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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Writing Comedy

Are you writing a comedy feature, sitcom or TV pilot?

Then check out my post on writing comedy over at The London Screenwriters' Festival Blog right now!!

I talk about The Simpsons, set ups, Home Alone, physical comedy, Green Wing, Just Friends, pay offs, Liar Liar, catchphrases, comedy quips, Jim Carrey, visual gags, even NCIS.

Oh yeah: and Arnie, too. (I know: WTF?)

So get over there!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Writing a 60 min TV Pilot (Returning Drama Series)

Just a quick one today, for the lovely Soulla:

I am writing a pilot for TV. Any golden rules/tips/do's or don'ts to keep in mind for first ep of a series?

Here are my thoughts, in no particular order:

DON'T write "for the market". Supernatural stuff might be hot at the moment, but don't try and shoe-horn some vampires or the like in for the sake of it. Stay true to your story and yourself.

DO know your audience. Knowing who you are writing for is key in TV. It's no good writing a sex fest and saying it's aimed at families at 6pm on a saturday anymore than it's OK to write fluffy bunnies past 9pm. Seems obvious, but lots of spec TV scripts get very muddled as to the audience they're aimed at. Equally DO know where it's going or likely to be going - if you want to see your series on BBC1, then don't write C4-type stuff. There's a difference!

DON'T forget your structure. TV drama pilots are NOT just about set up where nothing gets resolved, don't leave the reader dangling. Remember your "story of the week" and your "serial element" and plot it out carefully.

DO write a series bible. Your series bible is a SECOND CHANCE to sell your script AND series "off the page". Don't waste this opportunity by not sending one, just because you're daunted by the prospect of writing one (yes, they are difficult). Also: don't waste the opportunity by being overly long or DULL with yours. Make it stand out, there are no "norms" on series bibles! But don't be weird either.

DON'T be constrained by what has gone before. This is a spec series; you can do whatever you want. Story is king/queen, just develop it well.

DO know there are boundaries - and create your own USP. There are certain expectations, based on producer perceptions and what they see working for an audience... and how audiences have responded to various stuff in the past. For every ground-breaking piece of TV we've NEVER seen before, there are loads that are the "same... but different". You don't HAVE to be 100% original all the time, in fact sometimes it's advisable to NOT be: "cops n' docs" are a staple of returning drama because that's the audience WANT. So how are you going to work within that boundary? By creating your own show's "unique selling point" or USP - ie. CSI reinvented HOW we look at cases, by introducing the "version": the imaginings of various characters COMMITTING the crimes, even if they didn't. NCIS has the famous freeze frame for "realisations" and other "moments". LAW AND ORDER has the iconic black screen/captions tracking the cases through the police and courts. What's yours?

If you're writing a television script and/or series bible, check out the relevant section in The Required Reading List.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

London Comedy Writers' Festival - More Great Speakers Added

As most of you know by now I'm involved in the faberoonie London Screenwriters Festival - and our latest venture involves a Comedy Writers Festival this April, 9-10th, 2011. I CAN'T WAIT for the event and can't believe who the guys have already pulled in as speakers - squuuueeeeeeeeeeee is the only word available! Check them all out below. AND WE'RE NOT FINISHED YET!!! Plenty more announcements coming soon!!! Watch this space or follow Londonswf on Twitter or follow Londonswf on Facebook. See you there!
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GRIFF RHYS JONES
Griff came to national attention in the 1980s in the BBC’s comedy sketch shows ‘Not The Nine O’Clock News’ and ‘Smith And Jones’ which won an International Emmy and several British Comedy awards during its successful 11 series run.

JON PLOWMAN
Credits include 'Absolutely Fabulous', 'The League Of Gentlemen', 'The Office’
Jon was the BBC’s Head of Comedy from 1994-2007 where he produced a host of award winning shows.

RHONA CAMERON – Writer / Comedienne
Credits include: ‘Have I Got News For You’, ‘Rhona’, ‘Never Mind The Buzzcocks’.
One of the best stand up comedians in the UK, Rhona made an impact on the comedy scene in 1992 winning Channel 4’s ‘So You Think You’re Funny’ award.

ROBERT POPPER – Writer / Performer
Credits include 'Peep Show', 'The IT Crowd', 'South Park'.
Robert is a BAFTA winning comedy writer, producer, performer, and best-selling author.

JESSICA HYNES – Writer / Actress
Writing credits include 'Spaced', 'Learners', 'Asylum'.
Jessica co-wrote SPACED and was awarded Best Female Comedy Newcomer at the British Comedy Awards 2000.

PETER SOUTER - Writer
Credits include 'Married Single Other', 'Doctor In The House', 'Goldfish Girl'.
Peter left a successful career in advertising to write comedy drama ‘Married Single Other’. He won the Society of Authors Play of the Year award for ‘Goldfish Girl’.

JAMES CARY - Writer
Credits include 'Miranda', 'My Family', 'My Hero'.
James has written episodes of ‘My Hero’, ‘My Family’ and, most recently, 2011’s Best New British TV Comedy ‘Miranda’.

MELLIE BUSE – Writer / Producer
Credits include 'Grandpa In My Pocket', 'The New Adventures of Captain Pugwash', 'Charlie And Lola'.
‘Grandpa In My Pocket’ has sold to over 100 territories, is twice nominated for a BAFTA and won the Welsh BAFTA for Best Children’s Programme in 2010.

BRIAN LEVESON & PAUL MINETT - Writers
Credits include ‘My Family’, ‘Booze Cruise’, ‘The Two Ronnies’
Since 1985 Brian and Paul have written for countless sketch shows and for some of the biggest names in UK comedy.

ALICE LOWE – Writer / Actress
Credits: 'Out of Water', 'Life Spam', 'BigTalk'
Winner of the Edinburgh festival Perrier Award for 'Netherhead', writer of 'LifeSpam' for BBC3, 'Beehive' for Channel 4 and currently working on a feature for BigTalk and Film4.

DAVID ISAAC - Writer
Credits include 'Lunch Monkeys', 'Life Of Riley', 'Not Going Out'.
David received the RTS North best scriptwriter nomination for ‘Lunch Monkeys’. His short ‘Bus Baby’won the People's Prize in the Virgin Shorts Film Competition.

ED MORRISH - BBC Radio Comedy Producer
Credits include ‘The News Quiz’, ‘The Now Show’, ‘Serious About Comedy’
Ed was given a BBC Radio Entertainment Producer Traineeship in 2002, he graduated to Producer in 2003 and has now made over 100 programmes for Radio 4 and BBC7.

MARK TALBOT – Development Producer / Hat Trick Productions
Credits include: ‘Sabotage’, ‘Armstrong And Miller’, ‘Kevin Bishop Show’.
With ‘Sabotage’ Mark single-handedly promoted and produced one of the most exciting and underground comedy nights in London.

JAQUELINE WRIGHT - Director
Directing credits include 'Out Of Water', 'Life Spam', 'Stiffy'
Jaqueline is an award winning director who works extensively with writer / comedienne Alice Lowe .

MICHELLE FARR - Producer
Producing credits include '2 Pints Of Lager' & 2011 Project 'Whites' with Ricky Gervais
BBC producer Michelle Farr has worked her way up through the ranks of radio, TV and now helmed major BBC comedy projects.

SARA PASCOE – Actress / Comedienne
Credits include 'The Thick Of It', 'Being Human', 'The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret'.
Sara has been voted one of Time Out Magazine’s ‘Rising Stars of Comedy’.

JESSICA RANSOM – Writer / Performer
Credits include ‘Fast and Loose’, ‘The Armstrong and Miller Show’, ‘The Odd Half Hour’
Jessica is a highly experienced writer with projects including her London live show ‘The Ransom Club’ and her solo live show ‘Ransom’s Million.

DAVID ARMAND – Writer / Performer
Writing Credits include: ‘The Peter Serafinowicz Show’, ‘Katy Brand’s Big Ass Show’, ‘Sorry I’ve Got No Head’
David is an experienced writer and performer, perhaps best known for his ‘Karaoke for the deaf’ interpretive dance of Natalie Imbruglia’s ‘Torn’ – which went viral in 2005.

NATALIE BAILEY – BBC Comedy Director / Producer
Credits include 'Dick And Dom's Funny Business', 'Hotel Trubble', 'Vidiotic'
Natalie joined the BBC in 2002 and worked her way up from Researcher to Director working with the likes of French & Saunders and Armando Iannucci along the way.

COLIN HOULT – Writer / Performer
Credits include ‘Hotel Trubble’, ‘Russell Howard’s Good News’, ‘Al Murray’s Multiple Personality Disorder’.
A former winner of the Writers Guild Award for Comedy, Colin penned the hugely successful shows ‘Carnival of Monsters’ and ‘Enemy of the World’.

