Archive for September 2011

Playing the Odds

September 16, 2011

When I go to Vegas, which is like a second home for most Hawaii residents, I am a fairly cautious gambler. My wife and I start out with a set amount to play with, then stop betting or decrease the amount of our wagers if we hit our daily limit for losses. We try to play the odds, and know what “the book” says you should do at the black jack tables, depending on the cards in front of you.

Yet there are times when I just go with my gut. I’ll see a slot machine or roulette table, and feel lucky. Sometimes my hunches have paid off in jackpots. I once got so hot at roulette, the croupier looked at me as if I was crazy because I cashed out after I kept picking winning numbers while only playing three or four chips per spin — and no one else was playing at that table. It looked like I was psychic. But I knew if I kept playing, eventually the odds would even out and I’d lose back my winnings.

And so it goes with any game of chance, or even screenwriting contests. Yes, talent and skill matter. However, there is always an element of luck involved in who reads your script, what that person likes, and where your work stands relative to the competition. Sometimes it’s a numbers game, and the “points” or score a single contest judge gives a script can mean the difference between making it all the way to the finals, or just being another first round dink.

Still, there are things you can do to improve your odds of advancing or winning contests. In past years, I’ve been a finalist in a bunch of competitions and won thousands of dollars. More importantly, doing well in bigger contests led to script requests from producers, agents and managers. Some of the smaller contests were judged by Hollywood people with clout too, so you shouldn’t dismiss those kind of opportunities.

Which brings me to my first tip on boosting your chances: enter more contests. That should seem like a no-brainer, but over and over I hear writers say the only ones worth entering are the Nicholl Fellowships, Austin Film Festival, and maybe the Page Awards or the TrackingB.com contest. Think about it though. If you truly believe your screenplay is good enough to beat out 5,000 to 6,000 Nicholl/Austin/Page submissions, why would you pass up better odds to win money and prizes in contests where you’re competing with “only” 300 to 600 entries?

I’m not saying you should enter dozens of contests just for the sake of spreading your bets around. Be selective. Pick the ones that have more than one winner because the odds are you will not come in first place. But placing in the top three in some contests can earn you enough cash to pay for all your other contest entries that year. You can also win some nice prizes for being a finalist in smaller competitions, or receive discounts to attend film festivals and screenwriting conferences — which can be good for networking and making personal contacts that could help you.

Also, choose contests in which finalists will be read by industry professionals who have good reputations. Even if you don’t win, there’s the possibility one of those judges might be impressed enough to contact you and ask what else you have to show them.

Speaking of judges, here’s another tip: you can learn to “read” the contest admins and judges. How? Check out their blogs and contest websites. Look at what type of scripts have won before, and what the contest director said about those screenplays. They may claim to be objective in the way the scoring is set up, but who they hire as early round judges usually reflects their own opinions and values. Some are sticklers for things like formatting and structure. Others are more interested in story concept or character development.

I’ll give you an example: one year I entered THE DOLL in a medium-sized contest that is run by a script consultant. It made the quarterfinals, and that was as far as it got. After the semifinalists were announced, she wrote in her blog that there were good scripts that didn’t advance because they scrimped on details in the opening. I had purposely written a minimalist type opening for THE DOLL because it’s a bizarre plot and I didn’t want the writing to get in the way of the story. In other contests that were judged by working TV and film professionals, they told me they really, really liked that script… in part, I think, because it was a very fast read with lots of white space — the minimalism this other contest director didn’t care for.

So I decided to re-enter it two years later and made some revisions in the opening. I added details to the descriptions of the protagonist and her apartment. Nothing else was changed. This time though, the script became a Top 10 finalist. It was the contest director’s perception that changed — not the story or the characters. And you’ll encounter the same thing with agents or managers. They’ll suggest revisions, and even if you don’t agree, you’ll have to at least make it look like you did what they requested (sometimes they’re right, so be open minded).

