Monday, June 30, 2008

Funny Games Over

In a really eerie twist of fate, four days after my article on Funny Games, co-producer Tartan Films has closed shop. If you didn't believe me when I wrote that arthouse is dead, the staggering facts are now staring you in the face. Not that I am wallowing in this news; I have greatly admired the vision and business of Hamish McAlpine, ever since I met with him in the late nineties.

Apparently the losses on Funny Games were the final straw, suffocating Tartan to the point first the US branch closed, then the company went into administration.

It is sad that a company that had been fighting, at times very successfully, to bring groundbreaking cinema to its specialist audience, is now punished for just doing that.

In the worst case scenario, this could be really bad news for film lovers in the UK and the US. It often happens in situations of bankruptcy that film rights end up in a no-mans-land.

I am not an expert but I understand that creditors sometimes exercise power over what happens to the assets of the company in trouble. Here, the assets are movie rights and if a dispute arises between creditors, rights can be broken up, requiring the approval of several parties before they can be exploited.

In the worst case, a situation arises in which it just becomes too complex - and too expensive - to allow the film in the market again, sometimes for a long, long time. And fans may have to wait for years before their favourite title is available again in cinemas, on disk, on TV.

Even in those cases where the rights simply revert back to the original rights holders, it is not always in the interest of the film(s). Often those rights holders just don't have the passion of someone like Hamish McAlpine who would move heaven and earth to get a movie out to the audience.

As we have seen happening this time again, investing in getting these films 1) made and 2) released can be an expensive exercise.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

An Artful Preacher

On the fabulous you can read a review of Michael Haneke's 2007 remake of his FUNNY GAMES. Very much like reviewer Bryn, I realised I had changed since I saw the original 1997 version at the Ghent International Film Festival premiere screening (For that occasion I interviewed actress Susanne Lothar afterwards in front of the bewildered festival audience.)

I was mesmerised by the 1997 original and thought it was one of the most intelligent and though-provoking movies I'd ever seen.

Today - without having seen the remake - my thinking about movies is very different.

I'm entering dangerous territory here as Michael Haneke has a solid reputation as an intellectual and an artist.

If FUNNY GAMES is to be seen as a statement against a certain type of violence in movies, I assume Haneke would prefer to see the world without it. As an artist and intellectual, did he search for a way to do something about it? I guess the answer is that artists shouldn't provide solutions. They just flag the problem.

However, just because he is using the medium that has caused the problem in the first place, there is an opportunity to address the very target group involved in creating and perpetuating the problem. The first step could be to create awareness of the issue with an audience that can make a difference.

But the audience of Haneke's type of cinema is not that. They're already converted.

When you want to make a critical or philosophical statement, it works better to respect the rules and principles of the format you do this in. In a way THE SIMPSONS has always done this perfectly. To a degree Michael Moore understands this, too. George Carlin did.

In any case it goes against reason to make a statement about society in a specific format - here: cinema - and then break the rules of that format. Essentially this is what the story of FUNNY GAMES does: it directs itself to a cinema audience, then tells them they're idiots for wanting the resolution they expect. Not a good way to get a point across.

Possibly even more so if that audience is American.

Recently I have been referring to the movie PRINCESS as an example of a sharp cinematic statement about a dark aspect of our society. The movie does this using the conventions of cinema narrative and it succeeds in a frightening way. It doesn't shock by leaving us confused, but by addressing the issue head-on using a story structure we are all familiar with. The filmmaker has used all his intellectual and artistic powers to create an incisive document that makes a point without frustrating the audience that is willing to listen.

When you make a movie, you enter in some sort of agreement with your prospect audience, promising them you are going to tell them a story. That could be any sort of story with any sort of characters about any sort of subject. What it can NOT offer is just any sort of narrative structure.

You may argue that Haneke didn't just use 'any sort of structure' but one that was deliberately designed to make a point about genre cliches.

When you destroy a cliche, you need to offer an alternative. Haneke leaves a void. This void causes the audience to be shocked and confused, wondering about the point of the entire exercise.

When Alfred Hitchcock killed Janet Leigh's character in PSYCHO, he didn't just end the movie there. He took the audience to a new place by bending the rules and creating a story to fill the void left by Leigh and the film became a classic. Not just a cult classic.

All storytelling has its own emotional logic. To deliberately frustrate an audience can be seen as arrogant and perverted, even an abuse of the storyteller's power. How much of a point would I make by interrupting my son's bedtime story just before the happy ending, switching on the bright bedroom lights, and with the radio at high volume?

In all cultures, stories fulfill an emotional and psychological need. Filmmakers who deny an audience this fulfillment by turning what is inherently an emotional format into an intellectual one, may not be working in the most suitable medium. Perhaps, instead, they should write books, give lectures, go into politics.

When ten years ago I watched the original FUNNY GAMES, I didn't realise the film was preaching to the converted because I was a convert myself. I watched it on an intellectual level and enjoyed its brain tease.

