Saturday, August 30, 2008


...movies. They happen. Not every good movie is a huge success. Not every huge success is a good movie.

I was surfing around the 'net this morning and saw an article discussing the 10 worst box offices of all time. I'm not sure this list is 100% accurate, and it obviously doesn't go into deep detail about the depth of the financial problems each movie caused (Like how Cleopatra actually forced 20th Century Fox to sell off a large portion of their lot. That's right. All of you residing in Century City, thank Elizabeth Taylor's first dollar gross deal for your domicile). Still, it was an interesting read.

Of all the movies on the list, my favorite has to be ZYZZYX Road. This is a movie that cost 2 million dollars to make, features one of today's hottest actresses, Katherine Heigl, and made a whooping $30 at the box office. Not $300,000, $30,000, $3,000, or even $300. No, it made a theatrical gross of $30. The movie DID only screen at one theater in Texas for ONLY a week, but that averages out to just over $4.25 A DAY!

Now, I should mention that the article does not discuss the success of the film in ancillary markets (DVDs, Internet, Pay TV, Cable, etc). However, usually the formula is roughly 3-5x theatrical is the expected profits on DVD. So, on the high end, their expected return should be no more than $150 (that was a joke). To be fair, right now there are films being screened in NY and LA to empty houses just to qualify for Academy Award consideration. In addition, movies do sometimes find their audience on DVD. Filmmakers like Kevin Smith depends on DVD sales. So, theatrical does not ALWAYS dictate home video sales.

The director, John Penney, claims that this was a deliberate move. He was forced to screen the film domestically to fulfill his obligation to SAG regarding theatrically released films. He did not want to domestically distribute the film until after a successful foreign release. So, he rented out a theater for one week and screened the film once a day, without publicity. How successful was his plan? From Wikipedia "The film was released in twenty-three countries and by the end of 2006, had earned about $368,000. As of today, the film has not yet received the legitimate domestic distribution that was supposed to follow its foreign release."

In the filmmaker's defense, losing $2 million dollars is FAR less than any of the other films on that list. And, you have to applaud the independent spirit. He did go on to direct another film, which is more than most people ever get. At least it wasn't THE ADVENTURES OF PLUTO NASH. Wow, I started out to bash the film, and ended up realizing a deep respect for the filmmaker's independent spirit. Weird how that works out, huh?

On a final note, Disaster movie has a 0% on Rotten Tomatoes through it's first weekend. I've been reading rotten tomatoes for a long time and I've never seen a 0% for a major studio release. If you have, leave a comment so I can check it out.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Definitions of common Crew Gigs Terms (All CL posts)

This is a re-post of an informative link I was sent about the Actual/Craigslist meaning of crew positions. It was obviously written with a specific bent, but that doesn't make it any less accurate. Thanks to my friend, Jeff, for sending it to me. For all of you looking for a way in, and are using Craigslist, this is a pretty good primer, and relatively humorous.

This is a dictionary to help with understanding titles, requirements, and descriptions posted in the Craigslist Crew Gigs section. This may also be useful to other job boards. If anything is missing from this compilation, or needs amendment, feel free to let the creators know.

A-List –
Actual Meaning: Top name, high Q-Score talent.
Meaning on Craigslist: Formerly A-list decades ago, until they developed that nasty habit, and they fell from glory, and the headlines.

Assistant Director-
Implied Position & Responsibilities: Create schedules, keep crew and director on schedule for the day, contacting late crew members, sending out tomorrow’s schedule.
Actual Low Budget Requirements/Expectations: Assist the director by getting coffee, dry cleaning, picking up food for the rest of the crew.

Award Winning –
Implied Meaning: Prestigious award or recognition for accomplishments.
Actual Meaning: 1) I submitted my film to a festival, and it wasn’t rejected. Not only that, but I got an award, such as Least Despised, Best use of Helvetica Typeface in a Title, or some other nonsensical-feel-good award.
2) Nothing.
Often seen with: Great Experience, Unfortunately, Deferred

Boom Operator –
Implied Position & Responsibilities: Holds boom pole steadily out of frame, consults with sound mixer on best microphone selection, covers for mixer if familiar with the equipment and job responsibilities.
Actual Low Budget Requirements/Expectations: 1) See Sound Mixer.
2) See PA/Production Assistant

Catering –
Implied meaning: A team that prepares hot meals specifically for the crew every 6 hours.
Actual Low Budget meaning: We went out and got you pizza.

Continuity Supervisor –
See Script Supervisor

Copy/Credit/Food –
Implied Meaning: You will receive a copy of the completed work, proper credit in the film that will appear in festivals and get you more work as a result, and be fed on set.
Actual Meaning: If we ever finish this, you will receive a copy of the film, but unlikely, because of the associated costs of making duplicates. Your name may be put in the credits, if we remember you when we actually finish this thing, probably mis-spelled. You may never actually see them though. You will be fed food. It will probably be pizza or Taco Bell, because it is cheap. You will eat it every day, and it will not change.
Often used with: Great Experience, Unfortunately, Festival, award winning

Craft Service –
Implied Position & Responsibilities: a person or crew whose sole job is taking care of the people engaging in crafts (the film makers) by having finger foods, snacks, and other on set relief’s (such as sunscreen, gum, water, etc) available at a table, as well as sometimes bringing them on set to people that can not leave set.
Actual Low Budget Requirements/Expectations: We have candy and possibly cold soda on set.

Deferred Pay –
Implied Meaning: You will be paid when we sell this and make money.
Actual Meaning: If/when we will sell this and make money, and unless you follow our film, know where we live, and can prove in accounting that we turned a profit, you wont be paid. See No pay.

Director of Photography/DP:
Implied Position & Responsibilities: Establishing the visual look and aesthetic of the film, guiding the gaffer in lighting styles, operates the camera and composes the shots.
Actual Low Budget Requirements/Expectations: 1) Holds the camera, uses the light provided, or provides the truck with the equipment, places the lights in position.
2) Double Penetration. Your Efforts, and your wallet.
Often seen with: award winning, Experienced, highly skilled, unfortunately
See also: Equipment (your own)

Easy –
Implied Meaning: Very simple, little effort needed, we know what we are doing and taking about.
Actual Meaning: We have no idea what we are talking about, this will take twice as long as we expect, or longer.
As used on Craigslist: “We need an editor for a quick and easy job. We have 3 hours of tape that needs to have our logo put up in the corner of the screen. This shouldn’t take too long, and can be done in about an hour. Great experience for students!”
Often seen with: Editor, Experienced, no pay, great opportunity.

