Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Gimme Some Truth

Got a little busy with Moonlight but it's shooting now, so there's a moment to blog. I have been sadly remiss with the comments. Mea maxima culpa, gentle readers.

Joshua wants to know:
Which leads me to my question . . . my manager is looking at agencies and the like, 'cause he feels I'd do well in TeeVee (I work fast and I work well with others, it's true, I am user-friendly) and wants to get me set up with one of those guys . . . I've written an original pilot and a L&O SVU . . . but a friend or two have told me that short plays samples work just as well for consideration for gigs . . . in your experience, is this true?

I hope so because I have a boatload of short plays, many of which I'm probably too proud of . . . and it'd be a relief to know I can use those as samples as well.


I like your choice of samples, BTW... a procedural and an original pilot is a good one-two punch. Playwrights do well in TeeVee; several have created series, and there was a spate of playwrights being hired on staff. I think you have the advantage here, because you also have TeeVee material. You can definitely use your plays as samples. But more often than not, it'll be your second or even third sample sent. So make sure your TeeVee specs are totally solid! Also one more thing -- when writing specs, don't just write a Gossip Girl if you don't want to do that kind of show, or a CSI if that's not your bag. Write towards what you want to do.

Mr. David Rosiak, Esq, writes:
Anyway, are you saying I'm a cynical fucker? Guilty as charged. ;-)

Excellent blog as always. And I'm completely agreed on SARAH CONNOR. Jesus, if this show can turn Brian Austin Green into an absolute badass, it can anything!


Word. I love it when actors are loosed from their shackles. He is so fantastically authentic on the show... good for him. Hopefully the show will come back but if it doesn't, I hope it does good things for him.

It's been too long, Jaybyrde:
I'm with you on Diablo Cody, Kay. It's always a thrill for me to see a woman take that prize, and I imagine it always will be. It doesn't happen nearly enough. She could wear assless chaps and a rainbow-fro wig for all I care. When you consider that the last big high-profile screenplay win was the oh-so-precocious 20-something "writing" team of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon ... I can't help but admire the hell out of her for pulling it off.


Ugh. NOT a Good Will Hunting fan here, either. Although both Matt and Ben have won me over recently, for acting and directing and also seeming like just good people. The thing about Diablo Cody is, people bleat about how they want individual voices, unique personalities and points of view... and when they get one, they criticize it for being inauthentic. Whatevs, losers. Anyone who can turn screenwriting into something sexy and cool for the mass audience is jake in my book.

As a matter of fact, I think I'll go get my stripper make-over later.

Dan sez,
Mad Men has just started here in the UK (ep3 tomorrow night) and I can vouch for its quality, too. I just hope it doesn't all become a bit too soapy, and I'm not *entirely* convinced the 60s were actually that bright, vibrant and gleaming, but...


I'm sure you've seen that it hasn't! It's funny you say that, because the show's creator, Matthew Weiner, has been adamant that the show not look perfect. What I love about it is how it shines on the surface but then, when you peek underneath that surface, you see the cracks and the mess. Which is exactly like the characters. They dutifully play their roles on the surface but the show is about exploring what lies beneath that surface.

Zack (who needs to tell more SCC stories), writes:
That Sarah Connor scene sprung full-grown from the head of Josh, who came in one day saying we ought to be making our action scenes more like the fires in "Rescue Me"-- mini-movies with a point of view and distinctive aesthetic. It's been fun to watch the reaction and the split between the people who got it and the people who screamed that they couldn't see what was going on and what's with the Johnny Cash and where's my sad symphonic music and choreographed bullet ballet, dammit?


Okay, people? Turn off the overblown procedural bullshit and see what REAL TeeVee has to offer. The viewing audience has been manhandled and manipulated within an inch of its life, and they're totally unaware of it. TeeVee has become layers upon layers, mash-ups of noise and promotional songs and slow-mo and camera tricks and impossible scenes shot through with effects.

I guess I didn't realize it was happening because I don't watch the really popular stuff (which is a flaw, because I work in TeeVee, but still). I mentioned in another post that I wanted to put together scenes of my favorite uses of music in TeeVee. I hope I can get around to that project, because it may be illuminating. I think it was the WB that started just stuffing episodes with music, without any sense to the choreography. Songs would blare, then suddenly stop when people started talking. Even the montage sequence, used to such great effect on "American Dreams," has been bludgeoned to death. I think the last great montage sequence I saw was in the pilot of "Grey's Anatomy." They used a fantastic Thirteen Senses song that was just absolutely perfect... because it wasn't absolutely perfect. Now, people use songs as shorthand for the drama but really, the songs need to enhance the drama. "American Dreams" understood this. The season finale for "Mad Men" nailed it. And so did the "Sarah Connor" sequence.

