Thursday, October 26, 2006


October has been an extraordinarily busy month. Work, extracurricular activities and some personal business made this a taxing few weeks. I haven’t had much time to go through all the e-mails, but I’ll get back to answering questions once I settle in to normality.

Earlier this month, I visited the SCREENPLAY LAB at the Raleigh Studios in Hollywood. I listened to pitches and offered feedback for three hours in front of a large audience of writers.

I sort of fell into this at the Beverly Hills Library a few years ago with the creation of “Story Conference” – a workshop where I critiqued scripts and answered questions. The Q&A often revolved around writers bouncing their ideas off me. This evolved and I took the show on the road (with former co-worker-turned-screenwriter Jack d’Annibale) to the defunct TAKE ONE! BOOKSTORE and downtown at the CALIFORNIA CITY STUDIOS. One of the workshops was filmed for local television and titled THE INSIDE PITCH – which is what I call these events when I listen to pitches around town.

These events are usually fun and, hopefully, educational. I never try to pull punches when offering my opinion and strive to temper it all with some humor. However, it doesn’t always go down easy. Some people have a difficult time understanding the spirit of the message, which is understandable when their beloved idea is eviscerated. But there is always something to learn – even by simply observing others fail and succeed at pitching their concepts.

As always, the pitches were hit and miss. Sometimes the writer can give a great performance, but, in the end, it all comes down to the story itself. If the story isn’t there, even the most entertaining pitch will fail in its objective. It’s always interesting to test an idea in front of an audience. It’s a rare opportunity to experience a gasp or laugh from the crowd – which is all the feedback an idea may need.

On the other hand, unexpected silence says a lot too. When I hear an idea that simply doesn’t click with me, I ask the audience if it clicks with them. When 200 people fail to respond to the idea, it seems probable that the writer will have a tough time marketing it in the real world.

I was not a fan of the proposed adaptation (from a bestselling book) about a young girl who turns into a chimpanzee and finds herself the romantic interest of a janitor. The unintentional notion of pedophilia and bestiality left a lot to be desired. I told the writer I thought the idea was dopey. Most of the crowd felt the same way. But she handled the bad news well. Who knows? It could sell and become a smash hit with zoologists and sex fiends worldwide.

Writers must have the ability to see the dramatic/cinematic worthiness of their story. Many lack that sort of insight and fall in love with inane concepts that have an improbable chance of ever becoming movies. The gift of this insight is the difference between success and failure.

One man in a nice suit (looking a lot like an accountant) pitched the true story of a black teen who risked his life to get a message to General Grant – that helped win the Civil War. The story has definite intrigue but the writer was more interesting, as it was difficult to tell if he was a defender of the African American race or an Imperial Wizard in the Ku Klux Klan.

A raucous comedian got up and offered an extemporaneous pitch about an asshole creative executive who got off on ripping writers apart. It was funny at first – but like any pitch that goes on too long, it started to nosedive. “Quit while you’re ahead” is a mantra worth remembering when pitching story ideas. It wasn’t clear why he would attend only to improvise a story. Perhaps it was a diversion – avoiding the fact that an imminent evisceration awaited his real pitch.

The best pitch of the night (according to the majority of the audience) came from the writing team of Jeph and Brian. The story deals with a former rock-n-roller who reunites his old band to create a children’s musical group – a la “The Wiggles” – called LITTLE ROCK.

The writing team was entertaining and delivered their concept quickly. One of the scribes even brought along his guitar to sing. (Below: Jeph and Brian are second and third from right flanked by me and the runners-up.)

I’ll be meeting with the ALAMEDA WRITERS’ GROUP in early December to listen to pitches once again.

I was one of six judges to select the winner of the BIG BREAK! SCREENWRITING CONTEST sponsored by Final Draft. The top prize is $15,000 and swag that includes a laptop computer. Some of the other judges were Oscar winner Bobby “Crash” Moresco, Simon “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” Kinberg, and Stuart “Collateral” Beattie. We were all given ten of the same scripts (the finalists) and asked to judge using a scoring system of 0 – 100 and five basic criteria that included story, dialogue, and structure. The highest possible score was 500.

While none of the scripts were dramatic perfection, a few were very good – as good as any “professional” script that crosses my desk.

