Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Who's Got A Good Knock-Knock Joke?

There is reason for cautious optimism about the strike. It looks as if the writers have done a fairly remarkable job of laying out the very complex issues of the strike, and have captured the lion's share of public support. Writers have made their case on the web -- with an estimated 750-1000 video posts, and countless other posts designed to make their point. Maybe the media conglomerates aren't lying -- they *truly* don't understand the power of the web as a distribution tool. Either way, they lost the public fight weeks ago. Nothing like a group of writers with time on their hands...

Some people, many of whom happen to be employees of the struck companies, are pointing to the return of NBC late night host Carson Daly as a sign that support for the strike is flagging and the producers are slowly but surely getting around the strike. This is the new meme, at least -- supported almost entirely by a highly dubious article in Variety about talks to bring back all the late night hosts without the writers.

One must ask where Carson will be getting his material. NBC no doubt has caboodles of cash for any writer willing to scab and get the strike over with. And so it's downright heartening to see that Carson's actually reduced to asking his dad to ask his golfing buddies to send jokes to help him through this terrible time.

Sounds like the strike is working to me.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Exapting Exaptions

What's an exaption? Google the term, and you'll likely soon find yourself in the middle of a debate over evolution. If you look it up on Wikipedia, you'll see that it's a trait that evolves for one purpose, but develops another use. Bird feathers are an exaption, since they would have first developed for warmth, but later underwent natural selection to the extent that they helped the bird to fly. Some philosophers think our ability to speak is an exaption: first we developed a brain for learning patterns. When paired with an ability to identify and produce a wide range of sounds, it became an exaption -- a trait that evolved in concert with the vocal ability. The better those two traits worked together, the better the animal's chances of survival. And so on.

Basically, it's a way of talking about the evolution of complex systems. And I am hereby exapting the term 'exaption' for screenwriters. Anyone who writes knows that 'writing is rewriting' is no mere cliche. Evolution is the name of the game. And evolution isn't all about aiming for a single goal and honing and honing until the piece fits the first and only conception of it. Evolution is messy and chaotic and brilliant. As a writer, you owe yourself to listen to that. As a human being, you owe yourself the chance to revel in the alchemical process rather than wallow in your misery around it. Plus, you'll actually get something done that way.

Who among us has not scratched their head at this problem: you write a beautiful love scene. It works great -- just like you want it. Then you write a big fight scene -- and you're Shakespeare. Next you knock out this great little visual joke that should bring the audience right into the characters. And then you look at them back to back, and there's just something terribly wrong. There's something poignant and charming about the characters in the fight. Or the love scene is hilarious, given the context, and the one-off joke scene now falls flat. You fiddle. You play. Or, if you're like many writers, you ignore it. You refuse to see how one scene casts a very particular light on the next.

Another example: your action hero is way too talky, and you're digging through, looking for ways to bring it into line. You're looking for shorthands, or vocal mannerisms, or visual cues to knock it down. You rewrite the dialogues with all the right rules in mind. And then you realize that your action hero has suddenly become a barrel of monkeys with a knack for calling 'em as he sees them at the first possible moment. Not what you had in mind.

But it's quite possible that it's BETTER than what you had in mind. You might really need that humor in the dialogue to balance the endless stream of death every time your action hero enters the room. Your script might be full of funny love scenes and poignant, charming fights. Every script has a feel -- and if it's a good script, it's a unique feel.

Finding the trait that's evolved without you realizing it and then tailoring it to your needs is a way of exploiting the evolution of the complex system that is your script.

Listening to your script -- how it REALLY reads -- is both difficult and necessary when hunting for exaptions. Not seeing the unintended humor won't get you anywhere. Not embracing the subtle interplay of two scenes won't help you. Looking at what tools your script offers you will always, always make writing a more enjoyable, organic process.

Don't think that you'll use everything that you find, or that every unexpected trait is a great exaption. There's no selection process as ruthless as rewriting. But next time you find yourself banging your head against a wall trying to fit round pegs into square holes, try stepping back and looking for exaptions instead.