Equipment (Provided) –
Implied meaning: we have all that you will need, there is no need to rent anything for this project.
Actual Meaning: We were told this would work. Often the equipment was not meant for the job, or is the wrong equipment entirely for the job, or will not work with other equipment that it was intended to.
Example: Kino Ballast for HMI, RCA cable for DVI HD screen, XLR for quarter inch mixer, etc

Equipment (Your Own) –
Your own gear, provided to the project, with no mention of a kit fee/rental charges. Renting equipment and charging it to production is not an option, you MUST have everything. EVERYTHING, including expendables, which will not be reimbursed. Insurance is not mentioned, let alone covering your equipment, so when that PA that is there for the great experience and connections drops it, you shouldn’t get too upset, and should have a replacement on hand.

Expendables –
Actual Meaning: Gear that is used during the process of film making. This includes Gaff tape, paper tape, electrical tape, C-47’s, black wrap, Duvetyne, pens, markers, lens cleaners, air cans, sound reports, moleskin, bounce boards, Velcro, zip ties, bulbs, the list can go on and on. THESE THINGS ARE NOT OUT OF POCKET ITEMS.
Meaning on a Low Budget Production: Provided by department, when it runs out, we can find an equivalent, send a PA to the 99 cent store, or do without.
As seen on Craigslist: -Not seen on Craigslist-
See Also: Kit Fee

Experienced –
Implied Meaning: Highly skilled and highly paid professional.
Actual Meaning: Moderately to Highly skilled, not well paid, if at all.
Often seen with: unfortunately, great connections, experience, IMDB.
As seen on Craigslist: “We need a highly experienced DP with all their own gear and a 5 ton truck to light our Award winning short ‘Summers Dawn’. Unfortunately we cant pay you much now, (only $300) but this will be a great crew, and great food.”

Festival –
Implied Meaning: Prestigious film screening and marketing place, such as Sundance, Cannes, etc.
Actual Meaning: I got accepted at my local High school, community, etc film screening.
Often seen with: Award Winning.

Food –
Implied Meaning: you will be fed food that sustains your energy levels and keeps you motivated to continue.
Actual Meaning: You will get (pizza/fast food burgers/tacos/whatever the 99 cent store has) See also Well fed.
Often seen with: Unfortunately, Great experience, copy/credit/food
Great Experience/ Connections / Opportunity–
Implied Meaning: You will network and learn a lot from the seasoned pro’s that are also working on this set.
Actual Meaning: You will be used and abused, because we don’t know what we are doing, and neither do the department heads. Actual experience earned will be to watch out for people like us.

Implied Meaning: Prestigious recognition of a recognized source.
Actual Meaning: We think the best are posted on IMDB.
As seen on Craigslist: “DP with extensive IMDB credits”, “Applicants without IMDB credits will not be considered!”
Note: IMDB will post just about any project, and some of the most celebrated festival winners aren’t even listed on IMDB. Not everything created gets placed on

Insurance –
paperwork guaranteeing compensation for loss. Nonexistent on most No/low budget craigslist productions

Intern –
Guaranteed no Pay, Also referred to as slave labor.
See Production Assistant, No Pay.

Location (Need) –
Often searching for Apartment, House, or Mansion. No mentions of insurance, or compensation, aside from copy, credit, ability to eat production food (often pizza), as well as huge appreciation from film makers. If compensation is offered, it is $100-300 a day, or flat fee of $1000. No mention if you will be able to access your place during production.
NOTE: Your place WILL be damaged as a result of a film shoot, no matter how careful people are. That is the nature of the business. Insurance covers that, insist on production insurance, and read it to make sure that it covers damage to your property, as well as injuries to crew on your property. Also, check to see that the insurance is valid! Sad to say, but people will fake their insurance paperwork.

No Pay –
Implied Meaning: You will not be paid, compensated for your time, or given any money whatsoever.
Actual Meaning: You wont be paid at all, or compensated for expenses, will be expected to do the impossible, “work” overtime, and be treated like crap.
Often seen with: Great Experience, Excellent Connections
See Also: Slave Labor

Paid –
Implied Meaning: 1) You will be fairly compensated for your time, experience, and expendables.
2) We are professionals, and want to compensate you fairly.
Actual Meaning: You will receive $125 for your time, experience, and expendables.
NOTE: 1) Most CL posters are not familiar with the term ‘expendables’.
2) $125 is just above Minimum wage, not counting overtime.

Party Scene –
Implied Meaning: The shoot will consist of elements of a party, including extra’s drinking, dancing, and having fun. We will shoot this with coverage.
Actual Meaning: We are inviting our friends over, giving them beers, and need you to film it.
As seen on Craigslist: “We will be shooting a party Scene Saturday night, and need Art Dept, a DP, and Sound. No pay, but there will be cute girls and free Beer! Serious Inquires Only”
Often seen with: Unfortunately, great experience, no pay
NOTE: Beer is often included as a form of payment.

Pay –
See Paid

Production Assistant/PA -
Implied Position & Responsibilities: inexperienced learning position, Driver, “gopher”, coffee fetcher, assistant to whomever needs them on set, trash emptier, odd job completer. Often leads to being invited to join other crew members on future shoots.
Actual Low Budget Position & Responsibilities: same, but often for no pay or appreciation, can be a dead end position.
As seen on Craigslist: “We are looking for an awesome PA to help us out in our busy office, scheduling interviews, casting sessions, and go on lunch runs.” “PA needed to work from home replying to submissions via email for casting. Great Experience!” “Experienced PA needed to assist on set, go on runs, and assist busy producer. No pay, Great Experience! Copy/Credit/Food”

Reel –
Actual Meaning: Demonstration of abilities on previous projects in the creative sense, such as Director, DP, Editor, Composer, Art Director or Set Designer.
Implied Meaning: Demonstration of abilities.
As seen on Craigslist: “We are looking for an experienced (grip, boom operator, set dresser, PA) for our feature. Please send reels and résumé’s to this address. APPLICATIONS WITHOUT REELS AND RESUME’S WILL NOT BE CONSIDERED!
Note: These positions are not ones that have reel’s. This is analogous to requiring applicants to McDonlads to have previous and extensive work experience in the food service industry, or not bothering applying.

