Friday, November 29, 2013

Our ever evolving entertainment industry

Last night my wife and I watched an interesting documentary called Side by Side about what the digital age has been doing to the film industry since its appearance on the scene a few decades back.  The film was released last year and is produced and narrated by Keanu Reeves.  It takes an in-depth look at the evolution of digital photography, editing, and distribution and leaves you with a keener sense of how the film industry is in the process of going through this major sea change as both an art form and a business.

And it got me thinking...

Years ago I wrote a book (actually a rewritten version of my doctoral dissertation) on what happened to the entertainment industry almost exactly one hundred years ago when another revolutionary invention made its way into the mainstream.  The book is called Broadway and Hollywood: A History of Economic Interaction (published by Arno Press way back in 1974 and long out of print although used copies are still available for purchase).  The book documents what happened to the national entertainment business when feature films first hit the scene in the early 1910s and then follows the repercussions up through and including a second shock wave when television took the country by storm in the 1950s and 1960s.

With all of us in the midst of our current digital upheaval, sometimes it's informative to take a look at what's happened in the past when technological advances sent shock waves through the industry and changed the way the world consumed its entertainment.  Way back in the last century the changes were profound and they vastly influenced the kinds of stories being written and produced.

At the dawn of the Twentieth Century the theatre ruled the entertainment business.  Hundreds of stage productions were touring the country every week through circuits of interconnected theatre chains.  The theatre was the entertainment industry.  But then in 1912 the first feature or multi-reel film was screened with enormous success in New York City and within a handful of years feature films completely took over supplying the lowest common denominator fare for the national audience with its insatiable appetite for entertaining stories.

As a result, the theatre turned in on itself and began producing far more sophisticated plays for a far more sophisticated New York City audience.  Suddenly playwrights were liberated and the towering talents of Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and many others gave birth to modern American dramatic literature.  The Dramatist Guild was formed and playwrights organized to protect themselves and their work from the much more powerful and well heeled Hollywood studios that were constantly on the prowl for new material and were trying to make the theatre into a script mill for their west coast film factories.

And then a second revolution hit in the 1950s as television began taking the country by storm and this time the film business had to make a major adjustment as to the kinds of movies people were still willing to go out of their homes and into theatres to experience.  Hence the advent of much more sophisticated and daring films in the 1960s.  And look what's been happening to television over the last two decades as cable networks have been increasingly taking over...

Of course, none of these movements happened overnight, but it's clear by looking to our past that the ongoing technological advances in the industry have played a huge role in the kinds of stories being produced in each medium as audiences have become increasingly specialized and fragmented.

And today we're in the middle of yet another sea change.  The digital age is having and will continue to have a profound influence not only on how work is produced, but also on the kinds of stories being put out there.

But, in the end, it's all just part of the ongoing evolution of the entertainment industry.

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In addition to being an independent film producer and script consultant, I'm the Program Director for a low-residency MFA degree in Writing for Stage and Screen offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art  (applications currently being accepted for our June 2014 residency).                   

Friday, November 22, 2013

Interesting articles on script writing

I came across this article in Variety on "first time" scriptwriters that I think you'll find interesting.  It goes through many screenwriters' experiences with writing their first produced screenplay.  What I find most informative is the variety of approaches and how all these writers have come to screenwriting from different places.  And it shows how the writing process is truly an individual thing--something that every writer ultimately has to figure out for him or herself.

And today Variety ran this article on screenwriters working on projects with star actors.  As you'll see this can be a risky business.  Some good tips on what to avoid among other things.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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In addition to being an independent film producer and script consultant, I'm the Program Director for a low-residency MFA degree in Writing for Stage and Screen offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art  (applications currently being accepted for our January 2014 residency).                   

Friday, November 15, 2013

The successful script writer's secret weapon

So now it's the middle of November.  All last summer you mulled over this promising new idea for a play or screenplay and since the week after Labor Day you've been working on turning that idea into an actual draft.

How you doing?  Got that draft in hand?  Are you excited by the progress you've made?  As Woody Allen has been known to say, "the hardest thing about writing is getting from nothing to a first draft" and I can't think of a writer I know who would disagree with that statement.  But it's the getting there that often proves the killer.  After all the preliminary story structure and exploratory character work is done, it's the sitting down and actually writing the damn thing that so often remains elusive and can seem forever out of reach.

In the end, the secret to arriving at that completed draft is simple.  It's called discipline.

This sometimes scary concept comes naturally to some and is a constant struggle for others.  But it's worth stating the obvious:  one way or another all successful playwrights and screenwriters have found a way to sit themselves down on a regular basis and turn out pages day after day, week after week, and year after year.

It may be painful, even agonizing, to order your body into your writing room and force your mind and fingers to crank up yet again, but this is the only way scripts get written.  You've got to produce actual pages.  Lots of them.  One at a time.  Steadily.  Stubbornly.  With determination.  Sometimes with gritted teeth.  Sometimes with great pleasure.  Page after page after after day after day....  There's no other way.