But shit, we used to do this stuff all the time. In three of our four Millennium episodes (one with Dean Winters, incidentally), music was integral to the plot and to the characters. Crafting a teaser with Patti Smith or The Nutcracker was just, well, what we did on Tuesday. I guess I just realized that those days are gone. Now, it's about music supervisors shoving songs into episodes, where the goal is to promote the music and not enhance the drama. That speaks to point of view, which is sadly missing in TeeVee at the moment. When I saw the Sarah Connor sequence, I knew the song was specifically chosen, which gives the sequence another level that just fucking resonates.

But people are afraid of it, aren't they? Nobody wants to take a fucking stand anymore. Be safe, not specific. This trickles down from the executive ranks. People are trying to keep their jobs, and the best way to do that is to not stand out. Don't defend a point of view or an idea, because someone who can fire you may not like it. I understand it, in a way, because of how unstable and uncertain everything is. The country's in a "slow down," or whatever pat disaster euphemism the Bushies are using this week. The world feels like the Johnny Cash song. Faith (not the organized religious type) has been lost. People are trying to figure out how to game the system, only in a world where the Canadian dollar outstrips the American dollar, we no longer even know what that system is.

What gets lost in there is inspiration and a unique, specific point of view. The audience for entertainment is simply a marketing experiment. They're not seen as people who need an escape or have a need to connect with something outside their lives. No, instead, it's the cynicism of advertising and marketing and product placement that means movies and pilots are created by executives who only think of money, and not by the creative folk. Back when Budd Schulberg wrote "What Makes Sammy Run?", he was talking about only one Sammy Glick. Now, it's a fucking sea of Sammys. But the rest of us are too deadened to see or care.

Then we get caught up in it, too. We think the way they want us to think. So we're already second-guessing the audience, dumbing things down for them, trying to manipulate them. And that's our ONLY reason for creating, which is sad. After Barack Obama gave what's known as the race speech, he was criticized by the pundits (the political equivalent of executives) for treating the American public like adults who didn't need to be manipulated or talked down to. It's one thing to say this to each other over a martini at some gin joint, but they said it on fucking television, which is watched by the very people they're damning. I mean, no fucking wonder, right?

It's heartening to see an audience reject that cynicism, which they do occasionally. But I wish it would make someone see that you don't have to only market to them, that you can create something you believe in or feel strongly about, and they'll grok what you're going for and feel the same way, too.

So when I see something like the SCC sequence, or the "Mad Men" episode, when I see or hear or read something with a strong point of view, or when I see an audience reject carefully marketed, cynical pablum, well... it's hopeful.

He had the vision for shooting the scene from the bottom of a pool and seeing a rain of bodies, and I had come into the office one day with the suggestion that we call the episode "The Man Comes Around," which Josh sparked to and incorporated into his vision for the scene. I had no idea Josh was the world's biggest Johnny Cash fan, I just liked the thematic resonances of the episode and the song and the apocalyptic subject matter. I suppose we could have used Bowie's "Five Years" instead, but that would have meant titling the episode "The Queer Threw Up," so I'm glad it worked out the way it did.


That's a season two episode, anyway. And it's nice to hear someone talking about resonance, because it's sorely lacking in our culture. I think there's also a bit about intent in there. Remember when people used to shoot for something? The notion of a noble failure had all that Don Quixote crap going for it. People tried things. Sometimes they succeeded and sometimes they didn't, but at the end of the day, they could be proud of what they achieved. So what happens now is, they aim for the lowest common denominator. I guess they're happy when they succeed in putting one over on the public. But when they fail, they're left with absolutely nothing. It's better to try and say something, rather than being a cynical, hateful fuck. I want a fucking choice, you know? I want to be able to see a finely crafted creative enterprise. I also want to think better of the audience, but too many of these highly paid asshats don't seem to care as they crow about their bank accounts.

katbaggins sez:
Regarding the excellently choreographed Johnny Cash moment in SCC - check out Supernatural. Their showrunner feels much the same way you do about current music-on-tv trends, and as a result they have more than a few wonderfully shot scenes set to amazing (read: non-cookie cutter) music - in particular the "Renegade" moment in season two. Really great stuff.


You know, that's a show I just haven't watched. I saw the pilot, which was exquisitely shot, and a few other episodes but for some reason (hmm... could it have to do with rejection?????), I haven't watched. I'll catch up, though, because I feel there's something sneaky good about the show that I've missed. I'm pretty sure I mentioned "One Tree Hill" before, but another shout-out -- their showrunner knows his shit. I mean, he names all the episodes after song titles and he's an enormous -- ENORMOUS -- Veils fan. He's the real deal and his love of music really permeates that show.