Script Supervisor –
Implied Position & Responsibilities: Keeping performances to the script, tracking coverage and shots to ensure that everything was covered for editing, maintaining logs for the editing process, taking continuity photographs and maintaining them for later reference when scenes are later referred to, or reshot.
Actual Low Budget Requirements/Expectations: Picking up the dogshit from the lawn between takes or shoot dates, so we can “maintain continuity”.

Simple –
See Easy

Sound Mixer –
Implied Position & Responsibilities: Upon reviewing script, consulting with camera, lighting, and art department, selects microphones, mixers, and other equipment. Goes on Tech Scouts. Mixes production sound to a recorder and in some cases to camera as well, works with Boom Operator to record clean, crisp audio.
Actual Low Budget Requirements/Expectations: Show up on the day with all necessary equipment without seeing script and get good sound, even though we are shooting next to the (freeway/airport/railroad/playground). Oh, and here is a PA to hold your Boom Pole. He’s getting great experience!

Unfortunately –
Implied Meaning: We are truly regretful and/or sorry.
Actual Meaning: 1) Bend over and take it, and don't complain.
2) We are incompetent schmucks, and this professional wont put up with our shit.
As seen on craigslist: “Unfortunately, we can not pay you at this time,” “Unfortunately, our (AD/Sound Mixer/PA) had an (emergency/Prior Commitment/mysteriously disappeared), and we need a replacement ASAP.”
Often seen with: Great Connections, Great Experience, Award Winning, Professional

Well Fed -
Implied Meaning: You will get hot, catered meals, and have craft services on set.
Actual Meaning: You get two slices of pizza.
See Also: food, copy/credit/food

Conception vs. Execution

I was playing a puzzle game last night, and I kept getting stuck on one problem. I understood the mechanics on how to get the problem solved, and had a brilliant way to solve it, but I just could execute the moves to make the solution work. And it got me thinking about the difference between having an excellent concept and being able to EXECUTE it.

See, a lot of people have great concepts for scripts. They write great synopses, cover letters, treatments, and queries. They get a producer interested in the idea, and that person requests the project. But, when the producer gets the project, it's poorly executed. Terribly executed, actually. Anything from the dialog being bad, the structure being poor, to the complete lack of formatting.

This is why there are throngs of irritated, antsy, and bitter development executives and readers in this town. Because almost everything they request is shite. The statistic I like to throw around is 9 out of ten scripts I'm going to know in the first ten pages is a pass. Of those 10, at least 5 and usually more like 8 others fall apart in the second or third act. Which leaves 2-5 out of 100 scripts that MAY be useful to me. Of those 2-5 many have budgets that are out of my range, or genres I'm not looking for. So, if I'm lucky MAYBE 1 in 100 scripts are worth going forward on. In the past three years, I have only recommended 3 scripts, none of which ended up getting a contract due to various reasons. And I've read in the ballpark of 500-1000 scripts. That is NOT a good average.

People ask me all the time why I'm passing on their project when I was excited initially to see it. Almost 100% of the time its because the project is executed poorly.

See, there is are two major factor in dealing with a writer. The first is that they have a great script. But the more important factor is that they can handle a relationship with the producer. And, if someone can't execute a script, they certainly can't handle executing competent re-writes. And if they can't do competent re-writes I have to find a writer who can execute them. So, why don't I just hire that other writer to begin with? It'll cost me less, in the long run.

As far as developing a career in the entertainment business, it's important to show you can EXECUTE a concept as well as you can IMAGINE a concept. If Steven Spielberg shot Raiders of the Lost Ark on a Handycam, he can have the best script in the world but the execution would not work. On the other hand, if he shot a terrible script for $100 million dollars, the shots, acting, and direction may be brilliant, but the terrible script would lead to terrible execution.

So, it's important to DELIVER on the concept you are pitching. Yes, you can spend $30k on the one-sheet, design, trailer, epk, etc to get the investor excited, but if the script is executed poorly they will look at the script and pass. Of course, if Angelina Jolie says yes to your could greenlight Everybody Poops, the Action film written by Little Timmy.

Which is just like solving a puzzle in a video game. If you know how to solve the puzzle, but can't make the little men do the tasks that are required to solve it, you'll be stuck on the same level for an hour. But, don't cry for me. I finally got through it.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Football... back, in the states. And as a tribute I want to give you a metaphor about writing a screenplay.

To set it up, a football drive consists of a series of plays that are all designed with the end goal of scoring a touchdown. However, in that there are many smaller battles to score first downs. Every four downs, the offense has the opportunity to move the ball ten yards. If they make it ten yards, they have another set of downs, and thus another chance to score. This is truly what sets football above and beyond a sport like soccer. In soccer, the goal is to drive the ball down the field in one play and score. The conflict comes in the end of the game with the final score.

So, what makes football so much more dramatic than soccer on a minute by minute basis? IMHO, it's the drives. See, if football was set up to have to score a touchdown on 4 plays, much of the conflict would be gone.

Instead, we are riveted to EVERY ten yards. Every play could get another set of downs, every down could be an interception, every down could be a touchdown. Which is what keeps us coming back.

And now, to tie it back to filmmaking...think of your script as a scoring drive. If you scored on a hail mary pass on the first play, yes it would be interesting for a moment, but the true drama comes from the conflict and after the initial exhilaration is gone, the audience asks WHAT NEXT. The drama comes from every mistake, every failure, that leads to the players lining up and running it again. Football players are truly dramatic figures, great heroes, because they constantly fail, but they get up and find a way to do it again.

So, you see, with the GOAL in mind of a touchdown, your characters need to focus on the drive, getting the next play a little further down the gridiron. And, when they get sacked for a loss, have them pick themselves off and get back in the huddle.

God, I LOVE football. Anyone else?


So, over the past two days I've had an abnormal amount of synopsis which did not follow the standards of what a synopsis should look like. This got me to thinking, and if these people are so wayward in their definitions of a synopsis, maybe some of my readers have the same problem.

So, what is a synopsis. A synopsis:

4. Definite the characters in the story
3. Give a backbone to the script
2. Tell the story
1. Make the audience WANT to read the whole script.

