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Friday, July 11, 2014

Notes from a Veteran Writer – The Reclusive Writer (P.J. McNeill) - posted by wonkavite

The Reclusive Writer

I’ve always romanticized the idea of the reclusive writer.

One of my idols, John Swartzwelder, is a recluse to the extreme. He’s credited with writing 59 episodes of The Simpsons; the bulk of those being works of sheer brilliance: Homer at the Bat, Krusty Gets Kancelled, Rosebud, Homer the Vigilante…the list goes on. Not only do hardly any pictures exist of the man, but I’ll be damned if I can find an interview. In fact, when the writers call up John Swartzwelder during The Simpsons commentary track, the man on the phone does about 4 minutes of commentary before stating “It’s too bad this isn’t really John Swartzwelder”, before hanging up.

Some people have speculated that he doesn’t actually exist. How cool is that? To be shrouded in such mystery that people question your very existence, and stories begin to be passed around, as if reciting tales of ancient lore. Pretty soon it becomes almost as much fun to talk about the writer as it does to read or view his work. For example, did you know that John Swartzwelder is the only writer on The Simpsons who didn’t have to show up to the writer’s room? He would send his scripts in, after writing them from the comfort of his own home, sitting in a booth he bought from a diner he used to frequent, before the diner instituted a “NO SMOKING” policy. Classic Swartzwelder…or so I’m told.

The thing is, John Swartzwelder is the exception, not the rule. I’m not going to be John Swartzwelder, and odds are, you won’t either. (Note: It’s really hard to write the name Swartzwelder over and over again. Microsoft Word doesn’t seem to like it either.)

Before I moved to LA, I read The Comedy Writer by Peter Farrelly. It’s a semi-autobiographical tale that chronicles when Peter moved to LA to make it as a writer. There’s a part of the book where Peter goes to a party, and he’s really nervous about people expecting him to be charming and funny because he’s a comedy writer. (A common fear of mine.) In the book, his agent instructs him that he’s a writer, and nobody really expects a comedy writer to be funny or talk much. I remember breathing a sigh of relief. “Thank God. I don’t need to be funny…or talk to people.” I’d be re-assured whenever I’d see the stereotype of the reclusive writer show up in movies and TV. You know the stereotype: socially awkward, hunched over, and most likely wearing grubby clothes. I took solace in the fact that I had chosen a career that rewarded merit, not how I acted or what I looked like. I could be John Swartzwelder.

Flash forward to an interview at Nickelodeon Studios for the position of writer. I had wowed them with my sample pieces, but now it was time to seal the deal with my personality. The interviewer stopped me 5 minutes into the interview and basically told me I needed to lighten up. I wasn’t “on” enough for her. I thought I had been doing a good job, but I wasn’t playing the part of the fun-loving writer that she wanted. “Tell me a joke”, she said. “Uhhh…”, I stammered back. I hadn’t ever been asked that in an interview. “Tell me a funny story”, she said after I stuttered my way through a joke. A funny story? My mind went blank. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job. I went in expecting one thing and it was something totally different. My boss at the time told me my mistake was thinking that there was ever a time I should be “off”. As a writer, people want a show. They want you to be as entertaining as your stories. If you’ve ever pitched your idea to a friend or family member, you know the difference between enthusiastically telling your idea and muttering out a few plot points. Obviously the former will pique people’s interest more.

So, practice your conversational skills. Take an improv class (it’ll help you turn off “the filter”). Think of a few amusing anecdotes. And most importantly, if you’re a comedy writer: learn a joke. Here’s the one I used:

Why did the cow go to the moon? Because it was one small step for man, but one giant leap for bovine.

…yeah, I wouldn’t have hired me either.

About the writer: A talented writer and 10 year veteran of the industry, “P.J. McNeill” has seen it all (and he’s ready to kiss and tell.) Got a question, a comment or just general bile /praise you want to spew?  Email PJ at pjscriptblog@gmail.com.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Making of The Ephesian – An Interview with Mark Lyons and Koran Dunbar - posted by wonkavite

Written by Simplyscripts’ very own Mark Lyons, the short film The Ephesian recently made its theatrical debut at the Maryland International Film Festival.  Greeted to an enthusiastic reception by the audience, the film nonetheless deals with a rather serious topic: the death penalty: When a long-grieving father lobbies to visit a killer on death row, he walks into the chance of a lifetime to come face-to-face with the man who murdered his infant son. (Script available to read here.)

In this interview, STS’s Sean Chipman sat down with Mark Lyons and Producer Koran Dunbar to discuss the making and distribution of the film…

***************

Sean Chipman: Well, thank you both for joining me this morning.

Koran Dunbar: Thank you.

Mark Lyons: Thanks for thinking of us.

SC: Let’s talk about the big story of the day: “The Ephesian”. Were you guys surprised by how well the film was received?

KD: The film was received very well. We were up against VERY talented filmmakers.

ML: I knew the talent behind [production company] Rags to Riches, so I knew it was going to be a very high quality film off the bat. But there was nothing like walking out of the theater and everybody saying how well they liked the film and how much it made them think.

