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Saturday
Sep212013

CUTTING THE CARDS

Typically, disgruntled writers clog up the courts with claims that producers or other writers misappropriated their stories or ideas. Most of these lawsuits have a whiff of unbelievability about them. If they are not dismissed outright, the studios vigorously defend against them.

Earlier this week, however, a writer named Rob Thomas (not the creator of Veronica Mars) filed a juicy lawsuit for breach of oral contract that bucks the trend.

In a Sept. 16 filing in Los Angeles Superior Court, Thomas claims that his (presumably now former) best friend Skip Woods (credited as writer on A Good Day to Die Hard, The A-Team, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine) hired him as a secret writing partner for a 15 percent cut of residuals, only to take most of the money for himself.

If Thomas is to be believed, Woods made millions of dollars and built a 15-year career in Hollywood by claiming credit for the work of his silent partner. Woods, reluctant to “destroy his brand,” refused to share credit with his best friend, according to the 20-page complaint.

Thomas claims he edited and polished Woods earlier screenplays, including 2001's Swordfish, before the pair reversed roles after Woods suffered a bout of writer's block.

Under this arrangement, Thomas says he wrote outlines and drafts, responded to studio notes using Woods' email account, and rewrote and emailed script pages to Woods while he worked as an on-set writer on the third Die Hard sequel, Live Free or Die Hard.

If proved true, one of Thomas' more startling claims may land Woods in hot water with the Writers Guild of America, the labor union for film and television writers.

Woods allegedly submitted Thomas' work so the union could arbitrate a dispute over credit for X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Screenwriter David Benioff (now showrunner of HBO series Game of Thrones), wanted sole credit but the union awarded Woods a co-writing credit. According to Thomas, his partner did not write any of the pages submitted for arbitration.

Why was Thomas willing to sit back and let his so-called friend supposedly take credit for his writing? Why did he work for 15 years on some of Hollywood's biggest summer blockbusters without consulting a lawyer or insisting on a written contract?

Movie producer Samuel Goldwyn famously said: "An oral contract isn't worth the paper it's written on." Breach of oral contract claims aren't always doomed to failure. But good luck proving you're owed hundreds of thousands of dollars without a factual record to support your claims.

It's possible that Thomas is overplaying his contribution to Woods' work. But even if you doubt its merits, the lawsuit demonstrates the importance of putting things in writing. Even if you're working with your best friend.

In Thomas' case, Richard Nixon's advice is perhaps more fitting than Goldwyn's: "Trust everyone, but cut the cards."

Monday
Aug052013

PAYING FOR SUCCESS 

Robert Rossil's imagination percolated, forming a story he hoped would transport him from his workaday life - which had so far included stints working for a florist and selling homes - to Hollywood. It was an idea for a movie about the Brazilian football team's shock defeat to Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup. He called it Maracanazo.

Rossil just needed to get his unsold script into the right hands.

Enter Little Indian Films. The company told Rossil it could make his dreams come true. For a fee.

Rossil paid Little Indian $7000 to market Maracanazo.

In the intervening time, he was forced to sponge off a friend and sleep in his car, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Tens of thousands of aspiring screenwriters are clattering on laptop keys, fiercely guarding their own earth shatteringly unique ideas. They are gripped by the buzz of expectation, but paralyzed by the fear that anyone, at anytime, might steal their idea and sell it to Tinseltown for bookoo bucks.

If only they guarded their wallets like they do their stories.

Aspiring screenwriters are easy prey for the dozens of self-styled gurus and consultants charging fees for their services. These people don't discriminate. If you have the cash, someone will take your money. Regardless of whether or not you have talent.

Talent, though, is a slippery term. Stephen King defines it in his best-selling memoir On Writing.

"If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn't bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented," King wrote.

If I recall correctly, he never measures a writer's ability by how much he forked over to a screenwriting guru.

That's why writers, good and bad, would do well to keep their checkbooks in their pockets. Every time we handover these fees, we're not just propping up a dubious cottage industry, we're encouraging these people to fleece more writers.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual income for writers in the motion picture and video industries in 2010 was $62,000.

But it's not all about money. If it was, Rossil would surely be bitter.  Instead he chalks up Little Indian's trifling results to executive Alexia Melocchi not quite getting his script.

“I do believe I have a great story to tell. I believe she believed in the story, but the way she was presenting it was not the way to go," Rossil told the Times.

