After seeing “Rogue One,” I am kind of numb and needed to process it for a couple days. Oh, it’s fun and badass and everything it promised: A real “Star Wars” WAR movie. But I don’t think I’ll be taking my youngest son to it. Too much. Too many deaths. And frankly, a plot that would bore him. My son is seven and I think that is too young for this one. Too many dads are going to want to share another Star Wars memory with their kids and just blindly take them to “Rogue One” because “hey, it’s Star Wars.” But after “Rogue One,” “Star Wars” can mean many things and parents need to be aware of that. Just be warned. Star Wars does NOT always equal “kids film,” and I’m getting tired of that assumption.
The darkness and intensity of this recent film gave me a bit of an epiphany: certain brands reach a status where they can diverge like the spokes of a wheel and become an “uber brand.” The brand is able to take on many versions of itself. Many creatives recoil from big IP that dominates today’s landscape, but here’s where a big brand is wonderful…
I really enjoyed “Rogue One” and I’m going to see it several times. But it’s not my favorite Star Wars film. And with a brand as big as Star Wars, that’s okay! I actually prefer the brightness and broad heroism of “The Force Awakens” to the bleakness of R1. And now I realize that once a brand grows to the expanse of something like Star Wars, Batman, Ninja Turtles or The Avengers, every single thing that comes from that brand does not have to please every single fan. Don’t like the live action Michael Bay-ish Ninja Turtles? There’s a super fun series on Nickelodeon for you. Don’t like the “Transformers” movies? Don’t watch them. You can still enjoy Transformers as they exist in their many animated forms. After “Rogue One,” I see that the Star Wars brand has reached a new status: There may be some Star Wars things you don’t share with your kids. There can be MANY flavors of Star Wars at the “Star Wars Buffet” and you can choose. There are enough flavors to go around.
A producer put it in perspective for me a couple years ago when I was meeting about a particular mega-brand. He pointed to BATMAN. A grown up can enjoy a much darker, deeper, politically allegorical Batman in “The Dark Knight” while their kids can enjoy the sillier, lighter Batman of “The Lego Batman Movie.” Neither project negates the other. They both can even have their own “universe” and set of rules. It’s kind of amazing. This makes the brand almost bullet proof. There is no single version or product that will “hurt” the brand. And fans need to get on board with this idea too. No one can “ruin” your childhood or any version of a thing you hold sacred. If the original “Ghostbusters” movie is the ONLY movie that counts, then you go watch that and be happy.
As storytelling happens in more and more divergent formats, our characters can survive in a multitude of forms. That’s the good news. I’m rooting for an Indiana Jones Animated series myself.
A lot of people talk about Writer’s Block. They talk about being daunted by The Blank Page. And then there’s just good old-fashioned Procrastination. If you’re a writer, these things are normal. But the more you give them a TITLE and a place in your process, the more they own you. Stop it. Don’t give any of these things power. Today I wanted to talk about how to break out of that frozen state that many writers find themselves in. You’ve made an outline, you’ve got piles of research notes, you’ve been THINKING about writing this new thing for a long time. Hey, I’m the first person to say that wandering around aimlessly and staring into space IS writing. It is! But sooner or later you have to produce pages. It’s what separates the dabblers from the pros. There are ways to fight the blank page and the simplest one is to Just. Start. Writing.
I’m one of those sickos who enjoys the blank page. I like first drafts. The sky’s the limit! But I understand how for many, STARTING may be the hardest part. I have found that, just by going through the act of hitting the keys and writing ANYTHING, ideas will start to come. Something will take shape. I believe momentum can be created simply by “tricking” yourself into it.
Tell yourself, “I’m not really going to write the real thing for real, I’m just going to write the crappy version.” JUST START. Write something stupid and horrible. No one has to see it. We no longer live in the days of typewriters and correction tape and crumpled paper anymore (even though it makes a great image for this blog). Digital writing is little more than thoughts in the air, instantly deleted! So write anything. Write about how you hate writing. Write about the nothingness. But if you can, at least get your characters talking. I swear to you, this works.
This seems to work with many other activities too. If you want to establish a new habit, just force yourself to fake it for a while. If you don’t smile enough, force yourself to smile. Sooner or later, you kind of trick yourself into doing it for real. You can force your brain and your talent to kick in by giving it an active, aggressive PUSH. Can’t write anything today? Fake it. Just start hitting the keys.
Some of my writer friends love the REWRITE more than the blank page. Well if the blank page is scary, make it “UN-BLANK” as soon as possible. Once there is even a garbage version of a scene on the page, look at you, you have something to rewrite! And rewriting is easier.
I’ll go one step further and say that blindly starting with no plan can also generate brand new ideas. It’s a fun way to brainstorm. I used to do a podcast segment once a week with my own funny take on a subject. One day I thought, “I’ve got nothing to say… let’s see where that goes.” The result is a disjointed and bizarre essay I read on the podcast simply titled “Train Of Thought.” You can listen to it HERE. It’s not anything that’s going to win a Pulitzer… but you know what? It was entertaining. It was funny. It had some new ideas in it that expanded into more ideas. The exercise is valid. Tap those keys into the hazy oblivion and see where your Train Of Thought ends up. Choo-Choo!