J.J. says:
Recently I picked up a copy of Creative Screenwriting (is there some other kind? I digress) when I ran across an article/column titled "Why I Didn't Write" edited by Peter Clines.

It was...ummmmm... interesting.

The subtitle: Hint: It's Not About Me was a lesson in hubris written by the king of all working class heroes: Craig Mazin. Good writer, that boy is. He writes all about He, the savior of the working writer, fought hard in his his support of the strike. That he supported the goals of the WGA leadership and that he was stunned and disappointed by directors (himself excluded apparently) that started projects doing the strike...


Huh. That IS interesting. I'd be even more interested to know his reasoning behind it. Sounds to me like he's doing the "rewriting history" thing that's been so successful in government.

A question for Kay: You didn't happen to be at a Starbucks this morning (Weds) wearing a shirt that read: irony were you?


Sadly, that was not me. But I want the shirt!!!

JustBill,
Thanks for that link. Now I am depressed. I am not a black swan. I am not even an egret. But the theory is interesting, and it answers my biggest question about crap like Harry Potter -- why the fuck that and not something good that came before?

The black swan theory makes me think even more strongly that executives need to let shit happen. You can't create a hit using only marketing and cynicism. And even if you think you've managed it, you haven't. Look at things that have become surprise hits -- Harry Potter, "High School Musical," "Grey's Anatomy." None of these was supposed to be anything special but something happened in the zeitgeist that made them popular. Then, the studios and corporations swarmed and crowed about the success that THEIR marketing and advertising created. They then expect these people to create something equally popular. And as we've all seen, this rarely works. So instead of going, "Okay, these people did what they wanted, why don't we let other people do the same thing," they get all up in the creative folks' kitchen and try to manipulate creativity into success.

Bleargh.

Some of this came out of the strike, I think. We've all got some form of post-traumatic strike disorder. We were forced to think about our careers on a macro level, which led to a loss of faith and perspective on a personal level. Coming back, it all just seemed so pointless. We fought for something bigger but came back to the same old cynical bullshit. I feel like I'm struggling with that. It's frightening to me that it's so easy to market before I create. I'm working on pilot ideas and I can see myself censoring. I don't want to be dishonest, but I want to make a living. Should I anticipate what I think is going to be wanted? In that case, can I criticize people who do that? I got the opportunity to be very proud of work I've done in TeeVee, but it's a different climate now.

Or is it? Am I in some wild, metaphysical Philip K. Dickian world where all I need to do is wake the fuck up and see that I've been selling myself out day after day? I really do see this as an eternal struggle. Most people I know don't. Some of them are very successful, and very happy with that. Sometimes I think it would be nice not to want more from this enterprise, to take it at face value. But everytime I try, it's sort of a complete fucking failure.

So the struggle continues. I might noodle around with the POV notion in the next post. Also, it's probably time for the "how to fix TeeVee" post, so maybe I'll finally get to that, since we're in something approximating pilot/staffing season and all.

If anyone's in the greater Los Angeles area and would like to see a little gem of a movie, Dan Waters' flick "Sex and Death 101" opens in three theaters this weekend. GO SEE IT. It'll make you happy.

np -- 78 Saab, "The Bells Line." I'm REALLY liking this one.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Hysteria!!

Or staffing season. Really, take your pick. One and the same.

The Kung Fu Monkey hisself has a post about staffing a TeeVee show. He's got a cool-sounding show called "Leverage" for TNT. I'm still waiting for a fun heist show. Will this finally be it??

Anyhoo, if you really want to shit yourself, read the post. Go ahead. I'll wait.

...

Yep, you read it right -- 210 submissions for four staff jobs. So if you actually got submitted for the show and all scripts being equal, your chance of staffing is 1.9%. Shit, just take some money and go to Vegas. You'll get better odds. So exactly what the hell is going on here? Is TeeVee really in such dire straits that there isn't any work? Sure seems that way. Because if there are that many submissions for a cable show, imagine what a network submission list looks like.

(NOTE: The notion that network is more prestigious than cable still exists, Mad Men and Battlestar Galactica notwithstanding. Whether or not it's a fallacy is up to you.)

The problem is that staffs have gotten so much smaller, and it's not as though the business is going freelance, either. Shows just aren't hiring writers. But what are these writers who ARE being hired doing right? Are they writing mind-blowing samples? Probably. But there's another factor as well, and that has to do with connections. More and more writers get jobs because they know the showrunner. We've gotten some jobs that way too, but it's even worse now. And I get it. If you can only hire four writers, you want to make sure they don't fuck you. So you hire who you know. Makes perfect sense.

