is a problem with your story and that maybe you should question what you are doing. And clearly, if Mazin sees marathon running as something that is torturous, then he shouldn't be a marathon runner. Because marathon running does take work, you need to get out there day after day, and train your body, and its often a lonely, internal life, pushing yourself, trying to keep the discipline.

But I guarantee that marathon runners love what they do. They don't see it as boring or torturous, because if they do, then why do it? Marathon running is certainly a lot less lucrative than screenwriting is.

But screenwriting is a hell of a lot like marathon running. Because it's about putting in the work, and intensively training yourself -- maybe not your body, but your mind. It's about discipline, and pushing yourself, and being willing to do it because you love it. Screenwriting is a lot like marathon writing, because you should only do it if you are called to it -- and if you are called to it, then "marathon running" isn't a negative idea at all.

So I think the metaphor is a very apt one, if you attack it from the right direction.

Unfortunately, too many screenwriters think they are in a sprint. If you go to Wordplayer or other online writing websites, you'll see many variations of the question "I finished my first script, how do I get it to an agent who will sell it for me?"

The honest answer? You don't. Write another script. Because if you've just written one screenplay, you're not even running the marathon yet. You are still training for it. Writing the first script is like finally taking your interval training up a notch; instead of running 5 miles a week, now you're running 10.

Real marathon runners run a lot of miles every week. 25, 50, 75, 100. For years and years.

Learning to write screenplays is a process. Every screenplay you write teaches you something. Every time you rewrite it, and refine it, you learn something else. It's training. It's learning.

And sure, some of the scripts that people write when they are training wind up selling. Some people have natural ability, or a great commercial idea that they execute well enough to sell it. It's nice when it happens. It doesn't happen all that often.

It's even almost sad that that's an option. Because it seems to offer a truncated goal. To bend and torture the marathon metaphor further (because it is a good metaphor), it's like telling a runner that they should train for the marathon, but if they are lucky they'll find a portal five miles in that will take them right to the finish line. So everyone is looking for the portal. Everyone expects a short cut.

The problem with screenwriting is that it's so undefined. If we were doctors, there's a certain amount of study and information that you need to learn; it's taken for granted. If you don't learn it (hell, if you don't want to learn it) then you're not a doctor.

The way marathon running ISN'T like screenwriting, is that it's a lot easier to know if you are good at marathon running or not, because there's a clock. You can't fool yourself into thinking that you are better than you are.

But sometimes screenwriting is sort of like the guy in the desert, who runs around without a watch. Even though sometimes he takes a day off, or knocks off at noon to play golf, he tells himself that he's ready for a marathon, because when he runs he hardly ever breathes hard any more, and never walks.

He doesn't realize that he'd still be coming in about two hours behind the leaders.

If you don't think that screenwriting takes as much work and discipline as being a marathon runner, than you are in the wrong business. If you don't love the work and the discipline, then you are in the wrong business. Craig is right about that.

But he's wrong about the metaphor. It's a good one.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Baloney Sandwiches at Prime Rib Prices

So maybe I'm just hungry, but I got to thinking about how things would be different if the movie business were like the restaurant business.

You go into a restaurant, you look at the menu, and you have to make choices. Generally, the better the meal, the more you have to pay for it.

$29.95 for some prime rib? Yum! Or, hey, the baloney sandwich is just $4.50! Might be worth it.

I think it should be the same way for movies.

So this is my plan. It will never, ever be adopted, because it makes too much sense (to everyone but the movie studios, who would hate it). But here it is:

The price of a movie should be determined by how good the movie is.

Here's one way to do it. Let's make a law, that to determine the price of a ticket to an individual movie, you go to Rotten Tomatoes, and see what percentage of all the nation's critics actually liked it. Then you multiply that number by 10 cents.

So 95% of the critics like Wallace and Gromit? It'll cost you $9.50 to get in. North Country will cost you $7.20. Dreamer $6.40.

But you can see Elizabethtown for $3.00. Doom will only cost you $2.00. The Fog will be a bargain-basement $1.10.

The effect of this would be obvious. Movie studios would need to do everything they can to make sure their movies are as good as possible, to maximize their profits. Movie theaters would be motivated only to book good movies, because even a sell-out on a $1.10 showing of The Fog wouldn't make much money.

Plus audiences would be constantly reminded of the value of the movies they are deciding to see; it's hard to ignore the reviews of Domino when you learn you can get it at thrift store prices.