HUMPHREY KER – Writer / Performer
Credits include ‘The Brothers Faversham’, ‘Look Away Now’, ‘The Penny Dreadfuls’.
Humphrey is an up and coming performer and writer and one third of the critically acclaimed ‘The Penny Dreadfuls’.

MAX DICKINS – Writer / Performer
Credits include Absolute Radio DJ, ‘Leeds Tealights’, ‘Dregs’
Max is a Sony Rising Star Award nominee, a two time Chortle Student Award Finalist and one of The Sun’s Top Comedy Picks for 2011.

TOMMY AND THE WEEKS – Writer / Performers
Credits include ‘Dick And Dom’s Funny Business’, BBC Comedy Unit
“May become a future great British double act, carrying on the tradition from where other greats such as Morecambe & Wise and Reeves & Mortimer have left off.” The Guardian

Monday, February 21, 2011

This Is A Call: More Sex, Please

Okay, I gave you guys fair warning. Back in December 2008 I drew attention to the lack of sex scenes in the scripts I see. 2008!
And have you lot listened? In the last two and a bit years, have I been treated to MORE nice, juicy sex scenes???

No.

Oh, I get plenty of rape scenes - **thanks** for that (bleeurgh). But rape is not sex.

I find it deeply depressing rape and sexual violence is so prevalent in specs and produced films - but even more so that scribes will think nothing of including rape AS A MERE BEAT in another character's story, yet argue the toss over whether consensual sex is "needed" in an adult story. I find it quite extraordinary, if I'm honest. Where is the logic?

But let's discard that for a moment: you lot know full well how I feel about rape-as-beat scenes by now (note: not films *about* rape/the effects of rape, ie. The General's Daughter, which was amazing I thought). If you're still sending me the former though, then frankly you DESERVE a good roasting, arf.

But let's talk about sex, baby. I know we're not supposed to, 'cos we're British and we're above that sort of thing (apparently). Or like our French cousins might say - or at least the saucepot Elisabeth Pinto - "if we're talking about it, we're not doing it". But screw all that (haha) 'cos here's FIVE reasons why we should talk about sex and consider using it in our adult stories:

1) Sex can BE the motivation. Sometimes we see Casanova characters - male or female - or more depressingly, prostitutes who reckon all people are whores in some way anyway, so at least they're honest about their motivations in wanting to get paid for sex. I'm not talking about these characters; they've been done to death and are nearly always two dimensional anyway. However, if your character is TRAPPED in an unhappy marriage for example, what better way to signify it than an awkward, cold, or dull sex scene between them and their spouse? Yes, of course they could have a big argument. Yawn. Seen that, over and over again. But that sex scene could tell us FAR MORE about those characters in a few choice images than dialogue full of vitriol ever could. "Show it, don't tell it", remember.

2) Sex can BE a marker. Sometimes I see scripts that involves a relationship which goes wrong, especially in women-in-peril thrillers or the coming of age story (the latter particularly in the "coming out" story). Sex then can be brilliant at the beginning of the script - but difficult, embarrassing or even dangerous by the end (or indeed vice versa). But again, this "story progression via sex scene" is oft overlooked by scribes as a significant and useful marker for how things can change in terms of the story's context.

3) Sex can BE funny - or part of other genres. I'm always surprised by the lack of funny sex in specs, even in adult comedies. Instead, these adult comedies will often rely on highly sexualised talk, principally use of the F word, which swiftly becomes dull as dishwater. Sometimes in gangster films there is veiled reference to oral sex, but very often it relies on cliche (the dollybird blonde giving the Big Don a blow job under the desk has been a fave for about ten years now, yawn). Horror rarely uses sex it seems in a truly horrifying manner, except the two teens who get bumped off while having it off - REALLY? I can think of SO MANY ways of making sex horrifying (without making it rape). I was a teenage girl once too and thought sex was automatically like that out of TOP GUN - thanks a lot, Tom Cruise!!! But teenage sex really is by and large CRAPPY sex, definitely for girls I'd wager (at least the fellas get their rocks off no matter what, haha).

4) Sex can BE a celebration of character. In the last two series of CRIME SCENE INVESTIGATION, Catherine was unwisely sidelined in favour of new guy Langston. Whether this led to a slide in ratings I don't know, but the return to Catherine's rightful place has been extremely gratifying regardless and was signified, in part, by none other than a SEX SCENE between her and cop boyfriend Detective Vartann. First, think of how unusual this is: Catherine is a "woman of a certain age" and though men can have sex anytime they want (usually with women young enough to be their GRANDDAUGHTERS even), Hollywood doesn't normally tolerate any female over the age of about twenty five having it off on-screen. Second, think of how appropriate this was: Catherine is a highly sexual being (without ever being a tart btw) as well as highly competent CSI. Later on in the episode, Vartann asks Catherine to move in with him. Though Vartann has always been something of a cold fish with the rest of the dept, we can believe this sudden change in his personality because he's so into her (literally and figuratively, haha), but fiercely protective of her new-found independence now daughter Lindsay has left home, Catherine refuses. This episode is a perfect example of how a sex scene can feed into characterisation and ADD to the story.

5) Sex can actually BE the story. Stories about infidelity and affairs are the obvious one here, but so can romances and coming of age stories. Most of us don't live the life of nuns or monks and stories *about* sex don't have to be a GUILTY pleasure, why be so uptight about it? We're not talking about porn here. When I think of my favourites, BETTY BLUE of course jumps out a mile, but so does TALK TO ME, a 2007 TV drama on ITV with acres of sex in it. Yet I see very few scripts that follow this sort of line and I always wonder why. Personally I would like to see LESS violence and more consensual sex on TV and in films. Why not??? We're often treated to extended torture/violence sequences that do little to advance to the story anyway, so if your argument is that violence is somehow more story-inducing than a sex scene, I find the logic flawed.

And last of all, an extra one:

6) Give your reader a rocking good time, it's another great first impression! I remember the scripts with GOOD sex scenes (and by "good" I mean those that are "well drawn" and fit into the context of the story well, whatever that means). And not because I'm a pervert either (though that much is true) but because they're UNUSUAL. When so much of this biz is "standing out" from the rest in order to get noticed, can you afford to ignore simply sex as part of the narrative, just because it makes you feel a little uncomfortable to write it?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

How True Can A "True Story" Be?

Many thanks to lovely Bang2writer James Hickey who asks this question:

Do you know if there are any copyright laws or what have you regarding true stories one would read on the internet, or maybe have told to them?

"Based on a true story" can be problematic... but only largely cos 9/10 it's not really true. Take the movie Wolf Creek for instance. What was that based on? The Peter Falconio case *maybe*... But it felt like a tenuous link really, more in a "murder in the outback" kind of way (and "murder in a remote place/forest/desert/etc has long been a staple of the genre anyway). The "based on a true story" tag here seemed quite exploitative to me and made me feel rather uncomfortable, especially when writer-director Greg McLean admits to writing the script BEFORE even hearing about the case. But the "true story" tag can get bums on seats in a marketing-sense for sure, especially the ghouls when it comes to horror.

Seems to me true stories are fair game copyright-wise - IF the participants are dead and we're talking historical pieces. Back in 2008 I heard Peter Broughan of Flying Scotsman Films speak at Mead Kerr's course, The Art & Business of Adaptation. Flying Scotsman Films made Rob Roy, a biopic of a Scottish folk Hero also known as "The Scottish Robin Hood". Peter was of the opinion a good biopic of an historical figure "told lies to tell the truth" and having read many, many historical adaptations as specs and for prodcos, I'm inclined to agree with him. It really does seem sacrificing facts for drama is vital here. Read the original write up of Peter's talk here. The one exception here is DON'T lift entire chunks from published biographies of said historical figure, as the authors *may* have a case for plagiarism.

It starts to get muddied however when we're talking about people living now or in "near history". To write a film or TV drama then about such a person, it seems good practice to ask for the participation of the person you're representing IN the story (or their family if they're dead). Interestingly, Peter also produced the movie of the life of Graeme Obree, an Olympic Cyclist known as "The Flying Scotsman". He says he had Obree very much on side in telling his story and this helped the production a great deal. I don't know if Obree could have blocked the adaptation of his life altogether if he'd wanted to, but it seems very much worth getting people "on-side" if you're going to tackle "near history".

There are of course exceptions to the above and one obvious one is the "True Crime" movie. I'm no expert, but it seems to me as if "True Crime" movies rely on the VERDICT of the courts - *if* a person is found guilty, then that is the story which is told (we would of course never be able to film a story that is sub judice or is libellous against someone). If we consider the Meredith Kercher case then, there is apparently a movie coming out soon that neither Meredith Kercher's parents nor Amanda Knox et al are happy about. Apparently some scenes have been cut, including some graphic scenes of Meredith's death, but I would imagine it's unlikely either family will be able to block the release of the movie altogether. Amanda Knox was found guilty, so the movie is so-called "fair game" even if we find it in poor taste.