Just start. Don’t worry about the end result. Don’t worry about keeping it. Don’t think about “never working again.” Just hit dem keys! Just start!
Seriously, now. Just go do it. It will be okay and you’re going to rewrite it anyway.
Many times on this blog I have tried to caution those with big dreams. I’ve warned about the discipline needed to make those dreams pay off in the real entertainment business. There are hard knocks waiting out there and I want to give you a heads-up. But today, creators, this is your pep talk.
Too many times I see creative people doubt themselves or listen to the pragmatic business people of this business. It’s on my mind because I’m watching a few of my friends right now who are in the middle of making deals, which means they have to listen to a lot of people tell them what they’re REALLY worth, and must debate how much of their own idea they still get to own… if they own any of it at all. Too many times I see a creator get beat down because they continually have to give away ownership of their thing to get the money to make it.
“Give away ownership.” It still floors me time and time again. The last discussion anyone is willing to have with the CREATOR is whether or not they get to own even a sliver of what they created. I get it, someone else brought the money. But this is the CREATOR.
If you are a creator, today I am here to pump you up. To sing your praises. To tell you that if you are creating something new out of thin air, you are golden. You are the FUEL that makes this entire industry run. Everyone else in Hollywood is running around trying to find what you have. They are desperate to find the next THING that is being created because they create nothing. They need you.
Respect is very rarely given to the creator, and it makes me crazy. Variety loves to report on the “insane amount” that Lin Manuel Miranda is making on “Hamilton” profits. Or how much J.K. Rowling is worth. Worth a lot? Of course they are. Because these people pulled something out of the air that wasn’t there before. They created where there was nothing. Not enough value is placed on that. Before Lin Manuel thought of “Hamilton,” there was no “Hamilton.” It was a CRAZY idea. It did not exist and now it does. I hope he makes a BILLION dollars. He created something no one wanted and no one was looking for and did it so well that everyone changed what they thought a Broadway show could be. Don’t even get me started on George Lucas. Say what you want about his last directing efforts, but he gave us a universe of characters that may never be matched. Fox always talks about the “foolish” decision they made to give him total ownership of that universe. Agreed, no studio will ever let that happen again.
But giving a creator any kind of ownership should be expected, not the exception to the rule. Have some respect for the creator!
If you create for a living, you are special and rare. Remember that when you sit at your laptop. Remember that as you walk to the set or pitch for the fifteenth time. You pulled that idea out of the air and not everyone can do that! Yay you!!
Now let me speak to any director or writer out there who is on a project and is getting beat up by the producers. Someone who is in the thick of it and having doubts. One such weary director I know was about to throw in the towel and was told by a producer, “Hey, if you don’t like it, there are 500 people behind you who want your job.”
But not 500 who can DO the job, or do it well. Not with a consistent work ethic and commitment to quality. Believe me. Hard working, talented people are not falling out of trees in Hollywood. And if you’re fortunate enough to have been hired to direct something, there are VERY few people who know THAT specific piece of material like you do and know what to do with it. You’ve reached the top of a very short list of names. They hired you for a reason and if they give you a line like that? They. Are. Bluffing.
True story time: Jim Henson is another great creator-hero of mine and since I was a boy, the Jim Henson Company was one of my dream places to ever work for or even pitch an idea to. Fifteen years ago, I finally got in contact with someone who knew someone who had a vague connection to the Jim Henson Company. This friend-of-a-friend gave me a wake up call by reminding me that Hollywood is full of super-talented people and that I stood very little chance of getting a foot it the door at the “House of Kermit.”
He said, and I quote: “Remember, the people who take out the garbage at the Jim Henson Company are more talented than you.”
Now fifteen years later I am here with a follow-up. I have developed numerous projects at JHC. I can get Lisa and Brian Henson on the phone if I need to. I’ve sat in rooms with the “top Muppet people.” And I’m here to let you know that the people who take out the garbage at the Jim Henson Company are GARBAGE MEN. They are not more talented than you or me. THEY ARE GARBAGE MEN.
Except for Caroll Spinney. His Henson garbage can has got Oscar The Grouch in it. But I digress.
That premise is a lie. No disrespect to the Jim Henson Company, or Disney Features, or Dreamworks, or any other place I’ve been. But they sift through a lot of crap. And there are a lot of talentless hacks who waste the time of those companies before falling by the wayside. For years I thought Hollywood was a place where the streets are jammed full of super-talented people. No. It’s just full of more people. Tons and tons of terrible, talentless people who are jamming the “In Box” with so much crap that it makes it that much harder for the good stuff to be discovered. That’s the challenge. You have to be patient and you have to be good, long enough for someone to find you. But it’s not because the person to the right or left of you is better. They’re just there, waving their crappy thing at the same people.
