Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Sundance 2017: Streaming Owns the Universe

Producer/story analyst extraordinaire David Whitney puts on his roving reporter hat to bring us the skinny from this year's Sundance Film Festival. 


By David Whitney

This year’s festival was less closed-off from the outside world than previous years. If 2016 was all about the race to find a winner, then 2017 was the answer to that race. Like the presidential election, whose transition of power took place during the opening days of the festival, there was a clear winner in Amazon’s MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, marking the first streaming service nominations in a major award ceremony. This year the festival did not shy away or close itself off to the outside world. Instead, it embraced its role as a safe place for artists to share their visions of the world and tell their stories. It wasn’t closed off, but a part of the changing world around it. While hundreds of thousands marched around the world, Park City held its own women’s march. Storms, hacking and constant changes by the new administration kept Sundance in the news and its creators relevant. It embraced and took on the changes to the world and community instead of resting on its laurels. While the search for awards gold was still evident, the players, themes and content was ripped directly from the headlines. The festival was a part of the world at large in 2017 instead of creating its own insular community of artists. 

"The Big Sick"
Digital Dominance

This was the year that Netflix and Amazon overtook the big studios.  Amazon was the big winner, planting their flag early with a flashy acquisition of THE BIG SICK opening weekend. The streaming service went on to pick up a few more films (CROWN HEIGHTS and LANDLINE). Netflix flexed its own muscle before the film festival even started with its smart partnership with independent producers like XYZ whose Macon Blair directorial debut I DON’T FEEL AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE opened the festival and went on to win the Grand Jury Prize in its category. It to beat out the major studio distribution arms, acquiring buzzy doc CHASING CORAL and TV veteran Marti Noxon’s TO THE BONE before the festival’s end. 


Even a week after the festival, the streaming service made headlines with a rich deal for Dee Ree’s MUDBOUND. It seemed there wasn’t a bidding war that the two weren’t a part of this year, while traditional heavyweights like Harvey Weinstein and his The Weinstein Company counterpart were all but silent. Sure, A24, Focus, Fox Searchlight, and Sony Pictures Classics were in the mix, but they were always at odds with these two digital titans. Their inclusion in the festival is no longer a question but a certainty, and 2017 the year they dominated from the opening to the very end. 

Performance Anxiety


"Patti Cake$"
It’s hard out there for a pimp. 2017 was the year of the artist having the guts to get up on stage and cut open a vein. Every category featured comedians, rappers, writers, actors and singers doing what they do best. THE BIG SICK was all about a comedian coming to terms with his relationship with a woman who was in a coma. Breakout performer Danielle MacDonald drove US Dramatic Competition’s PATTI CAKE$ to a huge $10 million sale to Fox Searchlight as MC Killa P. 

Neon made its big debut, acquiring Aubrey Plaza’s internet sensation INGRID GOES WEST, and Sony Pictures Classics fell for BRIGSBY BEAR, a dark comedy by Dave McCary. Performers ruled the festival in every category and across all genres, reminding us all that being an artist is hard business. 

Actors + Actresses

Each year, a new crop of actors emerge on the scene in Park City. Last year set the stage for the awards season to start with strong performances by Casey Affleck (in last year’s MANCHESTER BY THE SEA) and debuts by Anya Taylor-Joy (in THE WITCH). This year was no exception, with a slew of new performers breaking out. From TV stars (like Atlanta’s Lakeith Stanfield or Silicon Valley’s Kumail Nanijiani) to supporting actors in the independent world (including Melanie Lynskey from last year’s THE INTERVENTION or Danielle MacDonald from 2013’s THE EAST), the only unifying thread was strong roles anchored by even stronger actors. This year’s festival was all about supporting this diverse mix of talent in front of the camera.

Here are a few of the performers everyone will be talking about: 

Timothee Chalamet as Elio Perlman in Luca Guadagnino's CALL ME BY YOUR NAME. Until this year’s festival young actor Timothee Chalamet was merely a runner up to play Spider-Man in the most recent reboot. That is, until he held his own as a romantic lead opposite Armie Hammer in Luca Guadagnino’s most recent masterpiece. As Elio, an Jewish/Italian teenager who falls in love with the much older Oliver, an American tourist (Armie Hammer), Timothee carries every scene he is in. It’s a leading performance as strong as last year's THE WITCH.  Best known for his TV work on Homeland, the next few years will see a lot more of the young star on the independent scene. He is starring in Blacklist script HOT SUMMER NIGHTS and is part of the ensemble in Greta Gerwig’s LADY BIRD as well as Scott Cooper’s HOSTILES.

Melanie Lynskey as protagonist Ruth Kimke in Macon Blair’s I DON’T FEEL AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE. Melanie truly had her work cut out for her in taking on the lead role in Macon Blair’s directorial debut. Macon, an actor himself, broke out in Sundance 2013’s BLUE RUIN, a film he starred in with frequent collaborator Jeremy Saulnier. The two having been friends for years have a strong bound. Not the case for Melanie whose protagonist had to be both fun and funny as well as vulnerable and scared. Without such a wide range of emotions the film would not have been as strong a debut and her ability to do this without such a close working relationship makes her performance even more commendable. Her journey to recover her property which was stolen, in the process befriending a neighbor (played by Elijah Wood) and discover her inner strength is the strongest female genre lead to break out of the festival since Jennifer Lawrence in WINTERS BONE. 

Kumail Nanijiani as himself in Michael Showwalter's THE BIG SICK. Kumail has been making audiences laugh for years on the stand up circuit. He’s already known for his strong work on the small screen as part of the ensemble of HBO’s Silicon Valley. But, this leading performance anchoring a film based on his courtship with his now wife (which the two co-wrote) won over audiences. The premiere was followed by a standing ovation that lead to an all night bidding war resulting in the film selling to Amazon for $12.5 million. It was one of the biggest sales of this year’s festival. None of this would have been remotely possible without Kumail’s vulnerability and humanizing role. His wife (played by Zoe Kazan) spends a majority of the film hospitalized in a coma with her parents (played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) stepping in to decide how best to treat their daughter with Kumail understandably out of his depth.   