Is this idea crazy? Probably. Because audiences should be effectively accomplishing this by themselves. It works with DVDs, where you can find all sorts of crap for $5.99, but you pay more for the good movies.

Yet as it exists now, movie theaters are like the kind of non-existant restaurant in which every entree, from Prime Rib to Lobster to Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches, costs exactly the same. So you would think that the customers would be ordering the best food exclusively.

Nope. Doom and The Fog cost the same as the good movies. And people are choosing to see them anyway.

So what's the incentive for the studios, when the baloney sandwiches are flying off the shelves, while the surf 'n' turf is ignored?

$9.60 for Goodnight and Good Luck. $1.90 for Two For The Money.

Works for me.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Crap Wins Again

This past weekend at the box office again just underlines that Hollywood doesn't have to make good movies to make money. So why should they?

The number 1 movie in the country is "Doom", which (if Ebert and Roeper are to be believed) is the worst movie of the year. Still, it made $15 million in its first three days. It'll go on to make some more here, lots more overseas, and then I'm sure Blockbuster will order 50 copies for each of its stores.

No one is going to get fired for this. Even if it is the worst movie of the year.

Though overall, according to Rotten Tomatoes, "The Fog" got worse reviews. Still, it was number 1 last weekend, and has done a fairly solid $21 million in its first ten days, for a movie with no stars that is supposed to be dumb, dumb, dumb.

Meanwhile, solid adult-skewing movies like "History of Violence", "In Her Shoes" and "North Country" (which I saw, good acting, worth seeing) are going to struggle to reach $30 million each, even though they are good of their type. Not great movies, but very good ones.

And that's the problem. You're setting out to make a movie. Which do you make -- the one based on the video game/TV show/remake of an old movie, which tend to do solid business even if (when) they stink? Or take a shot at doing a prestige movie like "North Country", where if it had gotten terrible reviews would have made about $5 million, instead of the $30 million it might stumble along to?

And that's Hollywood. Where low risk and low quality is more important than high risk and high quality.

So kudos to eBay billionaire Jeff Skoll, whose Participant Productions is geared to making social-minded films, from "North Country" to "Goodnight and Good Luck", to the upcoming "Syriana", which looks like it is going to be great -- movies that, if they sucked, wouldn't make a dime. That takes the kind of courage that Hollywood has less and less of nowadays.

And shame on audiences that go see crap like "Doom" and "The Fog", which just confirms to Hollywood that quality doesn't matter.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Sneaking Food Into the Movies

My friend Scoopy's current post about candy got me thinking about eating candy in movie theaters, and then got me thinking about eating candy in movie theaters that they don't sell there.

Yes, sometimes I sneak in food.

And I know that's probably a sin, especially because I used to be a movie theater manager. But if anything, my former job just makes me want to do it more. Because I can be appalled at the mark-up I know is taking place.

Popcorn costs them next to nothing, and they are selling it for 3, 4, $5 a bag. Soda, same thing. When bottles of water are $3.50 and $4.00, you know things are getting crazy.

So sometimes -- not all the time, but sometimes -- my wife will let me stash stuff in her purse before we go in. 20-ounce bottles of water or soda, and/or snack items that we pick up along the way. Because isn't that what your wife's (or your, if you are a woman or a metrosexual man) big-ass purse is for?

I'm not ashamed. Because I spend enough money at movie theater candy stands, and because if they are going to mark up prices that much, they deserve to turn a blind eye once and a while. Plus, I drink diet soda, and the Diet Coke you get at theaters often tastes like ass. So I can sneak in my Diet Pepsi, or Diet Dr. Pepper, and not only is it cheaper, it tastes better. Win-win.

Historical aside -- do you know why they call it a concession stand? Because they used to give away popcorn and drinks for free, to help lure people into the theater. True story.

Times have changed.

Most theaters really don't care if you sneak stuff in, if you aren't blatant about it. As a theater manager, as long as you weren't being an ass or irritating other customers, I didn't care if you snuck in anything, or slid into another theater and caught another movie., as long as you weren't a drunken lout or a chattering teen.

There are exceptions, though. There was a theater on Long Island that made the news (with coverage not exactly positive) after they kicked a man out of a movie theater for eating something that he had brought in with him.

It was a cough drop. Because he had a cough (which, ironically, is something that theaters should want people to suppress). But they had a zero-tolerance policy for outside food, and the guy got tossed.

