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We don’t talk much about TV here at Script Gods, so it’s overdue I mention a blog that Chad Gervich writes for at Scriptmag.com. This is run by Script Magazine/Final Draft company and is an authoritative source of information for anyone looking to break into the field of TV writing.
Chad ran the Writer’s Digest Script Notes blog before taking over the Script Magazine blog. He’s a straight shooter with years of experience as a Creative TV Producer. He doesn’t pull punches, writing with a snappy, informative style.
For instance here, when talking about copyrighting your work:
“First of all, let’s get one thing straight…
Ideas are not copyright-able. Only the execution of an idea is copyright-able.
Now, if you’d already written a script or treatment… and you could prove that they stole your plot, characters, lines of dialogue… you might have a case. But the idea itself—”boy befriends lost chupacabra”—is not yours. Even if you discussed it with people… you DO NOT OWN THE IDEA. You own only your execution.
Now… can you protect your “execution,” your script or treatment? Possibly.
But here’s another thing to understand…
A copyright or WGA registration simply provides a piece of EVIDENCE as to when and where you first held ownership of your material.
So if you registered or copyrighted your script on June 4, 2011, it does not mean that as of June 4, 2011, your script is protected. It means you have one piece of evidence saying that on June 4, 2011, this particular piece of intellectual property was in your possession.
…And that piece of evidence may or may not be enough to convince a court of law you yourself created this particular intellectual property.
In fact, a screenplay or piece of literature is “copyrighted” the instant you commit it to paper; it doesn’t technically need to be officially copyrighted or registered… but those things help if you need to prove your timeline in a court of law.
However, as my lawyer-friend says, you could just as easily mail yourself the script in a sealed envelope on June 4, 2011… never open it until you’re in court… and, thanks to the postmark, prove you had the script on June 4. (I had always heard this “poor man’s copyright” was bogus and ineffectual, but she says nothing is 100 percent effectual or ineffectual… it’s all just potential evidence helping to prove when you executed your idea on paper.)
The point is… if you should need to prove, legally, that you created a script, treatment, story, or other type of “creative execution” before someone else, you must prove at least a couple things:
1) That your execution and their execution are identical or similar enough to suggest actual theft
2) That you possessed your “execution” before they did. If you copyright or register your chupacabra script on June 4, 2011… but they produce a June 2 email with their chupacabra script attached… you’ll have a much tougher time proving you wrote the original script. The fact that you obtained an official copyright or WGA registration does NOT mean you have protection or a more powerful piece of evidence.
And in order to prove those things, you need evidence. …Which is what copyrights, WGA registration, and sealed envelopes all offer. Not protection… just potential pieces of evidence.
So the real question is…
Well… if registering or copyrighting your scripts or treatments gives you piece of mind… go for it. (WGA registration is $20; copyright filing is $35.) The truth is: I think a lot of people like registering their script with the Guild simply because it seems cool; it makes them seem like a “real” screenwriter– “Hey, my script is registered with the Writers Guild!” So if you wanna do it– pay your $20 and feel good.
Never—I repeat: NEVER—put your WGA registration or copyright number, or even a ©, on your script when sending it to a studio, network, agency, or producer.
It is a HUGE red flag, screaming, “I’m not ready for the professional world—don’t take me seriously!” Why?…
Now, I can’t speak as much to the film world, but I’m a firm believer that in the TV world, MATERIALS DO NOT GET STOLEN.
Newbies like to think they do… and everyone thinks they have a story of how someone stole their pitch… or a friend who got their script ripped off… but those people are—99% of the time—DEAD WRONG.
Firstly, it is nearly impossible, in the world of TV, to steal a script or idea from the writer. Why?…
Because TV shows work very differently than movies.
A movie is a “finite” piece of work. It happens once… it’s over… it can never be repeated or continued. So when a screenwriter writes a script, it’s sold to a producer or studio and handed to a director; the writer rarely stays involved.
But this can’t happen in television.”
