Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Alien Choices

by Tanya Klein

It seems to be time for one of my once-every-few-months soap-box rants. In other words, I’ve come to the point – again – where just gritting my teeth at writers phoning it in isn’t enough and I have to vent. What brought it on this time? The holiday weekend. I took the radical step of taking a day off and catching a matinee of ALIEN: COVENANT. Considering the more-than-decent reviews it received, I was really looking forward to it. The good news: it’s definitely the third best of the series. The bad news: considering the overall quality of the series (I’m excepting ALIEN and ALIENS) that’s not saying much. 

We wonder if Ridley Scott ever actually saw ALIENS. It would appear not.
 The movie gets a lot of things right. Unfortunately, it also has a fatal flaw. Don’t worry if you haven’t seen the movie yet. I won’t spoil anything for you. Frankly, I don’t have to, because a blind person could see the ending coming… from a million miles away… while in a coma. In fact, there’s even a scene in Act II that practically gives it away. And as soon as Act III rolls around, anyone who was holding out hope that they weren’t going to go down this hackneyed path was sorely disappointed.  

So this is what my rant is about: bad choices. Look, we all make them. And if we were aware that a choice in our script is bad, we wouldn’t be making it. Hey, that’s where script coverage comes in. We can’t see the flaws in our own material. It’s quite natural. A second set of eyes can be essential to ferreting out the problems. But that begs the question: how come a movie like ALIEN: COVENANT, which undoubtedly went through a long development process (yes, I’m hoping they’ve learned something from the debacle that was PROMETHEUS) can misstep in such a basic and near-fatal way? 

Well, there’s only one answer I could come up with: hubris. Believing the audience won’t notice or won’t care (well, the latter might be a distinct possibility). I can almost hear Ridley Scott saying: “Don’t worry, I can sell this.” And he tried mightily with some choice close-ups and even going so far as to include an (utterly false) beat of a character exhaling and seeming relieved when they shouldn’t be. It was an inexcusable, big-time cheat, and we expect better from a director like Scott.

No, he couldn’t sell it and it left a sour taste in my mouth. I had a distinct “dude, how dumb do you think we are?” reaction when leaving the movie theater. I saw some other scowling faces, which made me think so did they.  Methinks that’s not the attitude you want in your audience.

How can we avoid this in our own writing? For starters, let’s not underestimate our audience. They’ve seen every trope in existence at this point – many times. BREAKING BAD trusted that the audience was smart, and it paid off in a big way. Nowadays, much more so than in the past, we’re being bombarded from all sides. Wherever you look, there’s scripted entertainment. Not only on TV or in the movie houses, but on your tablet, your smartphone, and, heck, even in the back of a cab. Whatever we feel like watching, it’s at our fingertips to be streamed at our convenience. In other words, there’s nothing the audience hasn’t seen yet, and they can smell a trope from miles away.  So if you’re currently looking at your script and thinking, “Hmm, I wonder if they’d buy that?,” then I feel the need to point out that if you have to ask the question, then the answer is probably no.

There were also some other minor quibbles I had with ALIEN: COVENANT. Did anyone involved with this production bother watching ALIENS? The conclusions of both movies had elements so similar as to be tiresome. Or were they trying to rip off their progenitor? Possibly neither scenario is accurate. Maybe they simply didn’t care, which would point to the above-mentioned hubris. 

Moral of the story? Don’t underestimate your audience. Don't think you can "sell" the hokum. Do that extra draft and don’t settle for mediocrity. Rant end.   

++

Tanya Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer/producer and a partner in Coverage Ink. 

www.coverageink.com

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

SO HERE'S THE SITUATION

Writer/Producer Jamie Rhonheimer has been killing it in the situation comedy world for almost two decades. You may have heard of some of the shows he's been staffed on, like "Will and Grace," "How I Met Your Mother," and most recently Netflix's "The Ranch." We caught up with Jamie to ask him how he keeps it going and to find out what recommendations he has for writers interested in TV and sitcom writing.

by Jim Cirile, Coverage Ink




Jim Cirile: Tell everyone a little about your background.