My top three picks were BUFFALO SPEEDWAY by Yehudi Mercado (which I scored with a 450), ATOMIC EYE by Bret Ootes (which earned a 440) and ANAIAS by Stinson Carter (which took third place with 430).

BUFFALO SPEEDWAY is a sort of slacker comedy involving a group of pizza delivery drivers who struggle to make deliveries on the busiest night of the year. The writing here is as crisp as any good New York pizza crust, and the writer nailed the world and characters. I gave this one the edge because – out of all ten – it has the best chance of selling.

ATOMIC EYE tells a familiar crime story but presents it in a way we haven’t quite seen. It is an edgy screenplay that demonstrates a unique voice and some real imagination.

ANAIAS (the worst title since ZATHURA) is a well-written account of a young teen who learns his father is gay and sets out on a journey to lose his virginity to insure he won’t suffer the same fate. Kind of MY GIRL meets STAND BY ME, the writing here is very good, and the script is thoroughly charming and likeable.

As an addendum to my judging experience, Final Draft announced the top three winners of the BIG BREAK! CONTEST on October 26th. I had hoped to attend the awards ceremony at Hollywood & Highland but had to change my plans.

The winner of the $15,000 top prize is THE SEA DEVILS by Tom Cosgrove of Ireland.

Clearly, I was out of step with the other judges, since this script didn't make my top three. However, the deftly written screenplay is a very atmospheric monster movie that's heavy on character.

I must admit that the point spread between my #1 choice and my score for THE SEA DEVILS was considerable. I still stand behind my winner.

Regardless, congratulations, Tom!

BUFFALO SPEEDWAY and ANAIAS took second and third place, respectively.

On Thursday the 19th, I flew into Texas for the AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL – a week long event that showcases up-and-coming talent as well as a very lively, film-friendly city. Within the film festival, there is a writers’ conference, which offers all sorts of panels for aspiring screenwriters.

My commitments to the festival didn’t begin until Friday morning. I wasn’t in the mood to sit through any screenings that night, so I made a few phone calls to square away some business. Having recently completed my Final Draft judging duties, a friend reminded me that the author of BUFFALO SPEEDWAY lived in Austin. Since it was my favorite script of the ten finalists, I thought I’d give writer Yehudi Mercado a call to see if he was in town.

Not only was he in town but he was attending the Film Festival. There was a party he was en route to and he asked if I’d meet him there.

I threw on my ICM baseball cap - as a way for him to recognize me – and set off for the soiree. The Austin Film Festival is well known for its relaxed environment. It is a writer-friendly event, where there are plenty of opportunities to make all sorts of new friends.

Most of the events were sponsored by BOMBAY GIN or DOS EQUIS BEER, so the free booze came in plentiful supply (provided you arrived within the hours it was served). I walked to the party and stood around waiting for my ICM cap to be spotted.

Quite a few people thought the hat was some sort of swag, and there were some monetary offers for it. ICM baseball caps are rare – even within the halls of ICM – so I certainly wouldn’t part with it under any circumstances. Although some thought I was probably a pretentious filmmaker touting the name of the agency that represented me, the plan worked.

Yehudi approached and introduced himself. We had a good chat. Some of his other friends were there too – director and producer Scott Rice and his creative partner Austin. These two were responsible for creating a series of festival trailers called SCRIPT COPS – which spoofed the longevity of Fox’s show COPS – by arresting writers with bad scripts. Naturally that sentiment was right up my alley, and we all got along like old friends.

The three of them were going out to eat. I think they felt sorry for me. I was, after all, an orphan who planned on returning to my hotel room for an early night’s sleep. But the hometown triumvirate took me under its wing and fed me some Tex Mex as we chatted about film and filmmakers.

Later, we went to an opening night party, where I had the opportunity to meet many writers who were competing for top slot in the festival’s screenwriting contest. Everyone I spoke to was extremely nice and we all had a great time. Yehudi, Scott and Austin remained my buddies through the duration of the festival – always checking up on me to insure I was being entertained. Our trip down 6TH STREET at 3AM in search of pizza was memorable – to say the least.