Be patient. Sharpen your craft. Be ready. The lazy and the crappy will eventually go home and you’ll be left standing.
You are a creator. Now go make that thing because no one else will!
And if you are a development exec or producer or studio head or distributor or investor… be nice. And you’re welcome.
If you’re a writer, you may be an introvert. That’s great for the actual job, but with the job of screenwriter comes pitching.
I hate pitching. I hate that there is an actual insider WORD for it. I hate that entire competitions and seminars are dedicated to it. The word itself is ominous — one aggressive syllable that becomes the focal point of a writer’s business in Hollywood. The act of pitching most certainly came from the short attention span of producers and executives. I’d rather they just read a script. Or let me casually tell you about an idea in conversation. But it’s this THING. It’s “THE PITCH.”
It seems like a simple task: in 10 to 20 minutes, tell someone your idea. But make it entertaining, capture the spirit of the movie, get them excited and really SELL them on it. By the end of your pitch, the goal is for them to stand up and shake your hand and say, “Let’s make it!”
This never happens.
OK, sometimes it happens. But 99% of the time they smile and say, “Great, we’ll think about it.” An even better sign is when they immediately fire questions at you. That means they’re getting invested and are considering buying it.
As much as I hate pitching, I’ve been told I’m good at it. I’ve pitched countless projects to hundreds of people. I’ve pitched to low-level development assistants and the heads of networks. I’ve pitched to Harvey Weinstein. All of these situations are different, but a lot of it never changes. They always give you a bottle of water. They always make you wait 10 minutes. You always sit down on a crappy two-seater couch next to a giant vintage foreign movie poster. And some mental tricks consistently yield a better pitch.
If you want tips, I’ll tell you what works for me. No seminar fee required. A lot of what I find helpful to share is not craft or format. It’s psychology.
From here on out, it’s tough love. I’m going to turn into a grizzled old coach and ask you if you really have what it takes. Do you really want to pitch to the big shots? Do you really want to go to the “big game?” Pitching expensive ideas to high-ranking people is not for the faint at heart, so you need to stop being the introverted writer and learn how to perform on a larger stage.
I used to take months to create a pitch document, then memorize several pages of an outline, sweating all the details. But a lot of that is time wasted. Any movie should break down into 15 bullet points. 15 sentences that sum up the major events and turning points for your character. The buyer listening to you doesn’t even want to know most of the details, especially most of Act 2. Sum it up. Find a couple of places in the story where you drill down a bit more and even act out a moment. But otherwise, set up the characters and the conflict and then hit the highlights. Entertain them, but keep it moving. Then, have a great, definitive ending. Do not EVER take more than 20 minutes to pitch something.
Once I’ve put in the time and lived with my 15 bullet points for a few days, I’m amazed at how fast they are committed to memory. Then I can start to add little details, a joke here and there, fill it out a bit. But keep it moving.
The day of a pitch I call “Game Day.” From the moment I get up, I know that the whole day is going to ramp up to that 20 minutes. I try not to get too memorized or too pumped up either. Don’t peak too soon. Leave it all on the field, not in the locker room! Conserve your energy. Treat yourself like an athlete that stays focused and steadily gets ready throughout the day. I’m not kidding. I don’t go to lunch with a friend beforehand or work on other stuff. You have to get in the zone.
THE SAMURAI SWORD ON YOUR BACK
When I arrive at any office for a pitch, I might seem loose and happy-go-lucky as I chit chat with the receptionist, but I am amped up with an inner confidence. I like to say I “walk in with my samurai sword on my back.” I use this phrase when I am entering a difficult meeting or confrontation, but I also think about it as I walk in to pitch. It means I have a secret, I have leverage, I have a weapon I don’t ever have to use but I know it’s there. And it gives me strength. Many times it’s as simple as saying to yourself, “I have the best idea in the world and you don’t even know it yet.” Or, “If you don’t buy this, you’re an idiot. You’re going to miss out.” Other times I’m lucky enough to have REAL leverage, like I know that I’m pitching this to two other awesome places later today. Or I just pitched it to someone yesterday and they’re interested. You’ve probably heard that it’s bad to have the “stink of desperation” on you when you interview for a job or audition for a role. A pitch is the same. But you have to be more than NOT desperate. You have to be way up in the positive. Release your inner swagger.
Whether you create the leverage in your mind or you have some for real, put that samurai sword on your back and walk in there like a badass. Smile, be friendly, but know inside that you have the goods.
You need to know what you’re going to say from the moment you open your mouth. Getting started, those first few moments are crucial. A pitch should sound spontaneous, but I recommend memorizing the first sentence out of your mouth. Memorize the words like a robot. Because when you get in that room and the small talk ends and they say, “Okay, what do you have for us?”, you cannot pause or stammer. You’ve got to launch right into some confident words and set the stage. And your brain will NOT want to do it. There will be all kinds of mental interference shooting around in your head so you need the muscle memory of that first sentence to just kick in. Just start saying the one pre-memorized sentence you have and the word machine in your head will start working. I swear by this.