Lakeith Stanfield as protagonist Colin Warner in Matt Ruskin's CROWN HEIGHTS. Lakieth has made a career as a stand out supporting player in both film (2015’s SHORT TERM 12) and TV (this year’s Atlanta). He could have coasted on his laurels and had a fine career as a bit player. Thankfully he didn’t as he took on the role of wrongly convicted youth Colin Werner who spent over twenty years in prison for a murder he did not commit. Lakeith brilliantly channeled the rage, frustration and fear of a young immigrant from Trinidad who was tied to the shooting of a neighbor in 1980’s Brooklyn NY. His humanity, hope, and struggles to continue to live, stay true to himself and connected to his family was the heart and soul of this harrowing tale. Without such a wide range this would have just been another run of the mill biopic but Lakeith pulled from his history of strong supporting roles to elevate this material.  

Danielle MacDonald as protagonist Patricia Dombrowski aka "Killa P" aka "Patti Cake$" in Geremy Jasper's PATTI CAKE$. Accolades are one thing, but money is the great equalizer and PATTI CAKE$' sale to Fox Searchlight for $10 million is proof that Danielle’s performance is one of the strongest this year. The native Australian actress is so convincing as a New Jersey native that the film has been getting strong comparison to the classic hip-hop festival breakout HUSTLE & FLOW. Her strong lyrics, tough grit working several jobs and relationship with her male musical partners was the heart and soul of this musical odyssey through the world just the other side of Manhattan. MacDonald was the anchor, which made all this world. Her vulnerability as a daughter and granddaughter attempting to keep her family together while striving for her dreams of becoming a superstar MC whose persona is larger than her size. She is definitely one to watch, especially given that she isn’t represented by a major agency yet. 

Garance Marillier as protagonist Justine in Julia Ducournau's RAW. Going off to college is tough on anyone. The shift from youth at home to a free world of adulthood, the lack of structure that university provides can be a shock to the system for anyone -- let alone a monstrous cannibal. Recent years have seen a move towards more realistic, heartfelt and dramatic horror in the genre field. RAW is France’s answer to the conversation started in Sweden with LET THE RIGHT ONE IN almost ten years ago. None of this would have been possible without Garance’s breakout performance as the young woman discovering her new life away at school. The role and material is tough and demanding, yet Garance never seems out of her depth. She is beautiful, vulnerable, powerful and scary all while remaining human. A monster for the ages and a protagonist of our times – a woman embracing the changes she encounters upon entering the world of adulthood.

Directors to Watch

Geremy Jasper for writing and directing PATTI CAKE$. Geremy is already an accomplished music video director having been nominated for VMA’s for his work with Florence + the Machine and Selena Gomez. He is also a member of the Sundance writing and directing labs where he developed his first feature. A life long music freak Geremy wrote all the lyrics for his debut film PATTI CAKE$ which chronicles the life of a female MC in New Jersey. Its one of the strongest debuts in the genre since HUSTLE + FLOW and sold for $10 million to Fox Searchlight. His style is drawing comparison to that films writer/director Craig Brewer with its stripped-down, no-holds-barred look at the dog-eat-dog street world of blue collar hip-hop. 


Marti Noxon for writing and directing TO THE BONE. Marti is a force to be reckoned with on the small screen. Cutting her teeth as a writer on Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, she went onto co-create the show UnReal, an adaptation of a short film. That process allowed her to hone her directing chops taking on pivotal episodes of the show (now in its third season on Lifetime). For her feature debut, Noxon set about chronicling the struggles of a young woman with an eating disorder and the painful process that lifestyle entails. Drawing from her own past, her funny and heartfelt look at an all-too-real and painful disease was both heartwarming and bone-chilling in its delicate handling of the material. She is a creator to watch in either arena.

Taylor Sheridan for writing and directing WIND RIVER. Taylor started his career as an actor on the first two seasons of Sons of Anarchy. He wrote lines for his character before scripting whole episodes of the show. Realizing that many of his favorite roles -- tough, no-nonsense protagonists who took on the system they were forced to live in -- were no longer being written on the big screen, Taylor sought to fix that. He went on to script SICARIO and HELL OR HIGH WATER. Having found success with those scripts, he turned his attention to directing, bringing along many of his collaborators (like producers Basil Iwanyk and Peter Berg, and actors Jon Bernthal and Gil Birmingham) for this first outing in the director’s chair. The film is an extension of his work on the page, proving he has the chops to direct his fellow actors. His narrative of timeless characters and themes butting up against a ripped-from-the-headlines world where good and bad still battle for dominance is made only stronger by his deft hand as director.

Writers to Watch 


 Macon Blair for his directorial debut I DON'T FEEL AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE. Frequent Jeremy Saulnier collaborator and actor-turned-writer/director Macon is no stranger to Sundance. The X factor for him this year was forging out on his own with his directorial debut. Macon’s script was fun, funny and surreal in its look at the lengths a young woman will go to retrieve her stolen items. Like BLUE RUIN, it’s a strong debut that turns its lens on an unlikely action heroine. The dark balanced out with this great human touch. It's a strong debut for a fantastic storyteller. There is no wonder this was already picked up by Netflix and an award winner at the festival with its Death Note-by-way-of-the-Duplass Brothers mix. Action/comedy. 

Kevin Costello + Kyle Mooney for BRIGSBY BEAR, which Kyle starred in for director Dave McCary. This trio has a long working relationship on SNL where Kyle is a featured player, Kevin a staff writer and Dave a director. This collaboration is evident in their feature debut. The film is such a fun, funny and heartfelt look at the communities created and relationships maintained by the creative process. This is such a hard tone to hit without becoming campy or corny, and these guys nailed it. Kevin and Dave's partnership is reminiscent of Derek + Colin's in SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED. Their future seems just as bright now that Sony Pictures Classic has picked up the comedy.