But when you hear those numbers, it makes you go, "Why the fuck should I keep doing this if the odds are so against me even getting a meeting?" And the answer to that is... fuck, I dunno. I honestly DO NOT KNOW. There are moment of sheer bliss, when you're in a story break and you come up with something awesome; when you write a particularly evocative scene; when you hear production talking about how they're going to make a stunt dude jump off the Queen Mary; when you see an episode of a show that just blows you away. Those are the sustainable things that really do and are supposed to keep you going. But... the cons are so outweighing the pros that the second-guessing starts to creep in.

I know the conventional wisdom is to have an original spec and a show spec, but I honestly don't think that's necessary, for several reasons. Primarily, I have read enough screenplays and teleplays (trust me, I HAVE) to recognize whether or not somebody can write. All a "House" spec shows me is that the writer can write a "House" spec. Just because she can write in that voice doesn't mean she can write in mine, and that is actually not a requirement for any show I create. I am MUCH more interested in how a person can write than in how they can ape. And having read gazillions of show samples, it truly doesn't tell me anything. I would rather a writer focus solely on original material and knocking my fucking socks off with that then wasting time writing a "Desperate Housewives." But then, that's just me.

So because writing jobs are so scarce and selling pilots (so they tell us) will be even more difficult, the micromanaging becomes even more severe. By the way, though, how selling pilots can be more difficult than last year will be interesting to see. Will they actually start setting writers on fire if they don't like the pitch?

So micromanaging leads to soul crushing, the kind that's done slowly and relentlessly. TeeVee is the Gitmo of that sort of thing. And like Gitmo, it should be stopped. But, also like Gitmo, it won't.

One of the most soul-crushing aspects of the New TeeVee is how ideas are generated. There are a few ways writers do this. The best way (because there isn't any obvious work involved) is when an idea just appears out of fucking nowhere. It sounds great and as you work on it, it continues to work and be great. Two -- you go looking for ideas. Articles on the internets and in magazines, notions you've written down, etc. And three -- starting from fucking scratch. Going to a coffee shop with a notebook and just writing. Although these are the ideas I usually love the most, they rarely make it. Why? Because they're not high concept enough. They involve more complexity and, frankly, creativity.

I like to have a lot of ideas in different stages of dress. I go back and forth on whether or not this is a good idea. On the one hand, I'm fucking terrified to go anywhere with only one idea. Agents will tell you that you HAVE to go in with only one idea, or the people you're pitching to won't think you're passionate. I don't buy this, for a few reasons. Agents don't come up with ideas and don't pitch them. And it's entirely possible to be passionate about many ideas. All that matters is how you sell it.

But on the other hand, I tend to second-guess myself about ideas, if I've got a bunch of them. Part of it has to do with the marketplace and what I see selling. I always fall into that trap, too, of trying to anticipate, which is easy to do when you have a lot of ideas. So you wind up trying to develop a specific type of show, which might be easy if you go the cop/lawyer/doctor route, but is much harder if your tastes and instincts are further off the beaten track.

So the big question is, do you try and fit in, or do you just go, "Fuck it. This is what I want to do, beeyotches, so suck it." I haven't been successful deliberately trying either approach, so the only conclusion I can draw is that it's gonna happen when it happens. That either drives you more crazy or less crazy; I haven't decided which.

Once you have your idea, all the fun and inspiration and life you've poured into it is slowly drained out by the well-intentioned people who also have jobs to do. Work is so scarce and pilot season's been fucked for a few years now so everybody, from writers to producers to agents to executives, is overthinking every aspect of the business. Agents want to hear your ideas, and then they'll give you notes on them and tell you which ones will sell and which won't. Same deal at a POD and a studio. And then they expect you go to be passionate about an idea that's already been scrutinized and changed for the marketplace.

You, the writer, don't realize you're on that hamster wheel until it finally stops and you see that your idea, your inspiration, was sold down the river before you even get on the wheel. So what you really need to do is, you have to figure out how to work within the system. When to hold 'em, when to fold 'em. When do you threaten to walk away from a project or a show? How long do you try to please people before you've had enough? Or do you always try to please them because shit, this is your shot and if you blow it they'll never look at you again?

How far down the river do you go?

I know people who take the entire ride, and people who won't even get in the boat. I'd love to find a happy medium but... I'm wondering if there just isn't one anymore. You can no longer put your faith in someone else's convictions, because they're all in the same position you're in. Since I admire the people who refuse the ride, I suppose I should start working in that direction. But... scary.

The only person in this process who even has instincts anymore is the writer but mostly, we drink the Koolaid. We talk ourselves into believing one of two fallacies -- we can just say yes now and do what we want later, or their notes are actually improving on your vision. I don't think you can fully appreciate the ending of "The TV Set" unless you've been in that position. Would you totally destroy your life to get your show on the air? How about sell out all of your principles and your instincts to get something on the air that no longer resembles anything you wrote or wanted to write? How far should we go to succeed, and on whose terms?