I have a long history of sneaking food into theaters, even when I was a theater manager. If I was working a late shift, and got there early, I might eat dinner in one of the theaters, or sneak in some candy. I certainly wasn't going to pay my own theater's high prices (employee discount? Yeah, right.) I used to eat packages of those thin Andee's mints, that you could get at the supermarket across the street. Yum. One night, me and a friend snuck in some wine collers (hey, it was the '80s, what did I know) and I accidentally kicked one of the empty bottles over, and it rolled all the way down to the front, slowly and loudly.

Good times.

Of course, there were limits. I worked in one theater, where the brain-dead designers had the theater exit door going right into the parking lot. So customers would stash beer outside the door, buy their ticket, go in, and then pop open the door to retrieve their beer.

Except we had regular patrols of the parking lot. So when they were on line, me or one of my ushers was likely to find the beer, and cache it in the office. The ones who were shameless enough to ask for it back, got it back after the movie. Pretty much everyone was shameless enough; I can't remember any beers that were still in office at the end of the night.

My favorite story is when I was a camp counselor on Cape Cod one summer. On our nights off, a group of counselors would run into town (someone always had a car) and we'd grab some dinner, and catch a movie. This particular night, we got Chinese food, and had to bolt to make the movie (which I'm pretty sure was E.T.) .

There were 4 of us, and somehow, probably due to canny misdirection and the crush of the crowd, we snuck the whole, huge bag of Chinese food into the theater. The theater was packed; we finally found seats together, way up in the front, off to the side.

And then we opened the bag, in the near-dark (though the movie hadn't started yet), and realized that we didn't have any silverware at all, not even plastic ones. Just those paper containers of rice and food. No plates. Maybe napkins, maybe not. Can't remember.

So we ate out of the containers with our fingers, passing them around, the smell of the Chinese food spreading around us like a cloud, people already starting to look at us, we didn't care, we were hungry.

But finally an usher came down the aisle to check it out. He took one look at us, and just laughed.

Then he walked away, and left us to our dinner.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

When Careers Go To the Dark Side

So I'm leafing through the L.A. Times Calendar section this morning, when I come across an ad for a movie I've never heard of before. "National Lampoon Presents BARELY LEGAL". A closer examination reveals a really cheesy-looking R-rated teen comedy, apparently about a bunch of young men directing their own porn movie. It's opening in only a handful of theaters in the L.A. area.

(Aside -- remember when National Lampoon's name on a movie meant it was funny? Neither do I. Animal House, Vacation, and then the toilet).

Anyhow, I was about to turn the page, when I noticed who the director of Barely Legal is. David Mickey Evans.

Oh, hell.

For those of you who don't recognize the name, David Mickey Evans wrote RADIO FLYER, which is one of the first scripts I ever read, when I was first learning what a screenplay was. The script is a dark story about two unhappy little kids who build a rocketship out of a red wagon so that they can escape their abusive homelife.

It was a very good read, and even though when the movie ultimately came out (directed by Evans), it didn't quite work, it was still nice to see that Hollywood was willing to take a shot on a tale that never seemed all that commercial anyway.

I knew Evans then went on to write and direct THE SANDLOT, which certainly wasn't a disaster. And then he pretty much disappeared.

A quick imdb check reveals that he has done a lot of straight-to-video stuff, including The Sandlot 2, Beethoven 3 and Beethoven 4. And BARELY LEGAL, which turns out to actually be a 2003 movie called "After School Special", which may have even had a video release already (and which Evans didn't write).

I know that I'd be thrilled if anyone bought one of my scripts. But I have to think that Evans' is the kind of career trajectory that no one really wants when they start out in the business. I mean, where do you go after BARELY LEGAL?

I'm sure there's a great story behind all of this. But I'm pretty sure it's not a very happy one.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Shameless Moment of the Week

I just read a body-switching screenplay (the genre that would not die) that has a scene in which the characters figure out how to switch back into their own bodies. What do they do?

They sit down, and watch all of the other body-switching movies, and decide that the secret is in appreciating each other's life.

Nothing like having your own characters acknowledge how completely unoriginal your ideas are.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Shouldn't Coming Attractions Actually Attract?

See, I spend a weekend catching up on a couple of movies, and all I really wind up with is rant material.

Who the hell makes these really awful coming attractions? And don't they understand that, if you give the whole movie away, I don't want to see it?

I mean, correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't coming attractions (or previews, or trailers, whatever you want to call them) and TV commercials supposed to convince me that I should part with my hard-earned money and choose their movie out of the 16 playing at the multiplex? Instead of playing 2 minutes of plot points that cause me to look at the person next to me and say "Well, I've just seen that entire movie, so I don't need to see that"?