KD: That was the key… Made them think… These days too many filmmakers are trying to change the world. That’s next to impossible. You need to allow your audience [to] think… And it was a very thought-provoking screenplay.

SC: What was it, Mark, that compelled you to write that script?

ML: Two different situations that happened to me in real life. One was a couple years ago, when my son was one, and I took him for a walk to get a gallon of milk. On the way back, we got to the corner of our street and there were gunshots a couple blocks down. They didn’t stop and were heading our way. I shoved him behind a bush and stood in the way and hoped for the best. Luckily, they had turned up the street before ours and it stopped a little after that. Then, not too long after that, I was held up, this time way down at the other side of the street. He was arrested and I had to go to his trial months and months later. At the trial, I could truly tell that he was sorry for what he had done and after thinking about it, I really had forgiven him. I truly think he’s going to be a good guy. That got me kind of putting the two scenarios together and if a terrible thing had happened to my son, would I be able to forgive the person if they were truly sorry.

SC: Which begs the question, “Would you?”

ML: That’s so hard to answer. I’d probably say no. It’d be too hard. But, of course, our system takes years and years to put people to death, and I don’t know if I could hold that much hate in me for that long of a time. I’d have to let it go at some point to move on.

SC: Now, on the opposite end of the spectrum, Koran, why “The Ephesian”? What was it about this script that you knew you had to make it and did you know from the moment you opened the script?

KD: I really like scripts about humanity… Since Greencastle, I get “Freshman Scripts”. Scripts that are so contrived and dark just for the sake of being dark. This was different. I have to like the actors… They need to be believable. In this case all of them were. Michael’s character grabbed me so much I wanted to portray [him]. However, there was a better person for that role… Then, I saw another actor that blew us all away… I’m about a good project not putting myself where I WANT to be… I sat back and wore the producer’s hat…

ML: That’s what really made me stand back and go, “Wow. Koran was definitely the right person for this film”. It’s not too often you’ll see somebody step back out of a role and do what’s good for the story. It really showed Koran’s passion for the vision he saw in his mind.

SC: And it seems like it was the right decision as well.

ML: Lol. Of course, we’ll never see Koran in the role. I heard he has some chops.

KD: [Laughs]

SC: Well, I’ve seen him in action, so I can definitely vouch for that.

KD: I am all about working with people that are NOT divas… And, honestly, 50% of things don’t get created due to ego… When I talked to Mark, I felt he was sincere and wanted things to happen…

SC: That’s the first step in getting a film to screen. So, what were your favorite and least favorite parts of filming?

KD: My favorite parts of filming is the cast and crew. They become family for life regardless if you fight or not. The worst part is the sacrifice and time from family and friends. And, of course, budget and red tape from locations… There is so much I would like to do if it wasn’t for budget…

SC: Did you have any specific negative and positive experiences with this shoot?

KD: Honestly, no. Wait, there was a drunk extra that came to the set. Other than that, nothing.

SC: Ah, those random drunk extras. Seems like there’s one in every shoot.

ML: [Laughs] Dave [Vanderveer] was telling me about that! I heard she ended up getting a copy of Greencastle [A 2012 film written, directed by and starring Koran Dunbar], though!

KD: Yes. [Laughs] How do you know?

ML: Dave was telling me and Tanya Chattman about it at dinner at the after party. I wanted to be there so bad for the filming. I tried like crazy to get there. Which is another rarity to see from a production company. Unless it’s filmed local, I doubt any independent film company invites and offers to pay the writer to come to the filming. It’s just a testament that Koran likes to build close-knit families with the people he works with.

SC: That does make me curious, Mark, about the level of involvement you had with the production.

ML: As most writers know, it usually goes that you get an E-mail asking for permission to film your script, then you don’t hear from them again. If you’re lucky, you might get an E-mail in a couple of months saying it’s filmed and to check it out on YouTube. Or, if you’re really lucky, an E-mail that it’s been filmed and won an award at [a] festival. But Koran and David kept me up to date and talked to me and asked my opinions about things throughout the whole process. Early on, they even asked me to do a read-through with the director. That’s another rarity that I think writers don’t get the privilege of. At least not that I’ve seen or heard of. The best part is, all the changes and directions they wanted to go, like adding more lines for Michael’s wife, played by Tanya Chattman, those were things I had already thought of when I wanted to turn “The Ephesian” into a feature. It’s rare to be on that same thought-level as someone.

SC: When everyone’s on the same wave length, good things are going to happen.

ML: Absolutely.

SC: Now, Mark, we spoke briefly about how Koran had initially been interested in the part of Michael. I’m curious how the look of the actors compared to how you visualized them when you were writing the script.

ML: That’s one thing I try not to do while I’m writing a character, is pigeon-hole them. It seems natural I know for a lot of writers, especially new writers to read their character’s dialogue in Kevin Spacey’s voice. (I still do it, though only under certain circumstances.) With “The Ephesian”, and you can probably see from his description in the screenplay, I left a very open interpretation to the casting. I’m a very firm believer in let the actors do their magic and let the dialogue only serve as a blueprint. That being said, I can’t see anybody but Joseph Mills III in that role, now.