Cory Finley for THOROUGHBRED, which he also directed. Cory has already established himself as a strong voice in the theatre world. Bret Easton Ellis captured the dark side of 1980s brat pack culture with Less Than Zero, Chuck Palahniuk did it with 90s misguided youths with Fight Club and here now Cory has weaved similar magic with millennials out for revenge in his NEXT debut. It’s a smart, taught thriller that shows the complexities of female friendship in the modern age where money might buy many things but not happiness.  Cory is an exciting writer on the horizon as he transitions from the stage to the screen. Thriller. 

Acquisitions

A24 

A GHOST STORY directed and written by David Lowery. The film stars Casey Affleck + Rooney Mara. Synopsis: This is the story of a ghost and the house he haunts.

Amazon 

THE BIG SICK directed by Michael Showalter. Written by Emily V. Gordon + Kumail Nanjiani. The film stars Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Ray Romano and Holly Hunter. Synopsis: A couple deals with their cultural differences as their relationship grows.

CROWN HEIGHTS directed and written by Matt Ruskin. The film stars Lakeith Stanfield, Nestor Carbonell, and Bill Camp. Synopsis: When Colin Warner was wrongfully convicted of murder, his best friend Carl King devoted his life to proving his innocence.

LANDLINE directed by Gillian Robespierre. Written by Elisabeth Holm + Gillian Robespierre.  The film stars Jenny Slate, Edie Falco, Finn Wittrock, Jay Duplass, and John Turturro. Synopsis: In 1995, a teenager living with her sister and parents in Manhattan discovers that her father is having an affair.

Filmrise 

DAYVEON directed by Amman Abbasi. Written by Steven Renee + Amman Abbasi. The film stars Devin Blackmon, Dontrell Bright, and Lachion Buckingham. Synopsis: In the wake of his older brother's death, 13-year-old Dayveon spends the sweltering summer days roaming his rural Arkansas town. When he falls in with a local gang, he becomes drawn to the camaraderie and violence of their world.

Focus Features 

THOROUGHBRED directed and written by Cory Finley. The film stars Anton Yelchin, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Olivia Cooke. Synopsis: Two teenage girls in suburban Connecticut rekindle their unlikely friendship after years of growing apart. In the process, they learn that neither is what she seems to be, and that a murder might solve both of their problems.

Fox Searchlight 

PATTI CAKE$, directed and written by Geremy Jasper. The film stars Danielle Macdonald, Bridget Everett and Siddharth Dhananjay. Synopsis: Straight out of Jersey comes Patricia Dombrowski, a.k.a. Killa P, a.k.a. Patti Cake$, an aspiring rapper fighting through a world of strip malls and strip clubs on an unlikely quest for glory.

Gunpowder and Sky 

THE LITTLE HOURS directed and written by Jeff Baena. The film stars Alison Brie, Dave Franco, Kate Micucci, Aubrey Plaza, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Fred Armisen, and Nick Offerman. Synopsis: A young servant fleeing from his master takes refuge at a convent full of emotionally unstable nuns in the middle ages.

IFC Midnight 

KILLING GROUND directed and written by Damien Power. The film stars Harriet Dyer, Stephen Hunter, and Tiarnie Coupland. Synopsis: A couples camping trip turns into a frightening ordeal when they stumble across the scene of a horrific crime.

Neon 

BEACH RATS directed and written by Eliza Hittman. The film stars Harris Dickinson, Madeline Weinstein, and Kate Hodge
Synopsis: An aimless teenager on the outer edges of Brooklyn struggles to escape his bleak home life and navigate questions of self-identity, as he balances his time between his delinquent friends, a potential new girlfriend, and older men he meets online.

INGRID GOES WEST directed by Matt Spicer. Written by David Branson Smith + Matt Spicer. The film stars Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Wyatt Russell, and Billy Magnussen. Synopsis: Ingrid Thorburn, a mentally disturbed young woman, becomes obsessed with Taylor Sloane, a social media star who appears to have the perfect life. But when Ingrid decides to drop everything and move west to befriend Taylor, her behavior turns unsettling and increasingly dangerous.

ROXANNE ROXANNE directed and written by Michael Larnell. The film stars Chanté Adams, Mahershala Ali, Nia Long, Elvis Nolasco, Kevin Phillips, and Shenell Edmonds. Synopsis: In the early 1980s in the most feared battle MC in Queens, New York was a fierce teenage girl with the weight of the world on her shoulders. At the age of 14, Lolita "Roxanne Shanté" Gooden was well on her way to becoming a hip-hop legend as she hustled to provide for her family while defending herself from the dangers of the streets of the Queensbridge Projects in NYC.
 

Netflix 
BERLIN SYNDROME directed by Cate Shortland. Written by Shaun Grant and Melanie Joosten. The film stars Teresa Palmer, Max Riemelt, and Lucie Aron. Synopsis: A passionate holiday romance leads to an obsessive relationship, when an Australian photojournalist wakes one morning in a Berlin apartment and is unable to leave.

FUN MOM DINNER directed by Althea Jones. Written by Julie Rudd. The film stars Toni Collette, Katie Aselton, Bridget Everett, Molly Shannon, Adam Scott, and Adam Levine. Synopsis: Four moms whose only common ground is their kids' preschool class, decide to get together for a harmless "fun mom dinner.” (Theatrical rights bought by Momentum Pictures)

THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES directed and written by Jim Strouse. The film stars Jessica Williams, Chris O’Dowd, Lakeith Stanfeild, and Noel Wells. Synopsis: An aspiring playwright in New York strikes up a friendship with a guy while on the rebound from a break-up.

MUDBOUND directed by Dee Rees. Written by Virgil Williams & Dee Rees. The film stars Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Mary J. Blige, Rob Morgan, Garrett Hedlund, and Jason Mitchell. Synopsis: Two men return home from World War II to work on a farm in rural Mississippi where they struggle to deal with racism and adjusting to life after war.

