Who’s Your Hero?

August 31, 2009

We finally got there.

As you may or may not know, I’m taking an improv class on narrative longform – that’s improv that tells a story, as distinct from shortform improv (the kind you see on Whose Line Is It Anyway?) or what I call montage-style longform (where there’s no narrative throughline, you just do one long show with random scenes).  And after several weeks of scenework, this week’s class was all about establishing the hero.

Think of some stories you like, and then answer the following question: How do you know who’s the hero?  This was one of our exercises, and the results we came up with were not surprising:

  • He’s the person the story is named after.
  • He’s the person we’re rooting for.
  • He changes over the course of the story.
  • He’s the person making the most active decisions.
  • He appears in more scenes than anyone else.
  • Any scenes he’s not in are there to support his story.
  • He’s got the biggest obstacle to overcome.

Then we set out creating scenes in which we established, as early as possible, who the hero is.  One of the guidelines I’ve established for myself is that whoever’s first to appear on stage, on screen, or on the page, is more often than not the hero.  There are exceptions to that rule, but usually those exceptions exist to establish the tone (Hamlet), or as part of a broader scene to establish the need for the hero (The Dark Knight), who is often then be the first to appear on screen after the scene is over.  Interestingly, an early draft of the Star Wars script has Luke Skywalker first appearing somewhere around the 4th minute – not really doing much, just showing up all by his lonesome to show us, the reader, that he’s the person we’re meant to be following.

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Writing the Hedgehog and Riding the Accelerator

July 29, 2009

Why the hell are we listening to famous screenwriters when they tell us how to break into screenwriting?

Lemme ‘splain my complaint:

During my long hiatus from social media (isn’t it funny how three months is a long time in this world …), one thing I did manage to accomplish was reading Good to Great by Jim Collins.

For those of you not familiar with the author or the book, Jim Collins looks at Fortune 500 companies that were poor or average performers for 15 years, who then turned themselves around to be extraordinary, by having 15 years of significantly-above-market performance.

Naturally, as one reads a book like this, one thinks of himself and how this will impact his life and his career and his business.

The Hedgehog Concept

The Hedgehog Concept is one of the main principles of the book.  Though the analogy is kind of dumb, the concept is simple and important:

  1. What are you deeply passionate about?
  2. What can you be the best in the world at?
  3. What drives your economic engine?

These three things comprise your company’s Hedgehog Concept, the idea being that everything you do should fit into this concept.

Phillip Morris is a great example.   Tobacco companies are not highly regarded in this country, so they’ve had a lot to deal with, and yet, they’ve managed to outperform the general stock market in spades.  The reason:

  1. The people who work for the company are deeply passionate about the product – cigarettes.
  2. That’s where they started, that’s where they made their money, and that’s what they could be best in the world at.
  3. Even through all of the “progress” that’s been made against tobacco, when Phillip Morris looked to diversify as a defensive measure, instead of just taking on any and every random opportunity that came their way, they defined their niche very clearly: “sinful” products like beer and junk food.  Because that’s what fit into their economic engine.

Writing the Hedgehog Concept

So now here I am, a lowly self-employed contract freelance writer.  Certainly, it’s what I’m passionate about, it’s what drives my economic engine, and it’s something that I could, at least theoretically, be the best in the world at.

The Technology Accelerator

Here’s where it gets interesting.  Later in the book, Collins talks about technology as an accelerator rather than a business model in and of itself.  During the Internet bubble, any company with “dot-com” in the name was instantly worth millions of dollars, even if they didn’t actually sell anything or have any plan for making money.  Those same companies disappeared the second that bubble burst, whereas the companies that used technology as an accelerator and applied it to their hedgehog concept endured.  The prime example here was Walgreens, which, for example, started filling prescriptions online, thereby advancing their already-well-defined hedgehog concept of hyper-convenient drug stores.

Riding the Accelerator

So now here I am, a lowly self-employed contract freelance writer.  Trying to figure out how the hell to use technology to accelerate my hedgehog concept when, quite frankly, I haven’t yet mastered some of the other practices (e.g., culture of discipline) required to make my hedgehog stand up, so to speak.

And yet, as I was reading the book, it became painfully clear to me.