SC: It’s amazing the effect it has when you see someone perform a role really well. The actor becomes that role.

ML: That, and he’s got a tremendously strong voice, which is what I’m sure Koran saw in him.

SC: Are there any more scripts in your immediate future, feature or otherwise?

ML: Oh, yeah. Right now there’s not a lot of time to write them between working two jobs and spending as much time with my kids as I can, but I’m constantly thinking about new stories, or how to make old ones better. Thanks to the two jobs, I have a little more money I can sink into the script contests and film festival contests this year. I have one I’m working on now I’m really excited about entering into Shriekfest this year, and I’m getting a feature together for Bluecat in the fall.

SC: What about the big job? Can we expect you to hop in the director’s chair at some point or are you content to stay behind the scenes?

ML: I’d of course need a lot more experience on set before I’d even consider hopping into the big chair! But, ultimately, it is a goal of mine, because a lot of stories that I have, I’m pretty sure I’ll be the only one who’ll make them without any fear. Unfortunately, Youngstown doesn’t have much going on for it, so it may be a while and I’ll probably have to do a lot of traveling to get the experience I need to make the kind of film I want to make with the quality that I want. I’d feel comfortable with gearing the story and the actors, I believe, but I’d need one hell of a cinematographer to make me look good.
I think we’ll chalk that up to a “Yes, if…”.

SC: A big congratulations to you both on getting “The Ephesian” filmed. Thank you for your time and the best of luck in the future.

ML: Thank you very much. I appreciate it!

KD: Thanks, a lot.

_______________________________________________________________________

Mark Lyons is a screenwriter from Youngstown, Ohio. He’s written several scripts, most notably ‘Best Film’ award winner “God’s Empty Acre”, which was filmed as ‘Girl(s)’, at the 2013 Winter Shorts Film Festival and Best Drama at the 2013 World Independent Film Expo. He has also written the feature “Thistles” which was a Quarter-Finalist in the 2013 Bluecat Screenwriting Competition and the short “Ginger” which was a Finalist at the 2013 Shriekfest Film Festival. He can be reached at markielyons “AT” yahoo

Koran Dunbar is a Jack-of-all-trades, working as a director, producer, screenwriter and actor from Greencastle, Pennsylvania. His directorial feature film debut, “Greencastle” won ‘Best Feature Film’ at the 2012 Indie Gathering Film Festival as well as nabbing him a ‘Best Actor’ award at the World Music and Independent Film Festival.

 

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Friday, June 27, 2014

Notes from a Veteran Writer – A Million Ways to Lose Money as a Writer – Part Six… and Final! (P.J. McNeill) - posted by wonkavite

A Million Ways to Lose Money as a Writer -

Part Six (and Final!)

When I moved to LA I bought 200 business cards that said “Writer/Director” on them. I was told I needed them. In the end, I handed them out to a total of 2 people. A few years later I bought 200 more business cards, this time proudly proclaiming that I was just a “Writer”. I handed those cards out to about 7 people. I once handed my business card to a working, professional writer. He looked at it, paused for a second, and said “Huh. Don’t think I’ve ever given someone a business card.” The lesson: a piece of scrap paper will do just as well and not cost you 20 bucks + shipping and handling. Or just get their contact information. It’ll give you a reason to follow-up with them, and doesn’t place the burden on them to reach out. (Ex: “Hey, shooting you a quick e-mail to say it was great to meet you the other day and blah, blah, blah.”)

My point: it’s not all weasels and sheisters out there trying to get your money. Sometimes it’s bad advice or just plain bad judgment that can chip away at your wallet. And while 20 bucks might not seem like a lot at the time, as the years pile up, so do the dollars. As with most attempts to make it in the industry, the compulsion to pull out my cash was rooted in fear: What if I go to a networking event and I don’t have a business card? And because I don’t, I lose out on a potential connection? Well, I better shell out the $20, just in case. There’s a lot of “just in case” type scenarios in screenwriting, mostly rooted in the fear that you’re going to pass up an opportunity; be it a producer/consultant dangling their “connections” over your head or a screenplay competition that promises to pass your script along to “all the right people”.

Side note: There’s a lot of screenplay competitions out there and only a handful of good ones. Most of them will either offer you cash or connections as a grand prize. While the cash is nice, be wary of the connections. A couple of years ago, I won the grand prize in a screenwriting competition that’s pretty well known and promised to get my script into all the right hands. The script was a universal crowd-pleaser and, given that it had just won a competition, I was pretty confident that someone would get back to me. Weeks passed, and then a month. Nothing. I decided to reach out to past winners, and ask their experience with the competition (something I should have done before). The consensus: no one ever heard anything from the vast list of producers, managers, companies, and agents the competition flaunted. I don’t know why, but my guess is that the ever-growing list contained a lot of people who, at one time or another were game to read material, but eventually lost interest as the years passed. I know it seems obvious, but do your research. Look up past winners and see what’s happening with them. Seriously. Entry fees add up.