TO THE BONE directed and written by Marti Noxon. The film stars Lily Collins, Keanu Reeves, Carrie Preston, Lili Taylor, Alex Sharp, and Liana Liberato. Synopsis: A young woman is dealing with anorexia. She meets an unconventional doctor who challenges her to face her condition and embrace life.

The Orchard 

THE HERO directed by Brett Haley. Written by Marc Basch + Brett Haley. The film stars Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon, Nick Offerman, and Krysten Ritter. Synopsis: An ailing movie star comes to terms with his past and mortality.

RLJ Entertainment 

BUSHWICK directed by Cary Murnion + Jonathan Milott. Written by Nick Damici + Graham Reznick. The film stars Dave Bautista, Brittany Snow, and Christian Navarro. Synopsis: When a Texas military force invades their Brooklyn neighborhood, 20-year-old Lucy and war veteran Stupe must depend on each other to survive.

Roadside Attractions
BEATRIZ AT DINNER directed by Miguel Arteta. Written by Mike White. The film stars Salma Hayek, Chloe Sevigny, John Lithgow, and Connie Britton. Synopsis: A holistic medicine practitioner attends a wealthy client's dinner party after her car breaks down.

Sony Pictures Classics 

BRIGSBY BEAR directed by Dave McCrary. Written by Kevin Costello + Kyle Mooney. The film stars Mark Hamill, Claire Danes, Greg Kinnear, Matt Walsh, and Kyle Mooney.
Synopsis: Brigsby Bear Adventures is a children's TV show produced for an audience of one: James. When the show abruptly ends, James's life changes forever, and he sets out to finish the story himself.

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME directed and written by Luca Guadagnino. The film stars Armie Hammer, Timothee Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, and Victoria Du Bois. Synopsis: A romance between a seventeen year-old boy and a summer guest at his parents' cliffside mansion on the Italian Riviera.


NOVITIATE, directed and written by Maggie Betts. The film stars Diana Agron, Morgan Saylor, and Margaret Qualley, Melissa Leo, and Denis O’Hare. Synopsis: Set in the early 1960s and during the era of Vatican II, a young woman in training to become a nun struggles with issues of faith, the changing church and sexuality.


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David Whitney is an LA-based producer. He previously worked for Lionsgate, selling the rights to Academy Award winner CRASH and several installments of the SAW series, as well as for Universal Pictures and Warner Brothers. David brings a personal love of graphic novels, a passion for manga, and the desire to adapt both for the screen. 


www.coverageink.com


Thursday, February 16, 2017

ESCAPE VELOCITY


Screenwriters Brooks Elms and Glenn Sanders recently made the trades when they set up their sci-fi thriller Near Earth Object with Chinese studio Le Vision, who plans to make it with an international cast. Not long ago, they were just two guys entering contests -- one of which was our own Writers on the Storm, which they won with Wright or Wrong, their comedy about the Wright Brothers' first misadventures with flight. We caught up with Brooks and Glenn to find out what they've been up to since then now that their careers have now achieved escape velocity.

by Jim Cirile

Jim Cirile (JC): So who the heck are you guys?


Brooks Elms (BE): I was one of those guys that made a bunch of movies with my friends back in high school. I probably made about 50 short film experiments before attending NYU for undergraduate, where I met one of my writing partners, Glenn Sanders. After film school I made a couple independent features, but in the last 8 or 9 years I focused mostly on screenwriting, getting signed by UTA, selling a couple of scripts, and I’ve now written about 20 scripts.

Glenn Sanders (GS): I knew literally when I walked out of the movie theater after seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark that I wanted to be a filmmaker. I didn’t know what that meant; I just knew it was something I wanted to do. I ended up going to NYU, like Brooks, and made a bunch of short films there. I moved out to Los Angeles ’96, and I had a bunch of odd jobs around town at different production companies in various capacities. I ultimately found myself in the advertising world as a copy writer working on traditional ad campaigns on the digital side, back when digital was still a new thing. I really started to hone my storytelling skill and my ability to produce a lot of material quickly. I had gotten involved with writing with Brooks during that time; it was sort of like my nighttime hobby. That led to us writing several scripts together, and a couple of years ago we sold Snowfall to Gold Circle. Now we’re working on Near Earth Object. I now work at a film marketing company called Eclipse in Burbank, and I’ve done digital and social marketing campaigns for Jurassic World, Deadpool, the Back to the Future 30th Anniversary, and dozens of other titles.

JC: I know a lot of professional writers at various levels who have other revenue streams, without which they couldn’t pay the bills consistently.

GS:
I’m very lucky to have a job that engages my creative skills working with people who are very supportive of my screenwriting. What I learn from one is always influencing and improving what I do in the other.

JC: Brooks, you teach at Story Analysis for Film and Television at UCLA Extension as well.


BE: Yeah, which is great, and I’m also in real estate. Paydays come if you work hard enough at it and you’re really focused on doing work that has a larger audience. But the consistency ebbs and flows at any level of the game, so having multiple revenue streams is really a smart way to go. The only way to go, I think.

JC: Talk a little bit about the genesis of Wright or Wrong.

BE: I'd spent some time in the outer banks of North Carolina, where the Wright brothers flew their airplane contraptions in the 1900s. I thought it would be a really interesting subject for a feature. I talked to Glenn, and we both loved the idea of doing a Wright brothers story. This is the first thing we both worked on together. I really loved Glenn’s sensibility from the movies he made in film school, and I thought tapping into his comedic voice and doing a Wright Brothers story in that tone would be really exciting and a fun way to work with him.


Wilbur and Orville enjoy their business class seats with extra legroom.

GS: I had written a script a couple years before with another co-writer friend, sort of a western comedy for kids. One of the scenes we wrote was the Wright brothers as kids. The interplay between the two brothers as bickering siblings was one of my favorite things I’d ever written up to that point. I’d always thought at the back of my mind, "Oh, I love those characters, what would you do with them?" I saw them more as kids than anything. Brooks came to me -- "What if we did the Wright brothers story?"  I said, "Are you open to doing this as a comedy like the movie Stepbrothers, except 1903?" He was game, and that’s where we got started. 