What I like about Chad is that he doesn’t back off from the controversial. One of his posts recently caused a stir, the subject of which I’ll be writing about shortly: Why You Shouldn’t Use A Script Coverage Service.
ScriptShadow sells neither coverage nor consulting services. It won’t get your script read by industry professionals. It doesn’t offer a message board. It doesn’t sell podcasts or script services or a book written by its founder nor online classes, nor is ScriptShadow taking it on the road to a city near you.
Carson Reeves has no IMDB writer credits that I can find, and though he does write, makes no claims to long lists of Studios and producers and stars with whom he’s worked.
His site at one time offered links for uploads of scripts that were hot Hollywood properties. I’m sure of this because I downloaded The Beaver, Source Code and Buried through Script Shadow. That option no longer exists and I’m sure there’s a story behind that.
And now that I’ve told you everything ScriptShadow is not, why the hell am I recommending it?
Because Carson Reeves, quite likely, is the best Critic/Reviewer of screenplays on the internet. As the banner states, he reviews the latest scripts in Hollywood. He also does reader reviews of amateur scripts. He offers a Top 25 script reviews and a 3-year archive that contains of wealth of information to help any fledgling screenwriter.
The guy absolutely d-i-s-s-e-c-t-s. Here are a few samples:
First, from an insightful article he wrote about The Biggest Mistakes I Encounter In Each Genre.
“ZOMBIE/SERIAL KILLER/ROM COMS – What the hell are all three of these doing in one category? That’s easy. All three inspire the same problem. Writers never do anything fresh with these genres. Zombie: Group of people gets chased by zombies, usually in a city. Rom-Coms: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl again. Serial Killer: Serial killer leaves cryptic puzzle behind for detectives to try and figure out. I see these plots over and over and over again. You have to come up with a fresh angle! Look at Zombieland. They added comedy, silly rules, a voice over, and a road-trip story to the genre. It was fresh. Look at 500 Days of Summer. It mixed the whole damn relationship up. As for serial killers, I don’t have an example for you because since Seven NOBODY has done anything new with the serial killer genre (NOTE TO ALL SCREENWRITERS: IF YOU WANT TO CASH IN, FIND A FRESH ANGLE FOR THE SERIAL KILLER GENRE). Remember, all three of these markets are super-competitive. So beat em by coming up with something new…
“COMEDY and HORROR – I’ve said this a million and one times on the site. The biggest mistake comedies and horror films make, is to focus on the laughs and the scares as opposed to character development. Comedy and Horror plots don’t tend to be that complicated, which is fine. As long as you have a good hook, you’re okay. But the characters in these scripts are a different story. The audience has to connect with them in order for the script to work. Yet writers refuse to dig any deeper into those character’s lives than the width of a tic-tac. So figure out what makes your hero tick. What are they afraid of? What’s their biggest flaw? Then use your story to explore that flaw. Happy Gilmore had major anger issues. The story was just as much about him learning to overcome that anger as it was about winning at golf.”
Another excerpt is from How To Write For An A-List Actor:
Actor: Will Smith
The movie: Seven Pounds.
The part: A gritty role where a man wants to commit suicide to donate his organs to seven needy individuals.
Why he likely chose it: At first glance, this part simply seems like an opportunity for an actor to emote. He gets to cry, he gets to look depressed. It’s a serious role that on the surface gets an actor some street cred. But if we dig a little deeper we find something interesting: Smith is playing a role where he sacrifices himself to save others. Can you think of a more heroic act than sacrificing your own life to save other people? This may sound crazy but actors have big egos and what better way to massage that ego than to play God, which is what Will Smith is doing here.
Actor: Denzel Washington
The movie: Book of Eli
The part: A loner delivering the last bible in a dangerous post-apocalyptic world.