READ THE ROOM
I’ve performed standup and theatre for many years so this is easier for me than some people. But if they lean in, you lean in. If they laugh a lot, get funnier. If they are quiet and withdrawn, keep things laid back. This is a dance between you and them, the performer and the audience. Jokes up front are always good. Maybe even stand up and walk around at some point. Gesture wildly during the action scenes! Unless they don’t like that. Then chill out. At the end of the meeting, you want that buyer to remember that they liked you. Even if they don’t buy the project, you’ll be back again. Make them enjoy being with YOU more than the project.
STOP WHEN THEY SAY YES
This is great advice from an old manager. If you are halfway through the pitch and the buyer says, “I get it. I love it.” Stop. Wrap up fast and get out of there. Don’t continue on and say, “But you haven’t even heard the best part! He has a brother who dies in his arms…” NOPE. Anything else you say may now pull the buyer back from that “yes.” “Dead brother? Oh, maybe this isn’t for us.” Save the rest of the story for another meeting. Get out of there while you’re hot. And if you finish the whole pitch, same thing — wrap up fast and get out of there. Don’t linger with more small talk. Don’t kill the heat you just created in that room. The End, then GO.
FOLLOW UP QUESTIONS ARE ALL “INTERESTING IDEAS”
I don’t care if they give you the dumbest suggestion ever. “What if it took place in space?” All you say in this meeting is, “That’s an interesting idea. I’ll have to think about that.” Because their dumb idea shows you that they are interested enough to even HAVE ideas. They are getting invested. Let them. Then get out of there and fight about that dumb idea later… after they start paying you.
If they have questions, you had better have the answers. “What is this story really about?” “Who do you see playing this character?” “What audience is this movie for?” “Explain the rules of this world.” I’m sad to admit that I’ve fumbled the ball a few times because I didn’t have these answers.
I’ve pitched with one or two other people on several things and to be honest, it’s difficult to manage. If you do it, make sure everyone knows what points they are covering. You need to run it together several times. Try to interject with each other naturally, even if you’ve rehearsed. What you don’t want is for the other guy to kill the momentum you just created and slow things down. Or the other guy is not as prepared. Or the other guy gets a lot more nervous before pitches than you do and wants to run the pitch a couple times on “game day.”
This is why I mostly pitch alone. I can speed up or slow down and change what the pitch needs to be, mid-stream. That’s REALLY difficult to do when you have a partner. If things need to change in the room, you both have to do a lot of silent communicating. Once before a 20 minute pitch, my manager pulled me aside to say, “This guy has the attention span of a teenager. You’ve got to keep this to 5 minutes max.” For the next two minutes, I sat in the reception area and mentally edited my pitch. I had to bob and weave on the spot. If I had to do that with a partner, it would have been a major reset. We might have had to push the meeting.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had writing partners who were completely in sync with me and things went very well. But it takes an extra level of prep and coordination.
PITCHING IS TALKING
After all the preparing and psyching yourself up and political maneuvering to get in that room, you have to throw it all away and stay loose. Pitching is such a heightened event and has become so mystified by insiders that this 20 minute dance can start to have too much importance. That can lock you up. You may sweat too much and feel like the world is going to end if this pitch doesn’t go well. Just remember that when all is said and done, pitching is just talking. It’s just one person telling another person a good story. Treat it like you are describing your favorite movie to your friend. Even if it’s really Harvey Weinstein.
At the end of the day, remember, no matter who is staring you down as you sit on that crappy two-seater couch, YOU know more about that story than anyone in the room… than anyone in the world. They need YOU. Because they need to find something shiny and new and you are the one that has it. So act like it.
It’s time I blow the lid off a misconception — a long-held misconception among young writers and non-professional creative people. Ideas are not special. Ideas are not as valuable as you think. Ideas cannot be protected, bought, sold, or shared like a secret pot of gold. There is no super-special idea that is only yours that no one has ever heard of. And most importantly, no one will “buy your great idea.” IDEAS ARE A DIME A DOZEN.
Now before you protest, let me explain: It’s not the idea that’s valuable. It’s the UNIQUE EXECUTION of that idea. I’ve talked about execution in the past — your ability to deliver an idea in a way that no one else can is your ticket in this business. Time and time again, I’ve heard young writers shaking their fists at the heavens because “someone stole my idea!” I know, I know. It was perfect. You thought of it. Then one day you read in Variety that someone else is making it. “How can there be another Robot Squirrel Movie??” you shout. Well, if your idea is a good one, it’s fair to say someone else thought of it too. High concepts are dangerously vulnerable to this. We are all reading the same articles and seeing the same images and sooner or later, someone ELSE will also say, “What if a squirrel was a robot?” Or maybe not. But you know what I mean. Ideas are shared and talked about and tossed back and forth every day in Hollywood. Things are thrown against the wall, then torn down and thrown up again. When you walk in to pitch an idea, it needs to come with the added bonus of YOU. YOU are sharing how YOU will execute that idea in a way that ONLY YOU could. Prove that you are the only who could make THAT IDEA in THAT WAY. And the more of that idea you can execute and get to market, the more it becomes difficult to copy or steal. The more it becomes yours and only yours.