I went to the Buffy thing at the Paley festival the other night and Joss Whedon was talking about how he came to write "Hush." He thought he was being somewhat hackish and wanted to break out of those conventions.

It would be nearly impossible to do the following today: have the time to realize you were becoming hackish, and successfully get "Hush" past the studio and the network. I've talked about the notes process before and I'll continue to talk about it, because it is one of the biggest problems facing TeeVee. It's not that the notes are horrible or the executives stupid. It's that the process of giving and taking notes is so time-consuming, nobody involved has the time to really devote to crafting an hour of television. A good executive can be very valuable and can give a project or an episode a fresh look that, at times, is sorely needed. But even the brightest of executives is going to struggle when they have to give notes on a story document, an outline and several drafts of a script. They don't just have to do this for one show. A current executive covers many shows.

This leads to notes calls being pushed, which leads to drafts being delayed, which makes problems for production, which costs money. Everybody is trying to make the show work. The execs at the studio want to save money and stay on budget and get the show picked up. The execs at the network want to get the show picked up as well. And the writers want to get the show picked up, and write and produce decent hours of television. You may think you're done with the notes at some point, but you're never really done. And all the craft and heart you've put into your script is eliminated in hurried notes sessions during the last day of prep.

The days of Joss Whedon having the time to actually focus on the aesthetics of his show are long gone. Now, everybody is just trying not to get buried. Forget theme and depth and subtext. You're lucky if the story is coherent. Many times, stories have to be rebroken more than once at the behest of the studio or the network. And that is not going to lead to depth and meaning. It's going to lead, instead, to just getting the fucking thing done so you can shoot it.

The notes process is killing everybody in television. It's killing shows, writers, executives and production. Shows that manage to transcend this are creator-driven shows but those shows are increasingly few and far between. See, making television really isn't that hard... if you're allowed to make it. But due to the corporate nature of things, even a simple process needs to be fucked up.

That's why, when I see something like the Johnny Cash scene in "Sarah Connor," I'm so fucking blown away because THEY DID IT. They got through... somehow. It's a big deal, gentle readers. And for those of you who didn't like the scene (and no, I don't think you are morons, for God's sake), at least try and understand part of why its existence is so remarkable.

That sequence defies current TeeVee convention. Sure, it's the kind of thing we got to do on Millennium pretty much every fucking week, but that was in the distant past, before all the scrutiny. Sadly, I think TeeVee audiences are bothered by that defiance. It doesn't fit what you're used to seeing, so I get the reaction.

I think this is the same rant I did last week, actually. And I'll probably do it next week, too, because... hey, we're in pilot season! Yay! I'll be getting to some comments next time. We were busy finishing Moonlight and getting a spec pilot half broken (the rest to come this week). To people like Robin Hobb, who rant about people wasting time blogging, I've now got three chapters of the YA book done.

All things are possible in moderation.

np -- Vincent Vincent and the Villains, "End of the Night."

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Wintertime in Hollywood

I need to make one thing perfectly clear -- I had nothing to do with this.

I went to the TV academy earlier this week, where "Mad Men" was being feted. When you sit in a plush auditorium and watch a show creator and his actors try to encapsulate with words what the show means to them, you start to get a little misty-eyed. Or I do, anyway. Because on that stage is the Reason We Do It. That's the goal, gentle readers. Not the adulation or the physical idea of being on that stage, but the reason for the adulation, which is: Doing what you love, the way you want it done. Almost every answer was prefaced with, "As an actor," or "As a writer." I saw these people trying to define their feelings, but how can you really do that and not have it sound banal? "It's the greatest thing I've ever done" sounds trite. "I love coming to work everyday" does also. But it was obvious that these answers were heartfelt and emotional.

Matt Weiner doesn't appear to have been the guy who sold his soul and worked on shit shows before getting fed up and writing his passion project. He isn't the guy who's too good for TeeVee; in fact, he went on about how much he adored TeeVee, how obsessed he is with it, and how important it is in his life. Do you know how RARE that is? Too often, we think of TeeVee as the red-headed stepchild of features. You know... TeeVee is where you go to make money, and anywhere else is where you go to feed your soul. But here's Matt Weiner, the creator of one of the best shows to come around in a long damned time, gushing about television.

He's not a feature writer/novelist/playwright who's decided to elevate television so he can do it without vomiting. He's a TeeVee guy, and "Mad Men" is his love letter.

I fuckin' love it.

If you really love the craft of television and the power it can have and you haven't seen "Mad Men," shame on you. Do yourself a bloody favor; it's not just good for you. It's GOOD. And we can all learn from it. In fact, I'm intimidated by it. I'm not good enough for that show, but I'd like to be at some point. That means practice, and practice means using inspiration and not getting your soul crushed by the process.

