10.17 – Big Fish

October 28, 2010

If you’re like me, you didn’t even know that this was a book before it was a movie. Although it kind of has that feel to it, I don’t think anyone had heard of the book before it was a movie. To hear John August tell it, he had to do some pretty heavy lifting to convince a studio to purchase the rights to it, and I imagine that required getting Tim Burton on board, first.

Anyway, something that Austin Film Festival did last week, which I hadn’t seen them do before, was a “Script to Screen” workshop where a screenwriter discusses a particular movie and how it changed in the moviemaking process. A few screenwriters agreed to lead this workshops, including, among them, John August, about this story. The assignment was to watch the movie, read the screenplay, and read the book, all in preparation for the workshop.

It was really awesome getting to work through the process of adapting a script. We looked at certain elements:

  • What are the themes of the book?
  • Who are the characters? Who is the main, central character that this story is about? Or is it a dual-protagonist story?
  • What are the character arcs?
  • What are the main stories and plot points?

After going through this exercise, it became much easier to give up any allegiance to the original script. In this way, characters, locations, and plot points get combined. Other characters get expanded. Whole new storylines open up.

August, a very humble, soft-spoken guy, was never so vain as to assume that his version was the only way to adapt it, and so it became great fun to play with it and look at other ways we might have done it: eliminating the son entirely, or telling the father’s story backward, or maintaining the myth, rather than having the story become more real as time went on.

The book ends a little differently than the movie does. Similar, but the main, glaring difference, is that the book swears no allegiance to reality, and the father actually transmogrifies into a fish. In the movie, the son’s story reaches its climax at this moment, and he finally is willing to tell his father a story. I like that, except what was missing for me in the film version (which I admittedly haven’t seen in years) was something that would have him make that radical shift from his previous attitude. It just felt a little forced. Maybe that was in the performance, less than the script, but I think something else could have been there.

But the book, let it be known, is truly magical, and a quick, fun read.

And I definitely appreciate the opportunity to participate in far and away one of the most valuable events I’ve ever attended at AFF.


2009 Successes & Failures

December 26, 2009

If I were to make a list of “What’s Hot & What’s Not,” I think New Years Resolutions are eking their way onto the “Not” list. Read John August’s latest post if you need convincing.

What I will look at is successes and failures.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the measurements of success. If we were to look at the game of football, the ultimate goal in any given year is to win the Super Bowl. Inside of that goal, are 16-19 sub-goals per year – to win the game. And inside of each of those games are further sub-goals: to score a touchdown. If you ask any coach or player what they’re thinking about in any given week, the answer is always the same: the next game. And if you were to ask any of them what they’re thinking about in the middle of the game, the answer will always be the next drive; or the next play.

And yet, inside the game of football, there are a million ways to measure performance. Rushing yards; passing yards; touchdowns; interceptions; turnover margin; time of possession; punts inside the 20; explosive plays; “passer rating”; penalties; number of 100-yard rushing games per season; December record; number of times Jessica Simpson is mentioned during the broadcast . . . the list goes on and on.

Often, as humans, we trick ourselves into thinking that the measurement is the goal itself. When that happens in football, the result is selfish players who want more touches so they can pad their stats, ultimately leading to a poor locker room environment, bad teamwork, and a team that, realistically, won’t win the big one.

In real life, it can be just as insidious, though for most of us it’s less public.

So when it comes to being a writer, what are the measures? Finishing a screenplay? Writing every day? Selling a script? Yes, those are measures. But remember, they are not the ultimate goal.

So … what are my 2009 measures of success/failure?

  • I’ve doubled length of Charisma, from 40 pages to 82. I’m still embarrassed to admit that I haven’t finished it, but you know what, I doubt I’m the only one who’s struggled to finish the first project that he really cares about. The fact that I’ve kept at it for 2 years is a big deal.
  • I released my book, Ups & Downs, and have had a few scattered pieces of success with it, but overall have gained very little traction. I have two boxes of books in my study, and the predictable future is that they will stay there unless I change something.
  • I had 23 blog posts in 2008 and 304 visits from October-December 2008; and 64 blog posts in 2009 with 407 visits from October-December (with a few days left to go).
  • Over the last few months, I’ve come up with structures to increase my productivity, and now I have one to track the time I spend doing various activities, including writing. This way, I can do with my life what football players do with their game – look at where the failures occurred, and adjust accordingly.
  • I don’t know how many books I read this year or how many movies I watched. I feel like I should be tracking that, too.
  • I’ve figured out that I don’t like doing marcom (marketing communications), and am shifting my business more toward narrative nonfiction ghost writing; book editing; tech writing; and proofreading, all of which I enjoy.

For 2010:

  • I’d like to continue my existence/time management structures. The goal is to have my time measured every day, without gaps. Realistically, I will get upset with myself some day for not doing something I was supposed to do, will make myself wrong, and won’t do it. But I will be back on track within a week, because I have enough people holding me to account for doing it. If I can go the entire year having missed, 30 days, I get a bronze star, 20 days a silver star, and 10 days a gold star.
  • Finish the novel I’m working on with my dad, a short story/novella I started right before my dad’s and my scheduled start date, and Charisma.
  • Exceed this year’s 64 blog posts and 407 4th-quarter visits, without being one of those annoying people who posts what color shoes they’re wearing every day.
  • Attend, in some capacity, the 2010 Writer’s League of Texas Agent’s Conference, the Austin Film Festival, San Diego Comic-Con, two comic book conventions closer to home, and two more authors/publishers conferences/conventions.
  • Continue reading every day and log every book I finish.
  • Come up with a marketing plan for Ups & Downs that gets the two stacks of books out of my office as a result of sales.

So are these New Years Resolutions? Maybe. But they’re realistic, and I know going into it, that the likelihood of completing every one is slim, and if I screw up, I won’t stay mad at myself, I’ll just get back on the horse and keep riding.

Because success is just a function of being willing to fail more times than the other guy.


Quoting Books in a Script

August 3, 2009

Great blog post from John August on quoting articles/books in a script: http://johnaugust.com/archives/2009/quoting-books-in-a-script


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.


Quote of the Day

January 12, 2009

Courtesy of John August:

“Bad dialogue tends to spray out information in every direction, whereas smart dialogue sneaks the facts in while you’re otherwise entertained.”


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