BE: It came out really well and we got a lot of attention for it. I’d already had my manager at that point, but we did well in your contest and other contests.

GS: Gary Sanchez (Productions) read it -- that's the production company that Will Ferrell and Adam McKay run -- and they really liked it. But they had the same issue we knew about, which is that period comedies are extremely hard to make and sell. Maybe less so now, but 6 or 7 years ago when we wrote it, it was just a real challenge. Markets were kind of collapsing. But it was an amazing experience, and now we're on our 6th or 7th script.

JC: If you've got Will Ferrell in a Wright Bros. comedy, who wouldn't make that movie? How could that not get set up? We're talking internationally known source material!


Will Ferrell would kill as Orville.
BE: You’re preaching to the choir. We did get an option offer on it, from a producer that has a couple cool things cooking and in development. He didn’t have any money, and we were so busy with the sci-fi thing that we really couldn’t take time off and do a few polishes for free. The other interesting thing is, because we’re talking about siblings, we always thought that it would be a real nice fit for sibling directors or sibling actors -- something like that where there's an added level of personal connection to it. I think it’s one of those things where the right person is going to come along, and it can happen very quickly. There's still a lot of interest.

GS: Talking to the producer about Near Earth Object, and why he was so excited about the material, tells us a lot about why Wright or Wrong is such a difficult sell. There are so many reasons to say no to that material. You could say, "Oh, it’s a period piece’. So that’s gonna cost more money. "Oh, its a comedy, but the tone isn’t in line with what comedy is doing right now."

JC: Hollywood is extremely narrow in the type of comedy they'll make now. Ridiculous, of course. 
 
GS: When we wrote it, there was a moment where the pendulum of comedy swung towards grounded, Judd Apatow-type, character-focused comedy. This was very much an absurdist kind of romp and very fantastical and silly. It also wasn’t particularly edgy, so it wasn’t a bunch of dick jokes and things like that. So it didn’t quite hit exactly what the more outrageous comedy was doing or what the most grounded comedy was doing at the time.

JC: Why did you guys segue from comedy into sci-fi?


The International Space Station (I.S.S.)
 BE: I was talking to another guy we went to NYU with, Evan Astrowsky, who is a producer with about a dozen produced credits. He (encouraged me) to take my writing voice into the genre space. I was resistant at first, because I liked some genre films, but I wasn’t much of a genre fan just for the genre itself. Then I thought this guy has good connections, and he’s inviting me to create. I came up with a couple of concepts, but there was this one, Snowfall, about a bunch of commuters stuck on a train during a massive blizzard, which turns out to be cover for an alien invasion. Glenn really liked it, and we developed together. Glenn and I were gonna co-direct it, and then Evan was gonna produce it. But Evan said, "Look, this is really strong material, and I think I might be able to get it set up in a bigger way." He took us in to his contacts at UTA. They signed us, and we went out with the script, and eventually it landed at Gold Circle.  

After a period of development, it ended up going into turnaround. So now we have two really strong versions of it -- one that’s about a $2 million version, one you could probably shoot for $10 or $15 million. I gave both of those drafts to one of my UCLA classes. I split the class in half and the ratings were, interestingly, exactly the same. The people on average liked the earlier version as much as they liked the other version.

GS: We were so far along.They were already location scouting in Canada. I think it just kind of lost momentum, and then suddenly it wasn’t the hottest project on the docket after all this time developing it. It’s painful and it’s frustrating. It’s a good education in setting expectations. (For our) next project we wanted to do something that was a little bit bigger in scale, (but) still contained and producible. We wanted to make something easy for someone to say yes to. We wanted to eliminate any reason to say no and have the material stand or fall based on the quality of writing itself. Ultimately, that became Near Earth Object.


JC: And big congrats on setting that one set up! It seems like everybody is getting on the China bandwagon nowadays. What was the process of getting the script out there, and how did Le Vision come aboard?

GS: Once we finished the script, we handed it out to our agents and manager and lawyer. The response from our internal team was fantastic. UTA got extremely excited about it. Within about two weeks, they had set a plan and put it out to a bunch of different companies around town. Among that list was Le Vision -- former Paramount Pictures President Adam Goodman and his team. 


JC: Goodman is now helming Le Vision, one of the largest movie companies in China, and has a slate of English language films.
 
GS: They saw a lot of potential and a lot of reasons to say yes, and a lot of reasons their partners in China would be very positive about this project, including one of the main characters being a Chinese astronaut and the international appeal of a small team of astronauts stuck on the international space station trying to help save the world.

BE: The concept was organically international. It wasn’t a Chinese guy shoehorned into an American movie or vice versa. The concept was about the teamwork between a group of astronauts stranded together, and they all need to work together to confront big problems when they're up on the International Space Station. Adam responded strongly to it being organically international and contained. It can be a tent pole movie but not nearly at the tent pole price. We were smart about limiting locations.

JC: Awesome! What’s the one-liner?


ISS 27 Mission Patch
BE: I can't say too much, but... when a team of astronauts get stranded on the international space station, they have to work together to confront what could be the end of the world. Them being stranded is the very thing that makes them key to saving humanity. It turns out because they’re isolated, they're the only ones who can save humanity.

JC: Nice. So what's happening with Near Earth Object?

BE: We met with Le Vision a bunch of times, and they’re really awesome guys. Smart notes, loved the project, great to work with, very sharp. It’s been awesome. We’ve written a treatment for the new draft. Then probably another polish or two on the treatment, and then we jump into the new draft. They’re very excited and want to get it moving as soon as possible.

JC: Any whispers of casting yet?