Jamie Rhonheimer: I'm originally from Colorado. I went to college at Syracuse University and moved out to LA right after graduation, and was fortunate enough to know exactly what I wanted to do -- write sitcoms. And when you know what you want to do so clearly, the only question really is what's the best path to get there. I had a friend who had graduated a year before me and was out here working on sitcoms, and he explained the path from breaking in as a production assistant, then moving to writer's assistant, to writer.

JC: Did you always know you wanted to write for TV?

 
JR: I remember being in elementary school and we were given a survey that asked how many hours of TV we watched every day, and I (checked) the box for "8+ hours". I think the rhythms of sitcoms are kind of ingrained in me at the deepest level, and maybe I chose this career to prove to my mom it wasn't all a waste of time. After college I was offered a job working for an advertising agency I had interned for, and it was a really tough decision because it would've been in Manhattan working as a copywriter for a good agency, but I felt like I had to give this a shot. So I moved to LA, as you must, must do if you want to embark on a career as a sitcom writer, and sort of just tried to work my way in.

JC: So how exactly did you do that?
 

JR: I got my first PA (production assistant) job through a friend who was out here working on the CBS Radford lot and heard they needed someone. It was on a game show for Family Channel called Shopping Spree. It was very low budget; they didn't have prizes, they had pictures of prizes, and if the contestant won the prize, then someone had to go out to Best Buy and pick it up. But it was a good experience, and the best thing about it for me was it was shot on the CBS Radford lot, which was home to major sitcoms like Seinfeld, Roseanne, even going back to Gilligan's Island. After that, I got (another PA) job on an hour-long ABC cop show called High Incident, and then when the following spring came around, I still had my badge from CBS Radford, and I used it to sneak onto the lot and go door-to-door with resumes to all these sitcom offices.

JC: Ha! I love it. Carpe diem.

JR: And it worked! I was able to parlay that into a PA job on an NBC sitcom called Union Square. Union Square was one of the first shows to really sully the time slot between Friends and Seinfeld. It ran for 15 episodes before it was cancelled, so that was a good work experience for me. I was able to move from that right on to the production staff of Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place, still as a PA. And all the while I was learning to be a writer's assistant, and trying to train and shadow.

JC: Step two.

JR: Right. The following year Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place came back, but there were 5 people that were ahead of me for writer's assistant jobs. So I was pretty aggressive again with getting my resume out, and lo and behold, someone that I had worked with at Union Square had heard about a writer's assistant job on a new show called Brother's Keeper on ABC. And that guy actually lied to the people at Brother's Keeper and told them that I had been a writer's assistant on Union Square, not a PA. So they brought me in, assuming that I had this experience, and in fact made me the head writer's assistant, which was terrifying and definitely a trial by fire, but it worked out. 


Brother's Keeper got cancelled, so I went back out into the market and got another writer's assistant job on Stark Raving Mad, another NBC Thursday show. And then the following year I got a writer's assistant job on Yes, Dear. I was there that first year as a writer's assistant and I began pitching more and more in the room. By the end of the year, I had convinced the showrunners to let me take a crack at writing an episode. So they teamed me up with another writer on staff, and we wrote what turned out to be the season one finale. The following year they brought me on to the writing staff. I was on Yes, Dear three and a half years.

JC: Okay, so I'm curious -- writer's assistants are just supposed to take minutes and keep their mouths shut, right? So how does one know when it's okay to pitch an idea?

JR: Nobody is ever looking to you. And the room is very rarely stumped. So the challenge is, when you have an idea, you almost feel like a surge of adrenaline and you just have to wait until the right moment. You just kind of wait for a spot where it's okay to jump in and make yourself heard. Edging yourself in is a challenge, but you know the more you do it, and the more that you succeed, the more confidence you get and the easier it is to do it the next time. If you're pitching once a week and 75% of your material is getting in, you'll make a very positive impression. Over the course of my first writer's assistant job at Brother's Keeper, I pitched maybe a dozen times. And I was getting stuff into the script, but even if I hadn't been, they were good enough jokes and ideas that I made a favorable impression. And then on Stark Raving Mad, I was pitching more like once, twice a week, and getting stuff in and doing well. By Yes, Dear, I think I had more confidence and was pitching like, a couple of times a day, maybe. And I think that's what gave them the confidence to bring me on to the staff.

JC: You were a staff writer on Yes, Dear, but by the end you were a co-producer. How does that work in TV?