What's hard about that is, it's SO obvious what's wrong with TeeVee and how to fix it that you can get impatient and frustrated on a daily basis. I go back and forth about how to handle this crap. If you're Matt Weiner, you work on your passion project, it gets made, it's perfect, and you're fucking happy forever. But is there a way to do that kind of work within the system? Sure, you can create a hit, a "Grey's Anatomy" or a "Desperate Housewives." But something that really stands apart? One of the "Mad Men" actors, John Slattery, compared working on AMC to working in independent film. That's a good way to look at it, and I pray it becomes the paradigm. You want to go to The Show, you pitch to the networks but you understand what you're getting yourself into. But if your ideas are smaller, quirkier, (ahem) period, you go to the boutique cable networks.

I absolutely love that idea.

I will say that amongst the dreck permeating the networks, there are moments of sheer, beautiful joy. I mentioned "Sarah Connor Chronicles" last time and for those not watching, at least watch this scene, from the season (and hopefully not series) finale. I'd love to make a DVD of brilliant shit like this. Scenes scored with music would feature prominently. What I love about the sequence is how it's choreographed. I had a thunderous nostalgic moment while watching it. It reminded me of a time back when music was used correctly, and to great effect. You used music to underscore a scene, to give it impact. Back in the day, you could use old Patti Smith songs, or even "Downtown," fer Chrissakes.

What's happened since is, music supervisors have gone fucking insane. They don't care about the choreography of a scene or a sequence. All they care about is blaring the Flavor of the Week. It's just background music. It's a commodity, another thing to sell during the show. Then they advertise afterwards" If you liked the music in this Warner Bros-produced show, go to our website and buy Death Cab For Cutie.

It drives me fucking crazy.

So when I see something like the Sarah Connor scene, it makes me feel like all is not lost. You CAN still do interesting things on network TeeVee. But you have to work within the system at a certain level, and the mass audience isn't going to get what you're doing. And if the audience doesn't get what you're doing on a network show, that show ain't gonna be around very long. While networks crave the adulation of something like "Mad Men," they forget about the smaller audience. And you know they'd just cancel it. I've been on two shows nobody watched, but they should have. I know what I'm talking about, and I feel for the people who are passionately struggling against the network juggernaut.

Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp, who had a rough year with his teammates last year, had this to say:

"For me, the easiest part of baseball is playing . . . man, if I could only just play the game," Kemp said.


I feel the same way about TeeVee. Man, if only I could just WRITE and not deal with the bullshit. But Kemp's figured out that in order to play, he has to work within the system. Now it's up to him to be as brilliant as he can be, in spite of that.

I guess it's up to all of us, too.

np -- 78 Saab, "Lean On In"

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Dirty Old Town

If y'all keep saying interesting shit, I'll never have the chance to do a proper rant! I have not written my next novel chapter yet because we're working on our Moonlight script and generating some other stuff. TeeVee's slowly coming back and if you bailed on The Sarah Connor Chronicles, SHAME ON YOU. About the only shows I've been watching with any regularity are Sarah Connor and Torchwood. Sorta feels like retro-TeeVee to me: hard-bitten, well-written genre shows are a thing of the past, and these two are the exceptions. The Sarah Connor finale did well, looks like, so hopefully it'll be back for a season two. The writers on that show are like kittens with a ball of string (a fullerene would be more appropriate). It's great fun. As for Torchwood... sigh. Sad.

Anyway.

Carlo was wondering,

Also, what do you think is a better medium in terms of where it is right now - TV or Movies? And which are better for writers? (Likely teevee, but that isn't exactly sunshine and marshmallows either).


Each medium is better for certain writers, but neither are better for writers as a whole. I can't speak specifically to features, since we have not been deemed valid to make money at them (which just happens to be how the system works), but based on what I know of the feature biz, it's not particularly writer-friendly. In order to work in features, you have to get hired. Usually, you're trying to get hired on an open writing assignment. This is one of several things: A spec the studio bought that needs to be rewritten; a pitch the studio bought that needs to be written; a property they acquired (remake, comic book, novel, video game, theme park ride or Hasbro game); an "idea" hatched by an executive or Steven Spielberg.

You would think the process would proceed thusly.

Producer or Executive needs to find a writer for a project. They read scripts. Maybe they meet some writers, to see how compatible they would be for the project (you know; like they do in TeeVee). Then they find the writer they want and have him or her come in with their "take" on the project. If they like the take, they hire the writer. If not, they go find another one. Lather, rinse, repeat.