1. Make the audience WANT to read the whole script.

Basically, what you are trying to do is make the reader buy into the idea of the world you have constructed. If you have a script, this is basically the one page definition of your story. Hit all the high points, taking out all of the other stuff. Outside of your logline, it is the most simplified version of your story. After reading a synopsis the reader should WANT to read further.

2. Tell the story

Some questions the synopsis should answer are:

-Who are the main characters? (Capitalized the first time they are introduced, always with a description)
-What do they want?
-How are they impeded from getting that goal?
-What is the inciting incidents of the story?
-What are the conflicts of the story?
-What are the BEATS of the story? (The critical points that introduce another internal or external conflict, the points that move the story along.)

These are some questions that need NOT be answered:

-What is the backstory of the characters? (a little bit is okay, a sprinkle, not a dallup)
-What are the clinical definitions of terms and why are the important to the story?
-What is the five page backstory of the fictional setting of this story?
-How will this carry into further episodes? (for a TV series)
-Why this story is important?

Any important information relating to further defining the character should be answered in a COVER LETTER or a PRODUCTION BIBLE, of THE SCRIPT.

The only thing the synopsis should do is to TELL THE STORY. It is a one page hand-out of the STORY of the movie/show/book. It should be NARRATIVE, not EXPLANATORY. Let me FEEL the story, because that's how I know if I want to read more.

3. Give the backbone of the script

How is my script different from the other 100 million scripts out there. The example I've been using recently is:

Halo 3, Gears of War, Doom are all the same game. They are about an elite military unit that has to kill aliens. There is nothing new about the story. Video games have been made about it for 20 years, and will be made about them for the next 20. However, what was DIFFERENT about the games was the story behind the game. How THIS military unit differed from THAT military unit. How THESE aliens were different from THOSE aliens.

To give you a different example from film, pick out three RomComs from your DVDs and tell me how they are different from each other. Each is about a guy who falls for a girl or a girl who falls for a guy. The only thing that makes any of them different is the story. It's about two people falling for each other, but HOW is yours different from mine. That is what a synopsis, logline, and treatment do for your project. What makes your script DIFFERENT. Because otherwise, it's the same.

So, a synopsis has to give why this script is different, and specifically what moments, beats, in the script make it different. A logline is meant to give a gist of a story for an elevator pitch. However, a synopsis has to lay out in broad terms how the story will be executed towards a logical conclusion.

4. Define the characters of the story

To a lesser extend, the reader needs to connect with the characters, to understand their motivation and want to follow them on this journey. If the characters are not believable, their motivation not compelling, no one will be able to follow their journey, much less want to invest in their character.

So, there it is. Make sure it's one's not a treatment, tighten it up, and make it sing. Remember, it's about the STORY, not the BACK-STORY.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Finding a writer...

Good afternoon Russell,

What would you suggest as a first approach for enlisting the services of a writer for a movie concept that I have? My story now resides on audio-tape and written notes with a creative writer in Nashville. She created the synopsis. But we need someone to take us to the next level.

There are three important questions that need to be asked when you are looking for a writer. They are:

1- Can the writer write?
2- Does he write for your genre?
3- Do you like the writer and feel he can finish the script you commission him to write?

1-This sounds obvious, but it is very important to make sure you get writing samples from the people you would want to write your script. Don't make a choice with your heart because you like someone. It's a long, arduous process to write a script.

2-While the writer may be an excellent writer, you like him, and their script is great for a specific genre, it doesn't mean that he can write for your genre. Most, if not all, successful writers are excellent at writing for their genre. Writers want to get put on a "list" or be type-cast into a genre. Basically, when someone asks for a list of the best writers for X genre, they're name will be on that list. If they are good at everything, they never get on any list...which means they never get paid.

An example, Quintin Tarrentino doesn't write romcoms, and Paul Guay doesn't write psychological horror. It's almost like having an engineering degree, you can be electrical, mechanical, nuclear, robotics, etc. While there are many similarities, there are enough differences that you wouldn't want a electrical engineer working on your nuclear reactor.

This is, of course, a hyperbole. But, if you want a horror writer, you should find a horror writer, not a romcom writer. Not only will they know the mechanics of the writing horror, but they will be more into writing the script, and most likely produce a better script. Now, you can sometimes find a really good writer who is looking to flip genres, and they can work out. However, I would recommend that if you look for someone like this, you make sure he has substantial credits first. If you go this way, you may be able to get a really good deal on a great writer.

It is important also to understand that IMDB credits don't mean anything with writing. There are writers who have written 20 scripts on assignment, and very successful, and may have 3 produced scripts.

3-While it's not a requirement to like the person who's gonna write your script, you want to be sure he's going to come out with YOUR vision, not his. Many writers can write excellent scripts on spec, but find it hard to write on commission because it's fulfilling someone else's vision. So, its important to make sure the person you are hiring can fulfill your vision, and incorporate the points that you want. Basically, that he is a collaborator.

Now, on the flip side, you DO NOT want to hire someone who is a doormat. The person you hire should have an opinion that can change the script for the better. A good writer will make your vision better than you thought it could.

What you DON'T want is someone who will take your ideas, tell you he'll follow them, and then turn out a whole different script. I call this the BILLY WALSH. This is opposed to the Joe Eszterhas, which will take your script, do what he wants, return something usable, but it will still be your idea.

Writing is usually roughly a 6 week process to first draft, then you will have to give notes, wait for a rewrite, give more notes, rewrite, notes, polish. So, if you don't have someone that can do the job, you could be wasting 6 months of time. Most writers will give you a price based on 2 re-writes and a polish. They will give you a date you can expect the draft, and deliver on that date. It is RARE to find someone who will allow you in on the process, showing you pages, etc. However, if you are working with a young writer I would demand in the contract to see pages on a regular basis to make sure the writer is fulfilling your vision, and writing well.

If you can find someone nice, it's always better not to work with ASSHOLES. They just add gray hairs. The only thing that adds grays faster is Incompetent Nice Guy Yes Men.

Good Luck.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Way to go SAG

Thanks for ruining my job prospects...

Just Kidding. You know I love you.

However, with 2/3 of the industry shut down, and Paramount now on it's 3rd series of layoffs, lots of people are losing their jobs. And, since people are LOSING their jobs, there's not a lot of jobs to go around. Writer's Assistant jobs are going to WRITERS who were laid off, Production Coordinator jobs are going to UPMs who were laid off, and so on down the line.