GS: It’s too soon. The next step would be getting the script right, then getting a director on board. Le Vision has been a force in China but only
recently opened up in the United States. Adam was named as the president of Le Vision in the U.S. in September. We have the honor and distinction of being the first project that they picked up.

BE: They make about 18 movies for the China market a year. Them expanding to Hollywood was a real natural progression. They were really smart to bring on Adam, who was at DreamWorks and Paramount. He’s super sharp, and I think he’s gonna do great things for them.


GS: In the development process, what we found exciting was that his instincts are really sharp. We feel that the way he’s pushing us is significantly improving the material. We feel like we're learning from him and the rest of the team as we go along. Even in the couple of months we’ve worked together and the little bit of work that we’ve done so far, we’re increasingly excited. When you go into a producer relationship, you don’t know what to expect. The whole team’s treated us with nothing but respect and also have provided us with notes that have been great.


JC: Guys, you did it -- you made good. Proud of you. Keep on rocking it, and I look forward to seeing Near Earth Object at the multiplex.

http://www.coverageink.com

Sunday, January 22, 2017

How Do I Get an Agent?

Ah, the age-old question. If you want to know the real answer, watch this video (8 mins).


https://youtu.be/4SmP03PNlv8


Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Get Repped Now Fall 2016 Considers (So Far)


We're just about done reading all the Fall 2016 Get Repped Now submissions, and we are super excited about the material. While only four scripts that made the cut so far (down from ten last go-round,) the quality of them all is through the roof.  We can't wait to drop them on our manager panel as soon as we get all the polish drafts in. 

A round of applause, please, for our Get Repped Now fall 2016 considers (so far:)
  • Mike Doyle - Heathens (feature)
  • Joseph Balczo - Bloodlands (pilot)
  • Lyn Woodward and Jonny Lieberman - Frank Bourbon, Car Guy (feature)
  • Tony Dunoyer and Alex Chevasco - The Machiavellis  (pilot + feature)
This batch of talented writers features two repeat offenders -- Balczo, as well as the team of Dunoyer + Chevasco, landed 'considers' in 2015. While acknowledging the talent on the page, the managers weren't motivated enough by the material at that time. So it's really satisfying to see them land another at-bat. 

Right now, we're letting our panel know what's coming at them and building anticipation. Hopefully we'll have exciting news on all these projects in the coming months. And if your a script didn't score a 'consider,' just remember -- it's always a 'pass' until it isn't. A 'consider' may only be a draft away. Get Repped Now returns in March, so we expect all of you to bring your "A" game. So let's root for our considers as we storm Hollywood's battlements, chew bubble gum and kick ass. 

Oh, crap -- all out of bubble gum. 

-- Jim C.




Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Aaron Sorkin MasterClass: Review

by Jim Cirile

 
MasterClass.com caught screenwriters' eyes in a big way last year when they launched their Aaron Sorkin video tutorial series. For $90, far cheaper than the cost of most screenwriting classes, we could spend 35 video lessons with the esteemed writer of A Few Good Men, West Wing, and The Social Network, to name but a few.

You've gotta hand it to MasterClass. They have assembled a roster of absolutely top-shelf talent for their video tutorials -- folks like bestselling author James Patterson teaching writing, Hans Zimmer on composing and Gordon Ramsay on cooking. Their videos are lavishly produced and yet intimate -- you really feel like you are in the room with the instructors as they share their tips, tricks and techniques. Take a minute to browse their catalog and you will no doubt see several classes you'd like to take.

So how is the Sorkin? In the style of another cinematic masterpiece, let's break it down:

The Good: Sorkin comes off as thoughtful, easy-going and overall is a pretty good teacher, with a huge respect for the masters of screenwriting who came before him. We get a glimpse into his thought processes and his workman-like style of tackling complex story issues -- such as how to write about real-life people far smarter than he believes himself to be (Steve Jobs, for example.) And there is a lot of content here as well. The lessons are structured in three distinct parts: first, one on one with Aaron, wherein he pontificates on various screenwriting-related topics. In the second section he workshops scripts with five students in a classroom setting. And in the final section, he sets up a pretend writer's room, and he and the students proceed to "break" story for a new West Wing episode. This is a great look behind the scenes of how a TV writers room works and shows how various ideas and story threads are assembled. There are also a few lessons detailing his dialogue process. It goes without saying that this is a no-brainer for fans.

The Bad: Those expecting an actual "master"-level class may be disappointed. While Sorkin himself is unquestionably a master, the class itself is for beginner to intermediate-level writers. Apart from the sage advice to go back and read Aristotle's "Poetics," as it is the foundation of all things story, my partner and I didn't really learn much from the 5-plus hours of videos. However, we're coming at this from a higher level than some.

As well, we felt that while Sorkin was super cool and empowering to the students, some story issues in the workshopped screenplays were missed -- such as a TV series pitch that probably should have been a feature, except that it would be "Rain Man," which is why it's a series pitch -- except it doesn't really work; and another where the concept was just convoluted and broken. Sorkin did target a few of the logic and research issues in that case, but the real note should have been to rethink the premise from the ground up. Although we certainly can't fault him for being a nice guy.

The Ugly: It goes without saying that Sorkin is a brilliant writer. But our main criticism of his work -- that many of his characters sound the same and all speak in that hyper-stylized patter -- also applies to what he teaches. In fact he actually tells us not to write character bios, because that may get in the way of the character saying what you want them to say. That is probably not the best advice and goes to the heart of the problem just mentioned. It results in what we call "non-character-specific dialogue." You should always have a solid idea of your characters and their backstory, because that informs how they speak/behave. In contrast to what Sorkin says, in theory your characters indeed have existed before the movie began. All those life experiences, along with socio/economic status, country of origin/ethnicity, quirks, tics, idiosyncrasies and personality, etc., should inform their dialogue.