Why he likely chose it: Actors like to be the badass. They like to kick ass. And they like to look cool doing it. What’s cooler than a loner who cuts down his attackers in samurai-like stylistic flourishes? But that’s not the only thing going on here. Denzel’s character rarely speaks. Now younger actors always want a lot of lines. They equate more lines with more screen time. Older actors, particularly A-listers, like to occasionally tackle roles where they have very few lines, the reason being that it stretches their acting muscles. They have to act with their eyes and their bodies, which is much harder to do. Oh, and not to be outdone by Will Smith, did you notice that Denzel is also playing God? He’s delivering the bible in order to save the world. How much more heroic can you get?
Actor: Tom Cruise
The movie: Knight and Day
The part: A mysterious super-agent who must include a woman on his mission when he mistakenly involves her.
Why he likely chose it: First of all, actors love to play spies. The reason for this is that spies are inherently conflicted. They’re always lying to everyone. They’re always having to keep secrets from the people closest to them. That inner struggle is very appealing to an actor. On top of that, Cruise’s character is a cape short of a superhero. He’s capable of superhuman feats – jumping on cars, leaping out of planes, killing dozens of enemies without breaking a sweat – What actor wouldn’t want to play someone so badass? And the cherry on top? The role allows Cruise to be charming and funny, creating the ultimate movie star role.”…
One of my biggest weaknesses as a writer is not seeing my story through an actor’s eyes. I just try to write the best story possible. That’s a problem because your script usually doesn’t get sold or made unless it has an A-List attachment. So you have to ask yourself when writing a script: Is this a role an actor would want to play? I’m not sure we can make any universal conclusions here, but I did pick up on some trends that might help us answer this question.
First of all, the role has to be challenging in some capacity. True, many of these actors are slapping down product in the middle of the summer where mediocrity reigns supreme, but that doesn’t mean they want neutered down roles. These thespians have gotten to the top of the heap by playing dozens if not hundreds of characters. They’re looking for something new and different. Brad Pitt plays a character not only at many different ages in his life, but plays those ages on a reverse timeframe. That’s challenging stuff. Denzel Washington plays a character who rarely speaks, who emotes only with his eyes and his actions. That’s a challenge. DiCaprio operates in a dreamworld where he’s imprisoned his wife. Every time he then goes into that dreamworld, he’s faced with a sea of conflicting emotions.
Next up, I think your character needs to be heroic. A lot of these characters are saving other people. I hate to state the obvious but actors are very egotistical. They want to play God and save others. There’s nothing more heroic than that. Just remember, heroism doesn’t always mean stopping an asteroid from hitting earth. It can mean delivering the last bible across a post-apocalyptic U.S. It can mean committing suicide to have your organs save seven other people. Whether you’re saving a nation or saving others, look for ways to make your characters heroic.
The last thing I noticed was that characters should have something going on inside of them as well as outside. Running around shooting people is fun but it’s not stretching any acting muscles. You gotta give’em some toys to play with upstairs. Benjamin Button has an ongoing physical transformation as well as having to deal with the realities of being different from everyone else. Denzel Washington gets to shred people into sushi yet must learn to open himself up to others. Tom Cruise gets to fly around on cars but still must learn to be selfless before he can find happiness. Note how in two of these cases (Cruise and Washington’s) the internal stuff is tied to the character arc and in Benjamin’s case, it’s more of a general internal battle that never arcs. That’s fine. Whether you’re arcing your character or not, at the very least, give them some kind of issue they’re struggling with internally.”
When Carson finishes a review he leaves telling us What I Learned. It’s a compendium of screenwriting insight.
Carson, come to Chicago. The Tribune needs you.
“What I learned: You are no longer a struggling writer barely able to pay his rent. You are now a low to mid level producer who’s desperately trying to keep his job at a studio. These are the eyes you should be looking at your screenplay through. You’re a producer who needs to make money to live. To pay the rent. To support your family. To put your two daughters through college. — Now does that mean you have to write a zombie flick to impress this person? No. But it does mean you need to find a marketable hook to the story you’re telling. Black Swan could’ve easily been about a struggling ballerina who lived in an apartment with her overbearing mother. Instead, it was about the cutthroat pursuit of one of the most coveted roles in the world of ballet while fending off an evil adversary. Always look for that hook/angle that will appeal to the person tasked with buying your story.”