This has been a problem for a long time, don't get me wrong, but the longer that something is a problem, the sillier it gets that no one is fixing it.

The current worst offender is the coming attraction for "Prime", starring Meryl Streep and Uma Thurman. It literally shows you the set-up, and then the act one complication, and then the fall-out from the complication, and then the angst from the fallout from the complication, and then an elevator scene that really seems like a major third act plot point. Worse, it doesn't do any of this well; the movie just comes across as shrill and dumb. The really crazy thing is that I've seen a few very good reviews for it, and I probably would have gone to see it, but the trailer effectively talked me out of it. That's a bad coming attraction.

There should be rules. Why aren't there rules? Here are some good rules --

-- Don't show anything that gives away the plot after the first 20 minutes of the movie. Don't show any scenes that tip off what's going to happen, and don't have characters (as in the Prime trailer) uttering complete lines of plot point dialogue.

-- If it's a comedy, you are only allowed to show 10% of the jokes, and not all the good ones either. If there are only 10 laughs points in your movie, you are only allowed to show one of them. It's called truth in advertising, and someone should be regulating it. Because again, if all the laughs are in the trailer, then you've just shown me the movie. (And if you have less than ten laughs in your movie, you aren't allowed to advertise it as a comedy).

-- If you are going to show scenes from the last 90 minutes of the movie, keep them out of context. James Bond trailers do this really well; they show James doing this, and doing that, but there is no real sense it what order it happened, so none of it really sticks in your brain.

-- Be interesting. The best trailer I saw over this weekend was for a movie called Match Point, which looks like a sexy thriller and then turns out to have been directed by Woody Allen. Woody Allen directed a sexy movie? I want to see that. Plus all I really came out of it knowing was that Scarlet Johanssen has sex with someone. Trailer gets a ten.

I think that's the key here. I want to see a coming attraction that is going to make me say "Wow, I want to see that", without making me feel like it has already blown a chunk of the movie. The "Jarhead" trailer does this well; it shows me enough that I want to see more.

The coming attraction for "A History of Violence" wasn't as good, because they give away so much of the first half hour in the trailer, that when I was went to see the actual movie I was waiting for the movie to get to the part where I didn't know what was going to happen.

And that's the saddest thing. It is a rare, rare experience that I can go to a movie without already having a lot of plot expectations. And there's really no way to avoid it; you're trapped in the theater, watching this string of trailers unfold. Which is fine, I love coming attractions, as long as they don't give too much away. But unless I'm seeing a foreign film or an art house film, that hasn't been advertised to death, there's always the sense that I've already seen big chunks of it. I've even gotten to the point where, if a commercial comes on TV for a movie I know that I'm going to see that weekend, I'll stick my fingers in my ears and go "la la la la".

Childish, but effective.

It's one more reason why you should start your screenplay as late in the story as possible. Because the audience will probably know what your premise is going in, and just want you to get to it. That's one positive of screenwriting; when I pick up a script, I have no idea of the experience I'm about to have. It could be anything. It's refreshing.

Anyway, in closing, let me mention the worst trailer I ever saw, back in the days when I was a theater manager. It was so bad, that we used to make fun of it. Loudly. Not something I think they were striving for.

Over scenes from the movie, an incredibly wooden narrator intoned "He. Taught. Her. How. To Dance. She. Taught. Him. How. To. Love."

We thought the movie would be a huge bomb, but it turned out to be "Dirty Dancing". So you can't always tell from the trailer.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Remind Me Not To See Movies At the Mall

So aside from the script problems, the worst thing about seeing Elizabethtown the other night was the hoards of teenage girls in the theater. In a poor choice, we saw the movie in a mall in the Valley; they were obviously there for Orlando Bloom.

I don't think they liked the movie much. Not that they really gave it a chance. Because they talked all the way through it.

Similar thing the previous weekend when I saw In Her Shoes. Different theater, but same situation; teenage girls 13-16 getting dropped off by their parents, winding up in a slowly-paced movie that they seemed to be settling for in the absence of anything else they particularly wanted to see, and deciding that they'd rather chat with their friends. I have no idea why they need to do this. Isn't there a pair of shorts with a sassy word on the ass that they could be buying with their ticket money? Aren't there immature boys they can be off chasing somewhere, anywhere?

(In both instances, there were much fewer teenage boys there. I'm going to assume they were off playing video games somewhere; it's easy to entertain teenage boys).