Maybe Rossil's experience is less about money, and more about hopes and dreams.

He says a Uruguayan production company has breathed new life into the project, and that an Academy Award nominated cinematographer is attached to direct.

Let's hope he didn't have to write another $7000 check to reel them in.

Monday
Jun242013

EXPECTATION, REVERSALS, AND THE KID WITH A BIKE

I'm always aware of audience expectations - how to meet those expectations, and how to play against them - right up until the very last moment, of every scene, sequence and act.

Watching movies, I often wonder where the story is going to take me, and what the next reversal might be.

If a movie plays out as expected, that's predictable. If a movie gets to a place I was anticipating but in an unexpected way, that's enjoyable. When a movie leads me down one path, only to take me to an entirely different destination, I know I'm in the hands of a good storyteller.

Certain genres, like the thriller, appear more malleable to the reversal. But reversals are essential to all dramatic writing.

Take the 2011 movie, The Kid with a Bike. Written and directed by Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, it is the slight but involving story of an 11-year-old, Cyril (Thomas Doret), who is abandoned by his father, and taken in by a kind hairdresser, Samantha (Cécile de France).

(Spoilers ahead. The movie is streaming at Netflix).

Cyril falls in with a young drug dealer, who moves Cyril to attack and rob a newsstand owner and his teenage son. After apologizing to the newsstand owner through mediation, Cyril escapes with a warning.

In the last few scenes, the Dardennes cleverly play against the natural expectation that the drug dealer will resurface to spoil Cyril's new life with Samantha. But, in fact, a relatively minor character plays a larger role in the film's denouement.

During a chance meeting at a gas station, Cyril runs into the newsstand owner and his son, Martin, who has been unable to forgive Cyril for his crimes. 

Martin chases Cyril down the street, runs him off his bike, and attacks him. After a scuffle, Cyril runs into woods adjacent to the street, and climbs up a tree. Martin pelts Cyril with rocks, one of which hits Cyril, sending him falling to the ground.

The woods is a recurring location. A place where Cyril has hung out with the drug dealer, and rehearsed his attack on the newsstand owner. That adds another layer of tension to the scene, planting the idea that the drug dealer might reappear, but as Cyril's savior.

The newsstand owner's reaction to Cyril's fall adds another twist.  The Dardennes present him as an upstanding member of the community. But when Martin reports that Cyril is not moving, he proposes they lie to the authorities.

As this scene played out, I believed Cyril might be dead.

When he regains consciousness and walks away, the moment is not only uplifting, it creates a terrific release of tension. Because The Kid with a Bike is a drama with several tragic moments, the ending is in no way predictable.

In this simple sequence, the Dardennes exploit our assumptions about the characters, location, and genre to keep us guessing until the very last moment.

Monday
Jan212013

2013

When I plan my yearly writing goals I'm usually over ambitious. This year, instead of committing to a new feature project, another pilot script, and a script sale, I settled on a list that will challenge me, but won't leave me wanting to kill myself if I fall short.

I enjoyed my writing last year, perhaps more than ever. But the rejections came thick and fast, culminating in the collapse of a project I had been working on for years (which I may or may not write about in the future).

With those setbacks fresh in my mind, I struggled to get down on paper where I wanted to go next.

One takeaway from last year's writing stuck with me. I enjoyed the sprints of television writing (a spec and a pilot), and at the moment I'm not ready to dive back into a new feature project.

Goals for 2013

Get an agent and/or manager.
Write a polished television spec and apply to TV writing fellowships.
Revise feature screenplays.
Write and direct a short script, or scenes from my one-hour pilot script.
Write and publish a short story.

Work Habits

Speed up.
Write two hours a day, every day.
Take writing breaks to avoid burn out. Break in the summer, and again at Christmas.
Make writing the first thing I do each day
Sleep well. Be good to yourself and others.
Foster relationships.
Use my day job as a reporter to advance my writing career. Call entertainment lawyers, and use press credentials to access film industry events.
Focus on work that will get immediate recognition - blog, short stories, short script/film, and articles.

As the year progresses I can go back to this list and adjust accordingly. But if nothing else, I'm now holding myself a little more accountable.

Sunday
Jan202013

Some critics have been sort of sniffy about Django Unchained. But I think it's Tarantino's best film since Pulp Fiction. At 165 minutes, the movie is a little long. But it's not like he's the first American auteur to overstay his welcome.

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