Wednesday, July 26, 2006


"Heat” is a buzz term referring to the excitement and hype one might find with a particular Hollywood commodity that makes it more attractive in the marketplace.

There was plenty of heat in a particular screenwriting class this past month in the San Fernando Valley. However, with tongue-in-cheek, I’m using the term here metaphorically.

I’ll get to that in a moment.

I should begin by saying it is my belief that screenwriting cannot be taught.

So it is with a great deal of irony that I set out twice a year to teach
a screenwriting class at Los Angeles Valley College.

  Posted by Picasa

When I was an undergraduate, I studied to be a teacher and, afterwards, taught for
the (former) New York City Board of Education. I also taught basic writing skills to incarcerated men in the New York State penal system, along with developing and spearheading other sorts of various educational programs. Upon receiving my master’s degree, I was awarded NYU’s Public Service Prize (for my “dedication to public education”). Teaching has always been in my blood – which works at cross-purposes with my belief that screenwriting can’t be taught.

Then, of course, there’s the small detail that I’m not a screenwriter.

But my experience of working with scripts and writers and a bird’s eye view of how the business operates, along with a need to teach, motivates me to journey to the city college campus and attempt to help students learn what makes a screenplay work and how to navigate the minefield of Hollywood.

My objective is to present a realistic view of the industry. There is a glamourization of screenwriting and Hollywood which is perpetuated by those who sell books and seminars and services – often the only link that outsiders have to the business. For instance, it would be counterproductive for the Screenwriting Expo to hold a seminar called “YOU’LL NEVER SELL A SCRIPT, ASSHOLE.” Since my income doesn’t rely on this class, I make it perfectly clear that most struggling writers are merely spinning their wheels. However, with talent and a lot of savvy perseverance, there is a shot, and the class attempts to identify certain variables that could make the road easier (though no less unpredictable).

Aside from discussing the basics of story structure and character development, the class focuses on reading recently sold spec scripts and banging out story concepts, amongst other things. I like to bring in guests too – agents, managers and writers. This time around I brought in screenwriters Cindy McCreery and Mike Gozzard.

While their names are not as well known as the likes of William Goldman or Shane Black, they are working screenwriters who still have to pound the pavement for their next job. Their experiences are far more relatable to new screenwriters hoping to earn a living; their experiences are more akin to the majority of writers who eek out a paycheck in the WGA. (Mike, for instance, just had his first movie produced starring Terrence Howard and Bernie Mac and is still searching for an agent!)

In spite of my instructional objectives, the class eventually evolves into more of a social scene – less classroom instruction and more discussion of scripts and the business. Someone often brings in a few boxes of bakery goods for breakfast. It’s sort of a dramaturgical coffee klatch where writers can gather to learn the craft, discuss ideas, have a few laughs and even make new friends.

Los Angeles Valley College is located in Valley Glen (a euphemism for Van Nuys) at Coldwater and Burbank. The classroom is in BUGALOW 31, which looks something like a single-wide in an Oklahoma trailer park.

  Posted by Picasa

This July has been the hottest that I can recall, and the classroom was

This is the "heat" I was referring to earlier.

Located right off a parking lot, the blacktop generated heat, turning B31 into a microwave oven. The class met for six consecutive Saturdays starting June 17th, and each Saturday was the hottest day of the week. (Thursday would be 90 degrees; Friday would be 90 degrees but Saturday was always 103 degrees). With triple digits outside, the room felt hotter inside. The wall mounted air conditioner was powerless against the Valley sun. (My “Honeywell” oscillating fan did manage to circulate the hot air through the room, providing a tropical breeze.)

Despite the suffocating conditions, the students arrived each week (having paid $90.00 to do so) with scripts and ideas in tow. The student body was an eclectic bunch – with ages ranging from college students to senior citizens. Although they come from different walks of life, their goals are the same: Write a script that could open doors to a career.

I've read so many scripts and rarely meet the writers behind any of them, so facilitating this class is a way to put a face to the anonymous. It’s a way to learn a little bit about the people who write scripts for no remuneration - with the hopes of tasting a piece of the Hollywood pie.

Robert, for instance, works for (and had the best pitch of the class); Brenda is a chipper mother of four, three of them triplets; Mike is a chiropractor in Simi Valley; Vanessa was visiting from Harvard and documented the class for a film project.

Teaching this class helps me to humanize the inhuman (and often inhumane) process of sifting through thousands of screenplays.