Odds are, you work a day job and write on the side. You might even have a family. (And if you don’t have a family, the thought of getting one and still not having made it as a writer probably terrifies you. I know it did for me.) Either way, writing is not your job yet, and you’re most likely putting more money into writing than you’re getting out of it. (Even those script registration fees start to add up.) So approach every expenditure with caution. Do you really NEED that business card? Is paying for coverage really worth it? Will this film festival/competition actually give you anything in return? Should I give this person money to get my script made? (Note: if you give someone money to make your script after reading this series, there is no hope for you.)

I’ve stopped spending money trying to “make it”. I don’t buy coverage, I don’t enter contests, and I certainly will never pay someone to query my work again. I have a daughter now, and I think of her every time I’m dealing with money. When you’re choosing between feeding your kid and printing a business card, the choice is pretty easy.

So, to sum up: Have a baby. That fixes everything.

About the writer: A talented writer and 10 year veteran of the industry, “P.J. McNeill” has seen it all (and he’s ready to kiss and tell.) Got a question, a comment or just general bile /praise you want to spew?  Email PJ at pjscriptblog@gmail.com.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Notes from a Veteran Writer – A Million Ways to Lose Money as a Writer – Part Five (P.J. McNeill) - posted by wonkavite

A Million Ways to Lose Money as a Writer – Part Five

A few years ago I tried to make a feature film, and as a result, I lost about $10,000 in the process. The $10,000 was a mixture of money I had raised, money I had borrowed and money that was just plain mine. It went towards website design, business plans, financial analysis, visual guides for investors, lawyer fees, the overall costs of running what ended up being a small business (LLC), and finally, consultant fees.

Now, while it might seem as though I’ve been going on a tangent with this feature film business, I assure you, this is all still related to screenwriting. Here’s how:

1) Many of you will fall into the same trap I did. Someone will tell you (or you’ll tell yourself) that it’ll be a piece of cake to make your (feature) script yourself. I was convinced I could make the film for a “cheap” $100,000. Problem is, investors usually want to jump onto a project where they can put in a lot, and as a result, get back a lot. A $100,000 indie film doesn’t really entice many of your typical investors. So people will tell you to push the budget up, and next thing you know you’ll be walking around, pitching a 5 million dollar indie film, wondering what you need that extra 4.9 million for anyway. You’ll try to bring on talent, but real talent won’t want to sign on unless there’s money involved. And the money won’t come without the talent. So…you’re stuck.

Note: When I tried doing this, the whole Kickstarter feature film movement hadn’t become a thing yet, so the idea of raising my initial “low” budget seemed foolish. It probably still is, honestly. (I raised money for development, but not for the film budget itself.) Joe Dante, a man with name recognition and a proven track record, had problems raising a similar amount for his last film, and he’s Joe Dante. No one knows who I am. And odds are, they don’t know who you are either. This is not me trying to be a cynical pessimistic ass, out to crush your dreams. This is me being someone who’s been there, trying to get you to think things through before you start going to friends and family, telling of your grand plans to make a feature film. Friends and family remember. I still get the question “Hey, what happened with (insert film here)?” five years later. And it still hurts every – single – time.

2) Consultants. I’ve run into many consultants both while trying to become a writer and while trying to make my film. Sometimes they’ll call themselves “producers” to jazz it up a bit, but it’s always the same deal. It’s someone with “connections” or a filmography that looks impressive, but upon closer inspection has some suspicious holes in it. For example, they’ll have produced (or had some vague part in) some films in the 80′s or 90′s, but then have absolutely nothing up to present day. Eddie Kritzer, the agent (who doubled as a consultant) that I talked about in Part I, talked up his involvement on Kids Say the Darndest Things, and proudly displayed a picture he had taken with Bill Cosby on his front page. They’ll also boast about all the films they have “in development”. One producer/consultant who contacted me had 6 films in development all by her lonesome. Eventually you start to wonder: why aren’t any of these getting made?

Most importantly, they’ll want to be paid for their “services”. They’ll talk about what they “bring to the table”, and how their time is important and they’ll name drop like crazy. One producer had a small credit on a Danny DeVito film from over two decades ago. It was her only credit, and she boldly told me “I think we could get Danny DeVito for this. I’ve worked with him before.” She then, of course, went on to tell me her fee was $2,000 up front. I like Danny DeVito and all, but not enough to drop $2,000 for the off-chance he’d look at my script.

I’d like to say that I’ve never given a consultant my money, but unfortunately that simply isn’t the case. For this project, as a last resort, I was duped into giving a fast-talking consultant a couple thousand dollars. Now, I didn’t just blindly hand it over to him either. I’m a very skeptical person, and I vetted this person like crazy: references, Better Business Bureau, and personal assurances from people I trusted. In the end, my money literally got me nothing, save for renewed skepticism towards trusting anyone.

My co-producer on the film later talked with a top executive at Alcon Entertainment about our dealings with the consultant. After hearing the story he laughed, saying “Never pay someone to make your movie.”He paused and raised a finger. “Unless they know Bill Cosby. That guy’s hilarious.”

(Ok, only half of that is true.)