So, for those of you moving to the gold coast, I'll summarize what a Temp Agent told me today: "This town died in December". Now, that's quite an oversimplification, and there are still jobs, and there will always be jobs, at least in TV.

But, people are MUCH pickier now than they were pre-strike. Someone told me that they are looking for resumes and interviews from TEMPS! you know, the guys who come in and screw everything up...well now they want to interview the temps before the hire him. My question would be, shouldn't you be trying to fix this problem and don't do you have something better to do than to interview temps? I guess not, since there are no films going on.

And the big issue is, people with much more experience than you were laid off, and they need jobs. Since they can't find another job at their level, they are settling on jobs below their level. And THEY are competing with YOU. So, good luck with all that. Before you make the trip, make sure you can roll calls, take notes, do budgets, write coverage, and do all the other assistant type duties. I was told that I may be a hard sell because:

a) I can't roll calls and
b) I have ambition.

Yes, that's right. Apparently, according to a different temp agent, people want to you know you'll be there forever, and that you can't or don't want to do anything but be an assistant for the rest of your life.

If this is true, it paints a very bleak picture of breaking into an already difficult industry to break into. So, please, for my sake, stop trying to do better by yourself, and do better by me...

Just kidding. Solitary.

Friday, August 22, 2008

On a lighter note...

a little comedy for the weekend. It's so wrong, but it made me chuckle.

For those of you...

...who would rather have a more traditional example as to the structure of a screenplay, or any story. Here.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Push your main characters off the road...

be a bully.

Imagine for a moment, you and your protagonist are walking down a road, let's call the road your screenplay. As you walk down the path, you give him one good nudge to get him startled. This pushes him off the path and takes him a minute to recover. You feel bad, so for the rest of the path you may want to nudge him/her, make him trip a little, maybe laugh at him, but because you are such good friends you don't want to cause serious bodily harm to your protagonist, until the END of the path, when you give him one more push to get him to the end.

This is how most people write screenplays. Yes, their main characters go through some issues, and they have some laughs, or cries along the way. But they are never truly challenged in a meaningful way, and they do not have high conflict throughout the script. For the most part, a protagonist is challenged with a MAIN CONFLICT, through an inciting incident.

It is not enough to have a main conflict that a character strives for throughout the movie. A script must also have lots of hiccups along the way. Not just hiccups, life changing events from which the characters must recover. This will lead, undoubtedly, to the next life changing event that will mold the characters more. However, in each event, the character find strength, and more importantly the audience latches on for more time, the suspense builds, and the hero is humanized.

Since I just read a column about Die Hard, I'll use that as an example. In Die Hard, the main conflict was stopping the terrorists and rescuing the hostages. The inciting incident happened when the terrorists took over. This is the SHOVE your character gets off the path. John McClain must NOW save his wife, rescue the hostages, and stop the terrorists.

But, what if he spent the whole movie pursuant to that goal, without any other conflict building? What if his entire plan was to stop the terrorists at the top of the building, and he faced hardly any conflict until the last ten pages. He made a bomb, or stole a gun, or some little things, but his STAKES were not high enough to cause him to be in imminent danger? Crappy movie, right? Who would watch it?

To go back to my analogy, which will now make sense, Jeb Stuart constantly PUSHED John off the path. Whenever he was back on the path, he was shoved harder, and harder, and harder, until finally, at the end, he was victorious...until Die Hard 2: Die Harder.

Now, aside from being fun to be a bully, and it being exciting to put people in weird and almost inescapable situations, causing conflict is how we define character. If it had been easy for McClain to succeed, we would learn nothing about him. If we pushed him and he stopped, we would know him as a quitter. However, by giving him increasingly more difficult tasks and seeing that he not only doesn't quit, but he also doesn't die AND, to top it off, he wins in the end, tells a lot about him as a person and as a character.

CHARACTERS are not defined by success, they are defined by the ability to fail, brush themselves off, and try again.

So, BE a BULLY. Push your characters off that path as often as possible. This isn't just action movies, but all movies. ROMCOMS, SLAPSTICKS, etc. They all have the same thing in common. A heroic character that is pushed to his limits, and somehow succeeds through seemingly impossible odds. Part of the FUN of a screenplay is to push your characters to the limits. If Bob is successful, make him homeless, how does he fight back to succeed? Through a hairbrained scheme that doesn't make any sense, of from a series of trials and errors which make him stronger for the ride. Because, after all, when you get to the end of the path, and your character hasn't given up, doesn't the victory seem all the sweeter?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Become a reader...

***NOTICE: I am not advocating companies USING free labor, instead of PAID labor. I am not condoning WORKING for FREE. I do not advocate union companies hiring scabs, or skirting the law. I do NOT advocate or condone ANY Company who would try to hire FREE workers instead of PAID workers. In this post I am SPECIFICALLY talking about INTERNSHIP possibilities, where the goal of the work is to LEARN and EVOLVE. This
post is specifically designed to help people to BREAK INTO the industry if they do not have the requisite skills to do so, and to HONE their writing ability.***

No, I don't mean to actually read books, which is a given. I mean try to land an internship READING SCRIPTS. I will now explain why this is ONE WAY, an effective way, to help improve your writing.

These are some of the easiest internships to perform from outside Los Angeles/New York. Literary managers, agents, production companies, etc all need people to read scripts. They are desperate because they are deluged with scripts daily. On the flip side, because you're not intimately involved in the day-to-day, it's not an internship that will most likely lead to somewhere. With the introduction of the internet, scripts can be delivered over e-mail, depending on the company.

However, it can be done in spare time, and for those who want to be writers but may not have a critical eye, it's a great way to understand who the first line of defense is, how they operate, as well as establish what else is out there. Also, because it is a reader position, it is POSSIBLE to do outside of LA or NY, if you find the right agencies. Also, those of you who love to read, which should be everyone, have a read and an outlet for that love that will help further your career.

Usually, a company will not require you to finish your coverage in an 8 hour shift, but by a certain date, possibly handing you a script or 2 on Monday expecting them by Friday. Whether you are 65 and retired, 35 and working 80 hours a week, or 22 and just out of college, you should be able to find the energy to do this coverage. This is NOT a development internship, which is usually in the office. This is SPECIFICALLY doing reading for a company.