Obviously, things are worse in October because it's good-movie time. All the summer crap is gone, and with it the movies that exist just so teenage girls will go to them, to keep them out of the movies that adults (you know, us stick-in-the-muds who actually want to hear the dialogue of a movie) want to see.

So, an elegant solution (because I'm told cages or shock collars might violate some sort of moral code). Set aside a screen in each multiplex just to show something that teenage girls (and only teenage girls) want to see, a continuing stream of Hilary Duff/Lindsay Lohan movies, with the occasional Britney Spears epic thrown in.

Paint it pink.

Then herd them in there. They have no choice, that's the only movie they can see -- but bonus, they can talk all they want! Cell phones are allowed! And then make sure they don't leave, unless it's out the rear exit.

It's win-win. Girls get a place they can go, where they aren't being "shushed" all the time. Adults can safely return to the multiplexes, knowing that the movie they want to see will be chatter-free zones. Business will boom.

(Teenage boys I'm not as worried about. Just have one loud action movie playing in the theater somewhere for them to go to. No one can hear if they are talking anyway).

But wait, you say. There are intelligent teenage girls, who want to see intelligent movies, and promise not to talk. Bright girls, who will soon be appalled by having to see movies with their bubble-headed peers. What about them?

Fine. Come up with a card. If they pass a test (sample question: name a Martin Scorcese movie), they get to carry the card, that gets them into a real movie. As long as they keep quiet and watch the movie, they get to keep the card.

Radical? Maybe. But if theater owners are so concerned about attendance, sometimes you need to take radical action to get adults back out to the multiplex.

And it would be a lot easier than breaking out the cattle prods.

Friday, October 14, 2005


No real spoilers, even though I'm going to tear it apart a little, and kick it when it's down.

I really wanted to love this movie. I've been looking forward to it for months. "Almost Famous" is one of my favorite movies. The trailers look great.

And there are some things that really work well here. The romance between Orlando and Kirsten is actually sweet, and different, and very likable, and though I don't always like Kirsten, I liked her here. Elizabethtown almost serves as an example of a movie in which the characters are so appealing that the plot doesn't matter as much, especially when there's so much good music floating around in it.


But so much here doesn't work at all. To speak in the most basic, non-spoiler/first 10 minutes generalities, they botched Orlando's character. Here's a guy who in the first few scenes, loses everything, and then in the course of the script comes to terms with this.

But because he has lost everything, he has nothing more to lose. So he doesn't take a risk in the whole script. He's an amazingly passive character, who has no real choices to make. And the one he does sort of have to make, the question of what to do with his father's body, he doesn't really make either. It would have been completely different if he were still a successful workaholic, working on a big project, who suddenly had his father's death derailing his life; that's a story. Here, not so much.

But dammit, the romantic stuff is all great, there are some good throwaway gags, and I thought the last 15 minutes work really, really well. But the main storyline it is all hung on is just completely underdeveloped, and it leaves a big black hole in a lot of the screenplay; we just aren't made to care at all about a lot of the family stuff, because so many of the relationships are so completely unexplored, and so much of the family history isn't explained at all. Maybe this was lost in the 18 minutes Crowe cut out after the Toronto film festival; I don't know (I'm going to read the original script this week, and see what I see). But too much of the key story dynamics are just vague, and ultimately it just makes a lot of this slow and unmoving.

Still, I liked the damn thing more than it deserves. A lot of it is charming. If you're a Crowe fan, it's probably worth seeing.

But there's a great movie here, that at the end of the day he just didn't find, and sometimes those movies are the most frustrating of all.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

While I Wade Through My Reading, and Think About Writing...

Blogging is coming in third. Though at least I'm not as bad as Josh Friedman.

Anyhow, if you need to read intelligent thoughts about writing, head over to Velociraptors On The Space Shuttle (I like to think I helped inspire the name, though don't underestimate the power of Snakes on a Plane, which inspired us all) and check out the postings of Matt Waggoner, who is smarter about a lot of stuff than I'll ever be.

Read all the columns. There's something there for everyone.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Applauding After Movies

I'm not sure when people started applauding at the end of movies they like, because it's sort of a silly thing; obviously the actors on the screen can't hear you, the filmmakers aren't there, the projectionist is in another part of the theater, and the ushers just want you to leave so that they can clean up after you.

But still, it happens all the time. I'm guessing it's part of the whole shared-experience thing; we want to let the other people in the theater know that yeah, we liked the movie too, and wasn't it great that we got to do this together?