**One more part to go, then all this money business will be over!**

About the writer: A talented writer and 10 year veteran of the industry, “P.J. McNeill” has seen it all (and he’s ready to kiss and tell.) Got a question, a comment or just general bile /praise you want to spew?  Email PJ at pjscriptblog@gmail.com.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Notes from a Veteran Writer – A Million Ways to Lose Money as a Writer – Part Four* (P.J. McNeill) - posted by wonkavite

A Million Ways to Lose Money as a Writer – Part Four

 

It wasn’t long before I decided that I should drop the idea of trying to become a writer/director. I was going to focus my efforts on strictly becoming a writer. But I still didn’t know what to do. I figured the best thing was to seek guidance from a professional. But there was one problem: I didn’t know any professionals.

I did, however, know a cartoon fish.

Let me back up.

During my time at the post-production house, I came to find out that one of my co-workers used to be a child actor, and made it big when he landed the role of a certain cartoon fish in a certain blockbuster kid’s film that, for legal reasons, we shall call The Small Fish Girl. When I found out that he was in The Small Fish Girl, I immediately geeked out and asked a million questions: “Was the small fish girl nice?”, “What was it like being in the lime light?” and “Why weren’t you in the sequel?” It was only a couple of months later that I realized that he might be able to help me beyond satisfying my need for pop culture minutia. Turns out, he had a friend who had made it big as a screenwriter. Like, really big. Like, movie opening nationwide TODAY big. (Don’t you hate it when people write articles and DON’T specifically name drop but vaguely allude to the person instead? I have this friend – a big A-list producer that you’d recognize in an instant – who does it all the time. So tasteless.)

So I asked my co-worker if I could interview his friend. Nothing beyond that. I wasn’t planning to use him as my “in” or toss my script at the guy; I just wanted his advice.

Side note: Don’t use people as “opportunities”. They can tell when you’re trying to. Look, I understand: this is a business made on connections. But that doesn’t mean you have to be sleazy or overly forward about it. Over the years I’ve had lots of coffees and dinners with people way better off than me. And while, in the back of my mind, I always hoped it would lead to something, I never went in expecting it. You have to realize: you’re not the first person to come to them, expecting them to hand over the keys to Hollywood. Odds are, they’re desperately trying to hold onto those keys for themselves, worried about the day they might slip away. If they can help you, and they like you, odds are they’ll offer themselves. I’m serious: I’ve never once had to ask; help has always been offered.

Anyway, I called the professional writer (herein referred to as The Pro) when he was taking a break from being on set of his latest film. He had been prepped that I was calling to talk about “how I could make it as a screenwriter”, so I imagined he had thought of several answers to toss my way. I introduced myself and said something to the effect of “Now that I’m in LA, I was hoping you could shed some light on the steps I could take to make it as a screenwriter. I’ve got a script and I’m just trying to figure out what I can do with it.” I knew the question was broad, but I honestly didn’t know how else to ask it. I guess I thought that he could give me a few broad answers and then we could work from there, narrowing it down with more specific questions.

Silence. Dead silence. I worried I had said something stupid. Then The Pro expelled a long, deep breath and said, “I don’t know, man….make it yourself?” Make. It. Myself. I immediately deflated. I had come to this guy asking how I could make it as a professional writer, and his advice was to become a professional writer/director. It was like asking someone “What’s the best way to get a Masters degree?” and their response is “I don’t know, man… get a PhD?”

But here’s the crazy thing: I took his advice. He had done it, so how hard could it be? (Note: the reason he had done it is because he was a child actor who made friends with a casting director who took his script and personally handed it to an A-list star. I was not a child actor; although at age 11 I did shoot a remake of Mission Impossible with my sister – who subsequently stormed off because I was too demanding a director, leaving me to finish the whole thing by myself. So same thing, really.)

So, how hard could it be? Really hard. And it would take me 2 years of my life, numerous favors and severed connections, and almost ten thousand dollars to figure it out…

To be continued next week….

About the writer: A talented writer and 10 year veteran of the industry, “P.J. McNeill” has seen it all (and he’s ready to kiss and tell.) Got a question, a comment or just general bile /praise you want to spew?  Email PJ at pjscriptblog@gmail.com.

** I think Seth MacFarlane’s flick is out of the theaters now.  So I guess we can stop this tangent, right…?

Friday, June 6, 2014

Notes from a Veteran Writer – A Million Ways to Lose Money as a Writer – Part Three* (P.J. McNeill) - posted by wonkavite

A Million Ways to Lose Money as a Writer – Part Three

 

When I first got to LA, I wanted to be a writer/director. I would later talk to a true-blue professional writer who would find that idea laughable. This guy, who was a staff writer on a popular TV show, was having a hard time convincing his agent that HE could be a writer/director. His agent had told him to “Pick a lane”; and this was a guy who had already made it. Well, I came to LA ready to drive on the median: I was going to do it all.

At the time, I had a short film I was sending around that I had written, produced, edited, and directed. It was doing well, but when I got to LA, I launched a BIG (and costly) effort to put it in some glitzy LA festivals. If you’ve ever entered film festivals (for screenwriting or otherwise), you know that it doesn’t take long for the entry fees to start piling up. Even if you do it smart and get all the early bird deadlines, it’s still usually 30 bucks a pop.