But last of all, what does "based on a true story" really mean? It seems to me that ALL writing is based on a true story in some way - whether it's based on our own experiences or someone else's. At the moment I am writing a novel about teenage pregnancy and of course a lot of my own thoughts, feelings and events that happened to me will go into the novel. But it's NOT an autobiography or all about the problems *I* had as a teen mother. In fact, there are many, many things about it that are as far away from my own experiences as they could possibly get. Yet it's still based on a true story - mine and ALL the other women I spoke to during my research or indeed all the women and girls I've *ever* talked to about facing such an event. Personally I think it's important as writers we melt our experiences together with others and create something that will appeal not just to ourselves, but everyone: it gives our work a universal quality.

Finally then, adapting a true story you've simply experienced, heard or read about needn't be a legal issue at all. You can take the situation, but change everything else, such as characters' names, genders, ages, etc... Suddenly you're home free. But then you have a new problem, for you have a moral issue: will those people you know recognise themselves in your work? Will they be upset? Do you care? Of course, as you develop your work, you may find the story takes its own twists and turns, away from that true story... and then you have no problem whatsoever!

So, to summarise: I don't believe there are any particular copyright laws dedicated to stopping writers from lifting people's true stories from their own lives, the newspaper, the web or wherever - AS LONG AS the names aren't the same in the very least. In the case of historical figures, everything *should* be fine (though do check for published biographies etc, you don't want to tread on any toes there cos that *can* be a minefield) and always try and involve the person you're writing about or at least their families when dealing with "near history".

Thursday, February 17, 2011

What's The "Right" Length? (For A Script! Quiet At The Back)


It seems every time I think The Format One Stop Shop (a list of all the format/script convention issues I see most at Bang2write) is finished, someone comes up with a question or I get a bunch of queries that make it necessary to update it again.

Just recently I've had some enquiries about what I think of as MONSTER screenplays - the shortest was approximately 142 pages; the longest over 300 pages. Now, whilst most writers know nowadays a feature length MOVIE script is *typically* between 90 and 120 pages, but the confusion appears to have arisen here regarding TELEVISION SCRIPTS. At least two of the scribes in question told me they thought they needed to write the entire series as ONE script for a producer to want to look at it. One was even of the opinion a producer *couldn't* want to look at a series without knowing the ending.

The good news however, is you don't have to write the entire TV series. But even if you do want to (and why not?), you probably don't want to send the whole caboodle out straight away. The most frequent approach I see is this: ONE x TV drama pilot (of roughly 60 pages), plus a series bible of *technically* any length you want, though my recommendation would be 4 or 5 pages, maximum. You can read more about TV writing (and episode structure) and series bibles in The Required Reading List, it has its own section.

Whilst we're here then, just a couple of other points I frequently discuss with Bang2writers about script length:

The shorter the better. Just because a feature *can* be as long as 120 pages, doesn't mean it NEEDS to be. In fact, it's very often desirable to be MUCH shorter and as close to 90 pages as possible. As someone who has read literally thousands of screenplays, I am of the firm belief that *generally* very often the SHORTER the screenplay is, the BETTER it is in fact. Now that's just my personal opinion (based on reading lots of scripts), but even if you think that's a load of guff, consider this: a script reader will probably pick your script up and be DELIGHTED it's on the shorter side (because most are in the region of 105 pages it seems at the moment). What a great first impression.

Script length seems to follow fashion. A couple of years ago, I was getting a lot of movie scripts in the region of 85-93 pages, whether from spec writers or commissioned writers. Just recently, I've seen that page count go up as mentioned in the last section and loads go up as far as 105 now. However, I have ALSO noticed parentheticals creep back in to feature length screenplays after a long absence and there is no doubt in my mind this is contributing to the added page counts. Since parentheticals are useless or at least rather distracting to read (plus actors are taught to ignore them anyway), does your movie script need these added pages? I'm unconvinced.

Spec TV pilots need to be roughly 60 pages. Or 90. There's no real in-between. I often see TV scripts at really odd lengths, anything between 45 pages and about 75 pages. Typically, a spec TV pilot needs to be about 60 pages based on the "minute per page" rule because generally, TV dramas are approximately sixty minutes long. You DON'T need to worry about advert breaks or even act breaks over here in the UK, it's a spec. Similarly, if your TV pilot is feature-length for the first episode or part of a mini series (and there's no reason it can't be, it's a spec) then make it 90 pages on the same basis.

Shorts are often not as short as they *could* be. I'm a big fan of the "micro short" - the short film that's five pages or under. This is because, in recent years, I've seen many, many short films that "drag" in terms of conflict because they're simply too long, either on the spec pile, or as produced shorts online or at film festivals. That's not to say ALL shorts are too long - some lend themselves really well to ten minutes or more - but I feel scribes really need to ask themselves during development whether their story NEEDS to be. It seems to me many shorts of ten pages or more start off rather lethargically, with much of their action "back ended" for a big twist or realisation in the resolution. It's a short, writers have limited time to make the impact their story needs. Be absolutely ruthless in your approach.

It's usually dense scene description that contributes to "overly long" screenplays. One thing that has not changed in all the years I have been reading is this one. If one's script is simply "too long", it's usually because it has WAY TOO MUCH description. When I think of all the scripts I've read, the ones that fly by are those that know economy is everything and that the "best" scene description pushes forward the story and/or reveals character, rather than paints a picture of how the scene LOOKS. My ol' mucker JK Amalou writes brilliant scene description and one of the reasons I was drawn to Deviation all those years ago was because its description was so lean and yet utterly devastating as Amber contemplates her fate in that horrendous car journey with Frankie.

If it's not scene description making your script "too long", it's *usually* a structural issue. Act 2 seems to be a real issue with scribes; I've had many describe it as a kind of wasteland they need to fill, but aren't always sure how to, so they end up sticking extra stuff in they may not need. But Act 2 is not a wasteland at all, but actually the MOST IMPORTANT PART of your script, the CONFLICT. This is why I like to think of structure as "climbing walls, each higher than the last", with each wall an obstacle in the path of the protagonist's goal, especially in this section - it stops your characters from "running on the spot".

Of course, we all start writing overly long screenplays - my very first script was 129 pages, which whilst not *that* long, is a far cry from the length of scripts I usually write (in the region of 88 to 95 pages, usually). And my record monster screenplay I've received over the years via Bang2write OR initiatives or screen agencies still stands at a whopping THREE HUNDRED AND TWENTY ONE pages. It was a feature called AS I WALK IN THE SHADOW OF THE VALLEY OF DEATH and I got it in 2002 and then again in 2004! Thought the second time it was slightly shorter - 304 pages. How long was your first script?

First Film Shorts Club Film OUT NOW!

Exciting news, short film fans. The very first production to come out of Film Shorts Club, The Decision, is up online and available to view, right now!

White Tiger Films produced The Decision, with Bang2writers Trev Walsh directing and Henry Fosdike as the writer. The Decision placed second in the London Screenwriters' Festival "Short Script Challenge" (now called The Greenlight Award) last October, so I for one am DOUBLY delighted to see Bang2writers getting together like this and ensuring their work gets out there. Nice one fellas!!!

White Tiger haven't stopped there either - they're currently filming JUMPERS by Bang2writer Claire Yeowart right now, too. So what are you waiting for? Get in on the action and join Film Shorts Club (link below) right now and get filmmaking!! Don't forget either ALL are welcome... writers, producers, directors, crew, actors, EVERYONE! If you're part of Film Shorts Club already, make sure you share this great news about this first production via Twitter and your Facebook walls and encourage your filmy friends to join too!

The first rule of Film Shorts Club? EVERYONE TALKS ABOUT FILM SHORTS CLUB!

LINKS:

Watch The Decision here

Add your name to The Film Shorts Club registry here

Enter The Greenlight Award here

Join Bang2writers here

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Novel Writing # 1

If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook or have read my bio, then you know I'm writing a novel at the moment.

I wrote an in-depth pitch at first - about ten pages, rather like a script treatment - so technically I know exactly how the plot is supposed to work out. I have a beginning, a middle and end. I have all the character bios. I have a "statement of intent" (or writers' vision). So actually, I guess it's more like a series bible. So I've done all the planning I usually do.

But that's where the similarity between novel writing and screenwriting appears to end.

I am consistently surprised by the words appearing on the screen in front of me. Of course, that happens in screenwriting too - sometimes characters say or do stuff you didn't expect and occasionally the bastards even go and DIE, completely screwing up your narrative as you try and dissect ***why*** that just happened, thinking all the while, "This is MY narrative bitches, what the hell did you just do that for????"