“What I learned: Somebody has to change in your story. It may not be the hero. It may not even be the love interest. But change – or the attempt to change – is the key emotional component that drives an audience’s interest, so at least one character should experience it. And the more resistant they are to that change, the more compelling their journey tends to be.
I want you to think about that because it’s an important screenwriting lesson to remember. What happens if Owen Wilson loses that girl? Let’s see. He loses out on a girl he’s known for all of 24 hours. No offense but: BIG FUCKING DEAL. He’ll get over it. But with Ted, this is the girl he’s spent every day for the last 15 years thinking about. It’s personal. There’s history there. If he loses this girl, you feel there’s a good chance it will destroy him for the rest of his life.”
“What I learned: KYFC! Know your fucking characters! I’ve been encountering this a lot lately in the amateur screenplays I’ve been reading. Writers aren’t thinking about their characters! They don’t know what their character does for a living, what their passion is, what their dreams are, what their vices are, what their bad habits are, what they like in the opposite sex, what their education is, what state they grew up in. I used to be of the opinion that this stuff didn’t matter. I’ve done a 180 on that and let me tell you why. I’ve realized that a lot of boring dialogue comes from the fact that the writer doesn’t know enough about the character who’s speaking that dialogue. When you don’t know that person, you give them generic lines. Let me give you an example. There’s a moment where Mary’s roommate, the old woman, asks her if Matt Dillon, who she’s going on a date with, is cute. She replies, “He’s no Steve Young.” Now this is by no means an earth-shattering line of dialogue. However, it’s a line of dialogue that could only come from Mary herself. It’s a line of dialogue that tells us a lot about who Mary is (she likes football – which is also established earlier in the screenplay when she’s telling Ted about her love for the 49ers). Without knowing that Mary is a woman who loves football and the 49ers, we may have heard a more generic response such as: “He’s all right I guess.” That’s a line that anybody in the world could’ve said. It’s generic and uninteresting. And the less you know about your characters, the more lines LIKE THAT are going to come out of your characters’ mouths. Add enough of them up, combined with enough lines from other characters who you don’t know well, and the more non-specific lacking-of-insight boring generic dialogue you’re going to get. So people, please: KYFC!”
“What I learned: Restrained information. There are two instances where big parts of the characters’ pasts are set up, yet both times, very little or the barest amount of information is given. With Evelyn, it’s how she got pregnant. With Gittes, it’s Chinatown. Notice how Evelyn doesn’t go into extreme detail about the experience. “My mom died. He was angry. I was 15. I ran away.” It’s just quick flashes of information. And as I noted before, with Gittes, it’s not any specific thing that happened in Chinatown. It’s more the character’s reaction to the memory than the memory itself. These moments always tend to work better with restraint, and Chinatown is proof of that. Less is more people.
Less is more.
A lot of you are probably wondering, “Well then how did this get on the Black List?” It’s a fair question. I think it’s because it gets all the little things right. A big problem I see in amateur scripts is that writers don’t know how to get the script to the point where it’s being judged solely on the story. They haven’t learned all the little things required to make the story stand on its own.
For example, they may not know how to set up their main character. When we meet your main character, you need to tell us exactly who that character is, what their strength is, what their flaw is, what the central problem in their life is. We need to know this so we understand what it is our character will need to overcome during the course of the story.
I don’t see that in a lot of amateur scripts. Instead I see character introductions with our protagonist doing arbitrary things that tell us very little if anything about the character. The writer erroneously assumes that since they know who their character is, that it will just magically leak out onto the page. But it doesn’t work that way, and as a result, the whole movie’s point is muddled. We don’t know who our main character is, why they’re existing, what they’re trying to overcome, and how it relates to the plot, because nobody’s ever told us. I see this ALL. THE. TIME.
How is it an A-list screenwriter can walk the corridors of power at any Hollywood Studio and be known, yet walk into a McDonald’s or a Department Of Motor Vehicles, and not be recognized? The eternal anonymity of the screenwriter.