So, a couple hundred dollars later (not counting that in my loss), the film was entered in a handful of festivals in the LA area. THE. NEXT. DAY. I got a call from the head of one of the film festivals. The HEAD. This was the big time. I’d made it. I was talking to the HEAD of a film festival in LA. And LA = success, right? RIGHT!

She was downright hyperbolic in her praise of my short. She said it was “one of the best short films she’d ever seen”, and went on to tell me that I had made it into the festival. I was beaming. She went on to tell me about how the films would be shown at the AMC at City Walk, that there’d be a red carpet (with interviews!), and an awards ceremony. She told me I had to go to the awards ceremony, heavily implying that I was going to win an award. (Her assistant would later tell me “(The head) REALLY wants YOU in particular to go.”) And I could go: all for the low, low price of $200. Wait, what? I had to PAY to go to the awards ceremony? Is that how things worked in LA?

I asked if I could get a ticket on the house. “We can knock it down to $100for you. (The head) really wants YOU to be there.”, they explained again. Something just didn’t feel right about all of this, so I declined the ticket, really bummed out and unbelievably still thinking I was missing out on accepting my award. (Spoiler alert: I didn’t win the award.)

But this was going to be a fancy movie premiere at AMC, so I did spend money on a new outfit, a graphic designer to design a poster for the film, the poster itself (printed full size), and postcards of the poster to hand out (a total value of roughly $400). Not to mention, I lost a job offer because I told them I had to attend the premiere. (They just didn’t get it. This was an LA film festival! At a movie theater! You can’t just RENT those!)

After attending the film festival, I learned a new term:

Vanity film festival (n.): 1. a festival concerned more with glitz and glamour than the film itself   2. An absolute waste time 3. The Cinema City International Film Festival

The only people who attended the film festival were the other filmmakers. Everyone was there for themselves. And so when it came time for my film (which played dead last and started with no sound for the first 30 seconds), the theater was maybe ¼ full (originally packed). Everyone left early to get down to the red carpet to be interviewed (by YouTube’s “elite”). Everyone was just grasping for that feeling of what it must feel like to have “made it.” You see these kinds of festivals in screenwriting too, and you should avoid them like the plague. If a film festival’s justification for you entering is “But we’ve got a shiny award and a red carpet!”: Run.

I later found out that I was one of the only filmmakers who didn’t purchase a ticket to the awards ceremony. I had been smart and didn’t give them my money. I gave it to The Gap instead. And when I was on the red carpet, my interviewer – who didn’t know a single thing about my film- did say I was sharply dressed. So in the end, I…won?

About the writer: A talented writer and 10 year veteran of the industry, “P.J. McNeill” has seen it all (and he’s ready to kiss and tell.) Got a question, a comment or just general bile /praise you want to spew?  Email PJ at pjscriptblog@gmail.com.

** STILL not related to Seth MacFarlane in any way, shape or form.  Pinkie swear!!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Interview with Nick Horwood – Grand Prize winner of Final Draft Big Break 2013! - posted by wonkavite

Interview with Nick Horwood

Grand Prize winner of Final Draft Big Break 2013

Article written by Marnie Mitchell-Lister

You know the drill, you get the email; “Page”, “BlueCat”, “Joe Shmoe’s We Have Hollywood Connections Screenplay Contest” has announced their finalists! You scour the list of names, looking for someone, anyone you know. And the grand prize winner, well it’s someone you’ve never heard of. How is that possible? Where did they come from? Are they one hit wonders? Phantoms? Or just lucky bastards?

When Final Draft announced Nick Horwood’s feature “Lancelot”, as their grand prize winner this past January, all my questions were put to rest. I actually know Nick! I’ve even read some of his work. And I can assure you, while Nick may get lucky on occasion, luck had nothing to do with his Final Draft win. He’s worked very hard for this, for many years. He’s definitely no “one hit wonder”.

MML: Hey, Nick. Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions.

NH: No problem. Thanks for asking!

MML: While we’re all interested in your experience with Final Draft, I really want to focus on what got you there. When did you start writing screenplays? What got you started?

NH: I started about 15 years ago. I had tried various creative pursuits such as cartooning and writing stories for children, but that never really went anywhere and my enthusiasm waned. It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I decided to try my hand at writing a film. This was back before the whole ‘How to be a screenwriter’ industry that exists today, so there were very few blogs and websites dedicated to screenwriting – in fact I didn’t even own a computer! I had to use my local library or borrow a friend’s PC to type up my longhand scribblings.

None of the agents or producers I was contacting were interested in reading my work, so I had literally nobody to give me feedback or tell me if my writing was any good. Then I heard a radio interview with Kevin Spacey where he mentioned his newly launched website Triggerstreet.com. Finally I had somewhere where I could display my work for others to read, so I nervously uploaded a comedy called JOURNEY TO THE LOST ISLAND OF KILLER DINOSAURS! To my delight the script was very well received, eventually receiving a ‘Screenplay of the Month’ nomination. I had finally found my talent, as well as my passion.