Bryan and Marge are recidivists – having taken the class before. Bryan is a writer/director who produced his own film (with Marge) called ALONG FOR THE RIDE. He developed another script in class called CROOKED CREEK, which is in pre-production. However, inspired by the discussion of loglines in class, they developed a board game called MOVIE MIX-UP.   Posted by Picasa

The game creates trivia questions by combining loglines from two movies starring the same actor. “A slow witted Southern man who runs very fast struggles to return to Earth in a crippled spacecraft” would be an example of a logline from their game. In order to advance around the board, players need to guess the titles (using the vernacular “meets”): FORREST GUMP meets APOLLO 13, or guess the actor (Tom Hanks) or guess the directors (R. Zemeckis and R. Howard, respectively) or guess the release dates (1994 & 1995). The couple has even created a TV version of the game and is pitching it around town. I recently brought Bryan in to meet the agent trainees - all forty of them - who read and critiqued his script in a story conference setting.

I met Kat and JD several years ago at the Las Vegas Screenwriting Conference (where the heat rivaled that of LAVC). Kat is a former Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy who raises horses and writes. Her writing partner JD recently penned a children’s book called “The Gingerbread Cowboy.” They pitched a promising idea that lacked a good hook, until fellow student Heather chimed in with a facile yet clever fix that flipped the concept around. Moments like that cannot be taught. But it’s those sorts of sparks that make the class worthwhile and, I think, enable students to understand and learn the craft.

Sheila H. Forman, a psychologist and lawyer, has penned two self-help books. She met Piper Moretti in class. Piper produces (the unfortunately titled but very important) YOUR CANCER TODAY in Orange Country and asked Sheila to appear as a guest. Networking is the lifeblood of this business and one never knows where a relationship can possibly lead.

  Posted by Picasa

  Posted by Picasa

  Posted by Picasa

Savannah is originally from the South – a sweet, Elysian creature who really got a kick out of reading the spec scripts. One day while someone was floundering in a pitch, she had an epiphany about the pitching process and immediately shared it with the class. It was like the Helen Keller moment in THE MIRACLE WORKER (“wah-wah”) and a highlight of the six-weeks. Savannah is an actress who recently starred in the title role of NURSIE opposite C. Thomas Howell.

Class alumni have formed a writers’ group that meets once a month at the Marie Callender’s in Sherman Oaks. (One of the waiters, an aspiring screenwriter himself, joined the group.) Aside from script talk, there is plenty of food and air conditioning.

This summer’s heat was sort of a metaphor, representing the pervasive obstacles of carving out and sustaining a career in Hollywood.

But, I think, in the end, the students beat the heat.

I hope that victory is a metaphor too.

Our final class was Saturday July 22 and while we baked, Pierce College - the sister school to LAVC located ten miles away in Woodland Hills - reported the highest temperature ever recorded in the history of Los Angeles County: 119 degrees!

  Posted by Picasa

 Posted by Picasa

  Posted by Picasa

  Posted by Picasa

  Posted by Picasa



A special thanks to all the LAVC Summer of '06 students, and an immense amount of gratitute to Jacinthe (of twoadverbs), who is a genuine lifesaver.

Send questions to

Tuesday, July 04, 2006


Okay, this is probably more of a continuation of an old thread, but might be an add-on to the subject of "goals" to which you blogged about. The inciting incident sets the overall goal, which drives the protag to be active. However I've been involved with a number of discussions pertaining to 1) sub-goals and 2) story structure around a protag who either assumes the wrong goal/sub-goal or his goal changes. For example: A sub-goal would be to get the typical "unique-and-ancient, somewhat difficult but not impossible to obtain" artifact that is used to kill the "pretty much omnipotent but for weakness to said artifact" antagonist monster/creature/manifestation of evil. In this case the sub-goal is clearly defined and is part of the overall goal. Would you suggest the sub-goal take up the second act and is best to have it as a mid-point? In the case of a protag not knowing/seeing their true goal, or with a goal being changed, does this happen at the mid-point (reversal) or start of the third act? The example I was thinking of was the classic cover-up/set-up story where protag is to take the fall. The protag typically doesn't know who the antag is: it may be a character familiar to them, an unknown or someone they've assumed wrong. The goal shifts from "Why and Who?" to making "Who" pay (not always, but speaking in general terms).

Each script is its own living breathing entity and without specific examples from your story, it’s difficult (and negligent) to make suggestions. A “sub-goal” that is part of the overall quest can add depth to the story – provided it is well integrated with the “A” plot.

In writing for a broad audience, it’s best that the goal (the character’s big problem) is introduced at the end of the first act and resolved at the climax.