JR: I started as a staff writer, then story editor, then executive story editor, then co-producer. The way that it works is that everybody on a writing staff has a specific title, and some people have the same title, but the writing staff is made up of people on different levels and your level reflects your experience. Your first year as a sitcom writer your title will be “staff writer.” Your second year your title will be “story editor.” Your third year your title will be “executive story editor.” Then “co-producer,” then “producer” then “supervising producer” then “co-executive producer.” It’s just that simple. If your career goes cold, maybe you’ll have to take a step back in levels, or if you have to jump from one show to another you might have to stay at a level to lock down that next job, but there is no strategy based on producer levels. It’s just the title you get based on your level of experience.

JC: Tell us a little bit about Will and Grace. Must have been an incredible gig.


Returns fall 2017 to NBC.
JR: Absolutely. During staffing season, they were looking for new writers. They had four slots they were looking to fill, and they met with everybody in town. It was definitely a job that was sought-after. I had actually just written a spec of The Ali G Show on the advice of my agent. There's no story in writing a spec like that, it's just jokes and bits. And only in hindsight do I have this perspective, but I think it was great for me, because it showcased just pure jokes. And they liked it. Also, one of the showrunners had done a pilot a couple years prior that I had been the writer's assistant on. I think I had some good second-party recommendations working in my favor. I was as surprised as anybody when I got the call. It was a great, great break for me. It was like being traded to the Yankees in the middle of their World Series years, and you're just hoping to find some way to just make some sort of contribution. But it was a great experience for me and it definitely changed my career.

JC: And the hits just keep on coming. From there, six years on How I Met Your Mother?


 JR: When I was on Will and Grace I met a lot of great writers there. One of them was a writer named Greg Malins. It was the final year of Will and Grace, so the next year everybody went back out into the market. Greg was hired to be kind of a high-level support for Carter (Bays) and Craig (Thomas,) who had created How I Met Your Mother. Greg didn't know anybody on the writing staff, and he wanted there to be at least one writer on the staff who he knew and trusted, and that he wanted it to be me. And I owe my entire career at How I Met Your Mother to Greg. He fought for me and made it happen for me. It was great because we started at the beginning of the second season, since the first season had been during the final season of Will and Grace. And it was a show that I watched and was a fan of, so it was such a thrill to go over there and work on it. And at that point in time going into season 2, the show wasn't a hit, it was kind of scraping by a little bit, but we had this sort of us-against-the-world mentality, and everybody who worked on the show loved it. I got to be there for this great ride over the next six years. I was not there for the final two seasons. I had moved on at that point. 



JC: The series finale was a bit controversial.

JR: It was something we talked about as early as season two, because we knew that we needed to shoot the children before they got older. That was shot during season two, so we always knew what the ending was, and I think it was the right ending for the show. I understand why audiences were a little bit polarized on it, but in my mind it was absolutely the right ending for the show.

JC: Jumping ahead to the present, how did you get The Ranch?

JR: I met with the showrunners, Jim Patterson and Don Reo, and we had a great meeting. I had a few different connections to Jim. One is through one of my best friends – a guy I’ve been friends with since junior high. He’s a writer out here who has worked with Jim and gave me a nice recommendation. And two years before, I had worked on a show called Bad Teacher. The showrunner, Hillary Winston, had worked with Jim as well, so both of those people gave me nice recommendations. We had a good meeting and they took a chance. I’ve been here for the whole run. It’s really cool. Working for Netflix is every bit as great as advertised.

JC: They have a reputation as being creator-friendly. 




JR: They are very hands-off and let the showrunners make the show they want to make. On a typical network show you’re submitting to a production company, a studio and a network, for every episode, a two-page story document, then a six-to-eight-page outline and then a fifty-page draft of a script. Each one of those entities at each step of that process gives notes. So there is constantly work to be done in terms of addressing the notes. Netflix asks for none of that. When Netflix comes to a table read, it’s the first time they’re learning anything about an episode.

JC: Nice.

JR: There’s a lot of trust, and it’s really great because it allows us to do what we want to do, trust our gut, and follow our visions. Working for Netflix is great. For a typical network show, you’re delivering about twenty-two minutes, and with Netflix they’ve told us the sweet spot is between twenty-six minutes and thirty-two. There is the luxury of telling a story a little more slowly. When you find a cool dynamic or a cool moment you can hang out there a little longer than you can on a network show. 