That, however, is not how it's done. Instead, they trawl for writers. They cast their net out behind the SS Paramount and catch an assload of writers. Then they proceed to make each and every one come in with their take on the project. The executives' main accomplishment with this is that they justify their jobs. Which, let's face it, is their only reason for existence in this corporate landscape. They have to prove their worth. Their schedules need to be filled up. So the only way to do this is to lengthen and muddy the process, and that's what this "audition" phase is all about. Now, it makes some kind of crazy sense to me that somebody like Spielberg would talk to several writers to hear their take on whatever project he's going to direct next. However, we're not talking about go projects here. We're talking about projects in active development. The majority of these projects will never be made.

But still, the studios spend tons of money on development. Not just on the writers, but on the executive salaries. The executives are always going to make their salaries. But if you bring twenty writers in on one project, only one of those guys is going to make any money. And nineteen of them have just spent their valuable time breaking a story for a project they aren't going to write.

Basically, writers have to go suck the cock of their corporate masters and if that master thinks someone else has sucked it better, he can beat you and leave you in an alley. And not face one day of jail time for it, either. But for a more reasoned, rational response to this question, check out Josh's comment. As he says, there are scripts that need work. Once, totally against the law, I got to see the back-and-forth between Spielberg (I don't know why I keep mentioning him. Sorry) and the myriad writers he brought in for Schindler's List. The writers (and Spielberg himself) were grappling with Schindler's likeability. There were a lot of memos back and forth and several writers just couldn't crack it. That's a situation in which you NEED to get different perspectives. The process was not abused in that instance. But all the rest of this shit? Ridiculous.

TeeVee is slightly different. Because TeeVee actually has to get made. If a show is ordered, then the rule (there are exceptions) is that it needs to get written and produced. So at some point, writers need to be hired. Some writers are treated well in TeeVee, and they in turn treat other writers well. But if you're looking for purity in the medium, don't look to TeeVee. Things have actually changed a lot since I got in. There are more layers, more hoops to jump through. And that cuts down on the time that's most valuable to a TeeVee staff -- breaking the story and writing the script. Because really, those are the only two steps you need. But so much time is spent generating the documents that keep the executives busy that the valuable writing time suffers.

A caveat, though. This isn't to say that there aren't terrific executives in film and TeeVee. There are. A good executive can save your ass. They can protect you and promote you and be an excellent go-between. They can facilitate your movie getting greenlit and your show getting picked up. To me, a good executive is the type of person who acts as a filter between the writer and the studio/network. They get what you're trying to do, and they get what the corporate entity needs. It's a very difficult job and the good execs are worth their weight in gold. But do we really need ten of these people? Is it really necessary to have four people on a studio call for notes on a one-page story area?

These layers are what makes TeeVee difficult for writers. Because even if you have great executives at the studio and at the network, too many of them are not helpful. Luckily, we seem to be dealing with smart and helpful people on Moonlight. But more often than not, you are stuck between the network and the studio, spending so much time putting out those fires that you don't have any time to actually make the show good.

So is it better for writers in film or in TeeVee? I say neither. Until these corporations can actually trust the creative people they hire, it will only get worse. For the writers, it's up to us to figure out how to game the system. Because until the internets take off and we can afford to bring our own visions to life, we need them. They've tried to not need us but so far, that hasn't worked out. I think we need to keep that in mind instead of despairing. We need them, but THEY NEED US.

Long enough answer to the question?

AJ says,

P.S., re: the 'splosion' of the Internet, don't hold your breath. Infrastructure (not to mention the hardware sophistication of the general American public who live between the coasts) still has a loooong way to go.


Couldn't agree more. Every time I try to say this, I get shouted down. But as someone who knows a thing or two about video formats and what have you, I just don't think this is going to be the boon people think it is. Not yet.

Jake,

Here's how I can tell the strike (or lock out as I prefer to look at it since the AMPTP walked out on negotiations) hasn't changed my life much:

1. My agent still doesn't return my calls (my bookie does, but not my agent).

2. My sometime writing partner is at the Oscars (I think he's sitting with either Julia Roberts or Marty Scorsese --he's worked with both) and I'm sitting at home and commenting on blogs.


Aw, dude!!! That sucks. And it's more evidence that this business doesn't have a fair bone in its body. I don't want to rant more about that now because there's a whole blog post in it. But I know where you're coming from. Just keep plugging, okay?

David Bishop says,

A minor factual correction: Eleventh Hour was first broadcast by ITV, not the BBC. Four episodes for a new drama series isn't unknown in the UK, though six eps is more common. As for why the British version didn't get picked up for a second run, that's another whole ball of wax better addressed by the show's creator Stephen Gallager.


Honestly, I felt the concept was weak. It was too nebulous and complicated. Too many rules. When I hear a concept for a show, I imagine sitting in the writer's room, trying to come up with stories. It's one thing when the creator of the show -- the person who actually sat down and came up with it and knows how to work in Teevee -- is sitting there with you. But a feature guy who's adapting a show that only ran four eps and has a weak concept? Now, I know someone who could probably run the hell out of a show like that, but I'll bet you right now he won't be hired to run it. I know one very specific reason why (it has to do with the POD involved) and the slightly less stupid reason is that it would just make too much sense.