And yeah, there's chaos here. You have to be a bit brave to accept the exaption. You have to have command of your script to clearly see what really matters. 'Seeing what matters' not infrequently means tossing your whole idea of a project. In Zoetrope, Francis Ford Coppola talks about his latest movie 'Youth Without Youth', a 'small' film, and how it arose after a torturous period of years trying to create a sci-fi epic.

Being willing to realize you've missed the important part takes guts. Realizing you've missed the part is a really shitty feeling. But writing what truly matters is worth the struggle.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving

"Gratitude is a quality similar to electricity: it must be produced and discharged and used up in order to exist at all."

– William Faulkner


Thanksgiving at the parents' house -- and I know nobody needs to read one more posting about gratitude and how much we're all grateful (mostly for either not having to cook or not having to travel). But you'll just have to indulge me for a few minutes.

I practice Qi Gong, which is one of those annoying martial arts where you don't really get to punch anybody. It's all about health and wellness -- and more or less unblocking the flow of energy in your body. It's a staple in Chinese medicine. It's also hard to practice in Northern California without the wind chimes and patchouli filling the air. I'm resistant to that insta-centered philosophy of life. But I've kept up with Qi Gong because it works for me. It works for me the same way prayer or a good poem or bar fights or random sex works for others. Everybody's got something that gets them unblocked. Everybody's got something that reconnects them to the bigger world.

There's a lot of visualization in Qi Gong -- you're seeing energy flowing into and out of your body as you practice careful motion. You're washing out the blocked qi energy. You're bringing in the good qi energy. You can get a pretty good buzz going if you do this long enough. Still, the teacher always lost me when he'd start in again about feeling gratitude to the earth and the sky. Someone rings a Tibetan health bowl, and I start to giggle.

And then one day I was overwhelmed with gratitude. It just washed over me somehow. And I realized that gratitude IS accepting what's good, and giving back. There's nothing fruity about it. It's just accepting that everything you are is a part of something greater. And you can give back to it. Gratitude is that energy moving back and forth -- with your family, with nature, with your writing, with an airplane full of kids. Gratitude is health. Gratitude is being where you are.

I went for a walk behind my folks' house yesterday. They live in New Jersey. When we first moved here in 1981 it was a very different neighborhood. The first walk I ever took from the new house was silent: there were no birds. The stream behind the house smelled like rubber balls. The pond back in the woods smelled like a garden shed: compost and pesticides. But it was the best place to go for a walk when I was in high school. I went for a lot of walks in high school -- I was that kind of kid.

Now it's a different place entirely. They stopped dumping god knows what in it. There are birds all over the place -- and all kinds of birds. The stream is overgrown with lovely old trees and deer and, apparently, bears have moved in. The path by the stream is now posted NO HUNTING.

That's not the only thing that's changed. Real estate has boomed here -- and there are McMansions shoe-horned into every available half-acre plot. It's a different place. It's a busier, more crowded place. But for some reason, it's a better place. Life keeps moving. Life finds a way. I'm grateful for that.

I'm grateful to all my clients and all my readers -- thank you so much for letting me share in your writing and help us both get things done. Thanks for teaching me that writing is gratitude. Thank you to my students and colleagues for learning from me and for teaching me. Thanks for teaching me that teaching is gratitude. We've all learned a lot this year. And I'm grateful there's always more to learn.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

United Hollywood

A great blog for up to the minute updates, rumors, and dirt from the picket lines at United Hollywood.

A great resource if you've heard something that sounds true about the head of the AMTMP but you need to find out for sure. For example:

RUMOR: Nick Counter can mentally summon and command coyotes. He can turn himself into a cold mist to elude pursuers. He eats the dreams of sleeping children as he flies above their homes on the back of a giant talking raven named Stormhammer.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Writer's Strike continued

For those of you not enchanted by my screed-writing, here's a simple explanation in video form of what's at stake:

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Writer's Strike

So, the writers' strike is upon us. Strikes aren't good for anyone, but I'm afraid this one is absolutely necessary. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) and the Writers' Guild of America (WGA) have been gearing up for this one for a while. The last writers' strike lasted 22 weeks and cost the industry an estimated $500M. The resulting contract was a disaster for writers.

