Blacklisted: Blood Moon Revenge!

To paraphrase Heidi Klum on Project Runway: One week you’re down, the next week you’re up when you are a writer. In my last post, I expressed my disappointment that the spec script I wrote for the Industry Insider contest (Sheldon Turner round) didn’t win the whole shebang or seem to garner any attention when results were announced. But in my heart, I felt it was good work — so I took another shot at the Black List. If you aren’t familiar with it, you can click here for background info.

Aside from the Nicholl Fellowships competition, the Black List is one of the best ways for unrepped or unproduced screenwriters to get their scripts read by legit industry professionals — managers, agents, producers, development execs. However, on their 1-10 rating scale, you need at least one evaluation score of 8 or higher from their paid readers to really get noticed. Two paid evaluations at $50 apiece can put you on their Top Lists page if the average score is over 7. Of course, a dynamite logline and catchy title can generate downloads by professionals even before you get your paid reader’s scores.

I had submitted other scripts before, and the best I did were 7’s across the board for my coming-of-age dramedy, LOST IN THE SUPERMARKET, which made the Nicholl quarterfinals in 2013. (I bring that up because I attended a University of Hawaii weekend workshop with the writer/director of SHORT TERM 12, who won a Nicholl Fellowship in 2010 — which inspired me to resurrect that old LOST script because of his success. More on that workshop in my next post!)

To be honest, I was half-dreading what the Black List readers would grade it because I had just gotten an e-newsletter from a screenwriting “consultant” who proclaimed that you should never have flashbacks, visions or dream sequences for any characters in your script other than the protagonist. In this consultant’s view, it would “confuse” the reader and shift the focus from the hero. But what if the hero isn’t really a “hero” in the usual sense, and perhaps the secondary characters’ backstories are equally essential to the story?

That was the case in my BLOOD MOON draft. One of the big takeways I got from working with a Writers Store story specialist as part of the Insider contest was the need to develop my characters more fully. Normally, I don’t like using voiceovers, flashbacks or dream sequences. To me, those are kind of cop outs. Yet more and more, I’ve noticed in good TV series and many films that those techniques are being used to tell non-linear story lines that eventually merge together in the present and can deliver a powerful payoff when used right. Admittedly, it was a bit risky to give my supporting characters equal flashback/dream sequence time in the script since I was challenging the reader to see the parallel plot lines between the protagonist and antagonist(s).

My first Black List evaluation came back with the 8 score that had eluded me all this time. The second reader’s comments were in some ways even more positive and could be seen as a “consider” or “recommend” (excerpts from both below) but came in at a 7. Those two scores put it on the Top Scripts page for awhile, which has gotten me about a dozen pro downloads in the past week. No contacts though, so maybe nothing will come of it. However, it does illustrate how subjective this business is. Even the Black List evaluations can be puzzling when the reader’s scores don’t seem to match their comments.

For example, here’s quotes from the “Strengths” and “Prospects” comments by both. Guess which was the 8 and which was the 7 rating — and remember, 8 is a reader saying they recommend industry pros take a look at it…

Strengths: With its neo-noir setting, flashes of deadpan wit, and spring-loaded plot, this is a terrific script with lots of potential. Above all, its characters are excellent. Michael McVay, an opiate-addicted detective in perpetual withdrawal throughout the story, makes for an excellent hard-boiled-style protagonist, one whose cynical demeanor masks his underlying decency. The other characters – Jack, Willow, Benjamin Mori – are equally good. Benjamin Mori makes for a complex villain whose motivations are not so cut-and-dry as to be entirely unsympathetic… Prospects: The prospects for this script should be quite good. Although it may be old-fashioned in certain ways (for one, it isn’t spectacularly over-the-top in its gore or its premise), it never feels irrelevant or outdated, but merely modest in its ambitions… It would be quite cheap to produce, and with the right cast and director something extremely good could come of it. Although there is still plenty of room for improvement, this is a terrific script that deserves to be given a close look.

Strengths: This script pens an evocative modern Film Noir. Its strong characters and moody world tie an equally strong premise, plot and dialogue into the tight and requisite story rope that makes for a very compelling film outing. Yet MICHAEL’S goal to solve the Yakuza-cursed murders simultaneously unfolds as a personal road of redemption; both his gritty past and tragic losses finding a spiritual rebirth in his fulfilling the Blood Moon curse…albeit through death. The material also does a masterful job of creating an intricate tableau of humanity where good guys turn out to be bad and perceived villains leave one breathless with a surprising good turn. Prospects: As penned, this script connects and executives/producers alike will be drawn to its story locale and cultural interplay. Additionally, this script stands as an excellent writing sample. If an outright spec sale does not materialize, a writing assignment may emerge. This material comes across solid on both fronts and collaborators can revel in this accomplishment while moving onto another project, knowing that they have their “calling card” script already in the bank…

Both readers pointed out weaknesses and made some good suggestions — which also contradicted each other. To me though, that’s a positive since they both saw the potential to go in different directions. And keep in mind, I wrote over 50 pages of the first draft in one week in order to meet the contest deadline. Anyway, the first comments were from the 7 rating and the second one gave me the 8.

They both focused on the characters more than the plot or hook, and I have to credit my story coach from the Writers Store for hammering that into my head during our weekly phone sessions. Which just goes to show that even old dogs like me can learn new tricks if they keep an open mind. Speaking of which, in my next post I’ll share some things I picked up this past weekend from Destin Daniel Cretton, the Nicholl Fellowship winner and writer/director of I AM NOT A HIPSTER as well as SHORT TERM 12. It may change the way you approach screenwriting.

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