Internships are usually flexible on hours, and even how long you can commit. If you want to only do a "semester" which is 3 months, you can. It's not a long term commitment. So, you will most likely do 3 months, maybe 10-20 covers, have a better understanding, get your experience, and get out. And since it's not an office job, though you may have to pick scripts up, you can do it wherever, whenever. Trust me, they will not trust you with their RUSH or high priority covers. And if they do, RUN from that company.

In addition, most of these internships are relatively easy to accomplish, as most people won't trust you with many scripts, as they don't know how well you will cover the script. Most internship won't ask you to read more than 2-3 scripts a week. some may require more, but some require less too.

In return you will learn an invaluable skill of reading scripts critically AND writing summaries for scripts. This skill is imperative for your own writing, as a good summary can mean a company will read your script.

Now, you may disagree with me, and I'm sure there are going to be a couple comments telling me its not as easy as it looks to land one of these. However, I remember when I was first starting out companies were desperate for anyone to read scripts that understood coverage and the basics of plot.

I should tell you that MOST companies will ask you to send in a sample coverage, possibly even a sample PASS, CONSIDER, and RECOMMEND. So, if you don't have really should. You can go to places like for samples on how to write coverage. Then, take a script and get to writing. What companies are looking for is:

-Do you understand story?
-Do you make educated decisions as to the script?
-Can you speak in the language of the script?
-Can you accurately summarize the script to give a flavor of the story?

Because this is an internship, its job should be to teach as well, which makes this a great place for someone to start who may not FULLY grasp these but has a moderate to good understanding. And they are light on stress because if you do lousy coverage, your script will be covered by a professional, but if it's covered well, you will become invaluable.

so, let's skip ahead and answer your next question, this is a writing and production blog, WHY get an internship reading? How will this help MY writing?

First, because most success people this business, whether it's a writer, producer, director, or actor, know how to cover scripts. They may not know the correct format, but everyone who is successful can dissect a movies flaws, at least in broad terms. So, knowing how to talk about movies is incredibly important.

Also, as a writer, it's the easiest way to understand how much crap there is out there, and how much readers HATE reading bad scripts. Once you read 10-15 bad ones, you'll understand that a reader has to read this many a WEEK, and write extensive coverage on it, including a synopsis of a usually flimsy and convoluted storyline. They're whole job is reading terrible scripts...hopefully a decent or good on slips in every 50 or so. You will see what you need to do to get a script to a place where readers will not pass on it.

And, most importantly, when you start an internship you get a READER'S RUBRIC. This tells you what is a recommend, a consider, and a pass. OR if you have a grading system, what is a 0-5. AND, then you can transfer that to your own writing. See, when you actually KNOW what a company wants to see, you can go back to your script and say HEY, this is how I make this script better. One of the better rubric's I've ever gotten even showed the page breakdown of generally where they expect things to happen, and in what order. The READER'S RUBRIC is gold for a writer, esp. a new writer.

I should mention, under California Law in order to take an internship, you must be enrolled in a class. You can enroll in a class at UCLA extension which will allow you to get credit. However, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE, do not enroll until AFTER you get the internship. While most companies in LA are strict about interns, some will not make you enroll for a class, Usually the smaller companies...but also some VERY SHADY ones, so make sure you are careful. I always recommend companies that work legitimately under the law, but I'm sure there are many companies that are legitimate that may not require credit, which is a savings of a few hundred dollars.

So, how do you find companies that need readers? Basically, EVERYONE. Now, most have readers, or want more experienced readers, or don't want to deal with interns, but if you call enough places you will have a shot. You can also try craigslist, or mandy, or any of the other jobsites. Trust me, if a company is small enough, esp. if they just turned out a hit or released a film theatrically...they need readers. Scripts are coming in faster than they can read them. And, they can't beat the

It may not be the PERFECT way to become a professional writer, but if you can READ, and you can LEARN how to give good comments. It can do nothing but help you. You'll be able to see why 130 pages is bad, why thematic changes are bad, and why all of the things you've heard but never understood is bad.

Now, let the deluge of comments about how this post is terrible and wrong

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


There is a slight correction to my previous post about the difference between Networks, Studios, and Production companies.

In the post, I stated ABC's Studio is Disney Studios. However, an astute reader pointed out that ABC's Studio is actually ABC Studios, formerly Touchstone Television.

THANK YOU. I am always striving for perfection, but once again fall short.

Has the whole world gone mad?

So, I read a lot, A LOT of blogs, trades, read reviews, etc, and I've seen a disturbing trend of people liking terrible shows, specifically one terrible, wretched abomination of a show. So, I'm here to set the record straight on a terrible show that should NEVER get a good review. I should mention that I have watched 6 episodes of this show, and each has been worse than the previous one. I really wanted it to be good.


Watching the finale showed me just how terrible this show really is. It is not slam, it is not bang, it is not sexy.

Let me take you back. The show is about the witness protection program, and revolves around MARY, a witness protection agent, her partner MARSHALL, and her dysfunctional family.

The finale revolves around Mary's sister who has just been caught with a suitcase full of meth, and Mary, who was taken captive and almost killed. As the finale begins, Mary has been rescued, and her sister is on the hook for selling and distributing meth. Marshall has to figure out how to get her off the hook, before the real drug dealer goes free. Pretty cool scenario right?

Then, why do they spend 3/4 of the show discussing how Mary's father has been writing her for 20 years (oh, i should mention that her father is a bank robber who has been on the run for 20 years, and in that time hasn't contacted anyone but Mary). Seriously, there is a drug dealing kingpin out there, and Mary is at home putzing around, and we hardly ever get to see the actual crime. I think possibly we saw the crime investigation for 4-5 scenes in the entire finale. And, the resolution is incredibly unsatisfying. It's almost worth watching, just to see how bad it is.

I can't decide which is the bigger crime, the writing or the acting. This is a line from the pilot, a voiceover line: "Which is why I was driving my misogynistic nightmare across the desert". YUCK! And it just gets lousier.

On the other hand, the acting is terrible too. In one scene in the finale, Mary's on again off again boyfriend shows up, "drunk" to Mary's house, saying that he never sees her, and opining that she has not called him in two weeks. However, the actor can not play drunk. Instead, he looks and sounds sleepy. Just terrible. And lets not mention this is an incredibly unnecessary scene seeing as there is a CRIME INVESTIGATION going on that holds the fate of Mary AND her family in the balance.