I'm guilty of clapping after movies I like, and even I'm not sure why I do it. Sometimes I'll do it just to see if I can get others to follow suit; usually it works. Sometimes I do it after a movie that I liked a lot, but suspect that others in the audience didn't get; probably my way of telling them "Screw you for not liking it, look at all the other people applauding that did".

(I also used to boo commercials that aired before the movie, until my wife made it clear that this was something I should stop doing. Now.)

Ultimately, it's probably just primal. We clap at concerts, and after plays; there's a certain satisfaction at acknowledging work well done. But I can't remember if it was something that happened when I was a kid, at movie theaters.

My earliest vivid memory of it was when I worked in a Long Island movie theater when I was in college, and we had a blind screening of a movie (something that, to my memory, was the only time that happened there); the people bought tickets not knowing what they were going to be shown, though I think they got to stay for another, popular movie afterward, so if the mystery movie sucked they had the expectation of a palette-cleanser later.

Anyhow, at the end of the mystery movie, there was a roar of applause from the audience that shocked the theater staff, because it was so unusual to hear something like this, even though in that context it sort of made sense -- not only was there the expectation that, since it was a screening, someone might be there who cared how they felt, but the packed theater had just gone through the enviable experience of going into a movie with no idea of what you were going to see, and being thoroughly entertained.

The movie was "Back To The Future".

Monday, October 10, 2005

In Her Shoes

No Spoilers.

I liked this movie a lot more than I thought it would, and it's a good example of something interesting -- it's a plotline that is actually really rather thin, that works because the characters are likable and involving (and the acting is very solid). Because we get drawn into the lives of these characters, we want to know what happens to them, and even though some of it is predictable, most of it is well-earned. These are fleshed-out, human characters with deep, flawed relationships that sort themselves out along the way, and audiences seem to click with it; the decent-sized theater I saw it in was solid out Saturday night, and a lot of people applauded at the end.

I'm still wrestling over what bothers me so much about the plot, though. There's really no dramatic urgency, and in fact it is unclear how much time even passes during the tale; in one sister's story, weeks seem to be passing, while in the other's months and months and months seem to pass by. The characters' goals are rather modest, and really get sorted out fairly early on.

Still, it worked for me. It's not an example of a real solid script structure, but sharp dialogue, well-crafted scenes and appealing, funny, human, real characters can go a long way, while it's a striking example of what a good director (Curtis Hanson) can do with a script that in other hands could have easily been fluff.


My friend George called me over the weekend, and told me to blog about the fact that all of a sudden there are too many good movies coming out to see everything that one wants to, whereas in the summer it was hard to find anything half-intelligent to go see.

This fall does look better than most, with 2 or 3 intriguing movies coming out pretty much every week. Apparently Cameron Crowe has "Elizabethtown" down to a tight 117 minutes (after cutting about a half-hour from a reportedly-bloated Toronto Film Festival cut), while the more I hear about "Jarhead" the more I want to see it.

So expect grosses to run high in comparison to last year, and the media to report that the film industry is healthy after all. And then next year, when the movies are only average, and run behind this fall, the sky will be tumbling again.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Five Years Ago This Month

Because it proved interesting when I did it last month, I figured I'd look back into my records, and see how many scripts/books that I read in October 2000 actually made it into movies.

(And again, keep in mind that because I'm mostly reading stuff that comes from agents and producers, the percentages are going to be much, much higher than if I was reading slushpile stuff).

That month, I read 13 books and 56 scripts, and a solid 5 were made into movies. One was "Tortilla Soup", which was a remake of Ang Lee's "Eat Drink Man Woman". Another was "Rent", which is coming out soon.

The other three were horror movies, so I guess it is true; October isn't only a good month for releasing them, but for sending them around as well. None were specs; all were based on previous properties (two video games, one long-running movie series). The first two were "Resident Evil" (which wasn't a bad read, as I remember, though I never saw the film) and the last "Halloween" movie, the one with the Internet broadcast, which I thought needed a lot of work at the script stage, which it didn't get.

The third was "House of the Dead", which I have absolutely no memory of reading. So I dug up my coverage, to see if I actually read this violent b-movie that I had no interest in seeing, afraid that I might actually have liked it (not that I'm averse to liking violent b-movies, if they work well).

Yeah, I read. No, I didn't like it. (It was ultimately released by a different company than the one I read it for).

Otherwise, nothing really jumps out at all for the things that didn't get made, though one was the book about Pete Rose and A. Bartlett Giametti, which might have fed a cable TV movie somewhere. Another was a movie about writer H.P. Lovecraft, which was a pretty good script (at least according to my coverage; my brain doesn't come close to holding memories of everything I read). It was a writing sample, so the script had probably been optioned somewhere, though the movie never came out, as far as I know. I've read a couple of good Edgar Allan Poe scripts in the past, and someday someone is going to make a good Poe movie.