He also talks about using page count as a metric to where you should be in your story at any given time, which is great. However, his scripts can run 180-200 pages or more, and that is because they are so dialogue-heavy. In his original draft of "The American President," Annette Bening's character didn't even arrive in the story until the second half of the script -- page 100! Could you imagine if you or I turned in such a draft to a studio? We'd never work again. No wonder all his characters sound the same. When you've got to cram 180 pages of dialogue into a 2-hour movie, that necessitates characters speaking like Gilmore Girls at 78 rpm. Here in the real world, unless you've already got that amazing reputation, it's tough to get feature scripts over 120 pages read -- no matter if your script is dialogue or V.O. -heavy or not.

Lastly, Sorkin can take a while to get to a point. There were times when we'd be shouting out things like "White on the page!" to summarize what takes him a bit of screen time to explain. That said, his ruminations are interesting and insightful and worth the journey.

Conclusion: Sorkin's class is a great look into the mind and process of a true master, but don't expect it to be a master-level class. It is however an affordable and worthwhile experience for those looking to learn the basics and get a taste of Sorkin. Just be aware that we are not all at Sorkin's level, and there are a different set of rules for the likes of us.



(3.5 stars out of 5.)

Monday, January 02, 2017

5 WAYS TO HIT THE GROUND RUNNING IN 2017

(And Good Riddance, 2016)

By Jim Cirile



From the American Screenwriters Association blog 

Ahoy, fellow scribes! We’re finally done with 2016, that blizzard of putrescence – and not a minute too soon. Some of the lowlights: Trump, DNC chicanery, and Wikileaks revealing that Citicorp had selected Obama’s entire cabinet. And we lost so many – not only huge names like Prince, Bowie, Muhammad Ali, George Michael and Carrie Fisher, but lesser-known geniuses like Joe Alaskey, aka the voice of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, Monsters Inc. screenwriter Dan Gerson, and two-thirds of progressive rock pioneers Emerson, Lake and Palmer (only drummer Carl Palmer remains). Icing the turd: feature spec sales were at their lowest level in a decade. 

Ugh.

But wait. What’s that sound off in the distance? Was that a… cha-ching? Indeed! There is a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s the magic number 455. No, no, it’s not on the front of an oncoming train. That, friends, is the number of scripted pilots bought/ordered last year. Compare that with less than 100 feature specs sold, and you’ll see that TV has superseded features as a place to make money. And that means opportunity. 

So I’ve compiled a short list of five things we should all do in order to get a piece. Forget pointless New Year’s resolutions you’ll never keep – do this.



1) ELEVATE YOUR CRAFT 

Sounds simple, right? Yet this is probably the single hardest thing for writers to do, mainly because many of us live in a lovely Egyptian land called “Denial.” See, screenplays are not lottery tickets. There is no real element of luck. If you send scripts to 20 contests and hope that one of them will recognize your brilliance, you’re not understanding how things really work. While there are exceptions of course, when a script is great, everyone can see it from 20,000 feet.

The truth is, the vast majority of scripts are mediocre. But rather than doing the heavy lifting needed to get them into the end zone – that means rewriting, people – oftentimes we maybe do one round of notes, then send it out.
The sound you hear next is the door hitting your ass on the way out.

The truth is: creating a great script generally takes work. Malevolent, our in-production animated feature (starring William Shatner and Morena Baccarin) took 20 drafts and over a year of development before it got consistent considers. Expect this and plan for it. Why is it that unlike any other highly paid profession, writers have so much trouble accepting that years of study and blood, sweat and tears are often needed to learn a highly specialized craft?
So I want everyone reading this to take steps to up their game. Don’t just keep writing in a vacuum.

·         Take a class. Pretty much every college has online classes. Embrace the learning process.


·         Find a writer’s group. You’d be amazed how empowering it is to get feedback on your pages week after week – plus the deadlines help, too.


·         Send your script in for feedback from companies who use highly trained professional story analysts – and then do the notes.


·         And lest we forget – avail yourself of all the incredible information out there! When I got started in the ‘80s, all we had were a couple of Syd Field books. Now there are literally thousands of how-to books, blogs, articles, webinars and YouTube videos. All out there waiting for you.

Do ALL these things. repeat as needed. No point in making any submissions until you are certain that your script rocks (unless you're a glutton for rejection.)


2) MAKE A LIST AND CHECK IT TWICE

Once you’re confident your material is the shizbombdiggity, how do you get it out there? Good news again: there have never been more ways to do this. The truth is: everyone is looking to find an amazing script. But no one wants to waste precious time trudging through the great unwashed masses. So companies like InkTip and Virtual Pitchfest make it easy to submit your story ideas to producers and reps for just a few bucks (and they take a lot of the hassle out of the process for producers, while adding a firewall to ensure they’re not badgered by the likes of us.) I personally got signed off Virtual Pitchfest in the past, so I can assure you it works.

Two other interesting options: Roadmap Writers and The Black List. Roadmap Writers sets up phone/Skype pitches with execs, while the Black List provides industry exposure to top-rated script submissions.

There’s no better way to get in the faces of executives than by getting in the faces of executives, so we highly recommend Scriptfest (formerly Great American Pitchfest.) This event, held every summer in Burbank, puts you with as many as 15-20 execs in a single day. A smaller but still worthwhile pitch event is Pitching Room, from Story Pros, which is twice yearly.

While an imdbpro.com subscription ($129) has useful company info, unfortunately, they don’t have a lots of up-to-date contacts and e-mails useful for querying execs. Fortunately, there is the Hollywood Screenwriting Directory, from our friends at The Writers Store. $24.95 gets you a hard copy directory with 4,000 companies, as well as access to their frequently-updated website. Make a list of the companies who have done projects similar to yours, then contact the lowest-rung person on the totem pole at those places -- interns or assistants. They’re looking to put feathers in their cap by finding killer material to champion. That means they actually read. Have your elevator pitch ready, and hit ‘em with a cold call. Be electric and personable. A 20-second phone pitch can well elicit a “Sure, what the hell. Send it over.” If you’re going to query via e-mail, make sure it is short and punchy, that you paint a compelling, fascinating picture of yourself, and that you only pitch one project per query. 