Michael says,

Kay, in response to your response to my comment: Well, sure, the audience doesn't care how much 'Lost' costs per se. But there does seem to be an audience hunger for a type of story-telling style on network TV that just inherently costs a lot of money. I mean, take away the POD deals and feature directors and so forth (please!), and still, every show that's broken through in the past few years on network would still be really freaking expensive. Except maybe for Brothers & Sisters. I mean, suppose ABC plunked down a nice cheap basic cable show like 'Burn Notice' in the 'Lost' time slot and gave it the same promotional budget. Do you really think it could build the same size audience? Do you think it would have a shot at being a CSI-like franchise? I don't. At least not given where audience tastes are right now in February 2008.


If only expensive shows are shot and ordered, then only expensive shows are going to be hits. So it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. I'm not saying Burn Notice or Psych would be a hit on network TeeVee, but if you took the business model for those shows and made network shows, then yeah, I think you'd see something interesting happen. If you spend money on the actual production of a show, the cost of production goes down. Don't use PODs. Don't staff the show with those expensive co-EPs you've got deals with. Buy from actual TeeVee showrunners so you don't have to spend an additional fifty grand an episode on a showrunner. Hire midlevel writers with experience. Don't spend a gazillion dollars on Jimmy Smits or James Woods. Stop with the development deals completely. FIRE SOME EXECUTIVES. Get a good line producer and experienced TeeVee directors.

What would happen if the studios and networks made and ordered pilots that cost less than ten million dollars each? The advertisers don't care how much a studio spends for a pilot, and the ad rates are the major influence on the network licensing fee. The licensing fee is never going to come close to that. So the studio winds up having to make the show for perhaps one FIFTH of the pilot budget. But what if you spent three million on a pilot and the licensing fee dictates a two million dollar per episode budget? Your budget is then two thirds of the pilot budget. First of all, that's much more viable. Secondly, the network isn't going to be in the position of being disappointed. "Well, in the pilot, you blew up a boat and the main character went to the Moon. Where's my Moon??" There are numerous reasons a pilot is going to be more expensive than an episode but a lower budget pilot can still be a perfectly adequate sales tool. And the network isn't going to put undue pressure on the production to live up to the glitzy pilot.

I hate to sound like a pessimist, because I'm an hour long writer too, and I hope you're right and I'm wrong. But I really do fear the financial problems in scripted are deeper than PODs and fancy directors.


Wow. I'M the optimist? Something's totally wrong here. But seriously, we go through this all the time. And whenever it looks most dire, a huge scripted hit explodes. There are definitely two ways to look at it. One, all a corporation cares about is making money and looking good to the shareholders. That says that an affordable reality TeeVee slate makes the most sense. That's quantifiable. But the whole reason this business keeps employing artists is because of the unquantifiable, that certain element a corporation can't quite replicate. They would if they could, and they are trying, but they haven't been successful yet. That's why scripted shows are always going to be around, in my hackneyed opinion.

Or, all the stuff that Jake said. And, Blogger of the Year? Shucks. Now I feel like Diablo Cody.

Speaking of Diablo Cody, I did not intend to imply that if you didn't like Juno, it's because of your blind jealousy towards our resident former stripper (lookin' at you, Kati!). My post was in response to that idiotic article. My loathing of Little Miss Sunshine has nothing to do with any jealousy, for example. I just hated it. So if you hated Juno, no problem by me.

And the fabulous Robert Meyer Burnett stopped by:

Nice seeing you at Steve's. Out of curiosity, I decided to check out your blog's strike coverage. What started out as a cursory glance turned into three hours plus of wildly entertaining reading.


Well, shucks! Thanks. Can you believe we actually had X-Files to discuss? What a fucking weird time travel moment.

Regarding Mr. Mazin, well, I worked with Craig at an ad agency in the mid-nineties and was a producer on a film he directed almost a decade ago (THE SPECIALS). Rather than listen to my advice, he had his agent ban me from the edit bay so I couldn't see what he was shooting. That's how he rolled then. That's how he rolls now. Leopards and their spots, I suppose.


Oy. I don't like hearing that, but my guess is that based on Free Enterprise, he was jealous of your superior skills in the editing room.

Anyway, incredible blog. Destination reading. I drink it up.


Thanks, man!

David Rosiak, you make me sound like I vomit sunshine and rainbows. Keep posting!

np -- Chris Rea, "Presents the Delmonts." Holy shit. This is awesome. Chris Rea as Dick Dale.