Another was about playwright Moliere, which didn't really work; though I have read scripts about a lot of writers/musicians/classical composers, some of these people were simply guys whose lives just weren't all that interesting, while too many of the other biopics just familiarly fall into the generic genius/alcoholic (or drug addict)/womanizer/died young template, which seems to make for bland, paint-by-numbers stories more often than fascinating ones.

Otherwise, a random check of some of the other titles just reveals a lot of mediocrity; ideas that weren't all that solid, that weren't executed all that well either, but are still being sent around in hopes that someone will spark to them.

So if you think that there's a thick layer of unproduced great scripts going out every month, it's not really happening.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Capitalism At Its Worst

So if you are an obsessive reader of comments on blogs, you may have noticed long, long posts on other people's blogs by one of my fellow readers, who is trying to shill his new website, where he is offering his services on helping you improve your script. Or become a better reader. You can even hire his mentors and life coaches. He even offers a free report on mistakes that writer's make when using a script consultant.

I'm guessing that overpaying them isn't one of the mistakes he cites.

Because if you want to pay him for "studio coverage" on your script -- basically, a synopsis you don't need, and "basic analysis" that will probably only say that the script is good or bad, without being all that helpful -- it'll cost you $197.

If you want 3-5 pages of detailed notes and suggestions on all the main elements of the screenplay, it'll cost you $347.

If you want up to 10 pages of page-by-page notes, OR to meet with him to talk about your story? $547. If you want both? $697.

Holy Jesus.

And the sad part is that he isn't out of line. There are other script site services that are worse (I'm sure those are the ones that make his report), or more expensive. As one reader justifies on his blog, it's "capitalism at its best", and he sees no problem in charging aspiring screenwriters much more than he does the corporate movie companies that he works for.

The really crazy thing is that the work they are doing is almost pure profit, and it just doesn't take that long. Let's focus on the 3-5 pages of notes, which if they are good could be helpful for a writer. I can sit down with your script, read it, take notes, and then bash out 3-5 helpful pages, and it will take me three hours. Tops. Maybe even less. I do it for friends, all the time, for nothing.

But that's well over $100 an hour, if you are paying $300+. Wow. Start lining up, people. Throw me your cash.

Except I could never do that. Because the idea of making an aspiring writer (who probably has a real job and bills to pay, that they are trying to juggle against their dream, just like I am) shell out that much money just seems obscene to me.

So I'm torn. On the one hand, I'm busy with work, and it's just going to get busier. I don't really have time to do a lot of outside work. Maybe a few extra scripts a week. I'm also concerned that the thugs from the script service agencies are going to come down and beat me.

But screw it. Maybe, as a public service, I'll carve off a tiny sliver of their business. Actually, in theory, I'm not really doing that -- I think the people I am targeting are the ones who would NEVER pay that much money to get notes on their script. Anyone who would, go on to those other services; I'm sure they can help you much more than I can.

Anyhow, here's the offer. Script notes, 3-5 pages. Not a synopsis, not basic coverage, but actual script notes. What that guy is charging $347 for.

I'll do them for $60. Paid in advance, Check or cash, no credit cards. No pennies.

But there would have to be rules.

I don't want anyone sending me scripts in hopes that I think they are great, and will pass them on to someone else. I'm not going to do that. If they are great, enter them in a contest. Win. Become rich.

I want to read scripts in which the writer is stuck, or needs a push, or some direction. Where I can give you pages and pages of story/structure/character notes, and you'll happily launch into a rewrite.

I will tear your baby apart. I'll tell you a few good things, and then most of the report will focus on what doesn't work. If you don't want your baby torn apart, don't hire me.

I won't teach you how to write. If you don't know how to properly format a script, then you'd be better off investing in screenwriting books.

If you think your script is great, and you want to get good coverage and a road to the studios, I'm not the guy. ScriptShark does stuff like that.

If you need to talk to someone on the phone afterward, I'm not that guy either. Go to FunJoel for something like that. (I will trade an e-mail or two, if you need clarification).

What I'm offering is basic, solid notes (no synopsis, just notes), from a guy who has read a hell of a lot of scripts and books (I'm going to hit my 9000th studio/prodco coverage sometime next year) and who'd be just as happy reading your script as he would one from a production company, for the same price. Because that's fair.