I heard many pitches in Austin. As always, most of the writers were friendly and earnest, but their ideas lacked that “spark.” The same question always enters my mind. “Does this writer go to the movies? Is he aware of recent films that have been successful with audiences?” Although I‘m often told that good ideas are a dime a dozen, I hardly ever hear them. There might be a sliver of something interesting within a pitch – but rarely is there a moment that screams, “This is a movie!”

There was a team from Washington – two screenwriting professors – who proved that teachers CAN do. They pitched a handful of ideas – all of which were concise, lucid and sounded like moves.

There was a father who took his teenage daughter to Austin instead of Disneyworld. Although it seems certain that this would border on child abuse, she attested to having a good time and even managed to bail her pop out of trouble during his pitch.

My favorite writer of all was a woman originally from Wisconsin (with a thick, fabulous accent) who pitched the biography of her dead Siberian husky. (She used a keychain photo as a visual aid, and the dog was beautiful.) The wide-eyed, straight-faced author told me she had entered her script in the “drama category” of a contest but the organizers suggested she re-submit it as a comedy. This was an unforgettable and endearing lady – a real character – and I wish her all the best.

Many agents, managers and creative executives prowled the film festival. MAGNET MANAGEMENT, KAPLAN/PERRONE, CIRCLE OF CONFUSION, APA and RED WAGON were just a few companies in attendance.

I met Heather Zicko from GUY WALKS INTO A BAR (a NY based prodco). Heather is smart, friendly and approachable – the kind of exec I wish were on the west coast. (She may never talk to me again, but she’s looking for fantasy comedies – in the vein of LIAR, LIAR.)

While staggering through the streets looking for a shuttle to take me to a barbeque, I met Chris Vogler and his wife Alice. They too were looking for this mysterious shuttle – which we eventually found.

Chris is the author of THE WRITER’S JOURNEY, his well-known filmic interpretation of Joseph Campbell’s seminal work on mythology. After the barbeque, we went back to the Driskill Hotel (where I was staying) and hung out in the bar for a few hours discussing movies, scripts and story structure. I had never met Chris Vogler before, and he seemed more like an earthy blue collar worker rather than a worldly dramaturg. His wife is a gregarious and successful realtor on the Westside.

Work took a backseat to family (which it so rarely does in Hollywood) when I learned my ninety-four year old Grandmother was dying. Although it’s hard to feel much sadness for the death of a woman who has lived a happy life for almost one hundred years, my Grandmother was a great supporter of mine and helped ease some of the hard years in California with phone calls, letters, and a few bucks.

Since it was believed she would slip fast, I never considered returning to the New York area. I had always told my Grandmother how I felt and didn’t think it was necessary to be there after she died.

But when my Mother explained she was still hanging on, I thought I should fly in to see her. Although she was unconscious by the time I arrived, I held her hand the entire night before she passed a little after noon the following day.

Before I moved to California in 1988, my Grandfather gave me a thick piece of blue woolen yarn. He tied it to my suitcase handle explaining that it would serve as a “beacon,” making it easier to spot my luggage on the airport carousel. Since my Grandparents were world travellers, I yielded to his expertise.

I’ve used that piece of yarn year after year, tying it to any piece of baggage I would take on my travels. After all this time, I’ve come to regard it as a good luck charm.

Arriving at the hospice directly from the airport, I brought my luggage with me. After the initial shock of my Grandmother’s deterioration and her struggle for breath, I removed that old piece of blue yarn from my suitcase and tied it to her frail wrist – a sort of good luck charm for her travels.

I also thought it might serve as a sort of beacon, making it easier for my Grandfather to spot her as she crossed over.

She died wearing it.

I’ve never witnessed death. My grandmother didn’t just close her eyes and slip into an eternal sleep (like in the old movies). The body put up a valiant last-chance struggle. And it was a little frightening to see at first.

But for a 94-year old woman, it all seemed organic and natural.

I liken it to birth – which is hardly a pretty thing to watch. The beauty is in the essence of the event – not the screaming, blood and placenta.

For my Grandmother, death seemed as natural as birth. And while it may not have been particularly pretty, the essence of the event was beautiful. And there was an epiphanious understanding – even a new appreciation - for the process of living and life itself. Her death didn’t create fear; it managed to strip it away.

A final gift from my Grandmother.


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This month would have been impossible to navigate without all the help from the rest of my professional team: A special thanks to Ana and Gina.


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