But doesn't this preaching to the converted really defeat the purpose?

And forgive my preaching here, but if Haneke is really the artist he is claimed to be, why then would he ten years after FUNNY GAMES make the exact same movie again? Shouldn't he be doing other, newer, bolder things? Shouldn't the artist reflect the changing times?

Surely over the past ten years cinema has changed. Audiences have changed.

I certainly have.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Who Are You Gonna Call?

Whether you are a producer, writer or director, sooner or later your project needs the advice of an expert. Movies cost millions. Their development is much like the setup of a million-dollar business. So think of the expert as a business coach. Major decisions will indirectly impact on your business' bottom line. Any advice leading to those decisions will in some way or other contribute to the success or failure of your project, your slate, your career.

It all starts with that first draft.

You give it to a friend, because your friend likes you enough to sacrifice a couple of hours and help your future Hollywood career.

But unless that friend is a pro, how can you expect expert advise? Your friend may have never read a single screenplay, produced or unproduced.

McKee says: don't ask your friends to read your script, but to listen to your story summary, told over a coffee. Ten minutes, no more.

So how is that going to help you?

I'm not sure your friend will distinguish a wonderfully told screen story with engaging characters from something that is wildly imaginitive but plain wrong for the screen.

If your friend doesn't work in a creative position in the industry, will you get reliable career advise? I think not.

Honest advise you may get from a producer or an agent, even an experienced fellow writer. These people's businesses rely on stories that sell. You might ask a director or actor for their opinion, but - with all due respect - it will be less reliable.

If no working professional sacrifices their time to further your aspirations, don't despair. There is an army of script editors, screenplay consultants, story analysts etc. out there to help you.

Whether you like it or not, you are going to pay them.


If you are a first-time writer, you will need input on more than one draft and over the course of many months until your script is ready to go into the world and compete with already established writers.

If you are serious about breaking in and earning a buck, think hard about who you are giving your money to. Good advice can be costly.

But cheap advice can be far more costly.

Too many screenwriters make life-changing decisions based on advice given by their friends, peers or so-called experts. Because people are writers themselves or have web sites advertising their services, they are not necessarily qualified to decide over your future.

The type of collaboration you are entering into is so crucially important, you really need to do your research. Here are a number of questions to consider before you make a decision. And when I speak of (script) editor, I mean 'story or script consultant' in the broader sense.

1. What is the editor's vision on screenwriting?

If you believe real characters don't change and your consultant insists that you must have a character transformation, you are effectively on a different wave length. Check out the consultants' web sites. Does it show their vision on story and script development? Or is it full of marketing speak, flowery promises about bringing out your voice, adding to the local culture etc.? Ultimately you want to become a successful writer, earn money and build a career.

2. What is the editor's vision on script development?

Is it a 'snapshot person'? An experienced reader, specialised merely in providing script notes and assessments? Or is the focus on getting your script from its current draft to something that can be marketed or produced? Does the consultant's approach dig to the core of the story or does it only fiddle with format and style on the surface?

3. What is the script editor's taste for movies?

If yours is an edgy sci-fi with elements of raw graphic violence, your money will be wasted on the king of romantic comedy. Can you find a set of favourite movies you both know? Does the consultant have taste that is broad enough for a true professional?

4. Does the editor differentiate between story and script?

Story deals with plot, which is how most audiences will refer to your film. Script deals with the detailed expression of story on the scene level. Writing script notes takes time but is relatively simple (I'll give you a whole list of tips & tricks for free). When you choose your consultant, be aware of these two areas of expertise.

5. Does the script editor speak your language?

If you talk about story like Syd Field, in Plot Point One and Plot Point Two, things may get complicated when your consultant prefers Crossing the First and Second Threshold. Conversely, if your editor doesn't believe in The Hero's Journey, you have a good reason for concern . A good consultant knows most if not all story theories and establish a terminology that fits your taste and beliefs.

6. Has the script editor published anything?

Does the web site give you more than fees and contact details? Is there a blog? Does it express the type of advice you expect? Are the views expressed on the blog or web site original? Can you find an insight you haven't found anywhere else before, which makes total sense? Or does it all read like a collection of cut-and-paste jobs from Robert McKee or - worse - other web sites?

7. Does the script editor share your passion?

If they care about the craft, it will transpire through their writing. If they are passionate, they will want you to succeed. If they love movies, they will know examples from both mainstream and specialty cinema. If they want you to succeed, they will quote from successful movies and reference the principles that made those movies great.

8. Is the script editor predominantly a writer?

Writers may be able to find creative solutions. On the other hand, if you are dealing with a consultant who is primarily an artist, the worldview of that writer may transpire through the advice. Writers by definition try to tell their own story. And some have trouble suppressing the artist inside in order to put the client before the art. Better to work with someone who has a broader understanding of the whole industry.

9. Do credits and testimonials give you confidence?

Do testimonials give evidence of a sharp, constructive and creative insight? Or just a 'nice person'? In fairness, editors can't (always) be blamed for the failure of films. But if you find a list of failed films, the message may not be the right one. If you want to write for the cinema and credits are biased towards television, you may want to look further.