MML: I know you attended your first “webinar” recently. What other workshops, books, lessons or websites do you think helped improve your writing over the years?

NH: Well, blogs and forums were a useful source of hints and tips, but I mostly just learnt as I went along. I think you can fill up the right hemisphere with as much theory as you like, but it’s what you have in the left, creative side of your brain that shows up mostly on the page. For me 90% of learning to write is practice, but each writer has to find what works best for them.

I did attend a Save The Cat workshop in London a few years back, which was fun, and I also attended Robert MacKee’s ‘Story’ seminar recently, which was very interesting. I’m not sure either helped with my writing… but at least they got me out of my cave!

MML: Your contest track record is ridiculously impressive. Your name has been at the top of “Page” and “Final Draft”, as well as many other contests since 2007. What do you think it is about “Lancelot” that made it “Grand Prize” worthy?

NH: I wrote a version of the script in 2008 and it made the top 10 in Big Break, but it was a very different version of the script, more of a fantasy action/adventure, with a meandering story and many flashbacks. But I kept working on it, trimming the fantasy element away and focusing on the central narrative of Lancelot returning to Britain after the death of King Arthur. I worked on it for several years until it became what it is today, so I would say a big part of its success is just that it’s very well developed. I entered a lot of my scripts into various contests, but LANCELOT is the most successful.

MML: Now, because we’re friends, I’m familiar with your frustrations. I’m frustrated for you. You’ve more than proven yourself over and over as a high quality writer. With this recent success, do you feel like you’re any closer to a paid writing gig, or maybe a serious option of one of your features?

NH: *sigh* Yes, and I know I haven’t always been shy about sharing my frustrations. It’s a long road for any writer. I have optioned and sold a couple of scripts, and been commissioned to write a feature in the UK, but I’ve yet to strike it big. Luck has a large part to play in it, and also managing to successfully combine telling a story that you’re passionate about, but which is also deemed ‘marketable’, that’s the challenge!

MML: I read some of your work on Triggerstreet many years ago Nick, and even back then I knew you were someone to watch. Hopefully soon, we’ll all be watching one of your screenplays on the big screen. Thanks Nick!

You can find a list of Nick’s screenplays along with his long list of awards on his website:

http://horwoodger.wix.com/nickhorwood

About the reviewer: An award winning writer AND photographer, Marnie Mitchell Lister’s website is available at http://www.marnzart.com. Marnie’s had 5 shorts produced (so far) and placed Semi-final with her features in Bluecat.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Notes from a Veteran Writer – A Million Ways to Lose Money as a Writer – Part Two* (P.J. McNeill) - posted by wonkavite

A Million Ways to Lose Money as a Writer – Part Two

 

(Note: This entry was originally supposed to be a direct continuation of the last entry and explain the time I lost 400 or so dollars trying to make it in film. By the time I got to that portion of the story, I realized I had already written quite a bit. In an effort to keep these posts reasonably-sized, that story will have to wait until next time. Just imagine this as a bridge to the next story, because it will pick up right when I got to LA.)

I moved out to Los Angeles in 2008, unemployed and ready to start working. Problem was, I didn’t really know whereto find a job, let alone a writingjob. I realized I had absolutely no clue how to find work as a writer, as I came to LA with no connections and no leads on work. So I made the first mistake (of many) right out the gate: I turned to Craigslist and looked for any work in film. In my mind (and in the minds of a lot of wide-eyed, wishful thinkers venturing out to the Golden state), it was important to simply find a job in film and the rest would follow. Pre-production, production, post-production: it was all the same in my mind. It was one big world of film, and I just needed to get inside. The rest would follow.

What followed was 6 years working at a post-production house, gaining absolutely no access whatsoever into my field. (Any access I achieved would be done on my own time.) Don’t get me wrong: the job was great. I excelled quickly, was promoted numerous times, earned a good salary, and most importantly: I got to work with big studio films. It was hands-down the most glamorous, exciting, and bizarre job I’ve ever held. (I could write an entire book on that job alone.) When I was sitting in the lobby for my interview (pinball machines to my right, cappuccino machines to my left), a guy skateboarded around me multiple times, while talking on his cell phone. Having come from a background in government work, I couldn’t comprehend what kind of boss would let their employees skateboard around the office. Turns out he was the boss. So, that’s the kind of environment I was entering.

Over the years I made a lot of connections. I can’t even count the number of times someone would say to me “If you ever need a job or a recommendation, let me know.” But here’s the problem: they were all in post-production. No one could help me make the leap to where I really wanted to go. Sure, I was climbing the ladder, but I was climbing the wrong ladder. I was doing all the work I should have been doing as a PA or a writer’s assistant, but I was doing it in post. And I’m not going to lie: at a point I felt trapped. I had invested so much time in the post-production job, that it seemed horrifying to me to start back over in another sector of film. Was I really willing to quit my current job and go work for $10/hour, doing menial tasks at outrageous hours with a family to support? No. I wasn’t.