Another intangible is timing. For whatever reason, it seems certain topics and scripts get “hot” while the next year that very same script fizzles. It could be the zeitgeist. Or maybe word of mouth and news of other contest results prime professional readers for that particular script. Who knows. This year, I dusted off an old sci-fi spec that had never done well in contests… and it placed in the top 10 percent of both the Nicholl and Austin contests. The changes I made were minor. But since it was about genetically-engineered seafood turning humans into food, it seemed to resonate more with today’s readers than it did when I first wrote it 10 years ago. (Back then, there was a little event called 9/11 that was on peoples’ minds.)

Ultimately though, your goal should be to become ineligible for these contests. And you do that by putting yourself in a position to actually sell a script — the real jackpot. Everything else you do is about getting in the game, and doing whatever it takes to keep playing. Placing all your bets on one or two contests is going to be a losing proposition for 99 percent of the writers who enter. Play smart, but don’t be afraid to take some risks. Trust your intuition.

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Strange Obsession

September 6, 2011

One thing that good movies and TV series have in common is this: obsessed characters who will stop at nothing to get what they want. Lately though, I think television has been the superior venue for stellar roles that actors would kill for. Look at Friday Night Lights, Breaking Bad or my new fave thanks to Netflix streaming, Damages. Man, oh, man what great characters — especially for older actresses like Glenn Close (and younger ladies like Rose Byrne).

The male corporate villains in Damages are well written too. Actually, it’s hard to tell who’s the good guy or bad guy, which makes it even more fun and morally perplexing. Ditto for Breaking Bad. As a recovering alcoholic/drug addict, I was initially repulsed by the idea of making light of such a heavy topic: producing and selling crystal meth for profit. Oddly enough, my wife and I find ourselves sort of rooting for two drug dealers: the science teacher with cancer protag, and his young partner, a loser who becomes a sympathetic character as you get to know him better. As with Friday Night Lights, the acting in Damages and Breaking Bad is terrific throughout the cast, and even minor supporting roles become memorable thanks to great writing.

Of course, a TV series allows for much more character development and subplots than your basic 90-minute popcorn flick that has to make every second kinetic because time is money in the movie biz. They literally have to move customers through the theaters, churning them quickly in the hopes they get back in line for a repeat “ride” as if it were an amusement park or fast food place. Television, on the other hand, does best when it builds audiences and communities who want to keep coming back weekly for NEW shows and stories that expand the fictional universe these characters inhabit. In some ways, TV writing has to be even more compelling and hooky because you have to keep the viewer from flipping to another show during the commercial breaks or waits between new seasons. Not coincidentally, the other thing FNL, Breaking Bad and Damages have in common is they end each episode with a cliff-hanger moment that keeps you coming back for more.

Speaking of commercials, I also love Rhett & Link: Commercial Kings, which has been running on the IFC Channel. These guys are funny, smart and very creative. It’s a simple premise — find odd/interesting small businesses that need advertising help, then help them by producing low budget commercial spots that will get attention for being, well… goofy and funny. But in many ways, the commercials do everything you expect from slick ad agencies. They get your attention. They identify a problem that the product or service addresses. Then they ask for your business with the call to action. I’d love to see a parody or skit pitting the 60s Mad Men ad guys against Rhett and Link!

If you watch Commercial Kings, you’ll see that most of the business owners they feature are obsessed characters too. They really believe in what they’re doing, whether it’s daycare for pets, running roller skating rinks, or providing “green” coffins for eco-friendly burials.

It’s a clever idea for a TV show. By showing the “making of” the commercial stuff that goes into producing a 30-second spot they are promoting that business and, in effect, tricking you into watching a 30-minute commercial. In fact, I think I may try to do the same thing for one of our sponsors on my local TV show… but it’s not easy finding obsessed real life characters who are willing to expose themselves on television for all the world to see.

And that’s what makes series like Breaking Bad and Damages so entertaining to watch. When you think about it, the things we want so badly really won’t mean much when we’re dead and rotting away in an eco-friendly coffin we saw on Commercial Kings. But we go through life acting like everything we strive for is of the utmost importance. Then we tune into a TV series where people are so driven to protect their interests or reputations that they will lie, cheat, steal or kill to come out on top, and you realize that your comfortable little life isn’t so bad after all. At least you don’t have to worry about crazed meth dealers or ruthless lawyers knocking on your door in the middle of the night.