Let’s try a quiz:
NAME THE SCREENWRITERS OF THE TOP 10 GROSSING MOVIES OF 2010
Here are the movies…
You need 7 of 10 to pass. No Googling!
Having trouble? All right, here are the writers too. Just match the writer to the movie:
Here are the answers, from 1 to 10:
IDENTIFY THESE SCREENWRITERS FROM THEIR PHOTOGRAPHS
Same Top 10 from 2010, movies and writers as above. Match the writer with the photo:
Here are the answers:
Been reading about this new Page Awards spec-formatting style. If you haven’t seen it, you can look here for full guidelines.
Sluglines, according to this new style, can be in bold and underlined:
INT. OFFICE- DAY
The Unknown Screenwriter staggers in, coffee cup in hand, caffeine buzz not yet taken hold, looking toward…
His screenplay beckons, blinking curser, empty page…
Blinks, turns tail, gets the hell out of there.
You can also bold/underline technical terms like MONTAGE or SUPER and italicize something the audience will see, for instance:
SUPER - DANGER, LIQUID EXPLOSIVE, FLAMMABLE, CLEAR THE AREA, STUPID!
If it’s about formatting, whatever Dave Trottier says is pretty much gospel with me. The guy doesn’t miss very often when it comes to common sense about screenwriting format.
Though, honestly, all these new-fangled flourishes are just lipstick on a pig if your story and characters aren’t there. Which is why folks should never lose sight of the big picture…
“This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco,
this ain’t no fooling around
No time for dancing, or lovey dovey,
I ain’t got time for that now…”
The WGA registers 50,000+ scripts a year. The MPAA’s “US Theatrical Market Statistics report” cited 603 movies released into theaters in 2007. That left 49,000+ scripts in the pipeline. Come 2008, another 50,000+ were registered, say another 600 made. Now you had 98,000+ bastard children from just those two years alone. Then comes 2009′s children, and 2010′s…all those unwanted and unloved kids! It’s all so sad…
I mention the harsh realities not to drag you down. Just the opposite. It’s meant to wake you up to the reality of how good your script needs to be, not to mention how much plain-‘ol Vegas luck is part of this deal.
Don’t get sidetracked with small stuff like trendy format changes. Nail your script down tight as humanly possible. Get it into the hands of someone who is not just responsive to your genre and writing, but who also brings enough power to bear to make something happen. The factors of timing and luck cannot be easily quantified, nor ignored.
Put the exact script in the exact hands, bringing power to bear at an exact moment.
I only met Charles Bukowski once. I wrote a play about his life which was produced in Chicago and New York. It was later presented on National Public Radio.
For the NPR reading in Los Angeles, Bukowski came down with his wonderful wife Linda Lee. This was ’93, about a year before his death. I am not into Hero Worship, but if there ever was one, Bukowski was it. And there he was, walking in the door, coming right up to me…
At 73, he was still a large-framed man, but frail. There was time before the performance and we moved immediately to the bar. It didn’t take long for the actors to find out Bukowski was there. They joined us and within the hour, suffice it to say, the actors were well lubed for their National Public Radio performance. Bukowski held court for this gang of LA actors, telling stories and toasting (drinking red wine) and paying for every drink on the table with his gold AMEX card.
When the actors cleared off, I finally had a chance to talk one-on-one with one the greatest poet of our time. I was curious: For all the volumes of prose and poetry, I had never read very much about Hank and the movies of his life. Oh sure, he’d written the screenplay Barfly, and the even better behind-the-scenes account of the making of that movie (Hollywood).
He had other movies of his life made from his poetry and short stories (Tales Of Ordinary Madness) and a documentary (Bukowski, Born Into This). But for all his dozens of books, very little movies that mattered to him. What movies did he admire? Did he prefer the arty stuff–subtitled French films? Truffaut? Renoir? Maybe the gutty German stuff–Fassbinder? Herzog?
Sci-Fi! Bukowski told me his favorite movie was…Alien!