So if you see your idea getting made by someone else and feel cheated, get in line. It’s happened to me about 30 times. And I mean the EXACT same idea. But when the movie comes out, I see that it was also a collection of script, actors and music that I never could have combined. And take heart — if you truly still believe in your idea, keep at it anyway. You can still execute YOUR vision of it. History has shown us there can be multiple movies about Robin Hood, Mars, The Wizard Of Oz or even Red Riding Hood.
On a related note, I realize a lot of you don’t have the means to execute your great idea and so you want to get it to someone that could. And a lot of times you think that is me. Many, many times over the years I will be contacted by someone (usually a friend of a nephew of a friend) who tells me, “I have a story for you. It could be a great movie. All you have to do is write and make it and we’ll share ownership of it.”
That’s all? All I have to do is make it? So the other 99 % of the process? Cool.
And by the way, I’m not wandering the Earth looking for ideas to make into movies. I don’t wake up every day thinking, “Wow, I have all the money and connections and the means to make movies, I just need an idea. I hope I find someone who has one.” I’m not looking. I have about 40 ideas of my own. I have files FULL of ideas that I’ve been trying to get made for years. The only thing that makes me stop working on those original projects is when someone else has a fully-funded idea and wants to hire me to do that “making” part. So if you have a huge pile of money to go with your idea, then yes, maybe we should go have coffee and talk about it. But this notion that you are carrying around this precious diamond is not true. Ideas pop up every day, and at least three times a month I hear from someone who has “the best idea ever” — they just want me to put the sweat into birthing it. It’s the “birthing” that no one really wants to do. That’s what makes an idea an actual piece of business that others want to pay for. All the story beats, all the visuals, nailing down all the rules and logic problems and even knowing what niche market will go see that idea. What KIND of Robot Squirrel? Is he from space or the future? And what does Robot Squirrel really WANT?
Even if you know that the entire Robot Squirrel Community has been DYING for a movie, you have to make it work on a basic story level. You have to set it up with a movie star attached or prove you can make it for half the budget or guarantee 10 million Twitter followers will go see it. So don’t think of your idea as the end-all-be-all. And don’t keep emailing me about it. I’ve got my own ideas to bring to life, and you’ve got yours. Ideas are just the beginning, and the rest will make it a reality. If you believe in your idea, don’t stop! Keep working on it! Only YOU can make that thing into the one-of-a-kind idea you thought of in the first place. And when you do, the rest of the world will finally see how valuable it is too.
(By the way, I just Googled “Robot Squirrel” and fifty images popped up. Fifty.)
Here is the summer catch-up on all things Cory:
WISH: I am finishing my current film “Wish,” and we should be announcing a release date in the next few months. I have not been able to talk about it, but I’ve been working on it for almost three years now and it is going to be fantastic. All I can tell you is that it is all about the secret world of wishing wells. What happens when we throw a coin down a well? Christmas has Santa, Dreams have the Sandman, and after this film, WISHING will have its own rich and detailed mythology. You’ll just have to find out the WHO and the WHY of this world when the movie comes out! I hope to have some casting announcements soon as well.
NEXT MOVIE: I am already in preproduction and writing on my next film. There is no firm title yet but what I can tell you is that it is an animated action comedy for producer John H. Williams. It involves space, superpowers and the hard choices we make when it’s time to grow up. Obscure enough for you? One more big component to the project is that I am going to be living in Montreal to work on it. A huge studio called CINESITE stationed there will be creating all aspects of the production. So I am moving my entire family to Canada almost immediately. It is a big leap for all of us, but we have chosen to embrace the adventure. Hey, in this business you have to go where the work is. And no, I speak no French.
MONKEY KING: Here’s something cool… I did some writing on the English version of “Monkey King: Hero Is Back.” The original Chinese version was the biggest box office for an animated film in China, ever. The U.S. release is July 29. And now the guy saying my words is… Jackie Chan. Pretty nice feather in the cap.
PODCASTS: Last month was unusually podcast-heavy for me, as I appeared on two different shows. If you just love to hear the sound of my voice, or want to hear more about my work, you can check these out.
The first is the PETE AND PENELOPE PODCAST, launched by my friend Adam Bush as he develops his new kids show. We get deep into discussing the creative process and where good characters come from. You can also hear me share my all-time top favorites in film, TV and stories. LISTEN HERE.
The second is the MOBPOD PODCAST, hosted by my sister and cousin, Katie Hooten and Tye Edwards. They are hilarious. We discuss NOTHING serious for about an hour, but the topic is BLOCKBUSTERS. Come listen and reminisce about big summer movies from long ago, as well as discuss the big ones coming out now. We also drink coffee and coin the new phrase #HumpTheShark. LISTEN HERE.