It is often unsatisfying for the audience to invest in a problem (that the writer takes time to set-up) only to abandon it half way through for another.

I read a script recently where a detective sets out to catch a murderer (at the end of the first act). By midpoint, he finds the culprit and kills him. Now he takes on the responsibility to care for the culprit’s family. As a result, the character’s goal changes, and so does the tone of the piece – going from thriller to domestic drama, giving the script a bifurcated quality that makes it feel like two different movies. If the script wants to be a domestic drama, it might be better served for the detective to kill the culprit in the first act – putting him on the path to his bizarre domesticity at the start of act two. A “plot point” should add new energy to the protagonist’s quest (established at the end of the first act) – but not create a brand new movie. (It’s like Sheriff Brody killing JAWS at midpoint and then starting a mob-related investigation after that.)

FROM DUSK TIL DAWN does something similar, but the goal of Clooney and Tarantino is to get to a Mexican town called El Rey.

At midpoint, this crime thriller does a 180, becoming a vampire movie. But the vampires are merely an obstacle (a “sub-goal”) to the overall goal of C&T getting to El Rey contacts – which serves as a bridge between the first half and second half of the movie. The goal (the major dramatic question: Will they get to El Rey?) never changes. Furthermore, FROM DUSK TILL DAWN isn’t to be taken seriously (combining two popular drive-in genres), where the DOMESTIC DETECTIVE is an earnest drama – which is why it doesn’t work. Also, if it’s a story worth telling, why not tell it using the full canvas of the screenplay – instead of only half?

The inciting incident does not “set the overall goal,” it is merely an introduction to the potential problem. In THE VERDICT, Jack Warden presents a case to Paul Newman at the inciting incident – one that can help to financially revive him since all he needs to do is settle out of court. But by the end of the first act, Paul decides to try the case instead of accepting a settlement. His goal (to win the case) is set at the end of the first act – not the inciting incident.

In THE WIZARD OF OZ, the inciting incident sets up the fact that Dorothy is unhappy in Kansas, but this doesn’t establish her goal – which isn’t solidified until the end of the first act when she ends up on the other side of the rainbow and wants to go home.

In pursuit of the goal, there are many missions (sub-goals) a character might take. In THE VERDICT, for instance, Paul flies to New York to convince Lindsay Crouse to testify. This could be considered a “sub-goal,” but it is part of his larger pursuit to win the case.

In THE WIZARD OF OZ, Dorothy’s goal is to go back to Kansas. However, she takes a side trip when the Wizard orders her to fetch the broomstick of the Wicked Witch – which is part of her struggle to get home.

BACK TO THE FUTURE is a great example of a character with a strong “sub-goal.” Michael J. Fox’s goal is to get back to the future. However, his presence in the past has prevented his parents from meeting. As a result, much of the script revolves around his efforts to unite them – and not his specific efforts to get back to the future. (The final act involves that struggle.) But the sub-plot with his mom & dad is part and parcel of his overall goal to get back to the future, because if he doesn’t unite his parents, there is no future for him.

Although the preponderance of the storyline revolves around this effort (this “sub-goal”), we know the protagonist’s quest is to get back to the future, because the script’s climax revolves around it.

In the “classic cover-up/set-up” story (you mention), the protagonist’s goal is usually to clear his name. The other plot elements often evolve from that. In THE FUGITIVE, Harrison Ford struggles to elude Tommy Lee Jones while investigating his wife’s murdered – all in an attempt to clear his name. That goal doesn’t change throughout the story – despite the various hoops he must jump through during his journey.

I have been working on a project with a writing partner for over a year. I recently ended this collaboration relationship due to our incompatible levels of commitment to the project. My ex-partner is a New York stage actor and his acting career commitments were constantly putting our project on the back burner. I also recently moved to L.A. and the distance made it even harder to work in this partnership.

During the time we collaborated, we came up with a detailed story outline with scene breakdowns and were able to begin working on a rough draft in screenplay format. At the time I ended the partnership, the rough draft was about 30 pages long.

This will probably sound laughable, but when we began our collaboration, my then partner and I didn't employ the services of an entertainment lawyer to prepare a contract for our partnership. We simply drafted a Writing Partnership Contract/Agreement on our own and dated and signed it.

My ex-partner's additional goals were to act and produce. Mine were to direct and also be on the producers' team. Something not out of the realm of possibilities if the project is on a low-budget, indie level. So we implemented these goals as clauses in our Partnership Contract/Agreement.

This is a quote from our business end agreements in our Contract:

Split 50/50 writing credit ("written by [My Name] and [My Ex-Partner]"), copyright and pay.