JC: Even the best network sitcoms sometimes feel rushed or condensed. The beauty of The Ranch is that it flows so much better. That model almost feels like Sitcom 2.0.

JR: I totally agree. Having more time allows you to go to deeper dramatic places. Also, because it’s Netflix, there’s an emphasis on serialization. Netflix wants a show where at the end of an episode you’re dying to know what happens next. It’s not like a typical network sitcom where every episode starts and ends with the characters in the same place. In our show, things are constantly evolving and changing for our characters. New challenges come up. We’re looking for, not cliffhangers per se, but moments of drama that make people want to immediately click into the next episode. Everybody on our writing staff comes from network TV, so we’re using the same muscles, but we’re getting to stretch them in new, challenging ways.

JC: How do you plan out the show arc on The Ranch?

JR: At the beginning of each season we talk about big picture ideas, things we want to do that year. Netflix orders twenty episodes at a time and is dropping ten at a time, so we’re sort of looking at them in 10-episode chunks. So for each ten episodes we’re talking about places we want to get to by the end of the ten. We’re currently starting production today on episode 36 of 40. Of the 10-episode chunks within that, twice we’ve had a goal in mind and gotten there. The other time we had a goal in mind and we just sort of felt there were a lot more stories to tell on the way, so where we thought we were going changed. I think you have a goal in mind and you develop toward it, but you also want to be flexible and have an eye toward what’s working. If there’s something that’s working and you discover there is more to say or tell along the way, it’s good to have the flexibility to change the plan.

 
JC: How are scripts and credit doled out to the writing staff?

JR: On this show, everything is done as a group. On a typical show, individual writers are assigned individual episodes, and they go off and write the story outline and script and then bring it back to the writing staff, and then it’s written by the group. On this show, stories are broken by the group, which is typical, but then a smaller group will be assigned to go off and write it in a smaller writer’s room. The smaller group generates the draft. The showrunners might give a few rounds of notes to get it into shape, and then, before it goes into production, the showrunners decide who will get credit on the episode. It’s such a collaboration on this show that it’s hard to pick apart anybody’s individual contribution besides a joke here or there.

JC: Do you feel it's important to always be creating your own material, especially when working on someone else's project?

JR: I'm not happy unless I have a (personal) project that I'm working on. It's therapeutic for me to write. I typically find that when I finish a pilot or screenplay or something, I always find myself immediately thinking about what I'm going to write next. On the most basic level, I write because if I'm not writing, then I'm not happy and I feel like I'm wasting time. On a business level, I've reached the point in my career where I'm well-known enough in sitcom writing circles that the importance of my samples is less now than it used to be. So as a staffing tool I don't need to be writing new samples. But my goal remains to get my own show on the air, and it's very important to be always generating new material.

JC: Is it hard to find time to work on your own projects?


Rhonheimer also worked on this 2012 show.

JR: The challenge is, when I get home, to find the energy to shift gears and work on my own stuff. And I feel like that challenge dates back to when I was a PA, because as a PA the only way to ever advance is to be working on your own stuff. And it'll never be harder than it was then, because those were 12 or 14-hour days. I'll never complain about having a steady job though. It's tough because for me it means going home, maybe taking a hot shower, taking the dog for a walk, something mindless that lets me do some mental housekeeping, just releasing the day and giving myself a mental break, then I can come back and attack fresh. And the longer the day, the harder that is to do. I always feel like, if I'm in a writing groove, then everything else comes second, including sleep. Whatever you're working on in your free time is typically something you're passionate about, so shifting gears and working on that can be invigorating.

JC: Jamie, a million thanks for your time and so many yuks. Any advice for our readers interested in TV comedy writing?

JR: Get a job as a PA on whatever kind of show you want to write. The best way to learn, in my opinion, is by working on one of those shows. Working your way from PA to writer’s assistant and seeing the process from inside is incredibly valuable. For a lot of people that’s not realistic, and I get that. So in terms of developing your comedy chops, take improv classes. Put yourself in a position where you have to think on your feet. Hopefully you can grow those muscles a bit. The key is to put yourself in situations where you can learn firsthand. It’s hard to just sit down and be funny, so the more time you can spend surrounded by people in comedy, the better off you’ll be.