But I'll start a chapter *knowing* what needs to go in plot-wise, yet unlike screenwriting - where every beat needs accounting for - I write that chapter with NO idea how exactly I'm going to achieve it. So the writing feels like a real voyage of discovery, with every word capable of freaking me out every chance it gets. The other day, I burst into tears writing something. Another day I wrote something that could be attributed to someone I know, so I erased it, then I wrote it again. Then I walked round the block and came back and erased it again. Then I went back out and did about seven circuits of the cycle track of the park, came back and wrote it again, but this time changed it so it was no longer about *that* person, but had more of a universal quality, ie. "that TYPE of people." Phew.

If screenwriting is like one of those tile puzzles you have to move around until the picture appears, then it seems to me novel writing is rather like a Rubix Cube: infuriating, complicated and weird.

And yet I love it.

CURRENT WORD COUNT: 29, 775 of approximately 75, 000. I'm going back in...

Monday, February 14, 2011

Disney's Tangled: Go See It

MILD SPOILERS So, I loved Tangled. That's right: someone as evil and twisted as yours truly loved not only a Disney movie, but one involving acres of musical numbers, cutesy animation and a princess who wears pink for pretty much the majority of the movie.

But then, I've never been one who says Disney Princesses are *against* little girls' best interests, story-wise. As undoubtedly shocking to some progressives as that statement is, I've always been of the opinion that whilst not ideal, Disney Princesses offers something a HUGE majority of kids' movies don't: female characters at the heart of the narrative. As much as I love Pixar and feel their female secondaries are strong (Dory and Jessie in particular), where are their female protagonists? Why is it, whether they have monsters, cars, insects, fish or toys in the story, the lead character *is*, and voiced by, a male? In my experience, little girls love movies as much as little boys - and nag their parents just as much to take them to Saturday matinees, meaning the whole "it's all about finance" argument doesn't work for me. So where are the female fish and insects and toys and cars etc driving the action of these Pixar movies? Now we mention it, there's not even that many in Dreamworks pictures; when I think of all my favourites - Shrek, Over The Hedge, The Ant Bully - yet again, female characters are consigned to secondary roles, however good they are. I wonder what animation has got against female protagonists at the moment, but that's a post for another time.

And for the record, I've never been against pink. The Wee Girl asked for a pink bedroom and she got it; she likes to wear pink and if you've met me in "real life", you'll know I wear lots of it, too. Bar a short period during my teenage years where I was a GOTH (and thus only black would do), I always have worn pink; I like it. The furore surrounding pink and how it apparently "infantises" girls and women bemuses me. After all, you don't find many people advocating RED AS THE COLOUR OF THE DEVIL nowadays; or even red as being the sign of a Scarlet, or supposedly "loose", Woman. Why pink should be different seems odd to me, especially when pink seems quite popular among young teen fellas these days, especially neon pink: the Male Spawn has been known to wear it now and whilst we're on the subject, Mr C wears pink shirts and pink ties at work with a second's thought. (Now, pink as a lazy substitute by manufacturers to relate products *to* girls - THAT'S a different matter altogether, as is the gender stereotyping of play or toys, but again topics for another post).

But putting a princess in the title role doesn't have to be a bad thing anyway in my opinion, as I outline in this post on The Princess & The Frog, which I also like a great deal (though I thought Tangled knocked it into a cocked hat). Little girls like princesses, because they're often avid consumers of fairy tales, which - you guessed it - often contain princesses. My feelings on fairy tales on the whole vary; some I think are excellent cautionary tales; others I think are "meh"; whilst others I think are vile and even occasionally morally wrong. Yet I'm yet to knowingly meet a child who had their morals corrupted by one. In fact, listening in the car to one of Wee Girl's such CDs - "The Ugly Duckling" by Hans Christian Anderson - the Male Spawn, upon hearing the duckling was accepted by the swans on account of his BEAUTY at the end, quips: "That's a HORRIBLE story!" Personally I've always felt the same and a conversation ensued about the WRONGNESS of only liking people because of their appearance, which provided a valuable learning occurrence not only for the Wee Girl, but even Mr C who confessed to never thinking about the story before in that way, despite his ripe old age (arf).

So actually, assuming someone *like me* wouldn't WANT to go and watch something like Tangled is stereotyping in itself. And whilst it wasn't my first choice to spend a Saturday afternoon and I was led by The Wee Girl, I was happy enough to go. I do find it slightly depressing girls and women tend to be able to see more of themselves in animated toys, princesses, fish and insects as secondary characters on the silver screen, but in comparison to a lot of supposedly "real" women in film, ironically the animated ones are often a lot more convincing and less likely to be stock characters or facilitators of male emotion.

And I was not disappointed by Tangled. On first glance, I was afraid the male narrator Flynn Rider might take over and eclipse the female protagonist reviews had lauded, but I needn't have worried. This was every inch Rapunzel's story and her emotional arc across the narrative, going from a scared little bird in the nest to a woman of the world, was satisfying and cleverly matched by Flynn's (much smaller) realisation he must abandon his life of crime. In parts it was genuinely funny; others, actually moving. And the animation was fabulous, particularly the first time Rapunzel goes out into the meadow and that impressive lantern scene.

If you recall the original story, there is a herb called "Rapunzel", which the Witch later takes as the child's name. The Witch claims Rapunzel because the king (or husband, depending which version you hear, Rapunzel's parents were not *always* royal) STEALS that herb from The Witch's garden that saves his queen/wife's life. When the Witch discovers the king/man in the act of theft, she makes him promise to give her his first born in return. As people in fairy tales are wont to do, they agree thinking "it's very unlikely" they will have to make good on the deal (ha!). The Witch then keeps Rapunzel in the tower for no other reason than pure wickedness and even in some versions, lives directly behind the man and woman's home, so they're forced to watch Rapunzel grow up, trapped in the tower. Nasty!

But in comparison, the storytelling in Tangled is much cleverer and in-depth. Mother Gothel occupies the witch's role without ever being called one and instead, the herb is a flower which is never named, either. The King does not steal the flower for his dying PREGNANT Queen, immediately making us more sympathetic towards the parents. Instead the flower is retrieved from a clifftop within the kingdom, so he was perfectly within his rights. The reason Mother Gothel wanted the flower, then? Because as a secondary effect (after saving pregnant Queen's lives), the flower gives ETERNAL YOUTH. Vain old Mother Gothel wants to stay young, a great motivation for her wanting to steal the child Rapunzel instead - who has absorbed the magic of the flower in utero and now has... MAGIC HAIR!!! By brushing it, Mother Gothel is able to stay young.

In the old version, Rapunzel's hair serves little purpose narrative-wise than letting the witch climb up it, but here we have a "proper" reason why the evil Mother Gothel wants her. And rather than be an evil old crone who keeps Rapunzel locked up against her will, Rapunzel thinks Gothel *is* her mother, who in turn uses the most exquisite of emotional blackmail to keep Rapunzel tied to her apron strings. Bravo. This then means Tangled essentially becomes a "coming of age" story, where Rapunzel defies her mother for the first time and leaves the tower with Flynn Rider (whom she meets in the most gloriously convoluted fashion), after sending Gothel on a wild goose chase for a present for her birthday.

And best of all? Rapunzel spends nearly all the movie SAVING Flynn Rider, in direct contrast to the usual fare of saving the dashing knight saving the young maiden... So when Flynn does actually step up to the mark and save HER, it is the most powerful bit of cinema I've seen in AGES. Yes, you read that right! If you loved Toy Story 3 (and I did), then I think the resolution of Tangled offers *something* just as strong. BTW, if you're wondering why this movie is a PG instead of the usual U as I was, you will be in for a BIG surprise.

VERDICT: Watch it. Seriously: just watch it.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

You Can *Know* It... Doesn't Mean You're Doing It


So last week, as part of my English tutoring for teens at Key Stage 3 and 4 level, I did some revision on apostrophe use. I'd noticed many of them were using apostrophes incorrectly and correct punctuation is a great way of picking up extra points at GCSE; it can even make the difference between grades. It's a lesson I've taught a million times before. First, I looked at *how* apostrophes were used in various ways, then we looked at some incorrect use of apostrophes and corrected them. Afterwards, we did some grammar quizzes where the students were asked to choose "it's" or "its" or "whose" or "who's", depending on the context of a sentence.

