Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Shape of Things To Come

Another busy coupla weeks. We're writing our first script now, which is an interesting proposition when you have a show that is creating itself as it goes along. The ultimate way to do a show like this is to have a lot of lead time, where you can really figure out what the show is, what the episodes are, where you're going at the end of the first season and how you're going to get there. But people don't have that kind of time anymore, and it's hurting TeeVee. Because that means when you're breaking story or writing a script, you have to have a parallel thought process. You're always thinking about the world you're creating and especially the episodic template, which is much more difficult when you don't have a built-in engine, like a procedural does. Of course, that presents its own problems and the rewards of working on a show that isn't about case-of-the-week are much greater than coming up with another way to kill someone. For me, anyway.

What's been bothering me about TeeVee lately, and probably why I am desperate to get back to rewriting the two novels, is how inorganic everything is becoming. There used to be a rhythm, a pattern to a TeeVee script -- a teaser and four acts. So each act would work towards a suspenseful or interesting act out. But now there are six acts of these things and that just doesn't give you as much time or space to build story. Coming up with four cool, suspenseful act outs is much different than coming up with six. Naturally, it wasn't the writers who came up with this. No self-respecting writer would dream of something so hideous. Everybody's still struggling with it, and I wonder what it'll be like when it goes to eight acts. Or will there just be a commercial after every scene? I don't fucking know. But it's making it more difficult to tell a compelling story. And tags suck. I hate tags. Tags are scenes you would never show in a four-act structure.

So the method of storytelling is changing. Budgets are shrinking, but production values continue to grow, which makes for a challenging relationship. And then there's the weakness of the dollar, which doesn't help any show that's shooting in another country so they can save some cash.

But then cool things happen, like Mad Men gets nominated for all those Emmys! The nominations were quite interesting, seeing as how more cable shows were recognized. And not just HBO and Showtime. Both AMC shows were given the love. Breaking Bad had two key nominations -- Vince Gilligan was nominated for directing the pilot (a writing nom would have been nice, too) and Bryan Cranston got a much-deserved acting nomination. I was also thrilled that John Slattery was nominated for Mad Men.

Here's a look at how the top drama categories broke out for cable versus network:

Three of five drama directing nominations.
Half of best drama nominations.
Four of six best guest actor in a drama nominations.
Four of six best actor in a drama nominations.
Three of five best actress in a drama nominations.
Three of five best supporting actor in a drama nominations.
And ALL FIVE best drama writing nominations: two for Mad Men (including one for the best hour of TeeVee all last year - The Wheel), The Wire, Damages and, hold onto your fucking hat -- Battlestar Galactica. If you're gonna recognize the show, the writing's the place to do it.

So what the hell's going on? Is the Academy getting wise? Has network fallen so far that even an idiot can see how much creatively stronger cable is? It's very reminiscent of the Oscars, where the nominees and winners were, for the most part, movies that didn't make any money. So somebody somewhere is recognizing quality. Is cable the new independent film? Do art and commerce now have two separate worlds? Because it seems to me that cable and network really are separate, almost the way comedy and drama are. Will that continue to happen? Or will cable eventually get eaten by the commercial machine and turn into the vast wasteland network occupies?

Those are ALLLL rhetorical, folks.

I want to talk about Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog and Batman (no, it sort of goes together) but I'm gonna save that for the next post. So onto some comments!

Some comments!!!

Alex opines:
I have a different perspective on "I created the show but I'm not the showrunner." My suggestion would be to cultivate the showrunner, not the studio. The studio put the showrunner there instead of you; they listen to him. If he feels you're endrunning him, he can kill you on the show by telling the studio you're being "difficult". They will fire you.

But if they don't KNOW you, then of course they're going to believe the showrunner. Which was kinda the point.

My instinct would be to suck up to the showrunner. Make him look good. Make his life easier. Since you created the show you have the right to tell him when you think he might be missing something important. But it's his call.

In other words, treat the showrunner the way you'd treat a showrunner. It's his show. Make his life easier and everyone will be happy and you'll be hired again. He might come to lean on you more and more as he comes to trust you. Make him look bad, complain about him behind his back, and you'll be gone before you know what hit you.