3) GET YOUR CONTEST DUCKS IN A ROW 

There are a handful of fantastic contests out there who break new talent all the time. And there are a boatload that do not. Really, there are less than ten that have any real juice. A cash prize is nice, but what you really need is access. Here are a few worth your dime and your time:









As for the rest… meh. Face it, making the semi-finals of the South Terre Haute Film Festival Screenwriting Competition will do precisely jack and squat for your career… and Jack just left town. And while we’re not a contest, I have to shamelessly plug Coverage Ink’s Get Repped Now promotion as well. Again, access is the name of the game.

And don’t forget the network fellowships and diversity programs. Programs like NBC’s Writers on the Verge, Nickelodeon Writing and the Disney/ABC Writing Fellowship are a golden way in – although competition is fierce. Finally, there may be some grant money available for those who wish to DIY. Film Daily has a great list. 

4) SCRUTINIZE YOURSELF 

Most of us have difficulty with this. That’s why I founded Coverage Ink, frankly – because more often than not, others can see the flaws in your material when you cannot. So buck up, pilgrim, and take a cold, hard look at each of these areas: 

Concept. If you are writing a TV pilot, then your pilot should look like a TV show (duh) and bring something fresh and compelling to the table, in a genre that TV generally does. As well, it should ideally fit with a certain network – “this is clearly a CW show,” for example. If it’s a feature, it should be demonstrably studio or indie (but probably not both,) with a clear target audience. Who will pay to see this movie? IS there an audience for it? Your adaptation of a 17th century treatise on the merits of indoor plumbing, for example, may not draw ‘em in at the local multiplex. If it’s an indie, make sure you keep the budget LOW. And even if it’s meant to be a studio spec, remember that while you do need set pieces, you also need complex and robust characterizations. Consider also that no one can sell a huge-budget epic fantasy or superhero spec -- most of these types of movies are adapted from well-known source material, meaning your spec is DOA. Best bet: stay with the evergreen genres: crime, thriller, action, comedy, contained/affordable sci-fi (think “Moon,”) and horror. Romantic comedies, epic adventures, westerns, dramas and period pieces are tough sells on the feature side. 

Title. Titles are marketing tools. Ideally they should convey something about the genre, tone, or theme of the script. Beware of naming your script after your main character (lazy, and tells us little unless it is a historical figure) or some cliché like “Good to Go” or “It’s Never Enough.” These titles are so vague as to say nothing. Make sure your title POPS.
  
Style. Yes, it is possible to scrutinize your writing style! Not just your story, but the way in which you tell a story – aka “voice.” A few things to look out for: 

Overwriting. Screenwriting should be snappy and terse, not novelistic and bloated. Read your script over thoroughly, scanning every single line, paragraph, every page, scrutinizing it carefully. Keep the axe poised, and excise extraneous words. It's a bit of an art to train your eye to look for bloat, but it's a skill any writer can learn. Take any sentence and challenge yourself: can I say the same thing in half the words? Or do I need it at all? Be on the lookout for redundancies, scenes that are unrelated to the main storyline, excessive detail and extraneous characters and subplots -- especially in the case of many ensemble scripts, which oftentimes would work better and be tighter with a central protagonist. 

Some writers haven’t mastered contractions and possessives and confuse its/it’s and your/you’re. Nothing will get your script tossed on the “pass” pile faster. You’re putting yourself up for highly paid writing gigs, which means you’re expected to know this stuff. Or we make other basic errors like “lightening” instead of “lightning” and “must of” instead of “must have.” There is no shame in taking a copy editing or grammar class at night school. They exist to help you. Avail yourself.

But by far the most common style problem is just a plain ol’ lack of it. Some writers’ panache flares off the page, with energetic word choices, vibrant descriptions and punchy, in-your-face prose. Others write flat sentences using tired, uncreative adjectives like “large” and verbs like “walks,” “sits,” and “runs.” One sprints, races, zooms, scrambles, stampedes, bolts, flies, bum-rushes, steams, bounds or blazes. Never “runs.” 

Again, creative writing courses are available at every single community college…

Here’s one more tip to improving your style: STEAL. How much do you think I stole from William Goldman’s technique? If you answered “a f*ck ton,” you’d be correct! There are amazing and inspirational writers out there who know how to turn a phrase, who always keep you guessing. For me those people are folks like Harlan Ellison, Richard Marcinko, Carl Hiassen, and David Twohy. Like the way a writer does a cool transition, or uses just the right word to paint a mental picture? Filch! No, I’m not saying lift their content, duh. I’m saying to use their style to inform your own.  

5) WRITE SOMETHING NEW 

Whaaat? No, seriously. You should do this. All of us at one time or another have shopped a project that was past its expiration date. It’s hard to accept something we’ve labored over for years is pushing up daisies. But here’s the thing: agents and managers expect you to write two or three new pieces of material/year. Gulp. Once you accept that, there’s no time to beat that dead horse anymore. Because a gorgeous, brand-new filly has just galloped in.

So put aside that script you’ve been flogging since 1994 and freakin’ start afresh. Okay, now I know I just said to not be afraid to do twenty drafts. However, many of us just keep reworking the same ol’ material which maybe has a flawed or uncommercial concept or is just problematic in some way. When you start a new feature or pilot, you’re proceeding with all the information you’ve learned since then, ready to roll. Your sense of structure and pacing will be better, and you may nail some things first time out that you are still struggling with in the old script. By writing something new you will recharge your batteries and show what you can do right now, in 2017 – not what you did a few years ago, patched up with half-assed rewrites that didn’t really address the underlying issues.

+++

Simple, right? Hell no. In fact, all this stuff is laborious. But you wanted in on this game. You wanted to write movies and TV and make the big bucks. So make sure you have the tools to rule. Now go kick some ass and make me proud!



Jim Cirile is a Los Angeles writer/producer and the founder of Coverage Ink, helping writers with professional screenplay analysis/development services since 2002.