I was very pleased when every single student got 10/10 on both quizzes and pronounced apostrophe use "easy". I was less pleased when, twenty mins later, I looked in their books and discovered, despite the focus on apostrophes for the first half of the lesson, nearly all of them were using apostrophes incorrectly when writing notes on their English Lit texts. At first I figured, "oh it's just rough work", but then, when I pointed out the incorrect apostrophes in their work, I was met with blank looks. "That's not incorrect," One girl even insisted. I asked her the various questions I'd used during the grammar exercises and eventually her blank look finally turned to recognition and she corrected them. Yet she had needed in-depth prompting to facilitate that correction, despite having been immersed in the learning objective less than half an hour earlier, getting all the answers right.

How is it possible to *know* something and yet still *not use* it? I'm sure that's a question that has baffled teachers for centuries the world over, but from a script reading/writing and craft point of view, I think the answer is simple:

Writers *think* they know it, so they figure they're *doing* it.

Craft is a learnt skill, so it's easy to assume we *know* something - structure, for instance - and nine times out of ten, we would be right. We've done this before. We know the alternatives, we know what works for us, we know what our story needs.

But I think writers drop the ball when they feel too sure of their scripts, their ability and/or their story. And yes, I include myself on this. There have been moments when I've become too cynical for one reason or another and I've written scripts that can only be described as crud, purely on the basis I've thought, rather arrogantly,"Well it's still better than most of the scripts in the pile." Even if that script was somehow better (and I'm still unconvinced: where's the heart??), it still wasn't GOOD. And why? Because just KNOWING craft, doesn't mean you're DOING the story justice and telling it "right" (whatever that means). And story really is king or queen of this process I reckon.

But I think "good" writers are not cynical. Instead, they never stop learning and they never stop looking for alternative ways of telling the SAME story. They know feedback improves their work; they know two heads are better than one (but conversely, that 300 heads are a disaster). They know a good script or piece of work means hard slog; that the easier it is, perhaps the more difficult they should make it - either for them or for their character. They know the hard questions should not be automatically dismissed. They know they should look at genre & audience but not write purely for the market, either. They know they should be receptive to the world around them, but also not let the world take them over. Beyond the actual script itself, they know it's about getting themselves out there, too.

Yes, we *know* all this...

... But are we doing it?

ON THIS BLOG BEFORE:

But I *Know* It - do you?

How It's Possible to Read A Script And have NO CLUE What It's About

Apostrophes Explained: handy PDF worksheet

Grammar Revisited - Issues Re: Apostrophes & Mixed Tenses

Friday, February 11, 2011

The London Comedy Writers' Festival, Apr 9/10th, 2011

So all week on my social network I've been going on and on about The London Comedy Writers' Genre Festival, which takes place at Regents' College, London the weekend of April 9/10th, 2011. But if you don't follow me on Twitter or Facebook (why not??), you may not know about it - so here are all the details.

The London Comedy Writers Genre Festival came about directly from the feedback of London Screenwriters Festival delegates and a survey we conducted recently, where we asked YOU what you wanted next from Team LSF. A festival dedicated to the craft and production of comedy in all its forms was the overwhelming answer for the staurday - and you wanted a relaxed networking event in conjunction with expert script clinics on the sunday.

SO YOU GOT IT!

There be 30 fantastic events, with 50 brill speakers and room for 400 delegates. Regents' College is a fab venue and I am so pleased we've got it again. We have some fabulous guests already confirmed, with PLENTY MORE where they came from... I will of course be there - though this year I will mostly be waddling like a duck, as I will be approximately 30 wks' pregnant on the date of the festival, so please feel free to see ME as a comedy event too.

In the meantime, I am bringing together a new screenwriters' pocketbook especially for the event, dedicated to comedy writing and genre writing in general. This year we will have new articles from (amongst others!) Billy Mernit of "Living The Romantic Comedy"; Bill Martell of "Script Secrets"; Scott Myers of "Go Into The Story"; Scott The Reader of "Alligators in a Helicopter" and Jenny Roche of "Teach Yourself Comedy Writing". These guys are all awesome and I can't wait to see what they come up with!

Tickets for The Comedy Writers Genre Festival are currently on the early bird price of £119 inc VAT (buy before Mar 18th), that's a whopping thirty pounds off! Don't miss out.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Won't Someone Nick My Script or Idea?

I thought in this age of blogs, peer review, Twitter etc this one had *finally* gone away... But like the serial killer who MYSTERIOUSLY COMES BACK TO LIFE in horror movies (despite being impaled, shot in the head and thrown out a window), I go and get THREE emails in the space of just a few days from writers worried about this.

I can't stress enough: no one is **out** to nick anyone's ideas or scripts. I've never once heard of a credible case of this happening, in all the years I've been reading - the best part of a DECADE now. Here are some reasons why:

It's bad business sense. If a producer or whoever nicks a script off someone, s/he would soon become very unpopular in their circle... And this scriptwriting/filmmaking malarkey is a smaller pond than you might think.

Your script is probably not as great as you think it is. Whilst I'm not keen on making generalised divides between "grades" of writers, in my experience, script "nicking" is generally something NEW writers worry about. More experienced writers give it very little thought and even know it's DESIRABLE to show their scripts to as many people as possible and this practice can even make them better. Please note, I'm NOT trying to be patronising, I just want to describe this notion: we all have to start somewhere and our first scripts are NEVER the best we can do (even if they're good scripts!), because we're still learning and evolving as writers. I am proud of my first scripts; I worked hard at them and I think they were good - some other people thought so, too which was gratifying. Can I do better now? Undoubtedly, unreservedly YES. And that is, in part, down to the feedback of others, both colleagues and unconnected readers, directors and producers.

Even if your script is brilliant, it's probably not "ready" yet. I'm not just saying the above to be harsh either; maybe your script is a GREAT example of craft with a fab premise at its heart. Brilliant, good for you. But seriously, who produces work *as it is*, without any input or development? 'Cos I can't think of anyone. Again, it would be bad business sense. Producers et al will find the money to make the project; on that basis then, they will want some creative input for that money.

You cannot copyright an idea and newsflash: this is a GOOD thing! I'm consistently surprised by the number of writers who miss the point on this one. Just think, if ideas WERE copyrighted, there would only be ONE werewolf story; ONE science fiction world; ONE "fish out of water" comedy; ONE biopic of various historical figures and so on and so forth. The whole point of this industry, "the same... but different" would be completely blown out of the water. Writers' hands would be COMPLETELY LEGALLY TIED by what had gone before! It would be a disaster for creative people.

There ARE ever-popular ideas. This industry trades in ideas and drafts and the development wheel is always churning. Some ideas go round and round and round for YEARS, decades even! And script readers are often party to the "ever-popular" ideas, the ones that come back over and over again. So if you write a script about a poker tournament; a school election; a girls' football team; a psychic detective; any number of writers' biopics (especially poets); a man or woman's journey to find the perfect partner (often via a TV show); King Arthur; modern adaptations of King Lear or MacBeth; an unsigned band trying to get in the charts; the hilarious pursuits of ill-matched flatmates all living together; a nerdy man who is struck by lightning and becomes a LOVE GOD; a child who saves the world through psychic powers; a Dr Who style character who saves the world with his rag-tag bunch of mates; a group of women (usually cancer-survivors) who find themselves on some sort of journey across the desert, up a mountain or on a boat, then TRUST ME: I've seen those stories a MILLION TIMES BEFORE (and those I've listed are just a small number). That's not to say you shouldn't write them; familiar ideas show there is a "need" for that story audience-wise, if done right. But if you see a movie go into production that's SIMILAR to the one *you* wrote? Don't think, "My idea's been stolen", think "someone had the same idea as me". It's SOOOOOOOOOOO much more likely!

So, chill: get those scripts written, get feedback on them, get them rewritten, get them out there. No one's going to nick them off you. Here's a previous post on this same subject, Copyright Myths Exploded. And here's a fab (short) factsheet on UK Copyright Law.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

What's The Difference Between Story & Plot?

I did a guest talk at The Bournemouth University Writers' Society last night. It was a great turn out and hosted by the marvellous and enterprising Sam Hutchinson, so if you're a student at the uni and interested in writing (you don't have to be a Scriptwriting student to join, so I'm told) then you should definitely get down there. Join the Facebook group here.

My talk was about the difference between story & plot with sidelines into central concept, theme, audience and structure. These are elements Bang2writers often struggle with, especially at first draft, pitching or rewriting stage (especially when deciding whether to go for the fabled "page 1 rewrite"): if you don't know *what* your script is, then how do you know *who* you are writing for? If you're not sure of how story and plot differ, then how do you know if you are writing in the "right" genre, in the "right" way ( whatever that actually means - ie. convention, audience expectation, etc). If you're not sure how structure *could work* for your story, then how do you know if your draft is "running on the spot"?

Anyway, I thought it would be an idea to let my powerpoint presentation be available to ALL Bang2writers, so I've stuck it up on my downloads page for you to access. You can download it below. The presentation was composed on Office for Mac, so it *should* be OK for PCs, let me know if it's not. Though of course you will need Powerpoint to open it!