This is what you'd do if you were simply on staff, but it's really quite different if you created the show. If you created the show and Bob Showrunner is running it because you haven't run a show before, it's YOUR show. You shouldn't defer to the EP. He should defer to you in creative matters. He should try to produce YOUR vision of the show YOU sold. And you, as the creator, will ultimately need to be seen as someone who can run a show of your own without any help. I've seen show creators NOT cultivate studio and network execs, and I've seen EPs take shows away from them. Don't go overboard about it, and definitely cultivate and use that EP. Learn from him. But it's YOUR show and the studio and network need to have a relationship with you.

Horatio says,
I wish you would talk more about people asking for/demanding free rewrites. I'm going out with a feature spec and as I have no agent yet, I get very few people to read the spec as it is. When I find a producer who's interested in the project, he will invariably say he loves it -- but with some notes that he wants to see incorporated before he will take it to the studios.

Okay, fair enough. The problem is, each producer who "loves it, with some notes" has a different take. Their notes often contradict each other. And they all want free rewrites to suit their own particular whims. I'm sure these producers are asking many writers for free rewrites, stringing them all along, until they decide which project they're actually interested in producing.

Probably. This is a huge problem in features, and a slightly less huge problem in TeeVee. If all writers put their collective feet down, we'd STILL need the guild to do something about it, to enforce contracts. There are very few writers who can get away with this. So if you want to be in this industry, you have to put up with it, I'm sorry to say.

Regarding different producers, though, if they're not paying you and you don't like their notes, you aren't bound to take them. You can walk away. It's still YOUR script. Now, obviously, you want to get somewhere but if you find yourself stripping your vision away and tailoring it for one producer after another, that's not doing you any good. I think this is just something you figure out with more experience. You'll find yourself walking away soon enough. Just trust your instincts!!

I've done my fair share of free rewriting and just plain writing, way back when and fairly recently. Sometimes you'll write a pilot that you pitched just because you want to, or because you were working with producers who wanted to take it out. I've done this twice, I think. At least two that come to mind. One was a totally wonderful experience where we pitched a project with someone we ADORE. We didn't sell it but we wrote the pilot anyway, and it has been a great writing sample. The other one was the total flip side where we were treated very poorly. And that happened very recently. So no matter how much experience you have, you can still get screwed.

Erm, I hope that makes you feel better...

Horace wonders,
Where can we check on the syndication coverage of the various markets? I have a feeling that in my market it will be scheduled on one of the digital side channels at some ungodly hour during the weekend, probably after "Davinici's Inquest," "Cold Squad," or "Stone Undercover."

Heh. I have NO idea at all. I don't even know where it will be airing here. But I do know it starts the weekend of November 1, and that it's been sold to practically every market. If I find out anything more specific I'll let you know.

Kathryn (excellent name, BTW) says,
I'm more of an "aspiring" novelist, but I will say, one key difference is, you're really putting your eggs in one basket when you're writing a book. Spend ten years on one project, and if it doesn't go anywhere, you're so screwed. (And so despondent.) If you're coming up with ten pilot ideas a year and none gets picked up, well, you come up with ten new pilot ideas next year. It's not fun, but it's not a decade of your life, either. I try very hard not to work exclusively on one project.

That's a tricky thing too, isn't it? I tend to have a lot of ideas. Not that they're all brilliant. I just have a lot of them. And sometimes, you totally fall in love with one of your ideas and if you don't sell it, you write it. And then it sits there, and you hope that one day, it will become Mad Men. Or at least that someone will read it and love it as much as you do. It's hard when people don't like your kids!

But it's also a LOT easier to develop one idea, even if it's for years, than to always come up with ten different ideas, every year, in a shifting marketplace. That SUCKS. And if your novel idea is similar to something else already in the marketplace, that doesn't necessarily mean there's no room for it. It does in TeeVee, though, especially if you do genre. So you have to be both less attached and more attached to your ideas. You have to develop them fully and totally explore them, but then you have to move on. And sometimes that's hard. There's surely some kind of mathematical formula, maybe we can call it the entertainment derivative, that can calculate exactly where on the curve you need to be with an idea. I'd love to give that a shot.