10. Does the editor offer the service you require?

If you are working on an early draft, you need feedback on the story. It would be a waste of your money (and everybody's time) to get detailed script notes on style, formatting, dialogue etc. Different stages call for different types of advice. Does the consultant offer you these options? Or are all options skewed towards 'script notes'?


Recently I have heard three stories first-hand from writers who had been given poor advice by 'senior American development people', 'produced writers', 'published screenwriting teachers' etc.

One writer believed she got the deal of the century when a former studio executive offered a Reader's Report for less than $150. When the report arrived, the excitement faded rapidly: a synopsis, a list of subjective character comments and 'apart from that, the story works fine.'

An other writer paid handsomely for a series of consultations with a respected author of screenwriting books. Although he ended up with a formally impressive draft, the writer soon realised the editor had not addressed an obvious, major structural weakness in the screenplay (as an experienced industry friend later revealed after a free reading of the script).

If someone works from LA, it doesn't mean they will give you better results. An emerging writer paid an established American script consultant top rates for several months. The script didn't even get shortlisted in a program for beginning screenwriters (in which two of the scripts I worked on received a big wad of development cash).


The first three readers brave enough to have (parts of) their synopsis published, I will offer a free Story Diagnosis. If you believe your synopsis is ready-to-go, I'll focus on the document's style and selling power.

Same for your script: send me the first fifteen pages of your screenplay. If you allow me to publish excerpts online, I will give you detailed scene feedback.

Please don't send any documents yet. Just send me an email to express interest and I'll get in touch about the next step.

Now, read the really small print below.


Isn't there a risk of my story being stolen?

Yes, there is.

It happens rarely but you can't eliminate the risk. That is why you need to register your screenplay first. I prefer you send me a synopsis of a draft you have already written and registered. Ideas cannot be protected. Screenplays can.

Alternatively, you can always send me something you had abandoned because it didn't work and you want to know why it didn't. In this case it's more about the learning experience than about getting that specific project up.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Audience Shrinks

CANBERRA 02/06/09 - The Dept. of Health and Ageing has allocated $35m to aspiring writers and Medicare will refund manuscript development costs since a report commissioned by Minister Roxon links creative writing with a balancing of the mind. Commenting on the controversial move, a department spokes person says: "Who cares if it bores audiences? It saves lives."(*)


Did or didn't you consider for a split-second the item might be real? There is some truth in the fact that first-timers often write auto-biographical material. And writing from the pain of your heart does work cathartically to a degree.

As a matter of fact, many successful writers' first screenplays remain the best of their careers, just because they are the most personal, vivid and direct, inspired and moving.

Why then, don't more writers succeed in getting their autobiographical screenplays financed and produced?

Because they care about their own catharsis, not the audience's.

The audience is now taking the place of the shrink. This system kind of sucks, because shrinks usually don't pay but get paid. And rather handsome amounts.

Still, there may be serious currency in self-analysis. All you need to do is tell your story in a language the audience understands.

The Greek tragedies we know were written around a character arc that would lead the audience through a journey towards change.

This journey would show them a mirror image of themselves and help them accept certain painful facts of life - and learn how to deal with them, how to become a better person, a stronger character.

The plays that stood the test of time were written for the audience's entertainment, not in spite of their catharsis but because of it. They were also meticulously structured.

When you want to transform a personal story for a large audience, you must take into account this need for structure and adapt the true facts to a work of dramatic fiction.

Writing a screenplay with autobiographical elements is in many ways just like adapting a biography for the screen.

(*) Yes it is fake and I will apologise if I must. But if you think this is tasteless link bait, my original heading was worse.


Last month quite a few of my workshop students urged me to go see IRON MAN. I do like some mindless entertainment so now and then and I hadn't seen a good popcorn movie in a long time.

However, I was reluctant because superhero movies hardly ever offer interesting character journeys.

They are mostly just about someone trying to get a job done.

In my view, the superhero type of movies is even dangerous to aspiring filmmakers. Because it shows you don't need to create a great character to draw the masses.

Needless to say the whole argument about established franchises and billion dollar marketing is wasted on these inspired souls.

Saying that I was pleasantly surprised about IRON MAN is an understatement. I had a wonderful time: here was a totally entertaining film with a structure that didn't feel formulaic at all.(**)

With its double transformation, I wouldn't hesitate to call IRON MAN a character-driven screenplay.

Tony Stark first transforms from mindless war monger to mindless peace keeper, then his character grows from an immature, toy-obsessed playboy to an adult with clear focus and moral compass.

In a way it is the Spider-Man mantra revisited: "with great power comes great responsibility."

Too bad "IJ4" blew Tony out of the cinemas. It seems David Koepp could have learned a thing or two from IRON MAN.

(**) Although I suspect it has a clean Eight-Sequence structure. Watch the Premium Ed. for the analysis in the coming days.