It’s hard for me to tell you to do otherwise, because I would probably do the same thing again. When you have a family, it’s really hard to weigh anything else against that. So, I can’t say “Take a risk! Quit your job.” But I can say to exercise caution before you leap into a particular field that’s unrelated to what you want to do. Examine what that position can do for you now, and what it can do for your future.

And most importantly: don’t think of film as one big, all-encompassing field. Think of it more like a bunch of little islands, with really bad communication between one-another. But I guess I can’t really complain. My island had a pinball machine.

About the writer: A talented writer and 10 year veteran of the industry, “P.J. McNeill” has seen it all (and he’s ready to kiss and tell.) Got a question, a comment or just general bile /praise you want to spew? Email PJ at pjscriptblog@gmail.com.

** STILL not related to Seth MacFarlane in any way, shape or form

Friday, May 23, 2014

Notes from a Veteran Writer – A Million Ways to Lose Money as a Writer* (P.J. McNeill) - posted by wonkavite

A Million Ways to Lose Money as a Writer

 

What’s the one thing all of us writers have in common?

There are any number of facetious responses to this question, but the serious one is this: at one point or another, someone has most likely tried to get money out of you with the supposed aim of “helping you”. If you’re lucky enough to be able to say “Not me” or even luckier to say “I haven’t given it to any of those who tried”, keep doing what you’re doing; but allow this post to act as a further cautionary tale.

But this is too big for one post. There is no way I can cover the number of ways people have attempted to bamboozle me in the past 10 years in just one post. There is no way I can cover the humiliation, panic and anger that comes with someone taking something you’ve worked so hard to get in just one post. This is going to be a series. I am going to share my personal anecdotes of how I have lost thousands in the past 10 years. And it’s going to be embarrassing. You know why? Because it’s difficult to admit that you’ve been had. No one wants to do that. It makes you look and feel stupid. And it makes others look at you condescendingly, thinking to themselves “Well, that would never happen to me.” But it could. Because it comes in many forms, and it preys off the desperation you can’t help but feel in this business. (I’ve already covered something as simple as the e-mail blast services for query letters. The promise of your query letter in the high-powered hands of hundreds of producers: for the low, low price of $100. It’s just that easy.)

It’s even tougher when you’re green and you don’t have anyone to ask “Hey, is this right?” Let’s flash back about 10 years ago to a younger, greener P.J; before I moved to LA. I was querying my first script and didn’t know a thing about how to do it. I was learning as I went. So, what’s the first thing I did? I used a shoddy e-mail query service. (::coughScriptblastercough::) I was immediately out a hundred bucks and didn’t get a single read off of it. So I started cold querying. And that’s how I met Mr. Eddie Kritzer: an “agent”. (I’m using his real name because the more Google hits Eddie Kritzer gets, the better.) Eddie Kritzer immediately broke the number one rule I would develop later on: Always judge someone by their website. (Says the guy who a couple entries back said not to speak in absolutes. Well, I’m taking a risk here.) It’s hard to “teach” someone how to spot a bad website; it’s really something you have to develop. But sometimes you just look at a website and you get that gut feeling that it’s bad. The organization is terrible…they’re still using Word Art for their titles…or it lacks basic information and just has a lot of flashy language. Simply put: if you have to convince yourself the website looks good…move on.

Mr. Eddie Kritzer personally called me after reading my script. He said he loved it. I asked him what he loved the most about it, and he told me he really liked the ironic ending. “Ironic ending?” I thought, “That’s odd…I didn’t know I wrote an ironic ending.” (I didn’t.) But I was still flattered. Ironic meant smart, right? So I took it as a compliment, not an obvious skirting of the question. He then went into a big spiel that ended with him saying that if I wanted him to represent me, I’d have to pay him $500. I don’t know why, but I distinctly remember sitting in the parking lot of the local Hallmark when he told me this. I guess you don’t forget the first place someone tries to screw you. I’m not going to lie, I came close to giving him the $500. But this story has a happy ending: I didn’t. I did my Google searches, asked a few people “Hey, are you supposed to pay your agent BEFORE they sell your script?”, and came to the conclusion that: No. No, you are not. So I didn’t. I saw Mr. Eddie Kritzer eating a bagel in Santa Monica about 5 years later. It took everything I had not to smack it to the ground.

The next time, unfortunately, I wouldn’t be so lucky, and I’d end losing roughly $400. But that’s another story…

About the writer: A talented writer and 10 year veteran of the industry, “P.J. McNeill” has seen it all (and he’s ready to kiss and tell.) Got a question, a comment or just general bile /praise you want to spew?  Email PJ at pjscriptblog@gmail.com.

* Not related in any way, shape or form to Seth MacFarlane

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July 25, 2014

    Embezzlement by Alan Power

    John Redde has written a book and has kept it on his laptop not wanting anyone to read it. Patrick Hughes, his friend, comes to the opportunity to take it and read it but once he does, he finds out that it's the best thing he has ever read and so manages to get it published in his name. When John finds out, him and his friend Nicole Lynch must find a way to get the book back and to prove that Patrick's guilt. Even though there is no trace of it on John's laptop and just their words alone won't help, they find it hard to solve the problem. 20 pages
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    *Randomness by Cornetto.

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