The primary issue here this time around is residuals. In the 1988 agreement, the writers were famously snookered on DVD residuals. The WGA wants to double the $.07 per typical DVD residual to a still paltry $.14. That's 14 cents.

The BIGGER issue is around new media residuals. It's starting to look like a reasonable bet that this whole innernet thing is going to take off. But the AMPTP refuses to offer writers a dime of residuals on any new media. That means if you download the movie, the producers get all the profits. That means when DVD goes the way of VHS, writers won't get anything at all.

The industry loves to trot out the stereotype of the spoiled L.A. screenwriter with several seven-figure deals under their belt. These people do exist, of course. But the reality is far more down to earth. For every one of those, there are dozens of writers who make well under $50K. Residuals are a life blood for these people.

Writing is a highly cyclical business. It's a highly fickle business. At present, the WGA estimates that 48% of its membership is unemployed. That's the nature of the business. You get a gig, you make the most of it. And then your job becomes finding the next gig.

Residuals are what allows many writers to write and raise a family. Residuals are a retirement plan. Residuals are a writer's 401(k). The AMPTP, with combined revenue in the billions, is unwilling to pay the same residuals to writers it pays to directors, actors, and editors.

I'm reposting a posting by Micah Wright, a writer-director for many Spongebob Squarepants episodes (and much more). The posting was on a WGA board, but Wright has given permission to disseminate it as widely as possible. As you read, realize that Spongebob Squarepants is worth $12B. The writer was paid $1400 a week. With no further ado:

Some of us writers have been screwed for a while now, and not in the
pleasant sense. Below is an email post from Micah Wright, posted on
the WriterAction (WGA-only board). I requested and have his written
permission to spread it like the plague.

(FYI, to set the scene, the tone of Micah's intro is in response to
another WA poster unhappy with our current WGA leadership).

Well, this is ONE angry Hoard that's confused about your stance. The
AMPTP clearly never intends to pay us one single cent for internet
delivery. The music business model clearly indicates that internet
delivery for most, if not all content is the future. What then were
we supposed to do when faced with rollbacks and refusals to bargain
in good faith? Pray? Or just swallow the bullshit they were trying
to shove down our throats, and forget about not only what we're
making, but also what every person who ever follows us into this
union will ever make?

People like you keep bitching about the DVD negotiating point, and
yeah, you're right: DVD was lost 20 years ago, but there's no magic
rule which says we can't reopen that topic. More importantly,
though, DVD didn't take off for almost a decade after the '88
strike… the Internet is here NOW, and it's here FOREVER, and if we
give in and allow them to pay us ZERO on Internet delivery, we can
just kiss the idea of ever getting paid residuals goodbye forever.

It's not self-righteousness which is driving this negotiation… it's
quite simply the greed of the AMPTP, which clearly sees this as the
year in which they intend to break the WGA on the rack once and for
all. But you don't see that… you seem unable to get it through your
head that the AMPTP doesn't want to ever pay us anything. If you
think these people are so reasonable and that they deal in good
faith, then try talking to writers who work in Animation and
Reality… THAT is the future that the AMPTP has in store for EVERY
WRITER IN THE WGA. Because if they don't have to pay residuals to
the woman who wrote The Lion King, then why should they ever have to
pay one to YOU? Or anyone else?

Oh, and before you give me some sob story about the disastrous
strike of 1988, let me bring you up to date with a more RECENT
story: mine.