That’s all I have for you good people. I can’t wait to do more showing and less telling. Soon, soon, soon…
A little light gossip: I just closed a deal to do a new thing! In this business, many of my projects have to stay under an annoying cloak of secrecy. So secret, in fact, that I’ve been working on a film for two years that I STILL can’t tell you about. But when I can tell you, I will. It’s exciting to already know what my next film is going to be before I finish my current one. I’m chomping at the bit to tell you more… but not yet.
Along the way, the creative process provides some universal lessons that apply to just about anyone working on anything. And until I can talk about “behind the scenes” work, I’ll keep discussing more “broad topic” items on this blog. Recently I’ve written a lot about the value of the details, of getting specific little things right. Now I’m going to talk about the opposite: the larger view. The whole. Seeing all of a project, beginning to end, as soon as you possibly can. In the end, it’s ultimately more important than any detail.
As I go into story and script mode for a new project, I have to resist the urge to look at any one “cool scene” or “great joke.” One of my former collaborators pointed out that you’ve got to make sure the “tree” is sturdy before you get too excited about the “ornaments” hanging on it. Movie trailers have great “ornaments.” “Did you see that shot?” “That effect was incredible!” “The new uniform looks weird.” “I cried when Han said ‘Chewie, we’re home.'” But those are all ornaments. Until we see the movie itself, we have no idea if the “tree” will prop them up. So here I am, once again, growing the tree.
Before you write a script, you need an outline. You MUST have an outline. And it’s okay if the outline takes weeks to finish. Because that is your “tree;” your scaffolding on which the script will be built upon. It’s a huge stress-reliever once I have my story outline. Then every day I don’t sit down to write a whole screenplay, I just write one small part of it. I look at my outline and give myself a small assignment for that day. I’ve got the broad view of the whole thing and I know where the set-ups and payoffs are. I know how it ends. I know what my character needs to experience in any one particular scene and where that fits in their progression, their arc. Anyone who tells you that they just “start writing and see where it takes them” is probably not a professional screenwriter. They might be a poet or a songwriter or a novelist who doesn’t like to be a slave to plot. But movies are nothing but plot. Many will argue character is more important, plot is just a vehicle for that character. But when I say “plot,” I really mean what HAPPENS — what happens to that character? And what happens for the audience as they watch?
I used to outline solely on the computer, but that gets restrictive and you can’t see the whole story laid out in front of you. Eventually you have to move to index cards or Post-It Notes or a whiteboard. Index cards are great because you can lay them out on the floor and move them around. What if the big action scene happened before the big emotional scene? What if this character died much later? Or much earlier? Move them around. Nothing is solid, everything is negotiable. One step better for me has become Post-It notes, up on the wall. I can move them, but I can also fix them in place and add to them quickly. Brian Smith is a fellow writer / director I’ve worked with in many capacities over the years, and when he was making features at Disney with his co-director Jim Kammerud, they came up with a story system that I think is genius. It’s a way to track the horizontal and the vertical at the same time. The horizontal is the page count and minutes into the film. This line dictates the chronological events in the story. But then I can also drop a vertical string of Post-Its from beneath each of these main events. Each vertical can contain details of that event, or elements of the theme that need to be accomplished, or a character’s epiphany, or a piece of key information revealed. The genius of this kind of layout for the story process is that the whole movie stays on one whiteboard, maybe seven feet wide, and you can step back at any given moment and see the WHOLE THING. First page to last page, opening shot to credits, you can step back and see your movie as a whole, immediately. This is crucial.
In many art forms, you can’t see the entire end result until the end of the process. Painting, theater, dance, sculpture, even a lot of musical pieces. You have to add a lot of the elements before you can understand if you even have something good. And in film, the actual finished MOVIE is like that too. I’ve written here before about the need to not judge the success of a film while it’s still being made. Pieces are everywhere, in various stages of quality. But I’m talking about the STORY. I can see the story in a matter of days, even hours, right in front of me. Start as broad and simple as you want: “Big Action Scene Here!” “Something Tragic Happens,” “Meet John (Funny Scene).” Then bit by bit, you add and add and fill in the connective tissue.
Post-Its also come in many colors, so I assign action scenes one color, emotional scenes another color, etc. Once I step back, I can chart where my story is lacking in action or is too full of action. Pacing is everything, and it is never more clearly defined than with this simple, color-coded process.
For this new project, I had to get the story in shape very quickly. One week later, I was looking at the whole story for the movie, front to back. If you have a good imagination, you can actually zero in on parts and play the movie in your head. How fast does this part need to go? Does this part need an emotional LOW before we go HIGH again? Step back and look, over and over.
And not to get too deep, but lately I’ve realized that it’s the best way to look at your life, your relationships, your hardships, your faith. Don’t fixate on what you’re going through right now, today. Good days come and go. Take a step back and see the whole board. Where your life has taken you. Who you were ten years ago and what you’ve learned. Maybe even where God has orchestrated events to place us in what we call our “destiny.” But seeing it all from such a global perspective requires years, and after those years, stepping back to see it all at once.