I think my biggest problem with this show is that the idea is so interesting, the franchise is so cool, and the story could be something special, but instead it's bland, boring, and forces action that is inherent in the story.

But, this show is about how to make things well, and not about my personal opinion, so let's discuss just for a second what the storytelling elements that do and don't work.

#1-The Premise-- Excellent. I would easily strongly recommend this premise for a show. I love it.

#2-The Structure--Shmeh. While the franchise is good, people in witness protection and the U.S. Marshalls that protect them, the "family issues" are just completely unnecessary. There is not enough "slam, bang" to quote the commercial. There are not enough twists and turns. Instead, the characters do a lot of barreling towards a single goal, but Mary's family interrupts and she if forced to deal with THEIR issues. It works in Burn Notice, but not in this show. The best characters fail, or at least get turned around. BORING.

#3-Characters--Weak. While the characters have the potential to be excellent and complex, they turn out to be flat, uninteresting, and contrived. They don't make believable choices and their journeys are not rich. They never seem to learn anything, and they are definitely NOT richer for the journey.

#4-Dialog--Adomination. It's impossible to understand how this got past the classy, fun, and intelligent executives at USA...they have tons of good shows, and they let THIS on the air. It's wooden, boring, and many times out of character for the people saying it. The major issue is that it's just bland and unoriginal.

As you can see, there is little good about the show outside of it's premise and franchise. I hope they bring this show back, but fire the show-runner and re-tool the writing staff, because I do think this show could be really cool if the writers were better.

The show seems to have gotten past the network completely on the merit of the premise, and attachments, a classic high-concept, pitchable show with poor execution.

I do applaud USA Networks for putting the entire season on the air. On Network TV this show probably would have been pulled in 3 episodes, but leaving it on allowed the show to find its audience. So, kudos USA.

There is one good thing about this's not Mary McCormick's fat lip, or the fact that the scripts are written by a 6 year old. No, it's that if this piece of junk show can get on TV, we all have a chance of getting a show on TV.

So please, please, please, STOP writing good reviews about this turd of a show.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Great Seminar

If you have enjoyed the past two posts, and want to learn more about these concepts, I highly recommend the seminars put on by Media Bistro and taught by the incomparable Chad Gervich.

In three hours Chad can bring you up to speed on at least the baseline concepts you will need to succeed in this industry...What you do with them after that is up to you.

Of course, you can also email me with your questions and I'll answer them in this blog.

Friday, August 15, 2008


Hey everyone,

I've been sick for the past week, which has caused me not to do anything, except have one job interview today. That is the first time I left the apartment since Sunday. Gross.

Anyway, I promised I would talk a bit about tv syndication. While I can't delve into incredible detail, I'll do a cursory explanation.

First, as previously discussed, we know a network does not produce programming. Either a studio or production company, usually both, produces programming.

Then, that studio sells the rights to that show for a specific length of time to a network. The network buys the rights to the programming for roughly half what the studio pays to make the programming.

Let me go back for a moment. The average half hour programming costs roughly 1.5 million, an hour long program costs 3 million.

For ease, let's talk about an hour long program. And let's take the 24 as an example.

***These numbers are hypothetical***

STUDIO produces SHOW. Each episode costs 3 million dollars to make. And they have sold the rights to NETWORK to broadcast the show for 1.5 million dollars.

Which means, for every episode that goes out the door and onto NETWORK, STUDIO loses 1.5 million dollars.

So, how do they make that money back? Well, usually they don't. Most shows do not hit syndication. However, since SHOW will, we will discuss that.

Once SHOW hits roughly 100 shows (this number has lowered in recent years), stations now has an interest in buying the rights to show that program in syndication, or OVER AND OVER a la Scrubs, Office, Simpsons, Friends, Seinfeld, etc.)

So, if the show is now in deficit for 1.5 million an episode, they can sell the rights to the show station to station in every station around the country. Let's say a 10 STATIONS across the country buy the rights to the show for 500,000 dollars a piece.

Remember, an episode still cost $3 million to make. but now NETWORK has paid 1.5 million to distribute the show. Now, 10 STATIONS have paid $500,000 an episode to distribute the show in syndication.



Cost of Show: 3 million
Fox pays: 1.5 million
-1.5 million

Stations paying for syndication

10 Stations 500 thousand
x 10 stations
5 million

Post Syndication:

Deficit -1.5 million
Syndication+ 5 million
+3.5 million

Now, you can see, that if you hit syndication for an episode of SHOW, you will be in the black by 3.5 million dollars, an episode. On 100 episode show, that's a lot of money that a studio can rake in.

However, almost NO shows hit syndication. So, studios LOSE money on almost all of their shows.

So, a show not only has to be successful for a network, in order for a studio to reclaim their money, the show has to hit syndication. Because, as we now know, a HIT for a network means NOTHING to a studio.

Of course, some smaller networks have a network and studio under the same roof, like Nickelodeon. However, we are simply speaking of networks that have separate studios/networks.

Now, maybe you will understand why studios gravitate towards the few show-runners who are proven commodities.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Network, Studio, Production Company

I was at a seminar last night for tv writers and a question was introduced which made me realize many people don't understand the difference between a Network, Studio, and Production Company. So,

Network: A network distributes programming. They are the STATION that puts a show on the air, ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, USA, TNT, ESPN, etc. there are six major companies that own networks for SCRIPTED TELEVISION: FoxCORPS, CBSCORP, GE, Time Warner, Disney, Viacom, Sony.

FOX-Owned by FoxCorps
CBS-Owned by CBSCorps
NBC-Owned by GE
CW-Co-owned by CBS and Time-Warner
ABC-Owned by Disney

These channels DO NOT produce programs. They BUY programs and sell ad space to recoup their cost. You may ask, but Russell, I who produces these shows, I thought... Well they are produced by...

Studios: Each show is produced by a STUDIO. Studios are designed to FINANCE and PRODUCE television. These studios DO NOT distribute television, the finance shows and SELL THEM TO NETWORKS. If you are asking HOW Fox doesn't have a studio, the simple answer is THEY DO. Each network ALSO has a STUDIO that produces shows that air on their network.