This takes a serious commitment to the task at hand--setting up a regular, consistent work schedule and sticking to it; writing every day of the work week if possible, even if you can only snatch an hour or two per session.  You already know what your limits are per day.  I can go about four hours tops.  Usually after three I start to fade.  Some writers I know can go for six or more.  Some even eight or ten.  I don't know how they do it, but more power to them.  So whatever works for you, fit it into your life and keep plugging away on a daily basis.

The late and very successful playwright Wendy Wasserstein, once admitted to me that she has a struggle with discipline.  She put it this way: "I think I'm innately a very undisciplined writer.  I'll be distracted by anything, basically.  I take phone calls, I speak too many places.  But finally when I think this is too much, I can't do this any more, I must write, I'll then set aside time and say, "Wendy, every day for X amount of hours you'll be in a room writing, no telephone, you must do this or otherwise you're going to go mad."  So that's what happens.... it really takes discipline."
And playwright Terrence McNally explained: "I have to sit at my desk to work.  I'd love to pretend that while I'm driving or while I'm shopping I'm working.  I'm not.  I'm shopping, I'm driving.  I have to sit there and look at that screen.  And not talk on the phone.  You have to be really grown up and put the answering machine on monitor and turn the volume down.  And when friends say 'I have tickets for...' say 'No.' ....Once you start a play it's an enormous emotional, physical, spiritual commitment.  It's a big thing to write a play."

And playwright and Academy Award-winning screenwriter John Patrick Shanley:  "At a certain point I had a job, so I had to get up at five o'clock every morning and write for three hours, and then I would go to work.  That went on for a year, and during that year I learned the discipline of being a writer.  Because there's nothing else going on at five o'clock in the morning...My only rule was that I had to be sitting at that typewriter.  I didn't care if I wrote anything or, if I did, what it was.  Just so long as I was sitting at the typewriter, then I was writing.  So I created a space and habit in my life with that."

One of my biggest ongoing disappointments as a teacher of playwriting and screenwriting is recognizing genuine talent in someone and then discovering that the commitment isn't there.  Without that writer discipline, even a towering gift lies dormant.

So soldier up and finish that draft.  

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In addition to being an independent film producer and script consultant, I'm the Program Director for a low-residency MFA degree in Writing for Stage and Screen offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art  (applications currently being accepted for our January 2014 residency).                   

Monday, November 11, 2013

Career sustainability for the script writer

Except for a handful of playwrights and screenwriters in this country, so-called "professional" script writers are faced with an ongoing sustainability issue in their careers.

At the top of the list of goals for any writer for the stage or screen is to get his or her work produced. This, without question, is (or should be) the prime motivator for tackling time and again the task of writing one viable and producible script after another.  Needless to say, this is an arduous and long term undertaking involving total commitment and a persistent never-say-die attitude as works are released into the world and forced to face the gauntlet of the gatekeepers.  And the most legitimate (albeit oftentimes resentful) measure of "success" in the script writing arena is having those works land well received professional productions on a consistent basis.

Friday, November 1, 2013

An MFA script writing program that works

As many of you know, I am (among other things) the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  The program was launched this past June with our first 10-day residency in Peterborough, NH with an entering class of exceptionally talented students from NYC, Los Angeles, and Canada.

What I find most gratifying about the program is the wonderful (and I might even say amazing) progress our student writers are making on their projects this semester.  At our June residency we discussed at length multiple story ideas for feature-length projects pitched by each student.  Much give-and-take and idea sharing ensued and determinations were made as to which project each student would concentrate on as his or her major writing focus for the semester.  The residency also included intensive course work, all of which in one way or another was geared to laying out the tools needed for strong story development. Then, at the end of the residency, each student was assigned a mentor for the semester--a faculty member who had been working closely with the student at the residency.

As the adviser for all the student writers, I've seen the exciting progress that's being made. It's clear at this point in the semester that all students will have a strong working draft of a feature-length screenplay completed by early December.  Then, at the next residency that runs January 3-12, the scripts will be tested and given voice with actors.  And another major project for the second semester will be analyzed and discussed with our faculty of established professional writers who will also be working with the students on expanded exercises and additional course work.

I'm delighted the way that the low-residency approach to the MFA works so well for writers--coming together with fellow scribes for intensive work for a short period and then going off into their own life to write with the guidance of a mentor.  And I urge anyone reading this post to take a look at our website, and if you've been thinking about getting an MFA in playwriting and /or screenwriting to consider joining us.  The application deadline for our January residency is November 28th.  I can guarantee you'll be embarking on an exciting journey.

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In addition to being an independent film producer and script consultant, I'm the Program Director for a low-residency MFA degree in Writing for Stage and Screen offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art (applications currently being accepted for our January 2014 residency).