We respond to story because we are narrative creatures. We live stories. We ARE stories. And no story is clear to us until we see as much of it as possible, all at once. So if your career is on the skids right now, or you just broke up, or you feel painted in a corner, just know that it’s only part of your story. The broad view will show you something you never saw in “close up,” even if it takes years until you can “step back” and see it. But get through this event in your timeline, endure this particular “Post-It” and see where the next part of the story takes you. For me, stepping back for the broad view gives me constant gratitude and allows me to shake off a lot of the terrible people that come with this business. A loving family or a good life well-lived is a lot like my favorite movies. When someone asks me, “What was your favorite part?” I have to say, “All of it.”
That’s when you’re telling a great story — when the best part is all of it.
A friend of mine in the industry named Phil Cooke writes a very savvy blog about the industry, and he posted a chilling analysis of the big studio machine and the big studio stuff they make. While almost all studio movies are now super-expensive franchise-makers, even the execs at these companies are nervous. There are some ominous trends for 2016 that keep them up at night, which you can read HERE:
I chimed in with my perspective, which you can read below… a long enough response that it became a very lazy way for me to post a new blog here!
I am not as plugged in to creating movies at the big studio level, but what I can add as a thin ray of sunshine is that as studios gamble larger and larger brand-oriented, franchise-building movies, there is an opportunity for mid-budget investors and mid-budget companies around the globe to step in.
While a major studio can’t understand anything under $100M, there are many, many new mini-studios springing up to take the crumbs left under the table and race past these behemoths to make smaller but more consistent profits. And smaller means everyone involved in a project relaxes a bit and takes risks. Smaller means that original voices, stranger perspectives or narratives with “rough edges” make it to the final product. Minis like A24 or STX are stepping into the void left by majors to do the films the majors used to do. And the result is more “movies for grown ups” and original stories.
Granted, this is at a smaller level that cannot compete with the Avengers that dominate every cereal box and Happy Meal, but it is happening more and more. In my world of animation, I see much more success and control with smaller studios around the globe — animation houses who can generate beautiful films for $20M and under.
Would I like to make a Marvel movie? No doubt! But until that day, there are places to make good films. And GOOD FILMS are the ONLY formula that’s reliable. This seems obvious, but it should be stated again: Movie stars successfully open a GOOD FILM, not any film. Netflix will have a smash hit when they make something better than “Ridiculous 6.” And comedy, even with a little raunch, only works in the context of a GOOD FILM. The next 5-10 years will be a very interesting time for the big, slow, money-heavy, fear-based major studios, to be sure.
I did it last year and now, back by no demand whatsoever, are movies reviewed with a single catchphrase.
Ex Machina – Get Scared, Get Turned On, Get Killed!
Chappie – Pimp my robot
Trainwreck – She was. It wasn’t! Cutest use of a Billy Joel song ever.
Shaun The Sheep – Too good for words (& not one spoken)
Furious 7 – More flying cars than “Back To The Future 2”
Avengers 2 – A movie in a movie in a movie… A “Movie Turducken.” **
Mad Max, Fury Road – Furious 7, meet Furiosa. Take notes.
Tomorrowland – Too much “Today,” not enough “Tomorrow”
Spy – Long live the McCarthy Era
Inside Out – Weeee colors! Why is daddy crying?
Jurrasic World – I need more Peter Quill in my Pratt
Minons – Sidekicks become Frontkicks. Banana!
Terminator Genesys – He’s back before he’s back, then after he’s back
Ant-Man – Best Thomas The Train cameo of all time
American Ultra – Emo Bourne… and better than it should be
Steve Jobs – Mac-nificent.
MI: Rogue Nation – Enthused Cruise proves new fuse woos accrued views
The Martian – Save Matt Damon! Again! Too many potatoes!
Pan – Don’t count your franchises before they’re hatched
The Peanuts Movie – 2D plus 3D minus Snarky Chipmunks = Me smiling
Hunger Games 4, Mockingjay 2 – It’s over, I’m exhausted.
The Good Dinosaur – More like the “Kind of Okay” Dinosaur.
Creed – The best Rocky since Rocky isn’t even Rocky
The Force Awakens – 4 & 5 had a baby. Finn-tastic. Poe-erful. Hoo-REYYY!
** Shout out to writer / director Brian Smith for this one. I’m stuffed.
Have you heard of “Hamilton?” Sooner or later, someone will ask you that question. Because once you’ve heard the Broadway smash that is breaking records, you not only love it too, you feel compelled to tell someone else about it. “Hamilton” is, oddly enough, a musical about Alexander Hamilton’s life and his part in the founding of America… set mostly to rap music. Starring a multi-ethnic cast in period costumes and throwing down the thickest, densest rhymes since Eminem, your ears won’t believe it when you listen for the first time. I’m not saying you have to fly to New York and wait for a year to see one of the sold-out shows. Just find the whole soundtrack on iTunes. Preview the tracks just once. Then you’ll buy it. You’re welcome.