I came to this guild having had a "successful" career writing
Animation for $1400/week for five years. During that time, I wrote
on several of Nickelodeon's highest-rated shows. My writing partner
wrote and directed 1/4 of the episodes of "SpongeBob SquarePants"
and I was responsible for 1/5 of the episodes of "The Angry
Beavers." The current value that those shows have generated for
Viacom? $12 Billion dollars. My writing partner topped out at $2100/
week. In the year 2001, tired of not receiving residuals for my
endlessly- repeating work (even though the actors and composers for
my episodes do), I joined with 28 other writers and we signed our
WGA cards.

So, Nickelodeon quickly filed suit against our petition for an
election, and set about trying to ferret out who the "ringleaders"
were. In the meantime, they canceled the show that I had created 4
episodes into an order of 26. Then they fired the 3 writers who'd
been working on my show. Then they fired 20 more of my fellow
writers and shut down three more shows, kicking almost their entire
primetime lineup for 2002 to the curb, and laying off 250 artists.

Then, once the WGA's petition for election was tied up in court over
our illegal firings, Nickelodeon called in the IATSE Local 839
"Cartoonists Guild" — a racket union which exists only the screw the
WGA and its own members — and they signed a deal which forever locks
the WGA out of Nickelodeon, even though we were there first. Neato!

Then Nickelodeon's brass decided —out of thin air— that myself and
two other writers had been "the ringleaders" of this organizing
effort, so they called around to Warner Bros. Animation, the Cartoon
Network, Disney Animation, and Fox Kids, effectively blacklisting
the three of us out of animation permanently.

And why did Nickelodeon do this? Why were they so eager to decimate
their own 2002 schedule, fire 24 writers, break multiple federal
labor laws, sign a union deal, and to even bring back the blacklist?
They did all of that to prevent us from getting the same whopping $5
residual that the actors & composers of our shows get.

For five lousy bucks, they destroyed three people's careers and put
250 artists out of work and fucked up their own channel for a year.

Ahh, but my episodes run about 400 times a year worldwide, though,
so obviously Sumner Redstone (Salary in 2001: $65 million dollars)
and Tom Freston (2001 salary: $55 million) were right to do what
they did… myself and those other 23 writers might have broken the
bank, what with each of us going to cost them another TWO THOUSAND


So don't come crying to those of us who have EXPERIENCED what the
AMPTP plans for all of the rest of you, that people who are deciding
to stand up to bully-boy tactics like that are the crazy bunch of
‘hoards’ lustily marching through the streets searching for blood.
The AMPTP are the barbarians sacking Rome in this scenario.

The AMPTP and their glittering-eyed weasel lawyers are a bunch of
lying, blacklisting, law-breaking scumbags, and the fact that they
haven't budged off of ANY of their proposals in the last three
months proves that what they have in store for EVERY SINGLE ONE OF
YOU is exactly what they did to us at Nickelodeon, and what they can
do any day of the week in daytime animation. Or reality.

Strike or no strike. That's their plan: to winnow down your
membership, to snip away at your MBA, to chew away at your health &
pension plans until there's just nothing left of the WGA. Why?
Because they've had a good strong drink of how much money they make
off of animation when they don't have to cut the creators in for any
of the cash, and now they want to extend that free ride to all of
live action as well. THAT is why they have pushed for this strike at
every step, with their insulting press releases, with their refusals
to negotiate, etc. — because they're HOPING we go on strike, and
that enough cowards and Quislings come crawling out of the woodwork
after six weeks that they can force us to accept the same deal that
Reality TV show writers have.

If you doubt me, go read their contract proposals again… there's not
ONE of them which isn't an insult and a deal-breaking non-starter.

So can we PLEASE stop hearing about how it's the current WGA
management which is the problem here? Because, frankly, that canard
is getting a little stale.

Or perhaps you prefer presidents like the President of the Guild
back in 2001 who just threw up her hands when we were fired and
blacklisted out of our careers and said, and I quote, "oh well, it
was a good try"?

To our writer friends, this is why we need to stay strong and
fight. To our non-writer friends, please support us.

Please forward to everybody you know. Everybody.