+++


www.coverageink.com

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

The WGA's Take on What Happened to the Movie Biz

WGA Negotiators celebrate. Photo credit: The Hollywood Reporter
At the 11th hour, the WGA avoided a costly writer's strike with a new deal -- and pulled off some decent gains on the TV side. Alas, they weren't so successful when it came to features, and basically walked away with bupkis. But we can't really complain -- TV is where it's at nowadays, and it makes sense to hit hard on TV since that's where all the growth is. 

Still, as the WGA notes itself in the following article (removed from the WGA website but still available via Wayback Machine,) features have been on the decline as a revenue stream (not to mention creativity and originality) for writers for years. Rapacious business practices, pathological cheapness from the studios (who no longer even finance their own movies,) one-step deals and nickel-and-diming writers at every turn has basically destroyed the whole middle tier. Whereas formerly there were plenty of pro writers making a good living in the $300-$600K zone with rewrites and assignments -- generally multi-step deals which ensured the writers got paid for a draft as well as a polish or two -- many established writers have seen their quotes evaporate and are now forced to compete with baby writers with no quote, who are happy to make WGA minimum. This means lower commissions for agents and managers as well, forcing them to take less chances when it comes to material and signing clients.

In short, it's a microcosm of America -- with the erosion of the middle class via unchecked corporate greed, leaving only the ones on top and the ones on the bottom. 

Check out the article right here, and be aware: it ain't the '70s anymore...

https://web-beta.archive.org/web/20170427153229/www.wga.org/members/membership-information/contract-2017/bulletin/what-happened-to-the-screen-business-2

-- Jim C.

www.coverageink.com



Thursday, April 20, 2017

We Review Queries for Free. We Don't Write Them for You.

As many of you know, we here at Coverage Ink will review your query letter for free. That means simply, you send us the query which you are planning to blast to the industry. We then give you our feedback. This generally means letting you know if you could say things more compellingly, if the logline is getting it done, if it paints a clear enough picture of you, and of course, whether there are any typos or grammatical issues.

Yet every week or so we'll get an e-mail from someone who interprets this as "we will write a query for you at no charge." This is not only untrue, but more importantly, wrong-headed. How on earth can anyone else write an effective query letter for you?  
A query letter is as much about you showing your writing voice and a tantalizing hint of your backstory as it is about the script you're pitching. Heck, anybody can write a "Dear Agent, my name is ____. Here is my story idea" letter. Those will generally get deleted before the end of sentence one.
No, you need to sell them on YOU first -- then your material.
Dear Lord, no.

Here's how it should go:

1. Paragraph 1. Introduce yourself in a fascinating way. What is the coolest or most unusual thing about you? Make yourself seem like someone they absolutely want to hang with or find out more about. Then ask if you can pitch them a script.

2. Paragraph 2. Logline. You can use up to three sentences. Make EACH WORD COUNT. 

Our good friends over at Blake Snyder's "Save the Cat!" have an indispensible logline format tool you should avail yourself of. Different genres have different logline requirements. 
http://www.savethecat.com/tools/your-logline-template-for-each-save-the-cat-genre 

3. Paragraph 3. Conclude by asking if they would like a look. Then end with a callback to your first paragraph. For example, perhaps you said you just spent 6 months in Tibet studying with the Dalai Lama's personal chef Floon Bingleflarb. So in paragraph 3 you’d callback to that with: “Thanks again for your time, and by the way, I have an awesome yak eyeball goulash recipe I'd love to whip out on you sometime.”


Get the idea? If you have any screenwriting accomplishments of note, you can mention them in paragraph 1, but mostly they’re looking for people with amazing life experience that they wouldn’t mind getting to know and working with.

www.coverageink.com


Friday, March 24, 2017

Handy "Heroic Journey" Structure Chart


Well, hello, AWESOME! Many thanks to Storyboard That for this super useful graphic. 

And what is this thing? Why, it is your feature screenplay structure at a glance. We here at Coverage Ink are big fans of the Hero's Journey, aka mythological structure for movies. Most contemporary movies are based on it, as are bestselling screenwriting how-to books "The Writer's Journey" and "Save the Cat!" So many of the feature scripts we read would be improved if they simply knew and followed the principles of the hero's journey. 