Of course, you won't get a running commentary from me like The BUWS did, where I talked waaaay too much about CON AIR for some reason, not to mention ghosts or sex scenes and there will be NO double entendre about the word "seminal" either... But perhaps all that's a good thing, haha. Enjoy!
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UPDATE: TV screenwriter Sally Abbott just made the excellent observation over at my Facebook profile: "Plot is what happens, story is what it means." Couldn't agree more!

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OTHER FREE DOWNLOADS AVAILABLE FROM BANG2WRITE:

Story/Plot Presentation (Powerpoint for Macs)

Story/Presentation (Powerpoint for PCs)

"Screenwriting Tips" - PDF e-book, on screenwriting devices like montage & reversals, craft & feedback issues. A WHOPPING 276 downloads so far (just 2 weeks!), thanks!

Bang2write Format Template - 1 page PDF reference guide/checklist on Format issues

Saturday, February 05, 2011

How Do I Become A Professional Scriptwriter?

Bang2writer David Bird has this question:

How do I become a professional scriptwriter?

This is a good question and one that could take all day, so I'll try and keep it simple:

Keep writing, keep connecting, keep building.

It really is as simple - and as complicated - as that. It's important to note however:

Professional writers are NOT automatically those that are the most successful purely in terms of monetary gain. My Dad was an art student in his youth for a short time and he always tells the story that apparently Van Gogh sold just one painting while he was alive, yet we all know who he is now... Does Van Gogh's lack of success and recognition in his actual lifetime denigrate his legacy? Of course not. In addition, whilst the likes of Charles Dickens, The Brontes and Jane Austen may have had a following while they were alive, I doubt very much any of them were rolling in it solely from writing, either. I am of the firm belief that if you are holding out for *that* big pay packet or even just a living wage before calling yourself a "professional", you will be disappointed because this is likely to never happen. I know professional writers who make less money than they would working at McDonald's.

But these people are professionals because they take the lack of money on the chin and keep on keeping on. What this means of course depends on the individual, what their goals are and also sometimes the levels of responsibility they have. I've known several Bang2writers to take redundancy, so they might live with less and write full time. But this isn't possible for everyone, especially if you have a family. So other professional writers supplement their income with a day job: teaching seems to be a firm fave, though journalism, script reading/editing and other production skills allow that writer to have two feet in the same world.

Other writers like to have unrelated jobs, which bring different skills and insights to the world of writing: in the Bang2writers pool I have bank clerks, police, secretaries, salespeople, librarians, museum curators, psychologists, nurses and even a lady who makes sock monkeys, to name just a few. Other writers prefer manual jobs, with plenty of space for thinking time. And why not? Whatever works. These writers only need to work out EXACTLY how to write AND earn money, 'cos the two are not always the same.

My definition then of a professional writer, then? I believe it is someone who:

- is organised and sets goals (and can reassess them when necessary)
- is positive, even in the face of adversity
- is realistic
- is learning all the time
- knows feedback improves their work & can take constructive criticism
- is able to recognise poor feedback or feedback with an agenda
- is generous to their peers, followers & fans
- constantly hones and defines their craft
- applies for everything
- knows their limits
- follows up on submissions and opportunities politely
- builds their own brand
- can use social media tools to promote their brand
- is not afraid or embarrassed of or by self promotion
- attends networking events whenever they can
- builds relationships with producers, filmmakers, other writers, agents, etc whenever they can, online & face-to-face
- does DIY stuff if they can
- can diversify and is always looking into new and/or different avenues for their work
- spends a certain amount of time on as much of the above as they can, day in day out

Note I do NOT mention a professional writer **automatically needs** an agent in the above list! Of course, having an agent can be a fabulous validation for oneself (and indeed incredibly handy, I love mine). But as I often explain to Bang2writers who ask me: WE ARE ALL OUR OWN AGENTS. Many writers express disbelief when I tell them they don't need an agent right away and to go off, build their brand, their relationships etc and an agent will slot into place further down the line. But they really do. So don't spend all your time agent-chasing, go after those producers and collaborators!

But most of all:

A professional writer WRITES. Sounds simple, but a surprising amount of people want to be professional writers, yet write only one project or perhaps write very little at all. In comparison then, a professional writer has a PORTFOLIO and an IDENTITY. Oh and of course - a professional writer is the guy or gal who NEVER GIVES UP, no matter what is thrown at them. Someone in real life said to me only the other day:

"The people you see succeeding at ANYTHING aren't the most talented or the luckiest; they're simply the ones who refused to quit."

With all this in mind then, Adrian Mead wrote the excellent MAKING IT AS A SCREENWRITER - it's an e-book that's well worth a read AND all the profits go to Childline.

Good luck!

Friday, February 04, 2011

Please Save The Libraries

I didn't want to be a screenwriter when I was a little girl. I didn't know there was such a job! Like so many children (and adults, now you mention it), I imagined movies and telly were somehow magically put together, appearing before us ready made. Looking back, I see how curious a belief this was: after all, I knew cartoons were (then) drawn; I knew actors acted. So why couldn't I comprehend the people behind the page and the camera?

I have, however, always wanted to be a writer. When I was a child, the top writing job (to me) was being a novelist. When I hit secondary school, I had already polished off the likes of Enid Blyton, Michael Morpurgo, Roald Dahl, Robert Swindells and Robert Westalll. I moved on to the classics at the behest of my then English Teacher, who loved Jane Austen. I didn't. I tried Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins; they were okay. But it was the sixteenth century that really did it for me: my Mum and Dad bought me a Complete Works of Shakespeare, which led on to me reading the likes of Chaucer.

Then I ran out! I recall going to the school library and launching a variety of complaints about how I had "read all the books" (it was a small rural school library, this was no childish exaggeration). The librarian, only there two days a week, was a sniffy woman who did not believe me, even when I rattled off the plots of all the books she showed me that I "couldn't possibly have read". I remember one Tuesday afternoon, when I was dodging games based on imaginary period pain:

"Write your own books, then!" she said.

So I did. Most of them could only have been about two thousand words looking back, but they felt ENORMOUS. All of them were science fiction, because at the time I watched ALIEN most weekends. Mum and Dad bought me a typwriter, so I could feel like a proper writer; I even illustrated the stories myself. I wrote stories of spaceships with stowaway monsters; of people who had colonised planets and turned into monsters; of monsters invading Earth (are you seeing a pattern yet?). Time passed and I started writing stories with religious allusions because I had started reading the Bible: usually they involved the Apocalypse hitting The Garden of Eden because I figured that hadn't been done. Then I started to write stories set in the sixteenth century, usually involving my ol' mucker Shakespeare in some way. Sometimes Shakespeare met aliens. (Dr Who wasn't on in the 90s when I was a teenager, but I would have loved Gareth Roberts' "The Shakespeare Code" if it had been).

Of course, in the meantime I joined a bigger library in town. I discovered to my delight I was able to get six books out at a time, unlike school which would only give me two. The Librarians there were less sniffy than the one at school, though they did express concern that I seemed to be getting out "too many adult books" - Dean Koontz, Stephen King and Clive Barker were my authors of choice at the time. That was until my Mum stepped in and told them in no uncertain terms I had permission to get out anything I liked... Until she discovered I had Nemesis by Shaun Hutson, which she took off me and forbid me to read until I was sixteen, haha.

By the time I was eighteen and already a young Mum, my interest in horror (if not Dean Koontz, I had always had time for him) had waned somewhat and I started getting out the Penguin versions of various classics like Antigone, The Illiad, The Odyssey, Metamorphoses, Electra and Oepidus Rex. A Level English Literature awakened an interest in me for The Metaphysical Poets, particularly John Donne. And weirdly, amongst all of these lofty selections, I started reading Mills and Boon. Acres and acres of them. I became interested in how they were all the same, but different. Plus I enjoyed all the rampant depictions of sex.

Anyway, my point to this post:

Please save the libraries.

Like many creatives, I was quite a lonely child; somehow I felt set apart from my peers by my observations of them and the world around us. As a young adult, I was *literally* lonely: I had a baby, lived in the middle of nowhere, all my friends had gone off to university and no one I knew of the same age had a child. Books then were a lifeline to me: these other worlds I could escape to. Books are expensive - even cheap ones - so libraries became my second home in those years. At one point I was even a member of two libraries in separate towns, just so I could take out two lots of six books. That's just how much I read and how much I needed it.

I know that, as one grows older, one doesn't have as much time to read; perhaps some of you reading this are not even a member of a library and/or not set in one for years.