Mr. Robert Meyer Burnett -- I'm totally on board with X-Files. Let's do it!!

np -- The Wave Pictures, "Instant Coffee Baby"

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Inconceivable Odds

Sorry for the delay, gentle readers, but we quickly went from the freezer (where things were moving ahead glacially) to the fire (where we are suddenly working every day), so the week's been a bit busy and I haven't had chance to waste my time -- erm, blog.


Given the complete lack of an actual staffing season, we happily find ourselves on Wizard's First Rule (or whatever it will eventually be called). Based on the Terry Goodkind books, this is a syndicated show produced by Rob Tapert and Sam Raimi. You may remember them as some of the last people do do syndication, back before it sort of went away. Well, it's back, and that's good news for everybody. Syndication has an indie feel to it. Even when I heard about the show, I hoped it would work because it's another venue for writers, and another option for viewers. We're totally thrilled to be there and hope we'll be able to tell some fun stories.

The nice thing for the blog is, I was seriously running out of ways to go, "So... we're developing pilots again this year, and here's how it's different than it was last year." We do have several viable pilot ideas that have producers interested and we're hoping that the producers will wait for us, and when we can develop, we can jump into that. But for now, our focus will be on the show. So, without giving away any big secrets, perhaps I can blog about what it's like to be on staff now, and even give a tip every now and then. I am going to try my damndest to blog once a week but I may not be able to, at least for awhile. So maybe I'll just be able to drop a paragraph here and there. Can I not be wordy? Dunno. Let's see!

Something I've been thinking about lately is how weird our industry is. We're all competing for jobs, whether they be staff jobs, pilots or movies. And that competition doesn't foster a collaborative atmosphere. There's little sense of community. I don't know if it has to do with how quickly our business works, or if it's just the competitive angle. But if you look at novelists, there's a great sense of community. Writers band together in writer's groups. They are constantly supporting each other. They have a real community and they're genuinely happy when one of their own succeeds. I'm speaking generally, not specifically, so don't give me any contrary examples, smarty-pants. I see novelists promoting each other all the time. They always remember where they came from and how hard it was to break in. Why don't most people in TeeVee and film remember that, I wonder? Is it because seeing someone struggle or trying to break in makes them see how tenuous it all is? Does it have to do with self-esteem, or lack of belief in ones' own talent? Or is it the capriciousness of the business? Do they know that, deep down, their fabulous careers could have gone another way, that they exist at the whim of something nobody can predict?

For a surprisingly perfect illustration of this attitude, see the good scene in "The Oscar." No, really. There is one. Peter Lawford plays a washed-up actor whose time has passed, and flavor-of-the-moment/psychopath Stephen Boyd has his only true moment of humanity and horror in the film as Lawford tells him what he has to look forward to. It's a lovely scene and I think it encapsulates what we go through in this industry.

Another big difference is, I think, the number of ideas you have to have in TeeVee or film, versus the number of ideas you have to have as a novelist. Novelists spend years with one idea while we come up with ten pilot ideas every year, a bunch of feature ideas we never write, and ideas for freelance scripts that we write for free (that's another story that I can't talk about in public, but suffice it to say, some people are just total assholes). There's a lot more pointless idea generation in TeeVee and film whereas with a novel, you can stick to one idea. Since generating a lot of ideas never seems to make much of a difference, maybe I'd like just doing the other thing. Who knows?

If novelists would like to disabuse me of that notion, please feel free. Tell me what it's like in your world.

Speaking of books, I love what's happening in Young Adult. You won't find more intriguing sci-fi, fantasy and horror in any other genre. I wonder what would have happened, for instance, if Cory Doctorow had written "Little Brother" as a mainstream sci-fi novel. How would it have fared? I've read all of his books and for me, "Little Brother" is his tour de force. This is so clearly the book he was always meant to write, and I've been a fan of his since the beginning. There's so much heart and enthusiasm and such a clear focus in this book. And I love that he wrote it as a YA, and not as some important literary novel. For those who haven't read much or any YA, we're not talking about children's books here. Don't think "Harry Potter." YA's way, way better than that. Go read Scott Westerfeld, or Holly Black. Read Kirsten Miller's inventive, energetic "Kiki Strike." These writers are doing fantastic work in a genre most people just dismiss. What I especially love is how creative these stories are. If you tried to pitch this stuff to TeeVee, they'd look at you blankly. But in young adult fiction, they're hits.