Every industry is full of dinosaurs that fight the wave of change that is inevitable with the growth of new technology.  The entertainment industry is no exception.  Whether it was “talking pictures,” VCRs, TiVo, or the Internet, at each step there was a new opportunity for growth as distribution mechanisms became more cost-effective and widespread.  And yet at each step the networks and the studios have fought it like crazy, for the sole reason that they can’t imagine changing their business model to include these new technologies. (And these are the people we’re trusting with developing our creative content?)  The classic example was the Betamax case, which went all the way to the Supreme Court to determine whether VCRs, which allowed for recording of copyrighted material, should be outlawed.  The Supreme Court ruled for the defendants, and boy are the plaintiffs glad they lost – since video purchases and rentals quickly became a key component of their business model and they made more money than they ever had before.

With the rapid growth of technology, it’s becoming more and more obvious that another sea change is under way, and the current model for film/video content release will not remain the same for much longer.

In the last year we’ve seen an explosion in certain experiential technologies for movie blockbusters.  Whether it’s The Dark Knight on IMAX or Up! in 3D or Harry Potter with vibrating seats, people are willing to pay $13-$20 for an experience they can’t get at home.

However, I get the sense that people are losing interest in paying $10 apiece to go see a romantic comedy, when they can wait 3 months and watch it on DVD for a buck.  And although I have no evidence to support it, I suspect that people are starting to lose interest in paying $50/month for cable, when most of the shows they want are available 12-16 hours later on Hulu or on the station’s individual website.  Shows like Homestar Runner are offering you all their programming completely free of charge, and then make millions off merchandising revenues.

Add to this Moore’s Law, which says that data storage capacities double every 18 months, it’s only a matter of time before we could fit every movie and TV show ever made into a box that sits under our televisions or next to our computers.  What then?  How will we get our content?  Will television, complete with reruns and commercials still exist?

I don’t know.  John August freaked out about this back in January, and received 65 comments in response, and you can read the conclusion to this heated debate here. But this all brings me back to the complaint I started with: Why the hell are we listening to famous screenwriters when they tell us how to break into screenwriting?

For example: I’ve heard at least a hundred times that if you want to work in the film industry, you have to move to L.A., at least for some period of time.  And I’m finding that statement harder and harder to believe.  The world is so much smaller a place than it was even last year, before the Twitter explosion, and that was long after Diablo Cody won her Oscar from Minneapolis.

Technology is changing the world so completely, if we start to apply it to our hedgehog concept, I think we have to learn to take with a grain of salt everything we’re told by an earlier generation of artists, who were dealing with a completely different world than we are now.

That’s not to say that they’re wrong, mind you, or that we should all start writing webisodes instead of screenplays.  Remember, Phillip Morris still sells cigarettes (albeit under a new name, Altria) and Walgreens still has brick and mortar drug stores.  But I think we have an extra opportunity to exploit the things we’re passionate about, before blindly jumping into a game for which the rules have definitely changed.


Drama: The Absence of Action or Results

March 18, 2009

There’s a personal development program I participate in, and as part of that, I was today looking at my most recent “training issue” and the structures I’m putting in place to have a breakthrough around that.

My most recent training issue is Give up drama and arrogance.

On reflection, I find this very interesting.  I am a very dramatic person.  It makes perfect sense.  I grew up as an actor, I’m now a writer, and so for most of my life I’ve been trained in how to add drama to everything I do.  It’s a strong suit; being dramatic is, in a sense, what I rely on to produce results.

The irony is that for me, as with most people, my strengths and weaknesses are very closely related, and this area is no exception.  Because the way this translates into life is it’s all about me and how difficult it all is and how I’m suffering and failing and as I look at all of that, whether it’s around work or relationships or my marriage or cleaning my effing house, it’s all kind of silly and gross.

So now that I’ve distinguished it I can be responsible for it, and I can be dramatic where it serves me (in my writing or performing) and I can give up the drama where it doesn’t.

Where it starts to get even more interesting is when I started to look at the structures to put in place around giving up the drama.  What everyone keeps telling me is that I’m addicted to insights, and that I need to stop “seeing things” and start doing and being in action.  Which led me to the following structure for having a breakthrough: “…instead of looking for insights and talking about it, I am getting into action. Being in action in all areas of my life is an access to giving up the drama, since drama only exists in the absence of action or results.”