FOX- 20th Century Fox
CBS-CBS Paramount
NBC-Universal Media Studios
CW-Warner Brothers
ABC-ABC Studios

So, you're pretty confident now, that whatever is on FOX is produced by 20th Century, CBS Paramount is producing everything on CBS, etc etc. Right? WRONG. While 20th Century does produce many fox shows, like 24, they also sell shows to other networks. My favorite current example is SCRUBS. Scrubs is produced by DISNEY, but was DISTRIBUTED by NBC. However, when NBC cancelled Scrubs, it was PICKED-UP by ABC for another season.

Why does this happen? A bevy of reasons; A show a studio is developing doesn't fit on the network they are producing for, a network thought they would like a show but then decided after seeing it they aren't wild about it, the studio specifically produces a show for another network, etc. etc.

When I lived in DC, I met a guy who worked at History Channel's studio, just like the model I've been talking about, but smaller. He explained their system like this. History Channel is only obligated to buy X amount of the content they produce. If history channel passes on a show, they are free to shop that show to other networks.

The point is, it's reciprocal. Sometimes the studio produces the show for another network, sometimes the network doesn't want the show. However, this shows why you'll be watching a show on CBS, and see a 20th Century Fox logo. Or when you're driving past the Warner lot and see banners from other network's shows.

Production Company: Most people think a production company is the company that actually PRODUCES the show. However, this is a misnomer. In actuality, a production company has EXACTLY the same role as a studio, but they are not owned by a network. Most production companies that work with television are successful producers, showrunners, directors, etc. That have OVERALL DEALS with a studio because of their success.

An OVERALL DEAL means this...A Studio will pay a production company X dollars, and in return they will own EVERYTHING the production company produces, whether it's ideas, scripts, etc, for the length of the deal. People like David E. Kelley, Joss Wheadon, J. J. Abrams have overall deals with studios.

So, there is a general overview of WHAT each type of entity does. Next time you're watching a show and you see a production company, a studio, and a network, you'll understand why it is the way it is.

Next time...I'll try to explain what syndication is...maybe...unless I forget.

Saturday, August 2, 2008


I'm so excited. This is the first time I can comment on a comment to the blog.

Dave writes:

I definitely agree that bad dialogue is an instant turn-off when reading a script. However, most producers will only even start reading the script if they’ve first been triggered by an intriguing premise. So when they start reading they’re looking to see if this is a movie, not whether the writer is the new Harold Pinter!

In my experience (but this may have to do with my penchant for structure), producers are reassured when the structure is clear and firm. All the details can be perfected during development, as long as the basic framework feels solid.

Having said that, great structure, great dialogue, great locations ... none of this can make up for a lousy, uninteresting premise."

I could not agree more. When thinking of a project, the first thing you should be thinking is...This premise...would I watch it if I wasn't writing it? Would I pay $10 to see it? Would I want my mother, brother, sister, uncle, best friend, to watch this movie? Would they even want to see it?

There is nothing worse that a boring, bland, run of the mill premise. In all of my reading, writing, and 'rithmatic, one thing I see over and over with my clients who have open submissions is a boring premise, which is a certain deal killer AND the first thing a reader comments.

As far as structure...once again I couldn't agree more. That's why I am trying so hard to modify my writing structure in order to make the structure perfect. I've spent so much time relying on my dialog to get the message through, that I forgot the most important thing to make someone read it, the structure.

As a reader, the thing I see with all of my CLOSED submission clients is that the premise in on point, pitch-able, and high concept, and the structure is relatively well-constructed. However, in almost every instance, the dialog and characters are just atrocious. Still...they are getting their film read, and the quirky esoteric unmarketable story sits on the shelf.

This is very important...if the structure is NOT good, and the PREMISE is not on point, NO ONE will read the script even if you are the next "Harold Pinter".

That felt really gooood. Keep the comments coming.

Figuring out what you're terrible at

As optimistic post.

Writing and working in this industry is as much about finding your weaknesses as it is accenting your strengths.

For instance, I am great with dialog, decent on structure, and terrible at proofreading.

So, how do I account for that? I send my scripts to tons of people, have begun outlining more strictly, writing more extensive character developments, and trying to read scripts backwards. (yes, it's a little trick I learned recently. Try it)

The problem, not to sound boastful, is that in my opinion great dialog can make up for piss-poor structure. I look at the most recent re-write I did for a tv pilot I'm working on, and while I know the structure needs work, it sounds good, and flows because of the dialog, so it becomes difficult for me to see how to correct it. I know, I know, I know, it sounds terrible, and I know it does. On the other hand, great structure rarely makes up for piss poor dialog. But, I'm learning how to get the structure right.

But, that's why it's so important to see your biggest faults and PLAY TO THEM. Two of the most popular ways:

-Writing Groups--i have some excellent ones.
-Writing Partners--i am looking for one.

Either way, the easiest way to find your faults is to get other people's eyes on your script.

A professional will not only know where they are strong, they will be even more aware of where they are weak.

I'm obsessed with...

Google Analytics, and it's telling me that the average time spent on my blog is in a tail spin, and I think i know why.
I got a nice comment from a buddy of mine, a client actually, that told me my blog has been wholly depressing recently. I can't disagree, because I am in limbo, so many projects close to being completed, so much potential clearly pent up, and so many projects in's daunting.

But, I promise, my next post will be optimistic again.


Friday, August 1, 2008

Making a movie... incredibly frustrating because you have to rely on so many people. The dp has to light correctly, the actors have to act correctly, the camera op has to frame correctly, the producer has to produce correctly, and even the editor has to edit correctly.

Now, a lot of what that means is not only showing up and doing your job, but also doing it in a timely fashion. It is usually the problem that shows up in editing, because in low-budget films, you have to allow your editor and producers work on other projects in order to get a reasonable price. Either that or go with an inexperienced editor. Either way, what always ends up happening is a week becomes a month, and a month becomes a year. It's currently happening with my first feature, where we are 13 months out of principle photography. Now, granted, there were tons of problems, set-backs, and problems with all of the principles on the movie, but at the end of the day it's still 13 months out of principle.

Now, it wouldn't be that huge a problem, if we weren't having trouble lining up our next project, and if we didn't have a new project that is filming in October. So, we have to lock picture, do ADR, set sound/soundtrack, put up a website, and find a distributor.

It's definitely time to pull our stuff together and get this movie done.