But children and young people in particular NEED the libraries for a variety of reasons - and not just to foster creativity or combat loneliness as I've outlined in this post, either. Only this week my little girl aged 4 visited the library with her school to round off their topic this half term, "The Enormous Turnip". They were read the story again and did a number of various activities, including making bookmarks. It's these kind of activities, beyond the every day classroom, that foster a love of books and learning from an early age and we need MORE of them, not less.

So PLEASE check for library closures in your area and if necessary, throw your weight behind the campaigns. Thank you.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Guest Post: Response to LA Times' Women Directing Article by David Beaumont

Some of you may have seen the link I posted on Facebook and on the Bang2writers wall yesterday regarding women directors and how women "more likely to be members of the clergy, than direct a Hollywood movie"? Well, Bang2writer and DoP David Beaumont certainly did... and here's his response. Enjoy!
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OK, so I'm being pedantic, but strictly speaking this isn't true! Well, no, it IS true but it's irrelevant — since a MAN is also more likely to serve as a member of the clergy than direct a Hollywood movie. That's simply because there are more churches in the world (millions; how many in your town?) than there are Hollywood movies being made at any given time (maybe 250 a year; how many in your town?).

The significant statistic is not that any given woman is more likely to be a vicar than that woman is to be a director, it's the other way round: a vicar is more likely to be a woman than a director is to be a woman.

For my money though, even that comparison — 7% against 15% — is less striking than 7% against 93%. Fuck the clergy (as it were), with their paltry "twice as likely"; men are 15 times as likely to land a directing job as women.

WHY that should be the case (or at least "is", if not necessarily "should be"), might be quite a lot more complicated than just straightforward sexist recruitment.

For example, I wonder how many moviegoers (or more importantly how many audience-dollar decisionmakers) are male? Who picks the film for the majority of cinema trips, who chooses the DVDs, who selects the TV subscription package or holds the remote control, who spends the most time in hotel rooms alone (and therefore watching pay-per-view movies on hotel TV), etc. My guess would be men — in which case the major movie studios would be failing in their duty not just to their audience but also to their shareholders if they didn't skew their output in favour of a male audience; and it's not unreasonable to suggest that male directors are generally more likely than female directors to connect with material geared towards a male audience. (Of course there will always be exceptions; compare the latest films of former husband & wife directors James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow: anyone wanna put a stereotypical male/female balance on 'Pocohontas with elegant blue people' versus 'jarheads get drunk, fight, and gamble with their lives coz they love to blow shit up coz it's far more rewarding than being a family man'?) In which case it is RIGHT that there should be more male than female directors.

Of course then there's the deeper issue of why that audience-dollar decision-making power should be male dominated, and no doubt that's largely down to the fact that historically more male-oriented movies have been produced... and suddenly the argument's circular — or at least spirals through time. But which studio head is gonna be the first to say "fuck 100 years of industry success, I'm gonna re-invent the wheel because it's the socially responsible thing to do"? How long wil they last, if they start advocating martyring the studio for the greater good? That's just bad business.

Of course if there were precedents, even one-offs to suggest an opportunity before moving into a wholesale shift of emphasis right across the slate, then there'd be something that this (can I say "humanist" rather than "feminist"? Since we're a predominantly female species then by default every human is a woman anyway, unless they're part of the minority group; so we're arguing in favour of the human race on average, rather than specifically advocating imbalance... actually no, I won't get away with that — so I will stick to "crusading") crusading studio head could cite to support the business logic of their policy.

But where are the precedents? Where are the big hit movies (and I mean relatively, not absolutely — ie bigger than all the others, not just "big" in their own right) that are "right for a female audience"? Where are the feminist chart-toppers?

There aren't any.

"There aren't any". Let's just read that back. And see how easy it is to believe. And look around the room and see how many other people aggree. And then punch ourselves in the face, hard, twice, for being so sexist as a society that not only can we not see the wood for the trees, but that the trees are so dense we don't even believe the wood is there. Let's take the entertainment world's foremost feminist movie director, consider their last two major releases. How did they compare to the competition? Well, I'm going to cite 'The Dark Knight' as the highest-performing "masculist" film of all time, with a box office take of just over a billion dollars. So, how does our feminist's work compare? Well, 'Titanic' did nearly twice as much, and 'Avatar nearly three times as much.

[Quick stat break: there are 5 movies in history that have grossed over a billion dollars at the box office worldwide:

'Pirates of the Caribbean 2', with about $1.05b
'The Dark Knight', with $1.06b
'Return of the King', with $1.08b
.
.
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'Titanic', with $1.80b
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.
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'Avatar', with $2.70b

To be fair I haven't checked those numbers since last Summer, so those dollar values may have shifted a touch; but nothing else has entered the club yet.

Interesting to note: 'The Dark Knight' (which I tongue-in-cheek called "masculist") did more of its worldwide gross in the USA than in the rest of the world combined; both 'Avatar' and 'Titanic' (which I'm calling "feminist") did around twice as much internationally than at home (the USA). 'Pirates' and 'Lord of the Rings' (which both have different levels and degrees of prejudice within them, but are on the surface at least moderately well balanced, in the context of the rest of society) were both somewhere in the middle. Possible conclusion, in the light of this debate: Hollywood's home audience, ie the market closest and most important to the most powerful movie-makers on the planet, are significantly more "masculist" than the global average. However more popular male-oriented films are than female-oriented films here in the UK or elsewhere around the world, in America that difference is TWICE as big. Male gravity is twice as strong around the commercial mindset we're suggesting they need to escape from than it is here.


So how come we don't see 'Avatar' as a feminist movie? How come we don't see James Cameron as a feminist director? Well, coz he's a bloke, and there are guns & scifi & stuff in it.

Bullshit.

'Avatar': the lead is a man, but he works for a woman: a woman who is the most respected (if not actually the most directly obeyed) human in the film. Na'vi society worships a mother goddess, and the women hold as much political power as the men; women can be warriors, (in the other tribes we meet at the end) we see they can be chiefs, the Amatikaya (which I'm sure I have spelt wrong!) are ruled over by one male and female authority figure, with a male and a female in waiting. The female characters are all as strong, as interesteing and as influential — within their social/professional circumstances, and to the plot — as the men (and in fact the majority of positive decisions are taken by women). 'Avatar' also passes the Bechdel test (look it up).

'Titanic': the central character (the one around whose life story the movie is based) is a woman. She is the one who grows the most through the movie, has the greatest character arc; her life's female influencers are as significant as the male ones. There are as many instances of her saving the life of a man as there are instances of a man saving her. The 1912 story has a positive ending because the woman (not a man) survives, and it is made abundantly clear to us that her life is a success because she has made it so in her own terms (she has not led the life of feminine humility, inferiority and servitude to masculine superiority and chauvanist ideals into which she was born and raised). She is the most proactive, the most interesting, and the one with the strongest character. (Jack Dawson might feel like "the hero, but look at what he actually achieves: he tries to get laid, he runs around, he dies.) 'Titanic' also passes the Bechdel Test.

'Aliens': it's scifi gun-toting action macho bullshit, right? Just coz it's got Sigourney Weaver in doesn't make it a chick flick! Simplistic to the point of untruth, and irrelevant anyway. (Fuck "chickflicks"; why should women have to aspire to be "chicks"?) When you cut right to the chase, this is a film about two mothers competing for the life of a little girl. There are a number of secondary male characters there as well — some good, some bad, but all of them weaker, smaller, lesser people than Ripley, or lesser aliens than the queen; and even at their less heroic level of existence, there is always at least one female character in their midst (the female exec who plays the most active role in the corporate investigation at the start; Vasquez, who can easily hold her own with any of the male marines; Newt's mother (if you watch the Director's cut) and the other female colonists, who are just as active on LV426 as the men) to match them. Nowhere and at no point in 'Aliens' is any male more decisive, important or influential than a female. By 'Alien3' the franchise had descended into parody. Ripley's character becoming a characature (even more so by 'Resurrection'); in the original 'Alien' Ripley is basically just a whiney bitch who really only qualifies as the "hero" coz she's the last one standing (watch it again closely and there's a lot of subtle sexism in that film, even if you don't necessarily want to call it "a sexist movie"); but when James Cameron took his turn with the franchise, both the franchise itself and the Ripley character peaked, as I'm sure the vast majority of fans would agree. 'Aliens' also passes the Bechdel test.

'The Abyss': the central character here is male, but still there are a striking number of parallels with 'Aliens' (and his other work) in terms of the character heirarchy. Who designed and built the rig these tough oil-drillers (only one of whom is a woman, but that woman is as valid and repected among her peers as any of her peers) work on? A woman. Who makes the majority the positive, proactive decisions on the goodies' side? The woman. Who's the character whose arrival, history, attitude and authority has the greatest non-plot-essential impact on our cast? The woman. Who sacrifices their life for the greater good? Yes, the male hero, but also yes, the woman — and neither are sacrificed by the story, since both are deemed worthy by the "natural justice of storytelling" to be brought back. And yes, the woman needs the man to bring her back to life, but he could only do that because the woman had already extensively saved his arse in the previous action sequence.