Please, folks, don't reinvent the wheel. It's been around for a long time and it works really well already.  That said, you're welcome to springboard off of it and do your own thing, by all means. But you need to know your rudiments first before you can solo.

Now this graphic may take a bit of explanation, so for that we send you off to the aforementioned two books. Ingest them, savor them. Then rejoice in knowing that the guesswork has been taken out of movie screenplay structure. You can pick them up at www.writerstore.com. They are required reading in Hollywood. Do yourself and your writing career a big favor and learn this stuff cold.

--Jim C.
Coverage Ink

www.coverageink.com



Saturday, March 18, 2017

Scriptfest Early Registration Discount

Coverage Ink's Jim Cirile moderates the Agent/Manager panel at 2016 Scriptfest

Scriptfest returns June 23-25 at the Burbank Marriott, and we couldn't be more excited. As many of you know, we here at Coverage Ink have enjoyed a wonderful relationship with Scriptfest (formerly Great American Pitchfest) for over a decade. We've moderated a series of kick-ass industry panels, bringing no-BS information to the people, direct from the top agents and managers in the biz. This year will be no exception. Yep, there is a ton of knowledge to be gleaned courtesy of a plethora of speakers, panels, and workshops.

But what Scriptfest is really about, of course, is pitching. Sure, there are other pitch events, but no one holds a candle to Scriptfest. It's the biggest, and it's the best. A roomful of execs, just waiting to hear about your projects. If you've been frustrated by the lack of response to queries and feel like no one in Hollywood gives a crap, and that to break in, you need personal connections -- you're right. Scriptfest is your chance to even the odds.

So head on over to Scriptfest and use this discount code to save 10%:  

WRITERJUDY10

Then start getting those scripts shiny and ready to rock. Connections are only half the battle. It's got to be on the page. When you get the go-ahead to submit, you have one chance to blow people away. Most great scripts take a lot of elbow grease. So visit CI and empower yourself with top-shelf analysis from Coverage Ink, the Industry Experts. Then get in there and make 'em cook.

See you all in June!

-- Jim C.
Coverage Ink

Sunday, March 05, 2017

GET REPPED NOW POSTPONED

Hi folks, we've postponed Get Repped Now for the time being. We were going to bring it back Spring 2017, but we are going to have to put that on hold until further notice -- likely summer or fall.

We are currently in the final phase of production on our new animated feature film MALEVOLENT and rebuilding our website, and those efforts are taking up all our available bandwidth. Animation is inordinately time-consuming, and we're aiming to have MALEVOLENT done this summer.

Our apologies for everyone who was planning on resubmitting for Get Repped Now, but we will bring it back as soon as we can manage. In the meantime, we're still waiting on results from the last go-round or GRN. One script has been escalated at Industry Entertainment, and another one has drawn the eye of a development exec who is helping us shop it, so we are now in to several more places beyond our original five managers. And another manager has also requested one of the pilots through word of mouth.

As soon as anything changes, we will post it right here. In the meantime, we are still here for analysis and development help as always.

Jim C.
Coverage Ink

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Work the Problem

Screenwriters bend over backwards to contrive events rather than embrace the path of greatest resistance.

By Jim Cirile
www.coverageink.com



SNEAKY PETE kicks heaping mounds of gluteus. In case you haven't seen it yet (and what are you waiting for?) Giovanni Ribisi is TV's newest con man. Wearing his con lifer status as a badge of honor, Ribisi's character Marius is a startlingly clever professional liar with just enough reluctant heart to win us over. Co-created by David Shore ("House") and freaking Heisenberg himself, Bryan Cranston, the show weaves a complex series of intertwining plotlines that spool out at breakneck pace. You know you're watching a great show when at the end of an episode you can't believe 50 minutes just whizzed by.

Sure, the acting is terrific. Margo Martindale is fabulous as the unglued family matriarch. Ben Vereen is endearing as an old con frenemy. And hey, Cranston himself as the bad guy, delivering savory, messed-up soliloquies? Oh yeah, he is the danger. But the secret to why it all works may boil down to one of the stated themes of the show itself: "work the problem." In true "Breaking Bad" fashion, things never go according to plan. And that, friends, is a beautiful thing.