In the event of a dissolution of the creative partnership prior to completion of the screenplay, the two parties will remain mutual owners of the material (characters and story) that has been created until this point. If the rights are to be sold, the profits will be shared 50/50, or one of the parties will agree to buy off the rights from the other.

Our Goals with this project after the writing process (Each of us will have the option to turn down a future production deal if any of the following individual goals are not met contractually):

[My] goals: To Write & Direct & (Produce). [I] will have the option to direct the finished script and/or be involved as producer. [My Ex-partner's] goals: To Write & Act & (Produce). [My Ex-partner] will have the option to select a major role in the film to act in and/or be involved as producer.)

Having the benefit of hindsight, I would not do this again if I ever go into another writing partnership. The story we developed grew beyond our initial projections for a low to moderate budget level and became much more of a big budget mainstream type of project. It's an action/adventure comedy and a thriller with fantasy elements. Rather effects laden. Obviously, even in the unlikely event that we came up with something extraordinary on the screenplay level and got people interested in making the movie, it is unrealistic for a couple of unknowns with no track record to expect anyone to even consider such high demands for further involvement on a huge budget scale production.

I believe the project has potential and would not like to see it go to waste. My ex-partner feels the same. We both intend to continue working on the screenplay separately. I wrote my ex-partner that I see the future possibilities for this script existing solely in the "screenplay-for-sale" domain. And that we should agree not to harbor any future claims and concede any such previous claims to act in, to direct or to produce the project. And that we would still have the joint right to decide together whether or not to pursue a potential offer and a sale of the script. My ex-partner, however, feels that he should still be able to pursue his option to act in any future production based on our material. According to our initial agreement this would mean that if one of us comes up with a script that a potential buyer is interested in, my ex-partner would have the option to turn down any potential deal if his demands to act in the film are not met.

Since we are no longer in a partnership, I am only interested in possibly getting the material sold and moving on. It would be unacceptable to me to further invest any creative energy in this project knowing that my ex-partner may be in a position to pursue that option and hamper any potential deal. My ex-partner also feels that we should agree with regards to the percentage that each of us will get from a hypothetical sale. To quote him, this is what he has suggested to me: "If we assign equal weight/significance to the two basic elements of a script - (i.e. a script is 50% story and 50% screenplay) - and we assume that, at this point we essentially have a relatively complete story and, perhaps, somewhere between 10-20% of a screenplay, would it seem reasonable to say that we have, at this point, 60-70% of a script (i.e. 50%+(10-20%))? If that seems reasonable, should we agree that if either of us gets an offer on a completed version of said script, that say 65% of that offer would be split equally between the two of us and the remaining, say, 35% would go to the author of the completed script in question?")

At this stage I have not consulted an entertainment lawyer and I have no representation. I would very much appreciate any advice you might have with regards to my situation and possible options.

My head is spinning.

You lost me after the first paragraph.

I hope the script (causing the trouble) is better constructed than all this.

Regardless, I’m not a lawyer and have never had a head for math, so I’m pretty useless to you here.

I decided to publish your diatribe as a sort of cautionary tale.

I’m not warning against partnerships, which can be rewarding and fruitful (especially in such a lonely game like “writing”). But this is a portrait of two naïve men who put a very large cart before a very small horse. It isn’t clear why you just didn’t write a script without all the silly egotism and dick-swinging.

Most writing teams enter their partnership on a verbal agreement. I doubt most seek legal counsel so early in the game. Most enter with a 50/50 understanding and worry about the rest when it’s time to make a deal. To even decide “credits” is ridiculous because, in the end, writing credit could go to another scribe altogether.

If you enter into a partnership (which should be on a project to project basis) be prepared to split 50/50 – money and credit. There is always one partner who will probably take on the bulk of the work, but that’s the nature of this particular beast. If your ego cannot handle that sort of philanthropy – write alone.

It certainly makes sense to understand the grounds of any partnership, but it also behooves each person to enter an agreement with the “red flag meter” turned all the way up. For instance, I’d head for the hills the moment a writing partner listed demands that would surely encumber any possible sale.

Since you have only written the first act, I’d suggest you cut your losses and move on.

If the ex-partner wants to finish the script, let him. It’s a sacrifice you will most likely never regret.

The ridiculous mathematical acrobatics you’re trying to work out will only lead to more frustration and probable disaster. It seems far more sagacious to start a new script without all the useless parameters and attachments. Furthermore, it seems downright ridiculous to enter into a sort of “script race” to see who can finish their version first.

Good luck!

Send questions to

Free Blog Counter