“Hamilton” is not only good, it’s crazy good. And the best part about it is that it shouldn’t be good at all. On paper, it sounds like a horrible idea. A rap musical about American history? That should be a train wreck performed at some experimental 99-seat theater. But anyone who encounters this show has to tell everyone they know about it. Celebrities, teachers, music snobs… The President. Everyone is tweeting about it. I checked it out because I was tired of reading all the love. “What is this thing?” I finally said. “Alright, I guess I HAVE to check it out.” And then I became one of those super-fans tweeting about it myself. The brainchild of Lin Manuel-Miranda is inspiring as a work of art, but what’s equally inspiring is the effect that it has on the audience. It is the kind of art that is so good that you are compelled to tell someone else about it. That’s a rare thing. And what a goal to shoot for! As an artist, there is no greater success than your art transcending marketing and sharing itself.
So how does that happen? Lots of people have great ideas that turn into forgettable art, and some great ideas never see the light of day. A great idea isn’t enough. And carrying that great idea around in your head like a precious treasure doesn’t get it made. Many of my friends are artists who have big dreams and some truly fantastic ideas that the world should enjoy. But somewhere between that spark and the final product is the deadly uphill battle called EXECUTION.
Making the idea a viable product and the best version of itself involves work that very few are willing to endure. It’s long hours of doing it wrong. It’s countless failures, or being rejected by those who don’t get it. It’s doing all the thousands of little tasks that must be done: raising the money, filling out the paperwork, plotting out the details. There are so many tiny steps between the big, fun milestones that you can be worn down and abandon the idea before it is complete… or before it is the best it can be. If you skip some of the steps out of sheer impatience or end up saying “good enough,” your idea falls short. And then it may not be successful at all, even if it’s a “great idea.” I used to be in the Music Video business, where the one who pitches the best idea wins the job. That always made me crazy, because a two-page pitch has very little to do with the final result: a good video. A client-winning pitch in the wrong hands is nothing special. It has to be in the hands of a someone who is a master of execution; someone who will use the best lenses and the right locations and know when to cut to the band and when to shoot the actor at 120 frames-per-second. It’s hundreds of details that make that pitch into three minutes of great art. The IDEA wins the job? The idea is step one. I would posit that almost ANY idea can become great art in the hands of a great artist, but the most ambitious idea in the world will be crummy art in the hands of a bad artist.
Execution. That’s what turned “Hamilton” into a smash hit you can’t deny. It went from a cringe-worthy idea that might have been amusing at best to 100% fantastic. Lin-Manuel Miranda spent five years writing handfuls of songs that he threw away to find the right ones, workshopping it off-Broadway, trying things that didn’t work, arranging orchestrations to figure out what traditional melodies and harmonies would complement rap lyrics. And this is AFTER he won a Tony for “In The Heights.” Five years? Think about what that must have been like, in the middle of Year Three. That’s about the time he was probably wondering if it would ever be finished. Or maybe it was when a lot of people around him were wondering if it was an obsession he should abandon. It’s that extra push into Year Four… and Year Five… that made it into the highly polished, fully-produced, air-tight show that it is today. It’s the same push that made Edison try over 500 items to discover what filament would conduct electricity inside a light bulb. He didn’t stop at 450. That’s when I would’ve stopped! But he saw the end game and couldn’t stop until he made it happen. Execution is longevity, but it’s also a commitment to achieving the ideal quality. I’ve seen attempts at rap musicals before. They are sloppy on lyrics and use one track made with synthesizers and samples. “Hamilton” uses a full orchestra, a full chorus, and probably a thousand words more than the average musical. That takes a lot of tenacity and a lot of saying “not good enough” for a very long time. That’s execution in the hands of a great artist.
I have to nod one more time to J. J. Abrams and his work on “The Force Awakens.” The whiny babies and film critics who keep playing the same song of “It’s just ‘A New Hope’s’ plot all over again” don’t seem to realize the amazing feat that J.J. just accomplished. Let’s say they’re right. Let’s say this new Star Wars movie is just a cover tune of an old one. Then why are people having such an emotional reaction? Why is it selling more tickets than any other Star Wars movie (or ANY movie) ever made? Execution. The right characters cast with the right actors playing the right moments under the right music. Need I go on? These “cover tune” critiques fall apart when you try to find any version of Finn, Rey or Poe anywhere in the old movies. You can’t. But even if this was an instant replay of every Star Wars trope we’ve seen before, the execution has made the whole world go see this thing again and again and again. I’m sorry to say it, but not even George Lucas himself has made that happen in 30 years.
So the next time you have a good idea, write it down. That’s the first step. But then take the next step — lay out your plan to bring it to life. And prepare for the long slow climb up the hill of countless, mind-numbing tasks and setbacks. That’s the gauntlet you must survive to see your idea become not just real, but successful and the best version it can be. Masterful execution is the only way to a great piece of art. Anything else is just another cool thing you told somebody in a coffee shop.