Onto a few comments...

Anonymous wonders:
Also, re: showrunner not being the creator, I'm currently develop a show as creator with a showrunner who isn't me attached. I've never been on staff before. Any advice to prevent the dangers you warn of? The showrunner I'm working with 'gets' the show and all his contributions have been valuable, the network and studio have been fine (mostly), but what can I expect down the road? (If we're picked up, that is)

The absolute best advice I can give you is, stay involved. Don't let the showrunner stand between you and the network/studio. Stay in constant touch with them, go out to lunch with them, talk to them. Don't let the showrunner filter their notes through himself. No matter how great he is, and it's terrific that he gets the show, it's YOUR show. You are NEVER out of bounds if you have questions or concerns. Listen to everyone, take in his expertise, but YOU are the creative voice behind the show. Good luck!!!

I am, BTW, going to read Kings and Dollhouse, so I'll have something to say about them later.

Devon Ellington says:
I think he was instructed by the owners to pull up the horse if he couldn't win to protect the investment. I don't have proof, but that's my gut response. Also, did they show the shot of BB in the paddock? Or did we just see it because we were close? Where he was placing one of his hind legs really strangely? I nearly had a heart attack. From the way he was behaving earlier in the day, I don't think he is healthy, even though they can't find anything wrong with him. Yet. There was something very different about him in person here than in person at Preakness, separate from the quality of the rest of the field and the politics surrounding it. Not being a vet or having the access to actually put my hands on the horse, I can't say what, but something was very different on Saturday, and I mean in a bad way.

I think he's perfectly healthy. This is a horse that has always acted professionally and he lost his fucking mind in the holding barn and then during the race and afterwards, in the test barn. You know, with all the talk about how fragile these horses are, I think people forget that they are athletes. As such, they need to be fit and trained. When a horse does what Big Brown did, that means he's jumping out of his skin. He's not fit. He's undertrained. Read Billy Turner's rant on that (and Steve Haskin's excellent analysis as well), and look at how both Secretariat and Seattle Slew prepared for the Belmont. It was Slew, I think, who worked a mile on each Saturday between the Preakness and Belmont. I don't think I've seen a Thoroughbred work a mile in about ten years. Those horses were dead fit for the Belmont. I don't care how talented your horse is, if he isn't fit, he isn't going to win.

When Casino Drive was scratched (oh, that poor baby looked MISERABLE, not even putting weight on that leg), Da'Tara moved into my second spot, but I sure didn't expect him to run that kind of race, in spite of the Tiznow connection. I never saw Tiznow show that much zip early on (although I didn't see his early races -- maybe he was zippier early then).

He showed a good bit of tactical speed and he had a high cruising speed. I never thought of Tiznow as a late runner. His foals seem to have good tactical speed as well and that, combined with the stamina they get from him, makes them tough. I am personally not a bit surprised that he's turned into such a good sire. Any horse that can win two Breeders Cup Classics, especially the way he won them, is going to pass that on to his foals. Tiznow was tested, so we knew what kind of a horse he was. If I decided to breed a mare to Big Brown, what would I get? I don't know, because I don't know what kind of a horse he really is.

Speaking of horses, bless the owners of Curlin, who seem to have time-traveled from a time where owners were sportsmen. They're going to try him on the grass and if he runs well, he'll ship to France for the Arc, the biggest grass race in the world. It's a tremendous idea, and I hope Curlin's enough of a superstar to pull it off.

Now I've got to go do some wizard work, and I hope it won't be this long before my next post!

np -- Yeti, "the Legend of Yeti Gonzales," which features a hidden Star Wars filking track. I'm not kidding. And it's GREAT. Not kidding about that, either. There's also a song called "Shane McGowan." Seriously. The album ROCKS.