'Terminator 2': Well... anyone who's ever seen this movie and actually needs me to write this paragraph needs their head examined! Sarah Connor is an iconic feminist character in ways Lara Croft doesn't even know how to dream of. She out-Ripleys Ripley ;-) (NOTE FROM LVH: Hmmm, do we really want to start another ruck on this? Oh go on then... Read my post, "The Spectre of Sarah Connor" here! LOL).

Maybe some people are getting confused or annoyed by my apparent concept of "feminism". As I suggested above it's not actually about bias in favour of women — although we're so vastly "masculist" as a society that we'd have to shift a hell of a long way in that direction to get balanced... which is why I allow myself to borrow that word to describe the concept (since "humanist" is already taken). Acid test, for a film: take all the characters in the movie, and swap their gender; do the characters still function? If the answer is yes, then we're balanced; if it's no, there is bias, which implies prejudice. If Sarah Connor was a man, the story would work just as well, and the character be just as believable, respectable/likeable (or not) as it is as a woman. The character is a flawed, damaged but heroic HUMAN (who happens to have a gender, because all humans do), rather than being a gender stereotype first, who is then pigeon-holed into a character that we as a (blindly, intensely chauvanist) society believe that such a stereotype should be allowed to have.

So, back to the original point: we need precedents? Feminist (or at the very least non-masculist) films that have had box office success? Let's open our eyes and recognise the two most successful films of all time. So how do women directors make themselves successful? Make action movies! That's what people watch; and in fact they're FAR more impressed (by a factor of 3, ticket-wise) by feminist character plots than masculist ones. Social justice is one thing, business is another; the charts show us that. Gender imbalance and commercial success are clearly only linked by coincidence, or lack of vision — on the part of writers and directors more so than producers and execs. Make the studios money, and they will have you make more films.

Be James Cameron. Even be Kathryn Bigelow if you like. Build it, and they will come.

LINKS

(Thanks to Bang2writer Maura McHugh)

The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film

2007: Whose Stories Are We Telling?

2009: Rewriting an All-Too-Familiar Story?
Gender Disparity On Screen and Behind the Camera in Family Films
http://www.seejane.org/downloads/FullStudy_GenderDisparityFamilyFilms.pdf

Women & Hollywood: Sexism Watch - The Black List

Women & Hollywood: Sexism Watch - The Black List for Directors

Also: if you're my friend on Facebook, you can see my original posting of the LA Times Article and David's original comments, along with Elizabeth Ditty's and Maura's HERE.
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MY THOUGHTS THEN:

There's certainly some interesting ideas in David's response here on the directing front, THOUGH my main concern (besides James Cameron being lauded on my blog, haha) is: is it wise to categorise films as "masculine" or "feminine"?

Also, whilst it's certainly obvious people *want* to watch action movies, that surely doesn't mean anyone who wants to be successful SHOULD, regardless of their own genre preferences (or gender, now you come to mention it). If story is king/queen (and I believe it is), then surely shoe-horning yourself into making action movies *just* to get noticed is unwise. I'm also not of the belief that success automatically means monetary gain - if it did, then 99.9% of us in this industry (male OR female) are abject failures in achieving a living wage, never mind fame and fortune on the levels of Cameron et al.

But if I may deviate from the main issue here towards audience and commerce, I am unconvinced by David's notion that males DRIVE economic purchases (like cinema tickets, DVDs and the like which of course feed into the viability of film production), though my approach is admittedly as unscientific as David's - just personal experience, plus hearing the stories of other women and who hold the purse strings in their houses (PLEASE NOTE: this is not a value judgement, just an observation).

But *if* women do hold the purse strings MORE OFTEN, then why aren't we taken seriously as our male counterparts of consumers of movies like the fabled 15-25 year old male demographic? If we don't go to the movies, is it because there simply isn't anything that INTERESTS us? If we don't make purchases or hires of DVDs as often, is it because we're not interested - or because we're voting with our feet, "we don't want THIS content"? I'm particularly unconvinced by the latter - though I go to the cinema infrequently (based on price, more than anything else), I get DVDs every single week and I liken my struggle to find content I want to watch as the triumph of hope over experience. I like action movies as much as the next wo/man, but must admit I would like to see more action heroines with more "female/feminist" goals that don't automatically revolve around being raped, saving a child or being a male ally in some way.

I'm not convinced male and female interests in terms of genre ARE poles apart at all. I actually think women just (just!) want to see 3D, differentiated female characters we can relate to -in any film. What's more, I believe absolutely there is strong evidence - rounded up in Maura's links, in fact - that women are being PASSED OVER for such jobs behind the camera, so balance is not being achieved on this issue at best.

When I consider the "great" male characters, I'm struck immediately by how varied they are. Yet I don't see that variation in their female character counterparts. This seems a shame. Women make up a potential 51% of the potential audience in the Western World, yet still the majority of films feature male protagonists, with what *may* be considered androcentric narratives, with much of the female POV sidelined, regardless of genre.

Taking on board David's last point "Build it and they will come", surely if there were MORE varied female characters, on less automatically androcentric adventures, the female audience would come flocking and thus this would be GOOD for business? I honestly don't see why there's not room for all on the spectrum in terms of audience - or indeed in terms of who makes these films.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Thinking Of Buying Something from Toys R Us? Read This First

We interrupt this screenwriting blog with a TALE OF WOE regarding a consumer issue my beloved Mr C had with a famous high street retailer just recently over the purchase of a Nintendo Wii, which was a Sports Resort Bundle. (Since many Bang2writers are committed gamers and/or parents buying games, I thought you'd like to hear this story. If not, move along now... no screenwriting-related stuff in this post! Ta).

The high street retailer in question was Toys R Us. Just after Christmas Mr C bought the Wii for the kids there, which was advertised as having a number of different items in its bundle, including a Wii Controller and Nunchuck. Upon returning home from the store and opening the box, we discovered the advertised Controller and Nunchuck were not there. Not overly concerned at this juncture, we called Toys R Us at Poole who said they would look into the matter for us.

Anyway, imagine our surprise when a "security advisor" from the store calls us the next day and basically intimates he believes Mr C is making a false claim about the missing parts! Mr C was obviously angry and said he wanted to return the Wii for a full refund, but was told by this security advisor he couldn't, as - and I quote - the Wii "was not broken". A letter then arrived a few days later asking for Mr C to sign a form for his details to be passed on to THE POLICE.

Perplexed, we contacted Trading Standards. They confirmed not only was the console sold to us not "as described" under the Sale of Goods Act 1979, but that the emphasis was on Toys R Us, NOT Mr C, to prove the console was in the box at the time of sale. They advised us to write to Toys R Us and ask that they follow through on their duty to provide us with the Nunchuck and Controller that *should* have been part of the console bundle, as advertised.

So we did all this... to no avail. Toys R Us simply would not back down, even though the law was on OUR side! Mr C is a pillar of the community, doing the incredibly difficult job of working with kids who have severe behavioural difficulties in a pupil referral unit, so I for one was INCANDESCENT WITH RAGE his good name was called into question like this (though indeed anyone called into question is terrible, it makes you feel really bad!).

We weren't really sure what to do next: if Toys R Us were so unresponsive to Trading Standards, what chance did we have of recovering the missing items?? Yet the injustice demanded we do something about it. At best, it was diabolical customer service; at worst, I kept thinking of all the single parents who might scrimp and save to buy their kids a console, only for something similar to maybe happen to them.

Then I remembered I work in the media and know, or know of, many journalists in my social network. I put out a call on Twitter and Facebook and people were really kind, hooking us up with various people who might be able to help, including other people who had had horror stories when dealing with Toys R Us.

Anyway, in steps Victoria of Citywire Money and Sarah at Savvy Woman! These ladies were total champs, calling the press offices at Toys R Us HQ on our behalf. A few days later, Mr C received a phone call from Toys R Us HQ saying they would be only too happy to replace the missing items from our Wii Bundle AND they were sorry for the upset caused!

OUR ADVICE THEN: When buying a console or similar large purchase from any store, I reckon it's a good idea to ask the shop assistant to open the box and ensure everything is present and correct, else you might end up in a palaver like this! You can read Victoria's piece on Citywire, "How To Beat Rip Off Retailers" here - it has a SECOND story too about another guy's wrangles with Toys R Us over a pushchair/carry cot, plus some great advice about your rights if you're having consumer issues in general.

LINKS

Follow Victoria on Twitter

Citywire website

Citywire on Facebook

Follow Savvy Woman on Twitter

Savvy Woman website