+++

Everyone in this family has secrets.
In "Sneaky Pete," Ribisi has one week to come up with $100K to pay off the mobster (Cranston) holding his brother hostage. He assumes the identity of his former cellmate (the titular "Pete") and plans to rob the family safe. If you think he simply ninjas in after dark and cracks that puppy, incorrecto. In his way are a series of unexpected roadblocks that spiral out of control. When we finally do get that safe open, naturally things don't go as intended. And that's the whole point. "Sneaky Pete" is a "one step forward, five steps back" kind of show. Every attempt to resolve a situation creates a plethora of new ones. There are so many cons-within-cons and interweaving subplots that in the hands of lesser writers, it would likely all collapse like a half-baked poop soufflé.

The heart of every screenplay or teleplay is conflict. As they pounded into our heads in screenwriting school: There Must Be Conflict in Every Scene. Sometimes that means manufacturing some, such as with an insolent waiter or a nosy jackass neighbor butting in. Because if you have a scene where everything is rosy, unless it's ironic, or the conflict exists in subtext, it likely won't be super engaging.

Yet we writers often make things way too easy on our characters. We use contrivances, coincidences to get from point A to C, leapfrogging over all the obstacles that might realistically pop up and impede that path. To obfuscate our manipulations, we avoid having characters ask obvious, logical and/or important questions, hoping the audience won't catch on to our trickery. Hey, we have the story planned out a certain way, and that way is etched in granite (or index cards, as the case may be.) Problem is, Deus ex machina -- the hand of the writer may be apparent. Not the best way to keep an audience engaged. No, we want to see our characters dealing with unexpected awfulness that screws everything up. It's precisely those pressure cooker situations that glue us to our seats.


Besides Cranston, the key unifying element of the storytelling in "Sneaky Pete" and its spiritual brother "Breaking Bad": shit goes south. Seldom can a character accomplish a key task without something going horribly wrong, forcing unforeseen detours and seemingly sidetracking the narrative. Again, these are paths we writers often resist going down. Yet it's by throwing monkey wrenches into the gears and forcing our characters to think their way out of awful jams that the brilliance emerges.

I'm sure everything's going to work out great for these two.
To avoid spoiling "Sneaky Pete," let's look at some situations from "Breaking Bad." Unexpected complications made that show. Take the fifth season train heist, for example. Walt's brilliant plan to rob the methylamine without anyone ever knowing it was stolen goes off without a hitch -- until a good Samaritan shows up at just the wrong time to push the stalled car off the tracks, thus freeing the train to continue on its way before the heist is complete. With the ticking clock now ratcheted up 300%, can the team pull it off in time? And then to "top the topper," as Blake Edwards called it, the little kid shows up on his dirt bike and gets a good look at everyone. The repercussions from what happens next completely change the character dynamic for the remainder of the series and set into action a whole new chain of events. 

The writers could have  simply let Walt and Jesse dissolve drug dealer Crazy 8 in acid in Jesse's bathtub, and have it work perfectly. It would have been grisly and awful. But the writers escalated the sequence into a work of art by dealing with all the problems that could come from someone trying to actually do this. By the way, "Mythbusters" tried to melt a simulated body and bathtub in hydrofluoric acid. It didn't work. That's the writers, dialing it up.

It's all explained eloquently as one of Marius' guiding principles. When a character gives him a litany of things that have gone wrong and complications that have arisen, making achieving his objective difficult, Marius responds, "So? Work the problem." Which means: whatever happens, no matter how bad, fold it into the ongoing narrative. Assimilate it. If you do that, nothing is a problem -- provided you never let 'em see you sweat.

Writers, that means us.

Rather than avoid the conflict, embrace it. Even if it takes you in a direction you didn't want to go, easin' on down that road may reveal new facets of your characters that make them pop. Be open to allowing the action to unfold organically. How does your hero deal with adversity? Can they think on their feet? Don't make things easy on them!

The infamous Mr. Murphy once noted: "whatever can go wrong, will go wrong." Make sure this is true not just in real life but your writing as well. For us, whatever can go wrong MUST go wrong.
It is incumbent upon us writers to find and utilize critical flaws in even the most well-constructed, bulletproof plan and make life as miserable as possible for our protagonists.

Work the problem.


Jim Cirile is a writer/producer and the founder of www.coverageink.com, the longest-standing screenplay analysis/story development company in LA.
 


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