Anyhow, I have no idea if this is going to work. I think there might be interest in this, but I can't really handle a deluge, but if I can do notes here, and notes there, it might work. I'd try to turn them around fairly quickly; almost certainly less than a week.

If it's something you might want to explore, now or in the future, e-mail me at

Otherwise, all comments welcome. Has anyone used these other services, and wants to share their experiences, positive or negative? Has anyone gotten satisfying notes or coverage back from contests they entered? Most importantly, am I crazy?

Monday, October 03, 2005

My Two Cents On The Whole Film Slump Thing

John August has a good post this week, about how silly newspaper reports are being about the supposed film slump, because the numbers they are using, compared to last year, really aren't off much at all. And he's right, particularly about the idea that it all can't just be blamed on "bad movies".

I think there is a slump, and I think it's little more subtle.

Movie prices are up; I paid $10.50 to see "Proof" in a mediocre theater last weekend. And I winced a little. Because $10.50 isn't cheap, when you are talking a wife, and refreshments, and the long walk from the parking lot. Meanwhile, other entertainment prices are holding steady. A little comparison shopping can find you most CDs for $11.99 and under, while DVDs are getting positively cheap, with Blockbuster selling used-but-perfectly-good DVDs 3 for $25.

In other words, I could have 3 DVDs for less than me and the wife paid to see "Proof" last weekend.

Meanwhile, the economy is getting tighter, and rising gas prices are just going to make it worse. People just don't have the casual disposable income to throw away any more. So deciding to go see a movie has become even more of a critical choice about where more of one's entertainment dollar is going.

Because of this, the line is being raised. The "line" is what a movie needs to be better than, to justify your deciding to get into a car and drop 30 bucks at the theater. The line is what determines if you head home after eating out and watch reruns of "Amazing Race", rather than do the parking spot hunt at the local multiplex.

It's not the bad movies that are hurting Hollywood. It's the average stuff, that adults used to go see, but now just don't have enough need-to-see vs. how-much-it-will-cost and it's-such-a-hassle. It's why Just Like Heaven isn't packing them in; who the hell needs to pay $10.50 to see that in a theater? Wouldn't you rather have that CD you were thinking about instead?

The line. When I was a theater manager, I used to see 150 movies a year, because most of them I didn't have to pay for. But when you do, you start thinking about quality, about whether it is worth the money, the time, the hassle. And I LOVE movie theaters. But I've been to see only 4 movies in the past three months.

Because there just aren't enough movies out there that really grab my balls and feel worth it any more.

Movie studios make movies geared toward young people because the 16-24 year old's line is a lot lower. They can churn out a mediocre horror film, dumb comedy or an action tale, and even though it isn't very good, chances are it'll still bring in the cash. Because most kids don't read reviews, and because dumb fun films are still fun.

But movies for grownups are just having a bigger and bigger downside. When you really have to nail it to get the crowds in? That's a big risk. So they throw money at the visuals, or base it on a known property (TV/book/previous film), and do whatever they can to make people want to see it even if it isn't a great movie. Even though, at the end of the day, the surest way to bring in crowds is to actually make a good movie, no one is confident enough of doing that to try nearly enough. Because if you fall a little short, you have "Cinderella Man", which at the end of the day is going to struggle to make back its cost.

The irony is that the over-40 audience is hungry for good films, which explains why "March of the Penguins" is making so much money this year, and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" clicked so hard a few years ago. My dad complained to me a few weeks ago that there was nothing in theaters that he wanted to see -- and he likes going to see movies.

There's a zillion factors all having a little bit of impact, from high-def TVs recreating the movie experience at home, to the sense that the whole movie-going experience just isn't as special as it once was. DVDs are cool, and they don't take long to show up at the video store, and you can sit on your couch and watch them, with a beer and your balls out.

But people are still going to want to go out to the movies, and what Hollywood needs to realize is that the best way to do it is not to play it safe, but to make the kind of interesting, well-written, well-acted, intelligent movies for grown-ups that they used to make. A good example (hopefully) is the upcoming "North Country", which I think if it gets decent reviews will make some good money, because people want to see movies like that. "Good Night and Good Luck" looks good, and I hope that clicks too. "Jarhead" is on my shortlist, and "Elizabethtown".

But I'm tired of leafing through the newspaper, and trying to interest my wife in a movie, and seeing how underwhelmed she is about most of the stuff out there, and realizing that I am too. The line has gotten higher for us, and for a lot of other people too, and mediocre just doesn't do it any more.