Let’s look at that last sentence again: Drama only exists in the absence of action or results.

I’ve long been revering McKee for his insight that story exists in the gap between expectation and result, and I think I’m on to something else here, too.  Because where drama occurs in a film or a book is in those moments when there is no action or when results are not being produced.

Think about it.  When are the “dramatic” moments of a film?  It’s not when someone’s blowing up a car or getting chased down an alley, it’s when there’s a pause in the action; when people are talking to each other about themselves or others.  The drama in The Dark Knight occurs when Bruce Wayne is sitting in the penthouse saying, “She was gonna wait for me, Alfred,” or when Alfred tells him “Some people just want to watch the world burn.”  Crashing into a skyscraper in Hong Kong and then returning to the plane while it’s in mid-flight isn’t dramatic, it’s just cool.

To take it a step further, there’s a whole genre of movies called “drama.”  These are the movies that come out in the fall, and are the ones that win Oscars because they’re deep and moving and meaningful, but when you look at the plot of these movies, typically speaking, not a lot happens.  The Shawshank Redemption is not a high concept flick filled with people doing stuff or producing results.   It’s a story about what happens to our hero between the decisions he makes.   The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is clearly dramatic, but when you talk about that movie, you’re not talking about the things he  does.  In Star Wars on the other hand, you do talk about the things they do – blowing up the Death Star or using the Force.  Where’s the drama?  “No, I am your father …”

Which means that if you’re looking to create drama, have the characters slow down and talk.  Have them fail to produce the desired results (save Rachel Dawes’ life, kill Darth Vader, get a new trial based on Tommy’s testimony). And if you’re not looking for drama, then don’t – have them be in action and actually causing something and producing results.


Not Another Oscars Post

February 23, 2009

I’m not going to post something about the Oscars.  Every blogger in the world – and especially every writer/screenwriter blogger in the world – will be writing something about the 81st Academy Awards today, but not me, because I’m different.

If I were going to write about the Oscars I would start by saying that Slumdog Millionaire was a good movie, that I thoroughly enjoyed it, but that it seemed like it would make a better mini-series than film.  I would say that Danny Boyle was long overdue for the world’s top Directing accolade, but that this movie was nowhere near as good as his early classics Shallow Grave and Trainspotting.  I would say that Benjamin Button – the only other movie nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay that I actually saw – had a better screenplay, and that my cinematographer friend threw a fit when it won Best Cinematography, and I happen to agree with her – The Dark Knight broke new ground cinematically speaking, and made for a remarkable movie-watching experience I will never in my life forget.  And although I’m not surprised that Slumdog won Best Picture, I did not think it was even one of the best 5 movies of the year.

If I were writing something about the Oscars, I would say that Sean Penn deserved his and Heath Ledger deserved his.  I would say that Robert Downey, Jr. will win an Oscar one of these days, and I will celebrate when he does, and I would say that Brad Pitt deserves one, too, but it may take him longer to get it because he’s so thoroughly underrated as a character actor.  I would say that Benjamin Button deserved its accolades for Art Direction, Makeup, and Visual Effects, but I’d also like to remind people that the makeup in The Dark Knight wasn’t all about the Joker – the revelation of Two Face in that movie was the best film moment of the year for me, and a movie-watching experience I will never in my life forget.

If I were writing about the Oscars, I would probably say that I wish I realized that the Alamo Drafthouse shows all the short films nominated for Oscars every year, and that I will almost certainly go to that event next year, but that they should make it easier for us, the viewers at home, to see all the movies nominated by the time of the awards.  That I wanted to see The Reader, Milk, Frost/Nixon, The Wrestler, and Doubt, but at some point movie theaters are just too damn expensive, and screw you for pricing me and so many others out of being informed viewers of the Academy Awards.

And I would wonder why the hell Seven Pounds was completely snubbed.

But I’m not writing about the Oscars.  I’m writing about what it is to have a dream and to be recognized for having achieved that dream.  Because really, that’s what it’s all about.  At the end of the day we all have opinions about what was good and what wasn’t, about what deserved to win and what deserved to be nominated, but the fact of the matter is that it’s a very large, very talented group of artists choosing the best, most talented artists in their field, and for the most part, they do a pretty good job.  And, more importantly, it creates a dream in us.  And I’m a big believer in dreams.


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